Sanford International Airport had been the UK travel giant’s gateway to the theme park capital of the world, until just over a year ago when TUI became the first transatlantic carrier to fly into MLB Airport.
The move to the new Florida gateway is fast turning out to be a smart one for TUI’s customers.
Located on the Sunshine State’s Atlantic east coast, it’s close to Melbourne’s pristine beaches just 15 minutes away, while for TUI’s Marella Cruise passengers it’s a 35-minute transfer to Port Canaveral cruise terminal.
And MLB airport – in the middle of an $150m upgrade to cater for the Dreamliners – kept its promise of “an uncongested, speedy, stress-free arrival” – music to the Mickey Mouse ears of Walt Disney World fans, not to mention those of harassed families, after a flight of nearly nine hours from Gatwick.
Our swift departure from the small airport, just under 30 minutes from landing, was a seamless experience. The “bag-first” process – collecting your checked luggage from the carousel before going through passport control and customs, was a game-changer, making for a speedier exit. For those heading straight to the theme parks, it’s around an hour’s drive away.
We, however, were taking a 20-mile drive north from the airport along the “Space Coast”, spending the night at Hampton Inn Cocoa Beach before hitting the theme parks. Unfazed by the inclement weather we headed out to the Flavour Kitchen & Wine Bar, a five-minute drive away. Lively and buzzing, the restaurant lives up to its name, with a menu of delicious flavour-some dishes such as jumbo shrimp fritters, truffled blue cheese fries, grilled octopus, black Angus beef meatballs - inevitably we over ordered!
We were back in the neighbourhood next day for breakfast at the Simply Delicious Cafe & Bakery, highly recommended by our friendly Uber driver. My eggs and bacon, cooked to order, was the perfect start and the storm having thankfully abated, we strolled back to the hotel along the Cocoa Beach boardwalk, passing the historic pier stretching 800ft out over the Atlantic Ocean and several surf shops - Cocoa beach is a haven for the surfing community.
It wasn’t a giant leap to our next destination, the spectacular Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, but an easy 30-minute drive. Making our way through the garden of towering rockets, missiles and other space hardware, we were greeted by our guide for our afternoon tour, astronaut Don Thomas.
A veteran of four space shuttle flights, totting up 44 days in space as well as orbiting the Earth nearly 700 times during his 20-year career with NASA, it was fascinating to hear first hand about his space missions aboard Columbia and Discovery.
And at the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction which next month will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its opening at the Kennedy Space Center, not only did we come nose to nose with the retired space shuttle but also face-to-face with astronaut Andy Allen, who in 1992 flew aboard Atlantis on an eight-day mission.
Next, we checked into the chic Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando, aiming for a good night’s sleep ahead of an adrenaline-packed day at Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
A water taxi took us from the resort straight into the heart of the action with our VIP tour guide Dani whisking us past queues for popular rides such as Jurassic World VelociCoaster and the Incredible Hulk Coaster. I confess I wimped out, saving my energy for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Arguably Universal’s most immersive rollercoaster, with twists, turns and launch speeds of up to 50 mph, it took my breath away.
On the other hand the E.T. Adventure, boarding a flying bike to soar through the sky to help save the Extraterrestrial’s home planet, was a more gentle ride. And I was more than happy to be a mere spectator at the brilliant Bourne Stuntacular as Jason Bourne crosses three continents in front of a 130ft-long LED screen.
At Disney World the next day, I stuck to the same plan, helped by Seth our VIP tour guide, balancing white-knuckle rollercoasters with more tranquil rides. First I went into battle in Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance (in Disney’s Hollywood Studios), a combined trackless dark ride, walk-through, motion simulator and drop ride system, one of the Park’s most exciting attractions.
EPCOT’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is unmissable, featuring the first reverse-launch coaster at Disney and rotates 360 degrees, racing across the cosmos to the sound of hits such as Blondie’s One Way Or Another.
We rounded off the day on safari in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, spotting hippos, elephants, rhinos, giraffes and even a zebra crossing the road.
That evening we not only enjoyed a splendid dinner in Disney Contemporary Resort’s California Grill on the 15th floor but also watched the famous fireworks over Magic Kingdom. It was a fitting fairy-tale ending to our trip to the Most Magical Place on Earth.
We have lift off...
Thanks to the vagaries of the weather we had the great fortune to watch a rocket launch which should have lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center three days earlier. At 8.26pm, just four miles away, Space X’s Falcon Heavy launched with three satellites on board, lighting up the sky with an intense red glow. The icing on a cosmic trip!
Head to kennedyspacecenter.com to find out more.
Book the holiday
TUI offers 14 nights in Florida, staying 10 nights at Disney’s Contemporary Resort and 4 nights at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando, from £3,503pp based on two adults and two children sharing a double room, with direct flights to Melbourne Orlando International Airport departing Gatwick on August 28, 2024 and transfers. Includes TUI’s Early Booking Disney offer of 14-day park tickets for the price of 7, $400 gift card and $1,500 dining and merchandise credit. Regional airports also available.
You can book at tui.co.uk.