<p>Welcome sign: passengers arriving at Orlando International Airport</p>

Welcome sign: passengers arriving at Orlando International Airport

First UK-Orlando flight touches down after 20 months: ‘We’re delighted to see them back’

Florida is pinning its hopes on British visitors flocking back after the US travel ban was lifted

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 09 November 2021 14:00

The first plane from the UK to Orlando in Florida for over 600 days touched down half-an-hour early – with every seat occupied.

Arrivals were applauded by airport staff, who handed out drinks, cookies and gold paper crowns that passengers were urged to wear as they proceeded through the terminal.

The travellers aboard Virgin Atlantic flight 75 from Manchester were a mix of property owners, people with relatives in Florida and holidaymakers such as Jo and Ian Kennedy from Hartlepool in County Durham.

“We’ve been here many, many times, and this has been the longest gap that we’ve ever been away,” said Ms Kennedy.

The couple, both wearing their gold crowns, arrived for a two-week stay that will include fishing, golf and tennis. They are staying in a villa that has its own pool, a commodity in strong demand in the coronavirus era.

A representative of a pharmacy held a large sign offering “Free Covid-19 Vaccinations”. But to comply with the conditions under which transatlantic travel is once again permitted, all British visitors aged 18 and over must already be fully jabbed – and take a test before departure to the US.

As the virus spread around the world, President Donald Trump banned all European visitors to the US in mid-March 2020. The prohibition was extended by his successor, Joe Biden, until this week.

Phil Brown, chief executive of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority said: “We’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time. We’ve worked hard to convince the federal government that they need to open up.

“You have a lot of folks from Great Britain they have homes here. They’ve not been able to see their homes.”

Joe and Sue Mann from Manchester normally spend winter in their property in the Orlando area. Having left Florida in April 2020, they travelled back to the state on the first flight and are planning to stay for six months.

“We’ve had 18 months away and a lockdown away,” said Mr Mann. “We’re really looking forward to wintering out here now.”

Ms Mann said the arrival formalities were straightforward: “Everything was very smooth actually. We thought we’d be held up. There was no queue. We just went straight through customs. Wonderful.”

Some other British property owners are already in Florida. Many of them spent two weeks in the Caribbean or Mexico to “launder” their UK status.

Also in the Orlando airport welcoming party were Simon and Susan Veness, authors of the Brit Guide to Orlando.

Ms Veness said: “We know how much Brits love Florida. We know they’re excited to be back. We know there was huge pent-up demand to get here.

“That was one constant we were sure of.”

Danielle Hollander, chief marketing officer for Visit Orlando said: “This is really a momentous day to welcome back our UK visitors. To complete the tourism picture, we need the international visitor back.

“Having the planes flying and touching down will give everybody the confidence that it’s actually happening, and to book and to get on those planes.”

Initially there are far fewer airline seats available than in pre-pandemic times, with single daily departures on Virgin Atlantic from Manchester and London Heathrow to Orlando. None are currently offered from what was previously the main UK departure point to the city, London Gatwick.

Economy fares this weekend from Manchester to Orlando are currently selling for over £1,000 return – at least twice the usual price for mid-November.

But from 27 November the Irish airline Aer Lingus will go head-to-head against Virgin Atlantic on the Manchester-Orlando link.

Airport boss Phil Brown told The Independent: “When the word gets back that there is an experience to be had in Orlando, you’ll see that people start to book.

“I think it’s really going to be the summer before we really get back to those [2019] levels.”

Amid some tearful reunions between family members who had been separated by the coronavirus pandemic, Orlando guidebook writer Simon Veness said: “We’ve been deprived of Brits for 20 months and we’re delighted to see them back.

“Florida will come back faster than a lot of markets and I think the Brits will help to do it.”

Several new attractions have opened during the US travel ban, including the “VelociCoaster” at Universal, which the company describes as “the apex predator of rollercoasters”.

Rival attraction, Walt Disney World Resort, marked its 50th birthday on 1 October this year. Celebrations are expected to continue for 18 months until early 2023.

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