Orlando’s Theme Parks

Orlando’s theme parks not for you? Think again, says Neil Bonner.  

Orlando, Florida, is home to some of the best white-knuckle rides in the world. But if you are of an age, or scaredy-cat disposition, where your role in life is chief bag watcher while more adventurous, and possibly younger, members of your party do the heart-stopping stuff, don’t worry. There’s still plenty for you to do within Orlando and the surrounding area.

Even if you never normally step on to anything more adventurous than an escalator, don’t dismiss the Disney and Universal theme parks too readily. Instead, while your thrill-seeking gang enjoy stomach-churning excitement on daring rides, take time to embrace what these two giants of the entertainment business have been spending their billions of dollars on recently.

The impressive Star Wars: Galaxy’s EdgeFor instance, whether you’re a fan of the Star Wars films or not, you cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer brilliance of Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge, a massive wonderland that includes a bustling marketplace and a full-sized Millennium Falcon spaceship. The Mickey Mouse organisation is now pulling in fans by the thousands to ‘fly’ this iconic monster on a thrilling interactive smuggling mission. Just being there is fantastic, so take the opportunity to admire the sheer artistry that has gone into creating the fantasy Black Spire Outpost on the planet Batuu. Note how crumbling walls are pock-marked with reminders of blaster power from previous missions and how metal fixtures appear to be covered in rust. All fake, of course, but it looks great. You might get a polite but menacing warning from a passing Stormtrooper, asking you to move on! It’s all part of the fun. 

The not so stomach-churning Pandora Avatar Flight of Passage rideDisney is also scoring big with an additional new mystical land based on the world of Pandora from the 2009 film Avatar. The two rides here, Navi River Journey and Flight of Passage, rather than spinning you senseless, are both quite magical, immersing you in another land full of beautiful plants and fantasy creatures.

Universal has plenty of big hitters, too. So, while you might think twice about riding Hagrid’s Motorbike, a new hardcore thrill ride for which the more daring visitor willingly queues for two hours or more, soak up the brilliance of Universal dream makers whose Wizarding World of Harry Potter is simply breath-taking.

In this escalating tit-for-tat war of fun, nothing stands still for long. Universal is building a new Jurassic World roller coaster due to open in 2020. So, who will be the eventual winners in this intriguing battle for thrill seekers?

Having a break in The Leaky Cauldron, Diagon AlleyWell, it would appear to be win win all round, just as long as visitors keep screaming for more. For further information go to disneyworld.co.uk and orlando.com.

But not all of Florida’s theme parks are in Orlando. Head out towards Tampa, an hour’s drive away, and check out Busch Gardens.

This historic park is home to a collection of arguably the best white-knuckle rides anywhere in the world – with another one, Iron Gwazi – a hybrid roller coaster of wood and steel, due to open next year. But once again, there is much on offer for the non-thrill-seeker. If wildlife is your thing, you’ll enjoy seeing lots of it at this venue, including lions, tigers, elephants and gorillas. And in case all that’s not enough, there is also a top-class international ice show to be enjoyed at no extra cost. 

That’s the thing about theme parks, they offer much more than just white-knuckle rides. At Disney’s EPCOT, for example, as you stroll around a large lake in their World Showcase, you can visit a string of countries, from Japan to Mexico, each represented in glorious style, offering food, drink and handicrafts all served by people of the respective nations. And for several months each summer there is even more to tantalise your tastebuds, thanks to an international food and drink festival staged there.

Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts CastleNow you may think that after the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Moon Landings last July, the Kennedy Space Center would be content to bask in its rich history and wallow in the glory of a job well done. But not a bit of it. This fascinating and educational attraction, an hour or so out of Orlando, is not just an elaborate museum that movingly pays tribute to the astronauts and their rockets that achieved so much, but looks ahead, too. Visitors are taken by bus to sites including the launch pads used for many of the major lift-offs and are shown the places from which rockets will head for Mars, in the not too distant future.

The centre is respectful of its past but has a tangible vibrancy as it points towards an exciting future. A great way to relax after a hard day’s theme parking and sightseeing is to book in for a dinner show. As the name suggests you eat dinner while watching a show and there are several to choose from in Orlando. You can mingle with comedy gangsters at Capone’s, play detective at Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows, or be baffled by comedy magic. But my favourite is Medieval Times, where daring knights of old do battle, astride beautiful horses.

For help and advice on all attractions in Orlando, go to www.visitorlando.com


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Neil Bonner

Travel writer

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