Wizard wheeze

Flager beach in Florida has endless yellow sand
Flager beach in Florida has endless yellow sand
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Mike Cowling wanders the back roads of small town America and takes in the movie theme parks.

She remained unflustered in a Southern belle sort of way. It was a straight forward question that would have been out of place if it hadn’t been asked in Georgia but she knew the answer straight away. The giant peanut was at the end of a road on the corner just past the chicken restaurant.

After a couple of minutes of following her clear directions in the small town of Ashburn,, I was facing the strange attraction that celebrates Georgia’s affection for the unassuming product enjoyed all over the world.

Ashburn was a world away from our destination of Orlando and Universal Studios theme parks. But I had come to an agreement with my daughter that we would visit the out of the way places in the Deep South before heading for the bright lights of Florida’s tourist city.

So our seven day trip toured the quieter places, visiting film locations and roadside oddities, before hitting the theme parks for a couple of days. Flying out of Manchester we were in the hire car driving away from Orlando for our first night in Daytona Beach in no time. Our hotel was in view of the gigantic Daytona Speedway motor racing circuit, home to car and motorcycle events. Preparations were well under way for the Daytona Bike Week that would see thousands of motorcyclists from all over the world descend on the seaside resort for a festival of two wheel extravaganza.

Waking early in Daytona Beach I flicked on the television to see a warning about immediate thunderstorms. Accurate forecasting for extreme weather is good in the US and sure enough the electrical storm, darkening the already dull dawn, passed overhead almost to the minute forecast by the local television station.

The roads dried out quickly and we were on the way north in a breaking sky with patches of blue poking through the silver grey. A brisk walk along a deserted Flager Beach broke the journey to St. Augustine and a date with a lighthouse. By the time we reached St. Augustine the clouds cleared and we had a warm sun on our backs. The lighthouse and museum offers great views of the much fought-over port and an insight into life as a lighthouse keeper. Walking to the top up the spiral staircase was worth the effort for the 360 degree panorama.

Back into the car and on northwards through Jacksonville to Georgia we left Florida behind for a few days. Jekyll Island in Georgia, near the city of Brunswick, offers out of season peace and quiet. It retains some magnificent buildings from an opulent past when it became an exclusive resort for the nation’s wealthiest. Croquet is still played in front of the Clubhouse in timeless fashion and visitors step back in history to the days of the Jekyll Island Club. Pointing the car north again we left Georgia and drove to South Carolina and another seaside town. Beaufort, know locally as “Buford”, is a place to dump the car and amble around enjoying the café culture and waterfront. Vietnam scenes for the film Forrest Gump were shot its in the surrounding countryside. Heading inland we passed through Varnville, also a location for the that same movie, before reaching Augusta and Georgia once again.

After a night in Augusta, we headed west on the freeway to Atlanta and then turned south on the back roads through small town America. The road meanders through places with tired and worn out town centres with occasionally some signs of fight backs. Warrenton, with its red brick movie house now converted to an arts centre, was one example of regeneration.

Doglegging our way across Georgia through towns such as Jewell, Sparta and Monticello we arrived at another film location point, the café in Juliette. Serving delicious lunches, the eatery appears in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. The building was once a hardware store and was chosen to represent the Irondale café in Alabama where the story is set in the original book by Fannie Flagg.

Spending too much time going cross country we decided to use the fast paced freeway heading south once more and we were soon in Valdosta for the night. If you haven’t driven on American freeways be aware that overtaking is allowed on any side of you and exits are numbered in accordance with mileage on the freeway. Indicating is a skill yet to be embraced by American drivers.

Back into the sunshine state we headed for the Gulf Coast resort of Cedar Key and another lazy couple of hours wandering around in the spring heat, watching fishermen working off the pier patiently waiting for a bite only to give cheeky pelicans their catch.

My time was up. Time for my daughter’s two days of theme park fun. She has grown up with the Harry Potter books and at 23 is still very much a fan. So I pointed the car towards Orlando where we had chosen Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Our hotel was close to Universal and no sooner had we had breakfast than we were in the park enjoying the thrills and entertainment. The main Harry Potter ride is very much worth the wait. You are constantly kept moving as you queue with plenty of things to keep the younger members of your party occupied. Hang on to your hats – you are in for a treat.

There are two parks on the site, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, with Harry Potter, Spiderman and Jurassic Park rides being the most popular. Universal Studios Florida is the quieter of the two but offer such thrills as Twister, Men in Black and The Simpsons. We ended the week tired but happy after a great time. Wizard in fact.

Getting there

Universal 2-Park Bonus Tickets, give 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

Exchange rate at time of travel £1 gave $1.55. Fuel cost at time of travel. $3.80 per gallon on average.