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Visiting Orlando? Here's your theme-park survival guide

By Bella English
Globe Staff / April 14, 2004
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In his new book, "Are We There Yet?: Perfect Family Vacations and Other Fantasies" (Plume, 2004), Scott Haas writes: "After the murderous attacks on September 11, I had an overwhelming need to know what people hated most about America, so we arranged a trip to Disney World."

Over the years, I've been to both the Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Fla., with children ranging from toddlers to teens. Call it what you want: a rite of passage, a forced march, a family vacation. All it took was wheedling kids -- not terrorism -- to get us there.

One friend refused to go without her mother in a wheelchair. Park visitors in wheelchairs automatically go to the head of the line. Never mind that her mother was completely able-bodied.

If Granny refuses to cooperate, here are some survival tips from the experts -- the folks at the attractions themselves and a battle-scarred veteran (me) of one too many trips on the "it's a small world" ride.

First, don't forget to wear sunscreen and comfortable shoes.

If you're looking to save money -- and who isn't, considering the cost of park tickets? -- stay in the no-frills lodgings outside the parks. Many offer shuttle vans to the theme parks.

If, however, it's a family vacation you can splurge on, stay at a hotel in the resort. First, it's convenient, with transportation to the parks provided. Second, there are great fringe benefits such as express lines for rides and early park openings. And if you're traveling with young children, you can easily go back to the room midday for a breather.

To save on park tickets, buy them online or at a Disney or Universal Studios store before heading to Orlando.

If you're going during an upcoming school vacation week, there's good news. "Starting after April 18, you're beyond the spring-break crush and before the summer season," says Disney World spokesman David Herbst. (Most Massachusetts public schools are on break the week of April 19). "It's much more comfortable in terms of the numbers of people here," says Herbst.

Then there's the weather: It should be nearly perfect now, in the low 80s instead of the high 80s and 90s that afflict the summer season.

If you're flower lovers, the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival runs April 16-June 6.

At Disney, the Magic Kingdom opens an hour earlier (8 a.m.) for guests staying on the grounds, so you can get a headstart on the rides. There's also a system called Fast Pass, offered at all four Disney theme parks. You feed your park ticket into the Fast Pass machine at the ride of your choice, and it dispenses a ticket that indicates the name of the attraction and an hourlong window when you can get into a fast line. "The wait is usually 5 to 7 minutes, and frequently a lot less," says Herbst. That's heaven compared with a typical wait of 45 minutes or longer -- for a 2-minute ride.

Herbst also suggests staying away from peak meal times if you're eating in the park; eat earlier or later and you won't have the crowds and lines. At Disney, call 407-939-DINE to reserve seats in advance at the table service restaurants.

At Universal Studios, when you stay in one of the three hotels on the property, all you have to do is show your room key when you buy a park ticket, and you receive priority access to all the rides and shows. If you're not staying on-site, you can still avoid the longest lines by reserving a space on the rides. It's called Universal Express, and you book at kiosks adjacent to each ride. Say you want to go on "Spiderman." The computer will give you a choice of times. You select, and it prints out a ticket. Show up at the designated time, and you get in the express line.

If you're truly committed to the cause, book a VIP tour at Universal. For $100 a person, plus the park ticket, a guide will take a group on a tour.

"You hear great stories about the park, and you get priority access," says spokeswoman Rhonda Murphy. "It's really a great way to get to know the parks." Groups include no more than 12 people.

Universal also has something called Child Swap. Say all else has failed, and you're standing in an endless line for the "Incredible Hulk" ride with your 10-year-old son, but your 5-year-old daughter is having a meltdown. Each ride has a child-friendly area with benches, where you and your husband can take turns with either the child or the line. It means that only two of you at a time have to endure the torture instead of the whole family. Guaranteed to cut down on tantrums.

If you're a trust-fund baby or have hit the lottery, you can indulge in Disney's ultimate VIP tour. According to the brochure, "From the moment you arrive, your personal VIP Guide is there to take care of everything -- from creating your ideal itinerary to getting you the best seats in the house for live shows, parades, and nighttime spectaculars." It costs $85 per hour, with a minimum of five hours.

For more information, go to www.waltdisneyworld.com and www.universalstudios.com.

My son and I are headed to Orlando soon; we've skipped Epcot before, but won't miss it this time. "Mission: Space" is a virtual training mission to Mars, complete with skin-tightening experience on liftoff. Actor Gary Sinise narrates as mission controller. The park's 11 international exhibits and restaurants are legendary, though you might have to explain to your child what "couscous" is. For younger ones, there are Kidcot fun stops with free activities.

In Disney's 500-acre Animal Kingdom, we might take in the Kilimanjaro Safari, with its exotic African animals in an open (looking) habitat, or view the Bengal tigers in the Maharajah Jungle Trek. Live shows include "Festival of the Lion King" and "Tarzan Rocks," an acrobatic show.

Not to be outdone, Universal in the last year has opened three new attractions in Islands of Adventure: "Shrek 4-D," "Jimmy Neutron Nick Toon Blast," and, coming May 20, the "Revenge of the Mummy Ride." It is billing itself as "the world's first psychological thrill ride," combining a dark roller coaster ride with special effects and robotics.

At the end of his chapter on Disney World, Haas, who is having a good time despite himself, asks: "Why can't the world be more like Disney World? It's clean, quiet, safe, and civilized. Best of all, people are devoted here to having fun. There's no hatred between races or ethnicities or religions. No one's fighting over land or access to water or oil. No one's fighting over anything."

Except, perhaps, places in line.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

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