ORLANDO, Fla. —After two days of being shaken, stirred and overstimulated, I needed a break. So I was relieved to wander into Epcot's upscale Les Chefs de France, which reminded me of the bistros I'd recently visited in the real Paris. Everything from the imported French staff to my favorite French spring water made me forget for a few minutes that I was in Orlando.
As my waiter served me a perfect croque monsieur sandwich, I watched as the maitre d', Amelie, pushed a food cart down a nearby aisle. Dessert, I supposed. She stopped in front of a table and lifted the silver dome to reveal a 6-inch-tall beady-eyed rat standing in the middle of a cheese tray. It looked real, but as soon as he started talking — in a squeaky French accent, of course — I realized that I was having another Disney "experience."
As Remy, the French rat who dreams of becoming a world-class chef in the Disney movie "Ratatouille," gyrated and serenaded the lunch crowd, I started wondering if the French-speaking families at the tables on either side of me were also animatronic characters.
More than anything, the song and dance was another reminder of why Orlando is the nation's No. 1 family vacation destination. And it was further proof that more than four decades after Walt Disney built a fake castle for a fairytale princess in the middle of Florida swampland, technology is pushing the boundaries of reality farther than ever.
I arrived at Universal Orlando early to avoid the crowds and went straight to one of the newest attractions at its theme park Islands of Adventure: the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. I'm prone to motion sickness and haven't been on a roller coaster for at least a decade, but the attendant assured me that this ride was totally different. He was right.
Spider-Man is an intense visual experience that puts visitors in the center of the action using high-definition projectors to simulate movement. After walking through the newsroom of the Daily Bugle, I buckled my seat belt and donned my 3-D glasses. The car moved slowly into a dark warehouse-like space and then stopped. When the music started blaring, I was in the middle of a Spider-Man cartoon strip, which unfolded around me via the magic of digital projection.
As the car lurched, shook and bounced in place — all to give the impression that I was scaling the sides of buildings and leaping from one rooftop to the next, hot on the trail of some evildoer — I gripped the seat in front of me. I ducked to avoid objects that I thought would hit me in the head, and several times had to remind myself that the action wasn't real. But by the time I was hurtling toward the ground during a 400-foot free fall from the top of a building, I was covering my eyes and hoping the young boy sitting next to me wouldn't notice.
Universal is using some of the same technology at one of its most popular attractions: the Simpsons Ride, which takes you on a mind-bending trip through the perverse world of Krusty the Clown. After standing in line for more than an hour — and this was a slow day in the park — I strapped myself into a jalopy that looked like a shabby roller-coaster car.
The premise is that you're on a Krustyland roller coaster, which malfunctions and sends you hurtling through the air over Springfield, Ill., down Maggie's throat and eventually into Homer and Marge's living room. It all happens using state-of-the-art digital projectors that beam images on the walls of an 80-foot-diameter dome.
Universal hopes to push the boundaries of reality even farther with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a 20-acre park with multiple "experiences" that the project's producer, Paul Daurio, says will transport visitors to another time and place.
"It'll be the new standard for what an immersion experience will be like," he said, standing outside the tall privacy fence that now surrounds the construction site.
Details about exactly how that will happen are scarce, but it's already clear that the soaring turrets of Hogwarts Castle will alter the suburban Orlando skyline. Set to open June 18, it's already one of the park's more popular attractions: Tourists couldn't resist peeking through fencing to see what's happening behind the scaffolding.
With few clocks and lots of lines that end at cash registers, it doesn't take long to realize that Orlando is like Las Vegas for kids — without the chance of winning cash. So I was feeling overstimulated and a little broke when the gatekeeper at one of the Disney parking lots asked for another $14 to park and then wished me a "magical day" as he directed me to the trolley that would take me to the Magic Kingdom.
I'd spent the first half of the day at Epcot, where the most popular ride is Soarin', a simulated hang-glider ride through the scenery of California.
Strapped into a chair that dangled 40 feet in the air, I "soared" over the beaches of Malibu, above an aircraft carrier in San Diego's harbor and through the mountains of Yosemite Park. Similar to the other rides I'd been on, the experience seemed more real because the hang glider moved in concert with the action on the screen; bursts of scents, wind and rain heighten the experience.
Then I took a ferry boat from Epcot to Disney's Hollywood Studios, where I made a beeline to one of the newest and most low-tech participatory attractions at Disney: the American Idol Experience. The attraction mimics the TV show by letting park visitors audition for a chance to compete in one of three daily shows.
There's a Ryan Seacrest look-alike who hosts the show and a panel of judges, including one who's quick with the insults, but the audience picks the winner by casting ballots electronically. The winners of the three daily competitions advance to a final evening show, and the winner of that show gets a Dream Ticket that provides a fast-track audition for the real show.
I cast my vote for Jenny Curtin, who belted out a pretty good rendition of "Independence Day," a fitting selection considering that she'd left seven of her kids at home in Brighton, Mich., to celebrate her oldest daughter's graduation at Disney.
From Hollywood Studios I took a bus back to the parking lot at Epcot, where I picked up my car and drove 15 minutes to the Magic Kingdom. After paying for parking — again — I took the trolley to the Magic Kingdom's Main Street, where a character show featuring Mickey and Minnie had just concluded on the steps of Cinderella Castle, followed by a spectacular parade.
As the sky darkened, the castle changed color, each one brighter than the last, and fireworks lit the sky. The night did seem kind of magical.
After three days in Orlando, I needed a break from the pavement and crowds, so I headed to Discovery Cove, a sort of tropical all-inclusive experience. After putting on my wet suit — it was provided, along with snorkeling gear — I floated around in an 80-degree freshwater pool. Air temperatures were only in the 50s, so it felt like bathwater. Then I used my snorkel and mask in an artificial reef where I floated face down, watching clouds of Technicolor fish.
A woman who was sunning herself on a manmade beach joked with a lifeguard who was bundled up in a scarf, hat and gloves. "I'm from New York and we've just had a blizzard," she said. "This is paradise."
I'd spent hours floating down a river that goes through an enormous aviary filled with hundreds of exotic birds. I stopped to watch a pair of vultures gather nesting material until it was time for my 30-minute swim with the dolphins.
My group of six gathered in one of the several cabana buildings on the property, where our trainer laid down the ground rules. In groups of six we waded into the water to meet Tyler. He gave us each a "kiss" and a "hug," then one by one we swam to the middle of the lagoon and waited for him to swim out to us.
When it was my turn, I gripped Tyler's dorsal fin and flipper and held on tight as we swam across the lagoon, totally unaware that there was a four-lane freeway just a few blocks away.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
BOOKS: Bookstore shelves are full of official and unofficial guides to Orlando attractions. Here's the one I used most: "Walt Disney World & Orlando for Dummies," by Laura Lea Miller (Wiley, 9th Edition, $18.99).
WEB SITES: In addition to the official Web sites, there are hundreds of other helpful sites. Here's a selection:
For general information about attractions and events in the Orlando area, or to order a planning kit, go to www.visitorlando.com.
For general information and news about Disney resorts posted by fans, go to www.thedisneyblog.com.
For information about discount tickets and packages for most of the Orlando-area theme parks, including all of the Disney resorts, from an authorized Disney ticket seller, go to www.dwtickets.com/Discount_Disney_World _Tickets_s/1.htm