Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 18, 2017

Wet N' Wild added a pair of pools, 15 slides, plus 160 water-spewing gadgets.

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Sunshine state of mind

From rides to museums, we look at the latest and greatest for families in Florida

Sun, sand — some elements of a Florida vacation never seem to change. When it comes to attractions, though, there’s always something new. Check out the current batch of recently-unveiled and soon-to-open sites.

Feel the magic

This summer, Universal Orlando (universalorlando.com; $123 adult, $117 kids three to nine) raised the curtain on a motion-simulator ride inspired by the blockbuster film Despicable Me. But otherwise things there are relatively quiet in the innovation department — which is understandable since it’s still basking in the glow of Harry Potter’s wand.

Walt Disney World, conversely, has been working overtime to reinvigorate its own brand of wizardry at the Magic Kingdom (disneyworld.ca; $89 adults, $83 kids three to nine).

Fantasyland, largely unchanged since 1972, is gaining two meticulously-detailed zones as part of the park’s most ambitious expansion ever. The first — big-top themed Storybook Circus — centres on side-by-side Dumbo rides. Parents who’ve queued endlessly for the original will cheer the change.

By late 2012, a second area — Enchanted Forest — will boast an elaborate Little Mermaid attraction and a Beauty and the Beast village with a cottage, castle and, of course, themed retail and dining areas.

In 2013, movie princesses (among them, Merida from Disney Pixar’s latest hit, Brave) will greet guests nearby in a grand new hall; and in 2014 the facelift culminates with the debut of a Snow White ride. In keeping with the theme, Disney's Port Orleans Riverside Resort revamped 512 rooms to reflect royal characters.

Moreover, Walt Disney World’s new value-priced Art of Animation Resort, has wings devoted to The Lion King and The Little Mermaid. If you’re worried about tiara overload, it also has wings showcasing Cars and Finding Nemo.

Sea and be seen

SeaWorld (seaworldparks.com; $85 adults, $77 kids three to nine) has several major projects on the go. Last spring it introduced Turtle Trek which consists of massive aquariums filled with sea turtles and tropical fish, plus a computer-generated, 360-degree film experience. The eco-oriented movie, shown in a domed 3-D theatre with images displayed above and around viewers, follows a single turtle from beach to briny ocean depths.

This coming spring, SeaWorld raises the bar when it opens a suitably cool attraction that promises to transport guests to Antarctica, virtually at least, via penguin colony encounters and a state-of-the-art ride.

Sister park Discovery Cove (discoverycove.com; $199, includes entry to SeaWorld and Aquatica) christened Grand Reef in 2011, and is following up with Freshwater Oasis in 2012. The former is a one-hectare, beach-rimmed snorkelling area where families come face-to-face with 125 species of fish, rays, even zebra sharks (don’t worry, a glass barrier keeps kids at a safe distance). The latter, designed to mimic a rainforest spring, lets you swim in the presence of Asian otters and marmoset monkeys.

Extra activities are available for a fee, such as Grand Reef’s SeaVenture which allows guests 10 and older to don a special helmet for an underwater walk. And if you’re Miami bound, the Seaquarium (miamiseaquarium.com; $139) there has been offering a similar excursion since late last year.

Learn lots

In recent years, Florida has put out the welcome mat at several kid-centric museums including the Charles and Linda Williams Children’s Museum (moas.org) in Daytona Beach, the Kenan-Flagler Family Discovery Gallery (thefrost.fiu.edu; free) in Miami and the Glazer Children's Museum (glazermuseum.org; $15 adults, $9.50 kids) in Tampa.

Naples added the Golisano Children’s Museum (cmon.org; $10) — aka C’MON, short for the Children’s Museum of Naples — to that list in 2012. This funky, facility has a dozen play-based galleries focussing mainly on the environment. Your offspring, for example, can tour a faux farm, collect shells at a make-believe beach, visit Mother Nature’s House where four rooms represent the four seasons (complete with Vivaldi soundtrack), then climb a two-storey model banyan tree.

Existing museums have undergone extreme makeovers too. Fort Lauderdale’s Museum of Discovery and Science (mods.org; $19 adults, $16 kids two to 12) doubled in size in 2011. Among the displays in its $25-million EcoDiscovery Center are an Everglades airboat simulator and a storm centre where kids can feel hurricane-force winds, then report on the weather in a mock newsroom. Afterwards, they can exercise their creative side at the new location of the Young at Art Museum (youngatartmuseum.org); $13 adults, $12 kids 12 and under)* in nearby Davie. Another $25-million was spent there to build a stunning venue that investigates nature, history and culture through an artistic lens. Combining a whimsy-meets-Warhol aesthetic with a hands-on philosophy, the museum has guaranteed kid appeal.

Reach for the sky

Although the American shuttle program ended last year, the Kennedy Space Center (kennedyspacecenter.com); $45 adults, $35 kids three to 11) has big things in the works near Cocoa Beach: specifically a six-storey structure to accommodate the shuttle Atlantis and related paraphernalia. The downside is that it won’t be finished until mid-2013.

In the meantime, you can get your aeronautic fix at Pensacola’s under-appreciated National Naval Aviation Museum (navalaviationmuseum.org; free). Having cut the ribbon on a hanger housing three dozen classic aircraft in 2010, the museum continues to bring in extra exhibits. A Marine One presidential helicopter and a virtual Flight Deck that simulates the action aboard an aircraft carrier are highlights. If you dream about actually getting airborne, elevating adventures also open regularly.

The Brevard Zoo (treetoptrek.com; $15 to $48 depending on the course), Gatorland (gatorland.com; $69.99) and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm (alligatorfarm.us; $25 to $65 depending on the course) all sport ziplines or aerial obstacle courses. Urban alternatives have sprung up in Miami (miamiseaquarium.com; $35 to $45 including Seaquarium admission), Kissimmee (myoldtownusa.com; $30), Daytona Beach (zoomair.us; $25-$35), and Tallahassee (treetotreeadventures.com; $15-$40).

Yet nothing tops the new course at Florida EcoSafaris (floridaecosafaris.com; $135) in St. Cloud. It incorporates a zip coaster (you’re suspended from a curving rail instead of a straight cable), zipline/bungee hybrids and pedal-powered “canopy cycles.”

Get wet

Legoland (florida.legoland.com; theme- and water-park combo tickets $87 adults, $77 kids three to 12), approximately 45 minutes southwest of Orlando, made a huge splash when it launched in 2011. Today you can do the same thanks to the property’s waterpark, which started receiving guests this summer. Like Legoland as a whole, this component knows its demographic — namely diehard Bricksters aged two to 12 — and so relies on themed-to-the-hilt visuals, not heart-stopping thrills.

You’ll find a gentle Lego-esque wave pool, Joker Soaker playground and age-appropriate slides (think “pink knuckle” ones for tweens and Duplo-style alternatives for preschoolers). The showstopper, however, is the Build-A-Raft zone where you decorate an inner tube with soft, supersized Lego bricks, then float in it down a 304-metre lazy river.

Back in the Orlando area, additions to Wet N' Wild (wetnwildorlando.com; $50 adults, $45 kids three to nine) and the popular Gaylord Palms Resort (gaylordhotels.com; doubles from $199) will also help you forget you’re in landlocked Central Florida. Blastaway Beach, the former’s first new attraction in five years, features a pair of pools, 15 slides, plus 160 water-spewing gadgets, all clustered around an 18-metre-high sandcastle.

The Gaylord, meanwhile, gives resort guests a chance to cool off at Cypress Springs: a zero-entry pool area that evokes the Everglades without the pesky mosquitoes and alligator-infested water, which also offers slides and water toys.

Rev up

Walt Disney World has plenty of ways to impress budding auto enthusiasts. A night spent in the Cars–themed wing of the Art of Animation Resort (doubles from $126) is one. A trip to the Richard Petty Driving Experience (drivepetty.com; $59) at Walt Disney World Speedway is another. Its new Junior Ride-Along program enables kids ages six through 13 to suit up, strap into a NASCAR racer and ride shotgun with a professional driver. Rides for older siblings or envious parents cost $99. If you fall into the second category, the Exotic Driving Experience (exoticdriving.com; from $169) began offering rides in Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Porsches at the same speedway earlier this year.

Content to look? Reset your GPS for Miami’s new Dezer Collection Museum (dezercollection.com; $40 adult, $15 kids under 13 for two buildings; $25 adult, $15 kids for one), which contains 1000 vehicles. Valued at $140 million, real estate developer Michael Dezer’s collection includes everything from a rare 1927 Duesenberg to a 2008 Bugatti Veyron.

These — along with motorcycles, tanks, and the like — are crammed into two warehouses, and adult aficionados may wish they were more carefully curated. But youngsters won’t care, especially when they enter Building B where a bevy of Batman and James Bond cars are parked beside iconic ones from Grease, Harry Potter, Back to the Future and other productions.

Be a sport

Sports fans hoping to catch some Major League Baseball action during their vacation will be happy to hear that Florida inaugurated several venues in 2012: most notably Marlins Park (miami.marlins.mlb.com; from $18). Home to the rebranded Miami Marlins, this facility might not have a winning team, yet it does have a winning look that mixes curvy contemporary architecture with Miami’s exuberant style.

For instance, ball-proof aquariums bookend home plate and a giant kinetic sculpture is embellished with pop art flamingos and marlins that leap from laser-lit water whenever a home run is hit. These — together with the clubhouse, batting cage and onsite bobble-head museum — can be seen at close range on $10 tours. Kids under 13 are also invited to run the bases for free following Sunday matches.

On the Gulf Coast, Fort Myers opened JetBlue Park (boston.redsox.mlb.com; from $5): the Boston Red Sox’s 11,000-seat spring training complex. It's less than a third the size of Marlins Park and proudly plays up its Fenway Park connection.

As an homage to the Sox’s beloved home field, it incorporates familiar elements such as a replica Green Monster, a vintage manual scoreboard sent direct from Beantown, plus a Yawkey Way-inspired concourse where you can devour authentic Fenway Franks.

To stay on the ball regarding everything new in the Sunshine State, consult Visit Florida (tel: 877-817-8789; visitflorida.com).

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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