By Elle Rudd, freelance journalist and social producer
Sunday 29 Jul 2018 2:33 pm
There are three things in this world that I am afraid of – heights, alligators and drowning.
So how on earth did I end up zip wiring over a pond filled with over 200 gators?
The short answer is: Florida made me do it. For the long answer, read on.
When you think of Florida, you think of film studios, rollercoasters and a certain mouse.
I thought we would be hard pressed to fill a week in the city without visiting at least one. But to my pleasant surprise, you can have the holiday of a lifetime – for adrenaline junkies and families alike – without setting foot anywhere near The Big Three.
Florida for adrenaline junkies
Rollercoasters arent the only way to get your kicks in Florida.
The first place you should go to get your heart rate up is Orlando Balloon Rides.
Now, as a long-term sufferer of acrophobia, AKA the gut-wrenching fear of being more than two feet off the ground, I wasnt really looking forwards to this part of my trip. But knowing that this was genuinely a once in a lifetime, bucket list item, I just couldnt miss it.
I am so glad that I took that chance. The team made this hour-long venture across the Florida skyline a thrill that took the edge off my formerly paralysing fear.
If you are feeling extra brave, take a look over the edge of the gondola as you soar over a lake or river – if youre lucky, youll be able to see your reflection clear as day.
Lets not forget that were in Florida – there are alligators are everywhere.
In fact, they say if there is a body of water larger than a puddle, there will be an alligator in it.
Gatorland is billed as a halfday attraction, making it the perfect destination for travellers who have a late flight or just fancy a lazy morning or afternoon by the pool.
It was here that I, self-confessed yellow-bellied chicken, faced all three of my fears on one terrifying line of wire.
The staff were friendly and had an excellent sense of humour.
As our wonderful guide came in close to clip me to the wire, he looked me in the eye and said, hey, dont worry, they dont like English food.
The next thing I knew, I was flying mere inches above an alligator and a few feet below circling vultures.
If you fancy an up close and personal interaction with these predators, then Gatorland offers you the chance to do so with a gator feed.
When the gates to a small section of land in front of the vast lake were opened, the guides paced along the shoreline, calling the gators like dogs. I honestly believed that they were having us on, and that there was no way these beasts of the deep could be tempted out by whistling and hooting.
But, slowly out of the depths rose hordes of terrifying creatures.
Three by three, we were called up to feed these dinosaur throwbacks. By the time I had picked up my slabs of rancid meat, more than 40 gators had gathered.
They were so motionless, you could almost believe that they were statues – until you fling their feed at them, that is.
Our next stop was Boggy Creek AirBoat Rides.
Trust me when I say this: if you only do one thing in Florida, go to Boggy Creek and get on an airboat.
Learning how to drive an airboat was the coolest thing I have ever done in my entire life.
As we climbed aboard what resembles a massive hairdryer on a big plank of wood, the sun began to set over the headwaters of the Everglades. The sky turned from azure into a watercolour glory of pinks and purples that reflected back in the still waters ahead.
Off in the distance, the trail of a rocket that had been launched from the Kennedy Space Centre drew a perfect white line in the sky.
As we peeled away from the dock, the great expanse of Lake Tohopekaliga revealed itself. The sky merged into the lake until you couldnt differentiate between them, and then everything around us, including the air, was pink.
We took our lessons two at a time and I volunteered to be the passenger first. And I am so glad I did.
When youre racing through the ever-growing lake at speeds of up to 45mph with nothing in front of you, you actually feel like youre flying.
The sensation is so exhilarating that I found myself physically unable to stop laughing.
As we slowed down towards the centre of the lake, I was finally able to catch my breath. And I stopped to take in the incredible scenes around me.
The dock area was now out of sight and we had the whole lake to ourselves. With the fan turned off, there was nothing around but a perfect silence. It was heaven.
Then it was time for me to get in the drivers seat.
For anyone who might be nervous about taking control, dont be. The captains not only know the boats like the back of their hand, but the waters too. They are also in control of the speed, so you dont have to worry about multitasking. You just take the lever, and steer.
Later, we also went late night gator spotting.
The one hour night expedition is the best way to get up close to natures nocturnal hunters.
Prowling through the tall grass and marshy waters, you never know what is going to be around the next corner. That is, until you spot one, its eyes reflecting back at you like cat eyes in the road.
For adventure on dry-ish land, theres Revolution Off Road.
Release your inner racer and take on 230 acres of muddy, backwater roads in one of their ATVs – or even take to the water in a mucky duck, an 8-wheel amphibious vehicle that can take on all terrains and floats through the water with ease.
Just be warned and take their tagline very seriously: prepare to get dirty.
If the idea of splashing through muddy puddles at speed doesnt appeal to you, you can also try shooting, archery and fishing.
But to be honest, I would be more than happy just to sit by the lake and drink a cold beer.
Orlando is known as a destination for parties, fun and childlike joy. But it has also had its tragedies.
On June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed in one of the worst mass shootings in US history. It was a day that shook the local residents, the LGBTQ+ and Hispanic communities, as well as the world.
The nightclub itself, Pulse, is now permanently closed, and stands behind a fence decked out in the most beautiful and fitting tribute.
Love not hate, We will not be defeated and #OrlandoStrong are written, posted and shouted from every corner of this memorial.
If you go, remember to bring a pen and write your own message of love and remembrance.
Orlando for families
You might think its cruel to take your kids to Orlando and not take them to Disney, but the city has so much more on offer to keep the little ones occupied.
Start at Wonderworks, an amusement park thats 35,000sqft of edu-tainment.
Its not just exhibitions, every corner of Wonderworks has activities for the whole family.
While youre there, be sure to catch The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show. Its an opportunity to dig into unlimited pizza and watch entertainment that will leave you saying Wow, thats amazing!
Its not recommended for those who are shy at heart, though, as you are expected to be willing to get involved.
If that doesnt tickle your fancy, dont despair. It is not the only dinner show that Orlando has to offer.
Take a trip back to the Dark Ages at Medieval Times where you can watch gallant knights perform daring stunts on horseback.
Re-live the classic film A Knights Tale, and root for your knight to take the crown and the honour of that evenings battle (Heath Ledger not included).
For something more modern, head to ICON Orlando 360.
There, take a trip on the 400ft Orlando Eye, which allows you to see the Florida sky line; dive into the deep with the Sea Life Aquarium and learn all about what lies beyond the shores of Florida; or get that celeb selfie you have always wanted at the iconic and America-centric Madame Tussauds.
Theres also the Kennedy Space Centre.
All the exhibits at the Kennedy Space Centre are truly remarkable, but as I sat through the interactive presentation about NASAs space shuttle program, the majesty of worlds beyond our own hit me.
When the space shuttle Atlantis is finally revealed to you during the walking tour, youd be hard pressed not to well up.
For locals, Fun Spot is a goto weekend and evening attraction.
Open from 2pm to midnight every day, it boasts a 300ft tall SkyCoaster, a white knuckle ride designed for the boldest of thrillseekers.
It also comes with an onsite bar, serving beers, wine and cocktails. Just so you know.
If youre visiting the Kissimmee site, make sure you visit on a Saturday to catch the Old Town Classic Car show and cruise, Americas longest running weekly car show.
In just one short week, I fell in love with a different side of Florida – and its time you did too.
Where to shop in Florida:
Everything is bigger in America and that includes their shopping malls.
The Florida Mall is a magnificent labyrinth of consumerism. I genuinely believe that you could find anything you wanted or desired inside its gleaming white walls.
Within 20 minutes of being inside, I had fixed my broken phone and spent all my remaining pennies in Sephora.
I have said before that in Florida, try as you might, Disney is an unavoidable fact of life.
But Disney Springs is the version for grown ups, with bars, restaurants and shops as far as the eye can see. Here, treat yourself to the finer things in life.
Finally, if youre looking for a bargain, head to Prime Outlets, where you can pick up American brands at a discount.
A few places to eat in Florida:
Glorious gluttony has to be a holiday staple. And Americans do food really, really well.
Exhausted from a day shopping at Disney Springs? Put down the shopping bags and refuel at Planet Hollywood.
The classic American food chain now features an exclusive menu by world-famous TV chef Guy Fieri, featuring burgers, chickens and massive salads.
The area around ICON Orlando 360 is overflowing with restaurants and bars, the abundance of which could be overwhelming. But fear not, Yard House has everything you need, whether its just a refreshing beer, or the food.
Buca Di Beppo was the perfect layover between exploring the depths of the Florida Mall and our journey back to the UK.
Fill up on carbonara and garlic bread. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as too much garlic bread.
Where to stay in Orlando and how to get there:
The Ramada on International Drive is the ideal place to stay for Orlando and Kissimmee. If you cant resist visiting the big theme parks, they are just a short drive away and the hotel also offers a free shuttle service to local attractions.
Rooms there start from £89 per night.
Virgin Atlantic has several flights from London Gatwick to Orlando each day. Flights start from £401 return, and will vary depending on the date of travel.