Florida’s biggest single attraction may be Walt Disney World, but the Orlando area of the Sunshine State has a host of other top entertainment to thrill visitors. In his final article Andy Russell gets wet and wild.

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Gent, greying, early 40s but young at heart, good sense of humour, seeks like-minded creatures for a splashing time... This is no lonely hearts ad, but what you can expect when you swim with gentle giant Lester – a 574lb Atlantic bottlenose dolphin at Discovery Cove in Florida.

He’s one of 44 dolphins that will steal your heart as you stroke their velvety skin and, holding on to the dorsal fin, are towed through the water by these magnificent mammals which seem to thrive on human company. And it’s clear from the amount of fishy rewards that disappear down Lester’s throat the way to his heart is through his stomach!

You don’t have to pay the extra to swim with dolphins, although plenty of people do for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, to have a fun-filled day at Discovery Cove. Getting there early is a must because the admission price includes breakfast and lunch as well as towel, mask and snorkel and complimentary animal-friendly sunscreen.

There’s a warm, marine life-free pool leading to a ‘tropical river’ to explore and swim round but the highlight is the coral reef where you can swim and snorkel with exotic fish and huge, graceful rays – it’s disconcerting at first but you get used to them brushing past you and not as scary as coming face to face with sharks – fortunately they are behind thick glass.

Factfile and tips

We booked our Florida package through Destinations Travel in Norwich (telephone 01603 630333) with a four-bedroom luxury villa with private pool at Davenport, a half-hour drive from Orlando International Airport and 20 minutes from the Disney theme parks, an eight-seater people-carrier and flights with Virgin.

We bought most of our tickets, as combination packages in advance, through Attraction Tickets Direct, but you can buy them at the parks.

Our ultimate combined Discovery Cove ticket included Seaworld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens (the latter at Tampa Bay) theme parks and Wet ’n’ Wild water park. Our Universal Studios ticket covered the two theme parks – Universal Studio and Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

There are loads of guide books to the area’s many attractions but we used Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide, published by John Wiley and Sons in America, £11.99.

Kennedy Space Center – Admission $43 adults/$33 children (aged three to 11) excluding taxes. Website www.kennedyspacecenter.com

Universal Studios – www.universalorlando.com

SeaWorld – www.seaworld.com

Discovery Cove – Our ultimate combined Discovery Cove ticket included an all-inclusive one-day package including breakfast, lunch and a 30-minute interaction with dolphins. Website www.discoverycove.com

Gatorland – Adults $22.99, children $14.99. Website www.gatorland.com

Many of the non-Disney theme parks offer special passes to beat the ride queues, but it’s going to cost you. Get there early so you can go in as soon as the park opens, check how long the waits are and weigh up if you are prepared to queue or pay.

Drink plenty as it’s hot and humid. Look out for special cups that allow you to get cut-price or free refills – it saves lugging around your own luke-warm drinks.

Don’t be surprised if it rains – when it does it may not last long but it’s pretty torrential. Take a lightweight waterproof or buy a poncho. You can also wear them on water rides although part of the fun is getting wet and you soon dry in the heat!

While the Orlando area’s wealth of theme and water parks are a world of adventure and fun for kids and big kids alike, the biggest kid of them all has to be Harry Potter and his Wizarding World is the star attraction at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the newest of the two Universal Studios’ theme parks.

Potter’s 20-acre playground, dominated by the imposing Hogwarts Castle, faithfully re-creates landmarks, sights, creatures, themes and events from JK Rowling’s books as you stroll through a wintry Hogsmeade Village with its shops and restaurants and enjoy a butterbeer, ride the Hippogriff rollercoaster through the forbidden forest and past Hagrid’s Hut and brave the intertwining twin coaster Dragon Challenge ride.

But the big crowd-puller, and I mean big, is the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. It’s so popular we had heard horror stories of queuing a couple of hours just to book your ride slot time but fortunately on the day we went there was only an hour’s wait and the time passed quickly as the queue took you through various parts of Hogwarts including the herbology room, Professor Dumbledore’s study, the sorting hat and the talking portrait gallery.

And you won’t be disappointed by the ride – combining a simulator and a coaster it transports you through dark, eerie chapters and on adrenaline-rushing chases and quidditch matches. Whether you’re a Potter fan or not this is a must.

At Islands of Adventure theme park there’s also Marvel Super Hero Island with the Incredible Hulk Coaster – it lives up to its name, cartoon character-filled Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park (the river adventure is a must), the Lost Continent and the rather surreal Seuss Landing dedicated to Dr Seuss’s favourite stories including The Cat in the Hat.

The other theme park, Universal Studios Florida, is equally action and people-packed and split into sections with Production Central and the music-inspired Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster – worth the wait for its straight-up vertical ascent before you go over the top! Other sections of the park take in New York with Revenge of the Mummy, San Francisco/Amity with the Jaws boat ride, World Expo with The Simpsons Ride, Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone and Hollywood. With so many shows, rides and people there’s lots to see and do but the Express Plus passes to beat the queues are very expensive on top of the admission.

SeaWorld is a must for families and a chance to get up close and personal with marine life. It’s linked in with Discovery Cove, Aquatica, Busch Gardens and Adventure Island parks.

The big attractions are SeaWorld are the all-new Shamu show, One Ocean, where the stars are the majestic killer whales. It’s slick and spectacular, if a little cheesy in getting its environmental message across. And don’t miss the theatrical Blue Horizons show with its dancing dolphins, acrobats, soaring birds and leaping water while sea lions Clyde and Seamore’s show on Pirate Island is full of fun… and fishy treats.

The must ride is Manta where, strapped in and laying on your front, you swoop, glide and soar supposedly like a manta ray – I took some persuading but it was a highlight of my holiday. Also do Kraken – one of the tallest, fastest steel coasters in Orlando with fabulous views on the climb to the highest point – and Journey to Atlantis, but be prepared to get wet, very wet!

If sealife is your things you can also touch and feed dolphins and rays, see seals and sea lions, meet gentle giants at Manatee Rescue. And it’s well worth walking through the penguin and shark encounters and Wild Arctic.

If you like extreme rides then give Busch Gardens at Tampa Bay, about an hour’s drive from Orlando, a spin, a whirl and a corkscrew.

For younger children there’s mini funfair rides, up-close animal adventures, family shows and safaris through wild animal enclosures to name but a few activities. One of the disadvantages of taking older children on holiday is they want to hit all the scary roller-coasters and expect dad to come too – there’s six of them fortunately (unfortunately for dad) and the day we went queues were minimal so we did five of them. Whoopee!

The big new attraction is the Cheetah Hunt coaster with three huge bursts of speed up to 60mph as you pass over the wild animals – not that I noticed! Montu is one of the world’s longest inverted coasters with seven flips, Kumba has 100ft plummets and 360-degree spirals at 60mph which really parts you from your stomach, Sheikra is a floorless dive coaster which holds you vertically 200ft up before you drop, and Gwazi is south-east America’s largest and fastest double wooden rollercoaster.

And the coasters are a great way to dry off after you get wet, actually soaked, on the water rides – 12-man whitewater raft ride Congo River Rapids, Stanley Falls Flume and Tanganyika Tidal Wave which ends with a drenching 55ft plunge.

For young would-be astronauts and those like me who grew up during the ‘space race’, Kennedy Space Center, about an hour’s drive from Orlando, is a blast and particularly poignant with the 30-year shuttle programme, launched from Cape Canaveral, having just ended.

Take a free coach tour of the huge site, find out all about preparing shuttles for flight, see launch sites, albeit at a distance, and find out all about the Apollo moon missions. The highlight for me was standing under a massive Saturn V rocket which took the astronauts to the moon and the simulator which gives an impression of what it is like to be in a shuttle blasting off on its way to 17,500mph in a matter of minutes.

You can also listen to an astronaut telling of his shuttle experiences and even have lunch with a space-traveller. And after visiting the rocket garden, which displays early spaceships, you realise why the astronauts earned hero status for pushing the boundaries and risking their lives.

Whether you find alligators and crocodiles fearsome, fascinating or both, you’ll enjoy Gatorland on South Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando. Billed as the alligator capital of the world and boasting the world’s largest collection of mystical Leucistic white alligators it’s filled with gators and crocs, big and small, and stages amusing and entertaining shows including gator wrestling and the jumparoo show where the huge reptiles surge out of the murky water to snap food. And don’t miss Chester, a mean 13.5ft, 1,000lb-plus gator saved from hunters because he had a nasty habit of eating dogs in a Tampa neighbourhood... often still on the leash!

For an extra $10 each on the admission price you get up close, but not too personal, with a couple of dozen, eight to 10-year-old, 500lb gators and hand-feed them... from a safe distance. There’s also a swamp and jungle walk and high-flying zip-wires over the gator and croc lakes.

Florida is a fun-filled family adventure and it’s not difficult to see why holidaymakers just keep going back there for more.


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