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  • Birthday 12/20/1979

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  1. My 2012 WDW trip included visits to Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom, and Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf. My 2013 WDW trip then included visits to Epcot and Winter Summerland Miniature Golf. Continuing the trend of visiting major parks along with smaller attractions, this 2014 WDW trip included visits to Magic Kingdom followed by DisneyQuest in Downtown Disney (2014 was prior to Downtown Disney's name change to Disney Springs). I had long been curious about DisneyQuest (I often considered it Disney World's 4.5th theme park), but I'd never tried it out until now. I am by no means a techie, and I quite despise the industry's current VR fad, but DisneyQuest and this 2014 visit well predated the VR craze. I therefore went in with a very open mind, and quite enjoyed the entire experience. (There had been no announcements by this point that DisneyQuest would be closing in a few years -- I wonder how the park would have evolved had it made it to the "VR era.") DisneyQuest was unique in that it was entirely enclosed within a single five-story building. It therefore didn't take up a huge amount of Downtown Disney territory, but there was still plenty to see and do, all stacked on top of each other -- each floor housed a selection of attractions and arcades (as well as eateries and shops). The theming was also apparently divided into four different zones -- Explore, Score, Replay, and Create. I couldn't really follow that organization though, as the four zones (obviously) didn't correspond to the five floors. No matter, the layout was otherwise straightforward, and I'll go through the attractions here floor by floor. The intriguing building exterior along the West Side of Downtown Disney. Let's take a closer look at the interior. You actually enter the park on the third floor of the building, into this futuristic Ventureport room. My understanding is there once was a spiral slide leading from the third floor down to the first floor. That would have been fun. It's now simply stairways (and elevators) between floors. The third floor is home to two major attractions, Mighty Ducks Pinball Slam being my favorite of the two (possibly my favorite attraction in all of DisneyQuest). A pinball-hockey combination, each guest has to rock their podium back and forth to move their corresponding puck on the screen. It's all a little frantic, a little chaotic, and a little exhausting, but so much fun. The goalie was almost too good at blocking the shots, so I was proud of myself for scoring as well as I did (I wasn't the winner of our game, but close). The other third-floor attraction is Buzz Lightyear's AstroBlaster. It's a bumper car ride where you drive over and scoop up foam "cannonballs" to shoot at the other cars (one rider drives, one rider shoots). If a vehicle's target is hit, it spins around "out of control" for a few seconds. It's a fun idea, but because you are confined to such a hot, stuffy enclosed space it pretty quickly becomes sort of claustrophobic and nauseating. (As a side note, you'll also notice in all the photos how dark it is throughout the entire DisneyQuest building.) As mentioned, most floors have one or two arcade areas, often a classic games arcade and a modern games arcade. On floor 3 is Race Zone, which looks like an arcade game (and it is), but separated as its own attraction. This worked great -- you waited in line, and the entire row of cars was filled together. The race started at the same time automatically for everyone, so the competition was timed perfectly. Once the race ended everyone exited the cars just like you would a ride (no staying seated for another race like you might do with an arcade game), and the next group in line had their turn. Very well executed. Down one floor, to floor 2, you'll find possibly the most popular attraction at the entire park -- CyberSpace Mountain. It's a design-and-then-ride-your-own-roller-coaster simulator. The design is done at these kiosks, which is saved to your simulator pod. I included a bunch of barrel rolls and front and back flips, so I was surprised when my design ended up rating pretty low on the attraction's thrill scale. It was good enough for me -- I can certainly understand why CyberSpace Mountain is so popular, but small, individual simulators with the screen right in front of your face have never been my favorite. Like I said with Buzz Lightyear, the cramped space makes it a bit too stuffy and nauseating. Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride is the other main attraction on the second floor. This was very much a precursor to the VR attractions of today, as riders sat on their "magic carpets" and wore headsets to simulate the action. The story involved flying through the Cave of Wonders to collect treasure and rescue the Genie. It was all a little confusing (again, a precursor to today's VR!), and I really couldn't follow what was happening or what I was supposed to be doing. (As an ironic side note, it was in line for the Genie ride that I first learned about the death of Robin Williams. Yes, that's how long ago this trip was and how late this trip report is...) The second floor is also where you'll find a bunch of the "Create" attractions, such as a song maker and a build-a-toy. There's an Animation Academy here too, which I didn't get to do (all of the sessions were earlier in the day than when I visited), but it looks like this one is done on a computer screen rather than on paper. It's a shame that both of the drawing classes at Disney World have now closed (this one and the one at Hollywood Studios). The Animation Academy at California Adventure is definitely one of the sleeper hits at that park. Down on the first floor are two (very good) attractions. Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold is part ride, part show, part game. Kind of like everything at DisneyQuest -- an "interactive experience." Your group stands in its own personal ship in its own private room surrounded by screens, fighting off enemy pirate ships with cannons. The smaller the group, the more challenging it is, as you have to man all of the cannons plus steer the ship. All while wearing 3D glasses. Virtual Jungle Cruise isn't 3D (unless I'm misremembering), but it's another one where your vehicle is positioned in front of a screen. The vehicle this time though is an inflatable raft that bobs up and down with the action, as you paddle your way down a prehistoric river. (The paddles trigger sensors that determine your route.) Lots of fun, and a bit of exercise too (I was on the right side of the raft, and after all the paddling my right deltoid was on fire!). Okay, let's head up to the top floor, floor 5, for Invasion! An ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. This was similar to Pirates of the Caribbean, only seated rather than standing (and I honestly can't remember if it was 3D or not). These are the doors leading into the individual rooms housing the spaceships and screens. I enjoyed this, but too bad they couldn't have somehow recreated the old Alien Encounter attraction from Magic Kingdom. I would have loved that. The final major attraction, Ride the Comix, can actually be accessed from both the fourth and fifth floors. (The fourth floor also has a pretty large sports-themed arcade.) Ride the Comix was my least favorite of all the DisneyQuest attractions. Like Aladdin's Magic Carpets, this uses VR headsets, but you're standing rather than sitting. You basically fight off villains with a lightsaber-style sword, but once again, the VR makes it difficult to understand what's happening, and you have to be strapped in place (because the vehicle platforms extend out over the atrium that runs through the center of the entire building), so your range of motion is restricted. Although Ride the Comix may not have been the best, most of the DisneyQuest attractions were fun and enjoyable, and I found it to be a very worthwhile visit. I definitely noticed a lot of pre-teens having a great time -- I imagine DisneyQuest may have been more fun than any of the "big four" WDW parks for them. I'm not devastated that DisneyQuest has closed, but it would be nice to still have it around (and I'm sure it would warrant more repeat visits than the NBA exhibit that's replacing it). To finish up, let's head over to Splitsville, the fancy bowling alley next door. I've always enjoyed bowling (I used to be quite good, though these days I'm definitely out of practice), so I was eager to check this out. (Splitsville has since opened at So Cal's Downtown Disney, though for whatever reason I haven't been to that one yet.) More "exclusive" lanes spread throughout the building (rather than all of the lanes lined up together like at a typical bowling alley), plus food service right to your lane, are distinguishing features of Splitsville. I didn't bother with the food service because 1) we only played a couple games, so we weren't there long enough to need food, 2) the bowling was expensive enough without food, and 3) I think touching food after touching dirty bowling balls, or touching bowling balls after touching greasy food, is gross and totally messes up your game. This is what the video monitor over my lane always showed I never saw this...I had to take a picture of the neighboring lane Where legends are born. That brings three years of Walt Disney World to a close, but my August 2014 trip to Central Florida continues beyond WDW. Coming up...
  2. ... Haunted Mansion looks incredible sitting atop its isolated hillside. While Magic Kingdom's appears more "haunted" and Disneyland's appears more "mansion," either way Haunted Mansion is dark ride perfection (the ride itself plus the queue room walkthroughs leading up to the ride). Very appropriately located in Liberty Square is Hall of Presidents. I watch Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland quite regularly, and I had just watched American Adventure at Epcot the previous year, so I was glad to be able to watch Hall of Presidents again this year. And because this trip was in 2014, I got to watch the show back when our president was still presidential. As far as I'm concerned, the Main Street Electrical Parade is THE definitive Disney nighttime parade. I love the floats, the lights, and yes, the music too. The conclusion of the Electrical Parade also concludes this Magic Kingdom visit. And a great visit it was -- I saw and did pretty much everything, which will hopefully keep me satiated until I'm able to return once again!
  3. The second half of my August 2014 trip took me back to Central Florida, the third August in a row I'd make this trip. As with the previous two years, I wanted to do some Disney World and some beyond Disney World. The only major Disney park left to visit was Magic Kingdom -- I had visited Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom in 2012 and Epcot in 2013. I'd held off on Magic Kingdom though while the new Fantasyland was under construction, but now that it had opened this felt like the perfect time to pay a visit to the original Walt Disney World park. I have been to Magic Kingdom twice before, way back during the 1990/1991 and 1998/1999 winter holidays. In addition to the new Fantasyland rides (Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Little Mermaid), a couple other Fantasyland attractions (Winnie the Pooh, PhilharMagic) had been added since my last visits, as had a couple Tomorrowland attractions (Monsters Inc., Stitch). I was also eager to revisit all of the classic attractions unique to this Magic Kingdom, some of which used to be at So Cal's Disneyland but are long gone (Carousel of Progress, PeopleMover, Country Bear Jamboree) and some of which have always been exclusive to the Florida park (Hall of Presidents). And of course let's not ignore the abundance of other Disney headliners (Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, etc. etc. etc., the list goes on and on...!). So glad to be back. While I've been to California's Disneyland countless times, this marked only my third visit to Florida's Magic Kingdom, and my first visit in about 15 years. ...enjoying this view! Disney magic. Even though there's so much to do at the park, it's almost hard to beat simply relaxing under the shaded cover of the train station and... Just to the east of the train station, where the Main Street Opera House sits at Disneyland, is the Town Square Theater. Instead of park history and Mr. Lincoln, this is a character meet-and-greet -- equally appropriate for Main Street. The Town Square end of Main Street also features a unique partners statue (called Sharing the Magic if I'm not mistaken) that recognizes Roy Disney's contributions to Walt Disney World. And at the Central Plaza end of Main Street is of course the Partners statue familiar to all. More than double the height of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom certainly does look impressive. (No disrespect is at all intended toward Sleeping Beauty Castle -- despite its smaller size, I think it's 100% as photogenic, and I love the "secret" secluded walkthrough of that castle's interior, which is absent here.) I can't decide which angle is more attractive, this one... ...or this one. Either way, the surrounding moat, rockwork, and greenery all make for stunning sights. The back side of Cinderella Castle, after having passed from Main Street into Fantasyland. Fantasyland is an especially large land at Magic Kingdom, in a sense encompassing three separate areas, each with its own distinct feel -- the "original" Fantasyland, the "new" Fantasyland, and Storybook Circus, a re-theme of the former Toontown that has now been incorporated into Fantasyland. The centerpiece of the original Fantasyland remains Prince Charming Regal Carrousel. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has an eye-catching queue themed to the Hundred Acre Wood, with some interactive activities to keep you entertained while you wait. Being in the heart of Fantasyland rather than tucked away in an obscure corner of the park, this Winnie the Pooh is far more popular than Disneyland's. Interestingly, though the Disneyland version seems to get pooh-poohed (pun intended) for not being technologically innovative like the Tokyo version, the Magic Kingdom version was pretty much identical to Disneyland's. It features all the same scenes, and I'm not even sure I remember this one having Disneyland's bouncing vehicles. To be clear, I'm not pooh-poohing -- I like Disneyland's Winnie the Pooh perfectly fine, and I felt the same about this Winnie the Pooh. It really is quintessential Disney -- a ride for the whole family based on a beloved cartoon character. Peter Pan's Flight is also very similar to Disneyland's, both the ride experience and its crazy popularity. (As an aside, it felt a little strange having Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh as Fantasyland's lone two dark rides. No Snow White, no Pinocchio, no Mr. Toad, no Alice. Though I guess I shouldn't ignore Little Mermaid in the new Fantasyland.) Directly across from Peter Pan is It's a Small World. Recognized at Disneyland for its spectacularly huge and elaborate façade, featuring the iconic clock tower and replicas of famous world landmarks, this Small World entrance appears exceedingly humble and modest (to put it mildly) by comparison. However, despite its unassuming exterior, the famous façade is still present, somehow hidden within the attraction building. The ride itself is exactly the Small World you'd expect, showcasing sets decorated as various countries of the world... ...hundreds of doll children in their traditional costumes... ...and of course the classically famous (infamous?) song. Another Disney standard, the Mad Tea Party can also be found in Fantasyland. And the final attraction of the "original" Fantasyland is Mickey's PhilharMagic. Being a brand new show for me, I was quite looking forward to this, and was very satisfied with it. It's actually a pretty brilliant idea, playing some of Disney's most memorable songs in a concert hall setting, and presenting some of Disney's most memorable animated scenes in 3D, all the while mixing in Donald Duck's wacky shenanigans. (I did find it to be a little dark -- not dark in tone, but literally dark. Not sure if it was my 3D glasses or if it was the screen, but such an upbeat show ought to have appeared more vibrant. Just a minor criticism.) Let's move on now to the new Fantasyland, all of which is themed to a very attractive Enchanted Forest setting. It goes without saying that the star attraction here is Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Essentially an extended junior coaster with unique "bucket" cars that swing side to side during the turns, there's also an indoor dark ride portion in the middle. I love that the coaster is right in the center of the new Fantasyland, letting you walk around the entire ride to get pictures of it from pretty much every angle. This might be my favorite picture -- I could see it on a Disney brochure. The "big" drop following the dark ride part. While Seven Dwarfs Mine Train certainly has enough of a thrill factor to appeal to coaster enthusiasts, it really is meant for families and is absolutely appropriate for all but the youngest children. A winner for Disney, Seven Dwarfs easily joins the ranks of Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, and Splash Mountain as one of Magic Kingdom's most popular attractions. The other major addition is Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid. This is a duplicate of the California Adventure ride, with a much more intricately detailed exterior and queue. In my opinion, this does as good a job as possible at condensing a 90-minute movie into a 5-minute ride, featuring all of the characters and songs we know and love. Beginning with Part of Your World... ...the ride continues on to the showstopping Under the Sea scene. There's also Poor Unfortunate Souls... ...and Kiss the Girl. A wave goodbye from the cast at the conclusion. Again, I've liked this ride since its opening in California, and felt the same about it here. It works perfectly as an Omnimover-style dark ride, clamshell vehicles and all. Also new is Enchanted Tales with Belle, the queue of which leads through Maurice's cottage. Ultimately though we end up in Beast's castle. (Once again, all of this fits perfectly within the Enchanted Forest setting of the new Fantasyland.) The attraction is sort of a show / character meet-and-greet combo, where Belle, Lumiere, and select children from the audience recreate the story of Beauty and the Beast. I'd classify Enchanted Tales as the little girl's alternative to Jedi Training Academy (though boys are of course allowed to participate too [and girls are of course allowed to participate at the Jedi Academy]). It's not something I would necessarily need to do on repeat visits to the park, but it was nicely done and I'm glad to have experienced it this once. There's no denying its popularity with the target audience of families with children. Continuing the Beauty and the Beast theme, Gaston's Tavern offers LeFou's Brew, Disney's answer to Universal's insanely popular Butterbeer. I quite prefer the fruity tartness of LeFou's Brew (and its counterpart in Cars Land at California Adventure) to the sweetness of Butterbeer. Lastly for Fantasyland is Storybook Circus, which features a water play area, more character meet-and-greets, and two rides that, while perhaps not headliners, are definitely big deals to the little ones. First is Barnstormer. Though it may be a typical Vekoma roller skater, the theming of this coaster (flying in a stunt plane during Goofy's daredevil act) really does make it more exciting. I'm sure it must be a huge thrill for coaster beginners. And then there's Dumbo. Kudos to Disney World for adding 1) a second set of Dumbos to double the capacity and 2) a "pager" queue system that allows kids to play under a shaded big top tent rather than wait in a long and boring line. Adjacent to Fantasyland (and Main Street) is Tomorrowland, towered over by the instantly recognizable architecture of Space Mountain. I'd be hard-pressed to choose between Magic Kingdom's Space Mountain and Disneyland's Space Mountain. This one is the original, so it immediately gets credit for that. The trains are the major difference between the two, and while I probably prefer the more modern trains on Disneyland's Space Mountain, the Matterhorn-style trains on Magic Kingdom's Space Mountain may provide a slightly wilder feel. But let's not split hairs -- Space Mountain at any Disney park is a fantastic and iconic ride. Since its addition about 20 years ago (over 20 years after the addition of Space Mountain), Buzz Lightyear has become a staple Tomorrowland attraction in its own right. I remember this being brand new during my previous Magic Kingdom visit, and riding it probably half a dozen times. It was such a blast (literally), it still is, and I've been enjoying it just as much at Disneyland since its opening there a few years later. Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor was new to me this visit. It was alright -- kind of the next evolution of the Turtle Talk concept. It may be hit-or-miss though from one show to the next, depending on the audience participants. We had pretty good interaction throughout, until the final participant totally flopped -- kind of a buzzkill way to end it. Just across the way was another new one, Stitch's Great Escape. I didn't hate this, but I'm certainly not upset that it's since been removed. I think I would have enjoyed Stitch more had I never experienced the Alien Encounter attraction it replaced, which I loved. While I understand why Alien Encounter didn't last (it really didn't belong in a park like Magic Kingdom), Stitch in no way improved things -- still not great for kids, but now not great for adults either. (Speaking of replacements, and going back to Monsters Inc. for a moment, I just remembered the former Timekeeper Circle Vision show that Monsters Inc. replaced. While I recall almost everything about Alien Encounter, I recall virtually nothing about Timekeeper!) I'm so glad this has never been replaced -- such an awesome blast from the past. From the rotating theater to the catchy theme song to the old school animatronics to the retro vision of the future, Carousel of Progress may be cheesy and outdated by today's standards but represents classic, historic Walt Disney. Also very happy the PeopleMover is still an appreciated part of this Tomorrowland (rather than being an abandoned eyesore...). Another vintage attraction, Tomorrowland Speedway probably wouldn't be as missed as Carousel of Progress or PeopleMover if it was ever removed, mostly because it takes up a lot of Tomorrowland territory yet doesn't really fit in with Tomorrowland. The same could be said for Disneyland's Autopia, though I definitely give the edge to that one -- it has a greater attempt at theming along the route, there's more variety to the track, there's a bit more interaction with other attractions, and there's more shade. Still, the open grassy airiness here does give this Speedway its own unique feel. Speaking of open grassy areas, I really like the quiet, secluded path that connects the Storybook Circus portion of Fantasyland to the backmost portion of Tomorrowland. A great way to avoid some crowds and a great way to view the Walt Disney World Railroad. Let's hop aboard for a ride to the opposite side of the park (sadly, no Grand Canyon or Primeval World along the way...). We begin the other side of the park with Adventureland and Swiss Family Treehouse. The relaxed and peaceful yet exciting and adventurous vibe exuded here is perfect -- who wouldn't love to have this as a vacation home? And let me add that Swiss Family Treehouse is infinitely superior to Tarzan's Treehouse -- I keep holding out hope they'll change that one back. More classic Disney, Enchanted Tiki Room offers an abundance of animatronics singing upbeat songs. This isn't something I do too often at Disneyland, but after watching it here I realized maybe I should -- it provides a nice respite from the crowds, sun, and heat. A favorite Adventureland attraction of mine, Jungle Cruise's lush theming does perhaps the best job of making you feel you've really journeyed to the tropics. Some of the animatronics are admittedly pretty cheesy... ...but most are quite well done. The entire setting is what impresses me most -- the fact that the jungle vegetation and waterways completely surround you, removing you far from civilization for about ten minutes or so. And then there's of course the guide's corny jokes and puns, which add to the fun. Magic Kingdom's Jungle Cruise and Disneyland's Jungle Cruise are pretty similar, with a few key differences. Most notable is the indoor section here, as the boat passes through ancient temple ruins. No piranhas during this Jungle Cruise though. As I think everyone is aware, compared to Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean, Magic Kingdom's Pirates is sort of the Cliff's Notes version of the ride -- for being so leisurely and slow paced, it kind of feels warp speed. Let it be clear that I'm not complaining -- like I said above for Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean at any Disney park is about as iconic a ride can get. Coincidentally, the one on-ride Pirates photo I took in 2014 was of the now gone-but-not-forgotten auction scene. I'll be interested to try out the newly revamped scene (at both Disneyland and Disney World). And finally for Adventureland is Magic Carpets of Aladdin, one of the park's three Dumbo-style rides. (The third being Astro Orbiter in Tomorrowland, which you may have noticed I didn't include a picture of -- it was the only attraction not operating during this visit. If I had to pick one attraction to be closed, Astro Orbiter would certainly be a top choice. I didn't actually even ride Dumbo or Aladdin either.) Next we enter Frontierland, home of Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Although there are minor differences during the ride scenes, the major difference between this Splash Mountain and Disneyland's Splash Mountain are the boats -- the side-by-side seating here is pretty rare for a log flume, and admittedly more comfortable than straddling the center of the boat. (I can't seem to remember if there were lap bars to go along with these more coaster-like seats. If there were, they must not have detracted from the experience at all, or else I would have remembered.) It's also intriguing that, though the drop seems huge while riding, it's not really all that big. Pretty amazing the illusions those Imagineers can create. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. So extremely photogenic, Disney's Splash Mountain is the most elaborately themed log flume you'll find anywhere. There may be close runners-up (Dudley Do-Right, Timber Mountain), but Splash Mountain takes first prize. Speaking of photogenic and elaborately themed, Big Thunder Mountain is for mine trains what Splash Mountain is for log flumes. The layout of both Thunder Mountains (Magic Kingdom's and Disneyland's) is more or less the same, with the noted exception that the tracks mirror image each other. Views of this Big Thunder Mountain are a bit more accessible than at Disneyland, as seen here from the Liberty Square Riverboat. (I kind of like the look of the train just barely peeking into this shot.) Here's a view from Tom Sawyer Island, and another pic where the train just barely makes a cameo -- can you see it? And my favorite view of all, from the Walt Disney World Railroad. Once again, let's play "Can you find the coaster train hidden in this picture?" Frontierland is also home to Country Bear Jamboree, an attraction that entertains in a head-scratching sort of way. I am glad this still exists at Magic Kingdom, though I will admit back when it was at Disneyland, much like Enchanted Tiki Room, I rarely watched it. For that reason, although I remembered the gist of the show, I didn't remember the specifics. And the specifics are bizarre. While the bears might be the stars, these three may very well be the most famous. The Five Bear Rugs are the show's opening act. Henry the M.C. sings the only song I recognize, Ballad of Davy Crockett. Trixie sings Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine (!!!!!). Big Al sings Blood on the Saddle (?????). And other ditties include "If You Can't Bite Don't Growl," "All the Guys that Turn Me on Turn Me Down," and "My Woman Ain't Pretty but She Don't Swear None." WTF LOLOLOL. Country Bear Jamboree kind of defies description, and I can't decide whether it's brilliant or dreadful. Worth seeing either way I guess because...well...just because. I make a point to visit the Frontierland Shootin' Arcade during every trip to Disneyland, so I naturally made a point to do the same here. For an upcharge attraction, this is as inexpensive as they get -- a couple of quarters will buy you a very fair number of shots. The theming is impeccable and you won't find a more well maintained shooting gallery anywhere -- the guns, targets, and effects all work perfectly, and there are tons of them. In addition, the guns' sights are so precisely aligned that the targets are kind of hard to miss. As far as I'm concerned, Frontierland Shootin' Arcade is one of Disney's sleeper hits. Time for a quick snack break. The first day I was at Magic Kingdom was the first day they were trying out a new menu at the little eatery right on the border of Adventureland and Frontierland (I believe Golden Oak Outpost is its name). They were serving these delicious seasoned waffle fries loaded with toppings -- barbecue pork and coleslaw on the left, ranch blt on the right. They were so good we went back the next day to sample the other two flavors -- tex-mex on the left, gravy and cheese on the right. I have no idea if these lasted on the menu or not, but they sure were tasty during their first two days of existence. Having refueled with some food, let's now take a log raft across the Rivers of America over to Tom Sawyer Island. Tom Sawyer Island features many classic Disney sites and sights, including Harper's Mill... ...and Fort Langhorn. Really though, Tom Sawyer Island is one giant playground, with its dirt paths leading to all kinds of fun obstacles. I remember loving being able to play and explore and work off extra energy on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland as a kid, as I imagine kids still do today. That's not to say the island and its obstacles aren't also fun for adults -- they most definitely are. The lengthy suspension bridge connecting the two halves of the island is probably the most popular, and might possibly be my favorite... Or maybe my favorite is the barrel bridge... Or perhaps it's spooky Injun Joe's Cave. See what I mean -- spooky. With so much to do, it's hard to pick a single Tom Sawyer Island favorite. Just enjoy it all. Encircling Tom Sawyer Island are the Rivers of America, which you can travel aboard the Liberty Square Riverboat. I guess we're technically in Liberty Square now rather than Frontierland (hence the boat's name), though the Rivers of America kind of blur the boundary between the two lands. (It's really Frontierland -- the riverboat is docked in Liberty Square -- it doesn't even matter.) Unlike at Disneyland, where the Mark Twain, Columbia, and canoes all share the rivers, at Magic Kingdom the Liberty Belle has the route all to itself, and the paddle wheeler sure does look attractive charting its course off into the wilderness. Riverboat POV. Some of the critters you'll see along the way. You'll also pass by the Native American village.
  4. Next on the itinerary was my first ever visit to Wild Adventures in Valdosta, GA. This park doesn't seem to have the greatest of reputations, perhaps because its collection of coasters is not exactly stellar (Cheetah, a CCI woodie, would be the highlight), and / or perhaps because it hardly ever gets anything new (its newest coaster, Viking Voyage, was added way back in 2010; I believe the only addition since this 2014 visit has been Jungle Rumble, a flying carpet-style flat ride). In spite of these shortcomings, I actually quite enjoyed Wild Adventures for several reasons: 1) While the coasters may only be so-so, there are at least a decent number of them (seven, none of which are exclusively kiddie coasters). 2) There are LOTS of other rides -- tons of flat rides and kiddie rides, two nice water rides, and the typical upcharge attractions (skycoaster, go-karts, mini golf). 3) There's a free waterpark included with admission, as well as a free concert amphitheater (I didn't take advantage of either of these, but they were certainly both popular with park guests). 4) The major selling point for me -- the zoological part of the park far exceeded my expectations (more on that with the pictures below). 5) Because of all of the above, Wild Adventures is actually a pretty HUGE park. I spent two days, and that was without the waterpark, concerts, or upcharge attractions. There's therefore plenty to do not just for first-time visitors like me but for park regulars as well, and I imagine locals are entirely content with the park experience. 6) Lastly, I noted that the clientele was friendly, the staff was professional, operations were efficient, the park was clean and well maintained, and the animals all appeared well cared for. Everything therefore added up to a very positive Wild Adventures visit. The modest entrance belies the true size of the park, which is far larger than I had realized or expected. Wild Adventures' best coaster, Cheetah, is an out-and-back woodie (with a sort of twister, figure 8 finale) that runs through the middle of the animal habitat at the back of the park. One of CCI's very last coasters, Cheetah isn't quite as spectacular as some of their earlier installments, but it does seem to have aged reasonably well (its got an appropriate amount of roughness to it; definitely not excessive). An overall fun ride, and a great ride for this park. Interestingly, the most memorable ride at Wild Adventures for me was this little piece of crap coaster, Viking Voyage. The park's newest, it's baffling how any large (or even medium-sized) park would consciously choose to add one of these to advertise as their new coaster. (Though I know it was transferred over from the closed Celebration City, so Wild Adventures must have got it cheap.) A Miler coaster with tight unbanked turns taken by a rickety little train over rickety track, this literally had me LOLing the entire time at how craptastic it was. Also, the weird bend following the first drop is mercilessly whiplash inducing, and I felt it might snap my neck the first time I rode. (I'll admit, the ride was so craptacular I rode twice; the second time I had better braced my upper body from being slammed around so much.) I haven't ridden many coasters in the "so bad they're good" category, but this one absolutely qualifies. (As a side note, Viking Voyage is a duplicate of the coaster that famously ended up in the Atlantic Ocean following Hurricane Sandy -- probably where Viking Voyage belongs too!) In a park known for mostly mediocre coasters, you can bet there's going to be a Vekoma SLC. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I don't mind these the way most others do -- I guess for whatever fortunate reason the headbanging isn't too bad for me. Also of note, Twisted Typhoon seems to have the "big, scary" coaster reputation at Wild Adventures, the one people are most excited and anxious to ride and most proud of conquering afterwards. I like the color scheme too. To go along with their SLC there's a Vekoma boomerang. Of course. I like these far less than SLCs, but don't remember this one being too bad. It also looks kind of nice. Then there's a wild mouse called Go Bananas. Not too much to say about this one -- it's a Maurer coaster, but rides just like a Mack wild mouse. It's fun. Swamp Thing is a Vekoma suspended family coaster, the third I've ridden (following Flying Ace Aerial Chase at Carowinds [which I kind of hated] and Freedom Flyer at Fun Spot America [which was infinitely better]). Though Swamp Thing is identical to the Carowinds version (same boring track layout, same unnecessary over-the-shoulder restraints), I liked it a little more. While still no Freedom Flyer, the headbanging here wasn't as bad as Flying Ace, and the swamp setting helped to offset the otherwise slow and pretty dull ride. (I know it's a family coaster, I shouldn't complain about it being slow and dull.) The final coaster is Ant Farm Express, a Vekoma (the fourth Vekoma!) roller skater. (Maybe I should call it the first coaster rather than the final coaster, as it's located immediately inside the park entrance.) With Ant Farm Express I obtained all seven of Wild Adventures' seven coaster credits. Maybe not the greatest collection in the world, but a collection that fits well at this park. The two water rides are pretty good ones. Blackfoot Falls looks like a standard boat flume, and it is, but... ...it's DRENCHING!!! Very appropriately located right next to the waterpark. On the complete opposite side of the park is Tasmanian River Rapids. I don't remember this one being very wet, but I do remember its most notable feature -- a really cool whirlpool effect that I'd never seen before on a rapids ride. I wasn't able to get a picture of that secluded spot, but look up a video to see for yourself. I was intrigued. Firecracker is a standard smaller-sized S&S space shot. Standard and smaller doesn't mean bad though -- I still really enjoy these. Rattler was definitely one of the most popular flat rides at the park, and deservedly so. It's by no means the largest frisbee you'll ever find, but it did manage to swing up pretty high and fast and lasted for a nice duration. Like Rattler, Tailspin was also quite popular with guests. I liked its placement among the vegetation along the edge of the park's central lake. If I'm not mistaken, Tailspin was the newest ride to be added before this 2014 visit. Pharaoh's Fury was one of the highlights at Wild Adventures for me. Aside from the fact that it looked fantastic... ...it provided great swinging ship airtime with each swoop from up to down, even in the middle seats. Swinging ships are typically a favorite of mine, but they can be hit-or-miss. Happily, this was a hit. Aviator is a type of ride that I don't "get", here or anywhere else I've encountered it. It seems to be marketed as a thrill ride, but it's not very tall, it's certainly not fast, and controlling the rudders does absolutely nothing toward moving the ride vehicles. A much better ride where the rudders actually serve a purpose is Falcon Flyers. (The placement next to the lake was pretty inspired.) Yo-Yo is another one that would work great along the lake, but alas, it's a little farther "inland". Even so, I do like these Chance chair swings, which produce a bit of force that pushes you into your seat during the upward-tilting half and provide just a touch of floatiness during the downward-tilting half. There are plenty of other flat rides at Wild Adventures, including Kite Flyers... ...Sidewinder... ...Swingin' Safari... ...Whirling Wildcats... ...Smash Attack, and a few others. I appreciated the effort put into giving the rides unique names, rather than simply using generic names like "Bumper Cars", "Scrambler", etc. Safari Jeeps is Wild Adventures' track-guided car ride. It's pretty much meant for the kiddies and its theming is, um, well... ...judge for yourself. Fortunately there are plenty of real animals showcased throughout the park in a variety of venues. Alapaha Trail is an especially nice (and lengthy) walking path through a wooded, swampy setting with an abundance of animals to see. Along the path you'll encounter birds of prey. There's also an enclosure with lemurs (plus one or two other primate species). I can't decide which are more impressive, the tortoises... Tortoises are on display. The stretch of boardwalk that passes through the alligator exhibit also passes right next to the Swamp Thing coaster. ...or the alligators. A black bear habitat is prominently featured as well. Don't miss Alapaha Trail while at Wild Adventures -- secluded and scenic, relaxing and exciting at the same time, in my opinion it's the park's hidden gem attraction. Right next to the exit of Alapaha Trail is the Birdhouse, a quite large aviary home to parakeets and other bird species. This is of course one of those exhibits where you can buy a little cup of food to feed the birds. That's normally the only way to get the birds' attentions, but for whatever reason these birds flocked to me despite the fact I never even had any food. The bird whisperer. Just strolling the birdhouse, me and my entourage. I'm glad this one was content to stay perched up by itself. The next animal encounter is the Safari Petting Zoo. Home to the full variety of critters you'd expect in a petting zoo, these animals all had notably unique and outgoing personalities. The emu was maybe a little too outgoing, almost more aggressive than what should probably have been allowed to freely roam the exhibit with small children present. I enjoyed interacting with it though. The pig, on the other hand, just wanted some naptime alone in the shade -- it was very hot out. Nearby is the Butterfly Garden. These are always favorite animal attractions for me, not just to see the butterflies but also to photograph them. It's what I call "frustrating fun." Most of the pictures turn out awful, but then the one good one makes the effort worth it. I found this dragonfly out and about in the park, not in the butterfly habitat, but thought it made a good picture too. There are additional animals spread throughout Wild Adventures, such as meerkats. Very cute. (Note that the meerkat exhibit does include the typical scattered grasses and dry soil mounds used for tunneling burrows. These meerkats I guess just preferred to hang out near the walls of the enclosure.) If you like your animals a little larger and more ferocious, lions... ...and tigers both have their own separate spots. (Maybe larger and more ferocious, but still pretty cute -- like overgrown kitty cats.) The largest expanse of animal territory is at the back of the park. Giraffes occupy once section, which you can observe up close by way of the Giraffe Overlook. The rest of the habitat can be viewed by taking the Safari Train ride, a definite park highlight and one of the park's most popular attractions. The train route travels the entire back of the park, encircling the extensive open area where animals are allowed to roam and graze freely. Great opportunities to view adults... ...and juveniles too. A few of the species are sectioned off into their own "private" areas. Zebras... ...rhinos... ...and elephants all have "exclusive" locations within the larger overall habitat. Cheetah travels right through the middle of the Safari Train's circuit -- this vantage point provides the very best photo op of the coaster and its first drop. Even though I didn't get a coaster train in the shot as I passed by, I still thought it made for a good pic. The animal exhibits and encounters are by far what impressed me the most at Wild Adventures -- an immense collection of animals in a considerable number of habitats, some of which occupy significant portions of the park's territory. Add coasters and other rides to the mix, and you've got what I consider a worthwhile and rewarding theme park visit. That concludes the first half of my August 2014 trip. Having already traveled from Atlanta to Valdosta, I bet you can figure out where I'm going for the second half...
  5. It's actually a very basic (and quite old) Canon PowerShot, a standard superzoom camera. It gets the job done, though it does need to be serviced (or replaced altogether!), as the low-light setting (at which all of these aquarium pics were taken) ends up with a vertical line running through the right side of the picture. I hope that wasn't too distracting.
  6. I consider the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Georgia Aquarium to be the "big three" aquariums in the United States. While I've been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium several times, I'd never before visited either of the other two. Being in Atlanta, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to give Georgia Aquarium a try. The newest of the three (opened in 2005), it's currently the largest aquarium in the country (it was the largest in the world for a while), and features a couple inhabitants you can't find elsewhere in the U.S. -- whale sharks and manta rays. The whale sharks in particular seem to be the aquarium's headliners. I very much liked the layout of the place -- the main entrance leads to a central courtyard that houses the food court and gift shop, and all of the major exhibit galleries branch off of that courtyard, forming more or less a circle around it. It's a very logical organization that ensures you know exactly what the aquarium exhibits are, which you've already seen, and which you still need to see. During my visit in 2014, there was also a temporary exhibit set up -- Sea Monsters Revealed, which was basically an aquatic version of the Human Bodies exhibit you may be familiar with. That Sea Monsters attraction alone made this entire Georgia Aquarium trip well worth it. The aquarium exterior makes for a nice looking building in downtown Atlanta. These fish greet you immediately upon entering, in the hallway leading from the main entrance to the aquarium's central courtyard. While all of the aquarium galleries are large, Ocean Voyager is the especially huge one. Let's begin here... Ocean Voyager can be viewed in one of two ways. First, there's this massive underwater observation tunnel. (Notice how busy the aquarium was! I didn't mind; it didn't detract from the visit.) One of the many fish that call Ocean Voyager home, a grouper, as seen from the tunnel. The main stars of Ocean Voyager are the aquarium's whale sharks, seen here through an enormous observation window -- the second of the exhibit's viewing opportunities. Whale sharks are the largest living fish species and definitely look it -- they're gigantic even in this towering exhibit. In addition to being popular with aquarium guests, they appear to be popular with the other aquarium fish as well! Despite being huge sharks, they filter feed on plankton, so don't pose any threat to their entourage. Georgia Aquarium's other unique inhabitants, the manta rays, are also featured as part of Ocean Voyager. Though they may be dwarfed by the whale sharks, the mantas are incredibly impressive -- far larger than any ray you'll find at your typical aquarium touch pool. With the manta rays, whale sharks, and even more sharks, cartilaginous fishes are well represented at Ocean Voyager. The next exhibit gallery is Tropical Diver, showcasing a warm-water coral reef ecosystem. It's another impressively large aquarium with another impressively large viewing window, featuring a pretty spectacular collection of live corals and reef fish, just like the coral reefs you'd find offshore in the tropics. Very colorful. There are separate smaller aquarium tanks, each housing various types of coral plus other interesting occupants, such as these razorfish. This was the strangest aggregation of catfish I'd ever seen. It wouldn't be an aquarium without sea jellies, which are located within the Tropical Diver gallery. Close cnidarian cousins of jellies and corals, sea anemones are also prominently displayed throughout. Leaving the tropics, let's move up to the higher temperate and polar latitudes with Cold Water Quest, the third of the aquarium's exhibit galleries. Whereas coral reefs are found offshore in tropical warm waters, kelp forests are the predominant offshore ecosystems in the colder temperate ocean. A photogenically bright garibaldi among the kelp. A sea dragon. A spider crab. Two always-popular aquarium inhabitants reside here at Cold Water Quest -- beluga whales in the Arctic exhibit... ...and penguins in the Antarctic exhibit. Next is River Scout, where the previous marine emphasis switches to now focus on freshwater. The exhibit features a fascinating "overhead river" that runs above pretty much the entire gallery. As you can see, it's teeming with fish. A few non-fish freshwater species also hang out in the river. Exploring the rest of the River Scout displays, you'll find piranha... ...gar... ...more turtles... ...and this intriguing albino alligator. The fifth major exhibit gallery is Georgia Explorer, focusing on the local marine life that's found just off of Georgia's coast, as well as the freshwater life you can find within the state itself. This is also the most "interactive" exhibit, featuring the aquarium's touch tanks and other kid-friendly attractions. (My understanding is that Georgia Explorer has since been replaced by a sea lion exhibit. That's too bad -- while I certainly like sea lions and they're always popular at aquariums, I really enjoyed this exhibit too. Plus a Georgia-themed aquarium rightfully belonged at the Georgia Aquarium!) There are rays aplenty in the Georgia Explorer touch tanks. All different kinds of rays. Cool cryptic rays. Bonnethead sharks are also present. This a cowry, a type of sea snail. Georgia Explorer has various aquarium displays showcasing both freshwater... ...and marine life. These very silvery, very flat fish are lookdowns. The lionfish is native to the Indian and western Pacific Oceans, but has within the last couple of decades been introduced to the western Atlantic Ocean, where it's wreaking havoc on native Atlantic populations and ecosystems. Despite the fact that it's venomous and an invasive pest species, there's no denying it's an awesome looking fish. Lots of fun, interactive, and educational exhibits for kids (and adults) throughout the Georgia Explorer gallery. Dolphin Tales is the aquarium's big indoor stadium show. Instead of simply demonstrating dolphin behaviors, it's more of a production, featuring human actors, video displays, a musical score, and a few other effects -- kind of a wannabe SeaWorld Blue Horizons. If you thought Blue Horizons was schmaltzy, you'll probably hate Dolphin Tales, as it's even worse. Try to ignore all of that though and just enjoy the dolphin acrobatics, which are as always impressive. (If I'm remembering correctly, this may be an upcharge, or at least something you need a Fastpass-style reservation ticket for to guarantee yourself a spot.) There are viewing windows to observe the dolphins in their "backstage" pools, though again, I believe a ticket is required to enter this entire area. Therefore, unlike the other galleries, you can only spend an allotted amount of time here. The other show is Deepo's Undersea 3D Wondershow (Deepo is the aquarium's mascot). I did watch this, but I'll be honest, I really don't remember it at all, so I couldn't tell you how it was. To finish up, let's spend some time at the Sea Monsters Revealed temporary exhibit, which I do very much remember -- it was a highlight of the visit. Some info on the preparation process in case you're interested. Think Human Bodies with fishes instead of humans. It's actually not just fish though -- this penguin was the first display immediately inside the exhibit entrance. I've dissected pigeons before and they're challenging enough; I can't imagine how difficult it would be to perfectly dissect and display a penguin. A few invertebrate specimens as well. Fishes do comprise the majority of the exhibit, and once again, compared to my attempts at fish dissections, I was in awe at the quality of these. Perhaps most impressive was this nervous system demonstration. The amount of time, skill, and meticulous care that must have gone into this boggles my mind. Georgia Aquarium has lots of rays, so you can bet there are lots of rays on display in the Sea Monsters exhibit. Including the aquarium's signature manta rays. Plenty of sharks too. (I love the quote.) A pregnant shark filled with pups. Totally cool. And sure enough, there's even a whale shark. Two final specimens to wrap up -- an eel... ...and a sunfish. I can't emphasize enough how impressed I was with this Sea Monsters Revealed exhibit. I don't know if it was a one-time thing or if it's a traveling exhibit that makes its way from aquarium to aquarium, but be on the lookout for it and check it out if you find it! I'm so glad it was here while I was here -- a surprise bonus to an already great Georgia Aquarium visit.
  7. Following Lake Winnie it was on to Six Flags Over Georgia. One of the original Six Flags parks, the various areas themed to Georgia's history still give the park an early Six Flags feel, despite the many modernizations that have of course occurred over the years. I had first visited SFOG in 2010, and the main changes between that visit and this 2014 visit were the additions of Dare Devil Dive and Sky Screamer, plus the new Hurricane Harbor. In my opinion, though, Goliath remained the top attraction at the park (with Acrophobia a close #2). One of the key things that caught my attention at Six Flags Over Georgia was the noticeable lack of flat rides. There was a decent selection of kiddie rides in Bugs Bunny World and a fine selection of family rides throughout the park (Monster Mansion, carousel, antique cars, railroad, sky buckets), but as far as actual adult flat rides go there was Sky Screamer, a wave swinger, bumper cars, and that's about it. The park must have noticed this too, as that's where they seem to have focused their attention the last few years since this 2014 visit. A Larson loop, a tilt-a-whirl, flyers, a tsunami soaker-style ride, a medium-sized drop tower, and I guess a few others just for the kiddies have all been added. Sounds like a fun lineup, and I'm sure those additions make the park feel much more well rounded. We'll start with my favorite ride at SFOG, Goliath. Goliath is kind of unique in that its first drop is actually a few feet shorter than the second drop, which is therefore the "big drop" on the coaster. Neither drop ends up reaching 200 feet, but the lift hill does, qualifying this as a true hypercoaster. Regardless, the first THREE drops on this ride all certainly feel very large and are awesome fun. It's interesting, the first time I rode Goliath back in 2010 it ranked as my least favorite B&M hypercoaster. Rather than the enjoyable negative g's experienced on most B&Ms as you crest each hill, I experienced more positive g's at the bottom of each hill on this one, which isn't as pleasant a sensation. Not sure what the difference was between that earlier trip and this one, but I was so happy to have all the negative g's return during my many rides in 2014. Goliath now ranks up there right along with all my other B&M hypercoasters (I've still somehow managed to only ride four -- Goliath, Nitro at SFGAd, Apollo's Chariot at BGW, and Intimidator at Carowinds). The positive g-forces are still very present on Goliath, in the form of this infamous helix. It's a doozy, among B&M's most forceful elements. (I felt I was going to black out during this helix back in 2010 more than I've felt on any other ride ever. I must have been especially sensitive during that earlier visit.) The track has an L-shaped layout, with the helix as the turnaround at the far end. This is the fun swooping turn leading into the final return stretch. That final stretch features three back-to-back-to-back camelback hills that are as good as any B&M hypercoaster moment. I probably rode Goliath half a dozen times during this visit and absolutely loved it each time. New for me in 2014 was Dare Devil Dive. This was just my second Gerstlauer eurofighter, following Mystery Mine at Dollywood. With lap bar restraints rather than over-the-shoulder restraints, Dare Devil Dive was a smoother coaster than Mystery Mine (no longer any head banging, but still a little head rattling), though I still prefer Mystery Mine for its overall ride experience. The vertical lift and beyond vertical drop are trademark elements of these coasters. They're also what make the ride so visually appealing. In addition, this one has a unique train design and a touch of theming that the track and train pass through. Speaking of theming, has the VR treatment the coaster received in 2016 already been removed? I know the wait time for Dare Devil Dive had become interminable with VR added, and, given my limited but less than positive experience with VR so far, I don't imagine it would be very enjoyable on this coaster. Though I've been focusing on the lift and drop, I shouldn't ignore the rest of the ride's twisted, inverted layout. I liked Dare Devil Dive, but unlike Goliath, I didn't feel the need to ride over and over again (I rode twice). Mind Bender, on the other hand, did merit several rides. One of the older coasters at the park, Mind Bender still seems to have a reputation as one of the best. A Schwarzkopf creation, this is a much more sprawled out coaster than their usual compact designs (it felt like a cross between Revolution at SFMM and Shockwave at SFOT). Nice airtime coming off the hills, the perfectly intense vertical loops, the "tilted" loop that's definitely more of a drop than a true inversion but great fun whatever you call it, and the forested setting all make Mind Bender a winner. In addition to Goliath, the park has a selection of other B&M coasters, Superman Ultimate Flight of course being the flying representative. Like almost every B&M flying coaster, the pretzel loop is prominently featured as the star element here. Of the four B&M flyers I've ridden (this one, Superman at SFGAd, Tatsu at SFMM, and Manta at SWO), all except Tatsu have the pretzel loop right at the beginning of the ride. I don't know if Tatsu's loop just happens to be more forceful anyway, or if placing it at the end rather than at the beginning really does make a difference, but I don't think any of the other pretzel loops come close to matching Tatsu's intensity. They are intense, yes, but not Tatsu-level. Following the loop, Superman actually becomes more pleasant than extreme (don't get me wrong -- it's still very enjoyable). Six Flags Over Georgia has a Batman B&M inverted coaster. I don't have too much to say here. If you've been on a Batman clone before, you know what to expect -- a short but fast and furious coaster that packs quite a punch. I will say the colors of this one are quite striking. There's also Georgia Scorcher, a B&M stand-up. I haven't been on all of B&M's stand-up coasters, but compared to the ones I have ridden, Georgia Scorcher isn't the best (that would be Riddler's Revenge at SFMM) but it isn't the worst either (that would be Vortex at CGA). I like the straight, rather than curved, first drop into the vertical loop, and the ride (along with Goliath) does look good from outside the park entrance, interacting with guests arriving and leaving. However, like pretty much all of these stand-up coasters, it's becoming unpleasantly rough and headbanging. Speaking of unpleasantly rough and headbanging, up next is Ninja (now Blue Hawk). It looks like an Arrow, though it's actually a Vekoma, but either way you know to be prepared for the worst. I didn't find this one to be headbanging so much as neckbanging, as the OTSRs were positioned right along my shoulders. For whatever strange reason, I still sort of liked it; I guess I can tolerate the roughness and enjoy the insane twistiness of these Vekoma and Arrow megaloopers more than others. Plus I've always been a sucker for the way they look -- some of the most photogenic coasters in existence in my opinion. Six Flags Over Georgia has two wooden coasters, Georgia Cyclone being the newer (but still "classic" relative to today's standards) of the two. I've been on the Coney Island Cyclone as well as a few other coasters that bear its namesake (Georgia Cyclone, the defunct Texas Cyclone at Astroworld, the defunct and infamous Psyclone at Magic Mountain). Back in 2010, Georgia Cyclone was by far the most brutal of any of the above. Psyclone always had the negative reputation, but that ride was tame compared to Georgia Cyclone. After riding in 2010, I classified Georgia Cyclone as "so intolerable it was almost good" -- it was worth enduring the ride's beating just to say you've experienced a coaster that ridiculous. Happily, between 2010 and this 2014 visit, Georgia Cyclone was retracked or received some topper track or something, and the ride was infinitely improved. Still shaky and rough, but shaky and rough the way a 25-year-old wooden coaster is supposed to be. The same could be said for Great American Scream Machine, which is almost 20 years older than Georgia Cyclone, and even though I ended up liking that one I'd have to give the edge to this one as my favorite of the two. There's something about a classic out-and-back wooden coaster that's hard to beat. The placement is perfect too, situated along the field and over the lake in the back of the park. You'll definitely have several "lifting out of your seat" moments, both on the larger hills and on these wonderful bunny hops that end the ride. It's kind of hard to resist laughing out loud as you bounce over them before slamming into the brake run. Dahlonega Mine Train is the park's original coaster and the second mine train Arrow ever built (following Runaway Mine Train at Six Flags Over Texas). Very similar to the Texas ride, Dahlonega Mine Train features three lift hills but spends most of its time meandering around near ground level. Coasters have come a long way since this one opened in 1967, but it's great still having it at the park -- it's like a trip back in time. The park's final coaster is the Wile E. Coyote Canyon Blaster kiddie coaster. Two items to note about this one: 1. I was extremely impressed with the amount of theming for a kiddie coaster. (I know the ride has recently been rethemed as the Joker's Funhouse coaster; hopefully the level of detail has remained.) 2. This is a little larger than your typical kiddie coaster, more like a family coaster that would fall somewhere between a kiddie and an adult coaster. An adult could therefore ride without a child and not feel too silly doing so. Kind of interesting though that the park doesn't have a coaster for the smallest children to ride. With Canyon Blaster, I scored all eleven of Six Flags Over Georgia's eleven coaster credits! The usual three water rides -- a whitewater raft, a boat flume, and a log flume -- can all be found at the park. Thunder River gets my vote as best of the three. Thunder River takes up a large chunk of territory and feels secluded from the rest of the park due to all the surrounding rocks and greenery. It's therefore easy to imagine you're really rafting down a forested river, rather than being on a theme park ride. It also has the potential to drench you, which is refreshingly appreciated. They really did a great job with this one -- a perfect example of what a river rapids ride should be. Splashwater Falls is also in a pretty nice location, between Dahlonega Mine Train and the hill in the center of the park. It too provides quite the soaking -- very welcome on a hot August Georgia day. Log Jamboree is located near the front of the park and feels like a typical early Six Flags log ride -- not very long with a drop that's not all that huge, but still relaxing and fun. Plus it offers some nice views of Goliath, Georgia Scorcher, Dare Devil Dive, and Mind Bender. Monster Mansion is the water/dark ride retheme of the former Monster Plantation. That conversion took place the year before my first Six Flags Over Georgia visit, so I never got to experience Monster Plantation myself, but videos I've seen look pretty similar to the current Monster Mansion theme. It's kind of corny and cheesy, and seems to have a mostly kid's ride reputation, but it should definitely satisfy dark ride enthusiasts as well. Especially the part where you enter "the marsh," during which it becomes more of a classic spookhouse ride. That's my favorite part, though I enjoyed the rest of it too -- it's unique and elaborate for a Six Flags park. Other family rides include the sky buckets... ...the railroad and the antique cars. This particular shot was taken from one of my favorite spots at SFOG -- the top of the hill in the center of the park, where another family ride (the carousel) is located. This area is so quiet and shaded and relaxing that it's the perfect place to get away from the crowds and heat. The Hanson Cars encircle the hill (and therefore the carousel and couple other kiddie rides on the hill -- a rockin' tug and spinning balloons). It's a great setting except for the amount of space available, leading to quite possibly the shortest antique car ride I've ever encountered! The Dodge City bumper cars, located next to Superman, have since been removed to make way for the Justice League. Gotham City Crime Wave, near Mind Bender and Batman, is perhaps the best themed wave swinger I've ever seen. Note that I've shown or mentioned every flat ride in the park during 2014, which is to say -- not many. I remember an enterprise and an indoor scrambler back during my 2010 visit, but those were both gone by this visit. My home Six Flags park, SFMM, has always had a reputation for lacking flat rides, but SFOG is the park that I feel really deserved that reputation. As stated in my intro description, quite a few flat rides have fortunately been added since 2014 to remedy this situation. (Hopefully SFMM follows suit.) Two final thrill rides remain. Sky Screamer is a 240-foot Star Flyer, which I guess would be classified as a "medium sized" model. The only Star Flyer I'd been on prior to this one was the 150-foot-tall ride at SFDK. That was a gentle introduction to the genre, and this one served as a nice transition to the terrifyingly huge 400-foot version. We'll wrap up SFOG with one of the park's very best -- Acrophobia. Acrophobia easily ranks as one of my absolute favorite drop tower rides. The "floorless, tilting" seats add so much (I've never found the seats to be uncomfortable), as does the slow, revolving trip to the top (it's not the tallest drop tower in existence, but it certainly feels huge while you're up there). The main thing I love is of course the drop itself. The instant the gondola is released, you get forceful out-of-your-seat airtime, which is sustained all the way down. Acrophobia also comes closest to that breathtaking "knock the wind out of you" sensation that I used to get on freefall rides as a kid but sadly don't experience too much on most other drop towers anymore. I'm not sure how I feel about VR being added to Acrophobia; the ride is pretty much perfect the way it is, so there's really no need to mess with it. I'll save judgment until I try it though -- after all, I'll take any excuse to ride again!
  8. Huh, I did ride it, but don't remember it leaving an impression on me one way or another. I wish I'd known it had a reputation beforehand, as I would have paid more attention! Anyway, I'm now finally getting to my August 2014 vacation (a trip report two-and-a-half years after the trip itself isn't too unreasonable, right?!). Like August 2012 and August 2013, theme parks and roller coasters were the main emphasis here, though I did include a few related but non-coaster attractions as well. Also like 2012 and 2013, the trip was divided into two parts, though this year the two parts were pretty continuous with each other. The first park of part 1 of my August 2014 trip was Lake Winnepesaukah in Rossville, Georgia (though it's advertised as being in Chattanooga, Tennessee). This was my first visit to Lake Winnie, and I was very much looking forward to several of its older, more classic attractions -- the Cannon Ball roller coaster, the Boat Chute flume ride, the Fly-O-Plane flat ride, and the Wacky Factory dark ride. There are of course newer, more modern rides as well, but this park definitely has a "slower paced, simpler days" type of charm to it. The large lake the park surrounds, which can be viewed by the peaceful and scenic train, skyway, and paddle boat rides, definitely contributes to that more relaxed, old-time feel. Here we are at Lake Winnie. Fortunately even the park refers to itself by that name, so we don't have to repeatedly say Lake Winnepesaukah. True to its namesake, there's a large central lake on park property. We'll come back to it later. First, though, let's check out the Cannon Ball roller coaster. Cannon Ball runs along the back of Lake Winnie, behind the lake and water park. It isn't a terribly long or huge ride, but it's fun. If you've been on an out-and-back wooden coaster from the 1960's or 1970's before, you probably pretty much know what to expect from Cannon Ball. The park's newer coaster is Wild Lightnin'. A steel mouse coaster, this one looks pretty standard and typical. However, it's actually a pretty aggressive model that really slams you to the side during each turn. For that reason, I kind of loved it! I certainly wouldn't say it's a better coaster than Cannon Ball, but it was definitely more of an unexpected surprise. The park's third and final coaster is the Wacky Worm. These are so ubiquitous everywhere, but I've never brought myself to actually ride one before. Did I end up riding this one? I did! And I took a POV shot as proof -- my first ever wacky worm coaster! (My thoughts -- they're about as exciting as they look.) The classic and unique Boat Chute flume ride begins by leisurely floating through a very long, very pitch-black tunnel. I imagine particularly adventurous guests might use the opportunity as a "tunnel of love"... The drop then follows after that. Like most flume rides, you'll get splashed, but not soaked. The fact that it splashes down directly into the park's lake is icing on the cake. Highly worth checking out. The boat emerges from the tunnel to climb a lift hill. It might not sound or look all that exciting, and perhaps it isn't, but the Boat Chute is arguably Lake Winnie's most popular attraction nonetheless. Having been around for 90 years and being a "homemade" ride add immeasurably to its appeal. A slow return to the station concludes the excursion. Another *interesting* one is Wacky Factory (I guess the "wacky" in Wacky Factory means "bizarre"). This is a relatively new re-theme of their original dark ride, which I understand featured two stories, a little "coaster" dip, and a spookhouse theme. Now all on a single level, the ride consists more of a funhouse theme. While I imagine it was better in its previous incarnation, it's probably more family-friendly now, but don't expect anything coherent or comprehensible. Moving on to the flat rides, let's begin with Fly-O-Plane, another old-school attraction unique to the park. It looks great, but it was slightly aggravating -- it wasn't all that easy to control, so getting it to actually flip was a bit frustrating. Most of the time I was just sort of stuck in a "not-quite-upside-down" position. The ride attendant tried to give pointers prior to each ride, but he admitted most guests aren't very successful. I bet with lots of practice though it would be doable, and I bet all that practicing would be a fun challenge. There are plenty of other carnival-style flat rides at Lake Winnie. The swings are one of the most popular, with a perfect placement on the edge of the lake so you get to swing out over it during your ride. The pirate ship also extends out over the lake. It swings up to a pretty steep angle too -- swinging ships with that quality rank among my very favorite flat rides. Also fun is the magic carpet ride themed to a covered wagon. An orbiter. A troika-ish ride. A matterhorn. A tilt-a-whirl. A scrambler. A round up. (I guess this one has since been replaced by some kind of twister top spin ride.) A paratrooper. Bumper cars. Lake Winnie's drop tower, Oh-Zone, is just like the model I described in my Old Town report above. While I wouldn't rank these as high as an Intamin or S&S drop tower, I am a fan -- they're more intense than they look. Fire Ball is a Larson super loop. I believe this is an older, smaller model than the one that's been popping up all over the place these days -- it kind of looks the same, but it did have a slightly more cramped, carny-version feel to it. Other rides at the park include spinning balloons, a giant slide, a frog hopper, and several kiddie rides, plus the water park's slides. There's also a selection of gentle, scenic attractions, starting with the Tour Train. The Tour Train encircles the park, passing pretty much every ride and waterslide. In addition, it travels around the entire lake, taking you through some of the forested back areas that you can't access any other way. The Antique Cars also have a nice setting among the trees. Lake Winnie has a standard carnival-type ferris wheel (not a complaint, as these can be just as fun as the larger, more modern versions), but the best thing about Lake Winnie's ferris wheel... ...is the view of the lake and park that it provides. A two-coasters-climbing-their-lift-hills shot from the ferris wheel. (Aside from the ferris wheel, another popular family-friendly classic at Lake Winnie is the carrousel, which isn't set out over the lake but rather over a separate pool. For whatever reason I didn't get a picture of it, but you can glimpse a peek at the carrousel in the Wacky Factory picture above.) In addition to the train and ferris wheel, two other great ways to view the park and lake are the Alpine Way skyway and the paddle boats. Let's start with a ride on Alpine Way. Alpine Way begins in the back half of the park and travels over the lake toward the front half of the park. Right before the turnaround it passes directly over the Boat Chute. You then get to relaxingly return to the back half of the park. Great views of the lake and attractions the entire way. The paddle boats provide a lake-level view of the same sights. I can't remember the exact time limit, but I seem to recall being out on the lake for quite a while, plus having pretty much free reign to go wherever I wanted, providing ample opportunity for photo ops and making the paddle boats very worthwhile. A couple other odds and ends. There's a simple but attractive playground tucked away in the back of the park, as well as a water play area and a small mini golf course. Plenty of activities therefore for the little ones. There's even a museum dedicated to Lake Winnie's history. Interesting and informative, plus the air conditioning felt great!!! As the sun sets over Lake Winnie, our visit is brought to a close. While all classic parks have a special charm, I really feel the lake itself adds that something extra to Lake Winnie's appeal.
  9. After visiting Fun Spot in Orlando and Kissimmee, the final stop of my August 2013 trip was Old Town in Kissimmee, right next door to Fun Spot. Old Town is a very, um, *interesting* park. First of all, the set-up is quite unusual. The front of the park is the location of the slingshot and skyscraper attractions. Operated by a different vendor are some go-karts, bumper cars, and laser tag. Operated by a third vendor, still in the front part of the park, are the ferris wheel, the drop tower, and the relatively new rock wall, ropes course, and zipline attractions. That same vendor operates the roller coaster and kiddie rides at the back of the park. Between the two sections are several blocks of shops, eateries, and (operated by yet another vendor still) the Legends: Haunting at Old Town maze. Unfortunately, August 2013 was after the former Grimm's Haunted House had closed but before Legends had opened, so there was no haunted walk-through during this visit. The rides were scheduled to be open from 2 pm to 11 pm the day I was there. I arrived around 3 pm and felt the park should more appropriately be called Ghost Town rather than Old Town -- it was literally empty. I hardly even saw an employee. Feeling too awkward to stay, I decided to go play miniature golf for a while at the neighboring Pirate's Cove (Old Town is on one side of Fun Spot and Pirate's Cove is on the other) and then return later. A thunderstorm delayed my return until about 8 pm. I had no interest in the go-karts, bumper cars, or laser tag, so I rode the slingshot and skyscraper first, then went to purchase my tickets for the other rides. It was about 9 pm and the rides closed at 11, so when I asked for an all-day ride wristband the employee looked at me like I was crazy. He said he couldn't sell me a wristband with the park closing in just two hours. I said I'd like to ride the coaster, drop tower, and ferris wheel, plus try the rock wall, ropes course, and zipline, all of which I could do in two hours. If I purchased those tickets separately it would cost more than the wristband. He said he'd have to call his manager! Let me emphasize that this employee was by no means rude; he just seemed so bewildered. The manager said I could purchase the wristband as long as I understood that I only had two hours left to get my money's worth out of it. Yep, I understood! I'll have more *interesting* stories to share with the pictures that follow. All of this was back in 2013, and I guess the only things that currently remain at Old Town are the slingshot and skyscraper rides, plus the go-karts, bumper cars, and laser tag. No more coaster, other rides, or ropes course (even the Legends: Haunting maze has already closed up shop). It would sound like there's therefore little reason to return to Old Town, with the exception of the recent announcement that Fun Spot has come to an agreement to operate some rides on Old Town property. In my Fun Spot report above, I noted that that park doesn't have much room to expand, so this seems like a great idea -- buy out and take over Old Town, allowing Fun Spot to grow and making Old Town, well, better! The ferris wheel was the final ride I got to during the night, at around 10:45 pm. There were no employees stationed there, so I asked one of the many employees working the ropes course if she could run the ferris wheel for me. With the sigh and eye roll I received, you'd think she was my teenage daughter and I was telling her to go clean her room. She reluctantly walked the few steps over to the ferris wheel, but as I tried to get on by myself she said there needed to be two riders per car. The friend I was with only purchased tickets for the roller coaster and drop tower, so didn't have a wristband. I said okay, we'll go buy a few more tickets and come right back. Of course nobody was manning the ticket booth either. The "ferris wheel employee" saw this, and just shrugged with an "oh well, too bad, so sad" attitude and walked away. Would it have been too much for her to find someone to sell us a few tickets? Apparently. Though some of Old Town's employees were a little confused or on autopilot, most were at least friendly. This was the only one I encountered who was downright unpleasant. I'll go even further than that -- she was a hardcore b*tch. Suffice it to say I never rode the ferris wheel. The skyscraper was the first ride we did at Old Town, after the thunderstorm had passed. These employees were fun and friendly but did originally say they couldn't operate the skyscraper when there was lightning anywhere in the vicinity. They did say they could operate the slingshot though. (??? It seems the slingshot would be just as much of a lightning rod as the skyscraper, but whatever.) As we were about to walk over to the slingshot instead, the employee decided "You can go ahead and ride this one, the lightning's not that close." (!!!) Called Vomatron (cool name), this is advertised as astronaut training-level intensity. While it is super fun, these skyscraper rides really aren't as extreme as they look. They're thrilling and enjoyable without being the least bit sickening, so maybe Vomatron isn't the most appropriate name. Anyway, the freakiest part is being stopped at the top while the bottom half is loaded or unloaded, as the entire structure kind of wobbles. Plus I kept hoping we wouldn't be struck by lightning. Human Slingshot is another one that's probably scarier to look at than to ride. That's not to imply it isn't a rush; it is. It's just surprisingly smooth and pleasant -- the launch, flipping, and bobbing up and down are not at all jarring. Plus the height, which looks so intimidating attached to just two simple cables, isn't so scary while riding because everything's happening so fast. Three, two, one... ...blast off! Like the skycoaster rides at both Fun Spot parks, Vomatron and Human Slingshot are not cheap, but they're such visually iconic, eye-catching attractions in Central Florida that they're worth doing just to say you did. Super Shot is one of those drop towers that takes you up real slow and then drops the instant you reach the top -- no pause at all to let you know the drop is imminent. It also comes to a very sudden stop at the bottom, producing some mild whiplash as your head continues downward while the rest of your body has already stopped. Nothing too severe or uncomfortable, though, and I actually really like this type of drop tower. It's not Intamin or S&S but it's fun. As an added bonus, the employee we found to operate this ride for us was the polar opposite of the "ferris wheel employee" -- she couldn't have been happier or friendlier. Billed as the newest attraction at Old Town is the AMPVenture Experience, featuring an obstacle ropes course, a rock climbing wall, and a zipline. I've only ever done a few of these obstacle courses, and this would rank as one of the better ones. The structure is compact but large due to four stories of obstacles being stacked on top of each other. Every level of obstacle difficulty is present, from very easy to moderately challenging to so difficult I couldn't make it across a couple. Some of these most difficult ones are physically challenging, so that by the time you're done with the course you're soaked in sweat like you would be following a lengthy workout. Others are just plain freaky -- once your legs start trembling high above the ground, you might have to call it quits on that obstacle, or else wind up stuck dangling from the harness after you've fallen off. The rock wall is also quite the challenging workout. I thought because this was called the AMPVenture "Experience" you might have to do all of it in order -- make it up the wall first, followed by the entire obstacle course, and then finish with the zipline to get back down. While that would be a cool concept, it probably wouldn't be practical, as several people I watched couldn't make it up the wall (I'm happy to report I did!). Therefore, all three (rock wall, rope course, zipline) are separate-ticket attractions. Note the platform at the top right of the picture -- that's the starting point for the zipline. After leaving the obstacle course structure, the zipline travels across the front of Old Town to a separate tower, then heads back again. It's fun enough, but certainly not the most spectacular zipline ever, making it the "weakest" of the three AMPVenture experiences. I should also note that the employees working AMPVenture were great -- very enthusiastic, energetic, and encouraging. It's too bad this was such a short-lived attraction (it made for a welcome addition to the park), but I guess if all the rides operated by this particular vendor at Old Town had to go, so did AMPVenture. (Speaking of short-lived attractions, apparently a falling star-type ride, called Flying Dutchman, had only opened a year or so earlier but was already gone by this 2013 visit. Does anybody have any insight into its brief history?) You may have noticed it's now very late -- that's when we finally got to ride the Windstorm coaster. When we first bought our tickets we saw the coaster wasn't running, so we asked the employee if it was in fact scheduled to open that night. That's another thing he checked with his manager, who said it would depend on whether they could get it up and running after being wet from the storm. We spent most of our time at the front part of the park, but occasionally checked back on the coaster. Each time it was still sitting motionless, so each time we asked a different employee about its status, and each time that employee called the manager. I can totally picture the manager receiving all these calls about the coaster, thinking it must be in high demand tonight so he'd better get it open, not realizing it was the same person inquiring each time! After the final inquiry, a very quiet female employee wandered over to the coaster and began testing it. The chain had a hard time getting the train up the lift for a while, but once it finally made two complete circuits she let us on, never speaking a word. We had the train to ourselves, but one other group saw us riding and came over to ride once we got off. After they got off and there was no one else in line, the employee wandered away and the coaster never ran again that night!!!!! As for the ride itself, it's a typical compact carnival-style coaster -- nothing exceptional except for the forceful twisting dive midway through. (I had been on a copy of this previously when it existed at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, though apparently this one was Zamperla and that one was S.D.C.) Old Town's other coaster is a wacky worm kiddie coaster. I didn't ride, but it did seem to be running more consistently than Windstorm. Except for Windstorm and a tilt-a-whirl, all of the rides at the back part of the park are kiddie rides. And here's the same shot from earlier in the day (when the park was literally empty). All in all, this visit to Old Town was one of the weirdest park visits I've ever had. As you can see by reading my comments, I did enjoy several of the attractions; it's the operations, though, that were *just a bit* unusual. As mentioned, I spent some time at the Pirate's Cove miniature golf course next door. I guess there are three or four Pirate's Cove / Pirate's Island mini golf courses in the area, which is interesting since this one wasn't at all crowded. I don't know if that's normally the case or if this just wasn't a busy day in general for attractions on Highway 192, but the lack of crowds certainly made the visit more relaxing and pleasant for me. The theming is quite nice and the course is exceptionally well maintained. There are two separate 18-hole courses (Captain's course and Blackbeard's Challenge course). It was kind of an off day mini golf-wise for me and I sadly scored well over par on both of them. Some more great theming. That now concludes my 2013 trip (only three years after the fact!), which means 2014 is up next...
  10. Time for my annual trip report from Six Flags Magic Mountain, this year focusing on the newly renovated Revolution. Like the rest of the coaster enthusiast community, I was ecstatic when it was first announced that Revolution would be returning to trains without the painfully unnecessary over-the-shoulder restraints. When it was later announced that the ride would be given a virtual reality treatment, I was torn. This isn't a fad that I felt all that interested in, but I was curious to at least try it, and it was nice to know that you wouldn't be required to partake in the VR experience if you didn't want to. I decided to make my first ride a "classic" ride, without all the virtual reality. A single rider line is offered that doesn't allow you to wear the headset, but it's great for skipping the slow-moving line if you don't want to wear the headset anyway. Also, by using the single rider line you have a pretty good chance of getting a front-row ride. The headsets apparently need to be calibrated using the back of the seat in front of you, so the first-row seats are always filled by riders without headsets. As for the ride itself, the smooth new trains and lack of headbanging are oh-so-appreciated, a significant improvement as far as that is concerned. Otherwise, though, the ride feels pretty much the same. As has been noted by others, the coaster hasn't been sped up at all, so the slow spots from before (cresting the lift hill into the first drop, threading the loop into the final spiral) are still present. My second ride was a virtual reality ride, so for this one I did have to wait in the normal line. As has already become quite known for all of these VR rides, the line has more or less slowed to a crawl. There really aren't many instructions regarding the use of the VR headsets (there is a sign toward the beginning of the line, but without physically having the headset at that point the instructions aren't terribly useful), so the ride operators have to do almost everything for you -- they put your headset on (right before you take a seat) and secure all the straps (once you're actually seated). You can imagine this makes load and dispatch times a little ridiculous. A line that would have taken half an hour for the "old" Revolution now takes an hour and a half for the new Revolution. My headset ended up not being fastened as well as it could have been, so I had to hold it the entire time to keep it in place rather than sliding down my face. Even doing that, the images were very shaky and blurry and not well focused. Watching a POV video of the ride in advance, the comments all indicated that the video didn't do the actual experience justice. All I have to say is thank goodness I had watched the video before riding; otherwise I probably wouldn't have had a clue what I was seeing. The shakiness and blurriness didn't make me sick (they made me more frustrated than anything else). Still, the heavy headset did kind of pull my head forward during the loop, which is exactly what you don't want your head to be doing during a loop. I therefore wonder/worry about this whole VR experience on other Six Flags coasters more extreme than Revolution (which is pretty much all of them). To summarize, I give a positive review to the new Revolution without VR, but once the virtual reality gimmick is added my review becomes much less positive. I will try it again, but I just wasn't up for waiting another hour and a half in line to do so during this visit. The iconic Six Flags Plaza looks even nicer than before thanks to Revolution's spiffy new paint job. The coaster has never looked better. The bright, fresh color scheme really does pop -- red train, white track, blue supports. Very patriotic. Though I think the red train works with the other colors best, the white train actually fits in quite nicely too. It's kind of funny watching a train filled with riders -- two "normal" riders up front, followed by a bunch of riders wearing headsets that make them look like Cyclops or one-eyed minions. I think the virtual reality addition could have POTENTIALLY made the ride more interesting (the Independence Day-style theming of fighter jets battling alien spacecraft is a decent theme, and the maneuvers experienced on the headset were perfectly synced with the moves of the coaster). It's just that the headset was so awkward and out of focus that the ride was infinitely more comfortable without it. Anyway, despite those complaints, there's no denying the coaster's visual appeal -- it looks great. I'm not sure how these people are managing to keep their headsets on without holding them up. I sure couldn't do it. I wonder if theirs are less blurry than mine was too. This sprawled-out Schwarzkopf coaster traveling among the trees along the hillside remains classic Magic Mountain. (Too bad the Sky Tower hasn't also received some TLC so we could get back up there for a bird's-eye view of Revolution's layout.) A final parting shot. While I went in cautiously optimistic that New Revolution might actually crack my top 10 SFMM coaster list, that didn't end up happening (with or without the VR component). Even though I have reservations about this whole virtual reality thing, I do give the park plenty of credit for breathing new life into an older coaster, much as they did with Colossus and Superman these past few years.
  11. Central Florida's other Fun Spot park is Fun Spot USA in Kissimmee (I know the park has recently changed its name to Fun Spot America to match the Orlando park, but I'll go ahead and still call it Fun Spot USA, since that was its name when I visited in 2013). This Fun Spot doesn't seem to be quite the company's pride and joy the way the Orlando Fun Spot does. Perhaps that's because this is a smaller park without the same room for potential growth. Perhaps it's because Old Town is immediately next door and some of Old Town's ghetto-ness rubs off on Fun Spot (though that's a discussion for another day). At any rate, this park's "star" coaster, a spinning mouse, is definitely no White Lightning. I guess the flat rides and go-karts are mostly comparable between the two Fun Spot parks, but Fun Spot USA's real claim to fame is its skycoaster -- the world's tallest, at 300 feet. Though I said there isn't much room to grow and expand here, after looking up a bit of the park's history, it appears as though several of the flat rides I rode during this visit (as well as the coaster) are relatively new. Unfortunately, it also looks like a few notable rides were removed prior to this 2013 visit. Fun Spot USA was apparently once home to a dragster-style launched go-kart ride and a pedal-powered looping bike ride (both of which I've ridden other versions of elsewhere), as well as a double-decker ferris wheel (a type of ride I've never experienced). It's too bad these unique attractions couldn't have remained -- Fun Spot USA would certainly benefit from a few additional one-of-a-kind rides. As it currently stands, Fun Spot in Kissimmee isn't exactly on par with Fun Spot in Orlando, though the skycoaster alone makes Fun Spot USA worth a visit. There's not really a single main entrance (you can kind of get in from several different places), but with the coaster in the foreground and the massive skycoaster in the background, this particular entranceway is the most photogenic. While Rockstar is a Zamperla spinning coaster and Primeval Whirl at Animal Kingdom is a Reverchon spinning coaster, they're pretty much the same ride. Fun enough, but nothing you haven't done before. This one was relocated from pre-Legoland Cypress Gardens, so I guess it's nice that a little piece of Central Florida's theme park past lives on. The skyscraper and slingshot rides behind the coaster are part of Old Town, not Fun Spot. (Though again, Old Town is a discussion for another day...) The kiddie coaster is called -- Kiddie Coaster. Like Sea Serpent at Fun Spot America, this one was built by Miler. Also like Sea Serpent, I didn't bother riding. Check out the theming!!! Aside from the skycoaster, the Hot Seat screamin' swing is the headliner ride at Fun Spot USA. I know Fun Spot America has recently added one of these too, but that one didn't exist yet in 2013, so having a ride unique to this Fun Spot park made Hot Seat even more of a highlight. While no screamin' swing ever has a long enough duration, I can't fault this one on anything else -- it swung fast and high and gave great out-of-your-seat sensations while swooping from up to down in both the forward and backward directions. I loved it! Surf's Up, on the other hand...not so much. I thought this might be a fun and unique stand-up version of a Disk'O, but I should have paid more attention before getting on -- it wasn't even on par with a Rockin' Tub. This might be passable with the kiddies, but it's best described as lame for adults -- slow and boring, and I felt pretty silly riding. Screamer is a ride better suited for kids and adults alike. Not a full-fledged drop tower but definitely a notch above a frog hopper, I actually kind of like these. Standard flat rides at Fun Spot include a tilt-a-whirl... ...chair swings... ...flying scooters... ...a paratrooper... ...bumper cars... ...and flying bobs. Like Fun Spot America, Fun Spot USA has four adult go-kart tracks (there's no kiddie track here). Each one is color-coded to make it easily distinguishable from the others. As far as the go-karts are concerned, the yellow track, called Vortex, is the main draw. It's multi-leveled and features an especially unique go-kart thrill... ...a steep descent that drops into a crazy banked turnaround. This completely caught me off guard during my first lap -- at full speed it was awesome but also somewhat terrifying. During all subsequent laps I was better prepared to control my kart through the maneuver. The blue track, called Chaos, is also multi-leveled and actually the longest of Fun Spot USA's four tracks. Interestingly, without any gimmicks to make it stand out against Vortex or Fun Spot America's go-karts, I don't entirely remember it. I do remember enjoying all of the go-kart rides, though, so it must have been fun. The green Road Course is a flat ground-level track that, with its tight turns and short straightaways, is especially good for racing other drivers. The red Slick Track, a basic oval course, is also good for racing and lapping other karts. I've been on other slick tracks where it's quite common to spin out if you don't master the curves, but despite its name this one isn't really designed for much "drifting" or "fishtailing" around the turns. I've saved the best for last -- the skycoaster. As with all skycoasters, this one begins with your harness being slowly lifted toward the back spire. Also like other skycoasters, it's more comfortable (and even relaxing) than it looks lying on your belly while strapped into the harness. The difference between this and all other skycoasters is the ridiculous height the back spire reaches here -- 300 feet! All while strapped into a simple harness and supported by a simple cable. I thought I might be more freaked out than I actually was -- I felt surprisingly more excited in anticipation of the upcoming drop than nervous about the height. Pulling your own ripcord, as well as the head-first freefall that follows, are two of the greatest thrills any skycoaster provides. That's especially true from 300 feet up! After the cable catches the harness and you start swinging back and forth under the arc, the ride becomes more pleasant and scenic. I said the same thing with the Fun Spot America skycoaster, but it's crazy to think that the tiny, barely visible speck up there is people. But yep, it's people. The only problem with this ride is now I'm never going to be able to enjoy any other skycoaster quite the same again -- I look at the ones at other parks and they just seem tiny by comparison. I guess I'll have to head back to Kissimmee just to get my skycoaster fix. And with that I conclude Fun Spot USA. Together with Fun Spot America, these are two fun spots (literally) to get away from the bigger Central Florida parks. Come to Kissimmee for the skycoaster, and go to Orlando for everything else (though to be fair, the skycoaster in Orlando is awesome too, and the "everything else" here is certainly worth trying during your visit -- with the exception of maybe Surf's Up).
  12. Following my visits to two major parks (Epcot and SeaWorld) and two smaller attractions (Winter Summerland and Silver Springs), I still had three small parks left on the itinerary for this August 2013 Central Florida trip. First on the agenda was Fun Spot America in Orlando. Known as Fun Spot Action Park up until earlier that summer, the park received a new name in 2013 to celebrate the very significant expansion it underwent during this record year. The expansion saw the park triple in size and add approximately a dozen new rides, including two awesome roller coasters and the world's second tallest skycoaster. In addition, the multi-level go-kart tracks for which the park was already well known remained, giving Fun Spot America quite the variety of worthwhile attractions. As I'd never been to Fun Spot previously, this seemed like a perfect time to do so. I know the park has continued to grow since this 2013 visit, adding a screamin' swing and a mini-Gatorland exhibit. (I also know there was an air race flat ride that unfortunately only lasted for all of about a day.) Then there's recently been the announcement that the park will expand further still in the upcoming years, potentially adding another new coaster, water attractions, and distinct themed areas. If all of this pans out, Fun Spot America's status as a small park may very well change to that of a full-fledged theme park experience. As it currently stands, Fun Spot is a formidable up-and-coming alternative to the major Orlando parks, and I spent the entire day there enjoying everything it has to offer. This is the park's spiffy new entrance, towered over by the world's second tallest skycoaster. At the opposite end of the park is the Revolver ferris wheel, which I imagine must have been Fun Spot's former visual icon. It's still a nice ride offering a complete view of the park's layout and all of its attractions. The star attraction of course being White Lightning, Orlando's only wooden coaster (currently one of only two wooden coasters operating in all of Florida, along with Coastersaurus at Legoland). While this may be a *smaller* coaster, it is not a *small* coaster, and it certainly packs all the punch you'd expect from a woodie. The L-shaped out-and-back course includes plenty of twisty curves and ups and downs, including a much appreciated double-up and double-down, all taken at a pace that never lets up. With the opening of Iron Rattler and Outlaw Run and even Hades 360, 2013 seemed to be the year of the inverting wooden coaster. Despite the new trend, GCI built two great "traditional" wooden coasters that same year (White Lightning and Gold Striker at CGA), and I loved getting to ride them both. Fun Spot's other new-for-2013 coaster was Freedom Flyer, a Vekoma suspended family coaster. Up to that point, the only other version of this ride I'd been on was Flying Ace Aerial Chase at Carowinds, which was one of my least favorite coasters ever. Fortunately, Freedom Flyer was infinitely superior. Its layout is much more interesting and unique. I wouldn't necessarily call this hump an airtime hill, but its placement following the ride's initial drop is quite enjoyable nonetheless. The coaster as a whole is more "stretched out" than a typical Vekoma suspended junior. While these coasters typically consist of a few compact side-by-side spirals, this one seems to span a bit more of Fun Spot's territory. There are still a couple of spirals here, including the final one leading into the station. The awesome thing is that you don't hit the brake run until in the station itself, so it kind of feels like you are out of control while tearing through the spiral back into the station. But the MOST awesome thing about this coaster is the lack of over-the-shoulder restraints. The pointless OTSRs at Carowinds are what made that ride fail so miserably. Lap bars only here! I know many others have already said it, but I'll go ahead and say it too -- White Lightning and Freedom Flyer really are kind of a perfect coaster combo for a park like Fun Spot. To be complete, Fun Spot's third coaster is the Sea Serpent kiddie coaster. Didn't ride this one. Of the new flat rides, Enterprise was probably the largest addition. And the best addition IMO. Rip Curl also seemed to be promoted as a big new ride. Other flat rides at the park include a tilt-a-whirl... ...a paratrooper... ...and a scrambler. There's also a double-decker carousel, a slide, and a decent collection of children's rides. As for water rides, the bumper boats are the only option, though they are guaranteed to pretty much get you soaked -- notice the evil water guns that allow you to drench your fellow riders. I don't know what my problem is, but I'm terrible with these guns. I either can't reach the other boats or shoot right over them, yet everyone else seems to have no problem nailing me. I therefore feel like a sitting duck, but I'm not complaining -- it is nice being cooled off on a hot Florida day. I just wish I could retaliate a little better! There are bumper cars to go along with the bumper boats. The main car attractions at Fun Spot, however, are... ...the go-karts. There are four separate go-kart tracks, each with its own color to keep it distinct from the others. The green track, called Commander, is the tallest of the four tracks and has perhaps the greatest variety of elements. The yellow track, called Quad Helix, is the longest of the four tracks and, with its many spirals up and down the multi-story structure, is probably the most visually intriguing. The blue track, called Conquest, features the steepest and lengthiest "drop" of any of the go-karts. The red track, called Thrasher, is a ground-level-only course that especially emphasizes sharp turns, speed, and racing. I liked all four of these go-kart tracks; I'd be hard-pressed to pick my favorite or least favorite. (Note that there is also a fifth track just for kids.) Last but not least is the park's skycoaster. This is the one that glows green in the evening. At 250 feet, the only skycoaster in the world taller than Orlando's is its older sibling in Kissimmee. (I believe another 250-foot skycoaster has since opened in Australia.) Take a look at the tiny speck at the top -- hard to believe that's people! But yep, it's people! This ride was great fun (more exciting and thrilling than scary), and a great way to wrap up my Fun Spot America day. I look forward to watching the park's continued future development.
  13. Ever since my first Florida visit as a child, I've been curious about the Silver Springs attraction in Ocala. Billed as Florida's original tourist attraction, this amusement park / nature park combo has intrigued both my theme park enthusiast and biologist personas. However, I'd never gotten around to visiting during any of my previous Florida trips. While planning this August 2013 trip, I discovered that the state was planning to take ownership of Silver Springs in September 2013, incorporating it into the state park system, thereby ending the amusement park operations. With that in mind, I made sure to include Silver Springs in my August 2013 itinerary -- this was my last chance to see the park in its original incarnation before undergoing transformation. As it turns out, I still ended up missing out on the amusement park part of Silver Springs -- essentially all of the attractions (giraffe, bear, and panther exhibits; reptile and bird shows; jeep and lighthouse rides; etc.) had already closed prior to August. The mood within the park was quite interesting -- some of the employees seemed devastated that Silver Springs was in its final days, while others were ecstatic to become part of the state park system, which would see increased environmental protection to preserve Silver Springs better than ever before. And the star attraction, the glass bottom boat, continued -- and will continue -- to operate. Despite the fact that I never got to see Silver Springs in the form that originally attracted me to the park in the first place, I was definitely not devastated, and I ended up having a great visit. It actually felt very much like I was back in Everglades National Park, which I enjoyed so much in 2012. Though much of the park was in a state of deconstruction during this visit, I will not be emphasizing that at all in the photos. Instead, I'll focus on the scenic, natural attractions that were present. I imagine Silver Springs currently looks very much the same. The modest entrance is quite fitting for this relatively low-profile park. Even before the closure of the other attractions, Silver Spring's star attraction was the glass bottom boat tour of the springs themselves. So nice that the boats will remain. And speaking of... Though the park was not at all crowded, every boat I saw was full -- a testament to the ride's popularity. The tour lasted approximately 45 minutes, the guide was informative and well spoken, the glass was kept nice and clean, and the water was crystal clear and strikingly vibrant. Here's a look at the beginning of the waterway. A shallow spot before getting farther out into the springs. There's plenty of animal life to see right from the start, hanging out near the boat dock. Turtles are common sights. But the most abundant animal inhabitants are these fish -- mullets. Farther out along the river. It's quite wide and reasonably deep, and it's surrounded by dense vegetation on both sides. While many rivers begin as small streams formed from snowmelt at high elevations, that's not the case at all with Silver Springs. This right here is the origin, less than 100 feet above sea level. Groundwater from beneath the channel seeps up from fissures like these, delivering a continual supply of water to the springs. The fish that got the most "oohs" and "aahs" during the trip -- a gar. Several fallen trees have ended up in the springs over the years, now serving as "mini reefs" for algae and animals to use as habitat. Let's take a stroll around the rest of the property to see what else is on site. Lots of eye-catching trees... The boardwalk-like pathways are very reminiscent of the Everglades. ...most of which are draped by Spanish moss. In addition to all of the plants, there are plenty of animals to encounter as well. Though I initially thought these birds were cormorants, I believe they're actually anhingas (they're closely related birds, and Silver Springs reportedly has both). This alligator was wandering the same path we were. Not to worry -- it was a small one, and as soon as we got even remotely close it darted into the water. Yep, just like being back in the Everglades. The most oddly random animal to be found at Silver Springs is the rhesus monkey. The monkeys were introduced back during the park's "Hollywood" years (several Tarzan pictures plus the Creature from the Black Lagoon filmed here). Since then, the monkeys have established a feral population. And that wraps up this visit to Silver Springs. No longer an amusement park / nature park combo, the nature park that remains is very worthwhile. Even so, if anyone has any pictures from its amusement park days, I'd love to see them.
  14. Following Disney World, I included a few non-Disney attractions in my 2013 Florida trip. Of the other major parks in Central Florida, I had just visited Busch Gardens in 2012, so I decided against returning there so soon. I also opted against Universal, as those parks had extensive Harry Potter construction going on at the time. I therefore chose SeaWorld -- I didn't do SeaWorld in 2012, since Antarctica was being built that summer, but this summer Antarctica was open and a major new attraction, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to visit. It was also a nice park to follow up Busch Gardens from the previous year. I'd been to SeaWorld Orlando once before (during the 2002/2003 winter holiday). Along with Antarctica, the other major addition since then has of course been Manta. Turtle Trek is another relatively new attraction that I was quite looking forward to. Living in Southern California, I've been to SeaWorld San Diego countless times, and while there are many similarities between the parks, there are many differences as well (Antarctica, Manta, and Turtle Trek are three good examples of similarities with differences). Which park do I prefer? Too close to call. Orlando may be a bit more modern, but San Diego is the classic original that I know so well. Let's therefore just say both are pretty much excellent. If I was to make a list of most attractive theme park entrances, SeaWorld Orlando would rank very near the top. First stop of the day. Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is an ambitious and impressive ride / exhibit combo. Now, I realize the ride part of the attraction has pretty much been branded as lame and pointless since day one, especially given the promise of its trackless ride vehicle system. Though I wouldn't call it lame, it certainly isn't spectacular. The ride vehicles basically spin and bounce mildly (even if you choose the "wild" option) through a couple rooms with glowing ice caverns and a couple rooms with video screens projecting animated films. Pointless, on the other hand, is definitely not the case; the ride does serve a very practical purpose. By the time you reach the real penguins, you are at a temperature of 30 degrees F. Each of the rooms during the ride gets progressively cooler, so that you can acclimate to this new temperature, rather than going from a hot and humid Florida summer to immediately being slapped silly by the cold. While the previous picture showed the penguins separated by glass (obviously to protect them from the ride), once you disembark into the exhibit there is no more glass, and you are immersed in the penguin's chilly environment. I visited Antarctica first thing in the morning and the cold didn't bother me at all, probably because I was so engrossed in the entire experience, so I ended up spending a decent amount of time here. Later in the day I went through again specifically to cool off, and curiously got almost uncomfortably cold soon after entering, so I couldn't stay too long. The cold temperature is therefore undoubtedly what keeps Antarctica from becoming a giant bottleneck as the ride continuously delivers new guests into the exhibit -- those guests already in the exhibit likely won't stay as long as they otherwise might due to the frigid conditions. (As for the wait for the ride itself, the line was only about 20 minutes long during both of my Antarctica visits, which is perfectly reasonable as far as I'm concerned.) The underwater viewing area leading to the attraction exit warms things up to prepare you for stepping back into the outside world. Overall I give Antarctica a very positive recommendation. Such a unique attraction featuring such fascinating animals. Let's briefly head from the bottom of the world to the top of the world. Like Antarctica, and like Wild Arctic in San Diego, Orlando's Wild Arctic is a ride / exhibit combo. As with its California counterpart, the simulator ride is fine but nothing special. Unlike the bright, sunny, outdoor exhibit in California, though, the exhibit here is entirely indoors and very dark. I couldn't get a picture of the beluga whales or walruses at all because everything was just so dark. This shot was the best I could do of the polar bears, which I know have sadly passed away since this 2013 visit. Wild Arctic is also located in a somewhat isolated section of the park, so it was by far the least crowded attraction I experienced all day. I hate to say it, but because of the emptiness, the darkness, and now knowing the ultimate fate of the polar bears, this exhibit was a little depressing, which is not something I've ever felt about the California version, or about any other attraction at either SeaWorld for that matter. On now to Manta, the first of the park's two major coasters. Like the three Superman Ultimate Flight coasters, the giant pretzel loop is right at the beginning of Manta. It's an exciting way to start, though in my opinion the loop works even better as a climax at the end of the ride (Tatsu). The water interaction adds immeasurably to the experience, as evidenced by Manta's signature shot. (While this may be the signature Manta shot, I would argue the previous two shots are just as photogenic!) Of the four B&M flying coasters I've ridden (Manta, Tatsu, and Superman Ultimate Flight at SF Great Adventure and SF Over Georgia), Tatsu ranks as #1, with Manta a close #2. There's a large and very nice aquarium exhibit adjacent to the coaster, featuring what else but rays (not actually manta rays, but rather a few different ray species). A colorful coral reef can be found in the Manta aquarium... ...as can one of my favorite aquarium inhabitants, the leafy seadragon. The park's original B&M coaster is Kraken, which still remains a very good one. I love the straight (rather than curved) first drop into the vertical loop... ...as well as the second vertical loop that comes later during the ride, dropping off of the midcourse brakes (kind of a rare placement for a vertical loop). Checking rcdb, it looks like I've ridden seven B&M floorless coasters (in case you're interested -- Batman Dark Knight @ SFNE, Bizarro @ SFGAd, Dominator @ KD, Hydra @ Dorney Park, Medusa @ SFDK, Scream @ SFMM, and Kraken here at SeaWorld). Kraken is one of the earlier ones, and being among the first I ever rode, I always remember it as one of my favorites. It still holds up very well today, though it would be hard for me to now rank it against the others, as so many of those are good too. I guess it's not a bad thing when you can't decide which coaster is best out of several really good coasters. (Sadly, I can say that Scream at my home park of SFMM would rank as my least favorite.) I'm also not positive how I'd rank Kraken v. Manta. Both are great coasters for the park, and once Mako opens, SeaWorld Orlando will have (much like Busch Gardens Tampa and Busch Gardens Williamsburg) a very nice trio of B&M coasters. Of course the first coaster at the park wasn't B&M at all, but rather the coaster / flume hybrid Journey to Atlantis. I know Orlando's Atlantis has a better reputation than San Diego's Atlantis, but I'm not entirely convinced. While the dark ride and indoor theming here are certainly far more extensive, the story is pretty much just as incomprehensible. The coaster portion is also extremely brief, and because the coaster is inside the building (to keep it a surprise no doubt), the view you're seeing here is really the only off-ride view you get of the entire attraction. I like the bright, outdoor look of San Diego's Atlantis, with a longer coaster section and track visible for all to see. California's one indoor part, the elevator lift, is also a unique touch (though admittedly 100% incoherent). I dunno, each version has its own distinct qualities, and I like them both, so let's call it a tie. Like Manta, Journey to Atlantis is accompanied by an aquarium, the Jewels of the Sea aquarium. Here you'll find "mysterious" sea creatures such as eels... ...and jellies. This aquarium is smaller than the Manta aquarium, but just as interesting. Plenty of intriguing animals to discover. How about a ride on the Sky Tower for another look at a few of the above attractions? A great opportunity to view most of Manta's layout. The same for Kraken. And one more shot of the park entrance, just because I like it so much. A word of warning about the Sky Tower -- I rode first thing after opening on my second day at the park, and it was still by far the longest wait I encountered at SeaWorld. I don't know if the line is always so slow moving, but it was interminable during my visit, especially being all out in the open under the sun. Beware if you plan to ride later in the day when the line is even longer. I can't imagine how excruciating that would be. The final ride is the park's junior coaster, Shamu Express. I didn't have a child with me but I went ahead and rode anyway, and in so doing I scored all four of SeaWorld Orlando's coaster credits! The Shamu coaster serves as a nice transition to... ...the Shamu show. One Ocean was (and still is) the current show being presented at Shamu Stadium. Like One Ocean at SeaWorld San Diego, it's a good show, perhaps a bit generic, but probably exactly what the audience expects from a Shamu show. While it sounds like One Ocean will remain in Florida, as we've all heard, California is going a different route with their killer whales. We'll have to wait and see how that turns out. Shamu Stadium has an underwater viewing area where you can get up close and personal with the whales. I'm not sure if this guy was trying to talk to the whales or make out with them, but it was really weird. Whatever the orca whisperer was doing, though, it worked -- he totally got the whales' attentions! Whether or not the Blue World project materializes, it would still be nice to see the killer whales receive a habitat expansion of some sort. The next few years will certainly be *interesting* for SeaWorld and its signature animals. The dolphin show is Blue Horizons. Blue Horizons features not only dolphins but also... ...a bunch of human acrobatics and other random stuff. I know many guests don't care for this incarnation of the dolphin show, but I kind of like it. With a storyline and score to tie everything together, it's a bit more of a production than your typical SeaWorld show. Now, I'm not sure how well Orlando's version has retained all of the elements of the original Blue Horizons, but San Diego's version definitely went downhill during its final year, to the point that it was scrapped altogether and replaced by a more standard dolphin show. I'm perfectly okay with that too, since I guess a dolphin show really should be about the dolphins. For even more dolphins head over to Dolphin Cove. While you can potentially pet the dolphins at any time during the day, there are periodic feeding times that guarantee plenty of dolphin interaction. You of course have to pay for the feeding, and you may even have to sign up for a spot in advance (I'm not certain about this last part, since I didn't actually partake, but there sure looked to be quite the demand and therefore possibly a waitlist). I'm sure the wait and price are well worth it, as the dolphins appear more than happy to acquaint themselves with guests with food. See what I mean? There's a large underwater viewing area featured as part of Dolphin Cove... ...providing additional photo ops of the dolphins in action. Great animals, great exhibit. Up next is Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island. I would say this show supports my hypothesis that ALL sea lion shows are required to be pirate-themed, except that 1) I know the show has changed to Clyde & Seamore's Sea Lion High (themed to high school) since this 2013 visit, and 2) the San Diego version is Sea Lions Live (spoofing television shows), so I guess I'll have to reject my hypothesis. (I'll revise it to instead state that MOST sea lion shows are required to be pirate-themed!) Whatever the theming, the sea lion show is a much more humorous presentation than One Ocean and Blue Horizons. The sea lions share the spotlight with an otter and a walrus. So nice to have a walrus in the show, which we haven't had in San Diego for so long. There's more sea lion interaction to be had at Pacific Point Preserve. Feeding the dolphins and the rays is a blast, but feeding the sea lions gets my vote for favorite animal encounter at the park. I love how excited they get, as well as all the little "tricks" they've figured out to encourage us to throw them some fish. Even though the birds are considered aggressive pests at these attractions, I have to kind of admire their strategic persistence toward obtaining some fish for themselves. This bird looks like it's getting ready to kick some serious butt. The park's Seaport Theater presents Pets Ahoy. Very similar to San Diego's Pets Rule (except indoors rather than outdoors), the show guarantees plenty of laughs, as well as plenty of "aww's" for all the adorable animals. The Nautilus Theater presents A'lure Call of the Ocean. Somewhat similar to San Diego's Cirque de la Mer (again, inside instead of outside), A'lure showcases acrobatic stunts and elaborate costumes while telling the story of a fisherman's visit to an underwater world. I believe A'lure has ended its run since this 2013 visit, so I'm not sure if the Nautilus Theater is currently being used for anything. (Along those same lines, does the park ever utilize the Bayside Stadium? For seasonal or special events perhaps? It seems like an awfully large space to just be sitting there empty.) Turtle Trek is a film / exhibit combo. Let me begin by saying I was beyond impressed with the film part of this attraction -- such unique technology employed. This is the only 3-D dome presentation that I know of in existence; it's certainly the only one I've ever seen. Like Circle Vision, the film is projected on the walls encircling the theater. Unlike Circle Vision, the film is also projected on the domed ceiling, and in 3-D the turtles appear to be swimming through the theater above guests' heads. Very cool stuff. There are of course real live turtles to be seen at Turtle Trek as well. Many of the turtles had been injured before being rescued and cared for by the SeaWorld team. In addition to sea turtles and marine fish, the exhibit also contains a large freshwater habitat with its own collection of fish. These are pacu, omnivorous relatives of piranhas. Catfish. The other inhabitants here are the park's manatees. There's above- and below-water viewing of the manatees, many of which (like the turtles) are being rehabilitated following injuries suffered in the wild. Conservation is a theme especially emphasized throughout the entire Turtle Trek attraction. After only having manatees at SeaWorld San Diego for a short while, it was great being able to see these animals at SeaWorld once again here in Orlando. Before getting too far away from Turtle Trek, be sure to stop by the alligators -- they're right next door. You can feed and feel rays at Stingray Lagoon. The shallow pool pretty much ensures that you'll get to touch some rays as they swim along, but for the most entertaining experience purchase some food (sometimes fish, sometimes squid, sometimes shrimp) and have the rays "slurp / chomp" it out of your hand as they glide by. Nice picture opportunities too when the water calms following the feeding frenzy. The Shark Encounter exhibit begins with a wide, non-moving walkway through a large aquarium, along with several smaller separate aquariums, featuring not sharks at all but instead other "dangerous" and "scary" fish. The venomous lionfish is one example. The more narrow, moving walkway through the shark tank tunnel then follows. Getting a picture of the moving sharks from the crowded moving walkway through the thick, curving glass with everyone's reflections visible isn't easy, so I was quite proud of myself for this next one... ...and it's a great white, no less! There's a shallow pool outside the main Shark Encounter building housing even more sharks (smaller sharks). You can't reach these animals to touch them, but there is a feeding booth here to purchase and toss them some snacks. Rays (including a few pretty huge ones) also inhabit this pool. With Shark Encounter, Stingray Lagoon, and the Manta aquarium, there is ample opportunity at SeaWorld Orlando to observe and interact with rays. There's no shortage of birds either. In addition to the penguins, there are pelicans at Pelican Preserve... ...flamingos at Flamingo Cove... ...and a sandhill crane at Sea Garden. Quite the attractive bird. This one is cute too, in its own special way. (It's a frogmouth, not an owl.) Sea Garden is also home to a few mammals. Many of the inhabitants are periodically brought out to meet park guests. Named for its plant life rather than its animals, Sea Garden is a wonderfully scenic and relaxing corner of the park. A perfect way to end this SeaWorld Orlando visit. Here's looking forward to Mako and my next visit.
  15. Before leaving Disney World, my 2013 visit included two smaller attractions that I'd never done before. Because my 2012 trip included a stop at Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf, I figured this year I'd go ahead and try Winter Summerland Miniature Golf. Winter Summerland seems to be the slightly lesser known of the two WDW mini golf courses, with a reputation as the "more typical, less elaborate" course. Keep in mind, though, that "more typical" and "less elaborate" by Disney standards still equate to pretty atypical and very elaborate, and I found Winter Summerland to be an excellent mini golf course, quite on par (pun intended) with Fantasia Gardens. The other attraction on the agenda was Characters in Flight at Downtown Disney. I've wanted to try one of these tethered hot air balloon rides for some time, but I've never gotten around to it anywhere until now. Rising 400 feet above the ground, Characters in Flight was an exciting way to view not just the Downtown Disney district, but much of the rest of Disney World as well. I therefore give two positive recommendations to Winter Summerland Miniature Golf and Characters in Flight; they're well worth working into your WDW schedule if you've got some extra time outside of the big four parks. Themed to Santa on vacation, Winter Summerland features two courses -- the snow course (winter) and the sand course (summer). I'll start with the snow course and its glistening ice castles. Everything is so icy blue-white it almost hurts your eyes. The winter theming is nicely integrated throughout each hole, not just as decoration but as the holes' various obstacles. More winter theming, more fun obstacles. The sand course has (quite logically) sand castles instead of ice castles. Note the similarities in the set-up of the sand and snow courses. It's in the sand course, however, that the unique and creative theme of "Santa on summer vacation" can be whimsically displayed. The final few holes of both courses converge at Santa's lodge. While I can't remember for sure which of these remaining pictures belong to the snow course and which belong to the sand course, it doesn't really matter, as both become similarly Christmas themed here. More wonderful theming. It's kind of hard to go wrong with the combination of Disney, Christmas, and mini golf, and these final few holes will manage to put you in the Christmas spirit even in the middle of August in Florida! Again, the theming and the obstacles go hand-in-hand. I finished both courses well under par 56 (scores of 44 and 45), so I'm either a pro mini golfer (doubtful) or par is unnecessarily high (much more likely). Either way, a fun time was had at Winter Summerland Miniature Golf. Next up is Characters in Flight, the tethered hot air balloon that floats 400 feet above Downtown Disney. It's called Characters in Flight because the ride is (very loosely) themed to several of Disney's most famous animated flying characters; Dumbo, Peter Pan, Buzz Lightyear, and Aladdin and Jasmine on their magic carpet are all pictured around the balloon. The loading platform. Beginning the ascent. Depending on the weather (temperature, precipitation, wind), the balloon may not make it all the way to 400 feet (or may not operate at all). We had a warm, calm day though, so we spent the entire flight at the maximum height. And here's the stunning view from 400 feet up. Two Downtown Disney attractions, Splitsville and DisneyQuest, that I didn't do during this trip but that I just might try in the future. (I know DisneyQuest is closing, but remember, this trip was in 2013, so there has been some time to get back to DisneyQuest since then...) Epcot can be seen off in the distance, which seemed fitting after having just visited this park. The specific structures here are Spaceship Earth, Universe of Energy, and the (sadly) SBNO Wonders of Life. Characters in Flight costs $18 for an approximately 10-minute experience, so it's not something I would necessarily pay to do over and over as a frequent WDW guest. However, since I don't visit WDW all that often and I'd never been on a tethered hot air balloon ride anywhere before, I was glad to give this a try once. Scenic and relaxing but exciting all at the same time -- definitely worth it.
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