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What's New at Florida's Theme Parks

June 20, 2011


"Star Wars" creator George Lucas tested out the newly revamped Star Tours ride at Walt Disney World. // (c) 2011 Walt Disney World Resort

The Miami Herald

By Marjie Lambert

June 20--The yellow roller coaster is approaching a steep hill, and it looks like a slow, machinery-clanking climb almost straight up is ahead. But whoosh! Suddenly the train shoots forward like a rocket, hitting 60 mph. As each car goes over the top, its riders lift off their seats in unison for a glorious second or two, then Cheetah Hunt, Busch Gardens' newest coaster, plunges down the other side.

Sixty-five miles away, the revamped Star Tours ride has opened at Disney's Hollywood Studios, featuring the befuddled pilot C-3PO fleeing Imperial Stormtroopers, with a rebel spy and the park's guests along for a jarring ride.

Those two rides, plus the Wild Africa Trek at Disney's Animal Kingdom, and The Grand Reef at Discovery Cove, are the highlights of what's new at Central Florida's theme parks for 2011.

It's a relatively quiet year, coming the summer after Universal Orlando opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and its signature ride, widely acclaimed for its combination of technology, creativity and all-around wizardry.

More than the new attractions of 2011, what's on the minds of many theme park fans is what's coming up: Legoland is building its second U.S. theme park in Winter Haven, 35 miles from Orlando, slated to open Oct. 15. Disney is well into its Fantasyland expansion, castle tops peeking over a construction wall, with Phase 1 scheduled to open late next year. Universal Studios has announced a ride, based on the movie Despicable Me, to open next year. The Kennedy Space Center has begun work on a master plan revolving around space shuttle Atlantis, which is scheduled to make its last flight July 8, then become the centerpiece of a whole new wing of the visitor's center.

But for people planning visits to the parks this summer, the season brings a few new thrills.

Busch Gardens

Cheetah Hunt opened May 26, the first launch coaster and the longest track (4,429 feet) of any coaster at Busch/SeaWorld's 10 U.S. parks. The coaster uses the force of repelling magnets to launch uphill in three bursts of speed. The first takes the train from zero to 38 mph in two seconds. Then twice more, on two hills, the trains rocket up to 60 mph in two seconds.

Cheetah Hunt, designed to simulate a cheetah chasing prey across the park's Serengeti Plain, is surprisingly smooth. Even with one inversion, the queasiness factor is moderately low. Maximum speed is 60 mph, making it the second fastest coaster at the park after SheiKra, which briefly hits 65 mph. The longest dive is 130 feet, far less than SheiKra's 200-foot dive.

"Unlike SheiKra, which was built to be the biggest, baddest, steepest coaster, Cheetah Hunt didn't aim for that," said Jill Revelle, park spokeswoman. "We wanted to create something that was a little friendlier to young teens who had outgrown Sand Serpent or Scorpion but weren't quite ready for SheiKra."

Busch also wanted to duplicate the successful combination of thrill ride and animal encounters that its sister park, SeaWorld Orlando, accomplished with its Manta roller coaster, which winds around a series of aquariums showcasing manta rays and other sea life.

The roller coaster is paired with Cheetah Run, habitat for 13 cheetahs new to the park. Their large, grassy enclosure has glass walls that allow the big cats and park visitors to check each other out -- and they do: Some of the cheetahs come right up to the glass to get a closer look at the humans. Several times a day, visitors can watch the cats, fastest of all land mammals, sprint after lures set up by their trainers.

The completion of Cheetah Hunt also allowed for the reopening of Skyride, one of Busch Gardens' oldest attractions. The Cheetah track weaves around the towers and cables of the gondola ride, which was closed while the coaster was being built.

Also new to Busch Gardens in the last 12 months is Walkabout Way, which has an aviary with kookaburras and other birds from Down Under, and a separate habitat with about 40 kangaroos and wallabies. For $5, visitors can buy a cup of feed pellets and hay for the critters, who sit by the fence, lips extended like they're ready for a big kiss, when they see the potential for a snack.

The park has a new show, Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy, a combination musical and acrobatics production, that replaced KaTonga at the Moroccan Palace Theater. The show, in which the jungle and its creatures come to life, features contortionists, jugglers, acrobats, aerialists and musicians. It runs until Labor Day.

There's also been a little fine-tuning of other rides. The trains on Gwazi, a bone-jarring wooden coaster, were traded out for new cars with articulated axles that bend and make the ride smoother. And Cheetah Chase, a wild-mouse coaster, was renamed Sand Serpent so that it wouldn't be confused with the new coaster named after the big cat.


Disney's biggest news this year is the opening of the revamped Star Tours attraction, a raucous and sometimes funny motion-simulator ride that nominally features C-3PO, but the real stars are the vivid Dolby 3-D and the synchronized movement of the spaceship.

Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, which opened May 20 at Hollywood Studios, uses the same building and ride vehicle as the original attraction, which opened more than 20 years ago, but incorporates current technology as well as an updated plot, which falls between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: New Hope.

What starts out as a routine flight on a Starspeeder 1000 turns into a wild chase after Darth Vader and the Empire learn that a rebel spy is on board. In a nice touch by Disney Imagineering and Lucasfilm, the plot has 11 mix-and-match options, so a guest might meet Darth Vader and Princess Leia and go to Tatooine and the underwater world of Naboo on one ride, then run into Stormtroopers and Yoda and see the jungles of Kashyyyk and the Death Star the next. Whatever you see through the window of the Starspeeder, the motions of the ride are synchronized with that sequence.

A word about motion: There's a lot. Imagine the platform is balanced on a giant ball bearing. Although it does not go from Point A to Point B, it does jerk mightily up and down, side to side. Without a seatbelt, you would fly -- or fall -- out of your seat. Queasiness factor: moderate to moderately high.

The queue has fun details: A clueless baggage inspector sees an X-ray of a suitcase full of guns and wonders aloud why someone travels with so many hair dryers. Rex, the droid pilot voiced by Paul Reuben (Pee-Wee Herman) in the original Star Tours, now lies on the scrap heap, labeled "Defective. Return to factory."

Outside, kids too little to ride (height minimum is 40 inches) might be loaned robes and lightsabers and invited to take part in the Jedi Training Academy.

Character meet-and-greets have become hugely popular at the Disney parks, which in recent years have added more characters, more designated meeting spots and more scheduled appearances. Walt Disney World now has 60 locations throughout the parks where guests can meet characters.

The most popular is Mickey, and he has a new meet-and-greet spot in Magic Kingdom where fans can find him all day -- and sometimes Minnie, too. And for the first time, they can get FastPass tickets to come back at a specified time and bypass the queue. The setting is Town Square Theater, where Mickey is the star of a magic show; Magician Mickey meets fans backstage.

Guests can also get a FastPass here to meet the Disney princesses --Belle, Cinderella and Aurora (from Sleeping Beauty) -- who eventually will get their own meet-and-greet spots in the Fantasyland expansion.

Animal viewing gets a little more intense on Wild Africa Trek, an extra-fee three-hour adventure that is part walk, part truck ride through the Animal Kingdom's Africa section. It is, in essence, a private tour of Harambe Wildlife Reserve, with no more than 12 guests per tour.

Visitors hike through the forest, and stand on the edge of embankments high above a river inhabited by crocodiles and hippos. They cross rickety rope bridges that hang about 30 feet over the animals. Participants are buckled into vests with safety harnesses that are attached to an overhead cable or other device to keep them from becoming a crocodile's lunch (the hippos usually stick to a vegetarian diet).

Part Two of the trek is a ride in the back of a truck through the "savanna," similar to the Kilimanjaro Safari, which is included with admission. However, on the Wild Africa Trek, the truck makes more stops to see animals, and the guides have more time to talk about specific ones.

There's also a stop at a "boma," an open-air, roofed platform on a hilltop with a panoramic view of the savanna. A light lunch or breakfast, included in the price and one of the better meals you'll find in any of the parks, is served here.

The price, which varies with the season, currently is $189, in addition to park admission. Animal Kingdom added this adventure in January, and despite its steep cost, has steadily increased the number of slots to keep up with demand. By July, there will be 12 treks on a typical day, staggered at 45-minute intervals.

Discovery Cove

The Grand Reef, a 2 1/2-acre saltwater pool intended to replicate a coral reef, opened June 10. About 10,000 animals, representing 125 species of fish, rays and sharks, live there.

The Grand Reef has shallow waters where guests can touch rays and tropical fish swimming among artificial coral, and deeper canyons for snorkeling, as well as an expansive beach and eight new cabanas available for an extra fee.

With the opening of The Grand Reef, Discovery Cove also launched SeaVenture, an underwater walking tour of the reef that costs $59. Guests wearing dive helmets attached to air hoses climb about 12 feet down a ladder to the reef floor, then walk along the the bottom holding a handrail. There, they encounter sea life, can feed fish and watch zebra, nurse, blacktip and whitetip reef sharks through an 8-by-21-foot window.

Snorkelers will also have underwater access to view the shark tank, while other guests can watch the sharks from above without getting wet. There's also a new home for eels in the reef's canyons -- but behind glass. About 60 venemous lionfish, non-indigenous pests taken from local waters, will be housed behind glass under the reef's dock, where guests can see but not touch them.

The set-up is different from Tropical Reef, Discovery Cove's old saltwater pool, which was closed when The Grand Reef opened. There, the only way to see sharks was by snorkeling, said Reid Miller, director of zoological operations. The Grand Reef also has more variations in depth to make the experience comfortable for guests who don't like being in deep water, he said.

Discovery Cove will renovate Tropical Reef with an as-yet-undisclosed attraction expected to open next summer. The lazy river, freshwater Serenity Bay and the dolphin encounter pool remain open and are unchanged.

Seaworld Orlando

SeaWorld introduced its killer-whale show, One Ocean, in April at a jazzed-up Shamu Stadium. The message of the show, which features the park's seven orcas, is that animals and humans are part of one world, with one ocean, that is our responsibility to protect. With whales as ambassadors of the sea, the show is intended to tell kids that they can make a difference, said Kelly Flaherty Clark, director of animal training. It's a bit heavyhanded, but the speeding, leaping, splashing, kissing orcas are as captivating as ever.

Performing whales include Tilikum, who returned to the show less than three months ago after drowning its trainer at SeaWorld in February 2010. However, trainers -- who used to surf on top of the whales -- have been barred from going into the water with the orcas since the death.

The stadium has a colorful new backdrop and video screens where cute caricatures of sea creatures invite guests to text them, then welcome them by name. After some guests complained that they didn't get wet during the show, even though they were sitting in the "splash zone," fountains were installed around the edge of the pool to accomplish what the slap of a whale's tail might not.


The Screamin' Gator Zip Line was scheduled to open last week at Gatorland, a 110-acre park in Orlando with all things gator (and crocodile) -- breeding marsh, gator wrestling show, gator encounters, train ride and splash park.

The zip line, Gatorland's first, takes riders over the animals. There are five sections, starting with an introductory run at 15 mph, with each sequence longer and faster than the last, ending with dual zip lines where two guests race at speeds that can top 30 mph. There's also a scary swinging bridge that participants cross on foot. On average, the riders are about 35 feet above the gators.

Cost of riding the zip line is $69.99, which includes admission to the park.

Kennedy Space Center

A new exhibit, Sci-Fi Summer: Where Science Fiction Meets Science Fact, opened this month at the center's visitor complex. The exhibit celebrates the last 50 years of human spaceflight and science fiction and features a display of props, costumes and other artifacts from the Star Trek movies and television shows. There is also a live show and the Star Trek Shuttlecraft Adventure Simulator.

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