Just read through this whole thread in one sitting -- a very quick hour and a half!
I'm impressed not just by the pictures, but by the way you combine them with the ride reviews and park descriptions to really capture the essence of each place. Great work, and can't wait for the next segment!
I would love to visit SFDK as I really like the looks of their unique coasters/flat rides as well as their animal collection & shows. Not quite sure how I missed this park when we were visiting Oakland/SF for a wedding a few years back!
For the second part of my August 2013 trip, it was back to Florida, Disney World, and beyond Disney World. Because I had just visited Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom during my August 2012 trip, I opted against those two parks. Also, because the new Fantasyland was still under construction, I figured I'd wait on the Magic Kingdom. That left Epcot, which worked out perfectly -- I didn't do Epcot in 2012, since Test Track was closed for its extensive refurbishment that year. This year, however, the newly renovated version was open and ready for me to ride.
I have visited Epcot twice previously, but it's been quite some time (the 1990/1991 and 1998/1999 winter holidays). In addition to Test Track, there have been several major and minor additions and removals since then, with Mission: Space being probably the most significant. Pretty much every Future World pavilion has changed in some way (maybe not Ellen's Energy Adventure?), and there have been changes to World Showcase too. With everything new, plus the classic attractions that I remember so well, I was very eagerly anticipating my return visit to Epcot.
It's kind of impossible to begin an Epcot photo trip report without a shot of Spaceship Earth, so I won't even try.
While Spaceship Earth marks the entrance to the entire park, it specifically marks the entrance to the Future World half of the park, so a ride through the giant sphere seems like an appropriate way to start the day.
The ride focuses on the history of communication, slowly moving through scenes from ancient to modern times. Here are the Egyptians...
...and here are the Greeks. With all the other civilizations presented, the ride provides kind of a whirlwind tour of world history.
Beginning the computer age. While several of the scenes during the ride's ascent have remained the same, the narration has changed each time I'm visited -- from Walter Cronkite during my first trip to Jeremy Irons during my second to now Judi Dench.
The descent portion of the ride has significantly changed, with the addition of the new interactive component that allows riders to build their own future. It's corny but works well here and is admittedly fun to do.
A look at the sphere from the back side (if there is a back side to a sphere!). It's quite impressive to think that there's a massive dark ride housed inside this structure, and while the ride itself is slow and gentle, it's still exciting to travel up and down through the sphere. Add the interactive elements to the mix, as well as the fact that this is such a Disney icon to begin with, and Spaceship Earth ranks as one of my favorites at Epcot.
Just beyond Spaceship Earth is Innoventions. I had one specific objective in mind for this pavilion...
...Sum of All Thrills, a brand new attraction for me.
While I have been on these Kuka robotic arms before (at Legoland California), I was looking forward to riding one based on my own roller coaster creation. It was lots of fun, though perhaps not quite as extreme as I was anticipating (likely because my coaster design just wasn't extreme enough). It was also very popular (and low capacity), so the wait for Sum of All Thrills was probably the longest in the entire park.
While in Innoventions, I did try out a couple of the other exhibits. Stormstruck is a 3D movie that teaches you how to prepare your home for severe weather. I liked it. I also tried the Great Piggy Bank Adventure, Epcot's description of which reads "this interactive adventure guides you through the ups and downs of saving and investing." If that doesn't scream theme park fun, I don't know what does! It was surprisingly well done, but very geared towards children.
Up next is Ellen's Energy Adventure, an update of the original Universe of Energy pavilion. The solar cells, giant moving theater cars, and primeval world display were all part of this attraction back when I first visited in 1990, and they're still major components of the attraction today.
The Ellen update, which was in place by my 1998 visit, added Bill Nye, Jeopardy, and some much needed humor to the pavilion (I remember the original version being quite the snooze fest). It's still very lengthy (45 minutes!), but with a cohesive beginning, middle, and end it works well and is actually quite enjoyable. The only problem is, with all the alternative sources of energy being explored these days, their lack of inclusion here does make the attraction once again feel dated. Another new version of Universe of Energy is therefore probably in order.
The only entirely new pavilion added to Epcot since my previous visit has been Mission: Space, one of two major thrill rides at the park (one of three if you include Sum of All Thrills).
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Mission: Space, and while I was very excited to try it, all the stories you hear about it and all the warnings posted about it did make me a little leery. I'll admit that I therefore opted for the mild Green version first, just to learn what the ride was about. Ride #2, though, was the intense Orange version.
My thoughts: 1) I was never entirely clear whether the ride was simulating a training mission to Mars or an actual mission to Mars (for whatever reason that discrepancy bothered me). 2) I don't suffer from claustrophobia, so I rather enjoyed the confined capsules and small screens. 3) The "assignments" that riders get (pushing buttons, handling control sticks) are basically pointless but do add to the fun. 4) The positive g-forces during the launch are indeed some of the most extreme I've ever experienced on a ride -- there was definitely unpleasantness involved. However, this effect added greatly to the realism. 5) The negative-g weightlessness was pretty cool too, though you sort of had to force it to get that full sensation. 6) My final analysis of Mission: Space -- I kind of loved it! It isn't something I'd repeat again and again in one day, but, just because it's so different from anything I've ever ridden at a theme park, it really did win me over.
Epcot's other major thrill ride is of course Test Track.
I'm not sure how I'd rate the new version of Test Track against the old version (I'm also not sure how I'd rate Test Track against Radiator Springs Racers at DCA, but that's for another time). The new futuristic theming is interesting, though I might argue the original theming was more appropriate for the attraction. The actual ride itself is (I believe) unchanged. And it's a good one.
The interactive addition to Test Track version 2 allows guests to design their own vehicles, which are rated throughout the ride based on power, efficiency, and a couple other measures. I wasn't overly eager to do this in advance, but I discovered pretty quickly that the objective wasn't really to plan out the design; instead, it was simply to create the biggest monstrosity possible!
I only rode once, so I don't have much basis for comparison, but I was proud that my creation scored 212, only 15 points away from the day's top design.
The Imagination pavilion is by far the most head-scratching at the park.
I'm not entirely sure what the Journey into Imagination with Figment dark ride is supposed to be about. At first it seems to be about the various human senses, but only two or three end up being included.
I won't say Captain EO is any better or worse than Honey, I Shrunk the Audience (the 3D show it replaced). But while Honey, I Shrunk the Audience at least fit in with the Imagination Institute theme, Captain EO just adds to Imagination's overall incoherence.
I'm not advocating for the removal of another pavilion (I wish Wonders of Life still existed!), but I think a complete overhaul of Imagination is certainly called for at this point. To come to its defense somewhat, the surrounding area does look nice.
Next up is the Land, which also looks nice, both outside and inside (I've always liked the bright central food court area and the high ceiling).
One of the most popular attractions at Epcot (if not THE most popular attraction at Epcot) is housed inside the Land. While Soarin' was a new ride for me here, I've been on it many times at California Adventure -- it's great, but because it is identical at both parks I only rode once and didn't think about it much beyond that.
The Living with the Land boat ride, on the other hand, is very unique to Epcot. I remember it well from my previous visits, but I still rode more than once (more than twice!) during this visit.
Living with the Land first travels through scenes depicting different ecosystems (forest, desert, grassland, etc.). The boat then makes its way through several greenhouses, within which a variety of crop plants are grown hydroponically.
The ride features not only agriculture...
...but aquaculture as well.
While I could conceivably imagine guests being bored by this attraction, it never seems to turn out that way -- everyone appears interested (some even fascinated) by it, and it's definitely one of my Epcot favorites. (I do kind of miss the live tour guides, though I understand why they're not really necessary anymore.) Before leaving the Land pavilion, I should also mention the Circle of Life film that plays here. Focusing on conservation, I'm sure it's nothing that everybody hasn't already seen and heard before, but it's worthwhile nonetheless.
The final Future World pavilion is the Seas with Nemo and Friends, a re-theme of the former Living Seas pavilion. I remember three things about the Living Seas from my prior visits -- the hydrolators, the seacabs, and the giant Sea Base Alpha aquarium.
The hydrolators are now gone (not a huge loss I guess, as they were pretty cheesy, but it might have been nice to have them incorporated into the new attraction). The seacabs have been converted to "clammobiles" that travel through a Finding Nemo story. I had no idea prior to boarding that this was the exact same projection-based ride as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage at Disneyland.
Much like DL's Submarine Voyage, I'm not a huge fan of this Finding Nemo ride. It's not a major concern though, as I seem to remember the former seacab ride being kind of lacking to begin with, plus the Sea Base Alpha aquarium (or whatever it's currently called) is still intact, and that is the headliner attraction at this pavilion.
The aquarium is huge, featuring an enormous diversity of marine life.
In addition, there are plenty of separate, smaller exhibit tanks.
Always a popular aquarium inhabitant.
I'm not sure which fish is more odd-looking, this one...
...or this one.
We're in Florida, so you can bet there will be manatees.
We're in a Finding Nemo attraction at Disney World, so you can bet there will be clownfish.
I found a whole bunch of Nemos.
Turtle Talk is the final new addition to the revamped Seas pavilion.
Though children are definitely the target audience here, the technology is reasonably impressive enough to even merit a look by adults without kids. Keep in mind that the comedy in the show can be very hit-or-miss, depending on the participants chosen to converse with Crush.
We now move from the Future World half of the park to the World Showcase half of the park. While Future World is definitely unique as far as theme parks and theme park attractions go, its collection of headliner rides still makes it the "more typical" theme park part of Epcot. It will therefore probably be the favorite of guests looking for thrills and excitement. World Showcase, on the other hand, is extremely atypical, with a significantly slower pace and not a thrill ride to be found. However, I would argue (and I'm sure I'm not alone here) that being immersed in the various countries of the world is equally as exciting, and I imagine this part of the park will be the favorite of many guests for that reason alone. It is difficult for me to choose which half of Epcot I like best, but with all its detail and authenticity, World Showcase probably has a slight edge over Future World.
Let's begin with Mexico, represented by this impressive pyramid.
The majority of the pavilion's restaurants and shops are housed within the (very large) pyramid, where the theme becomes a Mexican village at night. This is also the location of the Gran Fiesta Tour boat ride.
The ride begins by drifting past a glowing pyramid and smoking volcanoes. (This scene is also visible from the rest of the pavilion.) I really like the mood created by this beginning portion -- tropical and exciting. Plus it reminds me of the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland, with the ride and sets on one side overlooked by restaurant seating on the other.
As the boat continues on, it enters scenes very reminiscent of It's a Small World, with doll children playing musical instruments and dancing (not so much singing though).
A few skeletons join the children during today's Dia de los Muertos party (this ride really is a cross between It's a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean!).
The relatively new Three Caballeros overlay includes Panchito and Jose Carioca chasing after Donald Duck, who is on a sightseeing tour of Mexico. The three animated characters are mixed with live-action footage on video displays throughout the attraction. I think this is actually an improvement over the former Rio del Tiempo ride, as the videos allow a bit of modern Mexico to now be showcased. Overall I like Gran Fiesta Tour; I know it doesn't have the best reputation, but to me it's a typical (and therefore enjoyable) Disney boat ride. (As a complete aside, I think the Disney animated film Saludos Amigos is much better than the similarly themed but overblown The Three Caballeros. Just wanted to put that out there in case you were thinking of watching one.)
One last look at the Mexico pavilion before moving on.
Mexico's next-door neighbor in World Showcase is Norway, represented by a medieval stave church.
Though the church is the focal point of the Norway pavilion, I don't think many guests realize you can actually go inside of it; there is a small museum gallery within, which provides a nice, quick break to your busy Epcot day -- cool, quiet, and uncrowded.
The exhibit on display during my 2013 visit presented a brief history of the Vikings.
I believe the exhibit has since changed, to something Frozen-based no doubt. (Take that, Rognvald -- your 300-year raid of Europe is no match for two fairytale princesses!)
Beyond the stave church, other architectural points of interest in the Norway pavilion include this fortress...
...and this courtyard, which of course leads to the pavilion's main attraction, Maelstrom. I'm glad I got to ride Maelstrom one last time before its Frozen conversion, as it holds much nostalgic value for me. Visiting Epcot as a child, I absolutely loved the ride -- the darkness and moodiness were very exciting, and the trolls and forward and backward flume drops were so thrilling. That said, I'm sure the Frozen ride will also be loved by the next generation, so I'll look forward to riding it too.
At World Showcase it's just a short walk from North America to Europe to Asia. This triple-arched ceremonial gate serves as the entrance to China.
You'll find plenty of shopping and dining opportunities as you stroll through this very attractive pavilion.
In fact, China would get my vote as one of the two most attractive pavilions in all of World Showcase (the other being Japan). That is a tough call, as Italy, Canada, and all of the countries for that matter are portrayed so beautifully. However, China has such a tranquil and relaxing atmosphere that it is especially peaceful and picturesque.
The pavilion's major attraction is the Circle-Vision film Reflections of China, housed within the Temple of Heaven.
Reflections of China is an update of the former Wonders of China film that played during my previous Epcot visits. I'll be honest, I don't remember that one much. However, Reflections of China ended up being my favorite of World Showcase's three film-based shows (China, Canada, and France) -- this film did the best job of making me want to visit the actual country.
Back to Europe now for Germany.
The statue and clock tower are two of the more prominent architectural displays at this pavilion.
Lacking a signature attraction, the Germany pavilion is instead all about the shops and restaurants. German chocolates and caramels, plus Oktoberfest food and beer, seem to be the most popular.
The same could be said for the Italy pavilion (substituting Italian food for German food of course!).
Epcot's Fountain of Neptune.
While every pavilion at Epcot is amazingly intricate and elaborate, there's something about the Italy pavilion that is particularly striking and ornate.
Centrally located at the far end of World Showcase is the U.S. of A.
Decked out nice and patriotically, the colonial-inspired Liberty Theatre presents the highlight of this pavilion, the American Adventure show.
Here's the preshow rotunda, all glistening and immaculate.
The show itself is easily the best in World Showcase, not simply a film but rather a large-scale production. Ben Franklin and Mark Twain guide us through a history of the United States, featuring elaborate sets and lots of Audio Animatronic characters. I'm a sucker for a good montage, and this show's finale, set to the uplifting "Golden Dream" score, is a winner. (The tear-jerking "Two Brothers" is also very memorable; just FYI, both of these songs can be heard during Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland as well.)
Look behind you before moving on from the American Adventure pavilion...
...for a nice view of Spaceship Earth across World Showcase Lagoon.
No need to cross the Pacific going from the United States to Japan; at Epcot they're only a few steps apart. In addition to the torii gate at the front of the pavilion (along the water's edge)...
...the pagoda is definitely the most conspicuous structure here.
Even so, there are plenty of other authentic and attractive Japanese buildings housing the pavilion's shops and restaurants, each surrounded by perfectly manicured landscaping.
As already mentioned, China and Japan get my vote as the two most attractive pavilions in all of World Showcase; the gardens and ponds here are so calming and soothing they're almost therapeutic.
One more look at the pagoda and gardens. Another pavilion without a major attraction (there is an art gallery), Japan is so serene and relaxing that a major attraction really isn't needed.
Morocco is Africa's only representation in World Showcase.
While all of the other countries have a slightly more glamorized feel to them, Morocco feels a bit "dirtier" -- and I mean that in the very best possible way. The authenticity of a dry, windswept, dusty pavilion in the middle of the Atlas Mountains or Sahara Desert is perfectly realized here at Morocco.
There is certainly still some glamour -- the arch and fountain are kind of fancy.
I really admire the look of the entire pavilion. This scene so reminds me of Casablanca, one of my all-time favorite movies and a city I'd love to visit.
France wouldn't be France without the Eiffel Tower.
The main attraction at this pavilion is Impressions de France, a sit-down non-Circle Vision film. Of the World Showcase shows, this one would be my least favorite. It's nice enough, but there is extremely minimal narration, so everything you're looking at throughout the film isn't really described or explained. Also, without narration, it's all very quiet, which does make it a bit sleepy.
Not to worry, though, as the rest of the pavilion is so detailed and impressive.
See what I mean?
Relax in a Parisian neighborhood with a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, or an ice cream.
Visiting Epcot as a kid, I never ate at any of the expensive World Showcase restaurants, as it would not have been very practical for my family of six (two parents plus four children) to do so. I therefore made it a point during this trip to try one of them; I chose Les Chefs de France.
It was well worth it, beginning with a salad and French onion soup, followed by the main course of either filet mignon or salmon. I can't remember exactly how they described this sauce, but it was delicious.
And here's dessert!
A little entertainment while dining. I should note that the servers were all so polite, professional, and friendly, more than happy to talk about the restaurant and France in general (the actual country, not just the Epcot pavilion). It felt a little odd being hot and sweaty and wearing grungy theme park clothes in a formal restaurant, but I imagine patrons must always look that way.
Up next is the United Kingdom, where the restaurants...
...and even the restrooms are very decorative, with plenty of British charm.
The eleventh and final country in World Showcase is Canada, yet another one that looks absolutely incredible IMHO.
The pavilion's major attraction is the Circle-Vision film O Canada! (not located in these buildings; the actual location of the film is somewhat modest and inconspicuous). The film has been updated since the last time I was here, now starring Martin Short and incorporating more comedy than any of the other World Showcase shows. Martin Short is definitely not my favorite, but he's not overly annoying here, and O Canada is actually pretty good.
My favorite part of the pavilion, though, is all the rustic outdoorsy wilderness.
Yep, Canada definitely gives China and Japan a run for their money.
Epcot's nighttime finale is of course IllumiNations.
The show features the brightly lit countries of World Showcase lining World Showcase Lagoon, along with dancing fountains within World Showcase Lagoon, all surrounding the centerpiece -- a rotating globe.
In typical Disney nighttime fashion there are also pyrotechnics.
I know this is a very highly regarded production, and I do remember liking it from my previous Epcot visit, but I have to be honest and say I just didn't get it this time around. I think we had a decent viewing spot, so I really wonder if we somehow got a dud performance, as I swear 75% of the time was spent doing nothing more than simply watching the globe slowly spin in circles. The fireworks and lasers, when they did occur, were nowhere near on par with other Disney fireworks displays. When the show was over, my group kind of looked at each other confused, and all agreed it was pretty much lame. I know that's blasphemous speak regarding IllumiNations, so I again hope something was just off during this particular performance. I won't hesitate to give it another chance next time.
Not sure when that next time will be, but hopefully it's sooner rather than later. It was a great return visit to Epcot, and I can't wait to do it again.
Before leaving Disney World, my 2013 visit included two smaller attractions that I'd never done before. Because my 2012 trip included a stop at Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf, I figured this year I'd go ahead and try Winter Summerland Miniature Golf. Winter Summerland seems to be the slightly lesser known of the two WDW mini golf courses, with a reputation as the "more typical, less elaborate" course. Keep in mind, though, that "more typical" and "less elaborate" by Disney standards still equate to pretty atypical and very elaborate, and I found Winter Summerland to be an excellent mini golf course, quite on par (pun intended) with Fantasia Gardens.
The other attraction on the agenda was Characters in Flight at Downtown Disney. I've wanted to try one of these tethered hot air balloon rides for some time, but I've never gotten around to it anywhere until now. Rising 400 feet above the ground, Characters in Flight was an exciting way to view not just the Downtown Disney district, but much of the rest of Disney World as well. I therefore give two positive recommendations to Winter Summerland Miniature Golf and Characters in Flight; they're well worth working into your WDW schedule if you've got some extra time outside of the big four parks.
Themed to Santa on vacation, Winter Summerland features two courses -- the snow course (winter) and the sand course (summer).
I'll start with the snow course and its glistening ice castles.
Everything is so icy blue-white it almost hurts your eyes.
The winter theming is nicely integrated throughout each hole, not just as decoration but as the holes' various obstacles.
More winter theming, more fun obstacles.
The sand course has (quite logically) sand castles instead of ice castles.
Note the similarities in the set-up of the sand and snow courses.
It's in the sand course, however, that the unique and creative theme of "Santa on summer vacation" can be whimsically displayed.
The final few holes of both courses converge at Santa's lodge.
While I can't remember for sure which of these remaining pictures belong to the snow course and which belong to the sand course, it doesn't really matter, as both become similarly Christmas themed here.
Again, the theming and the obstacles go hand-in-hand.
More wonderful theming. It's kind of hard to go wrong with the combination of Disney, Christmas, and mini golf, and these final few holes will manage to put you in the Christmas spirit even in the middle of August in Florida!
I finished both courses well under par 56 (scores of 44 and 45), so I'm either a pro mini golfer (doubtful) or par is unnecessarily high (much more likely). Either way, a fun time was had at Winter Summerland Miniature Golf.
Next up is Characters in Flight, the tethered hot air balloon that floats 400 feet above Downtown Disney.
It's called Characters in Flight because the ride is (very loosely) themed to several of Disney's most famous animated flying characters; Dumbo, Peter Pan, Buzz Lightyear, and Aladdin and Jasmine on their magic carpet are all pictured around the balloon.
The loading platform.
Beginning the ascent.
Depending on the weather (temperature, precipitation, wind), the balloon may not make it all the way to 400 feet (or may not operate at all). We had a warm, calm day though, so we spent the entire flight at the maximum height.
And here's the stunning view from 400 feet up.
Two Downtown Disney attractions, Splitsville and DisneyQuest, that I didn't do during this trip but that I just might try in the future. (I know DisneyQuest is closing, but remember, this trip was in 2013, so there has been some time to get back to DisneyQuest since then...)
Epcot can be seen off in the distance, which seemed fitting after having just visited this park. The specific structures here are Spaceship Earth, Universe of Energy, and the (sadly) SBNO Wonders of Life.
Characters in Flight costs $18 for an approximately 10-minute experience, so it's not something I would necessarily pay to do over and over as a frequent WDW guest.
However, since I don't visit WDW all that often and I'd never been on a tethered hot air balloon ride anywhere before, I was glad to give this a try once. Scenic and relaxing but exciting all at the same time -- definitely worth it.
Following Disney World, I included a few non-Disney attractions in my 2013 Florida trip. Of the other major parks in Central Florida, I had just visited Busch Gardens in 2012, so I decided against returning there so soon. I also opted against Universal, as those parks had extensive Harry Potter construction going on at the time. I therefore chose SeaWorld -- I didn't do SeaWorld in 2012, since Antarctica was being built that summer, but this summer Antarctica was open and a major new attraction, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to visit. It was also a nice park to follow up Busch Gardens from the previous year.
I'd been to SeaWorld Orlando once before (during the 2002/2003 winter holiday). Along with Antarctica, the other major addition since then has of course been Manta. Turtle Trek is another relatively new attraction that I was quite looking forward to. Living in Southern California, I've been to SeaWorld San Diego countless times, and while there are many similarities between the parks, there are many differences as well (Antarctica, Manta, and Turtle Trek are three good examples of similarities with differences). Which park do I prefer? Too close to call. Orlando may be a bit more modern, but San Diego is the classic original that I know so well. Let's therefore just say both are pretty much excellent.
If I was to make a list of most attractive theme park entrances, SeaWorld Orlando would rank very near the top.
First stop of the day.
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is an ambitious and impressive ride / exhibit combo.
Now, I realize the ride part of the attraction has pretty much been branded as lame and pointless since day one, especially given the promise of its trackless ride vehicle system. Though I wouldn't call it lame, it certainly isn't spectacular. The ride vehicles basically spin and bounce mildly (even if you choose the "wild" option) through a couple rooms with glowing ice caverns and a couple rooms with video screens projecting animated films.
Pointless, on the other hand, is definitely not the case; the ride does serve a very practical purpose. By the time you reach the real penguins, you are at a temperature of 30 degrees F. Each of the rooms during the ride gets progressively cooler, so that you can acclimate to this new temperature, rather than going from a hot and humid Florida summer to immediately being slapped silly by the cold.
While the previous picture showed the penguins separated by glass (obviously to protect them from the ride), once you disembark into the exhibit there is no more glass, and you are immersed in the penguin's chilly environment.
I visited Antarctica first thing in the morning and the cold didn't bother me at all, probably because I was so engrossed in the entire experience, so I ended up spending a decent amount of time here. Later in the day I went through again specifically to cool off, and curiously got almost uncomfortably cold soon after entering, so I couldn't stay too long.
The cold temperature is therefore undoubtedly what keeps Antarctica from becoming a giant bottleneck as the ride continuously delivers new guests into the exhibit -- those guests already in the exhibit likely won't stay as long as they otherwise might due to the frigid conditions. (As for the wait for the ride itself, the line was only about 20 minutes long during both of my Antarctica visits, which is perfectly reasonable as far as I'm concerned.)
The underwater viewing area leading to the attraction exit warms things up to prepare you for stepping back into the outside world. Overall I give Antarctica a very positive recommendation. Such a unique attraction featuring such fascinating animals.
Let's briefly head from the bottom of the world to the top of the world.
Like Antarctica, and like Wild Arctic in San Diego, Orlando's Wild Arctic is a ride / exhibit combo. As with its California counterpart, the simulator ride is fine but nothing special. Unlike the bright, sunny, outdoor exhibit in California, though, the exhibit here is entirely indoors and very dark. I couldn't get a picture of the beluga whales or walruses at all because everything was just so dark. This shot was the best I could do of the polar bears, which I know have sadly passed away since this 2013 visit. Wild Arctic is also located in a somewhat isolated section of the park, so it was by far the least crowded attraction I experienced all day. I hate to say it, but because of the emptiness, the darkness, and now knowing the ultimate fate of the polar bears, this exhibit was a little depressing, which is not something I've ever felt about the California version, or about any other attraction at either SeaWorld for that matter.
On now to Manta, the first of the park's two major coasters.
Like the three Superman Ultimate Flight coasters, the giant pretzel loop is right at the beginning of Manta. It's an exciting way to start, though in my opinion the loop works even better as a climax at the end of the ride (Tatsu).
The water interaction adds immeasurably to the experience, as evidenced by Manta's signature shot. (While this may be the signature Manta shot, I would argue the previous two shots are just as photogenic!)
Of the four B&M flying coasters I've ridden (Manta, Tatsu, and Superman Ultimate Flight at SF Great Adventure and SF Over Georgia), Tatsu ranks as #1, with Manta a close #2.
There's a large and very nice aquarium exhibit adjacent to the coaster, featuring what else but rays (not actually manta rays, but rather a few different ray species).
A colorful coral reef can be found in the Manta aquarium...
...as can one of my favorite aquarium inhabitants, the leafy seadragon.
The park's original B&M coaster is Kraken, which still remains a very good one. I love the straight (rather than curved) first drop into the vertical loop...
...as well as the second vertical loop that comes later during the ride, dropping off of the midcourse brakes (kind of a rare placement for a vertical loop).
Checking rcdb, it looks like I've ridden seven B&M floorless coasters (in case you're interested -- Batman Dark Knight @ SFNE, Bizarro @ SFGAd, Dominator @ KD, Hydra @ Dorney Park, Medusa @ SFDK, Scream @ SFMM, and Kraken here at SeaWorld). Kraken is one of the earlier ones, and being among the first I ever rode, I always remember it as one of my favorites. It still holds up very well today, though it would be hard for me to now rank it against the others, as so many of those are good too. I guess it's not a bad thing when you can't decide which coaster is best out of several really good coasters. (Sadly, I can say that Scream at my home park of SFMM would rank as my least favorite.)
I'm also not positive how I'd rank Kraken v. Manta. Both are great coasters for the park, and once Mako opens, SeaWorld Orlando will have (much like Busch Gardens Tampa and Busch Gardens Williamsburg) a very nice trio of B&M coasters.
Of course the first coaster at the park wasn't B&M at all, but rather the coaster / flume hybrid Journey to Atlantis.
I know Orlando's Atlantis has a better reputation than San Diego's Atlantis, but I'm not entirely convinced. While the dark ride and indoor theming here are certainly far more extensive, the story is pretty much just as incomprehensible. The coaster portion is also extremely brief, and because the coaster is inside the building (to keep it a surprise no doubt), the view you're seeing here is really the only off-ride view you get of the entire attraction. I like the bright, outdoor look of San Diego's Atlantis, with a longer coaster section and track visible for all to see. California's one indoor part, the elevator lift, is also a unique touch (though admittedly 100% incoherent). I dunno, each version has its own distinct qualities, and I like them both, so let's call it a tie.
Like Manta, Journey to Atlantis is accompanied by an aquarium, the Jewels of the Sea aquarium. Here you'll find "mysterious" sea creatures such as eels...
This aquarium is smaller than the Manta aquarium, but just as interesting. Plenty of intriguing animals to discover.
How about a ride on the Sky Tower for another look at a few of the above attractions?
A great opportunity to view most of Manta's layout.
The same for Kraken.
And one more shot of the park entrance, just because I like it so much.
A word of warning about the Sky Tower -- I rode first thing after opening on my second day at the park, and it was still by far the longest wait I encountered at SeaWorld. I don't know if the line is always so slow moving, but it was interminable during my visit, especially being all out in the open under the sun. Beware if you plan to ride later in the day when the line is even longer. I can't imagine how excruciating that would be.
The final ride is the park's junior coaster, Shamu Express. I didn't have a child with me but I went ahead and rode anyway, and in so doing I scored all four of SeaWorld Orlando's coaster credits!
The Shamu coaster serves as a nice transition to...
...the Shamu show.
One Ocean was (and still is) the current show being presented at Shamu Stadium. Like One Ocean at SeaWorld San Diego, it's a good show, perhaps a bit generic, but probably exactly what the audience expects from a Shamu show.
While it sounds like One Ocean will remain in Florida, as we've all heard, California is going a different route with their killer whales. We'll have to wait and see how that turns out.
Shamu Stadium has an underwater viewing area where you can get up close and personal with the whales.
I'm not sure if this guy was trying to talk to the whales or make out with them, but it was really weird. Whatever the orca whisperer was doing, though, it worked -- he totally got the whales' attentions!
Whether or not the Blue World project materializes, it would still be nice to see the killer whales receive a habitat expansion of some sort. The next few years will certainly be *interesting* for SeaWorld and its signature animals.
The dolphin show is Blue Horizons.
Blue Horizons features not only dolphins but also...
...a bunch of human acrobatics and other random stuff. I know many guests don't care for this incarnation of the dolphin show, but I kind of like it. With a storyline and score to tie everything together, it's a bit more of a production than your typical SeaWorld show.
Now, I'm not sure how well Orlando's version has retained all of the elements of the original Blue Horizons, but San Diego's version definitely went downhill during its final year, to the point that it was scrapped altogether and replaced by a more standard dolphin show. I'm perfectly okay with that too, since I guess a dolphin show really should be about the dolphins.
For even more dolphins head over to Dolphin Cove.
While you can potentially pet the dolphins at any time during the day, there are periodic feeding times that guarantee plenty of dolphin interaction.
You of course have to pay for the feeding, and you may even have to sign up for a spot in advance (I'm not certain about this last part, since I didn't actually partake, but there sure looked to be quite the demand and therefore possibly a waitlist).
I'm sure the wait and price are well worth it, as the dolphins appear more than happy to acquaint themselves with guests with food.
See what I mean?
There's a large underwater viewing area featured as part of Dolphin Cove...
...providing additional photo ops of the dolphins in action.
Great animals, great exhibit.
Up next is Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island.
I would say this show supports my hypothesis that ALL sea lion shows are required to be pirate-themed, except that 1) I know the show has changed to Clyde & Seamore's Sea Lion High (themed to high school) since this 2013 visit, and 2) the San Diego version is Sea Lions Live (spoofing television shows), so I guess I'll have to reject my hypothesis. (I'll revise it to instead state that MOST sea lion shows are required to be pirate-themed!)
Whatever the theming, the sea lion show is a much more humorous presentation than One Ocean and Blue Horizons.
The sea lions share the spotlight with an otter and a walrus. So nice to have a walrus in the show, which we haven't had in San Diego for so long.
There's more sea lion interaction to be had at Pacific Point Preserve.
Feeding the dolphins and the rays is a blast, but feeding the sea lions gets my vote for favorite animal encounter at the park.
I love how excited they get, as well as all the little "tricks" they've figured out to encourage us to throw them some fish.
Even though the birds are considered aggressive pests at these attractions, I have to kind of admire their strategic persistence toward obtaining some fish for themselves.
This bird looks like it's getting ready to kick some serious butt.
The park's Seaport Theater presents Pets Ahoy.
Very similar to San Diego's Pets Rule (except indoors rather than outdoors), the show guarantees plenty of laughs, as well as plenty of "aww's" for all the adorable animals.
The Nautilus Theater presents A'lure Call of the Ocean.
Somewhat similar to San Diego's Cirque de la Mer (again, inside instead of outside), A'lure showcases acrobatic stunts and elaborate costumes while telling the story of a fisherman's visit to an underwater world.
I believe A'lure has ended its run since this 2013 visit, so I'm not sure if the Nautilus Theater is currently being used for anything. (Along those same lines, does the park ever utilize the Bayside Stadium? For seasonal or special events perhaps? It seems like an awfully large space to just be sitting there empty.)
Turtle Trek is a film / exhibit combo. Let me begin by saying I was beyond impressed with the film part of this attraction -- such unique technology employed. This is the only 3-D dome presentation that I know of in existence; it's certainly the only one I've ever seen. Like Circle Vision, the film is projected on the walls encircling the theater. Unlike Circle Vision, the film is also projected on the domed ceiling, and in 3-D the turtles appear to be swimming through the theater above guests' heads. Very cool stuff.
There are of course real live turtles to be seen at Turtle Trek as well.
Many of the turtles had been injured before being rescued and cared for by the SeaWorld team.
In addition to sea turtles and marine fish, the exhibit also contains a large freshwater habitat with its own collection of fish. These are pacu, omnivorous relatives of piranhas.
The other inhabitants here are the park's manatees.
There's above- and below-water viewing of the manatees, many of which (like the turtles) are being rehabilitated following injuries suffered in the wild. Conservation is a theme especially emphasized throughout the entire Turtle Trek attraction.
After only having manatees at SeaWorld San Diego for a short while, it was great being able to see these animals at SeaWorld once again here in Orlando.
Before getting too far away from Turtle Trek, be sure to stop by the alligators -- they're right next door.
You can feed and feel rays at Stingray Lagoon.
The shallow pool pretty much ensures that you'll get to touch some rays as they swim along, but for the most entertaining experience purchase some food (sometimes fish, sometimes squid, sometimes shrimp) and have the rays "slurp / chomp" it out of your hand as they glide by.
Nice picture opportunities too when the water calms following the feeding frenzy.
The Shark Encounter exhibit begins with a wide, non-moving walkway through a large aquarium, along with several smaller separate aquariums, featuring not sharks at all but instead other "dangerous" and "scary" fish.
The venomous lionfish is one example.
The more narrow, moving walkway through the shark tank tunnel then follows. Getting a picture of the moving sharks from the crowded moving walkway through the thick, curving glass with everyone's reflections visible isn't easy, so I was quite proud of myself for this next one...
...and it's a great white, no less!
There's a shallow pool outside the main Shark Encounter building housing even more sharks (smaller sharks). You can't reach these animals to touch them, but there is a feeding booth here to purchase and toss them some snacks.
Rays (including a few pretty huge ones) also inhabit this pool. With Shark Encounter, Stingray Lagoon, and the Manta aquarium, there is ample opportunity at SeaWorld Orlando to observe and interact with rays.
There's no shortage of birds either. In addition to the penguins, there are pelicans at Pelican Preserve...
...flamingos at Flamingo Cove...
...and a sandhill crane at Sea Garden. Quite the attractive bird.
This one is cute too, in its own special way. (It's a frogmouth, not an owl.)
Sea Garden is also home to a few mammals. Many of the inhabitants are periodically brought out to meet park guests.
Named for its plant life rather than its animals, Sea Garden is a wonderfully scenic and relaxing corner of the park. A perfect way to end this SeaWorld Orlando visit. Here's looking forward to Mako and my next visit.
Ever since my first Florida visit as a child, I've been curious about the Silver Springs attraction in Ocala. Billed as Florida's original tourist attraction, this amusement park / nature park combo has intrigued both my theme park enthusiast and biologist personas. However, I'd never gotten around to visiting during any of my previous Florida trips. While planning this August 2013 trip, I discovered that the state was planning to take ownership of Silver Springs in September 2013, incorporating it into the state park system, thereby ending the amusement park operations. With that in mind, I made sure to include Silver Springs in my August 2013 itinerary -- this was my last chance to see the park in its original incarnation before undergoing transformation.
As it turns out, I still ended up missing out on the amusement park part of Silver Springs -- essentially all of the attractions (giraffe, bear, and panther exhibits; reptile and bird shows; jeep and lighthouse rides; etc.) had already closed prior to August. The mood within the park was quite interesting -- some of the employees seemed devastated that Silver Springs was in its final days, while others were ecstatic to become part of the state park system, which would see increased environmental protection to preserve Silver Springs better than ever before. And the star attraction, the glass bottom boat, continued -- and will continue -- to operate.
Despite the fact that I never got to see Silver Springs in the form that originally attracted me to the park in the first place, I was definitely not devastated, and I ended up having a great visit. It actually felt very much like I was back in Everglades National Park, which I enjoyed so much in 2012. Though much of the park was in a state of deconstruction during this visit, I will not be emphasizing that at all in the photos. Instead, I'll focus on the scenic, natural attractions that were present. I imagine Silver Springs currently looks very much the same.
The modest entrance is quite fitting for this relatively low-profile park.
Even before the closure of the other attractions, Silver Spring's star attraction was the glass bottom boat tour of the springs themselves. So nice that the boats will remain.
And speaking of...
Though the park was not at all crowded, every boat I saw was full -- a testament to the ride's popularity. The tour lasted approximately 45 minutes, the guide was informative and well spoken, the glass was kept nice and clean, and the water was crystal clear and strikingly vibrant.
Here's a look at the beginning of the waterway.
A shallow spot before getting farther out into the springs.
There's plenty of animal life to see right from the start, hanging out near the boat dock.
Turtles are common sights.
But the most abundant animal inhabitants are these fish -- mullets.
Farther out along the river.
It's quite wide and reasonably deep, and it's surrounded by dense vegetation on both sides.
While many rivers begin as small streams formed from snowmelt at high elevations, that's not the case at all with Silver Springs. This right here is the origin, less than 100 feet above sea level. Groundwater from beneath the channel seeps up from fissures like these, delivering a continual supply of water to the springs.
The fish that got the most "oohs" and "aahs" during the trip -- a gar.
Several fallen trees have ended up in the springs over the years, now serving as "mini reefs" for algae and animals to use as habitat.
Let's take a stroll around the rest of the property to see what else is on site.
The boardwalk-like pathways are very reminiscent of the Everglades.
Lots of eye-catching trees...
...most of which are draped by Spanish moss.
In addition to all of the plants, there are plenty of animals to encounter as well.
Though I initially thought these birds were cormorants, I believe they're actually anhingas (they're closely related birds, and Silver Springs reportedly has both).
This alligator was wandering the same path we were.
Not to worry -- it was a small one, and as soon as we got even remotely close it darted into the water.
Yep, just like being back in the Everglades.
The most oddly random animal to be found at Silver Springs is the rhesus monkey. The monkeys were introduced back during the park's "Hollywood" years (several Tarzan pictures plus the Creature from the Black Lagoon filmed here). Since then, the monkeys have established a feral population.
And that wraps up this visit to Silver Springs. No longer an amusement park / nature park combo, the nature park that remains is very worthwhile. Even so, if anyone has any pictures from its amusement park days, I'd love to see them.
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