Potato skins. I still remember that first experience of a crunchy potato skin oozing with sour cream and melted cheese – and my brother and I vying for that last delicious mouthful. The warmth of the Atlantic Ocean and the hours we spent in it, riding huge waves on our lilos. What special times those childhood holidays in Florida were – and what wonderful memories they created.
Some 36 years on, as I sat sipping another Pina Colada, my bare feet buried in the glorious white sand of St Petersburg beach, I wondered if my own children would come home with such equally fond memories.
We didn’t have to wait long. Orlando’s theme parks are well known around the world. If your family can dream it, there’s a good chance they can do it there. We’d already experienced the magic of Disney, so this was a trip to see if Universal really is as good as everyone says.
If you’re a fan of the silver screen, then this is the park for you. Blockbuster films and hit television shows help create the fantasy adventure and bring it to life, as do the special effects.
If it’s not speed and fire, then the huge lashings of water will have you soaked – but laughing at the members of your party who end up wetter than you. The balance of heart-pounding explosions with more whimsical adventures make the park a wonderful fit for all ages.
I was crying with laughter on the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride, much to the embarrassment of my children, but they had the last laugh when they schlepped me on to the Rip Ride Rocket, which peaks some 17 storeys over the park and begins with a gravity-defying 90 degree climb towards the sky.
You even get to choose the song you want to help drown out your own ear-shattering shrieks. Thanks to Gloria Gaynor, I did indeed survive!
After the thrills and spills of the rollercoaster rides, there’s nowhere better to immerse yourself in all the magic than the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’m not even that much of a Harry Potter fan, but I was spellbound.
Walking down the cobbled streets of Diagon Alley makes you feel just like the title star of the famous films. You can also see the enormous Knight Bus and the ancestral home of the Black family – No 12 Grimmauld Place. We couldn’t resist a stop at Honeydukes sweet shop either, and it wasn’t just the kids who thoroughly enjoyed themselves here!
You mustn’t leave the park without a ride on the gleaming Hogwart’s Express, which of course departs from Platform 9¾ at Kings Cross.
Fortunately, the train ride wasn’t the end of our Orlando journey. Tired feet required a rest and my bucket list still needed ticking off. Our next Floridian adventure was swimming with Dolphins at Discovery Cove.
It’s truly a remarkable place. The dolphins look as if they’re literally smiling for the pictures. Both my boys shared their “first kiss” with Bimini, our beautiful bottlenose female, who took us for a torso tow in the water, melted our hearts and left me in tears, so in awe was I of these magnificent and intelligent creatures.
Discovery Cove is a paradise of rocky lagoons surrounded by lush landscaping, tropical reefs and winding rivers, waterfalls and white beaches.
You also get complimentary cocktails (and food) included with your tickets, which is a bonus when the kids are winding their way down the lazy river and you can’t pull yourself off the private cabana that’s been specially reserved.
It’s not all dolphins here either. You can don a dive helmet and get up close and personal to an array of sting rays, tropical fish and sharks. Thankfully, the sharks are separated by a 21ft long panoramic window, but if you’re brave you can swim with them.
An unlikely choice for us, given the 14-year-old son cried at the Nemo-sized fish that brushed past his thigh in the snorkelling pool.
It was however a day full of memories and the smiles stayed with us all the way to St Petersburg beach, our home on the Gulf coast for the next 11 nights.
This is where you can sink back into soft sand that’s almost as white as snow and enjoy the natural beauty of a place listed in the Guinness World Records for having the most consecutive days of pure, unadulterated, sunshine.
The place has a vibe alluring to couples and families, as well as the magnificent beach.
Life here revolves around it. From your morning game of volleyball to cocktails at six and s’mores around the firepit while watching sunset.
St Pete’s is also home to a flourishing Jewish community, as well as synagogues, schools, the Florida Holocaust Museum and a Kosher deli for the more observant types.
Foodies will also love this place. A holiday here is not complete unless you’ve eaten sticky wings, a grouper sandwich, fish tacos, Wisconsin cheese curds (otherwise known as spicy fried cheese balls) and tater tots – deep fried potatoes to you and me. All that of course must be washed down with a slice of Key Lime Pie.
Locals also love Willy’s, a casual eatery on the beach front, with titter aplenty caused by such named dishes as Grandpa Willy’s Special and Willy’s Big One.
With all we had experienced in Florida, there were no prizes for guessing the one memory we would never forget…
Charlotte and her family enjoyed a trip to Florida as a guest of VisitOrlando.com. A Universal 3 Park Explorer Ticket costs from £264 per adult and £255 per child, ages three to nine and includes 14 days unlimited admission to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay water theme park. To book, visit attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk. For more information about SeaWorld Orlando, visit seaworld.com/orlando