If you can't find anything to do in Orlando, then you simply aren't trying. For better or worse, Orlando is the ultimate playground, where no matter what your age, you'll find some excuse to revert back to your childhood. Not that that's all bad. But when you're paying up to $67 a ticket for 1 day's entertainment, jumping in without some kind of plan can just suck you dry.
Of course, you need to do the Big Three: Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld. Each has its own charm and must-do's. From there, if you still have time (and money), there's everything from Gatorland to Ripley's Believe It or Not. From dinner shows to indoor skydiving, just about every interest is represented in glorious form, just waiting for you to partake in its charm.
Best Use of Technology
Nods to Universal for three of its over-the-top attractions, which their spin masters call the "most thrilling and technologically advanced rides and attractions ever made..." Who's to argue after taking a ride (let's call it a trip) on the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man? This ride combines the sensory tricks of the famed Back to the Future...The Ride attraction and the 3-D accomplishments of Terminator 2. Spider-Man is with you all the way, seemingly within your grasp, as your car hurtles through New York street scenes, past spewing water pipes and raging fires, smashing into vehicles as you go. The ride culminates when Doc Ock takes aim at you with his antigravity gun, sending you into a 400-foot sensory plunge. It's not to be missed, though you'll have to be prepared to stand in line for the thrill; waits of 60 to 90 minutes are not uncommon.
Next door, at the Studios, you'll find Revenge of the Mummy, which combines a coaster run with magnetism and the best cinematic special-effects technology (flame ceilings, scarabs pouring out of the walls) for a ride that will touch on your worst phobias. Universal also offers Terminator 2 3-D, a live-action and special-effects spectacular that is one outrageous outing. Even diehard fans of the movie will be impressed. Not to be outdone, Disney's infamous Tower of Terror at Disney-MGM Studios features randomized drop sequences...not even the cast members herding you into the elevator know which one you'll get. And over at Epcot is Mission: Space, where NASA technology helps create an astronaut simulator so effective they've had to install "lunch bags" for all the motion sickness it causes. Animal Kingdom's new Expedition Everest not only sports the highest mountain in Florida (artificial or otherwise), it also features a menacing climax in the form of an 18-foot-tall Abominable Snowman, said to be the most complex and realistic Audio Animatronic robot ever produced by Disney's Imagineers.
Best Places to Lose Your Lunch
Despite its undisputed position as Theme Park Central, Orlando's great parks were once devoid of top-notch roller-coaster thrills. Not anymore. Islands of Adventure, promoted as the world's "most technologically advanced theme park," offers some of the best stomach-lurching thrills in existence. The Dueling Dragons ride, a mass of intertwining metal, hurls dragon-shaped racing cars at each other for a high-speed, near-miss nightmare. The cars travel up to 60 mph and come within (what seems like) less than 12 inches of each other. The Incredible Hulk Coaster shoots riders up 10 stories with the same G-force power as a fighter jet, then turns them upside down and sends them into a maze of tracks, plunging them under a bridge, and into underground trenches. (And, in concert with some of its riders, it actually glows green at night -- how's that for realism!) You can't miss the 200-foot steel tower that houses Doctor Doom's Fearfall. Another variation on the classic tower plunge, the Fearfall benefits from the high views granted by its outdoor location, but it's really not worth the massive lines that frequently accumulate in its bull pens.
Disney has countered Universal's entries with Disney-MGM Studios' Rock 'n' Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith, its first high-speed launch (0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds), upside-down roller coaster ride. On this ride, you'll be fastened into a mock "stretch limo" and thrown into a mangled maze of twists and turns, including three upside-down segments. Along the way, there are familiar Tinseltown scenes (though who's paying attention?) and a loud (there are 120 onboard speakers in each coaster train) Aerosmith soundtrack synchronized to every twist and turn (but, again, who has time to notice?). During the coaster's grand opening, the ride even made Aerosmith's Steven Tyler a bit weak in the knees. Let's not forget Kraken over at SeaWorld. It may not be as smooth as its Universal or Disney counterparts, but it makes up for that with height, speed, and some tantalizing near-smashups with the ground. As for Mission: Space, don't even try this one if you're prone to motion sickness. Not sure? Pick up some Dramamine before you hit Epcot -- due to the laws of supply and demand, motion-sickness medication costs significantly more at Mouse Gears, the closest store to this ride.
Best Thrill Rides for Weenies
It happens to the best of us. You don't want to be relegated to the kid rides, but the sight of two inverted corkscrews makes you practically pass out. Try Big Thunder Mountain at the Magic Kingdom -- it's basically a rickety ride on a runaway mine train, with cool props such as skeletons that you may not notice as you're whipping around. A few sudden plummets and high-speed curves will give young ones and ride weenies some mild thrills as they travel through old-mining-town scenery of faux rocks, fake chickens, and rushing waterfalls. Other than the speed factor, it's probably the tamest of all the adult coasters. Note: This one's better at night when you can't see where you're going.
Epcot's Test Track also relies on speed, among other things, for its thrills. Where else can you slam your car into a wall (well, almost) and walk away with nary a scratch? Also at Epcot, try The Maelstrom in Norway. It's a pretty tame water ride with only a couple of small drops; you won't even have a lap bar. And, of course, there's the perennial favorite, Space Mountain, which is tame enough for most chickens, yet thrilling enough for regular coaster crazies. The main fright factor on this coaster is the darkness...it is literally pitch black in the dome that houses this indoor ride. Tip: A good way to judge the fear factor of any coaster is to look at the safety rig on each seat. If there's just a lap bar, the ride is mostly speed with a few drops. Anything that requires a shoulder harness is usually going to flip you upside down at least once.
Best Place to Find Mickey in Person
Three little words, spoken in a whisper, have enough power to ripple through a crowd and clear the lines at Space Mountain: "Look, there's Mickey." (Tempting, huh?) If you think the line was long at the teacups, wait till you wait for the Big Cheese's paw print. Our first suggestion: Sign up for at least one character meal. Some folks we know make reservations for two or three "meet-and-eat" sessions (featuring different characters at each meal) during their stay. This guarantees that their kids will get to hug their favorite friends and fill their autograph books (these are sold for about $6 at nearly every Disney shop). You'll avoid disappointment and save more time for the park's rides and attractions, instead of spending your precious hours hunting down Winnie and friends.
That said, Disney has improved matters for young paparazzi. At Magic Kingdom, head for Mickey's Toontown Fair: You'll find two separate lines, one waiting to greet Mickey, the other featuring Mickey's pals (Minnie, Pluto, and others). You'll wait in line, but the payoff is a sure shot at a one-on-one encounter with the world's most famous mouse. You'll also find Ariel sitting in her Grotto over in Fantasyland. At Disney-MGM Studios, characters like Goofy and Donald hang out in front of the Sorcerer's Hat every day around 4pm. Several characters can also be found along Mickey and Tigger avenues. At Animal Kingdom, you'll want to make a beeline for Camp Minnie-Mickey. The character-greeting trails feature top stars such as Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy, Winnie, Tigger, and more. Rafiki (of The Lion King fame) and Pocahontas hang at Conservation Station. Chip 'n' Dale are often found greeting tykes along the boulevard leading to Africa. Character greetings at Epcot tend to be more serendipitous. Some characters can be spotted in the country from which their story originated: Aladdin in Morocco, Snow White in Germany, and so on...but don't count on it. Either look for the double-decker character bus that shows up in the afternoon or head over to the International Gateway (between Britain and France) where several characters are usually perched. Be sure to check with Disney when visiting as to who's appearing where, as the character lineups are always in flux.
By the way, Disney doesn't have the lock on character friends. At Islands of Adventure you can hardly get away from the cartoon and movie characters wandering about. You're likely to encounter Spider-Man, Captain America, and Wolverine at Marvel Super Hero Island, or bump into Thing 1 (or was it 2?) and the Cat in the Hat at Seuss Island, or Olive Oyl at Toon Lagoon. And on the Studios side of Universal, expect to run into Shrek and Fiona, along with miscellaneous characters from classic movies still in the Universal repertoire.
Last Words: Theme-Park Strategy
You've gotta have a game plan at the World, or the overwhelming sprawl will leave you dazed and confused, wondering, "Did I leave the kids at Splash Mountain, or was it Big Thunder Mountain? Did I park at the 'Chip' lot, or was it 'Dale'?" A few tips:
- If your time is limited, consider staying at a Disney hotel; you'll spend less time commuting in most cases, and thus more time at the parks, and you may also be able to benefit from the special early-admission mornings.
- If you plan to visit either of the Universal parks, consider staying a night at their resorts for the room-key privileges described above. During high season especially, this can be a lifesaver, as Universal's attractions often have longer and slower-moving lines than Disney's.
- If you can come during the off season, that's all the better for avoiding lines. Basically that's anytime except major U.S. school holidays, mid-March to mid-April, Christmas, and summer.
- Unless you're a huge Disney-character fan, skip the midafternoon parades and head for the most popular rides while the parades are going on, when lots of park visitors have been siphoned off to stand on the sidewalks craning their necks at floats and costumed characters. If a parade's being staged (such as when the Magic Kingdom is open late for peak periods) twice, skip the earlier one -- the later one will be less crowded.
- If you start to burn out midday, take a break (for a late lunch, a swim, or a nap) and return to the park around 5 or 6pm, refreshed and raring to go -- when everyone else is heading home. Reentering the park is allowed, even if you're not a Disney guest, as long as you keep your ticket and get your hand stamped on your way out.
- Don't waste your time at the parks' full-service restaurants, except at Epcot, where the restaurants are as much fun as the attractions. Instead, stuff your backpack full of goodies (although this is technically against the rules), and just grab snacks, fruit, and fast food on your theme-park days.
For a list of events and festivals in Orlando, visit Frommmers.com's Orlando events page.
Talk with other travelers about Orlando and its area theme parks on our Florida Message Boards today.