From the fast-paced rollercoasters to the dizzy heights of the circus top, Suzanne Baum and her family led the high-life on a recent visit to Florida. It proved to be the perfect family holiday; even if she failed to stay up to speed on everything the theme parks had to offer!
Note: This visit place took place in August 2017 and our thoughts go out to the residents and tourists currently in Florida who are affected by the events connected to Hurricane Irma.
It was my first visit to Orlando in 30 years and despite my kids’ buzz of excitement I approached the trip with some trepidation. Returning so long after my most memorable childhood holiday, I worried that my second experience of the Sunshine State may not live up to my expectations. I was hoping to provide my sons with a perfect family holiday but feared the high exchange rate, the humidity levels, the forecasted tropical storms and my motion-sickness may turn it on its head. And how right I was-but in a good way- for there was many a time my three sons were left hanging upside down…..thanks to the theme park capital of the world!
I may not have a head for heights but watching my family’s ecstatic faces as they discovered so much of what Orlando has to offer gave me more of a buzz than any high-speed rollercoaster. Despite my concerns about the regular lightening and daily downpours, nothing managed to dampen our smiles.
With an action-packed itinerary planned for our two week holiday, it made sense to ease ourselves in gently and Seaworld’s Discovery Cove was the perfect place to begin our trip. The beauty and sheer lushness of the place is a huge eye-opener and proved to be an ideal jet-lag banisher. Once inside we felt immediately like we had stepped into a tropical oasis; the landscape of rocky lagoons, waterfalls and pristine sandy beaches is breath-taking and the fact that a carefully limited number of visitors are allowed in each day means the place never felt busy.
From walking on the beaches and snorkelling with tropical fish to experiencing the fresh water oasis, Discovery Cove is simply magical. It gave us the opportunity to get up close to all sorts of different animals and birds – floating through the warm fresh water of the lazy river and getting glimpses of marmosets and otters and taking a break from the water to feed an array of tropical birds felt heavenly.
The ultimate experience is without doubt the opportunity to swim with dolphins during a 30-minute interactive adventure. Accompanied by a trainer, we waded into shallow water and became acquainted with our dolphin Kayleigh, taking it in turns to swim alongside her. The faces on my kids matched the temperature of the water; this was the ultimate in coolness.
Exhilarated by our visit I knew that, like the dolphins, this was the tamest of ‘theme parks’. Taking the plunge at Seaworld was going to be a far more challenging experience, especially with my three sons and husband fixated on tackling the Mako ride that seemed to bear down on me from every advertisement board we passed.
My emotions were heightened already with nostalgic memories of visiting as a kid so this ‘tallest and fastest rollercoaster’ in Orlando was certainly not on my agenda.
After a rest day spent chilling by our pool and pumped with excitement, the rest of my family looked in awe at the ride that seemed to tower above anything else at the theme park. Surely whilst at Seaworld we should focus on marine life, I asked in a vain bid to dissuade them from riding the damn thing.
“It is,” piped up my eldest, explaining that Mako was in fact named after one of the fastest sharks in the ocean. How can something designed to leave you breathless as you skim over the park along 4,760ft of track be fun I joked, reluctantly giving permission for my husband to take my eldest two sons on it. On standby (with my bewildered youngest and an empty Starbucks coffee cup), I was glad to hear the boys ecstatic shouts 30 minutes later of “that was sick”, rather than deal with the actual thing!
And then straight away they were up for The Kraken….a roller-coaster ride that has recently undergone a facelift adding virtual reality headsets and earphones to each seat and a virtual queuing system which means you can simply turn up and ride at your allotted time – hopefully an insight into the future of theme parks. As my family believed they were spending a breath-taking two and a half minutes in a submarine fleeing from the Kraken sea monster, they were in fact on a ride 153ft above the ground.
After all the thrills and spills (yep, one out of three managed to throw up)-it was nice to go from the extreme to the serene- the icy world of Antarctica. For some reason just looking at the white-knuckled rides stresses me out so an encounter with a colony of penguins following a gentle journey through their habitat did the trick in chilling me out- never mind the male members of my family – and had everyone cooing and angling their selfies to appear alongside the penguins!
My plan to bring the kids back down to earth after the rollercoasters backfired as our next trip was to the Space Kennedy Centre on Cape Canaveral. Selling the space centre to my kids was not as easy as getting them to head over to a theme park but once we arrived they were literally over the moon! We were fascinated by the artefacts and technology from the space missions, the opportunity to see the space crafts and rockets and to get a small insight into the stomach-churning effect of a shuttle launch on the simulator. However, the highlight of the day was having lunch with and a talk from an astronaut-a brilliant chance for the kids to discover the true meaning of being spaced out!
Our friends had advised us to break up the trips with rest days so the kids (or was it us) could chill out and have some down time to recharge their batteries so we were careful when choosing our accommodation to weigh up the location and the benefits that they provided.
We spent our first week in a villa near Kissimmee which provided us with our own private pool, hot tub and games room, and the benefits of resort facilities and a spacious ‘home away from home’ experience but was also conveniently located for all our activities.
After the villa we moved things up a notch by heading to the Hard Rock Hotel Orlando, perfectly located on site at Universal and a stone’s throw away from everything else. The hotel might have been full but you would not have noticed – presumably because everyone is out sampling all that Orlando has to offer – but it meant that getting a prime seat by the pool or served by the waitresses or in the café was a breeze.Hard Rock Hotel is the closest of all the Universal hotels to the theme park which proved to be a huge bonus for us as it meant we could split up our day visiting Universal by returning to the hotel in the middle of the day when the searing heat had taken its toll and we needed some R&R. The hotel is a five minute walk from Universal but the picturesque water taxi ride from outside the hotel to the park was a much more novel and luxurious way of getting there and back and the kids loved it.
The Hard Rock Hotel had a great laid back vibe, with a fantastically curated backdrop of music and on every floor a huge array of memorabilia from legends of music creating the atmosphere. The informal relaxed tone is the perfect bedfellow for the thrills of Orlando.
We were lucky enough to meet the hotel’s Vibe Manager, Molly Ford, who is responsible for curating the music played throughout the hotel – including under the water in the pool – and ensuring that everyone is having a good time. There was live music and fun and games by the large pool which also boasts a sand beach and the kids loved the night time ‘dive-in’ movies and trying to beat their dad at shuffleboard and table tennis.
The hotel prides itself on giving guests the rock star treatment; there is even a menu of electric guitars from which you can choose if you want to spend some time rocking out! It’s not all Rock and Roll; the hotel also had a reasonably well-stocked gym which my husband insisted on visiting to try to fight back against the enormous amounts of food he was eating.
This being one of the world’s most exciting food destinations, my expectations for the hotel were high but they managed to exceed them. The breakfasts were a sumptuous feast with highlights being the made to order waffles and pancakes. Amongst the many dining options at the hotel was The Kitchen where the food was so delicious we dined there on three occasions (one with Homer and Bart Simpson!) and I even asked the chef for a recipe which he rustled up for me in a matter of minutes.
On the subject of time, one of the biggest perks of staying at the Hard Rock – and indeed any of the onsite Universal hotels – is that guests are provided with complimentary Universal Express Unlimited passes which meant we could skip the regular queues on almost every ride at Universal. In peak months, such as when we were visiting in August, this can mean avoiding waiting times for some of the rides of up to 90 minutes. Many people stay at the Hard Rock and other onsite hotels purely to take advantage of the passes and there was no doubt that they transformed our experience of Universal and enabled us to cram in so much more in a day than would have otherwise been possible. What’s more, you also gain the invaluable opportunity to enter Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter an hour before the park opens. This was a huge bonus; as if by magic- 15 mins after having left our hotel-we were transported into the magical realm before it got overcrowded.
All the family were charmed instantly by the snow-capped Hogsmeade Village, dashing in and out of the shops and nagging to try some Butterbeer. Taking advantage of our early start we managed to quickly get to the front of the queue at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, being entertained by the talking portraits in Hogwarts Castle along the way. The ride itself is a supercharged journey which throws lots of the Potter elements at you; we particularly liked taking part in a quidditch match and being chased by the Dementors. We also managed to ride the Dragons Challenge roller coaster which was a great old school coaster full of loops, twists and turns; with so many of the rides at Universal being 4D simulators it’s a shame this one has now been closed.
We then boarded the Hogwarts Express and took the train over to Kings Cross in Universal Studios Florida. The train journey is a Harry Potter experience in itself and worth a trip. We then completed our trip through Harry Potter’s world taking in the splendours of the Diagon Alley recreation.
At Islands of Adventure, adrenalin junkies are spoilt for choice. The jewel in the park’s crown is The Incredible Hulk roller-coaster where you accelerate from zero to 40 mph in two seconds flat, with the force equal to that of a jet taking off, before you experience a ‘weightless roll’. I have no shame admitting I bypassed that one!
There are so many rides, shows and interactive attractions that particularly without an Express pass I would say that you really need to take a full two days to make the most of both parks. Do make sure you visit The Simpsons section where we managed to get an obligatory photo of our favourite TV family!
Orlando has so much more to offer as well as the theme parks – including some top dining experiences. Our most fun-filled evening was at Planet Hollywood in Disney Springs which has just undergone a facelift. The atmosphere was incredible, the staff couldn’t be more helpful and the food was great. We loved the roving cameras that put us on the huge screen that fills half of the restaurant and the unbelievable oversized drinks and deserts.
And then there are the shows! A visit to The Blue Man is a must and La Nouba (a Cirque du Soleil show which will sadly close its doors at the end of 2017) was absolute breath-taking; it made a nice change to see the professionals perform unbelievable tricks at the top of the circus tent rather than strain my head to ensure my kids hadn’t fallen off a ride. In fact, such were the brilliance of the two shows; I wasn’t surprised to see the audience beaming throughout both.
We also spent a great day visiting two attractions that sit right next door to each other the kids had a fantastic indoor sky diving experience at iFly on International Drive and then we headed next door to Wonder Works which houses an incredible array of fascinating interactive exhibits as well as laser tag and an indoor ropes course.
In fact, having watched the hundreds of kids — and adults — experience the time of their lives everywhere we went, I finally cracked the secret to why this place is so ageless. It’s simple: you may not be able to be a kid forever, but in Orlando, you can always be a child at heart.
For more information, visit the VisitOrlando tourist board at www.visitorlando.com
To book a stay at the Hard Rock Hotel, visit www.hardrockhotels.com/orlando/
Home page image: Courtesy of Suzanne Baum