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What's New at Disney's Theme Parks

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

Never resting on their laurels and ever aware of the competition, the folks at Disney have launched a slew of new attractions and activities  at their U.S. theme parks sure to keep visitors engaged for years to come.

As part of its "Year of a Million Dreams," Disney is leveraging the popularity of its fabled "character visits" (one-on-ones with everyone from Mickey to Buzz Lightyear) with a series of "immersive experiences" that take these personal interactions to a new level.  Kids can now be a pirate of the Caribbean with Captain Jack Sparrow himself (and take the pirate oath if mom will let them) or join right in the dancing and singing at a "High School Musical" pep rally.  The boys need more action?  How about dueling lightsabers with Darth Vader at the Jedi Training Academy?  Boys 4-14 will nearly jump out of their skin at the prospect of taking on the Dark Lord of the Sith and training in the ways of the Force.  Girls can surely jump into the fray, but they might prefer some quality time with Ariel and her friends at "Let's Have a Ball," where the official party game list includes limbo and a pomp-filled procession.  The ultimate immersive experience, however, has to be a night at the Cinderella Castle Suite at Walt Disney World.  No lining up for this one, though:  one lucky family will be chosen each day to spend the night in a richly-appointed accommodation in the heart of the park.  Can you say magic?  All you have to do is dream.

Freshening up the theme parks has also been part of Disney's master plan and is evidenced in a number of new and reworked attractions.  The former "Living Seas" pavilion at Walt Disney World's EPCOT theme park has been reborn as "The Seas with Nemo & Friends."  Climb aboard a "clamobile" for a journey to a coral reef filled with familiar friends Nemo, Dory, Crush and Mr. Ray.  Nemo also makes a splash, and a big one at that, at "Finding Nemo-The Musical" at Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park.  This 30-minute, Broadway-caliber musical production will delight audience members young and old with its dazzling array of puppets, dancers, aerialists and animated backdrops.  If the puppets look familiar, it's because they were created by Michael Curry, who co-designed those used in the Broadway production of "The Lion King."  To say that the entire production is colorful, eye-popping and breathtaking is, well, true -- families will return again and again to enjoy this festive entertainment.

Action junkies have not been overlooked at Walt Disney World:  "Expedition Everest," also at Animal Kingdom, is a heart-pounding roller coaster ride that brings you face-to-face with a Yeti, a gnarly beast intent on keeping the mountain to himself.  How to escape?  Why, backwards, of course, as the coaster goes into reverse and sends your head spinning.  Catch your breath (if that's possible) at the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor at the Magic Kingdom in Florida.  Here, one-eyed wonder Mike Wazowski and his Monstropolis buddies play it for laughs in real-time interactions with  audience members.  Comedy club guests can even text-message their favorite jokes and teasing questions to Mike & Co. before the show in the hopes of a special ad-lib.

At Disneyland in Southern California, the ubiquitous Nemo surfaces at "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage," a re-creation of the park's much-loved Submarine Voyage ride, which was retired in 1998.  The eight original subs now sport a bright yellow paint job and are guiding guests through the Tomorrowland lagoon in search of Nemo and friends.  Sure enough, you'll find the clown fish and his crew in short order, gliding along in 3-D thanks to some magic from Disney's Imagineers.  Landlubbers may prefer a visit to Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, where feckless Tom and his pal Huck Finn find themselves in the grip of Captain Jack Sparrow.  Horrors?  Hardly, since visitors will busy themselves finding treasure and searching out ghosts in the island's caverns.  Come sunset, a lucky few be chosen to retire to the Mickey Mouse Penthouse, a pastiche of black, red and yellow with separate bed and bath for parents and kids.  The animator's table in the kids' room will keep the junior set enthralled while mom and dad swoon in their whirlpool 'lagoon.'  California dreamin', indeed.

For more information on Walt Disney World and Disneyland, visit disneyworld.com or disneyland.com.


Elaine Sosa is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and five-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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