Wednesday, 30 June 2010


You'd expect we'd be parked out by the time we rocked up at Universal Studios, some five days into our holiday. You'd be wrong.

On balance Universal is perhaps the best of the parks in the Disney area, though it is itself not a part of the Disney group. All of which means you get less Mickey Mouse and more of The Simpsons.

The latter is the closest I got to a roller-coaster for the entire fortnight. Even then it took me two attempts. The first time around I couldn't help but notice that the winding queue was travelling ever upwards, and by around the half-way point I was convinced that this could not be anything other than a roller-coaster. My mind even began to play tricks on me as I looked up and felt certain that I saw the vehicle, parked up on what looked like a very narrow, but very high track.

Unashamedly, I rolled back down to the bottom to ask the docile attendant about the exact nature of the ride. I have biff issues to think about at this point, and was not about to risk being thrust upside down at 743 miles per hour. The explanation I received was hardly informative, but fortunately I had Emma as a guinea pig. She remained in the queue and took the ride, returning some 40 minutes later (Orlando has a lot of theme parks, but even more queues) to inform me that it was just a simulator.

We trailed back up, killing another 40 minutes stone dead in the process. I have to say it was worth it though. It feels for all the world like you are travelling on the world's most dangerous, most inept roller-coaster, complete with it's broken track and the presence of Sideshow Bob trying to damage your health at every turn. You find yourself hanging on all the same, while there is a generous smattering of Simpson's humour featuring Homer, Bart and all of the regular favourites.

Men In Black was not so impressive. Indeed, the most impressive thing about this ride is the lengths they go to to make it accessible for wheelchair users. The portable platform they use is a ride in itself, as it is slowly transported towards the vehicle. Unfortunately the rest of the experience is something of a let down, as an attempt to emulate the shooting formula of Toy Story's Midway Mania fails to deliver. Maybe my gun was broken. It happens.

If it's a show you're after then move on to Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue or The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad. This has nothing to do with that rotund fellow from Brookside who can shortly be seen prancing around The Empire Theatre in a dress, but more in connection with the sailor and all around adventurer of the same name. Princesses and evil sorceresses abound, accompanied naturally by the usual blend of fireworks, unneccesary splashing of water and a posse of shell-shocked and shocking extras.

Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue is not quite what you might expect, and not half as annoying as Michael Keaton's film. In essence it is a short musical, with tracks ranging from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack to the Black Eyed Peas. If you can deal with the notion of a man dressed as a werewolf belting out ballads then this might be for you. If not, you can always just watch the scarily but nevertheless scantily clad women dance. What?

For reasons too laborious to go into here it was not until our second visit to Universal Studios that we ventured over to the nearby Islands Of Adventure. What else does Orlando need more than another theme park? This one contains the much vaunted Spiderman ride, which is one of the more impressive of it's kind in Orlando. It's a simulator not dissimilar to The Simpsons, but it also has the added advantage of a 3-D element. All of which drags you face to face with Doc Oc and his fiendishly evil friends, aswell as having our hero Spidey jump on to your vehicle at regular intervals to instruct you on what is required of you in the next part of the adventure. It's all a good deal better than this column makes it sound.

Surely the only place to dine at Universal or Islands Of Adventure is the NBA restaurant. It's walls are adorned with the expected decor. NBA greats such as Magic, Larry, Rodman, Dr J and Kareem peer down at you from above as you tuck into your chicken (for Orlando serves little else it seems). Interestingly there is no sign of Michael Jordan, not even on the numerous screens that surround the dining area playing a mixture of classic highlights and recent clashes. It's probably contractual.

After your meal there is the by now mandatory gift shop to visit, though a replica NBA vest would, if you were so inclined as to wear such an item during an English summer, set you back some $140. I didn't have that kind of cash to splash on looking that bad, so I settled instead for the tried and trusted Chicago Bulls mug. On leaving the restaurant we were met by some of Orlando's wildlife, as three tiny lizards wanderered around on the paths outside. For some reason Emma was not totally enamoured by them when I pointed them out, although it has to be said that one of them was indulging in some slightly unnerving throat movement and colour changing shennanigans.

We survived long enough to make it back to the car, though bags were checked for miniature reptiles more than once...........

Monday, 21 June 2010

Orlando - Episode V

Hollywood Studios

One thing you can't avoid in Orlando is theme parks, and so we were unsurprised to find ourselves at Hollywood Studios just a day after visiting the Magic Kingdom.

No boats or monorails to the entrance this time, just straight down to business. First up was the Star Wars experience, Jedi Knight training for the under-12's. Inexplicably since I don't like Science Fiction, I have been a huge Star Wars fan since Harrison Ford had his own hips. So much so that I was prepared, keen even, to sit and watch a dozen or so youngsters pit their wits against a highly repetetive Darth Vader;

"Join me!" he said, more than once, and;

"This will be a day long remembered.". Unfortunately, he left out;

"Apology accepted, Admiral." and of course the classic;

"I am your father........"

Probably for the best. A lot of 21st century kids are very unsure about who their father is and so we wouldn't want to confuse anyone.

The stormtroopers were a nice touch with their slapstick comedy routine, but the impossibly named Jedi Master (Pak Doo Ik, or something) seemed to me to be a little old for this. However, to give him his due he managed to teach this unruly mob enough about how to wield a fake lightsaber (what did you expect? he asked upon revealing the training weaponry) to avoid any serious injury.

Staying on the Star Wars theme, next door is the flight simulator. Off we went on our flight to Endor, with only a small buckle between us and potential.........well...........not much really. This is a simulator don't forget. Nevertheless it is a convincing one and well worth a ride should you happen to find yourself in the vicinity. Just don't expect to see the Dark Lord of Sith. He's busy shaking his fist at children in various stages between bewilderment and mild fear.

It would be cynical and desperate to use George Lucas as some kind of tenuous link here, but from Endor and Imperial Fighters we moved on to George's other classic, Indiana Jones. Harrison's hips are, it turns out, protected by a stunt double. Who'd have thought it? His name escapes me temporarily, but stunt Indy was adept at running away from large rolling stones, ducking under slowly lowering doors, and making off with the treasure. Here is where you see how it is all done, with the help of some rather embarrassed and frankly embarrassing extras. And yes, there is a scene in which one extra engages in some lengthy sword-twirling before Indy calmly shoots him dead. Don't worry kids, he's not really dead.

By now far too much time has passed since we saw a decent 3-D show, so thank Heavens for the Muppets. or Muppetvision, as their film spectacular prefers to be known. My own personal favourites among Muppet characters have to be Statler and Waldorf, who greet the audience at the outset with their inimitable and glorious grumpiness. By the end one of them (who knows which is which?) is describing the show as 'moving', to which the other replies;

"Yeah, I wish they would move it to Pittsburgh."

The most memorable thing about The Great Movie Ride is the sudden appearance of Bugsy Malone. I'm just at the right age to remember the old kiddies musical in which custard pies abound, and so it was interesting to see the cast try to pull off an even hammier take on the old gangster tale. Bugsy takes command of the vehicle, fighting off the hapless and intentionally geeky tour guide who starts the ride. His purpose for doing so is somewhat lost in the blast of more bogus ammunition, but what I can remember vividly is the alien from the Sigourney Weaver film of the same name thrusting it's less than attractive cranium in the direction of our vehicle at very short notice.

Toy Story Mania is what Hollywood Studios should be all about. Yes you have to queue interminably, and yes it is essentially something which you might have enjoyed more in your youth, but you can't help but get swept along with it all the same. At first glance it has the appearance of a run of the mill waltzer, but when you throw in the 3-D shooting element you have all you need to engage your brain for the three or so minutes it takes to complete your ride. Emma managed to shoot more targets than me among the Buzz Lightyears and the Woodys, but I can take that kind of defeat with good grace. I'm only sorry that the queuing meant that there wasn't time for a rematch.

To save time I wish we had avoided Prince Caspian's Journey Into Narnia. If you absent mindedly wandered from your wardrobe into this kind of Narnia you would be peeved in the extreme. This Narnia extends only to a large dark room full of screens, on which they play clips from what was a modestly successful, largely pointless film. At the end of this you are led into a room where some of the film's props and costumes are exhibited, but I was thrown out by a Japanese usher before I'd had chance to fully take in what was on display.

Journey into Narnia vies only with Twister at the Magic Kingdom for the title of Disney's lamest attraction. We returned to the Magic Kingdom for reasons too tortuous to explain here, so you'll find out later exactly why you should avoid the alleged 'ride' based on the Tornado chasing exploits of Helen Hunt and someone called Bill.

Paxton, I think.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Orlando Magic (Kingdom)

From one Kingdom to another, and Disney's optimistically named Magic Kingdom.

Every effort is made at the Magic Kingdom to make visitors feel like they have left Florida, and with it Planet Earth. As soon as you leave your vehicle at the 'handicapped parking lot' you can forget about highways, Denny's and 7-Elevens. Please leave all sense of reality at the door.

First to negotiate is the choice of how to get to the park itself. You didn't think you were there quite yet just because you had parked your car, did you? This is the Magic Kingdom after all. Your first option is the Monorail, or if you have been traumatised by a certain episode of The Simpsons, there's the boat. We chose the Monorail, probably only because you have to go past it anyway to get to the dock.

Unfortunately, almost every visitor to the park that day had the same thought. All of which led to a long queue on an excessively steep ramp leading up to the platform. It was harder work to keep from going backwards and thus downhill than it would likely have been to push the extra distance to the dock. No matter, we were in the queue now.

The monorail itself was one of the first demonstrations of how much better the Americans are at access. They might all be capitalist greed merchants who eat too many burgers and call football 'sakker', but they know how to accommodate those of us with the termerity to turn up without the ability to walk. And get this, people of Northern Rail, all you need is a wider gate and a vehicle that is roughly the same height as the platform. As an extra little diversion, part of the route takes you through the Disney resort itself, where you get an elevated view of their customers eating their eggs over easy. Or something. Cynics might suggest that the route planners are trying to distract you from the fact that you still haven't reached the park yet.

It might share part of the name, but the Magic Kingdom bears little resemblance to the Animal Kingdom. Gone are the paths and slopes flanked by endless greenery, replaced by mocked up streets with shops that may or may not be real depending on which street you happen to be on. As you enter you are on Main Street, which is supposed to resemble a typical American town centre street. There are roads but no cars, except for the large, showy vehicles used to give everyone a decent view of the parades.

We ran straight into one as we got through the entrance. The streets are roped off, and you are asked to move aside to the pavements as the music is cranked up. Before you know it, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Snow White are moving past you, dancingly frenetically on top of their mobile perches. Accompanying them on the ground is an array of dancing, baton twirling types who my Dad might refer to as glorified Red Coats. He never saw Nick and whassisname at Prestatyn, obviously. To my mind they were a little better than that, although there is an uneasy feeling in watching some of the endless smiling and gesturing that these people are about to do whatever it takes to be the next Britney Spears. If there are casualties along the way, so be it.

So, parade over, what's to see at the Magic Kingdom? For starters there's a bizarre animatronics bird show which made at least four children scream in terror. For my part I was just bewildered, but I can see how it might have been scary to a child. The famed Pirates of the Caribbean ride which is said to have inspired the excellent first Johnny Depp film aswell as it's farcical sequels was one of the few things we found inaccessible. Looking from the outside, I found it somewhat underwhelming. It's hard to believe that it inspired the films, rather than the other way around.

For something a little more relaxed there's the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. Why not spend 20 minutes waiting to see if you are going to be picked on, and thus publicly ridiculed by a small green monster with one eye who sounds a lot like Billy Crystal? You can enjoy watching others squirm while you wait, and who knows like us you might just get lucky and escape the degradation. Across the street from there you can help Stitch as in 'Lilo And' to capture aliens. It's another 3-D experience, which Emma says included the illusion that Stitch was sitting on her shoulders flapping his wings. Or whatever they are. There was not an option to transfer from my wheelchair, so I felt nothing of the sort, though I did endure the rancid aroma of Stitch's verbal wind.

Transferring is a must for wheelchair users at something called Mickey's PhilharMagic 3-D show. Prepare again to get wet and feel potentially unpleasant winds in your face as Walt's famous mouse takes you through a whole host of Disney classic moments, variously pelting and leaping out at you along the way. Donald Duck finds all of this particularly pleasing, though he remains as difficult to understand as Sir Alex Ferguson talking to Muhammad Ali. Later he invites you on his boat, and there's the grander Liberty Square Riverboat Cruise also.

Yet before this piece starts to read too much like an advert for it's subject, I should just share with you an exchange between me and a fellow customer at the end of the PhilharMagic show. At the end of the row reserved for wheelchair users I passed a young man sitting in an electric wheelchair. I have no idea why he was not leaving, given that the show had finished and we were being ushered outside in the usual hurried fashion. However, he tapped my shoulder as I went past and said;

'Haven't you got an electric chair?'

'' I replied.......

'..........I need the exercise.' I continued.

Undeterred, he glared at me rather too intensely and asked.....

'.........would you like one?'

There is nowhere in America where you are safe from the perils of someone trying to sell you something. Nor is there any limit to the poor taste to which they will stoop to sell it. He probably didn't need the electric chair he was sitting in. Clearly, this was a man on commission and in a hurry to shift chairs.

I couldn't afford to buy one even if I was lazy enough to consider it.

We left for our evening meal, where Emma's mum had arranged a suitably embarrassing surprise. She had booked a table at the Crystal Palace Restaurant (much to the discomfort of the rest of Emma's Sheffield Wednesday supporting family) where during our meal we were offered several photo opportunities with Winnie The Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet. I don't know where Roo Boy was but it seemed to matter little. The waitress was unfathomably helpful, although the pizza and chips from the buffet was among the worst I have ever tasted. It was straight out of Pizza Hut's scandalous £4 pizza meal promotion.

By sundown the rain had started to lash down. Emma and her family were not prevented from watching the impressive firework and lights show above the park's centrepiece Cinderella's Castle, but I looked on grumpily from the shelter of a shop doorway. Everywhere I looked there was a Disney Poncho protecting someone from the rain.

It was time to go. We would be back, after all...............


Sunday, 13 June 2010

Disney's Animal Kingdom

What else are you going to do the day after you have been to see a collection of sea creatures but go and see more animals?

Disney's Animal Kingdom was next on the agenda. It's becoming sketchy if I'm honest. I knew I should have taken a notepad with me, but then I draw enough attention to myself already without being that geeky. What I do remember is that the first thing we did at Animal Kingdom was get on the safari vehicle.

In the process of doing so I learned something that would be valuable to me for the rest of the trip. How to queue without throwing things. Queues had been few and far between at Sea World. Maybe they'd all gone to Ellesmere Port, I don't know. They were out in force at Animal Kingdom though, with a sign outside advising us that it would be 20 minutes before we would actually get on to the safari. Well, we had all day.

It's not just the queues, but the way one queues that is significant here. Rather than have one long line stretching all the way back to Japan (which I'm sure was just over by the Rhinos, but I might be getting confused), they cunningly get you to line up around snake-like railings. This creates the illusion that you are making progress when in fact you are merely moving through a series of rooms or corridors. Credit to them, they try to distract you from your impatience with interesting decor and perhaps the odd DVD, but they're making you wait nonetheless.

Finally on board the jeep I quickly noticed that all staff in the safari area where called Dan, Danny, Daniel or any other denominations of that name you can think of;

"Danny!" shouted Dan,

"Tell Daniel to take my name off the board!"

I don't know what this means exactly, but I'll be surprised if it made a difference for the board to lose any of it's Dans, Dannys or Daniels. Danny nodded anyway.

Anyway, Dan was our driver. He showed us all the things we had come to see, and quite a few we had not expected. In among the elephants, giraffe, lions, rhinos and bongos (there's always bongos at zoos and safari parks, don't you find?) were some rather less authentic creatures. Dan had been advised through his radio system that there were poachers in the area, and they were after the elephants. Apparently, ivory is worth a few bob. To prove this they had mocked up an entire poachers camp, and a mechanically controlled baby elephant hiding in a small jeep. Not to mention the voice of our informant, who also had us wait five minutes to allow time for an ostrich to move out of the road. I caught sight of it a while later, hurtling towards our jeep lest we make a play for it's eggs. Emma didn't think the eggs were real though.

Anybody who hasn't seen A Bugs Life might not be able to relate to what we did next. We visited a 3-D show based on the animated film, and I learned something else. If you use a wheelchair, get out of it at 3-D shows if you possibly can. I made the mistake of seeing this show from my own chair, and missed out on the simulation of being swatted at by a bug hell-bent on revenge for the loss of it's kin to the human race in this way. A huge waft of air came through the back of Emma's chair as the swatter swished narrowly by, and it was only when we left the theatre that I noticed that the seats all had small, strategically placed holes in their backs.

However, I am happy to report that I did witness Hopper (a giant grasshopper voiced by Kevin Spacey when he's not talking about the Old Vic) zoom into my face, pointing furiously at me for decimating the bug population with a rolled up Sunday Times. Or something. This may have been an attempt to educate serial bug squashers, but I don't have enough faith in humanity to believe that the insect death toll will fall as a result. I was also fortunate enough to be able to feel the blast of wind in my face when the enormous, fat purple bug let one go, so to speak, and to get just as wet as everyone else when a spider exploded or soiled itself. Lovely.

After that it was on to another theatre for a stage version of Finding Nemo. It was all very entertaining, yet I can't help but feel that the highlight was at the end when the seagulls famous for crying 'mine, mine, mine' in the film, changed the call to 'bye, bye, bye' when they wanted to boot you out of your seat at the end. Actually there is some very clever puppetry in the performance, along with some lung-busting singing. Just don't expect the same level of humour. They've only got half an hour to tell the story. A similar principle allows me to describe a day out which lasted around 10 hours to you in just one blog.

And the rest...........? Well, it's a zoo. You've all been to Chester. Just imagine that with searingly hot weather. And rollercoasters. Difficult, I know.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Bon Jovi

Sorry to interrupt the Orlando story but I feel the need to write this while it is fresh in the memory. For those of you strange enough to be wondering, the Orlando story will continue next time I find myself at a keyboard with an hour to kill. The World Cup is not helping, nor will my impending return to work.

Before we proceed I have to take you on a short detour. My blue badge has expired. In case you didn't know, a blue badge is a permit which allows you to park in designated disabled parking areas. The thought occurs to me that my disability is unlikely to expire, so it seems a little odd that my permit for disabled parking access should expire. Do the powers that be think I'm taking the piss? Just having a rest am I? 'Sit down with a pack of ginger nuts and a nice cup of tea and your legs will be strong enough to carry you before you know it young man.'


Anyway, in order to renew one's disability, a trip to the Council offices is required. So too are recent passport photographs (if you don't believe I'm disabled, have a look at them!), and a fee of two English pounds. A cynic would suggest that this is why blue badges are subject to renewal. They know full well I haven't been rehabilitated since the last issue, but they are damned if I'm getting away with the £2. I don't know if rehabilitated is the right word. Makes me sound like a serial killer.

So the woman dealing with my application (yes, there is a form) asks to see a letter confirming my receipt of Disability Living Allowance. I don't have a recent one so I have taken along one from two or three years ago. I was as disabled then as I am now (perhaps more so if you ask the right people), so I thought it would suffice. The woman is not so sure;

'I'll send it up to them for you but I don't know if they'll do it without another letter' she tells me.

You can just imagine 'them' can't you? Bureaucrats bound by the limits of their 'procedures', forced to leave their common sense at the door each morning. I am far from sure that I will get my blue badge renewed without another letter or visit to the Benefits Agency, the trauma of which is a whole new blog considering that I work for a living. Perhaps it is just me but I'm convinced whenever I go in there that everyone assumes I'm a dole bum just like they are. See, I'm even doing it myself now.

And so to Bon Jovi. We always stay overnight on these occasions, so we booked into the Custom House hotel. It's a quaint little place, with rooms cold enough to remind you that you are back in England if you have been away. For that extra authenticity it has an inaccesible cafe, which is all out of jacket potatoes sorry, but here's a cheese and ham toastie for a fiver. Will that do? It had to.

We needed to get the train to the O2. I was apprehensive about this because Emma never stops complaining about the inaccessibility of the London rail network. Being from the South East she has some experience in that part of the country (England's toilet, if you will), and to say she doesn't rate it would be something akin to suggesting that Wayne Bridge doesn't like John Terry. However I am happy to report that we managed to take the not one but two trains necessary to get to the venue, and to do so without any assistance from dullard rail workers. If anything, my experience of London's railways tells me that they could teach a thing or two to my friends at Thatto Heath and Lime Street.

Safely in our seats with our £4.30 drinks, we were entertained for a while by The Velvet Hearts. If like me you had not heard of them I can describe them as a soft rock act, but rather more understated than Bon Jovi. They have a pretty boy, muscle bound backing singer who wears a sharp black jacket and tee-shirt combo, with jeans. His tan is probably fake but is dazzling nonetheless. Despite his appearance, I couldn't help but liken him to Bez in the Happy Mondays, such was his lack of contribution and synchronisity to the others in the band. I'm afraid I can't recommend The Velvet Hearts any more than I can recommend Gary Go in support of Take That. What? I've told you, I'm travelling with a woman.

Eventually Jon, Richie and co arrived on stage in the expected Blaze Of Glory. That pun is intentionally crap, as it leads me on tenuously to my one beef about the evening's entertainment. Actually, it's quite a large beef. There were far too many of the band's well known songs, including the aforementioned movie soundtrack ditty, which were left on the shelf. I can understand the need to promote their new material (which is like the old material, but the chords are in a different order and the words are different, but hey if it ain't broke.......), but I think you'd like to have something to sing along to at a gig like this. They didn't even do Always, which I remarked to Emma was a bit like Robbie Williams not doing Angels. She replied that she wouldn't give a shite if Robbie had never sung Angels.

Maybe because it is a new era, or maybe because this was not a stadium gig, the patrons were not quite as I'd expected. There was a distinct lack of the long-haired, ageing denim wearers of my imagination, and instead they were replaced by an audience of all ages, very few of whom broke out of slight body movement and rhythmic clapping. Headbanging and stage-diving were not in effect. Bon Jovi are no longer a rock band. But then we knew that. Pop will always make you more dough than rock, and Jon knows this.

We drunkenly navigated our way back to the hotel thanks to an overly loud conversation I had with a woman called Natalie, and two equally lost and nameless northern folk. Somehow Emma arrived in our room some time before me and as I knocked on the door there was an awful moment when I thought she had fallen asleep and that I would be sleeping in the corridor. Whilst waiting I noticed that there was an awful lot of noise coming from the room next door. I do not wish to expand on that at this point.

The journey home was tortuous. It took two hours to travel just over 50 miles because of the jams, and I missed the opening match of the World Cup entirely, despite our leaving the hotel at 11.00am. In all it took six hours to travel the 220 miles or so back home, and the journey presented more than it's fair share of moments in which the will to live seemed to be evaporating. As consolation we stocked up on junk food, whereupon Emma promptly fell asleep leaving me to get on with the football-watching.

Oh, and if you are wondering about the encore...... Living On A Prayer, obviously.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Orlando - Episode II

Sea World

If I thought clambering into the car was acrobatic, I hadn't seen anything yet. The first morning of our stay we decided, for no other reason than Emma's mum suggested it off the top of her head, to visit Sea World.

Now I am sure that not so long ago this would have been a unique experience. Clearly Orlando leads the way in this kind of thing, but by now it is by no means the only place where you can see the full range of sea creatures without getting even a little damp. Only two years ago we were in Lorro Park in Tenerife watching two enormous killer whales perform leaps and gyrations from a distance Robert Shaw would have balked at (ok so that was a man-eating, rubber shark but you take my point). As close by as Ellesmere Port you can look upwards from an enclosed walkway and see some fairly sizeable sharks devouring an unfortunate squid.

None of which is to say that I did not enjoy the experience. I'd never seen Beluga Whales up close before, nor a polar bear. Albeit a sleeping polar bear. Certain people in our party had suggested that the polar bear would not be real and so decided not to visit the section to find out. I couldn't comprehend the pointlessness of exhibiting a fake polar bear and so took a leap of faith. I can confirm that it was real, even if it was about as likely to move in public as the Queen's bowels. In all honesty it probably does not enjoy the confinement relative to the freedom of the wild, but it was an awesome sight nonetheless.

Traditionally, and as with any of the other Sea Life Centres I know of, Sea World's centrepiece attraction is it's Killer Whale shows. 'Shamu Rocks America' the T-shirts proclaim, and again without trying to poo-poo your poo-poo it seems that this is something of an exaggeration. Shamu does not so much rock America as cause it to endure a steady ripple.

The show was understated in comparison to even that at Tenerife, with leaps and gyrations in shorter supply. This may well be linked to the recent deaths of handlers unfortunate enough to have got into the water with a Killer Whale having a bad day. Seems reasonable. To compensate the handlers are the new acrobats, dressing up in bright, sparkly costumes to perform death defying leaps and twirls, but at a safe distance from grumpy old Shamu and company. It's still magnificently entertaining, and a good deal more impressive than a biff getting into a hired car with the aid of a stategically placed handle.

Staying with the watery theme it was here that I experienced my first taste of the erratic Orlando weather. Emma and I were on our way back to meet the others (who had long since given up) when the bright blue sky turned grey and the heavens opened. I have never seen rain come down that fast. Stalls were hurriedly disassembled, shelter desperately sought. We ended up near a cafe with a covered forecourt, along with what seemed like 90% of the people who had visited the park that day. Any young lady caught in the downpour for more than a few seconds quickly replaced Shamu as the main attraction. The deluge lasted for around half an hour, but such is the heat of the sun when it reappears that it could not have been out for more than ten minutes before everything dried up again.

The obligatory mug safely purchased and packaged, we moved on to the next adventure.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Orlando Bloom

Right, now that title has conned at least 30 beautiful women (and you) into reading my work I can begin the real business of describing my recent trip to Florida.

I don't think I can take on this task with just one blog. Rather like America itself, the story is just too big for it's own good and so I've decided to break it down. It seems logical to take events in chronological order, so we are going to start with............

The Journey

There are always hiccoughs, cock-ups and balls-ups before any aviation ups when I visit an airport. This occasion was no different. To begin with the mini-bus driver charged us £5 more than was agreed for the ride to the airport, destroying any hope he had of a tip in the process. I noted darkly that he was from Wigan. I'll leave it there. Then there was the failure of the online check-in system to check people in online. The machine steadfastly, almost heroically refused to print out a boarding card, instead advising us to join the queue to obtain one in the traditional manner. It might just aswell have promised to dispense $50 notes or ice cold beer. Clearly it was a Liberal Democrat.

All of which is only slightly less of a stigma than being a shoe bomber, which is possibly what they thought Emma might be when they singled her out for a random search before boarding. I remain puzzled by the purpose of randomly asking passengers to remove their shoes for a more thorough search. Just because Emma hasn't got explosives in her trainers doesn't mean that Al-Ahly-Mahmoud-Hassan at the back of the queue hasn't. I was almost sure Emma hadn't anyway, but I suppose you never really know people.

The flight itself was agreeable, almost pleasant. If you have music and a book and are within reasonable distance of a toilet (fellow wheelchair users will know what I mean) then eight hours and 20 minutes isn't all that long. Having chosen to fly with Virgin Atlantic, we did have to put up with Branson delivering a smugly recorded screen message thanking us for lining his pockets and wishing us an enjoyable flight. Mercifully he quickly buggered off to run another marathon or buy another island.

Along with the music and the literature I watched a film called Invictus. Regular readers will know that I detest rugby union with every sinew of my being, yet this in itself did not prevent me from being mildly engaged by the film. It's more about Nelson Mandella and the political climate in South Africa post-apartheid than it is about another bloody successful penalty goal, although the climactic rugby action scenes are laughable in a way that would make Escape To Victory's director blush.

Before you land in the USA you have to complete one of their VISA cards. Not a credit card for buying things you can't afford and thus destroying the global economy, but a small green card recording a few personal details to pacify the immigration people. The airline staff can't stress often enough how important it is to fill this in correctly if you want to be granted entry into the USA, and so it was with some predictability that one of us filled it in incorrectly. It happened to be Emma, but it could just as easily have been me who realised too late that there was not enough space for the words 'United Kingdom' in the box enquiring as to your country of residence. New card issued, the stewardess wearily advised us to 'just put England'.

The same stewardess then made the unfortunate mistake of talking to me about wheelchair access on aircrafts when we were waiting for my wheelchair to be brought up from the hold. Yawning slightly, my ears only pricked up when she told me that her husband was himself a wheelchair user. While not exactly Helen of Troy, she had the classic air stewardess look, leaving me wondering how many millions her husband had been paid after his accident. I think about this sort of thing a lot when my eyes are half shut in the bathroom at 7.00 on a Monday morning, and will think about it even more should I ever find myself requiring new employment. If you want to make money (and therefore hump stewardesses) out of disability, don't be born with it. Ok?

On arrival in Orlando (see, I knew we'd get there in less than 2,000 words) we then had to negotiate the complex baggage reclaim system. Immigration were satisfied with our form-filling efforts, but still took the time to fingerprint and photograph each of us before they would allow us anywhere near our suitcases. When we did reach the carousel we obviously couldn't find our luggage, which it turned out had not quite managed to find it's way off the plane at that point. When it came around, only two of our three cases (what? I'm travelling with a woman) were on the designated carousel. The location of the third may have remained a mystery for all eternity had Emma not noticed during a trip to the ladies that a nearby carousel had stopped moving with only around three cases remaning on it. One of them was ours. Don't ask because I don't know.

Baggage claimed, we thought we were clear for departure to the holiday villa. Not so. We came to a staircase, which is never a good situation for me, and were told that if we could not carry our luggage up the stairs (hello!, I can't even get myself up there!) then we would have to leave it with yet more baggage handling staff and reclaim it at yet another carousel. It could not be taken in the lift (elevator, whatever), nor on the subsequent monorail we had to take to what we soon discovered was the real airport exit. Monorails were to become a feature of this trip, but for now we located our luggage (all on one carousel this time) and advanced.

We had arranged to meet Emma's family at the car hire desk. The plan was for Emma's dad to hire a car and drive us around. The villa was around 20 minutes from most of the parks and attractions, so it made sense. Unfortunately their flight from Chicago (they had been staying in Wisconsin with a friend. I know, Chicago is in Illinois) had been delayed. An amusing 20 minutes was passed listening to and watching a woman trying to leave a message on her answering machine covering the duration of her holiday. She must have done it 17 times, shaking her head more with each failed attempt. She should try checking into an airport online.

An hour or so later Emma's family had arrived and were ready to go, and I faced one more challenge. The car we hired needed to be big to allow for all the luggage. The problem with big cars tends to be that they are tall aswell as spacious. All of which meant that I spent a farcical five minutes trying to get into the back seat, before deciding that I could not, and instead climbing into the front. The manufacturer had kindly and cleverly placed a handle just above the door which allowed me to pull myself in. Had it not been for that I would have continued to look like Mini-Me trying to climb up Beyonce's leg, or worse still been left to spend the fortnight at the airport with it's multitude of carousels and lifts/elevators.

And the woman with the voicemail problems.