DISNEY DEJA VOUS

By JENNA MAXWELL
Orlando is one of those places that if you go once and love it, you have to go back. It gets under your skin. That’s exactly how I feel about it. I was lucky enough to go several times as a child in the mid and late 90s with my mum and dad, including once in 1998. This year, 20 years on, I visited with my husband, Tom, and two-year-old daughter, Sabrina, to see how much the happiest place on earth has changed in the last two decades.

The opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 introduced Orlando to the world and sparked its growth into one of the most popular tourist spots on the planet. With Disney, Universal and SeaWorld theme parks all competing for visitors, the city is constantly evolving to offer the freshest, most technologically advanced attractions for families. In the 90s, I felt there were too many things to squeeze into a two-week holiday. This year, I feel like two months would be needed to fit everything in.

The flight this year was much better than it was 20 years ago. Gone was the one tiny TV to entertain the cabin full of families. With Virgin Atlantic, we had a private entertainment system on the back of each seat. It was Sabrina’s first long-haul flight, but the time passed quickly with colouring in, playing with stickers and watching cartoons. It helped that the staff were extremely friendly and accommodating, not to mention the lovely meals. The airline offers direct flights to Orlando from Belfast and Glasgow during summer months and London Gatwick and Manchester all year round.

In the 90s, we often stayed in motels. They were cheap, clean and close to all the theme parks. However, as this was the first trip to my favourite place with my own family, I wanted to do something a bit more special. For the first week, we chose a villa from Select Vacation Villas. Located in Kissimmee, it was an easy drive to all attractions and was located in the gated community of Windsor Hills. It felt like a real home from home, with the added benefit of a private pool. We had hired a car and used this week to visit the non-Disney attractions such as Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Discovery Cove and Kennedy Space Center.

The two Universal parks (Studios and Islands of Adventure) had undergone the biggest changes over the last two decades. I used to love rides like Back to the Future, Jaws and ET. Of these, only ET remains as Universal has constantly evolved to make way for more modern franchises such as Harry Potter, The Fast and The Furious and The Simpsons.

Although I’m nostalgic for one-off rides from the 90s, they just don’t compare to the themed worlds that exist in the parks today. With astonishing levels of details, you actually feel as though you’re walking through the streets of Hogsmead and Diagon Alley or going to class at Hogwarts. The Forbidden Journey and Escape from Gringotts have to be experienced to be believed. Back to the Future was replaced in 2008 with The Simpsons Ride and its accompanying Springfield. Again, this is a fully themed area where you can enjoy a Flaming Moe and visit Apu in the Kwik-E-Mart.

Something that didn’t even exist on my 1998 trip was Discovery Cove, which opened in 2000. Owned by SeaWorld, it’s less a theme park and more a tropical paradise. As well as the chance to swim and interact with dolphins, sharks and string rays, a day at Discovery Cove is exclusive. Only so many guests are admitted per day and food and drink is included with your ticket. The chance to unwind, swim with tropical fish, eat as much fantastic food as you like and even get a message while gazing out to the green oasis and listening to the birds singing, it really is heavenly.

A trip to Kennedy Space Center is another must if you’re in the sunshine state. I didn’t appreciate this enough as a youngster but, visiting now, it was awe-inspiring to view historic Apollo launch sites and get up close to a giant Saturn V rocket. Kennedy is also now the permanent home of Atlantis – a stunning exhibition that commemorates the end of the shuttle programme, something that, back in 1998, was still going strong.

For our second week, we decided to go all-out Disney and stay in an on-site hotel: The Walt Disney World Dolphin. The Swan and Dolphin are two sister hotels that I used to watch guests leave from and always one day dreamed of staying in. We ditched the car and were able to walk or hop on a boat to Epcot and Hollywood Studios and use the free Disney buses to the other parks. That convenience is priceless and with 17 restaurant and lounges, five pools and a spa, we would have been happy never actually leaving the hotels. https://www.swandolphin.com/

Although my first visit to Orlando was more than two decades ago, I still remember the excitement I felt the first time I saw Cinderella’s Castle at Magic Kingdom, but watching Sabrina’s face light up at the same sight was even more amazing. A lot has changed in 20 years, but Orlando hasn’t lost a drop of its magic.

Parks, attractions and tickets can easily be organised by VisitOrlando.com, the official tourism association for Orlando and holiday planning resource.