Weekend Roundup

Not a bad weekend, all told, even with another of the mood dips threatening to derail me since Thursday morning. The mini barbecue experiment on Friday proved I could still cook without either incinerating the food, or risking food poisoning, which largely set the tone for what followed.

The weather here at Maidment Towers on Saturday was gloomy, to say the least, so Lady M studied most of the day while I started the download of the Gears of War Beta and all the Witcher DLC and spent a good couple of hours reimmersing myself in the Witcher’s gothic fantasy world. Then we headed out to see Lady G and her partner for an evening of food, wine, and chatter. Lady M got delightfully tipsy, while I stayed sober as designated driver, and a great evening was had by all – especially by those who enjoyed linguistic and grammatical banter in several languages simultaneously.

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Keep Calm and Use the Konami Code

As I speak no German and limited French, I remained a bit of a lemon on the sidelines for portions of those, so threw hand grenades and skewering comments to bring people back into the room without being overly rude or obnoxious. We eventually crashed home in the early hours and decided to cancel the Sunday game so as not to clash with Father’s Day.

Now, we rarely if ever celebrated this growing up in the vicarage. The important day was Mothering Sunday, while Father’s Day seemed a card company confection. As a result I’m always taken by surprise by it and by how many people do observe it. I got wished a happy father’s day in the coffee shop, and was given a mixture of joke and nice presents by the Charleesi and was hardly tongue-tied at all.

Another quiet afternoon, more Witcher and study, and another play with the barbecue later (minted lamb kebabs, corn on the cob, baked potato, coleslaw, and a salad with honey and mustard dressing for those keeping score), and we’ve settled to rest for the new week. Between that and renewed communications with Lady P, (who is having a horrendous time, and we’re feeling a bit on the sidelines, a bit helpless) its ended the week on quite a higher note than it started.

Let’s see what Monday brings.

Mini barbecue experiment

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One of the downsides of living in a flat is the lack of a garden, and by extension an inability to barbecue things when the weather is hot. We decided enough was enough today, and picked up a small barbecue at the supermarket. How small? About mid-shin height.

It worked though, so this evening after a long and hectic day, Lady M and I ate barbecued steak in a teriyaki, onion chutney and tomato ketchup marinade, with salad, in a bun, with coleslaw and a baked potato each. A couple of bottles of wine helped wash it all down very nicely. We may have to treat the Sunday gamers this weekend, and I didn’t even set anyone on fire…

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…

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.

Birthday Celebrations

It was my birthday earlier this week, bringing me to the tender age of 42 years young. I can honestly say it’s been the nicest and most relaxing birthday I’ve had in a few years, and it’s certainly been the geekiest. These two elements may be related.

Possibly in response to my ongoing battles with my aging XBox 360, Lady M has treated me to one of the new build 360s released at the same time as the Xbox One. Not only does this mean I’m not fighting to get the disc player to work any more but the complementing case designs just look better side by side.

I therefore spent a happy few hours transferring saved games to player profile cloud storage and resynchronising the saves to the new box. Not only was there a quiet satisfaction in working through the logistics of the transfers, but there was also the excuse to indulge in some nostalgia over games I’ve not played in a few years.

All I need to work out now is how to transfer the Games for Gold downloads that I don’t have discs for. I shall see if external harddrives hold  a solution.

On the games front, I’ve been treated to Assassins Creed 4, Batman Arkham Origins, Lego Marvel Superheroes. I’m sure I’ll write about them and other games soon; suffice to say I’m a happy bunny.

On the non-geeky front, we also fulfilled a longtime promise to ourselves and went searching for fine dining. We found it at Gauchos restaurant at Westferry Circus near Canary Wharf. It’s down by the water, about ten minute’s amble from Canary Wharf tube station on the Jubilee line, and well worth hunting down.

It’s an Argentine cuisine restaurant, so of course this means some of the finest/expensive steak to be had. We had a lovely evening, just the two of us in a corner with excellent service, food, drink and the comfort of knowing we’d budgeted carefully for it. A little luxury can and does go a long way.

This afternoon and evening we’re having a quieting gathering of the unusual suspects. I’m not entirely sure who will be there or when, and am planning to just let it all unfold as it will. An exercise, if you will, in letting go to task the inner project manager.

And if no one comes, I have family, games, food and drink to enjoy, as well as the Elder Scrolls Online Beta, which this week has no NDA covering it. I have that in writing 🙂

See you later.

A Grand Weekend

So in between the pain and disruption caused by that small hospitalisation last week, we also had the weekend event that we were planning for my parents. My father is 70 this year, and my mother is 65 – so we had a bit of a think among ourselves about how we’d like to mark this year. The answer was to have a weekend where we could all gather together.

The venue that we picked was the Barton Grange Hotel, which is just outside Preston. The decision was mostly fuelled by my mum having mentioned that they had eaten at the Walled Garden (it’s restaurant) before, and that they had greatly enjoyed it. After a bit of back and forth, we got it all sorted, so I was looking forward to it immensely, despite the discomfort.

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One of the ways you can tell there’s a Maidment family gathering

Our journey had to start later than most while we waited for my daughter to come back from a holiday with her mum on the Isle of Wight, but we were fortunate with the traffic and made good time, punctuated by reports from those who had already arrived that they were enjoying themselves. As it was, we got there a little after ten pm and this was where the arrangement to book us all in to a small converted cottage on their grounds paid off. We were able to stay and chatter away with convivial drinks and snacks without worrying over much about disturbing anyone else. It really helped reproduce the long nights of, well just plain wittering to be honest, that is often a hallmark of when we all get together.

The breakfast in the morning was excellent – and this really allowed everyone to both fuel up and appreciate the quality of the hotel. As with every other aspect of the planning and execution of our stay, the staff were helpful without ever making us feel crowded. T’other half made use of the gym facilities while we all pootled around and then went our separate ways for a while.

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All very convivial

The big discovery of the day for us was the simple games room with a pool table. Lined with dark wood panels and split into smaller discrete areas, we basically had a very lazy day with drinks and endless games. My daughter and her cousin took the opportunity to squirrel themselves away back at her room so that they could do some writing and spend some girly time away from all the boring adults, so no one felt constrained to be in any one area. I think that’s part of what was so enjoyable. Despite it being a busy area, and with a wedding party arriving and starting to set up next door, we never felt under any rush or that anything was too much trouble.

By the time we came to the evening meal, I think it’s safe to say that we were all relaxed and looking forward to a grand experience. Although the bar’s lounge area was busy (full of people waiting for the wedding that was due to start at the same time as our meal), that soon emptied and we were invited to the large table set aside for us. One particularly nice feature was how they dealt with any superstition around the number of us seated that evening. There were thirteen of us booked in, so they also put on the table a small plush teddy bear called Igor – complete with a name badge naming him as our fourteenth guest. He was much admired and several people wanted to take him home.

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Me with Igor, our 14th guest

The menu – wow, not only was the food perfectly executed and delivered with speed and charm, but the portions were good as well. I had some very spicy spring rolls for a starter, followed by an amazing grilled bacon steak, for lack of a better description. Pudding was one of the finest creme brulees I’ve tasted in a long time. A birthday cake provided through the hotel provided us with the opportunity to amaze, bemuse and even slightly embarrass both parents with an excuse to sing happy birthday at high volume at them.

A simple but very high quality cheeseboard allowed us to round off the evening gently and we all gradually drifted back to the cottage for post-prandial drinks and chatter.

It was a fantastic meal and we were all waddling slightly towards the end of it. I can’t praise the staff highly enough for the levels of service they gave us. They worked with me all the way from the first enquiry to allow the evening to go as smoothly as possible so that we didn’t even have any need to linger awkwardly and sort out the bills. This was because we’d already arranged to split the bills per room and prepaid much of it in advance. All that was left to do on checkout therefore was to sort out any drinks that had been charged to rooms – all very civilised…

I had to be somewhat abstemious – mainly because I was still needing to take strong painkillers. Even though I passed the stone quite soon after arrival, my body was definitely feeling aftershocks and pangs that were extremely uncomfortable – so I ended up drinking a lot of water and any other soft drinks I could get my hands on across the weekend. Even so – a great success and we’ll be going back at some point if only to eat next time we’re up there.