The summer heat and summer crowds can be a big deterrent to taking on Orlando's theme parks, but there's quite a show to be had when the sun goes down.
Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando all have extended summer hours allowing some respite from the oppressing heat and humidity that reigns over midday, and seeing the parks lit up in their nighttime splendor makes it worth the visit.
Here's a park-by-park guide to what to check out when the sun goes down:
Cinderella Castle is the centerpiece, always lit up with grandeur after dark, but the Haunted Mansion takes on a special eeriness as well. The New Fantasyland, though, especially the Storybook Circus with its dueling Dumbo rides make for quite a show.
The Main Street Electrical Parade rolls out twice on most nights through the end of August with shows at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.
And every night this summer features some loud booms as the Wishes nighttime spectacular commands your attention for a 12-minute show featuring a color-shifting Cinderella Castle, Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy touting the benefits of believing and Tinker Bell making a memorable appearance flying through the air. Showtimes are 10 p.m. most summer nights, with some 9 p.m. shows in late August. The Fourth of July, though, takes over through Sunday, July 7, with Disney's Celebrate America! -- A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky, with an extended fireworks display set to a patriotic musical score.
Best place to catch the sunset: Dumbo -- gets you up above the crowd a bit, or Splash Mountain, but your view is fleeting, and you may be distracted plunging down into the water and all.
There's nothing like a giant golf ball lit up in the sky to keep your bearings. The geodesic dome of Spaceship Earth is always visible and lit up at night. Be sure to check out the fountain show on your way to the World Showcase.
One of the best things about Epcot is the illusion of visiting a foreign nation, which gets even more realistic as night falls. There's a serenity to milling about Italy or France, perhaps sipping on a nice glass of red that washes away the notion that you're at a theme park with 15,000 of your closest friends.
The end of the night at Epcot features IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth with a combination of pyrotechnics and lasers, and a giant floating Earth in which the continents are a giant video screen as Jim Cummings (the voice of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger among other things) narrates your way through the past, present and future of humanity.
The show is at 9 p.m. most nights, but some nights at 10 p.m. through August.
Best place to catch the sunset: Mexico, Norway and China are all on the east side of the World Showcase, so they have a great view of the setting sun in the west. Make it an evening and enjoy a waterside view for the sunset and IllumiNations from Mexico's La Cantina de San Angel.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Disney's Hollywood Studios is kind of a mishmash after dark. A lot of the park becomes like a dark alleyway, especially along back by Star Wars and the American Idol Experience, while other parts, such as the shops around Sunset Boulevard (which runs southwest to northeast actually) are engaging.
The best nighttime show though is Fantasmic!, which has two shows -- 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. -- most nights. The rest of the park is open til 10 p.m. on those nights, so the majority of parkgoers flock to the final show.
Visually, it's 30 minutes of water, lasers and fireworks with Sorcerer's Apprentice Mickey Mouse as your guide. Animation projected onto sheets of water are one of its most memorable features, and the open-air stadium for the show makes it so everyone gets the same show. Of course, that means everyone is making their way out to the parking lot after, too, so that can be challenging in a lemmings kind of way.
Best place to catch the sunset: Tower of Terror, but your view is limited time magic, so to speak. For a less temporal sunset experience, even though closer to the ground, try grabbing a treat from Dinosaur Gertie's Ice Cream of Extinction and then grabbing a seat near Hollywood and Vine on the east side of Echo Lake. You at least get a view of the Fantasia hat. Of course eating inside the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater might give you the best evening sky, albeit false, but it does have a great drive-in movie screen.
Disney's Animal Kingdom
The animals are sleeping and don't respond too well to fireworks. Time to take your night party somewhere else as the park closes usually at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., but some nights as early as 5 p.m. through August.
Best place to catch the sunset: Everest, on your climb up the mountain, although getting up close to the Tree of Life with a turning sky can be nice. Still, the sun will be setting after the park closes most of the summer. Mark your calendars for Aug. 21, as that's the first night the sun sets at 8 p.m. at Disney.
Much like Epcot's World Showcase, the lit-up sets for New York and San Francisco make for a nice nighttime stroll. On the other side of quaint is the flashing cacophany of Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster, which can be seen lighting up the park for miles around. Riding that at night is like hitching a ride on an electric current.
The Men in Black building also stands out as an interesting facade when lit up with its twin New York World's Fair spaceships that conjure up the memorable finale from the first film.
Universal's Cinematic Spectacular, though, is the big nighttime draw. The show that celebrates 100 years of movies debuted in 2012 and features sheets of water onto which are projected clips from Universal films accompanied by colorful, synchronized fountains, pyrotechnics, music and the narration of Morgan Freeman. It's in the Universal Studios lagoon, so there's several vantage points to catch the show.
Best place to catch the sunset: Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit gives a great view of Orlando any time of the day, but there's no better place to catch the sun dipping than this ride, and it has its own soundtrack. Try entering the apropos hidden track code 129 for Journey's Wheel in the Sky.
The park is open until 10 p.m. until Aug. 10 and then open until 9 p.m. the rest of the month.
Islands of Adventure
There's no other part of Islands of Adventure to goes hand-in-hand with nighttime than the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Just moving about the streets and shops after dark really increases the experience of having left the real world and having entering something mysterious and magical. IOA though closes earlier than its sister park and so the summertime after-dark experience is limited to less than an hour of your day there.
Best place to catch the sunset: Dr. Doom's Fearfall gets you to a great height, but you have to probably wait more than an hour in the dark tunnel queue, so you might just miss it. The Incredible Hulk Coaster gets you high enough and moves a little faster. Just hanging out at the edge of the The Islands of Adventure lagoon after coming through the Port of Entry gives you a nice view of the west at sunset. Still, you might enjoy the creeping shadows getting longer while sipping on a Butterbeer up Harry's way the best.
The park is open until 9 p.m. until Aug. 17, and then closes at 8 p.m. most nights through the end of August.
SeaWorld rolls out Summer Nights from June to August each year and the mix of the park's vast water-based attractions with the nighttime air can make it one of the most refreshing park experiences in Orlando.
The main draw is the Shamu Rocks show, which is a lot more fun and amped up than the daytime show of One Ocean. Both roller coasters, though, offer a great visual experience of the park after dark. Manta is head-first of course, but Kraken gives you a great towering view of the park and International Drive in the distance.
The park is open until 10 p.m. through Aug. 11 before pulling back hours to close at 8 p.m. or 7 p.m., although it's open until 10 p.m. on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 as well.
Best place to catch the sunset: Kraken has a great climb building up to the drop that gives you time to enjoy the view before you lose your breath. But for the nonthrillseekers, there's the 400-foot Sky Tower, which is now included with park admission. Another good spot is the pearl diving alcove, more specifically the walkway above the divers, with a great view of Shamu Stadium across the lagoon.
So if you're willing to tackle the park's heat during the day, keep these sweet spots in mind for the twilight hours and after. It can end up being the coolest part of your day.
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