Mirror Travel: Let your kids go wild; Mark Mahaffy revisits Florida and finds that there's more to The Sunshine State than first meets the eye.
ABOARD an open-sided lorry bouncing over rutted roads and splashing through shallow rivers, the experience of a pure African safari was living up to all our expectations.
All around us majestic animals were freely roaming expanses of rain-soaked Savannah with herds of gazelle, zebra and giraffe and a stately pride of lions prowling around, seemingly indifferent to our presence.
And perhaps that was the tell-tale sign that all was not as it seemed.
Add to that the many nationalities on-board, dressed in designer label summer garb, sporting the latest camcorders, palmcorders and multi-functional gadgets, and a very different location was emerging.
Yes, this was the "Kilimanjaro Safari", but transplanted in the make-believe land of Orlando. And who better to replicate with exacting standards, precision and attention to detail than the dream makers themselves - Disney.
Now in its second year, The Animal Kingdom is Disney's largest and most recent theme park creation, and of all the attractions in the state of Florida it was this we were looking forward to most as we began our journey from the new terminal at Belfast City Airport en route to Gatwick.
After a three year break from the States my wife and I decided to travel west once more via the initial short flight to London and onward with Virgin Atlantic.
The choice of both route and airline was a decision strongly influenced by the fact that we had two small children in tow.
A long flight with kids can be traumatic and anything that will mentally shorten the journey can only be good.
Hence the choice of Virgin Atlantic. Their reputation for kid-friendly service and on-board entertainment were convincing factors.
The overriding reason, however, was of a more practical nature - all luggage bags could be checked through from Belfast to Orlando and, even more importantly, from Disney Village back to Belfast on the homeward journey.
This service is exclusive to Virgin travellers and, believe me, it's invaluable.
It practically adds an extra day onto your holiday and takes the stress and strain out of that final day.
With an evening flight home and a typical hotel check-out time of noon, it's normally a matter of killing time and carting hoards of luggage aimlessly around Orlando.
But with this service, on the day you leave it is possible to check your bags in at the Disney Village and then collect your boarding pass.
This enables you and your entourage the privilege of simply turning up one hour before the evening flight with just hand luggage.
However, back to the holiday and on arrival at Orlando International Airport, we picked up our Chrysler Sebring from Dollar Rent-A-Car, conveniently situated on-site.
With all taxes paid beforehand directly through Virgin the service was quick and efficient and we beat a hasty exit out of the airport toward our first hotel.
Travelling along the Beeline Express onto the busy Interstate 4, we soon arrived at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, catching a glimpse of its towering thatched roofs about a mile from the complex.
To be honest, no holiday brochure I read beforehand really did the place justice.
Opened last year, the resort is surrounded by an animal sanctuary and most of the hotel's 1,293 rooms look out directly onto this 33 acre savannah.
Other rooms (and ours by choice) offer views of the rather large Uzima pool. And by large, I mean large - even by American standards.
The Uzima pool measures 9,000 sq ft and comes complete with a 67ft water slide and children's activity centre comprising a shallow pool and play area.
It is the ideal resting place for those "park-free" days to recharge the batteries.
In fact it's more than that because you could stay within the complex without feeling you've missed out on anything else. It's that good.
It truly is a 5 star deluxe hotel that showcases the wonder and romance of Africa, albeit in luxury form.
From the impressive hand-carved bedroom furnishings to the mud fireplace in the grand lobby, no expense has been spared in Disney's quest to provide a taste of Africa.
Giant dormer windows in the lobby ensure spectacular views of the parkland.
The gourmet cuisine certainly lives up to the hotel's top class billing with a choice of three restaurants in three different price ranges.
My personal favourite was The Boma, which served the most amazing evening buffet.
The twin wood-burning grills and rotisserie added both ambience and unbelievable flavour of traditional African fare, most of which I had only previously read about.
Served under a traditional thatched roof, the meal was an experience to remember.
And the service element, that all important foundation of the Disney empire, I am pleased to report is still alive and kicking.
From the check-in staff to the poolside attendants, Disney's standard of customer care is still the benchmark.
The worst thing I can remember about the hotel was leaving it just after just seven short but very enjoyable nights.
Our other regret was spending just one day at the Animal Kingdom Park.
This is Disney's latest offering and while The Magic Kingdom, MGM Studios and Epcot all offer great entertainment, there really is something special about the Animal Kingdom that places it above all others.
The staple Disney ingredients of big thrill rides and fantastic shows are now complemented with reality.
Nature is easily the greatest entertainer we have and the amazing array of indigenous African plants and animals on show here is thrillingly beautiful.
The attention to detail is what you would expect from Disney but the actual safari terrain belies the age of the park.
Not yet open two years it is easy to believe the park is a naturally formed phenomenon.
It really is unique. The formula is a winner and Disney have another jewel in the crown.
Back to our itinerary and one week into the holiday we set off early morning en route to Naples.
From Orlando its approximately 265 miles of interstate driving to this Gulf Coast resort on the south west of Florida.
We did it comfortably in four hours, arriving at the Naples Golf and Beach Club by lunchtime.
As with most American hotels it is necessary to stipulate an early check-in time or else wait until the room is ready.
And that is exactly what we had to do, making our early start pointless.
As its name suggests, the hotel has a seafront location and a PGA certified championship golf course.
The hotel boasts 318 guest rooms with balconies over-looking either the course or the Gulf of Mexico.
We opted for a Gulf view with a spacious and comfortable one bedroom suite and a separate living room dining area and kitchen.
Compared to the frantic pace of Orlando, Naples offered a much more leisurely pace where we could relax.
With seven miles of sparsely populated white sandy beach we enjoyed a fantastic seven days and nights at this quaint family hotel.
With a fourth floor view we had the perfect setting to watch the sunsets that Naples is renowned for.
But the summer season's tendency for late afternoon thunderstorms we had just one memorable sunset from a possible seven.
For golf fanatics or golf wannabees, the attraction of Naples' oldest course will be hard to resist.
This 6,488 yard, par 72 course was built in the late 1920s and redesigned in 1948 by Mark Mahanna.
Host of the Florida PGA Open, the course is in the Top 50 Women Friendly golf courses in the US.
Naples itself is a quaint and rather spread out town and the area boasts a wealth of natural amenities and sailing charters.
And if shopping is your bag then you won't be disappointed with a wide variety of shopping areas to choose from all within a comfortable driving distance.
Soon our last few Stateside days beckoned and reluctantly we made our way back to Orlando and the 4 star Wyndham Resort on International Drive.
The Wyndham was perfectly situated to hit the usual Disney and Universal haunts and of course we shopped till we dropped (literally) at the nearby Florida mall.
Before we knew it, it was time to make use of the wonderful baggage check-in system - a very bittersweet experience - and head for home.
Checking out of the hotel, we never saw our luggage again until arrival at our ultimate and depressing destination - Belfast City Airport.
Don't get me wrong. That's not a sleight on the new building - it's just our normal reaction when we hit home soil after another memorable American experience!
Mark and family were guests of Virgin Atlantic and Disney.
Flights were from Belfast City Airport to Gatwick with British European and to Orlando with Virgin Atlantic.
Destination details are in the Virgin Holidays 2002 summer brochure. Prices may vary.
7 nights Disney Animal Kingdom Lodge from pounds 1259 per adult and pounds 449 per child (aged 2-11).
Price includes return flights on Virgin Atlantic to Orlando, 7 nights room only accommodation, Ultimate Park Hopper Ticket, airport transfers or car hire with Dollar Rent A Car.
2 centre option - 7 nights Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club and 7 nights Wyndham Orlando Resort starts from pounds 2120 for a family of 2 adults and 2 children (aged 2-11).
Price includes flight from London to Miami and return flight from Orlando on Virgin Atlantic, 14 nights room only accommodation and car hire with Dollar Rent-A-Car.
New for 2002 kids can travel to Orlando from pounds 149.00.
Under twos holiday for pounds 115.00.
Virgin Holidays offer Single Parent Discounts at a selection of hotels.
Dollar-Rent-a-Car in co-operation with Virgin Holidays offers a range of vehicles to suit party size all with air-conditioning.
There is no mileage charge and cars can be picked up and dropped off at any of the Dollar Depots in Florida.
For bookings and more information please call Virgin Holidays Reservations on 00441293 456789 or check the website at www.virginholidays.co.uk
FUN IN THE SUN: The hand-carved Tree of Life, left, is a big hit and kids will love the Lion King show, above, and the T=-Rex dinosaur fossil, right; THE GREAT OUTDOORS: Disney's popular 33-acre Animal Kingdom theme park provides the thrilling beauty of African animal and plant life with the adult luxuries and child-friendly amenities of American hospitality
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Nov 24, 2001|
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