Orlando - Thrills and spills in Florida
Florida is famous for its astronauts with Cape Canaveral on its east coast. Some 50 miles to the west, near Orlando, in a white spaceman-type helmet and strapped to an oxygen supply, I stepped into a new atmosphere surrounded by stingrays and sharks. Fish swam around our legs and brushed off our bodies as we explored and walked through the tropical water tanks in Discovery Cove.
This exclusive beach-type resort close to the famous SeaWorld and Aquatica theme parks is tucked away from the bustling roller coasters and adrenaline-fuelled adventures on offer nearby.
Inside is the Grand Reef, a tropical playground filled with majestic fish of all shapes and sizes. A sea adventure tour allows you to see these wonderful creatures up close as they glide through the water.
Wetsuits are pulled on and specially-designed dive helmets are fitted over our heads.
It is our first day in Florida and I can't help thinking: what a way to start.
My trip began the previous day travelling up to 30,000ft in the back row of a brand new Aer Lingus A320-300, being looked after superbly by the crew.
Now it feels like I am in the depths of the ocean, thousands of feet below the surface.
We look like we are set for a mission to Mars but the reality is that we need not be experts to don the gear or to have any previous diving experience to visit the wondrous fish in this replica habitat.
Sharks are within touching distance but behind specially toughened glass for their own protection, and ours. We feel as if we are among them, out in the Atlantic. Stingrays and multi-coloured tropical fish swarm in front of our eyes.
After drying off and getting lunch, it was time for some dolphin interaction. To say Finn the dolphin and I bonded is an understatement. I swam, touched and connected with her during a half-hour-long deep-water swim. By the end, I felt Finn and I had become so close that I just had to throw the lips on her.
From here, we made our way up the Wind-Away River, helped along by a soothing current of tropical water, landing in the Freshwater Oasis before getting some R&R and a cool drink in the white dusty sands of Serenity Bay.
Next day was an early start as we headed for Busch Gardens, about 90 minutes away on the outskirts of Tampa. This is a zoo within a theme park, sprawling over 300 acres on an exotic plain where Finn the dolphin was replaced by a tall, leggy giraffe called Sophie. She and I bonded over lunch - her lunch that is, as she ate lettuce from my hand. Curious rhinos and zebras wandered around in the background.
After waving goodbye to my new four-legged friend, it was time to raise the heart rate a bit as we headed to the theme parks.
Here we were thrilled by Cobra's Curse, Kumba and SheiKra (you have to wonder who comes up with these names). Any way, they were a series of rides and roller coasters that prepare you for even more pulsating experiences. These include Falcon's Fury. Standing imposingly high at 335ft, it is North America's tallest free-standing drop tower.
Adrenaline junkies are strapped into a seat and tilted so you are facing the ground as a pulley takes you to the top. The further you travel, the smaller the people below appear until they suddenly look miniature. Then a three-second wait at the top feels like an eternity before a sudden 60mph drop plunges you to the ground. You cannot help but feel you are going to be pulverised before a brisk curving turn away from the surface propels you back skywards and slows you down, bringing you to an eventual, nerve-shattering but exhilarating halt.
With my feet firmly back on solid ground, I took myself into Busch Gardens' zoological hospital to watch a hawk's wing being pinned back into place by the resident vet, Dr Pete Black. He gave us a step-by-step commentary as he performed the procedure, while x-rays were projected on to screens in a viewing gallery for those who may be squeamish or who would prefer not to watch the operation through the hospital's operating theatre glass. Everything from the park's lions, tigers, cheetahs and impalas will pass through here at some stage before leaving again after some loving care and attention.
Alternatively, you can hop on board a safari truck for a jaunt around the park's Serengeti Plain to get a close-up view of these animals mingling and grazing in their natural-looking habitat.
Day three brought us to the well known but sometimes controversial SeaWorld, with its huge sea creatures and extravagant shows. I was somewhat nervous about seeing the famed dancing whales, dolphins and sea lions but found the park to be about much more than this.
I was lucky enough to see the unveiling of Kraken Unleashed; the classic roller coaster ride has been revamped and combined with a new virtual-reality experience. The ride fuses the senses by covering your eyes and ears with a headset to create the sensation of travelling underwater at high-speed and coming face to face with mythical sea creatures, monsters, sharks and all the things you might fear are lurking on the seabed.
The goggles and headphones are an optional extra but make for a much more exciting experience than your regular roller coasters. Not that a thrill-seeker can ever have enough of the roller coasters.
Next we boarded Manta, which rotates 90 degrees so you face the ground as you are pulled through a track at what feels like warp speed. For a unique experience, you are facing downwards as you pull huge g-forces. My only piece of advice is to try to scramble your way to the front and to the seat furthest to the right-hand side for ultimate splash-time as the ride skims the top of the water. The ride aims to replicate a bird of prey in flight as it dips towards the water to capture fish swimming near the top. Thankfully, we didn't catch any fish.
Mako is the most thrilling attraction as it is the longest ride with the most air time. It rises 200ft and reaches frightening speeds of 73mph.
My favourite interaction in SeaWorld was when I got to take selfies with penguins in the park's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin zone.
We were told the story of Puck the penguin and a carousel took us through a climate-controlled arena to a chamber inhabited by dozens of the flightless birds. The night ended with a spectacular fireworks show.
My last park experience in Orlando was a visit to Aquatica with its 42 slides, rivers and lagoons and 84,000sqft of sparkling white beaches. Ihu's Breakaway Falls was by far my favourite water slide there. For this, you stand in a tube with a drop floor. As the floor vanishes from under you, you are hit with the sensation of being flung into a flume before slushing around at high speeds in fresh water. I simply could not get enough of it and I climbed the 80 steps 10 times, availing of the day fast-pass to maximise my time on rides instead of spending too much time queueing.
The pass also allowed me to take in the inflated raft ride HooRoo Run, Walhalla Wave and Omaka Rocka.
Afterwards, I kicked back and relaxed in my personal cabana, equipped with a fridge and made-to-order meals and drinks, as I took in some rays.
Florida is, after all, the sunshine state.
TAKE TWO Top Attractions
This 3D experience — alongside the physical sensation of the g-force — is truly sensational. Definitely the best roller coaster I’ve ever been on. The newly-opened virtual reality ride is an assault on the senses.
What is it about penguins? I was lucky enough to meet some of these adorable birds in SeaWorld. It was a strange experience, transferring from the Florida heat to their cooler specially created habitat.
Pre-purchasing your theme park tickets provides the best value for money.
The Discovery Cove Ultimate package includes a full day at Discovery Cove, a 30-minute dolphin swim and 14 consecutive days of unlimited admission to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica with free parking at all parks.
Attraction Tickets Direct offers the Discovery Cove Ultimate package from €212 per person.
To book, visit www.attractionticketsdirect.ie
For more information on SeaWorld, visit www.seaworldparks.ie or for information on Orlando, see www.visitorlando.com
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