Florida: Out of this world

Wizards, astronauts and sea cows make for a holiday that’s truly magical in Florida


I was 19 when I first touched down in Florida and boy did I feel hard done by. My folks were guilty of a major parenting crime, having deprived me of Disney while I still believed in the magic.

Spoilt brat that I was, I vowed to my future self that I would spare my children this hardship.

Over the December break we finally ventured to Orlando for what I promised my three sons would be an out-of-this-world experience. The lure of winter sun coupled with the prospect of endless fun — as marketed by the people who practically invented the stuff — was enough to have them counting down for months.

However I soon realised how different Orlando looks when you’re the paying adult faced with out-of-this-world entrance fees. Ultimately we had to choose: Disney or Universal.

As our fanatical film fans are aged nine to 14 we opted for Universal. Though less about the physical movie making than its sister site in California, Orlando offers thrills and chills galore with enough to keep adrenaline junkies and more sedate visitors happy. Not to mention the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, an absolute must for our three aficionados.

The downside was, they weren’t the only ones. Diagon Alley teems with Pottermaniacs. Kidults from across the planet roam around in Hogwarts regalia. Stuck in endless queues of wand-waving Muggles, the magic can at times start to fail.

After four days at Universal, the shine had more than worn off for my husband, a Florida virgin who was less impressed than the children with the flashing neon lights and endless highways, fast food outlets and crazy golf courses.

So in keeping with the plans for an out-of-this-world holiday, we left Orlando for a short drive to the Kennedy Space Center. What lies beyond has never been my thing; with so much to explore on Planet Earth why venture to the final frontier? Yet as the solo female in a sci-fi mad household I agreed to tag along.

The first thing that greets you at the entrance is the landscaped rocket garden dotted with the wonders of engineering from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. With only a short time to wait before our pre-booked lunch with an astronaut, we headed for the attraction’s Imax 3D cinema, where I hoped to nurse my jetlag peacefully.

But Beautiful Planet, a documentary narrated by Hollywood’s Jennifer Lawrence, makes for edge of your seat viewing with its footage from life onboard the International Space Station (ISS). The vision of earth captured by the astronauts from so many miles above us is truly beautiful.

Watching their daily routines, in close proximity to other astronauts of all nationalities, was fascinating. Our lives drift on beneath them as they risk theirs in the most hostile conditions imaginable, to advance our understanding of science and technology.

Hooked, I was eager to learn more as we meandered through the attraction, lunching with a veteran astronaut and exploring the inner workings of a now retired space shuttle. Particularly poignant was Heroes & Legends, featuring a memorial dedicated to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, among them Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first and only NASA astronaut who perished onboard the ill-fated Columbia mission in 2003.

If time is tight, make it your priority to join a bus tour of the launch complex, the site of many a televised take-off, including most recently that of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

What struck me, more than anything else, was the natural landscape from where these pioneers lift off. Driving towards the launch pad, you pass acres and acres of stunning wetlands teeming with varied wildlife.

The surrounding region, known as the Space Coast, is home to many native species including birds of prey, alligators and manatees. Intrigued by these sea animals, we chose to venture over to the Gulf Coast to find the only place in the USA where you can legally swim with these gentle giants, at Crystal River.

The region is not without charm, but the manatees are definitely the star attraction — if you choose to stay longer than for a swim, check into the tranquil Plantation at Crystal River resort as well as making a trip to The Greenhouse bistro.

There is no loud music here, no food additives, no microwaves. Hugging the banks of the river, this cool and cosy bistro caters for every diet and is particularly good for the health conscious. Cindy Shatto, who owns the restaurant with husband Craig, is Jewish and is also therefore happy to help accommodate observant diners too.

The restaurant is located on the same road as the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, which showcases the best of the state’s unique animal life. A short boat ride from the entrance, the park is a small corner of paradise and the ultimate antidote for the man-made madness of the theme parks.

Here the manatees, also known as sea cows, bask in the warm shallows around the park. Watch them up close from the wooden walkways, or head down to the underwater observatory of these prehistoric looking creatures.

Even better, venture in with one of many companies offering the up close swimming experiences. We booked on to a phenomenal tour with the expertly run Plantation Adventure Centre, based at the resort on Crystal River where we stayed.

If it sounds like a similar experience to swimming with dolphins, it isn’t. While dolphins duck and dive energetically, manatees, which are related to elephants, glide slowly and thoughtfully by. Splash, kick or chase and you will scare them off. The secret, we were told, is to keep your limbs close and float, a challenge in December, even with the thickest of wet suits to keep you warm.

Immune to our impatience, these lovely creatures took their own sweet time to appear — but sure enough they came, some small, some huge and even a nursing mother and her baby. A dose of the magic that I hoped that Florida would deliver, without the noise, the fuss or the queues.

Back on the boat, my shivering middle son looked at me and smiled. “This has been the best day of my life,” he said.

The ultimate verdict on an out-of-this-world 

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