The Mickey and Minnie Mouse Dream Along Show in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Disney World, Florida.
The Mickey and Minnie Mouse Dream Along Show in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Disney World, Florida. Helen Sessions / Alamy Stock Pho

Where childhood dreams really do come true

It's the land of swamps, gators and rocket ships.

It's God's waiting room for retired refugees from America's frost-bitten north.

It's golden sands, tans and Ray Bans at six paces.

It's all that, but above all, Florida, the 27th state on the south-eastern tip of North America, is about magic.

Let's face it, if you're a family jetting from Down Under, you're hitting the Sunshine State for one reason: the theme parks.

As much else as Florida has to offer - and there's surprisingly a lot - it is its gigantic worlds of fantasy and fun that make it one of the great tourism meccas of the world.

And the two biggies - Walt Disney World and Universal Studios - match their considerable hype with a mind-blowing array of rides and entertainment.

First, to the original, WDW.

Did I mention magic? If you're coming here, get used to this word. It informs everything that happens on this sprawling solar system of themed worlds.

The resort comprises four theme parks: Epcot, Magic Kingdom Park, Disney's Animal Kingdom Park and Disney's Hollywood Studios, and two water parks: Disney's Blizzard Beach and Disney's Typhoon Lagoon.

Each park has its own distinct character and features and demands an investment of time to reap the full fun dividend.

We spent three days at WDW, which we thought would be more than enough to enjoy everything on offer.

How wrong we were.

The parks are so vast you will need to set aside a minimum of one day for each - but I'd suggest two.

It was our biggest regret - having to rush from place to place for fear of missing out on the most exciting attractions.

And when you rush, you start to lose the sense of magic and fantasy, which surely is the biggest attraction of all about WDW.

In fact, I would even suggest that you budget for a couple of "days off" between touring the theme parks.

On those days you can chill by the pool, recharge the batteries, perhaps venture out to the magnificent Disney Springs - a mini town of awesome restaurants, bars and the world's biggest store of Disney merch - and generally regroup for the next park assault.

But no matter how much - or little - time you have allocated, my number one hack tip would be to relax.

As our Disney concierge said to us the day we arrived, it is simply impossible to see and do everything, so don't even try.

Yet research will help relieve the FOMO. I researched this trip more than any other and yet I came away from WDW wishing I'd done more.

By planning ahead you will create an infinitely more enjoyable experience.

Disney has a sensational app - My Disney Experience - which is your passport to minimise Disney-induced stress.

Why is this so crucial? Because the resort is so big and the crowds generally so dense, that it pays to plan where to go, where and when to eat, and the precise times to hit specific rides.

We stayed on the resort, which I'd recommend. That way you are transported virtually from your door to the parks and can co-ordinate dining plans with your Magicband. Our hotel at Coronado Springs was excellent, with picturesque grounds, although the room was disappointingly old.

Among the many highlights, there are few that must be noted.

Firstly, dining with the princesses at Cinderella's Royal Table. After Mickey and his mates deliver an all-singing, all dancing welcome outside the Disney castle, you are ushered inside and up the winding stairwell to the Royal Dining Hall.

As a sumptuous hot breakfast is served, each table is graced by a succession of Disney princesses. Snow White, Ariel, Elsa, Aurora, Jasmine, Belle, Rapunzel, Tiana and of course Cinderella, all stop to chat and pose for group selfies.

My girls loved this more than anything else. If you want to stay onside you should book the breakfast. Trust me, your kids will find out about it and never forgive you if you fail to get them a table.

Secondly, don't miss the parade on Main Street. It is happy snap heaven as the greatest Disney characters glide by to the songs you forgot you knew by heart.

Thirdly, the fireworks at night are brilliant. They go off at every park, but the best by far are at Magic Kingdom. Look out for Tinkerbell zooming across the sky.

Fourthly, the rides. For mine, Avatar, Soarin', Space Mountain and Everest were the best but I also loved the Animal Kingdom Safari and, for nostalgia's sake, It's a Small World.

But above all, surrender to the magic.

It matters little how old you are, how careworn, how wary you are of the fiendishly clever methods the entertainment juggernaut deploys to melt hearts on cue. It is virtually impossible to stand in front of Disney's Magic Kingdom castle as Mickey Mouse bounds into view and fail to be uplifted.

Granted, the feelings will flow more freely if you're there with your kids. But Mickey and his mates can charm the most curmudgeonly of grumpy old humans.

Disney is magic. You're reminded of that at every turn, by every member of the Disney family, from the bus drivers to the fairytale princesses you can meet for breakfast.

It's impossible not to be swept up in it. On every corner, and beyond, there's a favourite character, or a juggler, or a magician or a singing and dancing troupe. It's a riot of fun and resistance is futile.

WDW was the first and remains the biggest. But Universal is not far behind, featuring three "worlds" to WDW's five but now boasting its biggest drawcard yet - the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

 

Hogwarts in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Island of Adventure, Universal Studios.
Hogwarts in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Island of Adventure, Universal Studios. Spinel_S

With Hogsmeade and the extraordinary Daigon Alley, Universal has created a fantasia that rules all others. Its size, complexity and attention to detail drags the most sceptical of muggles into its world of wizardry and spells.

As you wander through a "broken'' brick wall on to the Alley's cobblestoned roads, the mundane world of reality slips away.

Every shop, every laneway, every nook and cranny is steeped in the magic of Harry. Sipping on your butter beer (trust me you need to drink this), witches and warlocks beckon with magical wands and ghouls groan and shriek from God knows where. You can seek refuge at The Leaky Cauldron, a traditional alehouse whose surrounds and fare could have been plucked straight out of inner-city London.

In the heart of the town a giant fire-breathing dragon perches menacingly over Gringotts Wizarding Bank. If you dare, a heart-stopping simulation ride awaits beneath, plumbing the bowels of the bank's cavernous underbelly. Spoiler alert: He Who Shall Not Be Named may be lurking.

Connecting Daigon Alley, in Universal Studios world, with Hogsmeade, in Islands of Adventure, is the Hogwarts Express steam train. This trip alone is worth the price of admission. Hack tip: Catch the train both ways - it's a different experience on the return trip.

The Harry Potter experiences are the spooky jewels in Universal's crown, but there are plenty of thrills and spills elsewhere in its two main parks.

Its two main rollercoasters - the Incredible Hulk and the Rip Ride Rocket - score highly on the thrill index but mind you can handle the G-forces at play.

Universal has also taken interactive rides to the next level.

In fact, there's a touch of genius about the way it has infused digital effects into all of its rides, even retro fitting old attractions with fresh interactive elements.

Universal has also upped its game in its general park experience. There are more entertainers, more random moments where cast members surprise, delight and sometimes scare, but invariably entertain.

This all comes together at Universal's CityWalk - a dazzling neon strip of fabulous bars, eateries and music venues.

CityWalk is tailored for young adults - not so much for smaller kids. It's loud, bright and throbbing with energy.

Again, it pays to plan.

Universal also offers a short cut around the queues, with its Universal Express pass.

It's pricey but you'll want it.

Accommodation at Universal is, as with Disney, generally excellent. We stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, a stylish salute to the Florida beach hotels of the 1950s and 1960s.

If you had to compare the two franchises, Universal is your Rolling Stones to Disney's Beatles. It's a little edgier than its more fabled rival and offers a welcome point of difference, particularly with its Harry Potter extravaganza.

Both though work their magic. And that's what stays with you when you go.


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