It was another roller coaster year for theme parks. As the phased reopening continued, normalcy started to return–albeit at a relatively slow pace. Consequently, some of the new attractions, entertainment, and other additions slated to debut in time for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary were pushed off until 2022 or 2023.
Nevertheless, we’re all about finding silver linings here, and there were some big ones this year. After being closed for over a year, Disneyland reopened and wasted no time in scaling up operations and debuting new additions. There were a lot of great enhancements to the parks on both coasts this year, including surprising projects that were started and finished entirely during this calendar year.
For its part, Universal had quite the year, making bold statements on both coasts. This comes after Universal aggressively reopened and resumed operations in Florida, and ahead of their more highly-touted projects in Los Angeles and Orlando. As this year’s awards already demonstrate, Universal is poised to give Disney serious competition in the years to come–a great thing for consumers and theme park fans. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at how this year’s improvements and new offerings stack up…
Best New Hotel: The Westin Anaheim Resort – Walt Disney World is now a couple of years removed from its biggest hotel development cycle, with no new Disney-owned properties opening this year or on the horizon in 2022 or 2023 due to the cancellation of Reflections Lakeside Lodge.
Disneyland likewise nixed plans for new hotels, with only a Disney Vacation Club expansion in the pipeline. Disneyland Paris did open Hotel New York – The Art of Marvel, which is arguably new or a refurbishment depending upon your perspective–but that distinction is irrelevant for us right now, since we’ve yet to experience it.
Perhaps a bit anticlimactic, but the Westin Anaheim Resort becomes something of a default selection here. This isn’t to say the Westin is undeserving–quite the opposite. Located directly behind Pixar Pier in Disney California Adventure, it boasts spectacular views and a good location. Moreover, the Westin offers AAA Four-Diamond quality in guest rooms, dining, and common areas. (For now, with a lack of events at the Anaheim Convention Center, it’s also competitively priced.)
Notably, two new JW Marriott properties also recently opened, one on-site at Walt Disney World and one within walking distance of Disneyland–but they technically debuted last year. Both rank very highly for us. Likewise, Westin had a really good year, also opening the Element Anaheim, which offers budget family suites within walking distance of the parks. That claimed the #13 spot on our Disneyland Area Hotel Rankings & Reviews, with the new Westin and JW Marriott both in the top 10.
Best Event: Mardi Gras – In a year of highly hyped celebrations, there are two bases for Mardi Gras at Universal Orlando pulling off the upset. First, its significance at the time during the phased reopening of the theme parks. It’s easy to forget now, but back in early February, there wasn’t much live entertainment and the parks felt relatively lifeless. Mardi Gras changed that, making it a major milestone and turning point–the first near “normal” theme park experience.
Second, the substance of the Mardi Gras celebration itself. Universal did an excellent job of actually presenting a modified event, where modified isn’t simply code for “scaled back.” Even with compromises to its normal presentation, Mardi Gras felt like a party, with Universal Studios Florida teeming with street performers, live musicians, parade floats, and delicious food. There’s a reason why Mardi Gras at Universal was extended multiple times–it was a smash hit with locals and tourists, who returned to the parks in full force to enjoy this amazing celebration.
Best New Restaurant: Space 220 – The most “EPCOT Center” addition to the park since Festival of the Arts, we love the themed experience of Space 220 Restaurant at Epcot. The execution isn’t flawless, but it’s better and more convincing than anticipated while offering something serene and understated rather than cartoonish and exaggerated.
Space 220 checks all of the right boxes for us in terms of atmosphere, with the visuals perfectly toeing the line between realistic and fun. Others might disagree, especially those seated at a front row “corner” table, but the balance is perfect for our tastes. Speaking of tastes, we’re also big fans of the food, which punches above its weight as compared to other highly-themed dining experiences at Walt Disney World. As far as long-delayed, highly-hyped screen-based things in Epcot go, this is far and away our favorite of this year’s new additions. We had high hopes for Space 220, and it surpassed those expectations.
Best Ride Refurbishment: Jungle Cruise – In retrospect, the Jungle Cruise reimagining is one of the more peculiar news stories of the year. For months, the company navigated the controversial waters (on multiple fronts) of changes to the iconic attraction. This was done via testimonials from skippers and Imagineers who essentially vouched for the changes, along with a bunch of convoluted backstory that tied the ride to S.E.A. and I don’t even remember what else.
The end result bore little resemblance to the bulk of the promotional materials. Sure, there was more backstory and new characters…somewhere (maybe?) but if you experienced the attraction as a normal guest, you never would’ve picked up on any of that. The Jungle Cruise reimagining marketing made about as much sense as the first teaser trailer for Frozen, which focused on the wacky relationship of a reindeer and snowman.
What would you have noticed on the actual Jungle Cruise, post-reimagining? The Many Misadventures of Monkeys. Seriously, Disney added a veritable troop of primates, and they are all engaged in adorable hijinks. Some other stuff changed, too, but I’ve been so transfixed by these simian shenanigans that I’ve hardly noticed. They’re good monkeys, providing fodder for jokes in keeping with the spirit of Jungle Cruise while adding more visual gags so the attraction isn’t quite as skipper-dependent.
Very honorable mention here to Snow White’s Enchanted Wish. Imagineers took the weakest of the Disneyland Fantasyland dark rides and turned it from something dated and disjointed into something with fun flow, impressive effects, and a few magical moments. Jungle Cruise gets the edge because its modernization was a tougher task, with way more potential pitfalls. With that said, both were deftly done.
Best Restaurant Refurbishment: Citricos/Steakhouse 71 (Tie) – Each of us has a favorite overhauled eatery, with both being deserving. For Sarah, Cítricos is the winner. While billed as a Mary Poppins inspired reimagining, that’s mostly marketing. The new interior is fresh and modern, but it’s the new menu that won us over after years of disappointing meals at its predecessor. The menu is superlative, with sophisticated Floridian cuisine and an abundance of citrus infusions. Cítricos stays true to its name and its resort with dishes that are inventive, beautifully-plated, delicious, and in keeping with the spirit of Cítricos.
For me, the winner is Steakhouse 71. We actually had a number of good meals at the Wave over the years, but it always felt like dining in the basement and was unpopular despite a prime location within walking distance of Magic Kingdom. The new interior design feels like a half-measure, but is still a marked improvement and ties in nicely with the new-look Contemporary lobby. The menu is also a nice mix of old and new, with tons of crowd-pleasing favorites at relatively fair prices. Steakhouse 71 is a high-quality greasy spoon for lunch and a mid-tier steakhouse for dinner. Given the lack of worthwhile table service restaurants in Magic Kingdom, it’s a hugely welcome addition that will fill a void for many Walt Disney World tourists.
Best Resort Refurbishment: Saratoga Springs – When we bought into Disney Vacation Club over a decade ago, Saratoga Springs was our choice from a purely economic standpoint. At the time, Downtown Disney was bleak and SSR was the weakest and dullest resort in the Walt Disney World lineup. Fast-forward to 2021, when a variety of upgrades have been completed, from guest rooms to the lobby to the pools. It’s still not a top tier DVC property, but it is without question the “most improved” during that time.
If this were simply “Best Resort of 2021,” I’d be tempted to award this to Wilderness Lodge. Although its room redo was less impressive, it stands out as one of the best managed resorts at Walt Disney World. At a time when poor customer service is becoming increasingly common, Wilderness Lodge continues to shine as the gold standard.
Best New Entertainment: Muppets Christmas Caroling Coach – While Walt Disney World served up a surprisingly scaled back holiday season, Disneyland took things up a notch, debuting its new Merriest Nites Christmas Party and working overtime to “save” it’s a small world holiday. While the inaugural Christmas party was a mixed bag, there was one unequivocal highlight: Muppets Christmas Caroling Coach.
This show blends the Muppets, caroling, and Disneyland together perfectly–understanding what makes all three special. The jokes are sharp, self-referential, and weave in clever references to the park and characters. The Muppets Christmas Caroling Coach is fantastic, packing a punch in a relatively short span of time. It also underscores that entertainment doesn’t need to cost hundreds of millions of dollars or have giant permanent infrastructure to leaving a lasting impression on guests.
Best of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary: Beacons of Magic at Epcot – With the most ambitious additions touted for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary delayed until 2022 or beyond, a lot of what was originally promised hasn’t been delivered upon (yet). Other highly-hyped nighttime spectaculars and aspects of the event didn’t meet our expectations.
Beacons of Magic at Epcot was the one thing that defied expectations–for the better. We worried that the physical lights would add blight and a clunky look to the sleek Spaceship Earth during the day–fears which were unfounded–and that the end result would underwhelm.
Instead, the Beacons of Magic at Epcot is the most awe-inspiring addition for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, somehow managing to make Epcot’s grand and miraculous spaceship even more stunning. No words, photos, or even video can do proper justice to the Beacons of Magic at Epcot. As beautiful at it might look online, it’s even better in person. It’s an absolute show-stopper, and we’re very glad this will outlast the World’s Most Magical Celebration.
Best New Family Ride: Secret Life of Pets Off the Leash – The first questions we asked ourselves upon exiting this modern masterpiece is “why aren’t there more attractions based on cats and dogs?!” The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash is an old school triumph of pragmatic design, nailing the fundamentals with an impressive number of animatronics and the perfect mix of practical effects and technology.
The attraction is a home run with humor and heart, and resonates even if you have no prior knowledge of its characters or IP (that’s us!). The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash is an attraction that simply works, with great gags and crammed full of visual interest that gives it a ton of re-rideability. Despite being the best family-friendly dark ride of this year, it was relatively unheralded. Expect that to change in 2022 when Super Nintendo World debuts at Universal Studios Hollywood, and many more people “discover” this charming and ambitious attraction.
Best New Thrill Ride: Jurassic World VelociCoaster – I won’t pretend to be a coaster enthusiast or expert, as my experience with truly intense or serious roller coasters is relatively limited. With that said, Jurassic World VelociCoaster at Islands of Adventure is the most fun roller coaster I’ve ever experienced, surpassing even its counterpart, the Flying Dinosaur.
For me, what makes VelociCoaster special as a roller coaster is that it’s thrilling without ever crossing the line into uncomfortable. (By contrast, I don’t think Matterhorn or Expedition Everest–both of which I love for different reasons–are particularly intense, but they do have moments of discomfort.) The pacing of VelociCoaster is exceptional, with intensity offset by moments of levity and a perfectly satisfying duration. There’s also the right amount of pre-show, set design, and environment to elevate the experience and make it worthy of being considered an exceptional themed attraction. It’s hard to articulate why I love VelociCoaster so much, but my reactions while riding run the gamut from laughter to screaming, which about sums it up. This ride really offers it all.
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Have you experienced any or all of these new additions? What would make your list of the best of 2021 at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Universal, or beyond? Where do the various changes/additions rank for you? Do you agree or disagree with our rankings? Think there’s anything we snubbed? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!