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In the Magic Kingdom; Laura Hogan enjoys a break with Mickey and friends.

Byline: Laura Hogan

WHEN Disney World in Florida opened its latest thrill attraction, Expedition Everest, earlier this summer, even leading British mountaineer Stephen Venables had to admit he was rather impressed.

"The approach to the mountain is lovingly authentic," he said.

"As you queue, you really do feel that you could be in Nepal."

I can see his point. To enjoy the new ride, guests board the rickety old Anandapur Rail Service destined for Mount Everest, and travel through thick bamboo forests, past waterfalls and along glacier fields before climbing higher and higher into snow-capped peaks.

The opening of Expedition Everest, with the tallest "mountain" in Florida, at just under 200ft high, is just one highlight of many included in the "Happiest Celebration On Earth", a programme to mark the 50 years since the first Disney Park opened in California.

It's an 18-month extravaganza, with a host of new attractions from different continents set to amaze and amuse everyone who enters.

The sheer size of the massive park, which is spread across 47 square miles of Florida soil, can leave new visitors gobsmacked and returnees utterly enthralled.

Never mind the decades of planning that have gone into Walt Disney World Resort - the theme parks are constantly changing, with four new thrilling rides installed for the current anniversary celebrations.

In every instant spent there, your senses of sight, sound and smell are engaged in a clever mix of nostalgic rides, startling 3-D movies and thrilling roller-coasters.

FOR youngsters and adults alike, the first stop has to be the Magic Kingdom, where cartoon characters have come to life and are roaming the streets.

The most striking sight in the park is Cinderella's Castle, set at the top of Walt Disney's old-fashioned Main Street and filled with quaint little shops.

Some of the must-do rides include Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or Splash Mountain, while dare-devil families tend to head for Space Mountain, which leaves your head reeling as you zip through the darkness.

Disney's Animal Kingdom marks an adventure set in the wilds of Africa and Asia, with everything revolving around the eye-catching 14-storey high Tree of Life in the middle of the park.

Another relatively new addition is Lucky The Dinosaur, a free-roaming massive animatronics figure, which has dozens queuing up for a closer view.

For children obsessed with television and computer games, the Kilimanjaro Safaris are a mini-eye opener to the wild with a trip on a open-air safari vehicle past giraffes, elephants, crocodiles and lions.

There are stunningly intricate details designed to immerse you in the tale as you stroll around the park from Africa to Asia - even the leaf pattern on the floor changes.

Over in Camp Minnie-Mickey, where the gang are off on "vacation", Festival Of The Lion King awaits.

This full-scale music, dance and fire extravaganza has enough razzmatazz to challenge any major New York city theatre.

Epcot boasts Mission: Space - probably the closest that most people will ever get to joining Nasa's astronauts in the weightless zone with a simulated space adventure.

Meanwhile, the secrets behind Hollywood's most dare-devil motor stunts are revealed in the new Lights, Motors, Action - Extreme Stunt Show at Disney-MGM Studios.

Disney World's two water parks promise a proper soaking. In Disney's Typhoon Lagoon, you can float on by for a 45-minute ride on Castaway Creek.

Another new dare-devil addition to the park lies in the Crush 'n' Gusher, as powerful water jets launch you down three hair-raising rides.

The new Fastpass system can be used on the most popular rides. You simply pop your ticket into a machine and you get a one-hour window later in the day to return and walk straight onto the ride.

Those staying at the Walt Disney resorts can avail themselves of the "Extra Magic Hour", where each morning and evening a park extends its opening hours for the exclusive use of guests. For those staying at the Disney Animal Kingdom Lodge, if you sit quietly out on your balcony, a giraffe, zebra or ostrich may wander by.

Throughout all the parks, there is a wide choice of restaurants to sustain hungry families.

If you want to meet your favourite furry friend, make sure you're up in time for the character breakfasts which are held all over the Disney parks.

The California Grill, which delivers mouth-watering food throughout the afternoon and evenings, also proves an ideal spot to view the night-time fireworks lighting up the parks.

In the evenings when the parks are preparing to shut is when the fun is just getting started in Downtown Disney and the Boardwalk areas.

There are duelling piano bars, revolving dance-floors and good old rock 'n' roll - enough, surely, to keep everyone happy.

Fireworks are also a quirky way to end the day - with Disney, there's a whole show involved in Fantasmic, a festival of lasers, lights and massive fountains.

With the massive 50th anniversary celebrations set to continue through 2006, any time is a good time to hit Florida's biggest theme park - and the relatively strong pound still gives you plenty of bang for your buck anywhere in the Sunshine State.

LOUISE HOGAN was a guest of Walt Disney World Resort and First Choice Holidays, which offers 14-nights room-only stay at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge in summer 2006 from pounds 1,104 per adult, pounds 224 for first child and pounds 259 for second child. The package includes return flights ex-Gatwick, accommodation, Disney's Ultimate Ticket for 14 days, and car hire. Various resorts and flexible holidays can be tailored to suit all budgets. Adult prices on regional departures include Nottingham, East Midlands, Bristol (pounds 1,124)' Manchester (pounds 1,274)' Glasgow (pounds 1,143). First Choice's Florida prices for summer, 2007, start at pounds 1,375 per adult, pounds 219 for first child and pounds 359 for second, with room-only accommodation at Animal Kingdom Lodge ex-Gatwick, Aug 28- Sept 3. Guests flying First Choice Airways' new long-haul aircraft enjoy a 33" seat pitch, personal widescreen TV, leather seats, choice of meals and 30 channels of movies, TV programmes and games. Upgrade to premium cabin, with 36" seat pitch, from pounds 149, which also includes free car upgrade. First Choice Holidays reservations: 0870 850 3999 or visit www.firstchoice.co.uk

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CAPTION(S):

The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, taking passengers on a wild ride on a runaway mine train in Frontier land, at the Magic Kingdom' Disney's new attraction, Expedition Everest' Thrill-seekers get a wet ending when riding Splash Mountain' Water park thrill-seekers are in for a surprise as they defy gravity on the Crush 'n' Gusher, a new water coaster ride at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Aug 12, 2006
Words:1128
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