A change from my normal routine

I mentioned a family trip (to Florida) in late 1992. It was part paid-for1 by IBM. When I returned, therefore, I wrote up the first week of it as a 'trip report' to make a change from all the tedious Mole Reports of management meetings I usually wrote as part of my day job.

The secret diary of an IBM Mole, aged ???

We're back! We had a great time, and all three of us came back exhausted and shaking off colds. C, in fact, has now developed shingles (probably worrying about how I pay the credit card bills, two of which have already thumped spectacularly onto the door-mat — one extending to FOUR PAGES!)

We got off to a rather poor flying start (certainly less than one sigma) as they had three engines (opportunities for error) on the Tristar, and one of them was sacrificed just as we lifted our nose on takeoff for slicing, dicing and roasting a passing seagull. (You could say it was done to a tern, perhaps? Aren't Rolls Royce engines versatile?) We knew something odd had occurred as (a) there were a series of bangs from the port engine, (b) we weren't so much pushed back into our seats by a surge of power as lifted very sedately into the sky (barely clearing the lampposts of the adjacent bit of motorway), and (c) all the flight attendants remained glued to their internal phones with fixed grins glued to their faces for five minutes.

Still, pilot Geoff Robinson (I know!) was soon on the tannoy telling us to relax and enjoy the slow low-level flight up and down the Channel as we jettisoned enough fuel to make it safe for us to land back at Gatwick. Land we eventually did, with an impressive retinue of fire engines keeping us company in a remote section of the airfield. (We didn't actually find out about the seagull at that point; all the pilot could tell us was that the engine did not seem to be on fire, and did seem to have been shut down OK. The seagull made its presence felt via a mouth-watering smell as we disembarked for a five hour wait while the airline played a frantic game of musical planes to map us one-for-one into another Tristar rather than unloading us into, say, Concorde.)

A severe case of head wind then fought with the replacement aircraft as far as Bangor, where we touched down for more go-juice. So my first glimpse of the New World was from the rear hatch, and my first impression was that it smelled like kerosene. Plus it was dark, cold, and wet. Surely Florida would be different? Did I mention the appalling Sylvester Stallone movie that was laughingly called "in-flight entertainment"? No? Well in that case I won't!

We landed at Orlando at about midnight. Everything was shut apart from a cheery set of Immigration officials who looked askance at our UK winter clothing and seemed to think we wouldn't need our thick leather jackets. They were right. Even though it was late October, Florida (unlike the rest of the USA at that time) was enjoying a heatwave (88 F) and we emerged from the airport's airconditioning into warm soup, then onto a mobile fridge-on-wheels (condensation streaming, like rain, down its windows) that whisked us on the wrong side of a huge motorway to the off-airport car-hire place in the middle of gawd-knew-where from whence we had the task of finding the hotel for some desperately-needed shuteye. (Why are 12-year-olds so full of beans at this time of night?)

I shall draw a discreet veil over the navigator/driver conflicts as she may yet read this one day. I shan't even ask why the car that was part of the fly-drive package cost over $420 extra. It got us safely to the hotel, bringing to an end an elapsed travel time of 21 hours or so.

Breakfast was pretty amazing. There was a Burger King opposite the hotel, but we ended up driving to it as we had to cross an eight lane highway and we had unlimited mileage on the car! Then it was on to the "Rovers Return" pub in down town Kissimmee for a Sunday brunch and a chance to meet the travel company rip-officer. Disney tickets, Universal Studios, and the Kennedy Spaceport saw off another $650 or so, so I retired to the hotel to sulk (cheaply) while C&P set off for "Water Mania" (free as part of our holiday package). They came back duly sunburned and raving about how great it was (leading indirectly to my near-drowning, but that's not yet). The Ponderosa just down the road fed us (who said the States was a cheap holiday destination?) and the jetlag slowly ebbed away in the Jacuzzi under the stars that evening. So much for Sunday.

Monday, after a breakfast at Kettles (a chain named for Ma and Pa Kettle in "The egg and I" by Betty MacDonald [not many people know that]) we did Disney. To be precise, we began to scratch the surface of what's on offer at Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) where, in the Living Seas, I got my first closeup, under water (behind glass) view of a pair of giant sea turtles. There's a pretty fair simulacrum of a section of the local reef plus its typical inhabitants and we found it completely fascinating to watch and walk around surrounded by (and under) water. Mind you, you have to spend a few irritating minutes pretending to descend (in an Otis lift!) to this undersea "Laboratory" before they let you loose.

We had half an hour left in which to take the monorail to, and whizz quickly round, the Magic Kingdom (which, just before closing time, with more than its quota of frazzled parents and grizzling youngsters struck me as fairly unmagical). We saw enough to decide to re-do Epcot once the worst of the blisters had begun to heal. Besides, Dad wanted to shop till he dropped, and you can't do that in the Disney universe... Monday evening, therefore, we walked down the road to Dennys (a chain named for I know not what). Well, I say "road". It was actually along that eight lane highway, not that there was a pavement, of course, nor any sign of regular pedestrian traffic. People in Florida are obviously born sitting in cars.

Tuesday we hit the rather unoriginally-named Florida Mall. We have a shopping centre just as big here, actually. It's called London. I can see now how Woody Allen can make a film called "Scenes from a mall" — all human life, pretty well, is there. We even found a shop called "The Mole Hole" and took a photo of me standing outside it (though the camera later jammed on each of several films in turn so I can't produce this picture). The main thing about these malls from a Mole's viewpoint is they sell video LaserDiscs, for not much more than you pay for audio CDs over here. Heaven for an old film buff, let alone me.

After a piece of maladroit navigation on my part as we left the enormous car park of this mall we somehow managed to end up, not at "Wet'n'Wild" (as one party seemed to think we would) but at Altamonte Mall. Can't think how that happened, but we made the best of it. (By the way, if you spend $100+ in the bookshop called Waldenbooks they actually give you a 10% discount card free that lasts a whole year. It's actually very easy to spend that much as our American cousins have a much more civilised attitude to the releasing of paperbacks at the same time as hardbacks. I even got a copy of the book about Princess Di for the mad Royalist aunt from Wolverhampton.) On mature reflection, getting both my credit card companies to increase my limits was the single smartest move I made in preparation for this trip... We actually missed out on an evening meal. Never mind.

Wednesday we figured we'd re-do Epcot, but start a little later so as to be able to last until the laser light show they have at close of play each day. So off we went to "Water Mania" where I found myself floating round a miniature river sitting in (more through, really) a large rubber quoit while C swam alongside promising not to let me drown... Hah! The first circuit went just swimmingly. On the next lap, I somehow drifted over too near to the outflow from the surfing section. The next thing I knew I was under water; my glasses had gone; my sun hat had gone; my all-important rubber ring had gone, and what was I supposed to do for air while fully immersed? The code of the Mole forbids panic, of course, but I found it humiliating to be treated with such concern by all the fit, athletic, horribly-confident youngsters who rallied round to the rescue. Where was C during all this? Watching P surf, of course. I made my excuses, and sat reading my way through two massive Sunday newspapers while drying off and calming down. Hence the sunburned shins.

We duly re-did Epcot that afternoon, and assembled around the World Showcase (Disney jargon for a series of ethnic shops) lagoon to watch the fireworks, watch each country's pavilion in turn light up while its national anthem was played, and finally struggle towards the car parks along with thousands of others. Still, I found a cash machine that not only accepted one of my cards, but greeted me by name (once I'd figured out how to get English rather than Spanish instructions) and willingly fed me a much-needed cash injection to pass on to the boss.

Thursday, we left the hotel at 7.30 to travel by coach to the Kennedy Space Port on the East coast. (When did Cape Kennedy revert to being Cape Canaveral? I drew a blank on that one.) Now I have to become a little controversial and say that you haven't really experienced cinema until you've sat through a Shuttle launch film in an Imax theatre. I'm quite used to leaving a cinema with a headache, but neck strain is a new one... And the memorial to the astronauts killed is very moving (in two senses, as it tracks the motion of the sun). Since I can still clearly remember where I watched Neil Armstrong, how can it be 20 years since anyone walked on the moon? An amazing experience. Not only did we hit another mall that evening, but I'm now the proud owner of four silk shirts. Me, who cannot stand shopping for clothes for anyone.

Friday, we met King Kong at Universal Studios. Re-enacted the shower scene from "Psycho". Watched the Blues Brothers jamming in the street. Ate in a burger joint straight out of "American Graffiti". Listened to Beetlejuice having a bit of a do. And left. Actually, we found Universal just a bit too tacky. Never mind. There were a lot of less jaundiced punters having the proverbial good time. Friday evening, we investigated International Drive, since that's where practically everybody else from our flight was staying. It's a bit like the front at Great Yarmouth or one of the brasher parts of Lanzarote transplanted inland. Words like "commercial" and "frenetic" spring to mind. Still, we found a couple of LaserDiscs. And a new suitcase.

On Saturday, we hit the Florida Turnpike, and headed South for Fort Lauderdale for the second week.



1  A competition I won, voted on by IBM Lab staff — probably just to get me out of the way for a couple of weeks — but ostensibly for making a tangible difference :-)