Travel: Disney is only part of the Orlando experience

A balloon flight over Orlando
A balloon flight over Orlando
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The Disney experience won’t float everyone’s boat – or balloon – but Florida has so much more to offer

AFTER years of listening to friends drone on about the magic of a family holiday in Florida with its world famous theme parks and guaranteed sunshine, my husband and I decided to give it a go.

Mickey Mouse in Orlando's Walt Disney World

Mickey Mouse in Orlando's Walt Disney World

Admittedly, our son is almost a teenager, complete with an iPad, attitude and little interest in taking a selfie with a host of jolly Disney characters. But our daughter, just nine, could still muster a passing interest in the Frozen characters, so there was hope that for her at least that this could be the experience of a lifetime.

Of course, the very idea of trawling around theme parks makes me reach for the Prosecco. Fast rides, queues, children (other people’s) and overpriced junk food all rank equally highly on my hate list.

So while I agreed that I would stick on a smile and tolerate the rides, I was also adamant that we would see what else Orlando had to offer.

We flew into the Sunshine State from New York’s JFK airport, fresh from a wholesome campervanning trip around Lake Ontario with lots of camp fires and star-gazing. And while this meant the kids were desperate to get plugged back into technology, eat fast food and hit the theme parks, it also meant that my ability to deal with Disney World was at an all-time low.

A baby alligator

A baby alligator

My spirits were lifted considerably as we picked up our hire car and headed to our apartment, a handy 30 minutes away in a freshly built resort called Regal Oaks in Kissimmee. Our berth proved to be a spotless two-bedroom townhouse with a fully fitted kitchen and sitting room with large sofas and a flat-screen TV.

There was also a laundry room with an industrial-sized washer and dryer and, best of all, a hot tub out the back.

All the houses at the resort are situated around a large lake and an enormous swimming pool with a separate small flume park for the children. The main block, where the reception area is, includes a gym, a bar and a restaurant which serves up a range of meals – essential for any stressed out families needing to wind down after a theme park visit – as I was about to discover.

Following a morning relaxing by the pool, as I worked myself up to the Disney experience, we punched “Magic Kingdom” into the Sat Nav and set off.

We had been told by veterans that this was “the” starting place for any Disney virgin. So we had booked our tickets on-line and reserved our “fast passes”, which gave us the power to push past the hundreds of others queuing for three rides of our choice.

Our big mistake was to arrive at lunchtime. As the shuttle bus pulled up by the Magic Kingdom palace and opened its doors, we stepped into hell.

We walked slap bang into a wall of heat – about 40 degrees – and had to navigate a sea of slack-jawed tourists gawping at the sights.

We needed water or ice cream – but at every turn there were queues. And then there was Mickey Mouse waving. I could have punched him.

I was all for bailing out, but the kids voted to give it a go, so I trailed after them like a spoilt toddler.

And yes the three rides where we got to queue jump were fun, but after just a few hours in the park, I begged to go home. For me the only magical part of the Magic Kingdom was spotting the exit sign.

We made it back to the haven of our Regal Oaks resort and held a crisis meeting at the restaurant. We had tickets booked for Universal Studios, SeaWorld and another Disney park, and I was up for cancelling them all.

But after looking at three sad family faces I relented and the next day found fresh enthusiasm as we headed to SeaWorld, a handy 20- minute drive from the resort.

This time we planned the trip with military precision, making sure we were hanging off the gates as they swung open in the morning.

We also had a list of animal “show times” as well as a well-stocked rucksack with water and snacks.

Now I know there are on-going debates around dolphins and whales being made to perform, but I must say the shows were spectacular.

SeaWorld also had a host of nail-biting rides which the kids loved, while I watched from the ground, before we headed back at 2pm all happy and relaxed.

We applied the same military planning to our second Disney trip, this time to Hollywood Studios, which passed off just as well. We were on a roll.

Then I made my second big mistake. I decided to be “fun” and join the rest of the family on a toe-curing roller-coaster ride – and after a few terrifying minutes I was back on solid land, dizzy, disoriented, sick and had a cracking headache.

The rest of the trip for the other three was a blur of fun rides and overpriced souvenir shops. I, however, found myself head in hands sitting on the pavement next to a depressed looking pensioner, who told me there was a first aid room where you could lie down in a darkened room with a book.

He had just come from there – I was sorely tempted to go.

So that marked the end of our theme park experience and, as agreed, we spent our remaining days seeking out more wholesome things to do.

Hot air ballooning topped the list. We floated into the sky at 5am with a company called Orlando Balloon Rides and from the stillness of a basket 1,000 miles high we watched the sun rise over Orlando, which truly was a magical experience.

Wild Florida was another gem. It’s a family business just 40 minutes from the bright lights which offers a fast and furious airboat tour and the chance to watch alligators in their natural habitat.

After a boat ride, we got up close and personal with a range of animals in the wildlife park – and devoured exotic steaks, including alligator, at its delicious Chomp House Grill.

A quirky evening was spent at Medieval Times, an indoor arena where knights on horseback jousted while we, among a crowd of hundreds, were fed a three-course banquet.

A day trip to the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral was also well worth the visit, an indoor skydiving experience called iFLY Orlando took everyone’s breath away, and we finished up with a trip to Wet ’n’ Wild – a water park with scores of family friendly rides, and a few for the adrenalin junkies too.

And now back home with time to reflect and click through photos, our enduring Orlando memories are the real experiences – holding a baby alligator, sunrise from a wicker basket and learning to sky dive, rather than Mickey Mouse and his crew – although the kids insist the theme parks were great fun too.