18 November 2019

Riding the Maelstrom

This week we venture back to Arendelle when Frozen 2 is released, but let’s venture further back, back, over the falls!

Before there was Frozen Ever After, there was The Maelstrom, a water adventure through Norway’s Viking and troll-filled past from 1988 to 2014. This image is probably one of the most recognizable publicity images ever released for The Maelstrom attraction. It comes from the attraction’s final plunge from the idyllic countryside, replete with hikers and mountain troll, into the turbulent North Sea’s host of oil rigs. Aside from the rockwork that calls back to that scene in the attraction, what I love most here is the reaction on the guests face who definitely know there being photographed. From the two guys at the very back who are too cool for this attraction to the gentleman in the front who is pleading with the camera for his life, as if this is his audition to be in a slasher film. Whatever your thoughts are of Frozen Ever After’s inclusion in Norway or its predecessor, The Maelstrom, at least the attractions watercraft have remained consistent.

14 November 2019

Hang Your Tricorn Hat

Thanksgiving is two weeks away, but there is a place where the holiday lives on all year long inside the Magic Kingdom, Liberty Tree Tavern. We talked about this meal, briefly, when speaking about how the holidays of fall and winter are represented throughout Liberty Square. However, the Patriot’s Platter dinner, which is also available a la cart at lunch, has so much food on it that it definitely deserves its time in the spotlight.

First and foremost, though, let’s start by talking about the restaurant itself. The Liberty Tree Tavern looks like a colonial style inn, with a fireplace for cooking that is complete with all of the appropriate kitchen accoutrements. The lobby or parlor area is spacious, but definitely gets crowded during peak meal times. One of my fondest childhood memories included coming here for a meal around Christmas to see the waiting area almost completely taken over by a small winter train set, but I digress. The dining rooms of the restaurant are dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, Paul Revere, Betsy Ross, and George Washington, though I suspect any future refurbishment may introduce an Alexander Hamilton room as well. Each room includes artifacts that could have been used by the room’s namesake, as well as artwork of each individual. But let’s move on to what really matters, the food.

The meal starts with the Declaration Salad, rolls, and butter. The salad is comprised of mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, and is tossed with the house-made Honey Shallot Vinaigrette dressing. It will be worth noting how many times I used the phrase house-made in this review, because there are a number of items on the menu that are made from scratch at Liberty Tree Tavern. The rolls and butter are no frills, but the dinner rolls are soft with a hint of sweetness. They’re good enough that you’re going to want to keep eating them, but I promise you that you don’t want to fill up on bread here.

The main course arrives with little in the way of fanfare, but the bounty is overflowing. While typically served family-style, for parties of two or fewer (such as when the missus and I dined there recently) the restaurant plates the meal for you. Don’t worry though, if there’s something you want more of they are happy to bring it to you. The main entrees of the Patriot’s Platter include roasted turkey breast, pot roast, topped with brown gravy, and oven-roasted pork, smothered with mushroom herb gravy. While billed as a Thanksgiving meal, and turkey is traditional with a side of ham, I’d argue the Patriot’s Platter is really more a slice of a little bit of everything when it comes to Thanksgiving, seasonal meals, and Christmas. Sides include mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables, typically green beans, herb stuffing, house-made macaroni and cheese, house-made cranberry relish, and turkey gravy in a gravy boat suitable for covering your turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and anything else you so please. I’m not going to lie, there’s a lot of gravy here, both in terms of variety and quantity, but I loved it all!

A smorgasbord is the only way to describe the copious amounts of food you’re presented with. The pot roast is fork tender, and the oven-roasted pork is the savoriest dish on the plate. The turkey is wonderful, but is mostly a vehicle for gravy, cranberry relish, mac and cheese, or whatever you choose to pile atop it, and the same can be said for the mashed potatoes. The stuffing is dense a bit mushy, which is right in my comfort zone. The macaroni and cheese is firm and gooey in the best possible way. Meanwhile, the green beans seem to be some of the freshest vegetables I’ve had a buffet or family-style restaurant in Walt Disney World. Lastly, the certainly not least, the cranberry relish is tangy, full of wonderful fall and winter spices, and a hint of citrus that just makes the whole thing come together.

Don’t get lulled into a sense of accomplishment, or defeat, once the platters are cleared though, dessert is still on its way. It comes in the form of the Ooey Gooey Toffee Cake. This vanilla toffee cake, filled with candy bits baked in, is topped with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, and toffee crumbles. It is nothing by a pile of warm, crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside, caramelly, chocolatey goodness! Oh, and ice cream! I was devasted that I was so full I couldn’t stuff myself more than with just a couple of bites.

There are plenty of beverages here, for children and the child inside us all, as well as adult beverages, but I want to take a moment to implore you to try the Warm Washington Cider. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like, Washington cider that is served warm, but it is topped with Baker’s crème, and is basically autumn in a tall glass.

Liberty Tree Tavern isn’t just the sum of its parts. Certainly the atmosphere and the ridiculous amounts of food and beverages feel like you’ve just landed back in your childhood kitchen at Thanksgiving, but there is something intangibly wonderful about this old inn that resides in the middle of Liberty Square. The quality of food has come up considerably in the past several years and, at least for my family, this will definitely become a dinner we work into our regular rotation.

22 October 2019

Home for the Holidays

Holidays and celebrations are a big part of Walt Disney World. There are buttons for first visits, anniversaries, weddings, engagements, birthdays, or a celebration of your own making. Festivals and special events highlight the rebirth of spring, our artistic natures, food from around the globe, Christmas, and Halloween. It can be seen all year round, covering all of Walt Disney World or just peppered about in various corners. Most of it, however, comes and goes with the changing of the calendar. Yet, if there is a land that personifies the end of the year spirit all year round more than Liberty Square, I’m certain that I am not aware of it.

Let’s start with the autumnal carnival known as Halloween. Whether you celebrate only in October, start as early as August, or just never let that spooky spirit leave you, Liberty Square has you covered. The land’s marquee attraction is the masterpiece known as The Haunted Mansion. If you don’t know about the labyrinth of ghoulish chambers occupied by spirits and spectres, then I’m not sure what to do for you. The Haunted Mansion may be the most well-known haunt for, well, haunts, but it isn’t the only corner of Liberty Square dedicated to the macabre.

Tucked just inside the entrance to Liberty Square, as you enter through the hub of the Magic Kingdom, is Sleepy Hollow. As the name suggests, it is tied to Washington Irving’s wonderful tale of teacher meets terror, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This story gains a bit of steam at this time every year as the Headless Horseman makes his way along the parade route ahead of Mickey’s Boo to You Halloween Parade. This year, in particular, Ichabod Crane and his pumpkin-skulled nemesis are enjoying a resurgence as they celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Disney package film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Back at Sleepy Hollow, you won’t find Ichabod around this waffle emporium, but the Headless Horseman does adorn the sign and the building itself is a replica of Washington Irving’s Sunnyside home. It is worth mentioning that Ichabod can be found across the way, but we’ll get to that more in a moment.

Moving right along the calendar, Christmas may start in the Magic Kingdom in early November, but we still have the day of appreciation known as Thanksgiving to attend to. Over at Liberty Tree Tavern, the traditional spread of Thanksgiving is alive and well, and done with a patriot’s flare. The meal, known as the Patriot’s Platter, is served at lunch alongside a smorgasbord of a la carte entrées, but is the only thing on the bill of fare for dinner every day of the year.

Now we come to Christmas, the biggest holiday of them all to close out the calendar each year. In Liberty Square, however, the home for the holidays is Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe. Comprised of three distinct homes or businesses; the woodwright’s shop, who is creating toys for good girls and boys, the Kepple family residence and quilt maker’s shop, a nod to Walt Disney’s grandfather, Kepple Disney, and the studio for music lessons presided over by our good friend Ichabod Crane. In this instance, Ichabod has his walls adorned in pages of music for Christmas carols and is keeping his distance from the scary story that he was made famous with. Outside of Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe, the windows are decked with garlands and wreaths covered in clove-lined oranges and other festive fruits and a sled is perched in a courtyard perfect for your family Christmas photo, regardless of when you happen to be visiting the Magic Kingdom.

Liberty Square has often been thought of as the place for patriotism, the home of Independence Day, and there is truth to that line of thinking. Yet, there is a part of me that wonders if Liberty Square is more at home nestled into the back quarter of the year. Regardless, if you find yourself drawn to Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas as your favorite holiday, there is a way to celebrate it every single day when you’re visiting Walt Disney World.

26 September 2019

Star Cruiser Crash Crash

This year has seen the opening of Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World and the end of the year will see the conclusion of the Skywalker Saga. For all the Star Wars comics, books, movies, toys, and experiences in the world, there are a few items from the vault far, far away that aren’t discussed very often. I have many guilty pleasures, more than I would like to admit, but among these weaknesses is a made for television Star Wars production. No, I’m not talking about the Star Wars Holiday Special or even Droids, I’m speaking specifically about Ewoks: The Battle for Endor.

Ewoks: The Battle for Endor was a made for television movie was released in 1985 and was actually a sequel to the 1984 television movie, Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure. Both had been brought to the screen with George Lucas’ vision as a part of The ABC Sunday Night Movie. Keep in mind this is long before Disney controlled ABC and certainly further back than when Star Wars would come under their banner. The film centers around a little girl named Cindel Towani, portrayed by Aubree Miller, and her Ewok companion, Wicket, depicted by Return of the Jedi alum Warrick Davis. Rounding out the main cast we have King Terak, played by Carel Struycken, leader of the villainous Marauders, and his sorceress counterpart, Charal, portrayed by the recent transplant from Dune, Siân Phillips. Last, but certainly not least, is the crusty curmudgeon, Noa Briqualon, who could be played by no one other than Wilford Brimley.

The story follows Cindel and her best friend, Wicket, who escape from a Marauder attack, only to meet a small, furry speedster named Teek. Teek takes the pair to meet the reclusive Noa, who wants nothing to do with their troubles. Slowly, and not surprisingly, he takes a shine to Cindel and agrees to help them. Meanwhile, Terak and Charal are trying to figure out how to harness the power of the fuel cell his Marauders took from the Towani family starspeeder, after they had wiped out the rest of the family. It is their belief that Cindel knows how to unlock the magic of the cell and they are trying to find her. Cindel is kidnapped, a massive battle ensues, evil is defeated, and Noa is able to power cell to restore his own ship and leave Endor, with Cindel deciding to go with him. It’s rather simplistic, but it’s also a fun and bizarre expansion of the Endor story.

While not coming up to the level of The Empire Strikes Back, there are a ton of interesting details from this production. The sorceress Charal is the first representation of the Sith-aligned Nightsisters, and while not identical in depiction to the Nightsisters we would see later in books or the Clone Wars animated series, it is fascinating to see the roots of this mythology going back so far. The Marauders use a pack animal known as blurrgs, which have their roots in Phil Tippett’s designs for tauntauns in The Empire Strikes Back, and can be seen in Clone Wars, Rebels, and coming back to the screen again in The Mandalorian. Perhaps most intriguing to me, however, is the fact that Brimley didn’t get along with the directors, Jim and Ken Wheat, any scene that featured him was actually directed by the film’s production designer, and renowned director in his own right, Joe Johnston.

It’s almost hard to remember at this point how much Endor became a center of the Star Wars universe after Return of the Jedi concluded the original trilogy of the Star Wars saga. In less than a decade it would have two television movies, the animated Ewoks series, and was the destination never to be reached as a part of the original Star Tours. Heck, one of the only Halloween costumes I remember from my childhood was my vinyl with a plastic mask Wicket. Is it any wonder that so many of us, while being able to admit that Return of the Jedi isn’t the gold standard of Star Wars films, hold the forest moon so fondly in our hearts? My guilty pleasure may be out of the bag, but you can bet your sweet starspeeder I won’t be giving up my Ewoks: The Battle for Endor anytime soon!

25 September 2019

Playfully Presented Food

There are a lot of fun places to eat inside of Disney’s California Adventure, and there also happen to be a number of places to get some incredible meals around the park. There are a few locations, however, the combine the fun and amazing quality to deliver something new that is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the mouth. One such location, and where I happened to grab a couple of bites and beverages recently, is the Lamplight Lounge on Pixar Pier.

For starters, our party had a reservation for Lamplight Lounge, meaning we had a table on the water downstairs and a larger menu to choose from than the bar upstairs. That said, apart from the entrée, everything I sampled is available at both locations. There’s also a secret menu, or some cocktails that we’ll call off script, that one of our party enjoyed, but we’ll let you discover that for yourself!

Lamplight Lounge has a fine selection of “Shorts,” or bites, or appetizers, or whatever you’d like to call them, to choose from. After hearing about them for so long, I absolutely had to try the Potato Skins. I was a bit skeptical when they arrived, simply because they looked like fried green tomatoes, which I was fairly certain I hadn’t seen on the menu. Turns out, these are not your typical pub potatoes. The crispy Yukon gold potatoes are lightly smashed, seasoned, and fried, served with a fair sprinkling of Manchego cheese. There are two sauces smeared around the outside of the plate, a brown-butter caper yogurt and a smoked paprika aioli. The potatoes themselves have a wonderfully crispy crust with the meat of the potato skins being tender, almost to the point that it melts in your mouth. As for the sauces, you can tell just from their descriptions that one would be a bit sourer and the other with a hint more of spiciness. My recommendation? Apply both liberally to your potato skin, you won’t be sorry.

Let’s talk a little about cocktails now, since I had one with our appetizer and another with my meal. If you’ve followed the Gazette long enough, you know that I tend to lean heavily towards whiskey or bourbon cocktails most of the time, and if there are juices in the drink, I am inclined towards those with citrus juices. The pair of beverages I sampled at Lamplight Lounge, the Six Tentacles and the Sunrise Spectacular, both include nods to some of my favorite types of ingredients, but mixed in with some new things to try.

The Six Tentacles has a base of Kikori Japanese Whiskey, with Yuzuri Yuzu, Liquid Alchemist passion fruit, fresh lime juice, and agave nectar. I’ve wanted to try Japanese whiskey for some time now, and I was not disappointed. The Yuzuri Yuzu is a citrus liqueur that utilizes the yuzu fruit that, when paired with the passion fruit and lime juices gives me the distinct feeling of being back in the orange groves of my youth, but with something just a bit different. This was an absolute win for me.

Meanwhile, the Sunrise Spectacular, made with Maker’s Mark Bourbon, tropical juices, a dash of Angostura Bitters, and agave nectar, felt more like a cocktail I would have at brunch instead of a mimosa. At its most basic, this cocktail is the traditional POG juice with bourbon. Not a bad way to start a day, a definitely something I would order again, but it also wasn’t anything special.

On this trip to Lamplight Lounge, the feature presentation was the Cheddar Burger. The patty is a custom meat blend that is served on an Amish bun with cheddar cheese, red onion, avocado ranch spread, and a roasted plum tomato. On the side are malted fries and picked vegetables. This burger has that right balance of fresh flavors from the tomato, onion, and avocado, mixed in with the right amount of fatty richness from the burger patty, cheddar, and avocado spread. It may not be the best thing you’ve ever put in your mouth, but it is a mighty fine burger that hits all of the right notes. The fries are done well, and the pickled vegetables are definitely a scene stealing addition.

The views, as seen above, are killer from Lamplight Lounge. The kinetic energy of The Incredicoaster and Pixar Pal-A-Round add to the atmosphere, while the shade paired with breeze coming off of Paradise Bay makes for a lovely dining experience. Add in a few ducks looking for a handout, some great food and cocktails, and special memorabilia from Pixar productions throughout the restaurant, and you have a meal worth remembering. Lamplight Lounge is definitely a place and a menu I’ll be looking to revisit on future trips to Disney’s California Adventure.

23 September 2019

Little Girl Lost

There are tons of Easter eggs scattered throughout the Hollywood Tower Hotel, also known as the Tower of Terror, to the spookiest show, and attraction inspiration, The Twilight Zone. The hidden nods are tucked away on bookshelves, in the audio of the attraction, and permeate almost every area of the hotel’s grounds. If there is one tribute I am drawn to more than any other, however, it is the chalk outlined bricks that reside along the wall as you make your way from your service elevator over to on-ride photo viewing area.

In the 26th episode of The Twilight Zone’s third season we are introduced to a family desperately seeking their daughter in Little Girl Lost, based upon the short story by Richard Matheson. The little girl in question, Tina, is missing, but can be heard crying and calling to her parents from multiple places within their house. Their family friend, and local physicist, arrives and find a space between worlds is imbedded in Tina’s bedroom wall. The friend, Bill, explains that a parallel dimension has butted up against our own and has created a portal where it intersects with the wall. Bill outlines the portal that leads to the fourth dimension, Tina’s father ends up in the fourth dimension, and returns with his daughter just as the portal shrinks and disappears, leaving only the chalk outline.

It is this outline, surrounding red bricks in the exit to the Tower of Terror, which exists as a clever homage to the 1962 episode. Little Girl Lost, with its limited cast, small set, and minute effects is a great example of how The Twilight Zone emphasized story over jump scares to create truly eerie view experiences. It is this dedication to storytelling, a passion shared by Imagineering and Rod Serling, which sets the attraction and show intangibly above many of their peers. Or, as it is put in Serling’s closing of the episode, “Despite a battery of research physicists equipped with every device known to man, electronic and otherwise, no result was ever achieved, except perhaps a little more respect for and uncertainty about the mechanisms of the Twilight Zone.

12 September 2019

Fiber Optic Information Superhighway

There are a lot of changes coming to Epcot in the next few years, many of which are already underway. As a part of the revitalization project, Spaceship Earth will be getting a refresh of the attraction’s script, narrative through line that emphasizes storytelling through the inclusion of the Story Light, and a new post show experience. One could make the argument that of all the changes that occurred within Spaceship Earth since 1982, the post show area has seen some of the more dramatic changes throughout that time. From Earth Station, to the Global Neighborhood, then the New Global Neighborhood, and currently Project Tomorrow, this area has always highlighted the time’s modern communication and innovations with fun and fanciful twists. Even if some of these experiences were almost immediately dated and, at times, left as husks of their former selves.

While the interactive kiosks of WorldKey brought me hours of untold joy in my childhood, including one or two prank calls to the reservation video line (i.e. pressing the reservation button and then ducking below the camera’s lens), one of my fondest memories from Spaceship Earth’s post show area will always be Global Neighborhood’s Ride the AT&T Network experience that came in as a part of Epcot ’95. A quick aside for those questioning some of the naming choices coming with the current refurbishment and expansion of Epcot, the park has an almost heritage-like dedication to simple, weird, or bad name choices.

In the attraction you step onboard a platform inside a tube, or let’s just call it a cut cable, with a video screen in front of you. Placing your hand on the handprint on the handrail activated the experience, while removing it at any point during the ride would stop the attraction as it was assumed you would have lost your balance. Balance was a key to Ride the AT&T Network because you would literally be surfing through cables and bouncing off of satellites as you made your way from a school tour of AT&T’s network to literally jumping into the network and piggybacking off of conference calls, on demand videos, faxes and other communication forms to reach Hawaii.

Ride the AT&T Network follows a young girl named Cassie on a school trip who is bemoaning missing the world surfing championships for a boring class outing. She quickly darts into the AT&T network and with the help of a friendly bit of technology she is off to surf the fiber optic information superhighway and get to Hawaii, we’re along for the ride as the platform simulator we’re on curls from side to side as we encounter sharks, television signals, and cut cables. Cassie finally returns to her group, having only been away for a few moments, to excitedly tout the benefits of AT&T’s network.

It was a pretty on the nose marketing experience, but for those children more in search of thrills than edutainment, Ride the AT&T Network may have landed better with them than the Spaceship Earth attraction they had just experienced. From my memories, I loved both Spaceship Earth and Ride the AT&T Network. The attraction was short-lived, however, coming in during the fall of 1994 and making an exit in 1999 when the post show area was revamped to become the New Global Neighborhood in time for the park’s Millennium Celebration. Also, like most technology exhibits, the changing telecommunications landscape meant that some of the up and coming technology seen during the attraction had already become old news by the turn of the century.

Epcot has always been, and I suspect it always will be, a place that is in constant flux, and Spaceship Earth is no different. Whatever new stories, experiences, or technology spring to life with the next incarnation, there is sure to be something to put a smile on your face. Of course, it’s always fun looking back at the tomorrow’s of yesterday too!

10 September 2019

House of Magic

Magic is critical to the ideal and mystique of Walt Disney World. We, as guests, are always on the lookout for those magical moments, effects tied to attractions and shows we talk about as magical, and there are multiple terms thrown around the use the word within the parks; from the Magic Kingdom right on down to movie magic. What about magic in the most traditional sense? There is something to be said for a performance of the unexplainably happening right in front of us. Even better still is the ability to learn the secret for ourselves and amaze our family and friends.

There have been multiple stores dedicated to the art of magic over the years. West Side in Downtown Disney was once home to Magic Masters, just as Fantasyland house Merlin’s Magic Shop. AbracadaBar, situated along the BoardWalk, serves up drinks, some small bites, and a healthy dose of mystical artifacts and magic. The story contends that this was the spot for magicians to hang out, concoct magical cocktails and astound one another with their tricks, before they all vanished one fateful night.

The most well-known and renowned of these venues, however, was Main Street, U.S.A.’s House of Magic. Whether it was the nostalgic idea of close-up magic that we all remember our uncle doing growing up, or being able to learn from a magician in the shop down the street, House of Magic was the ultimate destination for a sorcerer’s apprentice. The House of Magic, an opening day to attraction, closed its doors in March of 1995. The space would be repurposed for as the Main Street Athletic Club before becoming part of the larger Emporium just a few years later.

This wouldn’t be the end for the House of Magic, however, as one of the more ornate façades along the Streets of America would be refurbished to include the moniker. While perpetually shuttered, the shop boasted Magic Tricks, Master Masks, and Sleights of Hand. This set design would also be removed in April of 2016 as part of transformation of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Its space in the park is now utilized for the Galaxy’s Edge area of the park that opened late last month.

Like any good magician, however, you can’t keep a good act down! In November of 2017, the House of Magic would return to its original location on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom. While the shop’s outward appearance would return to the House of Magic motif, the interior remained a part of the Emporium with clothing and other merchandise still taking the place of magic tricks, books, and masks. It may only be window-dressing, but it is still nice to see a piece of the classic shop return.

The things that made the House of Magic so memorable to those of us who still pine to walk through its doorways were the ability to see and learn tricks from extraordinary prestidigitators and their collection of tricks, from the impressive right on down to snapping gum sticks. The ability to see and take home magic, however small, most certainly sent many of us on quests to learn more in our adolescent and adult lives. Perhaps a magic shop isn’t in the cards for Walt Disney World today, maybe it wouldn’t provide any sort of economic boost to the resort, but I have a feeling we could all use a bit more magic in our lives. I’m not sure where or what it would look like, but when you build a world around magic, you should certainly give it a noteworthy home.

09 September 2019

Serving up Seasonal Deliciousness

You have a lot options when it comes to dining in Walt Disney World, specifically when it comes to table service restaurants. One of the most popular options for dining continues to be the buffets, for convenience, value, speed, and, in many cases, those ever loveable character meet and greets. Within the genre of buffets there are a ton of choices when it comes to what and where you’re looking to eat. Everyone has a favorite, everyone’s favorites are different, and we’re no exception. Today, we felt it was high time we give you our list of our five favorite buffets throughout Walt Disney World. There’s no real order here, just some of the reasons why we love these specific restaurants and why we think you’ll love them too!

Let’s start with a restaurant that’s only a buffet for breakfast, and happens to be one of the quietest and high quality breakfasts on property. The Wave… of American Flavors has a buffet that includes continental favorites, such as assorted pastries, bacon, eggs, and fruit. In addition the buffet has Tillamook cheese grits, sausage gravy, biscuits, granola and yogurt parfaits, and several varieties of eggs benedict. It seems like a small spread, but everything is phenomenal and is replenished continually.

It is worth mentioning that The Wave also has a regular menu at breakfast that includes one of my personal favorites, the citrus-scented French toast. However, here’s a little secret and one of the reasons we love The Wave for breakfast, besides the low crowds and noise that are paired with a great buffet. If there is a dish on the menu, but not found on the buffet, you can order it as part of the buffet and they’ll bring it right to your table. That’s what I call a win-win!
Next up, we’ll venture into Disney’s Animal Kingdom for Tusker House. This buffet is similar to Boma, with dishes that highlight cooking techniques and flavors from Africa, but comes with the addition of characters like Donald, Daisy, Minnie, Mickey, and Goofy decked out in their best safari garb. Couscous, spiced meats, samosas, and a ton of vegetable dishes are all on this menu. While the family noise quotient can be high, and who doesn’t get excited to see some of their favorite characters, the food, atmosphere, and interactions with characters are all top notch.

There is a balancing point to this buffet that you should be aware of. If some of the food mentioned above sounds like food for an adventurous eater, then it may very well be that Tusker House isn’t the meal for you. On the flip side, those of you who consider yourselves adventurous in your tastes may find this buffet a little on the mild side. We believe it strikes a happy medium, but can totally understand if you choose to pass for either of these reasons.
Let’s stick with Minnie, Mickey, and the gang for our next top buffet, but head on over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. At Hollywood & Vine you can catch Minnie’s Seasonal Dine Dinner. As the name suggests, this dining experience and menu changes with the season and includes themes tied to Halloween, Christmas, award season, spring, and summer. This fare is more of your typical buffet fare, with heartier favorites popping up in the fall and winter, while fresh vegetables and chilled salads taking center stage in the spring and summer. Each of the seasonal offerings comes complete with a different character being the focal point character (complete with Photopass photographer), such as Santa Goofy during the holiday season, and costume changes all around.

I will mention that several years ago the missus and I had a horrible experience at Hollywood & Vine that included waiting more than one hour after our reservation time, food that was continually empty, dirty tables everywhere, and a manager who didn’t seem concerned about our frustrations. It took a long time, and the addition of Minnie’s dinner party theme, to convince us to give it another go, and I’m certainly glad we did. The visits we have had since then only continue to make us larger and larger fans of this restaurant.
The Magic Kingdom’s Crystal Palace buffet also features characters, but this seating comes with a variety of friends from the Hundred Acre Wood. I think of this buffet, which is continually celebrating Friendship Day, as a rite of passage, and definitely something you should do at least once. Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet will make their way to your table and will turn even the grumpiest of diners into a bear loving child again.

The food itself includes a variety of garden favorites that likely came straight from Rabbit’s garden, including roasted carrots, cucumber salad, and fresh green beans that pair well with any of the sausages, carved meats, or other proteins. However, if you want to know what the real draw is food-wise at the Crystal Palace, it is the desserts. These sweets are not only adorable, with sugar bows, carrots, and bumblebees, but they are also delicious and have something chocolatey, fruity, and every taste in between.
Lastly, but most assuredly not least, takes us across the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake to Trail’s End at Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. It helps that it shares many of its menu items with the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue next door, but there are no characters and nothing fancy happening here, just home cooking done right.  In fact, if you have nothing besides the cornbread, fried chicken, and strawberry shortcake, you’ve still done Trail’s End one-hundred percent correctly!
I know there are those of you out there who are yelling at your screens right now, “What about Garden Grill, 1900 Park Fare, Boma, Ohana, Akershus, or insert-your-favorite-buffet-here?!?!” I hear year, but that’s the best part about having so many options, everyone can have their favorites for their own reasons. I hope you heard something today that makes you think about buffets a little differently, consider a buffet you’ve previously shunned, or that I just made you hungry and sad missing your favorite all-you-can-eat spot. Leave us a comment and tell us which of the buffets that we listed, or especially if it’s one we didn’t include, that is your absolute favorite!

03 September 2019

Carved Swan on Bow

Every shelf, cabinet, and bulletin board in the Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen is filled with nods to stories and attractions from throughout Disney and Walt Disney World history. One of the loveliest attractions to ever have resided inside the Magic Kingdom plied the waterways around the park once upon a time and is mentioned not once, but twice, inside of the Skipper Canteen. The Plaza Swan Boats were in operation for just over a decade, from May of 1973 until August of 1983 and took guests on a leisurely tour of the waterways of Main Street U.S.A., near enough to almost touch Tomorrowland, and venturing briefly into Adventureland.

The Plaza Swan Boats originally docked near the Plaza Restaurant, in what has become an outdoor seating area along edge of the canal. Once the permanent dock was built, the green roofed pavilion that could be reached by walking through the Plaza Rose Garden, the original dock was repurposed. Guests could board one of the twelve boats named after popular Disney heroines for a D-Ticket during the peak summer season, although one boat would be refurbished as a vacuum boat for cleaning the canals.

The boats, which ran on natural gas, would provide a glimpse of grace plying the channels of the Magic Kingdom. In truth, however, these swans roamed more like odd ducks. An electrical guidance system failed early in the attractions history, calling for an alternative navigation approach. The new steering mechanism consisted of two jets, one each in the front and rear, which could be employed by their own steering wheels by the piloting Cast Member. While these jets answered the problem caused by the failings of the electrical system, they also included the addition of user error. There were many accounts of boats running ashore, crashing into support beams and even spinning in circles.

With problems ranging from popularity that could not be supported to ever-increasing maintenance costs, the herd of swans were permanently docked after the 1983 summer season. While there were flaws in the Plaza Swan Boat’s system, a scenic tour of the waterways surrounding three lands of the Magic Kingdom, especially in such a regally designed craft, would be right up there with the tours of the Walt Disney World Railroad, Peoplemover and Liberty Belle.

Back inside the Skipper Canteen, the first reference to this charming can be found upon the bookshelves between the crew mess hall and the secret meeting room of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A.). Here a volume is entitled The Grace of a Swan, and while the Swan Boats were graceful to look at, as mention above, they surely did not live up to this description in the movements. The second can be found on the bulletin board, a small classified advertisement has been placed to sell a single boat. Described as all white with a swan carved on the bow, those interested are directed to Merry Time Traders for more details. A merry maritime to be sure!

26 August 2019

Welcome to Our Tropical Hideaway

There are some places that, just by their very names, seem to insinuate that they are the best kept secret around Disney property. At the very least you would expect these locales to be slightly less crowded than your average sidewalk in one of the parks. For some of these locations, particularly the eateries, it would appear that the secret is out. Today’s review comes from a case in this delicious point, Disneyland’s Tropical Hideaway. I happened upon its tropical shores my first day in Disneyland on my last trip and it became a regular watering hole for me, only substitute the libations for soft-serve and bao buns.

Let’s start with the Adventureland staple, Dole Whip. While the regular Dole Whips haven’t gone anywhere, the Tropical Hideaway has added new swirl combinations, orange and pineapple along with pineapple and raspberry, but they have also loaded these whips up with all kinds of delicious additions to form a pair of loaded whips. The Orange-Pineapple Swirl Whip includes chunks of mandarin oranges, pineapple, shaved coconut, chocolate-covered Pocky sticks, and crystallized hibiscus. If it sounds as if they threw a good portion of the sweet aisle into a blender and then plopped it into the kitchen sink, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, that doesn’t make it any less pretty to look at or any less scrumptious to eat. Yes, it is super sweet and a lot of the flavors mingle together to make it hard to distinguish orange for hibiscus, but you’re on vacation it should be a little fun, right? I will say that the fruit pieces added a nice texture to the dish, and I swear that I didn’t order more than two or three the entire time I was in Disneyland.

Let’s move on towards something a bit more savory, the bao buns. These come in three varieties, Lime Chicken, Bulgogi Beef, and Spiced Vegetable. Over the course of my many excursions to Tropical Hideaway I managed to sample both the beef and chicken varieties, there was also ice cream to eat remember. The buns are steamed and served warm and, for a little extra, you can also have some spicy sauce on the side. The Lime-Chicken bun has a filling that also includes butternut squash and fresh herbs, giving it a mouth feel that reminded me of Thanksgiving, but with more of a citrusy punch. The Bulgogi Beef bun, meanwhile, has sweet chilies and potatoes and is perfect for those who favor the combination of sweet and savory. The bao buns have a ton of filling, but there is also a substantial portion of dough, which is where the spicy sauce shines. It’s not overly hot, but there is definitely an element of heat here which I welcomed, but that may not be pleasant for less adventurous eaters.

If you’re looking for something cooler and refreshing during the hot summer months, but aren’t looking to make a meal out of ice cream, let me also recommend the Chilled Ramen Shaker. This tumbler comes filled with ramen noodles, shredded carrots, and other vegetables, with side accompaniments that include Togarashi cashews and a cup of Asian vinaigrette dressing. I will tell you up front that I made the mistake of tossing the cashews into the shaker with the dressing and shaking everything up, when I should have kept the cashews separate and nibbled on them every couple of bites, instead of constantly trying to dig through the tumbler looking for the lost nuts. As I said before, this was cool and refreshing, with a lot of tangy flavors. The tumbler actually hides how much food is in the cup, but when paired with a bao bun, I was unable to finish the entire shaker.

The Tropical Hideway is tucked away behind the Enchanted Tiki Room, which means there is an influx of new possible diners at the conclusion of every show. However, if you catch a nice window of time when the masses aren’t overrunning this out of the way eatery, you can have a lovely meal or snack, in the shade, overlooking the Jungle cruise boats reentering civilization, with Rosita practicing her act of corny jokes on you. Whether you’re looking for a bao bun, a crisp shaker, or some refreshing soft serve, it’s no secret that you should definitely set a course of the Tropical Hideaway, you lucky people you!

15 August 2019

The Enchanted Neighbourhood

On our upcoming trip, as we have for so many trips, the missus and I will be staying at Pop Century. We don’t tend to spend much time at our resort, opting instead for park or resort hopping time, and it ends up being a place to sleep, shower, and store our belongings. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll decorate the room more than most, but at the end of the day it is a brief pit stop before launching ourselves out into the larger Walt Disney World complex of activities. Since the rooms received their refurbishment, not to mention the proximity to the Skyliner, Pop has once again become a place that I want to stay at, not one that I’m forced to stay at, however there is one piece of the resort that irks me, and it comes from the 1970s section.

For those that are unfamiliar with the layout of Pop Century, the resort is broken up into sections dedicated to the decades of the latter half of the last century. Three buildings represent the 1950s, two for the 1960s, another pair for the 1970s, two for the 1980s, and one for the 1990s. To be fair the 1980s and 1990s tend to comprise one section combined, but given that the resort opened in 2003 and was in development long before that, it almost feels that the 1990s building was more of an afterthought. Each of these sections includes larger than life characters from films of the era along with artifacts common to the representative decade. For instance, the 1960s features Baloo and Mowgli, Play-Doh, and Duncan yo-yos anchoring buildings with very groovy sayings plastered on the banisters.

Here is where I nitpick and find my compulsive desire for everything to match up with one another, which means you can feel free to roll your eyes at me. The 1970s, replete with its Big Wheel, foosball, and 8-track tapes, doesn’t actually feature a character from the decade. Oh sure, there is a Mickey Mouse, but he’s attached to a phone, an item that featured prominently in the 1970s, but not a character unto itself. While there weren’t many animated features released in the decade following the passing of Walt Disney, there were a handful and there are several that would play perfectly into the resort’s overall theme.

In the 1970s there were four major releases: The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and The Rescuers. I would personally love to see Orville with Miss Bianca and Bernard, but I also understand that The Rescuers is not as commonly recognized as some of the other characters of the decade. Likewise, the same could be said for The Aristocats, but that still leaves us with Robin Hood, his merry band of Little John and Friar Tuck, and Maid Marian, all of whom are fairly recognizable character even to today’s families. Perhaps most famous of all, however, was the honey hungry, red shirt wearing, willy, nilly, silly old bear, Winnie the Pooh.

Now, I can hear some of you out there reminding me that The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is just the repackaging of several Winnie the Pooh shorts from earlier, and I hear you. On the other hand, this was when the tubby cubby was truly becoming a household name and you couldn’t help but see his furry golden face everywhere. To take it one step farther, the 1970s was the decade when Disney cheekily put Winnie the Pooh on the ballot for President of the United States. Pooh has remained one of the most recognizable characters in the Disney catalog since, and he definitely would ring familiar to families staying in the 1970s buildings of Pop Century, and parents would have to explain the rotary dial attached to Mickey’s feet.

Do I suspect there will ever come a time where the iconic Mickey phone is replaced in Pop Century? I absolutely do not ever expect to see that day. It just seems a little off the mark for Disney to have crafted each decade so well, with Roger Rabbit, Baloo, Mowgli, Lady, and Tramp, only to let the theme slip when it came to the decade that saw the opening of Walt Disney World and the rise of Winnie the Pooh, and Tigger too. I’m sure I am just being overly critical, but this is the stuff and fluff that fills my head from time to time.

06 August 2019

Distinct Attention to Detail

Carthay Circle Lounge carries a flatbread on its menu all year round, but the composition of the flatbread’s ingredients tends to change with the season. Knowing that the change of the season is just around the corner I wanted to get the word out on the current flatbread as soon as possible in case you’re looking for a refined, yet quick meal. I say meal because while I stopped in for a cocktail and a small bite, I ended up with a flatbread that definitely filled me up.

The current flatbread is the Carthay Italian Sausage Flatbread, and it combines Portobello mushrooms, broccoli rapini pesto, parmesan cheese, and Italian sausage. Though not mentioned in the menu description, there are also yellow tomatoes that are roasted atop of the flatbread as well. It is presented sliced into seven sections, which makes it easier to pick up, but I still ended up using a fork and knife because of the weight of all of the toppings on the thin dough.

This is about as fresh of a flatbread as I’ve ever had. The Italian sausage is sweet and spicy, but not an overpowering amount of heat, while the broccoli rapini, also known as broccoli rabe, adds a tiny bit of bitterness. Considering I’ve had some seriously bitter broccoli rapini in the past, the fine folks over at Carthay Circle Lounge have clearly prepared this extremely well. The mushrooms and tomatoes add some texture, there is a sharpness from the parmesan, and everything just feels like it was picked from the garden or came fresh to the kitchen to create a flavorful moment for the diner.

There are a lot of wonderful items of the Carthay Circle Lounge menu, including plenty of shareable creations, but the Carthay Italian Sausage Flatbread is definitely near the top of my list. If you have a chance to snap up this flatbread before the menu changes, and maybe pair it with a Carthay Old Fashioned, the way I did, you will not be disappointed.

02 August 2019

On the Edge of the Galaxy

Prior to my visit to Disneyland a couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to take part in one of the great YMCA traditions, General Assembly. This conference happens every few years and truly inspires YMCA staff and volunteers to do more, do better, and be the best versions of ourselves for our communities back home. As a part of this conference I had the pleasure to listen to a session led by Dan Cockerell. You may know Dan through his father, Lee Cockerell, the longtime Disney executive, but Dan has a Disney story that is all his own. He started out parking cars in Walt Disney World’s parking lot, before rising through the ranks to become the Vice President of, at various times, Epcot, Magic Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s his time with the Studios that crosses over our hyperspace lane into the look we’ve been taking at Galaxy’s Edge this week.

As Dan tells the story, he was at Disney’s Hollywood Studios when Disney acquired Lucasfilm. Almost immediately master planning began on a Star wars land to bring to the park. For two years this planning went on, and it was based around Tatooine and had all the touchpoints that those of us who grew up with Star Wars would recognize. Then one day Kathleen Kennedy and Bob Iger got together and Kennedy put out there that she thought the land was going in the wrong direction. It was her belief that there were more Star Wars stories ahead of us, than those we have behind us for the past forty years. It was that conversation that stopped the planning on a dime and set a course for a brand new destination, Batuu, set in the current moment between films of the Skywalker saga.

I find that amount of foresight impressive, and the willingness to change tactic midstream even more so. Now, Disney has the means to be more agile than most companies, but it is still interesting to see an organization not just charge ahead with what they planned and instead take time to consider what they’re building. I don’t know if this story had any bearing on how I looked at Black Spire Outpost when I first walked into it, but it’s definitely given me a fresh perspective on how I view the land as a whole.

The best of Star Wars, in my opinion, always takes place on worlds that exist in the Outer Rim, Wild Space, or on almost uninhabitable worlds. Batuu is one of these dusty locations that fit right alongside Tatooine, Endor, Takodana, or Crait. It has this otherworldly, yet somehow familiar, vibe to it and it has everything you would want in your personal Star Wars story, even if you feel like you should have never looked beyond the original trilogy; cantina, spaceport, wilderness, a touch of the mystical, and a menacing, domineering presence just around the corner. A lot of work has gone into ensuring that Batuu feels like it belongs in Star Wars, not the least of which has been incorporating the characters and location into comics and novels.

Galaxy’s Edge is set in the period between The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker, and it features the heroes and villains that today’s children are familiar with. This includes Rey and Kylo, but also individuals like Hondo from The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series. Picking a time for a land to exist in is not a new thing for Disney, you can see it on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, Frontierland, Main Street, Harambe, Liberty Square, and various segments of Adventureland. Picking a time that is the most relevant to children today is just plain smart. The entirety of Disney’s theme park worlds came from Walt Disney’s own idea that parents should have a place to take their children. It is a place built for children, but it doesn’t speak down to them, and it has just as much to offer their parents and other adults. We should all enjoy Batuu, and look through the attractions and surroundings with the eyes and wonderment of an eight year old.

To quote Yoda, “we are what they grow beyond.” Disney has long straddled the divide between what was and what could be, and the world created by Black Spire Outpost does precisely that. Galaxy’s Edge pays respect to all that has come before, from Luke’s training probe, R-3X, moisture vaporators, R2-D2’s tread, and the life-size Millennium Falcon, while still forging a new path ahead. Perhaps what I love most about Galaxy’s Edge is that I recognize it all instantly as being Star Wars and yet it is a world I have yet to learn, thus allowing me to build upon what I already know while creating entirely new experiences. In the end, could we really ask for anything else?