20 February 2018

An Elegant Tea Garden

Last year the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival added a new tour to the repertoire of events taking place during the festival, the Royal Tea Garden Tour. While there had been a tea garden tour available on select days for several years, this addition, which comes with a fee, doubled the amount of tour time, provided guests with the opportunity to ensure their spot ahead of time, and provided food and beverages. The Royal Tea Garden Tour proved so successful that it has returned to this year’s festival. It proved to be one of my favorite experiences during the festival last year, and I’m hopeful that the minor hiccups have been smoothed out this year. With this year's festival a little more than one week away, let’s take our own tour of the tour and give you an idea of what you’re in for should you decide to partake in this experience.

For starters, the tour starts in the early morning before World Showcase is open. Now, if you are aware of how World Showcase actually works, you’ll know that guests are permitted to walk through the UK pavilion at park opening as it sits along the walkway to International Gateway. However, it is still rather quiet at this time, with other guests not wandering amongst the tour group causing distractions. The tour itself meanders along the garden path behind The Tea Caddy exploring the various tea producing plants that make up the garden. The tour is presented by a Twinings of London representative that is well-versed in the history, craftsmanship, and flavor profiles of all things tea. Black, green, herbal, and white teas, how they are processed and created, are all covered in this tour. In fact, the tour even goes into the history of how tea came to be in bags rather than loose. There is a lot to cover in only a 45 minute tour, but you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn.

As an avid tea drinker, coffee and I aren’t friends, I can credit this tour with turning me on to two of my favorite teas: Earl Grey with Lavender and Buttermint. Aside from Christmastime, these two teas have become my morning and afternoon staples, and it is all thanks to what I learned and sampled on the Royal Tea Garden Tour.

Speaking of samples, the tour may last less than one hour, but you’ll definitely want to make sure you’ve given yourself enough time for the snacks that are available at the end. For starters, you can choose from a variety of flavors for your own hot cup of tea. Paired with this cup are traditional English scones. The scones come in a pair and feature a savory Irish cheddar scone and a sweet scone with raisins. The little snack boxes also come with two accompaniments, clotted cream with jam and an earl grey butter.

This year’s set-up for the food seems to have taken into account the crowding issue that seemed a regular occurrence last year when participating guests had to make their way through The Tea Caddy to collect their to-go boxes and tea, all of which was arranged in one of the smaller rooms of the shop. This year, the tea and scones will be served in the Rose & Crown Dining Room, which feels like a well thought out shift in location.

The only other concern I have from the first version of the Royal Tea Garden Tour was the ability to hear the presenter. Guests were constantly jostling to get closer to our guide as the ambient sounds of the park and distance from the guide all led to participants regularly asking for sections to be repeated or grumblings about not being able to hear. Many tours at Walt Disney World utilize earpieces to ensure everyone has the same experience, and I hope this change is considered for this year’s version of the tour.

It is hard to argue with those who are fine with the free tours provided during the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. The addition of more time isn’t much of a selling point, nor is the fact that the tour happens during one of the quieter times of the day. I also can’t say that the cup of tea and pair of scones are, on their own, worth the $18.00 cost of the tour. However, when taken as a whole, I think there is a definite value being provided by the Royal Tea Garden Tour. Not feeling rushed, being able to ask all the questions I care to, actually going through much of the history and process of tea making, and having tea and scones at the end, all make this a truly worthwhile excursion in my book and definitely something I will be looking to take part in again this year.

14 February 2018

The Genuine Steam Train

Transportation has always been a cornerstone of the Disney experience, and I’m not just talking about theme parks. Walt and his team looked to the future for family transportation and space travel, while also reintroducing a generation to steamboats and keelboats through various productions. Inside Disneyland, and later Walt Disney World, cutting edge transportation models were utilized alongside paddlewheels. For Walt Disney, who always wanted to keep sight of our collective pasts, presents, and futures, there was one mode of transportation that stood tall above all the rest in his eyes, the steam locomotive. Not only did he have his own scale model train, there would also be a train in the Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. This love of steam trains stretched beyond Walt himself and even beyond the boundaries of the park, showing up, in of all place, the campground of Fort Wilderness.

Most of us have, at one time or another, heard about the Fort Wilderness Railroad, the plantation locomotives that ran regularly from 1973-1977, before going to a seasonal rotation and closing permanently in the early 1980s. We’ve seen the posters for Fort Wilderness that put the train front and center and we’ve ogled the vintage maps that have it running around the periphery of the campground. In fact, the loop that the steam train ran on was 3.5 miles, double the length of the Magic Kingdom’s track. The four trains could each hold 90 passengers, but often ran out of steam due to their smaller water reservoirs and fuel tanks, causing delays and back-ups along the route. The train’s whistle could be heard as early as 7:00am, which I’m sure riled up some campers who would rather have slept in.

Aside from the water and fueling problem, and the waking up guests problem, the track itself was an issue. The clay and soft dirt allowed the rails to move more than they should, not to mention the fact that the rails themselves had not been placed and curved through best practices at the time. This meant that trains could not only be relied upon to breakdown, but they could also become derailed very easily. At least they were consistent. All of these maintenance and customer service issues eventually led to the trains being abandoned. That said, if you look at the photo above, it looks as if the characters loved the locomotives at some point in time.

Nowadays it is almost impossible to find remnants of the Fort Wilderness Railroad throughout the campground. The rails and spikes have vanished, but sometimes you can see the raised beds that the train used to run on. Thinking back on my earliest years at Fort Wilderness I can still remember seeing the railroad crossings just beyond the outpost gates. I can remember crossing over them and straining to see if I could spot a train that was never coming. I’m almost certain I asked my parents about it and they didn’t know what the tracks were for by that point, and it was never important enough to inquire to Cast Members about it. But it was those small moments of wonder that almost certainly led me to my fascination with the Fort Wilderness Railroad, and steam trains as a whole. I’m not foolish enough to believe that they trains could be utilized in the campground again today, but what I wouldn’t give to have been able to ride the rails aboard that train just once.

12 February 2018

The Fantastic Will Become Real

Last night there was a lot of news focused on new attractions and experiences coming to parks and resorts around the globe last night at the D23 Expo Japan. While last year’s Expo was the main hub of announcements for Walt Disney World, and no major changes or additions were pronounced last night, there were a few other details that we’re released about previously known projects. From luxury Star Wars resorts to Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy’s runaway train there was enough to keep even the most casual observer interested. The one highlight that really caught my attention, however, was the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction coming to Epcot.

There were a couple of pieces in the announcement that caught my eye. For starters, yes, it is going to be one of the largest enclosed rollercoasters in the world. Not breaking any records, but I dare say we can expect something longer and more involved than either Space Mountain or Rock ‘N’ Rollercoaster Starring Aerosmith. Plans had already seemed as if the attraction would burst out of its current footprint and, possibly, into the area of the Imagine parking lot. Armed with what we learned last night, that prospect is almost a foregone conclusion at this point.

The second bit of information to catch my attention was the fact that it is slated to be open by Walt Disney World’s fiftieth anniversary in 2021. That means that they are taking their time to get this right and not rushing to shove a Marvel property, one of the only ones that Disney can utilize on this side of the Mississippi River, into a park as quickly as they can. Considering that Universe of Energy has already been closed for six months and that we’re looking at another three to three and a half years before the out of this world attraction is unveiled, there is definitely an element of caution and precision that is being exercised with this new experience.

This leads me straight into the third tidbit I caught for the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction, and that is that the story is currently being developed by Walt Disney Imagineering. In other words, the story hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet. This begs the question, which version of the Guardians are we going to ride along with in the attraction? The team has already changed between the first two films, and with a third installment on the schedule for 2020, I suspect that will be the line-up we see when we blast off from Epcot in 2021.

In terms of story development, it is also worth noting that just across the way, Epcot already has an attraction that features space flight, so this will have to be something different. Also, I think many of us assumed erroneously that Epcot would keep the theme of energy at the core of the new attraction. There are many universal themes that could be utilized with the Guardians, and a spaceflight mission to find or save an energy source feels too much like an amped-up version of Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. I would love to see a thematic element that has either been missing from Epcot for some time, or one never fully embraced by the park, to be integrated into this new Guardians story.

At this point in the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction’s development, almost everything is speculation, while even points that have been announced are subject to being completely changed. At this moment we have a general idea of the who, the Guardians, the what, an enclosed rollercoaster, the where, former Universe of Energy area, and a when, 2021. For those trying to gleam the how, how it will work and how guests will embrace it, we’ll just have to wait in see. As for the why, Thomas Smith put it right up front in the announcement article on the Disney Parks Blog when he stated, “The ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’-inspired coaster is part of our ongoing work to transform Epcot into a place that’s more family, more relevant, more timeless and more Disney.” Meaning, this is still only the tip of what is to come from the Epcot revitalization iceberg.

07 February 2018

Ber'ri

If I have learned anything on my visits to Pandora, it is that the people of Earth must have really missed cream cheese when they ventured out amongst the stars. It is featured in desserts at both Satu’li Canteen and at Pongu Pongu. The only other conclusion I could come to is that it was easy to transport, but I’ve seen how much space those little tubs take up in my grocery cart, so I’m sticking with my theory of the rich, delicious spread just being missed by humans far away from home. Plus it is very versatile, as the two desserts show.

Let’s start with the more upscale usage of cream cheese at Satu’li Canteen, with the fairly spot on name of Blueberry Cream Cheese Mousse, with further description adding that it also has passion fruit curd. The sweet and tart elements here are wonderful, with neither overpowering the other. Although, there is more blueberry to go around that passion fruit curd, and we definitely wouldn’t mind more passion fruit curd. The unique preparation of this sweet mountain makes the mousse a light dessert, while the portion size and presentation will leave you wanting more. Plus, it is just amazingly beautiful inside and out! It is also worth mention that between the natural blueberry dyes and blue food coloring in this treat, you or your tongue may end up looking a bit like Violet Beauregarde for a while.

Next up, we step outside to Pongu Pongu to sample the Pongu Lumpia. Lumpia is traditionally a spring roll with an incredibly thin pastry wrapper that is filled with vegetables and proteins in a variety of savory combinations. It can be fried or served fresh. On Pandora, however, they’ve transported this type of dishes up to the dessert menu and filled it with pineapple cream cheese. A slight crunch, a little chewy, and a sweet and creamy center that will find its way out of any crack in the roll make this a fine, if messy, snack to grab while you’re on the move.

Let’s add one treat in, and this time let’s assume that you don’t love cream cheese like the expats of Pandora do, but that you do like to drink your desserts. It would also help if you like very, very sweet desserts. I’m speaking, of course, of Pongu Pongu’s Night Blossom. This non-alcoholic drink is reminiscent of the wondrous bioluminescence found throughout Pandora in the evening hours. Bands of fuchsia and lime green are topped with tangerine-colored pearls. The actual flavors are maybe not what you expect from a frozen drink. The boba balls are passion fruit flavored, and are just as fun to play with as you think they’d be. The main sections of this drink are simply apple and desert pear, both of which would be mild, if the drink weren’t so puckeringly sweet. It’s a playful dessert, but when it comes to Pandora, I prefer my sweets with cream cheese.

There is a lot to discover in Pandora, and that doesn’t stop at the trail’s end, the food of Pongu Pongu and Satu'li Canteen is just as much a part of the story as everything else in the newest land of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Some it may look or sound a bit strange, but everything is worth trying at least once. Especially, if like the human residents of Pandora, you happen to have a hankering for cream cheese.

01 February 2018

Mickey's Incredible Imagination

I brought today’s topic up as a question the other day on a couple of social media platforms, but I’ve recently been considering the nighttime spectaculars across the parks. Questioning which ones work, which don’t, which need some attention, and just what would some of these revamped shows look like? There are also parks, like Disney’s Hollywood Studios, that have more than one show in the evenings to consider when looking at the nighttime offerings as a whole. Today, as a fun exercise, I’m going to pick one offering from each park and offer up my thoughts about where it is and what, if anything, could make it better.

Magic Kingdom – Happily Ever After
I’m going to go out on a limb first and talk about a show that I’ve only seen in videos so far. This show is also the newest of the evening shows, which means it should be in good shape for a few years. The projections, while rapidly becoming a common element in twilight shows everywhere, are state of the art and even brought in animators to create new scenes for long established characters. The fireworks are impressive and it boasts an impressive runtime. I’ll reserve any final judgment for after I’ve seen the show in person.

Epcot – IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth
IllumiNations, in name, has been around for 30 years now with the current version having been occupying the lagoon for the better part of 20 years. It has the greatest viewing area of any current nighttime show, wonderful music, and a touching message. It does, however, need some refreshing. New firework shells and some new technology would go a long way, and a new centerpiece should also be worked into the mix. I love the message of the current show, but an updated soundtrack would also be appreciated. The original version of IllumiNations utilized music from the countries represented, but I don’t want to go back down that route, but maybe using musical cues or native instruments would be a great way to work all of that in. I think, of all the shows we’re talking about today, this is the one that will see a complete reimagining within the next couple of years.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – Fantasmic!
I was watching the newly refurbished Fantasmic! at Disneyland and realized just how much TLC the version at Disney’s Hollywood Studios needs. For starters, the Pocahontas story elements need to go, maybe add in a La Llorona sequence from Coco or How Far I’ll Go from Moana, give it something new and beloved that taps into children watching the show. Also, the Studios’ Maleficent dragon has never matched up to Disneyland’s, so why not scrap that character all together or demote her to the water screens only? Instead, turn the top of the mountain set into a true Audio-Animatronics marvel, Chernabog from Fantasia. Add in some of the beloved projection technology, upgrade the water screens, and you would have a show that would be the talk of Hollywood once again.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – Rivers of Light
I absolutely love this show to the point that I wished it were longer. However, I also know that I’ve seen it from the perfect spot on multiple occasions now, and that not all views are alike when it comes to Rivers of Light. I’m not saying that guests on the bridge or walkways around DinoLand U.S.A. and Asia should be wonderful, but everyone inside the amphitheaters should have a clear view. I can’t imagine any fiddling with this show would be easy, but it is what needs to happen to make certain everyone has an equal view of all the storytelling elements.

There you have it; some thoughts on overhauls, touch-ups, and things that should probably be left well-enough alone! I’m not going to rank each of these shows in my personal list, because I’m wise enough to know that on any given day that could completely change depending on where I am and what I’m feeling. However, I do know that a day at Walt Disney World is not complete without one of these nighttime spectaculars, so they should definitely be putting their best foot forward.

31 January 2018

Modern Art-Inspired Eats

The Epcot International Festival of the Arts is in full swing and, as is the case with all the Epcot festivals, there is a fair amount of food to partake in. With the International Festival of the Arts being one of the shortest festivals on the calendar, many of us don’t get to visit the fledgling festival. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to sample some of the dishes in a home version. For instance, earlier this month D23 released a recipe for the beautiful Pop’t Art dessert. We were so inspired that we decided to try our own hand at baking up a batch of these beauties.

First things first, the recipe is for the 2017 version, not the 2018 version. Based upon menus, the only difference seems to be in the filling as 2017 menu lists hazelnut spread and 2018 describes the dessert as having a strawberry filling. Feel free to substitute the filling as you see fit. Also, this is not a clean process, which makes it great for having children help with, so have enough place to make a mess and to have some fun when making these up!

POP’T ART

Ingredients:

2 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour (sifted)
1 1/2 Cups Powder Sugar
1 Cup Butter
1/2 Cup Sugar
6 Tbsps. Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread
3 to 4 Tbsps. Milk
2 Tsps. Vanilla Extract
1/8 Tsps. Salt
1 Egg White
Food Coloring

Directions:

Cream the sugar and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until fluffy.
Add egg white and beat for 1 minute.
Slowly add sifted flour and salt and beat at medium speed until a soft dough forms.
Cover bowl and chill in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 300°F.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
Roll dough into a 1/4-inch thick rectangle on a lightly floured surface.
Cut into six, 3x5-inch rectangles.
Place cookies on prepared baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown.
Cool for 30 minutes.
Spread 1 tablespoon of chocolate hazelnut spread on each cookie, leaving a boarder of about 1/8-inch around the edges of each cookie.
Dip each cookie, chocolate-hazelnut side down, into the glaze (directions below) to cover the chocolate.
Set on a wire rack to dry.
Once dry, use a fork to drizzle colored glaze on top of cookies.
Let dry on wire rack.

Glaze Directions:

Whisk powdered sugar, 3 tablespoons of the milk, and the vanilla extract in a pie plate until smooth.
Add additional milk if the glaze is too thick.
Set aside 2 tablespoons of glaze in a small bowl.
With remaining glaze, mix with desired colors of food coloring to make decorative color.

The glaze is good, but I would recommend making the glaze and decorative colors at separate times as the decorative portion will start to dry and harden during the glazing process. I would also make extra as we ended up scraping the bottom of the bowls to decorate. You’ll notice that some of the chocolate-hazelnut spread starts to drip into glaze, so the faster you can move at this point the better! Last, but certainly not least, use a variety of tools to decorate. We started with forks, but moved our way on to toothpicks, skewers, and a pastry brush.

I’ll be the first to admit our final works looked less like a masterpiece and more like finger-painting preschool art time, but it doesn’t change that the Pop’t Art treats are delicious. This is a very simple recipe to follow, making it perfect for a family activity or a talking point for a party. The sugar cookie itself is great and we’ll likely use it as our new go to sugar cookie recipe. Oh, and if you’re looking for small easels to display your masterpieces of culinary art, Michaels and Amazon have several miniature varieties for you to grab.

30 January 2018

Painted Cutout

Knowing where to look for story elements in and around Walt Disney World is sometimes just as important as being able to recognize what you’re looking at. Then there are times where you can find a treasure trove so overwhelming you get baffled by the wealth of information you’re presented with. Backlot Express at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a mixture of both of these things. To some it looks like a collection of junk from a variety of production elements, to others it is an encyclopedia of Disney storytelling. Today let’s look at a few of my favorite pieces that lay in the groundwork for attractions and film alike.

Starting first with one of my favorite spots to go scrounging for stories, a bulletin board, this one can be found in the seating area off to the left of the ordering counter. Placed along the top edge of the bulletin board, there are several pieces of concept art for the action sequences of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. Featured amongst them are close-ups of two truck stunts and Indy’s escape from the final explosion, along with a wide shot that includes the audience. Even better, if you examine the truck artwork, you can see the mechanical arms and pistons that would cause trucks to tip over or flip as needed for a stunt, even though only one of those stunts would make it into the show.


On the other side of the restaurant, sits an unassuming art rack, similar to the poster flip racks you would see in most big box stores. Unlike those poster racks, however, this unit isn’t filled with the latest movie and model posters. This art rack is filled with photographs of construction and landscapes scouted for specific scenes. Included amongst the many pages are pictures of courtyards from the television series Zorro, various locations from Swiss Family Robinson, and even a painted cutout from the Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland.

There is a lot to see and explore all throughout Backlot Express, in fact there’s something to take note of everywhere that you look. Somethings may be harder to distinguish, like the model of the hoverlift from Horizons or logo for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’s Toon Patrol, but others just take time to actually find and pay attention to. Whether it is theme park design or preproduction for television and movies, some of the greatest adventures in the Disney catalog are just waiting to be rediscovered on the walls, shelves, and boards all throughout Backlot Express.