24 May 2016

Glamorous Company

Once upon a time, the missus and I would grab a dessert from Starring Rolls, and walk around the corner to grab one of the underutilized tables outside of The Hollywood Brown Derby. When The Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge opened in 2015, we lost our secret stash of tables, but gained a new menu to sample our way through. And sample we did on our most recent trip! Between bites and cocktails, we gave the menu a great first pass. We’ll be visiting this menu a lot over the next couple of months with our reviews, but let’s start off with one of the main bites.

One of the first things we agreed we needed to try was the Crispy Bites. I’ll admit that it looks like a variation of the longtime appetizer staple, fried mozzarella sticks. However, there is so much more to this assortment of crispy things. In fact, even just the menu description is more than a mouthful! It lists the Crispy bites as, Parmesan-Goat Cheese Risotto Sticks with Whole-Grain Dijon Mustard Aioli, Brie Cheese with Sweet Onion and Orange Jam, and Blue Affinee-Mushroom Arancini with Fig and Balsamic Dip. That’s a lot to take in, so let’s take it one bite at a time.

Let’s take these one at a time, starting with the Parmesan-Goat Cheese Risotto Sticks with Whole-Grain Dijon Mustard Aioli. There is some heft to this artisan cheese stick, which translates to this being a heavy, but delicious, bite. Typically risotto is reserved for a ball type appetizer, but its unconventional usage here works extremely well. Over all, the goat cheese, parmesan, and risotto create a crispy and creamy back-and-forth that is fun to eat. As for the mustard aioli, it has a bite to it which plays well with the stick itself, but is nothing overly fancy.

Next up is the Brie Cheese with Sweet Onion and Orange Jam. We love a good brie, and this lived up to expectations. The crispy exterior holds the brie inside nicely, as we were certain it would have melted into a pile of goo before ever having reached the table. Instead it was rich and smooth, better than any mozzarella stick you’ve ever tasted for sure. While there may not be anything particularly special about the brie, it is a fair representation of the cheese. The sweet onion and orange jam on the other hand was terrific. A bit savory, a bit sweet, it was a perfect taste of Florida to me.

Last, but certainly not least, is the Blue Affinee-Mushroom Arancini with Fig and Balsamic Dip. These little balls of deliciousness were my personal favroites, but the missus was underwhelmed. The arancini are comprised of rice, mushroom, and creamy blue affinee and then rolled into balls, coated in breadcrumbs, and fried. There is nothing not to like here. The strong blue cheese flavor does not overpower the mushrooms, and is heightened by the sweetness present in the fig of the dip. Add in a bit of the acidity from the balsamic and you have a win, win, win with this bite.

Since the trio of dips come with this cone of delicious fried goods, but aren’t already applied to their respective bites, feel free to experiment as you see fit. While I preferred to eat each bite without an accompaniment, the missus thought that everything was better when dunked through the jam first. The sticks length and there are more than enough of the arancini so that you can come up with, and enjoy more than a single nibble, of your favorite combination.

The Crispy Bites are a great introduction to the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge, and should definitely be sitting on your table during your next visit!

23 May 2016

Garden Destinations

I’m feeling a bit rambly this morning. You know that feeling you get when you’re not sure where you want to go and what you want to do? With the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival winding down, let’s take a quick tour through some of my favorite places to stop and smell the flowers. These may not be anyone’s specific highlight of the festival, but they are definitely worth taking note of as you make your first, last, or only trip through the festival.

Florida Fresh Truck – This truck has loaded down with Disney references, from citrus from the Disney Springs area of Walt Disney World to our beloved Orange Bird. Perhaps no one label brings out the Florida boy in me more than the Red Ruby Strawberries, hailing from Plant City, FL, my hometown and the strawberry capital of the world. I love the display here that digs into the history of produce, but more specifically, citrus, labels.

Japanese Mini Gardens – The bonsai garden has long been one of my favorite exhibits during the festival. However, the addition of the miniature gardens, each with its own story to tell, may be my new favorite thing. The tea garden may be my personal favorite, but the art meets horticulture aspect of each is something to be admired.

English Tea Garden – I know, I know, everyone knows about it, and everyone loves it, but it still deserves a spot in our wandering post. As a dedicated tea drinker, and someone who is partial to several bags that Twinings produces, I love the oversized tea cups as planters, each containing the plants that go into crafting the perfect cup of a specific tea. Anyone need me to top off their cup of Earl Grey?

Prehistoric Plants – Sure, vegetables and flowers are great, but the prehistoric plants display looks at ancient plants like cycads and ferns. Not enough to do it for you, huh? What if I said they had dinosaurs tucked away inside the plants for you to look for? Seriously, I’m considering using dinos in all of my landscaping!

Backyard Habitat – It has long been a personal goal of mine to create a certifiable backyard habitat in my yard. Here there are real world, functional examples to help everyone make that possible. Sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, the garden even has ideas for habitat creation in cities, where an abundance of land is a luxury.

There you have it! Stroll through the butterfly garden if you must (it’s gorgeous by the way), take note of the additions to the miniature train village in Germany (wooo-woooo), and check off the topiaries on your list (these are works of art), but make sure you take time to notice the lesser frequented gardens. There have been some incredible additions this year and some truly inspirational gardens that definitely left their mark on me. Soak it all in before the festival is over and then stop back by and let us know what your favorite corner of the festival is!

19 May 2016

The Fruits of Polynesia

The culture of vacation food has changed dramatically over the past generation. When I was a kid, a hot dog, burger, or ambiguously shaped chicken nuggets were exactly what you wanted out of a vacation. Heck, getting cheese on that burger was considered a treat. I feel like this was also what our parents wanted as well, except for those times we got ditched in favor of a specialty meal or upscale lounge. These days, however, we all want our taste buds to experience our vacation as well. There are a lot of options to consider, but one at Capt. Cook’s stands out.

As you venture down to the ground floor eatery of the Polynesian Village, you may already have your meal planned out. That meal may or may not consist of an entree, drink, and a Dole Whip. And shame on you if it doesn’t contain a Dole Whip! For your main course, may I suggest something a little different? It’s listed simply as Thai Coconut Meatballs, served with rice. What you get are three gigantic meatballs atop a fair mound of rice and covered in sauce. It is definitely more than enough to fill an individual up.

The rice is filling, but it is rice. I would love to see this dish amped up with either some jasmine or basmati rice, but that’s just me and my pretentious palate. As for the meatballs, they are incredibly large, and you will find yourself having to cut them in half, or more. Luckily for you, they are tender enough that a fork will cut through them. The spices used in the meatballs are great! I think I caught a hint of ginger, garlic, some mild chilies, and even a hint of something sweet. The sauce, although I could easily use the word gravy here, is thick and rich. The coconut milk immediately tells you that this isn’t your mama’s meatballs! Add in some tomatoes, and it takes on all the best parts of a curry. The green scallions on top are a nice touch.

For a pro tip, save as much of the sauce as you can and mix it up with your rice. You will not be disappointed!

It used to be that getting something like Capt. Cook’s Thai Coconut Meatballs meant going off property or having to pay for the full sit down experience. These days items like this are commonplace throughout Walt Disney World. I highly recommend giving these meatballs a try, but even more to the point, I recommend being a little adventurous with your vacation meals. After all, aren’t you away from home to experience something new? So go on, take a bite out of all the world has to offer!

17 May 2016

Handle of a Hoe

When you pull back into the load and unload area of Splash Mountain you are typically wet, exhilarated, and making a hasty move towards Splashdown Photos to see what type of face you were making as you plunged over Chickapin Hill. But have you ever looked at where you are tapping your Magic Band to add your photo to your PhotoPass? The washboards represent a lot a history from either Splash Mountain or Song of the South, but there is one washboard that stands out amongst the rest.

In case you can’t make it out, this is a washboard from Brother Ted Washboards, based in Mineral King, California. Their slogan is, “For clean country critters.”

The obvious reference here is to the member of the Country Bear Jamboree’s Five Bear Rugs, Brother Ted.  While known mostly for his skills playing jugs, he does have another instrument in his repertoire that’s being highlighted here. As the song goes, “Brother Ted is on the corn jug. Now, I mean that bear can blow. He also plays the washboard with a handle of a hoe.

Nice, neat, and tidy, right? Not quite, we may have forgotten the most obscure reference, the fact that the company is based out of Mineral King. In the mid-1960s it was announced that Walt Disney had been granted the permit by the U.S. Forest Service to develop a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Mineral King Basin. Disney would have until 1968 to complete a plan that would be approved by Forest Service, entitling Disney to a 30 year permit to construct and operate the approved plans. Access to the area would require a better road than the one currently in place, but that should be a technicality.

Walt’s plans, like everything else he put his hand towards, were ambitious. Not only would the resort be a winter hideaway for ski enthusiasts, but he believed that there would be enough interest in summer access and entertainment that Mineral King would operate all year long. The site would preserve the pristine wilderness as much as possible, but there would have to be places to build fourteen ski lifts, shops, restaurants, lodging and conference facilities, a chapel, skating rink, and even a heliport!

To maintain the environment, two strategies would be employed. First, automobiles would need to park outside of the resort and be brought in on one of Walt’s fancy forms of public transit. And secondly, services areas would be built underground in a 60,000 square foot facility. Think of it as an early version of the Magic Kingdom’s utilidors.

But what about Brother Ted? Well, plans called for Ted and the rest of the Country Bears to be the hosts of Mineral King. While they would have been seen in many aspects of the resort village, their main attraction would have been a dinner show. Think of the Country Bear Jamboree as it was in its heyday, but with a much longer runtime.

Sadly, the project never came to pass. Opponents to the project cited the fragile ecosystem and that road needed to access the area never did materialize. It didn’t help that Disney lost its visionary leader and most vocal spokesperson when Walt passed away in December of 1966. Great ideas are never totally forgotten, and Ted and his bear-y good friends found a new home in Grizzly Hall. Today, this Splashdown Photos washboard serves as a great nod to a beloved attraction, and its wilderness roots on the other side of the country.

11 May 2016

Frozen Elephant

Before we begin, I have to give a shout-out to Melissa Sue Sorrells, of Mouse on the Mind! Without her I would have never even known to look for today’s item to review.

So, now that I’ve piqued some interest, what is it that we’re talking about exactly? The Frozen Elephant found at the Africa Coolpost in World Showcase. It is listed very simple as a frozen Coca-Cola and Amarula Cream Liqueur. As an avid fan of frozen Cokes everywhere, this was one adult beverage I had to check out!

This isn’t a mixture that comes sloshing out of a machine. Sure, that’s how the frozen Coke gets into the cup, but the Amarula is added to the cup first and then the slush is added in on top of it. The liqueur gives the frozen Coke a bit more body and a hint of something tart, but not enough that it distracts from the Coca-Cola itself. At only 17% abv, the Amarula isn’t enough to make you tipsy, just enough to add some flavor to your frozen soda. I cannot recommend the Frozen Elephant enough, particularly if you’re wandering around World Showcase, sweating through the middle of the day, and a glass of wine, margarita, or other concoctions just don’t sound perfect to beat the heat.

You might be asking yourself where the elephants come from in the name of this beverage. No, it isn’t just that the Africa Coolpost has a distinctly equatorial feel to it. Amarula features elephants on their labels due to their tie to the fruit that comprises the main ingredient of Amarula. The marula tree is known as both the marriage tree and elephant tree, and produces fruit only once a year between December and March. Elephants and other creatures love the ripe, or over ripened, fruit of the tree, which is known to contain approximately eight times the amount of vitamin C found in a typical orange and has a sweet and tangy flavor profile to it. The trees grow in sub-equatorial Africa, and while it is believed that many of the trees were planted along the migratory trail of the Bantu people, the marula trees have had very little in the way of cultivation by the hand of man.

A quick side note, Amarula is so concerned with ensuring that elephants are there to partake of the marula fruit year after year that they began The Amarula Trust. The main thrust of their work is to conserve and protect elephants through education and creating sustainable environments.

All in all, the Frozen Elephant is a terrific little drink that won’t affect your faculties, aside from a possible brain freeze if you consume it too fast. It’s a great way to get some cold caffeine running through your veins with just a hint of something else building up the drink on the backside. This won’t be a make or break beverage for any trip, but you will be glad you gave it try!

10 May 2016

Hands, Arms, Feet and Legs Inside the Vehicle

I’ve put it out there before, it’s one of the reasons the amount of content on the Gazette had to slow down, but I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis a little over a year ago. It was a wrecking ball to my life and what I believed would be my future would be, but it was also a godsend because I finally had an answer as to what was happening to me. The not knowing was the worst part. Of course, with the RA it meant a whole new lifestyle, a whole new perspective, and a whole lot of medications. It has also meant a whole new way of exploring Walt Disney World, but first let me try to provide a little insight into my daily life.

RA is an invisible disease for the most part. The way I describe it is that my immune system is an overachiever, just like me, and doesn’t know when to stop. It goes from attacking illness and foreign bodies to attacking healthy parts of my own body. There aren’t a lot of solutions that don’t require your immune system to become nonexistent, because you have to put the monster to sleep to feel better, even if that monster is what protects you from other creatures. Your energy level sinks like a stone and you find yourself negotiating with yourself just to make it to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The only time its visible is when I am in incredible pain, called a flare, or if I choose to wear a mask to keep myself healthy. We’ll get further into the mask bit a little more later. One of the best descriptions of living with RA comes from Chrsitine Miseradino and is called The Spoon Theory. Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.

Once I had my diagnosis, my first thought wasn’t how this was going to affect the Gazette or how it was even going to affect trips to Walt Disney World. I do have my priorities straight after all. No, my first thought was how this was going to affect my family, particularly the missus, and the conversations we had been starting around having a child. Then I thought about my health, I was just trying to get myself back into running, and we had just bought a house and I was thrilled to finally have a yard, a yard that I now wouldn’t be able to work in as much as I wanted to. Working with youth in my day job and having to be up, down, and constant moving was also a concern, as I wasn’t sure I could be as mobile as I needed to be. Living with RA was going to teach me all about balance.

All of the personal pieces are still debates and still keep me awake at night, not that joint discomfort is helping with sleep, but I digress. Everything is an internal dialog. If I eat this hamburger are my elbows going to regret it tomorrow? If I push too hard and mow my whole yard on Saturday morning, am I going to be able to walk to dinner Sunday night? Honestly, most of the answers I’m able to give myself are a definitive “Maybe!”

The tenants to remember with RA is that it is mostly invisible to passersby and colleagues, but it is completely and utterly exhausting, and you never know when or where it’s going to strike, only that a strike is going to happen sooner or later. So, we come to a visit to Walt Disney World battling these constraints. There is stress, there is a lot of physical demands, and there is very little of it that you can plan and control. Basically, the worst possible situation I could have imagined for myself. Ahead of the trip the missus and I sat down and had several long discussions.

Should I wear a mask while visiting? With an extremely low functioning immune system, I should do all I can to protect myself and my health right? Is the stigma of “what is wrong with that guy?” worth it? It isn’t what’s wrong with me, but rather I can’t run the risk of getting whatever illness you or your child has, because it is going to have a lasting effect on me beyond the fact that I’m going to take longer to get better. I wore the mask, sporadically. Basically, I’m not entirely ready to call myself out everywhere I go. It’s vain and I know it. I’ll probably change my mind in the next few years, but for now I’m still rolling the dice, and dealing with being sick more than I’d like to be.

Should we rent a wheelchair? I immediately opted away from the ECV option, if only because I was convinced I would do something wrong with the controls and end up running over some other guest just trying to enjoy their vacation. The short answer was, again, “no.” The long answer was I didn’t want to have it up front, but if I got to a point where I knew I couldn’t walk or carry myself any longer, we would grab a wheelchair for the days and times that I needed it.

Outside of these two considerations, we didn’t have a whole lot else planned ahead of time. Just like our daily lives it was going to be putting one foot in front of the other and deciding how best to meet the day each and every day.

Once there I was able to push through the first day or so with high energy. I was ignoring my body because my adrenaline of being back in Walt Disney World sustained me. It was definitely not the smartest thing to do, but my body didn’t notice so I didn’t take the time to think it through.

The first time I did notice something was when the exhaustion hit me in the afternoons. I still pushed through, but I mentally changed my strategy. Heck, I’ve always loved the long shows and rides, so this was a blessing in disguise. I got to spend some time in The American Adventure, on Ellen’s Energy Adventure, The Great Movie Ride, multiple rounds on the PeopleMover, it’s a small world (Have you ever noticed how many quiet, seated, and dark adventures there are in Walt Disney World?), or sitting on a bench and watching the parade go by. Wonderful! Sure, we called it an early night, but you need those every once in a while when you at Walt Disney World, right?

Wrong, I would push myself so hard in the mornings and during the days that I did not see the sunset or a single fireworks display the entire time I was there.

The next thing I noticed is that I wasn’t in my own bed. The pillows I use every night to keep my knees from touching one another or one of my arms tucked tightly against my chest weren’t there. The pillows I did have from Disney were okay, but they weren’t what I was used to. Neither were the sheets, comforters, and mattress. All of these pieces add up and they will keep you up and uncomfortable all night, regardless of how exhausted you are. Next time, I packed some of the comforts of home, just so I could sleep.

I have long been a believer that I would rather drive my car to the parks than be beholden to the transportation system. I love the monorails, ferries, motor launches, and even the buses, but I’ve always felt driving myself saved me time. Now, it saves me, period. I don’t have to wait in the elements or stand for longer than I need to. I can get myself to where I’m going before my tank bottoms out below Empty.

Driving my own car also allows for me to drive to Walt Disney World and set my own break pattern, not stuffed into a chair on an airplane where I can barely move and stretching is a luxury. I used to leave after work and drive straight through to Walt Disney World overnight, crashing the gates first thing the next morning. Now, I tend to make the trip in two days with a stopover at a hotel somewhere to rest and reboot. Part of this I leave at the footsteps of the RA, but I also know part of it is that I’m just not as young as I used to be.

I said earlier that I couldn’t plan and I wasn’t in control, but that’s not entirely true. Planning for a worst case scenario, something I don’t like to do because I’m eternally optimistic, can be extremely helpful. You may not need to utilize any of the plans you make, but know what and where your options are allowed me to enjoy myself a little more leisurely than if I had just been winging it.

The other thing that saved me were the friends I surrounded myself with. Between the missus and friends who were willing to accommodate what I needed, when I needed it, I was able to have a wonderful trip. I am eternally grateful to all of them, and don’t know what I would have done without them, regardless of the RA.

The mantra I have repeated time and again to people who ask about how RA affects my life is simple. It has changed how I will live my life, but it will not change my life. I don’t use it as an excuse, or something to brag about, and it certainly does not define me. I do use RA as something to laugh at. My hands clench up? I pretend to be a T-rex (of the “I don’t know how well this plan was though through” or “If you’re happy and you know it clap your… oh” variety). My leg is exhausted and being dragged around? I name it Smith or make some other joke about table legs working better than mine.

Rheumatoid Arthritis has changed my life, but perhaps I appreciate the world more now than I ever would have or I cherish those around me more than I would have. It is a learning experience, and I am a life-long learner. Quite literally now. It has changed the way I will walk down the road, but not my road, and certainly none of the rest and recharge that Walt Disney World has always brought me. I don’t know what I hoped this article would give you, but I hope you learned something, or if you’re living with this disease as well, maybe you found an idea or a glimmer of hope. I hope it brought you something, because I know it was a gift to me.

09 May 2016

Last Sighting of Duck-Billed Creatures

With DuckTales returning to television in 2017, it’s time to rewrite some history, Duckburg style! To do it, we have to look no further than DinoLand U.S.A. in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. That sounds like a bit of a stretch, doesn’t it? I promise, if we just head on over to Cretaceous Trail, the ducks are there for all to see. For all to see, that is, if we study the bulletin board where notes have been left for Wilderness Explorers very closely.

As the Cretaceous Trail is also home to Donald’s meet and greet, it makes sense that there would be a fowl theme in play here. And no, I’m not talking the villainous organization, F.O.W.L., which went up against DuckTales’ counterpart on The Disney Afternoon, Darkwing Duck. I’m talking about all things duck, and most importantly all things duck-billed. At the top left corner of the bulletin board, there is crinkled timeline of the last time specific duck-billed creatures have been seen. Aside from stating that this is where Donald Fauntleroy is having a dino-fific time, there are two other spots to talk about.

The first comes from the Late Cretaceous Period where we see an image of DuckTales’ own, Bubba the Cave Duck. Depending on the source, he was also later identified as simply Bubba Duck. Bubba arrived on the scene in the opening episode of the second season of DuckTales. This episode, Making Time, was part of the five episode arc entitled Time Is Money. Yep, Scrooge’s thirst sent the gang back through time to change his fortune. Along the way they picked up Bubba and a triceratops. Bubba would take on the triceratops as his pet, and name her Tootsie, after she stepped on Launchpad McQuack’s, you guessed it, tootsie (aka foot). Bubba and Tootsie would travel back to the present day with Scrooge, the nephews, and the rest of the DuckTales crew. After becoming homesick, Bubba would recreate a version of his cave from Duckbill Island in Scrooge’s backyard. He would be integral to several stories throughout the remainder of the series.

Moving ahead on our timeline, but further back in DuckTales history, we stop at 1987. This is the year that DuckTales launched, and also the year that Huey, Dewey, Louie, Webby, Scrooge, and Launchpad visited the Lost World. Here, they hoped to find a living dinosaur to take back to Scrooge’s zoo. Through a variety of missteps and an apparent change of heart on Scrooge’s part, they end up saving a baby Hadrosaurus and returning it to its mother. Scrooge does end up chartering tours of the Lost World, but the baby hadro, who looked absolutely nothing like its timeline depiction, was indeed saved. This occurs in the episode entitled Dinosaur Ducks, which was the eighteenth episode to air, but due to episodes being shown out of order, it is listed as the thirty-ninth episode of the first season.

That sure is a lot of duck-billed activity to soak in! As anticipation builds around the return of DuckTales, one can only hope for more and more of these type of references to return to the parks. A number of characters have been listed as returning for the 2017 series, but that hasn’t included Bubba the Cave Duck as of yet. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear him exclaim, “Bubba smash,” at least one more time?