Thursday, 25 February 2016

25th February 2016

Another trip to the temple - in fact, several. I didn't actually go in this time, we just went to the distribution centre and bought two sets of scriptures which Gwen and Harley had asked to us get. We then dropped them off at the LDS bookstore down the road to get them engraved, and headed for Universal Studios.

Unfortunately as we followed our usual route to the Universal car park we found the lane we needed coned off, and had to continue on I-4 and go back to Westgate. I stopped at reception at Westgate to ask why the park seemed to be closed, by the woman on the theme parks desk not only didn't speak much English, but had no idea.

It was a lucky that we did go home, because once connected to Westgate's wifi again I was able to message Gwen and tell her I'd bought her scriptures and they were being engraved that afternoon. She told me I'd bought the wrong ones. She wanted medium brown, and I'd bought small black. Having spent $67 on them, we hightailed it back to the bookshop, arriving just as the engraver was measuring up the first set of scriptures. Gwen's remained sealed in the packet, so we were able to take them back to the Temple and get a refund of our $67, but no medium brown. We then went back to the bookshop again to collect Harley's scriptures which look very nice with his name embossed in gold on the front.

I love the Orlando Florida temple - and the LDS bookshop a mile away - but having been to both three times in the last two days I'm happy to leave it several years before the next visit.
Following our finding of the shop called
"Ceridwen's Cauldrons", this one is
called "Sumatra Hari World of Dance".

It was 2.30 p.m. at this point, and we decided to try Universal again. This time I noticed that the arrow on an overhead gantry sign was pointing in a different direction, so we followed it to a different car park than usual, and this time we were able get into both the car park and the theme park. Evidently the first car park had been full, and we hadn't noticed that the sign had changed.

I mentioned in a previous post that I hate roller coasters, and I was pleased to note that there are fewer than I remembered. Roderic commented too that there seems to be a big change happening in theme parks - well, Universal at least - in that virtual rides are abounding, and real roller coasters are getting fewer. It's easy to understand why, too. A virtual roller coaster takes up less space, is easier to build, is less dangerous, can carry more people at one time, and it's much, much better in terms of the variety it can offer. I did two in Universal today. The first one, Spiderman, had us sitting in a carriage a lot like a roller coaster, but with 3D glasses on. We seemed to swing and dive and hurtle around the city helping Spiderman round up the bad guys. Except that of course, we didn't. We were actually on a small length of rail, and the carriage moved only a short distance while the images were projected on screens around us.

Here's the thing: I knew this so I wasn't scared. I am terrified of heights, but even as I seemed to be freefalling fifty feet down a building I knew that I was only a foot or two off the floor, and the wind in my face was being blown through vents, while the view of the ground hurtling towards me was on a screen.

Hari meets the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students.
I did the Harry Potter Escape from Hogwarts ride too, and that was amazing. The seat felt a little more like a roller coaster (my feet were hanging in the air), and we seemed to swoop and soar over Hogwarts, through a Quidditch match, and under the whomping willow, with all the associated juddering and swooshing. It was exhilarating and wonderful, but it wasn't a roller coaster and so I didn't scream once. In fact, it takes your photograph partway round, and I was actually smiling. Compare this with Goofy's Barnstormer at Disney World which I did a few years ago. It's a children's roller coaster, and I screamed my head off all the way round and embarrassed my children.

Great work Universal! Dismantle all those old-fashioned roller coasters. Virtual is the way of the future.

22nd, 23rd and 24th February 2016

Monday 22nd February

In the morning I checked out the resort's superb fitness suite. I ran 3.1 miles (5km) on the state-of-the-art treadmill. I'd imagined I'd feel much cooler in the fitness suite than running outside, but although it was air-conditioned the blazing sun burned right through the floor-to-ceiling windows so I suspect there wasn't much in it, except that the fitness suite provides towels. There's a stair machine there too - I've wanted to try that for a while. Maybe next time, before I wear myself out with running.
Churros filled with chocolate and
dulce du leche
 In the afternoon Roderic, Hari and I went to Florida Mall, Hari's idea of paradise. Roderic and I rather enjoyed it too, mostly because of ThinkGeek and Boxlunch (sci-fi stuff) and Churromania. Hari did herself proud in all the designer shops too.

In the evening we tried out another fast food place. Checkers scores a firm 9/10. The burgers were superb, and the chips (smothered in cheese and bacon) were so good that Roderic commented that it makes you realise that other places aren't even trying. We paid about $40 (£30) for five of us, so it was good value too. It loses one point for having tired decor. It was trying to look like a sixties diner but just looked somewhat sad and dated. There was also a noisy and belligerent drunk in residence who wasn't shooed out, and made the few genuine customers feel somewhat uncomfortable, especially since there were several small children in the restaurant.

Star Trek garden gnomes. Me want.
Star Wars handbags. Me want more.

Tuesday 23rd February

Finally a tip for avoiding the crowds at theme parks that actually works - go on a day when the weather forecast is predicting thunderstorms! Hari, Ceri and I caught the (free) Westgate shuttle to Universal, and it was the quietest we'd ever seen it, with queues for most rides only five or ten minutes. We even walked straight onto a couple of them. It did rain for about ten minutes while we were eating our lunch, and there was a bit of drizzle later, but in Florida it's so warm it doesn't matter - you dry out just as quickly as you get wet.

Hari got chatted up again, this time by a superhero. Anyone know who this guy is meant to be?

Roderic and Grandma went to Seaworld and enjoyed the day looking at the animals and seeing the shows. Roderic pushed Grandma round in a rented wheelchair since all the walking had caused her foot ulcer to start playing up.

In the evening I decided to make the most of the outdoor jacuzzi and maybe also have a swim  under the stars, but loud thundering noises in the distance made me suspect that the predicted storm was on its way and a pool was not the best place to be. Once my clever husband deduced that the noise was actually just the Disney fireworks I was straight outside in my tankini. At 9pm it was still 24 degrees and there were four people in the jacuzzi and two in the pool - which was also very warm. I could get used to this life.

The owlery
Jurassic Park

Inside Gru's house (the queue for the Minions ride)

Wednesday 24th February

Another rest day. I spent the morning at the beautiful Orlando Florida Temple, then signed some of my books at the LDS bookstore down the road, and then we went to China Buffet for a delicious all-you-can-eat Chinese lunch. I always think that US Chinese food is better than UK Chinese food, and the spread was fantastic, with lots of dishes we can't get in the UK. I was also amused to discover that the fortune cookies were promoting Kung Fu Panda 3.

Hari and I then did the gift shops on International Drive where I found the perfect t-shirt for Hari, although unfortunately it was out of stock. Meanwhile Roderic, Grandma and Ceri had to call out Westgate henchmen to break us into our own apartment as the security bar had got stuck.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Sunday 21st February 2016

A day of rest today - at last. Grandma wasn't feeling well and so we spent the day mostly doing nothing. I did a little writing in the morning - until my laptop crashed - then had a stroll round the resort and hit the pool. In the outdoor jacuzzi I met a salesman and his family from Nebraska, and a retiree from Ontario who comes to Florida with his wife every January for 2 months.

Since we didn't go to church last week having just arrived in Florida, won't go next week due to flying home, and will be in Leeds the weekend after that, I had felt I very much wanted to go to church today. So I'd looked up the nearest church and contacted them to arrange a lift. A very nice lady called Donna collected me, and took me to their very friendly small non-denominational church. It was a really lovely experience, and the preacher - who wasn't their usual pastor - was excellent.

No pictures today, but it was a lovely peaceful Sunday.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Saturday 20th February 2016

Tips for avoiding the crowds at Universal:


Seriously, I checked the tips, we tried the tips, they don't work. Universal is always teeming with people, and no amount of turning right when you enter the park, starting at the back and working forwards, or heading for rides during parades makes the slightest bit of difference. My best advice is to learn to love crowds and pack Paracetamol.

Today's theory was to go for our Harry Potter day on a Saturday, when it's changeover day for most tourists. Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley and Hogwarts were still absolutely heaving with people, so that tip doesn't work either.

We've been to Harry Potter studios in Watford, so it was an interesting compare and contrast exercise. This Diagon Alley was far bigger (it would have to be to fit all the people in) and beautifully done. As with Watford, prices in the gift shops (of which there were many) were unfeasibly high. Hari and Roderic did the Gringotts ride which they loved; Hari and Ceri did the Flight of the Hippogriff ride, which they were less impressed with. We all caught the "train" from a very good replica of Kings Cross Station to Hogsmeade and that was very nicely done. It rather caught me out that the "British countryside" you go through is actually projected onto a screen, but it's fun all the same.

Ceridwen spent over half-an-hour staring at the giant dragon on top of Gringotts. Apparently it occasionally breathes fire. It did so several times when we were there, but none of them while Ceri was watching. Still, finding a shop called "Ceridwen's Cauldrons" might have helped quell her disappointment.

We had lunch at Roderic's favourite restaurant in the world - the Hard Rock café - and then returned to the parks in the hope of doing some rides we'd missed because of the queues. No luck, so we went to Doctor Seuss land where the queues were shorter - between five and ten minutes for the ones we did.

At this point we were all a bit shattered so we headed back to our apartment. We may do another day at Universal, but I shall probably choose a day when it's raining.

Hari got chatted up by the Knight Bus conductor.
Seriously, he was chatting to his shrunken head about how
pretty she was, and he asked her to send him an owl.

Roderic and the first Root Beer in three years.

Ceri makes mincemeat of a burger.

Thing 1 and Thing 2

My Thing 1 and Thing 2

Friday, 19 February 2016

Thursday 18th and Friday 19th February

The days are flying by so fast (unfortunately) that I've decided to cheat and do two at once.

Thursday 18th February was the day we booked way back in November to do Discovery Cove. It really is the most magical (and expensive) of the Florida parks. We've been before, and we loved it just as much as ever. We snorkelled through shoals of exotic fish, through beautiful grottoes, and over stingrays and sharks. We fed birds and saw otters. Grandma and the girls swam with dolphins called Coral, Reef and Hutch. It was a perfect day, and I'll let the photographs speak for themselves. Everyone should do Discovery Cove if they get the chance.

Fun in a hammock.

Feeding the exotic birds - which turned out to
be pigeons.

The girls and Grandma having a briefing from the trainer
before meeting their dolphins.

All food and drink was provided for the entire day, in
unlimited quantities. Hari took full advantage of this.

This bird eats pretty well too.
On Friday the Edeys and Hari, Ceri and I went to Aquatica on the shuttle so that Roderic and Grandma could have a day off. The hotel shuttle was free and dropped us at Seaworld, where we took the (also free) shuttle to Aquatica, arriving just as the park opened. I love water parks but spent most of the day lazing on the beach reading my Kindle, with just a little time in the wave pool, the lazy river (which goes past an aquarium and dolphins) and the rapids. No slides or flumes today - maybe next time. I was quite happy soaking up the sun and nattering with Suzy.

There was an all-day buffet option here too which worked well for us. The weather was perfect in that it was a hot but cloudy day so there was hardly anyone at the park. The children reported that they never had to queue for rides, and there were ten empty sunbeds for every occupied one.

On the shuttle bus Peter made friends with a boy his age from Nebraska called Hunter, and the two are going to be pen-pals. So this is a shout-out to Matt and Rachel too!

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Wednesday 17th February 2016

I've decided upon a new career for myself. I want to be a food blogger/reviewer, specifically of American fast food outlets. I could give a unique British perspective as I travel up and down America advising on the best place to find a $4 breakfast, and who serves the widest variety of soft drinks. If my work is popular, I could branch out into more upmarket establishments, maybe even add hotels to my repertoire, maybe a TV series along the lines of "Woman vs. Food" but without having to eat the ridiculously impossible portion sizes.

Today the rest of our little group went to the Kennedy Space Center (sic) at Cape Canaveral, about an hour away. Hari, Clara and I were left behind to do what we do best - shop and eat. We walked the mile and a half to the junction of Sand Lake Road and Turkey Lake Road, checking out the shops on the way, and pausing for a break at Dunkin's Donuts (7.5/10:  good value and friendly service but it's no Krispy Kreme).

Once there we had a wander around Whole Foods. What a marvellous place! Not that I'm in any way a health freak (see paragraph 1) but I love the idea of buying my couscous by the scoop, and it had the most wonderful selection of fruit and veg, and an amazing range of salads. Best of all, it actually had cheese. Real cheese. Stilton, St. Agur, Gouda, Wensleydale with cranberries, goat's cheese. Admittedly they were in the "speciality cheese" section (the regular cheese section was just the usual Monterrey Jack and fake Swiss the Americans seem so fond of) but it was good to know that in between fast food visits I could enjoy my favourite savoury snack.

Behind Whole Foods we discovered Michael's which turned out to be a craft store.Wonderful, wonderful place. We then crossed the I-4 slip roads (fun times) and walked to International Drive to check out the gift and souvenir shops. Usual Disney tat, but cheaper than buying Disney tat from Disney. (Sadly no Universal tat. The girls wanted "Thing 1" and "Thing 2" t-shirts, but they were $21.95 each at Universal so we thought we'd get them elsewhere. However, it seems they haven't been licensed anywhere else. The replica options said either "Drunk 1" and "Drunk 2" or "Sexy 1" and "Sexy 2" and I am not buying those for my children.)

No duck face for once, because she didn't know
I was taking her photo. Ha!
Hari got to choose where we went for lunch. There were four possible options within reach. Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits, Wendy's, Chick-fil-a, and Checkers. The only one I've ever been to before was Wendy's and I was quite excited to try somewhere new. So of course Hari chose Wendy's.

No complaints, though. It was delicious! American friends, have you tried their bacon fondue fries? Amazing, and only $2.29. I give Wendy's 9/10, especially since they had the widest variety of drinks I've seen anywhere. (Lime flavoured diet coke was yummy, raspberry flavoured diet coke was disgusting.) It loses a point just because it didn't seem to have any sort of desserts on offer. Now I want to try the other places, hence my food blogging career plan.

We caught a bus back because by this point we'd walked five miles and had sore feet. Then we hit the pool for the afternoon.

The rest of the gang arrived back from the Kennedy Space Centre at 7. They'd had a wonderful time and reported that it was well worth a visit. I'd cooked up a big pot of tuna pasta which just about fed us all, and then it was time to say farewell to Angie who flies home to New Zealand tomorrow.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Tuesday 16th February 2016

We aim to visit Florida every three years, and alternate Disney parks with Universal Studios for
each trip. This visit it's Universal Studios' turn for our custom, and this was our first theme park day. The weather was perfect, and they've built a lot more Universal Studios since last time we were here, six years ago. There's a whole new Simpsons section which we rather enjoyed, the Indiana Jones boat has gone, and of course there's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter across the two parks. (We made the deliberate decision to devote an entire day to Harry Potter, and today wasn't it.)

I don't do roller coasters (too scary) so I was pleased to find that there are far fewer of those than I remembered, and plenty of other things for me to enjoy. We did Shrek 4-D and even though Grandma had never seen Shrek she enjoyed it. Neither had Grandma seen ET, or Men in Black, or Despicable Me, or any of the other films on which the entire theme park is based, but that didn't stop her having fun. We have decided to educate her on the joys of these films, by forcing her to watch one every Friday night after dinner at our house.

I had a pretzel and a churro from a stand for lunch (I can't get either of those at home, so it was great novelty value, if zero nutritional value) and then took Hari and Ceri to Krusty Burger where the queue took 20 minutes to get through, but the food was disappointingly excellent. Ceri bought a bar of bacon flavoured chocolate from the Quik-E-Mart.

The wait times for a couple of rides we wanted to do were rather too long, so we headed off to Islands of Adventure next door and ran into Suzy and Angie outside Starbucks. We enjoyed a few pleasant minutes basking in the sunshine with them, then headed to one of my favourite rides, Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges. We got completely soaked, and then did it again. On a hot day it was rather fun to be drenched, and it was quite late in the afternoon at that point, so we headed home to our warm and luxurious jacuzzi and fluffy towels.

Monday 15th February

Our friends have joined us! Suzy and I have been friends since Primary school, and her three children get on famously with ours. Suzy's friend Angie from New Zealand has also joined the party. They're all staying in the apartment two doors down from us.

Now that there are ten of us we don't all fit in the minivan so several of us walked the mile to Walmart so that Suzy & co. could stock up. It was another opportunity to compare and contrast British and American supermarkets. Most things were more expensive at Walmart, with the exception of meat. I was interested to see that eggs had changed since my last visit to the US. One thing we found fun then was that American eggs are white, but this time we noticed that the regular barn (battery chicken) eggs were white, but all the free-range eggs were brown.

We went to McDonald's again. Grandma has now been to McDonald's twice (on consecutive days) in 77 years, so she's virtually a regular. At Walmart Grandma bought a hooded top for $3.50, and completely independently I bought the exact same one in a different colour. Obviously this means that Grandma dresses at the height of cutting-edge fashion. Or something.

Roderic came to collect the shopping and some of the shoppers, but Angie and I walked on to DollarTree. I do love a bargain shop, and DollarTree had some great deals. It's like Poundland, but cheaper, and with unusual and exotic stuff.

Holidays are my absolute favourite thing, and I tend to measure them in Perfect Moments. Today's was sitting on the patio with Hubby Dearest, eating corn dogs and chex mix for lunch, neither of which we can get at home.

In the evening the plan for us all to go to Golden Corral was somewhat scuppered by Peter falling ill, but on the plus side it meant that those who were able to go could fit in the minivan. Golden Corral is an all-you-can-eat buffet offering a range of cuisines. You pay on entry (about $10), and then just keep helping yourself until you explode.

I may have forgotten how very downmarket Golden Corral is, or maybe I've become a snob in the intervening years, but it's a great place to go if you're not feeling too good about yourself. Firstly, everyone there will be much fatter that you, and secondly they will all be much ruder. At one point the woman on the next table to us yelled at the waiter across the room, "Hey, we're thirsty here!" My British sensibilities quaked. I was thirsty too - those free refills are the only thing you have to rely on the waiter for - but the most I'd have considered is gently asking as he passed whether he wouldn't mind very much, if he wasn't too busy...

The décor is also pretty lacklustre, and the place is filthy, probably due to so many people wandering about carrying plastic plates piled high with greasy food. I may strike it off my list of places I have to visit every time I go to America. America can do great food (especially meat) but this isn't it.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Sunday 14th February 2016

Valentine's Day. My husband took me for a wonderful and delicious breakfast at a little romantic place we like to call McDonald's. In Walmart. With the kids and mother-in-law. (I'm a cheap date.) It was the mother-in-law's first visit to a McDonald's and she quite enjoyed her bacon and egg biscuit. (British friends, for biscuit think crumbly savoury scone.)

Then the joys of Walmart. I seriously love Walmart. I love that it sells everything I could ever imagine I needed (this one had a fishing rod department) except for the things I actually know I need. Today's challenge - find a packet of mixed nuts and a loaf of wholemeal bread for diabetic Grandma. We drew a complete blank on both, but I eventually found a loaf of white bread emblazoned with a slogan advertising the absence of high fructose corn syrup in its composition. (It still tasted curiously sweet, though. Why, oh why, would you put any sort of sweetener in bread?)

Grandma finds the British foods section.
Cheese was on our list. We remembered from our last visit that America really doesn't do cheese well, so weren't too disappointed to discover that even in the deli section there were no blue cheeses (like Stilton or Dolcelatte), no soft cheeses (like Brie or Camembert) and not so much as a goat's cheese or a roule. We settled for extra sharp cheddar. It wasn't.

We did get some truly wonderful and delicious things, though. Four different varieties of Ranch dressing. Ranch flavour Doritos with a Ranch dip. Ranch flavour Pringles. Seeing a theme here?

We enjoyed a lazy afternoon, catching up on sleep, unpacking, exploring, and reading. I even did some writing. Not much churching, though, for a Sunday. Maybe next week.

Prepared for anything.

Not the view from our apartment, but not far away.

Now this is genius.

Saturday 13th February 2016

Eating sandwiches because there
 was no McDonald's.
The journey reminded me of the downside of going to Florida. It's a blinkin' long way away! We left home at 6.30am and arrived at the resort at 5.30am according to our body clocks - half-past midnight local time. Highlights (or not) included:
  • Trying (and failing) to find a McDonald's at Heathrow and Philadelphia airports. 
    The contraband.
  • Finding that the "Movies" section of the in-flight entertainment included six episodes of Foyle's War. Gosh, that series is good! Yes, I did a "Netflix" marathon at 35,000 feet.
  • Having to go through the tightest security screening I've ever encountered, at Phily (I can call it that now that I've been there) despite having already been screened going out of Heathrow. Seriously, I was swabbed and x-rayed. But the tiny sniffer dogs were cute, and I still got my contraband through.
  • A guy playing Il Giorni on the grand piano in one of the airports a week to the day (almost to the minute) since my daughter walked down the aisle to that same song played on a piano.
  • The car rental desk trying (and failing) to persuade Roderic to pay an extra $15 a day to upgrade from the midsize we'd ordered to a bigger car, only for the guy in the garage to invite us to take any car we liked at no extra charge. We selected the Chrysler minivan, and it's a bit impressive. I've counted eight cupholders in it so far.
Forgotten your mascara?
  • Vending machines. You can get everything in the universe from a vending machine in America. I rather liked the Ben & Jerry's one, and there was one for electronic gadgets too. (There's also one right outside our kitchen window at our apartment. It's almost like it's saying "Don't bother cooking tonight! Give the kids $2 each for a bag of Cheetos instead.)
  • Traffic jams! We queued for ten minutes for the single open toll booth, and then we sat in a very frustrating 20-minute queue for the exit to our resort. We could see our resort right there at the side of the road, but couldn't get to it. Then when we did get to the resort they were doing a lot of building work (building a multi-storey car park and shops) and with it being Valentine's Day weekend the place was packed so we queued to drive round to our apartment. My poor husband spends a lot of his time in traffic jams during his working week, and we don't need any while we're on holiday. Please sort this out, Florida. Thank you.
  • Finally stumbling into our lovely apartment in the wee small hours after 23 hours of travelling and ordering the kids to bed, only for them to insist on hooking up their devices to the (temperamental) wifi before they'd so much as take their shoes off.
I think calling this a "food court" was stretching it a bit. Those two eateries you see were all that was available.
(Courtesy of my new least-favourite airport, Philadelphia.)

Hari met an M&M