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Theme park news: Harry Potter, Star Wars, Legoland and beyond

By Brad Tuttle
October 3, 2012

Here's a round-up of rides and entire theme parks that have just opened, will open soon, or are expected in the years to come.

Presented in roughly chronological order:

World's first special-needs theme park just opened. Morgan's Wonderland, a 25-acre "ultra-accessible" theme park designed for disabled and special needs children and adults, opened last month in San Antonio, Texas, and starting on May 26, the admission gates are open seven days a week.

Universal Studios' Harry Potter attractions opening June 18. Park-goers will finally be able to enjoy the highly anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter starting early this summer. There are already Harry Potter-themed vacation packages being sold too.

August is the last chance to ride Disney's Star Tours. A party is being thrown on August 14 at Disney's Hollywood Studios to honor the Last Tour to Endor, and Star Wars geeks know what that means: The old Star Tours ride is closing. Fear not, however, for the ride will be born again sometime in 2011 as a 3-D adventure based on the pod race scenes from "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace."

Legoland is coming to central Florida. Plans are well under way for the world's fifth Legoland park to open in the Orlando area with 40 to 50 attractions by the end of 2011.

Bonus: $5 kids' tickets at Sea World. From now through the end of 2010, with each full-price adult admission, you can get a child's ticket (for ages 3 to 12) for just $5. The money collected for kids' admission will be donated to a wildlife conservation project of your choice. For more details, check out SeaWorldCares.com.

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Travel Tips

San Francisco: A veteran cable car driver's best tips

Leonard Oats, a driver on San Francisco's cable car lines, has been riding the rails along Hyde Street for the past decade. Oats is also the multi-year champion of the cable car bell ringing contest, which draws crowds to Union Square every summer. Drivers are judged on rhythm, originality, and style—and there's even a category for amateurs. Try your hand at ringing an iconic cable car bell on Thursday, June 17, at the 48th annual contest. Oats drives on the Powell-Hyde line, possibly the city's most famous, which traverses the steepest hills from Powell in Union Square north to Fisherman's Wharf, going by landmarks like Lombard Street. We caught up with him to ask him some tips on how to get the most out of riding the cable cars—because he would know! What are your favorite parts of the job? The challenge of driving the car on the hills; getting to meet people from all over the world; and everyday getting to see the Golden Gate Bridge and the ocean. It's a great view and a beautiful city. I love it. What's the best stretch of your route? Lombard Street is by far your best view all the way down. You can see Coit Tower, Alcatraz, Angel Island, Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge, and Berkeley. Where's the best seat? When you're going down to the water on Hyde Street, the right side is the best if you want to see it all. On the left side, all you see is the Golden Gate Bridge. But remember, when you sit down, there might be people in front of you, so try to get on early. What's the best way to avoid the lines? The secret is, unless you absolutely have to have a seat, you can walk one block up from the turnarounds (like the one at Powell and Market streets, or the one at Bay street and Fisherman's Wharf) and get on there, where it's less crowded. That's what the locals do. [Editor's note: Very few locals actually take cable cars—they offer scenic views but are not very efficient.] Should people tip the driver? You certain don't have to, but we can accept tips. Just make it clear that you're offering a tip and not the fare. What mistakes or faux pas do people make? People make a lot of mistakes. First, you should pay the conductor in the back and not the driver in the front—I'm trying to drive! A lot of people think the cable cars are like a ride at Disneyland, but it's not. You have to be safe. When you get on, take off your backpack and put it by your feet. Otherwise, if it's sticking out of the car, it can get stuck on something and pull you right off. Believe me, it's happened. I think folks see people leaning out of the cars in the movies, but it can be dangerous. Locals do ride by "hanging off", but that just means they stand on the side. What are the best sites for visitors to see? A lot of people really like Alcatraz. I haven't gone, but my wife has, and she said it is scary. I was a sheriff before this and worked in a jail, so I don't really need to see another prison. But I do really enjoy the ferry trip over to Tiburon, where you can see the city from the water. I also like going to Twin Peaks, one of the highest points in the city. A lot of tourists don't know about it because it's a little bit tough to get to. But there are some city bus tours that go up there now, or you if you've rented a car, it's worth a stop.

Inspiration

Philadelphia: The City of Murals

On the buildings along the Schuylkill River, vibrant murals welcome visitors into Philadelphia. They've been peeking out from underneath bridges and along cement walls since 1984, when the city established the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, to redirect graffiti artists' energies toward enhancing their community. Over time, the nation's largest mural effort, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, sprung up. Now, in collaboration with local photographer Jacques-Jean "JJ" Tiziou, the mural has been elevated to an all-new level—seven-stories high. At Philly's airport, a nearly 50,000-square-foot piece will cover one side of the parking garage stretching from Terminal A to Terminal F, with roughly 18 images of community dancers narrowed down from thousands. The City of Brotherly Love has a history of dance, and JJ Tiziou has been right alongside the movement to document it. The project will employ 35 artists and take 18 months to complete before its final dedication in June 2011. The energy of the design, entitled How Philly Moves, will be palpable at 60 MPH while driving past it on Interstate 95, and it will be clear why Philadelphia could as easily earn a new nickname—the City of Murals. 25 Reasons We Love Philly Tickets Now on Sale for Philly's Cleopatra Exhibit More Top Travel Blogs

London's cheaper, but summer fares are rising

Since November, the value of a U.S. dollar in Britain has gotten 22 percent stronger, meaning that London is historically cheap for American visitors. Unfortunately, plane tickets have been getting pricier. What gives? And how can you find cheap(er) fares? Round-trip tickets may be roughly $200 more expensive now than two summers ago (before the financial crisis hit full swing). One reason: British Airways cut its capacity (meaning, its planes and routes) by 23 percent in the past year. By cutting supply, BA can charge higher ticket prices. Other airlines have done the same. The airlines lost a lot of money during the Icelandic volcano crisis. Airlines will try to try to make up the lost income. They'll hike the average roundtrip ticket between London and New York $40 this year, and up to $80 by 2012. Airlines will slowly bump up fares until they've recovered all of their lost money. Airport taxes are another problem, says George Hobica, founder of bargain-hunting site Airfare Watchdog. "Britain continues to heap tax increases on London's airports, with a series of hikes in the past few years. And it looks like the taxes will go up again by the end of year." So what to do? Hobica recommends you book a vacation package. Tour operators buy blocks of seats on planes up to a year in advance, and a year ago tickets were a lot cheaper than they are now. So tour operators can afford to discount the seats and pass along the savings to travelers in lower air-plus-hotel-plus-rental car packages. Keep an eye out for "fare glitches" and last-minute sales are another thing to watch out for. Set up electronic sale alerts on Airfarewatchdog, tracks those periodic sale fares that only are available for a few hours or days. Be ready to pounce when any fare sales appear. If you can't decide whether to book tickets today or wait a few days, check out the "buy-now-or wait" predictions on Bing.com/travel, a free service that takes out some of the guesswork. It'll give you a forecast on whether to buy today or later this week. Its crystal ball is historical airfare data. It looks at the past several years of airfare trends to deduce whether prices will rise or fall on any given route. Last tip: Fly on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, which tend to be much cheaper days to fly than weekends.

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