As I travelled by car though the dusty boondocks, on towards Kissimmee, I passed an old wooden sign that read: “Rabies shot $5”. Below the text, crudely scribbled in permanent marker pen, was an arrow pointing towards a tiny ramshackle hut made of corrugated metal and a few bits of soiled cardboard, presumably there for decorative, rather than structural, purposes. Then no more than thirty yards down the road stood a gun club, its unavoidably large emblem assuring sceptical drivers that the business was “100% owned and operated by gun enthusiasts!”.
This was a side of the United States that I wasn’t expecting to find so close to Walt Disney World, and I wasn’t sure what unnerved me most: the idea of somebody practicing medicine out of a dilapidated hut or the surreal reality that, in the southern states of America, even when you’re a couple of miles from a children’s theme park, you’re never too far from a facility where regular people are encouraged to fire bullets at human-shaped targets.
Such a sight was especially alarming, as two gun-related incidents had happened nearby quite recently. The first involved two British tourists who were shot dead in downtown Orlando; the other was the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, which that week was currently dominating much of America’s media coverage, with some pundits suggesting that the shooting had been motivated by racism.
I had no intention of venturing into downtown Orlando, nor was I (or indeed am I) black, so there was something to be thankful for. But these thoughts failed to ease my anxiety at the time, as I tried to imagine all the ways that I could defend myself if a madman were to attempt to open fire on me. Alas, I could only think of one, and it involved me sinking into my car seat, lest a bullet were to fly through the windshield and into my skull. I figured that such a manoeuvre would be near impossible to pull off, but as I sat there in my seat, I had a good practice nevertheless.
At this juncture, it had been perhaps an hour since I had stepped off the plane and headed through Orlando airport’s maximum-security gates, where it seems even a hopelessly unthreatening nebbish is regarded with high suspicion. I’m not sure what it is about me in particular, but every time I arrive in another country, customs seem irrationally put out that I’ve chosen visit. I feel like an uninvited mother-in-law, except that, to my credit, I can generally detect when I’m not wanted.
“Sir, what’s the purpose of your visit to the United States of America?” the man at the gate asked me.
“Uh—Disney,” I replied.
“Disney?” I said again, this time wondering if I had gotten off at the wrong airport or if Disney World had merely been a figment of my imagination all along. Perhaps I was pronouncing it wrong? Dis-nay? Dies-ney?
“A vacation, sir? You’re on vacation?”
“Yes.” I confirmed, trying my best to sound like a human. “Vacation.”
It hadn’t been my idea to come to Orlando on “vacation” and never before in my life have I ever felt any great desire to visit Disney World or Universal Studios. If I had chosen the destination, I probably would have travelled to somewhere like Paris, or Rome, or New York, or even—still preferable to Disney World—to Dhaka or Baghdad or Surrey. Yet in spite of my initial reservations, by the time that I had set foot on Floridian soil, I found myself to be uncharacteristically enthusiastic about the next few days: the first time I’d felt such excitement in fact since primary school, when I won a Sonic the Hedgehog Easter egg in the class raffle.
Things since then have been a downwards spiral, but my waning scepticism seemed like a step in the right direction. I figured that this was probably how I should be feeling. After all, I’d seen the advert for Disney World in which two insufferable young children struggle to sleep the night before they’re taken to the most magical place on earth. “I’m too excited!” one of them squeals, before mum and dad enter the room seeming strangely chirpy about being kept up the night before the big trip.
But unlike those two yappy kids, the excitement that I was experiencing was really born out of a love for travel rather than for the destination. As a man who’s often impressed by such simple pleasures, I’ve always been content to merely drive around in a foreign country, observing as I do all the strange peculiarities that the locals seem to consider completely unexceptional. It’s that privilege of being somewhere totally unfamiliar that, for a while at least, makes gazing out of a car window seem like a fascinating novelty.
Both the gun club and the backyard duelling banjos syringe hut had perhaps been a bit too fascinating for my liking, but as I travelled into a more built up area the surrounding landscape began to resemble less unsettling territory. In fact, it looked not unlike an out of town retail park from back home—except for the unavoidable fact that the roads were five times the girth. It was as if somebody had accidentally screwed up the aspect ratio and set the entire place to widescreen. Even some of the cars seemed excessively wide, presumably designed to house bodies of colossal and limitless proportion.
It is true, unfortunately, that America’s southern states are home to some morbidly large individuals, as many tourists in the past, all much less polite than myself, have attested. Most of the people I encountered during my trip were—in fairness—reasonably trim, although the ones who were of a larger carriage tended to be almost competitively enormous, and thus more eye-catching, particularly when they chose to stay cool by indulging shamelessly on a refreshing brick of cheese.
Given the temperature, it is a wonder that anybody in Florida has an appetite at all, and yet under the searing sun, where once there was only swampland, are now hundreds of unavoidable food chains—with Arby’s, Denny’s, Lawry’s and O’Charley’s being just a few of the very many with names ending in an “ees” sound. Engineered so that they’re near impossible to reach by foot, these places offer up artery-filling plates of meat or—if wiping out an entire breed of cow isn’t your game—pizza, which is what I ordered for my first meal in Orlando at a place called Giordano’s.
Judging from the A5-sized picture of the dish on the front of the menu, how could an unsuspecting tourist ever have predicted that the actual meal would be eight times larger in real life? When it was served to me, along with a petrol canister of root beer, the pizza resembled a miniature mozzarella swimming pool: a huge, topless pie base filled to the brim with tomato sauce and cheese.
As the friendly waiter put it, I “tapped out” after just one slice, which I felt wasn’t too bad considering that the pizza probably contained more calories than what most families living in developing countries consume in an entire year. What was left—i.e. pretty much the whole thing—was then lifted into an enormous box, and after consuming one extra large portion of cholesterol, it seemed like quite an inviting looking coffin. The idea, I was told, was to eat the rest of it the next day back at the villa. Perhaps tomorrow, I considered, I’d feel like eating more saturated fat than I had ever eaten in my life.
Situated on what looked like a film set that had been built to resemble a quaint American suburb, the villa, as well as the buildings that neighboured it, had all the comforts and furnishing that a regular home might have. In fact, it came equipped with more comforts and furnishing than my home back in London has, which unfortunately lacks a swimming pool—and also chairs.
For some residents on the resort, this was their home all the time, and I couldn’t help but admire how they seemed to not have complete contempt for those just staying their land short-term. They were, without exception, uninhibitedly friendly towards their temporary neighbours, never shying away from social interaction the way we Brits tend to. It turned out that this is just how people operate in the south. They are masters of small talk the same way that I’m a master of avoiding it. But while I was in the Orlando-Kissimmee region, I couldn’t help but adapt to the ways of the area. It had the tendency to make life much more pleasant.
What a shame it is that most British people can’t engage casually with strangers without awkwardness. If I could have taken one thing back to London with me from my trip, it would have been civility. Like most Brits, politeness has always been something I’ve tried to uphold, but people in Florida seemed to make it a necessity. If only I hadn’t been genetically programmed to behave like a startled otter when approached by talkative stranger. If only.
By the time I arrived at the villa it was only about seven o’clock, but I was too fatigued from the plane to stay up much longer, and so I went to bed, where I had a terrifying nightmare in which I was drowning in mozzarella, as a group of angry gun enthusiasts shot at me from above. Eventually, unable to stay afloat much longer, I fell through the cheese and ended up in a little shanty, where a toothless man with needles for hands injected me with the rabies vaccine. Then he asked me for $5, but I woke up before I had to hand over the cash. Yes, no rabies for me.
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ii. Roasted Emu Legs: Islands of Adventure
Early the following morning, still jet lagged, I arrived at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure with approximately an hour to go before the park opened for business. Somehow, operating on just a few hours sleep, my party and I had misjudged the timing, making us the only visitors in the park. A light mist in the air, there was nothing we could do but wait patiently behind the turnstiles as the sun slowly began to creep up. The paths had all been recently hosed clean, presumably to remove various residues left behind by yesterday’s guests, and repeating ad nauseam over the park’s PA system was the sound Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.
Waiting seemed to take forever, but then finally we were given signal to proceed on through the gates from a fatigued member of staff, who seemed positively baffled by our early arrival.
“Have a nice day,” he said as he helped me with my ticket, and then I was inside, looking up the towering attractions.
In the distance was the recently opened Harry Potter World, featuring a large-scale replica of Hogwarts castle. It was deceptive, as from far away it looked impressively large, but as I started to get closer it seemed to shrink to a much more modest size. I couldn’t work out how the trick had been achieved, but it was impressive nevertheless. Much to my enjoyment, there was no need to queue early on, and so it was just the simple act of trekking down the long spanning corridors that, when busy, would ordinarily be full of restless people, and finding where to get on to the ride.
The only problem with not queueing was that you miss out on all the pre-attraction movies and light reading materials, which give guests a much-needed introduction to the ride’s narrative. In the case of the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the narrative was quite important in understanding what the hell was going on, and so things got off to quite a confusing start.
First I was asked to lock myself into the imaginatively titled “enchanted bench”, and then, with a projection of Harry, Ron and Hermione in front of me, I was taken at what seemed like great speed around the castle.
“Come on!” Harry told me. “We need to stop him! He’s getting away.”
But who he was, I wasn’t sure. Ron? Um, er, that one from the—
Fortunately, much to my delight, I didn’t really have to do much. When the bench came to a halt, I was told that I had saved the day. Unwittingly, I had done a great job, simply by enjoying the sensation of being thrown around a bit. It was an education in how high-tech amusements have become, and the same was true for the Spider-Man ride, which made me into even more of a hero. This time I had to fight bad guys while the ride took pictures of me looking as if I was suffering a stroke. Then at the end, I was told that the pictures could be purchased in the lobby, but I chose not to buy mine. Hopefully nobody else did either.
Outside in the great artificial streets, constructed with ornate detail to resemble Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, vendors everywhere were selling “butter beer”, an icy drink that looked like regular ale, but tasted sweet and creamy. Curious for a try, I stopped in to a recently built old English-style pub, and told the yank behind the bar to pour me pint of the stuff. He was clearly impressed with my English accent, which I got the impression he thought I was putting on.
With an open mind, I took a big swig of the butter beer. It was delicious, not unlike a Slush Puppy, but with richer, creamier flavours, and without the intense tongue staining properties. I would have asked for the recipe, but then I considered that the cooling satisfaction would be lost when I was back in the UK, where to cool off is to stand outside for five minutes.
Over at Universal’s main theme park, where Woody Woodpecker’s face is almost as common a sight as the uninhibitedly rotund riding around on mobility scooters, I queued for the E.T. attraction. I was told as I approached entrance that I would have to say my name, and then as I was exiting the ride, I would hear “Jack” repeated to me in the voice of everybody’s favourite extra-terrestrial. Immediately I started thinking up the most ludicrous names I could think of. Rüdiger, Kool, P.J. Greaseball, Lance Justice—the various choices spewed bountifully into my small, immature brain. I had it. I was going to tell them that my name was Siegfried von Poopenmeyer. Here it came.
“Your name, sir?” asked the woman by the entrance.
I prepared myself. I couldn’t crack now. I was going to say it calmly and with the straight-faced sincerity that only someone called Siegfried von Poopenmeyer could.
“S—” I began, forming the first sound of the name Siegfried von Poopenmeyer. Here it reluctantly came.
“Jack?” the woman replied. “Okay, Jack. Have a good time.”
Dammit. I’d chickened out. I’d bailed on Siegfried von Poopenmeyer. What a waste.
The attraction had an introduction video from Steven Spielberg, who informed guests that I would have to help save E.T. by visiting his home planet, which was filled with all his weird and wonderful friends. But the most memorable thing about the ride wasn’t the visuals, but rather the piny smell of the forest, which wafted up at various intervals.
As I came to a halt, I heard, as I was promised, the sound of my name.
“Goodbye Mark, Jacob, Daniel, Fiona, Jack,” said E.T., waving his big hand at us all.
“Goodbye, E.T.” I replied, before I was whisked around the corner and into the gift shop.
Just outside was The Simpsons ride, which seemed reasonably new, although few people appeared to be queueing for it. Perhaps, I considered, it simply wasn’t very good, like many things endorsed by The Simpsons, but I had heard that a few of the original Simpsons writers had contributed their wit and humour to the attraction, so surely it couldn’t be too bad.
To my surprise, the ride turned out to be one of the best in the entire park, taking guests on a rollercoaster adventure that blurred reality with computer generated 3D animation. Similar to the Harry Potter ride, The Simpsons and their brightly coloured world was projected onto a screen in front and then the cart that I was in moved in unison with the projection. It provided plenty of thrills, and also plenty of laughs, which is something the programme itself hasn’t really done for over a decade now.
Across the other side of the street, the queue for The Mummy ride was difficult to stomach, not only because it was so long, but also because an excited father for two in front of me had forgotten where he was and had commenced farting in the confined space. It was a relief to finally get on the ride; however, the experience of waiting in the same room as another man’s gas rather tainted my opinions of the coaster, which was actually really good now that I think about it in fresh air. It was fast and incredibly dark, making it hard to predict what direction the ride would hurtle in next.
The Rip Ride Rockit was similarly fast paced, but located outside in the warm mid-day sun. The novelty was that you could pick a song to listen to while riding the coaster, although the genres were limited to country, classic rock, hip hop and awful—I mean, contemporary pop. Unfortunately, I was overly picky and didn’t select a song in time, resorting in the default song blaring through of my speakers, which was called “Busy Child” by something or someone called Crystal Method. It was relentlessly awful, and not unlike how I imagine the experience of waiting for an ambulance after being hit by a car.
The area near the Rip Ride Rockit had been built to resemble San Francisco, and then, if you took the next street over, you ended up in old-fashioned New York City. As I stood there, looking up at the tall, painstakingly designed buildings, I couldn’t help but wish that I really were in San Francisco or New York City. But this, I considered, certainly wasn’t a bad consolation prize.
Practically everywhere on these fabricated urban streets, vendors were selling giant Turkey Legs, although there was a rumour going around amongst the mouth-breathers that they were in fact Emu legs—not that the many of them seemed concerned. The legs were being swallowed quicker that they were being sold, and indeed quicker than the emus were being killed. As I discovered there and then, the food at pretty much all of parks—including, to my surprise, Animal Kingdom and Sea World—tended to be uncompromisingly greasy and comprised entirely of meat, which as a vegetarian, was sometimes difficult.
I find it hard to admit, but it is true. I don’t eat meat. In fact, I’m a self-loathing vegetarian in the strict sense that I’m a vegetarian and I also hate myself for it. However, vegetarianism itself isn’t entirely the reason why I enjoy sticking my tongue in a plug socket in a vain attempt to end it all. Believe it or not, I enjoy vegetarianism, just not the niggling baggage that comes with being one. Free from the habit of having to consume meat, since I retired from being a carnivore four years ago, I’ve tended to eat more creative, less fatty and altogether more nutritious meals. I simply have no desire to eat meat again.
Nevertheless, despite my insistence that I don’t want to touch the stuff, there are those who are quick to tell me that, actually, I do. Smacking their lips together while widening their eyes, it’s apparently a fun game for some people to describe to me the taste of a steak or burger in ways that make it sound as if it’s been prepared lovingly by the angels of Xanadu, and not resentfully by underpaid lackeys on the floor of a Chicken Cottage restaurant. If that fails, some especially right-minded individuals also feel the urge to attack my masculinity, suggesting that if I were a real man I’d surely be genetically disposed to be carnivorous.
(This is obviously a brilliantly well-considered argument, and one that really teaches me a lesson for being so shamefully woman-like. Meat is, after all, the lifeblood of masculinity. It is to men, as bananas are monkeys, and personally I’ve always considered monkeys, with their almost entirely meatless diet, to be unsettlingly feminine. What could be more staunchly masculine than meat in ones mouth?)
It’s this unnecessary baggage that comes with being a vegetarian that I find more difficult to swallow than any un-appetising part of an animal—even the pork sword. These past few paragraphs have been a hesitant exception to my rule of not discussing my dietary habits, but I could hardly avoid talking about it at least a little bit. In Orlando, I discovered during my trip, not eating meat was considered to be a strangely perverse practice, comparable perhaps with wearing ladies’ tights or growing a mullet.
It’s accepted, rather begrudgingly, but not fully understood, with several waiters informing me during my trip that “chicken”—one of the few meats named directly after the animal from which it comes—was their establishment’s only veggie option. Needless to say, meals were sometimes an exhausting experience in Florida, not least because, of all the food stocked by an average restaurant in Orlando, less than a child’s portion of it is not a variety of meat.
True, if everything hadn’t been extremely fatty, I would have returned back to England a stone lighter. Yet that’s not to say that, on some nights, I didn’t eat very well indeed. It was just that often it was a challenge to find places that didn’t exclusively just serve meat, particularly in the parks.
It bears mentioning that if Woody Wood Pecker were real and not a cartoon character on a poster, I’m sure the guests would have devoured him whole.
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iii. Tomorrow’s World: Epcot
Back when I was in secondary school, my peculiar head teacher would frequently hold assemblies where he’d hark on, uninterrupted, about how Earth was like a rocket travelling through space. Spaceship Earth is what he called it, and we children would have to do our part for the environment, he warned, to ensure that it continued its speedy journey through the universe.
He was certifiably insane, of course, and eventually quit teaching to join a “tribal society”—or at least that’s what the newsletter accompanying his departure said. Little did I know at the time, but much of what he’d tell us in those peculiar assemblies had been directly plagiarised from a ride at Disney’s Epcot, and the rest of it, I learned much later, had been pilfered from a song by the group M People.
Epcot, in case you’re curious, stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow and was built as a Utopian city of the future. The elaborate brainchild of Walt Disney, chances are you’ve seen Epcot before, perhaps on television or in photographs, and will be able to recognise its enormous geodesic ball which houses—you guessed it—Spaceship Earth. It’s sort of a ride, but it has also been designed with educational intent, guiding you through the past before veering off into mankind’s seemingly brilliant Disney-themed future.
As I took my seat in the little spinning cart at the entrance, the lights dimmed and soon I was taken upward and told, by Dame Judy Dench no less, that I was about to enter the Mesozoic age. Then I was moved about the giant globe, as twinkly lights shone above me like the night’s sky. Each age consisted of a series of impressive animatronic figures who tried their best to educate passengers on the subject of world history, although judging from what was being hollered in the cart behind—including phrases like “Where we goin’?” and “Come ‘ere a minute!”—I’d say that Spaceship Earth wasn’t succeeding in its plan to inform the masses.
Just before it was time to get out of the cart, a picture of myself appeared on the screen in front of me. It had been taken as I’d gotten into the vehicle, and now there I was, a little sprite, living in an animated prediction of the future. Weirdly, although it was the future, I hadn’t aged a bit, nor did I look very happy.
In addition to Spaceship Earth, Epcot is also home to the World Showcase: a series of lake-shore pavilions that supposedly mimic the way of life in various countries from around the world. Canada was the first I passed, travelling anti-clockwise around the park, and native Canadians Ian & Sylvia were playing over the speaker system. Many Americans, I’ve observed, are uncomfortably rude about their northern neighbours, so although miniature Canada was an impressive replica, it was also quite irritating to hear endomorphic yanks strolling up to the Canadian staff in the gift shop and bellowing: “Eh!” or “Yah!”
Expatriates staff all of the miniature countries, including the United Kingdom, which I was impressed to find was a reasonably authentic duplicate, aside from perhaps its cleanliness and fine weather. It was easily the most popular with the American tourists as well, who seemed to love the British tat, particularly the monarchy and Beatle-themed paraphernalia. It was also where a few famous British characters—including Winnie the Pooh—hung out, across a bit from an old English boozer selling all the carbonated urine-based lagers that are popular in the real UK.
By this point, though, I’d had enough of thinking about home, and so I headed back in time to 1986 to watch Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Seemingly the last time the cinema that I was seated in had been updated was when Jackson was still black, but in spite of my initial scepticism, the experience was one of the high points of the day. The film saw an energetic MJ throwing down some hilariously sincere dance moves that were seemingly so convulsive that they turned his enemies instantly into sexy movers and shakers.
Back on the lakeside trail, I worked my way through France, Italy and then Japan, before spotting The American Adventure: a guide to American history told through animatronics and lies. As I waited by the entrance, a man strolled over dressed in stars and stripes, and it was then that I realised that the attraction was perhaps not my scene. This was patriotism at its blindest, a bizarre bending of the facts to make even the unpleasant parts of American history seem courageous and noble. The Native Americans, we were led to believe, came and went without much explanation; the entire civil war was explained in the form of a song (“one wore grey; one wore blue”); and the pilgrims, it was said, had to contend with a “cold winter”—perhaps the politest way of explaining how they dug up the dead and ate their rotting flesh.
It was perplexing, particularly when the song started up.
“America,” we were encouraged to sing, “spread your golden wings, sail on freedom’s wind, across the sky.”
Later I discovered that the tune was called “Golden Dream”, a title that I’d recommend—for perhaps obvious reasons—not looking up online.
The attraction was met with a hugely positive response from the majority of the audience, particularly from those resembling human livestock.
“U.S.A!” one audience member chanted, repeatedly, never stopping.
“You better believe it!” said another.
After leaving the American Adventure, to regain the will to live, I headed over to Soarin’, a ride voiced by Seinfeld’s David Puddy. The idea behind it was reasonably simple: strap yourself into the seat, and then, as the floor drops away, a projection of various beautiful and remote landscapes appear in front of you, with smells blown into your face to match. I flew over orange groves, over beaches and even over the ocean—although, in reality I was merely suspended twenty feet above the ground, seated between a seven-year-old boy and a little girl.
It was a fantastic experience, and the immense rush of it sent me over to mini Mexico in high spirits. I had booked a meal for the evening inside the Mexico Pavilion, which was designed to look like a Mesoamerican pyramid. There was a tequila bar and various stalls selling authentic South American souvenirs, and then right at the back was the San Angel Inn, where I’d be dining. By all accounts I should have hated it, but the entire room looked remarkable, if indeed you could have called it a room. It had been designed to give the illusion that nothing stood in the way between guests and the dusk-shrouded sky outside. It wasn’t real, but it was perhaps the next best thing.
Not wanting to eat meat, once again, resulted in an extremely limited menu at the San Angel Inn, although I wasn’t too concerned. The atmosphere was pleasant, the wine was more than drinkable and there were plenty of free nachos to enjoy. My main course on the other hand looked as if it had been conceived by an offended chef, perhaps one who was unimpressed with my selection of “Ensalada De Vegetales”, which in Spanish apparently translates to “plain vegetables”.
“Someone doesn’t want to eat meat?” I imagined him complaining. “Then how about all the salad in the world!”
Fortunately, I’m more than happy to eat a crate of uncooked vegetables, although I’m sure that my meat-eating dining partners would haven’t have thought much of the cornucopia of leaves on my plate.
By the time we were finished eating, it was time to step outside of what already felt like outside and head outside to watch the fireworks shoot off. Walt Disney Resorts shockingly spend approximately how much I would earn in—let me just do the maths—three lifetimes on fireworks, every single night, and so my expectations were justifiably high.
As the dusk began to fade into night, Epcot shone with candy-coloured lights, the big ball still very much visible from across the lake. The fireworks were fantastic and for a moment, very briefly, I was able to forget where I was. It may not have been Paris or Rome—or even Bagdad for that matter—but for somewhere that’s essentially as authentic as canned cheese, it certainly wasn’t a bad way to spend an evening.
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