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New at the theme parks: Sea turtles, mermaids and minions, oh my!

While the buzz in Central Florida is often about Disney’s expansion of Fantasyland, the latest action is at Legoland, which just reopened the newly rehabilitated Splash Island water park, and Universal, which has added its first large-scale daily parade, a nightly light and water show and miniature golf.

The second half of the year, however, will belong to Disney, which will open several key components of its Fantasyland expansion at Magic Kingdom and a pirate attraction at Hollywood Studios.

There’s a lot going on at Florida’s theme parks, most of which will open a new ride or attraction during 2012. Some are based on new technology, which will turn us all into minions on the Despicable Me ride at Universal Studios, immerse guests in the 360-degree projection of a sea turtle’s life at SeaWorld’s Turtle Trek, transport guests through a magical mirror into storytelling by Belle and Lumiere at Magic Kingdom, and project scenes from classic movies on waterfalls over the Universal Studios Lagoon.

Other are relatively simple and low-tech, like the zip lines at Florida EcoSafaris, water slides and plastic rafts at Legoland’s water park, miniature golf at Universal and the Casey Jr. Water play area at Fantasyland.

Here’s a rundown:


Universal Studios added two entertainment attractions last month, a parade and a light-and-water show, both of them daily, that fill in some blanks in the park’s offerings.

Universal’s Superstar Parade has four huge floats representing Despicable Me, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Bikini Bottom characters, Diego and Dora the Explorer, and the crew from the movie Hop, plus a raft of smaller ones with breakout characters like the villainous Vector from Despicable Me and SpongeBob’s buddy Patrick the starfish. They’re accompanied by a couple hundred dancers and other street performers in a rockin’ joyful mid-afternoon parade that stops twice for performances, on the “streets” of New York and Hollywood. The style is similar to the longtime daily parade at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but its distinctiveness comes from the popular characters from Universal’s animated movies and TV shows. If you get there early for one of the scarce shady spots, the parade is a break from the summer heat and the on-your-feet pace. Each of the four units also makes a separate appearance once each day for a dance performance and meet-and-greet.

Nightfall brings Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular, a tribute to a century of movie-making by Universal Pictures. Scenes from classic Universal films like E.T., Jurassic Park and Frankenstein, as well as current movies Battleship and Snow White and the Huntsman, are projected on waterfalls over the central lagoon. There is a triumphal feel to the show, which is narrated by Morgan Freeman and accompanied by fireworks, dancing fountains and a medley of movie tunes. The clips are clearer than you’d expect and visible from both sides of the waterfalls, but some are so brief that you might not recognize them before the next excerpt takes over the screen. Even so, you don’t need to be a hard-core movie buff to enjoy the show. As with the parade, you’ll want to secure a spot next to the lagoon early. But don’t expect to be able to sit once the show starts unless you’re right at a railing or the water’s edge; most of the crowd will be on its feet. Starting time for Cinematic Spectacular depends on when it gets dark, but it’s the event that closes the park.

Outside the park’s gates, Hollywood Drive-In Golf at Universal CityWalk opened this spring. It features two 18-hole miniature golf courses, one with a horror movie theme (haunted mansion, cemetery) and one with a sci-fi theme (towering robot, giant space worm). Although it’s family oriented, it’s open way past kids’ bedtime, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Cost: $13.99 adults, $11.99 children 3 to 9.

Spider-Man, a groundbreaking 3-D ride when Universal’s Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, was updated early in the year. The ride track, the cars and the story line remain basically the same. But it has been reanimated with Infitec 3-D projection, 4K high-definition imaging and new audio, and the images updated, making it one of the best rides around. The reanimation added deeper, richer detail, although the scenery changes so quickly that it’s hard to pin down the new detail (Universal says you can see the stitching on Spider-Man’s glove and people in the windows of buildings if you look closely enough). Everything is a bit more in your face, and flying weapons will make you flinch, if not duck. Even the material used in the 3-D glasses is upgraded. And if you pay attention, you’ll spot Spider-Man’s co-creator, Stan Lee, in a couple of cameo appearances.

Also new: Universal’s water park, Wet ’n Wild, opened Blastaway Beach, with 15 water slides and more than 100 soakers, jets, waterfalls and water cannons last week. And on CityWalk, Blue Man Group has a new show focusing on “the world’s obsession with cutting-edge technology.”

Coming soon is Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, a motion simulator ride with 3-D animation in the space formerly occupied by the Jimmy Neutron ride. Here’s the plot line, as described by Mike West, the attraction’s executive producer: Gru, the super-villain from the movie, is planning another nefarious deed, but he needs more minions to carry out his plans. When park visitors come into his house, he recruits them to be transformed into minions. He speaks from his control room above them, appearing to be live with the new 3-D animation. “The depth and detail are absolutely amazing,” West said.

The guests have to be germ-free before they enter the lab, so the floor vibrates, shaking any germs loose. Then the guests enter the transformation pods and see themselves on a video screen being turned into minions. There’s a lot of chaos involving Gru’s daughters, an antigravity room, the search for a lost gift, “super silly fun,” and a stray rocket that hits a minor ray gun and turns the guests back into humans. The guests join a brief dance party, then exit through a gift shop (which opened weeks ago with all manner of minion souvenirs).

Coming later: an expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. No dates or details have been announced.


When Merlin Entertainments purchased the former Cypress Gardens park with plans to turn it into a Legoland theme park, the old Splash Island water park was part of the deal. Merlin set that part of the property aside, however, while it built Legoland. After the main park opened last October, they turned to revamping Splash Island, which had been a fairly recent addition to Cypress Gardens and didn’t need as much work.

The water park opened in late May with most of the former components still in place but with a Lego theme. The Joker Soaker is an enormous interactive play area with slides, water jets and cannons, a Lego joker who sits atop a front section of the structure, and a 300-gallon bucket that fills and dumps water on young guests approximately every two minutes. There’s a Duplo water play area for the youngest kids, a wave pool, a lazy river with rafts that guests can customize with oversized foam Lego bricks (bonus: popular with parents), and cabanas that can be rented for an extra fee. Leftover from Cypress Gardens are two water slide structures that Legoland kept, even though they push the envelope of Legoland’s target age group of 2- to 12-year-olds.

“One of the things we were keen to avoid was we didn’t want this to be a teen water park. We wanted to cater to families,” Adrian Jones, Legoland’s general manager, said the day the water park opened. “Yes, we kept some of the big slides, but most of the elements — Duplo Splash Safari, Build-a-Raft Lazy River — are for families.”

Unlike Central Florida’s other theme parks, which have off-site water parks with separate admission, Legoland’s water park is on the same property. Entry is a $12 add-on to the basic park fee; guests can’t enter the water park without buying admission to the main park.

Also new at Legoland this spring: Warner Brothers Game Zone, where kids can play new Lego video games, including Harry Potter, Sesame Street and a new Batman game; and the Fresh From Florida Greenhouse Tour, where guests learn how Florida produce is grown, harvested and prepared.


Magic Kingdom opened the first phase of its Fantasyland expansion this spring, bringing back older attractions that have been rethemed or newly detailed in the Storybook Circus section: the first of two Dumbo the Flying Elephant rides — this one is the first Dumbo to run clockwise, the other to open in July, will turn counter-clockwise, as is traditional; The Barnstormer at Goofy’s Wiseacre Farm, a gentle family coaster, re-themed as The Barnstormer featuring the Great Goofini; and the Fantasyland Train Station, a stop for the Walt Disney World Railroad, as well as the spot where Dumbo and the rest of the circus comes to town.

The detail on these old favorites is terrific, from the mom-and-baby elephant tracks etched into the asphalt, to the stunt posters of the Great Goofini, to the Carolwood Park sign at the train station, which pays homage to the railroad set that Walt Disney built in his backyard, which in turn was named after the street he lived on.

Coming next to Fantasyland: the Casey Jr. water play area and the second Dumbo, both scheduled to open in July.

Most exciting to Fantasyland fans, however, are two attractions opening late this year: Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, and Enchanted Tales with Belle of Beauty and the Beast. They are set in castles with landscaping intricately designed down to the last shard of rock, whether it is sculpted to echo the foreboding character of the Beast or the warm and happy nature of the Seven Dwarfs (except Grumpy, of course). They are surrounded by forest, for, as Imagineer Chris Beatty says, “If you think back about all our stories, the princess always finds herself in the forest, she has her adventure and eventually makes her way back to the castle.”

Journey of the Little Mermaid, which opened at California Adventure Park at Disneyland last year, is a sweet ride built around one of Disney’s iconic princesses, Ariel. Mechanically, the cars and track layout are set up much like the Haunted Mansion, with clamshell-shaped cars that move relatively slowly through the grottoes of Prince Eric Castle. The scenes features scores of animatronic characters and are set to the popular music of the movie.

The castles is one of two being built in this expansion — neither of which, we’re assured, will be as big as Cinderella Castle, Magic Kingdom’s alpha castle.

Nearby is Beast Castle, which will house one of Disney World’s largest restaurants, Be Our Guest, also opening in late 2012. Its three dining rooms will be the ballroom where Belle and the Beast danced, the West Wing where the enchanted rose is kept (and which will have a holographic rose losing its petals), and a room that celebrates the other characters from the movie. Gaston’s Tavern — “a manly space,” Beatty called it — which will sell snacks and beverages (although not alcoholic ones), will also open this year.

A 25-foot waterfall will cascade from the rock work around the castle. At that castle’s feet is Maurice’s Cottage, gateway to Enchanted Tales with Belle. Beatty says “a great piece of magic” will take visitors to the castle library, where they will be greeted by Belle — the Beauty — and Lumiere, the Beast’s maitre d’, who is under a curse that turned him into a candelabra.

The experience is part photo opp, part storytelling, which the guests become part of. “This takes the meet-and-greet experience to a whole new level,” Beatty said. Enchanted Tales with Belle will be less structured and have shorter wait times and smaller groups of guests, he said.

The next element, to open in late 2013, is Princess Fairytale Hall, which will be the new location for meet-and-greets with Disney princesses. High-ceilinged, with stained-glass windows and what Beatty described as a “regal tournament feel,” it will be adjacent to Cinderella Castle on the site of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, which closed last month.

The last component of the Fantasyland expansion will be the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a roller coaster with swinging ore buckets for cars, to open in 2014. Some of the supports are already up for the mine train, but they eventually will be covered by terrain, so that the train appears to be running on the sculpted land, not a raised track. The train will run through the trees, then into the mine where the dwarves are sorting their gems.

Fantasyland is not Disney’s only development this year.

The Exotic Driving Experience, which opened in January at the Walt Disney World Speedway between Epcot and Magic Kingdom, offers guests the chance to drive Ferraris, Lamborghinis and other supercars around the track, coached by a driving instructor. See story, page xx.

Coming this fall are Splitsville, a two-level bowling alley with 30 lanes plus billiard tables, live entertainment and an upscale menu at Downtown Disney; and The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, an attraction based on the four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, in the space previously occupied by Journey to Narnia: Prince Caspian at Hollywood Studios.

Construction is to begin next year on an Avatar land at Animal Kingdom, scheduled to open in 2015. Although Disney has released no details, the New York Times quoted Avatar creator James Cameron as saying it will include a ride that simulates flight.


Turtle Trek is the newest attraction at SeaWorld. It’s a combination of two habitats — freshwater for manatees, saltwater for sea turtles — and an extremely high-definition movie about the life of a sea turtle that is projected in 3-D on a 360-degree dome. Watching the resident green and hawksbill sea turtles, either from a walkway above, or at eye level through the heavy glass of the aquarium, can be addictive. The technology of the short movie is terrific, the sea creatures coming from all sides, and above — right at viewers wearing 3-D glasses.

SeaWorld has long rescued and tended to orphaned or injured manatees and sea turtles, and they were the inspiration for the new attraction. Some of the animals are released back into the wild, but others are too badly injured to survive on their own and become permanent residents of these two habitats.

The message of the attraction is “don’t trash where you splash,” focusing on the plastic trash — soda-can rings, grocery bags, discarded fishing line — that turtles and other wildlife swallow or get tangled in. Adopting its own message, SeaWorld has eliminated the use of plastic bags in its shops.

Coming next year: Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, which will include a ride on which guests can choose the level of thrill they want to experience, an encounter with penguins in their habitat, a restaurant and gift shop. SeaWorld hasn’t said how it will keep guests comfortable in a penguin habitat that must be kept in the low 30s, but says it will be the coldest theme park attraction in the world.


When Discovery Cove opened its new Grand Reef last June, one adventure wasn’t quite ready: SeaVenture, in which air piped into special helmets allows guests to walk on the “sea bottom,” coming face-to-face with fish and other sea creatures. They can also watch black tip, white tip, zebra, woebegone and nurse sharks behind glass at eye level, as well as eels and lobsters, each species in its own enclosed habitat.

SeaVenture opened later last summer and now takes up to six people at a time on the 20-minute underwater stroll. Guests wear 73-pound helmets connected to air hoses that allow them to breathe normally as the group walks along the bottom of Grand Reef, which is about 12 feet under at its deepest point. Scuba certification isn’t required. Cost is $59.

A new swimming and wading area called Freshwater Oasis is scheduled to open this summer in the spot previously occupied by Tropical Reef. Designed as a freshwater spring under a rainforest canopy, the oasis will be populated by marmosets, a tiny member of the primate family, and Asian otters. The animals will be on an island where they can be watched by people but won’t actually come in contact with them.


Keeping with the same caring-for-wildlife theme, SeaWorld’s sister park, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, has turned its Animal Care Center into an attraction. Treatment rooms have wall-to-wall windows that allow guests to watch certain procedures and surgeries. Down the hall is the kitchen, where staff talk to guests about how and what animals are fed. One day last month, several young guests assisted the staff in making meatballs to feed the hyenas.

Also new this year is Iceploration, a show in the Moroccan Palace aimed at youngsters that stresses the natural wonders of the earth and features ice skaters, puppets, acrobats and live animals.