Part of the Florida For Grown Ups Guide.
Yep, I’ve been to Orlando and done all of the Disney Parks (twice in fact). But twice was more than enough – been there, done that, got the Mickey Mouse t.shirt.
I’ve also done the best of the rest, ten times over, because what big kid doesn’t enjoy a rollercoaster or two? And let’s face it, Florida has some of the best in the world!
If you fancy putting a park (or two) on your itinerary, here’s my Top 5 choices to help you choose the best for you….
1. Busch Gardens
In my top spot is Tampa’s very own Busch Gardens. You don’t have to stay in the Orlando area to find the best park….
Busch really is the park to visit if you want to ride the biggest and best coasters that Florida has to offer. Here you will find ‘Sheikra’ which climbs you 200 feet up into the sky before dangling you over the edge of a 90 degree drop – and holding you there for a good length of time before letting you go.
Naturally, this ride is not without a loop-the-loop or two and a splash zone to complete the experience. To get the very best from your ride on Sheikra, opt for the front row if you can; you want to see that huge drop, not the back of the seats in front….don’t you?
Busch also has ‘Cheetah Hunt’, a ride dedicated to the fastest land animal on the planet. As such, this is super fast (as proven by my boyfriend whose baseball cap flew off into the abyss). Cheetah Hunt is also the longest ride in the state of Florida, measuring a whopping 4,400 feet long. Front or back seats are equally good for this ride; ride upfront for the best take off (there’s no slow introduction here!) or ride at the back to feel the full pull of the g-force. Hell, do them both!
They are my two favourites but Busch also offers other great rides that would make Alton Towers look tame, including ‘Montu’ with its inverted loops and ‘Falcons Fury’, designed to mimic a free fall skydive. There are currently nine rollercoasters in total, plus water rides (because you can’t do a park without getting wet).
As if that wasn’t enough to tempt you away from Orlando and over to Tampa, when you’re done with the rides, you can also pay a visit to the multitude of park animals. Here you will find two and four-legged beasts of all shapes and sizes, from Hippos to Tigers, to Komodo Dragons to Parrots. It’s like Noah’s Ark. Great for adults as well as kids.
Tip: This is how we ‘attack’ Busch Gardens: Arrive early before the gates open, do all of the coasters first before the queues get too big and then repeat a loop of the park at a slower pace, looking at the animals. Works perfectly every time.
Ticket Price: Cheaper than Disney by far, Busch will set you back somewhere in the region of £180 for a two park ticket in partnership with Seaworld (but more of that later).
2. Universal Studios
Second up, Orlando’s Universal Studios.
Straight off the sidewalk and onto a film set, this is the park for any of you film buffs out there. It’s not unusual to find yourself walking behind a giant transformer or being an unwilling participant of a minion parade – whilst wandering through a random street in New York or San Francisco.
Whilst Universal might not be best known for its upside down, inside out rollercoasters (‘Rip Ride Rockit’ and ‘Revenge of the Mummy’ are the only exceptions), it makes up for it with it’s brilliant 3D and 4D motion rides, the best of which – in my humble opinion – is ‘The Simpsons’. This ride may be an oldie (it’s been around over ten years!) – but trust me, it’s a goodie! Fans of Bart and co (kids and adults) can also stop by Kwik-E-Mart after the ride to pick up some Duff Beer or grab a Krusty Burger for lunch.
Other motion rides at Universal include ‘Men In Black’ for a good old alien ‘shoot em up’ and ‘ET’ for a little bit of 80’s nostalgia (great for those of us old enough to remember the original).
Universal Studios is known for its Halloween Horror Nights (not for the faint hearted) – so if you’re in Orlando in October, maybe check it out? Tickets are around £80.
Tip: Universal is one of those parks that insists you put your belongings in lockers before going on a ride – so either take plenty of spare change – or leave the bag at home.
Ticket Price: Again, cheaper than Disney – but ever so slightly more expensive than Busch. Unfortunately, if you’re after a day pass, you may as well forget it unless you’re prepared to pay over the odds at the gate. Orlando theme parks like to sell you 7-day and 14-day passes as standard. This may seem a good deal for families who base their holiday on the parks – but not so much for those of us who don’t.
3. Islands of Adventure.
IOA (for short!) is the younger, brighter, fun-loving, next door neighbour of Universal Studios.
This side of the fence does rollercoasters, 3D rides, 4D rides, water rides and fairground rides with abundance! If you want to be thrown and twisted in the air until you want to be sick, ‘Hulk’ will fit the bill. Again, this is one of the oldest rides around but it still remains one of the most popular. If you’re a big marvel fan, you will love the Spider-Man ride and it’s special effects. Don’t forget about ‘Jurassic Park’ either – this ride may look timid from the outside but don’t be fooled – the drop is huge – and the timing, unexpected!
There’s no denying that IOA has some top coasters, but the majority of visitors choose this park for one thing only: the ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’. Here you can walk through the very realistic Hogsmeade Village, grab yourself a (super sweet) butter beer, and ride on a broomstick playing quidditch. If you then find you have forgotten to do something over in Universal, you call also jump aboard the Hogwarts Express and pop across (pass needed, obvs!).
Tip: IOA is a really popular park, especially with families and Harry Potter devotees – and as such, gets pretty busy. Therefore, do what we did and fork out for a fast pass. Life’s to short to be stood in queues after all!
Ticket Price: On a par with Universal, but savings can possibly made by combining the parks – and you don’t really want to do one without experiencing the other, now do you?
Whilst on the subject of these two parks, why not make a day AND night of it? There’s so much to see and do of an evening at a Universal and IOA – ‘City Walk’ is the place to go for nightlife and restaurants and is located in between both parks.
If your budget allows, why not treat yourself to an overnight stay in one of the parks hotels? I can highly recommend the Universal Hard Rock Hotel – not only will you be guaranteed to be treated like rock royalty, but you will also be given complimentary fast passes and early park entry. Winner. A free boat will also take you from your hotel to the park too (if you can’t be bothered walking the short distance). A stay here doesn’t come cheap however, at around £160 per night. Again, you only live once.
This reason this park makes my list is for the rollercoasters as opposed the ‘Shamu Show’.
This park has been subject to much controversy over the years for keeping their killer whales in captivity. The park owners, however, claim that Seaworld is dedicated to increasing habitat protection and supporting wildlife research in a safe environment. So it’s up to you if you want to put money into this park…..
…..And if you do – there are some great coasters to try (this is the sister park to Busch after all). Almost 20 years old but still rocking it in the rollercoaster world is ‘Kraken’. This ride twists you, turns you and throws you upside down repeatedly until you feel sick – that, or itching to ride again. Best seats are at the front, but expect a substantially longer queue wait.
‘Manta’ flips you up onto your front so that you’re facing forwards head first, the idea being that you are a giant stingray souring through the sea (ok, sky). ‘Mako’ is the newest thrill ride, bound to impress even the most seasoned coaster-riders – and ‘Infinity Falls’ is the token river rapid water ride that soaks you! Best leave that one until last.
Like Busch Gardens, the park is split into two distinct parts – the coasters and the animals – both of which are on a smaller scale than their sister park. The one main draw that Seaworld has over Busch, however, is dolphins, which you can choose to pay to feed and pet on the ‘up close encounter’.
Tip: You can’t swim with the dolphins at Seaworld, but if doing so is on your bucket list, you can nip down the road to Discovery Cove. Be warned, this is expensive (around £200 for a day pass) but for that, you will get your swim with Flipper, a photograph to prove you did it, access to an on-site beach complete with hammocks – and all you can eat and drink throughout the day.
Ticket Price: Once again, unless you want to pay over the odds at the gate, you will get best value out of buying a Seaworld/ Busch Gardens combo ticket. This will set you back around £180 (give or take) for a 14-day pass. Yes, they do 7-day passes, but unsurprisingly, they cost the same as the 14-day pass. Not quite the bargain they would have you believe – but that’s just the way it is in Orlando because the majority of visitors are families with kids.
5. Disney Hollywood Studios
At least one of the four Disney parks had to make it onto the list, didn’t it? – and that one is Hollywood Studios.
Hollywood Studios has at least two really good rides for adults to enjoy and the good news is, it feels so much less ‘mousey’ than the rest of the Disney parks. Good news if Disney isn’t really your thing.
‘Rock n Roller Coaster’ has been around almost forever – in fact, it was there when I first went to Florida in 2001 (back when Hollywood Studios was called MGM). This ride runs completely in the dark, with multiple loops and a fast take off. If you’re an Aerosmith fan (like me), it’s a double bonus as you ride the coaster to ‘walk this way’. A rollercoaster to music? Try it.
Hollywood Tower Hotel gets my second thumbs up. Riders are taken up through the corridors of the old Hollywood Tower Hotel, whilst hearing all about the ghostly goings on that took place over the years. And then….well I won’t spoil it for you….
Tip: In 2019, Hollywood Studios introduced its Star Wars Land (possibly more for adults than kids!). Chances are, this park is about to become one of Disney’s busiest as a result – so get those fast passes purchased!
Ticket Price: There’s a theme here, isn’t there? Buy on the gate, pay over the odds. Best value, a combo ticket across the park over 14 days – but extortionate if you don’t plan to make full use.
Each to their own when it comes to theme parks, but the above would be my choices. Of course, you’ve also got:
- Disney Epcot
- Disney Magic Kingdom
- Disney Animal Kingdom
- Lots of water parks!