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!