If you’re planning an extended vacation and want to explore other Orlando parks, or if you’re just looking to see a different part of Florida, I’ve got two recommendations. The first, much like Disney itself, is a theme park/resort with tons of cool attractions and an all-inclusive vacation experience. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m referring to Universal Studios, Disney’s Orlando cousin.
Universal can feel a lot like Disney, especially at first glance. This can be a good thing if you love the theme park experience but feel like you’ve done everything there is to do at Disney and are looking for something new. Universal is a very similar vacation, but the attractions and themes are decidedly different. Many of the rides at Universal are built for an older crowd, and while Disney tends to focus on princesses and happily ever after, Universal Studios has an entire land dedicated to the Simpsons. But much like Disney, Universal contains multiple parks (Islands of Adventure and the actual Universal Studios, specifically), that have some really great rides and dining options. My personal favorite part of Universal Studios are the Harry Potter pavilions, Hogsmeade and the recently-added Diagon Alley. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, these parks are a must see, and feel very much as if you’ve walked right into the books.
If you want a break from all the theme parks and are looking for something much calmer, I recommend visiting Clearwater Beach, just outside of Tampa. The beach is situated directly on the Gulf of Mexico, and the place is absolutely breathtaking. I recently stayed at the Sandpearl Resort, which is right on the beach, and the ambiance and amenities of the place were unbelievable. It was the perfect place for a weekend getaway where you can relax by the pool and on the sand. The surrounding town has some pretty neat shops, and if you get the chance, take one of the sunset cruises available—you won’t regret it!
The widely-anticipated expansion of Animal Kingdom currently scheduled to hit Disney Parks in 2017 is well underway—but what exactly is it? Right now it’s being referred to as “Avatar Land,” and will take the shape of the extra-terrestrial world of Pandora as seen in the 2009 blockbuster, Avatar. Imagineers have played this one pretty close to the vest so far, but here are a few things you can expect from the expansion:
– The new land will be built in the former area of Camp Minnie-Mickey. Character greeting spots previously held here have been moved to Discovery Island or discontinued completely. Festival of the Lion King has been relocated as well.
– Imagineers have been working closely with James Cameron, director of the franchise, to make the pavilion appear as close as possible to the world developed in the movie.
– The expansion will see new hours coming to Animal Kingdom; the park is expected to stay open later at night to accommodate evening shows and glow-in-the-dark attractions.
– Avatar Land will be designed as a “walk-through attraction,” with amazing sights and sounds at every turn; this currently includes floating “Hallelujah Mountains,” as well as bio-luminescent and interactive plants.
– Two main rides are assumed so far: a boat tour through Pandora and a 3-D flying ride similar to Soarin’. The boat ride is expected to be (at least in part) housed in a dark, indoor showroom (concept art pictured above). The flying ride will be similarly constructed, and will allow guests to ride on enormous flying beasts called ‘Banshees’ as they take an aerial tour of Pandora.
– The pavilion will include several themed restaurants and gift shops.
– Some suggest that the Tree of Life will be getting a glow-in-the-dark makeover to tie the park’s landmark back to Pandora.
– Reports indicate that a new nighttime show called “Rivers of Light” will be taking place along Discovery River, and will feature live music, floating lanterns, water screens, and swirling animal imagery.
If you’re interested in the man behind the magic or any of his original projects, you can learn about Walt and the early Disney animations at several cool attractions in Hollywood Studios. These relaxing walk-throughs and exhibits are perfect for some down time you might have on your trip, and will appeal to fans that grew up on Disney Renaissance films or those who aspire to be Imagineers.
For a unique perspective on Walt and his imagination, you’ll want to check out Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream. This attraction is like a step back in time, with antique items from Walt’s childhood home and original proposals for Disney World. You can see retro animations and models for future rides in the parks. There’s a lot to browse here, and aside from being an insider look at the very place you’re vacationing in, you’ll also get a nice, air-conditioned break from the hustle and bustle of the parks (especially if you stay for the 15-minute movie at the end!).
You should also stop by the Magic of Disney Animation, which offers behind-the-scenes glimpses at the makings of the classics like Snow White and The Little Mermaid. Original sketches are on display, and the attraction even functions as the office of several artists who will doodle right in front of you. Check some concept art and discarded drawings, as well as storyboards and gorgeous, in-depth paintings. You can also participate! Young ones will enjoy making their own sketches and learning the basics of animation.
One of the best things about Disney World is the wide array of spectacular shows, fireworks displays, and parades held held throughout the parks. Each of them is themed differently and offers a unique experience. Here are my top five favorites:
This classic Hollywood Studios water show stars Sorcerer Mickey and takes audiences on a journey through iconic Disney animated films. Following the narrative of a dream sequence, characters like Simba, Pocahontas, Ursula, Jafar, and Maleficent all make appearances as Mickey tries break the nightmare. The show ultimately culminates with a fireworks celebration and a journey on the Steamboat Willie River Boat. It’s not the best that Disney has to offer, but everyone should see it at least once.
4. Main Street Electrical Parade
I’m not the biggest fan of parades, but this one is worth it; held after dusk in Magic Kingdom, the Main Street Electrical Parade features enormous glow-in-the-dark floats that travel around the park. Some of the stories represented are Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Cinderella. The beauty of this parade is breathtaking, and it’s a great way to cap off your night in Magic Kingdom.
3. Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights
This holiday extravaganza can be found in Hollywood Studios during Christmas time. The Streets of America are draped in millions of sparkling lights that flash to various Christmas songs. The sheer magnitude of this show is unbelievable, and it’s really something that everyone should experience at least once. The details on each building are incredible, and each new song that plays features something different. You can catch the Dancing Lights show on select nights from November to January.
This Epcot must-see is completely different than any other show at Disney—it’s not based on anything mythology from the movies, but rather it features a premise designed by Walt himself. Epcot as a whole is meant to bring nations and cultures together to work towards a brighter future, and IllumiNations inspires just that. The show takes place in the center of World Showcase Lagoon when all the countries around it go dark. A metallic globe rotates on the water and captivating images are projected onto it as it turns. It eventually cracks open and makes way for a gorgeous and inspiring fireworks display. I revisit this show each time I come to Disney, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone for something a little different.
You probably saw this coming, right? Wishes is the ultimate Disney experience; there’s nothing quite like gathering on Main Street when the sun goes down to watch the Castle light up and hear your favorite characters come to life as fireworks adorn the sky. The movie scores and original songs that play during the show are a stirring encapsulation of what Disney is all about, and there’s nothing quite like seeing the Castle transform right before your eyes. In the end, it’s nothing short of magical.