What’s new at Florida theme parks this summer?
ORLANDO – A theme park built with millions of Lego bricks, a cheetah habitat with a zero-to-60 mph roller coaster at Africa-themed Busch Gardens, and the first new killer whale show in five years at SeaWorld Orlando are among the big new attractions opening in central Florida this year.
The world’s fifth Legoland park, and the first one on the U.S. East Coast, is going up on the site of the old Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, a 45-minute drive from the other large parks in Orlando. It is scheduled to open at an unspecified date in October.
Legoland Florida planners say 50 million of the iconic plastic building bricks will be incorporated into rides, statues and attractions geared toward children ages 2 to 12 and their families. The lineup will include four gentle roller coasters, but the park retains its famous botanical gardens and water ski show from Cypress Gardens, which was one of Florida’s first theme parks.
“Kids go crazy over Legos, and this is what kids anticipate seeing in a Lego world,” park manager Adrian Jones said recently. “It’s about rides, it’s about playing with Legos, it’s about building, it’s about interacting” with their surroundings.
The new environmentally themed Shamu show at SeaWorld called One Ocean debuted at the Orlando park in April, replacing the well-worn Believe show. Similar whale shows are scheduled to open at SeaWorld San Diego on Memorial Day weekend and at SeaWorld San Antonio in June.
According to SeaWorld, the show “features majestic killer whales as ambassadors of the sea, and the ocean as the center of the universe. … At the core of the show is the unifying message that both animals and humans are part of one world, with one ocean, and its future is in our hands to cherish and protect.”
One of the orcas that visitors to the Orlando park will see exhibiting his talents in the new show is Tilikum, the whale that killed drowned 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau last year. Tilikum spent more than a year away from the exhibits but returned to the shows in April.
Trainers have not been in the pools with the whales since the accident in February 2010, but the parks are upgrading facilities with safety equipment and readying the animals for trainers to get back into the water. A firm date for that has not been announced, but SeaWorld officials said the new show was planned to incorporate “water work” with the trainers when the time was appropriate.
An hour away from Orlando, in Tampa, Busch Gardens is promoting its new Cheetah Hunt roller coaster that uses the force of repelling magnets to launch riders from zero to 60 mph in a matter of seconds, three different times during the ride.
Opening this summer, Cheetah Hunt will be the longest of the park’s coasters with 4,429 feet (1,350 meters) of track. It is the centerpiece of a new animal habitat area called Cheetah Run that will allow visitors to get up close to the lithe cats living there. They also can witness the world’s fastest land animal in action during daily sprints conducted by trainers.
Sticking with the Africa theme, new this year at Walt Disney World is an add-on experience at Animal Kingdom that allows guests to join a small group on a guided expedition to see the park’s wild animals on foot and by special vehicles. The cost of the Wild Africa Trek starts at $189 per person (in addition to park admission) and will vary seasonally. It is open to guests 8 and older.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios park reopened the venerable Star Tours ride this month with a new 3-D element and Star Wars-inspired story line for the deep space flight simulator. Also new at Disney World is a nighttime show during which photos of guests taken by park photographers during the day are projected in a huge slideshow on the outside of Cinderella Castle. The show is accompanied by music and fireworks.
Discovery Cove in Orlando debuts a new 2.5-acre (1-hectare) saltwater environment called Grand Reef, featuring white-sand beaches, underwater grottoes and a palm tree-lined island. Guests can don wetsuits and an underwater breathing apparatus to take an underwater walking tour along a path 10 feet below the surface through schools of tropical fish and past a 1 million-gallon (3.8 million liter) aquarium with 125 species of fish, rays, and sharks.
Florida theme parks have high hopes for 2011 after seeing modest attendance gains last year as the U.S. economy continued to recover from a crippling recession, said David Mandt, spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
“Certainly the conditions and consumer confidence are improving, and that will drive attendance to parks and attractions,” Mandt said. “There’s a lot to look forward to.”
One attraction that hopes to maintain its initial success is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which was an immediate sensation when it opened last year in the Islands of Adventure park at Universal Orlando. The mini-park, featuring Hogwarts castle and a state-of-the-art coaster ride that simulates flying on brooms with Harry and his pals, gave Universal a big attendance boost last year while the crowds at the other central Florida parks stayed flat.
For Universal visitors, Aug. 18 will be the last chance to ride the Jimmy Neutron Nicktoon Blast, which is closing to make room for a 3-D ride based on the Despicable Me animated movie. And the popular Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at Islands of Adventure is closing soon for a state-of-the-art retooling. The 3-D experience will be updated with high-definition animation and other details riders will be able to feel.
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