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.
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.