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Everybody has something to celebrate

Wherever you choose to spend your thrill-seeking dollar, you're sure to see something new.

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published May 5, 2005


photo
[Busch Gardens photo / Tom Wagner]
Busch Gardens is still putting the final touches on SheiKra, with its two face-down, vertical drops.

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[Photo: Disney]
Go California cruising without leaving your seat through the magic of Soarin’, now open at Epcot. Sights, senses and smells included.

Soar sans airplane over California - without having to pass through smog-covered Los Angeles.

Plunge 200 feet at 70 mph - without a collision with Earth.

And eat octopus parts, bugs and other nastiness - without actually ... come to think of it, you're on your own there.

These experiences and more can be yours this summer as Central Florida's theme parks break out new attractions - just as school is letting out.

Tampa's Busch Gardens and Orlando's Walt Disney World are among several parks boasting new bells and whistles to tempt tourists, amuse adolescents and romance your visiting relatives. All the theme parks offer specials for Florida residents, so here's a guide to help choose among the new offerings:

WALT DISNEY WORLD

Disney kicks off its 18-month-long "Happiest Celebration on Earth" today, commemorating the 50th anniversary of its first park, Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

In conjunction, each of the four Florida Disney parks will offer a new major ride, from a motor-vehicle stunt show to a flying-simulation ride to a Cinderella-themed theatrical show to an animatronic dinosaur. Another major ride, Expedition Everest, will open at the Animal Kingdom in 2006.

At Epcot, Soarin' emulates the feeling of hang-gliding over California locales. In fact, the ride was called Soarin' Over California in its previous home, Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim.

Soarin' combines a high-definition film projected onto a peripheral-vision-filling, 80-foot screen with an apparatus that lifts guests off their feet and gently moves them in synch with the view. Music, wind effects and fragrances add to the exhilarating illusion.

Disney-MGM Studios' Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show was not available for the St. Petersburg Times to preview, but was scheduled to open today as well. According to Disney, the show features more than 30 vehicles, including cars, motorcycles and watercraft, performing stunts on a 6.5-acre stage.

The premise of the show is the filming of a European spy thriller, with live stunts combined into a complete scene played on a giant video display for audiences of up to 5,000.

Animal Kingdom's Lucky the Dinosaur is a 9-foot-tall, 12-foot-long prehistoric critter walking the streets of the kid-friendly DinoLand U.S.A. area.

On a recent visit, the adorable and impressively animated Lucky appeared to be a hit with kids. The first Disney Audio-Animatronics figure to "walk" freely, Lucky can sniffle, hiccup, sneeze, giggle, yawn and even burp, among other talents.

Magic Kingdom's Cinderella Castle has a new look for the "Happiest Celebration," including golden sculptures of more than a dozen feature-film characters ranging from Peter Pan and Tinker Bell to The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa.

The makeover helps set the stage for Cinderellabration, a stage show imported from Tokyo Disneyland. The show presents a coronation pageant with guest appearances from Disney princesses, including Snow White and Beauty and the Beast's Belle, and a fireworks finale.

Also at the Magic Kingdom, longtime favorite It's A Small World recently got a monthslong renovation, including new set pieces and an enhanced audio system that plays - don't panic - that same ol' song and dance.

Epcot now includes a Hong Kong Disneyland preview center, located in the China pavilion. Parkgoers can check out the plans for Disney's eleventh theme park, which opens Sept. 12 in Hong Kong.

BUSCH GARDENS TAMPA BAY

The Africa-themed park adds a whole new dimension to its already impressive stock of roller coasters.

SheiKra debuts May 21. It not only is Florida's tallest roller coaster, but the world's tallest - and North America's only - "dive machine," which means it includes a face-down vertical drop.

Twice.

And where you sit on SheiKra affects the experience. The train carrying the riders is eight seats wide and three seats deep. The track is only four seats wide.

As SheiKra designer Walter Bolliger, half of one of the world's most prolific coaster design teams, explained in a recent visit to Busch Gardens, that means four riders in each row are not over the track, giving the feeling of being in midair.

"And as it turns and dips, you're elevated or (dipping) depending on where you sit," he said. "It's like being (out on) the wing of a plane. That makes for a whole different experience depending on your seat."

The coaster is still undergoing testing and was unavailable for preview. The St. Petersburg Times will publish a review of the SheiKra experience on or before opening day. The 3-minute ride includes the 200-foot, face-first plunge, a second 138-foot dive into an underground tunnel and a watery conclusion. Its track runs more than a half-mile, with a maximum G-force of 4. The ride will be able to accommodate about 1,500 riders per hour, according to park officials.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS ORLANDO

Ever watched NBC's hit show Fear Factor and thought those physical - and gastrointestinal - stunts didn't look so tough? Then be prepared to put your courage - and your stomach - to the test.

In June, the park will debut Fear Factor Live, allowing patrons to become contestants, performing challenges in about six shows daily.

Of course, it's not Fear Factor without some sickening snacks; the park has been working on a recipe that likely will include octopus parts, squid ink and bugs, among other ingredients. Suggestion for the really fearless: Enjoy Universal's Fear Factor first, and then head for the coasters and simulator rides.

SEAWORLD ORLANDO

Blue Horizons "seamlessly blends the amazing power and grace of SeaWorld's dolphins and false killer whales with the lavish splendor of Broadway," according to Stanley Meyer, the show's set designer and consultant.

Exotic birds and a "larger-than-life set" also are components of the show, which is scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend.

CYPRESS GARDENS ADVENTURE PARK

Long-billed as "Florida's First Theme Park," this seminal Winter Haven destination has undergone quite the renaissance. After closing in April 2003, it reopened in November 2004 under new ownership with a renewed thrill-ride emphasis.

Lavish botanical gardens, boat rides and water ski shows remain key to its appeal, but Cypress Gardens now boasts more than three dozen rides, including four roller coasters and what it bills as "the world's tallest spinning rapids ride." Next up is Splash Island, a water park, scheduled to open in the summer.

[Last modified May 3, 2005, 14:10:06]


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