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Primo Experiences

When visiting Orlando’s theme parks and other attractions, consider one of these premium adventures.
By Katherine Jacob

So you’ve already been to all the major themed attractions in Orlando and think you’ve done it all there. Good news: Some of the most interesting components in theme parks are the behind-the-scenes tours and moments that you need to be aware of, and sometimes register for, well in advance. If you’re looking for a different experience in Orlando that goes beyond the regular rides and attractions, focus on a themed experience, take a behind-the-scenes tour, or meet a favorite character.


Above: See exotic animals while on one of the safaris offered through Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. The Walt Disney Company photo

Bottom: A youngster meets a minion at Universal Studios Orlando. Universal Orlando photo


On safari, Disney style

Staying at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge gives you access to experiences that are for resort guests only. The Wanyama Safari guides small groups of guests around the lodge’s 33-acre savanna to get up-close and personal with some of the mammals and exotic birds. Accompanied by a member of the animal care team, this sunset safari gives you an intimate view into the lives of the animals because your guide cares for these animals daily and knows each of them by name.

At the lodge, animals frequently come very close to the vehicles, and the truck stops whenever an animal is nearby, allowing for photos and video. Because this is an informal group setting, you can ask questions throughout the trip.

In a similar manner, the Sunrise Safari is also an intimate experience as it allows access to the Animal Kingdom before the park opens. Kilimanjaro Club Level guests leave the Animal Kingdom Lodge at 7 a.m. and enter the park with the rising sun. You board the same vehicles and take the same route as the Kilimanjaro Safaris, however, your tour is approximately one hour long and the bus will stop whenever there is an animal sighting, allowing ample time for photos. What’s special about this tour is entering the park when the sounds and smells are from the savanna itself, not the nearby concession stands.

And speaking of food, both tours end at a restaurant. The Wanyama Safari is followed by a multi-course dinner at Jiko: The Cooking Place, a restaurant at the lodge that features a variety of South African dishes. The Sunrise Safari winds up at Pizzafari for a breakfast buffet inside the park.

When you book your room at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, pay the difference and get a savanna view. It’s well worth the money, as your safari will start the moment you step onto your balcony–giraffe, zebras, and greater kudu are some of the animals that graze night and day on the grounds outside of your room.

Become a minion at Universal Studios

Since the opening of the 3-D motion simulator ride, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, the small, yellow-skinned, goggle-eyed minions have become a big hit. They make their rounds of the park each day, and in addition to the chance to become one yourself, you can virtually shadow them by being at every venue they go to.

Start your morning off with a character breakfast at Café La Bamba, where children can join minions and other characters from the Superstar Parade by dancing during breakfast. Later in the morning, the minions appear across the street at Mel’s Drive-In for meet-and-greets, autograph signings, and photos. The character schedule is printed in park maps.

After that, you can you join Gru, Margo, Edith, and Agnes as you get trained for the minion army in the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride. After you pull on your 3-D “minion goggles,” get scanned for “human germs,” and enter the Minion Transformation Pod, you’ll step onto the dance floor where you can groove with the minions under the strobe light and see your dance moves via an interactive projection screen.

Head back to Mel’s Diner where the minions, Gru, Margo, Edith, and Agnes descend from Gru’s airship to greet guests. The day rounds off with the Superstar Parade at 5 p.m. where you’ll have one last chance to see the minions.

Meet a beluga whale

There are few places in the world where you can have an intimate experience with these social whales from the Arctic. SeaWorld offers the experience of joining a trainer with a number of marine mammals, but a unique experience is the opportunity to work with a beluga whale. You have to don a wetsuit and enter water that’s 55 degrees for this experience, but it’s worth every chilled moment. You’ll learn how belugas communicate and get a behind-the-scenes look at their facilities, including the kitchen and their second pool accessed via an underground tunnel.

Once you’ve suited up, you’ll meet the beluga trainer. After a series of instructions and a brief explanation of belugas, you’ll walk into the main pool where visitors stand in the viewing gallery to watch the belugas. Here you’ll learn some of the basics in training a beluga and use hand motions that will send the beluga twisting, speaking in its high-pitched calls, or turning on its back and extending its fluke so you can touch it. You’ll also toss a fish into its mouth, get a kiss on the cheek, and get to stroke the entire back of this large mammal.

Meet an Astronaut

Kennedy Space Center has a number of fascinating tours, including a chance to visit the Vehicle Assembly Building that was off limits to the public for decades. By far, the most personal experience is the Lunch with an Astronaut program.

Guests are gathered in a large room for a buffet lunch. Make sure you get a table close to the windows, as this is where the astronaut will speak. There’s a rotating speaker circuit, so it’s difficult to say who will be appearing during your meal, but it will be a veteran member of NASA’s Astronaut Corps, such as Mark Lee, who has been on four missions into space.

Midway through lunch, a former astronaut will walk to the front of the room and introduce himself. He’ll talk about his missions, show a movie with original clips from space, and then answer questions. Anecdotes, from gravity games to playing with drops of water, also are shared.

When the talk is completed, make sure you’re close to the exit door as soon as you can be. There’s a chance to meet the astronaut in person and have a photo taken, but a long line forms quickly.

Orlando’s attractions draw millions of visitors to central Florida each year, and the premium experiences each offer can add a new twist to a favorite destination.

Katherine Jacob is a contributor from Toronto, Canada.

What’s New for 2013 at Orlando’s
Theme Parks

New attractions will be ready for theme park adventurers visiting Orlando, Fla., later this year. This round-up of rides and other thrills gives you a sampling of what to anticipate.

At Universal Orlando, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride–3D is scheduled to be ready by summer 2013. This immersion ride, already in place at Universal parks in California and Singapore, puts participants in the middle of battle action with favorite characters from the movie series.

Walt Disney World at press time was preparing a Dec. 6 grand opening of its remade Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom park. The project nearly doubles the size of Fantasyland, and adds new attractions such as Under the Sea–Journey of the Little Mermaid, Be our Guest restaurant, and Enchanted Tales with Belle.

Additions throughout Walt Disney World also involve its Hollywood Studios park with the new attraction Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, which also was set to open Dec. 6 at press time.

At SeaWorld, visitors will be transported to the icy world of the South Pole in the ride Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, which is due to open in spring 2013. Guests board a trackless car that is a mobile simulator and follow the story of a young penguin. Brave a blizzard and be dazzled by lights. Then, in the second half of the immersion ride, meet a real penguin colony. Guests will walk among penguins as they learn facts about the animals.

AAA members save on admission to Universal, Walt Disney World, and SeaWorld parks.

Special offers are available in January for Disney and in February for Orlando. Ask your AAA Travel professional about discounts, travel packages, and more. View a list of AAA service offices.

Jan/Feb 2013 Issue


Prices for Disney safari experiences are $200 for ages eight and older (Wanyama Safari) and $65 for adults, $32.50 for children (ages 3–9) for the Sunrise Safari.

Minion Character Breakfast is offered at Universal Thursday–Saturday. The cost is $24.99 for adults and $10.99 for children ages 3–9. Reservations are recommended.

The Beluga Interaction Program at SeaWorld is $119 or $169 per person, based on the season. Book this well in advance, as daily interactions are limited and sell out fast. Participants have to be 10 years or older.

Lunch with an Astronaut Program at Kennedy Space Center is $24.99 for adults and $15.99 for children between the ages of 3–11.

To visit Orlando, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

January is Disney Month and February is Universal Month at AAA. View a full list of events.

Save on Orlando theme park admissions through AAA. Discount tickets are available at your nearest full-service office or visit online.


Out of Africa
A safari trek through Disney’s Animal Kingdom park looks and feels authentic.


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