iv. Biscuits for Breakfast: Animal Kingdom
There’s a saying: if something is found to be delicious, Americans have tried eating it for breakfast. Supposedly consuming any food first thing in the morning is fair game in the good old US of A, even cookies, which are considered a completely acceptable way to start the day–although only when covered in whole milk. They might have been rebranded “Cookie Crisp” and marketed as cereal, as not to arouse the suspicion of health conscious consumers, but the resemblance is surely unmistakable. Then there are Lucky Charms, of course, which were around in UK for a while (we can only hope they never found their way to Ireland), before somebody must have noticed that they were feeding their children marshmallows and e-numbers for breakfast, and then they disappeared faster than they had arrived.
Fortunately I am not particularly health conscious, nor am I a child, which is why, when eating breakfast in the United States, I enjoyed filling my stomach with a variety of sugar-flavoured snacks—the important thing to note here being that very few contain actual sugar. Often the boxes look as if they’d taste better than the polystyrene pellets that lie within them, but if you’re to believe the neon-coloured packaging, each pellet contains “real vitamins”, so who really cares about flavour when they contain such impressive health benefits?
As well as pioneering cereals, America is also a mecca for coffee, where it is produced in more flavours, textures and colours than anyone could ever hope for. As things often are in the States, these varieties are all sealed in gigantic tubs that were initially developed to house large marine mammals, before finally the demand for coffee became too high and Shamu had to be ejected back into the sea.
It was after an enormous bowl of saccharine o’s, a cup of rich black coffee and a slice of delicious Jewish rye bread that I left for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which I was sure was going to be my favourite park of the lot. How could it not have been? I love animals, even the ones that everybody hates, such as the chaffinch.
DINOSAUR was my introduction to the park, an attraction that took guests on an exciting ride back in time—not to the Mesozoic age—but rather to 1995. One by one, guests were loaded separately into convertible 4X4s called Time Rovers before creatures from the land that time forgot were mercilessly unleashed on us. Then it was up to actor Wallace Langham, formerly of the Larry Sanders Show, to assist us to safety through to the other side.
It was a fun, although relatively tame starter, and afterwards I fancied going on something a bit more intermediate. A rickety contraption called the Primeval Whirl looked as if it was the logical next step up. An “off the shelf” spinning roller coaster, the ride was guaranteed to provided “Mild But Wild Thrills”, and indeed it didn’t disappoint. More thrilling than the sensation of dropping a bowling ball on one’s toe, the jarring rush of being shunted backwards and forwards was a wild and largely traumatic adventure for the spine.
I could hardly walk afterwards and was left feeling like several large bones in my body had been removed with a pick axe, and so I decided to let the healing process work its magic by relaxing inside the endearing It’s Tough to Be a Bug attraction. As I queued up outside the entrance, I was treated to hits from Disney shows that had been re-recorded using bug sounds. It was cute, particularly the bugs’ surprisingly melancholy rendition of “Beauty and the Bees”, which certainly sounded more heartfelt than anything currently in the charts.
The actual attraction consisted of a 9-minute long 3D film based on Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. Using theatre lighting, 3-D filming techniques, animatronics and various special effects, the show gives the audience an idea of what it would be like to be an insect. The character Flik, from A Bug’s Life, hosts the show, educating viewers on why bugs shouldn’t be seen as pests, but more as friends.
By the time it was over, the adrenalin was starting to kick in after having recently been tenderised on Primeval Whirl. I figured, despite internal bleeding, that I was ready to experience something fast and exciting again—although hopefully something less bone crushingly painful. Luckily, I had just the ride in mind: Expedition: Everest. A speeding roller coaster mounted on a vast artificial mountain, the entire construction had been designed to resemble the Himalayas. Regardless of where you’re standing in the vicinity, it was an unmissable structure, towering over Animal Kingdom and establishing itself as the park’s major focal point.
The queue for the ride was over twenty minutes long, but thanks to the fabulous fast pass system I was able to get to the front in just five. As I took my seat, I tried to establish just where I would be heading. I noticed, much to my concern, that the man-made terrain resembled Swiss cheese: filled with holes—some big, some tiny. And jetting out of these holes were bits of rollercoaster track, some of which appeared to meet up with other bits of rollercoaster track, while others seemed to simply face directly into the jagged mountain. What would happen if my carriage were to hurtle off the end of the track? That couldn’t actually happen, could it?
I didn’t have much time to consider the possibilities. Within seconds I was sent thrusting forwards before things started to slow down considerably on the high climb up to the top of the ride. It seemed inevitable that there’d be a steep drop just around the corner, but instead the carriage came to a dead end. Facing the clear blue sky, there was nowhere left to go but backwards, and so that’s where I went, except this time much faster than I had gone before. Soon I was immersed in pitch darkness as I shot around bends and thundered back to ground level, all the while still facing forwards.
Then I reached a point where my retinas started to detect something up ahead (or was it behind me?). As light poured in from one of the holes in the mountain, I could see the faint silhouette of an animatronic yeti, shaking its arms and fists at me. Apparently it was irate because my spine hadn’t been completely obliterated on the Primeval Whirl, and so now it was going to chase me around the mountain so that I could experience the terror all over again, except this time facing the correct way.
When I came to a stop, I could hardly find the strength to get out of the cart. It was a hell of a ride, and indeed it ought to have been considering it holds the record for being the world’s most expensive rollercoaster ever built. Allegedly it cost the nauseatingly high figure of $100,000,000 to build. At least trying to comprehend how much money that was what I attributed the nausea to. It was either that or all the hurtling backwards in the dark I had just done.
I suddenly had a hankering for something a bit more laid back, and thought that seeing some actual animals seemed like a good place to start. After all, this was Animal Kingdom, and so far the only species I’d spotted had been anamorphic. Feeling as if my stomach had been liquidised, I headed over the park’s preservation area to observe some unusual creatures from afar. One animal was particularly strange, and had taken to stomping around disdainfully, as if life itself had just defecated on its head. Alas, it was a human, but a rare breed if ever I saw one.
“Look at that,” the creature’s wife said with a smile, indicating to her husband to look up at a small monkey in the tree.
He looked up, but did so with minimum effort, tilting his head about thirty degrees before continuing to seethe with misanthropy.
“Thanks,” he groaned. “Now my neck hurts!”
I continued on around the preserve, but tried not to make eye contact with the man with the sore neck. The animals were all wonderfully beautiful, and there were certainly some I hadn’t seen before. There were colobus monkeys, blue cranes, gerenuks, gorillas, hippos, kenyan sand boas, kori bustards, meerkats, naked mole rats, okapis, shield-tailed agama, spiny-tailed lizards, tarantulas and yellow-backed duikers.
But for a truly unique view of the wildlife, it was necessary to take a truck through Animal Kingdom’s entirely artificial African planes, which gives guests the tantalising illusion that they’re on safari. When I stepped on board I felt like Ernest Hemingway, travelling around the dusty track in search of beasts to shoot in the face, as if to compensate for a lifetime of emasculating shortcomings. Of course, personally I had no desire to shoot anything in the face. Merely seeing the creatures first hand was enough for me, although I did punch a zebra in the neck.
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v. American Pie: Celebration & Disney’s Hollywood Studios
With its picket fences, freshly mowed lawns and idyllic all-American homes, Celebration is a painting on a chocolate box: an all too-perfect town constructed, as its name suggests, in celebration of all things USA. It was built in the 1990s by the Disney corporation as a master-planned community to encourage a close-nit society run on good old-fashioned values and neighbourliness. Nostalgia is the essence of Celebration, which is perhaps a dangerous sentiment to build a town on, considering that nostalgia is the convenient process of misremembering the past: a collection of distorted memories that can be viewed favourably with the privilege of hindsight.
I’d be a fool, though, to dismiss Celebration for being built on mawkish idealism, as I can’t deny that it is a genuinely astonishing place, even if its charms are large fabricated. I passed through the town on my way to Disney Studios, but was so taken by Celebration’s unashamed quaintness that I had to stop and look around. Unbeknownst to me then, there was a big story surrounding the town that dated back to 2010, when the Disney-developed community had its first homicide. The victim was a retired private school teacher, who was said to have sought out sexual partners by driving around Osceola County in his Corvette, and stopping to strike up conversations with men by asking for directions. The killer, who was a homeless man working as a labourer, allegedly struck out when his victim tried to have sex with him.
Some papers seemed to delight in the grimness of the killing, adducing the incident as proof that there was something wholly sinister about the town of Celebration. I was shocked to read about the killing after returning home to London, but I was also irritated by the angle that these publications had chosen to run with. As far as I could see, Celebration seemed like the brainchild of a group intent on making people happy. Obviously profit was their main objective, but considering that seemingly no expense had been spared, and given how beautiful the place was, what was there to really criticise?
I certainly couldn’t find many negative things to say about the town when I stopped by. Without a cloud in the sky, a riverside pie festival had just started, complete with a terrific jazz quartet. For ten dollars you could sample all the pie and coffee you could handle. Just pay at the gate and commence eating. It was that simple. One lady—I counted—had swallowed her way through twenty-four different types of pie, which included such flavours as Dixie, pumpkin, cherry, banana, caramel and blueberry. I was less ambitious, only managing about five or six slices, although I still felt that my ten dollars had been well spent.
It was almost mid-day by the time I eventually arrived at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, formally MGM Studios, where the theme of the park is movie making. As you walk through the turnstiles, the main focal point is a very tall building that’s been made to look as if it’s in a state of disrepair. This is a Twilight Zone attraction called Tower of Terror, and the screams of its spooked guests can be heard as one approaches the ride’s entrance. It’s presented from beneath the grave by the show’s legendary host Rod Serling, who introduces the impending horrors in a bone chillingly suspenseful monologue.
After listening to Rod’s short speech, I was ushered into a large lift with a group of other guests where we were asked to take a seat and strap ourselves in. Then everything went dark for a moment as the entire lift briskly climbed several storeys before freefalling back to the ground floor. This process repeated for what must have been a good couple of minutes—depending, I suppose, on your definition of the word “good”.
I left the ride somewhat in a daze, my brain having just performed a full loop the loop inside my skull, and headed towards a building with a huge guitar mounted on the front, its long neck eventually tapering off into an even longer mock rollercoaster track. Inside was the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, which was endorsed by the insensible rock band Aerosmith, who were also the stars of the ride’s hilarious instructional presentation.
After a queuing for five minutes, I found myself in a room that had been decorated to resemble a recording studio. A group of tourists and I were in the recording room and Aerosmith were the in mixing room, listening back to a song that sounded like just about every Aerosmith song that exists. And as more bodies began filling the recording room the band seemed on slightly surprised by the sudden disturbance.
“How about some backstage passes?” singer Steven Tyler asked us all.
“Hmmm. I’m not sure about that,” groaned the band’s manager.
“Come on,” Steven said. “You know how we feel about our fans!”
It was at this point that I thought I’d better keep quiet about not really being much of an Aerosmith fan, mostly because the doors had automatically locked behind me as I’d walked in. An exit of any kind, let alone one that wasn’t fraught with awkwardness, was obviously out of the question.
“Alright,” the manager finally conceded.
Great. I was in. I was going to be backstage at an Aerosmith gig. I just hoped Steven wouldn’t try and make a pass at me—I knew how he could be.
To get to the gig, he explained, we’d have to take the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, which differed from other rides in the way that it accelerated incredibly quickly, rather than starting off reasonably slowly and then picking up speed on the downwards slope. Within a mere second I was sent thundering along the track before traveling in a full loop. The ride had a cool Los Angeles theme to it, although it was over so quickly that I wasn’t able to take in much of the scenery, and after the promise of backstage passes, it came as quite a disappointment when the ride came to a stop we were asked to move into the gift shop.
Suddenly it dawned on me: we’d all been lied to. There were no backstage passes—unless, of course, the party was the gift shop, in which case Aerosmith weren’t there, and there was certainly no guest list.
What was it Steven said again? “Come on. You know how we feel about our fans.” Well, what a tall statement that turned out to be.
Only slightly disappointed, I decided to have my own backstage party over at the delightfully retro themed Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater. The tables in the restaurant-theatre were unconventional is the sense that they weren’t really tables at all, but rather roofless 1950s-style cars that all faced towards a large screen showing campy black and white b-movies (Attack of the Killer Something, The Something From Space, etc.). It was only mid-day outside, but the restaurant was shrouded in manufactured twilight, and although many families with children were eating, the noise level was kept to a minimum. Indeed, even if the food had been poor, the atmosphere would have sufficed. The films provided the entertainment and there was a refreshing chill to the air, which further added to illusion of being outside in the Hollywood hills at dusk. But the food certainly wasn’t poor. It was possibly the best I ate all week: a vegetable burger with sweet potato fries and salad, and a cherry soda. It was simple enough, but executed very well. The bun was soft and lightly chargrilled and the salad was fresh and crisp.
Unfortunately the restaurant was in fact so good that I ended up overstaying my welcome, which left me with only a few hours before my next meal. I had booked, somewhat reluctantly, to eat at another nostalgia eatery not too far from the Sci-Fi Theatre called the 50’s Prime Time Café, which looked like it was located on the set of I Love Lucy.
To kill time until my table was ready I queued up for the Toy Story ride, the line for which had been almost an hour long all day. When I arrived around half three, it was at its quietest, at just over thirty minutes. So I stood in line, slowly taking tiny inch-long steps with what suddenly seemed like my very big shoes. The waiting time was in fact much shorter than I had expected, and soon enough I was at the front of the line, where I was asked to step into a little spinning car that shot imaginary balls at computer generated targets. Pirouetting and propelling the targets I was supposed to be firing at into oblivion seemed almost too easy, until the ride came to an end and I read the scoreboards. “Jordan” I was told had scored half a million points, whereas “Roger”, who still came in at second place, had won himself almost half that. I, on the other hand, had racked up merely a few thousand points.
I decided I had to meet the one they call Jordan. What was his secret? Was he equipped with bionic arms? Well, not quite. Jordan, I soon discovered, was actually a six-year-old blonde child wearing a Lilo and Stich t-shirt and a Disney Cars baseball cap. The only consolation was that at least I didn’t perform as poorly as his father, who looked like Vin Diesel, but alas shot more like a weasel—and an armless one at that.
By the time I was done embarrassing myself, there wasn’t long until my table would be ready at the Prime Time Café, and so I headed over in that direction. Before I was seated I explored the entrance, where there was an old fashioned television lit up with images of Dick Van Dyke during his glory years as the host of his now legendary show. The restaurant itself resembled at a 1950s American kitchen, and the food on the menu had been made to match. There was fried chicken, shakes and burgers: nothing out of the ordinary, but it all seemed to be receiving a decent enough reception from other customers—although, having said that, anything that is considered vaguely edible is well received by the park guests at Disney World.
I ordered the vegetarian spaghetti and “meatballs” and some kind of high-fat milk shake that I had to consume with a straw, which was such a strain to suck up that I almost gave my face a hernia. It was a fine meal nevertheless, and the waitress, who insisted on being called “Mom”, certainly provided the entertainment, telling one of my dinner guests to take his elbows off the table and repeatedly referring to me as “Skippy”. It was all part of the act, of course: she wasn’t having some sort of bizarre breakdown. This was the 1950s experience, and it was fun to play along in between courses, even if I had to be Skippy.
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