mickey minnie2008 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

By Donna Carter

There are full-grown men wearing mouse-ear hats and little girls dressed up like Cinderella. There are human-size cartoon characters circulating among the crowd: a pair of chipmunks, a duck in a sailor suit, two adorable mice and a floppy-eared dog. The music filling the air is, When you wish upon a star, Makes no difference who you are…. The place, to nobody’s surprise, is Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando. It’s also no surprise to most that Walt Disney World Resort is only a part of what has earned the Sunshine State its reputation as the theme park capital of the world. Visitors have choices and the amusement park options are many and wide-ranging.

The Magic Of Mouse-dom

Walt Disney World Resort consists of four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom), two water parks and Downtown Disney – a dining, shopping and entertainment Mecca. Add accommodations that range from a campground to luxury villas and every budget, age group and interest are covered. If carefully planned, it’s possible to hit the Walt Disney World highlights in three days. There’s always something new. Most recent is the revamp and expansion of Fantasyland that when fully finished in 2014 will feature enhanced entertainment and will represent the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history. The Magic Kingdom is probably the park most people think of first with its five big attractions: Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Tomorrowland and, of course, Fantasyland.

honeydukes2013 Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Appeal

Along with Walt Disney World, Universal Studio’s Orlando Resort is among the city’s biggest amusement parks. It’s made up of Universal’s Islands of Adventure headlined by the enormously popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The resort also includes the Wet‘N Wild water park, and Universal Studio featuring thrill rides such as Men In Black Alien Attack and the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster that soars up 17 storeys before plunging back down. The big news for Universal Studio’s in 2014 is a sizeable expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. A whole new area will be London-themed and will have a Hogwarts Express connector to the original Wizarding World that opened in 2010. The expanded area will be called Diagon Alley.

 shamuMike Sharp

Under The Sea

SeaWorld is another classic Orlando-area attraction. Here, visitors can view sea lions up close, watch dolphins at play and even caress stingrays. Booking a behind the scenes tour is a 90-minute educational experience that is entirely worthwhile. SeaWorld also has thrill rides including a favourite, Journey to Atlantis, where riders can expect to get wet. However, the latest news at SeaWorld is the park’s all new Antarctica – Empire of the Penguins, a one-of-a-kind experience that combines animal encounters with a thrilling ride like no other. It transports riders on a make believe journey into the icy South Pole world of penguins. This is the biggest and most expansive attraction in SeaWorld history.

Swim With Dolphins

Marineland Dolphin Adventure, located just south of St. Augustine, is a theme park that has been welcoming guests for the past 76 years. It offers the chance to get up close and personal with playful bottlenose dolphins. Visitors can swim, play, touch and feed the friendly mammals and there’s also a Trainer for a Day program in which participants can assist with care, feeding and training. People not wanting to get wet can view the dolphins through a glass window, however, booking one of the “dolphin encounters” provides the best experience.

Kennedy Space Centre.Visit Orlando

The Sky’s The Limit

The Kennedy Space Center is not exactly an amusement park, but its theme and attractions are endlessly entertaining to anyone with a fascination for space exploration. Located on Merritt Island on the mid-Atlantic coast a short drive from Orlando, the Center offers a bounty of interactive experiences where visitors can get in touch with everything related to outer space travel. Among other things, visitors can view the largest rocket ever made, touch a moon rock and take a simulated ride across Mars. Booking well in advance is recommended for the half-day Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) or the very cool Lunch With An Astronaut.

legoland2010 Chip Litherland Photography

Blocks Of Fun

LEGOLAND Florida, a 45-minute drive from Orlando, is a 60.5-hectare theme park that opened in 2011. Primarily designed for families with kids aged 4 to 12, there are more than 50 rides, shows, attractions and a LEGOLAND water park. Youngsters can build their own LEGO raft and float it down a lazy river. They can also drive LEGO cars and boats.

On The Wild Side

Busch Gardens is the pre-eminent Tampa area attraction. It’s an African animal-based theme park with a thrilling sky ride over the grounds and the popular Serengeti Railway takes visitors around the exotic animal-filled plain. There are adrenaline-pumping rides, like the log flume Stanley Falls screamer, and there’s also up close (behind thick glass) Edge of Africa animal viewing.

Near West Palm Beach, Lion Country Safari is promoted as a “cageless” zoo. Visitors drive through the theme park to view giraffe, antelopes, bison, rhinos and other animals indigenous to Africa. The park is divided into sections designed to resemble famous wildlife preserves: the Florida equivalent of Ruaha National Park, the southwest African plateau of Kalahari Bushveldt and Mozambique’s Gorongosa wildlife area.

Out Of The Ordinary

At Silver Springs theme park visitors can take a glass bottom boat ride over dozens of species of fish, alligators, clams and crawfish. The park is located near the northwest city of Ocala and its Lighthouse Ride offers a bird’s-eye view over Silver Springs. A show titled “reptiles of the world” introduces visitors to the world of crocodiles, alligators, turtles and other cold-blooded creatures.

Another slightly offbeat attraction is Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (45 minutes north of Tampa) best known for its live mermaid shows. Women outfitted in faux mermaid fins give underwater performances in an aquarium-like setting. The park includes a water park, animal shows and boat rides.

Located south of Orlando in Plant City, Dinosaur World features 150 life-size dinosaur replicas in its outdoor theme park. The dinosaurs are the main attraction, but in the park’s museum visitors can also see fossils such as dinosaur eggs and raptor claws. Particularly popular with kids is a program of fossil digs where participants search for buried relics.