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The trip to Orlando, Florida – 26 August to 3 September 2011

As is always the case with any holiday, the countdown to departure day took forever and the trip itself was over in a flash! But still, a good time was had and I set out to achieve everything that was hoped for.

It was around lunchtime on Thursday 25 August that I finished work for the trip and the early finish was due to not having done any packing and the fact that I had to pick up my chum, Ian, from Gatwick in the early evening. It felt good to be shutting down the computer and not having to look at the thing again for 11 days!

The following morning, it was around 7.15am that we set off for the airport – Heathrow Terminal 4 – and we arrived in good time for our 10.30am flight to Boston. This wasn’t to be a direct flight, however, and our journey would break in Boston, Massachusetts, for around 2 hours, where it would be necessary to change to a smaller aircraft for the final 3 hour leg of the trip.

Watching the news in the days leading up to our departure, it became clear that somebody, somewhere, was doing everything to stop us from getting away. Not only was Hurricane Irene passing close to the east coast of Florida, bringing tropical storms to the state and potentially closing airports, but New York and Boston were affected by an earthquake only a couple of days before. It was particularly frustrating knowing that our travel plans could be in jeopardy due to two of Mother Nature’s doings. I have had similar luck in the past on two trips to Thailand; one where military protests led to the Foreign Office advising against all but essential travel to the country and another where a fatal plane crash closed Phuket airport for a couple of days – opening just in time for our flight’s arrival there.

The flight was surprisingly good for an American airline. My experience of American carriers is limited to just American, United and now Delta, but Delta was the best of the bunch. The aircraft, a Boeing 767-400, was modern and clean with a good sized TV, complete with audio and video on demand. The staff were attentive and the meal and snack served was adequate. My only gripe was that alcoholic beverages had to be paid for, and at $6 for a beer and $7 for spirits, it wasn’t fantastic value for money! Not only that but payment was only possible by credit card.

So, after just over 7 hours in the hour, we were on the picturesque approach  into Boston’s Logan International Airport and we disembarked only minutes later into a very empty terminal. I had envisaged lengthy and slow-moving lines in immigration, but this wasn’t to be the case. Rather surprisingly, the short queue moved quickly, and after a quick round of 20 questions by the old lady working at the counter, I was allowed to proceed. I took back my passport – complete with a Boston stamp (I’ve not had one of them before) – and fetched by suitcase. Rather annoyingly, when travelling through the USA, you need to collect your baggage and walk through customs before dropping it off at a connections desk. It’s a quick enough process but far from being the most convenient way of doing things for passengers in transit.

After much walking through the empty airport, we soon found ourselves in Delta’s domestic terminal and in a long line for security. As had been the case all day, the workers seemed to chuckle at my friend’s passport picture taken years previously. He had long hair and the jokes continued. It was like the airport workers had never seen a guy with long hair before. Just to be polite, we laughed at every joke, even though we weren’t really amused any more.

Our next flight was under way in no time at all and it was absolutely full, no doubt because Delta only fly the route once a day using one of their ageing McDonnell Douglas MD-88 aircraft in a 3-2 seating configuration. There was just one seat spare and that was just across the aisle from us – the middle seat – which had been purchased by the morbidly obese passenger in seat 11C, presumably to allow him to rest his rather large belly. Whilst this passenger had sensibly purchased a second seat to increase his comfort inflight and so as not to ruin the flight for anybody who might have had the misfortune of sitting next to him, he obviously didn’t take into account the very limited legroom offered by the airline. The man was not only very fat but also very tall and he struggled throughout the flight to get comfortable. When the very elderly gentleman sat in front of him tried to recline his seat, the chubby chap grabbed the seat with both hands and shook it violently. Whilst I had some sympathy for the fat man, it didn’t seem right that others should be inconvenienced.

With nothing in the way of entertainment on this flight except for ‘Sky’ magazine and the awful shopping catalogue, which was full of useless inventions for the home that only an American could need, I spent much of flight watching the fat man across the aisle and it was clear he was in a lot of discomfort. His right leg was covered with a tubey grip and his left leg was firmly squeezed between the seats. He got up at one point to use the toilet and I tilted my head into the aisle as he walked into the toilet at the front of the aircraft. Even now, I am amazed that he managed to do it. They are not the biggest of spaces – even for somebody of my dimensions – so I was surprised to see that he managed it, even if he did have to enter sideways.

Arriving in Orlando, we went along to the Budget car rental counter and picked up the keys for our car for the 8 day stay. Having never driven in Florida before, I decided to be sensible when it came to hiring a vehicle. I booked weeks in advance and requested a 2-door compact car. Arriving at the counter, however, Budget thought they were doing me a favour by offering a “free upgrade” to a considerably larger Toyota Prius. Anyway, despite it taking me a good 5 minutes to start the car every time I needed to, it was quite a nice car and a very quite one too.

A short drive away was the Sheraton Vistana Resort and that was to be our base for all but one night of the trip. The resort was huge and the accommodation was very nice; with two large bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, our own laundry facilities, a large lounge and dining room and a terrace area overlooking a lake. With a countless number of swimming pools on-site along with no end of places to eat, drink and shop, this really was the sort of place that you never really needed to leave. And whilst ‘value for money’ might be the last thing that springs to mind when thinking ‘Sheraton’, I was very surprised at the very affordable food and drink that could be purchase on site and even at the on-site food court, where Pizza Hut, A&W and KFC could all be had for the same low prices.

So, on the morning of the wedding – Will was marrying Fakhri – we went off for a pre-wedding breakfast at Denny’s (not particularly classy, but it was cheap) and then agreed to follow Will to the church. With the wedding only 3 hours away at a church somewhere we had never been to before, it made sense to follow him there, then to return to our accommodation and get ready before making the drive back again. As we stopped at some traffic lights, a car-load of Northerners pulled up alongside us and asked, “Did you know you had a flat tyre?” Thinking about it now, that was perhaps a silly question. Surely nobody would be silly enough to cruise around with a flat tyre, would they?

With the traffic lights now on green, there was no way of getting Will’s attention as he disappeared off into the distance, and we were forced to turn into a grimy shopping centre – The Crossroads – and to find a phone where contact could be made with Budget. With the wedding only hours away, time was of the essence, and that was explained during each of the five telephone calls that were made to the rental company. Despite being promised a 40-minute response, we still hadn’t seen anybody after about 90 minutes, so another call was necessary. In one breath, the woman on the end of the phone told me that a repair man was driving around the car park looking for us, and in another, she told me that he hadn’t been able to find us and that he had gone home. Great!

We had to admit defeat and decided to leave the car in the car park and get a taxi back to the accommodation. Our time was just about up, so we had to quickly wash, shave, iron and dress in the space of about 20 minutes! Fortunately for us, Will was only minutes away. He had been driving around the local area looking for us, still clueless as to where we were.

We arrived at the church in good time and the service got under way. It was a Catholic wedding – not something I have ever experienced before – and it lasted for around an hour, with the service being delivered by quite a few different people and with a lone woman breaking into song now and again. Not familiar with this type of wedding, I didn’t know what to do or say when a man across the aisle approached me mid-service, shook my hand and said, “Peace be with you, brother”, I smiled and replied, “Arr, thanks!” I have since learned that I should offered him my wishes of peace also.

With the service over, we headed next door to a large function room for the reception, where we enjoyed some Champagne and some food. I watched for some time as a lady tried to cut the tiered wedding cake without taking it apart first. She attacked the top tier with a knife and the little plastic legs couldn’t hold any longer. They gave way and the cake came crashing down, which was a shame. She was obviously embarrassed and continued to shake her head in disbelief for some minutes after the incident. With little damage done, we were able to enjoy a slice each, and very tasty it was too!

With the reception over, we headed back to the Sheraton, got changed and then went back to the shopping centre to check out the car. It had been a very warm day and the flat tyre had started to melt into the road! After much more waiting, a repair man finally appeared and change the tyre for us, but the car had to go back to the airport the following morning and a replacement was necessary. And surprise surprise, we received another “free upgrade”, this time to a Chevrolet Malibu. Although a very nice looking car, it was huge, and I wasn’t massively confident about driving the thing, but I gave it a go and soon started to love the thing.

The rest of the week was spent taking advantage of the great weather (before the afternoon storms set in), exploring the local attractions and also doing a bit of flying. It felt strange to be back at Orlando Flight Training again but I really enjoyed it, and even though I didn’t quite manage the number of hours I was hoping for, I did have a biennial flight review and I did a sufficient number of takeoffs and landings to get my JAA CPL currency back again. The two flights that I did saw me travelling the short distance down to Lake Wales for touch and goes.

We also spent a day at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, which, although expensive, was a lot of fun. Not much had changed in either of the parks since my last visit in April 2010, but the rides were still as exciting as ever. It was just the heat that I found bothersome. With temperatures soaring to 100F, standing in queues was an uncomfortable experience, and the crazy downpour and storm that appeared suddenly in the afternoon was actually quite pleasant. The temperature plummeted and so did the humidity.

With the last 36 hours upon us, it was time to pack up and leave the Sheraton Vistana and to head off to the Caribe Royale on World Center Drive for our last night. It was a surprisingly decent 4* hotel with good, clean facilities and an excellent standard of accommodation. Unlike normal hotel rooms, these were ‘suites’ and apart from offering a bedroom with two rather large beds and a huge TV, there was also a separate lounge area next door, also equipped with a television, fridge and microwave.

After spending the night in the comfortable room, I decided to spend a few hours of the final day sat by the pool before checking out. With a large waterfall and a slide, the pool here put some other hotels to shame. I left the room call for a lift, which soon arrived. Inside was a very old Indian lady with two young children. They came out of the lift and the old lady – complete with zimmer frame – emerged a minute or so later. Just as soon as she was clear of the doors, I went to enter the lift, but the doors closed and the lift disappeared. One of the children then pointed out that they were on the wrong floor and they called for another lift, which soon appeared on the opposite side – about 20 steps for me but a good 5-minute walk for the old lady! Rather impatiently, I barged my way into the lift but the children followed and they assured their gran (or great gran – she really was that old) that they would hold it for her, much to my disappointment. The last hours of my holiday were ticking down and there I was, spending forever waiting for an old lady to get in the lift. The trip from the room to the pool should have taken 90 seconds at most. That morning, however, it took about 10 minutes.

Our flight home was to be operated by Air France and this trip was sure to test us both. Not only was the flight indirect but the stop at Paris Charles-de-Gaulle was to be for five hours, which wasn’t ideal. We stood in line at check-in for a long time and when we reached the desk, I was told that my bag was overweight by 2kg. To be  honest, it all seemed a bit petty to me. Yes, I was carrying a little more than I should have been, but somebody on the same booking as me had a mere 17kg, so I didn’t see the problem? Anyway, feeling tired and not in the mood for an argument and complied with the woman’s request to remove some of the additional weight.

At 8.45pm, we began the 8 hour 20 minute flight to Paris on a Boeing 777, which took us through the night, landing shortly after 11.00am the following morning. As far as comfort was concerned, Air France were acceptable. Just like Emirates, they insist on squeezing 10 seats across in their economy cabin when it should only be nine; as it the case with the vast majority of 777 operators. The slightly reduced seat width is quite noticeable. As for entertainment, however, that was better. A good choice of film, television and music was available on-demand, including recent films like Arthur and Source Code. The meal service was adequate but it seemed to favour quality over quantity. Despite travelling a lot, I have never been handed such a full meal tray in economy before, so Air France put a lot of other carriers to shame. On the tray were two full full size rolls, a coronation chicken starter, a chicken and rice main course, a cherry sponge dessert, cheese and crackers and two bottles; one of red wine and one of rum. It was just a pity that I don’t drink either!

After landing in Paris, the dreaded 5 hour wait began, but we first had to navigate our way through the complicated transit process. Since my last visit to Charles-de-Gaulle back in 2005, a lot had changed, and the terminal was looking newer and fresher, but signage was appalling, staff were rude and queues were crazy. It took forever to get to where we needed to be and it meant clearing immigration and then having to join a lengthy security line to get back through to departures.

After much waiting, we were soon London-bound, again with Air France. After a long wait in a very expensive terminal, I was a little peckish and I couldn’t wait for the trolley of snacks to reach my seat. But when the steward handed me only a can of Coke and a packet peanuts, my jaw dropped. Fair enough, this was only a 40 minute flight, but a packet of peanuts? And worst of all was the fact that the bag contained about five of the things so they didn’t cure my hunger.

And that was that. Florida was officially over. I headed home and eagerly awaited returning to work at 8.30am the next morning.

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