Gallery: Experience the magic of Florida

Florida is famous for many things, chief among which are its myriad theme parks. I arrived in the state as a fifty-something theme park virgin. In my ears rang dire warnings of huge queues – queues for rides, queues for attractions, queues for shows, queues for food.

“You will hate it Derek, absolutely hate it. Everybody will be pushing and shoving you; you will spend the entire day in the park and you will get to do nothing but queue,” they said.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Let’s make one thing clear here and now. Yes, if you don’t get your act together, you will spend a LOT of your day in queues. But you don’t get to build a theme park like Disney’s Magic Kingdom without realising that you need to devise a system that overcomes this. And they have. Of course they have.

You arrive at the ride you want to experience and you have a choice. It will tell you how long you will have to queue if you want to go on the ride there and then, or you are given the opportunity to effectively book a time for later in the day, when you will wait no longer than a few minutes.


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And when they tell you that the wait for a ride is going to be, say 40 minutes, it is almost always far less than that.

The Magic Kingdom will take your breath away, from the moment you first set eyes on the fantasy castle that features in so many of Disney’s classic TV and newspaper ads. The place provides a constant assault on the senses, with larger than life rides, bands thumping out all sorts of music and fabulous street parades featuring the Disney characters we all grew up with.

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Epcot provides a different Disney take on the world, but one that is no less fascinating, colourful, educational or entertaining, starting off with the amazing Spaceship Earth, which will take you on a mind-blowing journey of discovery. There are also various 3D experiences, and a virtual Gary Sinese (Mac from CSI: New York) will take you into space in a ride that is not for the faint-hearted.

Take the chance to “design” your own concept car and test it out, take to the sea with Nemo or learn about the challenge faced by sea turtles.

Different parts of the world get the Disney treatment at Epcot – there’s France, complete with Eiffel Tower; Canada, Japan, Mexico, China, Germany, Morocco and, of course, the United Kingdom, complete with “ye olde English pub” and “ye olde thatched-roof cottage”. Oh yes, and I did I mention that Alice (of Wonderland fame) signs autographs and poses for pictures? You will also find Aladdin, and I am certain I caught a glimpse of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Children find the whole thing enchanting – children of ALL ages.

I wanted to ask Alice for her autograph, but the truth is that I was simply too shy.

More autograph opportunities present themselves at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which is not to be confused with Universal. Essentially, you find yourself walking through a series of film sets, with lots of retail outlets, cafes and restaurants.

Children are encouraged to take part in “The American Idol Experience”. Mmmm...

Again, there are some rides that are best enjoyed before you have that huge ice cream, but the personal highlight for this traveller was the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, during which vehicles are blown up, people are shot, stabbed and struck by huge rolling stones – only to be back on stage later in the day to do the whole thing all over again.

Then there was Discovery Cove, where a day ticket included as much food and drink as one could consume (top-quality food and drink, by the way), the opportunity to scuba dive with a host of spectacular marine life and the chance to swim with dolphins.

Dolphins. Wow! These creatures are simply amazing. They have a special relationship with their trainers and handlers, a bit like a mother and child, and the overwhelming sense is that the dolphins love what they do. Of course, it is all reward based – they allow you to be dragged through the water because they know there are some fish in it for them; they let you shake their flipper, stroke their underbelly and kiss them on the snout because it will result in yet another fishy treat.

But hey, how else is a British journalist like me ever again going to have a chance to interact with a dolphin – an experience that will live with me for the rest of my life?

But far and away the highlight for me was my trip to Seaworld. If, like me, you are fascinated by the creatures that inhabit our seas and oceans, then Seaworld is a must.

On the day we went it poured with rain, but it’s a water park; it is full of sea creatures; you are supposed to get wet. And one thing you need to know about Florida rain is that within 10 minutes or so of it stopping, all trace of it is gone, such is the heat in the air. That does of course lead to severe humidity – you have been warned.

But back to Seaworld.

Dolphin Cove is a huge lake that provides visitors with the opportunity to watch the dolphins up close, and to feed them. You can also stand in stunned admiration at Turtle Trek, watching turtles and magnificent manatees, surely the gentlest of all ocean creatures, who mate for life and, in the wild, spend their lives trying to avoid being struck by propeller blades. Many of the manatees at Seaworld have been rescued from the wild.

Sharks, alligators, stingrays may be your thing. Or perhaps you have come here to try out the vast rollercoaster.

But most visitors to Seaworld come for a chance to sit in the Shamu Stadium and look on spellbound as a group of killer whales frolic with their handlers and soak the audience for fun. Some people will say that it is cruel to keep these magnificent creatures in captivity – that may or may not be true, but it is a damn sight better than slaughtering them for their blubber or for “scientific research”.

Perhaps I am being naive, but it seems logical to me to suggest that you can’t force a fully-grown killer whale to do anything it doesn’t want to do, no matter how many fish you feed it. They love what they do and they provide the thousands of people who visit Seaworld every year with a unique opportunity to see them up close and personal. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end from start to finish. And surely everybody else who sees them feels precisely the same way? That can only be a good thing, because it means that every single day of the year, thousands more people join those who want to see whales protected for future generations.

The state we’re in

ONE of the first things you need to know about Florida is that it does not offer all-year-round wall-to-wall sunshine. It rains frequently and sometimes it gets very windy. Hurricanes are not unknown – in fact, they are part of everyday life in the state.

Before you book your holiday, do some homework and find out the months to avoid. But if you should get caught up in some weather, all you have to do is turn on the TV – the weather forecasts are brilliant, telling you where you can and can’t go, giving you the precise times when rain or wind is expected.

And no matter what the weather is doing, life carries on in Florida. The one thing they get very edgy about is lightning, but if you are in a theme park and it hits the area, the rides will immediately be shut down and you will be told exactly where to go. It is very impressive.

If shopping is your thing, you will find plenty of malls and factory outlets, many of which sell designer clothing at bargain prices. But don’t be caught out by buying Disney merchandise from anywhere other than official outlets – the quality will be inferior and the prices are not much cheaper. Most hire cars come with sat nav as an option – after you have driven on Florida’s roads for a couple of days you will be surprised how easy it is to find your way around, but most people are pretty disorientated when they get off a plane, so spend the extra money and hire a sat nav. I didn’t, and my 40-minute drive from the airport to Lake Buena Vista took two hours.

There are also some subtle differences in the highway code, particularly at traffic lights – familiarise yourself with those before you go. It will save you being tooted at by impatient motorists.

Oh yes, and make sure you always have plenty of change, as there are a lot of toll roads. The roads are straight and wide, and roadworks take place only at night. How sensible is that?

Prepare yourself, too, to be surprised by the cars. America has finally fallen out of love with the gas guzzler. The cars are bigger than ours, but no longer do they have six-litre engines and deliver six miles to the gallon going downhill with a following wind.

Downtown Orlando is worth a visit, as is Kissimmee; and if you are staying in the Orlando area, then Daytona Beach is a must.

The locals are friendly and sincere – when they tell you that they hope you will have a good day they really mean it, so take them at face value. We Brits tend to be somewhat cynical about the whole “Have a nice day” thing, but it actually doesn’t cost anything to be polite to other people, and the Floridians have got it down to a fine art.

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