Don't let high gas prices and rising airfare put a damper on your summer travel plans. If you're heading to the theme park capital of the world, there's plenty new to see and do.
Last year, despite a year-to-year decrease in Florida tourism for the first time since 2001, the state's giant theme parks still saw more tourists. And for the first time in recent memory, each of them has a new major attraction to keep the turnstiles churning as tourism rebounds this year.
So take a water slide ride with dolphins at the new Aquatica park adjacent to SeaWorld. Come face-to-face with orangutans and Bengal tigers at Busch Gardens' new Jungala. Zap Toy Story targets in 3-D at Disney, or spin though Springfield on Universal's new Simpsons ride. It's all here waiting in sunny central Florida.
A look at what you'll find:
Aquatica by Seaworld: The Orlando area already had three major water parks, but at none could you plunge down a 250-foot tube while watching dolphins ride the waves around you. Enter SeaWorld's Aquatica, a water park with a heaping helping of "zoo."
Macaws and African cichlids (a fish) join the giant anteater, laughing kookaburra (a bird), sulcata tortoise and roseate spoonbill (a bird that resembles flamingos) in a grand menagerie themed after the tropics.
Adjacent to SeaWorld, the park has 36 water slides and six rivers and lagoons. The lazy river Loggerhead Lane carries visitors through waterfalls, exotic bird habitat and a pool teeming with colorful fish. The more adventurous Roa's Rapids speeds through waters rumbling with geysers.
There are also eight-lane racing slides and a raft ride boasting three drops — Hooroo Run, which sends visitors down six stories on a 7-foot-wide flume.
In addition, Aquatica is home to "the world's only side-by-side wave pools capable of operating both together and independently," SeaWorld says. That means 860,000 gallons of water crashing and churning — or gently rolling.
For the kids, there are 15,000 square feet of play areas in Walkabout Waters, including slides and water cannons.
If you want a taste of the beach in landlocked Orlando, Aquatica offers 80,000 square feet of that. Private cabanas can be rented if you'd like a break from the sun.
The Simpsons Ride at Universal: Welcome to Krustyland, home of "Krusty's Wet and Smokey Stunt Show," "Captain Dinosaur's Pirate Rip-Off," and ATMs with user fees hiked from $2 to "double however much money you're taking out."
Luckily, you don't have to go there, but you can tag along on The Simpsons' trip to Krusty the Clown's fictitious theme park at Universal in Orlando and Hollywood. The Simpsons Ride, a roller-coaster simulator, replaces Back to the Future at both locations with original animation, plotlines and jokes from the smash TV series.
The attraction is part thrill ride, part TV show. Want to see bare cartoon bottoms, or Barney get knocked out by Sideshow Bob with a day-old churro? This is the place for you.
Greeting guests is a 32-foot-tall Krusty head (look for the punching bag uvula) and then a carnival midway, where Apu runs a snack stand and the ring toss actually advertises it's impossible. There you wait in line with Homer, Marge, Bart, Maggie and Lisa as Krusty shills his new "upsy-downsy, spins-aroundsy" ride.
Guests board vehicles that carry eight people and watch a safety short of Itchy and Scratchy. But things go awry when Sideshow Bob takes over Krustyland to finally avenge his long-standing grudge with the cartoon family.
It carries more thrills than you might expect out of a ride that doesn't actually travel anywhere, including what the park calls "the first 360-degree barrel role ever attempted in a simulator."
Powering the enormous dome screen are state-of-the-art digital projectors that blast 18 gigabytes of information per second. Emptying your wallet is a real-life Simpsons gift shop themed after the Kwik-E-Mart.
Toy Story Mania! at Disney: Walt Disney parks on both coasts, Anaheim's Disneyland and Orlando's Disney World, are beefing up their Pixar presence with a new 3-D video shooting gallery themed after the "Toy Story" movies.
Guests enter the world of Andy, the cartoon boy whose come-to-life toys have created their own carnival while he's away. Visitors are made to feel "shrunk" down to toy size by giant dice, checkers and other oversized toys lining the ride queue.
At the front is an interactive Mr. Potato Head carnival barker that Disney calls one of its most ambitious audio animatronics ever. He sings, dances, tells jokes and even removes and replaces an ear.
And he's not even the main attraction.
Down the stairs, guests step right onto a platform in the middle of the ride track. Each car seats four people, and each rider gets a spring-action shooter and an on-board computer to ring up scores. The gun is operated by simply aiming and pulling a string on the back. If you want to be successful, pull it very, very fast.
The track whizzes from booth to booth, where players aim the cannon at animated targets. Because it's in 3-D, you can actually see where the bullets are going. The technology is so sophisticated that even a missed shot will stick to the wall and stay there awhile. The ride is designed so each trip through will be different.
Disney touts the attraction as "4-D," because puffs of air and small mists make objects seem to fly past the rider. The cannons shoot darts, rings and pies, corresponding to the booth the ride car has stopped by. Hidden "Easter eggs" and other goodies will jack up a rider's points.
High scores of the day are kept on monitors at the end of the ride, so you can tell just how good (or bad) you were.
Jungala, Busch Gardens: Welcome to the jungle, right here in Florida. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay — just down the Interstate from Orlando — has opened a four-acre attraction featuring Bengal tigers, orangutans, gibbons, flying foxes and more.
Jungala, in the park's Congo area, is by far its most ambitious undertaking. It simulates a hidden jungle village surrounded by giant trees, waterfalls and stone.
Rides include a four-story Wild Surge that shoots guests out a mountain crater and above a giant waterfall. Three tiers of zip lines can be ridden at Jungle Flyers, and Tree-Top Trails has tubes, bridges and climbing nets for kids.
You can see tigers swim in windowed underground caves and through aboveground domes, or observe orangutans swinging on lines overhead.
In the Kulu Canopy live the white-cheeked gibbons, flying foxes and gharials — similar to crocodiles, with much skinnier snouts.
To feed your own snout, the park has reinvented the former Vivi Restaurant into the Bengal Bistro and opened the snack booth Orang Cafe.