19 June 2018

K. Holz & Co.


Castaway Cay is beautiful this time of year. Come to think of it, Castaway Cay is beautiful just about any time of year. All of that natural beauty and pristine water may distract you from what’s really important, the little details that are tucked away around the island. Okay, maybe that’s a step too far, but there are some wonderful nods worked into the island’s story. For instance, this sign for wholesalers of lobsters and other crustaceans actually acknowledges a longtime Disney Cruise Line executive.

K. Holz is none other than Karl Holz, who retired earlier this year. Back in 1996, Holz was a vice president at Knott’s Berry Farm when Disney scooped him up for Walt Disney World Operations. For the next 22 years Holz held a number of senior level positions within theme entertainment side of Disney, including president and CEO of Euro Disney, president of New Vacation Operations, aka Adventures by Disney and Disney Vacation Club, and two stints as the president of Disney Cruise Line.

Holz’s first time through the floating vacation system was a brief 18 months from 2003 until the fall of 2004 when he would move to Euro Disney. He was called back into service of Disney Cruise Line in 2009, where he would remain, along with other duties, until his retirement in February of this year. During that time he oversaw the introduction of the two newest, and currently largest, ships in the fleet, the Dream and the Fantasy.

At the announcement of his retirement, Walt Disney Parks & Resort chairman Bob Chapek said of Holz, “His commitment to excellence and relentless focus on creativity have served Disney well, and his passion for doing what is best for our cast, crew, and guests is second to none. All of us at Disney appreciate everything Karl has done to make Disney magic on a global scale.”

Sounds like just the type of person you want leading Cast Members, if you ask me, and certainly worthy of homage on Castaway Cay. Especially if he can, as the sign says, deliver.

18 June 2018

The Magic of the Great Outdoors

If you’re new to the Gazette’s readership, or just haven’t been paying close enough attention, then you know most of my early years with Walt Disney World are tied very closely to Fort Wilderness. In fact, I didn’t stay in another resort of any kind until I was almost 17, and to this day I’ve only spent one night at a resort on the monorail loop. It was what my family could afford and it was how we were able to spend time at Walt Disney World. My sister and I didn’t know any better, in fact we relished the experiences we had at the campground, and there is something to be said for that connection to the great outdoors.

This past weekend I had to opportunity to volunteer at YMCA Camp Watia, a camp dedicated to giving local children just that opportunity to reconnect with nature and it started me to thinking about Fort Wilderness again. The things I experienced as a child and, how even though we can bemoan what has changed and what is lost, what is still there waiting to be discovered by youth, families, and even adults who have lost that touchpoint with nature.

First and foremost there was a sense of ownership of what we were doing. My sister and I would help put the tarp down underneath the tent, stake the tent, and would argue over the layout of the tiny plastic lanterns strung around our site. Make no mistake, this was 1980s glamping at its finest. We learned how to cook and make whole meals over a small gas stove or the charcoal grill. When we were finally old enough to venture off to the Comfort Station on our own, in order to see what the schedule was for the nightly outdoor movie, we could not believe the sense of freedom we had.

The sense of being on our own would only grow with time. We learned to ride our bikes around the paved loops of Fort Wilderness, and soon those same bikes were carrying us up and over wooden bridges and all over the resort. We would make friends while we were there and head out to play tetherball, splash in the Meadow Swimmin’ Pool, or head to a porch somewhere to play checkers. For me, I also learned responsibility as I was the one charged with making sure my little sister was safe, that we stuck to what we said we were going to do, and that we returned back to our campsite when we said we would. It was keeping us both happy and safe, but also having that chance to be a leader.

Then there was, and is the connection with nature. Fort Wilderness is where I saw my first raccoon and owl, creatures I’m still in utter love with to this day, and there were families of deer, alligators, fish, and birds everywhere. The stables of Tri Circle D were embedded deep in the mind of my sister who couldn’t visit the goats, ponies, or horses enough. In the deep of night, when the moon cast shadows of the long, gnarled oak tree branches, we swore that they were snakes that were going to fall on our tent, somehow get inside, and bite us. And let’s not forget, walking to and from the sing-a-long, campfire, movie, and/or Electrical Water Pageant we would chase the magical fireflies.

Then there were the mechanical marvels. The two-seater speed boats that took us along the shores of River Country, the Contemporary, the undeveloped shores around Bay Lake, and even to the gates of the Magic Kingdom. There was never enough sunscreen that we didn’t come back a little sunburned, but it was worth it to skim along the top of the water with spray from the lake covering our faces! The canoes were fun, but exhausting, even if they did get us up close and personal with the waterways and banks around the campground. There were also golf carts, the way to travel in style throughout Fort Wilderness. While frowned upon then and distinctly forbidden now, I can remember these carts being my first driving experience as we slowly, but probably faster than my parents were comfortable with, making our way around Jack Rabbit Run.

As we grew up our Fort Wilderness experiences prepared us for traveling through National Parks, but they also taught us many things that would stick with us. The love of nature, from trees (lawnmowers optional), to wildlife, to underbrush on the trails between each campsite was formed here. Our desire to make sure that it stays wild and is there for future generations was also planted at Fort Wilderness. Learning to be self-reliant and to care for one another took root and provided the foundation to be leaders later in our lives. The joys of imagination, creativity, responsibility, and so many lessons tucked away in the cracks of trees and under the crunch of seashell tent pads.

As the summer season kicks into high gear, I find myself remembering the formative days I was granted at Fort Wilderness, and how much they prepared me to be the man I am today. Back then I didn’t know about terms like summer learning loss or nature deficit disorder, but they are only two of the many challenges that children today face. Luckily, there are still places like Fort Wilderness where the quiet stillness of nature is continuing to teach its lessons. I just hope enough kids are getting the opportunity.

15 June 2018

Countless Tropical Locales


Never let it be said that Walt Disney World doesn’t know and appreciate its place in the history of attraction entertainment. Roadside attractions and tourist destinations are as much a part of the history of vacationing as national parks and natural wonders, and Disney understands that the interest in all of these various locales led to the public interest in places like Disneyland. One such location, Sunken Gardens, resides just up the road from Walt Disney World and it has even given a place of note on the underside of one of the ceiling beams in Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto.

Sunken Gardens is a natural wonderland in the heart of St. Petersburg and it was established 115 years ago by George Turner Sr. The four acre site originally contained a lake that was 10 feet below sea level. In 1903 he drained the lake and started planting tropical plants in the rich soil, hence the sunken part of the name. The garden was originally supposed to be his private garden, filled with citrus plants, papayas, vining plants, tropical flowers, and a host of other trees and plants, but he saw the potential. By 1920 Turner had begun selling fruit, plants, and some vegetables from the garden and charging patrons a nickel to tour the gardens. It wasn’t until 1935 that he fenced in the garden to keep out freeloading garden admirers.

The botanical gardens became a must visit spot for tourists and locals, even going so far as to be regularly ranked on the top 10 tourist destinations in Florida throughout the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. After his passing, Sunken Gardens were taken on by Turner’s two sons, Ralph and George Jr. Eventually they would sell the attraction to the city of St. Petersburg in 1999.

The city has maintained the property and helped in flourish over the past two decades. Listed as a botanical garden, with a nominal entrance fee, Sunken Gardens features more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, many of which were planted by Turner himself and are over 100 years old! Waterfalls, demonstration gardens, and gardens dedicated bougainvillea, butterflies, and cactus all populate the 4 acre paradise. There is even a flamboyance of Chilean Flamingoes that call Sunken Gardens home.

Long before Walt Disney World was even a glimmer in Walt’s eye, St. Petersburg’s Sunken Garden was already marveling tourists and locals alike. In fact, Florida is filled with attractions that call attention to the natural world. Some have seen better days, some have shuttered their doors, while still others continue to thrive in the tropical location. Disney has a place within that history and is happy to give it a nod amongst all the hundreds of artifacts that line the walls, shelves, and rafters of Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto.

14 June 2018

Sip on Some Sunshine


In the storied battle for Adventureland ice cream supremacy, my flag is firmly planted in the Citrus Swirl column. I appreciate that everyone has different tastes that resonate with them, but there is something that I prefer in the slightly bitter, yet very sweet swirl that the Dole Whip just doesn’t have. While the Dole Whip is a longtime staple of both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, the tumultuous history of the Citrus Swirl also keeps me interested. There is, however, one thing that until recently the Dole Whip had that the Citrus Swirl did not, a float version of the concoction.

Earlier this year the Sunshine Tree Terrace rolled out the Citrus Swirl Float, the same ice cream treat you know and love, orange concentrate (or orange juice slush if you prefer) and vanilla soft serve, served in a glass of orange soda. Comparing it with the original cup Citrus Swirl, you do appear to get more of the ice cream and orange slush combination in the glass along with the orange soda. I’ll be the first to admit that I was excited by the prospect of a float version of the treat, but the use of a carbonated soda confused me a bit. However, once I tried it I was pleasantly surprised.

Ice cream in Florida is always going to be an eat quickly or watch it melt and slump off onto the pavement, and the Citrus Swirl Float is no exception. Except now you have the added level of as the ice cream sinks into the glass there is also soda leaking out over the side. So let’s just say the stickiness factor on this one is ramped up. Depending on how much of the soda you get with your bite of Citrus Swirl will also depend on what orange flavor you get, the more authentic citrus flavor that comes from the swirl itself or the artificially enhanced version of an orange from the soda. I do appreciate the orange soda ice crystals that form a crust around the ice cream as a fun way to play with my food.

Overall, the addition of the orange soda is something that I could take or leave, but I am definitely glad to have the option. The Citrus Swirl Float doesn’t necessarily level the playing field between the Swirl and the Dole Whip, but it does provide one more option in the host of ice cream offerings throughout the parks. I do like how it feels as if I am getting more of the orange slush and vanilla soft serve in the float, and for that reason alone I will likely add it into my regular Citrus Swirl rotation.

12 June 2018

Landscapes That are Ever-Changing

We talk often about how different Walt Disney World was during its early years, or even how each park greatly differs today from the park that greeted guests when it opened. Sometimes we long for those early days, sometimes it is only a matter of preserving the history of a place, occasionally it is a bit of both. Take for instance this vista of China from the shaded alcove near Germany in 1982.

This isn’t a view that is accessible today. For starters, there is no sign of Norway which was still the better part of seven years away from being opened. Yet, even China itself wasn’t the pavilion we know today. In 1982, the China pavilion featured the gardens, significant architectural representation of noted locations in China, and the film The Wonders of China. The gallery next to the theater would open in 1983, but we can still see that structure here. The noticeable difference is that Lotus Blossom Cafe, Nine Dragons Restaurant, and House of Good Fortune are all missing. In fact, these locations wouldn’t become part of the World Showcase skyline until late in 1985.

The China pavilion, as a whole, hasn’t seen that much in the way of change over the years, but for a time there was much less to do than there is today. Still, regardless of the era, the gardens there are some of the finest in World Showcase. Even just the glimpse of them here is calming.

06 June 2018

Get the Fiesta Started


In the long storied history of Epcot, Choza de Margarita has been there for only a blink of an eye, but it has already begun to make an impact on the dining and imbibing habits of guests. While the menu of Mexico’s newest eatery isn’t as extensive as the La Cava del Tequila, it doesn’t skimp on quality and has the advantage of convenient on-the-promenade placement. Though it has only been open for a short while, it is already finding ways to plus its offerings by adding a new margarita, entrĂ©e, and side in May. In our first sample of what Choza de Margarita has to offer, we gave the new margarita, Smokey Jalapeno, and the Tostadas de Pollo a taste test.

The Smokey Jalepeno margarita is listed as Mezcal Gracias a Dios espadin blanco, jalapeno, cucumber, fresh lime juice, and agave nectar. It is served with a slice of smoked jalapeno for a garnish and a black ant salt rim. You can order the margarita without the salt rim, but I opted to order the drink as it was listed. I can see where it would it could churn someone’s stomach to have the salt rim there, but I’m an adventurous eater and I promise that this rim is salty, with a bit of spice, and the consistency of salt grain. It doesn’t look like ants and it doesn’t feel like you’re eating a whole ant.

As for the rest of the Smokey Jalapeno margarita, it is refreshing and strong. I really like the fresh flavors from the lime and the cucumber, but the cucumber in particular gets masked a bit by the stronger flavors of the jalapeno. Speaking of, the smoked jalapeno brings the heat along with an almost mesquite feel on the front side of each sip. The agave does a nice job of mellowing the spiciness with its sweetness, but not so much that you aren’t going to feel the jalapeno. Overall this is a very well-crafted margarita that is easy to drink, but that you will feel the effects of once you stand up, and I will definitely be ordering it again.

A quick aside, as I’ve said it is a strong margarita, take my advice and do not consume this beverage and then lean back to shoot a photograph directly up the side of the Mexico pavilion. You will get wobbly at best and fall down at worst.

Moving on to the Tostadas de Pollo, this dish comes with two tostadas that are described as crispy corn tortillas smothered with black beans and topped with chipotle chicken, crema Mexicana, shredded romaine lettuce, and cotija cheese. Smothered is the operative word here, and you will be hard pressed to find the corn tortillas by just looking at the dish. They are there though, you’ll hear them as your cutting through the mounds of goodness, and appreciate their crunch in a sea of softer toppings. The black beans and chicken are the stars here with a nice bit of heat from the stewed, shredded chicken and a smooth consistency from the beans. The crema Mexicana and cotija cheese are rich and creamy, expertly holding the assembled components together, with just a hint of sweetness. These were delicious and with a pair of tostadas per order, they are perfect for sharing, but you may want to keep them all to yourself.

As this was our first visit to Choza de Margarita I want to take just a moment to talk about the staff. They were knowledgeable and incredibly friendly. In fact, as we were there right at opening, they were doing their morning huddle, complete with a hand raising cheer. They were so excited for guests to be there that several, including my wife, were asked to join in the festivities. The team is really world class all the way around!

Choza de Margarita is a great spot that was much needed in the Mexico pavilion, and its availability will likely have an impact on the crowd levels of La Cava del Tequila. Considering how high quality each menu is, paired with the fact that the menus do not feature the same offerings, guests will have a hard choice as to which venue to visit. Both are top notch in my book, and it is wonderful to see Choza de Margarita really exceling right out of the gate. I, for one, will definitely be paying them another visit for the Smokey Jalapeno margarita and the Tostadas de Pollo.

05 June 2018

Miners Decon


There is a line of thought present in Pandora that can be traced all the way back to the earliest days of design for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Its roots are in the idea that once you have a theme for the park, all decisions have to adhere to that principle. In other words, if the park is going to be dedicated to the intrinsic value of nature then everything has to embody that idea. There are many examples of this throughout the park, and in Pandora itself, but I want to talk about just how far you can take that rationale and make it stick while mingling in story and landscape. To do that we’re going to just about the last place you would think of for landscaping, detail elements, story, and overarching theme. I am, of course, talking about the restroom.

Specifically, I want to look at the restroom to the left of the walkway as you enter into Pandora from Discovery Island. What could be a nondescript plain building is layered to live in an alien environment, generations after conflict, made by foreign entities, yet still subscribing to the park’s overarching message. If you are going to build a bathroom that fits into all of these categories, you have to start back at the top. That means that the intrinsic value of nature comes above all, and that all of the manmade objects are secondary to the natural forms of the world. In other words, the design of the building has to either be celebrating something about nature or be succumbing to natural elements.

In the case of the Pandora restroom, the natural world is very clearly reclaiming this building. Moss and fungus have encapsulated most of the building and anything non-native around the facility. Stairs, walkways, and railings have rusted, some pieces have disintegrated while others are in the process of coming apart. Some sections of the wall have fallen down, while what remains is crumbling right before our eyes. Even the tanks in the nearby shrubbery are half buried and covered with moss. Where there are gaps in the metal and concrete, small plants have taken root and begun to spring up.

Yet, even as this structure is succumbing to the environment, it adheres to both sides of our principle. The grey concrete slabs say nothing about the natural world and therefore are being reclaimed, but what is growing on the exterior of the restroom is incredibly beautiful and is a celebration of the natural world. Splashes of purple, orange, red, and blue thrive against a backdrop of green. Throughout all of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, there may not be a better example of paradoxically abiding by both sides of a theme’s rule than this building.

Within the confines of the story on Pandora, the building itself was once used as a decontamination facility for miners. In other words, it was used by miners stripping the moon of its resources to make sure none of the natural elements came through to their manmade compound. The irony of how diametrically opposed to the value of nature theme this is not lost on me. However, this also helps to establish the story of Pandora, where we are in the story’s timeline, and how nature itself has changed the layout of the land.

Radiating out from the building is a variety of plant life. Traditional landscaping speaks to how man can define their environment. It is filled with angles and curves, specific numbers of plants equidistance from one another, and is meant to show off the beauty of the natural world while containing it within a neat and pretty box. By not allowing unbalance in the plant plan and variety, the idea of valuing the foliage is almost lost. In contrast, the plants that are around our restroom feel randomly placed, even those that are Imagineer crafted artifacts. This allows for guests to sense the wild nature of Pandora, both from a landscaping and a storytelling lens.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is, at its very heart, a park that celebrates that natural world and all of the plants and animals that reside here. Pandora allows guests to see the violent and beautiful sides of nature. It is a mirror of the world that surrounds us here, and it plays right into the park’s theme. If a story can be furthered by just the features of a restroom, imagine what the rest of the land can tell us if we truly look, listen, and feel.

04 June 2018

The Royal Stinker


I’m a sucker for publications, real or imagined, that appear around Walt Disney World and throughout the resorts history. When it comes to fictitious publications, most often they emerge only in clippings posted to bulletin boards. Case in point, this section from the Southern Isles Gazette (we do love a good gazette around these parts). The excerpt includes one short story featuring Hans and two advertisements that give guests a glimpse into what the Southern Isles has to offer aside from a bratty prince with 12 older brothers.

The main article relates the tale of how Hans, recognized as the “disgraced son of the king of the Southern Isles,” was cleaning horse manure as part of his punishment for his abhorrent behavior while visiting Arendelle in an official capacity. Although it was a beautiful spring day, he was suddenly struck by an oversized snowball and sent flailing into a pile of manure. The story is accompanied by a drawing with the caption, “Artist rendering of first-hand eye-witness account,” which I find particularly funny.

The story from the Southern Isles Gazette expands briefly upon Hans’ scene from the 2015 short, Frozen Fever. In the cartoon, Elsa unwittingly creates and sends the snowball across the map by sneezing into the Birthday Horn while attempting to play it for Anna’s birthday even though she has a cold. Viewers of Frozen Fever are the first-hand witnesses as we do see the snowball strike that delivers Hans into a manure heap.

The advertisement in the bottom right is for Southern Isles Apples. The slogan for the apples is, “Our Country’s Most Enjoyed Export.” Perhaps this is a nod to apples having such a prominent role in Disney animation history, we’re looking at you Snow White, but it is definitely a slight to Hans. When produce is looked upon more highly than you are, you have definitely got some atoning to do.

The last advert is for a supply of fine cloaks that have just arrived in the Southern Isles, a must if you’re venturing into Frozen territory. The Great Adventurers Hardware Store of the Southern Isles is overseen by Den Dulk, Winter & Co.  The winter reference is fairly obvious, especially in a posting for cloaks, but Den Dulk is a wonderful nod to Michel den Dulk. Michel is the Imagineer who oversaw the design for the attraction’s conversion from the Maelstrom to Frozen Ever After. He came to Imagineering in 2009 to work on the redesign of Disneyland’s Fantasy Faire after acting in a design capacity at both Efteling in the Netherlands and Germany’s Europa-Park.

All-in-all this brief glimpse into life in the Southern Isles via the Southern Isles Gazette definitely lets guests know that there is more to the kingdom than what Hans projects. In fact, it would appear that Hans is one of the more rotten pieces of the country and that the citizens there are much more amiable than how they are represented by a single prince. Newspapers and their ads are a great way to build worlds for an attraction, especially one such as Frozen Ever After that has a fairly long line on most days.