Orlando's theme park round-up

Last updated 13:09 05/07/2013

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The Northern Hemisphere's summer is getting a late start this year at Orlando's theme parks.

Except for SeaWorld's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin - where it's still winter - the major new attractions aren't officially open yet.

Within weeks, though, we'll be introduced to Evac, a new Autobot, on the Transformers ride at Universal Studios; Cragger the Crocodile King and Laval the Lion Prince at the World of Chima at Legoland; and a huge new exhibit built around the retired space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center.

The just-announced Springfield (from "The Simpsons") at Universal Studios isn't finished yet, but the first section - Fast Food Boulevard, where guests can buy a Krusty Burger and Duff beer - opened a couple of weeks ago.

Coming later this year: Princess Fairytale Hall, the next-to-last piece of the Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom; and the rest of Springfield, including a new ride.

Right now, though, the star of the Class of '13 is the new ride and penguin habitat at SeaWorld.

On opening day a few weeks ago, people waited as long as five hours to share the icy 30-degree air of Antarctica with a colony of penguins.

So that's where we'll start.

SEAWORLD ORLANDO

The emerging trend: Theme parks don't build stand-alone rides, they build lands or areas with a ride surrounded by similarly themed shops, cafes, scenery and even specialty drinks.

That's the case at Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. This new area has educators who answer questions about penguins and their habitat; touch screens with educational information; a rock wall with carvings and information about 18 species of penguins; a shop with umpteen kinds of penguin souvenirs; the Expedition Cafe, which serves food from several countries that were signatories to the original Antarctica treaty; and the now-requisite specialty drink - Vanilla Southpole Chill, a vanilla-infused drink by Coca-Cola.

The attraction is more about Antarctica than penguins - SeaWorld has had penguins for decades, but the world needs to care about and protect Antarctica, said Brian Morrow, corporate creative director.

When it came time to update the penguin exhibit, Morrow said, "We said, let's talk about where they came from. Antarctica is a bigger story. We're going to the bottom of the planet."

The centrepiece is a ride that shows visitors the world through the eyes of Puck, a fictional gentoo penguin, before depositing them in a real penguin habitat that mimics conditions in their native Antarctica, including chilly temperatures and lighting that mirrors the cycle of sunshine.

The queue starts in faux ice caves where we meet Puck, on video, hatching from his shell. The temperature starts to drop and the wind comes up. It will get colder and windier, gradually acclimating visitors for the 30-degree penguin habitat at the end.

Guests choose between the "mild" and "wild" expeditions. The "wild" ride spins, twists, rolls and pitches; the "mild" ride turns gently and moves forward. In truth, even the wild ride is pretty mild - its creators wanted the attraction to be family-oriented. Queasiness factor: low.

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The vehicles slide across the trackless floor of a large space where light bounces office walls and a large chandelier of ice shards, streaking the room with colour.

"The intent of that room is it is a cavern of light," said Mike Denninger, corporate senior director of rides and maintenance. "You think of rainbows and light and colours that come off light refracting through ice. That room is a creative interpretation of the natural world."

Then Puck, now approaching young adulthood on video, jumps off an ice cliff into water, where he is chased by a leopard seal. We end up a little breathless ourselves, just watching the pursuit.

Finally we end up in a real penguin habitat. About 240 penguins - gentoo, rockhopper, Adelie, king - are 6 to 8 feet away, eating, pooping, swimming and staring back at the entranced humans.

It would be easy to watch them for hours - if only it were warmer. So we go down a level to where it's not so cold and we can watch penguins swimming and diving in the aquarium at our eye level.

UNIVERSAL

If you think that Universal's Islands of Adventure is the more exciting of Universal's two parks, what with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the updated Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and two heart-stopping roller coasters, then get ready for the comeback of Universal Studios.

The upgrade of the resort's original park began last year with the opening of the Despicable Me ride and the addition of a daily parade and an evening light-and-water show.

It continues this summer with the opening of the Transformers ride and the expansion of the Simpson Ride into a Springfield zone with a second ride. Then next year, Universal Studios gets its own Wizarding World.

Transformers: The 3-D Transformers ride, already operating at Universal parks in Los Angeles and Singapore, officially opens at Universal Studios on June 20, although it has periodically been open to guests in the last few weeks for "rehearsals." The exterior of NEST headquarters and the queue are different from the other parks, but the ride itself is the same.

The plot line: Visitors are recruited to help the Autobots (the good guys) protect the last remaining shard of AllSpark - the crucial source of life and energy for Transformers - from the Decepticons (the bad guys).

The characters and the set are direct from Transformers movies; the actors who voiced the movie characters voiced the same characters on the ride.

In the queue, the video in which Gen. Morshower greets the new "recruits" was shot at the same time as one of the Transformers movies.

The action plays on enormous screens so that some of the characters stand almost 40 feet high. Riders wear 3-D glasses to enhance the action, and when a giant missile seems to fly right at them, they're likely to duck. The ride vehicle uses the technology of a flight simulator on a track.

"For the fans it's great; they get to see every detail," Thierry Coup, senior VP for Universal's Creative Studio, said during a walk-through of the ride. "For the people who are not fans, we get to introduce them." He pointed out a display case containing the AllSpark. Another case holds the tail of the Decepticon Scorponok, which was blown off in the first Transformers movie.

The queue is also where guests meet Evac, an Autobot character created in collaboration with Hasbro just for the ride who transforms into an evacuation vehicle.

But what started out as a routine greeting by Gen. Morshower becomes a call to action. He has just learned that the Decepticons, who want that AllSpark, are attacking the building. The green recruits are his only hope of holding off the Decepticons, and he instructs them to go with Evac - visitors see him transform into a vehicle - and take the AllSpark to a safe place.

"The more eyes, the better," Gen. Morshower says. "I'm counting on you."

"This is outrageous," an irate human government agent protests futilely. "We are sending recruits on a suicide mission."

And so begins a high-speed thrill of a ride. "We synchronize the motion of the vehicle with the action on the screen, and you get the sense that you're flying," said ride producer Chick Russell, who also worked on the movies.

"It's the most action-packed ride we have ever designed," Coup said. "It takes you into the action from the very first second, and at the end, you feel like a hero."

The Simpsons: Television's longest-running family expands its presence at Universal Studios this summer with the construction of an entire Springfield neighbourhood, the only one at a Universal park, by the dizzying Simpsons Ride.

On Fast Food Boulevard, the first section to open, guests can eat at Krusty Burger, Moe's Tavern, Cletus' Chicken Shack, The Frying Dutchman, Lisa's Teahouse of Horror and Luigi's.

"It's a natural follow-up to the success we had with the Simpson ride," which opened in 2008, said Mike West, executive producer for Universal's Creative Studio. "Any place you have Homer Simpson as one of the main characters, food is at the forefront."

Chefs created a new menu for what is essentially a food court, where visitors can eat many of the items from the TV show, including the Krusty Burger, Ribwich, Lard Lad's giant doughnuts and a Flaming Moe drink, as well as Homer's favourite Duff Beer. Also at Moe's is the bar phone, where guests can take a crank call from Bart and try out the Love Tester.

Krusty the Clown and Sideshow Bob will join the other Simpsons characters who appear in the park.

In addition, a new ride, Kang & Kodos' Twirl 'n' Hurl - named after a duo of space aliens who appear on the show occasionally - will take visitors on an intergalactic spin. Aimed at the younger demographic, it's a ride with vehicles that go in a circle; push a lever and they go up and down.

Universal has not specified opening dates for the rest of Springfield's features, saying only they would debut this summer.

Harry Potter: Coming next year is an extension of Wizarding World, Diagon Alley, which will be connected to the original by the Hogwarts Express (and require a two-park ticket to visit both).

Just as Islands of Adventure has Hogsmeade Village with rides, shops, and restaurants themed to the area around the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Diagon Alley will replicate the slice of London behind the Leaky Cauldron where Hagrid helped a young Harry Potter buy an owl, a wand and other supplies for his first year at Hogwarts.

Diagon Alley will have a thrill ride set in Gringott's Bank, which is run by goblins, but it will have other businesses including the original Ollivander's Wand Shop (the very popular one in Universal's Hogsmeade Village is said to be a branch of the Diagon Alley store).

LEGOLAND

In a cleverly timed marketing move, Legoland Florida announced in March that it was building a ride and a "land" based on Lego's newest product line, Legends of Chima, which debuted in January, along with two episodes of a Cartoon Network animated series of the same name.

Interestingly, like the Transformers, the Chima story line involves a battle between good and evil over a source of energy. In Chima, tribes of highly advanced animal warriors form alliances led by Laval the flame-haired Lion Prince and his childhood best friend Cragger, now the evil Crocodile King. They go to war over orbs of "chi," the mystical energy source.

Centrepiece of the new land will be the Quest for Chi, a very wet water ride in which visitors join the battle, firing water cannons at other passenger boats and being hit by water from cannons fired by observers on shore.

The ride takes guests from the Lion Temple through other tribes' habitats - the Rhino Quarry, Raven's Roost, Wolves Encampment, Gorilla Forest, Crocodile Swamp, Eagle's Nest and more.

The World of Chima will also have Speedorz Arena, where kids can build and race Speedorz chariots - a Chima model; a 4-D movie starring Chima warriors; character meet-and-greets and, of course, a shop where visitors can buy Chima products.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER

After the last space shuttle mission in 2011, NASA began transferring the retired shuttles to their new homes - museums in Los Angeles, Washington and New York. But one shuttle - Atlantis, the last to fly - remained at Kennedy Space Center, which is now its permanent home.

Atlantis is the centrepiece of a US$100 million exhibit that will open June 29 at KSC. Delaware North, the company that operates the Visitor Center at the space centre, built a 90,000-square-foot building just for the exhibit.

The exhibit also has about 60 stations with interactive programs about all aspects of the shuttle program, including the roles it played with the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Atlantis is in the same condition it was in at the end of its last mission, its exterior scorched in spots like the working piece of machinery it was, not a shiny clean model.

It has already been mounted in the cavernous exhibit, hung 30 feet above the ground and precisely angled as if it were in orbit. When the exhibit opens, its payload bay doors will be open and its robotic arm extended.

DISNEY WORLD

Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland has been revamped and expanded into two areas - Storybook Circus and the Enchanted Forest. If you think of Fantasyland as a home, Disney has rearranged the furniture, painted and put up new window treatments (Storybook Circus) and built an addition (Enchanted Forest).

In the first phase of the expansion, which was completed in December, Mickey's Toontown Fair was closed and some of the older attractions were updated and features were added to give that part of Fantasyland a circus theme. A second Dumbo ride and a circus-y play area for youngsters waiting to board were added.

There's a new Casey Jr. water-play area, with elephants and giraffes shooting water from their circus-train cars. Goofy's Barnstormer, a junior roller coaster, has also been given a circus theme. There's a new venue for meet-and-greets with Donald Duck, Goofy, Minnie Mouse and Daisy, all circus characters, in Pete's Silly Sideshow.

Old favourites remain, including the Mad Tea Party, Peter Pan's Flight, Prince Charming Regal Carrousel, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and that ride with singing children we won't name because it will be three days before we get the theme song out of our head. Snow White's Scary Adventures ride is gone.

The new additions in Enchanted Forest are two castles - Prince Eric's and the Beast's - and the villages that flank them. They house Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, a gentle ride under the sea, accompanied by the music of the movie; the very popular Enchanted Tales With Belle, a meet-up with the Beauty and Lumiere, in which guests play small parts; the French-themed Be Our Guest restaurant in the Beast's Castle (table service, wine and beer at dinner); and Gaston's Tavern, which despite its name doesn't sell beer but offer's LeFou's Brew, a sweet non-alcoholic drink based on apple juice, with mango and marshmallow.

Next up: Princess Fairytale Hall, a regal meet-and-greet venue for Disney princesses adjacent to Cinderella Castle in the spot where Snow White used to be, to open this fall.

The last piece of the expansion, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a roller coaster with dangling cars that swing from side to side, is under construction in the centre of Fantasyland and will open next spring.

Elsewhere at Disney World:

Downtown Disney: Almost five years after the clubs on Pleasure Island were closed and plans for a makeover were shelved, a remake of that area as well as the rest of Downtown Disney into "Disney Springs" is beginning. Although some new businesses have opened in the old Pleasure Island section, some of the clubs still stand vacant, their entrances masked by masses of large potted plants.

The essence of the area will remain the same - a dining, shopping and entertainment centre - but it will have more businesses and be more family-friendly. In addition, the landscaping will change to emphasize the waterfront, with a lake and spring flowing through four neighbourhoods. The makeover will open in phases, with the final section to be completed in 2016.

Splitsville: In the works before the plans for Disney Springs were drawn, this combination bowling alley / club / restaurant opened in December at Downtown Disney in the space formerly occupied by a Virgin Megastore and bolsters the entertainment opportunities in the West End.

Although the two-level business has 30 lanes, food and beverage service are estimated to account for about 70 percent of the operation. Splitsville has seating for about 500 (some of it outdoors); menu items including sushi, burgers and pizza; and live music. The lower level is family-oriented, but the upstairs is 21-and-older late nights on weekends.

Test Track at Epcot has been modernized and gotten all kinds of bells and whistles. Before getting on the ride, you design your own virtual car on a touch screen. It doesn't actually take form - you ride in the standard ride vehicle - but the ride's controller compares its theoretical performance against the ride car's.

The updated "test track" looks like an expressway through a computer, but it still ends with a run around the exterior of the building at 65 mph - the fastest ride at any Disney park. At the end of the ride, you can get your photo taken with a digital rendering of your virtual car or a dream car by Chevrolet, the ride's sponsor.

A Pirate's Adventure: Treasures of the Seven Seas is an interactive adventure that opened last month at Magic Kingdom. Much like Disney World's original virtual adventure, Kim Possible at Epcot, this one takes guests on pirate raids throughout Adventureland.

Wilderness Explorers: Another interactive game, this one is set at Animal Kingdom and aimed at the 7-10 age range. Players complete challenges, learn about animals and nature, and collect sticker badges.

Characters: Two new meet-and-greet venues recently opened. Guests can meet Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse at their new exploration headquarters, Adventurers Outpost, on Discovery Island in Animal Kingdom. Mike and Sulley from Monsters University meet visitors at the Monsters University Student Union on the Backlot at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Long-term:

Avatar land: This new area at Disney's Animal Kingdom is to be based on the fictional land of Pandora from the Avatar movie franchise and designed in collaboration with filmmaker James Cameron. Although Disney has not released any details on attractions, Cameron has said it will include a flight simulator. Construction has yet to begin.

BUSCH GARDENS

A new musical show featuring the characters from the Madagascar movies opened in May in the newly refurbished Stanleyville Theater. The 20-minute show, Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation features pop music performed by a live band. The characters - Alex the Lion, Gloria the Hippo, King Julien, Mort and the Penguins - also hold meet-and-greets in the park.

Busch Gardens also is permanently closing its Sandstorm ride, which has been in the park since 1979, and temporarily closing Busch Flyers, Desert Runners and Kiddie Train to make room for a new attraction, which has not yet been announced.

THEME PARKS

Busch Gardens

Discovery Cove

Disney World

Kennedy Space Center

Legoland

SeaWorld

Universal Orlando

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