Where dreams come alive
Florida gets a bad press. Mention that you're going there and friends and colleagues will probably warn you about muggings, murders, and the alligators lurking in the back yards. And surely you are not so unsophisticated as to waste time on Mickey and Minnie and all that ersatz Disney escapism in the theme parks? Of course, schools could never afford that kind of thing.
Nothing could be further from the truth. About 35 million tourists visit Florida every year, and most of the facilities, service and prices they encounter put Britain to shame. Statistically, your chances of being a victim of crime are extremely slight (although that should not prevent anyone taking simple precautions). Then there's the climate - they don't call it the Sunshine State for nothing.
Headteacher Tony Eden, of Angmering School, West Sussex, admits to negative feelings before he first went to Florida to help run a school visit. His experience completely reversed his opinion and he is currently planning his sixth visit, at Easter. "Before I first went I thought it was going to be far too naff. I wouldn't enjoy Disney characters and all that 'Have a nice day'. But from the moment we got off the steam ship in Disney's Magic Kingdom for Main Street USA I was hooked. I spent 14 hours there and I could have had more. I would defy people not to enjoy it."
Florida's theme parks, most of them based in and around Orlando, are far more than just Walt Disney World, but the three Disney parks alone - Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios - could take a full week for a thorough exploration. At Magic Kingdom the emphasis is on pleasure, but Epcot enjoys a good reputation for painless education - the children just think they're having fun. Epcot even has a teachers' centre, the Discovery Center, where you can print out resource materials held on computer, consult on-line services, look at new software for Mac and PC and, naturally, buy Disney publications and products.
While Disney-MGM Studios has the expected range of rides, including the immensely entertaining but hair-raising Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which treats you to seamless special effects before your doomed lift plunges down its shaft so quickly you actually float off the seat. But where the magic of Disney's movies really comes alive is in the presentation on animation. After the main show you go behind the scenes to be treated to a brilliant video featuring the comedian Robin Williams and his straightman Walter Cronkite explaining the art of animation and exploiting it to the limit. And behind the floor-to-ceiling glass walls of the corridors you are in work with real-life animators on real cells. It makes a fascinating visit.
Animation is also celebrated at Universal Studios where you are invited to join a cartoon, literally. You strap yourself into a seat in a simulator "vehicle" for a convincing chase through cartoonland on the trail of Dick Dastardly. The tie-up between the movie industry and the theme parks means you can enjoy state-of-the-art special effects, computer-controlled simulations and, at both venues, live demonstrations of movie stunts, complete with explosions.
The simulations take you places you would never get to otherwise. At Sea World there's one on the Bermuda Triangle. Although it's essentially a ride, the marine life you see on screen on the way to your sea-floor adventure is memorable. So are the screams when you get stuck on the bottom and water starts spraying from a ruptured pipe. It's the nearest you can get to a dream while you are wide awake.
Sea World offers spectacular displays, notably the dolphins and the killer whales, and is home for an endangered species, the Manatees. "The overwhelmingly most popular visit was to Sea World, because of the children's interest in marine conservation not because of the shows," says Gerald Townson, headteacher at Boundstone Community College in West Sussex.
Another thoroughly educational visit is to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Here visitors can see startling 70-millimetre space movies on five-story IMAX screens, go inside a mock-up Space Shuttle and look at the quaintly dated rockets in the rocket garden which now look more like fireworks. The Boundstone pupils thought they were weird: "It's like history to them because it didn't happen in their lifetime." They were extremely lucky with their visits: "Both times we saw the Shuttle take off. Last time we went, both went off and we saw them."
The Kennedy Space Center also has its own classrooms and produces impressively detailed resource materials for schools. If you visit the centre, however, do make time for some relaxation at the nearby Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge with its birdlife, bobcats, raccoons, armadillos and alligators.
Although the same handful of attractions tends to dominate press coverage of its theme parks, Florida has a rich variety, from Wet 'n' Wild for water activities to a spot of slithering at the Reptile World Serpentarium. Angmering pupils particularly liked Busch Gardens with its collection of animals from all over the world living in spacious surroundings.
Florida visits can be specifically educational, but many teachers think a holiday there is educational in itself. "The students have had an enormous amount out of it," says Gerald Townson. "Every bit of it is something new for them. There was a thrill from the time they got on the plane." Boundstone sent 70 pupils in 1991 and 30 in 1993. In 1991 only nine out of the 70 had ever flown before, and only two of them had been to the United States.
So how do schools get a trip off the ground? The first obstacle, it seems, is not money but imagination. Once schools decide it is possible they then have to organise thoroughly. Both Gerald Townson and Angmering School's Tony Eden stress the need for a long build-up - at least 18 months. This opens up the opportunity for all children - those from low-income families can contribute small amounts at regular intervals (the usual 10-day trip costs roughly Pounds 600 to Pounds 800 depending on age). Shop around for the best deals, but use an ABTA-bonded agent (some can arrange pre-visits).
Both schools, with pupils aged from 12 to 17, took one adult for every 10 children, and teachers were each alloted a number of hotel rooms for supervision.
The 10 days are filled with trips for virtually every day, with coaches laid on from and back to the hotel. But there has to be at least one day left for rest, and shopping - trainers, sportswear and jeans are popular and relatively cheap.
The product and marketing executive at Kuoni Student Travel, Alf Scrimgour, has seen trips to Florida become more popular, and he finds it one of the easiest long-haul trips to organise, mainly because of the state's impressive tourism infrastructure. And he is conscious of the publicity about crime: "The chances of any one individual being involved are extremely remote. None the less we do like to ensure that all itineraries are tightly controlled, and while groups will make their own mind up about which attractions they will visit, by pre-booking all visits and providing door-to-door transport, we like to keep any risks to an absolute minimum."
o The Rough Guide: Florida, Penguin, Pounds 8.99, ISBN 1 85828 074 5; TW Recreational Services Inc, Spaceport USA, Kennedy Space Center, tel: FL 32899; Kuoni Schools, 01306 744285; Travel Bound, 01273 677777; Virgin Travel, 01293 514571; ETS Travel, 0763 262464.