Travel review: The best way to explore Florida’s theme parks

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Planning the dream family holiday is not an easy task, as Matt Reeder found out when he took wife Clare and their three children to Florida for the trip of a lifetime.

THE family discussions were long and often heated. Florida was on the radar, our flights had been booked, accommodation sorted, now all we had to was agree on which parks to visit.

The dolphins at Discovery Cove is a highlight of any trip to Florida.

The dolphins at Discovery Cove is a highlight of any trip to Florida.

Orlando is such a huge playground of opportunity, that it is difficult to decide on the perfect schedule, and keep everyone in the family happy.

We had a limited amount of time in America’s Sunshine State and wanted to make sure our holiday of a lifetime lived up to expectations.

Long hours of debate and a great deal of research resulted in a six-park strategy… Disney, Universal Studios and Busch Gardens for the thrill-seekers among us, and Discovery Cove, SeaWorld and Aquatica for those seeking a little more relaxation.

For myself, Clare and our three children Hannah (13), Ben (12) and Charlotte (10), it turned out to be the ideal mix of holiday heaven.

DISCOVERY COVE

GAZING out across the cool, calm waters in front of us, we waited patiently for a glimpse of our host. With water lapping at our knees we watched, eager for a first sighting.

Excited giggles soon came from my left as the children started pointing out into the deep blue. Something was approaching at speed, a trail of ripples left in its wake as it moved swiftly toward us across the lagoon.

This is what we had been waiting for. From the moment we booked the holiday to Florida, the chance to meet and swim with dolphins was high on the ‘Must Do’ list… and now one of these stunning mammals was heading full pelt toward us.

For those few seconds it seemed as if the world had stopped. I caught a glimpse of the children’s faces as they stared in amazement at the wondrous creature heading their way.

CJ was stunning, beautiful, intelligent, friendly and it was an absolute honour to meet him and play with him. Our 30 minutes with this awesome animal were simply wonderful and undoubtedly the most amazing part of our entire trip.

Swimming with dolphins is the main attraction at Discovery Cove, a truly special place for the family to relax and enjoy the wonders of the sun, sea, sand and sealife.

This all-inclusive resort limits the number of tourists each day so that you can enjoy its delights at your own pace far from the madding crowds.

A Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon breathing fire from the top of Gringotts Bank, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, in Universal Studios Florida Park.

A Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon breathing fire from the top of Gringotts Bank, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, in Universal Studios Florida Park.

Once inside, you are treated to a fabulous breakfast, excellent lunch as well as free snacks and drinks throughout the day. We felt as though we were being treated like kings and queens for a day in paradise.

Of course, there is so much more to do than swim with the dolphins.

Our three children were always off exploring. Goggles and snorkles at the ready, they were either face-to-face with the rays and fishes in the Grand Reef or winding their way around the lazy river. They loved every minute of it.

Pictures of our day at Discovery Cove now hang in our home, a reminder of our special day, and that very special encounter with superstar CJ.

Highlight: Meeting CJ. What a star.

Best Ride: No rides as such, but the dolphin interaction was the best moment.

Top Tip: Make sure you purchase the full package of pictures from your dolphin interaction… you will regret not having that magic moment on camera.

SEAWORLD AND AQUATICA

A bonus of purchasing tickets for Discovery Cove is that you also get admission to SeaWorld and the Aquatica waterpark included.

SeaWorld is another of those ‘Must See’ parks in Orlando and offers a fantastic day out for the whole family.

Stunning rides like Manta and the Kraken were among the best in Orlando, while the Empire of the Penguins experience was fascinating as you step out of 30c heat into the freezing world of Antarctica.

However, the main reason for people travelling to SeaWorld is, of course, to see the dolphins and Killer Whales perform in the grand stadia that dominate the park’s skyline.

There are differing views as to whether we should still be asking these giants of the seas to perform for our entertainment. SeaWorld doesn’t shy away from the discussion, its trainers making it clear at every show how they not only understand their duty of care to the animals but also how they have rescued more than 26,000 and given them a second chance of life.

We thoroughly enjoyed our day at the park and sat in astonishment and awe as the whales leapt and dived in majestic unity. They were an awesome sight, and one which we were all thrilled to have witnessed.

Aquatica was, in the words of my children, an ‘epic’ waterpark with flumes, slides and wave pools to excite any member of the family.

We spent hours racing from one slide to the other, while also keeping tabs on when the next session of giant waves were going to hit the pool.

With a sandy beach and sun loungers scattered across the park for those wishing to take it that little bit easier, Aquatica certainly does off an excellent day out for the family.

Highlight: Coming face-to-face with the sea life.

Best Ride: The Manta.

Top Tip: Make sure you check the show times and check that you get there in plenty of time to see the action. Remember, ‘Splash Zone’ does mean you will get splashed!!!

UNIVERSAL

Sipping at our chilled glasses of Butterbeer in the shadow of Gringotts Bank and under the watchful gaze of a fire-breathing dragon, we allowed ourselves to slip into the imaginary world of Harry Potter.

Diagon Alley stretched out before us, the busy, bustling street crammed with people gazing in awe at the detailed recreation of JK Rowling’s epic literary saga.

We had heard a great deal about Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions, so much so that for many of us, it was number one on our hit-list for the entire holiday.

Books had been read from cover to cover, films watched over and over again to the point of fearing we would wear out the DVDs, and now we finally had the chance to actually visit Hogwarts, to walk the streets of Hogsmeade and even enter such magical shops as Olivander’s and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes.

It did not disappoint.

From the moment we stepped into Diagon Alley from the King’s Cross entrance, we were transported into Harry Potter’s world… and it was simply incredible.

There are two Harry Potter attractions, one in each of the two Universal parks, connected by a ride on the Hogwarts Express train. We started in Diagon Alley and eventually made our way across to the snow-covered buildings and walkways of Hogsmeade.

Rides include the Escape from Gringott’s, the Dragon Challenge and Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey. All were described as ‘epic’ by the children… and also by us parents to be fair!!!

Figures suggest that attendance numbers at Universal rose by 36 per cent after the introduction of the first Harry Potter park in 2010 and it is not hard to see why.

The two Universal parks (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure) are situated right next to each other; and both of them are jam-packed with exciting, thrill-a-minute, scream-for-your-life rides, shows and roller-coasters.

We only had one day to do both parks, so with our Express passes to hand and maps at the ready we had embarked on what would be a non-stop adrenaline-fueled 11-hour assault on Universal.

Planning was essential to making sure that we had everything done in time for the late evening fireworks… and our plan worked to perfection.

Our morning, and indeed a fair chunk of the early afternoon, was spent with Harry Potter, but there was no way we were going to miss out on the other delights this fantastic park had to offer.

From Hogsmeade, we entered Jurassic Park, after that we met superheroes Spiderman, The X-Men and the Hulk before enjoying the company of the Transformers, the Blues Brothers, ET and the Men in Black.

Throw in a quick encounter with The Simpson’s, The Mummy and The Cat in the Hat and that just about concluded our truly fantastic day.

Our final ride was the one I had been dreading all day, but it was one I had promised Hannah I would go on with her. The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit starts by sending you on a vertical climb straight up into the Florida skies before sending you off on a 65mph loop-the-loop route 17 stories high over the streets of Universal.

I was glad to call it a day after that one.

We must have walked for miles, but the children were so engrossed in the excitement that they just ploughed on… ride after ride, thrill after thrill, every one offering a stunning experience.

Not surprisingly, they all had a little nap on the way back to our apartment.

Highlight: Both of the Harry Potter worlds. It’s as if you have been transported into the land of Hogwarts.

Best Ride: Harry Potter’s Escape from Gringgotts.

Top Tip: Make sure you get passes for both Universal Studios and Worlds of Adventure. You don’t want to miss out.

DISNEY

The Disney magic hits you right between the eyes as soon as you step through the gates.

Orlando is the home of Mickey Mouse, and no trip would be complete without a visit of some description. Whether you are five or 55, an eager first-time visitor or a seasoned regular, there is something ever so very special about this mouse with the big ears and his many pals.

From the Magic and Animal Kingdoms through to Epcot, Hollywood Studios and the swimming parks, Disney has something to offer for most genres of holiday-maker.

Our Park Hopper tickets allowed us to visit all four of the main parks, but sadly, our tight schedule meant we could only pick two, so we decided upon day trips to Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios.

Magic Kingdom is a special kind of place where cares and worries seem to wash away amid a mixture of music, smiles and thrilling excitement.

Split into six main areas (Main Street USA, Liberty Square, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and Adventureland) the park offers a truly wonderful experience for the whole family with rides, shows, parades and plenty of interaction with your favourite characters.

Disney’s new FastPass+ system did take some getting used to, so make sure you read up on this well in advance, and we also had one of those seasonal mid-afternoon downpours to contend with… but our day in Magical Kingdom was, well magical.

The rides are very much family orientated, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, the Mine Train and even the Haunted House are exciting for the children without being too stomach-churning, while no visit to Disney is complete without a turn on It’s a Small World… and yes, the music does stay in your head for the whole day!!!

The great thing about Disney is that they know how to put on a show, and whether it is one of their unmissable daily parades or one of the permanent attractions, they are always worth a viewing. We particularly enjoyed the Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor where characters from the hit movie come to life on stage and interacted with the audience.

Another thing that Disney does well, is merchandise… and the selling of it.

The streets are lined with stores offering myriad items from Mickey Mouse oven mitts to Goofy golf gear, cuddly toys to kitchen ware and crockery. Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to browse the shops, not only will you want to see the fantastic array of Disney goodies on offer, but the air conditioned buildings will also provide you with a welcome break from the Florida sun.

Hollywood Studios had won the vote for our second Disney park visit mainly due to its more ‘grown-up’ roller-coaster thrill rides, but also due to its association with Star Wars.

While Hannah dragged me and Charlotte on the truly terrifying Tower of Terror - a ride which sends you hurtling up and down a 13-storey high abandoned lift shaft - the whole family enjoyed the experience of a flight in space on one of the rebel ships in the company of R2D2 and C3PO.

The Star Tours ride has been at Hollywood for some time now, and despite a recent upgrade to the simulation, does seem a little dated. Ben loved it, and the sight of a huge AT-AT walker towering above you as you enter was particularly impressive.

However, Disney are clearly keen to make the most of their new Star Wars brand. With the new Disney-backed Star Wars movie The Force Awakens out this year, and Star Wars World themed parks planned in the near future for both Florida and California, we have already started planning our return visit for some more fun in a galaxy far, far away…

Our day at Hollywood was complete with a stunning Indiana Jones live-action stunt show, a ride on the super-fast Rock n’ Rollercoaster and a visit to the Muppet studios for yet another fantastic live performance.

Our two days at Disney were done. We wanted more, of course we did. Animal Kingdom and Epcot will be on the agenda next time we visit, while everyone in the family will be keeping an eye on the progress of Star Wars land…

Highlight: Quite simply, the magic of Disney.

Best Ride: Hollywood Tower of Terror.

Top Tip: Make sure you get to grips with the FastPass+ system before you go.

BUSCH GARDENS

This gem of a theme park may not sit in amongst the Orlando big-guns, but in terms of family fun, Tampa’s Busch Gardens is more than a match for its competitors further north.

With breath-taking rides, entertaining shows and a truly stunning train ride through their own version of the Serengeti Plain, we were delighted that we made the call to stop in on our way through to Kissimmee.

Most parks will often boast about offering something for the ‘whole family’ but this place can actually live up to that expectation as you bounce between thrill-seeking rides, rare animal encounters and the calm of a wander through the tree-tops on the Sky-ride cable-car.

As a family, we loved the Congo River Rapids and the Serengeti train ride. The more adventurous among us took on SheiKra, Kumba, Cheetah Hunt and Falcon’s Fury.

We all, though, enjoyed another fantastic day at another must-visit park.

Highlight: Seeing all of the wild animals on the Serengetti train ride.

Best Ride: SheiKra (if you are brave enough).

Top Tip: Make sure you get your timing’s right with the Serengeti train ride. You don’t want to be waiting around for too long in that heat.

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