Universal v Disney – Variations on a Theme Park

Travel – Orlando, Florida

Another autumn holiday beckons, and once more than magnetic pull of Florida sees my partner Rachel and I heading for the sunshine state.

After flying into Miami and spending a few days at Fort Lauderdale to see a David Cook gig, we head to Orlando and our obligatory pilgrimage to the theme parks.

First up is Universal Studios, a place that never ceases to amaze me. Unlike some Brits who have been coming here since the early 1990s, I made my first visit in 2002, and enjoyed many trips since, either covering the launch of The Simpsons Ride in 2008, or just for pleasure.

Universal; photo: Roger Crow

Of course the beauty of being a repeat visitor is knowing which rides and attractions to experience and which to steer clear of.

Dinner, or rather brunch at Finnigan’s Irish bar is terrific. We get there at opening time, 11am, so there’s time to enjoy The Blues Brothers show outside while scoffing fish sandwiches.

That gives us time to plan our day: tick the map of attractions that are ’musts, maybes and avoids’ as we’ve done them before.

In the ’musts’ is Skull Island: Reign of Kong, which I’ve been looking forward to since our last visit in 2015.

Thanks to Express Passes, we are on in no time. Dense jungle and skulls on poles line the queuing area, and once we’re inside the ride zone, there’s the usual 3D glasses to collect before boarding trucks that take us off on the perilous journey.

With 3D films playing on both sides of the vehicle, that all important immersive experience soon kicks in as cinema’s greatest ape tackles dinosaurs and lethal beasts, while terrified and thrilled holiday makers make a series of interesting screams and yelps. Me included.

Universal: Photo: Roger Crow

It’s five years since I experienced a similar Kong ride at Universal in California, so it seems the company have taken elements of that, and merged it with new scenes from the enjoyable Kong: Skull Island movie. Or maybe it’s all new. I do know it’s a terrific experience and well worth the trip. As are most of the attractions at Universal, especially the new improved Spider-Man ride. Again thanks to Express Passes, we walk straight on, so if your time is limited (and whose isn’t on holiday?), it’s worth spending the extra money.

Rachel and I also experience the thrilling but truly bizarre Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon, in which the talk show host takes punters from his studio in the Big Apple off through a breakneck ride through the streets. Fallon’s a huge name in the States, but his comedy shtick loses a bit in translation, especially his woeful teenage girl character which the locals love, but I find hugely annoying.

All parks need at least one must-see attraction, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Universal’s. I’ve seen the place grow from stage one at the start of the decade to the gobsmacking experience it is now. In 2015 it blew my mind that Potter covers two parks, and that a replica of King’s Cross Station had been created. That experience is obviously a less gobsmacking when you know what’s coming, but it still amazes me the scale of the experience.

I’m not a Potter fan, but full marks to the team who created one of the greater park attractions ever seen.

As it’s autumn, or fall, the traditional Hallowe’en Horror Nights means the park becomes something a lot darker after the regulars go home. We’ve done it in the past and it’s an extraordinary experience, so if adrenaline-fuelled attractions are your thing, it’s definitely worth a look.

But what of the competition? Well, if you do nothing else in Florida, I’d recommend…

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Pandora – Flight of Passage vlog review by Roger Crow

Years ago, news arrived that Disney and James Cameron were planning a theme park experience based on his blockbuster. I was thrilled, but lost interest when nothing happened and assumed the gap between the 2009 film meant it would never see the light of day.

But Disney and Cameron never do things by halves, and finally walking round Pandora, I realise why it took so long to create. Cameron’s lethal planet is now a lot more friendly at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando. And it really was worth the wait.

The thought of a two-and-a-half hour queue to experience Flight of Passage (riding on a banshee, aka a dragon that looks like it’s burst from a Roger Dean 1970s album cover) did fill me with dread, but the wait is so entertaining, it’s never boring. Watching cascading waterfalls from huge ’floating’ rocks, or soaking up the exotic scenery is a treat for the senses.

And after the winding queue takes us inside Na’avi caves and into a lab, we get to see one of the huge floating blue bodies that our brain syncs with for the ride. (I think my avatar has trouble finding my mind, it’s so blown by the experience).

For newcomers, It helps if you’ve seen the film, but is not essential.

Eventually I settle into what looks like a glorified motorcycle ride, but what unfolds after that is a stunning flight through the skies of Pandora, swooping, diving, soaring through that exotic landscape. It’s everything I hoped for in 2009, and a thousand times more.

In short: Pandora is an incredible experience.

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; footage: Roger Crow

It’s proof of what can be achieved with one person’s fertile imagination; millions of dollars, and an army of experts, both on the design and construction side, that manage to create this behemoth of an attraction.

I was an enormous fan of Cameron’s 2009 fantasy blockbuster, like many others who helped turn it into the most lucrative film ever made. And it had to be. As the most expensive movie in history, it was a huge gamble for 20th Century Fox, but Cameron has long been one of the most reliable filmmakers in Hollywood, since The Terminator turned him into a superstar filmmaker back in 1984. By the time he made Terminator 2: 3-D, a thrilling park attraction at Universal Studios just around the corner, Cameron had raised the bar for theme park attractions so high, many suffered vertigo trying to match it.

But that was years ago, and in the time since, Universal created the aforementioned Harry Potter attraction that literally took my breath away in 2015 when I first experienced it in its finished form.

Just when you think that can never be topped, Disney and Cameron has created the largest, most stunning attraction ever seen.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom; footage: Roger Crow

Inbetween rides, Rachel enjoys the best vegetarian dining experience she’s had in a theme park. My reinvented burger in a bun, a ’pod’ of doughy ’bread’ filled with minced beef, is a nice change from the ubiquitous burger and fries you get in most parks.

Having recharged our batteries, we set off to queue for the Na’vi River Journey, in which we travel through the bioluminescent forest of Pandora. After a 50-minute wait, we board our vessels and set sail. This is a less full-on experience both in queuing and the trip itself, so I’d recommend doing that first if you want to get a taste of the Avatar experience and then get blown away by the Flight of Passage ride.

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; photo: Roger Crow

We only have a day at Animal Kingdom, one of my favourite of the many Disney parks, but Pandora aside, it’s never dull. Though my favourite other attraction, the tigers in the Asia section, are busy raising young, the sight of monkeys leaping from branch to branch is forever fun and awe-inspiring.

Obviously there’s plenty to see and do at the other parks, so there’s little chance of the ankle-biters getting bored. Epcot especially is a terrific experience, not least because of the annual Food and Wine experience in which you wander round the world showcase sampling food and drink from different vendors. We didn’t get a chance this time but will no doubt be back in a couple of years.

:: With thanks to Universal and Disney for their help with this article.

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Travel: Yorkshire to Miami

I can’t get no satisfaction, with Milk Jigger. London to Miami.

It’s incredible what you can do with next to no sleep. After a 90-minute drive from Howden, Yorkshire to Manchester airport after a day at work, Mrs C and I arrive at our ’park and stay’ hotel with time enough for one hour’s sleep before we’re checking our and getting a complimentary shuttle to said airport. If that sentence sounds rushed, it’s intentional.

Thankfully after bag drop, we crash out at one of the posh lounges for breakfast and a chat with the staff. It’s ridiculously early-4.45am, though we arrive 20 minutes before it’s officially open.

Breakfast, a cheeky Disaronno and Coke leaves me feeling like a hypocrite after mentally tutting at all the lager drinkers in the regular lounges. “Alcohol. At this time in a morning? Outrageous”.

It’s freezing in the VIP lounge, which costs around £30 each. It’s worth every penny for the food, booze and chance to chill out.

We fly to Heathrow, go through security again and hang around waiting for the gate.

I’m in my Captain Scarlet tee shirt; it’s the 50th anniversary this week), and get chatting to an MoD ex-pat from Harrogate on his way home to DC. Obviously a fan, he wonders where he can get one.

Twenty minutes later we go our separate ways and queue for the gate.

After a random security pat down (or was it random after my chat with Mr MOD?), we’re on board and right by the toilets of our 747. ’This should be nine hours of fun,’ I think.

It’s actually not the aromatic experience I’d feared.

Okay, it’s freezing and there’s no air nozzles, but the films are great. I sit through The Belko Experiment, which looks like an episode of Black Mirror. I told writer James Gunn as much during one of his fan chats; the sublime Anne Hathaway indie comedy Colossal, and a chunk of Alien Covenant and Life. Essentially the same movie with Life far better.

My head starts pounding two hours before landing, and dinner makes me nauseous so I try and sleep. Which happens briefly, but the thunderous clouds over Miami and unwelcome turbulence make me nervier than ever.

Irma has left its mark, so I have no idea what to expect as we finally touch down.

Thankfully customs, bag collect and shuttle pick up are relatively easy compared to a two-hour nightmare in Dallas a year before. I suspect some tourists are staying away, or we just got lucky.

After telling our shuttle driver we need to be dropped a couple of miles from our original destination, he finally finds the place and is thrilled to get a little extra on top of his pre-paid tip. That’s the thing about Florida. It’s a flexible state with some of the best service in the world.

We check in to the Courtyard Marriott on Fort Lauderdale beach (literally as sand is piled high feet from where it should be), and grab another hour’s sleep before freshening up and heading out for dinner with friends.

The first Uber of the trip whisks us to a terrific traditional pizza restaurant where we enjoy beer, wine, starter and pizzas for around £20 each, including a 20 per cent tip. Bargain.

Ft Lauderdale is rain-lashed by the time we leave. I’m feeling more human, my head has stopped pounding and the nausea has gone. This should be a fun trip.

Courtyard Marriott, Fort Lauderdale, September 2017

Day two

So, a year after meeting David Cook in Texas, the wife and I do the whole thing again in Fort Lauderdale, which is a great excuse to try out a Floridian place we’ve not been before, and see one of the nicest blokes in showbiz.

Before which, too much sun on the beach across the road from the hotel, and a calorific dinner at Bubba Gump’s (I still think it’s amazing that Forrest Gump spawned a successful food chain, though their shrimp Mac and Cheese is out of this world).

Meet and greet wth David Cook is a fun preamble as the uber fans line up behind me. I’m first in the queue, which is nice, and when he finally comes on stage, after terrific support act Kathryn Dean, the place goes wild.

Broward Center for the Performing Arts seems like a posh venue for a rock act, but it’s a great gig, even if there’s the obligatory crazies who have had too much booze, drugs or both. And they always seem to stand next to me.

After a night of semi-restless sleep due to Saturday night party goers and thumping music elsewhere, things settle.

Day three

Last day in Fort Lauderdale on a rain-lashed Sunday, so hopefully things will pick up as we set off for the semi epic trip to Orlando.

Breakfast in a freezing mezzanine cafe area means punters in shorts and tee shirts have to do a 180 and get another layer from their rooms. Me included.

Thankfully the food is pretty good at the Courtyard Marriott. Two hot teas, a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast and another involving egg white frittata came to a reasonable $36, inc 20 per cent tip. My tip to them? Turn down the AC.

The Princess Diaries – A Voyage Round the UK

“Ah don’t be bendin’ that poor fella’s ear.”
It’s a sunny Monday morning and I’m on a train from Cobh to Cork, around 15 miles away. 

It’s my first rail trip in Ireland, and fellow passengers include Jim, a keen fisherman, and his wife. (I don’t catch her name).

She ignores Jim’s advice and we talk about life, comedians and that big ship – Caribbean Princess – that has just brought me and 2,000 other passengers into port. 

Mrs Jim has never had the desire to go cruising, despite being of a similar age to many of my fellow holidaymakers. 

Not that you need to have seen 50 or 60 summers to embrace a life on the ocean waves. The Caribbean Princess treats all passengers like blue blooded travellers. 


Cobh, Ireland – photos: Roger Crow

“You’re not the Secret Millionaire?” asks Jim as we near the end of our journey. 

“I wish,” I reply, though you don’t need to spend a fortune to live like royalty. At first sight it’s not cheap, but at the same time if you tally up the cost of three daily meals for 12 days; unlimited snacks; accommodation; shows and obviously transport to assorted ports, then the price saved on flights means you can afford to, er, push the boat out a bit.

I enjoy a five mile walk round Cork (my first trip); soak up culture in the art gallery; revel in the shops, and watch the world go by over a coffee at the Opera House. 


Some of the dishes on the Caribbean Princess. Photos: Roger Crow

Though Cork feels like Dublin’s twin, Cobh proves a picturesque revelation, from the minute we sailed into port to walking the streets and scaling the steep steps. A Titanic exhibition attracts many cruisers, as well as a dockside museum and assorted pubs.

Following a lazy afternoon of sunbathing (legs like lobsters after falling asleep), we’re off again as a band plays us off from the dockside. 

The Caribbean Princess carves through the waves like a knife through butter, though many of the passengers I see hardly notice. Complex gizmos on the bridge ensure the ride is as smooth as possible. 

After a tour of the nerve centre courtesy of the Second Officer (and Paul Bettany lookalike) Stuart, I couldn’t get over the fact this town-sized ship was guided by a joystick more in common with a PlayStation. 


The Caribbean bridge. Photo: Roger Crow

As Princess is an American company synonymous with 1970s sitcom favourite The Love Boat, there’s little wonder ’Caribbean’ is like a large Californian hotel, complete with fine dining, transatlantic Scottish singer/pianist and menus in dollars. 

The experience was so immersive, this “floatel” could have been carving a path down from LA to the Mexican Riviera, like sister ship Ruby Princess which I’d enjoyed in January 2016. 

Though I’d done Dublin before, it was good to retrace old haunts even if the rain was a bit of a washout. 


Obviously you can book shore excursions and make the most of the few hours you have in any port, but a hop on/hop off bus can be just as rewarding; Princess offered a discount with one company, around 10 Euros for a day’s touring. 

Having boarded the previous Saturday in Southampton, I was keen to see if a tour of the British Isles would be as entertaining as my LA-Mexico adventure. 

The lure of a relatively local trip where I didn’t spend two days travelling and longer getting over jetlag was too good to resist. 

By Sunday, after arriving in Guernsey via tender, I enjoyed a walking tour. As a first time visitor it was a welcome surprise, whether watching yachts leaving port or getting lost in the town, it was a great way to kill a few hours.


The Caribbean Princess arrives in Guernsey. Photos: Roger Crow

Of course when all your food on board is free, it’s tempting to avoid eating anything on land. 

Horizon Court isn’t just one of those humdrum ’all you can eat’ restaurants. The food is so good you may never want to go anywhere else, though the mix of free dining and fee dining ensures there’s plenty of variety.  

And given the facilities on board, there’s little wonder I found myself gravitating back to the ship long before departure. It’s not just the great food (the hot dogs and pizza are especially good), but the calibre of movies and shows. 

Whether you watch in your room, the excellent theatre or on a large outdoor screen for Movies Under the Stars, the wealth of recent films will keep you entertained. 


I saw one staged production on this voyage, the aptly named Bravo, a high end medley of classic show tunes, opera and even a couple of Bond tracks. (Any show which features Skyfall is all right by me). 

Unlike Magic To Do, another slick Princess production featuring a narrative filled with Stephen Schwartz songs, this didn’t bother trying to link them. Just hit after hit, to the delight of gathered viewers. 

But what of the accommodation you may wonder? 

Well, my inside cabin may have had no view, but mirrors on the main walls gave the illusion of infinite depth. The bathroom was also spacious enough to shower and hang washing should you want to, while the beds ensured a peaceful night’s sleep. I’ve often thought good ship designers use Tardis-style technology for bathrooms and this was no exception. 

As we sailed from Dublin to Liverpool, my last leg, it was inevitably poignant. I’d been on board just three days but the diversion had been as rewarding as a week-long trip. 


As I left the Caribbean Princess in a rain-lashed Liverpool and my soaked lobster legs carried me to the train station, I knew that one day I’d have to try the entire voyage, taking in the rest of the ports including Glasgow, Orkney and Normandy as well. 

I hope that Jim and his wife give the cruising lark a try sometime, but for now my “excess baggage” (care of Horizon Court) meant another gym was called for. 
Travel Facts: In the spring and summer of 2017 Caribbean Princess will be back in the UK to sail the British Isles again. 

Sample itinerary: Sunday June 18, 2017 – 12 nights

Southampton | Guernsey (St Peter’s Port) | Cobh | Dublin | Liverpool | Belfast

| Glasgow (Greenock) | Orkney Islands (Kirkwall) |Invergordon | Edinburgh | Paris/Normandy (Le Havre). 

Prices start from £1,499pp (based on two people sharing an inside stateroom).

:: With thanks to Princess Cruises for help with this blog post. 

Back in Orlando- part three

It takes a lot to impress me. I’m of an age where I’ve seen a lot, especially when it comes to theme parks. But I always live in hope that one day I will be impressed by new attractions.   Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

The last time I was at Universal Orlando was around three years ago. I’d grown tired of the same old rides and thought the Harry Potter attraction and ride was good, but after a couple of visits my interest had started to wane. 

  
The same old Universal, Orlando? Video: Roger Crow

So that was Christmas 2012, and what a busy lot the Universal team have been in the interim. 

Aside from an expanded Springfield, the second phase of their Potter expansion is astonishing. A staggering feat of design, engineering and construction on an immense scale. 

  
Diagon Alley, King’s Cross Station, the Hogwarts Express, Escape from Gringotts ride and countless shops are worthy of a park on their own. 

The attention to detail is remarkable, no rush job this. Unlike some park attractions where fake wood has been painted over construction material like MDF, and you can see the gaps, this was pretty flawless. No mean feat over such a huge physical canvas. 

  
Diagon Alley, Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

The Hogwarts Express links you from one Universal park to another, and the onboard entertainment does a great job of keeping you in that universe for the duration. The Gringotts ride is breathtaking without inducing nausea (unlike some rides) and added touches like a fire-breathing dragon on top of Gringotts bank is incredible. Yes, you soon run out of superlatives at an attraction like this. 

 

Diagon Alley, Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

Enough gushing. I’ll just say that for years Universal seemed like a poor cousin to the Disney parks, but this added attraction, together with the Transformers ride, has made it a serious player once more.  

 

Transformers 3D ride Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

And with the Skull Island King Kong attraction set to open in summer 2016, I’m guessing the team at Mouse HQ are really going to have to pull something out of the bag to compete.   

Skull Island under construction at Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

Back in Miami – Part 2

So, Mrs C and I caught the bus in Miami. Around $4.50 to go four or five miles. No Stallone alas. And no fights. Just bored commuters and us. A great experience catching public transport in any city.  
Even if we got off way too early and walked 10 blocks to where we needed to be. Gave us the chance for sightseeing and nachos at the News Cafe, one of my favourite eateries in the area.   
Our waitress looked a little bored and glad to talk about vegetarianism. In 45 minutes we got her reasons and life story, which was nice, but seemed stuck on transmit rather than receive so little of what we said went in. So many of those people in the States, and once I realise they’re not listening to a word I say I treat them like TV shows pumping information at me, but unable to receive feedback. Which is fine. 
  
The Miami Culinary Food tour was terrific, not least because we were in a party of five, us and a great Fort Lauderdale couple and his mum. 

They did listen and reminded me of why I love chatting to random strangers in the States. Some can be closed off, but others are wonderful company and enhance a night’s pottering and food sampling no end. It helped that our guide was smart, funny and knew her stuff. 

  
Having finally found a Walgreens, we set off to find a return bus, glad of a walk. 

Four miles later we were still looking and wound up back at the hotel. Miles of empty streets with house numbers like 3009. 

Crazy amounts of space and nobody on the streets at 8.30pm like a scene from The Purge movies. 

Glad to have burnt off a few calories at least. 
Hopefully a Miami tour today will be as much fun. Unless Sly storms the bus and beats up random assailants. 

  
Which I doubt. 
To be continued…

Miami Twice… a Week By Roger Crow

Boom. Boom. Boom. 

No, it’s not a Black Eyed Peas track, but me bouncing from wave to wave, the Miami skyline a backdrop to my latest sun-kissed adventure. 

So while Jan Hammer’s classic title theme played on a loop in my head, and Ocean Force Adventures’ Captain Matt guided my RIB (rigid inflatable boat) over the next wave, the reality behind that 30-year-old fantasy was happily overwritten. 

  
Skimming around the Everglades days earlier had been just as thrilling, soaking up the sights before experiencing (from a safe distance) a few of the 2,000 eponymous stars of the Everglades Alligator Farm. 

I’d witnessed how badly this sort of thing could be done in Orlando years ago, so it was reassuring to see a well executed version. 

  
Contrary to what i’d seen in many bullet-strewn films, TV shows and carjacking video games, Miami is far friendlier than I could have hoped; more like locally shot comedy classic There’s Something About Mary than Al Pacino’s OTT remake of Scarface. 

  
Or at least it was for the week I was there, happily gracing Thomas Cook’s inaugural flight from Manchester to Miami. 

A smooth, comfortable jaunt with great staff, state-of-the-art touch screen entertainment and delicious food. 

(Unlike some airline meals which I half eat, the main James Martin dish in Premium Economy was so tasty, it left me craving more). 

  
As an adopted northerner with an insatiable passion for all things Floridian, the bi-weekly new route is great news for me, my bank account and my six foot one frame. I’m of an age where I’ll happily pay extra for decent leg room on long haul flights. 

  
My last trip to Miami was around 2007 on a day trip from Orlando. Given the few hours my wife and I spent gracing South Beach or the odd restaurant, it was great to see how vibrant and diverse the area is when you have a few days and guides spotlighting those places most Brits have never heard of. 

  
Okay, I’ll admit the Miami Design District left me as cold as LA’s Rodeo Drive, which it resembled, but don’t let that put you off. 

As someone who prefers bookshops to designer labels, I’m unlikely to shop there, unless I win the Lottery. 

However, I can see the appeal for socialites, star-spotters and my better half (as long as I hide her credit card). 

  
More affordable were Bayside Mall and Dolphin Mall, perfect spots for getting those suitcase-straining bargains. 

Half of my trip was spent at The Biltmore, a National Historic Landmark hotel you might recognise from Will Smith’s first Bad Boys movie. 

  
Given its elegant setting, great food (the Fontana Ristorante and Courtyard is a must), spacious gym and pool (recently named in the world’s top seven coolest by one major web site), there’s little wonder film and TV makers love it as much as travellers. 

  
The Grand Beach Hotel (off Miami Beach) also boasted an uber comfy bed and fine facilities. Ironing the wrinkles out of my suit while overlooking a rainbow-kissed Miami beach is not something I’ll forget in a hurry. 

  
Of course, shopping, sun, sea and sand are a huge chunk of any annual holiday. However, as a lover of quirky attractions, Coral Castle, a wonderfully bonkers tribute to one man’s epic garden folly, (later inspiring Billy Idol’s song Sweet Sixteen) lingered long after I left. 

The story behind the attraction is the greatest Tim Burton film never made. 

  
If wildlife rather than wild love stories is more your thing, Miami Seaquarium offers plenty… and the chance to swim with dolphins. 

Though I’d done it before in Orlando, the experience never gets old, while watching manatees, rays and conversing with assorted parrots is always a bonus. 

  
We all know America is synonymous with epic food portions, and I experienced a wealth of great meals, whether a fine steak at the posh Meat Market (on Lincoln Road, the main shopping street); crab cakes at Gianni Versace’s beloved News Cafe; a great South Beach restaurant-to-diner trek courtesy of Miami Food Tours, or a fine veggie burger at the PAMM (Perez Art Museum) gallery. 

  
The latter was a top attraction for a rainy day, albeit a little too ’Tate Modern’ for me in places; some sublime exhibits in one room and some that are more Foundation level in others. 

  
Art will always be a divisive subject, regardless of how spacious or well funded the setting. However, as much as I loved my visit to PAMM, Wynwood Walls and arts district – a thriving urban neighbourhood filled with beautifully painted murals, galleries, breweries and cool bars -proved far more on the money. 

  
Basically it was a checklist of my favourite things, and the street art doesn’t cost a penny. I highly recommend it. 

Getting around town on foot is all very well, and as much as I like a good walk, I adore a Segway tour even more. 

  
A few years ago in Baltimore, I fell in love with the simply controlled gizmos, subtly controlled by weight shifted from toes to heels. 

They were just as much fun touring the streets of Miami, care of the superb Bike & Roll company. 

First timers might be stressed as they get used to the scooter-like vehicles, but after a few minutes, chances are they’ll be a natural.

  
As my wife and I usually default to a Manchester to Orlando return trip most years, the fact our regular October pilgrimage is now cheaper to include a Miami diversion is a welcome incentive, not to mention a change from the norm. 

After 15 trips to Florida over a dozen years, I never cease to be amazed by the magnetic appeal of its attractions. 

  
Miami is my new favourite haunt, blending the best of the Sunshine State and that Cuban influence. It’s as intoxicating as the cocktails I sampled, purely in the interest of research. (The taste of Maple syrup and alcohol now permanently associated with Miami). 

  
Given the relatively healthy exchange rate (at the time of writing), it’s hard not to enthuse about jewel in Florida’s crown. 

After a few stressful, exhausting months, Miami did a terrific job of recharging my batteries, like the U.S. always does. 

  
It’s never a case of ’if’ I return, but when, and that new Manchester – Miami route means it’ll be sooner rather than later. 

Ducking and Thriving in Orlando

It’s 4.55pm in Orlando, and the Peabody Hotel’s lobby is full.
Not just with business types in town for a conference, but curious folks like myself and my wife who have dropped in for one reason: ducks.

Disneyland a few miles away may be synonymous with one irascible cartoon duck, but after almost a decade of hearing about a hotel’s feathered residents, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Peabody Hotels have been marching ducks to and from their fountains since 1939, six years after a bunch of duck hunters accidentally started one of the most unique traditions in any hotel’s history.

“They dropped them in the fountain as kind of a prank and the next morning when they came to get the ducks there was a crowd there and a tradition was born. They just kept ducks in there ever since,” explains the Peabody Orlando’s duck master, Donald. (Yes, that’s his real name).

Donald, with the aid of a young apprentice chosen that afternoon, has just rolled out the red carpet, placed steps at the side of the fountain and at 5pm he and his new sidekick guide the marching ducks back to the lift and return them to their penthouse.It’s a wonderfully surreal sight, and the best thing is it’s free.And in an age when we’re facing the worst economic downturns in decades, watching every cent in the Sunshine State is crucial if you want to get the most out of your Floridian holiday.

Pound for pound it’s still remarkably cheap to stay in Orlando, and for those who don’t fancy tackling the freeways and driving on the wrong side of the road, then rest assured there’s plenty of ways to get from A to B via public transport.

For newcomers, the main tourist artery running through the city is International Drive. Lining it are more hotels, motels, diners, thrift shops, and tourist attractions than you can shake a stick at.Staying at one of the many hotels on or just off this main road is a great starting point, and with the aforementioned Peabody as a landmark, you‘ll rarely get lost.

Most UK holidaymakers will naturally gravitate toward Disney (and its assorted parks) and Universal’s two parks – Islands of Adventure and the main site, Universal Studios.

If you’re staying on International Drive there’s a good chance your hotel will run a shuttle bus to Universal, but if not a Lynx bus can get you there in next to no time and you can pick one up at any number of stops along the I-Drive.You could pay with dollars every time your board the bus, but it’s often better to save yourself a few quid/dollars by getting a week’s pass (or naturally longer depending how long you’re in town).

If you’re staying near Don Pablo’s Mexican Restaurant (it offers great food without breaking the bank), then nip into the Tourist Information centre a few doors down. Get your Lynx bus tickets there and also get a week’s I-Trolley pass. For a combined price of around £17, you can visit all the major theme parks, at least three major malls, Seaworld, Aquatica and a lot more.

Bearing in mind that parking at a theme park can be around £10-£15 a day, you’ll be saving cash in no time.

So, what’s the best thing to see in Orlando at the moment?Well, in terms of theme parks at least three attractions stand out: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey set within Hogwarts at Universal, and Star Tours 3D and ToyMania at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

They are also three of the most popular, so here’s a few tips for getting the most for your money.For Universal if you get a two-day ticket for both parks, then on day one do Harry Potter. Get there first thing in the morning and follow the signs for this huge attraction; don’t be distracted by all the other candy coloured goodies on offer; you can do those later.

The queue, even first thing in a morning, can be as epic as any of the movies, so go prepared with cheap waterproofs in case of a sudden deluge, mp3 player, good book and a lot of patience. It’ll be worth it because the meticulous attention to detail as you queue for the ride – a mix of rollercoaster and animatronic show – is breathtaking.

Alas, many of the gift shops in Hogsmead, the accompanying village, are tiny and usually feature huge queues, so best avoid them and buy all your goodies at the other plentiful Universal shops. On day two at Universal, again go first thing in the morning and head for The Simpsons Ride and Men in Black. (Because most tourists will be at Islands of Adventure on Potter, there’s a good chance you’ll not have to bother queuing for long.

However, if you can get Express Pass tickets for your favourite rides then do so, but be warned: it can be costly for a family of four.
As for Disney, getting there from International Drive takes longer. You’ll need a Lynx bus which will take you to Disney’s Transportation Centre, then get a free connecting bus to Hollywood Studios.Once at the latter, having passed through security, head straight for Toymania and get a Fast Pass ticket – that will get you on the ride later that day, then head back to Star Tours 3D and start queuing.

As with Harry Potter, this Star Wars flight simulator will be heaving with geeks (like myself), but the state-of-the-art effects have brought George Lucas’s original 1985 ride bang up to date with an experience that is out of this world. (The beauty of it is that there are so many alternate versions you could experience it dozens of times and have a different experience every time).

That done head for Toymania when your time to ride is due and experience one of the best 3D games in town.

If you only do one water park then my money is on Aquatica. (Get a multiday ticket that also takes in Seaworld and other key parks to get the most for your money).

An I-Trolley ride will get you there in around half an hour, and again the early bird catches the worm, so aim to catch the bus around half an hour before it opens.Once through the gates, grab loungers with umbrellas near the wave pool, and then find a locker to store valuables.It’s also good to do as many rides as possible as early as you can, because by noon the place will be heaving with folks.

Naturally there are countless other attractions, diners and things to see and do, but a final word of advice. If you like a restaurant, don’t feel guilty about going back several times during your stay as there’s a chance it may not be there when you return next year.

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BEST FOR: Sunshine and theme parks.

TIME TO GO: Tail end of February or October to make the most of the cheap flights and shorter queues.

DON’T MISS: The best rides: Toymania and Star Tours at Disney’s Hollywood Studios; Harry Potter’s World of Witchcraft and Wizardry at Universal Studios. And water park lovers should check out Aquatica, especially the Dolphin Plunge ride.

NEED TO KNOW: Tax is added at the till, so purchases cost more than you may think.It may be the Sunshine State, but it also rains a lot in Florida, especially during the summer, so take a cheap poncho (also handy for water rides), and watertight cases for mp3 players and other valuables.

Most parks offer youngsters the chance to meet their favourite characters and this can make for a lasting memory, but be warned the queues can be incredible so if you’re planning to do this and still take in the rides you’ll need to allow extra time in each park.

DON’T FORGET: Most of the parks and malls have water fountains so take a good quality water bottle and fill up at fountains.Take ID everywhere. Handy for bars, especially if you’re 40 and lucky enough to look 20.If on foot, a good pair of light, slip on walking shoes (also perfect for customs), suntan lotion and a hat to avoid sunburned scalps.

Luggage scales to ensure your cases aren’t over the baggage allowance. An internationally recognised debit card you can put money on before you leave the UK, then you won’t get any huge bills when you return.

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My Round Trip from Manchester to Florida… for £268

The first time I went to Orlando, I thought a £200 flight from London was incredible.
It was.
That was 11 years ago, and inflation means prices get a lot more expensive.
But thankfully not by much it seems.
With my last week’s holiday of 2013 looming and a desire not to waste it, I managed to land a round trip to Sanford, Florida for £268.
Not only that it was on Thomson’s new Dreamliner, complete with tinted windows, ambient lighting and extra legroom.
£134 to go 4,000 miles in relative comfort? That’s what I call a bargain. (In case you’re wondering, said travel company didn’t pay a penny towards my trip).

There’s little wonder Orlando is one of the most popular travel destinations for Brits. The sunshine is a natural attraction, as is the endless array of restaurants and events. If you’re one of the thousands of repeat visitors that yo-yo between Blighty and the Sunshine State each year, then this is hardly a revelation.
However, if you have yet to take the plunge, here’s the lowdown on the top attractions at Walt Disney World at the moment.

Shopping, Dining and Movies
Downtown Disney is a great destination for shopping and dining. For me the heart was removed when Virgin closed their megastore a few years ago. However, with a new bowling alley and dining section, among many other fine shops and attractions, things are looking up.
The AMC cinema is also a great diversion, especially if you go early.
I saw new Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie Don Jon for seven dollars (about four quid), and Gravity (in 3D with state of the art ETX sound) for 12. Plush seats are a bonus, as is the fact you can dine and watch a film should you want to.

Breakfast at The Earl of Sandwich kept me going until a blowout at Planet Hollywood – glorious burger, fries and milk shake for 25 dollars.
(I spent much of my trip existing on one meal a day. Given notoriously large American portions, that’s all you need).

Transport
Getting around Disney World can be an ordeal if you don’t drive. So it’s a good job the fleet of courtesy buses can whip you from your resort hotel to Downtown Disney in next to no time.
Okay, you may be miffed if you’re staying at the Grand Floridian and every bus seems to be for Typhoon Lagoon, but that’s the same with any queue. The other line always moves faster.

The Best Hotel in Orlando?
’My’ hotel is easily the best hotel on Disney property in terms of elegance. It’s the Ritz of Mouseland, and even if the cost takes your breath away, it’s worth having a look round during a Monorail trip from neighbouring residences such as Contemporary or Polynesian Resorts.

The Parks
Magic Kingdom is still the jewel in the crown of Disney’s Floridian theme park empire. It’s not my favourite, probably because I’m not a five-year-old kid or their doting parent, but there’s enough other stuff to entertain, from gravity-bothering Splash Mountain, to the Monsters Inc interactive stand-up show, a state-of-the-art, fun attraction utilising the same ’magic’ as other interactive chats with CG turtle Crush, as featured elsewhere in Disney World, and on their newer cruise liners.
Nightly fireworks displays are always a treat, though there are times when it’s so loud it sounds like an attack on the Death Star. Hey, I’m of that age.

Pirates of the Caribbean might be one of Disney’s oldest attractions, but despite the addition of Johnny Depp’s rogue buccaneer Jack Sparrow over the past decade, it feels in need of a spruce-up, even if it’s just that mangy old dog holding the keys.
However, it’s still a superb way to spend a few minutes, and for me a lot more entertaining than the later Pirates movies.

Animal Kingdom shows little sign of losing its appeal. Crowd pleasers such as Expedition Everest continue to have a magnetic pull for punters, though having done the roller coaster a few times, I opted for Finding Nemo: The Musical instead.
For the most part it’s good fun, with some catchy numbers and likeable characters, though there is a disconnect between the sub-aquatic protagonists and the puppeteers/singers.
I spent too long looking at the performers and not enough at the characters. Maybe if the singers had worn black body stockings against black backgrounds the illusion would have worked.
Not that the auditorium full of kids, families and pensioners seemed to mind, though the very young were wailing at the loud noises and scenes of mild fish-based peril.

Animal Kingdom’s jungle trek safari is still good fun, though a sub-plot involved a disembodied radio voice seeking help was omitted from our version.
Maybe the poaching storyline had worn thin in this well meaning Africa-style tour.
After several trips over the years, it still proves compelling entertainment, not least because of the exotic wildlife. (No, not the pasty faced ones who had been flash-burned because they overdid it on day one).

One of my favourite elements of Disney is Epcot. Whether wandering around its World Showcase, or riding on the ever popular hang glider simulator Soarin’, this is the theme park for more mature fans. Yes, the kids will love it, but for those who prefer to take things a little easier, this is the place to be.
And if you come in the autumn/fall, the Food and Wine Festival is a must. Pottering around the World Showcase snacking on nibbles from assorted countries, or sampling their tipples, you’ll have a great time.
(I went three nights running and it felt like a different experience each time).

The fact some great bands play the Eat to the Beat area gives it that extra something. For half an hour with some good friends, a frozen Margarita and the stunningly good Air Supply, I was in heaven.

I’d sampled assorted Floridian water parks over the years, but Typhoon Lagoon was a first, and it soon became a ’new’ favourite.
Whether relaxing on loungers at the artificial beach, or catching my breath in the lazy river, it was a great way to spend a few hours.
I also enjoyed one of the best hot dogs of my life.
The fact our sun loungers didn’t adjust was a pain, but it scarcely mattered.
I was stunned by the quality of service at the Grand Floridian. Not just the hotel itself, with comfy beds (as standard with every Disney hotel and cruise I’ve stayed on), but the extra mile the staff went to ensure my holiday was as good as possible, even down to the fact that when my pre-booked coach would arrive too late to get me to Sanford Airport in time, the management ensured I would get there without too much nail biting drama).
My biggest problem, aside from ensuring my 2.5kg case came in at 5kg for the return journey, is a long hard winter counting the days until I can return.

Roger Crow was a (very happy) guest of Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. Thanks for their hospitality.