The ‘Snowbirds’ fly south all over America to the Sunshine State of Florida. They are the people who don’t want to stay in the very cold northern parts of America and so travel south to warmer climes. 72 million people visit Florida every year!
Well, this year we joined them, our flight to Florida was to get away from the British cold weather for a month and find the sun, but I got a little worried as I thought Florida would tilt into the Caribbean Sea as there are so many Americans there.
We had a daytime flight, flying backwards in time, meaning that you arrive in day light, which is a bonus when you are hiring a car and driving on the opposite side of the road in an unfamiliar vehicle.
If you are unsure or slightly nervous about driving in Florida, arrange for a shuttle bus or a taxi to get you to your hotel then pick up the car and ‘learn’ how it works and get the confidence to drive – from then on the roads are wide and the drivers are courteous plus the speed limit is observed.
Alternatively, if you decide to pick up a hire car straight from the airport it couldn’t be easier. The signs in the airport guide you to the many hire car dealers and with a little patience you get good information and good hire car. But beware, American roads signs are mainly street names and not towns, so get a GPS or a very good map to help you along.
Be prepared for a long wait at Orlando Airport customs, as thousands of people land in this International Airport. We waited over an hour to get through!
We had booked our flights, car hire and accommodation for one week. We stayed at Mystic Dunes Golf Resort which was excellent and near to Disney World and Kissimmee. It’s a large sprawling resort with three swimming pools, a golf course and two good restaurants.
Our accommodation provided a shuttle bus to get us to the theme parks which was a bonus, although car parking in all the theme parks is well organised and runs smoothly considering the number of visitors each day.
Florida is expensive; the only thing that isn’t is petrol (or gas as the Americans say). We only had two days at the theme parks, one at Universal Studios: which costs around £200, prices do vary if you buy online or get a good price from your hotel concierge as we did, so it could be less expensive.
Epcot for the day cost approximately £75 per person.
Wear good, comfortable shoes as there is a lot of walking.
Food and drink are allowed in the theme park; water fountains are around the parks and you will never starve as there are so many places to eat.
Security is strict and your bags are searched before you go in. On many rides you cannot take bags of any sort, but lockers are provided for a minimal fee.
We chose to do just two theme parks, Universal Studios and Epcot. Universal is linked to Island Adventure and the Harry Potter Experience straddles both, linked by the Hogwarts Express.
We are senior travellers, but had a ‘whale’ of a time: for the young and old it is amazing. The ride in Hogwarts Village is so good we went on twice – at our age! Then onward to Diagon Alley on the Hogwarts Express to Platform 9 ¾ to take another ride into the depths of Gringotts Bank. You may or may not be a fan of Harry Potter but thousands of people are, and the atmosphere was electric with people dressed in Hogwarts School Gowns or T-shirts with Slytherin or Hufflepuff on the front, drinking Butter Beer (non-alcoholic) which tastes like butterscotch – not great, but you have to try these things, don’t you!
There are many other attractions at Universal Studios which include River Adventure and Rip Saw Falls (bring a change of clothes – as you get very wet on this ride) the E.T. ride, the Simpsons ride, The Chocolate Emporium and a river cruise around the area.
Glyn’s tip: Find the information centre as you go into the parks and ask about Express Passes, which get you through the queues quicker and have other daily offers. Also make sure you have a two-centre pass for Harry Potter Experience, as this includes the ride on the Hogwarts Express.
Epcot is another famous theme park featuring many lands, including a ‘fake’ Great British Village with a very popular Fish and Chip shop. Epcot has a calmer atmosphere and is easy to navigate. The pleasure rides are very good and long queues do form – but wait until later and the queues shorten. The G-Force plane ride simulation will make you see stars!
You can stroll through a small replica Paris and have champagne or sit awhile with a lovely beer from replica Germany. The drums from the ‘fake’ Japan are definitely worth stopping for, they are played at set times, so look on the boards for the times they start.
Outside the theme parks, Orlando has large business and residential areas. Winter Park is a beautiful area with a park, beautiful shops and restaurants. Try the Scenic Boat Tour down by the Winter Park Lake, they leave on the hour from 10am to 4pm and cost $14 per person.
A visit to Celebration, a small suburb south of the Disney complex, is rather a change from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks. This beautiful district is another Walt Disney creation, but it is a residential area that people live and work in, with a large lake and lovely shops and occasionally a Farmers‘ Market – look out for the signs or ask at your accommodation.
Areas like Kissimmee and International Drive are very popular for tourists and many hotels are based around this area as it is near to Disney World. A visit to Disney Springs is quite an experience with more shops and bars, it is free to go in to and has ample car parking.
The American way is to ‘play’ hard all day, have supper, then go to bed. Very few restaurants open after 9 pm, there are exceptions to the rule but in general, it is an early night for an early start.
Our time in Orlando was up after seven days in this ‘fantasy world’ that people come from all over the world to visit. We had mastered the stat-nav and the opposite side of the road to drive. So, we set off for the next leg of our journey to Tampa followed by a cruise: the adventure begins!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Sky