Jayne Howarth discovers that a trip to the main theme parks of Florida needs military-style planning – or else
We Brits should be in our element at the Disney World parks. If the stereotypes are to be believed, our queue-loving nature would put us firmly ahead of any other nation when it comes to the pig-in-muck happiness scale.
Why? There is queue after queue after queue. Queue for the car park; queue to get in; queue for the rides; queue to see the Disney characters; queue to get in a queue. We should be delirious!
It was the first time that I had booked a holiday to Orlando and the whole thing seemed overwhelming. We might have dismissed the holiday as a once-only treat for the children at first, but it soon became obvious that homework was needed.
Friends who had a few Orlando holidays under their belts had spoken of “an itinerary” and “military-operations”.
The thought terrified me: my normal family holiday was to get there and then adopt a suck-it-and-see attitude. It was clear that was not to be the case here.
So, we took our friends’ advice, borrowed their literature and searched the web. We felt as though we were under attack. There was simply too much information. There was too much we wanted to do.
Disney was a given: we couldn’t go to Orlando for the first time with two small children and not pay homage to the ol’big eared mouse and his friends. The two Universal parks were a must (we adore Spongebob Squarepants and love Dr Seuss). If we managed to “do” the parks a day at a time, that would be six days out of our schedule already. And then there was SeaWorld, Aquatica, Kennedy Space Center, a hot air balloon ride, a sports event and a rest day or two to fit in.
I’m not sure about my military-style planning: this needed General Sir Mike Jackson.
There are a myriad unofficial websites dedicated to the Disney experience, with hardened Disneyites offering insider tips and advice on how to get the most out of your visit.
Tips included: go to the Magic Kingdom on a Tuesday; always use the Fastpass; decide which rides you want to go on and go for it to minimise the queuing (that word again); if you want to go to an evening show you have to secure your seat at least an hour beforehand. Then there was advice on how to book your breakfast with a Disney character (do it as least six months before your holiday) and if you want your princess to have a sparkly makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (ditto).
The Walt Disney Resort site promised everything would be ”magical”, but I was feeling less enchanted by the minute.
The first thing visitors from the UK need to appreciate is the whole scale of the operation. It is 122 square kilometres – the size of Greater Manchester. Within that there are the four main parks: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Disney Hollywood Studios; two water parks (Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach); 30 hotels; two golf courses and two complexes dedicated to shopping and entertainment.
And then there are the other options to consider: the dining with princesses, Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse et al; the rides; the special parties; the nightly firework displays; the shows in the parks.
The best advice I can give is to pare it down and don’t try to cram too much in. Choose what you really want to do and forget the rest. Some of my friends’ “must-dos” were not even on my radar (the character breakfast; the makeover boutique to turn mF system is well worth taking advantage of. When you are spending hour after hour queuing to get autographs from Mickey, Minnie, Tigger, Alice, Mary Poppins etc (yes, adults were doing this, too. What can I say?) the last thing you want to do is spend more precious hours queuing for a 90-second ride.
The Fastpass has done a little to alleviate the problem of the queue. Not all rides are Fastpass enabled but it is worth checking which ones are.
Insert your park ticket into the Fastpass machine located at the ride and it will give a ticket with a one-hour time slot you need to return to access the ride. It may be that you don’t need to return for five hours, but at least you can get on enjoying the rest of the park.
When you return to the ride at the time on the Fastpass ticket, your queue will be significantly shorter (usually ten minutes) than the normal one – which can be anything up to 90 minutes. The only downside is that you can only get two Fastpasses in a two-hour slot, so you do have to be savvy about what you want to use it for.
For us, Fastpasses were a godsend at every park. We took advantage of it to race through the queues for the Rock n Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios (three times over two days), where you zoom in a limo while listening to Aerosmith; the Star Wars ride (four times); Space Mountain; Buzz Lightyear, which is great for finger-zapping youngsters; Fantasmic, a 3D cinema extravaganza .
Unfortunately there were times when it didn’t work for us and we missed out on the apparently not-to-be-missed Soarin’ ride at Epcot and Peter Pan’s Flight ride at Magic Kingdom because the Fastpass return time was too late.
There is a similar system at the two Universal Studios, called the Express ticket, although it costs each person between $26 and $45, depending on the date, over and above the admission price.
We were lucky, though, as we had organised a VIP tour of the two parks. It meant we had our own guide for the day and she took us straight to the front of the queues for the rides.
Lines were never as long as they were at Disney, but it is far less stressful and tiring if you have someone who knows the park like the back of their hand taking you to where you want to go.
Our guide Beth (“a walking, talking map,” our daughter called her) was great company for the day, making recommendations, offering insider tidbits and taking us behind the scenes of the incredibly thrilling 3D Spiderman ride.
If you fancy pushing the boat out, I’d recommend heartily the VIP tour. It meant we were able to go on more rides in one hour than we’d managed in the entire day at Magic Kingdom and we also enjoyed 15 per cent discount in the restaurants and 10 per cent in the stores.
If you love your high octane rides, then your first port of call at Islands of Adventure has to be the. It speeds from 0-60mph in just two seconds and is so fast that it rendered me unable to scream. Awesome. Duelling Dragons is another great ride for adrenaline seekers. It is, in fact, two rides – Fire and Ice – and riders on each rollercoaster end up eyeballing each other at close quarters before screeching away on another loop.
Visitors next year will be able to enjoy a new Harry Potter ride. Beth didn’t give too much away, but she promised it would be amazing. For younger children, the charming Seuss Landings is a colourful spectacle all about the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch and the other characters that made Dr Seuss a household name in the States.
Over at Universal Studios, there is an altogether different vibe. It’s far more laid back, which suited us on such a hot day. We were disappointed that the Simpsons ride hadn’t opened yet, but enjoyed Shrek 4D cinema experience, Jimmy Neutron, Men in Black Alien Attack and Disaster!
Disaster! is a new interactive show that features a holographic Christopher Walken as a disaster movie director, as well as film sequences with The Rock. But the most important person in the movie is you. Everyone takes part and there is a chance to have a starring role (if you are a child, a grandma, a muscly man and three scientist-types). After a few minutes in a studio, filming the starring roles, we all exit to a subway train and take part in a sequence. The result is hilarious, but Universal seems to have missed a money-spinning trick as you cannot buy the DVD in which you starred.
It’s hard to believe that a money-making scheme should be missed…
*Jayne Howarth and family travelled to Orlando, Florida, with Travel City Direct.
*A seven-day premium ticket, which gives you unlimited access to Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, the two waterparks of Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, as well as Disney Quest Interactive Park in Downtown Disney, costs £165 per adult and £145 per child. Parking at all parks costs an additional $11 a day. Other packages are available. Visit Disneyworld.disney.go.com for details.
*The most economical way to visit Universal Studios is to buy an Orlando FlexTicket. It includes unlimited admissions to both Universal parks, SeaWorld and Wet ‘n Wild water park. It costs about £115 per adult and £95 per child. Other packages are available and tickets to single attractions are available. See Orlandoflexticket.co.uk
*For details about a VIP tour at Universal, which costs from $115 per person on top of the admission price, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
MUST SIDE PANEL ON CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
Every holiday needs a jaw-dropping moment; an event that leaves you astonished, in awe and speechless.
For us, it was unanimous: Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba show at Downtown Disney.
The show has been staged for the past ten years and the fact that it puts on two shows a day, five days a week in an auditorium that seats 1,650 spectators, tells us something about its popularity.
It is an incredibly dazzling spectacle of acrobatics, dance, clowns, actors, musicians and vocalists.
All your senses are bombarded as the stage teems with high wire feats, incredible displays of co-ordination and acro-gymnastics, as well as slapstick humour.
The show was both eccentric and perplexing (in a David Lynch style way) and told a story of what would happen if dreams and reality clashed.
Admittedly I had no idea what the “plot” was, but that really did not matter. It was the extraordinary performances that took our breath away. Even my six-year-old son, who is not known for his ability to sit and concentrate for long periods of time, was rooted to the spot for the entire 90-minute show. I heard only the occasional “woah” and “wow”, as well as shrieks of laughter when the clowns took to the stage.
From the tiny Chinese girl troupe’s gymnastic and juggling routine, to the trampolinists who managed to jump backwards into the window of a tall building, it was utterly mesmerising.
If you see only one show when in Orlando, make it this one.
- Tickets for Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba show cost between $50-90 (plus tax of six and a half per cent) for children aged three to nine and $63-$112 (plus tax) for adults
- The 90-minute shows take place Tuesday-Saturday at 6pm and 9pm.
- For ticket details, visit cirquedusolieil.com or Disneyworld.com/cirque.
SIDE PANEL ON PIRATES
For an entirely different kettle of fish, a dinner show is a great night out. From the spectacle of Arabian Horses to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, there are dozens of shows every night.
The Pirates Dinner Adventure was a hoot, but only if you are prepared to throw away your sense of reserve and go full on with the participation . Disorienting at first, I had to wonder what on earth was going on when we first arrived at this odd-looking arena off International Drive.
The dark entrance hall place was teeming with people, munching appetisers off paper plates, waiting for the action to begin. An introduction to the show was a fast and furious affair, with audience participation from the beginning.
It was when we went into the auditorium, where there is a 46 feet long replica of a Spanish galleon anchored in a 300,000 lagoon, which the entertainment really began.
The audience (sorry, voyagers) is split into six “teams” of colours. Each team is assigned a pirate mascot to cheer on when he is on stage. There was more of a danger of indigestion than scurvy as teams were encouraged to stand and shout when their colour was mentioned and boo at the other teams. It was difficult enough anyway to make sense of the story, but when you factor in eating, listening out for your colour so you can stand and shout, you are in for a rollercoaster ride.
Of course, free wine and beer help the audience go with the flow (you’d be hard pushed to get drunk on it, though) but it is thoroughly entertaining and the acrobatics were impressive. There were pyrotechnics aplenty, swashbuckling action and songs.
Food was only so-so, but what the heck, it was a fun night.
*Tickets for the Pirate’s Dinner Adventure cost $57.95 plus tax for those aged 12 and over; $37.95 plus tax for children, aged three to 11; infants are free. For information email email@example.com or visit piratesdinneradventure.com/florida.
ANOTHER MUST SIDE PANEL
Theme parks are all very well, but while in America, it is fun to experience live sport.
Between August and January you can see Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars or the Miami Dolphins at their respective American football stadia.
Between April and September, pop down to the Dolphin Stadium in Miami to watch Florida Marlins play baseball. Ice hockey season is September to June and in Florida, choose between Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, near Fort Lauderdale
Between October and April is basketball season. Miami was a little too far for us to watch Miami Heat, so we headed the 15 miles or so from our base to the Amway stadium in downtown Orlando to watch Orlando Magic in action.
Unlike most sporting events in the UK, this really was a family affair. There were plenty of young children soaking up the friendly atmosphere and parents carrying babies (and yes, there are baby changing facilities in men’s and women’s toilets).
You can grab a beer and a hot dog from one of the many refreshment stalls – and buy a t shirt or two from the merchandise stall – before sitting down to watch the game with the 17,451 other fans.
The music, the chanting and shouting, as well as the entertainment (cheerleading is central to that, of course) all conspire to make it a magic evening at the Amway. Oh, the game was good, too. Just the result was a let down: they lost by a single point.
*For details about Orlando Magic tickets, which for 2007-08 season cost between $25 and $75, visit nba.com/magic and follow the link for tourists.
ANOTHER SIDE PANEL
If you don’t mind the early starts and are not averse to heights, a balloon ride is a great way to see Orlando.
There are plenty of companies vying for your dollar, offering to take you to the skies to see the sites from 4,000 feet up.
We rode with Orlando Balloon Rides, which has been flying high since 1983.
The alarm clock was set for 5.20am and we just about managed to leave our condo at 5.45am for the supposedly 20-minute drive to our hotel rendezvous on the West Irlo Bronson Highway. I assume the early start was too much for our sat nav, too, as it took us on a different direction. I’d love to say we went on the scenic route, but it was still too dark to see where we were. Frazzled, lost and eventually found, we arrived in a bit of a tizzy and a little later than scheduled.
The balloon company, which manages to fly about 270 days a year, uses about 30 landing and take-off sites around Orlando and as we drove to our take off field in minivans, with the baskets on a trailer behind, there was a flicker of recognition.
Twenty minutes or so later, we reached the field where we were to take off. It was a mere five minute walk away from our condo. Just our luck.
The balloons take about 20 minutes to inflate and once ready, we leapt into the baskets, which hold up to 16 people, for our gentle seven-mile ride above the treetops.
There is a great sense of tranquillity as you soar above the highways, barely able to register the noise of the traffic, and seeing dawn break at 4,000 feet is a sight for sore and tired eyes.
Our pilot Mike was a mine of information as we glided over some of the areas landmarks and his often terrible jokes made the more nervous in the party more at ease.
While the ascension and flight were a gentle breeze, the landing – an hour and a half after take-off – was a little bumpier. We’d already been briefed on the sitting position to adopt when landing, but the contact with the ground was a rude awakening. We bumped and jolted to a halt: great for those adrenaline junkies at theme parks, not so for little ones or the elderly.
The Champagne toast helped to quell the nerves, though, as we all congratulated ourselves on a job well done.
*Orlando Balloon Rides cost $175 per adult. Children under 10 ride for free. For details, visit orlandoballoonrides.com. Price includes a Champagne toast and a buffet breakfast after the flight. All riders are awarded a certificate after the flight.
This first appeared in The Birmingham Post in May, 2008. It must not be reproduced without prior permission from Jayne Howarth