According to just about every survey you're likely to see, Florida is the No. 1 destination for domestic travelers. And when those travelers are families, I leave it to your imagination which Florida city they most want to visit. Yes, folks, it's Pensacola! Just kidding. It's Orlando. I just returned from a week in central Florida and, as almost always happens whenever I visit there, I was astonished at the number of new attractions—ones that have just opened and others that will be opening in the coming weeks and months of summer 2003.
Sea World Orlando
You may have to be slightly crazy to do this, but you can now go swimming with sharks at SeaWorld (www.seaworldorlando.com). They call it Sharks Deep Dive. I call it Why Would A Sane Man Willingly Swim With Sharks. Actually, you don't swim with them, exactly. Rather, you float inside a sturdy (I checked) shark cage, which allows you to be within kissing distance of these eating machines without worrying whether you'll accidentally give them whisker burn. To prepare, you dress in full diving regalia (including wet suit, gloves and boots) and wear either air tanks (if you're scuba certified) or snorkel gear (if, like me, you're just plain certifiable). You enter the cage, which is hung by cables from the ceiling of the gigantic indoor shark aquarium, and submerge yourself to see eye-to-eye with nurse sharks, white tip sharks, brown sharks, sand tiger sharks, and leopard sharks—49 sharks of various species. But first a man took my picture, in case it was the last anyone ever saw of me. If I happened to make it back, I got to keep the picture. The shark cage, which has a depth of eight feet below the water's surface, automatically moves on its cables around the aquarium so you can get a look at the animals in various sections of the watery environment. For most of us, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something seemingly stupid but, in the end, awfully darn thrilling as well as stupid. Reservations are recommended, as a limited number of guests can take part in this interaction program on any given day.
Also new at SeaWorld is the Waterfront—a lakefront section of the oceanarium now given over to upscale shops, restaurants, and entertainment. Designed to recall a 19th-century Mediterranean seaport, it's a slight departure from the norm at SeaWorld, where entertainment has usually been left in the hands (or fins) of dolphins and killer whales. Now you can watch a humorous stage presentation called "Rico & Roza's Musical Feast" while you have lunch, or just enjoy the strolling musicians at various places in the Waterfront. The five-acre development, which is at the base of SeaWorld's iconic Sky Tower, is the largest expansion in the park's history.
Universal Studios Orlando
Across town at Universal Studios Orlando (www.universalstudiosorlando.com), the big new attractions are Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast and Shrek 4-D. The Jimmy Neutron show is a motion simulator, where you watch a movie and your seats move in concert with the action on screen—in this case giving you the sensation of flying in a rocket ship with Jimmy the boy genius to a galaxy far far away (passing over and through the Rugrats' house on the way to the deep-space playground of the evil Ooblar and into the deep-sea playground of SpongeBob SquarePants on the way back).
Shrek 4-D, which had yet to open when I was there but which I was able to see on a hardhat tour, bridges the storyline gap between the end of the first Shrek feature and the start of the upcoming sequel. The major part of the attraction is a 3-D movie, but the onscreen action is accompanied by tactile stimuli that will have you feeling sensations on the back of your neck and your legs (and possibly other ends and bits of your bad self), guaranteed to creep you out as well as giving concrete form to the fourth dimension in the ride's name.
Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World is, of course, the 600-pound gorilla in the room, and you could hardly write about Orlando with considering the latest goings-on in the Kingdom of the Mouse (disneyworld.disney.go.com). And as usual, there are some exciting developments. First is the newly revamped Twilight Zone Tower of Terror thrill ride at Disney-MGM Studios, where the Imagineers have reprogrammed the ride to make it even more frightening than before. In the past, riders would ascend to the top of the tower in a multiple-seat elevator and then dramatically drop some 13 stories. Now the ride features numerous drops and ascents. Although you're belted down, there's enough slack so that your rear end spends more time in the air than on the seat. Not only that, but the number and type of drops is different each time you ride the Tower of Terror, so you'll never be able to predict how many times you'll go up and down. Or how many times you'll scream, "Get me offa this thing!"
At Animal Kingdom, guests who stay on the concierge floor of the Animal Kingdom Lodge can sign up for the Sunrise Safari. Although it follows the same route through the recreated African game preserve as the regular safari, this special version lasts roughly 45 minutes, about twice as long as standard, and the driver and guide make plenty of photo stops (unlike on the regular safari). But even better, the animals you'll encounter have just woken up and are especially active at that early time of day.