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

Take POV ride on Mako: New SeaWorld coaster opens on June 10

Mako, the brand-new shark themed roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando is set for a June 10 opening, and test runs are going well. If you’re wondering what the new coaster will be like (and are trying to decide whether your nerves are steely enough to challenge it), check out this POV footage from one of the test runs:

As you can see, it’s just about done, but the site is still undergoing a transformation into a tribute to sharks. If you’d like to go on a construction tour, the two videos below take you behind the scenes:

Brian Morrow:

Mike Denninger:

If your excitement is stoked, head out to SeaWorld Orlando this summer. Plan to arrive early; Mako is sure to be the must-do ride.

Meet Darlene Love as she prepares for Epcot shows this weekend

Music legend Darlene Love plays at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival this weekend. The dynamic performer will take the stage three times a night (5:30, 6:45, and 8 p.m.) on Saturday and Sunday.

If you’re familiar with Love’s career, you know it dates back nearly 60 years, to the days of Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound. The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer is also an actress, too. You may have seen her on the stage, but she’s also been on the big screen in all four Lethal Weapon movies.

Love talks about acting, singing, working with big names, and visiting Walt Disney World in the video interview below, where she graciously takes time out of her busy schedule to chat:

At the end of the video, you’ll see some clips of her high energy performance. That lady can move!

Love is one of the last performers as the festival winds down, closing out its 2016 season on May 30. Next week, see Night Ranger May 20 to 22, followed by the Spinners May 27 to 30.

The music is great, but don’t forget that the festival is packed with topiaries, flowers, butterflies, educational seminars, and much more. Make it out for one last weekend before the countdown to the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival starts on September 14.

Celebrating Avocado Mexican Grill – Authentic food in Celebration

a1Celebration, Florida, is home to an eclectic mix of restaurants, from authentic Boston (I’m looking at you, Town Tavern) to amazing Thai (love me some Thai Tani) to the Cuban flair at the Columbia.

There’s one spot on Bloom Street, just past Starbucks and near the hotel, that’s never been able to find its identity as an eatery…until now. In the past, it’s gone through incarnations as a British tea room, Irish pub, and European bistro before taking a stab at Mexican cuisine as Avocado Mexican Grill. That attempt received a lukewarm reception, but instead of folding up its tents, the grill joined forces with some personnel from a Kissimmee Mexican dining powerhouse and transformed this modest restaurant into something truly authentic.

Trying Out the New Kid in Town

I had the pleasure of trying out the all-new Avocado Mexican Grill at its Cinco de Mayo opening. I’m very familiar with El Tenampa, the Mexican restaurant on East 192 from which it draws its new expertise, so I had high expectations. I’m absolutely hooked on the wet burritos and quesadillas caseras at El Tenampa, not to mention their horchata and aguas frescas, so the prospect of having their style of authentic cuisine right in my backyard was exciting. The question is, could this new incarnation hold up to the high standards of the restaurant that inspired it? I’m happy to say, “Yes! Yes, it does!”

a2One handicap for Avocado Mexican Grill is that it’s a very small restaurant. It does have both indoor and outdoor space, but it’s quite limited. The kitchen has limits, too, but it’s been redone, and a manager and cook have come from El Tenampa to help make the most of that limited space. I’m not a big one for sitting outdoors because I don’t like to be around smoking, but we had a cozy little table on the far side of the bar that served us quite nicely.

The menu at Avocado is much smaller than El Tenampa’s, reflecting the more limited kitchen space. While the wet burrito and quesadillas caseras were missing, there were plenty of items from which to choose. I purposely chose something I’ve had in the past at El Tenampa (flautas) so I could do a direct comparison.

The chips and salsa were exactly as I know and love them, albeit with a bit more heat. They weren’t overly hot, though, and the salsa was fresh and had plenty of cilantro. Yum! It’s always hard not to overindulge, but I knew that I needed to save stomach space for the feast to come.

Bring on the Main Course

a3The flautas were crispy, and the chicken was melt in your mouth tender. The beans and Mexican rice were up to my quality standards (I like the veggies in the rice), and, unlike the former Avocado incarnation, everything was sprinkled with real, crumbly Mexican queso. If I had to give any critique, the only thing I would say is that I’d like a bit more seasoning on the chicken, but that’s a very minor point. My husband had a tamale and enchilada, and he said they could easily have come right out of El Tenampa’s kitchen, so the cook has obviously transferred his skills quite well to his new Celebration domain.

To drink, my husband had the sangria, but I opted to try the horchata and lime aguas frescas. Pineapple is also on the menu, but they didn’t have any on this particular day. The horchata was delicious; lime isn’t my favorite aguas frescas, but it was certainly passable, and I’ll definitely try the pineapple next time I visit. I’m hoping they might expand the flavors, as I love more exotic options like tamarind and guava. There were also tequila samples in honor of Cinco de Mayo, and we learned that a tequila flight will be a regular offering.

a4The portions are a little smaller than those at El Tenampa (where the wet burrito could easily feed two), but you most definitely get enough to fill all but the most ravenous of appetites. Still, I had to find room for dessert so I could compare the fried ice cream. The Avocado version was a yummy treat and a perfect topper to a yummy Mexican meal, enough thought I know it’s not authentic…it’s still a major crowd pleaser.

The Verdict is In

My verdict on the new incarnation of Avocado Mexican Grill: authentic and amazing. Although they kindly comped my first meal, I’ll be there laying down cash on a regular basis. Mexican is my favorite type of ethnic food. When you grow up on the south side of Chicago in a neighborhood with Mexican families who like to share their home cooking, you get a taste for the real thing, and Americanized restaurants, or even Tex-Mex, just don’t fill the bill. I’ll be a regular patron at Celebration’s newest restaurant; the only thing that could make me happier is if sopa de fideo ever showed up on the menu.

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At Cirque du Soleil La Nouba, new acts bring fresh twist

If you haven’t been to La Nouba, the Cirque du Soleil show at Disney Springs, lately, you’ve been missing out on lots of new action. As of the beginning of this year, the show is 30 percent new content, including two dynamic opening acts. What could be more high energy than opening with break dancing? Here’s a taste of the B-Boys, who kick things off each night at La Nouba:

They’re followed by a talented husband and wife team who take to the air for an Aerial Bamboo performance. Meet them in the video below (I was shocked to find out that neither person in this talented duo is from a circus family):

The clowns Pablo and Pablo have been around for about a year now, and they’re still as hilarious as ever. Get to your seats at least 15 minutes before the official show time because you do not want to miss out on their crazy antics. Here’s just a little sampler:

As you can see, La Nouba’s new acts are all a great fit for the venerable show. If the videos whet your appetite to see it, check out show dates and ticket prices on the official website.

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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