Florida 2012 – day 5 – SeaWorld & Downtown Disney

Our fifth full day in Florida, and another theme park is to be done – this being SeaWorld! But we do have other plans as well, and intend on going to Downtown Disney afterwards.

Again, the usual routine of heading down the I-4 to International Drive, parking up and heading in, and we find out one thing:

SeaWorld is PACKED!

Now, this is Halloween time, and the Americans LURVE Halloween. The parks are all done up and kids are encouraged to come in fancy dress, some of which are quite cool. I do recall one kid dressed up like the original Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and other kids as the entire Avengers ensemble (from the film, not the comics where they had various other members).

SeaWorld is a strange park – whilst most other parks concentrate on rides and, to a lesser extent, shows, SeaWorld has always concentrated primarily on shows – indeed, it’s only recently they’ve added rides to their repertoire. Combining this with the various animal exhibits, and SeaWorld is definitely a weird park indeed.

When getting to SeaWorld, it is advisable to get there early and pick up a map and show timetable – traditionally combined on the same piece of paper. The show timetable, of course, shows you what is happening and where throughout the day. The map is necessary because I don’t think SeaWorld was designed by anybody with half a brain.

You see, SeaWorld has lots of different routes leading around the place – some of which seem to be documented and some of which aren’t. Signs point to the junction between two paths, instead of at the path you are supposed to take. And generally, the place is so full at the moment that it’s not at all easy. Strangely, a lot of people are walking round eating giant turkey legs, which seemed to be over a foot long, full of meat and carrying the kind of heft that you could club someone unconscious with.

But back to the park! SeaWorld has all kinds of theatres and stadiums around the place with various shows going on, and whilst we didn’t do them all on this trip we have done them all in the past before, so here we go.

Starting off with the Shamu show, or whatever killer whales they’re using now, a giant stadium is present for the audience to sit in around a pool. There is some kind of story which acts as a backdrop to the show itself, basically providing some beginning and some end narrative. The story, shown on giant screens, tells of a boy who lives by the ocean and sees killer whales. He decides to swim around with them and carve a wooden necklace in the shape of a killer whale’s tail. Killer whales then play around in real life, and something else happens or something. But in any case, it’s all about how killer whales should live free in the ocean, unaffected by our polution and away from the evils of man. There’s even websites to go on to look at how you can play your part protecting the killer whales from our nefarious misdeeds.

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Now hold on a moment. The message of our show, essentially, is that killer whales should not be interfered with. We will attempt to convey this with the use of killer whales that have been captured or bred in captivity and are currently living in the middle of a theme park in America and are taught to do tricks.

Alongside this, amusingly the very same wooden necklace carved by the boy is available in mass quantities as you exit the stadium, for the tidy sum of $10 (plus tax). Okay, it’s a cash-in and EVERYWHERE cashes in shamelessly, plus it’s not as important and contradictory as the presence of captive killer whales in a show about killer whales being free, but hey-ho…

I won’t even go into the fact that the killer whales would probably eat the boy, being KILLER whales and all…

So, Shamu show out of the way, and it’s time to go to the dolphin show, Blue Horizons. It’s in a much smaller stadium which also has a set – in this case, a large Barbie house. Unlike the killer whale show (after various trainers were killed), the “actors” for lack of a better term interact with the dolphins by waterski-ing on their noses and such. You see, a young girl (mid-20’s, if not older) wants to “swim with the dolphins and fly with the birds”. So she jumps out of the window (unfortunately not Jack Bauer style, in a shower of bullets and glass) of her giant Barbie house (like the Shamu show, this needs a “DON’T DO THIS AT HOME KIDS” warning) to swim with the dolphins and fly with the birds, in this case represented by people in distinctly Luftwaffe-esque bird costumes.

Now, I must admit one thing. These shows are BORING – or at least they are now. Whilst it must be quite an accomplishment to train these animals and to perform all these tricks, once you’ve seen a few fish swim around and jump and so on you’ve seen them all. I can’t really remember my first time seeing these shows, but right now I just don’t really find it entertaining. Plus I guess you do have all the moral implications, and I do tend to wonder if I should be embarassed or ashamed watching this dross.

The next show, however, is several times better. Clyde & Seymour Take Pirate Island involves another stadium with a wrecked galleon and desert island set, and a comedy show involving two human actors, a sealion, a walrus and an otter I think. There are some jokes and it’s made all the more amusing when, in this case, the animals involved missed a few of their places and had to be coaxed back into their spots. The mime that provided the warm-up is also normally pretty good.

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Two shows we didn’t do include Al’lure, a contortionist / gymnastic show which isn’t bad, and Pets Ahoy (I think it is), a show involving dogs, cats, pigs etc.

Other non-ride things you can do involve petting rays, feeding sealions (which is quite a task as the seagulls and herons will always try and catch the fish you throw, but is good fun), and also seeing some manatees – which are essentially giant swimming pillows it seems.

A more major attraction though is the Shark Encounter, a path down through some exhibits to the shark tunnel, and some exhibits on the way out. I can’t really comment much about this – they do have a set of teeth from a great white and of course a shark tunnel, but it was so incredibly full that it took absolutely ages to get through and I can’t really say we enjoyed it.

More importantly, a new attraction called Turtle Trek has recently opened. After again passing through a turtle exhibit, we then have a large wrap-around dome to stand in and a film projected onto all it’s surfaces. This compresses the life of a turtle down to about 7 minutes, from poking it’s way out of an egg, making it’s way to the sea (after being snatched off and dropped by a bird), swimming around for a bit and then finding the turtle of it’s dreams. The effect of the dome is pretty good and it’s definitely an involving attraction.

Lunch is handled by a traditional cafeteria which I remember from previous visits being one of my favourite places to eat in any Floridian theme park. However, it seems that they’ve let it go as it just seemed to mainly be serving traditional burgers and fries and a few other things, as opposed to the huge tasty sandwiches I recall.

Onto the rides then, and SeaWorld has three rides that are of note – or at least at the time of visiting. There are some small kids rides too, and the upcoming Antarctic thing which is apparently a first-of-a-kind ride and a new themed land.

Firstly, Atlantis. We didn’t do Atlantis on this time round, and I can’t really say we missed it. A mostly dark water ride, involving stuff I can’t really remember. Similar to Valhalla at the Pleasure Beach, but nowhere near as impressive for some reason, given the amount of money it would have had behind it and the desire of all Orlando theme parks to make things as good as they can be.

Secondly is Kraken, a very good roller coaster. An above-the-tracks affair with plenty of inversions, it’s quite meaty and a decent size and length. The ride is loosely supposed to be based on the Krakens of lore, though I honestly don’t understand how. In any case, it does wind around and even descend into a small tunnel, supposedly the Kraken’s grotto I imagine (though there is another Kraken’s grotto nearby which can be walked through, with supposed Kraken eggs). It’s a very good “disposable” coaster, mainly because the queue (at least when we go) isn’t big. Normally we vault over the bars (so long as we’re not cutting in front of anyone of course) and can quite happily kill half an hour or so with a few spins on it.

Our final coaster (should I really be saying final, if there’s only two?) is Manta, quite a new ride (though again, rides at SeaWorld are a relatively new thing). This is a flying coaster, which I think a lot of people call a “Superman”, mainly because most of the Superman coasters at Six Flags parks are this. In any case, we queue through quite an elaborate and well-themed aquarium (which you can apparently walk through without getting on the ride), before heading up to the loading area. Usual flying coaster effect – sit in the seat and once you’re in, the seat tilts 90 degrees so you’re facing down, and you’re off!

Now, as far as flying coasters go this one is the bees’ knees. Various nice elements, plenty of loops and one especially that has us on the inside of the loop, making it very tight. I must admit this is the only bit, I think, in any coaster where I’ve felt some of this “greying out” thing that some people get – it is quite intense.

Out of the two coasters, I do think that Manta is probably the best, but it does have longer queues and is prone to shutting in case of bad weather. Kraken is far more reliable and rarely busy, allowing us to go on it a few more times in quick succession by running back into the queue after a ride.

There are a few more things to do at SeaWorld, the most important of which is Wild Arctic, but we’ll go into that next time we head there. For now, it’s dinner time. We’re on International Drive so guess where we’re heading?

Sizzler!

I know, not what you expected. You thought Friendly’s, didn’t you? Well, Friendly’s is an option and we do like it, but thought we’d try Sizzler.

We’ve been to Sizzler a few times in the past, and found it ALRIGHT. You order what you want, then get seated. There’s a decent amount of stuff to choose from. But the restaurant’s unique selling point is the buffet. You see, before your food arrives you get a plate, and can basically stuff your face at a free, HUGE buffet containing all sorts of salad options, pasta, some desserts – basically anything you can think of.

Or at least that used to be the case. The buffet is still there but you now have to pay extra. So skipping the buffet, we simply wait for our main meal – which isn’t bad. We do skip dessert, which I think was just an ice cream pump. Needless to say it’s a bit disappointing now. I can see lots of people liking it now, especially with the ice cream pump – in the same way that people would like something that dispenses endless identical burgers.

I can’t honestly say that we thought Sizzler was much cop beforehand – normally we’d get a moderately-sized plate from the buffet and then *just* manage the main meal. Now, well, Friendly’s is better.

I must say though that it was here that we did see some SERIOUSLY large Americans (well, we presume they were American) back in 2006. Sitting at the table next to us were two parents, with sumo wrestler waistlines, and two HUGE kids who looked to be about 3 or 4, but had waists which looked larger than mine (I can just squeeze into 32-inch waist jeans). The parents brought each child a HUGE plate from the buffet, and for their main meals they somehow managed a pizza (and in America they do HUGE pizzas – these ones were about 12 inches, probably medium for over there) each.

So now we’re done for the evening, yes? Not quite. You see, we’re planning on doing some different things in Florida. Some of them are still very touristy, yes, but they’re things we haven’t done before. So we’re going to head down the I-4 back towards the villa, but go to Downtown Disney!

Downtown Disney is a testament to Disney’s Earth-shaking power. It is, for all intents and purposes, a shopping area. It is built away from the theme parks (rather than Universal’s Citywalk, located right outside their parks). But it is HUGE, and full of all sorts of stores.
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We start off by parking near the cinema and calling in there. There’s a film on later that evening – End Of Watch – that we want to see, so we buy tickets before heading off to explore more of Downtown Disney.

Secondly, we’ve decided that, as a new thing for Florida, we want to visit… The Magic Kingdom!

Strangely, this is our fourth visit to Florida as a couple and we haven’t done Magic Kingdom yet – the first theme park in Florida and the most popular one, not just in Florida but in the world!

Now, I’d research this a bit online beforehand. Magic Kingdom, being the world’s most popular theme park, is going to be busy at any time of year. However, with this being October, Disney are running events called Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party!

Basically, on a few select days, MNSSHP means that regular guests in the park are turfed out after 6pm. Not entirely sure how they manage this. But people who are there for MNSSHP get to go in from 4pm and stay right through until midnight. Tickets are limited apparently so the park isn’t that full, and kids are mainly pre-occupied trick-or-treating the characters (as you are encouraged to turn up in costume). A few rides are closed from 6pm, but none of the important ones. Now, tickets for Magic Kingdom normally cost about $80 (+ tax) but these ones were $60. Which isn’t bad. We manage to get them for two days hence, plus a map indicating what is where and which rides are open, then we head off.

Following this we explored the local area of Downtown Disney (which is actually various different areas). In the local area by the cinema there was a Harley shop, Planet Hollywood, a few other places and strangely enough a hot air balloon which (for a fee of course) you could go on to see the Disney resort from the air. Not that the balloon really goes anywhere – it’s firmly attached to the ground by a rope.

Then it’s back to the cinema for a show time, and in America the experience can differ from ours by quite a margin.

The first thing we notice is something obviously not available in all cinemas, and not in all screens (including not in ours) but it is advertised. Apparently in some screens you can actually order meals to be brought to you in your seat. Press a button, tell the servers what you want and it will be made and whisked to you in due course. Now, whilst this may be handy I can only imagine it being incredibly annoying when, during a moment in a film, you hear someone ordering spare ribs, not to mention the smell (and of course the slurping – spare ribs are never the easiest of foods to eat).

Secondly is a lack of adverts! Okay, Americans do still have a few adverts, but nowhere near the amount we have (I remember watching a Harry Potter film once, which had 45 minutes of adverts before the trailers, then a few more adverts before the film itself). Here, few adverts (probably no more than 5 minutes, and I don’t recall any car adverts), some trailers, and a cool interview / behind the scenes thing for upcoming films (Skyfall being a good example) before the film itself starts.

The screens were also of incredibly good quality, and the crowd itself was just so funny. You know the adverts you used to see for horror films which showed “genuine audience reaction”, where the audience jump and throw their popcorn all over the place? It’s true! End Of Watch is a “handicam” film, basically shot from a camera carried by some beat cops, but there is one moment in it where the cops are lured into a trap. The footage then goes to a camera carried by one of the goons, ready with a gun to shoot our heroes as they round the corner. All of a sudden the audience was full of quiet gasps and people exclaiming “oh my God” under their breath. We couldn’t help but suppress a quiet smirk and talked about it on the way out.

But now back to Downtown Disney! It must be at least 10pm but, believe me, this thing is open until very very late. There are all sorts of themed shops all over the place, bars (with, scarily enough, no drunks – or at least nobody visibly drunk staggering around the place – compare that to virtually any city centre in the UK at any time of the day), restaurants and all with interesting exteriors and interiors.

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Nearby is Fulton’s Crab House, which used to be owned by Disney themselves and made to look like a proper steamboat – complete with idling paddlewheel. Now it’s not quite in it’s former glory, but still looks impressive – you must still cross a gangplank to enter. Meanwhile, not one I remember from my one or two trips as a youth several years ago, the T-rex cafe has quite a good looking skeleton across the entrance, and I believe the Rainforest Cafe does actually have a rain shower from time to time.

The local Lego shop is one of the places everyone takes pictures of, for a very good reason – outside are various scenes from Disney history recreated in Lego, and large sea monster in the lagoon just outside.

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Our next stop is the Disney Store (okay, World Of Disney) – the largest Disney Store in the world!

Now I do like looking in Disney Stores, when I find them. Our local one shut down a few years back, and it kinda wasn’t surprising as it basically switched entirely to Cars merchandise and kids clothing (I think the one that I found in the UK since then, which was whilst waiting for a train on a business trip, was the same. In actuality, I think I came across one in Edinburgh when staying overnight which was the same too). However, this Disney Store at least is massive containing whole sub-areas for kids clothing, toys, men’s clothing, women’s clothing, and various general souvenirs. There’s even a boutique for kids, for that perfect Princess makeover – and yes, at 10pm it’s still busy. Needless to say, we do get a few things from this shop towards the end of the holiday.
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Okay, I’ll try and describe the World Of Disney store in more detail, because I feel it needs more (because it is such a great shop) but don’t know what to write. Each entrance has a different Disney character or scene overhead. The one we kept frequenting, I think, was the one with an animated Stitch which sprayed water at people – there were a few others but I don’t recall what they were. Through this entrance was the kids/girls bit, with lots of Disney Princess merch and also the Bibidi Bobidi Boutique (man that’s probably spelt wrong).

From here there is a large corridor section essentially joining this section to the main store itself. This corridor bit is full of stuffed toys, including the incredibly cool seagulls from Finding Nemo which clutch fish, all emblazoned with the word “mine”. Every Disney character you can imagine (and even some we’ve never heard of) is immortalised here in wool and polyester, or whatever stuffed toys are made of.

The main section of the shop is split into four rooms – two containing clothes and accessories for either sex, and the other two general merch and souvenirs. I say general merch and souvenirs because some of it is extremely cool – again, including the thing we got (which again comes later) and various other things – you want a Spaceship Earth (from Epcot) playset, or some random Once Upon A Time candles? It’s all here.

There are still other things in Downtown Disney, including a strangely long toy shop which also goes on to include a Star Wars section (the Star Wars franchise having being bought by Disney), a video game section (with Disney games only, of course) and at so on. There are a few more toy stores and also one that allows you to build your own radio controlled car, and a Christmas shop (doesn’t look anywhere near as cool from the outside as Island Of Adventure’s).

After wandering round a bit more and listening to a guitar player (who was pretty good) it’s back to the villa. But I must admit that Downtown Disney is one of the most impressive things on the trip. I would have thought beforehand that it was simply one section but it is in fact three large sections, and it really must remain profitable. It’s somewhat humbling to think that Disney alone could have decided to build such a huge and well-maintained shopping section. If you ever go to Florida, you really should check the place out.

Also it should be noted that, whilst parents were going round with their kids (some of whom were still quite visibly excited and awake) at 10pm, there is still a lot for the kids to do – even including a stage with plenty of singing and dancing to keep them entertained.

So, another day gone. Not a good thing – we like holidays and each day brings us closer to going home. Still, the next day is another new one for Florida – a new beach!

Previous – day 4 (Clearwater Beach)

Next – day 6 (Ponce Inlet, Daytona)

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