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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Ducking and Thriving in Orlando

It’s 4.55pm in Orlando, and the Peabody Hotel’s lobby is full.
Not just with business types in town for a conference, but curious folks like myself and my wife who have dropped in for one reason: ducks.

Disneyland a few miles away may be synonymous with one irascible cartoon duck, but after almost a decade of hearing about a hotel’s feathered residents, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Peabody Hotels have been marching ducks to and from their fountains since 1939, six years after a bunch of duck hunters accidentally started one of the most unique traditions in any hotel's history.

"They dropped them in the fountain as kind of a prank and the next morning when they came to get the ducks there was a crowd there and a tradition was born. They just kept ducks in there ever since," explains the Peabody Orlando’s duck master, Donald. (Yes, that’s his real name).

Donald, with the aid of a young apprentice chosen that afternoon, has just rolled out the red carpet, placed steps at the side of the fountain and at 5pm he and his new sidekick guide the marching ducks back to the lift and return them to their penthouse.It’s a wonderfully surreal sight, and the best thing is it’s free.And in an age when we’re facing the worst economic downturns in decades, watching every cent in the Sunshine State is crucial if you want to get the most out of your Floridian holiday.

Pound for pound it’s still remarkably cheap to stay in Orlando, and for those who don’t fancy tackling the freeways and driving on the wrong side of the road, then rest assured there’s plenty of ways to get from A to B via public transport.

For newcomers, the main tourist artery running through the city is International Drive. Lining it are more hotels, motels, diners, thrift shops, and tourist attractions than you can shake a stick at.Staying at one of the many hotels on or just off this main road is a great starting point, and with the aforementioned Peabody as a landmark, you‘ll rarely get lost.

Most UK holidaymakers will naturally gravitate toward Disney (and its assorted parks) and Universal’s two parks - Islands of Adventure and the main site, Universal Studios.

If you’re staying on International Drive there’s a good chance your hotel will run a shuttle bus to Universal, but if not a Lynx bus can get you there in next to no time and you can pick one up at any number of stops along the I-Drive.You could pay with dollars every time your board the bus, but it’s often better to save yourself a few quid/dollars by getting a week’s pass (or naturally longer depending how long you’re in town).

If you’re staying near Don Pablo’s Mexican Restaurant (it offers great food without breaking the bank), then nip into the Tourist Information centre a few doors down. Get your Lynx bus tickets there and also get a week’s I-Trolley pass. For a combined price of around £17, you can visit all the major theme parks, at least three major malls, Seaworld, Aquatica and a lot more.

Bearing in mind that parking at a theme park can be around £10-£15 a day, you’ll be saving cash in no time.

So, what’s the best thing to see in Orlando at the moment?Well, in terms of theme parks at least three attractions stand out: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey set within Hogwarts at Universal, and Star Tours 3D and ToyMania at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

They are also three of the most popular, so here’s a few tips for getting the most for your money.For Universal if you get a two-day ticket for both parks, then on day one do Harry Potter. Get there first thing in the morning and follow the signs for this huge attraction; don’t be distracted by all the other candy coloured goodies on offer; you can do those later.

The queue, even first thing in a morning, can be as epic as any of the movies, so go prepared with cheap waterproofs in case of a sudden deluge, mp3 player, good book and a lot of patience. It’ll be worth it because the meticulous attention to detail as you queue for the ride - a mix of rollercoaster and animatronic show - is breathtaking.

Alas, many of the gift shops in Hogsmead, the accompanying village, are tiny and usually feature huge queues, so best avoid them and buy all your goodies at the other plentiful Universal shops. On day two at Universal, again go first thing in the morning and head for The Simpsons Ride and Men in Black. (Because most tourists will be at Islands of Adventure on Potter, there’s a good chance you’ll not have to bother queuing for long.

However, if you can get Express Pass tickets for your favourite rides then do so, but be warned: it can be costly for a family of four.
As for Disney, getting there from International Drive takes longer. You’ll need a Lynx bus which will take you to Disney’s Transportation Centre, then get a free connecting bus to Hollywood Studios.Once at the latter, having passed through security, head straight for Toymania and get a Fast Pass ticket - that will get you on the ride later that day, then head back to Star Tours 3D and start queuing.

As with Harry Potter, this Star Wars flight simulator will be heaving with geeks (like myself), but the state-of-the-art effects have brought George Lucas’s original 1985 ride bang up to date with an experience that is out of this world. (The beauty of it is that there are so many alternate versions you could experience it dozens of times and have a different experience every time).

That done head for Toymania when your time to ride is due and experience one of the best 3D games in town.

If you only do one water park then my money is on Aquatica. (Get a multiday ticket that also takes in Seaworld and other key parks to get the most for your money).

An I-Trolley ride will get you there in around half an hour, and again the early bird catches the worm, so aim to catch the bus around half an hour before it opens.Once through the gates, grab loungers with umbrellas near the wave pool, and then find a locker to store valuables.It’s also good to do as many rides as possible as early as you can, because by noon the place will be heaving with folks.

Naturally there are countless other attractions, diners and things to see and do, but a final word of advice. If you like a restaurant, don’t feel guilty about going back several times during your stay as there’s a chance it may not be there when you return next year.

BEST FOR: Sunshine and theme parks.

TIME TO GO: Tail end of February or October to make the most of the cheap flights and shorter queues.

DON’T MISS: The best rides: Toymania and Star Tours at Disney’s Hollywood Studios; Harry Potter’s World of Witchcraft and Wizardry at Universal Studios. And water park lovers should check out Aquatica, especially the Dolphin Plunge ride.

NEED TO KNOW: Tax is added at the till, so purchases cost more than you may think.It may be the Sunshine State, but it also rains a lot in Florida, especially during the summer, so take a cheap poncho (also handy for water rides), and watertight cases for mp3 players and other valuables.

Most parks offer youngsters the chance to meet their favourite characters and this can make for a lasting memory, but be warned the queues can be incredible so if you’re planning to do this and still take in the rides you’ll need to allow extra time in each park.

DON’T FORGET: Most of the parks and malls have water fountains so take a good quality water bottle and fill up at fountains.Take ID everywhere. Handy for bars, especially if you’re 40 and lucky enough to look 20.If on foot, a good pair of light, slip on walking shoes (also perfect for customs), suntan lotion and a hat to avoid sunburned scalps.

Luggage scales to ensure your cases aren’t over the baggage allowance. An internationally recognised debit card you can put money on before you leave the UK, then you won’t get any huge bills when you return.

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