Orlando and Miami, Florida – Travel Review
Orlando and Miami, Florida
by Roger Crow
You don’t expect to see a crashed spaceship on holiday. Or an alien planet of floating rocks and flying dragons. Even something as mundane as a train sign offering a trip to my home town of Howden, East Yorkshire seems unusual 4,000 miles away in Orlando, where anything can and usually does happen.
For most of the past decade, my social media timeline has been filled with autumnal Florida pics, and this year is no exception. So, after a couple of days in Fort Lauderdale with Floridian friends, where we wind up lobster red and see American Idol winner David Cook in concert, my partner Rachel and I make our pilgrimage to Orlando’s finest theme parks.
First up is Universal Studios, where we grab brunch before tackling Skull Island: Reign of Kong. I’ve been looking forward to it since our last visit in 2015 when the attraction was under construction.
With the aid of Express Passes, we are on in no time. The queue involves dense jungle lined with skulls on poles. Before long, trucks take us off on a ’perilous’ journey.
Thanks to 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 thrilled holiday makers produce delighted screams and yelps. Me included.
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 improved Spider-Man 3D attraction, and Transformers: The Ride. Again, thanks to Express Passes, we pretty much walk straight on to both, so as time is limited, it’s worth spending the extra money.
Rachel and I also enjoy the truly bizarre ’Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon’, in which the talk show host takes punters from his studio in the Big Apple through a breakneck street ride. Fallon’s a huge name in the States, but though the ride is great, his comedy routine loses a bit in translation.
All parks need one must-see attraction, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Universal’s. In 2015 it blew my mind that it covers such a huge area, and that a replica of King’s Cross Station (featuring that aforementioned Howden sign) had been created. Obviously the experience is less gobsmacking when you know what’s coming, but the scale and effect still amazes me.
The 3D rollercoaster ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is a personal favourite, not least for the stunning dragon on top of the building which belches fire every 10 minutes or so.
But what of the competition? Well, if you only do one other park area in Florida, I’d recommend Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Years ago, news arrived that Disney and James Cameron were planning a theme park experience based on his blockbuster, Avatar. 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 – The World of Avatar, I realise why it took so long to create.
Cameron’s lethal planet is now a lot more friendly at Animal Kingdom, and it really was worth the wait. As precious Fast Passes have run out by the time we try to book, the thought of a 150-minute queue to experience Flight of Passage (riding on a multicoloured banshee, aka dragon) initially fills me with dread, but the wait is hugely entertaining.
Watching cascading waterfalls from huge ’floating’ rocks, or soaking up the exotic scenery is a treat. And after the winding queue takes us inside Na’avi caves and then into a laboratory, we see one of the huge floating blue bodies that our brain syncs with for the ride. I’m like a kid on Christmas morning.
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, and a thousand times more. Easily the greatest immersive ride I’ve ever had.
At lunch, Rachel enjoys the finest vegetarian dining experience she’s had in a theme park. At Satu’li Canteen, my ’pod’ of doughy ’bread’ filled with minced beef is a nice change from the ubiquitous burger and fries I get in most park diners. If I’m honest, I prefer Rachel’s veggie dish to mine. It’s far tastier.
Later we queue for the Na’vi River Journey and travel through the bioluminescent forest of Pandora. It’s a less full-on experience both in the wait 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.
We only have a day at Animal Kingdom, one of my favourite of Disney’s many parks, but it’s never dull. Though my beloved other attraction, the tigers in the Asia section, are busy raising young, the sight of monkeys leaping from branch to branch is forever fun.
As our holiday seems stuck on fast forward, it’s not long before we’re heading 236 miles south to Miami.
After an £8.30 Megabus ride from Orlando to Miami, we set up camp at the glorious Shelbourne Hotel, near South Beach. Thanks to previous visits to the area, I knew I had to book another few hours with Miami Culinary Tours. Due to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma affecting the region, I’m glad the company suggest an excursion to one of my favourite Miami areas, Little Havana.
After taking an Uber to the region, we meet our guide Gina, and fellow wandering diners. Then we’re off, and spend a couple of hours pottering from eatery to restaurant to diner, sampling their produce and getting a good history lesson along the way.
It’s one of the highlights of our Miami trip thanks to Gina, who gives us the expert lowdown on empanadas; Cuban sandwiches; drinks made from pure sugar cane, and other lip-smacking goodies.
As Rachel is a selective vegetarian, there’s no problem accommodating her palate.
“Value for money”
I need little excuse to bag a spare Cuban sandwich for later while soaking up the history of the area. If you love a good mojito, the Ball & Chain bar (once a haunt of music legends like Chet Baker) is a must.
Tour prices are around £50pp, and as there’s also a separate tour of Wynwood Walls, one of my favourite regions in Miami thanks to the stunning murals, there’s no shortage of variety.
For both the South Beach and Little Havana food tours, I’d recommend watching Jon Favreau’s outstanding movie Chef before you go. It features a couple of stops on both tours and will also give you a taste of what to expect from the region.
Naturally we round off our visit with dessert, and there’s plenty to choose from at the Azucar Ice Cream Company, including Beam Me Up (Rachel’s choice), which features Jim Beam.
Miami Culinary Tours is a modest little organisation run entirely by women which offers great value for money. I’m not surprised it’s always busy.
Every time I come to the Sunshine State, I expect to be underwhelmed. But as a constantly changing area, filled with extraordinary warm-hearted locals and stunning attractions, it continues to surprise, and always revitalises my drained energy levels.
Ah, if only a train did run from Howden to Florida. Given their track record, I get the feeling Disney and Universal could even make that happen.
With thanks to Universal Parks and Resorts, Disney Destinations International, and Miami Culinary Tours for their help with this article.
For further information about Walt Disney World Resort in Florida visit disneyholidays.co.uk or call freephone on 0800 169 0730.
For more information on Universal Orlando Resort visit universalorlando.co.uk
Universal Orlando 3-Park Explorer Ticket from £223 per adult. The 3-Park Explorer Ticket gives you unlimited park-to-park admission to Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and the all NEW Volcano Bay Water Theme Park for up to 14 consecutive days from first use. See attractiontickets.com