Orlando

Wizarding World of Harry Potter to open today – first pics

In a few hours time, Virgin Holidays customers will be the first people into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventures in Orlando – the rest of the not-so-wizarding world gets in from June 18.
Lookswise, the new park is pretty spectacular – see some of the pics below – but sizewise, it could see some people queueing for a quite a while to get into star attractions like Olivander’s Wand Shop where, through some cute acting and clever animatronics, your wand may choose you (before you then pay $25 for it).
Some people are bound to be disappointed by the signature ride Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey, not only will some larger people be unable to ride it, there is a form of ritual humiliation for them outside. They have to sit in a tester ride seat in full public view: get a green light and you are good to go, get a red one and you’re off…
The snow-capped houses and shops of Hogsmeade village
Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts Express
Hogwarts Castle home of the signature ride - unlucky if you're overweight
Souvenir wand, it picks you for $25

Exclusive: first pic of cast members at Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Robbie Coltrane, Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, and Oliver and James Phelps

This morning, Harry Potter film stars Robbie Coltrane, Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, and Oliver and James Phelps began their sneak peek tour of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter by entering Hogsmeade. The group was invited to Universal Orlando Resort for a first-look at the immersive environment, and will spend the day visiting many of the iconic locations made famous in the popular Harry Potter series. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort grand opens on June 18.

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.

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.

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.

Speeding on the water at Walt Disney World

I’m here at Walt Disney World in Orlando for the park’s annual resort showcase… basically, Disney brings a host of journalists from different publications and shows them what’s on offer here and what’s coming up for the coming year.

And I have to say, on the first day yesterday, they pulled out all the stops for a fabulous first day.

Meeting a new friend

First up in the morning was a gut busting character breakfast at The Grand Floridian Resort – Disney’s poshest hotel here in Orlando. Characters who came round to see us tucking into the buffet breakfast included Tigger, an amazingly good Mary Poppins, Alice (of Wonderland fame) and Belle from Beauty and The Beast.

And if you ever want to see a group of British journalists transgress to five-year-olds (maybe make that three, most of us act like five year-olds anyway), introduce them to a group of Disney characters… The flashbulbs were bursting quicker than if Jordan revealed she was a John Terry conquest.

There was a similar reaction post breakfast to the Sea Raycers – mini self-driven speed boats that you cna use to zoom up and down Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake – two of the lakes that are in the resort and on which some of the key hotels are based.

The Sea Raycers look quite innocuous when you first see them but they cruise along at about 25mph and hitting the wake of another boat going from side on makes your vessel bounce up and down like crazy – as buzzy a feeling as any of the rollercoasters in the parks.

The afternoon was a little more subdued with a trip to Animal Kingdom – one of Walt Disney World’s six parks. Here we piled on to a Kilimanjaro Safaris vehicle – a jeep that, Africa-style takes you through surprisingly realistic mock savanah, to see the park’s wild animals that include lion, giraffe, elephant, black and white rhino and more antelope than you can shake a camera at. Finally, we headed for a last adrenalin boost with a rollercoaster.

A mountain to climb in Animal Kingdom

Expedition Everest has to be one of my favourite ‘coasters in the park… Without wishing to spoil the surprise, it’s a pretty fast and hairy ride that’s such fun we decided to do it all again before being dragged kicking and screaming (OK, we were really asked politely) back to our hotel, the Contemporary Resort, to get ready for a posh dinner at the Citricos restaurant back at the Floridian

Food is something I’m hoping to look in a post toward the end of the week – Disney claim to have a host of top restaurants these days rather than just the fast food joints the parks used to offer. I’m looking forward to seeing how they fare, especially as today we’re meeting American celebrity chef Cat Cara’s Kouzzina restaurant on Disney’s BoardWalk.