Go VIP with These Great Park Extras in Orlando

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Go VIP with These Great Park Extras in Orlando
By ATD’s Florida Experts, Susan and Simon Veness
Whether you’ve ‘been there, done that’ or you’re new to Orlando and looking for that extra “Wow” factor, these spectacular add-ons are the ideal enhancements to your holiday of a lifetime.

The only thing better than attending a media event is attending a media event that’s practically in your own back yard, and this past week we were lucky enough to spend some time with the teams at SeaWorld, Aquatica, Discovery Cove, and Busch Gardens, plus a wonderfully relaxing two days along the Gulf coast in Saint Petersburg. In the process, we sampled several ‘extras’ and made a few new discoveries in the process.

Brit-favourite SeaWorld was our starting point, and while the shows and attractions are world-class, the real point of the park is found behind the barrier walls. Think you can’t go there unless you’re an employee? Think again!

You can do just that with the Behind The Scenes Tour at SeaWorld. This 75 minute tour is a glimpse into what SeaWorld is really all about: rescue, rehabilitation, release, and the importance of protecting animals in the wild. See the boats used in the television show Sea Rescue and learn how years of animal rescue have resulted in knowledge that makes rehabilitation safer and more effective. Get up close and personal with rescued manatees and sea turtles, with the chance to ask questions of your expert guide. Then, go behind the scenes at Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin and meet one of the park’s most popular birds in an informative—and hilarious!—hands-on encounter, with the chance to stroke a penguin and have a picture taken (bring along a jumper; it’s freezing in there!).

Interested in adding the experience to your SeaWorld day? Sign up early to avoid disappointment, as the tour is seriously popular.

Naturally, we asked a few questions about the upcoming Mako hypercoaster, debuting in Summer 2016, and while there is no news to share…yet…here’s a little peek at what’s going on behind all those hoardings:

Our second day was spent at Orlando’s little slice of tropical paradise, Discovery Cove. If you’ve been, we don’t need to tell you how blissful it is. If you haven’t, start saving your loose change in a jar marked ‘Best Day Ever’, because that’s what a day in the park truly is.

With a visitor capacity of just 1,300 there is never a crowd or a queue, and the add-on experiences are equally small-group oriented, starting with the must-do Dolphin Interaction experience. We’re counting it as an add-on because it’s not a required element of a Discovery Cove package, but if you haven’t done it before we think it’s just about mandatory (if you promise not to tell, we’ll admit we’ve also had unforgettable days in the park without doing the dolphin interaction).

Later that afternoon we did the SeaVenture tour, and whether you’re ready to plunge right into the reef (that would be Simon) or you’re ever so slightly on the timid side when it comes to being 15 feet below the surface (that would be Susan), it provides an exceptional, if a bit chilly, 25-minute view into the world beneath the waves. With your dive helmet firmly in place (you won’t feel its weight in the water, and you can breathe naturally and easily), the walking tour takes you past sharks (never fear; they’re on the other side of a sturdy glass barrier), through great schools of colourful fish, and into a little cove for a hands-on small marine animals encounter (maybe an urchin or a hermit crab, maybe a horseshoe crab or a starfish). Nervous (Susan) or not (Simon) we both agree this once-in-a-lifetime experience is well worth doing twice…or more!

Secure your SeaVenture spot early here!

And don’t worry if you weep quietly on the way out of the park that evening, knowing your Best Day Ever has come to a close. We’ve done it too, so we won’t pass judgement.

Day Three found us in Busch Gardens for some roller coaster fun, with the highlight add-on of the superb Serengeti Safari. There are few animal encounters funnier than the signature event of the safari, which involves hand-feeding giraffes, and we guarantee the photos will be priceless.

The ultimate add-on to an Orlando holiday has to be a few days along the Gulf coast, where the waters are warm and the sand is talcum-powder soft. Because the focus of our media event was ‘Couples Only’, the romance factor was evident, with plenty of beach time, fine dining, craft beers, and exceptional wines.

But first, a bit of kayaking to crank up the metabolism in advance of all the good food we’d be eating. Secluded Fort DeSoto State Park was the location, and while we’ve been to the park before (a huge hit with its clouds of devil rays gliding just off shore), it was our first venture into the mangroves, where manatee, baby shark, and shorebird sightings punctuated the serene atmosphere, and the effort involved in kayaking the protected waters was minimal. Want something less strenuous? Try the quirky Salvador Dali Museum or exquisite Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center, both in downtown St. Pete’s.

With several decades experience in the Orlando between us, it takes some doing to show us something we haven’t seen or heard of before, but our hosts came up with two brand new (to us) dining venues in St. Pete’s, both of them real gems. For lunch with a view over the Gulf, we visited Hurricane, a cute little bar restaurant with some of the best grouper sandwiches in town. Its beachy vibe and casual setting made it ideal for a post-lunch shore-side walk, but showing up with sand in your swimsuit isn’t frowned upon either (shirt and shoes required!). 

The standout meal of the trip, though there were many worthy contenders, goes to Pegs Cantina in nearby Gulfport, with its Mexican-Spanish Small Plates menu, homemade Sangria, Peg’s own Cycle Brew Pub craft beer selection, and immensely romantic outdoor seating complete with lights in the trees and a soft breeze, tailor-made for an evening of romance.

Be sure to add one of these adventures to your next Orlando holiday, or add all of them, and if you see us at Peg’s, say Hi!

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