Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
Orlando may not be the cheapest of holiday choices, but if your customers want to live in fantasyland for a week or so there's no better place. And with theme parks adding new rides and Legoland Florida opening in October, the destination continues to get bigger and better.
All that growth means getting maximum fun and maximum value takes a bit of planning, so with that in mind I tried cramming nine parks into six days. Here's how I got on...
The first thing I liked was the ease and speed with which I picked up my Avis hire car. The rental desks at Orlando International Airport are in the terminal building, meaning there’s no bus ride out to a distant parking lot – a real bonus for people with over-excited kids in tow.
Thirty minutes behind the wheel took me off Interstate 4 and on to International Drive. The hub of Downtown Orlando, I-Drive is wall-to-wall fine dining, all-you-can-eat buffets, bargain gift shops, crazy golf, burger joints, convenience stores, clubs, bars and attractions such as Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!
I-Drive is also a good tool for getting your bearings, with Universal located at the northern end and SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove at the southern.
Visitors who stay at the northern end of I-Drive can explore the shops and eateries by foot, but those who stay farther south will need to use a car or hop on the I-Ride Trolley (tickets $1.25, from 8am until 10.30pm).
Walt Disney World, meanwhile, is south of Downtown and just 20 minutes from Orlando airport. Set in 25,000 acres, the pace here feels slower, with countryside and lakes separating the parks. With I-Drive and Walt Disney World linked by Interstate 4, getting your bearings is a piece of cake.
Once you’ve found out whether your clients want to blitz every park in a fortnight, focus on the coasters or get up close to animals and marine life, you can start putting together a perfect itinerary and racking up your commission.
There are VIP benefits galore for clients staying at partner properties of the theme parks. They're nearer to the parks, offer early entry and provide complimentary transport links, saving both time and pricey car parking fees. If ease and convenience are important, it’s worth suggesting clients skip between partner hotels as they skip between parks.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure lives up to all the hype.
The main attraction, Harry Potter the Forbidden Journey, is housed in a fabulous replica of Hogwarts Castle. Talking-paintings brief you on your mission before you board an ‘enchanted bench’ for a fantastical ride.
Over at Busch Gardens, the new Cheetah Hunt ride gives you the chance to feel like a predator in the wild. Three power surges propel you towards your prey. A low section of track traverses the bush, giving you the feeling of stealthily stalking your next meal. A rocky canyon and water feature complete the sensation – well worth the drive to Tampa.
Discovery Cove’s Grand Reef, which opened in June, offers a sublime snorkelling experience for all swimming abilities. A mix of shallow and deeper sections surround a colourful artificial reef that teems with 10,000 fish, including rays.
Visitors can also swim up to underwater aquariums and come face to face with the sharks on the other side of the glass. It really is quite brilliant, and completely addictive – I could barely tear myself away.
Grand Reef at Discovery Cove
Food, glorious food
Disney is bucking the trend for fast food with a range of upmarket, table-service restaurants. Brown Derby in Disney’s Hollywood Studios serves absolutely fabulous gourmet meals in a glamorous, golden-age-of-Hollywood setting.
Disney’s Dining Plan offers resort guests the chance to prepay for this and a host of other eateries across its parks and hotels, including quick-service diners and character buffets. It’s a great add-on for those who like to pre-budget or who consider good food an important part of their holiday.
And for clients looking for themed accommodation, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is the ultimate property. It recreates the feel of an African safari lodge, with a huge wooden entrance hall, rope bridges, fireplaces and flaming torches, plus rooms with balconies looking out on to a savannah where you can spot gazelle, zebra and giraffe. It's the perfect retreat after a day at the park.
With the pound on a high against the dollar, scheduling some shopping is a must. Many outlets offer savings, including Orlando Premium Outlets’ two centres which offer discounts of 25%-65%.
Stores at the International Drive Centre, a short hop from Universal, and the Vineland Avenue centre, close to SeaWorld and Disney, include Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein, Ted Baker and Gap. Both stay open until 11pm so retail therapy needn’t cut into your park time.
The thing I found most frustrating was queueing to get my entrance tickets, which took 35-60 minutes at each park. Advising clients to buy tickets before they fly is an essential tip. The ticket specialists have a wide variety of packages that cover pretty much every combination of parks and durations.
Attraction World’s best-selling Florida multi-park ticket is The One, which offers unlimited admission for 14 consecutive days to Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and Worlds of Discovery for £449 per adult, £409 per child.
From September 1, Attraction World is offering free transport between Orlando and Legoland Florida for bookings made between September 1 and October 15.
Do Something Different is offering a free child ticket for every adult Kennedy Space Center admission badge booked before September 30 – a saving of £19.
Virgin Holidays is offering seven nights’ B&B at the 3V+ Springhill Suites at SeaWorld on International Drive from £1,049 per person. The price is based on two sharing, for departures from September 9-12, and includes Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick. vhols4agents.co.uk, 0844 557 3973
Cosmos Holidays has seven nights’ self-catering at the four-diamond-rated Cane Island, Kissimmee (about three miles from Disney), from £719 per adult and £329 per child, based on two adults and two children sharing a two-bedroom apartment. The price includes flights from Gatwick on September 3 and car hire. cosmos.co.uk, 0871 423 8518
Funway Holidays is offering seven nights at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge for a family of four from £3,299 based on two adults and two children (aged 2-11) sharing a standard room. The price is valid for travel on August 31 with American Airlines flights and transfers on the Disney Magical Express. funwayholidays.co.uk, 0844 557 0770
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