by kellie abrahamson
Jacksonville is situated near some of the best theme parks in the country. On top of that, we are treated to great deals simply because we’re Florida residents. It almost isn’t fair to the tourists, is it? This time of year isn’t ideal for park hopping: it’s hot, gas prices are soaring and with all those paying-full-price tourists making a bee-line to Orlando, traffic is worse than usual. Still, theme parks are working to woo us out of our homes with terrific summer deals and grand openings of their newest attractions. Here’s the rundown on what you can see and how you can save at nearby parks this summer.
DISTANCE: Approximately 120 miles (2 hours)
WHY IT’S WORTH THE DRIVE: Orlando may be the theme park capitol of the USA, but we do have other options. Closer by a few miles and with far less traffic is Valdosta, Georgia, home to Wild Adventures, a 170-acre water and theme park boasting over 100 rides and attractions, including nine coasters, daily shows and a zoo with hundreds of animals to meet and observe. Included in the price of admission is access to Splash Island, a water park that lets you cool off by taking a lazy ride down “Paradise River” or by dropping down one of the many massive slides.
WHAT’S HOT: Splash Island underwent a major facelift during the off-season and is now home to a brand new attraction, the Wahee Cyclone– a 45 foot funnel that sends parties of four swirling down into a pool. The renovated water park also offers themed dining and upgraded amenities like larger showers and changing rooms. Wild Adventures has new shows, including magic from Aaron Radatz, the amazing antics of the Hollywood Stunt Dogs and a wet and wild look at tiger cubs in Tiger Splash Bash. Finally, Wild Adventures is famous for their summer concert series and this year is par for the course. The park will also host Chris Tomlin (July 18), The Country Rat Pack (July 23) and Foreigner (August 15).
COOL SUMMER DEALS: The get the best value by purchasing season passes. For $69 you get unlimited admission to the park until January, and that includes their annual fright fest Phobia. Additionally, season pass holders will get three “Bring a Friend” days throughout the summer, allowing them to bring a friend or family member to the park for free. For other benefits and even more deals, check out www.wildadventures.com.
universal orlando resort
DISTANCE: Approximately 140 miles (2 hours 20 minutes)
WHY IT’S WORTH THE DRIVE: The 1999 addition of a second park, Islands of Adventure, and a revamping of some of Universal Studios? more dated rides has given new life to the resort. You can still ride the movies at Universal Studios, but the additions of Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride and The Simpsons Ride take the experience to the next level. Islands of Adventure is home to some of the best coasters in Florida and has even more movie-themed attractions.
WHAT’S HOT: The big news is the grand opening of Universal Studios’ new coaster, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. This music-inspired thrill ride is scheduled to open early this summer and will allow riders to choose their own soundtrack and purchase a music video of their experience. We’ll give you the complete scoop as more info becomes available!
COOL SUMMER DEALS: Florida residents get the best deals at Universal. You can pick up a 2-Park Season Pass for less than $100 and have access to both parks all year long. Residents can also make a mini vacation out of it and get 2 day/2 park passes plus two nights at a hotel near the park for as low as $69 per-person, pre-night. More information about Universal Orlando’s Florida resident offers can be found at www.universalorlando.com.
DISTANCE: Approximately 150 miles (2 hours 30 minutes)
WHY IT’S WORTH THE DRIVE: Hands down the most popular recreational resort on the planet, Disney World boasts four theme parks and two water parks and is home to Mickey, Minnie and the rest of Walt’s famous friends. With rides suitable for young kids and thrill-seekers alike, it’s a great place for the whole family to visit. The massive 25,000 acre site has enough to see and do to keep you and your brood busy for a week and never ride the same attraction twice.
WHAT’S HOT: Downtown Disney is now home to a new attraction: Characters in Flight. This relaxing addition takes up to thirty people 400 feet in the air in a massive helium balloon. Downtown Disney also recently opened a dinosaur-themed restaurant and new shops that let you design your own souvenir t-shirts. New attractions include an American Idol-themed show (Hollywood Studios) and a Ratatouille movie experience (Epcot). Epcot is also playing host to some terrific tribute bands during their Sounds Like Summer concert series including Slippery When Wet: A Tribute to Bon Jovi (June 29 – July 8), 52nd Street: A Tribute to Billy Joel (July 9 – July 17), Sounds of The Supremes: A Tribute to The Supremes (July 18 – July 26), 2U: A Tribute to U2 (July 27 – August 2) and Petty Theft: A Tribute to Tom Petty (August 3 – August 9).
COOL SUMMER DEALS: There are way too many Disney deals out there for us to go over in this piece. You can search through them all at http://disneyworld.disney.go.com. One thing I will remind you of is Disney’s 2009 policy of letting people in for free on their birthday. If you happen to be a summer baby make plans to head to the Happiest Place on Earth to celebrate!
DISTANCE: Approximately 145 miles (2 hours 25 minutes)
WHY IT’S WORTH THE DRIVE: No longer simply the home of Shamu and his buddies, SeaWorld now has a ton of rides and shows and two other parks to visit. Four coasters have popped up since the park opened in 1973 and their family-friendly attractions and animal exhibits have made SeaWorld the seventh-most visited amusement park in the US.
WHAT’S HOT: Orlando got its first “flying roller coaster” this year when SeaWorld opened Manta, an impressive new attraction that has riders strapped to the bellies of metal rays, going 56 mph along 3,350 feet of track.
COOL SUMMER DEALS: SeaWorld is giving Florida and Georgia residents a chance to visit 2 parks for the price of one. Buy a ticket to SeaWorld and get into either Aquatica or Busch Gardens Tampa for free. And, if you’re a fan of fast food and cheap theme park tickets, head to Wendy’s for their exclusive deal that will get you adult admission for the kids’ price and a second visit free. Check out www.seaworld.com for more ways to save.
busch gardens tampa
DISTANCE: Approximately 215 miles (3 hours 30 minutes)
WHY IT’S WORTH THE DRIVE: It’s the furthest away, but Busch Gardens is the place to go if you have an animal lover in the family. Made famous for its zoo-quality exhibits, the park features more than 2,000 different animals in addition to its roller coasters, shows and attractions. Numerous guided tours, educational programs and animal expeditions are available to those who want a little learning with their fun. Busch Gardens is also just across the street from their water park, Adventure Island.
WHAT’S HOT: Kids will love exploring Jungala, Busch Gardens’ newest family attraction. You can also get a glimpse at what goes bump in the African night during a Serengeti Night Safari, an after sunset tour that will cost you around $60 but includes dinner and one wild adventure.
COOL SUMMER DEALS: Again, participating Wendy’s restaurants are offering deeply discounted tickets for Busch Gardens, so take advantage of that. Florida residents can also buy 2 day/2 park tickets and gain free admission to Adventure Island. There are more ways to keep costs down at www.buschgardens.com.
summertime at area theme parks
by kellie abrahamson