Travel: Face your fears at Florida’s Universal Studios

An aerial view of Orlando's Universal Studios

An aerial view of Orlando's Universal Studios

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FLORIDA’S theme park paradise is the perfect place to cure rollercoaster phobia

IT HAD been 35 years since I’d been on a rollercoaster. After deciding as an assertive eight-year-old that getting turned upside down in Blackpool would be my first and last time on any “thrill ride”, I had stubbornly stuck to my guns.

The Ihu Breakaway Falls opens the trapdoor for another passenger

The Ihu Breakaway Falls opens the trapdoor for another passenger

However, as I boarded a flight for a trip to Universal Studios to Orlando I vowed I would return minus the excess baggage of this monkey on my back. It was literally time to take the plunge, and do whatever it took – courage, curiosity, or even Ronan Keating lyrics – to brave a rollercoaster.

I was travelling on the Orlando FlexTicket, a multi-park ticket that includes 14-day unlimited access to six parks – Universal Studios, Universal Islands of Adventure, SeaWorld, Aquatica, Busch Gardens and Wet ’N Wild. Plenty of time to chill before the thrills though, and flying with Virgin Atlantic, the V Room in Manchester airport provided the ideal place to relax and get in the holiday mood with my travelling companions.

Our base for the week in the Sunshine State was the luxurious Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, a painstaking re-creation of the seaside village in Italy, and ideally located for accessing Universal’s parks and attractions.

On a packed itinerary, our first port of call was SeaWorld Orlando, and a rare chance to get up close and personal with penguins, seals, sea-lions, stingrays, sharks, and my new favourite oddballs of the ocean – manatees. My previous knowledge of these languid, lettuce-eating giants could have been comfortably contained on the back of a stamp, but on an illuminating behind-the-scenes tour, the park’s head of animal care, John “JP” Peterson, gave a stirring talk on marine life, rescue and rehabilitation and my interest was piqued.

The Cheetah Hunt rollercoaster at Busch Gardens

The Cheetah Hunt rollercoaster at Busch Gardens

JP stressed that SeaWorld’s ultimate goal is releasing every animal rescued back into its natural environment. Where that is not possible, then SeaWorld will give them a home and TLC.

Perhaps the park’s biggest challenge in recent years has been refuting allegations made in the controversial documentary Blackfish about treatment of their killer whales – the star attraction at SeaWorld judging by the packed grandstands who watch their regular shows.

Trainer Joe Sanchez meets us to discuss the documentary, which questioned the ethics of breeding and keeping these majestic 12,000lb, 22-ft-long creatures in captivity, and was aired following the death of a trainer at the park in 2010. Sanchez explains that whales born at SeaWorld are not equipped to survive in the wild and receive nothing but love, care and attention. “I was angry when I saw the movie,” he said. “It was false and full of lies and I strongly believe in what we do here.”

Out of the water, SeaWorld also boasts the Manta and Kraken rollercoasters and has promised to unveil Orlando’s “tallest, fastest and longest coaster” in 2016. Although I was in the company of some hardcore adrenaline junkies, my courage hadn’t bubbled to the surface yet – my world wasn’t quite ready to be turned upside down.

Yet bizarrely, any rides where water is involved have never particularly fazed me, and I was looking forward to diving into the delights of the water park, Aquatica, especially Ihu’s Breakaway Falls, with its multi-drop tower slide. You are first placed in one of three clear capsules 80ft from ground level, facing your fellow thrill-seekers, then randomly plunged through a trapdoor into a vertical drop of 40ft at 20ft a second into a winding water-filled tunnel to the bottom. There is barely time to scream before you are splashing and laughing your way into the final approach.

Universal’s longer established water park in Orlando is Wet ’N Wild, a vast complex of pools, flumes and slides, with a lazy river and private cabanas if you’d prefer to relax in the sun. I’d recommend setting aside a whole day to experience Wet ’N Wild as there is so much to see and do.

The same definitely applies to Universal Studios. A day is simply not enough to see everything this ever-changing wonderland has to offer, and the FlexTicket is perfect for multiple visits as it allows unlimited access.

Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to begin the day exploring Universal’s six themed Islands of Adventure with a hat-trick of water rides – Ripsaw Falls, the Jurassic Park River Adventure, and the white water rapids of Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges. There are drying facilities, but in 80 degrees heat it doesn’t take long for you to walk yourself dry, or jump on the perfect blow-dryer – a rollercoaster.

Yes, the time had arrived, gulp. I eased myself in with a 3D whirl on the Amazing World of Spider-Man, then hopped on the family friendly Flight of the Hippogriff, the 4D Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride, before graduating to the indoor Revenge of the Mummy ride, and immediately seeking photographic proof that I’d conquered at least some of my demons.

The jewel in the crown at Universal Studios is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, divided between Hogwarts Castle and Hogsmeade Village on the Islands of Adventure and the spectacular Diagon Alley, just an enthralling Hogwarts Express ride away at Universal Studios theme park.

Strolling round the Victorian London-themed Diagon Alley, with quaint shops nestled in its many nooks and crannies and a fire-breathing dragon dominating the landscape from high above, I was in awe. It wasn’t lost on me that this magical area, pulsing with thousands of wide-eyed visitors, could be traced to one woman’s kaleidoscopic imagination.

Bidding Harry Potter, his friends and foes farewell, it was time to head over to Springfield for an obligatory hug from a 10ft Homer Simpson. After a swift half of Duff Beer in Moe’s Tavern, the only “d’oh” of the day was discovering that time had flown by. Even Back To The Future’s Delorean time machine parked nearby wasn’t going to alter that, but it made a return visit a must.

First though, a one-hour road trip to Tampa to the magnificent Busch Gardens. Here I got to feed Btiti the friendly giraffe on a Serengeti Safari, visit the animal care centre where some of the park’s 2,500 animals are treated, and put my new-found rollercoaster courage to the test on the fast and furious Cheetah Hunt. I know my limits, however, and decided to keep a watching brief for the high and mighty Falcon’s Fury – a 335ft face-down plunge at 60mph in the blink of an eye. A fantastic experience by all accounts, although I was more than happy to take my companions’ word for it.

Also recommended in Orlando (although not included in the FlexTicket) is Discovery Cove, where you can feed birds and swim with dolphins in a relaxed environment away from the madding crowd. Feeding yourself is no problem either, and outwith the excellent restaurants on the parks, a mention must go to the Dragonfly Robata Grill & Sushi and the Harbor Nights tasting menu at our own Portofino Bay hotel.

For evening entertainment we headed by water taxi to CityWalk, which caters for families, couples or an evening out with friends. A particular favourite of our group was the Rising Star Karaoke bar – complete with stage, band and backing singers. I may have conquered my fear of rollercoasters, but stage fright can wait until next time. At least I returned with my excess baggage ditched for good.

• Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays starts from £1,269pp, including scheduled flights from Manchester direct to Orlando, accommodation at the 5V Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando on a room only basis and car hire. Price is based on a departure on 18 November, 2015. V Room at Manchester Airport: adults £24.50, children from £14. Tel: 0344 557 3859, www.virginholidays.co.uk

• Orlando FlexTicket includes 14-day unlimited access to Universal Studios, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa and Wet ’N Wild Orlando. Prices start from £232 per adult and £219 per child. orlandoflexticket.co.uk

• Behind the Scenes tour at SeaWorld, £21 per adult and £7 per child, seaworldparks.co.uk

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