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A spell in Orlando

ORLANDO is renowned as a high-ride destination but behind the sea of funfair rides and flashing lights exists the other Orlando.

It's a land still filled with rollercoasters and shock-and-awe rides that leave you begging for one more go. But if you look a little deeper there are magical things taking place that would make Harry Potter proud.

You can take flight for real in a calm atmosphere that is probably more dangerous than any theme park ride. You can become an American Idol for a day, lose yourself in a sea of chocolate or, most rewarding of all, give kids the world.

The purpose of my visit was the newly opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Not having not read the books, and switched channels when the opportunity arose to watch one of the films, I probably wasn't the best candidate for the trip.

Hogwarts

However, as you stroll across Universal Studios and the sight of Hogwarts Castle comes suddenly into view, it's impossible not to be sucked into the hype. It didn't matter that I wasn't up to speed on why frog chocolates were important or what exactly a Quidditch match is.

People have been thronging to the park since it opened in June and you'll find yourself wishing you could wave a souvenir wand and make the queues disappear. But the wait is well worth it -- especially for the main attraction, the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride.

It's like a rollercoaster meets flight simulator meets 3D movie meets something indescribable. Soaring on a broomstick through fog and crumbling vaults, pursued by an angry dragon, might sound unrealistic but for a few seconds it's almost impossible to be sure what's real and what isn't.

But with a belly full of butterbeer, I continued on my journey to find the other Orlando; starting with the one hiding behind the scenes at Seaworld.

Everybody knows somebody who morally objects to the zoo but they could do worse than get a full understanding of what goes on at Seaworld. On the surface, it appears to be a massive outdoor aquarium but the Herald was allowed to sneak behind the perimeter fences to see that the gate fees are actually funding a huge rescue operation for injured sea animals.

The average visitor won't get to see the unfortunate animals struggling with damaged spines and flippers but the Seaworld crew are rescuing sick swimmers.

Early the next morning I took to the skies again, and traded in my broomstick for a hang-glider. If, like me, you don't wake up until about an hour after you are out of bed, this is an exhilarating pre-breakfast activity. At the Wallaby Ranch, they are experts in tandem glides and the experts say waking up while floating 2,000 feet in the air gives a better kick than any coffee.

Disneyland next and a chance to become an American Idol. I passed on the opportunity to inflict my version of Born in the USA on the world, but was happy to roar out my boos and woos to those brave enough to take part.

Disney has a competition that lets people from all over the world take part in a replica of the TV show, complete with a Simon Cowell lookalike. Every day one winner gets a golden ticket to be at the top of the queue for the real auditions.

But after the ups and downs, overs and backs, that Orlando has to offer, I spent my final morning volunteering at the Give Kids the World resort. More than 300 Irish children have stayed at the resort since 1986 as part of the Make A Wish Foundation's work and even a couple of hours here puts everything in perspective.

The 70-acre resort has 140 villas filled year-round with families of seriously and often terminally ill children. It's the kind of place ice-cream is allowed for breakfast and every Thursday is Christmas.

But with the families staying for free and getting free entry to the theme parks, the centre relies on the help of volunteers. It is certainly a good way of coming to fully appreciate the rest of a holiday in Orlando.


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