Talking Disney Parks With Professional Wrestler Matt Cardona
When you have a hobby, it’s always fun to find someone who shares a similar hobby as you. When that person happens to be professional wrestler Matt Cardona (formerly known as Zack Ryder during his time in WWE), and that hobby is sharing a love for all things Disney Parks, it’s even more fun.
Fortunately, we were able to connect with Matt to discuss all things Disney, from his park favorites, to his podcast-listening habits, to his thoughts on some new and upcoming attractions.
Coaster101: Among many things, you’re known as one of the bigger Disney fans in professional wrestling. What is your history when it comes to theme parks, Disney specifically? Did you grow up going to them as a kid? Or, how did you find that love for Disney parks?
Matt: So, I went as a kid a few times with my family and it was always such a big deal. We didn’t go every year. We went every couple of years, every few years. So, the anticipation and the build-up to the next trip, I think, is what really drove the love because whether it be like the books my mom was getting with the tips and the tricks. This is like pre-internet, you know?
It was the anticipation of actually going and then trying to cram in as much as you possibly could. Then when the trip is over, usually, it’s like you’re just missing the new ride. So the next time we’ll get to ride Tower of Terror or something like that. There was always that anticipation and it always exceeded my expectations.
It wasn’t an every year trip so when we went it was super-duper special, because it was my parents, myself and I had two younger brothers. It costs a lot of money with the whole family down to Orlando from New York. We try to cram it all in and the Disney parks, Universal, sometimes SeaWorld. We tried to cram it all in.
Coaster101: I know you’re a bit of a wrestling history buff. You were never down at Disney MGM-Studios for the WCW tapings, were you?
Matt: Unfortunately, not. I would have loved that because obviously I love wrestling and I love theme parks. That would have been the ultimate combination, two of my favorite things. But I never got there for those tapings.
Coaster101: Let’s fast forward a little bit. When you were in the developmental wrestling territories like Deep South Wrestling outside of Atlanta, or Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville, did you get over to other parks like Six Flags Over Georgia or (then) Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom? Or has it been primarily just been the Orlando parks for you?
Matt: It’s funny, I did go to both of those Six Flags because we would do wrestling shows there. Even in New Jersey, there’s a Six Flags there. Listen, I love a good roller coaster but I’m all about the theme parks over the amusement park, if that makes any sense.
— Matt Cardona (@TheMattCardona) February 28, 2018
Coaster101: Absolutely. What is your favorite roller coaster you’ve ever been on?
Matt: Oh geez. I’ve been on Kingda Ka and some other coasters that are famous for being some of the best coasters. Like I said, I want to see it from a distance. I want that queue, that storytelling. I want the entire experience to be awesome.
It’s a classic but I love Space Mountain and I love the one at Disneyland with the updated track. It’s just such a smooth ride. Oh my God. When I went on it, I was like, “Oh my God. This is incredible.” Of course, I’m a Disney World kid. I grew up going to Disney World and I always feel like “You know, that’s the park where I grew up.” But to go on a Disneyland trip for the first time I was like, “Whew, this is good.”
Coaster101: Several years ago, you moved to the Orlando area. Did the parks being in Orlando have anything to do with the fact that you move there?
Matt: I’ve got to backtrack a couple of years before that. The first ever WrestleMania that I was a part of was WrestleMania 24 and it was in Orlando. I went to the parks, of course, with my dad and my younger brothers.
I hadn’t been to a park for a while so I went with my girlfriend at the time and I was just overwhelmed, you know. I knew I’m not doing this right, but these lines, they’re too long. I need to like map this out. That’s when I started getting into the all the podcasts and all the different websites. And then I knew next time I’m coming, I’m going to be prepared and that’s kind of what happened.
I would come down every so often with [fellow professional wrestler] Cody Rhodes and we’d do the parks, but now I think “Let’s map it out this way. Let’s do this. Let’s not do that.” And then just the obsession like, “How can I make this experience better?” And certain things like when I was a kid. Like I said, I’d go down with my family on a budget. I didn’t realize there were these five-star restaurants at the parks.
Now, it’s more like “Oh my God, there’s a great restaurant. Okay. Well, how do you get your reservations for it?” Oh, there’s a sytstem, you got to be on this, you know, you got to be on your MyDisneyExperience app 24/7 or whatever it is. I love that strategy that went into it. When I was moving down, I finally said, “Enough with New York.” One winter I said, “Enough shoveling snow. That’s it! I’m moving to Florida,” and it was between Orlando and Tampa and I didn’t really know much about it either but I do know that Orlando had the parks. So I went with Orlando.
Coaster101: What are some of those podcasts and websites that you’re a big fan of?
Matt: There’s a bunch. Right now, there’s the Disney Dish I listen to. I listen to The DIS Unplugged. I listen to, oh my God, WDW Prep to Go, Podcast The Ride. I mean, there’s so many that I couldn’t even list them all. I’m sure I’m forgetting so many. Each one has a different take, a different twist and offers something different.
I listened to one and when I found a podcast I liked, I thought, “Oh there’s got to be more, how many more there are?” Then you figure out through trial and error and what’s for you and what’s not. Each one offers something different. People say, “How do you go to Disney World all the time?” People picture Disney World and think of the heat, the lines. Yes, it can be that if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you know what you’re doing, It can be about the most relaxing experience on earth.
Coaster101: You’ve talked about now how, as an annual pass holder, you can go two to three times a month and experience the parks at your leisure, but when you’re planning for the big “rope drop to park close” trip, what kind of goes into your planning?
Matt: I’m spoiled by being an annual pass holder where if I don’t do Space Mountain then I’ll do it next time. Definitely it wasn’t about that when I’ve come down with my family or even the first couple times I was coming down as an adult. I wanted to do everything.
Yeah, it’s all about how to do the rope drop and the strategies. So if you’re staying on property, which park have the extra magic hour? And if they’re not on property, make sure you don’t go to that one first, you know. The park could be back with hotel guests from the extra hour. I mean it all depends on the situation; like what you want to do that day. Do you want to go on all these thrill rides? Do you want to just relax? Do you drink at Epcot? It all depends on the day.
I love living down here because it sucks to be away from friends and family in New York. But there’s so many people who come down and of course, what are they want to do? They want to go to the parks, and when they want to go to the parks as a tourist, they want to do everything. So, I feel like I get both sides of it when I’m here by myself with my fiancée Chelsea. I’ll do the annual pass holder way. I’ll do whatever I want to do that day, going for a couple hours. Maybe sometimes I’ll go eat and go on one ride and leave. But when people come and visit, they want the whole shebang and I’m down to deliver that.
— Matt Cardona (@TheMattCardona) May 2, 2018
Coaster101: You mentioned your fiancée, Chelsea. have you turned her into a Disney fan or is she a theme park fan at all?
Matt: It’s funny because when we were introduced, it’s actually at Universal Citywalk. I was hanging out with Cody and his wife Brandi, they were saying that they know this girl, she was single, I was single. I said “Listen, I don’t want to date this wrestling girl. I don’t want to do that.” And then they say that she like Disney. “Oh ,she likes Disney,” that kind of a part of the whole conversation and she likes Disney but it turns out, there’s liking Disney and then there’s liking Disney. I don’t think she was prepared for how into it I was. But there’s definitely people who are above me. I don’t think I’m the craziest.
But yeah, I could go every week. I could probably go every day and do a little something different. If she goes once a month, she’s happy with that.
— Matt Cardona (@TheMattCardona) September 13, 2019
Coaster101: Is it just Disney Parks for you, or do you venture out to other Orlando parks as well?
Matt: I would say 50/50 with Disney and Universal. Universal is definitely stepping up the game. I mean, the whole Wizarding World Harry Potter, I think it just changed the whole game. I feel like we’re living in this theme park renaissance where they’re consistently trying to “one up” to each other and I am living in Orlando getting to experience all of these and I love it. Okay, we’ll build Hagrid, we’ll build Galaxy’s Edge. We’ll build Nintendo. Oh my God, I love it.
Coaster101: Did you get the chance to experience Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway before the parks closed down?
Matt: I did actually. That caused a big fight between Chelsea and I because I wanted to go… not on the opening day because we had done that for Galaxy’s Edge. She wanted to kill me. She thought it was way too early. I wanted to go by myself because I knew she would complain about it, but she had been a good sport. I knew it was going to happen again for Mickey & Minnie’s, but then once the park announced that they’d be closing, I think they announced they’d be closing on a Sunday. That Thursday and Friday, I’m like, “We are going, or I’m going. If you want to come, come. But we’re going and going to do Galaxy’s Edge too. Let’s go.” We were able to plan out everything. We were out of the the park by 10:30 in the morning.
It’s all about being prepared, right? We got to the park super early and we were waiting on this line that wasn’t moving in front of Mickey and Minnie for like an hour or so, but once the park officially open and they were letting people in, we’re on the ride in five minutes.
Coaster101: What are you most excited for as far as future attractions, either Disney or Universal, as far as the new Universal Epic Universe or the Jurassic Park coaster or the Tron coaster or the Guardians coaster or anything? What are you most excited about coming in the future for the Orlando Parks?
Matt: I mean, those all sound awesome. I mean the sound of a completely new theme park is great but there’s not enough information for me to really get excited about it yet.
Definitely the Guardians of the Galaxy coaster, I think they really did a good job with the whole– like I said earlier, with the storytelling and definitely cool queue. And Guardians of the Galaxy are so fun and I think that’s what made them that…when they were taking over at Tower Terror at Disneyland, I was furilous, like, “Come on, how do you get rid of it?” It’s such a fun ride and the re-rideabiliy for that ride too and then the characters are just so fun. How can you not have a great time on such a simple drop ride? Imagine a coaster. I think it’s going to be insane.
— The Major Wrestling Figure Podcast (@MajorWFPod) January 19, 2020
Coaster101: You’re a huge toy collector. While we know the main part of your toy collection is wrestling figures, and you’ve even got your own Wrestling Figure Podcast (The Major Wresting Figure Podcast) but you’ve got a good Disney collection too. What is about collecting Disney collectibles, specifically park collectibles, that’s appealing to you?
Matt: Here’s the thing. You got to be very, very careful because there’s always new merch at Disney. I’m super limited… I limit myself on what I get and what I collect because it will never stop. You go to a park two times in a week there can be different merch.
So, I’m very selective. When I went in the early 90s, there were these ceramic-style figurines. It was sold in the park, like Disney stores. They don’t make them anymore but I collected those over the years. When I would go to the park and I would get a couple new ones. Recently, my mom, I wanted her to send me a couple of them just for my toy room and she ended up sending all of them. And then every couple weeks for a few months, I’d be getting the ones that I didn’t have. She would go on eBay and send me The Little Mermaid set. I had almost all of them. Oh my God, this is getting out of control. These glass ceramic-like figurines, other things that I have are just random things. I love the Epcot McDonald’s toys that they made in the 90s. Also, there’s certain Happy Meal toys that I remember growing up with. I think there’s Oliver and Company little like finger puppet things, a bunch of odds and ends you know, just too much stuff to get everything.
Coaster101: Gotcha. And I know you’re a big Funko guy. Do you have all the park exclusive Funko Pops?
Matt: I do have most of them but there are so many of them, I bet if you listed them, I’d say
Oh I’m missing this, I’m missing that” I try to get as many as I can. I guess that’s another thing too, that the Funkos say about this fun little hobby, like “Oh let me get a couple of Disney people, a couple of wrestling, a couple Star Wars.” Then, a couple years go by over, and I have 500. So, I’ve been having to make cuts because it’s just not the real estate in that toy room for all of those Funkos.
Coaster101: You’re also a big Star Wars fan. What are your impressions having experienced Galaxy’s Edge on both coasts?
Matt: Okay, so I was originally just going to wait for the Disney World one, then the Disneyland version was opening and I was getting this furious fear of missing out. I said, “Chelsea we’re going to California this weekend.” You had to get a Disney hotel. I booked a room at the Disneyland Hotel and we were able to go there on the second day.
Matt: And oh my God, it was so great. I loved it. But now with the addition of Rise of the Resistance, it was so much better than it was in the beginning. I appreciate that they did it in two stages instead of opening it all at once, letting us have a little taste. Now we have the full course meal. Are there some things that could be different or could be better? Of course. There’s always going to be, right? But just the fact you can walk in there, go to Oga’s Cantina. Oh man, and building a light saber. I did it with Chelsea. I had goosebumps, I’m not going to spoil it for anybody, but it is a must do experience if you love Star Wars.
Coaster101: What about the international Disney Parks? You’ve done all six domestic parks in two days, but which Disney Parks have you experienced abroad?
Matt: I did Disneyland Paris, I was there for about 45 minutes. I can’t even count. that I was there. We landed, we had to go do a show so we went. We got stuck in traffic and the only ride that didn’t have a long wait was Phantom Manor. We did that, a couple of pictures in front of the castle, but we had to leave so I didn’t really get a good taste. It was such a tease, you know. My experience with Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, We had a record show there. I know I wasn’t going to be able to do much but I wanted to try to do a ride in both parks.
TOKYO DISNEYLAND!!! pic.twitter.com/IvCNOHk98z
— Matt Cardona (@TheMattCardona) June 29, 2019
Matt: I was able to do their Space Mountain. What I wanted to do was the Winnie the Pooh ride, which I heard was phenomenal. I started at Tokyo Disneyland, of course, I get there and it’s not open for some reason. So I’m thinking, “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” I ran to Space Mountain and did that that once, and then went to DisneySea which is unbelievable. I did the Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was a great ride.
I did a couple other things there but that park, I tell people it’s like if you had like a dream about this fake imaginary theme park, this is the park. It’s unlike anything else. It’s so incredible. When I think back om it, I think I was actually in a dream. That’s how unrealistic this park is. But I didn’t really get to do everything there and I’ve never been to Shanghai park. Definitely now that I have some free time on my hands, I’d like to go to all these parks and at least get a whole day at the park.
Coaster101: Whenever you had a show somewhere with WWE, was it very much like a structured schedule where you really couldn’t break away basically?
Matt: It’s not that we couldn’t break away but we didn’t have the time. You either fly in, do the show right away or… unfortunately, in overseas tours, you’re getting in really early or really late. You have to do things like workout, there’s a certain responsibility you have before you go to a theme park. But I made it work, I’m so glad I did this past year. There was definitely time before that I could have gone, but at the time, I also didn’t want to go by myself. This time, luckily I had [WWE Ring Announcer] Mike Rome to go to Disneyland Paris, but when I went to Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland, I went by myself. I didn’t care. I was like, “I’m going.”
Coaster101: Just going to end this just with some really quick hits. What’s your favorite attraction at Magic Kingdom?
Matt: I gotta say Space Mountain. It’s a classic. But what’s going to happen when TRON comes? My only fear about that is if it will it live up to the hype? It’s been open for a few years at Shanghai Disneyland. Will it be accepted here? I feel like it’s gotta be, but Space Mountain that classic, if they’re so close together, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
I love Magic Kingdom, of course. As a kid, you think of Disneyland or Disney World, you think of Magic Kingdom, right? Now that I live here, it’s such a pain in the ass to get to.
— Matt Cardona (@TheMattCardona) December 13, 2019
You’ve got to park, you’ve got to go to the Transportation and Ticket Center. Oh my God. I don’t really go to Magic Kingdom that often. Because like I said, it’s such a pain. You can always Uber, to the Contemporary and walk but still, it’s like “Oh my gosh, just a headache, especially leaving too. That’s the worst, leaving I think.
Everyone’s going to the Monorails or the boats, I was like, “Oh God”. I totally avoid Magic Kingdom unless it’s like a special event like the Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas party or people are in town visiting, but if it’s like if parks were open right now and I was going to a park today. the last one I’d go to is Magic Kingdom.
Coaster101: What about favorite Epcot attraction? And Cava de Tequila is an attraction, I’ll let you have that if you want it.
Matt: If that’s an attraction, there you go. It’s like I was saying earlier about not knowing there were good restaurants. Obviously, as a kid, I wasn’t drinking in these parks as a kid. My parents weren’t drinking in the park either. I don’t know, Not that I love drinking by any means but a shot of nice tequila and then go ride a ride? Does it get better than that? Then you walk over to Italy for a nice glass wine. [Laughs]
Coaster101: At Hollywood Studios, I know you’re a big Tower of Terror guy, but has the Rise of the Resistance topped it?
Matt: Oh man, I mean, Tower of Terror is kind of what I was saying earlier, what you see from a distance, the queue there, the rides awesome, the gift shop is earlier. Tower of Terror is great. I think it’s my favorite right now but I think when we have the conversation in another five years maybe, Rise of the Resistance just takes the cake. It’s just so well done, and I’m just hoping and I’m really hoping that they keep the storytelling aspect. I was afraid before that, that they would force everyone through so when you get off the transport ship and see the storm troopers, the line ahead of you would still be in there. I like how it is now. I feel like you’re just on this journey with 20 other people or however many it is. That’s something that really lived up to the hype.
Smugglers Run, in my opinion, did not live up to the hype. People may think I’m crazy but I will go on record saying that I believe that Star Tours is better than Smugglers Run. Listen, I just want to pretend that I’m on the Millennium Falcon. I don’t need to be the pilot or shooting these, you know, being the gunner or be the engineer. Let me just experience the ride the best way possible as opposed to me with– I’m not a pilot. I’m going to screw it up or if there’s like a five-year-old kid or a 50-year-old who’s never played a video game in their life, it’s just not going to be a good experience. And also, the video, it doesn’t really feel like I’m in Star Wars, you know what I’m saying? I don’t know. It feels like something I would do at the old Disney Quest.
— Matt Cardona (@TheMattCardona) February 16, 2017
Coaster101: What’s your favorite Animal Kingdom attraction?
Matt: Flight of Passage. Come on. Love it. When they were building the Avatar attractions, I was like, “Why would they need Avatar here? Now that it’s there, it’s really cool and then you think it like, nobody really has seen Song of the South, but we love Splash Mountain, you know?
Forgive me, I forgot the name of the boat ride, whatever that is.
Coaster101: The Na’vi River Journey.
Matt: Oh. Sucks. [laughter] Great animatronic at the end. But oh my God, horrible.
Coaster101: It’s a lot of buildup for one animatronic.
Matt: Yeah. Flight of Passage is so cool and also, it’s the storytelling part. You just went on the ride like, it’s still great but if you go the queue and the storytelling, I love that ride. There so many good things to say about Animal Kingdom. I think it’s definitely underrated. But I love it there.
Coaster101: If you had one meal to eat at Disney property – at any domestic Disney park or the hotels — If you had one meal, where would you eat?
Matt: Great question. I really enjoy California Grill at the Contemporary. I think it’s just– you’re eating and you can literally see the Magic Kingdom, the Castle. The atmosphere is great, but they could easily cheap out of the food because of the atmosphere but they don’t. The food is top quality food. The drinks there are great. You want to go up and have a couple drinks at the bar before a little Monorail Bar Crawl.
I highly recommend that. Yeah, the food part is what really I think– I love rides of course, but I love good food too. So the combination is there and not everything I love is great, expensive food. I love the 50’s Prime Time Cafe. Just sitting in there. The kitchen, the old TV and someone’s yelling at me as I’m eating meatloaf. That’s great. I love when there’s theming, when there’s food. It’s better if the food’s good, but I love everything. I love good Mickey’s ice cream bar. You have to have it. Every time I’m at Magic Kingdom, I’d have to have that ice cream bar.
Coaster101: You briefly touched on the world of social distancing and I know you’re a big Disney Springs fan. Disney Springs opens back up on May 20th. Are you going to go there the first day?
Matt: Let me say I will go when I see the list of what’s open. I’m not going to go just to go. If something I really enjoy is open, then I will go. I love Disney Springs. I love it so much. What I love about Orlando is that there’s always something to do. People are saving up for years to go into this once in a lifetime vacation to where I live.
It’s a Wednesday night, I go to Disney Springs, it feels like I’m on vacation. That’s what I love about it. Disney Springs is great. I love Disney Springs. I think CityWalk was kicking Disney Springs’ ass for many years and now I think it’s the total opposite. I think Disney Springs has great, high-quality food, has a lot of fun stuff to do, and I think that CityWalk is kinda just between the parks, and you can eat there, but I would never go to CityWalk just to eat without visiting the parks.
Thanks to Matt for his time, and thanks to Brian Wittenstein for helping facilitate this interview.