Travel: New attractions open at Orlando theme parks

Cox NewspapersFebruary 15, 2014 

  • What’s new at Orlando parks?

    Universal Studios Florida: This summer, Universal Studios Florida will welcome the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley. (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Hogsmeade, opened to great acclaim at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2010, and guests with a park-to-park ticket will be able to board the Hogwarts Express train to travel between the two.)

    Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, home to 900 brightly colored guest rooms, 900 family suites, a lazy river and a bowling alley, is accepting reservations for stays beginning March 31, and CityWalk will undergo a historic expansion this year, adding established national brands (Starbucks and Menchie’s), up-and-coming concepts (Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food and The Cowfish, a sushi/burger bar) and Universal’s own creations.

    Info: 407-363-8000 or UniversalOrlando.com

    SeaWorld: After the documentary “Blackfish” stirred up controversy about captive orcas last year, SeaWorld endured a stormy few months, with several musical acts canceling appearances at the park.

    SeaWorld no doubt hopes to leave those issues behind this year. On March 21, it will launch an 18-month celebration of its 50th anniversary. Watch for a new evening Shamu show, new animal encounters and the debut of a Surprise Squad, which will gift unsuspecting guests throughout the park with prizes and gifts.

    Info: 888-800-5447 or SeaWorldParks.com

  • What else is new at Disney?

    Epcot recently began serving tapas at the new Spice Road Table, a casual cafe in the Morocco Pavilion. … Four Seasons Orlando will begin turning down beds for guests at Walt Disney World Resort in August. … Animal Kingdom held a groundbreaking for the new Avatar land, set to open in 2017. … Downtown Disney will add a parking deck this year as it morphs into family-friendly Disney Springs. Inspired by Florida’s turn-of-the-century lakeside towns, Disney Springs will offer more than 150 shopping, dining and entertainment venues and should be completed in 2016.

    Also in 2014, Disney will complete its rollout of MyMagic Plus, a personalized vacation planner with online and mobile components that allows guests to customize their Disney experience. For the first time, for example, guests will be able to book rides, reserve firework and parade viewing areas and schedule character-greeting times.

    The undeniable “wow factor” of MyMagic Plus: The colorful, monogrammable MagicBands. The thick waterproof devices, which resemble a wristwatch with a Mickey Mouse logo in place of a watch face, electronically carry your theme-park tickets and FastPass Plus selections, give you access to your resort room and let you charge food and merchandise at the parks – all with a flick of your wrist. Pretty magic, Mickey!

    Info: 407-939-5277 or disneyworld.disney.go.com

Entering the Magic Kingdom Production Center – the top-secret warehouses where Disney World’s parade floats are stored and maintained – is like tiptoeing among sleeping giants (emphasis on the word “giants”).

Here, in the shadow of Splash Mountain and shielded from prying eyes and unauthorized cameras, Disney’s parade team is putting the finishing fairy dust on its Festival of Fantasy Parade, which will bring “Peter Pan,” “Pinocchio,” “Brave” and “Tangled” to life in March on Disney’s largest floats ever.

“You’ll see them coming because of their size and scale,” says Disney producer Kris Bunnell. “It will be the most grand parade we’ve ever done … like mini-Broadway shows rolling down the street.”

For the Disney crew, the supersized parade is a fitting tribute tocompletion of the new Fantasyland, the largest expansion of the Magic Kingdom since the park opened in 1971.

Meanwhile, SeaWorld Orlando celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a new nighttime Shamu show. And this summer, Universal Studios Orlando will open a second Harry Potter section: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley.

Like Islands of Adventure’s Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley will be an expansive area of shops (Quality Quidditch Supplies), restaurants (Leaky Cauldron) and attractions (Knockturn Alley and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts).

Fans of Harry Potter will fall under Diagon Alley’s spell, promises Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. “And if you’re not a fan when you come, you’ll surely be one by the time you leave.”

But the big story at the biggest player in town is the completion of the new Fantasyland, which has slowly undergone a makeover worthy of Cinderella.

The home of the iconic “It’s a Small World” ride has welcomed Under the Sea, a shimmering tour of the Little Mermaid’s colorful underwater world, and upgraded Ariel’s Grotto, where the green-tailed redhead meets and greets admirers.

Be Our Guest Restaurant opened in October 2012, but parkgoers are still lining up at the Beast’s castle to chow on Mickey Meatloaf and Croque Monsieur inside one of three elaborately themed rooms.

Big Top Souvenirs began selling Disney paraphernalia and mouthwatering sweets inside an intricately detailed circus “tent” whose fixtures and display units are works of art in themselves.

And last September, Cinderella, Rapunzel and other royal types began welcoming children to Princess Fairytale Hall. In two intimate but vibrant rooms (both designed and lighted with photographers in mind), the princesses spend a few moments chatting privately with each visitor.

Even Dumbo got a do-over – two sets of high-flying elephants now take off and land on the edge of Tomorrowland.

In March, Imagineers will place the final jewel in the Fantasyland crown when the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train leaves the station for the first time.

To board the family-friendly coaster, guests must first cross a stone bridge and meander through a woodland environment toward the Dwarfs’ cottage in the distance. The queue area will be dotted with barrels of glittering jewels and interactive features themed to mining.

The ride, whose track wends through indoor and outdoor sections blends old and new. Guests will encounter Snow White, her seven little men and their animal friends from the 77-year-old film while secured in a coaster built with cutting-edge technology.

After studying the film’s mine scene and the movements of the dwarfs’ mine cars, Imagineers created a coaster with cradle-like pivots that allow the vehicles to swing back and forth during the ride.

“It moves like no other thing we’ve ever developed,” says Dave Minichiello, director of Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Which takes us back to those towering, twisting and turning parade floats, like the steampunk-inspired Maleficent dragon, which stretches 53 feet long and stands 26 feet tall.

“There is so much movement and kinetic energy to all the floats,” Bunnell says. “There’s so much to see, so much to take in.”

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