Travel review: Orlando - theme parks and a slice of Harry Potter magic

Universal's Volcano Bay Water Park. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Universal's Volcano Bay Water Park. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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It’s the world capital of theme parks and Orlando also serves up a little slice of Potter magic too says Jonathan Gawthorpe.

For many children (and, let’s face it, grown-ups too), a trip to Kings Cross Station in London has one highlight: having your picture taken at platform nine and three quarters. However, it’s no good trying to run through the barriers: mere Muggles have to fly 4,000 miles to visit the magical wizarding school of Hogwarts – which is exactly what myself, my wife and our two daughters did. Shunning the temptation to leave the kids behind for a romantic break somewhere on white sands, we took the plunge and travelled to the theme park capital of the world, Orlando, Florida.

When we talk about things being fun-sized, we normally mean miniature – but in Orlando, fun means huge. The theme parks are colossal, with Walt Disney World alone covering over 43 square miles, the size of Manchester. And our two girls were determined to cover all of the parks, from the glittering spires of the Magic Kingdom to the terrifying drops at Universal’s new water park, Volcano Bay.

It was at Volcano Bay that I felt like I shaved a good five years off my life expectancy. Forget lazy rivers and lacklustre wave machines: this new park, built to compete with Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon, has thrills at its centre. That’s how I found myself in the middle of a volcano, palms sweating and heart pounding. The Ko’Okiri Body Plunge takes you 125ft up before dropping you all the way back down in a matter of seconds. It’s definitely not one for the vertigo sufferers. Fortunately, there are also plenty of your more traditional water-park favourites to cool you down afterwards. I’ve never been so relieved to get into an inflatable ring.

More to my daughters’ tastes perhaps was our visit to the Magic Kingdom, the oldest and most famous park in Walt Disney World. I might be a cynical old journalist, but I defy any father not to melt when seeing his kids reacting to seeing that castle for the first time.

Having two Disney-obsessed daughters meant we spent a lot of the day queueing up to meet their favourite characters. The parks make this easy by clearly advertising at what points Cinderella and Belle will be on hand for selfies, with some using the handy queue jumping FastPass+ system. Ride highlights include the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Space Mountain for the grown-ups, and classics Dumbo the Flying Elephant and the Magic Carpets of Aladdin ride for the kids.

There’s only so much glitter and princesses that a grown man can bear. Thank goodness then, that Disney also caters more towards adults in some of its other parks. The EPCOT centre is home to World Showcase – around a dozen ‘mini countries’ where you can learn more about cultures including French, Moroccan and Chinese. There was something especially bizarre about visiting the ‘United Kingdom’ zone, complete with its very own ‘Yorkshire County’ fish and chip stand – which, of course, we had to test. Unfortunately, the chips weren’t quite of Wetherby Whaler standards, but it’s nice to know that even Disney World recognises Yorkshire as the standard bearer for our nation’s favourite dinner.

The love for our county doesn’t end at Disney World, as I was to learn. Any Harry Potter fan worth their weight in Gringotts gold knows that Goathland, on the North Yorkshire Moors, provided the setting for the magical village of Hogsmeade’s railway station. And the station has been faithfully recreated at Universal Studio’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is split into two sections – Hogsmeade, the wizarding village, and Diagon Alley, which is the equivalent of Oxford Street for Potter fans. It’s a very surreal feeling to board the famous Hogwarts Express, which takes you between the two magical zones, especially as one station is a replica of Kings’ Cross. It takes just ten minutes to cross from the London station to the North Yorkshire one – significantly shorter than the real journey, of course! Perhaps the planners behind HS2 need to have a word with the bigwigs of the Hogwarts Express.

Universal Studios is also packed with adventures based on blockbusters such as Jurassic Park. Universal caters well to the slightly older crowd, with nailbiting rides including the Hollywood Rip-Ride Rocket and Escape From The Mummy.

With all these theme parks to visit it can be a bit daunting coming up with a family-friendly itinerary. Fortunately, Attraction Tickets Direct took the stress of booking tickets away from us completely by offering ticket bundles as a package deal, which left us with more time for enjoying our time in the theme parks – not to mention a few days resting and recuperating by the pool in the hotel, trying to benefit from Orlando’s year round sunshine.

There’s far too much for just a week’s holiday – and with the gruelling eight-hour flight each way, a fortnight at least is the best way to get the most out of the resort. It can be a tiring and slightly overwhelming holiday, but I certainly won’t be the first parent to think that the smiles on my kids’ faces every day made it worth every penny.

GETTING THERE

A Disney and Universal Combo ticket through Attraction Tickets Direct provides 14 days unlimited access to all nine theme and water parks – including the brand new Volcano Bay. Prices start from £597 per adult and £569 per child aged 3-9. To book visit attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk

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