Four days in Orlando…where dreams come true

Orlando, Florida. It’s known as the place ‘where dreams come true’.

If you dream of spending huge amounts of money in a short period of time, while surrounded by furry-suited characters, drinking average coffee and eating only foods that are accompanied by a mound of fries, then I suppose that could be the case. For me, it’s more of a nightmare come true. Especially one of those nightmares that involves me being strapped into a small vehicle and sent hurtling around some scare-the-bejeezus-out-of-Fairlie ride.

But don’t listen to me. I’m the ultimate theme park wet blanket. I was never hit by the magic stick when we visited Disneyland in Anaheim. I couldn’t wait to leave the island when we ventured to Vinpearl Land in Nha Trang. Theme parks are just not my thing. But millions disagree with me, including the other three members of The Fairlie Entourage.  And in the spirit of Clause 4 of The Fairlie Manifesto: my 10 guiding principles for travel as a family, I’m always open to compromise.

So, we had four full days to spend in the city where dreams come true.

Orlando is so large, and so full of tourist attractions that you could quite honestly spend two weeks there and still not even scratch the surface of what there is to do – and many, many people do, in fact, spend that long there each year.  So, we had to prioritise.

Day 1: Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort

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Walt Disney World Resort at Orlando is massive, covering a phenomenal 75 square kilometres (47 square miles). Included within Walt Disney World are four major theme parks: Magic Kingdom Park, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom; two water parks (Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon); a retail marketplace and night-time entertainment complex (Downtown Disney); and the Wide World Of Sports Complex which is 200 acres of sporting action. The attractions are all a large distance apart, and each is big enough to fill a full day. So, with limited time, we really had to pick our parks.

Magic Kingdom was top of the list, because it is the original of the Walt Disney World parks and it is the most ‘traditional’ of the parks – the iconic magic castle, classic Disney rides and attractions (such as ‘It’s a Small World’, the teacups and Splash Mountain), Disney characters, princesses and pirates…

It’s also, by far, the busiest park, so requires a degree of pre-planning to attack all seven of the wedged-shaped ‘lands’ arranged around the castle in the centre.

I have to admit, this time around there were moments when I felt the magic.

When it came to the rides, I was a team player, pushing myself well outside my comfort zone.  I have never screamed like I did the.whole.way.around the Big Thunder Railroad, and I will never scream again on Splash Mountain (it results in a mouthful of disgusting water…I’ve learned my lesson).

The two parades (the daytime Festival of Fantasy parade, and the night-time Main Street Electrical Parade) were worth watching alone for the reactions of some of the younger kids in the crowd. One small girl near me screamed hysterically whenever any of the princesses were in sight…and nearly passed out with hyperventilation when Tinkerbell appeared. Ahhh! To think she’ll transfer that affection to some young popstar in a matter of mere years…

Day 2: Epcot at Walt Disney World

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Epcot was the second Disney theme park to open in Orlando. The name Epcot was originally an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It opened in 1982, and I’d imagine at the time, it was quite space-aged and technologically advanced. Parts of it now, however, seem quite quaint.

Entry to the park is gained through Future World, which contains the signature silvery sphere as well as a number of rides and displays with a technology/sustainability/community focus. Then, located around the World Showcase Lagoon are 11 international pavilions representing countries such as Norway, Germany, Canada and Japan. It’s a bit like a Contiki tour – 11 countries in eight hours – with each of the pavilions staffed by nationals of that country and containing cultural exhibitions or performances, produce, foods, and drinks from that country.

The food at Epcot was actually not too bad at all…and unlike Magic Kingdom which is a dry-zone, there was alcohol available at each country.  You could quite literally drink your way around the world – sake in Japan, a bierstein in Germany, tequila in Mexico.

The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is held each spring (March to mid-May) and showcases over 100 topiaries of Disney characters, which were a bit of fun. It seemed that the gardens at Epcot would be pretty stunning at most times, but especially so during the Festival.

Day 3: Day tour to Kennedy Space Center

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Day 3 saw us heading out of Orlando on a Grayline bus day trip to the Kennedy Space Center.

The John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is the United States launch site at Cape Canaveral that has been used for every NASA human space flight since December 1968. Since the cessation of the space shuttle program, manned space flights are on hold, but the site is still used to launch unmanned rockets for the US government’s civilian space program.

It took about an hour to reach KSC, then once we got there, we swapped to one of the Visitor Complex bus tours of the site. That tour took us past the towers where the space shuttles or rockets are assembled, alongside the crawler track (used to transport them to the launch site), and past the launch site itself.  Over the years, I’ve seen the launch site many, many times on television…but there’s nothing like seeing it yourself. Very impressive.

The area is also designated a wildlife sanctuary, where Bald Eagles, American alligators, wild boars, Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes, Florida panthers and Florida manatees all make regular appearances.  We were incredibly fortunate to come across a group of manatees wallowing in a roadside creek. They are definitely an animal designed by a committee – very odd-looking indeed.

Back at the Visitor Complex we wandered through all the displays documenting the history of US space flight.  The indisputable highlight however, was the presentation of Space Shuttle Atlantis, which was the last space shuttle to touchdown at Cape Canaveral after completing 33 space flights over the period from 1985 to 2011.  Nothing quite prepares you for seeing it up close.

The daytour we were on also included an airboat ride in the Florida Everglades, before returning to Orlando. It was a 30-minute eco-tour through the protected wetlands. Alligators galore, and lots of spins in a boat propelled by a giant fan.

Day 4: Universal’s Islands of Adventure

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We had a dilemma for our last day. Like Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort also consists of more than one park: Universal Studios Florida Theme Park and Universal’s Islands of Adventure Theme Park. We had originally booked 1-day park-to-park tickets ($136 each), thinking we could manage to do both parks in one day. However, the more we read about it the night before (mostly on Tripadvisor), we realised that unless we upgraded our tickets with Express passes (which would take them up to $189.99 each) we’d be unlikely to be able to do all the rides, and would spend a lot of the day in queues, which seemed a bit pointless.

So, a family conference was in order…and we decided that our priority was the Islands of Adventure Park as it contains The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, and we’re all massive Harry Potter fans. (That decision would have been a lot harder later this year, as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley will be opening at the other park.)

The customer service desk at Universal was really helpful at swapping our park-to-park passes into a single park pass, with an Express upgrade, which allowed us to fully enjoy the one park without having to spend interminable lengths of time in queues. I’m not good at queuing.

I think we made the right choice. The absolute highlight of the day was the Harry Potter section of the park – Hogwarts castle, the shops of Hogsmeade, (including Honeydukes and Ollivanders), scary turn-and-twist rides such as the Dragon Challenge and the Flight of the Hippogriff, plus the state-of-the-art Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride inside Hogwarts Castle that the Fairlie Entourage (except me, who piked at the last minute…) declared to be ‘the most amazing theme park ride EVER’ (albeit somewhat nausea-inducing). We enjoyed lunch at the Three Broomsticks. The attention to detail of the whole Hogsmeade ‘world’ was magical.

After the Harry Potter bits, the rest of the day seemed to consist of getting drenched on all the various other rides. Soaked to the skin and screaming. Yep, that’s how I spent the day.

My biggest tip for anyone going to Universal theme parks? Plastic ponchos.

Did our dreams come true?

I have to be honest and say that, despite my apprehensions about spending time in Orlando, I’m actually glad we went.

Importantly, now that The Impossible Princess has had a full-blown Disney experience (her last one to Anaheim was marred by being extremely under the weather), we are off the hook for any future Disney trips.

But also, the day trip to Kennedy Space Center was one of the highlights of the whole three-week holiday, and our day at Universal (especially time in the Harry Potter world) was a huge amount of fun.

Have you been to Orlando? Did you dreams come true?

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