Finding Dory: Why Orlando's Water Parks Were Perfect For My Little Fish

18/01/2014 19:17 | Updated 20 May 2015

Lola at Seaworld Orlando Florida

It's recently become apparent that my 8-year-old daughter, Lola, is actually part-mermaid. She swims like a fish, is almost fluent in dolphin and can play a mean tune on the conch shell. And when she won't eat her fish pie at supper time, she sternly reminds me that "fish are friends, not food".

So in order to indulge her fishy fascination, we've travelled to the great underwater playground of Florida.

Orlando, to be precise, but we're ditching the Disney dynasty in favour of Seaworld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove.

We're staying at the Renaissance Orlando at Seaworld hotel, where we're treated to a huge room with views across to Seaworld (although not so close as to see Shamu doing his morning warm-ups). After demolishing a pile of syrupy pancakes for breakfast, my little fish is ready to meet the big boys.

Leaving the drizzly autumnal weather back home, Orlando is a balmy 28 degrees. Thankfully, there is plenty of shade at Seaworld. We pass bucket-mouthed pelicans, stroke friendly stingrays and come face to face with huge Floridian alligators. Lola is blown away. Even though we're regulars at the Sealife centre back home, America, of course, does it bigger and better.

My favourites are the manatees. These huge cuddly giants of the sea (which Lola decides look like a walrus in a sleeping bag) float around in the water like aquatic sumo wrestlers.

Orlando is renowned for its death-defying thrill rides and Seaworld is no different. Thankfully, I have a brief reprieve as Lola is too small to ride the park's two biggest coasters, Manta and Kraken, however she's the perfect size for the Shamu Express, which is far less hairy and therefore entirely appropriate for me.

A huge hit for both of us was Turtle Trek, a brilliant 3D film where we follow the life of a tiny turtle and Lola chases 3D jellyfish, swerving past sharks and jumping with virtual dolphins.

The temperature drops to a chilly minus-one in the new Antartica exhibition which opened in the spring. We follow the adventures of Pock the penguin on a gentle ride through a virtual Antartica ending up on a real iceberg where penguins slip and slide like clowns for our entertainment.

Despite erring on the cheesy side, Blue Horizons, a show which features acrobatic dolphins, trapeze artists and a bald eagle, which swoops ominously above the crowd, is a slick production and a nice excuse to sit down for half an hour.

We could have easily spent another day at Seaworld, however my girl was desperate to get into the water herself so instead we headed across the road to Aquatica, Seaworld's waterslide park.

Now I'm not usually one to carouse about in public dressed in a bikini, but Aquatica is not a place for the modest. Lola's eyes light up at the dozen colossal waterslides and I wonder what on earth I've let myself in for. We start off gently with the Dolphin Plunge, a clear tube which whizzes through a pool of black and white Commerson dolphins. It was thrilling but we were too fast to see anything - which kind of defeats the object.

I reluctantly try most of the slides, drift around the Lazy River and before I could take a breather on the beautiful sandy beach, Lola challenges me to a head-to-head down the Taumata Racer, Aquatica's fastest waterslide.

As a rule, water parks generally hover around the bottom of my "fun list" but I really enjoyed myself.

The next day was spent at Discovery Cove. Styled on a Caribbean beach resort, it only allows 1300 guests in each day, so although busy it doesn't feel overcrowded. With a steel band, chirpy staff and plenty of free booze on tap, it's certainly captured the atmosphere of a Jamaican resort.

But we're not here to over-indulge in frozen Margaritas, we're here to make my little girl's dream come true; to ride an actual dolphin. I must admit, I've never been the biggest fan of Flipper and his friends (I just can't trust a perky mammal) that is, until I met Capricorn.

At 40, Capricorn is one of the oldest dolphins at Discovery Cove and according to his trainer, he's the Hugh Hefner of the dolphin world. And I can see why. With a cheeky glint in his eye and a Clooney smile, I'm quite taken with him myself. As he swerves past allowing us to stroke his rubber-smooth skin, Lola lets out a squeak of joy.

Lola and Capricorn the dolphin in Discovery Cove, Floride

Capricorn's trainer explains to Lola that if she holds on to his fin and his flipper, Capricorn will gently tow her through the water. The look on my girl's face is priceless. Running out of excuses, I pat a smiling Capricorn on the back, grab hold of his fin and flipper as he gently draws me through the water and for 15 seconds I feel like a proper mermaid. It is ridiculously thrilling.

For the rest of our 30 minute encounter, Capricorn woos us with a little water ballet and some tap dancing before swimming past for another nuzzle. After a quick kiss and the obligatory photo, we wave him goodbye. With eyes glassy with joy, Lola said it was the best thing she had ever, ever done and I must admit, it was a bit of life highlight for me too.

Leaving Orlando, we head to Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico and to Busch Gardens, yet another of Florida's behemoth theme parks. Lola manages to cajole me onto Cheetah Run, the park's newest and fastest coaster which reaches speeds of 60mph. I was horrified and thrilled at the same time.

Thankfully, there's more to Busch Gardens than hanging upside down screaming. We hop into an open-top safari truck and trundle across the plains of the Floridian 'Serengeti', past herds of zebra, black rhinos and wildebeest, who all are seemingly non-plussed by the huge rollercoasters whizzing above them.

The truck stops abruptly and an auburn head pops over the side, with eyes the size of tennis balls and enviably long eyelashes. It's Bititi, a friendly giraffe coming in for a cuddle. Lola gently strokes the giraffe's neck and feeds her a lettuce leaf and yet again my gorgeous girl is bewitched by nature's animals.

Tracey and Lola at Busch Gardens Orlando Florida

We spend our last couple of days relaxing on one of Florida's legendary beaches. Clearwater Beach is rated as one of the best beaches in the States and I can certainly see why. Our hotel, the Sandpearl, opens out directly on to a huge swathe of pearly-white sand. While Lola sits happily building sandcastles, I finally kick back and relax, Margarita in hand and not a single rollercoaster in sight.


The Discovery Cove Ultimate Package includes one day reservation at Discovery Cove (with 30 minute dolphin swim experience, all meals, snacks and beverages) plus 14 day unlimited entry to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica. Prices start from just £169 per person, for more information and bookings go to

The Busch Gardens Serengeti Experience including feeding the giraffes is an extra £12 per person.

Fly into Orlando and out from Tampa International with, economy returns from £519pp.

Double rooms at the Seaworld Renaissance start from £60 per night.

Double rooms at Sandpearl, Clearwater Beach start from £256 per night.

For more information on Orlando check out or Clearwater-St Petersburg

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