Machine Gun America (MGA) stands on a strip of shops in central Florida, close to a flea market that targets Disney World tourists – the Magic Kingdom is a mere seven miles away – and an amusement park called Old Town.
Before Orlando's "first and only Automatic Adrenaline Attraction" landed here, the space was occupied by an all-you-can-eat steak and seafood buffet.
MGA has received some bad press since opening in December, just four months after a nine-year-old in Nevada killed her shooting instructor with an Uzi. "What could possibly go wrong?" snarked a 2014 Daily Mail headline. The Orlando Sentinel's Beth Kassab wrote: "Something doesn't seem right about pulling over on US Highway 192 – across from the carnival games and bumper cars of Old Town and next to a Denny's – plunking down some cash and picking up an automatic weapon without any real training."
On the sunny February afternoon that I visit MGA, a gaggle of staffers greets prospective shooters at the door. The interior is clean and spacious, the colour scheme neutral, save for bright red chairs and a cobalt accent wall. With package prices that range from $99 (£67) to $399 (£270), MGA's visitors can shoot everything from a Cimarron Revolver to the Rambo-esque RPD belt-fed machine gun. Kids as young as 13 can participate, as long as they have a guardian present. A politely enthusiastic salesman approaches and asks, without an inkling of irony, which experience I want.
The world's weirdest theme parks
The world's weirdest theme parks
1/11 Love Land, South Korea
This outdoor sculpture park in Jeju Island is dedicated to sex, featuring 140 sculptures representing humans in various sexual positions. It describes itself as 'a place where love oriented art and eroticism meet'
2/11 The Kingdom of Little People, Kunming, China
Opened in 2009, The Kingdom of Little People employs a number of dwarfs to perform variety shows for punters
3/11 Shijingshan Amusement Park, Beijing, China
A poor man's imitation of Disneyworld, this Beijing theme park has a fake Sleeping Beauty Castle and various characters which look similar to Disney's trademarked own
4/11 The Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Florida
Set in Orlando Florida, the home to theme parks, The Holy Land Experience recreates scenes from the Bible, with architecture modelled on the ancient city of Jerusalem
5/11 Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Dolly Parton's very own theme park features thrill rides and traditional crafts and music of the Smoky Mountains area
6/11 Dubailand, Dubai, UAE
The theme park promised to be the most ambitious in the world, with a budget of $64.3 billion. But the project was put on hold at the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008
7/11 Dickens World, Chatham, Kent
Although Dickens was only a brief resident of Chatham as a child, the theme park features buildings, places and people of the Medway Towns which the writer drew inspiration from
8/11 Diggerland, England
Billed as the 'ultimate adventure park experience', Diggerland allows children and adults to drive full-size construction machinery
9/11 Harmonyland, Japan
Essentially a Hello Kitty theme park, Harmonyland offers family-friendly rides adorned with plenty of Hello Kitty memorabilia
10/11 Nurburgring Roller Coaster, Germany
If going on a rollercoaster wasn't dangerous enough, try this one directly next motorsports compex Nurburgring
11/11 Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi
Where else but the capital of bling would you find Ferrari World, 'the largest indoor amusement park in the world'. The park also claims to host the world's fastest rollercoaster, Formula Rossa
MGA is big on experiences. There's a zombie-themed "Walking Dread" package, which includes an AK-47 and Raging Bull Revolver. There's "Big Screen Legends", which features Scarface's M16 and Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum; and "Automatic Divas", which comes with a sub-machine gun, a machine gun and a semiautomatic pistol, and promises to "unleash your inner femme fatale". I go for the $189 "Special Ops" experience which includes rounds with a Glock 17, a Mossberg shotgun and an M4 and MP5 machine gun. Wes Doss, MGA's director of safety and training, later tells me that it's one of the range's most popular packages.
"I think a lot of that's driven by the popular online games," he says.
The experience comes with two targets. Options include an Osama bin Laden, a Jason Statham look-alike with nipple rings and a T-shirt target whose white lettering reads, "I Shot at Machine Gun America" over a red bull's-eye.
A short credit card preauthorisation and liability waiver later, a staffer hands me a pair of protective earmuffs and safety glasses. The range safety officer then leads me into the shooting gallery, which looks a lot like the practice ranges one sees in police movies. According to Doss, the attraction is popular with families, conventioneers and law enforcement agents, as well as couples on dates.
My experience kicks off with a Glock 17, and the officer assigned to me explains how to hold it with both hands. Then I pull the trigger. The gun fires with a pop and a small hole appears in my target's chest. Twenty rounds later, I've finished my first semiautomatic magazines. Throughout, my assigned safety officer is never more than six inches away from me.
Next up is the Mossberg. I position the butt of the gun near my armpit, do some pumping and ka-pow! The recoil smarts against my chest and, despite the earmuffs, the shot is loud. I take one more shot and then beg off: I need to retain some hearing for the machine guns.
"One of the most widely used submachine guns in the world," according to the MGA, the MP5 is also what the theme park calls "a staple in the Special Operations community". The M4, a similar gun, is used frequently by US Army soldiers. The machine guns have less recoil than the Mossberg but aren't any more pleasant to shoot. They spit bullets so quickly that I can't help closing my eyes for a split second while firing. I switch to the Statham target for the M4. I don't hit either of his nipple rings.
Post-experience, I wonder if people are needlessly freaking out over a tourist trap, or are they right to worry about the trivialisation of guns? Shooting at MGA was sometimes uncomfortable, yes, but also positive; enlightening even. I often write about violence, much of it gun-related. Learning about firearms first-hand seems not only appropriate but necessary. "It's natural for people to have an aversion to different types of businesses being in different types of communities," Doss says of MGA's haters.
Meanwhile, he adds, "some of the businesses that they aren't concerned about – the liquor stores, some of the adult businesses – I find a whole lot more disturbing than a gun range."