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Why Orlando is the theme park capital of the world – in 8 twists, turns and drops

Why Orlando is the theme park capital of the world – in 8 twists, turns and drops

Universal Studios in Florida

Remember that kid in your class at school, who was always perpetually jetting off to, or returning from, Orlando? And the sweet, sweet envy you felt upon their return, hearing all about their sun-drenched, fun-infused escapades?

Like a pop culture lost City of Atlantis, Orlando maintains a mesmeric appeal long beyond childhood. As such, adrenaline junkies the world over make the pilgrimage every year, with or without kids in tow: unsurprising, then, the city was last year revealed as the most-visited in the US, surpassing New York.

Last month, Gay Star News headed to the sunshine state’s third largest city with Travel City Direct for our own rite of roller coaster passage. There, we stayed in a gloriously kitch aparment at Universal Orlando’s Americana-inspired Cabana Bay Beach Resort.

Armed with an Orlando FlexTicket Plus – which grants unlimited access to no less than six parks: Universal Studios, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Wet ‘n Wild and Aquatica Orlando water parks, plus Busch Gardens Tampa and SeaWorld Orlando – our mission was simple: to scare ourselves silly on Orlando’s most cutting-edge rides.

Here, we take the plunge and recount our eight highlights of an action-packed week…

1. The Incredible Hulk Coaster, Universal’s Islands of Adventure

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I was amazed to discover this ride opened in 1999 – there’s such buoyancy, energy and sheen to it, you’d be forgiven for thinking it opened last week.

Perhaps the grandaddy of all the rides in question, the Incredible Hulk Coaster is inspired by the popular comic book character, and shares his utter strength and vigor. Beginning with a shocking upwards launch –  propelling you at 40 mph in two seconds, rather than dragging you slowly up a chained slope – the ride is a furious tour de force of corkscrews and inversions. A classic rollercoaster.

2. Falcon’s Fury, Busch Gardens Tampa

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The look on little Tom Daley’s face [below] says it all. Like most of the rides at Busch Gardens Tampa, a sprawling theme park/zoo hybrid, Falcon’s Fury is named after the animal – or rather in this case, the remorseless predator – that inspired it. More than just your average drop tower, Falcon’s Fury has two USPs: the first, it’s America’s tallest; the second, the tilted seating. Oh good god, the tilted seating.

When you reach the top of the tower, your seating position inverts 90-degrees, giving you a bird’s eye view of the park – but meaning you’re directly facing the ground. There you dangle for an excruciating length of time before plummeting – free falling – at 60 mph. An excellent concept and an unforgettable ride.

3. The Simpsons Ride, Universal Studios Florida

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Universal Studios’ Springfield U.S.A. area is a highlight of the entire park; a cartoon-explosion that takes you inside your TV, where you can grab a beer at Moe’s Tavern, grab a bite at Krusty Burger, or shop for souvenirs in the Kwik-E-Mart gift shop.

Its centerpiece is The Simpsons Ride: a wild 3-D simulator that takes you to the crumbling Krustyland (‘where fun takes a holiday!’). The uncanny animation reminded me, rather uncomfortably, of the Treehouse of Horror VI episode of the hit TV show, in which Homer enters the Fourth Dimension. A surprisingly scary experience (!), those with a delicate stomach are advised to sit this one out.

4. Cheetah Hunt, Busch Gardens Tampa

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Like Falcon’s Fury, the nimble Cheetah Hunt does a great job of conjuring the spirit of its parent animal, reaching top speeds of 60 mph. It also includes three sudden launches that’ll turn your stomach upside down. The attraction is dovetailed nicely by a cheetah enclosure next door.

Be sure to check out the 12,000+ other species of animal at the park; our favourites were a fabulously lazy pride of lions, some waddling rhinoceroses and a beautiful, cuddly sloth. Who, apparently, reduced an old Asian lady tourist to tears with his sheer amazingness the week before. Bless.

5. Manta, Sea World

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From an ethical standpoint, it goes without saying SeaWorld isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But beyond the debate around its marine life, SeaWorld Orlando is perhaps lesser known for its impressive rides. Manta is a smooth, elegant ‘flying’ roller coster, much like Air at Alton Towers, that suspends riders below the track in prone position, so all you can see is the ground – or the sky – in front you. Dizzying and transportive, with some wonderful interactions with water, this was one of my favourites.

6. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Universal Studios Florida

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Another inspired concept coaster, the Rip Ride Rockit is an agile, light-footed little number that gives you the choice of 30 songs to listen to during your ride – we opted for Donna Summer’s Bad Girls, naturally.

Better still (and beknownst to me at the time), the ride films you throughout the experience, giving you the opportunity to essentially film your own Mariah Carey in 1995’s Fantasy-inspired music video. Ours didn’t come out quite so composed mind you, so we decided against the purchase…

7. Despicable Me Minion Mayham, Universal Studios Florida

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Inspired by the insanely successful Despicable Me franchise, about megalomaniac Gru and his three adorable adoptive daughters (who are always thwarting his plans for world domination), this is another top-notch simulator in the vein of The Simpsons Ride, but a far softer, more kid-friendly affair. Donning ‘minion googles’, you’ll see through the 3D eyes of Gru’s delightfully stupid banana-loving creatures.

Movement is limited, but the ride employs awe-inspiring animation and 4D effects such as wind and water to move the experience along. It’s easygoing fun, and thus is very popular with kids, apparently boasting the longest queues in the park. Plan ahead.

8. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Universal’s Islands of Adventure)

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Disclaimer: I am not a Harry Potter fan. And yet even I was blown away by Universal’s picture-perfect recreation of Hogwarts Castle, and the surrounding village of Hogsmeade. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is an enormous themed area spanning both Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios, connected by the Hogwarts Express, and boasts an almost obsessive attention to detail, and is so sprawling and full of surprises it takes at least a day if not two to truly appreciate.

Within the Castle you’ll find Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – a ride which, for me, moved the theme park experience into a different realm. A ‘robocoaster’ boasting razor sharp 3D imagery and pivoting seats atop robotic arms, the ride introduces new experiences and sensations that’ll utterly disorientate you. The backstory – Harry, Hermione and the other one jumping on broomsticks to evade some antagonist or other – was completely lost on me, but I didn’t care: this ride completely blew my mind.

Travel City Direct

Travel City Direct offers affordable quality family holidays to Florida, the Caribbean and other destinations with the security of being part of the Virgin Holidays family. Travel City Direct prides itself on its ‘no hidden extras’ and ‘worry free guarantee’ approach, meaning the price customers see is the price they pay. It is fully bonded by the Civil Aviation Authority and a registered member of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).

From London Gatwick – Gay Star News travelled to the airport with Southern and The Gatwick Express, from London’s Victoria Station

Seven nights at Universal from £609pp. Seven nights in Orlando with Travel City Direct, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick direct to Orlando, accommodation at the 3* Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort on a room only basis with car hire included starts from £565pp. Price is per person based on 2 adults and 2 children (under 12) travelling and sharing a tower standard room and includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Price is based on departures 04 Mar 2015. To book: or call 0844 557 6965.

Orlando FlexTicket Plus

With the Orlando FlexTicket enjoy 14 days of unlimited admission to Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios, SeaWorld Orlando, Wet ‘n Wild Orlando, Aquatica and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

The Orlando FlexTicket gives you these great benefits:

Variety – unlimited access to a combination of Florida’s most popular theme parks.
Flexibility – you can visit any or all of the parks everyday.
Value for Money – the world’s most exciting attractions for one unbeatable price and you only have to pay for parking once if you visit more than one park in the same day.

You’ll also receive free coach transportation to Busch Gardens on the Busch Gardens Shuttle Express when you purchase the Orlando FlexTicket Plus, also free parking – only pay for parking once if you visit more than one park on the same day.

Ticket prices – £229 per adult and £219 for children (3-9 years)

Images: Universal Studios Florida, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment