Orlando with teens: Go for big rides, high-tech

May 19, 2010|By Beth J. Harpaz | Baltimore Sun reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Raising teenagers is not always easy. But as I walked around Walt Disney World recently, observing crying babies, melting-down toddlers and whining 6-year-olds -- not to mention stressed-out parents -- I felt lucky that my only challenge in visiting Orlando with two big kids -- ages 12 and 17 -- was to find the fastest, craziest rides.

We spent two days in theme parks, one day at Disney's Epcot and Animal Kingdom, and the other at Universal Orlando, and I can honestly say we had a blast. And in the end, not all of our favorite attractions were fast or scary; my kids gave points for interesting shows (including "Flights of Wonder" at Animal Kingdom) and high-tech design as well. Here are some of the best attractions, in their opinion, for the middle- and high-school set.

UNIVERSAL ORLANDO: Many attractions at Universal Studios Florida and its sister park, Islands of Adventure, seem tailor-made for the teenage mindset. Like "Disaster! -- A Major Motion Picture Ride . Starring YOU" or Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, a 65 mph coaster, 17 stories tall, where they get to customize their own soundtrack, choosing from classic rock/metal, club/electronica, country, rap/hip-hop or pop. Visiting this park was more fun than staying home from school to play video games (not that such a thing would ever happen in my house).

I did not personally experience Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit -- no way could this mom handle it! -- but I did spring for the $35 DVD, a personal video of my kids screaming their heads off and laughing hysterically as the coaster shook them silly. Every time I watch the tape, I start cracking up too -- it's that funny.

Their No. 2 favorite at Universal was Dueling Dragons, which consists of a pair of inverted roller coasters, each with its own unique design, one called Fire, the other, Ice. Dueling Dragons goes 55 mph, 125 feet in the air, and riders on one coaster pass within inches of riders on the other. The kids liked it so much, they did it twice so they could experience both coasters.

I skipped Dragons, but I did join the boys on other rides. We aren't big fans of "The Simpsons" show, so for the first few minutes of The Simpsons Ride, as the story line was laid out in an anteroom, we weren't all that engaged. But once we were strapped into our seats for the high-tech ride, we loved it. You feel like you've stepped right into the cartoon and are part of the animation.

Sadly, my boys seemed a bit too big to love the relatively slow-paced Jaws water ride, but we all liked Jurassic Park River Adventure, a raft ride. Other attractions that were fun for all of us: Revenge of the Mummy, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and Men In Black Alien Attack. All are dark rides in vehicles on tracks, with plenty of special effects and surprises. Men In Black is a shooting game; mom's score for electronic zaps was the lowest in the family. A final coaster that the kids did alone was Incredible Hulk.

We'd visited Universal Hollywood in Los Angeles in the past and really enjoyed the live shows that give a behind-the-scenes look at the movie biz, so we wanted to be sure to catch one of those in Orlando too. We chose "Disaster!" and loved it. I hope to never be on a real subway during an earthquake with fire breaking out all around me and buildings falling down, but Universal's fictitious depiction sure was some crazy fun.

Our trip was too early in the season to catch the big news at Universal this year -- the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter on June 18. We'll have to go back for that.

DISNEY WORLD ANIMAL KINGDOM: No surprise here: Expedition Everest was the favorite at Animal Kingdom, for our whole family. The coaster was thrilling enough for the kids but not so stomach-churning that mom couldn't handle it.

Our No. 2 pick in Animal Kingdom was "Flights of Wonder." This live show features birds -- owls, falcons, hawks and more -- swooping over the audience as their handlers explain their behaviors. We found it exciting, captivating and often funny. The show was not as highly recommended to us as many of the other live animal attractions at Animal Kingdom, yet my boys preferred it to Kilimanjaro Safaris, a ride through a landscape inhabited by African wildlife, and Maharajah Jungle Trek, a self-guided walking tour to see tigers, bats and other Asian wildlife. My guess is that for kids who are veteran visitors to zoos and animal parks, the opportunity to see interesting behaviors like those shown in "Flights of Wonder" is more exciting than seeing animals lazing about their natural habitats.

Other Animal Kingdom attractions that the big guys gave a thumbs-up to were Kali River Rapids, a water ride, and Dinosaur, a fun and wild dark ride.

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