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The world’s theme park capital

Costa Rica

Walt Disney launched what became the world’s theme park capital when he sited Walt Disney World, full of his famous cartoon characters, next to the orange groves around the drowsy Florida town of Orlando in the 1970s. Universal Studios and SeaWorld joined in, and between them created a concentration of attractions, entertainments, hotels and restaurants so vast you need three holidays do them justice. This is our choice of the newest and best attractions in one of the world’s top holiday destinations.

Be a star

if you yearn to enter, and even win, Pop Idol, why not practice on the US
version, The American Idol Experience, Orlando’s very latest attraction (it
opens on Feb 14th 2009). Fear not - you won’t have to sing before Simon
Cowell. Otherwise Disney follows the show’s format closely in its Hollywood
Studios at the resort. Anybody over 14 can enter, and
audition before Disney’s producers. Successful singers then line up in one of
seven preliminary shows in front of audiences in the 1,000-seat Superstar
Television Theatre. The winners in each of these sing-offs compete in the
day's finale. Three judges, cast just as they are in the TV shows, give their
opinion. Audiences are free to boo, then vote for the winner electronically
from their seat. The victor qualifies for an audition in the real American Idol.

Shock of the new.

Plan your visit to the planet’s biggest entertainment
complex carefully. Yes, be traditional, and join Mickey Mouse and the team in
the Main Street Family Fun Day Parade. But there is so much more. The three
competing theme park companies are constantly devising new attractions.
Last month (January 2009) Disney launched Kim Possible, based on the TV
show about a high school cheerleader who fights crime. You become a secret
agent, scouring the theme park for clues to help save the world from super-
villains. New in 2008 was Disney’s Toy Story Mania!, in which participants don
3-D glasses and “shoot” at giant video screens. The latest from SeaWorld
Orlando is Aquatica, a complex of 36 water slides, six
rivers, lagoons, a sandy beach, and live creatures including dolphins, macaws
and fish in vivid HD colours.

Ay, caramba

Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening describes Universal Orlando’s
new ride, based on his long-running show, as
duplicating what you see on TV, “only at high speed and with lots of
screaming.' Cantankerous Krusty the Clown “chooses” you to “try out” his
new ride in Krustyland, and take a seat behind Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and
Maggie (the words are spoken by the series’ regular actors) for a wild
rollercoaster ride through a previously little-known side of Springfield, while
Sideshow Bob, fresh from prison, hatches a maniacal plot to bump off Bart –
and you. The ticket includes a photo shoot with the dysfunctional family
afterwards. The industry has heaped accolades on the ride since it opened
last year – including “World’s best new theme park attraction of 2008.”

Roller coasters wars

This spring (2009) Universal Orlando opens what it claims is the world’s most
technologically advanced rollercoaster – the Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit, with
a tantalizing “six never-before-seen manoeuvres.”
The ride will stand 167 feet high, and brave riders will plunge down at speeds
of up to 65 mph. They can select a theme song for the trip, (bags I “Ride of
the Valkyries”) and naturally buy a DVD of the experience. Shortly afterwards
(2009) SeaWorld will unveil Manta, a two-part celebration of this magnificent
ray. First you get the chance to see the creatures circling above you through
an overhead viewing panel inside a giant tank. Then you actually “become”
one, riding a sort of flying roller coaster resembling a manta ray. The best bit
is soaring facedown over the water at around 50 mph.

Gentle giants

There is a serious side to the many Orlando attractions. In SeaWorld’s
Manatee Rescue, all the examples of this endangered gentle giant from the
Florida Everglades have been saved by the company’s animal rescue team, on
constant call to pick up injured, ill or stranded manatees. Those that make a
good recovery are returned to their habitat. Manatee Rescue was named best
new zoological exhibit last year (2008) by the American Zoological Association.
Disney's big animal protection statement is Animal Kingdom, its first park to be
themed entirely around animal conservation. This is a massive, all day affair
takes you wild animal watching into the jungles of Africa, on safari across the
savannas, and on into Asia, culminating with Expedition Everest.

See a show

How to relax after all that activity? The theme parks have their own theatres,
currently long term homes to the outrageously funny Blue Man Group, the
exquisite Circque de Soleil, and the simply excellent Lion King.
After the show, try Universal’s Mythos Restaurant, voted the world’s “Best
Theme Park Restaurant” for six years running. For more authentic Southern
cuisine, visit Johnson's Diner, a “soul food” eatery since 1955, for its fried
whiting with buttery grits. Hemingway’s, with its
convincing Key West décor, serves splendid beer-battered coconut shrimp
with marmalade. Best of all is Café Tu Tu Tangoon (on International Drive) for
tasty tapas, such as roasted pears on pecan crisps, topped with Spanish bleu
cheese.

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