Doing Disney Right
A Guide To What’s New, What’s Cool, And What’s Just Plain Good To Know Before You Visit Orlando’s Theme Parks
Remember the 1983 movie National Lampoon’s Vacation? The one where Chevy Chase and family drive halfway across the country to ride some roller coasters and when they finally get to Walley World it turns out to be… (SPOILER!)…closed?
Re-watching that movie recently, I couldn’t stop myself from shrieking at the screen, “Why didn’t you check the website before you left?!” (I know; 1983, but that’s still barely an excuse.)
No one wants to be too anal about vacations — after all, the whole point is relaxing and not worrying about stuff too much. But just a little research beforehand, and just a little pre-planning can make a huge difference for your level of enjoyment. Here’s what I learned on a recent jaunt through the theme-park Mecca that is the Orlando area.
Walt Disney World
One beautiful thing about Walt Disney World Resort (3111 World Drive,Lake Buena Vista; 407-939-7679; DisneyWorld.Disney.Go.com) is that some things never change. This is especially true in the Magic Kingdom, where certain experiences, like It’s A Small World and the Haunted Mansion still look just as they do in sepia-toned memories of my first visit to Orlando in the 1970s.
But a lot of things are new, too, and the first step to a successful day at the park is to have some idea of where you’re going. Not that your visit has to be planned like a military strike, but it saves a lot of tiring trudging if you plan a route in a moment of cool, quiet rationality – not while you’re standing under the blistering Florida sun considering trading a family member for a bottle of cold water. A few new attractions that might not be on your radar if it has been a few years between visits include:
NewFantasyland. Fantasyland has been around for ages, but a recent massive renovation has really spruced up the place. Some rides like Dumbo are similar to what you might remember, but if it seems twice as big, you’re not imagining things—it really has doubled in size. The brand-new Under the Sea ~ Journey of The Little Mermaid takes kids of all ages through the world of Ariel, the world’s most famous mermaid. Expect to be humming Under the Sea for at least an hour afterward. And if you visit after May 28, you’ll be one of the first to experience the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a twisting, glittering ride through the Snow White story.
Once you’ve made a list of all the attractions you hope to see, how do you make sure you get to all of them? Here are a few resources to help speed your trip.
Extra Magic Hours. Every day, at least one Disney World park (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom) either opens early or stays open late exclusively for guests of Disney hotels. These properties aren’t the cheapest in Florida, but the extra cost can be worth it when you stroll Epcot’s World Showcase in the cool of the morning with hardly any lines. A schedule of Extra Magic Hours can be found here: DisneyWorld.Disney.Go.com/Calendars.
FASTPASS. Some rides are worth waiting 45 minutes in the blazing sun for … but why would you if you didn’t have to? FASTPASS allows you to essentially skip the line on some of the most popular Disney rides. Best of all, it’s free. Here’s how it works: FASTPASS kiosks scattered throughout the park display times that you can reserve for various rides. If the time shown works for you, stick your ticket in the machine. Out comes a FASTPASS with the attraction name and your chosen time printed on it. At the appointed hour, go to that attraction. You’ll get to enter via a special FASTPASS entrance with virtually no waiting. Attractions offering FASTPASS tickets include (among others) the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain, Jungle Cruise, and Under the Sea; Epcot’s Soarin’, Spaceship Earth, and Mission: Space; and the Animal Kingdom’s DINOSAUR, Expedition Everest, and Kali River Rapids.
FASTPASS+. If you are serious about planning ahead, you can take advantage of an even more powerful tool, FASTPASS+. This enhanced program lets you choose up to three FASTPASS admissions per day—and you can make the reservations up to 60 days in advance, using either the park’s My Disney Experience web page (DisneyWorld.Disney.Go.com/Plan/My-Disney-Experience) or the My Disney Experience mobile app (DisneyWorld.Disney.Go.com/Plan/My-Disney-Experience/Mobile-Apps). If your plans change when you actually get to the park, you can alter your reservations using the mobile app or by vising a FASTPASS kiosk.
VIP Tour Services. This doesn’t come cheap, but if you’re going to splurge on anything on your vacation, consider booking a VIP tour, which starts at $315 per hour for a group of up to 10. (The price can go up depending on the time of year and whether or not you’re staying in a Disney property). You’ll be picked up at your hotel and escorted around any Disney park that strikes your fancy. Choose whatever attraction you like – you’ll get whisked to the front of the line, and you can ride each one as many times as you can stand. Want to set a record for riding It’s A Small World as many times as you can in a day? The guides are paid the big bucks to let you go that kind of crazy.
The first thing you need to look into before you go to SeaWorld (7007 Sea World Drive, Orlando; 888-800-5447; SeaWorldParks.com/en/SeaWorld-Orlando)is whether or not SeaWorld is right for you. If you’re not comfortable watching wild ocean creatures perform for you, then you might as well go ahead and book another day at Disney. At the very least, you’ll want to skip most of the headlining shows, including One Ocean (trained orcas) and Blue Horizons, which involves human performers waterskiing on dolphins. I eat meat and patronize zoos and still wish I’d been warned about that one.
One attraction you may not be aware of yet is Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, which launched in May 2013. This ambitious edu-tainment extravaganza first takes you through an IMAX-style movie about Antarctica. You may feel like you’re really there, to the point of actually feeling chilled. You’re not imagining things; as you move through the exhibit, the temperature really is plummeting, until you get to the live penguin habitat, where it’s always about 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Here you’ll get to watch several species of penguin (adelies, gentoos, rockhoppers, and king penguins) frolic above and below water just a few feet (and one sheet of Plexiglas) away.
Manageable though the park’s size may be, I still recommend taking advantage of some time-saving tricks to streamline your SeaWorld experience. They’re remarkably similar to the options available at Disney World — including the fact that most of them come down to a choice between saving time or money, but not both.
Early entry. As with Disney, if you stay at the park’s hotel partners, you win the right to get to the park an hour or so before the crowds on select dates.
Quick Queue Unlimited. SeaWorld’s line-cutting program does cost something ($19), but it’s simpler than FASTPASS and unlimited. Just walk up to the Quick Queue entrance at each participating ride (just about all of them), and enter practically without waiting.
Private VIP Tour. SeaWorld’s private tours include parking, and last up to seven hours for a flat rate starting at $299 depending on the season. (Call 888-800-5447 to book.) You’ll get line-cutting privileges for rides, reserved seating at shows, lunch, and a chance to feed animals.
If what really sounds good to you about SeaWorld is the animal encounter aspect, consider a visit to sister park Discovery Cove in addition to — or even instead of — SeaWorld. You’ll definitely want to book this experience ahead of time because only 1,300 tickets are sold per day.
Once you’re there, the benefits of this exclusivity become obvious. At roller coaster-free Discovery Cove (6000 Discovery Cove Way, Orlando; 877-557-7404; DiscoveryCove.com/?from=Top_Nav), it’s all about the animals. You don’t just get to see rays and colorful fish in tanks; you get to swim with them. (Snorkel gear is provided.) The staff don’t stand on the dolphins; they educate visitors about them and guide you through the experience of swimming with them. You can also wade with otters, walk through an aviary, and swim up to a shark tank where nothing but a pane of nearly invisible glass separates you from the reef sharks.
The bottom line is that if you are troubled by the idea of sea creatures being induced to interact with you for your amusement, you may not like Discovery Cove much more than you like SeaWorld. It also doesn’t come cheap, with tickets starting at $229. (This does not include the optional dolphin swim, but does include parking, meals, equipment rental, and also admission to SeaWorld.) But the compact size and lack of crowds are a welcome relief from other theme parks, and with all the individual attention and up-close interaction with animals, you can’t help but learn something. It’s the kind of place nobody walks away from indifferently. As with SeaWorld, the best piece of advice I can offer is to give some thought as to whether you think you will fall into the “love it” or “hate it” camp. Your gut will probably steer you right.
Universal Orlando Resort
When I visited Universal Orlando Resort (6000 Universal Boulevard, Orlando; 407-363-8000; UniversalOrlando.com/Home.aspx), it was with a group that had a fairly wide range of adrenaline tolerance. Some of us would not ride SeaWorld’s Kraken roller coaster. One of us didn’t want to swim with dolphins at Discovery Cove. Two of us (yours truly included) flatly refused Universal’s Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster — and the others are probably still talking about how great it was.
The one thing we all had in common was that none of us could get enough of TRANSFORMERS: The Ride — 3D. It’s a little bit like a roller coaster that meets an IMAX movie. Only the car doesn’t go very far — it rises and falls and spins on hydraulics, but most of the sensation you get of swooping through a city under attack by aliens comes from the breathtaking wrap-around 3D screen technology. It was vertiginous enough for the thrill-ride fans, earth-bound enough for us scardy cats, and thoroughly entertaining. My two pieces of advice regarding Universal: 1) Make sure your plan for the day includes TRANSFORMERS, and, 2) if you’re not 40 inches tall, make sure you are by the time you get to Orlando. You do not want to miss this ride.
Universal is big enough to be exhausting. It’s actually two parks in one – Universal Studios Florida, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure – so you can definitely benefit from time-saving tricks here, as well.
Early Admission. Universal Orlando doesn’t open the whole park early very often, but guests at partner hotels can get into the wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Island of Adventure an hour before the crowds.
Universal Express Pass. Universal has several varieties of Express Pass that allow you to go to the front of the line on popular rides. Some passes allow one line skip-per-ride, while the Unlimited Express Pass lets you go on rides over and over. All Express Passes cost extra (starting at $34.99) on top of regular park admission.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter Return Tickets. When the Harry Potter area reaches capacity, a return ticket system is activated. It’s free, but valid only in the Wizarding wing. On days when the system is in place, it works very much like Disney’s FASTPASS — you go to a kiosk and pick up a ticket with a time printed on it. When that time rolls around, you can waltz into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter smug in the knowledge that some park patrons may not get in at all, if it’s an especially packed day at the park.
VIP Experience. As with Disney and SeaWorld, you can also get treated like a star at Universal. The luxe treatment, which here includes valet parking, reserved seats at shows, and front-of-the-line access to eight rides, starts at $189 per person.
Other Theme Park Options
Disney, SeaWorld, and Universal are the big three names in Orlando, but they aren’t the only theme park options. If you’re willing to drive a little, or have more rarified taste, there are a few other parks you might consider. Relatively close to downtown is Gatorland (14501 South Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando; 407-855-5496; Gatorland.com). This retro and slightly offbeat park has a zipline but no traditional thrill rides. Instead, visitors can view, feed, and even wrestle alligators. Not into alligators? Gatorland may not be for you. The Holy Land Experience (4655 Vineland Road, Orlando; 407-872-2272; HolyLandExperience.com) is a Christian theme park — another one of those places where the name alone tells you if it’s a good fit.
Further afield, LEGOLAND Florida (One LEGOLAND Way, Winter Haven; 877-350-5346; Florida.LegoLand.com/en/)is about an hour’s drive south of downtown Orlando. One of only two LEGOLAND parks in the United States, it’s exactly what you might expect — Lego buildings and Lego playtime — plus a small water park.
And finally, Busch Gardens, Tampa (Adventure Island, 10001 North Malcolm McKinley Drive, Tampa; 888-800-5447; SeaWorldParks.com/BuschGardens-Tampa) is about 1.5 hours west of Orlando, on central Florida’s Gulf Coast. It features rides and many African land animal exhibits. It complements a trip to SeaWorld well, and in fact, tickets are available that allow you entry to both.
With these tips in your pocket, hopefully your trip will go smoothly. There isn’t much else you need to know — just wear sunscreen, drink plenty of water, and make sure you have a plan in case your party gets separated.
Oh, and don’t be a Griswold — check the opening hours before you head out to the Orlando theme parks this summer!
To book your family Disney World adventure, contact Eric Murken, Travel Advisors of Los Gatos resident Disney expert at 408-354-6531 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contract an original article, purchase reprints or become a media partner, contact editor [@] girlsthatroam [.] com.
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