The numbers of travelers visiting Florida grew over last year through the third quarter with expectations of continued growth through the end of the year. The modest 3.5 percent increase also brought with it an increase in direct travel-related employment in Florida. Reflecting this trend, Florida's attractions rolled out a record number of new rides and expanded at a record pace. Just as our lives have been filled with more and more technology, this year most parks have abandoned the high and mighty roller coaster for the technology trend. You'll find far more attractions with new visual effects, mostly 3-D and variations of the special-lens-needed visual effects.
Even though I can't help but feel that Florida's tourist industry is officially in recovery, money still matters to those of us that travel. Gasoline prices continue to place a stranglehold on automobile travel and has to be a factor in rising airline fares. On average gasoline prices have retreated to under $3.40 per gallon from a high of nearly $4.00 over the last couple of months of this year. While that is good news, in late June and early July they were at their lowest for the year at less than $3.25 a gallon. Hotels were another travel commodity that got hit with price increases this year as well, but several hotel chains refurbished and redecorated leaving a better impression for the money spent.
So, the family vacation budget continued to take a financial hit this year, but we travelers are a hearty bunch that simply adjusted. We like to travel and nothing can keep us home... for long anyway. Many of us opted for shorter vacations, or settled on less expensive locations. Others of us simply didn't splurge on expensive meals or souvenirs. Floridians, like myself, traded traditional week-long vacations for less expensive long weekend getaways and day trips.
Let’s take a look at some of the best (and worst) travelers in Florida experienced during 2012.
Best New Attractions
- Just in time for Memorial Day, LEGOLAND® Florida opened its water park. The seasonal attraction was the first expansion of the park that celebrated its first anniversary in October, and the fall brought more construction to the park with legions of Star Wars characters arriving at LEGOLAND Florida's Miniland. Although a bit removed from the vicinity of Central Florida's theme parks, LEGOLAND is already becoming a popular destination, particularly those with small children. Be on the lookout throughout the year for special holiday celebrations, especially its Christmas Bricktacular and Brick-or-Treat.
- Also in time for summer fun, Gaylord Palms opened their new family fun water park, Cypress Springs. The new zero-entry pool area features a multi-level tree house with four awesome water slides, plenty of gurgling springs, an over-sized water tipping bucket and an outdoor movie theater.
- Disney World's Magic Kingdom is just completing an extreme Fantasyland makeover, which opened December 6th, that will feature the largest expansion in the park's history. One of Fantasyland's most popular rides — Dumbo the Flying Elephant — is now anchored by a circus-themed play and relaxation area and the Dumbo duo provides double the passenger capacity. Other additions include, the Barnstormer Coaster, re-themed to the Great Goofini; Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid, featuring Arial and her friends; the castle of the Beast will feature the Be Our Guest Restaurant; and, Enchanted Tales with Belle.
- Universal Orlando's "Year to be Here" has included more entertainment and innovations. Universal Studios rolled out a new Superstar Parade and Cinematic Spectacular. Regulars to Islands of Adventure will want to make sure to board the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man for an all-new high definition 3-D experience; and, be sure to catch the all-new Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride at Universal Studios. In addition, Universal Orlando's CityWalk is the site of a new mini-golf adventure — Hollywood Drive-In Golf. And, finally, Universal Orlando fans look for "TRANSFORMERS: The Ride - 3D" coming in the summer of 2013!
- Not to be outdone by nearby theme parks, in the spring, SeaWorld Orlando opened Turtle Trek, a high tech experience that is not just in 3-D, but in 360-degree 3-D! The park has also announced its biggest expansion ever — Antarctica - Empire of the Penguin — which will open in 2013.
Florida brought home honors in 2012 with two beaches making the cut on Dr. Beach’s America’s Best Beaches list with both St. George Island State Park in Florida’s Panhandle and Cape Florida State Park in South Florida moving up two places from 2011 — to No. 4 and No. 8 respectively.
Best (and Worst) News
The news coming out of Florida in 2012 was a mixed bag for residents and tourists alike:
- Florida's Overseas Highway celebrated its "Over Sea Centennial" in January with a 10-day event that featured parades and more.
- Disney announced its One More Disney Day during Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve with Ryan Seacrest on ABC. The fun-packed 24-hour day was held on Leap Day, February 29, 2012.
- Disney's Art of Animation Resort began opening in phases the end of May and was fully operational by mid-September.
- Gaylord Palms Resort opened Cypress Springs, their new family water park, in May.
- Florida survived another year without a direct hit from a major hurricane, although we did get a dousing or two from some tropical storms.
- Condé Nast has announced their 2012 Readers' Choice Awards:
Airline fees continue to rise with new charges and more restrictions making airplane travel more expensive and difficult than ever. And, while I've often teased that it was only time before you would have to pay for a seat aboard your next flight, that reality may be coming to Ryanair. They will be safety testing vertical "seats" that actually only "support a standing passenger" next year. Meanwhile, they are raising a real stink with plans to charge a fee to use the on board restroom.
- It's not exactly news, because it happens at least once a year... all the major theme parks raised the price of admission again this year. This annual ritual seems to continue to defy logic and the economy and stretch already tight family vacation budgets; but, like it or not, we must deal with it. Either go and pay more... or stay away. Sadly, due to finances, it may not be a choice for some.
- Some of Florida's most prominent visitors this year included those seeking the highest office in America. Both Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, their spouses, running mates and campaign subrogates made repeated visits to Florida. Held in Tampa during late August, the Republican National Convention was nearly upstaged by Hurricane Issac as the storm forced the cancellation of the first day of the delegates' business and some speeches.
As a swing state under the media microscope during the November election, Florida again proved inept at the entire election process. In the name of potential voter fraud, Republican Governor Rick Scott purged voter rolls and decreased early voting days, including the Sunday before the November 6 election. That particular Sunday was a popular get-out-the-vote day by congregations calling it "Souls to the Polls." So, whether it was actually decreasing the days for early votes, or anger over perceived voter suppression, voters turned out in force causing hours-long lines that sent a strong message to county and state officials — fix this!
- One of the Sunshine States best values is the Fun Card. The Fun Card allows unlimited visits to either Busch Gardens Tampa Bay or SeaWorld Orlando for the entire year — for just the price of a single-day admission. Purchase one now for 2013 and enjoy all of the 2012 holidays for free! While it doesn’t cover parking, it isn’t hard for this little card to provide the purchaser with plenty of "fun" over the calendar year (it's good through December 31, 2013).