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With record attendance years in 2010 and 2011, Orlando's theme parks have been reinvesting their cash in new attractions. From Walt Disney World to Universal Studios to Sea World, visitors arriving to Florida this summer and autumn will not be disappointed.

Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World, a complex of five theme parks, two water parks and several themed resorts, is in the middle of a landmark development in the Magic Kingdom, the complex’s flagship park. After years of bumping up the adrenaline for tweens and teens with roller coasters and high-tech rides, Disney is now focusing on the littlest tykes by doubling the size of Fantasyland, the section of the park reserved for the youngest Disney fans. In the largest expansion since the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, Fantasyland will now contain two areas, Fantasyland Forest and Storybook Circus.

Fantasyland Forest, which will open in phases starting late 2012, puts the spotlight on several of the Disney princess characters, including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Rapunzel, Tiana and Ariel. The adjacent Storybook Circus, which began opening new attractions in March, also includes an update for one of the park’s most beloved rides, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, inspired by the title character from the animated classic. To battle the attraction’s infamously long lines, Disney is adding a second flying pachyderm track to the original in early July.

Other major additions to Fantasyland are scheduled to open in time for the 2012 holiday season, and new attractions will continue rolling out through 2014. The biggest of these is Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid, where riders sit in clamshell-shaped cars while an animatronic Ariel, her pals Scuttle and Sebastian and the evil Ursula retell of the story of the mermaid princess and her impetuous pursuit of a human prince. Also scheduled for the holidays is Enchanted Tales with Belle, based on the film Beauty and the Beast. A new restaurant, Be Our Guest, takes its name from one of the film’s signature songs, and its interior will recreate the Great Hall in Beast’s castle.

Elsewhere in the five-park resort, Disney is balancing out its emphasis on the younger set with improvements to some of the more adult rides. The Magic Kingdom’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster, which was closed in January, reopened in late May with big improvements in the speed of the ride, more voluminous geyser eruptions and wider lanes for the queue.

Test Track, the famously popular race car attraction at Epcot, another one of Walt Disney World’s theme parks, was also closed this spring and is scheduled to reopen in early autumn. Disney’s Imagineers (the company’s engineering team) were still working on the ride at press time, but the update will allow visitors to become part of the design team and choose various characteristics for their own cars. Afterwards, they will board the cars — newly programmed with the features they chose — and take the vehicles out on the Test Track where immersive sound, motion and visual effects create the experience of actually testing the vehicle they designed.

In the meantime, if you have a need for speed, the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Walt Disney World’s speedway has a brand new race course and is offering six laps in your choice of supercar, including a Ferrari 458 Italia, Lamborghini Gallardo, Porsche 997S or Audi A8. You can blast around the new track behind the wheel, or opt to ride with a professional driver if driving a car that costs more than the average American house makes you nervous.

In September, Disney announced that Avatar Land, a joint venture with filmmaker James Cameron, will be a new section in Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom theme park. Construction on the area, which reportedly cost a half-billion dollars and will contain experiences themed to the director’s blockbuster 3D movie and its two planned sequels, is set to begin in 2013.

In May, Walt Disney World also added a new hotel, the Art of Animation Resort. Rooms and suites feature decor from Finding Nemo and Cars (open now), the Lion King (opening 10 August) and the Little Mermaid (opening 15 September).

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