Can you believe it? The first month of 2017 has come and gone! If your first month was anything like mine then it flew by! 2017 looks to be a big year for theme parks with lots of new stuff opening like Volcano Bay water theme park opening May 25, hopefully Rivers of Light and Pandora: the World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Race Through New Year with Jimmy Fallon and Fast and the Furious Ride both at Universal Studios Florida and a new water slide, Miss Adventure Falls at Typhoon Lagoon.
I started off 2017 with a good blend of time in the theme parks and time enjoying local experiences like seeing manatees at Blue Spring State Park, Orlando Science Center, Wekiva Island, and Cocoa Beach Pier. But of course you’re reading Touring Plans because you wanna know about the theme parks. Let’s recap what made the first month of January 2017 some of my best weeks ever.
Epcot Festival of the Arts
Three weeks ago Epcot Festival of the Arts began and I, like so many fellow Disney fans, visited on the opening weekend. It seems Epcot is now the theme park of festivals. 189 days out of the year there is some sort of festival at Epcot, be it Food and Wine, Flower and Garden, or the Arts. In fact, Festival of the Arts ends on February 20, then eight days later the Flower and Garden festival begins!
I arrived at Epcot around 11:30 AM and ready to take in as much of the festival as possible. We kicked off our day with a visit to the Odyssey Festival Showplace. This is a great place to start because you can enjoy a Food Studio, two stunning art galleries, and sign up for one of the seminars.
Naturally the Food Studios are a major draw of the festival. You can learn about some of the culinary masterpieces, and the items to consider skipping, here. I didn’t try any sweets on my visit, but since there are three more weekends of the festival maybe I’ll swing by to try a few before catching IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.
Everyone seems to really enjoy the photo opportunities around World Showcase during the festival, myself included. There are three opportunities to put yourself into some of the world’s most recognizable works of art, but there are also a few opportunities to get a photo with a Disney character side by side with a piece of art featuring the character. I’d love to go back and get a photo with Donald Duck in the Mexico Pavilion,or with Belle in the France Pavilion.
At the festival I had a lovely time tasting delicious food with a focus on presentation and plating. I also enjoyed taking a few fun photos with friends. Epcot’s Festival of the Arts is a great addition, and I wouldn’t mind if it returned next year. You can read tips about visiting the festival here.
Disney Imagineering Exhibit at Orlando Science Center
During the same opening weekend of Epcot’s Festival of the Arts, the Orlando Science Center presented Ortonicon. This event brought together Central Florida’s best and brightest companies in STEM. Naturally when most people think of Orlando they think theme parks, but we have a thriving technology and engineering industry. Not surprisingly, the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts exhibit attracted much of the attention of Otronicon’s attendees. We had the opportunity to experience two Walt Disney World attractions, one as a Virtual Reality recreation and the other as an Augmented Reality.
First we ventured into the world of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. My eyes immediately focused on the ride vehicle, from Snow White’s Scary Adventure – a Fantasyland ride that closed in 2012. It is hard for me to believe that it’s been five years since this ride was in operation, makes me feel old (which makes sense since the day of this post’s publication is my birthday). We boarded this ride vehicle, strapped on a virtual reality headset and began our virtual ride on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
This simulated ride may soon be used as part of a training program for Attraction Operations Cast Members. I enjoyed the experience especially since I still haven’t had the opportunity to ride Seven Dwarfs Mine Train just yet. The ride slowed and sped up as we approached hill climbs and turns. The accuracy impressed us.
After our virtual trip on the Mine Train we got into another line, this one to explore an augmented reality of Pandora: The World of Avatar – coming to Disney’s Animal Kingdom this summer. Rather than VR goggles, we donned augmented reality glasses. By looking at a flat print out of a model of Pandora these glasses gave us a 3D view of this model. As we turned our heads, got in close or backed away we could see different details of the model.
Two images stuck out in my mind. There are waterfalls and flowing streams throughout this area. Even in virtual reality, Pandora looks lush, tropical, and relaxing. Second, the floating mountains look like they will be breathtaking. I can envision how they will be a focal point and will cause guests’ jaw to drop.
Braving the storm at SeaWorld Orlando
January’s weather in Florida is a wild card. Toward the end of the month the weather forecast for the weekend called for storms, hail, and even tornadoes. Yet, my friend and I braved this scary forecast because we’re two busy working girls and had planned to meet at SeaWorld for weeks. Armed with a free ticket for my friend that SeaWorld offered to all of their Annual Passholders, we arrived shortly before 12 noon. The park appeared nearly empty. No wait at security, no wait at the turnstiles. Knowing that bad weather approached the area I encouraged my friend to head for Kraken and Mako roller coasters before they closed due to weather.
I’ve heard great things about Kraken, many Orlando theme park fans claim it as one of the favorite roller coasters in the area. I’m not interested in such a ride so my friend went solo. She practically walked right on and even remained onboard for a second ride! After we reunited we noticed the wind had increased.
We headed straight for Mako, Orlando’s newest, tallest, and fastest roller coaster. As we approached I strained to see the wait time, the Mako entrance signage is pretty difficult to read. 20 minute posted standby wait didn’t seem unreasonable for this brand new coaster. However as my friend headed into the entrance I noticed a lot of people came back out. They explained, rather frustrated, that the high winds prevented the ride from operating. Perfectly understandable, safety first after all.
Our disappointment wasn’t necessarily that Mako wasn’t operating, we were more disappointed that the communication was so poor. The Greeter of the attraction didn’t have any information to really provide guests such as how long they’ll let guests enter the queue even when the ride isn’t operational. As someone who has worked in attraction operations I understand that crew members cannot give out details about specific procedures and safety protocol. There just needed to be clearer communication to guests entering the queue.
We decided to hit the reset button and grab a seat at the bar of Sharks Underwater Grill. This is SeaWorld’s signature dining restaurant. The food can be hit or miss here. I recommend going with the catch of the day. My friend and I split a sushi roll, they only have one on their menu, they don’t have a fresh sushi bar. Although the roll was satisfying, I wouldn’t order it again. We did, however, enjoy our Stella Artois beer because Sharks has a specialty keg draft just for this beer and the signature Stella chalices. We enjoyed catching up with each other as we chatted, sipped our beers, and gazed at the coral and fish swimming in the aquarium that is the bar’s counter top.
Our focus of our time together was to catch up and chat. SeaWorld is a beautiful park and its laid back feel makes it easy to have a leisurely, relaxing visit, great for connecting with friends and family. We headed for “One Ocean” around 3:00 PM, with a stop at Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen which is near Shamu Stadium. This is a great spot to grab a snack and drink before entering for the show. They have a great selection of draft craft beers and great decor to boot!
The show itself, “One Ocean”, is a shell of what the show used to be years ago in Shamu Stadium. I am so glad my younger days afforded me the ability to see these shows in their heyday. “Believe” was the show prior to “One Ocean” and I found it to be breathtaking. I highly recommend seeing “One Ocean” while you can. This will be the last show that will ever feature the orcas and their trainers in such a way. Very soon the show will shut down and SeaWorld will enter a new era.
During the show the weather worsened and soon rain began. As we departed the stadium we donned our rain gear, and soon heard an announcement over the park wide speakers. SeaWorld announced they would close at 5:00 PM instead of 4:00 PM due to the severe weather. I can see how this may be a disappointment for some guests, but for me as a local I took it as a sign that I should hit the road and get home before things get severe. That night the Central Florida area was under a tornado warning and experienced very severe weather. I’m glad SeaWorld made the right call. Quick note: we did browse some of the merchandise shops before heading out and were pleasantly surprised at the quality of much of the merchandise.
January kicked off 2017 with fun with friends. There’s lots of great things to look forward to throughout this year. Stay tuned in two weeks when I head to Universal Orlando for the kick off of Universal Mardi Gras 2017! And be sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest for live in park updates and other theme park fun.