USA ’18 – Day 9 – A last hurrah for Hollywood Studios

We weren’t quite so lucky down the US 192 this morning only managing to get 12 out of the 15 lights green but it was still pretty swift. Here’s the journey from villa to the parks in two minutes (with the drive under the WDW sign in normal speed).

Once again we were up and out early in order to hopefully get a jump on the other guests and, in this case, get into Hollywood Studios early and into Toy story Mania before the hoards. Sadly it was not to be as when we arrived there was already a massive queue and a wait time shown of 135 minutes. This was at just after 9am!

The reason is that Disney hotel guests get to enter the park an hour earlier than the great unwashed. I guess the more you spend better the access. So it looks like there won’t be any Mania for the Thompsons this trip.

We split up again today with the boys doing the Rock n’ Roller coaster a few times while Helen and I went for the slightly less scary “have your picture taken with Kylo Ren”! We came back together to go on Star Tours once again and were rewarded with a scene that we had never seen before and must be pretty new as it included visuals from the latest film and an appearance from Poe Dameron. I wonder when actors sign on for film series such as Star Wars and Harry Potter they agree to do x films and as well as recorded segments for theme park rides. I guess that they must as nobody does that for nothing.

Post park we made a stop at the local Walmart on the way back to the villa. This was to stock up on essentials such as milk and cider and also because they have a large selection of Disney related clothing and other stuff. Not only that but it is official and much cheaper than the parks. A tee shirt in disney will cost you $20 and upwards where as a Star Wars logo tee shirt in Walmart is only $7.50.

My one gripe with Walmart, well my main gripe, is that they are incredibly profligate with carrier bags – they can’t wait to give them away. Pretty much every single item is lovingly put into a bag. Mind you these aren’t any “bags for life”, more like “bags for 20 minutes until you get home” but still. If we wanted to reduce plastic usage this would be a perfect place to start. Can’t see Trump signing up for that!


USA ’18 – Day 8 – Helen makes a plan

Today we were off to Epcot and had planned to dash over to Test Track first to sneak a quick ride in before heading over to Soarin’ where we had a fast pass. In order to squeeze that in we left home promptly at 08:20 and headed off down the US 192. In the past this road has been pretty stop/start due to the frequent traffic lights (there are 15 sets in a six mile stretch – yes I counted 🙂 ). This morning though we were on a roll and we did the whole six mile stretch without a stop at all – every light was on green!

All this meant that we were nice and early into the park so we shot over to Test Track and started to queue. When we didn’t move it quickly became obvious that there was an issue and, sure enough, there came a tannoy announcement saying that there was a delay. As we had fast passes elsewhere we exited and left what is my favourite ride in the park.

Epcot in April/May is always a beautiful place as the annual flower festival is on and it really does look stunning with both Disney themed displays and stunning colours.

Soarin’ had been updated since the last time we rode and instead of a ride over American highlights this one took in a number of different places worldwide ending in Epcot. However, it was obviously CGI’d but very realistic nevertheless.

We then wandered around the World Showcase which contains stylised versions of about a dozen countries including a very twee version of England.

Finally we went to a character greeting and met up with Mickey, Goofy and Minnie.

In the evening we tried out a new restaurant, the Olive Garden which is an “Italian” (it’s about as Italian as I am), which they were still building the last time we were here.

The food was delicious but, as ever, came in massive portions. To compound matters each main was served with a generous portion of bread and you could choose your main to be accompanied by either a salad or a soup all of which seemed a trifle unnecessary.

Both our boys are now above the legal drinking US drinking age and, until tonight, had no trouble in ordering what they wanted. For some reason tonight they were asked for ID which one of them didn’t have so had to make do with a Sprite instead. Given the beards neither looks under 21 and it’s a shame that the ID laws are not applied uniformly.

With limited days left and a lot still to pack in Helen, ever the project manager, created a chart for us to ponder over our dinner. So it is that the next six days are now planned in minute detail – please let me know if you’d like a copy of the Gantt chart!

USA ’18 – Day 7 – Rivers of Light

After the last few days frenetic activity it was nice to have a late start today. Our fastpasses for the day were all for late afternoon in Animal Kingdom. This didn’t mean, of course, that I could wake later and lie in, no I’m useless at that so I was still up just after seven. But at least we didn’t need to rush round first thing to get out of the villa and miss the crowds. So for the morning everyone did their own thing, in Helen and my case broken only by a trip to the local Publix supermarket.

After lunch we set off for Disney Springs (neé Downtown Disney). In the four years since we were last here it has changed enormously and has probably doubled in size. This has necessitated the building of two new multi-story car parks as the previous surface car park has been eaten into by the expansion.

The new Disney Springs is much more adult and upmarket than the Disney Springs it replaced. Where once there was a magic shop and a build-a-bear there is now a high end shopping centre featuring the likes of Zara and Lacoste. Fortunately the old favourites such as the Lego shop and, more importantly, Ghiradellis are still there. This meant that I was able to reacquaint myself with their strawberry milkshake as last tasted in LA last September.

Springs done we made our way for our first visit this holiday to Animal Kingdom. I love Animal Kingdom as it is so beautifully decorated with it’s highly stylised visions of Africa and Asia. It’s a real pleasure to walk around. We started off on the Safari ride where all the action seemed to be on the other side of the bus to me! We then walked through the gorilla enclosure and got to see a family really close up, albeit behind glass.

At eight we split up with the boys managing to squeeze in four more rides while Helen and I went to the Rivers of Lights show, something that is new since the last time we were here. This is a light show on the small lake in the park with colourful automated flower buds and a couple of boats. It was pretty impressive, especially when videos were projected onto giant sprays of water.

At nine we met up again by the park exit and were on our way home.

USA ’18 – Day 6 – Universal Appeal

We’d decided to go back to Universal today rather than use the Fast passes we had for Disney. That means that it is Disney 2 – Universal 2 so far in the battle of the parks.

We got there for park opening at 9am so that we could make our way straight to the new Harry Potter ride “Escape from Gringotts”. Getting through the park gates at Universal is always an excruciatingly slow experience as you aren’t trusted to scan your own ticket, this has to be done by an attendant. I guess that this is to speed up the process but in our experience it does anything but. Then you have to wait while your fingerprint is scanned and checked. It’s all a bit of a palava.

Anyway, that done and out the way we made straight for the Escape from Gringotts ride. Having never ridden this before we were a little apprehensive about what it would be like. The lead up to the ride was fabulous as you walk through the upstairs area of Gringotts bank before being taking to a very realistic lift which takes you “down” to the vaults. It is all beautifully done.

The ride was described as a roller coaster but turned out to be a mix of short roller coaster and motion simulator, which Universal does so well. You were seated in small cars and an overhead harness came done to pin you in place. It is the most restrictive ride I think I have been on. I won’t spoil the ride itself for others but it was short but very good.

When we came out the lines were still very small so we immediately went round and rode it again. That’s one of the great things about a. going early and b. Universal – the lines are short anyway and almost empty first thing. We were able to tick off: Gringotts, Men In Black (which is looking pretty dated now), Transformers and Shrek. After lunch we went in to the other park and went on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and then got the Hogwarts Express back to the first park and out.

In the evening we went to Chilli’s, a restaurant we used to love when it was still a going concern in the UK. The food is great and Mat loved his Jalapeno Margarita until I knocked it all over the table!

USA ’18 – Day 5 – A Pale Shadow of its Former Self

There was a time when Disney’s Hollywood Studios would have ranked as our favourite park but based on today’s visit it won’t be getting top spot in 2018. The park is currently undergoing a huge amount of building work creating the new Star Wars land and for this a number of rides have been levelled. Add to this that the all new Toy Story land is there but isn’t due to open until 30th June. They whole place feels small with not as much to do as before.

That said there are still enough rides to keep the boys entertained. They went on the Rock n’ Roller coaster a number of times. I’m afraid that I didn’t make it as far as the cars this year as I bottle it before getting on. The thought of doing it was making me feel physically sick and I decided that wasn’t a way to feel on holiday.

Dotted around the Disney parks are official photographers who will take your picture in iconic locations. Previously, if you had wanted to download these you had to pay for the privilege and we never bothered. This year that has been rolled into the ticket price so now we can get some pictures taken of all the family without my arm stretched out. It’s a great addition and brings terrific value. They photographers are good and the pictures are usually available on the Disney app within minutes. Brilliant!

Our gas guzzling 4×4 was ready for a top up today and so we popped into a garage. I won’t bore you again with the trials and tribulations of trying to pay for petrol in the US with a UK credit card but, in short, it’s a pain. Having filled the tank for about £20 (TWENTY POUNDS FOR A FULL TANK!!!) I went to start the car and nothing happened. There then followed a frantic couple of minutes while I tried to restart the car and interpret the dashboard warning lights. In the end it transpired that I had left the car in drive and you can only start the car when in park position. Doh!

On a happier note the 7/11 stocked bottles of Fanta Pineapple which is just the best thing ever and the sooner we can get this in the UK the better!

USA ’18 – Day 4 – Shop till you flop

After two full on days we decided that we would have a quieter day today by having a late start, breakfast out and a spot of shopping.

Breakfast in the US to the Thompsons means Perkins and for me that can only mean the Tremendous Twelve! I don’t know why I hadn’t done this before and in retrospect I’m quite glad I hadn’t but I checked the calorie count.

OMG! That’s more calories than I would normally consume in a day at home! And I bet that count doesn’t include me drenching the pancakes with maple syrup. Still it is lovely and I am on holiday…

Next stop was Dollar Tree (for me, Pet Smart for everyone else). That shop has the most misleading advertising. The windows are plastered with big signs saying “Everything $1”. I’ve whinged about this before but, because they aren’t compelled to show the tax, it is actually “Everything $1.07”. I can’t understand why they aren’t legally compelled to show with the tax. I know that tax rates differ between states but each state is so large they probably have different rules anyway so would need to print different menus etc. For most it would just be a change on the pricing gun.

Our next and final stop was the Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores which we drove to along the I4. The I4 is just like the M4 only hotter.

As you drive along the I4 I like to think that I’m surrounded by WDW “cast members” on their way to work. There’s Mickey Mouse in the Chevy in front and that’s Elsa in the massive 4×4 next to us.

A boring drive along the I4 also gave me an opportunity to try out the cruise control in our hire car – a Toyota RAV4. It’s pretty impressive as I’m used to setting the speed the car will carry on at that level until you brake or turn it off. The Toyota is more sophisticated in that it also has car sensing radar and will keep a good distance between you and the car in front. You can feel the car braking and accelerating in order to maintain the gap. In some instances the braking is pretty heavy when some bozo pulls in front of you.

Somewhat surprisingly the Americans aren’t heavy on the horn. There have been several situations where in the UK drivers would have been leaning on their horns but here they seem strangely restrained. Perhaps it’s because they are all armed to the gunnels and feel the humble car horn isn’t deadly enough.

USA ’18 – Day 3 – Not so Fast not so Furious

Our drive along the 192 into the parks takes us past numerous eating establishments but at the very end there is a formal looking building with the words “Bob Evans” above the door. Initially I thought that it might be an estate agents or a realtor in the local parlance but a quick search identified it as a restaurant. I then made the mistake of suggesting to the rest of the occupants of the car that as it had Evans’ name above the door it must be a more up market restaurant. This was quickly shot down in flames as it was pointed out to me that if having your name above your eatery was a mark of good quality that would make Wendy’s, Denny’s and McDonalds all fine dining. They had a point so I quickly drove on. I’d like to say that nothing was said of it again but these things have a way of coming back to haunt you.

Today’s park was Universal which is actually two parks but they are so small (compared to Disney) and so close together that we consider them as one. Universal feels a lot more adult in its theme with rides based on the likes of Harry Potter (of which there are many), Transformers, Simpsons and Fast and Furious.

We made our way straight to the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride for which the signs said there were 10 minute wait times. I can only assume that was the wait time to secure a locker because beyond that and the long walk to the ride itself there were no delays (as seen below). In keeping with many of the more recent rides in Universal this makes use of screens to display action as you are moved from scene to scene in some sort of cart. This is a lot more effective that I have made it sound here. The best example is probably the Transformers ride which seems very immersive.

Next stop was to Hogsmeade station where a trip on the Hogwarts express awaited us. This is what appears to be a real steam locomotive pulling four carriages. It is incredibly realistic. Once you are seated inside you really could be on your way to Platform 9 3/4 as the windows are replaced with TV screens projecting images of your journey including a number of iconic movie places and a very realistic run into London. It was very impressive. You step out onto Kings Cross station which too is very realistic.

That is not an accusation you could lay at Universal’s newest ride Fast & Furious — Supercharged. It had only been open a week and today was the official opening. Despite this, like the rest of the park, it was pretty quiet and we got on it easily albeit slowly. We all came off the ride saying the same thing – “is that it?” It was very short and pretty tame compared to the high octane films. I don’t think we’ll be rushing to go on it again.

Today was the first time ever (I think) that I have gone completely camera free on holiday. Instead all the pictures were taken with my phone and don’t seem to have suffered any for that. I did feel a little naked not carrying the camera round though and it is much easier to hold and use than a phone so I may yet still take it out with me.

For our evening meal we went to The Cheesecake Factory. I was feeling bloated from all the other meals we have had so I ordered off the skinnylicious menu where the salads were under 600 calories. What turned up was the biggest plate of salad I have ever seen and while it was delicious I could still only manager half of it!

USA ’18 – Day 2 – Kerching!

One of the things that irks me somewhat about coming to the parks in Florida is the price of the parking, in fact that they should charge for parking at all. That’s right parking isn’t included in the price! When we first came it was $5 a day and you got a really nice souvenir card to keep. Now the price has leapt up to $22 and all you get is a shitty paper receipt. Still we dutifully paid it like everyone else as we entered Magic Kingdom this morning.

With all other parks your journey to the gate is fairly straightforward. The car parking lot transport dumps you right there and just just need to walk right on in. Not at Magic Kingdom where you get dropped at the transportation centre where you have a choice of either getting the monorail or boat across the lagoon. We elected to take the boat as it is nice to see the park appear before you. Just before we were due to depart I noticed some people chucking money over the edge of the boat. Leaning over I could see that the pontoon was covered in coins that boat goers had thrown over. It seems that even when Disney aren’t asking for payment people still find a way to give more to the corporation!

Given that we have been coming to Disney since the boys were quite young we have a number of pictures of them in various places over the years. This year we thought that it would be nice to try and reproduce some of them and today was our first opportunity at the sword in the stone. Our initial problem was actually finding where it was. There was no guarantee of course that it would even still be there. However, we found a helpful guide who pointed us in the right direction and while the surroundings had changed a little it was basically exactly the same as when the first photo was taken 16 years ago.

I did wonder if the boys might be resistant to reproducing these pictures but to their credit they were both pretty amenable and the resulting shot is great.

We returned home early afternoon still suffering the effects of jet lag but having enjoyed our day in Magic Kingdom.

After a rest we went out in the evening to the family favourite Cracker Barrel which serves simple fare at cheap prices. I had, however, forgotten about how much choice there can be in a simple menu option. Helen had chosen something that allegedly came with scrambled eggs. In the UK if it says scrambled eggs you get scrambled eggs, no questions asked. Here it is like some complicated quiz to find out just how you want your eggs – who knew that there could be some many different options for the humble egg?

We went back home stuffed and jaded.

USA ’18 – Day 1 – Never Say Never Again

So, here we go again, for another spin around the Walt Disney World parks in Florida. Yes, yes, yes I know we said that last time was THE last time and that we said that the time before too but we just couldn’t resist. This really is the last time…

The flight was at a reasonable hour so we didn’t need to get up at the crack of dawn or wake the boys prematurely which was a blessing. After a chicken free (for me at any rate) breakfast in Nandos the boys went to the Weatherspoons to get their blood/alcohol levels sorted before being shut in a metal tube for nine hours. Helen and I wandered the rather uninspiring shops that Gatwick South Terminal had to offer.

The plane pushed back right on time and it looked like we were going to get away nice and promptly. We hadn’t even started moving in a forwardly direction when it all came to a grinding halt. One of the passengers had fallen “ill” and we apparently needed to go back to the stand to let him off. Worst was yet to come because not only did we have to let off the passenger they also needed to wrestle around in the hold for his baggage, reaffirm all the baggage in the bins around where he had been sitting and refuel the plane. Wait, what? They need to refuel the plane after having travelled approximately 100 yards? Just how close do they run these things? In the end the wait time wasn’t too bad and we were finally off.

Unsurprisingly a flight to Orlando is full of families and lots of young children. These have never been any particular trouble and they roam freely during the flight. There are two exceptions to this – take off and landing when the plane is filled with the sounds of children being forcibly restrained against their wills. That is a long 20 minutes.

Forward nine hours and we arrived at Orlando and our first snaking queue of the holiday. Despite the multiple lines and volume of people it didn’t take too long to get through, which was a blessing as it is a stressful time stood there wondering if you are going to be allowed in.

We collected the car and made our way out into the sunshine of an overcast Florida and straight into our usual row. Take two tired, stressed individuals and put them in a car with vague navigation instructions and light blue touch paper. It happens everytime. Despite getting lost and having to drive through a $1 toll because it wouldn’t take notes only coins – you would have thought that given the numbers of tourists fresh off the plane on this route that they would make it easy but oh no – we made it to the villa unscathed.

There is a now long established tradition that the first evening half our party has Dominos Pizza while the other half Chinese and this year was no different. Then we all sit around full and tried trying to hold out as long as possible before going to bed.

Tomorrow it’s back to Magic Kingdom.

Marillion, Hexagon, 19th April 2018 – So Here I am Once More

It has been a while since the last time I saw Marillion live – 34 years to be precise. A lot has happened since then for both them and me. My last outing to see them was at the Apollo in Oxford when Fish was still the front man. He burst onto the stage through a large bit of white paper I seem to remember. These days he’s not quite so active and is more concerned with his potted plants and new greenhouse.

Support for the band was Roxanne de Bastion, a folky-poppy singer who arrived on stage on crutches wearing only what appeared to be a nightshirt, one red boot and a leg cast. It was an interesting ensemble!

Next up was something else that I hadn’t seen before. Someone, the tour manager, I guess came out and told us about how they weren’t one of those restrictive bands. They were happy for us to take pictures and post videos to YouTube but please don’t use your mobile because it blocks the view of the person behind. This seemed somewhat contradictory to me. If you spotted anyone taking pictures you’d know that they were, apparently, a “twat”. I guess that makes me a twat then, although I did wait until the second encore.

And finally, they were here, on stage in front of me.

They make for an interesting bunch of people. Out front is Steve Hogarth who was excitable and expressive (His movements during the songs reminded me of comedian David Armand’s interpretive dance routine to Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”). He also had an odd line in musical instruments including a cricket bat, yes, a cricket bat which had been converted into some sort of keyboard. There was no indication why but I suspect that the answer might just have been because he could.

Hogarth was backed by the most studious bunch of musicians I have seen in a very long time. Lead guitarist Steve Rothery very much reminded me of my secondary school headmaster! They were also the most hi-tech band I’ve seen in a while too. The keyboard player was rocking a Mac Pro while I’m pretty certain that Rothery was connected to mission control and coordinating the latest Space-X launch between songs!

And the songs. Well they played a good selection of Hogarth era tunes including a several from the excellent latest record. They then came on for two encores during which Hogarth implored us to “Sit down. You’re too old to stand up” (he was right) before ending with Garden Party. Here’s to the next 34 years!