Em and Stu do America part 8: Special hurricane edition

This post was supposed to be about Miami Beach, but as Irma bears down on that city we thought we would write this instead.

It was pretty amazing to see all the army convoys and signage getting set up on the road north to Atlanta. A massive operation to evacuate so many people.

It was pretty amazing to see all the army convoys and signage getting set up on the road north to Atlanta. A massive operation to evacuate so many people.

We left Miami last weekend for a weeklong house-sit in historic St Augustine on Florida’s northeast coast, caring for two Scottish terriers and a vocal parrot named Dixie. But we barely got to do more than kayak on the canal looking, sadly in vain, for manatees before getting the news that a state of emergency was being declared in Florida. Our hosts told us they would be coming home to batten down the hatches and we were welcome to stay, but their advice would be to get out of Florida as soon as we could. So we celebrated Stu’s birthday on the 5th, Tuesday, with roast BBQ pork from my new Mrs Wilkes cookbook and cheesecake from the Cookbook of Juji, and got up on Wednesday to pack. But where to go? Our next booking was in St Petersburg on the Gulf Coast, home of the Dali museum. We had also booked our rental car until September 15, and the earliest we could return it to Atlanta for a refund was the 8th according to their terms. If we returned it before that we would be paying for a car we couldn’t keep, and we also couldn’t really make the drive to Atlanta in a day anyway.

Clyde and his little protege, Cassie.

Clyde and his little protege, Cassie.

Lo and behold, in comes a message from the lovely Lisa of our awesome Savannah AirBnB, offering us a place to stay for as long as they were able to stay themselves, given Irma was now looking towards that coastline too. We gratefully accepted, but Lisa and Tammy wouldn’t even take our money – and this really helped us, given we had been counting on the week of free accommodation in St Augustine to soothe the wounds expensive Miami had inflicted.

This beautiful couple insisted we were friends now, and so as friends, we left Florida then and there, rocked up with booze just in time for their pre-hurricane party at their backyard tiki bar on Wednesday evening.

The pre-hurricane party ended rather late.

The pre-hurricane party ended rather late.

Traffic had been heavy coming out of Florida, but Irma was still an abstract to us, and we slowly realised the reality of it as we sat listening to our new group of mates in Savannah discuss their plans. What would they do with their pets? Would they stay or leave? Who had a generator? What would their insurance cover or not cover if their cars, their houses got hit? Should they board up their windows? When? Now?

Meanwhile, Stu and I had no place to stay and no plan beyond that night and perhaps the next. As the night developed into debauchery I sought the help of those around me. Bethany had the strongest suggestion – if we had to leave Atlanta Friday, she said, bus to Nashville for a few nights, bus to Memphis. Then it was a hell of a trip to our next booking in New Orleans, but she flattened my idea of seven nights in Jackson Mississippi and I was happy to take her word on that.

Stu gets out before it hits.

Stu gets out before it hits.

We devoted the rest of the night dancing to old Broadway hits in the backyard. It was 2-3am before we went to bed and we awoke Thursday stupidly hungover to the news that Irma had killed people in the Carribbean and was definitely headed to Savannah. I blearily hit the internet and booked a bus for Friday to Nashville and an AirBnB that would do. Surely we could stay here another night. Tammy and Lisa as yet had no plans in place themselves with Lisa particularly occupied attempting to manage the wholesale shifting of her office, staff and company’s equipment to Atlanta, where word had it there was no accommodation left.

But an hour later we got word that an evacuation order would take effect for Savannah from Saturday morning. They would even be changing the flow of traffic on the interstate highway so all roads would lead west. Just imagine…

You can see here the signs taped on to the bowsers that just say "out of gas".

You can see here the signs taped on to the bowsers that just say “out of gas”.

Amid news of gas stations running out of gas and supermarkets water, we thought we would be idiots to wait another night and rely on getting to Atlanta on Friday. So we messaged the Atlanta host we had stayed with recently who was no longer doing AirBnB but took pity on us and smuggled us in for cash-money, unbeknownst to the snoopy neighbours. We’ll leave now (4pm) and be there by eight, we told her…

It took three gas stations before we found one with gas so we could fill the tank. The shelves were empty, the traffic insane, with traffics and breakdowns strung along the packed highway. It took us nearly seven hours to complete the trip even with no rest stops – we were just barrelling along this unfamiliar highway in the dark, sometimes at a standstill, sometimes going 112km/h – a white-knuckle trip for sure. We arrived around 11pm, apologising to our host, and fell into our bed.

You can just see the line of cars stretching out behind us in the mirror.

You can just see the line of cars stretching out behind us in the mirror.

We hope Irma will spare our hosts in Florida and our new friends in Savannah and we pray all Tammy and Lisa’s work on their beautiful home (especially the tiki bar – ha!) will be protected.

Headed to Nashville this arvo, over and out!


Em and Stu do America part 7: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

As lifelong fans, we are among millions of poor saps who will pay basically anything to see this beloved world brought to life for a day. The cunning folks at Universal Studios Orlando know this, and put half of it (Diagon Alley) in their main park and the other half (Hogsmeade), in adjacent theme park, Islands of Adventure. So if you want to see the lot, you gotta pay for two adults x two parks: total nearly $AUD500!



This is why it was the ONLY activity in a week in Orlando. It was no hardship to lay low and eat in, though, blessed with the second of three planned resort stays amid a sea of AirBnB. We rolled into town and aside from a Grand Canyon training hike, parked our arses poolside for six days.

And on the seventh day, God gave us Harry Potter.

OMG! We are at Harry Potter World! And it is ALREADY VERY HOT!!!!

OMG! We are at Harry Potter World! And it is ALREADY VERY HOT!

We started bang on opening time on the Hogsmeade side with the premier ride “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey”, reached through Hogwarts Castle. A half-hour wait in a line threading through the castle was made awesome by the atmosphere inside, complete with moving portraits on the walls, and holographic appearances specially filmed for the purpose with the movie actors, so they would pop up from time to time in the corridors and talk to you.

This ride was the highlight of the day, showcasing mind-boggling modern theme park tech – indoor rollercoasters combined with elaborate 3D simulations and real interior puppetry and special effects, including fog, fire and water, a completely immersive experience. The ride, in which you escape Dementors, play Quidditch and fly with dragons across the castle ramparts, was both scary and exhilarating – not really one for a child, unless you count the inner one.

Excitement level: rising uncontrollably.

Excitement level: rising uncontrollably.

We then waited perhaps 15 minutes to catch the Hogwarts Express, a real train and an experience in itself, to Diagon Alley at Universal Studios – a five-minute ride. On the other side, you go through a “London” street complete with Ministry of Magic phone box, Knight Bus with actor playing Stan Shunpike, and full-size facade of 12 Grimmauld Place. We stepped through the magical hole-in-the-wall to Diagon Alley, which centres around a beautiful full-scale Gringotts Wizarding Bank. It even has life-sized animatronic goblins intimidating you as you walk through the entrance hall in line for the ride “Escape from Gringotts”, a line that takes 45 minutes even soon after opening time and from the size of the waiting pens the lines clearly grow until they are hours long. These pens have to be kept in specially made yards behind the main tourist attractions as there is no space in the Alley itself.

You can totally imagine you are Hermione, impersonating Bellatrix, about to be sprung by this guy.

Intimidating. You can totally imagine you are Hermione, impersonating Bellatrix, about to be sprung by this guy.

The Gringotts ride, a simulation of Harry and the gang’s journey through the vaults on a rail cart then their escape aboard a dragon, is also very good in the manner previously described but should probably be done before the Forbidden Journey as, with expectations now sky-high, we found it shorter and less astounding.

We didn’t do the Dragon Challenge coaster as it catered more for children, but wandered Diagon Alley which has all the shops from the books and more. You can go to Ollivander’s and buy a wand, which can be used to activate extra little touches in the window displays throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. We skipped the line and the expense and just watched other people do it.

The dragon atop Gringott's. Go to the end to see the video of it breathing fire!

The dragon atop Gringott’s. Go to the end to see the video of it breathing fire!

You can look in the window at Flourish & Blott’s, go to the magical creatures store, buy crap, get fitted for a robe at Madam Malkin’s, buy more crap, and even visit spooky Knockturn Alley with a Borgin & Burke’s, where you can buy darker-style crap.

We heroically resisted buying crap, but did do lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, a perfect replica where you can get eye-wateringly priced English pub grub as well as Butterbeer and pumpkin juice. While the food was ordinary the decor was spot on, the pumpkin juice delicious (a kind of spiced fruit juice, presence of pumpkin debatable) and Butterbeer, though sadly non-alcoholic, also unbelievably good. Then to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-cream Parlour for dessert, a flagrant money-grab with little atmosphere.

Inside Knockturn Alley

Inside Knockturn Alley

Heavy with sugar we ran through the Simpsons street at Universal, which includes a life-size Moe’s Tavern where you can get Duffs and Flaming Moes. We did the Simpsons ride through Krustyland, me trying not to hurl. All the rides are of the type described, with 3D simulations making you feel as though you are travelling very fast and far, much more sickening and overwhelming than an outdoor rollercoaster.

After a sweltering 45-minute wait we reached Platform Nine ¾ to get the Hogwarts Express, an experience that changes on the return journey (with Dementors!) back to Hogsmeade. Here we wandered through more shops selling crap, including Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes joke shop, and Honeydukes, which was beautifully done, and hard to resist! We poked our heads inside the Three Broomsticks, another perfect replica pub, a similar deal food-wise to the Leaky Cauldron, and entered the Hog’s Head, a darker pub where we obviously had to try firewhisky, a kind of spiced sweet whiskey brewed in Savannah specifically for the purpose of bringing the books to life in this park. Tasty, but pricey!

All aboard the Hogwarts Express... eventually. In the meantimre, look at Hedwig in her cage!

All aboard the Hogwarts Express… eventually. In the meantimre, look at Hedwig in her cage!

Exhausted and dripping, we exited Islands of Adventure by way of the Jurassic Park ride and Amazing Spiderman rides, both super fun, and by another 100 souvenir shops, further testing our resolve. We were utterly shattered, but all the money and waiting and sweat was totally worth it! And can you believe we didn’t buy ANYTHING? Our Money Mustaches grew long and luxurious that day my friends.

StuMobservations: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

  • Wands that activate various 10-second attractions can be experienced by following someone else’s kid around. Saved 50 bucks.
  • Still should have brought my wand though.
  • Ride simulators have come a long way.
  • Finally saw a fire breathing dragon! #lifegoalachieved
  • The Flaming Moe is non-alcoholic and doesn’t even contain cough syrup.
  • Providing in-queue entertainment is genius and should become industry standard.
  • You can view post-ride photo and have a laugh without buying it.
  • Matching family holiday T-shirts are not lame.
  • Putting cinnamon in everything does not make it ‘magical’.
  • Couldn’t decide on what to buy and came away with nothing.
  • The wait times displayed at each ride entrance are inaccurate.
  • Seeing a little girl point her wand at her brother and shout ‘Incendium’ is amazing.

What we’re reading 
Em: The Ersatz Elevator and The Vile Village, Lemony Snicket; The Apprentice, Tess Gerritsen; Rich Habits, Poor Habits, by Michael Yardney
Stu: The Long Walk, Stephen King; Eric and Moving Pictures, Terry Pratchett;

What we’re listening to
Cuban singer Jorge Moreno, who sings a lot about going to Texas and Mexico and how girls should just accept it when he doesn’t call, cause that’s just the way he is, baby. This is in preparation for visiting his Cuban restaurant in Miami Beach.

What we’re watching 
Game of Thrones finale… holy moly!
Miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand (super good and classic eighties, with Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald)

Suspend your disbelief for new Netflix doco, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru

Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru

Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru

Every year 2500 people from 71 countries come to Tony Robbins’ Date With Destiny seminar in Florida.

The word seminar seems a little inadequate. It’s $5000 a ticket for six 12-hour days in which Robbins speaks and performs ‘interventions’ for audience members. Attendees also attend intensive group therapy  sessions to confront their demons, build relationships and eventually create strategies to take their ‘breakthroughs’ into the future.

Robbins was someone I had previously thought of as a fat old white dude who writes self help books for a living, but turns out to be a relatively young, foul-mouthed and funny behemoth of a man who looks like Jack Reacher and burns with an almost evangelical passion to help people, a passion that arose from the ashes of a troubled childhood.

His brand of ‘intervention’ is a technique he calls ‘practical psychology’, a unique blend of performance and personal connection in which people (like deer in headlights) tell him darkets secrets in front of a crowd of thousands. He doesn’t know the outcome of these conversations at the outset, but under the pressure of the spotlight he questions them closely, pays close attention to body language and every time, leads them to catharsis, usually using a heady blend of humour and tough love.

Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru. Photo credit: Courtesy of Third Eye Motion Picture Company/Netflix

Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru. Photo credit: Courtesy of Third Eye Motion Picture Company/Netflix

This sounds terribly weird, even grotesque, but it’s fascinating. His huge team of staff (the coordination  of this event is a wonder in itself) who run the groups identify from extensive questionnaires the ‘red flags’, or most damaged attendees, those at risk of self-harm or worse, and keep a close eye on them, as does Robbins himself, throughout the process.

I’m a noted sook, but I defy you not to cry at seeing people, who in some cases have faced unimaginable trauma, finding hope in a place they thought of as a last chance at life. It’s also an insight into a man who the phrase ‘larger than life’ was probably written for.

This is the first time in the event’s 25-year history that Robbins has let media in and the result is this remarkable documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the Paradise Lost triology).

Robbins said in a recent long-form podcast interview (worth a look itself) that after the premiere he got a letter from Michael Moore, telling him that watching it left him both a better man and a better filmmaker.

Suspend your disbelief and check it out – at the very least, it’s grand spectacle, but for many it’s redemption.