More than Kid Stuff

by Evan Weston
AllEars® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the November 15, 2016 Issue #895 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Evan Weston There seems to be a common perception around the Orlando theme parks that divides them into age groups — Walt Disney World is for families with children, and Universal Orlando Resort and other entertainment offerings around the city are for teenagers and young adults without kids. This idea, though, fails to account for the broad range of options available within the Disney Parks for that so-called "Universal" demographic.

So if you find yourself traveling to Orlando with that 20-something relative who groans about spending the entire vacation in the world of the Mouse, or if you're that 20-something yourself wondering just what to do, don't fret — I think that each Walt Disney World theme park has something in store.

Epcot: Come with an empty stomach

Epcot is not as kid-friendly as the resort's other parks, and most young adults will likely find it the best place for their personal tastes. And I mean tastes quite literally. Epcot is home to some of the best food of any theme park on the planet. Make a reservation at any of World Showcase's outstanding restaurants and sink your teeth into a great meal with wonderful ambiance. You really can't go wrong, but my top recommendations include Le Cellier Steakhouse in Canada, Tutto Italia in Italy, and either Japanese pavilion restaurant, Tokyo Dining or Teppan Edo. If you're looking for a same-day reservation, your best bet might be Nine Dragons in China, which I think is a fantastically underrated spot. (Remember that all menus are constantly updated on AllEars.Net!)

If drinking is your thing, Epcot is the place where you can "Drink Around the World," a now-infamous trek around the 11 pavilions in World Showcase, sampling some of their alcoholic beverages as you go. Begin with a margarita from La Cava del Tequila, tucked inside the Mexican pavilion, and wrap your way around the world — there's sake from Japan, grapefruit beer in Germany, and the hilariously named Tipsy Ducks in Love slush from China. For those who enjoy a slower pace, Tutto Gusto wine cellar in Italy is a fantastic place to relax and unwind with a great glass of wine or a flight of select Italian specialties. (NOTE: Please drink responsibly and do not, under any circumstances, participate in Drink Around the World without either a designated driver or a plan to take public transportation back to where you are staying.)

Epcot also has a couple offerings for thrill-seekers. Test Track, one of the park's showcase attractions, uses one of the industry's greatest technological innovations to hurl you through sharp turns, rapid accelerations, and a genuinely stunning 65 mile per hour scream around the entire building while you test out a "SimCar" of your own design. Mission: SPACE is an exciting rocket launch simulator that tests your nerve (and your stomach!) as you blast off on a mission to Mars. This attraction often features little to no wait, due to its high intensity.

Disney's Hollywood Studios: A night on Sunset Boulevard

Disney's third theme park is undergoing extensive construction at the moment, with lands themed to Toy Story and Star Wars due within the next several years. Fortunately, most of what remains is perfectly geared toward young adults. In particular, the park's Sunset Boulevard area is entirely intact and makes a perfect night out with friends.

Start by grabbing your FastPass+ reservations in advance for the street's two premiere attractions — Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, an inverting launch coaster in the dark that hits speeds of 60 mph and features the music of Aerosmith, and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a traditional theme park drop tower dressed up in a massive, 13-story structure designed to resemble an abandoned Hollywood hotel. Reserve Rock 'n' Roller Coaster for the earlier time slot and do that first, as it is entirely indoors and won't benefit from darkness outside as Tower of Terror will.

Once both rides are complete and your thrill impulse is satisfied, snag some ice cream from Hollywood Scoops, located just across the street from Tower of Terror, and queue up for Fantasmic!, the park's nighttime spectacular, which ranks quite comfortably as one of Disney's best evening shows. The 25-minute extravaganza, staged in a 6,000-seat amphitheater, uses water-screen projections, live actors, elaborate sets, an original score, and an unbelievably impressive animatronic dragon to tell the story of Mickey Mouse's imagination fighting, and prevailing, against an armada of Disney's finest villains. It's a perfect cap to an outstanding night, and you barely have to walk anywhere to get to all of it.

Disney's Animal Kingdom: New nighttime hours

Over the summer, Disney's Animal Kingdom extended its hours into the evening, and stayed open until 10 p.m., affording guests the chance to experience the famed Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction and many of the park's other attractions after sunset. I thought that was the perfect time to enjoy Walt Disney World's newest theme park. Right now, though, Animal Kingdom is open only until 7 p.m. daily. But that still gives guests a small window of darkness to enjoy attractions in a new way.

The flagship attraction at Animal Kingdom is the monstrous Expedition Everest roller coaster. Reaching speeds of 50 mph, hurtling down drops of up to 80 feet, and spinning forwards and backwards down cascading helixes has always been fun, but with the lights out, the thrills are turned up to the extreme. The mood of the attraction darkens as you climb the lift without the ability to see what's in front of you, and the launch out of the cave and into the big drop feels larger than life without the context of the ground below.

The nighttime safari is perhaps the most widely cited reason to visit Animal Kingdom after dark, and it's absolutely worth doing. From personal experience, I can tell you it changes the attraction immensely. It almost feels like you're not supposed to be there as you chug along in the cover of darkness. There are fewer animal sightings than in the daylight, and picture-taking is not easy to say the least, but the encounters that do happen feel incredibly intimate and real in a way that the daytime safari can't capture.

Magic Kingdom: Thrills exist, if you know where to find them

The Magic Kingdom is, by some significant margin, the most difficult park for me to recommend to young adults. The original Florida Disney park carries with it the load of that kids-only perception, with its towering Cinderella Castle, countless attractions for children, and general fantasy feel. However, Disney's most popular park has plenty to do for those looking for more thrills, if one knows where to look.

The easiest place to find exciting "big kid" attractions in Magic Kingdom is the Frontierland area of the park. Splash Mountain is, for my money, the single best attraction at Walt Disney World, a log flume that combines a charming original score and a fully developed story with a beastly five-story drop and several other thrilling falls, including a roller coaster drop and rise in complete blackness. Just next door, the runaway mine train coaster Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is preparing to re-open from its extensive renovation with all-new track and enhancements.

Down the block from the two mountains is Liberty Square, home to the Haunted Mansion, another brilliant gem of an attraction from Disney Imagineering. Haunted Mansion is particularly interesting as a study in the way Imagineers design a story for adults through a ride experience. It presents itself as a legitimately frightening haunted house and leads with its best scare, the stretching picture room where the narrator reveals how he came to live in the mansion — by hanging himself. Yes, that actually happens in a Disney park. The scream that follows still gets me every time. And yet, the rest of the ride (on Disney's patented Omnimover system) slowly reveals to the guest that the entire attraction is one big joke, ending with a graveyard scene in which ghouls and headstones happily bounce along to "Grim Grinning Ghosts," the ride's signature song. By the time you exit, you're smiling and ready to get right back into the Disney mood, richer for the experience.

Magic Kingdom presents an exciting thrill in the park's Tomorrowland in the form of Space Mountain, a whizzing roller coaster through the dark that actually packs some real punch, particularly in the back of the train if you're lucky enough to get it. (You can ask for it specifically, if you don't mind waiting.) Occasionally, you'll be lucky enough to see the ride with some of the lights on, illuminating the massive structure that is the roller coaster (actually two separate mirror-image tracks, done to increase the ride's considerable capacity). Disney also added a third major roller coaster to the park in 2014 with Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, though that ride is considerably less thrilling than either Big Thunder or Space Mountain. If nothing else, it's a fun sprint through the first-ever Disney movie's famous diamond mine.

If you're struggling with what to do with those older kids and young adults on your Disney vacation, there are always options for the entire family within each park. I haven't even touched on the numerous bars, restaurants, and entertainment options available elsewhere on property yet, either in Disney Springs or within the resort's numerous hotels. For information on every dining experience and resort in Walt Disney World, be sure to head back over to AllEars.Net!

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Evan Weston is a Disney and theme park enthusiast from Central New Jersey who has lived in Orlando since summer 2015. When not enjoying Disney World or Universal, he works as the television play-by-play voice of Stetson University athletics. He considers himself a Sorcerer Mickey superfan and visits the parks at least once weekly.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.