14 February 2019

From the Archives - You'll Love Me at Once

In recent years, we've seen Walt Disney World turn a day of celebrating true love and commitment into a focal point for villains. Sometimes all a villain really needs is a hug and someone the bow down to their every whim, and what a better way to say I serve only you than through a proclamation during Villaintine's Day! It's a fun way to stretch outside of the typical Valentine berm and inject some fresh blood into the mix.

That said, I'm still partial to the romantic side and original intent of the holiday. With that in mind, let's tiptoe back into the archives and talk about when Walt Disney World had a special party just for the occasion!

You'll Love Me at Once - Originally Published 13 February 2015

When thinking of holiday events at Walt Disney World the two that jump right out at everyone are Christmas and Halloween, in particular the special parties put on by the Magic Kingdom. Certainly, there are special meals for Thanksgiving, egg hunts for Easter, and a variety of offerings for St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Earth Day, and all the other holidays in between, but they aren’t given the special attention that Christmas and Halloween parties afford their namesake days. That said, that wasn't always the case.

During the early years of Walt Disney World, and dating back even further at Disneyland, special ticketed parties occurred all year long. Take, for example, this ticket for the Valentine Party from 1976.

The party in 1976 actually took place on the day before Valentine’s Day, on Friday the 13th, the same way the holiday falls this year. Like the holiday parties of today, the park would close and guests were given run of the park’s attractions and there was special entertainment. In 1976, the entertainment included performances from the gospel/soul/R&B group, The Staple Singers.

It may make me smirk that the Shooting Gallery still required an additional charge, but the overall cost of the event, $6.95, would have been a bargain any day of the week. In fact, it was roughly the cost of 5 gallons of milk that same year. How many of us wouldn't love to get into the Magic Kingdom’s holiday parties in 2015 for that same comparative price?!?!

The parties for other holidays may have faded away with the passage of time, but there are still plenty of ways to celebrate special days at the parks of Walt Disney World. Party or not, how would you celebrate the day at the Magic Kingdom with your valentine?

07 February 2019

Full Irish

Brunch is a sacred meal around my house. We don’t go out for it as often as we would like on the weekends, and we don’t prepare it in our own kitchen nearly enough. It is one of those meals that we have specific places where we know we’re going to get the best of breakfast and lunch, and it is a special treat when we are able to get up, out of the house, and spend a quiet meal gobbling up some of our favorite dishes. It is rare that we take the time for brunch when we’re at Walt Disney World, but Raglan Road has a brunch dish that I just couldn’t stay away from.

The brunch entree is called the Full Irish, and it certainly lives up to its name. The menu lists the elements on the plate as sausage, black pudding, white pudding, bacon, roasted tomato, mushrooms, fried egg, and roasties. I should clarify a couple of the items listed there. The bacon is true bacon, meaning it is much more akin to country ham than to the typical buffet, breakfast, grocery store bacon. Roasties, meanwhile, is just a simplified term for roasted potatoes. Lastly, as I am not a fan of eggs, you’ll notice this review is sans the fried egg.

Let’s start with the most common elements found on the plate. The sausage is flavored well with savory spices and isn’t thin and floppy like many breakfast sausages. The grilled mushrooms are spot on and tasty, and the same can be said for the juicy grilled tomato, although I think my tomato could have spent a couple of more seconds on the grill just to be safe. The roasties are similar to hasbrowns, but definitely cut thicker. I liked how dry they were, but I can see how the egg would make them more palatable for others. The bacon is thick cut, salty, and wonderful. Seriously, you couldn’t ask for more out of the bacon.

Moving on to the two components that probably confuse or make most Americans a little nervous, the black and white puddings, but let me help ease your trepidation. Actually, I’m probably going to scare a few more of you right at the start, but stick with me. Black and white puddings are very similar in many respects, except that black pudding contains blood as one of its ingredients. The squeamish among guests is probably why they don’t refer to the black pudding by its more common name, blood pudding. These are, for lack of a better description, another form of sausage. The contain pork, sometime beef, oats, and spices that are prepared and then kept for future consumption. They are very savory, especially the white pudding, and are delicious. The black pudding has a bit of a metallic twinge to it, but it isn’t as noticeable as you would think. While these are not traditional American breakfast staples, they date back to medieval times, so you know that chefs have had plenty of time to perfect their recipes.

I am half Irish and my wife is one-hundred percent Irish, and this breakfast hits us in all the right comfort food places! There may be one or two unfamiliar items on Raglan Road’s Full Irish that cause you a bit of hesitation, but I promise the flavors, smells, and satisfaction this meal will bring you should definitely outweigh any hesitation you might have. There are several wonderful brunch spots scattered around Walt Disney World, and Raglan Road has assuredly earned its place at the table.

05 February 2019

To Infinity and My Foot

Slinky Dog Dash and Toy Story Land are the new shiny toys of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, at least until the arrival of Galaxy’s Edge and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. Every attraction has its day and then it settles into its routine after a couple of years or the next big attraction comes along. That’s not always a negative, Space Mountain has been around since 1975 and still draws some of the biggest crowds in the Magic Kingdom. It is the lifecycle of attractions, but on rare occasions an attraction can reemerge in its popularity, and we’re all the better for it.

The toys are back in town in a big way right now, they have a new land of backyard wonder that opening in Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2018. It reversed how guests enter one of its headlining attractions, Toy Story Mania, the Midway portion of the name vanished in 2018, while adding to the dining and attraction offerings found in this corner of the park. Toy Story Land is the area of the park that guests flood into first thing in the morning and Slinky Dog’s Dash has become the Fastpass to acquire ahead of your trip. And all of this means it’s time for Toy Story Mania to up its game, literally.

When Toy Story Mania first opened in 2008 it included six carnival style 3D games, Pie Throw Practice, Hamm & Eggs, Bo Peep’s Baaa-loon Pop, Green Army Men Shoot Camp, Buzz Lightyear’s Flying Tossers, and Woody’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Shootin’ Gallery. Just two short years later, however, Bo Peep got the crook and was replaced by Rex and Trixie’s Dino Darts in May of 2010. This change was to include characters from the upcoming Toy Story 3, which would be arriving in theaters in June of that year. Trixie wasn’t the only addition from the film, Buttercup, Lotso, and others appear as either in-game characters or in artwork visible throughout the attraction.

I’ll be completely honest, I’m not big on screen-based attractions as a whole. Certainly attractions like Star Tours and Flight of Passage have their places in the world of theme entertainment, but I really love tangible environments. Toy Story Mania is fun, aside from the arm cramp it gives me, but there’s something special about Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin that Toy Story Mania doesn’t have in my book. There is a way in which Toy Story Mania is superior to Space Ranger Spin, and we alluded to it just above, it is in its ability to change out games.

The ability to incorporate characters, thematic elements, and new types of games is a wonderful way to keep Toy Story Mania fresh. It’s been almost ten years since the last refresh and with Toy Story 4 hitting theaters this summer, I’m willing to bet that a new game is on the horizon, but maybe not as soon as everyone thinks. With the new land being such a hit, there isn’t anything driving Disney to keep attendance up at Toy Story Mania. Give it another year or two and then I believe we’ll see a plussing of the current offering of games.

Could Bo Peep make a triumphant return, as she appears primed to do with the film series? It’s possible, but I’m willing to put my money on two other grizzled carnival game veterans, Bunny and Ducky. The game, which there are still plenty of carnival type games not currently found in the attraction, could slot in where Green Army Men Shoot Camp is, or possibly even in place of Hamm & Eggs. I think Buzz and Woody are definitely safe from any upgrades, as would be Rex & Trixie’s Dino Darts, considering it was the most recent addition.

The pair of Bunny and Ducky, portrayed by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key respectively, have made two appearances so far. Light spoilers ahead for anyone wanting to not see anything toy Story 4 before they get to the theater. In one it is a reaction to the teaser trailer that had been released and an argument around what exactly is said in Buzz Lightyear’s “To infinity…” catchphrase. In the second, the tv spot that aired during the Super Bowl this past weekend they get up close and personal with Buzz on a carnival prize rack.

I don’t know when, or even if, Toy Story Mania will be rotating in a new game anytime soon, but it was one of the selling points of the original attraction, the ability to slot in a new game with relative ease. With Toy Story ramping up in popularity again, it would only make sense to begin planning for a possible exchange of games. Especially when you have a dynamic duo perfect for making the jump from the big screen carnival to the game screen carnival.

31 January 2019

Pontchartrain Way

Port Orleans – French Quarter has a ton of clever names scattered about their walkways and well-manicured squares. From Rue D’Baga to Reveler’s Row, there is a great amount of history and a ton of clever wordplay on each corner of the resort. While many of the names are instantly recognizable for their jokey nature or a claim to fame in New Orleans, there is at least one that probably leaves more guests scratching their heads than nodding in understanding. Today we’re trundling down a road that crosses over the more recognizable Ragtime Alley, Carriage Path, and Jazz Alley and spending time digging into the wealth of history brought up by the name Pontchartrain Way.

Pontchartrain refers to Louis Phélypeaux, a French politician who was active in the 1600 and 1700 hundreds and was known under varying titles, including comte de Pontchartrain, the Count of Pontchartrain. He was the owner of chateau de Pontchartrain, which is how he came to the title of Count of Pontchartrain, Phélypeaux had a career that included roles as Navy Secretary, head of the Parlement of Brittany, and Chancellor of France. While we know the namesake now, how does it play into the New Orleans theme of Port Orleans – French Quarter.

Sure, there is Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, with its Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest continuous bridge over water since 1969, but that doesn’t totally get to the heart of the matter. There’s also New Orleans first railroad, the Pontchartrain Railroad, which rain between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain between 1831 and 1935. Heck, there’s even Fort Detroit that was originally named for Phélypeaux, but none of these tell the whole story.

Pontchartrain Park is a one square mile neighborhood in the Gentilly District Area of New Orleans. The neighborhood was created after World War II as one of the first middle class African-American neighborhoods during the time of Jim Crow. The New Orleans subdivision was hit hard by flooding from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. While relatively small, no more than 2,000 residents, Pontchartrain Park has also been called home by a number of New Orleans residents. Included among these residents are New Orleans’ first African-American mayor, Dutch Morial, actor Wendell Pierce, and legendary Grammy, Emmy, and Golden Globe winning musician Terence Blanchard.

Sometimes a name is just a name in Walt Disney World, sometimes it has a tie to Disney history, and sometimes there is a real world story to tell. Beneath the magnolia branches that line the byways and around the meticulous squares, complete with fountains, that comprise Port Orleans – French Quarter there is at least one sign that calls to storied neighborhood of New Orleans. Just a little trivia to keep in your pocket the next time you find yourself sauntering down Pontchartrain Way.

29 January 2019

On This Uncharted Shore

It’s early in the morning and the welcoming show has just opened the Magic Kingdom to guests. The drums of Adventureland playfully dance and put a rhythmic bounce into my neck and head. The sun has barely begun to scrape over the top of buildings, blinding guests heading towards Tomorrowland and burn the sleepy remnants from everyone’s eyes. Throngs of guests are rushing as fast as their hurried paces will let them go, while keeping under the chastising warnings to walk from Cast Members that they pass, in order to be some of the first guests of the day to board the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Space Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, Pirates of the Caribbean, or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. They rush past me without taking a second glance as I stand there, silently staring up at my first attraction of the morning, the Swiss Family Treehouse.

The Swiss Family Treehouse is not my favorite attraction in the Magic Kingdom, but it is high on my list. I should be racing off to fly with Peter over Never Never Land or to visit Tumbleweed on a runaway mine train, but I’m not. I’m standing here gazing up at a faux tree engineering marvel. No one, and I mean no one, is scurrying to be the first one to climb the treehouse, but still I make my way by the oar and canvas canopies and cannons with neatly stacked cannonballs to the entrance. The Swiss Family Treehouse is comprised of 116 steps, climbing up and descending around the trunk of the tree, in addition to stretches of platforms between its different rooms. I take a deep breath, let it out, and begin my ascent.

A few years ago, in my early-to-mid-30s, I was diagnosed with the auto-immune disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis. The disease stems from an overactive immune system, causing it to attack healthy tissue, particularly around the joints of the body. If untreated it can cause massive joint damage, but even at the best of times it causes exhaustion. I like to joke that my immune system, which I had built up to an almost bullet-proof level over more than a decade of work with afterschool and preschool programs, was just like me, an overachiever. The drive to make itself stronger eventually led to it collapsing in on itself. The truth is that the auto-immune disease is hereditary on my mother’s side of the family, the side of the family tree that the doctor’s never want to hear you say RA is prevalent on.

It can be hard going into the rheumatologist’s office as a young man. Early on, before I became recognizable on sight, I would get praise for being a good family member and be asked who I was there to pick up. The light in the receptionist’s face would dim while she tried to hold her smile in place when I would say I was there for me. Sitting in the waiting room, comprised of mostly individuals in their 60s or older, being the one person in what is considered the prime of my life, waiting to see the doctor is humbling, but you find community. Eventually I will get in to see the doctor, he takes as much time as he needs with each patient. He will gentle shake my hand, tell me it’s not okay when I try to laugh off my current state of pain, and proceed to test every joint to see how stiff and swollen each is. It isn’t comfortable, but it is necessary.

There is no way to know how RA is going to make you feel from day to day. It is, as I tell anyone who asks, the worst game of Russian Roulette that you will ever play. Each morning starts with an assessment of how everything feels that day. I’ve had days where I wake up and the pain from the day before is gone or, conversely, wake up in excruciating pain that wasn’t there when I went to bed. When a flare does arrive, it could last hours, days, and forever, there is no way to tell. The next time a flare subsides you could go into remission and never hear from the jerks in your joints again.

One thing you should also know about RA is that is also, for the most part, invisible. Certainly on my worst day you can see me carefully clutching a joint that is inflamed, catch a limp in my step, or see me walking with a cane. However, most days you will hear me, and others with the same auto-immune disease, tell you that we’re fine or that we’re doing okay. It is so tough to explain that outwardly we look fine, but internally there is a fire burning in our fingers, knees, and shoulders and we are exhausted after breakfast. Honestly, there are many days that getting up, showered, and dressed is a righteous accomplishment. I cover the pain with jokes, stiff legs that don’t work as well as a table’s leg, clenched up fingers making me look like a t-rex on the prowl. The humor lifts my spirits and makes everyone more comfortable.

There is no cure for Rheumatoid Arthritis. There are treatments, but it is worth knowing that even the best treatment plans do not work for 100% of those diagnosed with the disease. So you learn to live through trying a lot of different medications, trying different combinations of medications, messing with dosage levels, and a lot of faith, trust, and pixie dust.  I consider myself lucky. Remember that waiting room I told you about? Being whacked by this vicious disease while I am younger means I have the blessing of time, the hope that a cure does come along in my lifetime. There have been advancements in the past couple of years, nothing that approaches a cure, but enough to keep me moving forward with hope.

In middle school, high school, college, and even a few years after, I was a running fool. I would run for hours just to be alone with my thoughts, and I loved it. The same man who once ran the Walt Disney World Half Marathon on nothing more than muscle memory now gets winded climbing up his hilly driveway and most days I have some sort of cane or walking stick to make sure I don’t lose my balance and end up falling and hurting myself. I walk when and where I can, because some movement is great, but sometimes going too far makes it worse. It’s all in knowing your body and how far you can push it to balance yourself on the edge of the staying healthy knife.

This brings me back to standing at the base of the Swiss Family Treehouse. As a child I would run to the bamboo water carrying system and stretch out as far as my little hands would let me, fingers trembling as I strained them to their limits, just trying to knock over one of the water cups. I don’t believe I was ever successful. I would try not to knock other guests over as I sped my way up to Fritz and Ernst’s room, loving the idea of sleeping in a canvas hammock and wondering if Walt Disney World would ever let me spend a night in the room, and then dance over to the call of Swisskapolka as I pleaded with my father to build me a treehouse just like this one. The Swiss Family Treehouse never replaced Big Thunder Mountain or Peter Pan’s Flight in my heart as my favorite attraction, but it was always something I wanted to do.

With guests hastening off to their first destination, hitting that must-do attraction or sticking to their plan of attack, I start up the first set of stairs. I come to the Swiss Family Treehouse early because it is still mine to do. I won’t bottle up anyone else’s experience as I slowly climb my way through the treehouse, still daydreaming about swinging from the branches into my hammock and enjoying the view as I look out across the entirety of the Magic Kingdom peaking from between the branches. The ability to have my own joy in the experience and to not add stress to anyone else’s amusement of this timeless beauty, that is why I come to the Swiss Family Treehouse first thing in the morning.

There’s one last reason I return to the Robinsons’ tree time and time again these days. A small tingle lingers at the back of my mind, a whisper that I try to ignore. If a cure doesn’t come, if a flare bursts into my joints and never leaves, then I know that there is a day coming when I will only be able to look up longingly at the Swiss Family Treehouse. I won’t be able to climb it limbs and marvel at its artistry up close any longer. The idea sits like a cold, damp rock lodged in the pit of my stomach. I shake it off and climb the next step.

28 January 2019

The Party’s Going Strong

While my first trip to the Vacation Kingdom was well before my memory formed, one of the first events I can remember attending was Walt Disney World’s 15th anniversary. The year-long birthday party was affectionately known as the 15 Years of Magic. It included all sorts of special decorations, like a giant yellow pyramid cake in front of EPCOT Center, and constant giveaways from pins to Cavalier convertibles from Chevrolet. However, the centerpiece of the celebration was the entertainment offerings, particularly the afternoon parade.

The music from the parade was as clever and catchy as anything Disney’s ever produced. The sign of which is that even now, more than 30 years on, I can still sing large sections of the song without assistance. Not that anyone wants, or should ask, that I serenade them with the pure 80’s sound.

The parade featured Mickey and Minnie in the lead off float, dressed as something out of Miami Vice. They were followed by a large, top open present, which was one of several to be featured in the parade, usually in between two larger floats with characters in between. You can see one just behind Mickey and Minnie in the above photo. Other major floats included a band float with Chip, Dale, Pluto, Tigger, Br’er Bear, and the Big Bad Wolf getting funky. Coincidentally, “funky” is the words of a chipmunk, not this fair writer. The Fairy Godmother and Donald have their own respective floats as well, and a number of musical performers and dancers stand atop the glass castle float, a float that has been utilized for a number of parades over the past three decades. Perhaps the most memorable float, however, had to be the baking float. Here Liver Lips McGraw, Wendell, and Shaker of Country Bear Jamboree fame have created a batter tornado while trying to create a cake suitable for Walt Disney World’s 15th birthday.

The inclusion of the Country Bears isn’t necessarily something to scribble out a postcard about, but it leads to another interesting piece of the parade. No, I’m not talking about the sparkly, roller skating performers, I’m thinking about the little known characters to permeate the parade. These days, there are special events to bring back some of the long lost characters, but many we’re present throughout this procession. Included amongst the rare to never seen these days were King Leonidas (Bedknobs & Broomsticks), Lulubelle (Bongo segment of Fun and Fancy Free), Penguins (Mary Poppins), Stromboli (Pinocchio), and even Suzy and Perla (two of Cinderella’s friendly mice).

The 15 Years of Magic parade only had a short run from October of 1986 through to the following September in 1987, but between its music, floats, and abundance of characters, it is easy to see how so many of us who were children (or children at heart) remember it so fondly. What about you, were you able to join in the fun, or which anniversary event is a the party that you have an affection for from your childhood?