There are few things a child wants to hear more than the words: "We're going to Disneyworld." So it came as a blow when the idea of spending hours queuing for rides was not how my parents preferred to spend their annual holiday. Alas, 20 years on I have to agree with them – and might wonder why I would ever want to go to Orlando when the party cities of New York and Las Vegas beckon.
But on arrival at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando after a 10-hour flight from London, I was about to discover that the home of Mickey Mouse has grown up.
The five-star hotel opened in 2009 as part of a drive to carve out a luxury niche largely missing from the family-oriented resort. It has borrowed the urbane sophistication of its Manhattan flagship and adapted it to suit the Sunshine State, with a sweeping 18-hole golf course and waiter-serviced cabanas by the pool.
It also has the only Guerlain spa in the US, where guests can have facials, massages and wraps in treatment rooms personalised with their own choice of fragrance.
Perhaps the highlight is its award-winning Bull and Bear restaurant. As a brand famous for innovating dishes such as Thousand Island dressing, Waldorf Salad and Veal Oscar, Waldorf Astoria is already a byword for cutting edge gastronomy – and its Orlando offshoot doesn't disappoint.
Given that it was 1am UK time (8pm Florida) as we took our seats, it might not have seemed like the best time for a five-course feast. But, bravely taking in hand a signature Waldorf cocktail – a potent mix of dark rum and apricot liqueur – we launched into a dish of yellow-fin tuna Carpaccio.
This was followed by truffle devilled eggs and a hearty scoop of shrimp and grits. Then for the main event: filet mignon. Our Angus steaks were served melt-in-the-mouth medium rare, with pan-roasted Dover sole. After rounding off with the chef's selection of four different desserts we retired, near-delirious with jetlag and glucose, to await the daytime delights of "Orlando for adults".
The next day found me suspended stomach-first about three feet off the ground with my ankles lodged in a plastic brace and my entire bodyweight resting on a foam rubber harness. I began to regret that fourth devilled egg as I waited anxiously for the Manta – SeaWorld's newest rollercoaster – to depart. The ride is intended to mimic the graceful gliding motion of a Manta ray cutting through the ocean. As a result, instead of the usual upright position, riders are tipped forward 90 degrees and hurtled head-first at speeds of 56mph around loops, drops and water features.
With the adrenaline pumping, I couldn't wait to sample SeaWorld's centrepiece ride: the Kraken. Named after the mythical sea monster, the riders are supposedly being punished for disturbing the creature's eggs by being tossed around its corkscrew loops with their legs dangling over the Serpent's lagoon. It lasts just over two minutes, but feels like a never-ending succession of spins, dives and gravity-defying rolls.
For visitors who don't want to waste time queuing, SeaWorld has introduced an Elite VIP Tour. The £175 package comes with a seven-hour personalised tour from one of the park's guides, with guests whisked straight to the front of rollercoaster lines, given prime views of the sealife shows, and allowed up-close access to meet a penguin, pet a shark, interact with dolphins and stingrays and feed the sea lions.
The image most associated with SeaWorld is probably one of leaping dolphins and killer whales sending waves of water crashing onto the visitors.
Each show has its own identity, from the humour of Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island, which sees some quick-witted sea lions, walruses and otters outwit their human masters, to the acrobatic spectacular of the dolphin-based Blue Horizons.
On day three we found ourselves in Discovery Cove, a 32-acre man-made oasis. Modelled on a Caribbean island with soft white sands, exotic birds and lush forests, it offers guests the chance to snorkel, dive and swim with dolphins.
We were soon waist-deep in salt water and stroking our new dolphin friends, Aries and Hutch. It's hard to resist the urge to anthropomorphise these most fun-loving of creatures, who look as if they're permanently laughing or smiling.
At the centre of Discovery Cove is the Grand Reef, a giant coral cove teeming with tropical fish and rays (stingers removed) that opened in October 2010.
Once you've become accustomed to the disconcerting appearance of a massive tiger ray shooting past your face, it's a doorway into a another world.
For those seeking a greater adventure, the park also offers the SeaVenture diving experience – an underwater walking tour that takes guests 12ft beneath the surface of the Grand Reef. With oxygen pumped directly into ungainly, white helmets, no prior diving experience is required – though it's probably not for the claustrophobic. The half-hour tour is available to anyone aged ten or over and allows visitors to handle sea urchins, feed the fish and come face to fins with venomous lion fish and sharks – safely enclosed behind panoramic glass windows. Just the way I like them.
British Airways offers a seven-night stay at the five-star Waldorf Astoria Orlando from £1339 per person with flights from Gatwick and accommodation only. Visit ba.com/orlando or call 0844 493 0758. The SeaWorld/Discovery Cove Ultimate Package, from £162pp, includes a one-day reservation at Discovery Cove including 30-minute dolphin swim, all meals and 14-day unlimited entry to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica parks. Visit www.seaworldparks.co.uk. For more, see www.visitorlando.com/uk.
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