Kissimmee quick in Florida!
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Kissimmee quick in Florida!

Sarah Rothberg explores the thrills and spills of Orlando, Florida, from handling rare reptiles to watching killer whales, riding hypercoasters – and even bumping into Harry Potter

Manta Coaster at SeaWorld
Manta Coaster at SeaWorld

Who would like to hold the snake?” was a question I never thought I’d be asked while on a family holiday to Orlando – or indeed see my mother enthusiastically respond to by raising her hand in the air. 

But here we were at Gatorland in Orlando, a baby gator on my lap, as I wondered what I had done.

Luckily, we were just posing for a quick snap – so to speak – at the “alligator capital of the world”.

Just 15 minutes from Walt Disney World, the 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve was a highlight of our trip with a vast number of alligators and crocodiles, Lucy, a 300-pound Galapagos tortoise and Dean, a 100-year-old, 500-pound Aldabra giant tortoise, both of them a huge hit with my three-year-old.

We also met Chester, aka “The Big Dog Eater,” who clearly had a troublesome youth, as well as two of the only 12 leucistic alligators known to exist in the world today.

Feeling fearless after a morning of handling reptiles, my husband, son and I braved the brand new Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure ride, strapped into a custom-made off-road monster vehicle ominously named “Swamp Ghost,” as hilarious tour guides drove us through rugged swampland full of alligators.

Left-right at Gatorland: Simon, the kids, Sarah, and her mum and dad!

If that’s not enough adrenaline for one day, you can also soar over the alligator breeding marsh on the “Screamin’ Gator Zip Line”  launched from 65 feet to fly over 100 of the animals below with breath-taking views across the park.

Our comfortable base during our two-week stay was a five-bedroom villa at the Paradise Palms Resort in Kissimmee, just a 20-minute drive from Disney World. We felt we were still close enough to the action, but with all the benefits of a house.

The one-year-old and three-year-old had a bedroom each, everyone had a bathroom and we even had a private pool, as well as access to the resort pool, with waterfall.

Continuing the wild theme, we had a day at SeaWorld, boasting some of Orlando’s biggest rollercoasters plus a host of animal encounters to entertain the less adventurous types – in short, something for everyone.

Emperor penguin at SeaWorld

My little ones were particularly taken by the five species of penguin at the Habitat of Antarctica exhibit,  escaping the Florida heat to watch the animals waddle through the ice and snow, while at the One Ocean show we were treated to the spectacle of leaping and diving killer whales.

For adrenaline junkies, there is hyper-coaster Mako, which propels riders 200 feet into the air at 73 miles an hour as it twists and turns, or Manta, the only flying coaster in Florida, allowing visitors to experience what it’s like to glide like a ray.

Further entertainment was available at  ICON Orlando 360, a shopping and dining complex on International Drive, and its star attraction, a 400-foot observation wheel,  the tallest on the US East Coast.

Entering our private air-conditioned capsule, we were greeted with glasses of champagne. The 25-minute ride was so smooth not even the one-year-old was fazed as we enjoyed the spectacular night-time views of the nearby theme parks before heading to the nearby Kosher Grill, one of two kosher restaurants in Orlando, and understandably busy for a Thursday night. Generous portions of burgers and chips, plus chicken nuggets for the kids filled our table, all washed down with a malt beer or two.

Kosher food is also available at Disney World at all table-service and some quick-service restaurants with 24 hours’ notice, while Erin Mckenna’s Bakery NYC in Disney Springs sells mouth-watering kosher vegan and gluten-free treats.

Legoland Orlando in Winter Haven, the second largest after the one in the UK and about an hour’s drive from Orlando, provides another great day out for the kids with Lego versions in its Miniland USA area of America’s most famous landmarks, from the Vegas Strip to the Hollywood sign.

Other attractions include a safe safari among life-size Lego animals, or the opportunity to get a driving licence at the Ford Driving School in Lego City.

Legoland’s Driving School

Heading out for a rare, child-free day, hubby and I were keen to tackle some of the area’s bigger coasters at Orlando’s famous Universal Studios, spread across two parks – the original Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure – and are bursting with rides full of superheroes and silver-screen stars.

Among a host of attractions, visitors can choose from web-slinging adventures with Spiderman to an up-close encounter with King Kong on Skull Island – or can even be transformed into a Minion for a trip around Gru’s laboratory!

King Kong at Universal Studios

The attention to detail is second to none, and this is especially true at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Wander through the streets of Hogsmeade while Hogwarts Castle looms large above you, or take the Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley avoiding the fire-breathing dragon sat atop Gringott’s Bank, and it really feels like you have crossed from Platform 9¾ into Harry’s world.

It was a truly magical experience, very much like the rest of our trip to the world of Orlando.

Sarah travel’s tips

Sarah visited SeaWorld Orlando using the SeaWorld Parks 3-Park Ticket, which offers 14 days unlimited entry to three parks – SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando and Busch Gardens – for the price of two when guests book and visit before 31 December 2019. Tickets include free parking at all three parks. Prices start from £110 per adult and £106 per child. For more information, visit seaworldparks.co.uk. Sarah also visited ICON Orlando (iconorlando.com) and Gatorland (gatorland.com), you can pre-book these activities in advance through Attraction Tickets Direct to guarantee the best price, secure admission and save time queueing, visit www.attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk  or call free on 0808 271 4453. For more details about other attractions, visit Universal Studios Orlando (universalorlando.com), Legoland Florida (legoland.com/florida),

 

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