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

Kayak among glow in the dark algae at A Day Away Kayaking on the Space Coast

temp74Sure, you can see fireworks at Walt Disney World every night, but Florida is full of natural wonders, including some that put on their own light show. Imagine paddling in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge out on Florida’s Space Coast at dusk as manatees and dolphins linger near your kayak. As you dip your paddle in the water, you’re fascinated by a whitish-greenish glow. You’ve spotted the bioluminescent algae that thrives in the summer time and puts on an amazing show for the kayakers that gets more prominent as it gets darker.

These tours are provided by A Day Away Kayaking (website:, which recently held a media tour to give local outlets a glimpse at this amazing activity option that’s only about 90 minutes from the Disney area. The tours use two person kayaks, and everyone hops in after a brief safety overview. Don’t worry, there aren’t any major dangers. The worst thing you might have to worry about is possibly getting tipped over if you wake a sleeping manatee as you pass over it. Just use the hula doll method of paddling (only move your body above the waist) and you’ll do fine.

You get some time to practice your paddling technique before heading out to see the wildlife and the star attraction: the bioluminescent algae. The media tour was fortunate enough to encounter both dolphins and manatees, as well as a variety of birds, in the water. Wildlife is abundant in the area (we passed a gator on the road to the launch point) so keep your eyes open both before and during your trip.

temp72The media trip set out right around sunset, and the first wildlife encounter happened almost immediately, with a majestic manatee surfacing to take a breath. Shortly thereafter, the dolphins were spotted feeding on fish in an alcove.

At first, the bioluminescence just showed up as a slight white glow around the paddles. As the darkness became more prominent, so did the eerie natural light. You could see it as you paddled, coming up in the little waves created by the motion. It was like a natural glowstick. You could increase the effect by splashing your hand around in the water, but sadly, it’s virtually impossible to capture on film. It’s something that truly must be seen in person.

It was also fascinating to see how the fish swam away from the kayaks, since they go in a zig zag rather than a straight line.

The trip typically lasts around 90 minutes, although the media tour ran close to two hours. In that time, you navigate waters than range from extremely shallow to a short stretch that’s 20 feet deep. Here;s a video overview:

The cost of this experience is very reasonable: $35 adult/$25 child most nights, or $39 adult/$29 child/$20 on Saturdays. Better hurry if you’d like to try it out this year, as the tours only run from June through early October. Otherwise, you can see the glowing jellyfish in the cooler months, from mid-October to May. Day kayaking trips are available, too, for optimal wildlife spotting.

What should you bring on the tour? Here’s the official list:

  • Clothes you don’t mind getting a little wet.
  • Swim suit/board shorts, shirt; In cool weather… cover-ups (avoid cotton)
  • Water Shoes or sandals that can be worn in the water
  • An extra change of clothes is recommended
  • Hat and sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Camera & dry bag (optional)
  • Bottled water and snacks
  • A towel to leave in your car

And, perhaps most important of all, bug repellent! This is a natural area, and, as such, it has a very high population of bloodthirsty mosquitoes so you need something strong to ward them off.

Also, be sure to use the restroom before you reach the launch site, as there are no facilities in the area.

If you’re intrigued, contact A Day Away Kayak Tours to book your very own adventure. It’s a far cry from the theme parks and an amazing way to experience part of the real Florida. You can hear from the company’s owner in the video below:

If you’re still not convinced, travel expert Jen Burg will change your mind:

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.

I plummeted 310 feet face first and loved it: Busch Gardens Falcon’s Fury is best drop tower

First off, let me start by saying that I’m a big fan of drop towers, as well as those that shoot you up in the air like Dr. Doom at Islands of Adventure. I had a drop tower I could ride all season at Six Flags Great America when I lived in Chicago, but sadly, shooting upwards was the only option in Florida for many years.

temp4That’s all changed now, as Busch Gardens Tampa officially opened its 335 foot tall Falcon’s Fury drop tower earlier this month. Better yet, it’s not your run of the mill drop tower that “picks them up and puts them down” like some mechanical refugee from a Planet Fitness commercial. It whisks you up 310 feet in the air, but tilts you forward on the way. Yes, face forward, much like its roller coaster cousin, Manta, but a heck of a lot more terrifying since you’re suddenly starting straight down from the equivalent of 30 stories. To put that into better perspective for Busch Gardens fans, that’s like perching at the top on Montu’s lift hill if it were on top of SheiKra.

SheiKra is one of my all-time favorite roller coasters, primarily for the wonderful air time you get on its first drop. I always ride in the back row, which is the best spot to get your butt off the seat. I don’t like my shoulder harness to be too tight so I have room to fly up as we drop. When we crest the hill, I told the shoulder harness so gravity won’t force it down, hold my legs straight out, and experience a few precious seconds of literally flying out of my seat. I do that as many times as possible, and I don’t consider the day successful unless I go home with bruised shoulders from slamming that harness with the force of my flight.

Still, given all that, let me let you in on a little secret: I’m terrified of heights. Fortunately, the fear only kicks in if I’m totally out in the open. As long as I’m strapped securely in a seat, I’m fine. I can even do zip lining because, even though you’re dangling below a wire, the harness itself is tight and secure. The seats on Falcon’s Fury hold you in night and snug, so even as I climbed aboard and zipped up the tower on my 310 foot ascent, I still felt nice and safe.

temp12Of course, it was media day, so I was also on board with VP of Design and Engineering Mark Rose, an old pro on the project who gave me a running narration as we climbed. That helped keep my mind away from any terror that might have tried to slip in. I was also mesmerized of the view of Tampa and St. Pete, as well as watching SheiKra shrink below me as I soared up to the sky.

Then it happened! That infamous tilt forward that makes Falcon’s Fury so different from other drop towers. My seat still felt secure, at least for the most part, but not quite as much as before since your whole body is suddenly positioned so you’re literally looking face down. I actually enjoyed it, as it reminder me of days long past when I’d ride Manta, the stand-up roller coaster at Cedar Point. I loved to be in the first row and just lean forward in the harness with my hands extended, feeling myself lie against it as we dropped down the first hill.


Also, Falcon’s Fury was so exciting that I totally forgot to hold out my hands until almost the end.The moment that you drop is variable, so that means you can never predict it. After I ride it a few more times, I should be able to condition myself to hold out my hands as soon as we tilt forward, although the view is so mesmerizing that it’s hard to remember those little details. Then, before you know it, the ground is rushing up at you at 60 miles per hour.



You can see my entire ride, and hear from Mark, in the video below:

It was great fun, but then I decided to ride again without a camera…just me, the ride, and the sky. The wait was surprisingly reasonable, since early September is the quiet season, so I was ready to board again before I knew it. This time I just tried to savor the view, although that’s a bit challenging since you can’t wear your glasses on Falcon’s Fury. It did whet my appetite for riding it at night during HowlOScream and Christmas Town, though. Once again, it was a great experience and one that made me mentally add the ride to my must-do list when I visit Busch. That normally consists of SheiKra, Montu, and Cheetah Hunt, but now Falcon’s Fury has joined that venerable trio.

The ride was delayed in its opening, but I had the pleasure of attending the original announcement and also going on a construction tour. The videos below will give you a little blast from the past:


Construction Tour:

If it looks like fun, you can ride it yourself any time now. I especially recommend doing it both in the daytime and after dark so you can compare the scenery.

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.

Night of Joy recap: Amazing night of music and fellowship at the Magic Kingdom

Night of Joy at the Magic Kingdom is over for another year. It’s hard to believe that Halloween events are just around the corner, but in the meantime, echoes of all the amazing music are still ringing in my ears (sometimes literally, as in the case of the rocking shows put on by the likes of Building 429 and Mandisa).

If you’d like another little taste of this event before it fades into 2014 history as a new line-up gears up for 2015, here are some videos:

Mandisa’s high energy opening medley:

Danny Gokey taking the stage during Mandisa’s set:

Chris Tomlin doing Waterfall, which was quite appropriate for the rainy first night:

Building 429 performing Where I Belong:

Matt Maher singing Your Grace is Enough:

I only brought my video camera for the first night so I could relax a bit on Sunday, which means that I don’t have any songs by Casting Crowns. However, I did have the opportunity to hear Mark Hall share his testimony. You can hear it, too, in the video below:

It was another great year in a long string of wonderful Christian music festivals. There’s something spellbinding about hearing your favorite bands with Cinderella Castle or Tomorrowland behind them. I’m sad that it’s over for another year, yet already looking forward to finding out next year’s line-up when Night of Joy returns once again.

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.

Join me in a Halloween Horror Nights 24 preview: Photos, video and more

I know that Christmas generally wins the favorite holiday stakes. I like it, too, but I have to admit that I’m a Halloween gal at heart. I love living in central Florida because that puts me in close proximity to two of the best Halloween events in the nation, Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida and HowlOScream at Busch Gardens Tampa.

Halloween starts early in the Orlando area. I’m going to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party this weekend, and I already got my first taste of Halloween Horror Nights Monday night, including a sneak preview of one of this year’s haunted houses. Universal held a media preview, with a make-up demonstration, a display of props and costumes from the haunted houses and scare zones, and a special treat: a fully operational run-through of the Halloween house, based on the John Carpenter classic.

If you’d like to see the full media presentation, with my fellow Halloween fanatic Mike Aiello, here it is:

I also chatted with Show Director Lora Wallace about this year’s scare zones:

I absolutely loved the “Halloween” house, as it was packed with old-school jump scares delivered by live scareactors. Not that I don’t like technology (I loved the puppetry in “An American Werewolf in London” last year and can’t wait for “Alien Vs. Predator this season), but I’m a simple gal at heart. Nothing gets me screaming and jumping like an attack by a stealthy scareactor lurking in the shadows. I wasn’t allowed to take photos or video in the “Halloween” house, but trust me, it’s a very worthy entry in this year’s line-up.

Indeed, I was a little nervous to see “The Walking Dead” returning for another year, but then I reminded myself about how pleasantly surprised I was in 2013. Last year, the Walkers were featured in every scare zone, and I was worried that would get monotonous. Thankfully, the number of scareactors, combined with stealthy talent in their parts, keep me jumping all season long.

I did get plenty of great photos in the preview itself. Here are some for you to enjoy as you gear up for the big Halloween Horror Nights kick-off on September 19. It will have creepy clowns, dastardly dolls, and even hourly human sacrifices by a voodoo queen. I’ll be there, and I hope you will, too:












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.

Night of Joy at the Magic Kingdom: A whirlwind of great Christian artists

tempNight of Joy at the Magic Kingdom is a September tradition. Its 2014 dates (September 5 and 6) both sold out this year, and that’s not hard to understand when you look at the line-up of favorites like Chris Tomlin, Hillsong United, Mandisa, Casting Crowns, MercyMe, Building 429 and more.

Unfortunately, early September is part of Orlando’s rainy season, which means that it’s not uncommon for Night of Joy to also be Night of Showers. That was true when I headed out to see the bands Friday night but, like most of the crowd, I didn’t let a little rain get in the way of the fun and fellowship. That’s what umbrellas, rain ponchos, and waterproof knock-off Crocs are for.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet several of the artists at a special luncheon on Friday afternoon. It’s a laid-back time to chat with them and learn more about their backgrounds and testimonies. Then it was off to the Magic Kingdom in the evening, where Night of Joy officially starts at 7 p.m., after the daytime closing, and runs until 1 a.m.

There’s one thing I hate about Night of Joy…too many great choices! The concerts run on three stages simultaneously and overlap, so you hve to make some hard decisions. I was tempted by the Matthew West show on the main stage by Cinderella Castle, but I saw him last year so I opted for Building 429. I love many of their songs, but especially the ear worm “We Won’t Be Shaken.” Indeed, I actually was shaken by the power of the speakers as they rocked the house at the Galaxy Stage in Tomorrowland.





Afterward, it was just a short jaunt to see Matt Maher on the Rocket Tower Stage. The crowd was thick, but I found a spot off to the side where I could see him and the band performing under a canopy to ward off the rain and enjoy their powerful music.




Next up, I hustled to the main stage at Cinderella Castle to catch Chris Tomlin. Both nights for Night of Joy sold out this year, and the crowd most certainly reflected that. It stretched down to Main Street USA, with eager concert goers packed together to catch a glimpse of the show.




I was happy that Chris Tomlin led off with my favorite song, “Shout to the Lord,” since I couldn’t catch his whole set. I really wanted to, but Mandisa beckoned from the Galaxy Stage, so I had to hustle back to Tomorrowland. That stage has a limited capacity, and like Building 429 she played to a full house. I was exhausted just watching her and the dancers put on their highly energetic show.




As a special treat, Mandisa also brought out fellow “American Idol” alumni Danny Gokey to perform.


Night of Joy has a solid line-up of shows all the way until the end on all three stages, with Hillsong United as the big finish for Friday. Then it starts all over again with more great music on Saturday before things wrap up for another year. It’s a very long and busy night, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and prepare for a lot of standing and for possible rain that could run anywhere from drizzle to drenching. If you’re a Christian music fan, it’s well worth the dampness and exhaustion to see such a great collection of artists all together in such a magical place.

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.

Boost your anticipation for Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

tempAre you excited yet about the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, which starts September 19 and runs through November 10? I most certainly am, as a foodie and someone who loves Walt Disney World. The festival melds those two loves together in a perfect marriage of visiting my favorite Disney park (with Soarin’, Spaceship Earth, Turtle Talk With Crush, World Showcase, and Illuminations, how can I go wrong?) with an amazing itinerary of food and libations. I’m lucky to be a local who can hit it up several times over the two month span, but many tourists plan their yearly trips around this event.

On Thursday, I had the great pleasure of sampling some of the new dishes and imbibing in some of the drinks that are featured at the festival this year. I also got to chat with Evan Rosenthal, Restaurant Guest Service Manager, about those drinks and to hear from Chef Jens Dahlmann about the amazing edibles on tap for 2014.

First, here’s Evan:

And now, here’s Jens:

Although I enjoyed everything at the preview, I fell in love with certain items. Here are my top three recommendations in no particular order:

Florida Grass Fed Beef Slider With Pimento Cheese


I know sliders are overdone these days, but this one is a welcome departure from the typical bar food. Yes, it will satisfy the meat-and-potatoes fan, but I loved how the generous sprinkling of chopped onions gave it some zip and how the sauce had a pleasant little bite without being too overwhelming. Yes, it has some spice, but not enough to scare off the timid diner.

Baked Lobster Alfredo


The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival team took another dish that tends to be overdone these days and made it into yet another item that I can’t wait to eat again when the festival starts. Lobster mac and cheese is everywhere, but this Baked Lobster Alfredo version is packed with sweet lobster meat that’s a perfect counterpoint to the cheese. Add in crunchy topping and you have a perfect comfort food that’s also upscale enough to fit in the festival context.

Roasted Verlasso Salmon With Quinoa Salad and Arugula Chimchurri


I have to make a confession here. Yes, the salmon is sushi grade and seared to perfection, but that’s not what won me over about this dish. I absolutely loved the sauce, and the quinoa salad could easily stand on its own.

temp12And what about dessert? There are plenty of sweet treats to finish off your meal, but Barb’s personal recommendation is the Creme Brulee Caramel Fleur de Del. It’s a sea salt caramel crème brulee that’s substantial without being too rich or overwhelming. The flavor is to die for.

If you’re planning to visit the festival, get there early, and try to avoid the local crowd by visiting during the week. Even though the portions are taster-sized, they’re still large enough to fill you up after three or four kiosks. If you get there at lunch time, plan to stick around all day and do another round at dinner to maximize the number of dishes you try. You still won’t be able to make it all the way around the world, but you’ll get a great representative sampling.

If you really want to go whole hog, combine the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival with the Swan and Dolphin Food& Wine Classic, which runs on October 31 and November 1. You can read more about it in this post.

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.