Last week, I and some friends had an amazing time visiting the Walt Disneyworld and Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando. It was a fantastic opportunity to catch up on the explosion of themeparks since the last time I was there about 18 years ago.
Walt Disneyworld is of course the grand-daddy of them all, an enormous complex of four theme parks, two water parks, and a gigantic "Downtown Disney" shopping area that could take a week to explore and experience. Two of the four theme parks didn't exist last time I was there. Universal Studios, the up-and-coming competitor to Disney, has two connected theme parks (with separate admission) called Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. There are four other themeparks in Orlando as well that we didn't visit and I don't really know much about.
It's a lot to take in. If you can manage it, I recommend going for at least five days to feel like you got to adequately visit all the parks and rides you wanted to.
Here are some of my favorite experiences from the Disneyworld portion trip, roughly grouped by park.
There's a perennial debate about which is better, the Magic Kingdom in Orlando or Disneyland in Los Angeles. I'm a purist, so I will always have a special place in my heart for the original Disneyland. That said, the Orlando Magic Kingdom has a lot going for it.
There are lots of rides that echo the ones at Disneyland. But these two stood out for me.
The Orlando Space Mountain feels more fully realized than the California version. The line experience has more to see and more interactive elements. There are a few computer games built into the line that I never got to really experience because the queues were so short. The ride felt more thrilling and longer than California.
It's incredible that a ride built in the 1970s can still feel so fresh and fun, despite all the advances in ride technology over the decades.
Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom
The Walt Disneyworld parks have all built in their own scavenger hunt / quest type meta-games that can be played while you are visiting the park. At Animal Safari you collect "badges" at different locations. In EPCOT, you can go on Agent P's World Showcase Adventure that takes you around the park. But the most fully realized one is the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom.
At the firehouse on Main Street you are given a deck of spell cards, a key card, and a map. You watch a short intro video, and then you are off to find your first portal, indicated by subtle bronze discs on the ground.
Maybe I'm a sap, but the first time you walk up to a random store window and wave around your card and an animated cut scene plays, I squealled with delight. The villains do evil stuff, you fight them with spell cards in your deck by waving them around, and you get a clue to your next stop. It's kind of amazing.
There's a longer write-up and review of the game here that describes how elaborate the game design in.
Every time I visit EPCOT, I have it romanticized in my mind about what a cool place it's going to be. I like future technology stuff. I like traveling the world. And then when I'm there, I find myself mostly bored and tired of walking around everywhere.
The Food and Drink
Many of my friends told me that the only reason to go to EPCOT is to get your drink on. I'm not a drinking man, but I can see what they mean. From fine sake selections in Japan, to the biergarten in Germany, to fine wines in France, there are many ways to enjoy an adult beverage in EPCOT.
It's the food selection that I could really appreciate. The different country pavilions do their best to show off their local cuisine, modified for a theme park, mostly American audience. My favorite is still the Moroccan restaurant Marrakesh, a beautifully themed restaurant with delicious North African food and live entertainment. I had some tasty French pastries in France, sushi in Japan, and even a cronut at one of the coffee spots. Not to mention the best cafeteria in the whole Disneyworld complex in the "Land" section, which I discuss below.
I'm not sure that this show has changed that much over the decades, but it still blows me away with the combination of fireworks, lasers, water effects, and the spinning earth in the middle of the lagoon.
Living with the Land
This ride is so simple it shouldn't be any good. Basically you get in a boat and get taken around Disney's experimental farm, where they are researching new growing techniques like soil-less agriculture, aquafarming, and crops that grow in harsh conditions like the desert. You see people that appear to be actual researchers walking around the farm and checking on plants, taking readings, and harvesting.
And then the boat lets you off into a cafeteria that serves delicious food that reportedly comes from their own farm. I don't know how much of that is true, but the cafeteria food definitely is much more diverse and flavorful than any other cafeteria I found at Disneyworld. Plus, they actually use compostable plastic and paper!
This was the sleeper hit for me. I had no interest in visiting Hollywood Studios. But the Imagineers have packed this theme park with alot of the hit rides and experiences that I really enjoyed.
Much more elaborate and better staged than the Fantasmic Show at Disneyland. This tells the story of Mickey Mouse the sorcerer who has to combat an evil witch. It's got giant snakes, fire-breathing dragons, princesses, fireworks and more. Plus it's done in a huge amphitheater, which is way more comfortable than seeing it standing up at Disneyland.
Always awesome, and different every time (assuming you get into a different "space ship" next time you get in line.) I love the wookie planet scene!
Toy Story Midway Mania
About the same as Disneyland, but the line has some really cute props set up that make the wait more bearable for this very popular ride. Just a perfect ride for both kids and adults to enjoy together, with enough Easter Eggs and powerups to satisfy repeat riders again and again.
You sit in convertibles eating diner food while watching classic sci-fi! My favorite restaurant in all the theme parks. Read my post about it here.
Tower of Terror
I love love love Tower of Terror at Disneyland / California Adventure. It's essentially just a "drop" style thrill ride that you see in every two-bit carnival. But the setup and the "random" nature of the drop is so well designed that it takes it to 1000.
The Florida one is even better. There's a whole "Twilight Zone" themed section before the big drop that is amazing that I don't want to give away. And the different programs for the drop experience seemed more creative and thrilling than the Cali version. I happily rode this three times.
I had no expectations for Animal Kingdom, and was a little concerned how Disney would put their spin on a zoo experience. I should not have been worried. It's fantastic. The Asia section in particular I found really transporting. And the African area was also really evocative, if non-specific about where in Africa you were. Dino-land seemed to be a concession to people who had little kids and just needed a bunch of carnival type rides for them to ride. But it's not terrible. The Conservation section was well done and had some solid educational aspects to it that I appreciated.
You get in an actual open air jeep, driven by an expert driver / guide, and then drive off into the forest in search of actual animals. Your guide gives you solid facts about the animals you encounter, and there's the genuine sense of thrill when you round a corner and see a pride of lions sunning themselves on some rocks. It reminded me of the Disney Jungle Cruise, except where the animals are real and the information imparted is actually correct.
Probably my favorite new ride that I encountered at Disneyworld. This is what the Matterhorn ride should be. The setup that you are going on an expedition in search of the Yeti on Mount Everest is perfectly themed with appropriate decorations, gear, and signage you encounter on the line. And the ride has a clattering old-style roller coaster feel to it, appropriate to an outdoor adventure. I won't give away some of the surprises, but I wanted to ride this one a couple more times.
Of all "lands" and "pavillions" at the Disneyworld parks, the Asia section of Animal Kingdom was the most impressive to me. Maybe because I've traveled fairly extensively throughout South, Southeast, and Central Asia, I definitely was vibing with some of the choices of props, signage, and set design.
It reminded me that no one creates immersive physical spaces like Disney can.
The (Second?) Happiest Place on Earth
I left Disneyworld with a stronger appreciation for it then when I arrived. There are certainly bumps in the road that I could talk about (the long distances between areas, many unfinished sections, long lines, terrible heat, etc.) But overall, it was a really entertaining, fun, and thrilling week. I had some genuine "wow" moments, screamed like a little girl, and laughed my ass off.
It's not Disneyland. But it's something different, and also special.
I traveled back home satisfied and exhausted. I'll be happy to return again someday to do it all over again.
See the rest of my pics from the trip here.