If you're going to drop your hard-earned cash at a theme park, being an informed consumer is imperative. The Disney complex alone, including the childhood fantasy land of the Magic Kingdom, exotic nations (not to mention fascinating live residents) of Animal Kingdom, sparkling liquid allure of Typhoon Lagoon, big-screen excitement of Hollywood Studios and the futuristic, multicultural playground of EPCOT, houses more parks than you can count on one hand. Add in Universal, SeaWorld and the myriad independently operated attractions vying for your leisure dollars and you've got some big decisions to make. Are you after the biggest roller coaster bang for your buck at a Disney venue? On the lookout for the best shows and interactive rides? Maybe you’re searching for a dreamlike water park to help your family beat Orlando's formidable heat or feed the animals? Maybe you'd like to combine all three and opt for zip-lining over the alligator marsh at Gatorland? Well, whether you want to soar like Harry Potter at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure or just drink the Butterbeer, our Top 10 Theme Park rundown is a great place to begin your research. And if neither time nor money are any object? Easy: stay for two weeks and hit every single one.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Combining signature thrill rides and movie magic, Disney's Hollywood Studios is the only place where you can enjoy tot-friendly Muppetvision in 3D, then plummet 13 stories on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror! Experiences here, particularly for well versed fans of the big and small screen, are surreal. Cruise through realistic creations of classic movie scenes from today and yesteryear, experience the thrill of live shows, fill your princess quota with shows based on "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid," ride the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith and cap it off with Fantasmic! – a nighttime fireworks spectacular. (407-939-1289)
This park has its share of thrills in the form of rapids and half-pipes and bullet-fast water chutes but what makes it truly special is its wildlife (in particular, its stars: the Commerson's dolphins) and the serene and playful ways in which visitors can observe it. Walkabout Waters and Kata's Kookaburra Cover are ideal for the littlest in your party while thrill seekers might opt for Omaka Rocka or the Dolphin Plunge, Aquatica's most popular ride. And when you're ready to relax, hit the "beach." You can even splurge on one of the park's premium private cabanas. (407-351-3600, 888-800-5447)
SeaWorld is where education meets entertainment. Marvel in the tech advances and sensory immersion (it feels almost literal) as you follow the life journey of a sea turtle in the mercifully air-conditioned TurtleTrek. And for more of the latter, plus charming tuxedo'd penguins, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins is both state-of-the-art and an unbeatably "chill" escape from the Orlando heat. Rides here are no slouch either, Kraken and Manta are tops for roller coaster enthusiasts game for loops and drops and the folks who come for the animals have a roster from which to choose, whether barking sea lions, lumbering walruses or toothy sharks. (800-327-2424)
EPCOT is now ubiquitous with both Disney and Orlando, but it's actually an acronym, standing for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and one of its two sections – Future World – is an ever-evolving testament to that very idea, showcasing advancements in technology from energy to space travel. World showcase features slices of life from 11 different nations, miniature cultural immersions via food, music, art, architecture and more. That said, don't think the kids will miss out on their favorite Disney characters. The gang from "Finding Nemo" is on hand at The Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion, which boasts one of the largest manmade ocean environments in the world (people actually snorkel and scuba dive in it) and various character greetings in the World Showcase will satisfy all character cravings. EPCOT is where education and entertainment come together for a one-two, theme park punch. (407-939-1289)
Disney's Typhoon Lagoon
Laid-back and all-ages friendly (with a few killer slides and rides to satisfy the thrill-seekers in your crew) Typhoon Lagoon offers up the cool waters the Orlando heat makes you crave all while enveloping visitors in the Disney magic they've come to expect. In the case of this park, a tropical island village motif sets the mood. Highlights here include Shark Reef, offering visitors the chance to swim freely with leopard and bonnethead sharks, among other beautiful ocean creatures, in a safe, controlled environment and the Surf Pool – one of the world's largest – which cycles between small and large swells so that riders of all skill levels get a chance to hang ten. (407-939-1289)
Disney's Animal Kingdom® Theme Park
SeaWorld parses from every column, from the educational to the adrenaline-infused, to create a well rounded theme-park experience that will delight young and old. In the technologically spectacular column: TurtleTrek 4D, an all-ages experience that takes participants on an immersive adventure as they slip into the flippers of a sea turtle in the open water. For the Red Bull set: SeaWorld's Manta allows riders to soar (head-first and face-down, mind you) like a giant ray and venerable favorite, Kraken (consistently ranked among the best by coaster enthusiasts) unleashes its fury in the form of loops, rolls and spirals that are seemingly without end. Animal lovers? It's not even a contest. Feed sea lions, sharks and stingrays, marvel at Arctic mammoths like the walrus and Beluga whales. And fans of those tuxedo'd penguins will delight in the chill of Antarctica, SeaWorld's new all-in-one ride and animal habitat. (407-824-4321)
Universal Studios Florida®
With its Springfield USA addition luring Simpson fans worldwide and the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride still high on visitors' lists, Universal Studios Florida will soon be nipping at its sister park's heels as Diagon Alley – the newest phase of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – is set to open later in 2014. Additionally, coaster aficionados will rejoice in both the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Orlando's tallest, and the indoor marvel of Revenge of the Mummy, which plunges riders into darkness as they race through dazzling, special effects-driven perils from the film that inspired it: scurrying carnivorous scarabs, an army of warrior mummies and an almost too real fireball. (407-363-8000, 800-711-0080)
It bills itself as "Orlando's best half-day attraction" and we tend to agree. In a city that often puts people at odds with their budget (time and/or money) with so many amazing parks to visit, Gatorland does the day's schedule for you: half spent exploring a park devoted to Florida's most famous native inhabitants, half spent by the resort pool with a cold beverage. Of course, if you want more gator – have at it. Catch Gatorland's animals and handler shows in the afternoon, hit the splash pad with the kids, then try its newest attraction: the Screamin' Gator Zipline, where adventurers soar at speeds approaching 30 m.p.h. over live alligators and crocodiles. There's a nighttime run, as well. Other fun add-ons include the Gator Night Shine and various into-the-swamp jaunts for up-close alligator action. Even with supplemental activities, Gatorland still ranks as a comparative theme-park bargain. (407-855-5496, 800-393-5297)
Magic Kingdom® Park
Welcome to where it all began. Magic Kingdom may be the first of Walt Disney World's theme parks, but it's no less relevant. Recent years have seen doubling of New Fantasyland with the debut of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and other noteworthy additions. In the meantime, Cinderella's castle still beckons, the groundbreaking indoor thrills of Space Mountain remain solid, "it's a small world" still delights children (and the parents and grandparents who remember their first visit decades ago) – musical ear worm notwithstanding. Upgrades, of course, have happened everywhere, from the Hall of Presidents to Pirates of the Caribbean, where the plunge is as stomach-dropping as ever, but the addition of Captain Jack Sparrow satisfies fans of those eponymous blockbuster films. As always, everyone's favorite characters, from Donald and Goofy to princesses past and present, are on-hand for photo-ops and magically memorable moments. (407-939-1289, 407-934-7639)
Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure®
Not that it was in much danger before, but the addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter more or less cemented Islands of Adventures' place atop the list of must-visits for Orlando-bound theme park enthusiasts, adding Harry Potter enthusiasts to their vast marketing segment with aplomb. Of course, each of the park's "islands" – Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, Marvel Super Hero Island, Seuss Landing and The Lost Continent – has unique appeal in the form of cutting-edge rides and interactive attractions. Between Dragon Challenge, the truly astonishing Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, debating which ride rules supreme is best slated for some after-park drinks at nearby Universal CityWalk after thoughtful research in the field. (407-363-8000)
About A.D. Thompson
A.D. Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and roughly 15 as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.
A roller coaster enthusiast, A.D. readily admits there is fun to be had amid the madness of the theme parks, but has found there is magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey’s long shadow. She is delighted to share with you the spoils of her adopted city.
Visit her colorful compendium at www.amydrewthompson.com.
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