• Orlando's 9 biggest theme park stories of 2018, major changes in 2019

    By: Kevin Williams , James Tutten


    ORLANDO, Fla. - Central Florida is the most popular tourist destination in the country, with an estimated 72 million visitors in 2017.

    2018 kicked things into high gear, with Orlando's theme parks getting more and more competitive as they build new attractions, open new hotels and tease some amazing things to come over the next few years.

    But not every moment is magical. Each theme park also has its share of mishaps that grab just as many headlines as the fun stuff.

    Here are our picks for the 9 biggest Orlando theme park stories of 2018, based on what you clicked on.

    9. SeaWorld's comeback

    2018 was the year of an ocean-sized comeback for SeaWorld Orlando. Only a few years after the popular documentary "Blackfish" caused a slump in revenue and attendance, the park made a splash in 2018 with the opening of its new Infinity Falls ride as well as an employee pay raise and even free beer for guests over the summer. The park also promised new things in 2019 and beyond, including a new water slide at its Aquatica water park and the highly anticipated Sesame Street Land.

    8. Man threatened Disney shooting if he got enough Facebook ‘likes’, deputies say

    In June, deputies in Florida said a 23-year-old man threatened to shoot up Disney and hang himself if he got five “likes” on his post. Two people reported the post to authorities, who arrested him. The man's parents said there were guns in the house, but he didn't have access to them.

    Derek Eitel, 23, is accused of making a Facebook threat to shoot up Walt Disney World, Brevard County deputies say.
    Derek Eitel, 23, is accused of making a Facebook threat to shoot up Walt Disney World, Brevard County deputies say.

    7. Universal's next big thing

    2018 was a memorable year for Universal Orlando. The theme park cut the ribbon on its new Aventura Hotel, unveiled a wildly popular "Stranger Things" attraction for its Halloween Horror Nights, raised employee wages and delighted guests when its executives announced plans for a fourth theme park. The park bought a 400-acre piece of land on the east side of I-4. Universal has stayed tight-lipped on what exactly will go there, but Comcast has trademarked the name “Universal's Fantastic Worlds." The new Nintendo Land, including Mario Kart and a Donkey Kong roller coaster, was supposed to be built at the KidZone section of Universal Orlando, but analysts said those rides will likely go into a new park.

    6. Disney World worker fired after stealing almost $49K from company, deputies say

    A Walt Disney World hotel worker was arrested for allegedly stealing almost $49,000 in 2016, the Orange County Sheriff's Office said. Jamaica Hall, 31, of Kissimmee, was accused of issuing fraudulent credit card refunds to hotel guests, which he transferred to his checking account, investigators said. Deputies said Hall worked as a front desk concierge host at multiple Walt Disney World hotels.

    5. Man tells Disney greeter: 'Al-Qaida sent me here to blow the place up'

    In July, a 56-year-old New Jersey man was arrested after telling a Walt Disney World hotel worker, "Al-Qaida sent me here to blow the place up," deputies said. Investigators said a greeter at Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa told the guest, "Have a great day," to which he replied, "I don't want to have a great day." While walking away, he turned around and told the greeter, "You think I am joking? I'm not," an arrest report said

    Derek Eitel, 23, is accused of making a Facebook threat to shoot up Walt Disney World, Brevard County deputies say.
    Gregory Lazarchick was accused of telling a Walt Disney World hotel worker, "Al-Qaida sent me here to blow the place up," the Orange County Sheriff's Office said.
    Orange County Jail

    4. Walt Disney World's new ticket pricing structure takes effect

    In October, Walt Disney World unveiled a new ticket structure in which all four theme parks have the same price, but vary from day to day based on demand. Single-day tickets now range from $109 to $129, depending on how popular the day is expected to be. Disney said the pricing structure could cost guests more or less than with the previous pricing structure. Disney is also offering a "4-Park Magic Ticket" for various periods throughout 2019.

    3. Mother walks into Animal Kingdom Lodge claiming she was handed abandoned newborn

    A woman walked into the Animal Kingdom Lodge lobby and claimed someone had handed her a newborn baby outside, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. She told a worker at the front desk that she was smoking a cigarette in the garage when a woman, of which she provided a vague description, walked up to her and handed her the baby. Investigators determined the woman was actually the child's mother. The child was taken to the hospital, but was not hurt.

    Photos: Hidden Mickeys at the Animal Kingdom Lodge

    2. Disney passholder displays pro-Trump signs at park, gets banned... again

    A man who was previously banned from Walt Disney World for unfurling a giant Donald Trump banner in the Magic Kingdom was banned again for holding a "Trump 2020" sign on Splash Mountain and a "Keep America Great" sign on Expedition Everest. He said after Disney officials took away his annual pass in September, they had a change of heart and let him back in.

    1. Walt Disney World's building boom

    One after another, stories about Walt Disney World expanding brought millions of people to WFTV.com and the WFTV News app. The park is in the middle of a building boom, which over the next three years will see new rides, expanded theme parks, new resort hotels, and a new transportation system.

    Disney’s Hollywood Studios debuted Toy Story Land this summer and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is set to debut in 2019. The park also has at least four other Disney-owned hotels coming in the next few years, including an immersive "Star Wars"-themed resort, a nature-themed resort, a major expansion to Disney's Coronado Resort, and the new Riviera Resort. Marriott is also planning to build The Cove, a new addition to its Swan and Dolphin resorts.

    Disney is also planning to unveil its Skyliner gondola system in 2019. Two new roller coasters -- a new “Guardians of the Galaxy” roller coaster at Epcot, and a "TRON" roller coaster at Magic Kingdom, should arrive in time for Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary in 2021. In December, Disney bought more than 900 acres of land seven miles south of Disney property that used to be a ranch. 

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