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Two years ago (January 2011), I began biosciking's So Cal Thread (which you can find here), highlighting the parks and attractions local to me in Southern California. This past summer (August 2012), I finally got some time to take a lengthy out-of-town theme park vacation. Since the trip reports from that vacation obviously don't belong in biosciking's So Cal Thread, I figured I'd start biosciking's Non-So Cal Thread, showcasing the places I visit beyond my neck of the woods.

 

My August 2012 trip was divided into two parts, both parts being on the east coast. The first stop during part 1 of the trip was Carowinds, a brand new park for me. While Carowinds has never seemed to achieve quite the fan following that several other Cedar Fair parks (Cedar Point, Kings Island, Kings Dominion, Knott's) have, it certainly felt very Cedar Fair -- a large park with lots of rides, including an impressive number of coasters. While most of the coasters would rank as decent (not bad but not stellar), Intimidator was a definite stand-out.

 

Overall I enjoyed Carowinds quite a bit and would gladly return. I'll continue to update biosciking's Non-So Cal Thread with the remaining trip reports from both parts of my summer 2012 vacation, as well as with any additional parks that I get a chance to visit from this point on.

 

August 2012

Carowinds - p. 1

Dollywood - p. 1

Ober Gatlinburg - p. 2

Busch Gardens Williamsburg - p. 2

Kings Dominion - p. 2

Disney's Hollywood Studios - p. 2

Disney's Animal Kingdom - p. 2

Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf - p. 2

Everglades National Park - p. 3

Busch Gardens Tampa - p. 3

 

August 2013

Gilroy Gardens - p. 3

California's Great America - p. 3

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom - p. 3

Epcot - p. 4

Winter Summerland Miniature Golf - p. 4

SeaWorld Orlando - p. 4

Silver Springs - p. 4

Fun Spot America - p. 5

Fun Spot USA - p. 5

Old Town - p. 5

 

August 2014

Lake Winnepesaukah - p. 5

Six Flags Over Georgia - p. 5

Georgia Aquarium - p. 5

Wild Adventures - p. 6

Magic Kingdom - p. 6

DisneyQuest - p. 6

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Here we are at Carowinds, my first time visiting this park. The Carolina Skytower is a nice way to overview the entire park; it reaches an appropriate height and rotates at an appropriate speed to observe everything. It also provides an informative recorded spiel about the history of Carowinds.

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Of course Carowinds is known for being the theme park that straddles two states.

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First things first -- a ride on Intimidator.

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Intimidator is the park's newest coaster, a B&M hyper.

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One of my favorite coaster elements (perhaps my very favorite coaster element) is the first drop on a hypercoaster. Intimidator lived up to my high expectations.

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The second hill.

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It goes without saying that hypercoasters are also incredibly popular for their airtime. I know newer B&M hypers (maybe all B&M hypers) have a reputation for being too mild in the airtime department. However, I do love the floating air they provide.

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Intimidator also features a couple moments with a bit of ejector air as well.

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I've been on a few other B&M hypers (Apollo's Chariot, Nitro, Goliath at SFOG), and I would rank Intimidator right up there with the rest of them. It's always been difficult for me to put together favorite coaster lists, but if I was to try to make one for B&M hypers, I'd probably come up with 1. Nitro, 2. Intimidator, 3. Apollo's Chariot, 4. Goliath. That's just a quick approximation, and really kind of misleading, as I thoroughly enjoy all four of them.

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The turnaround. Intimidator's cars feature staggered seating that's kind of funky but does make the ride feel more open and free.

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I just said I'm not very good at listing favorites, but I can definitively state that Intimidator was, for me and I'm sure many others, the best at Carowinds. The park has a lot of other fun coasters, but I think it would have been lacking a true headliner without this one.

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Prior to Intimidator's existence, I imagine the star of Carowinds was Afterburn, a B&M invert. It's still very good.

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Afterburn is a relatively short ride, but it does pack a punch. It's fast-paced and has powerful forces, plus it contains a great collection of aggressive elements.

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The theming is cool too.

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I've been on far more B&M inverts than I have B&M hypers, so I'm not even going to try to rank them. I do know that this one has a good reputation and is well regarded among the coaster community. One additional pro (plus one con) that I'll point out for Afterburn: Pro -- I love that there's no midcourse brake, but rather a little "airtime" hump instead; Con -- Right after this hump comes the final corkscrew, which for some reason is significantly more headbanging than most other inverted B&M corkscrews.

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Maybe not as highly regarded but actually very underrated in my opinion is Nighthawk, a Vekoma flying coaster.

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I've been on two of the three Vekoma flyers that exist (the other being Batwing at SFA), and on both rides I've been pleasantly surprised. Unlike a Vekoma boomerang or SLC, these flying coasters are not rough. The loop, while forceful, is also nowhere near as intense as a B&M flyer's pretzel loop. I therefore find Nighthawk (and Batwing) to be very comfortable and enjoyable.

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Very attractive too.

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While the high swooping turns and loops are great, I also enjoy the low-to-the ground interaction during the second half of the ride.

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Intimidator, Afterburn, and Nighthawk were my top 3 coasters at Carowinds. Intimidator and Afterburn certainly get plenty of press, but I think Nighthawk deserves its fair share as well. (I know this coaster, formerly Stealth at Great America, used to get a lot of attention for being the world's original flying coaster, but that attention has definitely waned lately.)

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On to the rest of the coasters. Vortex is next.

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I've been on most of B&M's standup coasters, and this one is pretty typical of the early variety. Relatively short and compact, with just two inversions -- a vertical loop and a corkscrew.

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Nothing really to write home about, but there was a definite plus worth mentioning. I actually found this coaster to be surprisingly smooth. I was expecting a total headbanger (much like I remember the Vortex at CGA to be), but that wasn't the case here at all.

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Carolina Cobra is the park's second newest coaster. Also nothing spectacular, though I give them credit for naming a Vekoma boomerang something other than Boomerang (or Zoomerang).

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I'll admit that I was somewhat eager to ride Carolina Cobra to try out the new boomerang restraints. However, though others may disagree, I actually didn't feel like they changed much about the ride at all.

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I've never really had an issue with headbanging against the standard restraints during a boomerang's cobra roll element. Instead, I tend to bump the back of my head against the headrest during the vertical loop (while traveling both forward and backward). The new restraints unfortunately couldn't do anything to remedy that.

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At least the coaster is photogenic.

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Also perhaps more pleasant to look at than to ride is Carolina Cyclone, a standard Arrow double-loop, double-corkscrew coaster.

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I'm probably not being entirely fair. I learned after riding that this was the world's first four-inversion coaster, so I am glad I got to ride a little piece of history. Plus the coaster finishes with a spiral through an excavated trench below ground level, and that was kind of cool.

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And I can't deny that I have always like the way Arrow loopers look.

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Another "Carolina" coaster, this time Carolina Goldrusher. It's neat that all Arrow mine trains have unique layouts that fit them to their specific park locations. This may not be the most thrilling coaster in the world, but I liked it. As an added bonus, it also contained several lengthy trench spirals.

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Ricochet is a Mack wild mouse.

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Pretty standard stuff, but these are always fun.

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Wood coaster time. Hurler (both this one and its twin at Kings Dominion) has to be one of the oddest wooden coasters I've ever come across. I guess it's technically an out-and-back layout, but after this first drop it's got more straightaways and turnarounds than ups and downs. It's also pretty jarring.

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Everyone sure seems to be enjoying it though!

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Thunder Road could have (and should have) been so much better than it was; I actually found this coaster to be brutally painful. It's almost hard for me to describe the sensation I had while riding. It seemed like the train lifted off the track a bit during each drop, and then crashed back onto the track at the bottom of the drop, only to then bounce its way up the next hill. This resulted in riders having their spines compressed repeatedly during the ride. I've never minded a little violence from a wooden coaster, but this was so different and unusual that I just wasn't prepared for it. Didn't Thunder Road recently complete a huge retracking job? If so, something certainly didn't go as planned. Haven't I heard that Rebel Yell at Kings Dominion may follow suit with a similar retracking job? Please cancel that, as Rebel Yell ran SO MUCH BETTER than Thunder Road. Then again, there was only one side of Thunder Road operating, so maybe I got the side that hasn't yet been retracked??? If that's the case, finish it quickly! In the meantime, I'll go ride a shopping cart down a staircase.

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Woodstock Express is the park's junior wooden coaster. Despite its small size and lower height requirement, it has a little more bite than you might expect.

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Flying Ace Aerial Chase is the park's junior suspended coaster. It may not seem like it after a couple of my above reviews, but I do try to find the positives in all roller coasters. However, I can honestly say that this one was truly awful. I really can't think of any redeeming qualities to it. It was so slow and boring and pointless, yet at the same time it was a complete headbanger. I kept wondering to myself during the ride how a coaster that didn't do anything could be so rough. Why am I banging my head against the OTSRs when we're barely even moving? Why are there OTSRs at all on such a lame ride? I don't think I've ever really heard anything good about these Vekoma junior suspended coasters, and after now riding one I'm unfortunately not able to come up with anything either. (It also took forever to load and dispatch.)

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Lucy's Crabbie Cabbie is the park's final coaster.

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I didn't have a child with me so I couldn't ride this one. Even so, I think I did pretty well getting 12 of Carowind's 13 coaster credits!

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Carowinds of course has more than just roller coasters. There are two water rides, the first being Rip Roarin' Rapids. I thought this one was quite good. It has a nice setting and offers a reasonably lengthy ride.

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There are some decent rapids throughout, but this is the spot that'll really soak you. It was fun watching different riders' reactions to the downpour. Some literally got out of their seats trying to avoid it.

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Others simply got naked and took a shower.

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Whitewater Falls is the other water ride.

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It's a typical boat flume -- lift, turnaround, drop.

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It may be typical, but it certainly serves its purpose. If you want to get wet on a hot day, this will do the job. Very refreshing.

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Boo Blasters on Boo Hill is a nice combination dark ride / interactive shooting ride.

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The Action Theater was showing the Spongebob film during my visit. These old-school motion simulator theaters aren't that terribly exciting anymore, plus it seems like you can find the Spongebob film everywhere. However, I do have to somewhat admire a ride that is entirely themed to chasing after a pickle.

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Drop Tower Scream Zone is the park's drop tower (had you figured that out?). It's a relatively small Intamin version, maybe 150 feet tall or so, but it's surpisingly effective. The tummy-tickling jolt when released and the speed on the way down are great. Because this had such a short wait, I rode it about ten times.

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Windseeker was the park's new-for-2012 ride.

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I'm not entirely sure I "get" Windseekers. I've been on the ride at Knott's that opened in 2011, and my thoughts on that one and this one are pretty much the same. I suppose they're mildly exciting because of their height, but otherwise these aren't exactly thrill rides. They're just sort of relaxing, which is fine if they're not meant to be thrill rides, but I think they are. I'm also not sure why Cedar Fair is so in love with them, after all the mechanical issues they've had. Since the 2011 installments all seemed to be complete lemons (riders stuck mid-ride, extended downtime, not able to operate when it's windy of all things), I would have thought Cedar Fair would be fed up. However, they then installed a bunch more in 2012, and they had the exact same problems.

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Southern Star is ride I was happy to find at the park, as there aren't many of these looping ships left. Back in the day I did have one local to me at SFMM (called Z-Force), but it was removed when I was pretty young. I did get to ride Z-Force a couple times, and I've missed it since then, so this gave me a chance to re-live the memories.

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It's the same story with Scream Weaver; I'm always happy to find an enterprise flat ride since there aren't any in Southern California. Again, there used to be one at Magic Mountain (called Reactor), but it's long gone. (Incidentally, both Z-Force and Reactor were right next to each other, in the spot where Batman is located today.)

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Snoopy's GR8 SK8 is another flat ride that I very much enjoy. There used to be one of these at Knott's that I loved as a kid, but it was removed many years ago. There is still one local to me at Castle Park though.

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Last but not least is Woodstock Gliders. I had heard that these were a very good set of flyers, and they didn't disappoint.

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Not only can the Woodstock Gliders be snapped out to an impressive height and angle, but you are actually encouraged to do so (the ride attendants even announce the "winner" of each ride). I spent some time watching the ride before riding, and I'm happy to report that I finally mastered how to best fly these things; I did so well that I ended up the winner during each of my rides! A fun way to end a fun Carowinds visit.

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After the Carolinas and Carowinds, I headed to Tennessee and Dollywood. Dollywood is a park that I had visited once previously (in June of 2007), and I was certainly looking forward to returning. This second trip was notable for the addition of the entire Wilderness Pass area in the back section of the park. In 2007, the Timber Canyon and Craftsman's Valley areas were not connected, so the park dead-ended in both places. It was great to now have the park be one complete, continuous circuit. Even more important, the three attractions in Wilderness Pass -- River Battle, Adventure Mountain, and of course Wild Eagle -- were brand new to me. I found all three to be unique and excellent additions to the park.

 

A couple other noteworthy points about my August 2012 visit: First, by visiting in August, I got to experience Dollywood Nights, when the park stays open later than any other time during the year. Also, I happened to be at the park when the National Roller Coaster Museum exhibit was on display. These two perks made my trip to an already outstanding theme park even better.

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The butterflies mean we've arrived!

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Let's first check out the park's new-for-2012 coaster, Wild Eagle. (This is an incredible entrance sculpture, by the way.)

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Wild Eagle is of course a B&M wing coaster, the first in the U.S. and one of only four currently operating worldwide. It's the only one I've yet ridden.

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How was it? There seems to be some negativity toward this style of coaster, but I actually REALLY enjoyed it. I've heard people complain that it's forceless, but I found the whole thing to be extremely pleasant -- like soaring on the wings of an eagle. I've heard comments about the restraints constricting too tightly, but I honestly didn't notice that at all. The one thing I will say is that I did find one side to be rougher than the other. It's been several months now since my visit, so I may not be remembering entirely correctly (therefore don't hold me strictly to this; I may have it backwards), but for whatever reason the left side of the train seemed significantly rougher than the right. This was the case during all of my rides (about three on each side).

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Built along the hillside and among the trees, the coaster is pretty well hidden from the rest of the park, so it's not easy to see much of it. However, this setting is fantastic while riding.

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The few places where you can get up close to the coaster, though, show off just how awesome it looks. Overall I truly enjoyed Wild Eagle; a great new coaster style and certainly a great new coaster for Dollywood.

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Mystery Mine was the new coaster during my previous visit, and it seems to be just as popular now as it was then.

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The original Gerstlauer eurofighter in the U.S., Mystery Mine has theming that still makes it stand apart from the rest. While I've never really been able to follow the storyline here (with the ravens and canary), the haunted mine atmosphere works so well it doesn't even matter. Also, the vertical lift hills and stop-start nature of this kind of coaster lend themselves perfectly to an indoor themed ride.

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It's definitely not all indoors, though, with some pretty cool features outside as well. This "climbing the wall" curve is lots of fun, as is the drop that immediately preceeds it. Though not incredibly huge, that drop is so steep it's gut-wrenchingly awesome.

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The ride's finale, however, is unquestionably the best part. The vertical lift, followed by the explosion of fire, followed by the coaster's big drop, followed by the heartline roll, followed by this dive loop -- five awesome elements back-to-back in quick succession. Pretty hard to beat.

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I give Mystery Mine two big thumbs up! My only warning pertains to one of the first indoor turns toward the very beginning of the ride. It's a major headbanger, so brace yourself. Other than that, enjoy!

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Up next is Thunderhead, the park's fantastic GCI wooden coaster.

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This one opened in 2004, so it's nearing a decade in age, but it was still exceptionally smooth and comfortable.

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As I've found to be the case with many GCI coasters, Thunderhead really came alive after dark. While it was great fun during the day, I'm so glad I also got to ride during Dollywood Nights -- it absolutely TORE through the course. In the dark it was impossible to see what was coming up next, and not being overly familiar with the track layout, I didn't know what to expect next. It was therefore some of the most "controlled chaos" I've ever experienced; almost unequaled. Most excellent!

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Tennessee Tornado is Dollywood's Arrow megalooper. I think the consensus is that this is quite possibly the best of the genre, and I would agree. (Interestingly, if I'm not mistaken, it's also the last one Arrow built.) It's certainly smoother than pretty much any other Arrow looper in existence. This ginormous loop is particularly awesome, especially following the drop through the tunnel and the way it "twists" like a tornado.

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As with all of Dollywood's coasters, the Smoky Mountain setting adds immeasurably to the ride experience.

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Dollywood may only have four major coasters (Wild Eagle, Mystery Mine, Thunderhead, Tennessee Tornado), but even so the collection is surprisingly varied and highly satisfying.

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My intention is not to imply that Blazing Fury is not a good coaster as well, but I almost classify this one as more of a dark ride than a coaster. Whatever you want to call it, it's definitely unique and fun for the whole family. During my previous visit in 2007, there was a little splashdown pool at the bottom of the final drops. The pool was dry as a bone during this visit. Can anyone tell me if this is a permanent thing, or if I by chance happened to visit on a day when they had drained the pool? I think the splashdown was a nice touch, so it's a shame if it's no more.

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The park's final coaster is Sideshow Spin. I think I technically could have ridden this without a child, but I would have felt too silly to do so, so I didn't. I therefore got five out of Dollywood's six coaster credits, and I was happy with that!

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Time to move on to the park's water rides. Dollywood boasts an excellent selection, with an impressive four different offerings. Smoky Mountain River Rampage was a pretty good rapids ride, with a lengthy duration, some attractive scenery, and the potential to get very wet.

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Daredevil Falls looked incredible and this final drop was fun, but other than that (and I hate to say this) it was actually kind of a boring log flume ride. Am I alone thinking this?

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The coolest of Dollywood's water rides (in my opinion anyway) is Mountain Slidewinder, a very unique flume / waterslide / toboggan combination. I've really never seen anything quite like this anywhere else.

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The ride sloshes through the trough, climbing up the sides and threatening to overturn the riders. This also causes quite a bit of water to fly. The finale is a straightaway drop, which is lots of fun, especially if two sleds happen to be racing each other towards the finish line.

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Also lots of fun is River Battle, the park's splash battle ride. This is actually only the second splash battle I've ridden so far, and I found it to be much better than the one at Legoland CA. There, the vehicles ride on a rail above the water, so it doesn't look very realistic at all. The way these vehicles float on the water made this one far superior. In fact, the theming throughout this ride is very well done.

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I also liked that riders face toward the side rather than forward or backward. It was still a bit challenging to shoot at other vehicles, as they had to be lined up just right, and they usually weren't. However, there were plenty of opportunities to shoot at onlookers (and have them shoot back).

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Plus there were lots of targets to shoot at, triggering different effects. It seemed like some didn't do much of anything, but others really responded -- I shot a target right out of the station, setting off a geyser that had me absolutely drenched from the very beginning.

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Nearby is Adventure Mountain, one of those elevated obstacle courses that are becoming quite popular these days. This was by far the largest and most elaborate version I've ever come across.

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Adventure Mountain really did provide a legitimate workout; by the time I was done I was pretty much a giant pool of sweat (this was August in Tennessee, don't forget). Some of the obstacles were quite tricky and even somewhat frightening; I give the small children I saw doing this a lot of credit.

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The theming throughout was truly exceptional. This cliff face element, plus the geyser seen in the previous pic, are just two of the many examples that showcase the extra touches that made this attraction so great. I also enjoyed that, once you were harnessed up, you were allowed to participate for as long as you liked. Now, I realize that Adventure Mountain will be no more beginning with Dollywood's 2013 season. That's very unfortunate, as this was unique, popular, fun for the whole family, and still very new. I hope Dollywood knows what it's doing. Maybe Adventure Mountain will be sent elsewhere, and hopefully something spectacular will replace it.

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Also new since my last visit was Barnstormer. Once again, great theming.

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I've been on a few S&S screamin' swings, and I especially enjoy these giant versions. They're thrilling yet sort of relaxing at the same time; definitely among my favorite flat rides.

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What are some of the other rides to be found at Dollywood? There's Dizzy Disk, which is fun but nothing incredibly exceptional.

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There's also Lumberjack Lifts, which is pretty cool. I've only ever seen this type of ride at Legoland, so it was neat to have one here. This is certainly not meant to be a thrilling drop tower ride, as it's designed for kids to hoist themselves up and then fall gently back down. However, I found it to be fun for adults too if you make it a race to the top!

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Imagination Cinema houses the park's motion theater simulator ride. I know the film changes semi-regularly depending on the occasion, but I believe Smoky Mountain Wilderness Adventure is the default. Last time I was at the park was during the annual Kids Fest, and they were curiously showing the Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera that used to exist at Universal Florida. At any rate, I know Imagination Cinema is also closing up shop for good and, unlike Adventure Mountain, I don't think this is any big loss. I'm glad I got to try the Wilderness Adventure and I think it's appropriate that Dolly Parton be part of a ride at Dollywood, but this wasn't all that great; I could tell it was made back when simulators were meant to be pure chaos and incoherence. It would have been much nicer had they made it a more Soarin' over California or Europe in the Air type of experience, being able to appreciate the Smoky Mountains rather than manically plowing through them. Oh well, just my thoughts...

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Rockin' Roadway is a very Autopia-like car ride. Certainly acceptable for what it is.

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Dollywood Express seems to be a very celebrated attraction at the park.

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I'm not a hardcore train aficionado, but I always do enjoy train rides at theme parks. I definitely liked this one too, though it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. From what I'd heard, I thought it traveled through some of the Smoky Mountains separate from the park. While riding, however, I never felt all that terribly removed from the park itself. (I'm not complaining, just making an observation.) Also be prepared to get covered in soot!

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Aside from rides, I know Dollywood is very famous for its shows. I wasn't too interested in seeing any, but I did watch the Wings of America bird show. (Had Sha-Kon-O-Hey still existed, I'm sure I would have watched that one too.)

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The star of Wings of America was of course the bald eagle.

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The bald eagles can also be observed in the nearby Eagle Mountain Sanctuary.

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As mentioned, the National Roller Coaster Museum was on exhibit during my visit to Dollywood. Time to finish up with a look inside.

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Lots of old-time photos on display.

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A tour of theme park history wouldn't be complete without Mr. Disney.

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There were several displays devoted to individual ride manufacturers. Arrow was probably the most interesting.

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There's no denying Arrow's importance in the development of the modern roller coaster.

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How many have you ridden?

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I figured some of you might enjoy this one.

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Another amusing blast from the past.

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I liked that dark rides were included as well.

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There was more than just posters in the museum. There were models too, such as this one of the Crystal Beach Cyclone.

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There were also various artifacts, such as cars from coaster trains. The old one belonged to Belmont Park's Giant Dipper in San Diego.

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A fitting end to my visit. Dollywood is an excellent theme park, and I very much look forward to returning yet again.

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Your photos are awesome! Great photo trip report. Glad you photographed some of the flats. I love looping ships as well and enterprises, so it was nice seeing those in there. The Dollywood photos were great, especially one of the Barnstormer ones - the one where the sun was setting.

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Great photos. As far as Blazing Fury goes, I think I remember reading they now have magnetic brakes where the splash pool was and the water apparently doesn't go well with the brakes so it's now a dry ride.

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Great update! I noticed the photo of GCI's projects is wrong. It lists the Roars in the wrong order, it says SFDK 1998 and SFA 1999. I also find it interesting it lists the old names for Evel Kinevel and Terminator even those was obviously made after they changed the names. I know, just nitpicking... but it is a museum after all, you expect it to be accurate.

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  • 3 weeks later...
I noticed the photo of GCI's projects is wrong. It lists the Roars in the wrong order, it says SFDK 1998 and SFA 1999.

Funny, I hadn't even noticed that.

 

I also find it interesting it lists the old names for Evel Kinevel and Terminator even those was obviously made after they changed the names.

I had noticed this though and wondered the same thing.

 

As far as Blazing Fury goes, I think I remember reading they now have magnetic brakes where the splash pool was and the water apparently doesn't go well with the brakes so it's now a dry ride.

That's too bad, but I guess it totally makes sense.

 

 

While in the Pigeon Forge / Gatlinburg / Sevierville area, I decided to pay a visit to Ober Gatlinburg. This was the second time I've visited this park, having stopped by previously during my 2007 trip to Tennessee. Much has remained the same, though there were a few noticeable differences. A new maze attraction has opened, and the miniature golf has been moved outdoors (it was formerly inside Ober Gatlinburg's mall). These must have replaced the go-kart and swinging ship rides, which I seem to recall being previously located in the same spots. Probably a wise move from the park's standpoint, as I'm sure a walk-through maze and mini golf are much easier to maintain. Also, what used to be exclusively the Black Bear Habitat has expanded and added more native Smoky Mountain animals, becoming the Wildlife Encounter.

 

Overall Ober Gatlinburg is a very nice family fun center-style park. Being high up in the mountains, it should be a satisfying destination for both those who enjoy theme parks and those who enjoy national parks. I've only ever visited during the summer, but I'm sure it would also be worth a stop in the fall (to see the forest in its autumn colors) and in the winter (for the snow activities).

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Ober Gatlinburg is of course famous for the aerial tramway you have to take to get to the park itself. (You could drive up instead, but that wouldn't be nearly as fun.)

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There are some outstanding views of the Smoky Mountains, as well as of the Gatlinburg area, on the way up.

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The ride itself, though gentle, relaxing, and comfortable (unless it happens to be exceptionally crowded), is also quite exciting. It reaches a very decent height above the ground when crossing the support towers, and it swings back and forth while doing so.

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We're now inside the park. Here's an overview of the two main attractions, the scenic chairlift and the alpine slide. The alpine slide begins where the blue chairlift ends (the blue chairlift only transports sleds, not passengers). You can get off at that point to ride the slide, or continue up the mountain to the scenic overlook.

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Time to begin our chairlift journey!

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The alpine slide crosses under the chairlift several times, so you can get a good feel for the track layout on the way up.

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Almost to the top of the alpine slide. Shall we exit the chairlift here?

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Let's first continue up the mountain to the scenic overlook.

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Yep, very scenic. This impressive elevation provides a great viewpoint for the Smoky Mountains.

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Ober Gatlinburg also features a live bluegrass band up here. One of the songs they cover, "I'm My Own Grandpa," cracks me up. Maybe you're familiar with it (I know it's been featured on some movies and TV shows). If not, YouTube it!

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Pretty cool views on the way down too.

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Okay, time for the alpine slide. This one isn't quite as long as certain others that I've ridden. Part of the reason is that it doesn't switchback as much as the others; instead, there are several more straightaway sections. This isn't a complaint, just a comment. I do have one complaint about the way Ober Gatlinburg runs its alpine slide though...

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The slide is very popular with children (riding alone or with a parent). This by itself is of course not a problem. However, the park really needs to assign one track as the "slow" track for children and the other track as the "fast" track for everyone else. I tried riding four times, and every single time I caught up to the riders in front of me, who were just poking along, almost instantly. I'm not a speed demon who was going aggressively fast; the riders in front of me (always children) truly were barely moving. Part of the problem is that the sleds are hardly spaced out in the first place; I was always instructed to begin when the previous rider had barely gone anywhere. One time I asked if I could wait a little longer, so as to not catch up with the sled in front of me so quickly, but I was denied. I know spacing out the sleds would hold up the line, but I was so frustrated that not once did I get a true ride on the alpine slide. Each time I tried I ended up just scooching along the track, stuck behind other sleds.

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Oh well, I'm sure it would have been fun otherwise.

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In addition to the alpine slide, the park features three water slides that are all good fun. Ober's Lightnin' Raft Ride and Shoot-the-Chute are located right next to each other (I'm actually not even sure which is which). This one, featuring back-to-back dips, actually produces some significant lift going over the second dip.

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This one is fun for simply featuring a single straight drop. It's great that the park operates these as "dry" water slides. You will get splashed, but not drenched, so you get to ride them in your street clothes.

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The same is true for Blue Cyclone Rapids, which is probably the more "aggressive" of the three water slides. While still suitable for everyone in the family, this one is longer, higher, darker, and wetter as you splash your way through the turns.

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The mini golf is a bit ghetto but still fun.

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Although it's definitely small, it is a lot nicer now that it's outdoors; it doesn't look anywhere near as crammed as it did back when it was inside a single enclosed room.

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At Amaze'n Maze, you not only have to find your wait out, but to each corner and to the center stairs as well. I actually really enjoyed this -- if you make it a competition against the rest of your group it's lots of fun.

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Since it hardly counts as a trip to the Smokies without seeing a black bear, Ober Gatlinburg makes sure you get the opportunity to do so in the Wildlife Encounter.

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The Wildlife Encounter also features a Nocturnal House, where the great horned owl is appropriately located.

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In contrast to the great horned owl, which is the largest owl species in the Smokies, this guy only weighs a few ounces.

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Racoons, skunks, opossums, snakes, and turtles also call the Nocturnal House home.

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In addition to the Black Bear Habitat and the Nocturnal House, you can also find river otters at the Wildlife Encounter.

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The otters were perhaps the highlight of the entire exhibit -- they actually interacted with guests a bit. Surely this was for no other reason than equating humans with feeding time, but it did give them playful personalities.

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Plus they are incredibly cute. Ober Gatlinburg's website states that additional native animals, including bobcats and foxes, will be added to the Wildlife Encounter in the future.

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Okay, that's it for Ober Gatlinburg. Time to take the aerial tramway back down the mountain.

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Before finishing this post I thought I'd include one more nature pic from outside the park, just to re-emphasize that in the Pigeon Forge / Gatlinburg / Sevierville area you really are completely surrounded by nature.

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And finally I'll throw in a picture of the Mysterious Mansion haunted house to emphasize the other thing that surrounds you in these Tennessee towns -- tourist trap attractions. There are honestly more attractions here than I could ever keep track of, ranging from quite elaborate to pure cheese-fests. I tried several of them back in 2007, and Mysterious Mansion was my favorite. It wasn't as good this time around, but at least it still looks awesome!

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^ I also noticed that about the alpine slide during our visit.

 

While I thought it was really cool that an 80 year old woman was doing the Alpine Slide, it was also kind of a bummer that everyone behind her had to ride the brake at a snail's pace almost the entire way down the hill (including myself).

 

They have two lanes so one should be for beginners and one for those that like speed. The one I rode in South Dakota in 2011 had that set-up and it worked quite well.

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  • 1 month later...

Following Tennessee it was off to Virginia and Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Busch Gardens is one of two parks that I have visited more times than any other amusement park outside of my home parks in So Cal (and I guess Las Vegas). This 2012 trip marked my fourth visit to Busch Gardens, the previous ones taking place in 2010, 2009, and 2000. For this reason alone I have a very special attachment to the park. Of course, the reason I keep returning is because I enjoy it so much. This is a theme park that, like Dollywood, is made so perfect by its setting, scenery, atmosphere, and ambiance. I absolutely love being inside the park surrounded by all of it.

 

Let's not forget that there are roller coasters and thrill rides to be found at Busch Gardens as well. Since my last visit in 2010, two new rides have been added -- the highly anticipated Verbolten and the mediocrely anticipated Mach Tower. How were they? Read on!

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Based on the theme parks I've been to, I'll agree with this statement!

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Apollo's Chariot greets visitors at the entrance.

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A B&M hypercoaster, Apollo's Chariot was the park's newest headliner ride during my first visit to Busch Gardens. I absolutely loved it back then, and I'm still a huge fan to this day.

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Apollo is exciting but relaxing and pleasant at the same time. I think that's what most enthusiasts take issue with about this coaster, but I thoroughly enjoy it. It may not be my very favorite B&M hyper, but having been my first, sentimental value alone earns Apollo's Chariot extra bonus points.

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Of course the new-for-2012 headliner coaster was Verbolten.

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Being a Zierer coaster, I was curious to try Verbolten. I've been on some Zierer junior coasters, as well as Jaguar at Knott's (though let's be honest, Jaguar is basically an adult-sized junior coaster), but I've never been on a true adult coaster from this manufacturer.

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Also very important is the fact that Verbolten had the difficult task of taking over for the much-loved Big Bad Wolf. Did it measure up?

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I'm somewhat torn. The coaster seems to be getting a very positive response from the general public as well as from the coaster community, and I'm happy that that's the case. I personally felt that the launches and final drop were lots of fun, and I think the intensity level was definitely on par with Big Bad Wolf (moderately intense, but still appropriate for most of the family). I do think there were a few too many midcourse brakes throughout the ride that kind of killed the momentum. However, I was probably most disappointed with the indoor stuff. Sure, the "surprise" drop was cool, but the rest of the theming left me a bit underwhelmed. First of all, while I know each train gets one of three storylines at random, I rode three times and felt like I got the exact same thing every time. I don't recall any wolves or storm, so I'm thinking I happened to always get the spirit story, which was pretty incoherent. As for the effects, there weren't many. It seemed like a darkened building with a few glow-in-the-dark props. Revenge of the Mummy at USH always gets ripped for this, though I felt Verbolten was more or less exactly the same effects-wise. Finally, I guess I was just expecting a little more mood from a coaster themed to a spooky car ride through the haunted woods. It could have been great, but it ended up being just okay. I'm not trying to sound overly negative here -- I definitely liked Verbolten, I just didn't love it. Part of it may have to do with me still missing Big Bad Wolf.

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Moving on, Alpengeist is next.

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Alpengeist is a B&M inverted coaster, and a pretty huge one at that. If I had to pick my very favorite B&M invert (no easy task), Alpengeist would probably be it. I actually think Montu gives a slightly better ride, but the theming of Alpengeist (like all of BGW) completely wins me over. Montu has nice theming as well, but Alpengeist has absolutely perfect theming for this type of coaster in this type of park.

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Alpengeist even "duels" with the log flume. Le Scoot is an okay log ride, but it's pretty short and doesn't have quite the amount of theming I might expect from Busch Gardens. Even so, it's still worth a ride when the line shortens up (usually around dusk).

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Alpengeist's signature shot.

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For the past six years or so, Alpengeist's signature shot has been photobombed by its new neighbor, Griffon.

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Griffon is another B&M, this time a dive coaster. I know there's an ongoing debate over which is better, Griffon or Sheikra. Griffon gets my vote, likely because it was my first B&M dive coaster, I've ridden it many more times than I have Sheikra, and because I tend to be partial toward BGW to begin with.

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Be sure to queue up for the front row during your first ride on Griffon. The sensations of slowly approaching the edge and dangling over it are unmatched.

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The release is pretty darn awesome too.

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The drop itself is of course what these dive coasters are all about. So tall and STEEP!

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It should be noted that this is an extremely re-rideable coaster. And very photogenic (I particularly like how this shot turned out).

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Following the drop is the huge swooping Immelmann loop. Like the drop, it looks so intimidating, but it's actually extremely smooth and comfortable.

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Plus the trains give you plenty of floorless freedom.

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Another vertical drop and Immelmann loop follow (see the picture above of Griffon with Alpengeist). This splashdown then ends the ride, which is definitely an interesting final touch (it's actually more for onlookers than for riders). Overall, I would rank Griffon as my favorite coaster (and therefore my favorite ride) at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

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The park's oldest coaster is Loch Ness Monster, an Arrow looper that dates back to 1978.

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You can see the majority of the ride from this vantage point -- the first drop, the second drop leading into the first vertical loop, and the second vertical loop. Of course, there's still that lengthy sprial through the darkened tunnel that's out of view here.

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I stated above that Griffon is very photogenic, but Loch Ness Monster's interlocking loops (the only remaining ones in the world) are probably among the most photographed of any coaster element. Deservedly so.

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I will be honest and say that Loch Ness Monster is my least favorite of BGW's adult coasters, but that's only because it's in such good company. Please please PLEASE don't let the same fate await this coaster as the park's other (former) Arrow coasters, Big Bad Wolf and Drachen Fire (the latter of which I sadly never got to try).

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To wrap up the coasters there's Grover's Alpine Express. I'll admit that I did ride this, even without a child. In so doing, I was able to get all six of Busch Gardens Williamsburg's coaster credits. Score!

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Time for the park's non-coaster rides, starting with Mach Tower. Take a look in this picture at how high up the tower the brakes extend. More on that in a moment.

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A close-up of the ride vehicle.

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Going up.

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Coming down. Overall there were some definite positives about this ride, but also a couple of detracting negatives. On the plus side, though the tower doesn't look exceptionally huge (especially compared to the nearby drop tower at Kings Dominion), it actually felt REALLY HIGH while riding. The way the vehicle rotated during its slow ascent made for great observation of the entire park. Oddly, the vehicle stopped revolving well before it reached the top of the tower. The release was forceful and the drop itself provided a few legitimate tummy-tickling negative-g moments. However, as noted above, the brakes kicked in WAY TOO SOON. There was still plenty of drop to be had, but it was all slowed and controlled for the entire bottom half of the tower. Though that's unfortunate, in the end I still enjoyed Mach Tower well enough. I've heard that the brakes have been relaxed this season, which is certainly good news.

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Curse of DarKastle is a nice 3-D simulator dark ride. Though the storyline is a bit incoherent (which is pretty much the case for all of this ride's cousins [spiderman and Transformers]), I do think the haunted house theming works well with this type of ride system.

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Europe in the Air seems to be a pretty polarizing attraction. With its Soarin' Over California vibe, I actually quite like it. I do think the visuals become a bit distorted at certain points throughout the ride, kind of like when you take off your 3-D glasses during a 3-D film, except that this isn't 3-D to begin with! It doesn't really bother me, though, and I definitely like Europe in the Air better than the ride it replaced, the whiplash-inducing Corkscrew Hill.

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In addition to Le Scoot, BGW has two other water rides. Escape from Pompeii is my favorite. Ordinarily boat flumes that go up, around, and down aren't too terribly exciting for me. However, the indoor portion of this boat flume makes Escape from Pompeii so much more than that.

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The ride always appears to be incredibly clean and well maintained, which even makes the drop (a pretty standard drop) seem more enjoyable.

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The ride will definitely wet you but probably won't soak you, so I think everyone will be satisfied. Impeccable theming -- check. Effects that actually work -- check. Awesome drop -- check. Appropriate amount of wetness -- check. Escape from Pompeii is a winner across the board.

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Roman Rapids also has exceptional theming, though the wetness here is definitely hit or miss. It's possible to come off more or less dry, or else beyond soaked.

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This is really the only part of the ride that's visible to onlookers. Beware, though, that hidden out of sight are three back-to-back waterfalls lined up in a row. If you end up on the waterfall side of the raft when you reach them, you're going to get nailed by all three. It's absolutely drenching. If you're not on the "lucky" side, however, you probably won't get too wet on Roman Rapids.

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Next up is the park's train ride.

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Rather than using the train as a means of transportation from one part of the park to another, I prefer to take a round trip ride to relax and look at the scenery.

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Among the scenery -- the Rhine River.

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You can get a more up-close-and-personal look at the Rhine River by taking the Rhine River Cruise.

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Though it's a manmade body of water that doesn't really leave the park, it can certainly feel like you're far removed from a theme park while on board.

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The skyride provides yet another relaxing opportunity to take in all the sights.

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That's it for the rides (there are several flat rides that I didn't take pictures of). However, I did take pictures of some of the park's animal attractions. Though BGW doesn't have quite the same emphasis on animals as Busch Gardens Tampa or the SeaWorlds, Jack Hanna's Wild Reserve is a nice corner of the park that does have a decent selection of animal exhibits and shows.

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Eagle Ridge is one such exhibit.

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Various animals get brought out into Jack Hanna's Wild Reserve for impromptu meet-and-greets and info sessions.

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For more birds, you can pay a visit to Lorikeet Glen.

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Interesting looking bird.

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Ditto above. This is one of those exhibits where you can purchase some nectar for the birds and feed them as you wander through. The food booth wasn't open when I was there, so I'm not sure if you just get to feed the lorikeets, or all of the birds that show interest in your nectar.

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More animals out and about in Jack Hanna's Wild Reserve.

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Wolf Valley is a relatively large exhibit for wolves to roam.

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For a closer look at the wolves, you can watch the show in Wolf Haven. Though the wolves do demonstrate a few behaviors here, this is mostly for educational purposes. (As a funny aside, a friend asked me prior to the show, "What do they do in a wolf show? Dances with wolves?")

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The show is technically about predatory animals in general, so there are a few non-wolf representatives as well.

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But the wolves are definitely the stars.

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Finally, there's the Pet Shenanigans show.

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This was pretty reminiscent of the pets show at SeaWorld San Diego. Jump-roping dogs are always fun to watch.

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There are more than just dogs, though, such as this mathematical parrot.

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What's "2 + 2"?

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Yep, smart bird.

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Cats also join in on the shenanigans.

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Overall the show wasn't quite as funny or elaborate as, but was a bit more schmaltzy than, the SeaWorld pet shows. Still, it was fine for what it was, and I could tell it was a huge hit among children and their families.

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Well, that's a wrap. I'll leave you with this parting shot of Busch Gardens Williamsburg, one of my favorite theme parks. I very much look forward to returning yet again.

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While in Virginia, it certainly seemed appropriate to stop by Kings Dominion. This was my third visit to this park, having previously visited in 2010 and 2000. Much like I said with Carowinds, Kings Dominion is a very Cedar Fair park -- pretty huge and packed to the gills with coasters. The definite headliners are Intimidator and Volcano, both of which are excellent.

 

Kings Dominion does cater more to the thrill crowd, though there seems to be enough to keep everyone else occupied as well. I would rank it higher than Carowinds overall, but both are pretty comparable. This park also marked the end of the first half of my August 2012 trip. The Carolinas, Tennessee, and Virginia made for a great combo; I very much enjoyed it all!

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The entrance is quite nice -- the park's marquee; the pond, fountains, and trees; and the Eiffel Tower.

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The Eiffel Tower is designed the way an observation tower should be designed. It's nice and tall, so there are great views of the entire park. As opposed to being a controlled ride with a set duration, it's simply an elevator leading up to an observation deck, so you can stay as long as you like. And most appreciated, the observation deck is open, rather than being enclosed or surrounded by windows. That makes for excellent photo opportunities!

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One such photo opportunity -- Intimidator 305!

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This coaster is so ridiculously massive it absolutely towers over the rest of the park.

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It perhaps looks even more impressive from ground level.

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I first rode Intimidator back in 2010. At that time, they had already replaced the original restraints with the more comfortable restraints that are featured on the ride today. That was also the time, though, when a trim existed on the first drop to slow the train's speed during the following turn. Some weird, unexplainable part of me kind of enjoyed the trim; the feeling of being "caught" while in the middle of that huge drop was a very unique sensation. However, I will say that I didn't miss the trim at all during this visit. Without anything holding it back, I couldn't believe how fast the train now tore through this coaster's track. I know the turn following the first drop, leading up to this second hill, has been slightly retracked to accomodate the new speed. I honestly didn't notice any difference; it was still incredibly forceful. I've never experienced any "greyouts" while riding Intimdiator, but I will admit that the turn is a very powerful element.

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So insanely intimidating-looking (how appropriate given its name!).

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I should comment on the fact that I've never really noticed any airtime on this hill, or on the smaller hill down below. While that smaller hill bothers me a little bit, only because there's a seemingly unnecessary trim brake leading up it, the lack of airtime during this hill doesn't bother me at all. Intimidator 305 is, to me, all about the magnificent first drop, followed by pure, unbridled speed. With or without airtime, the train still crests this hill at incredible speed.

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Another view from a different angle.

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Spectacular drop.

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Crazy force and speed.

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Despite the fact that most of what you see are huge hills, the majority of this ride actually takes place quite low to the ground. It's very interesting to me that a ride that begins so high and tall spends so much time racing just above ground level, hugging the flat terrain. (It almost seems like it could have been a launched coaster, with the launch being replaced by a 300-foot, 85-degree drop to provide the initial speed!) The way the train whips through these tight twisting turns with such amazing speed and smoothness is almost mind-boggling, both to ride and to watch. Intimidator's original design and unique layout make it such a different type of coaster than anything I've ever experienced (and I've been on all of the Intamin hyper / gigacoasters in the U.S.); I'm not very good at ranking my all-time favorites, but if I was, Intimidator 305 would certainly be a top representative on that list.

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Another definite favorite is Volcano, The Blast Coaster.

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The three heartline rolls on Volcano are simply awesome. The train is moving fast, yet the inversions almost feel as though they're being taken in slow motion. They're also incredibly smooth and comfortable.

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Much of this coaster's awesomeness, though, comes from what you can't really see exteriorly. The initial launch behind the mountain is very thrilling, followed by the large swooping turnaround that's great fun. Then there's the second launch straight up through the volcano's interior, only to "erupt" upside down out of the top. It's a wonderful sequence of elements that come rapid fire -- they don't give you a moment to catch your breath!

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The elevated heartline rolls and turns then follow in quick succession.

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Even the final turn / drop that leads back into the mountain is great. As soon as the train is back inside, it hits the brake run, but it's still moving so fast at this point that the sudden brake run is itself kind of an exciting element. The overall ride duration is pretty short, but the whole thing is so fun and gets your adrenaline surging so much that I defy anyone to not be completely satisfied with it.

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Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe this is the only full-circuit inverted launched coaster ever made by Intamin. It would be great if they made more, but I think being one-of-a-kind gives this coaster a unique appeal that, much like Intimidator, adds even more to the ride experience. I go back and forth between Intimidator and Volcano as my favorite ride at Kings Dominion. Either way, they're both top notch!

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Honorable mention runner up would go to Dominator, the park's B&M floorless coaster.

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It starts with a large drop that leads into...

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...a large vertical loop.

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Yep, that's a big loop.

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The first half of Dominator doesn't have the typical sequence of floorless coaster elements. While the cobra roll is very standard, it's missing the dive loop and zero-g roll that are commonly found between the vertical loop and cobra roll. Interestingly, this doesn't take away from the ride experience at all. In fact, the turns that have replaced the usual inversions here are taken at great speed and actually provide a nice change of pace for a floorless coaster.

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The second half of the ride features the usual interlocking corkscrews.

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And here's the complete layout. With the exception of Superman at SFFT, I've been on all of B&M's U.S. floorless coasters, and Dominator ranks as quite a good one. This also marked the second coaster relocated from Geauga Lake that I got to ride during this trip (along with Carolina Cobra at Carowinds). Having never been to Geauga Lake, I'm glad I got to sample a small piece of it.

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It's time for Anaconda, another of the park's loopers. The dive underwater is a nice touch.

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I actually kind of like this ride. Standard Arrow loop / corkscrew coasters aren't too terribly exciting anymore, but for whatever reason I do find the custom designs that mix things up quite enjoyable. I'm not even sure what the turns are called that precede the corkscrews here (a butterfly turn?), but they're definitely unique.

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Plus I've always liked the way Arrow coasters look.

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Anaconda's setting adds even more to its photogenic quality. Though these coasters may not be the most comfortable rides in the world, there's no arguing that they're classics. I'm glad I got to try one at every park during this trip (Carolina Cyclone at Carowinds; Tennessee Tornado at Dollywood; Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg; Anaconda at Kings Dominion).

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Up next is Flight of Fear. I like this coaster okay, though I curiously prefer it when it's outdoors (i.e., Joker's Jinx at SFA). I think I must still be jaded from my initial ride on Flight of Fear, back during my first Kings Dominion visit in 2000. At that time, the coaster still had its ridiculous over-the-shoulder restraints, and they resulted in what was without a doubt THE MOST PAINFUL COASTER RIDE I'VE EVER EXPERIENCED. Those restraints bashed my head so badly I might as well have been in a boxing ring without any protective headgear. Though the OTSRs have mercifully been removed, I'll never be able to get rid of the memories.

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The park's other Premier coaster (and the third launched coaster at Kings Dominion) is the Backlot Stunt Coaster.

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I regret to report that I'm pretty indifferent toward this one; it's not really that great. I think back when it was the Italian Job and the effects worked, it could have been good. Sadly, though, I've never seen any of the effects, so the whole ride seems kind of pointless.

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Avalanche is the park's bobsled coaster. If I'm not mistaken, this is the only Mack bobsled in the U.S.

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The ride is pretty tame but still fun. It should be noted that, with the exception of Dominator, all of the coasters seen so far have been in the Congo section of the park. While Volcano and Anaconda work well with the Congo theming, I'm not entirely sure how a bobsled, Nascar, Hollywood, and outer space fit in! Regardless, it's still an impressive collection of coasters in just this one corner of the park.

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Moving away from the Congo, we come to Shockwave.

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Like Avalanche, Shockwave is a unique coaster for the park, being the only remaining Togo stand-up coaster in the U.S. (I know there's also one in Canada). Togo coasters in general are becoming pretty sparse in this country -- are Manhattan Express in Vegas and this one the only two left?

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While this is certainly nowhere near as good as a B&M, I actually like Shockwave because it has such a different feel than a B&M stand-up coaster (also different than an Intamin stand-up coaster). What I don't like is how ridiculously long it takes the train to inch its way up the lift hill, plus the spiral following the loop is the only coaster element I've ever experienced that I would classify as a "jaw banger." I always have to brace my jaw with my hands entering into the spiral so it doesn't get bashed by the OTSRs.

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Ricochet is the park's Mack wild mouse coaster. This is a different layout than Carowind's Ricochet, featuring a nice large drop to begin the ride.

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Interestingly, Ricochet has the same layout as the Legoland wild mouse coasters, though it runs faster after the drop because it doesn't have anywhere near the amount of braking as the Legoland versions (Legoland California, anyway; I imagine the others are similar). I hope the new Coast Rider at Knott's runs like Ricochet rather than like the Legoland coasters.

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Kings Dominion boasts an impressive four wooden coasters. Though none are new or particularly stellar, most are not bad either. Rebel Yell is an out-and-back very similar to Thunder Road at Carowinds, but this one ran SO MUCH BETTER than that one. I don't know what was going on with Thunder Road during my ride, but Rebel Yell had none of the "rampiness" that so painfully characterized Thunder Road.

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Hurler, on the other hand, ran virtually identical to the way it ran at Carowinds. The two Hurler clones are, to me, perhaps the most bizarre and atypical of all wooden coasters, and that's not necessarily a good thing. Beyond the first drop they've got such a weird layout, with more straightaways and turns than anything else, and all of the turns kind of rattle your brain within your skull. Definitely the least re-rideable of the park's wood coasters.

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Still, people always appear to be having fun during the first drop. Just wait for the rest of the ride!

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While Grizzly seems to get dismissed due to its less than spectacular first drop and the slow and uneventful turnaround that follows, the rest of the ride is actually very enjoyable. You can't really see much of it buried amongst the trees, but that forested setting makes it even better.

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Ghoster Coaster (which is I guess now being called Woodstock Express) is a junior woodie that, like the Carowinds version, packs more punch than you might expect.

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A view of the ride from the Eiffel Tower.

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And to round out the coasters, there's Taxi Jam (now being called the Great Pumpkin Coaster). Without a child, I didn't ride it. I did, however, ride all of Kings Dominion's other coasters, thereby scoring 13 out of 14 possible credits!

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Switching gears, we come to the park's non-coaster thrill rides. Drop Tower is first.

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This would definitely be one of my very favorite drop tower rides. It's Intamin, it's got a large capacity, and it's huge!

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Thanks to its impressive height, the speed and airtime are sustained for a longer duration than on most other drop towers. I love it -- this is a ride I could easily re-ride over and over again without getting off (if they'd let me!).

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Back in the Congo, we arrive at the Crypt.

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In addition to all the great flipping and swinging action, the effects on this one are good too -- water fountains and, though I didn't get a picture of them, bursts of fire.

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I've got two kind of funny stories about Berserker. The first time I rode, it was starting to rain, so the wheels that propel the ship around were wet. The ship ended up "hydroplaning" on them, not making full contact. The ride therefore ran its entire cycle without ever making a complete loop! I rode it again later after it had dried off. The lap bars on these rides come down so tightly that I would strongly advise against leaving anything you don't want to get crushed in your front pockets. I learned this the hard way. Fortunately nothing valuable got ruined, but I did have a pen in my pocket that got cracked open and proceeded to leak ink down my pant leg for the rest of the day!

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Kings Dominion's new-for-2012 ride, another Windseeker. Oh joy.

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Last time I was at Kings Dominion, the El Dorado flat ride was located in this spot. That must have been a very short-lived ride at the park. And speaking of short-lived rides, wasn't this the site of the former Hypersonic coaster as well? I'm bummed that I never got to try that one, having visited Kings Dominion before it ever existed and then again after it had been removed. It seemed to be such a celebrated ride when it first opened, but it was then taken out so quickly and with such little fanfare. Was it really that bad? It sure looked like fun.

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At least the Americana ferris wheel has remained.

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There's nothing particularly exceptional about the ferris wheel ride itself, but I do like that it provides a vantage point for a few additional photo opportunities.

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For example, this is the best spot to get a complete look at the entire layout of Rebel Yell.

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You also gain even more appreciation for just how monstrous Intimidator 305 is. Notice that the very top of Rebel Yell is essentially at the base of Intimidator.

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There can never be too many Intimidator photos.

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One more.

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And a final shot from the Americana ferris wheel -- Shockwave and Dominator.

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Kings Dominion's Flying Eagles weren't quite as good as Carowind's Woodstock Gliders, but they definitely weren't bad. The ride operator did not enforce any restrictions, so even though these flyers didn't snap as high as Carowind's, they still allowed me to get in some good practice.

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Located in the back of the kid's section of the park is Boo Blasters on Boo Hill.

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The theming is elaborate and the ride is as good as Carowind's, but it's so hidden away that I think most people don't even know it exists. However, that's good news for those of us who do know it exists, as it's always a walk-on!

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Blue Ridge Tollway is a pleasant track-guided car ride. The forested setting makes it scenic and relaxing.

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Kings Dominion's two water rides are also located in this forested setting (the Old Virginia section of the park). Shenandoah Lumber Company is a pretty short log flume that I seem to recall spent much of its time at ground level, but again, all the surrounding trees made it nice.

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White Water Canyon was definitely a soaker. I also found it interesting how several rafts were released from the station at once and they all sort of played "bumper boats" in the rapids before being sent through the main course individually. Also, didn't there used to be waterfalls cascading down from the inside walls of this shed?

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Utilizing the same forested section of the park is Kings Dominion's Dinosaurs Alive exhibit. Because I'd never been through one of these, I paid the extra $5 to give it a look.

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Carnivores are represented.

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As are herbivores.

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Also carnivores attacking herbivores.

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Definitely not our dino!

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All the "baddies" are positioned in their menacing stance.

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This was an impressive sight.

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I did like that they featured mostly lesser known dinosaurs, rather than including all of the overly familiar ones.

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Of course, they did have to sell out a little bit. After all, a dinosaur exhibit wouldn't be a dinosaur exhibit without T. rex.

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You've just seen Dinosaurs Alive. Now give me five bucks.

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The overall exhibit is not something I'd pay to do frequently on repeat visits, but it was worthwhile once. All of the dinos were automated and there was lots of info included if you felt like learning. The park's Action Theater has also been converted into a 3-D movie theater showing Giants of Patagonia. This was kind of an odd film for a theme park, as it seemed instead like something you'd find in a science center's IMAX theater (which is apparently where this film originated). I don't predict it will be overly popular with park guests, but, being a biologist, I loved it and actually watched it twice. It's also free (not part of the extra $5), which is a definite plus.

 

That concludes the first half of my August 2012 trip. Where did I go from here? Coming up next...

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  • 2 months later...

I spent the second half of my August 2012 trip in Florida. I've been to Florida three times previously, always during the winter (Christmas and New Year's) holidays (1990/1991, 1998/1999, and 2002/2003). Visiting in the summer was therefore new to me. My plan was to spend part of the trip at Walt Disney World and part of the trip beyond Disney World, so I had to select which Disney parks to visit. I opted against the Magic Kingdom, as I figured I'd wait on it until after the new Fantasyland is completed. I also chose not to go to Epcot, since Test Track was undergoing its extensive refurbishment during the summer of 2012. That left Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom.

 

Having been to Disney's Hollywood Studios (then Disney-MGM Studios) during each of my previous Florida trips, this marked my fourth visit to the park. DHS and BGW are therefore the two parks that I've visited more times than any others outside of my home parks in So Cal, four times each. There have been several new additions to DHS since my last trip -- Toy Story, the Motors Stunt Show, American Idol, One Man's Dream, Star Tours 3-D. I know some sort of Pirates of the Caribbean attraction has opened even since this visit, but that doesn't seem like anything major to have missed. I definitely enjoyed getting back to the Studios, trying out all of the new stuff and revisiting all of the classic attractions that I so fondly remember.

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The park entrance leads to the Studio's main thoroughfare, Hollywood Boulevard. Photogenically waiting at the end of Hollywood Boulevard is the Chinese Theater, right?

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Nope, that view is now blocked by the giant Mickey sorcerer hat. While the hat is also admittedly an iconic structure for the park, it's too bad it has to sit right smack in the way of the Chinese Theater.

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Fortunately the theater is still photographable from beyond the Mickey hat.

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The Chinese Theater of course houses the Great Movie Ride. With the exception of some of the films in the montage at the end, the Great Movie Ride has remained completely unchanged since my original visit to the park (I imagine it's remained unchanged since the park first opened!). While this might make it too repetitious for regular visitors, I actually kind of like that it hasn't changed -- it brought back happy and nostalgic memories for me. Also, minus one or two scenes, most of the films represented are such classics that I can't imagine they won't be at least somewhat familiar to every generation of riders.

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Singin' in the Rain. Great movie.

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The Searchers. Definitely John Wayne's most famous movie, though not his best in my personal opinion.

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Mary Poppins. Great movie.

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Casablanca. Not just a great movie, one of the very greatest. If you haven't seen it, what are you waiting for?!?

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The Wizard of Oz. Great movie, and the final scene of the ride before the montage of movie clips, which is a cool way to end.

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Next to Hollywood Boulevard and the Great Movie Ride is Echo Lake, which is home to another attraction that really hasn't changed at all since my first visit -- the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. Once again, though, I don't mind that it's remained essentially the same. I enjoy it as is, plus it's the one and only attraction I've done every time I've been to Walt Disney World (I didn't go to the Magic Kingdom or Epcot during this visit, and the Animal Kingdom didn't even exist during my first visit).

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The show is split up into three scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, starting with the jungle temple ruins (featuring the famous giant rolling boulder).

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Next is the Cairo street market scene.

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The final scene takes place on the desert airstrip. The only thing about this show that has (unfortunately) changed is how the Nazi mechanic is killed. While he used to get "chopped up" by the plane's propellers just like in the movie, now he's simply shot. Does anybody know why this switch was made?

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Oh well, at least it still ends with explosions! Though the show drags a bit while the sets are changed between scenes, I nevertheless enjoy it and hope it will still be around during my next DHS visit.

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Indiana Jones' neighbor is Star Tours, which actually has changed. Like its Disneyland counterpart, Star Tours is now in 3-D and features various mix-and-match scenes. While the ride exterior looks so much cooler than it does at Disneyland, this one for whatever reason has never seemed to achieve the same popularity. I guess that's a good thing, as we were therefore able to ride multiple times to experience several different scene combinations.

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The Jedi Training Academy is held outside of Star Tours. Young children are given robes and lightsabers and are taught a series of offensive and defensive moves.

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Darth Vader and Darth Maul then show up, and each child gets a chance to put his or her lightsaber moves to use.

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The young Jedi are of course victorious. The show is so simple yet very popular and really kind of brilliant. Some of the youngest participant's almost oblivious reactions to fighting Vader or Maul are hilarious.

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New to DHS for me this visit was the American Idol Experience, occupying the site of the former Superstar Television (which I only vaguely remember, though I do seem to recall enjoying it as a kid).

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I went to the finale show of the day, where the winners of the five earlier shows compete for the grand prize -- a ticket to an actual American Idol audition.

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One at a time each contestant sang his or her song. Some of them were actually quite good.

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The stage was pretty elaborate too, very reminiscent of the real show.

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And of course the judges were on hand to either shower the contestants with praise or knock them down a notch or two. A couple of the quips were a bit harsh considering the contestants were park guests, though I imagine they were warned to expect it.

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It was the audience, however, that ultimately decided the winner -- all audience members got to vote at the end of the show, which was a cool interactive feature. Overall this was well done, and I'm sure it's a park favorite for fans of American Idol. (For everybody else, at least you don't have to put up with Ryan Seacrest as host!) I do recommend going to the finale show of the day, as it's longer and you get the best singers.

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Beyond Echo Lake is the Streets of America section of the park, where another (relatively) new show is located -- the Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show.

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Most of the show involves the good guy (red car) being chased by the bad guys (black cars).

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There's plenty of the high-speed, high-flying action you'd expect from an automobile-themed stunt show.

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Plus other cool tricks, like driving on two wheels while making tight turns. And it's not just cars either. The stuntmen end up on motorcycles...

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...and jet skis.

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Plus no stunt show would be complete without fire. This part was actually pretty neat. The stuntman seen here shoots another on a motorcycle, who ends up sliding through the wall of fire on his fallen motorcycle and catching on fire himself!

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Overall I enjoyed the Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show. All of the stunt work was impressive, and I'd even go so far as to say some of it was jaw-droppingly incredible. Much like Indiana Jones, however, the pace was frequently interrupted by the "production crew" stopping the action to explain how various stunts are coordinated and filmed. I know this is necessary to change sets, but it really did kill the momentum. Plus there was a totally irrelevant time-waster involving Lightning McQueen from Cars making a cameo appearance.

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Muppet Vision 3D is also located in the Streets of America section of Hollywood Studios. Minus the annoying and unnecessary Waldo character, this show is actually really funny -- pure Muppets mayhem and chaos from start to finish, with lots of amusing one-liners thrown in throughout.

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Up next is the Studio Backlot Tour. The tour essentially consists of three separate components, the first being an audience participation version of Pearl Harbor demonstrating how special effects for movies are filmed. Pretty standard stuff.

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Guests then board a tram for the second part of the tour.

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The tram passes by the Earful Tower water tower, another park icon.

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It's then on to Catastrophe Canyon, which features fire and flooding.

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Major flooding! The tram tour really ought to be simply called Catastrophe Canyon rather than the Studio Backlot Tour. This can't compete at all with Universal Hollywood's backlot tour, which I think it is (or at least was originally) trying to. I seem to remember there being so many more props and sets viewed in previous years. Now it's basically get on the tram, pass the Earful Tower, go through Catastrophe Canyon, and that's all. While Catastrophe Canyon is fun, boarding a tram just for it seems a little pointless.

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The tram unloads guests at the American Film Institute Showcase, a museum that features (I believe) changing exhibits. Currently featured are AFI's 50 greatest villains.

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Several of the villains are displayed as life-sized figures with actual costumes from the movies, such as Alien.

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The White Witch from the Narnia films.

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Darth Maul. Interestingly, the White Witch and Darth Maul aren't even on AFI's list of the 50 greatest villains. Anyway, this is the third and final portion of the Studio Backlot Tour. You can stay for as long or as little as you like.

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Outside, the pathways in the Streets of America section of the park have facades replicating actual streets of America, such as San Francisco...

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...and New York City.

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Moving to the other side of the park, this archway serves as the entrance to Animation Courtyard. With the main entrance, this archway, Mickey's sorcerer hat, the Chinese Theater, and the Earful Tower, DHS may have more entranceways and iconic structures than any other park in the world!

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Appropriately located in Animation Courtyard is The Magic of Disney Animation. No longer the working studio it used to be, this attraction is now very reminiscent of the Disney Animation attraction at DCA. In addition to a few interactive exhibits, there are two main theater presentations, Art of Disney Animation and Animation Academy. Art of Disney Animation is the show where an animator interacts with Mushu from Mulan, explaining the animation process. It used to be found at DCA, but was replaced by Animation Academy. You can still find both shows together here, though.

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While Art of Disney Animation is perfectly fine, my vote for the far superior of the two shows is Animation Academy. This is the one where you get to follow along with an animator and actually draw a Disney cartoon character. I am definitely NOT an artist, yet I still love this show. I've loved it since it debuted at DCA, and I loved it here. The room where the show is held at DHS is a lot fancier than that at DCA, with its individual desks. However, the MAJOR trade-off is that the room can hold far fewer people. While at DCA you're always guaranteed into the next show, here it's possible to wait two shows before getting in, which means an hour of waiting! That pretty much eliminates the possibility of attending multiple times, which many people at California Adventure will do -- finish one show and immediately head back into the next.

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At California Adventure, there's a set schedule for which character will be drawn during which show. Interestingly, here the animator simply asked for suggestions before we started. One girl shouted out "Tinker Bell," so Tinker Bell it was. This is how Tink looks drawn by a professional.

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And here's how she looks drawn by a non-professional!

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Next door to Disney Animation is Voyage of the Little Mermaid. I've somehow managed to miss this during all of my previous visits to the park, so it was a first for me. We got in line during a mid-afternoon thunderstorm to avoid the rain, with the wait time posted at 30 minutes. As we waited and Fastpass guests were admitted in hordes, the posted time kept increasing -- from 45 minutes to 60 minutes. It was pretty frustrating. When it finally was our turn, they rushed us into the darkened theater so quickly that I felt like I totally missed something. Is there normally a pre-show? If so, we zoomed right past it. I was also completely caught off guard by the amount of water sprayed on the audience during the show. This was far more than a simple mist, and it kind of defeated the purpose of getting out of the rain -- I had to scramble to get my camera covered again. Plus the whole show was just so dark -- I don't mean dark in mood or tone, just physically dark. In the end, based on this single viewing, the whole experience seemed incredibly odd to me. I'll have to try it again on my next visit, using a Fastpass and having my camera safely tucked away in advance.

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Pixar Place is a small themed area that features just one attraction, but it's a good one -- Toy Story Midway Mania.

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One of my very favorites at DHS (as well as at DCA, and I'm sure at DisneySea too), Toy Story is the absolute best shoot-'em-up dark ride you'll find anywhere. This is another attraction where you'll want a Fastpass; get one early, as they "sell out" quickly and the standby line can become pretty horrendous.

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Wedged between Animation Courtyard and Pixar Place is another small themed area, Mickey Avenue, that is also home to just a single attraction. One Man's Dream is a museum dedicated to Walt Disney, and while I thought it was going to be a pretty minor exhibit, it actually turned out to be quite huge, nicely organized, and very impressive. There's plenty of memorabilia on display, as well as tons of interesting information presented on little plaques throughout.

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The plaques present a chronology of Walt's life.

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In addition, they're divided into about eight different themes, such as "Early Inspirations" and "Mickey's Milestones."

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I'll go ahead and include several of these, for all the Walt Disney fans out there.

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At the completion of the attraction is a theater presentation, with a brief but very interesting and entertaining film documenting Walt's life. I was quite amazed by some of the footage in the film, as it appeared to be very rare material. I believe this same film showed for a short while at California Adventure, in the Animation theater that currently houses Turtle Talk with Crush, though I somehow managed to miss it completely when it was at DCA. That was a huge mistake -- it's extremely well done, as is the entire One Man's Dream exhibit. Highly recommended.

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There's even a preview of future Disney attractions, including this large model of the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland renovation.

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Here's what we can expect come 2014.

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The final section of Hollywood Studios is Sunset Boulevard, home to the park's best ride -- The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. The actual ride is wonderful (there's some awesome airtime, or what I like to refer to as "hovertime" on this one, during the drops), plus the mood it creates is unequaled (I'm a sucker for its old-fashioned atmosphere, as well as for its mixture of eerie premonition and excited anticipation).

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I love the California Adventure version of this ride as well, so I'm certainly not going to assign one as "Good Tower" and one as "Bad Tower." The important take-home message is that Tower of Terror is a great ride no matter where you ride it!

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Next door to Twilight Zone is the park's second best ride (and the park's only roller coaster), Rock 'n' Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith.

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See, Aerosmith.

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This is a Vekoma launched coaster very similar to Premier's Flight of Fear, Joker's Jinx, and Poltergeist coasters. I'd actually rank Rock 'n' Roller coaster higher than any of those. The launch, speed, and inversions are pretty "extreme" for Walt Disney World, yet at the same time it's uber smooth and extremely comfortable (don't ask me how Vekoma pulled that off), so it should please everyone. The soundtrack and indoor scenery add even more to the experience. Very enjoyable.

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In addition to the two rides, Sunset Boulevard also features two shows. The daytime show is Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage.

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See, Beauty and the Beast.

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All of the movie's characters are included...

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...as are all of its musical numbers. This is an elaborate production that's really quite worthwhile, especially if you're a fan of the Disney film. I know the show has been around for a long time and rumors about a replacement for it keep popping up, but I'd much rather see the Little Mermaid show go before the Beauty and the Beast show.

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The nighttime show is Fantasmic. Only my close-up shots of this one came out, so I've just got a few.

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The star of the show, the fire-breathing dragon.

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I'm kidding, the star of the show is of course Mickey Mouse. Although I would rank Disneyland's Fantasmic higher than DHS's Fantasmic based on the show content alone, this one has the distinct advantage of having a much more accommodating venue. A very nice way to end a very fun return visit to Disney's Hollywood Studios.

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After the Hollywood Studios it was on to Disney's Animal Kingdom. This marked my third visit to this park, having previously visited during my 1998/1999 and 2002/2003 Florida trips. The park was very new in 1998 and just a few years old in 2002, so I was curious to return a decade later to see how it's developed. Much has remained the same (not a complaint, as I enjoyed the park in past years), but there has of course been one major addition since then -- Expedition Everest. The Finding Nemo Musical was also new.

 

Has Expedition Everest beat out Kilimanjaro Safaris and Dinosaur to become the park's best ride? Does Finding Nemo have the edge over Festival of the Lion King and It's Tough to Be a Bug as the park's best show? What is the most common animal you'll find at the Animal Kingdom? (Where did that last question even come from?) All of the answers will be revealed...

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The park entrance.

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Immediately inside you arrive at the Oasis, Animal Kingdom's first themed area. Without a major attraction but instead designed as more of a "welcome" area, I'll admit that I'd never before really spent any time here. That was a mistake, as there are actually a number of quiet, peaceful, secluded paths to explore. Each features a number of animals, the most common being...

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...birds! I hope you like birds, because they are everywhere in this park.

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How could you not like birds? They look so cool.

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Black swan.

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There are other animals to be found in the Oasis besides birds, though they're in the minority.

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After making your way through the Oasis you reach Discovery Island and the park's icon, the Tree of Life.

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It is an impressive structure.

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The Tree of Life is of course no ordinary tree -- there are animals carved throughout its trunk.

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Can you find the animal carving? Like the Oasis, the Tree of Life has multiple paths to wander in search of animals (real ones, not just carved ones!). Once again, this is the first time I'd ever spent any time on these trails, and they were quite worthwhile. What do you suppose was the most frequently encountered type of animal along the trails?

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Birds!

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In the end, though, it's the birds that dominate the area.

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To be fair, the Tree of Life exhibits more than just birds. Mammals are represented too, such as lemurs...

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...and kangaroos.

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There are reptiles...

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...as well as fish. (This is a pacu, by the way, not a piranha.)

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Everywhere you look.

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Let's not forget that the Tree of Life also houses It's Tough to Be a Bug. Partly because I've studied entomology and very much appreciate the inside jokes, and partly because it's just a riot from start to finish, I really love this one. It's definitely my favorite 3D show at Disney World (as well as the Disneyland Resort for that matter -- I'm so glad it was brought to DCA!).

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On the subject of shows, the next land over (Camp Minnie-Mickey) is home to another extremely popular show at Animal Kingdom, Festival of the Lion King. (Excluding the character meet-and-greet area, this is actually the only attraction in Camp Minnie-Mickey.)

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Festival of the Lion King is a high-energy production featuring plenty of song and dance (I believe every song from the movie is performed at least once), as well as lots of acrobatics.

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There are also large parade floats with animatronic animals flanking each of the audience cheering sections.

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It's no wonder this is such a guest favorite -- the show is extremely elaborate and entertaining, and, as already mentioned, presented with such high energy that you can't help kind of moving along with the music and rhythm at your seat. When Camp Minnie-Mickey gets converted to Avatarland, Festival of the Lion King will be getting a new home in the Africa section of Animal Kingdom, where it should fit in just fine. A very wise move by the park, keeping this show.

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Speaking of Africa, let's head over to that area of the park, where we find the truly exceptional headliner attraction Kilimanjaro Safaris. While yes, there are plenty of birds here, there's also oh so much more.

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It wouldn't be an African safari without elephants.

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Adorable baby elephant.

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Adorable warthog, if you happen to be the warthog's mother. (I'm kidding. Warthogs look awesome.)

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Though there are natural barriers that keep the safari vehicle separated from the animals, they really are unnoticeable to guests. It therefore feels like you are right there among the animals.

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Also like a real safari, you're not guaranteed to see everything during any one trip. The animals may be resting out of sight (or you may get lucky and have them resting in full view!). Either way, that's almost part of the fun. Kilimanjaro Safaris is definitely worth multiple rides, as you'll most certainly see something new with each visit.

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Hello there.

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There's more than just animals to be found during the safari; plants are extremely abundant as well. Though the baobab trees are replicas, they sure do look great, and they significantly add to the African savanna that the safari simulates.

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Where there is savanna, there are lions. The lions may be the most difficult of all the animals to spot, but it's always exciting when you do.

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Probably the easiest of all the animals to spot (pun intended) are the giraffes. In addition to being very abundant along the safari route...

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...they're not separated by any barriers, so they're free to wander directly up to the vehicle.

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Let me add that I'm so glad they got rid of the poaching storyline that used to be included here. While the message was definitely important, it just seemed so forced and out of place and was such a downer. During this particular visit, the finale of the ride was under construction to make way for the new zebra habitat, which apparently didn't last either. At any rate, Kilimanjaro Safaris easily gets my vote as the best attraction at Disney's Animal Kingdom. It's approximately half an hour in duration and covers such a wide expanse of land, so you truly feel like you're far removed from the rest of the park while riding.

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After the safari, there are still plenty more African animals to be found by walking the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. While the animal trails through the Oasis and around the Tree of Life are more sort of diversions, Pangani Forest is a major attraction that is a must for all Animal Kingdom visitors. The hippos are very popular inhabitants.

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The meerkats are also guest favorites, probably because they're just so cute.

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Also cute (in their own unique way) are the naked mole rats. The mole rats make their home inside an educational hut located along the trail that also houses...

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...reptiles...

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...and amphibians.

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Let's not forget about the birds (this is Animal Kingdom after all!). After exiting the hut with the naked mole rats you'll enter an aviary with a variety of birds all doing their bird things.

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However, it's at the end of the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail that you'll encounter the attraction's real stars -- the gorillas.

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I was fortunate that the gorillas were not only out and about but posing for photos as well. Very impressive animals to behold, and a fine way to conclude the Exploration Trail.

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The final major attraction in the African section of the park is Rafiki's Planet Watch. While this one tends to have somewhat of a negative reputation, and while I'll admit that I don't remember thinking too terribly highly of it after my previous visits to the Animal Kingdom, I was very pleasantly surprised with the whole thing this time around. I don't think much has necessarily changed; I just think I didn't invest enough time to make the exhibit the worthwhile experience that it actually is during my previous trips.

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Conservation Station occupies the majority of Rafiki's Planet Watch.

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Perhaps the most entertaining thing to do in Conservation Station is Song of the Rainforest. You enter the pitch black booths and put on headphones to hear rainforest noises right next to your ears. It's very neat -- like 3D for your ears instead of your eyes. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this may be the only U.S. Disney exhibit to still use this type of technology (with the Sounds Dangerous show in the Hollywood Studios having been removed, and the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln show at Disneyland having reverted back to its original incarnation).

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The Grandmother Willow tree at the entrance to Song of the Rainforest even houses some rainforest animals.

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Much of Conservation Station is dedicated to rooms like this one, observable through large viewing windows. Most of the rooms are devoted to one type of animal, such as reptiles, amphibians, or invertebrates (my personal favorites). There are plenty of critters on display, as well as lots of informational material to go along with them. This room, however, is probably the most popular -- the veterinary room.

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I got here right at the end of the procedure, so I'm not entirely sure what was being done (perhaps just a routine check-up), but whatever it was it sure drew a large crowd of onlookers.

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Outside Conservation Station is the Affection Section, a nice petting farm. The animals are provided with this covered playground to roam, though today it was used as a shaded rest area rather than for play. It was VERY hot out.

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A few of the animals were still interested in being pet.

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But for the most part it was nap time!

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Let's not forget that Rafiki's Planet Watch is connected to the rest of Africa by the Wildlife Express Train. You have to take the train to get to the attraction as well as to get back to Africa.

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If I still have one issue with the entire Rafiki's Planet Watch area, it's that the Wildlife Express Train seems like such a wasted opportunity. There's simply nothing to see here. With the large expanse of land that the train covers, as well as the fact that the seats are all pointed in such a way that you'd expect to be viewing something (presumably done to keep all of the backstage areas on the other side of the train out of sight), it's a shame that the park hasn't added any animal exhibits along the route, turning the train into more of a major attraction.

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Moving from Africa into Asia, you'll glimpse the peaks of Animal Kingdom's newest E ticket headliner. (I know it's not actually that new anymore, but it was new for me.)

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Expedition Everest was undoubtedly my most highly anticipated attraction during this return trip to Walt Disney World -- a new Disney coaster that has seemed to receive unanimous praise. Did it live up to my expectations?

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I have to be honest and say no, it did not. I'm a little hesitant to even put this out there, but if I was to rank all of Disney's major U.S. coasters (Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Matterhorn, California Screamin', Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Expedition Everest), I actually think Everest would come in last.

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Let me explain my position, as I have two major issues here. First, while I think the forward and backward portions of this coaster are part of what makes it so popular, the transitions from forward to backward and from backward to forward again absolutely kill the momentum of the ride. Second, so much of the ride (both forward and backwards) takes place in the dark. Now, I realize Space Mountain and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster also take place in the dark, but that's the point -- there's still plenty of theming on those rides. On Everest, it was just pure dark with absolutely nothing to look at. I don't know if this has always been the case, as I'm aware the Yeti figures have been having major technical issues lately, so is Disney just trying to hide them? Of course there's now the projected Yeti (not terribly impressive), but I honestly didn't even see the one at the end until my third (and final) ride when I was desperately looking for it in the dark. At least you get to see the Abominable Snowmen inside the Matterhorn. I'm not trying to be overly negative, as I did like parts of the coaster (such as this drop), but I guess it just couldn't live up to the hype. With such high expectations, I suppose it was inevitable that I'd come away somewhat disappointed.

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Kali River Rapids, on the other hand, seems to get only so-so reviews, but I actually really enjoyed it. I had been on it once before, but I didn't remember much. I thought the length of the ride was decent, the theming was very attractive (with the exception of the whole logging / deforestation part, which I know is sending an important message but just seems so odd in the middle of the ride), there was enough rapids action to keep me satisfied, the drop was much larger than I remember (and much larger than anyone seems to give it credit for), and, last but not least, it was just SO REFRESHING on a hot August day.

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Like Africa, Asia has a major animal exhibit, the Maharajah Jungle Trek. One of the most popular inhabitants are the bats.

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You'll also encounter deer along the trail.

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Not surprisingly there's an aviary -- with birds!

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They're all quite unique looking (I guess I'm not super familiar with Asian birds).

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The stars of Maharajah Jungle Trek, though, are the tigers.

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Much like Pangani Forest, this is an excellent zoological exhibit that is a must during every Animal Kingdom visit.

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The Asia section of the park is also home to the Flights of Wonder bird show (you knew there had to be a bird show at the Animal Kingdom, right?). Owls are featured...

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...as are cranes.

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And no bird show would be complete without a bald eagle. (You could argue that the bald eagle is out of place in Asia, but that would be splitting hairs. Or should I say splitting feathers?)

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The gibbons are located in this jungle temple exhibit, which is a pretty elaborate structure.

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Before moving on to Dinoland U.S.A., let's check out the gibbons (not monkeys!) that can be found near the entrance to Flights of Wonder and Kali River Rapids.

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So elaborate, in fact, that the temple even features a dentist's office!

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Okay, time for the final themed area of the park, Dinoland U.S.A. The top draw here is of course Dinosaur.

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Dinosaur has you traveling into the past 65 million years to bring an Iguanodon back to present time. Your trip mostly involves escaping the ferocious Carnotaurus and avoiding the imminent extinction-causing asteroid. It's all very dark, loud, and frantic. Technologically Dinosaur works the same as Indiana Jones at Disneyland, and that's a good thing. While I'd rank Indy slightly higher, this one is still excellent. Indiana Jones is my favorite ride at Disneyland, and if I wasn't such a fan of Kilimanjaro Safaris, Dinosaur would be my favorite ride at Animal Kingdom.

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Dinoland U.S.A. is also where you'll find the park's second coaster, Primeval Whirl.

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It's a typical spinning mouse made somewhat unique by the (intentionally) cheesy theming and the fact that there are actually two coasters here, side-by-side and mirror images of each other.

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Primeval Whirl is fun enough for a minor coaster diversion. Interestingly, it has one of the most restrictive height requirements (48") in all of Disney World.

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Dinoland's Theater in the Wild is the venue for the Finding Nemo Musical. While Finding Nemo doesn't really fit the dinosaur theme of the land, neither did the former Jungle Book or Tarzan shows that were presented here, and this is a MUCH better production than those were.

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Imagine a 30-minute version of the Finding Nemo movie featuring puppets that talk and sing and you have the basic idea of how this show works.

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It may not sound all that terribly spectacular, but it actually kind of is. I wasn't expecting too much from Finding Nemo and was therefore almost shocked by how good it was. The staging and puppetry are extremely elaborate, and the songs are really quite great. I had thought forcing a bunch of original songs into the show to make it a musical would be totally corny, but they worked incredibly well within the story. In my opinion, this one has surpassed Festival of the Lion King to become the park's best show.

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The final "attraction" in Dinoland is more of a pseudo-attraction, a walking path that used to be called Cretaceous Trail but now seems to just be another walkway within the park. Most of what you'll see here are plants that were abundant during the Mesozoic era, such as cycads.

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There are a few animals as well, including this impressive crocodile. However, what do you think are the most common animals encountered along the Cretaceous Trail?

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You guessed it -- BIRDS! This totally makes sense, though, as birds are living dinosaurs.

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I thought I'd finish up with a few shots of the wonderful scenery throughout the park. Here's the Discovery River and its surrounding vegetation.

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A peaceful forest stream in Camp Minnie-Mickey.

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And finally the lush tropical jungles of Africa. Overall it was a great visit, and having now completed the Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom, we've finished the major Disney World parks for this 2012 trip. However, we're not entirely done with Walt Disney World. What could be next? Coming up soon...

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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.

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Welcome to Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf.

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We'll start with the Gardens Course.

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The classical music heard throughout the film is played throughout your 18-hole mini golf experience as well.

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Fantasia characters are prominently featured, including the dancing hippos...

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...and their dancing partners, the alligators.

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One hole is themed to the sorcerer Yen Sid...

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...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.

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Time now for the Fairways Course.

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This course features rolling terrain, sand traps, and other realistic hazards and obstacles.

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Doesn't it look fantastic?

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If you can avoid all of those sand traps you're a better golfer than I am.

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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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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.

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First stop along the main Everglades route is Anhinga Trail, probably the most photographed and familiar location in the entire national park.

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The reason this spot is so famous is because it typifies what the Everglades is all about -- low-growing vegetation inundated by water.

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It's really quite fascinating to see entire plants completely submerged underwater (look carefully, there IS a layer of water here).

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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.

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The Everglades' well-known boardwalks enable visitors to navigate the marsh.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Up next is the Pinelands Trail.

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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.

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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!

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Very pleasant, relaxing, and enjoyable.

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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...

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...the River of Grass.

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River of Grass is certainly an appropriate name.

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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.

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Moving on, we arrive at Mahogany Hammock. As you can see, it's an "island" of hardwood trees surrounded by water and grasses.

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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.

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The boardwalk meanders through the darkened hammock interior...

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...and the trees surround and cover the entire trail.

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Plant life growing on plant life growing on more plant life.

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Nearing the end.

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Emerging back into the sunlight.

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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.

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When I say extremely dense, I mean it! It's basically a tangled mass of mangroves.

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Yet somehow the boardwalk still manages to wind its way through.

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What's going on here? Murder in the Everglades?!?

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No, it's actually the tannins produced by the salt-tolerant, prop-rooted, brackish-water mangroves. Like I said, pretty cool.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Because it's brackish water again, mangrove trees can be found lining the waterway.

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Lots of mangrove trees!

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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.

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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...

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...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.

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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.

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A lizard trying to get some sun along the West Lake Trail.

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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.

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A neat-looking snail in the Mahogany Hammock.

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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...

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...alligators! No trip would be complete without seeing at least a few.

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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...

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...fungi! There were tons to be found decomposing the remains of trees in the Mahogany Hammock.

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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.

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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.

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Inside, there are two central pools containing rays and sea turtles, surrounded by a bunch of typical aquarium tanks.

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Stonefish.

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Bonnetheads.

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Lobster.

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Eel.

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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.

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I finished with a stop at the concrete buoy marking the southernmost point of the continental United States -- just 90 miles to Cuba!

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Key West Florida, home of the sunset indeed.

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  • 2 months later...

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.

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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.

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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.)

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Congo River Rapids is a decent whitewater raft ride.

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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.

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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!).

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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.)

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Hmmm, then we get to Gwazi.

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Here we are at Busch Gardens Tampa. What shall we do first?

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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.

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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.

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There's actually a nice pop of airtime coming off of the hill entering the top of the tower...

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...and then more great airtime diving down the drop that exits the tower.

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The cheetah leaps over the skyride next.

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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.

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Following the midcourse brakes, the coaster zigzags low to the ground through the remnants of Rhino Rally's former water portion.

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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!

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Adjacent to the Cheetah Hunt coaster is the Cheetah Run exhibit.

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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).

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It's definitely impressive.

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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.

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The next new coaster at BGT for me was Sheikra.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Up next is Montu.

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Another B&M coaster, this one inverted.

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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!)

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There's yet another B&M coaster at BGT -- Kumba.

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Signature Kumba shot.

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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.

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There's also an awesome classic compact looping Schwarzkopf coaster at the park (could I have squeezed any more adjectives into that description?).

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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.

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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.

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Nearby to Scorpion in the Timbuktu area of the park (the future Pantopia area of the park) is Sand Serpent.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Serengeti Express Train encircles the entire Serengeti Plain, so it offers a better view of the area.

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Lots of animals to see.

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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.

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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.

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Feeding time for the giraffes.

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Scale down from the giraffes to find the meerkats.

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On guard.

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Edge of Africa has a large freshwater habitat featuring an abundance of native fish species.

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Look past the fish decoys, however, and you'll find the exhibit's principal inhabitant.

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Flee the exhibit if those ears start wiggling!

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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.

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Another elaborate animal exhibit is Myombe Reserve, home to BGT's gorillas (and chimpanzees).

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Outside of Myombe Reserve is the alligator habitat, always quite popular due to its location near the park entrance.

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The elephant exhibit is next to Rhino Rally, and you can see the elephants both on and off the ride.

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In addition, there are a bunch of other animal encounters in this section of the park (Nairobi).

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Giant tortoise.

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River otters.

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Curiosity Caverns is the park's nocturnal house, featuring a collection of creepy-crawlies (snakes and spiders), plus bats.

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There's also this cute little critter, the cotton-top tamarin.

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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.

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It's mostly birds at Jambo Junction, but a few other animals are represented as well.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Orangutans are also prominently featured in Jungala.

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From Asia, let's head down to Australia.

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Walkabout Way is home to quite a large number of kangaroos and wallabies. Not only do you get to look at them...

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...you also get to feed them. Lots of fun for the kids (including us big kids; it was admittedly fun for me too!).

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Walkabout Way houses some other residents as well, including this crazy three-legged, two-headed emu mutant.

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On the subject of birds, Lory Landing is located nearby to Walkabout Way.

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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.

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I don't need no stinkin' nectar.

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You can find this anteater just outside Lory Landing.

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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.

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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...

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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.

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Time to begin August 2013!

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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.

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The park has two coasters, Quicksilver Express being the "big" one.

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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.

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The ride has a nice variety of elements, a great setting, and some pretty decent theming. A perfect fit for the park.

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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.

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POV of Timber Twister snaking through the woods.

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The Sideway Rope Rectangle tree.

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The flat rides have some fun theming, such as the Banana Split swinging ship.

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The perfectly themed Mushroom Swing.

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Instead of teacups, Gilroy Gardens has Garlic Twirl. (Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world after all.)

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Balloon Flight is curiously not themed to anything botanical. Just balloons.

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The Illions Supreme Carousel, a prized attraction at the park.

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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...

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...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!)

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Zig-Zag tree.

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South County Backroads is a track-guided car ride where you can choose between driving a 1950's auto...

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...or one from the 1920's.

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Either way, it's a lengthy and enjoyable ride with plenty of trees and other plant life to look at.

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Next up are the Rainbow Garden Boats.

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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.

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Rainbow Garden Boat Ride POV!

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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).

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The Paddle Boats let you choose between a swan, a duck, or a rubber ducky(!).

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On this one you can get up close to some of the park's extremely photogenic waterfalls.

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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.

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The Four-Legged Giant.

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The Sky Trail Monorail passes right next to the Four-Legged Giant.

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The Sky Trail Monorail is exactly what it sounds like -- an elevated monorail ride that winds its way through one corner of the park.

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The Coyote & Redwood Railroad, alternatively, travels around the entire park perimeter.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Yep, the Sky Trail Monorail passes right through Monarch Garden.

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Great canopy-level views of the garden from the monorail.

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And in case the footpaths and monorail aren't enough to get your fill, there's yet a third way to view the exhibit...

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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!

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Oil Well tree.

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Up next is the park's walkthrough maze, called Pinnacles Rock Maze.

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A look from above (in case you want to cheat and map it out beforehand).

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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.

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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).

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The path that takes you behind the main falls emerges in front of a couple additional waterfalls.

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The Emblem tree.

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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.

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Stop and smell. (I know they're not roses.)

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Another scenic spot.

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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.

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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.

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