IT’S the eye of the Tigris – or rather high of the Tigris when we are slammed 150ft up in the air at an eye-watering 63 miles per hour.
Then Florida’s tallest launch rollercoaster gets really vicious. Following the skyward surge, there is that horrific millisecond when you can see the whole of Busch Gardens flashing in front of you . . . along with your life.
That’s soon forgotten though as you are plunged into something called a heart-line roll. I think that’s the bit where you are upside down and screaming for your mummy.
And then it’s over. What seems like an hour-long nightmare has actually only taken 45 seconds and, according to the taped message, “You have conquered Tigris.”
The advertising blurb says the ride has been designed to mimic the “awe-inspiring agility of the world’s largest and most powerful cat — the tiger”.
But I’d rather get in a cage with the real thing than ride the 1,800 feet of steel track again. But as I went on Tigris four times in 30 minutes, including an unbelievable hair-raising experience in the front row, there must be something strangely addictive about it.
Tigris is not the only beast at Busch Gardens. The 300-acre site in Tampa, an hour’s drive from Orlando, is home to a bewildering array of thrill rides — and more than 200 species of real animals.
So you can drop 335ft straight down while strapped into Falcon’s Fury or hand-feed a giraffe while on the Serengeti Safari.
Small groups are driven through the Busch Gardens veldt in open-topped jeeps. You can get up close to antelope and zebras, and even closer to the giraffes, who pop over for a photo op and a snack.
The thrill-ride/wildlife combo continues at SeaWorld. Our group gave Mako — Orlando’s tallest, fastest and longest coaster — the biggest thumbs-up of the week.
New water ride Infinity Falls also scored highly, not least because the drenching you got was pure relief from the searing 100F heat burning up this part of Florida in June.
Eight people can get in a circular raft which is thrown around a series of drops and turns before being given a vertical lift 40ft up — the world’s tallest river rapids ride drop — and then sliding down for another soaking. Absolute bliss.
Away from the rides, there are the killer whale and dolphin shows, which still haul in the crowds.
But the highlight for me was going to visit the penguins — and the chance to cuddle up to Pipsqueak the baby rockhopper.
If getting soaked is your thing, then Aquatica is the park for you. Get there early and you can have the pick of the water slides, and you don’t have to queue too long to get on the new KareKare Curl ride.
This throws you down a 35ft drop, then spits you out on to wave wall. The heavier you are, the higher you go.
It’s the wildlife at Discovery Cove that proves to be an oasis of calm among the noise and madness of the other Orlando parks.
The all-inclusive resort hosts just 1,300 people a day, meaning the sun loungers are never fought over and you can eat and drink when you want. But don’t get too chilled out as there’s plenty to do.
The big attraction is the opportunity to swim with the bottlenose dolphins.
Kaylei, a relative youngster at 15 years old, was happy to pose for picture after picture with our group and then swim us back to shore.
I did have some reservations about performing animals.
But the trainers constantly stress how the dolphins only come out to meet the public when they want to.
Some of Kaylei’s family are in their mid-fifties — around 15 to 20 years older than they would live to in the wild. And you can see just how much they, and the trainers, love being together.
When you are done with the dolphins, it is time to get fully underwater with the SeaVenture walking tour.
You don a 70lb dive helmet, which keeps you around 14ft below the surface and in another world where fish are everywhere.
Thirty minutes or so of slowly walking around the lagoon sees you come face to face with everything from the bizarre-looking hogfish to a couple of nasty sharks. Jaws and his pals are behind glass though.
If Orlando’s wildlife was a pleasant surprise, so was its food. The grub in the parks was pretty standard but anyone fancying a special night out would do well to head to Slate in Sand Lake Road.
Their meatballs are madly good, the wood-grilled fillet steak is utterly fab and the mac and cheese with rosemary bread crumbs is so awesome it virtually defies description.
And the worst moment of the week by far was not being able to finish both pans of it.
If you want to go for a Mexican, Rocco’s Tacos is the place. Packed with locals, dodgy Day of the Dead masks and dummies and surely every brand of tequila known to man, the place is jumping.
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Get stuck into the guacamole made at your table and a couple of pints of pale ale to start with.
Then have a molcajete, which is a lava rock bowl full of sizzling steak, chicken, chorizo and prawns served up with flour tortillas.
Top it all off with a few more pints at live music venue Tin Roof in International Drive and you will have gone from petting animals to party animals.
GETTING THERE: Flights from Gatwick, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast with Virgin Atlantic are from £344pp return. See virginatlantic.co.uk.
STAYING THERE: One night’s room-only at the Doubletree Hilton at SeaWorld Orlando is from £47.50pp with two sharing.
OUT & ABOUT: Discovery Cove Ultimate Swim package is from £195pp including one day at Discovery Cove, 14 days’ entry to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica Orlando. See attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk.
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