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To many theme park enthusiasts, Walt Disney World is the destination everyone must visit at least once. With four theme parks, two waterparks, and numerous other entertainment options, it is not difficult to spend a week or more here. I have looked forward to a visit to this resort for over 10 years, and up until a few years ago the plan was to do it the way most experience Disney...stay on site for 5-6 nights and don't leave property during that time. However, like most destination theme parks, Walt Disney World is expensive, and for that reason the ideal Disney experience just wasn't within reach for me.
My original itinerary for this trip included only three days at Walt Disney World, using park hopping to get to all four parks in that time. However, I felt that would be a bit rushed for a first visit, so I decided to cut out another park to allow for four at the world (for anyone curious, Wild Adventures, a mid-size park on the Florida/Georgia border that would have been a long day trip, is what got cut). As luck would have it, my trip happened to coincide with the period when WDW offered the four park Magic Ticket, allowing for one day at each of the theme parks at a lower price than the three day hopper. The only downside was that these tickets expired on September 30th, forcing Disney into the first half of the trip rather than spread throughout as originally intended.
So, where did I spend my first day at Walt Disney World?
Part 2: Disney's Pixar/Lucasfilm Construction Adventure...and more
As Disney's Hollywood Studios is almost universally considered the weakest of the four Walt Disney Word parks, I was a bit hesitant to make it my first experience at the resort. Despite my best efforts, however, there was no itinerary where it made sense to do it later. Plus, Evan didn't arrive until the morning before visiting, so I figured a half-day park might be a good option after an overnight flight.
For this day, we were joined by Andrew and his girlfriend Brittney, so after picking Evan up at the airport I returned to the house to get them, and then we headed off to the park. We arrived a few minutes after opening and headed into the park.
Back in 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Disneyland Paris during a family trip to Europe. While most of my time was spent inside Disneyland Park, I did spend the first couple hours of the day in Walt Disney Studios Park, and my initial expectation was that Disney's Hollywood Studios would feel similar. However, that turned out to be far from accurate.
My first impressions of DHS were that it actually felt more like DCA...well, the Hollywood Land of DCA. After passing through an entrance nearly identical to the one at Disneyland's second gate, I proceeded down Hollywood Boulevard. Other than the lack of the Red Car Trolley, it felt very much like California's Hollywood Land.
However, that impression ended at the end of the street. Despite a nice entrance area, much of the rest of DHS had a fairly generic movie studio feel, more like the Upper Lot of Universal Studios Hollywood than anything at another Disney park. Yes, the park was nicely themed, but there was little that stood out as memorable about that aspect.
We started our day with Toy Story Midway Mania, a ride I always enjoy in California. While Florida's features an indoor queue line and an extra ride track, the ride experience is pretty much identical. What's not identical is the operations...in California, I've rarely seen a wait over an hour for the ride even with the implementation of Fastpass. In Florida, we waited over 90 minutes (despite the sign at the entrance reading 40), and while there may have been other issues at play (such as a capacity reduction due to mechanical issues), it was still frustrating to spend the morning in line for something I can do at home. Due to the delay, we barely had enough time to use our Fastpasses for Star Tours (also virtually identical to the ride in California), then had to power walk to our lunch destination.
Every single guide I read prior to the trip stated that counter service restaurants in Walt Disney World were generally poor quality, so I made a point of ensuring we did a full service meal most days. Unfortunately, making reservations two weeks out means slim pickings even in the off-season, so not everything was available. Fortunately, the 50s Prime Time Cafe had plenty of availability, and with recommendations from several family members I opted for it. This turned out to be a great choice, and the meal was among the most fun on the trip. The idea of this restaurant is that Disney's magic has transported you back to the 1950s and you're having a family meal in mother's kitchen. Of course, mother has some strict rules, and if you don't follow them you'll be whipped into shape. I'm pretty sure everyone in the group got caught with their elbows on the table at least once, and Evan got called out for playing with his "toy" at the table. To top it all off, there was a birthday at the table next to us, so we all got to sign a birthday card for the kid. The whole experience was a lot of fun, and the food was quite good as well. While this isn't somewhere that I'd recommend for an individual or couple visiting the parks, if you're there with a group of family or friends it is well worth it, and the price is fairly reasonable by Disney standards.
After lunch, we still had some time before our Fastpasses for DHS's headliners, so we took in a couple of the park's shows. According to Andrew, the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular was the park's best show, so we headed there first.
This show recreates famous scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, showing off the stunt work as well as a behind-the-scenes look at production. The show is entertaining, but it is a bit slow for a stunt show due to the set-up required between scenes, and while some of the production aspects are interesting, they're all things I've seen elsewhere.
Following the show (and a viewing of Voyage to the Little Mermaid), it was time for the main event. Despite its size and current state, DHS was a park I was looking forward to for two reasons: Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Both of these were among my most anticipated rides of the entire trip, and were so important that I would have rescheduled if either was down for maintenance. Fortunately, both were running as normal on the day of our visit.
First up, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. The day I visited Walt Disney Studios, their version of this ride was down for the day, so I did not get to ride it. Being a coaster enthusiast in addition to a general theme park enthusiast, that was a huge disappointment. Finally, five years later, I got to experience this ride. And, to be completely honest, while the ride was still a good one, I was a bit let down by it. The ride begins with a pretty good launch and a couple quick inversions, but after that it is just a series of helixes past cardboard cutouts. For a multi-inversion launch coaster, the ride is surprisingly tame (at least in my opinion...the average Disney guest may feel differently), with an intensity level closer to the Matterhorn Bobsleds than Paris's Space Mountain (note, however, that I still would not consider this a family coaster). The ride is also a bit rough...not enough to significantly affect the ride, but enough that after two rides I didn't have much desire for a third. On the plus side, I do really like the theme and really like the soundtrack, I just wish the ride was a bit more thrilling and had some modern effects.
Due to my mild disappointment, I became a little skeptical of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Was this really going to be all it was hyped up to be? Can it be that much better than the one I rode so many times in California? Is it going to make me want to return to DHS in the future? The answer to all of those questions ended up being a big YES!
From the outside, this version of the Tower looks completely different from those found in California or Paris. Here, the hotel looks more like an actual hotel that had something happen to it, and less like a building that hasn't been fully built. The queue is much longer, winding through the gardens outside before entering the tower, then everything inside feels more like a creepy hotel and less like the stylized slightly-cheesy appearance I was familiar with. But the main component is the ride itself, and that absolutely delivers. Not only does this version feature several scenes not found in the others, the random drop profiles also upped the thrill factor quite a bit more than I expected. The mechanics of the ride are brilliant as well...I knew the car would leave the shaft and drive through the building, but it was still awesome to actually experience it, and it would catch someone expecting a more typical drop ride completely off guard. Yes, this attraction is a bit dated (as is the IP behind it), but it still holds its own among the best rides modern technology can create.
Thanks to a 20 minute wait, I was able to do multiple rides on Tower, but I'm generally not one for excessive re-rides. Therefore, we did a couple rides on Tower, grabbed a second ride on Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, and then headed out. Other than the Beauty and the Beast show and the nighttime spectaculars (which were never in the plans), I feel like I did pretty much everything of note at this park in the 6 or so hours I was there. It's definitely on the small side, and the park will greatly benefit from the addition of Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in the coming years.
So, how does DHS stack up? Well, in its current state, the park definitely feels a bit empty and somewhat incomplete. That said, I enjoyed visiting the park, and the few rides they do have are among the better ones at Walt Disney World. It definitely has the other three parks beat for thrill rides, and Tower of Terror alone makes this park a must-visit for anyone with hopper tickets. Plus, even in its current state I enjoyed the park significantly more than Walt Disney Studios Paris. The park really is a fun place to spend about two-thirds of a day, it just needs more to do in order to justify the very high ticket cost.
Disney's Hollywood Studios Scorecard:
Since I won't necessarily have room to review every ride in these trip reports (especially at parks with a full slate of attractions), I'll include a scorecard following each major park. For a benchmark on my numerical scores, think of it like this:
-A 10/10 is something I consider to be the best ride of the type I've ever experienced. I am very stingy with this rating...only about a dozen attractions out of the hundreds I've ridden warrant it, and only two out of 400+ roller coasters (El Toro at SFGAdv and Superman at SFNE).
-A 9/10 is what I consider a travel-worthy ride. These are rides that are absolute must-rides at the park, and it is worth visiting the park for this one attraction if you have not experienced it before. Indiana Jones Adventure and Splash Mountain are rides that fall into this category (or, on the coaster front, something like Tatsu, or Xcelerator)
-An 8/10 is a very good ride. These are rides that are must-rides if you're at the park, but aren't worth a special visit on their own. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a prime example of this category.
-A 7/10 is a good ride, but not one of the best. These are rides that I enjoy, but ones that I probably wouldn't wait more than 15-20 minutes for after experiencing them. It's a Small World belongs in this category for me.
-A 6/10 is a ride that is just okay. These are the ones that are worth doing if there isn't much of a wait, but are completely skippable on busier days or if time is limited. Something like Pony Express at KBF or Gold Rusher at SFMM is a good model for this one.
-A 5/10 is worth one ride, but is something I probably wouldn't ride again unless I was visiting with someone else who wanted to ride. Anything below this score is something I would classify as a bad ride.
Now, here is the scorecard for Disney's Hollywood Studios:
Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular - 7/10
Rock 'N' Roller Coaster - 8/10
Star Tours: The Adventures Continue - 8/10
Toy Story Midway Mania - 8/10
Twilight Zone Tower of Terror - 9.5/10
Voyage of the Little Mermaid - 6.5/10
Overall Park Score - 7.5/10
After our day at Disney's Hollywood Studios, we headed back to Andrew's house to rest for a bit. However, the day was still young, and I don't like to waste time while on vacations. So, after a dinner at with Andrew and Brittney at Gator's Dockside (a Florida chain comparable to Chili's), Evan and I headed off to another amusement park.
Fun Spot America
Note: Daytime pictures are from Orlando location (mostly from when I stopped by earlier) and evening/nighttime pictures are from Kissimmee location.
Fun Spot America is the name given to a pair of small amusement parks in Florida. One is located in Kissimmee, not far from Walt Disney World, while the other is located in Orlando, just around the corner from Universal Orlando.
Exception: This is my lone nighttime photo from Orlando.
Both parks started out as family entertainment centers, but over the past 5-10 years they have evolved into full-blown amusement parks. The two locations are fairly similar...both feature large arcades, multiple go-kart tracks, standard flat rides, dedicated kiddie areas, three roller coasters, and a gigantic pendulum known as a Skycoaster. Prices are identical at both parks as well, with two options for guests: Pay per Ride (rides are $3-9 each), or Pay One Price (about $40, with a $10 upcharge to visit both parks on the same day). Since nobody goes to Florida to ride a Paratrooper or a Screamin' Swing, I'll stick to covering the main draws of the Fun Spots: Karts and Coasters.
The Fun Spot parks feature a grand total of six go-kart tracks between them: two in Kissimmee and four in Orlando. The four tracks in Orlando are:
-Conquest, a multi-level track with a couple helixes, a four story hill, and a figure eight finish. This track offered the best balance of the four courses, with a mix of elements and enough level sections that racing was possible.
-Commander, a gigantic multi-level road course. Of the four courses, this was the most fun to drive as it was full of twists and turns as it weaved in and out of the other tracks. Unfortunately, this did make it a bit difficult to race as it was extremely difficult to learn the course. However, for just driving the karts around this track was excellent.
-Quad Helix, a quadruple helix track. While it is visually impressive, this was probably my least favorite as it simply spiraled around and around during the ride. That said, this one felt like it had slightly faster karts than Conquest and Commander, so it was still enjoyable.
-Thrasher, a ground-level road course built for racing. For those who want to win, this is the track to drive. The karts are noticeably faster on this track, and it is full of tight corners and long straight-aways as it zigzags below the other three tracks.
Kissimmee, on the other hand, only featured two tracks. However, Kissimmee's tracks are more extreme:
-Chaos, a standard multi-level track. This track was much like Commander, and though it was a bit smaller it had tighter corners and faster karts, resulting in a more exciting ride.
-Vortex, the world's most extreme go-kart track (according to Fun Spot). This one begins with a four story helix, which is a bit dizzying if driven at full speed. At the top, the track crests sharply, causing karts to bounce as they go over and down a hill so steep the karts accelerate under braking. At the bottom is a giant banked turn, which is the only thing keeping riders from crashing into a fence at about 30 mph. Yes, this track is insane, and while it is terrible for racing it is ridiculously fun to drive.
Both Fun Spot parks feature three roller coasters. For the kids, each park has a little Miler junior coaster, but I opted out of riding either. At both parks, the rest of the lineup consists of a family coaster and a wood coaster, but all are of radically different designs.
Orlando's family coaster is called Freedom Flyer, and is a Vekoma suspended family coaster.
Winding above the park, the ride felt very much like a suspended version of Knott's Jaguar, though much smoother and with a little more intensity. This ride also featured optional VR, with a much better implementation than Six Flags: There's a completely separate line, and 6 seats on each train (out of 20) are set aside for VR riders. Overall, this is a fun junior coaster that is great for riders of all ages.
Meanwhile, the family coaster in Kissimmee is Rockstar Coaster, a Zamperla spinning mouse. While this ride is more of a true family coaster rather than an oversized junior coaster, it is unfortunately a stock model that exists at a number of parks across the country. On the plus side, this particular installation spun pretty well, and due to the park being deserted there was no line whatsoever. Again, a fun ride, though nothing to write home about.
What about the woodies? Orlando got their woodie first in 2013, opting for a GCI creation dubbed White Lightning.
The ride stands 70 ft. tall, and features a 2,000 ft. out-and-back course along the side of the park.
While not a top wood coaster by any means, the ride is a lot of fun, with several moments of floater airtime and a few of the twisting elements GCI is known for. Plus, despite the extreme Florida weather, the ride has held up well and still runs great. It's not the most thrilling ride out there, but for a small family-oriented park it is an outstanding fit.
Up until this year, the Kissimmee park didn't have a woodie. However, with the success of White Lightning, last year the park announced a $6 million investment on Florida's largest wood coaster. With 2,200 ft. of track, an 80 ft. first drop, a dozen airtime hills, and a corkscrew above the station, Mine Blower is a serious wooden coaster that should make this park a must visit for any coaster enthusiast traveling to Florida.
The ride is just as intense as it sounds, with plenty of ejector airtime and an aggressive pace throughout. Sadly, this ride doesn't ride nearly as well as its sibling, and for a ride that just opened in June the current state of the coaster is troubling.
Still, there are far rougher rides out there, and even with the ride it provides Mine Blower is able to score an 8.5/10 on my scale (for comparison, White Lighting gets an 8/10 and both family coasters get 5.5/10).
The World's Tallest Skycoaster
Anyone who has visited a Cedar Fair or Six Flags park is probably familiar with a Skycoaster, even if they've never ridden one. The ride is simply a giant arch, and riders are attached to the end of a cable as they swing back and forth. It is, more or less, a human pendulum. Often, these rides are about 150 ft tall, and they usually cost $30-40 per rider (some parks are a little cheaper). Both Fun Spot America locations feature one of these rides, but they are much larger...250 ft. in Orlando, and 300 ft. in Kissimmee, the tallest in the world. Prior to this trip, I had never done a Skycoaster, so I figured why not try the world's tallest? Plus, Fun Spot only charges $25 for those who purchase a ride wristband.
Unlike most amusement park rides, a Skycoaster is a very individual experience. One to three riders don harnesses similar to what one would wear for hang gliding, then they're hooked up to the giant pendulum. Once the winch begins hoisting you to the top, it's just you on your own dangling hundreds of feet above the ground. Unlike many parks that operate Skycoasters, at Fun Spot you're three times the height of anything nearby, so even though it looks tall it feels TALL!!! At the top of the ride, you get a moment to look around, then the announcement comes over the speaker: "You're at the top of the world's tallest Skycoaster, 300 ft. high. Get ready! Hold on! Three...Two...One...Fly!" For this ride, I chose to be the one to pull the ripcord, so at that point I reached back and gave it a tug. And...click...
Let me just insert a side note here...I have ridden many drop towers, including the 400 ft Drop of Doom rides at SFMM and SFGAdv. I'm used to attractions involving long moments of free fall, or large drops on roller coasters. The Skycoaster made all of those attractions seem like kiddie rides. When you pull the cord, you are in true free fall, plunging straight down toward the ground. It is the most terrifying attraction I have ever experienced! The drop lasts only a few seconds, but it feels much longer. Finally, the cable goes taut and the ride becomes a mega-sized version of a pirate ship. From here on out, the ride is fairly gentle as you swing back and forth over the pond. But the anticipation while climbing the tower followed by the complete free fall...that is what makes the Skycoaster the most extreme thrill ride out there.
Watch Evan and I fly the World's Tallest Skycoaster!
Overall, the Fun Spot America parks were a lot of fun, and are well worth a 2-3 hour visit if you want to extend your day after the bigger parks close (or you want something to do on arrival or departure day). The parks are open until midnight every night, so it's always possible to squeeze it in for evening entertainment. The Orlando location is nicer and has a lot more family rides, but for those looking for extreme thrills, the Kissimmee park is well worth a visit (plus it is directly adjacent to Old Town).
Evan and I didn't get back to the house until about 11 P.M., so it wound up being the first of several late evenings on the trip. However, the next day wasn't scheduled to be an intense one...we were just going on a walk around the world.
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