Florida: A Rollercoaster trip to Orlando
In the 1960s, when Walt Disney bought thousands of miles of swampland in Florida to build a theme park, he could hardly have imagined that Orlando would become the theme park capital of the world. In 2012, total tourism spending in the Sunshine State totalled $71.8bn, with 90 per cent of tourists listing theme parks among the top attractions. Way to go Walt.
Today, everything in Orlando is supersize -- from the hotels and swimming pools to the rollercoaster rides and the portion sizes. The parks themselves are also vast, so visiting six in three days is no... well, no walk in the park. One day per park is probably more sensible, factoring in the sprawling size (Universal's Islands of Adventure is 110-acres alone) and the dreaded queues, which can take hours in peak season.
To test out the new FlexTicket, which allows access to six parks (Wet 'n Wild, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Islands of Adventure, Busch Gardens and Aquatica) over two weeks, our itinerary is packed with enough thrills to make you squeal with delight, or feel slightly green, depending on your disposition and the strength of your stomach. Having never been on a rollercoaster before, I tend towards the latter.
Luckily, we have an easy start. Arriving at the world-famous Sea World on a rainy morning, we are kitted out in blue plastic ponchos to watch a show. The show involves princes and princesses and dolphins doing amazing things. It is spectacularly cheesy, but hugely enjoyable. A word of advice, get in touch with your inner six-year-old early on and you will have fun in theme park land, otherwise you may as well lock yourself in your hotel room till it's time to go home.
There are lots of sedentary activities at SeaWorld, from feeding dolphins, to learning about animal rescue work (Sea World are on call 24 hours a day to come to the aid of orphaned and injured dolphins, porpoises, whales and manatees) to the newest attraction and Sea World's biggest ever expansion project, 'Antarctica', where you can get up close and personal with the penguins.
Aquariums and kiddy attractions are all well and good, but eventually it's time to put my big girl pants on and brave a rollercoaster. It's a baptism of fire on Sea World's flying rollercoaster Manta. The brave keep their eyes open, I coped by closing mine and repeating "It'll be over soon" in my mind until it was.
This tactic was mildly successful, but I still came off the ride with legs like a newborn foal. (A word about safety -- a tour guide assured me that employees ride the rollercoasters several times before they open the park, which is either a testament to how safe the rides are, or how crazy the employees are.)
Islands of Adventure opened in 1999 and is mind-meldingly fun. From old-school attractions like Popeye and ET, to Harry Potter, Jurassic Park and the Incredible Hulk -- it's all here.
Not wishing to be idle, we headed straight for the terrifying Incredible Hulk Coaster. It is the only time in my life I have ever experienced gut-churning, neck-straining G-force, but on the upside I think it gave me a temporary face-lift. Coaster fans talk about the Hulk being smoother than other rides, but really there is very little about being turned upside down seven times, hundreds of feet in the air at 60mph that can be described as "smooth".
For a change of pace, get lost in the adorable and topsy-turvy world of Dr Seuss, or there's plenty of other old-world comic book kitsch to enjoy. Highly recommended are the water rides (if staying dry is not a priority). Jurassic Park is a total giggle, but Popeye and Bluto's Rat Barge (the only ride I did twice) is ridiculously good fun and suitable for all ages.
As for simulators, they are slightly less terrifying than rollercoasters and Marvel comic geeks will love Transformers, although the award winning Spider-Man 3D simulator is hands down the best.
When it comes to Harry Potter, I don't know my Dumbledor from my Hufflepuff but the Hogwarts experience is pretty surreal. It's what you might call an "immersive" experience. You can drink pints of Butterbeer, explore the castle and, of course, get scared out of your wits on Dragon Challenge.
Simpsons' fans should not miss Moe's Tavern for a Duff beer and a ride on the famous jaundiced family's blue sofa. If that's not your thing, over at Universal Studios there's Shrek in 4D, Men in Black, Despicable Me, Revenge of the Mummy... you get the picture.
At night you might be so knackered that you just want to put your feet up, but Universal's City Walk is too surreal to miss and I'm guessing that by now mummy and daddy will be needing a drink.
There are nightclubs, bars and restaurants, a Hard Rock Café and Margaritaville(where Jimmy Buffet's music played at deafening levels is more frightening than any rollercoaster).
If you've got a pair of lungs, Rising Star is a bar where you can belt out a tune accompanied by a live band and backing singers on stage... it's karaoke, but not as we know it.
The FlexTicket gives you access to two water parks -- Wet 'n Wild and Aquatica. There's not much between them, both have a good variety of stomach-flipping chutes and easier tube rides, but Wet 'n Wild edged it for me, due to the pure unbridled fun of Brain Wash (like being inside a washing machine) and Disco H20, if you like hurtling out of control down a slide while listening to KC and The Sunshine Band.
Last stop is Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay where you can go on a mini safari with rhinos, zebras and very friendly giraffes; watch real animal check ups and surgeries (we saw a tiny Asian fox having his ear looked at. Bless).
There's Cheetah Run, where you can watch the Usain Bolt of the animal kingdom in action and of course for those with a need for speed, there is a terrifying 4,400 feet long rollercoaster.
In fact, the whole trip was like a rollercoaster -- exhilarating, a bit crazy, but over in a flash and definitely with more highs than lows.
- ACCOMMODATION: Stay on-site at Universal Orlando and enjoy exclusive benefits including free Universal Express ride access and Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. A standard room at the four-star Loews Royal Pacific Resort starts from €138 per night (Jan 2014) with Tour America.
- TICKET: The Orlando FlexTicket Plus (giving you entrance to six theme parks) costs from €265 per adult and from €249 per child. See www.orlandoflexticket.ie for details or visit your preferred ticket provider.
- FLIGHTS: Aer Lingus fly three times a week from Dublin direct to Orlando. Fares start from €279 each way, for travel from Nov to March 31. Visit aerlingus.com for fares.