24 May 2018

Thanks for Playing

Little more than two years ago the Streets of America closed for construction to begin on Galaxy’s Edge. While it has only been two years, at times it can feel as if it has been much longer, especially when you consider how long some of the experiences had called the area home. One such attraction, the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure, had been tucked away behind a façade since December of 1990.

Taking its cue from the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids film, the playground shrunk guests down to the size of an insect and turned them loose in a backyard complete with lost toys, film rolls, insects, and a giant dog nose. The absurd seemed commonplace here, and even when some of the props didn’t age well (film, in 2016?) and the film mostly vanished from the lexicon, it was always a pleasure to play in this oversized wonderland.

Because of its location, tucked away between a building front and a quick service restaurant, its ability to draw guests in struggled as the years went by. But those who took the time to explore the backyard scenery found a place filled with amusement. The smaller size of the guest allowed for many over-sized gags throughout the space, and I would suspect many gags of a similar sort will be utilized in Toy Story Land when it opens later this year. Let’s look back over the years and tour the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure in its heyday together.

22 May 2018

To All Who Come to This Happy Place

A question I get asked frequently is what time is the best time to visit Walt Disney World. While I can spout off that there isn’t really a great time anymore when there aren’t crowds, or that between the end of Marathon Weekend and Valentine’s Day tend to not be so bad, I more often than not use this to start a dialogue with the friend or family member who asked me. Everyone’s schedules are different. There are times of year than you just can’t get away, either due to work priorities, family commitments, or because there are kids that are in school. More importantly, however, this conversation always seems to come back around to one question where I find I can offer the most advice, “What is it that you’re looking for when you get to Walt Disney World?”

The variations of answers I’ve received from this question never cease to astound me and continually make me rethink how I look at the question. For some people it is cut and dry simple, they want to go when the crowds aren’t there or they want to avoid the heat at all costs (or be there when the heat is at its peak). More often, however, I find that there are nuances to what any person or family are actually looking to get out of their trip.

Dates tend to play a massive part in planning for a lot of people. Birthdays and anniversaries come in at the top of that list, but so too do holidays. Christmas, Halloween, Easter, or a national day of celebration (such as Bastille Day in France or Independence Day in Morocco) are all tops on that list. For some of us, like myself, that even extends to important dates in Disney history. I tend to like to be at Disney’s Animal Kingdom on Earth Day, which is also the park’s anniversary. It helps that late April tends to be a bit quieter around the resort, but it is mostly because Animal Kingdom has captured my heart and I love celebrating with it.

Right alongside dates are decorations for some potential visitors. They want to see Christmas trees around every corner, a carol coming out of every speaker, and the smell of baked goods wafting from every bakery door. The patriotic bunting on Main Street, U.S.A. during the period surrounding the Fourth of July has been known to send hearts soaring, and the spookiness of Jack-o’-lanterns heightens the sensation of the Haunted Mansion or the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror for some people. Some of these aesthetics that guests clamor for come from nostalgic memories of their childhood, both at and away from Walt Disney World, and it drives them to want to recapture that magic that exists only in memory for themselves, their families, and their friends. It speaks to them and drives them to want to visit at certain times of year, and they don’t even realize it until we start talking about it.

 Festival calendars also come into play. Between the holidays, Food & Wine, Flower & Garden, and the Festival of the Arts, Epcot has a lot going on during the year now. While there is a lot of bleed over between offerings, I’m looking at you food marketplaces, everyone has an opinion as to which is the best festival. Often times, the availability of one of these festivals will nudge someone towards a specific time of year. In my own preferences, the Flower & Garden Festival has always been a favorite of mine, and I tend to try and visit in the spring with the blooms are bursting right next to the fireworks.

Specific attractions tend to occupy a space in decision making as well. I’ve never seen someone not take a trip because an attraction is going to be closed for refurbishment, but I have witnessed the massaging of dates to try and visit just before or right after a favorite attraction is going to be refurbished. It also goes for the experience of the attraction. Splash Mountain is a classic example, as I know people who want the attraction water cannons and all, while there are those that love to visit when it’s a bit chillier and the attraction has turned the extra water spray off. Similarly, while there are water parks open all year long, there are dedicated fans of Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach and I have witnessed guests working to make sure their favorite water park is going to be open when they are there.

The last thing to talk about today is the weather. We’ve mentioned it throughout, but there are potential visitors who want all the sun they can handle while they are at Walt Disney World, and there are others who like a little chill in the air. There are also those who avoid the rainy season like the plague and also guests who stay away during hurricane season on the off chance a storm will disrupt their vacation. While weather is, by its very nature, fairly unpredictable, knowing what could be in store for some guests is like a warm blanket.

There are plenty of other little quirks that can help schedule or derail a planned time for visiting Walt Disney World. Each person, group, or family is different and they are going to be looking for different things in their trip experience. Being able to guide a conversation towards allowing the most number of positives to influence a trip is one of the things I love best about getting asked the question of when is the best time to visit. But what about you, what are you looking for the most when you start to plan a trip?

16 May 2018

Pamper Your Palate

Palo, the Northern Italian fine dining experience, can be found onboard all four of the Disney Cruise Line ships. Its name is derived from the long poles used by gondoliers as they ply the waterways of Venice, and all the elegance Venice has to offer is captured in the sumptuous surroundings, art, chandelier, vistas, and service. Dinner is a nightly affair, where the tiramisu and chocolate soufflé reign supreme, but brunch is undoubtedly the true star. Copious amounts of desserts, meats, seafood, cheese, breads, pastries, and even caviar are just the start. A full menu of pastas, pizzas, and Northern Italian specialties await. While there was a lot to sample and love, the one dish that blew me away was their Lasagna Bolognese.

I’m going to start by saying this dish was recommended by our server, who was simply wonderful from beginning to end, but it took some convincing. Lasagna and I are not on the best of terms, and haven’t been for most of my life. I believe it stems from my distaste for ricotta cheese, which I understand can be heresy, but something about it just never sat right with my palate and my stomach. I was presently surprised when I was told that this was a more traditional recipe that utilized béchamel, not ricotta. For those not in the know, béchamel is a white sauce comprised of flour, milk, and butter and while it sounds easy to make with just three ingredients, it is not. It has been a specialty of Southern France and Northern Italy for centuries and is considered one of the mother sauces. My grandmother, who grew up in Marseille, raised me on her family recipe. From the moment I heard that béchamel was utilized in Palo’s Lasagna Bolognese, I was sold.

Speaking from experience, whatever your preconceived notions are about lasagna, you can throw them out the window before ever taking a bite of this dish. For starters, the layers of lasagna noodles are tender, but not soggy. They will not break apart and crumble from the rest of the ingredients and the time it takes for them all to cook up together, they are firm and hold the layers together wonderfully. The Bolognese is more meat than sauce. The base is a blend of ground veal, pork, and beef, with great seasonings and a little bit of tomato thrown in for good measure. Don’t worry, there is plenty of marinara spread around the plate for those who need a nice balance. The aforementioned béchamel is the warm blanket that covers each piece of Lasagna Bolognese as it leaves the kitchen. It is rich, extremely so, but smooth and full of buttery goodness. Some final touches of fresh chopped basil and parmesan grated tableside and you have yourself a plate that is almost too beautiful to eat.

Don’t you worry though, I cleaned my plate and thoroughly enjoyed every bite. Since I am on the record as not being a big fan of lasagna, telling you that this is my favorite lasagna ever seems to be ring a bit hollow. So, let me put it this way, Palo’s Lasagna Bolognese is arguably the best pasta dish I’ve ever put in my mouth, save for only a meal or two I had in Florence or Venice years ago. It took me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen, which is more than I could ever ask of a single dish, but there you have it. It made our server very happy that I ordered his recommendation, but I think of the two of us I came out much further ahead in the long run.

If you have an upcoming cruise, or even if a cruise is further down the line for you, I cannot recommend the brunch at Palo enough. If you are able to secure a brunch reservation, please take this piece of advice and order the Lasagna Bolognese. I would be shocked if you were disappointed, because I am still having dreams about that lasagna all these months later.

15 May 2018

The Approaching Storm

It’s rather wet at Walt Disney World right now, which means plans are being altered and some guests are staying away from the parks or not resort hopping as a result. As a native Floridian, I know that rain is part and parcel of the gorgeous tropical scenery, but it does tend to put a damper on a vacation. It is the reason I always over-pack on clothes, particularly shoes and socks, and while I may end up with some pruny toes, I don’t want to end up with a wrinkled holiday. Here are a few of the things that I do during rainy weather that may help you the next time stormy weather blows through while you’re in the Vacation Kingdom.

Lounges – Finding a place for a nicely crafted cocktail and maybe a nibble or two is an absolute must during a rainstorm, particularly if that lounge offers a view of the outside world. My top recommendation, if the rain isn’t driving in on you, is to find a cozy seat on the porch of Nomad Lounge in Animal Kingdom. Other highly endorsed options include Outer Rim in the Contemporary, BoardWalk’s AbracadaBar, and the Rose & Crown in Epcot. There are also tons of options in Walt Disney World’s food theme park, aka Disney Springs, so you’re sure to find a place to weather the storm in style there as well.

Long, Interactive Queues – We spend a great deal of time trying to find the best way to avoid lines for attractions, but when the weather is soggy, that is the perfect time to jump in line and explore the story and interactive elements present in some queues. Peter Pan’s Flight, Frozen Ever After, and Flight of Passage all have amazingly detailed queues that are just waiting to be explored, and they will definitely help you forget about the passing rains.

Shows – Shows are often hit or miss during any trip, you may want to see one, but how much of your trip time are you willing to dedicate to them. If you’re like me, you end up haggling with your party and settling on one or two as a compromise. Rainy days are perfect weather to spend some time enjoying these offerings, particularly in Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. While the films and performances of World Showcase could occupy quite a bit of time, I prefer splashing through puddles in the Magic Kingdom as I make my way from the Enchanted Tiki Room, around the corner to the Country Bear Jamboree, a quick dash over to Philharmagic, and then one last brisk walk to finish at Carousel of Progress.

You Will Get Wet – Since you are already going to be wet, you might as well make the most of it. In this case, I mean hopping onboard a log or raft and experiencing Splash Mountain and Kali River Rapids. Typically with these attractions we try to avoid getting soaked or nervously hoping that someone else is the one who is going to get drenched. Since you’re already soggy, go ahead and give these attractions a go, provided that it is a rainstorm and not a thunderstorm (in which case they would be shut down anyway). I promise these will be some of the most laugh-filled and joyful times you ever have on either of these attractions.

Dark and Stormy Nights – If you’re like me, the disconnect between what’s happening outside an attraction and the story being presented inside an attraction can sometimes be a little off-putting. That or I’m just a complete nitpick… If the weather outside is going to be frightful, then why not head into attractions that live in a world where it’s a dark and stormy night? The Haunted Mansion and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror are perfect stories to jump into when the rains are coming down outside.

Exhibits – Often bypassed, there are plenty of places throughout Walt Disney World where you could learn something during a rainstorm. You’ll be safe, dry, and come away with newfound knowledge. The prime examples of these exhibits are present in many of the pavilions of World Showcase, where you can learn a great deal about the history and culture of a given country. Similarly, you could spend a good deal of time in Walt Disney Presents at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Stick to Your Plan – When it storms, many guests tend to huddle at their resorts or, if they’re local, waiting for the rain rain to go away before they come for a visit. That means that crowds tend to be a little lighter on wet days at Walt Disney World. You’re there to experience all the parks and resorts have to offer, so regardless of the weather stick to your plans as best you can. It may not be the perfect vacation, but you’ll still be making memories and that’s the most important part of the trip.

I hope these ideas help you get in the mood to splash in some puddles and play through the rain. When the rains happen at Walt Disney World, and they are bound to happen sooner or later, there’s no denying that it is a bit of a letdown. However, at that point the trip becomes more about what you can make out of it. Don’t let it be the thing that ruins your trip; instead try to find ways to use it to your advantage. You will come away with stories to tell and memories to share.

10 May 2018

Figment's Coloring Book

Today we can play with coloring pages of every sort and difficulty directly on our phones or tablets with more colors than in a Big Box from Crayola. It is as simple as opening an app and the colors appear with a tap of our fingers. Not so long ago, however, the idea of being able to color in a digital space seemed far away from our living room floors, broken crayons, and coloring books. Unless, that is, you happened to be visiting EPCOT Center and made your to the second floor of the Imagination Pavilion.

This space, known as the Image Works, was home to a blending of artistic forms, sensory experiences, and fun. Here a child could help put on a small theatrical production on a green screen, run through the Rainbow Corridor, and create sound with bubbles (one of my personal favorites). Guests could also digitally color with Figment’s Coloring Book.

Here, Figment and Dreamfinder show us how to use the activity center while coloring in an image that looks vaguely familiar…

At Figment's Coloring Book, guests would start by selecting their blank picture to color. The images included Figment, Dreamfinder, and even the Imagination Pavilion itself. A stylus was connected to the machine and became the guests’ paintbrush. On the panel in front of the image guests had the ability to select from a wide range of colors, but also shapes that you would like to draw in. The circles, squares, triangles, and octagons could all be used as base shapes, and could even be completely filled in or left as outlines. In fact, there was even a Figment shape that you could use to color with. On more than one occasion my screen was an Imagination Pavilion filled with Figment stamps. There were plenty of ways for a guest to finesse their drawing skills, but more often than not, each picture had a wonderful outline with large swathes of bright colors strewn across it. Most guests didn’t stay within the lines, but it didn’t matter because they had a smile on their faces.

The sheer size of each station at Figment’s Coloring Book made it seem as if this technology would never make it into our own homes, much less our pockets. Yet, today coloring apps are amongst some of the most popular available. While some of the experiences in the Image Works were pure works of fun and imagination, others were a bit ahead of their time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear a Big Box calling my name.

08 May 2018

Ice Cream of Extinction

Disney’s Hollywood Studios is, even today, filled with glitz and glamour of Hollywood’s golden age, including leading ladies and gents. Perhaps the biggest start to call the park home, however, is none other than Gertie the dinosaur. This gorgeous in green creature has made her way to Echo Lake, apparent from the footprints that have cracked the pavement, and seems contented to remain there and sell ice cream. Gertie actually serves a dual role for the park, as she is an iconic film salute and is the living embodiment of an architectural movement.

Gertie was the star of the 1914 film Gertie the Dinosaur, created by Winsor McCay. With a runtime of 12 minutes, Gertie the Dinosaur was one of the earliest animated features. The film started out life as a gimmick reel projected behind a vaudeville act that would appear to interact with the activities taking place on the stage. Later, McCay would create a live-action introduction scene for the film to stand on its own as a theatrical release. A sequel to Gertie the Dinosaur, Gertie on Tour, was planned but never realized.

While the figure at Disney’s Hollywood Studios appears to be very stoic, the real Gertie was much more childlike. Throughout the short, the long-necked dinosaur performs tricks like bowing on command, launching a mammoth into a nearby lake, throwing boulders, and taking long drinks of water. She enjoys pumpkins, is easily distracted by flying creatures, and cries when her feelings get hurt.

The other space in history occupied by Gertie is the architectural movement known as California Crazy. While novelty construction, that is large structures built to resemble an animal or inanimate object, had been taking place all over the globe since the 18th Century, the explosion of the art form really took off in California during the 1920s through 1940s. The idea was to catch the eye of the passing motorist and draw them in to your restaurant, attraction, gas station, or the like. For some it was very transparent, the large hamburger selling hamburgers, for others it was more in the name, like the brown derby of The Hollywood Brown Derby. The style faded over time, but Gertie is a prime example of what roadside architecture could resemble during the era.

Gertie is a classic example of Walt’s idea of a weenie, the idea of creating something that would be a visual magnet to guests and draw them further into a land or location. The concept comes straight out of the California crazy building boom, and Gertie comes straight out of the annals of animation history. If you ask me, Gertie is almost a perfect summation of a time when the lights of Hollywood never seemed to dim, and she has definitely earned her place in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

07 May 2018

Don't Selfie With Your Mouth Full

There are some swanky places to eat at Walt Disney World and then there are those places that I try to steer people away from. Morimoto Asia definitely falls into that first category. On a recent trip, I decided to step away from my preference for visiting Morimoto Asia for dinner, and my preference for duck and ribs, and instead have a relaxed lunch. In our tradition of pairing menu items with cocktails, I opted to select one of the house specialty drinks and pair it with something from the dim sum menu. The results, as has everything at Morimoto Asia, did not disappoint.

I started out with the Manhattan East. As the name suggests, this cocktail is a variation on your typical Manhattan. I’m more of an old-fashioned person myself, but this beverage had a few of my favorite things: bourbon (Maker’s Mark, which is a fine standard, even if I prefer Woodford Reserve as my go-to), junmai sake, ginger, and orange. This is, as you could guess, a very strong drink. However, the spirits in this concoction aren’t the main flavors, instead the orange is towards the front, particularly when it comes to scent, and the spiciness of the ginger really fill out the palate in this cocktail. If you’re not a fan of sake, then definitely don’t try this one, but if ginger and orange are flavors you like highlighted in your drinks, then this is an absolute winner.

From the dim sum side of things, I opted for something a bit simpler, the Chicken Bao. This dish comes with two fluffy buns filled with lettuce, cucumber, spicy mayonnaise (which I appreciate it being listed as instead of trying to fancy the description up by using the word “aioli”), and teriyaki chicken. The two buns are enough to share before a larger meal or to eat on your own, while still not entirely filling you up. As with all dim sum, my feeling is the more you order, the more you share, and the more you get to try. However, for today’s purposes we stuck strictly to the bao bun themselves.

The heat from the spicy mayonnaise was nice, but not overpowering, it sort of just tickled at the back of my throat. The lettuce and cucumbers added a cooling element, both in terms of temperature and on the heat spectrum, and a crisp bite that is the opposite of the texture provided by the bun. Speaking of, the bun was pillowy in all the right ways that you want a steamed bun to be. Lastly, the namesake of the Chicken Bao, aka the teriyaki chicken, was excellent. There is always a concern that teriyaki chicken is just going to be beaten down by an overly salty sauce, and that was not the case here. While the teriyaki sauce does lean towards the salty side of the taste range, it isn’t overboard and actually serves to highlight the spices in the sauce and the inherent flavors of the chicken. The chicken, by the way, is thickly cut and incredibly juicy.

I couldn’t have picked a better pairing if I tried, although I imagine there aren’t a lot of bad pairings coming out of the kitchen and from the bar at Morimoto Asia. The sour and bitter elements in the Manhattan East mingle nicely with the savory and salty bits of the Chicken Bao. This is a pairing that I would definitely order again, although with such an expansive menu, I do find myself continually trying new things at Morimoto Asia.