Experiencing what's new in Orlando keeps travelers busy

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Half the fun of visiting Orlando with kids is that it's an excuse for adults to unashamedly share their favorite theme parks with the next generation. Thanks to a steady influx of new attractions nearly every year, the destination remains fresh even for repeat visitors, and 2007 is no exception.

During a recent visit with a group that included my 14-year-old daughter and other children ages 8 to 11, I took in as many of Orlando's top new rides and venues as possible in five days.

We moved at breakneck speed, but there was still plenty of fun left undone for next time.

" Universal Studios Orlando: The hot ticket at Universal CityWalk is Blue Man Group, which will permanently occupy the new Sharp Aquos Theater. The show, which fills the gap for people looking for something do to in the evening apart from dining and bar-hopping, was a hit with everyone in our group, despite our diverse ages. A word of advice: Those who sit in the first few rows should wear protective ponchos.

The hot ticket at Universal CityWalk is Blue Man Group, which will permanently occupy the new Sharp Aquos Theater. The show, which fills the gap for people looking for something do to in the evening apart from dining and bar-hopping, was a hit with everyone in our group, despite our diverse ages. A word of advice: Those who sit in the first few rows should wear protective ponchos.

Tickets are $59 for adults, $49 for kids ages 3 to 9 and $112 in combination with theme park admission.

" Walt Disney World: While my daughter and I usually gravitate toward rides over shows at theme parks, the new "Finding Nemo -- The Musical" at Disney's Animal Kingdom is an exception.

Reminiscent of Disney's "The Lion King" in terms of presentation -- characters are beautifully rendered, puppet-like creations that actors hold above their heads -- the show alone is worth the price of admission to the park.

That said, we also made time to take in the new Expedition Everest coaster ride, part of which runs backward in the dark. We found it to be just scary enough to brag about but not too much to handle.

Even better for multigenerational groups is the cute "It's Tough to Be a Bug" 3-D show and Kilimanjaro Safaris, a live animal attraction.

" Discovery Cove: Similar to the private-island experience offered on cruises, Discovery Cove packs in dolphin encounters, a lazy-river ride through an aviary teeming with birds and a snorkeling lagoon full of stingrays.

Since our last visit, the park has become all-inclusive, which means that the 1,000 guests admitted each day don't have to pay for food and drink, including Anheuser-Busch beverages, while in the park.

The Trainer for a Day program, new this year, enables up to eight guests at a time to spend time with animal experts as they interact with dolphins, tropical birds, sloths and anteaters.

The Twilight Discovery package is also new. On summer evenings on Tuesdays through Fridays from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., 150 guests are admitted to the park for live music, cookouts and sunset dolphin encounters.

Packages are priced from $259 per person ($159 without dolphin interaction) and include a seven-consecutive-day pass to SeaWorld Orlando or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

" SeaWorld Orlando: The big news at SeaWorld is Aquatica, a water park that will include animal experiences, 36 water slides and an 80,000-square-foot beach area. All are scheduled to open in March.

In the meantime, SeaWorld Adventure Park has added three kiddie rides in Shamu's Happy Harbor and an Elmo show.

While some of the braver kids in our group tried Kraken, billed as Orlando's longest, tallest and fastest floorless roller coaster, my daughter and I spent a happy half-hour at Journey to Atlantis, a ride that walks the fine line between thrills and terror. We also took in "Believe," an eye-popping show combining performances by killer whales with dance and music.

At dinner, we ate under the watchful eye of marine predators at Sharks Underwater Grill, followed by a rock 'n' roll concert in Shamu Stadium called Shamu Rocks, featuring live music, lights and killer whales.

" Kennedy Space Center: Somehow, this attraction had never made it onto our radar before. We were suitably impressed by the experience, particularly the new Shuttle Launch Experience that simulates a blast-off on the space shuttle, complete with facial vibrations.

We also took advantage of the Lunch With an Astronaut program, whereby retired NASA astronauts -- in our case, Charles Walker -- give a talk, answer questions about space travel over lunch and pose for pictures for small groups, for $22.99 per person.

We watched the latest IMAX space film, "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3-D," and visited the International Space Station Center, which features full-scale models of station modules.

A tour of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, with its artifacts, interactive displays and a mission-control console, rounded out the day.

Numerous tours that include some or all of these sites are available. Admission to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is $38 for adults, $28 for kids 3 to 11.

" Wekiwa Springs State Park: For an antidote to the theme park tempo, we spent a morning on a guided canoe ride in Wekiwa Springs State Park, where we encountered thrills of a different kind: a couple of lazy alligators snoozing on fallen logs and a host of exotic birds. Plan to spend at least two hours at the park and enjoy the admission price of only $1 per person.

" The Nick Hotel: There are plenty of reasons to stay overnight at Walt Disney World or Universal Studios, but families looking to visit multiple parks might want to opt for a centrally located resort with shuttle services to parks.

We bedded down at the Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn, also known as the Nick Hotel, where we had stayed on a prior trip to Orlando. There, my daughter and I swam during our down time.

She and her friends got "slimed" on stage, and we ate breakfast with some of the most famous characters from the Nickelodeon TV channel.

Recent improvements include a more upscale dining option in the Nicktoons Cafe, an expanded Kid's Spa experience and the supervised Nick After Dark program, which enables parents to enjoy a night out without the kids.

The hotel has suite accommodations that include two bedrooms, one with twin or bunk beds and the other with a double bed. The living room has a pull-out couch and flat-screen TV; the kitchenette has a sink, fridge and microwave. Although there were only two of us sharing the suite, on other visits our entire family of five has stayed in the same suite in comfort.

One- and three-bedroom suites also are available. Rates start at $224 per night.

To contact reporter Felicity Long, send e-mail to [email protected].

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