Orlando parks entertain, educate Studios: Visitors from toddler age to adulthood will find appropriate activities for fun and learning.

Taking the Kids

December 07, 1997|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

In an instant, Reggie is transformed. My oh-so-hip, pony-tailed middle schooler with a mouth full of braces has become an armor-clad centaur warrior -- a shaggy-haired half-human, half-horse from a mysterious mythical place.

She's smack in the middle of a fierce battle against an evil king's army, green monsters and dragons. She's loving every minute -- especially seeing her new look projected on a large screen in front of a theater full of 200 fascinated tourists.

We're tourists, too, in Orlando, at Universal Studios Florida's newest attraction, "Hercules & Xena: Wizards of the Screen." Hercules and Xena star in two high-action TV shows that air in more than 15 countries. Eleven-year-old Reggie was one of the audience members who became part of the warrior "team" chosen to help demonstrate how programs like these, full of wars and set in ancient times, are made with the help of computers, props and sound effects.

Take the centaur bit. Reggie and the other volunteers, grinning sheepishly, put on their armor, wigs and helmets: Their costumed top half is photographed and merged on the computer with the bottom half of a horse. When that image is projected on the big screen, presto! They're larger-than-life mythical creatures.

Not enough warriors for the battle? No problem. The computer creates dozens more by duplicating their images.

Need a scary monster? Invite a bunch of kids to push the behind-the-scenes levers that make the green plastic monster move forward and backward, up and down, snapping his jaws. On the stage, he's an oversized toy. On the giant screen, he's real -- and plenty scary.

The grown-ups and kids in the crowd are thrilled to get "the inside story" on how the magic happens. For any star-struck kid or parent, for anyone curious about what goes on behind the cameras, it's great fun to visit Universal Studios here, the biggest movie studio outside of Hollywood, and Disney-MGM studios, where an ever-greater portion of Disney's animation studios now are located.

Sure, there are the obligatory action rides -- the all-time favorites Back to the Future and Kongfrontation at Universal and MGM's Tower of Terror (the scariest ride I've ever tried) along with the the new Goosebumps Horrorland.

Universal Studios will triple its size by 1999, with hotels, a shopping and entertainment complex and a new 110-acre Islands of Adventure park complete with high-tech roller coasters that appear to be on a collision course until the last second.

For the younger set

Both parks, meanwhile, offer plenty of opportunities for the grade-school and preschool set to get character autographs and photos. The toddlers will want to make a beeline to play in Barney's park at Universal Studios.

(Call Walt Disney World at 407- 824-4321 or visit the Web site at www.disney.com/DisneyWorld/. Call Universal Studios at 407-363- 8000 or visit the Web site at www .universalstudios.com/unitemp/. Also ask about second-day-free promotions and the evening Mardi Gras blow-out that begins in mid-February and continues each night through mid-March.)

A good bet for those who've outgrown Barney but not Jasmine, Pocahantas, the Hunchback and all of their cohorts is breakfast or lunch at MGM's Soundstage Restaurant. The food is bland but passable, and worth the cost for tired parents who can sit and relax while character after character stops by, rather than pushing through a crowd to see them. (Breakfast costs $42 for a family of four with kids under 12; lunch is $2 more. Especially in busy seasons, make reservations early.)

Spending time at either of these parks is pricey. Just getting in the gate for a family of four will cost more than $150 for one day. And that's not even counting all the souvenirs the kids insist they can't go home without.

To save some bucks, call Orlando Vacation Information at 800-255-5786 and request a Magic Card, which entitles you to savings on Orlando hotels, restaurants and some area attractions.

If you plan to spend a lot of time at Disney World, consider joining the Magic Kingdom Club. The $65 two-year membership fee entitles you to as much as $10 off park admissions, along with significant savings at on-site hotels, restaurants and Disney stores nationwide as well as some airfares and car rentals. Before you call 800-56-DISNEY, though, check with AAA or your employer for other discounts.

If you're planning to spend a lot of time elsewhere, however, consider an Orlando Flex Ticket, which allows you unlimited admission for a week to Universal, Sea World and Wet'n Wild at less than the cost of visiting each park once. Call 800-224-3838. As you're shelling out all this money, keep in mind that Universal and MGM can be educational -- for grown-ups, as well as a real kick for the first and second TV generations.

I bet you didn't know it takes 75 artists, 1 million drawings, and four to five years to create just one of Disney's animated movies. At MGM's "World of Animation" we saw how much animation has changed from the days when Mickey Mouse was created until now, when computer-generated art is an important part of the process.

"But 98 percent of the characters are still drawn by hand," our guide informs us.

Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053 or e-mail to eogintol .com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in future columns.)

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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