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Beyond Orlando: Theme park destinations

Beto Carrero World, Penha. Image: Beto Carrero World PenhaBeto Carrero World, Penha. Image: Beto Carrero World Penha

Orlando may rule the roost when it comes to theme parks but several destinations are now giving it a run for its money, says Alex Coxon

Walt Disney might have been an entrepreneur as much as an animator, but surely even he couldn’t have anticipated, when planning his first theme park in the late 1940s, that his actions would help spawn a multi-billion dollar industry.

Today, there are — according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) — more than 400 amusement parks and attractions in the US alone, collectively generating around $12bn in revenue.

On a global scale, the picture is even more buoyant, with research firm Global Industry Analysts (GIA) predicting the world market will be worth a staggering $31.8bn by 2017.

The sheer volume of forthcoming openings certainly corroborates GIA’s forecast. But what’s also interesting is how geographically dispersed these upcoming parks are.

Following hot on the heels of the recent opening of the Adlabs Imagica theme park in India has come news of three DreamWorks Animation parks, due to open in Russia in 2015. Paramount Pictures is also getting in on the act, having announced plans to develop a major new theme park in England which, subject to planning approval, should be unveiled in 2018.

But despite the proliferation of these new destinations, many travel agents believe they’re a long way from knocking Orlando off the top spot.

“Orlando definitely reigns supreme and is growing daily as a vacation destination,” says Beci Mahnken, president and CEO of Mouse Fan Travel — a division of Washington State-based MEI-Travel, specializing in flexible Disney vacation packages.

“Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort are both constantly expanding, improving and increasing opportunities to entice and keep vacation guests,” she continues, adding that SeaWorld Orlando has also considerably “stepped up its game” in recent years. Christopher Grum, president of Texas-based Premier Custom Travel, agrees. “What attracts people to Orlando — whether they’re a family, couple or adult-only group — is the choice,” he says.

“The majority of our business is Disney, but many clients — particularly those who’ve been to Disney before — will ask us to create a package that gives them the flexibility to go visit some of Florida’s other theme parks. And there’s a great deal to see, from the new Legoland to Universal Studios or Busch Gardens.”

Whether your client is an Orlando devotee or is tempted to try a different, up-and-coming destination, one thing is clear: theme parks are not only a growing market, but a fast-paced one as well.

As Grum puts it: “They’re constantly changing and improving. That’s what makes this business so interesting.”

NORTH AMERICA

We suggest: Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort, Florida.

Why: The oldest of Walt Disney World’s four theme parks is also the busiest on the planet — welcoming 17 million visitors annually. A wide range of tastes are catered for here with six themed ‘lands’ covering everything from the Wild West (Frontierland) to outer space (Tomorrowland). Classic rides include the roller coasters Space Mountain and The Barnstormer. For younger children, meanwhile, attractions include The Magic Carpets of Aladdin — the elevation and pitch of which riders can control — and Wishes Nighttime Spectacular: a nightly fireworks display above Cinderella Castle.

What’s new: Having received the biggest makeover in Walt Disney World’s history, Fantasyland reopened in December last year with two new themed areas: Enchanted Forest and Storybook Circus. There’s also a host of new attractions, such as Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, with more to be unveiled in 2014.

Where else: As North America’s theme park capital, Florida is awash with options including Epcot, Universal Studios Florida, SeaWorld Orlando, Legoland Florida and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. But don’t forget California, home to the original Disneyland, whose eight themed lands feature several attractions unique to the west coast park, including Matterhorn Bobsleds

EUROPE

We suggest: Europa-Park, Rust, Germany.

Why: Split into 16 different areas, 13 themed around European countries, the 210-acre Europa-Park is arguably one of the world’s most educational theme parks — providing kids and adults with fun-filled insights into Europe’s geography and history. Features include a dark ride (an enclosed ride) through a Siberian landscape, a Scandinavian fjord-rafting rapids ride, and the Atlantica SuperSplash: a high-speed water ride themed around the great Portuguese explorers. It’s not solely a learning zone, however. There are also 11 roller coasters for thrill-seekers, including the extended-length Euro-Mir: a combined spinning coaster and dark ride that’s themed around the Russian space missions.

What’s new: A recent expansion of the park’s Enchanted Forest zone is scheduled to pave the way for several new features over the coming 12 months, including six fairy-tale animatronics and audio attractions, and a major new family ride based on the part-animated, part-live action feature film Arthur and the Invisibles.

Where else: Away from the big-name brands such as Disneyland Paris and Legoland Windsor in England, there’s a great selection of European theme parks for aficionados to choose from— many renowned for their beautiful landscaped gardens as much as their rides. The Netherlands’ fantasy-themed Efteling is one example, featuring acres of exquisite manicured gardens alongside its predominantly nostalgic rides and quaint set of attractions.

SOUTH AMERICA

We suggest: Beto Carrero World, Penha, Santa Catarina, Brazil.

Why: At 5.4sq miles in size, Beto Carrero World isn’t simply Latin America’s largest theme park; it’s also the biggest in the southern hemisphere. Divided into seven zones, there’s plenty on offer to occupy kids and adults alike. The Radical Adventure area, for example, is a hotspot for thrill-seekers, providing an array of exciting rides such as the stomach-churning FireWhip: a suspended looping rollercoaster which reaches over 60mph. More sedate attractions can be found in Fantasyland, Pirate’s Island, Old West, German Village, Nation’s Avenue and Animal World — with the latter proving a big hit with youngsters on account of its 171 species, 700-animal zoo and world-class primate center.

What’s new: At time of going to press Beto Carrero World hadn’t yet launched its latest rollercoaster, The Chiller. Adrenaline junkies won’t have long to wait until the dual-track looping shuttle coaster makes its debut, though, as it’s due to open very soon.

Where else: Beto Carrero World has a lot of competition in Brazil, with other major theme parks including Playcenter and Hopi Hari — both in Sao Paulo. Other options are Six Flags Mexico — the only Six Flags park in Latin America — and Fantasilandia in Chile, featuring no fewer than 18 high-adrenalin rides.

MIDDLE EAST

We suggest: Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Why: Forget the fact it’s the largest indoor theme park on earth, with a roof spanning 21 acres, what’s even more impressive about Ferrari World is it’s home to the world’s fastest rollercoaster. With a top speed of nearly 150mph, Formula Rossa may not be quite as quick as the average Formula One car, but it certainly gives riders a taste of how it feels to be in the driving seat. Other attractions include a Ferrari-style version of a traditional carousel, a spaceshot tower called G-Force that propels riders over 200ft up and out of the building, and a Junior Grand Prix for kids who see themselves as the next Fernando Alonso.

What’s new: Red — a live show that opened late last year, featuring a team of 15 world-class acrobats, gymnasts and BMX bikers.

Where else: What differentiates many Middle Eastern theme parks is their focus on water. Dubai’s Wild Wadi and Ice Land Water Park and Abu Dhabi’s newly opened Yas Waterworld are three examples — with the latter featuring the world’s first hydromagnetic-powered six-person Tornado waterslide.

ASIA

We suggest: Universal Studios, Osaka, Japan.

Why: If you find yourself hankering after the Universal rides of yesteryear, this is the place to be. Several of the movie-inspired favorites that used to be found at Universal Studios Florida are still big news in Japan, including Back to the Future and Jaws. Not that this means there’s a dearth of modern-day attractions. Up-to-the-minute rides and shows on offer include The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Shrek 4-D. Plus, there are features you simply won’t find at the US sister-site, such as Hello Kitty Fashion Avenue and a Snoopy Studios play zone.

What’s new: The new ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ area has generated a lot of column inches, but doesn’t open for another year.

Where else: Disney is a player here too, with the nautically themed DisneySea just outside Tokyo and Hong Kong Disneyland. Those wanting to try something new, meanwhile, should check out India’s first international-scale theme park, Adlabs Imagica, which opened in April.

PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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