in Orlando, Fla.
Fla. — It seems like everybody knows somebody coming
here for vacation. And that’s no illusion.
is the No. 1 U.S. destination booked by travel agents,
according to a fall survey by the giant travel agent group
Travel Leaders. And that doesn’t even count all the
vacationers booking their own trips.
more than 59 million visitors a year, this city’s
crowded peak seasons are family vacation periods —
Christmas, winter and spring breaks, Easter and summer.
Home to major theme parks and a growing city, Orlando is
synonymous with vacation in many people’s minds.
if you are headed to Orlando in 2015 and haven’t visited
in at a year or more, you’re in for a treat. Here’s
elegant Orlando Eye rising over International Drive is
more than pie in the sky.
the moment, the 400-foot-tall cantilevered observation
wheel has a pie-shaped slice missing at the top while it’s
being constructed, but by summer 2015 when it opens it
will create a rather romantic signature attraction for the
is being built by Merlin Entertainments Group. Those are
the same folks who own Legoland and Britain’s London
Eye. Forty feet shorter than the original Eye, its glass
cabs will hold 15 instead of 25 passengers but still are
sure to awe riders.
not all. Next to the Eye will be a new Madame Tussauds
Orlando plus a small aquarium called Sea Life Orlando. The
redeveloping "I-Drive 360" area also has new
restaurants and amazingly enough, free parking.
goal is to be a destination so people can take a break
from the parks," says Andrea Alava, Merlin
Drive meanders next to the I-4 freeway near all the major
Orlando theme parks, so most visitors drive it sooner or
later to get around.
champagne sunset rides, the Eye likely will do just that,
as will the nice, ongoing upgrade of the once-tacky
International Drive. Down the road is planned a new spiral
vertical roller coaster, swing chair ride and more
entertainment — and who knows what else. (www.internationaldriveorlando.com.)
this park is unpopular with animal rights activists
because of its orca whale exhibit. I could see the impact
at the "One Ocean" show the first week of
December — about a third of Shamu Stadium empty. I
witnessed a rather wooden performance by the handlers, who
are no longer allowed to go in the water with the massive
black and white orcas since one killed a trainer here in
2010. I also saw less orca merchandise, with a lot more
turtle, manatee, dolphin and flamingo souvenirs on the
SeaWorld Orlando itself is a wonderful park. The joyful
Blue Horizons dolphin show with its divers, acrobats and
flying birds was exactly what a live show should be. The
sea turtle TurtleTrek exhibit was inspiring. I liked the
moody Manta coaster swooping overhead in the park’s
center, and the Antarctica "Empire of the
Penguin" exhibit had 30-minute lines. That indicates
to me that although park attendance has indeed fallen
(down 5.2 percent in the third quarter alone, after a
yearlong swoon) visitors are still coming and maybe making
decisions about what to see when they arrive.
visitors may shun SeaWorld because of pressure they feel
from animal rights activists, but balance that with the
fact that the scenic park has rescued tens of thousands of
sea creatures in the last decades, including from the Gulf
of Mexico oil spill, and that the fees you pay the park
help fund this work and research (www.seaworldparks.com,
happiest place on Earth heard some anxious muttering when
it switched over to a new high-tech ticketing system last
year and completely changed how the FastPass system works.
things are now smoothing out as guests become used to it,
said Phil Holmes, vice president for the Magic Kingdom, as
we watched people entering the park simply by waving a
wristband that contains all their information.
that, those who have not been to Disney for at least a
year will feel a chill in the air because of more
"Frozen" activities everywhere. The mega-popular
animated film has swiped Cinderella Castle, turning it
into a nightly holiday ice palace. I also saw the Frozen
Sing-Along Celebration, with little girls shouting out
every word of every song — including hard words such as
"fractals." At a "Frozen" character
meet, small visitors stood in mute awe when they met Anna
and Elsa, even though some had waited an hour in line.
new "Frozen" ride is coming to Epcot in 2016.
Elsewhere, Downtown Disney is transforming into Disney
Springs by 2016 with new shopping and entertainment.
the meantime, the zesty Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which
opened in May, is worth waiting for. It has had decent
reviews from coaster enthusiasts even though it’s tame
enough for youngsters (www.disneyworld.com,
big word here still is Harry Potter.
Alley opened in July, and within a month, a million people
had ridden the four-minute-long Hogwarts Express train
between Diagon Alley and the original Wizarding World of
Harry Potter Hogsmeade venue. A million!
I visited last month, I was surprised at how many adults
— some in capes and pointed black wizard hats — were
wandering the streets. Diagon Alley has plenty of places
to buy magic wands and then use them, making quill pens
levitate or making writing magically appear on a scroll. A
fire-breathing dragon atop a tower makes its scary
appearance every hour; I saw a toddler burst into tears
when he saw it.
new Diagon Alley ride, Escape from Gringotts, a
combination simulator-indoor coaster, has had some
reliability issues, but if it stops you get to ride it
again. Is there some kind of spell on it? It even stopped
briefly when I rode it.
Universal Orlando and its companion Islands of Adventure
look clean and shiny and feel fun. Universal opened Cabana
Bay Beach Resort last year and plans a 1,000-room Loews
Sapphire Falls Resort for 2016. One more tip: Visitors
passing the Simpsons Lard Lad Donuts booth will
inexplicably find parked nearby the original DeLorean from
the 1985 film "Back to the Future," one of the
coolest cars ever made (www.universalorlando.com,