AFTER NINE HOURS of movies, food and a few snoozes, we landed in the Sunshine State, where – right on cue – the sun was blazing. But we were about to embark on our wettest holiday ever… Our hotel, the Renaissance Resort, was situated a stone’s throw from SeaWorld, the marine-life theme park that’s home to killer whale, Shamu, and a plethora of sealife. Set in 200 acres, the best way to get around was on the Adventure Express Tour with our expert and enthusiastic guide, Dave, a good all-American boy, and our behind-the-scenes, hands-on experience was full of educational opportunities: we learnt how to stroke a penguin (gently on his back, using two fingers); we also learnt why the penguin handler wore a plastic apron and Wellingtons, as penguins are prone to doing spectacular projectile poos while being petted. We also fed the manta rays. It’s a strange – but not unpleasant – sensation as the rays scurry over your hand and whisk away the fish.
Dave dropped us off for lunch at Backstage at Believe, which was billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime VIP experience to eat alongside killer whales”. The buffet meal wasn’t up to much, but it was fun to see the whales interacting with their trainers. We were then whisked off to the Shamu Stadium, where the whales turn tricks, dance and perform somersaults. It’s all very uplifting, with a dramatic orchestral soundtrack and huge screens, but perhaps most refreshing of all was that a chunk of the show was postponed because Shamu wasn’t in the mood, which at least shows who’s boss. Indeed, the welfare of the animals is a top priority and the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has been supporting wildlife conservation around the globe for 40 years.
By mid-afternoon, it was really hot and we took refuge in the Shark Encounter, where you travel through a see-through tunnel with sharks, barracudas, eels and venomous fish swimming around you. Then Dave took us to the front of the queue for the Journey To Atlantis water coaster. Four-year-old Joe didn’t reach the height restriction, so he stayed with Dave, while Grace and I rode “two of the steepest, wettest and fastest drops at any theme park in the world”. Funny how Dave forgot to mention that. We were soaked to the skin. Joe must have been jealous, because as soon as he spied the water fountains in Shamu’s Happy Harbour, the adventure playground for preschoolers, he walked right in, fully clothed. After a day filled with activity, we headed back to our hotel for a good night’s rest, ready for our next day’s adventure at Aquatica.
It was already thronging by 10am, but we found a shady spot on the huge man-made beach to use as our base. Once Joe was safely ensconced in his life jacket, we set about exploring the six rivers and lagoons – and 36 water slides. Grace visited the more adventurous slides with their myriad twists and turns, while Joe received a soaking in the children’s play area. It was quite comical watching as one water-filled bucket would empty upon him, so he’d move to another spot in this water-play paradise – only to get drenched by another. My favourite overheard comment of the day, though, was a mother saying to her children: “Don’t get wet!”
The queues for Dolphin Plunge, the signature attraction where you speed through transparent tunnels while black-and-white Commerson’s Dolphins – like baby Shamus – swim alongside, was already huge. Grace braved a 30-minute queue in the afternoon, but she whizzed so speedily through the 300 feet of clear tubes that she didn’t even see the dolphins.
Whether it was floating in rubber rings down the lazy river or dodging rapids on Adventure River, being surrounded by cooling water on another baking hot day was perfect. The challenge was finding shade for my two pale-skinned children, and keeping Joe still enough to apply sunscreen.
Next day, we were up early for our third theme park in three days. Gazing out of the window on our 90-minute shuttle bus ride to Tampa, there were so many billboards for so many theme parks, from Disney to Universal, Lion Country to Gatorland. But Busch Gardens was our next destination. Home to over 20,000 exotic animals: giraffes, deer, rhinos, meercats, monkeys and, in the new Jungala area, two of the world’s most endangered species, Bengal tigers and orang-utans. The highlight for us was the Serengeti Safari Tour in an open-air truck. We were given a handful of lettuce leaves to feed the giraffes, and told to hold onto our hats as they came up to feed. Having your face licked by a giraffe is an experience you’re not likely to forget in a hurry. There were white-knuckle rides, but we took it easy on the Skyride that provides great views of the park and the children’s playground with their scrambling nets and climbing frames.
If you’ve a penchant for dolphins, Discovery Cove is the perfect place to get close. Once I’d got over the shock of being squeezed into a wetsuit (amazingly slimming: a bit like wearing an all-over pair of Magic Knickers that suck in all your wobbly bits), Grace and I got into Jacques Cousteau mode, swimming with the giant rays and the colourful fishes in the Coral Reef. The 30-minute dolphin experience in the Dolphin Lagoon is only suitable for children over six, but luckily Joe was dozing in his ‘moon buggy’, the beach-friendly stroller with big, bouncy wheels that we’d traded for our faithful Maclaren.
Our frisky dolphin, Dexter, seemed to be more keen to get back to the pool to flirt with the girl dolphins, so eventually our trainer let him go in place of a more compliant flipper. Our ‘dorsal tow’ ride was over in a flash – not exactly up to Jane Wiedlin’s standards in her Rush Hour video, which was how I’d imagined it, but it was nice to stroke a velvety-skinned creature.
After all those theme parks, we decided an afternoon at The Mall at Millenia, a sophisticated affair with the likes of Dior, Chanel, Gucci, Tiffany & Co, and Burberry, as well as department stores Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, was the perfect place to flex your credit card (or, as we did, just enjoy a spot of window shopping).
As our week-long adventure came to an end, we spent one final morning in SeaWorld, sampling some things we’d missed, including the Elmo show, which was sweet for preschoolers, and a trip up the Sky Tower – a cabin that goes up in the air… then comes down again.
At the airport, we looked like the only family who had been to Orlando without visiting Mickey, judging by the number of the Disney shopping bags everyone was carrying. With Joe cuddling his cuddly Shamu toy, it sort of felt fitting that in the killer whale-versus-rodent showdown that Shamu should be triumphant – at least sometimes
Who goes there? Dino-mad children who are more concerned with facts than a sleek production.
What’s on offer? Like a real-life Jurassic Park, it includes a fossil dig and 150 life-sized dinosaurs. For more information, visit www.dinoworld.net
Who goes there? People who want to experience “the magic”.
What’s on offer? Four theme parks. There’s the romance of the Magic Kingdom, animal escapades at the Animal Kingdom, movies at the Disney MGM Studios and a taste of the world at Epcot. For more information, visit www.disneyworld.com
Who goes there? Snap-happy children fascinated by predators.
What’s on offer? Billed as the “Alligator Capital of the World”, it’s home to hundreds of alligators and crocodiles. There are also Gator Wrestlers and feeding shows. For more information, visit www.gatorland.com
Who goes there? Those wanting an outdoor safari-style experience.
What’s on offer? There’s a four-mile drive-through reserve, allowing you to see over 900 animals up close, but the lions are the main attraction. For more information, visit www.lioncountrysafari.com
KENNEDY SPACE CENTRE
Who goes there? Aspiring space cadets seeking the inside track.
What’s on offer? Awe-inspiring experiences include a behind-the-scenes look at astronaut training and a rocket-launch simulator. For more information, visit www.kennedyspacecenter.com
Who goes there? Those seeking thrilling rides with film favourites.
What’s on offer? There are two theme parks in one. Universal Studios has a Simpsons-themed ride, while Island of Adventures will open the brand-new Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2009. For more information, visit www.universalorlando.com