Another new thing at Disney is a program called Lunch with an Animator. For $60.99 per person ($34.99 for kids 3-11), you can have a private lunch with working animators from Disney Studios and discuss with them any and all aspects of Disney's animation history as well as future projects. I had the good fortune to dine with color model supervisor Irma Cartaya-Torre and supervising animator Ruben Aquino, both of whom have worked on numerous Disney features. (They both made significant contributions to "The Lion King," but felt at the time that it would be a "B" picture and that "Pocahontas," which was being produced simultaneously, was sure to be the blockbuster of the two.) The Animator lunch, held in a private dining room of the Hollywood Brown Derby Restaurant in Disney-MGM Studios, is best suited for older teens and adults who are inquisitive and have a good knowledge of Disney's animated features.
But the really big news is the August 15 debut of Disney's newest thrill ride, Mission: Space, at Epcot. The ride uses NASA astronaut training technology to put you in a virtual rocket ship to Mars. The simulated space flight, say the Disney spokespeople, is "the most technologically advanced" attraction ever created by Disney. I have it on good authority, by the way, that the ride very well could be up and running and open to guests, on a limited and unadvertised basis, before the official "launch." From the advance word, and based on my extensive walk-through, I'd say that Mission: Space promises to be the break-out hit of the Orlando summer.
Elsewhere in Orlando
Dolly Parton comes to town with the latest version of Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner & Show, opening this June (go to www.dixiestampede.com). This oughta be good—among other themes, the show explores the "friendly rivalry" between the North and South. ("The Civil War?! Suh, there was nuthin' civil about it!") Actually, the geographical rivalry is between elves from the North and South Poles. The show also features 32 horses and trick riders, singin' and dancin' and probably some more singin' and dancin', plus a four-course meal.
Luxury travelers will want to learn more about Grande Lakes Orlando Resort, opening on July 1. The resort will feature two hotels (a 584-room Ritz-Carlton and a 1,000-room JW Marriott), an 18-hole Greg Norman golf course, and a 40,000-square-foot spa, the largest spa in Orlando, according to local tourism officials. For more details, see the accommodations section of www.orlandoinfo.com.
Savings and Discounts in Orlando
Getting a good deal at the major Orlando theme parks has not always been easy, but nowadays even the major players in central Florida have to offer discounts to attract guests. That's good news for anyone visiting Orlando this summer.
Universal Studios Orlando, for example, is offering what it calls a Bonus Pass. This allows you to visit the Studios or its sister theme park, Islands of Adventure, for five days at less than the price of a two-day pass. Considering the normal admission price is $52 for one day, you'll save more than $150 per person. You must buy the pass online at www.universalstudiosorlando.com or call 407-650-5515. Also, if you're staying at any of Universal's three hotels (Portofino Bay Hotel, Royal Pacific Resort, or Hard Rock Hotel), you can take advantage of Universal's "4th Night Free" promotion. Hotel guests also qualify for the Universal Express program, which allows them to go to the head of the line at any of the attractions at the Studios or Islands.
Universal Studios is also offering a Family Package, as is SeaWorld. The packages include admission to the attractions plus a minimum of two or three nights at select area hotels; the savings can be as much as 35 percent compared to buying the components separately. You can find them at their respective web sites or at www.orlandoinfo.com.
Disney World is offering the Fairytale Vacation Package: you stay at a Disney Resort hotel for a week, including theme park tickets, but you pay for only a four-night package. Prices start at $499 for adults and $212 for children. Go to http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/waltdisneyworld/ and click on "Vacation Savings."
There are many more discounts available through the web site of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.orlandoinfo.com, which is the best place to start planning a vacation in central Florida. There you'll find links to the major theme parks and secondary attractions in the region, as well as other types of discounts. For instance, you can link to hotel deals that offer rooms for as low as $40 a night. You can also get your free Orlando Magicard, which has discounts on local attractions, restaurants, and hotels worth up to $500. You can even book your entire vacation right on the site.