The city of Orlando is synonomous in the public mind with theme park-oriented vacations. Walt Disney World is the most famous example, but there are multiple other theme parks in the city operated by Universal Studios, Sea World, and even something local named "Fun Spot America Orlando". Most Americans travel to Orlando for a vacation at some point in their lives, often when they have families with young children, and the huge number of foreign tourists that also come to the area have made the Orlando airport one of the ten busiest in the country. I traveled to Orlando a number of different times while growing up; my grandmother lived about 90 miles away to the north in the town of Palm Coast, and our family would make the drive from Maryland down to Florida on a near-annual basis. While we didn't always visit one of the attractions in central Florida, they were close enough that I was able to experience multiple vacations to the Disney parks. We actually visited Universal Studios Florida the first year that the park opened in 1990, and it was such a terrible experience (most of the rides still unfinished or otherwise inoperative) that our whole family received a voucher for a future free visit. That voucher was vaid for ten years, and we ended up using it on a return trip in 1999 shortly before it expired. (We had a lot of weird looks at the ticket office when we showed up with these decrepit vouchers from 1990 but Universal Studios was true to their word and did acknowledge them.) My most recent visit to Orlando prior to this trip had been on December 30, 2003 with the University of Maryland marching band. This was part of a publicity event for the Gator Bowl taking place two days later in a New Year's Day bowl game. I had the chance to march the parade route in the Magic Kingdom (a surprisingly short distance) and that was a lot of fun.
The occasion for this trip was a promise that Liz and I had made together. We had agreed that when she successfully defended her Ph.D at Cornell, we would take a trip together to Orlando as a way to celebrate. Liz earned her graduate degree in August of 2017 after many years of hard work, and we set about planning our trip down to Florida. We decided to visit over the Columbus Day weekend in October, at a point in time when the weather wouldn't be so warm and there would be fewer crowds than in the heart of the summer season. We were also both lucky enough to have Columbus Day off from work and could save a vacation day. We would fly down to Orlando on a Thursday (always cheaper to get midweek flights) and then come back on the holiday Monday, giving us five total days in the theme parks. We would be spending most of our time at the Disney parks but also visiting Universal Studios specifically for the purpose of seeing their Harry Potter section. The rest of the movie-themed attractions didn't hold much interest for us but we couldn't miss seeing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
We flew into Orlando in the morning and headed straight to Epcot, leaving our luggage in one of the storage lockers inside the park. Epcot has always been my favorite of the Disney World parks, due to its focus on technology and learning as well as the various country pavilions. It's a different experience now to visit the international section of Epcot after having visited many of the same countries themselves, but not everyone is so fortunate, and I can still remember being eight years old and staring in wonder at these buildings from faroff parts of the world. I have noticed some thematic changes at Epcot over the decades, as this park has gradually increased its "Disney" aspect over time. Back when the park was new in the 1980s, Epcot was almost completely separate from the Magic Kingdom and there were few references to Disney characters or Disney movies. By the time of this visit in 2017, almost all of the attractions in Epcot had some kind of Disney character tie-in: Finding Nemo at the Seas, the Lion King at the Land, Frozen at the Norway pavilion, etc. There's much more corporate branding now and less of a focus on education. I have to admit that I'm a bit sad to see these changes even though they were likely inevitable.
It was raining when we arrived and this would prove to be a theme of our trip to Orlando. It rained on and off throughout our five days in Florida and our ponchos saw a lot of use. We started out by walking around the eastern part of the central lake, visiting the Norway pavilion (which had the longest lines in the whole park after the recent addition of the Frozen characters to the flume ride) and then eating lunch outside the Mexico pavilion. We were impressed by the design of the Mexico pavilion's interior which did a very credible job of recreating a night market in the Southwest. There was a really nice Mexican restaurant inside that we wished we had known about before getting lunch at the more pedestrian cafeteria-style eatery outside. There's also a short boat ride inside the Mexican pavilion which was largely unchanged from when I had visited decades previously, aside from the addition of animated characters from the obscure Disney film "The Three Caballeros". Construction was already underway to add the characters from the Pixar movie Coco (which hadn't even been released yet at the time of our visit) which will no doubt be more popular for kids than a 1940s cartoon featuring a cigar-smoking parrot.
Epcot was celebrating its 35th anniversary when we visited with a small exhibit about the park's background planning and initial opening in 1982. The park is almost exactly the same age as I am, having opened three weeks and one day after I was born. Since I can remember being at the park for its fifth anniversary in 1987 when I was a child, this was a slightly depressing reminder of the ongoing march of time. One of the more entertaining traditions that has sprung up over the years at Epcot is the annual Food and Wine Festival that takes place over Columbus Day weekend, and we had arrived right in the middle of this event. Liz took advantage of the festival to sample some of the craft beers on display, and there were dozens of small kiosks selling the food of different nations scattered around the central lake, everything from Afghan food to Zimbabwean food. This was a delightful surprise that we hadn't been planning for.
In terms of other park attractions, we also visited the Journey Into Imagination ride (one of Liz's favorites) and the simulation ride known as Soarin'. We had a Fast Pass for the latter and were able to skip the line; for anyone planning to travel to Disney, make sure to secure Fass Pass entry to the most popular rides to avoid long waits. Everyone gets three of them for free each day and they're easy to secure with smartphones. Then we went on the ride in Spaceship Earth, and yes, for those who haven't visited Epcot, the big geodesic dome is another attraction that provides a very basic tour through human history. The animatronics inside Spaceship Earth had been updated since I last visited and have gotten almost to the uncanny valley point of recreating human appearance.
Mission Space was the brand-new attraction when I had last visited Epcot a decade earlier, so crowded with tourists that I wasn't able to see the attraction. It was much quieter now and we were able to ride it twice with minimal waiting time. Mission Space is a simulator ride that sends passengers on a supposed mission either into Earth orbit or a trip to Mars. We had a young child in our group who legitimately thought that the ride was taking everyone into space, and it was simply adorable to see everyone play along (both park staff and the other tourists) to make his day. There are two different options for this ride: the "green" option which simulates traveling around the Earth, and then the "orange" option that heads off to Mars. We did both of them and the "orange" mission was probably the most intense simulator ride that I've ever done. There's a very realistic appoximation of the G forces that would be felt from a rocket takeoff that crushed us back into our seats, followed by a whole bunch of crazy swerving to dodge imaginary dangers in space. Simulators usually don't bother me but this one had me feeling dizzy afterwards. I would definitely not recommend for anyone with motion sickness. We wanted to try the Test Track racing attraction next door as well but it was closed due to all the rain.
By late afternoon the weather had cleared up a little bit and we were able to walk around the rest of the central lake without getting soaked. We went in a clockwise direction, which for some reason always seems to be the order in which I end up visiting the country pavilions at Epcot. After passing by Mexico and Norway again, we headed past China, Germany, and Italy. None of these pavilions have any rides and instead feature shows and restaurants based on their individual countries. The Chinese pavilion had a map of Disneyland Shanghai, which is nearly the same as the Magic Kingdom in Florida except flipped in a mirror image backwards with all of the various "lands" on the opposite side. Mind = blown. The German pavilion is based on the town hall (Rathaus) in Munich while the Italian pavilion is based on San Marco square in Venice, both of which I had visited since my last trip to Epcot. They're a little less impressive after having seen the originals.
We skipped over the American pavilion and spent much more time exploring the Japanese one next door. There was a show with three women playing taiko drums that was striking to watch and then a humongous store selling all kinds of Japanese products inside. We had to restrain ourselves from loading up on some of the Japanese snacks and traditional clothes on sale. The Shinto arch at the Japanese pavilion was placed so that Spaceship Earth on the other side of the lake could be framed inside it for photography purposes, and although it's a bit of a cliched shot I still like the resulting image.
We were looking for a place to eat dinner by this point in time, and considered the Marrakesh restaurant in the Morocco pavilion before heading elsewhere due to the very high cost. We largely skipped over the France pavilion on this trip since neither of us are terribly big fans of French cuisine. Ultimately we decided to get dinner at the Rose and Crown, a fictional pub in the British pavilion. Their food was quite good and it was a lot more reasonably priced than most of the other sit-down restaurants (albeit still not cheap). It was getting dark by that point, and we didn't have much time to explore the Canadian pavilion beyond watching the promotional tourism video in a nearly-empty auditorium. Spaceship Earth was lit up for the night by this time in a rainbow of colored lights that kept rotating through on a timed cycle. We might have stayed longer for the fireworks show but we still hadn't even checked into our hotel yet and decided to leave before it became too much later. We were staying not too far away from Epcot and ended up catching some of the fireworks from our hotel window. The cloudy night made it a particularly good environment to see them.
For our first full day in Orlando, we decided to visit Universal Studios and see the Harry Potter setup. There's an interesting backstory behind how Universal ended up getting the rights to the Harry Potter franchise; apparently J.K. Rowling initially opened talks with Disney about creating some kind of attraction at a Disney park, but both sides wanted creative control and couldn't come to an agreement. Universal basically told Rowling that she could do anything that she wanted, and the result was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at the Islands of Adventure park. This was a brilliant move on Universal's part, as their Islands of Adventure theme park was suffering from low attendance and seemed to have little in the way of distinguishing features. As soon as the Harry Potter section opened, attendance more than doubled and remained high for years on end with no sign of slowing down. It proved so popular that Universal added a second Harry Potter section to the main Universal Studios park as well, this one themed after Diagon Alley. This also allowed them to run a "Hogwarts Express" train between the two parks for anyone who paid to enter both of them. A one day ticket to both parks was an astronomical $170 per person (in 2017 dollars) and therefore we had to pick one of the two parks; I suggested Islands of Adventure because the Diagon Alley section at Universal Studios was still new and didn't have too much open yet. As a result, all of these pictures are from the Islands of Adventure portion of Universal Studios.
We were able to arrive at Islands of Adventure right when the park was opening. We headed immediately to the Harry Potter area, knowing that it would fill up rapidly with visitors as the most popular section of the park. (I felt kind of bad for the poor Dr. Seuss kiddie rides that everyone was racing past to reach Harry Potter.) This portion of the park is modeled on the village of Hogsmeade, with traditional stone cottages capped by fake snow that look wildly out of place in the Florida heat. The Hogwarts Express is faithfully reproduced here to look like the one from the movies, and many of the stores mentioned in the book series (Honeydukes, the Three Broomsticks pub, Owl Post) are represented with their own separate enclaves. The designers of this part of the park did a fantastic job at capturing the look and feel of the Potter universe; this is probably the best non-Disney theming project that I've come across at an amusement park. The attention to detail is excellent throughout.
The featured attraction in this section is the ride named "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey." It's located in the big reproduction of Hogwarts castle3 which is just huge when seen in person. While not as large as a real castle it's still downright formidable. Much of the castle grounds are given over to an extremely long line due to the popularity of the attraction, and the ride engineers did an excellent job of making the wait interesting in its own right. The line first passes the Potions classroom in the basement, then twists through the greenhouse with references to Herbology class, and then enters the castle proper. There are talking portraits inside with each of the four house founders, the hourglasses keeping track of the standings in the house cup, a reproduction of the headmaster's office (complete with Pensieve), and then a trip past the portrait of the Fat Lady into the Gryffindor common room. This is a ride that actually has a plot to it, which is explained by recordings of some of the actors in the Potter films; it's set at the time of the Triwizard Tournament in the fourth book of the series. Nothing too serious obviously but it makes standing in line a lot more bearable. We rushed through to the front of the ride when the park opened and missed all of this the first time, then went back to do the ride a second time to capture more of the scenery. The ride itself is an innovative mixture of a simulator plus a fixed track ride. There are recorded elements and parts that simulate movement... but the ride car itself is also moving up and down and along a track. I'd never seen anything quite like this before and it's likely that this kind of technology will become much more widespread in the future. Apparently there is such a thing as disruptive innovation for amusement park rides, believe it or not.
Aside from the ride itself, we spent several more hours exploring the town of Hogsmeade. The most interesting attraction was probably Ollivander's wand shop, which is inaccurately placed here in Hogsmeade. (This is due to the fact that this was originally the only Harry Potter area at Universal Studios; there's another Ollivander's correctly placed at the newer Diagon Alley section.) We waited in line for 20 minutes to watch the live show that the staff puts on for small groups, where one person is picked out from the crowd for a wand selection demonstration. This is heavily based on the wand selection scene from the first Harry Potter book, but it's still fun to watch and the staff does a great job of selling their performances. There are a ton of wands to choose from in the main store, essentially one for every non-Muggle character in the series. If for some reason you wanted the wand used by more obscure characters like Bill Weasley or Mundungus Fletcher, you can find them here along with everyone else. Liz tried out a bunch of them and picked out one of the interactive wands, which will cause some kind of magical effect when waved in certain parts of Hogsmeade. We found that the sensors were a bit finnicky for the wand motions needed to use them. There were also other Potter-themed paraphernalia of all kinds for sale here, everything from expensive full dress robes down to house-themed coffee cups. Liz and I ultimately settled on a pair of decorative banners for our associated houses, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw respectively.
We also visited the Owl Post, which disappointingly did not contain any real owls. Perhaps the Florida climate was too hot for them. The garishly green-colored store was the local branch of Honeydukes, selling all sorts of different sweets mentioned in the series. We ended up getting a Chocolate Frog, which turned out to be made of solid chocolate and was larger than either of us expected. I had to eat it quickly before it melted and wound up devouring more chocolate than was healthy. The Three Broomsticks and the Hog's Head are also represented here, joined together into one building that serves as a combination restaurant and bar. We wanted to eat lunch here very badly only to find out that the wait was more than an hour to get a table. Ultimately we had to pass it up in favor of eating somewhere else in the park. It was already getting crowded and we had made a wise choise to visit this part of the park first thing in the morning. For the same reason, we didn't end up tasting the butterbeer because the line was so long at all of the vendors. This is apparently a recurring problem for the park and I wonder why they don't simply open more sellers for the popular stuff.
We spent the whole morning at the Harry Potter section of the park and didn't leave until it was after noon. In a major tonal shift, the area right next door to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the Jurassic Park section, complete with the iconic gates from the original movie. We ended up eating lunch in the Jurassic Park lodge, which predictably had dinosaurs everywhere. The food here was pretty good, heavily "meat-themed" with lots of grilled stuff on sticks. There was a discovery center of sorts in the basement of the lodge, which featured reproductions of dinosaur skeletons and some interactive computer games. One of them had the visitor respond to certain questions and then take a digital photograph, eventually producing a supposed "human/dinosaur hybrid" using the image. Liz thought that the dinosaur it created using my picture was particularly amusing; I'm not sure that I would have made it as a dinosaur. Then we headed over to the main ride in this section, the Jurassic Park River Adventure, which turned out to be a dinosaur-themed flume ride. It felt slightly outdated but was still good fun and not too terribly crowded. There's a sizable drop at the end of the ride that caught everyone off guard, even knowing how these rides tend to finish. I wonder how long it will be before Universal updates this section of the park with content from the Jurassic World franchise.
We didn't end up seeing too much more at Islands of Adventure. We walked past the King Kong section, only to find that the Skull Island ride had an estimated waiting time of 80 minutes. No thanks. The Marvel section held more of interest, and yes, it's bizarre to see Universal Studios holding the rights to Marvel characters when Marvel Studios is owned by Disney. (Long story short: Marvel sold off the rights to many of their characters back before they became a movie-making behemoth. Universal has the rights to the Marvel characters for theme park purposes and nothing else.) The Spiderman ride here was similar to the main Harry Potter ride, a combination of cars on a moving track together with simulator elements, albeit a lot less memorable. The other major attraction in this section was the Hulk rollercoaster, which had a short enough line that I ended up riding it while Liz looked at some of the nearby stores. I'm a bit unusual in the sense that I hate steep vertical drops but I'm not bothered in the least by coasters that spin and turn and fly upside down. The Hulk coaster simulates shooting its passengers out of a cannon with an immediate burst of speed followed by taking a series of loops at high speed. I loved this experience and would have ridden it multiple times again if given the chance. Very fun rollercoaster.
By this point, it was getting late in the afternoon and there was another rain storm incoming. We opted to head back to our hotel to have a more relaxed dinner since we knew that we would have an especially long day coming up. We even tried to play miniature golf at the little course at the hotel only to be foiled by the four inches of water submerging the putting greens. Nature refused to cooperate on this trip.
The third day of our trip was the longest in terms of theme park duration. We were visiting the Magic Kingdom on this Saturday and planning to meet up with some friends in the evening who were also traveling to Orlando on vacation at the same time. This was the first time that I had visited Disney World in October, and the entrance to the Magic Kingdom was decorated with autumnal pagentry, lots of pumpkins and falling leaves in shades of orange, yellow, and brown. The sightline looking up Main Street USA towards the central castle remains the iconic Disney view. We had to stop and get a few pictures together here... after stopping for coffee at the crowded Starbucks along the main drive, of course. (The employees inside were wearing period costume that made them look like something out of a soda shop from the early 20th century.) As the pictures suggest, the park was already packed with visitors despite the early morning. Wasn't this supposed to be the slow part of the tourist season?
We turned to the right at the central oval in front of the castle and headed into Tomorrowland. The retro-futuristic design of this area has always interested me, a vision of what the future would look like as seen from the perspective of the 1950s and 1960s. The Disney engineers of the era apparently envisioned a lot more space travel while completely failing to anticipate the rise of information technology. As always when visiting a major theme park, the attractions to see are heavily dictated by the wait times of the rides. Space Mountain already had a 2 hour line (we would come back later with Fast Passes) so we tried some of the less popular attractions with much shorter wait times instead. The Buzz Lightyear ride was new since the last time I had visited, a moving shooting gallery through a series of rooms with vibrant neon coloring. This looks like great fun for fidgety kids and we enjoyed it as well. Liz crushed me in the score for the shooting game, although to be fair I was taking pictures with the camera much of the time that we were moving.
Then we hopped over to the nearby Tomorrowland Speedway, a mainstay of the Magic Kingdom for decades. I can remember very well visiting this ride when I was a young child and being thrilled to sit in one of the cars with my parents. Then I came back a little later when I was about ten and could actually drive one of the cars myself, which was even better. While the cars aren't quite as exciting as an adult, it was still relaxing to drive around the track and take in the atmosphere of the park. Just keep in mind that the little cars are restricted to a sedate speed; this is not intended to be a go-kart track.
After finishing up with the cars, we walked through the central castle and visited the infamous It's A Small World ride on the other side. This was one of the three attractions where we had reserved a Fast Pass, which might seem like a strange choice but the more desirable morning rides had already been claimed. Even this midtier ride had a waiting time stretching close to an hour and made skipping the line an attractive proposition. If nothing else, it was air conditioned inside and provided a break from the growing heat. As for the ride itself, It's A Small World is essentially a tour around the world with little animated dolls representing the different peoples and animals in each region. Earlier versions of this ride were at the very least culturally insensitive portrayals and arguably racist caricatures of other parts of the world. The ride is a lot better today and represents a sort of anodyne cheerfulness about everyone and everything. Fair warning: the infamous song does repeat endlessly throughout the ride and may or may not drive you crazy.
From the It's A Small World ride, we took a very circuitous route over to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, passing through Fantasyland and then riding the train around the outside edge of the park to Frontierland. This is my favorite ride in the Magic Kingdom, a perfectly calibrated track that twists and turns through the simulated American Southwest at just the right speed to be exciting without being too scary for younger visitors. This was our Fast Pass destination for the early afternoon and it allowed us to skip the 90 minute wait for the normal line. I would have happily gone on this ride four or five times if there hadn't been a line; I remember having the chance to do that once decades earlier when my family stayed until closing time and the park emptied out. On this occasion the ride actually stopped when we were halfway through, sitting up on top of one of the ridges with fantastic views of the surrounding park. That allowed us to take a few quick selfies while we were mid-ride, a rare treat indeed.
Part of the reason why the most popular attractions like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad were so crowded was the fact that other major rides were closed for repairs. Splash Mountain is located right next to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and it wasn't open at all on this day. Pirates of the Caribbean (my brother's favorite ride from when we were kids) is also not far away in Adventureland, and it was similarly closed. It was supposed to open later in the day but never did. The Jungle Cruise, the other big attraction in Adventureland, was also closed for repairs. This is the downside to visiting Disney World outside of the main summer season, as attractions are more likely to be shut down for this sort of maintenance. The only places that were open in this part of the park were the Magic Carpet ride from Aladdin and the Enchanted Tiki Room, another show that's been around for ages and ages. We went ahead and sat down for the Tiki Room showing, which features a series of animatronic birds singing songs in a simulated environment from the Pacific islands. It's more entertaining than it sounds, and the chance to spend some time in an air conditioned room was another major plus.
By this point it was time for the traditional afternoon parade. We managed to get a pretty decent spot in Liberty Square to watch the floats roll past on their colorful displays. This was officially named the "Festival of Fancy" parade but it seemed to be pretty much the same thing as all past Disney World parades, i.e. a collection of random characters from popular Disney movies. It's interesting to track what holds its popularity over time and what doesn't in terms of Disney characters. From what I could see here, anything associated with the Disney Princess line of characters has seemed to remain in vogue while a lot of the other older properties have faded away with time. I was most impressed by the dragon float in this parade which had a kind of steampunk vibe associated with it. The creature was blowing smoke out of its mouth occasionally as it rolled along, and based on the horns I supposed it had some kind of Maleficent connection. It was a splendid feature of engineering regardless. I also felt pretty bad for the poor employees in costume; it was beastly hot at well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) with all of the typical Florida humidity. So much for this being October and nominally cooler weather.
Do you like anthropomorphic animals? Apparently we did since the next attractions that we saw featured lots of talking animals. Liberty Square put on an American-history themed show using the Muppets (another Disney-owned property) that we caught while we were stopping to drink some water. As a historian who specialized in the 18th century British Empire, I can't say that the Muppet presentation of the circumstances surrounding the American Revolution was especially nuanced or even accurate. But let's be honest, this was entertainment and no one expects historical realism in a presentation delivered by a talking frog. It was a similar story at the nearby Country Bear Jamboree, an indoor show with animatronic bears singing a variety of country music songs. Think "old school" country songs as in rural Appalachia, not the more contemporary pop forms of country music. The park engineers have done a remarkable job of making these goofy bears look somewhat realistic in their movements; the quality is far above what you might find at place like Chuck E. Cheese. I was also pleased to see how well our new camera was doing at taking pictures in low light situations like this show. This was the first trip where we used this camera, a replacement for the beloved camera that had gone with me to Europe and Alaska before being lost on the DC Metro, and it was holding up quite well in capturing some tricky images.
At my prodding we went on the Liberty Belle Riverboat next. This is a replica of a 19th century steam-powered paddlewheel boat that travels in a long loop around the lake in Frontierland. The boat paddles very slowly from stop to stop while providing some great views of this portion of the park. It's also the only way to reach Tom Sawyer Island short of swimming across the water, one of my favorite places to visit at Disney World when I was a kid. I think that I spent almost two hours running through the replica forts as a child and firing the fake guns on display (yes there were fake rifles in the fort windows back then - pretty sure they're gone now). On this trip we mostly used the time on the boat as a chance to rest for the 20 minutes that it took to circle the lake. After that we went to the Haunted Mansion, where we ended up having our longest wait of the day, a little over an hour in length. This was rather tedious even though we did enjoy the ride on the inside of the Haunted Mansion. As far as ghost experiences go, it's not particularly scary and the effects are well done. We would have preferred a shorter wait though.
It was early evening by the time that we finished getting through the wait at the Haunted Mansion. We headed back over towards Tomorrowland where we were scheduled to meet up with friends, and stopped to ride the teacups en route. We had seen the skies clouding up as we walked and this was the point at which they let loose with a furious bout of rain. We're talking full on torrential downpour, rain as hard as I can remember seeing, a solid sheet of water cascading down from the sky. Fortunately our Fast Pass for Space Mountain was due for use at this point, and we happily skipped past the 2.5 hour wait (!) for the most intense ride in the Magic Kingdom. I had actually never ridden Space Mountain before due to my childhood fear of rollercoasters, and I can attest as an adult that it's a fantastic ride. Lots of unexpected movement in a dark environment where it's hard to see where the ride will go next, all with that classic futuristic space theme. We would have happily gone on this ride several more times.
We hoped that the rain would have stopped by the time that we exited Space Mountain. It had not stopped and was instead continuing to pour down as hard as ever. I took a picture of the sky to try and capture just how dark it was, with some of the stormclouds overhead sporting an ominous inky black color. We did meet up with our friends and immediately went on the ride with the smallest line in the area: the Carousel of Progress. This is another relic from the park's early days, an animatronic showcase of the role of technology in improving family life. It's almost painfully idealistic with its simplistic view of how technology makes everything better over time, and I truly wish that I could share in the same optimism. Anyway, then we headed over to the Little Mermaid Under the Sea ride, which had featured very long lines earlier in the day only to be cleared out by the rain. It was very colorful and I suspect that this is another kid favorite. I think that I preferred the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride that preceded it but I understand that a movie from the 1950s doesn't hold much interest these days.
We ate a late dinner at the German-themed Pinocchio restaurant and then prepared to watch the nightly fireworks show. That show takes place every night rain or shine, and therefore it would still be performed despite the terrible weather. It was not especially fun standing around waiting for the show to begin under a poncho with a steady rain beating down overhead. Fortunately the roughly 20 minute display that took place was downright amazing, with the entire front of Cinderella's Castle transformed into a projector screen that rotated through a series of colorful animated displays. I wasn't expecting that at all and it was quite a display. The cloudy night sky provided a backdrop for the fireworks that went off, and the whole time there was happy pop music blaring through the speakers that surrounded the central courtyard. This was definitely worth staying to see and it would have been even better without the crummy weather. Well above my expectations.
If there was a downside to staying for the fireworks show, it was the difficulty of getting out of the Magic Kingdom afterwards. Most of the people in the park all left at the same time, creating huge crowds outside with long wait times. The Magic Kingdom has a weird location in the sense that there's no parking lot next to the entrance, and visitors either have to cross a lake by shuttle boat or take one of the monorails to get back to the transportation hub. We had to wait for about half an hour to take one of the boats, then wait through the slow lake crossing, and then find transportation back to our hotel on the other side. It was a long and tiring experience at the end of a busy day. I think that if we had to do this again, we would try not to visit the Magic Kingdom on a Saturday (the busiest day of the week for tourists) and potentially arrive later in the day with the expectation of staying until the park closed. The Disney parks stay open quite late and the last hour or two before closing tend to be the best time in terms of avoiding lines. Even better, it's a lot more pleasant in terms of temperature after the sun goes down. While this might not be practical for families with young children, it can be a good option for everyone else.
Our destination the next day was Disney's Animal Kingdom park. Neither one of us had been here before, the youngest of the major Disney parks in Orlando at the time of our visit, and it was a natural fit for us since we both enjoy seeing animals so much. The central organizing element in this park is a giant tree located on what's known as Discovery Island, with the other thematic areas ringing around that point. New for 2017 was the Avatar-themed section of the park (the movie version of Avatar, not The Last Airbender) with decorations based around the floating mountains and exotic wildlife of Pandora. This was a bit of a stretch for the "Animal Kingdom" theme of this place, but it proved to be wildly successful and the Avatar area was the most popular section of the park. We knew that we had to go to this area immediately if we were going to have a chance to try any of the rides, and despite our best efforts we still ended up waiting about an hour for the Na'vi River Journey ride. This was an on-rails boat ride that traveled through a dark cave with scenery taken from the movie, with some pretty good special effects along the way. It was a solid effort but not worth the lengthy wait time given the short (about 5 minutes) duration of the ride. Once the Avatar section becomes a bit older and less crowded, this will be more worthwhile. We had no chance to try the featured Flight of Passage ride in the Avatar area; the lines immediately ballooned to 3+ hours in length and never dropped throughout the day. Forget that. We would only have gone on the ride with a Fast Pass and those had been snapped up months in advance.
After finishing up with the Avatar section, we crossed through the central part of the park and headed over to the uncreatively-named Asia region. One ride where we did have a Fast Pass reservation was the Expedition Everest rollercoaster, which was the featured attraction back when Animal Kingdom first opened. The best comparison that I have for Expedition Everest would be the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride in the Magic Kingdom, only a little bit faster and more unpredictable. There's one point in time where this rollercoaster looks like it hits a dead end, only to shift into reverse and drop backwards into an unexpected cave. It's another fantastic attraction and it was our favorite "ride" at Animal Kingdom. (This park has relatively little in that regard and it's not the best destination for thrillseekers.)
You won't see a lot of fast rides with steep drops at this theme park. What visitors do see instead are lots of animals, with Animal Kingdom being a hybrid mixture of theme park and zoo elements. These pictures were all taken from the Maharaja Jungle Trek, a gentle shaded walking path that carries tourists past a series of animal enclosures. We saw komodo dragons, gibbons, and several types of exotic deer. Liz particularly liked the bats in the bat house, one of her favorite types of animal which had their own habitat to themselves here. The featured animals on this path were the tigers, who had their own enclosure designed to look like a crumbling Indian palace. There was also a large bird sanctuary at the end of the path where we probably spent more time than was strictly necessary despite neither of us being birdwatchers. The staff handed out little cards with about two dozen birds pictured on them and made a game for visitors trying to spot each of the different types. This would be great for kids and we amused ourselves trying to find as many of the birds for ourselves.
We had lunch afterwards at an outdoor cafeteria named Harambe Market. (Not intended to commemorate the gorilla named Harambe who was tragically killed in 2016, just a naming coincidence from back when the park was opened.) Then it was on to one of our other Fast Pass reservations, this one known as Kilimanjaro Safari Tours. This is probably the best zoo-themed attraction in the park, a lengthy tour that takes visitors through a safari-like series of animal enclosures. The tour lasts for a good 20 minutes and visitors get the chance to see several dozen different animals at a short distance. We saw hippos swimming in their pools, crocodiles resting in the shade, a bunch of cattle with weird horns that I don't know the proper name for, and more birds than I care to describe. The vehicles on the tour are open on the sides and the back, making it easy to see the animals that surround it in every direction.
There were more megafauna ahead on the second half of the tour. We saw giraffes passing by in a small group (which is apparently officially called a "tower") followed by half a dozen elephants in their enclosure. There was a little baby elephant rolling around in the mud while two adults watched over it and the whole thing was adorable. Elsewhere, zebras and rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?) rested underneath some trees, and there was a warthog off by itself ignoring the rest of the animals. This was a great experience and practically worth the cost of admission on its own. If it wasn't quite as impressive as the safari that I did a year later at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, it was about as close as a mass market attraction could get.
Next we headed down another walking path known as the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, this time with animals hailing from Africa as opposed to Asia. There were more hippos to see on this trail, including a view of them from underwater, along with zebras and meerkats and more birds of all stripes. This time the featured animals were the gorillas, which had their own large enclosure where they lived in family groups. I always enjoy seeing any of the greater primates since they can look so human in their expressions and mannerisms. From here, we took a little train ride to a small separate area of the park named Rafiki's Planet Watch, an educational section with information about conservation and environmentalism. This was mostly intended for families with kids, and the area included a petting zoo with small barnyard animals. We enjoyed feeding and brushing the goats here even if the petting zoo section didn't smell too great.
To close out the afternoon, we went to the Finding Nemo live show after just missing the start time for the Lion King show on the other side of the park. This was a bit like a Broadway musical version of the movie Finding Nemo, with the action condensed down into about 30 minutes of show time. The props and the puppetry involved in putting on this show were suberb, at least coming from the perspective of someone who doesn't see much in the way of theatre performances. The Lion King show is also supposed to be excellent and we would have liked to see both of them. Finding Nemo: The Musical is located in Dinoland USA, a kid-friendly section of the park with more traditional amusement park attractions. This was easily our least favorite part of Animal Kingdom, though to be fair we weren't really the target audience. None of the rides here looked interesting enough for us to give them a try.
We left the Animal Kingdom park in late afternoon but didn't go far. We had dinner reservations that night at the restaurant in the nearby Animal Kingdom lodge, one of the many Disney resorts in Orlando. This is a place where we would have liked to stay, however all of the Disney resorts book up many months in advance and we couldn't find space in any of their hotels for this trip, much rooms in the Animal Kingdom lodge itself. This particular hotel is built in the style of an East African safari lodge, with multiple pools and game rooms to cater to the younger guests. The most unique feature of the lodge is the presence of a wildlife park that adjoins the property, with antelopes and zebras and giraffes roaming about on the grounds. Guests can look out their windows in the morning and watch the animals as they eat breakfast. We decided that the next time we came back to Orlando to visit the theme parks, this is the place where we want to stay.
Our dinner took place at the more expensive of the two restaurants in the lodge. Known as Jiko: The Cooking Place, this restaurant serves a delicious blend of traditional African, Indian, and Mediterranean cuisine. I don't remember exactly what dishes we ordered but they were very, very tasty indeed. This was going to be our last evening in Orlando on this trip and we had wanted to make it a special one to celebrate. After dinner, we had a further chance to walk around the lodge now that night had fallen outside. We went up to the top floor of the hotel so that we could get a better view looking down at the main atrium, then poked around in the (very expensive) gift store which had further Disney and African themed merchandise for sale. It was a wonderful ending to a day at the Animal Kingdom park, which we had probably enjoyed the most out of the four that we had visited. It was either this park or the Harry Potter section of Universal Studios that was tops for us.
We only had about half of a day available for sightseeing on the following morning, and we decided to use that time visiting the Disney theme park that least interested us, Hollywood Studios. I hadn't been to this park since it went by the name of MGM Grand Studios and Liz had never been here at all, but we're not big movie people and this theme park as a whole didn't hold much of a draw for us. The overall theme of Hollywood Studios is a replication of the golden days of the moviemaking industry, with the streets designed to replicate Hollywood from the 1930s and 1940s. The attractions in the park are generally less centered around the Disney animated characters and more around the live action movies that Disney owns. Of course, there was one extremely popular movie property that Disney acquired only a few years before our visit...
That being Star Wars, naturally. Back when I had previously visited this theme park in the early 1990s, there had been one Star Wars simulator ride at the MGM Grand Studios and since Star Wars had been an inert property for about a decade, it wasn't treated any differently from the other movie-themed rides. Things were very different on this trip, with Star Wars back to being an extremely popular brand and Star Wars content plastered everywhere around the park. The same simulator ride was still there (with updated visuals that accompanied the movement of the seats), but now there were live stage shows featuring an actor in Kylo Ren costume, a huge new Star Wars section of the park under construction due to open in a few years, and a Stormtrooper parade down the main thoroughfare of the park. There's even a Star Wars Disney hotel that was in the early stages of planning when we visited in 2017. It seemed to us that Disney was essentially trying to turn Hollywood Studios into Star Wars: The Theme Park, and most everyone visiting seemed quite happy with that.
One little tidbit: our visit took place about two months before Star Wars: The Last Jedi was released, and there were already porgs on sale in the stores despite the movie not being out yet. We were baffled as to what these little creatures were supposed to be until realizing that it was from the unreleased movie. The Star Wars merchandising campaign was so well polished that the toys were now out in the Disney stores before the movies themselves. Amazing.
Other attractions that we saw included the Muppetvision 3D show, which was somewhat sadly getting ready to shut down in favor of more Star Wars content. I was also disappointed to find that the Honey I Shrunk The Kids area, which I had loved exploring as a child on my previous visit, had long disappeared. Not surprising given that those movies were ancient history by now, but still a bit sad. One show that still remained unchanged from decades earlier was the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, a lengthy 30 minute show that walks through a bunch of different stunts from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The actors involved truly put on a great performance in this show, and they have an audience participation twist that always catches new visitors off guard. It's very worthwhile to see for the stunts even if you know what's coming ahead of time.
That was about all that we managed to see in Hollywood Studios due to a combination of limited time and much of the park being under construction. There was a new Toy Story section due to open in 2018 that was inaccessible, and the only other part of the park that we hadn't visited contained the Aerosmith rollercoaster and the Twilight Zone tower drop, neither of which interested us. They both had massive lines anyway. Hollywood Studios was the smallest of the five theme parks that we had visited, and we didn't feel that it was particularly worth the asking price. This is the place to go if you like movies and live shows, but there's relatively little in the way of actual rides.
We headed to the airport in the afternoon and flew back home in the evening. The trip was a lovely way to celebrate a milestone achievement for Liz and I was happy that I could come along for the ride. I'm sure that we will be back again in a number of years, most likely with small children in tow someday. In the meantime, I hope that you enjoyed hearing about our particular experience at these extremely popular amusement parks. Thanks again for reading.