the wonderful world of veena.

06 November 2013

solo adventures at disney world and universal orlando.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Orlando with my parents. They were attending their annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and since I am currently fun-employed and have not been down there in 11 years, I decided to tag along. While they attended their lectures and scammed free stuff from the various hospitals and sponsors who had booths, I visited the parks of Disney World and Universal Orlando. This was the first time I'd visited either place - or any amusement park, for that matter - on my own, and it was certainly a different experience to traveling there with friends or family.

Neither is a place you would think of going to on your own. Disney's parks are mostly marketed towards families - especially ones with small children - and Universal is catered toward families with older kids and adults, but both are places you generally visit in groups. Being on my own was a bit weird at times, I'll admit, but it was also fun in its own way.

For one thing, I could visit each park at my own pace. I only visited the attractions I wanted to visit, and I was the only person inconvenienced by a long line [although the longest I waited for any ride was 30 minutes. the benefits of visiting in late October]. I chose my routes around the park, I set my times, and I stopped to eat only as and when I wanted to. I know there are a lot of I's in those sentences, but sometimes you just need to do things for yourself.

I decided to split up the parks by day and tackled the Magic Kingdom on Saturday, Epcot on Sunday, and both parks of Universal Orlando on Monday. The AAP organized for all the attendees and their guests to visit Hollywood Studios [formerly MGM Studios] after hours on Saturday night, so that meant that the only park I missed out on was Animal Kingdom. I was sad to miss it, but there just wasn't enough time.

The Magic Kingdom

This park is a dream for every child below the age of 10. It's still kind of a dream for me, but I love the rides and attractions as opposed to getting to meet all the characters. Having said that, though, the parade is still awesome to watch, no matter what your age.

I got to the park around 10.30am and headed straight for Tomorrowland and Space Mountain. It's always one of the longer lines, and it's on the opposite end of the park from the other things I like, so I knew I wanted to do that first. Also, Space Mountain was my favourite ride as a child, and it still looms as this amazing presence in my memory. Luckily the line was much shorter this time around than the first time I ever got to go on it, and the ride itself didn't disappoint. Although I kept thinking there was this one huge drop during the ride, and even though I kept waiting for it, it never came. Regardless, it was pretty awesome.

From there I traipsed all the way across the park to Frontierland on the other side of the park for Big Thunder Railroad and Splash Mountain. Big Thunder is always another personal favourite, and this time was no exception. Splash is always a crowd pleaser, and I was lucky enough to be in one of the logs that makes the giant splash at the bottom, so it was great.

I had a bit of time to kill after that, so I grabbed some ice cream and some water from a little stand - the lines for real food were way too long, and the real food is seriously overpriced - and walked over to Adventureland to wait in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. You sit on a little log and ride along through the water and see pirate displays and listen to sound effects and occasional lines from the actors who were in the movies. If you've ever been on the It's a Small World ride, it's pretty much that but with pirates. I kept waiting for something to jump out of the water or for something generally kind of "scary" to happen, but it never did. I guess it's just that it was really tame, and I wanted it to be something more.

After that it was off to discover the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. This has always been another of my favourites whenever I'm at the park. It's nothing much - you walk through a treehouse modeled after the story and see little rooms set up for the Robinson family - but I have just always liked it. I think it fulfills my dream of always wanting a treehouse, and this is the mother of all treehouses.

And that was pretty much my day at the Magic Kingdom. On my way out I picked up a few goodies for various kiddos at the store near the entrance, and I hopped on the monorail to head back and wait for my ride back to the hotel.

Hollywood Studios

The conference organized for all the attendees and their guests to visit this park after hours on Saturday night, which was awesome. Although it took forever to unload us from our buses, once we were in the park we had the whole place to ourselves. The lines for all the attractions were short, and the weather was beautiful.

When we got there, we made a beeline for the Tower of Terror. Since my mother and our family friend who was also there don't like the rides, they waited while my father and I went. My father cackled through most of it, so I'll call it a success.

We wanted to see the Indiana Jones stunt show, but the show was nearly over, so we only caught the last 7 minutes or so, but it was still pretty good. My favourite will always be when my brother was chosen to be one of the extras when we went in 1997. Hilarious.

We found out the Beauty and the Beast stage show was set to begin again at 9.15pm, so before that the father and I went on the Rock 'n Roller Coaster featuring Aerosmith. It's one of my all-time favourites, and my father kept me company. I loved it like always, screaming the words to Dude Looks Like a Lady while we sped and looped around. I didn't hear a peep from my father during the ride, and his hair was all disheveled at the end of it, but I think he liked it.

After that we caught the Beauty and the Beast show, which was great because I got to sing along with all of the songs. And then it was time for dinner, and then we got a bus back to the hotel.


On Sunday I went to Epcot. I slept late and then didn't have as much time there as I would have liked, but it was still fun. I love going on the little "Technology Through the Ages" ride at the very beginning, partly because I'm a nerd at heart, and partly because I love that Judi Dench narrates it for you.

After that I set off to explore the World Showcase and dropped in on Mexico, Norway, China, and the US. There is an international food & wine festival happening right now, but the lines at all the carts were way too long, so I didn't have enough time to sample :(

In Mexico I spent about 10 minutes watching a sweet Mexican lady paint some beautiful knickknacks [but I didn't buy. kind of pricey, and I was worried they would break in transport] and then went on a little water ride. Kind of kitschy, but still entertaining.

In Norway I went on the Norse ride, which is always fun, but I didn't really explore much beyond that. The ride ends with a 5-minute video about Norway, which is pretty entertaining if not for the content then definitely for the dated-ness of the video. I'm pretty sure it's not been updated since the early 80s.

In China I grabbed some "fried rice" at the cafe and then watched a 15-minute 360-degree video about China. It was really interesting, and the 360-degree view gave it a really interesting aspect. We all stood in the middle of a giant circular room, and the movie was broadcast on screens above us that circled the room, so if it showed a street scene, there was traffic both in front of and behind you, making you feel as though you were in the middle of the street. I wasn't thrilled about having to stand through it [my feet were hurting], but it was pretty neat.

And finally I watched The American Experience, which is a 20 minute stage and screen show about some of the history of the US. For a history nerd such as myself, it was pretty entertaining, especially the narration by models of Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, but definitely something to be taken with a grain of salt when it exults the wonders of America.

Universal Orlando

And finally, the crown jewel: Universal Orlando.

It's grown so much over the years that it's now split into two parks: the original Universal Studios and the newer Islands of Adventure.

I headed for Islands of Adventure first, as I wanted to spend as much time as I could in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And it did not disappoint. I spent about an hour wandering through the village of Hogsmeade, visiting the shops and riding the rides. The Dragon's Challenge was my favourite, and the tour through the castle was so awesome that I did it twice [also because there's a separate line for single riders, so I got to skip ahead of everyone waiting]. I also went on the Flight of the Hippogriff, which was pretty fun - you can't beat getting to fly over Hagrid's Hut. I could have stayed there for even more hours, but I wanted to explore as much of the parks as I could in the time I was there.

From there I went to Jurassic Park and went on the river rafting ride. It was good fun, and I ended up pretty wet by the end of it. I was previously struggling with whether or not I wanted to go on both of the other water rides in Toon Lagoon, and I figured at that point since I was already wet, I might as well go big or go home. So off I went to get in line for Ripsaw Falls, where I got DRENCHED on the last drop. And it was pretty awesome. And then I completed the trifecta with a turn on the Bilge-Rat Barges, after which point I looked a bit like a drowned rat. They have these "People Dryers" outside those last two where you can pay $5 to dry off - it wasn't a complete waste of money, but I definitely think the blowers could be placed in better spots. Next I hit up the Incredible Hulk Coaster - you know, that giant green one you always see in all the ads? And it was even more awesome that it appears. And then finally my last stop was in Suess Landing for the Trolley Train Ride. It was alright - I think the 20-minute wait [my longest of the day] combined with not great speakers kind of made it feel a little anti-climactic.

Once I finished on that side, I headed out and over to the original Universal Studios. My first stop? The Simpsons Ride, obviously. It's one of those simulated rides, and it was pretty fun. After that it was time for The Mummy Returns roller coaster, which I had not previously tried out. And it was great. And then I wrapped up my day with a turn on the Rockit roller coaster. Once again I used the "single riders" line to skip to the front of the line, saving myself about a 15-minute wait. And now for the best part: you get to choose your own soundtrack for the ride [the speakers are in the headrests]. I went with rock 'n roll and ended up ZZTop's Gimme All Your Lovin', which was probably the best way possible to wrap up an already awesome day.

So when it was all said and done, I went on 11 different rides 12 times [with the castle journey twice] in just about 5 hours. That's a pretty successful day in my book.

Two things I will say about Universal that sets it apart from the Disney parks: the single-rider lines and the free lockers provided for some of the rides. I think the single-rider lines speak for themselves. It's good when people want to go on a ride but the others in their party don't and so therefore don't have to wait as long. It's also good for groups that don't mind splitting up, especially if it means shorter lines. And it's good for those rare breeds such as myself who actually just visit the park solo.

The free lockers were my other favourite. On some of the rides - especially the roller coasters - loose articles are not allowed. That means no hats or glasses unless you don't mind losing them, and no bags. Sometimes you can just leave your stuff with someone in your party who doesn't want to go on that particular ride, but if everyone wants to go, it can be a problem. Well, free lockers to the rescue! At each of those rides, lockers are provided where you can store your belongings. It takes your fingerprint, which is how you unlock it once you've finished the ride. Based on how long the wait is for the line, you get a certain amount of time free for the lockers, and then you have the option of keeping the locker longer for a fee. It's genius. The only flaw is that these aren't an option for the water rides; there are lockers near those rides, but none of them offer them for free, and I was too cheap to pay $4 for 30 minutes. But otherwise, genius.

And there you have my solo amusement park adventures. Like I said, always more fun with friends, but definitely a fun little expedition.

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