My well-travelled friend Lisa recommended packing anti-chafe underwear. After another exhilarating, exhausting day walking, queuing and playing in the theme parks of Orlando, Florida last Easter, my thighs were relieved I’d taken her advice.
On paper, this family holiday was the stuff of nightmares. Being the sedentary type, I am generally not a fan of unnecessary walking, especially on holiday, but in Orlando we averaged 25 to 30,000 steps a day. I will do almost anything to avoid a queue and everyone knows theme parks are famously full of long lines. I am scared of rollercoasters, heights and anything that goes too fast. There appears to be no such thing as too high or too fast in a world where the rollercoaster reigns supreme.
So why on earth would I choose a holiday at the Universal and Disney theme parks? For the children of course, at least that’s what I told myself. To put a stop to their griping about the fact that the vast majority of their holidays up to that point had been in Ireland and usually involved rain. And because of the persistent voice of a little girl inside me, who aged seven was given a plastic ring by some schoolfriends, a magic ring they said had the power to make any wish come true.
We’d been talking about a trip together to Orlando’s magical kingdoms since the girls were small babies. Having come through a global pandemic and interminable lockdowns, we finally decided to go for it
I believed them. I wished with all my heart, ring in hand, to be taken on a family holiday to Disney’s Magic Kingdom which I’d read about in my Children’s Encyclopedia. There was a haunted mansion. And a fairy-tale castle. It was a few days before my “friends” laughed at my wish, revealing the ring had no magical powers. I can still feel the gut-punching disappointment of it all more than 40 years later.
But maybe wishes just take a while to manifest. Our trip to Orlando was more than a decade in the planning and also has a bit of a backstory. In 2009, my partner Jonny and I met a couple called Lisa and Phil at an antenatal class in Holles Street Hospital. Our Caesarean sections were scheduled for the same day in April 2009. The four of us became parents within hours of each other — Lisa and Phil to Maisy and Georgia, and Jonny and I to Joya and Priya.
This chance alliance forged in a maternity hospital thankfully prevailed. We’ve had years of get-togethers, birthday bashes, parenting brainstorms, sleepovers, camping holidays, pizza parties, movie nights and prosecco-fuelled picnics.
The eight of us have shared so much quality time together that for my 50th birthday last year, Lisa and Phil were able to gift me a memory stick full of more than a decade of photographs and videos of my daughters’ childhood moments, replacing some of my own that had been sadly lost.
We’d been talking about a trip together to Orlando’s magical kingdoms since the girls were small babies. Having come through a global pandemic and interminable lockdowns, we finally decided to go for it. The girls were all turning 13 during the Easter of 2022 and this felt like the perfect time. We booked through Tour America who could not have been more helpful in creating the package that best suited us. Then we spent the guts of a year saving and paying off the most expensive holiday any of us had ever taken.
We kept the booking a surprise and for months used the code word “Greystones” in case prying eyes happened to see our WhatsApp messages. The big reveal came on Christmas Day last year. The ecstatic, teary zoom call between the four girls, as they each realised our two families were going on holiday to America together, was a bright spot in that pandemic Christmas.
At first the wait times for the rides were off-putting. An hour or more just to wait in line? Nobody was more surprised than I was that we soon got used to it
The winter months passed in high anticipation of an adventure that happily lived up to all our hopes and dreams and in my case, far surpassed them. Our fantastic hotel was the retro themed Cabana Bay, a Universal property inspired by Floridian resorts of the 1950s and 1960s with a water park called Volcano Bay on the grounds.
The hotel staff were friendly and helpful while the cosy family suites — including a compact kitchen and sittingroom — were a big hit. The bathroom was cleverly designed so the sink, shower and toilet areas could all be used separately. A game-changer when sharing a hotel room with three other people.
We had opted to spend most of our nearly two-week holiday at the three Universal parks — Islands of Adventure, which contains the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Volcano Bay, and Universal Studios, where you can find more yet more Harry Potter action and a land dedicated to The Simpsons. We also had a day to spend at two Disney parks — Magic Kingdom, the home of Mickey and Minnie, and Hollywood Studios with all that Star Wars action — not forgetting a quick jaunt to Sea World.
Most of our days began at the crack of dawn — again not my usual idea of a holiday — but by staying on the Universal property we could avail of earlier park opening times so it made sense to beat the crowds. Our main destination each morning — we took the regular free shuttle buses to the park — was Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I can’t tell you too much about the experience because Lisa and I only went on it once — her sitting terrified in the sidecar of my motorbike — and our eyes were closed in abject terror the whole time. (The deeply embarrassing souvenir picture which will never see the light of day bears this out).
At a mile long, it’s the longest coaster in the park and among other tests of endurance it launches you 65 feet in the air at a more than 70-degree angle before dropping you backwards fast. I feel queasy and traumatised even remembering it, but this was the ride the other six people in our party returned to daily, even on the day of our flight home for “one last Hagrid’s”.
Even if you are not a Potter fan and don’t fancy the rides, sipping Butterbeer while wandering through Universal’s uncannily authentic street scenes from the books and movies — such as Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley and a full sized replica of Hogwart’s Castle — is a thrill. A trip on the Hogwart’s Express steam train on platform 9 3/4 between the parks was as magical as stepping into the wardrobe to Narnia, or visiting the home of a hobbit.
At first the wait times for the rides were off-putting. An hour or more just to wait in line? Nobody was more surprised than I was that we soon got used to it and even began to enjoy the well-oiled, impressively efficient system. After a couple of days we heard ourselves saying things like “only 50 minutes for Spider Man? Let’s go”. And “sure it’s only 60 minutes for Jimmy Fallon’s Race to New York”. Soon we were theme park professionals, working out which rides to do at which time of day to avoid the biggest queues. (You can pay extra for a “fast pass”, which we tried for a day which meant a big reduction in time spent queuing.)
We also managed, just before the park closed, to nab a go on the most popular, technically advanced and creative attraction in the park, Star Wars Rise of the Resistance
Previously a rollercoaster-refusenik, I discovered on day one that while you will never get me on those loop-the-loop outdoor coasters, I am mad for the indoor ones; “dark rides” such as Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey, and Escape to Gringotts. The queue for these — containing hilarious talking portraits, holograms and an elevator that cleverly simulates a journey several stories underground — was almost as enjoyable as the rides themselves.
Each day, I found myself — sometimes alone — nipping to Hogwart’s Castle to join the Forbidden Journey queue, entranced by the sensation of whizzing around a Quidditch pitch at top speed and soaring over cliffs with an encouraging Harry Potter on a broomstick in front of me acting as my guide and protector.
The more daring in the group tried the traumatic looking rollercoasters such as the Velocicoaster in Jurassic World, and The Incredible Hulk coaster, but I preferred the gentle nostalgia of Dr Seuss land where I’d recommend the tater tots at the Green Eggs & Ham Cafe. Every few days when we needed to relax and recuperate, we spent time at Volcano Bay just a short stroll from our hotel room.
Lisa and I commandeered sun loungers under shady awnings, while the others threw themselves down slides and chutes of various thrill-levels. At Sea World — well worth visiting if you are in Orlando — we oohed and aaahed at stunning displays featuring dolphins and blue whales, and the eight of us cooled down from searing heat by getting thoroughly soaked on the frankly brilliant Infinity Falls ride.
Memorable dining experiences included restaurants at Universal Citywalk and the endless buffet at a local Golden Corral while the joint 13th birthday was spent at a Japanese Kobe restaurant, where a chef chopped and stir-fried our meal with theatrical flair in front of us.
Birthday cake was an ice-cream creation the girls had ordered themselves from a nearby branch of Dairy Queen. There were also several trips to Walmart, Target, the outlets and the world’s biggest McDonald’s to fully embrace the American vibes.
And then there were the two unforgettable Disney days. It’s impossible to overstate the magic of walking down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, the Sleeping Beauty castle looming like a storybook mirage in front of us. Going through the haunted mansion, one daughter made me cry, squeezing my hand and whispering “see, your wish did come true”.
We did all the mountains — Splash mountain, Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain — and we all cried when the fireworks erupted over castle at the end of a long, thrilling day. We had a genie pass, which costs extra and meant we could prioritise certain rides availing of shorter queuing times but a tip — it pays to be highly strategic in your choices.
At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we loved Toy Story Land with the Slinky Dog rollercoaster and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, a trackless “dark ride” that encapsulated all that is adorable about the park. Perhaps the biggest thrill of the holiday was the experience in Battu where Disney cast members play the part of actual residents of this barren outpost at the edge of the galaxy, and where we got to drive the Millennium Falcon.
We also managed, just before the park closed, to nab a go on the most popular, technically advanced and creative attraction in the park, Star Wars Rise of the Resistance. A truly out-of-this-world experience, this 18 minutes was for me the highlight of the holiday; and I say this as someone who doesn’t know her Resistance from her First Order.
Six months later, none of us have removed the theme park apps from our phone. Occasionally, from our homes in Dublin, somebody will check in to see how things are going in Orlando. “Hagrid’s motorbike is only a 70 minute wait,” someone will say and we’ll look at each other, misty-eyed with longing for a holiday that none of us will ever forget. There is serious talk of returning for the girls’ 16th birthday. All we need is a few years to save, a new code word and maybe another go at that magic plastic ring.
Ten nights at the Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort with United Airlines flights for two adults and two children from €959 per person. Ten-day Universal Orlando 3 Park Explorer Tickets cost from €357 per person. touramerica.ie