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The world’s theme park capital

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Walt Disney launched what became the world’s theme park capital in the 1970s when he sited Walt Disney World by the drowsy Florida town of Orlando. Universal Studios and SeaWorld joined in, and between them created a mix of them of attractions, entertainments, hotels and restaurants so vast you need three holidays do them justice. The writer offers his choice of the newest and best attractions in one of the world’s top holiday destinations.

Wanderland

Hogwarts Castle is rising high over Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park, ready for the opening this spring of the $200 million Wizarding World of Harry Potter. After the extraordinary success in the books and the films, this is the first time that Harry’s world has been created in a real sense, complete with as many essential Hogwarts details as the designers can cram into a 20 acre space. Universal have clamped an invisibility cloak over the finer detail of what’s inside, but expect the big ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, to feature some wizard robotic details. There will be plenty of Harry-themed merchandise, from Quidditch equipment to Spectrespecs. They’re recreating Ollivander's wand shop, where wands will select their buyers. The Three Broomsticks will serve non-alcoholic Butterbeer. Author JK Rowling herself approved the recipe.

Sum thrill

The competition between Orlando’s three big operators to create the most thrilling rides entered a new dimension last October (2009) when Walt Disney World launched Sum of all Thrills in its Epcot Innovations Pavilion. For the first time visitors will be able to customise their own ride on a computer. You can choose to ride a virtual rollercoaster, a bobsleigh or jet aircraft, adding as many corkscrews, loops, spins and barrel rolls as you dare. Save it all on a swipe card, sit in your private simulator, swipe the card and clever robotics and high-definition images and sound do the rest, creating your personal, virtual, high-speed ride. A few months earlier Universal launched its Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit, which it claims is the world’s most technologically advanced rollercoaster. It includes a 167 feet plunge, to the music of your choice.

Ride the big fish

SeaWorld , Orlando’s other big player, opened its own white knuckle ride last year [2009]. The Manta ride has to be the most elegant roller coaster in town. A giant mechanical manta ray soars and swoops at 56 mph over the marine life in the park`s ten aquaria - 60 species, including 300 different rays. What makes it such an adrenaline rush is that the 30 riders are all strapped, facedown, to the manta’s belly. SeaWorld ‘s latest thing this year is Omaka Rocka, which opens in March (2010) in the Aquatica activity zone. Riders will speed down flumes into massive tunnels. Thrown around in this watery maelstrom , they’ll experience the sensation of near weightlessness. The company promises “near-vertical thrills previously experienced only by daring skateboarders and snowboarders.” It ends with a drenching splashdown

Wild side

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is built entirely around animal conservation. The emphasis is on saving and breeding creatures not normally found in zoos. They are kept in enclosures, rather than cages, which Disney says mimics natural habitats. In January (2010), an eighth white rhino was born in Animal Kingdom, which has a programme to reintroduce the creature into the Ugandan wild. Set aside an entire day for a visit to Animal Kingdom. It will take you wild animal watching into the jungles of Africa, on safari across the savannas, and on into Asia, culminating with Expedition Everest.
SeaWorld's big conservation statement is Manatee Rescue. The animal rescue team brings in injured, ill or stranded manatees. Those that make a good recovery are returned to the wild.

See a show

Time to relax after all that activity. The theme parks have their own theatres. One of the hottest tickets is Circque de Soleil’s La Nouba, in the Walt Disney Resort. It’s the only place in the world to see this show - the title loosely means `to party’ – which includes acrobatic cyclists and crazy balancing acts, ending in a daringly choreographed trampoline display. As usual they flood the stage with the vibrant colours of those trademark Cirque costumes.
Still running is the outrageously funny Blue Man Group, showing in Universal’s Theatre, and the excellent Lion King. Universal’s Cineplex 20 is one of the best of the cinemas - twenty screens, featuring high backed “rocking” chairs. The other big show in town is the American Idol Experience, at Disney Hollywood Studios. Anybody over 14 can enter, and
audition before Disney's producers.

Bright lights

Downtown Orlando has lots of real-life visitor attractions to balance the make-believe landscape of the resorts. Winter Park, dating from the 1880s, offers tree-shaded avenues, fine old houses and the world’s biggest collection of Tiffany lights, in the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. Among the works of American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany on show there (www.morsemuseum.org)
are many examples of Tiffany’s jewelry, pottery, paintings, and leaded windows. Park Avenue in Winter Park is one of the smartest shopping streets in town. There is more good shopping in the nearby The Mall at Millenia. Throughout Orlando there is a wide choice of hotels and restaurants. An excellent way to move around downtown is on the LYNX bus, or the free LYMMO bus in central Orlando. I•RIDE trolleys connect many of the sites in downtown Orlando. A 3-day pass is $6.00

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