Why it’s a great, brave, beautiful Tomorrowland (here be spoilers)

Other people’s opinions… who needs ’em, right? I jest, of course, but with a film like Tomorrowland (aka Tomorrowland: A World Beyond in the UK) there is bound to be an even more splintered variety. A publicity campaign that revealed very little about the story. A vision of retro-futurism that has to appeal both to baby boomer nostalgia and a brand new audience for whom 1964 is as far away from their birth as WWII was from their parents’. An ambitious anti-cynicism message – and here, I warn you again that, while I’m not going to wallow in spoilerific spoilerism, there are some things ahead that probably will give away more than you need to know. I really enjoyed going in blank, so if you haven’t seen the film yet but are expending a little of your generous curiosity towards me, perhaps bookmark this for later? I’ll still be waffling away when you’re done watching.

When I reviewed Tomorrowland, I made some references to the fact that it made important moves from a feminist perspective. On greater reflection, I think it actually goes further than I thought. There are really two strands here – character in the film and characterisation beyond the film – and both of them are extremely promising. I won’t repeat myself too much, but within the film you have two female characters that are independent, intelligent and resist female stereotyping. And it’s not by being a Strong Female Character, but by virtue of being a well-written character who happens to be female. There is also very little male gaze and romance, and such as there is (more on this in a moment) is really about friendship and shared vision. There’s some ass-kicking, but though it’s delivered by an incongruously shaped character – that of a 11-year-old girl – by then, you’re already aware that she’s not human.

So many times, when a physically or emotionally strong female character is delivered to us, it comes from a place of born exceptionalism, or pain. Now, Casey is repeatedly characterised as ‘special’, but it’s to do with her optimistic outlook, not her born or trained physical assets. She has woes and worries – her obsession with halting the dismantling of the NASA platform is more about saving her dad’s job than it is about advancing the ambitions of humanity to build a better world – and a clearly absent mother, but she is not defined by her father’s pain or her mother’s invisibility. Later on, she falls in with Frank because of what he can do for her, and when she helps him it’s out of basic human decency, and not because of anything she feels she owes him (to be honest, they never seem all that fond of each other beyond their shared goals and connection to Athena). There’s no Bella clumsiness, Katniss rage or Buffy strength powering Casey, nor flirty ditziness or emo contrariness. She has achieved what many male characters but few female ones do – a character arc that relies on her growing and becoming more confident in herself and her ability to get stuff done without any superhuman qualities or reference at any point to her physical appearance or romantic aspirations. We have Mikey Walsh levels of faith, here, and an Indiana Jones attachment to a hat – the latter of which is even used as a vehicle to deliver a broadside to the embittered narrative that’s meant to drive most heroes.

So what of actual romance? Well, there is some. And it’s between an ageing cynic and a robot child. Kind of. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, two characters separated by a world of humanity and several decades have to reconcile their feelings towards one another – and one of them has only programmed emotions. Crucially, what we don’t have here is a robot that wants to be human (another female-ish character who is content in herself!), but in a very delicate, beautifully handled scene Athena and Frank have to deal with forty years of unresolved hurt and confusion and in doing so it is Frank who is mostly changed. And therein lies the other great female-friendly power of this film: all the rollicking emotional rollercoaster – all the feelings of love and betrayal – belong to a boy, and a man. In one movie, all the logical thought and optimistic foresight belong to female characters, a rare sight; even rarer, all the drama belongs to men. Between Frank Walker and David Nix we have characters who have, effectively, given up because they’re angry and bitter and feel slighted – one mostly by a single person, the other by the world at large. If there’s a statement as powerful as allowing women to be coolly logical, it’s surely allowing men to display real emotion.

And now, the world beyond. I think what often confuses people outside the Disneyverse is a sense of a bit of a disconnect between product and marketing. Let’s take Tangled as an example, since it’s one of my favourites. Rapunzel is actually a pretty kick-ass heroine, and even on the DVD cover she’s quite fierce – feet planted firmly apart, stern grin and frying pan aloft. But by the time you hit the merchandising – all iridescent princess dresses and batted eyelashes – it’s hard to convince anyone who hasn’t seen the film that she’s actually a pretty rounded and interesting character. I can watch Tangled til the cows come home, but as an adult I don’t really buy any merchandise associated with it because for me it doesn’t really reflect what I love about the film. With Tomorrowland, though, it’s hard to see where there can even be any opportunity for the marketing to be in any way different from the creative property. A few people have pointed out posters that just feature Frank but, despite being someone who’s had a few ‘where’s Natasha?’ moments, I actually think this is a good thing; there are two separate stories here, Frank’s and Casey’s, and I think it’s fine to have marketing devoted to each. And when it comes to merchandise, the most obvious piece – that glorious pin – is as gender neutral as it gets. If you get into costumes and appearance, Casey largely wears jeans, hoodies and a NASA cap. Athena has a couple of dresses, but they’re more retro-futuristic cosplay than tiaras and sparkles (no, there’s nothing wrong with tiaras and sparkles, it’s just nice to have a change). I’m all for backpacks that look like jetpacks, you know? I simply can’t see where this could possibly do anything other than celebrate the gorgeous vintage World’s Fair design inspiration and the general sense of optimism and adventure that is so key to the film.

And therein lies the last part of why I think Tomorrowland is, on the whole, pretty ace. When was the last time you can remember a high stakes potential blockbuster – one without franchise surety, but with star power and a hugely respected directorial force – with such an unambiguously positive message? Morality in Tomorrowland is embedded within having an optimistic vision for humankind, and then – importantly – taking the next step to work towards it. It’s a hell of a sermon – Lindelof has admitted he’d like people to feel a bit guilty – and though there was only one point in the film where I felt it was laid on a bit thick, it’s a bloody important one. It’s a message I’d like my daughter to hear, to take action on. Even though I already want to be a decent human being, which to me means at least trying to put kindness and compassion at the centre of everything, I was unsettled into thinking I’m probably not trying hard enough. The spring’s big tentpole release already covered the ambiguities of riding roughshod over other people’s misgivings when you’re focussed on creating a better tomorrow, but the difference between Tony Stark’s megalomania (I will protect the Earth!) and Casey Newton’s inclusive forward thinking (what can we do to fix this?) is patently obvious. And, much as I love me a complex, morally uncertain superhero narrative, sometimes an undiluted shot of positivity to the arm is exactly what’s needed as an antidote to a pervading sense of the world going to hell in a handbasket.

Sometimes you watch a film and love it, but later can’t quite quantify what it was that made you love it. With Tomorrowland I’ve had the opposite with an increasing sense of certainty that its detractors – and there are a few, especially in the Twitter Disney echo chamber that I sort of love and am fearful of at the same time – are either missing these strengths or considering them unimportant. Since arguing the case on Twitter is a 140 character exercise in frustration, I thought I’d be better served by simply laying it all out here – where I have a hope in hell of landing my point.

If you’re still with me, congratulations, you’re a great big nerd. I like great big nerds, whether or not they agree with me, so let’s talk. Go.

A day out in Bexhill-on-Sea: the De la Warr Pavilion, the Little British Tea Shop and Eras of Style

This post is actually long overdue. It was (gasp) MARCH when I footled off to Bexhill to spend a day with a good friend and explore the loveliness of a classic British seaside town. But it hasn’t left me, because – especially for a born Londoner who has only managed to take herself further away from water by moving to the Home Counties – there is something so very lovely about the British coast, the jumbled mix of hipster-chic and genuinely crumbling, the proliferation of junk shops and charity outlets and the immediate sense of letting out a big breath you didn’t know you were holding the moment you leave the city. Bexhill isn’t one of the classic treasures (usually in Wales or Cornwall) that you see dotted around tourist websites, all vying for a Portmeirion-esque chocolate boxness that is very, very pretty but somehow unconvincing as a living town. Bexhill is not a town of summer homes. Even in the cold, damp English springtime it was alive and well, keeping calm and carrying on.

Memories of Ladybird - a truly excellent story!

Memories of Ladybird – a truly excellent story!

Our ostensible reason for meeting there – K’s parents live in Bexhill but she’s actually based in St Leonard’s – was to visit the Ladybird by Design exhibition at the De la Warr Pavilion, which was absolutely wonderful, and – though it has completed its run in Bexhill –  is due to arrive in London in July. I’d recommend a visit to the DLWP any day, whatever the exhibits – it’s a lovely space, beautifully situated. Go in, have a coffee, browse the little shop crammed tastefully with quirky prints, arty bags and cute knick-knacks. There are lots of planned family activities too; for the Ladybird exhibition there was an entire wall covered with memories and experiences of Ladybird books from visitors aged 5-95. My favourite (pictured) was a wonderful note from a woman who had, as a child, become the basis for some of the classic illustrations!

Having spent a couple of hours digging around the wonderfully curated galleries and picking up a few treats at the gift shop (an amazing late 50s living room print now hangs over my retro dressing table), we considered what we could do with the rest of our day. That led us to the Little British Tea Shop, which was practically guaranteed to appeal to me on every single score. Vintage decor and mismatched crockery? Check. Bountiful savoury options (including a savoury only tea)? Check. A proper, lengthy, loose leaf tea menu with everything from builder’s to oolong? CHECK. We sat in the kitschest and cutest of window seats and shared a crumpet smeared with salty butter and a delicious cuppa and it was glorious. I was wearing a 1960s fuchsia Lane Bryant suit skirt from my vintage collection, but bitterly regretted not having a 40s number and pin curls  in (I haven’t mastered Victory rolls yet). The service is friendly and warm and practically out of a film. And the prices are distinctly un-London at around £14.50 for afternoon tea for two.

Much of the rest of the day was spent wandering around the shops; I picked up a lovely fabric shoulder bag for our holiday to Florida, and a birthday treat for myself of a shrink plastic watercolour octopus brooch. There is what I can only refer to as an embarrassment of charity shops – then again, the intersecting local high streets in Bucks where I live have nine of them within a mile radius – and independent shops crammed with a mixture of local arts and crafts and general souvenir tat. A bit like walking into Not on the High Street (on the high street)…

Jaf-argh!

Jaf-argh!

That was when K suggested we pop to the antiques warehouse up past the police station; it was a short walk out of town, but entirely worth every minute. I want to go back with a truck and someone else’s credit card. Eras of Style is a mammoth two-story treasure trove packed to the gills with vintage furniture, records, toys… you name it. It’s a little light on clothing, but crammed with practically everything else. I fell in love with at least three separate tables (so. much. G-Plan.) and I adored the more random bits and bobs like the 60s fairground attraction car and some crazy bits of Disney memorabilia like Jafar here, hanging out in the coffee shop. The cafe is itself worth a visit, with nice tea, multiple cake options – I spotted gluten-free ones, too – and apparently now a specialism in bagels (I am SO going back).

Sea air, wonderful places to have tea, art and vintage style. And the wonderful thing is that this kind of footprint is repeated readily across Britain, and should be loved and treasured for what it is. I do worry that one too many hipsters like me and the places risk being gentrified; then again, a lot of these towns have suffered rising unemployment and could do with an investment of cash and love (preferably from people with an interest in staying in, rather than exploiting and running from, the area). I often wish I could travel further, wider and more often (how ungrateful that sounds after a trip to Florida!) but I also forget that there are little jewels on my doorstep – a drive or cheap train trip away. I’m aware that, especially from a distance, I’ve romanticised things a bit, but I do want to make it a habit to explore more of what’s right in front of me, and make the most of the beauty of home.

What’s your favourite hidden (or not so hidden) British treasure? Where should I visit next?

Film review: Tomorrowland: A World Beyond European Premiere

Me in my genuine 1940s finery with my genuine, erm, 2015 Haunted Mansion souvenir.

Me in my genuine 1940s premiere finery with my genuine, erm, 2015 Haunted Mansion souvenir.

For a film about the future, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond sure feels like stepping into the past. In this joyful retro-futuristic romp, The Incredibles director Brad Bird and LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof have created a relentlessly upbeat, Spielberg-reminiscent family adventure with its eyes on creating a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.

It’s 1964, and young Frank Walker is enjoying the sights and sounds of the World’s Fair, including Walt Disney’s It’s a Small World and Carousel of Progress. Everyone is looking ahead to a world of gadgets and gizmos aplenty; Frank himself is toting a new invention to enter into an innovation contest.

Fast forward 50 years, and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), eternal optimist and tech nerd, is battling the closure of the NASA platform where her dad works and the negative attitudes of her peers and teachers, all forecasting doom and dystopia. It’s not looking good – until a strange vintage pin turns up in her possession…

Hugh Laurie making people laugh? Never.

Hugh Laurie making people laugh? Never.

Tomorrowland (to use its simpler US title), rests on the premise that at some point post-1970 our outlook on the future went from chasing dreams to ducking nightmares. And looking at some of most popular and successful franchises around today – although, yes, dystopia in cinema is nothing new exactly – it’s hard to disagree. Somewhere along the line, our vision became more universally dim; less Jetsons, more genocide. And the disaster is invariably man-made. No meteror extinguishes our old-fashioned thinking; we’re dinosaurs on a collision course with our own greed – or worse, apathy. Tomorrowland explores what the world could be like if we rediscovered that spark of enthusiasm – and what that could mean for humanity now. But to have nostalgia for an imagined future, you have to go back to the place that future was envisaged from, and in doing so Bird has also tapped into the childhoods of his core audience; I felt more than anything like I was watching some of the classics of my own upbringing – but for the first time and without the dated haircuts. It was Flight of the Navigator, War Games… maybe even ET, only new and shiny.

Okay, I squeed a little.

Okay, I squeed a little.

In many ways, it’s a shame to give too many details away about Tomorrowland. To me it felt primarily like an old-school family adventure movie – although my daughter, not yet five, is not the key audience, I wouldn’t actually have any problem with her watching it – but also like a film made by Disney fans for Disney fans (but enjoyed by everyone else). Certainly a ride on It’s a Small World will never feel exactly the same… Crucially, though, Tomorrowland doesn’t just revisit the past for the sake of it and then wallow in nostalgic baby-boomery; it does attempt to move the discussion along beyond rediscovery, into action.

Clooney! The guy on the right = joy.

Clooney! The guy on the right = joy.

Just over four weeks ago, I was actually sitting in Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress – and it was a really weird experience. For one, it was one of the few classic attractions I couldn’t remember from childhood; I’d completely blanked it out (or maybe we hadn’t visited? Seems unlikely, though; I remember every version of the Spaceship Earth narration since 1984 – we were that kind of family). Despite frequent updates until the early 90s, it hasn’t aged as spectacularly well as one might hope; progress by this definition largely meant technology – not people. All innovations are presented – as well they might be in view of the domestic preoccupations of 1964 – in terms of household convenience. Women are generally sewing or losing weight or gossiping on the phone, right up until the most modern, forward-thinking scene. It’s all a bit old-fashioned in a generally uncomfortable way. In Tomorrowland, the very essence of futuristic thinking is rooted in humanity, and progress is from the earth to the stars, not from the kitchen to the living room. Besides which, humanity is embodied primarily not in Frank – in spite of Clooney’s global star power – but in the body of a young female character who is not sassy or ditzy or seeking male approval or especially representative of anything other than being an intelligent teenage girl.

Do I look worried because Alex Zane is about to tap-dance on my husband's head?

Do I look worried because Alex Zane is about to tap-dance on my husband’s head?

Better yet – and here, I shall be deliberately vague – key relationships in the film revolve around another female character, the mysterious Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Impressively she is both the lynchpin of which the emotional core of the film and its coolest, most logical mind; it is Walker’s adult male that is the most unhinged and uncontrolled. When is the last time we’ve seen that kind of dynamic presented to young girls? I remember watching what is still one of my favourite films, Jurassic Park, and being utterly frustrated that seven-year-old Lex of the book, who had good reason to be scared due to her young age, had been turned into a snivelling teenager on screen, reassured about “veggiesauruses”. In Casey and Athena we have a couple of bright, shining examples of how a female character can be a character first and female second.

Few films are perfect, and Tomorrowland has its flaws – though I’d argue that most are a direct consequence of its strengths. For one, it is so invested in character and delivering its message that plot can feel a bit rushed; fully three quarters of the film is devoted to setting up what turns out to be a pretty fast pay-off. Still, I didn’t actually notice that until later, when Ramona asked me about the story (she’s something of a Joe Friday about these things). Unsurprisingly for a movie based on a themed land from one man’s dream, there’s a strong emphasis on individual, special visionaries needed to inspire the rest of humanity that I’m not entirely sure I agree with, but it did force me to think about it. Interestingly, the villain here – Hugh Laurie’s David Nix – is not actually outright evil for the most part; to be a bad guy here is to have had the optimism kicked out of you (bad news for Eeyore, I guess). When introducing the film, Bird had difficulty defining the genre into which it fits, because there isn’t just one; while that can be jarring at times, when the film takes an unexpected turn, it’s also refreshing.

Smug people are smug.

Smug people are smug.

In the end, I found myself unwilling to pull at Tomorrowland‘s threads too hard because I enjoyed the whole fabric so much; it’s such a cosy blanket of positivity and hope that I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to unravel it. Also, I really, really want one of those badges.

Disclosure: To make the entire experience altogether more amazing, I was privileged enough to be able to see it at the European premiere, where I edged past Clooney and Laurie on the blue carpet (sadly nowhere near Bird, of whom I am entirely in awe) to the strains of There’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow whilst wearing my favourite vintage dress and a Haunted Mansion scarf because apparently I CAN DO THAT NOW. I am very grateful to the lovely team at @Disney_UK who invited me along and made my week. However, I can assure you the thoughts above are entirely my own (and indeed, who else would want to claim them?).

Update: I’ve had MOAR THOUGHTS about Tomorrowland, and specifically the feminism and insight therein But there are spoilers. So tread carefully.

Ten Tips for Surviving Walt Disney World with Young Children

CarouselI’ve slightly irritated myself before I’ve even started this post by putting ‘surviving’ in the headline. To be honest, I’ve done it to pander to the kinds of ways I see people talking about this (ergo, perhaps, searching for it). Let me reassure you, there is no survival involved, although you might occasionally get a bit shirty with one another. It is, genuinely, meant to be fun. Sure, there’ll be at least one moment where you’ll threaten to sell your kids to Mickey for a Dole Whip and five minutes’ peace, but come on. You’re in Walt Disney World. You are not suffering. That happens when you get home.

So, that said, there are certainly ways to make the process smoother and ensure that more of the family gets to tick off the things on the wish list without too many rows. I warn you now: most of these are going to involve planning. You don’t need to be 100% military about this – there is room for a certain amount of flow-going – but there is a phenomenal amount to do and see and the best way to avoid missing lots of it is to lay it all out, at least roughly, before you set foot on the plane.

I’ve assumed here that you’re a first timer or you haven’t been in at least 5 years, since some of these systems came into use, but also that you have looked into it a bit and have an idea what you want to see and do.

1. Book your attraction tickets

A lot of packages will include this, but if not – get it sorted. Not only will it allow you to get to grips with Fastpass+ and dining bookings, you get UK special prices that generally involve, say, 14 days for the price of 7.

If you’re staying on site, you’ll get issued a Magic Band which is your ticket, potentially credit card and room key in one, all strapped to your wrist; if not, you can buy one when you get there. It offers the convenience of having your ticket (and therefore FastPasses) to hand at all times, and you can add charging privileges – for the adults only. Plus it’s a customisable accessory and souvenir, I suppose. But there aren’t any massive advantages to it if you’re off-site – and it does make it easier to spend!

Topiary

2. Work out a daily park plan

Use a crowd calendar to identify the typically least busy day for each park, and map out a plan for which days you’ll be where. This will help you start doing all your pre-booking.

3. Download the My Disney Experience app

Add your tickets and / or Magic Bands, and you’re ready to go with all your advance bookings from the day your booking slots open (more on this in a moment). Add your entire party under one account – and for goodness’ sake give each person a nickname so you can easily plan who goes where – and then you can do group and sub-group bookings super easily. You can also bookmark plans and consult the app for wait times  and directions when you’re in the park. The wait times tend to be quite accurate, updating about 5 minutes after they update at the attraction itself (considerably more promptly than Universal’s app, and the whole thing is much more easily navigable too).

4. Make ADRs – Advance Dining Reservations

If you’re staying on-site, these can be made 190 days out; for the rest of the world it’s 180 days. You want to be on this ON THE DAY if you’re going at a popular time of year (any school holiday) and want to get into Be Our Guest. Particularly if you have a big party. Be a little flexible if you can; obviously 12-2 is peak lunch time so if you’re prepared to battle through on $5 Mickey pretzels and supermarket snacks in your backpack in order to get to a popular place at 3pm, do it. Also, you have until 24 hours before to cancel, so book fast and think about it afterwards – just remember to cancel before that time or you’ll get charged $10 per person for no-shows.

Character meals can be super expensive, but tend to be worthwhile as a one-off. As we weren’t sure of getting into any princessy meet n greets, we did the Akershus breakfast in Epcot. For four adults and two kids it was a whopping $260 all in, but the girls got to meet four princesses (Belle, Aurora, Snow White and Ariel), pose for photos and get autographs, and go on a ‘princess procession’ round the room with them. The food was pretty good too; a plate of bacon, sausage, eggs and breakfast potato casserole was brought to the table and there were pastries, breads, cold cuts, the odd Norwegian nod (eg smoked salmon and herring) and fruits, cereals and yogurts at the buffet. [More on food in Florida]

People Mover5. Get to know FP+

The new Fastpass+ system sounds complicated but is easy enough to get used to. It works like this:

– 30 days out, you can book up to 3 FP+ attractions per day (only one park at a time, so you can’t do, say, 1 at Magic Kingdom and 2 at Epcot for the same day). You can do this on the app or the My Disney Experience website.
– The bookings give you an hour-long slot to turn up at an attraction and go into the non-standby queue; this can be as short as a walk-on or maybe up to 15 minutes. When standby queues at busy times run up to anywhere between 1 and 3 hours, it’s a godsend. Be warned, though – meet n greets such as Fairytale Hall to see Anna & Elsa are often booked up solidly weeks ahead and are hard to get into.
– On the day, if you burn through you FP+ bookings, you can add one further one at a time on a rolling basis. You’ll need to do this in person at a FP+ kiosk in the park.

So, for example: you’ve got Soarin’ booked for 09:20-10:20, Spaceship Earth at 11:00-12:00 and Test Track at 14:15-15:15. Once you’ve done Test Track, make your way over to a FP+ kiosk and see what’s still available for you to squeeze onto for the rest of the day (at busy times of year, I can guarantee it won’t be Soarin’…)

6. Plan for the weather

Florida has tropical weather. You will need sun protection, particularly for kids, and you should plan for rainstorms, particularly in the summer (cheap plastic ponchos also come in handy on water rides). Although usually April temperatures are around 25 degrees (Centigrade), when we went this year it was solidly 30-33 degrees.

Kids – especially youngsters like my 4yo daughter and niece – can struggle in the heat, compounded by a LOT of walking (it’s huge, really it is). You won’t want massively heavy bags if you can avoid it, but do buy small bottles of water that you can refill at the water fountains, which are practically everywhere (and always near a loo). Stay hydrated and don’t be overly ambitious with plans (got a FP+ for Soarin’ at 11:50 and reckon you can be at Via Napoli for lunch at 12:05? Nope. Italy is at the furthest point over in the World Showcase and that walk takes longer than you think…). Consider taking or hiring a stroller for the very youngest. Our girls were fine walking, but 3yos and younger will need help and you won’t want a baby in a sling all day in that weather.

7. Don’t forget the shows

Not every attraction is a ride. Shows tend to have large capacity and are a welcome air conditioning break when the sun is high and your patience with tantrums is low.

8. Set a souvenir budget and let the kids control it

Each of the kids we had with us had a purse with their souvenir budget in it. They were reminded we were going to Universal as well (home of minions! And Marvel Super Hero Island! And Seuss Landing!), and encouraged not just to buy the first thing they liked. But they were also given a certain amount of autonomy over their spending money and allowed to choose their own treats to take home. This obviously is a bit much to ask for the youngest, but it worked really well with both the four-year-olds and the eight-year-old. And it prevents any demands for anything ridiculously expensive or arguments over who gets what.

9. Set aside time for non-park activities

Obviously this depends to a certain extent on how long you’re there, but remember that Florida has lots more to offer than just Walt Disney World – not to mention some fairly decent outlet shopping. At the very least opt for a day or two in a water park which will help recharge your batteries for another day of trekking around the parks.

10. Remember Child Swap

Kids vary in sensitivity and interest levels, and some rides are simply going to be too intense or out of bounds due to height restrictions. When you join the queue, speak to a Cast Member and they’ll take you through how to do a ‘Child Swap’. Generally speaking, you line up as normal but then at some point one rider (or couple, if, like us, there are four adults*) gets funnelled off to ride while the other one(s) sit in a waiting room; afterwards, you swap. The kid spends the whole time in the waiting room. (Actually, the waiting rooms at the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions over at Universal are awesome; you get to watch bits of the films and see the incredible ride queues.) Anyway, the point is there’s no need for the adults to miss out on seeking thrills just because there are young ‘uns in tow.

*To be honest, this is tip number 11: safety in numbers. If you have any option at all to go as a bigger group with aunts and uncles, grandparents or good friends, take it. You can find cheaper shared accommodation options, it’s much easier to be able to split into groups – for example, my nephew hates Frozen and the girls have no idea who Indiana Jones is, so guess how we divided up for shows at Hollywood Studios? – AND you can take a date or solo night off to do stuff without someone needing to show you something / go to the toilet / annoy their sibling every 45 minutes. I appreciate this is not an option for everyone, but it’s one to grab with both hands if you have it. 

Are you a WDW veteran? Got any better tips for families? Share ’em in the comments.

And just in case you were wondering, there’s no disclaimer because this was just a family holiday and no payment or freebies exchanged hands to make this post possible. Just a long-held obsession with the place…

Non-spoilery thoughts about Avengers: Age of Ultron

I think of all the films that I’ve been excited about so far this year – and there have, ahem, been a few –  the one that I’d invested with the most lip-biting enthusiasm was this one. And here it is, and us British types got to see it A WEEK BEFORE the US (not over how long it took to get Big Hero 6 yet)… and I still haven’t actually written anything about it.

There are reasons. The first is that, as with The Avengers / Avengers Assemble (pick your favoured regional variant), the first viewing was more about getting my head around what the hell was going on; I’ll need to go again to really make sense of things, I think. The second is that practically all the things I want to talk about come with Veronica-sized spoiler warnings. I guess I’m safe enough letting those out of the bag now… Though I won’t.

Mainly, I came out of the cinema feeling like there had been some thrilling moments, some funny moments, some genuinely very touching moments and only a couple of really irritating moments (superhero territory: no matter how good the cast, crew, script etc, there’s going to be at least one clanging great sexist moment or something like it to really get up your nose; also, if Tony Stark is in the film it will involve him because on paper and on screen he is a truly awful person). I really liked that despite SO MUCH GOING ON, SO LOUDLY there was time and space for it to be surprisingly intimate. This was needed, since a mechanical villain is never going to have the emotional draw of a human(ish) bad guy whose motivations can be more complex, more personal and, perhaps, more forgiveable. Well, until he unleashed space-hell’s firey Godzilla-bildschnipe on New York, anyway. And there was the small matter of all those people he killed before that… wait, what was I saying?

Intimate, yes. Sometimes having your hand forced is a joy; being able to reinvent Wanda and Pietro’s background, removing Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver from specific associations with X-Men and Magneto, meant that that part of the story – and the reasons for the siblings’ dubious allegiances – could feel oddly real and plausible. For a film with an Internet robot and a flying city, anyway.

It’s funny, because people who know me IRL will know I can bore people stone cold sober with natter about these films (one poor soul got my full Shakespearean thesis on Thor by text) but it’s awfully hard to be remotely coherent when I try to make my writing sound more like a review and less like some really meandering observational routine from the graveyard shift at the comedy club. Obviously not trying that hard on this occasion, to be fair.

Anyway, sod it. It’s my blog, not a film magazine. I can write whatever I like. So I’ll end with a short and slightly disappointing story:

After the film, we went for a really nice meal in a Turkish restaurant we’d never tried before (no, we didn’t have schwarma). The waitress heard us talking about it and asked me if I could tell her who the voice of Ultron is since her flatmates are all crazy about this film. “James Spader,” I said, with the warmth that only having been alive to be in love with James Spader between 1986-1994 can achieve. “Who?” she replied. And I was just a little gutted.

That has nothing to do with the film per se, but that feeling of love and possessiveness being mildly punctured by someone else’s complete lack of immersion in the landscape? Sort of how it feels to talk about this stuff with people who don’t do superhero movies. So it’s felt pleasantly cathartic to write a little about it here where I have no idea if you care or not, but I’ve got to assume you were interested enough to get past the headline.

Right. Time to book take two, I think…

Great British Chefs #GBCCookSchool with Adam Gray

Adam shows off a tray of bread-wrapped mackerel

Adam Gray shows off a tray of bread-wrapped mackerel

I’ve talked before about the general wonderfulness that is Great British Chefs, and I was again honoured and delighted to join them for one of their fabulous events. This time it was for a cook school – not dissimilar to when Pinterest kindly invited me along to learn from Tom Aikens – at the aptly named Cookery School in Little Portland Street, London.

This time the chef was Skylon’s own Adam Gray; some years back my then-boyfriend (now husband) took me to what was then Rhodes 24 – where Chef Gray was busy earning Michelin stars. It was one of my first grown up fine dining experiences and I still remember elements of that meal very fondly, so it was great to now be learning tips and tricks from a master of the trade who had already contributed to warm and fuzzy memories.

We kicked off with Adam and his sous chef Damon making a fish dish that essentially required making a spring roll out of very thinly rolled slices of bread wrapped around fillets of mackerel flavoured with a dash of English mustard. He took us from filleting the whole fish to plating up beautifully with rhubarb chutney and sea purslane. There’s an alternative, BLT-inspired version of this on the GBC website.

Totes even and perfectly well-rolled, obvs. Ahem.

Totes even and perfectly well-rolled, obvs. Ahem.

Next came the opportunity to get our hands on some beautiful ingredients and mix Ticklemore goats cheese with cream cheese to form a sort of sausage; this was double-dredged in panko breadcrumbs and fried; with the gorgeous, simple tomato salad that made up the rest of the dish it was absolutely delightful. Plus I can now say a Michelin-starred chef has made suggestive jokes while I attempt to get hands-on with a roll of cheese. #lifegoals.

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Dessert before…

Dessert was a fluffy flourless lemon, almond and polenta cake topped with a warmed strawberry jam sauce and served with vanilla-scented natural yogurt. Sugar-free or not, I did take a bite and it was beautifully light yet rich; I might just work out how to do a lower sugar version. There were so many we couldn’t actually finish them and I ended up bringing some home for the family who were very appreciative.

Learning from Adam was really a great privilege; as well as demonstrating dishes and checking on everyone’s progress, he held a little mackerel filleting masterclass and was very generous with his time and his knowledge. He’s very passionate about British ingredients – he only uses locally produced rapeseed oil, for example, and was specific about the British brands, such as Tiptree strawberry jam, he supported when using a ready-made product. He’s visited the sources and investigated the factories. Best of all, he’s realistic about what can be achieved at home, and recognises the role of budget in the average household; mackerel is a fairly cheap fish, and rapeseed oil is much more affordable than some olive oils (though, being Greek, you’ll pry my olive oil from my cold, dead hands, obvs).

The sticky aftermath.

The sticky aftermath.

The Cookery School is a lovely venue; for my pal Christina, it was essentially her home for the week as she’d been on a baking course for three days and plied me with amazing cheese straws and quiche while supplying macarons and sponge cake to the rest of the crew. It’s well-stocked and spotless and founder Rosalind is incredibly, rightly, proud of what she’s achieved.

Best of all, the people who come along to GBC events are always interesting. We’re a very mixed bag, all connected to food in different ways (other than, you know, eating it, that is). Everyone’s always so ready to get stuck in, help out and produce something beautiful; I leave every event with five new people to stalk online, which can never be a bad thing.

Christina, Tiff and Alex. Never knowingly underfed.

Christina, Tiff and Alex. Never knowingly underfed.

If any of the recipes above sound as delicious to you as they should, you can find the cake under Adam Gray’s profile on the Great British Chefs website, plus a number of his other recipes, including a few other gluten-free options. It is all much more manageable than it might look (looks, I think, are half the problem; I’ll never manage presentation like that!) and the other lovely friend who accompanied me, Tiff, has already made the mackerel dish at home. My thanks again to Adam and the GBC team for another very enjoyable event, and for giving me the opportunity to again learn something new.

Edit: GBC has produced a guide including all the recipes which is right here! Handy.

Disclosure: If it’s not obvious, Great British Chefs invited me to the event.

Florida 2015: ALL THE FOOD (featuring Le Cellier, Be Our Guest, Via Napoli & The Leaky Cauldron, among others)

And, as if by strange and sad magic, we’re back. Two glorious weeks in unseasonably baking weather – which wilted but did not wither this fragile British blossom – and it’s back down to (spaceship) Earth with a bump.

I dare say there will be a few things I will be keen to blog about over the next few weeks, but being of Mediterranean origin I’m going the traditional Greek route of telling you about everything I ate since we last met. Food was always going to be a major part of the trip, from classic US diner breakfasts (yes, Brits are obsessed with the likes of Cracker Barrel, Perkins and Denny’s because they might be ubiquitous cheapie chains to you, my American brethren, but to us they’re  ZOMG biscuits and proper pancakes) to a date night in Epcot, because why would a date night involving me be anywhere else?

So, here is a brief(ish) rundown of the highlights, with just a few of my favourite things.

Denny's syrup plate. There were seven of us, to be fair.

Denny’s syrup plate. There were seven of us, to be fair.

Meal: Breakfast

At: All those places I mentioned above

The Highlights: I am most particular about my pancakes. I appreciate crepes, I do, but when it comes to breakfast only thick, fluffy American pancakes will do. Since I gave up maple syrup (I use rice malt at home), I appreciated a good dollop of whipped butter and a sprinkling of fresh fruit as well. Though I love Cracker Barrel for its hokey setting, Denny’s took the prize for me for the best, thickest, fluffiest pancakes; I did appreciate that Perkins did a multigrain and nut version, though, which was nicely savoury and interesting (hell, you could even pretend it was healthy). All were served with a dash of whipped butter. If you like blueberry pancakes, Denny’s sprinkle them throughout lightly, which I prefer, and Cracker Barrel pack them to the gills. All in all, it was a good fortnight for pancakes. As we were staying at a villa, the rest of the time I scharfed on pumpernickel rye bread from Publix with 100% peanut butter and sliced strawberries or whipped cream cheese (insert joke about my fondness for whipped things here) and slices of cucumber. Why don’t we have as much pumpernickel bread here? THIS COUNTRY NEEDS MORE PUMPKERNICKEL.

The Downsides: Sugar-free toppings tend to be sorbitol-laden sugar-free syrups (I’d rather just have maple and suffer the consequences) so take your own rice malt if you’re a committed sugar-quitter who really can’t do without. There will be some sugar in the batter, remember. Also, we didn’t manage to get in a visit to Einstein Bros for pumpernickel bagels and this is very very sad because see sentence in caps above.

The Leaky Cauldron Ploughman's Lunch. Not exactly authentic, but delicious.

The Leaky Cauldron Ploughman’s Lunch. Not exactly authentic, but delicious.

Meal: Lunch

At: Sci Fi Dine-In Theater (Disney’s Hollywood Studios), The Leaky Cauldron (Diagon Alley – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios), Captain America Diner (Marvel Super Hero Island, Universal Islands of Adventure), Be Our Guest Restaurant (Magic Kingdom)

The Highlights: I’m not sure I can even remember much about the food in the Sci Fi Dine-In Theater and I’m almost certainly sure it doesn’t matter – the theming is all in that place, where you sit in rows in drive-in cars and watch 1950s cartoons under a ‘starry’ sky.

Stranded at the drive-in...

Stranded at the drive-in…

I do recall it had some more unusually healthy / less fried options (eg vegetarian shepherd’s pie, although it was made partly with veggie burger patty I think) and had Mickey Check options for the kids, which are a Disney Parks initiative marking out salt, sugar and fat-controlled meals that provide at least one serving of fruit or vegetable. But really, you would eat fried batter with batter on the side just to sit in there – it’s wonderful. Booking is almost certainly essential at busier times of year.

It's a cauldron with a crack in it. So this must be the Three Broomsticks, right?

It’s a cauldron with a crack in it. So this must be the Three Broomsticks, right?

The Leaky Cauldron is also brilliantly themed – like stepping onto the film set – and the British-inspired fare is actually decent; the Ploughman’s for two I shared with my husband had a lovely fresh beetroot chutney and decent cheese, and the kid’s fish and chips had crunchy batter. The chips were nothing like soggy chip shop chips and frankly all the better for it (no, you can’t revoke my citizenship for that; I was born here). Plus there was malt vinegar on each table as standard.

Tale as old as time, but the food is distinctly more fresh.

Tale as old as time, but the food is distinctly more fresh.

Since it opened, Be Our Guest Restaurant has been so insanely popular that you can now only get a table through Advance Dining Reservations and it was an effort and a half to secure a late lunch reservation for nine of us. It was entirely worth it though; we had a choice of eating in one of the three dining rooms; distracted and hungry, we made a beeline for the obvious, huge ballroom (it felt amazingly like stepping into That Scene even in my sweaty t-shirt and denim shorts). We could have dipped into the ‘Castle Gallery’ room, surrounded on all sides by paintings and tapestries from the film, and we should have gone straight to the West Wing, which includes an amazing stormy window in front of which is placed the enchanted rose – from which a petal drops every so often. The hangings are ripped and the portrait of the prince suddenly gets slashed. Gorgeous. Of course, you’re free to wander in there after you’ve eaten. At lunch, the ordering system means you order before you sit and take a plastic ‘rose’ puck with you wherever you go so your food can find you.

Interestingly, the grey stuff is the only thing Belle eats during the entire song.

Interestingly, the grey stuff is the only thing Belle eats during the entire song.

Options were limited but decent; I had a roast beef baguette with horseradish which was so big I gave half of it away. The kids all went for a healthier pasta option. I had to have a bite of the ‘grey stuff’, so ordered the Master’s Cupcake (chocolate with buttercream); it was… well, quite nice. I don’t really do icing anymore, so the rest of it was devoured by my husband and child, but I’m glad I did it! I understand dinner is much more of an event, with a wider menu, proper table service and Beast meet n greets, so try your damndest for a booking if, like me, you’re a big Beauty and the Beast fan. Plus it’s the only place in Magic Kingdom that serves alcohol.

An honourable mention should also go to Katsura Grill at the Japan pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase – which offers cheaper Japanese meals such as quick and tasty udon soup with beef, curry or tempura shrimp plus chicken teriyaki, rice and veg for the kids. People also didn’t seem to notice it was there, so there tended to be available seats even though it’s a pretty small location.

It could get worse than having lunch with Captain America and Loki.

It could get worse than having lunch with Captain America and Loki, I guess…

The Downsides: Across the board, even the most mundane theme park food in Orlando is about ten times better than the quick service Disneyland Paris fare, I’m afraid. However, the weakest meal we had was in Captain America’s diner which had glacially slow service and perfectly edible but distinctly mediocre burgers. But great photos on the wall, and the good Cap’n did a meet and greet right across the road.

My poor photography does this no justice whatsover.

My poor photography does this no justice whatsoever, and looks like a Mr Men character who has suffered an Edward Gorey demise…

Meal: Dinner

At: Le Cellier (Canada – World Showcase, Epcot), Via Napoli (Italy – World Showcase, Epcot)

The Highlights: Disney has steadily and purposefully worked on developing World Showcase’s long-held reputation for the best food on property, and old favourite Le Cellier continues to maintain this. The perfectly cooked to order filet mignon with truffle butter sauce and mushroom risotto was incredible – and so filling (especially after starters and a warm bread basket including a delicious prezel bread stick) my husband didn’t have room to sample the maple creme brûlée for which the restaurant is well-known. It is not a cheap option, but setting is lovely and the service warm and friendly. If you finish dinner early enough you can also dart straight out for a great view of IllumiNations.

Pepperoni!

Pepperoni!

Carciofi!

Carciofi!

Via Napoli was heaving and very noisy, and when we were seated we were told there might be delays due to a new chef in the kitchen. However, we were actually served very promptly and the ‘large’ pizzas – served on big stands and designed to serve 2-3, but easily serving up to 4 if you’re not madly hungry – were incredibly good. The next size up is (literally) half a metre and there’s an individual option too; while the pizzas aren’t cheap, you can extract very good value through sharing.

The classic Neapolitan thin base was a great balance of chewy and crisp, and there were only a few options to choose from (though you can design your own if you’re so inclined) so they were all done really well. I was delighted to see some pizza bianca options – that is, no tomato sauce – and the Carciofi with its gorgeous artichoke topping was utterly delicious. A big house salad packed with Mediterranean leaves and veg was a great side order and I found room for one of the two sugary treats I had for the holiday, pistachio gelato which was rich and yummy with the crunch of nut pieces (ice cream is about the only weakness I have that’s worth the sugar headache). My sister tucked into fried ricotta balls dipped in chocolate sauce which she thoroughly loved.

The Downsides: People lose their minds over Le Cellier’s cheddar cheese soup; I found it pleasant enough but a bit salty and bland. Ash’s scallop starter was absolutely gorgeous, though.

Meal: Snacks

At: Food carts throughout Walt Disney World, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour (Diagon Alley – Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios)

Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream. So much promise...

Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream. So much promise…

The Highlights: For me, the wonderful Mickey Pretzel (like any other soft pretzel but with ears, damnit). For Miss R, the Mickey ice cream bar she was treated to by a very kind friend. Both around the $5 mark; both worth it for the happy looks on happy faces.

The Downsides: The other sugary treat I decided to go for was Florean Fortescue‘s Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream. And look, it was still nice ice cream. And yes, I am really, really hard to please with sugary stuff these days (it has to be SO WORTH IT). But… it was really just very sweet vanilla with cakey chunks in it. I never regretted the pistachio gelato for a second, but this? Well… meh. There are loads of other options though, and the fun of experiencing a Fortescue sundae is undeniable.

I hope that’s whet some appetites for what’s on offer in Florida’s theme parks and slightly beyond (and also convinced a few people who might have thought that all you can get is shoddy fried stuff with plastic cheese, though it’s out there if that floats your boat). Got a favourite I didn’t visit? Fill me with regret in the comments.