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Are we having fun yet?

Welcome to Central Florida, where abundant theme parks mean play time is no sweat, even under the summer sun.

By WILMA NORTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001


photo
[Photo: Universal Studios]
Universal Studios offers a new show, Animal Planet Live.
Just in time for the tourists from Topeka and the visiting cousins from Kokomo, many Central Florida theme parks and attractions are trotting out new rides and shows.

But the only blockbuster being introduced this summer is Busch Gardens' big-bucks megaride Rhino Rally. Disney has one tame new ride and a new show based on the TV hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Universal's updated offerings include shows based on Animal Planet and X Games-type stunts.

On the more educational side, the Florida Aquarium's Sea Hunt exhibit represents a major renovation. And the Museum of Science and Industry throws a little thrill into an interactive exhibit.

So even locals who have access to these attractions year-round can find something new. And for Florida residents, there may be admissions discounts.

Just remember to wear a hat, pack the sunscreen and bring a bottle of water. (Water costs at least $2.50 a bottle inside the theme parks. It's easier and cheaper to wear a bottle on a handy strap or stick one in your backpack.)

Rain ponchos are good accessories, too. All the theme parks sell them for $5 or $6, only a little more than discount stores, but by the time you get to a gift shop in a summer downpour, you already will be drenched. Plus, it's hard to keep up with your companions if they are wearing the same yellow Mickey cover-ups as thousands of others.

Plan to arrive early to beat the lines. Or mosey in late in the afternoon as the early arrivers are heading out.

Some of the newest attractions you'll find:

Rhino Rally

photo
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
They don’t call it Rhino Rally for nothing. A white rhino grazes while a Land Rover in the background forges ahead in the new Busch Gardens ride.
Busch Gardens last month unveiled Rhino Rally, its most expensive ride ever, estimated to have cost more than $20-million.

The first part of the ride is similar to the safari at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Up to 17 passengers climb into specially built Land Rovers (each painted to advertise a sponsor such as Wendy's or MSN) to race in a pretend rally.

The driver offers scripted commentary about the road conditions and about his chances to win the race, all the while bumping through water holes and over rough bridges and crossings.

The driver also points out the elephants, crocodiles, flamingos and Cape buffalo. The passengers get an up-close look: On a ride recently, the vehicle had to stop once to let some antelopes cross the path, and two white rhinos were lying within about 6 feet of the road.

The second half of the 8-minute ride is more akin to Busch Gardens' Congo River Rapids. The vehicle stops on a washed-out bridge, which breaks away and floats down the river, spinning under waterfalls and splashing the passengers, especially those seated toward the outside.

If you go, be prepared to wait.

On a weekday morning last week, a week after the ride officially opened, the wait to board stretched to two hours. For much of that time, only three of the Land Rovers were operating, so the ride could accommodate fewer than 50 people every 10 or 15 minutes.

Many of the vehicles left the gate, too, at less than capacity because the park's "singles queue" was not yet operational. That's the line for people willing to ride alone. Without that, if there is a party of three, the fourth seat in the row goes empty.

A second-grader waiting in line told his mother, "My clothes have gone out of style, we've been standing here so long."

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire -- Play It!

The new attraction at Disney-MGM Studios has the look and feel of the TV show, right down to the flashing lights, music and a host in a monochromatic suit, shirt and tie.

Each seat has a set of buttons. After watching a film clip starring Regis Philbin, the audience members compete in a "fastest finger" question to get in the hot seat with the live host. Players in this game aren't going for money, however. The prizes are Disney collectible pins and hats. Anyone who gets to the million-point level wins a trip to New York for the taping of the TV game show.

A lot of the questions on a recent day were geared to Disney World aficionados: Name the children's program at Disney's Polynesian resort (the Never Land Club) and name the program the new Wilderness Lodges Villas are a part of (Disney's Vacation Club).

Aladdin's Magic Carpet

photo
[Photo: Walt Disney Co.]
Disney’s newest fling, the Magic Carpets of Aladdin ride, may remind one of Dumbo, but this ride’s a bit roomier.
This new ride at Disney's Magic Kingdom, the first in Adventureland since Pirates of the Caribbean was added in 1973, could be called Dumbo II.

The basic operation is just like Dumbo. Instead of elephants, magic carpets are attached to arms that go up and down as they circle.

The Dumbo elephants hold only two to three passengers; the magic carpets can hold four to six passengers. Therefore, the lines for the magic carpet should be a bit more tolerable. On a recent day, while Dumbo's wait stretched toward an hour, the wait for Aladdin was closer to 20 minutes.

The riders in the front row have a lever to make the carpet go up and down; riders in the back can push a scarab button to make the carpet tilt forward and backward. Dip too low and you may get squirted by one of the large gold camels that stand next to the ride.

Universal Orlando Shows

photo
[Photo: Universal Studios]
Universal’s Mummy Returns exhibit offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Brendan Fraser film The Mummy Returns, with videos of the cast at work, props, wardrobe, models and other movie artifacts.
Universal doesn't have any new rides this year, but the two parks have added new shows and exhibits for the summer crowds.

Animal Planet Live at Universal Studios features video clips from popular Animal Planet shows such as The Jeff Corwin Experience, Wild on the Set and The Planet's Funniest Animals.

A new exhibit, also at Universal Studios, gives park visitors a behind-the-scenes look at The Mummy Returns, with videos of the cast at work, props, wardrobe, models and other artifacts from the movie released last month, starring Brendan Fraser and the Rock.

Universal's Islands of Adventure Park brings back the Xtreme Xventure show, featuring daredevil skateboarders, bicyclists and inline skaters.

The Museum of Science and Industry

MOSI installs a new permanent exhibit, opening Saturday, that will allow museum guests to ride a bicycle across a high wire suspended over the lobby, eye-to-eye with the diplodocus skeletons.

The 98-foot-long steel cable will be 30 feet above the ground, and MOSI's engineers swear that, because of the way the bicycle is counterweighted, it is impossible to tip and fall. (They're putting in a safety net, just in case, to make riders feel better.) Riders will be harnessed to the bicycle.

The ride will be free with regular museum admission.

The Florida Aquarium

The Florida Aquarium last month opened a new area dedicated to ocean predators. The former Offshore Gallery, about a quarter of the aquarium's space, was renovated into Sea Hunt, home to a giant Pacific octopus, anglerfish, cuttlefish, wolf eels, lionfish and other hunters, including more sharks.

About 200 new animals were added.

Theme Parks And Attractions:

Tampa Bay area

Adventure Island water park, 10001 McKinley Drive (40th Street), Tampa. (813) 987-5600 or www.adventureisland.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Single-day admission: $27.70 adults, $25.56 ages 3-9. Other ticket options available.

Busch Gardens, Busch Boulevard at 40th Street, Tampa. Toll-free 1-800-372-1797 or www.buschgardens.com Hours vary. Call or check the Web site for current schedule. Single-day admission: $51.18 adult, $41.58 ages 3-9.

Florida Aquarium, 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa. (813) 273-4000 or www.flaquarium.net. Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. $13.75 adults, $12.75 seniors, $8.75 ages 3-12.

Lowry Park Zoo, 1101 W Sligh Ave., Tampa. (813) 935-8552 or www.lowryparkzoo.com. Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $9.50 adults, $8.50 50 and older, $5.95 ages 3-11.

Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), 4801 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. (813) 987-6100 or www.mosi.org. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat.-Sun. $13 ages 14-49, $11 50 and older. $9 ages 2-13.

North of Tampa Bay

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, 4150 U.S. 19, Homosassa. (352) 628-2311 or www.homosassasprings.org. Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily. $7.95 adults, $4.95 ages 3-12.

Silver Springs, 1 mile east of Ocala on State Road 40, Silver Springs. (352) 236-2121 or www.silversprings.com. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $31.95 guests over 48 inches tall; $22.95 under 48 inches tall; seniors $28.95; Free ages 2 and under. Weeki Wachee Springs, Buccaneer Bay water park, open seasonally, included in admission. U.S. 19 S at State Road 50, Weeki Wachee. Toll-free 1-877-469-3354 or www.weekiwachee.com. Hours: Open 10 a.m. daily. Closing times vary. $15.95 adult, $11.95 ages 3-10.

Central Florida

Cypress Gardens, off U.S. 27 and State Road 540, near Winter Haven. Toll-free 1-800 282-2123 or www.cypressgardens.com. Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Single-day admission: $32.95 adults; $16.95 ages 6-12.

Discovery Cove, 6000 Discovery Cove Way (adjacent to Sea World), Orlando. Toll-free 1-877-434-7268 or www.discoverycove.com. Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily. $199 per person if guest swims with dolphins; $109 per person if guest does not swim with the dolphins. Price includes seven-day pass to Sea World. Guests 6 and older can swim with the dolphins. Children younger than 3 are free. Reservations required.

Sea World, I-4 and Bee Line Expressway, Orlando. Toll-free 1-800-327-2424 or www.seaworld.com. Hours: Park opens at 9 a.m. Closing times vary. Single-day admission: $48.76 adults, $39.22 ages 3-9.

Universal Orlando, includes Universal Studios Florida theme park, Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park and Universal Studios CityWalk entertainment district. Exit I-4 at Exit 30A, Orlando. Toll-free 1-800-837-2273 or www.uescape.com. Parks open at 9 a.m. daily; closing times vary. Single-day admission to either theme park: $48.76 adult, $39.22 ages 3-9.

Walt Disney World, includes Animal Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios, Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Downtown Disney and the Disney Institute, Exit I-4 at Exit 25B, west of Orlando. (407) 934-7639 or www.disneyworld.com. Animal Kingdom opens 8 a.m. daily; other parks open 9 a.m. Closing times vary. Single-day admission to any of the four theme parks: $50.88 adult, $41.58 ages 3-9.

Walt Disney World water parks, River Country, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, part of the Walt Disney World resort area. (407) 824-4321. Hours vary. Admission to River Country, $15.95 adults, $12.95 ages 3-9. Admission to Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach $29.95 adults, $24 ages 3-5.

Wet 'N Wild water park, 6200 International Drive, Orlando. (407) 351-1800. Park open 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Admission: $28.95 adults, $22.95 ages 3-9, $14.47 seniors.

Special summer ticket offers

Busch Gardens and Sea World are offering summer passes for teens younger than 16. The Club Busch Gardens or Club Sea World pass costs $62 and gives access to twice-monthly evening concerts through August and unlimited theme park admission through Labor Day.

Cypress Gardens offers the Family Fun Pack for Florida residents for $65, which includes unlimited admission to the gardens and its water park for two adults and all children younger than 12 through September.

Universal Studios offers Florida residents summerlong admission to its main theme park or its Islands of Adventure for $20 over the cost of single-day admission. Or, for unlimited access to both parks through Sept. 30, there is a 2-Day Super Pass for $88 adult, $79 children.

Walt Disney World offers Florida residents Play Four Days passes, which entitle holders to four days in any or all theme parks for $99. Through Sept. 30 (excludes July 4).

Walt Disney World's Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach offers Florida residents half price on a companion ticket with each full price ticket purchased. Through Sept. 30.

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