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More for the traveler: museums, thrill rides

27 March 2011 by By Jay Clarke - The Miami Herald

A brand new theme park, several important new museums, a new international airport and special anniversary celebrations are some of the new developments that await Florida visitors this year as the state recovers from the recession and last year’s Gulf oil spill.

Every part of the state boasts some new features that will pique the interest of this year’s visitors, from new zip lines and roller coasters to new hotels, museums and attractions.

Oil no longer is fouling the Gulf Coast, and visitors are returning in droves to Florida’s beaches. “The oil spill is a thing of the past,” said Tracy Louthain of the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council in Florida’s Panhandle. “A lot of families area headed for the beach and reservations are up over last year.”

In Pensacola, one of the sites most affected by the oil spill, the outlook is also rosy. “Everything’s good to go,” said Laura Lee of the Pensacola Convention and Visitor Bureau. “The beaches are beautiful, spring break is selling out and the season is up 16 percent since last year.” Fishing boats are back in operation and the area has several new hotels.

Here is a selection of new developments of interest to travelers.


The first new theme park built in Florida in more than a decade is scheduled to open in October. Legoland, under construction at the former Cypress Gardens site in Winter Haven, will have more than 50 rides, shows and attractions in 10 “lands” — The Beginning, Fun Town, Miniland USA, Castle Hill, Land of Adventure, XTreme, LEGOCity, Imagination Zone, Pirate Cove and DUPLO Village.

Busch Gardens in Tampa will open a new roller coaster, Cheetah Hunt, on May 27. Using magnets as its propelling force, the new coaster will go from 0 to 60 miles an hour in seconds and take riders through overbanked, turns, air-time parabolas and a heart-line roll inversion, and plunge into a subterranean trench. Also opening: Cheetah Run, an elevated, glass-paneled viewing area where visitors can see cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal, in action. or

Since last fall, Walt Disney World has been redoing its Stars Tours attraction, which will reopen May 20 with a whole new show depicting an earlier chapter of the Star Wars saga. Passengers on the Starspeeder 1000 spacecraft will zip to a mythical planet in a 3-D adventure. New in Disney’s Animal Kingdom park is Wild Africa Trek, an extra-fee ($189) three-hour guided tour on foot and by truck through the park’s “savanna.” 407-824-4321,

Sea World in Orlando will open an all-new area, the Grand Reef, in June. Situated within Discovery Cove, the 2.5-acre facility will have shallow and deep swimming areas swarming with 125 species of reef sea life as well as white beaches, grottos and other features. 877-434-7268, Sea World will also launch a new Shamu killer whale show, One Ocean, at the end of April. Trainers will not be in the water with the orcas. 888-800-5447,

Universal Orlando’s big addition last year was the highly successful Wizarding World of Harry Potter. On April 1, it will close the Jimmy Neutron Nicktoon Blast at Universal Studios and build a new attraction yet to be revealed. 407-224-4233,

Gatorland will open a new zip line this summer that carries riders over — but out of reach of — the alligators. The line runs 1,200 feet at speeds up to 25 miles an hour and goes as high as seven stories. 407-855-5496,

A new wild-mouse type roller coaster, Galaxy Spin, is scheduled to open at Fun Spot USA, in late spring or early summer. It will be the Kissimmee park’s first coaster. 407-363-3867,

Dinosaur World in Plant City has broken ground for a 12-acre expansion to open this fall. New features will include a Prehistoric Museum and dinosaur playground. 813-717-9865,


Eleven new galleries featuring the art of Louis Comfort Tiffany opened Feb. 19 in a large new wing at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park. Included are leaded-glass windows, Tiffany lamps, the Daffodil Terrace from Laurenton Hall, and other works. 407-645-5311,

A new permanent exhibit at the Orlando Science Center, Our Planet, Our Universe, explores the peculiarities of the universe and our place in it. 407-514-2000,

A new floating Splash Island Water Park, reached by wading, swimming or floating on tubes, has opened at the TradeWinds Island Grand hotel on St. Petersburg Beach. The inflatable floating playground, anchored 60 feet offshore in the Gulf, is open to the public as well as hotel guests for the same price: $16 for one hour, $21.50 for two hours.


A new $36-million building provides more than double the space of the old Salvador Dali Museum. Opened in January at a new location, the facility’s exterior is graced with a wave of glass paneling called the “glass enigma” that shifts in color refracted by sunlight. Inside is the biggest collection of Dali’s work in the world. 727-823-3767,

A new museum featuring the creations of glass artist Dale Chihuly opened last July in a new building of its own. Operated by the Morean Arts Center, the Chihuly Collection includes large-scale installations such as Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier created specifically for the museum along with such Chihuly works as Macchia, Niijima Floats, Persians and Tumbleweeds. 727-896-4527, or


In the $33-million new home of the Tampa Museum of Art, opened last year, the works of artist Edgar Degas will be on view through June 19. The exhibit includes a selection of his bronze sculptures as well as paintings and drawings. 727-896-2667,

The World Dragon Boat Racing Championship will take place in Tampa Bay Aug. 1-7, the first time this event has been held in the United States in almost a decade. 813-223-1111,


Prince Albert II of Monaco, a five-time Olympian in the bobsleigh, helped open the new Art of the Olympians Museum and Gallery March 5. The museum showcases Olympic athletes with two galleries, one for their works of art, the other for their sports. 239-826-8160,



One, perhaps two, more launches of the space shuttle are on tap at Kennedy Space Center. The Endeavor is scheduled to fly April 19. A June 28 launch of the Atlantis depends on approval from the government. These will be the final journeys of the shuttle. Other launches include Juno, a solar-powered craft, going up Aug. 5 to orbit Jupiter’s poles; Falcon 9, possible successor to the shuttles, July 15; ULA Delta II Heavy is being sent to the moon on a scientific mission Sept. 8; a new Mars rover launches Nov. 25 to assess whether that planet ever was — or is today — able to support microbial life and habitability.


Florida’s largest digital planetarium opened last November at the Museum of Science and History with visual displays that are four times better than the best HDTV.


In January 1912, Henry Flagler completed the Overseas Railway, which linked the Florida Keys to the mainland. So called because its track stretched more than 100 miles into open water, the Railway was wrecked by the 1935 hurricane. The present roadway was built over its right of way. A new exhibit at the Key West Museum of Art and History comemmorates the centennial anniversary of the Railway with exhibits that include a recreated railcar, scale replica of the Seven-Mile Bridge, model train expo and vintage footage of the rail journey. 305-295-6616, or

The initial phase of a memorial marking what is believed to be the nation’s only African refugee cemetery has been completed at Higgs Beach in Key West. The cemetery holds graves of Africans who died in 1860 after being freed by the U.S. Navy from slave ships. 800-352-5397,


Pat Croce’s St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, originally located in Key West, has opened a short walk from the Castillo de San Marcos. On view: archeological finds, replica pirate ships and pirate artifacts. 800-653-2489,


It’s been 100 years since the glittering city of Palm Beach, founded by oil baron Henry Flagler, was incorporated. Among the planned centennial events is a celebration at the Flagler Museum April 17. or 561-233-3000,

A $30-million renovation of the West Palm Beach waterfront, including a new park, nightly light shows, a new pavilion and lake beach, is changing the urban landscape in West Palm Beach. 561-233-3000,


The National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola marks the 100th anniversary of naval aviation with special events throughout the year. Expanded last November, the museum will christen the new National Flight Academy May 6. 850-453-2389, or 800-474-1234,

The first new international airport to be built in the United States in 15 years now serves Panhandle Florida. Located on 4,000 acres of land near Panama City, the $318-million Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, opened last year, serves a gateway to that region’s many tourist facilities. Southwest and Delta Airlines are its main carriers. 850-763-6751, Meanwhile, Pensacola’s Gulf Coast Regional Airport is completing an $80 million renovation.


John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo has reopened a 30,000-gallon aquarium and a full-facility campground. Myakka River near Sarasota has added a campground loop with 80 sites. Topsail Hill Preserve in Santa Rosa Beach has added 16 new cabins for a total of 33, the most in any state park. St. George Island near Apalachicola has just opened a new road providing vehicle access to the east end of the island, an excellent spot for angling for big fish.


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