FLORIDA SHINES BRIGHT IN SPRING

Chicago Sun-Times - - TRAVEL -

Florida tourism is red hot. In 2015, the Sun­shine State wel­comed more than 100 mil­lion vis­i­tors, a U.S. record. Many of them come in March and April— for spring break, base­ball spring train­ing or the chance to es­cape north­ern climes be­fore win­ter’s grip lets go. USA TO­DAY’s Ash­ley Day, James Ri­ley and Nancy Tre­jos look at what Florida-bound trav­el­ers will find this sea­son.

THEME PARKS

There’s an awak­en­ing of the Force at Dis­ney Parks in Or­lando this spring. First, on April 4, Dis­ney’s Hol­ly­wood Stu­dios will in­tro­duce Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away, a live stage show that fea­tures big mo­ments from the seven movies. Star Wars: A Galac­tic Spec­tacu

lar, a nightly fire­works and spe­cial ef­fects spec­tac­u­lar at Dis­ney’s Hol­ly­wood Stu­dios, will de­but this sum­mer. Scenes from the Star Wars movies will be pro­jected onto the Stu­dios’ Chi­nese The­ater as well as other nearby build­ings.

How­ever, just get­ting into a Dis­ney park will cost a bit more, as the com­pany has an­nounced sea­sonal pric­ing for their one-day tick­ets. Value days (for less busy times of the year) are now $105 for adults and $99 for chil­dren ages 3-9 at the Magic King­dom theme park. Reg­u­lar days are now $110 for adults and $104 for chil­dren. Peak days (the most crowded times) are $124 for adults and $118 for chil­dren. Chil­dren un­der the age of 3 are free.

Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Or­lando will be­gin trans­port­ing vis­i­tors to Skull Is­land this sum­mer for the Reign of Kong at­trac­tion at Is­lands of Ad­ven­ture, a 3-D ride that prom­ises to be one of Uni­ver­sal’s long­est ever.

Mako, soon to be Or­lando’s tallest, fastest and long­est roller coaster, will be­gin its feed­ing frenzy this sum­mer at Sea World Or­lando, with a top speed of

73 mph and a 200-foot-tall track.

HO­TELS

Down­town Mi­ami has in re­cent years ex­pe­ri­enced a build­ing boom. That doesn’t seem to be slow­ing down in 2016.

The Lang­ford Ho­tel is sched­uled to open this month with 126 guest rooms in what once was the Mi­ami Na­tional Bank in down­town’s Fla­gler District. The re­mod­eled 1925 struc­ture is on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places.

EAST, Mi­ami will be perched on top of Brick­ell City Cen­tre in the thriv­ing Brick­ell District. Sched­uled to open in May, EAST, Mi­ami will have 352 rooms in­clud­ing eight suites and 89 res­i­dences. It will be the first U.S. prop­erty for Swire Ho­tels.

ME Mi­ami, that brand’s first U.S. lo­ca­tion, will open down­town this spring with 129 rooms. The prop­erty will have a sun deck on its 14th floor ter­race, dual sun­set and sun­rise pools, ca­banas and an STK steak­house.

Uni­ver­sal Or­lando Re­sort and Loews Ho­tels and Re­sorts will open the Loews Sap­phire Falls Re­sort at Uni­ver­sal Or­lando this sum­mer. It will be the fifth on-site ho­tel at Uni­ver­sal Or­lando Re­sort. The prop­erty will have 1,000 Caribbean-themed rooms and suites built around a la­goon and wa­ter­fall.

Over on the Gulf Coast, Kimp­ton Ho­tels and Restau­rants is tak­ing over man­age­ment of the Ho­tel Zamora in St. Pete Beach. The Kimp­ton Ho­tel Zamora will be Kimp­ton’s sixth ho­tel in Florida, and its first flag on the west coast of the state. The ho­tel has 72 gue­strooms, in­clud­ing 22 two-bed­room suites with bal­conies over­look­ing the In­tra­coastal Wa­ter­way and Gulf of Mex­ico.

Some re­li­able grand dames of the Florida hos­pi­tal­ity scene will be get­ting makeovers this year. In the Keys, Cheeca Lodge & Spa will mark its 70th an­niver­sary with a mul­ti­phase ren­o­va­tion. In Ponte Ve­dra Beach in the Jack­sonville Beaches area, the Saw­grass Mar­riott is near­ing com­ple­tion of a $25 mil­lion re­fresh of its 511 gue­strooms and vil­las, pool, front desk, ho­tel façade, the Saw­grass Spa and Ca­bana Beach Club.

RESTAU­RANTS AND DIN­ING

The Sun­shine State is in the culi­nary spot­light with James Beard Foun­da­tion nods in Bal Har­bour, Co­ral Gables, Or- lando, Tampa and Mi­ami, where Al­ter is a semi­fi­nal­ist for Best New Restau­rant and its chef, Bradley Kil­gore, is up for Ris­ing Star Chef of the Year.

Mi­ami’s food scene siz­zles each Fe­bru­ary when South Beach Wine and Food Fes­ti­val brings chefs and food­ies from around the world, and many have come to stay.

Celebrity chefs Jean- Ge­orges Von­gerichten (Mata­dor Room, ABC Kitchen com­ing in 2017), Tom Colic­chio (Beachcraft), Alex Guar­naschelli (Drift­wood Room, Nau­tilus Ca­bana Club) and Spike Men­del­sohn (Sunny’s) opened restau­rants in the last year or so.

In Fe­bru­ary, Matthew Ken­ney in­tro­duced plant-based and raw food desti­na­tion Plant Food + Wine (along with a raw-food culi­nary school on-site), restau­ra­teurs Cindy Hut­son and Delius Shirley opened restau­rant and mar­ket con­cept Zest, and the “Mil­lion Dol­lar Chef” un­veiled Kaori by Wal­ter Martino with $300-$700 tast­ing menus that fuse Ital­ian and Ja­panese with such in­dul­gences as truf­fle and ed­i­ble gold.

Cen­tral Florida vis­i­tors can look for­ward to new op­tions at Or­lando In­ter­na­tional Air­port with a Cask & Larder out­post, Jersey Mike’s Subs and Green Leaf’s & Ba­nanas in the newly ren­o­vated Ter­mi­nal 2 (South­west and Vir­gin Amer­ica) Food Hall. Plus, Wahlburg­ers opened an Or­lando out­post in Fe­bru­ary.

Spring trav­el­ers can ex­pe­ri­ence Florida’s fa­mous Straw­berry Fes­ti­val in Plant City (through March 13), the Na­tional Cuban Sand­wich Fes­ti­val in Tampa’s Ybor City (March 30-April 3), the Fort My­ers Beach Shrimp Pa­rade & Fes­ti­val (March 12-13) and the Marathon Seafood Fes­ti­val (March 12-13).

Craft beer fans will find new Florida brews at Bog Brew­ing and An­cient City Brew­ing in St. Au­gus­tine and Wicked Bar­ley Brew­ing Co. in Jack­sonville.

GENE DUN­CAN, WALT DIS­NEY­WORLD

LANG­FORD HO­TEL BEACHCRAFT

The Lang­ford Ho­tel is sched­uled to open this month in what was once the Mi­ami Na­tional Bank. Celebrity chefs abound in Mi­ami. TomColic­chio’s Beachcraft serves seafood and sea­sonal Amer­i­can fare.

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