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Disney puts thrills into two new rides

Confident that crowds will return, the company readies two magnets at its Florida theme parks to attract younger audiences.

By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 23, 2003

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Walt Disney Co. laid out the details Tuesday of two new $100-million plus thrill rides destined for two of its Florida parks that have a reputation for tame attractions.

Mission Space, which mimics the G-forces astronauts endure in a journey to Mars, opens this fall at Epcot. Expedition Everest, the first backward roller coaster built since 1916, opens in 2006 at Animal Kingdom.

Disney officials also said they will resume construction on the 2,880-room Pop Century Resort set to open Dec. 14. Disney sent workers home and boarded up the project after the terrorist attacks in 2001 depressed travel. Attendance at Walt Disney World remains down this spring. But park officials said the renewed commitment to construction reflects their company's confidence in a recovery now that the war in Iraq is winding down.

"We're still not where we need to be," said Al Weiss, president of Walt Disney World Resort. "There are still economic uncertainties out there, so we're not expecting business to spike up like a hockey stick. It is going to be gradual."

As a result Disney is beefing up discounts and marketing in states within a day's drive of the parks. Florida residents can buy tickets good for four days in all four Florida Disney parks for the price of two days admission. The tickets are good through Oct. 1.

With an average rate of $77 a night, Pop Century will give Disney another resort in the moderate price range. Meanwhile, Disney also is closing half the 2,000-room Port Orleans Resort for a year for remodeling.

Disney plans a soft opening Aug. 15 for Mission Space. That means it will be open periodically while the bugs are worked out before a formal opening in October.

Disney engineers have been working on the attraction, which they call the most complex in Disney history, for four years.

Mission Space gets its effects such as rocket liftoff the same way NASA does in astronaut training. The ride spins passengers at high speed around the edge of a centrifuge that's about 50 feet in diameter.

Ride designers insist passengers have no sense they are being spun around because they won't see what's happening.

"Because someone might subliminally react to what we tell them, it might ruin the experience for them," said Mike Lentz, director of Disney's event attractions. "Astronauts who have taken the ride say it's the closest experience they have had to the real thing."

Expedition Everest would be the most expensive roller coaster ever built, topping the $75-million spent for a coaster in Las Vegas. During about one-third of the ride, passengers will be rolling backwards at about 50 mph.

Both rides are an attempt to appeal to young thrill seekers who are the foundation of amusement parks' traffic. Previously, Disney stuck with adding animals and less intense attractions to establish Animal Kingdom's primary identity.

"They really needed to put some true white-knuckle rides at these two parks," said Paul Ruben, North American editor for Park World, an industry trade publication.

Fans have long criticized Disney for never replicating the Matterhorn, a coaster built inside a snow-capped mountain at Disneyland in California.

While many Disney-phobes have lobbied for a Matterhorn at Disney World, Expedition Everest will be much different.

The story line includes a life-size version of a Tibetan mountain village, ice-cold breezes and an animatronic Yeti about the size of a house.

After the Yeti chases the coaster to the edge of a cliff, it falls backward down the mountainside.

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