From thrill rides and scary alligator encounters to fine dining and luxury living, Ruth Brindle discovers why Brits return here year after year…
I’m just feet from a giant alligator with no barrier between us. He’s alive and not moving and I’m assured he’s not hungry, but the experience still has a frisson of fear as I look at those powerful jaws.
This was one of the highlights of a delightful few hours at one of Orlando’s oldest tourist attractions Gatorland, established in 1949 and still a family-owned business.
With thousands of alligators, crocodiles, birds including flamingos, deer, turtles and a giant tortoise as well as bobcats and panthers and many more species there is a lot to see here and keep you occupied. While I stayed firmly on the ground nursing a broken arm, my thrill-seeking friends took to the treetops on the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, 56ft high and along a 1,200ft ride reaching speeds of up to 35 mph over gator packed swamp. There are exciting shows and close encounters – don’t miss the white gators with startling blue eyes – and even a mini water park where youngsters can cool off.
But what I most enjoyed about being there was the feeling of peace and quiet of natural Florida. I could have spent hours watching birds such as white ibis fly in and out to their nests as I wandered the walkways in my own time. I even heard that because it’s such an ideal place to observe the Florida wildlife, David Attenborough himself has filmed here to observe animal behaviour.
The 100-acre park will also open a new attraction this autumn Gator Joe’s Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure where you can ride through the swamplands on a 12ft high monster truck to spot wildlife in its natural habitat, gatorland.com
This delightful visit was part of a few days’ stay in Kissimmee, just south of Orlando itself. In 2015 more than 550,000 Brits stayed in this area in what has become the vacation home capital of the world.
We love the area as it’s just a short drive to the Disney parks, although a longer ride to Universal and SeaWorld, and a convenient way to stay for families who have the comfort of a large self-catering home with three, four, five or even more bedrooms, a private pool and, in many cases, communal facilities to enjoy either before or after visiting the attractions.
I’ve stayed here several times and it’s a great location, although traffic along its main route to the parks – the 192 – can get congested at peak times.
Some of the most luxurious of those vacation homes that wouldn’t be out of place as celebrity pads in Los Angeles with their impossibly glamorous kitchens and dining rooms, private cinemas and themed bedrooms for all tastes are on offer from Jeeves Florida Rentals, jeevesfloridarentals.com
The exquisite homes I looked around were so beautiful that it seemed a shame to mar their beauty with day to day living! But for the chance to take my grandchildren to a house with beds that look like boats and a Mickey Mouse-shaped swimming pool, I’d get over my qualms.
Many of the Jeeves homes are on the upmarket Reunion Resort in Kissimmee with the added bonus of golf courses by Palmer, Watson and Nicklaus on the doorstep.
Of course, the prices match the luxury, but they are so large, some with 12 bedrooms or more, that families could easily share and not feel they were living in each other’s pockets and it keeps the costs down.
Kissimmee in Osceola County is a place to be near to the parks but also to enjoy some of the natural attractions that Florida has to offer and there are many.
Top of many visitors’ list of typically Floridian things to do is to take an airboat ride in the Central Florida Everglades. It’s fast, it’s thrilling and you can once again get up close and personal with those gators and see wildlife as wonderful as eagles and turtles in their natural habitat. A great place to do this is at Wild Florida, on the banks of Cypress Lake which also has a wildlife park where you can see emus, zebras, watusi cattle, water buffalo and many more creatures. One of the cutest and most in demand for petting is the sloth who quite happily posed for photographs for me on my visit, facebook.com/Wildfloridairboats
But an equally thrilling way to take a look at what Kissimmee has to offer is to take an hour’s balloon ride over the countryside in pure peace and quiet finishing with a glass of bubbly to toast the occasion. It’s an early morning start and always weather permitting, but an unforgettable experience to see the Florida landscape of lakes, swamps and parts of the Disney area from on high, www.orlandoballoonrides.com
Another very thrilling first time experience for me was a night-time helicopter flight over Walt Disney World to get a very different perspective on Epcot’s spectacular firework extravaganza IllumiNations Reflections of Earth that wows visitors every night. With a glass of bubbly in our hands a friend and I were snugly seated in the back of the Max Flight helicopter behind our pilot to fly as near as regulations allow to the show. To see Disney laid out below us in all its lit up glory at night was absolutely fabulous. If you love flying of all varieties as I do, it’s one experience to save up for – stunning. Find out more at facebook.com/MaxFlightheli
Back down to earth and with the Disney dream firmly in mind it was time to visit Celebration, a little town created by Walt’s company in 1994 to be the perfect place to live with gorgeous homes along manicured avenues with not a blade of grass out of place. No longer owned by Disney it is nevertheless still gorgeous and a really interesting place to visit. It has quirky boutique shops, not least The Woof Gang Bakery for pets (of course), a fifties-style cinema and great dining.
One of the most prestigious and stunning is the Columbia Restaurant specialising in Cuban food. Owned and operated by the fourth and fifth generation of the same family the Columbia brand is Florida’s oldest with the original restaurant in Ybor City, Tampa opening in 1905.
The menu in Celebration has the same Spanish/Cuban highlights – try the trademark 1905 salad or the paella a la Valenciana, columbiarestaurant.com/celebration The whole experience with amazingly attentive staff fits with the exclusive feel of Celebration itself.
It is also, however, a good destination for all the family and an especially safe place to go for a bike ride around the lake and trails or even take an audio-guided Segway tour.
There is a gorgeous boutique hotel here, but if you like your Florida hotel to literally give you ‘everything’ then head for the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate. This is an area with plenty of shops and facilities right on the doorstep of the theme parks with a complimentary shuttle to Walt Disney World – music to my ears.
Children love the wave pool and the lazy river and there’s a spa, miniature golf and championship level golf over 36 holes.
A particular delight of my stay was a deliciously authentic Chinese meal with seemingly endless dishes to try at the fine dining restaurant Zen where there’s also a sushi bar. You can eat Italian dishes at Trevi’s and at other more casual locations at the resort, including with cocktails by one of the many pools, omnihotels.com/hotels/orlando-championsgate
Another stunning location to eat is in the 4.5acre glass atrium of the nearby Gaylord Palms Resort, so spacious it has its own waterways and lush gardens. Take your time over a succulent breakfast or Sunday brunch from Vila De Flora’s chef’s table while you sit in awe of your surroundings. The hotel also now has a new waterslide complex and FlowRider surf simulator as part of a £40 million upgrade, marriott.co.uk/hotels/travel/mcogp-gaylord-palms-resort-and-convention-center
For family entertainment Kissimmee has a lot to offer, but I can recommend a really fun outing at Medieval Times, a dinner show that transports you back to the time of knights in armour, jousting and maidens needing to be rescued. Eat with your fingers, which children love, and don cheer for your favourite hero as you are entertained in the action-packed arena, medievaltimes.com
Discovering more of what Kissimmee has to offer was an eye-opener for me. Staying here gives you the best of both worlds – theme parks thrills with natural experiences and adventure. So what are you waiting for?
Pandora –The World of AVATAR at Animal Kingdom is the latest attraction to open at Walt Disney World this year. Visitors will be able to enjoy a flight simulator-based banshee experience and a boat ride through the mind-blowing landscapes of Pandora. Find out more at disneyworld.co.uk
At Universal this year an exciting tropical island-themed water park Volcano Bay has opened its doors and is a welcome addition to the existing two parks Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, universalorlando.co.uk
Roller coaster enthusiasts will love the new wooden rollercoaster aptly named The Mine Blower which has just opened at Fun Spot America’s Kissimmee theme park. The coaster is the only wooden coaster in the Southeast United States to include a barrel roll. The track is 2,256 feet long, 82 feet high with a top speed of 48.5 mph.
Find out lots more from Experience Kissimmee the official website for tourism at experiencekissimmee.com
Find out more about what Florida has to offer at visitflorida.com