And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!
My Trip to Florida
I started to write this article about my trip over Christmas to Florida and it rapidly turned into a rant—Florida is so artificial, probably the least environmentally-aware place on the planet, the people are so fat and so on. Then I looked at my slogan at the top of the page and I thought to myself, what a wonderful world! I started again, and now I'm going to tell all the good things about Florida. I won't have space here to tell you everything we did, but I'll fill on some of them over the next few issues of the Post.
My family, and my wife's three brothers and their families, making eight adults and eight children all together, flew to Florida on the 23rd of December for a two-week holiday. We rented two houses side by side in Orlando, which is the middle of the peninsula, about equidistant from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Orlando is a big city which has grown up almost exclusively to service the tourist industry generated by Disney World, of which more later.
After a long day of travel, with two flights and numerous longs spells of queuing and waiting, we finally arrived at our houses at 2am subjective time, although due to the five hour time difference it was only 9pm Florida time. It was already dark so we didn't see much of the place, but we had a good explore of our houses. Each adult couple got a big bedroom with walk-in wardrobes, ensuite bathroom, shower, jacuzzi bath, two sinks and a toilet. The children got two bathrooms between each three bedrooms, which was more than enough to go around, so if nothing else, we were clean for the duration of the holiday. Each house also had a heated outdoor swimming pool. The pools are enclosed by a structure which looks like a giant conservatory, but has mesh netting instead of glass, so that you are out of doors but the insects can't get at you. We spent most of the 24th shopping and lying by the pool enjoying the warm Florida weather — 25°C or thereabouts.
On Christmas Day, Santa Claus delivered his presents to the children as expected, although he wisely delivered some of the bigger presents directly to our homes in Ireland to save us the trouble of transporting them. Not knowing which restaurants in the phone book were good, we didn't fancy chancing a booking for 16 of us for Christmas Day, so we cooked our own meal, with turkey, steak, burgers, roast vegetables, Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes. And of course, plenty of wine and beer. A truly memorable Christmas Day.
The day after Christmas Day is known as Stephen's Day back at home in Ireland, but in America, it's just the day after Christmas Day. It's not a public holiday and most people are back to work. But those Americans visiting Orlando had obviously taken the week off, as we found everywhere very crowded until after the weekend. We set out on what should have been a 20 minute journey and took nearly an hour driving in heavy traffic along the motorways. It's impossible to go anywhere in Orlando with driving on a motorway or its equivalent, as the whole city is very spaced out. It is about 30 miles from the southern end of Orlando to the northern end and everybody is expected to have a car.
Our destination was a most unusual exhibition — a collection of ice sculptures. The organisers had erected a giant marquee and chilled it to −12°C. Then a load of Chinese ice sculptors from Harbin in northern China had carved out lots of typical American Christmas scenes, including Rudolf and his reindeer friends, a nativity scene, skating polar bears and so on. It was fascinating. And cold. We were provided with heavy-duty padded coats to keep us warm, but hands and noses suffered after about half an hour in the frozen zone. We were relieved to come back to the heat, and were presented with a complimentary cup of cocoa!
The Space Coast
Orlando is only about 60 miles from the 'Space Coast' which most people would know as Cape Canaveral, where America launches its rockets into space. On the Saturday after Christmas, we drove to the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island and saw all the sights. I'll give a full report in another column, but there are a few things that need to be pointed out here.
First, there are two islands separated by lagoons from the mainland. One is Cape Canaveral, and it has the launchpads for all American unmanned flights. The first Apollo flights were from here. The Cape Canaveral base is not run by NASA, but by the American Air Force. Merritt Island, on the other hand, has the Kennedy Space Center, and is run by NASA. It is from here that the space shuttles are launched, as well as the later Apollo launches. It's a subtle difference between the Cape and the Kennedy Space Center, but the people working there insist on observing it.
Secondly, there are a large number of things to see at the Space Center, so that it will take a full day of your time. It's well worth it.
Orlando is the Theme Park Capital of the world. Disney World itself features four separate theme parks:
- Magic Kingdom: based on Disney children's films
- Epcot: a vision of the future
- Animal Kingdom: a park based on animals
- Disney MGM Studios: various film-based attractions
Then there's Universal, with two theme parks:
- Universal Studios: a park celebrating the many films made by Universal
- Universal Islands of Adventure: a park with many roller-coaster rides
Finally there's the excellent Seaworld, a park featuring shows with performing dolphins and killer whales, as well as a lot of other marine-based exhibits.
We saw three of these theme parks. Each one will take you a full day to visit. They are expensive; the typical price for an adult is $70 for the day, but the entry fee includes admission to all the shows and rides within the park. The only extra charges will be for food and drink. A day at a theme park can be very tiring— for example we arrived at Seaworld as it opened at 9am and stayed until it closed at 10pm, so we were on our feet for much of the day. It's highly recommended that you take a day off, doing nothing, after visiting a theme park, and we went along with this advice.
The big parks in Orlando would typically have 10,000 visitors in a day but can have up to 90,000 at really busy times. Unfortunately this means that you may have to queue for long periods for some of the attractions. Different parks have different ways around this problem.
Seaworld was in my opinion the best of the theme parks. We arrived early enough to hear the National Anthem being played before the gates open. Whereas at home in Ireland, people would sing along with the National Anthem, in America, everyone stands solemnly and faces the flag. Then the gates opened and we joined the masses thronging into the park. There are lots of things to do and see in Seaworld, but the centrepiece of the park is the Killer Whale Stadium, where a family of killer whales (orcas) are kept. They do regular shows for the public; the stadium can seat 5,000 people for the 30-minute show. The show is really spectacular, featuring things such as an orca jumping all the way out of the water, people riding on the backs of orcas or balancing on their noses as they launch themselves from the water. About one quarter of the seats are close enough to the water that you will get soaked if you sit there. In the warm Florida sun, this isn't a big problem.
There are also smaller dolphin shows, a pantomime show with sealions, and plenty of animal enclosures like in a zoo, with alligators, seals, manatees etc. The manatees are ones which were injured in the wild and have been rescued— they are returned to the wild when they are ready. If all those sea animals aren't enough excitement, there are a couple of rollercoasters as well. The Atlantis is a fairly mild water splash (once again you'll get soaked) while the Kraken is a fearsome-looking beast with loops, dives, bends and so on. None of us are roller coaster fanatics, so we kept away from the Kraken.
We ended the day with the Orlando Philharmonic playing music from the film 'Polar Express' followed by a spectacular fireworks show. I think the day we spent in Seaworld was one of the best we had in the holiday.
We chose to visit the Magic Kingdom theme park, which is probably the quintessential Disney park. After parking our car, we went across a lake on a ferry designed to look like a Mississippi river boat and then entered the park itself. Down the centre of the park is Main Street USA which is a 'replica' of a Victorian street as Disney imagined it, rather than as it actually ever was. At the end of the street is the Disney Castle, which is so familiar to anyone who ever has seen a Disney movie. The castle itself is loosely based on the castle of Neuschwanstein, built by mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, itself an attempt to recapture a fairytale past that never existed. Spread around the castle are all the rides, shows and attractions that make up Disney.
We saw a huge replica of the tree-house from Swiss Family Robinson, a Louisiana riverboat, a Polynesian singing show performed by model birds, a Pirates of the Caribbean boat-ride, a boat-ride through the jungles of the world, with model elephants, crocodiles and so on, a ride on a steam train, a giant fair-ground carousel, and so on. The list of wonders is endless. We got some pretty good food in one of the many restaurants around the park, and at 9pm when it was dark there was a wonderful illuminated parade, with all the characters from the Disney movies processing on illuminated floats. Then at 10pm there was a massive fireworks display to end the day.
Universal Studios is a theme park which is more compact than the others, but it has a lot of things to see. Most of these, unfortunately, have long queues associated with them, so you probably won't have time to see everything. You'll just have to resign yourself to some long queues. The longest queue we were in was an hour for the Jaws ride.
At Universal, we saw a simulator ride based on the Simpsons. Simulators put you in a motorised seat and show you a movie which takes up enough of your field of vision that you feel like you're in the picture. The seat you're in moves by small amounts at certain points in the ride, not a lot but enough to make you really feel as if you are flying or on a rollercoaster or whatever they want you to think. The Simpsons ride was spectacular and worth the 30 minute wait.
Another type of show is the 3-D movie, such as the Shrek 'ride'. These are viewed through 3-d glasses (consisting for the technically minded of polarising filters with the two eyes at 90° polarisation to each other). There are special effects such as when the donkey sneezes at the screen, water is sprayed on the audience. The Terminator show, on the other hand had live actors appearing out of the screen at certain points as well as the 3-d effect.
Johnny Neutron was another breath-taking simulator. The Jaws ride on the other hand was in an actual boat around a lake done up to look like the fishing village of Amity from the movie. And of course when the giant shark reared his head from the water, we all jumped, even though we'd been expecting it.
Just Being in Florida
I think there's enough in all that to give you a flavour of the theme parks. I haven't space to tell you everything we saw or did, but I may write further reports on the theme parks. I also have to describe our trip to the north of Florida, what we did on New Year's Eve, the day at NASA and general observations about life in Florida. So until next time...