22 May 2018

To All Who Come to This Happy Place

A question I get asked frequently is what time is the best time to visit Walt Disney World. While I can spout off that there isn’t really a great time anymore when there aren’t crowds, or that between the end of Marathon Weekend and Valentine’s Day tend to not be so bad, I more often than not use this to start a dialogue with the friend or family member who asked me. Everyone’s schedules are different. There are times of year than you just can’t get away, either due to work priorities, family commitments, or because there are kids that are in school. More importantly, however, this conversation always seems to come back around to one question where I find I can offer the most advice, “What is it that you’re looking for when you get to Walt Disney World?”

The variations of answers I’ve received from this question never cease to astound me and continually make me rethink how I look at the question. For some people it is cut and dry simple, they want to go when the crowds aren’t there or they want to avoid the heat at all costs (or be there when the heat is at its peak). More often, however, I find that there are nuances to what any person or family are actually looking to get out of their trip.

Dates tend to play a massive part in planning for a lot of people. Birthdays and anniversaries come in at the top of that list, but so too do holidays. Christmas, Halloween, Easter, or a national day of celebration (such as Bastille Day in France or Independence Day in Morocco) are all tops on that list. For some of us, like myself, that even extends to important dates in Disney history. I tend to like to be at Disney’s Animal Kingdom on Earth Day, which is also the park’s anniversary. It helps that late April tends to be a bit quieter around the resort, but it is mostly because Animal Kingdom has captured my heart and I love celebrating with it.

Right alongside dates are decorations for some potential visitors. They want to see Christmas trees around every corner, a carol coming out of every speaker, and the smell of baked goods wafting from every bakery door. The patriotic bunting on Main Street, U.S.A. during the period surrounding the Fourth of July has been known to send hearts soaring, and the spookiness of Jack-o’-lanterns heightens the sensation of the Haunted Mansion or the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror for some people. Some of these aesthetics that guests clamor for come from nostalgic memories of their childhood, both at and away from Walt Disney World, and it drives them to want to recapture that magic that exists only in memory for themselves, their families, and their friends. It speaks to them and drives them to want to visit at certain times of year, and they don’t even realize it until we start talking about it.

 Festival calendars also come into play. Between the holidays, Food & Wine, Flower & Garden, and the Festival of the Arts, Epcot has a lot going on during the year now. While there is a lot of bleed over between offerings, I’m looking at you food marketplaces, everyone has an opinion as to which is the best festival. Often times, the availability of one of these festivals will nudge someone towards a specific time of year. In my own preferences, the Flower & Garden Festival has always been a favorite of mine, and I tend to try and visit in the spring with the blooms are bursting right next to the fireworks.

Specific attractions tend to occupy a space in decision making as well. I’ve never seen someone not take a trip because an attraction is going to be closed for refurbishment, but I have witnessed the massaging of dates to try and visit just before or right after a favorite attraction is going to be refurbished. It also goes for the experience of the attraction. Splash Mountain is a classic example, as I know people who want the attraction water cannons and all, while there are those that love to visit when it’s a bit chillier and the attraction has turned the extra water spray off. Similarly, while there are water parks open all year long, there are dedicated fans of Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach and I have witnessed guests working to make sure their favorite water park is going to be open when they are there.

The last thing to talk about today is the weather. We’ve mentioned it throughout, but there are potential visitors who want all the sun they can handle while they are at Walt Disney World, and there are others who like a little chill in the air. There are also those who avoid the rainy season like the plague and also guests who stay away during hurricane season on the off chance a storm will disrupt their vacation. While weather is, by its very nature, fairly unpredictable, knowing what could be in store for some guests is like a warm blanket.

There are plenty of other little quirks that can help schedule or derail a planned time for visiting Walt Disney World. Each person, group, or family is different and they are going to be looking for different things in their trip experience. Being able to guide a conversation towards allowing the most number of positives to influence a trip is one of the things I love best about getting asked the question of when is the best time to visit. But what about you, what are you looking for the most when you start to plan a trip?

16 May 2018

Pamper Your Palate

Palo, the Northern Italian fine dining experience, can be found onboard all four of the Disney Cruise Line ships. Its name is derived from the long poles used by gondoliers as they ply the waterways of Venice, and all the elegance Venice has to offer is captured in the sumptuous surroundings, art, chandelier, vistas, and service. Dinner is a nightly affair, where the tiramisu and chocolate soufflé reign supreme, but brunch is undoubtedly the true star. Copious amounts of desserts, meats, seafood, cheese, breads, pastries, and even caviar are just the start. A full menu of pastas, pizzas, and Northern Italian specialties await. While there was a lot to sample and love, the one dish that blew me away was their Lasagna Bolognese.

I’m going to start by saying this dish was recommended by our server, who was simply wonderful from beginning to end, but it took some convincing. Lasagna and I are not on the best of terms, and haven’t been for most of my life. I believe it stems from my distaste for ricotta cheese, which I understand can be heresy, but something about it just never sat right with my palate and my stomach. I was presently surprised when I was told that this was a more traditional recipe that utilized béchamel, not ricotta. For those not in the know, béchamel is a white sauce comprised of flour, milk, and butter and while it sounds easy to make with just three ingredients, it is not. It has been a specialty of Southern France and Northern Italy for centuries and is considered one of the mother sauces. My grandmother, who grew up in Marseille, raised me on her family recipe. From the moment I heard that béchamel was utilized in Palo’s Lasagna Bolognese, I was sold.

Speaking from experience, whatever your preconceived notions are about lasagna, you can throw them out the window before ever taking a bite of this dish. For starters, the layers of lasagna noodles are tender, but not soggy. They will not break apart and crumble from the rest of the ingredients and the time it takes for them all to cook up together, they are firm and hold the layers together wonderfully. The Bolognese is more meat than sauce. The base is a blend of ground veal, pork, and beef, with great seasonings and a little bit of tomato thrown in for good measure. Don’t worry, there is plenty of marinara spread around the plate for those who need a nice balance. The aforementioned béchamel is the warm blanket that covers each piece of Lasagna Bolognese as it leaves the kitchen. It is rich, extremely so, but smooth and full of buttery goodness. Some final touches of fresh chopped basil and parmesan grated tableside and you have yourself a plate that is almost too beautiful to eat.

Don’t you worry though, I cleaned my plate and thoroughly enjoyed every bite. Since I am on the record as not being a big fan of lasagna, telling you that this is my favorite lasagna ever seems to be ring a bit hollow. So, let me put it this way, Palo’s Lasagna Bolognese is arguably the best pasta dish I’ve ever put in my mouth, save for only a meal or two I had in Florence or Venice years ago. It took me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen, which is more than I could ever ask of a single dish, but there you have it. It made our server very happy that I ordered his recommendation, but I think of the two of us I came out much further ahead in the long run.

If you have an upcoming cruise, or even if a cruise is further down the line for you, I cannot recommend the brunch at Palo enough. If you are able to secure a brunch reservation, please take this piece of advice and order the Lasagna Bolognese. I would be shocked if you were disappointed, because I am still having dreams about that lasagna all these months later.

15 May 2018

The Approaching Storm

It’s rather wet at Walt Disney World right now, which means plans are being altered and some guests are staying away from the parks or not resort hopping as a result. As a native Floridian, I know that rain is part and parcel of the gorgeous tropical scenery, but it does tend to put a damper on a vacation. It is the reason I always over-pack on clothes, particularly shoes and socks, and while I may end up with some pruny toes, I don’t want to end up with a wrinkled holiday. Here are a few of the things that I do during rainy weather that may help you the next time stormy weather blows through while you’re in the Vacation Kingdom.

Lounges – Finding a place for a nicely crafted cocktail and maybe a nibble or two is an absolute must during a rainstorm, particularly if that lounge offers a view of the outside world. My top recommendation, if the rain isn’t driving in on you, is to find a cozy seat on the porch of Nomad Lounge in Animal Kingdom. Other highly endorsed options include Outer Rim in the Contemporary, BoardWalk’s AbracadaBar, and the Rose & Crown in Epcot. There are also tons of options in Walt Disney World’s food theme park, aka Disney Springs, so you’re sure to find a place to weather the storm in style there as well.

Long, Interactive Queues – We spend a great deal of time trying to find the best way to avoid lines for attractions, but when the weather is soggy, that is the perfect time to jump in line and explore the story and interactive elements present in some queues. Peter Pan’s Flight, Frozen Ever After, and Flight of Passage all have amazingly detailed queues that are just waiting to be explored, and they will definitely help you forget about the passing rains.

Shows – Shows are often hit or miss during any trip, you may want to see one, but how much of your trip time are you willing to dedicate to them. If you’re like me, you end up haggling with your party and settling on one or two as a compromise. Rainy days are perfect weather to spend some time enjoying these offerings, particularly in Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. While the films and performances of World Showcase could occupy quite a bit of time, I prefer splashing through puddles in the Magic Kingdom as I make my way from the Enchanted Tiki Room, around the corner to the Country Bear Jamboree, a quick dash over to Philharmagic, and then one last brisk walk to finish at Carousel of Progress.

You Will Get Wet – Since you are already going to be wet, you might as well make the most of it. In this case, I mean hopping onboard a log or raft and experiencing Splash Mountain and Kali River Rapids. Typically with these attractions we try to avoid getting soaked or nervously hoping that someone else is the one who is going to get drenched. Since you’re already soggy, go ahead and give these attractions a go, provided that it is a rainstorm and not a thunderstorm (in which case they would be shut down anyway). I promise these will be some of the most laugh-filled and joyful times you ever have on either of these attractions.

Dark and Stormy Nights – If you’re like me, the disconnect between what’s happening outside an attraction and the story being presented inside an attraction can sometimes be a little off-putting. That or I’m just a complete nitpick… If the weather outside is going to be frightful, then why not head into attractions that live in a world where it’s a dark and stormy night? The Haunted Mansion and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror are perfect stories to jump into when the rains are coming down outside.

Exhibits – Often bypassed, there are plenty of places throughout Walt Disney World where you could learn something during a rainstorm. You’ll be safe, dry, and come away with newfound knowledge. The prime examples of these exhibits are present in many of the pavilions of World Showcase, where you can learn a great deal about the history and culture of a given country. Similarly, you could spend a good deal of time in Walt Disney Presents at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Stick to Your Plan – When it storms, many guests tend to huddle at their resorts or, if they’re local, waiting for the rain rain to go away before they come for a visit. That means that crowds tend to be a little lighter on wet days at Walt Disney World. You’re there to experience all the parks and resorts have to offer, so regardless of the weather stick to your plans as best you can. It may not be the perfect vacation, but you’ll still be making memories and that’s the most important part of the trip.

I hope these ideas help you get in the mood to splash in some puddles and play through the rain. When the rains happen at Walt Disney World, and they are bound to happen sooner or later, there’s no denying that it is a bit of a letdown. However, at that point the trip becomes more about what you can make out of it. Don’t let it be the thing that ruins your trip; instead try to find ways to use it to your advantage. You will come away with stories to tell and memories to share.

10 May 2018

Figment's Coloring Book

Today we can play with coloring pages of every sort and difficulty directly on our phones or tablets with more colors than in a Big Box from Crayola. It is as simple as opening an app and the colors appear with a tap of our fingers. Not so long ago, however, the idea of being able to color in a digital space seemed far away from our living room floors, broken crayons, and coloring books. Unless, that is, you happened to be visiting EPCOT Center and made your to the second floor of the Imagination Pavilion.

This space, known as the Image Works, was home to a blending of artistic forms, sensory experiences, and fun. Here a child could help put on a small theatrical production on a green screen, run through the Rainbow Corridor, and create sound with bubbles (one of my personal favorites). Guests could also digitally color with Figment’s Coloring Book.

Here, Figment and Dreamfinder show us how to use the activity center while coloring in an image that looks vaguely familiar…

At Figment's Coloring Book, guests would start by selecting their blank picture to color. The images included Figment, Dreamfinder, and even the Imagination Pavilion itself. A stylus was connected to the machine and became the guests’ paintbrush. On the panel in front of the image guests had the ability to select from a wide range of colors, but also shapes that you would like to draw in. The circles, squares, triangles, and octagons could all be used as base shapes, and could even be completely filled in or left as outlines. In fact, there was even a Figment shape that you could use to color with. On more than one occasion my screen was an Imagination Pavilion filled with Figment stamps. There were plenty of ways for a guest to finesse their drawing skills, but more often than not, each picture had a wonderful outline with large swathes of bright colors strewn across it. Most guests didn’t stay within the lines, but it didn’t matter because they had a smile on their faces.

The sheer size of each station at Figment’s Coloring Book made it seem as if this technology would never make it into our own homes, much less our pockets. Yet, today coloring apps are amongst some of the most popular available. While some of the experiences in the Image Works were pure works of fun and imagination, others were a bit ahead of their time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear a Big Box calling my name.

08 May 2018

Ice Cream of Extinction

Disney’s Hollywood Studios is, even today, filled with glitz and glamour of Hollywood’s golden age, including leading ladies and gents. Perhaps the biggest start to call the park home, however, is none other than Gertie the dinosaur. This gorgeous in green creature has made her way to Echo Lake, apparent from the footprints that have cracked the pavement, and seems contented to remain there and sell ice cream. Gertie actually serves a dual role for the park, as she is an iconic film salute and is the living embodiment of an architectural movement.

Gertie was the star of the 1914 film Gertie the Dinosaur, created by Winsor McCay. With a runtime of 12 minutes, Gertie the Dinosaur was one of the earliest animated features. The film started out life as a gimmick reel projected behind a vaudeville act that would appear to interact with the activities taking place on the stage. Later, McCay would create a live-action introduction scene for the film to stand on its own as a theatrical release. A sequel to Gertie the Dinosaur, Gertie on Tour, was planned but never realized.

While the figure at Disney’s Hollywood Studios appears to be very stoic, the real Gertie was much more childlike. Throughout the short, the long-necked dinosaur performs tricks like bowing on command, launching a mammoth into a nearby lake, throwing boulders, and taking long drinks of water. She enjoys pumpkins, is easily distracted by flying creatures, and cries when her feelings get hurt.

The other space in history occupied by Gertie is the architectural movement known as California Crazy. While novelty construction, that is large structures built to resemble an animal or inanimate object, had been taking place all over the globe since the 18th Century, the explosion of the art form really took off in California during the 1920s through 1940s. The idea was to catch the eye of the passing motorist and draw them in to your restaurant, attraction, gas station, or the like. For some it was very transparent, the large hamburger selling hamburgers, for others it was more in the name, like the brown derby of The Hollywood Brown Derby. The style faded over time, but Gertie is a prime example of what roadside architecture could resemble during the era.

Gertie is a classic example of Walt’s idea of a weenie, the idea of creating something that would be a visual magnet to guests and draw them further into a land or location. The concept comes straight out of the California crazy building boom, and Gertie comes straight out of the annals of animation history. If you ask me, Gertie is almost a perfect summation of a time when the lights of Hollywood never seemed to dim, and she has definitely earned her place in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

07 May 2018

Don't Selfie With Your Mouth Full

There are some swanky places to eat at Walt Disney World and then there are those places that I try to steer people away from. Morimoto Asia definitely falls into that first category. On a recent trip, I decided to step away from my preference for visiting Morimoto Asia for dinner, and my preference for duck and ribs, and instead have a relaxed lunch. In our tradition of pairing menu items with cocktails, I opted to select one of the house specialty drinks and pair it with something from the dim sum menu. The results, as has everything at Morimoto Asia, did not disappoint.

I started out with the Manhattan East. As the name suggests, this cocktail is a variation on your typical Manhattan. I’m more of an old-fashioned person myself, but this beverage had a few of my favorite things: bourbon (Maker’s Mark, which is a fine standard, even if I prefer Woodford Reserve as my go-to), junmai sake, ginger, and orange. This is, as you could guess, a very strong drink. However, the spirits in this concoction aren’t the main flavors, instead the orange is towards the front, particularly when it comes to scent, and the spiciness of the ginger really fill out the palate in this cocktail. If you’re not a fan of sake, then definitely don’t try this one, but if ginger and orange are flavors you like highlighted in your drinks, then this is an absolute winner.

From the dim sum side of things, I opted for something a bit simpler, the Chicken Bao. This dish comes with two fluffy buns filled with lettuce, cucumber, spicy mayonnaise (which I appreciate it being listed as instead of trying to fancy the description up by using the word “aioli”), and teriyaki chicken. The two buns are enough to share before a larger meal or to eat on your own, while still not entirely filling you up. As with all dim sum, my feeling is the more you order, the more you share, and the more you get to try. However, for today’s purposes we stuck strictly to the bao bun themselves.

The heat from the spicy mayonnaise was nice, but not overpowering, it sort of just tickled at the back of my throat. The lettuce and cucumbers added a cooling element, both in terms of temperature and on the heat spectrum, and a crisp bite that is the opposite of the texture provided by the bun. Speaking of, the bun was pillowy in all the right ways that you want a steamed bun to be. Lastly, the namesake of the Chicken Bao, aka the teriyaki chicken, was excellent. There is always a concern that teriyaki chicken is just going to be beaten down by an overly salty sauce, and that was not the case here. While the teriyaki sauce does lean towards the salty side of the taste range, it isn’t overboard and actually serves to highlight the spices in the sauce and the inherent flavors of the chicken. The chicken, by the way, is thickly cut and incredibly juicy.

I couldn’t have picked a better pairing if I tried, although I imagine there aren’t a lot of bad pairings coming out of the kitchen and from the bar at Morimoto Asia. The sour and bitter elements in the Manhattan East mingle nicely with the savory and salty bits of the Chicken Bao. This is a pairing that I would definitely order again, although with such an expansive menu, I do find myself continually trying new things at Morimoto Asia.

04 May 2018

From the Archives - A Monumental Addition

Star Tours will, to paraphrase another attraction, soon become a quaint exhibit sectioned off from the rest of Galaxy's Edge. Still, it has been way to experience the Star Wars universe at Disney's Hollywood Studios since December 1989.

A Monumental Addition was an article we ran during the time between the original Star Tours closing and the revamp version, The Adventures Continue, opening. What I love most about this photo isn't the original signage or the AT-AT model on display with Imagineers, it is the fact that all of the foliage hasn't grown up around the AT-AT yet, allowing its menacing size to be on full display.

Today, as we await our first true adventures on the planet of Batuu, we celebrate a look back at a time when we had no Star Wars attractions and were anxiously looking forward to Star Tours opening. Happy Star Wars Day everyone! May the Fourth be with you!

A Monumental Addition - Originally Published 2 November 2010

As we await the arrival of Starspeeder 1000s and the next incarnation of Star Tours at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, as well as at Disneyland, today we take a giant step back. The image below offers a brief glimpse into the coming Imperial onslaught on Endor in the form of the massive AT-AT Walker.

The 35-foot All Terrain Armored Transport was designed to give the appearance that it is constantly moving forward. The steel skeleton was almost completely encased with a fiberglass shell, remember the AT-AT resides in the back stage area of the park which means appearance matters, not completed entities. Although it would be erected in Florida, and unveiled to the public in August of 1989, the colossal wienie was originally constructed in California.

Appearing in the photograph with the AT-AT and model AT-AT are Imagineers Paul Osterhout and Shannon Hanaway and Larry Casey of the Walt Disney World operations staff.

03 May 2018

The Caviar of Citrus

When you are in Walt Disney World there are lots of names and references to try and puzzle out. There are the obvious ones that drop film or character names in bright, bold lettering. There are those that are tucked away and reference a year or tertiary character in a clever way. There are even those times when Imaginers and other Disney staff members are given nods that you may not ever be able to suss out. Then there are those unique details that blend the real and imaginary worlds so well, it’s hard to tell what is fact and what is fiction. The produce signs that are mounted along the outside of Dockside Margaritas in Disney Springs are a perfect example of this last category.

We’ll start with the easiest pair of signs to discuss, which means those placards that feature oranges and limes. These are both attributed to Springs brand, or The Springs Citrus Growers Association, in other words Disney Springs. As the Springs are located in the real world place known as Orange County, that also happens to be where the produce is said to have come from. It is worth noting that the citrus fruits tied to Springs Brand, limes and oranges, also just happen to be the same as the designations of the parking structures at Disney Springs.

The next sign is a little tougher to sort out. Big Spender is the farm where tangerines come from. They’re promoted as the caviar of citrus, and if either this or the name Big Spender is supposed to ring any bells as it relates to Disney, I’m drawing a blank. What I can tell you is that Yeehaw Junction, where the tangerines are supposed to have originated, is a real place. Yeehaw Juction is the home of The Desert Inn, a tourist destination now it was a trading post and restaurant in the Florida wilderness once upon a time. In addition to cattle and lumber moving through the trading post, I’m willing to bet citrus made its way through the trading post too.

If Orange Bird Brand from the Sunshine Tree Citrus Groves doesn’t immediately conjure up images of a little cartoon bird with an orange for a head and leafs for wings, then I’m not sure where you’ve been for the past several years. The Orange Bird was once the mascot for the Florida Citrus Growers (or Commission, depending on where you are) and made appearances in Adventureland near the Sunshine Tree Terrace. As the Sunshine Tree is where the Orange Bird calls home, is it any wonder that is where the Orange Bird Brand Citrus calls home as well?

The last two move us away from citrus and towards strawberries, with the brand known as Red Ruby. The Wells Fruit Company is perhaps a nod to former Disney President, Frank Wells, as there is no Wells Fruit Company in Plant City, Florida. While the state is known for its citrus, Plant City, and other towns in Hillsborough County, is known worldwide for its strawberries. While many places argue over who is the Strawberry Capital of the World, Plant City is definitely the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World, with the county producing 15% of the countries strawberries, and almost all of the strawberries that are available in the winter months. I should know, I spent most of my toddler years wobbling through the strawberry fields in Plant City.

A little bit of truth and a sprinkling of Disney magic make the signage around Dockside Margarita something to take note of when you’re grabbing a cocktail or two and taking in the views of Disney Springs. Whether you’re looking for oranges, limes, tangerines, or strawberries, this waterside shack knows where to get the best produce!

02 May 2018

A Dream Can Be

Epcot is a park that features some engineering marvels and fanciful nods to real world destinations that continue to astound guests even 35 years after their creation. Yet, after the current overhaul of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, it is the park most in need of attention. Some attraction and shows have not aged as gracefully as others, and there are still gaps in offerings in some of the more prominent countries around World Showcase. The park suffers from being caught in the middle of longtime guests remembering what was and what might have been and the unrealistic expectations of what could be to come, leaving it in a space that is entirely unmanageable. Case in point, Journey Into Imagination With Figment.

This attraction, and its post-show area with interactive activities, gets dumped on with some regularity. The most common complaint is that the show doesn’t live up to the original attraction, Journey Into Imagination. The attraction’s length is shorter, the innate sense of whimsy has been lost, and Dr. Channing is no Dreamfinder are amongst the rationale given for why this attraction doesn’t measure up to its predecessor. While some of this criticism is reasonable, there are things that we have forgotten, or choose to ignore, as we get further and further away from the original attraction; such as the fact that Journey Into Imagination rarely had a line towards the end of its time.

To be fair, almost everyone agrees that the current version of the attraction is an upgrade from the short-lived Journey Into YOUR Imagination, but that was clearly a dark time for the Imagination Pavilion.

I’m not saying that Journey Into Imagination with Figment is the best attraction in Epcot, or even the best attraction in Future World West. What I am saying is that the attraction is better than we give it credit for. The attraction moved away from artistic forms and creative thinking and focuses more on three of our five senses and how each can be manipulated to create illusions and flights of fancy. It’s a more grounded, real world approach for a concept that is clearly filled with fanciful ideas. This isn’t bad, just different. The attraction has a lot of strikes against it, but what it does have going for it is Figment.

He is the soul of the Imagination Pavilion, just as he has always been. He is still the character children look to as ridiculous and does the things that they only wish they could do. Although, that said, I have seen a child lick their parent’s face once or twice, so maybe they’re a bit more like Figment than they think. He may not be creating paper animal cutouts or writing a mystery story, but he is challenging guests, particularly children, to bend their minds out of the rigidity and into a thought process that is more flexible. Plus, he utilizes gas passing as a form of humor, which most kids still seem to love.

Journey Into Imagination With Figment is the version of the attraction, and the variation of Figment, that an entire generation has grown up with. In fact, we have already had the current attraction for longer than the original was in place. That means when the pavilion goes through a revitalization process, there will be children and young adults who are sad to see it go. Just like the original, the present version doesn’t hold much of a line, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t those who love the attraction.

For my part, I still miss the original Dream Machine and fantastic sets, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be elements I miss from Journey Into Imagination With Figment when it has been replaced. The butterfly illusion has been a part of the attraction since 1982, but I don’t foresee it making it through another reimagining. The nods to Medfield College, the home to many zany scientific film adventures, and the characters who called it home will also probably be replaced at some point.

When the day comes that the attraction is remodeled, I hope that the Imagineers remember that Figment is still the heart of this pavilion and, to some extent, Epcot itself. I also hope all of us remember just how much we loved the original experience and are able to understand the whirlwind of emotions those who do love the current attraction are feeling and lift them up. Every attraction is someone’s favorite, and while we may not all agree, there is a value in the affection each attraction has built up.

25 April 2018

Man-Catching Beignets

If I’ve learned one thing in my time visiting the Port Orleans – French Quarter resort, it is that it doesn’t have to be February or March for it to Mardi Gras! The spirit of living life to its fullest is a party that lives on each and every day at this resort on the banks of the Sassagoula River. From the colorfully manors adorned with wrought iron, to the frog fountain, and cobbled avenues with clever names, there is a lot to love. Even the food has a wonderful joie de vie to it, especially the beignets.

Found at Sassagoula Floatworks and Food Factory, the beignets are made fresh to order. An order, coincidentally, is either three or six beignets, and each beignet is half the size of my head. So, order wisely and remember that you can always come back for more. Each beignet is a pillow of fried dough goodness that is perfectly chewy. The rest of the flavors from the dough may get lost in the mountain of powdered sugar that gets heaped upon the beignets. With these pastries being hot, the powdered sugar makes a nice glaze on them, but there is still an ample amount of powdered sugar for you to devour. Yes, you’re going to get a sugar rush, but it is the best sugar rush you could ask for.

Oh, a word of caution, due to the copious amounts of loose powdered sugar on the beignets, be careful not to inhale the sugary dust. You will start a coughing fit that is sure to dampen the pure joy these are meant to bring to you.

In addition to the beignets themselves, you can opt to add a selection of three sauces to the side for dipping. The sauces include caramel, raspberry, and chicory coffee ganache. For me, the fruitiness of the raspberry won me over, but for my wife it was the chicory coffee ganache. I’m not a coffee fan, so that deterred me from the get go, but even I will admit that this sauce sounded and looked amazing. The caramel is fine, but when there’s already so much sugar in the dessert, it sort of loses is punch. But if you’re a caramel fan, this is a great addition.

The beignets at the Sassagoula Floatworks and Food Factory may have more sugar per bite than any other dessert in Walt Disney World, but they are worth every single bite. If you don’t like sweet desserts, I hope I’ve discouraged you from trying these, as the beignets will definitely not be your thing. However, if your motto is the sweeter the better, than you definitely need to make your way down to Port Orleans – French Quarter. This’ll be a Mardi Gras for your taste buds!

24 April 2018

Enchanted Windows

The tradition of dioramas representing Disney animated features brightening up the windows of the Emporium on Main Street, U.S.A. dates back to Disneyland in the 1960s. In the Magic Kingdom, they have been present since the park opened in 1971. The Enchanted Windows feature a single scene from a particular film, with some minor movement of the characters, and a plaque detailing the movie’s title, date of release, and a brief synopsis. It goes without saying that these windows have delighted guests young and old to no end though the years.

Various films have been featured over the years, and many changes have come to the windows, such as the window dedicated to The Little Mermaid also being a portal for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom interactive game. Also, during the holidays, the windows are changed over to recount the entire tale of Mickey’s Christmas Carol through six scenes. While the films may change, the joy they bring is evergreen. Let’s take a quick stroll around the Emporium’s windows today and catch a glimpse of which tales are being highlighted.

19 April 2018

The First Adventure

On Sunday, April 26, 1998 viewers of The Wonderful World of Disney were treated to a special look at the world’s newest theme park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The episode was titled Disney’s Animal Kingdom: The First Adventure. Also, in case you were wondering, the ABC Sunday Night Movie that would follow this special was Apollo 13. Promotional materials for the show featured various photos of then Disney Chairman and CEO, Michael Eisner, and Dr. Jane Goodall in various areas of the park individually and together, but the show featured so much more than that.

The special starts, as all episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney did at the time, with Michael Eisner. He briefly speaks about Walt Disney himself, his care for animals, how that brought the company to where it was in 1998, and how the park was born from our fascination, love, and respect of animals. It then moved on to Lebo M. standing atop the roots of the Tree of Life singing a wonderful rendition of Circle of Life with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This rendition is one of two highlights from the special that you should definitely seek out. The other we'll get to at the end of this article.

From there, we descend into complete Disney/ABC shtick with the The First Adventure's host, Drew Carey. He is joined by a host of ABC personalities taking in the park. First up is Jane Seymour, James Ketch, and their family, who venture out on a safari you or I would swoon over. Their trek begins by arriving in Harambe aboard the Wildlife Express, meeting the mayor of Harambe, and then having a personal ride aboard Kilimanjaro Safaris with one of the park’s senior animal care cast member. Next up Tia, Tamera, Tahj, and Tavior Mowry make their way through DinoLand U.S.A., escorted to Countdown to Extinction by some off the wall residents of The Dino Institute. Danielle Fishel and Will Friedel welcome a newborn gorilla on Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, take in the sights of Conservation Station, and learn about Flights of Wonder. Elsewhere, Paul Rodriguez visits It’s Tough to be a Bug, entertainers perform at the entrance to Harambe, and there are segments featuring random Animal Kingdom fun facts. Kimberly Scott also makes a pair of appearances, singing We Are One (no, not that one, the one from The Lion King 2) and Circle of Life.

While there is a lot of silliness and exaggerated moments during the special, there are also some great things early views and experiences to take note for. For starters, there are clips of both the Discovery River Boats and the Audio-Animatronics figure of Aladar that once sat along the banks of the Discovery River. The more impressive thing is realizing that the park is full of vegetation that has grown into to what it is today. This means that plants are smaller, there are spaces between them, and many of the views are unobstructed.

Perhaps the most important segments of The First Adventure are the two instances where we get to spend time with Dr. Jane Goodall. In her first appearance, she is speaking to Cast Members about Gombe Stream National Park and her time with the chimpanzees there, followed quickly by her speaking about the skill behind the Animal Kingdom’s creation and what it means to the creatures who call the park home. Near the finale of the special we see Dr. Goodall again, this time with an important message that is just as pressing today, if not more so, as it was in 1998. As we close today, let me leave you with her message from 20 years ago, “All my life I’ve watched and learned from animals. Knowledge from my 38 year study of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, has helped to blur that line that was once perceived as so sharp, dividing humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. After all, we’re not the only beings in this world with personality, rational thought, and emotions such as joy, sorrow, and despair. How tragic then, to know that the natural world is shrinking, animal species vanishing. If you too are concerned, won’t you help to join the fight to save the natural world? Not only for the animals, for the sake of our children and theirs.”

17 April 2018

Where Fossils Are Our Way of Life

The balance in Diggs County between serious science and fun has long been a tenuous one. On one hand, you have The Dino Institute, installed in the county not long after the first fossils were found in this corner of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. On the other side, you have Chester and Hester, long-time residents that just want to make a living and have some fun while doing it. This dichotomy couldn’t be made any clearer than it is on the billboards scattered around the area. Let’s take a look at a pair that will show you just what I mean.

This billboard was clearly erected by the folks over at The Dino Institute. While they once were a small ragtag group that occupied the lodge turned residents housing turned restaurant, they have since grown into themselves. The have clean environments, a quaint old wing feature traditional museum displays, and a research facility that is likely the envy of paleontologists everywhere. It has become a very professional environment where the most out of sorts element tends to be Dr. Grant Seeker’s ties and hand puppets.

Turning our attention back to the billboard, we see that The Dino Institute has come up with four key phrases to market their attractions and get tourists through to pull off of the road. A road known as 498, aka the month and year Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened. The four words are: Adventure, Discover, Enjoy, and Explore. The artwork features several well put together families and friends, just to show us how family-friendly and important The Dino Institute really is. On the right side of the billboard we are supposed to see directions to The Dino Institute utilizing the Dino Drive exit and some quotes about how exciting the facilities are, including one quote from a Gazette (not this Gazette mind you) proclaiming that The Dino Institute is one of the finest attractions in America. Instead, however, someone has plastered over the sign with a cartoon dinosaur.

It should come as no surprise that this poster comes from Chester and Hester to promote their roadside attraction, Dino-rama. What once was a gas station and its parking lot has become a full-fledged tourist destination. From fossilized finds and every plastic dinosaur you could imagine, to comics and magazines feature dinosaurs and even some kitschy folk-art dedicated to dinosaurs, this couple has truly bought in on the dinosaur craze that has taken over the county. Chester and Hester have set up multiple fair-type attractions and carnival games in their parking lot in order to further entice passerbys to stop and take part in the fun. Every dinosaur in the area is a caricature of itself, animated for maximum laughs, or should I say ‘laffs,’ as it is presented on their posting on The Dino Institute’s billboard. Chester and Hester make a clear distinction from the image that The Dino Institute exudes, and that is entirely on purpose.

A second billboard in the area has clearly been created by the county itself or its chamber of commerce. Here we see an idyllic scene, reminiscent to me of the vistas from Lady and the Tramp, which highlights the community as a whole. There are houses, a church, and even an academic or government building across the river. In the foreground, however, we see a paleontologist on the hill overlooking the scene right next to a car, likely loaded up with a family of tourists, heading into Diggs County. For The Dino Institute we can see the museum, the Boneyard, and Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex. Meanwhile, Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama is presented with its oversized icon, Primeval Whirl, and Triceratops Spin. What Diggs County knows is that both of these institutions are critical to their success and that if they both thrive, so too will the community.

Dinosaurs live in a grey area of our hearts and minds, between the facts we have been given by scientists and the imaginative realm of what was or could still be. Diggs County lives within that grey area perfectly, balancing the science with the silly, as the billboards scattered about the land show us. I, for one, wouldn’t have my dinos any other way!

16 April 2018

Globetrotting Adventures

Once upon a time if you wanted to sit down and relax with foods from around the globe that would tempt your palate, your first thought would be to head off to Epcot. While that is still a thought to be had, another park has really supplanted Epcot as food theme park royalty. Disney’s Animal Kingdom offers a wide-array of dining options and environments in which to dine. If you’re looking for a relaxing, yet luxurious place to get some wonderful food and drinks, however, the only place to visit in the park Nomad Lounge.

This oasis on the boundary between Discovery Island and Pandora has been open for just under two years, but regularly tweaks its menu to meet the demands of guests and its ability to source fresh ingredients. While this is a product of being attached to Tiffins, a signature dining experience if I’ve ever seen one, it definitely brings its own atmosphere to the party. Some of the staple items at Nomad Lounge are well worth the trek to its doors where there is an overstuffed lounge chair just waiting for you.

I’ve never been one to sneer at a good cheese and charcuterie plate, and Nomad Lounge does both excellently. You may typically find these two paired together, but the lounge here gives them both equal billing on the menu, which doubles the price by default, but they are both well worth it in my opinion. Each selection comes with 3-4 varieties of cured meats or cheeses and accompaniments. These little nibbles are known to include house-made pickles, marcona almonds, whole grain mustard, figs, and preserves, to name just a few. As these selections do change from time to time, I’m not going to go through each of these meats and cheeses line by line; instead I’ll let the pictures do the talking for me. What I will say is that both are fun to share and run the gamut of their respective categories, from mild meats and soft goat cheeses to strongly smoked and hard cheeses, which means everyone is assured to find something that they like.

Another longtime menu item at Nomad Lounge is the pork ribs. These ribs are listed as being honey –glazed and coriander-spiced. The sweetness of the honey and nuttiness of the coriander really highlight the natural flavors of the pork, which is prepared with just the perfect amount of charring. In terms of preparation it should also be noted that the ribs are slide off the bone tender. They may not be as high on my list as the ribs from Morimoto Asia, both for flavor and in terms of size, they are still some of the best ribs to be found in Walt Disney World.

With the hustle and bustle of guests making their way to and from Pandora, Nomad Lounge is literally an oasis from the chaos taking place just off of its porch. Tales of travel and adventure line every corner of this lounge, whether you’re resting on the porch or enjoying the air conditioned interior, and the handcrafted food and cocktails are never something to overlook. The menu may continue to change, but there are always a few standards that never get old.

06 April 2018

From the Archives - New Peak of Storytelling

Tomorrow is the twelfth anniversary of the opening of Expedition Everest. Disney's Animal Kingdom may have been a rebirth of storytelling through environment for the Imagineers, but Expedition Everest raised that bar to a whole new level. The attraction isn't without its problems, but there is a lot to love and explore when it comes to the details and stories presented throughout Serka Zong. It is one of my favorite areas to explore, and I'm always finding a new story to excavate and share. Today, let's look back on one of our first exploration of the attraction's press photos, from research to reality.

New Peak of Storytelling - Originally Published 6 September 2009

It should come as no surprise that Expedition Everest, through its queue, surrounding area, and attraction itself, has completely captured my imagination. Even more so, the story of its creation and the research that went into the area’s design enthrall me. Stories such as these are the reasons I love Disney and hope that one day I will be able to help create my own magic.

Personal thoughts aside, however, I thought that many of us out there would like to journey back to the early days of Expedition Everest and see some of the first photographs released from Disney in 2006. These photographs range from the attraction itself, to Serka Zong, and even beyond to the true life adventure Joe Rohde and his team ventured on in search of their Everest and yeti.

Personally, the photograph of Everest at night, using a white light rather than the current color scheme, is one of the best night shots I have seen of this mountain.

All images ©Disney

05 April 2018

I Was Singing This Song

Music plays an important role in the world of Disney theme parks and resort. It carries us through the various lands to our attraction destinations and the songs embedded in those same attractions are the same songs we find ourselves singing back home. Often times, decades after the songs themselves have been retired. One area that can get overlooked is the music in the queues of some of our favorite attractions. We can get so caught up in that fact that we can’t wait to board the ride vehicle, that we miss the musical cues around us. With that in mind, we’re here today to highlight our six favorite queue soundtracks.

Pirates of the Caribbean – This is one of the finest examples of using a cinematic overture to prepare guests for what’s in store for them. For those guests who have experienced Pirates of the Caribbean once or twice (or a hundred times), the familiarity of Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me), even presented in a different arrangement, is unmistakable. To the untrained ear there are mysteries or even a swashbuckling element to the music at times, setting guests up for the perfect high seas adventure.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – Call it nostalgia or whatever you like, but listening to the bows work their magic across the fiddle or violin with a foot stomping beat has always been one of my personal favorites when it comes to queue music. In Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the train, visibly racing by just outside the window, and its whistle are as much a part of the soundtrack as anything, but those square dance inducing melodies are simply wonderful.

Test Track – Switching gears, quite literally, is the music found in the queue for Test Track, otherwise known as the Chevrolet Design Studio. Much of the queue speaks to the design process and how every vehicle starts with a single line, the music here builds in a very similar manner. By starting out small and revving up, guests get the feeling of motion and speed, whether they recognize it or not, which is exactly what’s in store for them once they board their sim car.

Dinosaur – Dinosaur was originally known as Countdown to Extinction, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when you realize the number of times the letters CTX show up in the queue. In fact, they’re even in the land-that-time-forgot type music present throughout guests’ waits for the attraction in the CTX Theme. There is very rarely a substantial line for Dinosaur, which makes this music rather difficult to fully appreciate. Yet, as it says above, there is something epic and bold, while subdued in sections, that makes you feel as if you’re about to head off to a place people have very seldom visited.

Space Mountain – If you’ve ever spent any amount of time in the Space Mountain queue you know the intergalactic tones that play over and over. At some point, in the dark of those spaceport corridors, you may feel as if you have lost all track of time, but those quietly hopeful notes are always welcoming. They may not provide adequate preparation for what is coming next, in fact they may lull some guests into feeling warm and safe, but the music is some of the most recognized in the parks.

Tower of Terror – There is simply no way that the loop played throughout the grounds of the Hollywood Tower Hotel wasn’t going to make this list. It is one of the quintessential queue loops, and probably the one I play most around my house and office. The emptiness of the hotel lobby and gardens, mixed with jazz from another time (from Mood Indigo and Deep Purple to We’ll Meet Again and Another World) firmly sets this queue’s roots in the boundary between spooky and the golden age of Hollywood.