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.