Aquatica will open to the public March 1, followed by back-to-back grand-opening celebrations in early April for that water park and a new attractions area at one of its sister parks, Busch Gardens-Tampa Bay.

Parent company Busch Entertainment Corp. announced Monday, January 21, that Aquatica tickets are now available in multipark ticket packages for dates starting with a March 1 “soft” public opening of the new water park, located across International Drive from SeaWorld Orlando.

Opening festivities for the new, 59-acre Aquatica will last more than a month, allowing Busch Entertainment to combine its April 4 grand opening with one the next day for Jungala, the new attractions area in Busch Gardens. In addition, Busch Entertainment plans an April 4 global fundraising celebration known as Wildnight for the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.

Aquatica will be the first full-size theme park to open in the Orlando area since Busch opened its Discovery Cove tropical-resort park in the summer of 2000. Company officials have said Aquatica would be able to handle up to 16,000 visitors at a time, making it the highest-capacity water park in the state.

Formally known as Aquatica SeaWorld’s Water Park, the South Pacific-themed park will combine conventional water-park attractions such as tube slides and wave pools with some of the attractions found in sister parks SeaWorld and Discovery Cove , such as lush tropical landscaping, animal encounters with creatures ranging from tropical fish to Commerson’s dolphins, personal cabanas, and — during peak seasons — beachside food and beverage service. The park will feature 36 water slides, a high-speed river ride with rapids, and an 80,000-square-foot beach.

Single-day tickets are not yet available. They will cost $38.95 for adults and $32.95 for children ages 3 to 9. SeaWorld is now packaging multipark deals, starting with an Aquatica-SeaWorld combination available for $79.95.

The 4-acre Jungala area will combine jungle habitats for Bengal tigers, orangutans and other animals with jungle trails alongside and above those exhibit areas as well as waterways, towering trees, three new attractions and two new restaurants.

Information courtesy of Orlando Sentinel

Universal Studios Florida becomes the “Big Easy” this Mardi Gras season, throwing America’s biggest street party this side of New Orleans and featuring a lineup of hit musical acts with a collective 260 million albums sold. Topping the list of fabulous hit-makers are country star Gretchen Wilson, rockers Third Eye Blind and Heart; rap impresario L.L. Cool J and old-school crooners Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, Smokey Robinson and Kool & The Gang.

Mardi Gras 2008 at Universal Orlando begins February 2 and runs for twelve Saturday nights through April 19. Each Saturday night features some of America’s most popular musical talent with a diverse mix of awards and achievements. One performer has the second-highest rated show in VH1 history. One performer has received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. And one performer’s music is the inspiration for a current, multi-Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

Party-goers of all ages will enjoy the biggest Mardi Gras celebration outside of New Orleans featuring an elaborate parade, hundreds of costumed characters, tons of souvenir beads, Cajun cuisine, and live performances by top-name talent. In addition, New Orleans-style bands will showcase their hottest music in the “French Quarter.”

“Mardi Gras at Universal Studios is about providing our guests with a street party that captures the spirit of the “Big Easy,” said Jim Timon, senior vice president of entertainment, Universal Orlando Resort. “This year’s concert series features incredible musicians who appeal to a wide audience. Their music paired with our authentic parade and, of course, tons of beads will create an unbeatable party atmosphere in the streets of Universal Studios.”

The centerpiece of Mardi Gras is the parade featuring 13 vibrant floats winding around the “French Quarter Courtyard,” a replica of New Orleans’ French quarter – the heart of Mardi Gras. These authentic floats are designed by “Mr. Mardi Gras,” Blaine Kern, whose company, Blaine Kern Artists, Inc., has built Mardi Gras floats since 1932. New this year, the parade will bring exotic places to life with floats and performers designed to emulate Babylon, Atlantis, Camelot and more.

The celebration would not be complete without the taste of traditional Cajun and Creole cuisine such as jambalaya, gumbo and beignets, which are sure to tempt the palate of Mardi Gras revelers. Along with mouth-watering food, guests can sip on flavorful drinks made famous in New Orleans.

After the parade, guests will be entertained by some of today’s hottest internationally-known musicians during the Mardi Gras Concert Series.

Universal Studios Mardi Gras 2008 Concert

February
February 2 – Bret Michaels of Poison
February 9 – Go-Go’s
February 16 – Sara Evans
Febrary 23 – Third Eye Blind

March

March 1 – Gretchen Wilson
March 8 – Smokey Robinson
March 15 – Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
March 22 – Kool & The Gang
March 29 – Heart

April

April 5 – TBA
April 12 – LL Cool J
April 19 – TBA

The Mardi Gras ticket, valid after 5 p.m. at Universal Studios, is applicable any one Saturday night from February 2 through April 19 and can be purchased for $46.95 plus tax. Florida and Georgia residents can save $10 off a Mardi Gras valid after 5 p.m. ticket with a specially-marked Coca-Cola product or cup from participating Wendy’s locations.

Florida residents can also save $30 off a 2-Park Annual Power Pass (regularly-priced $129.95 plus tax). The Power Pass offers admission to both Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure for one year with minimal blackout dates and includes admission to all 12 nights of Mardi Gras.

Universal CityWalk will host the official after-party of the Mardi Gras celebration, with guests receiving free admission into select clubs until 2 a.m. by presenting their Mardi Gras tickets. For an additional $15, guests can purchase a VIP upgrade ticket to the official Mardi Gras after-party which includes complimentary appetizers, drink specials and souvenir beads.

Information courtesy of Universal Orlando

New Attractions Announced for 2008

In 2008, Orlando will see a rise in new attractions and changes at Orlando’s major theme parks. SeaWorld Orlando will unveil a brand new water park, Aquatica, in March. Universal Orlando Resort will showcase America’s favorite television cartoon family, “The Simpsons,” in a simulator ride this spring. And, fresh attractions and shows abound at newly renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios). The park kicks off its celebration with Toy Story Mania!, a 3-D ride; “Block Party Bash,” an interactive Disney parade; and “Playhouse Disney-Live on Stage!,” introducing a whole new cast. More new Orlando attractions will be announced during the coming year.

Gatorland broke ground on a $4 million complex, which will add 19,000 square feet (1,765 square meters) of retail, meeting and office space to the attraction. The new area features an open-air admission pavilion that incorporates the historic gator-mouth entrance, a meeting facility and a shopping area. The complex is projected to open in summer 2008. The attraction is fully operational during construction.

The Holy Land Experience has eliminated its $5 parking fee in light of increased attendance numbers and the park’s desire to bring in more visitors. Tickets for the attraction are $35 for adults and $23 for children ages 6-12.

Scenic Lake Tours has added a new nature tour to its offerings. The two-hour tour includes a short scenic boat tour and nature walk on Makinson’s Island nature trail, where hikers can view eagle nests, owls, mountain goats, raccoons and wild pigs. Admission is $50 for adults and $30 for children.

Terror in Orlando opened on International Drive. The haunted attraction offers two unique horror experiences, Mayhem Manor and 3-D Funhouse, with plenty of scares for everyone. The manor showcases the bizarre experiments of Dr. Morphius Mayhem, while the funhouse features the sinister world of Kilmor the Clown. The attraction is open daily with seasonal hours. Admission is $12 for adults and $8 for children ages 12 and under.

Titanic – The Experience, has relocated to the Orlando Science Center, and will be featured through the end of 2008. The attraction first opened in 1999, when it was located on International Drive. It showcases a variety of artifacts associated with the famous ship, as well as sets that include an exact replica of the ship’s grand staircase. Admission to the exhibition is included in regular science center pricing, which is $14.95 for adults and $9.95 for children ages 3-11.

New in 2008 Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Studios Florida unveiled plans for a new ride, which will be based on FOX’s blockbuster hit series, “The Simpsons.” Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson–stars of TV’s longest running series–will ride along with guests in the new attraction, which takes them on a hysterical, almost unimaginable adventure. The ride will open spring 2008.

Universal Orlando Resort replaced its Earthquake attraction with an all-new ride, Disaster! A Major Motion Picture Ride…Starring You, which opened in late 2007. The new ride offers guests an experience combining the best, most dramatic elements of Earthquake with a new story line, blockbuster celebrity talent, ride elements, digital technologies and interactive components.

New in 2008 Walt Disney World

Disney-MGM Studios theme park has been renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The new name, which reflects how the park has grown from representing the golden age of movies to a celebration of the new entertainment that today’s Hollywood has to offer, debuted in January 2008. The park will unveil the following attractions in 2008:

Toy Story Mania! involves an interactive “Toy Story” competition inspired by the film. 3-D glasses put guests in the middle of the action as they board vehicles and zip into a world of exciting midway-style games hosted by their favorite characters. The ride is set to open in summer 2008.

“Block Party Bash” encourages guests to play, party and dance at the new interactive Disney parade, which opens in spring 2008.

“Playhouse Disney-Live on Stage!” introduces a whole new cast of friends engaging children in singing, clapping and dancing. The new show opens in February 2008.

Epcot opened a new gallery exhibition, “National Treasures.” Three dozen artifacts from American history are on display in the American Heritage Gallery of the American Adventure pavilion, including items from Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington Carver. Most of the items are on loan from museums and private collections and will be rotated over time. The exhibition is not permanent, but there is currently no planned end date.

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts has announced that its theme parks will extend their popular “Year of a Million Dreams” promotion through the end of 2008. The program is highlighted by daily prize giveaways like FASTPASS tickets, free concessions or a stay in the Cinderella Castle suite. So far, more than 846,000 dreams have been awarded to guests at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

Information courtesy of Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau

The Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities is being held Jan. 26 through Feb. 3, 2008 in Eatonville. Each year, tens of thousands come together from across the country to celebrate the cultural contributions people of African ancestry have made to American culture at the nine-day festival. The theme of the 19th annual event is “Ritual and Spirituality in the African Diaspora: An Exploration of the Zora Neale Hurston Legacy.”

Named in honor of literary figure Hurston (1891-1960), the dominant female voice of the Harlem Renaissance whose hometown was Eatonville, this unique celebration features museum exhibitions, panel discussions, workshops, youth art displays, performances and concerts.

“The festival brings together art and cultural enthusiasts and also serves as a continued reminder of Zora Neale Hurston; her extensive work; the historical significance of the Town of Eatonville and its ability to play an integral role in Central Florida’s tourism,” said festival general manager N.Y. Nathiri.

A complete schedule of events is available, so be sure to plan your festival days now!

Information courtesy of Orlando Chamber & Visitors Bureau

The mystery buyer of Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede is little more than a stone’s throw from the now-shuttered dinner attraction on Interstate 4 near Walt Disney World.

The parent company of the Orlando Premium Outlets shopping center confirmed Tuesday that it holds the contract to buy the property at 8251 Vineland Ave. The company, Chelsea Property Group, is a division of Simon Property Group, the nation’s biggest shopping-mall owner and operator.

Chelsea officials wouldn’t elaborate on their plans for the 13-acre site, which is across Vineland Avenue from Orlando Premium Outlets.

The outlet center, with 110 stores, is already undergoing an expansion that will add 30 more shops. The expansion is scheduled to be finished in November. The center also recently added a parking structure.

Dixie Stampede LLC abruptly closed the Dolly Parton dinner theater Monday, putting more than 160 employees out of work. The attraction, which had been open about 4 1/2 years, said it was looking for a new location, having received an offer for its property that was too good to turn down.

Dixie Stampede employees were notified that their jobs had been eliminated during what was to have been a weeklong break in operations. Rumors that the attraction might be sold circulated last week, though the company had denied as recently as Monday morning that a sale was pending. The company continues to operate Dolly Parton dinner attractions in Branson, Mo.; Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Orlando Premium Outlets, which opened in June 2000, contains many designer-brand stores and has become a popular tourist stop. With the addition of 30 stores and a parking garage, it appears that little developable land remains on its current site.

Chelsea Property Group bills itself as the world’s largest developer, owner and operator of manufacturers’ outlet centers. It was acquired by Simon Property Group in October 2004 and operates as a wholly owned subsidiary. In the Orlando area, Simon owns Seminole Towne Center, The Florida Mall, Waterford Lakes Town Center and a half-dozen other smaller shopping complexes. Orlando Premium Outlets was Chelsea’s most lucrative outlet property last year, with sales nearly double the industry average.

Information courtesy of Orlando Sentinel

The new owners of Florida’s Cypress Gardens have announced a significant operational change at the historic attraction. Owners say the move will create a more energized, fun- filled experience that will be applauded by Cypress Gardens’ current guest base and create strong appeal to both area residents and visitors to Orlando, Florida.

Baker Leisure Group, headquartered in Orlando, respected worldwide as one of the premiere consulting and management specialists in the themed attractions industry, has been appointed to operate the 71-year old Florida themed attraction. “This is an important first step toward providing our guests with a more positive, memorable guest experience,” said co-owners Rob Harper and Brian Philpot, who announced Baker Leisure Group’s appointment on Tuesday. Harper and Philpot said the change does not affect the attraction’s operating staff, but replaces the contractor that had been managing Cypress Gardens on interim basis since the two Polk County natives purchased the attraction last October. The operational changeover is effective immediately.

“We are fortunate to have Baker Leisure Group at Cypress Gardens. They are one of the premier management companies in the world and based in Central Florida. Cypress Gardens needs a strong community presence, an element the Baker group understands,” said Harper and Philpot. Baker Leisure Group, comprised of veterans of some of the world’s most successful theme parks and attractions, has earned worldwide recognition for their attraction and theme park management capabilities. The Orlando-based company has handled assignments ranging from the popular Coca-Cola Olympic City at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games to planning, opening and managing Al Shallal, Saudi Arabia one of the largest theme parks in the Middle East. Altogether, Baker Leisure Group has been involved with more than 100 theme parks, attractions and related assignments around the world since the firm was founded in 1988 by 40-year theme park and attractions management specialist Steve Baker.

Harper and Philpot also stresses that the attraction will maintain a close relationship with the local community. Community relations programs will include partnerships with local businesses, greater community involvement and a proactive outreach to Cypress Gardens’ “alumni” and fans.

Cypress Gardens staff were notified of the operational change on Tuesday morning. Vendors and suppliers to Cypress Gardens were also notified of the change, along with assurances that the change is a reflection of the new ownership’s confidence in the park’s future.

The ownership team said they are in the process of notifying a number of other influential local audiences in Central Florida, including tourism industry and economic development leadership, as well as current ticket holders and volunteers who have lobbied to keep Cypress Gardens operating after the attraction suffered attendance declines in the 1980s and 1990s and an ownership change in 2005.

“Visitors to Cypress Gardens will notice a more lively, interactive, engaging atmosphere as we move forward,” said Steve Baker, whose company has assumed operational control of the attraction. “We provide the best overall guest experience possible. The changes will range from cosmetic to cultural. Cypress Gardens enthusiasts will recognize and applaud the changes and potential guests, particularly families living in the fast-growing Polk County metropolitan area, will have plenty of reasons to want to visit the attraction for the first time or make a return visit.”

Baker said operational changes will address intangibles such as more extensive staff training, revised internal operating procedures such as queue line management and more accessible food and beverage service, as well as more visible changes.

Press Release courtesy of Cypress Gardens

A 150-year-old magician’s trick has gone high-tech to help make Christopher Walken the star of Universal Studios‘ newest attraction.

Universal recently overhauled its former Earthquake! ride to create a newly themed version called Disaster! — highlighted by the first large-scale, permanent use of an illusion called “musion.”

The technique borrows a 19th-century magician’s trick known in the trade as “Pepper’s ghost,” then adds 21st-century technology to deliver the virtual image of Walken, the Academy Award-winning actor of such movies as The Deer Hunter, Wedding Crashers and Hairspray.

As a result, at Disaster! A Major Motion Picture Ride . . . Starring You!, the audience watches a projection of Walken — portraying a fictional movie director named Frank Kincaid — run onto the stage, talk to them, walk in front of, and behind, real furniture on the stage, and interact with a live actor there.

Slated for a Jan. 17 grand opening, the attraction has been open sporadically for previews during the past couple of weeks, drawing consistent, widespread wonder from employees and visitors alike, said Universal’s Jeff Smith, project manager for Disaster!

“When I see them in the room, and see Frank Kincaid walk onto the stage, they say, ‘What am I seeing here?’ ” Smith said. “And there is a sense of amazement.”

Pepper’s ghost has been a favorite illusion among magicians since British illusionist John Pepper showcased it in the 1860s. The technique employs a large, disguised window set diagonally across a stage. Under “normal” lighting, the window is fully transparent showing only what is on the stage behind it. But when objects are lighted in a hidden room off to the side, the glass reflects those objects. To the audience, the actual stage objects and the reflections appear together.

With musion, the Pepper’s-ghost images are projected onto the window using high-powered, high-definition, video projectors, explained James Rock, one of the directors of the British company Musion Systems Ltd., which sells the technology in Europe and the United States. Instead of being made of glass, today’s musion window is made from a sheet of micro-thin, transparent foil developed by German engineer Uwe Maass, which allows for additional illusion tricks.

Until now, Musion Systems has sold the technology mainly for events such as trade shows and corporate meetings. Among notable public displays, Musion was used to put an Al Gore projection on stage at the 2007 Live Earth concert in Tokyo, and Madonna and the Gorillaz band characters on stage at the 2006 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

The illusion often is mistaken by viewers and in media reports as a hologram. Yet, “technically, it’s not accurate,” Rock said. “What you’re looking at is always a two-dimensional projection. . . . We call it a ‘holographic effect.’ ”

Video projections are nothing new for the Pepper’s ghost trick. They’ve been used for decades in theme park attractions such as the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Walt Disney Imagineering also recently debuted its own 21st-century version, a technique similar to musion, for illusions in The Seas with Nemo & Friends ride at Epcot.

The musion set at Universal’s Disaster! is the largest permanent installation in the world, and the first his company has put in a theme park, Rock said. Yet the musion portion of Universal’s ride is used merely as the set-up for the rest of the 15-minute attraction, not part of the main event.

“It could become a whole ride,” Rock said. “I think it probably won’t be very long before there is a full musion . . . ride.”

Under Disaster!’s story line, Walken’s character, Kincaid, is a director of schlock disaster movies such as Apocageddon, and he is casting a few “extras” for his next movie, Mutha Nature, staring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Visitors enter under the pretext that they all are wannabe actors, there to try and get picked for a few bit roles. The musion effect allows Kincaid to explain his movie and needs to the audience.

Then the audience moves on to the next room, where some visitors participate in various film shoots involving special effects, while everyone else watches. Much of the rest of the attraction is little changed from the old Earthquake! experience, still featuring a subway ride into a California temblor, compete with collapsing structures, crashing vehicles, fire and flood.
Universal’s Smith said he knew the musion segment would be a hit during development last summer, when some involved in the production sometimes forgot what they were watching.

“More than once I found myself talking to somebody who wasn’t there, even having seen it over and over” Smith said. “I felt we had a winner.”

Information courtesy of Orlando Sentinel