TC Travel #1: Fire and Laughing in Las…er, Florida

I’m gradually ticking off the corners of America, like a bingo-player. Having done top-right and bottom-left, this year saw another one crossed out: the bottom-right, with the destination for the first part of the ‘98 TC tour being Florida, land of oranges, Disney, and really big crocodiles. Flew Virgin out to Orlando, and I heartily recommend them; seatback TVs, goodie bags, and a safety film featuring the voices of Leslie Phillips and Ewan MacGregor. Cool.

Downtown Orlando is one long strip of tourist traps, shopping malls, T-shirt shops and billboards. Didn’t spend much time there, even for nutritional purposes, preferring to graze on snacks and carry-out food while on the move. I was, however, introduced to the delights of laser-tag, and promptly had my butt kicked by Robert and Emily, two children temporarily acquired for the trip – thereby allowing me to act the kid as well i.e. run around with a light gun like a total lunatic. Refreshingly cathartic.

A car is near-essential to reach the major attractions, though shuttle buses run to them if you are staying in a major hotel. Ours was a convertible, but we spent more time with the top up, preferring the comfort of air-conditioning to the pose value of cruising around with the wind in our hair. This was because the heat in Florida is so intense, even the breeze fails to mitigate things, merely making it feel like driving around inside a giant hair-dryer. As a result of this, the most commonly seen item at the theme parks was not the camera, but a spray bottle with a fan attached – although the fan itself was superfluous, since any water squirted onto your skin evaporated in seconds. Convenient to have Emily, for whom being asked to spray water at an adult was an eternal source of delight.

A straightforward comparison of Universal and Disney World would show the former well ahead for anyone older than about 14. “Terminator 3 in 3-D” is about the best show I’ve seen, combining live-action, film, and special effects to very impressive result, while ‘Back to the Future’ is also hugely memorable. Just don’t sit in the back, as it’s violent enough to leave the most sanguine of people with a migraine, after their head bounces off the backboard for the Nth time.

The ‘Jaws’ ride also rates high, in an amusing-rubber-fish-and-pyrotechnics way, and of course, there was the ‘Xena & Hercules’ show, which takes you through the making of an episode, turns audience members into centaurs, and so on. Even Emily, who had been making “If-this-is-not-a-ride-why-are-we-­going-on-it-then” noises in the queue, was won over. The major disappointment was their new ‘Twister’ attraction; a stiff breeze and a plastic flying cow do not set my imagination alight.

Comparatively speaking, Disney World was less interesting, being more aimed at children. The ending of ‘Splash Mountain’ is okay, but you’ve got to sit through an eternal ‘Brer Rabbit’ diorama, having queued for a minor geological epoch. It’s the thrill-ride equivalent of unsatisfactory sex. ‘E.T.’ is even worse, whiny eco-nonsense about helping to save his planet. Hey, it’s your planet, bud; you broke it, you fix it. This is the Disney problem; it looks terribly cute, but has no substance or, worse still, the substance leaves any sane adult with a terrible desire to leap on Mickey Mouse and rip his head off. I’d even worked out a technique (firm grasp of the ears followed by a rapid twisting motion). But luckily for them, the ferocious heat seemed to be keeping most of the characters off the streets.

According to Robert, Space Mountain was majorly kick-ass, and his good taste in such matters was reflected in the massive queues. Too massive for us, in fact. However, there was one other memorable moment, which required less standing around in long lines. ‘Alien Encounters’ is surprisingly un-Disney; a teleportation demonstration goes somewhat wrong, leaving a pissed-off BEM to roam the audience, with a healthy volume of body fluids being sprayed around. Maybe not quite Peter Jackson territory, but after the rest of the park (the moral equivalent of eight hours eating candy floss) it felt like an Italian cannibal movie.

One other tip is to wait till the end of the day, as by this stage, most parents have been run ragged by the amazing energy levels of their children (I’m sure Emily & Robert must have been powered by Duracell), then you can escape to “It’s a Small World”. This is an incredibly surreal experience, a boat ride which swirls you past scenes supposed to represent countries of the world, peopled by animatronic puppets with eyes like Chucky from “Child’s Play”. And all the while, this song is playing, on and on, in thirteen different languages. After three minutes, it’s annoying beyond belief. At six, you pray for it to end. By the time ten have passed, you’re contemplating leaping out of the boat and wading to safety. But then you enter a serene state of catatonia, which with luck will persist for the rest of the evening. Everything seems incredibly hilarious, even the crappiest attraction – and the now-closed (despite a major campaign!) “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” certainly falls into that category, but it’s amazing what kids will suddenly find incredible, when the alternative is leaving the park. I found myself giggling uncontrollably, and quite forgot my inclination to commit GBH on Mickey.

From Orlando, the next plan was to head to the Atlantic coast, maybe go to Cape Canaveral. We’d heard there were fires over that way, but of course, they wouldn’t be anywhere near the tourist areas. Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s slightly disturbing to see the odd flame licking up beside the highway. It’s moderately disturbing to find all of Daytona Beach smelling like a wet bonfire. It’s quite disturbing to find your car covered in ash, as if a volcano was nearby. And it’s really very disturbing to go to a restaurant and be told that, sorry, they can’t serve you because all their staff are being evacuated – not that they’re bothering with the tourists.

This was, naturally, meat and drink to the local TV stations, who delighted in running hysterical special news bulletins with titles like ‘Florida in Flames’, giving over made-up reporters the chance to ask local residents who’d just seen their houses burn down, that immortal question, “How do you feel?”. Of course, this being America, where nothing is real unless it happens on TV, the responses were surprisingly restrained, rather than choosing to punch the idiot’s lights out.

I was going to use my ‘Splash Mountain’ pic, in which I merely raise a sardonic eye-brow, but figured this would appeal to TC readers more…

We decided to leave Daytona before our lungs completely clogged up with soot, and headed back to Orlando for an bonus day meandering around places like “Hooters”, a restaurant which specialises in…no, not roast owl, but helpings of cheesecake, in the shape of attractively underclad waitresses. The premise is apparently to trim the uniforms as far as the law will permit, though the chain has inevitably been slapped with suits by ugly women claiming discrimination, and has toned things down as a result. Still, if fresh-faced cheerleader types in crop tops and tight shorts are your thing – and why not? – then it’s certainly worth a visit. The food is…I can’t remember anything about it, but I think there is some. I wonder if the London franchise is available, though a bunch of mascara’d-up Sharons has less appeal.

Florida is fun, but somehow the parts of it which I visited this time seem lacking in character, even the sleazy, neon-clad character of Vegas. Its spirit is as flat as its geography: perhaps it takes more time and effort than I had spare, to peel away the smiling tourist facade and find the real place – jai-alai (see later) was probably the closest I came to seeing “real” Floridans, rather than those in service industries with fixed smiles and Mouse-ears(TM). However, if you’re looking for an uncomplicated, shallow and warm good time, Florida comes recommended.