Orlando… a day at the park
Visiting Epcot and Islands of Adventure
The Group of Six on vacation in 2010


The Park: Epcot

Located at: Disney World

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Epcot is how often it gets underestimated… relegated to least-favorite or not-as-interesting status when compared to the other three Disney parks.

In a way it’s easy to understand why. The Magic Kingdom, for all of the jokes that can be made about its age, still packs the visitors in and may just about unanimously be considered the top park in the Disney World family. (Hard to fight the “it’s a small world” lovers.) Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom boast some interesting thrill rides and unique features.

Epcot? A walk around a lagoon to visit some countries and look in stores? Yeah… seems forgettable enough when you’re thinking about it or checking it out from home.

And yet every time I visit the place it ends up being surprising. I can’t say it moves above the other parks for thrills and excitement. But when you consider that my visits to the Animal Kingdom often result covering everything, and having lunch, by about 1pm… and that Epcot can easily turn into a park you visit a second time during your stay… there is more here than you may realize.

Epcot is not a destination to toss to the side.

Soarin’ may simply be one of the best attractions in any Florida theme park. I’m not saying it’s the most exciting… most innovative… most creative… or even the most entertaining. But when you combine the show content of the ride with its overall design, toss in the ability for pretty much the entire family to take part, and then add in the way you feel after the experience… yeah… amazing stuff.

Plus, I guarantee you that when you unite Soarin’ with a visit to Journey into Imagination and its play area, you will be stunned to see the reaction you get from children.

Test Track remains a thrilling part of any visit to the park.

As solid… perhaps unexpectedly… as the park is, none of this is to say the park isn’t showing its age.

Because it is.

Love Ellen Degeneres. Think she’s great. I search out her show when I’ve got the television on in the afternoon. Ellen’s Energy Adventure (which already was a ride with more than a decade on the tires when it was updated with her presence) is a slow and now outdated experience. The show itself lasts roughly 45-minutes and you feel just about every tick of those minutes.

Spaceship Earth? Same idea. Has a moment or two… needs help.

But this is not a throwaway theme park on the Disney property. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it isn’t for the kids or that all of the good stuff can be covered by noon.

There is alot of fun to be had here… and some truly exceptional experiences if you know where to look. And a good foundation is still in place for tomorrow… if a few details are dusted off and brought up to speed.

Rides we went on:

Test Track
Captain Eo
Journey into Imagination
Ellen’s Energy Adventure
Maelstrom (Norway pavilion)
Gran Fiesta Tour (Mexico pavilion, Terry and Bob rode, I believe with Mike and Louise)
Living with the Land
Mission: SPACE (Terry and Bob once, Richard and Mike twice)
Soarin’ (second visit, Terry decided to pass on the second trip)
Spaceship Earth

What we ate:
We split up into three groups and went in different directions for lunch. Ellen and Richard took off for Italy. Mike and Louise headed to Morocco. Terry and I ended up in China.

We ate at Nine Dragons, and decided to order a sampling of appetizer-type dishes to share…

Vegetable and egg fried rice
General Tso’s chicken dumplings
Pot stickers
A dumpling special (featuring steak and cheese, shrimp and chicken)

The food was outstanding, but something strange led up to this meal. It was hot on our Tuesday visit. Really hot for late September. I can’t say it was hot like some visits in the past… like one I vividly recall in late August, where our clothes were drenched and we felt like we had melted into the blacktop... but it was draining early on for all of us.

Often the six of us, even when we think we’re heading to different conclusions, have ended up in the same place. A few comments… some back and forth… a few double-checks… and there we are at Yosemite, or on a boardwalk at Madeira Beach.

This time though, the combination of hunger and a desire to get out of the sun ended conversations and split us up pretty quickly.

I can’t tell you too much about Ellen and Richard or Mike and Louise and the meals they had. I’m not even sure of the exact location they ate at. What I can tell you is all four of them said they enjoyed their meals.

As to Terry and I… well… our meal was brilliant in every way.

Nine Dragons was enclosed and air conditioned… so we were sitting down, in a cool room, out of the sun. That was incredibly rejuvenating on it’s own.

The service was fantastic, with everything we asked for quickly provided, and all of the food served hot… almost as if it were plated immediately next to our table.

And the food… delicious.

Our decision to share rice and some smaller dishes resulted in a very reasonable check for tableside service… under $40 which includes the tip, and we tipped well.

When we left the restaurant, Terry and I felt better and more energetic than we had all day. Just a wonderful meal and a fantastic experience.

(Side note… it began pouring about thirty minutes later, around the time we met up with Ellen and Richard and were closing in on seeing Mike and Louise. That broke the heat for the day, led to several jokes about the ponchos we all bought, and adjusted a few plans. But it didn’t change our overall experience in the park, and all of us felt significantly better after eating.)

The best of the best:
Test Track deserves mention. Normally I would tell you this is strange… for a ride to remain the centerpiece of a theme park over decades (Test Track debuted more than ten years ago)… but Disney seems to do this again and again. Space Mountain… Tower of Terror… where the must-do favorites remain must-do visits over the years.

Disney does add to the list of must-do attractions in each park, and so we must include Soarin’. This ride has been a part of Epcot for several years now, having been added during the Disneyland 50th anniversary ride exchange in 2005. (And… if you do the math that comes up since I will mention Disneyland and a 2005 trip in the next segment of this article… you may notice that Jay, Justin, Terry and I visited Disneyland during the 50th anniversary. Soarin’ is at the California Adventure park (as Soarin’ Over California, and we didn’t go there).)

Frankly, you can’t underestimate the importance of Soarin’ for Epcot. Remember in my introduction I mentioned that Epcot gets the short straw when compared to other Disney World parks? Well… Soarin’ gives the park a true second ace on its roster. There are rides… say like Norway’s Maelstrom… that are fun and nice and people love them. I do. But others yawn a bit on Mexico’s Gran Fiesta Tour and Maelstrom… using that description of nice instead of thrilling or amazing.

Test Track and Soarin’ though… top notch stuff.

I’m going to include Nine Dragons here, under the premise that: (1) it was incredible, and, (2) I’m trying to include what we did on this trip. Terry and I have enjoyed several meals in other Epcot locations in the past. And, Ellen, Richard, Mike and Louise ate in different spots at Epcot. For the two of us… Nine Dragons was a great stop on this visit.

If there is one park where it makes sense to splurge on a meal… here it is. In past visits we have gone to several restaurants at Epcot (I believe I’m thinking of you, Teppan Edo in Japan... since you changed your name since my last visit), and just about without exception we’ve enjoyed them all. This is a park with plenty of ways to avoid chicken fingers, burgers and fries if you want to.

An interesting thing about Epcot is how it divides itself more than any other park. It really is two sections. When you are out in the World Showcase, you simply don’t make plans to head across to Future World if there are reasons you’d want to come back. A fast pass… meal break… shopping necessity might create the trip back and forth and back again, but you would pretty much never plan it.

The park is full of surprises. In the second section of this article we arrive at Islands of Adventure. Well… we went on more rides at Epcot than at Islands of Adventure, and the presence of long lines had absolutely nothing to do with that. (In fact, if they did interfere, we would have boarded twice as many rides at Islands of Adventure, because the lines were longer in Epcot.)

The thing is… it’s more than wandering through the gift shops of different countries.

Special praise (or complaints):
I don’t want to sound too giddy about Epcot. The reality is… a facelift is needed, as beautifully exemplified by Ellen’s Energy Adventure.

How about adding some countries? I don’t know what the procedure is (or would be), but could picture some terrific opportunities created by Greece, Australia, India, Egypt and many others.

And I wasn’t dazzled by Captain Eo… which was an incredible disappointment (way… way… way outdated, and funny only because of how bad it seemed… though I will admit I absolutely understand why it was brought back, and I was very interested in seeing it since I never saw the original run)… but let’s see room created for old attractions like Honey, I Shrunk the Audience (which only recently left, but was a fun adventure) or Cranium Command for the nostalgia buffs.

While I get that Epcot isn’t the perfect place for something like a roller coaster, the concept of futuristic themes does provide a fairly limitless set of options. Their recent excursions into nature movies… such as the widely praised films Earth and Oceans… could be great springboards for several environmentally-themed pavilions or renovations.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Park: Islands of Adventure

Located at: Universal Studios

I need to kick this off by saying something sort of important… I like Universal Studios. I really like it. There’s something different here… that perhaps is a bit of an escape from Disney. They’re not afraid to build a roller coaster simply because they want a roller coaster… with a weaker support story, but the potential of a great ride. They’re not afraid of making changes… though I do wonder about some of the changes they make.

I look at some additions since the last time I went to the original Orlando park… The Simpsons and Men in Black rides… and I feel the urge to think about multi-day passes or add them to my future-visit plans.

Trick is… something about Universal almost always leaves me underwhelmed, confused, or somehow disappointed. That’s in part why I haven’t been to the Universal Studios Orlando property since 1999.


It was 1999. Jay and Justin had joined Terry and I on a February trip to Orlando. When you leave the airport, you will begin to see billboard after billboard of rides and events to think about. And, back then a new attraction, Twister… Ride It Out, had opened at Universal Studios.

We had planned on visiting the park (Islands of Adventure had yet to cut their ribbon that year), and eagerly headed over to see the recent addition to the park’s roster. The first disappointment came when we begin to realize it wasn’t a ride at all… it’s a show. You go through the line and pre-show, and get led into a kind of observation area. A simulated tornado is formed in the middle of the room… an absolutely horrendous fake cow drifts by… and then you get sent into the gift shop.

(Maybe there’s something to the Disney support story and eye for detail after all.)

2005. California. Jay, Justin, Terry and I decided to add Universal Studios Hollywood to our southern California trip. We head down to the lower lot and get in line for Revenge of the Mummy. And… in summary… it sucked.

Keep in mind… the ride opened in 2004.

Later on that trip, we went to Anaheim and spent a day at Disneyland. Near the end of our visit, we went on the Indiana Jones Adventure. Every detail of this attraction… from the line on the way in to the ride itself… absolutely destroyed Revenge of the Mummy. Indiana Jones joined Disneyland in 1995.

I can’t believe this is an accident. It happens too often… again and again and again. I’ve found examples on both coasts where similar sources or ideas all favor Disney. (I just mentioned archeologist-themed ideas in California that I believe are quite fair to make. How about we place Doctor Doom’s Fearfall against the Tower of Terror? That covers Florida. And in this essay, I’m going to mention parking and the trips to and from your car. Disney just kicks Universal’s behind up, down and sideways.)

So… again… I like Universal Studios. At some point, I will almost undoubtedly find myself in one of the Universal parks again. I feel the need to make that clear up front, because the reality is this day was a bit of a Universal let down.

Rides we went on:

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (Ellen, Richard, Mike, Louise)
Flight of the Hippogriff (Bob, Terry)
Dragon Challenge (Ellen, Richard, Mike, Louise)
Jurassic Park River Adventure
Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (all once, Bob twice)
Doctor Doom’s Fearfall (Richard, Mike)
The Cat in the Hat (Bob, Terry, and I don’t remember but it wasn’t everyone)

What we ate:
We debated eating at several places, including thoughts of Three Broomsticks in the Wizarding World. Hungry after Jurassic Park, we ended up deciding not to backtrack in a direction the exact opposite of the way we planned on moving to continue with the rides after we ate, and we ended up at Thunder Falls Terrace.

To be honest… it was nothing more than fine, and the orders we placed weren’t that memorable.

The best of the best:
I always have enjoyed Spider-Man… rode it twice on this visit, and multiple times on a trip in the past… so I’m going to include it here.

I enjoyed the detail and effort that went into constructing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As I have said in a separate effort about this trip, it just may be the most beautifully built and impressive area in any theme park on the planet.

And… I debated it, and I think I will… let’s give a nod to Popeye & Bluto’s. We had a really great time on it, laughing hysterically while getting drenched, and ended up with a fantastic group shot when we got off the raft. (An attendant was fabulous and took the picture for us.)

If you look at the number of rides we went on at Islands of Adventure, the count seems to be at ten. (Nine rides noted, with my riding Spider-Man twice.) And that is amazingly misleading.

While Ellen, Richard, Mike and Louise were on the Forbidden Journey, Terry and I were riding the Hippogriff. (Two rides on the list… yet no one in our group waited in more than one line.) While I rode Spider-Man the second time, Richard and Mike had gone to the Fearfall.

So… a total of ten actually involves eight waits in line. And, if Mike and Richard didn’t go on Cat in the Hat (which is possible), that means none of us went on more than seven rides at the park.

We all went on ten rides in Epcot (Terry sat out the second Soarin’), and that includes about an hour spent running in place at Ellen’s Energy Adventure, while not including that Soarin’ had members of our group visiting it twice.

Plus, once we moved outside of the Wizarding World, there were no lines at any of the rides. Seriously… none of the lines lasted more than five to ten minutes other than when in the land of Harry and his friends.

(Something doesn’t add up.)

Special praise (or complaints):
The following is material I brought over from my “Best of Florida in 2010” article. If you want to read the full version, head over there. For now…

By some amazing twist of fate and circumstance, we didn’t get hit by the massive lines that Harry Potter has been swarmed with. Yeah… it took forever to get in the theme park itself. (Our “VIP” parking ticket was still at least fifteen minutes from garage to gate, and no blessing. And then, at the ticket line, we waited well over thirty minutes for all six of us to make our purchases and get inside.) The big ride was accomplished for four of us in around an hour. All we ever saw as far as unmanageable crowds in Mr. Potter’s World that proved disappointing took place at the wand shop. The rest was just lots and lots of people while the rest of Islands of Adventure was bordering on empty.

The insulting thing about Harry Potter and Islands of Adventure, and the reason it earns such distinction here, was the ride restrictions when it came to size. And that insult is delivered in two ways…

First ~ It’s not communicated well. Oh sure, they did have a disclaimer on their web site. And there have been stories in the media. But they don’t mention a word of it as you’re purchasing your tickets.

It’s not just Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It’s another ride in the Wizarding World… Dragon Challenge. It’s Doctor Doom’s Fearfall. Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls is slightly different, but offers no favors. This is not an isolated dilemma, and these are not the only rides with problems.

In short… and here I am making a vague, sweeping, blanket statement that isn’t perfectly true, since Jurassic Park River Adventure is one attraction that is pretty much fine for all riders… if you’re overweight, every major attraction in this park is off limits to you.

Second ~ Ok… I hear you. Rides have always had some form of restrictions. Could be height. May be head and neck problems, heart conditions, and other medical situations that should be considered before you step in line.

Surely I’ve seen those kinds of signs before. Safety first. Right?

No… no… wrong.

Because if this is a major deal in delivering safe experiences… how come Disney doesn’t have these problems? Why is it that Universal is unable to prepare and design for these situations?

On this same trip, at Epcot, classics like Test Track and thrills like Soarin’ were no problem at all. Barely months after this day… different trip, back at Disney… the Magic Kingdom presented no difficulties with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Space Mountain, Stich’s Great Escape, or any other attraction.

Basically… what I am left to conclude, by documentation and personal experience, is that we are expected to believe a leader in the industry like Universal Studios can’t plan or engineer their most exciting rides to accommodate a significant number of adults. And yet, ten or so miles away, another leader in the industry has no such difficulties with any of their rides.

The point of this example is… Universal Studios is not on the same level as Disney. And as I explored from coast to coast, that’s a company problem that’s true in just about every way. Heck… the ride in to a theme park from your car, involving a monorail or ferry ride, is something interesting and memorable at Disney. I can still vividly recall about five years ago getting on the ferry, and then as we rode it across the lake we watched the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom. Just beautiful. At Universal Studios you park in a huge garage, and even if you pay extra for the special parking you still end up walking forever.

The differences are substantial.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com