12 March 2018

Tour of the Production Facilities

A bunch of soundstages may not look particularly interesting when examined from the air, but there’s a lot happening on the production side of Disney-MGM Studios in this photograph. Taken prior to the park’s opening, what you can’t see are that whole departments like costuming and wardrobe, animation, backlot streets, crafts, and production offices are already in full swing. As the working portion of the studio, these elements had to be up and running long before Disney-MGM Studios opened.

The main facility building in the complex included a tunnel large enough for the trams that would be coming as a part of the Backstage Studio Tour. You can see the entrance to it in the uppermost building in this photograph. This is where costuming and props were housed and where guests partaking in the tour could catch glimpses of costumes of Captain EO or Breathless Mahoney in those early days as the tram drove by.

Of course, not even the route for the tram portion of the tour at this point. Notice to the far left where the load and unload roundabout is still under construction in what is now the queue area for the Star Wars Launch Bay. Also, if you trace a line straight up beyond the Earffel Tower, you can see some construction taking place just before the tree line. This is the spot that will become the oil-rich, but accident prone area known as Catastrophe Canyon. Following along the top of the production complex, you can see more work happening before you reach the edge of New York Street. This is where Residential Street, including the beloved façade of The Golden Girls’ home, will end up being constructed.

Elsewhere inside the park, you can just see the entrance to the Great Movie Ride at the left edge of the photograph. In fact, this photo was taken so far away from Disney-MGM Studios’ opening that the top of the Chinese Theatre still hasn’t been attached yet.

While this photograph may not look like much, it’s got it where it counts. This nondescript warehouses and buildings were already producing content for Disney’s film, television, and theme park enterprises ahead of the park opening. Once Disney-MGM Studios opened, however, they found ways to become part of our memories forever.

07 March 2018

Star-Studded Tuck-Away

Simple and elegant are two words we hear thrown around together quite a bit, but I’m not sure that they go together very easily. That is to say, if something is elegant it probably took quite a bit of time, while if something is simple it shouldn’t take too awfully long to assemble. One place I’ve always thought was simple and elegant is the Hollywood Brown Derby, nothing seems overstated, food and décor are well-executed, but not complicated for the sake of being complicated, and there is a luxuriousness that fills the dining room and then menu. The question for the past few years, at least for me, is does that sumptuousness extend beyond the walls of the Hollywood Brown Derby to the exterior lounge, simply named the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge.

On the style side of things it is a mixed bag. Yes, the high-top tables mixed with your standard dining set do give the lounge a certain energy, which is helped along by the style of the tables themselves and the black linen napkins. The exterior walls and doors of the Hollywood Brown Derby lend their elegance to a meal or drink at the lounge, as do the oaks draping themselves over the walkway and half wall on the other side. However, sit there for too long and the pyrotechnics and sounds coming from the Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away show tends to take away from the proceedings. As far as atmosphere is concerned for the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge, the end result is a mixed bag.

In terms of food offerings, let’s start with a staple of the Hollywood Brown Derby, the famous Cobb Salad. Served on a bed of finely chopped greens, the salad includes turkey breast, bacon, egg, tomatoes, crumbled blue cheese, avocado, chives, and Cobb dressing. This isn’t a tossed salad either; everything is perfectly portioned on top of the greens so you can see the vibrant colors, even if that is simply highlighting multiple shades of green, and textures of the salad. The dressing on the side is also a plus, as you can add as little or as much as you wish. This is a rich salad, in case you couldn’t tell from the egg, bacon, and avocado in the description. It truly is one of the more elegant salads out there, and the simple presentation helps.

Moving on from the classic to something with a modern flair, we also want to look at the Braised Beef Arepas with roasted red pepper and Fresno chili coulis. The three arepas are presenting in a particularly beautiful arrangement, with the layers of red, yellow, brown, and green all being visible and contrasting well off of one another. The beef is fork tender, while the cornmeal arepas are earthy and delicious, and I could drown a whole loaf of bread in that bright layer of roasted red pepper! The simplicity here comes from the ingredients and presentation and it definitely something to aspire to.

Can the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge live up to the refined expectations of the namesake restaurant it is attached too? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it should hang its head like a dejected and forgotten sibling. The food alone proves that something can be simple and elegant when it comes out of a kitchen. If the ambiance is lacking that same sense of comfortable luxury, it isn’t for a lack of trying. Overall, the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge creates its own thing, and it is well worth visiting for a smattering of the great food and drinks it has to offer.

06 March 2018

Star Tours Flight 55

One of the benefits of a ride system like Star Tours, in it’s the Adventures Continue version, is that there are new destinations and sequences that can be added in regularly. This was part of the plan since the attraction was refurbished in 2011. Since that time several sequences have seen tweaks to include new characters, from launch scenes to holographic figures, and two new destinations have been added: Jakku and Crait. While characters and locations from the episodic films continue to be highlighted, little has been done to include some of the more prominent features from other films and media. There are a couple of standouts that are worthy of inclusion, and we’re visiting them today in a blue sky daydream.

Jedha – Home to Jedi temple ruins, the scourge of the galaxy, a militant rebel faction, religious faithful, and Imperial strip miners, there’s a lot of ideas to play with here. Sure, some of the geo-political elements may not make it into a quick minute and a half fly-through, but the scenery is something to behold. Plus, with a problem on the horizon, also known as a test of the Death Star’s capabilities, it’d be nice to spend a few moments conversing with K-2SO.

I’m going to throw the caveat in here that I thought about Rogue One’s other featured planet, Scarif, but with a shield gate and imminent destruction threads converging, I thought putting guests in the same no way out scenario as the film’s leads would be problematic to say the least.

Lothal – Give guests a flyover of the gorgeous grasslands, complete with loth cats and loth wolves, a head-to-head with Grand Admiral Thrawn, and an obvious cameo of the Ghost, and that’s a winning combination. There is no escaping that this would require a bit more work as the environments we’ve seen of Lothal until now have been for an animated show, but I trust the talents of Imagineering and Lucasfilm that this wouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

Taanab – Alright, I’m going to put my cards on the table. Lando’s line about his maneuver at the Battle of Taanab is where this comes from, and I’m not so certain we won’t see this play out in the upcoming solo film. However, all of this is just my way not so subtle way of getting Donald Glover to appear in the attraction as Lando. Does anyone have a problem with this?

Mandalore – The home of Boba Fett and Sabine Wren, and a host of other characters critical to the stories of Star Wars. This rarely unified clan planet is the stuff legends are made of and has captivated the minds of enthusiasts since Empire Strikes Back. The planet and its people have been highlighted in both The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series with enough fodder to make any Star Tours flight one guests will never forget.

The wonderful thing about our favorite far, far away galaxy is that the possibilities for Star Tours are endless. Even if the only stick to movies and other visual media, there are countless destinations that we will still never see. That’s always been the wonderful thing about Star Wars, it has the room for all the stories you can imagine and then some. Of course, being able to visit a few of these distant planets that we’ve all seen and dreamed about wouldn’t be so bad either!

28 February 2018

Your Tropical Fruit Fix

It may feel like winter still in large portions of the country, but spring has sprung at Epcot and the 2018 International Flower & Garden Festival starts today. Over the past several years food has become an additional focal point of the festival offerings, with some fan favorite items remaining from year to year and new items being refreshed annually. As the festival kicks-off today, let’s head on over to the Pineapple Promenade and take a bite, and a sip, out of a pair of returning favorites.

We’ll start with a little heat in the form of the Spicy Hot Dog with Pineapple Chutney and Plantain Chips. The name kind of says it all, but there is more to this souped-up hot dog than meets the eye. For starters, yes, it is your typical Walt Disney World hot dog. It has a good flavor and a good snap, but isn’t necessarily anything to write home about. The bun seemed to have a bit of a sweetness to it, but that may have been from soaking in the pineapple chutney juice.

In case the description wasn’t clear, this isn’t your typical mustard and relish hot dog. The aioli used has a subtle heat to it, but there was a lot of it on the hot dog. If you’re not a fan of mayonnaise-based condiments, then this could be a deal breaker for you. Living up to the name of its outdoor kitchen, however, the pineapple chutney on this hot dog has a lot of pineapple to work with. The sweet and sour flavors of the pineapple worked well to mute the heat of the aioli, while not making this a one note hot dog. Lastly, the plantain chips added a nice crunch that varied up the textures, but I would have preferred a handful of full plantain chips on the side.

Moving on to our beverage component, we loved the Frozen Desert Violet Lemonade, which has absolutely nothing to do with pineapple, but we don’t care! This lavender colored frozen slush, like most of the slushes around Walt Disney World, is very sweet. It also has a tart factor that makes it play with various parts of your palate. This may not be very novel anymore, but it is still tasty and refreshing when the combination of Florida heat and World Showcase’s promenade has beaten you down. It also comes with an edible flower, which is sure to get a giggle out of your little ones.

Pineapple Promenade may not have the most inventive food offerings at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, but they do bring a fun element to the festivities. The festival offers and entire range of fresh food items just waiting for you to sample, and I highly recommend sampling as much as you can, but whether you’re looking for sweet or savory, just remember to have fun! And if you’ve forgotten how to do that after looking at gardens and topiaries all day, the Pineapple Promenade seems to have the recipe to help you remember.

26 February 2018

Ambassador of Friendship

The additions of characters from known films or franchises into the notoriously character devoid Epcot has been something of a sticking point for some longtime guests. Aside from Figment, who gets a pass as he and Dreamfinder were created specifically for Epcot, the slow introduction of characters from The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and Frozen, to name a few, has gotten under the skin of a vocal set of guests. Of course, Epcot has kept these character introductions to Disney properties and would never fling open the gates of character meet and greets, much less an attraction, to characters that have no solid connection to the wonderful world of Disney. Would they?

Beginning in November of 1993 guests could meet up with the Ambassador of Friendship, known to the rest of the world as Barbie, at the American Gardens Theatre in Epcot ’94. There are multiple awful choices that were made in that sentence, but let’s carry on with just Barbie for the moment. Barbie, and Ken, would arrive in a pink limousine to meet guests, take pictures, and sign autographs. This was, in fact, the same LiMOUSEine that Mickey utilized to promote the opening of Disney-MGM Studios, and that would later be called back into service for the 25th anniversary of Walt Disney World. Barbie stopping by to see guests may seem innocuous enough, but they were set-up near the American Gardens Theatre, which probably means there was a show, doesn’t it?

In fact, the entire theatre was outfitted for a special show from November of 1993 until May of 1995 to present The Magical World of Barbie. The show featured approximately 20 actors pretending to be dolls interacting with the various playsets from other countries. Barbie, the Ambassador of Friendship, was given this title due to the fact that she had represented and become a part of so many cultures over the years. The show would venture through Europe, making stops in places like Italy, Russia, and France, Africa, and even Australia. Would it surprise you to know that the show used this stop to make a ‘shrimp on the Barbie’ joke? The show featured a pyrotechnic and dove release finally, along with tricks performed by in-line skaters, trampoline artists, and skateboarders.

The promotion for this show was not limited to Walt Disney World alone, however. Mattel packaged specialty marked Barbie dolls with a video celebrating Barbie’s birthday at Walt Disney World. The title is ridiculously long, Barbie Birthday Part at Walt Disney World Epcot ’94. During the movie, with a runtime of about 30 minutes, Barbie, Stephanie, and Lisa make their way around World Showcase celebrating Barbie’s birthday. It heavily promoted the Barbie Cellular Phone and the show coming to Epcot ’94. The latter allowed viewers to get a behind the scenes look at the show being created for the park.

The Magical World of Barbie only ran five days a week, due mostly to the fact that only one woman was allowed to play Barbie, Miss Oregon Elizabeth Simmons, in order to maintain consistency for guest interactions. While the show was beloved by some guests, particularly younger guests, at the time, it was universally loathed by cast, crew, and Disney powers that be at the time. It isn’t hard to imagine that they were all thrilled when the show closed in November of 1995.

Characters of one sort or another have always been critical to the Disney theme park experience. While Epcot has more or less shied away from the concept for a large portion of the time it has been open, some still occasionally slip through. I would much prefer a well thought out plan for character introduction through attractions and meet and greets, even if they seem slightly out of place, than have woefully out of place characters from non-Disney properties pop in sporadically. I’m looking at you, Barbie!

20 February 2018

An Elegant Tea Garden

Last year the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival added a new tour to the repertoire of events taking place during the festival, the Royal Tea Garden Tour. While there had been a tea garden tour available on select days for several years, this addition, which comes with a fee, doubled the amount of tour time, provided guests with the opportunity to ensure their spot ahead of time, and provided food and beverages. The Royal Tea Garden Tour proved so successful that it has returned to this year’s festival. It proved to be one of my favorite experiences during the festival last year, and I’m hopeful that the minor hiccups have been smoothed out this year. With this year's festival a little more than one week away, let’s take our own tour of the tour and give you an idea of what you’re in for should you decide to partake in this experience.

For starters, the tour starts in the early morning before World Showcase is open. Now, if you are aware of how World Showcase actually works, you’ll know that guests are permitted to walk through the UK pavilion at park opening as it sits along the walkway to International Gateway. However, it is still rather quiet at this time, with other guests not wandering amongst the tour group causing distractions. The tour itself meanders along the garden path behind The Tea Caddy exploring the various tea producing plants that make up the garden. The tour is presented by a Twinings of London representative that is well-versed in the history, craftsmanship, and flavor profiles of all things tea. Black, green, herbal, and white teas, how they are processed and created, are all covered in this tour. In fact, the tour even goes into the history of how tea came to be in bags rather than loose. There is a lot to cover in only a 45 minute tour, but you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn.

As an avid tea drinker, coffee and I aren’t friends, I can credit this tour with turning me on to two of my favorite teas: Earl Grey with Lavender and Buttermint. Aside from Christmastime, these two teas have become my morning and afternoon staples, and it is all thanks to what I learned and sampled on the Royal Tea Garden Tour.

Speaking of samples, the tour may last less than one hour, but you’ll definitely want to make sure you’ve given yourself enough time for the snacks that are available at the end. For starters, you can choose from a variety of flavors for your own hot cup of tea. Paired with this cup are traditional English scones. The scones come in a pair and feature a savory Irish cheddar scone and a sweet scone with raisins. The little snack boxes also come with two accompaniments, clotted cream with jam and an earl grey butter.

This year’s set-up for the food seems to have taken into account the crowding issue that seemed a regular occurrence last year when participating guests had to make their way through The Tea Caddy to collect their to-go boxes and tea, all of which was arranged in one of the smaller rooms of the shop. This year, the tea and scones will be served in the Rose & Crown Dining Room, which feels like a well thought out shift in location.

The only other concern I have from the first version of the Royal Tea Garden Tour was the ability to hear the presenter. Guests were constantly jostling to get closer to our guide as the ambient sounds of the park and distance from the guide all led to participants regularly asking for sections to be repeated or grumblings about not being able to hear. Many tours at Walt Disney World utilize earpieces to ensure everyone has the same experience, and I hope this change is considered for this year’s version of the tour.

It is hard to argue with those who are fine with the free tours provided during the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. The addition of more time isn’t much of a selling point, nor is the fact that the tour happens during one of the quieter times of the day. I also can’t say that the cup of tea and pair of scones are, on their own, worth the $18.00 cost of the tour. However, when taken as a whole, I think there is a definite value being provided by the Royal Tea Garden Tour. Not feeling rushed, being able to ask all the questions I care to, actually going through much of the history and process of tea making, and having tea and scones at the end, all make this a truly worthwhile excursion in my book and definitely something I will be looking to take part in again this year.

14 February 2018

The Genuine Steam Train

Transportation has always been a cornerstone of the Disney experience, and I’m not just talking about theme parks. Walt and his team looked to the future for family transportation and space travel, while also reintroducing a generation to steamboats and keelboats through various productions. Inside Disneyland, and later Walt Disney World, cutting edge transportation models were utilized alongside paddlewheels. For Walt Disney, who always wanted to keep sight of our collective pasts, presents, and futures, there was one mode of transportation that stood tall above all the rest in his eyes, the steam locomotive. Not only did he have his own scale model train, there would also be a train in the Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. This love of steam trains stretched beyond Walt himself and even beyond the boundaries of the park, showing up, in of all place, the campground of Fort Wilderness.

Most of us have, at one time or another, heard about the Fort Wilderness Railroad, the plantation locomotives that ran regularly from 1973-1977, before going to a seasonal rotation and closing permanently in the early 1980s. We’ve seen the posters for Fort Wilderness that put the train front and center and we’ve ogled the vintage maps that have it running around the periphery of the campground. In fact, the loop that the steam train ran on was 3.5 miles, double the length of the Magic Kingdom’s track. The four trains could each hold 90 passengers, but often ran out of steam due to their smaller water reservoirs and fuel tanks, causing delays and back-ups along the route. The train’s whistle could be heard as early as 7:00am, which I’m sure riled up some campers who would rather have slept in.

Aside from the water and fueling problem, and the waking up guests problem, the track itself was an issue. The clay and soft dirt allowed the rails to move more than they should, not to mention the fact that the rails themselves had not been placed and curved through best practices at the time. This meant that trains could not only be relied upon to breakdown, but they could also become derailed very easily. At least they were consistent. All of these maintenance and customer service issues eventually led to the trains being abandoned. That said, if you look at the photo above, it looks as if the characters loved the locomotives at some point in time.

Nowadays it is almost impossible to find remnants of the Fort Wilderness Railroad throughout the campground. The rails and spikes have vanished, but sometimes you can see the raised beds that the train used to run on. Thinking back on my earliest years at Fort Wilderness I can still remember seeing the railroad crossings just beyond the outpost gates. I can remember crossing over them and straining to see if I could spot a train that was never coming. I’m almost certain I asked my parents about it and they didn’t know what the tracks were for by that point, and it was never important enough to inquire to Cast Members about it. But it was those small moments of wonder that almost certainly led me to my fascination with the Fort Wilderness Railroad, and steam trains as a whole. I’m not foolish enough to believe that they trains could be utilized in the campground again today, but what I wouldn’t give to have been able to ride the rails aboard that train just once.

12 February 2018

The Fantastic Will Become Real

Last night there was a lot of news focused on new attractions and experiences coming to parks and resorts around the globe last night at the D23 Expo Japan. While last year’s Expo was the main hub of announcements for Walt Disney World, and no major changes or additions were pronounced last night, there were a few other details that we’re released about previously known projects. From luxury Star Wars resorts to Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy’s runaway train there was enough to keep even the most casual observer interested. The one highlight that really caught my attention, however, was the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction coming to Epcot.

There were a couple of pieces in the announcement that caught my eye. For starters, yes, it is going to be one of the largest enclosed rollercoasters in the world. Not breaking any records, but I dare say we can expect something longer and more involved than either Space Mountain or Rock ‘N’ Rollercoaster Starring Aerosmith. Plans had already seemed as if the attraction would burst out of its current footprint and, possibly, into the area of the Imagine parking lot. Armed with what we learned last night, that prospect is almost a foregone conclusion at this point.

The second bit of information to catch my attention was the fact that it is slated to be open by Walt Disney World’s fiftieth anniversary in 2021. That means that they are taking their time to get this right and not rushing to shove a Marvel property, one of the only ones that Disney can utilize on this side of the Mississippi River, into a park as quickly as they can. Considering that Universe of Energy has already been closed for six months and that we’re looking at another three to three and a half years before the out of this world attraction is unveiled, there is definitely an element of caution and precision that is being exercised with this new experience.

This leads me straight into the third tidbit I caught for the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction, and that is that the story is currently being developed by Walt Disney Imagineering. In other words, the story hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet. This begs the question, which version of the Guardians are we going to ride along with in the attraction? The team has already changed between the first two films, and with a third installment on the schedule for 2020, I suspect that will be the line-up we see when we blast off from Epcot in 2021.

In terms of story development, it is also worth noting that just across the way, Epcot already has an attraction that features space flight, so this will have to be something different. Also, I think many of us assumed erroneously that Epcot would keep the theme of energy at the core of the new attraction. There are many universal themes that could be utilized with the Guardians, and a spaceflight mission to find or save an energy source feels too much like an amped-up version of Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. I would love to see a thematic element that has either been missing from Epcot for some time, or one never fully embraced by the park, to be integrated into this new Guardians story.

At this point in the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction’s development, almost everything is speculation, while even points that have been announced are subject to being completely changed. At this moment we have a general idea of the who, the Guardians, the what, an enclosed rollercoaster, the where, former Universe of Energy area, and a when, 2021. For those trying to gleam the how, how it will work and how guests will embrace it, we’ll just have to wait in see. As for the why, Thomas Smith put it right up front in the announcement article on the Disney Parks Blog when he stated, “The ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’-inspired coaster is part of our ongoing work to transform Epcot into a place that’s more family, more relevant, more timeless and more Disney.” Meaning, this is still only the tip of what is to come from the Epcot revitalization iceberg.

07 February 2018


If I have learned anything on my visits to Pandora, it is that the people of Earth must have really missed cream cheese when they ventured out amongst the stars. It is featured in desserts at both Satu’li Canteen and at Pongu Pongu. The only other conclusion I could come to is that it was easy to transport, but I’ve seen how much space those little tubs take up in my grocery cart, so I’m sticking with my theory of the rich, delicious spread just being missed by humans far away from home. Plus it is very versatile, as the two desserts show.

Let’s start with the more upscale usage of cream cheese at Satu’li Canteen, with the fairly spot on name of Blueberry Cream Cheese Mousse, with further description adding that it also has passion fruit curd. The sweet and tart elements here are wonderful, with neither overpowering the other. Although, there is more blueberry to go around that passion fruit curd, and we definitely wouldn’t mind more passion fruit curd. The unique preparation of this sweet mountain makes the mousse a light dessert, while the portion size and presentation will leave you wanting more. Plus, it is just amazingly beautiful inside and out! It is also worth mention that between the natural blueberry dyes and blue food coloring in this treat, you or your tongue may end up looking a bit like Violet Beauregarde for a while.

Next up, we step outside to Pongu Pongu to sample the Pongu Lumpia. Lumpia is traditionally a spring roll with an incredibly thin pastry wrapper that is filled with vegetables and proteins in a variety of savory combinations. It can be fried or served fresh. On Pandora, however, they’ve transported this type of dishes up to the dessert menu and filled it with pineapple cream cheese. A slight crunch, a little chewy, and a sweet and creamy center that will find its way out of any crack in the roll make this a fine, if messy, snack to grab while you’re on the move.

Let’s add one treat in, and this time let’s assume that you don’t love cream cheese like the expats of Pandora do, but that you do like to drink your desserts. It would also help if you like very, very sweet desserts. I’m speaking, of course, of Pongu Pongu’s Night Blossom. This non-alcoholic drink is reminiscent of the wondrous bioluminescence found throughout Pandora in the evening hours. Bands of fuchsia and lime green are topped with tangerine-colored pearls. The actual flavors are maybe not what you expect from a frozen drink. The boba balls are passion fruit flavored, and are just as fun to play with as you think they’d be. The main sections of this drink are simply apple and desert pear, both of which would be mild, if the drink weren’t so puckeringly sweet. It’s a playful dessert, but when it comes to Pandora, I prefer my sweets with cream cheese.

There is a lot to discover in Pandora, and that doesn’t stop at the trail’s end, the food of Pongu Pongu and Satu'li Canteen is just as much a part of the story as everything else in the newest land of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Some it may look or sound a bit strange, but everything is worth trying at least once. Especially, if like the human residents of Pandora, you happen to have a hankering for cream cheese.

01 February 2018

Mickey's Incredible Imagination

I brought today’s topic up as a question the other day on a couple of social media platforms, but I’ve recently been considering the nighttime spectaculars across the parks. Questioning which ones work, which don’t, which need some attention, and just what would some of these revamped shows look like? There are also parks, like Disney’s Hollywood Studios, that have more than one show in the evenings to consider when looking at the nighttime offerings as a whole. Today, as a fun exercise, I’m going to pick one offering from each park and offer up my thoughts about where it is and what, if anything, could make it better.

Magic Kingdom – Happily Ever After
I’m going to go out on a limb first and talk about a show that I’ve only seen in videos so far. This show is also the newest of the evening shows, which means it should be in good shape for a few years. The projections, while rapidly becoming a common element in twilight shows everywhere, are state of the art and even brought in animators to create new scenes for long established characters. The fireworks are impressive and it boasts an impressive runtime. I’ll reserve any final judgment for after I’ve seen the show in person.

Epcot – IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth
IllumiNations, in name, has been around for 30 years now with the current version having been occupying the lagoon for the better part of 20 years. It has the greatest viewing area of any current nighttime show, wonderful music, and a touching message. It does, however, need some refreshing. New firework shells and some new technology would go a long way, and a new centerpiece should also be worked into the mix. I love the message of the current show, but an updated soundtrack would also be appreciated. The original version of IllumiNations utilized music from the countries represented, but I don’t want to go back down that route, but maybe using musical cues or native instruments would be a great way to work all of that in. I think, of all the shows we’re talking about today, this is the one that will see a complete reimagining within the next couple of years.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – Fantasmic!
I was watching the newly refurbished Fantasmic! at Disneyland and realized just how much TLC the version at Disney’s Hollywood Studios needs. For starters, the Pocahontas story elements need to go, maybe add in a La Llorona sequence from Coco or How Far I’ll Go from Moana, give it something new and beloved that taps into children watching the show. Also, the Studios’ Maleficent dragon has never matched up to Disneyland’s, so why not scrap that character all together or demote her to the water screens only? Instead, turn the top of the mountain set into a true Audio-Animatronics marvel, Chernabog from Fantasia. Add in some of the beloved projection technology, upgrade the water screens, and you would have a show that would be the talk of Hollywood once again.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – Rivers of Light
I absolutely love this show to the point that I wished it were longer. However, I also know that I’ve seen it from the perfect spot on multiple occasions now, and that not all views are alike when it comes to Rivers of Light. I’m not saying that guests on the bridge or walkways around DinoLand U.S.A. and Asia should be wonderful, but everyone inside the amphitheaters should have a clear view. I can’t imagine any fiddling with this show would be easy, but it is what needs to happen to make certain everyone has an equal view of all the storytelling elements.

There you have it; some thoughts on overhauls, touch-ups, and things that should probably be left well-enough alone! I’m not going to rank each of these shows in my personal list, because I’m wise enough to know that on any given day that could completely change depending on where I am and what I’m feeling. However, I do know that a day at Walt Disney World is not complete without one of these nighttime spectaculars, so they should definitely be putting their best foot forward.

31 January 2018

Modern Art-Inspired Eats

The Epcot International Festival of the Arts is in full swing and, as is the case with all the Epcot festivals, there is a fair amount of food to partake in. With the International Festival of the Arts being one of the shortest festivals on the calendar, many of us don’t get to visit the fledgling festival. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to sample some of the dishes in a home version. For instance, earlier this month D23 released a recipe for the beautiful Pop’t Art dessert. We were so inspired that we decided to try our own hand at baking up a batch of these beauties.

First things first, the recipe is for the 2017 version, not the 2018 version. Based upon menus, the only difference seems to be in the filling as 2017 menu lists hazelnut spread and 2018 describes the dessert as having a strawberry filling. Feel free to substitute the filling as you see fit. Also, this is not a clean process, which makes it great for having children help with, so have enough place to make a mess and to have some fun when making these up!



2 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour (sifted)
1 1/2 Cups Powder Sugar
1 Cup Butter
1/2 Cup Sugar
6 Tbsps. Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread
3 to 4 Tbsps. Milk
2 Tsps. Vanilla Extract
1/8 Tsps. Salt
1 Egg White
Food Coloring


Cream the sugar and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until fluffy.
Add egg white and beat for 1 minute.
Slowly add sifted flour and salt and beat at medium speed until a soft dough forms.
Cover bowl and chill in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 300°F.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
Roll dough into a 1/4-inch thick rectangle on a lightly floured surface.
Cut into six, 3x5-inch rectangles.
Place cookies on prepared baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown.
Cool for 30 minutes.
Spread 1 tablespoon of chocolate hazelnut spread on each cookie, leaving a boarder of about 1/8-inch around the edges of each cookie.
Dip each cookie, chocolate-hazelnut side down, into the glaze (directions below) to cover the chocolate.
Set on a wire rack to dry.
Once dry, use a fork to drizzle colored glaze on top of cookies.
Let dry on wire rack.

Glaze Directions:

Whisk powdered sugar, 3 tablespoons of the milk, and the vanilla extract in a pie plate until smooth.
Add additional milk if the glaze is too thick.
Set aside 2 tablespoons of glaze in a small bowl.
With remaining glaze, mix with desired colors of food coloring to make decorative color.

The glaze is good, but I would recommend making the glaze and decorative colors at separate times as the decorative portion will start to dry and harden during the glazing process. I would also make extra as we ended up scraping the bottom of the bowls to decorate. You’ll notice that some of the chocolate-hazelnut spread starts to drip into glaze, so the faster you can move at this point the better! Last, but certainly not least, use a variety of tools to decorate. We started with forks, but moved our way on to toothpicks, skewers, and a pastry brush.

I’ll be the first to admit our final works looked less like a masterpiece and more like finger-painting preschool art time, but it doesn’t change that the Pop’t Art treats are delicious. This is a very simple recipe to follow, making it perfect for a family activity or a talking point for a party. The sugar cookie itself is great and we’ll likely use it as our new go to sugar cookie recipe. Oh, and if you’re looking for small easels to display your masterpieces of culinary art, Michaels and Amazon have several miniature varieties for you to grab.

30 January 2018

Painted Cutout

Knowing where to look for story elements in and around Walt Disney World is sometimes just as important as being able to recognize what you’re looking at. Then there are times where you can find a treasure trove so overwhelming you get baffled by the wealth of information you’re presented with. Backlot Express at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a mixture of both of these things. To some it looks like a collection of junk from a variety of production elements, to others it is an encyclopedia of Disney storytelling. Today let’s look at a few of my favorite pieces that lay in the groundwork for attractions and film alike.

Starting first with one of my favorite spots to go scrounging for stories, a bulletin board, this one can be found in the seating area off to the left of the ordering counter. Placed along the top edge of the bulletin board, there are several pieces of concept art for the action sequences of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. Featured amongst them are close-ups of two truck stunts and Indy’s escape from the final explosion, along with a wide shot that includes the audience. Even better, if you examine the truck artwork, you can see the mechanical arms and pistons that would cause trucks to tip over or flip as needed for a stunt, even though only one of those stunts would make it into the show.

On the other side of the restaurant, sits an unassuming art rack, similar to the poster flip racks you would see in most big box stores. Unlike those poster racks, however, this unit isn’t filled with the latest movie and model posters. This art rack is filled with photographs of construction and landscapes scouted for specific scenes. Included amongst the many pages are pictures of courtyards from the television series Zorro, various locations from Swiss Family Robinson, and even a painted cutout from the Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland.

There is a lot to see and explore all throughout Backlot Express, in fact there’s something to take note of everywhere that you look. Somethings may be harder to distinguish, like the model of the hoverlift from Horizons or logo for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’s Toon Patrol, but others just take time to actually find and pay attention to. Whether it is theme park design or preproduction for television and movies, some of the greatest adventures in the Disney catalog are just waiting to be rediscovered on the walls, shelves, and boards all throughout Backlot Express.

26 January 2018

Your Taste Buds, I’ll Appease

Ramen is a dish that brings to mind days for many of us when we didn’t have much in the way of money where we filled pots with boiling water, dried noodles, and salty seasoning packets or prepackaged cups in office or dorm microwaves. We may have fond memories of the food, but that’s typically tied to sentiments of “remember when…,” rather than how delicious it was. Regrettably, this is not what real ramen is like, giving the dish a bad rap for most of us. If this describes your interactions with ramen, Morimoto Asia has a prescription for you to help change your mind.

In fact, Morimoto Asia actually has three versions of ramen for you to sample. One of which features duck and two other versions that are perfect for the pork crazy amongst us. It’s one of these pork centric ramen dishes that we’re going to dive into today. The Tonkotsu Ramen begins with a base of rich pork broth and egg noodles. Added to these ingredients are roasted pork, wood ear mushrooms, green onion, sesame seeds, and pickled ginger. Before we start talking flavors, let’s be very clear, it takes a day and a half to prepare this dish. The Tonkotsu Ramen isn’t your college ramen, and it is worth every minute of the preparation time for this bowl.

The smells and colors coming from the ramen when it was set before me were so intoxicating that I almost forgot to take a picture of it in order to get it into my mouth quicker. Even then, I only took one photo which is highly unlike me. But you can look for yourself, the wonderful browned edge of the pork, the vibrant greens and pinks of the onion and the ginger, and the opaqueness of the broth which lets you know this is not some thin, clear, flavorless broth. As for the smells, I wish this photo came in smell-o-vision, I really do, but you’ll just have to take my word on that.

What you really want to know is how did it taste, right? The broth is just as rich as it looks with a complex, yet simple flavor stemming from the slow cooking process. The mushrooms are thinly sliced, with a snap to their texture instead of the usual rubber consistency from mushrooms in a soup. A quick aside, many Asian recipes call for wood ear mushrooms out of the belief that they are good for breathing and circulation. The roasted pork is buttery and wafer thin, and you’re going to wish you had several more pieces of it. The pickled ginger and green onions break up the heavier flavors with some intense flavors of their own. Overall, between its flavors, smells, and colors, it is a remarkably well-balanced dish.

Every bite is a taste explosion and the Tonkotsu Ramen is definitely something I will not forget and will seek out again. Walking around Morimoto Asia you can feel the relaxed elegance of the place, with sumptuous furnishings, sparkling lights, and artistry in every detail. That feeling is reflected in the mastery and balance presented in the Tonkotsu Ramen. It is approachable, but not what you are expecting, and it’s a wonderful journey from the first steaming spoonful to the bottom of the bowl.

24 January 2018

Memory Maker

Many people scrimp and save in order to be able to afford a vacation to Walt Disney World. Often times, these trips may be something that they dream about for many years and, in turn, these vacations become once in a lifetime experiences. This is why I tend to overlook grumpy parents or jostling groups of guests pushing by me, because I know I’ve been given more than my fair share of opportunities to be able to visit Walt Disney World, to the point that I can slow down, notice details, and impart them to others. More and more, however, I’ve begun to find myself soaking up each experience with more of that sense of urgency, as if it might be my last opportunity to enjoy it.

This is due in part, I believe, with the fact that I am not as young as I once was and recognize now that what I have in a trip to Walt Disney World is something special that shouldn’t be taken for granted. In my youth it was all about having fun and finding the biggest thrills, or hanging out with friends and taking silly photos. Although it is worth noting that the silly photos part has never ventured too far away from my core though. I understand that one illness or life change could greatly impact my ability to partake in all that the Vacation Kingdom has to offer. Call it seasoning or becoming wiser with the passage of time, but I do think that plays a role in how I view my time there.

Secondly, and perhaps the most important, is the fact that Walt Disney World is in a constant state of refurbishment and expansion these days. While nothing typically closes without some sort of notice, the lead time given to shuttering attractions, such as Universe of Energy and The Great Movie Ride last year, is not typically long enough for most people to get a trip set-up to visit these experiences one last time. While I highly doubt things like Space Mountain or the Jungle Cruise will be closing anytime soon, I would have been willing to put The Great Movie Ride in the same category last year, which makes me wonder if any attraction is ever really safe.

To Walt’s point that nothing is ever really finished, I think that’s fair, I think we should look to each attraction as a limited time opportunity. They should be viewed as something to be treasured in the moment that we have it, because even if it doesn’t vanish entirely, it could always be changed. The fleeting nature of attractions, and the constant speed with which technological advancements are achieved, make them experiences to capture our memories of because we never know when or where the next refurbishment might come.

My last thought is perhaps the most important, and that is who we are with when we visit and make memories. I’ve said it before, but a meal at Walt Disney World is so much less about the food itself than it is about the company I share it with, and that goes for any attraction, parade, show, resort, or any activity within the parks and surrounding areas. I have fond memories that I cherish of friends and their children, children whom are now teenagers. An idea I struggle to wrap my head around constantly. I can remember touring a specific park or area with a near and dear friend who isn’t as close to me as they used to be, not for lack of want, but just out of time and effort. There are memories of my family members that I can never recapture. Even my wife, who has been by my side for almost every visit over the past fifteen years, isn’t the same person she was on those first visits. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just what time does to all of us.

My point is, if I have a point, that Walt Disney World changes just as we change, and that is the only constant in this world. We may have one visit a year, a week, or in a lifetime, but that doesn’t make each trip any less unique. When you’re visiting or vacationing, let the attractions and experiences offered to you seep into your heart and mind, you never know if you’ll have the opportunity to take part in these offerings again. More importantly, take time to really capture the moment of who you are there with. These are moments you are going to cherish one day, so the more you absorb those flashes when they’re happening, more the more real and vital your memories will feel to you later. Above all, just make sure you’re enjoying what you have when you have it.

22 January 2018

Urban Safari Camp

If you want to meet Mickey and Minnie in Disney’s Animal Kingdom the place to go is the Adventurers Outpost on the edge of Discovery Island. It is filled with photographs and items they’ve collected on their journeys around the globe. Once upon a time, however, the pair of safari ambassadors took another Adventure Outpost on the road to promote and engage potential guests around the activities of Walt Disney World’s fourth gate.

Typically, you would think that this type of mobile marketing campaign would take place prior to a park opening, but the Adventure Outpost wasn’t your typical marketing push. The Adventure Outpost actually took to the road in the eastern part of the country during spring and summer of 1999. It started in Miami on April 17th of that year before moving on to Dallas, Houston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Boston, Hartford, Cleveland, and Detroit before closing out its tour in Atlanta in mid-July. Known as an “urban safari camp” each stop would last two days with six hours of operation dedicated to each day, but there was no admission cost for anyone wanting to attend.

What, exactly, did the Adventure Outpost have to offer?

I’m glad you asked! For starters there were no animals that actually took part in the mobile safari. Instead, visitors were greeted with a 20 minute show featuring elements from Festival of the Lion King on a caravan stage. From then on, there were three sections of the Adventure Outpost to partake in. One featured a dinosaur themed play area, including sand-covered fossils just waiting to be uncovered by pint-sized paleontologists. An interactive storytelling set-up featured previews of Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s attractions and gave guests their own place in the story. Last, but certainly not least, was an area where Minnie and Mickey were available to photographs and autographs.

This would have been one of the earliest examples of Disney’s move to prove that it’s animal and nature centered park was, as they would say years later, Nahtazu. With no animals in the urban safari camp, the creatures, great and small, that could be studied at Disney’s Animal Kingdom were depicted in totem poles, balloons, the interactive tour elements, carvings, and cast stories. If this sounds similar to how animal-life is integrated into many of the park’s architectural and artistic features, that’s probably not a coincidence.

According to Bob Lamb, the first vice president of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, stated that the Adventure Outpost tour wasn’t about name recognition, but more about showcasing everything that the park had to offer and letting potential guests see what was happening beyond the turnstiles. Touring through miniature, in scope and size, versions of Africa, Asia, Safari Village, Camp Minnie-Mickey, and DinoLand U.S.A. seems like a great way to get guests excited about a potential visit, but nothing compares to the nature-driven park itself.