Central Florida theme parks’ new attractions — unveiled each year to welcome summer visitors — are like a red carpet rolled out for fun. For 2008, highlights include a whole new water park, a new wildlife area at another park, and a prize giveaway and a new interactive attraction at yet another.

SeaWorld Orlando’s new water park, Aquatica, is on International Drive, across the street from SeaWorld. The 59-acre playground is themed to the South Seas islands with crystal rivers, grottoes, waterfalls, rich greenery, flowers and exotic fauna, including macaws and kookaburras. Aquatica offers animal encounters, serene and extreme water experiences, high-speed thrills and a white sand beach. Water — 3.3 million gallons of it — flows freely in lagoons, rivers and racing rides.

Attractions include two wave pools lined by wide sandy beaches, Adventure River with rapids, Lazy River with a grotto filled with thousands of fish and an underwater view of the Commerson’s dolphins’ habitat, a double raft ride, and an eight-lane racer with a 300-foot slide and tunnels. The park’s signature ride has 300 feet of clear tubes that send visitors speeding through a lagoon filled with black and white Commerson’s dolphins. Other park amenities include a children’s area, family play area, and personal cabanas.

Walt Disney World Resort has extended its Year of a Million Dreams through 2008, with new Disney Dreams Giveaway prizes awarded at random. These include New Year’s Eve in the Cinderella Castle Suite; Disney’s Bahamas private island for a day; a hot-air balloon ride over Epcot; a behind-the-scenes peek at Disney Imagineering; and the chance to serve as grand marshal leading the parks’ parades in France, California, Hong Kong and Florida. Another prize is multiple yearly Disney vacations, including a Bahamian voyage on Disney Cruise Line, a tour to China or Australia or other destinations from Adventures By Disney, and trips to Disneyland and Disney World. The winner of this prize — he or she can take up to three guests — will take one trip a year through Sept. 30, 2012.

Also new at Disney World, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, formerly Disney-MGM, has a whole set of attractions this year. Arguably the most exciting of these is the interactive competition of Toy Story Mania! opening May 31. Inspired by Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story films, visitors to the attraction begin by donning 3-D glasses, boarding the ride and zipping into a series of midway-style games hosted by many Toy Story characters including Woody, Hamm and Rex. Inside Andy’s Toy Box, visitors try to rack up the most points by using spring-action shooters to launch darts at balloons, eggs at barnyard targets and rings at aliens.

Other new attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios include Block Party Bash, an interactive parade debuting in spring with Disney-Pixar film characters including The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. Playhouse Disney Live on Stage! reopened in February with a new cast of characters including favorite stars from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Little Einsteins and Handy Manny. High School Musical 2: School’s Out! comes to life in the park’s streets on a traveling stage, and the Meet and Greet character setting in the park’s Animation Courtyard welcomes Handy Manny, in addition to regulars Jo Jo and Goliath, and the Little Einsteins.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has a new wildlife area: Jungala. The new observation area allows visitors multiple ways to see such animals as orangutans and white tigers in a jungle setting. Located in the park’s Congo area, Jungala has waterways, a waterfall, and village and jungle environments. Jungala also includes a family fun section with rides and exploration areas, some of the latter being three stories high and overlooking the wildlife. In addition to close-up viewing of wildlife, Jungala offers interaction with animals and features street entertainment.

While theme park fans all over the country await the debut in 2009 of the Harry Potter environment within Universal’s Islands of Adventure Park, Universal Studios unveils Disaster! A Major Motion Picture Ride… Starring You. This attraction, which replaces Earthquake, combines the drama of Earthquake with new celebrity talent, new ride elements, interactive components and a new storyline.

Also at Universal Orlando is a new simulator ride based on The Simpsons. It replaces the park’s Back To The Future ride.

Cypress Gardens Adventure Park has announced a series of concerts and special events for spring and summer. Among the special family-friendly happenings is Kidzpalooza now through June 22, with dozens of interactive activities, shows, concerts and parties. Kids can get messy in the park’s super-sloppy game show Gunk’d. Other special events include Celebrate America, June 27-Aug. 3, with daytime entertainment, exhibits and shows and evening live music, street performers and a nightly laser show. Wild Encounters (Aug. 8-10, 12-17, and 22-24) features close-up opportunities with animals and educational events such as keeper talks, animal experts and celebrities from Animal Planet, as well as backstage tours not regularly offered.

Information courtesy of South Florida Sun-Sentinel