Walt Disney World Orlando Feature

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Visitors see Orlando as a shiny vacation kingdom bolstered by cartoon characters. Residents see it as a city on the rise, albeit one that's too reliant on a single industry—namely, tourism. Local officials have responded to these sentiments by courting and welcoming new industry to the area, and as a result, Orlando is becoming an increasingly sophisticated city.

Theme parks also are staying cutting edge with interactive exhibits and attractions. Verizon and Disney have even teamed up to offer phone services that update you on real-time attraction availability, Disney character locations, and other in-park "breaking news."

Walt Disney World

The Magic Kingdom recently completed a major part of the park's largest-ever expansion—to Fantasyland —allowing guests to visit not one, but three castles: the park's iconic and original Cinderella Castle, the new Beast's Castle that houses the lavish Be Our Guest Restaurant, and Prince Eric's castle where Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid features a voyage with Ariel. Fantasyland also boasts a double-the-fun Dumbo ride and a French cottage where Belle herself meets guests for a storybook "tale as old as time" in the Enchanted Tales with Belle attraction. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster is set to debut in 2014. And a new interactive quest, A Pirates Adventure: Treasures of the Seven Seas, sends guests on a treasure hunt throughout Adventureland.

At Downtown Disney, the AMC Theater multiplex now offers six dine-in theaters with premium and casual dining experiences. Downtown Disney West Side turned the former Virgin Megastore building into Splitsville, a bowling mega-hangout across from House of Blues. Splitsville's menu, including beef fillet sliders and sushi, adds to the entertainment center's upscale vibe. Beyond the immediate changes, Downtown Disney, it's recently been announced, will undergo a multiyear transformation into Disney Springs, greatly expanding shopping, dining, and entertainment options. It will include open-air promenades along a waterfront. At the Walt Disney World Speedway just outside the Magic Kingdom, an upgraded Richard Petty driving experience offers an Exotics Course, where guests can ride in or drive "supercars" by Ferrari, Lamborghini, Audi, and Porsche. Epcot has its own thrill-a-minute custom car adventure with the made-over, now-interactive Test Track by Chevrolet attraction.

Disney has opened the on-site Art of Animation Resort, with value-price suites and rooms themed to top Disney films. Ever dreamed of living in the World? Well, it's actually possible—for a price ($1.5 to $8 million). Disney's luxury custom homes in the Golden Oaks community are built on ¼- to ¾-acre lots nestled beside the Magic Kingdom and near where the Four Seasons resort is slated to go.

Hot off the drawing board: Disney innovators are in the midst of launching the new MagicBand, which will serve as park ticket, hotel room key, credit card and even allow guests to reserve a Fastpass for park attractions.

Universal Orlando

In 2012 Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem 3-D arrived, honoring one of Universal Pictures' most successful films by making it the first of the studio's animated flicks to be made into a ride. At this writing, the park is slated to open TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D in summer 2013, an attraction packed with the explosions and attacks of an intergalactic battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons. Cutting-edge technology shines at Islands of Adventure, where Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is better than ever with 4K digital high-definition animation—the highest resolution on the market. Plus, Universal Studios introduced the daytime Superstar Parade, starring animated characters and street performers, and the evening film and firework extravaganza Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories.

Wet 'n Wild unveiled a completely new Kids' Park, a 15,000-square-foot playground centered on a massive "sand castle" with 160 water jets, cannons, and soakers, and at CityWalk, two 18-hole miniature golf courses with a '50s sci-fi movie theme opened.

SeaWorld, Discovery Cove, Aquatica

SeaWorld recently jumped into the fray with its new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin attraction. And the park's TurtleTrek, which opened in 2012, takes you on the underwater journey of a sea turtle via 3-D film. But even before you get to the 360-degree domed theater, you walk past habitats filled with hundreds of freshwater and saltwater fish, gentle manatees, and more than a dozen sea turtles. At Discovery Cove, two recently added attractions bring nature close: the tropical rain-forest environment that is Freshwater Oasis provides face-to-face encounters with playful otters and curious marmoset monkeys, and SeaVenture lets you walk underwater through a reef filled with tropical fish and rays.

Updated: 2013-09-10

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