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Theme Parks

Central FL's Theme Parks Unveil New Experiences

Central Florida’s Parks, Like

Mesmerizing Magicians,

Unveil New Attractions

By Georgina Cruz

Abracadabra! As if by magic, each year central Florida’s theme parks conjure up new attractions. Of course, 2011 is no exception, with many novelties on tap to provide thrills, animal encounters, once-in-a-lifetime memories and more.

New "Must-See" Attractions At Walt Disney World

Disney’s Hollywood Studios: Now arriving in a galaxy near you – at Walt Disney World in Orlando, to be more specific – is the biggest blockbuster for 2011: “Star Tours – The Adventure Continues,” a new “Star Tours” ride. 

Photo of Star Tours attraction scene goes here.

Replacing the park’s previous Star Tours flight simulator ride, the new attraction takes visitors to Coruscant and other destinations in George Lucas’ iconic “Star Wars” series galaxy.

For the first time ever, the power of the Force and the magic of Disney immerse guests in a 3D experience.

There are a whopping 54 versions of this 3D Dolby masterpiece ride, so 54 “separate journeys” are possible with riders not really knowing completely what adventures – and misadventures – lie ahead each time they board. “You’d have to ride it at least one hundred times,” Lucas himself commented at the opening.

On our visit, while waiting in the queue for our first of several rides, we could overhear C-3PO talking about some “technical” issues. When we boarded we found out that C-3PO had become the “accidental pilot” of our craft. 

The ride features out-of-this world effects and results, including a visit to the Death Star, a “war” sequence and an appearance by the wise master, Yoda.

So fire up your lightsabers, sport your Jedi Master costume or Princess Leia cinnamon bun hairstyle and fasten your seatbelts! The new Star Tours 3D attraction lasts six – fun and thrilling—minutes.

Also new this year at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a parade called Pixar Pals Countdown to Fun. It replaced Block Party Bash and features characters from Disney-Pixar movies including “Monsters, Inc.,” “Toy Story,” “Up,” and “A Bug’s Life.”

Photo of Cinderella's Castle goes here.Magic Kingdom: Disney World’s original Orlando park has a couple of special treats in store for visitors this year: guests become the stars of a new projection show with special effects called, “The Magic, The Memories and You.”

This 10-minute-long magical presentation focuses on images of guests taken by Disney photographers at various Magic Kingdom sites and attractions during the day.

The display also features videos taken from Disney’s "Let The Memories Begin" online hub.

So you might see a little girl dressed like a princess and giving Snow White a hug or perhaps a Dad and his son on a Dumbo flight.

You might even see yourself enjoying a Mickey ice cream bar on your way to the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland!

The images are projected by 16 state-of-the-art projectors onto the walls of 189-foot-high Cinderella Castle amid the turrets and spires of this beloved park landmark.

The spectacle turns the castle into a gigantic, special-effects-rich family album, so to speak. Each evening show features as many as 5,000 same-day images accompanied by a new song created just for the performance. On select evenings two shows are presented.

Among the show’s special effects are animated and real fireworks and special lighting that transforms the castle in whimsical ways. Visit www.DisneyParks.com/Memories.

The second new treat in store for Magic Kingdom guests is the opportunity to meet and greet the "Big Cheese" himself, Mickey Mouse, at a special new location backstage at Town Square Theater. It's located in the Main Street area, near the park entrance.

Visitors pose with Mickey in a setting that evokes a magician’s backstage room with props and costumes. They also may secure his autograph, if desired.

And for the first time at the Magic Kingdom, visitors may use Disney's FASTPASS Service for a character meet-and-greet experience.

With Fast Pass, park-goers simply put their park ticket into a FASTPASS machine and receive a free pass to return within a certain one-hour time period to see Mickey without having to wait in long lines.

Guests can also use FASTPASS and queue to meet the popular Disney princesses – including Cinderella and Snow White — for whom Town Square Theater will be a meet-and-greet location during the park's new Fantasyland construction that will nearly double the size of that section of the Magic Kingdom.

New family attractions created in that update will include a new family coaster, a double dose of Dumbo, and new ways to interact with the Disney princesses starting in 2012.

Photo of woman walking across a rickety rope bridge goes here.Animal Kingdom: This year, Animal Kingdom has introduced a new “Wild Africa Trek.” 

At amazingly close range, visitors experience a ravine filled with menacing-looking crocodiles, pools of hippos and other thrills.

For example, park goers cross rickety swinging rope bridges that are missing a few planks.

No worries, though, as there is safety netting beneath the bridges.

Photo of giraffes at Animal Kingdom goes here.





Also, visitors wear safety harnesses attached to an overhead track. 

In a new three-hour guided, add-on adventure, park guests might explore remote areas of the park’s Harambe Wildlife Reserve and the Pangani Forest.

Available only for guests ages 8 and older, this new adventure takes park goers to a safari camp. There, they enjoy a snack with views of giraffes and other wildlife.

This experience, which is not included with normal park admission, is limited to small groups of no more than 12 participants. 

Important Note: Participants do not have access to toilet facilities the first two hours of the program.

Pricing varies seasonally. Reservations can be made at 407-WDW-TOUR (939-8687).

For information on all the Walt Disney World parks, visit www.disneyworld.com

What's New at Other Central Florida Theme Parks?

Busch Gardens, Tampa Bay: There’s a new breed – of speed – awaiting intrepid guests at Busch Gardens in Tampa with “Cheetah Hunt.”

Real cheetahs are shown at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.This roller coaster ride combines thrills with an animal habitat, allowing visitors to view the large, fast cats up close.

The high-speed coaster is 4,429 feet long, the longest at the park. Cheetah Hunt propels daring guests from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds.

Fun thrills? The new coaster boasts a 130-foot drop, one inversion, and soaring views of the park's Serengeti Plain. The ride lasts 1:20 minute. Visit www.buschgardens.com.

Discovery Cove: Newly opened, the “Grand Reef” at Discovery Cove (a SeaWorld Orlando water oasis across from the main SeaWorld park in Orlando) is another new source of thrills for Central Florida park goers.

Photo of new Discovery Cove attraction goes here.Guests snorkel with rays and exotic fish or participate in an underwater walking tour. 

Participants have the impression that they're swimming next to sharp-toothed reef sharks and venomous lionfish.

In reality, they're safely separated from the creatures by glass, but it's a fun adventure.

An optional, separate fee activity is “SeaVenture,” a helmet dive during which participants, wearing dive helmets, walk past the lionfish and shark habitats and touch rays and fish.

New wading, snorkeling, swimming and sunning areasare also on tap, as are islands and grottoes connected by paths and bridges. From one bridge, visitors may watch sharks. For more information, check out www.discoverycove.com.

SeaWorld Orlando: A new killer whale show, “One Ocean” has debuted at SeaWorld Orlando. The spectacle presents the park’s majestic whales as ambassadors of the sea and the ocean as the center of the natural world.

The inspiring, unifying message of the show is that we are all part of one world, with one ocean and its future is in our hands to protect.  

Photo of new killer whale show goes here.

“One Ocean” replaces “Believe,” a killer whale show that entertained visitors for five years. The new entertainment offering showcases spectacular killer whale behaviors, including thrilling leaps and multiple whales performing simultaneously — including at one point, frolicking among giant fountains.

The show is presented several times daily at Shamu Stadium, a facility with a three-story-high set, panoramic LED screens and hundreds of surround-sound speakers.

Special effects include bright colored lights, underwater imagery and an original, contemporary musical score with global rhythms. Visit www.SeaWorld.com/OneOcean.

Universal Orlando Resort: Universal is still mesmerizing guests with its wildly popular “Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” opened at its Islands of Adventure park last year. So no new major attractions will open at either Islands of Adventure park or Universal Studios this year.

On a visit over the busy spring-break period, we still encountered an hour’s wait at “Ollivander’s,” the wand shop where a wand “chooses” a guest as in the pages of the “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling.

Photo of Hogwarts at night goes here.We also observed a two-hour wait time at “The Forbidden Journey” ride inside “Hogwarts Castle,” and significant waits at the two coasters.

Good tip for park goers?

Bypass the long lines at the roller coaster rides by staying at one of the Loews’ hotels(www.loewshotels.comat Universal Orlando Resort.

These include Loews’ Portofino Bay Hotel, Loews’ Royal Pacific and Loews’ Hard Rock Hotel. Guests staying at those properties receive complimentary priority access to the roller coasters in the Harry Potter section of Islands of Adventure and to other rides in the park and Universal Studios.

Another way to beat the lines is to simply purchase an Express-Plus Pass in addition to paying the normal park admission. Express-Plus Pass for one park starts at $19.99; for both parks at $25.99.

One new feature planned for early 2012 at Universal Orlando Resort is a 36-hole miniature golf experience at CityWalk, the dining and entertainment district adjacent to both Universal parks.

Called “Hollywood Drive-In Golf,” the new putt-putt course will reportedly enable visitors to experience the popular miniature golf pastime in an entirely new way. That said, Universal has not released details as yet. Visit www.universalorlando.com.

Whenever you go, though, you'll find fun in the sun and plenty of thrills and fantasy at central Florida's theme parks. Competition for guests is also fierce between the parks so expect more new rides and experiences in 2012 and beyond.

*Photos shown above are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of the various theme park companies mentioned above. All rights reserved. Do not link to nor copy these photos. Thanks

About the Author: Freelance travel and cruise writer Georgina Cruz is a frequent contributor to SouthernTravelNews.com and SouthernCruising.com. Her specialties include ocean cruising, Florida travel, as well as Disney and other theme parks. Her travel articles have appeared in more than four dozen regional, national and international publications and she is the author of a guidebook on cruises.

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