Re-Adjusting and Chilling Out

I think I woke up about lunchtime today, proving that even my nightowl-orientated metabolism needs to recharge when dealing with the dreaded red-eye. We’re trying to get back to operating within UK daylight hours, so rather than go straight to bed when we got home yesterday, we stayed up and got all the unpacking and unwinding we could.

Lady P dropped round for a while to return our keys (she’s been looking after the balcony vegetable garden while we’ve been away, and we have even more tomatoes growing happily away in the small forest that has now established itself out there). In return we gave her a couple of small gifts that had practically jumped off the shelves while we were away, and from the grin on her face I’d say we picked the right things out for her. A slow evening of pizza and catching up on Doctor Who and we called it a night.

So, a slow start this morning. Fortunately the same was true of everyone else in the household too, so I didn’t feel like the odd one out as I traipsed out to get some eggs and bacon to start making some brunch.

As the girls put it, it was nice to be back to some good old-fashioned British-sized portions – and by that I mean platefuls that can’t be used to sink small battleships, and definitely not covered in cheese of any description. The rest of our day has been spent watching Frozen (Charleesi hasn’t seen it before), playing games (Assassin’s Creed 4 for all the sun, sea and landscapes we’re now missing), and sorting out pictures for Facebook.

We’re mostly caught up on sleep, and I’m maybe a couple of hours out of sync now – it feels simultaneously like 4pm and midnight, so averaging out it seems about right. Should be all systems go for the new working week by the time I get there.

Disney Last Day

So now I’m sitting in my local coffee shop, having just flown in to Gatwick and survived the M25, very aware that I’ve been awake for over twenty four hours, and the Disney holiday is over.

Checkout was smooth, with an added bonus that the laundry we’d had done wasn’t entered onto the billing system, so we got it for free. With a few entries left on our dining plan and our flight not due to leave until 8pm we decided to just find a quiet corner to read and take advantage of the air conditioning.

The staff were perfectly accomodating and left us to our own devices, and I got the impression that this wasn’t too uncommon a practice for people to use up their spare credits like this.

Packing had mostly been done the previous evening so we cheekily asked the American Airlines check-in desk at the resort if we could check our baggage weight. They had no problems with that, and so reassured about our luggage and with only one or two sat-nav related oddities, we set off back to Orlando International Airport.

Check in and TSA clearance went smoothly despite it being very busy and the only real moment of hilarity came when my daughter managed to spill a whole can of Sprite into her own lap. “Refreshing!” she commented at the time…

So what am I missing about this holiday already? The excellent  customer service, the different driving styles, the more evening-night-based lifestyle, the ferociously flushing toilets, the sightings of turtles and otters in the lake on the way to breakfast in the mornings.

I’m missing the automated announcements in the Disney buses to take your children by the hand (presumably instead of by the throat), not to mention the ability of US caterers to add cheese to every meal.

I’m especially missing the heat and sunshine now I’m back in the UK, but at least I know where I stand with persistent drizzle and watery cloud cover. I also seem to have quickly remembered how to drive stick and stay on the correct side of the road (mostly), which is helpful.

Now, time for more caffeine…

Disney Day Thirteen

Our last full day on holiday, and the original plan had been to breeze through the Magic Kingdom. Instead we revisited Typhoon Lagoon for the prospect of lounging around in the water.

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Lady M has become rather sunburned, so opted to wear a t-shirt over her swimsuit, but didn’t let that stop her and Charleesi from grabbing inflatable rafts on the Crush’n’Gusher water slides.

My preference was to lounge in the water and let my feet recover from all the walking we’ve done. According to my pedometer, we’ve been averaging eight to ten miles per day consistently and wow, don’t I know it. Lessons learnt: wear more padded footwear next time.

The Doc Martens saved my feet this time, but they’re not suitable for water rides so I may invest in some Crocs or something next time.

Our last evening meal was special. We’d saved up Dining Plan points and some spare cash to eat at Jiko in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Like Le Cellier, this is proper fine dining, but Jiko specialises in modern South African cuisine and does it very well.

With beautiful decorations and wide views from the window, the restaurant provided us with excellent service and witty banter from the staff that kept us at our ease.

Our appetisers incorporated a range of flavours and spices, and had little notes to add to the staff explanations of what was in front of us. We went for different cuts of steak for our entrées, and each had a range of flavours and textures that were a delight to discover. The deserts were magical and playful all at the same time.

We will definitely return here when we can, it’s that special.

Disney Day Twelve

We’re suddenly very much aware that we’re running out of holidays and that we’ve walked an awfully long distance in the last couple of weeks.

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The upside to this is that we’ve hit pretty much most things we want to try and can now explore, take a more leisurely pace and not feel too bad about wilting in the heat that even native Floridians are calling unseasonal and a bit much…

So today was another Magic Kingdom day, taking in Splash Mountain, the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, Pirates of the Caribbean and Winnie the Poo. We also went on the riverboat and did a lot more character meets.

I already knew it was going to be a bit of a strange day as I sat eating my breakfast muffin at the Cheshire Cat Café and watched Alice lead the White Rabbit by the hand to the Tea Cups.

Some unkind comments in my Facebook stream suggested that I needed to check my meds, and that I was actually still sat at home while I hallucinated my holiday. All I can say to that is that if I were hallucinating, my brain wouldn’t be conjuring up this heat..!

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The evening meal was at Teppan Edo in Epcot – a traditional style noodle meal prepared at the table for a group of us. Service was excellent, the atmosphere that curious mix of formal and informal as you might expect at a Disney recreation of Japanese cuisine, and our chef witty and engaging while demonstrating some intricate knife skills.

It was an expensive day, but mostly because we did a fair amount of Christmas gift shopping (mostly) for young relatives… Knowing we only had one full day left made us start to feel the end of holiday blues…

Being British in Florida 2

Now obviously I’m going to be employing some broad brush generalisations along the way with this small series, and they’re generally for comedic effect.

Today’s musings have come about through my observations around the experience of driving in the Orlando and Tampa area, but I think there’s something rather common about relearning how to drive that may chime with people who have driven on both sides of the Atlantic.

The biggest difference seems to be in each country’s general preference for how their cars manage gears. In Britain, the overwhelming majority of drivers learn in a manual geared vehicle and stick with it from then on. If you drive anything else in Britain, there’s often real puzzlement as to why, and an implied accusation that you can’t be very good at driving if you have to rely on an automatic gearbox.

By contrast, here in the US the overwhelming preference is for using an automatic, and manual gearboxes ( “driving stick”) are viewed with deep suspicion, though no one seems to be able quite to articulate why.

The difference as a driver is that when you drive manually you are making the conscious effort to make your car move. The car will not generally move unless you tell it to, and you don’t need to stand on the brake unless you are already moving. Switch the engine on,  select first gear and balance clutch and accelerator until you put your foot down to move away.

In contrast, the effort in an automatic is in stopping it from moving. Your conscious decisions are about stopping the car moving off (switch car on, put foot on brake as you select drive or reverse and take off handbrake, then lift foot off brake to start moving)

Now, speaking slightly tongue in cheek, I’d contend that this tells us something interesting about British and US drivers. The British are choosing to commit to an action (often being that of driving dangerously fast in narrow streets), while US drivers are trying to guage whether they should stop as they are already in motion, which probably also accounts for this turning right at a red nonsense which is just wrong.

Maybe its a legacy of all that horse riding into the gold rush. Haven’t got time to stop and assess what’s going on, just dive in and work out what needs fixing later, there’s money to be made.

As a British driver retraining myself on US roads, I can only describe the experience as being simultaneously stressful and chilled out compared to driving back home.

In London, driving is like warfare, everyone aggressively focused on the target. Here in Orlando you all seem either rather laid back, or totally out of control as if your horse(power) has surged for the finish line.

It probably shouldn’t amuse me.

Disney Day Eleven

We’d pegged today as being devoted to Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure but were very aware that there was a lot left to explore at Diagon Alley so decided to get back in there first thing to carry on.

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Had a bit of a Wheeze here

We started with brunch at the Leaky Cauldron and found great delight in the British-sized portions of well cooked food, even down to a good batter for the toad in the hole.

Suitably fuelled for the morning, we then went into every shop we could find, before ending up in front of the new Ollivander’s. Wand selling stores are popping up at each site that focus on the named character wands as a quick drop in, but having heard about the wand choosing performance we thought we’d invest the time and see what they were like.

As we were led through to where it would all happen, we found ourselves remarking that we kept expecting to see cast and crew names on the boxes piled high, given our experience at the Studio Tour before Christmas.

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Just another day at the shops

Chattering away, we filed around the dimly-lit room and fell silent as the soft spoken wizard began to welcome us. Much to our surprise, and the notable chagrin of several other parents with their children, my daughter was picked out to participate.

I don’t think I’ve seen such a mix of excited nervousness on her face for quite some time. As in the film, a number of wands are presented, and the prospective owner invited to cast spells.

The first wand made flowers die instead of watering them; the second made drawers rattle violently rather than pull a ladder closely. On picking the third (described as being made of willow and containing unicorn hair) there were sudden light, gusts of air and a fanfare, just as in the first Harry Potter film. The wand had picked its wielder, and both could now learn from each other’s qualities.

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Delicious icecreams. I particularly recommend the Chilli Chocolate

Well, we couldn’t not buy it, given we’d every intention of picking something up anyway, and as Charleesi’s wand was one of the ones capable of making magical effects with the two Wizarding World locations we picked out wands for ourselves too from the same range rather than choosing character wands as souvenirs.

I picked out a “reed” wand, if you’re curious, which is supposed to be flexible and suiting creative writers.

The majority of the rest of the day was spent re-exploring the sites, trying to find the markers and motions required to open locks and books, make toys fly and spin, set shrunken heads singing and animating skeletal diagrams (these last two in Knockturn Alley).

Staff, in-character, were always nearby to help if people got stuck, advising on where to point the wands for best effect. The dark wizards were suitably unnerving when they stepped out of the shadows.

We even sneaked back on to the Dragon rides in Hogsmeade, just because we could and the efficiency at which they move the queues was so good that we were in and out within ten minutes.

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We did explore the Islands a little, and mostly spent time in the Marvel Superheroes area. We went on the Incredible Hulk ride and it has gone on to our top rides list, with elements of Colossus and Nemesis to its fast looping smooth metal track.

We also got chased around by the Green Goblin. I think he liked making the girls jump by sneaking up on them. After the second surprise though, he beat a hasty retreat. This was mainly because Lady M nearly swung a punch at him, and Charleesi poked her new wand straight in his face as he bounded up to her. I was very proud to see them run off this nefarious villain, and relieved security didn’t get called…

Our evening meal was at the Port Orleans resort, at the Boatwright Cafe. This was good Southern cooking to sing and dance about. Lady M had crawfish, Charleesi had catfish, and I had an epic jambalaya that made my tastebuds very happy.

I can also happily recommend the non-extra-sugared creme brulee with raspberries on top as a reasonably sized portion of deliciousness. We’ll definitely go back there next time.

Being British in Florida 1

I love watching people and working out what makes them tick. Nine times out of ten it’s out of curiosity rather than trying to locate the levers to influence them, and it can be a fun fantasy game to come up with a back story for someone and then seeing how wide of the mark I am. If nothing else it’s good practice for creating characters in my stories and games.

It probably comes as no surprise then that I’ve been paying attention to a few odds and ends while we’re out here and making some observations. I’ll bounce a few into the feed as we go:

The first is a small thing, but it amuses me. I’m making a point of being as unfailingly polite as possible and refining my accent where possible. Quite aside from the joy of the smiles this tends to bring, I’m enjoying watching the confusion when I thank them “very much” for their help/service/letting me on the bus.

For some reason this seems to short circuit the brain-mouth link, and I get a variety of suppressed splutters in response. The most common reply usually ends up being ” You’re, uh, um, very welcome?”

You don’t need to match my quantifiers, but thanks for playing 🙂

Disney Day Ten

On our first visit to Universal Studios, we deliberately avoided going into the Harry Potter themed areas. Today we took it by storm. Split across both the main park and it’s daughter, The Islands of Adventure, Hogsmeade has this year been expanded to include Diagon Alley (and it’s shadowy counterpart: Knockturn Alley, which is concealed round the back).

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Welcome to Hogsmeade

We got there as early as we could after an alarm clock malfunction, and piled into Platform 9 and three quarters. The illusion of walking through the wall is cleverly done, and the journey, although brief, was entertaining.

The level of immersion presented is frankly jaw dropping. All staff are dressed appropriately and all seem to be huge fans, making the whole experience something like a huge fandom convention on steroids.

Lady M was in her element, excited and positively squealing in joy when the music we used for her wedding march (The Quidditch World Cup themes) was played in The Three Broomsticks while we had lunch.

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The Three Broomsticks

Staff in the restaurant were amazed, and claimed she was the most excited person they’d met, which triggered blushes, more clapping, chattering and bouncing up and down.

We just had to try the drinks. Charleesi had butterbeer, while I went for the frozen version and Lady M had the pumpkin juice. They were incredibly sweet, and I certainly couldn’t have more than one. To be on the safe side I tanked up on water for the rest of our visit.

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Not pictured: the salad

For food, we attempted the Feast, reasoning that three hungry Maidments could polish off a meal for four. We were wrong. Chicken, ribs, corn on the cob, brocolli, carrots, and potatoes with a mountain of salad were duly brought across to us.

It was delicious, though the chicken was just barely a touch on the dry side. The vegetables were perfectly al dente, and the rosemary on the roasted potato was just right. The ribs just melted off the bone and were just sticky enough, while the salad had a light citrus vinagrette that lifted it perfectly.

There was just too much to eat comfortably, so we conceded defeat before rolling back out to continue exploring.

The rides in Hogsmeade are great. We loved trying both the blue and red dragon rides as there were only five minute waits. Our favourite was the swooping blue dragon course.

The flight of the hippogriff ride was fast, along the lines of a runaway train ride, and the 3D immersion of Escaoe from Hogwarts actually had the girls screaming between the spiders and dementors. I’ll admit to shuddering a bit at the dementor attack too.

We browsed the shops a bit to pick out what we might like to get for family presents and then got back on the train to Diagon Alley. Different animations played on the journey back to the Universal Studios end of the track, keeping us distracted as we pointed them out to each other.

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Sunny Old London Town

Then, a quick sidestep left out of the station into a concealed entrance and we were in the newest section. If we’d thought the immersion in Hogsmeade was pervasive then it had been taken up a notch for the Alley. There is no way to see the rest of the park from this area, and at roughly double the width and about one and a half times the length of the street set at the Watford studios, the main street just swallows the crowds.

When you factor in the side streets and the shops, you suddenly realise there’s a huge area associated with it. We’d heard that the queues for the Gringotts ride were still hovering around the three hour mark as a minimum so we’d decided not to try it this year, but then we saw the wait time listed as 75 minutes, so we just went for it.

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Not the happiest of bunnies

A combination of rollercoaster and 3D projection, I just can’t stress how much fun it was. The Hogwarts ride felt longer, but the Gringotts immersion and effects are both superior, down to the animatronic goblins that glower at you while you queue and are very good likenesses of the original actors. Make the time to try this if you can.

Exhaustion was setting in by now, so we decided to call it a day and return tomorrow to finish it off. Frankly, Universal could close the two outer parks and still have enough with the Harry Potter material to keep it a multiday visit attraction.

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Dinner was at the Grand Floridian and was a great close to the day. Or it would have been if we hadn’t got the boat across the lake back to the Magic Kingdom where we were just in time for the Electrical Parade and the closing Sound and Light, and Fireworks displays. A quick side trip for photos and a meet and greet with Mickey Mouse and Tinkerbell later, (no points for guessing that Lady M was rather excitable at this point) and we finally collapsed back at our hotel

Disney Day Nine

Very slowly and reluctantly, we got up and started the next day, heading to Disney Hollywood Studios. For some reason some of the reviews we’d seen before coming out here had the place pegged as a half day park.

I’m not entirely sure they visited the same place we did. If they did, they must have done a couple of rides and missed the shows.

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Our absolute favourite was the Aerosmith ride, which features a fast launch into a dark indoor rollercoaster with a loop pretty much the first thing you hit. It’s a great adrenaline ride, possibly the best one there.

The rest of the day we bounced between shows and explored. I’d been on the Paris Star Tours ride about ten years ago, so was curious to finally experience the updated ride. As a piece of immersive fun it ticks all the right boxes for me, and it was fun to go from that to The Muppets for a different kind of immersion.

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You can't fault the set dressing

Then, with the temperatures soaring, we got some more character photos, and debated calling it a day. The one criticism I’ll levy against the park is the irregularity of their air conditioning and use of fans. Hopefully this will get attention soon as it really detracted from the day’s enjoyment.

We only stayed on because we had Fastpass tickets to the car stunt show. Sadly, a thunderstorm swept in just as they had finished their first sequence and the show had to be abandoned.
We stayed in the grandstand to watch the spectacular weather from somewhere covered and grounded, at least until the wind changed to drive the rain horizontally into us.

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Well, I may have geeked out a little

That was the point we took staff advice and sheltered with other guests under the bleachers. As the rain eased off, we went into British tourist mode and walked out again, enjoying the reduced temperatures and decided to substitute our FastPass for a go on the new Toy Story ride instead.

This is well worth tracking down in the Pixar section. Its another shooter on rails ride, using 3D graphics to present animated targets as if you were playing in Andy’s toybox. Great fun, and being the competitive souls we were, it was tightly contested.

Dinner was at Bongos in Downtown Disney. I’ve never had Cuban cuisine before, so tried a taster dish that had highlights and more mundane flavours between the chicken, pork and beef and the dipping sauces. Service was so-so, especially when we didn’t order any alcohol (Lady M has an intolerance to rum that knocks her for six, and I’m limiting my alcohol while my doctor settles my new meds routines.

I don’t think we’ll be going back as the mediocre food and sensory overload detracted hugely from my enjoyment. I’ll try tracking down more Cuban restaurants when I’m back in London as I’m sure this wasn’t a representative experience.

Disney Day Eight

And the WordPress App strikes again..! I’ve just had a local draft overwrite itself due to a failed media upload while travelling, much to my irritation. So here goes with another go at talking about our first day at the Magic Kingdom:

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Entrance to the Magic Kingdom

Lady M has, I think it’s fair to say, been just the tiniest bit excited about coming to Disney. Monthly and then daily countdowns have entertained those of us who know and love her, and confused those working with her for the first time.

In large part it’s because, as she’s the first to tell you, she’s been planning to get here for over thirty years. We’ll draw a discrete veil over the precise number, mainly because to all intents and purposes she’s been reverting into a six year old. So it was always going to be emotional.

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Yes, there was a wobbly lip and tears as we entered Main Street and the castle came into view, but then the adrenaline kicked in and we began our first day of assault (there’s another couple of days planned).

Space Mountain, the People Mover and Buzz Lightyear fell quickly. We took advantage of shade and air conditioning where we could as the temperatures continued to rise into the mid thirties centigrade, but even so it was starting to feel a bit of a slog by the time we’d conquered Thunder Mountain and posed with Chip and Dale.

After a break from lunch we rode the steam train round the park and then jumped on the Barnstormer before using a Fastpass for the new Seven Dwarves ride. It’s a great runaway train ride with humour and nostalgia seasoning the mix and I look forward to riding it again.

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House of Blues, Disney Downtown

A quick stop for some music and we were beginning to wilt, so we headed back to Downtown Disney to eat at the House of Blues. The food was good, and the ambience pleasant enough but the feel of the place was rather like a puppy trying to pretend it was a rattlesnake. Perhaps I’ve known a few low dives over the years for comparison…

Then we caught a late showing of Guardians of the Galaxy because Charleesi hadn’t seen it yet, so it was the very early hours of the morning before we crawled into bed…