Theme Park Insider

A Californian's Florida Adventure - Part 1

Edited: October 17, 2017, 10:14 PM · Orlando, Florida...to a theme park enthusiast, this is the ultimate travel destination. Within a hundred miles of this city lie 8 of the most heavily attended theme parks in the United States (7 of which rank among the top 25 worldwide), along with 5 major waterparks and a number of other tourist attractions. While everyone knows the area for Walt Disney World, the Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa, Legoland Florida, and more can be found here. For the average American, the destination is a once-in-a-lifetime or once-in-a-very-long-while trip. For the average enthusiast, it is a once every year (or every few years) destination. For me, however, it was out of reach.

Growing up in Southern California, the idea of traveling to Walt Disney World didn't hold the appeal it did for a lot of families. We had Disneyland just over 30 minutes away, and with annual passes on and off throughout childhood we visited all the time. Beyond that, Knott's Berry Farm was another park we frequented, as was Legoland California once that opened. However, once I started to get involved in the enthusiast community, I discovered many great rides and parks beyond the west coast, and a desire to travel was born. Naturally, Florida was near the top of the bucket list, and while we attempted to do a family trip a couple times it was never financially viable.

Fast forward to 2011...It was this year that I gave up the idea of trying to do a family trip to Florida and started to plan one solo. Wizarding World of Harry Potter had opened to rave reviews, Fantasyland was receiving a complete overhaul, and Cheetah Hunt now raced above the Serengeti. This was the year I transferred to UCI (University of California-Irvine), with an anticipated graduation date of 2014. After learning that most of the things I was excited about would be opening that year, I made the decision...a trip to Florida would be my personal reward for completing my degree. Well, due to a variety of circumstances, the trip didn't go quite as planned (although the degree happened on schedule), and hopes of going each year evaporated. Finally, in 2017, everything aligned and I was able to make the trip happen.

On the evening of Saturday, September 23rd, 2017, I boarded a Frontier Airlines flight from LAX destined to arrive at MCO the next morning. This was the start of an 11 day adventure, during which I saw all the top attractions of Florida and much, much more. Here, I welcome you to relive the adventure with me as I share my take on some of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, as well as some that many tourists simply pass on by.

Fair warning before I get started, however...this is going to be a 10 part report, with the goal of publishing one part per week. I may not always be able to meet this goal, but I do intend to get the report completed by the end of the year. Also, for those here purely for theme parks, note that those will begin in Part 2...the first couple days of the trip were spent mostly on other activities.

Part 1: Beyond the Parks...

When planning for the trip began, it was to be a solo adventure. However, as is often the case when visiting a new theme park, it is always great to have others with you who can guide you around. For this trip, I was joined by Evan, a friend of mine from California who generally does an annual trip to Florida. I also hung out with a fair number of Florida friends, who I will mention when discussing the days in which they joined us. However, due to schedules and airfare, Evan's flight didn't arrive until Tuesday, leaving me with two bonus days all to myself. I promised Evan I would refrain from visiting the parks without him (I bent this promise a bit), so what was I to do? Well, with a rental car and a Go Orlando card, I set out beyond Disney and Universal for something different. What was my first stop in Florida?

Kennedy Space Center

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As a child, space travel fascinated me. I used to seek out shows depicting the work of NASA, and had fun building and launching model rockets. As I got older, the interest waned, but it still remained present. Therefore, when planning the trip, a visit to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex was often in the mix. It went in and out with various iterations, but ultimately there was space to squeeze it in.

My initial thinking was that the visitor complex would essentially be a large museum, with various spacecraft and artifacts on display and a tour of historical sites. What I found, however, was the experience was more of a museum and a theme park merged into one. Yes, there was plenty to see, and there was a bus tour of the launch pads, but many of the exhibits offered much more than that. Movies, interactive elements, even a legitimate ride...it could all be found here.

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Due to how early my flight arrived in Orlando, I got to the complex over an hour before opening. Rather than wait around, I turned back to the mainland and got breakfast at a Waffle House before returning to the complex, and I still arrived before the parking attendants (but the gate was open...free parking!). It took no time at all to pick up my ticket (the Go Orlando card requires you to get a ticket at each attraction), then I just waited around until opening at 9 A.M.

Once inside the center, I followed the small crowd toward the Heroes and Legends exhibit. This is the newest attraction at the center, and is the first of several theme park-esque presentations. Upon arrival, visitors pick up a pair of 3D glasses, then they proceed into a preshow room. Here, a video presentation is shown about what a hero is, then guest proceed into the main theater for a 4D film recreating the dramatic moments astronauts faced on missions. The presentation is unlike anything I've seen, with a wraparound 3D screen and in-theater effects to magnify the visual sensations (there is no motion since viewers stand).

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Mercury Redstone rocket...the first rocket to put an American into space.

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Mercury Mission Control recreation, as seen during Friendship 7's mission (John Glen's flight). An audio excerpt plays every few minutes recreating a tense moment where it was thought the heat shield might be damaged.

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Heat shield on a Gemini capsule. This is what prevents the capsule from burning up during reentry.

Following this, guests proceed through a lengthy exhibit full of artifacts from the history of the program, then the attraction ends at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, where every inductee is given a plaque and interactive displays talk about their history and reasons for induction.

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Overall, this exhibit is excellent, and it was a great way to start my tour of the center.

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Following the Hall of Fame, I went for a stroll through the Rocket Garden.

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While it is little more than a lawn with rockets on display (some real, some replications), it is impressive to see these gigantic marvels of engineering up close.

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My field may be more mechanical than aerospace, but it still gives a strong appreciation for all types of vehicles.

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None is more impressive, however, than the Space Shuttle. Flying for 30 years as part of one of NASA's most well-known programs, the shuttle remains the only reusable spacecraft ever put into service. When the program ended, the remaining orbiters were put on display, and the Kennedy Space Center built a brand new exhibit around Atlantis, the last orbiter to fly. The result is so magnificent it is worth the price of a ticket in itself.

Guests enter the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit under a full-size model of the space launch system, and following a winding, queue-like ramp, they proceed inside a theater to view a film on the development of the Space Shuttle. Following this, guests enter a smaller theater with surrounding screens, where footage of the first launch of Columbia is shown, followed by scenes of future successes and failures. Finally, one of the greatest reveals in recent attraction design occurs. As Atlantis is seen in orbit on the main screen, it becomes transparent like a scrim and the real Atlantis is visible in the same position among the stars. The screen then lifts up, admitting guests to the exhibit.

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Atlantis sits level with the top story of the six-story building, mounted no more than a dozen feet from guests. Surrounding the shuttle are dozens of interactive exhibits, some of which present information and history on the craft, and others of which simulate elements of a shuttle mission.

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A full size model of the Hubble Space Telescope is suspended nearby, as are sections of the International Space Station that can be explored. A slide descends at 23 degrees (the approach angle of the orbiter upon landing) to the ground floor, where replicas of astronaut quarters sit among more models and exhibits.

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Sitting solemnly in a corner is a memorial to the two lost orbiters, Challenger and Columbia. Both of these spacecraft suffered catastrophic failures during missions that resulted in the loss of all 7 crewmembers on board.

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A panel recovered from Challenger. This spacecraft broke apart during launch due to extreme aerodynamic forces caused by a booster failure.

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The window frames from Columbia. This spacecraft disintegrated during reentry due to damage to the heat resistant tiles, causing the structure to become unstable as it was heated from atmospheric drag forces.

These are the deadliest incidents in spaceflight history and serve as a reminder of the danger of space travel, where something seemingly minor can cause a flight to go horribly wrong.

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Across the hall stands the space center's actual ride: the Shuttle Launch Experience. Advertised as a motion simulator, this is a very different ride from the likes of Star Tours or Wild Arctic. Following an extremely well done presentation where astronauts describe the experience of a shuttle launch (and deliver the usual safety warnings), riders board a module meant to ride in the orbiter's cargo bay. The ride itself starts by tilting the capsule back at a steep angle (though not quite vertical...it felt about 70 degrees), then you are bounced in your seat as a screen shows the view out the cockpit. The attraction is fairly hokey, but entertaining enough to be worth doing, plus the ending of the ride is worth the annoyance (no spoilers here). I wouldn't list it as a must do, but if the line isn't bad while checking out the Atlantis exhibit, it's definitely worth seeing.

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For those looking for a different sort of ride, the space center offers a bus tour of the actual launch facility. The tour is about 45 minutes, during which you get up-close views of the...

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Vehicle Assembly Building,

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Mission Control,

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and launch pads 39A and 39B. TVs and the driver fill any downtime with videos and wildlife sightings (including a giant bald eagle nest).

Once the tour ends, guests are dropped off at the Apollo/Saturn V Center.

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Like other attractions, a video preshow is followed by an audio presentation inside the Firing Room of Apollo 8, the first flight to the moon (though the first landing wouldn't be until Apollo 11).

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Beyond lies the Saturn V, an enormous rocket longer than a football field that remains the most powerful machine ever built.

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Engineer or not, it's impossible to stand under this thing and not be overwhelmed.

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Apollo command and service module.

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Lunar Rover.

On the floor below are various artifacts from the Apollo program, including a moon rock that guests can actually touch.

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A smaller theater presents a retelling of the first lunar landing, and an exhibit commemorating those lost on Apollo 1 sits at the far end.

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While not as immersive as the Atlantis exhibit, the Saturn V Center is perhaps more impressive, and reminds visitors of an era that may have been before their time.

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Overall, the Kennedy Space Center was an excellent way to start my Florida adventure, and it was well worth the drive out to Cape Canaveral to see it. I've got a feeling a lot of visitors skip this simply due to the location, but for those who have a car and want a break from the theme parks it is absolutely a must-see attraction (particularly for those with any interest in the space program). I was there for about 4.5 hours and saw everything but the IMAX 3D films, but it would not be hard to spend a full day here (especially when the center is busier).

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International Drive

With several more hours left to entertain myself, I decided to make full use of my Go Orlando card and see some of the typical tourist attractions on I-Drive. Based on a recommendation from friends, I parked at I-Drive 360 and went to see whatever I could access on foot. Sadly, I arrived a bit too late to see Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, but to be honest I wasn't that excited about it anyway. I went up to Ripley's Believe It or Not!, but with the crowds outside I chose instead to walk down to WonderWorks and spend my time there.

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WonderWorks is a place that has intrigued me since I saw it in Pigeon Forge on a Dollywood visit years ago. I didn't have time to visit then, but with time and admission already covered I thought it was worth a look. The attraction itself is essentially a science museum full of interactive displays, with four separate areas with different themes. Guests begin their tour in the Natural Disaster Zone, where they can experience a hurricane or earthquake via simulators. Beyond this is the Physical Challenge Zone, home to the Bed of Nails (exactly what it sounds) and the Wonder Wall (a giant wall for pin art), among other exhibits. Next comes the Light & Sound Zone, featuring primarily arcade-like games and a Giant Piano. Last comes the Space Zone, which I completely bypassed as it seemed much inferior to what I'd seen earlier. The entire place was an entertaining way to spend an hour, but it was so busy that I thought it was better to let the many kids present play with the fancier displays while checking out other things. I'd like to visit again when there's about half as many guests, but it would be hard to justify the ticket cost...it's definitely more geared toward the younger set.

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After a dinner at Shake Shack, I headed over to the other big attraction covered on my card...the Orlando Eye. I've ridden other giant observation wheels before, namely the London Eye in London and the High Roller in Las Vegas.

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This one was a tad different, with cabins more closely resembling those on a typical Ferris Wheel, but with interactive displays so guests can tell exactly what they're looking at.

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Like most observation attractions, the quality is determined by the sights, and while you can see quite a ways there isn't that much of interest to be seen here.

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That said, it was interesting to see the VAB from the middle of downtown Orlando, and on the other side I could get a preview of where I'd be for the rest of the trip.

Following my rotation around the eye, I texted my friend Andrew (who graciously offered to let Evan and I stay at his house for the duration of the trip) and found he wouldn't be home until about 10 P.M. With a couple hours left to kill, I decided to drive up the road to Fun Spot Orlando, but that will be covered in Part 2 as I visited again a couple days later with Evan (I got a season pass during a flash sale back in June). For now, let's jump ahead to the next day, where I bent my no theme park promise.

Replies (16)

Edited: October 27, 2017, 5:14 PM · Aquatica Orlando

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Unfortunately, my phone was in a locker all day at Aquatica, so this is the only picture I took. I'll get more next time.

In addition to the Kennedy Space Center, something else I definitely wanted to include in the trip that many overlook is a waterpark day. Originally, this was going to be Volcano Bay, but after the mixed reviews upon opening I decided to save that for a future trip once everything gets worked out. This left the choice between Aquatica, Blizzard Beach, and Typhoon Lagoon. While the latter parks look more impressive overall, I opted for the former because of price (it's included with my SeaWorld Platinum Pass) and because the slides looked better. I'll have to wait until next time to know if I made the right choice, but I definitely wasn't disappointed with my experience.

Southern California has four major waterparks: Aquatica San Diego, Knott's Soak City, Raging Waters San Dimas, and Six Flags Hurricane Harbor Los Angeles. Of the four, Knott's Soak City is the only one I visit most years, with occasional visits to Hurricane Harbor and even more rare visits to Raging Waters (generally only when they add something new). Aquatica Orlando blows all of them out of the water. Unlike most waterparks, Aquatica is extremely well landscaped and themed throughout, and while the theming isn't fully immersive it is enough to create a very enjoyable environment. Slide towers still dominate the skyline, but they are painted to blend in with the theme instead of simply standing as galvanized steel structures. On the ground, everything feels like a tropical island in the southern pacific, with thatched roof buildings, sand beaches, and tropical plants everywhere. The park does feature a few animal exhibits, but they are not the focus...SeaWorld and Discovery Cove are the places for animal enthusiasts.

Aquatica's best attraction (at least before Ray Rush) is also their most visible. Towering 8 stories over the back of the park, Ihu's Breakaway Falls features four slides that will thrill almost any guest. While one is your standard spiraling speed slide, the other three feature breakaway boxes: enclosed capsules that begin the ride by dropping guests through a trapdoor. Following the initial plunge, each ride features a series of high speed helixes, producing strong g-forces as rides swirl around before splashing down in the run-out at ground level. While not quite as extreme as straight plummet slides, this attraction is still among the best standard slides I've seen at a waterpark, and unlike those at nearby Volcano Bay, riders up to 300 lbs may enjoy it safely.

Beyond Breakaway Falls, my next favorite attraction at the park was Tassie's Twisters. While the ride itself is a fairly standard bowl slide (though with two flumes to double capacity), the set-up of this attraction is brilliant. To ride, guests must first obtain a tube in Loggerhead Lane, the park's lazy river. Guests ride around the river until they reach an exit point for the central island, where they climb the stairs for the ride. At the end of the ride, guests are dumped back in the lazy river, where they get to ride back to the start point (pro tip: choose the right flume for a longer river ride, including passage through an underwater tunnel through the dolphin tank. The left flume ends right next to the river exit point). Bowl slides by their very nature are quite enjoyable, though they do require a bit more weight...try to do double on this one if possible.

Speaking of rivers, the center of Aquatica is occupied by Roa's Rapids, a high speed version of a lazy river. Instead of tubes, guests don life vests (optional) and swim around this river. The current is strong enough that it will sweep you off your feet, and if you're not a decent swimmer it may be difficult to keep your head above water. That said, this river is way more fun than I expected and features several water elements along the course. It also serves as a great transportation option, with two separate entry points.

Aquatica's other major slides include:

-Dolphin Plunge, a fairly tame pair of enclosed body slides through a tank full of Commerson's Dolphins. This one features an interesting queue containing rope bridges and more scenery than typical for a waterpark. It also tends to get the longest lines.

-Taumata Racer, an 8 lane mat racer featuring an enclosed spiraling section followed by a final drop to the finish.

-Walhalla Wave and HooRoo Run, a pair of family raft slides. I opted not to ride these due to lines and due to being a single guest (both rides require two riders), but Walhalla Wave looked pretty good. HooRoo Run is being replaced by Ray Rush for next year, which looks like a definite improvement over the current triple-bump slide. The new attraction will feature a water coaster section, an AquaSphere, and a half-pipe element.

-A tube slide tower featuring four serpentine slides (Whanau Way) and two mini-funnel slides (Omaka Rocka). Whanau Way is a little on the short side, but otherwise was a pretty fun tube slide with decent dips and zippy curvers. Omaka Rocka, on the other hand, was the one ride that disappointed me, as the flume has so many speed bumps that you barely get any action in the funnels.

Beyond the slides, Aquatica has two wave pools (complete with a sand beach) and two kids areas. These sections of the park are fairly standard, but they round out the park nicely.

One of the things I really appreciated about Aquatica was the efficiency of their operations. At many waterparks, one rider is dispatched down the slide, then the lifeguard waits until the slide is clear before giving the next rider the safety spiel and allowing them to head down. This generally results in about a minute between riders, giving terrible capacity. At Aquatica, the safety spiels are played on a loop, and each slide has a red light/green light system to space out riders. In some cases, as many as four riders were able to go in the time it would take for one elsewhere. As a result, lines were minimal on my visit...Dolphin Plunge and Tassie's Twisters took 10-15 minutes due to popularity, but everything else was a most a 5 minute wait. This allowed plenty of time to ride everything and get re-rides on the better attractions despite the fact that I was only at the park for about 3 hours.

One other minor enhancement Aquatica offers is pathway sprayers. The biggest danger at any waterpark is sunburn, but the next biggest is burnt feet due to hot pavement. By keeping the pathway wet, I was able to go barefoot for my whole time at the park, something that is rarely possible at So Cal waterparks.

Overall, Aquatica is an excellent half-day attraction, and a park I'd highly recommend for waterpark fans. While it isn't quite as good as the world's top waterparks (such as Splashin' Safari), it still holds its own and provides plenty of family fun to justify the admission cost (especially if added onto a SeaWorld ticket).

After leaving Aquatica, I headed up to Universal Orlando for the rest of the day and got a head start on touring the park. But that will be a story for another time.

If you want to view all of the photos I took from this portion of the trip, click here for the full album.

Click here to continue onto Part 2.

October 18, 2017, 6:06 AM · Great report AJ! I am really looking forward to the next 9 parts.
October 18, 2017, 10:18 AM · I never had interest in visiting the Kennedy Space Center and your article has significantly swayed my position. Not even some of the past travel journals I have read provide that level of depth.
October 18, 2017, 2:50 PM · wow. Great 1st report AJ. I take for granted the fact that we live only 7 hours away from Orlando (in Atlanta). Seeing a report from someone who is visiting for a 1st time will provide an interesting perspective. I am looking forward to the additional chapters in your saga. FWIW - I also enjoyed your Kennedy space center report. Have not ever been there yet (even though I am baby boomer who appreciated the NASA glory years). But your report has me strongly considering a visit next time I am down there.
October 18, 2017, 3:58 PM · Very nice trip report! Looking forward to reading more!
October 19, 2017, 5:50 AM · Very nice information -- thanks for sharing. Look forward to the rest of your adventure!
October 19, 2017, 8:05 AM · A wonderful read!
October 19, 2017, 10:11 AM · Thanks for sharing, AJ! It's been several years since I've been to the space center -- definitely sounds like it's time for another visit. Looking forward to the rest of your report!
October 20, 2017, 9:37 PM · Thanks for the comments, everyone! One thing I'm definitely hoping to do with this report is provide a different perspective from those who visit regularly (at least once every 3-4 years), as well as share more about what lies beyond the mega destination resorts. One rule I have for vacations is that if I return to the same destination, I have to try something new, and perhaps this will inspire others to look into new attraction(s) next time they visit Orlando.
October 21, 2017, 5:02 PM · Thanks, AJ. Always love reading your perspective!
October 22, 2017, 1:27 AM · I am loking forward to the rest of the series AJ.
We went to Kennedy years ago and wanted to get back this past summer, sadly we ran out of time (Irma) but it was nice to remember it through your words.
Thanks for sharing!
October 22, 2017, 8:07 AM · This is a great article about the OTHER parts of the Orlando area.
October 26, 2017, 4:23 PM · Bravo, AJ! You've so far brought plenty of detail to make us feel there in Florida with you. As a fellow Californian who still has no Orlando experience, allow me to live vicariously through your adventures.

I hope you'll similarly enjoy my all-new Trip Report, covering similar dates but an entirely different continent...Asia!

October 27, 2017, 7:26 AM · Thanks AJ -
May I ask what this means "That said, it was interesting to see the VAB from the middle of downtown"

What is VAB? (Sorry for my ignorance)
THX..

October 27, 2017, 8:26 AM · Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center ....
The Atlantis exhibition is very special to those of us who were lucky enough to watch the space shuttles take off.
Discovery at midnight was my favorite of all time ... :)
October 27, 2017, 2:59 PM · Yes, VAB stands for Vehicle Assembly Building. I guess I accidentally omitted the abbreviation.

Douglas, I look forward to reading your report. I should have time to get to it this weekend.

The next part of this report should be up this evening. I thought Tuesdays would be a good day, but it looks like posting installments every Friday is going to be the most likely schedule.

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