Life

Travel: The only drawback with a holiday in Orlando is that you'll never top it

Want a holiday that's sure to put a giddy smile on the face of even the most perpetually unimpressed teenager? Head to Orlando, where the fun just goes on and on, writes Leona O'Neill

The Incredible Hulk roller coaster at the Universal resort, Orlando

ORLANDO is world-renowned as the greatest holiday destination on the planet and, after spending two glorious, sun-soaked, adrenaline and excitement-fuelled weeks there, I wholeheartedly agree with that estimation.

Florida is more accessible to us than ever with direct flights by Virgin Atlantic from Belfast International Airport. People say your holiday should start the minute you board your plane. I’ve never felt this to be true until I flew with Virgin. Their planes are spacious, stylish and comfy. The food was delicious and the plane had all the latest films on the back of the seat televisions. The staff, on the way there and back, were super smiley, attentive and treated us like we were their favourite people. They treated everyone in the same fashion, but still.

My oldest son felt sick on the outward flight and we were both upgraded and looked after like royalty for the eight hours we were in the sky.

Orlando itself is a positive wonderland of adventure. Everything there is big. We hired a car not unlike Puff Daddy or the US president’s mode of transport and hit the freeway in darkness, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

After a nerve-wrecking 20 minutes, missing signs and almost getting divorced, we arrived at our villa in Calabay Parc in Davenport, just off Highway 27, and never more than 30 minutes away from all the excitement.

If you stayed in Orlando for two months I doubt you’d get to do everything you wanted. We chose to do Universal Orlando Resort this time and bypass Disney altogether. We’ll save that for our next trip.

Universal is a superb place, split into two worlds: Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure. Imagine the happiness and joy of Christmas morning, add in the excitement of your birthday, the magic of your wedding day. Imagine every brilliant thing you ever loved as a kid, drenched in sunshine, dipped in chocolate and wrapped up in a big fancy bow covered in diamonds and it wouldn’t even come close to what the place is like.

Dolphins do their thing at Seaworld

It is wall to wall 3D rides – Jimmy Fallon’s Race Through New York, Transformers, Spiderman, Men in Black, the Simpsons – roller-coasters that make your insides travel out your mouth and slap you in the face as you laugh your head off, and rides like the rip roaring and hilarious King Kong or Jurassic Park rides on which you will scream and laugh in equal measure.

And there there is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I loved the Harry Potter books and I adored the films. To be able to visit Diagon Alley, walk in around the little shops, visit Gringotts, ride the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade, sample Butterbeer and visit Hogwarts was magical, enchanting and unforgettable. It is like nothing I have ever experienced. It took my breath away. That in itself was worth the entry fee.

We visited Seaworld, a massive marine life adventure park across 200 sprawling acres, packed with sea-themed rides, including the shark-themed hypercoaster Mako, the tallest and fastest in Orlando.

There were polar bears, penguins, killer and beluga whales, manatees, sea lions, dolphins and more, and a constant thread running through the park of the need to preserve and protect marine wildlife.

Diagon Alley, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

One of the highlights was a trip through a long underwater tunnel as hammerhead sharks and stingrays swam around our heads.

The nearby Discovery Cove transports all to a tropical island paradise. An oasis of calm away from the main parks, here visitors can swim with dolphins, snorkel with tropical fish, hand feed exotic birds, float down a lazy river, sip cocktails in a pool and sunbathe on a pristine white-sand beach, all while relaxing steel drum music floats over the waves.

If that’s too relaxing for you, the Aquatica waterpark, home to some of the world’s most thrilling water rides, will certainly get your heart pumping again. Some 36 slides, six rivers, lagoons and exhilarating wave pools and beautiful beaches offer unlimited fun. The signature attraction, Dolphin Plunge, takes riders down 300-foot-long clear tubes through a crystal-blue lagoon, home to black and white Commerson’s dolphins.

Universal Orlando Resort

Florida is home to some 1.25 million alligators and my boys were eager to see some of them. I was hopeful we wouldn’t find one in our pool at the villa one morning, despite their wishes, but agreed to take them to Gatorland to see them instead.

Gatorland is home to thousands of alligators and crocodiles, some of which have appeared on TV and in movies. Chester, a big guy we met in person, provided the terrifying jaw-snapping sounds for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

We went on a hilarious and exhilarating swamp ride in a monster truck and saw alligator wrestling shows. It was an action-packed, super fun day away from the parks, yet just as thrilling.

And if it’s thrills you’re after, Orlando has no shortage of them. IFly on International Drive, Orlando's 11-mile-long main tourist strip, offers indoor skydiving, allowing visitors to float on a column of air. It is the perfect place for those who have always dreamed of channelling Tom Cruise and jumping out of a plane, but whose nerves might not withstand it. Free falling and flying is a perfect way to spend a few hours.

The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, Universal Orlando

There is no place on Earth like Orlando. We had breakfast in the Hard Rock Cafe under Jimi Hendrix’s guitar and sipped Starbucks as the night sky lit up in a lightning storm that rivalled the firework displays. We rode on a broom with Harry Potter over Hogwarts, fought the Decepticons alongside the Transformers and flew to the moon with Jimmy Fallon.

The only downside is that we’ve gone and spoiled all future holidays by going here. We’re totally hooked. Nowhere else even comes close to the level of entertainment that had my normally sullen teenagers smiling. We had the best time here and are already saving up for next year’s jaunt.

FACT FILE

:: Virgin Atlantic fly direct from Belfast International Airport from March to September. For more details visit virginatlantic.com.

:: For information on everything that Orlando has to offer visit visitorlando.com

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