By Susan & Simon Veness
It’s pretty easy to list Orlando’s most compelling theme parks for children, but how about for adults? Which parks are most likely to command the attention of the grown-ups? It’s a key question today because, increasingly, the market for Disney and Co is couples without children.
Millennials are huge theme park fans and can be found here in ever growing numbers. At the same time, empty nesters have discovered the fun and excitement of the parks sans kids, and they also now provide a substantial proportion of the queues for Star Wars, Harry Potter and the rest.
As people who have enjoyed the theme parks as children AND adults, as well as with and without our own children, we can offer some sage advice, but it needs to be prefaced with some historical context.
The History of Theme Parks
Theme parks (as opposed to the simpler genre of amusement parks that date back to the 19th century) didn’t exist as such until 1955. That was when a certain Walter Elias Disney decided he needed somewhere to take his two girls where parents and children could have fun together.
It was a familiar lament. Parents watched while the kids did the merry-go-round, or the train ride or another junior-sized attraction. Walt wanted to change all that, and the result was Disneyland, the world’s first genuine ‘themed’ park, with a creative style that featured the Wild West, the fantasy of Disney’s classic films, a fun look at the world of tomorrow, Adventureland, and a stylised version of Main Street, USA, from Walt’s childhood memories.
The park, in Anaheim, California, was an almost instant success and a whole new variety of family entertainment was born. That first park welcomed its 10 millionth visitor just two-and-a-half years later, and hit 50 million visitors by 1965. The template was firmly established.
Disney followed up his initial success with an even bigger vision that opened in Orlando in 1971 (five years after his death), and that spawned even more development, from the likes of SeaWorld, Universal, Silver Dollar City and Dollywood in the USA, and Europa Park (Germany), Puy de Fou (France), Efteling (Netherlands) and Legoland (Denmark) in Europe.
The Orlando boom
It was a small, relatively insignificant central Florida city that really put the theme park world into overdrive, though. Within 20 years, Orlando’s initial park – Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom – had encouraged the opening of five more, and today the full list numbers 12, including four superb water parks. It is family fun on the largest possible scale.
Only, a funny thing happened on the way to making this the best kids’ playground in the world – the parks started to aim some of their appeal at adults, and grown-ups lapped it up.
To be fair, Disney had already initiated the process with their second park, EPCOT, in 1982, as it featured attractions with an educational component that went over the heads of many kids. The process continued with the opening of their Animal Kingdom in 1998, and rivals SeaWorld and Universal Orlando quickly followed suit.
Nowadays, few new attractions are designed purely for the younger members of the family. Yes, this is still the place for great children’s entertainment, but the adult component is no longer insignificant. And the appeal for those without children is both real and highly recommended, especially when it comes to the food and drink, which have dramatically improved in recent years.
With that in mind, here are the parks we think have the MOST adult enticement. That isn’t to say the others don’t have things that appeal to those without kids. After all, grown-ups are just big kids in many ways! But this selection should definitely be on your radar if you’re looking for a primarily non-juvenile experience.
This was Walt’s big brainchild when he first envisaged the 47-square-mile immensity of Walt Disney World in 1965. Tragically, his death put a lot of his ambitious plans for the Experimental Prototype City Of Tomorrow on the back-burner, but the version that ultimately debuted in 1982 still included a lot of elements that thrilled those with more adult sensibilities.
Basically divided into two sections (which will become four in 2021), it consisted of Future World, with a look at the technologies and issues of tomorrow, and World Showcase, with a potted journey around the globe via pavilions dedicated to Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the United States, Morocco, France, Britain and Canada.
The rides tended to have an educational component while exhibits included historical and cultural representations, especially in World Showcase. This has changed slightly in recent times, but the essence remains intact and it continues to be a wonderfully grown-up environment.
Best of all, EPCOT features some of the best dining in Florida, with genuinely gourmet restaurants in the Mexico, France, Japan and Italy pavilions, accompanied by great craft beers, wines and cocktails. In fact, during the park’s delicious Food & Wine Festival (from late August to November), you’ll often see more adults than kids in the park!
In many respects, this is Disney’s ‘change of pace’ park, where things slow down and are usually less frenzied than the hugely popular Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (with the crowd-inducing draw of its Star Wars ‘land’).
There are still rides and shows, including a fabulous roller-coaster in the shape of Expedition Everest, and several junior-sized rides, but this is more about our connection with nature, and the exploration of (recreated) areas like Africa and Asia, with gentle walking trails through wonderfully creative environments.
Live shows are also a major part of Animal Kingdom’s allure, and the quality of things like Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo – The Musical is the equal of anything you will see in the West End or on Broadway. Add in further treats such as the Harambe Village Acrobats and Viva Gaia Street Band and you have a terrific lineup of entertainment that is largely geared to an older audience.
The park’s other triumph is Pandora – The World of Avatar, a vividly innovative and eye-catching ‘land’ that not only boasts two wonderful rides (including one of Disney’s best, Flight of Passage) but the kind of stunningly immersive experience that makes visitors gasp. Tiffins restaurant and the Nomads Lounge also offer a distinctly foodie-centric dining experience and great cocktails!
In many ways, SeaWorld is Orlando’s most well-rounded family park, in as much as there are specific areas that are designed primarily for the different age groups, and absolutely everyone can find something to enjoy through this 200-acre marine wonderland.
The best thing it offers the adult audience, though, is the chance to slow down from the hectic pace elsewhere. This is where you can wander some lovely paths and habitats largely away from the madding crowds (albeit it can get busy in peak season), as its extensive expanse copes extremely well with large numbers.
There is also a lot of thought that has gone in to its many animal exhibits, providing both an educational and inspirational aspect, notably with their Manatee Rehabilitation Area, Manta Aquarium and Turtle Trek attraction.
When you need a meal break, SeaWorld features the Sharks Underwater Grill for a truly different dining experience, where even the bar area is beautifully themed to a living deep seas adventure, while a series of backstage tours offer a more in-depth study of the park’s many environmental projects.
When it comes to those brilliantly conceived ‘immersive’ lands that theme park creators now specialise in, the two Universal parks have certainly not been left behind. In fact, it’s possible to argue that the Islands of Adventure park actually raised the bar for this kind of development with the June 2010 opening of their Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade.
While Universal has always had a more grown-up feel and ambiance (they cater less for the young family market and more for teens and young adults), their collaboration with Warner Bros. films and author JK Rowling took park design into a whole new realm of through-the-screen reality where visitors were completely surrounded with this make-believe movie world.
Development hit a peak in 2014 with the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley in the Universal Studios park. Potter fans are often left in awe of this complete three-dimensional environment, which includes areas specially created by Rowling herself, while the forbidding Knockturn Alley sub-section is a magnificent study in dark, moody creativity.
The only drawback is that you need a ticket for both parks to enjoy all the Wizarding wonders, especially as they are cleverly linked by the unique Hogwarts Express full-size train ride that travels between the two ‘lands.’ But, for sheer grown-up enjoyment, it takes some beating.
Halloween Horror Nights
Okay, we’re going to list this specially ticket evening event at Universal Studios (Sept-Oct yearly) separately as it has a gruesomely-fun style and appeal all of its own that is most definitely NOT for kids.
Taking their cue from horror movie franchises such as The Walking Dead, The Shining, Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The 13th, plus classic Universal monster mash-ups like Dracula and Frankenstein, the inventors of this fiendishly clever annual fright-fest typically create a series of walk-through haunted houses and ‘scare zones’ that are some of the most imaginative in the theme park world.
It is obviously an acquired taste – especially if you are not a fan of the horror genre – but it is massively popular, and, while some of it is very firmly tongue-in-cheek, other parts are brilliantly scary. Be aware Fridays and Saturdays are often ridiculously crowded, hence it is better to visit on a Sunday or week-night when the locals don’t come out in big numbers.
SeaWorld’s exclusive, swim-with-dolphins sister park is another unique prospect, combining a South Seas-style beach resort with a series of animal adventures and interactions that attract plenty of families but also provide a blissfully relaxing environment for couples.
Guest numbers are limited to just 1,500 a day, and there is room to spread out with loungers, umbrellas and hammocks around the pools and lazy river feature. Breakfast and lunch are included, along with snacks and drinks throughout the day, to ensure a hassle-free, all-inclusive atmosphere.
And the animal activities are superb, including a huge coral reef where guests can snorkel with tropical fish and stingrays; an extensive aviary where you can feed the birds; and the signature dolphin encounter in the massive lagoon. A major adventure every time.
We’re going to conclude our tour of Orlando’s best theme parks for adults with a bit of a cheat, albeit a thoroughly justifiable one. Walt Disney World itself encompasses a truly mind-boggling extent, with four theme parks, two water parks, golf courses, hotels, campground and its Disney Springs district.
Now, Disney Springs isn’t, technically, a theme park. There is no entry fee and there are no rides. But, for grown-up sensibilities, it might just as well be. This is where you will find some of the best bars and restaurants in Orlando, not to mention great shopping at places like Superdry, Uniqlo, Coach and Lilly Pulitzer, plus offbeat entertainment at the NBA Experience, Cirque du Soleil and Splitsville.
More than anywhere in recent years, this is a place that has been tailored to those who enjoy memorable meals, craft beers and hand-made cocktails. There are no fewer than 19 full-service restaurants, each with a distinctly upscale touch, and the all-round quality is WAY above what most people think of as ‘theme park food.’
So, when you try places like Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill, Jaleo by Jose Andres, Bar George, Morimoto Asia, The Edison and Paddlefish, you may find it hard to imagine you are still in a theme park environment. You are, of course, but this is unarguably a grown-up theme park environment.
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.