Busch Gardens in Tampa this weekend debuts its first character meet-and-greets with Sesame Street's Big Bird and Cookie Monster. Universal Orlando promises its Harry Potter mega-attraction will open by June 18 with some never-before-seen magical ride effects. By summer, Aquatica at Sea World will be touting a new water slide, and Walt Disney World will bring back the Main Street Electrical Parade.
It's all designed to coax visitors into a return trip to help Florida theme parks forget 2009, one of their worst years ever. Thanks to the coldest Florida winter in decades, 2010 hasn't been much better.
"All this terrible weather hurt," said Jim Dean, general manager of Busch Gardens. "But we see signs of recovery."
How bad has it been? Attendance at Universal Orlando dropped 12 percent in 2009, or 1 million visitors. The Busch parks and Walt Disney World are running flat to down 1 percent, but profits are squeezed by discounting.
The lingering effects of the Great Recession in the United States is not the only culprit.
Travel from the financially hobbled United Kingdom, the source of half of all foreign travelers to Orlando, is down, and airlines are talking about trimming flights. Both hotel prices and occupancy rates in Orlando are at record lows.
But it's not just a weak economy.
Stung by the recent on-the-job death of a killer whale trainer, Sea World is staging whale shows but without trainers in the water or Tillikum, by far the park's biggest whale, whose belly flop was the show's finale.
The challenges have not slowed a theme park parade of new attractions.
Even after accounting for an $89 million trim to its operating expenses in 2009, Universal Orlando has spent $380 million on the Simpsons, Hollywood Rip Ride Coaster and Harry Potter rides since 2008. More than $200 million of that went to Potter, about as much as making one of the recent films in the series.
The elaborately detailed Wizarding World of Harry Potter includes the Hogsmeade village from the film, a rethemed twin-coaster ride, a kids' ride and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a state-of-the-art thrill ride built inside a recreated Hogwarts Castle.
The shops and restaurants brim with "magic moments" like letters that read themselves, plates that float around a china shop and a chocolate frog that leaps out of the box.
The Forbidden Journey ride, in which Harry Potter talks you into following him through a quidditch match, uses a first-ever ride system. Passengers are strapped into a Gothic-style bench. Big robotic arms positioned on a moving platform can lift, move or spin the bench or projection screens while moving through encounters with dragons and a whomping willow tree.
Thierry Coup, Universal's ride creative director, oversaw development of Spider-Man, an acclaimed ride that opened in 1999 and required Universal to invent a new type of 3D projection. For Harry Potter, Universal developed a new way to film in 360 degrees.
"This is better than 3D and without glasses," Coup said. "Guests will feel things no one ever felt in a theme park."
The experience will take an hour including a queue that winds through rooms in Hogwarts Castle. Effects range from hundreds of floating candles in the Room of Requirement to wall portraits with moving subjects.
In the meantime, Busch Gardens doubled the size of its Land of the Dragons and rethemed it as a 2.5-acre Sesame Street Safari of Fun.
The new design includes twice the splash zone, adding bucket drop drenchings to the ways kids can cool off.
Kids can also get free photo ops with costumed Elmo and other characters from the 40-year-old PBS series. For $18, parents can attend a one-hour breakfast with the characters. Lunch is $23. Kids meals are $18 and $15.
Busch dressed up mascots before, but tightly controlled images from an iconic kids TV show meant a different approach. Preschoolers can be extra rough on costumed characters so actors are heavily padded and trained to stand where kids won't sneak up behind them. Characters spent a month watching videos to mimic movements. Then came hours in front of mirrors fine-tuning gestures and learning how to hug kids without scaring them.
Busch turned up the discounts again to keep the turnstiles clicking. The one-year-for-the-price-of-one-day Florida resident pass now covers Georgia residents, too. And for all of 2010, admission is free to kids 5 and under, up from the standard 3 and under. To qualify kids must be Florida residents and be registered in advance online. They must have a copy of their birth certificate or a travel passport when they arrive at the park to pick up their Preschool Pass. Go to sesamestreetsafarioffun.com to register which also can be accessed at buschgardens.com.
Disney World, which controls 71 percent of the Orlando theme park market, this year is sticking to refreshing older attractions, opening some new restaurants and fiddling with the drop sequence for the Hollywood Tower of Terror.
Disney takes its turn in the big spender cycle this fall when it starts rebuilding Star Tours and a major expansion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom that opens in late 2012 or 2013.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.