Travel tales

V.Hols in V.big travel writing cock up

Why on earth do people think that just anyone can be a travel writer? Because if you’re one of the dozens of scribes trying to scratch out a living at a time when newspapers are cutting commissioning budgets, the latest announcement from Virgin Holidays can only be seen as yet another  insult to the profession.

Get me Alex James. No, not the one who'sactually a travel writer...

Apparently, the company has done a survey of 2,000 holidaymakers and because less than a third of them say they would never use a guidebook, they have decided to ‘reinvigorate travel writing’ by appointing a ‘travel laureate’ to pen a series of ‘first-hand destination-themed novels’.

The lucky recipient of this fabulous new title? Alex James.

Sorry, that’s not Alex James the actual travel writer Alex James, the kind of person you might be expect to be commissioned to write travel copy… but Alex James, cheese-making, one-time bass player with Blur whose writing skills amount to the occasional newspaper column about what it’s like to have finally moved to a Country House and an autobiography that recalls the heyday of Blur through a haze of drink and heavy cocaine use.

Now don’t get me wrong, Blur were a fabulous band and I’m sure Alex James (not the travel writing one) is an affable chap but I’m not quite sure how he’s been elevated from the role of all-round half-decent celeb to travel writing genius – especially when there are dozens of brilliant travel writers out there who would have bitten Virgin Holidays hands off for the commission.

Of course, none of them have the ‘celebrity announcement’ factor that Alex James (not the travel writing one) has.

So there you are travel writers of the UK, once again, your expertise garnered travelling the world for a living has gone to waste and you’ve been dumped in favour of yet another celebrity, just because their name is more known than yours.

Guidebook publishers like Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Frommers, Bradt et al might also be slightly miffed at James’ new role. The press release that accompanies the announcement claims that in some spurious and unattributed research, 8.5m Uk adults found travel guides ‘boring and staid’.

I normally like V.Hols and find them one of our best package companies, but I can’t help but feel that this whole ‘travel laureate’ campaign insults both travel writers and travel publishers and can’t be seen as anything else than one V.Big cock up.

Statement from Seaworld

This has just come to my inbox from Seaworld – happy to publish it.

February 24, 2010

A Message from Jim Atchison
President and Chief Executive Officer, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal
trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon, February 24, 2010 at our SeaWorld Orlando park.

We have initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what
occurred. There are no other details to share at this point, but we will make
our findings known in due course.

I must emphasize that this is an extraordinarily difficult time for the SeaWorld
parks, and our team members.

Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees, guests and the
animals entrusted to our care. All of our standard operating procedures
will come under review as part of the investigation.

We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the trainer
and will do everything possible to assist them in this difficult time.
We appreciate everyone’s understanding and will share more information as it becomes known and available.

SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego are open today as scheduled (SeaWorld San Antonio is not yet open for the season) but Believe shows and Dine with Shamu experiences at all SeaWorld locations have been suspended for the time being.  We will update you on this as soon as we have more information.

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:  http://uktraveleditor.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/top-10-five-star-hotel-pet-peeves

Follow Jill on Twitter:  www.twitter.com/UKtraveleditor

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.

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 traverati.com

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

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

The official party line:

New Launch: www.traverati.com featuring The 360 Traveller magazine

Showcasing the best of travel writing, blogging and fact files on the web, www.traverati.com 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.

Forget worldofjames, say hello to Matthew Ironbird

Why are Pirates called Pirates? Because they arrrrrgh

Kellie applies the slap

Forget Worldofjames.com, for he is no more… welcome in his place, ooh arrrrrgh me hearties, Matthew Ironbird. For I have been turned into a Pirate ready to pillage by the good folk here at Disney…

Despite the steady drizzle that rained on Orlando yesterday, (yes, it does rain here too at time), we still managed to pack a lot into our afternoon in the Magic Kingdom park, largely as there  are enough attractions indoors to keep you occupied.

Almost all the rides are covered for one thing: Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and the inimitable  Small World. If any ride will indoctrinate you to Disney, it’s Small World. I don’t know anyone who has ever come out of the ride without the song ingrained on their consciousness.

And then of course, there are the shows such as Mickey’s Philarmagic where 3D glasses help bring Mickey, Donald and some of Disney’s best loved film leads like Alladin to life.

With my new shipmates

Best of all though, and appealing to my slightly darker side, was the Pirate League in the park’s Adventureland where you can buy a series of pirate makeover packages – First Mate, Empress and Captain’s – which start from around 50 bucks without a full pirate costume and 125 with.

First you spin the ship’s wheel that rolls a pair of dice to select your new pirate name, then comes the makeover with a choice of six different face painting designs. Next, you’re kitted out with a sword and ear ring and – once an oath is sworn to Captain Jack Sparrow – ou get your personalised pirate certificate.

Somewhat predictably, I chose the ‘ghost pirate’ look which seems to include the most make up – hey if you’re going to do it, do it, right. Right? – and a pirate wench named Kellie went to work, recounting all sorts of pirate tales as she went. Did you know pirates started to wear ear rings as a form of acupuncture? Me either.

Once our group were all made up, off we went back into the park, starting our first ride as a new pirate band on… Pirates of the Caribbean, of course.