Apparently, the Orlando area has a reputation as a top family travel destination, and folks from all over the world come here to spend days and weeks (and lots and lots of money) in pursuit of much-needed diversions.
Yet, like New Yorkers who never go to the Statue of Liberty or Seattlites who can't be bothered with the Space Needle, residents of The City Beautiful are quick to dismiss any recreational activity that takes them into the Tourist Zone. Sure, we've all been to Disney at least once, and trips to Universal and SeaWorld are furtively undertaken (dude, don't front and act like you don't love riding The Hulk). But when it comes to the, shall we say, ancillary attractions on offer to our visitors, well, that's an area into which we locals seldom venture. And, after some dirt-digging investigative work, I think I've figured out why: After you get past the A-list attractions in town (Disney, Universal, Sea World), the B-list and C-list pickings are both slim and somewhat uninviting.
The idea for this piece seemed remarkably large and unwieldy at first: Write about all the crappy attractions around town and try to figure out what tourists do when they're not at one of the good parks. The crappy attractions had to be strictly "attractions," in the sense that no activity is involved on behalf of the patron beyond observation or ride-riding; thus, no minigolf and no Wet 'n Wild. Yet, when it came time to draw up the final list, I was surprised to see that if you take out the activity-based attractions and ignore all the shopping monstrosities and all-you-can-eat gorge-atoriums, you're really not left with very much at all. Yeah, I was stunned too.
However, when looking at what was left, it might surprise you hipper-than-thou folks to know that we live in one of the few cities in America where on any given day, you can see alligators do tricks, gawk at a cheesy puppet emerging from Hell, view Elvis' very first Vegas jumpsuit and see Jesus get crucified. And if that's not a recipe for a great weekend adventure in your own town, I don't know what is.
Right after "the big three," there are really only two places that qualify as "attractions" in the theme-park way: Gatorland and The Holy Land Experience. The first is routinely mocked for being archaic, while the latter is routinely mocked for being, well, archaic. But both have their charms and both are surprisingly entertaining, especially if you're capable of ridding yourself of your preconceptions.
This is the theme park that started it all. In 1949, way before Walt Disney beckoned America to come and build strip malls all over Central Florida, a true-blue Florida cracker by the name of Owen Godwin opened what would become Gatorland (it was originally called the Florida Wildlife Institute), luring snowbound Northerners to beautiful Florida by driving a flashy truck around up North. (Oh yeah, the truck was also carrying a 13-foot alligator named Cannibal Jake.) Whether or not his pioneering bring-all-the-tourists-the-state-can-hold philosophy was good for Florida is debatable; what's crystal-clear is that Gatorland still is one of the coolest reasons to visit Orlando.
The park is huge, with lots of walking trails, an observation tower and a shitload of reptiles. Gators and crocs are the stars here, and they've come from all over the world to do one of two things: lie around in the sun all day not moving an inch, or perform for crowds in the hopes of getting some raw chicken. The Gatorland shows last about 15 minutes each, and there are usually about 10 shows a day. (The Gator Jumparoo is corny; the Gator Wrestlin' is a classic.) The proximity to the animals makes for an excellent adventure, but the best part of Gatorland is the opportunity to spend an afternoon wandering the summer-camp-like trails and catching as many of the shows as you can.
The Holy Land Experience
I was thinking that seeing The Passion of the Christ just a few days before visiting The Holy Land Experience would mean that I'd be mentally prepared for pretty much anything this "not-for-profit Christian ministry" could throw at me. (By the way, it's pretty clear that they're "not for profit," as the park hours are frustratingly "flexible" and, on the day I went, the park was largely empty.) However, I certainly didn't expect to be confronted with a Tim Rice-like musical number (in English and Spanish!) that climaxed in a crucifixion ... sorry, that climaxed in THE Crucifixion. But that's what I got, and apparently, it happens every day. Like, wow.
Now, I realize a lot of people have a lot of preconceived notions about Holy Land and how it couldn't be anything but lame. But, honestly, the park is enjoyable, and not in a snotty, let's-go-make-fun-of-evangelical-Christians sort of way. A lot of effort was put into consistent theming (milk and honey ice cream, anyone?) and any park where there's a chubby, effeminate guy leading tourists through a group singalong of faux-traditional Yiddish songs is alright with me. The highlight of the park at least for geeks like me is the Scriptorium, which purports to trace the history of the written Bible through artifacts. Designed as a walk-through multimedia exhibit, the running time is a bit long (just shy of an hour) and the introductory notion that the Bible is the "undoctored" word of God was just hilarious, considering that the entire exhibit focused on the multiple translations the books have endured throughout the years. But seeing ancient Coptic scripts and pages from an original Gutenberg Bible is cool, no matter what the circumstance. From there, it was off to learn how to slaughter animals for sacrifice and watch Jesus get crucified. All in all, not a bad day.
Here was where the experiment got a little weird. I was thinking I'd be going to at least a dozen different attractions throughout the area. After all, this is like the Tourist Capital of the Planet, yes? Well, sure, if tourist means "one who shops for useless crap after eating at one of 30 identical Indian buffets." But as far as attractions go, the pickings were pretty slim, especially since "Xanadu: Home of the Future" closed. Just so you know, Jungle Adventures and Reptile World Serpentarium were also visited, but they're both really far away, so I figured if you made it all the way out to east St. Cloud or Christmas just to see 'em, you'd probably be a tourist too. And that wouldn't really count. (Plus, Reptile World really sucked.)
Going to Skull Kingdom can be a little complicated. First, there's no easy way to get into their parking lot and, second, you've got to decide between several different options and combinations of options. The main thing is, obviously, the haunted house, but there are two experiences to choose from: the day show (not as dark, not as scary) and the night show (darker, supposedly more scary). In addition, Skull Kingdom has recently added a dinner-theater aspect that involves magicians and pizza and beer that you can add on to your ticket. Sounds like an interesting idea, but if the magic is as magical as the haunted house is spooky, then you'd be better off drinking beer on your front porch. (As for the pizza, I've got it on the good word of an ex-delivery driver that it just comes from Papa John's.)
To measure the scariness of Skull Kingdom's haunted house aspect (during the "night show"), I brought along a trusty assistant: my 10-year-old son. Like me, he's got a pretty good BS detector, but, also like me, he doesn't care too much for people jumping out and scaring him. Thus, we were both hoping for a creepy, horrific experience that didn't rely on cheap stunts like hooded Valencia students appearing from nowhere and (literally) saying "Boo!" But that's what we got. Though Skull Kingdom tries to make the atmosphere as scary as possible, clumsy and malfunctioning effects do little to heighten the mood. What you're left with is a bunch of dark hallways and bored employees yelling at you. I get that at work for free.
Ripley's Believe It or Not!
Something I can't get at work for free is a shrunken head. (But if I could, then I'd have the best job in the world!) But Ripley's has one. And a penis sheath. And a fake dude in a fake oven. I was thinking that, since the whole "Believe It or Not!" thing was started in the pre-jet travel, pre-Internet world, there would be little there to impress my jaded eyes. But a Rolls-Royce built out of matchsticks and art crafted from burnt toast are cool no matter how many ridiculous things you've seen in your life. Take away the faint whiff of cultural superiority that permeates many of the displays Wow! Lip discs! How primitive! and marvel at the bedpan collection.
Hard Rock Vault
Why should you pay 15 bucks to look at rock memorabilia at the Hard Rock Vault when you can go to a Hard Rock Cafe and look at it for free? Simple: The memorabilia at the Vault is cooler. Elvis' first Vegas jumpsuit, the guitar "Strange Brew" was written on, handwritten John Lennon lyrics, some of Albert King's boarding passes (on one of which his name is spelled "Abbott"), an early Gene Simmons stage outfit (with real stage blood still on it!) and ... wait for it ... one of Lita Ford's guitars.
Seriously, the stuff stashed away in the vault here is pretty amazing, and though the main room puts everything in glass cases just like in the Cafes, the real treat is the not-so-cheesy guided "Total Immersion Tour" where the items are out in the open. Being in close proximity to a handwritten note of Sid Vicious' ("Reasons I love Nancy") is cool beyond words. Fun thing to do while waiting for the tour to start: Compare ticket prices in the poster room between, say, a 1979 Led Zeppelin show in Pasadena and a recent gig by, I don't know, Dishwalla or somebody. You'll pee your pants with anger.
Titanic: The Exhibition
This should have been the dumbest "attraction" of them all, and the implied threat of Celine Dion background music didn't make it any more appealing. Yet, surprisingly, Titanic isn't bad.
More a museum than anything else, it boasts an astonishing amount of artifacts culled from private collections. You'd think that looking at menu cards and plates from a sunken ship would be the height of boredom; not so. The designers of Titanic: The Exhibition present it all in a highly themed way, attempting to recreate portions of the ship, right down to a big chunk of permafrozen iceberg in the radio room. (Not, I assume, a piece of the actual iceberg, but who knows with these collector types?) It's more engaging than it should be, and completely ghoulish.
WonderWorks is a lot like Ripley's, but a whole lot cheesier, and perhaps more fun. There's some sort of vague "science" theme going on here, which makes it a lot like a grade-C version of the Orlando Science Center, with interactive exhibits and the like. But Wonder-Works doesn't belabor the point with educational claptrap; it just lets you get down to the business of making soap bubbles, building (and riding) virtual roller coasters, rolling quarters into a hole (why is this so fascinating?), playing laser tag (for an extra fee) and finding out when you're going to die.
14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, (407) 855-5496
The Holy Land Experience
4655 Vineland Road, (407) 367-2065
5931 American Way, (407) 354-1564
Ripley's Believe It or Not!
8201 International Drive, (407) 363-4418
Hard Rock Vault
8437 International Drive, (407) 599-7625
Titanic: The Exhibition
8445 International Drive, Suite 202, (407) 248-1166
9067 International Drive, (407) 351-8800