Gran, me & the USA Part 5: The Tourist Trail

Gran, the best ever Disney Princess exhausted after a day in the Magic Kingdom

Gran, the best ever Disney Princess exhausted after a day in the Magic Kingdom

It seems odd, I have some crystal clear memories of my adventure with gran, even though it was some thirty nine years ago, and yet for some of the big days out my memory seems sketchy. These visits to the big attractions in Florida would have been eagerly anticipated by me, so you’d have thought they would have been firmly embedded in my memory. Maybe we remember the things that surprise us, those unexpected moments that aren’t planned? If you’ve read the earlier episodes of the trip you’ll know there were plenty of those, and I promise you there are lots more to come as we continue our adventure.

Of the excursions we went on, I remember flying across the Everglades on an airboat, this looked like a giant tray with a massive fan on the back. It seemed to move very quickly, and I’m certain I remember watching Shirley Bassey on just such a boat on her TV show that was aired around the same time. Although, in Ms Bassey’s case she happened to be standing up, wearing an evening dress and singing. Even with her exceptionally powerful voice, I’m inclined to think that, in this instance, she would have been miming, as surely even she couldn’t compete with the noise generated by that massive fan? Thankfully my grandmother didn’t attempt to recreate this performance, as I don’t think it would have had a happy ending.

During our day in the Everglades we also went to see the alligators, there were a lot of them and they aren’t cuddly. As a group we went to watch the brave man wrestle with an alligator, we were stood on the right side of the fence. Even now I don’t know what to make of this, it was a tourist attraction and we were tourists watching the man putting on his show. We gasped and clapped at all the right times. Yet it didn’t excite me, and I have to say it didn’t inspire me to take up alligator wrestling when I returned home.

The man who wrestles alligators for a living.

The man who wrestles alligators for a living.

At this point our time in Miami Beach had come to an end, and we were heading up-state to Orlando, where for a few days we would be hitting the tourist trail big time. Getting there proved to be a treat as we were travelling on a Greyhound bus. I was excited when I climbed aboard this silver icon, and for the entire journey my eyes drank in every roadside detail, the buildings, the signs, and all the other traffic. So much of it already familiar from the TV programmes I’d seen, and now I was seeing it for real on a journey that ended way before boredom had the chance to set-in.

My excitement kept growing, as on arrival in Orlando I found out we’d be staying in a motel. We didn’t even have a car! Compared with Atlantic Towers hotel, that we’d checked-out of in the morning, the motel was all straight lines and featureless. Our room was on the first floor, and you reached it by an outdoor staircase and walking along an outdoor walkway. This was another first for me, and it overlooked the small swimming pool that I would enjoy splashing around in at the end of each of our Orlando days.

On the way to our room I spotted something very special; an ice machine. It was just stood there waiting to give you ice, and I decided in an instant that I would take charge of all our ice requirements during our stay here. Thankfully our room came complete with a plastic ice bucket, I was in possession of all the essential equipment needed to keep me and gran fully iced. The only snag being, I didn’t really know what we’d do with the ice. To the best of my knowledge we weren’t planning to hold any motel room based parties.

A minor detail such as this wasn’t going to stop me from executing my duties as “Ice Man”. and it wasn’t long before I’d acquired ice from the machine and returned it to our room. I’m sure over the coming days the very existence of the ice machine became the sole reason for trips to the store to purchase soft drinks that would demand ice to ensure they offered the maximum degree of chilled refreshment.

We visited SeaWorld, here we watched seals, dolphins and whales performing for us. At the time this seemed entertaining and the shows seemed very slick, but there’s no getting away from the fact they weren’t performing through choice. In contrast, as an adult I’ve stood on the headland at Gwbert and watched seals swimming alongside surfers in Cardigan Bay, and this was a truly uplifting sight. The seals were interacting naturally with humans, and each species was enjoying their experience. So back to SeaWorld in 1980, and I struggle to see how these types of performances can be justified as a form of entertainment for humans. It’s not something I agree with, and all I can really say is that I won’t encounter it again.

Meanwhile, still on the tourist trail, our next stop was NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre. I have to admit that I was never that child who ran around the garden in an astronaut costume, space for me wasn’t the final frontier. Even watching the TV series, Space 1999 my attention was drawn to the futuristic interiors of the space station more than the storyline. To this day, I’d have no objection if anyone wanted to source and treat me to a Sorella Lamp, for me just spotting this lamp made any episode worth watching.

However, being a total architecture geek, I do of course remember seeing the Vehicle Assembly Building, this was huge, and standing on its own the scale of the building was impossible to judge. As it happens, its some 160 meters tall, with an internal volume nearly four times greater than the Empire State Building. This is all I needed to see to be fully impressed with the Space Centre.

There was a moment at the Space Centre when I did become somewhat terrified. This wasn’t from a fear of accidentally finding myself on a Space Shuttle mission, instead my terror was much more down to earth. Eating lunch at a picnic area, glancing to my left, and just the other side of an insubstantial wire fence, my gaze met the gaze of an alligator. My mind was racing: Was I about to become lunch? Where’s a professional alligator wrestler when you need one? Surely that wire fence wouldn’t be enough to hold it back?

On the basis that it wasn’t moving “Supergran” decided the alligator was “fake” and to prove this she scrunched up a paper napkin, walked up to the fence and aimed it at the alligator’s nose. Really, I couldn’t take my grandmother anywhere, as much as I was growing up on this holiday, she seemed to be morphing into a reckless ‘80s teenager.

It turned out the alligator wasn’t fake, and was happy to express its displeasure with regards to the napkin on nose incident. The jaws opened wide, I could easily be accommodated in that space, and suddenly I seemed to have lost my appetite. Thankfully, this display of displeasure was soon over, and the alligator slid back into the water. I’m still not convinced that fence would have saved me!

There was of course another trip that we were going to take in Orlando, and this was the big one. We were heading to the Magic Kingdom that is Disney World. On the other side of the Atlantic I never thought of Disney World as being a theme park, instead it seemed to be some kind of mythical place where it was always sunny, everyone was happy and there was an endless choice of things to do and see. Now gran and me were about to enter, just being at the entrance seemed unreal, I never imagined being there and true to the dream it was sunny.

My Disney experience started on a monorail, this was unbelievable. I was on an actual monorail. At the time I was convinced we’d soon all be travelling everywhere on monorails as they were the future. So what could be better than travelling on a monorail? A monorail that glided into the Contemporary Resort Hotel. I know other kids would want to meet the Mouse, but for me, entering a building on a monorail was the biggest treat ever, especially as this was a surprisingly Brutalist building too. It really couldn’t get any better.

The hotel was shaped like a capital “A” and the monorail, being elevated, entered what must have been three or four floors up from ground level. I later learnt, in a book a bought in Disney World, that the concrete frame was built first and the bedrooms were prefabricated off site, fully finished and simply craned up and slotted into the building. I still think this is an amazing way to put a building together. Although, I do wonder how they connected up all the plumbing and electrics. Maybe one day I’ll solve this mystery.

At the Main Street USA Train Station, we disembarked the monorail and had arrived in the Magic Kingdom. Going from a brilliantly Brutalist hotel to this step back in time, to a perfectly imagined vision of America ,was indeed a culture shock for me. The level of attention to detail was off the scale, I’ve always obsessed over details and this street was feeding my obsession with the biggest “all you can eat” buffet imaginable. My mind was on overdrive, it’s fair to say I was totally overwhelmed.

Thankfully, gran spotted the candy shop and in we went. As I like sweets as much as architecture, being in a Disney candy shop, on the perfectly imagined Main Street nearly had my eyes popping out of my head. Could I compare this to my corner shop back home, with a counter I could just about reach, and my 10p would buy me a small paper bag of sweets? The Disney version was a shop overloaded sweets, more than I’d seen in any one place. The colours were bright and the displays adventurous to the point you didn’t want to touch them even. Sensibly, gran suggested we could “pop back in” at the end of the day to save carrying sweets around all day. I was happy to agree with her logic, and was already thinking about the sweets I’d be eating on the monorail at the end of our day!

We delved deeper into Disney World, and I know we went on a number of rides, some with animated figures singing songs, some that spun us around and no doubt plenty more that my mind has since forgotten. I’m sure my sensory overload made it impossible to retain much of what I experienced that day. This was also the time when you didn’t take many photographs, partly because you knew you had to pay for your films to be developed when you got back home.

Add in a lot of walking on a hot day, and it was a relief to be sitting in what was a surprisingly empty cafe with gran. Time and again on this trip the waitresses (there were never any waiters) would refer to my gran as “Ma’am”. This was well received by gran, I think it made her feel very special, and I’m pretty certain it encouraged her accent to become increasingly “British” with each passing day.

On this occasion, as always, gran started a conversation with our waitress, and soon we were being asked where we came from. I’m proud to be Welsh, but in America in 1980 saying you were from Wales was consistently met with a blank expression. So if you said you were from Wales, you’d soon find yourself giving a lesson about the constituent nations of the UK, and even then the most common response would be, “Is that near London?.” Of course you don’t want to deny where you come from, but with gran being a Bristolian, I simply kept quiet when we were asked where we came from and let her give the response of least resistance! This approach probably saved us at least an hour of explaining on a daily basis.

The waitress also asked gran if she’d met the Queen, to which gran said yes, and I kid you not the waitress nearly fainted on us. Now, you could argue that seeing someone in a horse drawn carriage go past you in front of Cardiff Castle in 1977 as part of a Silver Jubilee tour, isn’t quite the same as actually meeting the person. However, surely it’s perfectly appropriate be fact light in a Magic Kingdom where everything around you is an enhanced version of reality? I sensed that gran’s revelation contributed to us receiving the most exceptional level of service ever experienced in that cafe.

We did as much of the Magic Kingdom as you could possibly imagine that day, and yes I got to eat sweets on the monorail! This brought to a close our time in Orlando, and soon we’d be heading back to the real world as New York was our next and final destination. For me this was going to be the highlight of the trip, and in the next episode I’ll share with you our adventures in the Big Apple.