I won’t wait 15 minutes for a free meal, chair massage or Meryl Streep performance. So waiting an hour for a 60-second ride is completely out of the question. Luckily, Orlando is catching on. Several of the smarter Orlando hotels and amusement parks are creating ways for people to play more and wait less. Here are my family’s top picks.
This new waterpark does something no others in Orlando do — it closes the park once capacity is reached. Even if this wasn’t my favorite theme park in Orlando, that would be, in the overheard words of a young park guest, "way, way cool!"
Thanks to this policy, waits are rarely more than 20 minutes, there are plenty of tubes, chaise lounges and chairs, and the staff-to-guest ratio is high.
For people with pre-teen kids, this park is summer paradise. Once they get a look at Walkabout Waters, a 15,000-square-foot water playground unlike any I’ve experienced, they’ll forget about all the other really amazing goodies, my other favorites being:
- Roa’s Rapids: An unlazy river that has 1,500 feet of rapids going 3-4 times faster than the typical waterpark river — but still safe enough for kids.
- Tassie Twister: I wasn’t brave enough to do it, but this "toilet bowl ride," as my younger companion friends called it, twists riders around and finally dumps them into a pool below. Her moniker seemed apt here.
- Dolphin Plunge: The 250-foot-long tube includes a stint through an aquarium of bonsai-size killer whale look-alikes.
This is the one place I would buy a yearly pass to — and get to early in the day, especially in summer!
Universal Orlando/Islands of Adventure
Universal Orlando, like Avis the car rental company, has turned its "#2" status to guests’ advantage. Always being in Disney World‘s shadow means they try harder. One of the programs aimed at pleasing visitors, which won me over this past weekend, is the VIP tour program.
Janet Jackson. Dan Marino. Former Presidents. We knew we were in good hands when Deanna, our dedicated tour guide, told us about the VIPs she’s shuttled around during her 9-year tenure. Our group of 15 was given behind-the-scenes access, front-of-line privileges, and previews of attractions under development (including the future Harry Potter ride, which I’ll happily share with you for the right price). Naturally, the two main advantages were zooming right to the ride with absolutely no waiting, and getting to select our own itinerary, with Deanna’s seasoned advice.
An unexpected pleasure was the trivia and context provided by Deanna’s backstage knowledge. The Spiderman ride meant so much more to our kids (and us!) after we spent 10 minutes with the great Spidey himself, saw the cars in action in the maintenance bay, and learned some key trivia (want to guess how much each of those cars cost?).
For $1,400 (plus tax and park admission) groups of 12 spend up to eight hours with a dedicated guide at one park with a tour completely customized to the group’s interests. The price goes up a bit for two parks.
The non-exclusive VIP tour is a more economical choice for small groups. For about $100 per person (plus park admission) a guide leads you and other VIP guests (max party size is 12 and time is five hours) on a tour of their choice, with priority entrance to at least eight rides. Unfortunately, groups do not get to pick which rides, so this is a better choice for people who are flexible.
Another fabulous way to bypass the lines at Universal is to stay at one of the three Loews partnership hotels (including Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort). Simply show a valid room key and you get to go in the Express line
(as part of the "Universal Express" program). Considering room rates
are fairly reasonable compared to other local mid-price hotels
(starting at $219 per night) this is a big benefit for anyone whose time is
as valuable as their money.
At SeaWorld, cutting the lines also gets you up close with the animals. The Elite Adventure Express
is the red carpet Sea World experience: best seats in the house for two
live shows, front-of-line access, animal encounters, and a meal at
Underwater Grill. Guests pick their own itinerary and get six full hours
with a dedicated guide ($1,800 for up to 12 people, plus park admission).
The Adventure Express tour $120 for
adults, $100 for children, plus park admission) has similar benefits, including the
chance to feed dolphins and sea lions. It lasts seven hours but has a
predetermined schedule that cannot be altered by guests.
New this summer is the SeaWorld Night Adventure Tour. Designed for adults, it’s a five-hour front-of-line access tour for the Kraken and Journey to Atlantis rides,
reserved seating at the shows, and dinner at the Brewmaster’s club
where guests can sample a wide variety of fresh beers and new
Anheuser-Busch products ($100 per person, plus tax and admission). Over 21 only.
We did a tour that included going behind the scenes to the Polar
Expedition, getting to see beluga whales and a polar bear in action. Or
rather, inaction. The guide taught us they sleep about 18 hours a day,
and that’s just what this happy one was doing. The culmination was a
chance to pet Penny, SeaWorld’s celebrity penguin. Those few seconds
were my highlight — her feathers are far softer than you expect and
aside from projectile poop, which almost became our host’s
complimentary souvenir, she could almost be mistaken for a lapdog.
TIP: SeaWorld lets you print tickets from home to cut the lines at entry.
only way to avoid the crowds at Disney is either to do the FASTPASS
method you all know and love, or to stay at a hotel that offers guests
special resort guest-only hours. Alas, unless you are a uni-name rock
star or group who can rent out the park after-hours, your best bet is
to learn a good FASTPASS strategy.
Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn’t been found.