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biosciking

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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.
  16. ... Yep, Canada definitely gives China and Japan a run for their money. Epcot's nighttime finale is of course IllumiNations. The show features the brightly lit countries of World Showcase lining World Showcase Lagoon, along with dancing fountains within World Showcase Lagoon, all surrounding the centerpiece -- a rotating globe. In typical Disney nighttime fashion there are also pyrotechnics. I know this is a very highly regarded production, and I do remember liking it from my previous Epcot visit, but I have to be honest and say I just didn't get it this time around. I think we had a decent viewing spot, so I really wonder if we somehow got a dud performance, as I swear 75% of the time was spent doing nothing more than simply watching the globe slowly spin in circles. The fireworks and lasers, when they did occur, were nowhere near on par with other Disney fireworks displays. When the show was over, my group kind of looked at each other confused, and all agreed it was pretty much lame. I know that's blasphemous speak regarding IllumiNations, so I again hope something was just off during this particular performance. I won't hesitate to give it another chance next time. Not sure when that next time will be, but hopefully it's sooner rather than later. It was a great return visit to Epcot, and I can't wait to do it again.
  17. For the second part of my August 2013 trip, it was back to Florida, Disney World, and beyond Disney World. Because I had just visited Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom during my August 2012 trip, I opted against those two parks. Also, because the new Fantasyland was still under construction, I figured I'd wait on the Magic Kingdom. That left Epcot, which worked out perfectly -- I didn't do Epcot in 2012, since Test Track was closed for its extensive refurbishment that year. This year, however, the newly renovated version was open and ready for me to ride. I have visited Epcot twice previously, but it's been quite some time (the 1990/1991 and 1998/1999 winter holidays). In addition to Test Track, there have been several major and minor additions and removals since then, with Mission: Space being probably the most significant. Pretty much every Future World pavilion has changed in some way (maybe not Ellen's Energy Adventure?), and there have been changes to World Showcase too. With everything new, plus the classic attractions that I remember so well, I was very eagerly anticipating my return visit to Epcot. It's kind of impossible to begin an Epcot photo trip report without a shot of Spaceship Earth, so I won't even try. While Spaceship Earth marks the entrance to the entire park, it specifically marks the entrance to the Future World half of the park, so a ride through the giant sphere seems like an appropriate way to start the day. The ride focuses on the history of communication, slowly moving through scenes from ancient to modern times. Here are the Egyptians... ...and here are the Greeks. With all the other civilizations presented, the ride provides kind of a whirlwind tour of world history. Beginning the computer age. While several of the scenes during the ride's ascent have remained the same, the narration has changed each time I'm visited -- from Walter Cronkite during my first trip to Jeremy Irons during my second to now Judi Dench. The descent portion of the ride has significantly changed, with the addition of the new interactive component that allows riders to build their own future. It's corny but works well here and is admittedly fun to do. A look at the sphere from the back side (if there is a back side to a sphere!). It's quite impressive to think that there's a massive dark ride housed inside this structure, and while the ride itself is slow and gentle, it's still exciting to travel up and down through the sphere. Add the interactive elements to the mix, as well as the fact that this is such a Disney icon to begin with, and Spaceship Earth ranks as one of my favorites at Epcot. Just beyond Spaceship Earth is Innoventions. I had one specific objective in mind for this pavilion... ...Sum of All Thrills, a brand new attraction for me. While I have been on these Kuka robotic arms before (at Legoland California), I was looking forward to riding one based on my own roller coaster creation. It was lots of fun, though perhaps not quite as extreme as I was anticipating (likely because my coaster design just wasn't extreme enough). It was also very popular (and low capacity), so the wait for Sum of All Thrills was probably the longest in the entire park. While in Innoventions, I did try out a couple of the other exhibits. Stormstruck is a 3D movie that teaches you how to prepare your home for severe weather. I liked it. I also tried the Great Piggy Bank Adventure, Epcot's description of which reads "this interactive adventure guides you through the ups and downs of saving and investing." If that doesn't scream theme park fun, I don't know what does! It was surprisingly well done, but very geared towards children. Up next is Ellen's Energy Adventure, an update of the original Universe of Energy pavilion. The solar cells, giant moving theater cars, and primeval world display were all part of this attraction back when I first visited in 1990, and they're still major components of the attraction today. The Ellen update, which was in place by my 1998 visit, added Bill Nye, Jeopardy, and some much needed humor to the pavilion (I remember the original version being quite the snooze fest). It's still very lengthy (45 minutes!), but with a cohesive beginning, middle, and end it works well and is actually quite enjoyable. The only problem is, with all the alternative sources of energy being explored these days, their lack of inclusion here does make the attraction once again feel dated. Another new version of Universe of Energy is therefore probably in order. The only entirely new pavilion added to Epcot since my previous visit has been Mission: Space, one of two major thrill rides at the park (one of three if you include Sum of All Thrills). I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Mission: Space, and while I was very excited to try it, all the stories you hear about it and all the warnings posted about it did make me a little leery. I'll admit that I therefore opted for the mild Green version first, just to learn what the ride was about. Ride #2, though, was the intense Orange version. My thoughts: 1) I was never entirely clear whether the ride was simulating a training mission to Mars or an actual mission to Mars (for whatever reason that discrepancy bothered me). 2) I don't suffer from claustrophobia, so I rather enjoyed the confined capsules and small screens. 3) The "assignments" that riders get (pushing buttons, handling control sticks) are basically pointless but do add to the fun. 4) The positive g-forces during the launch are indeed some of the most extreme I've ever experienced on a ride -- there was definitely unpleasantness involved. However, this effect added greatly to the realism. 5) The negative-g weightlessness was pretty cool too, though you sort of had to force it to get that full sensation. 6) My final analysis of Mission: Space -- I kind of loved it! It isn't something I'd repeat again and again in one day, but, just because it's so different from anything I've ever ridden at a theme park, it really did win me over. Epcot's other major thrill ride is of course Test Track. I'm not sure how I'd rate the new version of Test Track against the old version (I'm also not sure how I'd rate Test Track against Radiator Springs Racers at DCA, but that's for another time). The new futuristic theming is interesting, though I might argue the original theming was more appropriate for the attraction. The actual ride itself is (I believe) unchanged. And it's a good one. The interactive addition to Test Track version 2 allows guests to design their own vehicles, which are rated throughout the ride based on power, efficiency, and a couple other measures. I wasn't overly eager to do this in advance, but I discovered pretty quickly that the objective wasn't really to plan out the design; instead, it was simply to create the biggest monstrosity possible! I only rode once, so I don't have much basis for comparison, but I was proud that my creation scored 212, only 15 points away from the day's top design. The Imagination pavilion is by far the most head-scratching at the park. I'm not entirely sure what the Journey into Imagination with Figment dark ride is supposed to be about. At first it seems to be about the various human senses, but only two or three end up being included. I won't say Captain EO is any better or worse than Honey, I Shrunk the Audience (the 3D show it replaced). But while Honey, I Shrunk the Audience at least fit in with the Imagination Institute theme, Captain EO just adds to Imagination's overall incoherence. I'm not advocating for the removal of another pavilion (I wish Wonders of Life still existed!), but I think a complete overhaul of Imagination is certainly called for at this point. To come to its defense somewhat, the surrounding area does look nice. Next up is the Land, which also looks nice, both outside and inside (I've always liked the bright central food court area and the high ceiling). One of the most popular attractions at Epcot (if not THE most popular attraction at Epcot) is housed inside the Land. While Soarin' was a new ride for me here, I've been on it many times at California Adventure -- it's great, but because it is identical at both parks I only rode once and didn't think about it much beyond that. The Living with the Land boat ride, on the other hand, is very unique to Epcot. I remember it well from my previous visits, but I still rode more than once (more than twice!) during this visit. Living with the Land first travels through scenes depicting different ecosystems (forest, desert, grassland, etc.). The boat then makes its way through several greenhouses, within which a variety of crop plants are grown hydroponically. The ride features not only agriculture... ...but aquaculture as well. While I could conceivably imagine guests being bored by this attraction, it never seems to turn out that way -- everyone appears interested (some even fascinated) by it, and it's definitely one of my Epcot favorites. (I do kind of miss the live tour guides, though I understand why they're not really necessary anymore.) Before leaving the Land pavilion, I should also mention the Circle of Life film that plays here. Focusing on conservation, I'm sure it's nothing that everybody hasn't already seen and heard before, but it's worthwhile nonetheless. The final Future World pavilion is the Seas with Nemo and Friends, a re-theme of the former Living Seas pavilion. I remember three things about the Living Seas from my prior visits -- the hydrolators, the seacabs, and the giant Sea Base Alpha aquarium. The hydrolators are now gone (not a huge loss I guess, as they were pretty cheesy, but it might have been nice to have them incorporated into the new attraction). The seacabs have been converted to "clammobiles" that travel through a Finding Nemo story. I had no idea prior to boarding that this was the exact same projection-based ride as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage at Disneyland. Much like DL's Submarine Voyage, I'm not a huge fan of this Finding Nemo ride. It's not a major concern though, as I seem to remember the former seacab ride being kind of lacking to begin with, plus the Sea Base Alpha aquarium (or whatever it's currently called) is still intact, and that is the headliner attraction at this pavilion. The aquarium is huge, featuring an enormous diversity of marine life. In addition, there are plenty of separate, smaller exhibit tanks. Always a popular aquarium inhabitant. I'm not sure which fish is more odd-looking, this one... ...or this one. We're in Florida, so you can bet there will be manatees. We're in a Finding Nemo attraction at Disney World, so you can bet there will be clownfish. I found a whole bunch of Nemos. Turtle Talk is the final new addition to the revamped Seas pavilion. Though children are definitely the target audience here, the technology is reasonably impressive enough to even merit a look by adults without kids. Keep in mind that the comedy in the show can be very hit-or-miss, depending on the participants chosen to converse with Crush. We now move from the Future World half of the park to the World Showcase half of the park. While Future World is definitely unique as far as theme parks and theme park attractions go, its collection of headliner rides still makes it the "more typical" theme park part of Epcot. It will therefore probably be the favorite of guests looking for thrills and excitement. World Showcase, on the other hand, is extremely atypical, with a significantly slower pace and not a thrill ride to be found. However, I would argue (and I'm sure I'm not alone here) that being immersed in the various countries of the world is equally as exciting, and I imagine this part of the park will be the favorite of many guests for that reason alone. It is difficult for me to choose which half of Epcot I like best, but with all its detail and authenticity, World Showcase probably has a slight edge over Future World. Let's begin with Mexico, represented by this impressive pyramid. The majority of the pavilion's restaurants and shops are housed within the (very large) pyramid, where the theme becomes a Mexican village at night. This is also the location of the Gran Fiesta Tour boat ride. The ride begins by drifting past a glowing pyramid and smoking volcanoes. (This scene is also visible from the rest of the pavilion.) I really like the mood created by this beginning portion -- tropical and exciting. Plus it reminds me of the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland, with the ride and sets on one side overlooked by restaurant seating on the other. As the boat continues on, it enters scenes very reminiscent of It's a Small World, with doll children playing musical instruments and dancing (not so much singing though). A few skeletons join the children during today's Dia de los Muertos party (this ride really is a cross between It's a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean!). The relatively new Three Caballeros overlay includes Panchito and Jose Carioca chasing after Donald Duck, who is on a sightseeing tour of Mexico. The three animated characters are mixed with live-action footage on video displays throughout the attraction. I think this is actually an improvement over the former Rio del Tiempo ride, as the videos allow a bit of modern Mexico to now be showcased. Overall I like Gran Fiesta Tour; I know it doesn't have the best reputation, but to me it's a typical (and therefore enjoyable) Disney boat ride. (As a complete aside, I think the Disney animated film Saludos Amigos is much better than the similarly themed but overblown The Three Caballeros. Just wanted to put that out there in case you were thinking of watching one.) One last look at the Mexico pavilion before moving on. Mexico's next-door neighbor in World Showcase is Norway, represented by a medieval stave church. Though the church is the focal point of the Norway pavilion, I don't think many guests realize you can actually go inside of it; there is a small museum gallery within, which provides a nice, quick break to your busy Epcot day -- cool, quiet, and uncrowded. I believe the exhibit has since changed, to something Frozen-based no doubt. (Take that, Rognvald -- your 300-year raid of Europe is no match for two fairytale princesses!) The exhibit on display during my 2013 visit presented a brief history of the Vikings. Beyond the stave church, other architectural points of interest in the Norway pavilion include this fortress... ...and this courtyard, which of course leads to the pavilion's main attraction, Maelstrom. I'm glad I got to ride Maelstrom one last time before its Frozen conversion, as it holds much nostalgic value for me. Visiting Epcot as a child, I absolutely loved the ride -- the darkness and moodiness were very exciting, and the trolls and forward and backward flume drops were so thrilling. That said, I'm sure the Frozen ride will also be loved by the next generation, so I'll look forward to riding it too. At World Showcase it's just a short walk from North America to Europe to Asia. This triple-arched ceremonial gate serves as the entrance to China. You'll find plenty of shopping and dining opportunities as you stroll through this very attractive pavilion. In fact, China would get my vote as one of the two most attractive pavilions in all of World Showcase (the other being Japan). That is a tough call, as Italy, Canada, and all of the countries for that matter are portrayed so beautifully. However, China has such a tranquil and relaxing atmosphere that it is especially peaceful and picturesque. The pavilion's major attraction is the Circle-Vision film Reflections of China, housed within the Temple of Heaven. Reflections of China is an update of the former Wonders of China film that played during my previous Epcot visits. I'll be honest, I don't remember that one much. However, Reflections of China ended up being my favorite of World Showcase's three film-based shows (China, Canada, and France) -- this film did the best job of making me want to visit the actual country. The statue and clock tower are two of the more prominent architectural displays at this pavilion. Back to Europe now for Germany. Lacking a signature attraction, the Germany pavilion is instead all about the shops and restaurants. German chocolates and caramels, plus Oktoberfest food and beer, seem to be the most popular. While every pavilion at Epcot is amazingly intricate and elaborate, there's something about the Italy pavilion that is particularly striking and ornate. Epcot's Fountain of Neptune. The same could be said for the Italy pavilion (substituting Italian food for German food of course!). Centrally located at the far end of World Showcase is the U.S. of A. Decked out nice and patriotically, the colonial-inspired Liberty Theatre presents the highlight of this pavilion, the American Adventure show. Here's the preshow rotunda, all glistening and immaculate. The show itself is easily the best in World Showcase, not simply a film but rather a large-scale production. Ben Franklin and Mark Twain guide us through a history of the United States, featuring elaborate sets and lots of Audio Animatronic characters. I'm a sucker for a good montage, and this show's finale, set to the uplifting "Golden Dream" score, is a winner. (The tear-jerking "Two Brothers" is also very memorable; just FYI, both of these songs can be heard during Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland as well.) Look behind you before moving on from the American Adventure pavilion... ...for a nice view of Spaceship Earth across World Showcase Lagoon. No need to cross the Pacific going from the United States to Japan; at Epcot they're only a few steps apart. In addition to the torii gate at the front of the pavilion (along the water's edge)... ...the pagoda is definitely the most conspicuous structure here. Even so, there are plenty of other authentic and attractive Japanese buildings housing the pavilion's shops and restaurants, each surrounded by perfectly manicured landscaping. As already mentioned, China and Japan get my vote as the two most attractive pavilions in all of World Showcase; the gardens and ponds here are so calming and soothing they're almost therapeutic. One more look at the pagoda and gardens. Another pavilion without a major attraction (there is an art gallery), Japan is so serene and relaxing that a major attraction really isn't needed. While all of the other countries have a slightly more glamorized feel to them, Morocco feels a bit "dirtier" -- and I mean that in the very best possible way. The authenticity of a dry, windswept, dusty pavilion in the middle of the Atlas Mountains or Sahara Desert is perfectly realized here at Morocco. Morocco is Africa's only representation in World Showcase. There is certainly still some glamour -- the arch and fountain are kind of fancy. I really admire the look of the entire pavilion. This scene so reminds me of Casablanca, one of my all-time favorite movies and a city I'd love to visit. France wouldn't be France without the Eiffel Tower. The main attraction at this pavilion is Impressions de France, a sit-down non-Circle Vision film. Of the World Showcase shows, this one would be my least favorite. It's nice enough, but there is extremely minimal narration, so everything you're looking at throughout the film isn't really described or explained. Also, without narration, it's all very quiet, which does make it a bit sleepy. Not to worry, though, as the rest of the pavilion is so detailed and impressive. See what I mean? Relax in a Parisian neighborhood with a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, or an ice cream. Visiting Epcot as a kid, I never ate at any of the expensive World Showcase restaurants, as it would not have been very practical for my family of six (two parents plus four children) to do so. I therefore made it a point during this trip to try one of them; I chose Les Chefs de France. It was well worth it, beginning with a salad and French onion soup, followed by the main course of either filet mignon or salmon. I can't remember exactly how they described this sauce, but it was delicious. And here's dessert! A little entertainment while dining. I should note that the servers were all so polite, professional, and friendly, more than happy to talk about the restaurant and France in general (the actual country, not just the Epcot pavilion). It felt a little odd being hot and sweaty and wearing grungy theme park clothes in a formal restaurant, but I imagine patrons must always look that way. Up next is the United Kingdom, where the restaurants... ...the shops... ...and even the restrooms are very decorative, with plenty of British charm. The eleventh and final country in World Showcase is Canada, yet another one that looks absolutely incredible IMHO. The pavilion's major attraction is the Circle-Vision film O Canada! (not located in these buildings; the actual location of the film is somewhat modest and inconspicuous). The film has been updated since the last time I was here, now starring Martin Short and incorporating more comedy than any of the other World Showcase shows. Martin Short is definitely not my favorite, but he's not overly annoying here, and O Canada is actually pretty good. My favorite part of the pavilion, though, is all the rustic outdoorsy wilderness.
  18. After a two year hiatus, it's finally time to update this thread. (Note that I haven't gone two years without posting a photo trip report; however, I've been more focused on trying to keep up with biosciking's Non-So Cal Thread, which you can find here.) Since I've made a point to do a Six Flags Magic Mountain update each time the park has opened a major new attraction, I certainly couldn't pass this year by. Twisted Colossus became my very first RMC coaster, so it goes without saying I was beyond eagerly anticipating it. This coaster has already had so much coverage that I'm not sure what more I can add, beyond giving my analysis. I'll share most of my thoughts with the pictures below, but I'll start with a few comments here. (Let me also say this isn't the easiest ride to photograph, since it's really only visible from the parking lot, blocked by lots of fencing. I'd also normally take a few shots from the Sky Tower, but it's unfortunately been out of commission for some time.) I visited the park on Wednesday June 17, and Colossus was running three trains consistently throughout the day. I'd estimate the trains raced approximately 50% of the time. I was impressed that it was even that much, as I honestly thought it would be just too difficult to get trains dispatched in time to sync up. It was very common for the trains to be close, but not quite in sync; I frequently noticed the blue-track train start up the lift hill while the green-track train was still on its lift hill, but no matter how much the green train slowed the blue train just couldn't catch up. (Occasionally the green train slowed so much that the blue train actually passed it by, so they still ended up out of sync!) Interestingly, I don't have a problem with this at all. This may sound weird, but I was actually kind of hoping to not race during my first ride. Being my first RMC, I wanted to really concentrate on all the ride's maneuvers without another train being present as a distraction (a very good distraction of course, but a distraction nonetheless). I did get the racing experience during a few rides, and it was great, but I found I enjoyed the ride equally with or without the racing component. I also didn't get the impression that other riders were necessarily expecting it, so they didn't seem disappointed without the racing; rather, it was more of a special treat when the trains did happen to meet up and race. There was a single rider line available (excellent!) so I used it to get five rides in on TC. My first ride was right in the middle of the train, my second and third rides were near the front, my fourth ride was slightly behind the middle, and my fifth ride was in the very back. I enjoyed all five rides, but I can say the back seat blew all the other seats out of the water. I've always gravitated toward the back seat of any coaster, but it really made a difference here, elevating the ride from "very very good" to "OMG WTF." Let me reiterate that I didn't ride the very front row, so I can't comment on it, though I imagine it would be a different kind of awesome. As for the surrounding Screampunk area, it was kind of random, but still nice. The theater's new show is called Kwerk, which looks to be a carnival-type acrobatic production. It wasn't playing during my visit (I believe it has already started, correct? It just wasn't playing during the weekday?), but as long as it's better than the CSI crap I once saw in this theater it will be fine with me. (Honestly, it would be impossible for anything to be worse than that CSI show.) There were street performers out and about throughout the day, riding unicycles and juggling swords, which was a neat extra. I also tried a sandwich from the new Twisted 'Wiches eatery. I had the Scream-wich -- chicken, bacon, pepper jack cheese, sriracha sauce, ranch sauce, jalapenos, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce. It was a tad dry even with the two sauces (probably because the bread was quite large and they toasted the sandwiches), but the jalapenos sure gave it a tasty flavor. Anyway, on to the photos... We have arrived. I like the tagline "What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner." That's a nice way to succinctly describe the steampunk theme for those not in the know. I also like that they're trying to give equal press to Scream and the theater. Really, though, this is the reason we're here. Colossus discovered Jesus this year. Is the ride a religious experience? Only one way to find out... I kind of liked the little bunny hops that led from the station to the lift hill -- more interesting than a boring straightaway. Plus it was funny to listen to the reactions of riders who didn't know they were coming. It was also entertaining listening to the reactions of riders who didn't realize how the coaster works get all excited when the train reached the green lift hill. Many delighted shouts of "We get to do the green side too!" The lift hill still feels very much like the old Colossus -- a very gradual angle, and the trains move up it in fits and starts of slowing and slightly speeding up. The clickety-clack of the chain even sounds like the old Colossus. I appreciate that they were able to preserve (whether intentionally or not) some of the nostalgia of the former ride. While heading up the lift hill, looking out to the parking lot, you could actually forget for a moment you're on a new and different coaster. Once you crest the hill, though, you're brought right back to reality. In the front, as the train peeks over the hill, you can't even see the drop at first; that's how steep it is. In the back, getting forcefully flung over the hill and down the drop is roller coaster perfection -- so wonderfully steep and fast. On how many coasters do you get to do the first drop twice!? A slightly different view to see a bit more of the drop -- it really is a great one. I also loved the little floater airtime hill located between the drop and the upcoming hill. It's of course taken very fast, and it does provide good airtime (especially in the back). The "high five" element is a very twisty part of Twisted Colossus. Because of how tilted it is, even when there is another train racing across from you, it's kind of hard to see it unless you really look up for it. Let me use this opportunity to backtrack for a moment and point out the hills leading up to the high five. Coming over those hills (especially on the blue side for whatever reason) was in my opinion the best airtime of the entire ride. They absolutely launch you out of your seat. I loved it, loved it, LOVED IT! How about the drops leading away from the high five? I'll start with the blue drop, which definitely does provide the expected airtime. I think the most significant point about this blue drop, however, is the awesome headchop effect as the train dips under the green track. The green track is of course doing its already infamous double down, which looks so warped and crazy but unfortunately just doesn't quite provide the extreme airtime that a great double down should. While I will say my final ride on the coaster in the back seat made this element significantly better, I still felt this was the one missed opportunity on the coaster. It sure looks cool though. Here's a different shot of the first drop, more to point out the elements going on in front of it, the blue track's airtime hill (yet another one!) and the green track's "top gun stall." The blue airtime hill is fantastic (as are all of the blue airtime hills!). The green top gun stall is also a very enjoyable element. It was curiously the least intense, most relaxed and comfortable part of the entire ride, which I actually really liked. It felt so natural, just casually traveling above the blue track and train below, like you weren't upside down at all. I'm also glad they went with this "stall" rather than another barrel roll, adding to the coaster's variety. The blue side did get the barrel roll, which is probably the most intense element of the entire ride. It whips you through fast and forcefully. The last part of each half of the ride is the double up, which does a better job than I was expecting at giving a few final moments of airtime. As the blue track transitions to the green lift hill, it has to dip under the green track's brake run, which is another great headchopper moment. While it seems to be claimed that the green side is the more extreme half of the coaster, the blue half gets my vote. Except for the barrel roll, the blue track is simply airtime followed by more airtime followed by even more airtime. The headchopping effects are also only present during the blue half. I noticed a little less airtime during the green half, and the top gun stall, while lots of fun, isn't as extreme as the barrel roll. Don't get me wrong here -- both sides are a blast, and they compliment each other extremely well. I'd just give the slight advantage to blue over green. I need to take a quick timeout from Colossus to point out the other new coaster that has opened since my previous Magic Mountain update. In 2014, the park added their fourth kiddie / junior / family coaster, Speedy Gonzales Hot Rod Racers. A friend and I decided to be credit whores and ride this, only to be refused because we didn't have any children with us. I would not normally complain about this, except that nowhere does it state that you have to have a child in order to ride this coaster. The ride requirements (posted at the front of the attraction and on the park's website) state that you must be 42" to ride alone, or 36" to ride with an adult, and that's it. Again, it wasn't like I really wanted to ride this or anything; I just didn't like that the attendant was having a power trip and making up rules. Especially since this picture shows two older kids (maybe not adults) riding together without a young child. Anyway, this trip report is about Twisted Colossus, so back to it. I'll finish up by saying (a bit hesitantly because I know many may not agree) that X2 is still my favorite coaster at SFMM. I think it's going to be difficult for anything to top X in my book, as it's just so unique and intense and extreme. Having said that, Twisted Colossus would easily be number two. It's a fantastic addition to the park, and a fantastic addition to Southern California in general. I'm so glad we've now got an RMC coaster in my neck of the woods!
  19. I want to say no, and I'm pretty sure that's correct, but I will defer to a park regular in case I'm misremembering. As for other flumes with dual drops that do run both sides, Dudley Do-Right at IOA comes to mind. Thanks!
  20. Following CGA, it was on to SFDK. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is a park that I've been to once before, in the summer of 2005. Technically, though, I've been to the park twice before -- way back in the summer of 1993 I visited during its Marine World Africa USA days. There have obviously been major changes since then, but the most significant change since my more recent 2005 visit has been the addition of Superman Ultimate Flight. There have even been changes since this 2013 visit, with the park adding Tsunami Soaker in 2014. Discovery Kingdom is a pretty atypical Six Flags park. Yes, the expected Six Flags collection of roller coasters, flat rides, water rides, etc. is featured in the Sky area. However, the Land area (a zoo) and the Sea area (a marine life park) are more unique and unexpected. Designating certain areas of the park as Sky, Land, and Sea is actually a bit misleading, as each section is not isolated from the others; instead, all three are somewhat spread out throughout the park. This integration is what makes Six Flags Discovery Kingdom so enjoyable -- I think being an animal park in addition to a roller coaster park gives both the employees and the guests a different mindset, and the combination and variety of so much to do definitely make the park worth one's while. Welcome to Discovery Kingdom! One of the park's newest rides, Sky Screamer, greets guests at the entrance. I've been on very few of these star flyer swing rides, so at 150 feet this was an unintimidating introduction to the genre. Fun and enjoyable, but not at all scary. (I imagine the monster 400-foot tall versions are another story altogether...) The park's major new ride, though, is of course Superman Ultimate Flight. This is one crazy-looking, unique-looking coaster. As for the ride experience itself, the launches are fun, the spiraling vertical first hill is pretty intense, the "slow motion" inversion at the top is probably the best part, the twisting dive down into the non-inverting loop is awesome, and all of the backwards stuff is fun too. All in all, it's a very good coaster, and definitely a great coaster for the park. I will say, however, that I do prefer Premier ride's So Cal coaster, Full Throttle, over this one. I actually think I also slightly prefer V2: Vertical Velocity to Superman. Of the Intamin impulse coasters, I've been on V2, Possessed (then Voodoo) at Dorney Park, and Wicked Twister at Cedar Point. This is my favorite of the three for two main reasons. First, the inclined 45-degree front tower produces a nice inversion effect, which I really like. Second, I much prefer the straight back tower (rather than the twisting back tower of Wicked Twister). My one concern about these Intamin impulse coasters -- the screechingly loud scraping and grinding that occur during the launches and braking make me hope the rides aren't tearing themselves apart. They seem to break down, stall, or launch at incorrectly slow speeds on a very regular basis (I witnessed this quite frequently both here and at Dorney Park). Surprisingly to me, my favorite coaster at Discovery Kingdom ended up being Medusa. While B&M floorless coasters have always been fun (and very highly praised back when they were a brand new coaster design), they seem to have become "a dime a dozen" these days, plus some (i.e. my local floorless coaster, Scream at SFMM) haven't aged well, so I guess I approached Medusa with a slightly jaded attitude. Fortunately I was very pleasantly surprised -- this ran great! While Medusa consists mostly of the typical floorless coaster elements, it's fast and intense while still being incredibly smooth. Very re-rideable, which is a lot more than I can say for Scream. Why has this one aged so much better? Whatever the reason, I'm glad -- awesome ride! Speaking of smooth, re-rideable, and aging well, Roar is none of those things. I still like Roar (I don't mind a little brutality from a wooden coaster), but it is pretty much an only-once-per-visit ride. It is interesting to compare an older GCI coaster (i.e. Roar) to a newer one (i.e. nearby Gold Striker). Up next is Kong, another ride with a less-than-stellar reputation (which I suppose can be said for almost all of Vekoma's suspended looping coasters). I know I'm in the minority here, but I've never actually minded these. I love the way they look, plus, while I certainly wouldn't call them at all smooth, I've never experienced the excessive roughness that everyone else must. Kong in particular seemed even more "well behaved" than some of the other SLCs, so call me crazy, but I kind of liked it! It consistently had the shortest wait of any coaster at the park, so I rode several times throughout the day. Then there's Boomerang, the other done-to-death Vekoma standard. While I can speak more or less positively about the suspended looping coasters, boomerangs...not so much. I'll of course still ride them, since that's what we coaster folks do, but give me an SLC over a boomerang any day. (Actually, combine the boomerang and SLC, make it 100 times more awesome, and give me a Vekoma giant inverted boomerang instead!) That's it for the park's adult coasters, but there are two junior coasters still to go. Cobra is more of a family coaster, appropriate for adults as well as kids. It's one of those Zierer rides with trains that go on forever. For what it is, it's pretty good. Last on the coaster roster is Roadrunner Express, a Zamperla kiddie coaster. I didn't ride this one, but I did ride all of the others, thereby scoring seven of Discovery Kingdom's eight coaster credits! Alright, let's move on to the flat rides -- Hammerhead Shark is up first. This is a type of looping ride that I don't come across too often, so it's nice having one here. Love the hammerhead theming. Voodoo is the park's other looping ride, a type of flat ride that's a favorite of mine. Getting ready to be flung forward... Getting flung forward! Tazmanian Devil is a first-generation frisbee-style pendulum ride. Not as extreme as some of the newer frisbee rides, but admittedly still pretty fun. Thrilla Gorilla is a simple spinning ride made unique by its interesting theme. Discovery Kingdom has several other flat rides as well, including a scrambler, a swinging ship, a teacup-type ride, chairswings, and bumper cars. As for water rides, the park has two -- Monsoon Falls is the boat flume. I've been on so many of these and it's been over a year since I did this one that I'm honestly only vaguely recalling it. If I remember correctly, it was refreshingly pleasant without being overly soaking. Don't hold me to that though, as I could be mixing it up with a different boat flume. It certainly looks kind of soaking here! There's also the river raft ride White Water Safari. This is another one that probably won't soak you -- unless you happen to be in the seat that gets dunked by this waterfall! I managed to avoid it, but those who didn't got blatantly drenched! That concludes the ride portion of the park. All in all, a nice selection of coasters, flats, and water rides. We're definitely not done with Discovery Kingdom yet though. Time to move on to... ...the marine life section of the park. Let's begin with the dolphin show. Called Drench!, this is probably exactly what you'd expect from a dolphin show, but that's not a bad thing. There are plenty of impressive dolphin behaviors on display, plus lots of interaction between the dolphins and their trainers. Performed in the large Toyota Stadium, my understanding is that this used to be Shouka Stadium back when the park had its killer whale. The previous dolphin stadium, Dolphin Harbor, is now being used for the new Cirque Dreams Splashtastic show. I unfortunately missed that one during this visit, but I imagine it's somewhat along the lines of SeaWorld's Blue Horizons. For even more dolphins, there's Dolphin Encounter, an open pool for dolphins to swim and play and (if you're lucky) interact with guests. Sea Lion Stadium is home to the Pinnipeds of the Caribbean show. Sea lion acrobatics. Corny but entertaining -- I wonder what unwritten rule requires that all sea lion shows be themed to pirates. Sea lions can also be found (and fed) at Seal Cove. Basking in the sun, soliciting for some fish, or posing for a photo? You decide. Logically, there are seals at Seal Cove in addition to sea lions. And they sure are cute. One more group of pinnipeds to go at Jocko's Walrus Experience. (I'm not exactly sure which one is Jocko, but I'm guessing it's this one.) A very informal show, this is more of a presentation during the walruses' training session. Some great views to be had during the presentation -- I highly recommend checking out the Walrus Experience exhibit while the training session is going on. Penguin Passage is home to African penguins, which are well adapted to warmer climates and are therefore featured in an open, outdoor habitat. At Stingray Bay you can pet the rays as they swim by. And when the rays stop swimming for a moment, there are some good photo ops too. The Shark Experience aquarium includes an underwater walk-through tunnel followed by a viewing gallery with floor-to-ceiling windows. Pretty typical for a shark exhibit, though this was apparently one of the original aquariums to introduce these popular features. The sharks bring the Sea portion of the park to a close. Switching gears, we move next to... ...the Land portion of the park. Elephant Encounter is home to the elephant demonstration show, which certainly does demonstrate some impressive elephant behaviors. Would you like a few examples? Example 1. Example 2. Example 3. Example 4. It should be noted that these behaviors are not simply "tricks" for the audience's entertainment value. All involve physical or mental exercises for the elephants, plus many teach them how to behave during medical check-ups. Following the demonstration, park guests can interact with the elephants a bit. In addition to Elephant Encounter, there's also Giraffe Encounter. This one involves guest interaction too, as giraffe feedings take place at selected times throughout the day. It costs a few bucks extra, but it's kind of hard to pass up the opportunity. (It's also kind of hard to feed a giraffe with one hand and take a picture with the other!) Odin's Temple of the Tiger is the park's tiger demonstration show. Odin must be part tiger and part overgrown kitty cat. You can view even more tigers immediately outside of the show stadium. The park has not only tigers but lions too, within Lion's Lair. And if you're looking for even more felines, there's Cougar Rocks. Birds of the World is the show presented at Bird Theater, which features an owl... ...a vulture... ...and of course a bald eagle. This is no longer the bird show, but the Wildlife Experience show at the Wildlife Theater. It features birds and mammals, plus a few other types of animals. (I should add that this lady really made her way around the park. I saw her hosting the wildlife show, the bird show, the tiger show, the sea lion show, and the dolphin show!) You've probably never seen bats do much more than hang there like this, but this critter actually demonstrated a unique behavior -- it crawled along the underside of the rope that's spanning the picture. A serval. Very quick and agile. In addition to all of the shows and demonstrations, it's not uncommon to have animals wandering the park with their keepers. Here's your chance to pet a porcupine... ...and a snake. There are lots of reptiles throughout Discovery Kingdom. Another reptile. And another. Alligator Isle is a decent sized habitat that seems to be quite popular with park guests. It's like being back in the Everglades. The gators were relatively active (as far as gator activity goes) while I was there, which allowed for a couple nice pictures. Is this one smiling for the camera? One last animal exhibit -- Butterfly Habitat. There are lots of butterflies to be seen here, many fluttering through the air and many sipping nectar while perched atop a flower. I always enjoy walking through butterfly greenhouses, and this is a great example. A final parting shot of the park. While Discovery Kingdom may not have the *most* spectacular collection of Six Flags coasters, 1) you might not know it by this impressive skyline, and 2) with everything else it does have it's still a pretty darn good Six Flags park. After Discovery Kingdom, I made a non-theme park stop, spending a couple hours at the Golden Gate Bridge. I didn't just drive across, but walked across too. The bridge spans 4200 feet, so round trip it offers a nice mile-and-a-half walk. The view from the opposite side. The highest point at the center of the bridge is approximately 220 feet above the water below. That concludes the first half of my August 2013 trip. I did pay a quick visit to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, but this was the summer that Undertow's opening was delayed, so I didn't spend much time there. I'll return to the Boardwalk at some point in the future for a complete visit (with pictures) now that Undertow has opened. In the meantime, the second half (the longer half) of my August 2013 trip is coming up next...
  21. The next stop in Northern California was California's Great America. This is another park that I'd been to once before, in 2006 (during its final year as Paramount's Great America, though if I'm remembering correctly it had already been purchased by Cedar Fair at that point). The major change between that visit and this 2013 visit was of course the addition of Gold Striker, which opened earlier in the summer of 2013 and was a major reason for the Northern California trip in the first place. The park also lost a coaster between visits, Invertigo, but losing a Vekoma boomerang while gaining a GCI woodie is a trade-off I can certainly accept. This park doesn't seem to have the greatest reputation, but I actually enjoy it quite a bit. It's large with plenty to do and appears to be clean and well maintained (in other words, a typical Cedar Fair park). The two standout coasters are Gold Striker and Flight Deck, and while the rest of the coaster lineup isn't particularly stellar, it's not bad. Where the park really excels is in the flat ride department -- with about a dozen non-coaster thrill rides (a few of which are somewhat unique), it really is an excellent collection. To round things out, Great America has three water rides. To me, that adds up to a fun time at an enjoyable park. The classic view that greets visitors upon entering the park. What should be our first ride of the day? The Star Tower, of course! Actually, maybe we'll start with Gold Striker... It kind of goes without saying that Gold Striker easily blows every other coaster in the park out of the water. I'm so happy for park regulars that Great America finally got their long-awaited new coaster, and that it's of such high caliber. In typical GCI fashion, Gold Striker is all about relentless speed and crazy turns. While there are plenty of hills and dips throughout the ride, providing ample amounts of negative and positive g's, it's the lateral g's that really dominate this coaster. And what's really impressive is that, even with everything that goes on during the ride, there's not a single rough spot anywhere. Perfectly smooth. Here's another view that I'm sure will become very famous at the park. While the Star Tower serves as a great vantage point for observing all of Great America and the surrounding area, Gold Striker's placement wrapped around it makes both rides all the better. Flight Deck has a pretty quick duration and only three inversions, but don't be fooled by the stats. It still packs a punch, easily holding its own against all of the newer and bigger B&M inverts. For twenty years prior to the addition of Gold Striker, the park's top coaster was Flight Deck, an early B&M invert. The final corkscrew and spiral over the swamp are great. Gold Striker may be the new king of Great America coasters, but I don't think that diminishes Flight Deck's awesomeness one bit. As for Vortex, the park's other B&M coaster -- well, its awesomeness has somewhat diminished. Being another early B&M creation, this one a stand-up model, Vortex has certainly not aged anywhere near as well as Flight Deck has. It also hasn't aged as well as its Vortex counterpart at Carowinds. How so, you ask? This Vortex has become an EXTREME headbanger. It's still kind of cool and fun and all, but while I could ride Gold Striker and Flight Deck over and over, Vortex is a one-ride-per-visit-only type of coaster. Speaking of headbangers, up next is Demon. You know, back during my first Great America visit, this was the surprise hit of the day. There are still several things to love here -- the steep lift hill; the weird straightaway following the two vertical loops that's somehow disorienting, probably because a straightaway isn't what's expected at that point; and of course the dive through the deceptively tiny rock cave monster mouth leading into the corkscrews. I just wish it all wasn't such torture on your head. The Barney Oldfield Speedway travels by Demon's corkscrews and most of Grizzly. It's a relaxing ride to let your head recuperate, and while it doesn't have tons of theming or a very far-removed feel from the rest of the park, it does provide nice views of the two coasters. Since we're near Grizzly, let's give it a ride. I know I'm in the minority here, but I just don't understand where all the hatred towards this coaster comes from. It seems to have a reputation for being both boring and rough. I wouldn't use the word boring; tame seems to be a more appropriate description. And rough? Tame and rough don't really go together, and I could name at least a dozen (probably a lot more) wooden coasters that I've ridden that are rougher than Grizzly. Go ahead and say what you want, but I think I'd end up ranking Grizzly as the #3 coaster at Great America. The park's final adult coaster is Psycho Mouse. Being so familiar with Mack wild mouse coasters, it was fun riding an Arrow model. (I'd previously been on the Arrow mouse at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion.) A view of Psycho Mouse from Eagle's Flight (or Delta Flyer, I suppose, depending on which direction I was traveling!). Woodstock Express is located in Planet Snoopy, one of CGA's two children's areas. The ride is kind of a unique old-school Intamin kiddie coaster, and while I would definitely classify it a notch above kiddie coaster status (more of a junior or family coaster), the trains were definitely NOT very accommodating to adults. I therefore felt pretty silly squeezing into the seat, but the coaster whore / nerd in me just couldn't pass this one by. I don't think Woodstock Express is on many guests' radars, as it's quite hidden away in a back corner of the park (I almost forgot about it myself). The fact that you should therefore be able to hop right on and off is a definite plus. The eighth and final coaster is Taxi Jam, located in the KidZville area. Being an honest-to-goodness kiddie coaster, I didn't ride this one. However, I was impressed by the amount of rides the park has for kids, spread out between the two areas. Also, even though I didn't ride Taxi Jam, I still got Great America's seven other coaster credits, so it was a productive visit. Time to check out all the non-coaster rides the park has to offer. Drop Tower is pretty tall, but I've found with these Intamin towers that the height of the ride almost doesn't matter. The drop is so forceful and keeps you out of your seat the entire way down, so they're great fun regardless of size. Extremely re-rideable. Firefall is another one that I enjoy riding over and over; lots of good upside down looping and hanging, plus I seem to remember this one having a fast right-side-up fling over the top that was kind of different and lots of fun. Plus hooray for fire and water! Delirium is a very good example of a pendulum flat ride. Tiki Twirl is the park's Disk'O, made unique by its extended track with a hump in the middle. Yep, spinning and facing every possible direction while traversing that hump (as well as the two end spikes) really make this ride pure joy and entertainment. Lots of park guests must agree with me, as Tiki Twirl consistently had the longest line of any ride all day. More fire! Time for the there-used-to-be-one-of-these-at-Six-Flags-Magic-Mountain-back-in-the-day portion of the trip report. HMB Endeavor is a type of ride that I think I'm getting too old for. I used to love them and I still want to, but they put so much pressure on my head that I'm almost a little afraid to keep riding them (that doesn't mean I won't keep riding them...). Thumbs up for Orbit. These are awesome. And the final this-used-to-be-at-Magic-Mountain ride -- Berserker. It's very rare to find a bayern kurve anymore, so it's so nice still having one at Great America. As for Centrifuge, I'm not even sure what the name for this type of flat ride is. This may be the only one I've ever seen. Celebration Swings is a nice chairswing ride, located right on the main midway. Before the addition of Dragon Flyers at Castle Park and Surfside Gliders at Knott's, Flying Eagles were the only flyers in California. They're still the only ones in Northern California. Some decent snapping and swinging action can be had on Flying Eagles. The park's Action Theater had recently replaced Spongebob Squarepants with Happy Feet. While I was glad to try something new... Well, um, if you don't have anything nice to say... Best to move on. As for Great America's water rides, Whitewater Falls is a standard boat flume. Up, around, and down, but at least it's clean and refreshing and does its job well. Loggers Run is quite good, weaving in and around the Boomerang Bay waterpark, both above it and at ground level. The final drop is really fun. While I normally think I prefer a single, long, uninterrupted drop, the double dip on this one actually provides a nice lifting-out-of-your-seat sensation, making it very enjoyable. I regrettably missed the third water ride, Rip Roaring Rapids. Oh well, something to look forward to for next time. In its place, here's a parting shot of the red, white, and blue skyride at California's Great America, a park that's definitely worth a visit (or two (or more)).
  22. Like August 2012, I had essentially all of August 2013 free, so I decided to take advantage of that and do another non-So Cal theme park trip. Also like August 2012, this August 2013 trip was divided into two parts. The first part actually didn't take me out of California, but it did take me out of Southern California. That's right, Northern California was the destination for the first half of my 2013 vacation. This half was a relatively quick trip (about five days), but I still hit all of the Northern California parks you'd expect, beginning with Gilroy Gardens. I'd been to Gilroy Gardens once previously (during the summer of 2006, its final year as Bonfante Gardens), and the park has remained very much the same since then. This is certainly a unique place; while there are lots of parks in the world themed to animals, this is one of the very few parks I can think of that's themed to plants. It's also quite atypical in being an extremely relaxed and slow-paced park, geared more towards families with small children (as well as towards the older, retired demographic). Only a few attractions (the two boat rides, the car ride, and the ferris wheel) seem to get crowded or form significant lines. For the coasters, flat rides, monorail, and train, you may have to wait one ride cycle, but that's about it. That makes a visit to Gilroy Gardens pretty enjoyable, and while I wouldn't find it necessary to make the trip every year, a visit once every several years (when in the area) could certainly be justified. Time to begin August 2013! Gilroy Gardens is famous for its many circus trees, which have been shaped by grafting multiple trees together and bending their trunks and branches as they grow. The Arch tree is not at the park entrance, but near it, and certainly makes for an appropriate welcome. The park has two coasters, Quicksilver Express being the "big" one. A mine train coaster manufactured by Morgan, Quicksilver Express is obviously not an extreme coaster by enthusiast standards, but for a family-oriented theme park like Gilroy Gardens it does provide quite the thrill. The ride has a nice variety of elements, a great setting, and some pretty decent theming. A perfect fit for the park. The second roller coaster is Timber Twister, a medium-sized Zierer family coaster. It looks and feels a lot like a smaller, more compact version of Jaguar at Knott's. POV of Timber Twister snaking through the woods. The Sideway Rope Rectangle tree. The flat rides have some fun theming, such as the Banana Split swinging ship. The perfectly themed Mushroom Swing. Instead of teacups, Gilroy Gardens has Garlic Twirl. (Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world after all.) Balloon Flight is curiously not themed to anything botanical. Just balloons. The Illions Supreme Carousel, a prized attraction at the park. Panoramic Wheel is one of Gilroy Garden's slow loaders, but it's worth a bit of a wait as it does live up to its name... ...by providing a great panoramic view of the park and surrounding area -- you'll really gain an appreciation for just how vegetated Gilroy Gardens actually is. Notice the Mushroom Swing in the center. (I'm not certain what the clearing is at the top right, but I'm pretty sure it's beyond park property. There's therefore no need to get excited over the possibility of a megalite or aquatrax!) Zig-Zag tree. South County Backroads is a track-guided car ride where you can choose between driving a 1950's auto... ...or one from the 1920's. Either way, it's a lengthy and enjoyable ride with plenty of trees and other plant life to look at. Next up are the Rainbow Garden Boats. This is a pretty unique attraction for the U.S.; it seems much more reminiscent of something you'd find at a European park. Floating gently through the gardens, the ride is peaceful, relaxing, and scenic, so it's no surprise it's one of the park's most popular. Rainbow Garden Boat Ride POV! The final stretch of the ride, heading back to the station through this slightly swampier area, has tons of live frogs to see and hear (at least it did in the summer). The Paddle Boats let you choose between a swan, a duck, or a rubber ducky(!). On this one you can get up close to some of the park's extremely photogenic waterfalls. This ride is also one of the park's most popular, but don't expect it to be relaxing like the other boat ride or the car ride. You get a bit of a workout with all the pedaling, but that's what makes it fun. The lake is quite large and they let you stay out on it for a decent amount of time. The Four-Legged Giant. The Sky Trail Monorail passes right next to the Four-Legged Giant. The Sky Trail Monorail is exactly what it sounds like -- an elevated monorail ride that winds its way through one corner of the park. The Coyote & Redwood Railroad, alternatively, travels around the entire park perimeter. On the railroad you'll once again gain an appreciation for just how wooded the park and surrounding area are. A definite must for every Gilroy Gardens visit. Monarch Garden is enclosed in a greenhouse, making it the home to much more tropical plant species than you'll find elsewhere in the park. I think a lot of guests come in here expecting a free-flight butterfly exhibit, which this is not. There is a small section in the back that, depending on the time of year and therefore the life cycle stage, has live caterpillars, pupae, or adults on display, but the plants are definitely the stars of this attraction. Also, did you notice what travels overhead? Yep, the Sky Trail Monorail passes right through Monarch Garden. Great canopy-level views of the garden from the monorail. And in case the footpaths and monorail aren't enough to get your fill, there's yet a third way to view the exhibit... That's right, the Coyote & Redwood Railroad passes through as well. One way or another, Monarch Garden is pretty hard to miss during a trip to Gilroy Gardens! Oil Well tree. Up next is the park's walkthrough maze, called Pinnacles Rock Maze. A look from above (in case you want to cheat and map it out beforehand). Really, though, Pinnacles Rock Maze isn't incredibly large or challenging. You'll likely get through in less than five minutes. And that's at a casual stroll. If you want to make it a race against someone else, you'll probably be out in one minute. Still, it's a fun and appropriate attraction for Gilroy Gardens. Nearby is Bonfante Falls, one of the most photographed locations in the park. The path behind the waterfall is very popular (be prepared to get sprayed). The path that takes you behind the main falls emerges in front of a couple additional waterfalls. The Emblem tree. In addition to Monarch Garden and the gardens viewed from the car and boat rides, there are several outdoor gardens to simply walk through. It's all very peaceful and relaxing. Again, this isn't your typical "rush from one attraction to the next" type of park. It's much more a "stop and smell the roses" kind of place. Stop and smell. (I know they're not roses.) Another scenic spot. Finally, the park has several of these learning sheds sprinkled throughout. You may not think amusement park guests would be interested in learning, but that's the type of park this is. Education is a major objective, and these learning sheds actually have some pretty interesting stuff (that's of course coming from a biologist's perspective). One pertains to water, one to honeybees, one to dendrochronology (the study of tree ring growth), etc. To wrap up, here's one more circus tree, probably the most famous of them all and the centerpiece of the park -- the Basket tree. There are plenty of others that I haven't included, such as the Revolving Door tree and the Spiral Staircase tree. All very unique and impressive. That description sums up Gilroy Gardens pretty well. It may not seem all that impressive as a roller coaster theme park, but it's impressive to me because it's not, as that's what makes it unique. A worthwhile change of pace.
  23. Following the Everglades and Key West in southern Florida, it was back up to central Florida to complete my August 2012 vacation. However, I did not return to Walt Disney World or Orlando. I wanted to include a non-Disney park in this trip, but I opted against Universal (due to the Harry Potter construction) and SeaWorld (due to the Antarctica construction). I therefore headed to Busch Gardens in Tampa. This was my second visit to BGT, having previously visited during my winter 2002/2003 Florida trip. There was quite a bit new for me this time -- two major coasters (Cheetah Hunt and Sheikra) and two minor coasters (Sand Serpent and Air Grover), a new ice skating show (Iceploration), and several animal exhibits (Cheetah Run, Jungala, Walkabout Way, the Animal Care Center, and possibly others). Of course, one coaster (Python) had also been removed since the last time I was here, but that's definitely not a huge loss. While there is therefore arguably more to do at Busch Gardens Tampa than at Busch Gardens Williamsburg (probably a few more thrill rides, especially once Falcon's Fury opens, and definitely more animal attractions), I still think I prefer BGW by a small margin. There's just something about the European setting and ambience of BGW that the BGT African theming slightly lacks. Having said that, Busch Gardens Tampa is still excellent, I enjoyed it very much, and I highly look forward to returning. If you want to guarantee a drenching, you can always ride up front on Tanganyika Tidal Wave. Riding in the front, I got absolutely flooded at the bottom of the drop. This is kind of an interesting boat flume. Rather than going up, around, and down, the ride has a lengthy (but unfortunately kind of boring) segment before the boat even goes up. Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I think I've heard that this beginning portion is a leftover from BGT's former African Queen ride. If that's the case, the historical significance makes it more worthwhile. It seems that some riders get soaked while others remain more or less dry, so your experience on Congo River will depend mostly on luck. (I suppose that's true for almost all rapids rides.) Congo River Rapids is a decent whitewater raft ride. The park has three water rides. Stanley Falls is another one that I'm not remembering all that well, so it must have been a pretty standard log flume. However, even though the final drop isn't spectacularly huge, the surrounding vegetation sure makes it look nice. To finish up the coasters there's Air Grover. I felt a little silly riding without a child, but hey, I'd already ridden its counterpart at Busch Gardens Williamsburg (Grover's Alpine Express), so I went ahead. That gave me all eight Busch Gardens Tampa coaster credits (as long as Gwazi is only counted as a single credit!). You know, I don't remember the coaster delivering a bad ride during this visit. The weird thing is, I honestly don't remember much about the experience at all. Maybe it's because only one side was running, so I didn't get the dueling effect. Maybe it's because I only rode once and the ride was a walk-on, so the entire time I spent with Gwazi was less than ten minutes. Maybe it's because this was one of the last of many coasters I rode throughout my August trip, so it sort of got lost in the shuffle. Whatever the reason, I just don't remember what I thought of Gwazi. (I actually don't even remember which side I rode -- this picture suggests Tiger, though I know that side has been closed since the end of summer 2012. Being August 2012, I suppose I was able to sneak in a final ride on Tiger.) Hmmm, then we get to Gwazi. Here we are at Busch Gardens Tampa. What shall we do first? The park's newest coaster, Cheetah Hunt, seems like a good place to start. An Intamin triple-launching coaster, this is a pretty unique ride. The first launch out of the station isn't super fast, and it propels the train through this turnaround at a relatively slow speed. However, the train then dives into a trench (which parallels the Cheetah Run exhibit, by the way, so the cheetahs and coaster could potentially "race"), where a second launch blasts the train up the ride's signature tower. There's actually a nice pop of airtime coming off of the hill entering the top of the tower... ...and then more great airtime diving down the drop that exits the tower. The cheetah leaps over the skyride next. That's followed by the coaster's solo inversion, which is so smooth and comfortable you can hardly tell it is an inversion! A thread started recently questioning which coaster would be best for someone's first inversion, and I honestly think Cheetah Hunt is the answer. The heartline roll flows so fluidly and naturally with the rest of the course that it I can't imagine it could be at all jarring to anyone. Following the midcourse brakes, the coaster zigzags low to the ground through the remnants of Rhino Rally's former water portion. The final launch carries the train over this awesome airtime hill and ultimately back to the station. All in all, I rank Cheetah Hunt as pretty darn excellent. It's certainly thrilling for coaster enthusiasts, but also perfectly appropriate for everyone else (meeting the 48" height requirement of course). If you were to cross Maverick at Cedar Point with Manta at SeaWorld San Diego, you'd probably end up with a coaster very similar to Cheetah Hunt. And that's quite a pedigree! Adjacent to the Cheetah Hunt coaster is the Cheetah Run exhibit. At Cheetah Run you can watch cheetahs run -- how appropriately named (more so than the coaster, but I won't reopen that can of worms). It's definitely impressive. The cheetah run demonstrations occur at scheduled times throughout the day. At other times, the cheetahs are still on display in the habitat, and there are opportunities to get up close and personal with them. The entire exhibit is well designed and presented, and a nice complement to the coaster. The next new coaster at BGT for me was Sheikra. Though this was the first of the U.S.'s two B&M dive coasters, I'd ridden the second one (Griffon at BGW) several times before finally getting to this one. Being therefore very familiar with Griffon, I was eager to try Sheikra to compare. While there are differences in their layouts, the differences are minor, and the two coasters are very similar. Because Griffon is located at one of my favorite parks and I've been on it more frequently so I know it better, while I was only able to do one ride on Sheikra, I'd probably still end up giving the edge to Griffon. That's splitting hairs, though, since they're both excellent. The massive trains, the wide swooping turns, the splashdown, and of course the vertical drops are what these dive coasters are all about, and both Sheikra and Griffon deliver. Who knows -- with a few more rides on this one the pendulum could swing in its favor. Up next is Montu. Another B&M coaster, this one inverted. I'm so torn between Montu and Alpengeist -- which is better? While I once again have to give the theming and locale points to Alpengeist, I think I may like the layout and ride itself of Montu slightly more. But I'm not entirely sure. Who really cares though? They both rock. (I will say that I have decided I do prefer both Montu and Alpengeist to Afterburn at Carowinds, though that's still a close call. I'm very happy to have ridden three highly regarded B&M inverts during this August 2012 trip!) There's yet another B&M coaster at BGT -- Kumba. Signature Kumba shot. This is a standard sit-down looping coaster, which is curiously one of B&M's least common designs. It is, however, reminiscent of the company's floorless and stand-up coasters, especially this zero-g roll (my personal favorite element). With Kumba, Montu, and Sheikra, Busch Gardens Tampa definitely has an outstanding trio of B&M coasters. There's also an awesome classic compact looping Schwarzkopf coaster at the park (could I have squeezed any more adjectives into that description?). While possibly perceived as an older, minor coaster at Busch Gardens, don't judge a book by its cover. The curving first drop into the perfect vertical loop, followed by the tight turns and spirals, all without the need for OTSRs, exemplify what a classic Schwarzkopf is all about. I'm also impressed the 42" height requirement has never been unnecessarily raised over the years. Scorpion is, as far as I'm concerned, an integral part of BGT's coaster collection. I hope it continues to be so for many years to come. Nearby to Scorpion in the Timbuktu area of the park (the future Pantopia area of the park) is Sand Serpent. Although this was my first ride on Sand Serpent at BGT, I had been on the coaster previously when it existed at BGW as Wild Maus. If I'm remembering correctly (and I think I am), Wild Maus was actually my very first wild mouse coaster ever! Okay, up next is Rhino Rally. I remember when this first opened it was supposed to be Busch Garden's answer to Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom. While it never met those expectations even back then, in its current incarnation it most definitely doesn't. First of all, while I never thought the water portion of Rhino Rally lived up to its potential, it at least added something unique to the ride. Without it, the Rhino Rally experience is a very short one. Compounding this problem is the fact that, unlike Kilimanjaro Safaris, which occupies an entire outer section of Animal Kingdom, this one is confined to the middle of the park. It therefore doesn't have the time or space to really go anywhere, and passengers certainly don't feel like they've been on an off-the-beaten-path expedition. In addition, the drivers spend most of the time trying to be comedians, cracking corny jokes rather than giving actual information about the animals you're seeing. Also, the racing / rally theme really just doesn't work. To save Rhino Rally somewhat, at least a decent number of animals are represented, and many of them are not separated from the vehicles by any sort of barrier, so they can therefore get right up next to you. Though Rhino Rally isn't it, BGT does have a large expanse of land for animals to roam -- the Serengeti Plain. Unfortunately, much of it remains inaccessible to park guests. You do skirt one edge while on the skyride. The Serengeti Express Train encircles the entire Serengeti Plain, so it offers a better view of the area. Lots of animals to see. Even so, it still seems a lot of Serengeti Plain's interior remains "untapped" -- I wish there was a way for park guests to get a better look. I know the upcharge safari is an option, but why not expand Rhino Rally to be a free attraction that covers more of the territory? I also believe the old monorail provided better views than any current transportation ride, so it's too bad that was removed before I ever visited the park. A final way to get a look at the Serengeti Plain is along the Edge of Africa walking trails. While this is again limited to one edge of the habitat (hence Edge of Africa), being a self-guided exhibit rather than a transportation ride makes it feel like a much larger experience. In fact, I'd rank Edge of Africa as the park's best animal attraction. Feeding time for the giraffes. Scale down from the giraffes to find the meerkats. On guard. Edge of Africa has a large freshwater habitat featuring an abundance of native fish species. Look past the fish decoys, however, and you'll find the exhibit's principal inhabitant. Flee the exhibit if those ears start wiggling! And here's the star of Edge of Africa. In addition to lions, hippos, meerkats, and giraffes, you'll also encounter hyenas, flamingoes, vultures, and more. The entire attraction is elaborate, well presented, and very enjoyable. Another elaborate animal exhibit is Myombe Reserve, home to BGT's gorillas (and chimpanzees). Outside of Myombe Reserve is the alligator habitat, always quite popular due to its location near the park entrance. The elephant exhibit is next to Rhino Rally, and you can see the elephants both on and off the ride. In addition, there are a bunch of other animal encounters in this section of the park (Nairobi). Giant tortoise. River otters. Curiosity Caverns is the park's nocturnal house, featuring a collection of creepy-crawlies (snakes and spiders), plus bats. There's also this cute little critter, the cotton-top tamarin. Many of Busch Garden's animal ambassadors (the animals occasionally trotted throughout the park for impromptu meet-and-greets with guests) can be found at Jambo Junction when they're not out and about. It's mostly birds at Jambo Junction, but a few other animals are represented as well. A new addition to Busch Garden's lineup (in 2012 anyway) was the Animal Care Center, a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital. Guests can watch procedures ranging from standard check-ups to rare and complex surgeries. Most of the treatments take place early in the day, so if you go later on (as I did), there may not be much happening. However, it's still definitely worth a look. I've studied, researched, and taught biology my entire adult life, but I've never had any interest in pursuing any type of medical career. However, after spending some time in the Animal Care Center, I almost felt like applying to veterinary school! The clinical lab and diagnostic activities that go along with it are especially fascinating. In addition to all of the African-themed areas in the park, Busch Gardens Tampa represents a couple of other continents as well. Jungala is themed to an Asian jungle and temple, with tigers as the headliners. There are a couple unique ways to view the tiger habitat. This photo was taken from one of those little enclosed "bubbles" that pops up right into the middle of it. Orangutans are also prominently featured in Jungala. From Asia, let's head down to Australia. Walkabout Way is home to quite a large number of kangaroos and wallabies. Not only do you get to look at them... ...you also get to feed them. Lots of fun for the kids (including us big kids; it was admittedly fun for me too!). Walkabout Way houses some other residents as well, including this crazy three-legged, two-headed emu mutant. On the subject of birds, Lory Landing is located nearby to Walkabout Way. Lory Landing is of course one of those aviaries where you can feed nectar to lorikeets, but there are plenty of other birds to see in addition to lorikeets. I don't need no stinkin' nectar. You can find this anteater just outside Lory Landing. Okay, we've now taken care of all of the rides and animal attractions at Busch Gardens. To complete the visit, I attended a showing of the relatively new Iceploration ice skating show in the Moroccan Palace Theater. Definitely the park's largest and most ambitious show, it is quite impressive. (It sort of reminded me of Animal Kingdom's Finding Nemo, only on ice.) I liked the variety of locales where the show is set -- Amazon rainforest, African savanna, Arctic ice, and Great Barrier Reef. And to finish up, a shot of the very picturesque scenery that can be found throughout the park. With its rides, animal exhibits, and shows, Busch Gardens Tampa offers plenty to please everyone. With the upcoming addition of Falcon's Fury, it will become even better still. That concludes the second half of my August 2012 trip, so the 2012 trip reports are now (finally!) complete. As it's already early 2014, I've taken another vacation since this 2012 one wrapped up. My August 2013 trip reports therefore begin next...
  24. Because I regularly get accused (probably rightfully so) by non-enthusiast family and friends of spending too much of my vacation time at theme parks and missing out on what the rest of the country has to offer, I decided to appease said family and friends by including a non-theme park destination in my August 2012 Florida trip. From WDW, I headed south to Everglades National Park. As it turns out, I'm actually a huge national park aficionado, and have visited a great number over the years. However, I'd never been to the Everglades before (I'd never been to southern Florida at all, excluding maybe an airport layover in Miami), so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do so. I therefore hope you'll indulge a trip report that lacks even a single theme park or roller coaster. Having only one day to spend at the Everglades, I couldn't get to it all. I opted for the southern portion of the park, as it appeared to have the most tourist stops and a representative sampling of the Everglades' overall diversity. I ended up driving the main park road, stopping to walk each of the trails along the route. I finished by taking a guided boat tour through the park's Wilderness Waterway. Finally, already being this far south in the U.S., I allocated some time to make it as far south as possible -- yes, a quick visit to Key West was also included in this trip's itinerary. I'll go ahead and post my Key West photos along with my Everglades photos in this report. First stop along the main Everglades route is Anhinga Trail, probably the most photographed and familiar location in the entire national park. The reason this spot is so famous is because it typifies what the Everglades is all about -- low-growing vegetation inundated by water. It's really quite fascinating to see entire plants completely submerged underwater (look carefully, there IS a layer of water here). There's also plenty of plant life floating on the surface. I imagine some people might not consider this the most attractive national park in the country, though it actually is very serene, peaceful, and aesthetically pleasing. The Everglades' well-known boardwalks enable visitors to navigate the marsh. Being at the Everglades in August was definitely a memorable experience; as you can imagine, the weather was exceedingly hot and humid. However, summer is therefore the park's wettest season, and this made the timing worth it. I think I would have been disappointed to have visited in the cooler winter months but then not seen the wetlands that you so expect to find at Everglades National Park. On the other hand, summer is apparently the month with the least animal activity. That doesn't mean the animals were absent altogether, and the Anhinga Trail provides the best opportunity to observe the park's most famous animal residents -- alligators. I'll come back to them a bit later. Following Anhinga Trail is the Gumbo Limbo Trail, a jungle-like hammock (the term hammock comes up a lot in the Everglades, so here's its definition -- stands of trees that form an "island" within a different ecosystem type). The almost tropical rainforest feel of this trail, with its dense canopy and dark understory, starkly contrasts with the low-growing, open habitat of the previous stop. Some light does enter where an especially large tree emerges above the others. I should note that I practically got eaten alive by mosquitoes along the Gumbo Limbo Trail. I was so engrossed in the habitat that I foolishly wasn't paying much attention to the mosquitoes; I certainly wasn't fighting them off. I definitely regretted that afterwards! Up next is the Pinelands Trail. Many visitors probably don't expect to find pines at the Everglades, and this is the only main spot where they are encountered (most of the previous and upcoming trees have been and will be "hardwoods," as opposed to pines, which are "softwoods"). Even so, this is an expansive area of land (it's not a hammock), and it's reportedly the most diverse of all the Everglades' various habitats. Another interesting point is that there is virtually no topography here at all. National parks are so associated with massive mountains and deep valleys, but the majority of the Everglades ranges from zero to a whopping eight feet above sea level! Very pleasant, relaxing, and enjoyable. Another boardwalk serves as the next path, this one called the Pa-hay-okee Overlook. It's a short trail, only 1/4-mile long (the others are 1/2-mile long), but looking out from this stretch of the boardwalk affords a very classic Everglades view... ...the River of Grass. River of Grass is certainly an appropriate name. There's more than just grass, though; like pines, these cypresses are softwoods. All in all, an excellent vantage point of the Everglades is provided by the Pa-hay-okee Overlook. Moving on, we arrive at Mahogany Hammock. As you can see, it's an "island" of hardwood trees surrounded by water and grasses. A look at the trees from the outside, plus the last full sunlight you'll get for half a mile. Once inside, much of it is blocked from above. The boardwalk meanders through the darkened hammock interior... ...and the trees surround and cover the entire trail. Plant life growing on plant life growing on more plant life. Nearing the end. Emerging back into the sunlight. One of the coolest (not in terms of temperature, but rather the neatest) trails along the main Everglades route is West Lake Trail. West Lake contains brackish water (a mix of freshwater and saltwater), as it ultimately connects to Florida Bay. Growing along the banks of the lake is this extremely dense patch of mangrove trees. When I say extremely dense, I mean it! It's basically a tangled mass of mangroves. Yet somehow the boardwalk still manages to wind its way through. What's going on here? Murder in the Everglades?!? No, it's actually the tannins produced by the salt-tolerant, prop-rooted, brackish-water mangroves. Like I said, pretty cool. The final stop (the seventh, if you've been counting) is Eco Pond. This one isn't much of a trail; instead, it's a short path along one edge of the pond. Very scenic. We've now made it across the entire southern portion of the Everglades, from the eastern border to the (almost) western border. At this point, you can take a guided boat tour up the park's Wilderness Waterway. Wilderness Waterway is a 99-mile route that spans the entire western edge of the national park, from its northernmost point to Florida Bay in the south. It's reported to take six hours for a one-way trip in a motorized boat, and seven days by canoe! This particular boat tour lasted about an hour, only going up and back a relatively short distance. Because it's brackish water again, mangrove trees can be found lining the waterway. Lots of mangrove trees! There are other plants to be found as well. This one is called manchineel, and it's one of the most poisonous plants in the world. It will apparently burn your skin off if you touch it and melt your esophagus if you eat it. As ferocious as manchineel may be, it's the mangroves that really dominate. This is about the maximum width of the Wilderness Waterway for the majority of the tour's duration... ...until Whitewater Bay is reached! I need to add here that it was quite obvious the guide was bitter and fed up with his job, having to repeat the same spiel over and over to tourists who were paying very little attention anyway. There was also an extremely ugly incident involving the tour being overbooked, which the guide could not have handled less professionally, but I won't get in to all that. Also, because the boat is operated by an independent company (not the national park itself), the trip costs a decent amount extra to do. Therefore, although it was pretty good, I'm not entirely sure I'd recommend it. Okay, I promised there'd be animals. This gull dutifully greeted us at the beginning and welcomed us back at the end of the Wilderness Waterway cruise. A lizard trying to get some sun along the West Lake Trail. Another (very vibrant) lizard (an anole, I believe). This one was hanging out on the screen door of the restrooms outside the visitor center at the park entrance. I guess it had to go. A neat-looking snail in the Mahogany Hammock. How nice -- one grasshopper is giving the other a piggyback ride. This photo was taken along the Anhinga Trail, which is also home to other well-known Everglades inhabitants... ...alligators! No trip would be complete without seeing at least a few. This little one was trying to remain inconspicuous in the Wilderness Waterway, but it couldn't hide from my camera's eagle eyes. Now that we've seen plenty of Everglades plants and animals, let's turn our attention instead to everyone's favorite organisms... ...fungi! There were tons to be found decomposing the remains of trees in the Mahogany Hammock. Time to say goodbye to the Everglades and head south for the Florida Keys, with Key West the final destination. To get there you must of course travel the famous Seven Mile Bridge. I paid a visit to the Key West Aquarium, which has a decent-sized outdoor shark exhibit that connects to the ocean. Feeding demonstrations are a highlight. Inside, there are two central pools containing rays and sea turtles, surrounded by a bunch of typical aquarium tanks. Stonefish. Bonnetheads. Lobster. Eel. An entire room (and a pretty large one at that) is devoted to the mangrove forest, which is by far the most impressive exhibit at the facility. Be sure to take part in one of the aquarium's feeding tours; they're free with admission and reasonably lengthy. You'll be guided through the entire aquarium, stopping to feed the sharks, rays, turtles, and all of the mangrove forest denizens. It's impressive how much free food guests are given to feed the fish here; at SeaWorld or most other places you'd pay a small fortune for a fraction of the amount. I'm sometimes leery of smaller-scale aquariums such as this, but the Key West Aquarium totally won me over -- I left feeling entirely confident that the knowledgeable and dedicated staff are more than capable of caring for these animals. I finished with a stop at the concrete buoy marking the southernmost point of the continental United States -- just 90 miles to Cuba! Key West Florida, home of the sunset indeed.
  25. The final Walt Disney World stop on my August 2012 trip was Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf. I had been to this mini golf course once previously (during my 1998/1999 visit to WDW), but I only played the Gardens Course, which is the one that's actually themed to the Fantasia movie. I'm honestly not even sure I was aware of the existence of the other course back then, but I certainly was going into this trip and was eager to give it a try. The Fairways Course is the second 18-hole course at Fantasia Gardens, but it's not themed to Fantasia. It's designed as a small-scale version of an actual golf course, so it's much more challenging than your typical mini golf (my understanding is that it's been voted most challenging miniature golf in the world!). It definitely wasn't easy, but it sure was lots of fun, and it looked great. For that matter, both courses were exceptionally themed and well maintained, so I can without reservation give a high recommendation to Fantasia Gardens. Welcome to Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf. We'll start with the Gardens Course. The classical music heard throughout the film is played throughout your 18-hole mini golf experience as well. Fantasia characters are prominently featured, including the dancing hippos... ...and their dancing partners, the alligators. One hole is themed to the sorcerer Yen Sid... ...and another to his apprentice. (It looks like Mickey's conjuring up a storm!) Par for the Gardens Course is 53, and I'm happy to report that I came in under par (if maybe not by much), finishing with a score of 50. Time now for the Fairways Course. This course features rolling terrain, sand traps, and other realistic hazards and obstacles. Doesn't it look fantastic? If you can avoid all of those sand traps you're a better golfer than I am. Par for the Fairways Course is 72, and I'm at least proud of myself for not shooting too high over par. I finished with a score of 75. Overall Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf is a nice respite from a typical fast-paced day at a Disney World theme park. Well worth checking out.
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