From milestones to new roller coasters: Here are the 9 biggest theme park stories of 2021

It was a big year for Central Florida’s theme parks and attractions.

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From a magical celebration a half-century in the making to a new record-breaking, hair-raising roller coaster, these were the biggest theme park stories to take the region to new heights in 2021:

1. Disney World celebrates 50 years of magic

The most magical celebration at World Disney World was arguably the biggest theme park news in the world this year. The resort officially kicked off its 50th anniversary celebration on Oct. 1.

The beginning of the “EARidescent” celebration also brought new food, new fireworks and new attractions including Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure in the expanded France pavilion at Epcot.

READ: Squeak peek: Disney World prepares to open Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure at Epcot

Channel 9′s staff reflected on 50 years of magic. Read their stories here.

READ: ‘I remember how magical it made me feel’: Channel 9 reflects on 50 years of Disney magic

2. VelociCoaster roars to life at Universal Orlando

The apex of roller coasters was born at Islands of Adventure this summer.

VelociCoaster is Florida’s fastest and tallest launch coaster. Inspired by the blockbuster Jurassic World franchise, it allows guests to “feel the rush of the hunt” as they “race through the jungle alongside velociraptors.”

READ: Universal gives behind-the-scenes look at Jurassic World VelociCoaster

The ride features more than 4,700 feet of track and reaches more than 155 feet in the air.

The roller coaster premiered in June to rave reviews from thrill-seekers.

3. Parks lift mask mandates and social distancing

As COVID-19 vaccines became available, theme parks began lifting its social distancing measures and tweaking its mask mandates put into place following their reopening in 2020.

Read the story here.

4. Fireworks and holiday events return

Last year saw the absence of many popular events at Central Florida theme parks that would typically draw huge crowds such as fireworks and holiday offerings like Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios.

In 2021, they returned in a big way.

SEE: EPCOT’s newest night-time show ‘Harmonious’ will take Disney’s vision ‘to the next chapter’

Walt Disney World debuted two new nighttime spectaculars: Disney Enchantment at Magic Kingdom and Harmonious at Epcot.

After a year hiatus due to the pandemic, Halloween Horror Nights returned at Universal Orlando Resort this fall in a big way, officially honoring the 30th anniversary of the perennial scarefest.

READ: SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration starts next week

5. Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind opening date announced

As Walt Disney World kicked off its 50th anniversary celebrations, they made a big announcement for 2022.

Disney officially announced this year that the latest family-friendly thrill ride Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, based on the irreverent Marvel movies, will officially open at EPCOT in Summer 2022.

READ: ‘It is AWESOME!!!’: Disney World president gets early ride on Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind

Guests will visit an “otherworld showcase pavilion” of Xandar, one of the main worlds seen in the “Guardians” movies before taking off on a high-speed, indoor roller coaster adventure that will feature the first reverse launch on a coaster in Disney’s history.

Along the way, guests can expect to see some of their favorite characters, humor and of course hear some of the iconic music from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“They gave us great inspiration to draw from,” said senior creative director Alex Wright. “The characters … have such humor and such personality, so we definitely want to present that as part of our story. There are a lot of flavors from the movies that make their way into the attraction.”

READ: Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind will bring family-friendly thrills to EPCOT beginning in 2022

6. Disney unveils Genie service

This fall, Disney officially let the Genie out of the lamp with a new complimentary digital service designed to create your best Disney day, including a replacement to its now-retired FastPass program.

The Disney Genie service, which can now be found inside the My Disney Experience and Disneyland apps, will have several features to help maximize your park time, Disney said.

Read more about the service here.

7. Construction resumes on Epic Universe

After a pandemic hiatus, Universal Orlando Resort announced in March that work is resuming on Epic Universe, which will be the company’s fourth park in Orlando.

Universal paused construction on Epic Universe in July 2020 due to the pandemic.

Universal said the restart will result in hundreds of new jobs within the company and across Central Florida.

READ” Universal Orlando Resort resumes construction on Epic Universe, resort’s fourth theme park

The project will also create more than 14,000 permanent jobs.

“We are excited to begin work on Epic Universe again and for what this moment means for our industry, our community, our business and our team members,” said Tom Williams, chairman and CEO for Universal Parks & Resorts. “Our confidence in our collective future is as strong as ever.”

Epic Universe will feature a new theme park, an entertainment center, hotels, shops, restaurants and more, according to Universal.

8. Construction begins on record-breaking rides at Icon Park

Construction on two new record-breaking attractions on International Drive begun this year.

Officials held a groundbreaking event for new the new Slingshot ride and Drop Tower at Icon Park.

The new Drop Tower will be 430 feet tall and drop riders at 75 MPH.

READ: Whoa! Construction begins on record-breaking rides at Icon Park

“We are so delighted to have these new attractions come to I-Drive,” said Maria Triscari with the International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce. “We think they are going to be a major boost to our total resorts estimation. (It) gives us even more attractions, more reasons for people to come and visit.

Icon Park will become the “land of the giants” by featuring three of the world’s tallest attractions – the Slingshot and Drop Tower will stand alongside the existing Starflyer, the world’s tallest swing ride, standing at 450 feet.

9. Peppa Pig is coming to Legoland

Good news if you have a “Peppa Pig” fan in your family: the first theme park based off the cartoon character is coming to Central Florida.

Peppa Pig Theme Park, located adjacent to Legoland Florida in Winter Haven, will officially open on Feb. 24, 2022, the park announced this fall.

READ: Here’s when Peppa Pig Theme Park opens at Legoland Florida

Peppa Pig Theme Park will include six rides, six themed landscapes, a water play area and more “oinktastic” experiences for the whole family based on the popular children’s cartoon.

READ: Rides, attractions announced for Peppa Pig Theme Park coming to Legoland Florida

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Adam Poulisse, WFTV.com

Adam Poulisse joined WFTV in November 2019.