Indominus rex on Jurassic World: The Ride
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Credit: Universal Studios Hollywood

California theme parks are reopening with new attractions. Here's what can't be missed.

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Apr 27, 2021, 2:00 PM EDT

Hello and welcome to a doozy of a week where theme park reopening news is concerned. Before we get into it, if that Indominus rex's gaping maw didn't alert you from the start, this column will include mild ride spoilers for Jurassic World: The Ride and The Secret Life of Pets: Off The Leash, both at Universal Studios Hollywood.

With that out of the way, let's tackle all things West Coast. All eyes are set on the Pacific Coast this week as California moves toward opening its most famous theme park, Disneyland, later this week. While we'll be diving into the noteworthy attractions opening there, Universal Studios Hollywood, and even Knott's Berry Farm, we can't proceed without touching on yet another update when it comes to theme parks being exclusive to in-state guests, which, somehow, is no longer true. Sort of.

Basically, the state is confused, we're confused, everyone is confused; as the Los Angeles Times' headline aptly states, "California theme parks can now welcome out-of-state visitors, it seems." The entire scenario is more difficult to parse out than the full spelling of Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! but certain parks, such as SeaWorld San Diego, are now open to out-of-state guests who are fully vaccinated, and others can seemingly do so if they wish. Universal Studios Hollywood is "assessing its next steps," according to the OC Register, while access to Disneyland Resort will remain limited to California state residents for the time being.

Elsewhere, COVID-19 safety precautions appear to be shifting at amusement and theme parks nationwide. At first, all open locations seemed to share the same requirements — masks at all times except for when eating or drinking and social distancing on rides and in queues — but the rules have since become divergent. Walt Disney World began allowing guests to remove their masks for photographs earlier this month, Dollywood no longer requires guests to wear masks outdoors and Cedar Point unveiled a whopper of a pandemic-era announcement yesterday when it shared it will no longer require attendees to wear face masks while on rides, which themselves will no longer be socially distanced. (Masks will only be required while visitors are indoors unless they are eating or drinking.)

This shift comes with the knowledge that transmission while outside and away from others is unlikely, but it needs to be said that social distancing within parks is undeniably fluid. Queues may have markers but they're not always followed by other guests, and social distancing while in motion, especially when walking through narrower pathways, is not a guarantee or sometimes a possibility. With new CDC guidelines likely to be announced this week, we await further detail and the potential for more change on the way.

Still, at long last, California theme parks are back. Universal Studios Hollywood is open, Disneyland welcomes back employees today for a soft opening prior to its April 30 reopening, and Knott's Berry Farm readies itself for a mid-May return.

(On a personal note as a resident of California, I have to say, things feel good here. We lived through a hellish winter that saw California become the epicenter of the pandemic within America and now, with a solid vaccine rollout that has nearly half the state partially vaccinated and COVID-19 caseloads that continue to decrease, the light at the end of the tunnel for folks craving a bit of fun in a disastrously dark year has, at long last, arrived.)

SoCal theme parks welcoming back guests — with limited capacity and advance reservations, of course — after 400-plus days of closures would be a historic moment on its own, but there's much more at play. All three parks have something new to see from onboard a ride vehicle that ties into their histories and bright futures. With a little something old, little something new, and so much worth checking out, here's what you can expect from SoCal theme parks when they reopen this spring:

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD

The film-inspired attractions at Los Angeles' only proper theme park have, at times, been ridiculed for their reliance on screens, but two practical attractions that debuted when it reopened April 16 are sure to leave any jokesters with their mouths agape.

The Secret Life of Pets: Off The Leash was all but ready to go when the pandemic hit in Spring 2020. Now, the animated animals are finally on display in a dark ride packed with eye-catching explosions of animatronic dachshunds, scraggly cats, and every type of pet imaginable. Without giving too much away, the attraction takes guests — or, in this scenario, stray pets — on an eventful journey to “Adoption Day," where they're set to find their forever home. Facial mapping not only turns guests into cuddly little creatures, but the dynamic scenes and robust displays throughout the ride make it an ideal choice to ride again and again, purely for soaking up details and to see which family takes you home this time.

But, when it comes to shocking new reveals, Jurassic World: The Ride really turned this one out. The reimagined Shoot the Chute — that's theme park speak for "has a big-ass drop at the end" — goes above and beyond with the addition of multiple new animatronics, including an Indominus Rex that walks. I repeat: IT WALKS.

I rode last week on an unfortunately chilly day, shivering beneath my poncho, glasses beyond soaked, and found myself like the Dennis Nedry of the group, wiping away the elements from my lenses to see the prehistoric beast that stood in front of me, only to realize it was moving. The park's operations continue to be tweaked since my visit and more attractions, like The Simpsons Ride and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem have since opened, but I have to return solely to repeat this ride — not only to experience an attraction proving itself even further following its original debut, but to confirm that 22-foot-tall beast really did exist. (Check out some footage of this monster here.)

DISNEYLAND RESORT

It goes without saying that Disneyland Park's reopening on April 30 will serve as a sign that things are, indeed, heading towards normal. The state of society can so often be determined by Disneyland's gates shuttering and the return is nothing short of significant, especially when it comes to the park's 1955-era Fantasyland attractions. One of those, Snow White's Scary Adventures, began on Disneyland's opening day as Snow White and her Adventures, and will debut on this new kind of opening day as Snow White's Enchanted Wish, a new spin on the classic fairytale ride.

Credit: Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort

What remains among the dwarves' shining gemstones has yet to be seen, but it's not the only classic attraction that saw a bit of enhancement while the park stood closed. Haunted Mansion will have a few interior improvements of its own, while King Arthur Carousel received a new gilded exterior.

KNOTT'S BERRY FARM

This original SoCal theme park may be the last to reopen in full (they're currently busy with the final dates of the excellent Taste of Boysenberry Festival), but Knott's Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair, which officially opens with the park on May 21, will be worth the wait.

Credit: Knott's Berry Farm

The interactive 4D attraction, which sees guests shooting jelly blasters to recover boysenberry pies to win top prize at the fair, serves as a kind of sequel to the original Knott's Bear-y Tales, which opened in 1976 and closed a decade later. Bringing rides back from the graveyard doesn't... really... happen, which makes this crowd-pleasing move so much more significant than creating any ol' new ride. The characters, Boysen Bear and Girlsen Bear, are a holdover from the original ride, while settings like the Frog Forest and Weird Woods are reimagined destinations from its first iteration. With fan-favorite attractions so often torn down to build something new, the choice to shift an existing attraction back to its roots is incredibly intriguing, and one I personally cannot wait to preview later this week.

Stay tuned for next week's update for a review of Disneyland's ride reimaginings, Knott's' new ride, and Universal's third week of operations — and you can follow along on Instagram and Twitter for up-to-the-minute details on Disneyland's reopening this Friday. See ya next week!