vi. Walk Don’t Run: Sea World & the Water Parks
If I recall correctly, the last time I went bare chested was during the summer of 2005, when the reflective paleness of my skin was the cause of a small beach fire and the impaired vision of three unsuspecting bystanders. Since then, to avoid similar accidents from happening, I’ve done the good thing and accepted that I should never remove my shirt, least of all in public.
Genetically disposed to resemble E.T. after he’s been found cold, wet and barely alive next to the riverbank, I’m incapable of withstanding sunlight of any kind. By all accounts, I should be living a hermit-like existence in a bog somewhere, wallowing in misery and self-hate. Yet I somehow keep finding myself in these less than ideal situations.
Subjecting my body to Florida’s brutal sun was always out of the question. But alas I had been outnumbered. Everyone wanted to go to Blizzard Beach, an ironically titled water park that had been done up to look like the Swiss Alps. I couldn’t say no. I had to go, but the plan was to just read my book: to recline on the sun loungers, revelling in my disgust for all of those suntanned, carefree swimmers.
With storm clouds forming overhead, by the time I’d arrived at the park I was sure that within minutes it was going to rain. But to my surprise, as I found myself a spot in the shade, the sun slowly started to reappear and soon the pool was filled with swimmers.
The main attraction at Blizzard Beach is Mount Gushmore, an artificial hill covered with water slides, all varying in size. With a total elevation of 90 feet, the hill is home to the highest “free sliding” body slide in the US, Summit Plummet. I decided that it looked a bit too ambitious for somebody like myself; if I was going to try my hand at anything, it was going to be the lazy river: a slow-moving attraction built around the perimeter of park. The idea was to just relax and let the water take me around. The only goal involved was to avoid being crushed by the really big swimmers.
Later I learned that there’s a story surrounding Blizzard Beach’s construction. Legend has it that way back when there was a freak snowstorm in the area, which led to the construction of Florida’s first ski resort. Of course, the snow didn’t last long, but what remained was a series of snow-less ski jumps and chair lifts, and thus the resort was reborn as a water park. The transformation was completed, supposedly, when an alligator was seen sliding down a flume and splashing into a pool of water, screaming, “Yahoo!”
At least that’s how the story goes.
With a thorn in my side, I spent the first couple of hours reading a book with my shirt on, but was eventually encouraged to take a dip in the lazy river, which was largely covered by shade. I did the same a few days later at Typhoon Lagoon, a similarly designed water park, built some years earlier, which featured a California surf theme. The soundtrack, which blared out of hidden speakers buried in the bushes, featured some fun hits from such bands as The Ventures, The Trashmen and The Surfaris.
Having made it through two trips to water parks with minimal skin showing, it was a relief to visit Sea World a couple of days later, where sea mammals were worryingly both the main attraction and the main course. Operating as a charity, the park claims to be dedicated to saving and preserving marine life, yet its perplexingly fishy restaurants quite happily serve sea creatures on a plate with tartar sauce and slice of lemon. It seems like such a shame that an organisation which reaps the plentiful rewards of not having to pay tax couldn’t refrain from cooking the very animals that they claim to protect on their premises, with tanks acting less like homes for the creatures and more like giant menus for giant guests with whale-sized, insatiable appetites.
But I don’t want to be too critical of Sea World. If I sound like I’m being unnecessarily testy, it’s only because the park happened to be the place where I lost my ability to procreate. A ride called Manta was the cause of this. Tipping me upside down and holding me by the groin, it transformed my manhood into something that I can only describe as regrettably “manta-shaped”, and thus I haven’t been able to walk the same since.
All things considered, though, the day did have some notable highlights, particularly the Pets Ahoy Dog and Cat show, which featured hounds and felines alike performing a variety of dazzling tricks—on land, fortunately for the cats, not in water. There were a few decent rides as well, including The Kraken, which caused minimum testicular trauma, but passed so close to one very low concrete beam that I was sure my head was going to eject itself from the rest of my body as I travelled underneath. Just in case I hit it, I shut my eyes, if only so that I didn’t have witness my own grim decapitation. I also considered in a brief moment of panic that perhaps my eyelids might—although probably not—provide sufficient padding from the collision.
Fortunately it didn’t have to come to that, and I left the ride more or less in one piece—albeit still, regrettably, with slightly flattened testicles.
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vii. Stormy Weather: Busch Gardens
It’s called Busch Gardens, but from where I stood, Bro Gardens seemed like a more appropriate title. The term bro, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, is used to describe obnoxious sport-loving alpha males, and is often used by those who match the description to refer to themselves without the implied negative connotations. With their white vests and irrepressible rowdiness, they linger around in packs, prowling Busch Gardens for attractive females to bother. No woman would be stupid enough to actually copulate with a bro, but bros try exceptionally hard nevertheless, usually using such tried and tested seduction methods as whooping and aggressive fist pumping.
If I were from the US, I’m sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that bros would be my mortal enemy, but because their kind simply don’t exist back home, I found them easy to tolerate. I suppose if I had to find a comparison, that back in the UK the closest thing we have to bros are lads: that insufferable sub-culture of misogynistic macho men whose wide ranging hobbies tend to include both tits and ass. But even so, bros seemed altogether more endurable, at least in small doses.
The reason for them flocking to Busch Gardens was easy enough to see: out of all the parks, it had the biggest and fastest rides. It was more thrilling than all of the other parks put together, although such excitement seemed to come at a cost. The staff, for instance, were certainly a lot less friendly and the park wasn’t quite as clean as the Disney parks. This had also been the case at Universal and Sea World, but it was especially true of Busch Gardens. It wasn’t any any less enjoyable for it, but it was noticeable nevertheless, if only because of the eerie level of sanitisation in the Disney parks.
However, what made Busch (or BOUSSSHHH as I image the bros might say it) Gardens memorable was the weather we experienced on the ride home. Seemingly out of nowhere, a storm swept up: first there was a powerful wind, then all the weather my party and I had avoided back in the UK fell from the sky, what appeared to be a whole ocean’s worth of moisture. Fortunately, using the excuse that I hadn’t driven since I was 19, I avoided being the one in charge of getting car full of people back to the chalet. Yet simply looking out of the window was enough to make my teeth chatter and my hands shake like maracas. And so for what seemed like an hour, everyone in the car, all seven of us, stayed silent, praying that we would make it home alive.
Finally, after clenching my teeth so hard that my brain started to hurt, we reached the front drive of the chalet. It was then, of course, that the clouds dissipated and the sun shone through again, almost brighter than it had shone all week.
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viii. A Hall of Heads: The Magic Kingdom
Even before I had visited Magic Kingdom, I knew that the It’s A Small World ride was supposed to be an uncompromisingly irritating ordeal. Yet somehow knowing this didn’t stop me from going on it. You see, what begins as a gentle boat ride along a river surrounded by animatronic singing dolls, there to supposedly symbolise international unity, becomes a form of slow and unrelenting torture. My experience was to be exceptionally unpleasant, when the ride malfunctioned on the last stretch of canal, leaving several boats full of children and myself adrift on the nightmarish attraction.
“I want to get off,” whispered a boy in the boat behind me to his mother.
“We will in second,” she said comfortingly, albeit with a pang of dread in her voice. Her words evidentally were not enough to comfort her son, and so with a despairing sniffle, he began to cry, adding a whole new textural layer to the It’s a Small World song.
(For those who are not familiar with this piece of music, the tune is unbearably repetitive, so much so that even a house DJ would be driven mad by its never-ending five-note melody. It is, to one’s mental health what a fist to the balls is to one’s hope of ever having children.)
It was grim, and to make matters worse, this moment seemed to go on for what seemed like an impossibly long time: that small child bawling with all his might, as those terrifying dolls sang on, looking as they did like something that had crawled out of a fire at a children’s home.
It must have been a half an hour before, after many prayers, we were granted a small glimmer of hope: having prepared myself to step outside of the boat and wade through the suspiciously brown water towards the exit, the boat, with a jolting thud, began to move again. We had been spared by the ride, granted by the Disney gods the privilege of being able to live another day. Yet with the It’s a Small World song forever stuck in our heads, playing ceaselessly over and over again, the same siren-like musical phrase, those same seven words (“it’s a small world after all”), I wondered whether this outcome was a blessing or a curse. Sure, we could all carry on with our lives, but a life sound-tracked by the It’s A Small World song is surely no life at all.
I had taken the ferry over to Magic Kingdom earlier that morning, where the view of the park’s vast, man-made lake showed no signs of the horrors that awaited me. Magic Kingdom, of course, is the park that everyone thinks of when they hear the words “Disney World”. It is I suppose, to many people, what Disney World is all about. It also happens to be the most appealing park to children, and thus the least likely to appeal to adults. But aesthetically speaking, it is the most fascinating park, with an unavoidably large fairy tale castle as its main focal point and its magical streets, paved with the dreams and the tears of seven-year-old children.
I had been told before visiting that I must try Dole Whip, which is a sort of fruit juice with soft scoop ice cream on the top. The vendor that sells this peculiarly eatable beverage is not particularly easy to find, but it is worth tracking down, as the drink is the perfect addition to a hot day. Perhaps, back in the UK, such a thing, much like Limoncello when it’s taken back from Italy to dreary Britain, would be completely unspectacular. But when consumed in sunny Florida, Dole Whip is delightfully refreshing.
After enjoying this vaguely tropical drink, I headed over to enjoy a vaguely tropical attraction, The Enchanted Tiki Room, situated close by. Having been around for as long as the park itself, The Enchanted Tiki Room bears none of the thrills of any of the modern attractions. Rather, it is merely a showcase of the best animatronics that 1956 could produce—a simple song and dance show in which a cast of robotic parrots, totem poles and toucans caterwaul their way through a few numbers and speak in hilariously bad accents (the Irish parrot was perhaps the least convincing—and also the most racist). But in spite of it being a fairly low-key affair, I may have enjoyed The Enchanted Tiki Room the most of all the attractions at Magic Kingdom, if only for its laid back old fashioned charm. Increasingly, as I find myself getting older, I glean pleasure from the act of sitting down, and so I found The Enchanted Tiki Room to be a welcome change from the wild roller coasters I had become accustomed to during my trip.
Wishing to continue this trend of sitting down, upon leaving The Echanted Tiki Room, I headed over to The Hall of Presidents. A replica of the liberty bell was located outside of a building of unmistakably American design and inside the walls were adorned with portraits of past presidents. Excited, though also somewhat sceptical to see after having sat through the ludicrous American Adventure at Epcot, I waited alongside an already formed crowd of freedom-loving Americans, some of whom, like the people at the American Adventure, had come pre-draped in stars and stripes.
Patriotism is something hard for a Brit like myself to understand. It just isn’t something that a Brit—or at least and Englishman, partakes in publically. Perhaps privately we might, somewhere deep down, harbour feelings of pride for country. But when in the company of others, we find it favourable to speak of our homeland only with strong scepticism and disapproval. People who choose to do otherwise are invariably either over the age of 70, terribly racist, football fans or all of the above.
These people—these country-loving, U.S.A chanting Americans—seemed to fit into neither of these groups. Of course, there’s no shame associated with loving your country in America, and even those who describe themselves as far left in the US seem to have an inherent respect for the country in which they were born. It’s hard not to admire that in some way, at least until someone takes loving their country too far and insist on wearing its flag as if it were some sort of flamboyant uniform, then it’s just perplexing.
With these thoughts in my mind, I tried to prepare myself for what I was sure was going to be wholly terrible. Then a member of staff asked for everybody’s attention and asked a question. “Who is the only president,” he said, “not to have spoken English as his native language?”
People began to rack their brains, and then one man, one maverick, one lone and bigoted Winston Smith, a stars and stripes baseball cap upon his head spoke up. “Obama!” he said, confidently, as if in no doubt that this were true.
The man making the introduction paused before responding. “Er—no,” he said. “But a good try. The answer is Martin Van Buren, whose first language was in fact Dutch.”
We were invited through to theatre room. The show, which couldn’t have lasted more than 15-minutes, worked like this: all of the past presidents of the United States, all of them animatronic, appeared on a stage and said a few words, one inspirational phrase, a snappy catchphrase (“America is a addiked to oil” – George W. Bush); we then learned about some of the particularly notable figures in US history, such as Ulysses S. Grant, Millard Fillmore and Dork F. Wendle.
An enormous improvement on the American Adventure, the show was certainly a hit with the audience, and also, to a much lesser extent, myself. But now I was hungry for something a bit more intense, something perhaps without animatronics. As it was one of the few rides in the park that was specifically targeted towards older guests, I decided to check out Space Mountain, a sci-fi-themed coaster. If the Manta ride at Sea World hadn’t destroyed my chances of procreating, Space Mountain seemed to finish off the job.
Hurtling around at face-stretching speeds and weaving about in pitch-blackness, the ride did to my body what the It’s A Small World ride had just done to my mental well-being: it left me feeling tenderised, overcome with nausea and a sense of immense dread. Somehow, the entire way around, I felt that my long frame far exceeded the cart. For smaller passengers, it must have been tremendous fun, but for a tall gentleman like myself, the ride felt as if I had just been launched from a cannon though a brick wall; and as I took the last bend, liquid pouring from my head, I wondered whether I was sweating, bleeding, or indeed both.
An exhausted mess by this point, I resigned myself to the People Mover, a ride as unremarkably dull as its name implies. The People Mover acted as a sort of small-scale transportation system around the park, with little waltzer carts taking passengers around Magic Kingdom and occasionally ducking away into dark tunnels filled with various Disney paraphernalia. I was especially taken with it because the carts went continuously around the track, never stopping, meaning that one’s journey only ended when one wanted to get off.
Needless to say I stayed put for almost half an hour, going around the same bit of track, simply enjoying the opportunity to sit down as well as the shade provided by the ride. And so this is where I stayed until the firework display, which may have been even more impressive than the one at Epcot a few days earlier, though, at this juncture, I was too worn out to care. Tired and slightly sore from the sun, I watched the spectacle from a grassy area near the park entrance. Big booming bangs and hisses filled the air, but even hours later after I had heard the It’s A Small World song, it lingered on in my memory going around and around like clothes in a washing machine: “It’s a small world after all! It’s a small world after all!” Alas, it was inescapable, impossible to scrub from my mind.
Perhaps, I considered on the way home, sleep would cleanse my tormented brain. What a shame that ear plugs don’t block out what has already been heard.
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ix. Farewell, Orlando: Downtown Disney
My trip to Orlando ended, as is common for most tourists, with a morning spent at Downtown Disney, which exists merely for tourists to waste their remaining holiday dollars in bars, cafes, and on useless tat to give to people they don’t really like. Fortunately I’m so unpopular that nobody even pretends to be friends with me, so I felt no obligation to buy gifts. I was happy instead to sit by the lakeside and drink coffee. It was around the time of my seventh cup in fact, after my eyes started to convulse, that I started to hear a faint discordant sound coming from off in distance.
It was only when I worked out that the noise existed outside of my percolated brain that I decided to investigate. The noise, I discovered, was coming from a nearby bandstand where a high school band was mid-way through a practically atonal performance. But what were they playing? Stravinsky? Liszt? Schoenberg? No. They were playing the worst rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In that I’ve ever heard. At least I think that’s what I thought they were playing. Judging from their collective expressions of terror, I’m not entirely sure that they themselves knew what the piece was.
As terrible a performance as it was, there was nevertheless something refreshingly imperfect about it. After spending so long in a place that prided itself on being uncannily flawless, at that moment in time that group of insufferable musicians were, in my mind, edgy nonconformists. They were like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, opening my mind to a whole new world of artistic possibility. Make no mistake about it: the music was awful—just terrible—but it was it was also quite brilliant.
After they packed up, things quickly got boring again. Downtown Disney, for someone who has little desire to spend money on any things that aren’t books that were written forty or more years ago by now ancient or dead men, was sort of an anti-climax, and so I was glad when it was time to leave. In fact, here’s one good thing about Downtown Disney: it’s not far from the airport, which meant that I was able to relax before the flight and write down some of the highlights of my trip.
As a sceptic, I had come to Orlando already knowing what awaited me. Everybody in the Western world knows what Walt Disney World looks like. Images of Epcot’s geodesic ball and Magic Kingdom’s fairy tale castle have been subconsciously imprinted on our minds, and actually seeing these structures up close provides few surprises.
Holidaying in the Disney parks is surreal experience, but hardly an unpleasant one. Naturally, you won’t find the great cultural and historical delights that you will on trip to Paris or Rome—or to any city for that matter—but in its own strange and artificial way, Disney World does have a unique and fascinating culture. But it’s essentially holidaying with stabilisers. Everything there has been carefully considered and then considered again, and again, and again. And while there’s a side of me that wants to lambast Disney World for being so unashamedly sanitised and for existing within its own mawkish bubble, it’s hard to feel any genuine disdain for it or indeed any of the neighbouring parks for that matter.
The much vaunted educational value of some of the attractions is certainly questionable. The truth is, there is little worth learning on any of them, because the educational sentiment is always merely an after thought. The American Adventure was perhaps the most blatant example of this, as first and foremost it was concerned with pleasing blindly patriotic Americans, perhaps due to Disney’s staunch devotion to not wishing to offend any of its guests. The problem is that Disney tries to disguise information as entertainment rather than simply allowing something with educational merit to be entertaining. Although it is settling to see such a huge cooperation at least trying to inform its guests, I can’t help feeling that, in most cases, they were going about it the wrong way.
Perhaps my favourite part of the holiday was simply being in America, and making the most of a country in which biscuits are considered an acceptable food to start the day. Considering this as I waited in the airport, I browsed the duty free shelves erratically for whichever chocolate bar violated the most EU health codes, and picked up something that was positively glowing with E numbers. I had no intentions of eating it, whatever it was, but I thought it might make a fun gift for someone—for anyone, in fact, who would take it.
After making my way through airport security, I briefly browsed the shelves of the Orlando Airport bookshop—the first and only bookshop I had found on my trip. Then, after purchasing Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of America, which I did so on recommendation, it was time to board the plane. My seat, I discovered much to my delight, was a window seat, and so for the first time in what must have been years, I was able to fully admire the world from high up.
As the plane pulled back and began the long ascent into the sky, Orlando, with its late-night diners and enormous billboards, became a blur of incandescent amber light. Faintly off in the distance, fireworks from Epcot were resounding, and then in a flash of colour it all disappeared, as the land below turned to dark ocean. And so, like a man in a Mickey Mouse costume, I found myself waving out of the window, my eyes beginning to moisten.
“Goodbye!” I said in a voice similar to Goofy’s. “See you again someday!”
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