After years of planning, months of construction and a week of media previews, Merlin Entertainment's three new attractions at the heart of I-Drive 360 finally opened to the public on Monday, May 4. They're the world's No. 2 theme park company, but does Merlin's ambitious effort to redefine International Drive have what it takes to lure a critical mass of tourists away from the major parks? Three days of exploring the new complex revealed that the answer is a definite "maybe?".
I began by diving into Sea Life Aquarium, the first Floridian outpost in a chain that stretches across America, Europe and Australia. The walk-through starts with a souvenir photo (a common theme at all three attractions) followed by an animated preshow projected on a domed ceiling; unfortunately, poor acoustics and thick accents make it mostly unintelligible. The aquarium itself represents regions from around the world, with the Atlantic Ocean tank alone holding 192,000 gallons of saltwater. Guest pathways wind through underwater caves, ancient shipwrecks and sunken cities. At numerous points, indentations or overhangs built into the aquariums allow intimate fish-eye views (if you're able to crouch down), while touchscreens and trivia stations provide an element of educational interactivity.
The highlight of Sea Life is a 360-degree underwater tunnel, where I watched giddy grown-ups go down on all fours to get a better view of the sharks swimming underfoot. After that, the touch-tank finale feels anti-climactic; the spiny sea urchins and starfish are unpleasant to pet, while the stingrays (popular in other aquariums' touch tanks) are kept out of reach. Scenic theming is well-executed, with some nice faux rock-work and lighting effects, resembling a less elaborate version of Shark Reef at Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay, though unfinished ceilings and flat wall graphics indicate it isn't quite Disney quality. If you want something slightly more in-depth than Epcot's Living Seas, but are uncomfortable with attending SeaWorld, Sea Life is a mammal-free way to kill 30 minutes.
Next up was Orlando's first franchise of the world-famous Madame Tussauds wax museum. Static celebrity simulations haven't grown stale in more than 200 years, and now you can not only look at but also fondle the faux famous folks. The "museum" begins with a nod to Florida's past, featuring Juan Ponce de León, then proceeds through a grab-bag of historical greats, from Lincoln and MLK to Warhol and Einstein. Many of these icons appear at other Tussauds locations, but there is an exclusive Walt Disney figure, who was sculpted, strangely, with Nicolas Cage-style crazy eyes.
After a gallery giving background on the wax museum's origins (accompanied by yet another inaudible expository video), the exhibit abandons history for a hit parade of pop culture celebs. If you've ever wanted to see Shaq's armpit hair or Miley Cyrus' ear tattoos from a millimeter away, here's your chance. Interactive touchscreens and informational plaques abound, but the real appeal is snapping selfies with stars who would sic security on you in the real world. Orlando's Tussauds isn't as cramped as other outposts, with plenty of breathing room between figures, but the sets are mostly simple printed backdrops, and misfocused lights leave some stars in shadow. Orlando's Tussauds also has no haunted dungeon or 4-D film like other locations, leaving the "Hollywood A-List Party" room to serve as a somewhat lackluster finale. Still, I ended up enjoying this Tussauds more than its sister attraction at Vegas' Venetian, though not as much as the one on NYC's 42nd Street.
After those two attractions, the Orlando Eye observation wheel seemed more like an afterthought than the headliner it's supposed to be. Before your ride, there's a standing-room-only 3-D preshow (accompanied by the obligatory water sprays and scents) featuring Central Florida sights like Lake Eola, Gatorland and even Diagon Alley; some of the footage is sharp, but other suffers from shoddy stereo conversion. The ride itself takes under 20 minutes, with only about half that spent near the apex of the 400-foot wheel. From the top, I could make out Spaceship Earth and Hogwarts Castle, but the view is mostly of I-Drive strip malls and undeveloped land around the convention center.
So, are Merlin's new marvels worth your moolah? At the gate price of $25 each, my answer is a firm "no"; even the $50 combo ticket for all three is a bit steep on a dollar-per-minute basis. But you can find online tickets for $18 per attraction or $35 for the trio, which seems a reasonable rate. Merlin's brand is beloved by Brits, who will likely flock here during their fortnight-long holidays, but it's iffy whether Americans with limited vacation days will make room for it. Once the nearby Skyplex and other area improvements come online, we'll see if I-Drive can coexist with Orlando's amusement giants; otherwise, the Eye may end up half-empty like Vegas' similar High Roller wheel.