July 04--When Walt Disney chose Orlando for his entertainment mecca, he picked a place with a strong road network, lots of available land -- and weather that can be brutally hot and humid.
So now each summer, throngs of tourists and die-hard residents visit Central Florida's theme parks when it's hot enough to fry a Disney turkey leg on the sidewalk.
Theme parks can't control temperatures that regularly reach into the 90s and sometimes the triple digits, but they have developed ways to keep guests comfortable beyond the water rides that give guests a good soaking. Their newer attractions have many cool and shaded places, and parkgoers have plenty of their own strategies.
SeaWorld's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, for example, is chilled to 32 degrees. Visitors get there after passing through "temperature-acclimation chambers," where it gets colder gradually.
When designing Antarctica's outdoors plaza, SeaWorld conducted sun studies and used computer programs to ensure that its 50-foot rock structure would provide plenty of shade, said Brian Morrow, the company's director of creative development. It can shade more than half the space, depending on the time of day.
Over at Universal Orlando, the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley, opening Tuesday, has several features that provide protection from the elements along with entertainment.
Even walking outside Knockturn Alley, you can get a refreshing blast of cold air. A re-creation of the hangout for sketchy wizards who practice the Dark Arts, Knockturn is shady in more ways than one. It's dark, covered and air-conditioned.
Other elements provide shade throughout, such as King's Cross Station -- which is also air-conditioned -- and a faux train trestle. Interactive wands, meanwhile, can set off features inside the park, including an overhead umbrella that sends water raining down.
"Certainly people are going to enjoy splashing in the water," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said. "I know I would."
The New Fantasyland at Disney's Magic Kingdom has several spots that provide refuge from the heat. They including a sprawling indoor play center for families waiting for the Dumbo ride. Nearby is a splash area where water shoots out of elephant trunks. Visitors can get FastPasses and charge phones in the shade under what looks like a circus tent.
Disney also said it has taken measures to keep its employees as cool as possible. Costumes have evolved through the years, with fabrics that are cooler and provide SPF protection.
Still, good design can only do so much. Theme-park veterans know they have to take responsibility for their own comfort and safety.
"You learn very quickly how hot it is," said Erika Buscaglia of Philadelphia. A couple of years ago, her family invested in one of Disney's water misting fans, which cost $18. They walk in and out of air-conditioned shops often. They frequently head back to their hotel room during the hottest hours of the day before venturing out in the evening.
Megan Carr of Baltimore, who recently visited Universal, packs her own water and puts it in a freezer the night before.
"We come down every year," she said, "so we know."
Small children can find a hot theme park especially tough. By 2 p.m. one recent day at Epcot, 2-year-old Nicholas Gaeta had had enough. Wanting cool air and some rest, he began to howl, and his family headed back to the hotel room -- "probably about an hour too late," his sunburned mom, Kasey, said ruefully.
It was the simplest of things that soothed Nicholas on his way out of the park: an employee at an exit who blew some bubbles his way. Nicholas was temporarily mesmerized, and his cries subsided.
That's an example of how relatively small investments in making guests happy can pay off, said Scott Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina whose specialties include theme parks.
"How much do bubbles cost? Less than a dollar," Smith said. "It's those little things like that."
Staff writer Dewayne Bevil contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5240407-420-5240.
Beat the heat
Tips from theme parks and guests for keeping cool:
--Wear light-colored clothes, UV-protective sunglasses and a hat with a wide brim.
--Drink 4 to 6 ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes. Try freezing water bottles the night before.
--If you're staying at a theme-park hotel, take advantage of it. Take refuge there during the hottest hours.
--Consider a misting fan.
--Try wearing a bandanna soaked in water around your neck.
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