The rules of attraction
Simon Veness guides you around Florida’s major parks and shows
Friday 30 November 2012
Orlando is home to Mickey Mouse, Harry Potter and Shamu the orca, but that's only scratching the surface these days. There's an artfully crafted array of attractions to keep tourists enthralled for days at a time. Most people go for two weeks and find it isn't nearly enough. If you really want to "do it all", you'll need at least a month.
Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando and SeaWorld are located to the south west. Head further south into Florida and you'll reach SeaWorld's sister park, Busch Gardens, in Tampa; the Kennedy Space Center on the opposite coast; and Legoland Florida, 40 miles south of Orlando.
The House of Mouse itself has a staggering footprint, the size of Greater Manchester, but almost two-thirds is undeveloped. It isn't somewhere you can walk around easily. Pace yourself, start early, when it's cooler and crowds are lower, take regular breaks, and have a plan. This isn't a place where you should make it up as you go along.
What about Mickey?
It's been 41 years since Walt Disney World's original park, the Magic Kingdom (pictured), opened its doors. On 6 December, the biggest expansion in the park's history will be unveiled. The new Fantasyland will be a 26-acre celebration of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Dumbo (with a Snow White ride and Princess Hall arriving in 2013 and 2014 respectively). It features three rides, a water-play area, two elaborate restaurants, gift shops and a Little Mermaid-themed meet-and-greet, all of which have the hallmark of Disney's immersive creativity as riders go "under the sea", to the Circus with Dumbo or through a startling Magic Mirror to meet Belle.
While Universal may have the teen market cornered, Disney is still a huge draw for younger children, with oodles of rich, multi-layered theming and characters that leap vividly from the classic books and films. That isn't to say Disney doesn't do high-energy rides for thrill seekers. Try the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' RollerCoaster, starring Aerosmith, at Disney's Hollywood Studios park; Mission: Space and Test Track at Epcot; or Expedition Everest and Dinosaur! at Disney's Animal Kingdom. All will provide a major jolt of adrenaline.
A wizard attraction
One of the biggest draws these days is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, although it's not a park in its own right, as some think. It's inside Universal Orlando Resort's Islands of Adventure, which is linked to the original Universal Studios by the CityWalk entertainment "district" of shops, restaurants and nightclubs, with its artistic mix of high-tech rides and shows. However, JK Rowling's boy wizard trumps them all for imagination – and crowds. All of which explains why Universal has started a massive £1bn project that will – insiders say – be a whole new part of the Potter-verse, with a train ride linking the two in unique fashion. But until it opens, there's still plenty to keep visitors amused in the meantime, including a new Transformers ride scheduled for summer 2013.
No visit to Orlando should miss SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, where the mix of thrilling rides, large-scale shows and themed environments easily compares with their big-name rivals. SeaWorld offers three large roller-coasters, as well as its signature sea-life shows, all of which feature a Broadway-quality finesse and staging. This year's new 3D film attraction, TurtleTrek, plunges visitors into the undersea world of the sea turtle. Wait for summer and they will be debuting Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, which promises to be the new gold standard in immersion experiences: a ride-through voyage across the frozen continent that puts riders at the centre of a penguin-filled snowscape.
Busch Gardens is more ride-orientated, with five of the biggest, fastest coasters in America, but also boasts an African-themed backdrop for its 500-plus animals, an elaborate ice-skating show and bags of live musical entertainment.
… and there's more
While Disney, Universal and SeaWorld/Busch are the big boys in theme parks terms, there are still others worth considering.
Legoland Florida ( florida.legoland.com) the world's largest Lego-themed park, arrived last October. The 150-acre lakeside development boasts its own water park and water-ski show.
The Kennedy Space Center ( kennedyspace center.com) continues to reinvent itself and opens a huge Space Shuttle-themed exhibit in July 2013 based around retired orbiter Atlantis, while Gatorland is a snappy look at much of the native wildlife and provides a taste of actually being in Florida.
Fantasy of Flight ( fantasyofflight.com) is a unique aviation-themed attraction with a range of immersion experiences and daily exhibitions, while Florida Eco-Safaris ( floridaecosafaris.com) is a thoughtful journey into the region's flora and fauna – with the bonus of a new eco-park full of zipline adventures.
International Drive, one of the key accommodation areas, could even be termed a theme park, too, with eight other amusement parks, fun houses and interactive museums, such as Ripley's Believe It Or Not and Titanic: The Experience, as well as mini-golf, nightclubs and dinner shows.
It all makes for a comprehensive, but exhausting, panoply of themed entertainment unlike anywhere else on Earth. Just don't call it a Mickey Mouse town.
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