A Skeptic's Guide to Orlando

A Skeptic's Guide to Orlando

Sensory Overload?Unavoidable. Cost?Start saving now. Disney World and Universal Orlando?Kind of essential. But there's an easy way--even for An M-i-c-k-e-y P-h-o-b-e

UPDATED NOVEMBER, 2002

We are every child's worst nightmare: two parents whose idea of a dream family vacation involves a secluded farmhouse in Provence. Our kids' idea of a dream family vacation, of course, bears no resemblance to ours. The boys, five and nine, want loud, fast, and over-the-top. Like most children, they want Orlando.

Sorry, we considered telling them, you were born into the wrong family. For us, Orlando is a novel by Virginia Woolf. Go find a set of parents who unquestioningly accept the overstimulating, name-brand wonders of Disney. Go find a mom and dad who are happy to buy an entire wardrobe of Disney apparel for you, and one for themselves, too. You've seen these parents--the mother in the tracksuit with Tigger on the back, the father with the tie whose Art Deco design is, if you look closely, made up of dozens of tiny Chip 'n' Dales.

In a way, we envy these parents, for they hold the key to making their kids happy. And so, because we wanted such a key, we cast aside all our misgivings and we went. We did it for the kids, telling ourselves that their pleasure would be our reward. But crucial questions remained: Could their pleasure possibly be reward enough?And would we find any real fun for ourselves?Here, then, an introduction to Orlando for those who, like us, are doubtful but willing.

THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT ORLANDO

This town is divided in two. There's Walt Disney World, and then there's everything else. Yeah, yeah, we can just hear the folks at Universal taking issue, but it's true. Disney is to Orlando what steel once was to Pittsburgh. If not for Walt Disney's visionary mid-1960's purchase of almost 30,000 acres of swampland, you would never hear this announcement at the local airport: "There will be no pre-boarding of children because of the high volume of families flying from Orlando."

But that's not to say that Greater Orlando isn't awash in attractions that try to out-Disney Disney (and Universal does give the Imagineers a run for their money). Even so, it's Disney that has made them possible, and it's Disney that sets the standard and the sensibility in Orlando's $17 billion-a-year tourism industry.

THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT WALT DISNEY WORLD

No, it isn't that Walt himself is cryogenically preserved inside Space Mountain (he's not). It's that Disney World comprises four main theme parks. As far as we're concerned, they rank as follows, in descending order of importance:

  • The Magic KingdomThe smallest of the Big Four, this was the first one to open, and is still the one that's synonymous with Disney World. Cinderella Castle, at its center, is surrounded by some of the best rides anywhere. It's divided into different "lands," including Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, and Tomorrowland.
  • Disney-MGM Studios Much the way that Sesame Streettosses in adult jokes to keep parents amused, Disney seems to have invented this movie-theme park partially as a sopfor grown-ups who've gritted their teeth all the way through It's a Small World. Your kid will get a kick out of seeing the Wicked Witch of the West materialize in Munchkinland during the Great Movie Ride, but unless he's some kind of Roger Ebert wannabe, only you will care whether the Audio-Animatronic Humphrey Bogart gets on the plane with Ingrid Bergman in the re-creation of Casablanca.
  • Animal Kingdom Since opening in 1998, this faux-African wilderness has gotten mixed reviews. As one Disney waiter told us about this park, sotto voce, "People either love it or hate it." (He was then hustled into the bowels of Disney World to be whipped for hours by Grumpy and Doc.) Actually, we neither loved nor hated this latest addition to Disney Orlando. It's filled with extraordinary foliage and plenty of creatures who seem content in their "natural" habitat; still, Animal Kingdom can't help but seem like the afterthought that it is.
  • Epcot We have a tender place in our hearts for this weird hybrid of two completely unrelated theme parks: a happy-go-lucky UN known as World Showcase, plus a souped-up celebration of technology known, clunkily, as Future World. Put them together and they spell Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Over in Future World, the Spaceship Earth ride rockets you away to watch yesterday's cavemen writing on the wall and tomorrow's children communicating with one another via TV screens. You might start to sense that maybe you've seen it all before-- and, if you attended a world's fair during the sixties, you have. What you haven't seen before is Epcot's IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth, an extraordinary after-dark fireworks, light, and laser extravaganza.

THAT'S IT?

Of course not. It wouldn't be Disney if it were done in moderation. In addition to the four mentioned above, Disney has other hot spots that could consumeentire days:

  • Typhoon Lagoon. An ersatz combination of an island resort and a water park that's supposed to be great fun--but we could imagine taking time away from the big parks only if our kids were blisteringly hot. And if they were, we'd sooner skip the lines and go for a dunk in our hotel pool.
  • Blizzard Beach.Another water park, this one with a ski-resort ambience. If the idea of snow in Florida perplexes you, know that bogus snow is the least of the artificial experiences Disney's Imagineers have in store.
  • River Country Does the world need still another water park?You be the judge. This one, with a rocky, rustic motif, is smaller than the others and less crowded.
  • Disney's Wide World of SportsA mecca for spectators, this mega-complex features a baseball stadium designed to resemble that universal symbol of athletic competition, a Moroccan palace. There's also a field house for gymnastics, basketball, and other pro competitions.
  • DisneyQuestThe theme of our vacation, and the name of a five-story indoor theme park featuring virtual-reality experiences (Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride was our favorite) and a fleet of game machines. You could probably make a whole day out of this, but, in truth, it's a loud, dark, murky place with the numbing feel of video arcades anywhere.

WHOSE LINE IS IT, ANYWAY?

Plenty of thought has been put into the perpetual problem of waiting for your turn. Most lines strand you in the heat of the sun, but soon wend their way into air-conditioned spaces with small amusements to keep you from hitting the wall. Much to our surprise, the actual wait for a ride at Walt Disney World never exceeded the estimate posted at the entrance, and the 30-minute wait listed at Peter Pan's Flight turned out to be closer to 15. There's also a way to avoid the most grueling lines: a recent, and free, innovation called Fastpass. You slip your admission card into a machine, receive a ticket with a time to return, and when you do, you're in. Fastpass applies only to the most popular rides, but they're the ones that need it. Still, the system doesn't guarantee a perfect day; at 3:53, we received a ticket to ride Epcot's Test Track cars between 7:15 and 8:15--by which time we were long gone from the park.

WHICH DISNEY PASS IS THE ONE?

If this question doesn't drive you mad, you're probably an accountant. Options range from the one-park, one-day, all-ride ticket (adults $50, kids three to nine $40) to an annual all-inclusive pass (adults $489, kids $416), with every multi-day, multi-park, multi-add-on variation in between. Disney says pricing options are designed for the customer's convenience; we say they're designed to make you throw up your hands and say, "Give me the big one! Whatever it costs! It's worth it so I don't have to think about this ever again!" Whatever you choose, buy it in advance (at a Disney Store, your hotel, the airport, or other local outlets) so you don't have to wait in line at the park. And getting in touch with Disney World is easy: for information, theme park tickets, and hotel and restaurant reservations, there's one number to know, 407/824-4321, or visit disneyworld.com.

WHAT ABOUT 'EVERYTHING ELSE'?

Thank you for your patience, Universal; your moment has come. Universal Orlando encompasses two connected theme parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, which together rival Disney in creativity, design, and gratification. But Universal can't compete with Disney in terms of lore and name-brand loyalty, so there's a definite B-list quality to the characters roaming the streets. Still, what Universal lacks in charm--no Peter Pan's Flight over old London here--it makes up for with a certain nonstop, warp-speed intensity. And Universal's four-park flex pass (888/322-5537)--$180.15 for adults and $143.05 for kids three to nine--gets you into Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Islands of Adventure and Wet 'n Wild. A five-park flex pass which includes Busch Gardens is also available--$215.46 for adults and $175.12 for kids.

  • Universal Studios The official theme of this park is "Ride the Movies." Combining the excitement of classic films (King Kong, Jaws)and not-so-classic but effects-packed crowd-pleasers (Twister, Men in Black) with the usual excess of thrill-ride technology, Universal creates a harder-edged, more extreme experience than Disney-MGM Studios. There's also an emphasis on the behind-the-scenes production process: a gory special-effects makeup demo, a life-size model of the shower from Psycho. Some of this will be over kids' heads; for them, there's a tour of Nickelodeon's studios. And for the youngest set, Universal has created an area called Woody Woodpecker's KidZone with rides and re-created worlds based on E.T., Curious George, and Barney.
  • Islands of Adventure This dream of a theme park is dazzling and pristine, and art-directed to within an inch of its life. The park is broken up into five "islands,"each with an entirely different feel. Seuss Landing is an impressive homage to the creator of the Cat in the Hat, with an appropriately chaotic, no-right-angles sensibility. In Jurassic Park, you can stand close by as a seemingly living, breathing, life-sized baby dinosaur is given a medical checkup. Marvel Super Hero Island has the most jangly and exciting rides; thanks to 3-D glasses and some secret technology, the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man lets you know precisely how it feels to soar to the top of a 400-foot skyscraper--and then fall off.
  • Wet 'n Wild 6200 International Dr.; 407/351-1800; adults $32.81, kids three to nine $26.45.The world's first water park (opened in 1977 and purchased in 1998 by Universal), on the strip known as I-Drive,supposedly has amazing water slides. But one mother, who's been there often with her kids, terms it "a gigantic concrete beach."

  • Sea World 7007 SeaWorld Dr.; 407/351-3600; adults $49.95, kids three to nine $40. This all-day park is mostly free of rides and lines--benefits that might themselves be worth the price of admission, even if the marine animals weren't so fascinating. Check out the Shamu Stadium show, in which fearless, toned men and women in wet suits balance on the heads of killer whales. If your children experience ride withdrawal, there's always the big, plunging splash ride Journey to Atlantis; the exciting motion-simulator experience Wild Arctic; and the terrifying new floorless roller coaster, Kraken.
  • Discovery Cove 6000 Discovery Cove Way; 877/434-7268 or 407/370-1280; $219 for snorkeling package with dolphins, $119 for basic admission; reservations required. Across the street from SeaWorld, this just-opened water park specializes in snorkeling and other wet adventures, including a 90-minute swim with bottle-nosed dolphins.
  • Gatorland 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail; 407/855-5496; adults $17.93, kids $8.48. Slightly sleazy, decidedly old-fashioned, Gatorland is a throwback to old Florida, and as such a real find. This is no prettified Animal Kingdom approximation of the wild. The gators are everywhere, and you'll actually need to keep an eye on your kids--in most spots, only a low fence separates tourists from a spectacularly un-Kodak fate. The snakes in their cages exist on a diet of dead chicks, whose fluffy rigor mortised bodies are often visible. If you're spending a few days at the theme parks, cut out to Gatorland as a quick antidote.
  • There are at least two more swampland stalwarts: Busch Gardens (888/800-5447), part zoo, part amusement park; and Cypress Gardens (863/324-2111), part botanical garden, part amusement park, part water-skiing show. Both reportedly are impressive, but we just didn't have the time.

    ANYTHING TO EAT BESIDES MICKEY-SHAPED PASTA?

    Yes, you can also get Mickey-shaped Chilean sea bass. Actually, we had some surprisingly terrific food in Orlando. Quick, decent meals can be had at any of the cafeteria-style restaurants that abound within Disney, though it's hard to find low-fat offerings. If you're looking for something of a higher quality, call the central Disney reservations line (407/939-3463) for priority seating. This isn't a reservation, exactly; it's merely a guarantee of a table within a reasonable amount of time. Though we booked for a 7 p.m. priority seating at the excellent Flying Fish Café, on Disney's lively old-fashioned BoardWalk, we didn't actually sit down until 7:40. Still, without priority seating you're doomed to Never-Never-Land, whether you choose Cinderella's Royal Table in the Magic Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios' Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant, thePrime Time Café (like a kitchen scene out of Leave It to Beaver), or any of the hundreds ofother choices in the park.

    You don't, of course, have to eat at Disney World. At the airport, grab a copy of Zagat's guide to Orlando restaurants, and take your pick.We liked Emeril's Restaurant Orlando (6000 Universal Blvd.; 407/224-2424; entrées from $20), the TV chef's outpost on Universal's City Walk, which has great views of the night scene. And we wish we had made it to the Orlando Ale House (5573 S. Kirkman Rd.; 407/248-0000; entrées from $11), where the town's own teen-pop heartthrobs, 'N Sync, go for the super-hot boneless chicken wings called Zingers.

    Zagat's top pick is Victoria and Albert's, a small oasis of child-free calm inside Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, where you can get an excellent prix-fixe dinner for a whopping $85 per person. This being Disney, of course, the servers will introduce themselves as "Victoria" and "Albert."

    GIMME SHELTER

    When it comes to hotels, your big decision is whether or not to stay on Disney property. For comfort and convenience, you can't go wrong rooming within the fuzzy Disney embrace (call 407/934-7639). You tend to get real quality for your money here, whether it's at the Grand Floridian (family of four with lagoon view from $440), a sprawling, Victorian-style luxury hotel; at one of the less expensive, though not charmless inns, such as the Port Orleans Resort and the Caribbean Beach Resort (family of four from $154); or even at the cheapest Disney lodgings, known as the All-Star Resorts: Music, Sports, or Movies (family of four from $92), which are essentially clean, well-run motels. (In the unlikely event you were to find bedbugs, they'd probably have long, cute eyelashes.)

    The cluster of Disney hotels around the Seven Seas Lagoon, a man-made body of water where you can water-ski or fish for bass, connects easily by monorail, water taxi, or bus to the Magic Kingdom. Other Disney resorts send buses to the parks. Most give you the option of going back to your hotel for a breather or a swim.

    Disney offers early admission to its hotel guests on a rotating basis; every day one park lets guests enter 90 minutes before the hordes arrive, which can make all the difference. Guests at Disney hotels also have the useful option of charging everything, from meals to souvenirs, on their room key. Then again, Disney prices tend to be higher than anyone else's--not just for rooms, but for meals and snacks. If you decide to stay off-site, there are plenty of hotels that, knowing what they're up against, go out of their way to make a non-Disney decision a sound one.

    Near Downtown Disney (not to be confused with downtown Orlando), Lake Buena Vista is home to several of these unaffiliated hotels--a Hyatt, a Holiday Inn, and an Embassy Suites, among others--and so is International Drive, which puts you close to Universal Studios as well as some of the area's mini-attractions. U.S. 192, in nearby Kissimmee, is another stretch crammed with places to stay.

    When making a reservation, inquire about transportation to and from the parks. If it turns out that you'll need to rent a car, you can get the best deals by bypassing the airport chains and going through local outlets. Aside from cost and convenience, escaping the Disney aesthetic is a benefit on which you can't put a price.

    The Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (5601 Universal Blvd.; 407/503-1000; doubles from $245; kids' suites from $450), a first-rate resort deep in Universal country, is a good example of the Avis Syndrome--number two trying harder. Everything at this hotel has been given a great deal of thought, from the Italianate exteriors to the 300-thread-count cotton sheets. Though there's a slight ghost-town feel to the mock piazza, with its cafés and gelateria, it's a pleasure to escape the crowds. And Portofino has one of the coolest pools around, a gorgeous "bay" with sand on the bottom that has an intense, fast-moving slide into spa-warm water.

    A WAY OUT FOR PARENTS

    Believe it or not, it's actually possible for park-visiting parents to get out on their own. You can hire a baby-sitter through Kid's Night Out, the primary server to the Disney hotels. At $15.50 an hour (!) for two kids (four-hour minimum), the sitter provides toys and distractions, but don't be surprised if she or he primly informs your children, as one did ours, "You can each choose six pictures to color." Call far ahead for reservations. A lot of hotels also have their own day and evening child-care programs.

    If, like many parents, you find yourself wondering how you wound up driving a minivan and answering to "Mom" or "Dad" when only moments ago you were dancing with abandon to Talking Heads and downing Jell-O shots, you may want to consider these Orlando alternatives for your evening out:

    Pleasure Island Set on an island in Downtown Disney, under the leering gaze of a gigantic Jessica Rabbit, this complex of restaurants, nightclubs, and stores doesn't really start hopping until past your kids' bedtime. A $21.15 fee gains you admission to all eight nightclubs, which range from the Rock 'n' Roll Beach Club to the Pleasure Island Jazz Co. to 8Trax, which, when we entered, was blaring "Play That Funky Music, White Boy." Pleasure Island tries hard to make you feel hip and happening--but James Brown himself might have trouble getting funky wearing the hospital-style wristband that comes with admission.

    City Walk Located beside the lagoon between Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, the sleek CityWalk offers individual covers or a $8.00 admission to all of its seven clubs, where the same strained hipness and name-brand commercialism apply. (They even throw in a free movie at the Cineplex.) Still, you can dance the night away here if your feet, having walked the day away, will allow.

    Orange Avenue Beyond the theme-park gates, downtown Orlando has a genuine and, yes, funky nightlife strip. When Cinderella wants to see the band Supersuckers, she heads to Barbarella (70 N. Orange Ave.; 407/839-0457).

    IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT THAT THE KIDS NEED A BREAK

    It can be hard for tourists to remember that Orlando, like Vegas, is a city where real people live real lives. But they do, and the kids among them are on intimate terms with the Orlando Science Center (777 E. Princeton St.; 407/896-7151). The Science Center takes the idea of hands-on literally--kids here learn about torque by actually lifting up a Volkswagen.

    IN THE LIKELY EVENT THAT YOU NEED A BREAK

    Head to Winter Park, a 19th-century community just north of the city where the mansions and brick-paved streets haven't been Imagineered. Proceed to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (445 N. Park Ave.; 407/644-8355), which houses not only one of the world's largest collections of glass designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany but also, in a new wing, the Tiffany chapel from the 1893 ColumbianExposition in Chicago. Thoroughly restored after a century of neglect, the chapel now stands as the ideal antidote to all things theme park. Tell the kids you'll reward them afterward at the marble-topped ice cream counter of the Briarpatch Restaurant, a block down Park Avenue (407/645-4566). Then pick out a pew, sink deep into the cool quiet, and, for the first time since your vacation began, hear yourself think.

    THE WHITE-GLOVE-OF-MICKEY TEST

    Is Walt Disney World's cleanliness really as thorough as legend has it?To find out, we conducted a test. On Day 1 in the Magic Kingdom, we planted two gum wrappers in inconspicuous spots, one in a flower bed near the statue of Walt Disney outside the Cinderella Castle (left; forgive us, Father Walt), the other in a patch of grass off the walkway between Frontierland and Fantasyland. The following day, both wrappers were gone. Who took them?Humans, elves, or audio-animatronic workers?We will never know.

    THREE THINGS AT MAGIC KINGDOM THAT WILL MELT A SKEPTIC'S HEART

    1. The view of London at night during Peter Pan's Flight in Fantasyland.
    2. The way the mechanical figures move restlessly and authentically onstage at the Hall of Presidents.
    3. The Main Street Electrical Parade.

    THREE THINGS THAT WILL FREEZE IT AS FAST AS YOU CAN SAY "BIBBITY-BOBBITY-BOO"

    1. Trying to leave during the Main Street Electrical Parade.
    2. The cloying "character breakfast" at the Polynesian Resort's Ohana restaurant, just outside the Kingdom.
    3. The number of rides that deposit you smack in the middle of a related gift shop.

    DID WE EVER HAVE AN ENERGY CRISIS? Watching Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade, you wouldn't think so.

    GUIDE TO THE GUIDES

    Try the encyclopedic Fodor's Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando, and Central Florida (2003); and Rita Aero's Walt Disney World: The Essential Guide to Amazing Vacations (Griffin) for detailed descriptions and ratings of attractions. Also see The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2001 by Bob Sehlinger (IDG Books Worldwide), the index of which, under "O," cites five pages devoted to "obnoxious visitors." And www.great-adventure.com has a nifty Schedule Coach, which calculates how many activities you can actually cram into a single day at Disney World.

    AND DON'T MISS

    One man's Space Mountain is another's It's a Small World, but here are some of our favorites:

     

    • The Haunted Mansion (Magic Kingdom)
    • Honey, I Shrunk the Audience (Epcot)
    • Back to the Future (Universal Studios)
    • Kali River Rapids (Animal Kingdom)
    • The Hall of Presidents (Magic Kingdom)
    • Dueling Dragons (Islands of Adventure)
    • Splash Mountain (Magic Kingdom)
    • The Cat in the Hat (Islands of Adventure)
    • Star Tours (Disney-MGM)
    • Pirates of the Caribbean (Magic Kingdom)

     

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