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Orlando, Florida: Disney And Universal Theme Parks Attractions
A family themepark vacation at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando may sound like a dream come true, but to fulfill the dreams of different aged children you need which age-appropriate rides are worth waiting for. Research the best bets at each of the parks for younger kids, older kids, and the entire family with this guide and, in the process, you'll discover the best of what these top Orlando theme parks have to offer.
Fun For the Kids
(Toddler to Age 8)
We all know that everyone, from grandparents to college spring breakers, loves Disney World, but let's face it -- the Magic Kingdom is the stuff of dreams for the park's youngest visitors. A chance to meet beloved characters alone could make the trip, which is why a stop at Mickey's Toontown Fair is imperative. Here, just in case you didn't bump into them around the park, your kids can meet famous Disney characters in the Toontown Hall of Fame before exploring Mickey and Minnie's country houses, Donald's boat, or Goofy's Barnstormer kiddie coaster. If your kids are into royalty, the Princesses Fairytale Hall is a must-stop so that they can easily collect autographs from several princesses at once. New Fantasyland is another area for little ones, with classic rides like It's a Small World and Dumbo the Flying Elephant and the new classic Enchanted Tales with Belle. Tom Sawyer Island in Frontierland involves a steamboat ride to an interactive playground. And of course, just walking around the Magic Kingdom with your kids will reveal more surprises and little gasps of joy.
Traditionally, Epcot isn't the strongest park on activities especially for very young children, but there are some fun attractions that will entertain little ones while older family members get their cultural fix. The most exciting is Turtle Talk with Crush, an interactive attraction that features the sea turtle from "Finding Nemo" chatting with his visitors. The Imagination Institute, starring Figment the purple dragon, is another sensory experience appropriate for young children. Braver kids will have fun on the Maelstrom, a popular and somewhat random boat ride through Norway's history and culture, complete with pirates, trolls, and polar bears. The model train display on the Germany Pavilion has also been known to captivate kids.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Disney's Hollywood Studios is the place for great cinematic based entertainment and with so many Disney and Pixar films becoming kids' classics, you know your family can spend an entire day here. Even if they haven't seen Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, children will enjoy the large playground based on this imaginative live-action version of the 1980's movie. It's all a matter of perspective as kids slide down blades of grass and ride on giant ants like the speck-sized characters in the film. Disney's Hollywood Studios also features shows based on some of television's most beloved puppet characters. Jim Henson's Muppet Vision 3-D creates a tour through Muppet Labs with 3-D film and animatronic appearances. At Playhouse Disney Live, kids can watch their favorite morning TV friends from shows like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Handy Manny, and Disney's Little Einsteins as they sing and tell stories.
Few things capture children's imaginations more than dinosaurs. Children too young to go on the DINOSAUR ride can head instead for Animal Kingdom's The Boneyard, an area where budding paleontologists can play at digging up dinosaur and ancient mammal skeleton fossils. Kids Discovery Clubs are interactive learning stations located throughout Animal Kingdom that complement the areas in which they appear. The TriceraTop Spin creates a prehistoric version of the Dumbo ride, while the Wildlife Express Train will appeal to young conductors who want to steer their train to the animal care areas of Animal Kingdom.
Universal Studios Florida
Favorite cartoon stars from different generations, but with "universal" appeal, contribute to some of the best attractions for younger children at Universal Studios. Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast rockets families through a journey featuring not only Jimmy, but also Spongebob, the Rugrats, and characters from "The Fairly OddParents" and "Hey Arnold!" Those who meet the height requirement of 40" will enjoy the ride. The best bet for the littlest of tykes at Universal is Woody Woodpecker's KidZone, where Woody's Nuthouse Coaster offers a pint-sized thrill. Barney, Curious George, and An American Tail's Fievel also make an appearance in this area -- each has a colorful and interactive playground, while Barney also performs a sing-a-long with Baby Bop and BJ.
Universal Islands of Adventure
Although the attractions of Islands of Adventure are marketed for "serious" thrills (as if those at the original Universal park weren't enough), they also contain plenty of rides and attractions for little ones. The entire island of Suess Landing is a great place to start and to meet some of the world's most beloved literary characters. This island includes the non-height-restricted Cat in the Hat ride, the Caro-Seuss-el with Suess creatures instead of horses, the One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish water play ride, and an interactive playground area. Over on Jurassic Park Island, the Jurassic Park Discovery Center offers games and educational displays, while Camp Jurassic is yet another themed playground to take the kids to while your teens brave facing T-Rex.
Fun For Older Children
(Up to Age 15)
Which Pirates of the Caribbean came first, the movies or the ride? Disney "old-timers" know the answer: the ride. The swashbuckling animatronics have been entertaining visitors for years, but it wasn't until recently that the movies turned back around to influence the ride. Now, Captain Jack Sparrow and other new special effects add to the adventurous atmosphere of the ride. The big thrills of Space Mountain and Splash Mountain, the legendary indoor roller coaster and log flume ride, also demonstrate the irony that some of the hippest rides for older kids in the Magic Kingdom are also some of the old mainstays.
The best attractions for older kids at Epcot transcend our everyday experiences of speed and perspective. Mission: SPACE is a technologically awesome flight simulator that puts participants in the driver's seat of their NASA fantasies. Kids who are hesitant to try it can between a more sedate or a more rigorous version of the ride as they advance through the line. The totally reimagined Chevrolet Test Track recreates another high-speed, but very much on-the-ground and interactive situation: automobile testing. Guests design their own vehicle at kiosks in the pavilion, and save them to a smart card. After the "test" ride in which six passengers and their car designs face hill climbing, harsh road surfaces, skid recovery, high speed, and bracing curves; designs are scored and evaluated for performance. The ride, designed in partnership with General Motors Engineering, is meant to be educational about automotive technology and safety. Honey, I Shrunk the Audience is a 3-D film experience designed to make audience members feel tiny. Viewers wear their magic "safety goggles" for an experiment gone awry, complete with suddenly gigantic family pets. And if you prefer to relax in Italy while the kids continue their fun, sign them up for Phineas & Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure, an interactive, moving video game where smart cards and wonderful computer animation is used to make "walls" come to life and share clues to foil the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
If we had to pick just one Disney ride that older kids rave about, jump up and down for, and want to go on again and again, it would have to be MGM's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. After a short pre-show that evokes the old television series, visitors board and ride an "old" elevator to the top of the tower, only to have the elevator cables "snap" and cause a freefall of several stories. At one point, the doors even open slightly to show you how fast you're falling. A simple concept, really, but the drop sequences are not always the same and the atmosphere is fun and creepy at the same time, inspiring repeat visits. The Rock n Roller Coaster which bundles you up in a celebrity limo also doesn't disappoint, with its unexpected drops, sudden high speed, and blaring Aerosmith soundtrack.
Animal Kingdom Park
Kali River Rapids is Animal Kingdom's answer to the whitewater rafting ride. Go on a hot day, and prepare to get soaked. The DINOSAUR ride offers thrills of a different kind -- there's a T-Rex on the loose in this ride, and he's anything but fossilized. For us, the most exciting attraction in Animal Kingdom is Expedition Everest, a journey to the base camp of the mountain to end all mountains. Along the way, visitors depart from a recreated Himalayan village on a roller coaster with many surprises. Those who don't know what a yeti is will soon find out.
Whatever you decide to do in any of the four Disney parks, don't forget that Downtown Disney is a fun family hang-out, especially in the afternoon and evening. The the neon and sushi Splitsville bowling alley has revitalized Downtown Disney by attracting rainy day themepark-avoiders and aftershool partiers to what is essentially a raucous, themed shopping mall. Priced at $20 per 90-minute round of bowling including shoes, it's a splurge, but it's cheaper and just as fun as a day at the parks. Don't miss the linens, kitchen supplies and princess outfits at the largest Disney merchandise shop in the world. Feel at ease letting the kids walk around on their own. Whether they attend the Cirque Du Soleil show with the rest of the family or head off to devour the popular and well-priced burgers at T-Rex, tweens and teens will feel like this is one of the happening places to be.
Universal Studios Florida
Of course, Universal Orlando's CityWalk is another fun teen hang-out, but then again, many of the major attractions throughout Universal are best suited to older kids who want to "ride the movies." Revenge of the Mummy plummets riders through the mummy's tomb and creates a psychological thrill with ghouls galore. The Men in Black Alien Attack allows you to play the MIB agent by zapping aliens and possibly saving the planet Earth. Terminator 2 features a combination of 3-D film, live action stunts, and special effects; and Twister...Ride It Out is a live-action tornado simulation; the list of fun disaster scenarios goes on to include King Kong and Disaster.
Universal Islands of Adventure
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is one of the most popular rides at Islands of Adventure, and this revamped "4D" Spidey's eye view attraction is a big hit with older kids that love the hip superhero series. Superhero Island also offers the Incredible Hulk Coaster and Dr. Doom's Freefall. There's an entire Jurassic Park island with a thrilling river raft ride, starring T-Rex and velociraptors, as its centerpiece. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the newest and perhaps most crowded themed island, features the Quidditch-themed racing coaster pair known as Dueling Dragons as well as remarkable theming in the village of Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts school. New for 2013 is Transformers: The Ride 3D which is sure to be a transforming experience for all ages.
Fun For the Whole Family
Now that we've covered what appeals to little ones and your school-age kids, what's left? The truth is, since the Disney and Universal parks are by nature kid-friendly, many of the attractions listed above would be great for the whole family -- it's up to your individual family to decide what you're going to prioritize. In the meantime, here's a brief listing of some other attractions to consider for "family together time" in each park
The New Fantasyland is packed with charming rides like a reimagined Dumbo the Elephant and the very entertaining Enchanted Tales with Belle show. Even though your littlest ones will be given the chance to wear costumes and "help" Belle, the whole family will be entranced by the computerized animatronics at work in Lumiere the Candlestick and other props and characters from "Beauty and the Beast." It may be a little creepy, but the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion is really designed with all ages in mind -- most of the ghosts are quite good-natured, after all. Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin tends to bring out the competitive streak in just about anyone (in a fun way, of course), while whatever parade or nighttime spectacular is running at the time of your visit will be a must-see. More good old-fashioned, educational attractions like the Hall of Presidents and the Carousel of Progress provide a quick history lesson amidst a busy day at the park. Take a relaxing, classic Jungle Cruise or play together at Socerers of the Magic Kingdom, an interactive role playing game where guests use "magic cards" to activate hidden images and get clues to continue their fight against evil. The Magic Kingdom's "Celebrate the Magic" show, in which images of favorite Disney characters are projected on the castle walls and in the air, is a don't miss evening event.
Just stroll around Epcot's World Showcase where family members can "shop" destinations for their next big trip, whether it's in China, Italy, Canada, Norway, the UK, Mexico, France, Morocco, Japan, or the USA. Music, dance, interactive activities, movies, rides, displays, and interesting food and drink are scattered throughout the colorful pavilions devoted to different countries of the world. Among rides, the IMAX style Soarin that floats over California's most beautiful terrain is a family favorite; there are several in the Futureworld section. The Bernard and Shirley Kinsey Collection of arts, artifacts and documents related to African American history is opening at the American Heritage Gallery in March. By the way, if you're thinking of eating dinner at one of Epcot's international restaurants, make reservations early in the day. And be sure to stick around afterwards so you can catch IllumiNations, the fireworks show that enlivens Epcot's central lagoon.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
The Great Movie Ride is a classic, just like the Hollywood films that it travels through, but keep in mind that the scene from "Alien" may be too scary for very little ones. Overall, this is one of MGM's signature rides and a dream-come-true for movie buffs of any age. The Magic of Disney Animation and the Studios Backlot Tour are low-key but interesting ways to get behind-the-scenes of popular Disney animated films and some television shows. MGM is also home to the Beauty and the Beast stage show, which you might want to hit if you never got to see the Broadway production.
Animal Kingdom Park
At the core of Animal Kingdom are the Kilimanjaro Safaris, which take passengers on a Jeep-like ride through herds of real African animals, including lions, elephants, hippos, giraffes and in a refresh-the-excitement move in 2012, a new herd of plains zebras. Animal Kingdom is also home to the Festival of the Lion King, an in-the-round stage show with song, dance, and audience participation in its tribal celebration and the new, universally acclaimed "Finding Nemo" musical show. Just wait till Avatar comes to this park in 2014, many other innovations are bound to follow.
Universal Studios Florida
The new Despicable Me Minion Mayhem combines 3D technology, the film's animated little yellow creatures, and a cute storyline into a very funny ride. Shrek 4-D picks up where the first Shrek movie left off, on Shrek and Fiona's honeymoon, and involves the film’s original cast and creative team. For a classic family movie ride experience, try the E.T. Adventure, which offers a journey to the mild-mannered alien's planet on flying bicycles. The Blues Brothers show has great music, multi-age appeal and lots of entertainment value. The popular Superstar Parade and nighttime show, Universal's Cinematic Spectacular - 100 Years of Movie Memories celebrating the studio's centennial are both worth seeing.
Universal Islands of Adventure
Remember Popeye the Sailor Man and his girlfriend Olive Oyl? You'll find rides themed after these characters on the Toon Lagoon island, where visitors are sure to get splashed, one way or another. Littler kids will enjoy playing on Popeye's ship, while the family can try out Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges (whitewater rafting ride) or Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls (log flume ride). If you're with kids of a literary age, do not miss the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where you can admire Hogsmeade, drink Butterbeer (5 million sold as we go to press) and visit Ollivander's Wand Shop if anyone's too young for the fantastic rides.
For more information on the latest attractions, age restrictions for rides mentioned, and family themepark vacation specials, visit the Walt Disney World Resort website or call 407/939-6244; or visit the site of Universal Orlando Resort or call their reservation agents at 407/224-4233.
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