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Zombies and other attractions come to life this summer

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A look at a zombie boot camp to promote the upcoming “The Walking Dead” attraction at Universal Studios.

Playing dead is not as easy as it sounds.

That was demonstrated when about 20 actors, hired to play zombies for a new Universal Studios Hollywood attraction, attended a zombie boot camp taught by Greg Nicotero, executive producer and frequent director of the AMC television series “The Walking Dead.”

The actors shuffled around a makeshift stage in the theme park, dragging their feet, drooling, gasping and swinging their arms awkwardly.

“You have to make your walker unique,” he told the zombie wannabes. “Authenticity is tremendously important to me.”

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“The Walking Dead” attraction, scheduled to come to life July 4, is one of several new features at Southern California theme parks, where crowds are expected to be swarming this summer thanks to lower gasoline costs, cheaper air fares and a growing demand for travel.

Nationwide, about 75% of Americans plan to travel this summer, a 7% increase over last summer, according to a study by the travel site Orbitz.com.

Los Angeles County has broken its annual record of visiting tourists for the past five years. A record 45.6 million tourists visited Los Angeles County last year, including 6.8 million international travelers, according to the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board.

The City of Angels is expected to be the third-most-popular summer travel destination in the country, moving up from seventh place last year, according to a study by AAA.

“We are expecting tremendous visitor demand for the Los Angeles experience this summer, due in large part to the abundance of both new and iconic attractions we offer to travelers from around the globe,” said Ernest Wooden Jr., chief executive of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board.

Jay Burress, chief executive of Visit Anaheim, which promotes tourism to Orange County, agreed.

“From a theme park perspective, I think they are going to see incredible numbers this summer,” he said. “In Anaheim, we are bracing for a very exciting summer.”

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Helping push up the tourism numbers are gasoline prices in Southern California that are about 70 cents cheaper per gallon than last summer, a nearly 20% drop, and air fares that have fallen by about 10% nationwide.

In addition, Southern California has become a favorite tourist destination for international travelers, especially visitors from Asia who typically spend a few days in Southern California before taking off for the Bay Area, Las Vegas or the East Coast.

“The Asian market into Los Angeles has grown tremendously, exponentially,” said Tom Spagnola, a senior vice president at the online travel site CheapOair.com.

To entice summer travelers, nearly every local theme park has a new attraction that opened this spring or is scheduled to open this summer, including the ghoulish and the heart-stopping.

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In addition to opening a permanent “Walking Dead” attraction, Universal Studios Hollywood opened its $500-million Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion in April as part of a bigger $1.6-billion effort to steal market share from its competitors, especially Disneyland in Anaheim.

But more is on the way at Universal Studios.

Its television and production operation has announced plans to replace 13 sound stages with 10 larger sound stages that will be built in the northern end of the property. The project, which will be completed over the next two years, will free up several acres to expand the theme park. Universal Studios officials have declined to say what new attractions will be added in the extra space.

Disneyland is working to keep its title of the most popular Southern California theme park by launching the park’s biggest expansion, a 14-acre Star Wars land, which is set to open in the next few years. Disney has declined to say how much they are spending on the new land but as part of a tax break from Anaheim Disney must spend at least $1 billion on the park.

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For this summer, Disney has already launched a new stage musical based on the popular animated film “Frozen” at Disney California Adventure. The aerial simulation ride “Soarin’ Over California,” also at California Adventure, has been overhauled to include new scenes from across the globe. The ride has been re-dubbed “Soarin’ Around the World.”

At Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, the park has completed the restoration of “Ghost Rider,” the longest, fastest and tallest wooden roller coaster in the West. The work comes as the park celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Ghost Town area of the park.

Meanwhile, Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia has teamed up with Samsung to equip riders with virtual-reality goggles so that they can watch a virtual space battle with alien ships that is synced to the movements of the “Revolution” roller coaster.

Neither Knott’s Berry Farm nor Six Flags would disclose how much they have spent on the coaster upgrades.

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Roller coaster fans are giddy about the overhaul of “Ghost Rider” and “Revolution.”

Kurt Dahlin, a longtime coaster enthusiast from Santa Clarita who has already tried the overhauled “Ghost Rider” more than 20 times, said the ride is “fast, it’s smooth and it’s a kick in the pants!”

Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank has added a new DC exhibit of super hero costumes and comics. In May, Legoland in Carlsbad opened “Ninjago” — a ride that lets riders use hand gestures to shoot virtual projectiles such as spheres of lightning at animated creatures on 30-foot screens.

But all the buzz this summer may be at Universal Studios Hollywood, where the Harry Potter attraction has drawn capacity or near capacity crowds since it opened in April.

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And starting July 4, the zombie fans headed for the new “Walking Dead” attraction will add their numbers to the Harry Potter enthusiasts.

For the past four years, Universal Studios Hollywood has installed a temporary “Walking Dead” maze for its annual Halloween celebration.

But the new permanent zombie attraction will be unlike the temporary additions because it will rely on a combination of animatronics and real-life actors playing the zombies that will chase and lunge at park visitors, said John Murdy, creative director for the park.

“This is an incredibly rare idea” he said.

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The key for the attraction, Murdy said, is to find actors who can tap into their inner zombie day in and day out, year round.

“It will come down to cast,” he said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter

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