28 July 2017

No Hurry in Africa

There are a lot of experiences that guests can have at Walt Disney World that are included in the cost of admission, but there are also those that have an additional fee associated with them. Some aren’t incredibly expensive, but are definite memory makers, while there are others that definitely make a dent in a vacation budget. One such experience, the Wild Africa Trek in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, will definitely leave a mark on a budget, but is it worth the cost?

Let’s start with a breakdown of Wild Africa Trek’s cost, time, and what’s included before we venture deeper down the path into Harambe. The cost is between $189 and $249 per person, depending on time of year, time of day, etc., and this is in addition to regular theme park admission cost. It is a three hour tour, but you won’t be getting on a boat, so the chances of you returning to the general park population after the three hours are high. The tour has several different components including a walking section, a meal break, a truck tour, and even some adventure bridge elements. There is a harness that you wear for the tour, which means that there are some physical requirements for taking part in the tour, including height (at least 48 inches), age (minimum of 8 years old), weight (between 45 and 300 lbs.), and clothing (close toed shoes are required and skirts and dresses are not recommended). Now that we’ve got the boring stuff out of the way, let’s start our trek into the Harambe Wildlife Reserve.

As a general rule, and unless you were to book for an entire group, each tour on the Wild Africa Trek has multiple families taking part in the same session. On the day we ventured out we had four or five other families of varying size along with us. Each group has two tour guides who, while very sneaky about it, tend to keep one of them in the front and one of them in the back to ensure no one gets left behind. They are terrific at engaging in conversations as we start our walk across Harambe and through part of the Pagani Forest Exploration Trail, but I did notice this safety positioning as we moved through, but that’s likely due to my experience as a preschool teacher where I employed similar techniques. You will also be fitted with an earpiece so that you can hear throughout the walking portions of the tour. This enables guests to hear in crowded areas and for Cast Members to not have to raise their voices when in close proximity to animals.

Let’s talk about photographs for a moment. You can bring a camera with you, provided it can be attached to your vest or has a strap that you can wear around your neck. Additionally, the tour guides are also photographers, so they will have a camera with you. At the conclusion of your tour you will be given a slip of paper (one per group, so chose your most trustworthy family or friend to hold onto it) with a website address and code to access the photos from your group. They will do their best to capture you and your group with animals throughout the tour, candid shots, and shots of the animals you see along the way. The website also includes a set of the best photos ever taken from Wild Africa Trek. So, while you may want to take your own photos, you can relax knowing you are in good hands, photogenic ally speaking. There is no additional cost associated with this photographs either, they are included as part of your tour. You can download them and print them as you wish, you can even share the website address with family and friends who weren’t there if you want to show off! The photos will eventually disappear from the website, so I would recommend downloading the entire set as soon as you get home.

Depending on crowds you can spend a little time on the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail in the research facility and aviary before heading off the familiar trail and into behind the scene areas. There are a few faux animal remnants as you move between the animal environments, along with a glimpse of zebras if you’re lucky. At various stations along the walking portion of the Wild Africa Trek you will meet other animal caretakers who can fill you in on details surrounding specific animals, assist with enrichment activities with the animals. These Cast Members, in addition to your tour guides, are a wealth of information and they want to share that information with you. Take advantage of this, while they have talking points that they will hit, there is plenty of time to ask questions and they love that level of engagement.

During the walking portion you will get up close and personal, as up close and personal as is safe with wild animals, with hippopotamuses and Nile crocodiles. The ledges that you stand on are great, and you are tethered in, but make sure you are following the instructions you are given for your own safety. Let me be very clear here, we’ve all seen the guests on Wild Africa Trek from our trucks on Kilimanjaro Safaris, but you have no idea how long those guests are actually there. I tried to keep track of how many trucks went by, but eventually lost count, that is how much time you will spend with these animals. Do not feel like you are being rushed, while it will feel like it went by in a flash in hindsight, you should soak in as much as you can in those moments because you have the time to do so. It is some of the greatest animal interactions I’ve ever had.

In between the hippopotamus and Nile crocodile enclosures you will traverse the rickety bridges over the Kilimanjaro Safaris’ route. The bridges, while they look scary, are as safe as walking down any walkway in the park. Between being tethered, the cables that comprise the actual bridge, and the netting underneath, there is absolutely no way those crocodiles are going to get to you, or you to them. I’m not going to lie, the entire time I was crossing the bridges I was humming the Raiders March and living out a lifelong dream of being Indiana Jones. Take your time to enjoy this as well! I all but sprinted across the bridges, as I was one of the first across and didn’t want to hold up the rest of the group, but the families behind us who got in on the fun by trying to make the bridge bounce for the family member in front of them or taking pictures of one another in the middle of the bridges, seemed to being having a ton of fun.

At this point you will move on from the walking portion to a private truck tour of the savanna, but this is not your average Kilimanjaro Safaris truck. The Wild Africa Trek version only has bench seats around the perimeter of the truck bed, allowing everyone to have a window seat and a great view. You will also stop at several points, veering off of the truck path, to have more time to watch the animals on the savanna. We were able to get terrific views of both the giraffes (my wife’s favorite) and the Ankole-Watusi cattle (my favorite). If you haven’t lost track of time by this point, I would be shocked, you are seeing and experiencing so much that you don’t have time to think about how long you have or haven’t been on the trek.

Once you make your way around the savanna and by the elephant environment, it is time to eat. Depending on the time of day your tour is taking place, you could either end up with a breakfast or lunch menu, both of which are prepared by the wonderful staff at Tusker House. Meals come in a double-stacked set of tiffins with water or jungle juice (orange, guava, and passion fruit juices) to drink. While menu items can change, and Wild Africa Trek will work with guests on dietary restrictions, the typical menus are as follow. Breakfast includes air-dried beef and prosciutto, smoked salmon roulade with dill, fig cake with Boursin cheese, brie cheese and apricot, berry yogurt and dried cranberries, and fresh fruit marinated in mint and ginger. For lunch or afternoon meals you can typical expect chicken curry salad, sun-dried tomato hummus and mini pita, marinated tandoori shrimp, smoked salmon roulade with dill, air dried beef and prosciutto, and fresh fruit marinated in mint and ginger. Both also come with an edible flower that is the perfect palate cleanser between dishes.

I could go item by item through the menu we were presented with, which was the lunch offering, but let’s just say there wasn’t a bad bite in the entire meal. Nothing is overly spicy, but there are incredible flavors, wonderful savory items, and components that hit the right sweet notes. Everything in my tiffins left me wanting more, but I was definitely full by the end of the repast!

The other delight that comes with the meal is the location. The outpost is at the highest point of the savanna and offers unparalleled viewing of the entire area. Binoculars are provided for those wanting to look out over the savanna. There are rocking chairs for those that just want to sit back and relax, before or after your meal, and feel the breeze bouncing through. There is also a display case that your tour guides can open for you that features artifacts and photographs that educate and provide further stories for the guides to pass along. Many in our party were caught up in the views and missed this wonderful display case, but our tour guides were thrilled to share more with us about what was contained within.

After our meal as appropriately settled guests venture back to the truck, with a brief discussion about the work of the Disney Conservation Fund, and conclude our tour in the same fashion as the traditional Kilimanjaro Safaris. From there we return to the Wild Africa Trek welcome outpost to return all of our gear and get some last minute information before being turned loose back into the park. Each of the families in our groups asked to take a photograph with our tour guides as we had had such an amazing time together. This didn’t seem to be a common request of the tour guides, but they loved that we were all that engaged and told us that they were going to be bragging about our group to the other guides for a very long time.

Overall, I cannot recommend the Wild Africa Trek enough. It is one of the greatest events I have ever had the joy of taking part in at Walt Disney World. It has likely spoiled me and ruined me for Kilimanjaro Safaris going forward. However, I also wouldn’t want to do the Wild Africa Trek on every visit, not that I could afford to, as I really want the encounter to keep its uniqueness and not just become another item to tick-off on the itinerary. I want to be able to look forward to each Wild Africa Trek with great anticipation when, and if, I can schedule it for another trip. The takeaways are incredible, from the memories to the meal, the time with animals to the incredibly informative guides, and even your souvenir water bottle, and it is an experience unlike any other in Walt Disney World. If you’ve never had the opportunity to take this outing, or if you’ve wondered if you would enjoy the Wild Africa Trek, I can easily offer it up with my highest recommendation.

26 July 2017

What a Deal

When we think of entertainment productions that came out of the early years of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, then Disney-MGM Studios, we most often think of animated features or New York Street and its uses in various feature films. We think of The All New Mickey Mouse Club and the number of pop stars it launched. We may even think about Residential Street and the famous house facades, not the least of which was that of the house belonging to The Golden Girls, or the way guests could be implanted into other sitcoms. There was a time, however, long before the American Idol Experience came to the park, when game shows were regularly filmed throughout Disney-MGM Studios. Everything from Hollywood Squares to Star Search could be seen filming at the park.

One such show to jump on the game show revival train and to film at Disney-MGM Studios was Let’s Make a Deal. The show premiered in 1990 with host Bob Hilton. While most people remember the original host of Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall, Bob had his own game show pedigree that included announcing for Win, Lose, or Draw, The $25,000 Pyramid, and The Price Is Right, as well as hosting the 1977 reboot of The New Truth and Consequences. Let’s Make a Deal’s original host, Monty Hall, didn’t totally leave the show, however, instead he took on a producer role alongside Dick Clark.

The show, which saw contestants dressed in outlandish getups wheeling and dealing with Hilton in the hopes of taking home cash and prizes. Sometimes a junk item in a purse could be worth a car, but there was also the chance that behind those big doors or under than giant box was a great big goose egg. It was the ultimate game show of chance.

Guests of Disney-MGM Studios could watch the show being taped in Studio 1 according to the opening announcement of the show, which was likely Stage 1 where sets from The All New Mickey Mouse Club also resided, but could be switched out for the various productions. Let’s Make a Deal began shooting in July of 1990 and filmed every other week on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, with the production wrapping by the end of September that same year.

Sadly, the show would only make it through that first season and was not renewed. Eventually game shows at Disney-MGM Studios would become more a guest attractions, such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire – Play It, than actual broadcast productions. For those of us who were able to see Star Search, Let’s Make a Deal, or Hollywood Squares, it was a real treat to behold!

24 July 2017

The Blizzard Beach Legend

When guests get into Blizzard Beach they are wowed by the glistening snow, chairlift, and ridiculous water slides. They scramble to find a locker, grab the best spot and lounge chairs, and to be the first in line of their favorite attraction. While the story of Blizzard Beach may seem fairly laid out based on the visuals, when guests are taking part in this flurry of activity they pass right by the well-crafted story of the park, and its mascot, itself. For those of you planning a trip, or those that just don’t want to take the time to slow down and take in this snow-story, may we present, in its entirety, the legend of Blizzard Beach.
“It was meteorological phenomenon of the strangest order. One balmy day, a freak winter storm developed over the western end of Walt Disney World Resort and covered the area with a thick blanket of powdery white snow. Before you could say ‘hot cocoa,’ plans were underway for Florida’s first ski resort.
“Ski lifts were put up, toboggan runs were laid down and an entire resort area blossomed around the mountain of snow. Yet before the first skier could strap on a pair of boots and stick their poles into the snow, the temperatures returned to their normal Florida levels and the powdery snow quickly turned into slippery slush.
“The ski resort operators saw their dream melting down the hillside. Yet, that’s not all they saw. As the slush began cascading down and pools of water began to form, an echoing ‘yahoo’ was heard from the summit of the mountain. Everyone looked up to see a playful alligator careening down the melting hillside. He slid to the base of the mountain and landed in a pool of water with a thunderous splash. They knew at once that they were back in business.
“Slalom courses, bobsled and toboggan runs became downhill waterslides. The creek of melted snow that formed at the base of the mountain became a relaxing tube ride. The chairlift carried swimmers instead of skiers. The ski jump became the tallest and fastest water slide in the world.
"The ski resort became known as Disney’s Blizzard Beach, the most slushy, slippery, exhilarating water park anywhere!”

21 July 2017

Gentle Waves Become Big Kahunas

Typhoon Lagoon is not Walt Disney World’s original water park, but it definitely upped the stakes in the water park game. Since the park’s opening in 1989, one of the marquee attractions at Typhoon Lagoon is its namesake experience, the Typhoon Lagoon. This wave maker is a work of art, but so is the environment it was built into.

Here in the earliest days of the construction process we can see quite a bit of detail on the rockwork at the of Mount Mayday, the beginnings of Humunga Kowabunga, the Storm Slides, and even the dig-out of Typhoon Lagoon itself. It also offers a nice shot of 1980s EPCOT Center in the distance, but that’s beside the point. That sheer point not quite in the lagoon is going to be critical to the design of the attraction, but let’s jump ahead about a year to see some progress.

Landscaping is coming along, the mountain’s rockwork is almost complete, the Storm Slides, Humunga Kowabunga, and Castaway Creek are coming along nicely, and the Miss Tilly has replaced the flag atop Mount Mayday. In terms of the wave lagoon, all of the main walls are up and you can see the chambered heart of the attraction. Should we talk about what makes Typhoon Lagoon tick now?

Water park attraction designers at Barr and Wray were tasked with the job of coming up with the greatest wave machine ever, and they came up with the Surfking Wave Machine. It can create five to six foot waves, perfect for body surfing, every minute and a half seconds, or eight foot surfing waves in approximate two minutes. There are four pumps that fill the 12 funnel-shaped tanks in that brief amount of time. Each tank has a door at its bottom that weighs one ton and they are pulled down to empty the reservoirs in a matter of seconds. The opening of these doors are so precise that they are actually timed to create break right and break left waves.

The Typhoon Lagoon is 12,500 cubic feet, which equates to about 2,750,000 gallons of water. However, for those of you looking to simply bob around in the surf and not feel the full effect of all that water, you know that Typhoon Lagoon has you covered there as well. The Bobbing Wave as it is called on information boards throughout the park doesn’t actually use this state of the art system. Instead, the Surfking Wave Machine was outfitted with a standard pneumatic machine that can churn out constant four foot diamond pattern waves. Perfect for splashing, playing, or relaxing.

It may not be the king of the water parks any longer, but there is an argument to be made for Typhoon Lagoon to retain its thrown, and it still offers up plenty to draw guests in. The Typhoon Lagoon wave pool is one of the highlights of any visit to this tropical paradise on the mend. It is willing to be exactly what guests need, whether they're looking to hang ten or just hang out!

19 July 2017

Fill the Hollow in Your Belly

Hot dogs are a summertime staple. Rarely does a summer go by that we don’t grill off a bunch of hot dogs at least four or five times, and that’s a low estimate. In fact, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (yes, there is such an organization) estimates that the average American consume approximately 70 hot dogs per year. I think one of the things that make hot dogs so sought after is their versatility. Honestly, if you can think of topping, the chances are someone has found a way to put it on a hot dog. They’re also flexible in how they can be consumed, from the conventional bun to being chopped up and mixed in with some baked beans. Of course, Sleepy Hollow in the Magic Kingdom has another twist as to how you can enjoy your hot dog.

It’s a simple menu listing, Pretzel Dog with House-made Chips. Nothing fancy, but this pretzel dog isn’t your typical pretzel roll replacing the bun. Instead, it is a pretzel wrapped around the hot dog. Again, nothing to write home about, we’ve all seen this delivery style of hot dog before. However, what did impress me about the Sleepy Hollow version was the fact that when I bit into my pretzel dog, the whole hot dog didn’t come sliding out of one end or the other. It stayed in place remarkably well throughout my entire meal. A word of warning, however, my Pretzel Dog arrived incredibly hot, so I had to wait several minutes until it was cool enough to eat. Please don’t burn your mouth on this one!

The pretzel wrap was good, topped with some large salt and sesame seeds, just to mix things up a bit. It had a thin layer of crispiness that became chewy just beneath the surface. It was salty and that hint of sour that makes your salivary glands do a little dance. The hot dog itself is your typical Walt Disney World hot dog and played well with the pretzel wrapped around it. While I did take a bite or two without anything else on it, to give the Pretzel Dog its fair shake, I did end up putting yellow mustard on the rest of the roll. I mean, mustard is my go to for hot dogs and pretzels alike, so this was a win-win, right?

The Sleepy Hollow Pretzel Dog comes with a side of house-made chips. These are the same chips that you can find throughout many of the quick service dining locations these days. Mine seemed a little more broken and were definitely colder than I was used to. On this day, however, I had opted to grab a baked potato as well, so the chips went relatively uneaten. As for the baked potato that is also available at Sleepy Hollow, what can I say about it? It was hot and not under-cooked. The skin wasn’t as crispy as I would have liked, but the salt, butter, sour cream, and cheese helped me forget about any gripes I might have had. The baked potato and Pretzel Dog are definitely a great pairing that I’d recommend to anyone.

If you’re looking for new way to wrap your mouth around a hot dog this summer, Sleepy Hollow has you covered with its Pretzel Dog. It may not be reinventing any hot dog wheels, it also doesn’t seem to be breaking any cardinal rules of hot dogs, but it sure is a tasty lunch to grab while you’re on the go. Plus, Sleepy Hollow has one of the best views on property!

18 July 2017

Guaranteed to Amaze & Delight

The Storybook Circus in the Magic Kingdom is a land that can easily be overlooked as the kiddie corner of the park. It features two pint-sized attractions, a pair of meet and greet character opportunities, a splash and play zone, a train station, and a shop. Yet, scattered throughout this corner of Fantasyland, are layers upon layers of details. From the animal prints in the dusty sidewalk that match-up to whether a creature came in on the railroad or via wagons, posters and equipment from some of the Great Goofini’s more dazzling, if failed, feats, to train cars that know a thing or two about Disney animated history.

Speaking of animated history, there are a lot more characters present throughout Storybook Circus than one can actually meet and interact with, and each of them comes complete with a fanciful act perfect for a traditional big top setting. As you make your way between the Fantasyland station of the Walt Disney World Railroad and the main shop of the area, Big Top Souvenirs, you come across a series of five banners, the central of which is proclaiming this to be the world’s only all animal circus! Included alongside this banner are four other, double-sided banners featuring some of the acts and their practitioners. You may have to make a loop around them to catch all of the characters, but it is a regular who’s who of Disney animated animals. The animal stars and their acts are: Salty the Seal and his Symphony of the Seas, Humprey the Unicycling Bear, Lambert the Man-Eater, Hyacinth Hippo – Ballerina of the Big Top, Strongman Pete – Lifter of All Things Heavy, Pluto the Wonder Pup, Clara Cluck – Pitch Perfect Prima Donna, and Horace the Rubber-Hose Horse.

Some of these acts, such as Pluto, are well-known and beloved characters, whilst others are pulled from deep in the vault of Disney animated shorts. What’s more, some of the acts play up things we already know about the characters, Hyacinth being a ballerina for instance, while others play against type, including Lambert who is known as a sheepish lion, but here is a man-eater. The banners also take to some visual gags to clue us in on some of the character’s true intentions. Take, for example, Pete – Lifter of All Heavy Things. We know him as a cheat and, sure enough, the 1,000 pound weights he is lifting are in reality balloons that he has painted numbers onto.

These are the only references to these, and other, characters in Storybook Circus however. Once you make your way inside Big Top Souvenirs, be sure to make note of the freestanding displays. Sure, the pins, plushes, pinwheels, treats, and other souvenirs may be tempting to your eye, but stay focused! Each of this stands are built atop a metal feeding tub belonging to one of the star acts. Wandering around the shop you can find repurposed feeding bins belonging to Horace, Clara, the Big Bad Wolf, Salty, Lambert, Pluto, and Hyacinth. While it begs the question as to whether these are extra tubs or if the shop has to get broken down to feed our animal friends each night, it’s a nice way to keep the feeling that is a living, breathing circus at the forefront of guests’ minds.

Storybook Circus is much more than just a corner of Fantasyland to pass through on your way to the train station or to only stop in for a quick flight with Dumbo. There is a lot of history presented throughout the area from a plethora of animated points in Disney’s history. Some are immediately recognizable, some you’ll feel like you know, but you may not be sure from where, while others will certainly take some digging to find their original screen debuts. If this is a circus run entirely by animals, then they certain have an eye for the details!

13 July 2017

Do You Want Ice Cream?

July is National Ice Cream Month and this upcoming Sunday is National Ice Cream Day, which makes it the perfect time to stop by the Ample Hills Creamery located along Disney’s BoardWalk. Ample Hills offers up a ton of variations on traditional and off the beaten path ice cream flavors. If you’re looking for something truly unique to Walt Disney World, however, may I recommend Sally Sells Seashells, which is only available at the BoardWalk ice cream parlor?

I’ll tell you right now, this flavor won’t be for everyone, but for those willing to be a bit adventurous, Sally Sells Seashells will deliver. It is described as a “fresh and fluffy orange marshmallow ice cream with housemade salty chocolate seashells.” Orange and marshmallow, sweet and salty, like I said it won’t be for all tastes. If you think there’s even a chance you’ll enjoy it, go ahead and ask for a sample, the friendly folks at Ample Hills will be happy to oblige and make other recommendations for you.

Back to the flavor at hand, Sally Sells Seashells is the ice cream equivalent of a Citrus Swirl, with chocolate pieces thrown into the mix. The ice cream is smooth and creamy, which one would expect from an establishment with the word “creamery” in its title. With the heat and humidity in Florida, the zestiness of the citrus is refreshing, but it is softened by the sweetness of the marshmallow.

The chocolate seashells are more chocolate than salty, but the hint of salt helps it from becoming too sweet. As a die-hard mint chocolate chip lover, I like a little something extra in my ice cream, but the shells are bulky. In small doses they work just fine, but the scoops I had were filled with too many chocolate seashells for my liking. I don’t know if I’d prefer fewer shells, or the chocolate in a different form, such as a swirl, but I’d love a small tweak. That said, the combination of orange, marshmallow, and chocolate flavors are a winning combination.

Give the Sally Sells Seashells a chance, or find something else to make your sundae perfect. Ample Hills Creamery has something for every taste, from ice cream purists, to topping over indulgers, and even cone enthusiasts. No matter what you’re looking for in terms of flavors or vehicles, Ample Hills has you covered. After all, they say it’s always ice cream weather there, although National Ice Cream Day does seem like the perfect fit!

12 July 2017

Massive Spray of Whitewater

Several weeks ago we talked about the top ways to relax at a Disney’s brand of water parks. I hope that rest gave you time to gather up your nerves, because today we’re setting off to explore some of Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach’s best thrills. Actually, you may want to look back at those ways to relax, because once we’re done here, you’re definitely going to need some recovery time!

Storm Slides – These three twisting and turning slides at Typhoon Lagoon give three very different experiences for guests looking to slip and slide their way down Mount Mayday. The Storm Slides are known individually as the Jib Jammer, Rudder Buster, and Stern Burner, and each make a nice way to ease yourself into the thrills side of Typhoon Lagoon. You may not notice all of the lovely scenery you speed by, but you’ll definitely know when you splashdown! The walk up to the Storm Slides also includes my favorite vignette and gag from either water park!

Toboggan Racers – Eight lanes, careening down the speed slopes of Mount Gushmore, with nothing but a foam toboggan between you and the slick slide. Oh, and there’s likely to be some smack talk amongst others in your group as you try to outdo one another in a race to the bottom of the hill. It is one of the only thrill attractions in Disney’s water park repertoire that allow you do go down the attraction head first.

Downhill Double Dipper – You may not be first, but you also won’t be last, when it comes to the Toboggan Racers at Blizzard Beach, but with the Downhill Double Dipper you’ll either be the winner or the loser. Tubes plummet through identical tunnels after the gates drop and you’re off to the races. This attraction is one of those blink and it’s over attractions, but it also brings with it the thrill of competition!

Crush ‘n’ Gusher – A set of three water coaster slides at Typhoon Lagoon, tucked away in Hideaway Bay, send you and a friend or two up, down, and around through the abandoned TropicalAmity fruit warehouse. As a nod to the former fruit exporters, the slides are named Banana Blaster, Coconut Crusher, and Pineapple Plunger. For those on a solo mission, the Banana Blaster is the only way to go, and it will sending you skipping like a stone across the bay.

Humunga Kowabunga – Typhoon Lagoon’s five story marquee thrill attraction. Triple enclosed body slides, send you screaming down the side of Mount Mayday. It will be over before you know it, but that first push-off is where it’ll take all of your nerves. You’re not quite parallel to the slide, but with a 60-degree angle, you’ll definitely feel a little lighter coming down.

Summit Plummet – If the five stories of Humunga Kowabunga makes you cringe with fear, then the idea of Summit Plummet’s 12 stories ski-jumpesque will likely make your knees turn to jelly. Over double the length of Humunga Kowabunga, quite a bit in the slow down lane at the bottom of Mount Gushmore, you will definitely have time to regret your decision on the way down.

Slush Gusher – This is seemingly the second largest thrill at Blizzard Beach, considering the facts that its starting point is lower than Summit Plummet and that it isn’t a straight down drop, but this one offers something a bit more terrifying to me, air time! With a steep slope into double hills, you will come off of your slide and catch some air, something that still takes my breath away every time it happens.

10 July 2017

Notice for Visitors

The theater that hosts Rivers of Lights guests is divided into two distinct section, one on the DinoLand U.S.A. bank and the other on the Asia (Serka Zong) bank. The structure in Serka Zong is considered a sacred monument and has rules that are attached to it. Looking at the theater itself, and all of the various elements that comprise it, tells the observant guest much about the place and time in which it was constructed, what is important to the people of Serka Zong, and where they are going.

Over the years many postings, advertisements, and signs have been affixed to the structure. These postings tell us as much about Serka Zong as the design of the actual structures do. They tell the tale of local businesses, many of them stemming from the local tea trade. Folks in the region believe in the yeti, but also believe that the stories of the creature are marketing fodder. We can see that the area also thrives on tourism and the backpacking industry, but that they’ve had problems with hikers sleeping in non-approved places. Perhaps most importantly, however, it is easy to see that art, religion, culture, business, and many facets of life are seemingly so intertwined it is hard to tell where one ends and another begins.

Scrolling through the postings below, what else can we learn from the people of Serka Zong?

06 July 2017

Tell a Good Story - Issue #2: The Haunted Mansion

Spoiler Free Synopsis: Danny is a quiet boy whose grandpa is his best friend. They talk about exploration, mysteries, and collect tales of the creepy mansion no one in town dares to go near.When his grandpa’s life is cut short in a climbing accident, both Danny and his parents have trouble moving past their grief and grow apart from one another. Through mysterious means of her own, Madame Leota attempts to break through the vail and reach Danny. After several failed attempts, she is able to reach Danny, and he learns that his grandpa is in trouble in the afterlife and he must come to the mansion straight away to help him.

Slowly but surely, the denizens of The Haunted Mansion make themselves known to Danny as he makes his way to Madame Leota, who with her own magic gives Danny the gift to see all of the mansions 999 haunts. It appears, however, that they are not as happy as we would expect. Danny’s story weaves through the mansion, and its infamous residents, as he finds his own journey is inexplicably linked to afterlives of four of the mansion’s most powerful ghosts: The Hatbox Ghost, Madame Leota, The Captain, and Constance (aka The Bride). Can he find his grandfather and return mirth to ghosts trapped within the walls of The Haunted Mansion or will the malevolent spirits claim Danny as the 1,000th soul to be locked under the mysterious curse?

Disney Source Material: The inspiration for this volume is in the title, isn’t it? There are nods to multiple versions of The Haunted Mansion attractions, but this tale centers firmly upon the Disneyland incarnation of the experience. Not only does Danny’s story take place in New Orleans, the house is modeled after Disneyland’s mansion, and story is structured around the flow of California embodiment of the attraction. All of this is to say nothing of the brief scene that takes place on the Matterhorn.

The Haunted Mansion, or rather the story of its creation, has been around since the earliest days of Disneyland. From the haunted house on the hill, to a walkthrough attraction of weird artifacts, to the eventual attraction we know today, the history or The Haunted Mansion has as many stories about it as there are ghosts who inhabit it. What is most critical to this comic story, however, is that while Walt Disney was alive no one could craft a single, cohesive narrative for The Haunted Mansion that he found to be good enough this attraction.

Marvel Storytelling: If no tale was good enough for Walt, then the job of Joshua Williamson has a hard row to hoe, but it also leaves him free of any narrative constraints another attraction might have attached to it. Well, aside from a few well-crafted quotes from the attraction that every reader will be holding their breath for. Williamson has the framework of the attraction to build off of, along with archetype characters that have been imbedded in The Haunted Mansion mythos since it opened its doors in 1969.

Another development that makes Williamson and artist Jorge Coelho’s jobs a bit easier is the number of ghosts developed for the attraction. While we know that there are 999 grim, grinning ghosts, only a handful more than 100 were given lives as actual figures within The Haunted Mansion experience, giving the pair more than enough room to incorporate the spirits of other characters into their story. True, many, many more socialize with guests via artwork, photographs, busts, or their unseen forms, but there is plenty of room here for the story Williamson and Coelho are trying to tell.

The use of The Haunted Mansion famous inhabitants, even beyond the four recorded above, is handled with the upmost respect. I suspect many of the characteristics inherent to the ghosts’ personalities that bleed over onto the page comes from the input provided by Imagineers Andy Digenova, Tom Morris, and Josh Shipley, in addition to the research skills of Williamson and Coelho. The Bride, Madame Leota, and Pickwick (the scarf-clad, chandlier-swinging ghost from the wake) in particular read just as I would have expected them to.

All of that said, however, this story isn’t taking as many risks as it could with a house filled to overflowing with mystery and secrets. Danny progresses from one room of The Haunted Mansion to the next in a manner that is almost identical to how the attraction is laid out for guests. This may have been an intentional choice, but it leaves very little to keep the reader guessing, who can ignore breadcrumbs as they know where we’re off to in the next page or chapter.

The artwork of Coelho and the coloring of Jean-Francois Beaulieu give the mansion a suitably creepy, almost lifelike, presence. Aside from the obvious difference in color schemes, they also do an extraordinary job of working between the corporal form of Danny and the otherworldly, sometimes translucent, elements of the ghosts. Everything within the pages fits within the established walls of The Haunted Mansion as guests know and love it.

Bonus Time: The cover and variant cover images that one would expect within a collected volume are all here, but that’s not what you’re here for. 11 pages of concept artwork, including several two-page splash pages, from Walt Disney Imagineering are included towards the back of the collection. Sam McKim, Claude Coats, and Chris Runco, in addition to a healthy dose of Marc Davis, are all represented in those pages. There is also a one page letter of introduction from Marty Sklar that covers a sliver of The Haunted Mansion’s storied history.

Conclusion: Any story of The Haunted Mansion would have multiple decks stacked against it. Enthusiasts of the attraction have their own belief of what the story of the house on the hill really is; whether they’ve heard it from Cast Members, their own interpretations, or from one of the multitude of tales that have been collected throughout the years, making any new tale difficult to break through that barrier. Yet, this volume gives you one such story as could have taken place within The Haunted Mansion, but in doing so it also boxes in, or out, a number of those other tales held deep within the hearts of some readers. It plays it safe, where The Haunted Mansion is, by its very existence, the epitome of not playing it safe. I would have loved to have seen a riskier take on this story, but it is a fine version of what could have assembled all of our ghosts for a swinging wake. As Marty Sklar relates in his introduction, Walt, when asked about the pristine nature of The Haunted Mansion's exterior, would quip, "We take care of the outside - the ghosts take care of the inside!" In this instance, the ghosts definitely could have been given more room to take care of their tales.

Further Reading:

05 July 2017

Traditional Island Brunch

Kona Cafe is renowned for its unique, yet fundamental breakfast entrees. Tonga Toast is the restaurant’s most popular dish, but the pancakes with macadamia nut butter are also a favorite for many guests. This past year, however, there was a shake-up on the menu, and while the aforementioned Tonga Toast and pancakes are staples that are firmly rooted to Kona Cafe’s menu, other favorite dishes were lost in the shuffle. During this change, however, a new item was brought in to the breakfast offerings, and I think it is safe to say it will be around the Polynesian eatery for a long, long time.

The Loco Moco has been around Hawaii since the late 1940s, and while the specific restaurant of origin is a matter of debate, the rationale for how it was concocted its completely plausible. As the story goes, teenagers who wanted a breakfast different to an American-type breakfast sandwich, but that took less preparation than Asian breakfast dishes, basically threw everything they had onto a stack on a plate and viola, Loco Moco.

So, what’s in Kona Cafe’s version of the meal? It starts with a bed of rice, with a grilled hamburger patty atop of the rice, it is covered with house-made chorizo gravy, two-eggs any style, and tomato salsa. Kona Cafe has made a couple of tweaks to the traditional form of the dish, with the tomato salsa and chorizo in the gravy are new additions, and the eggs are typically fried or sunny-side up. You’ll notice from the above photograph that there are home-fried potatoes as well. This is not the standard serving for Kona Cafe, but I’m not a fan of eggs, and this was suggested as a substitute. And it was a fantastic addition!

I’m well aware that the hamburger patty utilized for Kona Cafe’s Loco Moco is likely the same as the hamburger patties used all throughout Walt Disney World, but the flavors this one inherits from the grill, gravy, and rice makes it seem like a notch above the rest. Likewise, the sticky rice base soaks up a ton of flavor from the chorizo gravy. The gravy itself has a nice heat, but it isn’t overpowering. It builds throughout the meal and won’t have you in a full sweat, but you’ll definitely feel it in the back of your throat. The Loco Moco seems like a mess piled high, that shouldn’t dare taste as good as it is. The portion size isn’t huge, and I wiped my plate clean, but with all of the heavy elements, it will more than fill you up for a day of resort lounging or park touring.

The Tonga Toast has long been my go to meal at Kona Cafe for breakfast, but I’m not so sure that the Loco Moco has worked its way into my heart. It sounds weird, it sounds like it shouldn’t work, but one bite and you’ll know why it has been a tradition on Hawaii for the past 70 years. If you need your stuffed French toast, macadamia nut butter, or other breakfast offerings from Kona Cafe, I’ll completely understand; that just leave more Loco Moco for me!

03 July 2017

In Gatorvision

If you’re looking for a great beach party film this summer, there are a ton that you can find throughout the history of film. Of course, Lagoona Gator at Typhoon Lagoon may have another suggestion worthy of your summer viewing. If you stop by his hangout, the Board Room, he may not be available but you can check out his decorations; including this poster for Bikini Beach Blanket Muscle Party Bingo, that was apparently shot on location at Typhoon Lagoon.

If the name sounds familiar, there is a good reason for that. Bikini Beach Blanket Muscle Party Bingo is playing with the titles of American International Pictures’ (API) beach party films. Credited with creating the genre, not all of API’s films included beach themes, but much of the cast appeared throughout the film series, although they played different characters on rare occasions. Other studios would attempt to create films within the genre, but no one seemed to be able to capture the magic of the API films. What is or isn’t considered a part of the series is debatable, but a case could be made for the following films: Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), Ski Party (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Sergeant Deadhead (1965), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), Fireball 500 (1966), and Thunder Alley (1967). From this list it is easy to see where Lagoona’s film took its inspiration.

This wouldn’t seem to have a direct tie to Disney, but you have to look no further than the second billing on the poster to find that connection. Annette Crocochello, starring in the role of Bee Bee, is a clear connection to Annette Funicello, and her character in the series, Dee Dee. Annette was a household name by the 1960s thanks to her work with Disney, and was currently under contract with Disney when Beach Party’s director, William Asher, decided he wished to have her in the lead role. A full script wasn’t available for Walt Disney to sign off on, but an agreement was struck that the film would be entirely family friendly, and thus not tarnishing Funicello’s image, nor Disney’s by association. Funicello would go on to star in 10 of the series 12 movies.

Much of the other cast of Bikini Beach Blanket Muscle Party Bingo can be tied to counterparts in the films series, such as Lagoona Gator himself plays the part of Freddie, who is an obvious connection to Frankie Avalon’s Frankie. However, when it comes to music, the ties to API’s series start to drift a little. The songs in the film are the creation of The Beach Gators, Lagoona’s band that is a clear stand in for The Beach Boys. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is available from Swampywood Records, which is a play on Disney owned Hollywood Records. Neither The Beach Boys or Hollywood Records were tied to the film series, but the lines are clearly drawn for both connections.

There are a ton of details hidden throughout Lagoona Gator’s Board Room, from his time as a surfer, to his musical career, and even a bit about his personal life. Meanwhile, on this side of the Lagoona Gator cinematic universe, there are plenty of real life beach party films to fill up your summer with! No matter if you’re hitting the waves of Typhoon Lagoon or curling up with the air conditioning and a beach blanket in your living room, make sure it’s a party!