In the Shadow of the Mouse

Secrets of a theme park obsessed local who lives next door to Mickey, with annual passes to every Central Florida park

Pitbull takes up residence at Madame Tussauds Orlando

286Pitbull visited Orlando to play a concert at Universal Studios Florida, but now you can see him permanently in Orlando…or at least his double. A brand-new Pitbull model was unveiled at Madame Tussauds Orlando as the second addition since the wax museum opened at I-Drive 360, along with the Orlando Eye wheel and the Sea Life Aquarium, on May 4.

Earlier this month, Disney Channel Ross Lynch welcomed his likeness. Then Pitbull stepped up on May 29 to meet his doppleganger, complete with a tuxedo donated by the superstar rapper. I love the fact that he couldn’t resist tugging the figure’s ear. Many guests do the same when they see the celebs at Madame Tussauds due to the eerie likeness.

If you’d like to see the full video of the unveiling, it’s captured on the video below. Pitbull was suitably impressed by the figure that was created after artisans took 300 measurements and spent long months crafting it down to the finest detail, just as they do with all their wax likenesses:

Expect more unveilings in the future, as Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is most definitely not a static attraction. New celebs and other prominent figures are added all the time to locations around the country and the world.

Want to see the Ross Lynch unveiling? Here’s the video of the teen heartthrob meeting his match:

Cobra’s Curse spin coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa ramps up snake phobia

210Scared of snakes? Get queasy when you see their coils and shaky at the sight of their scales? Then you’ll want to beware in the Egypt section of Busch Gardens Tampa next year, as the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster is set to debut in 2016.

As the name suggests, Cobra’s Curse is themed to snakes, with a towering 80 foot tower that will leave no doubt as to the theme. The coaster will have a unique vertical lift, along with the spins typical of this type of ride. It will offer fun for coaster enthusiasts, but it will also be suitable for younger members of the family who’ve outgrown coasting with Grover and who want to start cutting their teeth on the more intimidating rides (the classic Scorpion looping coaster is great for that, too).

A real life herp was on hand at the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster announcement, along with plenty of concept area. As is typical at Busch Gardens, the ride will feature heavy theming that immerses guests in its Egyptian setting. It will sit near the suspended coaster Montu, adding a nice touch to that side of the park. You can see Montu off to the side in this construction photo:

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And here’s some concept art showcasing a theme that will send snake phobics into fits:

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Look good so far? Check out this video, which includes some virtual ride footage of the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster:

Pretty cool, eh? I suspect that SheiKra will always remain my favorite Busch Gardens Tampa coaster, but Cobra’s Curse will be a fun little indulgence. Speaking of other fun rides, don’t forget about Falcon’s Fury, which takes you more than 300 feet into the air before tipping you forward for a face-down plummet. Here’s the video of my very first ride:

Enjoy Falcon’s Fury, SheiKra, Montu, Cheetah Hunt and all the other fun rides while you count down to the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster in 2016.

SeaWorld Orlando Mako hypercoaster is just one part of new Shark Realm

210SeaWorld Orlando will soon be home to the tallest, longest, fastest roller coaster in Orlando. The Mako hypercoaster, named for a speedy species of shark, will rise 200 feet into the air by the time it’s done for the 2016 season, with top speeds of 73 mph and nearly a mile of track. Better yet for coaster enthusiasts like me is the fact that it’s built for maximum airtime. Be prepared to pop up in your seat repeatedly as you zip through the dips and hills.

I’m a long-time lover of B&M roller coasters like SheiKra and Montu at Busch Gardens Tampa, and B&M is also the company behind SeaWorld’s Kraken and Manta thrill machines, as well as Dragon Challenge at Islands of Adventure. I’m also a big air-time fan, and as of now we don’t have a good airtime option in Orlando. I pick up nice pops on ShieKra and Cheetah Hunt, but that requires over an hour of drive time to Busch. Now it looks like I’ll have my pop-out-of-your-seat thrills a lot closer to home.

SeaWorld announced Mako with flair, showing concept art and a virtual big-screen POV ride. Virtual reality is fine, but the park also wanted the media to experience a bit of Mako first hand. They offered crane rides 200 feet up to the spot where Mako’s lift hill will peak. Yes, it’s the same as SheiKra, but it’s so much more intimidating when you’re in a crane car dangling by what feels like a thread!

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You can’t beat the view, though, with stunning sights like Kraken and the Orlando Eye looming over the Orange County Convention Center in the distance.

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224Mako is just one part of what will become a whole area devoted to sharks. You’ve already got the Shark Encounter and Sharks Underwater Grill, a sit-down restaurant with an amazing aquatic view. Now those areas will become part of a bigger themed land known for now as Sharks Realm.

While the name will likely change down the road, the concept will stay the same. You’ll see sharks and learn more about them, including ways to help them. We tend to view them as vicious predators, and they’re no slouches when it comes to hunting down prey, but unfortunately man in making it hard for them to survive. You’ll learn about doing things as simple as eating sustainable fish to help ensure that sharks will still find a hospitable home in our oceans.

Mako should be ready for next year’s summer season. While it will be hard to wait a whole year for a B&M hypercoaster in Orlando, I’ll enjoy watching it rise up above the construction walls at SeaWorld. In the meantime, Manta and Kraken will still be in full operation, and of course you’ll see plenty of dolphins, orcas, sea lions, and other talented animals bringing their special brand of delight to park guests. If you haven’t seen Sea Lion High yet, here are some highlights:

Teen Beach 2 Stars surprise fans at Typhoon Lagoon Party

There’s not a lot that would lure me away from the Magic Kingdom on a 24 hour day of the Coolest Summer kick-off, but I’ll admit that I did bail to Typhoon Lagoon (see my early morning experience, including a full video of the welcome, in this article). How could I resist, when it was the Teen Beach 2 Beach Party debut, with a special appearance by Ross Lynch (Brady), Maia Mitchell (McKenzie), Grace Phipps (Lela), and Garrett Clayton (Tanner).

Yes, I’ll admit it: I really enjoyed the first movie, especially the end when the 1960s gang was transported to the present day. I’m looking forward to June 26 when I can find out what happened to them. I met some of the stars at Typhoon Lagoon back in 2013, when the water park hosted a summer party based on that first flick, Teen Beach Movie. Now here I was again, kicking off another summer of fun and chatting with the gang about their sequel, Teen Beach 2. You can see it all on the video below:

I also talked one on one to Maia, who teased about the new movie and shared some dance moves:

Obviously, the gang won’t be on hand throughout the summer, but the party most certainly will be. It kicks off several times a day and including dancing and contests like water balloon tosses, hula hoop competitions, and a limbo session. Check the schedule on the times board in the park and make sure you’re there for some sand, sun, and fun.

Here’s a little blast from the past: my chat with Garrett Clayton from 2012:

And my 2012 interview with Chrissie Fit:

Watch for the Disney Channel debut of Teen Beach 2 on June 26! Personally I can’t wait to watch the surfers and bikers adapt to cell phones and other hallmarks of modern life.

Disney 24 hour kickoff features Mickey, Minnie and Frozen gang

There’s not much that can rouse me out of bed at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m., but the Disney 24 hour summer kick-off at the Magic Kingdom does it every year.

It’s Memorial Day weekend, which means the Magic Kingdom opened at 6 a.m. on Friday and stays open until 6 a.m. on Saturday for a full Disney 24 hour experience for those brave enough to tough it out. It’s the start of the Coolest Summer Ever, which is why Anna, Elsa, Olaf and Kristoff took over the opening festivities. Guests started arriving an hour early, and Mickey and Minnie rolled out of bed in the wee hours to be on hand to greet them. They didn’t even take the time to change out of their PJs, but they looked dapper nonetheless. They were also a heck of a lot more energetic that I would be without an IV infusion of caffeine. I did manage to catch a quick chat with them:

Just before 6 a.m., the Frozen gang took to the train platform and the steam engine pulled in with more Disney friends. Here’s the entire opening ceremony for the Disney 24 hour Coolest Summer Ever event:

Then guests streamed into the park to kick off what, for many, would be 24 hours of non-stop Disney fun. After a hearty breakfast, I headed over to Tomorrowland, where I had a Space Mountain FastPass. Amazingly, the wait was only 10 minutes, even without one. Next up was Buzz Lightyear and the Wedway Peoplemover (yeah, I know that name dates me, but that’s what it will always be to me). Of course, I had to make a quick stop at the time clock, where I memorialized the hour at which I’d dragged my half-asleep carcass into the park:

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There are lots of great photo ops throughout the park, and the 24 hours event is one of the few days that the Magic Kingdom relaxes its costume code for adult guests. In the past, I’ve worn my PJs to get an overnight photo with Mickey and Minnie, but today I saw lots of “big kids” dressed up in character garb, particularly Anna and Elsa. The Frozen juggernaut rolls on!

6Speaking of Frozen’s popularity, Olaf is featured on this year’s souvenir shirt, a really cute number what changes color in the sun. Of course, I had to get one to add to my collection.

The rides, shows, and character appearances continue long into the night during the Magic Kingdom’s 24 hour stints. Some people will make it for the whole 24 hours, while others will crash in the middle and still others will head over in the evening to just do the overnight experience. No matter how you enjoy it, the Coolest Summer Ever kickoff is the best way to experience the official start of the summer Disney season.

I did have to leave the Magic Kingdom in the early afternoon. No, I didn’t crash. The reason was much more exciting, as you can read by jumping to my next article here. Hint: You’ll love it if you’re a Teen Beach Movie fan. You might just see some of your favorite celebs on video.

American Ninja Warrior tapes two episodes at Universal Studios Florida

If you’ve ever watched American Ninja Warrior on NBC and wondered if the obstacles are as intimidating in real life as they look on your TV screen, rest assured that they are! I know that for a fact because the show filmed two episodes at Universal Studios Florida this past week and let the media get up close and personal with the obstacle course.

Check out the video below for a walk-through of the course. You’ll even see some intrepid souls trying out the first one:

The show returns to TV on May 25 for its seventh season, and Orlando was one of the five regional cities this year. It was exciting to see the obstacles up close and to learn about some changes. For example, this year the Rolling Log will have seven to eight rotations instead of three (as if it needed to get any harder!). Also, watch out for the Tilting Paddles and the Tire Swing.

Below, host Akbar Gbajabiamila talk about the obstacles:

Host Matt Iseman also weighs in:

The new sideline reporter, Kristine Leahy, was on hand at Universal, too:

If you’re watching American Ninja Warrior in June and think the backdrop looks familiar, you’ll be correct. I can’t say anything about the results, but rest assured that it was a well-fought battle at Universal Orlando Resort.

Disney World has new tours, characters, shows and more this summer

Recently I attended a Coolest Summer Ever event at Walt Disney World where I got a whirlwind look at what’s in store this summer. It’s hard to believe that we’re moving quickly toward the busy tourist season, but the May off-season is almost over and the tourists will soon descend on the Orlando parks.

If you’re vacationing at Walt Disney World this summer, or if you’re a brave local who can’t go too long without your Disney fix, check out these videos for a peek at what you can do:

Tour the Downtown Disney waterways in an amphibicar (seriously, how cool is this? These are originals from the 1960s!):

See the American Music Machine at Epcot (talk about talent!):

New Tour at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (this is on my must-do list as I’d love to learn more about how they care for the animals):

Meet Doc McStuffins at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (your Disney Junior fans will be so excited):

Teen Beach Movie 2 Party (just one more reason to head over to Typhoon Lagoon this summer):

99That’s just a quick sampling of what’s ahead, and Frozen Summer Fun returns to Disney’s Hollywood Studios this year, too. Come on, admit it, you love Olaf!  I most certainly do, and I was thrilled to meet him during the Coolest Summer Ever kick-off.

The heat came early to Orlando, so I’m already feeling like its summertime. The Coolest Summer Ever event just made this official (although Frozen Summer Fun doesn’t start until June 17), so now it’s time to enjoy!

Gator Spot opening brings Gatorland critters to Fun Spot America

7Anyone who lives in Orlando knows the “It’s huuuuuuuuge!” ads for Fun Spot America, a family-owned attraction with parks in Orlando and Kissimmee. Most locals also know Gatorland, an “old Florida” attraction that drew in tourists long before Walt even thought about converting swamp land into the home of the Mouse. What happens when you combine those two attractions? You end up with Gator Spot, the newest addition to Fun Spot America’s Orlando location.

Fun Spot is just off International Drive near the Universal exit on I-4. It’s easy to spot; just look for the looming Sky Coaster. It’s a fun place to visit in its own right, with lots of carnival rides to please the kids, go-karts, and the White Lightning wooden roller coaster, which is my personal favorite. Be sure to ride it twice: once in the front for the view and once in the back for the most intense ride.

Fun Spot is a family oriented park that doesn’t charge for parking, nor is there a general admission fee. Just mosey on in, decide what you’d like to do, and buy whatever wristband best fits your plans.

9Fun Spot reminds me a lot of the various kiddielands in the Chicago area that I enjoyed as a kid. In particular, I loved Green Oaks Kiddieland in Oak Lawn. It closed when I was only six years old, but I still have fond memories of the spinning rides and the kiddie coaster. Fun Spot has that same sort of flavor, but with the addition of attractions to appeal to the teens and tweens in your family, too.

So what do you add to an attraction with such a nice cross-section of rides? How about a liberal sprinkling of alligators and other critters? Fun Spot teamed up with Gatorland for a million dollar addition, now known as Gator Spot, where guests could meet some of the famous Florida reptiles for a $6 admission fee. That fee also includes seeing other animals, like snakes and birds, as well as a rare leucistic gator, which is white with blue eyes.

I got a chance to meet many of the animals up close and personal during the Gator Spot grand opening on May 11.You can see them, too, and even buy a photo holding critters like snakes or gators.

One of the gators almost got a little too personal when I crashed his habitat, as you’ll see in the video below, starting right around the 1:43 mark.

Don’t worry, if you visit yourself, you’ll find that all of the alligators are kept securely behind barriers. They’re well fed, complacent, and safely housed so you can enjoy them without any worried about becoming their next snack.

Speaking of snacks, you can actually turn the tables and see what gator tastes like by buying some jerky in the Gator Spot gift shop. The shop also has many other cute alligator-related souvenirs.

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What would a visit to a Gatorland offshoot be without meeting Bubba and Cooter, the attraction’s spokesmen? They were kind enough to introduce me to Harvey, a 13 foot long gator who weighs in at nearly half a ton. Thankfully, unlike the little gator in the previous video, Harvey didn’t think I looked tasty enough to draw him out of the water:

And a visit to Fun Spot most definitely wouldn’t be complete without hearing “It’s huuuuuuuge!” live from owner John Arie Jr. himself:

As you can see, I had a busy day at Gator Spot, and of course I took the time for a couple of rides on White Lightning as well. If you want to see Fun Spot Orlando or Gator Spot for yourself, come on out any day of the week. You can even visit Gator Spot without doing the rides at Fun Spot, but I recommend getting a wristband and making a full day of it.

Gator Spot at Fun Spot opens May 11: Am I ready to rassle gators?

1If you’ve ever been to Gatorland, you know it’s an attraction with an Old Florida flair that brings you nearly face to face with the Sunshine State’s ubiquitous reptiles. From the trademark gator mouth entrance to the Gator Jumparoo show to the gator wrestling and the chance to feed gators behind and even get a photo with them, it’s kitschy fun all the way around. If you’re brave enough, you can even take an aerial adventure over the gators on the Screamin’ Gator zip line.

Perhaps you might also have visited Fun Spot America, just off I-Drive (and if you’re a local, your brain probably associates those two words with the phrase “It’s Huge!”). Its rides are more reminiscent of a small local amusement park or carnival, but it rarely has long lines and kids love the attractions. I’ll admit, I’m a fan of the White Lighting wood roller coaster myself.

So what happens when you  synergize those two attractions? You get a hybrid called Gator Spot that officially opens at Fun Spot on May 11, although it’s got soft openings running right now. Over 100 toothy critters have taken up residence at Fun Spot, along with snakes, birds, and other animals. If you stop by, be sure you see the blue-eyed white gator.

5I’ll be heading out for the grand opening myself, and as you can see, Gator Spot sent me some special apparel to be sure I’m all ready for the appearance. Hmmmm, is that a gator wrestling handbook in that photo? Hopefully I’m ready for whatever they have in store!

Join me next week for more on my adventures at Gator Spot. It’s another good reason to add Fun Spot to your summer plans. Of course, the primary reason is that it’s a family-friendly attraction at a reasonable price. Buy the kids a wristband and let them go crazy on the rides and go-karts without all the annoyance of never-ending lines.

Nik Wallenda walks Orlando Eye wheel, attraction opens May 4

w90Nik Wallenda, a member of the amazing acrobatic family and grandson of the daring wire walker Karl Wallenda, found his latest challenge on International Drive, right here in Orlando. After pulling off stunts like walking a tightrope stretch over Niagara Falls, he set his sights on the 400-foot tall Orlando Eye just a few days in advance of its official opening.

Wallenda walked on the moving wheel in a breathtaking display of bravery. He pulled off the feat despite wet and greasy footing, emerging from one passenger capsule, performing his stunt live on the Today Show, and climbing on top of another capsule for the descent back to earth.

Click the video below to see Wallenda’s full performance in front of the media and a crowd of astonished onlookers at I-Drive 360. While he was quite nonchalant about the whole thing, more than a few people were no doubt holding their breath as he walked along the rim of the slowly rotating wheel.

After pulling off his record-breaking wheel walk, Wallenda chatted with the press. You can see his interview below:

Wallenda hammed it up a bit, climbing up on the rigging to wave to the crowd below. He also took a one-of-a-kind selfie before popping on top the capsule to ride back down.

It was very exciting to have Nik Wallenda live in my adopted hometown. I remember in the 1970s when his grandfather Karl Wallenda, walked a tightrope at the long-gone indoor amusement park, Old Chicago, in Bolingbrook, IL. I wanted to see his performance so badly, but I didn’t get to go. Sadly, Karl was killed a few years later while attempting a stunt on a windy tightrope in Puerto Rico. He’d no doubt be very proud to see Nik carrying on the family legacy and upping the ante with each new stunt.

w89Wallenda is likely the only person who will experience the wheel in that very unique way. The rest of us can climb about the calm, comfy passenger capsules and watch the skyline safely as it spreads out below us. The view of Orlando and the surrounding area is quite impressive. On a clear day, you’ll even see the Atlantic Ocean.

Alas, the day of Wallenda’s stunt was a little murky, as you can see in the photo. Still, it was possible to see both Universal Studios and Epcot as it made its way to the top.

The Orlando Eye is part of the new I-Drive 360 complex on International Drive near Sand Lake Road, which makes it an easy hop from I-4 or the Orange County Convention Center. The Eye is owned by Merlin Entertainments, which is also the parent company of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and the Sea Life Aquarium. both of which share the same building. Nearby, you’ll find Skeletons: Animals Unveiled, which shows a variety of critters from the inside out. Most of the attractions open on Monday, May 4, but Skeletons opens on May 1.

Read more about the other three attractions at the links below: