Film review Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok

Directed by Taika Waititi

Starring Chis Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hiddleston

Certificate 12A

Back in 2011, when Kenneth Branagh was making Thor, I was keen to see how he would tackle one of Marvel’s best loved comics characters.

The result was a solid blockbuster; a little talky in places, but the movie really came alive when the eponymous character arrived on Earth, fell for boffin Jane Foster and tackled a generic robot destroyer.

It rightly made stars of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, and paved the way for terrific sequel Thor: The Dark World. Another great mix of fantasy and comedy with Hemsworth and Hiddleston stealing the show again.

Wisely Marvel gave the saga a rest for four years while prepping more helpings of Captain America and Avengers.

So now we catch up with the god of thunder in a movie which throws out the rulebook and starts afresh. There’s no Jane Foster, sexy sidekick Darcy or seasoned boffin Erik Selvig. Most of Thor’s allies are also removed in favour of assorted monsters. This owes more of a debt to Guardians of the Galaxy than the previous Thor movies, and the style change may be deliberate as Marvel preps its biggest film, the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, which will see just about every member of the MCU involved in a smack down with the galactic godfather, Thanos.

Hiring Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) as director was a stroke of genius. He brings an irreverent tone to the saga which is irresistible. At one point when the brilliant Jeff Goldblum is doing his eccentric bonkers routine as intergalactic villain Grandmaster, I’m laughing so hard I miss about five gags.

Getting rid of Natalie Portman was also a good move. Great actress, but I found her bland in the series. Newcomer Tessa Thompson is a terrific heroine. Smart, funny and lends the saga much needed femininity amid the testosterone. Cate Blanchett also has a great time as the antagonist, and even though her by-the-numbers dispatching of countless Asgardian troops is okay, it’s her bitchy comments that prove more effective. She chews whole chunks of scenery like a ravenous lioness.

And Hemsworth reminds us why he’s far more than just a gobsmacking six pack and set of biceps. His comic skills are excellent. Seeing improv so funny in a film this epic is a welcome breath of fresh air.

There are times when it feels like a couple of other movies. A bit of Lord of the Rings here, Warcraft there. But there’s also plenty of the usual Marvel staples: fight scenes; boss monster; dogfights in funky fighter craft and a lot more. It’s all expertly done and rounds out a great year for comic book movies with Spider-Man Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy: vol 2 fine additions to Marvel’s cinematic universe.

Obviously the presence of Hulk and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is a major selling point (in a storyline inspired by the comic Planet Hulk), but Taika Waititi’s rocky gladiator Korg steals many of the best scenes. Again, his improv is often side-splitting.

And as usual, stay through those closing credits for an extra scene or two which should keep fans intrigued over Thor’s future. Even if you’re not a fan, there are so many gags here, it’s guaranteed to brighten the bleakest autumnal day.

Good luck topping this Justice League. You’re going to need it.

8/10

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Slade & Fame – A Chat with Dave Hill (part one)

I grew up living in the next street to Dave Hill from Slade. It was a pleasure to chat to one of the most glam rockers of all time about his new book, Slade’s pending tour, starring in the greatest rock film of all time, and why ’without Slade, there would’ve been no Oasis’.

At one point Slade were the biggest group in the country. How did you keep your feet on the ground?

Well I think it was more than this country. It was generally the world, except for America. We were as big in all these places I’ve been to like Australia and Russia.

You can’t comprehend what it was like in the rest of the world. Obviously you can comprehend in England because the people you run into and the reaction of people you know, and newspapers and Top of the Pops.

I grew up on a council estate and the roots of the band were very much ’blokes around the corner’.

My life story comes out next month (November), so I’m in the midst of preparing for that. Nod, our singer, has done the foreward; Noel Gallagher has done the afterward.

I met him (Gallagher) once at the airport and I kept in contact. And he said something quite interesting. He said “If there was no Slade there’d be no Oasis”.

Also he said something that I thought was really poignant. “I saw them (Slade) as people that lived in a council house down the road from where I was”.

The root of it is we had the background of stability. We had good families, and when we made it… nobody can prepare you for what fame does to you. Becoming famous I don’t think we ever realised the roster of number ones we would’ve had.

But our manager Chas Chandler, who was Jimi Hendrix’ manager, believed in us immensely. He saw us as the follow on from the Beatles. He said in his mind we were that kind of group. You know, ’working class people who made it’. We got writers; we got abilities; and we got an image, which was a lot to do with our success.

I wouldn’t say anyone can cope totally with fame. Fame isn’t natural. Suddenly you’ve gone from being a boy from school; you play guitar, you’re in a band… I was a bit of a duffer at school. I wasn’t like a popular kid. And suddenly I’ve gone to extreme fame and found my reason to be so to speak; Top of the Pops. And suddenly you can’t go to the places that used to go to. You’re either going to get mobbed or annoyed, so we had to become a little bit isolated from being too exposed walking down the road.

I was still living at my dad’s house when I had two number ones. I moved and my dad was still signing the autographs. I thought that was really great (laughs).

To be continued

Hotel Review – Conrad London St James

Five star hotels are pure fantasy. The posh coffee maker I can’t afford advertised by George Clooney. The bed that feels like sleeping on a cloud compared to a bed of nails. And the monsters and robots in the lobby that remind me of countless movies.

Okay, you won’t find the latter in most hotels. It’s a sculpture that catches my bleary eye the minute my partner and I check into Conrad London St James.

It’s around 1am, and I’ve been looking forward to this stay for months: for a couple of nights we get to live like film stars.

Friday evening, and after finishing work, Rachel and I have jumped on a train from Howden, East Yorkshire and two hours later, we’re at King’s Cross.

After a late meal and evening of music in Belgravia, we’re dragging our case a mile up the road to one of the fanciest hotels I’ve experienced. I’ve stayed in quite a few in the capital, but never this good.

The last one featured a chunky TV with no reception, and a huge cigarette burn in the duvet.

No such problems at the Conrad London St James.

Gladys on the night shift is the personification of charm as we check in. The reception sculpture of a figure climbing a ladder going nowhere is certainly an eye catcher. As is that stunning piece of art as we head for the lifts. I spot Woody from Toy Story, but maybe I’m seeing things.

We find our room on the fifth floor and the reveal is not disappointing. A spacious, luxurious area with everything you’d expect. Clooney-endorsed coffee maker; supremely comfy bed; vast (flat screen) TV; glorious bathroom with TV volume control, and a spacious shower (a choice of standard or waterfall).

Obviously there’s all the facilities needed for business types, with ports for laptops and the like, and a cheeky minibar.

Hotel minibars are always a minefield regarding what’s free and what isn’t, so slotting a small bottle of wine and tub of Pringles in with the free coffee and tea is a clever move for the owners.

(It’s worth checking the handy in-room dining booklet to ensure you’re not paying a fortune for stuff that looks complimentary and isn’t).

I initially thought paying around £215 a night for any hotel room is extreme, but that’s pretty cheap for the location and calibre of room as a friend later reminds me.

And the location is perfect for those who want to be in easy access of key sightseeing locations. Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament are just around the corner.

After a good night’s sleep (once I’ve fiddled with the quiet air con), we check out the breakfast.

It’s already in full swing by the time we arrive and remarkably the gap between tables is pretty tight.

However, the food and service is excellent. Quality muesli and other cereals and a help-yourself hot and cold buffet ensure there’s plenty of choice.

I go for the full English: sausage, bacon, scrambled egg and hash browns, with a side of salmon. There’s plenty of croissants, pastries and other goodies, so little chance of going hungry.

As mentioned, that service is something else, even if it’s just a case of watching A-list hotel staff in action. One of the waiters looks like he was personally styled by Tom Ford, he’s so immaculately turned out.

Not that we’re desperate for more food, but we also have access to the executive lounge should we want it. It looks like a VIP departure lounge at Heathrow, but a nice retreat if you just want to chill inbetween meetings or shopping.

There’s no trouble finding the Tube when it comes time to head across town to Chiswick. The station is literally across the road.

Following an afternoon of fine dining six miles away, we return to freshen up and face a dilemma. We’re booked in for a meal (yes, another one) at the hotel restaurant, but want to see a West End show. The eatery opens at 6pm, and most big shows open 90 minutes later. What to do?

Thankfully we’re seated at 6pm sharp and order a ’quick’ meal. Carlos, our culinary guide, gives us a crash course in some of the hotel’s finest wines as we sample a selection of whites and reds.

I order a Blue Boar Burger as we’re in a rush, but am soon treated to a delicious bowl of cod in miso as well. Rachel samples a starter of sweetcorn, rice and asparagus with a hint of wasabi, followed by her main: Artichoke with Woodland Mushrooms, Ricotta, Spinach and Toasted Almonds.

We realise we’re not going to make that West End musical, but as none of the current shows really float my boat, I’m happy to sample the excellent food instead.

I’m stunned this restaurant is the same place where we had breakfast. Just a simple change of lighting alters the mood completely. It helps that we now have a spacious dining area of course, and I get a chance to soak up the elegant decor.

The place is spotless as you’d imagine, and though it’s still early, I love the atmosphere. Having a laugh with Carlos and our excellent waitress Marisa is that extra special ingredient not on the menu. Banter. It’s the difference between a good hotel/restaurant and a great one.

After successfully finding a good play in the West End, we return and soak up our last few hours in this extraordinary hotel.

I linger over that lobby sculpture – a stunning array of spray-painted action figures (including Woody from Toy Story, King Kong and many others) in an amphitheatre. It reminds me of the fantasy lifestyle all around me.

Our final breakfast on site is early, so there’s plenty of room at the table near where we had dinner.

After dropping our case at reception, we enjoy a brisk autumnal walk to Tate Britain, where a Ray Harryhausen exhibition pulls me in like a tractor beam. The surrounding area is a feast of landmarks, from Westminster Abbey to MI5. Along the way we see Ewan McGregor’s new film Christopher Robin in production, and are reminded of Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted line “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

Case collected, we bid farewell to the mother of all hotels. The fantasy is over but it was terrific while it lasted.

As we both have big birthdays next year and fancy pushing the boat out, our days of decadence at St James’s Park’s premier hotel are now more of a new chapter than the closed book it once was.

Highly recommended.

Restaurant review – Villa Di Geggiano, Chiswick, London

“Some believe the ghost of Freddie Mercury still walks the kitchen.”

There are many memorable stories I hear during a few hours at Villa di Geggiano, Chiswick’s premier fine dining residence, and that’s one of the best.

Other tales involve former diners Depeche Mode, Will.i.am and Snoop Dogg, but I like the idea of the Queen legend being a spiritual presence on site. If it’s good enough for one of our greatest rock stars, it’s good enough for me.

Given the quality of the food and drink at 66-68 Chiswick High Road, if there was an afterlife I can think of worse places to spend an eternity. It’s a kind of magic I’ve rarely experienced in any restaurant.

My partner Rachel and I are in town as part of a 36-hour weekend session of fine dining, theatre and culture, and although Chiswick is a bit of a trek from our St James’ Park hotel (around six miles), it’s well worth the trip.

En route we pass the “I Saw You Coming” style shops lampooned by Harry Enfield; high end furniture stores for folks with too much cash, next to shops specialising in bric-a-brac. It’s clearly a moneyed area, but the good news is you don’t need to be a lottery winner to enjoy a special meal.

And there’s no mistaking the eatery when you get there. A glorious frontage in homage the Italian villa which inspired it. It doesn’t so much whisper its presence as scream proudly at you. As well it might.

The original Tuscany villa has been around for centuries, and with hundreds of years of expertise to draw on, it’s little wonder their wine is second to none.

After Prosecco and snacks offered by our excellent culinary MC Lukasz Borowski, we’re shown to our table in a glorious dining room decked out with jaw-dropping blue treelike centrepiece. (Imagine an Avatar tree rendered in Fuzzy Felt). The tactile light stands almost beg you to stroke them; they’re reminiscent of the deer antlers dotted around the room.

With a grand piano dominating the far end of the room, the style is eclectic, eccentric and stylish. Yet it works perfectly.

As does the menu, a dazzling, affordable array of pastas, steaks, and more. The wine list is a feast for anyone who loves a good tipple. I stick to my usual rule of anything over 13 per cent, and our expert sommelier does a fine job of choosing a light red; the 2015 Franz Haas Pinot Noir is ideal.

It’s lunchtime after all and we don’t want to be staggering round the streets of Chiswick like a couple of refugees from Absolutely Fabulous.

My tagliatelle starter with truffles is beautifully al dente, and the Beef Tenderloin fillet with Wild Mushroom and Red Wine Sauce is a work of art. Cooking it ’medium to well done’ is a balancing act, but the behind-the-scenes wizards nail it.

Rachel’s Tuna Steak with Grilled Pumpkin and Vegetable Gremolada is equally exquisite.

Head Chef is a fresh-faced looking Emanuele Morisi, and unlike some restaurants which are a frenzy of behind-the-scenes activity, his team are all calm under pressure. Admittedly we have arrived at a quiet spot. After racing from East Yorkshire to London and enjoying a meal near Victoria the night before, we’re glad of the calm.

Given the fact the property pretty much backs onto recording studio Metropolis, where some of the biggest artist in the world create their audio masterpieces, it’s hardly surprising Mr Mercury used to pop in for dinner so often.

When you come this far for a meal, you hope it’s going to pay off and for both of us, there’s not a weak link in the chain. From our starters to desserts, we’re treated like royalty, and could spend all afternoon chatting to grande formaggio Ilona Pacia, a kindred spirit whose love of art and psychology has ensured diners get the best possible experience for their money.

We think we’ll head back to our hotel after dessert (the Tiramisu and Chocolate Mousse with Mango and Red Chilli Chutney is to die for), but Ms Pacia’s tour of the property, and her stories about Freddie and other music legends are endlessly wonderful.

Some restaurants are all about good food and wine. For us, a visit to Villa di Geggiano is like a history and art lesson as well.

The dessert wine is out of this world, not least because of the extraordinary monogrammed glasses.

If you are dropping in for lunch or dinner, try the (deep breath) Capezzana Conte Contini Bonacossa Vin Santo Di Carmignano. The dried apricot and fig flavours will appeal to anyone with a sweet tooth.

At one point I consider staying until evening, but some of the top brass in British TV are having one of their posh meals and the team are busy prepping for their arrival, so we decide not to outstay our welcome. There’s a chance regular visitor Sir Trevor Nunn might also pop in for a bite. It’s that sort of a place.

I do know we’ll be back one day, preferably in the spring or summer when we can experience one of their outdoor music sessions.

So, we intended to stay for a couple of hours, and around four hours later we say a sad farewell having enjoyed an unforgettable dining experience.

If you want stunning Tuscan cuisine without travelling to Italy for the privilege, this is the next best thing to being there.

We can’t wait to go back.

Theatre review – The Exorcist The Phoenix Theatre, London

It’s 7.45 on a Saturday night and my partner and I want to see a West End show. Any West End show as long as it starts at 8pm.

We’ve missed the array of musicals which started 15 minutes ago, so the clock is ticking.

Thankfully we get cut price tickets for The Exorcist, writer John Pielmeier’s new stage adaptation of William Friedkin’s blockbuster which chilled millions back in 1973.

I first saw it 30 years ago on VHS, a week before it was temporarily banned. Home alone, the power cut out. I was a little terrified, and by the end of the movie, knew I wasn’t desperate to see it again.

So, 30 years later, and another power cut at home apparently. What goes around comes around as we settle into the Phoenix Theatre for 100 minutes of drama.

“How scary can it be?” I wonder, expecting all the notorious scenes and dialogue to have been toned down. “It’s theatre. It’ll be more like Carry On Screaming than one of the scariest films ever made”.

How wrong am I?

The stage is essentially divided into three sections: an attic/desert area; a bedroom and a hallway/living room area. The design is terrific, and the visual effects often brilliant.

The whole thing is so snappily directed by Sean Mathias that there’s barely chance to take stock of what happened before the action moves on. This is an Exorcist for the attention deficit disorder generation, and given how physically uncomfortable I am (typically small West End seats), I don’t mind a bit. There’s no interval, so the tension builds to often unbearable levels.

Thankfully inbetween the coughing theatregoers and flashes of light from a badly concealed doorway, we get a chance to soak up the tale of actress Chris MacNeil, her possessed daughter Regan, and Father Karras, a young priest’s battle with faith over the loss of his mother.

Jenny Seagrove is superb as the understandably troubled mum; Coyote Ugly’s Adam Garcia makes a good stab as Father Karras, and stealing the show is Claire Louise Connolly as Regan and Ian McKellen as the voice of the Devil. Watching Regan chained to a bed while channelling his flamboyant, seductive foul mouthed demon is one of the most disturbing things I’ve experienced. Lurching from tiny moments of comedy to full on horror, the play gets under your skin, and when things get really nasty towards the end, I’m struck with that sense of guilt. Terrible things are about to happen on stage and I’m doing nothing to stop it. When you’re that immersed in a drama, the cast and crew’s work is done.

Peter Bowles gives a fine turn as Father Merrin, the yin to Old Nick’s fearsome yang. He’s barely in the show, yet I spend most of the duration desperate for his arrival.

Things reach an explosive conclusion and the curtain drops. I realise I’ve been sat with my arms tightly folded for a while, like some self imposed strait jacket.

As the cast assemble for their bow, it’s clear seasoned pros like Peter Bowles and Jenny Seagrove are grateful for the reception but well aware of how soul shattering the power of the material is.

Carry on Screaming it definitely isn’t.

There’s dialogue and suggestions here which are so disturbing, I’m not surprised there’s a few gasps in the audience.

One of the many men who should also have taken a bow is illusion designer Ben Hart. His head-spinning effect and assorted shifting shadows alone are stunning.

The Exorcist on stage is as powerful as the movie which spawned it in 1973, and though I’m not in a rush to see it again, it’ll be a while before I see anything this powerful again in the West End or closer to home in Yorkshire. Unless of course it goes on tour and scares punters stupid in this neck of the woods.

Ends

The Mountain Between Us

The Mountain Between Us

Starring Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, Dermot Mulroney

Director Hany Abu-Assad

Certificate 12A

You won’t find the TOAM acronym in any film book as it’s a genre I’ve just made up. ’Trapped on a mountain’ movies range from the obscure, such as And I Alone Survived, a TV movie I (alone) sat through once, to more well known offerings like Alive, Everest, The Edge, and truly stunning docudrama Touching the Void.

Now, added to that lot is The Mountain Between Us, the new movie starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba.

He’s a London neurosurgeon desperate to get to an operation. She’s a bride desperate to get to her wedding. Trouble is their flight’s been cancelled so they charter a light aircraft with amiable old pilot Beau Bridges, who assures them it’ll be just another job and doesn’t file a flight report.

Alarm bells would start ringing if there was no hint of what happens from the trailers. So inevitably the travellers crash with the pilot’s adorable dog and the scene is set for obligatory scenes of survival, recovery, going for help, facing vertiginous peril on cliff sides, and ravenous wildlife.

Injury-wise, Kate’s in a right state, but thankfully Idris is on hand to patch her up.

For the most part they are Kirk and Spock types. She’s ready to act on impulse. He’s the logical one who does everything by the book. Together they form an uneasy alliance and inevitably fall in love. Little wonder. It’s Idris Elba after all, one of cinema’s most charismatic leading men who even blinks in the sort of way that makes fans weak at the knees.

Kate is great as ever, though a tad stagey. I half expect her to waft her hands and say “gather” after more dramatic scenes.

I’m glad only she adopts an American accent. Elba’s is perfectly fine but vocally at least, the more distance he puts between this and dire fantasy yawn fest The Dark Tower the better.

The whole thing is well constructed; the British Columbia vistas look fabulous; the dog steals every scene he’s in, and though formulaic, I’m never bored.

The finale builds to a satisfying conclusion and while it might not be the most memorable film of the year, the TV movie-worthy plot with top drawer cast ensures I’m left with a warm, fuzzy feeling by the time the credits roll.

Try and see it on the big screen for those epic landscapes, but failing that, it’s perfect for curling up on the sofa with a duvet and box of chocs when it’s released for home consumption.

Either way, it’s 103 engaging minutes of escapism which is well worth a look.

7/10

My vlog review

Blade Runner 2049 – Spoiler free review

Blade Runner 2049 review

Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Certificate 15

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

How do you follow one of the biggest cult films of all time? When tackling a sequel to Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece about an android detector hunting near perfect replicants, the answer was leave well alone. The story had been told. The box office returns had been hugely disappointing, but over the years it made its money back via re-releases and assorted cuts.

Then, around five years ago, the rights were up for grabs, and it looked like Ridley would direct. But while he was busy with Alien Covenant, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (maker of stunning trio Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival) was wisely hired to tell the next chapter in the saga of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

Ryan Gosling is superb as Officer K, a Blade Runner retiring (killing) more replicants while reporting to Robin Wright’s police chief Lieutenant Joshi. But it’s not long before he’s investigating a riddle wrapped in an enigma after an opening showdown with Dave Bautista’s formidable antagonist.

That’s the thing with this movie. It’s so full of spoilers that I daren’t reveal too much about anyone or anything for fear of giving the game away.

So as K embarks on his mission, blind replicant creator Wallace (Jared Leto) makes his moves like expert chess player Tyrell from film one (who he’s clearly modelled on).

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

The rest of the cast is excellent, from Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks, to Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James and Bautista. Nobody gives a bad performance and master lensman Roger Deakins creates some of the most beautiful images you’ll see this decade.

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

Unlike The Dark Tower, which shed a bright spotlight on its nods to Stephen King’s other work, references to the original Blade Runner and author Philip K Dick are far more subtle. A pot boiling on a stove might be just that, as could a wasp on a hand, or they could be integral references to Deckard’s interrogation of Rachael in the original.

The audio references are also a treat for obsessives like me. A familiar electronic hum here, a nostalgic whir there. And then there’s the soundtrack. Topping Vangelis’s masterful original score was futile, but Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s booming chords and notes offer a flavour of its predecessor without them sounding like a tribute band.

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

There are at least two great cameos, one created with CGI which slips into the realms of uncanny valley.

There are times when the whole thing reminds me of Tron Legacy, another relatively recent sequel to a cult eighties classic. The difference here is a great story which twists and turns brilliantly. An obvious development early on becomes more complex as things develop. Thankfully I feel one step behind the storytellers instead of 10 steps ahead.

And the finale when it arrives after two and a half hours is near perfect. Or it would have been if the cinemaoger on our row hadn’t ruined the moment with his lit up phone. To be fair he had popped down to tell the staff to turn the lights off after five minutes of a semi-ruined intro, and the couple behind me who decided to talk through the next 10 minutes were polite enough to shut up for the rest of the movie once I asked them.

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

This won’t be for all tastes. The movie really takes its time, the polar opposite of popcorn tentpole movies which aim for the lowest common denominator. Those vistas are superb, with huge electronic billboards (including references to a French car company and the long defunct Pan Am).

Like the original, the mood is also spot on. It has a smoky, late night jazz feel which sets up proposed sequels without feeling contrived. The second act could have been tighter, but that ending, like the original, is a terrific, poetic closing chapter to a bigger story. I just hope I don’t have to wait another 35 years to see it.

8/10

My vlog review

Universal v Disney – Variations on a Theme Park

Travel – Orlando, Florida

Another autumn holiday beckons, and once more than magnetic pull of Florida sees my partner Rachel and I heading for the sunshine state.

After flying into Miami and spending a few days at Fort Lauderdale to see a David Cook gig, we head to Orlando and our obligatory pilgrimage to the theme parks.

First up is Universal Studios, a place that never ceases to amaze me. Unlike some Brits who have been coming here since the early 1990s, I made my first visit in 2002, and enjoyed many trips since, either covering the launch of The Simpsons Ride in 2008, or just for pleasure.

Universal; photo: Roger Crow

Of course the beauty of being a repeat visitor is knowing which rides and attractions to experience and which to steer clear of.

Dinner, or rather brunch at Finnigan’s Irish bar is terrific. We get there at opening time, 11am, so there’s time to enjoy The Blues Brothers show outside while scoffing fish sandwiches.

That gives us time to plan our day: tick the map of attractions that are ’musts, maybes and avoids’ as we’ve done them before.

In the ’musts’ is Skull Island: Reign of Kong, which I’ve been looking forward to since our last visit in 2015.

Thanks to Express Passes, we are on in no time. Dense jungle and skulls on poles line the queuing area, and once we’re inside the ride zone, there’s the usual 3D glasses to collect before boarding trucks that take us off on the perilous journey.

With 3D films playing on both sides of the vehicle, that all important immersive experience soon kicks in as cinema’s greatest ape tackles dinosaurs and lethal beasts, while terrified and thrilled holiday makers make a series of interesting screams and yelps. Me included.

Universal: Photo: Roger Crow

It’s five years since I experienced a similar Kong ride at Universal in California, so it seems the company have taken elements of that, and merged it with new scenes from the enjoyable Kong: Skull Island movie. Or maybe it’s all new. I do know it’s a terrific experience and well worth the trip. As are most of the attractions at Universal, especially the new improved Spider-Man ride. Again thanks to Express Passes, we walk straight on, so if your time is limited (and whose isn’t on holiday?), it’s worth spending the extra money.

Rachel and I also experience the thrilling but truly bizarre Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon, in which the talk show host takes punters from his studio in the Big Apple off through a breakneck ride through the streets. Fallon’s a huge name in the States, but his comedy shtick loses a bit in translation, especially his woeful teenage girl character which the locals love, but I find hugely annoying.

All parks need at least one must-see attraction, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Universal’s. I’ve seen the place grow from stage one at the start of the decade to the gobsmacking experience it is now. In 2015 it blew my mind that Potter covers two parks, and that a replica of King’s Cross Station had been created. That experience is obviously a less gobsmacking when you know what’s coming, but it still amazes me the scale of the experience.

I’m not a Potter fan, but full marks to the team who created one of the greater park attractions ever seen.

As it’s autumn, or fall, the traditional Hallowe’en Horror Nights means the park becomes something a lot darker after the regulars go home. We’ve done it in the past and it’s an extraordinary experience, so if adrenaline-fuelled attractions are your thing, it’s definitely worth a look.

But what of the competition? Well, if you do nothing else in Florida, I’d recommend…

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Pandora – Flight of Passage vlog review by Roger Crow

Years ago, news arrived that Disney and James Cameron were planning a theme park experience based on his blockbuster. I was thrilled, but lost interest when nothing happened and assumed the gap between the 2009 film meant it would never see the light of day.

But Disney and Cameron never do things by halves, and finally walking round Pandora, I realise why it took so long to create. Cameron’s lethal planet is now a lot more friendly at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando. And it really was worth the wait.

The thought of a two-and-a-half hour queue to experience Flight of Passage (riding on a banshee, aka a dragon that looks like it’s burst from a Roger Dean 1970s album cover) did fill me with dread, but the wait is so entertaining, it’s never boring. Watching cascading waterfalls from huge ’floating’ rocks, or soaking up the exotic scenery is a treat for the senses.

And after the winding queue takes us inside Na’avi caves and into a lab, we get to see one of the huge floating blue bodies that our brain syncs with for the ride. (I think my avatar has trouble finding my mind, it’s so blown by the experience).

For newcomers, It helps if you’ve seen the film, but is not essential.

Eventually I settle into what looks like a glorified motorcycle ride, but what unfolds after that is a stunning flight through the skies of Pandora, swooping, diving, soaring through that exotic landscape. It’s everything I hoped for in 2009, and a thousand times more.

In short: Pandora is an incredible experience.

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; footage: Roger Crow

It’s proof of what can be achieved with one person’s fertile imagination; millions of dollars, and an army of experts, both on the design and construction side, that manage to create this behemoth of an attraction.

I was an enormous fan of Cameron’s 2009 fantasy blockbuster, like many others who helped turn it into the most lucrative film ever made. And it had to be. As the most expensive movie in history, it was a huge gamble for 20th Century Fox, but Cameron has long been one of the most reliable filmmakers in Hollywood, since The Terminator turned him into a superstar filmmaker back in 1984. By the time he made Terminator 2: 3-D, a thrilling park attraction at Universal Studios just around the corner, Cameron had raised the bar for theme park attractions so high, many suffered vertigo trying to match it.

But that was years ago, and in the time since, Universal created the aforementioned Harry Potter attraction that literally took my breath away in 2015 when I first experienced it in its finished form.

Just when you think that can never be topped, Disney and Cameron has created the largest, most stunning attraction ever seen.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom; footage: Roger Crow

Inbetween rides, Rachel enjoys the best vegetarian dining experience she’s had in a theme park. My reinvented burger in a bun, a ’pod’ of doughy ’bread’ filled with minced beef, is a nice change from the ubiquitous burger and fries you get in most parks.

Having recharged our batteries, we set off to queue for the Na’vi River Journey, in which we travel through the bioluminescent forest of Pandora. After a 50-minute wait, we board our vessels and set sail. This is a less full-on experience both in queuing and the trip itself, so I’d recommend doing that first if you want to get a taste of the Avatar experience and then get blown away by the Flight of Passage ride.

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; photo: Roger Crow

We only have a day at Animal Kingdom, one of my favourite of the many Disney parks, but Pandora aside, it’s never dull. Though my favourite other attraction, the tigers in the Asia section, are busy raising young, the sight of monkeys leaping from branch to branch is forever fun and awe-inspiring.

Obviously there’s plenty to see and do at the other parks, so there’s little chance of the ankle-biters getting bored. Epcot especially is a terrific experience, not least because of the annual Food and Wine experience in which you wander round the world showcase sampling food and drink from different vendors. We didn’t get a chance this time but will no doubt be back in a couple of years.

:: With thanks to Universal and Disney for their help with this article.