A midwinter escape
There’s been an awful lot of handwringing this week about the possible snowstorm / the impending snowstorm / the snowstorm that ate the Midwest / the I-have-more-snow-than-you-do snowstorm.
Much of this time, I was in Florida.
Florida is a hot, muggy hell-hole in the summer, but it feels mighty fine in January. I was fortunate enough to spend a long weekend in Orlando, and I tried my darndest to suck as much sunshine and warmth out of those four days as I possibly could.
For example, for an Iowan, there is special pleasure associated with dining outdoors. Because here it’s nearly always too hot or too cold or too windy or too rainy or too buggy or too something. The perfect days of late spring and early fall are few and far between. So to be in a land where I could comfortably dine outdoors IN JANUARY, that was something to savor. So I ate outside a lot.
My husband Dave and I have never been to Florida together without children, so this was a treat. We stayed in a nice resort, in which I could sit on the balcony each morning, sipping coffee, checking my e-mail, and gazing out across the tops of palm trees.
We spent the weekend doing what some couples sans kids wouldn’t dream of doing – we went to the theme parks.
Dave is a big fan of Harry Potter, so the lure of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park was too great to resist. So that’s where we spent the first full day. I will say right off that I am NOT a Harry fan, and now I can also say that I am not a fan of Islands of Adventure.
To start with, we had to stand in a very long, slow-moving queue line just to buy our tickets. I was already tired by the time we got into the dang park. We dashed through Suess Landing (though I would have gladly stopped to ride the Cat in the Hat ride if I had been with a three-year-old, because it was really adorable), through the Lost Continent, and directly to the Wizarding World of You-Know-Who.
Everything I have read about this World is correct. The design of the castle (Hogswart) and the village (Hogsmeade) are phenomenal – as good (dare I say better?) than anything at Disney World. The main ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, would have been completely spectacular had I A) cared anything about Harry Potter and B) not become intensely nauseated. It’s a fantastic mixture of ride and 3-D film and animatronic (I think) technology – or something altogether new that I didn’t recognize from any ride I’ve ever experienced. It was cool. (But next time — if there ever is a next time — I will take Dramamine 30 minutes before I ride it.)
Critics say that the Wizarding World is too crowded, and they are correct. We visited during what is likely the slowest time of the year and literally had to stand in a queue line to enter one of the shops. People kept asking us, “What are you in line for?” and we would point and say, “To get into that shop” and they would furrow their brows and walk away. The buildings and other attractions are extremely close together. The walkway through the village is too narrow. The wait for a mug of butterbeer is forever (though I will tell you that it’s worth the wait).
My solution to all of this is that Universal should tear down all the rest of the Islands of Adventure attractions and make the entire park into Harry’s Wizarding World. Because the Marvel Super Hero Island is obnoxious, the Toon Lagoon is a complete waste, and even Jurassic Park had nothing to interest me (and I am a huge fan of the movie). The worst area, though, is the Lost Continent, with its poorly run Poseidon’s Fury (we waited in line nearly 45 minutes before cutting our losses and going back for more butterbeer) and its Eighth Voyage of Sinbad “stunt show” that made me laugh out loud only because it was the single worst live-action show I’ve ever seen. (Note to Universal: A lame script, unimpressive special effects, and bad acting equal a rotten tomato of a show, even if your target audience is an 8-year-old boy.)
I thought as I was planning this trip that one of the downsides to going to the theme parks during the winter is that the operating hours are a lot shorter than the rest of the year. As it turned out, I was more than ready to leave the Islands well before the posted closing time of 7 p.m.
When you leave the park, you walk through an area called CityWalk, which is sort of a Downtown Disney wannabe. It calls out for exhausted parents to STOP! Spend more money! Drink a lot! Which is not a bad idea if you’ve spent a full day at a theme park with a few kids in tow. We didn’t think it was a bad idea for us, either, because we were clearly ready for a beer.
There were many, many chain bars and restaurants, and I think we went into most of them in search of a decent beer. But alas, it was a land of Bud and Bud Light. Even a bar called Pat O’Brien’s didn’t have a single New Orleans-worthy beer. (Would it be too much to ask to have bottles of Abita? I can buy a six-pack at HyVee in Ames.) We ended up at Hard Rock Café, which is not known for its food, but it blasts good rock’n’roll and has a decent beer list. I went in with low expectations, and I was not disappointed.
The next day (after the aforementioned coffee on the balcony) we headed for a theme park that knows how to do things right: Epcot. One of four Walt Disney World theme parks, Epcot might be the least favorite of most kids, but our family loves all the parks equally, and Epcot’s World Showcase seemed like the perfect place to spend the day.
The line to buy tickets was brief; in fact, we walked right up to the window. Within minutes, we were in a fast-moving line for a slow-moving ride: Spaceship Earth. It’s corny and I’ve been on it half a dozen times, but I still love it. Next we headed for a newer attraction inside “The Land” section: Soarin’. This ride (really just an IMAX film on steroids) started out at Disney’s California Adventure theme park as Soarin’ Over California. It’s the exact same ride, and it’s a fabulous experience. I could ride it over and over. A bit of advice: If the line appears long, grab a fast pass for this one.
Before leaving Future World and heading for World Showcase, we caught an encore performance of “Captain EO.” This 1986 film features Michael Jackson when he was at the top of his game: Young, adorable, not yet creepy, and still black. The film, which features early 3-D technology, hasn’t been seen in the park since it was replaced by a better, more family-friendly 3-D film inspired by the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” movies in the 1990s. I’m guessing Jackson’s death in 2008 prompted the Disney folks to bring the film back. Captain EO’s special effects are awful and its intergalactic premise is weak, but it was created by the team of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola – and Michael Jackson’s dance moves are thrilling. I left the theater with a big, goofy smile on my face.
Other fun things in Future World (which I’ve experienced before but passed on this time around) are the very clever “Turtle Talk with Crush” show (from “Finding Nemo”) and the high-speed Test Track ride. There’s also a Mission: SPACE ride on which I nearly had a panic attack last time I was at Epcot (note to anyone suffering from claustrophobia in any form: please do not ride this ride) and a new Ellen DeGeneres “energy adventure” that we simply didn’t take the time to see.
So… on to the main attraction: World Showcase. This place is a glorious soup of geography lessons, fine dining, exotic shopping, international tourism, Disney character encounters, live music, and adult beverages. One minute you’re swilling a beer in Germany and the next you’re running into Donald Duck from The Three Caballeros in Mexico.
We did our best to see and do everything World Showcase had to offer. We ate and drank our way around the World: lunch (with wine) at a sidewalk café in Italy, chocolate éclairs from a French patisserie, pints of Bass at the Rose and Crown Pub in the UK, and dinner under the stars at the San Angel Inn in Mexico. We sat and listened to live music (Off Kilter, a Canadian and Celtic rock band in Canada; The British Invasion Beatles tribute in the UK), stood and watched street performers (Sergio the mime/clown/juggler in Italy; the comical waiter and wine steward in France), and watched wide-screen tourism films in Canada, France, China, Norway, and the U.S. I think I walked through every shop in Morocco, China, Japan, Italy, France, Germany, and all the rest.
The day flew by, and pretty soon it was evening. I hate to use the word, but evenings in Disney theme parks are, well, magical. The lights come on, the fireworks go off, and there’s just a total sense of contentment. It never fails.
The other theme parks are just as wonderful, and maybe better if you have kids in tow. Disney’s Hollywood Studios might be best for older kids, with its kickass Aerosmith Rock’n’Rollercoaster and screamalicious Tower of Terror. The Magic Kingdom, of course, is the most magical for little kids, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom (the newest park) features a world-class safari and an impressive coaster (Expedition Everest). I like all of the parks; please don’t ever make me choose a favorite. If you haven’t been there since you were a kid yourself, you really need to go back sometime.
May I suggest January???