New Year’s Eve at Legoland Florida

Hogmany (New Year’s Eve for non-Scots) was our day for Legoland.  The kids had been to Legoland in England twice and completely loved it so their grandparents had gifted them tickets to Legoland for Christmas.  We were all pretty much theme-parked out by that point so were hoping for a day of smaller crowds and shorter queues.

Part of the joy of Legoland is just the fact that anything and everything has been Lego-fied.  Since three of the kids and I are all massive lego fans, it adds to the fun.  There were Lego Christmas decorations ornamenting the park including full-size snowmen, Santa with his sleigh and reindeer and an incredibly tall Christmas tree made out of lego and adorned with lego baubles and candy canes.

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First stop was a double decker carousel containing galloping lego horses.  The horses were designed to be just like the ones the kids have from their lego ‘Lord of the Rings’ sets which was cool.  Then there was more lego animal action as we boarded cars to go on a lego safari past such brick-built beasties as lions, hippos, elephants and meerkats.  The ride was simple but the pleasure came from seeing the thought and effort that had been invested in creating the detailed, full-size models.

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Next up was the Lost Kingdom Adventure, which seems to be inspired by old-timey adventure serials.  Set in an Egyptian pyramid, wagons carried us through darkened rooms filled with treasures and money and baddy treasure seekers as we used laser guns to shoot at various targets.  Sticking with the Egyptian theme, the adjacent ride was called Beetle Bounce – inspired by scarab beetles – which involved being strapped into a bench that was lifted higher and higher and then being gradually bounced back down again.  Mr Pict and all of the boys wanted to go on it but no sooner was he seated and buckled in than our 7 year old started to whimper and wail.  It was another case of him wanting to push himself into doing something he was actually not comfortable with.  Despite it being a fairly straightforward and gentle ride – which everyone else enjoyed – he screamed and cried his way through it.  My hope is that after all of these theme park ride experiences, he will realise that he just does not actually enjoy rides involving height or speed – just like his mother.

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We then headed to the Medieval area where there were more lego horses, this time for jousting.  The 7 year old, who is daft about horses, and our youngest both queued up so they could have a turn riding on the horses.  They looped around a track past various targets and were all smiles all the way around.  Once again it was simple but effective.

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The dinosaur area was where those who wanted to do something more adventurous could experience some thrills.  There was a wooden roller coaster, which perhaps made it look a bit rickety and ropey, named the Coastersaurus.  Mr Pict, his father and our oldest son went on it while the rest of us nibbled at our packed lunches.  As rollercoasters go, it was a manageable one for all concerned.  It had one steep ascent followed by a sudden descent and some speedy undulations.

The Lego Theatre was showing a 4D show called ‘Spellbreaker’.  It looked vintage with very basic animation and soundtracking but the characters were appealing, the story was sweet and the 3D moments were really good.  That’s the thing about Legoland: its simplicity, just making everything fun and toy-like, is where its charm lies.  It doesn’t need to be loud, brash and frenetic to be appealing.After the film show, it was time for a live action show.  Legoland had taken over the site of an older park named Cypress Gardens.  Mr Pict and his parents remembered visiting the botanical gardens and viewing water skiing performances from an auditorium.  It turned out that Legoland had taken that model and just adapted it to their theme.  We were ushered into and seated at the same auditorium, overlooking a stretch of water.  The theme was pirates so we watched as a group of good guys, led by a stunt water skiing woman and supported by a group of lego soldiers, went into combat with a group of pirates who also performed stunts on their water skis and speedboats.  The villain of the piece was a peg-legged pirate named Brickbeard who was dressed up as a minifigure.  The quality of the show was impressive and the rate of stunts had us applauding almost constantly.  The kids loved all the jumps and leaps and the minifigure characters.  Afterwards, the little ones were stoked to be able to meet one of the lego soldiers.

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My kids are not remotely interested in “real world” lego.  They like the stuff that sparks more fantasy type imaginative play, such as super heroes, ninjas and ‘Lord of the Rings’.  Lego City, therefore, is not their bag.  Regardless, however, we headed into the Lego City section.  The queues were ridiculous by that stage in the day except for an emergency vehicle experience.  Mr Pict were one team out of three.  They were loaded into a police van and they had to pump a lever – like an old time railroad handcar – to make it move.  Once they got to one end of the area, they had to jump out, pump water from a fire hydrant and aim the hose that was blasting with water at a target in a window area.  Once that target had collapsed from the force of the water they had to jump back in the van and pump it back to the start line.  They were all exhausted at the end of it and it was fun for them to have to work as a team.

My favourite thing about Legoland is not a ride at all or even an event.  It is just an area.  What I love is the whole area dedicated to just lego models of different parts of the world, different cities and landmarks.  I love the creativity, the imagination and the skill involved. It’s inspirational.  The Legoland back in Britain showcased models of different European countries.  Instead the one in Florida had models of representing bits of Florida and a few other US cities – Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC – all of which I have visited.The casinos of Las Vegas are weird and wacky enough without being in lego version.  The boys loved the volcano, the Venice casino and the little wedding ceremony.  Mr Pict and I have a half-baked plan to renew our wedding vows in a tacky Vegas ceremony, maybe even officiated by an Elvis, followed by a road trip second honeymoon (with the kids) along Route 66.  Maybe we should have a lego themed renewal.  The boys loved seeing all of the bits of lego New York because it was an American city they had been to and because New York is the setting for some of their lego video games.  Favourite bits were Times Square, the skyscrapers and Rockefeller Plaza and Grand Central Terminal.  We loved all the little people bustling about in the train station, especially the people going up the escalator.  I had just finished reading the kids a book set during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 so they enjoyed seeing that city, including the sea lions at the bay.  Ohttps://flic.kr/p/qBHh1Tf course, mini Washington DC was where all the mini monuments were.  As we were just in actual Washington DC in April, the boys had fun recognising the sites they had visited, the Lincoln Memorial and White House in particular.

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As Star Wars nerds, we were delighted to find that there was a whole model section devoted to scenes from Star Wars movies.  In Britain, the Star Wars sections had all been indoors but in Florida they were out in the open.  That made it easier for the detail to be observed, since they were not in darkened rooms, and the models could also be set in beside the foliage where appropriate, as with the Endor models and the Kashyyyk battle.  Being a fan of the classic Star Wars movies myself, I liked the scene of the rebel base on Hoth and the wampa cave and the scenes set on Tatooine, especially all the detail in the cantina scene.  The boys loved seeing the Millennium Falcon taking off from Mos Eisley and the full size lego models of Darth Maul, Darth Vader and R2D2.

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Sadly that was as many rides as we could go on.  The queues for the rides we had not been on were ridiculously long and – after so many days of theme parks – we were all up to our eyeballs with queuing and had little tolerance left for it.  It was not helped by the fact that the park was incomplete and construction work meant that some paths were dead ends and there were bottlenecks.  Therefore, the last thing we did during our daytime excursion of Legoland was also a throwback to the park’s Cypress Gardens era.  The Island in the Sky ride was essentially a rotating UFO on a metal stick.  We were seated in the UFO and it then slowly ascended 150 feet in the air and rotated 360 degrees affording us great views over the park.  I am not great with heights but somehow I managed it.

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After leaving to get dinner off site, we returned to Legoland.  It was completely dark by this point and the park had been lit up with festive lights everywhere.  We walked to the mini America area to get as clear a view of the fireworks as possible.  We were each handed a pair of glasses, just like the old fashioned 3D ones, to put on.  As soon as I did so, I noticed that the bulb of the street lights had turned into lego bricks.  Woah!  And then my 9 year old noticed that the focus light on my camera had also turned into a tiny lego brick.  Woah!  Every point of light in the park was a lego brick.  Incredible!  There was something built into the lenses that was turning all of the light into lego.  Then the fireworks started.  Ah-May-Zing!  It was inherently a pretty awesome fireworks display in any case but with every spark and burst turned into a shower of vivid, colourful, bright lego brick it was extra special.  My kids exclaimed, bubbled and brimmed with excitement throughout the display.  Afterwards they kept the glasses on so that they could see all of the fairy lights and decorations turned into lego bricks too.  Then on the car journey back to the villa, they oohed and aahed as each car headlight and taillight, each glowing window, each neon sign was also transformed into a lego brick.  Way beyond cool and a fabulous way to end our family fun in Florida.

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Florida Wildlife Quest

Mr Pict and I do not often get any entirely child-free couple time.  In fact, it is as rare as hen’s teeth that we get some alone time.  Having grandparents on the premises to provide babysitting was, therefore, an opportunity so when they offered to look after the kids so we could spend a day together we were very grateful.  It is not that we do not love being with our kids, of course, just that it is equally important to remember that we were a couple before we were parents.

The kids had shown more interest in spending a day in the swimming pool than go exploring nature so we decided to spend the day searching for wildlife.  We drove out to Merritt Island wildlife reserve, which is near Cape Canaveral, as we felt that gave us the best opportunity to see manatees in December.

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Our first wildlife encounter was with a vulture.  I actually see vultures fairly frequently in Pennsylvania as they like to munch on roadkill.  The first time I saw one was quite arresting.  Used to seeing carrion crows muzzling into splattered beasts, it was strange to drive past something so large doing just the same thing.  A few months ago, I even had to drive around one vulture who was in the middle of the road, refusing to budge from the squirrel remains that were forming his breakfast.  The vulture I spotted on our wildlife excursion was similarly undeterred by my presence.  I was able to get quite close to him before he flew off into a nearby tree.  My eyes following him upwards, I noticed that there were a lot of vultures circling low in the sky.  I hoped it was not us that they had their eyes on.

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Taking a stroll out along the shoreline, we spotted something large and dark emerge briefly from the water at some distance from us.  Could it possibly be?  We stopped and stared and watched as the same shapes emerged, submerged and re-emerged several times.  Rounded head.  Large, flattened tail.  Flippers.  Yes!  It was!  It was my first wild manatee.  I watched, delighted, as it continued to frolic in the water.  It was frustrating not being able to get close enough to see any of the detail of this wonderful, bizarre creature but it was still completely magical to encounter, even at a distance, this rare creature.

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We then headed to Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven mile long, one way drive through marsh land.  We duly paid the $5 into the honesty box, picked up a guide leaflet and set off on the winding road in a slow moving wagon train of at least a dozen other cars.  The cars would the piggy back as each group of people decided to pull over to get a closer look at something.  A good indication of whether there was something especially interesting to see was either if there were a whole herd of cars parked up together or if someone suddenly swerved to the side to pull over.

The whole place was a haven for birds.  There were loads of them to see wherever I looked.  There were several varieties of heron, piercing their beaks into the water’s placid surface to spear an unsuspecting fish; there were crisply white egrets, their feathers fluttering like dancing snowflakes in the breeze; there were hefty wood storks, stalking through the water on their long legs, their heads bald and scaly, their bills curving like a cutlass; pink-hued roseate spoonbills waded in lines, one after the other, their bills comically bizarre; there were coots all over the place, darting between the other birds, hither and thither, and then gathering together as one massive swarm.

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Excitingly, we also saw a couple of alligators.  Both were submerged in the water, either moping around, listless, feeling the ennui of being an apex predator, or else lurking around awaiting an ambush opportunity.  It made them difficult to photograph but it was fantastic to be able to see them so close and witness their behaviour, especially as one slowly slipped beneath the surface, disappearing into the murk, leaving not a ripple behind him to betray his presence.

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We had undertaken some research to find out where we were most likely to see a wild manatee in December.  We, therefore, headed to the Haulover Canal on the Indian River.  According to a sign, this is actually the site of a centuries’ old crossing on a narrow point of the river.  Native Americans and Spanish settlers would haul their canoes and boats over the strip of land and across the water, hence the name “haulover”.  It was dug out, by slave labour, and turned into a canal in the 1850s.The fact that the site has a designated manatee observation deck was a very promising start and, sure enough, no sooner had I set foot on the deck and looked down at the shallow water below than I spotted a large manatee.  Practically bounding and leaping, I followed the manatee along the shoreline until I was almost in reaching distance.  I was so close I could see the thick, wrinkly looking texture of its skin, the barnacles encrusting it, and the spade like tail casting flukes on the river’s surface each time it briefly submerged.  I was over the moon.  Completely exhilarated.  The manatee stuck close to the shoreline where I had stationed myself for a good few minutes before swimming out beyond the tree line and beyond anyone’s line of sight.  Perfect timing.  Had I arrived at the deck a few minutes later, I would have missed out on this incredible encounter.  Mission well and truly accomplished.

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It was mid-afternoon at this point and neither Mr Pict nor I had eaten so we headed into Titusville to see what our dining options were.  In the end we plumped for Sonny’s Pit BBQ, a regional chain.  We started with bowls of fried okra and corn nuggets.  I absolutely adore fried okra and this was the best I had ever had.  It was fresh and crisp and completely delicious.  I had never had corn nuggets before.  They were essentially balls of creamed corn, breaded and fried so that they had crisp exteriors and melting, molten interiors.  Mr Pict was in carnivore heaven so he ordered a sampler plate so he could have a taste of everything.  All the major food groups were represented: cow, pig and chicken.  He pronounced everything to be entirely delectable.  I had the lunch sized portion of pulled chicken with cornbread, coleslaw and fries.  It too was very tasty and succulent.  I doused mine in sweet hot barbecue sauce which made it sing.  Our one criticism of the food was that it could have been served hotter as we both found our food to be lukewarm.

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That ended our child free day of wildlife spotting.  We headed back to the villa to find that fire ants had invaded our en suite bathroom.  I was bitten on the legs by the little blighters.  That was absolutely a wildlife encounter I could have done without.

Universal Islands of Adventure

Universal Studios had seemed busy.  It was positively a ghost town compared to our visit to Universal Islands of Adventure.  Despite arriving just prior to park opening time, the queue to even get through security checks was bulging and bad-tempered.  There were just swarms of people everywhere, like termites spilling out of a nest.

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We hightailed it to the Harry Potter area which contains a replica of Hogsmeade village and Hogwarts Castle.  As we walked towards the line, the sign proclaiming a 45 minute wait morphed into 90 minutes and as we turned the corner it ticked over to 120 minutes.  We contemplated not doing the ride at all, given the extraordinary length of the queues, but as Potterphiles it seemed ridiculous to come to Universal Islands of Adventure and not visit Hogwarts.  The nature of the ride itself, however, put off several members of the group so while the grandparents headed to Dr Seuss land with the other boys, Mr Pict, our oldest son and I resigned ourselves to a lot of queueing.  The high quality of the Gringott’s Bank ride led us to expect that the queue would at least be worth waiting in.  It was, without a doubt, the longest line I have ever seen.  It contained lots of switchbacks and detours out of the Wizarding World and into adjacent areas of the park yet still we had to be snaked around the back of Hogwarts, which turned out to be a blank façade, somewhat ruining the magic.  A lot of staff were being deployed just to manage and control the lines and they had all been to the same boot camp where they were taught to bark passive-aggressive orders in cheerful, musical tones.  For the most part, however, at least the queue was interesting.  We listened to music from the movies, shuffled through the herbology greenhouse and moved through the castle – past statues of wizards, past corridors of moving paintings, through Dumbeldore’s office.  Finally we were at the front of the line.  We were loaded into seats that were suspended from the ceiling so that we could feel as if we were flying.  We were flung around and jolted here and there.  My legs were flapping around like a rag doll.  A mixture of technical effects were used but they created attacking dragons and dementors to escape.  The challenging part for me was the quidditch match.  The movement of the chairs combined with the fast pace of the visual imagery and the fact it was a simulator made me feel really very nauseous.  I had to squint my eyes to be out of focus just to be able to cope.  It was an absolutely brilliant ride (though not as good as Gringott’s Bank) but it was definitely at the boundaries of what I could cope with and tolerate.

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We promised ourselves that we would return to the Hogsmeade area at some point as a group of eight.  Some of the boys wanted to do the Hippogriff rollercoaster and we all wanted to see the detail of the buildings.  It was not to be, however.  After we left the area, the visitor numbers were such that they had to create a queue (which was an hour long when I asked) just to obtain a ticket containing an entry time for getting into Hogsmeade.  Once inside, the ticketed visitor still had to queue up for any of the rides.

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We chose not to fritter away such extraordinary lengths of time on one area of the theme park though we were disappointed at having to make that choice.The whole park was actually just far too busy.  We learned that it was at 90% capacity and we felt the pressure of every one of those 45,000 people every time we tried to move.  The pathways through the park were badly designed as we encountered several bottlenecks.  There were also points where we got caught up in a current of moving people and it was difficult to find a way out of that surge and towards where we wanted to be.  It was 82* Fahrenheit too which added to the sense of harassment.  I dislike physical contact; I loathe physical contact with complete strangers; physical contact with a heaving mass of sweaty strangers made me wig out.  It was all just too much, far too much.  I would have come away from Universal Islands of Adventure with a far more positive feeling had there been fewer people.  As it was, my experience of the place was tainted by the feeling of just being constantly harassed.

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For the 90 minutes that we were trapped in a Hogwarts queue, the other kids and their grandparents had been exploring Dr Seuss Landing with them, they were eager to show us the sights.  Arlo’s favourite ride had been the Sneetches sky train so we did that first.  It was cute.  We travelled on an overhead monorail past characters from various familiar Dr Seuss stories while a voice in our mini train carriages narrated a rhyming story that was an amalgamation of various stories.  Then Mr Pict and the kids went on the One Fish Two Fish air carousel, another one of those rides whereby the pods – this time shaped like fish – rotate while also being able to move up and down.  Every so often, they would be squirted by water as they moved past some fish.

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Since they were already wet, Mr Pict and the boys decided to go on a water ride.  We, therefore, headed over to the comic book area (which did not seem to fit into the rest of the park) to the Popeye barrel ride.  Popeye is one of those characters who seems to have disappeared since my own childhood, when he was already a vintage has-been, so the fact his heavy jawed mug and bulging biceps were using to sell a ride in a state-of-the-art theme park struck me as odd.  At the last moment, our 9 year old decided not to go on the ride.  Wise decision.  We watched as Mr Pict and the boys were loaded into a barrel boat – a process that took ages because the staff were letting boats set off mostly empty, lengthening an already long queue.  From our vantage point on a bridge path, we could also see their boat being released and tipping over the edge of a weir.  That, however, was as much as we could see of their aquatic journey because unfortunately there was no more pedestrian access to the route they took.  We sat at the ride’s exit, waiting for them to emerge.  When they did appear, they looked like a group of swamp creatures.  All four of them were entirely sodden, their hair dripping, their clothes sticking to their bodies, their shoes creating puddles with every step taken.  Luckily for them, the same dry heat that was making the crowds even more unbearable also dried them out quickly.

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Next up was a live action show based on the stories of Sinbad.  The shade of the auditorium provided welcome respite from the sun and some order and calm away from the chaos of the theme park’s walk ways.  There was a large and elaborate set which operated at different heights and levels, there was fire and fireworks, an evil sorceress and her monstrous cronies, a princess who needed rescued only so she could then kick butt on her own behalf, well-practiced choreography, swinging on ropes, jumping and a comical sidekick.  The sound mix was a bit ropey at points, making it very hard to follow the dialogue, but it was all about the action so that did not matter so much.  It was slick and fun.  The kids absolutely loved it.

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During our long stint at Hogwarts, the others had gone on the Poseidon’s Fury ride.  Our 9 year old was desperate to return to the ride and show it to Mr Pict, his oldest brother and me.  Of course, the park had been much emptier first thing in the morning (and all of the crowds were, of course, packed into Hogsmeade with us) so they had had no queues, had been able to walk straight into the attraction without any waiting, hassle or faffing.  This time the queue was 50 minutes long.  Incredibly that was one of the shortest line times in the park at that juncture.  My in-laws went off to find a shady spot to rest in and the rest of us decided to suck up the wait, joined the end of the line and proceeded to get baked in the blazing heat of the afternoon sun.  It was a long and not very entertaining 50 minutes.  The first thrill of the ride was just the elation of entering the cool, dark interior of the building.

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The premise of the ride was that we were in Poseidon’s Temple, being given a tour by the assistant of a famed archaeologist.  However, the excavation had awakened some sort of demon who could only be defeated by Poseidon’s trident which we, therefore, had to locate.  We moved from room to room in order to be dazzled by different special effects.  Images of Poseidon and the demon were projected onto falling water, there were quality pyrotechnics, explosions and fire, but best of all was when we had to walk through a tunnel that was a vortex of water.  Water swirling around us so quickly that it formed a tunnel we could pass through without getting anything more than the occasional bit of light spray.  What did not work so well was the viewing.  The stands were not raked enough so that those of us standing towards the back of the room could not see past the people in front of us well enough and were missing out on some of the show.  Even lifting the smaller of our kids, it was very difficult for them to see what was going on.  That was frustrating.  However, that water tunnel was incredible and really made the ride, made it all worthwhile.

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In keeping with the season, there was a live performance of The Grinch running a few times each day.  Intent on some festive fun, we got in line for Merry Grinchmas.  Thankfully the line was not too long and we were all shuffled into and seated down in the theatre.  The show was based on the movie version of Dr Seuss’ classic tale rather than the original text.  Some of the singing voices were better than others but the performance was engaging and enjoyable, the prosthetics and costumes were spot on and the whole thing possessed festive charm, including fake snow that fell on the audience at the end of the show.

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At that point there was not a single ride in the park that had a wait time lower than an hour and the most popular were over two hours long.  Even in Seuss Landing, where surely the only interested people were small kids, the queues were extensive.  My kids were smart enough to decide not to queue for an hour for a ride that only lasted a couple of minutes.  Good choice.  We decided, therefore, to cut our losses with Universal Islands of Adventure, escape the maddening crowds and head back to the villa.

Gators and the Gulf

Having been to three theme parks, we decided it was high time that we took the boys out to see something of the real Florida.  We, therefore, packed up our cars and drove south to Sarasota in order to visit Myakka River State Park, a wildlife preserve of marshes and lakes.

Our quest for the day was to see wild alligators.  The boys have never seen an alligator in the wild before and I had only seen one once (at the Kennedy Space Centre in 1998) so we were eager to have some kind of ‘gator encounter.  We were not disappointed.  We parked the car up beneath trees festooned in Spanish moss and walked across to a bridge over a stream and there we saw a whole congregation of alligators (that is the collective noun – I looked it up) lazing on the river bank.  These were not dinky or juvenile alligators either; these were full-sized, muscular, powerful beasts.  They paid no attention to the groups of people standing gawping at them.  They didn’t even move a muscle when a pair of folks in a kayak moved past them.  I was wanting to keep pressing on through the park in the hopes of having a closer encounter with an alligator but it was not to be because my children decided to bicker between each other and rebel.

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Gators

(The close up photo of the gators was taken by my 7 year old and is shared with his permission)

Before we left the park, however, we took a stroll out along a wooden boardwalk that projected into the marshes and there we saw all sorts of bird life: wood storks, varieties of heron, egrets, ibis, and roseate spoonbills.  There were lots of bird watchers so apparently the park was a great location for seeing birds.  It would have been great to keep exploring the park because there was clearly a diverse ecosystem and lots of interesting wildlife to observe.  There was no point, however, in dragging non-compliant children any further since their whines and yelps would only scare things away.

Mission partly accomplished but mostly abandoned, we decided to take the boys to experience the Gulf Coast.  It was actually quite hard to find a stretch of beach that had public access but we finally found one at Long Boat Key.  As much as I loathe sand, I have to concede that the beach had nice sand.  There was no section of rocky stones and shells at the shoreline to step on and over either, just fine, smooth sand from grass line to sea.  The boys had a whale of a time running and splashing in the water, wading and swimming.  Inspired by a nearby man who was sculpting the sand, they decided to build a sand castle with moats and defences.

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Energy burned off, it was time to consume some energy.  My husband and his parents wanted to seek out a restaurant named Duff’s because it was the first buffet they had ever eaten in in America.  We headed to one in a town named Bradenton.  I know absolutely nothing about the town but it appears to be on its uppers.  The restaurant turned out to be adjacent to a food bank and opposite the worst trailer park I have ever seen.  The whole area just screamed depression.  The restaurant, however, was rather good.  The food was all traditional southern cooking, which I am rather partial too.  I must have eaten the equivalent of a plate full of just fried green tomatoes.  There were also several sides containing okra as a chief ingredient.  Lots of seasoned fish and lots of chicken dishes.  It was all delicious.  It transpired, however, that the nostalgia of Mr Pict and his parents was thwarted.  This Duff’s, it turned out, had nothing to do with the Duff’s of the 1970s and ‘80s.  That Duff’s chain had gone out of business decades before.  Never mind.  I still loved those green tomatoes.

Boxing Day at Epcot

Mr Pict has this nostalgic thing for Epcot.  Our second day at Disney could have been spent at any of the parks but, between his halcyon hued memories of trips past and his rose-tinted persuasion of the kids, it was clear we were going to be spending our second and last Disney day at Epcot.  It is actually the only Disney Florida park I had been to before this trip as we had visited sixteen years before, almost to the day.  I did not have such fond memories of it.  Actually I have very few memories of it at all.  What I did remember was that it seemed dull and dated.  We set off on our visit wondering which one of us would be proved correct.

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Because Mr Pict is into astronomy and space exploration, he determined that our first port of call would be Mission Space.  The line was divided into intense and less intense versions of the ride.  We all opted for the less intense option.  They needed to have a line for weenies because the easy version was still too much for me.  First of all there was the claustrophobia.  The simulators contained four of us and once the doors were closed the screens and controls moved towards and over us so that I felt completely trapped.  The ride is themed around astronaut training so we were given a spiel about each of us undertaking a different role in the mission and having to hit certain buttons at the right time.  Then we had lift off.  There was pressure and vibration, jolting movement, waves of nausea, closed eyes.  There was something about an asteroid field and landing on Mars but quite honestly I was paying very little attention to anything other than stopping myself from vomiting.  I was very glad when it ended.  Mr Pict and our oldest son enjoyed it so much, however, that they decided to go off and do the intense version of the ride.  I later read that two people had died doing the intense ride.  The centrifugal force was apparently incredibly powerful.  They both emerged from the ride looking terribly pale, overcome with surges of nausea that lasted for hours and feeling very wobbly.

Clearly we all needed to do something much more sedate.  Universe of Energy it was.  This was a bizarre ride, essentially an extended educational film starring Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye the Science Guy delivering information about fossil fuels – all sponsored by an oil company, of course – coupled with animatronic dinosaurs.  Don’t bother trying to analyse that.  It really makes no sense.  The dinosaurs, which I think are prehistoric enough to have been created in the 1980s, have held up pretty well for show in dark rooms.  The whole primeval swamp element was engaging in a way that the film skits were not.  The best thing about the ride, however, was that we got to sit down for its entire duration with the rows of seats moving between theatres.  After the boking movement of Mission Space, being seated for a length of time was very welcome indeed.

Journey into your Imagination was an exploration of the connection between the senses, imagination and invention.  It was narrated by a live action Eric Idle portraying some sort of inventor and a squeaky-voiced animated dragon named Figment.  The wagons we were sitting in moved between rooms that each explored a different sense with Figment gradually unleashing increasing levels of chaos all culminating in him singing a song about “one little spark”.  The message is clear: the best thing is to set your imagination free.  We were then disgorged into a room where the kids could play with different interactive experiments, things like light and sound.  Because they are screen junkies, the boys were all quite taken with consoles where they could construct an animated dragon of their own and name it.  The hypocritical thing, however, was that they were given a very narrow set of parameters to choose from.  Their imaginations might be capable of coming up with any number of colour combinations for their dragons but they had to choose from just the same six colours every time.  Their creativity was being limited.  So much for setting your imagination free.

Having never been a Michael Jackson fan, the existence of the 3D movie ‘Captain Eo’ had entirely passed me by.  Partly because our 7 year old is a Michael Jackson fan, partly because the timing made sense and partly out of curiosity, we entered the theatre to find out what it was all about.  We were given our 3D spectacles and settled into our theatre seats before being told that we were about to view a vintage classic.  I got the same feeling from that phrasing as I do from reading real estate listings.  Oh dear.  We were then told we were going to be taken back to 1986.  An even bigger Oh dear.  On the upside, Jackson was no slouch when it came to performance and production values, Angelica Huston was the antagonist and it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  There was potential for it not to be dire.  But it was.  No words are adequately going to describe the movie or convey how bizarre it was.  It was a completely bonkers confection of choreography, camp and kitsch.  It was essentially an extended music video starring Michael Jackson and some ropey special effects.  Along with his alien and robot crew mates, Jackson undertakes a mission to deliver a gift to Angelica Huston’s alien queen.  Said gift turns out to be a compliment and a song and dance routine in which some members of the crew turn into musical instruments and the alien queen’s underlings turn into leotard clad dancers.  It certainly was an experience, there was no denying that.

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After a break to eat our packed lunches and watch mesmerising fountains of jumping water, we went to see Circle of Life: An Animated Fable, a short film presented by the winning duo of Timon and Pumbaa.  The best thing I can say about this experience was that we got to sit in comfortable seats.  The cockle-warming message of ‘The Lion King’ – that all living things and their habitats are interconnected and impact on each other – had been churned into a horribly unsubtle, incredibly didactic lecture about humans destroying the planet.  The message is one that I support but the medium of that message felt like being drilled by a dry but barking lecturer.  It was snoresome and the recycling of vintage footage which was interspersed with the animation made it reminiscent of those terrible 1970s educational films I was forced to watch at school to fill gaps in the lesson planning.

The dull, didactic drivel continued at Living with the Land.  This is billed as a ride but all that really means is that you queue for a good while (mercifully we used Fast Pass to avoid that) to then get contained in a small plastic boat that does nothing but get dragged along in a pool that looks like the CDC should take an interest in it.  It is not a ride at all; it is a slowly moving lesson on farming.  Supposedly it is about the history of cultivating the land from past to future but there was a lack of cohesive structure underpinning that.  There were a couple of vague dioramas showing farming, principally a Dustbowl era farm fallen from the pages of a Steinbeck novel, and then we were jolted without any discernible segue into contemporary, scientific models of agriculture such as hydroponics and aquaculture.  Essentially, therefore, it is a slow moving tour of a greenhouse laboratory.  The only excitement came from trying to identify the plants without reading the labels.  Seriously.  It was that dull.  I am all for promoting ecology and more efficient use of land and other natural resources but I would suggest that if one wants to get people to engage with and buy into such production processes it might be a good idea to keep them awake.

That was the essence of Epcot’s problem: the whole place was tired and wearisome.  It was entirely lacking in the magic and charm one expects of Disney.  However cloying, commercial and insipid the atmosphere of Disney can be, it’s loud and bright migraine-inducing world is far preferable from feeling trapped in a stuffy, dust-caked library of irrelevant textbooks.  The plus side of a day at Epcot was that fewer visitors meant shorter queues but for me at least that did not balance out the negatives.  The whole place badly needs an update.  A theme park founded on the idea of technology, the future, pioneering science and education needs to work hard at and invest in maintaining relevance.  That means keeping things fresh and continually modifying and updating.  While many of the rides may have been tinkered with a bit since their inception – audio guides rather than human drones, for instance – there was too much in the park that felt old and crusty.  It is hard to sell classic in a park that is about the future.

Another problem was that some of the new installations just smacked of desperation.  The middle of the park contained an Innoventions building.  The people it contained seemed to be mainly there for the purpose of obtaining Fast Pass tickets.  There were screens set up with video consoles where kids (and some adults) could play Disney themed video games.  That sucked in three of my kids.  There were also some interactive experiences directed at pre-schoolers.  Our 5 year old went off to do one about economics that involved carrying around a piggy bank and making decisions about spending, saving and investing.  He had fun and the idea of the game was a sound one but the play experience was at odds with the level of understanding required.  It was as if the game was directed at preschool age kids but the lesson to be gleaned could only be absorbed by an older child.  The whole section was incoherent and felt like mere filler.  As soon as I could drag the kids away from the Toy Story game, we left in pursuit of something more diverting.

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The Finding Nemo ride was sweet and probably a better fit for the Magic Kingdom than for Epcot.  Sitting in moving clam shells, we were taken through representations of different scenes of the movies.  My favourites were travelling through jellyfish, being surrounded by animated turtles and animated characters being projected into tanks filled with actual fish.  When we disembarked from our shells, we exited past a large tank that contained a dolphin.  We all watched the dolphin swimming around, completely mesmerised.  Then we walked past a shallow tank that contained a manatee.  I have a bit of a thing for manatees.  I think it is because they are so weird looking, so ugly they are cute, so peculiar.  I also enjoy the fact that there is a theory that sailors once mistook these tubby, grey, cows of the sea as mermaids.  The kids had never seen a manatee before so we spent quite a bit of time watching it moving around and chowing down on a few head of lettuce.

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One of the few things I did remember from my previous visit to Epcot was the World Showcase.  This is a series of areas dedicated to depicting individual countries.  Inspired, I believe, by the World’s Fair, it was probably initially sold as some sort of educational tool, teaching people about other countries and cultures, but really it seems to be a bit of a kooky promotional tool, publicity by tourist boards of the countries concerned.  It is completely bonkers, the stereotyping and broad brush representations of countries are twee, odd and amusing, but there is that meticulous attention to detail that is somehow winning despite all of that.

The first fake country we entered was Canada.  There was a version of Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac declaring it to be Canada.  It was certainly striking.  We actually went in to see Canada’s show, a 360 film.  It was presented by Martin Short, not exactly an A list ambassador for his nation, and was a series of shots of Canadian landscapes, cityscapes, animals and Mounties.  It was effective and well done but was a transparent advert for visiting Canada.  It worked though.  I definitely came out of that movie thinking that we definitely needing to think about returning to Canada some time in the near future.

Next up was Britain.  Except it wasn’t Britain, it was just England.  If there was any nod to Scotland, Ireland or Wales then I must have blinked and missed it.  There was a folk trio performing on the fake street who sounded vaguely Scottish but that was it.  It was all very cutesy and crazy.  A Tudor castle stood cheek by jowl next to Georgian mansions and Victorian cottages.  There were red postboxes and red phoneboxes, the latter pretty much extinct in Britain, and that very British institution of the village pub.  We went into one of the shops which happened to be selling food.  The boys’ bellies were instantly homesick for the sweeties and chocolate on the shelves, all those tastes of home they have missed for 14 months.  The price tags, however, precluded any purchases being made.  I thought the $13 for a jar of mango chutney was ludicrous enough but then Mr Pict spotted a jar of clotted cream for a mere $16.  Clotted cream is the ambrosia of the gods.  Although I am lactose intolerant, I am more than prepared to suffer for the sake of consuming clotted cream.  What I was not prepared to do, however, was find the black market area of Fake Britain in order to hawk my left kidney to pay for a jar of clotted cream.

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France was, of course, all about the Eiffel Tower, café culture and crepes; Morocco was all intricately decorated tiles and Moorish arches; Italy was ponts, piazzas and pizzas – though wandering through it enabled the boys to enjoy an ice cream; Germany was all timberframe houses, beer and pretzels; China was architecture, including gates, and traditional music; Japan was centred around an imposing pagoda; Norway was all about the Vikings and ‘Frozen’; And Mexico was Aztec pyramids and mariachi music.  The one thing that united all of these disparate country sections was extortionate food.  Each section had at least one dedicated eatery and looking at the price tags on the menus made me even more grateful we had brought packed lunches.

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Our last event of the day was to Spaceship Earth, housed inside Epcot’s iconic geodesic sphere.  Mr Pict was really looking forward to that ride since he had such fond memories of it.  Back when I had visited Epcot in 1998 it had certainly seen better days.  If memory serves – and really it made little impression on me – it was a moth-bitten collection of creepy mannequins and brown and orange polyester.  It was an archaic vision of the future imagined by someone who could not get their brain to think beyond the twentieth century.  It was so ropey it could have been based on some production notes from ‘Lost in Space’.  I am glad to report that it had been given a makeover and had been much improved since my last visit.

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Two by two, we were seated in moving chairs which ascended through the sphere in spirals.  This route took us past little vignettes telling the story of the history of human communication – Greek scholars, the Guttenberg press, early humans painting on cave walls, Egyptian scribes, a monk sleeping at his desk instead of working on a manuscript, a telephone exchange – and now comes right up to date with mention of contemporary communication technology such as the internet.  We then passed into a room filled with stars which was very attractive before beginning our descent out of the sphere.

At the very beginning of the ride, we had all had our photos taken by an overhead camera.  Reckoning it was just another one of those opportunities to try and flog a commemorative photo, I made a silly face at the camera, protruding tongue and jazz hand ears and all.  It turned out that the purpose of those photos was quite different.  Our portraits were built into an animation, played on the screen in front of us, about how future communication and information technology might develop.  So my oldest son and I watched a short film where my ridiculous facial expression was tacked on top of a simple cartoon body.  The pair of us laughed so hard throughout the animation that whatever information was being conveyed was utterly lost on us.

So, at the end of the day, neither Mr Pict nor I were correct in our assessment of Epcot.  He admitted that his nostalgia had papered over the cracks of the park.  It is not that it was shabby – it was all very clean and well-maintained – but it was very dated and dry.  The park’s focus on science and technology makes it imperative that it evolves in response to advances in those fields.  While this was happening, the makeovers were not being done at the pace required.  The whole place just seemed out of step and out of touch.  Furthermore, the more didactic rides just need to be scrapped.  Nobody visits a theme park to be lectured at.  It is also hard to swallow messages about ecology and environmental responsibility coming from a company that must suck up resources at a natural rate and which sells brightly coloured plastic at every opportunity.  On the other hand, Epcot was not quite as dreadful as I had remembered.  Although it made me feel like I wanted to spew like a volcano, the Mission Space ride was actually pretty effective in suggesting the challenges of training as an astronaut and Spaceship Earth was actually an excellent ride.  However, I think if Disney wants to maintain Epcot as a viable theme park in its collection, it really needs to invest some imagination and thought into how to make it engaging and relevant.

 

Christmas Swimming

I have never been on vacation for Christmas before.  We have been away from home for Christmas plenty of times.  In fact, back home in Scotland that was our norm as we would travel to spend time with either set of grandparents over Christmas and often New Year too.  However, spending Christmas in a family home is not the same as spending Christmas in a holiday home.  Mr Pict’s parents, having arrived in Florida a few days before us, had done a power of work making the place look not only more domestic and homely but also festive and fun.  On Christmas morning, therefore, there were stockings at the end of the boys’ beds and presents waiting under the tree just as if they had been either at home or in their grandparents’ homes.  Despite the paucity of equipment in the kitchen, my mother-in-law also managed the feat of pulling together a complete and completely delicious traditional Christmas dinner.

What was not traditional at all was that the boys spent a large chunk of Christmas Day swimming in an outdoor pool.  Neither the boys or I have ever experienced a warm Christmas so that was novel enough but to be able to splash around in a swimming pool was fantastic fun for them.  Indeed, they had such a great time with the pool over the course of our visit that our 7 year old learned how to swim to the bottom of the pool and our 5 year old learned how to swim without arm bands or a pool noodle.  All four kids being able to swim was a Santa gift for we parents.

A few days later, they also enjoyed the novel experience of night swimming.  The pool was heated so they were able to swim and splash around in the dark.  They seemed to think that swimming in the dark – supervised, of course – made it extra exciting.

That is how treasured memories are made.

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Christmas Eve at Universal Studios

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The boys and I are Potterphiles, not to a crazy degree but we love the books and the movies.  One of the best things we have ever done is go on the Harry Potter Studio Tour at Levesden in London.  Therefore, when we arrived at the Universal Studios theme park, the first area we headed to was Harry Potter’s London.  The Harry Potter area had been built in the place where the Jaws ride used to be.  This caused a great deal of upset for our 7 year old who had been desperately wanting to meet the monster shark.  Thankfully we encountered a model of the shark dangling on a pier so the kids could indeed meet Jaws.  They were absolutely delighted.  The Harry Potter area, therefore, had to exceed the kids’ expectations in order to make up for the loss of Jaws.

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After walking past the frontage of Grimmauld Place (where the boys stopped to have their photo taken on the steps of number 12, the safe house for the Order of the Phoenix) and a replica of the Knight Bus, we slipped through a hole in the brick wall and emerged into Diagon Alley.  The attention to detail was spectacular, replicating all those wonderful little bits and bobs that made the wizarding world so immersive in the books and films.  Everywhere my eyes landed there was something interesting to look at.  But there was no time for that because we were on a mission so we clattered quickly along the cobbled streets to Gringotts Bank.

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Sitting atop the Bank, poised and ready to take flight, was the poor, pale, maltreated dragon who had guarded several of the vaults and who aided the escape of Harry, Hermoine and Ron after their horcrux search.  That was a detail that really packed a punch.  My Mother-in-Law decided against going on the ride so she waited in Diagon Alley with all of our backpacks as there was a diktat that bags were not permitted on the ride and were instead to be left in lockers.  The lockers were free to use but it was useful to be able to avoid the faff, hassle and time involved in setting them up, which appeared to involve using our fingerprints which had been recorded upon entry.  That alas meant leaving my DSLR behind too and relying on my camera phone to record the interior of Gringotts Bank.  For someone as snap happy as I am, that was frustrating.

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The queue snaked us through Gringotts Bank, first into the marble floored administrative area where goblin clerks beavered away on their accounts below vast, sparkling chandeliers and then into the walkways and winding staircases that led to the wagons that would take us into the vaults.  The ride was a mixture of movement, physical and optical effects all seamlessly blended together to make a completely exhilarating ride.  Projections of characters from the movie appeared before us looking completely three dimensional, the wagon swung us around at high speed as we navigated the vault chambers and, of course, there was a huge fire-breathing dragon to contend with.  It was incredible.  I am not one for fast or scary rides at all but that Gringotts Bank Escape ride was the best theme park ride I have ever been on, hands down and no question.

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The next ride we went on was the Men in Black ride.  We sat in carts that ceaselessly spun as from side to side as we travelled through scenes depicting amusing, brightly coloured aliens rampaging in the city.  The idea was that we had to use our ray guns to hit laser targets on each alien character but I think any I hit was out of luck and coincidence because the constant movement and spinning made it impossible for me – with my below par hand-eye coordination – to aim accurately.  I just kept my finger on the trigger and blasted.  A concluding spin was particularly sick-making. I felt rather dizzy when I left the ride.

However, the dizziness of the Men in Black Ride was nothing compared to the nausea of the Simpsons Ride.  Mr Pict, our oldest and youngest boys and I all went on it and – with the exception of the 5 year old who seems to have a cast-iron stomach – we were all green about the gills almost immediately.  It was a simulator ride whereby its movements aligned with an animation on a large screen in front of us.  The animation was set in a theme park so it was action-packed, fast-paced and involved a lot of chaotic movement as the Simpson family made all sorts of attempts to escape the psychotic clutches of Sideshow Bob.  It was the single most nauseating ride I have ever been on.  I seriously thought I was going to unload my stomach contents all over the back of the man sitting in front of me.  Thankfully – for him and for me – the ride ended just in time to prevent that happening.  I was very glad of fresh air and solid ground when we emerged back into the sunlight.  Mr Pict and the kids then went on a rotating, up and down ride, sitting in cars at the end of the alien Kodos or Kang which made me feel stomach-churningly ill just to watch them.

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Clearly it was time for something much more sedate so we wandered over to Disaster, a combination of a demonstration show and experience exploring the genre of disaster movies.  The kids and I love a good, by which I mean cheesy and hackneyed, disaster movie (our favourite being ‘The Poseidon Adventure’).  Gathered in the lobby, the first stage of the experience was casting and to our surprise and glee, Mr Pict was selected for one of the roles.  The kids were giddy with the excitement of seeing their Daddy participate in the show.  Next we were treated to the spectacle of the live person who had introduced the experience interacting with a three dimensional projection of Christopher Walken, portraying the B movie director about to create the film.

The next section was informative, a simple but effective demonstration of how certain effects are achieved in movies using green screen and angles.  The delivery was done with great humour and we in the audience were all chuckling throughout.  Mr Pict and two other volunteers were told they were representing mad scientists who were filmed open-mouthed and hands flapping as if caught in some dramatic commotion.  It was all very entertaining.  Filming complete, we were all ushered – cast and audience – into a replica subway train which became the scene of a disaster movie.  Earthquake, pipes on fire, rushing water.  It was all rollicking fun.  The best part, however, the piece de resistance, was getting to see the movie that had made from the footage we had seen being filmed.  Obviously the scenes were dropped into a pre-existing movie structure but the speed with which it was edited together even on that basis was impressive.  It was hilarious.  Seeing the witty way in which each of the elements we had seen being filmed was incorporated into the fake disaster movie trailer was very clever and very humorous.  Of course, the kids gave an extra loud guffaw when they saw their Daddy on the screen.  It may not have had all the bells and whistles of the big event rides but it was brilliant fun.

Sticking to the “classic” groove, next on the agenda was the ET ride.  I had been on the same ride at the Universal in California in 2000.  Nothing had changed, not one element evolved or updated to take account of technological developments.  I quite liked it for that.  Classic movie; retro ride.  It revolved around the iconic bike ride scene and the return of ET to his home planet.  We clambered aboard sets of bicycles and lifted off and upwards, past assorted random alien chums of ET and finally to ET’s home planet.  My kids all gasped in delight during the home planet section, flapping their hands in excitement as they pointed here, there and everywhere, emitting audible “aw” sounds.  Before commencing the ride, we had each had to give our first names which had been swiped onto a card that was collected as we boarded our flying bikes.  This was so that ET could be programmed to say our names as we departed, a little word of gratitude for us helping him return to his home planet.  Back in 2000, that element of the ride had failed on me and, instead of saying my name, ET had made a sound like a liquidy burp.  This time, therefore, when he uttered the name “Laura” I might just have bopped up out of my seat a little and fist pumped.  Sad yet true.

We left ET behind with his alien friends just in time for an adjacent live show to commence.  This was an Animal Actors show that we knew would very much appeal to our youngest two boys in particular.  It was ostensibly a demonstration of some of the methods used to train animals for performing on film and television but really it was a showcase for the various animals to perform.  The whole show was very well co-ordinated and choreographed.  There was never a dull moment as a hawk (from the ‘Mummy’ films) swooped over the crowd, a pig revealed messages on notice boards, cats ran around all over the stage and a flock of pigeons flew over our heads and back again.  The stars of the show, however, were definitely the dogs.  It was they who did the majority of the demonstrating of techniques and who received the biggest applause.  Our youngest boys are obsessed with pugs – and the 7 year old even plans to call his potential pet pug Russell – so they were over the moon to see Frank from ‘Men in Black II’.  After the show had ended, the kids got to go and meet some of the animal actors and they were thrilled to meet Frank.

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We then caught another live show but an entirely unexpected one.  As the boys ate ice cream, we watched a troupe of breakdancers.  They had great patter and brilliant moves.  They performed solo and impressed but they were magnificent when performing in unison, which they did as their performance’s grand finale, undulating as one long caterpillar and jump-flipping across a line of people.  There was also some amusing audience participation that made me very relieved that I had not been plucked from the crowd to join in.  I am happy to relive the ‘80s as far as visiting ET is concerned but attempting breakdancing would have been a retro escapade too far.

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Our second proper queue of the day was for the Shrek 4D show and it was not a long queue at all by theme park standards, only a fraction of the queue we had had for Gringotts Bank.  The animated short made use of the familiar characters from the ‘Shrek’ universe but in a story designed specifically to synchronise with the 4D experience.  The 3D was well done and there were the usual jolts and vibrations, sprays of water and blasts of air to create the 4D element.  The most effective moment was when a 3D spider combined with our legs being tickled.

From an ogre to monsters.  We wanted to see the demonstration of movie monster make-up.  The boys and I absolutely love the classic Universal monsters.  When our youngest was three, he would tell his friends that ‘Frankenstein’ was his favourite film.  A passion for movies is the one geeky thing I have, thus far at least, passed down to my kids.  Frankly, therefore, we would have been entirely happy with what we had anticipated, a talk by someone knowledgeable about movie monster cosmetics, prosthetics and animatronics.  What we got instead, however, was fantastic and proved to be one of the highlights of the day.  I was thrilled to see the structure that operated under the werewolf prosthetics for ‘American Werewolf in London’, one of my favourite films of all time and with special effects that were groundbreaking and which have stood the test of time.  However, it was not the educational element that was so entertaining, it was the theatrics.  Two actors – one as interviewer and one as make-up artist – performed an extended skit full of audience interaction, witty repartee and slapstick while also demonstrating the odd technique about monster make-up and relating something of the history of movie monsters (permitting me a moment of pride that my children recognised Lon Chaney).  It was quite brilliant.

Less brilliant was the Terminator 2 show.  Like Shrek, it was another 4D show.  This was another show I had experienced in California back in 2000 and I recalled the 3D being particularly striking.  The visual technology for the 3D element still stood up, with molten metal seeming to reach out into the audience.  What had not stood up to the passage of time was the contextual element for that effect, a blending of projected film and live action on stage.  I confess I have never seen ‘Terminator 2’ but I found the narrative of the show incomprehensible.  Bewilderment led to a lack of engagement.  The film is loved by many sci-fi fans and vintage it might be but that does not necessarily make it a classic movie.  Should Universal Studios be looking for some space for a new ride, I think this is the ride that should be made to vacate and create that space.

We Potterphiles wanted to go and soak up more of the atmosphere in Diagon Alley so, while my parents-in-law  went off to the Disaster show, we headed back through the hole in the wall of faux London.  While obviously lacking the authenticity of the studio tour, the attention to detail and the quality of those details was spectacular.  Painted advertisements on walls, signs hanging outside the different shops, the mythical beast gargoyles on one structure, the mermaid fountain were all enchanting.  We had a wander into Fred and George Weasley’s joke shop and the kids loved seeing the shelves full of funny items and the recreated shop décor from the movies.  It was jam-packed with people, however, so we didn’t stay long, essentially just squeezing from one door through a pack of people and popping out of the other door.  That was nothing, however, compared to Ollivander’s wand shop.  There was a long line of people snaking along Diagon Alley just waiting to gain entry to the shop.  Needless to say, we did not join them and just skipped that store and experience completely.  Mr Pict and our 5 year old had never tasted genuine butterbeer having not accompanied the rest of us to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.  It was imperative, therefore, that some butterbeer be purchased.

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While Mr Pict and our oldest son queued for that – because everything in the Wizarding World involves a whopping queue – the other boys and I headed to the Magical Menagerie to have a look at some mythical beasties.  I was quite taken with the window display which involved some very realistic looking giant toads moving in a tank.  For the children, however, it was all about the cuddlies.  Our 9 year old exclaimed, “I love the merchandise!” Indeed.  The 7 year old already owns Buckbeak the Hippogriff and the 5 year old has Fawkes the Phoenix but I think the boys would have given a home to every single cuddly critter in the store had their pocket money stretched that far.  There were shelves stacked with owls of different colours, a whole cubby full of unicorns that the 7 year old had to be dragged away from, baskets containing a clutch of eggs from which Norbert the baby dragon was hatching, boxes containing fabulous dragons, toads, pastel coloured pygmy puffs galore, Hermoine’s cat Crookshanks, Fang the slobbery dog and Fluffy the three-headed guard dog.  Ultimately, after a lot of indecision and a generous slice of time, the 7 year old bought Scabbers the treacherous rat and the 5 year old bought Aragog the Acromantula spider.  Our 11 year old later bought a pixie.  Our 9 year old desperately wanted to leave the shop with Nagini the snake in his possession but did not have sufficient funds.  He got over it.

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We met up with Mr Pict and our 11 year old in a central area of Diagon Alley.  A stage was set up and a trio of female singers were in the midst of performing some Motown tunes.  I think they were vaguely dressed as Veela, the siren-like witches who participate in the Goblet of Fire tournament.  We enjoyed listening to them as we quaffed and supped away at our butterbeers.  Butterbeer is a difficult concoction to describe.  It is smooth liquid with a creamy, foam head to it and tastes like cream soda and butterscotch with a hint of malted vanilla.  I am not particularly fond of any of those things but I do like butterbeer.

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Replenished, we were ready to go and face a long queue.  It was time to brace ourselves for the long lines of the Despicable Me ride.  The 7 and 9 year olds did not want to do the ride so they had a wander around the park with their grandparents while Mr Pict, the 11 and 5 year olds and I baked in the sun and then got drenched in the rain waiting to enter the Minion ride.  Our youngest is a Minion fanatic.  He cannot get enough of those crazy little yellow guys.  Part way through the queuing process there was even a minion parade.  We were behind a tall metal fence at the time so we had to peek through gaps to see it.  Mr Pict put the little one on his shoulders so that he could get the best view and he loved every moment of it.  After the ride was over, our 5 year old even got the meet a pair of minions.  He was over the moon and gave them each a big goodbye hug.

The ride itself was another simulator with the seats jolting around in synchronisation with the animated movie we were watching.  If I learned one thing from Universal Studios it was this: I cannot do simulators.  It should come as no surprise since I get travel sick but the motion of the seats combined with the visuals made me feel supremely nauseous.  I had to close my eyes through a large fraction of the ride.  I was both dizzy and grateful when I stepped off the ride and back onto stable, solid ground.

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The Magic Kingdom

Like birds, we decided to do what the birds do and head South for Winter.  Or at least a few days in December.  We plucked the boys out of school a couple of days early (tsk tsk), crammed the boot (trunk) of the car full of suitcases and boxes of Christmas presents, made up a large thermos flask of hot chocolate and set off at stupid o’clock in the morning.  On the journey south, we spent a night in South Carolina; on the return journey, we spent a night in North Carolina.  Doing so not only made the journey more manageable – just – but also meant that the boys got to collect two new states.  I, however, am retreading old ground and did not, therefore, pick up a new state as has been the case for over a decade.  The last time I “collected” a new state was 2002.  That is something we need to rectify.  Finally we reached the holiday villa in Davenport, Florida.  My in-laws, who had flown out from England, had arrived a few days before us and had set the house up so that it was all festive.   And so we were set for “Eight Queue a lot in Orlando.”

Our first adventure was to the Happiest Place on Earth.  And where is this place?  According to all the promotional materials, apparently that place is Disney.  Such happiness was somewhat lost on our grizzly children as we woke them before 6 in the morning to get washed, dressed and breakfasted in preparation for an early start and a day spent in the Magic Kingdom.

Entire roads lead only to Disney parks.  Disney must be one of the biggest landowners in Florida and not just the Orlando area.  The site is vast.  The car park alone is massive and required us to board a trolley just to get to the monorail that in turn delivered us to the gates of the Magic Kingdom.  There, our pass cards rather nattily swiped against a post (emblazoned with the Mickey Mouse head symbol naturally) and turned green to permit our entry.  The adults plus our 11 year old had to give our fingerprint as an identifier.  It was bizarrely reminiscent of our immigration to America 14 months ago.  Now both USCIS and the House of Mouse have my daubs on file.  Verified and authenticated, we were permitted to enter the land of Disney.

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The first ride we headed for was one based on Buzz Lightyear.  We had been on that ride on our day at Disney in California in February 2008.  The ride had been a success with our children – though they could barely remember the vacation and one of them had yet to be born – so it seemed like a good place to kick off our day out.  The ride involved sitting in a moving cart and firing at laser gun at various moving targets in order to assist Buzz in defeating Zurg.  It was cute and the ideal thing about it was that every single one of us could participate in the ride on a pretty much equal footing.  Certainly my kids attained a higher score than I did.

Adjacent to the Buzz ride – on the basis that both involve outer space – was a ride based on the movie ‘Lilo and Stitch’.  I think most would agree that that particular movie was made during a fallow period in Disney’s lifespan and honestly my kids have seen it maybe twice.  Nevertheless, they were all not only adamant but animated about going into the Stitch ride.  Indeed, my 7 year old was so obsessed about the character that he spent some of his pocket money on a plush Stitch as a memento of his day at Disney.  The ride was a 4D show that seemed to revolve around an alien prison break.  At points the room went pitch black so that we could feel our chairs being pushed down on or air blowing on our heads as if Stitch was jumping around on the backs of our seats.  Perhaps if I was more familiar with the original movie and its spin-off series I would have engaged with it more but frankly I found it incomprehensible and to my mind it was probably the weakest ride we experienced in the Magic Kingdom.

While not yet an adrenalin junkie or thrill-seeker, our oldest son does enjoy rides that challenge him a little; our 9 year old, on the other hand, is well aware of his limits and therefore gives any scary rides a wide berth; our youngest is fearless, somewhat worryingly so; but our 7 year old thinks that he likes thrill rides when actually he erupts into a little mess of anxiety and has a fear of heights.  As happy as he was, therefore, with the idea of the Dumbo ride, the actuality made him turn into a little wibbly jelly.  ‘Dumbo’ is a Disney film that left me nonplussed as a child and which I have never warmed to, possibly because the daft wee pachyderm only learns to fly in the closing minutes of the film thus promising a much more exhilarating movie right at the very point when it concludes.  Anyway, the ride is one in which the children sit inside Dumbos which rotate and can also rise up and down on the vertical.  The fact it was not a scary ride can be confirmed by the fact that none of his brothers found it remotely thrilling, just fun, but for my 7 year old it was too much.  So while his brothers all headed off to take a turn on the Goofy Barnstormer (a ride involving some stunt aeroplanes), my Mother-in-Law and I took my 7 year old for a calming ride on Casey Jr, a train that circles through the Magic Kingdom transporting visitors between areas.

Gathered together once more, we headed into the Little Mermaid ride.  This was essentially a tour through scenes from the movie, seated in a clamshell.  Dioramas filled with colourful models and the great songs from the film filled the air.  The most successful sections were the rip-roaring ‘Under the Sea’ segment because it was so chock-full of fun-filled characters, including slugs cutting a rug, and Ariel’s grotto where, looking above us, we could see Ariel defying her father by swimming up towards the surface.  We did not, however, queue up to do the adjacent Grotto visit with Ariel.

What we did do next was Disney’s famous It’s A Small World ride.  I actually have no idea what the premise of the ride is as it does not appear to be connected to any cartoon or movie characters that I am aware of. Mr Pict’s nostalgic memories for Disney visits past meant he was eager to do the ride.  The kids and I had never done it so we were all keen to experience the iconic ride.  It is essentially a little boat ride through scenes depicting various continents and nations of the world all set to a tone that burrows into the consciousness like the most pernicious brain worm ever.  I think the message is supposed to be one of world peace and friendship that transcends differences and borders.  It’s a lovely message and the whole ride is well done and charming in its twee way.  However, it is also a cheerful grand tour of xenophobic stereotypes.  It is actually very odd indeed but I am glad to have done it because it is one of those keystone Disney creations I had not experienced.

Next up was The Haunted Mansion and our first proper queue of the day, though that queue was still under half an hour.  I had done this ride in California so I knew it was worth the wait but the line was also well designed in that it took visitors past witty little details that functioned as an aperitif to the main event.  There were cute busts of dearly departed characters, gravestones with amusing inscriptions, tombs, a creepy musical organ and a hearse carriage to keep us entertained as we worked our way closer to the front of the line.  We were then ushered into a room to form a claustrophobia inducing mass.  The room was darkened and made to seem as if it was descending in a funny and clever way.  We were then deposited into little carts which ran past spooky vignettes of ghostly goings on.  The optical technology was really very clever indeed conjuring up as it did the spectral head of a chanting medium, dead diners, graveyard frolics and ghosts waltzing in a dusty ballroom.  My kids loved it and it was my favourite ride at the Magic Kingdom partly because I am a bit macabre but mostly because there was a lot of bang for our buck with this particular ride.

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The modern technology of the Haunted Mansion was juxtaposed with our next Magic Kingdom experience, the decidedly old school Smokey Bear Jamboree.  Rather like It’s A Small World, the Smokey Bear Jamboree seems to be a dyed in the wool Disney staple, a survivor from a bygone era.  Set in a theatre, various animatronic bears perform country and western music on the stages at the front of the hall.  The ditties and hoedowns amuse and there is something quite charming about the old school stylings of the bears, despite their propensity for hillbilly stereotypes.  It was also a welcome moment of calm and restful focus in a day of constant movement and sensory overload.

We emerged from the theatre just in time to catch a parade.  The Magic Kingdom seems to have parades regularly.  Most of them we missed but we decided to stop and watch this particular one not only because the serried lines of people meant we had no choice but also because we thought it would be fun for the kids.  They saw Woody and Jessie, Aladdin and Jasmine, Snow White and Prince What’s-His-Name, Santa, reindeer and elves, Goofy and Mickey.  A short while later we got caught up in a dance parade.  This was mainly composed of random humans in brightly coloured garb and fixed grins but there was the occasional Disney character, such as the Genie and King Louis.  My two youngest sons spotted that Stitch was among the grooving figures and stalked him, via a conga line, until they could meet him face-to-face.  At which point they went stony faced and silent, stuck dumb by being star struck.  It was adorable to behold.  And also awkward.

We had thankfully pre-booked a Fast Pass gig for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride as its lines were incredibly long.  It felt a bit rude to queue jump but that’s how it works.  Every day ticket holders can pre-book three rides for entry that bypasses the regular queue.  As can be discerned from our decision to Fast Pass the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, it was one we were looking forward to.  We had all enjoyed the ride when we did it in California in February 2008.  This time it was disappointing.  The models were all very well done and the scenes were all fun to look at but there was a lack of detailing.  Our “boats” went between a galleon and a fort that were supposedly firing at each other.  In the California version, we could feel the swooshing air of the cannon balls whizzing over our heads, experienced the splashes of the cannon balls hitting the water, but in this version there was none of that to add a bit of a thrill.  There was also a part where they projected the image of a villain’s face onto pouring water.  In the California version, that character had been Davy Jones which made thematic sense, since he was connected so completely to the water in terms of his spectral life force; in the Florida version, they used Blackbeard which not only made less sense but was also a weird choice given that the fourth movie entirely sucked.  No amount of “Yo ho ho” malarkey could prevent us from feeling deflated.

The 7 year old was still determined to try a high ride so, while my Father-in-Law and my oldest son went off to the Thunder Mountain rollercoaster, Mr Pict and the other boys went on the Aladdin Magic Carpet ride.  Unlike his experience on Dumbo, the 7 year old mastered his fear on the magic carpets because he figured out how to be in control of the height.  Therefore, while all the other carpets were flying high, his magic carpet was sailing low.  He enjoyed it so much that he went back on the same ride later in the evening.  The experience really bolstered his confidence which made the queuing worthwhile.

It was time to meet Mickey Mouse, the star of the show, so we bobbed and weaved through the crowds to reach the Town Square Theatre.  We had done the same thing in California where the meet and greet had been swiftly efficient.  This time we were given plenty of time with Mickey and he properly interacted with the kids.  When it was our turn, he walked over to greet them and gave them each a hug.  He then posed with them in various ways, never making us feel rushed or like we needed to move on for the next people to come in.  The other thing that was different from our California experience was that the staff in Florida were completely OK with us taking our own photos, even happily taking a photo with my camera so that I could be in a group photo, whereas the staff in California had merely tolerated me doing so.  Overall it was just a much more positive experience.

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We didn’t eat in the Magic Kingdom.  Instead we took packed lunches and left the park to go have our evening meal at a nearby Chilli’s.  Replete, we returned to the Magic Kingdom and decided to take the ferry rather than the monorail just for a fun change and to see the vista of the castle and other buildings all lit up in the darkness.  Our timing was fortuitous as we arrived in the Main Street area it was clear that some major event was happening as the whole place was thronging with visitors like herring in a barrel.  The cause of the commotion then became apparent: the Castle was being “frozen”.  Whoever pitched the idea of ‘Frozen’ to the suits at Disney studios must have been patted on the back so much that they are dented.  That movie has become Disney’s cash cow for sure.  Honestly, as good a movie as I believe it is and as cracking as the soundtrack is, it’s not my favourite of Disney’s recent output.  I prefer ‘Tangled’.  However, something about ‘Frozen’ has captured the popular imagination so it is all over everything.  Of course, that theme works perfectly for the season too.  And it was magical.  Truly magical.  I may even have emitted an audible “wow” as the castle was covered in glowing crystals of white light.  Stunning.  And then the fireworks went off.  Whizz bang right behind the castle.  It was a breath-taking display.  It was in that moment – watching pretty, sparkling gunpowder explode over a fake castle bedecked in a bajillion light bulbs – that all my Disney cynicism melted away.  Yes, paying for tickets to Disney World is extortionate and yes it is all glossy commercialism and plasticated, manufactured fun, and every experience is a merchandising opportunity and yes they sanitise and bowdlerise traditional tales and the gender politics and messages of their movies can be unsatisfactory to say the least but my goodness they do it all with such finesse, polish and aplomb that it is impossible not to be impressed and be carried away by the sheer magnitude of Disney’s achievements.

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After that spectacle, the crowds did not magically disperse.  It was chaos.  Heaving, hectic chaos.  Disney employees waving those flashing cones they use on airport runways tried in vain to direct the throng onto certain paths but you cannot impose order on a herd of stampeding wildebeest and nor can you control a mob of people intent on getting to the ride of their choice ahead of the competition.  Swimming against that tide was near impossible.  We had to gradually work our way towards the edges of the stream so that we could escape the current at the correct location and moment.  We wisely decided to head to an area that was less busy.  For which read less popular.  Everyone comes to Disney World to see the Hall of the Presidents, right?  No?  Well it was quiet, calm and air-conditioned so it was the perfect choice.  The building is actually modelled on Independence Hall on Philadelphia (which I still have not visited – tsk tsk) and we waited for the show inside the rotunda that contained trinkets that had once belonged to various American presidents so we perused those.  Our 9 year old is pretty keen on learning about presidents so he engaged with it all to a degree.  The others just wanted to rest their legs and play Angry Granny Run on Mr Pict’s iphone.

The doors to the theatre opened and we were ushered in to take a seat.  A proper comfy seat in the Magic Kingdom, another rare treat.  I seriously do not know why this place was not packed.  Essentially it is a showcase about the 44 US Presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama, using animatronic models of each esteemed chap.  The preceding movie and the presentation were all narrated by Morgan Freeman.  I think Freeman must have first refusal on any voiceover gig in America.  The animatronic models were very impressive.  When robot Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address it was actually quite stirring.  It is, of course, a beautifully crafted, rousing, emotive speech but the presentation of it was very effective.  What was disappointing was that the vast majority of the other presidents were just glossed over.  They were introduced one by one but in such a rush that sometimes I missed identifying the individual before the spotlight moved on to the next one and all they could really do was nod or waft a hand in a wave.  Obviously I would not have wanted to sit through all 44 animatronic models having a chinwag with the audience.  Not only would it have been bum-numbing but, let’s face it, not all the Presidents are equally as interesting and engaging.  More than a handful would have been nice though, especially because the robot model technology was so superb.

Another queueless, quiet and calm “ride” for us to duck into was the Swiss Family Robinson area.  This time, I could appreciate why it was abandoned.  It was supremely dull, pointless and lacking in focus.  My kids have not only never seen the movie of ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ but had never even heard of it.  I imagine the same is true of most visitors these days.  Even those of us who have seen the movie probably scratch their heads trying to recollect any interesting detail from it.  The “ride” is essentially a tour of a treehouse involving stairs winding around tree trunks and rope bridges past various open air rooms.  The only good thing about it was that the summit of the treehouse offered us great panoramic views over the Magic Kingdom.  Our 11 year old observed that the whole “ride” was pretty much like the queuing system for all of the other rides.  Spot on.  Honestly, the whole thing needs ripped out and replaced with something more engaging, probably more contemporary or at least based on a more classic movie, one that has stood the test of time and which people maintain a fond connection to.

We had wandered past the Peter Pan’s Flight ride several times but the queue had never dipped below 45 minutes and had often been far over an hour.  On our final wander past towards the exit we saw that the line was now 40 minutes.  Given that we had barely had to queue for anything all day, we decided to suck it up.  At some stage in our queuing, however, it became apparent that the 40 minute estimate was completely incorrect.  The line was not moving anywhere fast enough to make that a reality.  And the queue was not an entertaining one – such as the Haunted Mansion one – but was just a rat maze lined with artistic depictions of scenes from the film.  About half-way through our queuing, the rat maze became housed in what was supposed to represent the Darling children’s nursery bedrooms.  This actually just made it feel more claustrophobic.

The Peter Pan ride was also our first real encounter with a grouchy employee.  I am sure Disney probably deploys many and varied carrots and sticks to motivate it’s employees to at least appear like the Happiest People on Earth but this chap was not drinking the Kool Aid at all.  Not only was he not all smiles, cheer and Disney twinkle but he was crabby and snappy.  Earlier in the evening, my 9 year old had been told to get down from a concrete seat he was standing on by another of the Magic Kingdom’s Happiest People but at least on that occasion there was at least a (negligible reason) for being sour-faced and serious.  The guy on the Peter Pan ride had no such excuse for being as obnoxious as he was.  Had he been authorised to carry a cattle prod, I am sure he would have wielded it at us.

Finally it was our turn to ride.  Paired up, we flew, suspended from rails in the ceiling, above scenes of Edwardian London and then off to Neverland.  It was actually a very charming ride.  The scenes from the movie that were depicted below our gliding chair were well crafted and sweet.  The whole ride was well-designed and appealing.  It was not, however, appealing enough or long enough to warrant the extensive queuing.  The boys all complained bitterly about the experience which was a real pity as I am sure they would have thoroughly enjoyed it had we not had such a tedious prologue to the ride.  It felt like a duff note to end on after a really positive, enjoyable day.

But then we emerged to find that the evening fireworks display was underway.  We had assumed we had missed it because of the wearisome queue for Peter Pan but we had actually only missed the start.  As was probably to be expected, the display was top notch.  While our view was partly obscured by the buildings we were wedged between, we still managed to see the spectacle of the sky above the castle being lit up by whiz-bang, brightly coloured, sparkling, fizzing fireworks and there was never a lull.  One after the other they filled the sky with colour and sound.  And that was a fitting conclusion to our very long day in the Magic Kingdom.

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