Walt Disney World -- The land of pixie dust and fairytales . . . the "Happiest Place on Earth" . . . and that mouse -- Walt Disney World is all this and more to the over 50 million visitors who pour through its gates every year. Prices may be high and the lines long, but you can learn to love Disney with a little know-how. When you see kids' eyes light up as they meet Mickey or glimpse Cinderella Castle on the horizon, you'll no longer able be able to say that you don't like Disney without your nose growing an inch or two.
Universal Studios Orlando -- Fast-paced thrill rides, edgy themes, and meticulously detailed movie-style sets are a signature of this popular theme park. Here, the hottest blockbuster films come to life, jumping off the screen and right into the theme park -- and park-goers are immersed in all the action. In addition to its lineup of adrenaline-boosting rides, grown-up shows, and smattering of kid-friendly attractions, USF is also a working production studio, so on occasion you might get a chance to catch live filming as it's taking place.
Islands of Adventure -- Universal's second theme park opened in 1999 with a vibrantly colored, cleverly themed collection of fast and sometimes furious rides. At just over 120 acres, it's now, thanks to the addition of the Wizarding World, slightly larger in size than its big brother, Universal Studios Florida, and it's definitely the Orlando park for thrill-ride junkies. Roller coasters roar above pedestrian walkways, and water rides slice through the park. The trade-off: Far fewer shows.
Expect total immersion in the park's various "island" sights, sounds, and surroundings. From the wobbly angles and Day-Glo colors in Seuss Landing to the lush foliage of Jurassic Park to the magical mystical world of witchcraft and wizardry in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal has done an amazing job of differentiating the various sections of this $1-billion-plus park (unlike Universal Studios Florida, where you ease into the next area and all of a sudden you realize that you're in San Francisco, not New York anymore). They've also done an outstanding job of differentiating Islands from Disney or any other Orlando park. In Florida, the closest competitor (and that's a stretch) is Busch Gardens in Tampa, but this park clearly has the edge on the ride front -- and most definitely in the atmosphere department.
The adventure is spread across seven very different islands: the Port of Entry, a pass-through zone themed to resemble an exotic open-air bazaar and lined with a collection of shops and restaurants, and six themed islands -- Seuss Landing, the Lost Continent, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Toon Lagoon, and Marvel Super Hero Island. The park offers a concentration of thrill rides and coasters, but there are plenty of places to play for young kids, too.
SeaWorld -- Cleverly disguised as a theme park -- or as SeaWorld likes to call it, an adventure park -- this popular 200-acre marine park lets guests explore the mysteries of the deep and learn about the oceans and their inhabitants, all while having tons of fun. SeaWorld combines wildlife conservation awareness, actual marine life care, and plain old fun all in one fell swoop (a concept it calls "edutainment"). While that's what Disney is attempting at Animal Kingdom, the message here is subtle and a more inherent part of the experience.
SeaWorld's beautifully landscaped grounds center on a 17-acre lagoon and include flamingo and pelican ponds and a lush tropical rainforest. Shamu, a killer whale, is the star of the park along with his expanding family, which includes baby whales. The pace is much more laid-back than at either Universal or Disney, and it's a good way to break up a long week trudging through the other parks. Close encounters at feeding pools are among the real attractions (so be sure to budget a few extra dollars to buy fishy handouts for the sea lions and dolphins, who make begging an art form).