This is our “up to date blog” wherein we let you know what we’re up to right now, or at least this week; so, to get in the spirit of the thing, imagine if you will that we have been writing weekly updates faithfully these last six months and now, low and behold, we’re in Florida.
We arrived in Orlando on Dec 23rd for the purpose that has dragged many a family here, namely the amusement parks, in our case Universal Studios, which we all consistently referred to as Harry Potter World. And I have to say that Harry Potter World was pretty bloody brilliant.
Spanning both “Islands of Adventure” and “Universal Studios” (thereby fleecing you for entrance into both parks), the re-creation of Hogsmeade/Hogwarts on one side and Diagon Alley on the other connected by the Hogwarts Express running between the two, is breathtakingly well done, even in the eyes of an old curmudgeon like me. The streets, the shops, the shop windows, Hogwarts itself, Gringots, Olivander’s, the million extra details inside and out…, I mean they really went for it. Everything in the books that could be achieved – in a world where Wingardium Leviosa spoken with just the right flick of the wand disappointingly fails to levitate even a feather – they attempted. No skimping.
At Olivander’s, people are admitted 20 at a time and someone is chosen to be “pared” with a wand. They do it just like in the movie where Olivander (or, in this case, his fairly convincingly English-accented factotum) picks out a couple of different wands and has the young hopeful try out a spell with each. The first couple aren’t right – the flowers wilt instead of being watered, drawers chaotically shoot in and out of the 15 foot tall wand storage cabinet and then… THE RIGHT WAND! Music swells, a mysterious gust of wind, an eery light envelopes the extremely excited blonde wand wielder, and Dude in the cape goes on about dragon heartstrings or some-such. Then of course you’re directed next door where you have the distinct pleasure of purchasing the wand for $50 because, good god, how could you not after all that. Strangely, your usually cynical soul is uplifted by all of this instead of disgusted, such is the power of an incredible well-oiled entertainment machine. A couple of kids inexplicably didn’t want to be chosen (!), before Stella got her chance. Thrilled barely describes Stella’s response.
Many of the shop windows have displays that can be made to move with a correctly waved wand (a bird is made to swell to twice normal size, rain showers down from an umbrella, that sort of thing). The young wizard is instructed as to the correct wand movements via a beautifully engraved brass plaque recessed into the pavement and the magic ensues. I don’t know who was responsible for this design brainwave but it still leaves me speechless with admiration – bloody genius. Stella was enthralled.
Rebecca’s brother, Josh, hand-made some great wands and shipped them to the hotel (Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort – yes we bought into that as well) and got them to us in time for Christmas no less. They are beautifully done, thanks Josh, kids love ’em and should soon have each others eyes out any day.
The rides were a top flight combo of motion and simulation. They even made the hour-long wait in line cool as you walk through the halls and inner-sanctums of Hogwarts and Gringots (complete with animatronic, talky gnomes behind the counters at the bank). True, I felt nauseous pretty much the whole 3 days we were there, due to not being the man I once was in the matter of being thrown around all over the place while hurtling towards the ground at 100mph on a broomstick, but, divorced from my lameness, it was pretty awesome.
Lots of the other stuff at the park is well worth a mention: Spiderman and The Simpsons simulation rides, The Mummy, a value-added indoor roller coaster with fire, smoke and doom upgrades, the Jurassic Park Water ride and the animatronic Veloceraptor. There were a couple of live action special effects/stunts shows that we found to be simultaneously, massively cheesy and entertaining; how can you go wrong with Poseidon’s Fury or The 11th Voyage of Sinbad? More flames darling, more flames!
In conclusion, I have to say that Rebecca takes the “mum of the year award – Christmas gifts category” for her flawless organization of our trip to the second happiest place on earth. Should anyone wish to know all the best package options, just ask her. We won’t be going back until we have grandchildren but given our natural mistrust of anything popular (shuddder), we had….fun. There I said it.
Since we left Orlando we’ve been tootling around the state of Florida enjoying the warm winter weather; it’s raining in the Florida Keys while I write this but still managing to be 73 degrees.
Florida, on the one hand is absolutely idyllic, green and lush but on the other, it’s full of sprawling development – “planned” communities with names like Manatee Bay and Silver Palms, evoking the fragile ecosystems the developers just dumped a million tons of backfill on. Florida’s state and county parks are beautiful and well run, with much emphasis on conservation but it’s tough to really get away from the sprawl and, with the massive population boom here, more development is on the way.
It’s still really beautiful though, so we’ll just dwell on those parts.
After Orlando, we went North to see some springs. North Florida is known for its amazing freshwater springs.
Millions of gallons of crystal clear water escape under pressure from the aquifer via a spring vent in the limestone rock and this forms the source of a river or lake. In the case of a first magnitude spring such as Alexander Springs in the Ocala National Forest, output can be close to 100 million gallons of water a day. You can swim and snorkel or scuba dive in most of these springs and it’s a wonderful experience. The water is a completely clear turquoise color and, with a mask you can see right down into the fissure from which the water “boils” up. It’s somewhat unnerving as the sandy river bed suddenly drops away to a 30ft chasm but also hypnotizingly beautiful. The water is at a constant 72 degrees year round, so in the summer I’m sure these places are hopping. As it was, in December and January, because of the relatively cooler temperature outside (mid-70s) it was less crowded. I didn’t have an underwater camera to shoot the actual spring vent but take my word for it, if you’re ever in these parts, it’s well worth a visit and bring a mask (or just buy an overpriced one there, as we did).
We took a canoe trip up the Alexander Springs river and were thoroughly ignored by alligators all around.
Blue Spring State Park is the place to see Manatees. They move out of the James River towards the spring vent as the river cools down in the winter months and they crave the warmer waters of the spring. You can’t help but go all gooey when you see them, they’re so darn slow and gentle. I found myself with a stupid grin on my face the entire time watching them bask in the sun and poke their faces up from the water for the occasional breath. All of them have multiple scars over their bodies due to collisions with boats which adds a layer of pathos to the whole experience – the gentle giant, wounded by man but holding no grudge, at peace with the world. Really brings a …..tear…. to ……the eye….
Moving on: Fort DeSoto Park was a great spot, situated on 5 keys accessible by road, south of St Petersberg, at the mouth of the Tampa Bay. The keys were used in the Civil War as part of the union blockade of southern ports, the fort itself was built in 1898 for defense of the bay during the Spanish-American war. There’s not much to see in that regard, just the main, fort structure and some mortar and cannon. It is interesting to see the (I guess the word is) “progress” made, since the civil war, in long range projectile weapons. Canon could shoot maybe 1500 yards in 1861 compared to artillery and mortars with a range of 5 miles 30 years later. The white stone block fort has long halls and chambers that stretch back into the building and, although they have all the beauty of your average freeway underpass, they do make great natural echo chambers. The kids and I got our Gregorian chant on and had a good time with that. The park itself is another jewel in Florida’s park-system crown; really well run with miles of bike path, beautiful sandy beaches, and lush semi tropical trees and plants: Palm, Mangrove, air plants of all sorts; tons of birdlife, Egrets, Pelican, Ibis, Osprey, Hawks, Kestrels. The campsites are right next to the water, each site screened from its neighbors by 20 ft tall, dense walls of green canopy. We liked it so much we may try and grab a spot again on our way back up; this is South Florida’s high season so you kind of have to haunt the reservation websites.
While at Fort Desoto (haunting ReserveAmerica) a couple of spots became open at Everglades National Park so we hoofed it straight there. We spent a night at Big Cypress National Forest and then drove all the way down to Flamingo on the Southern tip of the Everglades. Everglades NP is truly a wilderness, 1.5 million acres of sawgrass, mangrove, cypress and lots and lots of water. The best way, indeed pretty much the only way to really see the Everglades is by canoe. Just taking day trips is great (they rent them right there) but there is a 99 mile trail you can do, the Wilderness Waterway Trail, with camp spots on the way (tent platforms raised on stilts); it takes 8 days by canoe. Awesome. We didn’t do that. What we did do was take one of the free ranger-led canoe tours. They supply everything and all you have to do is bear up under the weight of some pretty earnest proselytizing by the Ranger; but, bring it on tenfold if Mr. Big Housing Developer from Ft Lauderdale, down for a weekend’s gettin’ away from it all, decides to leave a few acres of wetland un-bulldozed, or Mr and Mrs. 55 year old retirees decide, after all, not to move from Iowa City to Mangrove Valhalla Condominiums, a haven for those inured to the horrors of pinkish stucco.
One significant drawback to Flamingo is the mosquitos, they pretty much drove us out after 2 days; that and the lack of a hot shower. Interestingly, our only respite from them was on our 3 1/2 hour canoe tour when they were one thousand percent absent (percentage assigned as an indicator of relief experienced). We did get to see a 14 ft American Crocodile. It was on a bank with it’s back to us, probably digesting the last witless canoer that happened by. Also, during canoe free-time at the end of our tour, we found an alligator lurking in the shallows. We had seen a couple while canoeing in Alexander Springs, they had largely ignored us, but this one turned around in the water and took a really good Alligatory look at us. Apparently they don’t like to eat anything bigger than their own head but this was not quite enough assurance for our primal monkey brains which instantly dredged up long forgotten memories from the not too distant evolutionary past of a time when we were, very definitely, not at the top of the food chain.
So now here we are on the Florida Keys at Bahia Honda State Park, pretty much as close as you’re going to get to a tropical paradise in the mainland U.S. Clear blue seas, sandy beaches, lots of warm weather in the winter months (although we had a pretty ferocious storm last night) great artisanal ice cream at the concession store, it’s got it all. The Park staff pretty much know they’re the best game in the state; the park is booked up 11 months ahead of time but Rebecca had a repeat performance of her uncanny ability to trawl ReserveAmerica’s website for cancelled reservations 30 seconds after the poor people who’s transmission blew out on I95 cancelled them, and we got to spend 3 nights here; lucky, jammy us.
We probably have another week in Florida, so more next time, or the time after that.