Classic Florida Rides
By Seth Kubersky
Haunted houses, space aliens, snapping alligators . . . We're talking about Florida's classic rides, rollercoasters and attractions.
The word “classic” is tossed around so much today that it’s lost its luster. In an age when a 1986 Hyundai is a classic car and Guns N’ Roses are displacing the Beatles on classic rock radio stations, it’s easy to roll your eyes at the notion of a “classic attraction.”
But before you laugh, consider this: The amusement park, like pop music, is one of the few quintessentially American art forms. From the time more than a century ago when tourists first flocked to Florida’s beaches, through the birth of Walt Disney’s dream in the swamps outside of Orlando, Florida has been the epicenter of our national obsession with amusement. Ironic, then, that the relentless pursuit of recreation – the very same that has given birth to these beacons of family fun – is the same instinct that often leads to their demise once they are no longer the new kids on the boardwalk.
A fortunate few have stood the test of time. While you’re exploring the Sunshine State’s attractions, consider slowing your sprint to the latest-and-greatest, and take a moment to appreciate these classics.
The Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World’s original park, was a far different place in 1971, with no Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean or Space Mountain. But The Haunted Mansion has been there since before opening day.
Because parts for the Florida ride were built alongside the Disneyland original, the attraction was ready six months before the rest of the park. Millions have boarded “DoomBuggies” for a mirthfully macabre open house with 999 “grim grinning ghosts” set to “X”, Atencio and Buddy Baker’s haunting song.
After suffering years of decline, the Mansion has recently been rehabilitated with new and improved special effects, including a marvelously mobile Madame Leota and an eye-popping attic bride. Be sure to check out the tongue-in-cheek tombstones in the queue – one may be looking back at you!
What: Suspended dark ride
Where: Universal Studios Florida, Orlando
When: Opened June 7, 1990
So we know we are pushing it a bit calling something built in 1990 a classic. Still, Universal Studios has gone through massive changes since its opening, and nearly all of the original headliners – Kongfrontation, Ghostbusters, Alfred Hitchcock, Hanna-Barbera – are now gone.
E.T. Adventure, on the other hand, has outlasted the original Hollywood version and is still going strong. Two of the most memorable elements occur before you even climb onto the signature flying bicycles: the “passports” encoded with your name (used to allow E.T. to greet you in the finale); and the atmospheric forested queue.
The ride is like a high-tech Peter Pan’s Flight, with a breathtaking flight over a miniature cityscape and colorful characters pulled from the little-known sequel novel, E.T. and the Book of the Green Planet. Though some of the animatronics show their age, the spectacular sets and charm still shine.
O.K., we agree it’s not a ride, but we couldn’t resist putting this on our favorite list. Gatorland, which first opened in 1949 as Snake & Reptile Village, is one of America’s last classic roadside attractions. Its mix of eco-friendly education and home-spun fun makes it an oasis amid flashier attractions. You won’t find any rides here faster than an old-fashioned steam-engine train, but there are plenty of thrills to be found waterside at dinnertime.
In 1983, the park began to dramatize the alligators’ feedings by hanging grocery-bought chickens on a wire over their pool, and the Jumparoo was born. Today the show has evolved to include cornpone comedians in a gator-feeding competition, but the strength and agility of the park’s namesake reptiles make them the true stars. Just try not to feel guilty afterwards while munching on the delicious ‘gator ribs at the on-site smokehouse.
Orlando is a tough town for haunted houses. Over the years, fabled walk-through spook houses such as Mystery Fun House and Terror on Church Street (along with not-so-fabled ones like Kissimmee’s Haunted Mansion) have come and gone. The most recent victim of Orlando’s haunt curse was Skull Kingdom, whose iconic fortress façade was demolished to make way for high-rises.
One haunt, however, has managed to hang in there, delivering frights for more than a decade, about an eternity in amusement park years. Dead Center of Old Town’s midway, which is filled with familiar carnival contraptions, sit two dilapidated stories of boos. The maze’s 20-plus spooky rooms aren’t nearly as elaborate as one of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights houses, but it’s a much gentler way to introduce the kids to the thrill of an old-school scare. There are multiple levels of "scare" depending on childrens' ages, and frightened visitors can always stop the action using a safe word — "Scooby Doo."
Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
What: Museum of oddities
Where: Castle Warden, St. Augustine
When: Opened December 1950
Two hours north of Orlando is the oldest continuously occupied European city in the country. Founded by the Spanish in 1565, St. Augustine is famous for its historic buildings and beaches, but few know it’s also home to a worldwide entertainment empire.
Starting in 1918, Robert Ripley shared exotic oddities with the world through cartoons, radio and television. Ripley opened his first temporary “Odditorium” at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. The St. Augustine Believe It Or Not! opened a year after Ripley’s death and was his first permanent museum. It remains home to his personal collection. It may not have animatronics, but it does have a mummified cat. And the 1887 Moorish Revival castle in which it’s housed is an attraction in itself.
Where: Daytona Lagoon, Daytona Beach
While Daytona’s Boardwalk has changed, one favorite has not been lost. It’s the carousel. Locals love it, and have generations of photographs to prove it. For decades, the merry-go-round was at Daytona’s Boardwalk, but it was moved to Daytona Lagoon at Oceanwalk Village when the Boardwalk was redeveloped. The park, including the Lagoon Waterpark, go-karts, miniature golf and laser tag, along with the carousel, has something for all ages.
Skyride Over the Serengeti Plain
What: Aerial tram ride
Where: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, which opened in 1959, is known for its newer, high-stakes thrill rides like Gwazi, SheiKra and Montu. But its more venerable attractions still attract crowds. Visitors still line up for the Skyride, an aerial tramway built in 1974 and re-opening in spring 2011 after construction.
No Tinker Toy trip this Skyride, Busch Gardens’ tramway departs from a grand station worthy of a major metropolitan city. The station also houses the massive gears and wheels that propel the whole cable system. The Skyride sits near the Nairobi Gate and takes visitors in bucket cars across the Serengeti Plain to see the park’s African animals, including giraffes, elephants and zebras.
Overlooking the Serengeti Plain is the Crown Colony House, a restaurant built by August Busch Jr. for his wife Trudy. The eatery is not just a theme park pizza joint, but rarity in theme-park land, a full-service restaurant. Also near the park entrance is the park’s classic Hospitality House, a legacy of the park’s early days when Busch Gardens contained a brewery. Overlooking a small pond where patrons play with model boats, the Garden Gate Cafe serves up all-you-can-eat pizza and pasta under a distinctive accordion-like angular roofline that gives the building a vintage Sputnik-era feel.