Travel: Florida's theme parks

The setting couldn't be much more surreal. A series of continental-style, multi-coloured road signs direct me to a harbour lined with Vespas, olive trees and cafés. Souvenir shops housed in fishing huts and cream-coloured apartments with cracked plaster walls line the water's edge.

Then a string quartet starts up a serenade from a balcony. Next I expect a director to leap out calling "cut" because this full-scale mock-up of the Italian resort of Portofino is actually in Orlando, Florida, and wha what seem to be apartments are actually rooms in Universal Studios' Portofino Bay hotel. It may seem crazy but in Orlando this is the norm.

From the moment guests drive down the cypress tree-lined entrance to the hotel they are immersed in an experience that desperately tries to convince them they are in Italy. Old Italian posters adorn the exposed brickwork in the lobby, Vivaldi is pumped in through hidden speakers and padded tapestries line the inside of the elevators. Corridors to the rooms are even mocked up as city streets with constellations painted on the tall ceilings; porcelain plaques on the doors, which would usually have a house name etched into them, now show room numbers.

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After days of hotfooting it around theme parks, the wonderfully ornate hotel is great fun for little and big kids alike and there is detail wherever you look. From the outside, the Portofino even seems to have more balconies and balustrades than it actually has. It's an eerily convincing artistic effect which involves painting objects on walls so intricately that they convey perspective and give the impression that they are real.

Nevertheless, there's nothing make-believe about the Portofino's sprawling facilities, which include a full-service spa, six restaurants and three pools which, fitting with the theme, are styled as ruined Roman aqueducts. It's also only a short gondola trip to the movie-themed rides and shows of Universal's two theme parks.

They abound with visual trickery and the highlight is a 3D show based on the Terminator movies featuring a giant liquid metal spider which appears to leap into the audience. It's common to see people recoiling but those made of sterner stuff ride the Revenge of the Mummy, an indoor roller-coaster which is a feast for the senses. First there is a ceiling ablaze with real flames, which appears as if it is about to collapse onto the track, and then, after rocketing around in pitch darkness, you get blasted with bursts of steam illuminated by hidden red spotlights so they look like fire.

In contrast to the colourful attractions at Disney's parks, the rides at Universal are aimed more at adults and the hotels are no exception. Sitting alongside the Portofino at Universal is a hotel themed to the mission on the cover of the Eagles' Hotel California album. In contrast, at Disney guests can check into hotels resembling giant toy-boxes and aquatic palaces.

Disney World's Dolphin Hotel is said to have a water theme but looks more like a high-tech coral-coloured pyramid. A huge fountain in front of it cascades water down giant clamshells towards the Swan hotel opposite which has waves painted on its walls and huge swan statues "sailing" atop. Waterfalls line the entrance to the Dolphin's lobby and its restaurant fittingly serves top-notch seafood.

But despite its unusual theme, the Dolphin has all the trappings of a deluxe hotel as it is run by the global chain Sheraton. Its location on Disney property gives it a host of perks which are far from Mickey Mouse. It is within walking distance of two parks and Disney's cuddly characters join you at the table for breakfast and dinner. Guests also get extra hours in the parks after closing and a room key which doubles as a payment card to charge anything in the resort to your room and have it delivered there. It saves carrying cash but can lead to some wincing when checking out if you've treated it like "Mickey Mouse" money.

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There's also a complimentary coach to take hotel guests on the 30-minute journey to and from the airport. Free access to reliable resort-wide transportation, including boats and monorails, makes Disney seem even further removed from the outside world.

The most intelligent thrills are found at the Epcot science-themed park which has a private entrance just a few minutes walk from the Dolphin. The park has coasters themed to car test-tracks and a glider simulator with seats swaying over a huge screen as scents are pumped in to match the film.

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Children will be agog over a new ride through a giant aquarium which appears to have the cast of Pixar's movie Finding Nemo swimming inside it courtesy of an ingenious projection system. There are intricate touches littered around the park for parents too with fibre-optic lights in the floor, new-age music piped from hidden speakers which changes style according to which area you happen to be in, and a huge fountain which dances to music.

The most ingenious attraction is the centrepiece of Disney's Hollywood Studios park: Toy Story Mania. This will leave you asking "how did they do that?" Sitting in a ride car you don 3D goggles and take control of a light gun which appears to shoot everything from baseballs to custard pies at on-screen targets themed to the Toy Story movies. Unlike most rides, this one fights back and even crack shots get blasted with bursts of air cleverly timed to 3D projectiles hurled from the screen.

Even restaurants get the themed treatment in Orlando. The highlight is T Rex, in a mock cave with giant fossils straddling the entrance and walls that look like ice. Robot dinosaurs hide in the fake forest beside the seats complete with steam rising from the ground. There's so much to see that it can distract from the US-sized portions of pasta for 17 (10) and after days in Orlando's worlds of whimsy your eyes are the only part of your body which are more tired than your feet.

THE FACTS A package for two adults and two children including flights on Virgin from London Gatwick and seven nights' accommodation from 13 February 2010 in Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel costs 1,491.50 per adult and 1,071.50 for each child (under 17). Book online for a 215.30 discount at The same package at the Disney World Dolphin costs 1,531.50 per adult and 1,081.50 per child (under 17) with a 220.30 discount online. Seven-day passes to all four Disney theme parks cost 225 per adult and 195 per child. Three-day passes to Universal's theme parks and the Wet 'n' Wild water park cost 100 per adult and 95 per child.

This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday 09 January, 2010.