It took me sixty years, but last month I finally made it to Orlando, FL, to see for myself what all the commotion is about.
Piggybacking along with Pa-pa, who went there to represent the community college where we both worked for thirty-plus years, I got to spend a four-day-long second childhood in the distinguished company of Harry Potter, Mickey Mouse, and assorted other icons of a world where the name of the game is Imagination with a capital I.
My adventures took me to Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure and three of the four Disney parks (I didn't make it to Animal Kingdom), where I spent a full ten-hour day trying to see everything and do everything I could. I could say I was scouting things out for a future trip with the grandkids, and that might happen. But mostly I was revelling selfishly in the near inebriation that accompanies an unbelieveable level of sensory overload amid a setting of balmy Florida weather.
Late January proved to be a perfect time to experience the Orlando theme parks. With the exception of Magic Kingdom day, I enjoyed light crowds and a leisurely pace. I saved a considerable amount of money (probably about $50) on Disney tickets by buying them in advance from AAA, and I maximized my time in those parks by using the free "fast pass" feature. By staying in a Disney-property hotel, I qualified for free shuttle transportation to and from the three Disney parks. Round-trip shuttle fare between the hotel and Universal was an additional $19 plus tip.
Of the four parks, my far-and-away first choice is Disney's Hollywood Studios. This is where I most want to go again, and where I would take the kids first. Standout attractions there include Toy Story Midway Mania (an arcade ride), Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, and Fantasmic! (an evening multi-media extravaganza involving a water, fireworks, and laser lights show).
For my grown-up, adventurous side there was the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith. The Great Movie Ride satisfied my aesthetic and nostalgic cravings. In short, there was nothing in Hollywood Studios that I didn't enjoy. Based on this first-time visit, if I had to choose between the two, I think I would rather take the grandkids there than to the Magic Kingdom.
As someone who cut her teeth watching The Mickey Mouse Club, it seems almost sacrilegious to say this, but the Magic Kingdom disappointed me. Parts of it seem dated, and the traffic flow doesn't work well. Compared to Hollywood, at least on the day I was there, it seemed dirty and stinky, and I couldn't go anywhere without tripping over a stroller.
The fact that you can get there only by ferry or monorail means that you have two lines to fight in order to gain admission to the park--one at the point of transportation and another at the turnstiles. The day I was there, the monorail broke down as I was midway up the ramp to get on, so numerous additional ferries had to be dispatched to accommodate the crowd. This caused a bottleneck of people arriving at the same time, and that may have contributed to the crowd flow problems even as the day wore on.
Upon entering the Kingdom, I found it ironic to see a crane working at the site of Cinderella's castle. I noted to my Facebook friends that "maybe even dreams sometimes need reinforcement." Looking back, I can see the crane may have been an omen. This is not to say I didn't have a great day. Maybe I just expected too much, but for me, the Magic Kingdom this time around seemed a little short on pixie dust.
In my book, Epcot Center ranks a close second to Hollywood Studios. It boasts my favorite attraction of all four days, a hang-gliding simulation ride called Soarin'. Like Hollywood, it is laid out with thought to crowd traffic, dispersal, and management. Its Future World is a testament to the power of scientific thinking, and its World Showcase is a celebration of world cultures.
Compared to the Disney parks, Universal Studios and its companion park, Islands of Adventure, are enjoyable but not quite so tourist-friendly. This is a more expensive admission to begin with, and its "express pass" to minimize waiting time for the various attractions will bring your investment in the day close to $200. It will even cost you $5 for five minutes in a booth that blows hot air on you when you get soaked on the water rides.
Despite the expense, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, located in Islands of Adventure, is well worth your investment. The Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride is five minutes of intense flying twists and turns as you follow Harry on his broomstick through a field of super animation and special effects. Because of Harry, Universal ranks a close third in my hierarchy of park experiences.
I am glad for this unexpected opportunity to check out these four Orlando theme parks. I approached each attraction with a mental yardstick that I would use to assess how the kids, particularly Sooby and Pooh, might react to it. Some, I know they would love; others might scare them. Overall, I think they would appreciate Orlando more and remember it better if they were, say, nine and ten rather than four and five.
I hope that, in five years or so, Pa-pa and I will be able to take them to the Disney parks. Perhaps we can all be initiated into Animal Kingdom together. Meanwhile, I will be content to hope for that, or, perhaps, as my good friend Jiminy says, to "wish upon a star."