The Black Friday storm clouds are gathering overhead, which means it must be time to start searching for holiday gifts. In past years, I might have suggested an annual pass to one of Orlando's major theme parks as the perfect present for any attraction-lovers in your life.
But after the most recent round of price hikes, a four-park pass to Walt Disney World with no blackout dates now costs $691.19, after the Florida resident discount. (Just be grateful that it hasn't broken the $1,000 barrier like it has at Disneyland). At $299.99 for locals, the equivalent admission at Universal is significantly cheaper but still more than many people can spend, even on a significant other.
As a substitute, here are some more affordable gift ideas for your favorite theme park fans. And since presents are best when they go both ways, I've also included items I wish I could give to each of the area attractions, in hopes of a happy new year of thrills.
Let's kick off the giving season with some shameless self-promotion: If someone on your list likes Universal Orlando, why not buy them a copy of The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, by yours truly? If that's too self-serving, try tickets to see Blue Man Group at CityWalk; you don't need a park admission, and seats for Florida residents start at $49. In the true Christmas spirit, BMG's autism-friendly performance on Dec. 5 will give the gift of accessibility through lower sound and light levels; see blueman.com/autismspeaks for details.
Universal is giving a ginormous gift to dark-ride aficionados next summer in the form of Skull Island: Reign of Kong, so I'm giving them a boatload of bananas. It's a bribe in hopes the King's return will be less glitchy than Gringotts' debut.
Walt Disney World
Some former Disney diehards have been priced out of the parks, but they can still pretend they live on Main Street U.S.A., thanks to Disney Springs. A recently completed I-4 exit ramp that leads directly into the free parking garage makes shopping at the former Downtown Disney complex much less taxing. At the Marketplace Co-op, the Centerpiece collection of Orange Bird housewares has been joined by Twenty Eight & Main's manly clothes and accessories themed to cult favorites like the Adventurers Club and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. May I suggest a $30 pre-distressed Mr. Toad baseball cap? If that's too rich, stop by the Indiana Jones-themed Hangar Bar (located on the ex-Pleasure Island) and order a Cool-Headed Monkey; you can enjoy the rum and then give the souvenir ceramic simian skull to someone you love.
Based on their recently reported 15 percent increase in fourth-quarter attendance, my gift wish for WDW would be a serious sense of urgency in building new Star Wars and Toy Story lands at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and beginning expansions to the other parks. All those extra people need something to see, and "opening in 2019" signs ain't gonna cut it.
In the face of bad publicity and slumping numbers, SeaWorld recently announced a wave of changes for their parks, from revamping San Diego's Shamu shows (not shutting them down, as some misreported) to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer attractions and new rides. Plus, Mako will be the tallest coaster in town when it opens next year. SeaWorld's yearlong Fun Card admission is cheaper than one day at the Magic Kingdom, making it the best value among the Orlando parks – assuming you don't object to their orca exhibits.
Without taking sides in that debate, I'd like to gift the park a can or 12 of paint, plus a big box of light bulbs, to address the depressing neglect I noticed around this once-immaculate attraction during my last visit.
Merlin Entertainment is marking its first Christmas since christening the Orlando Eye and the rest of the attractions at I-Drive 360. The offerings at the new entertainment complex are eclectic, to say the least, and still a work in progress – a record-setting swing ride is supposed to open next year – but it appears to draw decent crowds of international visitors; free parking never hurts. The headliner attractions here are a bit pricey, but admission to the Skeletons: Animals Unveiled! exhibit is only $12 on Groupon, and should keep curious tweens (and adults with an interest in osteology) occupied for about an hour.
Since the Orlando Eye has experienced frequent closures and extended maintenance time during its debut months, I'm sending them a new hamster to replace the obviously exhausted one that apparently keeps that big wheel rolling.