Thursday, 31 August 2017

How To Make Bad News Worse

I am going to try to articulate something about this here not only because there is space to fill (the rest of the Florida blog will follow in due course whether you like it or you don’t) but also because it might help me. I’m not doing so well.

On Tuesday afternoon I went for my four-monthly visit to the nephrologist. Since 2013 I have turned up there roughly every 12 weeks to discuss the thorny issue of my ongoing kidney disease. That was diagnosed originally in 2007, so for the last 10 years my admittedly battered kidneys have been chugging along well enough for me to function. The usual drill with the nephrologist is a short discussion about what medication I am on, whether to change it or add to it, and then to be sent on my way with instructions to get my blood tested so that there are some results to discuss on my next visit.

From the very start I was told that my kidneys would get worse, and that things like a transplant or dialysis would be likely at some point. So I was expecting to turn up one day and find out that the time had come to consider these things. I wasn’t expecting that day to be Tuesday afternoon. I had a blood test the previous Tuesday in preparation for this appointment. The results of that showed that my kidney function had dropped to a miserable 18%. It has never been more than about 28% in all that time since the diagnosis but, said my specialist, 18% is getting towards the point where they start thinking about a transplant. He warned me that if the function did not spike back above 20% at the time of my next visit then we would have to have that conversation. Start preparing, was the term I think he used.

Now there is a chance that it will improve. It has a history of bouncing up and down a bit over the last 10 years but it has never been as low as 18% before. I don’t usually ask them to give me a percentage figure on it but I could see from the graph that it was at an all-time low. The consultant wanted me to return in six weeks for another test to see if there was any improvement but I wasn’t having any of that. Stubborn as I am, I told him I would come back in December as I would have done anyway, and talk about it then if the situation hasn’t improved. He didn’t seem to have a problem with that so that’s where we are. Hoping for an improvement but unable to do anything to really boost the chances of that beyond remembering to take all of my medication on time and not trying to wing it for more than three or four hours without going for a wee. Simple stuff like this can damage your kidneys.

The thing is that, being me, I can’t help but be extremely negative about the whole shebang. Four or five people have already relayed stories to me about people they know (and one case the person telling the story was doing so from personal experience) who have had kidney transplants and gained a whole new lease of life. It is an indisputable fact that if I have a successful kidney transplant I will be better off than I am now, or better off than I have been at any time during the last four years. I’m less certain about the previous six years because the truth is that after the initial diagnosis I buried my head in the sand and ignored it until I became ill, which duly happened in the summer of 2013 when my potassium levels hit the roof. Even so, even with the firm belief that it would improve the situation I am still filled with dread about the whole idea of a transplant. Dread mixed in with a little bit of bemusement. It is hard to get my head around the idea of putting myself at risk on a surgeon’s table when I don’t feel ill, and in fact feel like I could go on like this for years. It almost feels like I would be taking an unnecessary risk to have the transplant now.

Of course it wouldn’t be now. I’m four months away from that discussion at least, and the consultant said that the average waiting time for a transplant involving a living donor is around six months. So let’s say my function does not improve in the next four months, and that we can immediately find a living donor (I have about 75 cousins who appear to be forming an orderly queue already, crazy people) then we can expect the transplant to take place some time next summer. If the recent decline in function is the start of a trend then who knows how I will feel by then? Maybe at that time I’ll be glad of the opportunity to get rid of my ailing organs and get myself something with a bit more oomph. But if by that time I still feel the way I do now, physically I mean, then I can’t shake the feeling that I’d be taking a risk when it would not be absolutely necessary.

If we are looking for reasons why I always see the negative, apart from my borderline personality disorder and my regular bouts of depression, then look no further than Other Disabled People. Already in my lifetime I have lost more friends and acquaintances with similar disabilities to me than I care to mention. One only this year. He was two years older than I am now. At school, at least once or twice a year you would turn up in the morning to the news that someone you knew in a different class had passed away. On one occasion when the school bus turned up at the house of one young lad to pick him up there was a black van outside the house waiting to take his body away after he had died earlier that morning. It was truly horrific.

There have been varying reasons for their deaths, none of them were down to a failed kidney transplant as it happens. Yet you can’t help but compare yourself to these unfortunate souls. What is it about people with spina bifida and other disabilities that makes them more vulnerable? These people should not have died of the things that took them. They were too young.

The consultant knows none of what I have seen on school buses and in life, and so he was very relaxed about the whole concept of a transplant when he broached the subject. He told me I was still a young man and that a successful transplant is, on average, good for around 10-15 years for a man of my age. And even then you can have another one. Two is apparently common. Some people have three or four. All well and good, but he can afford to be relaxed about it when he has no real investment in the outcome. If it doesn’t work out for me he hasn’t lost anything. It’s left to me to worry about what happens to Emma in particular if I’m not around in a year or two’s time. If you read that last sentence back you will see just how far my negative thinking has got me over the last couple of days. I am considering a return to counselling.

And yet all of it is useless. Not the counselling, which is actually rather helpful in my experience, but the worrying. What’s the point of fretting about something that probably won’t happen? Yes, I’ll probably have to have a transplant one day but the chances of it failing immediately are, I’m told, something like 1 in 100. That’s a 99% chance of some measure of success. After a year, the consultant reckons that the figure of still functioning transplanted kidneys is around 93%. So you can see how the average transplanted kidney is expected to last around 10-15 years. In all likelihood it is a better option than dialysis, which is far too restrictive on your lifestyle for my liking. Surprisingly, the consultant also said that dialysis would be a secondary option to a transplant in my case, and that it would not be necessary until we hit around 8-12% function.

So what I am clumsily coming around to saying is that the odds are heavily in favour of a better situation after transplantation than the one I am in now. Plodding along with function in the low 20’s at best. I’d expect to feel a whole lot better than I do now with a new kidney. I said earlier that I don’t feel ill and that I feel like I could go on like this for years, but I am certainly making do. I don’t have nearly as much energy as I should have and it might just be that I’ve become accustomed to that feeling as the norm and that actually it is abnormal.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I haven’t convinced myself that having a transplant sooner rather than later is the right way to go. I can write it, I can reason with myself and get reassurance from medical experts, but I’m still going to be fairly terrified if I take the decision to have a transplant. Or if that decision is taken for me. Unless we get to a point when I turn a strange colour and feel utterly terrible I will always have the suspicion that I would have been fine if they had left me as I am. My own definition of fine, anyway.

Let’s go back to Florida and try to forget about it and I’ll update you in December.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Disney 2017 - Culprits In The Field Of Sounding Like They Serve Beer But Don't

Did you know that it is virtually impossible to get a drink in Disney's Magic Kingdom? An alcoholic drink, I mean. You can buy these great big McDonald's style cartons for about $14 (about £10.60) which you can refill (at participating outlets) throughout the park as many times as you like with your favourite soft drinks. But I mean a beer. After three days of very hectic and very dry scurrying around theme parks we decided to make our last day in the resort a bit more of a drinky day. But Magic Kingdom was a bad choice for that particular aim.

There are bars, or at least places that have names that make them sound like bars or pubs. It is just that none of them seem to sell any alcohol. Who would have thought that Gaston's Tavern would be an alcohol free zone, save for their own brew which costs around $15 (£11.40) a pop? Before we discovered this we had to discover Gaston's Tavern, which managed to stay hidden from our admittedly average powers of navigation for around 15 minutes. In the end we had to ask for direction that we would have been 15 minutes better off without. Other culprits in the field of Sounding Like They Serve Beer But Don't are Liberty Tree Tavern, The Sleepy Hollow, The Diamond Horeshoe, The Friar's Nook and Tortuga Tavern.

Now let's talk about the word Tavern for a while, shall we? You will see that it crops up in a number of these beer-less establishments. It is defined by Wikipedia as 'a place of business where people gather to drink alcoholic beverages and be served food, and in most cases , where travellers receive lodging.' I can't comment on whether or not any of these places were offering a bed for the night but if they can't sort you out with half a Bud Light then expectations shouldn't be too high. I know that the name Magic Kingdom properly suggests a fairly young target audience but this being the 21st century I was still slightly baffled and what looked like a total and utter lack of regard for thirsty adults. You can probably buy beer in the restaurants but we didn't have time for that. Magic Kingdom and Epcot are not easily negotiated in a single day if you stop off in a restaurant for a full meal and a couple of pints.

So we pressed on. Something else not aimed at adults is 'The Muppets Present....Great Moments In American History'. But The Muppets, like many things in Disney, is one of those things that although blatantly aimed at children has something for adults of a certain age to enjoy too. Even if it is only nostalgia, and remembering has a three-year-old you used to be afraid of Sam Eagle, but now you can only think of how much he looks like former Liverpool butter-fingered buffoon Sander Westerveld. See if I'm wrong;

The Muppets, Sam, Kermit, Gonzo, Miss Piggy and Fozzy are joined by one actor playing the role of an 18th century town crier because guess what, the 'Great Moment In American History' that they are going to talk about in today's show is the Declaration Of Independence in 1776. Apparently there are other 'Great Moments' which they use when they need to change up the show but I couldn't shake the feeling that the American Independence theme was a slightly predictable one. Like getting to the end of a Danny Wilson gig, noting that they haven't done 'Mary's Prayer' and spending not too much time wondering what they will do for an encore.

Still, what is not to like about Kermit as Thomas Jefferson, Gonzo as John Adams and Fozzy as Benjamin Franklin? Miss Piggy spends much of her time implying that to prevent her from playing George Washington would be some kind of sexual discrimination and so, as always happens with Miss Piggy, a true satire on the female diva, she ends up getting her way. For his part Sam constantly interrupts from the window across the way at the currently closed Hall Of Presidents, while much of the action goes on in the windows of the Heritage House. Well, the puppeteers need somewhere where they can stay out of sight, but the voices are genuinely provided by those who provide them on the telly.

You might think it a little bit beneath your intellectual level but if you have ever been to the Hall Of Presidents, currently closed so that they can presumably add an animatronic version of orange-faced misogynist Donald Trump to the collection, you will surely agree that the space is currently being used to much greater effect.

I could recount the experience of Stitch's Great Escape but why don't you just go here for a brief overview. The experience seven years on is the same but different if you know what I mean. Still no option to transfer from your wheelchair, still a lot of wafting and whizzing past your head, and still containing some unpleasant bodily emissions from the title character;

So let's skip straight over to Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. It is not dissimilar to Toy Story Midway Mania over at Hollywood Studios but it can't quite match it for playability. The targets are mostly stationary but are referred to as 'Z' insignias in the blurb. Basically round, stripy disks with a great big 'Z' which you have to try to hit with your laser gun. Unfortunately there is no visual evidence of where your shot has landed, just a red laser light showing you where to aim. So throughout most of the ride you won't be certain which targets you hit and which you did not. Where I found it did better Toy Story Midway Mania is in the access department. I had no need for Hightower-like seat removal here and most mobile wheelchair users should be able to transfer to the vehicle easily enough. There may be a contingency plan for anyone who cannot, but since I didn't have that problem I never found out. I know, annoying. This happens to me a lot. Someone will come back from a fantastic holiday and wax lyrical to me about how much I would have enjoyed it, but then stare blankly at me when I ask them if everything they have been describing is accessible. They don't know because they don't need to. Then again, they are not writing a disability-focused blog about their life experiences are they?

When you leave the ride you pass through a room which has one wall covered in photographs of people recently on the ride. There is a scanner by each image, but after a few minutes perusal we are sure that there is no photo of us. Emma gets into a right tangle after scanning her Magic Band (remember those?) for reasons that are best known to her. Anyway, she frets about being charged for someone else's photographs but that threat never materialises. I still have no idea how you go about getting your photograph on that wall and why you need the scanners beside each image but to be honest I am not sure I need to know. I hate having my photograph taken at the best of times, but judging by some of the ridiculous faces pulled by the people in these photographs this would be a whole new level of Photo Hell.

Thirstier than Bill Weberniuk after a stint in The Priory we took in a parade on the way out of the park as we made our way to towards the much more drinker-friendly Epcot. Parades seem smaller now than they did in 2010. The park staff still cordon the road off and make a very big deal of it when a parade is due, but whereas they seemed to go on for a good half an hour back then the one we saw seemed to last only half of that. I can only conclude that this is because they have realised that if people are standing around watching people dressed up as Disney characters dance around on large wagons then they are not spending their money in the restaurants. Which is the only place they sell any beer in the Magic Kingdom.

Disney 2017 - Ripping The Front Seat Out Like Hightower In Police Academy

It was a relatively fleeting visit to Hollywood Studios this time around. Time was limited with only two days to cover all four Disney parks before we moved on to St.Petersburg. That meant trying to fit Hollywood Studios into one afternoon and evening, which meant being quite selective.

First up and an absolute must on any visit to Hollywood Studios is Toy Story Midway Mania. It's basically a shoot-em-up in the Men In Black traditions but it's better than the currently closed ride at Universal. The targets are screen-based with clear points values plastered across them. And they are easier to hit. The access bit is a little different in this one. I had been transferring from my chair to every other ride but the gap between the edge of the seat and the front of the vehicle is very narrow and makes it difficult if you're a fat lad like me. Maybe even if you're not. It's just awkward. Fear not though, because there is an accessible vehicle which allows you to stay in your chair for the ride. They just rip one of the front seats out like Hightower in Police Academy, and then strap you down like they do in an accessible taxi.

As it turned out we had two goes on this one, thanks mostly to another biblical downpour which started just after we finished the first ride. We'd been asked to move away from the entrance to the corridor if we wanted to take shelter, and with little prospect of making it anywhere else for the foreseeable future we thought why not go back down the corridor and have another go. It's not as if it costs you any more once you are in the park. At this point I have to admit that Emma beat my score on the ride on both occasions, even though I hit a far higher percentage of targets than she did second time around. I will never know how this happened.

When we thought it had stopped we went about trying to find somewhere to have a drink. But it hadn't quite stopped and so we got caught in it again just across the road from the Tune-In Lounge. We sat there under a barely adequate canopy wondering whether to stick or twist. In the end we just had to find a window during which it was raining less heavily to allow us to make the now 10-second journey to the bar without getting too soaked. Once it starts raining in Orlando in the rainy season, usually in the afternoon during our stay, you can never rely on it to stop for very long. Unlike in the mornings when we saw virtually no rain whatsoever.

Tune-In Lounge was small and busy, an unfortunate combination always likely to lead to not having anywhere to sit. Most of the people there were waiting to be given a table in the restaurant next door. They did a very good pint though. There hadn't been much time for drinking on the first few days, which was a similar experience to what we had in 2010. Then, by the time we had got around everything we wanted to see and got back to the villa we were staying at we didn't have the energy to start drinking. We'd watch half an hour of a baseball game on the telly with a soft drink and go to bed. So it was nice to have a bit of time to just enjoy a beer and not worry about how long we would have to wait to get on this ride or that ride. That's the benefit of having been before and being able to be a bit more choosy about what you do. The picture below is what Tune-In Lounge would look like if every seat were not taken;

There was bright sunshine when we emerged from Tune-In Lounge, albeit with still a few specks of rain here and there. We made our way over to what in my opinion is Hollywood Studios' main attraction, Star Tours. This is the park's Star Wars-based simulator. Last time we were here it took the form of an X-Wing flight, soaring through Beggars Canyon or some such while trying to avoid being blown to shit by Imperial Fighters. This time was different again, with C-3PO sat at the front of the vehicle giving you a running commentary as you race through several of Star Wars' famous locations. Threepio is really there. He's not animated. He's more like a robot perched upon a platform at the front of the vehicle as in the picture below.

At one point Darth Vader rocks up, sending you hurtling backwards with just a wave of his force-powered hand. He says something but I can't remember for the life of me what it is. It is dark and sinister. This is not the humorous approach taken by the Simpsons ride. Vader isn't known for his sense of humour even if most classic villains wouldn't be classic villains without their laughter. You might not be guaranteed to see him anyway. Apparently there are lots and lots of different scenarios so that if you have enough time to queue up for the ride more than once you are very likely to get a different experience. We didn't have time to test this theory but how clever is that? It blows my mind that they can put together one film that is precisely in sync with the movements of your seat in the vehicle but to know that there are lots of them is even more amazing. It's genius and they must spend months working on it. No wonder they charge you a bloody fortune to get into places like this.

We finished at the Backlot Express just next door to Star Tours. You might not get what I mean from the picture below but it looks like a warehouse or a factory floor but is actually a fast food restaurant. We went to sit in a quiet area of seating away from all the families with their stupidly loud children throwing food at each other. Within five minutes of sitting down they had closed off the area we were in and wouldn't allow anyone else to sit there even though every other table apart from ours was vacant. It was getting late but when this happens it just makes you feel unwelcome. Like the DJ turning on the lights at Lowies in the mid-90s. They're not actually saying it, not verbally, but what they mean is 'please fuck off now while we clean this place up.'

Eventually we did just that.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Disney's Animal Kingdom 2017 - Avatar - A Far Cry From That Boke In Emmerdale That You Were Meant To Hate

A new addition to Disney's Animal Kingdom since our 2010 visit is Pandora - The World Of Avatar. Dedicated to all things related to James Cameron's frankly odd film about blue people (or something) it opened just seven weeks before we arrived. As a film Avatar is fairly over-rated, and the idea that they would dedicate a whole area of a major Disney theme park to it is a little surprising. What I do like about it though is that its main protagonist is a wheelchair user. Only a pretend one, mind. Sam Worthington couldn't put up with the shit that I have to on a daily basis but his character has to. Anyway, his story is a refreshing change from all the negativity around disability. A far cry from that obnoxious bloke in Emmerdale that you were meant to hate.

This being a recently opened attraction you'd better get there early. We arrived shortly after 8.00am, which when you consider that the park doesn't open until 9.00am certainly qualifies as early. We knew that there would be queues and potentially a lot of waiting. We weren't the only ones aware of this. Even at that time there were masses of people in front of us in the queue. Americans aren't good at queuing. It was a bit of a scrum, and it continued as we eventually made our way in. They let us in around 8.30, but only for the privilege of being able to stay in the enormous queue as it wound its way down from the entrance to Pandora. Nothing would be open and available until 9.00. I don't know how much distance we covered in that queue but it must have been a couple of miles at least. When we got to the end of the queue for the main ride - Flight Of Passage - there were signs indicating that it would be a 90-minute wait between the end of the queue and the ride. Ninety minutes! Things you can do in 90 minutes;

Watch three episodes of Emmerdale featuring that obnoxious bloke that you were meant to hate
Make your full England international debut
Drive home from Barnsley to St Helens on a Friday afternoon when you are meant to be in a psychology lecture
Watch over half of Avatar
Procrastinate at your desk when there is mountains of work to do

But the thing about this particular queue is that, like the Star Spangled Banner at a baseball game it doesn't stop. You are always on the move in the queue. You get quite the tour of Pandora that way, and if the 90-minute prediction was correct then at the pace we were moving we would have covered many more miles. But it wasn't 90 minutes at all. It was more like 40 before we actually got on the ride, which makes me think that they just put up these signs indicating outlandish waiting times to put some people off and thus reduce the numbers. I remember Liverpool FC doing something similar when they paraded the Champions League trophy (the European Cup to you and me) around Liverpool in 2005. They made an announcement suggesting that it would be a couple more hours before they reached St.George's Hall where most of the people were gathered, and that at a time when tens if not hundreds of thousands of people had already been waiting for around three hours. On that occasion it worked on Emma and I and we went home. We never did see Stevie Me hoisting the trophy he won single-handedly on that open top bus. Yes, I know there were some other footballers involved but you try telling that to the curator of the Anfield museum.

Once you get inside there are many Avatar themed things to keep you amused as you continue to wait to be let on the ride. Consider this, which I fully intend to use as my profile picture should I ever need to join Tinder;

Everybody in that queue took a photograph of this similar to this one. It was almost like it was a condition of getting on the ride. Whether everyone else has imagined using it for their never-to-be-created Tinder profile I couldn't say.

Anyway, back to the ride. Before you actually get on it there is what can only be described as the rigmarole of being 'synced' to an Avatar to go through. This wholly unnecessary and entirely make believe process involves standing on a designated number that is printed on the floor of the holding room. Or sitting on it in your chair, obviously. I couldn't help but note the irony of the fact that Worthington's character wouldn't be able to stand on his pissing designated number. Or maybe he would when he's asleep. Oh I don't bloody know. The idea is that you, mere mortal, cannot take a Flight Of Passage on a banshee (for that is what these massive blue winged beasts are known as) alone. You can only do it if you are as one or 'synced' with an Avatar. Cynics have two options when evaluating this concept. Either you think it is just a way of drawing out the experience so that you don't feel like you have queued for what could have been 90 minutes (but wasn't) just for a few minutes on the ride, or it is another way of distracting you from the fact that what you are actually doing is still waiting to get on the ride. Make up your own mind when you get there about whether the syncing process is part of the experience or not. The official line is that since humans cannot ride on a banshee what they are doing is recreating that experience for you via the Avatar. Which to me sounds like a pretty lame excuse for being unable to design a ride vehicle that looks like a banshee but I'm not the Avatar expert. Their explanation could be entirely plausible.

Finally you are lead to a room which again has numbers printed on the floor. This time they represent the numbers of the vehicles on the ride, so you move along to the one at your designated number. This is where it gets tricky for wheelchair users. The vehicle is not so much like a blue-winged beast or banshee, and more like a motorbike. There is no room to transfer on to it from the side so you have to try to slide on from the back of it. I just about managed this but not without considering the very real possibility that my jeans would end up around my ankles.

Clearly I am not the most experienced when it comes to sitting on anything resembling a bike, so I was briefly concerned about having some balance issues once the thing got going. Worry not, because before it starts support for both your sides and back magically appears. So now it is like being sat on a bike but with a high back rest and maybe some side guards. You're not going anywhere.

Which is a good job, because from the moment it starts and the vehicle starts to tilt forwards in a similar manner to what we'd seen with the Gringotts Bank Ride at Universal you know you are going to need those supports. At the very beginning of the ride it simulates swooping down from the top of a cliff towards the water. It's indescribable how that feels. Exhilarating but also eye-popping and a little bit bracing. After that first drop it never quite reaches those heights again because you know what to expect from then on. As with the others you can rationalise it at all times knowing that you are not really moving off the spot, even if you are being thrust sideways, upwards, downwards, forwards and backwards. It might sound a bit sickening but it is colossal fun and the visuals and the sound effects are wondrous. You can even here the banshee breathing beneath your legs which is a little bit confusing given that you are told that you are not able to ride as a human and that you are experiencing this because of the syncing with the Avatar. Regardless of such nit-pickery it is all hugely enjoyable and the only thing stopping you from rejoining the queue immediately for another go is the thought that the waiting time will be at least as long if not longer than last time and, this being Disney, you have plenty to get through.

We were even more pressed for time because we only had two more days in Disney's theme parks before we were to move on to St Petersburg for the Tampa Bay Rays baseball game on Friday night. So that meant trying to do Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom and Epcot in that time. We would have to be selective.

Hindsight would have probably led us to skip Pandora's other main attraction (apart from its fantastic scenery) the Na'vi River Journey. It's visually impressive but if you are not that familiar with Avatar you won't really know what you are looking at as you amble along in your little boat. But it's biggest flaw is that it is too slow and gentle to raise any excitement. It reminded me of the Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios that we tried out in 2010. Occasionally diverting but mostly a little bit dull.

Of much more interest is the Kilamajaro Safari. This was one we had done before but is definitely worth a second go. You go aboard a large safari vehicle and get around a tour of the park lasting around 20 minutes. During that time you get to see the free-roaming animals that live in Disney's Animal Kingdom which include elephants, giraffe, the customary bongos and, legend has it though we didn't see any, lions. We were advised by Sarah, our driver, that the night time tour is the one in which you are most likely to spot a lion or two. But you know, this is a zoo and spotting lions is something we can do 20 miles away from home. It wasn't a priority here. For accessibility fans, I remember this tour being a little more bumpy last time out and having to hold on during certain parts. This time it seemed more gentle, but if I'm honest I can't remember whether that is because they have amended it or because I now have better brakes.

If you are one of those crazy people who is frightened of spiders then best avoid 'It's Tough To Be A Bug', the park's 3D show based on animated insect-flick 'A Bug's Life'. Eight legged freaks come at you from all angles in this one much to the terror of many of the kids present. You can also expect to get wet again, and for things to get a bit whiffy when a stink bug named Claire De Room (see what they did there?) let's one go. The central theme of the show is about why bugs and insects and other such creepy horrible things should be considered friends (no, not Piers Morgan) but after 10 minutes of this you might be forgiven for coming out of the theatre disliking bugs and grubs that little bit more than when you went in. So long as you realise their importance to the eco-systems I think Disney will be happy. Or if you spend a few dollars in the mandatory gift shop on the way out.

After a brief trek down the trails in which you can find the park's gorillas and tigers it was time to hop back on the Disney bus and get on over to Hollywood Studios for the afternoon.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Universal 2017 - Minions, Marky Mark And Trundling Along In The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter

If you are a guest at any of the Disney Resort hotels you can take a free bus from right outside your hotel to any of the four Disney parks. The buses are fully accessible, and run very regularly to all of Disney's Animal Kingdom, Disney's Magic Kingdom, Disney's Hollywood Studios and, predictably, Disney's Epcot. All of which we were about to find very handy over the coming days. However, if you have the audacity to want to spend your day at Disney's great Orlando theme park rival at Universal then you are on your own.

That meant a taxi ride for us on Tuesday morning, and a very expensive one at that. We had been advised by the hotel concierge to give ourselves an hour to get there because of the traffic at that time of day, and that it would be expensive as a result. Ordinarily it is about a 20-minute drive from Disney's Port Orleans French Quarter to Universal but in the morning traffic it took around 45 minutes. It cost $37 which is roughly £28. Not much less than it costs to get home from Liverpool after a drunken Friday night with work. Still, I thought, at the current rate you are only in Orlando every seven years so just stump up and get on with it.

It was absolutely worth it. Universal is an amazing place, possibly my favourite of all the theme parks we visited on the entire trip. That view may or may not have been helped by the fact that we had fast passes for everything so queuing was kept to a minimum. Yet there are also six or seven genuinely great simulator rides across the two parks there as well as all of the new Harry Potter related shenannigans that Emma had been looking forward to seeing so much.

Fast passes or not any day at an Orlando theme park begins with a queue. First is the queue to have your bag checked by security, then comes the queue to actually get into the park. There are moving walkways leading up to the main entrance, rather like the ones they have at some airports. I mention these because if you use a wheelchair you are expressly forbidden from using the moving walkways. There is even a sign to illustrate this rule, a bog-standard disabled logo (man sitting down with spike up his arse, you know the sort of thing...) but with a big, thick red line through it. In a supposedly progressive, inclusive world it just didn't seem right seeing that sign. A little unsettling. The mind boggles as to what the kind of people who chain themselves to fences in disability rights protests would make of it. It also meant I would have to push myself down the walkway to the entrance which is something anyone can do without in 95° temperatures.

Once at the entrance we were helped by the fact that there is a queue reserved solely for wheelchair users and their companions. This shortened our wait considerably but it may have been shortened even further where it not for the lax attitude towards what constitutes the need for a wheelchair in the USA. Basically, anyone who can't be arsed walking and who can get their hands on a wheelchair can use this dedicated wheelchair users queue. Wheelchairs are readily available for hire, as are Brian Potter-style scooters that nobody in all of the United States seems to know how to operate. So anyway if we are being accurate about it the queue we were in is for wheelchair users and others who suffer from being fat, lazy or both. Nobody will be asking you for any proof of disability in this queue. The only qualification you need to be here is old fashioned sloth and/or the ability to eat continuously.

First up for us, just because it was right in front of us, was Minions. To give it it's full title, Despicable Me Minions Mayhem. Now you might have visions of this being a little childish. Of sitting in a very slow cart while watching those annoying, squeaky yellow ruiners of Despicable Me harping gibberish at you. Not a bit of it. Well, there are annoying, squeaky yellow ruiners of Despicable Me everywhere but there is also Gru and it is anything but slow. Last time we were here this ride was themed for Jimmy Neutron which was also a surprisingly entertaining affair. This is the same sort of thing, a simulator which would have you swear that you were driving, swinging, falling and swooping at breakneck speeds. All the while there is some sort of narrative going on involving the Minions and Gru but it is hard to make any sense of it all while your seat is veering this way and that. It's all pretty breathless but it is excellent fun all the same.

Shrek 4D was here when we last visited but the film has significantly changed. It is not as intense as a simulation as the Minions ride but you can still expect to be thrown around a little in your seat as it moves up, down, back and side to side. You'll also have water squirted at you to create the impression that you have been sprayed with something more unpleasant. It is a more coherent story than can be seen at Minions, though the rescuing of Princess Fiona from Lord Farquaad by Shrek, Donkey and the dragon might not be the most blindingly original plotline.

I've never been a fan of Transformers. I think it's my age. When I was very young they didn't exist, and by the time they did I had reached an age at which I considered cartoons beneath me. The revival of the characters in Marky Mark's smash-em-up movies has done nothing to inspire me to become interested either. But remember we are talking about rides and simulators for the most part here. I am not exactly an avid fan of Shrek or Minions either but the rides are no less fun for all of that. The same is true of Transformers, which is the same sort of thing whereby you are tricked into believing that you are driving, swinging and falling at ridiculous speeds while trying to avoid some grizzly fate or other at the hands of whichever one is the baddie. It's not easy to tell because again following what is being said while you are on the ride is a tricky business. Whatever it was that was going on it sounded serious but, this being a simulator, I always felt there was a fair chance we'd make it out without incident.

Next up was The Simpsons. That meant the long, winding, climbing queue which last time we were here led me to believe that this might be an actual, real rollercoaster. I don't do real rollercoasters. I'm probably not tall enough for a start. But the main reason is I can't for the life of me see the fun in being genuinely scared out of your wits for five minutes before spending the next 20 throwing up all over Buzz Lightyear. I stick to the simulators and the 3 and 4D shows. Anyway as we know The Simpsons is not a real rollercoaster and the winding, climbing queue is made bearable by some highly amusing clips at various points which I think are exclusive to the park and not just repeats of old shows that have been broadcast. The jokes relate to the ride and the likelihood of sustaining a major injury or incurring death so unless there is an episode where they all go to a theme park then I think this stuff is just for the theme park visitors. Like Shrek the in-ride film has changed since last time but it's still a very similar experience to what it was last time around. At one particularly hairy part of the ride you come to a sudden stop at the top of an impossibly large drop but are told by Homer not to worry because 'nobody is going to let you die in a theme park as long as you have a dime in your pocket'.

Re-reading my column on Universal from seven years ago I was surprised to note that I didn't rate the Men In Black ride very much at the time. Strange then that I felt genuinely disappointed on this visit to find that the ride was closed. It's either being refurbished or replaced with something else and my poor memory had tricked me into believing I'd be missing out on failing to hit targets from a spinning vehicle. It turns out the real reason that MIB stayed on my mind was the way they made it accessible which involved a large but just about portable ramp and a lot of slick manoeuvring. With that out of the equation it was time to turn to the real reason we had returned to Florida, the Wizarding World Of Harry Potter.

Emma loves Harry Potter. That is to say she loves the stories, not necessarily the speccy boy wizard himself. If you do too then this is the place for you. While the rest of the Disney and Universal theme parks have a distinct 'theme park' feel about them this section of Universal is vastly different. It's more like a film set or a studios tour like the one dedicated to Harry Potter at Watford. There's a full and detailed mock-up of Diagon Alley with its quirky wand shops and such like, and the Gringotts Bank which houses another great simulator. 'Escape From Gringotts Bank' tips you forward in your seat which is a bit unnverving for a biff with all the balance of a recently brushed Cristiano Ronaldo, especially when you then start to feel like you are travelling on the downslope of a rollercoaster at a million miles an hour. But as with all simulators its much more fun than an actual rollercoaster because you always know that you are not really going very far, if anywhere in most cases. Outside the ride, on top of the bank sits a huge dragon which, every 10 minutes or so, breathes actual fire into the sky above you. Well, it's a flame. Some kind of pyrotechnic no doubt. But you can feel the heat of it from the ground.

When another downpour came we took shelter right in front of a window displaying an animatronic version of Nagini, Lord Voldemort's great big, ugly snake. It moves and talks but there was too much murmuring from the crowds of people hanging around as well as the sound of the driving rain to make out exactly what it was saying. Something threatening, certainly. Nagini doesn't really do pleasantries. He's not asking how your day is. The rain was on and off for the rest of the day after that, so what better place to take refuge than in one of the Harry Potter themed pubs? We just happened to be in the vicinity of the Hogs Head, so a couple of pints in there was an obvious solution to the weather, which by that point had reached the kind of epic storm levels that we had found on our arrival at Port Orleans a day earlier. It would be a recurring theme in Orlando.

When it finally abated there was another side of Universal to discover, with more Harry Potter-related paraphernalia to explore. The pick of these was the Forbidden Journey ride, another wild simulator with which the only problem was a large bump in the middle of the seat which made transferring from my wheelchair a particular hazard. All I'll say is that you should be careful with it if you have any family plans in the future. Initially you are sat facing to the left at a 90 degree angle but once the ride starts to get in full swing it is you that it is doing most of the swinging. So much swinging was there, in fact, that even my legs were moving around as they dangled down from the seat. It might sound like an ordeal but it was amazing.

The preferred method of travelling to the other side of the park is of course the Hogwarts Express. Unfortunately they haven't yet come up with a way of having you run into a wall to emerge on the platform, but the Express itself is real enough. It's pretty slow, but then the distance between the two sides of the park is not that great so if it were to travel at any great lick it would all be over too soon. Instead you are entertained on your gentle coast by animated images of all of your favourite Harry Potter characters in the window. They are doing something or other, mostly waving and saying hello I think. On the opposite side the window is covered by a blind behind which shadows of Harry, Ron and Hermione appear and allow you to listen in on their conversation just like in the film scenes set on the train. In keeping with this shadowy vibe there are Dementors passing by. It's good fun if you like that sort of thing, and if you don't it is a good deal better than walking between the parks. Further authenticity is afforded to it all by the fact that you board the train after passing through Universal's own version of King's Cross Station.

All Harry Pottered out, the final ride of the day was an underwhelming affair, Skull Island; Reign Of Kong. It's a 3D experience inside a truck, the highlight of which is a dust up between the superstar gorilla and what appears to be a dinosaur. I haven't seen the film and maybe this makes more sense if you have, but although it is visually impressive there is very little to thrill in terms of movement on the ride. I couldn't help but think that it was a dereliction of duty on their part to not have the Empire State Building and some aeroplanes featuring somewhere along the way.

A significantly cheaper taxi ride back to Port Orleans in the lighter night time traffic ended our day. It cost around $20 (£15) which is still steep given the distance, but when you have been expecting to fork out another $37 it comes as a pleasant surprise. The Animal Kingdom, and the newly-opened Pandora area housing all things Avatar was on the agenda for Wednesday morning.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Disney 2017 - Sheltering From The Storm With An Overly Talkative Country Singer

Seven years ago I went to Florida with Emma and her mum and dad. Just to visit the Disney and Universal theme parks mostly, and take in a little bit of baseball. You can read about all of those escapades here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

For our return we went it alone. And we weren't confining ourselves to theme parks. Our two-week trip would take in not only Disney World but also St.Petersburg, Florida City and The Everglades, Key West and Miami Beach. As we did in Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas in 2011 we would hire a care to flit between these places. Like Neymar, it was busy, ambitious and overly expensive.

Disappointingly for regular readers of my travel scribblings I can't start this edition with much of an airport disaster. The worst thing that happened to us at Manchester Airport was the usual chicanery in which I'm told to get to the gate early so they can put me on the plane first, only to be left till last and therefore have my valuable bacon butty and lager time wasted. Annoying but hardly reason enough to begin writing sternly worded emails to the faceless blurts who run these places.

We wouldn't be getting hold of the hire car until we left Disney World later in the week. Until then we had four nights at Disney Resort's Port Orleans French Quarter to enjoy. Access is important to Disney to the extent that as part of the hotel package they send an accessible bus to pick you up from Orlando Airport and take you directly to your hotel. They call it the Disney Magical Express and it has a whole area of the airport devoted to it. The trouble is it is not the speediest service in the world. We waited for almost an hour for a suitable bus, even though the five that were parked outside the waiting area seemed suspiciously suitable to me. There was one other person using a wheelchair who was waiting for a bus, so it wasn't as if they were inundated with people who needed an accessible bus. It really shouldn't have taken that long. When it finally arrived access to the bus was interesting. It was a bog standard lift at the back of the coach, but having had the experience I can tell you that the lift is higher than it looks in the picture below. And it has holes in it that you can see through so you feel like you are on the glass roof at Blackpool Tower. Even more disconcerting is that the drivers are not allowed to stand on the lift with you as you go up or down, so they send you up, and then leave you sat there nervously in the clouds while they walk back around to the front of the bus and then all the way down to the back again so that they can help you to your space and apply all the relevant straps and what-not. When you exit the bus, they leave you at the top again while they walk through to the front of the coach and around to where they can control your descent.

By now it was raining, which would become something of a theme in Orlando. It had rained on our last visit but only for very short spells. Within 10 or 15 minutes everything had dried up again. But that had been in May, whereas now in July we were arriving during the rainy season. It was relentless all the way from the airport to the Port Orleans French Quarter, via a drop-off at Disney's Old Key West resort. When we got to the lobby (that's what they call it, there is no such thing as 'reception' in America) we checked in and found that our room was in another building. The furthest building away from the lobby. We spent a good 20 minutes under a shelter outside wondering if the driving rain, explosive thunder and crackling lightning would stop for long enough to allow us to go and find the room. It didn't.

When you check in at Port Orleans French Quarter you don't get a room key. You get a Disney Magic Band. Not only is this your room key but also your tickets to all of the Disney theme parks and any fast passes you choose to fork out extra money for to help you avoid spending your days in endless queues. We managed to get fast passes for everything at Universal which would be our first port of call the next day, but there weren't any available for the Disney parks. We would have to order them for individual rides as and when the opportunity arose via an app that Emma had on her phone. The good thing about Disney Magic Bands is that since you are wearing them all of the time it is very difficult to lose your room key or your tickets for the parks. But I don't even want to discuss with you how much it costs to get a two-day ticket for all four Disney theme parks and fast pass entry on to everything at Universal. It's astronomic. The kind of thing you might be able to afford every seven years.

The Magic Bands look a little like this, although ours were of the gray variety. I didn't know until just now that they came in different colours like in this picture. Nor did ours have our names on. I'm glad about this really. As useful as a Disney Magic Band was I didn't really want to draw attention to it as a fashion accessory.

Having finally given up on seeing an end to the biblical storm we made it over to the restaurant where a man dressed clownishly started chatting to us about where we had come from. At this point you have to tell people that you come from near Liverpool. Only Roy Haggerty tells someone from outside the UK that he comes from Thatto Heath. There are a sizeable number of people inside the UK who haven't even heard of St.Helens, which is just preposterous given the efforts of Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook but there we are. That's how it is. So as soon as you mention the word 'Liverpool' to someone from outside the UK, and in particular an American it seems, they pounce on the opportunity to bang on about The Beatles. Clownishly Dressed Man was asking about Sir Paul McCartney and whether or not he can be seen hanging around Liverpool. Really. You have more chance of seeing Salman Rushdie in Iran than you have of seeing Sir Paul McCartney in Liverpool. Strangely and not a little rudely, he broke off mid-conversation and went to chat to some other poor victims on the next table to us. It was a relief.

After we ate the rain had relented sufficiently for us to find our room. The rooms are in three numbered apartment blocks and although our room was in building 1, that turned out to be the furthest building from the restaurant also. The picture below is a little misleading as it shows the building without 17 litres of rain covering it but you get the general idea of what the area looks like. If you turn left just past that lamppost by the fence you will eventually come to the lobby, the restaurant and the bar. And you'll probably get wet;

It had been a very long day and with an early start in the morning we weren't up for a late one. But we did go to the bar for a couple of beers just to pass the time until what might be regarded as a sensible bedtime. The flight over to Florida messes with your body clock because they are five hours behind the UK. We flew at 10.30 in the morning UK time but when we landed in Orlando it was only 2.30 in the afternoon. So you have to live those five hours all over again. Entertaining us in the bar was a chap called John Stevens. On each table was a booklet listing all of the songs that John knows how to play. He took requests, but it is safe to say that there would be no mileage in asking for anything by The Prodigy. John was a country and western singer of a passable enough standard. A very American thing. His problem was that he liked the sound of his talking voice much more than that of his singing voice. In between songs he would have 10-minute drivel conversations with his audience. Not us, I hasten to add. We were at a table at the back by the bar, set back from where he was performing to a small group of people gathered closer to him. Unfortunately most of these people seemed happy to engage in conversation with him, all of which limited the entertainment value and cranked up the annoyance levels. Perhaps I was just tired.