Looking for a pop culture vacation of the nerd kind? Geeky getaways beckon, and Orlando, Fla., the home to a mighty mouse, a boy wizard and a variety of genre indulgences, has enough bonus features to keep traveling nerds busy. Here, then, is our pop culture geek’s travel guide to Orlando:
What’s with the collective “heigh ho?” That’s the sound of Disney animation addicts, from toddler princesses to grizzled, graying geeks, cueing up for this roller-coaster-meets-dark-ride. It signals the completion of New Fantasyland, the biggest expansion in Magic Kingdom history, blending technological bad assery and interaction with old school charm. Nearly 80 years after its original release, “Snow White” still remains a gateway drug for many Disney junkies. Since it’s the animated feature that started it all, the Mine Train attraction, with its rolling hills and cascading waterfalls, screams centerpiece for New Fantasyland. The ride remains hotter than Jessica Rabbit, so expect long lines. But not to worry. You’ll almost want to skip booking a ride time in advance with the new FastPass+ reservation system. While waiting in line guests stay busier than vertically-challenged miners with hands-on games, interactive features and oodles of eye candy. A full-size, real-world replica of the dwarfs’ crib, right down to the different colored roof shingles, can be seen from the line. Then it’s into the lantern-lit mine where the train awaits. Hop in, and you’re soon zipping out of the mine, up, down and around the pre-fab mountains and hills, past pines and gurgling falls. The steel coaster proves shockingly ultra smooth. Each of the train’s cars—two riders in the front, two in the back—rest on a cradle-like system allowing the cars to rock from side to side during and after sharp turns. The Audio-Animatronic dwarfs come to life with fluid movement and ridiculous realism. All seven represent, including Dopey bobbing inside a wagon full of jewels, a diamond on each eye. Get your camera ready at the end of the ride when riders get a quick glimpse of the cackling witch peering into the dwarfs’ cottage. All in all it’s meticulous attention to detail at its most awesome. Hungry honorary dwarfs should grab a meal at the nearby Be Our Guest restaurant, a “Beauty and the Beast”-themed eatery. Make sure and nosh in the West Wing with its thunder and lightning effects, and the portrait that shows the Prince transforming into the Beast.
Although it may be challenging to step out of the mouse’s shadow, the powers-that-be at Universal Studios Florida have pulled it off. In fact they’re likely laughing all the way to the bank, a butterbeer mustache staining their lips. With the 2010 addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Hogsmeade, located in Universal’s Islands of Adventure park, Universal has seen a massive boost in attendance and merchandise sales. Smart business move? Sure, but it’s the nerds who really win. The result is an immaculate, ultra-themed recreation of Potter’s world, complete with snowcapped, screen-worthy architecture. These days the newly opened Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida park lures even more muggles. Guests can step aboard the Hogwarts Express, a train that takes visitors to and from the two Potter lands. Throngs recently flooded the grand opening of Diagon Alley with its enchanted shop windows, looming fire-breathing dragon and flagship attraction, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The latter, a steel roller coaster with 3D visual effects, has had reported wait times of 450 minutes. That’s reason enough to stumble back to Hogsmeade for multiple rounds of pumpkin juice at Hog’s Head pub. And a visit to The Wizarding World ain’t complete without buying some chocolate frogs at Honeydukes, an interactive experience at Ollivanders wand store and taking a spin on the acclaimed dark ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Remember if Hog’s Head is spilling over, try bellying up to the bar for a Flaming Moe at the spot-on recreation of Moe’s Tavern from “The Simpsons,” located at Universal Studios Florida, or dive into a full meal at Mythos, a top tier restaurant with a Greek mythology theme, at Islands of Adventure.
1814 N. Orange Ave., Orlando
Record stores may be becoming as rare as the most treasured slab of vinyl, but this holdover keeps its figurative turntable spinning in perpetual motion. Imagine stepping inside a funky 1970s-era record shack covered from bin to ceiling in a sensory overload of memorabilia. So reads the descriptive liner notes for Rock and Roll Heaven, a music nerd’s Valhalla. It plays host to more than 1,500 square feet of meticulously categorized vinyl, CDs, cassettes, 8-tracks, VHS tapes and laser discs. Make sure and carve out several hours to wade through the inventory of more than 250,000 45 singles. Shoppers can snag a Pink Floyd poster, grab a Kiss action figure, drape themselves in a T. Rex T-shirt and peruse the thousands of pop culture-related postcards. The savvy staff, each armed with a degree from the college of music knowledge, help guide customers in the right direction. And don’t forget to bring the camera. The not-for-sale, museum-like decor includes artifacts ranging from the backing glass of an Elton John pinball machine to a Six Million Dollar Man board game.
1821 N. Orange Ave., Orlando
Just across the street from Rock and Roll Heaven in Orlando’s antique district sits a concentrated splash of acid-laced whimsy and chromatic pop culture. Co-owner Glenn Rogers, a rat-a-tat wordsmith and the spitting image of a younger Wavy Gravy, says the shop lands somewhere between the Guggenheim and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” He and wife Sandy, a pair of former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clowns, inject shots of Technicolor imagination into recycled and found items. You might walk out with a pair of bottle cap earrings dangling from your lobes. Stools and tables are slathered in iconic images of The Cat in the Hat, Marilyn Monroe, Batman and an endless array of others. A mannequin torso painted up in a Wonder Woman onesie, clocks made from pulp magazine covers and a jewelry box plastered with the faces of all four Beatles make up just a smidgen of the inventory. It’s all hand-painted and encapsulated in a plastic sheen, giving a literal pop to the Rogers’ work. Even some celebrities themselves indulge in Boom-Art. Rogers says Robert Plant, Jay Leno, members of The B-52s, Ann-Margret and other notables have shopped there. Rogers put some boom in Shaquille O’Neal’s room by creating a table emblazoned with the Superman symbol especially for the b-ball legend.
905 E. State Road 434, Longwood
Acme’s super power comes in the form of 10,500 square feet of showroom space teeming with toys, comics and collectibles. The dynamic duo of husband-and-wife owners Terry and Tory Dinkins keep geeks breathing heavily from their mouths. Racks upon racks and rows of glass cases house vintage and contemporary action figures. Think Tron, Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Transformers and an exhaustive roster of others. It’s enough to light the nostalgic sabers of children of the 1970s and ’80s. Comic-book mongers devour new and back issues, zipping from the golden age and back again. Once busting at the seams like the Hulk in slacks, Acme took over the neighboring space. It’s now home to the Danger Room, a special events facility that holds free improv classes and shindigs including a Batman 75th anniversary bash on July 23. Heck, a couple even exchanged nerdy nuptials within those walls. Who says geeks stay trapped in their parents’ basements?
205 N. Mills Ave., Orlando
Have a hankering for classic stand-up video games and discerning suds? Stop by Bart, and you’re in like Flynn. The Jeff Bridges character would likely approve of this watering hole and nostalgic nod to arcade iconography. Chris and Adrian Brown have created a bonus level of the grown-up kind; a place where you tip back a Terrapin while playing Frogger. Original art hangs from the walls, and Abita, Rogue, Dogfish Head and a slew of other hops and barley await. As for the games, Bart plans on rotating them in and out. Expect to come across the glory days of vintage acardia. Bart promises Ms. Pac Man, Centipede, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and more of the usual suspects.
875 Woodbury Road, Orlando
Geeks looking for a retreat from the jock strapiness of a lackluster sports bar can visit the Cloak & Blaster. The restaurant and bar serves up piping hot board and card games. Its sprawling library holds time-honored picks such as Monopoly and Mouse Trap, and new schoolers like Munchkin, 7 Wonders and Cards Against Humanity. Console gamers plug in inside the videogame lounge. Don’t be surprised to see an episode of Doctor Who flickering on one of the TV screens. And it’s not unlikely to watch cosplayers bite into a Smaug burger and wash it down with a Soul Stealer, a combination of mead and ale.