Orlando: Terror and ecstasy on the roller-coaster
I think I hate roller-coasters. The moment for this thought to find itself sounding alarm bells in my head probably wasn't timed to perfection. It occurred while waiting to take off, locked in by a harness unable to move, in a roller-coaster. This was at the beginning of what can only be described as a crash course in coasting over the next few days.
We landed in sunny Orlando bubbling over with the usual beginning-of-holidays enthusiasm. Our hotel, The Hilton Orlando was just a 30-minute drive from Orlando Airport. Before we knew it, we were chowing down on some delicious dinner in one of the hotel's restaurants, and sipping white wine, or in some peoples cases gulping, as a result of the nervous tension that kicked in when we began discussing just what we were intending to get up to over the next few days. Following this conversation, the gulping of wine rapidly switched to water. A wise person made the valid point that a hangover and a roller-coaster was not a winning combination.
I would not describe myself as a roller-coaster rookie. I have been to theme parks before and loved them. However, these expeditions were as a fearless eight-year-old, a fresh-faced ten-year-old, and a feisty 16-year-old. In those years I had a rather different perspective. For one thing, I was a lot more focused on the 'I'll do what I want' side of my brain rather than the other side feebly yelling 'Oh god, oh god are you sure this is a good idea?'.
Now 26, and mature…ish, my desire to stay safe was making itself known. In my mind, to do so would require both of my feet to stay firmly on the ground. But on the other hand, I had come to Orlando for five days to try out roller-coasters and had been particularly looking forward to trying out SeaWorld's newest HyperCoaster roller-coaster. With this in mind, I ferried myself off to bed, which essentially felt like I was sleeping on a humungous cloud, and promised myself that no matter how scared I felt over the coming days. I would get on those roller-coasters.
I am so glad I did.
The next morning I tucked into a delicious breakfast from the hotel buffet - this consisted of a strong coffee and a tasty omelette. Our first port of call was SeaWorld (just a five-minute drive away), and the Manta roller-coaster. Think of this ride as one of the warm-up acts to the grand finale. This roller-coaster simulates the effect of a Manta ray skimming and flying through the sea. It lived up to its reputation and more, as, dangling face first, we zoomed through the air somewhere between terrified and ecstatic. It is definitely a must-do attraction and a good one to start with as, at 53mph, it is in fact one of their (dare I say it) slower roller-coasters.
I got off Manta shaking like a leaf but thrilled to bits and already anticipating the next roller-coaster.
This time it was Kraken, Orlando's only floorless roller-coaster. Briefly I wrestled my nerves but again they only occurred post-belt-lock, feet dangling, when there was no going back. Another hilarious ruckus ensued and then once again, slightly dizzy (be warned there are a lot of loop-de-loops), I found myself having made it back to firm ground.
The funny thing was that by this stage solid ground wasn't quite as appealing as before. Suddenly I was craving more spins, twists and turns. Walking seemed a bit tame. Why walk when you can zoom? With this in mind, it was time to try SeaWorld's creme de la creme of attractions, Mako, their newest addition. It is also Orlando's tallest, longest and fastest hypercoaster. My once wimpy self was feeling bolder. "Why not? You've done the others." I thought.
The first thing you might note when you board with the naive enthusiasm and new found fearlessness that, like me, you will gain over the course of the day is that … the mechanism that holds you in for this ride is different. It was unlike anything I had seen before. Rather than the bulky straps that you pull down over your head, this ride's safety harness was held at the waist. As we lay on our backs, climbing the huge crest which reaches 200 feet in the air before the drop, I suddenly became aware that I was climbing to heights I would never normally dream of, held in by what looked to me, while suspended 200 feet in the air, like nothing more than a … chunky version of a seatbelt.
Oh noooo. DROP.
Thankfully, this burst of fear was instantly dispelled by a chorus of slightly manic, happy laughter and screaming. This hypercoaster is a thrill. It is designed to mimic the movement of a Mako shark surging through the ocean at top speed, and it certainly delivers during the three minutes of adrenalin-filled bliss.
What differentiates a hypercoaster roller-coaster from the more familiar roller-coaster? A hypercoaster distinguishes itself with numerous tall hills and high speeds providing near weightless air time. This weightless airtime was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. The sensation is akin to soaring through the air and definitely a moment I wanted to repeat. In fact, I did so at least four or five times.
The track is nearly a mile long and you will reach speeds of up to 73mph. A good tip if you're a thrill seeker or trying to be, is to sit at the front of the ride as this will give the sensation of going even faster. Maybe leave this one for your second or third go if you're not feeling so brave on the day. If you want to get the optimum experience of weightlessness, then sit towards the middle or the back.
We were invited to go on the ride at night time, which is definitely well worth it should you decide to go along to one of the 'Summer of Mako' nights.
Perched in the roller-coaster before the take-off, looking down at the twinkling lights of the park below with the 48,000 Watt original score blaring, is so atmospheric it's magical.
Should you find yourself tagging along with no interest in roller-coasters or with small children, there is plenty to keep them entertained in Sea World's extensive grounds. From visiting the penguins, to feeding the seals, to the 'pets ahoy' show featuring rescue animals, you will not be short of activities. There are also rides that cater to a younger clientele such as Antartica: Empire of the penguin, located in the penguin enclosure.
If you need a pit stop to refuel during the day, there are an array of places you can eat offering everything from burgers, to Italian, to Mexican. I opted for a hot dog which was just enough of a refuel until our meal out later that evening.
That night we went to Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar, located just a stone's throw from the hotel. It was a Wednesday night and the place was buzzing, which is what I always like to see. We ordered a number of dishes for starters and mains - no-one wanted to miss out. It was mouth-wateringly tasty, but be warned, the portions of the mains can be quite large. Our meal was washed down with some ice cold margaritas, again not for the faint-hearted, the glasses were huge! All this made for a particularly delighted bunch as we headed back to the hotel, tired but happy and ready for another sumptuous sleep.
After two days of coasting our way around Sea World it was time to move on to Discovery Cove. As we arrived to palm trees and coconuts, our eyes and ears feasting on the tropical surroundings, I knew that I had stepped into heaven. This is the perfect antidote to the adrenalin-filled days that coasting involved. It seemed as though I blinked and before I knew it I was sitting on a lounger surrounded by water, sipping a frozen cocktail in the sun. Does it get better than that? I doubt it. It should be noted that in an effort to ensure that underage drinking does not occur (21 is the legal drinking age in the U.S), the Discovery Cove has strict regulations on alcohol sale. If you want to buy a drink you will need to have the correct lanyard. You can get this at reception by showing your passport and allowing them to take a pic for your lanyard. If you are the more senior of your group, do not think that grey hair and laughter lines will suffice as proof enough of your age. You will still be required to have the correct pass.
Incidentally, if sitting still is your nightmare or you have a small troop to keep entertained, fear not as there is still plenty to do.
We embarked on the wind-away river which was a laugh-a-minute experience. It is suitable for non-swimmers and swimmers alike, as you will have a float with you at all times. Another tip would be to leave your sunglasses on dry land. You will get drenched.
The Grand Reef is another delight where you can snorkel among velvety rays and beautiful fish. We did not get a chance to do this properly on the day. However, by lucky coincidence a colleague suggested we take a short cut (to the cocktail bar) by wading through what looked like a harmless shallow pool. It was not shallow. Cue a submerged snorkel minus the goggles, more hysterical laughs, some bemused sea life, and four thankfully unscathed smart phones. My advice is don't take short cuts but do schedule in a snorkel. If this sounds a bit tame to you and you want to take it right under the sea, you can do an underwater walking safari while wearing a dive helmet.
The next day we set out for Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, which brings the Serengeti Plain to you. After a delicious breakfast of fruit, salad and warm croissants overlooking the park, it was time to get on some rides again. Given my extensive thrill-seeking earlier in the week, I wondered would the Busch Gardens rides live up to my high expectations. They were fantastic! For the bravest of your number, the Cobra's Curse (the park's brand new ride), should be top of their list. This is an interactive experience right from the beginning, telling the story of the Snake King while you are queueing. Another great thing to keep the kids engaged. For the hot and flustered, hearts pounding at the thought of a queue in the heat … do not fear because this queue is air conditioned. One of the most exciting things about this ride is that each cart will randomly spin freely. As you will have already travelled backwards and forwards at 40mph, the spins just add to the adrenalin-filled excitement of it all.
We finished our week lounging by the water's edge in Aquatica water park. After an enjoyable morning squealing to our hearts' content on the park water slides and a jaunt around their lazy river, lounging seemed the perfect ending for our jam-packed, fun-filled week. Adrenalin fiend that I have now become, I will most definitely be going back and would highly recommend that you go too. Leave the nerves at home, hop on and enjoy.