In the Shadow of the Mouse

Secrets of a theme park obsessed local who lives next door to Mickey, with annual passes to every Central Florida park

See the Willis Clan live at Raglan Road Jan. 19 to 22

temppThe Willis Clan is a family band with its very own TLC reality show. If you’re a fan of “The Willis Family,” you can see them live at Raglan Road from January 19 to 22.

Raglan Road, the Irish pub in Disney Springs, is well know for its entertainment, from rollicking live bands to talented fast-stepping Irish dancers. The Willis Clan takes the stage on January 19 and 20 from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. and January 21 and 22 from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Raglan Road’s convenient Disney Springs location makes it easy to visit, whether you want to catch the Willis Clan or just stop over for lunch, dinner, or drinks. The new parking garage makes it easy to drive over for a day or night of fun. Unlike the theme parks, parking is free, making Disney Springs and its stores and restaurants an even bigger draw.

I’ve seen the Willis Clan at all of their Disney Springs appearances. Every one of the kids, from oldest to youngest, it packed with talent, as you’ll see in the video below. Here’s their little pre-show sampler for the media:

Mom Brenda is the matriarch, and she joined the clan in chatting with me in the interview below:

Even the youngest family members can dance better than I could ever hope to! There’s no way you can watch this family perform and not be in awe of their talent.

If you’d like to see them, plan an evening at Raglan Road between January 19 and 22. It’s the perfect spot for casual drinks or a full-blown dinner. I recommend making reservations as it gets busy in the evenings, and the Willis family is sure to draw a larger crowd than usual.

Even if you don’t make it to one of the Willis shows, Raglan Road has entertainment every day, with bands and Irish dancers. Here’s the schedule:

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As you can see, day or night, there’s something happening at Raglan Road. Add it to your Disney Springs “must do” list if you want high energy entertainment and a tasty meal or a pint of Guinness in an atmosphere that just might convince you that you’ve teleported to Ireland.

SeaWorld Wild Days starts Jan. 16, runs for three weekends

jackSeaWorld Wild Days 2016 starts on January 16, which means that things are getting wild at the park…well, okay, wilder than usual.

You can see a variety of animals all year ’round, from sharks to orcas to dolphins to penguins to flamingos, and of course SeaWorld Orlando has a variety of animal ambassadors for close-up encounters. However, things get kicked up a notch during the annual Wild Days event, when each weekend has its own theme and focus.

The ever-popular Jungle Jack Hanna kicks things off on January 16 and 17, bringing some animal friends and sharing stories of his many decades working with animals. I had the pleasure of interviewing him this year; you can see our chat below:

Like SeaWorld, Jack is dedicated to conservation and is passionate about protecting animals and educating people so they learn to love the world’s creatures and want to protect them, too. That’s one of my favorite parts of visiting SeaWorld Orlando; although I’ve seen dolphins and sharks in the wild, I’ve never had the opportunity to see orcas in their natural habitat, so it always thrills me to see the SeaWorld pod. When I witness their power and intelligence, I gain new respect for their wild cousins.

Another SeaWorld animal that I’ve never seen in the wild is penguins, and they’re the focus on the second Wild Days weekend on January 23 and 24. Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is the gateway to SeaWorld’s penguin habitat, but during SeaWorld Wild Days, they get two days of focus. To get an idea of what’s in store, check out this video for 2015:

The final SeaWorld Wild Days theme is Sea Rescue, a weekend that focuses on the important behind-the-scenes work to help sick or injured animals. You might already be a fan of Sea Rescue on Saturday mornings, so Wild Days is great chance to hear inspiring rescue stories live on the weekend of January 30 and 31.

Most SeaWorld Orlando guests don’t see the backstage area where rehabilitation happens, but you’ll get a peek in the video below:

The SeaWorld Wild Days events are all included with your regular park admission ticket. Just make sure to visit on Jan. 16, 17, 23, 24, 30, or 31 and enjoy an added bonus.

Epcot Flower and Garden Festival is just around the corner: Get ready with this recipe

I know it’s awfully cold outside, at least for Florida, but take heart! The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is just around the corner. One of my favorite things about the festival is that it combines all the color and beauty of flowers and whimsical character topiaries with some culinary treats.

One of my favorite goodies in years past is the Piggylicious Cupcake, with bacon to pucaket in the “piggy.” That might sound a little strange, but the bacon, combined with a distinct maple flavor, actually makes an amazing taste combination on top of the yellow cake. If you can’t wait for the actual Flower and Garden Festival, which runs from March 2 to May 30 this year, here’s how to make your own Piggylicious Cupcakes at home (recipe courtesy of Walt Disney World):

Cupcakes Ingredients
Favorite Yellow Cake Mix
Equal amount of bacon fat to replace oil in mix
12 slices of bacon, cooked crisp and chopped fine

Maple Cream Cheese Icing Ingredients:
8-ounce package cream cheese
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 tablespoon real maple syrup, add more to taste if desired
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
crushed pretzel twists to garnish the cupcakes

Instructions

Cupcakes:

Follow directions for cake, replacing oil with bacon fat. Fold in bacon. Bake according to instructions.

Isn’t this easy?!

Maple Cream Cheese Icing:

1. Cream together cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy in a mixing bowl with paddle attachment. Mix in maple syrup.

2. Gradually add confectioner’s sugar until combined.

3. Frost cupcakes and garnish with crushed pretzels.

There, now, wasn’t that much easier than you thought? The cupcakes themselves are a breeze, and even the icing doesn’t take all that much expertise. Of course, I prefer my Piggylicious Cupcakes at Epcot, where I can nosh at them while strolling around World Showcase and soaking in all the atmosphere.

Watch for more details on the 2016 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival coming soon. It may seem chilly now, but the festival is less than two months away, so that means Spring can’t be far behind!

Get your sugar rush at Sugar Factory Orlando starting December 28

I-Drive 360 is hopping with things to see, do, and eat, and on December 28 you’ll officially be able to enjoy the latest restaurant, which doubles as a candy and ice cream store: the Sugar Factory.

I had a chance to preview the food, drinks, and desserts at the Sugar Factory, which sits right at the base of the Orlando Eye, just in front of the Merlin attractions complex. Let’s take a quick tour…first, the food:

And my favorite, the signature drinks, served up in steaming goblets:

And of course a place called the Sugar Factory doesn’t skimp on desserts:

If you don’t want a meal or drink, you can also buy candy by the pound, as well as novelty items, nostalgic candy brands, ice cream cones, souvenirs, and more in the attached store. It’s another fun place to pop into when you’re visiting I-Drive 360 (and remember, the parking garage is free…BIG bonus on International Drive). I dare you to order that King Kong!

Holidays at Kennedy Space Center are outside of Orlando, out of this world

The Kennedy Space Center Visitors’ Complex is only about an hour away from Walt Disney World and the Orlando attractions area, but its holiday celebration is out of this world…literally. Holidays in Space features the “Spirit of Exploration” show, projected on the 223 foot long Saturn rocket in the Rocket Garden, celebrating the history of the space program with a special twist for Christmas time.

See the full show in the video below, but be warned: it’s something you need to see in person to truly appreciate. The scope of the rocket makes it a breathtaking experience:

w20Holidays in Space also features special decor around the Kennedy Space Center Visitors’ Complex, including a massive tree and a light-up NASA “meatball” ornament (my favorite). The special holiday decor and show all take place in conjunction with the regular attractions at the complex. The holiday fun runs through January 3, and you can also see the Atlantis space shuttle in person, take a virtual space shuttle ride, see the inspiring IMAX movie, and even meet a real astronaut, among other activities Hours, ticket prices, and other details are all on the official Kennedy Space Center website.

Top 10 Orlando holiday activities

The Christmas season at the Orlando attractions starts early and typically runs a bit past New Year’s day. There’s fun afoot in and around the theme parks and on International Drive. Here’s a little sampling of all the Orlando holiday activities:

1) Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Walt Disney World has plenty of holiday experiences scattered around its four theme parks, but the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights is a must-see this year for a rather melancholy reason. After 20 years at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the lights are leaving permanently after the 2015 holiday season to make way for the Star Wars expansion. They’re drawing crowds to say goodbye this year, and if you’d like to see them one last time, you have until January 3 to do it. Disney’s even holding nightly dessert parties if you’d like to indulge in sweets and adult beverages while enjoying the lights and music from a reserved spot.

There’s more information on the dessert parties on the Walt Disney World website, and you can enjoy a walk-through of this year’s finale display below:

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Last year for the Osborne Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

It’s the 20th year for the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and it’s also the very last year the the Osborne lights will appear at the theme park. That makes them a must-see for 2015 as you bid them a bittersweet adieu.

The Osborne lights, seen in the video below, came to Disney’s Hollywood Studios back in 1995 after Jennings Osborne, an Arkansas millionaire, lost his lawsuit with neighbors over his massive home light display. The neighbors took him to court because they were sick of the traffic jams caused by people who flocked to see the dazzling Osborne light show each year. Disney stepped in and gave the Osborne lights a new home, first on the studio tour back lot, then in the New York section of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The park is now making way for its new Pixar and Star Wars areas, which means the lights are being crowded out after the 2015 holiday season:

If you’re like me and you love the lights and want to give them a special send-off, book one of the special events offered at Disney’s Hollywood Studios this year. The first in the Merry and Bright Dessert Party, which runs every night at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. You get to sit in a special reserved area at the end of the street and enjoy a wide selection of tasty desserts while listening to the music, watching the lights dance, and soaking up the atmosphere. If you’re 21 or over, you can also indulge in some seasonal spirits to warm you in both body and soul as you get into the Christmas spirit. The party is $69 for adults and $39 for kids, and you can book it on the official Disney World web page.

The Osborne lights always draw a crowd, and this year more people are flocking to Disney’s Hollywood Studios than ever to see them for the last time. The party is a great way to relax outside of the crowd. People tend to head out of the park as closing time draws near, but the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights stays illuminated for a full hour after closing. Stay until the end of the party, then head out onto the street, where the crowd will have dwindled considerably.

If you really want to go all out for your last viewing of the Osborne lights, see if you can catch an available table for the Merry and Bright Dinner Reception. It only takes place on January 1, 2, and 3, and although it’s currently sold out, you may be able to catch a cancellation. I personally booked the last day so I can literally say goodbye to the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights at the last possible moment. You can find details here; it’s $99 for adults and $54 for chilren, and it includes a special shadow box memento with a real Osborne light bulb inside (you get a commemorative stadium blanket at the dessert party).

Even if you don’t do one of the special events, get out to Disney’s Hollywood Studios to say goodbye to this two-decades-long tradition. Walt Disney World is always a prime place to celebrate the holiday season, but a little bit of Christmas will feel like it’s missing once the Osborne lights are gone.

SeaWorld Christmas Celebration shares spirit of the season

The SeaWorld Christmas Celebration is in full swing, running on select nights through December 31 (daily from November 18 on). SeaWorld is very much a show park year ’round, with presentations like One Ocean with the orcas, Blue Horizons with the dolphins, and Sea Lion high (the name is self-explanatory, although there are co-starring otters and walruses, too). However, once Christmas is in the air, you get treated to some extra special entertainment like the shows below:

Shamu Christmas Miracles

The park’s orca pod is multi-talented. In addition to their usual daytime show, they get into the Christmas spirit with Shamu Christmas Miracles at night. In this special show, their performance is set to Christmas carols:

O Wondrous Night

As much as I love the orcas, I have to admit that O Wondrous Night is my favorite of all the SeaWorld Christmas Celebration shows. It’s cute, funny, has a good message, and has a finale that can’t be beaten. It tells the story of the nativity through the eyes of the animals in the stable. They start out as puppets, but by the end you’re marveling at real donkeys, sheep, and other animals up on stage:

Winter Wonderland on Ice

Yep, SeaWorld Orlando presents an outdoor Christmas show in Florida. That’s especially tricky this year, since the Orlando temperatures have been unseasonably warm. The rink at Bayside Stadium is relatively small, but the performers do some big stunts and put on a rollicking Christmas show:

The SeaWorld Christmas Celebration is included with your regular park admission ticket. Just plan to stick around late and plan out your schedule to make sure you take in everything. In addition to the shows you see here, there’s other entertainment like Elmo’s Christmas Wish and the Sea of Trees that you’ll want to fit in. Get a show schedule as soon as you arrive so you can make your plans accordingly.

 

Ice! at the Gaylord Palms transforms a classic Christmas tale

Ice! at the Gaylord Palms in Orlando is open for the season, and it transforms a classic Christmas tale, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” into a display of colorful, chilly artistry. The Chinese artisans have worked for weeks to transform plain ice blocks into detailed sculptures that walk you through the story of a visit from Old St. Nick.

If you’d like to see just how much work the artisans put into Ice!, compare these three videos. First, here’s what the display looked like early on, when the artisans arrived in late October:

As one of this year’s Ice!perts, I had an opportunity to follow their progress from behind the scenes. Here was my next check-up, with the sculptures, themed rooms, and ice slides taking shape for Ice! at the Gaylord Palms:

And last but not least, here’s Ice! in all its glory, complete with the “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” display, the kid-favorite ice slides, and of course the classic crystal clear nativity sculptures at the end:

Quite a transformation in just a little over a month’s time!

In addition to Ice!, Christmas at the Gaylord Palms features a wide range of holiday activities, including alpine tubing on real snow (particularly fun for a Floridian like me), gingerbread house building, and visits with Santa himself. There’s also a new show in town: Cirque Dreams Unwrapped. It replaced long-time favorite Luminescence, and even though I was sad to see the old show go, I have to admit that I was quite dazzled by the new offering. You can see the costumes, acrobats, and more in the video below:

The show is free, whether or not you go to see Ice! at the Gaylord Palms or do any of the other activities. There’s a parking fee at the resort, but it’s waived if you dine at one of the restaurants so grab lunch or dinner and see the show for a pleasant, Christmasy afternoon or evening. Of course, I don’t think any visit is complete without popping into Ice!. It runs now through January 3, and tickets and full details of all the activities are available on the official website.

Videos show entertainment at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party

It’s that time of year again to enjoy snow on Main Street USA as you sip cocoa, munch on cookies, and drink in the Christmas spirit. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party has arrived at the Magic Kingdom to bring good cheer for another holiday season.

The party, which is a hard ticket event that starts after the Magic Kingdom closes for the evening, runs on select nights through December 18 this year. You’ll find details on the exact days and ticket prices on the official Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party website.

Why, exactly, is it worth the cost to buy tickets to this special event? After all, you can ride the Magic Kingdom rides and enjoy the decorations during the day. But here’s a little secret: you can go into the park at 4 p.m. with your party tickets, so if you want to save a day on your regular Disney tickets, book the party and then enjoy a non-theme park activity, like shopping at Disney Springs, renting boats at one of the hotels, or just lounging around the pool, during the day. Get to the Magic Kingdom at 4 and do as many of the regular daily activities as you can to free up your party time for the special entertainment.

I hear you asking, “What special entertainment?” Let me answer that question with some videos, shot at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party this year:

Holiday Wishes Fireworks Show

Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade

A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas

Celebrate the Magic Holiday Edition

Add all that to special character appearances (Jack Skellington, anybody?), exclusive party merchandise, a rare Floridian snowfall, and all the cookies and cocoa you can eat and drink and you’re got a very special way to celebrate Christmas, Disney-style. The last party is December 18, and tickets often sell out in advance, so choose your date and book the party as soon as possible.