As a child, a holiday to Orlando in Florida was always the dream location. After all, what child wouldn’t want to spend two weeks going from theme park to theme park and eating extreme quantities of food?
So as an adult you’d maybe think my desire to do such a trip would have dwindled somewhat. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
At the time of writing, I’ve travelled to Florida on five separate occasions – with the last two taking place without my parents.
And it was in these past two trips – when I had greater control on the itinerary – that I was able to see more of what Florida, as a whole, had to offer.
The history of Orlando itself – from a tourism point-of-view – is mainly linked to the the recent past.
The area grew rapidly from the 1960s into the first decade of the 21st century and is now one of the most-visited cities in the world; primarily due to tourism, major events, and convention traffic. During 2018 for example – and before the pandemic – the city drew more than 75 million visitors.
The two largest – and most internationally renowned – tourist attractions in the Orlando area are the Walt Disney World Resort, opened by the Walt Disney Company in 1971, and located about 21 miles (34km) south-west of downtown Orlando in Bay Lake, and the Universal Orlando Resort, opened in 1990 as a major expansion of Universal Studios Florida and the only theme park inside Orlando’s city limits.
That’s some of the stats, but what should you know about Orlando before packing your bags and heading to the Sunshine State?
Travelling to the United States from the UK is a fairly simple affair. Many things are the same (e.g. the language) which makes acclimatisation easy. However, there are still a number of areas that require some adaptation.
The first thing to note is the climate.
Orlando has a humid subtropical climate like much of the deep southern United States. The two basic seasons in Orlando are a hot and rainy season, lasting from May until late October (roughly coinciding with the Atlantic hurricane season), and a warm and dry season from November through April.
During the height of Orlando’s humid summer season, high temperatures are typically around 32–34°C, while low temperatures rarely fall below 22–24°C. The average window for 32°C temperatures is April 9 to October 14.
Overall, the area’s humidity acts as a buffer, usually preventing actual temperatures from exceeding 38°C, but also pushing the heat index to over 43°C.
Over the years – when I’ve travelled to Florida – it’s been in the timeframe of July to November and have regularly felt the top temperatures on offer. Thankfully, air conditioning is widely used so it’s easy to escape the humidity when required. Even during my one trip over a Christmas and New Year, the temperatures were still fairly warm and t-shirts and shorts were very much the clothing to wear to stay comfortable.
For those with fair skin (like myself) pack lots of sun lotion! You’ll need it to avoid getting burnt; especially if you plan to go to one of the water parks or spend time in a swimming pool or by the sea.
Aside from the sun, however, it’s worth remembering that Orlando is prone to some huge downpours of rain, often exacerbated with some quite spectacular thunderstorms. These downpours can leave you soaked through very quickly. Yet, with the humidity, they can feel quite nice and you’ll not spend long soaking wet as the warm air dries you pretty quickly.
The next thing to note is the currency.
As you’ll probably be aware, Orlando uses the American dollar. At the time of writing £1 got you around $1.20. This is a long way off the times – which I still fondly remember – when £1 got you closer to $2: happy days for a British traveller.
Currency is easy to come by and can be got at all bureau de change shops in the UK before leaving or from cash points in the States. Make sure you also pack a credit card with you as American hotels, car rentals, shops, bars and restaurants rely heavily on their use.
A final thing to remember when it comes to money in the United States is that tipping is a must!
Perhaps more-so compared to other countries, tipping is expected in the US at pretty much every turn. Aside from the restaurants where you would expect to leave a tip (especially given the low-pay staff get) tips are regularly given to taxi drivers, hotel staff, bar staff and pretty much any person who helps you in one way or another.
You occasionally hear of horror-stories where tourists leave a restaurant without leaving a tip, only for the staff to come chasing them down outside and demand they pay one. While this has never happened to me or anyone I’ve been with, it does happen but is easily avoided.
Another thing to consider is the power points within America to ensure your devices stay charged up.
For the USA there are two associated plug types; types A and B. Plug type A is the plug which has two flat parallel pins and plug type B is the plug which has two flat parallel pins and a grounding pin. USA operates on a 120V supply voltage and 60Hz.
A final thing to note is around crime. While most trips to Florida will go by without a concern, crime can be an issue given the large number of tourists the state welcomes each year.
With many people carrying significant amounts of cash with them, pickpocketing and more serious crime is a possibility. It’s therefore important to remain vigilant and to keep your possessions where you can see them when out and about. Basically, if you are sensible then chances are you’ll be fine and I’ve personally never experienced any issues in Florida during any of my trips.
With all that in mind, it’s now time to go and make the most of what Orlando and Florida have on offer.
Clearly to get to the United States from the UK – and indeed most of the world – you’ll need to fly. From the UK, the flight time is quite long; averaging between nine and nine and a half hours depending on wind direction. Before boarding, therefore, make sure you pack lots of things to keep you entertained as part of your hand luggage.
Saying that, given this is a trans-Atlantic flight, you’ll most likely get at least two meals served to you and have a wide variety of films, television shows and music to choose from no matter who you fly with.
Most flights to Orlando will arrive in one of the two main airports servicing the city; Orlando International Airport (MCO) – located just to the south of the city centre – or Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB) – which is located further north of the city.
While I have once flown into Sanford, the majority of my visits to Florida have seen me arrive at Orlando International Airport as one of the 40 million passengers passing through the airport’s gates each year.
Leaving from London – you’ll likely leave from London Heathrow (although there are seasonal flights from London Gatwick) – while there are also flights available from Manchester and seasonal flights from Belfast International and Edinburgh.
There are two main flight providers from the UK to Florida. The first is British Airways and the second – and my preferred choice – is Virgin Atlantic.
From my experience, the service you get on a Virgin flight is superior to British Airways for this route and their are plenty of options onboard to keep you entertained during the trip.
If you were to book flights alone for a trip in October, then you can expect to see return prices around the £600 – £700 mark per adult which isn’t too bad.
However, I’ve always done flights as part of a larger package and, for this, I’ve used Virgin Holidays for my past two trips.
By doing it this way, I’ve combined the flights with the costs for accommodation, car hire and 14-day tickets to all the theme parks and waterparks (minus the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks). It may not be the cheapest way to do the trip but it makes life easier as everything is organised in one place.
While I no longer have the prices that I paid on my last trip, I’ve done a search for a two week, mid-October to early November vacation staying at the Avanti International Resort (see where to stay section below) with an economy car and 14-day passes for all the Disney parks and Universal Studio parks. This came to a price of £5,655.71 for two adults (or £2,827.86 per adult) with £1,400 needing to be paid upfront to secure the booking.
It’s a lot of money – especially given you’ll also need to book tickets for SeaWorld and Busch Gardens separately – and there may be ways to do it that work out cheaper – but for ease, this really is a great way to get yourself Florida-ready.
Where to stay
The array of accommodation options in the Orlando area is immense!
Some families may opt to splash out on a Disney hotel and be on top of all the action, while others may also fork out for their own private villa in one of the more residential areas of the region.
In the past, I’ve been in both of these options and they can be exceptionally good in their own way. However, for those who are looking to try and keep costs a little lower where they can, there are some perfectly good mid-range to cheaper accommodation options on offer also.
The first of these I’ll mention is the Avanti International Resort (which I believe at the time I stayed there was branded under a different company and known as the Econo Lodge).
The motel-like resort offers spacious rooms and easy-access to parking. Located just off International Drive, this was the first place I stayed in Florida having booked and organised the trip myself.
As previously alluded to, this booking came part of a package with Virgin Holidays and suited our needs while we were in the area.
While the decor at the time was extremely dated, I’m led to believe, from the pictures I’ve seen, that since the establishment has changed hands and brands, the rooms are much more vibrant in colour and style.
The resort is four blocks of accommodation which surround a communal swimming pool; a great place to cool off after a busy day out and about.
While there was no breakfast on offer at the accommodation when I was there, being in the heart of International Drive, there are plenty of nearby restaurants and snack places to try out.
It’s also conveniently located for all the main theme parks and is especially close to the SeaWorld and Aquatica parks.
A really good option, if offered, as part of a package.
If a motel doesn’t float your boat then slightly more up-market, yet affordable option was the hotel complex I stayed in during my trip in 2015; the B Resort and Spa.
The towering hotel is situated near Lake Buena Vista on the edge of the Disney complex and is walkable for the Downtown Disney area.
The high-rise hotel is a clean and sauvé looking affair and its staff are friendly and attentive to your needs.
Inside the main reception hall there are plentiful seats to relax as well as a connection to the adjoined restaurant which serves plenty of food at breakfast time.
The focal point of the hotel is the exterior lift which takes guests to their desired floor while giving them an ever-increasing view of the area.
The rooms are large and tidy. Each comes with its own TV and wi-fi connections and has a stocked mini-bar (although you’ll have to pay for any items you consume).
If you get a room on one of the top floors, you’ll also be afforded great views out each morning as you set about planning your day.
As with most hotels in Orlando, there are plenty of parking spaces available for guests and the hotel is also well air-conditioned.
Again this hotel was booked as part of a Virgin Holiday’s package – although I do remember we were originally booked into a different hotel (whose name I cannot remember) but were swapped into this one shortly before we departed.
As with all hotels, you can book these yourself but costs are likely to differ to those achieved through a package.
A last thing to note is that the vast majority of hotels in Orlando will charge you a room tax fee that is payable at the time of the stay. This is often a set amount per day, per room and for my last stay equated to $12 a day which, multiplied by 14, is a hefty fee to cover ($168 total). Don’t be surprised when you’re asked for this and budget it in to your holiday expenses before heading out.
For me, there is really only one way to get around in Florida; and that’s to hire a car.
This can be made simple if you organise your car hire as part of a package or you can search around and see if you can find a better deal from one of the other car hire firms (there are plenty to choose from at Orlando International Airport.
To give you an idea, from a quick search I did, if you were to book a standard car in advance of arrival in Orlando, for a two week duration, you’ll be looking at around £720. However, this may increase if certain insurances are not included.
Make sure, when you book your car, you do include the insurance. I got caught out on this in the past – when I first travelled on my own to Orlando – when I thought that I’d got a great deal on my car hire.
At the time I’d left out the ‘optional insurance option’, but all this meant was that I was delaying when I had to pay it. The option seemed to be that either I pay the extra insurance (above the basic cover I had taken out) or I don’t get the car! When you’re stood in the airport car hire office and this is your option, you pretty much have to do as they say.
Also make sure you have a suitable credit card with you (as they’ll take a deposit from it when you take a car out) and your driving licence. Without these, you’ll not be getting anywhere near a vehicle.
That aside, having a car in Florida really gives you freedom to explore the wider state and visit places on your own timescales. It saves waiting for shuttle-buses to the various parks and means you can get to places to eat and drink that are away from your accommodation.
I also found that the few times I walked out of the hotel grounds to go to a local restaurant or bar that the local people in Florida really didn’t expect to see pedestrians. Even for a short walk across the road, I’d find taxi horns beeping at me asking if I needed a lift somewhere! Guessing this is because I was staying in the heart of the touristy part of Orlando and that taxis saw an easy fare option.
It has always amazed me that you can go to other countries and just by spending a bit of money and showing your UK driving licence, you can take a car out on their roads; often with minimal idea of the local laws. So with that in mind, there are a few basic things to remember when driving in Florida.
The first – and most obvious – thing is that they drive on the right-hand side of the road in the US. While this may feel slightly weird for a UK driver on their first trip to the States, you get use to it pretty quickly and join the flow of traffic.
The second thing to remember is that the roads around Florida are huge with multiple lanes. One of the biggest that most visitors will experience is the Interstate 4 (shortened to I-4) which runs all the way down to Tampa. Keep your car to the right lane while you’re getting used to things (although keep an eye on cars joining the road from that side) and slowly build up your confidence.
Also to note is that your vehicle headlights must be on all the time from dusk to dawn and when it’s raining and foggy.
All front seat occupants must use a seat belt even if your vehicle has an air bag. Also, it’s illegal to drive in Florida if any occupant under the age of 18 is not wearing a seat belt.
Keep in mind that some interstate highways have tolls in Florida. This includes Alligator Alley, Bee Line Expressway, and the Florida Turnpike.
The cost of tolls depends on the section of the toll-road you’re using and your destination. The Florida Department of Transportation prices tolls by miles and the number of vehicle axles. As you drive, you will see the toll amount and the next toll booth that you can use to pay tolls.
You can pay with cash at manned booths and get change. At unmanned booths, you’ll need the exact toll amount. However, some areas don’t accept cash.
On one of my trips I had the issue of accidently going down a toll-road shortly after arriving in the country and didn’t have the correct change on me for an unmanned toll-booth. I had to go through the toll (setting off all the cameras) twice to get back to the road I needed to be on. As I left the toll for the second time I also had to take a small envelope from the booth that gave instructions as to how I needed to pay my fare. This resulted in me – for a couple of days – looking for somewhere locally to pay what I owed. In the end I had to do it in a seven-eleven convenience store.
This was a number of years ago now, so the rules around this type of thing may have changed and been updated to allow fares to be paid online. Ideally, just always have the right money on you.
Also it’s OK to turn right at traffic lights even when they are on red so long as the road is clear. If you’re at the front of the queue in this scenario and not moving then the locals will start honking their horns at you which may be confusing if the light is red and you don’t know the rule.
Final thing to remember is that if you are using your car to go from theme park to theme park then you’ll have to pay for parking at each park, every day (unless you get a ticket option where this is paid in advance). Note that parking in the parks is not cheap and you’ll be spending a fair few dollars (think it was around $25 per park when I was last in Orlando, so is likely to be more now) just for the joy of getting to the park in the first place.
The first thing you think of when you think of Orlando is, of course, the theme parks.
As previously mentioned, I’d suggest getting your tickets for the parks as part of a package, but if you’d rather shop around one source that is good to use is Floridatix.
On this website there are ticket options for all the major parks in Orlando and Tampa and, depending on the deal you are offered with Virgin Holidays, you may find that this is a more cost-effective way to book your park tickets.
Just by adding the unlimited 14-day entry to all the Disney parks, the three Universal parks, SeaWorld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens I got a price of £953 per adult.
No matter what way you choose to get your tickets, the one message I’d urge is to definitely buy them before leaving the UK. If you pay for park tickets on the door of each park as you go to them, you’ll end up paying a lot more money in the long run.
The focal point of any theme park orientated Orlando trip is to the six Walt Disney World Resort parks.
The iconic one of these is also the more child-friendly park; Magic Kingdom.
The park is split across six lands; Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Main Street USA and Tomorrowland.
Kids will enjoy meeting the various Disney stars that are spread throughout the park while also embarking on rides including a whimsical boat trip past a jubilant chorus of children from around the globe in It’s a Small World or firing lasers to earn points and defeat the evil Emperor Zurg as they journey through a galactic space battle in Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin.
Adults are well catered for too, with a number of thrill rides including a rip-roaring rocket into the furthest reaches of outer space on Space Mountain or racing through a haunted gold mine aboard a speeding train on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
There are countless other rides to experience also and I’d give a special mention of the park’s lesser known ride The Carousel of Progress which is a quaint and sedate look at Walk Disney’s view of life in America in the past and how he thought we’d all be living in the 21st Century.
The next Disney Park to explore is Disney Hollywood Studios – formally known as MGM Studios.
The two must-try rides here are right next to each other. The first is the terrifying, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Enter the rickety, elevator-style lift, strap yourself in and prepare to discover what lies beyond the darkest corner of your imagination.
The other must-see is the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith where you race along the darkened freeways of Los Angeles in a super-stretch limo.
Also make sure you spend time exploring the new land called Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge; a themed area inspired by the Star Wars franchise.
Perhaps the park that is often the older generation’s favourite is that of Epcot.
Split into two parts the main ride section is home to some superb additions to Disney’s repertoire.
Here you’ll find Mission: SPACE – a thrilling simulated NASA-style mission to Mars – and Test Track – where you design a virtual concept car and put it to the test on this thrilling, high-octane attraction.
Take the time also to try The Seas with Nemo & Friends and to explore the famous ball at the front of the park that is home to the inspirational ride; Spaceship Earth.
While all of these rides are musts on the agenda, the first ride that anyone visiting must head straight for is Soarin’ Around the World.
This breezy, airborne adventure gives you the feeling of hang-gliding above the breath-taking wonders of the world but to experience it, you need to get to it as the park opens. Everyone heads straight for this ride and queue times quickly get above two hours in peak times. It’s also not the quickest of rides for the staff to get people seated so head straight here on arrival.
Away from the rides you can then take a walk around the World Showcase.
The World Showcase is the park’s largest neighbourhood, reminiscent of a permanent world’s fair dedicated to represent the culture, cuisine, architecture, and traditions of 11 nations. The nation pavilions surround the World Showcase Lagoon, a man-made lake located in the centre.
During my last visit here, they were also doing a special food-fair; with stands set in each of the 11 nations providing tasty treats to eat and drink.
The final main Disney park to explore is Animal Kingdom.
The newest of the four main parks is home to a number of Disney’s best rides including Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, Dinosaur and the Kali River Rapids.
Showcasing some of the world’s most beautiful real-life animals, this park also dips into the the fantastical with its recently opened Avatar-inspired land where you can ride the highly exciting Avatar Flight of Passage.
On top of these four theme parks, there are also two Disney water parks; Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.
These two water parks are great fun and offer loads of slides and rides for thrill-seekers as well as relaxed areas for those who wish to sunbathe.
At Typhoon Lagoon, test your nerves on the massive Humunga Kowabunga slide or race your friends and family down the Storm Slides.
There is also an opportunity to swim with some real life sea animals here in the park’s Shark Reef.
Considered one of the most unique attractions at any Disney park, Shark Reef provides guests a five to ten minute snorkel across a manmade lagoon brimming with rays, small sharks, and tropical fish.
At Blizzard Beach you’ll need to have nerves of steel to take on the near-vertical drop of Summit Plummet.
Plunging 12 stories almost straight down, you’ll rocket through a darkened tunnel and into a massive spray of white-water after a 360-foot-long, high-speed descent.
Afterwards, make time for the Snow Stormers, Slush Gusher and Teamboat Springs to bring your time with Disney to a perfect close.
Not everything in Florida needs to be Disney-centric however, and no trip to Orlando is complete without a visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
These two theme parks provide a more adult experience than the Disney parks. Movie buffs – particularly in the older Universal Studios – will enjoy the opportunity to be a part of some classic films and take in a show with their favourite characters. It’s a living cinematic experience.
The rides are pretty incredible too. Kids will love taking a magical bike ride with ET as he escapes the group of scientists looking to study him before helping everyone’s favourite extra-terrestrial get back to his home planet. After that who wouldn’t want to join Will Smith and his Men in Black team as you shoot your way through the streets following a massive alien attack. It’s such good fun! As a hint – even though they tell you not to hit the red button in the car in front of you, make sure you do at the end for a massive score bonus!
Sadly, Universal Studios has said goodbye to classic rides like Back to the Future (a simulator where you would chase Biff in a bid to save the future) and Jaws (a calm boat ride around Amity Island until a certain shark reared its ugly head). They have replaced them with the enjoyable Simpsons simulator and Diagon Alley; as part of the park’s huge Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansions. More on that in a bit.
The one thing Universal Studios used to be short on was roller coasters. This issue was addressed back in 2009 with the opening of the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – a 51m, 65mph X-Coaster that lets riders pick their own personal music to listen to while being spun, dropped and flung in all directions.
The flagship part of the Universal complex now is their impressive homage to Harry Potter and all things Hogwarts
Now, while I’m personally not a fan of the Harry Potter books (yes, I’m a muggle) nor a fan of the films, even I was amazed by how the park transports you into this wizarding world.
They have also come up with the ingenious method of transporting guests from one park to the other using one of their newer rides; The Hogswarts Express!
The Hogwarts Express is located just outside of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios and at the entrance of Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure.
Suitable for all ages, The Hogswarts Express is where you simply board a train and take a journey as though you’re travelling to Hogwarts itself. The journey lasts around seven minutes, and families are able to sit together in a cartridge and enjoy the cinematic action taking place through the train window (which is really a very clever TV screen).
Once you exit the train you suddenly find yourself in the opposite park to the one you started in. Fantastic!
That brings me on quite nicely to Islands of Adventure. This is a park geared more at the thrill-seekers.
Again, here, there are a wide range of Harry Potter-inspired rides including the fantastic Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, but there also areas of the park dedicated to other film genres, styles and fun gimmicks.
Some of my favourite parts are near the entrance to Islands of Adventure. Here you’ll find the Marvel Comics-inspired area (again I’m actually not a fan of the Marvel films – hope I’m not alienating too many of you with these remarks).
Top of any riders agenda should be The Incredible Hulk – a zero to 40mph in two seconds thrill ride – and the scary Doctor Doom’s Fearfall which throws riders about 50m into the air before dropping them back to the ground.
Also, don’t miss the amazing water rides in Toon Lagoon including the Popeye rapids ride where it is physically impossible to stay dry and the super-speedy Dudley Do-Right Ripsaw Falls.
While still dripping wet, take a step back 50 million years or so into Jurassic Park and try to avoid the hordes of Velociraptors and the menacing T-Rex as you escape, by boat, from the dinosaur-infested park.
Since my last visit, they have also opened a new section – back in 2016 – entitled Skull Island; a King Kong-inspired land. I’m personally looking forward to trying this area’s sole attraction, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, during my next trip to the park in the future.
Now the scary bit. The ticket prices.
If you buy the tickets on the door it will cost you a small fortune. Nobody does this. You can buy, at the time of writing, a three-park explorer ticket – valid for 14 consecutive days from the first time it’s activated – that gives you access to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – as well as Universal’s Volcano Bay waterpark – for £275 per adult.
However, I’d advise shopping around for better deals when you are looking at booking or by doing it as part of the previously mentioned package.
It’s worth point out also that if you visit Universal Studios around Halloween time each year then you should stick around for the infamous Halloween Horror Nights evening events.
These thrilling spectacles see Universal Studios transformed into full-on horror films, full of ghosts and ghouls and everyone’s favourite movie serials killers. For those brave enough, you also get the chance to step inside the numerous horror houses set-up that bring some of the scariest films and TV shows to life.
The Halloween Horror Nights alone are well worth a trip to Florida in October / November time.
During my trip in 2015, there were houses dedicated to The Walking Dead, Freddy Vs. Jason, An American Werewolf in London and The Purge (as well as others).
Queuing for entry to each house, scares are around each corner and I found myself jumping and screaming my way around the attractions as the actors jump out on me from the least expected places.
Run every year – and with a different selection of films inspiring the attractions – these Halloween Horror Nights are never the same and make even the toughest of people curl into a ball or run for the exit.
It’s worth noting that SeaWorld has been subject to some rather damning headlines in recent years due to the sea animals they have in captivity. This alone may put some off spending their time and money here (understandably) but for those who do still choose to go will be entertained by some really spectacular theme park rides.
Once upon a time, SeaWorld was rather short on rides, but this is no longer the case.
It’s newest edition – Mako which opened in 2016 – is also Orlando’s tallest, fastest, longest and only hypercoaster.
Reaching a height of 200 feet (61m), a maximum speed of 73mph (117km/h), and features a track length of 1,450m (4,760 feet) this ride will be an exhilarating experience for all riders.
There are also other rides to try including the floorless Kraken rollercoaster, the free-flying Manta rollercoaster and the part rollercoaster, part water ride Journey to Atlantis.
Children will enjoy seeing the animals and can get close to penguins in Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin and beluga whales in the Wild Arctic.
Similarly to both Disney and Universal, SeaWorld also has it’s own water park and for me, the best one in Orlando.
Aquatica, has loads of water slides to try including the drop tower Inhu’s Breakaway Falls, the Taumata Racers and the newly opened Reef Plunge.
I spent hours here running backwards and forwards between rides as well as taking a drift around the park’s lazy river.
A water park not to be missed!
While Orlando is home to the vast majority of the visitor attractions, no trip to the Sunshine State would be complete without making the drive across the I4 to Tampa on the west coast of Florida for a day out at Busch Gardens.
The park is owned and operated by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and welcomes over 4 million guests through its gates every year.
The park has many high-octane roller coasters and thrill rides. Chief amongst these is the formidable SheiKra; the first Dive Coaster in North America. There is also Tigris, the tallest launch coaster in Florida and Montu, which was the tallest and fastest inverted roller coaster in the world at the time of opening. Special mention should also be made to Kumba that features a total of seven inversions across the three-minute ride.
Situated throughout the park there are also many other rides to enjoy including the incredible drop rides like Falcon’s Fury which currently stands as the tallest free-standing drop tower in North America. This huge ride reaches a maximum height of 335 feet (102m) and then drops riders – face down – for five seconds of scream-filled free fall; reaching speeds of 60mph.
Despite all these amazing rides, the main focus of the park these days is Cheetah Hunt which opened back in 2011.
This ride aims to give thrill-seekers the experience of being a cheetah as it chases down its prey. One of it’s key features is the multiple launches it operates during the course of the ride – three in total. The first launch takes riders out of the station from zero to 30mph in 1.8 seconds. Later on, there is a second – and faster – launch which takes riders to 60mph in 2.4 seconds while a third a final launch takes riders to 40mph in 2.1 seconds.
With a host of dips, dives and long straights running almost the length of the park itself, Cheetah Hunt offers something slightly different for all roller coaster fans.
It’s worth remembering that Busch Gardens is more than just a theme park. It is also a working zoo which is home to many different species of animals that you can see during a visit.
Animals remain a key feature for Busch Gardens, with the different sections of the park being themed after different parts of the world.
Rides also make full use of the animals’ habitats, showcasing them to the guests. Rides like Rhino Rally – a safari-themed attraction – and the relaxing train ride that takes you around the full circumference of the park give visitors a break from the adrenaline-fuelled thrill rides on offer.
Like all parks in Florida, tickets can – and should – be purchased online before you travel as part of a package.
Busch Gardens tickets often are linked to Adventure Island waterpark in Tampa and Aquatica waterpark and Seaworld Orlando. To purchase a 14 consecutive day unlimited ticket for all of these parks you’re looking at approximately $199.99 per adult (about £150).
While it’s a lot of money to pay out per person, each park on their own makes for a series of entertaining days out during a Florida holiday.
Away from theme parks and on to sport.
I’ll be honest, I was never a huge fan of the NFL. It always felt like the games were far too stop/start and I found it hard to understand how a sport that technically lasts for one hour could go on for over three and still be entertaining.
Yet, I also wanted to get the experience of American sport live and the closest team to Orlando that were playing at home during my trip was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – an hour and 10 minute drive west from Orlando down the I-4.
Playing out of the Raymond James Stadium – situated on the North Dale Mabry Highway in north-west Tampa – Tampa Bay Buccaneers can welcome over 65,500 fans to their games if full to capacity.
At the time I saw them play (in 2015) – in a game versus ‘local’ rivals Jacksonville Jaguars – the Bucs were not a real contender for the end-of-season Super Bowl Championship match.
Yet since then – and following the recruitment of superstar quarterback Tom Brady – Tampa Bay have added a second-ever Super Bowl win to their names following victory in the 2020 final when they beat the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9.
Games are divided into four, 15-minute quarters and while there are a fair few stops between plays, you don’t really find yourself noticing as there is always something going on; be it the cheerleaders doing a routine or the pirate ship to one side of the stadium distributing merchandise.
The rules, for a first-time fan, can appear confusing and I found that trying to work out what they were by reading about them ahead of the game just made it seem more impenetrable.
My advice is to not get hooked up on trying to understand every rule. Often, the rules become more apparent and understandable just by seeing the game in play. Nothing beats live examples.
Also, arrive nice and early and purchase a parking space in advance. Before my trip – and via the Tampa Bay Buccaneers website – I purchased my match ticket (now priced at a minimum of $110 per adult ticket or £91 – although prices increase considerably for better seats) and parking (around $30 per car or £25) at the same time.
I found tickets easy to get on the website, but I suspect this will depend greatly on the match.
Around the surrounding area, there are a number of fields where the club uses as parking lots. On a game day, fans tend to arrive early and set up BBQs out of the back of their cars. You may have heard it referred to as tailgate parties and this forms a big part of the NFL experience.
Arriving in our parking lot, there were loads of cars with huge gazebos and BBQs in full swing; it’s quite a sight to see.
Once we were ready, we made our way to the stadium by following the crowds. One thing to not do is to take any bags with you that are not transparent. You won’t be allowed in with them. Only clear bags are allowed for security reasons and also expect to be frisked before entry.
That said, the atmosphere inside the stadium was very friendly. Fans from both sides mixed happily together and made for a great first-time NFL experience.
Before finding our seats, we made sure we grabbed some Tampa Bay merchandise from one of the outlets around the ground and got some food and drink inside. Unlike football matches in the UK, you can grab some beers in the stadium and take them to enjoy at your seat.
As I didn’t know how much we’d enjoy the game, I didn’t want to buy the best seats in the house and so opted for the most affordable. And while we were up at one of the highest points it gave us a superb view of the match.
One thing I found quite surprising being a football (or soccer as it is in the US) fan, was that a lot of fans didn’t even bother to take their seats for the first quarter. Perhaps this is one of the downsides of the sport. What happens early on in the game doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the final outcome.
That said, I wanted to see the whole spectacle so stayed from the first kick all the way to the last.
Finding myself getting into the game a lot more than I ever expected to (helped by the fact that Tampa Bay won the match) I have since watched NFL games when they come to London and would look for tickets the next time I’m in Florida.
You don’t need to be a huge sporting fan to appreciate the game. The spectacle itself is worth the entrance fee and you may find yourself a long-distance fan after attending. Bucs Nation!
My final pick is a slightly slower paced one but also unique for Florida; snorkelling with manatees followed by scuba diving with the American Pro Diving Centre.
There’s only one place in North America where you legally swim with manatees, and that’s in the Crystal River area— located about 90 minutes north of Tampa, on the west coast of Florida. The headwaters of Crystal River are known as Kings Bay, where the water temperature is a consistent 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year-round.
This was an extremely early start to the day as manatee snorkel tours (you’re not allowed to scuba dive with the manatees as they don’t like the bubbles the tanks make) start at 7am, 8:30am or 11am. Wanting to hit the first tour of the day, we set off at around 5am from Orlando in the pitch black and headed across state.
After arriving in the car park early, at the front of the dive centre’s reception, we waited for someone to arrive to open up. Soon enough American Pro Diving Centre employees arrived and took us inside for our briefing and to kit us out with all the equipment we’d need.
At the time of writing, the manatee tours cost $68 per adult or you can pay for a combination of both the manatee tours and Crystal River scuba diving tour for $99.50 per adult with additional costs for equipment hire.
The manatee tour gets you up close and personal with these curious and playful manatees (although the dive centre does warn that the number of manatees you’ll get to see will vary depending on how lucky you are).
But when you do find them, these wonderful, gentle animals can come up to the surface for a friendly petting and an occasional belly rub.
After leaving the dive shop, we were taken by mini-bus to the entrance of the river where we boarded a small boat. Once everyone was onboard, we set off looking for manatees.
Soon enough we found one swimming on its own and carefully, one-by-one, we made our way into the water. The manatee was shy at first as he suddenly found himself surrounded by people. You are instructed to let the manatee approach you rather than trying to approach it. This way you won’t frighten it off.
The water is also full of vegetation that the manatees love to eat so after learning we were not a threat, this gentle creature came up to get some food and in doing so allowed us to pet it. A truly magical experience.
Back on the boat, and to top off our manatee tour, we then made our way to a different site where those of us with scuba diving qualifications got to dive down into a small underwater cavern. Diving down about 9m in open water you make your way to the entrance of the cavern. An abundance of fish hang outside the Kings Spring cavern where the divers proceed on the adventure with the dive master into the cavern – flash lights in hand and to a maximum depth of 15m – to see snappers, crabs and fossils.
The dive takes around 30 to 40 minutes and after passing through the cavern we made our way safely back to the surface, boarding the boat before being taken back to the dive shop to collect our belongings and head back to Orlando with many happy memories of our time at Crystal River.
Where to avoid
As with many states in America, there is the possibility of being the victim of crime – both petty and violent. This isn’t to say that it is likely to happen but instances against tourists do occur.
I remember arriving in Florida on my first trip without going with my parents. After collecting my car from the airport I pulled over in a car park not far from the airport in order to get my bearings before heading to my accomodation.
It was late at night there was only one other car in this car park; a large hummer with blacked-out windows.
Now it could be me being paranoid and it could be from watching too many TV shows, but when a big car appears to wait for you to pull over in the car park, then start slowly driving towards you with its lights off, I fear the worst.
I quickly turned my own car back on and headed out of the car park hoping that would be the end of whatever could be about to happen. Fortunately it was, and the other car pulled over again into a different space as I drove off.
My lesson from this was to be aware of the neighbourhoods you are in and – like you would in any new place – find out which places are less salubrious and are not visited by most tourists; and then avoid them.
It’s worth noting that Orlando has a violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, assault) rate of 8.28 per 1,000 residents. This is higher than the national average for violent crimes.
Scary bit over, and again it’s worth remembering that most visits to Orlando and indeed the United States will take place without any hassle. But it’s always worth being aware.
Away from safety issues, a trip to Florida can be full-on and there are always loads of options of activates and places to visit will be thrust upon you that promise to keep you entertained.
However, not all of them are worth a visit.
While this section could be filled with countless tourist-traps, I’m going to list three that I’ve visited that I wouldn’t return to.
The first of these is Gatorland located on S Orange Blossom Trail to the north of Kissimmee.
Gatorland promises to be the “The Alligator Capital of the World” and claims there isn’t a better place to see alligators and crocodiles of all sizes, from babies (known as grunts) to the 14-foot monsters that call the marshlands, home.
The entrance of the park is fairly iconic as you enter the ticket sales area and gift shop through the inviting jaws of a huge alligator head.
The positives of the park are that they have the largest collection of extremely rare white leucistic alligators, a free-flight aviary, a petting zoo, a one-of-a-kind animal show, a thrilling zip line called the Screamin’ Gator and new Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure.
For me, however, their are better ways to spend an afternoon in Florida. Firstly, the tickets cost – at the time of writing – $32.99 plus tax which, for the size of the park feels rather costly.
Secondly, I’m not a big fan of these places that use their animals to preform tricks or to be used as photo opportunities.
There are a number of shows at Gatorland where keepers sit on the back of these wonderful animals, hold their mouths open or make them jump out of the water to grab a dead chicken. While they claim that none of this causes harm to the animal – a claim I could not comment on, on it’s validity – it feels at best, mean spirited towards these gorgeous creatures and at worst slightly cruel.
Also there were options for guests – to pay money – to sit on the back of these animals too (this was the case for the last time I visited anyway). In these instances the animal will have had its mouth bound closed which I just couldn’t agree with. What I found worse was that some people, who were parents, were paying to put their small children on top of these animals so they could get a photo! Madness!
A second one that I’d skip is Ripley’s Believe It or Not on International Drive.
Visually impressive, the building appears to be sinking on one side of it and – when compared to the other buildings that surround it, you can see why families may be drawn to its doors.
And to be fair to it, there are interesting parts to a visit here.
Established in 1918, Ripley’s is inspired by stories of people and places that are incredibly hard to believe, but undeniably true!
Ripley’s in Orlando boasts of having 16 unique galleries and hundreds of displays on offer. It says there are artefacts, interactive experiences, and just plain weird stuff sure to entertain the entire family!
This version of Ripley’s tries to keep things local with a whole section dedicated to showing guests just how weird Florida can be with exhibits such as an ancient alligators and a shrunken head owned by Ernest Hemingway.
You walk through the exhibit halls looking at various displays and reading the information on offer but you can do little else beyond grabbing some fun Instagram photos.
But again for me, the biggest minus is the ticket price. Tickets for this attraction – that can be seen in an hour or two at most – cost $27.99 per adult or $18.99 for a child aged between three and 11. For me this is a pretty expensive cost for something that’s a bit of a gimmick and can be seen elsewhere in the world.
Ripley’s opens at 10am every day and closes at midnight (with last admissions being permitted entry an hour before closing).
My final pick is Medieval Times.
I remember first visiting Orlando back in 1996 with my family and seeing signs for this dinner show and being desperate for my parents to take me. Sensibly, they never did in the three visits I did with them.
However, on my fourth trip back – and first one I paid for myself – I decided to buy tickets for a night and experience the show.
Perhaps it’s that I’d played up in my own head just how good I believed this should be which meant I was disappointed. Perhaps it’s that now, as an adult, seeing people dressed as knights on horseback and taking part in staged jousting just didn’t have the same excitement for me. Perhaps it’s that the food was really not great quality. Or perhaps it’s that tickets cost $65.99 per adult to see the show.
I’d guess it was a combination of all these factors.
Driving into the arena’s car park – located off W Vine Street in Kissimmee – you’re welcomed with the sight of a “medieval castle”.
Parking wraps around the castle comfortably making it an easy stroll over to the drawbridge and through the castle entrance. A plus point is that parking spaces are plentiful and free!
The castle gates open 60 minutes prior to a showtime which allows plenty of time for photos, to grab a drink and to explore a little.
At the check-in desk you get given a crown to wear during the evening. The colour of your crown shows which competitor you’ll be cheering for during the evening’s session.
Guests will then be called by the colour of their crowns. If you look closely above the doors to the arena, you will notice banners that match each Knight’s colour, you can find your door by looking for the banner that matches your crown.
After finding your seat, food will soon arrive. The meal usually consists of some sort of roast chicken and corn-on-the-cob style food (vegetarian options are also available). The food is rather bland at best and – you won’t be surprised to read – not the best you’ll ever eat.
The first bits of food and drink will be met by the lights dimming and music playing as the two-hour tournament gets going. During the show you’ll see jousting, swordsmanship, hand-to-hand combat and displays of horsemanship and falconry.
As the evening draws to an end, you’ll be guided out of the arena and back to your cars. While it may prove to be entertaining for children and family groups, it’s probably one that most adult visitors can go without.
Great places to eat
The way I sum up meals in Orlando is this. A lot of restaurants will go for quantity over quality.
That’s not to say there are not good places to eat in Florida, but for the majority of tourists they’ll end up either eating in their hotels for breakfast and in the theme parks at lunch.
Also for fast food, their is an abundance of McDonald’s, IHOPS, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Pizza Huts, Subways and Taco Bells to choose from which will keep you ticking over when you need a quick bite.
My top tip is to have a hearty breakfast in the morning which can, more often than not, see you through the day when you’re out in the theme parks so you avoid paying the extortionate prices for food (aside from a few snacks to keep you going).
But for those who are looking at places that may be worth a visit outside of the parks, I’ve got two suggestions to search for; one for breakfast and one for dinner.
The breakfast suggestion is a place called Friendly’s which is located right next door to the Avanti International Resort – on International Drive – mentioned higher up in this blog.
During my stay at the resort I went to this small dinner a number of times and each time they lived up to their name.
I remember breakfast plates being large and full and coming with a side of American-style pancakes.
Options include steak and eggs, waffles, hash browns and omelettes and even Philly cheese steak wraps. Most drinks, once ordered, were refillable and I never left here feeling anything other than fuelled up for the day ahead.
Prices, from what I remember, were extremely reasonable as well and the staff serving always greeted you with a welcoming hello and made sure you got everything you wanted during your meal.
While my breakfast suggestion, for me, is typical of what you can expect in Orlando, my dinner suggestion is a little different.
Many restaurants in the area will offer a buffet style meal where you order a set-dish and then you can visit a large buffet to fill up on a wide selection of other dishes.
This is great to do a few times but, after a while, I found that I was getting slightly bored with this.
So after a bit of searching I found the Ethiopian restaurant, Nile to try out.
This small restaurant is situated just off International Drive. The restaurant is amongst a number of other bars and, from the outside, looks to be in a rather questionable bit of town.
However, inside the restaurant – which was founded in 2006 – you receive a warm welcome from the owners before being seated at one of their tables.
Nile proudly serves an array of authentic, and mouth-watering dishes with signature house spices and serve dishes ranging from beef, lamb, poultry and fish to others that are suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
The menu is not only extensive but also well priced and the dishes are flavourful and filling.
And in true Ethiopian style, you eat the food using your hands rather than traditional western cutlery.
It may not be traditional US cuisine, but getting a taste of Africa in North America really adds something to any trip to the Sunshine State.