It can take years in development before a big new attraction opens in Orlando, Fla., the highly competitive theme park capital of the world.

So it should be no surprise that some of the most ambitious undertakings in years are opening in unison at SeaWorld, Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World this spring and summer, despite the downturn in travel and the overall economy.

The theme parks have spared no expense to capture new revenue and repeat visitors, so the only signs of recession around these parks might actually be welcome for tourists: shorter ride lines and deeper-than-usual discounts on stay-and-play packages across central Florida. There are also fewer employees, but the parks say the cuts are targeted in areas they hope guests will least notice.

Disney and Universal are launching what might be their most ambitious interactive experiences ever, though the two could scarcely be more different: an American Idol show at Disney and a roller-coaster where riders choose personal soundtracks at Universal. And SeaWorld is unleashing its first roller-coaster in a decade — a high-concept thrill ride called Manta that incorporates real-life sea creatures.

Here’s a deeper look at the new offerings:

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit

Universal Orlando

Universal’s first new coaster since the 2004 Revenge of the Mummy —The Ride is so complicated the park has delayed its debut for weeks to ensure that its many moving parts are in synch.

It’s only building anticipation among enthusiasts desperate to test one of the most guest-interactive thrill rides in history.

Riders will travel 1,160 metres in one minute and 53 seconds, the first few of which might be the most terrifying. The trip begins with a 90-degree ascension to its tallest point — 50 metres straight up. Thus begins a 105-km/h journey through six manoeuvres — three of which the park says are brand new.

But that’s not even the most interesting part. The coaster is called the Rockit because riders get to pick their own soundtrack from about 30 songs in five genres: rap/hip-hop, country, classic rock/metal, pop/disco and club/electronica. Tunes are delivered through a 150-watt system that continuously pumps about 55 watts to each passenger.

“You can literally ride this thing 30 different times and have a different experience every time,” said Mike West, executive producer with Universal Creative.

The gigantic track — with pretzel loops and music-inspired manoeuvres like the Treble Clef — can be seen from all over the park. It flanks the whole south side, at one point buzzing just nine metres above the “Rockit” waiting queue (the “Crowd Surfer” manoeuvre).

Manta
SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld has never cared to play along in the annual theme park competition of who has the fastest, tallest or scariest new rides.

In fact, the Orlando park hasn’t opened a new roller-coaster since 1999, and it has taken five years to develop the one opening this month, SeaWorld’s fourth thrill ride here.

So Manta won’t set any records for highest drop or quickest takeoff, but that’s just fine with the park. The flying roller-coaster that emulates the movement of a giant manta ray is about much, much more.

“It’s is not to be dismissed as a roller-coaster, but it’s not so impactful that not all guests can’t experience it,” said Brian Morrow, director of design and engineering for SeaWorld Orlando. “We want it to be seamless — an animal component with the thrill component. That’s what we do best in the industry.”

There is even an alternate route for guests who don’t meet the 54-inch height requirement or just aren’t keen on roller-coasters — a separate tour through the stone Manta building where 300,000 marine animals live. Youngsters can crawl under an acrylic tank and poke their heads up into an aquarium filled with clown fish and sea anemone.

The park wants visitors to envision they’ve been transported to a lost tropical cay, reachable from “mainland SeaWorld” by wooden bridges over a lagoon and amid offshoots of Manta track.

SeaWorld took the “flying coaster” aspect — which means cars are suspended below the track rather than riding atop it — a step further. After boarding, the train rotates forward to put passengers through most of Manta’s 3,350 paces headfirst and horizontal to the ground below, in the “prone” or “Superman” position. But during some of Manta’s inversions, spins and pretzel loop, the passengers are face up, on their backs. From the ground it’s hard to tell which is which.

The American Idol Experience
Walt Disney World, Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Leave it to industry giant Walt Disney World to base its new blockbuster attraction on the most popular show on TV, despite it airing on Fox, a lead competitor against Walt Disney Co.’s ABC.

Of course, Disney knows The American Idol Experience represents a much bigger opportunity for the park and its guests than the TV rating wars.

“We view it as a pop culture phenomenon,” Disney spokesman Rick Sylvain said. “This gives people the thrill of a live production, making them feel like they’re actually on the set.”

Guests get two chances to participate in this attraction — to be onstage, or in the audience voting for the winner. There are seven regular shows a day, each featuring three performers. The winner of the eighth show, pitting the day’s victors against one another, gets a grand reward: a front-of-the-line ticket to any one of the next season’s American Idol tryouts in the country. That’s a truly golden ticket to the thousands willing to wait days for an audition spot in each city’s casting call.

Up to 400 can audition here each day, and about 40 will make it past the first cut. Then 21 are eventually cast to compete in seven regular shows.

The Orlando set is a near-perfect match, built by the Hollywood American Idol stage designer, but for a few small changes. Judges sit stage-right, instead of the floor, though they retain the trademark Coke drinking glasses.

The audience is actually encouraged beforehand to support every contestant and heckle the judges — all three of whom are cast members, including the obligatory jerk.

Singers who’ve made the cut arrive an hour early. They have 10 minutes of hair and make-up, 10 minutes with a voice coach and 10 more alone, with an iPod programmed with their song and its lyrics. They also tape short back-story interviews to air with the introductions.

The production feels real, with someone shouting “We’re live in 3-2-1” and a giant bank of lights turning on the show’s trademark “aa-AA” sound.

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