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Amusement Parks

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You'll notice that in each of our other sections, we recommend one major expedition. Canoeists should make an an annual pilgrimage to the Boundary Waters, rafters to the Colorado River, backpackers to a western national parks, skiiers to Winter Park, etc. We also think amusement park lovers owe themselves one weeklong or two week expedition a year. And it should be to Orlando, where Disney and Universal have pushed the concept of amusement park to its cutting edge. We already thought including Universal on each Disney trip was important, but now, with the addition of the Harry Potter section of the park, we think it's mandatory.

The photo at right shows the riverboat pulling out for a cruise down the Mississippi. Above are the parks' two iconic castles: One in the Magic Kingdom (left), the other in Harry Potter Land.

For a long time, we thought devoting space on OutpostUSA to Orlando was redundant. There are a dozen guidebooks and 40 websites out there offering every possible kind of information on lodging, restaurants and the parks. We just directed our readers to those. But we have continually received emails requesting that we include the same kind of coverage for Orlando as we do all our other recommended locations. Readers tell us they wanted our suggestions, evaluations, insights and photos, rather than the generic capsules offered by the guidebooks and websites. We are flattered by your faith in us, so here you are. The photo at left shows the train pulling into the Main Street Station at the front entrance to the Magic Kingdom.

The first thing you must understand is that the label Walt Disney World and Universal are appropriate. This is truly a world in itself, a whole universe of experiences. It needs prolonged, careful exploration just as any major national park and much more than any other amusement park. You can lose yourself here. There are rides, shows, shops, games, parades, displays, zoos, restaurants and landscaping to experience. You could spend a week here just collecting autographs from every princess, cartoon character and historical figure who ever graced a movie screen. A teacher could bring a class here and spend a week just studying architecture. In addition to the thrill rides, the mass transit in, between and around the parks is memorable : monorails, buses, ferries, horse drawn carriages, railroads, amphibious land rovers and paddlewheel steamers, and there will soon be a submarine. On a more personal level, there are also canoes, kayaks, rafts, motorboats and regular, duo and quad bicycles. You can golf (miniature or regular), fish and hike, sit by the pool and soak up the subtropical sun, or sit on your balcony and watch the animals. You could spend a week here, never even enter one of the amusement parks, and have a fabulous time. But because of this almost unlimited range of potential experiences, you have to be careful. A certain self discipline is needed. You have to decide very carefully why you're coming and what you want to see and do. Too many people come here, try to do everything in a week, exhaust themselves, and end up not enjoying their trip at all.

The photo at right shows Mickey The Sorcerer's Hat from Fantasia.

This is especially true if you're bringing children. We don't think preschool children should be brought here at all. They don't understand what they're seeing, they tire too quickly for these huge parks, and they don't handle the subtropical sun, heat and humidity well. Wait until your children are at least in first grade. And even then, resist the temptation to make this an adult vacation. If you bring a five or six year old, plan the trip around them. Don't even go to Hollywood Studios or Epcot. You could spend a wonderful week at the Magic Kingdom. If your child has stamina and a taste for adventure, you might spent three days in the Magic Kingdom and one in the Doctor Seuss section of Islands of Adventure. And forget marathon days. Start early, spend morning at the Magic Kingdom, then head back to your lodging for a late lunch and an afternoon nap. Spend an hour at the pool during the heat of the day. Then head back to the park, take in a few more rides, and watch the evening parade and fireworks. If you've never been to Orlando, it may seem the Magic Kingdom is not big enough for three or four days. What you cannot imagine until you see it first hand are the crowds and lines. You will spend tremendous amounts of time standing in lines and fighting the crowds. Your average wait for a ride, a show, a restaurant, will be an hour. So to see everything the Magic Kingdom has to offer really will take you several days. Shown at left is Donald posing in Mexican sombrero and serape in Epcot.

One interesting Orlando device is The Stroller. You'll see so many strollers it will become comical. People bring their own, or rent them at the park entrance. Rides, shows and restaurants have special parking areas just for strollers. But if you look carefully what you see are thousands of young children sleeping in their strollers as Mom wheels them around the park. She'll go home and tell everyone Little Nerdley saw Disney World. It's a lie. He slept through it. Mom saw it. We suggest you not use a stroller. Using one separates you from the reality of your child. If they're too young to walk the park, don't bring them. If you're in the park and they tire out, stop, find a bench, and sit for a while. There's so much to look at a child can still be overstimulated : castle, riverboat, real life cartoon characters, rides overhead and in every direction, plus all those people. Take a pillow and blanket or pad in your day pack. If they need a nap, let them lay down and take one while you sit and people watch. Then head back to the room for a break in the air conditioning and probably a longer nap. But if your child needs a nap, it also indicates you overdid it. Tomorrow, try spending a little less time in the park. The floral display at right shows Mickey The Sorcerer and The Broomsticks from Fantasia.

Another important issue is proper shoes. These are huge parks. We have worn pedometers. You will walk as far in one day here as you would hike on a typical backpacking trip into a major national park. Even if you spend time standing in lines and watching shows, you will walk at least 6-7 miles per day. And this is even harder on your feet than backpacking, because you're walking on hard pavement which has been heated by the Florida sun. It is quite common for veteran hikers and backpackers, whose feet are in great condition, to develop blisters here. So, before you leave home, it is essential you buy a properly fitted pair of backpacking shoes, and then use them around town for a month so they're properly worn in. While you're at it, if you plan to ride any of the water rides, buy a pair of water shoes so you don't get your other shoes wet and walk around for five hours with wet feet. We see thousands of people wearing shower thongs, open toed sandals, Uggs, moccasins or other inappropriate footwear, then limping back to their hotels with blistered, aching feet. The key is arch support. Those flimsy shoes do not provide enough arch support. Only good hiking or backpacking shoes do. You can develop worse than blisters here. Several days of hiking 6-7 miles on hard hot pavement with no arch support is a classic cause of fallen arches or plantar fascitis, which will result in years of pain and expensive treatment. Shown at left is a classic pirate ship ready for boarding.

There are other items you need. If you're bringing a young child, you'll need a day pack ("book bag" or "backpack") for all their essentials. But as soon as they're old enough, you should invest in front pouch beltpacks for everyone. The beltpack should include a beverage bottle holster and pockets large enough to hold camera, sunglasses, cell phone and odds and ends like batteries and keys. Always bring spare batteries for your camera and phone, because you have almost no chance of finding them in the park. Do not try to use that day pack beyond the Magic Kingdom. They won't allow you to take it on rides, there won't be enough lockers to store it, and you won't want to just lay it in a corner and hope it's still there when you come back. The front pouch belt pack can be worn on rides. For your sunglasses you need a strap. Ideally, the bottle should be a stainless steel double wall ("thermos") version which will keep iced drinks cool all day. Fill it with either ice water or apple juice from breakfast. Avoid carbonated soft drinks because the ice will dilute them after several hours, and you definitely want a cold drink. Try to carry carrot or celery sticks or apple slices (from those breakfast packets) to munch on when you get hungry, so you don't continually have to stand in line at the food stands. Finally, you should carry a light weight rain poncho for water rides like Splash Mountain, Ripsaw Falls and Jurassic Park. If you don't own one, you can buy Disney ponchos for $7. Shown at right is the Alligator Jazz Band parading through The French Quarter.
All of this preparation may sound like a big deal. It is. The Disney / Universal combo in 2010 became the world's number one destination resort. Every single day, more people are in these parks than are at any other one tourist location on the planet. Planners have done a great job in spreading out the crowds so you don't notice them as much, but the system clogs often, especially with new attractions (Harry Potter, Soaring, the new Fantasy Land) or traditional favorites (Peter Pan, Thunder Mountain, Safari, Splash Mountain, the Jurassic Park River Adventure, Test Track). Shown at left is Barnstormer, the Magic Kingdom's famous airplane roller coaster.
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