Spring flings at the theme parks

After this long, harsh winter, it's impossible to begrudge our Northern friends for wanting to spend time in our Florida sunshine. So, in the spirit of a warm welcome, here's a guide to what's new at the parks, including the attractions that have hatched since last year's spring break. We've grouped them by types of visitor.

If you have the need for speed, go to Transformers: The Ride — 3D at Universal Studios. It's a rollicking, futuristic attraction that virtually runs through city streets alongside robots. Slower-paced, but still fresh, is the park's Springfield area, home of Homer Simpson and family. While there, meet new walk-around characters Krusty the Clown and Sideshow Bob.

Sorry, it's too early to see more than the façade of the park's upcoming Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley. That will open to the public this summer, Universal says.

If you have only a half-day free, try Fun Spot America near International Drive. The amusement park has broken in two roller coasters, the steel Freedom Flyer and White Lightning, the only wooden coaster in Orlando. They are low-tech but entertaining rides. Best of all, non-riders pay nothing to enter Fun Spot and watch. Parking is free, too.

If you can stand to be in the car with the kids just a little longer, go to Legoland Florida in Winter Haven. The newest attraction in this kid-centric park — it seriously caters to the 2- to 12-year-old demographic — is the Quest for Chi, a ride with water cannons on board.

The park will have activities related to "The Lego Movie" this weekend and March 29-30. It's a chance to meet characters Emmet and Wyldstyle.

More sedate — Legoland prefers the term "meditative" — are the newly reopened Oriental Gardens and the refurbished, but fenced-off, Florida-shaped swimming pool. (Both are holdovers from the property's Cypress Gardens era.)

If you'd like an educational purpose attached to your road trip, try the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The new Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit is a big deal — literally. It's a spacecraft displayed in a unique way — suspended, tilted at a 43.21-degree angle and protected by an air-conditioned structure that's a salute to NASA's late shuttle program.

If you plan it right, you can work in beach time on the same jaunt.

If you're a Disney freak, check out the new Festival of Fantasy parade at the Magic Kingdom. The daily processional from Frontierland to Main Street USA is populated by dozens of Disney characters, including those ever-popular princesses. You also can check out Disney royals in the Princess Fairytale Hall, home of meet-and-greets and an actual glass slipper.

But, alas, you're a shade early for the final piece of the Fantasyland expansion. Some parts of the construction wall have come down around the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster, but it's not ready for public consumption. It will open sometime this spring, Disney says.

If you're homesick for cooler weather, try SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, an increasingly cold, dark ride that includes just-below-freezing temps in the penguin habitat.

And if that doesn't work, there's always Blizzard Beach. At least there's no shoveling there. or 407-420-5477

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