Travel World/USA

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Florida: Thrills, spills and Harry Potter at Orlando's theme parks

Jamie Blake Knox

Published 27/07/2015 | 02:30

All aboard for Hogwarts: Last summer, Universal Studios Florida opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. The sets are built with a rigorous eye for detail
All aboard for Hogwarts: Last summer, Universal Studios Florida opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. The sets are built with a rigorous eye for detail
Busch Gardens in Florida
Montu roller coaster
Aqua drag racer
Pick up a penguin: Jamie Blake Knox with one of the penguins in Antartica: Empire of the Penguin. It is an interactive experience that connects visitors with marine life and their habitats.
Simpsons bar

My initial impression on arriving in Florida for the first time was that I had walked onto a huge film set, writes Jamie Blake Knox.

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With its gigantic pick-up trucks, rows of palm trees, alligator-infested swamps and garish fast-food joints, it was both wildly exotic and yet familiar from a hundred movies. In fact, this was only a taste of what was to come. I soon discovered that I was entering what seemed like a parallel universe - where the ability to suspend conventional reality and embrace the surreal are necessary to ensure full enjoyment.

Loews' Portofino Bay Hotel, at the Universal theme park, seeks to recreate the charm and romance of the picturesque Genoese seaside village of the same name on the Italian Riviera. Like its namesake, the hotel is made up of a series of colourfully painted buildings that line the shore of an equally picturesque lake. The attention to authentic detail is somewhat unnerving, and extends to the cobblestone streets, the outdoor cafes, and the vintage mopeds parked around the resort.

For obvious reasons, the hotel appeared to be incredibly popular with Italian Americans. I suppose it offers them what is literally the best of both worlds. However, on occasion I felt as if I were caught up in an episode of "The Sopranos".

After a few slices of excellent pizza and a couple of beers, I retired to my hotel room and collapsed onto the huge comfy bed. I knew that I needed as much rest as possible since my schedule over the next few days was truly hectic. The Orlando FlexTicket, is a multi-park pass, and includes 14-day unlimited access to six parks - Universal Studios, Universal Islands of Adventure, SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa and Wet 'n' Wild Orlando. I must admit that I was hell-bent on sampling all the delights they had to offer.

Early the next morning, I headed to SeaWorld, which was located a short drive away. Having seen Blackfish - the critical documentary about SeaWorld's Orcas - I was somewhat apprehensive about watching the show at Shamu Stadium. However, it was hard not to be impressed by the obvious commitment and passion of the Orcas' minders. I was also struck by the astonished expressions on the faces of children as they watched these magnificent creatures propel themselves out of the water to perform the most amazing aerobatic displays.

It seems clear that in recent years SeaWorld has sought to transform itself into a more interactive experience: one that connects visitors with a range of marine life and their habitats. The general approach is part educational and part sheer entertainment. This is perhaps best exemplified by Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. We moved from the tropical heat of Florida through an ice-and-snow landscape into a cool ante-chamber. Here, we boarded open-topped hovercrafts in order to follow the story of a young and irrepressible gentoo penguin chick called Puck.

Our carriages drifted and spun as if they were sliding on ice, as we watched Puck develop from his difficult formative months, through the perils of an Antarctic snowstorm. Along with Puck, we entered the dreamlike world of a enchantingly lit ice cave, before we saw him brave the dangers of the open ocean patrolled by ferocious Leopard seals. Finally, he returned to the safety of the penguin colony. As the journey progressed, the temperature steadily dropped to below zero: by the end, we found ourselves in a convincing Antarctic shorescape, surrounded by hundreds of SeaWorld's own colony of penguins. They included adèlies, kings, gentoos and rockhoppers, and it wasn't only the children on our tour who were smitten by the odd expressions and curious mannerisms of these flightless birds.

SeaWorld is also involved in the conservation of some of Florida's less glamorous species, such as sea cows, more commonly known as manatees. Sadly, their natural habitat brings them into frequent conflict with humans, and they are often badly hurt or killed by speedboats and fishing nets. I met up with JP who showed me some of the rehabilitation tanks where sick manatees and their calves are slowly coaxed back to health with 'a whole lot of TLC, romaine lettuce and radishes.' His enthusiasm and passion for these ponderous and inelegant creatures was infectious. Manatees may not be blessed with an abundance of brains, or cute looks, and they seem to spend most of their time swimming slowly around in never-ending circles. However, they still manage to convey an appealing sense of awkward dignity.

By the time I left the manatees, the Floridian heat was scorching - so it was with considerable relief that my next stop was in Aquatica. Ihu's Breakaway Falls was only opened last year, and it boasts the tallest, steepest and only multi-drop-tower slide of its kind in Orlando. Three of the slides feature upright 'breakaway boxes' that guests stand in with their arms and legs crossed facing one another. If your heart isn't already pumping fast in anticipation of what is to come, the sound of a thumping beat is piped into the box for added effect. After a quick countdown, a trapdoor is suddenly released, and you experience a thrilling free fall for what feels like an age. For those of a more timid disposition, there is the Dolphin Plunge. This features two side-by-side enclosed tubes that run through an aquarium: you whizz past a pod of beautiful black and white Commerson's Dolphins. These are also known as a panda dolphins, and are renowned for their playfulness: in fact, I could almost swear they were racing me.

Last summer, Universal Studios Florida opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. This is connected - naturally - via the Hogwarts Express train to Hogsmeade in Universal's Islands of Adventure. The sets are built with a rigorous eye for detail. It is possible to dine in the Leaky Cauldron and there are immersive shops, such as Olivander's Wand Shop, where you can purchase the essential wizard's equipment from $49.99. With a wave of your newly-acquired wand, you can begin to make skeletons in the windows dance, fountains come to life, toilets gurgle and even make an animated canary explode. It may be expensive, but I saw almost as many adults as children feverishly chanting 'Incendio!' and 'Specialis Revelio!' as they rushed about.

Entering Gringott's Bank, just beneath a massive fire-breathing dragon, I walked through the Bank's grand marble lobby, and past the creepy animatronic goblins before embarking on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The ride is a combination of a high-tech rollercoaster with kinetic, fast-moving carts that dip and make hairpin turns. This is accompanied by some stunning 3-D effects, and is absolutely thrilling.

As I re-emerged into the rest of the park after several hours exploring the world of Harry Potter, I was hit with the full force of the Florida sun. Luckily, the World of The Simpsons is situated directly opposite the exit, and I had the opportunity to step inside Moe's Tavern, pull up a bar stool beside Barney and enjoy a crisp refreshing Duff Beer.

The next day, I made my way to Busch Gardens Tampa, which is one of the largest zoos in the country. It is home to more than 2,500 animals - many of which are endangered. You can hand-feed romaine lettuce to giraffes, watch cheetahs run at full tilt, and meet an eastern screech owl called Emmet. However, I was there for entirely different reasons because it is also home to some of Orlando's most feared rides.

Falcon's Fury seeks to mimic the dive speeds of the fastest creature on earth, the peregrine falcon. At 335ft, it is the first drop tower of its kind in the world. Riders slowly ascend right to the top before being flipped 90 degrees so that they are facing straight down at the ground. There is a brief pause before you fall at 60mph straight down in a dive position. At the bottom, my shy and unassuming neighbour proudly proclaimed himself to be 'the Falcon,' and convinced the operator to let us go again. Sometimes there is no harm in suppressing one's sense of reality and embrace the surreal, and Orlando is just about the best place in the world to do that.

Take three...

Cheetah Hunt 

Busch Gardens: One of Florida's newest rollercoasters, this is intended to be family-friendly, but I found it anything but tame. It uses electromagnetic force to hurl trains forward, like a railgun. Throw in a "heartline roll" inversion, and an abstract "tree" that the cheetah train climbs, and then drops dead from, and you've got one of the longest (1,350 metres) and most adrenaline-charged rides in Florida.

Montu

Named after the appropriately intimidating ancient Egyptian god of war, this was among the world's first "inverted" coasters. The coaches hang below the tracks, and you are thrown through a series of sweeping drops and narrow trenches. It is a ferocious knot that whips you through two inversions and a deep nose-dive in a matter of seconds. Others have since followed its example, none holds a candle to this beast.

Aqua Drag Racer

Wet 'n Wild: While other slides might be taller and more spectacular, this multi-lane racer gives you an opportunity to take on your friends. It has four-lanes of exhilarating twisting track which stretch for 360ft. It is seriously addictive, and I guarantee that you'll be looking to your right and left to see who hits the landing pool first, and then immediately wanting to have another turn.

Getting there

Stay on-site at Universal Orlando at the 5* Loews Portofino Bay Hotel with American Holidays from €1109 per person. Price includes return direct flight with Aer Lingus to Orlando,  seven nights' accommodation at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. Selected dates September & October 2015. The Orlando Flex Ticket Plus is available through Attraction Tickets Direct, priced at €325 per adult and €309 per child. www.attractionticketsdirect.ie.

Behind the Scenes tour at SeaWorld www.seaworldparks.ie/book-tickets.

Aer Lingus fly from Dublin to Orlando four times weekly: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Fares start from €259 each way including taxes. Aer Lingus customers can pre-clear U.S. customs at Dublin airport making for a seamless travel experience. www.aerlingus.com.

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