Florida: Hogwarts, sharks and terror rides
Harry Potter & Co.
Behind our seats the rail clicks and creaks as we wind our way to the top of the tower, to a height of 335 feet.
The nearer we get to the top, the slower I breathe.
We stop, and for a brief few seconds we have a perfect view of central Florida, a lush low-slung canopy of apple and cucumber greens stretching far into the periphery, worrying under the weight of a great wide rubble-coloured sky.
There is the muffled sound of thunder echoing in the far distance, a danger but not an impending one, not like the one to come. Our seats rotate. We're looking straight down at the ground, 335 feet below. My ears ring with the screams of young girls and the bellows of Brian and Danny beside me. I grip the handles over my chest as tight as I can and try and push my back further into my seat. I try to fight gravity. I can't help it. I want to survive.
And then we drop.
We drop hard and fast for a few seconds before the rail slows and our seats rotate up, and we gently ease to the ground. The handles unlock and I climb out from my seat, I stumble forward, my hands on my knees, as if about to heave after a heavy night down at the local. But this stupor is but for a moment and gives way to another, a moment of pure euphoria. I can almost feel the endorphins release, the serotonins transmit, and my blood flow faster than it's ever flowed before, I've never felt so alive.
If you go to Orlando, go to Tampa. About a 90-minute drive west of Orlando, Tampa is the home of Busch Gardens, a park that has some of the most scream-inducing, life-affirming rides in the world, none more so than Falcon's Fury, which at 335 feet is North America's tallest drop tower, and almost certainly its scariest.
Two days before Busch Gardens, we visited our first park, the world-famous SeaWorld. We were met by Megan, our guide from Minnesota, who, like all our other guides, and who came from all across America, was warm and friendly and went about her work with great enthusiasm, politeness and, above all, patience, which was well needed with our group, especially given our fondness for having a 'few quiet' drinks the night before (which Orlando does very well).
SeaWorld is home to more than just thousands of whales, dolphins, turtles, sharks, and penguins. It also has two nerve-shredding rollercoasters, Manta and Kraken. On Manta you face down, skirting the ground at more than 50 mph. After what was to be the first of many heart-palpitating rides we made our way to The Dolphin Theater for the Blue Horizon's show.
The dolphins are jaw-droppingly incredible, they don't just jump out of the water, they blast out of it like missiles. Their tails whip the spray-filled air as their smooth grey bodies hang in the air. The show is a bright and colourful affair with dolphins performing impressive back flips, loop jumps and twirling leaps while young men do acrobatic dives off high platforms and a woman, festooned with feathers, flies through the air while bright tropical birds buzz the heads of the captivated crowd. It was a weird and wonderful experience, and so was the rest of our trip.
Other than aquariums full of dolphins, sharks and turtles (many of which have been rescued by SeaWorld), other attractions you must see at SeaWorld include; Antarctica, home to hundreds of penguins which, like little fat waiters, will waddle straight up to you, melting even the coldest of hearts; and Turtle Trek, a 3D viewing experience unlike any other.
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A holiday in Orlando wouldn't be complete without a visit to a water park and later in the afternoon we visit SeaWorld's Acquatica, an Australian-themed park replete with long looping and twisting slides, the best of which is Ihu's Breakaway Falls, a drop slide in which you stand inside a sealed capsule, wait for a five-second countdown, before the floor opens up beneath you and you're dropped straight down and fired down the slide like a shot from a cannon. For something a little more sedate try Roa Rapids or just get yourself a cabana (despite all its manic intensity, Orlando is a very easy place to relax).
Universal's Wet'n' Wild is well worth a visit too, especially if you want a more surreal waterpark experience. In Disco H20 you career down a disco music-filled enclosed slide, while in the helix-shaped The Black Hole, you twist around and around with bright lights pulsating around you, which leaves you slightly discombobulated, but in a good way.
The day after our trip to SeaWorld we went to the Universal Resort. Made up of two adjoining parks, Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure, they are full of references familiar to any child aged between five and 50. Every detail in the Universal Resort, whether it's the exact replica of Hogwarts, Moe's Tavern or the time-travelling locomotive from Back to the Future 3, is there to invoke your inner child, and they do so wonderfully, making you giddy like a child who's had too much fizzy orange.
As for the rides at Universal, well they didn't disappoint. The Revenge of the Mummy is an indoor rollercoaster in which we were blasted by balls of heat while plunging through the darkness, while on Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket we were taken on a slow vertical ascent, before plummeting straight down only then to be fired up into a steep loop (while you listen to your own choice of music). It's worth mentioning that while small children can't go on many of the bigger rides, there are plenty of rides, both in the Universal and SeaWorld parks (which includes Busch Gardens) that will leave them grinning and hopping like little jitterbugs.
Over in Universal Islands of Adventure, we rode the Incredible Hulk. One of the guys and I tried to bring a bit of levity to the situation with our best Withnail and I impressions (we all cope with fear differently) before we were exploded out of a steep dark tunnel and shot around like atoms in a particle accelerator. We then got absolutely soaked on the Popeye and Bluto Bilge-Rat Barge ride, before screaming in sheer terror as we plunged down a sheer drop of 85 feet in the Jurassic Park River Adventure.
In both parks, Universal has gone all out on Harry Potter, recreating not only Hogwarts but the town of Hogsmeade, complete with shops, restaurants and a fire breathing dragon which lurks atop the rooftop of Gringotts Bank, which even to a Harry Potter virgin like me was still impressive stuff.
The Harry Potter rides, particularly the twin Dragon Challenge rollercoasters and the simulated Escape from Gringotts, guarantee degrees of delight ful discombobulation. There's also a recreation of London's Kings Cross station where the Hogwarts Express shuttles you between the parks while also giving you a simulated journey through the English countryside, and which for one young American family in our carriage, was the closest they've ever got to 'Yurp' (Europe).
We rounded off our day of adventures with a night out in Universal's City Walk, where we ate great Mexican food, drank luminous-coloured cocktails, and sang (well some of us did) our lungs out at Rising Star, a karaoke bar where with just a little help from technology they can make you sound like Whitney Houston. We visited our last park, Busch Gardens on our penultimate day, where when among the death-defying rides (I recommend you ride Sheikra, Montu and Cheetah Hunt) is an African-themed animal park, replete with elephants, cheetahs, tigers, rhinos, giraffes, zebras and a whole host of reptiles and other creatures. It was, just like the other parks before it, a weird and wonderful experience and one I'd gladly do again.
If you have any lingering doubts about having a family holiday (or even a non-family holiday) in Orlando, then don't. A holiday should be enjoyable and memorable, and there are few places that strive for this more than Orlando. Whether it's being shot through a corkscrew at 50 mph, watching dolphins do backflips, or sipping a Long Island ice-tea at the hotel pool (I recommend the wonderfully kitschy Universal Cabanas Bay Beach Resort) while you turn a rich shade of mahogany (or in my case a darker shade of pale) under a high midday sun, there will be a great holiday for you in Orlando (and Tampa too!!).
Pat O'Brien's Bar
Orlando FlexTicket Plus includes 14 consecutive days of unlimited access to Universal's Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios, Wet 'n Wild - Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. The Orlando FlexTicket Plus also includes: free coach transportation to Busch Gardens on the Busch Gardens Shuttle Express. If you are driving you only have to pay for parking in the first park you visit; parking in subsequent parks is free on that day.
Tickets: Prices for the Orlando FlexTicket Plus (including Busch Gardens Tampa Bay) start from €285 per adult and from €269 per child (age 3-9 yrs.) To book your tickets and for more information see www.orlandoflexticket.ie or visit your preferred ticket provider.
Packages: Seven nights in Orlando start from €839 per person with American Holidays. Price includes direct return economy flights from Dublin to Orlando with Aer Lingus and seven nights' accommodation at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Package is based on two adults and two children sharing a room, departing between May and June 2015.
Dining with sharks
It's not likely that you will get many chances to eat your lunch while several sharks swim just inches from your head. It's even less likely that you will get to do so while dining on a perfectly cooked filet mignon. If you are in any way a foodie and happen to be in SeaWorld come lunch time, then Sharks Underwater Grill is a must, for the food, for the sharks and for Chris, the awesome waiter who embodies what good service should be.
Unwind after riding the rails
Having your brain rattled about all day can be quite exhausting. Universal’s CityWalk is a great place to unwind after a day riding the rails, nowhere more so than Pat O’Brien’s. Don’t be put off by the name, it’s not a kitschy Irish bar but a New Orleans-themed piano bar and home of the famous Hurricane, a fluorescent pink cocktail that comes served in a glass bigger than most children (you may want to share it). If you’re peckish, try the wings.
Up close with a giraffe
As our tour guide admitted, nothing compares to a real safari, but in Busch Gardens Serengeti Plains they’ve tried pretty damn hard, and they’ve come up with something pretty great. Riding on the back of a flatbed truck, highly knowledgeable and highly passionate guides tell you everything you need to know about the nearby rhinos, zebras, kudu and other animals before letting you feed a giraffe, something you’ll not likely get to do anywhere else.