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

Kick off Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic with a seminar for even more fun

What’s more fun than spending Halloween night (or November 1) doing some adult trick-or-treating at food and wine kiosks all along the waterfront at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort? Why, doing it after kicking things off with a late afternoon seminar, of course.

I always recommend the Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic, which runs this year on October 31 and November 1. It’s a never-ending extravaganza of food, wine and beer. While you can buy individual tickets, the smartest move is most definitely getting the all-inclusive armbands that let you indulge to your heart’s content. And even better still? Getting a package that includes a room so you can crash right there after all your indulgence.

But as I mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, there’s a way to get things started early that’s well worth the extra cost. Below is a description and price for all the seminars offered this year. I attended the Italian wine class last year, and from what I can remember after downing innumerable classes of vino, it was absolutely superb. You’ll find a video of that seminar at the end of this article, but first, let’s start with the prices and descriptions. If they entice you into booking one, you can find more details on the official website.

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Hard to choose, isn’t it? Personally, I’m partial to cheese, but you can’t really go wrong with any of these options. To get a peek at what the seminars are like, check out the video below.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog In the Shadow of the Mouse.

End of summer brings Great Irish Hooley to Raglan Road

b12Don’t be sad that summer’s almost over. Sure, it means back to school and a return of cooler temps (which is actually quite welcome here in Florida). It also means that the Great Irish Hooley is returning to Raglan Road at Downtown Disney for a third year.

The Hooley runs from August 29 to September 1, with drinking, dancing and dining throughout the weekend. Granted, Raglan Road is my favorite Downtown Disney dining spot anyway (their soda bread is downright sinful, although not quite as much as the desserts), so the Hooley is a great excuse to head on over.

One thing I like about the Great Irish Hooley is that it’s great for either families or adults. Raglan Road is always a hopping spot, with bands and dancers, and during the Hooley, the kids can enjoy fun activities and even try out their Irish dancing skills at a workshop. Yes, adventurous adults can attempt to live out their Riverdance dreams, too, but personally I prefer to focus on the fine dining while soaking up the entertainment.

b13This year’s line-up includes:

  • Scythian, a headliner on the Celtic festival circuit and equally at home in rock venues – the band will release a fan-funded album, “Jump at the Sun,” in August.
  • The Raglan Rebels, Ireland’s best up-and-coming young band with traditional and modern songs and ballads.
  • Drops of Green, an exciting new ballad group from the heart of Ireland.
  • The Brayzen Heads, a popular duo on guitar and banjo playing Raglan Road regularly.
  • The West Coast Trio, from Connemara, playing traditional and contemporary Irish songs on accordion, flute and guitar with plenty of reels and jigs.

Come for the music and stay for the fun! If you don’t have little ones in tow, relax at the bar and take your time enjoying Guinness or your drink of choice while you watch the bands and dancers, who appear throughout each night of the event.

Want a little sampler? Check out the video below, shot during last year’s celebration:

If you’re a Riverdance fan, you can meet original cast member Ronan McCormack during the Great Irish Hooley. He chats about Irish dance in the video below, shot at Raglan Road in 2012:

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Dining at Diagon Alley: How to eat Harry Potter style

Yes, yes, I know that the big buzz about Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida is centered around the ride, stores, and the fire breathing dragon perched on top of Gringotts. Yes, those are all good reasons to hit the new area this summer, but don’t leave out one important part: the food.

b8Granted, there are quite a few good places to dine at Universal Studios Florida. I love the Simpsons food court, with chicken and waffle sandwiches from Cletus, heart-clogging Krusty Burgers, and, of course, giant pink-frosted Homer-friendly donuts, as well as the tacos at Bumblebee Man’s truck.If you don’t believe the donuts are big, that’s what I’m toting in the photo with Krusty and Sideshow Bob at right.

When I want a nice sit-down meal, Finnegan’s is always there to tempt me with its sinful soda bread. I end up eating there a lot on Halloween Horror Nights days when I come in the park early for Stay and Scream.

But with the opening of Diagon Alley, I have a whole new list of culinary options if I decide to dine in the park. The iconic Leaky Cauldron is a richly detailed restaurant, and the menu has something to please just about anyone. I was able to knosh on several of the options at the media preview earlier this year. Enjoy this food porn and prepare to work up an appetite as you scroll your way down the page:

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b6If you’re a Butterbeer fan, never fear. It still flows freely in Diagon Alley, but you’ll find some more unconventional options too. My favorite of those is Fishy Green Ale, which is a “love it or hate it” sort of thing. I’m a fan of bubble tea, so I’m use to drinking potables with squishy orbs (don’t worry, they taste like berry).You can see them in the bottom of the cup in the photo at right.

The Gilly Water is very refreshing, too, but I’m also a big fan of flavored waters. I find it too be especially attractive on a hot day in the park when you’re tired of downing plain water to stay hydrated. Yes, it’s important to do that, but I like tossing in a little flavored treat.

If you’d like to hear more about the various dishes available at the Leaky Cauldron, check out the video below. You’ll hear directly from Ric Florell, Senior Vice President of Revenue Operations at Universal Orlando, and Executive Chef Jayson as they give an overview about all the new food and beverages available at the Leaky Cauldron and around Diagon Alley (believe me, you don’t want to miss Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour):

Sure, you’ll want to come to explore the stores and take a ride through Gringotts, but bring your appetite too. I promise you won’t be disappointed when you get a taste of Harry’s world.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

When rain at the theme parks is a GOOD thing: How to take advantage

b5It’s most definitely summer in Florida, and the almost-daily rain storms prove it. Normally they start in the afternoon, but we’ve seen a few come in the late morning recently. Usually they let up, but sometimes they seem to hang on forever. If you’re in Orlando on vacation, that will no doubt make you impatient as you huddle under shelter in the theme park of your choice, wonder if you’ll pass out under the steamy humidity of your rain poncho, and wonder if the rain will ever stop so the fun can resume.

Believe it or not, you can use the pervasive Florida rain to your advantage. It’s something the locals all know, and tourists can use this trick too. Other people hate the rain just as much as you do, and that means many of them bail back to their hotels. If your family is prepared to tough it out, you’ll enjoy much shorter lines and a lesser crowd, even in the peak of the summer.

The first rule of preparation is to dress appropriately for the rain. Yes, those rain ponchos are uncomfortable, but they’re a necessity if you want to stay dry and don’t want to lug an umbrella around. I recommend wearing shorts with them; otherwise, long pants can still get uncomfortably soaked. Also, choose water-friendly shoes like Crocs or flip-flops (I personally opt for Crocs knock-offs on wet days). That way, you won’t be sloshing uncomfortably in soaked shoes and socks and developing a nasty case of blisters. Bring a waterproof bag to carry your belongings.

Once you’re properly suited up, get out there and enjoy the park! Just be sure to choose a park with lots of indoor attractions or rides that don’t shut down when it’s wet out. Virtually all outdoor rides are closed for safety when there’s lightning, but some can run in rainstorms as long as the lightning isn’t nearby. If you want to keep most of your fun indoors, places like Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Universal Studios Florida are ideal. Even SeaWorld, with all its outdoor shows, has more inside attractions than you might imagine, like Antarctica, Turtle Trek, the shark exhibit, the Manta aquarium, and Wild Arctic.

If you don’t want to get wet, you can still use the rain to your advantage. Choose a day with a long, vicious downpour, then wait until it stops and head immediately to your theme park of choice. It should be nearly deserted, since most of the attendees will have fled the inclement weather. You can get in some good ride time before they return. If it’s late enough in the day, the crowd might never build again and you can enjoy the solitude until closing time. This is especially helpful if you want to see one of the hot new Orlando attractions, like the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom or Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.

I use the rain to my advantage all the time, and I recommend that you do, too. You can’t stop the summer rain in Florida, but you can make it work to your benefit.

In the meantime, please enjoy one of my favorite old SNL bits. This is the kind of confidence I want to have in my weatherman:

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

ICLOAK stick exceeds Kickstarter funding goal: Runs to July 25

b12Recently I had the pleasure of attending the launch event for the ICLOAK stick, a device that will let you surf the web anonymously. It was held right here in Orlando, at Shine on Wall Street, and I learned all about the ways in which the ICLOAK stick can protect internet users online.

I loved the concept from a general privacy standpoint and also from the view of someone who travels a lot and uses WiFi in public places that range from theme parks and hotels to coffee shops, restaurants, airports, and other spots where a malicious network could easily be masquerading as something official. We all know that certain activities should only be done with protection, and these days, surfing the web on an unknown connection is one of them.

How exactly does ICLOAK work? Eric B Delisle, CEO of DigiThinkIt, explained it much better than I ever could when he took questions from the media at the launch event. Here’s a full video of his question and answer session with the media:

b11I love the fact that it’s a simple little stick that you plug into your USB drive, as shown in the photo. That’s basically it. No technical knowledge required. Granted, I know my way around a computer pretty well, but I prefer things to be as easy as possible because I don’t have a lot of spare time to devote to learning how to use devices. I want plug and play, and in the demo, Eric proved that that’s exactly what ICLOAK is.

The company was seeking $75,000 in funds, with the product set to launch in the fall. The campaign still has a few days to go, and guess what? The funding is up to almost $87,000 already. Really, that doesn’t surprise me, since this is a timely product that will solve a real need. People who pledged $25 or more will get an ICLOAK stick before the general release, which is a real bargain. The $25 level is all sold out, but the $35 tier and above gets you a stick a month later.

Will ICLOAK be the Next Big Thing in internet privacy? Its funding campaign seems to show that plenty of people think so. I know I’ll be watching for it this fall because, as someone who spends the majority of her time on the internet and who depends on her computer for her livelihood, I want all the protection I can get.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

A TMI post: Cottonelle comes in handy at the theme parks

b10Let’s face it, no one likes to talk about bathrooms, even though they’re one of those necessities of life that you can’t do without anywhere, even at the theme parks. The number one most frequently asked question at Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens Tampa, and Legoland Florida is, “Where’s the nearest bathroom?” That’s important to know for anyone, but especially those with little kids. There’s even an entire website devoted to the bathrooms at Walt Disney World, complete with photos.

And speaking of rugrats, they get messy. Very messy. Whether it’s a melting Mickey bar slopping chocolate all over their shirt, sitting on something sticky and yicky, or even when making a potty stop, kids and messes go together.

So how does this all tie together? Recently I was selected by CrowdTap to take part in their Cottonelle Summer Clean Care campaign, which gave me free samples and coupons to use and share. Sure, I can always use extra toilet paper. Let’s face it, who can’t? Normally I use Northern because I just can’t stand the commercials for that bear butt brand that’s so disgusting I can’t even bring myself to type the name. Happily, Cottonelle was nice and soft and got the job done, without going into any gory details.

But the part that was most interesting to me was trying out the flushable cleansing cloths, which are something I’d never really thought about using. Sure, I’ve used moist towelettes for my hands and face, but my bum? Doesn’t regular toilet paper do a good enough job? Does it really need to be all that squeaky clean? Well, yes, actually I supposed it does, but still…..

b11I love it when I end up trying something I’d never buy on my own as part of a campaign via a place like Crowdtap and end up finding out just how useful it really is. It’s summer here in Florida…brutally hot summer…and it’s actually very nice to have the moist clothes to make you feel a little more refreshed. No matter how the workers at any of the theme parks try to keep the bathrooms at a dull roar, slovenly guests swoop down to trash them as soon as they’re halfway clean. I hate using a dirty bathroom, but sometimes there’s no choice, so it’s nice to use a Cottonelle wipe to at least feel a bit more sanitary after the experience.

I find the Cottonelle flushable wipes very useful as an adult, so of course I have to recommend them to parents, too. It’s a nice way to ensure that, no matter how messy your child’s other body parts might get, there’s one part that’s nice and clean. They’re as easy to carry as a pack of tissues, but they come in so darned handy.

And besides, after suffering with those horrible bear commercials, it’s nice to know that Cottonelle at least went with the much better choice of an adorable puppy in its previous ad campaigns:

Now wasn’t that a lot nicer than a bear with klingons all over his rear end?

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

SyFy Face Off takes over Halloween Horror Nights scare zone this fall

b2I’m a bright and bubbly theme park loving gal. This summer, I’m enjoying upbeat attractions like Frozen Summer at Walt Disney World and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida, but I have to admit there’s a darkness inside of me that’s clamoring to get out.

As someone who celebrated her first Halloween when she was only a few days old and who was raised in a family that would scare the Addams and Munster clans away, I’ve always had a deep and abiding lover for Halloween and Horror. Thus, I wait eagerly each year for Universal Orlando Resort to reveal its themes for Halloween Horror Nights. Then I get a Frequent Fear Plus pass and hit up the event as many nights as I possibly can, getting my fix of fear that has to tide me over for the rest of the year.

Last year, all the scare zones were devoted to the Walking Dead. I’ll admit that had me worried when it was announced, but it turned out to be a great thing in terms of scares. I got some of my best-ever frights from the stealthy scareactors and ended up thoroughly enjoying the Walking Dead theme.

This year promises to be even more exciting, as Universal just announced a SyFy Face Off themed scarezone with ten creepy creatures lurking around five environments. I can’t wait to see what the make-up artists experts come up with.

Check out the video below if you want to build your excitement, but remember…you have to wait until September 19 to experience it for yourself:

Yes, the Walking Dead will be back, too, but I have to admit that the Face Off possibilities are jacking up my excitement level. Stay tuned for more information, as well as lots of tips and hints on getting the most out of Halloween Horror Nights, as the fall approaches. In the meantime, if you’re planning to stay on site for the event, check out the video below that explains why Cabana Bay is a great choice:

Videos show all the Frozen Summer fun at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Recently, I blogged about my day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios enjoying all the Frozen Summer activities. After all, who can resist playing in the snow in Florida, seeing Anna and Elsa, and singing “Let It Go” for the five hundred and thirty-fourth time?

If you haven’t made it over to the park to see it all for yourself, perhaps these videos will whet your appetite and inspire you to run over to the Studios. Just about everything, other than the ice skating, is included with your admission ticket, so it’s a nice little enhancement to a park that already has fun rides and shows like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Tours, Muppets 3-D, and the ever-popular Toy Story Mania.

Below, you’ll find a full overview of Frozen Summer, which runs through September 1:

This is an event that you’ll want to tough out until the end. As you saw in the video above, it’s capped with an impressive fireworks display. If you’re hearty enough to arrive at park opening and stay until close, you’ll begin your day with a cute welcome from Olaf, as seen in the video below:

The two big shows are the Frozen Sing-Along and Anna and Elsa’s royal welcome, which combines a mini parade with a cute little stage show. You can see it in the video below:

Frozen Summer is a great way for Disney to integrate one of its hottest (coldest?) properties into its parks. Anna and Elsa already to meet and greets at the Magic Kingdom, but that park is always the most popular, and it also has the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, so it doesn’t really need any other draws. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the perfect spot to act as the center of the Frozen action. In the video below, Creative Director Reed Jones talks about the event:

If you plan to make it out to Frozen Summer, you still have a while. Just hit the park by September 1 and you can witness snow in Florida, make your own snowman, and enjoy winter fun in the summer season.

A day at Disney’s Frozen Summer: Ice, snow, singing and sweets

b3“Frozen” is a box office phenomenon that remains wildly popular nearly a year after its theatrical release. The Anna and Elsa meet and greet at the Magic Kingdom routinely racks up multi-hour waits (hint: get a FastPass if you possibly can, but you need to do that early). Now the sisterly duo is spicing things up at Disney’s Hollywood Studios with Frozen Summer, a daily event that runs through September 1.

Nope, you won’t get to meet Elsa and Anna in person, but you’ll see them live in two shows, and you’ll enjoy winter activities that are pretty hard to come by in Florida at any time of year, like snowman building and ice skating. Just in case it’s been too long since you’ve heard “Let It Go,” you can get your fix at one of the daily singalongs.

I spent a day enjoying Frozen Summer, and I have to admit that it really brought out the kid in me. I arrived before park opening because I’m no fool: summer in Florida means massive crowds at Disney, especially with Anna and Elsa as an added attraction. Early arrival gives you a precious window of opportunity before the influx of humanity gets too overwhelming. If you plan to hit up Frozen Summer, I advise you to get there early too.

Once you arrive, you’ll get a cute little Olaf cutout that you can use for photo opportunities (and he doubles as a handy dandy fan, too). If you don’t get one at the entrance, they’re handed out at many kiosks around the park, too. As you can see in the photo below, Olaf and I managed to find Sven, or at least one of his relatives:

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Since I was there for rope drop, I had a prime spot for the little opening ceremony up on the main stage. There aren’t any live Frozen characters, but Olaf appears up on the screen.You can see the opening in the video below:

Then the rope goes down and the mad rush for Toy Story Mania begins. I thought that Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and the adjacent Frozen Funland might be crowded early on, but amazingly, it really wasn’t. I had no wait to step onto the snowy landscape and make a snowball:

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I watched the fun on the ice skating rink, although I didn’t try it myself. Instead, I headed next door for a little shopping at the trading post, where I got an Elsa Magic Band.

I was dazzled by the wide array of Frozen merchandise, from books to dresses to t-shirts to dolls and more. People were grabbing handfuls of dolls and toys (you can’t buy more than five of any one item). Thankfully, there are many registers for check-out so the line moves pretty quickly. I was able to use my annual pass holder discount, which was a nice plus.

b1Next on my agenda was watching the royal welcome, a miniature parade and presentation on the main stage. You can either stake out a spot early or buy the Frozen Package, which also includes special seating for the singalong show and a pre-fireworks dessert party. If you have limited time and want to be sure to get the full Frozen experience, then I highly recommend it.

If you’re not in the package area, you’ll want to pick a spot as close to the stage as possible so you can see it for the show.

Various performers head down the street, and Elsa and Anna pass regally by in a horse drawn carriage. Keep an eye out for Kristoff, too. After the parade, they head onto the stage for a cute little show, topped off with a pretty intense “snow” shower. You can see the whole experience on the video below:

b4By now, it was almost lunch time, so I headed to Starring Rolls, my favorite place to catch a quick bite at the Studios. I’d been drooling over all the delicious Frozen-themed goodies in Oaken’s, so I got an Anna cupcake (chocolate with butter cream icing) to go with my sandwich. The Olaf cupcakes are a nice treat too (carrot cake with cream cheese frosting). And yes, that is a bare butt cheek photo bombing my cupcakes at the top of the photo.

Next, I headed for the Frozen Singalong in the Premier Theater, which is just past Muppets 3D. The show has several advantages. First, it’s in an air conditioned theater than feels so good after spending time outdoors in the heat.

Second, it’s so much to watch all the little “Frozen” fans. The young girl in front of me was vociferously singing “Let It Go” as we waited for the show to start, and I was amazed that such a small child would know all of the words.

b5Even if you don’t know all the songs by heart, the words are projected onto three big screens. The singalong is led by two royal historians who tell a Cliff Notes version of the tale while Anna heads out to find Elsa. I was surprised at the amount of humor in the show. Yes, some of the jokes are a little corny, but I’ll admit that I laughed my way through it. All the best songs are featured, and “Let It Go” is in there twice. Kristoff fans will find him here, and of course Anna manages to round up Elsa for a snowy finale.

The third thing I liked about the show was that it wasn’t something where you have to make the kids sit still and quiet. Instead, they’re encouraged to sing their little hearts out, and they really do get into it. Heck, some of the adults were singing with as much gusto as the kids.

The show is presented several times each day. so get a schedule when you get to the park and work your day around your preferred time. You get to pick a specific time for your preferred seating if you get the package.

b6Being a lazy local, I didn’t stick around for the night time dance party and fireworks. However, I highly recommend doing so, especially if you don’t live close by and therefore don’t get an opportunity to run by spontaneously to see them. You can easily plan to spend a whole day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios or to take the boat to Epcot for part of the day and then return for the night time fun.

Everything but the ice skating is included with your regular park admission. Of course, it costs extra to spring for the Frozen Package, but it’s well worth the money, especially during the insane summer season. If you plan to hit up this event, do it by September 1, as it melts into oblivion after that date.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.