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A Skeptic's Guide to Orlando

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."
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