Another year, another round of one-upsmanship in the arms race between Florida's theme parks. Oh, you've got a new roller coaster? Well, check out our new tiger exhibit! It's gonna be a busy summer in Tampa and Orlando, with big new additions at Busch Gardens, Universal Orlando and Disney's Hollywood Studios, not to mention a whole new park, Aquatica, at Sea World. Memorial Day weekend is a good time to scope out the hottest new attractions at regional parks. Here's a guide. — tbt*
The big news: It should be called Tweenerville, this new 4-acre play zone called Jungala aimed at kids too old for the Land of Dragons and too young for SheiKra. Built on the site of the old Python roller coaster, it has an intricate maze of nets, bridges and tubes that venture into the play area of the orangutans and gibbons, long-armed apes from Asia. They made news when the park closed off the west side of the exhibit to its orangutans, keeping them behind glass after one briefly escaped six weeks after Jungala opened. But none of the areas people roam has been closed off.
Jungala also has a 35-foot pneumatic pop-up ride to rattle your stomach and a gentle zip-line ride over the tree tops designed for ages 6 to 13. The big attraction for the adults is the tiger den that, thanks to thick glass and lots of tunnels, gets you closer to a tiger than you'd ever imagine without getting eaten.
The good: Several times a day, trainers come out to show off the apes and the tigers, even giving visitors a chance to play tug of war with a Bengal tiger. In the treetop lookout, we saw a gibbon hanging right outside the window, amused by the squealing kids and cell-phone cameras flashing. Don't miss the pop-up dome in the tiger den that literally puts you face to face with the beasts. The climbing area, rope walkways and splash zone offer lots of unexpected diversions, like bongo drums at the top of a tall climb or bats hanging under the netting.
The bad: For teens and young singles, the tame rides and play areas won't hold much interest, but the tiger and alligator viewing areas fascinate all ages. Because the play zone is more challenging than the Land of Dragons, it can be hard for a parent to keep up with younger kids who need closer supervision. So prepare to cross a rope bridge yourself to keep up.
What else is new? The Bengal Bistro has a kid-friendly menu, and the new Orang Caf? serves premium snacks, salads and sandwiches. The water splash zone has a viewing area for the strange-looking pointy nosed crocodiles from India, called gharial, that you can see up close, but you have to crawl on your hands and knees in a tunnel to get the best view. Sorry, Grandpa.
Worth the trip? Animal lovers will dig the up-close encounters, and people with kids 6 to 13 will like having a more challenging play area. Just wear clothes (and better yet, shoes) that can get wet. It's not the only reason to visit Busch Gardens, but it rounds out the trip for families. It certainly made us consider getting a Fun Pass to come back.
Park details: Located in Tampa off Busch Boulevard at 3605 Bougainvillea Ave., Busch Gardens is $64.95, $54.95 ages 3 to 9. Florida resident and advance discounts online and combo tickets to affiliated parks as Sea World and Aquatica are available at buschgardens.com.
— Sharon Kennedy Wynne
The big news: This new 60-acre aquatic amusement park built across the street from SeaWorld had its grand opening in April. It's got 3.1 million pounds of white sand, 36 water slides and six rivers and lagoons on more than 80,000 square feet of beach.
The good: Aquatica's signature ride is the Dolphin Plunge — you plunge 250 feet through clear tubes, shoot past a tank full of Commerson's dolphins and splash down at the end in a shallow pool. The 15,000-square-foot Walkabout Waters offered something for kids of all ages — a shallow pool for splashing around, an elaborate network of ladders, rope bridges and slides where they can explore, shoot water cannons and get doused by two gigantic water buckets. Loggerhead Run, a lazy river that takes you past the dolphin tank, isn't as long as the Lazy River at Disney's Blizzard Beach, but it's fine.
Big Surf, one of the park's two wave pools, offers only gentle swells. The other one, Cutback Cove, churns out a series of monster curls. Naturally the kids in our group liked Cutback, with waves that lifted them off their feet and let them body surf back toward the shore.
The bad: Signs weren't always clear, nor was asking directions. The roughest ride was Roa's Rapids, an "action river ride'' that whisks you into its strong current, propelling you through a circuitous course with turbulent rapids. We made the 6-year-old wear a life jacket and were glad we did. The kids enjoyed it, but it left us grownups huffing and puffing.
Other tips? The smartest thing we did was buy wristbands for an all-day, all-you-can-eat buffet of beef and veggie burgers, hot dogs and barbecue chicken (not to mention some sweet banana pudding) at the Banana Beach Cookout — and there's no limit on soft drinks.
Worth the trip? It offers plenty of family fun, but just misses living up to the hype. Still, it compares well to other water parks, such as Blizzard Beach. Maybe as the year rolls along, the park will have worked out the kinks.
Park details: Aquatica is across the street from SeaWorld on International Drive between Central Florida Parkway and State Road 528, Orlando. Open 10 a.m. daily or 9 a.m. during peak season, year-round. Closing hours vary. One-day pass is $38.95; $32.95 for ages 3 to 9. Free for 2 and younger. Combination tickets with affiliated parks, such as SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, and Florida resident discounts available. aquaticabyseaworld.com.
— Craig Pittman and Sherry Robinson
The big news: Universal is just about the last place you'd expect to find a smart kiss-off to the Big Dumb Coaster, but the park has sure found one in The Simpsons Ride — a new $30 million motion simulator on the former site of Back to the Future: The Ride. You ride along on a rickety, rollicking romp through a CGI Springfield, as a murderous Sideshow Bob sends the Simpson family on a condemned Krustyland coaster, the Thrilltacular Upsy-Downsy Spins-Aroundsy High-Flying Teen-Operated Thrill Ride. The car spins off the tracks and crashes into other park attractions with gleefully parodic names like Captain Dinosaur's Pirate Rip-Off and Krusty's Wet & Smoky Stunt Show.
The good: The ride is packed with more original, funny material than a prime-time sitcom, much less a theme park. A team of Simpsons writers collaborated on a ton of new dialogue and sight gags, most of it riffing on the absurdity of the theme park experience — the prices of the food, the cheapness of the midway prizes, the ridiculously long lines for coasters. One highlight is a video scroll of signs for other attractions at Krustyland ("Merlin's Medieval Joust: Closed for wizard re-bearding"). Even the dialogue is chuckle-out-loud funny — like this snippet from a pre-ride safety video, in which the family hops into their coaster cab after waiting an hour in line:
HOMER: Wow, we're the first people to ever ride this baby. We're like that space guy who did that moon thing.
LISA: Neil Armstrong?
HOMER: No, Chewbacca.
Throw in a couch gag at the end — yes, the ride has one — and you've basically got an all-new episode. Except here, you're experiencing it firsthand.
The bad: Even with an Express Plus Pass, the line and ride take about 25 minutes, so budget your time accordingly. Also, the ride is a little discombobulating. I'm a roller coaster veteran, and by my second spin, I actually felt a little queasy. Finally, tall riders have to sit in the front row due to a lack of headroom in the back (which is really a blessing in disguise, because the view from the front is much better).
Good for kids? Kids are welcome on the ride — the height requirement is 40 inches, the same as Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast. The material is no more objectionable than what you'd see on the show, so let that be your guide.
Worth the trip? For Simpsons fans, absolutely. It really is like living through an episode; you'll be stunned by how much creativity went into it. And if you're not into Homer — well, there's always Fear Factor Live.
Park details: Universal Orlando, 6000 Universal Boulevard, Orlando. Open 9 a.m. daily; closing hours vary. One-day passes start at $69.99; $58.99 for ages 3 to 9. Free for 2 and younger. Combo tickets with Islands of Adventure available, as are Florida resident discounts. universalorland.com.
— Jay Cridlin
DISNEY'S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS
The big news: The Mouse House ushers in a new era at the former Disney-MGM Studios with Toy Story Mania!, opening May 31. Need proof the park is slowly shedding its Old Hollywood image? Look no further than the Pixar archway that welcomes you to this attraction, which mimics the soundstage at Disney-owned Pixar's California studios.
The premise: Toy Story Mania! is inspired by Buzz, Woody and pals. Once inside, visitors view the world from a toy-sized perspective as they wind through the line. Before boarding a four-person tram, you don 3-D glasses. The trams travel slowly — and spin — through "Andy's Bedroom," where you make stops to play a series of midway games. Players using the tram's Spring Action Shooters, launch "virtual" darts, rings and other objects at 3-D animated targets.
The good: The ride appeals to all ages. Baby boomers, especially, will get a kick out of revisiting the toys and games of their childhoods — Lincoln Logs, a Disneyland ViewMaster, Chutes & Ladders, etc. — as they wind through the line. Then there's the 5-foot-tall-plus Mr. Potato Head, an audio-animatronic carnival barker voiced by Don Rickles ("It's a ride; it's game. It's a game; it's a ride"), who engages guests in two-way conversation (a la Turtle Talk with Crush at Epcot). Once in the ride, the coolest effect is watching the virtual ammo launch from your shooter — even your misses look realistic. Then there are the interactive elements — which Disney calls "4-D" — such as when you pop a balloon and are sprayed by water or hit with a burst of air.
The bad: Smaller children may need help with the repetitive pulling of the Spring Action Shooters. And there are sure to be long lines, so get there early for a FastPass.
Good for kids? You bet. There are no height or age restrictions. There's nothing scary — especially for kids who have seen the Toy Story movies.
What else is new? The Block Party Bash, an interactive parade with Pixar characters. Playhouse Disney Live on Stage! has updated its cast with more Disney Channel favorites such as characters from the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Little Einsteins. Kids can't get enough High School Musical? High School Musical 2: School's Out! is the interactive show that hits the park's streets on a traveling stage. There is also a Jedi Training Academy (adjacent to the Star Tours ride), where young padawans can be tutored in the lightsaber from a Jedi Master.
Worth the trip? You bet. With Toy Story Mania! joining the new Playhouse Disney offerings, Hollywood Studios is on its way to becoming a strong No. 2 to the Magic Kingdom as the WDW place for the younger set.
Park details: Disney's Hollywood Studios is located at Walt Disney World, which is at Exit 64, off Interstate 4 in Lake Buena Vista. Open 9 a.m. daily; closing hours vary. Single-day admission for Florida residents to any of the four theme parks: $63.90 plus tax adults, $54 plus tax ages 3 to 9.
— Peter Couture