writing: a murder mystery, M3GAN and a flying chair

‘owdo! The next instalment of our holiday memories presented for your reading pleasure.

Paul and I have been going to Florida for fourteen years now, albeit with a decade between this visit and our last. Lots of things have changed: for a start, we don’t need to get Momma’s Pryin’ Bar to get us in and out of the rides. Nor do we feel the need to take up smoking (true story) because the cigarettes over there came with a little blue capsule to click and make them minty. Perhaps the greatest sadness is the fact that the budget restaurants all along International Drive have all but disappeared – there was a time you could get a buffet breakfast for $2 and only pay extra if you wanted a copy of the Daily Mail. We never availed ourselves of this because we’ve never felt the need to wipe our arses during breakfast, that usually comes later.

Actually, whilst we’re on this bum note, a fun fact for you: Paul blames Sizzler for a decade of having a troublesome bowel: we had been for breakfast there and after a meal which somehow incorporated meat, dairy, ice-cream, pulses and yesterday’s bread all in one fabulous platter, only for it to have an immediate effect on Paul necessitating a dash back to the hotel to startle the housekeeping. Since then, almost as soon as he eats in the morning, it triggers a pressing and catastrophic evacuation. I’m not saying I’ve suffered as a result but I don’t think we’ve ever completed a fry-up without Paul bolting out of the room clutching his rectum. Rectum? No, but he doesn’t half suffer with it. However, in exciting news, this trip seems to have rebooted his myenteric system and he’s back to what passes off as normal when you’re Paul.

But we’re not here to talk about Paul’s anus. For all that has changed, two things remain the same: the creepy as fuck adverts for Dan Newlin the Ambulance Chasin’ Lawyer and the cheery billboards for the Sleuths Mystery Dinner. Dan’s apparently a Florida institution and judging by the fact you see his advert every eight minutes on the television – a twenty second sting showing a carousel of ashen-faced Definitely Not Actors spinning a yarn about being crashed into and then rewarded with $350,000 courtesy of Big Man Dan – he’s a pretty big deal. That’s not why I mention him though – man’s gotta make a living, even if it is in a line of work I’m supremely glad we don’t have over here in any great amount. No, when we last visited in 2012, we were taken by the fact he looked like a giant baby poured into a suit – you’d think time might have weathered the face, but no! 2023 sees him still looking like a live-action Boss Baby. He has to have a portrait growing old in an attic, I’m sure, albeit one printed on a sheet of A1 to get his noggin on. The roadside adverts where his giant forehead pops over the top of the frame are a delight, however.

Sleuths Dinner Show

Sleuths though – well, each time we visited Florida previously, we agreed that the idea of a murder mystery dinner sounded absolutely ghastly. Back then we were both terribly anti-social and slightly snobby – and listen, we had no right to be snobby, 2/3 of our living room furniture we had pulled from two separate trips to the back alley, but here we are. We’d always find an excuse not to do it – too busy, too poor, Wheel of Fortune was on, that sort of thing. This time, with the luxury of five weeks to fill and also a serious attitude readjustment, we decided to roll the dice and give it a go.

I ought to explain how it works, of course: it’s essentially a dinner show where you watch a little murder play, er, play out on stage, then a break for dinner where you can fire questions at the cast for more clues, then it’s onto the second part where the mystery is solved and everyone cheers. For $65 each, including unlimited beer and a three course dinner, it’s genuinely good value, especially when you factor in that I drink like I’ve wandered in from the desert at the best of times.

The show itself was absolute ham, but in the best way: hilarious actors taking part in a fake wedding which culminates in the groom being shot and four suspects presented for your review. Of course, as a Geordie who treats Vera as event television, I had it all figured out within ten minutes, noting the presence of an obvious anagram on the menu and some subtle foreshadowing in the early moments. Also of course, I was utterly wrong. Nevertheless, we went into the show thinking it would make us cringe, we left the show with aching sides from laughing and full bellies from the food which wasn’t bad at all, even if the cheesecake I ordered needed sucking to thaw it out. I consider that a win.

Of course enjoyment of such an event lives or dies on the company that joins you on your table (as a party of two you will be paired up with another couple at the very least). I thought our luck was in at first – we were joined by a 6ft 6″ bloke, all tattooed arms and a beard you could set your watch to, together with his tiny but excitable wife. He had the look of someone who could put out a house fire just by shouting at it and frankly that’s just my type. Alas, as the evening continued, it became clear that he was a proper old racist and, in the company of two big blokes with shaved heads and stonewashed denim, probably thought he was amongst friends. Pfft. If only he had known what Paul and I had been thinking when he sat down – turns out there was more than one unexpected stiff in this evening’s production – he might have kept his gob shut. As it was (and perhaps somewhat shamefully, but I didn’t want my holiday ruined by having my skull shot halfway down the interstate, sorry) we did some polite nods to his thinly-veiled nonsense and instead tried to engage his wife in conversation. It somehow got weirder: when pressed as to why she had never travelled outside of the US despite having a yearning to see Europe, her husband shot the conversation down by exclaiming he wouldn’t run the risk of having her kidnapped by people traffickers, as though this was a common danger that we all live in constant fear of. I tried to eke out further explanation on this worry of his but he was having none of it – by all accounts the second they would step off the plane in Zurich, his wife would be bundled into a van by a gang of burly bearded blokes and dashed away into the night for sexual exploitation. I resisted the urge to ask him which airline would be best and how much a one-way ticket would be.

With the conversation dead in the water we busied ourselves with our desserts and drank our beer and did everything but make eye contact with our companions. Paul pretended to be a vaper just so he could join me outside to agree how odd it all was. We loitered in a self-made thundercloud of Miami Mint until the bell was rung for the end of dinner and we knew it was safe to return to watch the second part. From thereon in, I don’t think we exchanged another word, and the second the culprit was revealed our tablemates scuttled off, presumably to get a jump on any potential kidnappers loitering outside. Takes all sorts. Glad we did it though, and thoroughly recommend it if you’re searching for something to do of an evening.

We got a photo taken of us which we really liked – liked it so much we took it into a bar called BJs and left it behind. In our defence, the bar was called BJs

Icon Park’s Starflyer

What I can’t recommend is the StarFlyer just up the road in Icon Park. I can’t recommend it purely because I was far too frightened to ride it. It’s a 450ft tower where you sit in little swings attached by only two chains and get lifted into the air and spun around. You can watch it here, it’ll open in a new window. Now see, I’ll go on any theme park ride you can throw at me – higher, faster, bigger, longer or uncut, doesn’t phase me: aside from not especially liking anything that makes me dizzy, I’ll do anything. We once jumped off the top of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas – all 900ft of drop – and that was just fine. But there’s about as much chance of getting me on the Starflyer as there is me settling down with a milkmaid called Janet and raising three rosey-cheeked children. See, there’s two other ‘giant’ rides at this place – a colossal ferris wheel rather like the London Eye but 400ft tall and a drop-tower ride, also one of the tallest in the world, where they shoot you up into the air and then drop you. Sounds great, aside from the fact there was a fire in one of the pods on the ferris wheel (can you imagine how scary that would be) and some poor soul fell out of the drop tower ride as it descended and died instantly. It’s since been revealed that the latter happened because the ride operators decided to override the safety features to allow someone onto the ride who was 100lb past the maximum operating limit. Perhaps with the above facts in mind you can understand why I refused to ride the Starflyer – it just wasn’t worth the risk.

I did however send Paul up to have a go, Husband of the Year that I am. Now I know you might be thinking how could I risk something so unendingly precious to me coming to a sticky end, but you mustn’t fret: I kept his wallet on me. Seeing the love of my life strapped into a chair that looked as though it had been put together over 87 weekly issues of ‘That’s Probably Safe Enough’ was horrifying and I genuinely had to take some deep breaths to calm myself down as he went hurtling into the night, but thankfully, he returned safely to me, pausing only to reassure me it was terribly boring and I would have hated it anyway so that I didn’t feel like I’d missed out. He’s a good egg, thankfully remaining unscrambled.

Where to Miss? To the stars…

The Whale, M3GAN and Knock at the Cabin

Over the course of the five weeks we took the opportunity to visit the cinema for three very different films. Knock At The Cabin was very good but entirely unrealistic – if Dave Bautista knocked on our cabin door in the middle of nowhere, I’d have my legs in the air and my hole on show before his knuckles had left the doorframe. Of course it’s an M. Night Shyamalan film so we spent most of the film trying to guess the twist, only for the movie to end abruptly and leave us unsatisfied. I’ll say this though: I’d love to see Dave Bautista in more serious roles (either that or hardcore gay pornography) because he was absolutely brilliant in this. M3GAN was camp and magnificent and introduced us to one major difference between the US and UK cinema experience: every joke resulted in whooping and hollering and each kill got a round of applause. In the UK it’s entirely different of course: the sound of two M&Ms rubbing together is enough to elicit so many tuts and hisses that it’s often better you just leave. I know this because I’m usually the one tutting, if I’m not busy hypocritically stuffing my face with Minstrels and slurping my flagon of Ice Blast.

But Christ, The Whale. I’ve been waiting for this movie ever since it was announced that Brendan Fraser was cast, because it was never going to be anything short of brilliant. That man can act. And so it was: an exhausting two hours where you already know how it’ll end, but waiting for it to happen keeps you captivated in the worst possible way. The only moment of levity came when Paul managed to tip his entire box of Milk Duds across the floor, sending them pinging and clattering down the stairs. When the film was over and the lights came on, no-one moved. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not pretending we all had some sort of collective emotional epiphany – it wasn’t that American – but I reckon most of the folks there were crying. I certainly was, and I didn’t so much as sniffle when my house burned down. I looked at Paul who was also dabbing away at his eyes and we decided to leave the remaining quarter-tonne of buttered popcorn at the cinema. We did pick up the Milk Duds as we left, mind.

Oh speaking of popcorn, I’m not sure what’s going on with American popcorn but it’s bright yellow, which gives it the unfortunate look of something you’d excise from a diseased lung. It takes a lot of effort to chunk it down, I can tell you.

The Chocolate Factory

International Drive has two chocolate factories – one at the ‘nice’ end, surrounded by the convention centre and a five minute walk from our second hotel, and another thirty minutes away on a strip mall surrounded by shady characters who look like they might mug you as soon as say bless your heart. So naturally we went to the latter. We weren’t planning on taking the tour, rather just wanted to take a look at chocolates too expensive to ever consider buying in air-conditioned comfort. Yet the lady on the front desk was very persuasive and before you could say ‘I’ve never even been to the Ambassador’s reception’ we had two oversized golden tickets for the noon tour and fifty dollars missing from our wallet. There was the promise of free samples to quell any grumbling and anyway, tell me truthfully if there is any better attraction than those local museums which try their best? Exactly!

We were joined on our tour by four ladies who I’m not entirely unconvinced didn’t just wander in off the street to use the toilet and got roped into the tour and we were on our way. First we sat and watched a Powerpoint about what chocolate was. Then we got to see a cocoa bean and try a cocoa nib. Never one to say no to a bump of free coca I was straight in, immediately regretting my choice when this tiny match-head of pure bitterness was stuck in my teeth. Our tour did laugh and say he didn’t expect us to actually eat it and there was a bin nearby to pop it in, but I was fine: I’d already spat it into the hood on Paul’s jacket at this point.

Our tour guide then showed us some furniture that some people who enjoyed chocolate had once sat on, then a potted history of where chocolate came from, then through a room containing machines that took you through the chocolate making process. Temper? Well I was a little cross at having to stand for so long, but thank you for asking. The next room contained various sculptures made from chocolate which were fascinating to look at, if only so Paul and I could bicker as to whether or not they were actually chocolate or just painted wood. One of the quartet of ladies started chortling and pointing at a chocolate model of Barack Obama before posing in front of it with her middle finger up. I know this because I was behind her with my finger up my nose to ruin her photo.

Paul and I are at the front, in case you’re unsure

Perhaps sensing that things were about to turn nasty, our tour guide led us through to the sample room.

Well honestly. I’m not saying my expectations were high, but I was basing the enjoyment of this entire holiday on this moment, and before we get to what we actually received, know this. One television programme that Paul and I often rewatch on Youtube is Holiday Showdown – one of those classic reality TV shows from the early noughties which was designed purely for drama. They’d take some family from a house within one throw of a pint glass of a flat-roof-pub who holidayed exclusively somewhere a) hot and b) with laminated pictures of food to point at, then swap their holidays with some utterly cheerless gooseberry-and-cinnamon-yoghurt types who took their breaks in a knitted yurt on a nature reserve in some country which only exists in your memories. It was amazing: we’d always end up siding with the ‘rough’ family because without fail they’d have the better holiday and end up rucking with Tarquin-Perineum over some imagined slight in the karaoke bar. Anyway – I mention this because there was a particular episode which saw the families going to Las Vegas for a week of utter over-indulgence and as part of that, they visited a chocolate shop. Now whether the owners relaxed the rules on the ‘freebies’ because the cameras were there we’ll never know, but the image of one of the children – all glistening chins and happy-cow eyes – wabbling around with his entire basket of free chocolate stacked as high as him has always, always stuck with me. I wanted that experience. Could this be it?

No. Fuck no. We’d have got more chocolate inside us by taking a few deep breaths in the shop outside. He must have used a razor blade to slice these samples off. I appreciate I’m a big fat pig but even so, I was expecting chocolate I could chew as opposed to see straight through. One sneeze and they’d have all blown on the floor. Our tour talked us through the various flavours but all I could taste was sheer bloody disappointment. I felt like Augustus Gloop, only without the fun trip up the pipes. They perhaps sensed our sadness because they offered us 10% off in the shop afterwards but we didn’t indulge out of spite, instead choosing to choke down an ice-cream from the shop over the road. Pah.

Ah now I feel bad actually. Aside from my utter heartbreaking sorrow, the tour itself was very interesting and our tour guide was very bouncy and kept our interest. Paul admitted afterwards that he wouldn’t have kicked him out of bed for eating chocolate, to which I reminded him of the time we’d been working our way through a bag of Revels in our hotel bed after our house burned down and he’d fallen asleep on at least three coffee revels which I’d set aside for him. This led to him shaking me awake the next morning and, with the stricken look of someone who had spend a solid decade risking it all on every fart, told me he’d shat the bed. His face when I stuck my finger in it and went ‘ooooh delicious, tastes like coffee’ will stay with me for time evermore.

And on that note, I’ll bid you goodbye, proud that I managed to create such a circular narrative hook in the blog around Paul’s bum.