Our favourite theme park

The very first park we went to on our first day in Florida turned out to be everyone’s favourite park, to the extent that when we gave the kids a choice of what to do on their final day, they unanimously chose to make the hour long car journey to this park. I think the main reason I like it was that it was so much quieter than any of the other parks, particularly the first time we went outside US school holidays. There weren’t massive queues for the rides, there weren’t crowds everywhere you turned, you could slow down and enjoy the day.

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Which park was our favourite? Busch Gardens. Before we went I didn’t even know what it was. I though it was a little park that only needed half a day, but I was so wrong. It may not call to mind immediate film themes like Disney or Universal, but it is still a fabulous theme park. At a very basic level, Busch Gardens is a combination between a theme park and a zoo. Wandering around you come across cheetahs, penguins, elephants, gorillas, tigers, sloths, and all sorts of other animals. Obviously my favourite was the sloth, but Sam loved the gorillas. Partly because they have a 3D plastic model making machine that made him a plastic gorilla as he watched. The gorilla now sits menacingly next to his bed.

The other exciting aspect of being a zoo is that they have a veterinary centre in the middle. I did three weeks work experience at a vets when I was a teenager, so I know how interesting it is to work with domestic animals, let alone zoo animals. We were lucky enough to catch a kangaroo surgery. The poor kangaroo had got into a fight with another kangaroo and had a cut that needed cleaning and patching up. The surgical room was behind a full length window so you could watch everything but the room was still hygienic. Steve didn’t think the surgery looked real, but having experienced a few routine surgeries of dogs and cats, it looked fairly realistic to me. There was a man on our side of the glass explaining what was going on and answering any questions so we didn’t disturb the vets on the other side.

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But anyway, back to the theme park. Ryan was mega excited about going. We thought he had rumbled us as he text Steve a few days before we left saying he was watching an hour long walk through of Busch Gardens on YouTube, but it turned out it was just because it’s his favourite theme park- weird as he had never been there before. All day long he was filled with facts and figures, and little stories about the park. We started off letting Ryan decide where to go, but when it emerged he had no sense of direction, we took over again!

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Due to Ryan’s excitement we got to the park well before opening time, so we were ahead of the queues. One thing we found interesting as Brits, was that just before the park opening the national anthem was played over the tannoy, and everyone stopped what they were doing and joined in, with their hands over their hearts. It’s just one of those little unexpected cultural differences. Our kids all know our national anthem- English and Welsh, but unlike a lot of US schools, they’re not expected to sing them at the start of each school day, just on special occasions. I think it was good for them to see the level of respect people have for their anthem, and how that is considered normal.

When the park opened we wanted to keep our place at the front of the queues and sprinted to our first ride. I found the sprinting quite difficult, as I was still in the middle of food poisoning, not have kept any food down for 36 hours, so my energy levels were pretty low. By the time we got there I was feeling fairly nauseous again, but it was worth it as we were only queuing for about 5 minutes for what turned out to be one of the kids favourite rides. That ride was Cheetah Hunt. Cheetah Hunt only goes upside down once, but with three launch pads along the track it goes really fast. The ride mimics a cheetah in chase and tips and turns as a cheetah would. We loved it because it was so smooth, and a really exhilarating ride without being too head-rattling. The ride was one of everyone’s favourites that we came back to two or three more times.

The other ride at Busch that was a huge favourite with the younger two particularly was Cobra’s Curse. We knew we were off to a good start with a very well themed ride queue line. You queue through an ancient temple with hieroglyphs and archaeologists scrawls all over the walls. It’s dark most of the way around and at one point you realise the glass you’re staring at does have a real snake behind it. You also go into a room where the wall display comes to life. The hieroglyphs move around, and the giant snake on the wall suddenly wakes up to try and attack you. This has the joint advantages of telling the story behind the ride without you having to piece it together, and keeping you occupied for a large amount of queuing time.

The ride itself though is full of surprises. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know what they are! I didn’t even think that there might be extra features so I didn’t try and guess ahead, and Ryan had to good sense not to give it away. You board the cart- 4 people per cart- on a moving conveyor belt, and then head out onto the track. In no time at all you get to wall, which I thought would open up to let us through, but the closer we got the more solid it looked! Just as we were about to hit it, the cart stopped and the track raised up to the level of a giant cobra statue, where we were apparently going to be placing a gem back into its eye. At this point, the statue comes to life and send you off down the coaster track. You don’t get to carry on as you are though. The carts go round in pairs, and about half way around it straightens out, and the carts rotate. For the second half of the ride the carts are spinning so you alternate going backwards and forwards, and at times you can see the people in the other carts. If, like us, there are more than 4 people in your family, this is really good because it means you can still talk to each other on the ride! It’s also a cool feature because the spinning is random, and linked with the weight distribution in the cart so if you ride Cobra’s Curse more than once, which we did, then you get a different experience each time.

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The other rollercoaster in that section of the park is Montu. Montu is a more grown-up rollercoaster which goes upside down 7 times. However, it’s one of the ones where you hang down from your seat, like Air at Alton Towers (although I’ve just been corrected that it’s now Galactica!), which is my favourite type of rollercoaster. I prefer these because they give you the sensation that you’re flying. Although you do go upside down, as you’re already on your front it just feels like you’re rolling. You do get confused as to which way up you are when you’re riding it, but it gives a much smoother ride, and one that’s more exhilarating as your head isn’t being knocked around against the head rest. For any rollercoaster enthusiasts it also features a batwing inversion and an Immelmann loop, which is a simultaneous loop and roll. There’s not really a huge amount of theming for Montu, so it can be a difficult remembering which one it is, but the ride was definitely worth it, and this is another one we went back on.

We also went on Scorpion, which we just stumbled across really as it’s quite a small rollercoaster. It has one 360 degree loop, and goes really fast, but it’s not particularly special. We did enjoy it, but I had forgotten we’d even been on it until Steve reminded me, so it clearly didn’t make that much of an impression! Worth going on if the queues short, but not worth waiting too long for.

The other main ride we went on, that met with mixed opinions was Kumba. It definitely is an exciting rollercoaster- it has a massive loop- the world’s tallest- that makes you feel weightless, otherwise known as losing your stomach! The initial drop is 135ft and it does go upside down several times, and fairly fast- so it’s not one to go on if you’re nervous of rollercoasters. While everyone agreed that Kumba was pretty intense, the younger kids and Steve and I felt fairly rough coming off it, as we found it quite rickety. Ryan however was absolutely insistent that it was the smoothest ride he’s ever been on. Kumba made number 38 this year on the world’s best rollercoasters, however it has gradually slipped down from 4th, 5th and 8th position, which suggests that other people do agree more with Ryan. If you do go on it, let me know which side you want to take!

There were a couple of rollercoasters that we didn’t go on in the park. We walked straight past Sandserpent and Airgrover, thinking they looked more like fairground rides. We would have liked to have gone on Sheikra, however it was unfortunately closed for the whole 2 weeks we were there as they were working on it. There was another ride that Steve, Ryan and Katy-Grace went on called Falcon’s Fury, but Sam and I decided not to as it’s a drop tower, and we don’t go on them on principle! As it turned out though, even Katy-Grace regretted this one. There was only a very short queue so they thought they’d make the most of it, but the distinction Falcon’s Fury has over other drop towers is that you are facing down. Whereas with most drops you can feel your stomach leaving you and that is the main attraction, with this one you actually watch the ground hurtling towards you, as the chair tips to lie you on your stomach. Not surprisingly, that adds a new dimension of terror, and poor Katy-Grace was in tears when she came off. I think if she’d have had a chance to see what it did before hand, she probably wouldn’t have gone on in the first place.

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The first time we went we mainly concentrated on the rollercoasters in the park. We were all feeling pretty tired, I was already ill, and we weren’t used to the heat. So we called it a day fairly early and went home to have pizza! The second time we came back though we were more used to theme parks so we hung around to try out the water rides. The first one we went on was the Congo River Rapids. Like most rapids in Florida, this one sets out with the aim to get you soaked, and it achieves that fairly well. Like most rapids, the raft takes 12 passengers sitting around the outside in pairs. There’s nowhere to store valuables on this one to keep them dry so don’t take them on with you! The boat ends up going fairly fast, which means the water comes in over your back when you go over a rapid. At one point you go under a waterfall, which will get most people in the boat. It’s actually not as intense as the water rides at Universal- there is a slight chance you won’t get wet, and a 50/50 chance you won’t get soaked. There’s also longer breaks between the rapids so you have a chance to regroup a bit! Compared to UK standards, it is still more wet, but it’s fairly mild for US standards.

The other water ride at Busch is Stanley Falls, which is a log flume. Steve and the younger two kids went on this one, I can’t remember why me and Ryan didn’t but it did mean we were able to wait at the end and take a picture of them coming down the main drop. Having not been on it myself, the feedback I had from Steve was that the queue was quite long for what was a fairly short ride. The ride itself was quite rickety and looked like it was being held together with sellotape, but it was still a good ride and they did come off it very wet. In all fairness though, I think the person who gets the most wet is the one at the front of the boat. Steve came off absolutely soaked, but he mainly shielded the kids as they were relatively dry.

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The other cool ride they have at Busch is the Skyline, a cable car which takes you from one side of the park to the other, over the animal enclosures. It’s a good way of getting around the park anyway, especially if the queue for it isn’t too long, but it’s also a really good way to see some more of the zoo side of the park without going on the Serengeti Express Train- which we ran out of time to do. Getting on and off is a bit rocky, so you do need to be careful with little ones, plus the car limit is down to whether they are adults or children, so just check that out before you ride. It’s really worth doing though, if only for a bit of a sit down and more relaxing ride!

Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the shows, on either day we went, so I can’t comment on how good they are, but they did look interesting and as if they would be better for younger kids. One other thing that’s worth knowing about the park if you’re planning to go is the refillable drinks. You can buy a cup at the start of the day which you pay extra for, but can then refill it all day at various points around the park. If you buy more than one they get slightly cheaper, and you can reactivate them if you go to the park again. They have the regular coca cola drinks, but also icee’s which are slushies made from frozen fanta. We found these really useful between the kids as they lasted longer, because you have to drink them more slowly. They have loads of flavours in the US that we don’t have at home- like grape, watermelon, banana, and pina colada, so it was still exciting enough for the kids to want to go and refill them!

Busch Gardens isn’t the only theme park in the Busch group, they also own SeaWorld, and Discovery Cove. To be honest, we were quite torn about whether to visit SeaWorld or not, and we did think seriously about it before we went. I’m not entirely comfortable with animals that belong in the ocean being kept in tanks. I know that SeaWorld have been under a lot of pressure from conservation groups in the past, and with good reason. However, there are some arguments from the other side. Probably due to the pressure that the park has been under, SeaWorld do have a conservation foundation which donates money to wildlife research, habitat protection, animal rescue and conservation education. They also do research at the park itself to benefit animals that are in the wild. I also think that giving people the opportunity to see animals up close can help to inspire a love for them, and an understanding of them, that goes towards protecting those in the wild. I don’t believe that parks like SeaWorld will be around forever, I think that eventually environmentalists will win and they won’t be allowed to keep animals in captivity, they’ve already stopped the breeding programme. I’m pretty sure they can see that too which is why they’re moving to having so many rollercoasters and rides. I wanted the kids to be able to see a whale close up while they still have the opportunity. It doesn’t compare to seeing them in the wild, but at least they’re more likely to actually see them! I know that a lot of people will disagree with me, and that’s fine, I really can see both sides of the argument here!

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So, on to the park itself. We only went there for the one day so probably didn’t do all that they had to offer. We went to the Shamu show, which is now called One Ocean. The show is what you would really expect. They actually have 6 or 7 orcas, which is more than I expected, all of which engage well with the trainers. They do a number of tricks, which really show off the grace and power of the whales. You expect dolphins to be able to jump out of the water, but you forget that whales, which are so much bigger, are powerful enough to be able to as well. As it’s a family show they also get the whales to splash the audience at various stages. Steve insisted on sitting in the splash zone, saying that you wouldn’t get that wet- forgetting that a 4,000kg mammal is going to be able to make a pretty big wave. Surprisingly enough, we did get soaked with cold, salty water. It was just a nice opportunity to watch these beautiful animals, and really see what they’re capable of. The kids were mesmerised all the way through, and the trainers were constantly giving out information so I hope they took some of it away with them! Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the dolphin show, but I really would recommend One Ocean if you do end up going to the park.

Although the focus seems to be shifting to rides, there are still quite a few animals around the park- in a similar vein to Busch Gardens. I was quite happy to find that they have my 2 favourite marine animals- and in the same place and everything. One of the attractions is Turtle Trek, which is essentially a 360 degree cinema inside a giant globe. You follow a baby turtle as it hatches, makes it journey to the sea across the beach, and then through some of its experiences in the ocean. There are a few threats along the way, which small children might find frightening, and the globe can be quite disorientating, so you need to either hold onto a railing or sit down unless you want to fall over! It’s a pretty cool experience though. Also, on the way into the globe you walk through a real life aquarium with sea turtles swimming around, as well as my other favourite, manatees, which are also in the manatee rehabilitation centre when you leave. I fell in love with manatees last time I came to Florida when I was about 14. I’d never heard of them before, and was amazed to see these huge floating rocks. They get into trouble in Florida because people don’t notice them and crash boats into them- causing a lot of damage to both the boat and manatee. I later discovered the Veggie Tales Barbara Manatee song, and then I was hooked. SeaWorld had baby manatees this time as well- triplets that swam around together, and it was great to be able to introduce the rest of the family to these amazing animals.

We missed out most of the dolphins at SeaWorld- but we did have a very good reason, which I’ll explain later! Katy-Grace and I stumbled across the sea lions at Pacific Point Preserve while we were looking for the restrooms, but as Steve and I had seen a load of them lounging around in LA, we didn’t hang around too long. Another of the rides that had animals as part of the experience is Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. On this one you queue inside an ice cap, and experience some of the cold and wind that goes with that. You follow in the footsteps of a baby penguin as he takes his first steps on the ice. There is an option for a wild ride and a tame ride. We opted for wild, but it was still pretty tame! You sit inside a cart that spins across the ice, copying a penguin losing control. The ride itself wasn’t great, but at the end you come out in the penguin enclosure, within touching distance of the penguins. They are quite happily swimming around, but you don’t want to stay there for too long as it’s so cold and stinks of fish!

The other animal that played a key part in our visit was the sharks. There is an aquarium walk-through where you can see them swimming above your head. But they also have some smaller sharks and rays in a huge tank outside where you can buy little bits of fish and feed them to the sharks. I think they probably get fairly overfed because they weren’t particularly interested in the fish when we went- unlike the crocodiles with sausages at Wild Florida! There was one huge manta ray that went around hoovering up most of the fish that made it to the bottom of the tank, so we were mainly just feeding him!

Our main memory of the sharks though is from eating our lunch. I remembered the restaurant from last time I came, so we decided to book a table at Shark’s Underwater Grill. One side of the restaurant is taken up by glass, behind which is the shark tank that you can walk through. Annoyingly, we didn’t get a table next to the window, but we had a pretty good view during the meal. The food at the restaurant was also really good. Mainly fish based but a few meaty things- definitely more interesting than most of the theme park restaurants. The younger two kids had food off the kids menu, and Ryan decided to stick with the adult one- first time he’s ordered steak! We had to wait a little while to be served as our table was overlooked, but when we had got one of the manager’s attention we had no problems and the service really picked up! It was quite expensive, but you’re paying for the experience with the sharks. The kids menu was pretty good value though. If it’s anything like when I went, it’s not something the kids will forget. My Dad still has a commemorative cocktail glass from when we went!

There are now three main rollercoasters at SeaWorld. One of the main attractions- Kraken- was closed as it was being updated to become Kraken Unleashed, combining it with virtual reality. Annoyingly, it opened only a couple of days after we left Florida, as it looked really exciting. There were two other really good coasters at the park though. The first one we went on was Manta. The entrance to Manta is next to a waterfall, and queues through the aquarium with sea horses and an octopus, so it’s worth just queuing for it! Manta is another ride that seats you in rows of 4 and then tilts you so you’re facing down. It actually inverts you about 4 times, but because you’re twisting and turning so much it’s impossible to tell! It’s another one that’s really smooth, and one that we loved.

One we enjoyed even more though was Mako, to the extent that we went straight back on after our first ride. Mako only opened in 2016 and is Florida’s tallest, fastest and longest rollercoaster- which should give you some idea to the scale of it! It goes up to 73mph and 200ft high. The restraint is just a lap bar- much like Shambala at Fort Aventura in Spain, which is one of my favourite coasters. This means you have that extra feeling of ‘is this really safe?’ and that your stomach gets left behind on several occasions. By the end of the holiday Mako was in our top 3 rollercoasters, every time we went on it seemed to get better. It’s named after a species of shark, and is supposed to remind you of a shark chasing its victim- if a shark can actually swim like that I’d be worried about the fish its trying to catch! The only thing to watch out for is the pretty sudden stop at the end!

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There is one more ride at SeaWorld though which sneaked onto our leader board, and that was Journey to Atlantis. We weren’t really entirely sure what to expect for this one, and having been on it, we’re still not! I think we were sort of expecting a walk-through leading to a water ride so we really weren’t prepared for what we got! It is a water ride, so you start off on a boat of about 8 people, and it’s fairly gentle. You wind through the deserted city of Atlantis, with light effects to show that it’s underwater. There’s a good use of glowing lights, UV paint, mysterious voices and little jets of water, and then you come across Medusa and you know that things are going to take a turn for the worse. You get winched up a hill, expecting the splash to be at the other end, but it never comes, instead it turns from a water ride into a rollercoaster. You’re not there for long though before a sudden drop appears and you get nice and wet. But that’s not the end though, the boat continues around the corner for a tiny drop that gets the person in the front surprisingly wet, before you realise that there’s another winch in front of you and all bets are off! At the top of the lift you’re back onto another rollercoaster, which eventually ends in another splash. We spent most of the ride being completely baffled as to what was going on, whether we were supposed to be wet or dry, and how the ride was still going! It was a really good ride anyway, but I think the experience of not knowing what was going on probably enhanced it for us, as it’s now not one that’s going to be forgotten!

Admittedly there were a few things at SeaWorld that we missed out- the day we went was so hot that we just didn’t want to be rushing around trying to fit everything in. As it was, we enjoyed a fairly relaxed day and liked the mix of rollercoasters and animals. We would have like to have come back to try and get onto the soft opening of Kraken Unleashed, but it was just too far away from everything else, and we decided the kids would have enjoyed another day at Busch Gardens more. There are another couple of parks in the SeaWorld group through. They have their water park- Aquatica- which is consistently ranked as one of the top water parks. Unfortunately we couldn’t go as water parks have to close when there’s an electrical storm in the area, which there seemed to be most days we were there! We were able to go to their other park, which is a water resort, Discovery Cove, where we had probably the best, and most memorable day of our holiday.

One of the main things we loved about Discovery Cove was that they limit the number of visitors they have each day to about 1,200, which means that once you’re in, it doesn’t get any busier, there aren’t massive queues for anything, it does feel like you’re just on an exclusive resort- which is what they’re aiming for. Discovery Cove was by far the most relaxing day we had on the holiday. Strictly speaking, there’s not a huge amount to do there. As in, there isn’t a list of rides to tick off, or attractions to visit, you can really take your time enjoying what’s there. If you want you can just plonk yourself down on a sun lounger and read all day, or you can spend the time exploring the park. The resort is divided into three sections. The first is the lazy river. Not like a water park lazy river where you sit on an inflatable ring and go round. The water is heated to bath temperature, so it’s really warm, and the idea is that you go in with your flippers and masks, and explore as if it was a real river. You go past a few animal enclosures, like the otters, marmosets, and tropical birds. So you just take your time and take it all in. The kids loved having the freedom- once we found them buoyancy aids- to go off by themselves, get in and out by themselves, and help themselves to food along the way. That’s the other great thing about Discovery Cove, it’s all inclusive, so there’s no complaining about being hungry or thirsty all day!

The second section is the coral reef. This is a really impressive part of the resort which I really should have spent more time in but was put off by the temperature of the water! Because there are actually fish in the water, it has to be at a more realistic temperature, so it was pretty cold on a hot day! The reef has been made up to look stunning though, and is full with all sorts of beautiful fish- some of them really big as well. It also has quite a few manta rays swimming around. I was watching from the side for a few minutes and watched as a lady standing in the shallows was distracted by something going on further in, and didn’t notice as the biggest ray, probably about 3 metres across, casually cruised up behind her and then flopped itself against her leg. The poor woman was a bit shocked! There was also another section of the reef that you could swim up to, but had a glass partition, containing some pretty massive sharks. As they were in a fairly natural habitat and the people staring at them were at their own level, they were swimming around and coming right up to the partition. I could have stayed there for ages watching them that close up!

The most exciting section of the resort though was one that you had to prebook a specific time for- this is in addition to prebooking the day you go in the first place! The reason that we weren’t too bothered about catching the dolphin shows at SeaWorld was that we knew we would be having a dolphin encounter at Discovery Cove. Swimming with dolphins has been at the top of Steve’s wish list since he was a small child, and has been something that I would love to do as well. We decided that this was the perfect opportunity to tick it off the list for all of us. It also happens to be the best dolphin experience that I’ve ever come across. Normally, if you go to a water park that has dolphins, what they mean by a dolphin experience is that you get to stroke the dolphin for a couple of minutes as it swims past. Even the ones where you go in the water with the dolphin, you actually don’t get to have much contact. With Discovery Cove however, you start off with all of that, and then go a step further.

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You’re put into groups of about 8- so 2 families, and go into the main pool 4 groups at a time. There are quite a few dolphins swimming around the pool- which is pretty big- and the trainers signal to them, but it’s up to them if they come or not. They get the reward of having fish flavoured jelly, and a bit of stimulation, so they seemed pretty keen to come over. The start of the session is stroking the dolphins, showing how they are trained to talk, and talking a bit about the life of a dolphin. You get a chance to feed them, and come and give them a hug and a kiss, all pretty standard stuff so far. By the way, the dolphin who came to us is called Rose, she was about 25 and had a couple of her children at the resort as well.

But the way they go a step further is that for the final encounter, you swim about 10 feet out into the pool- or across if you want to stay in the shallow, and the dolphin will swim out to you, you hold on to their fin, and they pull you back in to the shore. I was slightly nervous that this could hurt the dolphins, but apparently they can pull up to about 500lbs using their fin, and as I don’t weigh anywhere near that, I figured we were probably ok. It was an incredible feeling being pulled through the water, and just lends credence to those stories that you used to hear about stranded sailors being rescued and pulled to safety by dolphins. I have no idea if they’re true or not but I’d like to believe them. Even the younger two kids enjoyed it, and they’re normally quite nervous about trying new things that feel out of their control. I don’t think anyone will forget the experience.

Having been to so many theme parks on our holiday, they did all start to blend into one after a while. However these three parks stood out so much that they were the ones the kids wanted to go back to, and the ones that have been easiest to write about. Despite not having as many rides as Universal or Disney, our favourites were the ones in Busch Gardens and SeaWorld, with only a couple of exceptions. If you’re going to Florida and either don’t have much time, or are thinking of limiting the number of theme parks you go to, I would definitely recommend prioritising these ones. These three days were by far the most relaxing days of our holiday, and definitely worth the extra travelling time outside Orlando.

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In my next and final Florida post, I’ll be talking about the Disney parks. As there are quite a few parks, and quite a few rides, as well as experiences and shows, it will take quite a while so please bear with me over the summer while I put it together. If you’ve read this far, well done, but you’re definitely going to need to sit down with a cuppa for the next one! Happy summer holidays!

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