We spent two days in theme parks, one day at Disney's Epcot and Animal Kingdom, and the other at Universal Orlando, and I can honestly say we had a blast. And in the end, not all of our favorite attractions were fast or scary; my kids gave points for interesting shows (including "Flights of Wonder" at Animal Kingdom) and high-tech design as well. Here are some of the best attractions, in their opinion, for the middle- and high-school set.
UNIVERSAL ORLANDO: Many attractions at Universal Studios Florida and its sister park, Islands of Adventure, seem tailor-made for the teenage mindset. Like "Disaster! - A Major Motion Picture Ride. Starring YOU" or Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, a 65-mph, 17-story tall coaster, where they get to customize their own soundtrack, choosing from classic rock/metal, club/electronica, country, rap/hip-hop or pop. Visiting this park was more fun than staying home from school to play video games (not that such a thing would ever happen in my house).
I did not personally experience Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit - no way could this mom handle it! - but I did spring for the $35 DVD, a personal video of my kids screaming their heads off and laughing hysterically as the coaster shook them silly. Every time I watch the tape, I start cracking up too - it's that funny.
Their No. 2 favorite at Universal was Dueling Dragons, which consists of a pair of inverted roller coasters, each with its own unique design, one called Fire, the other, Ice. Dueling Dragons goes 55 mph, 125 feet in the air, and riders on one coaster pass within inches of riders on the other. The kids liked it so much, they did it twice so they could experience both coasters.
I skipped Dragons, but I did join the boys on other rides. We aren't big fans of "The Simpsons" show, so for the first few minutes of The Simpsons Ride, as the story line was laid out in an anteroom, we weren't all that engaged. But once we were strapped into our seats for the high-tech ride, we loved it. You feel like you've stepped right into the cartoon and are part of the animation.
Sadly, my boys seemed a bit too big to love the relatively slow-paced Jaws water ride, but we all liked Jurassic Park River Adventure, a raft ride. Other attractions that were fun for all of us: Revenge of the Mummy, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and Men In Black Alien Attack. All are dark rides in vehicles on tracks, with plenty of special effects and surprises. Men In Black is a shooting game; mom's score for electronic zaps was the lowest in the family. A final coaster that the kids did alone was Incredible Hulk.
We'd visited Universal Hollywood in Los Angeles in the past and really enjoyed the live shows that give a behind-the-scenes look at the movie biz, so we wanted to be sure to catch one of those in Orlando too. We chose "Disaster!" and loved it. I hope to never be on a real subway during an earthquake with fire breaking out all around me and buildings falling down, but Universal's fictitious depiction sure was some crazy fun.
Our trip was too early in the season to catch the big news at Universal this year - the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter on June 18. We'll have to go back for that.
DISNEY WORLD ANIMAL KINGDOM: No surprise here: Expedition Everest was the favorite at Animal Kingdom, for our whole family. The coaster was thrilling enough for the kids but not so stomach-churning that mom couldn't handle it.
Our No. 2 pick in Animal Kingdom was "Flights of Wonder." This live show features birds - owls, falcons, hawks and more - swooping over the audience as their handlers explain their behaviors. We found it exciting, captivating and often funny. The show was not as highly recommended to us as many of the other live animal attractions at Animal Kingdom, yet my boys preferred it to Kilimanjaro Safaris, a ride through a landscape inhabited by African wildlife, and Maharajah Jungle Trek, a self-guided walking tour to see tigers, bats and other Asian wildlife. My guess is that for kids who are veteran visitors to zoos and animal parks, the opportunity to see interesting behaviors like those shown in "Flights of Wonder" is more exciting than seeing animals lazing about their natural habitats.
Other Animal Kingdom attractions that the big guys gave a thumbs-up to were Kali River Rapids, a water ride, and Dinosaur, a fun and wild dark ride.
DISNEY WORLD EPCOT: A confession: The kids' favorites here were rides that I got queasy just reading about, so I did not personally experience them. But Mission: SPACE, Test Track and Innoventions: Sum of All Thrills all got high marks from my boys. Yes, they love anything with a motion sickness warning at the entrance.
Sum of All Thrills doesn't get as much attention from Disney-philes as some of the other attractions, so here's an extra plug: This attraction lets guests design their own rides using a computer program. They then climb into a capsule attached to a rotating arm that turns and swivels according to the program they created. They liked it so much, they wanted to do it twice.
Family favorites at Epcot - rides that we went on together and all enjoyed - were Soarin' and Spaceship Earth. Our family has visited many theme parks, and we still find Soarin' - which we first tried at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. - to be one of the most beautiful, exhilarating rides ever - tame enough for a chicken like me but exciting enough for a teenager. Strapped in a hang glider in an IMAX projection dome, you have the sensation of flying over the landscapes of California, with a bird's eye view of mountains, valleys, forests and waterways below you.
Spaceship Earth was, as the kids said, "awesome." You sit in the dark on an "omnimover" vehicle billed as a time machine and take a journey through human history, from prehistoric times to the future. The animatronics are terrific, the audio (narrated by Dame Judi Dench) is wonderful, the story is compelling. An interactive screen in your vehicle lets you pick preferences for your own future, and at the end of your trip, you see a vision of what that will be like.
TIPS: The Universal parks seemed remarkably empty first thing in the morning, even on a busy school holiday week (maybe because teenagers like to sleep late?). Take advantage! Arrive early and pack as much as you can in during the first two hours. The day we visited, it didn't feel crowded until after lunch.
Obviously you want to use the FastPass ride reservations system at Disney to avoid spending your whole day waiting on lines. Just be aware that reservations for the most popular attractions - like Expedition Everest - will disappear before noon.
There's a ton of information in print to help you plan a Disney trip. We used the Birnbaum Guides "Walt Disney World Pocket Parks Guide," because it's slim, small and light, but it turned out to have everything we needed to know in one compact volume.
It's not true that you can't find a place to eat dinner in Disney without reservations. We walked into the British pub Rose & Crown at Epcot at 6 p.m. and had a great meal, Easter week, no waiting. On the other hand, reservations are recommended for the restaurant we liked at Universal, called Mythos.
We were warned that one day would not be enough to do two Disney parks, and it wasn't. We were exhausted before the 9 p.m. fireworks. A good thing about teenagers: They don't have tantrums when they're tired. They just say, "Time to go." And we did.
On the other hand, to experience that look of wonder kids get when they see Mickey Mouse waving hi, you can't wait until they have size 11 feet; you'll have to visit the Magic Kingdom long before they hit 13.