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Next year in Florida: Hippo contact, reef walk

Opening in June 2011, The Grand Reef at

Opening in June 2011, The Grand Reef at Discovery Cove in Orlando features multiple levels of exploration inspired by reefs from around the world. Photo Credit: SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment

Behind-the-scenes tours, close-up encounters with wild animals, underwater adventures ... theme parks are designing ever-more-elaborate opportunities for visitors who want intimate, personalized experiences - and are willing to pay for them.

Disney, for instance, already offers everything from a $16 "Behind the Seeds" tour of an Epcot greenhouse to a daylong, $224 "Behind the Magic" tour of the entire resort.

SeaWorld Orlando has $40 penguin encounters and $149 shark dives, among other animal-related experiences.

Meanwhile, Universal Orlando sells VIP tours of its parks that can cost up to $185 each.

Disney and SeaWorld each recently unveiled plans for exclusive new experiences that will be debuting next year at their Florida theme parks.

Here's a look at what visitors can expect.

'Wild Africa Trek'

WHERE DisneyWorld's Animal Kingdom in Kissimmee, Fla.

DEBUTS January (reservations available now)

HOW MUCH $129-$189 (plus regular park admission, $82 one-day pass)

WHAT IT IS A three-hour African jungle trek designed to replicate an authentic African bush walk. Guests - in groups no larger than 12, led by two Disney guides - will pick their way through wooded overgrowth, peer over a cliff at a pool of hippos, cross a rickety bridge above Nile crocodiles and dine in a safari-style camp where the gazelles are nearly close enough to touch.

Workers are installing a series of safety cables at various points so guests can be clipped into safety harnesses that will allow them to inch up to the side of an 8-foot-high cliff at the edge of a hippo pool, and then cross a pair of rickety-looking suspension bridges, including an 180-foot span stretched above a ravine filled with Nile crocodiles.

There will be plenty of pampering, too. The bush walk will be followed by a leisurely savanna drive that ends at an open-air overlook, where the guides will serve hors d'oeuvres such as curried chicken salad and melon balls marinated in ginger and mint. Disney guides will take pictures throughout the tour, which will be included in the package price.

Disney says it plans to run a half-dozen tours daily, though the scheduling will vary seasonally.

INFO 407-939-8687,


WHERE SeaWorld Discovery Cove in Orlando, Fla.

DEBUTS June 2011

HOW MUCH $59 (plus $129 regular admission)

WHAT IT IS SeaWorld is building a "Grand Reef," a saltwater tropical reef in Discovery Cove, itself a boutique experience within the theme park, where guests - no more than 1,000 a day - can swim with dolphins, snorkel or relax on a freshwater beach.

One of the new reef's features: an underwater tour, limited to six people at a time. Guests will don dive helmets attached to air hoses and descend a ladder into about 12 feet of water. Once submerged, they will follow a themed path through schools of fish and rays and past venomous lion fish. They will be able to touch starfish and sea urchins and watch sharks through 21-foot-long panoramic windows.

INFO 877-557-7404,

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