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Orlando parks pack plenty of thrills and rewards into new attractions

IT can take years in development before a big new attraction opens in the highly competitive theme park capitol of the world.

So it should be no surprise that some of the most ambitious undertakings in years are opening in unison at SeaWorld, Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World this spring and summer, despite the downturn in travel and the economy.

The theme parks have spared no expense to capture new revenue and repeat visitors, so the only signs of recession around these parks might actually be welcome for tourists: shorter ride lines and deeper-than-usual discounts on stay-and-play packages across central Florida.

There are also fewer employees, but the parks say the cuts are targeted in areas they hope guests will least notice.

Disney and Universal are launching what might be their most ambitious interactive experiences ever, though the two could scarcely be more different: an "American Idol" show at Disney and a roller coaster where riders choose personal sound tracks at Universal. And SeaWorld is unleashing its first roller coaster in a decade - a high-concept thrill ride called "Manta" with real-life sea creatures.

Here's a deeper look at the new offerings:

The "Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit" is Universal Orlando's first new coaster since the 2004 "Revenge of the Mummy - The Ride" and is so complicated the park has delayed its debut for weeks to ensure that its many moving parts are in synch.

Thrill rides

It's also building anticipation among enthusiasts desperate to test one of the most guest-interactive thrill rides in history.

Riders will travel 1,158 meters in one minute and 53 seconds, the first few of which might be the most terrifying. The trip begins with a 90-degree ascension to its tallest point - 50.9 meters straight up. Thus begins a 104.6-kilometer-per-hour journey through six maneuvers - three of which the park says are brand new.

But that's not even the most interesting part. The coaster is called the "Rockit" because riders get to pick their own soundtrack from about 30 songs in five genres: rap/hip-hop, country, classic rock/metal, pop/disco and club/electronica. Tunes are delivered through a 150-watt system that continuously pumps about 55 watts to each passenger.

The gigantic track - with pretzel loops and music-inspired maneuvers like the "Treble Clef" - can be seen from all over the park. It flanks the whole south side, at one point buzzing just 9.1 meters above the "Rockit" waiting queue (the "Crowd Surfer" maneuver).

SeaWorld Orlando has never cared to play along in the annual theme park competition of who has the fastest, tallest or scariest new rides. In fact, the Orlando park hasn't opened a new roller coaster since 1999, and it's taken five years to develop the one opening this month, SeaWorld's fourth thrill ride.

So "Manta" won't set any records for highest drop or quickest takeoff, but that's just fine with the park. The flying roller coaster that emulates the movement of a giant manta ray is about much, much more.

"It's not to be dismissed as a roller coaster, but it's not so impactful so all guests can experience it," said Brian Morrow, director of design and engineering for SeaWorld Orlando. "We want it to be seamless - an animal component with the thrill component. That's what we do best in the industry."

The park wants visitors to envision they've been transported to a lost tropical cay, reachable from "mainland SeaWorld" by wooden bridges over a lagoon and amid offshoots of "Manta" track.

Rating wars

Disney knows its "The American Idol Experience" represents a bigger opportunity for the park and guests than the TV rating wars. "We view it as a pop culture phenomenon," Disney spokesman Rick Sylvain said. "This gives people the thrill of a live production, making them feel like they're actually on the set."

Guests get two chances to participate - to be on-stage or in the audience voting for the winner. There are seven regular shows a day, each featuring three performers.

The eighth show's winner, pitting the day's victors against one another, gets a grand reward: a front-of-the-line ticket to any one of the next season's "American Idol" tryouts. That's a golden ticket to thousands willing to wait days for an audition spot in each city's casting call.


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