In the world’s rollercoaster capital, it wasn’t a thrill ride on rails that took our breath away, but one that whooshed on water.
The Krakatau Aqua Coaster at Universal’s Volcano Bay water park in Orlando is a hair-raising four-person canoe ride that first slides upwards on magnets through the park’s iconic mountain then takes you on an exhilarating, twisting, turning hurl, ending with a plunge through a waterfall.
I was concerned my youngest, Lucy, who’s seven, would be scared up front, but hearing her yell “I love this!”, I needn’t have worried.
Trying the park’s flagship ride for the first time was definitely a highlight of this summer’s trip to Florida’s family hotspot.
We’re Orlando veterans and have taken our girls – Lucy and Hannah, eight – four times now. We’ve gone from being a family of complete cowards to bona fide coaster junkies.
It can be a pricy break, but we keep the cost down by saving air miles, so we only pay the tax on our Virgin Atlantic flights. The route is direct from Glasgow, which is a godsend with the kids – a couple of movies and a few dozen games of Uno usually just about kills the eight-and-a-half-hour hop across the Atlantic.
There are ways to save on accommodation too and Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort won’t break the bank. We checked in for the first five days of our stay to take advantage of staying “on-site” at Universal.
Capitalising on the inevitable jet lag, we were wide awake at 5am, having breakfast in the hotel’s retro Bayliner Diner at 6am and strolling through the park gates by 8am, an hour ahead of general admission as a hotel guest perk.
With two theme parks in addition to Volcano Bay – Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – that extra hour means no queues and riding your favourites as often as you want before the masses descend. Our favourites are Jimmy Fallon’s Race Through New York – a simulated racing car jaunt through the Big Apple and beyond – and Escape From Gringotts, a half-coaster, half-simulator thriller.
The big attraction this year is the newly-opened Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Ride in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter but, with two-hour lines for even queue-jumping Express Pass holders, we couldn’t get near it. There’s always next year.
Cabana Bay was a welcome retreat after a day in 90-degree heat at the parks. Designed in tribute to 1950s and ’60s Florida beach resorts, its retro décor is like something from the set of Mad Men.
Our roomy family suite could sleep up to six and had fun furnishings straight out of the glamorous era and on-site facilities like a 50s-style bowling alley (think Happy Days).
Handy shuttle buses take you to and from the parks and to Universal’s entertainment hub, CityWalk, a mecca for shopping, dining and drinks with big pulls like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, Margaritaville and Toothsome Chocolate Emporium for unbelievable desserts.
CityWalk doesn’t require an entry ticket, but the other parks, of course, do, and we always opt for a Disney and Universal combo ticket which gives 14 days entry to Universal’s three parks and Disney’s six. They price-match like-for-like if you find the same deal cheaper, plus they always throw in good freebies – this year we got an $80 dining card for Planet Hollywood and two years ago we saw Cirque Du Soleil for free.
After five days at Cabana Bay, we moved to a villa for the rest of our stay and alternated our Universal fix with a change of pace at the Disney parks. Our fave attraction was Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios with the fab Slinky Dog Dash coaster.
Over at Animal Kingdom, we couldn’t get enough of the Avatar Flight Of Passage simulator – the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like I’m flying, without the aid of gin – and at Magic Kingdom the fireworks are hard to beat.
Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights runs September 2 to November 6. Barrhead Travel is offering return flights from Glasgow, 14 nights at Cabana Bay Beach Resort, plus unlimited access to Universal’s three parks from £1,379 per person, or from £3,995 for a family of four. Call 0141 222 2223. See universalorlando.com and visitorlando.com