SeaWorld’s Florida Parks, Orlando – Travel Review
By Richard Jones, August 2023
Tequiza craned her neck, pricked up her ears and batted her eyelashes as the ranger reached for another clump of crunchy Romaine lettuce from the coolbox.
It was breakfast time on the Serengeti Plain and after wrapping her long purple tongue around the cooling leaves in my hand, the female reticulated giraffe was soon sniffing around for her next snack.
My wife Rachel and our daughters Isla and Evelyn were in Busch Gardens Tampa, taking part in a short safari tour which culminated in a chance to meet and feed these incredible gentle giants.
Unsurprisingly, Isla and Evelyn have always loved holidays in Florida.
But now aged 16 and 12, they are no longer too bothered about seeing people dressed up as giant mice or princesses – they prefer to meet living and breathing animals.
Our week began an hour away from Tampa, at SeaWorld Orlando. It had been a few years since we visited this world-famous theme park, and since then, new attractions have sprung up around its central lake.
In the meantime, the kids have also shot up, and as they are now above the magic 140cm height restriction, they were keen to test their parents’ resistance to motion sickness on the hair-raising rollercoasters.
But before the white-knuckle rides, we spent the morning looking at the work of the dedicated staff who treat hundreds of distressed or endangered animals every year.
Admittedly, the park has received some bad press in recent years, but behind some of the negative headlines, SeaWorld’s ‘rescue and care’ mission is undoubtably a force for good.
We were moved by the story of a poorly manatee, who had been rescued off the Florida coast after being hit by a boat and is now undergoing round-the-clock treatment in the hope that she could be released back into the ocean.
After some face-to-feather time in the snow at the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin attraction, we watched the Dolphin Adventures and Orca Encounter presentations, before meeting the passionate trainers and experts who care for the animals.
SeaWorld is rightly proud of its work advancing scientific research into marine mammals and we learned how their studies have furthered our knowledge, enabling marine biologists to help species flourish, both in the parks and in the wild.
Throughout the morning, the trainers also highlighted how rising threats to our oceans continue to affect the inhabitants, but whether those and others’ wise words will be enough to turn the tide remains to be seen.
Although we were all fascinated by the animals and trainers, kids will be kids, and Isla and Evelyn couldn’t wait to take their seats in the ginormous rollercoasters.
As well as the new ‘stand-up’ Pipeline – the world’s first surf coaster – and the ‘reverse drop’ Ice Breaker ride, we revisited Manta, Kraken and Journey to Atlantis, as well as our favourite, the 200ft-tall Mako, with its top speed of 73mph making it Orlando’s fastest and tallest rollercoaster.
In between, we watched the parade in Sesame Street Land, and refuelled at Voyager’s Smokehouse and Seafire Grill with the use of SeaWorld’s All Day Dining package.
However, the park’s best restaurant is Sharks Underwater Grill where we munched on steaks, shrimp and salmon (gluten-free options were available for Isla), against the backdrop of an enormous tank filled with of Atlantic black tips, hammerheads, zebra sharks and tropical fish.
After a long day at the park, it was a godsend that our hotel was only a short stroll away.
“Home from home”
The Doubletree at Hilton at SeaWorld, Orlando was a home from home, with delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners served at the Laguna restaurant, and Alberto’s Pizzeria ideal for a quick bite or a late-night takeaway..
Meanwhile, the Barefoot Bar serves ice-cold drinks by the Laguna Pool, and we played a few holes at the Hideaway Cove Mini Golf near the Family Fun Pool.
The summer heat can be overwhelming in Florida and breaking up the theme parks with a few water rides is essential.
With its South Sea-style landscaping, hidden grottos, sparkling waterfalls and sandy beaches, Aquatica is regularly voted America’s best water park.
Its rides – the new Reef Plunge, as well as Whanua Way, Omaka Rocka, Taumata Racer and Ihu’s Breakaway Falls – are as thrilling as anything on dry land, while Roa’s Rapids is a great way to navigate around the huge 59-acre site.
During our previous visits to Orlando, we have loved our days at Discovery Cove and this year was no exception.
A wonderful mix of adventure and all-inclusive ‘decompression’ relaxation, it is unlike anywhere else in the world.
We spent our day exploring lagoons and reefs teeming with rays and schools of tropical fish, floating down the tranquil Wind-Away river with birds of paradise flying overhead, sticking our feet into the soft white sand beside our luxurious cabana, and eating and drinking to our hearts’ content.
We also encountered a few new animal friends. Following our family dolphin swim in which we met (and received a kiss from) an Atlantic bottlenose called Marea, we got to stroke Milo the two-toed sloth, and donned SeaVenture dive helmets before heading 12 feet below the surface among the reef sharks.
There were even more wildlife encounters during our final park stop of the week, Busch Gardens.
Following our trip on the Serengeti Plain to watch rhino, antelope, zebra, ostriches and the aforementioned giraffes, we were shown around the animal enclosures and Animal Care Center, learning about the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund’s work as well as zoological initiatives that they have introduced to educate visitors and ensure threatened species thrive and survive.
We also took a seat in the air-conditioned theatre to watch thrilling ice-skating show Turn It Up.
“Fastest ride of its kind”
Like SeaWorld, Busch Gardens is home to some of the world’s biggest and best rollercoasters.
After boarding Cheetah Run, Cobra’s Curse and the all-new giant duelling swing Serengeti Flyer, the world’s tallest and fastest ride of its kind, we tried out the park’s most popular attraction, Iron Gwazi.
With a stomach-churning drop of 206ft and travelling over 1.2km, the four of us agreed that the world’s fastest and steepest wood and steel (hybrid) coaster was the biggest and best ride of the trip.
Our week in central Florida had reminded us that there is no substitute for the thrill of meeting animals, like Tequiza the giraffe, in the flesh – unless you have a thing for white-knuckle rides, that is.
But whichever you prefer – thrills or animals, extreme coasters or coastal (and non-coastal) creatures – SeaWorld’s four parks give you the opportunity to enjoy them side by side.
Ocean Florida offers 14 nights at the Doubletree by Hilton at SeaWorld, direct flights from London Heathrow or Manchester and the ultimate three-park ticket including unlimited visits to SeaWorld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens, all-day dining and free parking, from £1,309pp. Include a day at Discovery Cove by upgrading to the Discovery Cove Ultimate Package (includes all meals, snacks, drinks and a 30-minute dolphin swim experience) for up to an extra £125pp. Price is based on four people sharing for selected dates in May 2024.
For more information or to book visit Ocean-florida.co.uk or call 0203 5530 948.