"Sorry, Daddy can’t take you to Disney." Communicating this gently to your children, especially when watery, blue eyes gaze up at you pleading, is the cross I have to bear. Yet, here I find myself at this awful bifurcate for a parent.
As someone grappling with unavoidable middle age, I am a bastion of hope that not only Disney World but some of the best attractions Orlando has to offer would help reconnect with the younger me and offer me renewed vitality. Kennedy Space Center has also been my idea of nirvana for as long as I can remember. The thought of getting up close and personal with the iconic Space Shuttle and the colossus that is the Saturn V rocket held a huge fascination for me as an impressionable young man.
With two children of my own, I need to also add a disclaimer. I can attest it comes across as inherently selfish of me to take a trip like this without my children. In attempting to justify this to myself, and after much deliberation, I decided I really couldn’t. Therefore, I was armed with a budget for merchandise and the promise to visit with them when my work 'research' was concluded. Bad dad vibes hopefully will be avoided but I’m sure other parents reading this are tutting out loud.
Getting to the Sunshine State takes time and unless you are cruising and have weeks to spare, flying is your only recourse. I took an informed punt on a relatively new low-budget airline Norse in order to take advantage of their premium-class product without the premium price tag. Long-haul flights can be a nightmarish affair if, like me, you are tall. I will always take anything to help my legs resist curling up underneath the seat in front like a pair of mangled pipe cleaners. Overall, the flight was comfortable with the best legroom I’ve experienced in a premium economy seat. Curb your expectations of the latest movies on demand and free-flowing champagne, however.
Swan Reserve, Disney World Resort
The guilt of not attending with my children was exacerbated as soon as I drove into ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’. Given it was the evening, witnessing happy families grace the sidewalks, their children adorned with the ubiquitous Mickey Mouse ears and waving bubble machines, instantly gave me pangs of missing my own family. However, onwards in the name of research and connecting with a younger version of myself.
I opted to reside at the Swan Reserve Hotel, which is within walking distance between EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s a boutique affair that straddles an apex between the larger Swan and Dolphin resorts opposite which imposingly dominate the Disney skyline. Personally, I prefer a smaller and more intimate service and the Reserve provided just that. It has all the amenities of its larger cousins across the road which you can still utilise should you wish. The small but perfectly formed gym was also welcome in helping me kick the unwanted jet lag first thing in the morning.
Disney World VIP
I was pleasantly taken aback when I was met by Disney-personified Paul, my VIP guide for the day. These guides can be an exorbitant outlay, but if it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience you're after, this is bucket list territory. Although it will be twice in a lifetime for me with the kids, I’ll play that research card. A guide can also shave hours off your time in the park as you skip all the lines. A warning, once you have had this experience, you will never want to queue ever again. Having a friendly Disney face recommending rides and holding your bags as you enjoy the rollercoasters is a great addition, but sadly does come with a very hefty price tag. Prices range from $450 an hour upwards, but if you have zero time to absorb the parks and split this between a large group of you, your eyes might stop watering at the cost.
The experience of Disney World itself was one I still cannot fathom due to the absolute enormity of the place. Motorways link each of the four parks/ kingdoms alongside the infamous monorail, cable cars and buses. If dear ol’ Walt had been alive to see his dream manifest, I can only wonder what he would have made of the entertainment metropolis created in his honour.
As you navigate the parks, you’ll be grateful for the air conditioning in the rides that helps you relinquish the sweat you accumulate purely by walking in the humid Orlando heat. I kept thinking that I would never even attempt this with young children without a lightning lane entry pass and I could only respect parents who took on this challenge.
Ride highlights for me were the TRON lightcycle run, where you are strapped into a lightcycle and fired 60 miles per hour around the park and into a blue neon extravaganza. I’m an accomplished film nerd and it was a ride I simply could not have missed. Next up, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind in EPCOT is worth a mention. Faster and longer than TRON, it was also an adrenalin-soaked adventure with the welcome addition of Glenn Close and Terry Crews providing the introduction.
Another notable scream-inducing ride was Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which was worth the theme park entrance twice over for pure immersion alone into the Star Wars world. Expedition Everest, which will have you riding backwards whilst clawing for your sanity, was equally thrilling. Finally, I happily clambered aboard the simulation ride Avatar Flight of Passage. This experience sees you ride a banshee through the world of Avatar’s Na’vi and the pure enormity of it is something to behold. Was I feeling younger yet? Admittedly, a heady mixture of jetlag and adrenaline was beginning to give me more wrinkles instead of removing them.
Something odd to eat
After the excitement wanes, you’re going to get hungry. Food options at Disney World are plentiful and the delicious menus can range from normal to downright absurd. Cheeseburger spring rolls anyone? They sounded utterly heinous but were surprisingly delectable. The voluminous desserts at the Satu’il Canteen were also a joy and anyone with a penchant for luminous food colourings won’t be disappointed. More down-to-earth choices exist within the hotels and dining at Rosa Mexicano in the Dolphin Hotel was a delightful barrage of pomegranate margaritas and fresh guacamole prepared at your table. I also have to admit that the New York strip I devoured in Shula’s Lounge in the Swan Hotel was possibly the best steak I have ever eaten. Have it cooked ‘Oscar-style’, you’ll be glad you did.
If you want to get out of the parks altogether, then the Bombay Street Kitchen, a Michelin-recommended diner, is a fine choice. I gladly ate a Dosa the size of a cow’s hoof. Every dish’s spice content seems to have been poured over in exact detail. Worthy of your time is also the beautifully reposed Canvas on Lake Nona. This is American home cooking with heart, a twist and an atmosphere to keep you swilling cocktails until the early hours. It’s therefore no revelation to me that Orlando has just been anointed the Foodie Capital of America so please don’t spit your canapes out in surprise.
Not far from Disney World inhabits the strange, wacky and wonderful world of Dezerland. The brainchild of property Michael Dezer, a property magnate and car enthusiast (who visits every Wednesday), it contains over eight hundred thousand square feet of arcades, go-karting tracks, miniature golf, automobiles and the world’s largest James Bond museum. Housing some of the greatest Bond toys and cars you’ll ever see in the flesh, this is a do-before-you-die for the most ardent enthusiast. I have to admit that I found the place a little rough around the edges, with some of the cars and layouts almost laughable (see if you can find artwork with Princess Diana’s name misspelt), but the enormity of the indoor arena is quite astounding and perfect for when the rain scuppers your plans.
The next course on the adrenal menu was Universal Studios, Orlando. Perfect for those who like their parks a little less Disney, it’s a bit more grown-up in tempo. Sadly, not being a fan meant the zones dedicated to Harry Potter were wasted on me. With King’s Cross Station and Leicester Square Tube lovingly recreated in exquisite detail, even I could appreciate darting through platform 9 ¾ - yes, you will disappear. As we walked down Diagon Alley, Potterites in all their splendour brandished wands at $75 a pop and wondered in a dreamlike haze, chugging Butterbeer (I did try it, ludicrously sickeningly sweet) and challenging each other to duels. Watching all of this unfold coupled with my British cynicism, I realised that I probably belonged to Slytherin. Either that or I would always be destined to muggle status.
An impressive fire-breathing dragon above Gringotts Bank housed a magnificent ride. Part rollercoaster and simulator, the Escape from Gringotts Bank is definitely worth the queue along with Hagrid’s Magic Motorcycle Adventure. However, there’s more to Universal than just Potter, and for those who like their thrills at full speed, then a trip to Jurassic World’s Velicoaster is for you. At 70mph, a zero gravity invert and a barrel roll prepared to be gleefully terrified. There was laughter and palatable relief as everyone departed the ride.
Halloween Horror Nights
It’s not often I’ll spend fifteen hours just in a theme park, but when it comes to Halloween, Universal puts on a show that I simply had to stay to witness. With streets overtaken with scare zones for their Halloween Horror Nights, the sound studios are converted into Haunted Houses where you can enter sets recreated in the guise of Stranger Things, The Exorcist and even The Last of Us. If you’re not a fan of a ‘jump-scare’ then I’d avoid it like a zombie-infused plague.
Actors leap out at you from the dark recesses as your attention is diverted by the odd corpse lying around. These are excellent with their attention to detail and fans of the shows will be in their element. However, the queues are ludicrously long with some leaving you scrolling on your phone for up to 90 minutes. After you’ve experienced a couple, the formula also seems to get repetitive and they feel a little trite. I’d recommend doing a max of three and saving your time for some late-night coasters such as the wickedly surprising Revenge of the Mummy. I could feel my old teenage self clamouring to break through from this 40-year-old husk and the jump-scares and coasters were starting to put some youthful cracks in my aged armoury.
Kennedy Space Center
As a child, I happened across the relatively unknown B-movie Space Camp. My obsession began with begging to visit Cape Canaveral and blindly hoping during space training I too would be accidentally blasted into space on the space shuttle. A few decades later, strolling into the grounds of Kennedy Space Center and marvelling at all the rockets, I was that boy once again. My first port of call was the Nasa Now & Next expo which features Space X rockets, numerous launch capsules and the Gateway simulators that transport you to other worlds. Red Planet is a must and has you zooming over the surface of Mars in hyper-realism and with the odd puff of air blasted in your face for effect, it’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to a real journey into the stars.
Jumping on a bus and touring the facility, we passed the Vehicle Assembly Building or VAB. A rocket booster was currently being ferried to a lunch site and my own realisation occurred that this was a working base. Teenage me was rising from the depths of my adult mind and I couldn't help but beam a huge excitable smile. We subsequently arrived at the awe-inspiring Race to the Moon. A short film later and you amble into the launch operations facility where another film guides you through the Apollo missions. It’s brilliantly detailed, the doors to the building then swing open to reveal the breathtaking Saturn V rocket. A tour guide takes you down the length of the rocket explaining the stages of launch and after purchasing my NASA t-shirt from the gift shop opposite, I was fully indoctrinated and ready to leave the UK permanently and fulfil my astronaut ambitions.
Space Shuttle Atlantis
A bus ride back to the main space center and the iconic boosters and orange fuel tank welcome you to the Space Shuttle Atlantis experience. Again, a couple of well-produced films guide the unfamiliar through the shuttle’s history. You are further led into a room surrounded by screens, where the main screen becomes opaque revealing the majestic shuttle behind it. To say that I was awe-inspired would be an understatement; to walk underneath such an iconic machine took me a moment to really absorb what I was witnessing. My adrenaline fix for the day came courtesy of the Space shuttle launch experience which was as tantalisingly close as I was going to get to live out my Space Camp fantasy.
Finally sated with space exploration and a fill of rollercoasters, I could take no more. No trip to Florida would be complete without getting stupidly close to the gaping jaws of an alligator, however. There is a plentiful opportunity to do this in the aptly named Gatorland. From holding one-month-old baby gators to a too-close-to-comfort feeding session, this seems like the quintessential Florida experience. For those gatorphobes amongst you, they also have a climbing wall, a zipline across the park, big cats and a 114-year-old tortoise who loves to be stroked underneath the neck. The live show they operate pokes fun at rednecks and hillbillies whilst hanging raw chickens out for the gators to fight over is a spectacle in its ridiculousness. Following that, I was definitely done and ready to head home but not before a quick shop stop at The Mall at Millenia to appease my missed loved ones with some peace offerings. The air-conditioned space was also a palatable relief from the Florida humidity within which I was beginning to melt.
Orlan-do or don’t?
As I sat on the plane home digesting everything I had witnessed and experienced, I realised what I love about travelling is the juxtaposition of opposites. You could be relaxing in a hotel, but then the next minute swimming through sinotes or diving through pristine coral reefs. On this particular venture, I was subjected to adrenaline and heightened sensations consistently with little respite. I have to admit that throwing caution to the wind can revitalise you, but are rollercoasters and theme parks the key to youthful exuberance? This is not rhetorical, but something I am still figuring out. I laughed, I reminisced and yes, had fun but becoming a ‘Disney adult’ is far from my calling. I think for the ultimate theme park experience with some great dining options outside the parks thrown in, Orlando is for you. I still, however, have a task on my hands to convince my children that Daddy was working the whole time.
* As of 2023, Norse Atlantic Airways direct flights between London Gatwick and Orlando are available to book now on www.flynorse.com from £425 return including all taxes. Disney Swan Reserve Hotel one-bedroom suites start from £382 p/night based on two adults sharing. For more information please visit http://www.visitorlando.com.
*A Universal Orlando 3 Park Explorer Ticket costs from £329 per adult and £319 per child (aged 3-9) with AttractionTickets.com. The ticket includes unlimited park-to-park admission to Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal's Volcano Bay water theme park for up to 14 consecutive days. Tickets are flexible, open dated and gate-ready. To book visit www.attractiontickets.com or call free on 0800 223 0324.