In the Shadow of the Mouse

Secrets of a theme park obsessed local who lives next door to Mickey, with annual passes to every Central Florida park

Your family can win Wet ‘n Wild Aqua Drag Racer contest: Enter by June 6

b8Aqua Drag Racer, the newest thrill ride at the Wet ‘n Wild water park, debuts on Thursday, June 12. Would your family like to be there to participate in a grand opening race? If so, snap a photo of your most competitive or spirited pose, submit it at www.wetnwildorlando.com/readytorace and wait to see if you’re a winner!

You must submit your family photo by June 6, and winners will be announced on the 9th by 5 p.m. Eastern time. If you make the cut, you’ll get your game on in a special race that pits families against each other in a bracket competition. The victorious family gets a trip to the winner’s circle and scores Wet ‘n Wild annual passes.

Don’t enter if anyone in your family is afraid of heights or speed, as the slide is six feet tall and riders zip along at 15 feet per second. You won’t hit any brakes as you whiz down the incline in your quest to win.

Even if you don’t enter the family contest, you can still score a grand opening prize just by getting to the park early on June 12. The first 500 guests will get express bands so they can zip to the front of the lines.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

‘But what if I’m not a Harry Potter fan?’ Diagon Alley for disinterested muggles

b16Harry Potter fans everywhere are salivating at the thought that the Diagon Alley opening at Universal Studios Florida is just around the corner. The most devoted among them have already experienced Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Now they’re ready to rush to Orlando for a ride on the Hogwarts Express, a chance to dine at the Leaky Caldron, and an opportunity to tour Gringotts, complete with fire-breathing dragon.

But what about their friends and relatives who aren’t Harry Potter fans? Will they hate braving the insane crowds and endless waits to see something that they’re really not all excited about?

Never fear! Even if you’re not a big Harry Potter fan, you’ll do just fine if you get dragged to Diagon Alley by your kids, a significant other, or friends who can’t get enough of the Boy Who Lived and his friends. Here are three things to look forward to, no matter how you feel about Harry and his Wizarding World:

b81) The theming. Anyone who enjoys theme parks can appreciate rich theming, so you’ll love Diagon Alley even if you don’t care what it actually represents. Hogsmeade looks like it popped right off the movie screen, but even if you’ve never seen the movies, you can still appreciate the village and, especially, the amazing castle. Even if you don’t know what the rooms are inside, you’ll love touches like the talking portraits and the indoor snow. Diagon Alley promises to be every bit as impressive.

2) The technology. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a technological marvel, melding a Kuka arm robot, dark ride, and simulator all into a fascinating experience that hasn’t been equaled since it debuted in 2010. The new Gringotts ride promises to be every bit as impressive. You can enjoy Hidden Journey even if you don’t fully understand the storyline, although it helps. If you don’t know about Harry Potter, it’s still a typical “uh oh, you’re in danger…whew, you escaped!” plot. Gringotts should follow in that same vein, and besides, it has a fire-breathing dragon! I dare you to find anyone who doesn’t think that’s cool.

3) The diversion. Okay, maybe you’re one of those people who’ll hate it, no matter what. You had no interest in the Harry Potter books and movies, and you could care less about Universal’s real-world translation. If someone drags you to Universal Studios Florida, you’ve still got something to enjoy: the fact that the vast majority of your fellow guests will be flocking to Diagon Alley, which means lower crowds and shorter lines on the other rides. Let them fight to get into Gringotts and Ollivanders and the various shops (yes, there were lines to get into the stores and spend your money back when Hogsmeade first opened). Head off on your own and enjoy the other attractions at your leisure.

b7As a local, I’ll be using that last tip, but only after I’ve gotten my fill of Diagon Alley. I remember how impressed I was by the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so much so that I grabbed an on-site hotel room at a Florida resident discount to get early entry into the soft openings. It was worth every penny, as the crowd was minimal and the lines were almost non-existent. Compare that with the grand opening masses who waited for hours just to get into the area, then waited even longer for the rides and Ollivanders, and you can see why early entry is so valuable.

But if you’re a Harry Potter fan, be sure to tune in to In the Shadow of the Mouse between June 17 and 20 and follow me on Twitter at @themeparkwriter for coverage of the big media event. I’ll also be reporting on the Cabana Bay resort, since the second phase opens that week.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse. Email comments and story ideas to hypeorlandoblogger@gmail.com.

2014 Central Florida attraction openings: past, present, and future

2014 is a prolific year for attraction openings at the Central Florida theme parks and water parks. Thus far this year, we’ve had Ihu’s Breakaway Falls open at Aquatica, and Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Orlando re-opened after its refurbishment (although I miss Shamu Up Close, which let you see training sessions while the stadium was closed).Here’s the pre-opening ceremony for the terrifying new waterslide, which has three shoots that drop you randomly and one where you control your fate (but still drop like a rocket):

SeaWorld is also in the midst of its 50th anniversary celebration, which began in the spring.

Next up was Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Walt Disney World, which completed the Magic Kingdom’s ambitious New Fantasyland expansion. It officially opened today (May 28), although I was there earlier this year for the dedication ceremony. You can see the ceremony in the video below:

And here are five rides on the new family coaster from five different perspectives:

Prior to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, the Magic Kingdom welcomed Festival of Fantasy, its new and extremely impressive afternoon parade, on March 9. Click the video below to see the full parade, including the impressed fire-spewing Maleficent dragon. All of the floats are works of art, with moving parts and minute details:

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is suitable for younger kids, but what if you have toddlers in the family? Legoland Florida opened its Duplo Village kiddie area this past week, which rides, an air conditioned play area, and even a fun water spot for the youngest members of the family. Here’s the opening ceremony:

2014 also saw the reappearance of a beloved Florida landmark: the Florida Pool, which was restored in the Cypress Gardens area of Legoland. Some of the original Southern Belles who used to roam the gardens even came back for the event.

There’s another opening just around the corner: the Aqua Drag Racer water slide at Wet ‘n Wild, Universal Orlando’s water park. It debuts on June 12, just in time for the brutal summer heat. If you’ve never been to Wet ‘n Wild, it’s a great water park for several reasons. First, it has some unique attractions, like knee skiing and wake skating on a real lake. Second, it’s the only area water park where you can buy an express. Like Universal, it has express lines that let you bypass most of the wait if you purchase the pass. It’s work its weight in gold during the peak season, when endless lines stretch down the stairs and you bake while waiting in the sun for your turn to cool off.

Here’s a guided tour of Wet ‘n Wild, although Bubba Tub is gone now to make way for the new ride:

Speaking of Universal, it has its own grand opening coming on an as-yet-undetermined day. It already celebrated the opening of its new Cabana Bay Resort, and now it’s just about ready to introduce the world to the long-awaited Diagon Alley, its Harry Potter expansion.  The official opening date hasn’t been announced yet, but there’s a media preview from June 17 to 20 and a special vacation package with dates starting on June 29, so those are big clues.

In the meantime, enjoy this teaser video with some of the Diagon Alley creators that will help whet your appetite:

There’s one more Central Florida opening, but alas, it’s in the air, both literally and figuratively. Falcon’s Fury, the 300+ foot face-down drop tower that looms above Busch Gardens Tampa was supposed to be open already, but a delay in parts has caused it to miss its announced debut, with no new date in sight. It should still open this summer, and in the meantime, the new Pantopia area is already welcoming guests. You can learn more about the making of Pantopia in the construction tour video below:

Keep an eye out, as I’ll be covering the remaining openings, including all four days of the big Diagon Alley event. You can read my reports here and follow me on Twitter at @themeparkwriter for live updates.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse. Email comments and story ideas to hypeorlandoblogger@gmail.com.

Attention Harry Potter Fans: Diagon Alley vacation packages start June 29

If you’re a rabid Harry Potter fan waiting with baited breath for the Diagon Alley opening at Universal Orlando Resort, you’ve finally got a date at which to aim. You can get a special vacation package, with dates starting on June 29, that puts you up at Cabana Bay, the newest on-site propeb16rty, and gives you early entry to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as well as breakfast at either Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade or the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley.

I suspect that virtually everyone will take the latter option, since Hogsmeade is already old hat to hardcore Harry fans. This year, it’s all about Diagon Alley, with a chance to truly hop aboard the Hogwarts Express and to whiz through Gringotts on a hair-raising ride complete with a fire-breathing dragon. The package includes four nights at the hotel and a three day, two park ticket so you can move freely between the two Harry Potter areas in Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.

Just how valuable is that early entry? After all, it’s only an hour. Does it really make that much of a difference?

Yes, yes, yes! And I say that from experience.

b17When the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter first opening, the crowd level was insane. I’m big on crowds or waiting in long lines, so I booked an on-site hotel room even though I had no intention of sleeping there. I booked it strictly for the early entry benefit, which I could use for two mornings on a one-night stay (you can check in early, even though your room won’t be ready, and rush over to the park).

That hour might not sound like very much, but let me assure you, it was golden. Sure, we were there with all the other hotel guests, but that number paled in comparison to the hordes of people who took over when the general public was allowed in. Both days I rushed over to Ollivanders and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and did them with virtually no wait, even though their lines shot up to multiple hours later in the day.

Diagon Alley promises to be just as popular as Hogsmeade, so expect to wait just to get into the area, let alone doing the rides and attractions. That’s what happened with the original Wizarding World, and with Harry fans as devoted as ever, this summer will likely see that same crowd level. That makes early access worth its weight in gold.

For more information on this package, which is available in summer and fall, visit Universal’s official website.

Another great way to beat the crowd is to upgrade your accommodations to one of the other three hotels on property, which gives you unlimited Express line access throughout your stay. Cabana Bay is a wonderful hotel (read about my recent stay here), but the others are nice, too, so they’re worth it if you really want that Express. As an alternative, you can book a VIP tour, which gets you right to the front of the line on the major attractions. You can read more about that in my full report here.

I’ll be reporting on Diagon Alley first hand, starting on June 17 at the media event, so stay tuned to In The Shadow of the Mouse for full coverage.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Dear Orlando tourist…you’re a danger on the road

b10As a Chicago native, I once thought driving on the Dan Ryan expressway was the epitome of dangerous driving. Chicago motorists have no mercy as they speed along to their destinations, and any tiny modicum of civility is lost by the time you reach downtown. I survived my baptism by fire and learned how to drive the Dangerous Dan, as well as to navigate the streets of the Loop without loss of life and limb for myself or anyone else.

I thought I was all set to drive pretty much anywhere in the country.

I was wrong.

Compared to driving I-4 or I-Drive, the Dan Ryan was a romp in the park. At first, I couldn’t figure out why, but then I realized a very important fact: in Orlando, the vast majority of drivers have no clue where they’re going or how to get there. In Chicago, most of your fellow drivers are local, and they know their way around. Thus, you can pretty much predict what they’re going to do and take steps to counteract their foolishness. In Orlando, the tourists are totally lost and also quite possibly in the dark about where they’re actually going. Remember, we’re a town where people regularly think that Harry Potter is at the Magic Kingdom and don’t realize that Disney has four separate parks and Universal has two. How can they follow their GPS if they don’t even know what to plug into it?

And speaking of GPS, dear tourists, I’m not going to get anywhere near your car when I see that sinister tell-tale glow. It’s like a neon sight screaming, “I’m lost! I’m lost! And I might cut you off or stop dead in the middle of the road at any moment.”

Lest you think I’ve paranoid, a little over a year ago I bought a brand new car…only to have it rear ended by distracted tourists in a rental car when it was less than one month old. Thankfully no one was hurt, and they paid for the damage, but I never, ever had anything like that happen in Chicago.

Here are some quick hints for tourists to help them cause a little less frustration in the locals:

  • Please pull over when you’re totally confused. Suddenly going from 45 mph to a dead stop in the middle of 192 is a great way to cause an accident. And yes, I really do see this all the time. Pull into a parking lot and figure things out at your leisure, but don’t stop on a street and endanger everyone around you.
  • Don’t suddenly cut off three lanes of traffic when you abruptly realize you missed your turn. U-turns are legal in Florida. Just get over when it’s safe to do so and bust a U. It’s a lot better than busting up your car because you cut off other motorists without looking.
  • Don’t expect me to let you in just because you suddenly turned on your blinker when there’s no one at all behind me. I know you just realized that you need to be in my lane, but you don’t need to be in front of me. Look at all that lovely space behind me. Take it. Use it. Enjoy it. It’s a heck of a lot better than forcing your way in and then making me deal with your lost, slow-moving, erratic self in front of me.

I realize this may all seem harsh. After all, I knew what I’d be facing when I moved to a tourist area. For the most part, I live with it every day and shrug it off as touron behavior, even when my brand new car gets creamed. But tonight HypeOrlando gave all its bloggers a chance to address tourists, and I just couldn’t resist. Please humor me if you’re a tourist; when you visit my city, you only have to deal with driving here for a week or two. For me, it’s the rest of my life.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Papa Murphy’s brings new meaning to fresh, brings families together at meal time

b10Ah, pizza, Nature’s perfect food! It’s slathered with cheese, which is my favorite food group (yes, it is a food group, along with chocolate and ice cream), and it has enough vegetables to let me declare it healthy. It’s fast, convenient, and delicious. What more can you ask for?

The only drawback for pizza is that it takes forever to arrive if you order from a good pizzeria that makes it fresh. Otherwise, no matter what brand you buy, store bought pizza still has that “frozen” taste, although some brands are better than others. So how to you balance pizzeria deliciousness with convenience? Today I discovered that Papa Murphy’s, which has three Orlando locations (Apopka, Ocoee, and Lake Mary), has the answer.

I was invited to check out Papa Murphy’s for myself as part of a group of bloggers. We had a tour of the restaurant, culminating in making our very own pizzas with an assortment of fresh ingredients. I was fascinated to see how the dough was made (the machine, shown below, also doubles as a cheese shredder and vegetable slicer) and marveled at the variety of pizzas that Papa Murphy’s offers.

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So how is this convenient? You stop by Papa Murphy’s and pick up your freshly made pizza that’s all ready to pop into the oven. Bake it when you get home and voila! Instant home-baked pizza with that unbeatable taste that no frozen pizza can match. You can bake it up immediately or pick it up early and leave it in the fridge until dinner time. You don’t spend a lot of valuable time slaving over the stove, which means you can spend more time with your family, and they’ll appreciate the meal.

b12Papa Murphy’s also offers a little Mini Murph kit for kids to make their very own pizzas, as well as three dessert options for the kid in all of us. There’s fresh chocolate chip cookie dough, a cinnamon wheel, and (most tempting of all), a s’mores pizza. How can you go wrong when melding two of the most delicious food concepts, i.e. s’mores and pizza?

It was a lot of fun creating my very own pizza, but I discovered that it’s a lot harder than it looks to spread the ingredients evenly. Thankfully, manager Nathan Ball handled the trick part of getting the sauce and cheese onto the crust before turning it over to me to add sausage, pepperoni, veggies, and of course more cheese for the finishing touch. I think I added a touch of almost everything, from mushrooms and onions to sun dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts.

If you stop by yourself, you won’t have to go through that assembly process. It’s all done for you, right in front of your eyes, with the ingredients you select. There are pre-set pizzas the Cowboy, Gourmet Chicken Garlic, and Murphy’s Combo, or you can fully customize your own. There are even seasonal varieties, with taco pizza available right now.

b13The regular prices are very reasonable, and you’ll find coupons on the Papa Murphy’s website. But if you want a real steal of a deal, take advantage of $10 Tuesdays. Every Tuesday, you can get any size pizza for just $10. That means you can get the largest pizza and feed your family for an unbeatable price.

I love the Papa Murphy’s concept, both from the family standpoint and as an idea for the tourist area. There isn’t a location near the theme parks at the moment, but Nathan says they plan to expand. This seems like the perfect product for tourists who stay in vacation homes or villas and want a fast, hot, and hearty meal they can prepare in their kitchen facilities without a lot of fuss.

You can see my finished handiwork in the left hand photo. It’s not exactly a work of art, but heck, it’s a pizza so it doesn’t have to be fancy!

So what does the pizza come out like once you get it home? I was excited to whisk my creation back to my kitchen and try it out for lunch. Here’s what it looks like fresh out of the oven and ready to be consumed:

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I’m a pizza snob, since I’m originally from Chicago, and I can honestly say that I really enjoyed this pizza. I’m especially fussy about the sauce, and it was soooo good, as was the sausage. As a cheese fanatic, I was very pleased that the cheese was so fresh and tasty. By the time I was done, I barely had room for the s’mores pizza, but of course I managed to fit it in. Graham cracker, marshmallows, and ooey gooey chocolate…what else can I say? Yum!

Papa Murphy’s gets a big thumbs up from me, and I’m hoping and eagerly awaiting the day they expand with a store in the attractions area.

Night time Space Coast fun includes glow in the dark kayaking and more

When you think of the Space Coast, you probably picture day time activities like a visit to Kennedy Space Center or a trip to the beach. Did you know that you can have just as much at night time, or maybe even a little more?

Photo courtesy of Florida Today Communications/Florida's Space Coast Office of Tourism

Photo courtesy of Florida Today Communications/Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism

After all, what could be more cool than kayaking among glow in the dark plankton? These luminescent critters literally light up the waters of the Indian River Lagoon. You’ll see streaks of neon green light as the plankton is gently moved by the motion of your paddle.

If you’re an animal lover, you’ll enjoy the after dark sea turtle spotting. Loggerhead, leatherback, and green sea turtles all use the sandy Space Coast beaches as the spot to lay their eggs. You’ll see them emerge from the ocean to continue their amazing life cycle. You’ll also enjoy night time air boat rides, where you’ll catch sight of gators, snakes, and other breathtaking wildlife that ventures out when the sun goes down.

Nighttime rocket launches are also a great way to see the sky light up in spectacular fashion. Jetty Park, a popular beachside campground, is an excellent spot to watch the rockets blast off into space. You can bring your own tent and picnic blanket to set up a comfy spot.

While the Space Coast makes a great day trip, you can easily make it an overnighter or spend the weekend. Every Friday night in June, July, and August, the hotels will host a “Get Happy” hour from 5 to 6 p.m. Kids will enjoy the special kiddie cocktails at this family friendly event, along with music and poolside games.

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Photo courtesy of Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism

If that all sounds tempting, go to the Florida’s Space Coast website for full details on all the fun that’s just about an hour outside of Orlando. You can jump right to the rocket launch schedule here.

I’m a big fan of the Space Coast myself, as I love the beach and enjoy Kennedy Space Center, especially now that they’re got the amazing Atlantis exhibit. If you’d like to read about my experience at Port D’Hiver, a delightful bed and breakfast, check out this article.

Read about my visit to Space Coast Stadium for a Washington Nationals spring training game in this article.You can see the Brevard Manatees playing there for the regular season.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Universal media invite teases at Diagon Alley opening date

I love it when unexpected packages bearing return addresses from theme parks show up at my door. Today I had the great pleasure of receiving a miniature version of Vault 722 from Gringotts Wizarding Bank, complete with a hefty gold brick inside.

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b3Also included was a very special invitation beckoning me to Universal Studios Florida June 17 to 20 for a media preview of Diagon Alley.

What, exactly, does this mean in terms of the long-awaited Harry Potter expansion’s official opening date? While it doesn’t provide any solid evidence, it certainly teases at some possibilities. Friday, June 20, is the culmination of the event. Could that mean it’s also the grand opening? Or could it officially open the next day?

While that speculation lines up nicely with the date of the previous Wizarding World of Harry Potter opening, that still doesn’t give a guarantee. After all, Walt Disney World isn’t officially opening the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train until May 28, despite the fact that the media event and dedication ceremony are already in the past. Universal could easily to the same thing, perhaps with some soft openings in between.

However, Universal did promise “Opening Summer 2014.” That gives some good weight to the possibility of an opening in close proximity to the media event.

Whatever the actual date, I’m already counting down the days until the preview. The Gringotts video teaser that Universal released yesterday has really whet my appetite. In case you missed it, you’ll find it below:

b8The ride cars for Gringotts remind me a lot of Revenge of the Mummy, albeit with what looks like stadium-type seating. To me, that hints at a combination of Mummy (roller coaster and dark ride hybrid) and Transformers (immersive 3D screens). I suspect the ride will be a little more stomach-friendly than Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. That ride is a masterpiece, and I’m lucky to be able to ride it repeatedly with no ill effects, but I know many people who get queasy from the intense Kuka arm motion combined with the animatronic and move sequences.

I’ve been watching London spring up from the ruins of Amity for a long time now, and I can’t wait to see what Universal Orlando Resort has created in its next chapter of Harry’s world. If it’s anything like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it’s going to be another smash hit.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Bye bye menagerie: Culling my theme park winnings

b1If you’re one of my regular readers, you know I’m addicted to the theme parks. What you probably don’t know is that I’m also addicted to theme park games, particularly the goblet toss.

Back when I lived in Chicago, I had a huge collection of giant stuffed animals because I could win the quarter toss and hula hoop pitch. Combine that with a season pass to Six Flags Great America, which had both of those games, and space in my house dwindled fast. I gave a lot of my prizes away before I left the park, but enough made it home to entice the “Hoarders” crew to hover around my block, just waiting for things to tip over into crazytown territory.

I got rid of them all when I moved to Florida, but several of the parks around here have games, too. While the quarter toss and hula hoop games are nowhere to be found, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom all have goblet tosses, and Universal Studios used to have one before Diagon Alley took it over. I can’t win it 100 percent of the time, but I have enough skill to tilt the odds in my favor and win quite a bit.

Most of the time, I give my prizes away to kids, and sometimes even adults. It’s so much fun to see a little kid’s eyes light up with delight as he grabs a toy that’s nearly as big as he is. The adults make for some interesting memories, too. I’ve had foreign tourists tell me they’re going to take out all the stuffing to take a toy I’ve given them on the plane, then restuff it when they get home. One giant SeaWorld polar bear even went back to England on a cruise ship with the wife of one of the officers, who took it for her grandchild.

b2Sometimes, though, I don’t run into anyone who feels like hauling a giant critter home, or I’m only at the park for a short time and don’t have time to give a prize away. Thus, enough Florida winnings made it home to rival my former collection in Chicago. Some had great memories attached, like winning a big Scooby Doo and then riding Jaws with him just days before it closed down for good or taking my giant Cookie Monster with me through the haunted houses at HowlOScream, where the scareactors were quite merciless.

But things finally reached the point where it was time for them to go in the name of spring cleaning and downsizing. Despite the fact that some of the stuffed animals make it home, and that I have a huge comedy/tragedy mask collection, I can’t wrap my head around the hoarder mentality. That’s probably because my mom was a bona-fide, certified, flea market and rummage sale-frequenting hoarder, which gave me a hatred for clutter. She passed away many years ago, but I often wonder what she’d think now that hoarding has gone mainstream and is all over TV. I try to imagine surprising her with the “Hoarders” crew, but I know that wouldn’t have ended well.

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Thus, to avoid following in her footsteps (and to make more room in the house and garage), I gave the collection away. You can see some of my prizes in the photos accompanying this article. Almost all were won on the goblet toss, although Radioactive Man is the result of uncanny luck on the Universal ring toss. The room where they were once stored looks rather empty now, but I’m not worried. The tiny little hoarder part of me that’s buried deep inside knows that there are many more days ahead at theme parks to hit that yellow spot and rack up more goblet winnings.

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Locals’ Secret

b6This isn’t really a locals’ secret so much as my own tip for winning the goblet toss. Little kids love to throw the balls willy nilly, and sometimes they score because there’s a big element of luck in the game. But if you want to increase your chances, stand in a direct line with the winning cup. There’s usually only one, and it’s usually yellow or red and positioned at the center of the board, although that varies by theme park. Roll the ball so it goes directly down the line, over the winning cup, and to the back wall so it rolls back toward the winning spot. That doesn’t always work because the cups or slots can easily veer it off course, but if you play as much as I do, you get a feel for each park’s goblet board, so that ups your odds.

When you choose your spot to stand, select the spot with the highest concentration of colored cups near the far wall. In addition to the grand prize color, most games have goblets in two other colors that score you a small or medium prize. If you miss the grand prize, your odds of hitting one of the other colors is increased when you choose a good spot. If you win three small or medium prizes, most games let you trade up to a larger prize. I’ve won more than a few giant critters when I couldn’t hit the center spot but was on a roll with hitting small and medium.

The rollback doesn’t work with certain types of goblet boards, like the big one at Busch Gardens, so just roll the ball in a straight line toward the winning spot and hope for the best. You won’t win 100 percent of the time, but as these photos show, you’ll at least tip the odds in your favor.

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Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Ihu’s Breakaway Falls at Aquatica kicks off new Orlando water park rides

2014 is a great year for Orlando water park enthusiasts, as our fair city is welcoming two all-new thrill-packed water park options. Ihu’s Breakaway Falls is the first one out of the gate, with its official opening scheduled for May 9. I had a chance to check things out early, and the ride most definitely delivers on the hair-raising experience that Aquatica, SeaWorld’s water park, has been promising over the past several months.

Ihu’s Breakaway Falls lives up to its name

bb2Ihu’s Breakaway Falls puts two interesting twists on the typical drop slide. First, on three out of the four slides, you step into a clear “capsule” and stand in terror waiting for your plummet. You don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen, so the anticipation adds to the thrill, as does a pumped-in heartbeat sound that speeds up as the wait time increases. If that’s a little too much for you, there’s a fourth slide that lets you launch yourself in the typical manner.

The second twist is that you don’t just drop and hit the end. You plummet 40 feet into a traditional enclosed tube that zips you around for a while before spitting you out. Each of the four slides is different, so ambitious souls will want to try them all.

If you’d like more information on the differences between each of the four slides, you can hear it right from Aquatica Orlando Vice President Bryan Nadeau in the video below:

Aquatica has lots of thrill rides, but also places to kick back and relaxing, including a lazy river, a more active rapids river, two wave pools, and cute little kiddie areas. The video below shows some highlights of the park, which is located right across the street from SeaWorld Orlando.

bb1Wet ‘n Wild will soon debut the Aqua Drag Racer

Meanwhile, a little farther down the road, Wet ‘n Wild is preparing for its own new thrill ride. The park, which is on International Drive near Universal Orlando Resort, will debut its Aqua Drag Racer later this summer. There’s no firm opening date yet, but the extremely loopy racing slide looks like it’s going to deliver a lot of speed and wall action.

Like Aquatica, Wet ‘n Wild is big on thrill rides, with options for those who like a tamer experience, too. The video at the bottom of this article takes you on a quick tour of the park.

One thing I like about Wet ‘n Wild is that it’s the only Orlando water park that offers an express pass. You can buy one on busy days and whisk through the lines, even when the stand-by waits are long.

Locals’ Secret

Get to the water parks right at opening time, hurry to the back, and work your way forward. The crowd tends to stay in the front as people jump on the first rides they see, so the lines for the farthest rides take a while to build. It’s also nice to come to the water parks during the last couple of hours they’re open. By then, many people have fallen victim to too much sun and two many staircases, so the drop-out rate is high. It’s common knowledge among locals with annual passes that the lines get very short just before closing time.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.