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Variations of our themes

New park attractions are in the works, from Busch Gardens to Universal Studios. Even Kennedy Space Center joins the trend.

By Jay Cridlin
Published May 23, 2007


This year is shaping up to be one of the biggest ever at Florida's theme parks.

Oh, wait. Did we say this year? We meant next year. 2008. Sorry about the confusion.

Yes, you'll see new bells and whistles across Central Florida's theme park alley this summer, as you do every year. But the really big debuts are planned for a year from now, including a $50-million water park at Sea World; a $120-million upgrade to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure; an interactive Toy Story ride at Disney-MGM Studios; and upgrades at Busch Gardens, including a replacement for the now-defunct Python roller coaster.

Until then, we'll have to be content with smaller tweaks at Tampa's theme park and those along Interstate 4.

Busch Gardens

The 2-year-old dive coaster SheiKra will close for almost three weeks starting Monday; when it reopens June 16, its cars will be floorless. That means you'll have a 200-foot-high, straight down, unimpeded view of the Earth below.

Chalk the change of heart up to a case of sibling rivalry. This weekend, the Busch Gardens park in Williamsburg, Va., will unveil Griffon, a 205-foot-high dive coaster without floors.

"We started questioning ourselves: 'Could we do that, too?' " said Mark Rose, Busch Gardens' vice president for design and engineering.

Also in the coming months: a Summer Nights concert series with the B-52's June 2; KC & the Sunshine Band June 9; the Guess Who July 3; and Grand Funk Railroad July 4. All concerts begin at 7 p.m. and are free with park admission.

Sesame Street characters also will be prominently featured as part of a deal with Sesame Workshop.

For more information: www.buschgardens.com.

Universal Orlando

Welcome to Las Vegas, Fla.

Universal's big upgrade is a permanent show by the Blue Man Group, those indigo oddballs with the artsy stage show.

The offbeat collective customized a show for a 1, 000-seat theater at Universal CityWalk, and will debut June 6. It's a separate-ticket event - the cost is $59 for adults and $49 for children ages 3-9, and you don't need a park ticket to get in.

"This theater is super cool, " says Anthony Parrulli, an Oldsmar native and a Blue Man who's performed with the troupe in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and now Orlando. "It's kind of like a hybrid of all the other theaters we've ever been in."

That means you'll see most of the bits and music that made Blue Man Group famous, from drumming on paint and PVC pipe to catching flying marshmallows and pulverizing Captain Crunch.

For more information: www.universalorlando.com.

SeaWorld

SeaWorld will stage Elmo and the Bookaneers, a Sesame Street-themed musical stage show running through Labor Day; and a new killer whale show, Shamu Rocks, premiering this weekend.

The children's play area, Shamu's Happy Harbor, is doubling in size and adding three family rides.

For more information: www.seaworld.com.

Walt Disney World

The Magic Kingdom's biggest addition is the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, an animated, 400-seat "comedy club" featuring the yuk-filled stylings of Mike, the one-eyed star of Pixar's Monsters Inc. Guests can interact with the digital performers via jokes that get text-messaged to their cell phones. The attraction opened last month.

At Epcot, Spaceship Earth (below), the park's iconic geodesic sphere, will get its first major upgrade in years. New exhibits include a 20-foot-high globe illuminated with images of the future; a 3-D game called Body Builder that allows visitors to put together a digital human body; and a driving simulation game called Super Driver. To make way for more improvements, Spaceship Earth will be closed June 22 and 23 and from July 9 to Nov. 1.

For more information: www. disneyworld.com.

Cypress Gardens

Florida's dainty old dame had its work cut out for it after its owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last fall. Bolstered by a $15-million loan, Cypress Gardens opens two major new attractions.

Bugsville, which opened Wednesday, is an insect-themed children's area featuring 13 rides, a theater featuring the new show and a handful of new bug mascots.

The Starliner, a 2, 640-foot-long, 70-foot-tall wooden roller coaster, was the first of its kind when it was unveiled in 1963 at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park on Panama City Beach, which closed in 2004.

Cypress Gardens CEO Kent Buescher paid a reported $100, 000 for the coaster, $200, 000 to have it taken apart, and more than $1-million to restore it. It will open in mid to late June.

For more information: www. cypressgardens.com.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

The closest thing to a ride at Kennedy was an IMAX theater. But the center is making a big push into experience-driven thrills with the $60-million Shuttle Launch Experience, opening Friday.

The experience is exactly what it sounds like: A detailed simulation of a space shuttle mission from prelaunch briefings to takeoff to panoramic views of the Earth from space. The seats in the cabinstilt, vibrate and compress, tricking the inner ear into feeling the effects.

The highlight is breaking from Earth's atmosphere when the sudden movements to simulate weightlessness. The Shuttle Launch Experience is included in admission of $38 adults, $28 ages 3 to 11. Riders must be 48 inches tall.

For more information: www. kennedyspacecenter.com; (321) 449-4444.