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Holiday Spirit

Friday, 29th June, 2001

Two weeks we had scheduled in Florida. We'd spend half in the bustling tourist mecca of Orlando, home of theme parks and extravagance, buffet franchises and traffic, along with the four other game players we were due to meet up with. The other half would be relaxation, pure and simple, on the whitest sands of them all, right on the beach of the Gulf of Mexico on the island of Siesta Key.

Friday was for travelling and settling into a huge hotel suite, by far the biggest I've ever stayed in, complete with multiple rooms and complimentary palmetto bug; Saturday proved to be chaos in comparison. The phone messages we'd shuffled on the Friday night switched to door messages on the Saturday and gradually our group came together.

Susan and her husband had driven down from southern Georgia, as evidenced by the languorously lazy Southern drawl. They are avid jetskiiers and both look the part. Tanned, fit, confident and dedicated, even when being attacked by a swan with a grievance. They were following a double agenda here in Orlando: the meeting of online friends and the call of the water.

Joni is someone I didn't know too much about beforehand. Her photo wasn't in the gallery of players that I run, so I didn't know what she looked like. She and her husband proved to be lively and friendly people whom we were pleased to meet up with again, sadly not as much as we would have liked, due to the vaguaries of finance. They're locals to Orlando but had only recently moved up from West Palm Beach, on the Atlantic coast southeast of Orlando.

Tracy is a tiny character with long hair, a Scots ex-pat working hard to be accepted into the States, even after ten years of work. She arrived with a friend who looked huge until you realised that it was mostly just by comparison; a friend who is also black, prompting her to check with us first that it would be fine to bring her. That, more than anything highlighted to me just how alive the race issue still is in the United States. There aren't many blacks in our online game, surprisingly enough, as the community there is diverse. One time a Mormon question came up and someone joked that there wouldn't be any playing Cosmo's Conundrum. Of course there was one right there in the room...

Cosmo players are usually very open minded too, though of course there are always exceptions to the rule. I remember a player called skinheads! who tried to convert people to an extremist viewpoint for a while before giving up and just getting on with the game. Surprisingly enough he was a good player.

The other player we met, to help highlight that not all are female was Chris. He's been playing for longer than I have, probably three years or so, but he's still only sixteen. I can understand the concerns of his parents: I honestly don't know what I'd allow or not if I was the father of a sixteen year old. I do know that had he wanted to meet people from a random AOL chatroom I'd be very wary. Knowing the community that has grown up around Cosmo's Conundrum, I'd be much more open.

Chris has met players before and no doubt will meet many more. Very few will be up to his calibre. It can be daunting to go into an online trivia game and get consistently beaten by a player, often playing on their own with no help from room mates. To realise that one such player is a mere sixteen years old (and has been winning well for two years) just serves to highlight his talent even more. He's one of those people who you just know will make their mark in the real world.

We spent our afternoon playing note tag with Susan and wandering around Old Town, checking out bumper cars, fake Wild West photos, whatever took our fancy. And we came back later with Joni to play pool and ingest some of the night time atmosphere. The DJ at the bar was very good at his job. He had volunteers acting out John Travolta (female) and Madonna (male) and coached and demonstrated movements to them both. I can't remember the last time I'd enjoyed listening to a DJ in a bar. Certainly it slowed down my pool playing, not least for having to collect from him a free drink of some pure green liqueur, as Tracy didn't have the nerve. It was her answer that won it, but she preferred to be faceless.

We were all faceless beforehand, at Medieval Times, which proved a unique experience to me. We sat in one of six sections colour coded to match us to one of the six knights about to test their mettle in a tournament of games. We shouted (in a polite and restrained manner, of course, far from truly medieval) for the yellow knight who proved to be the knight of the night at the initial games of accuracy and skill. Far better than the others, he speared small rings accurately with his lance or sent his javelin hurtling squarely into its target, all at full gallop. Maybe we brought him luck.

The following joust and hand to hand combat was of course a blatantly fixed set of fights, but was still fun to watch, appealing to the same barbaric part of our psyche that watches professional wrestling. The horse skills demonstrated were a cut above. In many ways, the horses were the true stars of the show.

Amidst this tournament, we sat above the auditorium eating ribs or great gouges of chicken, all with our fingers; and watched the glory. All of it was done with traditional English accents and imagery, though the kingdom we were supposed to be guests at was Spanish. Then the dismissal brought a 'God Bless America' which seemed stunningly out of place.

After all the merriment and repast, the group teamed up to buy me a jester's hat which I wore proudly for the rest of the evening. Chris had already bought me a brand new and very comprehensive world atlas to replace my battered old 1952 edition. Now my countries have up to date names. Chris is the geography god of Cosmo, even at sixteen, leading to many names for him - Mr Geo, Geo God, Atlas Boy. Some of it is surely due to his having a massive map of the world on his bedroom wall, but most of it is from inside that able skull of his. Both gifts have served me well in this succeeding year and the kindness is remembered fondly.

Kindness of a corporate kind meant that our tickets for Medieval Times were free. We ate and enjoyed the rampant spectacle entirely free, gratis and for nothing, in return for the slight inconvenience of enduring a ninety minute sales pitch for timeshare apartments over a courtesy breakfast. Moreover, the next day we would enjoy Universal Studios equally free, through the kindness of strangers.

The end result was the same but the process was vastly different, coming by pure luck. A family were departing the Days Suites car park (and Orlando) just after we checked in, and their passes were valid for an extra day. Would we be interested? Of course! How much were they looking for? Not a thing - just enjoy. Now that's a holiday spirit.

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