I’ve done something bad. What sort of dad would travel to Orlando, home of Disney World and Universal Studios, without his children?
I knew they’d be upset. But then I did get them a Nintendo Wii at Christmas, plus I took them to the zoo not two weeks back. So, in a way, they owed me. I also knew that, because of the guilt, there was only one way I’d have even a fighting chance of enjoying my break. I would have to bite the bullet and insist on travelling in total, utter luxury.
What appealed about Florida, and especially Orlando, was the chance to escape the hard grind of my job as a comedian. As I was telling this eight-year-old Filipino tin miner the other day, comedy is the toughest job in the world. Irony is particularly hard work (see previous sentence), so I wanted to go to America where the concept is, apparently, almost unknown. Orlando offered the perfect chance to see how seriously the Americans took the concept of fun in the sun – in an entirely deluxe style.
Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class seemed a good place to start. The great thing about Upper Class is the number of steps you take from your front door to the airport lounge – about six. A limousine picks you up and drives you to a building next to the main terminal, hidden by trees from prying economy-class eyes.
An agent pops out, greets you, checks you in via the lowered car window and takes your bags to be processed (the ability to use your own arms or legs at this stage is optional). The limo then drives you to a special entrance.
Virgin understands that when Sartre said “hell is other people”, he’d probably just got off an economy flight from Heathrow. I didn’t see a single other passenger at the check-in building, nor on the approach to my fast-track security screening. I felt like the bloke who wakes from a coma in 28 Days Later to find London completely deserted.
A difficult few yards followed where I was actually forced to walk and share air with members of the general public (surely a Virgin-logoed sedan chair could be provided?). Finally, I arrived in the Upper Class lounge, with its high-quality food, teddy-bear-soft armchairs and salon offering Ayurvedic massage. It was all too seductive. I had to get out of there, I had a plane to catch (using priority boarding).
Sartre would have appreciated the private pods in the Upper Class accommodation. The seats, all 14 of them, face into the aisle, isolated by half-height walls. I say “aisle”, but the space involved was wide enough for a breakdancer to comfortably perform a floorshow. The chair was able to accommodate the most widespread behind, with a leather “ottoman” for one’s feet.
And there was none of that being forced to wear your headrest-mounted TV screen as a pair of spectacles because the bloke in front of you has leaned his seat back. The nearest human I could see – if you exclude the attendant who was so attending he was effectively a butler – was right over the other side of the plane. I had my silver service four-course meal, enjoyed a change of scenery from a barstool at the permanent bar, but soon I could wait no longer. It was time for the pièce de résistance. The bed.
I pressed a button (well, my butler did) and my seat slowly transformed into a full-length bed, like Tracy Island readying itself to launch Thunderbird 2. I grabbed the blanket and prepared to sleep. Only that wasn’t the blanket, it was the undersheet. The butler produced a seriously togged duvet from the locker and made my bed. Even though it was the middle of the day, I slept the sleep of the truly smug.
I was still dealing with that strange feeling you get on arriving in the States of having fallen into a movie or an REM album cover, when I pulled up at my first hotel in my live-the-dream convertible. The disadvantage of the Grand Bohemian is that it’s downtown, miles away from the theme parks and fun palaces of Orlando. The advantage of the Grand Bohemian is that it’s downtown, miles away from the theme parks and fun palaces of Orlando.
It was immediately clear, as I tried to look relaxed while asking the valet to park my car, that I’d have to park my prejudices as well. This was not what I’d expected from Orlando. The bar and lounge were packed with the young and beautiful (and by young I don’t mean toddlers in buggies), listening to a singer who must have made the last three on American Idol, accompanied on a Bosendorfer piano (worth $250,000, as I found out when I tried to rest my glass on it). On every wall, you saw exquisite works of modern art. I deliberately filled up my bladder to dangerous levels to justify a visit to the fifth-floor restroom. I wasn’t disappointed – about 20 Egon Schieles hung from the wall.
One thing I didn’t see there was a family of any kind – but I sure as hell made up for that the following day at Universal. Universal Orlando is actually two theme parks, separated by a nightlife area: “Universal Studios” itself, themed around movies and TV, and “Islands of Adventures”, themed around books. But don’t expect a Madame Bovary log-flume ride. It’s more Marvel Comics, Dr Seuss and from next year, as most of Orlando will tell you, 20 acres of Harry Potter.
If you’re an adrenalin junkie, then this is the park for you. Personally, I was getting all the adrenalin I needed trying to drive on the right, but when in Rome, or “The Lost Continent Island of Adventure”, you’ve got to ride the roller-coasters.
“Duelling Dragons” is actually two “coasters” (forgive my fluent adrenalin-speak). On three occasions during the ride they come within u o 12 inches of each other, so there’s a lower and an upper height limit – you mustn’t be over 7ft 1in – can you imagine how unhappy the Orlando Magic basketball team must have been? I had a go but the 60mph speed, five inversions, two corkscrews and the zero-G roll left me existentially confused. The obligatory photo showed my 23 co-riders screaming, arms in the air, while my confused face just spelt out a massive: “Why?”
Perhaps I was just too old for rides that moved my stomach at space-shuttle speed to my extremities. With a mid-life crisis brewing, I decided to limit myself to attractions where my feet would remain on the floor. This usually involved putting on 3D glasses in front of a screen, then sitting in a seat having water sprayed in my face, heat blown at me and my chair back prodded and poked – a bit like working in a kindergarten. It can be phenomenally effective though, as with the Spiderman ride, where at one point you feel you’re falling 400ft, or, best of the lot, “Disaster!” where, through the magic of cinema, all the visitors end up in a disaster movie directed by a terrifyingly real Christopher Walken hologram. I laughed and gawped in amazement.
Walt Disney World is roughly the size of Greater Manchester, but with far less rain, and is made up of four distinct parks. Animal Kingdom, by far the largest, is a strangely effective hybrid of theme park and safari park. You come off Disney’s newest roller-coaster, Expedition Everest, with its animatronic yetis, walk a few steps from “Asia” to “Africa” (no passport or jabs required) and see a real gorilla (at least, I think it was real), hulking about its daily business.
It’s easy to be cynical (and believe me, I tried) but this combination of rides and rhinos kept me in an almost permanent state of childlike excitement. Perhaps I should get out more.
Of course, the magic of Disney was made all the more magical by the Fastpass produced by my guide, Hector – a man so competent, entertaining and handsome he was surely designed in vitro by Disney’s “imagineers” (as their designers are called). Any guest at Disney can get a Fastpass for certain rides, allowing you to book for later on that day instead of queuing. Not right to the front, though, and not on every ride. Hector explained that people had such a strong emotional attachment to rides like “Pirates of the Caribbean” that seeing smug VIPs-in-inverted-commas march to the front might prompt, at the very least, a Velvet Revolution. So we queued for “Pirates” with everyone else – quite an enjoyable experience in a sort of “Prince and the Pauper” one-off rubbing-shoulders-with-the-people way. Though I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.
Magic Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios offer more traditional Disney fare than Animal Kingdom – the Cinderella castle, the parades etc. Despite my gravitational misgivings, I was keen to go on “The Rock’n’Roller Coaster”, mainly because the premise sounded a little bit ridiculous: riding through an indoor California in a stretch limo-coaster with America’s favourite rock band, Aerosmith. But Disney doesn’t do ridiculous. A 0-60mph acceleration in less than three seconds shook my cynicism out of me and, though digestively challenging, the rest of the ride, with its neon signs coming at you in the dark, was simply brilliant. Even with the Aerosmith soundtrack. Disney Magic? I was starting to believe!
By the time I reached Epcot, I was ready to put on my Mickey ears and take the oath. Epcot is the most adult of the four parks. In fact, Mickey’s presence here is kept to a minimum. I loved the new “Soaring” ride, which suspends you in front of an Imax screen and makes you feel as if you’re gliding over mountains, seas and pine forests, together with appropriate smells. But my thrill-obsessed guide Hector insisted that the astronaut-training simulator “Mission: Space” was the not-to-be-missed attraction. In my view, any ride that boasts that it’s the first to come with sickbags immediately rules itself out of contention, but they’d recently introduced a less intense version so I decided to opt for that.
With the queue for the hardcore ride bursting with adults and children, some of whom must have been no older than six and girls, I took a walk of shame to the far shorter queue alongside, consisting of a mum with a baby, two four-year-olds and an old man with a hearing aid and stick. It was not my finest hour. I survived the milder g-forces and still impressive slingshot orbit round the moon, but as I watched some classic Disney fireworks from the World Showcase – a slightly surreal series of pavilions representing 11 nations, with an Eiffel Tower nestling close to a Japanese pagoda (the UK pavilion has a Fish’n’Chip shop, a real pub and a mock Tudor shop selling David Beckham after-shave and Flakes for $2.50) – I couldn’t help but sense a slight disappointment at my lack of theme-park cojones.
Fortunately, I’d now moved to the Ritz Carlton, quite close to the parks as the crow (or Dumbo) flies, but half a hemisphere away mentally from the scene of my man-failure. This was a hotel that liked to kick off its shoes and revel in its own luxury. Want a king-size bed? Have two! Toilets? Have two of them as well! My machismo may have failed me on the big rides but I was certainly man enough to appreciate a good sunset from my balconies (two of them) with their view over the huge pool and the lake and the golf course and the forest. And not a roller-coaster in sight.
Further healing came with a trip to Winter Park. Just a short drive from the theme parks through suburbs with clapboard houses and immaculate, Twin Peaks lawns, this university town felt like a piece of real America. It was like being in It’s A Wonderful Life, except in colour. My walk slowed from the 1920s newsreel pace I’d adopted in the theme parks to a leisurely saunter as I strolled past the craft shops and galleries and eclectic restaurants of the main street, Park Avenue. I dawdled at the Farmers’ Market, tasting the outrageously perfect local oranges and the best kettle popcorn since records began, then wandered into the Morse Museum of American Art to see the world’s largest collection of Tiffany stained glass. Lit and arranged like a church inside, this felt so far from the parks that even thinking of the Rock’n’Rollercoaster was enough to give me the bends. Which for all I know is something some thrillseekers would pay good money for.
Replenished and renewed, I weighed up my options. There are plenty of possibilities for the middle-aged man in Orlando. Disney alone offers fishing, golf courses, paragliding and, if your mid-life crisis is really acute, 18 laps of Nascar racing car driving.
In the end I decided Skyventure offered the perfect compromise between adventure and putting my back out. Skyventure offers “indoor” skydiving. After a brief training session, you dress up as Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Then you step into a huge funnel, effectively a vertical wind tunnel, where the breeze keeps you hanging in the air as if you were sky-diving. If you’re any good, you can shoot up 30ft and hover like a wind-whipped Peter Pan.
My first attempt was more carpet-Hoover than skydive, but my trainer Giacomo, who works in real estate during the day, took pity on me. He steered me to the top of the funnel. My heart was pumping, the adrenalin was flowing and, sadly not for the first time in my life, it had taken an estate agent to do it.
The parks no longer held any fear, so I headed over to Seaworld. Part-theme park, part-aquarium, here you can feed the dolphins and ride another suicidal roller-coaster (though not at the same time). Seaworld is known for its killer-whale show, but I preferred the dolphin show, which makes Cirque du Soleil look like a poor Monday night at a Working Men’s Club – acrobats, divers, dolphins, parrots, even for one moment a condor, all working together. Later, I found out that the trainers can get their killer whales to wee into a cup. Now that’s a show I’d like to see.
I had one final indulgence left before I returned home – a swim with a dolphin at Discovery Cove. Built to look like a tropical island retreat with thatched huts, crystal-clear water and appropriately exotic insect noises (presumably recorded), the genius here is that they never allow too many people in. On the day I went there were about 250 “guests”. I felt like I had the place to myself.
My dolphin was called Dexter. A cute little smiley chap (aren’t they all?), he was three years old – a teenager in dolphin terms – and judging from his eye for the lady dolphins, his hormones were certainly playing up. I don’t mean to seem ungrateful but I have to admit the ride didn’t quite live up to expectations. It was a little too short. And where were the g-rolls, the inversions, the vertical loops? Perhaps the theme parks had got to me after all. Besides, somewhere in my heart of hearts, I couldn’t quite believe that Dexter wasn’t animatronic.
I finally found my dolphinesque inner peace snorkelling in the Cove’s “coral reef” with thousands of fish and huge rays over six feet across. It was the sort of calming, inspiring, happy experience that even Disney would be hard-pushed to create and I vowed to return to Orlando as soon as possible.
Maybe next time I’ll bring the kids.
This article first appeared in The Independent. My kids still haven’t forgiven me.