25 May 2017

The Gift of Energy

The Universe of Energy has been active in the news and rumor mill for a couple of weeks now, but today I want to venture back to the dawn of the attraction. I want to talk not only about its first incarnation, but specifically about the show elements highlighted in the exterior and the pre-show theater before guests into the main traveling theaters. While I could ramble through this for a bit, the best explanation of these elements, to my mind, still comes from the guides given to Cast Members during those early years. So, we’ll turn you over to the folks at EPCOT Center for a bit.

“The Universe of Energy experience begins with our first glimpse of the building’s exterior. Its dynamic shape is itself an expression of energy. A wedge-shaped structure with the apex of its enormous triangle tilted toward the ground, it appears to be simultaneously rising out of the earth and driving into it.
“Warm bands of color, symbolic of radiating heat, alternate along its sides. As we approach we notice that this slanting roof glistens with a blanket of solar panels.
“The mammoth array of photovoltaic cells faces the sun, drawing in its energy and converting it into electrical current. This combination of the functional and the aesthetic is a subliminal statement of the pavilion’s overall theme; that by exploring and developing alternative energy sources we can build an energy-bridge to a better tomorrow.
“As we near the apex we notice a separate structure standing in front of the main building. Its mirrored surface reflects the images of rippling water from a pool below – the reflections seem to suggest energy in motion. Beyond the reflecting pool is the main entrance. 
“Our exploration of Universe of Energy begins with a kinetic multi-image pre-show entitled ‘Energy, You Make The World Go Round.’
“Emil Radok, an accomplished Czechoslovakian filmmaker/artist designed the long ‘magical’ screen situated above the queue area. Five 35mm motion picture projectors cast rapidly changing images onto 100 separate three-foot square sections of the screen. These screen sections, controlled by a microprocessor, rotate in sync with the projected images, exposing a black side, a projected surface, or a combination of both. The effect transforms the flat film images into a three-dimensional, moving mosaic as dynamic as energy itself. 
“The eight minutes of imagery serves as an ‘Energy Primer’ and an introduction to the Energy Story. It begins with designs representing the elemental forms of energy. Atoms and crystals whirl around the screen. Galaxies form… lightning bolts flash… life begins… humankind appears on the scene.
“From primitive man to modern man the show reveals the techniques we have learned in order to control energy, and portrays the dramatic advances of civilization motivated by this powerful knowledge. As the presentation ends we are reminded that sooner or later fossil fuels, our present energy source, will not satisfy the worlds growing energy demands. Only by continuing to expand our knowledge and understanding of the many ‘faces’ of energy can we build a more secure energy future.”

The bands of color along the outside of the building were changed when the attraction was transformed into Ellen’s Energy Adventure. However, the original radiating heat coloration was returned in 2009. The mirrored mosaic, along with the entry hallway’s mural depicting the sun and its heat waves, dinosaur topiaries, the solar array at the top of structure, and the rotating film panels made the guests’ introduction to the Universe of Energy something special. As with most things EPCOT Center, those early glimpses and reveals left a mark on many of us that continues to shape how we view the park and its pavilions to this day.

23 May 2017

Man's Ideas and Achievements

The Swiss Family Treehouse features a 116 step climb up to and through the home of the Robinson family. This self-guided tour, the family must be out in the jungle somewhere, takes place outdoors and that means that the entire attraction is subject to Florida’s harsh weather elements. This means that the rooms and their furnishings, not to mention the branches, limbs, and leaves of the Disneyodendron eximus, have to undergo regular refurbishments. This process usually freshens the wooden elements, replaces anything damaged, and makes the place neat and pretty again for the Robinsons and guests alike. However, the 2016 refurbishment that ran from July through October brought with it a new scene that had not previously been a part of the attraction.

At first glance it is just a well-crafted chair, some tropical fruit, and some decorative flags. Could this be a spot created by the family to relax in their new home? It certainly looks as if they’ve accepted their lives on the island and are unwinding as only one could do on an island paradise once you’ve chased off a bunch of pirates. However, if you are family with Swiss Family Robinson, the 1960 film upon which the attraction is based, you probably know there is more to this chair than meets the eye.

The flags and chair are reminiscent of a scene that falls towards the end of the movie. After the stress of preparing for the imminent pirate attack get to Fritz and Ernst, to say nothing of the stress of competing for the affections of Janet Munro’s Roberta, Father decides it is time to have a bit of a break. He announces that the next day will be the first national holiday for New Switzerland, also known as the island they are castaways on. As part of the festivities there is to be a race, with each of the children, Roberta included, choosing a different island creature as their mount.

Flags from the ship that have been acquired by Ernst are used as decorations, much in the same way guests can now see them as decoration in the new Treehouse scene. As for the chair, this is a place for Mother to sit as official starter of the race, and a platform from which see can oversee the race. As you would suspect with racing ostriches, zebras, donkeys, and baby elephants, a calamity ensues, pirates attack, and the race is never finished, at least not onscreen.

The Swiss Family Treehouse represents one of the classic live-action Disney films, but the attraction itself rarely sees more than a superficial refurbishment. The addition of a scene from a key moment in Swiss Family Robinson just goes to show that new or old classic films always have a place in the parks, and the parks are never going to stop changing.

22 May 2017

A Classic Canadian Dish

Poutine has been becoming more recognizable in the public consciousness for several years now. The dish is a staple of diner scene in Canada and the northern United States dating back to 1950’s Quebec. The simplest form of the dish is comprised of three components, French fries, cheese curds, and light brown gravy, but it has given birth to a ton of different styles and combination of ingredients. The fact that poutine has become so popular has not been lost on Walt Disney World, which responded by opening The Daily Poutine in Disney Springs in May of 2016. While the variations on the dish offered at The Daily Poutine are great in their own rights, it is not where I would go for the best version of poutine when visiting the Vacation Kingdom.

For that, I would find my way over to the Wilderness Lodge and then, after taking in some of the great sights of the resort and working up an appetite, I’d grab a table at the Territory Lounge. Here they offer up a traditional form of poutine, with only minor deviations. Poutine is listed under Other Things on the Territory Lounge menu and comes with house-cut fries, veal jus, cheese curds, and green onion.

I’m not the biggest fan of veal, but the veal jus is full of flavor. Also, it creates a light gravy, and not your typical heavy, brown gravy. I would be hesitant to call it a jus, which I usually look at to be a very thin, almost water-like consistency, and the veal jus here is definitely thicker than that. The fries are hand-cut and fried, which shows through in the browning and crispiness of the fries, in that they are not uniform and are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The heat from the veal jus and fries melt the cheese curds to a gooey consistency that is rich and builds off of everything right with the fries and jus. The green onion is a nice touch, but it really is just that, a finishing touch.

When Julie Andrews sang the words, “these are a few of my favorite things,” in The Sound of Music, I know she wasn’t thinking of poutine. However, when I think of those words, I am most certainly daydreaming about poutine. Recently, those imaginary images have come from the version of the dish offered at the Territory Lounge. Fried potatoes, a light gravy, creamy cheese curds, and something a little green to break up the study of deliciously tan food items, what more can you ask for? Poutine may be a simple dish, but that also means it is easy to screw up. The culinary team at Territory Lounge is consistently delivering their poutine with a high degree of expertise.

19 May 2017

Race Cars, Lasers, Aeroplanes

It was announced this week that Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin will be present for visitors to the D23 Expo later this year as a way to promote the upcoming DuckTales relaunch. With a substantial portion of the new cast having already been announced, now seemed like the perfect time to wander over to MouseGear and talk about this silhouette and why it’s important to DuckTales past and future.

MouseGear’s two office panel windows above the sales floor feature a number of character shadows. These shadows belong to a wide variety of Disney’s most recognizable ducks, from Donald and Scrooge to Daisy and the nephews, all taking part in the operations of the shop in some form or fashion. The only one that may throw the average guests is this silhouette, who doesn't seem to be using your run of the mill office equipment. It belongs to Gyro Gearloose, who was a fixture of the original DuckTales, but his story goes back so much further than that!

In fact, Gyro originally appeared in the 1952 comic, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #140. The specific tale was called Gladstone’s Terrible Secret and was created by the legendary Carl Barks. His assistant, Little Helper, is a miniature robot with a lightbulb for a head, would come along a few short years later in 1956. Gyro is an inventor, who can create an amazing amount of gadgets and gizmos, many of which were so successful that they caused problems. As time went on, the format changed and then Gyro’s creations always seems to have a glitch or missing a critical component that is needed to make it work, with hijinks ensuing.

In the DuckTales series, Gyro creates one of his most notable creations, the Gizmoduck suit. The suit was originally intended to enhance the security guards at Scrooge’s Money Bin, but ended up attaching to Scrooge’s accountant, Fenton Crackshell, creating the super-duck-hero, Gizmoduck! Scrooge would go on hire Gizmoduck as his bodyguard, with Gizmoduck also securing a coveted guest spot on another Disney Afternoon staple, Darkwing Duck, but it was all thanks to the ingenuity of Gyro Gearloose.

Back over at MouseGear, it appears that Gyro’s inventive nature has taken hold in the offices as well. He is featured with a typewriter, or adding machine, that can float, making it great for the on-the-go administrative types. It has been announced that Gyro Gearloose will be popping up on the DuckTales show when it launches later this year, although who will voice the eccentric inventor and how often we will be able to see him has yet to be released. Either way, Gyro is a great addition to the Disney duck flock and has definitely earned his reference in MouseGear!

18 May 2017

I Love the Movies

How much time do you need to spend in Disney’s Hollywood Studios these days? It’s a question I’ve heard from a lot of corners and friends recently as the park undergoes a transformation that will introduce guests to two new lands dedicated to Star Wars and Toy Story. The general response is not much, that it is a half-day park at the very best. With so much animosity towards the park undergoing a massive rebuild, should guests even be visiting the park right now? The short answer is yes, absolutely.

Let me set the table for you, prior to 2016 Disney’s Hollywood Studios was one of the parks that I could hit at rope drop and stay engaged as a guest throughout the day and into the evening. During my most recently weeklong visit, I put the park on our itinerary for two evenings only, and I felt ashamed that I was slighting the park in such a way. It didn’t feel like a place that I needed to be at for rope drop, and I would much rather spend those mornings visiting Elsa or exploring Harambe. I was much more inclined to schedule the evenings, if for no other reason than I love the neon of the park at dusk and beyond.

So, aside from the old Hollywood feel of the evenings, what are the reasons to visit the park? That’s easy, the reasons are the same as they were before! The major attractions are still there. Sunset Boulevard still has its two headliners, Rock ‘N’ RollerCoaster and tower of Terror, in addition to the nighttime spectacular of Fantasmic! The Great Movie Ride, Star Tours, and Toy Story Midway Mania are still giving guests their money’s worth. Add in the shows like Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, and MuppetVision 3D, and you have more than enough to keep guests entertained for long stretches of time.

I haven’t mentioned anything, aside from Star Tours, of the relatively recent Star Wars additions to the park. As a lifelong enthusiast of all things Star Wars, with shelves and shelves of comics and novels and RPG guides and the likes, I love having access to so many artifacts and characters in the various attractions and shows that have been added to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Especially Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular, it is a fantastic nighttime addition to the park. However, much of this feels slightly out of place for me currently. I get that it is keeping up the interest, not that I believe there is a risk of interest in Star Wars waning anytime soon, but it seems like a bit much in spaces that were created to echo that feeling of the golden age of Hollywood. I’ll be happy to see what this section of the park reverts back to in 2019.

We haven’t even talked about food yet. Between table service dining options and some of the lounges scattered about the park, there is great food and drink to be found in the park. If you’re looking for standard chicken nuggets and hamburgers, you can find that too, but with so many variety of dining options that is also not a drawback to the Studios at this juncture.

What precisely is it that is driving guests away from the park in droves at the moment? What is it that inspired me to only spend a couple of evenings in Disney’s Hollywood Studios when I was in town? I can’t really put my finger on it, but I believe one is driving the other. With so much construction taking place throughout the park, it makes navigating a challenge, especially to novice guests, which may be taking a toll of the attendance. With attendance in decline, it makes experiencing the park in its current form easier for those who are taking the chance on visiting. Driving down attraction wait times, in turn means that even when you are there it doesn’t take as long to experience everything you want to.

I’ll be the first to admit that I looked at a park that had shuttered large swathes of land and thought that the park wasn’t worth as much of an investment of my time as it had required in the past, regardless of the fact that these closure only removed a couple of attractions. The fact that the majority of attractions are still up and running at Disney’s Hollywood Studios hasn’t seemed to dissuade guests from shirking visits to the park. That just means that there is more for the rest of us who are willing to take the chance on visiting Walt Disney World’s third gate. It is a baffling cycle that has been created by construction, but heed this advice, if you loved the park before the refurbishment began, I promise you that you’re still going to find a reason to love it now.

15 May 2017

Magicians Lounge

In 2015 I had the absolute pleasure of being able to visit the Magic Castle as a guest of friend who is also an incredible magician. The experience was, to put it mildly, one of the true joys I’ve experienced in my life. It’s no wonder then that when Disney announced a watering hole for magicians would be coming to BoardWalk I was over the moon. I was finally able to pull up a stool at AbracadaBar in April and pull back the curtain on the atmosphere, cocktails, small bites, and lingering magic of the establishment. No sleight of hand here, just our honest opinions!

From the outside, this neighbor to Flying Fish definitely looks like a headline attraction. I mean, it even has its own marquee! The billing on the windows and in the signage is on point and enticing for anyone looking for a magical moment or two. Once inside, there is a plush, old-school Victorian lair feel going on, right down to the tiled restrooms that feel like vintage dressing rooms that are right off stage. Display cases filled with magical artifacts, framed relics and ephemera, a variety of mirrors, and posters cover much of the walls and spill over into the shelfs behind the bar. The wall spaces that aren’t covered up offer glimpses of a rich red and gold wallpaper that includes hidden card suits, rings, ropes, birds, rabbits (Presto), and other signs of craft. Short of the Memento Mori wallpaper in the Spirit Photography room, the AbracadaBar wallpaper may be my favorite on property, and there is an argument to be made for it to be at the top of that list.

The posters highlighting magicians and their acts, prior to the night of their mass disappearance, are of particular note as they are an illusion unto themselves, but I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own.

Moving on to the menu, there’s not a lot to talk about here, but in this case that’s a great thing. This isn’t your typical Walt Disney World lounge, as the food offerings are limited to a series of small bites. There are marinated olives, a fruit and cheese plate, and a charcuterie plate.  We opted for the fruit and cheese plate, which comes with two cheeses, cheddar and Boursin, and a selection of berries, jackfruit, and kiwi. The thin slices of toast included with the fruit and cheese plate are the real stars of this act, with great flavors embedded in the bread and as part of the olive oil drizzled over them.

The beverage menu is extensive, including Baffling Beers, Worldly Wines, and Curious Cocktails. There is a wide selection of beers and wines, many with names that play well into the magical theme of AbracadaBar, which is wonderful to see such a selection in a Walt Disney World lounge. As for the cocktails, while the names are imbued with clever wordplay, and we all know how much I love that, they are truly just your staple cocktails. I opted for the play on the Old Fashioned called the Parlor Trick. AbracadaBar doesn’t try to play down this fact, and puts the more well-known names in each beverage’s description, but they do create each with a high degree of skill. I don’t need a fancy concoction that is almost impossible to recreate at home, but I do appreciate a well-crafted cocktail, which AbracadaBar is more than willing and able to offer.

So far, so good, right? Let’s talk about where AbracadaBar lets me down. There are a lot of ways to include small illusions into the workings of the establishment that seem to have either been left on the drawing board or never considered. Sinking barstools, a face in the mirror, instruments that play with seemingly no musician, and the like that are similar to other effects used throughout attractions and restaurants. Walt Disney World, and the Disney name as a whole, is known for their ability to create illusions in their films and physical environments, many times producing groundbreaking effects that the world has never seen before. And yet when it comes to AbracadaBar, an establishment perfectly suited for incredible effects, there is nothing here to astound the magically inclined. There was so much potential to create a show-stopping magicians lounge, the likes of which could put Trader Sam’s to shame, and it just doesn’t live up to the billing.

My hope is that Disney is always learning new tricks and that maybe they can clean up their act at AbracadaBar. It has a wonderful atmosphere, adequate small bites, great fundamental cocktails and other beverages, but it is simply missing that something magical. In my wildest dreams this would have been a smaller, more intimate east coast Magic Castle, and that potential is still there. As with all things in the magical arts, all AbracadaBar needs more of are some great new illusions, coupled with some of the classics, and then practice, practice, practice.

11 May 2017

A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams

A couple of weeks ago I said goodnight to Wishes. Tonight the fireworks spectacular will give its final performance ahead of tomorrow’s debut of Happily Ever After. My goodbye included my father and my wife, a dessert party, and very few photographs. I wanted one final memory, giving Wishes my absolute undivided attention, and I didn’t want to watch it through a viewfinder.  The show premiered on October 9, 2003, and has been a staple of nighttime entertainment in Walt Disney World for more than 13 years, save for a minor interruption here or there. More importantly, however, is that it has given us so many memories to hold on to.

The first time I saw the show, I was living in Florida as an early twentysomething, and I would go over and watch it from the beach at the Polynesian or from balcony atop the Contemporary, without ever stepping inside the Magic Kingdom. While the view from Main Street, U.S.A. may have provided more of the projections, it was the fireworks and the music that I had come for. I also, maybe once or twice, used these other viewing areas to impress a girl.

In early 2005 I would meet a girl who would change my life. In fact, she would become my wife and we will celebrate 10 years of marriage this coming fall. She had been to Walt Disney World once or twice with a band in high school, but had never done the Walt Disney World experience right. That summer we took our first road trip together and I showed off all the nooks and crannies of my second home. One our first night, I took her to see Wishes. I remember less about the show and more about her expressions as I watched her take in the show, the changing shade of glows on her face, the new types of fireworks that she would become enamored with, and all the emotions that ran through her eyes. This would be the trip where we would find out we could travel together, and easily, but this is one of those memories I will always remember.

Over the years I have had many, many fantastic experiences with Wishes. From another dessert party with my friend Elizabeth and her daughter, Glenn pretending to watch the show looking in the wrong direction on Main Street, the night I spent on my own in Frontierland and Liberty Square just trying to capture a single photograph that summed up my feelings of the show (for the record, I failed miserably), letting my mom watch the show with many of the firework bursts blooming over Beast’s Castle, and even Lou’s touching quip of “that doesn’t suck.” If you’ve spent an evening with me in the Magic Kingdom, chances are that we’ve watched the show together, and the chances are that is another memory I cherish, whether I’ve told you that or not.

There are a lot of individuals to thank for the creation and longevity of Wishes, Steve Davison (show director), Erik Tucker (pyrotechnics designer), and Steve Skorija (music director) to name just a few. I want to take a moment, however, to thank composer and arranger Gregory Smith. I think that my experience of being a preschool teacher for so many years, in particular during those first few years of Wishes’ run, made the music he crafted for the show touch me just a little deeper than it might have otherwise. Basing the theme of the show off of Star Light, Star Bright, definitely reminded me of all the children in my care on a daily basis and made me pause to not only consider my personal dreams, but what dreams they had for their tomorrows.

With all of this waxing poetic about the show, you’d think I would lament the showing ending, and I do, but I am also excited to see what comes next. Fantasy in the Sky, Wishes predecessor, had a 32 year run and I have many, many fond memories of that show as well, but if it hadn’t ever been retired we would have never had Wishes. Fireworks are always going to have a special place in our hearts and reminiscences, and Wishes is no exception, but I also cannot wait to make new memories with Happily Ever After.

I think we sometimes forget that Wishes had a subtitle attached to it, A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams. I think this may describe my feelings and attachment to Wishes even better than its headline name. While it may be referencing all of the various Disney productions that are presented over the course of the show, I personally feel that it has given me a collection of magical moments I will always hold near and dear. Thank you, Wishes, for everything you’ve given me, and all of us, over the years. We’ll never forget you.

10 May 2017

No Shame in Seconds

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure to sit down to a meal with at The Polite Pig. The restaurant is new to Disney Springs and features a model of dining that is being seen more and more throughout Walt Disney World, the fast casual format features a queue for ordering and payment, and then your food is brought to you by roaming servers who are there to help you take care of any additional needs (including more food) as you dine. It’s something a little different, and will take a little getting used to, but it is a fine way to dine. But let’s get down to the food shall we?

For my first bite from The Polite Pig I opted for a style of barbecue I know well from living in western North Carolina for more than the past dozen years, the Pork Shoulder. I will confess that to my mind, this meant pulled or chopped barbecue pork, and that is not what I received, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad thing. With the Pork Shoulder you are given large chunks of barbecued pork that have been prepared with Polite Rub. Each serving comes with one side, a roll, and small jar of coleslaw. The pork itself is tender and pulls apart easily. There are two byproducts of the pork’s presentation; on the negative side of things you get a lot more fat with your meat than you would expect, but on the positive side, you get way more of the delicious bark with that seasoned rub!

My original plan was to try all seven of their sauces on my pork to get a good sample of what The Polite Pig is offering as accompaniments, but that ended up being a little harder than I had planned. So, I settled for three options: Hot Honey, Spiced Vinegar, and Thomas’s Southern Gold.  The Spiced Vinegar, or any type of vinegar sauce, is a staple of Carolina barbecue and I had to give it a try. Listed as a vinegar-based mopping sauce, in other words you drag your pork or meat through it to sop it up, it did not disappoint and brought with it a nice arrangement of spices, the tangy twinge of the vinegar, and highlighted what was already present in the rub. Meanwhile, the mustard and vinegar-based Thomas’s Southern Gold, just didn’t hit me as well as the Spiced Vinegar. I’m usually all about mustard sauces, but this seemed a bit thin to me and didn’t carry itself as well as I had hoped. As for the Hot Honey, this mixture of their homemade Fresno Hot Sauce with Orange Blossom Honey, was spot on! A little heat, a little sweet, and wholly delicious! By default then, I can also recommend the Fresno Hot Sauce, which isn’t overpowering, but the peppers are bright and flavorful.

For my one market side I opted for the BBQ Cauliflower, which comes with paprika sour cream and pumpkin seeds. The cauliflower is one of the options listed for those seeking a vegetarian option, to the point where it even has a sauce specially recommended for it, and I would jump on that in a heartbeat. The pumpkin seeds give the dish a nice crunch, while the paprika sour cream adds a richness to each bite. The char on the cauliflower is good, not overly burnt, and each floret is tender, but still takes some effort to bite through. I’ll be honest, this was the highlight of my meal, and there were times that the flavors from the cauliflower and sour cream that the texture didn’t line up, but my mouth swore I was eating a roasted marshmallow. The bread and slaw are both standard barbecue trappings, and both were well-done here, but they were nothing particularly special to write home about. Not like the cauliflower!

The Polite Pig is something new in the form of barbecue and novel in dining in Walt Disney World. This was our first bite, and it was overall a delicious one, but we have more to come from this meal, so stay tuned! In the meantime, you should make your way over to The Polite Pig and see what they have to offer. The menu is wide ranging, from their snacks, to the cocktails, entrees, market sides, and desserts, and there seems to be something for just about every palate, even those who prefer not to partake in meat. For those that do wish to indulge in traditional barbecue, I don't believe you will be disappointed.