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Visiting Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios Theme Parks, In a Day
Copyright © 2004 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

Note: all the observations found below are my own and do not represent the official perspective of the theme park operators. As my own opinions and observations from a given point in time, they may be out of date or factually inaccurate. If that is true, my apologies. Before acting on any of this information I strongly recommend you contact Disney or Universal and obtain updated and factually accurate statements from them. I also strongly recommend consulting online internet sites and books published for that explicit purpose.

As Christians, we all take some time away from work and ordinary responsibilities in order to "play". And so it was with my wife, 11 year-old son, and myself this past Christmas. We took a day "off" to see Disney’s Magic Kingdom and another day off to visit Universal Studios Theme Park.

My goal in writing about our Florida theme park outings is to allow other Christians to gain knowledge from our experience so as to give them a broader base for making time-saving and money-saving decisions. Your own needs, desires, likes, and interests will be different, but perhaps some of our hints will apply to your next trip.

Visiting Disney’s Magic Kingdom Theme Park in Orlando

We went to Disney’s Magic Kingdom on December 21st, 2004. Since we had only one day available to us to spend in the park (we had chosen to spend our other unplanned day to attend Universal) we bought a one day one park pass--the most expensive and inflexible pass possible. We bought the pass the night before at the Disney shopping complex known as Downtown Disney. We did this to save time by avoiding the ticket lines in the morning at the park. We were told that only Downtown Disney and the actual park ticket offices sell the one day passes, all other distributors sell the multi-day passes.

Downtown Disney was interesting. The Lego store was enormous and entertaining. Giant Lego figures abounded. A brief evening visit to Downtown Disney might be worthwhile if you have children of Lego age. Parking is difficult to find, but it is free. Dramatic lighting throughout the shopping plaza is impressive to view.

While in Florida, we stayed at a small hotel called the Baymont Inn, at the intersection of US Hwy 192 and Poinciana Blvd (also known as West Irlo Bronson Highway) in Kissimmee. It was very inexpensive, very clean, was staffed by extraordinarily friendly people, provided a large room with two firm double beds, and contained amenities such as an in-room complementary coffee station, hair dryer, ironing board with iron, refrigerator, microwave oven, television, and pay-per-play video games (we did not use the video game station). Best of all, the cost included a "deluxe" continental breakfast. Deluxe in this case meant a daily cook-your-own waffle (pre-mixed and measured batter with automatic waffle iron are provided), cereal and milk, juice, fruits, pastries, French toast, bagels, sometimes eggs, sometimes sausage and gravy. Simply outstanding for a budget inn.

We declined to use the complementary shuttle bus to Disney in the morning. It is part of a multi-hotel service that advertises that it can run up to 20 minutes off-schedule. For us, it was worth the extra $8 to park on site early in the morning. The shuttle was scheduled to pick up hotel guests at about the same hour as the park opens. Disney veterans will recognize this as a rookie error.

Before you go to Disney, buy or borrow an "unofficial" guide to Disney book. It is invaluable as a time saver and a money saver. Visiting Disney does require a strategy if you intend to make the most of the visit while not spending a small fortune.

During our visit, the Magic Kingdom gates opened at 9am. It is at that early hour that the park will be the least crowded, lines the shortest, and the attractions most accessible. Be in the crowd that is waiting by the front gate at 8:45am if you intend to maximize your time on the rides.

To get to the front gate, you must first get to Disney. Leave your hotel early. We left at 8am because we had purchased tickets the night before and we knew the route. We parked at Pluto 11, do remember your parking area identifier. Carry in as much beverage as you can comfortably carry. Wear sneakers, or whatever you find easiest on your feet for extended walking. Catch the tram to the "transportation hub".

You are not actually at the park yet, so stop relaxing. Now find your way to either the monorail train, or to the ferry boat. The Magic Kingdom park is only accessible by train or boat. Choose the shortest line (usually the monorail). If you left your hotel at 8am, it is now well past 8:30, maybe much later.

Walk from the monorail to the main gate (you already bought your ticket the night before, so bypass the ticket lines). At 8:45am a small show or opening ceremony is conducted. If you do not find this entertaining, check out the faces of those in the crowd around you, as you are not entirely alone.

My number one rule for enjoying Disney’s, or anyone else’s, theme park is: bring hearing protection (ear plugs)! This is no joke. Virtually every ride, ceremony, parade, or attraction plays music or special effects so loud that it leaves my ears ringing. Put your ear plugs in early and leave them there--it will greatly enhance your visit as they allow you to hear most amplified sound at a normal and comfortable level.

Rule two: use your hearing protection.

At 9am the gates opened for us, and most everyone walked or ran to Space Mountain, just like the guide books tell us to. Fortunately, the day we went, the crowds were quite small. At 9am Space Mountain had only a 10 minute wait. For those who do not know, Space Mountain is much like a Wild Mouse coaster enclosed in a dark dome with lots of flashing lights. Very entertaining.

As the day progresses, more people will come to the park making lines longer, in some cases an hour or two wait is not impossible. At those times make use of Disney’s free Fast Pass option. While I did not read any official rules on how this works, what I observed seemed to be:

My son found that the Buzz Lightyear ride was by far the most entertaining. It is a ride and video game. A team of 3 people, perfect for our family, sits in its own "car". Two players shoot laser guns at Zurg’s aliens while one team member drives the car with a joystick, trying to give the team the best firing options. Individual scores are tallied by the computer throughout the ride. Bragging rights are the only prize for the high scorer.

A little discussed, and therefore secret, attraction at Disney in the Tomorrowland area is The Timekeeper. Robin Williams lends his voice to a robot called the Time Keeper. Posed in the front of the studio the robot provides the running narration for the exhibit. This is a 360 degree film presentation similar to those found in Epcot. Most of the jokes are rather restrained for Robin Williams so one could hardly refer to it as a laugh-fest, yet the visuals are fun to watch. Not an "A List" attraction, it is worth taking the roughly fifteen minutes to watch.

Food and drink are expensive at Disney. We found that going to Cosmic Ray’s Café in Tomorrowland and buying the hamburgers and fries was the most filling and cost effective option for lunch. We did Ray’s chicken fingers for dinner. To be certain, the food is not great, but try not to let that impact your day--as a recent ad boasts, "you gotta eat."

Stay until after the fireworks display. While the message and theme of the audio program are not exactly Christian, the pyrotechnics are spectacular. To our surprise, even Tinker Bell made an appearance. We selected a vantage point halfway across the bridge next to Ray’s facing the castle’s front entrance. We had an unobstructed view of everything.

As stated earlier, the day we attended the park, the crowds were quite small. As a result, we saw every attraction we wanted to see, and rode some of them multiple times. By day’s end, we were exhausted but quite pleased with all the days activities. We sat in front of the castle and waited for the lines to shorten in Main Street and consequently at the ferry boat dock for leaving the park. During that wait time we dutifully took pictures for people who asked so that their entire family could be in the keepsake photograph.

While strolling slowly down Main Street, we walked through a soap bubble snow shower. Little did we know it foreshadowed more threatening things that would occur during our drive back to the Midwest. We found a camera store and browsed the antique camera displays (some of which I owned in my youth) and the impressive photographs of construction of the Magic Kingdom park. We wandered down to the ferry and took it back to the trams, which then took us back to our car. We arrived back at our hotel at midnight.

Visiting Universal Studios Theme Park in Orlando

When we awoke, showered, ate breakfast at the hotel waffle bar, and got into our car, it was already late, well past 8am. We made a wrong turn on the way to Universal Studios Theme Park (we never did figure out how that happened). On the way, my son fell ill to his stomach. We arrived at the parking lot at about 9am--after paying out the $8 parking fee, my wife and son bolted from the car to the nearest rest room. Rest rooms are generally available, if not a bit messy.

The walking distance from your car (which is often in a very nice covered parking garage at Universal) is lengthy. Reminiscent of airport terminals, there are moving walkways which most pedestrians utilize as passive rides (they stand on the walkway motionless) instead of as a means of increasing their walking speed. Due to the very long distance from your car to the parks, do not consider it a good option to make return trips to the car to pick up beverages or to drop off jackets.

You will also be forced to walk through a shopping plaza on the way to the parks. This is loud and an aggravating experience. Fortunately, someone told you to bring hearing protection in the form of ear plugs, so the noise from this plaza’s amplification system will not bother you.

As you walk through the shopping plaza, there is a rather unobtrusive sign telling you that you must turn down this side street to get to Universal Studios Theme Park--those who are inattentive will wander straight ahead on the main path and will find themselves at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park. Islands of Adventure is a more traditional thrill ride park, whereas Universal Studios is a "ride the movies" theme park.

Universal’s prices on a per day per park basis were much higher than Disney’s on the day we went (December 22, 2004). Even worse, as we found out, Universal’s "express" pass option to give patrons the means to go to the front of the waiting line, is a pay-only option, about half the price of the admission ticket added on top of the full admission price. We did not purchase that option.

As it turned out, the day we visited the park, the park was not crowded. There seemed to be substantially fewer attractions than at Disney, and even without the for-pay "express" line option, we saw the entire park, rode all the attractions, some twice, in about six hours. We willingly left the park by 5pm. In my opinion, Universal is about one-half of a good theme park. It is loud, even with ear plugs, greatly overpriced, and can quickly leave you feeling bored once you have experienced all the attractions. You might even leave wondering why you did not spend the day at a Disney park instead. We considered the food to be more expensive than at Disney, and just as mediocre quality.

While at Universal, we did attend the Terminator 2 performance twice. It was fun watching the governor of California save the world from robots gone mad. There are live action aspects to the show, along with robotics, 3-D video, smoke, water, and moving seats--all work well together to delight fans of the Terminator movie series. At the 11am showing on the day we attended the park (December 22, 2004) the actress playing the part of "Director of Communications and Media Control" was simply, well, super! At a later performance, the actress playing the part was rather lackluster and did not seem to understand either sarcasm or the subtle comedy the part required. Still, this is the second best attraction in the park.

Number one on my attraction list is the Men In Black ride. It is a slicker, more visually dazzling, and higher tech version of Disney’s Buzz Lightyear ride. Riders sit in cars, and blast aliens with laser guns while the computer keeps track of the point accruals. This is a must ride for all Men In Black movie fans.

Something I found personally unsavory was the warning sign in front of the Men In Black ride. It warned patrons that they must use the "free" lockers to house their backpacks and other loose items before riding the attraction. So what’s the catch? The lockers are only "free" for the first 60 minutes, then an automatic fee is enforced by the computerized locker system (it is not a cheap per-hour fee). Just waiting in the ride line can eat up that hour and you now owe a locker fee.

As it turns out, the ride itself offers an abundance of onboard storage for backpacks, sunglasses, and other articles. We found it more convenient, and less costly, to ignore the locker warnings and carry our belongings onboard while we rode the ride. While leaving the Men In Black ride, do try to resist making fun of the riders who used the lockers and who must now stand in yet one more line to pay to regain access to their own belongings.

Earlier I mentioned that Universal Studios theme park has the makings of about one half of a good amusement park. Notably missing from this "ride the movies" park is anything related to Jurassic Park, arguably one of Universal’s greatest movie hits. Universal’s literature indicates they put everything related to the movie Jurassic Park into their thrill park (Islands of Adventure), next door. Suffice it to say, I was not sufficiently impressed with the "studios" park, and its inability to hold my family’s attention for more than 6 hours, to risk spending additional money at another Universal operated park. Perhaps during some future visit to Orlando I will go to the other Disney parks, one of which I am told has "life sized" robotic dinosaurs which are capable of taking a free-standing walk. That I would like to see.

Summary of Thoughts

When attending any of the Orlando theme parks my recommendations are:

Remember, these parks are not necessarily Christian-based. Do not expect Christian principles or messages to abound. Instead, focus your time on your family and draw their attention to the technical elements of the parks. You may find your son opening up to you in ways you might not have thought possible at home, and this can make it all worthwhile.

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