June 21, 2024

Marline Travel Sea

Fly to a New World, Set Foot on Every Adventure

How to plan your Florida summer vacation with theme parks, cruises and attractions

11 min read

Memorial Day weekend ushered in the unofficial start of summer, and as we embark on vacation season, it’s a good time to review what’s new with Florida’s theme parks, cruise ships and attractions.

This summer will bring new coasters at Busch Gardens and SeaWorld, a rebrand of Disney’s Splash Mountain ride designed for the studio’s first Black princess, a new Tampa-based cruise ship from Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville at Sea and new animals to see and pet at local zoos and aquariums.

The Sunshine State remains one of the top travel destinations in the world: More than 135 million visitors are expected to vacation in Florida this year, a number that has bounced past pre-pandemic levels. We have some of the world’s prettiest beaches and waterways, but also five of the 10 most-visited theme parks in the world. And the state welcomes more cruise ship passengers, especially PortMiami, to its terminals than any other port in the world.

The cruise line Margaritaville at Sea is making Tampa the port of call for its next, much bigger cruise ship, The Islander, offering trips to Mexico and Key West starting in June.
The cruise line Margaritaville at Sea is making Tampa the port of call for its next, much bigger cruise ship, The Islander, offering trips to Mexico and Key West starting in June. [ Margaritaville at Sea ]

That kind of traffic and record sales have inspired the industry to spend millions on ever more exciting attractions, which can help take the sting out of a high admission price.

Luckily, Florida residents do have an edge. Florida resident deals at Disney World and Universal Orlando offer discounts on multiday packages that can cut daily admission prices in half. Some cruise lines such as Disney and Royal Caribbean often have a special Florida Resident Cruise Discount. And the new Margaritaville at Sea cruise sailing out of Tampa starting in June is offering Heroes Sail Free cruises for teachers, first responders and military, allowing them to sail as many times as they’d like for free with a paying guest.

But where should we go? Buckle in as we take a tour through the many new offerings coming to Florida’s attractions.

New cruise ships

Tampa will be the port of call for the newest cruise ship from the late Jimmy Buffett’s cruise line Margaritaville at Sea, which has been offering low-cost cruises out of Palm Beach. Starting June 14, the company will be sending out the newly remodeled ship, The Islander, on four- and five-night cruises with stops in Key West, Cozumel and the Mexican Yucatan town of Progreso.

The cruise line Margaritaville at Sea will bring its next ship to Tampa. The Islander is a much bigger cruise ship than its Palm Beach ship, offering trips to Mexico and Key West.
The cruise line Margaritaville at Sea will bring its next ship to Tampa. The Islander is a much bigger cruise ship than its Palm Beach ship, offering trips to Mexico and Key West. [ Margaritaville at Sea ]

Across the state at Port Canaveral, Royal Caribbean is preparing for the July debut of its next megaship, Utopia of the Seas. It is shipping out six months after the debut of its wildly popular predecessor, Icon of the Seas, officially the world’s largest cruise ship sailing out of Miami. The still-giant Utopia will offer a series of three- and four-night cruises from Port Canaveral, in contrast to Icon’s weeklong inaugural sailings this year.

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Utopia’s itineraries were designed with locals “craving a fast getaway,” Royal Caribbean said, after the company noticed an exponential rise in demand for quick weekend vacations.

Busch Gardens released this rendering of Phoenix Rising, a new coaster set to open in Tampa. Riders will be suspended under the track and fly over the park’s Serengeti Plain.
Busch Gardens released this rendering of Phoenix Rising, a new coaster set to open in Tampa. Riders will be suspended under the track and fly over the park’s Serengeti Plain. [ Busch Gardens ]

Theme parks

Busch Gardens: The Tampa theme park is set to open Phoenix Rising, its 10th roller coaster. The suspended coaster will make you feel like a bird flying over the park on a 1,831-foot track with a maximum speed of 44 miles per hour.

Adventure Island: The water park across the street from Busch Gardens has a new play area called Castaway Falls. It doubles the size of its previous toddler play area, Splash Attack, and features more than 100 play elements, including two giant tipping buckets, four waterslides, water shooters and more.

The recently opened Castaway Falls at Adventure Island water park in Tampa doubles the size of its previous toddler play area, Splash Attack. It features more than 100 play elements, including two giant tipping buckets, four waterslides, water shooters and more.
The recently opened Castaway Falls at Adventure Island water park in Tampa doubles the size of its previous toddler play area, Splash Attack. It features more than 100 play elements, including two giant tipping buckets, four waterslides, water shooters and more. [ Adventure Island ]

Walt Disney World

  • Magic Kingdom: Splash Mountain has been wholly remade to erase the theming from the controversial 1946 film “Song of the South,” which has been criticized for using racist stereotypes and glorifying plantation life. The newly renamed Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, opening in June, will star Disney’s first Black princess from the 2009 animated film “The Princess and the Frog.” The ride will be set after the final kiss of the movie. Jazzy frogs playing Afro-Cuban music will be hopping into the adventure, which still includes a five-story drop from the top of the mountain. In keeping with the New Orleans theme, beignets and gumbo will be offered in nearby food stalls. And over in Frontierland, the Country Bear Jamboree is closed with a sign that says “Bear With Us.” It will reopen this summer and feature reinterpreted Disney tunes in different genres of country music, from bluegrass to pop-country, Americana, rockabilly and other styles.

Walt Disney Imagineering shares a first look at the first-ever Princess Tiana Audio-Animatronics figure, which will debut this summer in Tiana's Bayou Adventure at Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom Park. The new attraction will feature familiar faces from the Walt Disney Animation Studios film "The Princess and the Frog."
Walt Disney Imagineering shares a first look at the first-ever Princess Tiana Audio-Animatronics figure, which will debut this summer in Tiana’s Bayou Adventure at Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom Park. The new attraction will feature familiar faces from the Walt Disney Animation Studios film “The Princess and the Frog.” [ Disney ]
  • Epcot: After several years of construction walls blocking its paths, Epcot took down those walls in late 2023, and in June it will finally unveil the final piece of its multiyear transformation. CommuniCore Hall is the last piece of the Epcot plan that has included projects such as Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure ride, the Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind indoor roller coaster and Journey of Water, Inspired by Moana, a walk-through attraction. CommuniCore Hall, set to be unboxed June 10, is next to the new World Celebration Gardens and the Walt the Dreamer statue that was unveiled in December. CommuniCore Hall will be the central spot for Epcot’s festivals and a Mickey & Friends character greeting area. But first up at the adjacent CommuniCore Plaza stage will be “Celebration Encanto,” a summer singalong with songs from “Encanto.” That will happen several times daily between June 10 and Sept. 6.

Walt Disney World Resort guests visiting Epcot can now voyage into an all-new adventure with Journey of Water, Inspired by Moana. The new walk-through attraction is in the World Nature neighborhood of Epcot.
Walt Disney World Resort guests visiting Epcot can now voyage into an all-new adventure with Journey of Water, Inspired by Moana. The new walk-through attraction is in the World Nature neighborhood of Epcot. [ MARIAH WILD | Disney ]
  • Disney Springs: A new nighttime drone show called “Disney Dreams That Soar” is planned for Disney’s shopping and entertainment district. It will “showcase Disney stories celebrating the joy of flight,” according to the official Disney Parks Blog. The new production is scheduled to be up in the air nightly from May 24 through Sept. 2.
  • Animal Kingdom: Saluting the 30th anniversary of the animated film “The Lion King” from June 10 through Sept. 6, the park will have themed eats, a Pumbaa popcorn bucket, a new merchandise collection and a special Timon and Rafiki meet-and-greet at Rafiki’s Planet Watch.

Universal Orlando

  • DreamWorks Land: The Woody Woodpecker KidZone section of Universal Studios is being converted to a DreamWorks animation kids area. It will replace Curious George, Barney, Woody Woodpecker and Fievel with new feature characters, rides and attractions based on “Gabby’s Dollhouse,” “Shrek,” “Trolls” and “Kung Fu Panda.” Opening June 14, you can meet Shrek and splash in his swamp, ride on the Trollercoaster and learn kung fu moves with Po.
  • Also debuting June 14, a new nighttime show coming to the Universal Studios lagoon will feature 288 fountains that reach heights of up to 131 feet. It will also have 4K projection mapping, an original composition and more than 600 drones to celebrate the emotional power of music by leveraging iconic scores and scenes. Expect pictures from “Harry Potter” and “Fantastic Beasts” films, “Jurassic World,” “Jaws,” “Shrek,” “Ghostbusters,” “Trolls,” “Back to the Future,” “Universal Monsters,” “Transformers,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “E.T.,” “Fast and Furious,” “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “Minions,” “The Mummy” and “King Kong.”
  • June 14 will also be the start date for Hogwarts Always, a new nighttime extravaganza in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Hogsmeade at Universal Islands of Adventure. On select nights, wizards, witches and Muggles alike will be able to gather around the famed School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for a visually stunning experience that will take them on a journey through iconic moments of a Hogwarts school year. The show will also have four different endings that celebrate each Hogwarts house and culminate in a colorful pyrotechnic display above the castle.
  • Universal Mega Movie Parade: Starting July 3, Universal’s biggest daytime parade to date will feature 13 new floats and nearly 100 performers, including dancers, skaters, stilt walkers, poi performers and more. It will celebrate classic moments from beloved movies, such as “E.T.,” “Back to the Future,” “Jaws,” “Ghostbusters,” “Jurassic World,” Illumination’s “Minions” and “Sing” and DreamWorks’ “Trolls” and “Kung Fu Panda.” Watch out for the massive 16-foot Stay Puft Marshmallow Man as he towers atop the “Ghostbusters” float, the colorful Caterbus and giant rainbows that shimmer on the vibrant “Trolls” float, a live marching drum line performing the iconic movie score of “Jaws” alongside a float themed to the film and dinosaurs stalking their prey beside a “Jurassic World” float — the largest figure ever featured in a Universal Orlando daytime parade.

The new Ferrari Build and Race Experience opened March 8 at Legoland in Winter Haven with a life-size Lego model of the snazzy race car. Inside, kids can create their own Ferrari race car and test drive it through three extreme test tracks. Then, they can digitally build and race on a virtual track.
The new Ferrari Build and Race Experience opened March 8 at Legoland in Winter Haven with a life-size Lego model of the snazzy race car. Inside, kids can create their own Ferrari race car and test drive it through three extreme test tracks. Then, they can digitally build and race on a virtual track. [ Legoland ]

Legoland: The new Ferrari Build and Race experience opened in March with an interactive attraction that puts guests in the driver’s seat to build, test and race their own Lego Ferrari with cutting-edge digital technology.

SeaWorld: Opening later this spring, Penguin Trek is an indoor-outdoor roller coaster that will operate in the building that held the former Empire of the Penguin attraction. The iceberg look remains and, as with the previous attraction, parkgoers will encounter the real birds in their habitat at the end of the experience, right before the gift shop. But first they will ride a coaster that moves at speeds of up to 43 miles per hour across a 3,020-foot track that traverses both the indoors and outside.

Tampa Bay attractions

ZooTampa at Lowry Park: The zoo has a new walking trail created with Tampa General Hospital that is a 1-mile loop situated among animal habitats and includes signs every eighth of a mile that help guests follow their progress and stay on track. Also new is the recently opened Stingray Shores, where you can pet stingrays. It also includes a new experience where you can get in the pool with and feed the stingrays. Also new this year is a reimagined Australia Realm featuring a new family-friendly ride, Aussie Trek, expanded water and dry play areas, and an enhanced retail shop, bar and new restaurant. The area continues to feature opportunities for up-close wildlife connections with koalas and barnyard animals as well as enhanced viewing of wallabies. 1101 W. Sligh Ave., Tampa. zootampa.org.

Dominic Driesse, 6, of St. Petersburg reaches out to pet a stingray at Stingray Shores at ZooTampa at Lowry Park on March 13.
Dominic Driesse, 6, of St. Petersburg reaches out to pet a stingray at Stingray Shores at ZooTampa at Lowry Park on March 13. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Clearwater Marine Aquarium: The rehab hospital for sea life recently introduced its newest resident species, octopus vulgaris. Known for its camouflage abilities, the animal can be fascinating to watch as specialized skin cells called “chromatophores” allow it to change its color, pattern and texture to blend in with its surroundings and protect it from predators. Another new resident is Opie, a juvenile male river otter brought to the aquarium after a dog attack that injured his right eye, making him unable to be released back into the wild. A new self-guided audio tour available in both a children’s version and adult version is included with admission. 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater. cmaquarium.org.

A paddlefish is seen in the MORPH’D gallery at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa on June 29, 2023.
A paddlefish is seen in the MORPH’D gallery at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa on June 29, 2023. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Florida Aquarium: The Tampa aquarium is in the middle of a three-year, $40 million expansion. MORPH’D is the first new gallery to open since the aquarium debuted in 1995. The gallery is full of fish and marine life never before seen at the aquarium and focuses on the ways animals adapt to their environment and camouflage themselves. Don’t miss feeding time for the archerfish, which, as its name implies, will spit a line of water like a sharpshooter to knock down a piece of shrimp hanging from a branch over its tank. The aquarium this March began a new ticketing system that now requires advanced ticket purchases, with visitors picking a designated time frame to visit. 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa. flaquarium.org.

Glazer Children’s Museum: A first of its kind for Tampa, the downtown museum has on display a massive real-life fossil of a triceratops, aptly named Big John, that was discovered in South Dakota in the Hell Creek Geological formation in 2014. It’s the largest known triceratops skeleton in the world and made its journey to the museum for a three-year stay. The museum has also expanded its learning center and added a new sensory room. With the dinosaur’s help, the museum saw a record-breaking 248,000 visitors last year, surpassing all previous attendance figures. 110 W. Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa. glazermuseum.org.

B.T. Washington Elementary School student Zoey McCray, 6, gets a close look at Big John, the world’s largest documented fossilized triceratops skeleton, through a bubble dome at the Big John exhibitat the Glazer Children's Museum in Tampa on May 10, 2023.
B.T. Washington Elementary School student Zoey McCray, 6, gets a close look at Big John, the world’s largest documented fossilized triceratops skeleton, through a bubble dome at the Big John exhibitat the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa on May 10, 2023. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Tampa Bay History Center: Bootleggers, jazz music and worker revolts are the focus of a special exhibit, “Decade of Change: Florida in the 1920s,” which runs through July 14. You can celebrate the Fourth of July at the history center with $5 admission and meet costumed characters from history and military reenactors representing several eras. 801 Old Water St., Tampa. 813-228-0097. tampabayhistorycenter.org.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park: Florida’s only spring-fed water park has a live mermaid show that is more than 75 years old. In addition to the clear springs, there is a sandy beach at Buccaneer Bay with flume rides, volleyball, river rides, a kiddie pool area and, of course, the mermaid shows. It’s a bargain with an admission price of $13, $8 for kids 6-12. During the summer months, it typically fills to capacity before noon, so get there early. 6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee. 352-592-5656. weekiwachee.com.

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