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.

Forget worldofjames, say hello to Matthew Ironbird

Why are Pirates called Pirates? Because they arrrrrgh

Kellie applies the slap

Forget, 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.

Ever lost something on a plane? (and did you get it back?)

Quite a while ago, when I was travelling what seemed almost every weekend, I was in the middle of one of those mad sets of trips travel writers tend to do at some point.

My memory is sketchy as to the actual series of events – the jetlag, not too much booze in business class – but over four weeks I did something like:

Ten days in Texas; one back in the UK; three days in Perth with a day layover either side in Dubai; two days in the UK; three days in Atlantic City for the Miss America Pageant (that, I admit was a boozy trip); a day in the UK; two days in Rome; three days in Boston…

On the first leg of my flight to Perth, I left the plane, went through Dubai’s passport control, picked up my case and then remembered I had left my suit carrier onboard. Now given an Emirates cabin crew had taken the carrier off me, attached my boarding pass to it and put it in their wardrobe, you’d think it was their responsibility to give it back… but I accept, my suit, my fault…

What followed was a three-hour palaver as I sat nervously waiting for about three different members of staff to try and retrieve it… all who failed. Thankfully, it ended up coming by taxi to the hotel much later that evening.

(Lost) Property of Mr KS Meeke (seat 3c)

Why do I bring this up? Well because my good pal and colleague Kieran Meeke left his glasses on a plane on Monday and has just had a frustrating week ringing lost property at Heathrow every few hours to see if they turned up, but naturally no one EVER answers the phone (TFL Lost Property is just as bad by the way). Way to go Heathrow, you can stick up new Terminals and try and build extra runways, but you can’t get someone to answer the phone.

Kieran was flying business class with a leading airline and you’d think that when someone leaves something in a business class seat it can’t be that hard for someone at the airline to locate the owner…

After all, for the duration of the flight, you have been fawned over by the crew: yes Sir, no Sir, can we wipe your bum Sir? And most of the time they address you as Mister Blah (I have never been called Mister Ellis anywhere but on a plane).

Then of course there’s the passenger list. ‘Who was in 3C? Ah, so and so… the chap who’s bum I wiped.’ So surely it can’t be THAT difficult to make sure an object returns to its owner.

Or is it a case of when the person’s off the flight and the dollars have been banked, any semblance of service has to stop? Perhaps airlines have an unwritten rule about it.

Imagine – I know for you that know him, it’s a stretch 😉 – that Kieran had been heading to some high powered conference where he couldn’t read his speech as the glasses were lost.

He’s had to give up now, shelling out another small fortune for a new pair, but really, what’s the point of airline service and lost property departments if neither are any good to you when you really need them?

Guest blog: Will Hide on why he's never seen anything crap on his travels

In the latest in our series of Crap Things Seen while travelling, renowned travel writer and Times scribe Will Hide tells us why he never finds anything he thinks is rubbish…

In 20+ years of travelling I can honestly say it is extremely difficult to think of much that I regard as “crap”.

I think if you travel with the expectation that things will be different, not much comes across that’s bad.

It’s when you go with the “ooooh, it’s not like at home, is it?” mentality (which drives me nuts) that you get negative impressions. (Incidentally, of course it’s not like at home – that’s why you just sat in a long metal tube at 30,000 feet for the last six hours).

Yes, there’s hassle in Delhi and Marrakesh but even looking back on that I can (just about) see the funny side. And I suppose the one thing I really do hate when travelling – being at the mercy of airport taxi drivers who know they have you over a barrel – can be put down to an unfortuate side of human nature that you can find anywhere.

In fact travel only serves to highlight for me how much is crap when you come home.

Leeds Station: home of stationary trains?

Like the thoroughly annoying tannoy announcements at UK stations that tell you to be vigilent about looking out for unaccompanied bags, which just serve to stir up paranoia. And the equally excrutiating computer-generated “we are sorry you are inconvenienced for the cancelled 18.00 service to Leeds” messages that are totally meaningless because no one actually cares at all. In fact only in Britain does the word “sorry” actually mean “Piss off and leave me alone, I’m going home in five minutes and it’s only two years till I retire and get my pension.”

So I really don’t find much at all that’s crap about being abroad, except the jaded realisation that on returning home, the airport train probably won’t be running, the cash machine will be empty, someone will be chucking litter on the floor two feet from a bin and just one man will be manning the desk at Luton immigration on a Sunday night.

If anyone out there is reading this and thinking “well if you don’t like it, leave”, then great. If you can get me a US green card, or an Aussie work visa, please do get in touch.

Taking puppets across the water from Sri Lanka to Haiti

Sri Lanka schoolchildren learn the art of puppetmaking

Back in 2005 when I was in Sri Lanka post the tsunami, I came across a chap called Stefan Birckmann who’d come up with a genius idea.

Stefan was staying in Ambalangoda, a town on the west coast that is home to Sri Lanka’s ancient artform of puppet making. Prior to the tsunami, the puppet makers had largely been dying out as craftsmen.

With locals more interested in Westernised forms of entertainment like TV, cinema and the internet, puppet makers were making a living just from selling their wares to tourists.

The tsunami brought further devastation to these people, wiping out their workshops as well as their homes – at least until Stefan came along.

He had the idea of getting sponsorship for the pupeteers, getting them to create new puppets and taking a show around schools and refugee camps.

With no other entertainment and no electricity, puppets came back into fashion and puppet making classes were held in some of the schools with the children encouraged to tell their tsunami stories via the puppets, so offering a form of therapy to boot. One girl said: ‘I can talk about it now, because it’s the puppet talking and not me.’

Stefan ended up taking the show around the country, moving on to refugee camps housing people left homeless on the east coast as a result of the final push in the civil war between the government and Tamil separatists.

Stefan’s now come up with the idea of taking the puppet show to Haiti. As he says: ‘It would be a gesture between cultures of islands and about showing solidarity with victims of a natural disaster. Because of the experience of five years ago, the Sri Lankans are able to understand the experience and are able to share the needs in grief and trauma.’

He’s planning to take five puppeteers and musicians from Sri Lanka to Haiti and get local artists like painters and carvers to help out with the show and sets.

What he is looking for is some kind of sponsorship money to help him achieve it. I can vouch for Stefan, he’s a kosher bloke and a good pal. If you can help him out, please do so by getting in touch with him by clicking here.