My husband dislikes flying, prefers temperate climates and hates theme parks, particularly white knuckle rides.
Could this be why our friends looked puzzled when we told them we’d booked a two-week holiday to Orlando, Florida?
Yes, a whole fortnight in the land of Mickey Mouse. The whole concept was anathema to him, but we’d promised the children that one day, when they were old enough to appreciate it, we would take them to Walt Disney World in Florida. And that time was now.
In return, we had to promise that we would not be enveloped in a magical Disney glow for the duration: we had to experience the other parts of Orlando.
The trouble is, is that there is just too much to do. Friends who had visited Orlando advised us to plan the holiday like a military campaign: list what you want to do and try to find the time, but, they warned, you will be able to fit it all in.
We had to be realistic about it. Central Florida is vast, so there was no way we could shoe horn in a visit to Miami, the genteel town of Mount Dora, go across to Tampa Bay or down to Lake Okeechobee. Everglades was definitely out and even a drive to Daytona Beach looked unlikely.
We also had to be truthful about our motives for the trip. It was not to discover the ‘real America’ or the untouched Florida, it was to drink deep from the cup of unashamedly commercialised tourist attractions and gorge on the sweetness of Disney. Of course, it was for the children.
So the list was compiled: the Disney parks (naturally), Universal Studios, Kennedy Space Centre, Sea World and Aquatica. But to choose from helicopter rides, hot air balloon rides, museums galore, botanical gardens, airboat rides, smaller attractions such as Gatorland, a sports event, the shopping…it went on.
One thing was clear – two weeks was nowhere near enough time. Something else was also abundantly clear: you could do Orlando without even stepping close to a Disney attraction.
I’m not sure how many of the 50 million visitors a year to Orlando would do that; I get the impression it would be contrary to the American way not to pay homage to the big-eared mouse and friends.
So that was it. The credit card was duly handed over and the deal was sealed: Orlando, it was, for two weeks. Mickey Mouse and all. For the children, of course.
We flew from Gatwick to Sanford Airport, about an hour’s drive from Orlando and the first challenge was the car.
It isn’t necessary to hire a car while over there as plenty hotels have free transport to the main parks, but if you want to get the most of your holiday and have the freedom to do what you want, then a car is a must.
This is the land of BIG cars and even bigger roads. I was told that Smart cars were to be introduced to America next year, but I can’t imagine that they would even be registered by motorists who stalk the highways in their gas-guzzling monsters.
We’d paid to hire a full-sized Dodge Charger, but Dollar upgraded us to a Jeep, which is bigger than any car I have ever driven. It was naturally automatic, with the driver’s accoutrements on the ‘wrong’ side.
I did what any intrepid, know-no-fear journalist would do: panicked and sat in the passenger seat and waited for someone to take control of the vehicle. Pathetic, I know.
I had taken the precaution of hiring a sat-nav and would recommend it highly if you are planning to fly-drive for the first time. It saved a lot of arguments and map tugging, even if it did us on a scenic route a couple of times.
Our destination was International Drive South, which is undergoing much development at the moment. Our condo apartment, Floridays, was next to a building site, but thankfully the cranes and piles of bricks that are completing the huge Fountains development were not in full view.
Our two-bedroom apartment was one of 432 suites on the site. The 20-acre resort is just a couple of miles from Seaworld and Aquatica and less than five from Disney, making it an ideal spot for tourists.
There were plenty of amenities on site: a swimming pool, mini beach, games room, play room, bar, take-away, bar/café, as well as shuttle buses to some of the theme parks. If you needed help or tickets to attractions, the on-site concierge was a mine of information.
As great as our serviced apartment was, with its 37 inch flat screen TV, it was to be no more than a comfortable base after a busy day’s adventure.
Orlando’s newest attraction is Aquatica, the first park to open in eight years.
Bright and colourful and this is a 60-acre waterpark that combines high-speed water rides with more gentle pursuits.
If you are planning a trip to Orlando soon, this must be on your to-experience list.
The South Seas-themed park features 36 slides, six rivers and lagoons and more than 7,400 square metres of sandy beaches. Not only that, the water is warm.
Its showcase is the Dolphin Plunge, which takes riders down 76 metres of clear tubes, underwater, through the pool where four Commerson dolphins, who were born at Aquatica’s sister park SeaWorld, frolic.
A great ride it may be, but I flew down the tubes so quickly that I missed the dolphins completely. Instead, I sneaked a peek at these beautiful mammals at the dolphin lookout.
My favourite was the Taumata Racer where you throw yourself down a 300ft slide head first, with just a plastic mat to cling onto. Unbelievably fast, I could barely muster a scream before I slid to the end.
For young children, who are not ready to plunge quickly on the water rides, there is an incredible interactive play area with buckets, slides, tubes and walkways. It is huge, though, so keep a close eye on them.
It doesn’t just feel like a water park, though, there is an array of flora and fauna, with 100 species of trees and 250 species of shrubs, grasses and flowers.
Keeping the watery theme, Seaworld, just across the road from Aquatica, is another attraction that gets ticked off on the I-Spy book of Orlando must-dos.
This marine attraction is the place to learn about animals, watch shows and – if you are over 48 inches tall – enjoy a ride on Kraken, a terrifying floorless rollercoaster.
The centrepieces are the shows: the famous Orca whale Shamu takes part in a couple every day. Despite misgivings about seeing such a magnificent beast perform in a seven million gallon pool, it is awesome to witness the interaction of human and powerful killer whale.
We didn’t get to see the evening viewing of Shamu Rocks, but managed to squeeze into the performance of Believe, a rather schmaltzy affair, with affirmations of how to make the world a better place, and a tribute to the American and Allied armed forces.
The killer whales, however, were the stars and their acrobatic displays were jaw-dropping.
The highlight for me at this compact park, however, was Blue Horizons, which featured birds, dolphins and – of course – humans. A fast-paced, dazzling and colourful performance of diving, acrobatics and swimming, it was a joy to watch.
For the rest of the family it was then Clyde and Seamore comedy show, featuring two sealions, an otter and two hapless humans. It was real slapstick stuff.
Interaction is an important feature of Seaworld and visitors are encouraged to touch stingrays, dolphins (if they swim near you, of course. We weren’t lucky). We saw the gentle manatees slowly blimping their way around, disappointingly-small alligators, as well a polar bears and penguins.
This article appeared in The Birmingham Post in May, 2008. It must not be reprooduced without prior permission of Jayne Howarth