31 May 2017

Tell a Good Story - Issue #1: Seekers of the Weird

Spoiler Free Synopsis: Maxwell and Melody Keep are your ordinary teen siblings. Maxwell is smart, but lacks any sort of athletic inclination. Meanwhile, his older sister, Melody, has all the brawn she could ask for, but her academic endeavors are lacking. The live above their parents’ shop, Keep it Weird, and maintain relatively quiet lives until their parents are kidnapped by supernatural figures right before their eyes. Enter their cavalier Uncle Roland and a host of paranormal baddies, operating under the name of the Shadow Society, and the siblings think that they may have pretty much seen it all. Yet, one unlocked door and a few steps into their true home, the Museum of the Weird, and the Keeps’ quickly realize that their tale is just beginning.

It is up to Maxwell and Melody to hurry through the Museum to assemble the Living Room and summon the Coffin Clock before time, and the Candleman, run out. From the relatively innocuous mushroom people to the Librarian formed entirely out of books, from Husks to astral Wardens, the residents of the Museum and the outside forces thrust the siblings into newfound skills and confidences as they learn who they can and can’t trust to help them save their parents. As questions swirl around their recently returned Uncle Roland, the real question is what role does he play in the mystery and does he have their parents’ best interests at heart?

Disney Source Material: One could be forgiven if they’d never heard of the Museum of the Weird. That road starts with legendary Imagineer and artist, Rolly Crump, and his presence on the Haunted Mansion project. It was his belief that the mansion should be filled with all sorts of otherworldly inhabitants, from individuals to furnishings, pants, and even the house itself. Walt Disney so loved the ideas that Rolly had been creating, that he gave it the name it has come to be known by, the Museum of the Weird. Walt was so enamored with the concept that the Museum of the Weird models, along with Rolly himself, would be featured during the 10th Anniversary of Disneyland episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.

Many of Rolly’s ideas, however, would come to an end with the passing of Walt himself, as the Haunted Mansion itself would become a riding attraction and not a walking tour. The concepts were, as with many great ideas at Walt Disney Imagineering, shelved to find life again when the right avenue presented itself.

Marvel Storytelling: That avenue would present itself 45 years later in the form of the Seekers of the Weird. This was the inaugural outing for the Marvel and Disney partnership known as Disney Kingdoms and, wishing to have a strong entry they went for one of the great untold tells in Disney canon. To quote writer Brandon Seifert, when trying to explain the project to friends and family, “It’s a Disney book… for Marvel… about a Disney park attraction… that was never actually built… but isn’t like, something made up! It totally got designed! You know. Partially.” That sounds about right.

Seifert and his artist counterparts, Karl Moline (penciler), Rick Magyar (inker), Jean-Francois Beaulieu (colorist),  Joe Caramagna (letterer), and Filipe Andrade (penciler and inker for issue #3), set out to cram in as many of Rolly’s original concepts into their story, which meant making use of every nook and cranny the Museum of the Weird had to offer. The central pieces and characters that they’ve chosen to utilize from Rolly’s original work on the Museum create a smooth narrative while building a world that is at once unsettlingly macabre and soothingly familiar in the same panel.

The Keep siblings are not breaking in molds in character design, but in a story featuring so many fantastic characters and settings, the need to keep Maxwell and Melody mundane is a smart choice. In fact, it could be argued that they are shadows of the readers themselves discovering this unknown warehouse of the weird. Uncle Roland, the Shadow Society, and Wardens all feel like they’ve been lifted out of contemporary Disney narratives of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, and create a sense of mystery and adventure without every putting too many twists out of reach of the readers. The jump between some of the scenes as they pertain to the end and beginning of some of the issues can be a bit jarring to the uninitiated readers, but with such a world to explore any hitch in thought is quickly erased by the next mystical encounter.

The artwork created by Moline is spot on and easily accessible to new and veteran comic readers alike, and the color palate crafted by Beaulieu feels like it came straight out of the schemes for both the Haunted Mansion’s attraction and merchandising efforts. This may not be a world we are familiar with, but the art we are given makes it clear that the Museum of the Weird resides in a world that many Disney enthusiasts already know. Right down to the mystical lime green fire that always depicts something no good is happening in the world of Disney.

Bonus Time: Seekers of the Weird includes a two page introduction from Rolly Crump himself, which I’m hesitant to call anything except a splash page considering the insight it gives you into his personal journey as well as that of the Museum of the Weird, in addition to photographs from the aforementioned Disneyland’s 10th Anniversary Special. There are also letters from writer Brandon Seifert, Marvel’s Bill Rosemann, and Walt Disney Imagineering’s Josh Shipley. Cover and variant covers are included, as one would expect, but the other surprise a twelve page treatment of design work. While the character concepts from Brian Crosby and Karl Moline were wonderful, I spent an ungodly amount of time drooling over the six pages that featured Rolly’s original designs for the Museum of the Weird.

Conclusion: I didn’t open Seekers of the Weird expecting to see the next seminal piece of dark fantasy comic creation, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I found within the story’s pages. Seifert does an excellent job walking the razor’s edge between what could be commonplace and bland storytelling by twisting our expectations of a Disney magical mystery could be, but maintaining a safe space for readers across age ranges. Moline creates some truly wonderful visuals without getting us lost in the insane amount of otherworldly artifacts, all while giving us a floorplan of the Museum that seemingly makes sense to the logical side of our brains. The story requires that you pay attention and keep up, but the reader is rewarded with an adventure worthy of the Disney name.

Further Reading:
Tell a Good Story - Issue #0: Prelude
Tell a Good Story - Issue #1: Seekers of the Weird
Tell a Good Story - Issue #2: The Haunted Mansion

30 May 2017

Tell a Good Story - Issue #0: Prelude

In my lifetime I’ve read a lot of comic books and graphic novels. Even with the most mediocre story there has been a ton of blood, sweat, research, tears, and ink put into the final product. Multiply that effort by however many issues happen to go into a single narrative, or collection, and you have a good chunk of many lives tied up in the work in front of you. Yes it is pulp, and paper, and a shiny cover that could be casually tossed aside, but it is still the culmination of multiple people’s dedication for an indeterminate amount of time. Above and beyond, comics and graphic novels are an art form, which means that any review or ranking is, at best, subjective. It is with all of these thoughts in mind that I decided to throw myself into the worlds of Disney Kingdoms created by Marvel and Walt Disney Imagineering.

Each of these collected volumes focus on a specific character or attraction from the Disney theme parks. This fact, in and of itself, actually adds another layer to the subjective nature of a review, as an individual’s passion for a character, say Figment, may skew how they view his portrayal, both in the positive and negative.

Back to the series themselves, the first of these tales began in January of 2014 with Seekers of the Weird #1. For this series of reviews I’ve chosen to wait for the collected editions for two reasons. One, it will be easier for the novice reader to understand an overarching story review than to try to parse their way through multiple issues. Two, and perhaps more selfishly, I wanted to be able to make use and review the additional material provided in each volume.

Graphic novels and comics are not always the easiest form of storytelling to get behind. Even my wife, who is a voracious reader, has never been able to complete one as it just doesn’t jive with her literary sensibilities. Again, we're back to that subjectivity. However, whether you’re a longtime aficionado of comics or new to the idea of comics as an art and literary form, or vice versa as a theme park enthusiast, I hope this series will open new doors for you. It is my dearest hope that through these ongoing articles I’ll be able to share a little theme park history, comic knowledge, and, above all, some great stories.

Shred That Wave

With Memorial Day comes the unofficial start of summer, and while there is always at least a single water park open at Walt Disney World throughout the year, the summer is really their time to shine. With that in mind, each week during June, July, and August we are going to be highlighting the water parks, past and present, with at least a single article a week. This week, we left it up to our followers on Twitter to decide just what dish from Leaning Palms they’d like us to review. The results were overwhelming, and so today we’re digging into the Island Burger.

Leaning Palms, or Placid Palms as it was known before the storm that created Typhoon Lagoon, has a menu that features a great blend of theme park and summer favorites, as well as tip-toeing into the culinary deep end for a quick service. When it comes to burgers, however, there is nothing that rises to the top of the park’s menu like the big kahuna, aka the Island Burger.

The menu lists the Island Burger with toppings that include Monterey Jack, barbecued pork, and a pineapple ring. For sides it states that it comes with coleslaw and French fries, but I’m thinking my coleslaw must have been washed out to sea, because it never arrived on my tray or in my burger boat.

I’m going to preface my next statement by acknowledging that I know Walt Disney World pretty much uses the same hamburger patties for all of its burgers. That said, the cooks at Leaning Palms must have learned a trick or two when it comes to grilling or seasoning, because for the first time in a long time I actually noticed the flavor of the burger and not just its accompaniments. Is it a hamburger patty I would have whipped up at home, no, but it was a tasty burger.

The Monterey Jack does a nice job of keeping the burger in place and providing some flavor beyond your typical cheddar. Similarly, the pineapple adds just enough tropical sweetness to the sandwich to give it something different. As for the barbecued pork, if you were expecting something other than the shredded, sticky mess of meat that you can get from a tub in a grocery store, then you’re expectations are a bit high for a quick service theme park burger. I’m not saying that it’s bad, but the quality of the ingredient shows here. The pork is sweet and tangy, but also makes the sandwich incredibly messy and causes the different layers to shift quite a lot.

The Island Burger is by far not the worst burger I’ve had on property, and it actually does a nice job creating that island burger vibe, but it doesn’t get me excited for my lunch the way some of the other offerings at Leaning Palms might. However, if you don’t set lofty expectations around your meal, and you’re just looking for something appetizing to tide you over between waves and water slides, then the Island Burger has got you covered.

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.

09 May 2017

Mr. Mutumbo's Wonderful Fishing Tours

If you’ve been wandering around the shore area of Harambe since the Festival of the Lion King came to town, then it is possible you’ve seen posting for one of the more prominent businessmen in the area. Mr. Mutumbo has posting all along port and cultural center promoting his fishing tours (and safaris). Let’s tour some of these postings and see what we can learn.

First up is a posting near the exit of the Festival of the Lion King, and one which has a ton of information for us to follow. We learn that Mr. Mutumbo not only specializes in fish, a note that will become increasingly clear as we move along, but that he will also do safaris. A typical itinerary is a half day at sea, with the option of extending for a further three hours. In addition to regular fish tours, guests could also partake in fishing, sailing, or snorkeling. For those seeking a more educational experience, Mr. Mutumbo can also do bio-diversity tours. There is a number to contact him, but he can also be reached at the beach building.

For those not in the know, the beach building is along the furthest border of Harambe and serves as the restrooms for guests partaking in the Festival of the Lion King. Once down there, you can find multiple signs affixed to the beach building with pictures of fish and other sea creatures. One of these signs even translates the Swahili words for squid, prawn, crab, lobster, and generically for fish. This is where I’ll let you in on a little secret, Mutumbo, the name of our fishing guide, is actually one of two Swahili words for garfish. The garfish is native to the brackish waters of the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas, in addition to the Caribbean. They are long, needle-like, fish that live very close to the surface. They have unique green bones which discourage many from eating them, but is actually harmless and they can be enjoyed by cooking them in a variety of ways.

As we make our way around the beach building we find the largest posting for Mr. Mutumbo’s, with directions to book tours up the stairs. It seems as if these stairs are always closed when we visit, but since Mr. Mutumbo’s tours start at 7:00am, it’s possible that we just keep missing him.

Mr. Mutumbo’s tours and advertisements create a fun thread to follow throughout the expansion of Harmabe, and it is encouraging to see that new life has been injected into the area of the park. While there are other citizens to learn about in the area, Mr. Mutumbo is certainly one of the more prominent names you’ll see. In addition, his business savvy by posting mostly in English or with translations make it easy for tourist to identify what his business is. This corner of Harambe hold so many wonderful little stories, but if you’re looking for my suggestion, visit early before the crowds arrive for Festival of the Lion King, to be able to truly explore and take in the beauty of the port of Harambe.

05 May 2017

Make it a Super Stretch

When Disney-MGM Studios, now Disney’s Hollywood Studios, open this week in 1989, it did so with star-studded celebrity affairs and all the glitz and glamour one would expect of a big Hollywood premiere, particularly a big summer blockbuster like Disney was hoping this park would be. Of course, you wouldn’t want the boss to arrive in anything less than a show-stopping set of wheels, would you? And that is why Mickey Mouse’s ride to the event was the stylish LiMOUSEine.

The burgundy six-wheeled super-stretch limo had all the latest and great technologies that would make Mickey feel right at home on the road. From the four larger sunroofs, perfect for characters such as the main mouse himself to wave to adoring fans, to the gold plated Tinker Bell and mouse ears adorning the grill and hood, no expense was spared. Inside, Mickey could utilize a radio remote DJ booth, 2- speakers, two Sony televisions, complete with the latest in home entertainment technology (the VCR), and four cellular phones. It was also furnished with Sony’s RDSS Wayfarer Communication System, think of it as a GPS tracker for the LiMOUSEine where the powers that be or Minnie Mouse could track Mickey’s progress across the country for a personal desktop computer.

The 40-foot long vehicle was a beast to maneuver, but Disney put one of its best drivers on the case. Which was needed as the LiMOUSEine made a 37 city tour between February 27 and May 1, 1989. While the show started in Orlando with a procession from City Hall to Disney-MGM Studios for Walt Disney World President, Dick Nunis, Mickey, and then Orlando mayor, Bill Frederick, the real tour began on March 5, 1989 with Mickey and Kathleen Sullivan, a Walt Disney World Ambassador, departing Orlando for Indianapolis, IN. The tour would continue on from there to cover as much of the eastern seaboard as possible to drum up excitement for the upcoming opening of Walt Disney World’s third gate.

The comforts of home were never too far away for Mickey while he was on the road in the LiMOUSEine. In addition to the latest and greatest in technology, the interior also had some overstuffed furniture, think of the type of furnishings found in Mickey’s House in Mickey’s Birthdayland/Starland/Toontown Fair, a full-sized bed, and plenty of refreshments. After all, what would a visit with Mickey be without a cookie or a fancy cheese plate? There were also a few more homey touches in the form of decorative knick-knacks and books on a wide variety of Disney topics.

The LiMOUSEine would once again be called into service for Walt Disney World’s 25th anniversary. This time, however, the burgundy paint job had been redone in a more fanciful pink and included the Cinderella’s carriage logo from the 25th anniversary celebration. While the vehicle was probably most befitting of a Hollywood premiere, it was nice to see it on the road again. With Disney’s Hollywood Studios under a great deal of construction, it’s fun to think about how the glitz and glamour of the park’s original opening might have an effect on a rededication or grand openings when the park’s new additions are complete!

03 May 2017

Nights Like This With the Moon Above

I’ve got a whale of a tale to tell you, lads. Well, maybe it’s not as far-fetched as all that after all. For those of you that frequent Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto in the Polynesian Village Resort, you know that the dive is a veritable treasure trove of artifacts. If you’re not familiar with the water hole, I suggest you right that wrong just as soon as you can. Some of the items that have been left behind or donated to Trader Sam are easy to spot and easy to identify their origin, while others, like the subject of today’s article, take a bit more work.

This lovely handcrafted guitar sits in the peak of the rafters, directly above the bar. Besides the awkward angle of having to position yourself just right to grab a snapshot of this item, you also have to contend with the mood lighting of the room. All of this is to say that unless you want to be called out as a flasher, I wouldn’t use your flash to try and get a photo of this guitar. I also wouldn’t try and use my phone in a busy bar like the Grog Grotto, but that’s a story for another day.

So, why is this turtle shell guitar so important? It comes to Trader Sam courtesy of Ned Land. Ned is portrayed by Kirk Douglas in the classic Disney film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He is a sailor and master harpooner who heads out on the frigate Abraham Lincoln to see if he can’t capture the sea monster that has been destroying ships in the open sea. It is after the Abraham Lincoln is attacked that he, along with Professor Pierre Aronnax and Conseil, are left adrift in the ocean only to come upon the manmade monstrosity, the Nautilus. From here on, let’s just say that Ned and the Nautilus’ captain, Nemo, are not very friendly.

We’re drifting away from the guitar now, aren’t we?

Amongst his other skills, Ned is also proficient with the guitar and has his favorite song to sing with other sailors to pass the time. You guessed it, A Whale of a Tale. After the Abraham Lincoln is destroyed, Ned is left without his guitar. During his time aboard the Nautilus, Ned is able to craft a makeshift guitar utilizing a turtle’s shell. You would think this willingness to adapt to the lifestyle of using what the sea has provided would ingratiate Ned to Nemo, but such is not the case. While Ned does use the guitar to entertain himself and others, particular the sea lion, Esmerelda, he also uses it to try and steal some of the treasures that Nemo uses for ballast.

In the end, Ned, along with Conseil, Aronnax, and Esmerelda are able to escape and once more rejoin the world of men. Whether Ned left this guitar with Trader Sam as payment after a night of frivolity, accidentally left it behind, or gifted it to another storied traveler is hard to say. What I can say is that it is good to see it given such a place of honor in the Grog Grotto. Keep an eye out for it on your next visit.

02 May 2017

Explore and Laugh and Play Together

Earlier this year it was announced that the Magic Kingdom’s welcome show would be moving from the front of the park, on the Walt Disney World Railroad’s platform, up to the hub of the park with the majority of the action happening on Cinderella Castle’s stage. While logistically this made all the sense in the world to me, especially when considered in conjunction with security checks occurring in locations other than directly in front of the park, I felt my heart sink just a little bit. Would people neglect the railroad now that they weren’t going to be forced to wait for it with anticipation to allow them entry to the park? Would people even pay attention to the morning greeting now that they weren’t sandwiched in to a small corral awaiting those magical words?

As it would turn out, this new tradition couldn’t have been a more charming and warm welcome than if I had shaped it myself.

The show is filled with a host of characters that not only represent across the chronology of Disney film history, but they also, and perhaps more importantly, do a fair job of representing the many lands of the Magic Kingdom. That means this isn’t just characters who could fit in on Main Street, U.S.A. or princesses who call castles and Fantasyland home. Mickey presents this in such a way as to make guests feel valued, these characters wanted to come and see their old and new friends as they started their day. To top it off with the Fairy Godmother supplying a bibbidi-bobbidi-bit of her whimsical magic didn’t hurt either!

While there were the guests that took this opportunity to get as close as they could to the ropes that would drop for Frontierland/Liberty Square, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, and Fantasyland, I was amazed at how many found their way to the forecourt of the castle stage to watch the show, or who found other, slightly more shaded, corners of the area to watch the show from. In fact, I would estimate that the guests viewing the show far outweighed the guests who were looking to sprint off to a mountain or mine train. But this wasn’t the only way that guests surprised and delighted me.

From the moment guests walked through the gate, they were engaged in the most amazing activity: having fun with their families. With the park opening at 9:00am, guests were able to make their way down Main Street, U.S.A. beginning at 8:00am. There were no attractions that they could race off to, though shops and the bakery were definitely open for business, and they didn’t seem concerned in the slighted. It was as if they felt that they had been able to secretly gain entrance into the park and loved every minute of it. They took pictures, not just of the castle, but in every corner of the land. I heard giggles as parents raised up their toddlers like Simba for photographs, I saw people literally lying in the street for over-the-top poses, and no one, and I mean no one, seemed like their day was off to a bad start.

Guests were taking time to be together and share a moment, rather than rushing off to an attraction. They were huddling close together to capture a moment with the Partners statue, not to push through a crowd and jockey for a position closer to the tunnel rope drop of the railroad station. They were shouting to one another to come and take another picture in an area they maybe hadn’t seen before, instead of screaming for someone to come back or to get in their stroller. It was as magical of a moment as I have ever seen inside Walt Disney World, and it reminded me of what trips to the resort are all about when we get right down to it.

Kudos to Disney for seeing a problem, even if it had been present for a long time, and then applying the appropriate modifications. Main Street, U.S.A. is now filled with warmth and love and no one feels the need to rush past a touching moment with a loved one. I may miss that the fact that the Walt Disney World Railroad is no longer at the forefront of a morning of activity, but I would never wish to go back to the cramped greeting we had before. This new morning routine puts the magic back into the Magic Kingdom.

01 May 2017

Celebrate the Taste of the Grapefruit

Recently the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge had crafted a couple of new beverages to add to their growing offerings of Classic Cocktails. Amongst these were a pair of drinks influenced by the grapefruit in the world famous Grapefruit Cake. In fact, one went so far as to actually call itself the Grapefruit Cake Martini. One of these two cocktails hits the mark, while the other goes horribly awry.

The Grapefruit Cake Martini is listed as, “Our concoction will delight you with Deep Eddy Ruby Red Grapefruit Vodka, Stoli Vanil Vodka, and a splash of Cream with a Vanilla Wafer Rim.” While not in the description it also comes with a dried grapefruit slice as a floating garnish. You can see what it looks like for yourself, but while I don’t know what I was expecting, I do know that when this pale pink, cake-encrusted glass was placed in front of me I instantly regretted my decision.

It is very sweet and at the same time very bitter, and tastes nothing like grapefruit to my palate. The only saving grace of this cocktail is the wafer rim, and that’s about as nice a thing as I can say about it. Three out of my four dining partners sipped this concoction and their faces immediately writhed with pain. To the Grapefruit Cake Martini’s credit, the fourth absolutely loved it. So, this is likely a drink some of you will like, but if you try it, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The second of the grapefruit cocktails is the Derby Cocktail. This menu description reads, “Gentlemen Jack, Florida Honey syrup, and pink grapefruit juice with a Souvenir Derby Hat Glowcube.” I am the first to admit this cocktail does not need a glowcube, if anything it detracts from the drink, but it’s a cute touch and I certainly took the glowing bowler hat home with me. The cocktail known as the Brown Derby has been around for a long, long time, and the only way that the Derby Cocktail differs from the Drown Derby is by including the glowcube.

Using Florida honey syrup adds something a bit unique to the cocktail as with most Florida honey, there is a hint of orange blossom present in the Derby Cocktail. When you combine that with the grapefruit juice and you have a wonderful mixture of citrus flavors that really give this beverage a bright finish. The honey also serves to sweeten up the Gentlemen Jack just a hint. This is a very strong cocktail, both in terms of spirits and in flavors, but it was simply delicious to me. It does a wonderful job of instilling something new into something that definitely feels like old Hollywood.

Grapefruit has long been a staple of handcrafted cocktails, just as it has a longstanding place in the history of the Brown Derby. The two divergently different approaches to utilizing the grapefruit for the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge’s beverages speak not only changing taste, but also the versatility of the citrus itself. That said, I still believe only one of these cocktails deserve a place on the menu, and you’d be hard-pressed to find as fine of a concoction as the Derby Cocktail. But let’s not speak of the Grapefruit Cake Martini again…