Orlando's major theme parks are all opening new rides this year — but the attractions are overshadowed by the buzz from bigger expansions that won't come until at least 2019, say experts who follow the amusement-park industry.
In 2018, Universal's Fast & Furious: Supercharged opens and Disney's Hollywood Studios will reveal its Toy Story-themed land. SeaWorld Orlando, in need of an attendance game-changer, is opening a new raft ride.
But more attention from industry observers is focused on the Star Wars lands opening in 2019 at Disneyland and Walt Disney World or talk of Universal developing a Nintendo-themed world.
"People are going to delay their trip to Orlando because they want to see Star Wars," said Scott Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina's hospitality school who studies the industry.
He expects the parks to offer price incentives or sneak peeks for the much-awaited future expansions as ways to keep attendance from dipping in 2018.
"With great changes come great price increases," Smith said, looking ahead to 2019. It makes sense for the amusement parks to advertise 2018 as a good time to come before the big crowds and big ticket prices arrive, he said.
Calling 2018 a slow year says a lot about Orlando's high standards, said Robert Niles, a journalist who has covered the theme-park industry for 20 years.
"An off-year for Orlando is an amazing year for everybody else," said Niles, the editor of the website Theme Park Insider. "This looks like a smaller year simply because the bigger years have become so big."
Theme parks' biggest competitive push in recent years was the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010, said Duncan Dickson, a former Disney executive who now teaches at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
"Ever since Harry Potter, it woke everybody up. The game is changing, and we have to keep up," Dickson said. "You want your guests to keep coming back — you've got to create a reason."
With the success of Harry Potter, Universal challenged Disney World's supremacy in market share, Dickson said. "It's leading to a theme-park arms race in the Orlando market," he said.
The large amusement parks typically expand every year, whether it's a new multimillion-dollar roller coaster or something more low-scale, like a parade, Smith said. "You have to put something in your advertising that's new and improved," he said.
This year's new rides at Disney and Universal are pulled from "powerful franchises" and could be well-received, Niles said.
Fast & Furious: Supercharged will take visitors on a chase in a party bus through San Francisco with characters from the movie franchise. It is in the same vein as Universal's Skull Island: Reign of Kong ride, which has high-definition 3-D images on 360-degree screens, Niles said.
"There's a huge audience out there that absolutely adores Fast & Furious," Niles said. "This is for them."
"We … place the guest right in the middle of the story and action," said Thierry Coup, senior vice president of Universal Creative.
Disney's Toy Story Land, which features two attractions, including the family roller coaster Slinky Dog Dash, stands out because it's one of the rare franchises that appeals to multiple generations, Niles said.
The first film came out in 1995, and many of those who grew up watching it are having children now. Toy Story 3 was released in 2010.
The expansion will help a relatively empty Hollywood Studios — which shuttered the Great Movie Ride in 2017 and is now constructing Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge — steer some families from the more crowded Magic Kingdom, Niles said.
SeaWorld Orlando will debut a new raft ride, Infinity Falls, that features moments of intense rapids and a 42-foot drop.
The ride opens during a pivotal time for SeaWorld, after a year of declining attendance and revenues and the elimination of 350 positions in October. The SeaWorld parks in March 2016 ended their breeding programs for orca whales and are cutting some of their theatrical shows.
"I can honestly say 2018 is going to be a make-or-break year for SeaWorld," Smith said. "We're rapidly approaching the point they may have to make radical changes."
But Smith and Niles said they were doubtful a raft ride would be enough to generate a significant attendance boom.
"It'll be a nice addition to the park," Niles said. "I don't know if it moves the needle boosting their attendance."