Thrills and spills and killer whales

Conall Ó Fátharta enters the magical world of Florida’s theme parks and rediscovers his inner child aboard some of the world’s most spectacular, and terrifying, rollercoasters.

FLORIDA’S theme parks first entered my consciousness as Ireland made their way through the World Cup in 1994. They looked like a different universe.

At 12 years old, nothing could have dissuaded me from the notion that a park filled with animals, sweets and rollercoasters was about as good as it got. At the tender age of 28, I discovered that opinion wasn’t far wrong.

The SeaWorld family of theme parks (SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Aquatica and Discovery Cove) is what draws millions of people to Orlando and Tampa every year.

Seeing the tops of numerous rollercoasters towering over the trees from my hotel room, I entered the original and famous SeaWorld theme park with a mixture of excitement and fear.

Even pushing towards my 30th year, I knew these would have been the exact same emotions I would have experienced at 12 years old.

It’s the truly great thing about Florida’s theme parks; they really are a different world. You enter and suspend reality for a few hours. One minute you’re watching killer whales and dolphins perform ridiculous tricks, the next you are hurtling down a 200ft drop with your stomach in your mouth.

I don’t care what anybody says, that’s as much fun at 12 as it is at 28. SeaWorld is just impossible not to enjoy for one simple reason. It’s just so much bloody fun.

Coming from Ireland, where a giant rollercoaster hits a maximum height of about 10 feet, Manta and its 140ft elevation is a baptism of fire.

Once secured in your seat, it tilts you forward so you are lying tummy down for the entire ride.

I will admit to being 100% petrified on the agonisingly slow ascent but once we tipped over the top, I laughed my ass off for every loop and curve and for a couple of minutes I felt like I was flying.

However, if you want a taller, faster and more frightening ride, then Kraken at SeaWorld is the coaster to hit.

The floorless ride gives you a wonderful view of the park at its maximum height of 149 ft. For about two seconds.

However, the great thing about SeaWorld is that’s it’s about more than just rollercoasters. After riding Manta and Kraken in quick succession, you will definitely want to enjoy some of its more sedate offerings. These are, of course, its famous killer whale Shamu shows.

Thankfully, these can be watched from seats which do not move and are spectacular in that rather full-on American way.

The show hit the headlines in 2010 when a trainer was pulled underwater and drowned by one of the whales. As a result, trainers now no longer enter the water with the animals.

Despite the ethical considerations of watching such beautiful, large animals perform in such an unnatural setting, it is incredible to see just what the whales can do. Even more remarkable is the dolphins’ show, where trainers fully interact with the animals performing incredible underwater feats and tricks.

A short drive to Tampa takes you to another Mecca of rollercoasters, Busch Gardens. On my visit, I was lucky enough to be one of the first people in the world to ride its now signature coaster Cheetah Hunt.

Unlike the painfully slow ascent in most rollercoasters, Cheetah Hunt gets straight down to business and launches you at high speed into the action.

Speed is the big attraction on this ride as it mimics a cheetah twisting and turning as it chases its prey.

In a rather odd, but typically over-the-top US manner, it also contains a wild cheetah enclosure around the ride.

While an exhilarating treat, the real fear factor in Busch Gardens is in its other coasters like Sheikra and Montu. Sheikra is a genuinely terrifying experience.

After leaving the station, you make a slow climb to 200 feet, before you are left hanging over the edge of a vertical drop for about six seconds.

These few seconds are, quite possibly, the longest of your life as you await a 200 ft drop at speed.

Montu is similarly terrifying, but the floorless coaster was the ride I enjoyed the most out of every park I visited. It’s fast, tall and has about as many loops and turns as an Irish stomach can take.

If you think wooden rollercoasters are tame affairs, Gwazi might just change your mind as you are thrown from side to side in its rickety carriages.

Just like SeaWorld, Busch Gardens also offers you some of the quieter thrills. It has an excellent Sesame Street-themed area, with regular stage shows throughout the day, which children will love.

It also has an open-top truck ride Safari-style, where you can view a variety of African animals up-close, as well as hand-feed pet giraffes.

After so much madness at Busch Gardens and SeaWorld, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Orlando is just for adrenaline junkies.

However, a day at Discovery Cove offers you a far quieter affair with a sun lounger and a dip with some dolphins for company.

The most exclusive and expensive of the parks, Discovery Cove is worth the splurge. As well as enjoying unlimited supplies of food and drink for the admission price, it is also a far less crowded affair, with a maximum admission policy of 1,000 people.

Guests can interact with exotic birds, paddle with thousands of tropical fish with the highlight being a chance to swim with a dolphin. It really is a wonderful experience to interact, touch and learn about these animals up close.

New to Discovery Cove is the SeaVenture, an underwater walking tour where, while wearing a dive helmet, you can take a leisurely stroll under the sea.

A visit to Aquatica is a must for any water babies.

Its signature slide The Dolphin Plunge is the highlight but there is enough there to keep you occupied for a few hours. With exotic names like Tassie’s Twisters, Taumata Racer Walhalla Wave and HooRoo Run, you know you are in for a typical SeaWorld style thrill.

So more than 17 years after I first saw SeaWorld, I can finally say I’ve seen a Shamu killer whale show and have ridden some of the biggest rollercoasters in the world. I don’t think I could have enjoyed it more as a child than I did as a big child.

So the next time somebody tells you Florida has nothing but theme parks, let them know it’s no bad thing.

HOW TO GET THERE

Flights

Aer Lingus operate flights from Dublin to Orlando twice weekly. One-way fares start from €279. Visit www.aerlingus.com for more information on fares and schedules.

Accommodation

Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld , 6677 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida. Tel: 00-1-407-351-5555, www.marriott.com. Fairfield Inn Suites Orlando at SeaWorld , 10815 International Drive, Orlando, Florida. Tel: 00-1-800-228-2800 or www.marriott.com.

Hyatt Regency Tampa , 211 North Tampa Street, Tampa. Tel: 00-1-813-225-1234 or see tamparegency.hyatt.com. If your trip is likely to include several days at Busch Gardens then this is less than five minutes away and has heated pool, dining facilities and spacious rooms.

What to see: The parks, the parks, the parks!

The sites: Tickets and packages vary for the Sea-World family of theme parks (SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Aquatica and Discovery Cove) depending on the dates you book. Visit www.seaworldparks.com The Discovery Cove Ultimate Package includes one day reservation at Discovery Cove (with 30 minute dolphin swim experience, all meals, snacks and beverages) plus 14 day unlimited entry to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica - offering customers more savings and flexibility for their Florida holiday. Prices start from just €187 per person. For more information and bookings go to www.attractionticketsdirect.ie

Shopping

The Florida Mall, 8001 South Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando, Florida http:// www.simon.com/mall/?id=139 The Mall at Millenia, 4200 Conroy Road, Orlando, Florida 32839 www.mallatmillenia.com/

Food

Ming Court Situated on two acres and surrounded by one of the most beautiful garden settings, Ming Court features an extraordinary selection of award-winning Dim Sum, Sushi, Wok and Char-Grill cuisine. 9188 International Drive, Orlando, Florida 32819 (407) 351-9988 http://www.mingcourt.com/ Bahama Breeze Bahama Breeze Island Grille is known for fresh, delicious seafood, distinctive chicken dishes and flame-grilled steaks, accompanied by refreshing, handcrafted tropical drinks, all made with the flavourful and colourful ingredients of the islands. http://www.bahamabreeze.com/


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