Disney World Confessions

On the many, many Disney World blogs that are out there, you’ll find a large swath of experiences and knowledge in regards to the myriad amazing things that can be done at the Disney Parks. You’ll also find a few blogs acknowledging the mistakes that many Disney die-hards and frequent travelers have made – and still make. It isn’t always easy to admit to potentially having done something in less-than-stellar fashion on a Disney World trip – these can be expensive lessons to learn! But, they happen. It also happens that experiences and opinions change over time.

I’m not going to really go much into logistical mistakes – many of the mistakes that Disney travelers tend to run into typically have to do with things like lack of planning, lack of knowledge and lack of preparation, and are easily corrected. But, I have my own “Disney Confessions” to make, and I hope that you will use them to explore more of the parks and formulate your own opinions on these topics.

One of My Least Favourite Rides is Mission: Space 

I love the exterior façade of this attraction, but have no love for the ride inside. I can appreciate that it fits into a grander Disney-esque theme about space travel, foreign worlds and the future and progress of man – themes championed by Walt Disney himself – but other than that, I don’t feel the same Disney-style immersion that I feel on other attractions. Additionally, this is one ride where the warnings actually do apply – it’s claustrophobic and will make you feel ill if you are susceptible to motion sickness (I’m not too susceptible to this in general, but had to sit down after this ride). Riding it on the lower-intensity green setting is something I will try eventually, but I wouldn’t wait in line for it. Also, this ride’s theme song, “Destiny” is awful.

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I Did Not Like Cosmic Ray’s 

Before you send me hate-mail, please note that I love Sonny Eclipse. However, the food I had there was just plain bad, and I wasn’t a big fan of the ambience of the restaurant either. Part of my discontent could be because we ate there during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, after Holiday Wishes, and it was literally one of maybe three restaurants that hadn’t closed already. Because of that, I’m willing to try it again, but only if I’ve exhausted all of the other quick-service restaurants I’d like to try.

There’s No Excuse for Having Unused Snack Credits 

The Disney Dining Plan gives you a lot of food. The Table Service and Quick Service credits each give you an entrée, a drink and a dessert, so you may not feel the need to use snack credits often. However, you can generally sacrifice the desserts you are entitled to with your counter-service meals and get a bottle of water instead (we did this a few times; not a great value, but if you aren’t craving a dessert for each member of your family, or they will barely be touched, a $2.75 bottle of cold water may be a better use of the dessert), meaning that you will free up your stomach for better snacks later on – some desserts at the quick service restaurants are uninspired at best. You can also use snack credits at the Starbuck’s locations that are now in every park – including on that $7 venti green tea latté, making them a great snack credit value. You can also use snack credits throughout World Showcase, including at the amazing Kringla Bakery in Norway (Schoolbread, FTW). And, if you can’t enjoy the snacks in the parks, cash them in for pre-packaged snacks at the hotel or on your way out of the park – you’ll end up buying something at the airport or on the road anyway, might as well get a snack with a credit rather than cash. So yes, you’re doing yourself a complete disservice if you leave Walt Disney World with snack credits left on your Dining Plan!

All You Have To Do Is Look Up (and around, and sometimes under!) 

Disney World is a treasure trove of hidden gems (and Hidden Mickeys!) This is a bit of a confession because the first time I went to Walt Disney World as an adult, I don’t think I even knew what a Hidden Mickey was. I didn’t know that there were entire back sections to most of the World Showcase pavilions – France, Japan, China, Britain and Canada, for example, that housed an astounding array of shops, restaurants and cultural treasures. I didn’t even notice the robotic metal palm trees in Tomorrowland! The point is, Walt Disney World is so much more than just Space Mountain and Small World. It’s a place to explore and feel. It’s an onion with a ridiculous number of layers. Even seasoned veterans will find something new! Oh, and in reference to the title of this paragraph – look under that mat in the Muppet Vision 3D queue!

20141119_112050I Will Probably Never See the New Queue at Peter Pan’s Flight (and it breaks my heart a little) 

I’ve never walked by Peter Pan’s Flight and seen a 5-minute wait. I’ve always had to use a Fastpass for it (old system or new). The new FP+ system seems to have actually extended the standby queue wait for this already busy attraction, in fact. So, it breaks my heart that unless I want to dedicate a solid 45 minutes or more to standing in the standby line and seeing the new interactive queue, I will probably never see it.

Where It Counts, Disney Isn’t a Cash-Grab 

Hard to say when Magic Kingdom one-day passes go for $105 now, but I stick by it. Hotel prices (at non-peak seasons) aren’t out of whack with expensive/luxury hotels in other places, and you usually wouldn’t buy a one-day ticket anyway (they get cheaper per day the longer you stay). Promotions like free dining are fantastic deals as well. As far as souvenirs go, I don’t think that items like t-shirts, hoodies and hats are any more expensive than at your local American Eagle or other retailer – in fact, my Disney World baseball cap was only $20 – probably two-thirds of what my Blue Jays cap cost. Purses and scarves are roughly on par with regular retailers too, and at $10-$15 for a mug, I’d rather get a Disney mug than a “World’s Worst Golfer” one from the mall.

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Now, you can definitely make arguments on the cash-grab side for hard-ticket events like Villain Dessert Parties or the Frozen Dessert Party. I would never waste my money on those. For those that have reservations about events like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, keep in mind that for about $30 less than the cost of a one-day Magic Kingdom ticket, you get entry at 4pm (so about 8 hours in the park) where you can experience most of the rides, you get exclusive experiences like the parades (the Halloween parade alone is worth the price of admission) and special versions of Wishes, and you get neat perks like rare character meet-and-greets and trick or treat/cocoa stations. A good tip here is that the day for which you have the Party tickets, don’t buy a park ticket for the same day. Take the morning and early afternoon to check out Downtown Disney, or explore your resort, or lounge by the pool. If you have a car, you can check out the Orlando outlet malls too.

I Used To Be Indifferent Towards Soarin’ 

What has become one of my favourite attractions used to not be so. I saw the huge lines and wondered “why?” While I still prefer Test Track and even Spaceship Earth to Soarin’, it has grown on me significantly – the ride’s “take-off” – that feeling when your feet first lift of the ground, along with the music and that orange grove smell and mist and air on your face make for a sensory adventure that is not easily equaled, even at Disney World. It took me a couple times, but I do love that attraction now.

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Well, those are some of my “Disney Confessions” – how about yours?

Universal Studios: A Primer (Part Two)

Today, we look at part two of my primer on Universal Studios. We’ll be looking at Universal City Walk, Islands of Adventures and dining options.

Universal CityWalk

To a Disney person, you’d have to describe this as “sort of like Downtown Disney”. It’s a lot smaller than Downtown Disney, and with the changes coming to turn DTD into Disney Springs, it will be way more adult-oriented than Disney’s offering. CityWalk has one major thing going for it – amazing restaurants, and it may have topped Disney in that respect. It features Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Bubba Gump Shrimp, Vivo Italian Kitchen, Emeril’s, Red Oven Pizza Bakery (which I have been told is phenomenal), and The Cowfish (you HAVE to eat at Cowfish. AMAZING food), in addition to a slew of other new spots.

Of the restaurants listed above, The Cowfish is my favourite. I spoke to the manager about their story, and it’s a cool one – they have only two other locations – both in North Carolina (Charlotte and Raleigh). Some Universal big-wigs happened to be eating there, and loved it so much that they decided to open one as part of the CityWalk transformation. The Cowfish serves a variety of foods, but the specialty is all about fusion offerings – it’s a sushi and burger bar. I had the Thundering Herd Bison Burger, and it is one of, if not the best burger I’ve ever tried.

CityWalk also has a Starbuck’s, as well as a couple other fast food choices (Moe’s Southwest Grill, Burger King, etc). It contains a movie theater and a Universal Studios shop, as well as a Fossil store (among others).

Islands of Adventure

IoA is the newer of the two theme parks. It was the first to receive the Harry Potter treatment, when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened there in 2010. It is also home to a Seuss-themed land, Jurassic Park, Marvel Superhero Island and Toon Lagoon.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade Village (themed area): This is one of the amazingly well-themed areas, and immerses you fully. Just prior to the entrance, on your right, is the new Hogsmeade Station – one of the two hubs for the Hogwart’s Express attraction. Upon entering Hogsmeade Village, you’ll see a docked Hogwarts Express locomotive. To the left are a few shops and the beautifully rustic Three Broomsticks restaurant (pro tip: no line for Butterbeer at the bar!) On the right are more shops, the Dragon Challenge roller coaster, and Ollivander’s. There is also a stage where regular shows take place. Further up, you’ll find The Flight of the Hippogriff and the piece de resistance – Hogwart’s Castle.

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Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey: This ride is so unique, and nothing like it exists at Disney World. Utilizing the KUKA-robot arm technology, it takes you on a heart-racing trip through Hogwart’s Castle, experiencing real props and animatronics, as well as fast-moving video screens. Little kids may be scared of the Dementors and spiders that swoop towards you, and motion sickness is a very real risk on this ride (I’ve experienced it myself, and have seen a lot of ill-looking people at the exit). It’s because of the screens. Try looing away, or looking at the edges of the screen.

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Flight of the Hippogriff: A kiddie coaster, but a little more intense than Barnstormer. Great for everyone. Look out for Hagrid’s hut!

Dragon Challenge: I also get a little of a spinning head coming off of this ride, except for when I’m in the front row. The red coaster is faster, but the green coaster has more corkscrews. Both are lots of fun.

Ollivander’s: For the kids, of course. Very cute attraction. One lucky kid gets selected to “choose” a wand. The effects inside are simple but lots of fun to witness. Keep in mind that staff are instructed to cut the queue off when it reaches 60 minutes for the safety of guests – the entire queue is outdoors, so heat stroke is a very real risk.

Eighth Voyage of Sinbad: A fun stunt show, but let’s face it, it pales in comparison to Indiana Jones over at Hollywood Studios. Not really worth your time, especially if you’re only spending a day or two in Universal.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Poseidon’s Fury: It’s a walk-through attraction, at roughly the same level of quality as that Jack Sparrow thing that mercifully closed at DHS. I’m sure it will soon be repurposed as a Harry Potter attraction when Lost Continent inevitably gets bulldozed to expand Hogsmeade.

Lost Continent (themed area): A Hogsmeade expansion is needed, especially since Lost Continent doesn’t function well or pull people in, but it’s a bit of a shame because this themed area is stunning. The architecture and facades are amazing. But, there’s nothing worthwhile to spend your time on here.

Jurassic Park River Adventure: Fun ride, but dated. It’s a little similar to Splash Mountain. You’re on a boat, checking out the nice herbivore dinosaurs, before taking a wrong turn. You’ll go into a building – and up – and come across Raptors and Dilophosaurs before coming face-to-face with a T-Rex, which you escape by taking a tall, very fun drop. Kids will only be scared of the T-Rex. The animatronics are severely dated on this ride, so hopefully the coming Jurassic World movie will give Universal the impetus to refurb it.

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Jurassic Park Visitor’s Area: Neat area for sure, and kids will love the “see a dinosaur egg hatching” show.

Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges: Similar to Kali River Rapids. Fun to do on a hot day! Kids will love it.

Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls: Similar to Splash Mountain, but with a smaller drop and a shorter ride time. Very fun, although I’m Canadian, so I might be biased… Dudley is a Mountie, after all.

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Toon Lagoon Themed Area: Fun for fans of franchises like Betty Boop and Family Circus and Rocky and Bullwinkle and the like, but I don’t think a lot of kids are drawn to this area of the park.

Incredible Hulk Coaster: Similar to Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, but outdoors. A few good loops and very fast. At the beginning, you are shot out of the opening chute and directly into an inversion in an “experiment gone wrong”.

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Dr. Doom’s Fearfall: This ride is one of those “lift you up, drop you down” rides. What I liked about it is that it shoots you up fairly quickly (I hate the anticipation of a long ascent). It’s a pretty tame ride, and doesn’t hold a candle to Tower of Terror.

The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman: 3D screens, lots of great effects. You’re on a coaster track, so expect lots of spins, drops and jolts. Love it. Kids will too.

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Storm Force Accelatron: It’s an X-Men version of the Mad Tea Party.

High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride: I love this ride. It’s a slow trolley ride in the sky – think the Tomorrowland People Mover but on a coaster track rather than an omni-mover track. It goes inside a couple of buildings, and you get great views of the park while hearing various lines from Dr. Seuss stories here and there.

Cat in the Hat: Think Winnie the Pooh. You come across the Cat in the Hat and the Things.

Caro-Seuss-el: It’s a carousel.

One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish: It’s your standard spinner.

Seuss’s Landing (themed area): This themed area is a lot of fun. It has four rides, a show and a restaurant, and a few great shops. The attention to detail is fantastic, and the background audio loops are fun too (Q is for Quan. Quan is for Quandary).

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Port of Entry (themed area): This is the “Main Street” of Islands of Adventure. A bakery, a Starbuck’s and great shops are here, including a Christmas store.

Islands of Adventure isn’t the most impressive theme park. In fact, if not for Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it might well be entirely skippable. There are some fun attractions here in addition to the must-do fare at Wizarding World – Spiderman tops that list – but this is a park with immense opportunity. A new King Kong attraction is being built in the Jurassic Park area, and the Jurassic World movie coming out this year (rumoured to be part of a trilogy/reboot of the franchise) is sure to inspire some new attractions for Jurassic Park (including a complete refurb of the Visitor’s Center). Rumours also exist that Universal may turn chunks of Superhero Island and Toon Lagoon into a Lord of the Rings Land (a 3D simulator through the Mines of Moria? A restaurant that serves Second Breakfast? GOLD!) Plus, there’s no way Wizarding World won’t expand at some point to include a couple additional rides. Islands of Adventure will be very different in five years. Trust me.

Restaurants

The restaurant selection isn’t nearly as good at Universal as it is at Disney World, but there are a few good restaurants sprinkled throughout. Your best bets are going to be heading into either Universal CityWalk (Hard Rock Restaurant, The Cowfish, Bubba Gump, Margaritaville), Harry Potter/Hogsmeade Village (The Three Broomsticks), Harry Potter/Diagon Alley (Leaky Cauldron), the Lost Continent (Mythos) or Springfield’s Fast Food Alley. Mythos is very good, but I don’t think it’s quite as legendary as many people make it out to be. This legend is probably due to the fact that relative to other in-park food offerings at Universal, it’s the best by far, but not nearly as good as most of the restaurants in World Showcase.

I have yet to try the restaurants in Jurassic Park, Seuss Landing or in Universal Studios aside from Springfield, but they are all counter-service choices. I believe Mythos is the only true table-service restaurant  in the actual theme parks (the rest are in CityWalk). This is a shame, especially in Springfield – I think they missed an opportunity to put in a high-end table service restaurant – one that exists on the The SImpsons – like the Guilded Truffle or Pimento Grove. Luigi’s could have been a nice sit-down place too.

Overall Impressions

If you have little kids, your options are fewer at Universal than at Disney. If you don’t like Harry Potter, there is less for you here than at Disney – you’ll probably still like the rides but you may not appreciate the rest of the Wizarding World (which is stunning). My suggestion is this – if you have kids that like thrill rides and roller coasters and Harry Potter, it’s a must-do. I think three days is good if you’ve never been; 2 if you have and know what you can be happy skipping (this advice qualifies when visiting at a dead time of year; I’ve never been at a busy time, but I’ve heard horrible things in terms of being issued “return” times for the Harry Potter areas during busy times of year due to capacity, so budget for an extra day or two, probably.)

Staying on-site is convenient, but get ready to receive an experience that isn’t quite what it is at the Disney resort hotels. You’ll miss the free Wifi, free parking, free fridge and multiple restaurants that exist at Disney, for sure.

Universal is fun, but not for everyone probably (and the same can probably be said for Disney, I think). My advice is to do your research and talk to your travel group – do they want to do coasters? Do they want to do Potter? It’s different, but in a good way in my mind. I recommend it. But, try doing Universal and then Disney. I think that’s a better order in which to do it (we’ve done it both ways). I also recommend staying at Cabana Bay Beach Resort. It’s cheaper and provides additional perks (cheaper parking, free wifi and fridge), though you won’t get the Express Pass. You won’t need it at a slower time of year, and the Express Pass doesn’t work at the principal Harry Potter rides anyway (only for Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff).

If you have any more questions, feel free to reach out to me – wdwstorybook@gmail.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/wdwstorybook or on Twitter – @wdwstorybook.

Happy Travels!

Universal Studios: A Primer (Part One)

I’ve been interested in writing some Universal Studios articles, but I’ve held off due to just one reason – a lot of Disney World fans are diehards, and have never been to Universal Studios! Therefore, many Disney World fans that have never been to Universal may not know what it is, if it’s for them or not, or if the trip would be worthwhile. I’ve written this primer that I hope will be helpful to those that are on the fence, or maybe as an educational guide to those that never thought a Universal Studios trip would be for them!

Disclaimer: I’ve been to Universal Studios four times since 2011. I really enjoy it, but there are many aspects to a Universal vacation that will be completely foreign to Walt Disney World fans that have not made their way to Universal Orlando before. I will outline pros and cons of Universal itself, and will draw some comparisons to the way something is done at Walt Disney World, but the purpose of this article isn’t to compare the two resorts, really. (Those types of articles will come later!)

Today, we will look at the Universal Studios Orlando Resort hotels and the Universal Studios theme park. Part Two will discuss restaurants and Islands of Adventure.

What IS Universal Studios?

The Universal Studios Orlando Resort is a theme park (there is a pretty big distinction between theme parks and amusement parks. Don’t be fooled – Universal is definitely a theme park). It consists of two parks – Universal Studios ad Islands of Adventure. There is also an area called Universal CityWalk (think Downtown Disney), and four resort hotels. Three are deluxe hotels – Hard Rock Hotel, Loew’s Royal Pacific and Loew’s Portofino Bay – and one moderate resort called Cabana Bay Beach Resort.

The land occupied by all seven of the above areas is very small compared to Disney World. For example, you can walk from anywhere to anywhere; the longest walk is from Cabana Bay Beach to the Hard Rock Hotel, a walk that will take you 30-40 minutes. On the way, you’d either walk through or walk past everything else.

The Hotels

All four hotels on Universal property are beautiful and well-themed. They are also not as expensive as the deluxe properties on Disney property. Staying at the three deluxe resorts at Universal give you two key perks – early entrance to one of the two Harry Potter experiences (1 hour before park open; the park changes from time to time), and the Universal Express Pass. The Express Pass is an amazing perk – you get front of the line access to almost every ride on property (notable exceptions are the two Harry Potter rides – Forbidden Journey and Escape from Gringott’s – and Ollivander’s Wand Shop. You don’t get this perk at Cabana Bay Beach, but this hotel (the newest on property) does still give you the 1-hour early park access.

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Hotel Pros – maximum 30-minute walk to the parks; all have boat access though, except for Cabana Bay Beach (has bus access to CityWalk). All hotels give you early park access, but deluxes give you Express Pass as well.

Hotel Cons – only Cabana Bay Beach Resort gives you free Wifi, which to me is ridiculous. It’s also the only resort that gives you access to an in-room fridge; the other three have mini-bars that you need a key to access. Parking is not free either – it’s $10 per night at Cabana Bay Beach and $17 per night at the deluxe resorts, which is also ridiculous.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios is the original park. It contains a bunch of thrill rides, and features the Harry Potter Diagon Alley expansion (including Grimauld Place and London) and Springfield, from the Simpsons. A key thing to keep in mind with Universal – rare are the attractions on which you can bring your bags/hats/refreshments/etc. Ride employees are pretty good about spotting what you shouldn’t be bringing with you, but I’ve seen some guests make it to the ride vehicles before being turned away. Rides that require guests to not bring anything aboard have FREE lockers near the attraction entrance (you get enough free time for the queue and the ride.) The locker system is fine; it’s the other guests that will drive you nuts. Between having 17 people crowded around the lockers when you only need 1 person, or people forgetting their locker number, it can be a pretty frustrating experience. But anyway, it is what it is.

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Here is a list of attractions, and my thoughts on who they are for (and aren’t for):

Harry Potter Diagon Alley (themed area): Great for everyone. Walking into the area, simulating Harry Potter’s first entry to Diagon Alley from the books and films, is inspired. The theming and detail throughout is fantastic, and very much similar to the level of detail that exists at Disney World. Lots of photo ops exist here. This area includes the Escape from Gringott’s ride (keep an eye on the dragon perched atop the goblin bank; it breathes fire!), live shows and several eateries, including the Leaky Cauldron and Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour (do try the butterbeer ice cream!). There are tons of shops here as well; each is worth a perusal. Make sure to check out Knockturn Alley as well. Outside of the main Diagon Alley area, you’ll find Grimmauld Place, London landmarks, and the Knight Bus.

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts: there is really nothing else like this ride. Part roller-coaster, part 4D simulator. Little kids might get scared, but should be worth it. The queue is amazing too; the goblin animatronics are ridiculously life-like. Hopefully, riders will experience the elevator portion of the queue (it doesn’t always run, which Universal Creative hates).

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Hogwart’s Express train: You’ll need a park-to-park pass to ride it. The London train station is very authentic. The effect of people stepping onto Platform 9 and ¾ is extremely cool; make sure to take a step back and watch people walk through it. The train is gorgeous, and the experience inside is a must-do for any Potter fan. Ride it both ways, as the experience is different. All-ages.

Springfield (themed area): Again, great for all ages. Lots of picture opportunities (Duffman, Duff bottles, Chief Wiggum, Milhouse, Lard Lad, etc). In addition to the Kang and Kodos spinner and the Krustyland area that includes the 3D simulator ride, Springfield contains a main strip called “Fast Food Boulevard”, where you’ll find Moe’s Tavern, several counter-service dining opportunities, Duff Gardens, and the Kwik-E-Mart.

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The Simpsons: The Ride: This is a 3D simulator, similar to its predecessor (Back to the Future). It’s a bit bumpy and very fast visuals may give people motion sickness. Very, very fun though.

Kang and Kodos Twirl and Hurl: A spinner. Loads slowly, but you get some nice views of Springfield, Diagon Alley and the surrounding areas. Good for kids.

Men in Black: Alien Attack: Toy Story: Midway Mania on steroids. You spin and move quickly while firing at aliens popping up everywhere. Kids might get scared at the aliens, but probably not much.

E.T.: The Adventure: Similar to Peter Pan’s Flight in Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom. You’re suspended from the ceiling, and your job is to get E.T. back to his home planet. Great for little ones, but I won’t lie – this is my favourite ride at Universal.

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Woody Woodpecker’s Kid Zone: It’s a large play area for kids, with areas designated to Fievel, Barney, and Curious George. There is also a kiddie coaster in here, called Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster (roughly the same as Barnstormer over at Magic Kingdom).

Shrek 4D: A little like Tough to be a Bug at Animal Kingdom, but not quite as invasive/terrifying for children. You get water sprayed at you a couple times, and a couple puffs of air on the legs, but no stingers in the behind. Very fun, and has a long pre-show that is fun for Shrek fans.

Transformers the Ride: 3D: Similar to the Spiderman ride over at Islands of Adventure – 3D screens, a roller coaster track, drops and spins and jolts. So much fun.

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Terminator 2: 3D: It’s part-screen show and part-live show, revolving around Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the battle against SkyNet.

Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem: MUST-DO! A 3D simulator. Lots of motion. Awesome pre-show, hilarious ride, lots of cute minions. Great for all.

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Twister Ride it Out: Basically, you stand and watch a farm get hit by a tornado. It’s neat seeing the effects, but it’s likely the next attraction on Universal’s chopping block.

Disaster: During the queue, you’re subjected to Michael Bay movie clips, which is pretty bad. I didn’t want this primer to be about “reviewing” attractions (I’ll do that type of thing in other posts, down the road), but I have to review this ride because it’s 25-minutes of your life that you’ll never get back. The only fun part of this attraction is at the very end, when you finally get to board a subway that then gets hit by an earthquake. After just missing getting in and waiting in line for about half an hour more, it wasn’t worth more than an hour of our time.

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit: People get scared of this ride because of the 90 degree vertical incline. It lasts about 10 seconds. Once you’re through that incline though, it’s a fun, albeit fairly tame roller coaster. I recommend it highly, but I think there are pretty severe height restrictions, and the restraint arm is pretty huge and cumbersome. You do get to pick your own soundtrack for the ride, which is pretty cool.

Revenge of the Mummy: Super fun indoor roller coaster. Lots of pitch-black spots and scary effects (mummies, fire, etc). Might be tough for little kids, but older kids will love it.

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Universal also has a couple of stage shows as well. I’ve only seen parts of the Blues Brothers show, but it’s pretty fun, There is also Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue (a rock show containing a selection of Universal’s classic movie monsters; I’ve heard it’s not the most kid-friendly show) and Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-Up Show, which I can’t believe I have yet to see (my wife’s not a fan of horror stuff).

Later this week, stay tuned for Part Two of this USOR primer – Islands of Adventure, Restaurants and Universal City Walk!

The Disney Side

For the last little while, Disney World has been encouraging us to show our “Disney Side”, so much so that there’s even an official  Disney Side app now! I really like this marketing campaign, and like many other things related to Disney World, it got me thinking.

Just what is a Disney Side? I think it has to be defined as “what part of your personality does Disney World bring out?” (Well, other than the Donald Duck Rage at seeing your final bill).

For me, and hopefully for others, it brings out the big kid – the one that doesn’t need to worry about taking out the garbage or paying a mortgage or wondering how the RRSPs are doing. At Disney World, one shouldn’t have any qualms about wearing Mickey ears or singing along during the Beauty and the Beast stage show. If there is any place to stop being an adult for a few days (aside from whipping out the MagicBand to pay for purchases), this is it!

To me, Disney World is a magical place. The Disney Side is brought forward, like Aladdin summoning the Genie. To get the utmost amount of enjoyment out of Disney World is to lay your inhibitions aside and just let yourself go. (Or, Let It Go. HA!) Imagine yourself as a kid, romping through Hundred Acre Wood with Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. Imagine how magical that must be! Imagine that you actually are a shrunken-down toy in Andy’s toy chest along with Woody and Buzz. BE that time-traveler while aboard Spaceship Earth, experiencing the wonder of humanity’s achievements over thousands of years.

Disney World offers the opportunities that we don’t have in our day-to-day lives. We can be part of a swingin’ wake on Haunted Mansion. We can be swash-bucklin’ pirates! Climb Mount Everest and come face-to-face with a Yeti. Rescue a dinosaur with a deadly carnivore on your tail. Disney Side is about making the impossible possible. You just have to believe.

During Wishes, Jiminy Cricket tells us all about wishing on a star. The innocence (and perhaps naiveté) of children means that they’ll never have that problem. Adults don’t “wish” or “hope” they way kids do – and all their wishes are within reason (a better job, a new car, a successful sports team). Walt Disney taught us that no dream is too big, or out of reach, or impossible. I think the best Disney Side includes parts of so many Disney rides and stories that I can’t keep count, plus that wily dreamer Walt Disney himself.

So, do it – explore your Disney Side, and take it down to the parks with you!

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Soarin’, Toy Story and Under the Sea – CHANGES!

Three parks, three rides, three changes. Disney World was busy today!

Under the Sea: The Voyage of the Little Mermaid, re-opened after approximately a month of refurbishment. The biggest change wrought by the ride’s closure is in the “under the sea” portion of the ride, where the titular song is performed by Sebastian and his undersea friends. Blacklight has been installed and the scene darkened, in order to hide overhead rigs, sound systems, etc.

I for one really like this ride (no one does omni-mover attractions like Disney World – Haunted Mansion and Nemo and Friends being other examples). The queue is beautifully themed and a great spot to take pictures of the waterfall overhead (giving you the illusion of going underwater). I’m a big fan of the projector technology used as well in order to insert characters like Ariel into the scenery without adding cartoonish animatronics. The scene with Ursula is among the best, appearing in all her villainous glory. I’m excited to see the change in that one scene though – if there was one scene that distracted you from the idea that you’re supposed to be underwater, that was it – you were able to see way too much of the ceiling and ride track to maintain the illusion. This change should eliminate that problem.

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Over at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the long-standing rumour that Toy Story: Midway Mania would be receiving a third ride track were confirmed today by Disney World. Now, a couple months back I had stated here that I didn’t think this rumour would come to fruition, for one simple reason – why spend money on an already existing and immensely popular attraction outside of a refurb? Now that the third track has been confirmed though, we can talk about why it’s happening.

The obvious reason is to make the queue shorter. But, lines are still long at other attractions, so we have to figure out what makes Toy Story special. For one thing, the ride easily lends itself to adding capacity. More practically though, I think it’s a precursor to bigger things in Pixar Place, the land with one attraction.

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Lines are long for Toy Story (and always have been, even at dead times of year), and Disney World has tried different things to try to shorten it, including a disastrous Fastpass+ only trial. But, Disney knows that long lines are part and parcel of the experience. The queue itself isn’t terribly impressive – it’s visually fun and beautiful, and Mr. Potato Head is really cool, but the nature of the queue (shrinking you into the size of a toy before boarding the attraction) means low ceilings and a queue that kind of reminds me of a school gym with barriers and lines running through it. Despite it being an incredibly immersive theme, it lacks the charm of queues for rides like Tower of Terror or Haunted Mansion or Under the Sea, and lacks the interactivity of attractions like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Test Track. Really, there’s no way to escape the fact that you are waiting in a long line. That hasn’t decreased ridership, but perhaps this is a step in the direction of Disney simply wanting to improve the guest experience. Interestingly, they are sacrificing “show” for “efficiency”, which is generally not the way Disney does things.

The other way to look at this is that Disney is expecting the lines for Toy Story to get even longer in the future, and there are a couple of reasons for this potential thought process. One reason has to do with the closures at Hollywood Studios, many of which had the capacity to suck in a large number of guests – American Idol Experience, Sounds Dangerous, Backlot Tour. There’s also the negative effect that FastPass+ has had on a few rides in the park (making their lines longer) – Great Movie Ride, Tower of Terror and Voyage of the Little Mermaid for example, have become attractions that require FastPass+ reservations. But, secondly, and more exciting to fans of park expansion, is the idea that potentially incoming attractions dedicated to Star Wars and Pixar properties will generate large spikes in park attendance.

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As it stands, Hollywood Studios can easily be viewed as a half-day park, especially if you have little kids (you’re probably coming in for Toy Story and nothing else). Thrill seekers will still come in and ride Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, but have little else there to appeal to them. The new lineup of rides that are rumoured to be coming – perhaps a Ratatouille-style ride or an expansion of Toy Story’s presence to include some of the attractions from the Disney parks in Asia, to say nothing of the Star Wars/Lucas Land expansion – will certainly create the attendance boon that Disney has been looking for at DHS for a long time, necessitating the most popular ride at Disney World to have a higher throughput of guests.

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And now, Soarin’. Even just saying the word makes me think of orange groves and that spectacular soundtrack. The ride will be adding a third theater, and I’m sure that any refurb will include the HD technology that currently exists at Disneyland, and probably a fresh video too. I wonder the same about Epcot as I do about DHS – is this move only designed to alleviate pressure from the current lines, or is it part of a grander plan that involves an attendance spike? Certainly, the new Frozen attraction will increase attendance, but is there anything else going on? Will rides like Ellen’s Energy Adventure and Captain EO finally join the Disney ride graveyard, in favour of fresher franchises like Phineas and Ferb? Will the recent years of appealing to nostalgia at Disney World drive its claws into Epcot, giving renewed hope to those that long for the return of Dream Finder to Figment, or the return of Horizons? Will Carousel of Progress move into Epcot, a more natural location for it, as part of a larger Tomorrowland tear-down and renovation? I don’t think Disney World spends money unnecessarily, and I think that expensive changes to existing rides is a somewhat unnecessary expenditure if there isn’t a bigger picture project going on here. Look for some new expansion rumours soon, I think.

Slowing it Down

I was feeling nostalgic this week, so I do what I often do in that situation: I pulled out some Walt Disney World photos.

Not a hard task, that’s for sure; I wasn’t near my computer but flipped through the pictures I’ve stored on my tablet first. I also grabbed the stunningly beautiful photobook that my wife made to commemorate our road trip to Disney in September 2013, and carefully poured over the numerous photos arrayed throughout.

Something that has never failed to impress me about Walt Disney World, and something that screamed at me as I went back over what was probably a few hundred pictures spanning our last three vacations to Orlando, is the attention to detail that is utilized everywhere on Walt Disney World property.

It’s truly astounding, I think, the level of detail that goes into every building project at Disney World. I’m a big believer in slowing things down at Disney World and really letting it all soak in, because there is so much there for people to enjoy and I think that aficionados will be well rewarded by taking some time to stop and smell the roses, to take in the little things that make Disney World special. Disney Parks are steeped in nostalgia, history, and nods to its past and to its creator, Walt Disney. Here are a few of the really cool things that you’ll see if you take a little time to stop and slow things down!

  • The Names of Main Street U.S.A.: I sometimes wonder how often one of the most prominent nods to Disney World’s origins go unnoticed by the masses of guests making their way to Fantasyland, but I imagine it happens fairly often. If you look up to the second floor of the Main Street U.S.A. facades, you will see numerous names written on the windows. You’ll see names like Yale Gracey, Wathel Rogers, John Hench and Ub Iwerks among many, many others – and of course, Walter E. Disney as well (his name is on the window of the Plaza Restaurant, facing Cinderella Castle.)

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  • The Haunted Mansion Queue and Ride: This queue is replete with little details that will make every Disney trivia master in your group erupt in glee at all of the knowledge they can drop as you proceed towards the Stretching Room’s exterior door. All of the names you’ll see written on the tombstones – Yale Gracey, Marc Davis, Leota Tooms – are Imagineers that worked on the creation of The Haunted Mansion. On the ride itself, keen observers will see not only a few Hidden Mickeys (and even a couple Hidden Donalds), but will also see some very cool details in the Ball Room. Did you notice that when the couples dance, the women are leading the men? It’s because the trick used here utilizes nothing more than lights and mirrors, and the mirror effect flipped the couples around.

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  • Animal Kingdom animal carvings: You won’t miss the animal carvings on the Tree of Life, but what you might miss is the minutiae of the carvings – no two are the same. Another thing you may miss is that the carvings extend just about everywhere in the park – even on the stand for the Flame Tree Barbecue sign and the adjacent tree potters!

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  • World Showcase nooks and crannies: The first two times I went to Disney World, I couldn’t believe my ignorance – I completely missed some truly amazing work in World Showcase. There are a number of nooks and crannies that are easy to miss, especially if give only a cursory glance or perfunctory walk-through of a pavilion that doesn’t have a ride in it (or if you aren’t planning on eating at that pavilion’s restaurant). Morocco may be my favourite pavilion – it’s outdoor market theme and wonderful attention to detail is inspiring. China and Japan are both home to large department stores featuring cultural wares, and both have really cool museums that are worth your time. France has little roads and inlets meant to evoke the images of Parisian streets complete with outdoor café seating (not to mention the Eiffel Tower model in the background). Canada’s pavilion is beautiful as well – check out not just the Victoria Gardens, but also the waterfall and rock-work outside of the O Canada! entrance.

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  • DON’T PULL THE ROPE: Outside of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, you will see a well with a rope in it. The sign says not to pull it. Gosh darn it, pull the rope! You’ll get a fun little surprise. Additionally, the area right next to the well is awesome too – a usually-empty Indiana Jones gift shop is there, selling a few unique items including Indiana Jones novels; and, just outside it are actual props from the films, including a tank and an army Jeep.
  • The Key IS Under the Mat: The queue for Muppet Vision 3D is one of the very best queues in all of Walt Disney World. In addition to a cornucopia of inside jokes as only the Muppets can do them, you’ll see a sign above the security desk saying “Back in 5 Minutes. Key is under mat.” Friends, if you can, lift the mat. I went back once right near the end of the day and told the Cast Member I only wanted to look for the key. He looked at me like I was crazy.

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  • Pretty much anywhere in Animal Kingdom: Animal Kingdom is a truly special place. On our vacation in November, we spent a much longer period of time there than we ever had before, and I really fell in love with it. Details and rewards are everywhere for people that look for them. I mentioned the animal carvings, but what about the level of rustic detail that goes into places like Harambe? Or, the queue for Expedition Everest? The walking path through the Maharajah Jungle Trek is a feast for the eyes; quiet, simple beauty surrounds you. Animal Kingdom may be the best park on property for slowing down, strolling, and not booking it for the E-Tickets.

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These are just a few examples. You will be rewarded if you stop, look around and take it all in. The attractions and shows are just a small part of what the Imagineers want you to experience.

Journeys Through Time

Time. Time travel. Space. The future. The past. This is all an intriguing array of concepts that is fraught with mystery that does nothing short of delight even casual on-lookers. Walt Disney was similarly enamoured with these concepts, and many of his early attraction ideas – some of which could not be built as the technology to flesh out his ideas didn’t always keep up with Walt’s ambitions – centered around the themes of time and space.

I’m sure that many of us, as kids, looked into the skies and wondered what was up there. Many of us aspired to be astronauts and pilots. Many of us have fantasized about time travel – seeing the dinosaurs, shaking hands with deceased heroes, perhaps betting on some sporting events. It all adds up to the mysteries and wonders of time and space building up in our minds to a degree that – at least for me, anyway – we feel such a sentimental and nostalgic tug, such a thrill, when we are presented with the evidence and edifice of our past, present and future and the possibilities of life.

Walt Disney World is full of these reminders, and the ideas of science, time travel, space exploration and the progress of man-kind.

Here are the best conveyances of this concept at Walt Disney World!

Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress – some may think that the revolving theatre show, reimagined in 1993 as Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, may be hokey. Certainly, attendance has decreased since 2001, and Disneyland’s version has been shuttered for over forty years. However, the show – admittedly, a little outdated – is a warm and fun tribute to the past. It shows just how far humanity has progressed in a relatively short period of time. It spans approximately 100 years, and takes us from gas lamps and gramophones to virtual reality video games and voice-controlled appliances. The theme song – There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, penned by the famed Sherman Brothers – is evocative, and there are few attractions if any that have more of Walt Disney himself in them than this one. His love of America, the American family, and progress are quite obvious throughout.

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Space Mountain – I wrote an entire D.I.S.N.E.Y. post on this attraction recently to celebrate its 40th birthday. Space Mountain is an attraction that not only takes you into space (metaphorically of course) by shooting you through dark expanses of swirling novas and galaxies and shooting stars, it also brings to life the idea not just of space exploration, but also of space living. Nods to space vacations and permanent settlements on other planets are apparent in the roller coaster’s after-show/exit queue. Really, it may be the closest any of will get to being shot out into space.

Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover – I LOVE the People Mover. You glide around the perimeter of Tomorrowland in this clever depiction of a futuristic mass-transit system, high above the people below you. There are beautiful vistas of many other spots in the park, including Cinderella’s Castle. The People Mover is mostly an outdoor ride, but it takes you inside at a couple of key points, where you are greeted by a model of Progress City, or EPCOT (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), one of Walt Disney’s most ambitious dreams. After looking down on Mickey’s Star Traders, you enter Space Mountain, passing through the lift area between the coaster’s two tracks. You enter Starport Seven-Five before rounding a bend, where keen observers will notice the ride’s projections on the dome above. The ride ends after quick jaunts over the perimeter of Carousel of Progress and through the Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin ride building. Really, this is an educational opportunity mixed with some cool aspects (going through Space Mountain at a slower pace, for example). Disney geeks will love the nods to the earliest blue-sky imaginings of Epcot.

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Tomorrowland – Tomorrowland itself is a gem for those that love the idea of space, the future and progress. You’ll spot a few metal palm trees here and there, and the People Mover moving above you is a nice touch. The Astro-Orbiter spins above you, and Buzz Lightyear is always conscripting new recruits in the battle against the Evil Emperor Zerg.

Spaceship Earth – One of the greatest things about Walt Disney World in general is that you can actually go inside the park icons! The best opportunity for this, in my opinion, is Spaceship Earth at Epcot. Spaceship Earth is a slow-moving trip through time, up the the center of the “ball”. You begin with a showdown between early man and a Mastodon, and enter the world of the great ancient civilizations of the past. You can even smell Rome burning! The animatronics are excellent in this attraction, and it’s so much fun to see thousands of years of history progress before your eyes in only a few moments. On the way back down, a fun interactive video shows you what your future may be like, based on existing and possible technological advances, derived by inputs made by you.

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Mission Space – I’ll admit, I don’t like feeling my spine pressed up against my chest, so this wasn’t a fun ride for me on the more intense orange level. However, the fact Disney actually gives you a depiction of what it’s like to be in a space shuttle blasting off to Mars (you’re in a tight, cramped capsule that spins very quickly to give you G-force sensations) is pretty neat.

Dinosaur – One of my favourite rides in all of Walt Disney World! Go back in time to the tale end of the Cretaceous period and rescue the Iguanadon before a meteor hits and wipes out the dinosaurs. What I love about this ride is that the scenery is out of this world – the environment and decorations are realistic, and superb animatronic dinosaurs are everywhere in this attraction. The Carnotaurus – the villain of the attraction – is quite imposing, and may well be on par with the T-Rex at the end of Universal Studios’ Jurassic Park River Adventure ride.

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Star Tours – Star Wars, obviously, but still worthy of mention here. It adds to the ideas set out by Space Mountain – space travel for entertainment rather than science – but does so in more of a fictionalized setting.

Frontierland/Liberty Square – You can make arguments for these places as well, in terms of taking you back in time. Liberty Square features the Hall of Presidents and the Liberty Belle Riverboat, a jaunt around Tom Sawyer’s Island through the Rivers of America. Frontierland is a tribute to the Old West, complete with attractions like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a roller coaster that simulates a runaway train on a gold-mining expedition.

Epcot/Future World – Let’s not forget the obvious here – Epcot may not be exactly what Walt Disney envisioned, but his ideals are certainly well represented. From rides like Journey into Imagination with Figment, to Test Track where futuristic concept cars are tested in real-world scenarios, science and progress are depicted. The Innoventions area is meant to educate guests about advances made in numerous area of life, and even features a ride, Sum of All Thrills, that allows guests to design and test their own roller coaster.

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The ideals of Walt Disney were so important to the creation of the Disney Parks and to their continued existence. WED Enterprises became Walt Disney Imagineering, and it’s important to recognize that “imagination” is such an important quality for everything that that division of the Disney Company does. Imagination comes from and begets progress, history and wonderment, and it’s no wonder that so many entertaining aspects of the Disney Parks lend themselves to those ideals.