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Orlando’s theme parks offer plenty of diversions for adults,
from golf and race cars to entertainment and nightlife.

By John Handley

Tension attacks the pit of your stomach. Will you master the course, spin out or crash? With sweaty palms, you climb into your stock car, grip the wheel with white knuckles, start the engine and shift into first gear. Then you roar off for the ride of your life.

You’re racing a stock car around a one-mile-long tri-oval track at 100 mph. This is no kiddie attraction, even though it’s located near the parking lot of the Walt Disney World Resort’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla. This “ride” is the real thing.

The Richard Petty Driving Experience at Walt Disney World Speedway begins with drivers 18 years and older donning a racing jump suit and attending an orientation with instructions like “Don’t smoke the tires on pit road. Your instructor’s car will lead you around the track. Don’t pass him.”

It’s all a blur, and over too soon, but you’re still wired. Exhilarated. Ready to join the stock car circuit.

This is not the Disney World most people imagine. But Disney, as well as Universal Orlando Resort, is no longer just kid’s stuff. Adults are discovering many exciting activities for them, too.

Above Adult thrill-seekers at Walt Disney World can experience the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Walt Disney World photos

Below: New at CityWalk is the Blue Man Group, which combines music, comedy and multimedia. Blue Man Group photo

In Title: Downtown Disney offers an array of restaurants, seven nightclubs and a theater featuring Cirque du Soleil.
Adult attractions

Disney and Universal realized they had to broaden their appeal, so they’ve added entertainment options and diversions that attract adult guests. Orlando is a magnet for families, but surprisingly, only 48 percent of visitors bring children, according to Danielle Saba Courtenay, vice president of public relations for the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Orlando is a totally different experience without kids. Adults focus on golf, spas and dining,” she said. As for golf, she noted that Orlando has 176 golf courses and 81 holes are at Disney.

“Entertainment for adults broadens the appeal of the theme parks and rounds out the total vacation package,” she said. “The seven night clubs at Disney’s Pleasure Island offer music of all types, but you have to be 21.”

Courtenay suggests that adults plan their Orlando vacation at times when the theme parks are not thronged with kids. Avoid Christmas/New Years, spring break/Easter and summer months. Discounts are available in fall, the low season, when the weather is cooler. No matter when you come, Orlando offers 115,000 lodging rooms in all price ranges.

While zipping around the Disney Speedway may not be for everyone, a much slower journey in Disney’s Animal Kingdom should appeal to almost everyone.

Kilimanjaro Safaris is an expedition on rutted dirt roads through a 110-acre African-style landscape inhabited by free-roaming animals. Riding in an open-sided safari vehicle, you start out wondering how many animals you will see and how close they will be in this park with no fences or visible barriers between you and the wildlife.

There’s a hippo in a waterhole just a few feet away. Around a bend, an elephant and her rather large baby appear in a meadow. Cameras click as everyone watches, transfixed. The vehicle rumbles on. Up high on a rock, a lion gazes down at the intruders. Two giraffes run into the woods, but an unafraid zebra comes close and poses for the passengers.

Those who want a longer experience can stay at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, where they can view game from balconies overlooking its own savannah.

Daredevil adults may want to check out Disney’s newest roller coaster, Expedition Everest, a runaway train that tears down a 199-foot-high snow-capped mountain in the Animal Kingdom.

Now it’s time to leave the real animal world and enter the world of make-believe at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Recalling the glamour of old-time Hollywood, the theme park caters to all ages. But adults may want to avoid the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a scream machine that features falling 13 floors in an out-of-control elevator.

Instead, walk down Hollywood Boulevard to the reproduction of Mann’s Chinese Theater, where The Great Movie Ride showcases classic films of the past. Members of older generations will revel in this nostalgic, 22-minute look at golden oldies–from musicals to westerns, from romances to horror flicks–brought to life with Audio-Animatronics® figures and film clips.

The Epcot theme park has its own allures that appeal to adults.

One of them is the Segway Human Transporter tour to the World Showcase, pavilions representing 11 nations–Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the United States, Japan, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom and Canada. The two-hour guided tour–available at an additional fee and only in the morning before Epcot opens–requires learning how to drive a Segway, which takes only a few minutes to master.

Now take to the air. Soarin’, Epcot’s newest attraction, creates the sensation of flying over some of California’s most spectacular sights, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Napa Valley, from Yosemite National Park to San Diego.

Of course, Epcot also is a magnet for shoppers looking for souvenirs with a foreign flavor. And those with a taste for foreign cuisine will not be disappointed. Even the entertainment at Epcot can be a bit adult-styled. For instance, the Marrakesh restaurant in the Morocco pavilion shakes with the gyrations of belly dancers.

“One popular option at Epcot is to drink around the world at the foreign restaurants surrounding the lake,” Courtenay says.

Activities for after dark

In the evening, when the theme parks wind down, the action shifts to Downtown Disney. This is the hippest, most adult-oriented corner of the park.

There are so many restaurants, it’s a challenge to pick one. They run the gamut of styles and cuisine: Bongos Cuban Café, Cap’n Jack’s, Fulton’s Crab House, House of Blues, Planet Holly-wood, the Portobello Yacht Club, Rainforest Café, Raglan Road Irish Pub and Wolfgang Puck Café.

After dinner, the revelry heats up on Pleasure Island, which is part of Downtown Disney. Seven nightclubs welcome everyone 21 and older, and a single ticket gets you into all the clubs that offer everything from comedy to dancing, from rock ‘n’ roll to disco.

Another option is Cirque du Soleil, the acrobatic circus troupe, which stages “La Nouba” in a permanent 1,650-seat theater in Downtown Disney.

Universal Orlando has its own venue for partying. CityWalk is a 30-acre entertainment complex with themed restaurants, nightclubs and a 20-screen movie theater. A non-gated attraction, CityWalk has a Party Pass for one night’s admission to the clubs.

“Guests may go to Pleasure Island one night and then the next night go to CityWalk at Universal,” Courtenay says.

Check out the signature martinis at the Red Coconut Club, the music at Hard Rock Live, the Jimmy Buffett tunes at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and Bob Marley’s reggae beat at Bob Marley: A Tribute to Freedom. The Latin Quarter specializes in food and entertainment from Latin America, while Pat O’Brien’s is a replica of that New Orleans bar. CityJazz plays everything from R&B and soul to rock ‘n’ roll.

New at CityWalk is the Blue Man Group, which performs in the 1,000-seat Sharp AQUOS Theatre.

CityWalk also features a number of events and special concerts throughout the year. On Jan. 19, the Hard Rock Live venue will feature Classic Albums Live featuring Bob Marley’s “Legend.” Classic Albums Live is a group of studio musicians and vocalists who perform the albums live using the instrumentation used on the original recording, song for song and note for note.

Also, Universal Orlando will celebrate Mardi Gras on Saturday nights from Feb. 2–April 19. The highlight of those nights is a spectacular parade that will wind its way through the streets of Universal Studios with dazzling floats, colorful costumes, towering stiltwalkers, dancers, street performers and more. Top-name performers will stage a number of concerts, including Los Lonely Boys, Taylor Hicks and Daughtry. To get a real flavor of Mardi Gras, head to Pat O’Brien’s for a Hurricane, a drink that packs a punch.

So, if you’re young at heart, come to the theme parks without the children. What began as kid’s stuff is equally fascinating for us big kids.

John Handley is a contributor from Chicago.
Jan/Feb 2008 Issue

AAA members can buy tickets to Walt Disney World in Orlando and Universal Resort Orlando at a discount. Travel packages for Disney and Universal are available through your AAA Travel agent or online at

To visit Orlando, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. Click here for a list of offices.

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