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dec 16

What's new for theme parks in 2011

Join a pod race on the new Star Tours (Courtesy Disney)

Nobody knows theme parks like the editor of ThemeParkInsider, Robert Niles, who has tracked the industry for more than a decade. We asked him to peek into his crystal ball and tell us what the big stories of 2011 will be. Here's his take:

The biggest new theme park attractions for 2011, says Niles, will be the debut of Legoland Florida, the new Star Tours ride at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and the new multi-million-dollar Little Mermaid ride at Disney California Adventure in Anaheim.

Legoland Florida is opening in October 2011 on the site of the old Cypress Gardens park in Winter Haven. It's a nearly hour-long drive from the Orlando theme parks, but Legoland's strong line-up of kid-friendly attractions ought to encourage many families to make the trip to check it out. Fans have consistently rated Legoland's California park as the best in the nation for children, even ahead of the Disney parks and I know many east coast and Midwestern families who've been waiting for a Legoland on their side of the country.

The Little Mermaid ride is the next step in Disney's multi-billion-dollar make-over of its California Adventure park. The World of Color show it debuted this summer was the park's biggest break-out hit to date, and Little Mermaid promises to be a richly detailed indoor ride in the tradition of It's a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean, something west coast fans haven't seen from Disney in a generation.

The revamped Star Tours rides, which have been closed for renovations since last summer, will still be based on motion-simulators, but we'll get 3-D effects and a new storyline as well at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

COOL INNOVATIONS COMING SOON TO THEME PARKS

Parks will continue in 2011 to try to find new ways to upcharge visitors who can afford to pay extra for a more special theme park experience. Look for some regional theme parks to start implementing new cell-phone-based systems to allow visitors to skip the wait at certain rides, for an extra charge, of course.

Disney's making a big push with mobile in 2011, as well. In addition to its own in-park app available to Verizon customers, which allows them to find characters in the parks and check real-time wait times, Disney's partnered with Gowalla to create free Disney-themed guided tours of its various attractions, where Gowalla users can "check in" with their cell phones while in the parks. Visitors can collect virtual goodies, such as Mickey ears, by checking in to enough places, too.

You won't see it fully developed in 2011, but theme parks are making a huge push into social media within the parks, trying to create systems that connect visitors with one another in a mass storytelling experience, even when people aren't on physical rides. The lines between theme parks and massively multiplayer games are blurring, and this will result in some fun changes in theme parks in 2012 and beyond.

Robert Niles of ThemeParkInsider

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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