What's New in Theme Parks This Summer

If you're taking a trip to Disney World or Universal Studios, here's a heads-up on what to expect.
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Here's our definition of the perfect summer day: a nonstop marathon of thrill rides and goofy attractions, interrupted only by the occasional partaking of something fried or sweet (or, even better, something fried and sweet).

In other words, we're suckers for theme parks.

Fortunately, the theme-park industry keeps giving us excuses to head out for a day of fun, as new parks open and established ones add major rides and attractions. It all helps to explain why even in a struggling economy, park attendance rose 2.5% in 2007, according to the TEA/ERA Attraction Attendance annual report. In terms of raw numbers, that translates into 122.8 million visitors to the top 20 North American parks alone. That's

a lot

of funnel cakes.

With that in mind, here are some highlights of what's new and noteworthy on the theme-park scene this summer:

Walt Disney World

, Orlando, Fla.: The country's most popular theme-park destination has a new toy in its arsenal of attractions -- literally. We're talking Toy Story Mania!, a ride-through attraction at the Hollywood Studios park that "combines the fun of a video game, whiz-bang 3-D technology and interaction with favorite

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stars," according to press material.

The idea is that you get in your vehicle and play carnival-style games along the route, with the "Toy Story" gang aboard for added fun. It sounds a fair bit like another Disney World attraction -- Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin at the Magic Kingdom -- but we're not complaining, since that's one of our favorites.

Universal Orlando Resort

, Orlando, Fla.: If Disney is banking on "Toy Story," its main Orlando rival,

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, is betting on Homer Simpson. At its Universal Studios Florida park, it now offers The Simpsons Ride.

The idea is the Simpsons gang -- Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie -- are at Krusty the Clown's low-budget theme park (Krustyland). You board your vehicle and join them on their misadventure.

Aquatica by SeaWorld

, Orlando, Fla.: SeaWorld, the other major theme-park player in Central Florida, may be trumping them all. It has a whole new park added to its mix -- in this case, a 59-acre, $50 million-plus water park, aptly called Aquatica, that promises to blend the traditional get-wet adventures with "the up-close animal experience."

There's even a grotto filled with tropical fish.

Given how hot Orlando gets during the summer time, any new water park is welcomed.

Hard Rock Park

, Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Yes, the same folks behind those ever-popular Hard Rock Cafes are going into the amusement biz, billing their newly opened 140-acre, $400 million complex as "the world's first rock 'n' roll theme park."

As the park's promotional material goes on to explain, "At Disney, you can catch Mickey, Goofy and Donald. At Hard Rock Park, our cast of characters are Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Brian May, Mick Jagger..."

Apparently, they're not kidding: The list of attractions includes Led Zeppelin: The Ride (a roller coaster with "Whole Lotta Love" as its theme music) and a musical spectacular built around Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," replete with "dancing fountains and stunning fireworks."

Naturally, the park has a concert venue, too -- a 10,000-seat amphitheater that's expected to play host to major tours.

Nickelodeon Universe

, Bloomington, Minn.

Universal Orlando once had a Nickelodeon component to its parks, but now the Mall of America is showcasing a whole Nick "universe." This all-new, seven-acre indoor park features 18 Nick-theme rides (i.e. The Fairly OddParents Fairly Odd Coaster), plus four Nick-branded stores. Hey, it's located in a mall, so you didn't think shopping wouldn't be involved, did you?

Cedar Point

, Sandusky, Ohio: This 139-year-old Midwest park may be celebrated as the number-one destination for roller coaster fanatics -- it has 17 in all! -- but its focus this year is on something a little more tame.

The park is unveiling Planet Snoopy, a Peanuts-themed children's area with seven rides. And if you get hungry, check out the Peanuts-themed restaurant nearby, called Joe Cool Café.

SEA LIFE Aquarium at LEGOLAND California Resort

, Carlsbad, Calif.: And you thought LEGOs were just building bricks? Now, the LEGO brand, which already established itself in the theme-park world with LEGOLAND, is adding fish to the mix.

The soon-to-open SEA LIFE, part of a $20 million expansion of the California park, features a 175,000-gallon display that's home to black tip reef sharks, southern stingrays, dogface puffers and giant frogfish, among other creatures of the deep.

Oh, and there are plenty of LEGO models on display as well, including one of a 7-foot-long LEGO submarine.

We wonder how many bricks that took to build.

Charles Passy is a Florida-based writer who covers food, travel, entertainment and consumer culture and products.