Lights! Camera! Action!

Orlando, Fla. -- In an instant, Reggie is transformed. My oh-so-hip, pony-tailed middle schooler with a mouth full of braces has become an armor-clad centaur warrior -- a shaggy-haired half-human, half-horse from a mysterious mythical place.

She's smack in the middle of a fierce battle against an evil king's army, green monsters and dragons. Of course she's loving every minute -- especially seeing her new look projected on a large screen in front of a theater full of 200 fascinated tourists.

We're tourists too, at Universal Studios Florida's newest attraction ``Hercules & Xena: Wizards of the Screen.'' For those not in the know (like me), Hercules and Xena star in two high-action TV shows which have a worldwide following, airing in more than 15 countries. Eleven-year-old Reggie was one of the audience members who became part of the warrior ``team'' chosen to help demonstrate how programs like these, full of wars and set in ancient times, are made with the help of computers, props and sound effects.

Take the centaur bit. Reggie and the other volunteers, grinning sheepishly, put on their armor, wigs and helmets: Their costumed top half was photographed and merged on the computer with the bottom half of a horse. When that image was projected on the big screen, presto! They're larger-than-life mythical creatures.

Not enough warriors for the battle? No problem. The computer creates dozens more by duplicating their image over and over again.

Need a scary monster? Invite a bunch of kids to push the behind-the-scenes levers that make the green plastic monster move forward and backward, up and down, snapping his jaws. On the stage, he's an oversized toy. On the giant screen, he's real -- and plenty scary.

The grown ups and kids in the crowd were thrilled to get ``the inside story'' on how the magic happens. For any starstruck kid or parent, for anyone curious about what goes on behind the cameras, it's great fun to visit Universal Studios here, the biggest movie studio outside of Hollywood, and Disney-MGM studies, where an ever-greater portion of Disney's animation studios now are located.

Sure there are the obligatory action rides -- the all-time favorites Back to the Future and Kongfrontation at Universal and MGM's Tower of Terror (the scariest ride I've ever tried) along with the the new Goosebumps Horrorland.

Universal Studios will triple its size by 1999, with hotels, a shopping and entertainment complex and a new 110-acre Islands of Adventure park complete with high-tech roller coasters that appear to be on a collision course until the last second.

Both parks, meanwhile, offer plenty of opportunities for the grade-school and preschool set to get character autographs and photos. The toddlers will want to make a beeline to play in Barney's park at Universal Studios:

(Call Walt Disney World at 407-824-4321 or visit the Web site at www.disney.com/DisneyWorld/. Call Universal Studios at 407-363-8000 or visit the Web site at www.universalstudios.com/unitemp/. Also ask about second-day-free promotions and the evening Mardi Gras blow out that begins in mid-February and continues each night through mid-March.)

A good bet for those who've outgrown Barney but not Jasmine, Pocahantas, the Hunchback and all of their cohorts is breakfast or lunch at MGM's Soundstage Restaurant. The food is bland but passable, and worth the cost for tired parents who can sit and relax while character after character stops by, rather than pushing through a crowd to see them. (Breakfast costs $42 for a family of four with kids under 12; lunch is $2 more. Especially in busy seasons, make reservations early.)

Spending time at either of these parks is pricey. Just getting in the gate for a family of four will cost more than $150 for one day. And that's not even counting all the Mickey Mouse pencils, Rugrats dolls, sweatshirts, hats and souvenir cups they insist they can't go home without.

To save some bucks, call Orlando Vacation Information at 800-255-5786 and request a Magic Card which entitles you to savings on Orlando hotels, restaurants and some area attractions.

If you plan to spend a lot of time at Disney World, consider joining the Magic Kingdom Club. The $65 two-year membership fee entitles you to as much as $10 off park admissions, along with significant savings at on-site hotels, restaurants and Disney stores nationwide as well as some air fares and car rentals. Before you call 800-56-DISNEY, though, check with AAA or your employer for other special discounts..

If you're planning to spend a lot of time elsewhere, however, consider an Orlando Flex Ticket which allows you unlimited admission for a week to Universal, Sea World and Wet'n Wild at less than the cost of visiting each park once. Call 800-224-3838. As you're shelling out all this money, keep in mind that Universal and MGM can be educational -- for grown ups, as well as a real kick for the first and second TV generations.

I bet you didn't know it takes 75 artists, a million drawings, and four to five years to create just one of Disney's animated movies. At MGM's ``World of Animation'' we saw how much animation has changed from the days when Mickey Mouse was created until now, when computer-generated art is an important part of the process.

``But 98 percent of the characters are still drawn by hand,'' our guide informs us.

At the same time, we got a peak preview of Disney's latest in-the-works animated film, ``The Legend of Mulan'' and peered down through the huge glass windows at some of the 360 artists who are making the story come to life.

The kids, I'm pleased to report, not only stayed interested throughout the 45-minute program but left with a new appreciation of how much work it takes to create a favorite like ``Beauty and the Beast'' or ``The Lion King.''

Older kids and parents, meanwhile, who always wonder how actors can fall off big buildings or survive bruising fights, will like Universal's ``Wild, Wild, Wild West Stunt Show'' or MGM's ``Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular.'' Those who still want to know more about how the magic happens (and are at least 7) can sign on at the Disney Institute for a session of Camp Disney where they could learn all the secrets of theatrical makeup or brush up on their dancing, singing and acting. Eleven to 15-year-olds might spend six hours learning ``Show Biz Magic'': going through an audition, watching rehearsals, talking to cast members and even touring the biggest wardrobe closet in the world. There are also programs for older teens and adults. (Prices range from $49 for a half day to $79 for one full or two half days. Book ahead if you can. Call 407-939-8687.)

Horror fans, meanwhile, can learn some tricks for next Halloween at the ``Gory Gruesome and Grotesque Horror Make-up Show'' at Universal Studio. Here's one: Make bloody gore out of shrimp sauce, oatmeal and red dye. We tasted green slime (suspiciously like green apple sauce) and Booger Gak (vanilla pudding with green pineapple pieces ) at Nickoledeon Studios, located at Universal Studios. (Call for taping information about series or specials at 407-363-8586 or visit the Web site at www.nick.com). My younger daughter Melanie had to be dragged out of the Rugrats shop just outside, devoted to the characters of the enormously popular Nickelodeon cartoon series.

Her Rugrats notebook proved a good investment, though. On the plane home, she was too busy filling the pages with Mickey Mouse cartoons to fight with her sister.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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