Florida 2012 – day 12 – Aquatica, SeaWorld and Downtown Disney

The final day of theme parks in Florida takes in two different parks to the others – different in that there are no roller coasters.

Actually, scratch that. SeaWorld does have roller coasters, but it’s a park that’s not about the roller coasters.

Quick overview of what we did in each section, then detailed review then, starting with Aquatica. We went there in the morning and decided to have a relaxing time running around the Fun House (the old TV show “Fun House” music really should be playing), going around Roa’s Rapids and a quick spell in the lazy river. Left lunch-ish or early afternoon.

So what do I think of Aquatica? As water parks go it’s definitely one of the best. Comparing it to the other water parks I remember (Wet n Wild in Florida, Water Country USA, the Atlantis water park on the Palm in Dubai and some random one in Bulgaria) it is definitely the best out of them, but for different reasons. Wet n Wild has a great range of slides, but just isn’t as welcoming or relaxing. Atlantis was also very nice, but had a much lower range of things. Bulgaria was meh – good enough to kill a day. And the less said about Water Country USA the better.

Aquatica is, first and foremost, a welcoming, family-centric park. I guess it’s like the Magic Kingdom – something for everyone but doesn’t try and be hip and offer rides and nothing else. There are nice ferns and other plants which really help make you feel immersed in the park. Compared to, say, Wet n Wild where you can see the hotels around you, it really does make a difference. A great addition is the tiny water fountains that spray water onto the paths so your feet don’t get too toasty (hello Water Country USA) and, if they do, respite is nearby. I remember staying in Phoenix once where there was a water park just by the apartment we were renting (barely remember the park) and I used to go bare-foot across the road to get there – my feet burnt and I had to jump in the lazy river at various intervals (the park was free to us and they let us use the side entrance which was right next to the lazy river, so I’d run across the road – a peaceful little side-street with no traffic – into the side entrance and jump straight in).

The slides at Aquatica are good, but not that good. Wet n Wild has the more extreme selection, of vertical drop slides, bizarre slides like Disco H²O and the Brain Wash. Aquatica’s are… well, a bit smaller by comparison. The main ones which I recall include a “bowl slide” or something like that, where you slide into a bowl, spin around it a few times and plop out of the middle when you lose momentum, a standard multi-person raft tube ride where I did actually think I’d fall off, a racing slide, and the iconic slide where you slide under the water through a transparent tube so you can see some dolphins (allegedly – you’re going fast, the tube isn’t exactly transparent and the dolphin’s can’t be bothered anyway).

That basically sums up what I think of the slides at Aquatica – the usual suspects, plus one more unique slide that really isn’t good anyway. However, I will mention that you need to go on the Lazy River first to use one of the slides, which is pretty good. Also, speaking of the Lazy River, the little grotto they’ve got down there (it’s a lazy river where you can choose different paths at some points) is also pretty good.

I guess the slides just aren’t really for us – we’re more “dry thrill ride” people. Give us a roller coaster and we love it. Give us a water slide and we’ll still go on it, then forget the details and move on. It’s a water park, and we swim around it. Fair enough. A slide is a slide is a slide – just more extreme versions. I remember the names of some water slides from Aquatica and Wet n Wild, but apart from in the case of Disco H²O and Brain Wash this isn’t an indication of how memorable they are – and Disco H²O and Brain Wash ARE memorable. The others I remember – stuff like Hooroo Run, Hubba Bubba, Black Hole – I remember vaguely, and could be wrong about what they are. But they are pretty standard.

Aquatica does also have a good wave pool, or more rather two wave pools put together to make one wave pool with different sides. It’s always fun to go in quite deep and bob a bit, though Aquatica’s pools don’t really get much worse. Which is probably a good thing with the amount of people they draw.

But onto the two attractions which really make Aquatica great – the Fun House and Roa’s Rapids which, if you’ve read my previous entry, you know what they are. If not, to summarise – the Fun House is a giant kids’ play area with rope bridges, slides, loads of different levels and so on. Finding your way around is a nightmare, if you’re bothered. If not – have fun! Loads of water cannons, buckets to tip and a giant bucket of watery death on a timer that soaks loads of people wait to entice you – it’s impossible to venture into and NOT try to soak innocent small children, who will then try and soak you back.

Roa’s Rapids is a fast lazy river – so fast you’re not allowed tubes in to float on, though life vests are available. In various places it splits in two with one side being rough, before switching back to one about ten metres later. It’s so fun that it’s impossible to just do one lap.

As for what I think of Aquatica as a whole – good. Not great. And it’s not a proper theme park. I shouldn’t let that count against it though, but we do use Aquatica as a good way to spend a good part of a lazy day. We’ll go in the late morning, leave mid-afternoon. It’s not like Islands Of Adventure where we go on endless repeat rides of the Hulk – on a day where we want to see the entire park we’ll do everything once, at a lazy pace, but spend a lot of time in the Fun House or Roa’s Rapids. But this is what we think of all water parks. They’re relaxing. I can’t think of anything that would improve Aquatica (apart from making it easier to find your way around), but I can’t say it’s my favourite thing in Florida. And the only reason I can’t think of anything that would improve it is because it’s a water park, and a very very good one at that. The slides hit just the right note for me, as do the other attractions.

Which I guess brings us to SeaWorld, located just over the road. A day at Aquatica regularly finishes in the early or mid-afternoon for us and there were still bits at SeaWorld we wanted to do. These consisted of:

* Manta and Kraken (of course)
* Wild Arctic, a simulator followed by an exhibit through a polar expedition. I like this a lot, mostly for the theming
* Shark Encounter (or whatever it’s called), a walk-through shark exhibit with a tunnel. This was hellishly crowded for some reason

In any case, SeaWorld. It’s a strange park and one which doesn’t really sit well with me.

Now, in my Busch Gardens review I mentioned that I’ll quite happily go to zoos and see the animals and so on. SeaWorld, for me at least, isn’t like this.

For starters, I really do get the feeling that a lot of the animals in SeaWorld (which, let’s not forget, consists of whales – pretty dang large creatures) need more room. I honestly don’t know how big the tanks are that they’re given but I kind of feel that if it’s like the tanks we see them perform in then they must be going stir-crazy.

Secondly, they perform. I gather that they perform for food and don’t have to perform – they’re still fed, they’re just given treats to perform I think it is. And they probably like it after a bit, associating it with treats in a Pavlovian way and hey, it gives them something to do. But it really does make me think “hold on a minute” when both the two highlighting shows (the whale show and the dolphin show) are about the animals swimming free and doing whatever they like, unhindered by human interference, and in order to illustrate this we use captive animals and essentially make them dance with us. It’s bending my mind even more than the Jurassic Park-themed area meta narrative.

Okay, okay, okay. Let’s just say that SeaWorld is doing good and the animals are happy and all. I haven’t seen Blackfish and I don’t really intend to, probably because I always think that, with something like this, you need to see both sides of the argument and SeaWorld don’t seem all that interested apart from a token “trust us, we’re SeaWorld”. As a park, what is SeaWorld actually like?

Strange.

Now, as I’ve said, I’ll go to zoos (and by extension aquariums) and see the animals and all. But then I’ll forget about them. Well, not quite. I know we’ve got dolphins and whales and seals or sealions or whatever they are and manatees and so on, but I forget all the interesting facts. I’ll forget that killer whales have hearts made of titanium (probably not true) or that dolphins evolved from goats (also probably not true). I go along just to see the animals and have a wander.

Shows don’t really interest me. It’s a killer whale, or a dolphin, or some other beast, jumping around to music. Not bothered. I’ve seen it jump. Do I really have to watch it jump some more for another 15 minutes? There’s some grand music and such going on that tells me this is supposed to be the greatest thing ever and watching this particular killer whale jumping about to this swelling music is meant to be the ultimate symbol of what it means to be alive, but I really don’t care. Maybe I’ve seen it too many times but it’s a jumping fish. A big jumping fish set to music, yes, but still a jumping fish.

Having said that, the comedy sealion show is good and probably the only show I actively enjoy, mainly because there’s a story. It was also quite amusing during one of the last times I saw it when the animals missed their cues and the human actors had to improvise to get them back on track. The pet show is also a good one, mainly because of the variety of animals and, again, the (admittedly scripted-so-cheaply-you-can-see-them-coming-a-mile-off) gags.

So that’s the shows out of the way (there is a human acrobat show, which is also alright but doesn’t hold up to repeat viewings) – which, quite frankly, is 50% of the park. What else is there?

The most associated are the exhibits, at which SeaWorld does excel. You’ve got rays to pet, dolphins to feed, sealions to also feed, polar bears to see, manatees, shark tunnels, penguins… they’re all over the shop. Heck, stick in some salmon swimming upstream (though not strictly a “sea” thing) and we’re done. There really hasn’t been any expense spared and they are top-notch, but there’s always the drive to go and do something else, the show time that we’ve got to make or the hordes of other tourists (hello Shark Encounter) that keep moving us on.

SeaWorld has two types of rides now I think – ones which are more “media experiences” that are attached to the exhibits, like Wild Arctic and the Turtle Trek, and actual rides. Now, there’s nothing bad about the “media” rides – I’m not keen on Wild Arctic but then I’m not keen on simulators and want to get to the exhibit, but Turtle Trek is pretty good. I don’t know what the new Antarctica area is like but have heard it’s weird and unique.

The actual rides though (of which SeaWorld has a grand total of three) are all very good. The first two were Kraken and Atlantis, and it shows but only in the theming. Kraken has virtually no track theming and, compared to Manta, very little station theming. Still a great ride though, definitely one of the best roller coasters in Florida. It’s also great in that, at least when we go, there’s very little in the way of other people wanting to go on it meaning we can get through the queue very quickly and back on the ride for some successive re-rides. Great way to kill some time.

Atlantis, meanwhile, is mostly very well themed and a dark water ride. However, my opinion of this is brief because, well, it’s a water ride. It’s acceptable, but not as enjoyable as Jurassic Park and definitely nowhere near as lethal as Valhalla (though I don’t think any water ride can be as lethal as that until they actually employ live sharks). The outer theming however is brilliant.

Manta, meanwhile, is probably the best flying coaster in the world (okay, the best we’ve been on). The theming in the queue is excellent, going through all sorts of abandoned caves looking out into tanks of fish and rays, reading short diary extracts written by people who live alongside the ocean. It could make a very convincing set for a fantasy movie. The ride itself is a very good length and intensity, with the only “oh look it’s a ride” bit really being the break run at the end where you see the “behind the scenes” of the ride and tanks and delivery area.

The park itself looks great – indeed it’s a very nice park to wander about – but the main problem is that you will be doing a lot of wandering as the directions are not good! A sign pointing directly at the junction between two paths is not helpful! That and the restaurant menu has dwindled – where I used to be able to get a great huge sandwich with loads of fillings, I’m now left with standard theme park burger-and-fries fare.

And this is a difficult park to judge for me. The rides are at worst alright and at best great – both Manta and Kraken are in my top Florida coasters. Everything else though is mostly forgettable, or to me (probably because I’ve seen them so often) disposable. I feel like I should see the killer whale show but just find it’s a way to kill time. I don’t come out of it thinking “that was brilliant” or anything. Again, maybe I’ve just seen it all too many times. Remembering back, I have a much better memory of Mickey’s Philharmagic in Magic Kingdom than the SeaWorld shows. If it wasn’t for the rides I doubt we’d do SeaWorld.

We return to Friendly’s and head back to Downtown Disney to watch Taken 2. An alright movie, but I believe the first one was a lot better.

So I guess it’s time to review Downtown Disney!

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Downtown Disney is the perfect tourist trap in shopping form, lots of unique and upmarket shops staying open well into the evening. Heck, we even bought a souvenir – a picture holder with the seagulls from Finding Nemo at the extremely cheap price of $15 – I would have anticipated $45 and wouldn’t have called it expensive at that! Downtown Disney does really have lots of entertainment options and is split into a fair few areas (as it actually used to be properly different areas). Yes, it is a collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues (cinemas, live bands etc) but a great collection. The Disney shop itself is a must-visit and is impossible not to get lost in for half an hour at least. With toy shops, restaurants, bars, music, clothes stores and more oddities, the only thing it’s missing is an actual “media” shop. Give us some books, DVDs, music and video games (though some video games can be found if you search hard enough, but it’s only really Disney games) and it’d be set.

Okay, it’s a load of shops. But very nicely themed, with stuff for everyone to do or look around! I tend to dislike a lot of shopping centres, especially in America, because they are lacking in things I’m interested in. Give me a media store (something like HMV) and a book store and I’m happy, but they don’t have them! Instead it’s mostly home stuff, clothes or trendy coffee shops. Unfortunately this is something that’s catching on here in the UK too – we went briefly to the White Rose centre a few months ago which I think had a token GAME store. It just seems people dislike media stuff.

Downtown Disney though is different – yes, there’s a lot of clothes, but they’re cool clothes that double as souvenirs! A bit of a tenuous link, I know, but it’s still pretty cool to be in Disneyworld and buying Disney clothes that look cool on an adult, because they’re made to. Disney really do take care to choose some great designs and even better, other souvenirs! Actual toys and stuff! And if you’re like us and go there for a bit of a wander at night (and not really interested in spending money, but if you see something cool you will) then it’s still a great place – the Lego shop has loads of great displays for photo opportunities, all the shop windows have something different to see in them and it’s just such a nice place to look around.

And, as I say, you can quite easily get lost in the Disney store for a good while, caught up in Mickey-induced nostalgia.

So that’s it, and we’ve got two whole days left. This concludes the theme park side of things (though on the last day I will review what we’ve seen of Florida as a whole). What do we do the next two days?

Even we didn’t know that.

Previous – day 11 (Busch Gardens Tampa and gig)

Next – day 13 (Kissimmee State Park)

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