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

Colossal Curl at Adventure Island water park: From construction to curvy thrills

Colossal Curl at Adventure Island (the water park right across from Busch Gardens Tampa) opens on Saturday, March 7, and it’s going to pack a wallop this summer. It was only a month ago when I was out at the park for a construction tour:

gl3It was a little chillier back then, and Colossal Curl was undergoing the finishing touches to bring it to life so riders could experience all the speed and high wall action of this multi-rider tube slide. The tubes hold four people at a time, so gather your family and friends and give it a whirl this summer.

If you’re from Orlando, you’re probably a lot more familiar with SeaWorld Orlando and its water park, Aquatica, that’s right down the street. And yes, we have Discovery Cove here in Orlando, too. Check out my article on my recent experience there (swimming with dolphins…what’s not to love?).

Adventure Island is right across from Busch Gardens Tampa and, like Aquatica, requires a separate admission ticket. It’s a great cool, watery respite in the summer time.

Want to learn more about the park and its history? Check out the video below:

gl4So is Adventure Island and Colossal Curl worth the drive to Tampa? I would say most definitely, especially if you love water park thrills. The media got sneak previews of the new slide, and it’s just as quick and slippery as you might imagine. You’ll be up the walls so high that you might wonder whether you’re going to go flying right out of the slide!

Up the wall, one section person at the top feels like you’re going to run out of wall.

Before you hop aboard, take a few seconds to admire the view. If you look out toward Busch Gardens, you’ll see my favorite roller coaster, SheiKra, as well as its siblings, like Montu and Cheetah Hunt, and of course the towering Falcon’s Fury. See them out there in the distance in the photo? But when you hop aboard Colossal Curl, there’s no metal track to guide you. You’re at the mercy of gravity and the water’s flow.

Colossal Curl is just one of six slides at Adventure Island, and there are also four pools and special spots for kids. You can easily spend a full day soaking up the sun and enjoying some water park thrills. I recommend heading to Colossal Curl early in the day…it’s going to be a very popular addition!

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A day at Discovery Cove in Orlando: Dolphin swims and so much more

o33I love theme parks, which is one reason I love living in Central Florida, but sometimes the crowds get to be a bit overwhelming. That’s why I’ve always loved Discovery Cove, where attendance is limited and the experiences are much more personal. I’ve been going there for years, so I was thrilled to be invited to spend the day there recently. I’d already been thinking about booking a visit before the summer, so it was a perfect opportunity

Discovery Cove is between I-4 and International Drive on Central Florida Parkway, just down the road from SeaWorld. Parking is free, and you can see right away from the much smaller lot that you’re not in for a typical crowded theme park experience.

Depending on your arrival time, you might encounter a crowd to check in. The process is quite organized, and I got to meet Lucky the sloth to pass the time while waiting. Check-ins start at 7:15 a.m., and the park opens at 8 for breakfast, so I recommend an early arrival. That means a lower crowd and more options for your dolphin swim time if you’ve booked one.

I arrived around 7:40 a.m. got a 10:30 a.m. dolphin swim. My wait was pretty short, but the line built quickly behind me. Normally I recommend heading right to breakfast, but I was lucky enough to have a cabana reservation, so we headed there first to drop off our stuff before fueling for the day. The cabana was gorgeous! They’re located throughout the park, and we had one overlooking the dolphin pool so we got to watch the interactions all day. It was like live TV, only better.

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Only sad thing was that we spent so little time in the cabana because there was so much to do. I brought my iPod, hoping for mpre quality hammock time, but closing time arrived before I knew it. At least I did get to kick back a bit with some wine, as you can see in the photo. But that’s getting ahead of the story…

o6On the way to the cabana, we stopped to pick up vests, which are required whenever you’re in the water. You can opt for a wet suit, but that’s more for colder days. Thankfully, even though it was early March, the temperature was flirting with 80 by the middle of the day so I was nice and comfy without stuffing my body into one of those suits.

Arriving early is also good so you don’t have to wait too long in the breakfast lines. I fueled up with a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, French toast sticks, and a danish. As with all meals and snacks, breakfast is included in your admission. The food is pretty basic, but that was fine with me since I was only interested in eating quickly to fuel up so I could start my day.

We had time to watch one of the early dolphin interactions from our cabana before heading over to the aviary. I like to go there early, when the birds are still hungry and therefore more likely to perch on your hands, arms, and even head as you offer them food. There are three rooms with different bird varieties, so don’t forget to visit them all. I had lots of birdie friends come down for food, and one even christened my shirt in the way that birds are so good at doing!

o2Already the morning was going too fast. It was already time for my dolphin swim, so I hurried to the meeting spot to see the safety video and learn how things would work. You’re split into groups of about 8 to 10 people and head into the designated area to meet your dolphin.

Our friend for the day was Akai, an older gentleman who has the distinction of being daddy to many SeaWorld dolphins. We had a chance to touch, pet, and even kiss him while the photographers documented the experience (the photos are a little pricey, but I recommend springing for them because it’s a priceless reminder of a special day). He was such a sweetheart, even if he did decide to single me out for some water spitting.

o3The Discovery Cove dolphins are never forced to perform, but Akai was cooperative and seemed to be relishing the attention and admiration. The big highlight was getting a dolphin ride where he pulled each of us through the water. Even if you’re not a swimmer, you can still do it as he’ll pull you in the shallow end of the pool if you prefer. The rest of the interaction takes place in a shallow enough spot where you can easily stand. Just watch out for the slippery rocks.

All too soon the dolphin swim was over. What a highlight! Truly the day couldn’t have gotten any better. I love aquatic creatures, which is why I have a SeaWorld annual pass and head over sometimes just to watch the dolphins and orcas in underwater viewing. Normally I’m separated from them by glass or a fence. It was a real treat to be right there in the water with a dolphin and to keep his tremendous power as I actually swam with him. If you’ve got kids, it’s a guaranteed thrill and a highlight for any vacation. Even if you’re an adult, I don’t think you can outgrow the excitement of a close-up dolphin encounter. Literally the only bad thing I can say about it is that it’s over way too soon (but then again, I don’t know if even hours playing with a dolphin would be enough).

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o8My sadness at the dolphin swim being over was quickly forgotten in the whirlwind of trying to figure out what to do next. We luckily got to the restaurant before there was much of a lunch line, so we ate quickly since food wasn’t much of a priority in view of all the fun still ahead.

I love the freshwater area with the otters and marmosets, so of course I had to spend some time there. The otters were frolicking and playing, and the marmosets were out and interacting with their keeper, so I got to see plenty of both. There’s also a section with in-water lounge chairs nearby; I didn’t have much time to spare, but I grabbed a frozen pina colada (yep, adult beverages are included in the price, too) and sat for a quick spell.

Of course, I had to do the lazy river, too. It has some steep dropoffs, so use a life vest and/or swim noodle (both provided) if you need some assistance staying afloat. My favorite part is the section that goes right through the aviary, although I enjoy the cave, too. It’s pleasant and warm and most definitely lives up to the “lazy” name.

o9Alas, I had to give up the warmth if I wanted to snorkel in the reef, but there was no way I was going to miss swimming with the stingrays. They’re all over in the reef, along with a variety of colorful fish and a huge group of sharks eying you from behind their glass enclosure. Some of those rays are huge! Many are tame enough to be petted, and often they’re swim right to you. This is why Discovery Cove provides you with snorkel gear to use as part of your admission. There’s a deep snorkeling area, and you’ll see plenty even if you stay in the shallows.

My only regret is not getting to spend more time in the cabana, which was stocked with drinks and snacks and featured plenty of chairs and even a comfy hammock that looked so inviting for a “beach break.” Even if you don’t have your own private cabana, there are plenty of chairs all around the park, as well as some hammocks interspersed, so you’ll find your own little piece of Heaven. But now could I stay still for very long when so many fun activities were beckoning? I literally stayed in the reef until the bitter end and was left wondering just where more than nine hours had flown.

If you want to visit Discovery Cove, be sure to book your reservation in advance, especially for popular dates, and do not miss the dolphin swim. All the theme parks are fun, but this is such a different experience. No crowds or craziness, just a day of relaxation and exploration in an amazing animal world.

I-Drive 360 attractions opening May 4, including Orlando Eye, Sea Life and Madame Tussauds

o3If you’re a local, you can’t help but notice the newest landmark on the International Drive tourist strip. The Orlando Eye wheel has slowly but surely worked its way 400 feet into the sky, and now it has all of its passenger capsules.

The Orlando Eye is the crowning jewel of the new I-Drive 360 attraction area, which took over the spot previously occupied by the struggling Mercado mall.

The wheel, which opens on May 4, is poised to breathe new life into a previously neglected area of the tourist strip that runs between the Orlando Convention Center and Sand Lake Road. It’s in a perfect spot that’s easily accessible from I-4, and a new parking garage eliminates much of the challenge of desperately searching for a spot to leave your car.

It was a slow but steady process to install all 30 passenger capsules. Want to see how it was done? Check out the video below. which shows the installation of the very last capsule:

Here’s General Manager Robin Goodchild talking about the installation:

Now that all 30 are in place, the Orlando Eye is in its final stages of completion. Its next big hallmark is installation of colored lights that will put on a dazzling show. There’s also lots of testing, and then the area’s newest towering thrill will be ready for its May 4 debut, along with two sister attractions in the I-Drive 360 complex: the Sea Life Aquarium and Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

The Sea Life aquarium will have three huge ocean habitats representing the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. The video below shows the very first gallons of water going into the Atlantic exhibit:

o5You’ll see everything from tiny seahorses to massive, toothy sharks at Sea Life. The big highlight will be the 360 degree tunnel that takes you into the sea creatures’ habitat. The attraction has an educational slant, so you can slip in a little learning with the fun when you bring the kids. Everything is set up to be immersive, and you can take little quizzes as you make your way through each exhibit area.

You can also feel good about supporting conservation when you visit the attraction, as Sea Life has a fund that supports breeding endangered animals like rays, rescuing and rehabilitating seals and turtles, cleaning beaches, and protecting marine habitats.

Sea Life will be part of the three-attraction opening on May 4, and although you can buy separate admission tickets for each attraction, you’ll save a lot of money if you combine a visit to all three.

Here’s curator Steve Blair talking about the new aquarium attraction:

o1The trio is rounded out by Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, which brings well-known historical figures and celebrities to Orlando in eerily life-like form. Be sure to bring your camera and you’ll end up with quite the star-studded photo collection by the end of your visit.

As you can see in the photo at right, Abe Lincoln was all ready for Presidents Day this year. His comrades will all be done by the May 4 opening day.

Five things to see and do at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Show

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival returns to Walt Disney World on March 4 and runs through May 17. The name sounds deceptively simple…Flower and Garden Festival…but those are just two small components of a massive overall event. Here are five things you’ll find if you head out to the park this year to enjoy this annual celebration of everything green and growing:

1) Flowers

o7Yes, they’re first in the same, and you’ll find them blooming all over the park. Being a local, I love to come to the event when it first starts because even though it’s March, it feels like it’s officially spring. I got an early preview this year, so I’m already in a spring state of mind even though it was quite chilly as I checked out the colorful flower beds.

Did you know the flowers get changed out over the course of the event? Florida can still get cold in March, but temperatures often soar by May. Flowers that like the chill end up being replaced by those that thrive in the heat in some of the festival beds.

I love the colorful flowers by the water underneath the monorail tracks, as well as the pots that are actually out in the water, and I also enjoy subtle touches like the red, white and blue flowers at the American pavilion in World Showcase.

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2) Gardens

o9The festival is packed with gardens that will give you new ideas to take back home to your own space. Whether you live on unending acres, have a relatively small yard, or do container gardens on a patio or balcony, you’ll be inspired at Epcot. There’s a definite emphasis on water conservation and also growing your own food. You’ll even see a nod to keeping chickens and bees, both of which are becoming more and more popular in suburban and urban areas.

You’ll also find playgrounds for the kids in the Cars- and Monsters-themed gardens. Parents can relax while kids get a chance to run a little wild. I particularly like the Cars garden this year, as it has a lot of space devoted to cacti and other succulents. They’re typically associated with the desert, but many actually thrive in Florida.

Yes, some of the cactus plants have intimidating needles, but don’t worry about the kids. Those plants are safely tucked away behind a fence to prevent anyone from getting impaled.

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3) Topiaries

o1Topiaries are a mainstay at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, and they’ve evolved in amazing ways over the years. Once upon a time they were green bushes trimmed and grown in shapes that were pretty good representations of the Disney characters. Now their features have gotten more and more realistic, and green has given way to a whole rainbow of colors. They’re designed carefully to ensure that they’re a proper representation of the characters, right down to making sure they’re at a proper scale when they’re in a multi-character scenes. You’ll see that with Chip and Dale in the entrance scene this year, with the two little chipmunks tormenting poor Donald.

Of course, the big addition for 2015 is Elsa and Anna, and they’re really stunning. The same technique used to make Snow White so life-like last year was used to design everyone’s favorite sisters. Compare them with this rendition of Belle and you can see just how far things have come:

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4) Food

f1Food was added to the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival a few years back, and it was a hit. The offerings continue to be refined, improved, and updated, and I promise you won’t be disappointed this year. Of course, I’ve never been disappointed with the food in any year, but this year features some returning favorites, like shrimp and grits, and tasty new options like burnt brisket hash and a fantastic quinoa vegetable naanwhich.

I had an opportunity to try several of the items, and there wasn’t a bad one among them. Everything is fresh and flavorful, in keeping with the festival theme. You may already be familiar with the versatility of kale, but if not, I highly recommend trying the salad that’s available at the festival. It’s a light, sweet salad that makes it fun to get in your serving of veggies.

f9Even though this isn’t the food and wine festival, you’ll find adult libations, too. Check out the Florida beers on tap and other options, like the key lime wine. The drinks are very refreshing, especially in the later days of the festival when temperatures start to rise. I’m looking forward to one item in particular, although it’s not exactly a drink. The kiosk by France will offer an adult version of frozen peach iced tea. I’m all about flavored iced teas, so I can’t wait to give it a try.

Speaking of France, you’ll also want to check out the delicious strawberry macaroons. If you need some energy to make it all the way around World Showcase, they’ll give you a proper sugar rush. Add some caffeine from the frozen iced tea and you’re ready for a full day of seeing and doing everything.

Of course, you can get macaroons at any time from the bakery in the French pavilion. It’s the perfect spot to stop in the morning for a bit of quick breakfast, since you can get there before the main part of World Showcase opens. They also have very tasty lunch options, and you can dine in the lovely ambiance of the Belle, Beast, Lumiere and Cogsworth topiaries during the festival. Here’s a strawberry macaroon to get you drooling:

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There’s also a moist and yummy tres leches cake and lemon tarts topped with blueberries, among the other dessert options:

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5) Concerts

Last but not least on our list is the concerts. They’re included with your park admission ticket and take place in the theater on the waterfront by the American pavilion. Here’s the schedule:

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Excited yet? Experience all this and more at Epcot from March 4 through May 17.

Universal Orlando combines food, concerts and parade floats into amazing Mardi Gras event

I love living in Orlando, where Halloween celebrations start in September and Christmas events spill over into January. We celebration Mardi Gras long and loud, too, with Universal Orlando’s event running on select nights all the way through April 18.

What exactly is Mardi Gras all about? This event at Universal Studios Florida brings a slice of the French Quarter to Orlando each year, with authentic Cajun cuisine, New Orleans bands, and street entertainment. Here’s an overview video:

You see a bit of the parade in the video above, but if you’d like to see the whole thing, here it is:

Pretty impressive! The floats are done by the same company that creates the actual Mardi Gras floats in Louisiana. Did you noticed the rain of beads? You’ll have quite a haul by the parade’s end if you’re adept at catching them.

What goes into creating this annual event? Lora Wallace shares a little about it in the video below:

There’s another big component to the Mardi Gras celebration: the concert series. Here are the upcoming dates and performers:

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Concerts are included with your theme park ticket…pretty sweet deal!

Mardi Gras festivities start at 4 p.m. on the selected dates, but I recommend an early arrival so you can enjoy the park’s attractions before being vicariously transported to Louisiana.

Love antiques, vintage goodies & gardens? Head to Orlando Museum of Art this weekend

z15If you love antiques and vintage decor or are cultivating a green thumb, the 33rd Annual Antiques Vintage & Garden Show: The Art of Living is the place to be this weekend. It kicks off at the Orlando Museum of Art on February 20 and runs through the 22nd. This year, you’ll see renowned author and garden designer Jon Carloftis as the special guest speaker. You can also enjoy two new events: a Maker’s Mark Bourbon Tasting and The Art of Living Mini Seminars on topics like décor, entertaining, fashion and gardening.

What exactly are the mini seminars? They’re interactive experiences that give you useful  tips directly from design and entertainment experts. You’ll learn how to use antiques and vintage pieces into your home as an extenson of your personal style. seminar topics include The Art of the Urban Garden, The Art of Fashion, The Art of Décor and The Art of Entertaining. Tickets are available for purchase by calling 407-896-4231, Ext. 254, by going to www.omart.org/programs/antiques-vintage-garden-show or at the Orlando Museum of Art.

Here’s the Cliff Notes version of the events that run throughout the weekend:

  • Thursday, February 19 – 6:30 to 10pm – Preview Party – The Art of the Party: Be the first to shop the show while enjoying an evening of cocktails, delectable cuisine and entertainment. $85 per person
  • Friday, February 20 – 11am to 12pm: Speaker and expert gardener Jon Carloftis will do a presentation on estate gardens, followed by a Champagne Reception and Book Signing. The evening will end with a Bourbon Tasting at 5:30 – 7pm sponsored by Maker’s Mark.
  • Friday, Saturday & Sunday – 2 to 4pm – What’s it Worth? Appraisal Days: Do you have a family heirloom or a piece you’ve always wondered about? Antiques expert and show manager, Charlie Miller, will give you a professional verbal appraisal of your potential treasure. $10 per item/limit two items.
  • Saturday, February 21 – 1 to 4pm – The Art of Living Mini Seminars: Immerse yourself in a collection of awe-inspiring short courses highlighting urban gardening, décor, fashion and entertaining ideas and trends. The evening ends with a Bourbon & Bites Mixer from 4pm to 7pm. Tickets include mini seminar and mixer. $50 per person.
  • Sunday, February 22 – 11am, 12pm & 1pm – Mystery Home Tour: Who doesn’t love a home tour? Explore a unique home, filled with design inspiration. $35 per person.

This event is a major fundraiser for the Orlando Museum of Art, so you’ll have a great time while doing your part to support arts in the City Beautiful. Indulge your inner decorator and come away with some new ideas based around old decor.

Praise Wave at SeaWorld Orlando features Colton Dixon, Lecrae and Steven Curtis Chapman

m1Normally I have to wait until the fall to see all my favorite Christian artists come to Orlando for Night of Joy at the Magic Kingdom Indeed, Disney has a powerhouse line-up slated for this year, which you can read about in this article.

But now I can get my fix early, thanks to a brand new event at SeaWorld Orlando. Praise Wave kicks off on February 14 with Lecrae and Colton Dixon, followed by Steven Curtis Chapman on the 21st. There’s still one more artist to be announced for the last day of the event, which is February 28.

Praise Wave is included with regular park admission, but you can upgrade to VIP seats, starting at $19, or go whole hog and get in the front row, starting at $29. Otherwise, just stake our a seat at Bayside Stadium early. The event area opens at 1 p.m., with cookout-style food and character appearances to keep the kids (and adults) entertained. I must admit I’m always excited to see Shamu and his friends. They were out and about for Wild Days during the past three weekends.

Get full event details on the official SeaWorld website, and watch for the last artist announcement for the February 28th show. Once Praise Wave ends, Bands Brew & BBQ will be quick to follow in March, with Viva La Musica running for four weekends, starting in late April. Then comes Summer Nights, with special evening shows and fireworks. Here’s an interview with Kelly Flaherty Clark, SeaWorld’s Curator of Animal Training, from last year’s event to whet your appetite:

Party for Mardi (Gras, that is) at Universal Studios Florida

z1It’s one of my favorite seasons again at Universal Orlando Resort. Once again, yellow, purple and green decor has taken over the park, along with the scent of delicious Cajun cuisine and the strains of New Orleans bands wafting on the air.

Yes, it’s Mardi Gras time. The event runs on select nights though April 18, adding a party atmosphere to the park with authentic food, stiltwalkers and other street performers, musicians, and a big parade to tie it all together each night. The floats are from the same company that makes the floats in New Orleans.

If you like a little swag, get ready to grab for the beads that rain down from the floats. You don’t have to be in the front row to amass a nice collection, although I recommend it for optimal viewing. The bead shower easily reaches everyone on the sidewalk.

If you’d like to see the parade for yourself, here’s a video taken at this year’s event kick-off:

z15There’s also a high-powered concert each night of Mardi Gras, but stake out a spot early if you’re coming to see a favorite band because the crowd fills in fast. It’s mildly crowded before the parade, and then it becomes a madhouse when that’s over and the parade spectators rush to see the music.

You can easily make a whole day of it at Universal Studios Florida with the Mardi Gras event. It’s takes plenty of time just to do the regular attractions, but when you add extra entertainment and dining, the day is guaranteed to fly right by.You can always book a VIP tour for your family to ensure that you get to ride everything. Read about my experience on a recent tour here.

Unlike the authentic event in New Orleans, it’s very family friendly. The kids will love all the photo ops with the strolling entertainers, and Mom and Dad can grab some tasty adult libations.

Here’s the full concert schedule (Olivia’s done for the year, but there are plenty of other great artists playing at the park in the coming weeks). You can find more details on the official Universal Orlando Resort Mardi Gras web page:

  • Feb. 7: Olivia Newton-John
  • Feb. 14: Jesse J
  • Feb. 15: Barenaked Ladies
  • Feb. 21: Kelly Clarkson
  • Feb. 28: Heart
  • March 7: Trace Adkins
  • March 13: MKTO
  • March 14: Styx
  • March 15: American Authors
  • March 20: Becky G
  • March 21: Yandel
  • March 22: The B-52s
  • March 28: Phillip Phillips
  • April 4: The All-American Rejects
  • April 11: The Band Perry
  • April 18: Trey Songz

Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival reveals menu, starts March 7

This year, Busch Gardens Tampa is kicking off a brand-new event: its first ever Food and Wine Festival, featuring nine food cabins with various delectable delights, over 50 wines, and more than 50 craft beers. Here’s a little sampling:

Coconut shrimp, one of the items from the Savory Tavern:

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Duck confit from the Gourmet Lodge:

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Griddled goodies from the Chef’s Plantation:

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Goat cheese and beet salad at Coast to Coast Cookery:

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Roasted pork belly at the Field House Eatery:

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Cod at the Southern Station:

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Strawberry shortcake at the Comfort Kitchen:

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Cheese plate at the Light Fare Canteen:

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Jerk chicken at Blazin’ Bistro:

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You can find out more about the event, which runs weekends through April 26, on the official website. The event also includes concerts by artists like Kenny Rogers, Steven Curtis Chapman, and Kool & The Gang. Best of all, you can make a day of it and enjoy all the regular Busch Gardens rides, shows, and animals (DO NOT miss SheiKra, Cheetah Hunt, and Montu, and tackle Falcon’s Fury if you dare).

Watch Kazu Kibuishi create art at A Celebration of Harry Potter

k1If you’ve seen the covers of the 15th anniversary editions of the Harry Potter books, you know just how talented Kazu Kibuishi really is. He was commissioned by Scholastic to re-imagine the covers, and his vision of the characters and the Wizarding World have influenced the view of an entire generation.

How does Kibuishi create his work? He answered that question at A Celebration of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort, both explaining how he does it and giving a live demonstration.He was at the expo with Scholastic, which has a booth at the expo. The event features companies, celebrities and others who played a role in bringing the world of Harry Potter to life in various ways, whether it be in the movies through Warner Brothers Studios, online via Pottermore, or in the original written form, like Scholastic.

As Kibuishi told his fans at his presentation, he uses a computer to bring his visions to life, and he works very quickly, as you can see in the evolution of the photos below. He created most the scene at his talk on the main stage at Universal Studios Florida. although he prepared Hogwarts a little earlier at his media Q & A panel:

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Kibuishi created this picture to raffle off at the Scholastic booth, where he was also on hand to meet fans and sign autographs. There’s still one more day to check out A Celebration of Harry Potter, since it runs through Sunday, February 1. If you miss it, you can still explore Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley any time at Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida.