Birthday baking

One thing I really enjoy about being a stepmum is the opportunity to make birthday cakes for the kids. When I was growing up, me and my brother would always have a homemade birthday cake, so it’s something that I take for granted as part of family life. Having said that, my brother always had- and still has now if he happens to be in the country for his birthday- the same cake, which was a chocolate, nutty, biscuit, rum fridge cake. I’m not sure why my mum thought it was a good idea to give an alcoholic cake to a small child, but it was a good tradition.

Every since I first met my husband I’ve been making birthday cakes for the children. The first year they all had separate cakes- Spiderman for Sam, a princess castle for Katy-Grace and a wrestling ring for Ryan.

 

But because their birthdays are all so close together, we couldn’t eat that much cake so the next year the younger two had a joint cake. So in 2013 Sam and Katy-Grace had a lido pool cake with a playmobile family around it, and Ryan had a Smiler (Alton Towers ride) cake.

In 2014 the younger two had a minion loom band cake, and Ryan had a Shambala (Port Aventura ride) cake.

2015 had a minion beach cake and a Pac man cake, which you can see in my post Baking catch up from October 2015.

Last year we split them up again as they had separate sleepovers, so Sam had a snake cake, Katy-Grace had an Oreo cake, and Ryan had a cheesecake, but it collapsed a bit so I ended up without a photo!

Every year I plan to blog about the kids birthday cakes, as it tends to be my most creative baking, and cake is one of my four c’s! But somehow I never get round to it. As we’re going away next week and I’m going to have another travel blog to do, I thought I’d try and get this year’s cakes in while I have the chance!

Sam and Katy-Grace had a joint cake again this year, which sort of tried to tie in Katy-Grace’s current obsession with all things Harry Potter, and Sam’s constant love of sports, with a quidditch cake. I normally go to Pinterest for inspiration and bring together various aspects to make something I can feasibly make myself! I also thought I’d try and make the inside of the cake more exciting this year by having a checker board effect in the Hogwarts house colours- grey and green for Slytherin, red and yellow for Gryffindor, yellow and blue for Hufflepuff and blue and grey for Ravenclaw. I made a layer of cake in each of those colours, and then cut it into rings which slot together to make a new layer in the right colours.

Unfortunately my green dye wasn’t quite strong enough so the colour was a bit disappointing, but the rest of them were ok. I was a bit lazy at this stage, which I regretted, because I should have straightened out the tops of the cakes before cutting them. Because I didn’t, it was very difficult to get a level top on the new layer, and when I stacked them up there were bigger than normal gap at the rim. Fortunately I could fill them in with icing, but the perfectionist in me was annoyed.

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The next stage was fairly straight forward. I covered the whole cake with green icing, and drew on the pitch markings with white writing icing. I made a broomstick, snitch and the ball case out of fondant icing, and crushed up some digestive biscuits to make the sand for the bottom of the posts. The posts themselves were made out of the big gummy dummies you get in tuck shops, stuck onto a wooden kebab stick, and then covered in Brown fondant icing. They were a bit thick and bulky, but I left it too late to try and find confectioners wire to cover instead.

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The next stage was to make the spectator stands. I decided that the match was going to be between Gryffindor and Slytherin, so only made those two stands. The base itself was a chocolate cake baked in a loaf tin, which I then cut in half to get two stands. I covered each half in butter cream, and then cut out squares of fondant icing in the house colours and stuck them to the sides. The roof of the stands and the flag were also fondant, with a cocktail stick to keep it together.

I did have a bit of a problem getting the stands to stay straight next to the pitch so I ended up using a system of wooden skewers and supporting glasses in the fridge to get them to stay upright.
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By the time the kids were ready for it though, it was all staying together, and they were pretty happy with it.

Ryan’s this year was a bit more difficult to plan. I was originally intending to do something linked with his favourite rides at Europa park, which is a theme park in Germany where Steve took him for a few days at the end of the summer with his uncles as a birthday present. However, it’s not the sort of theme park that has a lot of theming so there ended up not being anything I could turn into a cake!

Instead I turned to the parks we’d been to in Florida, where our favourite rode as a family was Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I was thinking of a silhouette like the Shambala cake, but instead decided to focus on the character of the ride- which is the search for a yeti in the mountains of Nepal.

The base of the cake was a carrot cake- which I unfortunately discovered later than neither of the younger children actually like. It was covered in a cream cheese frosting, which conveniently looks like snow. I made some mountains out of black and white fondant icing. The yeti was white icing with a beard made of shop bought sugar snowflakes that I had in the cupboard (which I also scattered on top of the cake), sugar pearl eyes, and a small sharp knife to scratch on the hair. I was pretty happy with him in the end.

So that is the birthday baking haul for this year. Who knows what they’ll get next year, it all comes down to their current obsessions! I’m looking forward to the challenge though at any rate!

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Disneyland Florida!

So, after 3 other blog posts and 2 months after the holiday, we finally make it to the big one, Disneyland. Disney is the big one for a few reasons: firstly, that it’s so iconic. Everyone has heard of Disneyland and has a vision of what it is like. The tagline is “the place where dreams come true”, so there’s a lot of pressure to live up to that. Secondly, because the parks are massive. They’re not just about the rides, but also the experience- the theming, the character interactions, so the park needs to be big enough to encompass all of that. Thirdly, because there are so many parks! The one that everyone pictures, with Sleeping Beauty’s castle, is Magic Kingdom- but that’s only one park! There’s also Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios- not to mention the water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Disney also have a number of hotels, but we didn’t stay at them so fortunately I can’t get in to that!

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In the past I’ve only been to EuroDisney- my parents judged that we were too old for Disney when my brother and I visited Florida as teenagers, and Steve and I chose not to go in L.A, knowing that we would be coming here. I’ve seen my grandfather’s photos from when he took my Dad and uncles in 1967, but the parks have changed a lot since then and, I must admit, I wasn’t quite prepared for the scale of them!

As there are so many parks, I’m going to start off going through in the order we visited them. However, because of the fast pass system we only really stayed in one park all day, the rest of them we jumped in and out of when we had ride passes and depending on which park was quietest.

So a few general points about Disney before I get into specifics. As Disney has so many visitors each year, they have a very well organised fast pass system to make sure everyone has an equal chance to get on rides. However, you do need to know about it beforehand. Each visiting group needs to create an account before they arrive on my Disney experience. There, each guest is assigned 3 fast passes per day that you have tickets that you can pre-book. They come in hour time slots, and you can only book 1 per hour. You can though, book another pass once you’ve used up your three. So if you’re going to a park all day, you book three passes for three hours in the morning, and then book the rest one at a time after you’ve used the initial three. The only problem is that you can book passes up to 3 months in advance, or 6 months if you’re staying at a Disney hotel, so you have to be very organised. Some rides are more popular than others, and fast passes can sell out for time slots. When we went there were 3 new rides, one of which we weren’t able to get a fast pass for because the hotel guests had already booked up all the slots- and we tried everyday as soon as they were within our range to pre-book! Other than that though, it is a good system, and means you don’t get into the financial advantage problem that you do with places like Alton Towers, where you only don’t have to queue if you can afford it.

Another Disney system that made life easier is the magic band system. You can buy plastic wristbands, but pretty solid ones, that you assign to each member of your group which contains their ticket information, fast passes and will store any photo downloads you take around the parks. It makes it so much easier with kids, not having to fish around for a load of plastic ticket cards all the time- they could just scan themselves in. We did lose one of the band’s at a water park, but they are generally quite resilient. There was also a technical problem with mine that it took them a couple of days to resolve, so they replaced Sam’s lost band and gave us some extra fast passes as compensation.

The other thing to be vaguely aware of is transport in and around the parks. Disneyland has it’s own infrastructure, so there are several interstate exits to take to enter the compound. Once inside you have to pay $20 a day to park, but if you move between parks you only have to pay once. Sometimes if you arrive late in the day they waive the fee, but sometimes they don’t- they don’t have to so it depends who is on the gate! The largest car park is at Magic Kingdom.  You can catch a monorail to Epcot from there, and to get into the park you have to either take the boat or the monorail across the lake. All the car parks are so big you have to take a tram to the main entrance, so you need to remember what zone and which row you parked in to get back. At Magic Kingdom you also need to remember whether you are in a hero or a villain zone.  After a few days they all blur into one so it is worth writing it down or saving it on your phone or something!

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To get into the parks you tap your wristband against an electronic post and scan your fingerprint, and then the fun starts! It’s worth downloading the MyDisneyExperience app onto your phone to take into the parks- there is WiFi so you’ll be able to access it! You can use it to show the ride times around the park you’re in, as well as the others if you want to switch, check show times, access the map if you don’t have a paper copy, and see any photos you take if you have a Disney Photo Pass. We found it really useful to plan our days.

The first park we went to was actually Epcot, which I knew nothing about, but which was home to some of Ryan’s key rollercoasters. You enter the park through a giant silver orb, and pass through Future World, before you come to a huge lake which has different countries of the world around it. Each section is themed according to that country, and has appropriate restaurants, and a few rides mixed in. At New Years Eve they celebrate with fireworks at the time each different time zone reaches midnight- must get confusing but it’s pretty clever.

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We didn’t do all the rides at Epcot, but concentrated on the main ones, and then did some of the inside things as the weather was fairly wet in the second half of the day. Future World is split into East and West, and the major rides- or ones that Ryan classed as major, were in these two worlds. Our favourite was probably Test Track- you use the queue time to create your own car in pairs or threes, using a console. You can choose various aspects of the engine and special features as well as the general design and colour of your car. On the ride itself your car is then tested for things like power, efficiency, breaking distance, and the ability to cope with corners and adverse weather. It’s very clever really because you are unlikely to be able to create a car that wins in all areas, so when you have competitive kids, it’s quite easy to keep them civil!

When you’ve created your car you move through to the ride itself. I thought it would be more like a rollercoaster, but you get inside a mock car, and put on a normal seat belt system. The ride then takes your car around the various tests, ranking the models you created as you go around. The final test is acceleration, when the car is accelerated to 70mph very quickly- which is quite an exhilarating ride! The kids would have all been happy to go on again, but the queue for this one- understandably- was fairly long. In the post-ride area there are all sorts of exhibits on some of the newest technology in the world of cars, and some interactive displays like a mini race track, and green-screen photo opportunities with some fairly flashy cars! Keep an eye on your kids here though, there were a few lost children wandering around when we were there!

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A significantly calmer ride was Spaceship Earth, which is much more on the informational level. It’s made up of a constantly moving conveyor belt of small carriages, that take you through the history of inventions from fire and the wheel in the Stone Age, to the origins of writing, through the Egyptians and Romans, to the invention of the telephone, mass production of literature, and finally computers, the internet and space travel. It ended up offering you a futuristic scenario for picking your holiday- finally giving you the choice between space and deep underwater. It was an interesting and enjoyable experience, however the conveyor belt did keep stopping so you would be sitting in a room for longer than you were supposed to, listening to the same information on a loop. The problem seemed to clear up though as we got further towards present time- so maybe they were just having technological issues in the past!

At the exit was Project Tomorrow, which is a combination of lots of interactive games based on various aspects of science and innovation. There was loads to do, however, when its busy there are little queues for everything, so you have to pick what you think will be the most interesting or you’ll be there forever! Sam and I ended up playing a game where you had to provide energy to a city, and the better you were at providing the energy, the more the city grew. Energy was created from nuclear power stations, electricity stations and the like, and you had to move the energy symbols from the stations to where it was needed using what looked like a brush on a shuffleboard. It was all digital so it took a while to get the hang of it. You only had about 5 minutes to make the city as big as possible though, so the adrenalin did kick in for the last minute or so. We ended up with a bigger city than the people in front of us so we were happy!

The next ride we did was one that Sam and Katy-Grace were very nervous about, because of the warning signs as we queued for it. Mission Space is a simulated space launch, that’s designed to trick your body into thinking its in zero gravity, and going through a spaceship launch- and crash for that matter. You’re seated in rows of about 4 in each pod, with a full over-shoulder safety harness. When you’re ready to go the row of screens and spaceship controls in front of you moves in towards you- so if you’re claustrophobic this really isn’t a good ride. Once we were strapped in and the simulator started, I found that it actually was impossible to tell which way up I was. You’re advised to keep your eyes open and focus on the screen if you’re finding yourself disorientated so you don’t get sick. I did that, and I still couldn’t work out what was going on! It was very cleverly done, and quite intense, but fortunately not enough to actually make anyone sick. Sam, who is 9, was having a bit of a meltdown before it started and really didn’t want to go on, but Steve persuaded him to, and in the end he did enjoy it. There are two intensities- orange which is stronger, and green which is milder, and you can choose which one you’re going on. We went for the orange, which I think contributed to making Sam nervous, so I can’t comment on whether green was milder or not! Again, at the end of the ride there was an interactive playground, with a future space themed arcade style games, and our favourite thing- which was sending a postcard from space to someone by email. Unfortunately our recipients couldn’t open the attachments, but it’s probably just as well, as they were mainly saying that we have been kidnapped by aliens!

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The other main ride in Future World was Soarin’- which is another one that I knew nothing about before going! It was another nice, calm ride though. It’s essentially a simulator, but you all sit in long rows which raise up so your feet are dangling like a ski chair lift- with the idea that you’re supposed to be hang gliding. The 3D cinema around you then takes you on a journey around the world, seeing some really stunning landscapes. It’s clever in that you also experience the associated smells and splashes with what you’re seeing, so it does feel very realistic. If you choose to concentrate on the screen, and not on what you can see in your peripheral vision, then you can get totally lost in what is playing out in front of you.

Apart from the rides, there are another couple of cool things in Future World. Both of which we just stumbled across at various wet points in the day! The first is a character spot where the kids could meet Baymax from Big Hero 6, and Joy and Sadness from Inside Out. I say the kids, I was just as excited about Joy and Sadness, Inside Out is a genius film. The good thing about character spots is that they’re permanent, so the surroundings are made up as part of the film. For Joy and Sadness we were queuing up surrounded by the balls of Riley’s memories. We did end up queuing for about an hour, but the benefit of having 2 adults and older kids is that we could queue in both sides at the same time. As the Big Hero 6 queue was moving quicker, the kids went and had their photos taken there, and then we all went to Inside Out when they had finished. As it’s group photos, it takes the same amount of time for one of us as all of us, so it’s not quite queue-jumping!

The other place we found was the SeaBase, which was brilliant. It’s a huge aquarium with sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and manatees, as well as the smaller octopus and tropical fish. We spent a lot of time wandering around looking at sea animals. There’s also a small ride inside called The Seas with Nemo and Friends, which is a conveyor belt carriage system showing you a bit more inside the aquarium, but with the added incentive of Marlin, Nemo and Dory flitting around to make sure you actually look! It then takes you to the underwater observation deck where you can sit and watch the dolphins. One of the best things about this area though, was a little theatre called Turtle Talk with Crush. We were expecting an animated talk on ecology aimed at small children, but we were so impressed with the reality. That was, essentially, what it was. But somehow, it was interactive. Crush was animated on a large screen made to look like a tank in front of you, but he talked to the children- actual conversations, with the animation matching up perfectly in real time. It clearly wasn’t pre-recorded, as Crush would comment on the kids clothes, address them by name, and respond to what was going on around him, but we just couldn’t figure out how they did it. The kids loved it because it’s Crush, and he’s awesome; and we loved it as the technology was so impressive!

From Future World we moved to the World Showcase, but in actual fact, there was only really one country we went to, and that was Norway. Norway is currently the most popular country around the Epcot world, as it is the home of Ana and Elsa from Frozen. We managed to get Fast passes for the Frozen ride, so ventured out of the safety of Future World to try it out. You’re met in Norway by Vikings wandering around, before you enter the queue zone for Frozen, which, fortunately, is inside. The ride is a boat ride similar to It’s a Small World, but was actually a bit of a disappointment- and I like Disney boat rides! It takes you through some scenes from Frozen, including Olaf singing and Sven getting into mischief. In all fairness, it was quite clever because they’d made the normal models that you find in these things, but managed to animate their faces electronically, so they really did look like the characters from the film. Olaf spends the whole time talking about how Queen Elsa is holding a party in the palace and we’re all invited; you run into her snow monster and its, admittedly very cute, babies, who blows you backwards and sends you spinning into the palace. There are a couple more scenes, but no party. I was confused and mildly disappointed, but there we are. It is a ride for very small children after all.

The final attraction to mention about Epcot is their fireworks display, called IllumiNations- Reflections of Earth. We managed to get Fast pass seating so we were right next to the lake, which the show takes place on. It’s a combination of fireworks, lasers, and fountains, with a giant globe that floats across the lake. The visual effects were very impressive, but I have to admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount holding it together, just random fireworks going off all the time. I think the idea was that the projections on the globe held everything together. I think they were pictures of earth- waterfalls and forests and things, but it really wasn’t close enough to anyone to be able to see that. The voice over at the beginning and song at the end were also a little bit too cheesy for my liking! I think for me that the magic that you expect from the other Disney parks, and the futuristic atmosphere of Epcot just clashed and didn’t come together very well in this show. Of all the Disney shows, this is probably the only one I wouldn’t recommend though.

Hollywood Studios, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Studios has two evening shows- they have to be evening as you need it to be dark enough for things to show up! Fantasmic starts at 9pm, and Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular! starts at 9.30pm. You do see people sneaking away from Fantasmic at 9.25 to get across the park in time for Star Wars, but both shows are good enough that it’s worth coming on two different nights to see them both in full. Fantasmic is the main Mickey Mouse show of the Disney parks. It’s based around the Fantasia theme, with Mickey becoming a wizard and ending up on top of the mountain. During the show he has to take on a lot of the villains from various Disney films- mainly the classics like Ursula, Ka, the wicked witch from Snow White, Scar; and included scenes from the Lion King and Pocahontas. There were lots of fireworks, water projections and explosions. There were enough familiar characters to keep any children engaged, and they were the classic Disney characters that parents would recognise, so it kept me happy too! There was a fantastic atmosphere beforehand as we were waiting- come early to get good seats, and you could feel the excitement. The finale saw the majority of Disney princes, princesses and heroes come across the lake on a steamboat, so although the show itself might have been a bit scary, it ended on a happy note!

My favourite show though was the later one- Star Wars. Its shown at the Chinese theatre at Hollywood Studios, and is projected onto three buildings, with fireworks and lasers. The moment the Star Wars theme tune came on I was excited, and it didn’t disappoint. I was happy to find that it includes characters from all the Star Wars films that have been released- not just focusing on one set. It basically took you on a chronological journey through the Star Wars Universe, introducing you to the main characters, with their appropriate theme music, and including you in some of the iconic battle scenes. You get fired at by X-wing fighters, and then find yourself on Hoth surrounded by AT-ATs. It was perfect for any Star Wars geek, but with enough explosions and excitement to keep the attention of someone who has never seen the films! I can’t upload videos onto my site, but if you want to watch the display you can find it here.

The other show that we watched at Hollywood Studios, which is a daytime one and repeated several times throughout the day, was Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. We both had quite high expectations of this one, and even got a Fast pass to make sure we got in, but unfortunately these shows are affected by the weather, as a lot of it is outside. It’s a bit of a weird set-up as it’s not just an Indiana Jones show, but an Indiana Jones movie show, so it keeps switching between the action and the background producers coming in to talk about how the stunts are done. It is interesting, but I think we would have preferred to just watch the stunts! The explosions and fight scenes were very impressive, and it was good for the kids to see the precision that’s involved for a scene with lots of people to come together. They also brought out volunteers from the audience to take part in the scenes, although it did turn out one was planted when he executed a perfect fight sequence first time! As it was raining when we were there, they had to cut the show short and miss a couple of stunts out- presumably because things were slippery or the explosives not safe to work with in those conditions. So if you do go to Hollywood Studios over several days, try and see Indiana Jones when it’s dry!

As it turned out, Hollywood Studios also had a lot of our favourite rides. One of them we were expecting would be quite high up there, as it’s also in EuroDisney, and a favourite there- Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith. The younger two had never been on it before but loved it so much that they wanted to go on again. The distinctiveness of this coaster is that it has a very fast acceleration at the beginning, you have a countdown on a screen above you, and also that it’s in the dark, with flashing road signs rushing past you. The idea is that Aerosmith have invited you to their show, but it’s across town and you’re going to be late, so the ride is the limo ride with the driver trying to get you there on time. You end up backstage, with a red carpet to walk up to get you in to their concert. The coaster does go upside down, and has a couple of corkscrew turns, but it goes so fast, and the darkness makes it so disorientating that you hardly notice. It is one that we would ride over and over though.

Another popular ride- although not with me and Sam- was The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Set in a haunted hotel, the ride takes you through the hotel before you enter the elevator- which is where the trouble is. The elevator raises up and is then taken over by ghosts, so that you are dropped to your death. As it’s a drop tower, Sam and I didn’t go on, but Steve, Katy-Grace and Ryan loved it so much they got a second fast pass to go back on it.

While the others were on Tower of Terror, me and Sam got ourselves an extra ride on Star Tours, we had already gone on as a family, but we enjoyed it enough to go back on, and I was really glad we did. Star Tours is a simulator, quite a few rows per transporter, and is one that only needs a lap seat belt as it actually doesn’t move that much. What I discovered though from going on twice, is that there are different stories. The first time we went on it was based more on the newer films, so we started with a bounty hunter looking for a rebel on our ship, and ended up in a pod race. The second time though, we were escaping Darth Vader, and crash landed on Jar Jar Binx’s planet, travelling down to his underwater city, and eventually crashing into a hangar on the shore. The interaction with C-3PO (who is flying the ship), is fantastic in both stories, it has the same witty script that you would expect from a Star Wars film, and the visual effects are fantastic. I’d be interested to find out exactly how many options they had!

There are a couple of smaller and calmer rides in Hollywood Studios as well. Toy Story Mania was a really fun one. It’s a shooting game, of the variety that kids can actually hit the targets! But it was particularly enjoyable because there were four different games included in one ride. You sit in pairs, back to back in a car, with two cars going round together- so if you need to split up then make sure you organise yourself! It’s quite easy to rack up the points as well, so a good one for competitive kids! It ends up being quite a long ride because of the different mini games, so it’s well worth the queue, and does feel like you’re inside the Toy Story World.

You also have The Great Movie Ride, the queue for which is through the Chinese theatre, with props from lots of films all the way through- although there is a lot of queuing outside before you get that far! During the final section of the queue you’re in a cinema screen so there’s things to watch, but quite a lot of them are from older films, so if you’re with a grumpy 9 year old, they might automatically decide it’s boring. The ride itself is quite interesting, taking you through lots of different film sets on a train. It is interactive though so at some point your tour guide will jump out and take part in the scene unfolding around you- and it varies which depending on the tour guide. You end up going through a burning building, a Midwest gun fight, surrounded by gangsters, in the jungle, in a pyramid- you get a lot of variety so there’s something for everyone. Definitely worth keeping little kids on the inside though!

The final attraction at Hollywood Studios is Muppet Vision 3D, which is inside a movie theatre. The 3D actually works really well, and you end up with an annoying cartoon character floating around your head- who was created by Beaker specifically for that purpose! With the Muppets though, chaos soon takes control and there are explosions which actually leave a hole in the wall, someone running away from home, and lots of songs and dancing penguins! Better if you have some knowledge of the Muppets already, but still good if you’re new to the Muppet world.

Near the Muppets is one of the only restaurants that we ate at in the Disney parks, primarily to get ourselves a fast pass to Fantasmic- Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano. We had a set menu, and unfortunately can’t get away with Katy-Grace being a child in Disney, although she would have had plenty to eat with a children’s menu- the portions were huge! That’s probably the overwhelming memory of the meal for the children- how ridiculously large the portions were. The kids ordered garlic bread as a starter and were given a whole pizza. Surprisingly enough, no-one was actually able to finish their meals! There’s always the danger with massive portions that the quality of the food suffers, but it was really good. We all enjoyed our food, and only struggled with having too much. The restaurant was also really well themed and did feel like you were in a family run restaurant in Italy- which is impressive for one of the biggest theme park companies in the world.

The third park was bigger again though, and ended up having my favourite ride, and probably some of my favourite theming- Animal Kingdom. The first thing that stands out about Animal Kingdom is the huge tree that stands in the middle of the park on Discovery Island. It looks like an African tree- one of the ones with a thick trunk and branches that spread out to a relatively flat but thick canopy. However it’s not a real tree but is actually made out of an old oil rig. The closer you get the more impressive it becomes as you can see that the trunk is not smooth like a real tree but engraved with pictures of all sorts of animals. At night it becomes even more impressive as its lit up and the animals come to life, and scenes play out over the surface of the tree. Lights come on in the canopy so it looks like it’s full of fireflies. It really is beautiful.

On one evening we went to an attraction called Its Tough To Be A Bug, which is the only attraction in Discovery Island, apart from the nature trails and restaurants, and in the queue line you get a really good view of the tree from beneath it, it’s worth getting a different perspective if you can. The bug attraction was also quite good though. We mainly went for Sam because he likes bugs, but we didn’t really know what it was. It looks a lot like a theatre, but like the Muppets it’s an interactive one. The story is with the characters from a Bugs Life, and is introducing you to the world of bugs. This is a bit of a problem in an interactive show that you’re not expecting as you get sprayed with venom, poked in the back, feel things tickle across your face and feet, and get some very buggy smells! Ryan and I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but you can probably cope a bit better if you know what’s going to happen in advance.

There were a lot of rides that we really enjoyed though. The kids favourite was probably Exhibition Everest. It’s set in the Himalayas on a hunt for a yeti, and is a fairly simple rollercoaster similar to Big Thunder Mountain. There are a few surprises along the route though. For a start you’re not always going forwards- the yeti didn’t want to leave the track in one piece, there are also a couple of segments in the dark where you can’t tell if you’re going backwards or forwards, or if you ever go upside down. It was a ride we all loved though, and we ended up going on it about 4 times!

Exhibition Everest is in the Asia section of the park, which it’s based on Nepal with prayer flags dotted around, and tigers, gibbons, komodo dragons and macaques in enclosures off the paths or along the Maharajah Jungle Trek. There’s also some nicely themed places to eat in this section, including the Yak and Yeti, and Anandapur ice cream. One of the best water rides is also in Asia- Kali River Rapids. I’ve talked in other parts about how much more impressive water rides are in the U.S. than the U.K., and Kali River is no exception. It has a massive drop that soaks the entire boat, as well as the normal jets of water, waterfalls, and smaller rapids all the way round. The main thing that stood out about this ride over the others was that the scenery around the river was much more impressive. You went through lush forests to burnt out tree stumps to snowy mountain tops, it was very cool.

The other main attraction that you find in Asia is Animal Kingdom’s night time show, Rivers of Light. Compared to Epcot this show was done really well, despite using a lot of the same technology. There were beautiful floating light displays including boats, flowers and animals. They’re not your normal Disney style animals, but actually very artistic and attractive displays. Combined with light projections onto sprays of water, and the show tells of the beauty of nature and the wonder of the natural world, in a magical and wonder-inspiring way. Definitely worth hanging around for.

Next to Asia you find Africa, unsurprisingly. There aren’t any real rides in Africa but there are some good attractions. We did miss out on the Kilimanjaro safari, which looks like it would have been worthwhile. It looks like a real safari, in that you end up seeing elephants, lions, gorillas, giraffes, hippos, monkeys and zebras- most of which you couldn’t see from the regular paths. You have to book on advance though, and we just weren’t quite organised enough.

We were organised enough however, to book our one and only character dining experience at Tusker House restaurant. What we discovered is that while you’re never too old for Disney characters, there is a stage in the middle where you’re too cool to get excited about it. I think that Steve and I were actually much more excited than any of the kids, but Ryan, who is 14, was downright embarrassed. I was chuffed though to meet the Disney classics- Mickey, Donald, Daisy and Goofy. That part of the experience was amazing, although I have to admit the food didn’t quite line up, especially as we had such high expectations after Mama Melrose. It was buffet food, which wasn’t a problem in itself, and there was such a big variety that it wasn’t just the same old kids food. Potentially the problem was that in trying to do so much, they didn’t do anything very well. The kids were happy with it, and they was enough we liked to fill us up, it just wasn’t very satisfying for the price we were paying for it.

The other attraction we managed to catch in Africa, which was worth it, was the Festival of the Lion King. I was sort of expecting something similar to the stage production, but I’m not sure which one actually came first. It was a much more Disney-fied production that that though. A combination of huge animatronic lion king characters, and actors in animal-esque costumes. The actors moved in ways that resembled their animal, which was interesting to watch, especially the actors who were birds, dancing gracefully suspended above the stage. It was a fantastic show for younger kids with the bright colourful costumes, but of a high enough quality to be enjoyed by adults as well.

For the size of the park, there actually aren’t that many rides, with only one or two in each land and the rest taken up by shops and restaurants. This was also the case in Dinoland USA. The whole place looks a bit like a fun fair with a large outdoor playground, carnival games, and small scale roller coasters. One of these is Primeval Whirl, which is very much of the scale you’d expect to find in a local park, and spins in confusing directions all the way round. Fun, but not one to go on after eating!

The main ride in Dinoland is just called Dinosaur, and takes you on a ride through a Jurassic rain forest in a time travelling jeep. We weren’t expecting it to be quite so dramatic though, as you do end up being chased by some large, realistic looking dinosaurs through often dark forest. We enjoyed it far more than we were expecting to, and actually would recommend going on it again.

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The final land in Animal Kingdom is the newest, and had only been open a few weeks, but is by far the most impressive. Pandora is the world from the film Avatar, which is a Pocahontas story set on another planet. The land itself is absolutely stunning. Filled with fluorescent plants, floating planets, and other-worldly life forms. It’s even better at night as the plants are disguising UV lights, so the whole place is glowing.

This is shown off best in the first of their two rides- Na’vi River Journey. The Na’vi are the civilization that live in Pandora, and the ride is a slow river journey through their world. You get a closer look at plants that light up when you go past, seeds that hover in the air above your heads, and some of the incredible animals that live on the planet. You even meet a Na’vi elder, whose whole body moves somehow. Sam wasn’t hugely impressed, but the rest of us were marvelling at the imagination and technology that must have gone into it.

However my favourite ride of the whole holiday is Pandora’s other new ride- Flight of Passage. This is the only ride that we just weren’t able to get a fast pass to go on for the whole holiday. We were quite lucky- sort of- in that the second time we visited Pandora the ride had broken down and the queue line emptied, so we gambled on it, and waited about half an hour in the rain (Katy-Grace was reading the whole time), after which time the queue reopened and as we were nearly at the front, we only waited for another half an hour inside. Considering the queue can get up to 5 hours, we were quite impressed! The ride ended up being so good though that we came back and queued for two and a half hours for it.

The basic idea is that you’re flying on the back of a banshee, which is a giant bird that looks a bit like a dragon. The ride itself is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It looks a lot like a motorbike, with 8 in a row, and you’re strapped in around your stomach and back and your thighs- you’re leaning forward onto what would be the handlebars as if you were riding a real bike. You then have a pair of 3D glasses on and the screen in front of all 8 of you comes away so that you have a panorama view in front of you. The landscape of Pandora is incredible, so having that in 3D in front of you is a good enough reason to go on by itself. But what’s more impressive is the way that motorbike seat is set up. When the banshee stops in a cave to rest you can feel the leg restraints pushing out against you, as if you were actually riding an animal that’s panting beneath you. Combine that with the smell of the forest floor, and the feel of the spray from the sea, and it’s the most engaging and realistic ride I’ve ever been on. It’s no wonder the queue is always so long, as people who have been on it have clearly decided it’s worth waiting that long for. The queue line itself is interesting of course, but the ride itself is completely unforgettable. It was absolutely the highlight of the theme parks for me.

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Having said that, I was fairly entranced the first time I went to Magic Kingdom. It is the original Disney park that everyone dreams of, with the fairy tale princesses, enchanted castles, and all the magic that Disney brings. It was so exciting walking down Main Street USA, towards Sleeping Beauty’s castle at the end. It really is how it looks in the adverts- clean, well kept, and everyone smiling at you. You can smell baked goods and popcorn as you walk down, I heard a rumour that the smell is artificially piped in, but I choose not to believe it!

The first day we went we initially turned left and walked through Liberty Square to get to Adventureland and Frontierland, and came across the Muppets having an argument about presidents and civil liberties. I could have stayed to watch them for hours, but unfortunately the others weren’t that interested. It only added to my excitement though.

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The first ride we went on was Pirates of the Caribbean. This is one of Disney’s first rides, and was one of my favourites from when I went to Disneyland Paris as a child- it’s in a rare position of having a film based on the ride and not vice versa! It was one of the first rides I went on when I really appreciated the theming in the queue line. I was happy to find that the ride had progressed and changed a bit along with the films. They’d added in an extra pirate ship in the moonlight with Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, however the main town scenes had stayed more or less the same, but with more emphasis on finding Jack Sparrow, who looks a lot more like Johnny Depp now. In fact, Depp had been known to dress up and hide in the ride, and come out to surprise unsuspecting tourists.

Most of the other attractions in Adventureland were aimed at smaller children, so we gave them a miss and headed to Frontierland, which has two of the main rides- Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Splash Mountain is a fantastic log flume ride, which has the added advantage of being able to fit 5 people in a boat- a welcome relief from the constant questioning of who is going to sit with who! It’s one that the kids would have happily gone on again, but we mainly didn’t because it does get you pretty wet.

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However we did ride Big Thunder Mountain a few times. It is a rollercoaster, but because it’s aimed slightly younger, it’s not as mind bending. It goes really fast but fortunately doesn’t go upside down. It’s one that you actually could go on several times and enjoy it without the risk of your head going and you feeling sick. It’s a Disneyland classic, but a really fun ride so I hope they keep it for a good few years yet.

They also have a very similar ride in Fantasyland, which is fairly new, called Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, obviously based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This one had a bit more of a story to it in that you’re going to work with the Seven Dwarfs in the mines, so you go through the scenes like in the films. The main rollercoaster bit is in the middle and you finish with Snow White dancing with the dwarfs and the wicked queen about to knock on the door. That was all fine but we were a bit disappointed with the ride overall. It was a lot shorter than we expected, and a lot more tame than Big Thunder Mountain. Probably much better for little kids, but not great for older ones who are more interested in coasters!

There are loads of rides for smaller kids in Fantasyland though. The one that springs most obviously to mind is It’s a Small World. This always brings back memories for me of my mum hating it because the song is so annoying and on a constant loop the whole way around. It really hasn’t changed much though between time and location.It’s a nice gentle boat ride through the world as represented with a stereotyped child from each country. We kind of felt that it had to be done, but was more annoying than anything else.

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On the other hand, we did enjoy Peter Pan’s Flight, which is in a slowly flying boat going through the story. You start off in the Darling bedroom, before flying over London rooftops, and then following the third start on the right and straight on till morning to Neverland. It’s all very bright and colourful, and even when you come up against Captain Hook its not at all scary. It did help to be a little bit familiar with the story and the characters, but it’s still a nice fun ride if you’re not.

There are a lot more attractions in Fantasyland, but as they’re mainly aimed at much younger children, we didn’t do them. If you come with small kids and had a few days, there would definitely be enough there to keep you occupied for a lot longer. Of the two remaining lands, Liberty Square definitely had the least inside it. There are a few places to eat, the riverboat and guest services, but the only attraction we were interested in was the Haunted Mansion. I remember this one being absolutely terrifying, so I was happy to find that it wasn’t as scary as I remembered. You do start off walking to hear the story of the mansion, but then you go onto a moving conveyor belt to sit in a 2-3 person car to take you through the mansion itself. There’s the regular tricks of rattling doors and self playing pianos, but also clever use of the mirrors opposite the car to make it look like things were there that actually weren’t. Our kids all coped ok with it, but I think Sam at 9 was probably at the low end. Goodness knows what age I went on to have such a strong memory of it!

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The final land is Tomorrowland, where there were 2 rides that we went on. The first was as we expected it to be: Buzz Lightyears Space Ranger Spin. It’s a classic shooting game, much like Men in Black or Toy Story. You’re helping Buzz defend the planet from the evil Emperor Zurg, by shooting all the baddies with red eyes. It’s a really fun, interactive mix between a ride and a game. Sam was convinced his gun wasn’t working, as he came out with a really low score, but I think he may have just not got the hang of shooting. In the photo I’m trying to work out what’s going on!

The final ride that was nothing like we were expecting was Space Mountain. I’ve been used to the Space Mountain in EuroDisney, which is a huge coaster with 4 to a row, and several rows, that starts off by shooting you out of a tunnel before going round a coaster of the scale of Aerosmith Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster. Steve and I got stuck on it before it shoots you out once, and had to be evacuated and walked through the ride. That was exciting. However this ride is completely different. For a start you’re sitting in a little rocket that fits in 3 people, one in front of the other. It’s completely in the dark, so you have no idea what if going on at any point. We were so surprised at how different it was that we spent much of the ride being completely confused. Even though it was so different it was pretty fun, and definitely one I’d like to try again.

The final attraction to mention at Magic Kingdom is one of the highlights of the Disney parks: their night time show, Happily Ever After. Although all the shows at Disney are of a very high quality, this one trumps them all. It’s set at the castle, and well worth getting there really to find a good space where you can see it. People will stake their spot on the pavements good hour before the show starts, but if you hang on, they will eventually fill up the roads as well, so if you’re late you can sneak in there.

The show is primarily fireworks and a light projection onto the castle, accompanied by standard Disney music. But it really is incredible. The projections are absolutely spot on, and make the most of every aspect of the building. They include a huge number of Disney characters, including classics and the newest ones. You can see them very clearly when you’re there but they don’t translate well into photos! I was entranced the whole way through, let alone the kids. If you’re able to go to the park for a few days, you probably wouldn’t get bored watching it more than once, but at the same time it would be a perfect way to end a holiday. The park is open for a bit longer after the fireworks, but for younger kids it would be a good place to end the day.

The final park I want to briefly mention is Typhoon Lagoon, one of Disney’s water parks. They also have Blizzard Beach and Aquatica, but we weren’t able to fit them in with the amount of time they were closed for the weather. We only spent a few hours in Typhoon Lagoon on a quiet afternoon, but we did hardly any of what was there and the kids would have loved to have stayed longer and gone back. We spent quite a lot of time in the wave pool in front of the shipwreck, and went on one of the raft rides- Miss Adventure- which we really enjoyed. There were a lot of single rider water slides, which we missed, and we didn’t really explore the full park. We went quite early on in the holiday when we weren’t used to the heat yet, and on a day when we were quite tired, so it didn’t really work. It was a shame though as I think going on the right day, we would have enjoyed it a lot more.

So that, in four fairly long blog posts, was our Florida holiday. Congratulations if you managed to read all the way through them. I’m torn between trying to write more succinctly, and savouring every detail so that we can read back through to relive the holiday! Let me know what you, as the person actually reading this, would prefer! Please get in touch if you’re going to Florida and I can answer any questions you may have. We had a fantastic holiday, and even though the weather wasn’t ideal, I think the children caught the Florida bug, and definitely the U.S. bug and are all much more enthusiastic about going back than they were about going in the first place. We came back with so many happy memories, and hundreds of photos to prove it! Thank you for reading, enjoy your own holidays!

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Our favourite theme park

The very first park we went to on our first day in Florida turned out to be everyone’s favourite park, to the extent that when we gave the kids a choice of what to do on their final day, they unanimously chose to make the hour long car journey to this park. I think the main reason I like it was that it was so much quieter than any of the other parks, particularly the first time we went outside US school holidays. There weren’t massive queues for the rides, there weren’t crowds everywhere you turned, you could slow down and enjoy the day.

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Which park was our favourite? Busch Gardens. Before we went I didn’t even know what it was. I though it was a little park that only needed half a day, but I was so wrong. It may not call to mind immediate film themes like Disney or Universal, but it is still a fabulous theme park. At a very basic level, Busch Gardens is a combination between a theme park and a zoo. Wandering around you come across cheetahs, penguins, elephants, gorillas, tigers, sloths, and all sorts of other animals. Obviously my favourite was the sloth, but Sam loved the gorillas. Partly because they have a 3D plastic model making machine that made him a plastic gorilla as he watched. The gorilla now sits menacingly next to his bed.

The other exciting aspect of being a zoo is that they have a veterinary centre in the middle. I did three weeks work experience at a vets when I was a teenager, so I know how interesting it is to work with domestic animals, let alone zoo animals. We were lucky enough to catch a kangaroo surgery. The poor kangaroo had got into a fight with another kangaroo and had a cut that needed cleaning and patching up. The surgical room was behind a full length window so you could watch everything but the room was still hygienic. Steve didn’t think the surgery looked real, but having experienced a few routine surgeries of dogs and cats, it looked fairly realistic to me. There was a man on our side of the glass explaining what was going on and answering any questions so we didn’t disturb the vets on the other side.

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But anyway, back to the theme park. Ryan was mega excited about going. We thought he had rumbled us as he text Steve a few days before we left saying he was watching an hour long walk through of Busch Gardens on YouTube, but it turned out it was just because it’s his favourite theme park- weird as he had never been there before. All day long he was filled with facts and figures, and little stories about the park. We started off letting Ryan decide where to go, but when it emerged he had no sense of direction, we took over again!

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Due to Ryan’s excitement we got to the park well before opening time, so we were ahead of the queues. One thing we found interesting as Brits, was that just before the park opening the national anthem was played over the tannoy, and everyone stopped what they were doing and joined in, with their hands over their hearts. It’s just one of those little unexpected cultural differences. Our kids all know our national anthem- English and Welsh, but unlike a lot of US schools, they’re not expected to sing them at the start of each school day, just on special occasions. I think it was good for them to see the level of respect people have for their anthem, and how that is considered normal.

When the park opened we wanted to keep our place at the front of the queues and sprinted to our first ride. I found the sprinting quite difficult, as I was still in the middle of food poisoning, not have kept any food down for 36 hours, so my energy levels were pretty low. By the time we got there I was feeling fairly nauseous again, but it was worth it as we were only queuing for about 5 minutes for what turned out to be one of the kids favourite rides. That ride was Cheetah Hunt. Cheetah Hunt only goes upside down once, but with three launch pads along the track it goes really fast. The ride mimics a cheetah in chase and tips and turns as a cheetah would. We loved it because it was so smooth, and a really exhilarating ride without being too head-rattling. The ride was one of everyone’s favourites that we came back to two or three more times.

The other ride at Busch that was a huge favourite with the younger two particularly was Cobra’s Curse. We knew we were off to a good start with a very well themed ride queue line. You queue through an ancient temple with hieroglyphs and archaeologists scrawls all over the walls. It’s dark most of the way around and at one point you realise the glass you’re staring at does have a real snake behind it. You also go into a room where the wall display comes to life. The hieroglyphs move around, and the giant snake on the wall suddenly wakes up to try and attack you. This has the joint advantages of telling the story behind the ride without you having to piece it together, and keeping you occupied for a large amount of queuing time.

The ride itself though is full of surprises. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know what they are! I didn’t even think that there might be extra features so I didn’t try and guess ahead, and Ryan had to good sense not to give it away. You board the cart- 4 people per cart- on a moving conveyor belt, and then head out onto the track. In no time at all you get to wall, which I thought would open up to let us through, but the closer we got the more solid it looked! Just as we were about to hit it, the cart stopped and the track raised up to the level of a giant cobra statue, where we were apparently going to be placing a gem back into its eye. At this point, the statue comes to life and send you off down the coaster track. You don’t get to carry on as you are though. The carts go round in pairs, and about half way around it straightens out, and the carts rotate. For the second half of the ride the carts are spinning so you alternate going backwards and forwards, and at times you can see the people in the other carts. If, like us, there are more than 4 people in your family, this is really good because it means you can still talk to each other on the ride! It’s also a cool feature because the spinning is random, and linked with the weight distribution in the cart so if you ride Cobra’s Curse more than once, which we did, then you get a different experience each time.

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The other rollercoaster in that section of the park is Montu. Montu is a more grown-up rollercoaster which goes upside down 7 times. However, it’s one of the ones where you hang down from your seat, like Air at Alton Towers (although I’ve just been corrected that it’s now Galactica!), which is my favourite type of rollercoaster. I prefer these because they give you the sensation that you’re flying. Although you do go upside down, as you’re already on your front it just feels like you’re rolling. You do get confused as to which way up you are when you’re riding it, but it gives a much smoother ride, and one that’s more exhilarating as your head isn’t being knocked around against the head rest. For any rollercoaster enthusiasts it also features a batwing inversion and an Immelmann loop, which is a simultaneous loop and roll. There’s not really a huge amount of theming for Montu, so it can be a difficult remembering which one it is, but the ride was definitely worth it, and this is another one we went back on.

We also went on Scorpion, which we just stumbled across really as it’s quite a small rollercoaster. It has one 360 degree loop, and goes really fast, but it’s not particularly special. We did enjoy it, but I had forgotten we’d even been on it until Steve reminded me, so it clearly didn’t make that much of an impression! Worth going on if the queues short, but not worth waiting too long for.

The other main ride we went on, that met with mixed opinions was Kumba. It definitely is an exciting rollercoaster- it has a massive loop- the world’s tallest- that makes you feel weightless, otherwise known as losing your stomach! The initial drop is 135ft and it does go upside down several times, and fairly fast- so it’s not one to go on if you’re nervous of rollercoasters. While everyone agreed that Kumba was pretty intense, the younger kids and Steve and I felt fairly rough coming off it, as we found it quite rickety. Ryan however was absolutely insistent that it was the smoothest ride he’s ever been on. Kumba made number 38 this year on the world’s best rollercoasters, however it has gradually slipped down from 4th, 5th and 8th position, which suggests that other people do agree more with Ryan. If you do go on it, let me know which side you want to take!

There were a couple of rollercoasters that we didn’t go on in the park. We walked straight past Sandserpent and Airgrover, thinking they looked more like fairground rides. We would have liked to have gone on Sheikra, however it was unfortunately closed for the whole 2 weeks we were there as they were working on it. There was another ride that Steve, Ryan and Katy-Grace went on called Falcon’s Fury, but Sam and I decided not to as it’s a drop tower, and we don’t go on them on principle! As it turned out though, even Katy-Grace regretted this one. There was only a very short queue so they thought they’d make the most of it, but the distinction Falcon’s Fury has over other drop towers is that you are facing down. Whereas with most drops you can feel your stomach leaving you and that is the main attraction, with this one you actually watch the ground hurtling towards you, as the chair tips to lie you on your stomach. Not surprisingly, that adds a new dimension of terror, and poor Katy-Grace was in tears when she came off. I think if she’d have had a chance to see what it did before hand, she probably wouldn’t have gone on in the first place.

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The first time we went we mainly concentrated on the rollercoasters in the park. We were all feeling pretty tired, I was already ill, and we weren’t used to the heat. So we called it a day fairly early and went home to have pizza! The second time we came back though we were more used to theme parks so we hung around to try out the water rides. The first one we went on was the Congo River Rapids. Like most rapids in Florida, this one sets out with the aim to get you soaked, and it achieves that fairly well. Like most rapids, the raft takes 12 passengers sitting around the outside in pairs. There’s nowhere to store valuables on this one to keep them dry so don’t take them on with you! The boat ends up going fairly fast, which means the water comes in over your back when you go over a rapid. At one point you go under a waterfall, which will get most people in the boat. It’s actually not as intense as the water rides at Universal- there is a slight chance you won’t get wet, and a 50/50 chance you won’t get soaked. There’s also longer breaks between the rapids so you have a chance to regroup a bit! Compared to UK standards, it is still more wet, but it’s fairly mild for US standards.

The other water ride at Busch is Stanley Falls, which is a log flume. Steve and the younger two kids went on this one, I can’t remember why me and Ryan didn’t but it did mean we were able to wait at the end and take a picture of them coming down the main drop. Having not been on it myself, the feedback I had from Steve was that the queue was quite long for what was a fairly short ride. The ride itself was quite rickety and looked like it was being held together with sellotape, but it was still a good ride and they did come off it very wet. In all fairness though, I think the person who gets the most wet is the one at the front of the boat. Steve came off absolutely soaked, but he mainly shielded the kids as they were relatively dry.

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The other cool ride they have at Busch is the Skyline, a cable car which takes you from one side of the park to the other, over the animal enclosures. It’s a good way of getting around the park anyway, especially if the queue for it isn’t too long, but it’s also a really good way to see some more of the zoo side of the park without going on the Serengeti Express Train- which we ran out of time to do. Getting on and off is a bit rocky, so you do need to be careful with little ones, plus the car limit is down to whether they are adults or children, so just check that out before you ride. It’s really worth doing though, if only for a bit of a sit down and more relaxing ride!

Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the shows, on either day we went, so I can’t comment on how good they are, but they did look interesting and as if they would be better for younger kids. One other thing that’s worth knowing about the park if you’re planning to go is the refillable drinks. You can buy a cup at the start of the day which you pay extra for, but can then refill it all day at various points around the park. If you buy more than one they get slightly cheaper, and you can reactivate them if you go to the park again. They have the regular coca cola drinks, but also icee’s which are slushies made from frozen fanta. We found these really useful between the kids as they lasted longer, because you have to drink them more slowly. They have loads of flavours in the US that we don’t have at home- like grape, watermelon, banana, and pina colada, so it was still exciting enough for the kids to want to go and refill them!

Busch Gardens isn’t the only theme park in the Busch group, they also own SeaWorld, and Discovery Cove. To be honest, we were quite torn about whether to visit SeaWorld or not, and we did think seriously about it before we went. I’m not entirely comfortable with animals that belong in the ocean being kept in tanks. I know that SeaWorld have been under a lot of pressure from conservation groups in the past, and with good reason. However, there are some arguments from the other side. Probably due to the pressure that the park has been under, SeaWorld do have a conservation foundation which donates money to wildlife research, habitat protection, animal rescue and conservation education. They also do research at the park itself to benefit animals that are in the wild. I also think that giving people the opportunity to see animals up close can help to inspire a love for them, and an understanding of them, that goes towards protecting those in the wild. I don’t believe that parks like SeaWorld will be around forever, I think that eventually environmentalists will win and they won’t be allowed to keep animals in captivity, they’ve already stopped the breeding programme. I’m pretty sure they can see that too which is why they’re moving to having so many rollercoasters and rides. I wanted the kids to be able to see a whale close up while they still have the opportunity. It doesn’t compare to seeing them in the wild, but at least they’re more likely to actually see them! I know that a lot of people will disagree with me, and that’s fine, I really can see both sides of the argument here!

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So, on to the park itself. We only went there for the one day so probably didn’t do all that they had to offer. We went to the Shamu show, which is now called One Ocean. The show is what you would really expect. They actually have 6 or 7 orcas, which is more than I expected, all of which engage well with the trainers. They do a number of tricks, which really show off the grace and power of the whales. You expect dolphins to be able to jump out of the water, but you forget that whales, which are so much bigger, are powerful enough to be able to as well. As it’s a family show they also get the whales to splash the audience at various stages. Steve insisted on sitting in the splash zone, saying that you wouldn’t get that wet- forgetting that a 4,000kg mammal is going to be able to make a pretty big wave. Surprisingly enough, we did get soaked with cold, salty water. It was just a nice opportunity to watch these beautiful animals, and really see what they’re capable of. The kids were mesmerised all the way through, and the trainers were constantly giving out information so I hope they took some of it away with them! Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the dolphin show, but I really would recommend One Ocean if you do end up going to the park.

Although the focus seems to be shifting to rides, there are still quite a few animals around the park- in a similar vein to Busch Gardens. I was quite happy to find that they have my 2 favourite marine animals- and in the same place and everything. One of the attractions is Turtle Trek, which is essentially a 360 degree cinema inside a giant globe. You follow a baby turtle as it hatches, makes it journey to the sea across the beach, and then through some of its experiences in the ocean. There are a few threats along the way, which small children might find frightening, and the globe can be quite disorientating, so you need to either hold onto a railing or sit down unless you want to fall over! It’s a pretty cool experience though. Also, on the way into the globe you walk through a real life aquarium with sea turtles swimming around, as well as my other favourite, manatees, which are also in the manatee rehabilitation centre when you leave. I fell in love with manatees last time I came to Florida when I was about 14. I’d never heard of them before, and was amazed to see these huge floating rocks. They get into trouble in Florida because people don’t notice them and crash boats into them- causing a lot of damage to both the boat and manatee. I later discovered the Veggie Tales Barbara Manatee song, and then I was hooked. SeaWorld had baby manatees this time as well- triplets that swam around together, and it was great to be able to introduce the rest of the family to these amazing animals.

We missed out most of the dolphins at SeaWorld- but we did have a very good reason, which I’ll explain later! Katy-Grace and I stumbled across the sea lions at Pacific Point Preserve while we were looking for the restrooms, but as Steve and I had seen a load of them lounging around in LA, we didn’t hang around too long. Another of the rides that had animals as part of the experience is Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. On this one you queue inside an ice cap, and experience some of the cold and wind that goes with that. You follow in the footsteps of a baby penguin as he takes his first steps on the ice. There is an option for a wild ride and a tame ride. We opted for wild, but it was still pretty tame! You sit inside a cart that spins across the ice, copying a penguin losing control. The ride itself wasn’t great, but at the end you come out in the penguin enclosure, within touching distance of the penguins. They are quite happily swimming around, but you don’t want to stay there for too long as it’s so cold and stinks of fish!

The other animal that played a key part in our visit was the sharks. There is an aquarium walk-through where you can see them swimming above your head. But they also have some smaller sharks and rays in a huge tank outside where you can buy little bits of fish and feed them to the sharks. I think they probably get fairly overfed because they weren’t particularly interested in the fish when we went- unlike the crocodiles with sausages at Wild Florida! There was one huge manta ray that went around hoovering up most of the fish that made it to the bottom of the tank, so we were mainly just feeding him!

Our main memory of the sharks though is from eating our lunch. I remembered the restaurant from last time I came, so we decided to book a table at Shark’s Underwater Grill. One side of the restaurant is taken up by glass, behind which is the shark tank that you can walk through. Annoyingly, we didn’t get a table next to the window, but we had a pretty good view during the meal. The food at the restaurant was also really good. Mainly fish based but a few meaty things- definitely more interesting than most of the theme park restaurants. The younger two kids had food off the kids menu, and Ryan decided to stick with the adult one- first time he’s ordered steak! We had to wait a little while to be served as our table was overlooked, but when we had got one of the manager’s attention we had no problems and the service really picked up! It was quite expensive, but you’re paying for the experience with the sharks. The kids menu was pretty good value though. If it’s anything like when I went, it’s not something the kids will forget. My Dad still has a commemorative cocktail glass from when we went!

There are now three main rollercoasters at SeaWorld. One of the main attractions- Kraken- was closed as it was being updated to become Kraken Unleashed, combining it with virtual reality. Annoyingly, it opened only a couple of days after we left Florida, as it looked really exciting. There were two other really good coasters at the park though. The first one we went on was Manta. The entrance to Manta is next to a waterfall, and queues through the aquarium with sea horses and an octopus, so it’s worth just queuing for it! Manta is another ride that seats you in rows of 4 and then tilts you so you’re facing down. It actually inverts you about 4 times, but because you’re twisting and turning so much it’s impossible to tell! It’s another one that’s really smooth, and one that we loved.

One we enjoyed even more though was Mako, to the extent that we went straight back on after our first ride. Mako only opened in 2016 and is Florida’s tallest, fastest and longest rollercoaster- which should give you some idea to the scale of it! It goes up to 73mph and 200ft high. The restraint is just a lap bar- much like Shambala at Fort Aventura in Spain, which is one of my favourite coasters. This means you have that extra feeling of ‘is this really safe?’ and that your stomach gets left behind on several occasions. By the end of the holiday Mako was in our top 3 rollercoasters, every time we went on it seemed to get better. It’s named after a species of shark, and is supposed to remind you of a shark chasing its victim- if a shark can actually swim like that I’d be worried about the fish its trying to catch! The only thing to watch out for is the pretty sudden stop at the end!

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There is one more ride at SeaWorld though which sneaked onto our leader board, and that was Journey to Atlantis. We weren’t really entirely sure what to expect for this one, and having been on it, we’re still not! I think we were sort of expecting a walk-through leading to a water ride so we really weren’t prepared for what we got! It is a water ride, so you start off on a boat of about 8 people, and it’s fairly gentle. You wind through the deserted city of Atlantis, with light effects to show that it’s underwater. There’s a good use of glowing lights, UV paint, mysterious voices and little jets of water, and then you come across Medusa and you know that things are going to take a turn for the worse. You get winched up a hill, expecting the splash to be at the other end, but it never comes, instead it turns from a water ride into a rollercoaster. You’re not there for long though before a sudden drop appears and you get nice and wet. But that’s not the end though, the boat continues around the corner for a tiny drop that gets the person in the front surprisingly wet, before you realise that there’s another winch in front of you and all bets are off! At the top of the lift you’re back onto another rollercoaster, which eventually ends in another splash. We spent most of the ride being completely baffled as to what was going on, whether we were supposed to be wet or dry, and how the ride was still going! It was a really good ride anyway, but I think the experience of not knowing what was going on probably enhanced it for us, as it’s now not one that’s going to be forgotten!

Admittedly there were a few things at SeaWorld that we missed out- the day we went was so hot that we just didn’t want to be rushing around trying to fit everything in. As it was, we enjoyed a fairly relaxed day and liked the mix of rollercoasters and animals. We would have like to have come back to try and get onto the soft opening of Kraken Unleashed, but it was just too far away from everything else, and we decided the kids would have enjoyed another day at Busch Gardens more. There are another couple of parks in the SeaWorld group through. They have their water park- Aquatica- which is consistently ranked as one of the top water parks. Unfortunately we couldn’t go as water parks have to close when there’s an electrical storm in the area, which there seemed to be most days we were there! We were able to go to their other park, which is a water resort, Discovery Cove, where we had probably the best, and most memorable day of our holiday.

One of the main things we loved about Discovery Cove was that they limit the number of visitors they have each day to about 1,200, which means that once you’re in, it doesn’t get any busier, there aren’t massive queues for anything, it does feel like you’re just on an exclusive resort- which is what they’re aiming for. Discovery Cove was by far the most relaxing day we had on the holiday. Strictly speaking, there’s not a huge amount to do there. As in, there isn’t a list of rides to tick off, or attractions to visit, you can really take your time enjoying what’s there. If you want you can just plonk yourself down on a sun lounger and read all day, or you can spend the time exploring the park. The resort is divided into three sections. The first is the lazy river. Not like a water park lazy river where you sit on an inflatable ring and go round. The water is heated to bath temperature, so it’s really warm, and the idea is that you go in with your flippers and masks, and explore as if it was a real river. You go past a few animal enclosures, like the otters, marmosets, and tropical birds. So you just take your time and take it all in. The kids loved having the freedom- once we found them buoyancy aids- to go off by themselves, get in and out by themselves, and help themselves to food along the way. That’s the other great thing about Discovery Cove, it’s all inclusive, so there’s no complaining about being hungry or thirsty all day!

The second section is the coral reef. This is a really impressive part of the resort which I really should have spent more time in but was put off by the temperature of the water! Because there are actually fish in the water, it has to be at a more realistic temperature, so it was pretty cold on a hot day! The reef has been made up to look stunning though, and is full with all sorts of beautiful fish- some of them really big as well. It also has quite a few manta rays swimming around. I was watching from the side for a few minutes and watched as a lady standing in the shallows was distracted by something going on further in, and didn’t notice as the biggest ray, probably about 3 metres across, casually cruised up behind her and then flopped itself against her leg. The poor woman was a bit shocked! There was also another section of the reef that you could swim up to, but had a glass partition, containing some pretty massive sharks. As they were in a fairly natural habitat and the people staring at them were at their own level, they were swimming around and coming right up to the partition. I could have stayed there for ages watching them that close up!

The most exciting section of the resort though was one that you had to prebook a specific time for- this is in addition to prebooking the day you go in the first place! The reason that we weren’t too bothered about catching the dolphin shows at SeaWorld was that we knew we would be having a dolphin encounter at Discovery Cove. Swimming with dolphins has been at the top of Steve’s wish list since he was a small child, and has been something that I would love to do as well. We decided that this was the perfect opportunity to tick it off the list for all of us. It also happens to be the best dolphin experience that I’ve ever come across. Normally, if you go to a water park that has dolphins, what they mean by a dolphin experience is that you get to stroke the dolphin for a couple of minutes as it swims past. Even the ones where you go in the water with the dolphin, you actually don’t get to have much contact. With Discovery Cove however, you start off with all of that, and then go a step further.

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You’re put into groups of about 8- so 2 families, and go into the main pool 4 groups at a time. There are quite a few dolphins swimming around the pool- which is pretty big- and the trainers signal to them, but it’s up to them if they come or not. They get the reward of having fish flavoured jelly, and a bit of stimulation, so they seemed pretty keen to come over. The start of the session is stroking the dolphins, showing how they are trained to talk, and talking a bit about the life of a dolphin. You get a chance to feed them, and come and give them a hug and a kiss, all pretty standard stuff so far. By the way, the dolphin who came to us is called Rose, she was about 25 and had a couple of her children at the resort as well.

But the way they go a step further is that for the final encounter, you swim about 10 feet out into the pool- or across if you want to stay in the shallow, and the dolphin will swim out to you, you hold on to their fin, and they pull you back in to the shore. I was slightly nervous that this could hurt the dolphins, but apparently they can pull up to about 500lbs using their fin, and as I don’t weigh anywhere near that, I figured we were probably ok. It was an incredible feeling being pulled through the water, and just lends credence to those stories that you used to hear about stranded sailors being rescued and pulled to safety by dolphins. I have no idea if they’re true or not but I’d like to believe them. Even the younger two kids enjoyed it, and they’re normally quite nervous about trying new things that feel out of their control. I don’t think anyone will forget the experience.

Having been to so many theme parks on our holiday, they did all start to blend into one after a while. However these three parks stood out so much that they were the ones the kids wanted to go back to, and the ones that have been easiest to write about. Despite not having as many rides as Universal or Disney, our favourites were the ones in Busch Gardens and SeaWorld, with only a couple of exceptions. If you’re going to Florida and either don’t have much time, or are thinking of limiting the number of theme parks you go to, I would definitely recommend prioritising these ones. These three days were by far the most relaxing days of our holiday, and definitely worth the extra travelling time outside Orlando.

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In my next and final Florida post, I’ll be talking about the Disney parks. As there are quite a few parks, and quite a few rides, as well as experiences and shows, it will take quite a while so please bear with me over the summer while I put it together. If you’ve read this far, well done, but you’re definitely going to need to sit down with a cuppa for the next one! Happy summer holidays!

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Universal Orlando

The Universal Orlando Resort is made up of three parks- Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and their new water park, Volcano Bay. In the two weeks we were in Florida we spent 2 full days in Universal parks, and came back on other days a couple of times as well. However, we tried to be as sneaky as possible to fit everything in!

Universal isn’t known for having the longest queues, but at this time of year all the parks can get pretty busy, particularly if they have any new rides. Universal have the new (ish) Harry Potter rides, split between the two parks, and Skull Island which is from King Kong at Islands of Adventure. So they do have a FastPass system, which unlike Disney (I’ll explain later), you have to buy into. You can buy individual passes for specific rides, or you can buy a complete pass to cover your whole visit called Universal Express.

As we’re planning that this is going to be our only family trip to Orlando, we really wanted to make the most of the time we had, and not spend too long in queues, so we looked into the Express passes. For theme park standards they’re not too bad, £79 for a 2-day 2-park ticket at their most expensive. However, that’s on top of the admission and for five of you, it adds up pretty quickly. So my husband had the very sneaky idea of booking us in to a Universal hotel, which not only gives you early park admission on both days you’re staying, but also Express passes, and hotel parking, which saves you $20 a day on the car parks. We booked a basic room for the five of us at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, turned up nice and early on day 6 of our holiday to sort out our tickets, and managed to get into the park for the early entry.

The first thing we did was head over to Islands of Adventure to get ahead of the queues at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As I mentioned, it’s split between two parks, so Islands has Hogsmeade, which includes Hogwarts, the Three Broomsticks pub, and Honeydukes sweet shop, as well as one of the two token rides, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Steve and I had been on this in LA, but the kids hadn’t so we went there first. We managed to get there quite quickly and only queued for about half an hour, but it was a really interesting queue line, starting off in the greenhouses at Hogwarts, winding through the corridors with enchanted pictures, going through Dumbledore’s office, and then getting instructions from Harry, Ron and Hermione in the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom.

The ride itself is a cross between a roller coaster and a simulator, as are most of Universal’s rides. The idea is that you’re sat on an enchanted bench, which is going to sneak you out of school to get you to Harry’s quidditch match. Of course, things go wrong, so you end up being chased by Hagrid’s dragon, attacked by spiders and the whomping willow in the forbidden forest, and needing to be rescued from dementors. You wear 3D glasses around the ride, and the seat moves around and pulls you in different directions as you go along. The visual effects are really good, and you don’t really notice that you have the glasses on most of the time. The kids all loved it, and Ryan could even put up with the spiders to go on it again!

After that we went and caught the Hogwarts Express to Universal Studios and Diagon Alley. The train is the only way to travel directly between the parks, but is a ride in its own right. You catch the train from Hogsmeade station into platform 9 and 3 quarters. It chugs in looking like a steam train, while the other end is an underground train to fit in at the other end. Onboard you sit in little carriages with the luggage racks on top, and a frosted glass door into the corridor. As you travel between parks the journey from London to Hogwarts plays out on the window (and vice versa), and you can see other students moving about in the corridor- as well as more sinister things. The journey only takes a few minutes, but it is well worth going in both directions.

You arrive to find yourself in Diagon Alley, at Universal Studios, and immediately notice the dragon on top of Gringotts Bank, which smokes every now and then. Diagon Alley has several shops including Ollivanders, Madam Malkins and Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, so there’s enough to keep you occupied. The main ride there though is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. You enter through the bank, and the queue takes you deeper into the vaults. You’re met by Bill Weasley and a goblin as you prepare to enter the bank and retrieve something for them. However, almost as soon as you board a cart to take you to the vaults you’re met by Bellatrix Lestrange and Voldemort, who suspect you of being thieves, and send you spinning off to be eaten by trolls. The huge trolls tear the track apart and the cart starts falling, only to be rescued by Bill. You come across Harry, Ron, Hermione and Griphook as they’re raiding the bank, and so come face to face with the dragon, as well as a couple more run ins with Bellatrix and You-Know-Who! This one also uses 3D technology, but I preferred it to the other one as it was more similar to a traditional roller coaster, but enhanced by the special effects. After sampling some butterbeer- or butterbeer ice cream in the kids case- trying out a few wands, and meeting Stan on the Knight Bus, we left Harry Potter for the time being to explore the rest of the park.

The first ride we headed to was The Mummy- one that I remember falling in love with when I came about 14 years ago! The Mummy is another special effects/rollercoaster ride, but this time without the 3D goggles. It’s based on the films with Brendan Fraser (not the new one with Tom Cruise!) and involves beetles covering the walls around you, the ceiling suddenly catching on fire, and several run ins with a very angry mummy! The kids didn’t know what was coming so were pretty nervous the first time round, but they all came off having really enjoyed it! Much of The Mummy Ride is in the dark, so it is quite exhilarating, and one of the more exciting rides at Universal.

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Universal Studios parks are primarily 3D effect based, however they do have a couple of coasters that don’t require goggles! One of them is Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, which is the first ride I’ve ever had to go through a metal detector to go on! The ride doesn’t go upside down, which is just as well as the only restraint is a lap bar, however there are a couple of corkscrews so it feels like you do as the G-forces hit you! One of Steve’s favourite clips from the holiday is Sam (9) on the ride and his face being distorted by the forces. The things that stand out about Rip Ride Rockit are, firstly, the 167-foot drop at the start, that gets you going up to 65mph, but also that you can choose the music that will play through the headrest before you start. I don’t know if it was the music that was the problem, or the mechanics of the ride, but all of us came off with banging headaches. I think that because the restraint is only a lap bar, not supporting your shoulders, that you get thrown around so much your neck is under too much pressure. The headaches were at the base of the skull/top of the neck which would tie in with that theory! We were glad we went on it, but it was definitely not one we wanted to go on again.

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There were six other main rides in Universal Studios: Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, The Simpsons Ride, Transformers The Ride- 3D, Men in Black Alien Attack, Race Through New York starring Jimmy Fallon and Terminator 2- 3D. Despicable Me, The Simpsons and Transformers were all fairly similar, using a simulator car which moved, along with a 3D screen to simulate a roller coaster.

In Despicable Me, Gru is trying to recruit new minions so starts by turning you into a minion, and then the girls taking you through the minion training process. However, Agnes has made Gru a present to celebrate the anniversary of their adoption, and gets into danger when she tries to give it to him, so you have to rescue her as well.

In The Simpsons, Sideshow Bob is back and trying to kill Bart while they are on holiday at Krustyland. You are in the cart behind the Simpsons as they go through the park and Bob destroys each ride. Eventually you’re rescued by Maggie, who is giant after being allowed to play in the nuclear reactor by Grandpa Simpson. At one point she picks you up and starts sucking the car so you get a little bit splashed.

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I haven’t seen Transformers so it was more difficult to follow, but it basically seemed to be pulling you into a fight between the good transformers and the bad ones. So your car gets thrown around, you keep getting caught by the huge machines, and having things thrown at you. It was quite fun, even if you don’t know what’s going on!

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Men in Black was a more interactive one, as you are in smaller cars and competing against your group to see who can take out the most aliens. Each of you has a laser gun, which you use to shoot the alien targets, and avoid the humans! It’s not made to look as realistic, as that’s not the point, but it’s a really fun ride to go on, particularly with a competitive family. Just to point out, I thrashed them on this one, although it wasn’t entirely fair as it appeared that Sam’s counter may not have been working properly!

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Race Through New York was a really interesting one because you didn’t really know what to expect- Jimmy Fallon is a talk show host, so what can you base a ride on? In the end it was a really good ride though. You go through in groups, which are assigned a colour that you need to pay attention to know when to move through. You sit in what looks like a studio with curtains across the front. When they open you are in Jimmy’s studio for filming of The Tonight Show. During the introduction Jimmy challenges you to a race through the city, and you aren’t really given any choice but to agree. You end up winding through New York, narrowly avoiding traffic and pedestrians, before crashing into the harbour and eventually shooting up into space to try out the first roller coaster on the moon, which unfortunately isn’t actually finished yet. In all of this, the theatre style seats you’re on move around as the car swerves through the film. There were a few characters who are clearly regulars on the show that we didn’t recognise, Hashtag the Panda for example, but it didn’t take away from the experience and we did enjoy it, even if we came away feeling slightly baffled.

Terminator 2 is a little bit different. You’re in a a big theatre with screens all the way round, and you start off with a presentation trying to sell you the new terminator machines. However, things soon go wrong when John and Sarah Connor come bursting in, trying to prevent the machines ever leaving the factory. A gun fight ensues, in the middle of which The Terminator (who would be Arnold Schwarzenegger but clearly isn’t!) comes bursting out of the 3D screen on his motorbike. He takes John back through the screen with him to continue the battle in the future. The premise is really clever, with actual people coming in and out of the screen, not just 3D special effects. The only problem was that it didn’t seem to have been updated since the last time I was there, about 14 years ago, so the technology hadn’t really come on either. A lot of the 3D effects were quite blurry, so it didn’t really have the same impact. It could be made a lot better with a revamp of the technology they were using.

We were also able to get to a couple of the shows and try some food at the Studios park. For lunch we headed over to The Simpsons Fast food boulevard, which was great in that it had something for everyone, but the downside was that you had to queue and physically have your food in your hand before any of your group were allowed to sit down, which we were told quite rudely when we tried to find somewhere for the kids to sit while we ordered. There were no signs saying that though so we had no idea! Frustratingly, there isn’t a central ordering point so you have to queue at each outlet for each meal you want, which is frustrating when one person has pizza, one has chicken, one has sandwiches and one has shrimp! The food was good though, and in more sensible size portions than a lot of places we went to! We sat and ate in Moe’s Tavern, which was  pretty realistic, even though we’re not cartoons!

We also managed to make it to a couple of the regular shows. Animal Actors on location was the most family friendly, showing off the acting skills of a variety of animals. You’d assume it would mainly be dogs, cats, birds, and maybe a monkey; but they also had otters, ferrets, rats, a pig, a porcupine- all sorts of well trained animals. The only thing I found annoying, but this is just me, is that they started off saying “we’re going to show what the animals can do”, and ended up acting as if it had all gone wrong and they were all just messing around. I just found it jarred a bit, because everyone knew that they were doing what they had been trained to do, and I would have preferred it if they had shown that in a different way. I couldn’t fault the animals, and it was probably just that they were making it more entertaining and trying not to be too informational for the kids. I did enjoy it though, and would recommend going, particularly if you have younger kids.

The other show we went to was Fear Factor Live, based on the American TV series of the same name. Six volunteers were stretched with 3 different challenges which play into common phobias. The first challenge was having to hang about 30 feet above the ground from a bar with slanted handles, the 2 who let go the first didn’t make it through to the next round. On the next round the 4 remaining contestants were split into 2 teams, once of which was swinging and the other had to try and throw a dead octopus into a bucket they were holding, while being attached to a bungee cord and having to run diagonally across the stage into the path of the other team. For the finale the contestants had to climb a ladder attached to the side of a building to collect flags, while water was poured on them from above.  They then had to return to the ground by sliding down a fireman pole to jump into a car. The car was winched up about 20 feet from the floor. When it stopped they had to climb out and collect more flags from the front and back, one of which contained a key for the boot. So they had to get to the boot, retrieve a rocket launcher and hit a target in the middle of the stage to win. While they were setting up each challenge they also had another stream where a participant first sat with her head in a tank whole scorpions were put on her head, and  then had to drink a concoction of gross stuff, like sour milk and insects.

Not surprisingly, Sam absolutely loved it. He was drawn in by the drama, the manufactured tension, and the controlled risk. He spent the rest of the holiday wanted to watch the tv show whenever we were home.

After the first day we were satisfied we’d seen most of what Universal Studios had to offer and set off to Islands of Adventure. There is loads to do in Universal’s other park, and has a few more of the non-simulator rides as it seems to have all the water rides! The theming around the park is really good- very colourful and clean, and well distinguished between the different areas. There are two simulator rides- The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey; four traditional roller coasters- The Incredible Hulk Coaster, Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge; three water rides- Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge rat barges, Dudley Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls, and Jurassic Park River Adventure; and two of what I can only describe as experiences- Skull Island: Reign of Kong, and Poseidon’s Fury. There’s also a lot of eating experiences and smaller rides around, but those are the ones that we went on, so I will try and do them justice.

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The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman are based on the comics rather than the more recent films that have come out of them, so the villains reflected that, as did the queue line. It was through the offices of the Daily Bugle with Peter Parker’s articles and Jonah Jameson plastered around the walls. The premise of the ride was that you are sent out to report on the damage the villains are doing around the city, so you head out in a car to see what’s going on. You meet Spiderman fairly early on who tells you to go back because it’s dangerous, but of course you ignore him, so you end up having all sorts of run ins with the villains and having to be rescued. Quite irresponsible of you really. The length of time this ride has been around means that it is one of the first 3D simulators, with the car moving around a course and the viewers wearing 3D glasses. However, unlike Terminator, it has been reanimated so the technology is up to date. It can feel quite realistic at times, so maybe not ideal for small children, but it was great for older children and teens.

I’ve already talked about the Forbidden Journey so I won’t go over it again, just to say that when the children were asked which Harry Potter ride they would rather do again, they all unanimously chose this one. Having a unanimous answer about anything is pretty rare, so that gives an indication about how good it is!

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The roller coasters themselves weren’t quite as inspiring though. The theming for The Hulk was really good- you wind through a radioactive laboratory, with notes from the scientists around the place, combined with military secrets procedures, and just generally official looking signs. There’s a huge reactor in the middle, so it is quite interesting to look at. Unlike Rip Ride Rockit, the Hulk does go upside down- seven times in fact. If you want all the specifications then look it up or ask Ryan- it was enough for me to know the number of times I would be the wrong way up, and that it accelerates really fast at the beginning, and gets up to a top speed of 67 mph. So pretty fast. It’s also quite cool in that it goes over the water for the majority of the ride, and is lit up green at night. If you stand underneath it when you come off you can see a collection of personal items that have fallen off people just sat, rejected, in the water! It’s a lot smoother than Rockit, probably because of the over-the-shoulder restraints, however it is still quite intense, so we didn’t want to go back on straight away, and then ran out of time later on in the holiday. This is another ride where music is pumped through the headrest as you go around, which we didn’t find that comfortable afterwards.

Hidden away in Marvel Super Hero Island is Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, which is basically a drop tower. There’s not a huge amount to distinguish between drop towers, with the exception of the Haunted Manor in Disney and the story around it, so from what I could tell, this is just a normal drop tower that takes you 150 feet to the top of a tower, giving you a nice view of the park, and then drops you back to the ground again. Sam and I chose not to go on it, as neither of us like that sensation of leaving your stomach behind, so we waited while the other three went on. They all seemed to really enjoy it, but did prefer the Haunted Manor. Worth doing if the queues not too long, but you’re probably not missing out on anything special if it is.

Flight of the Hippogriff is a much smaller roller coaster, primarily designed for children, so it isn’t very intense. We went on it in Hollywood rather than Florida, but the ride is the same. It’s quite a fun ride, so really worth doing if you have younger kids who want to do something in Hogsmeade but can’t go on any of the larger rides. The other coaster that’s in Hogsmeade is Dragon Challenge, although it also seems to be known as Duelling Dragons. There are two tracks to this coaster, which twist around each other. Riders on the red track are riding a Hungarian Horntail, and riders on the blue track are on a Chinese Fireball. The two tracks are actually different from each other, so you get a different experience depending on which you ride. I enjoyed this one more than any of the Universal roller coasters because it has my favourite method of restraint. It’s basically over the shoulder, but it’s one where the floor drops away so you’re hanging from your chair. I don’t know what it is about this method, but I always find it more comfortable and smoother than a traditional car. On this one, Ryan did go back on, and the rest of us would have been fine as well, except that it was at the end of the day and we didn’t want to push it to be the one that tipped us over the edge!

For Steve, the water rides were the real attraction to go back to Islands of Adventure. In the UK, mainly because it’s never really hot, water rides tend not to be that wet. If you’re heading towards a waterfall, it will stop as soon as you go near it. The splash at the end is usually away from the boat. There’s one drop and the rest is generally admiring the scenery. Not the case in Florida. It’s warm there, they’re doing you a favour by helping you cool down! The first water ride we went on was Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges, and we were completely unprepared. You’re loaded into a circular boat on a rotating platform that fits 12 people, and then let off into the river. The first surprise is that the waterfalls stay on as you go underneath them. The second is that they don’t mind putting a raft over quite a big drop. The third is that, as you think you’re coming to the end and you can’t possibly get any wetter, there are huge jets of water on either side of the river before you reach the conveyor belts to take you back to the beginning. The aim is to make sure that the belts load evenly. What actually happens is that, if they catch you at the wrong angle, the entire boat gets drenched through with a sustained, heavy jet of water. The kids absolutely loved it, and it was hilarious watching their faces when a huge wave of water crashed over the side of the boat and soaked them from the waist down- and they had that moment back at us as well. You will come off being soaked through down to your underwear, including your feet, so make sure there’s nothing that doesn’t like water in your pockets. There is a central console to put bags in, so you can keep stuff safe, just don’t go in thinking it’s going to be like the flume at Alton Towers.

The other water ride in Toon Lagoon is Dudley Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls, which is a log flume, essentially. By the time we went on it we knew we would be getting wet, so we were prepared. We’d seen the drop at the end and noticed that, not only does it drop 75 feet, but you then get the added bonus of water spraying into the boat from water jets on either side. The thing we loved about this one though was the length. We knew where the drop was but we hadn’t seen the rest of the track. So every time we thought we were going up or coming around a corner to get to the final drop, we weren’t. It just keeps on going, and it keeps going after the drop as well. We did experience a couple of technical issues on this one, our boat was paused once at the top of the drop, and then again towards the end. It wasn’t for long enough to cause concern though. The only drawback was that I hadn’t come across Dudley Do-Right or the other characters before, so it was quite difficult to follow the story line that was clearly playing out alongside the boat. It was still one that we wanted to go on again though.

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Islands also has Jurassic Park River Adventure, which is a very different water ride in that there is an element of threat in it! You sit in rows of 4 on the boat and begin a tour of Jurassic Park. It starts off nice and peaceful as you drift past herbivorous dinosaurs happily eating trees and randomly appearing out of the water, and then your boat takes a wrong turn and you end up in the carnivorous dinosaur enclosure with alarms going off. There are raptors pulling pieces of clothing apart that clearly used to have people on them, blood streaked walls, and a torn apart warehouse where a huge tyrannosaurus rex ends up lunging towards you through the roof. You get splashed a bit by the dinosaurs, but the biggest drop is away from the T-Rex, initially through the dark, and ending in a big splash in the sunlight after the 85 foot drop. We’ve been on this one a few times and in both the Hollywood and Florida parks, and you seem to get wet to a different extent each time. The first time we went on we came off fairly dry, the second we were soaked through, and in Florida it was wet, but not to the extent of the other two water rides. Due to the theming of the ride though, the splash isn’t the main attraction and it is well worth going on.

One of the new islands at the park is Skull Island: Reign of Kong, but the only thing in it is an attraction of the same name. We were interested to discover that the main part of the ride we had already experienced on the studio tour in Universal Studios Hollywood, but it had been built around. Like Jurassic Park, the premise is still that you are on a tour around the island, this time on a truck with multiple benches and open sides. They fit a lot of people onto one truck so it loads quite fast, but the action is all around so everyone can see. You have 3D glasses again for this one, but they don’t need to be put on straight away. You enter Kong Island and are confronted with very dramatic, and intimidating scenery, but you’re going to meet a couple of archaeologists so everything is ok to start with. The problem is that, while you’re talking to the archaeologists, they get attacked by giant bats and one of them is carried off. You go after her and find yourself in a swamp, where all sorts of nasty creatures are starting to wake up and attack, so you escape and instead find yourself in the middle of a jungle, surrounded by dinosaurs. Most of them ignore you until a T-Rex takes interest in the truck and starts coming towards you. Fortunately, at that point Kong appears and starts fighting the dinosaur off. A few more appear and there’s a battle raging around you, pulling the truck in at various points, until it all goes too far and the truck is pulled over the cliff with a falling King Kong. Your fall is broken by various branches and vines, until you reach the bottom of the valley and more creepy crawleys arrive. Luckily, you do manage to escape and make it back to safety and civilisation. There are warning signs all the way through the queue line that the ride is scary, so if you have younger children you do need to pay attention. The older two were ok, but Sam was scared as we went around. It is a good experience to go on, but just be aware that it may not be as enjoyable if your kids are crying all the way around!

The final attraction, Poseidon’s Fury, was a bit of a dark horse, in that we didn’t really know what we were going into, but it turned out to be really good. We were told it was a 20 minute walking tour- clearly the staff around the attraction are used to being asked- and we almost gave up waiting while we were in the queue, but it was definitely worth it. The story is that you are part of a group of tourists who are being taken on a tour of the lost temple of Poseidon, but as you’re waiting with a junior assistant to meet your actual guide, the room is sealed, goes dark, and there’s secret writing that appears shining on the walls. You journey deeper into the temple, as you can’t get out anyway, to try and give Poseidon back his missing trident, for which he will reward you with your freedom. You pass through mystical rooms with lasers casting magical effects, things burst into flame around you, walls move, at one point you pass through a tunnel made entirely of water (the kids were a bit nervous about that one), before the finale is played out in the final chamber, projected onto a water screen. It’s the perfect mix of lighthearted banter from the guide, with a bit of danger thrown in, all while knowing you’re in the safe hands of the attraction attendants. We were pleasantly surprised with how well the whole thing was done, and it remains a highlight of the park.

We stayed in the Lost Continent to watch the stunt show- the Eighth Voyage of Sindbad, and while we were waiting we came across the Mystic Fountain. You could very easily walk past without noticing there is anything special about it, but if you stay still near it long enough it starts talking to you. It’s not just casual conversation either, it’s really funny. You can tell it jokes and it doesn’t laugh if they’re not funny, it winds people up and teases them, and will try and work a way of splashing people into the conversation. Whoever is controlling the fountain and in charge of the voice is clearly very funny and witty, and Steve could have stayed there for a lot longer watching it. However, we moved on to watch the show, which is one of the better ones. At the beginning they fill the time by getting members of the audience to come and act through a very basic outline of the story. Sam and Steve managed to get themselves picked, Sam as Sindbad, and Steve as the comedic sidekick- a pretty good casting really. Sam was doing really well at waving his sword around and competing in the dance off, until he had to kiss the princess. Surprisingly enough, he had no idea what to do at that point and got away with a huge shrug and a handshake.

The actual show was slightly better acting though! The stunts were quite dramatic and very well rehearsed. Loads of fight scenes between all sorts of combinations of characters. They fell into things and off things, swung across things, jumped over each other, and generally behaved how you would expect swashbuckling adventurers to behave. I was happy to see that the princess could hold her own pretty well in a fight, and wasn’t just spending all her time waiting to be rescued. She seemed to have more brains than Sindbad to be honest! The show ended with big splashes and explosions, the villain was defeated, and the heroes sailed off into the sunset, perfect.

That pretty much concludes the main Universal theme parks, however there is one more park to mention. Volcano Bay opened, quite literally, in the week that we arrived. We gave it a few days to quieten down, and then used our extra opening hours on the second day of our hotel visit to get in ahead of the crowds. The park itself looks fantastic. The volcano is really impressive, and the pool in front was a lovely size for the time of day we were there! The paths around the park that weren’t covered in sand had water spraying on them to keep them cool, and everything, at a first glance, looked pristine. We had high hopes for the park but the further in we went and the more time we spent there, we realised it’s just not quite ready yet. I was concerned that the problem would be Tapu Tapu- the wristbands that you can use to log yourself into a ride queue then go and do something else until it’s your turn- wouldn’t work, however they weren’t the problem.

When we arrived we went as a family on Ika Moana, which allows up to four people in a raft, and is a fast slide that uses water to push you down. You have to walk up a lot of stairs to get there and Katy-Grace was getting nervous at the height, but she did enjoy the slide in the end. The extra height also allowed us to see the places where they were still planting the flowerbeds in the park! The same tower has Honu, which means whale, and was a slide the boys wanted to go on. The girls decided not to as it looked a little bit scary, as the raft you’re on slides up a huge wall! So the boys went up the tower to go on it while we waited, only for it to break down, and not reopen- bearing in mind the park had been open less than an hour.

So the younger two kids and I toddled off to explore the Kopiko Wai Winding River- a lazy river that goes all the way around the park. As usual there were rubber rings floating along it for you to jump on, but there were also inflatable chairs, which I haven’t seen on a lazy river before and were much more comfortable. We really enjoyed the river, there are waterfalls at various points around, and you even go under the volcano, so it was quite a nice way to spend half an hour. While we were floating, Steve and Ryan used their Tapu Tapu’s to go on the Ko’Okiri Body Plunge- a slide that drops you from standing, at a 70 degree fall through a trap door, down 125m through a slide, ending shooting out the bottom. The rest of us found the idea utterly terrifying, and we were confirmed when they came off it. They had both enjoyed it, but had been extremely nervous at the top, couldn’t breathe on the fall, and reinforced that we wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Having said that, they both would have gone back on again.

One ride we did want to go on was the Krakatau Aqua coaster, and we spent the first hour we were there going back to the entrance to the queue, because it never opened while we were in the park. Initially we were told to come back in 10 minutes, then half an hour, but they eventually admitted they didn’t think it was likely to be opening any time soon. I hope they manage to iron out the difficulties soon because it does look incredible. Four people to a raft, the coaster goes through the volcano and ends up coming out of a waterfall. Being a coaster not a slide means that your movement is more controlled and takes the fear I have out of water slides!

Fortunately we were able to go on Waturi beach and in the lagoon at the bottom of the volcano. The kids are happy just having a pool and would have stayed in there for ever, but we were getting frustrated at the amount of things not open and decided to call it a day. They were also filming some promotional material while we were there so half the beach and lagoon were off limits anyway. The lagoon is also a wave pool, which was pretty good, except that the waves seemed to dredge up pieces of broken black plastic from the back of the pool and bring them to the front, which was a bit worrying. All in all, Volcano Bay has the potential of being a really good water park, but while it’s still new, with so many issues to iron out, it’s not really worth going to. Unless the main rides and slides are open, there’s only so much you can do. There’s a really good play park for smaller kids, and the photo points that work with Tapu Tapu take really good quality photos, but you really need everything to be up and running to sustain interest for a longer period of time.

If you’ve managed to read all the way to the bottom then well done, I’m impressed! I hope you’ve found it interesting, and if you’re planning on visiting Universal yourself then I hope you’ve found it helpful, let me know in the comments. Next up I’ll be reviewing the Sea World/Busch Gardens parks, followed by Disney- but that one has a lot of parks so it may take me a while. In the meantime, feel free to check out the rest of my blog, I’ve already reviewed some of the general attractions in Florida over here, and enjoy your own holidays.

Kids, we’re going to Ireland, well….

After leaving the kids last year for three weeks to go on Honeymoon, we decided that it was only fair to make it up to them. So we planned a mega holiday, a tour around the UK. We were starting by driving to Gatwick airport and flying to Belfast, then flying back and having a few days in Scotland, some time in the Lake District and finishing in the south of England. For weeks leading up to the holiday we had a board up where the kids could make suggestions of things they wanted to do- so we had castles, walks, Tayto Land (not with much enthusiasm but it was the only theme park in range!); we had the zoo, the beach, and as much swimming as they could fit in. So on the first day of the holiday we packed up the car and drove to Brighton, where we wandered around and went on the pier before staying overnight at a friends house.

The next morning we got up early, caught an uber to the airport and prepared to check in. However, before we could check in, we had to sit down with the kids and explain to them that we wouldn’t actually be able to do any of the things on their list because we weren’t doing the UK tour, we were actually going to Florida for two weeks.

Having been worried that the eldest had already worked it out, we were pleased to find that none of them had any idea, and once we explained to the youngest that his idea of Florida being filled with old people and beach huts wasn’t entirely accurate, they were excited and raring to go.

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We did so much while we were away that I’m not going to attempt to cover everything in a single blog post- it would be too long to read and definitely too long to write. So instead, this post is going to talk about the general Florida stuff that we did and there will be three more posts- one on the Disney parks, one on the Universal parks, and one on the Seaworld/Busch Garden parks. I’ve got a busy few weeks coming up though so just bear with me as I start to put them together!

To start off though, I think it’s probably worth mentioning the V Room at Gatwick Airport. Due to a helpful refund elsewhere in the holiday, we decided it would be worthwhile to book into the V Room before we flew. I get very nervous about missing flights when I travel- or trains for that matter- and always like to be at the airport at least 2 hours before the plane is due to take off, I’m not quite that bad with trains though! The benefit of the V Room was that we could arrive at the airport nice and early and not have to worry about the kids getting bored, but also that you also had priority check in so the security queue was a lot shorter. The boys were kept occupied by the X-Box and various video games that were available, Katy-Grace spent the holiday engrossed in Harry Potter so she was happy reading in a corner, and there was plenty of food to keep us going. Sam was particularly excited by the pancake machine and endless hot chocolates! Annoyingly, I wasn’t able to make the most of it as I managed to pick up food poisoning the day before and spent most of the day feeling nauseous, and wasn’t able to keep anything down for a couple of days. I can tell you now that a 10 hour flight with food poisoning is no fun at all!

Other than my own stomach issues, the flight went well, the kids were kept happy the whole way by the in-flight entertainment system, and I’d packed enough snacks that they coped with not eating much of the plane food! When we arrived at Orlando airport everything was pretty smooth. There was the anticipated long line for security, but it was no worse than expected. The bags came out with no problems, getting around the massive airport was straightforward, and checking out a car was so much quicker than in LA last year. Getting used to driving on the other side of the road and finding our way out of Orlando was more complicated but we got there in the end!

Our holiday was booked with Virgin Holidays so we had a villa with them as well. We’d heard different reports on the quality of the villas as they are all owned by different rental agencies, so we weren’t sure what to expect. Apart from being a bit further from the parks than we would have liked, the place was perfect. The kids loved having their own pool, and we wouldn’t have survived without the fridge and the washing machine! Also, coming from a massive vicarage, it was definitely nice having two bathrooms, so the kids could be sent to a different one!

The first couple of days we were quite lazy- and I was still ill- so we stuck with take-aways that we knew, Burger King and Pizza Hut primarily. For the rest of the holiday we pretty much only ate a main meal at home once. Most of the time we would eat breakfast at home- pop tarts and Lucky Charms are always a good way for kids to start the day!- take snacks and sometimes sandwiches around for the day with us, and either eat out in the evening, or decide we weren’t that hungry and continue with the snacks. We had a couple of meals in the parks, which I’ll come to later, but also tried to go to some of the chains the kids were excited about that we don’t have at home. Chick-Fil-A was a definite favourite, Cici’s Pizza was good value but not quality, and we got very confused with Taco Bell!

As the kids are now at the perfect age to enjoy theme parks- 14, 11 and 9- we ended up only having 2 full days outside the parks. The first was a trip to Clearwater Beach, which was about an hour and a half drive from the villa. After a couple of issues trying to work out which side of the bay we needed to be on, we ended up parking in the Hyatt hotel, which was very central to the tourist area. The first thing we did was jump on a Little Toot dolphin watching trip out into the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve been on trips before and not seen anything, but we were confident on this one as they had such a good track record. Sure enough, after about half an hour we were joined by 4 or 5 dolphins swimming along the slipstream of the boat. They followed us for about 5 minutes, jumping in and out as we went along. I’ve seen dolphins on boat trips before, but that was definitely the closest to a boat that I’ve seen them.

When we got back we grabbed some lunch at Subway then headed to the beach. The kids were disappointed that the water wasn’t as clear as they expected from the name, but were at least relieved at how warm it was compared to the UK. We’d taken goggles with us so they had fun splashing around, swimming to the bottom to pick up shells (which the dog is now eating), and chasing each other around. The water was actually quite clear, but they didn’t factor in the sand getting moved around with the waves and the people! It also seemed to be a lot saltier than the sea at home, which was weird. We had a break to rehydrate as our lips looked like they were being sucked inside, then Steve and the kids headed back in while I stayed on the beach to read for a bit. That time round they saw some little fish in the water as well.

Eventually they got tired and we headed back. On the drive you go along a stretch of road with the water on both sides. After learning what to look out for on the boat trip, we did notice there were loads of dolphins in the water as we drove back, as well as large shoals of fish. You could also tell who were the locals as they were parked along the sand bar with huge coolers, splashing dogs and fishing rods!

Our second day out was one that I had been looking forward to ever since I found out it was a possibility. About an hour drive was an attraction called Wild Florida. The main selling point is that they do airboat rides through the swamp, however these weren’t running as the weather was so awful. Despite the fact Florida had been in a dry spell before we arrived, it made up for it by raining every day we were there, to the extent that water parks and rides were closed as it was so heavy and for so long. Fortunately, we weren’t there to do an airboat ride. Wild Florida have a large selection of animals, primarily alligators which are rescue alligators that have become too used to humans and therefore dangerous. But we weren’t there to see them either, even though you could feed them and hold them. They also had a walk in aviary with a number of birds who have become tame enough to be fed by hand.

The main attraction was that Wild Florida have a selection of sloths, and more importantly, a sloth encounter experience. Sloths are my absolute favourite animals, weirdly they make me think of my best friend Amy, as when we’re together we follow a similar routine of napping and moving around slowly! The sloth we met was called Guy, and when we arrived he was looking very damp and sitting inside a pot. He was slowly coaxed out with a piece of corn, and made his careful way across a sloth climbing frame to hang contentedly chewing his corn. While he was eating he wasn’t at all fussed about what was going on, giving us an opportunity to come and stroke him, give him a hug, or take a slothie. We were in a fairly small group with two other families so there was plenty of time for all us to have some contact. We were just warned to move away when he dropped his corn in case he tried to eat us instead! Meeting Guy was definitely one of the highlights of our holiday.

As I said, those were the only full days we had outside the parks, but we did grab a few hours here and there. We spent a bit of time shopping- which none of us particularly enjoy, but there were a few things we wanted to take home. We stocked up on Disney gifts in a couple of the numerous gift shops outside the park; Katy-Grace was very excited to be able to go to Justice- a girls clothes shop we don’t have in the UK; I wanted to buy some Converse to replace my falling apart shoes, which are a fraction of the price as at home, and Ryan found a couple of pairs that made him look very grown up!; and the younger two kids were excited to go to a massive Nike store. We also spent a few hours driving around Kissimmee in the (very heavy) rain, to find a phone charger for Ryan, and the next Harry Potter instalment for Katy-Grace. It was definitely reassuring to see the Americans don’t cope with rain any better than we do!

After the pace of going around the theme parks we had a couple of mornings staying at home with the kids in the pool- for a small pool they were able to spend hours amusing themselves in it- or watching rubbish American TV like Fear Factor, Jerry Springer, and America’s Got Talent. On one of our last mornings we decided we’d have breakfast out and went to find an IHOP (International House of Pancakes), however, for the first time in 2 weeks we couldn’t see one anywhere so we went to Waffle House instead, which was definitely a good substitute and the kids were stuffed!

The rest of the time was spent in the various theme parks around Orlando, but to find out which ones we enjoyed the most, you’ll have to wait for the next instalment!

Introducing a whirlwind

After a busy few months I’ve realised that I haven’t blogged in a while. Part of the reason is that settling into married life and a new job takes a bit of getting used to. But everything is going well, things are starting to fall into place and now that we have a more established routine- although it does change a bit every term with the kids after school clubs!- life is starting to get a bit more manageable, and even enjoyable! It’s still been a massive shock with the amount of changes over the last few months, but life is starting to make sense a bit more now!

But there has been another change in the household over the last few months that has taken up a huge amount of energy. Since I was a child I’ve been wanting to get a dog, and Steve has wanted one for years too but never been in a position to look after one properly. So in December when a breeder we follow posted some pictures of their latest litter, we knew we’d found the puppy we had been waiting for. At the start of December we drove up to Housty Kennels in Felindre, about half an hour outside Swansea, and picked up an 8 week old Springer spaniel puppy, who we called Luna. 

She was so small when we first got her you could hold her in 2 hands. For the first few nights we let her sleep on the bed while she got used to us, but after a few sleepless nights we introduced her to a crate in the kitchen, which she slept in very happily pretty quickly. 

We weren’t prepared for just how manic a spaniel was going to be. She would have a mad couple of hours tearing around the house and then sleep for hours afterwards. She always had a particular love of socks- which is unfortunate as Steve always leaves them lying around. She’s only managed to completely destroy a couple of pairs so far, but that’s not through lack of trying! 

Her first Christmas was particularly fun. We were worried she might attack the tree but she’s pretty smart so that wasn’t really an issue. She wasn’t even that interested in Christmas presents,  even the ones that were for her (mainly from my mother), she needed extra persuasion to go for. She loves people though so she was in her element having a house full when family came to visit.

Her absolute favourite thing to do though is go for a walk. She’s from a pedigree line of gun dogs so she loves being outdoors. She could play fetch for hours and will throw herself through anything to catch a ball. It took throwing herself through rock pools for her to realise she doesn’t like sea water in winter as she just gets too cold!

As smart as she is though, she still hasn’t learnt that there’s some things she can’t go through without getting stuck!

For a few months with Luna everything was going well. As far as we could tell, Luna was a normal excitable, athletic puppy. She was a bit on the skinny side but she had been small compared to her siblings, and was so active, we thought it was normal for her breed.

But then at the end of February, when she was about 5 months old, she started acting strangely. To start off with she was just sleeping a bit more than normal, but as the week went on she started to get more and more lethargic. She wasn’t interested in chasing the cats or attacking the curtains, and when I took her for a walk she didn’t go on her normal routine of sniffing everything in sight.

Soon we could see that there was something very wrong. Her head was swaying when she was sitting down and she wasn’t responding to us as normal. So we took her into or local vet who weighed her and poked her a bit, and told us she was malnourished and we needed to be feeding her more. We knew she was small but as she’d been in to be weighed every few weeks, we thought the vets would have already told us if she was underweight in a more worrying way. 

So we took her home and increased her meals. By bedtime she still wasn’t herself so we decided to take her up with us to keep an eye on her, but she just couldn’t settle. She wandered all over the room, over our faces, just not sitting down at all. Eventually Steve moved to sleep on the floor with her and I moved into the spare room so at least one of us would get a good night’s sleep. The next thing I knew, Steve was waking me up at 7am after having taken Luna to the emergency vets at about 3am. She’d got worse during the night, to the extent of not having the ability to walk. The vets had sent off blood tests and Steve needed me to take the kids to school while he went back to transfer her to our normal vet.

The tests all came back saying that everything was normal, but in the meantime Luna was still getting worse. Around mid morning our vets called to tell us they were transferring Luna to a specialist vets in Bristol where there was a neurologist they thought might be able to help. We dropped everything and drove her to Bristol where the vets spent a good hour examining her. By this point she was barely moving in the car. For the first hour she just lay still on my lap. After a while she started moving around but she clearly couldn’t see what she was doing. She tried to move in the direction of our voices and so was aiming for as close to our faces as possible. She ended up wrapped around my shoulders, chewing on the seat belt- which still has little tooth marks.

The neurologist did a lot of physical tests on Luna- pressing her legs against the table to check her depth perception, which was non existent, seeing if she would respond to our voices, watching her walking to check her balance, which didn’t work out too well for her either. She still kept her usual level of annoying by peeing on Steve, but just before we left she started frothing at the mouth and having a fit so was rushed off to be admitted. 

We left the hospital an hour later convinced she would be given the best care, but not that we would be able to bring her home again. The vets gave us probably a 5% chance that she would make it. Over the next week the vets ran a whole load more tests which started to narrow down what the problem was. Over the weekend we were hanging on the phone,  as the vets checked in a couple of times a day, but the following week I was away on a course so it was a bit more difficult to keep up-to-date with what was going on. 

It didn’t take long to work out that the problem wasn’t neurological, but related to her liver, so she was transferred to a liver specialist at the hospital. They worked with all sorts of theories, that she had eaten something with a toxin that had affected her, that her liver had been injured in some way, that she had been born with some sort of problem. As they gradually worked out what was going on they were able to work out how to treat it and Luna began to look a lot better. After a few days they worked out that the blood vessels that should be going through the liver to filter toxins out of the blood, were actually going around the outside, so that everything she ate- including her normal dog food- was poisoning her. Even now they haven’t worked out what caused the vessels to do that, but there’s only 1 dog on record having been born with multiple vessels bypassing the liver.

They started her on a cocktail of medications including anti-fit medication, stuff to work on toxins, and stuff to speed up digestion so that less bad stuff could even be passed into the bloodstream. She responded so well to the medication that by the middle of the week she was able to come home while they waited for results of a liver biopsy to work out if there was a problem with the liver itself. A couple of weeks the tests came back still not able to pick up a problem. That gave her a better prognosis but she’s still not out the woods yet.

Luna’s been home for just over a month now and the liver condition is managed with medication and a special diet. She’s fed 4 times a day now, one set of pills twice a day, and a set of pills and 4ml of lactulose three times a day. The amount of everything she gets is under constant review as she grows, and we just don’t know how long it will do the trick. We could have her for a few months or a few years, the prognosis is good as they haven’t found a problem with her liver (yet), but at some point the medication will just stop working.

The good news is that the Luna we have back now is exactly as she should be. The excitable puppy we had before was only functioning at about 60% capacity, we now have a 100% crazy spaniel.

She still loves being outside but now she runs twice as far and as fast as she did before. She springs like a proper spaniel and can launch herself in the air. She’s incredibly smart and won’t leave you when you let her off the lead. The only negative change in her behaviour we’ve had is that she is now a lot more aggressive about food.She wasn’t massively interested before but now she will take any food that’s left unattended, and she particularly likes apples, banana peels and Satsuma skins. She’s also a bit obsessed with chewing gum- post chewed- which is weird. 

It wouldn’t be too much of a problem because we keep a pretty close eye on her, except that once she’s got hold of something she gets quite protective and will go on the offensive if you try and take it off her. Steve and I have the bite marks to prove it.

Fortunately the rest of the time she’s her old lovely self. Getting taller and longer at last and starting to fill out. The kids are thrilled to have her back and she’s definitely a huge part of the family. It feels so natural having her with us, and we can’t really remember life before her. I don’t want to became one of those people who only ever talks about their dog though, so this post should get it out of my system and you’ll only get little updates from now on!

Welcome to the City of Angels

I promised you the third instalment of our honeymoon adventure a few weeks ago, and I would apologise for the delay, however, I suspect that with Christmas and New Year in the middle, no-one will have been waiting with baited breath! While we were away I kept forgetting that we had a third week, and I loved Mexico so much that I wasn’t really as excited to get to it. I think my husband was probably more excited, as he’d done a lot of planning for this section of the trip, and it was somewhere he had always wanted to go. Part of the reason we decided to add it on though was because we worked out it would be cheaper to go and stay a few days then fly directly back to the UK from Mexico. That logic potentially disappeared when we’d done a few things there though. In case you were wondering, our final honeymoon destination was Los Angeles!

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To be honest though, the trip didn’t get off to the best start. We got through customs and immigration pretty quickly, which was something I was worried about, not having a US passport; however, after a powercut at LAX we were waiting for over an hour for our bags to come off the plane. The knock on effect of that was that we were then late for the shuttle bus to take us to our car hire, so with no way to contact them we waited outside the airport for another hour or so until another shuttle bus happened to go past. By the time we got to the car depot we were so late that they had cancelled our booking, so we had to go through the whole process again.

Eventually we got our car, which was fairly nice and a lot bigger than its UK equivalent. However, being in the US, it was an automatic so it took a little while to pick up how to drive it. Combine that with the useless scale of the map to get us from the car hire to our hotel, and tempers were fraying pretty quickly. After driving around for about an hour, when the journey should have taken about 2o minutes, we eventually realised we had no idea where we were, and after Steve had flipped out and told me to get out the car, we decided it might be sensible to ask for directions. So we pulled over at a gas station and managed to work out where we were and where we needed to be. Fortunately we did make it to the hotel, but the romantic extra evening in LA that we’d hoped for was out the window, and we went straight to bed.

The following day we were in a much better position to appreciate our hotel. We were staying in the Elan Hotel, which is at the crossroads of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, near Cedar Sinai hospital, so a pretty good location and really handy for us. The hotel had valet parking so parking the hire car wasn’t a problem. After getting there late we didn’t really take a look at the room until the next morning, but it was quite large and comfortable, with a really useful tablet in the room which we could use to find out what was close, contact the hotel, or even order take-out to the room! There was plenty of storage space for our three weeks worth of luggage, really comfy bed, and the benefit of a huge TV to enjoy all the American TV that is surprisingly more than we get in the UK!

My favourite thing about the hotel was the breakfast. It was generally pretty quiet when we got there, so there was plenty of room. Everything was self service, and there was a mix of cold meat and cheese, bread rolls, fruit, cereal, pastries, eggs, and- my favourite- a waffle machine. We tried to fill up on breakfast as much as possible, to keep us going for the rest of the day when we were around LA. On the one day that we were around at the right time, we also discovered a daily cheese and wine reception, which would have been nice if we were staying longer and wanting to get to know people. They didn’t have the pool and gyms that a lot of the tourist hotels in LA have, but as a base for exploring it was perfect, and a lovely hotel to come back to at the end of the day.

On our first day we wanted to take it fairly easy and have a relatively slow day, so we booked to go whale watching from Newport Beach. We had breakfast at the hotel then drove down to have a look around and grab some pizza before getting on the boat. The boat left from Balboa Pier so we had a look round some of the tourist shops to pick up some souvenirs for the kids before the boat left. We could see it was a popular tour so staked a place in the queue fairly early on. It was just as well we did because it did get really busy and we were able to grab a place on the top deck right by the side of the boat. It was really interesting going through the harbour and seeing all the different houses and people paddle boarding across. Unfortunately we didn’t find any whales, but we did see some dolphins and a load of sea lions sun bathing. It’s always impossible to guarantee seeing whales, but we were a bit disappointed although we did enjoy the tour. We were given a voucher to come back, but decided not to as we weren’t really in LA for long enough.

After a quick drink we decided to take the scenic route back to the hotel to see some more of LA, so we drove back up the Pacific Coast Highway, which runs along the coast (funnily enough), and stopped off at Seal Beach on the way up. I was hoping to see some actual seals on the beach, but not only were there no seals there, there’s a good chance it was named after Navy Seals, as there is a training camp not far away. We had a wander up the pier and contented ourselves watched pelicans and kite surfers, before carrying on back up the highway. We ended up on Santa Monica Blvd as the sun was setting- getting excited before realising that the song actually talks about the sun rising on Santa Monica Blvd- oops. By the time we got back it was quite late so we got a Fat Burger take out- we were very excited about the variety of take aways the US offers, but we were disappointed with Fat Burger. Not helped that Steve walked a couple of blocks at night with no shoes on to get it- don’t ask me why, I have no idea!

The next day was our proper sight seeing day as we set out on a tour on the Rastabus! We decided that as LA is so big (not just Hollywood and the beach as Steve thought), that it would be useful to get someone who knew what they were doing to show us around. We met the bus at Santa Monica beach. It had the potential for being quite chaotic as there were about 11 different tours leaving at the same time, and everyone was assigned to a different bus, but it actually worked really well.

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Our first stop was Venice beach, the home of Muscle beach- where Arnold Schwarzenegger is famous for working out; a lot of artistic graffiti on the buildings; and some of the first skate parks. Apparently the local kids were into surfing, but were limited by the tides and weather, so when the opportunity came for skateboarding, which didn’t have those limitations, they were already really good, and became some of the first skateboarding champions. Makes sense when you think about it.

Next up was Rodeo Drive, the row of shops made famous in Pretty Woman as she is turned away for not looking rich enough. The reality is that they are pretty high end shops. We were told that in House of Bijan you have to pay a deposit of $1500 to enter, and if you don’t buy anything they keep the deposit, however the average spend inside is $100,000. That became more believable when we saw a custom made yellow Rolls Royce parked outside. You can also find Badgely Mischka, the boutique Julia Roberts is asked to leave in the film. At the top of that road is the Beverly Hills sign, in case, like us, your LA geography is getting confused! Keeping on the Pretty Woman theme, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel is also a short walk away. Definitely a bit of a Pretty Woman stop here! Needless to say, we didn’t buy anything, just enjoyed ogling at the prices in the shop windows.

By this point we were getting quite hungry, fortunately there was water on the bus though! Our next stop was the Farmers Market at the Grove. If you’re into food, this is a great place to go. A mixture of food to eat now, and food to take away with you, as we did with some yummy chocolatey things! One of the things that attracts me to the US is the different food you get in different regions, and I particularly love flavours from the deep South. So when we came across The Gumbo Pot that was definitely where we would be having lunch. We had beautiful gumbo and jambalaya, in huge portions, with cornbread and sweet potato chips, but they also offered more exciting things like alligator tail and catfish. Maybe next time!

Following that was a trip up the hillside to Griffith Park Observatory, which also happens to be one of the best places to see the Hollywood sign. I’d love to go back and do some hiking up there, it looked like there was a lot more to see than we had time for just being bussed to the top. We had a great view of the city from up there though, and the observatory would also have been worth more time. It was really busy so there wasn’t much room to move around.

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It was definitely worth going to the top of the observatory though, the view was incredible and really showed you just how big LA is, as it’s impossible to imagine just driving around. The geek in me was also quite excited to find a room named after Leonard Nimoy, as well as the Cafe at the End of the Universe.  There was also a pretty cool exhibition up on space that would have been worth another look, but unfortunately we didn’t have time because we needed to get back to the bus.

Our final stop was at one of the most well known of LAs attractions, the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I’d never really appreciated just how long it is. It’s not just a couple of stars on the sidewalk, it’s a couple of miles long, on both sides of the road! Ryan had asked us to find Vince McMahon, and we were shocked that we did actually manage to! We also stumbled across Donald Trump, who was easy to find as the only star that had been heavily vandalised. The other attraction is the Dolby Theatre along the same road, with the handprints and signatures in the cement outside. My favourite was definitely the cast of Star Wars, although there were a few legends there as well. There were also some pretty interesting buildings: the church of Scientology, Disney theatre, Jimmy Kimmel Studio and Egyptian theatre among them.

That was the end of the tour, but not the end of the day. We split off from the tour after the final stop to make sure we got back in time to go to a rooftop cinema screening of Pretty Woman put on by TimeOut Magazine- can you tell we’re fans? After a quick change we got there super early to get good seats, and make the most of the burgers and cocktails that were on sale. You accessed the roof by climbing up the fire escape, which was exciting in itself, but then it looked very professional, with comfy deckchairs, decent headphones and warm blankets. When it was dark enough the film was projected in front of us, and was so much better watching it a stones throw away from where it was set.

Our third day in LA was probably the one I had been most looking forward to because we were going to Universal Studios! I’m not a rollercoaster fanatic (like Ryan), but the excitement of Universal is that they have the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as one of their lands. That means that Hogwarts is there, as well as the Three Broomsticks, Hagrids Hut, Diagon Alley, and Butterbeer! It was brilliant! They had a couple of Harry Potter themed rides in there- The Flight of the Hippogriff, which is a small roller coaster around Hagrids garden, and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is a mixture between a roller coaster and a simulator. You’re given headsets and put onto a carriage that does move a faster and further than a normal simulator. The headsets actually worked really well in making it 3D and taking you through the Harry Potter world- from the Forbidden Forest, through Hogwarts, even playing Quidditch. Definitely a ride worth going on.

Even doing everything we wanted to do in Harry Potter we still had plenty of time to enjoy the rest of the park. We went on all the big rides, and did the studio tour- twice in the end, once in the day and then again at night. The benefit of Universal is that the theming is all really good. There weren’t that many thrilling roller coasters compared to other parks, the adrenaline comes from what’s going on around you. I’d been to Universal in Florida before and could still remember The Mummy ride, which didn’t seem to have changed much since last time, but was still really good. We went on the Jurassic Park boat ride twice as well, staying fairly dry the first time but getting absolutely soaked the second. We went and explored The Simpson’s Krustyland and Despicable Me, whose main attractions were simulator rides. They were very good, but you do get bored of them a lot sooner than roller coasters. We also went and saw the Waterworld show, and Steve went on the Walking Dead walk through- on his own, I’m definitely not brave enough for that! We had an amazing day though and came back tired and very happy.

On our final day we decided we hadn’t had enough of films yet, so headed off to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, which just happened to be just around the road from our hotel which was handy. It was fascinating to see how realistic the sets looked, what the inside shell of the sets looks like, and how they could be reused for different films without anyone noticing. The school that was Rydell High in Grease is now in Pretty Little Liars. We saw where the Gilmore Girls was filmed and how they used potato to make snow. We stood on the staircase where Rachel walked down to meet Ross for their prom date on Friends. They also had a bit of a museum with props from their biggest films on display. There was a lot from their latest films- Batman and Suicide Squad, but also a lot hanging around from Harry Potter, as it’s always so popular. They even had a Sorting Hat that actually sorts you into houses. I’ve always put myself in Hufflepuff as that’s what I was in the film, but this time I was sorted into Gryffindor while Steve was put into Slytherin. Good day. We also managed to find our way into Central Perk from Friends, as well as the West Wing, and saw the special effects to go into making Dobby and broomsticks from Harry Potter, and the difference in size between Gandalf and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.

Sadly, after all our adventures it was time to go home. 6 months on it already feels like a lifetime ago, but looking back it’s remarkable how much we packed into 3 weeks. Now we’re working out how to muddle through real life now we’re married, and I’m enjoying writing these blogs as a way of looking back. We’re busy planning our next trip, this time with the children as well, and getting on with life, with the added addition of a new puppy, who I’m sure will be featuring in future posts.

One final excitement from our trip that’s worth mentioning is the amazing Forrest Gump restaurant at one of the airports (I’ve lost track now of which one), where they served the most amazing shrimp (apart from at Cenote Azul in Mexico). I hope this blog has helped to pick you up after Christmas and encourage you to start looking forward to the summer, or your next adventure, or helped you to remember your last one. Happy travelling!

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Welcome to the Jungle

Last month I wrote a post about the first week of my honeymoon, which was to the beautiful island of the Dominican Republic, and promised more to come. Our honeymoon was three weeks long so this is the second instalment of the trilogy. The first week was wonderful, relaxing by the pool, mixed with a few excursions to various beaches around the island, plus some rum drinking and cigar smoking. The second week was very different.When we were planning the holiday the idea was for the first week to be relaxing to recuperate from the run up to the wedding, and then to take it up a gear so that we wouldn’t get bored. That sort of worked, except that our first destination was more tourist focused, so there were more things to do; whereas the second was in the middle of nowhere.

I’m making it sound so far like we had a boring week. We really didn’t. After leaving the Dominican Republic (very early in the morning, I might add), we flew to Atlanta, and then on to Cancun in Mexico. At a first glance that is a tourist destination. There were a similar number of resorts to Punta Cana, miles of beaches, lots of attractions; except that we didn’t actually stay in Cancun. We drove for 5 hours- about 250 miles south, to the Quintana Roo district of Mexico, just north of the border with Belize. By the time we arrived in Mexico it was night time, so the picturesque drive that we had imagined, along the coast with views of the sea, wasn’t quite what happened. Between us and the sea was a lot of jungle, so we couldn’t see it anyway, and even without the jungle, it was pretty dark. We had the added pressure of knowing that at some point we would need to get fuel, but without many pesos and not knowing which gas stations took credit card; plus the fact that we were getting increasingly hungry; and the ever present fear of being stopped by the police. We had heard so many horror stories of foreigners being pulled over for minor infractions and forced to pay extortionate fines or be sent to jail, that we were fairly nervous. We spent the whole journey not going a single km/h over the speed limit, and getting increasingly anxious with each road block we approached, which were everywhere. Fortunately we were only actually stopped about 3 times, and each time, once the officer was satisfied we had driving licenses and passports, we knew where we were going, and hadn’t stolen the car, we were free to carry on. Phew.

Eventually we arrived at our hotel, the fantastic Explorean Kohunlich.  When we arrived in the middle of the night we were pleased to find we could go straight to our room and sort out all the paperwork in the morning. The accommodation was just what we wanted. A private thatched bungalow to ourselves, with a plunge pool, hammock and day bed outside. Proper shutters kept the sun out fantastically well to allow for a lie in, and although getting to the restaurant could be a bit of a quest with the number of jumping and flying insects, none of them got into the room. Every morning when we came out there would be a basket with coffee and some sort of cake, and biscuits were dropped around in the evening. You just had to make sure the resident fox didn’t make off with them first. We spent a lot of time around the room reading and sleeping, and felt completely at home. The only problem we had was that when it rained, and it was impressive when it did, the drains couldn’t quite cope and the shower and toilet would back up a bit. Never a problem with hygiene or anything, just a bit inconvenient!

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The restaurant and pool were both up at reception. Although you could order whatever you wanted at the restaurant, we wanted to try and eat local food as much as possible, in which case you were given two choices each day, quite often one meat and one fish. Even with my fairly fussy husband, we really did enjoy every meal. That may have been because quite often we didn’t know what we were getting, as we didn’t speak Spanish and the staff didn’t speak much English, so there wasn’t an opportunity beforehand to decide we didn’t like it! There were quite a few families there, so you would often see kids with burgers and chips, but most guests are Mexican, and were entirely used to the food that was new and exciting to us. The pool was a lot smaller than our last hotel, but it was mainly used for cooling down when it got too hot during the day. In the second half of the week there were often quite a few kids in it, so we normally left them to it and went to have a nap! There was also a jacuzzi next to the pool thought that was largely empty, so it wouldn’t have been a problem if we had have wanted to go in.

Probably the best thing about the hotel though was the daily excursions. At the beginning of the week you were given a programme of what was on, and there were multiple programmes rolling at the same time for different guests. You would get a phone call about 10 minutes before they were about to leave in the morning to check if you wanted to go out. The first day we were running to catch up after not realising our clocks weren’t quite on the right time difference! The staff who led the trips were extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and they really made the holiday for us. We took a couple of trips out by ourselves, as we had hired a car to get down from Cancun, but we would never have had the opportunity to do all that the hotel arranged.

There were only a couple of excursions that we ended up doing on our own. The first was to the Mayan ruins in Dzibanche, and that was only because we had missed the hotel trip due to timing issues. When we arrived we started wandering around on our own, and after a short walk came to an impressive temple. I’ve seen pictures of these places before but never really appreciated how tall they actually are. When you climb to the top you can see for miles over the jungle.

When we came back down we were pretty happy, thinking we’d seen everything, when we came across a member of staff, who pointed out a monkey with her baby swinging about in the trees above us. We were excited, as it was the first wild monkey we’d seen. But then he asked if we’d like him to show us the rest of the site. We didn’t realise there was a rest of the site, so took him up on his offer. Again, he didn’t speak much English, we don’t speak much Spanish, but gradually we managed to understand each other. We were so glad we went with him. It turned out the place was huge, he took us under ropes, climbing up parts of the building we wouldn’t have been allowed to on our own, and explaining what we were looking at. He should us parts of the temples where the original red colour had been recently restored; he explained the size of the sleeping areas for the priests; which parts of the site were used for human sacrifice, and how much of an honour that was; and even pointed out a gigantic spider, which I would have rather not seen. Dzibanche turned out to be a really impressive and interesting site.

The first hotel excursion we went on was in two parts, to the town of Bacalar, and to Cenote Azul. We drove to a hill fort in Bacalar, which was unfortunately closed as it was on a Sunday, but had some wonderful views of Bacalar Laguna. We had a bit of a wander around the town, and met up with the rest of the group in a bandstand in the local park to hear a bit about the history of the town. Bacalar was a Mayan city before Columbus but was one of the first to be taken by the Spanish Conquistadors. However the fortress was built to defend themselves against the pirates, so there were cannons aiming over the lagoon to keep them out. While we were listening to all of this in the bandstand, there was an optician setting up shop and performing eye tests across from us, which was quite unusual. He had his eye chart set up on the wall and everything. Watching him kept me distracted while I was waiting for the English translation!

Later on in the week we went back to the lagoon to actually get out onto the lake. We were taken canoeing and through the marshes to experience the quiet that comes with being remote. Fortunately the biggest wildlife in that particular lagoon is tiny fish, so I didn’t need to worry about anything. The problem was the mud/sand that you had to walk in to get through. It was quite deep so you sunk a bit with each step, but very powdery so it felt slimy, and had a high sulphur content and smelt disgusting. When we returned to the proper lagoon we were told the sand had an exfoliating quality, so happily sat and rubbed it all over ourselves- looking a bit like monsters, then waited patiently, laughing at each other for ten minutes until we could wash it off, and then my skin did actually feel surprisingly soft. Mexico may be too far to go for exfoliation though!

We canoed back to the shore where a fantastic meal was waiting for us, having been brought by the hotel, where we started talking to another family who turned out to be Mexican, from the Chihuahua region. It was fascinating to see their perspective on Britain- it turned out to be mainly based around Top Gear and Brexit! After lunch there was an opportunity to go sailing around the lake- fortunately on a small boat manned by the tour guide with 4 people per boat. Those not out on the lake made the most of the small jetty and dived bombed off it into the water. The level dropped off sharply so it was deep enough to not need to worry, but did get very competitive with scoring each jump!

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However, on the same day that we went to Bacalar, we also had a trip to the Cenote Azul, which was one of the things we were looking forward to. Cenotes are pools fed by the underground rivers that run throughout Mexico. They tend to be very deep, and completely clear. There’s very little marine life in them, and certainly nothing dangerous. This particular one was over 90 metres deep. I’m a very confident swimmer normally, but knowing how deep it was did freak me out a little bit, so I eventually gave in and put on a life vest for some extra peace of mind. We tended to stay to the side of the Cenote, mainly because it was more interesting, but there was a rope going all the way across so plenty of people were spread along it. The water was fairly warm when you first got in, and there were hundreds of tiny tropical fish swimming close to the surface. Swimming around the outside, there were lots of trees growing along the banks with their roots in the water. I found it quite eerie swimming through them and seeing the ghostly shapes close to the surface, but then disappearing as they went down and the light to see through the water disappeared. There were some slightly bigger fish swimming between the roots but nothing hugely exciting. We had a go pro camera with us, which I was incredibly nervous about holding, knowing that if we dropped it we would never get it back.

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After swimming we came out and went to the restaurant on the side of the lake to get some food before the bus was ready to go back to the hotel. We needed a bit of help to translate the menu, and fortunately there were some willing volunteers. Even if we could have spoken Spanish, there were so many local specialities it wouldn’t have completely covered everything. The restaurant itself looked like it had seen better days, and certainly fit into the Mexican cantina feel. Everyone coming to the Cenote used the toilets so they weren’t in the best condition, but better than nothing. It took a little while to get anyone’s attention to be able to order, but it was certainly worth it when we did. I had coconut shrimp, which is one of the few specific meals I can actually remember, because it was the best shrimp I’ve ever had. Huge pieces coated in a coconut batter. Absolutely delicious.

We had another lake based excursion later on in the week, this one to a smaller lake called Jelelche, and at night. This was probably the most adrenaline filled excursion of the trip, not because of the canoeing, but because of the journey. We set out in minibuses with one pulling a trailer of canoes. The first part of the journey was along the main road so everything was fine. But to get to the lake we had to drive down a track through the jungle, that got narrower and narrower, and muddier and muddier. We were slipping and sliding all the way down, at one point getting the van stuck in a particularly muddy hole, but eventually made it to the lakeside. As it was getting dark we paired up into canoes and set off across the lake.

The reason for going at night was that the lake contained crocodiles, and we were more likely to see them in the dark. We did see some, although not very close up, so the most we saw was flashing eyes. We were more startled by the tiny fish that jumped into the canoes as we paddled through them. At one point we came to an open stretch surrounded by reeds, and were told to stop paddling and turn our torches off. In the quiet we could hear the crickets, frogs, and bigger creatures moving around in the darkness. Sitting there we could also appreciate how bright the stars looked compared to back home.

When we made our way back to the lake shore we could see torches had been lit, and we were welcomed back to another feast in the dark. We were joined by a local dog and a couple of kittens, which kept us entertained until food was served, and then had a chance to use a toilet shed before trying to make the journey back. In the time we had stopped it had still been raining, so I wasn’t convinced the minibuses would make it back to the main road. There was a lot of speeding up approaching corners to get us through holes and over slopes, and a couple of times we had to get out and push, but after a particularly stressful journey we made it back.

One of our more active excursions was a trip to a ruined Franciscan monastery in the jungle called Chichen Ha. The bus took us most of the way, then we cycled the last few kilometres along a path. I hadn’t cycled for a long time so wasn’t very confident initially, but soon got the hang of it and although I haven’t yet remastered hills- going up or down- I got there in the end! The monastery is in complete disrepair now, but in its day it had been a place of sanctuary for both Spanish and Mayans. We were shocked to find that there were quite a few human bones littered around the site. We were told that this was because if someone came across a body in the jungle, regardless of race, they would be brought to the monastery as a safe place for a decent burial. It was strange to see them in little crevices in the walls, and caught between the roots of trees that had grown out of tombs.

We spent a bit of time wandering around the monastery, and then we headed off for a tour of the jungle. We compared the difference between Mayan and Spanish wells- Spanish being built above ground with complex methods of catching rainwater, and Mayan being deep holes that tap into the underground rivers; saw some bats that were roosting in a well; saw the ceiba tree that is so tall it was considered sacred as it reaches up to heaven; and learned about ficus trees, which grow up around other trees and use their resources to survive. We’d been told there were jaguars and pumas in the jungle, as well as other less predatory animals, such as jungle chickens, but apart from finding a suspiciously long feather, we didn’t come across them- which I was disappointed about!

The final excursion we went on was right on our doorstep, and by accident as we were planning to go on our own but happened to leave at the same time as the hotel guides, so went with them instead. The ruins at Kohunlich are some of the most impressive that we saw on our visit to Mexico. We’ve been to other ruins and been surprised by just how large these Mayan communities were, but this one really brought that home to us. Standing on the ledge looking out from the kings palace you could see the market place below, the different temples, living spaces, and could really imagine the civilization that lived there. We also found out a lot about Mexico as we went through. We noticed a particularly large niche in the wall, and found out that was a priest hole. The priest would go and barricade himself in when he needed some time for reflection or to communicate with the gods. We learned about Mayan football that is played by hitting a heavy ball with your shoulder or hip to get it through a hoop that is more like a quidditch hoop than a basketball hoop. At night it would be played with flaming balls in a manner more similar to hockey. Interestingly, the winner would be given the honour of being sacrificed to the gods.

We explored all around the site- going up to the kings palace as well as down to the common traders marketplace. We went up to the top of the sun gods temple and looked out over the jungle. We discovered an incredible plant that curls up when you stroke it to protect itself from predators. We found a little group of bats flittering around in a small room.

One of the highlights of the day though, was that when we were leaving we heard some rustling in the trees above us, looked up, and saw a monkey. As we were watching the monkey, he was joined by a few more monkeys, until eventually there was a whole family in the trees above us, eating their tea.

In between all the Mayan ruins and canoeing, we spent a lot of time reading and sleeping. Even though there was so much to do around us, we didn’t want to make ourselves too tired before going back to real life. However there was one more thing we did before moving on. On our final day we got up very early so that we could spend our last 24 hours at XCaret Eco Theme Park on the way up to Cancun. We had read reviews before we came and decided it was something we really wanted to do while in Mexico, and it really was worth it. XCaret isn’t a theme park in the sense that it’s full of rollercoasters. It’s more like a massive zoo. Only instead of walking around, there are three rivers that you can swim around, some of which go through tunnels as well. We were caught off guard suspecting that they would be warm, but in fact they were freezing, definitely worth making the plunge though. We only had time to go around two, they do take a couple of hours each. The first one-azul- was full of bright tropical fish that made it worth snorkelling all the way round, whereas the second- maya- had more interesting things above water. It went through tunnels and caves- with bats- through a mangrove swamp, and at one point we even found ourselves in the middle of a Mayan tribal dance!

They also went way beyond with the level of wildlife on offer if you didn’t want to swim. There was a huge variety of animals, including exciting things like pumas, loads of flamingos, iguanas roaming wherever you looked, and manatees- which I’ve only ever heard even referenced in Florida before. The highlights for me though were the sea turtles- always a favourite of mine, and particularly as they have a sea turtle breeding programme, which releases hundreds into the wild every year, but also means that they have tanks full of babies.

They also had an amazing aviary, that spiralled around 5 levels with a waterfall in the middle. Birds of prey, like a beautiful American Eagle, were kept in their own areas around the outside, but there was a huge variety of colourful birds that were able to fly around the inside. We could have spent a lot more time there if we weren’t trying to squeeze everything in, and we’re not even that into birds!

The other thing that’s worth mentioning is the incredible show they put on in the evening. We didn’t have high expectations, but were taken through centuries of American history by very talented dancers and singers, including a game of Mayan football- complete with flaming balls!- followed by music and dance from particular regions in Mexico- which we never knew had such variety. There were horses, mariachi bands, a village square scene that turned into a picture of the Virgin Mary, it was incredible. It eventually led on to a finale with lit up representations of some of the animals at the park, a display of men dancing around a wooden pole about 40 metres off the ground, and all came together alongside some of the resident parrots doing loops around the stadium. We were so impressed by what we saw, it was definitely worth going early to get seats, the stadium was packed for good reason!

XCaret is definitely somewhere that we would go back to, and even bumps up Mexico on the list of places to go to make that happen! We would particularly like to go back with the kids, who would love it. Particularly Sam with the number of iguanas wandering around. The only thing that we really felt made it more like a theme park were the park photos as you went around. There were a few park photographers in odd places, but loads of automated photo machines. You had a wristband that you could save them all to and good offers to combine days and bands. With the number of things in the water, it would be really helpful if you went without a GoPro or waterproof camera.

So at the end of week 2 of our honeymoon, we’d had a good mix of relaxing and adventure and were in a good place to start week 3. Looking back I think Mexico was my favourite part of the honeymoon, and it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to go back to. I had an image in my head before I went of a bleak, desert like country, where drug barons ruled, and you had to be really careful of the police- what I found was an incredibly friendly, and beautiful country, steeped in culture and history, with so many fantastic places to explore it would be impossible in one visit. I’d love to go to Chichen-Itza near Cancun, which we just couldn’t get to this time, and explore some of the other regions apart from Quintana Roo. Mexico is staying firmly on my list of places to visit.

Next time on to the final installation of the trilogy, and a completely different experience altogether…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Paradise

Last month I wrote a post about my amazing wedding day, but the day was followed by our dream honeymoon. As we’ve already got kids, we knew that this would be our only opportunity to have a slightly longer holiday on our own, and as we arranged the wedding so they still had a week left in school we wanted to make the most of it. Fortunately our kids are old enough to understand the difference between a once-off honeymoon and a holiday, so although they missed us while we were away, they weren’t too unhappy that we were going. We wanted to get the balance between relaxing (which we don’t normally get when we’re cramming in city breaks), and making the most of being where we were. In the end, we did manage to fit a lot in. So, to make this a bit more manageable, both to read and to write, I’m going to do the honeymoon in three instalments, splitting them a week and a destination at a time.

Our first week started very quickly after the wedding, as we actually left our reception at midnight to drive to Heathrow airport- massive thanks to my chief bridesmaid Amy who napped during the day so that she could drive us- before flying off first thing in the morning to our first destination- the Dominican Republic. For months we’d been hoping that my new passport and telling everybody we met that we were newlyweds would get us a free upgrade, like Monica and Chandler in Friends, but while that didn’t happen, we did have a lovely air hostess who treated us to a rose, wine and champagne from the first class carriage. We thanked her with wedding cake that we had taken with us and then realised we wouldn’t be able to bring into the country when we landed!

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After travelling all day we eventually arrived in the Dominican Republic in the early hours of the morning, and were thankful to sink into the transfer shuttle to take us to our hotel. We’d paid a bit extra for an upgrade and there was a bottle of prosecco waiting for us in a cooler of ice, which was a nice welcome. After a slight detour to work out how the ATM’s worked to get some local currency, we arrived at our resort about 2 hours after landing. My mother had given us her time share points us a wedding gift, so we were able to stay at a wonderful all-inclusive resort called Zoetry Agua Punta Cana. It was definitely a level of luxury that we weren’t used to. We had a butler called Bayron who was there to make sure we had everything we needed and help us to arrange excursions. In the end, we did arrange a few through him but found it easier to do most of them directly as we could negotiate discounts that Bayron wouldn’t normally need to worry about for his clients, however he also had some insight into which companies were actually worth going with. So, here are the highlights of the week!

Within the resort itself there was quite a lot going on. There were two pools with rivers running along the front of the accommodation. There were a few foam loungers around if you wanted to sunbathe in the pool itself! One of the pools had a poolside bar, where you could get delicious cocktails. They had a special everyday, but the barmen were very knowledgeable and could make whatever you asked for. The other pool was attached to one of the favourites, which actually ended up being our favourite. Although there were 5 restaurants onsite, the poolside one we found to have the most appetising, and local feeling food. A couple of the others were a bit more posh than we were comfortable with, and one only ever seemed to be open at breakfast. We weren’t there in peak season so there was a rolling programme of which restaurants were open at meal times, and we found the menus to get a bit repetitive after a while, although in all fairness the room service menu was quite diverse as well, and we particularly enjoyed having breakfast in our room in the morning!

We were slightly worried about the beach before we came as a few reviews had complained about the amount of seaweed. When we got there though we found it to be a bit of an over-exaggeration. There was some seaweed, which you would expect on a beach, but it wasn’t a problem. There were some interesting fish if you went snorkelling, although dodging the coral could be a bit of a challenge. Steve managed to get stung by something which left a nasty rash for a couple of days. The beach itself was beautiful. The only problem we found was that it could be quite difficult to get hold of the people in charge of hiring out the equipment- snorkels and water sports, but we were more interested in lounging so it wasn’t really a problem.

We were in a fairly quiet resort, for a start it only had 90 rooms, compared with some of the mega resorts up the road. There was a rolling programme of entertainment at the bar in the evenings, which was mainly singers, but one night there was a cocktail entertainer. The advert showed him throwing cocktail shakers around and juggling with fire, which looked very impressive. He was slightly less impressive in person though, knocking a lot of glasses over and eventually ending the show when one of his flaming cocktail shakers fell on him. The bits he did well worked very well, but the mistakes were unfortunately very memorable. However we also went over to Breathless, one of the other resorts, who had a transfer system set up with ours. We had a meal at one of their restaurants and went to a dance show at the hotel. We weren’t impressed with the resort as it was huge and definitely a lot more of a party place, but the show was very good. Initially it just looked like scantily clad women dancing, but it built up to acrobatics and flame throwing, and was actually a very high quality.

When we arrived our hotel offered us a booklet of vouchers towards some of the extras at the resort. One of which was a couples massage, which we took up in the onsite spa, and that was very relaxing, it was so relaxing I think we both fell asleep! The spa was lovely though, with a very quiet and calm atmosphere and really nice staff. We both came away feeling very peaceful! The other activity we took up was horse riding on the beach. The woman in charge was very knowledgeable about the horses, and took us on a short half hour ride along the beach, pointing out the developments coming up between us and the other resorts. It was a good pace for those who hadn’t ridden before, but as always, a horse will do what it’s told if you want to go faster. Nothing too exerting, but a nice experience to have.

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We enjoyed the horse riding so much that we decided to have a longer trip and booked a day out with a company called Horseplay Punta Cana for the end of the week. There were quite a lot of companies who did horse trekking of some variety, but the distinctiveness of Horseplay is that they also offer a trip to a cigar factory, where you can make your own cigar, and a zipline through the jungle. They pick you up from your resort in one of the big tourist trucks- the sort where you climb in and sit on a bench with open sides. One of the downsides of our resort was that it was one of the furthest away so we had to stop at all the others on the way! When you arrive you start with a tour of the cigar factory and a chance to make and smoke your own. There is also a small pool and a gift shop at the initial ranch. You are then matched up to your horse, more on size than ability, before you begin your trek up to the second ranch. There was a family in our group with a young child, so they were able to drive up to the ranch to meet the rest of their family there.

The trek itself is a nice route, through the jungle and along river beds. The horse is really in charge though, if he decides he doesn’t want to stay with the person you came with, there’s not much you can do to stop him! Mine wasn’t too difficult to keep control of, but I think Steve found his a bit more tricky. There were a few experienced riders who had no trouble, but also a few who were clearly just hanging on. Having had a few riding lessons as a child I knew the basics of how to not sit like a sack of potatoes, but I was a bit over-confident and decided to give the optional galloping a go. Big mistake. After the initial plan of gracefully galloping along and pulling to a smooth finish, I found myself holding on for dear life as the horse clearly enjoyed what he was doing, and was ignoring any efforts to rein him in at all! Very exhilarating, but I gave it a miss on the way back.

After an hour or so trekking we came to the ranch, where we were served a meal of soup, and Dominican fried chicken, rice and beans. All very delicious, and even Steve ate it! Our main guide then gave us a chocolate demonstration, which is always a good thing. He had some cocoa beans and showed us how to split them, roast them, grind them down, and then mix them with sugar to give us something close to the chocolate we buy in the shops. We were able to taste it at every stage, which helped us to understand exactly why each stage is necessary! We then had the option to try the zip-wire, which was brilliant. It was in three parts, the first one through the jungle, the second over the plantation, and finally back over the river. I felt confident the guides knew what they were doing, so I felt completely safe and really enjoyed it. We were given the option for another go before the trek back down to the first ranch. There we had the obligatory gift shop before heading back to the resort on the truck. Definitely one of the highlights of the holiday!

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One of the other memorable excursions, although not quite as good was a trip to Saiona Island on a speed boat and catamaran with Living Punta Cana. Although the island itself was beautiful, definitely the idyllic beach you imagine when you think of a tropical paradise, there were a couple of niggles that took away from the day. Firstly, we were picked up in a minibus from our resort, but had to change three or four times to join with ever larger groups. The last stop was at a tourist gift shop where we had to wait 15 minutes to try and encourage people to buy things, before joining the final bus for the last part of the journey. It probably took at least an hour and a half to get from the resort to the where we were meeting the boats. It all felt a bit chaotic when we arrived as there were suddenly lots of groups there all going to different places. However, we eventually found ourselves wading on to a speed boat, and were plied with rum and coke- more rum than coke- which made it all better!

The day was advertised as stopping at a natural lagoon where we could hold starfish. This was sort of true. We stopped in a shallow part of the sea with a barrage of other boats, and were given the opportunity to hold starfish that the crew had already stopped to pick up, while they took our picture to buy later! Scepticism aside, the break to go swimming was nice. The sea was warm, it was just sand- no coral or seaweed, so we could just relax and float around a bit before carrying on. When we eventually got to the island it was what we expected. Palm trees, long beach, jungle behind, rum punch and a very generous BBQ with chicken, ribs, rice, pasta, salad- enough to keep everyone going! There were other groups there so you had to keep an eye on what yours was doing, and reserve a deck chair as soon as you got to the island. There was also a man selling coconuts, which was not too overpriced, but did become so when he “forgot” to give you change!

We made the most of the crew having decent cameras and had a few more photos taken on the beach. We both worked hard on our weight before the wedding so wanted to make the most of it! The pictures were really nice, in all fairness, the photographer clearly knew what he was doing. He had his laptop with him to make a CD of your photos on the day, which he was initially selling for $70, but we managed to barter him down to about $40 for over 70 photos, and the CD even worked when we got home!