Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Amazing Race 17, Episode 7

St. Petersburg (Russia)

This week The Amazing Race 17 went to the circus in St. Petersburg, with the teams of travellers having to learn to perform their choice of a circus ring or carnival midway act.

Russia and China may be known for their circuses, but you don’t have to go that far to be part of something similar. As constructed participatory total entertainment environments, both the casino world of Las Vegas and the theme park world of Orlando draw heavily on the big top and the carnival midway, both directly and by way of that other paradigm of the total immersive travel destination experience, the World’s Fair.

World’s Fairs (“Expos”) like to keep a more highbrow image than commercial theme parks, but historically have evolved in parallel with them and out of the traditions of the circus and carnival. I went to college at the University of Chicago, where the intramural soccer and softball fields are on the original carnival midway (which included the original Ferris Wheel) of the 1983 World’s Columbian Exhibition — the most successful and well-attended of its time. Later, the New York Worlds Fair of 1965, again the most successful of its time (although surpassed in attendance not long after by Expo ‘67 in Montréal, the first such expo that I attended), took lessons from its predecessor Disneyland and contributed greatly to the design of its successor Disney World.

Today, the most prominent attractions shared by Orlando and Las Vegas are a modern incarnation of center-ring acrobatics (Cirque du Soleil) and the sui generis Blue Man Group, which could be described as a post-modern performance-art vaudeville or carnival show. That might not work, but for me, at least, it did. Both troupes now have permanent venues in both Las Vegas and Orlando.

A year ago, when “The Amazing Race” was in Las Vegas and I was in Orlando, I talked about the reasons why those two cities currently offer the best hotel values for the dollar in the USA.

I’ve been in both Vegas and (twice) in Orlando since then, and I’m pleased to report that the hard times for hoteliers and the good times for travellers’ wallets continue in both places.

Despite my enjoyment of roller coasters, I don’t like theme parks (or casinos), for the same reasons I don’t like other constructed travel experiences, and prefer to travel independently. I don’t generally have any delusions about experiencing “real life” when I travel — most people don’t live in hotels or eat in restaurants all the time — but I prefer not to go out of my way to limit those I interact with to other travellers and/or people who are being paid to play a specific role for my sake, or to limit the places I visit to those solely designed for visitors.

So except when I’ve had to go there on business, I’ve used Las Vegas and Orlando merely as affordable gateways to nearby areas (Death Valley and the surrounding desert in the case of Las Vegas, the “Space Coast” in the case of Orlando) rather than seeking out their own distinctive attractions.

On my most recent visit to Orlando in September, however, Universal Studios and the organizers of the Travel Bloggers Show provided me with some free lodging, meals, and admissions to attractions, enabling me to spend some time in the parts of Orlando I’ve previously avoided and to experience some of the things I wouldn’t have paid for out of my own pocket.

It didn’t convert me, but I did (intermittently) have some fun. More importantly, it made clear to me that if you like that sort of thing, the heart of tourist Orlando offers just as exceptional value at every price level as do the cheaper and more peripheral areas where I’ve stayed in the past.

When I’ve been in Orlando before, I’ve always gone through (see my list of recommended accommodation booking Web sites here) to get the cheapest possible room, which is typically either near the airport or in some equally unattractive section of swampland. That makes sense if you’re going to have to rent a car anyway, either for business or to get to tourist sites further afield.

Hotels closer to the major theme parks (anchored by Disney World in one direction and Universal Studios in the other from the center of tourist Orlando) or on the International Drive strip in between (which includes the convention center) are typically more expensive. But that may be offset, both in cost and in avoiding stressful driving, by not needing to rent a car. Along International Drive, a car is no more necessary than along the Strip in Las Vegas. The inexpensive I-Ride shuttle (subsidized by local businesses, I presume) serves everything along the strip, and virtually every hotel offers shuttle service (sometimes included in room rates, sometimes not — be sure to check) to the major theme parks off the strip. Metered taxis are hard to find, but there’s reasonably-priced shared-ride shuttle service to and from the airport.

I spent a couple of nights at what’s now the “Rosen Inn at Pointe Orlando” (9000 International Dr.), formerly the “Quality Inn Plaza”. When a hotel changes or drops its brand affiliation, it tends to scare off visitors and depress rates. A re-flagged hotel loses whatever stream of bookings it had been getting through its franchise affiliation, and potential guests were that service standards may have declined. In practice, though, a hotel generally goes independent only if it is reasonably confident that it can generate enough business without needing to rely on a franchise brand name.

Hotels don’t reduce their prices for no reason at all. Compared to most of the reasons a hotel might be offering discounts — it’s undergoing renovation, it’s in a lousy location, the facilities and/or service and therefore reputation are lousy — a reflagging is actually one of the circumstances in which the reason for the low price is least likely to be reflected in poor quality facilities or service. When I’m trying to figure out, “Why is this hotel so cheap? What’s wrong with it?”, finding that it’s just been re-flagged is one of the most reassuring answers. As with new (but as yet unknown and not yet with an established reputation) hotels, or those that have been undergoing renovation but where the renovations are complete, I’ve had many good experiences at recently re-flagged hotels.

The “Rosen Inn at Pointe Orlando” was nondescript and, with typical rates around $50 per room per night, somewhat more expensive than the places I’ve usually stayed in Orlando. But it was nicer than the places I’ve usually stayed, and in a location where I didn’t need a car. Most of the guests seems to have booked through tour operators. As far as they were concerned, what mattered was that the hotel had been picked for them by Virgin Atlantic Holidays (Virgin has nonstops to Orlando from both London and Manchester), not the hotel’s own brand name, if any. Presumably, that’s why the Rosen Hotels group, as the largest independent hotel owner/operator in Orlando, felt they could afford to drop the Quality Inn flag.

This year, for perhaps the first time, the biggest visitor draw in the Orlando area isn’t anything associated with Disney. This year’s marquee attraction is the new Harry Potter section of Universal Studios’ “Islands of Adventure” theme park, at the opposite end of I-Drive from the Disney complex.

Everyone will tell you that the I-Ride trolley doesn’t go to Universal Studios, but that’s only because nobody in Orlando thinks of walking even a block. It’s only about three-fourths of a mile — not much further than you might have to walk from some of the parking lots — from I-Ride stop G4 into the Universal Studios grounds to the closest stops for the free Universal bus and water taxi shuttles to the “City Walk” shopping and restaurant strip and the adjacent entrances to the two Universal theme parks.

Most of the visitors to the Universal theme parks the day I was there had clearly been drawn primarily by the chance to experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and made a beeline for that section of the park as soon as the gates opened.

Harry Potter is, of course, especially popular in the U.K., and Orlando is especially popular with British visitors. There’s still something disconcerting in seeing how many people have chosen to leave their homes in real British towns and cities to make their holiday destination a Hollywood simulacrum of a fictional English town. Not that typical American abroad are any different, mind you. For what it’s worth, hoteliers and airline managers at the ASTA trade show in Orlando confirmed my impression that Brazilians are also disproportionately represented in this years’ international visitors to the USA in general and Orlando in particular.

Most of those who came to Orlando and Universal to experience Harry Potter’s world seemed to feel that they had gotten their money’s worth. The ride inside “Hogwart’s Castle” was more like being trapped inside a succession of movie clips than like being on a roller coaster, but that too seemed to be what most of the visitors I talked to wanted.

The only major criticism I heard, as at any successful theme park exhibit (e.g. this summer’s Shanghai World Expo), was of crowding and long lines. The only way to beat the rush at the Harry Potter section of the park is to stay in one of the three (equally “themed”) resorts on the Universal grounds, whose guests are admitted to the Universal theme parks an hour earlier than the general public. Be at the “Islands of Adventure” entrance when it opens, and go directly (just follow the rest of the early admission crowd of Universal hotel guests) to Hogwarts. After you’re done there, you can explore the rest of the park at leisure. The day I was there, there were no lines or crowds for any of the other attractions, despite our long lines just to get into some of the Harry Potter souvenir shops.

The Universal resorts, like those on the Disney grounds, seem expensive compared to anything else in Orlando. But I was surprised to find that — once I got over the disorienting sense that I was staying on a movie back lot rather than in a real hotel, and that everything had been constructed to look like something other than what it was — the facilities, amenities, and service at the resort compared favorably to similarly priced hotels elsewhere. You aren’t paying solely for greater access to the theme parks, although that’s certainly part of the price — and worth it, if the point of your trip is a once-in-a-lifetime immersion in Harry Potter’s world as Universal Studios imagines it.

The biggest downside to staying in the Orlando tourist district without a car, either on I-Drive or at the theme park resorts, is the food. Don’t get me wrong: every major American restaurant chain has a flagship outlet in Orlando, and the resorts have some very good restaurants (and, again, not as overpriced as I would have expected given their semi-captive market of resort guests). At the faux-Venetian Portofino Bay hotel, I had one of the best Italian meals I’ve had in years, although the menu was fairly unimaginative. Perhaps their goal, in keeping with the resort theme, was to serve what visitors imagine an Italian restaurant would serve, rather than to attempt to reproduce the more varied but less familiar Italian reality.

More generally, the problem with food in tourist Orlando is a lack of anything characteristic of Orlando or the larger region. I actually like traditional Southern cooking (of both the European-American and African-American varieties), and Cuban cuisine — all significant elements of the Florida culinary crockpot — but in the center of tourist Orlando they’re overshadowed by landmarks like the world’s largest McDonald’s and the only outposts outside Chicagoland of my favorite pizza joint, Giordano’s. If you do have a car, there’s more diversity, more local color, and much better dining value for your money further afield in places such as the Dixie Crossroads, well worth the hour’s drive east to Titusville on the “Space Coast”.

That’s also where you’ll find the other main attractions of this part of Florida: the Kennedy Space Center and the nearby Atlantic Ocean beaches.

Despite the need to compete with Orlando theme parks for visitors, the space center tries hard to ground visitors’ experience in the fact that people really have been shot into space by rockets, lived in space for months, and walked on the moon — and that all this and more remain possible in the future. The most interesting tour at KSC is the least popular: only one bus a day goes to the ocean side of Cape Canaveral, controlled by the Air Force rather than NASA, where all of the original manned spacecraft were launched. The Saturn 5 is impressively large, but what’s most impressive about the earlier Mercury and Gemini rockets is how tiny they were to send people into space.

Just south of Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach remains uncrowded, mercifully bereft of mega-resorts and high-rises, with most of the beachfront occupied by small, old-fashioned low-rise locally-owned family motels and resorts. Where there are vacancies, rates are negotiable. In shoulder season, with minimal haggling, we found a comfortable quiet one-bedroom kitchenette suite, steps from the waves at an oceanfront motel, for less than $100 a night, which seemed a bargain. The facilities were well maintained, but the place was old enough and of such a type that it didn’t seem implausible that, as our hosts claimed, some of the earliest astronauts might have stayed there. It’s just the place for people who prefer a “relax on the beach and do nothing” vacation to theme-park Orlando’s “thrill a minute” pace.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 7 November 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I agree with you that roller coasters are fun but theme parks are rather joyless. If only someone would start building one-off roller coasters on the side of the road. I guess it's not really that feasible but it would be nice.

Posted by: Lewis, 18 November 2010, 11:21 (11:21 AM)

I would love to go on the Amazing Race. The closest I have ever got to it was when they came to Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland a few of seasons back.

Posted by: Spencer, 18 November 2010, 21:41 ( 9:41 PM)
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