After hearing I’d be spending a week in Florida on an educational trip, a few images sprang to mind: alligators, roller-coasters and leathery-skinned octogenarians in Hawaiian shirts just to name a few. A few weeks ago if you’d told me I’d be raring to get back to the Sunshine State I may have even laughed in your face. You wouldn’t usually catch me on anything more advanced than the fairground teacups so the theme park capital of the world seemed like a slight stretch. Boy was I in for a surprise. Hear about the troughs, peaks and hair-raising moments in-between.
So after a night of getting to know one another at the Irish bar at Lake Buena Vista Resort & Spa, sunglasses were a necessity. Fortunately SeaWorld was clearly expecting a coachload of Brits and the tea was flowing alongside a buffet of scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes. After an introductory talk on the rescue work SeaWorld do (35,000 number of animals per year!) we were ready, or at the very least semi-convinced to confront the rides.
With the sun beating down and some caffeine in my system, I have to admit the atmosphere of the park hit me and I tentatively agreed to get on the first ride: Manta (a face-down coaster with more turns than Darcey Bussell on a Wurlitzer). Were there expletives? Yes. Did I survive and walk away pumped with adrenaline? Totally. If that sounds a little too hardcore, don’t be put off – the attraction of the day was without a doubt Infinity Falls: a family-friendly supersoaker rapid ride that left us all in hysterics. Top tip: change into flip flops for that one unless you want to squelch around in wet socks and trainers. I learned the hard way.
We arrived back at our spacious Lake Buena Vista Resort apartment, immediately discarding our sodden shoes and laying them out to dry on our balcony. The balmy weather soon had us lounging outside, enjoying the view over the swimming pool and lush greenery surrounding the complex. The evening rolled on and we decided to hit the Vineland Premium Outlets for a spot of retail therapy. I vowed not to buy anything and typically emerged from the sales laden with bags. To make up for this moment of weakness, I virtuously ordered a cobb salad over the long list of burgers at Ford’s Garage. I was unable to resist the beer though (can you blame me?)
The thrills and spills didn’t end at SeaWorld with award-winning Aquatica next up on the agenda. With beach, pool, and lazy river options, this waterpark was a little more my style. Whilst a large proportion of our group headed straight to the sun loungers, in 35 degree heat, the water rides seemed more than appealing. Kare Kare Curl had four of us sliding around a dramatically curved water wall, screeching in harmony. Meanwhile, the gloves were off whilst competing on the high-speed Taumata Racer. I won! And I only jumped the gun a little!
Feeling encouraged by my efforts thus far (and maybe somewhat delirious?), I took myself off to Ihu’s Breakaway Falls. ‘When in Rome…’ I sighed, removing my sunglasses and beginning to ascend the stairs. Standing at 80 feet tall with a near vertical drop this ride is no joke, but I felt assured seeing kid a third of my size enter the capsule and disappear without a peep as the trap door opened beneath him. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Who did I think I was? As I plummeted directly into a tube of fast-flowing water, against all instructions I unplugged my nose and attempted to slow myself with my hands to no avail. I left with aching sinuses but also with massive bragging rights. Worth it.
Having had a salad again for lunch at Aquatica (it’s not all burgers and chips!) I was in the mood for something a little more calorific for dinner. We booked a few large tables at the Twin Peaks Sports Bar & Restaurant on International Drive, and calorific it was. I had boneless hot wings with a side of sweet potato fries, whilst those on our table that ordered the mountainous double stacked nachos needed help as well. A lot of help. In fact, we could have done with a shovel each. Post dinner, we drifted down the I-Drive to Señor Frog’s bar and grill where we stayed out dancing until late. There were shots involved and memories are, needless to say, hazy.
Grateful for a slightly later meeting time, we got on the coach at 11:15, ready to make the hour long journey to Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay. Before we knew it we had arrived. Welcomed by two immediately affable, knowledgeable and passionate guides, it was time to begin our tour. Making our way around the park, our hosts were able to keep us entertained and engaged with facts and anecdotes as we swung between fear-inducing rollercoasters and awe-inspiring animals. I am not ashamed of turning down a ride on 200-foot-tall SheiKra with its 90 degree vertical drop in favour of sitting in the shade with an ice-cream.
The highlight of our day at Busch Gardens? By far the safari. We excitedly piled on board an open-air truck with our Serengeti Plain guide and although the ride was a little bumpy, we appreciated the breeze cutting through the heat. Building up to our giraffe encounter, we scouted the 65-acre space, finding raging rhinos, fluffy ostriches, and even a hilariously well-endowed zebra. Pulling up to our new long-necked friends, we were given a dose of giraffe knowledge, some instructions and some lettuce to feed these gentle creatures with.
When the evening rolled around, we sat down for an all-you-can-eat buffet with a difference. The difference being the creepily dressed actors roaming between the tables. My personal favourite was the dead-looking clown on stilts who took a real shining to our table. After eating, we each grabbed a drink and headed to our first haunted house (of six!). The themes ranged from psychiatric ward, to ghost pirate ship, slaughterhouse, and voodoo hellhole. I haven’t screamed, jumped, or laughed as much in a long time.
Discovery Cove is well-known for dolphin encounters, but unless you’ve been, you won’t have heard about all the other fantastic opportunities there. I mean we were greeted by a sloth, for Pete’s sake. I could have gone home, and maybe even died, happy right then and there. Fortunately I was lured in by the prospect of breakfast at this all-inclusive oasis. Cut scene to me loading a tray high with scrambled eggs, bacon, fruit, muffins like there was no tomorrow. It’s no wonder I looked a little like a Victorian strongman in my shorty wetsuit…
With an hour to kill before our first scheduled activity, we decided to grab a float each and head to the Wind-Away River. This really did feel like a journey of discovery as each bend and meander revealed a new zone or territory to explore. The gentle currents led us through the aviary, under rocky cave passageways, and out through the other end feeling both relaxed and intrepid – just in time for SeaVenture!
After a short introduction by one of the Discovery Cove scuba team, we were ready to descend the ladder down into a tank with 8,000 fish (some bigger than us). With air-trapping helmets resting on our shoulders, what unfolded looked a bit like the moon landing but on the Great Barrier Reef. Huge and graceful stingrays danced past, amongst other colourful marine life, making our plodding progression look comparatively clumsy. Feeding time included, this was an otherworldly experience not to be missed.
If you like what you’ve read about my ups and downs in Orlando and fancy booking your own American adventure, our Florida experts truly are second to none. Contact our specialist team on 020 7749 9235, or simply visit our website to check out all the wonderful resorts and parks we offer!