Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Saturday 17th April - Tuesday 20th April

We were supposed to be going home on Saturday but due to the volcanic ash cloud we instead spent another weekend in Utah. With wonderful weather and a lovely place to stay, it could have been worse. The children even had some friends to play with - Shelby, Sophie and Maggie are neighbours of Gale and George, and they were soon firm friends. They also loved Gale's little dog, Dita, and the in-ground trampoline.

On saturday we returned to the Gateway shopping centre in Salt Lake where Gwen, Ceri and Roderic looked round the planetarium, and Hari and I took the Trax to downtown in search of more shops. We didn't find any apart from the new flagship Deseret Book store - the entire downtown area is being renovated and was just a huge construction site.

We went to church with George and Gale in the morning, to a huge ward where getting up out of your pew after Sunday School meant losing your seat for Sacrament meeting. The teachers and speakers were excellent, and since it ended at 12 we got home in time to have lunch at a normal time. I made cottage pie, followed by apple crumble and custard which I created from scratch. It came out well, but not a patch on Ambrosia. In the afternoon I walked Ceri to the nearest park where there was also a covered picnic area which was being set up for a birthday party. We left before the party started.

On Monday morning Roderic and I went to the Salt Lake Temple. It was huge, and very confusing, but it was overall a wonderful experience. Especially as we went to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard afterwards, and back to the Deseret Book store where we found my book on the shelf - the first time I'd seen it actually up for sale.

In the afternoon we packed and headed back to Chad and Wendy Smith's home in Draper, to give Gale and George some peace and quiet and allow Gale to prepare for a presentation she was giving in Texas. Chad is a former missionary companion of Roderic's, and his home (which I may have mentioned before) is to die for, with a view of the entire Salt Lake Basin from the back, and the Draper Temple from the front. Their basement (which became our temporary home) has about the same square footage as our entire house, and includes an open-plan lounge/diner and kitchen, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and that amazing view. I joked that if we were stuck for any length of time I would apply for a job as Wendy's nanny in return for being allowed to live in the basement.

Being stuck out here has left Roderic a little behind with work, so he is trying to fit in five or six hours a day. This left little time for doing anything much on Monday except going to Wal-mart to buy a new suitcase - two of our cases have done more service than expected and are showing the signs of exhaustion. In the evening, however, we did go for a curry with Chad and Wendy to see how American curry measures up to English curry. It was very good, but it was also very different. The clue perhaps came when we were ordering and I asked for a Chicken Korma for the children. I was asked whether I wanted it "mild, medium or hot". In Britain, a Korma is, by definition, a mild curry.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Thursday 15th - Friday 16th April 2010

Utah continues to boggle my mind. Back at home there are so few Latter-day Saints that most people have never heard of them. And yet here, in the first fifteen minutes of driving, we passed nine LDS chapels and two Temples.

Thursday began with us heading down to Springville to deliver another manuscript, this time to a new (for me) publisher, Cedar Fort. We eventually found it, I dropped off Christmas at Haven at the front desk, and we went to Provo to the home of John and Anne Chambers who were senior missionaries in our home ward until a year or so ago. They were cooking us a meal and, as it turned out, also had Anne's sister and her two children, and a friend, Don Wilson (for whom I had brought some packages he ordered via and his wife, plus a friend from our home ward, Holly Owens who had married her American husband, Chris, and now lives in Provo. Quite a crowd!

We had a lovely meal and a lot of laughs, and then went to see the Provo Temple. This Temple has a very modern, unusual design - apparently it was intended to look like a pillar of fire and a cloud of smoke - and in pictures I'd always found in unappealing. Sister Chambers told me that this was a common perception, and the grounds had been relandscaped because many brides preferred to get married in a more traditional Temple. However, seeing it up close I thought it was stunning. In fact, I liked it so much that I have now replaced the wallpaper on my computer with a picture of the Provo Temple in the snow.

Elder and Sister Chambers then showed us round the BYU campus - passing the Missionary Training Centre and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's childhood home on the way. It was open and new and big and beautiful, but I half hope my children don't have ambitions to go there, because even without the air fares to factor in it is much more expensive than a British university.

We said Goodbye to Elder and Sister Chambers and headed back to Sandy, to a Prom and Bridal store. We had intended looking for a prom dress for Gwen, whose prom is next year, because we figured there would be more choice in America, she would be guaranteed to get one no one else had, it would be cheaper than at home, and we might even find one which was appropriately modest. Unfortunately several of these assumptions - mainly the one about price - were proved wrong, and we also realised that a flouncy prom dress is not something which can easily be packed into a suitcase and escape unscathed. So we will go to the dressmaker who made my wedding dress, with a sketch based on all the dresses Gwen liked, nearer the time.

We then went to Draper for a mini-mission reunion for Hubby Dearest, which would reunite him with three of his former favourite mission companions from St. Petersburg 17 years ago. Of all the Salt Lake Valley suburbs I have been to, I find I like Draper best. For one thing it has roundabouts. I hadn't thought I'd miss roundabouts, but four-way-stop intersections are a nightmare to traverse. For another, the location of Elder Smith's home (not to mention the home itself) was stunning. It was halfway up a mountain, with a view of the entire Salt Lake Valley from the back, and the Draper Temple (probably about a two minute walk away) from the front. At night particularly it was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. And just to add to the interest, some power gliders floated around the mountain as we watched from the balcony.

Hubby Dearest had a riotous time reminiscing about Russia, and his former companions were fun people, so it was a great evening all round. And Chad and Wendy Smith waved us off with an invitation to stay with them anytime we should find ourselves in Utah again.

When we got back to Gale's home in Sandy, however, Gwen discovered from the internet that a volcano in Iceland had sent a cloud of ash over Britain. and all flights were grounded.

We spent Friday morning - the day which should have been our last full day in Salt Lake - trying to find out what was going on with our flight home. It was cancelled, we quickly discovered, but Roderic was able to book us onto an alternative flight leaving the next Friday. Only problem was that it was leaving from San Francisco. Not the most direct route home, but the first available. Emails to several people, and a phone call to the car rental company, and we were all set to survive an extra six days in Zion. We also concluded that we couldn't impose on Gale and George for so much longer than originally planned, so we spoke to Chad Smith and took him up on that invitation to stay at his home in Draper.

At lunchtime we went to the Olive Garden restaurant for a long-anticipated lunch with some of my fellow authors whom I have known, via our email and blog group V-Formation, for many years. Not all of them could be there, but Michele Ashman Bell, Nancy Campbell Allen, Jeri Gilchtist, Cheri Crane and of course Gale Sears were all there, along with friends from Leatherwood Press (my publishers) Linda Prince and Amy Orton. Plus Roderic and the girls, Cheri's husband Kennon, and Gale's husband George. It was great fun, we laughed and chatted non-stop, and the food was great. It was a wonderful experience to meet so many friends I felt I'd known for years. Well, I had known them for years, but it was good to have faces to go with the names.

Finding that we were staying in Salt Lake City for a few more days meant that we cancelled our original plans to squeeze in all the sightseeing to Friday afternoon, and instead we went to Fashion Place Mall before going back to Gale's for a peaceful evening watching Stargate Universe and Merlin. Packing had been the original plan, but somehow a little volcano can make a big difference.

There are worse places to be stranded. Even if we are a little homesick, I do love it here.

Tuesday 13th - Wednesday 14th April 2010

Ruth left Laramie to fly to Heathrow early in the morning, so I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to her, but that's OK because she will be staying in my house in Thundersley so I'll see her again when we get home!

The drive to Salt Lake City from Laramie began with rather alarming instruction from our sat-nav, as it instructed us to stay on a particular road "for 379 miles". We gaped. There are roads that long?

Well, yes there are, and this one took us over the freezing and windy rocky mountains, over driving snow, counting down the mile markers. One thing I appreciate about the American road system is that the exits are numbered according to the nearest mile marker, so you always know how far it is to your exit. In Britain, motorway exits are numbered consecutively.

There was a whole lot of nothing to see either side of the car for mile upon mile, with the possible exception of the billboards every two miles or so telling us of the wonders of the Little America Hotel and how far until we reached it (250 miles, initially). When we finally did pass it it felt like a real acheivement, and the advertising had worked - I would really like to stay there one day. It appeared to be laid out to look like a traditional American town.

We came to Salt Lake City from the North, through Park City and lots of snow. The views were beautiful, and once we actually arrive at George and Gale Sears' lovely home in Sandy, the views from the valley floor were pretty spectacular too. I've already mentioned that I love how American houses, and thus suburbs, look, and here there is a backdrop of snow-topped mountains in every direction.

Gale was a very gracious hostess, and the girls and I went with her for gelato (Italian ice cream) that evening while Hubby Dearest slept to recover from his marathon drive. Gelato is something else I have never had. Why do all my new food experiences here seem to start with G? Gumbo and grits were nice, but gelato was wonderful.

On Wednesday we went to the Gateway Shopping Centre in Downtown Salt Lake and had a fabulous Mexican lunch. We are so going to miss Mexican food! It just tastes so much better here than the stuff I try to make at home, and I love watching it made before my eyes. After shpping at Dairy Queen (more ice-cream), Hollister, Hot Topic and Barnes & Noble we watched Hari and Ceri playing in the water jets of the 2002 Winter Olympics fountain. They loved it and got absolutely soaked, but since it was about 21 degrees Celsius it really didn't matter.

We then walked two blocks to Temple Square. It was quite surreal to see the iconic spires of the Temple hone into view above trees and construction sites as we walked. Ceri was very thirsty (must be the desert atmosphere) so when we got to Temple Square the first order of business was to find a drinking fountain, which wasn't difficult.

We went to the Tabernacle and listened to the demonstration of the acoustics (we sat at the back, and a sister missionary dropped a pin at the front, and we could hear it) and then we went to the North Visitors Centre which seemed to have similar acoustics thanks to its domed roof. There were Sister missionaries everywhere and we were regularly accosted. Apparently there are about 200 of them on Temple Square, and since conference ended things have got a lot quieter and they are all frankly bored. So we watched the film presentation about families, and we chatted to some for a while before we ran out of time and had to head back to Sandy. We took the TRAX tram system back to the car - it's free in the downtown area - and Ceri enjoyed it so much she didn't want to get off when we got to our stop.

After dinner we headed to Leatherby's Ice Cream Parlour to meet Jennie Hansen, a prolific and much-admired (by me) author who turned out to be very sweet and lovely and not half as intimidating as I'd expected. The ice cream was also very sweet and lovely, and, in some cases, intimidating.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Saturday 10th April - Monday 12th April

We left our lovely timeshare soon after 8 a.m. on Saturday and had an uneventful flight to Denver. Once again, although it was a four hour flight, there was no meal provided, so once we had collected our cases I we sat in the arrivals lounge surrounded by our cases eating a Burger King feast.

Denver advertises itself as “the mile high city” and the road to Laramie took us over the wild tops of mountains, past snow and acre upon acre of empty countryside. One thing I’m finding strange about America is just how much of it there is, and how much of it is nothing. Even from the plane we could look out both sides and not see any towns or cities.

Ruth’s home is lovely, as I had known it would be, festooned with flower arrangements and displays, and charming homilies stencilled on the walls or engraved on plaques. Ruth designed it herself, and it is roughly four times the size of our house. Ruth was always very artistic – she and I first met in college art class – and have a home to build and decorate is evidently a great outlet for her talents.

It was great to see Ruth and John again, and all the children, and see just how much they’ve grown. Gwen bonded with Emily once more, and Hari was beside herself with joy to meet the little dogs, and (Ruth runs a home childcare nursery) Ceri was excited to find a huge playroom full of toys.

Ruth had cooked us a huge and fabulous meal, after which she and John took Hubby Dearest and I, and their son Sam, to see How to Train your Dragon at the local cinema. It was a good film and I had been wanting to see it, but we were pretty tired by the end of it. Laramie is two hours behind Florida, so our body clocks were screaming at us that it was bedtime even though it was barely nine o’clock. Surprising what a difference those two hours can make.

We were up in plenty of time to attend Church on Sunday. Ruth's home is just a short walk from the church, and it was a small but very friendly ward. We then had roast turkey for lunch, and in the afternoon went up to Vedauwoo, part of a national park, to admire the scenery. It is the highest point in the western United States, and was covered in snow, so we had a snowball fight and Gwen got some great photographs.

We are all feeling the effects of the altitude in various ways. Roderic has a permanent headache, Hari has been wheezing, Gwen and I have been getting out of breath at the slightest exertion, and Ceri has been feeling very feverish and tired. We are at over 7,000 feet and the air is thinner here - apparently it can take a week or two to acclimatise.

Monday was business as usual for the Wlliams family, with the children at school, Ruth's daycare kids in the house, and John at work, but Ruth's lovely friend Karen and her husband took us for a fabulous Mexican meal. Well, not quite all of us. Hari went to "Indian Paintbrush Elementary School" for lunch with Ruth's 8 year old twins.

Afterwards we went to Wal-Mart for more Lucky Charms and Ranch dressing to take home, Staples for paper and ink to print out my novels, and Dollartree for pretty much everything it sold. It's a lot like Poundland back in Britain but cheaper, and bigger and with some really unusual things. Hari got a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup lip salve, for example.

In the evening we went to Arby's which does burgers but with slices of real roast beef. Delicious! We then had a very pleasant family home evening with a game of "Guesstures" - the Buttimore-Joneses beat the Williams' fairly decisively.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Friday 9th April 2010

I thought I was finally getting this country. I have pretty much figured out the traffic rules, shrugged off the fact that the TV channels don't just show one episode of a programme, but at least five, back-to-back, and finally discovered that it doesn't rain every night in Florida as I had imagined when I awoke each morning to see wet pavements outside - our resort puts on the sprinklers overnight. (Found that out coming back from Disney last night. My first encounter with sprinklers.)

But Iwas boggled this morning, again, to discover that we have to pay for INCOMING calls! A wrong number woke me up at 8 a.m. Grrr. (Remember I didn't get to bed until 1 a.m.) and AT&T helpfully texted to tell me that I had paid 25 cents for the priviledge of answering the call! Then I had a random sales call for which I paid another 25 cents. What's with that? So now I'm not answering the phone.

We went back to the mall in the afternoon. Gwen, having spent 48 hours thinking about it, had decided that she did want to spend her money on a pair of knee-high pink patchwork Converse.

In the evening Roderic and I returned a third time to Westgate Smokehouse Grill and were finally able to have our date, and a very nice meal using the $50 voucher the timeshare people had bribed us with. I had Shrimp Gumbo and Grits for the first time, and all in all it was worth making the effort.

We spent the rest of the evening packing, ready for our flight to Denver tomorrow. I'll be sorry to leave Florida, it's been a fantastic two weeks and we've had a lot of fun in wonderful sunshine. Ready for the next stage in the adventure now, though.

Thursday 8th April 2010

We hadn't intended to do Epcot. With seven Disney days on our ticket, and six parks to do, Epcot and Hollywood Studios were the ones we dismissed as being of the least interest. But with Magic Kingdom so manic during the day we decided to return in the evening instead when it would be cooler, quieter, and we could see the famous fireworks. We had a park-hopper ticket, and the parking fee covered the whole day, so it was sensible to do a different park in the morning and we chose Epcot.

I'm so glad we did, because it was great. Calmer, quieter, and with the focus on technology, science and the wider world, thus fewer over-excited children. The weather was a little overcast too which might have contributed to keeping the crowds away. There was a flower festival taking place, so Epcot was ablaze with blooms and hedges trimmed in the shape of Disney characters, and we were entertained by a singing choir and a group of gardners playing rap and Disney tunes on watering cans and buckets - using spades and towels.

We went on several rides - the queues were very short - including for the iconic Spaceship Earth, inside the "giant golf ball". We stayed only four hours, which was the original plan but was, in the event, quite a pity because there was plenty more we could have done.

We went to Golden Corral for lunch. For $6.49 we had an amazing "all you can eat" buffet and were quite impossibly full by the end of it.

In the evening we returned to Magic Kingdom for our final Goodbye to Disney. This time it really was magic. We went on the steam train round the park, and several other rides. Although the park was quite busy, the queues were shorter than they had been on our previous visit. When the fireworks started at 10, the children and I were riding the flying Dumbo ride, so it really was a magical and memorable moment.

The fireworks were amazing, but Roderic had a headache, so at 10.15 when they finished we started to head back to the car. Unfortunately, despite the final parade due to start at 11, so did most of the other visitors to the park, and it took us over an hour to finally reach our car. It was almost 1 a.m. before we arrived back at our timeshare. But left us with an overall great Disney experience. I'd love to return someday, but for our next Florida holiday (probably in 2012) we're aiming to do Discovery Cove and Aquatica, so it may be a while.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Wednesday 7th April 2010

One funny thing at Typhoon Lagoon yesterday I forgot to note - everyone there was English. Well, most people, apart from the Scottish ones. For about the first hour all the voices we overheard were British. It was like a lovely little enclave of Blighty.

Today we had such a lazy day e didn't even make it to the pools. We went to a mall in the afternoon. No idea what it was called, but half the shop units were empty. Only instead of just having empty shops, the frontages were painted to look like normal shops. Very pretty and prevented us from feeling quite so hard downe by by the lack of shops.

Gwen and I did the mall while Roderic took the little ones to see "How to train your dragon" in 3D. We got some great bargains. A dress for Gwen reduced from $24.99 to $7.49, a book for 50 cents, and a Twilight book reduced from $16.95 to $4.25. We watched the skateboarders and roller bladers at Vans but passed up on the opportunity to go for a pint in the Cricketers Arms.

In the evening Roderic and Ihad planned to go on a date to the Westgate Smokehouse Grill. As part of the perks for upgrading our timeshare we had been given a voucher for $50 off there, but turning up for lunch a couple of days ago we discovered that it didn't open until 5 p.m. So at 7.30 p.m. tonight we turned up in our best clothes asking for a table for two, only to be told that the wait for a table was about an hour. We didn't want to wait an hour. We asked if we could book a table for Friday, and were told that they didn't allow parties under 8 people to book tables. (I'm tempted still to book a table for 8 and then turn up explaining that our six friends have been unable to come after all.) It seems a little unreasonable not to allow people to book when the place is so busy, and for a moment our $50 voucher seemed not to be worth the paper it was printed on. But we will go back at 5 on Friday in order to be first in the queue for a table, and it had better be a darn good meal.

In the event we went to Quizno's for a sandwich, and then to Walgreens to buy some milk. Not really the date night we had been planning, but when you're married the odd disastrous date doesn't matter.

Tuesday 6th April 2010

I stand by what I said, that the best of the Disney theme parks are the waterparks. Typhoon Lagoon was even better than Blizzard Beach. We were there the whole day, and we all loved it.

There was a wave pool with giant tsunami-style waves which completely knocked you off your feet and carried you along. There was a family raft ride which we all went on together and loved. And there were several other raft rides, one of which spins you around the whole time. The children's area was great, with a ride which Ceri did about 100 times.

Gwen and I got sunburnt again, and Gwen's sunburn is now in interesting patterns since she was wearing a different swimsuit from the first time. She is also peeling on her shoulders, and my face is peeling, which serves me right for laughing at Gwen when her nose was peeling.

Just as the park was closing we decided to take the Lazy River to the exit, just to milk every last minute of fun out of it. At the appropriate place I leapt off my rubber tube and decided to helpfully take it to the edge to be stacked with the rest. I didn't realise that the water was shallower at the edges, and stubbed my toe; it was painful, but at the time I was too busy worrying about Ceri who had forgotten she wasn't wearing her armbands and gone under the water when she jumped out of her ring. (The water was only 3 feet deep, so she wasn't actually in any danger, but she was a bit upset.)

When we got home I discovered that my toe was black and about twice its normal size, and that it still hurt. Quite a lot. I concluded that I had broken it. So I sent Roderic off for Walgreens for something to strap it up with, and will be hobbling around for a few days.

Totally worth it, though.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Monday 5th April 2010

Animal Kingdom again. This time we made the effort to see Finding Nemo - the musical. It was very good, with amazing effects and staging, but I felt a bit sorry for the performers. They were singing and acting their hearts out, but the audience were really only looking at the big animatronic fish they were carrying. Hari persuaded me to go on Primeval Whirl with her, which turned out to be a roller coaster. I screamed all the way round and almost lost my glasses. Hari found this hilarious, of course.We finished by going on the Kali River Rapids one last time, and getting soaked again.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Easter Sunday, 4th April 2010

Easter doesn't seem to be much of an occasion in America. Back home Good Friday and Easter Monday are Public Holidays, and everything is closed on Easter Day; there will be a special edition of Radio Times, and special films and programmes on TV to mark the day. And that's all if you're not religious.

Over here it was like any other day. All the shops and restaurants were open as usual. But we made it special all the same. We went to Kissimmee ward to listen to the Sunday morning session of General Conference, and almost got to hear it actually on Sunday morning. It started at noon Florida time, but that's better than the 5p.m. UK time we usually get to see it.

We then returned to the timeshare and I managed to recreate a family Easter tradition by making soft-boiled eggs, on which we drew faces (I put Mickey Mouse ears on mine in recognition of our stay in Orlando), before eating them with Bovril soldiers (I had brougfht a pot of Bovril with me, because I couldn't see how we could manage three weeks without it.) American eggs are white so it was easier to draw on them, but we didn't have any egg-cups so I had to improvise by cutting up the egg box they came in.

We then went to play mini-golf, which was free at our resort and lots of fun. Hubby Dearest won, but I came a close second. HD then took Hari and Ceri to the pool while I hid the creme eggs I had brought with us from home around the apartment. By the time the children found them they were pretty squished and melted, despite the air conditioning. But still delicious.

Gwen didn't actually leave the apartment all day. She sat on the balcony reading Breaking Dawn. She and HD had planned to drive out to the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaverel tomorrow to watch the shuttle launch, but it transpired that it was at 6.21 a.m., and all the tickets for viewing it had long gone. She's a bit miffed at not being able to see it after all, but I promised her that one day she will. And I have put it on my bucket list.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Saturday 3rd April 2010

Shoes and shopping characterised our day today. Roderic took Gwen to Horse World in Kissimmee for an hour-long trail ride (she rode a horse called Mystery and saw two snakes) and in the meantime I decided it was high time I had my eagerly awaited Taco Bell lunch, so Hari, Ceri and I walked up to the Crossroads Plaza Mall. At least, we tried to.

I had already ascertained that it was about a mile to this mall, and since that's the same distance as we walk to school every day, it wouldn't be a problem. I think now I understand why Americans drive everywhere. A helpful neon sign outside one of the hotels told us it was 98 degrees. No idea what that is in real money, but pretty piggin' hot, I can tell you.

Then Ceri took to saying "ouch" with each step, and it transpired that wearing her favourite shoes without socks for the first time had given her blisters on both feet. So she took them off and walked barefoot for a while until that proved to be too hot underfoot, at which point I carried her. She's quite a lump.

We got to McDonald's. Taco Bell was at the far side of the mall, and the girls wanted a McDonald's. I had planned to buy theirs "to go" (I am learning the language!) and take then to Taco Bell to eat their happy meals as I tucked into ... whatever it is Taco Bell offer. But since I couldn't carry two happy meals and a five-year-old (and the hat full of Little People animals and play money she had inexplicably brought with her) I settled for a McRib. And after food, drink and air conditioning we were ready to brave the outside again. I bought Ceri a cheap pair of flip-flops, and we started for home again via IHOP (International House of Pancakes) for dessert.

Halfway back Ceri's new flipflops broke. Naturally they did this just as we were crossing the road necessitating my picking her up and running with her tucked under my arm. And then we were back to jumping from shade to grass to shade to stop her little feet getting burned.

Gwen and Hubby Dearest were back when we finally made it home, and so HD opted to take the children to the pool while Gwen and I walked, again, to Walgreens and the souvenir shop. We also discovered Dunkin' Donuts. Fabulous! Another brand which is long overdue for import to Britain.

I made my first "pot roast". I had bought a kit, which was a joint of pork with potatoes, carrots, celery, onion and a seasoning mix. Instructions - fling in pot with a cup of water, cover, leave in oven for three hours. Being British to the core it rather went against the grain to put water in with it and cover it, so I didn't. Does that still count as a pot roast? Anyway, it was delicious, if I say so myself. Although, given that I only emptied into a dish and put it in the oven I don't think that counts as cooking it. At only $10 (about £6.30) it was also much cheaper than anything I could put together at home. And I got to play in the pool with Ceri while it was cooking.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Friday 2nd April 2010

Disney's Animal Kingdom was great. It's like a zoo with the occasional Disney show and rides, and so doesn't draw quite the same crowds (or queues) as Magic Kingdom, but to my mind you're more guaranteed to be entertained without having to wait around. Even if you didn;t bother queuing at all, there was plenty to do and see. The Kilimanjaro Safari was fantastic - we saw elephants, giraffes, a lion, hippos and ostriches, among other things, and all very close up, not just off in the distance. We also saw a baby rhino on a different ride, and tigers, tapirs and a komodo dragon in another area of the park.

The park was split into different areas - we mostly stayed in Africa and Asia - and the animals we saw were all native to that part of the world. As ever, with Disney, it was the details that were amazing. They had created miniature little towns (Harambe in Africa and Anapadur in Asia) and everything about them looked completely authentic, right down to the unfinished buildings and rusty bicycles.

Our favourite ride was the Kali river rapids on which we all got soaked. So naturally we went on it twice.

I'm hoping to go back to finish off Animal Kingdom with Hari and Ceri on Monday while Roderic and Gwen are at Cape Canaverel watching the space shuttle launch.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Thursday 1st April, 2010

Just a quick note today: I'm planning to jump into the jacuzzi shortly. Can't believe I've been here five days and haven't tried it yet.

This morning Hubby Dearest, youngest and I went househunting in the company of our "Realtor", Alan Martin, an ex-pat Brit. On our last trip to Orlando three years ago we discovered that Florida properties were not only extremely cheap to buy, but in great demand as holiday rentals. We decided then to sell our rental bungalow in Thundersley and use the proceeds to pay off the mortage and buy a beautiful villa with a pool close to the Disney parks. Unfortunately the UK property market thwarted our plans so we went back to renting the bungalow, planning to try again sometime when the market picks up. But in the meantime it seemed sensible to look around and see how the land lies while were were in Florida, and Alan was very obliging.

We viewed a four-bedroomed villa in Clermont in beautiful condition which I would have bought there and then had I had the cash, then a slightly tatty home near that first one where the front door opened to the pool area. Then our favourite - a two storey five bedroomed home in Davenport which, at $260,000 (£180,000) was rather at the top end of our expected price range. We then returned to Kissimmee, nearer to the theme parks, and saw a home which the long-term tenants had trashed and emptied, but interestingly the next home we saw was furnished and in perfect condition, and had exactly the same floor plan plus a large pool and spa so we were able to see how the first one should have looked. At $225,000 (£150,000) that last one was our favourite, and the one most likely to generate a good income.

I've said this often before, but I love American houses. I love open floor plans, cathedral ceilings, walk-in closets in the bedrooms and walk-in pantries in the kitchen, garages big enough to put the car in, separate laundry rooms, and both a lounge and family room.

We had lunch at the New York China Buffet which is within walking distance of our resort. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet, and cost less than $40. I love American Chinese, and not just because there is so much of it and so much variety. There are things we can't get in the UK - honey chicken and fortune cookies spring to mind.

We then spent the afternoon round pool no. 2, for a change (not heated to quite the same level as pool no. 1) where I topped-up my sunburn, and in the evening HD and I returned to Wal-mart to top up the larder.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Wednesday 31st March, 2010

Hubby dearest tells me that at one stage in Russia, women of all ages who got their hair dyed would have it done in unnatural and conspicuous colours which looked very bizarre to outsiders. The reason for this was that hair dye was expensive, so you wanted everyone to know that you could afford it, and if you had a natural colour then the status symbol was lost.

I think sunburn has a similar status in Britain. Because it's still March and I am sunburnt, and when I come home looking cerise pink and wrinkly, everyone will know that I could afford to go to Florida.

I did make a token effort to avoid getting sunburnt. I sprayed (American sunscreen comes in sprays) waterproof factor 50 over all of us, but it was meant to be reapplied every 80 minutes and I may have neglected to top it up as often as I should have done. I'm using the aloe vera and menthol aftersun liberally now, though...

This enviable sunburn was acquired at Disney's Blizzard Beach on one of the most perfect days ever. I love waterparks, and it was great to be able to enjoy this one with the whole family. It wasn't too busy, parking was actually free, and we had a refillable drink which kept us going all day. A great time was had by all, from Ceri at Tike's Peak with lots of little waterslides and flumes suitable for her age, to Hari at the pre-teens section. None of us were brave enough to attempt Summit Plummet. I had one of those particularly perfect moments as I was drifting lazily around Cross Country Creek enjoying the warmth of the sun,and reflecting that back at home it was about 3.15 and I would normally be standing outside the school gate in the rain waiting for the children.

We then went to KFC for tea. At home, KFC is Gwen's all-time favourite junk food, but she was disappointed in it here. Don't know why - I thought it was fine, and really enjoyed the mashed potato, gravy and "biscuit". We're intrigued to know what the "KFC Famous Bowls" are though, since we'd never heard of them.

Going to bed now, very, very gingerly... ouch. But I bet none of you reading this at home in cold old England are sunburnt!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Tuesday 30th March 2010

We nearly didn't get into Disney. Just as we were arriving I read the small-print on my barcoded print-out, and discovered that in order to claim our tickets we needed photo ID. I hadn't brought my driving licence with me, and Hubby Dearest's driving licence is an old-style one which doesn't have his photo on. (It doesn't have the correct address on it either, but he refuses to renew it for political reasons.) We went ahead and rolled up to the ticket booth anyway, and luckily Clarence from Cincinnati, Ohio, who processed our tickets, was prepared to overlook our lack of proof of ownership of the bar code.

He also spent about five minutes lecturing us on what was great about each of the Disney parks. It reminded me of the time I was an Avon Representative in Llanaelhaearn and several of the elderly ladies on my round used to invite me in and have me discuss the products with them for half an hour. I obliged because I knew they didn't see anyone from one week to the next - and because they would buy pretty much anything I recommended. One major difference, I suppose, from octogenarian Clarence and Mrs Beti Ifans, is that Beti didn't have a line of fifty people waiting to buy tickets from her.

Strolling past Clarence we thought we were in. But not yet! First we had to practice our queuing skills by waiting for the ferryboat which would take us across the lake to Magic Kingdom. We had already practiced enough, I felt, having experienced the traffic jam on the way to the car park, and then waiting for the "tram" (golf cart) which would take us to the ticket gate. The ferry was great, though, and we did finally arrive at the gate. It took us over an hour from leaving our resort (five minutes from Disney property) to actually walking up Main Street USA.

We managed to squeeze in seven and a half rides/shows (Swiss Family Treehouse was so dull it doesn't count as a full activity) during the six hours we were in Magic Kingdom. Not bad when the shortest waiting time was half an hour, but we achieved this largely by splitting up, with Hubby Dearest taking Hari and Gwen on the more scary rides (like the Pirates of the Caribbean which goes over a 14 foot waterfall), and I took Ceri on rides that were about my upper level of scariness (Cinderella's Carousel and It's a Small World).

We saw no parades or characters, and we left at five because we were hot and tired and a hard audience to please. It's not that we didn't have a good time, because we did, but perhaps it didn't live up to all the hype and excitement. I have some great memories of Disneyland in Califormia, and even Paris was OK, even if it was all in French, so maybe I was expecting too much. Gwen took some good photos but she's asleep so I can't ask her to upload them.

Still really excited about our new timeshare. We have a voucher for a free week which runs out in 18 months, before we will get the chance to use it. Anyone out there interested in a free week in Orlando? Just come in the middle of winter when Disney's Magic Kingdom is slightly less of a manic kingdom.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Monday 29th March 2010

We're all still on UK time. I woke up at 4 a.m. and the rest of the family were up and around by 6.30. This was not ideal, because breakfast wasn't until 10 a.m. We'd been bribed to go to another resort owned by the people we have our timeshare with for a "Breakfast meeting and owners update". In other words, they were going to try to sell us more timeshare.

Anyway,I finally managed to make proper American pancakes (quite nice, too) for a pre-breakfast snack, and then we drove to a huge and very busy complex. We arrived at 10, and waited half-an-hour before Millie came to take us upstairs for breakfast, so we weren't in a particularly good mood. And we didn't much like the resort.

When I say we had been bribed to attend the "90 minute presenation", I'm not kidding. We had been promised a Visa card with $25 credit on it, a $50 gift certificate, a $150 discount on a cruise, a free week, a free breakfast (of course) and a box of cookies. (It was the cookies which swung it.) And in case there was any doubt that they wanted us there, they took a $20 deposit which we would get back only if we showed up. Anyway, it was still raining so we had nothing else to do.

We had no intention of buying more timeshare. We really didn't. And yet when we left there, five long hours later, we had upgraded to a three bedroomed lock-off unit at the new resort. We'd signed the paperwork and everything. Done deal. And we felt remarkably good about it. Property is always a good investment, right?

There are problems with our current resort, you see. We had already noticed this. It is shared between two companies, and they don't get on, with the result that service is patchy and there are no organised activities. Whilst the unit itself is gorgeous, the resort it noticably worse than last time we came. So moving to a newer, bigger and much better equipped, staffed and run one seemed like a good idea.

When Hubby Dearest bought his two bedroom timeshare eight years ago he signed an agreement which stated that should he ever upgrade he was entitled to the same deal. In other words, a two-bedroomed unit at a set discount, and 0% credit. Yes, 0%. Millie was not happy in discovering this. Their usual credit terms are 18%, for one thing, and they didn't have any two-bedroomed units left, for another. So they were forced to allow us to upgrade to a three-bedroomed lockoff (which means it can be divided into two units) for the price of a two bedroomed, and with a discount, and at 0%. So we now have an even more gorgeous timeshare, which sleeps 12 people and can generate an income. And even the lawyer who did the paperwork admitted that we were paying about a quarter of what most people pay.

The sun had come out by the time we left there, so we headed for the pool and splashed around for an hour. It was delightfully warm, and the exercise made us feel slightly less guilty about the vast quantities we had eaten at our "free lunch". Disney tomorrow!

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Sunday 28th March 2010

OK, now I know certain people reading this will be aware that today was Sunday, and the Mormon thing is not to go shopping, eat out or otherwise do weekday things on the Sabbath. Well, we did consider surviving only on oatmeal and water but:

a) We didn't yet know whether it was OK to drink the tap water, and
b) Gwen and I had already been to Walgreen's at 3 a.m. so we figured, in for a penny in for a pound. (Cent/dollar?)

So we headed to McDonald's for breakfast where the variety of choice was mind-boggling, but I ended up with a breakfast burrito which was about as far from a traditional breakfast as it's possible to get, to my mind. But very nice all the same.

Then on to Wal-mart so that we would have food to eat for the next two weeks. On the plane on the way over we had been shown a charity appeal which opened by saying that one in five American children did not know where the next meal was coming from. I found that very hard to believe at the time, but now I know why. We spent $250 and everything except sushi (which we didn't buy) was much more expensive than it is at home. Which is odd, because on previous visits I remember it all being cheaper. Hubby Dearest put it down to the exchange rate, and the lack of supermarket own-brand items. Although Wal-mart did have a "Great Value" range - which we stuck to whenever possible - it really wasn't as cheap as the Tesco Value and Sainsbury's Basics we usually buy.

Anyway, we are now stocked for, hopefully, at least the next week, and have a wonderful range of things we can't get at home, including:

- Corn dogs
- Marshmallow fluff
- Froot loops
- Corn muffin mix
- Cinnamon toast crunch
- Ranch dressing
- Frozen fruit juice concentrate
- Lemonade mix
- Reeses Peanut Butter cups

Could't get tinned chopped tomatoes for some reason. But American butter really does come in little sticks. Who knew?

So we came home, unpacked, had corn dogs for lunch, changed, and headed off for church having programmed the location of the chapel into our trusty satnav. It was good to have a friendly English voice guide us to where we needed to be but partway into the journey I realised he was conning us, and we were going in completely the wrong direction. We ended up about ten miles away because the TomTom, not recognising the address, had decided to substitute a similar one and took us instead to the Hope Church of Orlando. I wonder what I should read into that? Our SatNav is Evangelical?

Anyway, we ignored its protests all the way back down John Young Parkway. We arrived half-an-hour late to what turned out to be Pleasant Hill Ward's Ward conference. But we still got to hear two and a half very good speakers, and even got a Disney metaphor. ("If you don't go through the turnstile and wait in the line for Space Mountain, you don't get to ride Space Mountain.")

On the way back it started to rain. A lot. Rain that would do Britain proud. It was as though Florida's entire rain allowance for the year had been flung on us for just that afternoon. And there was thunder and lightning in abundance too. Luckily I happen to know that a car is the safest possible place to be in a storm (Faraday cage, rubber tyres), but even so it was quite spooky when we heard a sudden loud bang and flash from the central reservation just two metres from our car and realised that lightning had struck the ground just just off our port side. If someone was cross with us for going to Wal-mart on the Sabbath, then He missed.

Anyway, we spent a lot of the rest of the afternoon in our timeshare, so perhaps this is a good time to talk about how wonderful it is. It's open plan, nicely decorated and well equipped. There's a laundry area with a great big American washer and dryer, and bathroom with a little tiny American bath - but we also have a full size jacuzzi bath in our ensuite. I bathed the children in it before we went out for the day. Not having had one before, I didn't know that you had to fill it above all the openings, so when I switched it on Hari and Ceri got squirted with three enthusiastic jets of water. When I had picked myself up off the ground and finished laughing, I switched it off again and filled the bath the rest of the way up.

By evening the rain had been downgraded from downpour to drizzle and the lightning had stopped, so we decided to go for a swim in the pool. Splashing across the car park in swimsuits and flipflops we ran into a German family on the way back from the pool area. "It's locked," they told us, and we shared a moment of disbelief with our European neighbours at the idea that the resort management would decide to close the outdoor pool just because it was 7 p.m. and raining.

Nothing to do in the evening but eat all the interesting food we had bought. Reese's peanut butter cups are quite nice, as is beef jerky, but I made a complete mess of trying to make American pancakes. Corn dogs and Cinnabons, though, I am really going to miss. But none of us liked the little white doughnuts. Any takers?

Saturday 27th March 2010

Despite checking in at Heathrow two hours before our flight time we still didn’t manage to get seats together, so Gwen, Ceri and Roderic had bulkhead seats (extra legroom, space to get up and walk about without having to clamber over several irritated fellow passengers) and Angharad and I sat behind them and worked on irritating the Americans sitting either side of us – a task made much easier once Ceri decided she wanted to come and join me on a regular basis.

As per the advice I once read in a women’s magazine, I had packed little wrapped presents to keep the children happy, promising them a new present to unwrap every two hours of the flight, and thus whiling away the eight-hour journey. Mostly they whiled those hours away by asking me how long it was until the next present and how disappointed they were in the last one.

We’d seen all the films on offer, but Ceri and Hari both fell asleep two hours before the end of the flight. We woke them up so that they could spend almost as much time standing at customs being photographed, fingerprinted and frisked. (I was frisked twice – once at Heathrow and again at Washington, and in Washington I had to wait in a glass cage for the nice lady to come along and run her hands all over me.)

It took so long that our luggage had given up forlornly going round in lonely circles on the carousel and was huddled on the concourse waiting for us. (I can’t help thinking that at Heathrow it would have been blown up.) So we greeted it, trundled it 200 yards to the next belt, and bade it farewell again.

The wonders of capitalist America hit us as soon as we turned the next corner. Huge, warm, soft pretzels, Wendy’s, Dairy Queen. But we had to find gate D21 and we had about two miles of concourse to cover, so we staggered thirstily past the fruit slushie stall, Dunkin’ Donuts (sic), and a Subway which also sold pizza. We eschewed the Obama baseball caps, the “Washington – Our Nation’s Capital” sweatshirts (because it isn’t), Starbucks and the California Burritos vendor. We limped past the sign saying “Last chance! No food or drink outlets beyond this point!” and finally collapsed at a very crowded gate D21, where the plane was full and there were 37 people on standby.

We did get seats, although we didn’t all get to sit together. Roderic was at the back of the plane, the three girls were together, but by dint of being ostensibly an adult I had to sit by the emergency exit and was asked whether I was “prepared, able and qualified” to assist the crew in an emergency. “Of course I’m not qualified,” I replied. “I haven’t been on a course on opening emergency exits.” Oddly, this didn’t seem to matter.

At the other end we queued for 30 minutes at Alamo to get our car, while the children conked out on the concourse, and then Roderic had to once again learn to drive an automatic, and how to drive on the right. Luckily out satnav worked. But it wasn’t looking good when we arrived at our resort either, at 2.30 a.m. local time, 6.30 a.m. on our body clocks. The security guard, whose job it was to check us in, was off on his rounds and nowhere to be seen. Eventually he appeared, and we were allocated unit 8-218, and very gorgeous it was too, although I’ll describe its wonderfulness another time.

The children were great, didn’t seem tired or make any fuss, but were happy to be tucked into bed all the same. But we hadn’t had a meal on the second flight (to our disgust) and were starving. So Gwen and I walked off to Walgreens at 3 a.m., confusingly full of energy and wide awake until we realised that our body clocks thought it was 7 .a.m – the time we usually get up – and had evidently decided not to bother with all that sleep malarkey. Crossing the road was a hair-raising experience with such a wide dual carriageway to cross. We had learned on our last visit that just because there was a picture of a little walking man somewhere on the distance horizon, didn’t mean some driver wasn’t going to do a “right on red” and mow down the unfortunate ignorant tourists. So Gwen shouted “leg it, Mother!” and we ran for our lives. Once safely inside Walgreens we spent $30 buying all those wonderful things we can’t get at home – Lucky Charms, oatmeal, Mountain Dew, Cheetos and a sandwich called “Ham provolone on rye”. (I only know what one of those things is, but it was all very nice.)

Our bed was so big that once we climbed in we found that we couldn’t reach each other. I commented to Hubby Dearest that I’d come and give him a cuddle, but I couldn’t afford the taxi fare.