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[from the Introduction]
The authors and researchers of this guide specifically and categorically declare that they are and always have been totally independent. The material in this guide originated with the authors and has not been reviewed, edited, or in any way approved by the companies whose travel products are discussed. The purpose of this guide is to provide you with the information necessary to tour central Florida with the greatest efficiency and economy and with the least hassle and stress. In this guide we represent and serve you, the consumer. If a restaurant serves bad food, or a gift item is overpriced, or a certain ride isn’t worth the wait, we can say so, and in the process we hope to make your visit more fun, efficient, and economical.
There’s Another World Out There
If you think that central Florida consists only of Walt Disney World, you’re wrong. What’s more, you’re passing up some great fun and amazing sights. Admittedly, it’s taken a while, but Walt Disney World now has plenty of competition that measures up toe-to-toe. And though it may sound blasphemous to suggest a whole vacation in central Florida without setting foot on Disney property, it’s not only possible but also in many ways a fresh and appealing idea.
The big four non-Disney theme parks are Universal Studios Florida, Universal Islands of Adventure, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens. Each is unique. Universal Studios Florida, a longtime rival of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, draws its inspiration from movies and television and is every bit the equal of the Disney movie-themed park. Universal Islands of Adventure is arguably the most modern, high-tech theme park in the United States, featuring an all-star lineup of thrill rides that make it the best park in Florida for older kids and young-at-heart adults. SeaWorld provides an incomparable glimpse into the world of marine mammals and fish, served up in a way that (for the most part) eliminates those never-ending lines. Finally, Busch Gardens, with its shows, zoological exhibits, and knockout coasters, offers the most eclectic entertainment mix of any theme park we know. All four parks approximate, equal, or exceed the Disney standard without imitating Disney, successfully blending distinctive presentations and personalities into every attraction.
In addition to the big four, there are several specialty parks that are also worthy of your attention. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral provides an inside look at the past, present, and future of America’s space program, and Gatorland showcases the alligator, one of the most ancient creatures on Earth. After closing for several years, SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove offers central Florida’s first-ever dolphin swim, and The Holy Land Experience is the first Christian theme park in the state and quite likely the most elaborate one in the world. All of these places offer an experience that is different from a day at one of the big theme parks, including a respite from standing in line, all of the walking, and the frenetic pace.
But these are just for starters. In central Florida, you’ll also find a vibrant dinner-theater scene, two excellent non-Disney water parks, nightlife, and great shopping, all surrounded by some of the best hiking, biking, fishing, and canoeing available anywhere.
The Attraction that ?Ate Florida
Before Walt Disney World, Florida was a happy peninsula of many more or less equal tourist attractions. Distributed around the state in great profusion, these attractions constituted the nation’s most perennially appealing vacation opportunity. There were the Monkey Jungle, the Orchid Jungle, venerable Marineland, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, Silver Springs, the Miami Wax Museum, the Sunken Gardens, the Coral Castle, and the Conch Train Tour. These, along with the now-defunct Cypress Gardens, Busch Gardens, and others, were the attractions that ruled Florida. Now, like so many dinosaurs, those remaining survive precariously on the leavings of the greatest beast of them all, Walt Disney World. Old standbys continue to welcome tourists, but when was the last time you planned your vacation around a visit to Jungle Larry’s Safari Park?
When Walt Disney World arrived on the scene, Florida tourism changed forever. Before Disney (bd), southern Florida was the state’s and the nation’s foremost tourist destination. Throngs sunned on the beaches of Miami, Hollywood, and Fort Lauderdale and patronized such nearby attractions as the Miami Serpentarium and the Parrot Jungle. Attractions in the Ocala and St. Augustine areas upstate hosted road travelers in great waves as they journeyed to and from southern Florida. At the time, Orlando was a sleepy central Florida town an hour’s drive from Cypress Gardens, with practically no tourist appeal whatsoever.
Then came Disney, snapping up acres of farm- and swampland before anyone even knew who the purchaser was. Bargaining hard, Walt demanded improved highways, tax concessions, bargain financing, and community support. So successful had been his California Disneyland that whatever he requested, he received.
Generally approving, and hoping for a larger aggregate market, the existing Florida attractions failed to discern the cloud on the horizon. Walt had tipped his hand early, however, and all the cards were on the table. When Disney bought 27,500 central Florida acres, it was evident that he didn’t intend to raise cattle.
The Magic Kingdom opened on October 1, 1971, and was immediately successful. Hotel construction boomed in Orlando, Kissimmee, and around Walt Disney World. Major new attractions popped up along recently completed I-4 to cash in on the tide of tourists arriving at Disney’s latest wonder. Walt Disney World became a destination, and suddenly nobody cared as much about going to the beach. The Magic Kingdom was good for two days, and then you could enjoy the rest of the week at SeaWorld, Cypress Gardens, Circus World, Gatorland, Busch Gardens, the Stars Hall of Fame Wax Museum, and the Kennedy Space Center.
These attractions, all practically new and stretching from Florida’s east to west coasts, formed what would come to be called the Orlando Wall. Tourists no longer poured into Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Instead they stopped at the Orlando Wall and exhausted themselves and their dollars in the shiny attractions arrayed between Cape Canaveral and Tampa. In southern Florida, venerable attractions held on by a parrot feather, and more than a few closed their doors. Flagship hotels on the fabled Gold Coast went bust or were converted into condominiums.
When Walt Disney World opened, the very definition of a tourist attraction changed. Setting new standards for cleanliness, size, scope, grandeur, variety, and attention to detail, Walt Disney World relegated the majority of Florida’s headliner attractions to comparative insignificance almost overnight. Newer attractions such as SeaWorld and the vastly enlarged Busch Gardens successfully matched the standard Disney set. Cypress Gardens, Weeki Wachi, and Silver Springs expanded and modernized. Most other attractions, however, slipped into a limbo of diminished status. Far from being headliners or tourist destinations, they plugged along as local diversions, pulling in the curious, the bored, and the sunburned for mere 2-hour excursions.
Many of the affected attractions were and are wonderful places to spend a day, but even collectively they don’t command sufficient appeal to lure many tourists beyond the Orlando Wall. We recommend them, however, not only for a variety of high-quality offerings but also as a glimpse of Florida’s golden age, a time of less sophisticated, less plastic pleasures before the Mouse. Take a day or two and drive 3.5 hours south of Orlando. Visit the Miami Seaquarium, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, and Lion Country Safari. Drive Collins Avenue along the Gold Coast. You’ll be glad you did.
When Epcot (then EPCOT Center) opened in Walt Disney World on October 1, 1982, another seismic shock reverberated throughout the Florida attractions industry. This time it wasn’t only the smaller and more vulnerable attractions that were affected but the newer large-scale attractions along the Orlando Wall. Suddenly, Disney World swallowed up another one or two days of each tourist’s vacation week. When the Magic Kingdom stood alone, most visitors had three or four days remaining to sample other attractions. With the addition of Epcot, that time was cut to one or two days.
Disney ensured its market share by creating multiday admission passes, which allowed unlimited access to both the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. More cost-efficient than a one-day pass to a single park, these passes kept the guest on Disney turf for three to five days.
Kennedy Space Center and SeaWorld, by virtue of their very specialized products, continued to prosper after Epcot opened. Most other attractions were forced to focus on local markets. Some, like Busch Gardens, did very well, with increased local support replacing the decreased numbers of Walt Disney World tourists coming over for the day. Others, like Circus World and the Hall of Fame Wax Museum, passed into history.
Though long an innovator, Disney turned in the mid-1980s to copying existing successful competitors. Except copying is not exactly the right word. What Disney did was to take a competitor’s concept, improve it, and reproduce it in Disney style and on a grand scale.
The first competitor to feel the heat was SeaWorld, when Disney added the Living Seas Pavilion to the Future World section of Epcot. SeaWorld, however, had killer whales, the Shark Encounter, and sufficient corporate resources to remain preeminent among marine exhibits. Still, many Disney patrons willingly substituted a visit to the Living Seas for a visit to SeaWorld.
One of Disney’s own products was threatened when the Wet ’n Wild water park took aim at the older and smaller but more aesthetically pleasing River Country. Never one to take a challenge sitting down, Disney responded in 1989 with the opening of Typhoon Lagoon, then the world’s largest swimming theme park.
Also in 1989, Disney opened Pleasure Island, a single-cover multi-nightclub entertainment complex patterned on Orlando’s successful Church Street Station. Tourist traffic around the theme parks started gravitating to Pleasure Island for nightlife rather than traveling to Church Street.
The third big Disney opening of 1989 was Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), a combination working motion picture and television production complex and theme park. Copying the long-lauded Universal Studios tour in Southern California, Disney-MGM Studios was speeded into operation after Universal announced its plans for a central Florida park.
Disney-MGM Studios, however, affected much more than Universal’s plans. With the opening of Disney-MGM, the Three-Day World Passport was discontinued. Instead, Disney patrons were offered a single-day pass or the more economical multiday passports, good for either four or five days. With three theme parks on a multiday pass, plus two swimming parks, several golf courses, various lakes, and a nighttime entertainment complex, Disney effectively swallowed up the average family’s entire vacation. Break away to SeaWorld or the Kennedy Space Center for the day? How about a day at the ocean (remember the ocean)? Fat chance.
In 1995, Disney opened Blizzard Beach, a third swimming theme park, and began plans for a fourth major theme park, the Animal Kingdom, designed to compete directly with Busch Gardens. During the same year, the first phase of Disney’s All-Star resorts came online, featuring (by Disney standards) budget accommodations. The location and rates of the All-Star resorts were intended to capture the market of the smaller independent and chain hotels along US 192 (Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway). Disney even discussed constructing a monorail to the airport so that visitors wouldn’t have to set foot in Orlando.
As time passed, Disney continued to consolidate its hold. With the openings in 1996 of Disney’s BoardWalk, Fantasia Gardens miniature golf, and the Walt Disney World Speedway; in 1997 of Disney’s Wide World of Sports, Disney’s West Side shopping and entertainment district, and a new convention center; and in 1998 of the Animal Kingdom, Disney attracted armies of central Floridians to compensate for decreased tourist traffic during off-season. For people who can never get enough, there is the town of Celebration, a Disney residential land-development project where home buyers can live in Disney-designed houses in Disney-designed neighborhoods, protected by Disney-designed security.
In 1999, however, for the first time in many years, the initiative passed to Disney’s competitors. Universal Studios Florida became a bona fide destination