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
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.
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).
Mercury Redstone rocket...the first rocket to put an American into space.
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.
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.
Overall, this exhibit is excellent, and it was a great way to start my tour of the center.
Following the Hall of Fame, I went for a stroll through the Rocket Garden.
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.
My field may be more mechanical than aerospace, but it still gives a strong appreciation for all types of vehicles.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A panel recovered from Challenger. This spacecraft broke apart during launch due to extreme aerodynamic forces caused by a booster failure.
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.
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.
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...
Vehicle Assembly Building,
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.
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).
Beyond lies the Saturn V, an enormous rocket longer than a football field that remains the most powerful machine ever built.
Engineer or not, it's impossible to stand under this thing and not be overwhelmed.
Apollo command and service module.
On the floor below are various artifacts from the Apollo program, including a moon rock that guests can actually touch.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.Tweet
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