Travel Weekly competition winner Julie Ausden-Day reports from SeaWorld on her family’s best holiday ever
When Tamworth travel agent Julie Ausden-Day spotted a competition in Travel Weekly offering the chance to win an all-expenses-paid holiday to SeaWorld for herself and her family, she couldn’t believe her luck.
She and husband Steven, 49, had always dreamed of taking Sophie, 10, and Joseph, eight, to SeaWorld for their first jaunt across the pond. And the trip didn’t disappoint, as the 44-year-old Midcounties Co-operative agent found a lot more than she bargained for at the Florida parks.
Here she reveals the highlights of her trip of a lifetime.
A dream come true
I’m still on cloud nine! Steven and I had been to SeaWorld years ago when my sister-in-law got married there, and I always thought that when I have kids, this is where I want to bring them. We had been saving up for it, so when I saw the competition, I thought I would have a go.
When I got the call to say I’d won, I burst into tears. I always knew I would get there eventually, but that moment will live with me for a long time.
Sophie had told me months before that she wanted to swim with dolphins, but the kids had no real idea of what to expect – how do you tell a child about Florida?
Aquatica: Water World
We had never been to a big water park before, and even though Joseph tends to be a bit wary of water, even he was in his element.
He loved going round the rapids – once he got in, he didn’t want to come out – and Sophie and I sped round a few flumes as well. We had a cabana, which was great because it gives you somewhere to recharge in between rides.
None of us were brave enough to try Ihu’s Breakaway Falls, where the floor drops from beneath you, but it was definitely one of the best water parks I’ve been to, so it’s great that it was the kids’ first one.
Discovery Cove: A tropical oasis
I couldn’t believe how lush Discovery Cove is. It’s like a tropical oasis, with a beautiful beach as upmarket as any in the Caribbean, which is great for non-swimmers because it’s a lovely place to relax.
Once we got into the water, there were fish and stingrays all around us. We even got close to the shark enclosure, though there was a glass barrier, so thankfully not too close. My kids had never snorkelled, but everything felt so safe that we could just enjoy it.
Swimming with dolphins was beyond any experience I’ve ever had. The staff explained every step – you could see it was their passion – and to see the dolphins interact with us and the keepers was fantastic.
It felt quite natural, as the dolphins come and go as they want – ours swam off for a bit, then came back when she was ready. We all felt so calm with them.
SeaWorld: Learn and earn
We went behind the scenes to learn where the animals come from, what they eat and how the staff look after them.
We were also told about the rescue programme, which involves staff travelling all over the US to rehabilitate animals such as dolphins, manatees and birds. If there’s an animal they think they can save, they will go and help.
We tend to regard SeaWorld as a big theme park, but you don’t realise how much work goes on. We went into the hospital to see an eagle with an injured wing coming round from an anaesthetic. The vets were hopeful it would return to the wild soon.
The staff were so welcoming and enthusiastic about their jobs. We went down to speak to the trainers after the shows – we loved the sea lion and otter shows, but my highlight was the killer whale – and they were open about the animals’ welfare and keen for us to learn. And being just two metres from a killer whale was a money-can’t-buy moment.
Busch Gardens: Safari style
It’s a 75-minute drive from SeaWorld, but Busch Gardens is worth the journey. The Serengeti Safari was brilliant: to see zebras and giraffes from the back of a safari truck was such a different experience from a zoo in the UK.
The kids visited the flamingo pen and we went behind the scenes at the animal hospital to feed some armadillos and see what they feel like – you expect them to be rock hard, but all the little ridges are actually just skin.
The kids kept asking questions and it was great to get them involved with the keepers and vets. We’ve never had pets but now they’re more interested in animals. Having friends with cats or dogs is one thing, but to be up close with whales, flamingos and armadillos is a different matter.
And to top it all, we spotted Elmo – for the younger ones, there’s still that special moment when their favourite characters come to life.
Mum's verdict: ‘The best holiday ever’
I felt so privileged that my kids got to experience this, as it was the best holiday ever. The Doubletree by Hilton at SeaWorld was gorgeous – I’ve already booked customers there – with nice pools, fantastic food and good bar areas.
Plus, you’re just a short walk from SeaWorld and Aquatica. And our Dreamliner flight with Norwegian was brilliant. I would fly with them again.
It’s opened my eyes to more of Florida. Yes, you’ve got rides and shows, but I preferred the learning side. Since I’ve come back, I’ve had a couple of customers interested in conservation, and I’ve been able to tell them about SeaWorld.
If I had my way, I’d send everybody to SeaWorld now. My passion always used to be Majorca, but now I think it’s Florida – and I can’t wait to go back.
Daughter's verdict: ‘I can’t stop talking about it’
Sophie, 10, says: “I was excited about swimming with dolphins, but I didn’t know it would be so much fun. We got to interact with them in their own environment, and the keepers showed us how to do actions they would respond to.
“The sea lions did fun tricks and they all had different personalities. I loved the penguins with their smooth skin – they were different from any other animal I’ve seen.
“We saw an eagle having an X-ray after its wing had been caught on a car and talked to the vets about what they do to look after their animals.
“At Busch Gardens, we went in a pen with the flamingos and even fed a giraffe – I couldn’t believe they were that tall!
“We tried lots of big rides, such as the Manta and Kraken, which had eight loops. It was the first time I had been on an upside-down rollercoaster, so it was scary. But I just closed my eyes and screamed. And when it was over, I just wanted to go on it again.
“None of my friends have been to SeaWorld, but I haven’t been able to stop talking about it, so now I think they all want to go!”
Attraction World offers a three-park ticket with 14 days’ access to SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica and Busch Gardens, from £116 per adult and £112 per child in 2016. Add a SeaWorld Behind The Scenes tour for £28/£12. attractionworld.com
Do Something Different features the Discovery Cove Ultimate Package, for a day at Discovery Cove with optional dolphin swim, plus two weeks’ entry to SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens and Aquatica. Prices start at £138 (£181 with the swim). dosomethingdifferent.com
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