Where to begin? It’s been almost two weeks since I touched down at the airport in Orlando, ready for my first work vacation. My college friends Kevin, Kim, and Jay had been planning this trip for months now, and it was hard to believe that it was finally, actually happening. We’d take the sandwich approach, spending Fourth of July and the next day in Orlando visiting Kennedy Space Center and Universal’s Islands of Adventure (a.k.a. the park that contains the Wizarding World of Harry Potter), then head off for a five day cruise to the Bahamas before ending with a day back in Orlando visiting Magic Kingdom.
This post is a recap of our visit to the theme parks and attractions in Orlando. Click here to read about our cruise to the Bahamas (Freeport, Nassau, Half Moon Cay).
Kennedy Space Center
After touching down in Orlando the morning of July 4, we wasted no time picking up our rental car and driving out to Cape Canaveral to visit Kennedy Space Center. As I stepped out of the car, I was immediately hit with a hot, sauna-like heat that caught me off guard – welcome to Florida in the summertime. We walked past the giant NASA globe at the entrance, snapped a picture of the JFK mural, and found ourselves staring at a garden of rockets. I would soon find out these were the actual rockets of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. I liked this place already.
Kennedy Space Center was a pleasant surprise, filled with state-of-the-art exhibits and plenty of nice, air-conditioned buildings. The Early Space Exploration exhibit had a ton of cool artifacts from some of the first manned spaceflights, including the actual control consoles of the original Mercury rocket launch. After a bus tour showing us some really cool NASA buildings and structures at the compound, we found ourselves at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, staring up at some gargantuan rockets, the actual ones that took 27 Americans to the moon.
The rockets were awe-inspiring, but my favorite exhibit that day was the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. After an excellent intro video about the amazing story behind the space shuttle program, the entire wall opened to reveal the actual space shuttle the video was talking about, timed perfectly with the ending. It couldn’t have been more goosebump-inducing – the people at KSC have got it down! I walked along the side of the Atlantis, admiring the shuttle and noticing the black markings from its many trips to space and back. We capped off the trip by riding the Shuttle Launch Experience simulator ride and watching a Hubble Space Telescope documentary in the IMAX theater.
Islands of Adventure/Wizarding World of Harry Potter
I’m not going to lie – the main reason I (and I suspect many other people) visited Universal’s Islands of Adventure was for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Still, I was pleasantly surprised over the course of our visit by the many fun rides in the entire park. As soon as we entered Islands of Adventure, we grabbed maps and made a beeline for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As the entrance of Hogsmeade loomed into view, I could sense the group’s excitement.
The excitement was certainly warranted – we were in Harry Potter-fan heaven. After several hours of going on the rides (my favorite was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey), drinking Butterbeer, doing some wand shopping at Ollivander’s, eating British pub food at Three Broomsticks, and picking dessert options at Honeydukes, we’d finally gotten our fill of Harry Potter-themed activities for the day, but not before a selfie-session in front of Hogwarts. I left Hogsmeade impressed by the work the park had done to get even the little details right. It really felt like we were in a scene from the books and movies.
We spent the rest of the day visiting each of the other sections of the park. From watching the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad stunt show to getting soaked on the Jurassic Park River Adventure and Popeye’s Bilge Rat Barges rides to riding the Dr. Seuss Trolley Train, we had an absolute blast and ended the day enjoying some good food and watching the Netherlands-Costa Rica World Cup game at Hard Rock Cafe.
There’s no denying it – it’s magical being in a Disney park. Disney does such an amazing job capturing the child-like wonder and optimism from its movies and transferring it into the park itself that I’m confident no other park can come close to replicating that same feel. Even though it was another unbearably hot summer day, that thought instantly went to the back of my head as we entered the park to another world. Seeing the Cinderella castle come into view brought back memories of last summer’s trip to Alcazar in Segovia, Spain, and the castle would remain in the distance from many vantage points throughout the day. It also served as the backdrop of one of the coolest fireworks shows I’ve ever witnessed.
After grabbing FastPasses for the essential rides (Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), we lined up for the park’s newest family-friendly roller coaster – the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The ride itself was forgettable, but the wait was filled with interactive puzzle touchscreen games, fun water fountains, and spinning kaleidoscope jewel barrels. We scheduled the rest of our day around our FastPass times, hitting up Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Stitch’s Great Escape, and the Buzz Lightyear shooting game. Essentially all the rides were the same as the ones in Disneyland, but they were still so much fun to go on.
Of course who could forget the food? Jay and I had to buy the giant turkey legs for lunch. Our group didn’t skimp on dessert, either, making sure to get the Dole Whip Float, perfect for the hot day. In the afternoon we caught the Festival of Fantasy parade, but it was the evening festivities that really polished off a wonderful Disney visit. The Main Street Electrical Parade was a sight to behold, an audiovisual treat filled with sparkling lights of every color on intricately-decorated floats. The fireworks show and preceding Cinderella castle projection mini show were unforgettable. I could sense the collective wonder of the crowd, and it was one of those rare instances were everything felt as one. It was a perfect ending to an amazing trip.
Check out the video of our entire trip to Orlando and the Bahamas below: