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Walt Disney World still casts a magical spell after 50 years

The magic of Disney is still very much alive and well - for young and old alike.
The magic of Disney is still very much alive and well - for young and old alike.

When you think of a holiday in Orlando, what’s the first thing that springs to mind? The castle, right?

But even though Cinderella’s iconic fairytale home in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom has been a honeypot for tourists for the past half-century, my 11-year-old daughter Evelyn had another famous castle in mind.

Since our previous trip to Orlando, she had watched all the Harry Potter films, and couldn’t wait to head to The Wizarding World at Universal Orlando Resort.

When we eventually arrived at the JK Rowling mecca, she was in her element, walking down the snow-covered Hogsmeade and having her picture taken in front of the magnificent replica of Hogwarts.

Richard Jones and daughter Evelyn visiting Hogwarts.

However, it wasn’t only Universal that had Evelyn giddy with excitement before our dad-and-daughter break in the Sunshine State.

She hadn’t been to SeaWorld since she was in nappies, and couldn’t wait to accompany her dad on its white-knuckle rides.

During our first full day in Orlando – which also happened to be Fathers’ Day – we climbed aboard four massive rollercoasters – Kraken, Manta, Mako and the all-new Ice Breaker.

Then, once our motion sickness had subsided, we checked out some of the park’s animal experiences, including the Sea Lion and Otter Spotlight show, and the dolphin and stingray encounters.

Evelyn watches a dolphin at SeaWorld.

Away from the main theme parks, there are plenty of other things to see and do in Orlando, and Evelyn and I visited a couple of the city’s lesser-known gems.

During an exciting morning at Gatorland, reptile expert Brandon introduced us to his favourite alligator Buddy, as well as some of the other creatures who call the park home.

We even got to feed a congregation of 14-foot adult gators.

Holding a bucket of raw chicken pieces, with around 50 pairs of hungry eyes transfixed on her, my daughter was initially petrified.

However, Brandon coaxed a dominant male called Raul to open his mouth and Evelyn seemed to make a new friend when she tossed him his breakfast.

There’s something behind you: Richard and Evelyn during feeding time at Gatorland.

And the thrills didn’t stop there, as we got a bird’s eye view of the park grounds aboard the exhilarating Screamin’ Gator Zipline ride.

After saying “see ya later, alligator” to Brandon and his pals, we headed south for a wildlife journey of a slightly different kind.

During a safari tour at Wild Florida, we watched zebras, water buffalo and lemurs at play, and fed the giraffes, before climbing aboard an Everglades airboat ride, seeing bitterns and eagles, showy lotus flowers and wild gators on Cypress Lake.

Father and daughter enjoy an airboat ride at Wild Florida.

Back up north, beside a smaller and tamer stretch of water, was our hotel for most of the week, the Wyndham Grand at Bonnet Creek.

The resort is one of six dotted around a serene lake, each connected by a half-mile-long boardwalk.

The food and drink at the Wyndham Grand were top-notch. The American breakfasts of omelettes and pancakes at Tesoro Cove got our motors running, while we had sandwiches and nachos for lunch by the pool at Back Bay Grill, and a dinner of lobster linguine and Creek Stone Farm ribeye steak at its signature restaurant, deep blu Seafood Grille & Sushi.

The hotel is also in a great location within the Disney World area and just down the road from one of our favourite Orlando restaurants, Sugar Factory at ICON Park on International Drive.

Its menu – rainbow sliders, popcorn shrimp, watermelon cooler goblets and chocolate cookie jar milkshakes – still tastes as good as it looks, while the music was ramped every few minutes as the staff serenaded birthday boys and girls.

Cool off at Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando Resort.

For the remainder of our holiday, we checked into a luxurious suite at Disney’s brand-new Swan Reserve.

The hotel had all the amenities we needed, and staying at a WDW property meant we could give the hire car a rest and use Disney’s free transportation system to get around.

One evening, we booked a table at the finest seafood restaurant in the city, Paddlefish in Disney Springs.

Delicious crab cakes and beef skewers were followed by salmon with wasabi mash and scallops with cauliflower puree.

While Evelyn was happy slurping cooling ice water, I took to the opportunity to sample a cocktail and sip a glass of Napa Valley Chardonnay.

Our final day in Orlando was spent at Disney World and we were determined to cram in as much as we could at the House of Mouse.

Richard enjoys a bird’s eye view on the Gatorland zipline.

First, we checked out Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios, home of the new Rise of the Resistance ride, along with Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, and Toy Story Mania.

Then, after jumping on the Skyliner to Epcot, we boarded the Monorail into Magic Kingdom.

Although Evelyn is a bit older and bigger than when she last walked down the world-famous Main Street, when she clapped eyes on the aforementioned castle, decked out in pink, blue and gold in honour of the park’s 50th anniversary, her jaw-dropping reaction said it all.

That said, Orlando means much more than just Cinderella, Mickey and Minnie to my daughter these days.

The rollicking rollercoasters at SeaWorld, the surprisingly friendly animals at Gatorland, and a certain teenage wizard down the road at Universal, all played starring roles in what was a magical American adventure.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

Travel facts
You can book a 2023 Orlando adventure with Barrhead Travel with deposits from £150pp.
Flying direct from Edinburgh with Virgin Atlantic and staying in a central hotel, a 14-night Florida holiday costs from £3,095 for a family of three or £3,709 for a family of four. Based on April 2023 departures.
Add on 14-Day Universal Orlando 3-Park Explorer Ticket from £329pp
Add on 14-Day Disney Magic Ticket with Memory Maker from £587pp
Call Barrhead Travel on 0330 094 8364 for more information or visit
Alternatively, direct flights to Orlando from Edinburgh are available through Virgin Atlantic. See
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