In the summer of 2021, I took a Tampa Bay Times intern with me to Universal Orlando to preview their wild new ride VelociCoaster, based on the hit “Jurassic Park” movies. I wrote a review of the pulse-pounding ride, the first big new attraction to open in a post-pandemic theme park environment; Duke student Jake Piazza did a fun look at why a simple lap belt is all that’s needed for the intense coaster.
As we took a break from the heat to drink some lemonade, he squinted at me like I must be a swindler: “How did you get this beat?” he asked. Clearly I had snookered somebody to have a job that lets me spend a workday riding roller coasters or feeding a shark at the aquarium or shooting down a waterslide.
I get that question a lot. I get no sympathy when I tell people it can be a pretty long slog of a day running around a theme park in the Florida heat, filing stories and social media feeds all day. Boo-hoo, you spent your workday at Walt Disney World.
Sure, I wormed my way into a great gig when I was asked to take on the “things to do” topic for the Times back in 2010. But I look at my job as a consumer beat. I love theme parks, and I really love coasters. So I just want them to be worth it, and I will say so if they’re not.
This year, I’m reflecting on my unique vantage point of having ridden every major ride in Florida’s 10 major theme parks in nearly 15 years of coverage. Since I first started working as an entertainment and events reporter, I’ve had an up-close look at our attractions — and I have some thoughts on my most and least favorites. Buckle up, it’s been a bumpy ride.
2010: It begins with the boy wizard
My first entry was the 2010 opening of the boy wizard’s world at Universal Orlando, when I wondered if what I dubbed “Harry Potter and the Fanny-Packed Tourists” would be able to conjure magic.
I did a “Marauder’s Map” of must-see elements and noted it was a shame the Hogwarts Express train on display didn’t move. Four years later, when Diagon Alley opened, the Hogwarts Express became a ride.
The moving train and Escape From Gringotts ride were the highlights in 2014, but as I noted, Diagon Alley “is inherently, unapologetically, about commerce: Butterbeer, wands, robes, stuffed owls — all of which can be had in seven stores.” But I’m not sure that’s even a complaint, since Potter fans are practically begging Universal to take their money.
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As a news consumer, it helps to know what a reviewer likes and dislikes, just like you learn over time to trust certain movie or book reviewers because you become familiar with their tastes.
I like coasters that are fast and smooth, with fun story plot points. I hate getting dizzy or hanging for a long time. I don’t mind going upside down in a loop-de-loop, but it can be too much on some rides. And that fluttery feeling of rising out of your seat is fun but pretty darn unnerving, like on the “hypercoaster” Mako at SeaWorld that uses high speed (73 miles per hour) and a drop from 200 feet to produce G-forces that send riders up out of their seats several times.
One of my early previews was when Busch Gardens promised fewer bumps for the rumps with a revamped Gwazi in 2011. It was then a wooden coaster — they should have sold Tylenol in the gift shop for all the beatings riders took on that thing. That ride was eventually closed, and a newer, much smoother, reimagined Iron Gwazi opened last year. I was on that, too, on what was called “America’s most terrifying new roller coaster” by the New York Post. It earned that title for sure, but it’s a huge improvement over the bumpy wooden coaster.
The parks usually offer to have a camera record my trip, so we can show our audience. I hate being on camera; I got into print journalism because I didn’t want my workday to involve having a good hair day. My point was made in the video of me riding Tigris at Busch Gardens for the first time.
It’s a ride that jets forward and backward and tosses you upside down. I made the rookie mistake of not bringing a hair tie to put my locks up into a ponytail. So my hair is dancing all around my face throughout the ride. My friends were howling at that and paid no attention to my review of how the ride took advantage of a small footprint to pack in a lot of thrills.
My favorite Florida roller coasters
My love of speed is why my favorites are Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens and the Hulk at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. They both have great boosts at the beginning and dart around quickly on smooth steel tracks. For pure comedy, the new “Guardians of the Galaxy” ride at Epcot has lots of laugh lines from the cast on the high-tech coaster, and the Simpsons Ride at Universal packs in enough jokes to make it worth repeating.
But my all-time favorite is my first love: Space Mountain. The ride I first rode as a third grader still gives me thrills every time. I even wrote an ode to it on its 40th anniversary — it’s a genius of design, putting a not-very-fast coaster in total darkness. “Like the ambiguity of a Stanley Kubrick film, the less you see, the more the tension builds,” I wrote.
I’m usually not a fan of “screen rides,” ones that use special effects and a movie screen instead of an actual coaster car roaring down a track, but Avatar: Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom made me a believer, with an astonishingly real simulation of flying on the back of a banshee. People have been known to leave the ride in tears, they are so moved.
Speaking of tears, I saw grown men choke up the first time they saw the life-sized replica of the Millennium Falcon at the Star Wars land that opened at Hollywood Studios in 2019. Han Solo’s famous ship actually hums. I witnessed cynical, too-cool media types drop the pretense and turn back into little kids.
That ride, called Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, is just so-so in my opinion, though the walk-through to get there is thrilling for Star Wars fans to take in all the props. The other Galaxy’s Edge ride, however, called Rise of the Resistance, makes up for the many screens I usually dislike with a ton of action, making you feel immersed in the movies and worth the $1 billion Disney reportedly spent building the Star Wars land.
Prices at Florida theme parks and attractions are a frequent complaint, especially as admission soared past the $100 mark. But attendance doesn’t seem to be affected, no matter how expensive tickets get. And there are defenders of theme park prices.
“If I want a decent seat at a concert, I have to pay $200. Even the nosebleed seats are $80,” Duncan Dickson, a professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, told me in 2019. “That makes a theme park and 14 hours of entertainment look like a bargain.”
In some respects, consumers are in a great position. Pre-pandemic, in 2019, theme parks spent an estimated $10 billion on new attractions, hotels and dining areas in Central Florida, according to the Themed Entertainment Association. The aim was to lure return visitors with something new to see or do.
Then the pandemic brought that to a halt. This year the arms race is mounting up again, with new rides at Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, Epcot and Magic Kingdom, all opening within a matter of weeks from each other this year alone.
The industry reasoning is that if you haven’t been to a park in 10 years, chances are good you’ll find 10 new things to try in addition to the old favorites. And that’s where I will be to tell you what to look for.