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Disney's Space Mountain will close for a makeover

One of Walt Disney World's iconic attractions is getting a makeover.

Disney said Wednesday that it will shut down Space Mountain this spring for what the company described as a months-long "refreshment" of the 34-year-old Magic Kingdom roller coaster.

The ride will close April 19, just after the Easter holiday. It is expected to reopen late in the year, Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said, though a specific reopening date has not been set.

The timetable means Space Mountain will be closed throughout the busy summer-travel season.

The construction work will include installing new track inside the enclosed coaster, which carries guests in the dark through a series of sudden drops and sharp turns. The layout of the track will remain the same, however.

Other upgrades will include a new enclosure for the ride's queuing area and a new ceiling inside its signature white dome, Finger said.

Finger said the renovations are the first substantial work on the ride since September 1999. The project follows a series of other makeovers Disney has made in recent years to some of its oldest attractions, including the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean in the Magic Kingdom and Spaceship Earth in Epcot.

Disney fans have been swapping rumors for more than a year that the company was planning a sweeping overhaul of Space Mountain. In 2005, the Walt Disney Co. completed an extensive, two-year makeover of the Space Mountain at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

But the changes to Orlando's version of the ride -- it's the original Space Mountain, having opened Jan. 15, 1975 -- are likely to be more modest.

"We're retaining many of the classic elements that made Space Mountain a rite of passage at the Magic Kingdom that's been enjoyed by generations," Finger said.

Fewer visitors to China last year despite OlympicsBy ANITA CHANG, Associated Press Writer Anita Chang, Associated Press Writer Thu Jan 8, 2:23 pm ET

BEIJING – The number of travelers to China dropped by 2 million in 2008 in what was supposed to be a banner year for tourism but became one dampened by Olympics-related security measures and the global economic crunch.

It was the first decline in visitor numbers since 2003, when a deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, kept many people away.

The number of inbound travelers fell to 130 million last year, China's National Tourism Administration said on its Web site.

"All major inbound source markets, except for Hong Kong and Russia, slumped last year amid the economic downturn," the administration's director, Shao Qiwei, was quoted as saying by the official China Daily newspaper Thursday.

Neither statement mentioned other factors affecting travel to China, though industry experts also blamed tightened visa restrictions before the Beijing Olympics and a May earthquake in southwest China that left 90,000 dead or missing.

Authorities feared protests around the Olympics would mar the flawless image of China that the government wanted to promote and made visa procedures more strict in an effort to weed out potential troublemakers such as foreign activists. That also kept out many would-be visitors.

"The high cost of hotel and air tickets may also have had an effect, but taking into consideration the spending power of foreigners compared to Chinese, they wouldn't just drop their plans because of higher prices," said Li Lei, chief editor of Chinese travel industry Web site Tourismvane.com.

The Chinese government built the world's largest airport terminal in eager anticipation of Olympics visitors. Hotels underwent costly renovations and even restaurant menus were standardized across Beijing.

But only 389,000 foreign tourists visited Beijing in August, the month of the games, including travelers from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, according to the Beijing tourism bureau. That was far fewer than the 500,000 guests originally expected.

The overall number of visitors to China dropped to 130 million in 2008, from 132 million in 2007, according to the tourism administration's numbers. The decrease was 2.6 percent.

The decline in foreign visitors continues because of the worldwide financial situation, Li said.

"Last year was really terrible," Li said. "For now, the situation is getting worse and worse, and people in the industry don't expect any improvement until the second quarter this year."

China received more than 22 million foreign visitors last year through November, according to the latest statistics from the National Tourism Administration. The rest came from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

The administration did not break down the numbers into tourist and business visits for non-foreign travelers. Many businessmen with ties to China live outside the mainland and come regularly for work.

But business has slowed across China, with economic growth expected to fall to about 9 percent this year, down from 11.9 percent in 2007.

Zhang Ze, vice manager of the hotel section at Chinese travel Web site Qunar.com, pointed to occupancy rates in some luxury hotels which were at 40 percent last month, 10 or 20 percent lower than in previous years.

"The tourism industry is quite sensitive to changes in the economic climate," he said.

Bridges, streets being closed for inaugurationBy EILEEN SULLIVAN and MATTHEW BARAKAT, Associated Press Writers Eileen Sullivan And Matthew Barakat, Associated Press Writers Thu Jan 8, 2:04 pm ET

WASHINGTON – Police are blocking off all bridges crossing the Potomac River into Washington and a huge chunk of downtown when Barack Obama takes the oath of office Jan. 20, securing the largest area of the nation's capital for any inauguration.

Some 3.5 square miles of downtown, including the business district and government buildings surrounding the National Mall, will be closed to traffic starting the afternoon of Jan. 19, the day before the inauguration, and remain closed until the morning rush hour on Jan. 21, Barack Obama's first full day as president. The Secret Service announced the closures Wednesday.

U.S. intelligence officials say they know of no specific, credible terror threat, but the celebration surrounding inauguration of the nation's first black president remains an attractive target for international and domestic terrorists.

The agency plans to set up 13 security stations to screen anyone arriving for the inauguration parade along Pennsylvania Avenue. Additional screening facilities will be near the Capitol and the White House. The screening stations open at 7 a.m. on Inauguration Day.

Officials estimate between 2 million and 3 million people will travel to Washington for the event.

The Secret Service also warned that only two screening stations will be set up for people moving from the National Mall to the parade route after Obama takes his oath. The National Mall stretches from the Capitol to the Potomac.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, security has grown with each inauguration. "I think it will be the most security, as far as I'm aware, that any inauguration has had," Chertoff said.

With Potomac River bridges into Washington closed, Virginia transportation officials decided that all but official and authorized vehicles will be barred from inbound Interstate 66 and Interstate 395 inside the Interstate 495 Beltway that circles the capital.

Virginia State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty said security played a role in the decision to close the highways and bridges, but the primary motivation was traffic management -- motorists would have nowhere to go as they draw near the capital.

Except for one major bridge connecting the city with southern Maryland, traffic will not be disrupted on other highways entering the city. Still, Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari was skeptical about driving in Washington on Inauguration Day.

"Everyone needs to understand there will be severe congestion," Porcari said. "Taking transit is the only way to get to D.C. Finding a parking spot will be like winning the lottery -- it won't happen."

Even using mass transit will be dicey. Officials with Metro, the Washington area's transit system, said subway trains will be packed for the inauguration and that passengers should expect long lines.

"We've been planning all along to be prepared to carry a tremendous amount of people," spokesman Steve Taubenkibel said.

An unresolved question for Metro officials is how train operators, bus drivers and technicians will get to work with all the street and bridge closings.

Joe Cardone, resident manager of Washington's historic Mayflower Hotel, faces a similar problem for hotel staff members needed to provide services to the guests who have fully booked the facility.

If workers live in the city, Cardone said they will likely walk, ride bicycles or take Metro rail or buses to work. Some may end up bunking at the hotel, possibly in unused meeting rooms.

"We have seasoned staff that's been through inaugurations before, so they know how to prepare themselves for traffic jams and difficulties getting in," he said. "They just add an hour or so for travel.."

Airlines fly into new year with wave of fare salesBy HARRY R. WEBER, AP Airlines Writer Harry R. Weber, Ap Airlines Writer Wed Jan 7, 11:42 am ET

ATLANTA – A wave of fare sales has spread across the airline industry in the early days of the new year as the weak economy continues to put pressure on carriers to fill seats even after they drastically reduced capacity and some expressed willingness to cut more.

Many experts and even executives at some airlines had expected that after deep capacity cuts went into effect starting in September, the number of fare sales going forward would be fewer and farther between. But fuel prices have come down significantly, and the weak economy has eroded demand for air travel.

Even so, on average base airfares outside of the travel periods for the recently launched sale fares are higher today than in the last few years, said Rick Seaney, head of airfare research site FareCompare.com. He noted there were 30 attempted airfare hikes between summer 2007 and summer 2008, two-thirds of which were successful.

The fare sales just announced do not affect fees for baggage or other services charged by some of the carriers.

It's not unusual for airlines to announce fare sales in January -- there were 17 or 18 announced in January 2008 -- but what's different for several carriers this year is that the discounts are for travel extending as late as April, May or June, Seaney said. The sales last January were typically for travel through March, he said.

Seaney said he believes uncertainty in the economy is the reason for the change.

"They're not sure what's going to happen at the last minute," Seaney said.

A handful of major carriers and discount carriers have launched fare sales since Dec. 31. Others are expected to follow with sales of their own, or to at least match discounts offered by rivals on competitive routes, Seaney said.

Discount carrier AirTran Airways, a subsidiary of Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran Holdings Inc., said Tuesday it was offering a nationwide fare sale with one-way fares starting as low as $39. The fares, available for purchase through Jan. 15, are good for travel to and from Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico, through March 11, while all other sale fares are good for travel through May 20.

"We are uncertain about the economy and we are trying to build business on the books for the winter and spring," AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson said.

Burlingame, Calif.-based Virgin America, a U.S. controlled and operated airline that is a separate company from Virgin Atlantic, also announced a fare sale Tuesday for travel through June 10 to all of the cities the carrier serves. (Billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group is a minority share investor in Virgin America.)

New York-based JetBlue Airways Corp. said Monday it was offering a fare sale involving more than 40 destinations in the Northeast, Florida, California and the Caribbean. For most city pairs, travel must take place between Jan. 12 and April 1.

Other carriers that have launched fare sales recently include Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co -- for travel between Jan. 15 and April 30; Fort Worth, Texas-based AMR Corp.'s American Airlines -- for travel within the U.S. between Jan. 14 and March 4, and between March 5 and April 30 at slightly higher fares; and Chicago-based UAL Corp.'s United Airlines -- for travel within the U.S. from Jan. 14 to March 4 and for travel to several foreign destinations as late as April 30.

United's fare sale was launched Dec. 31. It has done a New Year's fare sale for several years now, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.

Most of the airline offers come with restrictions that vary by carrier from advance purchase requirements to minimum stay requirements to blackout dates.

The matching has already started.

American matched both the AirTran and Virgin America initiatives in markets in which they compete, American spokesman Tim Smith said.

In normal situations, travelers generally see more airline fare sales from September through mid-February, with exceptions for peak holiday periods, Smith said. But now, the economy is sputtering.

"Obviously, less demand has had some effect on fare sales, but again most are aimed at targeted markets and many of the sale fares are at somewhat higher levels than past sales," Smith said.

Last year, airlines cut jobs, made dramatic reductions in capacity, sold aircraft, raised fares and imposed new fees for checked baggage and other once-free amenities to stem the bleeding from losses that were expected, by one analyst's estimate, to total $4 billion for 2008, excluding one-time items. If oil prices remain low and the economy doesn't worsen, some analysts expect the industry to be profitable in 2009.

Grand Canyon, Loch Ness compete for nature wonders

By ELIANE ENGELER, Associated Press Writer Eliane Engeler, Associated Press Writer Tue Jan 6, 6:31 pm ET

GENEVA – The Grand Canyon, Mount Everest and Loch Ness will vie with over 200 other spectacular places in the next phase of the global competition for the New 7 Wonders of Nature, organizers said.

The 261 nominees from 222 countries include some of the most famous mountain peaks, lakes, and other attractions, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Niagara Falls.

The results were released in Geneva by organizers there early Wednesday.

Over a billion voters are expected to join in Internet voting that will nominate 77 semifinalists for the top natural wonders, which will share in the glory already enjoyed by the seven man-made wonders chosen 18 months ago.

"We are calling on people all over the world to actively show their appreciation for our ... natural world by joining together to celebrate the most extraordinary sites on our planet," said Tia Viering, spokeswoman of the New 7 Wonders campaign.

The Swiss-based nonprofit foundation collected 441 nominations over the Internet since it opened the selection process in 2007.

The foundation then chose the top vote-getter from each country, making a list of 222 sites. The overall list rose to 261 with the inclusion of sites shared by two or more countries -- such as Niagara Falls and Lake Superior between Canada and the United States and the Matterhorn, between Switzerland and Italy.

Voting for the 77 semifinalists was scheduled to begin shortly after Wednesday's announcement, according to the Web site http://www.new7wonders.com/hp. Votes can be cast until July 7. Registration on the Web site aims to prevent people from voting twice.

The quarterfinalists include some lesser known sites, such as Yasur Volcano on the south Pacific island of Vanuatu or Nigeria's Zuma Rock, a giant monolith in the middle of the African country.

A panel of experts in nature, chaired by Federico Mayor, former chief of UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, will reduce the list to 21 finalists in July.

The seven winners will then be chosen in another round of public voting lasting until 2011, this time by Internet, telephone and text messages.

Around 100 million people voted in the selection of the seven man-made wonders. The winners were the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt; the Colosseum, Italy; the Great Wall of China; the Taj Mahal, India; Petra, Jordan; Christ the Redeemer Statue, Brazil; Machu Picchu, Peru and the Pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico.

"The enthusiasm for the campaign, which brought culture out of dusty corners and back to life on front pages, TV screens and computers everywhere, crossed all social and economic lines," said Viering. "Everyone from schoolchildren to entrepreneurs eagerly participated."

Choosing world wonders has been a continuing fascination over the centuries. UNESCO keeps updating its list of World Heritage Sites, which now totals 878 places.

The New 7 Wonders campaign led by Swiss adventurer Bernard Weber aims to promote cultural diversity by supporting, preserving and restoring monuments and natural sites. It relies on private donations and revenue from selling broadcasting rights.

______

On the Net:

Full list of nominees on: http://www.new7wonders.com/hp/

Obama wax figure free for Yanks in London Jan. 20Wed Jan 7, 11:38 am ET

LONDON – Stuck in Britain on Inauguration Day? Madame Tussauds, the London waxwork museum, is offering U.S. tourists the chance to see their new president up close for free.

The museum says Americans need to bring proof of citizenship. The offer is intended to celebrate the inauguration of the museum's new attraction -- a Barack Obama waxwork -- on Jan. 20.

Sculptors are still adding the finishing touches, but the museum said Wednesday that Obama would be shown in an informal and relaxed pose, smiling with arms folded amid a reproduction of the White House Oval Office.

Museum spokeswoman Liz Edwards declined to say how many people she thought would show up for the free viewing. The museum typically charges 25 pounds ($38) at the door.

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