Florida theme parks have some wild plans

If new attractions are sprouting up all over Central Florida's theme parks, it surely must be springtime. Each year, the parks prepare themselves to entice visitors with openings and novelties at every corner. Here is some of what's on tap for 2003:

Walt Disney World

At Disney-MGM, the Tower is now in control! Disney Imagineers have debuted new random ride-and-drop sequences at the 13-story, shriek-filled Tower of Terror. The new ride sequences make the attraction faster (adding more drops and rocketing ascents) and, of course, spookier, with the addition of visual, audio and olfactory special effects.

Mickey's PhilharMagic is a 3-D film in the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland section scheduled to open most likely in the fall. The movie stars the Big Cheese himself, along with Donald Duck in big, in-your-face three dimensions. It will be presented on a 150-foot-wide screen and will include in-theater special effects. The attraction's cast also includes such characters as Ariel from the animated classic The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Jasmine from Aladdin, and Simba from The Lion King.

At Epcot, the 10th annual International Flower & Garden Festival runs till June 8 with a special display featuring more than 60,000 bedding plants and the best topiaries from past festivals, including a 20-foot-tall peace sign and a larger-than-life double-decker bus, plus a Kids' Garden, butterfly and ladybug releases and a concert series. Also at Epcot, Mission: Space is scheduled to open Aug. 15. It will turn visitors into "astronauts" and launch them on a simulated space adventure including a "liftoff" and the sensation of "weightlessness."

An increased character presence is now featured at all four Disney parks. This includes Mickey, Minnie, Donald and the rest of the gang arriving at Main Street, U.S.A.'s train station minutes before the Magic Kingdom opens each morning, plus characters in Town Square and at attractions associated with them, such as the Mad Hatter at the Mad Tea Party in Fantasyland. Likewise at Epcot, there are more character meet-and-greets and a new Princess Storybook Breakfast at the Norway pavilion with Disney's princesses. And at Disney-MGM, the Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage show with characters from that fairy tale has expanded its schedule from five to seven days.

At all four Disney parks, a new Extra Magic Hour allows visitors staying at select Disney hotels to enter the parks an hour before the scheduled opening to the public, time to take in attractions and greet Disney characters.


The new Shrek 4D attraction, inspired by the hit movie, will open in June at Universal Studios Florida. The 10-minute show will blend 4-D film, moving simulators and other special effects based on the fairy tale fable -- with visitors hearing, seeing and even smelling characters from the film.

Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast is scheduled to debut in April, also at Universal Studios Florida. The motion-based attraction, inspired by the animated movie Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius by Paramount Pictures, will take guests on a ride in Jimmy's rocket ship and will include such popular characters as the Rugrats and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Sea World Orlando

Sea World is redoing the area around the park's lake. Scheduled to open in the summer, the new area, called Waterfront, will feature restaurants and shops. A new animal interaction program opened last fall: Sharks Deep Dive. The program, at the park's Shark Encounter, allows participants to snorkel or scuba dive in an authentic shark cage through the attraction's 125-foot underwater habitat teeming with more than 50 sharks, including sand tigers, sandbars, Atlantic blacktips, nurse and blacknose. The two-hour program begins with a hands-on presentation and costs $125 to snorkel and $150 to scuba, including use of a wet suit, two-day park admission, shark booklet and souvenir T-shirt.

Also at Sea World, new themed dining experiences include Dine With Shamu, where guests eat alongside orcas, mingle with trainers, observe a training session in the backstage area and enjoy a buffet-style meal including salads, pasta, beef, seafood and chicken entrees and desserts. Cost is $28 for adults and $16 for children. A sharks-themed meal is also available.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

The White Rhinoceros Habitat, scheduled to open in spring in the park's 26-acre Northern Serengeti Plain, is a new natural area for the park's endangered white rhinos. Sable antelope, greater kudu, Defassa waterbuck, wildebeest, ostriches, African crowned cranes and other animals will share the habitat. Visitors will be able to get an up-close look at the new area via the park's Serengeti Express Train, the Skyride and Rhino Rally.

R.L. Stine's Haunted Lighthouse opens in May. It is a spooky, 22-minute adventure film that combines 3-D effects with multi-sensory theater effects. Based on an original story by the Goosebumps author, the film stars Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson and it will be presented in a new theater seating 750 guests.

The park's Timbuktu section, which opened in 1979, will be redesigned this spring, with freshly painted facades, banners and colorful fabric awnings creating a festive Arabian atmosphere. The Oasis will be a new area with covered outdoor seating for snacks.

End of an era: Cypress Gardens, one of Florida's oldest parks (opened in 1936), has become the latest casualty of 9-11. Citing low attendance since the terrorist attack, the park closed its doors permanently on April 13. State environmental officials are looking into the possibility of buying part of the park.