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

Kevin Bacon kicks off Ice Cream Challenge at Give Kids the World Village

Actor Kevin Bacon challenged a youngster to an ice cream eating contest at Give Kids the World Village, and the results were predictable: little Ethan beat him hands-down. It was all for a good cause, with the kick-off of the Ice Cream Challenge, a fund raiser that dares people to go head to head in ice cream eating contests. The winner is the one who eats the most ice cream in six seconds, and the loser has to donate $6 to Give Kids the World Village in Kissimmee. Of course, the winner is free to donate, too, and you can donate more if you wish; Kevin Bacon fans know why all the sixes are involved. Take a video of the challenge, post it to YouTube, and tweet it using the official hashtag: #GKTWChallenge

Here’s the full video of Kevin Bacon kicking things off:

Bacon has a charitable foundation, SixDegrees.org, that supports worthy causes. If you’re not familiar with Give Kids the World Village, it most definitely meets that criteria. It was founded as a place where kids with life-threatening illnesses could forget doctor visits and hospitals for a while as they enjoyed theme park vacations. The resort itself is also packed with fun activities, including a pool, rides, and weekly holiday celebrations that bring Christmas, Halloween, and other holidays to the young guests at any time of year. To take a tour of the resort, check out the video below:

If you’re up for the challenge, tackle some ice cream, then go to this web page to send in your donation: www.gktw.org/bacon

Summer is the perfect time to cool off with ice cream, and this is the perfect way to do it. It’s a lot more comfy than pouring a bucket of ice water over your head, and your donation funds what’s literally the vacation of a lifetime for deserving kids and their families.

I met Paula Deen an Orlando nail salon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI love living next door to Walt Disney World, but one of the challenges, especially in the summer, is sharing my space with the mass influx of tourists. Everything from the theme parks to the grocery stores all the way down to the nail salons is packed with humanity during the peak season. My favorite nail salon is pretty much a walk-in place; in theory, you could make an appointment, but in practice it wouldn’t buy you much so your best bet is to just take your chances at what you hope is an off-time.

I decided that my toes needed a touch-up today and managed to catch a brief break in the crowd. It was the usual tourist circus, but little did I know that I was also about to run into Paula Deen and that she’s apparently a local.

There was only one open pedicure chair when I arrived, and it’s adjacent to the back of one of the couches in the waiting area. Two little kids, maybe three and five, were sitting there with a man (presumably Dad), and immediately spun around to stare at me in fascination. Living in Orlando, I’m pretty immune to kidlet antics, since virtually every restaurant is like a daycare from Hell all summer long. Besides, they were totally silent as though watching feet get primped was the most fascinating thing on earth. Either they were budding foot fetishists or just bored out of their minds.

Daddy, however, was not as mannerly at handling his boredom as his offspring. With the position of the couch, the kids were by my feet and he was by my head. He promptly whipped out his phone and started watching something with lots of screaming and loud explosions at full volume, without benefit of earphones. Uh, no. I’d finished my work early and was all about relaxing with a blissful hot stone pedicure as a treat. I didn’t feel like having it accompanied by a Michael Bay soundtrack.

Being from the south side of Chicago, I have no problem confronting rudeness head on. However, I thought it might be more fun to fight fire with fire. I brought up Amazon Prime on my phone, cranked my New Age playlist, and set it on the arm of my chair as close as possible to Explosion Boy. I told the man doing my pedicure, “I hope you don’t mind, but I want to relax so I have to drown out the rudeness.” Explosion Boy actually took the hint and turned it off, albeit with a sidelong glare.

I thought the rest of my pedicure would be uneventful, but little did I know that Paula Deen would soon come flouncing in the door. I should have realized she was going to put on a floor show when she bustled in, stared right at a man performing a pedicure on one of the women in a line-up of pedicure chairs that takes up the whole wall, and asked, “Do you do pedicures here?” Dude just rolled his eyes, and I couldn’t help saying, “I sure hope they do, because if not, I’m a little worried about what that guy is doing down there to my feet.”

Paula was soon ensconced in a chair a couple of seats down from mine. She then proceeded to boisterously complain that the salon was much too quiet. I’m not sure what she meant, as it had the usual buzz of low conversation among some of the people getting services, while others were simply kicking back to enjoy a bit of bliss. She proclaimed several times that she was from the South and that it’s just not the same here. Apparently she’s not good with geography and is also totally unaware that Tampa is home to the world’s largest Confederate flag. She yelped, “Hasn’t anyone here seen ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ or ‘Steel Magnolias?'” When no one spoke, she said, “No, huh? Well, that’s what a salon is supposed be be like.”

I still didn’t realize that I was in the company of Paula Deen herself, though, or her spiritual twin at the very least, until she asked the man doing her pedicure, “Who owns this place?” He responded, “Why, you want to buy it?” and she said, “Lordy, no! It’s Asian owned, right? I just wanted to know if it’s Asian owned because nails are your people’s thing, right?” I thought I was going to fall out of my chair; at least she didn’t says “Orientals.”

Presumably in an effort to change the subject before TMZ swooped in to see if Paula was wearing yellow face, the man said, “Where are you from? Georgia?” I swear I almost wet my pants when the Southern Belle said, “No, from Miami.” She must have realized how ridiculous that sounded because she swiftly added, “Miami is like the real south. I moved here to Central Florida, and it’s not the south at all. I’m moving back to Miami as soon as I can.”

The woman next to her made the mistake of making some sort of innocent comment, and Paula proceeded to talk her ear off for the duration, pausing only to boisterously exclaim, “I want to cheapest pedicure! Be sure to give me the cheapest one.” Vegas was naming her the odds on favorite in the “Clients Who Don’t Leave a Tip” category.

Alas, once she started chatting with her neighbor, I couldn’t hear her gems of wisdom anymore. It was time for my hot rock massage, so I drifted into sweet, sweet oblivion. I’ll admit I was a little sorry that the floor show was over, though. From Paula’s conversation, I gathered that she actually lived quite close to me, although she was counting the days until she could return the Confederate confines of Miami. It’s usually the tourists who provide all the entertainment, but today I got to enjoy Paula Deen live and in person with a routine better than any HBO comedy special.

Photo credit: “Pedicure 1″ by Stoive – Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pedicure_1.jpg#/media/File:Pedicure_1.jpg

The Republic is immersive, intriguing Orlando theater experience

286With a little over three months to go until Halloween Horrors Nights kicks off at Universal Studios Florida on September 18, followed by Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa on September 25, I’ve itching for a good interactive maze experience. Thankfully, I had a chance to visit The Republic, an immersive theater experience in Orlando.

While it’s not quite a Halloween maze, it borrows elements from that genre, merges them with theater and improve, and adds a sprinkling of Plato’s Republic and Greek mythology to come up with something that’s hard to describe but oh so fun.

My love of haunted houses is probably a big reason while I enjoyed The Republic so much, especially since I’m a theater fan too. It reminded me somewhat of the Alone experience at Howl-O-Scream, but a much more intense version. While Alone was a more personalized version of a Halloween maze in terms of being by yourself or only with your own group instead of in a conga line, it went by the typical rules of no touching of guests by scareactors and static scenes that play out the same for everyone.

282In contrast, at The Republic, you sign a waive that lets you in for full contact, possibly all the way up to being kidnapped. You know those scenes in traditional haunted houses where it looks like they grabbed someone out of the line, but it’s just a shill? Not at The Republic!

Also, it’s the flip side of Alone in terms of not being guaranteed to stay with your group. Instead, you’re very likely to be separated and become members of different social classes who are likely at odds with each other. Indeed, at times it seems like everyone is at odds with everyone, and it’s up to you to figure out who to trust and follow. The players’ actions determine the final outcome, which means that The Republic can play out very differently each time you experience it if you go more than once.

If you enjoy The Republic, you’ll probably want to fit in a repeat before it ends its run on July 25. Personally, I felt that the 90 minute show flew by because it was so easy to get immersed in the experience. It all felt a bit overwhelming, too, so I’d love to do it again now that I fully understand the concept. You’re in a dim, confusing maze of rooms, often attempting to fulfill a task as you encounter various characters and make decisions on alliances. It’s very much a live-action version of an RPG.

So where, exactly, is The Republic? It’s just off the I-4 Ivanhoe exit in Downtown Orlando, in a suitably creepy warehouse that houses an 18,000 square foot set. it debuted during the Fringe Festival and continues its run through late July. For ticket information visit the official website.

Want to meet some of the characters? Here they are!

Here are a few words from the show’s creater, Sarah Elger:

And finally, a tiny bit of the show to whet your appetite:

 

Pitbull takes up residence at Madame Tussauds Orlando

286Pitbull visited Orlando to play a concert at Universal Studios Florida, but now you can see him permanently in Orlando…or at least his double. A brand-new Pitbull model was unveiled at Madame Tussauds Orlando as the second addition since the wax museum opened at I-Drive 360, along with the Orlando Eye wheel and the Sea Life Aquarium, on May 4.

Earlier this month, Disney Channel Ross Lynch welcomed his likeness. Then Pitbull stepped up on May 29 to meet his doppleganger, complete with a tuxedo donated by the superstar rapper. I love the fact that he couldn’t resist tugging the figure’s ear. Many guests do the same when they see the celebs at Madame Tussauds due to the eerie likeness.

If you’d like to see the full video of the unveiling, it’s captured on the video below. Pitbull was suitably impressed by the figure that was created after artisans took 300 measurements and spent long months crafting it down to the finest detail, just as they do with all their wax likenesses:

Expect more unveilings in the future, as Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is most definitely not a static attraction. New celebs and other prominent figures are added all the time to locations around the country and the world.

Want to see the Ross Lynch unveiling? Here’s the video of the teen heartthrob meeting his match:

Cobra’s Curse spin coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa ramps up snake phobia

210Scared of snakes? Get queasy when you see their coils and shaky at the sight of their scales? Then you’ll want to beware in the Egypt section of Busch Gardens Tampa next year, as the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster is set to debut in 2016.

As the name suggests, Cobra’s Curse is themed to snakes, with a towering 80 foot tower that will leave no doubt as to the theme. The coaster will have a unique vertical lift, along with the spins typical of this type of ride. It will offer fun for coaster enthusiasts, but it will also be suitable for younger members of the family who’ve outgrown coasting with Grover and who want to start cutting their teeth on the more intimidating rides (the classic Scorpion looping coaster is great for that, too).

A real life herp was on hand at the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster announcement, along with plenty of concept area. As is typical at Busch Gardens, the ride will feature heavy theming that immerses guests in its Egyptian setting. It will sit near the suspended coaster Montu, adding a nice touch to that side of the park. You can see Montu off to the side in this construction photo:

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And here’s some concept art showcasing a theme that will send snake phobics into fits:

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Look good so far? Check out this video, which includes some virtual ride footage of the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster:

Pretty cool, eh? I suspect that SheiKra will always remain my favorite Busch Gardens Tampa coaster, but Cobra’s Curse will be a fun little indulgence. Speaking of other fun rides, don’t forget about Falcon’s Fury, which takes you more than 300 feet into the air before tipping you forward for a face-down plummet. Here’s the video of my very first ride:

Enjoy Falcon’s Fury, SheiKra, Montu, Cheetah Hunt and all the other fun rides while you count down to the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster in 2016.

SeaWorld Orlando Mako hypercoaster is just one part of new Shark Realm

210SeaWorld Orlando will soon be home to the tallest, longest, fastest roller coaster in Orlando. The Mako hypercoaster, named for a speedy species of shark, will rise 200 feet into the air by the time it’s done for the 2016 season, with top speeds of 73 mph and nearly a mile of track. Better yet for coaster enthusiasts like me is the fact that it’s built for maximum airtime. Be prepared to pop up in your seat repeatedly as you zip through the dips and hills.

I’m a long-time lover of B&M roller coasters like SheiKra and Montu at Busch Gardens Tampa, and B&M is also the company behind SeaWorld’s Kraken and Manta thrill machines, as well as Dragon Challenge at Islands of Adventure. I’m also a big air-time fan, and as of now we don’t have a good airtime option in Orlando. I pick up nice pops on ShieKra and Cheetah Hunt, but that requires over an hour of drive time to Busch. Now it looks like I’ll have my pop-out-of-your-seat thrills a lot closer to home.

SeaWorld announced Mako with flair, showing concept art and a virtual big-screen POV ride. Virtual reality is fine, but the park also wanted the media to experience a bit of Mako first hand. They offered crane rides 200 feet up to the spot where Mako’s lift hill will peak. Yes, it’s the same as SheiKra, but it’s so much more intimidating when you’re in a crane car dangling by what feels like a thread!

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You can’t beat the view, though, with stunning sights like Kraken and the Orlando Eye looming over the Orange County Convention Center in the distance.

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224Mako is just one part of what will become a whole area devoted to sharks. You’ve already got the Shark Encounter and Sharks Underwater Grill, a sit-down restaurant with an amazing aquatic view. Now those areas will become part of a bigger themed land known for now as Sharks Realm.

While the name will likely change down the road, the concept will stay the same. You’ll see sharks and learn more about them, including ways to help them. We tend to view them as vicious predators, and they’re no slouches when it comes to hunting down prey, but unfortunately man in making it hard for them to survive. You’ll learn about doing things as simple as eating sustainable fish to help ensure that sharks will still find a hospitable home in our oceans.

Mako should be ready for next year’s summer season. While it will be hard to wait a whole year for a B&M hypercoaster in Orlando, I’ll enjoy watching it rise up above the construction walls at SeaWorld. In the meantime, Manta and Kraken will still be in full operation, and of course you’ll see plenty of dolphins, orcas, sea lions, and other talented animals bringing their special brand of delight to park guests. If you haven’t seen Sea Lion High yet, here are some highlights:

Teen Beach 2 Stars surprise fans at Typhoon Lagoon Party

There’s not a lot that would lure me away from the Magic Kingdom on a 24 hour day of the Coolest Summer kick-off, but I’ll admit that I did bail to Typhoon Lagoon (see my early morning experience, including a full video of the welcome, in this article). How could I resist, when it was the Teen Beach 2 Beach Party debut, with a special appearance by Ross Lynch (Brady), Maia Mitchell (McKenzie), Grace Phipps (Lela), and Garrett Clayton (Tanner).

Yes, I’ll admit it: I really enjoyed the first movie, especially the end when the 1960s gang was transported to the present day. I’m looking forward to June 26 when I can find out what happened to them. I met some of the stars at Typhoon Lagoon back in 2013, when the water park hosted a summer party based on that first flick, Teen Beach Movie. Now here I was again, kicking off another summer of fun and chatting with the gang about their sequel, Teen Beach 2. You can see it all on the video below:

I also talked one on one to Maia, who teased about the new movie and shared some dance moves:

Obviously, the gang won’t be on hand throughout the summer, but the party most certainly will be. It kicks off several times a day and including dancing and contests like water balloon tosses, hula hoop competitions, and a limbo session. Check the schedule on the times board in the park and make sure you’re there for some sand, sun, and fun.

Here’s a little blast from the past: my chat with Garrett Clayton from 2012:

And my 2012 interview with Chrissie Fit:

Watch for the Disney Channel debut of Teen Beach 2 on June 26! Personally I can’t wait to watch the surfers and bikers adapt to cell phones and other hallmarks of modern life.

Disney 24 hour kickoff features Mickey, Minnie and Frozen gang

There’s not much that can rouse me out of bed at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m., but the Disney 24 hour summer kick-off at the Magic Kingdom does it every year.

It’s Memorial Day weekend, which means the Magic Kingdom opened at 6 a.m. on Friday and stays open until 6 a.m. on Saturday for a full Disney 24 hour experience for those brave enough to tough it out. It’s the start of the Coolest Summer Ever, which is why Anna, Elsa, Olaf and Kristoff took over the opening festivities. Guests started arriving an hour early, and Mickey and Minnie rolled out of bed in the wee hours to be on hand to greet them. They didn’t even take the time to change out of their PJs, but they looked dapper nonetheless. They were also a heck of a lot more energetic that I would be without an IV infusion of caffeine. I did manage to catch a quick chat with them:

Just before 6 a.m., the Frozen gang took to the train platform and the steam engine pulled in with more Disney friends. Here’s the entire opening ceremony for the Disney 24 hour Coolest Summer Ever event:

Then guests streamed into the park to kick off what, for many, would be 24 hours of non-stop Disney fun. After a hearty breakfast, I headed over to Tomorrowland, where I had a Space Mountain FastPass. Amazingly, the wait was only 10 minutes, even without one. Next up was Buzz Lightyear and the Wedway Peoplemover (yeah, I know that name dates me, but that’s what it will always be to me). Of course, I had to make a quick stop at the time clock, where I memorialized the hour at which I’d dragged my half-asleep carcass into the park:

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There are lots of great photo ops throughout the park, and the 24 hours event is one of the few days that the Magic Kingdom relaxes its costume code for adult guests. In the past, I’ve worn my PJs to get an overnight photo with Mickey and Minnie, but today I saw lots of “big kids” dressed up in character garb, particularly Anna and Elsa. The Frozen juggernaut rolls on!

6Speaking of Frozen’s popularity, Olaf is featured on this year’s souvenir shirt, a really cute number what changes color in the sun. Of course, I had to get one to add to my collection.

The rides, shows, and character appearances continue long into the night during the Magic Kingdom’s 24 hour stints. Some people will make it for the whole 24 hours, while others will crash in the middle and still others will head over in the evening to just do the overnight experience. No matter how you enjoy it, the Coolest Summer Ever kickoff is the best way to experience the official start of the summer Disney season.

I did have to leave the Magic Kingdom in the early afternoon. No, I didn’t crash. The reason was much more exciting, as you can read by jumping to my next article here. Hint: You’ll love it if you’re a Teen Beach Movie fan. You might just see some of your favorite celebs on video.

American Ninja Warrior tapes two episodes at Universal Studios Florida

If you’ve ever watched American Ninja Warrior on NBC and wondered if the obstacles are as intimidating in real life as they look on your TV screen, rest assured that they are! I know that for a fact because the show filmed two episodes at Universal Studios Florida this past week and let the media get up close and personal with the obstacle course.

Check out the video below for a walk-through of the course. You’ll even see some intrepid souls trying out the first one:

The show returns to TV on May 25 for its seventh season, and Orlando was one of the five regional cities this year. It was exciting to see the obstacles up close and to learn about some changes. For example, this year the Rolling Log will have seven to eight rotations instead of three (as if it needed to get any harder!). Also, watch out for the Tilting Paddles and the Tire Swing.

Below, host Akbar Gbajabiamila talk about the obstacles:

Host Matt Iseman also weighs in:

The new sideline reporter, Kristine Leahy, was on hand at Universal, too:

If you’re watching American Ninja Warrior in June and think the backdrop looks familiar, you’ll be correct. I can’t say anything about the results, but rest assured that it was a well-fought battle at Universal Orlando Resort.

Disney World has new tours, characters, shows and more this summer

Recently I attended a Coolest Summer Ever event at Walt Disney World where I got a whirlwind look at what’s in store this summer. It’s hard to believe that we’re moving quickly toward the busy tourist season, but the May off-season is almost over and the tourists will soon descend on the Orlando parks.

If you’re vacationing at Walt Disney World this summer, or if you’re a brave local who can’t go too long without your Disney fix, check out these videos for a peek at what you can do:

Tour the Downtown Disney waterways in an amphibicar (seriously, how cool is this? These are originals from the 1960s!):

See the American Music Machine at Epcot (talk about talent!):

New Tour at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (this is on my must-do list as I’d love to learn more about how they care for the animals):

Meet Doc McStuffins at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (your Disney Junior fans will be so excited):

Teen Beach Movie 2 Party (just one more reason to head over to Typhoon Lagoon this summer):

99That’s just a quick sampling of what’s ahead, and Frozen Summer Fun returns to Disney’s Hollywood Studios this year, too. Come on, admit it, you love Olaf!  I most certainly do, and I was thrilled to meet him during the Coolest Summer Ever kick-off.

The heat came early to Orlando, so I’m already feeling like its summertime. The Coolest Summer Ever event just made this official (although Frozen Summer Fun doesn’t start until June 17), so now it’s time to enjoy!