Theme parks and weighty issues

Jamie – 8 December 2011

We have had just over a week now in Orlando and it has been a very relaxing week indeed.  The weather has been warm – mid 20’s each day – and we have been reasonably unstructured in our planning.  We have even made a habit of sleeping in, something we oddly haven’t done much of at all in our travels to date. Sort of a holiday within a holiday.

Orlando, as many will know, is the theme park capital of the world, and we have visited all the major ones.  We have been staying at the Floridays Resort (which is excellent) and have rented a car (which we recommend as the parks are spread over a wide area). December is a good time to visit – there have been few queues to contend with.  It is a telling fact that for a city with a population of just under 240,000 it has some 47 million tourists a year.  The two big operators are Disney (who have 4 theme parks and 2 water parks here, not to mention 33 hotels) and Universal (who have 2 theme parks and 1 water park) but there are a lot of others. They are all large-scale affairs – you usually find yourself parking your car in a 100 acre car park that can hold over 10,000 cars, catching a multi-carriage bus to a large ticketing area with dozen of turnstiles before entering the actual park. The Disney World Resort alone occupies 120 square kilometres – that is twice the size of Manhattan!  So it is not unusual to purchase multi-day tickets, and that is what we did – 3 days at Disney World, and 2 days at Universal.

The boys were up for all the rides which surprised me.  Only a year ago I would have had to work hard to get Foster on a roller coaster.  Now he is happily going on the most adventurous rides in the park, including the “Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios which accelerates from zero to 92 kph in 2.8 seconds in complete darkness and pulls 4.5 g’s, which is more than an astronaut experiences in a shuttle take-off.  And he did that ride twice.  Mylo if anything is even more adventurous, but sadly constrained by height requirements which knocked him out of contention on a few rides. For the record however he did ride the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.

Sari and Bec understandably preferred the shows to rides.  Beauty and the Beast, and all that.  The best park for the whole family was clearly EPCOT which is part of Disneyworld and is dedicated to the celebration of human achievement.  All the rides, exhibits and attractions are designed to showcase human innovation or international culture.  It is a nice mix of rides and shows and what Bec and I liked is that it had a high educational content (which the children did not detect).  Foster and Mylo designed their own roller coaster on a computer and had to allow for various critical inputs – speed, angles, etc – for the ride to “work”. Once successful they could climb into a hydraulic simulator on the end of a large robotic arm which would take them on their ride, exactly as they designed it.  Needless to say I got a little involved and steepened a few descents, added a few cork-screws, and generally pushed the machine to its boundary limits.  The boys loved it and the hydraulics got a good workout.

Foster particularly liked rides with water, especially if some (or a lot) of the water found its way onto the riders themselves.  The first time this happened was on a Popeye ride in one of the Universal parks.  It looked like a peaceful float down a mock river in a circular open-air 8-seater boat where we all faced each other.  Two rather large (read “very large”) women joined us in our “boat” and sat opposite, and this proved very fortunate. After leaving the boarding area we turned a corner and immediately descended down a set of white water rapids with huge waves.  Gravity took over and our craft turned so that our two fellow passengers became the bow of our boat.  This meant two things for them. Firstly they had no idea what was coming up as they were now facing backwards. Secondly they wore the full force of every wave that hit the boat (and in the process shielded us from a lot of it).  Their smiles were gone after the first wave but sadly for them there was no way to get off, or move to our side of the circle for that matter – good quality belts and an effective locking system saw to that.

Not that we escaped the water – we were drenched by the end of the ride.  But our adrenaline was pumping, we were smiling, and it was a sunny day. There were also small cell-like rooms at the end of the ride where, for $5, the three of us could climb in and be blasted by hot air for five minutes.  This as good as dried us out and had us off searching for other “wet rides”.  We found quite a few, but not before I had forked out for some all-body raincoats for the three of us.

The children up close with "Bruce" from Finding Nemo.

Mylo, Donald and Sari.

The women in our Popeye boat were not the only over-weight people we saw.  Many western countries are battling with the issue of obesity but I have never seen so many “large” people in my life as I have in the USA – it is a well publicised and very real problem over here.  According to a Government website, two-thirds of people in the USA are technically overweight and a third are defined as obese. The reasons are many and often obvious – diet is the big one. Too much of the wrong type of food. Too much fat, too much sugar. On the days when we have eaten out we find if we order for three that will more than feed our family of five, much to the consternation of the waitress.

In Australia a regular coffee is about 240 mls.  When I ask for a regular cappuccino here it comes in at 350 mls and if I were to ask for a “Venti” (as many people do) it comes in at over 700 mls.  That contains about as many calories as a standard meal – and that is before they add their donut or bagel to the order. Interestingly many menus over here carry a calorie-guide alongside each food or drink item, but I didn’t detect this changing people’s behaviour or food choices.

A little bit of research highlights some interesting consequences – US airline seats are considerably bigger than they used to be, as are average coffin and gravesite plot sizes.  Pity the pall bearers!  All of the theme parks we went to have stroller areas but it is not uncommon to see as many ride-on scooters parked there as there are children’s strollers.  In another proud-Dad moment, Foster suggested that we walk to the ticketing area from our car park rather than catch the bus.  It was only about 300 metres yet we were alone in that effort – everyone else waited for the bus.  Anyway, enough fat talk – there are plenty of healthy people over here as well, but the problem is real and growing!

On Monday the boys and I made the one hour drive to the Kennedy Space Centre, near Cape Canaveral.  It is an interesting time for NASA now that the Space Shuttle era has come to an end after 30 years (the last shuttle flew in July this year).  The International Space Station will now have its crew (including US members) deployed and returned solely by the Russians. NASA says it is now focussed on missions to Mars and the Moon but concede it is all at least a decade away. Un-manned rockets still leave regularly from the KSC (but none while we were there). Our visit was still exciting – we toured the Vehicle Assembly Building (the largest single story building in the world) and walked right up to the Shuttle Endeavour which was being prepared for its new home in a Californian museum. We went as close as you can go to the main launch pad, walked alongside a Saturn V rocket (the type that took man to the moon) and watched an IMAX film about the International Space Station.  We also touched an actual rock from the moon.

We leave for San Francisco tomorrow.  Lets see how American Airlines goes this time around.

Foster touching a real moon rock.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour - being readied for mothballs.

The "rocket garden" at the Kennedy Space Centre.

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2 Responses to Theme parks and weighty issues

  1. David Teague says:

    Jamie and Bec ,
    We had a great time hanging out with you at magic kingdom on the rides and enjoyed meeting all of you. Just so you know Disney gave us a voucher for new shoes for Rhiannon to replace the one she lost on Haunted mansion. Have a great rest of your trip.


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