Home » The 2021 Theme Park Year in Review: What Opened (and What Didn’t) at Disney and Universal Parks!

The 2021 Theme Park Year in Review: What Opened (and What Didn’t) at Disney and Universal Parks!

It’s the end of another year – and a year unlike any other. A year ago today, we were stepping out of 2020 – a year defined by closures, cancellations, and cost-cutting that included Disney’s vow to axe $900 million in capital projects from its Parks, Experience, and Products division going forward. We lived through a year when construction stalled, projects slowed, tourism slammed to a halt, the rules of operations were rewritten, and it was entirely unclear what the future could hold for Disney and Universal Parks… 

Now, standing at the start of 2022 and looking back on the ups and downs of 2021, there’s no doubt that industry-wide, we’ve just made it through 365 days of playing “catch-up”… Many of the rides that debuted in 2021 were initially planned for 2020, and likewise, many of 2021’s planned attractions will instead open in 2022! So today, let’s look back on 2021 with a time capsule review of the big attractions of the year… and what the rides that missed their expected 2021 openings altogether… 

What Opened in 2021

1. Super Nintendo World (Japan)

Location: Universal Studios Japan
Opened: March 2021

It’s hard to believe that theme parks have been an active battleground in the “IP Wars” for over a decade (tracing back, of course, to the 2010 opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.) Subsequent “immersive lands” themed to Cars, AvatarThe SimpsonsHarry PotterThe Avengers, and Star Wars might’ve left fans asking, “What’s left?” Were there really any unclaimed intellectual properties still out there? (The answer: of course! In fact, we made a list…) Universal’s partnership with Nintendo is the coup few saw coming, and fittingly, the first project was Universal Studios Japan’s Super Nintendo World.

Planned to open in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Super Nintendo World was delayed until 2021… but of course, so were the Olympics. Ultimately, the land opened at a time when Japan’s borders were closed to foreigners and capacity in the park was strictly limited. But that didn’t stop images of the blockbuster new area from quickly spreading across the globe. A living, multi-level Mushroom Kingdom plucked straight from Super Mario Bros., Super Nintendo World is perhaps the coolest “immersive land” yet. (Yes, the image above is a photo, not concept art!)

Japan’s version features two rides. Yoshi’s Adventure is something of an outdoor dark ride, with a chain of slow-moving Yoshis passing through the brilliant, kinetic environment and animated scenes. The headliner is Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge, an interactive dark ride that uses augmented reality (AR) goggles to add chaos and gameplay to impressive physical and projection-based sets and animatronics. While it’s not the high-speed, TEST TRACK-style racing ride some hoped, it’s still a great attraction… and one headed to the U.S. But we’ll discuss that on the next pages…

2. Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash

Location: Universal Studios Hollywood
Opened: April 2021

Scheduled to open March 27, 2020, let’s just say that Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash… well… didn’t. It’s wild to imagine that this family dark ride (based on the Illumination animated film series The Secret Life of Pets) was literally all set and ready for guests when Universal Studios Hollywood was shuttered at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the park opened over a year later, the first guests finally stepped aboard.

Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash is a sensational dark ride, using the same Omnimover-style, continuous chain of slow-moving vehicles as Yoshi’s Adventure. Fans had long been hinted that after the disappointing one-two punch of Race Through New York and Fast & Furious: Supercharged, Universal had gotten the memo and sworn off screen-based rides and simulators for a while. Yoshi’s Adventure, Mario Kart, and then Secret Life of Pets proved that to the be true.

After a spectacular queue through New York City apartments (which, by itself, has more Audio-Animatronics than Pandora, Avengers Campus, and Galaxy’s Edge combined), guests step aboard and “become” strays who find themselves loose the city. Animatronics, built-out scenes, and adorable effects make the ride a surprisingly wonderful addition that Universal Creative should be very proud of.

3. Snow White’s Enchanted Wish

Location: Disneyland Park
Opened: April 2021

With six ultra-classic dark rides, Disneyland’s Fantasyland is a paradise for Disney Parks history fans. Dating back to the park’s 1955 opening, Snow White’s Scary Adventures jostled a generation of visitors with its cackling Evil Queen, dark dungeons, and haggard old witch. Even when the ride was rebuilt in 1983 (as part of a land-wide redesign), Snow White’s attraction ended not with a “Happily Ever After,” but with guests apparently witnessing the Witch’s death just before crushing them beneath a boulder.

In November 2019, Disney announced that Snow White’s Scary Adventures would close for a refurbishment in the 2020 New Year. But as part of an influx of new effects, lighting, sound, and detail, the ride would also shift its focus from the grim and gray Wicked Witch to the more joyful and colorful moments of Snow White’s story. The ride closed January 7, 2020. The multi-month redesign was likely well in progress when Disneyland closed in March.

In December 2020, Imagineers resumed work and followed up with the ride’s new name – Snow White’s Enchanted Wish – even though Disney’s Californian parks hadn’t gotten the green-light to re-open and weren’t sure when they would.

Ultimately, Snow White’s Enchanted Wish was ready when Disneyland finally re-opened nearly fourteen months after its closure, on April 27, 2021. We reviewed the updated ride shortly after its opening, and though it’s easy to roll your eyes at the idea of downplaying the “scariness” of a classic, the truth is that Snow White’s Enchanted Wish is a wonderful new evolution of Snow White’s dark ride (and yes, it still includes scary moments!) that feels like an obvious upgrade in just about every way.

But the big names of 2021 mostly landed beginning in the summer… Read on as we explore the three “headliners” of Disney and Universal’s 2021 roster…

4. Jurassic World VelociCoaster

Location: Universal’s Islands of Adventure
Opened: June 2021

The latest in Universal’s tradition of “worst-kept secrets,” the Jurassic World VelociCoaster project started back in January 2019 when construction walls were erected around the park’s long-shuttered Triceratops Encounter. Land clearing (and the replacement of a pedestrian bridge between the park’s Lost Continent and Jurassic Park “islands”) took place through 2019, and the project went vertical in early 2020… just in time for the parks’ shutdown. Construction initially slowed, but by time Universal Orlando re-opened its parks that June, the roller coaster’s track was nearly complete… and still unannounced.

It wasn’t until September 2020 that Universal finally fessed up, officially announcing the VelociCoaster, themed to the newer Jurassic World film trilogy and its starring pack of velociraptors. The coaster finally opened on June 10, 2021, which – credit to Universal’s construction teams – is honestly probably not far off from the date that had been anticipated before the pandemic delays.

Though initially the sight of a massive steel roller coaster tearing through the skyline of the once-immersive Jurassic Park “island” is narratively frustrating, the ride’s context makes sense of it. This, we’re meant to believe, is one of the first additions to the “in-universe,” “real” Jurassic Park theme park that will eventually transform it from a boutique, upper-crust, one-percenters’ wildlife preserve we see in the Jurassic Park films into the global destination, mass-marketed, Disney World-style family thrill park we see in the Jurassic World films. It is exactly what it looks like: a roller coaster dangerously built through  and around a velociraptor habitat, much to the dismay of animal behaviorist Owen Grady. 

Pretty quickly, the VelociCoaster has been highlighted as one of the greatest thrill rides in the world and certainly the anchor of Orlando’s roller coaster collection. The 4,700 foot long Intamin coaster feels like two rides in one. The first half sends guests twisting through the in-park habitat of the raptors, then the second half accelerates guests to 70 miles per hour, launches them up a 155-foot-tall top hat along the park’s central lagoon, and sends them on a soaring course of oversized, overbanked turns and the now-infamous mosasaurus roll over the water.

5. Avengers Campus

Location: Disney California Adventure
Opened: June 2021

It was January 3, 2017 when the last guests ascended into Disney California Adventure’s Lost Legend: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Less than six months later, the art deco Hollywood Tower Hotel had been transformed into the industrial “warehouse prison powerplant” of the Collector as Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! A rip-roaring, rock n’ rolling hit, there was just one thing fans hated about the new Marvel-themed attraction: it made zero sense at Disney California Adventure. All along, Imagineers promised that eventually, that would change.

Ultimately, the new Avengers Campus ended up being relegated to a smaller plot of land in the park than originally intended (the former “a bug’s land”), but fans eagerly anticipated its announced July 18, 2020 opening… which, you guessed it, didn’t happen. Disneyland and Disney California Adventure were closed for nearly 14 continuous months, and unlike Universal’s VelociCoaster, construction on the Avengers Campus stayed paused for nearly all of it. Even when the parks re-opened in April 2021, it wasn’t until June that Avengers Campus officially launched to somewhat mixed reviews.

Aside from the existing Guardians of the Galaxy attraction, WEB-SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure was the lone new ride for the land. Most concisely described as “Toy Story Midway Mania with gesture-recognition,” the ride sends guests on a tour of the Campus to “sling webs” at rogue Spider-Bots caught in duplication mode. It’s a whole lot of fun… but not exactly the companion to the epic, action-packed, and emotional Marvel Cinematic Universe most fans hoped for. Hey, Avengers Campus (and California Adventure as a whole) definitely needed more height-restriction-free family ride capacity, and Web-Slingers fits the bill…

6. Space 220 

Location: EPCOT
Opened: September 2021

Announced at the 2017 D23 Expo as an early wave of updates to EPCOT, Space 220 promised futuristic cuisine and panoramic views of Earth from aboard a space station docked 220 miles above the planet. Operated by the Patina Group (a longtime Disney partner, and purveyor of food operations at several World Showcase pavilions), the restaurant was all set for a “Winter 2019” opening… but that November, its head chef allegedly stepped down, throwing the restaurant’s prestige, operations, and menu in the air.

Space 220 didn’t open in Winter 2019 or in Spring 2020. Even after Disney World’s relatively short closures and Summer 2020 re-opening, the new restaurant affixed to Mission: Space was hidden from view. It stayed closed for Fall 2020. Then Winter 2020. Then Spring 2021. Then Summer 2021. For a while, some questioned if the restaurant would ever open… but of course, with such a massive investment, it was only a matter of time. 

Space 220 finally opened September 20, 2021. The prix fixe menu, food, and service have largely gotten mixed reviews, but given that reservations tend to sell out within minutes of availability opening sixty days out, clearly the experience as a whole is clearly captivating enough to make the restaurant’s two-year delay okay in retrospect.

7. Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure

Location: EPCOT
Opened: October 2021

The capstone of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary wasn’t really supposed to be a copy of a decade-old family D-Ticket dark ride copied from the worst Disney Park on Earth, but what can you do? Like so many of 2021’s new attractions, the Modern Marvel: Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure was initially meant to debut in 2020 when it would’ve been a perfectly-nice little “plus” to the park, and a great taste of its ongoing character-focused reinvention. Even after the parks returned from their closure in June 2020, word from insiders was that Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure was completely, 100% finished and ready for guests to step aboard. But… it didn’t open.

It’s likely that Disney “held back” the finished Ratatouille ride from opening for two reasons.

The first is that the company’s 2020 fiscal year (which ran October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020) was already a wash. Massive losses across the Parks, Experiences, and Products division (not to mention the Studios) had meant that the year was basically being written off. It wouldn’t have made sense to “waste” the boost in attendance at a time when attendance was strictly limited, or to “waste” the revenue that a new ride would bring in a year when the entire planet had dropped its financial expectations. Instead, opening it on October 1 would mean that any boon to the Parks division to come from Remy would reflect on fiscal year 2021.

Second, delayed construction efforts across the resort meant that the attractions that were supposed to anchor the 50th Anniversary simply wouldn’t make the deadline… No doubt sensing that a worldwide media blitz without any actual new attraction to speak of would be a loser, Disney likely decided to simply hold back the new EPCOT attraction so they’d have something to market. That put a lot of unfair weight on Remy’s shoulders, raising expectations for a ride that’s fun, but not phenomenal.

As for those rides that didn’t make the deadline…? Read on as we explore the rides that didn’t open in 2021, and when (or if) they will…

What Didn’t Open in 2021

Despite being planned for 2021, the following attractions missed their expected opening and will instead open in 2022… or later… 

1. STAR WARS: Galactic Starcruiser

Scheduled for: March 2022

While not a ride or attraction per seStar Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is nonetheless the talk of the town when it comes to theme parks. Envisioned as the next generation of “immersive” attractions, the Galactic Starcruiser thrusts guests into the heart of the Star Wars universe for a two-night “cruise” that’s nearly entirely contained aboard the luxury space cruiseliner, the Halcyon.

Initially planned to open in 2021, the Starcruiser’s ride has already been a wild one. Momentarily, the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive cuts Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products took to its bottom line seemed like a potential death knell for the ambitious and untested Starcruiser concept. Given that the pandemic would likely lead to a multi-year or even decade-long downturn in tourism, would Disney really find enough guests to keep its 100-room Halcyon full for decades? But with Star Wars as a leading brand (and with millions of die-hard fans to boot), construction continued.

At least on paper, the Starcruiser experience will let guests truly live a Star Wars adventure by exploring the ship’s decks, interacting with crew members and Droids, training with Lightsabers, dining on “in-universe” eats, and making a port excursion to the planet Batuu (that is, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge) to be caught up in a Resistance operation. It’s a totally-immersive, all-inclusive experience that’s so insulated, guests who need to step out for a smoke will find the only outdoor access is explained in-story as a “hologram chamber” set to recreate the appearance and weather of Florida. 

Of course, when Disney released prices for the 2-night, all-inclusive experience (starting at $5,000 for a pair in the off-season), the Internet was alight with criticism. That’s been made a whole lot worse by “sneak peeks” inside the experience, which have largely been derided by the very Star Wars loyalists Disney expected to drop thousands of dollars for the two-day trip. At least from what Disney’s shown, “manning the ship’s controls” looks to be a video game interface designed for elementary schoolers, “lightsaber training” uses “toy” lightsabers and laser pointers, and – worse – Disney appeared to miss the Star Wars aesthetic and architecture promised in concept art entirely…

At least one Disney-produced video touring the ship and its “lounge” had such stinging reception, Disney literally scrubbed it from the Internet and weilds DMCA take-down notices against anyone who dares re-upload it in full or in part. Basically, public perception has turned sharply against Disney’s ludicrously expensive Star Wars hotel, and there’s a sense that fans increasingly await the schadenfreude of seeing Bob Chapek’s costly pet project and 1-percenter bait fail… 

Since this feature serves as a “time capsule” of where things stand at the end of 2021, it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of the Galactic Starcruiser. Will the first guests who board in just a few months return with glowing reviews that see the ultra-deluxe, boutique experience sell out for every “sailing” on the calendar? Or will Disney’s bold next step into immersive theater and entertainment design become its own episode of Defunctland by the decade’s end, with the operation converted to a standard Deluxe Resort Hotel with nightly cash room rates? We’ll see… 

2. Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind

Location: EPCOT
Scheduled for: Summer 2022

It’s likely that somewhere out there in the multiverse, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind opened on October 1, 2021 as an anchor of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration. Unfortunately, that’s not our reality. Though the Lost Legend: Universe of Energy vacated its pavilion in August 2017, its Marvel-themed replacement has been very slow to move in. Rumors suggested that pandemic-related slowdowns at Marvel Studios made it difficult for Guardians director James Gunn to film the ride’s show scenes, while physical construction slowed to a crawl at EPCOT.

As for the ride themed to the ragtag superhero team featured in the eponymous 2014 movie, Disney has provided brief glimpses inside the showbuilding, and Marvel has provided some (seriously pandering) fan service backstory as to why a superhero ride fits in EPCOT. We also know that “Cosmic Rewind” will be an entirely-indoor “story coaster” that includes a backwards launch and several show scenes. (The popular theory is that guests will be propelled backwards in time to witness the creation of the universe… and maybe, the six Infinity Stones born from it.) 

The good news is, Disney has officially narrowed the ride’s opening to “Summer 2022,” which at least means it’ll open during the 18-month 50th Anniversary, and just slightly under the five-year construction-to-debut mark (which, unfortunately, can feel like a rarity with Disney)! The bad news is, that means that “Cosmic Rewind” is being given priority over another much-delayed ride on this list, all-but-assuring that that ride will miss 2022 altogether… But we’ll get to that momentarily… 

3. Super Nintendo World (Hollywood)

Location: Universal Studios Hollywood
Scheduled for: TBD (likely, late 2022)

If things had gone according to plan, Super Nintendo World would’ve made its worldwide debut at Universal Studios Japan in 2020, at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2021, then at Universal Orlando Resort as part of the new Epic Universe theme park in 2023. The pandemic seems to have basically shifted each back a year. As of the end of 2021, construction is continuing on Universal Studios Hollywood’s version of the land, which will be located in the park’s “Lower Lot” near Transformers: The Ride and the Modern Marvel: Jurassic World: The Ride

Hollywood’s version of the land will omit the Yoshi’s Adventure attraction entirely (consider Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash the park’s replacement), essentially making the land a very elaborate supporting environment for Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge, with all the now-requisite food and souvenirs that the Wizarding World model requires. 

Weirdly (and in keeping with that “worst kept secret” model), Universal Studios Hollywood never really announced the specifics of the land. Construction made it obvious, Studio Tour guides talked about it like it was something that everyone knew, then construction walls gained Super Nintendo World logos. And… that’s kind of it. Closing out 2021, there’s no page for it on the park’s website; no official opening date; just the unspoken certainty that it’ll be ready sooner rather than later. 

4. TRON Lightcycle / Run

Location: Magic Kingdom
Scheduled for: TBD

TRON Lightcycle / Run has become a bit of a running joke in theme park circles. That’s because construction officially began in February 2018 and at least standing at the start of 2022, there appears to be no end in sight. Sure, like many projects, TRON Lightcycle Run had its construction paused by the 2020 closure of the parks… and like many Disney projects, even once the parks re-opened, construction didn’t resume right away or at full speed. Instead, work continued on the ride throughout 2020… then throughout 2021…

TRON’s expected October 1, 2021 opening date (which would’ve seen it as the anchor of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration) came and went. Frankly, at the moment, it would be risky to bet that the new TRON ride will open anytime in 2022, either.

After all, there’s no need to rush the opening of TRON if Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind will be the big draw of 2022’s summer, fall, and winter seasons. It seems highly likely that TRON will end up as the “big, new ride” of spring and summer 2023, hitting the ultra-frustrating landmark of being under construction for five years

Obviously adding to the frustration is that Magic Kingdom’s laboriously-late TRON ride is an exact duplicate of the Modern Marvel: TRON Lightcycle Power Run at Shanghai Disneyland, where the entire park including TRON was built in just four years!