Orlando without the kids

Hogwarts Castle at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Universal Orlando Resort, Florida

Ruth's underwater SeaVenture at Discovery Cove in Orlando

The spectacular lobby at The Waldorf Astoria, Orlando

The Beauty and the Beast restaurant is part of the expansion at the Magic Kingdom

First published in What's On

You don't need to bring the children to fully appreciate this part of Florida, as Ruth Brindle discovers

WHEN my husband and I announced we were planning to start a Florida holiday as a couple with five days in Orlando, the reaction was one of surprise.

The view of friends and family was that you only go to theme parks if the kids force you to! But our answer was simple – we love Orlando and it’s for adults to enjoy too. It’s a lot of fun. In fact, 57 per cent of its UK visitors are adults without children and 77 per cent of those go for the theme parks.

There’s always something new within the dazzling array of dinner shows, world-class restaurants, top-rated shopping - both high-end and outlet, water parks and more natural adventures such as airboat rides to spot gators or even, hot air ballooning. It would apparently take more than 67 days to work your way around all 100 attractions on offer.

As Florida veterans of over 20 years, our trip in February was different in a lot of ways. This time we were spoiling ourselves by staying in the luxury Waldorf Astoria Hotel. With its adjoining Hilton, it’s the only luxury resort on the vast Disney ‘property’ and just minutes away from the attractions.

This is the only Waldorf Astoria in the world apart from the original, iconic New York hotel and it is the high level of service that is making it so popular with Orlando’s discerning visitors. There are clever design nods here to the original, including the lobby’s central clock, just the place to meet, as it still is in Manhattan.

Our bed, decked with Egyptian cotton linens was the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in and the vast bathroom even held the invitation to hire a ‘bath butler’ for $80 (£50) who would draw my candlelit bath, sprinkle orchids on top and leave a ‘blooming hot tea’ to help me relax. (If only my husband was so obliging!) But of all the locations in all the world, why pick Orlando to build the second Waldorf Astoria? Quite simply, it was in response to a growing and strong demand from Orlando’s 51 million visitors a year, who are looking for a more upmarket experience. Since opening in 2009, the Waldorf Astoria is proving a huge hit and is often full.

It not only shares a vast convention space with the Hilton, but guests of either hotel can wander back and forth to enjoy restaurants, bars, swimming pools, fitness rooms and the Guerlain spa at the Waldorf Astoria.

We particularly loved sitting in Peacock Alley, the Waldorf bar, so called after its New York namesake where socialites promenaded between the then Waldorf and Astoria hotels in the late 1800s to see and be seen (often plumed with peacock feathers in their hats).

Eating in the hotel’s Bull and Bear steak and seafood restaurant is an unforgettable experience. It has been named as one of the very best places to eat in Orlando.

Our room looked out over the 18-hole golf course, but there are rooms and suites in both hotels from which you can watch the Disney firework displays.

What I loved too is the daily coach transport to and from the Disney parks. That, to me, is a luxury too as it makes life so much easier. We stepped on board for our first theme park foray to the Magic Kingdom, followed by Epcot and arrived just before the ‘gates’ opened. As the crowds gathered I noticed many grown-ups without children, and it was hard not to feel the magic as Mickey, Minnie and assorted friends serenaded us. Tear in my eye? Absolutely.

This is by far the most popular and iconic park, and the biggest rides, such as Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain attract huge queues. But without my usual military-style battle plan to follow, we were able to just saunter straight to Liberty Square and the Hall of Presidents, for its audio-animatronic show of the American story. This is a favourite of my husband’s as he loves history, but a place we would normally struggle to attract youngsters to.

Peacefully wandering also helped us to discover rides, previously undiscovered areas and appreciate those clever Disney details all around the park, such as the pristine gardens and ‘hidden’ Mickeys (in buildings and art work) we had never seen before, including the charming Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress.

Taking the monorail to Epcot, my need for speed was met at Test Track with a 60 mph whiz around a race track, as near as I get to rollercoaster thrills. The queue here was just 20 minutes, so we had plenty of time to stroll around the World Showcase pavilions – depicting 11 countries, including the UK. One of our favourites here is the Japan showcase, where I watched spectacular Taiko drumming, while my hubby slipped away to sample a sake. Whether you go for Morocco, Mexico, Canada, Italy or the rest, this is the ideal park to come to wine and dine. There’s so much on offer (takeaway fish and chips at the Yorkshire County Fish Shop at the UK ‘experience’ was good value at around $8, £5).

In Hollywood Studios, we again opted for a gentle experience to find out more about Walt himself at Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream. With a short film, photos and models we learnt how one man’s theme park vision became reality, and it was all, in his words, just because a father wanted somewhere to have fun with his daughters. It seems Walt lives on, as there was no mention of his death in this experience! But with adrenalin-packed rides such as The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, and much more on offer here, thrill seekers and those, like us, looking for a less hair-raising experience can have a lot of fun.

A short drive to the two parks at Universal Orlando Resort – Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios opens up what I have always felt is a more edgy, potentially grown-up world. The big draw here is the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter with Hogwarts castle dominating Hogsmeade’s street. Once inside the school, you embark on a super-exciting Fordidden Journey encountering a dragon and the Whomping Willow and much more along the way. Be warned, however, queues here are very long. The delicious caramel smell of Butterbeer is all around, and so far, one million have been sold. A must for all fans of the books and films.

But having sampled the busy parks, a day spent at Discovery Cove is the perfect antidote. A tropical paradise with its own beach, laid-back atmosphere and the chance to interact with dolphins, this is a little bit of heaven. I was thrilled to meet Yoko the 16-year-old offspring of the park’s oldest (over 40) and biggest male dolphin Capricorn, who I was privileged to meet a few years ago. We stroked her and she was happy to wave to us and leap into the air on our ‘commands’. On the new SeaVenture experience I also donned a diver’s helmet to take a walk on the ‘sea’ bed 12 ft down as an array of fish and large rays swam around me and I held a giant sea snail! I was within inches of a group of nurse sharks basking, thankfully, behind a glass screen.

So whoever says Orlando is just for kids is just trying to keep it all for themselves.

Orlando highlights

But while it takes a whole book to highlight all that Orlando has to offer, here are just a few of my own favourites:

Walt Disney World – staying in a self-catering cabin at Fort Wilderness; all the fabulous parades; magical Epcot at night and the Soarin’ ride; auditioning for American Idol at Hollywood Studios; everything about Animal Kingdom with special mention of It’s Tough To Be A Bug!, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Expedition Everest and Festival of The Lion King; eating at The Brown Derby in Hollywood Studios; staying at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Create your own holiday package at http://wdtc.disneyinternational.com

Universal Orlando – Islands of Adventure’s Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man; Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges and the Jurassic Park River Adventure. At Universal Studios, it’s also a pleasure just to wander around and take in the atmosphere and being ‘on set’. I really love The Simpsons Ride; Shrek 4-D; Revenge of The Mummy; Men In Black – Alien Attack and Terminator 2 – 3D. You’ve never experienced Halloween until you’ve been to Universal’s Horror Nights! Buy your Universal 2-Park Bonus Ticket, giving you unlimited access to Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure for 14 consecutive days for only £95 per adult from www.floridatix.co.uk For more information on Universal Orlando Resort visit www.universalorlando.co.uk

SeaWorld and beyond – going behind the scenes at SeaWorld to experience the great conservation work they do; SeaWorld’s Aquatica water park; the awesome Kennedy Space Center, 40 minutes outside Orlando; browsing the Tiffany glass collection at the Morse Museum of American Art in upscale Winter Park; Boggy Creek Airboat Rides. The Discovery Cove Ultimate Package includes one-day reservation at Discovery Cove (with 30 minute dolphin swim experience, all meals, snacks and beverages) plus 14-day unlimited entry to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens AND Aquatica. Prices start from just £160 per person, for more information and bookings go to www.seaworldparks.co.uk

New for 2012:
1.This spring SeaWorld Orlando will open 3-D experience TurtleTrek and Discovery Cove will unveil Freshwater Oasis with face-to-face encounters with otters and marmosets. www.seaworldparks.co.uk
2. Universal Orlando Resort launches 3-D/CGI feature ‘Despicable Me’. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man re-opns a re-animated and enhanced experience. www.universalorlando.co.uk
3. Walt Disney World Resort’s major enhancement of Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland opens in two phases this year, including Under The Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid and Be Our Guest Restaurant.
4. The newly-opened LEGOLAND will add a water park in May.

Travel fact box

Everything you need to know about Orlando can be found at www.visitorlando.com For more information, or to book a stay at Waldorf Astoria Orlando, visit www.waldorfastoriaorlando.com

Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick or Manchester direct to Orlando, accommodation at the 3V Disney’s All Star Resort on a room-only basis with transfers included starts from £879 saving up to £140. Prices are per person based on two adults sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures September 4, 2012.

Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport: adults £20, kids £12.

To book: www.virginholidays.co.uk, 0844 557 3859 or visit one of its 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide. Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected.

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