USA: Thrill Rides in Florida’s Disney World & Universal Islands of Adventure

 

Now … this post has nothing to do with food.  Except, perhaps, the advice not to eat much before you try these rides.  (Actually, I heard that low blood sugar can contribute to nausea on thrill rides, so go ahead, eat one of the snacks I describe HERE!)

After spending a week (October/November 2011) visiting all of the Orlando Disney parks, with an additional day to check out The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal, here are my opinions on the thrill rides, including what I think is and is not worth the line up.  (Although, if you go in the first week of November like we did, you will be thrilled at how few queues there are).

My favourite ride of the tip was the Dragon Challenge (formerly Dueling Dragons) at Universal.  This ride is two inter-twisted roller coasters, meant as the first challenge in the TriWizard Tournament.  In my pre-trip research, opinions said the Hungarian Horntail (the green track, formerly Ice) was the better coaster.  I disagree — the Chinese Fireball (red, Fire) had much more of that awesome almost weightless feeling you get from a coaster with well designed drops and twists.  I will give the Horntail points, however, for making it feel like you were about to smash into the wall near Hagrid’s hut.

The coasters used to  “duel”, setting off at the same time to race around their respective tracks, with some well-designed spots where it looked like they would crash into each other.  But after some minor incidents in summer 2011 with sunglasses or something flying off one dragon and hitting someone on the other, Universal changed the ride so that the dragons no longer depart simultaneously.  Perhaps the Horntail was the better track then.

If you are fortunate to be at Universal on a day with few queues, you can get back into the Dragons line without walking all the way back down to the bottom.  Still inside the building, turn left to go back inside and re-enter the lineup of your choice (we did this for an awesome 6 rides in a row).  Before you ride: make sure you lock all of your stuff in a locker before you enter the Dragons area.  Staff are somewhat clueless and you’ll likely pass several while walking through the line area (5 plus minutes when empty).  None of them, until you are about to board, will tell you that you can’t take a bag with you.  And no, you can’t leave it on the floor either – you have to walk back down (but they do tell you about the secret re-entry door).

The Forbidden Journey of Harry Potter, inside Hogwarts castle, features the newest thrill ride technology.  And it is really well done.  This is your ride if you ever wanted to know what it is like to fly on a broomstick.  Sorry, let me be more precise  — if you ever wanted to know what it is like to fly on a bench right behind someone flying on a broomstick.  Bench or broomstick, the flying scenes are truly incredible, and I had a big sloppy grin on my face the entire time.  (Note:  the motion sickness-prone adults and kids in our party kept their eyes closed throughout.)

While I loved the flying scenes, the scaredy-cat in me was less keen in the Forbidden Forest, with the spiders spitting “venom” (water) and the puffs of air in your face.  And who wouldn’t be terrified of a Dementor streaking toward you? (I clamped my hand over my mouth to prevent it from sucking out my soul.  Others on my bench weren’t so lucky.  But I was still able to think of the Chinese Fireball, yell “Expecto Patronum”, and saw my Patronus swoosh by the surprised face of the person sitting next to me.  And no, I will not tell you what my Patronus looks like until we get to know each other better).

Even on a slow day, the lineup for the Forbidden Journey is long.  It is worth going through the line once though, for the talking and moving paintings and the scenes from Hogwarts that explain the scenario you’re about to enter.  For subsequent rides, breeze through the singles line.

Still at Universal, a lot of people talk about the Incredible Hulk coaster and its seven inversions.  It is fast (and I like the super fast launch in the tunnel — 0 to 40 mph in 2 seconds), and you go upside down a lot, but I have to say that this coaster isn’t really fun.  I think it is more for teenage boys to impress teenage girls than for anything else.  I’m glad I tried it, but I wouldn’t stand in line for more than about 5 minutes to ride it again (instead, I’d be over at the Wizarding World on the Chinese Fireball.  Again.)

Jurassic Park is a water ride, although if you’re careful not to sit in the first three rows, you’re unlikely to get too wet.  I’m not a fan of water rides, but the final drop on this one (which draws many spectators) is pretty good.  However, you have to first sit through a ride on a meandering river, staring at the speakers and other ride mechanics that the fake greenery no longer hide, plus a trip through the warehouse where velociraptors scream and spit at you.  Not sure it is worth it.

Lastly at Universal, while not a thrill ride,  it was a thrill to wander around Hogsmeade, even though my feet were on the ground.  With the snow-covered roof tops, the butterbeer, the Hogwarts Express, the (moving) Sirius Black “Wanted!” poster, and hearing Moaning Myrtle in the washroom, I felt like I was in the magical village.  Except for all the tourists in shorts and t-shirts.

Flight of the Hippogriff is a gentle coaster.  Doctor Doom’s Free Fall sounded boring (no screams whatsoever from riders), so I didn’t bother, given the queue.  Spiderman had an excruciatingly loud (and long) lineup for a tepid 3-D experience – bring earplugs for the lineup if you must try this ride.  Nothing else is even worth a mention.

Moving on to Disney.

I think the overall best park for thrills is Disney’s Hollywood Studios.  With the Tower of Terror, the Aerosmith coaster, Star Wars, and even Toy Story, this is a really fun park.

As I said, I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to things jumping out at me in the dark (in fact, after six separate trips to Disney, I finally went through the Haunted Mansion with my eyes open the entire ride!  Yes, the last time I was there I was 12, but still.)  So I was pretty nervous on the Tower of Terror not because of the free fall, but because of ghosts and other strangeness from the Twilight Zone.

Like all Disney rides, the set is stunning.  In the lobby of the hotel there are cobwebs and antiques and you feel like you could be back in the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Walking in the basement boiler room to the elevators is also a bit nerve-wracking (hint: do not turn right to go to the first elevator, where most people are.  Go straight(ish) and you’ll save a few minutes in line at the far elevator).

What is really scary on your first ride is that you have no idea when the free fall will actually start (or maybe that was just me), so you sit on edge for quite a while, jumping at every bump and sound. Another great thing about this ride is the randomizer — no two rides are alike, and you’ll be dropped, lifted up, and dropped again several times … never knowing exactly how far each time.  (Hint: if you have a heavy necklace, tuck it well into your shirt so it doesn’t fly up and whack you in the face).

I really enjoyed Star Tours too.  You board a Starspeeder and, wearing 3-D glasses, take a motion-simulated trip hosted by C-3P0.  Your destination depends on the Disney randomizer — I went to Tatooine for a fantastic pod-race and had a short visit to the city-planet of Coruscant (and I was jealous of our friends who visited the underwater world of Naboo).

The Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith is an indoor coaster with real speed — supposedly the force of a supersonic F-14.  It is nice and smooth and, because it is in the dark, has a few surprises (including several inversions).  Like the Incredible Hulk, it features the super fast launch start (0 to 60 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds).  While standing in the lineup watching it shoot off, you will ask yourself why you are so stupid as so be waiting to get on that thing.  But, assuming the lineup is not bad, you will go again.  (Hint: when entering the studio room which sets out the story, go all the way to the left of the room, as this is where the doors will open to let you into the bowels of the ride.  You might save 5 minutes.).

I didn’t think I would like Toy Story Mania.  I’ve never seen the fun in shooting gallery type games at the fair, and thought a ride based on it wouldn’t be much better.  And the loud waiting area and the very long lineup didn’t help.  But as your cart spins through the darkness (don’t worry, it doesn’t spin enough to make spin-ride-haters worry) and the 4-D computer-generated targets light up in front of you, you can’t help but laugh, get competitive and hit as many targets as you can.  (Hint: the “similar” Magic Kingdom ride of Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin is not similar or fun at all).

My next favourite Disney Park was Disney’s Animal Kingdom, with its Tree of Life and animals throughout (take your time strolling round to find them, perhaps not at the beginning of the day when lines are shorter, but do make sure you save some time and some foot energy to just enjoy the atmosphere that Disney has created).

Expedition Everest is a great coaster.  The Yeti has ripped up the tracks, and you pause (above) for a view of the mess and can see all the way over to Epcot.  And then, backwards and through the dark, you careen inside this icy mountain.  There are fun twists and drops, and great views of the park (if you keep your eyes open).  And yes, I was scared of the Yeti (every time).

The Kilimanjaro Safaris, the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, right next store, and the  Maharajah Jungle Trek, give you the opportunity to see wonderful animals without having to leave the continent — a quiet, gentle thrill.  My favourite were the tigers in the Jungle Trek (hint: do this first thing in the morning before it gets too crowded).  The gorillas are fascinating — you’ll have plenty of observation points for them, so don’t feel stuck at the first window.  I’ll report back how realistic the safari was when I get back from Namibia, but I was impressed with the lions, elephant, giraffe,  cheetah, zebra, and okapi (but the stops for photos are very very short).  (Hint: In Pangani, do not stop to talk to the naked-mole-rat-fascinated cast member (the rats are naked, not her) … she can be difficult to escape from).

The Kali River Rapids ride is in desperate need of a revamp.  You see not very much of interest, or even much of a story, as you raft through the jungle. And depending on your luck, you will get soaked as your circular raft falls down a 30 foot waterfall.  This ride is not up to Disney standards.  Dinosaur, somewhat like Universal’s Spiderman, is loud and bumpy, and necessitates avoiding predators and a meteor.  Boring, in a loud way.

Accompanied by two charming kids, I saw more shows this trip than I normally would.  Most I wouldn’t do again, but Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo – The Musical were fun (although we could have skipped the water in the latter).  It’s Tough to be a Bug is a fun 4D movie, with some small scares (warn your kids).

I wouldn’t call Epcot a destination thrill park, but if you’re there anyway, there are certainly some attractions worth checking out.

Mission: SPACE is Epcot’s only real thrill ride.  Real astronauts have said that the motion-simulator is very well done.  Your mission is to Mars, where each of your four person crew has tasks to accomplish during the trip (don’t worry if you don’t feel up to it, your actions don’t affect the outcome).  Inside your small capsule, you blast off Earth, tour around the moon and land on Mars.  The simulation is achieved through video and a multi-arm centrifuge that spins to make you feel speed and G-forces.  There are two options — Orange Team where you experience 2.4 G, and a gentler Green Team.  We opted for Orange (and kept a hard candy in our mouths, as instructed by a former astronaut) and experienced no nausea whatsoever.  I’d do it again to try to understand the mechanics better.  A neat ride.

Soarin’, an IMAX movie watched while hanging 40 feet in the air, is beautiful, and I smelled the oranges and did feel like my feet were going to get wet.  But the film and screen are a little ragged, minimizing the magic.  The lineup, even with a fast pass, is very long.

The speed test on Test Track is kind of fun, and kids will likely enjoy the rest of the  bumpy, hot and cold auto tests.  You might want to warn little ones that it might look like they’ll be hit by a truck, but they’re safe.   The Seas with Nemo & Friends is great for kids and fish lovers, and there are no thrills except for Bruce.

We spent most of our Epcot time checking out the food, but did try a few Kim Possible adventures that were alright.  The few other rides we did are not worth a mention.

And last is Disney’s Magical Kingdom which, I’m sorry to say, I wouldn’t visit again unless I had under-9s in tow.  Kids love this park, but for the thrill ride seeker there is not so much.

The best ride is Splash Mountain.  A wet ride (obviously), it has a final fun 52.5 foot slide and some smaller ones throughout.  You do have to listen to the story of Briar Rabbit, watch the characters’ antics, and hear all the Song of the South music throughout.  And we got stuck on the ride, twice.

Near Splash Mountain is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.  This is an intermediate coaster and in any other park would likely be passed over by adults.  But at the Magic Kingdom it has enough minor thrills to encourage you to repeat it.  (Hint: the back is bumpier than the front).

I was really excited to go on Space Mountain, which I fell in love with as an 8-year-old.  I’m not sure if it is because of the advances in coaster technology, or just a now-41-year-old’s like of comfort, but Space Mountain was so not-fun that we gave away our fast pass tickets instead of taking a second ride.  The indoor dark coaster is really just an exercise in sensory deprivation and you get jostled and jolted as you pass some cheesy space effects.  Time for an upgrade, Disney!

The Haunted Mansion was more fun then I remember as a kid (it is hard to remember much, mind you, with your eyes closed and your hands over your ears).

The jokes on the Jungle Cruise were modern (even a couple Harry Potter zingers) and I actually liked it more than I did as a kid.  Pirates of the Caribbean has some Jack Sparrow updates. Winnie The Pooh was cute, but the lineup outrageous (and the fast pass was out of service).  I made sure to ride Snow White (which terrorized me as a kid) since it is being torn down (I still can’t believe anyone ever thought it was appropriate for children).  Peter Pan’s Flight was alright, and I love the view over London.  No one would go on the teacups with me.  We got suck on It’s A Small World (the song is bad enough on a regular ride), but the updated dolls and scenery are quite well done.  Mickey’s PhilharMagic movie is cute.  I wish we’d had a chance to check out Monsters Inc Laugh Floor.

I enjoyed the trip, and the rides.  And my travelling companions tolerated my instance of early starts (gotta minimize time in line!) — thanks guys!  I have my amusement park quota filled for a while (at least until my nephews are old enough to go).  I do want to see the expansion of the Wizarding World when it is ready, and even the new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom.  But I can wait until I have a few more exotic trips under my belt.

Do you have favourite thrill rides (Florida or elsewhere)?

What do you think? Your comments are most welcome.

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