Fun in the sun in fabulous Florida
I was teetering on the brink − at 200ft up the roller coaster stopped and tilted forward. Way down below, the track disappeared backwards behind us then suddenly we were let go, hurtling down vertically at 70mph.
It was the start of two minutes and 20 seconds of sheer terror for some, heart-pumping exhilaration for others, like us in the front row, as the monster roller coaster SheiKra threw us around a series of inversions with a g-force hitting 3.5.
SheiKra is probably the best known roller coaster in the States, but it’s tucked away at the Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa, just over an hour from Orlando. Many tourists don’t make the trip, but there’s free transport there from your hotel when you buy the Orlando Flex Ticket and it’s well worth the journey for a day out with a difference.
It’s much more relaxed than other theme parks in Orlando; there’s an air of calm about it, with less of the rushing around and because it’s that bit further away it’s less crowded, which means shorter queues.
Busch Gardens, which is part of the SeaWorld stable, has the best coasters in the state, but they are incongruously set amid a lush zoo with staff strolling around like wildlife rangers
There’s also animal treatment centres and a Serengeti-style wildlife park roaming with wild beasts − they have 2,500 animals on show. But our group was coaster crazy and just along for the ride and we raced first to get front row seats in Montu, a beast of a coaster with a 150ft drop which flipped us through seven inversions at 65mph.
It was a heart-jolting experience, feeling totally out of control as half the time we were upside down, hitting up to 6G, a bit like a fighter pilot endures, and finishing off with a zero gravity roll and a dive bomb though a tunnel.
Kumba had a 135ft drop, but gives out three seconds of weightlessness during a 360 degree spiral, and Falcon’s Fury was just a straight 335ft drop in a face-down dive position.
Cheetah Hunt was the most fun as it was super fast and mainly ground-hugging and twisting through a jolting chicane. We stopped after this to see a real cheetah speeding through its enclosure, chasing a ‘rabbit’ like greyhounds do on a track.
It was part of the whole animal experience that let us take a break and catch our breath for a while. The zoo part, especially when interacting with animals, is also perfect for smaller kids who can’t go on the bigger rides − or for adults who just won’t.
The truck safari through the African grasslands park let us get up close to rhinos and zebras and too close to a giraffe with a long tongue!
There was a behind-the-scenes tour of Jambo Junction, filled with cute animals like the rare porcupine-like echidna, and to the animal care centre where locals bring in injured wildlife. Here they prepare food for the animals like the little furry cuscus from Australia which I held while it was feeding.
SheiKra had to be squeezed in again and two more drops on Falcon’s Fury before our bus took us back to our Orlando hotel, the stunning five-star Portofino Bay Hotel, which is just a boat shuttle away from Universal Studios.
Our Flex Tickets gave us unlimited access to the two Universal parks plus SeaWorld, Wet ‘n Wild and Aquatica water parks and Busch Gardens. It’s very handy if you want to boldly go forth on to the roller coaster, but want to tread lightly first.
If you’re a first timer coaster or haven’t gripped the iron since a kid, test the waters with Manta first. This is SeaWorld’s flying roller coaster where you are suspended, face down as you soar and dive towards the water. It’s more of a thrill than a shaker and if you can master that head to Kraken, where you dangle and soar at 65mph for over two minutes.
If you hit Universal Studios first skip past the Incredible Hulk, where you’re shot forward like a jet taking off from a aircraft carrier and then hit a zero gravity roll. Try a more fun ride first like the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, where you get your own rock soundtrack, or Revenge of the Mummy interior coaster, before trying out the green beast.
Even the quaint surroundings of the two Harry Potter sections in Universal − Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, which are linked by the Hogwarts Express train (pictured above) − have fun rides like the Forbidden Journey, Dragon Challenge and the underground thrill Escape from Gringotts.
The team finished off the day at Universal with fun water rides like Popeye’s Bilge Rat Rapids and Dudley Do-Right’s Rip Saw Falls, where large groups or families can share a ‘boat’ for thrills and a soaking. It’s best to leave these at the end of the day or if you want to cool down during the heat.
At Aquatica and Wet ’n Wild you can rent a cabana during breaks from body slides, vertical plunges and racing down mats.
At night we took the river taxi from our base at the Portofino Hotel to Universal’s CityWalk for themed bars and nightclubs. We hit a karaoke with a live band, a bar with duelling pianos and an open-air Bob Marley club.
Next day we needed something more sedate and a stroll around SeaWorld with a guide was less of a challenge after a late night and would be a great thrill for younger kids.
We were brought behind the scenes at Antartica, the penguin enclosure, and got to interact with the furry flightless birds including holding one called Ludwig, and met my namesake JP who spends his time caring for and rescuing manatees, which are big lumbering sea cows.
SeaWorld has rescued 25,000 animals since it opened - who are treated by the theme park’s vets before most are released back to the wild. They keep those who couldn’t adjust to the outside world or are too injured to make it by themselves. Who would have thought that among all the steel and slides and coasters they had a caring side too.
The Orlando Flex Ticket Plus includes 14 days unlimited access to Universal Studios, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Aquatica, SeaWorld Orlando, Wet ‘n Wild and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
The ticket is available through Attraction Tickets Direct, priced at €325 per adult and €309 per child. To book call free on 1800 927 467 or visit www.attractionticketsdirect.ie. The ticket also includes free coach transportation to Busch Gardens.
Aer Lingus fly from Dublin to Orlando four times weekly; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Fares start from €259 each way including taxes. Visit aerlingus.com for more information.
The Behind the Scenes tour at SeaWorld can be purchased via http://www.seaworldparks.ie/book-tickets. They start from €27 adult and €9 child in low season.
With the Orlando FlexTicket you’ll also get complimentary entrance to Universal CityWalk, Orlando’s hottest entertainment and dining venue. This 30-acre night-time entertainment complex is Orlando’s ideal destination for a night out.
We stayed at the five-star Loew’s Portofino Bay Hotel, which is a short water taxi from Universal Studios. Tour America has a fantastic offer of return direct flights with Aer Lingus to Orlando and seven nights at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (incl all taxes and charges) from €1069 per person. Price based on two adults & two kids sharing. Date of departure: Selected dates September & October 2015. Our Ref: 490757. See touramerica.ie