Disneyworld Day 8: Animal Kingdom

  • Our final half-day at Disneyworld! It’s been emotional. There was just one more ride we really wanted to see, which was…
  • Navi River Journey at Animal Kingdom; yesterday, we’d improbably bagged a Fastpass for the morning. It’s a high tech slow ride, very different from Frozen Ever After in that it has no story and has few animatronics. Instead, it uses projectors on see-through surfaces to create the impression of depth, as you can see real leaves and trees and such both in front and behind the projected image. It was good enough to fool me for about ten seconds, which is impressive. Some of the projections worked better than others; I particularly liked these giant leaves suspended from the ceiling, shaking in sync with projected images of creatures scampering on top.

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Disneyworld Day 7: Animal Kingdom

  • Lazy morning today, partly because we’re running out of things to do at the parks.
  • Most of the Disney resort hotels have a respectable if slightly aged arcade; ours had the best game ever, skeeball.
  • Festival of The Lion King in Animal Kingdom was a good musical, although I wasn’t sold on the pair of birds who stood in for Simba and Nala during the love song bits. I get the logistical problems involved in having ‘lions’ do it, but it’s just confusing to have birds instead. I liked the ‘human’ performers best.

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Disneyworld Day 6: Epcot

  • We needed to be at Epcot for 10:15am at the latest due to a valuable Fastpass, so we gave ourselves over an hour. As it turned out, there was a runDisney half-marathon ending around 9:45am, which snarled up the traffic and blocked off the ticket entry gates. It’s great that Disney organises running events and delays are bound to happen. That said, there was poor queue management (no signs about the new entry queue location) and little to no communication about the massive delays.
  • Disney are fully capable of emailing guests when disruption is expected. If a ride becomes unavailable during your Fastpass reservation time (e.g. it breaks), they’ll email you with a replacement Fastpass for other rides. So if they know that there’ll be big delays on a certain day, why let guests book tickets during that disruption? Or why not email them when the disruption turns out to be bigger? I realise that within a complex organisation, these are not simple things to set up; but for a company so focused on delivering happiness to guests, I’m surprised they let people stew in line for so long. I know a fair few people missed their reservations because of the delay.
  • As it turns out, so did we. Fortunately for us, Frozen Ever After was broken at this time so we were emailed a replacement Fastpass anyway.
  • Finally, I’d note that our bus driver told us, “Hey, you should know that a half-marathon is on and Epcot will be super busy and slow to get into. So maybe you should go to another park instead.” Really useful information – if only she’d told everyone this before we got on the bus, rather than five minutes out of Epcot.
  • Partly due to the big queues, Frozen Ever After only had a 25 minute wait when we got into the park, so we chose to just line up instead. It has a neat waiting area filled with cute details and looks remarkably like a town square. The ride itself had incredibly good animatronics that (I assume) used internal projection mapping on a deformable surface. At some point these things will start walking around… As for the story, it was a standard recap of the movie, which was a little disappointing, but probably what the kids want.

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Disneyworld Day 5: Kennedy Space Center

  • We booked a trip to Kennedy Space Center today with Gray Line, which looked like the best choice for people staying at Disneyworld who don’t (or in our case, can’t) drive. By and large it worked out pretty well – we got picked up directly from our hotel.
  • Unfortunately, our coach driver provided wholly unwelcome running commentary about the history of Disneyworld, nearby shopping centres, Florida, Orlando, etc. I get that some people appreciate this, but there’s no way to turn it off and it’s pretty loud. To cap it all off, the driver got a speeding ticket on the highway so we had to stop for 15 minutes.
  • Kennedy Space Center is an odd mishmash of historical artefacts from the early days of rocketry plus a heavy dose of NASA and corporate propaganda. Now, I’m a big fan of space exploration but I couldn’t really figure out whether they were more about education or entertainment. None of this detracted from their collection of truly sensational rockets and artefacts though.
  • You can see some decent rockets and Space Shuttles at other museums, but KSC has one thing that they can’t match: an actual working launch complex. Included in entry are frequent bus tours of the launchpads, Vehicle Assembly Building, crawlers, and if you’re lucky, some alligators and falcon nests.

  • Our driver’s very good commentary was accompanied by NASA videos that tried to convince us that their new Space Launch System rocket will be the bee’s knees rather than a billion-dollar-per-launch white elephant that can’t compete against SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy & BFR combo. But the driver was enthusiastic about the recent successful launch of the Falcon Heavy from a launchpad we drove around, so it’s all good.

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Disneyworld Day 4: Magic Kingdom

  • Breakfast at Be Our Guest was an exceptionally unmagical experience because we had to orbit the three dining rooms for five minutes waiting for a table to be freed up. Clearly the restaurant operates on having a minimum of (say) 2% of tables being free, which isn’t really enough to avoid an annoying search. Part of the problem is that there weren’t many tables for just two people, which led to some poor resource utilisation.
  • I was also expecting a higher tech experience. We’d ordered online in advance so I expected some kind of RFID-powered location detection for the wait staff, but as far as I could tell, they just used the printed receipt we received on entry.
  • They did have an electronic ordering system for normal guests, which is… interesting. I haven’t seen any quick service restaurants at Disneyworld using ordering screens, but they’re using it for the fancier one?

  • It’s a Small World reminded me, in a good way, of Toyland Tours at Alton Towers, which in retrospect is a blatant ripoff. It has a similarly catchy song and fun, stylised design.
  • Peter Pan’s Flight was great! One of the best slow rides in terms of layout, sight lines, models, and overall experience. I wasn’t expecting that our ‘cars’ would be hanging from the ceiling.
  • Mickey’s Philharmagic is another one of those dated 3D movies, albeit with great music. I laughed at the comedy transition to The Lion King song, which doesn’t at all fit into the narrative framing device.

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Disneyworld Day 3: Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, The Void, Disney Springs

  • Hollywood Studios lived up to its reputation as “the half day park”. The problem is that the theming of “hey, we’re in Hollywood” just isn’t as interesting or as resonant as it used to be, certainly not compared to other parks or even Epcot. Which is I guess why they’re adding on Toy Story and Star Wars-themed lands.
  • Star Tours was good fun, as usual. We saw what must have been a fairly new video, since it had The Last Jedi footage and we landed in Galaxy’s Edge, the upcoming Star Wars land. This will be a fantastic introduction to Galaxy’s Edge but it doesn’t make much sense to guests right now, particularly the intro, which leaves you wondering why ‘Star Tours’ starts out on an enemy ship to begin with.
  • Some of Muppetvision 3D’s jokes are still good (“We’re doing a tribute to all the nations in the world, but mostly America”), but overall it needs updating. Since The Muppets are apparently getting rebooted, maybe this will happen sooner rather than later.
  • I never watched The Twilight Zone, so whenever I ride The Tower of Terror it always reminds me of Futurama’s loving parody, The Scary Door. Sadly, some of the kids we rode with declared it ‘boring’, presumably in comparison to the Guardians of the Galaxy version in Disneyland.
  • Star Wars Launch Bay is a bizarrely office-like structure full of movie models and character encounters. A stopgap solution until Galaxy’s Edge is built.
  • Walt Disney Presents is worth a wander through.
  • We caught the Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away stage show, a weird medley of dramatic scenes from all nine(!) Star Wars movies plus live actors. I was mostly impressed by the screen that remained bright even in full noon sunlight.
  • Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular was entertaining.
  • Toy Story Mania, a shooting gallery game with 3D glasses and moving cars, was a blast and felt more fun than it conceptually should have been. I don’t know if it’s the action of pulling a string to fire a gun, or the atmosphere, or the 3D, or the moving cars, or everything put together, but it felt good. Not sure it justifies two hour wait times, but I guess there’s not much else to do in Hollywood Studios.
  • Lunch at the 50’s Prime Time Cafe. Great theming and our attendant wasn’t as bothersome as we’d feared.
  • Perhaps due to the new Avatar ‘Pandora’ land, I had the idea that Animal Kingdom was basically an animal-themed park without real animals. Of course in reality it’s more like a zoo and safari park, which is pretty neat. Like many other parts of Disneyworld, the African and Asian sections suffer from silly stereotypes that need to be updated.

Disneyworld Day 2: Blizzard Beach, Epcot, Boardwalk

  • The free intra-resort bus service has pretty good thus far. In some cases it’s been faster than an Uber, since the buses can usually get closer to the actual entrance of the park. But on average, I think the buses are about 10-15 min slower than Uber, which is not bad given the savings. My main wish is that more stops would have ETA boards; some places do, most don’t.
  • Blizzard Beach was a lot of fun! Sure, the competition isn’t strong, but this has to be the best watermark I’ve been to. There’s a great range of slides, everything is clean and well-signposted, and all the staff were friendly. We’d read that on park opening you should run to the tallest slide, Summit Plummet, to avoid queues, but the entire park was very quiet. The longest we waited was about 15 minutes, and most slides had barely anyone at all in front.
  • FYI, while I like near-vertical drops, Summit Plummet wasn’t worth a second ride, whereas Toboggan Racers and the Purple rides were.
  • Epcot shouldn’t work as a theme park, and yet it does. It’s educational, but not as educational as a museum. It’s fun, but not as fun as the other parks. It’s got miniature versions of other countries… and yeah, those are pretty unique. I don’t say this to knock Epcot – I’m just amazed that Disney keeps it running. I guess the scale helps soak up a lot of visitors, and a lot of the capital expenditures have already been made.

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Disneyworld Day 1: Magic Kingdom

  • The Magic Kingdom Park is a lot more crowded than I expected, and slightly unpleasant to get around. Perhaps this is because it was Presidents Day in Monday, but I’d hate to see how busy it gets during high season.
  • I don’t know how anyone puts up with waiting for 30+ minutes in line. We’ve used Fastpasses for everything so far and it’s still annoying to wait in line for things like Pirates of the Caribbean.
  • Speaking of which… Pirates was my least favourite ride. I get the nostalgia factor but they really need to update it: slow loading, questionable scenes, etc. Some of the animatronics are on point though.
  • Haunted Mansion was great. Really impressed with how seamless the visuals were. I was worried that the hyper-efficient train of slow cars would detract from the immersion, but surprisingly not thanks to the limited FOV, pivoting viewpoint, and good audio. The main problem was that the staff had to shout repeatedly at guests to move along, get inside, make room, etc. This is where the crowding problem really interferes with immersion.
  • The Happily Ever After fireworks and projection mapping was very impressive, both in the quality and vividness of the projection, and the sheer Disney power in mashing up all their most famous songs. Kids were losing their shit at this.
  • Jungle Cruise was our final ride. We had a great guide, people were desperately trying to join our full boat after hearing his jokes. Still, I’m not happy about the stereotypical savage Africans/ruined Buddhist temple stuff. Also needs updating, please.
  • Day 2 will be Blizzard Beach, Epcot, and Boardwalk

Hit me up with your Disneyworld recs! I’m going there – and Kennedy Space Center – in two days time…

A Mild Extravagance

I’ve swum in lakes shorter than the Parliament Hill Lido, which measures 61 metres long and 27 metres wide. The lakes are also warmer. Because the lido is unheated, and because it doesn’t contain as much thermal mass, its temperature changes more rapidly with the weather.

23C is where it tops out, which is also when the water just starts feeling warm. It can get very cold; 18C is the coldest I can stand. It‘s late September or October before it gets that low, and by then, the few swimmers remainining are all wearing wetsuits.

Today, the pool temperature is 20C. It’s also sunny with no wind, which isn’t helpful; if the water is going to be cold, I prefer the weather to be cold as well, so my body gets used to it. I pre-emptively squeeze on my goggles and drop into the water.

If you can stand the shock, it’s best to get the beginning over with quickly. I only spend a few seconds dallying before I half-launch, half-lurch into the pool, simultaneously fighting off cardiac arrest while also starting what’s typically my fastest lap by a long distance.

At 23C, I stop feeling cold after 20 metres. At 20C, it can take 250 metres. That’s just four lengths.

The pool is lined with stainless steel, the first of its kind in Britain. It’s pixellated with braille-like dots, so the ribbons of light refracted through the water seem like they’re being played out on a massive low-resolution, high contrast display.

Today, there are fewer than a dozen swimmers. The women wear low polygon swimsuits and gourard-shaded swimcaps; the men all wear the same black Speedo trunks with white piping, the ones we buy when we discover that baggy shorts look silly and cause exceptional drag.

I generate too much friction as I swim. I’ve never watched a video of myself but I know there’s too much splashing. I favour my left side too much, a product of the knotted muscles in my left shoulder, itself a legacy of leaning to my left in front of the computer for the past 14 years.

Over the years, various medical checkups have confirmed that I have unusually good lung capacity and an enlarged left ventricle, which means I can keep running and swimming for longer, even with my poor form. So today, when there are only serious swimmers in the pool, gradually overtaking me on the inside, I chop my way through the water without pause.

Too much sun, and the pool gets crowded. Too cloudy, and the sky becomes boring. The best days have a mix of wind and clouds and sun, so you can see the steel floor ripple with light and then grow dull, over and over again.

It costs £7 for a ‘day swim’ ticket. In the summer, I go several times a month — a mild extravagance since ‘evening swim’ tickets, beginning at 6:45pm, are £3 cheaper.

But the lido is just three minutes walk from the front door of our office. If I walk out at 5:40pm, I can be in the water at 5:50pm, swim 1464 metres by 6:30pm, and be home by 7:10pm.

It feels fresh and secret and serious and luxurious, all at once. I will never live so close to such a beautiful lido ever again in my life.

If the lido is quiet enough, I swim back and forth in the centre of the pool. The water is dark enough that I can barely see the edges to my left and right. Below, there’s steel. Above, the sky.

It’s like swimming in a spaceship. A simulation of swimming generated for homesick travellers.

And then the whistle blows at 6:30pm and I climb out and hop, skip, and jump until I can hear through my left ear again.

The regulars in the changing room started recognising me this month. “It’s nice when it’s quiet,” one said to me. The changing rooms are reality.