04 January 2018

Miner's Hall

Let’s start our 2018 culinary adventures off with a must-do and a must-don’t or, to paraphrase the Genie, try none of column A, try all of column B. For this installment, we’re heading over to Frontierland and one of the perennial quick service eateries, Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Cafe. We typically come here for the ambiance, the stories hanging from the walls, and the fixin’s bar. Today, however, we’re actually going to sit a spell with two entrees to let you know what we think.

First up is the Taco Burger. This burger is topped with seasoned ground beef, American cheese, lettuce, and tomato, and comes served on a brioche bun (which was whole grain bun when we sampled it) with a side of tortilla chips. I’m going to keep this simple, the tortilla chips are the best part of this dish as you can at least dip them in salsa. Due to the amount of liquid-filled components on this dish (lettuce, tomato, and ground beef), the bun immediately disintegrates into a soggy mush and your left trying to cut up your burger and scoop up the beef with a chip. Aside from the mess, the Taco Burger is very bland, and I don’t think adding anything from the fixin’s bar would even save this meal. Regardless of the bun change, this is not something I’ll be ordering again.

Flipping the coin over, we find the Fajita Platter. This spread that is the platter comes with three flour tortillas, spicy Barbacoa beef, seasoned chicken, yellow rice, beans, and grilled onions and peppers to build each fajita as you see fit. Additionally, the fixin’s bar has several other items on it that could amp up an already full assortment of trimmings. Barbacoa is a style of cooking meat over a fire and is where we get the term, and style of cooking known as, barbeque.

The beef is fork tender and falls apart, the spicy sauce also adds an ambiguous heat to the meat, but it doesn’t detract from the overall dish. The chicken is grilled and lightly seasoned, making it perfect for those who can’t handle spicy food. While the fajitas come with both, a request for only one or the other meat options in a larger portion is not a problem for the fine folks at Pecos Bill. The yellow rice didn’t have as much saffron flavor as I was hoping for, but it also wasn’t overcooked which is a tremendous win. The black beans, peppers, and onions were likewise not overcooked and only added to the dish. Between these accompaniments and the options on the fixin’s bar, you can make three very different fajitas and still find you have food left over with no stomach space with which to store it!

Before we mosey out of Frontierland, may we suggest taking a quick trip across the walkway to the popcorn cart. The maple popcorn found here is slightly sticky and sweet, but not so much so that you’re going to find the entire box of popcorn stuck together or your lips puckering. It has a lighter flavor than a traditional caramel corn, but is just sweet enough to hit that perfect sweet and salty zone. You may not need it after a meal at the Tall Tale Inn & Café, but you’ll be glad you have it later. Although, the warmer it is, the better.

The next time you find yourself hankering for some vittles in Frontierland and bellying up to a table at Pecos Bill’s place, just remember, ‘yes’ to the Fajitas Platter and ‘no’ to the Taco Burger. One is well worth your time; the other isn’t fit to fill a feedbag. Oh, and don’t forget to grab a box, or souvenir bucket, filled with maple popcorn for that sweet tooth the Magic Kingdom seems to bring out in all of us.

03 January 2018

Art in Eastern Africa

Between the treats, cookbooks, and kitchen necessities, have you ever stopped to really examine what comprises Zuri’s Sweets Shop? The shop, tucked away in a corner of Harambe near the market dining stalls in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, caters to those looking for a unique desert, something in the shape of Disney’s famous mouse, or new spices or dishware to outfit their home kitchens with. It is a catch all of those wanting to cook and those wanting something to eat, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a story of the store’s inhabitants. In fact, a single corner can tell you how proud they are of their livelihood, their community, and their heritage.

Nestled in a corner behind the counter guests can find a set of shelves that are replete with handicrafts, photos, and a small collection of books. Though tough to make out, on the upper shelf, behind a handcrafted doll and a framed photo, there is a wire bicycle. These bicycles can be found throughout the Harambe Market addition to the area and are reminiscent of the wire baskets that can be found between Jiko and Boma in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Made from discarded materials, the ideal that nothing should go to waste and that everything can fill a need is one not lost on the people of Africa, nor to the keen eyed traveler.

There are four photographs present in this area. Three taped to the wall and one that is hiding the bicycle. The fact that this photo is framed tells us that this is an important person in the lives of those at Zuri’s Sweets Shop. Whether it is a family member, a significant other, or the owner themselves, we cannot say for certain, but the prominent placement and care with which the photo is presented tells us a lot about who is photographed. Stepping away from our story elements for just a moment, it is clear the four photographs come from an Imagineering research trip to see the lives and times of residents of eastern Africa. Each photo features someone at work or in a place that was important to them.

On the lower shelf we have a canister filled with envelopes for the post and colored pencils. From the small print below the taped photographs, not to forget the aforementioned wire bicycle and hand sewn doll, we can tell that art is important our host. Are the colored pencils for labeling the already attractive sweets offered in the case, for sketching the world around them, or for correspondence, perhaps all of the above? Spilling out of this canister are beads and another small sculpture. This time the medium is either cardboard or tin, and it forms a dragonfly. It is situated behind the beads and may be tough to make out.

Lastly, on the lower shelf, is a selection of books that tell you just about everything you need to know about the proprietor of Zuri’s Sweets Shop. The books, from left to right, are: A Taste of Kenyan Cooking, Alice Taabu’s Cookery Book, Kale ya Washairi wa Pemba: Kamange na Sarahani, Indigenous People in Africa. Contestations, Empowerment and Group Rights, Comprehensive Swahili-English Dictionary, Let’s Cook Kenya!, and Art in Eastern Africa. Of the seven books three are cookbooks; which makes sense considering the shop itself. The Swahili-English dictionary is a necessity as more and more tourists who don’t speak Swahili make their way to Harambe. We’ve already established how much pride our host takes in local art forms, so the text on Eastern Africa art is not surprising. To further that element of their personality, there is also a book of poetry from rival poets Kamange and Sarahani who come from the small island of Pemba, but whose work was appreciated through the Swahili-speaking world. The last book, Indigenous People in Africa, lives at a crossroad of indigenous rights, development, advocacy, conservation, and justice, an intersection definitely in play in the Harambe we visit.

Before we leave the books to their shelf, yes, I too would have included a comma between “cook” and “Kenya” in that title, but it is what it is. Also, in one form or another, all of these books are available on Amazon as of this writing. They may not all be cheap, but most are and they all are available.

A shelf or two tucked away in a corner can tell us a lot about a person. Who do they treasure, what do they want to be near to them throughout their day, what are the important things to them in their day to day lives. A job is a job, but if you enjoy what you do it finds its way into the heart of your life. We all need reminders of those we hold near and dear, we all have a passion that drives us forward, and sometimes we have a fire in us for our fellow citizens. All of this and more is present on the two small shelves behind the displays at Zuri’s Sweets Shop, and it turns out there is more to the shop’s inhabitant than just a wonderful confectionist.

02 January 2018

Fantasy on Parade

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and resting between the holidays, giving plenty of thought towards the current state of Walt Disney World and where it will be going in 2018. The end of year is also a time for reflecting on where we’ve been in the past year, but more than that I’ve caught myself in moments looking all the way to my earliest connections to the resorts and parks that we call our happy places, our home, our vacation destination, and even our escape. Walt Disney World is a mashed up jumble of so many things that it is almost impossible to define, and we each look at it through a very different lens. With all of these random threads of thought trying to weave their way towards a centralized focal point, let’s look at the year ahead for Walt Disney World.

Construction has been an omnipresent part of the Walt Disney World experience for the past several years, and that’s a trend that isn’t looking to slow in 2018. While there will be many new places to explore in 2018, there will still be plenty of cranes, dirt mounds, and girders to be seen throughout the year as we look towards 2019 and beyond. The expansion of Main Street, U.S.A. and the France pavilion, TRON coming to Tomorrowland, a gondola transportation system, Coronado Springs and Caribbean Beach additions, and the brand new land of Galaxy’s Edge are just a few of the experiences that won’t be ready in 2018, but that will be taking shape or have new details emerging during the year.

For what actually is coming to the resorts and entertainment areas of the Walt Disney World, we venture over to Caribbean Beach, where new dining and shopping options will be available to guests this year, although this is only a portion of the slated project for the resort. Meanwhile, Disney Springs will open the doors to the much anticipated The Edison, alongside Maria and Enzo’s Enzo’s Hideaway, and Pizza Pointe. Additional dining offerings coming to Disney Springs in 2018 include Wine Bar George, Terralina Crafted Italian, Jaleo, and a refurbishment of concept and cuisine for Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill. There is a lot of anticipation around many of these venues, and each serves a very specialized audience that is sure to diversify Disney Spring’s offerings while continual enticing new guests in. In case you can’t tell, I myself am very excited for both The Edison and Enzo’s Hideaway, both of which speak to my industrial, forgotten, adventurer, mid-century sensabilities.

Switching gears towards the parks, we’ll start with Disney’s Animal Kingdom. While noting drastic has been announced around events for the park’s 20th anniversary in April, and 2017 was an out of this world year for the park (literally), one attraction is seeing a refurbishment. Flights of Wonder will be closed for the winter and early spring as it prepares a new storyline that will integrate the characters of Russell and Dug from Up into the show. I’ve always loved Flights of Wonder and how it shared the story of the birds in the care of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but I also understand that it hasn’t always been a must do for guests. In fact, I’ve seen half-filled theaters as the norm that may only fill up if it is a particularly busy day in the park or guests who happen by after the show has already started. I’m not so much of a purist that I don’t understand the need for characters to inject some fresh blood into an attraction, and Up with an avian sidekick already, seems like a fair placement to give the attraction just that spark. I’ll miss the old show, but provided that the message stays the same and the educational value is still there, I’m interested in seeing the new iteration of the show.

Currently there is nothing slated to be coming to the Magic Kingdom in 2018, as new developments are plotted out further into the future to be ready for the park’s 50th anniversary in 2021, so I’m going to make a statement right here. A staple of the Disneyland and Walt Disney World experiences has always been the parades, in particular the nighttime parades that make their way between Frontierland and Main Street. The fact that the Magic Kingdom has been without a nighttime parade for more than a year now with no replacement in sight is simply appalling to me. I am hopeful that word of a new parade will come along at some point this year, but until then this remains an issue that is a true stick in my craw.

Epcot also doesn’t have anything new slated to open in 2018, again the plans for the ark are a bit further off, but the biggest news for the park is the expansion of the Festival of the Arts. This 2017 addition is the fourth festival for Epcot, especially with the holiday season being christened with the word festival this year as the International Festival of the Holidays, and gives the park a festival calendar that almost encompasses the entire calendar. Considering that the inspiration for EPCOT Center were the World’s Fairs, I don’t have a problem in the slightest with utilizing the park to focus on areas such as arts, holidays, horticulture, and culinary skills. The only drawback to these festivals is that the booths around the promenade do tend to take up quite a bit of railing space making it trickier and trickier to find a clear viewing spot for IllumiNations. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the plans for Epcot, and I suspect a new show and better usage of space will be coming shortly. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy all the festivals of the park whenever I happen to be down that way.

Last, but certainly not least, is the new land coming to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Toy Story Land is going to allow guests to enter Andy’s back yard and give them two new attractions, a new entrance to toy Story Midway Mania, expanded dining options, and a world of imaginative possibilities in terms of the look of the land. Setting Galaxy’s Edge aside for just moment, this is going to be a terrific addition to the park, and focuses on a Disney owned property that alleviates some of the pressures that come from utilizing outside IPs. If anything, with the success anything related to Toy Story has had in Walt Disney World, it is a wonder that it’s taken this long for a land to be developed in Florida.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios has taken it on the chin for the past several years as it prepared for and began a huge shift from what it was to what it will be, some deservedly and some decidedly not. Nevertheless, complaints about the value and cost of a ticket versus the reduced offerings crept in and guests began deciding just how much time they really wanted to relegate to the work in progress. Glimpses of the park’s greatness have started to be seen here and therein 2017, and I suspect the perception of the park is about to start its swing back into the other direction in 2018.

This is a perfect place to start closing out our look at 2018 for Walt Disney World and talk about how we perceive the parks. Having spent some of the past week inside Walt Disney’s head, meaning I’ve done a lot of reading, listening to recording of him speak, and documentary viewing, I feel as if we’ve become very glib or possibly entitled to what we feel Walt Disney World is and what we are owed from it. Honestly, we can criticize how things are happening, how cranes and construction walls make our visits more difficult, how saccharine and removed from the real world the parks and resorts are, and we’d be wrong on every single count. If nothing changed, no one would come, and it wouldn’t be the place we know and love. And simply because the powers that be aren’t doing things the way you would want them to happen, doesn’t entitle them to change them for you. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t make them facts.

Walt Disney World, and the larger Disney, is a business. There are ways of changing how they do business, but you have to put yourself into the right position to affect change, not just beat against the gates with your megaphone. For Walt Disney World success is defined by attendance and room occupancy and merchandise sales, dollars and cents. For guests it is defined by story and entertainment and memories. There is sentimentality to the entire enterprise, and that is precisely what Walt was looking for, the crossroad or traffic circle where all of these paths intersect. Look no further than his thoughts on the it’s a small world clock, where he knew that there may be easier ways to find the time, but that they would not be as much fun.

And that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? We could spend our time someplace else, we could escape the real world for just a few moments on another experience, but there is a quality to the story and service, a memory of brighter times, and a trust that we have with the Disney name that brings us back time and again. So, while it may not be precisely what you think it should be, let’s put our faith and trust in the Walt Disney World pixie dust and see what we can do to make 2018 a bit brighter for everyone we see and meet there!