By Brian Hancill

IF anyone predicted that one day I would get up at 5am to go on three roller-coasters before breakfast I would have called them stark raving mad.
If they also said that I would kiss a dolphin on the nose, hitch a lift on its fin, then spend hours snorkelling among thousands of tropical fish, I would have called for the men in white coats.
Sorry, I would have pointed out, but I just don’t like theme parks. And what’s more I can barely swim.
But that was before I went to Florida.
Take it from someone who lived down the road from Alton Towers for 20 years and never bothered to call in. One flight to Orlando and you get a free personality transplant.
What clinches it is the expertise, the imagination, and most of all the sheer high quality of Disney and all the other attractions. You simply can’t help getting hooked.
Last August’s fortnight in Florida won’t stop me enjoying cool glasses of wine in the French countryside or taking soggy walks over Scottish hillsides. But I’ve discovered that being hurled upside-down at 60mph can be a life-enhancing experience too.
The holiday started on an exciting note when Rolf Harris and a BBC film crew turned up on our Britannia Airways flight to film two rescued lions which were on their way to America in the hold. Thanks for the drawings and autographs, Rolf!
Our progress was held up for 15 minutes at Orlando airport as I failed to find reverse gear on our hired Dodge Intrepid (a sleek sports saloon with a huge Tardis-like interior).
But soon we were cruising down Orlando’s famous International Drive, then settling into two comfortable rooms at a Best Western Hotel.
And we got our first taste of Florida’s rapidly changing weather as the sky went from gorgeous blue to a torrential downpour and back again in the time in took us to check in.
Our fortnight was divided into two sections. A frenetic week in Orlando hitting as many theme parks as possible, followed by a lazy week on the Gulf Coast to recover.
We were well equipped with a mixture of passes for all the main theme parks, so the biggest problem was fitting everything in. We reluctantly had to give Disney’s Animal Kingdom a miss.
Check the panels below for a quick summary of the parks we did get to see.
All the guide books agreed on one thing. Don’t go to Orlando in August. And if you must (as we had to), then get up very, very early, or you will spend your whole holiday waiting in enormous queues.
Another good tip is to keep all the brochures that are pushed into your hands everywhere you go. They are full of money-off coupons that can make meals and souvenir shopping very much cheaper.
The days soon settled into a pattern. Up around 6am, down the road to the Sizzler for an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. Then out on the highway by 7.30am heading for the day’s first park.
Driving into the Disney empire was a disquieting experience, because we never seemed to find the same way in twice , or if we did, we were somehow driving in the opposite direction.
But this is an entertainment complex that has six-lane highways between its various centres, so a little confusion is inevitable.
We quickly learned to make full use of the Disney FastPass system which allows you collect a ticket then turn up an hour or more later and walk straight on to a ride.
And at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, if you’ve got a two-day ticket and turn up early, you can go straight to the front of the queue on all the big rides until 10am.
This prompted our 5am start, and a giddy pre-breakfast whirl around the Duelling Dragons, Incredible Hulk and Dr Doom’s Fearfall at Islands of Adventure.
After gorging ourselves each morning, no-one was ever hungry enough for a sit-down lunch, but with the weather so hot, regular drinks are a must. There are lots of drinking fountains at every park, but the water is very heavily chlorinated and not always very cold.
If you go in August, you have to expect queues, but one of the most impressive features of every Florida theme park is how well they cope with huge numbers of people, and how quickly and efficiently the lines move.
Unless you are determined to try every ride and go into every single shop, you will be wilting in the heat and running out of things to do by about 3pm. That’s a good time to pile back into the air-conditioned comfort of the car and head back to the hotel for a late-afternoon siesta or a dip in the pool.
Then you can start again in the evening at events like the Electrical Parade and closing fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, the even larger IllumiNations display at Epcot or the Fantasmic show at Disney MGM.
Before leaving Orlando we spent two less frenetic afternoons at Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Disney’s cleverly-styled water parks include water slides ranging from the near-vertical for daredevils to gentle slopes suitable for toddlers and nervous mums. Or you can just relax on the beach.
But don’t believe the hype that says Typhoon Lagoon’s mammoth artificial wave will carry you along rather than dash you under the surface. I’ve never come so close to drowning since I fell into the deep end at five years old.
As intended, our week on the Gulf Coast was much less active, although we did fit in a whole-day visit to the Busch Gardens theme park.
The main resorts are Clearwater and St Pete’s Beach to the north of Tampa Bay. We stayed at a smart art deco-style Howard Johnson Hotel on the seafront at St Pete’s Beach.
When we could tear ourselves away from the pure white beach and the hotel pool (and it really is too hot to stay out over lunchtime) we crossed a bridge to the unspoilt nature reserve island of Fort DeSoto just a few miles away.
Feeling particularly adventurous one day, we crossed the Sunshine Skyway bridge, got spectacularly lost looking for orange groves which turned out to be closed, but ended up touring Sarasota and the exclusive island beaches south of Tampa Bay.
We ended the day at a pier-front restaurant on the very tip of Anna Maria Island, with pelicans perched all around us, and catfish fighting for scraps in the water below.
VERDICT: When you add it all up, a fortnight in Florida takes a lot of saving up for. But this was intended as the family holiday of a lifetime and we weren’t disappointed.


Discovery Cove

DOLPHINS are the main attraction at this ultra-exclusive park, which costs a wallet-emptying £1?? (current price to be checked) per person to get in and has to be booked months in advance.
The staff are careful to describe your dolphin experience as an “interaction” rather than a swim, but all being well you should get a short ride clinging to the fin or body of a friendly Atlantic bottle-nose dolphin in natural-looking lagoons.
But that’s just one part of a 30-minute experience that includes getting a kiss or a handshake from your dolphin, giving it a hug, a feed and a rub-down. You also see the dolphins perform stunning jumps and turns at close range. .
An experienced staff member takes charge of the whole encounter, and a Discovery Cove photographer will record the whole thing (if you want every picture it’s likely to cost more than £50).
Meeting a dolphin up close is a memorable experience, but for me the highlight of the day was snorkelling in the Cove’s man-made coral lagoon filled with brilliantly-coloured tropical fish and even (behind two-inch thick glass) a few small sharks.
As someone whose swimming never progressed beyond a sedate breast stroke, I was astonished at how easy it is to plunge a few inches below the surface and feel as if you’re flying through a colourful new universe.
The high cost of Discovery Cove reflects not just the rarity of a dolphin encounter, but the park’s strict limit of 1,000 visitors per day.
This means that it never gets crowded and you don’t have to queue for anything. The price also includes a three-course lunch and free admission to the Sea World park across the road.

Disney’s Magic Kingdom

Florida’s original and essential Disney attraction, dominated by the twin landmarks of Cinderella’s Castle and Space Mountain.
Main Street USA is shorter than you expect but the daily parade of Disney characters is much more fun than it sounds. Eleven year old Sophie got to dance with Winnie The Pooh and Tigger, and you can’t get much better than that.
BEST BIG RIDE Space Mountain: – A high-speed whirl through an indoor landscape of flashing neon and spinning tunnels.
BEST OF THE REST It’s A Small World – Teenagers will start making gagging noises after half a minute, but tiny tots are entranced by hundreds upon hundreds of singing and dancing tiny dolls. And the tune will play on in your head for days.
TIP There’s a cool, shady tunnel through the middle of Cinderella’s Castle which is the park’s best public refuge from the relentless Florida heat. If you decide to split up, that’s the place to meet.


It stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (not, as some weary visitors have christened it, Every Person Comes Out Tired).
Time constraints meant that we paid just a flying visit in the evening to try out a few rides and see the closing IllumiNations fireworks display, which was well worth the effort.
BEST BIG RIDE Test Track – get a crash test dummy’s eye view as a high-performance car is tested to the limit.
BEST OF THE REST Honey I Shrunk The Audience – A 3D show with superb effects which make you feel like you’ve been shrunk to the size of Tom Thumb. And when mice are unleashed on the screen, you can FEEL them on your legs. Probably too scary for most small children.
TIP Don’t rush straight out of the door after you ride the Test Track. Try one of the video driving games or design your own General Motors vehicle at a computer screen.

Disney MGM Studio

A beautifully-styled vision of Hollywood and the movies. And it really IS a studio, so you might even see a film being made. A compact park which, unlike some of the other Disney attractions, can easily be seen in one day.
BEST BIG RIDE Twilight Zone Tower of Terror – a haunted elevator whisks you to the top of a decaying skyscraper, takes you on a supernatural tour of the 13th floor- then drops you like a stone. You whizz back up and it drops you again. And again. And once more for good measure. It’s a sensation like no other, and if you’re not enthralled, you could end up in tears.
BEST OF THE REST Fantasmic – a mind-blowing mixture of live and film action which takes place every evening in a huge-open air amphitheatre with its own lagoon and island. The ingredients include fireworks, searing sheets of flame, ear-splitting sound effects and huge water sprays with Disney animations projected on to the surface.
TIP At the corner of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards is a big chalkboard which on busy days lists the current waiting time for all the major attractions.

Universal Studios

Like Disney MGM, but on much larger scale. Steven Spielberg had a large say in designing many of the attractions, which deliver a high rate of thrills per minute. Universal specialise in making the queues part of the experience with video screens pumping out information which helps set up the scenario for each ride
BEST BIG RIDE Back To The Future – you clamber into a DeLorean sports car, and as you soar into the air and plunge back through the centuries, the wraparound screen makes it very easy to forget that this is a just a flight simulator on a grand scale. Best bit? Getting chewed up and spit out by a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex.
BEST OF THE REST Jaws – the Great White shark from the terrifying Spielberg film menaces, then attacks your pleasure boat as you cruise around Amity Bay on a guided tour. The shark isn’t very realistic, but the well-acted panic of your guide and the expert timing of each effect make it all tremendous fun.
TIP Watch out for three special-effect photo-spots where you can make the family look like they’re standing on the Space Shuttle launchpad at Cape Canaveral, in the heart of New York City, or at Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco.

Universal Islands Of Adventure

Orlando’s newest theme park, with a huge variety of attractions including fantastic hi-tech roller-coasters and the wettest and most dramatic water flume you’re every likely to encounter. For younger children there’s Seuss Landing, an imaginative mini-theme park that looks a lot like like Whoville from the current hit film The Grinch. Attractions are based on The Cat In The Hat, Circus McGurkus and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.
BEST BIG RIDE The Incredible Hulk Coaster – a tough choice between this jaw-dropping ride and the Duelling Dragons coaster. The Hulk’s incredible launch, which shoots you from 0-40mph in two seconds while turning you upside down, gave it the edge. Our three kids went on FIVE times.
BEST OF THE REST Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls – don’t be fooled by the cute name. This is a flume ride where you can guarantee getting drenched to the skin and scared out of your pants through a series of false starts and sudden soakings.
TIP You can join a slower-moving queue for the front row of the big coasters. For the ultimate thrill, try this on Duelling Dragons, where the separate “Fire” and “Ice” dragons hurtle together alarmingly before veering off at the last second.

Seaworld Adventure Park

An unusual but effective mix of enthralling marine life shows and towering roller-coasters. With more than 30 displays every day, you need expert timing to fit even a few of them in. The most impressive show is at Shamu Stadium, where highly-trained killer whales go through their paces. Cameras show the underwater action on huge video screens too.
BEST BIG RIDE Kraken – Orlando’s newest and most terrifying coaster sends you higher (149ft) and lower (it swoops below the water) than any other. Your legs dangle free and you are sent swooping and spiralling upside down SEVEN times,.
BEST OF THE REST Terrors Of The Deep – if you’ve ever wanted to see a deadly shark close-up, this is the place. It’s a huge aquarium filled with the sea’s most deadly creatures – and you view it from the bottom up as you walk through a transparent (but very tough) tube with 500 tons of sea water above you.
TIP If you hear gales of laughter as you enter one of the arenas turn around quickly. You may find a clown mimicking your every move for the benefit of the crowd.

Busch Gardens (Tampa)

Owned by Anheuser Busch, who also run SeaWorld and Discovery Cove and brew a beer called Budweiser which you may have heard of. This African-themed park near the Gulf coast is a great day out , with more big coasters than any other park. These include Gwazi, an old-fashioned wooden-framed ride called which rattles every bone in your body.
BEST RIDE Kumba – it’s big, it’s fast, and if you’re lucky enough to get there when the queues aren’t too long you will find yourself riding it again and again and again.
BEST OF THE REST Opening in Spring 2001, Rhino Rally will put you into a free-driving Land-Rover which is suddenly swept off course into encounters with real elephants, white rhinos, antelope, alligators, cape buffalo, warthogs and other exotic African species.
TIP You can get two free beers in the Anheuser-Busch Hospitality House.

An edited version of this article was published in the Sunday Mirror newspaper on January 7, 2001


Huge official site with more information than you could fit into one lifetime, plus games and other interactive stuff.
Official site with useful info and pictures.
Unofficial site offering money and time-saving tips for Disney and other theme parks.
Unofficial site as above, but aimed especially at UK visitors, with a message board for exchanging tips.