Out of the staggering 91.5 million who travel to America’s Sunshine State every year many will head straight for the theme parks in the capital of Orlando. But if rubbing shoulders with Minnie and Mickey at Disney or hanging upside down on gravity-defying roller coasters at Universal isn’t your idea of fun, there are plenty of alternatives to be enjoyed at the SeaWorld Parks and on the Gulf coast.
You can rub noses with Dolphins, swim with Manta Rays, dive down water slides and if that’s not enough also try out some exhilarating rides, rounding off the trip on some of Florida’s most beautiful beaches. A week’s fly drive into Orlando and out of Tampa will cover all bases.
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One of Orlando’s oldest and most established theme parks is keen to promote its marine conservation and there’s plenty to see from gentle giant manatees to ferocious alligators and flurescent flamingos. A big draw is the impressive acrobatic shows put on by its resident killer whales and dolphins. In Blue Horizons dolphins fly out of the water in twists and dives and race along with their trainers balanced on their noses as a colourful streak of parrots fly overhead. A new attraction, Antarctica, is an icy enclosure housing a large army of penguins while the film Turtle Trek uses the latest state-of-the-art 3D technology to explore the journey of a baby turtle from birth while sharks, dolphins and tropical fish jump out from the screen and swim around you. For thrill seekers, there’s Manta, Florida’s only “flying” coaster which whisks riders face down through sea and sky or the more startling Kraken, the screams from which can be heard across the park.
If you prefer more gentle thrills then head for Aquatica, Orlando’s popular waterpark, which has a dazzling choice of high-speed waterslides, water pools and sandy beaches. Here you can spend a few fantastic hours tumbling inelegantly down water tunnels, shrieking loudly, in rubber dinghies either solo or in a group. If you have a more competitive edge then try the Taumata Racer, a high-speed mat ride which takes eight racers down a staggeringly steep hill into water. For a more sedate experience, you can bob downstream in an inflatable jacket along the Lazy River, or jump the waves on the Big Surf Shores.
Here you can enjoy a unique encounter in a Caribbean setting - swimming with dolphins. Arranged for small groups at a time, everyone has the opportunity to get up close and personal with these gorgeous creatures and experience their gentleness, intelligence and skill. We swam with Capricorn, a 40-year-old with few teeth but a wide smile. You can stroke them over their smooth, rubbery skin, from the blowhole down the back, feeling their heart beat underneath. You can even kiss them on their pointy chin if you feed them a fish. Then, holding onto a fin at the top with one arm, and a flipper on the bottom with the other, you can be pulled along a short distance in the lagoon on a ride which feels both thrilling and surprisingly touching. There’s also the chance to snorkel with smaller but no less impressive marine life in the Grand Reef, where Manta Rays (with their sting removed) drift underfoot like flattened submarines amongst shoals of tropical fish. A whole day can easily pass just floating down the Wind Away river which carries you around the cove on a gentle current or bathing in Serenity Bay, heated to 80 degrees, where we retreated during some unseasonable rainfall. With only 1,300 visitors a day allowed in at Discovery Cove, it's uncrowded and has a laid back atmosphere.
For easy access to all the parks we stayed at the family friendly Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld (http://renaissanceseaworldorlando.com), situated just across the road from SeaWorld Orlando.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
Just a two-hour drive down the Freeway from Orlando, this well-organized and diverse theme park is perfect for animal-loving adrenalin junkies. It strikes a good balance between wildlife and rides, with more roller coasters than anywhere in Florida but also home to more than 2,500 animals, including 200 endangered species. The best way to see them is by taking an open top truck ride on the Serengeti Safari, which takes you on a tour of some of the 65 acres where you can spot rhinos, zebras, wildebeest and giraffes, who come wandering over to the truck to be fed lettuce leaves, which they delicately slurp from your hands with their long, black tongues. But if big thrills are more your thing, then head for some of the scariest, fastest and longest rides in Florida. The exhilarating, “family friendly” Cheeta Hunt boasts a triple launch coaster (for those in the know) and its 4,400ft track carries riders high above the park, so it’s worth keeping your eyes open for the view. The park’s infamous ride, SheiKra, is not for the fainthearted, taking you up 200ft to the edge of a vertical precipice, where you will be held, hovering for a few seconds before shooting down with brute force. “Awesome” is the only word my 11-year-old son uttered on disembarking.
Clearwater and St Petersburg
One of Florida’s best beach towns, Clearwater, is only a short drive along from Tampa, half way up the West coast of the Sunshine State. With fine white sand stretching for miles, this really is the place to relax, kick back and soak up the sun and sip cocktails. The smart but comfortable Sandpearl Resort is situated on the beach (http://www.sandpearl.com), which is always busy with joggers, strollers and swimmers but never crowded, with magnificent sea views from the rooms. From here you can take advantage of all the attractions and restaurants, including Frenchy’s Saltwater Grill, a popular seafood hangout which is a hit with both locals and holidaymakers. Before heading for Tampa International Airport it’s worth making a detour to the Dali Museum in St Petersburg, a magnificent building of steel, concrete and glass which houses 96 of the Spanish artist’s oil paintings. Or you could just take one final dip in the sea and soak up the warm rays before returning home to chillier climes.
For more information on St. Pete/Clearwater, please visit www.visitstpeteclearwater.com
The Discovery Cove Ultimate Package includes one day reservation at Discovery Cove (with 30 minute dolphin swim experience, all meals, snacks and beverages) plus 14 day unlimited entry to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens AND Aquatica – offering customers more savings and flexibility for their Florida holiday. Prices start from just £169 per person, for more information and bookings go to www.seaworldparks.co.uk
For more information on Orlando please visit Orlando.com/uk