The folks who brought you killer whales and killer rides are giving new meaning to the words wet and wild.
World of Discovery Parks — the parent of SeaWorld and Busch Gardens — has officially opened two new excuses for taking the kids to Florida, and they’re just the first in what’s turning out to be a mini building boom in central Florida aimed at families.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in thrills and spills are planned for Orlando alone, from a new, signature roller coaster at SeaWorld to a major spending spree at Universal Studios, which just opened a revamped attraction called Disaster!
Soon to come are The Simpsons Ride (a replacement for the old Back To The Future) and the $230-million US attractions area, the Wizarding World Of Harry Potter. Universal has also announced plans for a high-tech, high-energy ride, the Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit roller coaster, which is reportedly loaded with enough digital technology to win over the YouTube generation.
In late May, Disney’s Hollywood Studios will debut its new, 3-D ride-through video game Toy Story Mania! And, later this year, you can bypass Simon Cowell’s comments and become a star, of sorts, on the stage of Disney’s new American Idol attraction.
The first new theme park in Orlando in eight years — the 24-hectare water park, Aquatica — recently celebrated its official opening, and its South Seas-inspired sand beaches and screaming slide rides have proven to be a big hit. Just past the main gate and the extraordinarily long lineup for tickets is where you’ll find the park’s biggest attraction, Dolphin Plunge, a 76-metre-long black hole of spiralling tubing that shoots you right through the midst of Commerson’s dolphins that look like miniature killer whales.
But they’re almost impossible to see, unfortunately, when you’re stricken with terror and travelling at the speed of light, so best to stand on terra firma in the Dolphin Lookout where you can watch their graceful underwater ballet through a thick wall of subterranean glass.
Theme parks love to boast they have something for everyone and, if you like surf, sand and sun, Aquatica truly fits that bill, from its 91-metre, eight-lane Taumata Racer to its massive Walkabout Waters, an interactive play fortress where big and little kids can blast water cannons, bound down slides or get soaked under giant tipping pails of water.
About a one-hour drive west of Orlando, at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, is the new Jungala — a 1.6-hectare village, play area and interactive tiger and orangutan habitat. It’s added new life to Busch Gardens and is bound to become a must-see in itself.
Its three-storey Tree Tops Trails, with its maze of leaf-level climbing nets, tunnels and swinging bridges, lets kids aged six to 13 experience the village from a variety of levels. There’s also the Jungle Flyers zip line (for kids only) that “flies” over the village and the Drop-Zone-like Wild Surge that launches 14 passengers out of a mountain crater.
But just steps away are what can safely be called the most unique and interactive animal attractions in the world. Even on safari in Asia, where the park’s Bengal tigers originate, you couldn’t get this close “without getting eaten,” as 11-year-old Cheyenne Herron points out, taunting seven-year-old tiger Cherisse with a flick of her ponytail, sending the animal bounding into the only thing separating the giant cat from its next meal — four panes of glass that offer a floor-to-ceiling window into the tigers’ world.
You can even indulge in a tug of war. “I’ll go ahead and tell you — the tiger always wins,” says Donnie Mills, general manager Busch Gardens Africa.
The orangutans’ exhibit is equally interactive, and educational — if somewhat less spectacular — with close-up views of their treetop homes, rope walkways and even a section of glass flooring that lets you stare down into the habitat, and the rope hammock, where these humanlike creatures relax.