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Animals galore at Florida parks

Wet ‘n wild Rhino Rally is among highlights

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Issue an animal alert. The zebras, rhinos and chimpanzees have arrived.

At Busch Gardens in Tampa, the news is Rhino Rally, a bumpy Land Rover ride through a rugged landscape home to elephants, gazelles and rare white rhinos. At Disney, it's the remarkably authentic Animal Kingdom Lodge, where guests can watch giraffes graze just outside their room balconies.

At Universal Studios, it's a delightful new "Animal Planet Live!" show featuring video clips and live appearances by a cast of chimps, orangutans and a boa constrictor. At SeaWorld, it's a new show starring animal shelter refugees and a new hitching barn for the famous Clydesdales.

Compared to years past, when central Florida has been agog over new billion-dollar theme parks and dozens of flashy new rides, the summer of 2001 may seem a bit tame. The snazziest park innovations are happening elsewhere.

Still, central Florida offers enough new twists to tempt even the most experienced theme park hands — including a new water attraction at Wet 'n Wild, astronaut dinners at Kennedy Space Center and a new dining/entertainment area at Pointe Orlando on International Drive.

And if you haven't caught up yet on all the happenings of the past few years — such as Discovery Cove, the sister park to SeaWorld; Islands of Adventure, Universal's ride-crazy park; Hard Rock Hotel at Universal, MGM-Disney's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" — Play It! attraction, and the $130 million redevelopment of Kennedy Space Center's visitor complex — you'll have plenty to keep you busy.

Rhino Rally

That rare white rhino blocking the road isn't an animatronic repro. It's one of the live hazards of riding a cross-country rally through Busch Gardens Tampa's Serengeti Plain on its new adventure, Rhino Rally.

Like the Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Rhino Rally takes guests through a live animal habit across an African-style savanna. But that's where similarities end.

Disney's attraction is a remarkably realistic photo safari through a beautifully landscaped plain where the main draw is the animals. Rhino Rally is a lively romp that is as much adventure as animal experience.

Sixteen riders plus a navigator clamber into a specially designed Land Rover to make their bid in the running of the 34th annual Rhino Rally cross-Africa race. Aboard is a driver who navigates rocks, streams and rutted roads and acts as tour guide, pointing out such endangered species as the rhinos and Asian elephants, plus zebras, cape buffalo and scimitar-horned oryx.

A total of 17 species — all bred in zoos, says vice president Glenn Young — live on the 16-acre plain.

The first half of the eight-minute ride replicates a traditional safari through five different habitats, with views of animals that are surprisingly close.

Inevitably, the navigator — an audience volunteer — leads the driver astray, sending the Rover through a jungle and monsoon — yes, you'll get a little wet — and onto a pontoon bridge that breaks away and is swept down the Zambesi River through rocky canyons. Of course, the rally racers escape from danger and arrive intact.

Rhino Rally is included in the regular park admission. Information: 800-372-1797; www.rhinorally.com.

Wet 'n Wild

Climb the 40-foot tower, then slip feet first down and around through a giant blue chute. But The Storm isn't just any enclosed water slide. When you emerge, instead of splashing gently into a quiet pool, you're twirled 'round and 'round by a 1,400-gallon-per-minute blast of water through the sounds of raging winds. Finally, you drop through the bottom of the twister's vortex, splashing to watery rest.

The Storm is the newest attraction at Wet 'n Wild, just opened at the 25-acre park on International Drive.

Information: 407-351-1800; www.wetnwild.com.

Kennedy Space Center

Over the past five years, Kennedy Space Center has spent $130 million sprucing up its visitor facilities: developing tours, installing exhibits and launching activities such as Astronaut Encounter, a daily Q&A with a real star voyager.

Now guests can actually have lunch or dinner with an astronaut. The program is held at 1 p.m. Wednesdays and 5 p.m. Fridays and costs $29.95 for adults, $19.95 ages 3-11.

Just opened is Mad Mission to Mars 2025, a zany live-action show that transforms guests into astronaut trainees and virtually zaps them to the red planet on a voyage of special effects and computer animation. The show is included in the regular Visitor Complex admission (adults $24, ages 3-11 $15), which also includes all exhibits, IMAX fims and the KSC Tour.

Last fall, the center added a 90-minute, in-depth NASA Up Close tour that takes guests on the astronaut's launch day path, from the crew quarter to the pad and through facilities normally accessible only to NASA personnel. The cost is $20 above regular admission.

Information: 321-449-4444; www.KennedySpaceCenter.com.

Seaworld

If you've got a passion for music from the past, check out SeaWorld's Rockin' Summer Nights through Sept. 3, a retro celebration of tunes from the '60s and '70s.

Other new presentations at SeaWorld include a live animal show "Pets Ahoy!"

Information: 888-800-5447; www.seaworld.com.

Universal Studios

Captivated by those critters on "Animal Planet"? Don't miss Universal Studios' engaging new "Animal Planet Live!" show, which combines video clips from the network's popular shows with appearances by animal stars and rescuees.

Also at Universal Studios, "Mummy" fans can check out costumes, props — including those crucial gold and black books — and video clips from "The Mummy Returns." The extensive display is inside the lobby of the theater that houses "The Gory, Gruesome and Grotesque Horror Make-Up Show."

Information: 407-363-8000; www.universalstudios.com.

Walt Disney World

At Disney, the big news this spring is Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, where guests can view African animals from their room balconies. Earlier this spring, Disney opened "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — Play It!" at Disney-MGM Studios, where all visitors play along. Summer is also concert time, with performances by Baha Men, Shaggy and Sugar Ray.

At Magic Kingdom, guests also can check out the Magic Carpets of Aladdin, a new ride for young children.

Come fall, Disney will unveil another hotel, the moderately priced Pop Century Resort, which will be similar to its All-Star Resort, where rooms run $74-$104.

Information: 407-824-4321; www.disneyworld.com.