It's almost summertime -- and you know what that means: The theme parks shift into high gear.
If you're not a parent, that may not mean much to you. Nor will you care if you are one of those terribly sophisticated people -- you know, the kind who claim to be far above the theme park scene. "Disney!" they sneer. "I wouldn't be caught dead there!"
Well, that's their loss. Florida's theme parks can be a hassle during the busy summer season, but they offer wonderful entertainment.
Sure, they're selling fantasy. But what fun it is to sit in a speeding, tumbling, twisting time-machine car in the "Back to the Future" ride at Universal Studios! Or to slink in a sub that travels "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" in Disney's Magic Kingdom! Or to fly through a cartoon with Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo at Universal!
Look at a youngster's face when he meets Mickey Mouse or a Ninja Turtle on a Disney street. You and I know there's a sweaty person inside that costume, but for young children this is magic.
Watch your adult seatmate gasp when Universal's monstrous King Kong roars and exhales banana breath a yard from his face. You and I know Kong's just a mechanical marvel, but for that moment, for that person, that ape looks awfully real. If an adult can't enjoy himself in any of Florida's theme parks, then he's a Grinch.
Enjoyment comes in many ways at the theme parks, and one of them lies in discovering new thrills, for every year these giant fun factories manufacture new adventures. Never mind that they're doing it just to keep the turnstiles turning and the cash registers clicking. What's new is exciting and different, and this year is no exception.
This summer, for instance, vacationers can go ape at Busch Gardens. That's because the Tampa park will open a large new primate habitat called Myombe Game Reserve on June 17. Chimpanzees and lowland gorillas will be the stars of the new exhibit.
Half the mist-laden habitat will house six gorillas, one of them a baby. They'll roam freely in a plot reminiscent of "Gorillas in the Mist," with streams and waterfalls, rocky outcrops, grassy clearings and dozens of trees that are periodically shrouded by fog generated by 400 mist heads. The other, separated half of the exhibit will be home to chimpanzees, also an endangered primate.
Busch also has just opened a new children's play area called Fabian's Funport in its adjacent water park, Adventure Island.
Sea World, which usually focuses on marine animals, this month is inaugurating its first flight simulator thrill ride, a submersible that will enter a region steeped in mystery -- the famed Bermuda Triangle, the ocean area of lost ships. The attraction, which uses real underwater photography (unlike other simulators, which use computer-generated films), opened to the public Friday.
Two other Sea World attractions will make their debuts this summer. Shamu's Happy Harbor is a 3-acre children's play area with such alluring elements as a water maze, an air bounce, sand sculpture area, a schooner with water cannons, and a four-story net climb tower. The park also has opened its first permanent Anheuser-Busch Hospitality Center, a 5 1/2 -acre complex featuring waterfalls, a hamlet for Clydesdale horses, turn-of-the-century brewery equipment and, for adults, complimentary beer.
Universal Studios, meanwhile, is also readying a new playland for youngsters, "American Tail: Fievel's Playland." Keyed to Steven Spielberg's popular animated cartoon character, it is one of four attractions opening in the park this spring and summer. It will feature giant props and sets, among them a 200-foot-long water ride that will carry youngsters in a "sardine can built for two," and a two-story-high tiger who will talk to kids who approach him. It opens in July.
Opening last Wednesday was a new outdoor dance show, "The Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue," featuring the movie ghoul and a quartet of other characters -- Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein and Wolfman.
Already open is "Lucy: A Tribute," a museum dedicated to comedian Lucille Ball. Similar to one opened in Universal's California park two years ago, the facility displays such memorabilia as the polka dot dress the star wore as Lucy Ricardo in the television series, show scripts, music arranged by husband Desi Arnaz, home movies and 3-D photos made by the family, and the six Emmy awards she won. In a film clip, daughter Lucie Arnaz tells the story of growing up with Lucy and Desi.
And coming in July will be "Rocky and Bullwinkle," a show based on the cartoon characters, who will perform on an outdoor stage along with their Fractured Fairy-Tale colleagues Snidely Whiplash, Dudley Do-Right, Boris and Natasha.
Disney World, never one to miss a promotional trick, comes up with a new attraction or two every year. This summer, two shows new since last year are packing 'em in at Disney/MGM Studios. Lasers, black-light action and special effects make "Voyage of the Little Mermaid" a hot attraction. And just around the corner, ,, the "Beauty and the Beast" stage show has proved so popular that Disney has installed bleachers.
Also new since last fall are a daytime parade in the Magic Kingdom featuring outsized balloon characters, a nighttime parade called Spectromagic and an over-the-lake afternoon show in Epcot Center.
Even Cypress Gardens, the venerable Winter Haven theme park that came on the scene decades before Disney, keeps up its appeal by adding new attractions. New since last year are a couple of flower festivals and When Radios Were Radios, an antique radio museum.
If you go . . .
Walt Disney World: This giant complex has three theme parks -- the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center and Disney/MGM Studios -- plus other attractions and facilities. One-day admission to one park is $34.85 for adults, $27.45 for children 3-9. Four-day admission, allowing unlimited entry to all three parks, is $122.50 for adults, $95 for children. A Florida-resident rate of $23.15 is good for one-day entry to one park through June 9. A four-season salute ticket, allowing unlimited entry to all theme parks during four specified periods, costs $99.95 for adults, $89.50 for children 3-9.
Hours for the Magic Kingdom are May 17-22, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; May 23 and 24, 9 a.m.-midnight; May 25 through June 5, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; June 6-26, 9 a.m.-11 p.m.; June 27 through Aug. 22, 9 a.m.-midnight; Aug. 23 through Sept.6, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Epcot Center hours: May 17-22, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; May 23 and 24, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; May 25 through June 5, 9 a.m.- 9 p.m.; June 6 through July 3, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; July 4, 9 a.m.-midnight; July 5 through Aug. 22, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Aug. 23 through Sept. 30, 9 a.m.- 9 p.m. Disney/MGM hours: May 17-22, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; May 23-25, 9 a.m.- 9 p.m.; May 26-29, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; May 30 through June 5, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; June 6 through Aug. 22, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Aug. 23-29, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Aug. 30 through Sept. 30, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. except Saturdays, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Information: (407) 824-2222.
Universal Studios Florida: Admission is $34.98 for adults, $27.56 for children 3-9. A Florida-resident rate of $24.38 and $19.08 is effective to June 7. The park opens at 9 a.m. daily; closing varies from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Information: (407) 363-8000.
Sea World: Admission is $29.95 for adults, $25.95 for children 3-9. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. May 17-22, open to 10 p.m. May 23 through July 31, and to 11 p.m. Aug. 1 through Sept. 6. Information: (407) 351-3600.
Busch Gardens: Admission is $28.70 adults, children 3-9 $24.45. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. to June 5, except May 23-25, when it is open to 7:30 p.m. It is open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. June 6 through Aug. 16, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Aug. 16-23, and 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. from then on except Sept. 5-7, when it is open to 7 p.m. Information: (813) 987-5082.
Cypress Gardens: Admission is $20.05 for adults, $13.70 for children 3-9. The park is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Information: (813) 324-2111, Ext. 290.