Flexible friend

Florida: There are thrills a minute for Jeni Harvey as she explores the fun parks of Orlando and beyond and suddenly realises they are not just for children.

I’M standing in a darkened booth the size of a telephone box, 76 feet above the ground, wearing only my bikini. Granted, it’s not an everyday experience – but then little that goes on in the somewhat surreal theme park world of Orlando, Florida, can be considered everyday.

Without warning, the “floor” of the booth gives way. Shrieking, I’m dropped out of a trapdoor and down a vertical slide to splash down, a few seconds later, into one of the many pools at the Wet ‘n’ Wild water park.

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Heart in my mouth and with legs like jelly, I decide the Bomb Bay slide was too much for me – so it’s time to stumble to the relative safety of the lazy river, to float along and soak up some sunshine.

I’m here to sample the huge variety of fun that can be had using the Orlando FlexTicket Plus, which gives admission to a raft of the Sunshine State’s best theme parks.

In all, the ticket provides entry to Universal’s Islands of Adventure – home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Universal Studios, Wet ‘n’ Wild, SeaWorld Orlando and the Aquatica waterpark, as well as Busch Gardens, about an hour’s drive away at Tampa Bay.

There’s a lot to fit in in the space of five days especially as, once the parks have closed, the FlexTicket Plus includes complimentary entrance to Universal CityWalk – a parade of restaurants, clubs and bars just a stone’s throw from Universal Studios.

Now, it’s fair to say I’m not a fan of Harry Potter. It’s not that I dislike the boy wizard, it’s more that, having never read one of JK Rowling’s books or seen the film adaptations, I’m indifferent to the Hogwarts crowd.

But, despite barely knowing my Butterbeer from my Beaujolais, from the moment we walk into Diagon Alley I’m captivated by the magic of the Wizarding World, with its imposing replica of Hogwarts looming over the bustling village of Hogsmeade.

It’s bizarre to see higgledy-piggledy houses with mock snow on the top in 35C heat, but that doesn’t seem to ruin the magic for the wide-eyed families who are finding their own special wand in Ollivanders’ shop or being tempted by the exploding bon-bons and chocolate frogs in Honeyduke’s sweet emporium.

While the rides – especially the white-knuckle Dragon Challenge – are fantastic fun, there’s so much more to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter than roller coasters. JK Rowling herself approved every aspect of the £265m park, down to the recipe of the Butterbeer in the pub, and the attention to detail is incredible – even for a Potter-sceptic.

A “significant” expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was also announced last month. Barry Meyer, chairman and chief executive of Warner Brothers, said he was “honoured to expand our Orlando experience”, and I’d love to go back to see what he has in mind.

While the Wizarding bit is a huge draw, it’s just a small part of the experience to be had at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

The theme of the park is exploration, with visitors arriving at the Port of Entry and then given the choice of departing for different islands, ranging from Seuss Landing to Jurassic Park and Marvel Super Hero Island, home to attractions including the high-speed Incredible Hulk Coaster.

All attractions within the Universal Orlando Resort, set around a huge lake, are within walking distance – though those with wobbly legs after a hard day on the rollercoasters or a hard night’s partying at Citywalk can opt to take a free water taxi to get around.

Using the Orlando FlexTicket Plus, guests can go in and out of the parks as many times as they like, which is a bonus for those in need of an afternoon siesta, or else if the relentless Florida heat gives way to a tropical shower.

The Hard Rock Hotel is worth a visit even for those staying elsewhere, if only to see the rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia. Down the road at the Portofino Bay, meanwhile, there’s a full-scale replica of Portofino in Italy – complete with a mock harbour and fake Vespas.

Like its sister park Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the original Universal Studios is a family-friendly mix of roller coasters and film-themed “experiences” where your feet stay firmly on the ground.

While the younger clientele may be drawn by the likes of the Simpsons and Shrek attractions, other rides such as ET and Terminator 2 will be more familiar to those who grew up in the 80s.

But, rides aside, walking around Universal Studios is exciting enough. The Blues Brothers arrive and break into song as I’m wandering down a mock-up New York street, I meander around the New England fishing village of Amity – taking care to avoid a certain sharp-toothed visitor – and without knowing it I also find myself on the set of the American version of The Inbetweeners.

At nearby Seaworld, visitors can see creatures such as penguins, sharks, stingrays and manatees up close, or else spin, glide and fly like a giant ray on Manta – thought to be the only flying roller coaster of its kind in the world.

Children and adults alike won’t fail to be wowed by the magic of Seaworld’s live shows. The spectacular Blue Horizons features acrobats, dolphins and tropical birds while One Ocean puts killer whales at the centre of the action.

The Orlando FlexTicket Plus also includes a shuttle bus to Tampa Bay and admission to Busch Gardens, where visitors can ride out on the back of a truck into vast plains which are home to species including rhinos, giraffes and elephants. There’s also the chance to get up close – albeit behind thick glass – to tigers and lions, see cheetahs running at full speed or else feed the somewhat milder-tempered flamingoes.

Busch Gardens is also home to rides, including the most terrifying rollercoaster. SheiKra climbs to 200ft before stopping on the edge of a 90-degree drop – dangling thrill-seekers over the edge – before diving down at 70mph and turning a loop-the-loop and plunging into an underground tunnel.

And Cheetah Hunt, the park’s newest roller coaster, aims to mimic the actions of a cheetah on the hunt for its prey, with towering rises and breathtaking plunges.

I’d thought theme parks were just for children but now I realise what the grown ups have been missing out on all these years.

Getting there

Jeni Harvey flew to Orlando with Virgin Atlantic and stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort. She travelled from Doncaster to London with East Coast Trains and spent a night at the Hilton Gatwick. The Orlando FlexTicket Plus costs from £189 per adult and from £179 per child (www.orlandoflexticket.co.uk).

Travel City Direct is offering seven-night holidays in Orlando from £869 per person, for departures in June. This includes transfers and scheduled flights on Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick or Manchester to Orlando.

Package details: 0844 556965 or book online at www.travelcitydirect.com