One family's wild ride through Orlando theme parks


Ryan and Brenden at Islands of AdventureTwo children, four adults, six days and seven theme parks: a formula for flat-out fun or fatigued frustration? Applied on a recent foray to Orlando with my extended family, it proved largely to add up to the former -- with, admittedly, by day six, a tad of the latter.

The trip was the brainchild of my mother, Jeanette, retiree and grandmother to my nephews Brenden, 10, and Ryan, 8. She not only wanted to treat the kids -- Orlando neophytes both -- to the Florida vacation of their childhood dreams but also felt it would be a great way for my brother Jeffrey and sister-in-law Nikki to relax a bit while I spent quality "uncle time" with the boys.

From our base at the Marriott's Grande Vista, a Marriott Vacation Club International villa resort just down the block from SeaWorld, we endeavored to take in as much of three theme park complexes -- Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld -- as our three-, two- and one-day passes, respectively, would allow.

Mouseketeer marathon

We did our level best, despite 90-degree temperatures, blazing sunshine and the challenges of keeping up with the boys' boundless energy. Here's how our exhaustive itinerary panned out:

  • Day 1: The Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World.
  • Day 2: Epcot, Walt Disney World.
  • Day 3: Islands of Adventure/Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando.
  • Day 4: Disney's Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World.
  • Day 5: Universal Studios, Universal Orlando.
  • Day 6: SeaWorld.

From the adults' perspective, the Magic Kingdom seemed like the logical place to start. It is, after all, the iconic Orlando theme park and a place we'd all visited before -- but not in 30 years, in my case.

We excitedly boarded the monorail -- the ride through the Contemporary Hotel lobby was just as cool at age 42 as it was at 12, I found -- and upon alighting made a beeline for Space Mountain. My brother and I had fond memories of the ride, and the experience held up well. Brenden and Ryan found it thrilling and worthy of a second spin; not bad for a 40-year-old indoor roller coaster (Space Mountain was refurbished in November 2009).

Next on my list was It's a Small World, whose kitschy appeal was lost on the boys, who for some reason preferred Peter Pan's Flight by far.

The park was packed, but lines proved manageable, a testament to Disney's ongoing, much publicized efforts at high-tech, 21st century crowd control. Much of that takes place behind the scenes, but we saw direct evidence of it the next day at Epcot's Soarin' attraction, the first ride the kids insisted we run to after passing through the park turnstiles. The wait for the simulated, IMAX-like ride through California landscapes is ameliorated by wall-sized, projected interactive video gaming for the masses.

We adults all had other specific rides and attractions at all seven parks that we wanted to experience. For me, it was the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios. For Nikki, it was the Shamu show at SeaWorld. My mother, at age 69, even braved a 90-minute wait to board the much-ballyhooed Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal's Islands of Adventure. But as this family trip to Orlando's iconic theme parks was all about the kids, their choices largely determined the pace and picks. Their takes on the highlights at each park follow.

Children's choice

• The Magic Kingdom: Among the rides, Brenden enjoyed Big Thunder Mountain Railroad the most. "I just thought it was really cool that it felt like you were on a freight train going through a mountain." He found It's a Small World "annoying" due to the repetitive soundtrack and wished Peter Pan's Flight lasted longer. Ryan's top pick was Space Mountain, "because I got to see stars."

SeaWorld Manta coaster• Epcot: One of Brenden's favorite parks, "because it was really technology-focused." Space simulator ride Mission: Space "pushed your face back, and it really felt like you were going into space." Ryan's top picks were Soarin', "because it felt like you were flying," and Test Track, "because you got in a race car and drove really fast."

• Islands of Adventure: "One of my favorite parks," said Brenden. Both he and Ryan absolutely loved Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey -- "super-amazing," Brenden said -- but the 12-year-old Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, another 3-D indoor dark ride, stood the test of time and got a shout-out, too.

• Disney's Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios: Brenden enjoyed both parks, but Animal Kingdom was "cool because I love animals and you got to see a lot on the safari that you normally would never see." Ryan's favorite ride at Hollywood Studios was Tower of Terror. Asked if it was perhaps too scary for a kid his age, he insisted "No! I liked it!"

• Universal Studios: Brenden's standout here was the new Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster. "My favorite ride of all and the best roller coaster ever." The sheer drops and ability to choose a soundtrack made it so, he said. Ryan, for his part, loved Revenge of the Mummy, even though it threw his grandmother for a loop.

• SeaWorld: Brenden felt SeaWorld was more about watching animals than riding rides. "But I have to say, the Manta coaster was an amazing ride," he added. "It felt like you were flying." Asked whether the marine animal shows at SeaWorld were just as cool as the thrill rides, Ryan demurred. "I can't decide about that one."

The final verdict on Orlando and its theme parks? A thumbs-up from both boys. Would Ryan recommend his classmates take as ambitious a tack, visiting seven parks in six days? "They might think that that's crazy, actually," he said.

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