We had the opportunity to take flight at Aeronautica Landing, opening April 7, 2023, at Carowinds! Come along to experience its new rides and food, plus hear backstage secrets from the people who created the aviation-themed land… and maybe even take a peek into Carowinds’ future.
Carowinds traverses the state line between North and South Carolina. As North Carolina license plates note, the state was “first in flight,” making Aeronautica Landing’s theme a fitting one.
“The promise of flight means we can explore,” said Carowinds Vice President and General Manager Manny Gonzalez during the land’s dedication on April 6, 2023. “We can seek new adventures.”
Gonzalez and gathered media couldn’t help but chuckle as a real plane loudly flew over the park during the executive’s remarks.
Welcome to Aeronautica Landing
From the moment guests set foot in Aeronautica Landing, the flight theme makes itself known loud and proud. The land’s entrances emulate runways and décor comes in the form of strings of small airplanes draped overhead like holiday garland. A radiant edifice draws guests to the center of the land as it stretches toward the clouds, its attached plaque proclaiming the area is “dedicated to all who made the dream of reaching the skies a reality.”
One can’t help but feel a bit inspired by soaking in the thematic layers of Aeronautica Landing. But don’t get too sentimental. You’ll want to have your game face on when you brave the area’s thrilling new rides.
Aeronautica Landing’s New Rides
Three all-new rides and one re-imagined favorite comprise Aeronautica Landing, with two additional rides on the way (more on those later).
The Airwalker “looks like a big smile,” Steve Jackson, director of maintenance and construction at Carowinds, told us in an interview.
The contraption’s design makes riders look like they’re flying on the wings of a plane as the vehicle glides and spins upon a u-shaped track. The Airwalker was a crowd favorite during our preview, with riders loudly giggling with glee. Guests must be 42 inches tall to ride if with a chaperone, or 48 inches tall if riding alone.
Gear Spin, with its long, robotic arms, imagines itself inside an engine. The ride zooms aviators into the air, the arms spinning seemingly (but not really) narrowly missing each other.
Gear Spin appears to be quite the thrill, but unfortunately the ride had on-and-off technical difficulties during our visit and we were unable to experience it. Gear Spin has a height requirement of 42 inches if accompanied by an adult or 48 inches if riding unaccompanied. The maximum weight for each unit of four guests cannot exceed 661 pounds.
Air Racers makes Gear Spin seem tame. Upon first glance, its ride system looks somewhat similar. The big difference is that Gear Spin remains upright, but Air Racers goes upside-down as it spins. Air Racers also delivers serious hang time, suspending riders upside-down over and over throughout its entire cycle.
Air Racers is the most intense attraction in Aeronautica Landing, affirmed by the piercing screams emanating from its vicinity. It was also the only ride we experienced in Aeronautica Landing that to made us feel nauseous. Those prone to motion sickness might want to sit this one out, but thrill-seekers will love it. Riders must be 48 inches tall and weigh no more than 300 pounds.
Aeronautica Landing’s Re-imagined Ride
Hover and Dodge re-imagines the bumper cars, a longtime staple of Carowinds, as a hovercraft pilot training ground.
You might think you’ve ridden this before, but that’s where you’d be wrong. Jackson pointed out the attraction has 50 new bumper cars, a new lighting package, and a new soundtrack. “Other than the building, it’s a new ride,” he said.
Guests must be 42 inches tall to ride with an adult or 48 inches tall to ride solo.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of the ride systems, all attractions in Aeronautica Landing come with a caveat of low hourly capacity. Air Racers, for example, seemed to take about 7-8 minutes for each cycle (including load, ride, and unload). Only one batch of guests can move through at a time, as opposed to a roller coaster’s ability to load and unload trains in its station while other trains are out on the track. It’s one of those “it is what it is” situations, and commonplace for other attractions throughout Carowinds already, but guests should pack their patience to Aeronautica Landing nonetheless. Guests who’d like a quicker wait can purchase Fast Lane.
Cell phones and loose articles aren’t allowed on any Aeronautica Landing rides – and for good reason – as they’d certainly partake in the flight theme themselves and go zooming across the sky. All rides have free cubbies available in their loading platforms to store bags and other items.
Aeronautica Landing Food
Hungry? Great! Carowinds Executive Chef John Loukas grinned ear-to-ear as he shared the thought process behind Terminal A, the land’s new dining location and he explained that Terminal A recalls the small bites patrons indulge in while waiting for their flight at an airport. Terminal A’s outdoor patio overlooks Aeronautica Landing, providing an opportunity to take advantage of a “park hack” Loukas recommended: He suggested Terminal A is the perfect spot for less-adventurous guests to enjoy food and cocktails while thrill-seekers take on the big rides. Terminal A also offers mobile ordering through the Carowinds app.
We got a peek at some of the small bites served here, including smoked heirloom cauliflower, smoked brie encroute, Bavarian pretzel bites, charcuterie, and balsamic grilled chicken sliders. Among the dishes we tasted, the most unique and delicious was the bacon-wrapped pimento cheese jalapeño.
Inside Terminal A near the pick-up area, sharp-eyed guests might discover some hidden details. Ken Parks, corporate director of creative development at Cedar Fair (the parent company of Carowinds), gave us a heads-up.
“We’re fans,” Parks said. “We’ve gotten to a generation of designers where the fans have grown up and have been put in charge.”
Parks encouraged guests to pay close attention to the screen behind the bar inside the Terminal A pick-up area. There might just be some references to Carowinds and aviation history waiting for you. Nearby, we also noticed nods to Snoopy’s stint as the Flying Ace and Knott’s Berry Farm.
Beyond Terminal A, guests can find fried shrimp and French fries at Frequent Fryers, a walk-up window. Opening soon, Southern Star Aircraft Brewery will serve craft, imported, and domestic beer. For now, its shaded seating area offers a nice decompression zone.
Aeronautica Landing Game Zone
Guests can play games to win prizes at several extra-charge activities within Aeronautica Landing Game Zone.
Most booths are typical of midway games, like a basketball throw and a balloon pop. The most fascinating station to us places guests in front of a screen depicting a mountainous landscape as they pretend to walk a tight rope.
What Did Aeronautica Landing Replace?
If you’re trying to remember what was in Aeronautica Landing in the Carowinds of yesteryear but can’t quite put your finger on it, we’ve got you covered.
The Southern Star (a.k.a. the upside-down pirate ship), the Yo-Yo (a ride akin to traditional swings), and the “Plants vs. Zombies” simulator attraction all closed to make way for Aeronautica Landing. The back of Aeronautica Landing was also where guests entered the line for Thunder Road, the classic roller coaster that closed in 2015 to make way for a water park expansion.
More to Come for Aeronautica Landing
As impressive as it is, Aeronautica Landing’s not finished. Two additional attractions will open in late spring 2023.
“There are delays sometimes when you go to the airport, right?” Jackson remarked, providing an on-theme promise for the land’s near future. “There are flight delays. We’ve got two more coming!”
Gyro Force will send riders in circles on a large spinning platform. Its signage and theming details are already visible where the ride will soon be located. Windstar, just announced today, will prompt riders to imagine themselves on their own hang glider, able to control its path as it careens through the air. It sounds like a more thrilling version of Carowinds’ existing Mountain Gliders (formerly Woodstock Gliders and Danny Phantom Flyers).
Ryan Allen, director of live entertainment at Carowinds, informed us his teams have “plans for Halloween and Christmas” in Aeronautica Landing. “It’s gonna be really, really fun!” Allen teased. “I can’t wait to share those details soon.”
Carowinds’ 50th-Anniversary Celebration
Aeronautica Landing has the distinction of opening the same week as Carowinds’ 50th anniversary date. The park opened on March 31, 1973. On that day, a young boy named Jim Henderson was the first guest to enter the park. Today, he and his family helped dedicate Aeronautica Landing by “cutting the ribbon.”
Several representatives of Carowinds leadership described Aeronautica Landing as a “birthday gift to the park,” as the new land is part of an ongoing, year-long anniversary celebration. 2023 also marks the first time Carowinds is open year-round, having just completed its inaugural winter season.
The 50th-anniversary party includes a new line of merchandise (available at a newly retrofitted store called Midway Memories) and a golden train on Goldrusher, the park’s original roller coaster.
And there’s lots more on the way. Allen shared that two returning shows and a new show will debut Memorial Day. Come mid-June, the park will welcome a nighttime spectacular and two more new shows, and this summer, the Carowinds Theater will go back to its roots in a big way.
“In 1973 when the park opened, it was the Midway Magic House,” Allen said, telling us the entertainment space will become a magic house once more. “We’re excited to bring some of that magic back.”
As the celebration continues, new 50th-themed food items will roll out throughout the park’s menus. Loukas told us,
“As the summer goes on here, you’ll definitely see some menu options changing as we get to play across the state line, as I like to say.”
Those additions are all on top of returning seasonal events like Grand Carnivale, The Great Pumpkin Fest, Scarowinds, and WinterFest. It’s an understatement to say 2023 is an exciting year at the place where the Carolinas come together.
The Future of Carowinds
While Carowinds has always had themed areas, a commitment to a detailed theme on the level of Aeronautica Landing is a relatively new strategy for the park. Aeronautica Landing follows in the footsteps of other top-to-bottom land overhauls in recent years like County Fair, Camp Snoopy, Carousel Park, and Blue Ridge Junction.
During the Aeronautica Landing dedication ceremony, Gonzalez said the land “represents a new age of Carowinds, where immersive theming and storytelling combine with kinetic energy and steel to bring guests an enhanced, family-friendly theme park experience that showcases the rich, historic heritage of the Carolinas and showcases the rich legacy of original themes of Carowinds.”
Parks reiterated this sentiment during our interview.
“As a company, we’ve made a commitment to really designing through story,” he said, “selecting themes and then finding the stories that match those themes.” That’s not stopping anytime soon. “We will continue to delve into things that feel authentic to our audience … That’s really what our guests are saying they want, and we want to keep giving it to them.”
As Aeronautica Landing proves, the sky’s the limit.
Aeronautica Landing officially opens April 7, 2023. To purchase Carowinds tickets, click here.