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March 15, 2017

LIFE IS A ROLLERCOASTER


Normally, people don't like long queues. They try to avoid getting stuck in traffic, eating too much sugary, expensive food, and when it comes to being subjected by massive amounts of G-Force against their will, then they really get ticked off. But even though you'll usually encounter all of these things when visiting a theme park, it's usually not a problem because... well, who doesn't love a theme park? Whether it's a one-off trip to somewhere really special, or an annual pilgrimage to your favorite ride, theme parks are still big business, and still growing. In fact, there are dozens of new theme parks opening or being constructed, so here's a look at some of the biggest and best.

The largest growing market in the world for theme parks can be found in the Middle East, with the United Arab Emirates leading the way. With a number of huge theme parks already, including Ferrari World and Legoland Dubai, there are several other new parks under construction, but one of the new ones is a genuinely incredible construction. With 1.5 million square feet of space, IMG Worlds Of Adventure would be the same as any other theme park %u2013 with themed zones, rides, restaurants and other attractions - but for the fact that it's entirely indoors, in order to combat the fierce Dubai heat.

The link between movie studios and theme parks is as old as the idea of theme parks themselves. Disneyland in California has been around since 1954, but has gone through a number of expansions and revamps to keep the experience fresh. When you combine this with a filmmaker who strives to make the viewing experience as real as possible, something quite special happens. That's exactly the case with Pandora: The World Of Avatar, which is opening in Florida in May this year. Who better to oversee the recreation of another world than the man who created it? James Cameron's personal interest in the park means that no details will be missed, and you'll find yourself truly transported to another world. As if that weren't enough, Disney have another expansion in the works - Star Wars. Opening in 2019, this 14 acre space in each of Disney's parks will offer a number of unique experiences, including the opportunity to rub shoulders with protocol droids on the street, and a chance to pilot the Millenium Falcon.

Over on mainland Europe, things are a little more restrained. If you're a fan of the classic children's story Heidi, for example, then I've got great news for you: there's a second Heidi-based theme park under construction in Switzerland! Being only 15 miles apart, both parks work along similar themes - an appreciation for the stunning Alpine surroundings and the simple pastoral life of those that live in them. Attractions at the new park, due to open in 2020, include milking goats, making stools and a period-set 3D journey to Frankfurt. If that doesn't quite sound exciting enough, then maybe you should head to Norway. This is where Thor's Rike is being constructed, a Viking-themed park where you can take a tour through the Norse underworld, barter at a Viking market and eat in a Viking mead-hall. I'm pretty sure taking long and dangerous sea voyages isn't part of the tour, and pillaging is probably frowned upon, but it sounds like fun nonetheless.

Finally, we visit Japan, who can be relied upon to go completely overboard with the theme park themes. The mayor of the town of Beppu, an area famed for its hot springs in the Kyushu Province, recently took to Facebook with an interesting proposal. He had created a video concept for what a theme park in Beppu might look like - and Beppu being all about the hot springs, that was what the theme park would be about. A rollercoaster made of hot tubs. Hot tubs in the cable car. A hot tub carousel. And so on, and so forth. If the video (which you can watch here) got 1 million ‘likes', production would begin on making the concept a reality. 1.8 million ‘likes' later, and things are about to get started on the world's first SPAmusement Park.


February 15, 2017

THE END OF YEAR LISTS

2016 is in the books, and as another year closes, we are inundated with hundreds of lists. The top 10 best movies of the year, the 20 worst posts on Facebook, etc, etc. For the most part, these are a light look back on the last 52 weeks, but there are sometimes some very useful nuggets of information to be found, if you can be bothered sifting through it all. We've done some of that work for you, bringing together some of the more useful lists for international travelers.

It's impossible to get an official figure for how many hotels there are in the world, but an educated guestimate made in 2012 put the figure at approximately 187,000 worldwide. Assuming that this figure has only grown in the last 5 years, there will now be more than 17.5 million guest rooms on offer. Making an informed choice about where you should stay would be an almost impossible task, were it not for the internet and the rises in user-reviewed sites. Having had their reviewers do all the legwork, it's simply a case of listing the top 10 or 20 reviews by popularity, and even easier for us to gather all of them together. So, here are the best rated hotels in the USA, Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa and the UK.

It’s fine when you're sending journalists out to review a luxurious 5-star hotel experience. Curiously enough, there is less enthusiasm when it comes to reviewing the worst hotels. There is, however, no such thing as bad publicity, and one enterprising company with hostels in Amsterdam and Lisbon is proudly claiming the title of the worst hotel in the world. Hans Brinker Hostels make a joke out of their somewhat questionable quality levels, but they know that their clientele isn't looking for 100% Egyptian cotton sheets and perfect room service. Just as long as they’ve got somewhere vaguely secure to pass out in, they're happy - something that cannot be said of a certain other high-profile hotel owner who has been in the news recently. Things were bad for him last year - they seem destined to only get worse.

Even the best hotel's efforts can be missed if you've had a miserable time getting there. It's not just the destination that is reviewed, but also the airline that gets you there. The best and worst airlines, as well as the best and worst airports, of the last year are also reviewed. If you're looking for inspiration, these are the top 20 travel books of the last year, and of course there is a list for the best travel-based apps available.

There were also some fun lists, a selection of which we provide here: the most bizarre requests made to airline workers, the weird things people have asked staff to leave in their hotel rooms, the 10 strangest things people have tried to smuggle through US customs over the past 12 months, and 2016's most ridiculous failed Kickstarter travel campaigns. Enjoy!


February 8, 2017

SUPERBOWL SUPERSTAR SUPER-ADS

The Superbowl took place last weekend in the USA, the annual showcase of America’s best advertising efforts, where you can also watch a live Football game during the breaks. While some sporting purists might argue that it's supposed to be the other way around, the statistics don't lie - 16 minutes of gameplay over a four hour period, compared with over an hour of commercials, each costing an estimated $5 million to produce. And then, Batman's latest nemesis/Lady Gaga jumped off the roof.

One of the brands to make headlines due to their Superbowl adverts was T-Mobile. It wasn't for the advert featuring a tuxedo'd Justin Beiber. Nor was it the one that featured real-life odd couple Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart. No, it was this pair of '50 Shades of Grey' themed commercials featuring comedian Kristen Schaal taking aim squarely at Verizon. As soon as the commercials aired, reps from Verizon headed straight to Twitter for some attempts at damage limitation. But T-Mobile's rogue CEO, John Legere was, as always, already waiting for them and once again got the better of the exchange. It's a testament to T-Mobile's attacking tactics that they've done so well in such a short space of time, taking the fight directly to their competitors, whose efforts seemed tame by comparison, choosing to focus on loyalty perks, the horrors of billshock and the lengths that people would go to to avoid it.

Phone companies leveraging star power to sell their products is nothing new. In fact, in the UK, it's been happening for some time. Kevin Bacon stars in a long-running campaign for EE (Everything Everywhere), which has been (mostly) well-received. The star of Footloose is one thing, but for A-List stars, you'll need to turn to BT (British Telecom) who have splashed the cash to invite over big-name stars such as Bruce Willis, Ryan Reynolds, Alec Baldwin and, most recently, Jeremy Renner to publicise their brand.

So there's no shortage of stars willing to travel to the UK to make a quick buck, but is there much traffic going the other way? Well we've yet to see Dame Judi Dench appear in an advert for Geiko, but there is plenty of work for one of Britain's more controversial performers. Well, we say 'work'; the truth is, Ricky Gervais didn't put a whole lot of effort into this pair of commercials for Verizon a few years ago. But at least these ones have props, and mention the product - which is more than can be said for the two commercials he made for Australian operator Optus.

As with all types of advertising, things can quickly take a dark turn. Feast your eyes, if you dare, on this horrendous reimagining by smartphone manufacturers LG of a world in which we are all Jason Statham. Or perhaps this nightmarish alternate reality is more your speed, in which your smartphone has been replaced by comedian TJ Miller. The worst is saved for rapper Lil' Wayne, who begins his smartphone journey in wide-eyed innocence as he discovers Samsung's Galaxy S7 is champagne-proof. But then we see him, presumably some time later, stuck in an endless loop. It is heart-breaking.

As competition between network operators and phone manufacturers heats up, it wouldn't be a surprise to see even more A-List stars appearing in commercials. Not all of them are going to be successful, of course, but it’s important to remember that we've come such a long way since the early days.


January 29, 2017

LONG-DISTANCE FOR THE FUN OF IT


Calling long-distance used to be something we only did on an occasional basis. A short call in the middle of a trip to parents or children used to be enough to make sure everyone knew you were okay and were having an appropriately wonderful time (or an appropriately horrible/busy time if it's a business trip). Now that we have international SIM cards, better domestic roaming deals that are improving all the time and VOIP, it's easier than ever before to call long distance. Now we don't need to do it out of obligation or security, we can, if we want, just do it for fun. So here are a few ways to talk to people in other countries that don't require any reason whatsoever.


Unfortunately, for the moment, you can't call the Swedish Number any more. Partly as a way to boost tourist interest, and partly to commemorate the abolition of censorship in the country in 1766, the Swedish Tourist Board set up a phone line that would connect callers from around the world with a random Swedish person. British comedy panel show, QI, recently tried this out for themselves, in front of a live studio audience. The result was a brief but charming encounter with a Swedish man who was, at the time, shopping for groceries. For the 79 days that the line was open, a whole year’s worth of calls were logged, with most interest being shown by callers from the USA. The project was a huge success and hopefully, it will return soon.


This does not mean you've missed your chance to speak to a random European. Impressed by the success of their northern neighbor, France has launched the French Number, their version of the same thing. Don't worry if you don't speak French, as anyone who signs up to receive random calls has committed to speaking English. Alternately, you could talk to a random person in a number of different countries, determined not by their location, but by religion – at least, that's what the Jewish Number promises. There are people from all over the world registered and ready to take your random calls, including Buenos Ares, Berlin and Kiev.


Of course, the internet is tailor-made for chatting with random strangers. There have been thousands of chat rooms and video chat sites over the years that have offered a way for strangers to connect with each other. Inevitably, of course, this being the internet, things are often, shall we say, corrupted, and made less enjoyable on account of the increasing likelihood of someone saying, or worse, showing something inappropriate. Really, the safest option is a voice chat, as you can't see anything, and it's harder to troll someone when you're speaking out loud. One of the most successful and frankly, strangest, of these apps is called Wakie.


When it was first launched in 2014, Wakie seemed counter-intuitive. Combining a call with an alarm clock doesn't seem like something that would take off. After all, if you're anything like me, words of more than one syllable first thing in the morning is a bit of a struggle. However, based on the results collated by its predecessor, a Russian app called Budist, it makes more sense than at first glance. The theory is that despite not being fully operational when it wakes up, a person's brain is at its most creative. In addition, a conversation is a far more effective method of fully regaining consciousness after sleeping, and users reported that it was far more effective than a bleeping alarm. Within its first year of operation, the Budist app boasted 700,000 users.


When it started, Wakie worked in the same way. Using VOIP and hiding both connected numbers for security reasons, people could set an alarm or offer themselves up as 'wakers'. The original call length was set to just one minute, which led to some amusing and bizarre situations. Now, however, the app has evolved. Not only are conversations capped at 10 minutes, you can choose a subject that you want to talk about, and someone can call you at any time you want. There are still the usual problems with talking to anyone random – occasional bad and/or creepy behavior, for example – but with two million users in 80 countries, it's one of the few social network apps that is genuinely social.



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