At least we'll be safe in Yemen

Beach on Socotra Island, Yemen

If you’ve been put off holidaying in traditional hotspots like Thailand, Greece, Turkey and Israel this summer by varying bouts of civil unrest, perhaps you are looking for somewhere new.

How about Yemen, tucked at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula? There’s tonnes of history, it’s hot, there’s sand (lots of it) plus the Arabian Sea in which to cool off. They’re also taking the safety of tourists very seriously according to a release from the ministry of tourism that brags of 125 new high tech tourist vehicles that have been acquired.

Apparently, “These vehicles, which have been distributed around the country, have been fitted with tracking systems which allow personnel from a remote location to monitor the car’s movements and location. In the advent of a kidnapping, drivers of the vehicle can simply press a button which will notify the monitoring centre of the event, at which point they will take over control of the vehicle’s movements or disable it altogether.”

And if that doesn’t make you feel safe nothing will..

Seriously, there’s a host of tour ops now offering packages, if you do fancy a trip and to find out more, try the following

Live Travel
Nomadic Thoughts
Pioneer Expeditions
Silk Road and Beyond
Steppes Travel
Undiscovered Destinations
Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel

A first look at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

You can't come in. Okay, well some of you can

I’m currently over in Orlando for Virgin Holidays 25th birthday celebrations and managed, along with a couple of other journalists, to get a sneak preview of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The ‘theme park within a theme park’ at Universal’s Islands of Adventure opens next week to special Virgin Holidays preview customers with a grand opening on June 18.

On the tour, I got to see Hogmeade village which comes complete with a host of shops from the JK Rowling books and the films such as Gladrags Wizard’s Wear, Dervish & Banges and Olivander’s wand shop, where with some cute acting from the shopkeeper and some special effects, your wand chooses you. Of course, you then have to shell out $24.99 to take one home.

We also got to go into The Three Broomsticks inn where we tried Butterbeer, non alcoholic and like a frothy caramely ice-cream float, pumkin juice and Hog’s Head Brew – an ale brewed in Scotland.

There are three rides in the park, two rollercoasters (Flight of the Hipogriff and Duelling Dragons) and Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey which is set in a scale replica of Hogwarts school. The first two are open and we got to ride them, the latter is in the final stages of testing.

The park’s attention to detail is amazing and fans of the series will be magic-ed straight into sets that could be in the film.

While there, I got to talk to the park’s supervising art director Alan Gilmore, who was seconded from the films to help create the park.

All aboard the Hogwarts Express

For my full review of Wizarding World of Harry Potter, see Saturday’s Daily Express travel section, but Alan’s thoughts on the park are below…

On JK Rowling’s thoughts on the park:

Everything you see has passed through JK Rowling, luckily because I work with the film team in London, we already had a large degree of acceptance with her. I’ve been working in the UK industry for 15 years and I’ve worked with Stuart Craig who created the films. We’ve taken the films and brought them to life.

If we had to come up with a new storyline, she had to write that for us and approve it. We also had to check everything with her when it came to the placing of the buildings. The Three Broomsticks is in Hogsmeade but here we have Honeydukes next door and that is in Diagon Alley in London in the films. We had to bring the two together and she had to approve that.

On building the park:

I’ve worked on the films for 10 years but still watched them again and again and took notes. The team I worked with in London designed this three years ago. We built models after studying the site and worked with Universal to work out what stories they wanted to tell. We fleshed out all the spaces: they wanted a restaurant, they wanted a bar, they wanted a space for owls and a shop to sell Quidditch gear… whatever they asked for, we made it happen and made spaces for all the elements.
We already knew about Hogsmead, it’s a very strong part of the storyline so we made it a proper town with much more detail then ever before, even for the films. We obviously had to have Hogwarts too, so we had two main spaces, Hogsmead and Hogwarts. The big challenge was to bring them together. We used a lot of film techniques like forced perspective, special film colours and pulled it together.

It’s a strange composition. By the books, Hogsmead should be in the valleys of Scotland, Hogwarts should be several miles away but here they are very close.


Hogwarts Castle - made from concrete!

On the bit he’s most satisfied with

Hogwarts. It looks amazing, I love the Three Broomsticks too. Theme parks aren’t done this way. Theme parks aren’t grungey and dark and dingey, they are shiney and clean. This was a whole new departure to create something that looked so aged. We used concrete – everything is made of concrete. It’s sprayed on the walls by a technique called shotcrete and then we used trowels to shape it all. We had to train the guys out here in Orlando to do this. They had never done it before. We then had the special effects painters from the films come in and paint it all, water runs, soot… we had to think back to Victorian times and create something that looked similar.

On The Three Broomsticks:

The idea of the Three Broomsticks is that it is an inn where wizards come and stay, so we have fake walkways and bridges above us that lead to ‘bedrooms’ that obviously don’t exist. We also have special effects here that cast shadows on the walls, there are elves, owls, cups and brooms that appear randomly. It’s done so it looks like the sun is creating them. They appear everywhere in the Three Broomsticks and there are 25 different ones.

On the amount of detail in the park:

Everything you see around you is from the films. The pictures on the wall are from the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, we don’t have a Leaky Cauldron pub here but we do have the Hog’s Head pub. Unlike the films, where people only catch a glimpse of things, people are able to study everything here, which means it needs much more detail to make it all work. This has also been designed for however many million people are going to come through here in the next 15 or 20 years – it has to last.

Would he film here:

This is camera ready. I don’t think either myself or Stuart Craig would have any hesitation with filming a scene here. There are a few things I would change – the Exit signs would have to go. I tried to fight some of those things to try and keep it all as authentic as possible. The fire officers here in Orlando said we had to have a sprinkler system, so we’ve made it a feature, the pipes around the walls are like an old British hospital with the pipes on the outside. Electricity is another one… we have tried to hide it as much as possible by theming things so they look realistic… the lights for instance look like flickering candles.

On completing the park:

It took three years to complete but only 18 months to construct. Universal didn’t say ‘no’ to anything I asked for. They have agreed to do things that have never been done before. The level of finish is like nothing seen anywhere else in any other theme park, even the guys down the road [Disney] don’t go this far. Theme parks are normally about the rides, not about the architecture. They are normally about getting you in and out, this gives people more time in the park and on the rides.

I came here on my own, with my bags and said: ‘Let’s build a theme park.’ We’ve used people from far and wide, they’ve been trained with new skills and everyone is loving it. They’ve never aged things in America… everything is new here, it’s a new country.

The clue's in the name: killer whale

Dawn Brancheau at Seaworld

The death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando’s Seaworld yesterday is a tragic event and my thoughts go out to her family, friends and colleagues.

But some of the handwringing and bewilderment surrounding the incident leaves me perplexed.

Some years ago, I interviewed Penn Jillette  of Las Vegas magic duo Penn & Teller and we got around talking to how Roy of Siegfried & Roy got mauled by one of his own tigers in 2003.

Jilette said: “The magic of Siegfried and Roy is they made things seem so easy, so people sit around saying ‘how the hell did that happen?’. Well, I’ll tell you how it happened – 200lbs of tiger is how it happened. What do people expect? It’s a wild animal…”

The same goes for yesterday’s attack by the whale Tilikum at Seaworld. Dawn Brancheau had worked with killer whales at the park for more than 16 years, she must have been well aware of the inherent dangers of keeping wild animals in closely confined captivity.

Sadly until people people stop putting animals – and especially dangerous ones – on display for human amusement, deaths like that of Dawn’s should be viewed as the norm rather than a freak occurrence.

Five-star pet peeves

For this post, I’ve teamed up with travel writing colleague, Jill Starley-Grainger  to come up with our pet peeves about luxury hotels. Jill has come up with eight of the offerings, myself with two and the whole post has to be read over our two websites (well, we have to drive traffic you know).

Whether you’ve saved up for that luxury trip of a lifetime or you wouldn’t dream of bedding down in anything less than a five-star, these hotel hassles can make your holiday more irritating.

Breakfast (by JSG)
If I’m paying through the nose to stay in your hotel, the least you can do is provide breakfast at a reasonable price, if not free. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been presented with the breakfast bill (the price is rarely displayed as it’s often a vast help-yourself buffet with additional hot-food menu), only to discover that the croissant and coffee I had have cost as much as the GDP of some small African countries. (PS If you’re going to charge through the nose for the buffet, at least allow a reasonably priced non-buffet menu for those with small appetites.)
Climate control (By JSG)
I now know to pack my flannel PJs if I’m going to a balmy tropical island, and my flimsiest nightdress if I’m going skiing. Just because it’s hot outside doesn’t mean I want it to feel like a freezer inside, and vice versa. What’s more, the air conditioning and heating controls often do not respond to any commands, other than on or off, and sometimes, not even that. Brrrr…
Villa / resort guide (by JSG)
How do I work the television? What are the channels? Where do I find the spare blankets? How do I turn off the fucking outside lights you’ve put on with my turn-down service and that shine through my window all night? How do I use that ridiculously expensive espresso machine in my room? Where is the shop that sells deodorant? How do I find the spa? Etc, etc. Just give me a map of the resort, a manual to the villa or room, and some idea of what’s on offer throughout, including all the restaurant and spa menus (with prices!).
Toiletries (By JSG)
Conditioner, people, conditioner! I know very few women who do not use conditioner regularly, if not every time they wash their hair, and a heck of a lot of men use it daily, too. But how many five-star hotels provide it? I can think of only two, and of those, only one provided good conditioner. And also, what’s with the crappy little plastic bottles? Big refillable ones with pumps to easily extract the product are far preferred. OK, some people want to take home their little plastic toiletries, but chances are, those of us in five-stars have a million of these throw-away two-use freebies already and would just prefer nice products in nice refillable bottles. For take-home, sell large versions in your shop!
Weight-sensitive mini bars (by WoJ)
Why is it that posh hotels cannot be satisfied with getting you to break the bank to stay there but seemingly have to find each and every way to screw as much cash out of you as possible? (See our entries on wifi and breakfast.) But of all the low-down, dirty tricks they can pull to squeeze that last cent out of you, the weight-sensitive mini bar – where you get charged when you lift the product up, even if you replace it in the fridge – has to be the worst.  Let’s say I’m prepared to pay the ludicrous price for the privilege of serving myself the smallest measure of spirit known to mankind (should I tip myself I wonder?), why can I not pick up a bottle, read the label and see if I fancy it or not without being charged? How does this system work any better than having the maid simply see if a bottle of booze has gone the next morning? Its only use is to annoy the hell out of guests. Way to go when trying to attract repeat visitors, hoteliers.

For our other five peeves, see Jill’s site:

Follow Jill on Twitter:

Getting the pin trading point at Walt Disney World

I wasn’t going to post anything more on my Disney travels of last week, but then changed my mind at some point early this morning when I found myself on ebay bidding for a couple of pins to complete a Disney set.

James looks for the illusive Figment pin

If you have no idea what I’m talking it about, it’s Disney Pin Trading – one of the more obscure, to us Brits at least, things that happen at the Disney Parks.

The enamel pins – there are more than 60,000 different designs featuring Disney characters, icons, attractions and themeparks – can be bought from outlets in the parks and are worn, by most people, on a lanyard around their necks. While in the parks, people either buy more from the outlets or trade with other willing pin holders.

There’s a whole etiquette to trading to the point where you can get a pamphlet to tell you how it’s done. Key points include:

  • Refrain from touching another person’s pins or lanyard, ask to see the pin so they can bring the pin into closer view
  • Other guests do not have to trade with you, but cast members (or staff as we call them) do… unless they are wearing a blue lanyard, in which case they will only trade with visitors less than ten years old
  • Guests must trade with Cast Members, one pin at a time
  • Guests can make up to 2 pin trades per cast member per day
  • The pin that is traded to the cast member cannot be a duplicate of any pin they already have on their lanyard
  • Pins with a Hidden Mickey (a small Mickey symbol in one corner) are more limited edition and deemed more desireable
  • No money can change hands on Disney property in exchange for a pin (unless at one of the outlets of course).

Some people have become pin addicts… collecting thousands of them over the years, jealously guarding their sets at home and only taking their ‘swaps’ into the park.

At the start of our trip, we were given a dozen pins and a lanyard by Julie Young, who has the excellent job of being in charge of pin development – she was met with muted thanks and sceptical looks by myself and fellow journalists at the time.

Fast forward 24 hours and with pins around neck to humour our hosts, we entered our first Disney park. Within a few minutes, I saw someone who had a pin from one of my sets and made my first trade and by the end of the day, all 12 of us were collecting different sets.

By day two, we were pin hunting in packs: ‘If you look out for my cut out princesses, I’ll get your pirate Mickeys’ and by the end of the week, we were stopping any cast member with a lanyard and asking them to have a look at their pins.

But on our last night, we came across a proper pin queen – think an East End pearly but covered in small shiny metal Disney characters instead of buttons. She had two books of ‘swaps’ in front of her on a small table and was furtively looking around for people to trade with.

Personally, I’d been looking for a set of pins featuring a character called Figment. He’s a purple dragon, not from any of the Disney films but the official mascot of Epcot. Each pin in the set depicts an emotion: angry, happy, confused… but Figment’s expression is the same on all of them.

... you will be

Betsy, the trader woman, had one of the ones I was missing and I nervously approached her for a trade. ‘Can I have your Figment Surprised?’ I asked her nervously as she cast a cursory glance up and down my lanyard.

‘Sorry you’ve nothing I want,’ she replied coldly before turning to someone else to do another trade and me to travel home with an incomplete set. A fact that left me scouting ebay at 7am this morning – Julie will be proud of the monster she created.

Guest blog: Crap things seen while travelling no.8. Little Englanders abroad

Many thanks for today’s Crap Things guest blog to the lovely Catherine Mack of and co-editor of

I hope they paid for those blankets

I had been in Kenya for three days, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to write about The Travel Foundation’s work with the Maasai. During 2007, Maasai village elders had come together with The Foundation to put a stop to the exploitation which had been going on for decades, whereby money was being charged to tourists to visit their villages, but the driver guides who drove the visitors there, passed none of it on to the villagers themselves. The only money the Maasai made was from selling a few bits of beadwork here and there.

One year after The Travel Foundation started to help the Maasai gain confidence to take on the driver guides, and the many tourist lodges which had been turning a blind eye to the unethical practice, tourism was starting to become an important source of income for the Maasai at last. I was honoured to be invited to their ‘AGM’, with five villages, men women and children, gathered together under an acacia tree in the middle of the bush, to celebrate what they had achieved.

The total amounted to $43,000 from tours alone, an 800 per cent increase in just a year. The applause and cheers must have been heard all the way to the Serengeti. The men held hands and smiled proudly and the women translated to their excited children. Already, Enkereri village had extended its school, paying two teachers’ salaries.

That evening I returned to my lodge, Olonana, which had been very proactive in supporting the new change in practice. Some of the visitors were less on the ball, however. I was joined at the bar by an elderly English couple.

They, like most guests, gathered round to compare notes on the day’s game sightings. “See anything good today then?” was the man’s opening gambit. When I explained that I had spent the day with the Maasai, I could see that I wasn’t going to get very far, as he interrupted quickly, “Uggh, we tried that last year, didn’t we dear?” he directed at his silent wife. “Aren’t their lives disgusting? And such greedy people. One of them lent my wife a blanket to keep warm when we did ‘the tour’. They’ll try anything to get your money.”

I begged to differ, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He waved his hand dismissing any further discussion, walking away with a smile, shouting: “All I can say is, it is God’s blessing to be born an Englishman.”

Choose your battles, I thought, as I went out for air and a much needed nicotine fix. Looking up the hill, I could just about see the lights from the nearby Maasai village fires.  The people who lived just up that hill had travelled such great distances and have such dignified wisdom, I thought. And yet, so many of their visitors have a much longer way to go until they gain even half of their knowledge and civility.

For more information on the work of The Travel Foundation, still ongoing in Kenya,  see

Blasting off with one of the Jonas brothers

James and the Big CheeseSo I finally got to meet the Big Cheese yesterday when we had a character breakfast in our hotel, the Contemporary Resort and Mickey finally turned up. We’d seen most of the other major Disney characters over the week but had failed to spot Mickey… I was beginning to think he must have been in Paris or Anaheim for the week.

Our morning session, saw us head to we Walt Disney World’s Wilderness Lodge and the associated Fort Wilderness campground resort to try some horse trail riding.

Not many people know that much of the Disney property in Orlando is built on what was once swampland. Dirt from the excavations that created the lakes was used to landfill other areas for the parks and resorts to be built. And as a result, most of the other land here is preserved so, contrary to what you might think, it’s all quite green.

The Wilderness Lodge and campground are probably the resorts that are closest to nature… aside from the hotel itself, there are log cabins in the surrounding woods and miles of nature trails to explore.

I’ve done quite a bit of trail riding on my travels and it all seems to follow a template. The experience is aimed at the lowest common denominator, it’s pretty sedate and the horses are so well trained, you don’t even have to pull on the reins to direct them, they just follow the leader.

The experience here failed to break the template and, while I appreciate the need to appeal to all ages and abilities, even I, with my limited horse riding ability, found it a little too tame. That Orlando is in the middle of a very unseasonal cold snap didn’t help.

Things warmed up in the afternoon with a visit to the futuristically styled Epcot (the park gets its name from Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, if you were wondering).

Despite being a bit of a Walt Disney World veteran and Epcot being the biggest park, I’ve only been in it once and never done any of the major rides there, so it was something I’d been looking forward to, especially as I’d had the Mission: SPACE ride recommended to me.

The ride is a G-force simulator that gives the illusion of a rocket lifting off and flying to Mars. Four of you get into the same capsule and each has a mission ‘role’ that is supposed aid in getting the ship to its destination (it’s not complicated, you just have the odd button to press).

The ride’s actually a large centrifuge that spins at high speed and is used in real astronaut training to simulate the G forces that come into play on a real rocket launch. When the spinning begins and by keeping your eye on the screen ahead, you get the impression of blast-off acceleration, even feeling your face go all wobbly with the G forces.

Without giving too much away about the rest of the story, it’s a truly awesome ride that had me weaving out on slightly wobbly legs, although the sick bags that are in the capsule were, thankfully, not needed.

Soarin’ at Epcot is another great ride. Riders in cabs are hoisted into the middle of an iMax style screen and a film full of flight scenes is shown. The cab sways either way to give the illusion of flying… You can see a little of it here.

The night ended with a party for a campaign Disney is doing here in the US but not elsewhere. People who volunteer for a day somewhere get a free park ticket and an associated charity single, Make a Wave, has also been launched that features Camp Rock Stars Joe Jonas and Demi Lovato.

The teen heartthrobs that are allegedly dating if you believe the tabs here turned up to perform the song in front of a host of kids already on the program. You can see a clip of them singing below just before Epcot’s quite brilliant closing IllumiNations fireworks display (also below) started.

Launch of

Travel writers Catherine Quinn, Kieran Meeke and myself have just launched a new editorial website,

I won’t go into too much detail here, but check the site out and let us know what you think

The official party line:

New Launch: featuring The 360 Traveller magazine

Showcasing the best of travel writing, blogging and fact files on the web, launches this week. The site includes The Traverati blogging network with opinion from leading travel writers and regular guest slots.

Two of the best rides and what's new at Disney World

Yesterday we got the chance to try out a couple of the non-theme park activities here at Walt Disney World and so we had a morning of massages at the Grand Floridian Resort’s spa followed by a very competitive game of mini golf at Fantasia Gardens before heading for Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the afternoon.

Studios has to be my favourite of all the Disney parks here in Orlando. Not only is much of the content a little more adult but it’s also home to two of the best rides, Tower of Terror and the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster.

If you don’t know much about either, Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster is an Aerosmith themed coaster that kicks off with a straight where you go from 0 to 60 mph in around two seconds before hitting a couple of loop the loops while tunes like Dude Looks Like a Lady blare out.

Tower of Terror is based on an old episode of the Twilight Zone and features an elevator ride that freefalls 13 stories in one go… this video is from our ride. It’s a little dark but the screams will probably tell you how good it is.

In the evening we attended a press conference about what’s new for Disney for 2010, 11 and 12… while there’s no new big ride on the agenda like Universal’s Harry Potter which is set to launch this year, there’s still quite a bit happening.

Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland is undergoing a three-year expansion project that will begin this year. The expansion will see the addition of a new Fantasyland Forest where all the Disney Princesses (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid) will all have their own sections. The classic Dumbo’s Flying Circus will also be getting a makeover.

On the seas the big news is there will be more cruises from Europe, with Disney Magic taking on a five-month itinerary that includes sailings from Dover and the company’s first North European Cruises.

We also got to see a video of Aquaduct, the water slide that will be on Disney’s new ship Disney Dream when it launches early next year. The slide is stupendous, heading out off the ship and having riders sliding along in a glass tube over the sea below. It looks awesome.

Finally, Disney’s is re-branding the ESPN World of Sports Complex… now we don’t get to hear much about this in the UK, as apparently, not that many people book it. In fact, I’ve been to Disney World Orlando half a dozen times and never really heard of it.

It’s a massive sports complex with tonnes of playing fields – apparently one American Football team comes here for warm weather training – and there are all kinds of events and tournaments going on.

One of the coolest things to happen in the re-launch is if you play in a kids tournament by day, highlights of the matches will be edited into sports news broadcasts that are played on screens around the complex later that day… if I was still harbouring my schoolboy England dreams (it’s not too late for that call Mr Capello), I would have loved it.