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Disney opens re-branded ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando

Walt Disney World opened its re-branded ESPN Wide World of Sports on February 25 in a ceremony that only Disney could stage.

Athletes (everyone from golf legend Annika Sorenstam to the Cincinnati Bengals' Chad Ochocinco) walked a "green carpet" made from turf and signed autographs for fans, many of whom had won sweepstakes or booked special travel packages to be there. Florida Governor Charlie Crist even flew in to take the stage and discuss how important youth sports are to Florida, both in tourism dollars and in health and wellness.

New Orleans Saints (and Super Bowl Champion) kicker Garrett Hartley put one over the gate of the complex with an assist from Minnie Mouse. The gate opened and out poured dozens of sports stars, ESPN personalities and youth sports athletes, led by Mickey Mouse, who was dressed and ready to take the field himself.

And then the real fireworks began. Really. Fireworks.

And confetti cannons, because it's not a Disney event without confetti cannons.

But unless you are the parent of a child who plays sports, you probably didn't know that Walt Disney World had a sports complex. This grand re-opening is part of Disney's push to change all that.

Youth sports is big business for Walt Disney World. The 14-year-old complex hosted more than 300 events last year and drew hundreds of thousands of people to Central Florida. Faron Kelley, Disney's director of sports marketing, says 85 percent of those people would not have vacationed in Central Florida otherwise. That's a lot of add-on Disney park hoppers and hotel rooms.

  • ESPN Marquee
  • Opening, close-up
  • Opening, wide shot
  • Jennie Finch
  • Jason Witten
  • Grand opening kick, with Minnie Mouse

Theme park news roundup: Harry Potter, robot rides and cheesy grub(s!)

Here's what's happening in theme park news this week.

Robot Land announced (Incheon, South Korea)
South Korea will be home to the world's first robot theme park when Robot Land opens in Incheon in 2012. Robot Land will have a robotic arm ride, tributes to robot-themed movies such as "Matrix" and "Minority Report," and robot employees and performers. A national robotics lab and office complexes will also be built on the 110-acre site.

The park will cost $562 million, with 87 percent coming from private investors and the remainder from the government, according to English-language newspaper The Korea Herald. Incheon, South Korea's third largest city, is home to many high-tech businesses. Not surprisingly, Robot Land sounds like it's trying to attract a different crowd than nearby Love Land.

Chessington World of Adventures tries new, gross snacks (London, England)
When the urge for a theme-park snack strikes this summer, you may be able to pass up the ice cream bars and funnel cake in favor of bacon-flavored crickets, cheesy grubs and chocolate ants. Chessington World of Adventures tested the unusual menu on February 18. The theme park just outside London is considering making the snacks part of the regular menu in its new Wild Asia section when it opens for the season on March 27.

Wild Asia will include a new spinning disc ride, the KOBRA, and a walk-through Lorikeet aviary. The Yorkshire Post reports that the insect snacks got rave reviews from testers. And lest you worry about exactly where those ants you eat are coming from, the newspaper reports that all the insects are "ethically sourced" (unlike these "8 great bug-eating videos from around the world").

Get a group together and lower your rate - Cruise tip

When you're planning your next cruise, don't just bring your family -- bring your golfing buddies, church group or the whole neighborhood. Most cruise lines offer discounts for groups of eight cabins or more.

In addition to saving money, group cruises are sometimes offered special events, such as a private cocktail reception aboard the ship. And on some cruise lines, the group leader (i.e. you!) gets to sail for free.

Bonus: Your kids will have friends they already know to pal around with in the children's programs.

10 tips for saving money on a Florida vacation

A Sunshine State vacation can be a luxurious splurge, but it can also be quite a steal if you know how to save money on your travels. Here are some tips for saving money on your next Florida vacation.

Plan a spring or fall visit
Most vacationers come to Florida in the summer (when families travel during school breaks), or the winter (when folks venture south for a bit of Florida sunshine). That means you'll find the best Florida vacation bargains during the so-called shoulder season: in April and May (between Easter and Memorial Day) or September and October (between Labor Day and Thanksgiving).

As proof, consider this: In May 2010, a room at Disney's Port Orleans Resort - Riverside goes for about $170 per night. One month later, you'll pay more than $200 per night during summer vacation.

Head to a lesser-known beach
If a Florida beach vacation is what you desire, step off the beaten path for cheaper accommodation and food options. A rental home that sleeps six in popular Panama City Beach costs more than $1,200 per week during the shoulder season each fall. But 90 minutes east in Apalachicola, a comparable beach-front home costs less than $800 for the same week.

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