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

Two more weekends of Wild Days at SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld Orlando kicked off Wild Days last weekend (see my summary here), and the event continues this Saturday and Sunday, January 31 and February 1, with Bindi Irwin. Fans of the Crocodile Hunter remember Bindi’s late dad, Steve, and his devotion to conservation. Bindi is keeping his efforts alive and connecting with her young fan base to inspire them to care for animals and the environment. Her talks are included with theme park admission.

Next week, Jungle Jack Hanna arrives at the park, with shows on February 7 and 8. He always has a fascinating parade of animals to show as he shares tales of his many decades in the zoological world. Here’s a video of his show at Wild Days 2014:

Animal Ambassador Julie Scardina kicked things off for the first week of Wild Days with Penguin Lovers Weekend. Here, Julie chats with the media about the event and the cute little birds. She’s visited them in the wild, but if you can’t follow in her footsteps to Antarctica, you can always see them at the park:

Check the show schedule to make sure you catch one of the Wild Days presentation if you visit SeaWorld Orlando this weekend or next.

Night of Joy 2015 line-up is packed with stars

Disney has announced the 2015 line-up for Night of Joy, and the Magic Kingdom event will be packed with big-name Christian music talent. Here’s who you’ll see during the two-day event, which runs September 11 and 12 this year:

Friday, September 11

  • TobyMac
  • MercyMe
  • Jeremy Camp
  • Colton Dixon
  • Big Daddy Weave
  • Francesca Battistelli
  • Rend Collective
  • I Am They

Saturday, September 12

  • Skillet
  • Lecrae
  • For King & Country
  • Mandisa
  • Matt Maher
  • Jamie Grace
  • Seventh Time Down
  • Veridia

Night of Joy is always an action-packed weekend, with the biggest decision being, “Which performers do I see?” The shows take place on three stages, so you’ll need to plan out your night. Here’s a little flavor of what you can expect. First, Mandisa’s opening medley from last year:

And TobyMac from 2013:

The concerts are high energy, and the park is packed with fans who are out to praise and celebrate. You can read my recap of last year here.

Tickets aren’t on sale yet, but they should be released in the spring. Watch www.nightofjoy.com for details in the coming months.

Videos: Harry Potter opening ceremony and celebrity interviews at Universal Studios

A Celebration of Harry Potter is in full swing. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, hopefully you can make it out to the park for at least one day of the fun, which runs through Sunday. If not, this videos should give you a little taste of the festivities.

First, here’s the opening ceremony, which featured reps from the expo hall explaining what’s going on at their booths. It’s a very interactive experience, with photo ops at various booths, displays of house pride at Pottermore, autograph signings at MinaLima, art demonstrations at Scholastic, and more:

The stars took some time out of their busy evening to chat with the media in a Q & A session. I had no idea that Michael Gambon (Dumbledore) was such a riot!

This year, the stars are signing autographs, and you have one more chance to meet them. Be at Blue Man Group theater by 7 a.m. on Sunday, February 1, to snare a ticket for the final session. They’re included with your park ticket, as is the expo and other A Celebration of Harry Potter activities. This is the second annual event, so if you miss it in 2015, there’s a good chance you’ll have the opportunity to check it out next year.

A Celebration of Harry Potter is the ultimate fan experience at Universal

m59This weekend at Universal Orlando Resort, the wildly popular A Celebration of Harry Potter event has returned for its second year. It kicked off on Friday with a special welcome from several Harry Potter film stars. Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), James and Oliver Phelps (the Weasley twins), and Michael Gambon (Dumbledore) all took the stage to welcome a huge and excited crowd. The celebs will sign autographs on Saturday and Sunday, but you’d better get up early because tickets will be handed out at 7:30 a.m. starting each morning in front of the Blue Man Group theater by Universal Studios Florida. Expect them to run out fast!

I had an opportunity to take part in a special media Q & A session with the stars. I’ll be posting a video later, but here’s a quick photo snapped inside the Leaky Cauldron, where the chat session took place:

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I was especially pleased to see Dumbledore in person. Michael Gambon is a riot! As you can see in the photo, he arrived onstage in a very fitting manner:

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m62Another big highlight of the day was the expo, which runs until 5 p.m. all weekend. It was lots of fun last year, but this year Universal has kicked things up a notch by adding more interactivity. You can sign the Muggle Wall, buy a collectible print and get it autographed by MinaLima, snap photos that show your house pride, take a picture in the Great Hall, watch Kazu Kibuishi create art, get sorted by the Sorting Hat, and much more. Of course, there are plenty of film props and costumes to look at, too, so be sure to allow plenty of time to browse around and try out all the experiences.

I’ve made it an annual tradition to sign the Muggle Wall at the Scholastic booth, which you can see me doing in the photo at right. 2015 is the second year for A Celebration of Harry Potter, and I hope that means it’s firmly ensconced as an annual tradition at Universal.

The expo, autograph sessions and other activities throughout the weekend are open to everyone who has a regular park ticket. The stars will be on stage, and there will be wand dueling and other interactive classes, so plan to make a day of it if you come out to the park. You’ll wait in line for the expo and the Sorting Hat Experience, but it’s well worth killing the time to enjoy these one-of-a-kind experiences,

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If you can’t make it out to Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure this weekend, never fear. The parks are the permanent homes of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, so you still get a taste of Harry Potter no matter when you visit. Get a two park ticket and ride the Hogwarts Express between the two parks. It’s nice to have Harry’s world only 20 minutes away whenever I get an urge to step into the Wizarding World, but I love A Celebration of Harry Potter because it steps things up. I’m enjoying all the ways in which is was expanded and improved this year, and I already can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2016.

Adorable penguins and partying kick off Wild Days at SeaWorld Orlando

m1SeaWorld Orlando ushered in its annual Wild Days celebration on January 24 with Penguin Lovers Weekend. As the name implies, there were plenty of adorable penguins, and the day ended with a dance party where Puck the Penguin was joined by Shamu and a contingent of other friends to dance, greet, and schmooze with the crowd.

Julie Scardina was the star of the kick-off weekend show (Bindi Irwin comes out next weekend on January 31 and February 1, with Jungle Jack Hannah finishing things up on the final weekend, which is February 7 and 8). I always enjoy hearing Julie’s stories, as her passion for animals is very apparent. She chatted with the media before her show, telling us about some of her globetrotting adventures and giving us details of some successful rescues of penguins and other animals.

Julie also emphasized the rescue and conservation message in her show. As she pointed out, it’s not enough to love animals. So many species are threatened, and love alone won’t save them. They need people to take positive, concrete action.

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Many animal ambassadors made appearances during Julie’s show. Since it was Penguin Lovers Weekend, the cute little black an white critters obviously made an appearance.Pete and Penny Penguin had a fun time exploring the stage while Julie talked.

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However, my favorite part was getting to see a baby rockhopper penguin. Rockhoppers are my favorites, but I’ve never seen a fuzzy little baby. Talk about adorable!

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We also saw several different birds of prey, all of which were rescues that live at SeaWorld because they can’t survive in the wild. Talk about impressive animals! I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of their beaks and talons.

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There were flamingos, too, marching through the theater (you can also see them herded through the park if you’re in the right place at the right time).

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m6After the show, I headed over to the dance party, where Pete and Penny’s counterparts were wowing the crowd, along with Shamu and Puck from Antarctica, Empire of the Penguin. There were also rockhoppers, but of a different sort, and their stilts allowed them to do some very impressive hopping. The party was a big hit with both children and adults, as the characters make sure that everyone gets involved, no matter what your age.

The Wild Days shows and parties are included with your regular SeaWorld admission ticket, and you still have two weekends left to catch this special event. Be sure to arrive early for the shows, which take place in the Nautilus Theater, as they often reach capacity.

Brevard County’s always great, but Crab Smash/Oyster Bash brings extra fun

Brevard County is only about an hour away from Central Florida, and it’s a great place for both tourists and locals to spend a little time at the beach, exploring Kennedy Space Center, watching a launch, heading out on a cruise, or just making a spontaneous day of it. Any time is a good time to visit, but this Saturday, January 24, has an added bonus: the 3rd Annual Crab Smash and Oyster Bash, which runs from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and provides a feast of food and drink, with cooking done by culinary students from the Brevard County High School Pro Start Culinary Arts Program.

The event is an annual fund raiser for the school. You can find more information on the event’s Facebook page, but it takes place at 710 Scallop Drive in Port Canaveral, and tickets are $30 for adults and $5 for kids. Expect to dine on crab, oysters, shrimp, and fresh Florida fish.

If you can’t make it for the Crab Smash/Oyster Bash, don’t despair. Brevard County is home to delicious cuisine every day of the year. Click the video below for highlights of last year’s Off the Hook Foodie Tour, which hit some of the hot spots. It included food and beverages from Djon’s Steak & Lobster House, the Florida Beer Company, Crush Eleven, and Milliken’s Reef. At that last stop, we watched a breathtaking night launch of an Atlas V rocket:

The crab salad from Djon’s was among the best I’ve ever tasted, although the tuna and shrimp were delicious, too.

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Djon’s is within walking distance of the quain Port D’Hiver Bed & Breakfast, which is right across the street from the ocean if you’re heading out for a beach stay. I stayed there overnight before a cruise; you can read all about that here.

Crush Eleven had wonderful food, including seasonal options that change with the availability of fresh ingredients:

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My only regret was having to skip the dessert menu, but we had to head to Milliken’s Reef for the sweet stuff because that’s also where the rocket launch was taking place. We watched the rocket make its fiery way into the sky before settling down for a variety of tempting desserts while enjoying the live entertainment:

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If you head to the area, either for the Crab Smash/Oyster Bash or just for a general visit, I recommend swinging by the Exploration Tower at Port Canaveral to explore the displays on topics like space exploration and Florida wildlife and to take in the breathtaking view of the ocean from the upper floors. It stands seven stories tall, so it’s easy to spot.

If you’d like to visit Brevard County but are worried about finding your way, don’t worry. Just take I-4 to the Beach Line, better know as 528, and keep driving until you see the ocean! It’s only about an hour away.

Tin Roof brings great food, live music to I-Drive 360 at the base of the Orlando Eye

os6Remember the Mercado on I-Drive? If you’re like most people, it might have been a tiny blip on your radar, but its attempt to bring food and fun to I-Drive never really got off the ground. Nowadays, “getting off the ground” isn’t a problem. as the Orlando Eye wheel is soaring skyward in the old Mercado area and bringing a wide range of food and entertainment choices with it in the I-Drive 360 complex.

Tin Roof – A Live Music Joint is one of the additions that are set to revitalize this prime piece of property on International Drive. When I say it’s in the shadow of the Orlando Eye, I mean that quite literally as you can see by the photo.

By day, Tin Roof is a restaurant. By night, it turns into a rollicking entertainment venue. At first glance, it looks like the sort of place that would serve bar food, and indeed, you’ll find things like queso, burgers, wings, and crab dip…

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…but many have a unique twist. How about some waffles with your chicken nuggets? Wouldn’t Smore Pie taste even better with just a dash of hot pepper?

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I had the chance to try many of the Tin Roof’s menu items at a media event, and I give them a big thumbs up. It’s the sort of place where everyone can find something they like, even if you’re in a party of people with widely varying tastes. You;ll find the whole menu on the Tin Roof Orlando website.

os5So what did I like best among the eclectic offerings? Being a Southern transplant, I embrace chicken and waffles even though I didn’t know they existed for most of my life. But if I had to choose my favorites, I’d have to lean toward the seafood. Yes, I know that seems odd at a live music joint, but the tuna was so fresh and flavorful that I plan to have it again on a return visit.

Da Lox, a citrus cured salmon sandwich, ranked right up there as another fave. Despite its name, it’s not your typical salmon and cream cheese. Fresh veggies take the place of dairy, and the salmon’s citrus flavor is divine.

I’m all about anything with smores involved, so the Cowhorn Pepper Smore Pie was a gimme. Yes, it really does have pepper in it, just as the name implies. I know that sounds strange, and maybe even a bit alarming, but it’s just a pleasant bite that doesn’t detract a bit from the chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker goodness.

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Even though I was there in the afternoon, and the music doesn’t typically start until the evening, I got a taste of the music at the media event, too. Look for a variety of local and regional acts to be playing at the venue. It’s a great spot to hang out and enjoy the entertainment while sampling libations from the liberal drink menu. Snack on bacon popcorn…just another example of the old adage that bacon goes with everything.

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os7Being a local, I’m gunshy about going near I-Drive during the peak tourist season, but Tin Roof and the I-Drive 360 complex are located close enough to Sand Lake Road to make the trip tolerable at all but the busiest times. You can easily take I-4 to Sand Lake Road, which puts you just a couple of blocks away from I-Drive, or head over from the convention side. There’s a free parking garage right on site, which makes things even easier.

I expect this venue to really heat up once the Orlando Eye and the other attractions are complete this spring. It’s a perfect lunch spot to fuel up before you hit the Eye, SeaLife, the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, and the other attractions, or else you can have a nice dinner after a long day exploring all that International Drive has to offer. I think convention goers will also discover it as a place to unwind with a drink and some live music after a long day of conferences and exhibitions at the Orange County Convention Center just down the street.

In the meantime, I recommend checking it out while it’s still relatively unknown. I can easily see it becoming a favorite hang-out for locals who want a smaller, more friendly alternative to some of the bigger, more crowded tourist entertainment spots. Yes, it will draw its fair share of tourists, but as you can see by the sign below, it’s lookingto become a local hot spot too. I know that I, for one, will definitely be coming back.

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Gwazi says goodbye Feb. 1, best Busch Gardens Tampa roller coasters stick around

227It was with mixed emotions that I learned today about Gwazi’s imminent demise at Busch Gardens Tampa. On one hand, it’s one of a rare breed: wooden roller coasters in Florida. On the other hand, there’s a reason for that. Wood, summer rain, and non-stop humidity don’t mix very well. Gwazi has kept Tampa area chiropractors in business for as long as I’ve know it, with a brief respite in 2011 when its trains were replaced. Alas, it was soon back to its old bone-jolting ways.

I’ll miss the Lion and Tiger sides of the venerable racing coaster, but I have to admit that I’m not too distressed at the news. Busch Gardens Tampa is the best place in Florida to find great coasters, and all of my favorites are sticking around. Which coasters do I love the most there? Here’s a run-down:

Montu

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I was lucky enough to live in Chicago when a then mostly unknown company called B&M erected a prototype called Batman at Six Flags Great America. That slick little coaster paved the way for bigger and better behemoths like Montu. I miss Batman because it’s a rare bird: a coaster with no brakes until the end. Even though Montu does brake mid-run, its length and wicked elements more than make up for the brief slowdown.

Cheetah Hunt

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I’m a huge air-time fan, and Cheetah Hunt is built to pop you out of your seat. It’s long, fast, and smooth as butter, and I love feeling my butt go airborne as it crests the hill. Add in the rocket-fast launch and you’ve got a real winner. It’s a perfect balance of enough thrills for a roller coaster enthusiast and a tame enough ride to entice more timid riders to give it a go. Funny thing is, it has one inversion, but I’ve spoken to people who’ve ridden it and swear it never goes upside down. That’s how stealthy that twist in the track is.

SheiKra

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This is my ultra mega favorite roller coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa. I know it’s been around for a while, but it still feels as great as the first time I ever rode it. Here’s a little secret for the true thrill seekers: ride in the back row. Yes, I know the front has a great view, but I’m all about air time, not observation. If I want an aerial view of Tampa, I’ll go on the Falcon’s Fury drop tower.

240For Sheikra, I strap into one of the end seats on the back row, but I try to leave a little space between my shoulders and the harness. Just before the drop, I use my hands to hold the harness so gravity won’t abruptly tighten it and keep my legs straight out. That’s the penultimate air time pose, and your butt will go airborne on both drops if you do it right. Add the section of float time into the mix and you’re got a coaster ride that’s just about perfect. SheiKra has no inversions, and it doesn’t need them.

I’m such a big fan that I even have a cat named Sheikra, although it’s because the coaster saved his life rather than being a tribute to its greatness. I was stuck at the top of the second drop for 20 minutes one stormy summer day. That delay caused me to be on I-4 at just the moment some scumbag tossed a skinny black kitten onto the rode. I captured him, adopted him, and now, several years later, he’s safe, sleek, and spoiled rotten.

Scorpion

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SheiKra is my number one, but I have to give honorable mention to Scorpion. There aren’t many Schwarzkopf coasters left, nor are there many that go upside down without a shoulder harness. Scorpion falls into both of those categories, and it’s mild enough to act as a “starter coaster” for kids who are ready for their first real coaster ride by are still hesitant about Cheetah Hunt.

I’ll probably head out to say goodbye to Gwazi, since it’s the passing of a classic that I enjoyed (tolerated?) many times over the years. I’ll miss it a bit, but that feeling will quickly pass as I indulge in screams and thrills on all my remaining favorites.

Jack Hanna and Bindi Irwin are coming to SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa

Jungle Jack Hanna and young conservationist Bindi Irwin are heading to SeaWorld Orlando soon, then making their way to Busch Gardens Tampa. Their first appearances will be at SeaWorld during the park’s Wild Days celebration, which starts on January 24.

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SeaWorld Orlando

The first weekend at SeaWorld Orlando, on January 24th and 25th, is devoted to all things penguin. SeaWorld’s Animal Ambassador Julie Scardina will be on hand to talk about all things penguin.She’s an expert on the cute little black and white critters and can tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about their behavior and care.

The fun continues all day, capped by the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin Block Party, which runs from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. It will feature live penguins, plus a DJ and other entertainment.

I like to visit the SeaWorld penguins at any time because their new habitat makes it a very intimate experience. Yes, it’s cold, but it’s worth it to tough out the temperatures to watch them swim, frolic, and play with nothing but a low glass wall between you. Here’s some footage of the habitat:

222If you’re looking for Bindi, she’ll be there on January 31 and February 1, hosting the Generation Nature LIVE show. It’s geared toward empowering kids to take concrete steps to help nature and animals. The shows are included with park admission, and you can add a Wild Days picnic package for a BBQ buffet on the 31st or go all out with the Bindi Irwin VIP experience. That allows you to dine in a private area and personally meet Steve Irwin’s vibrant daughter. You also get a complimentary photo and reserved seating at Bindi’s 3 p.m. show.

Jack heads out to SeaWorld on February 7 and 8 to host several shows. They’re included with admission, and upgraded experiences Breakfast With Jack Hanna on Saturday or Sunday or Dinner With Jack Hanna on Saturday only. The breakfast is held at Dine with Shamu and includes a meet and greet and photo with Jack and reserved seats for his 11 a.m. show. The dinner is also held at Dine With Shamu, and you get a meet and greet, photo, and 3 p.m. reserved seating.

Jack Hanna’s shows are always great. I love to hear his stories and see the fascinating animals he brings out. Here’s footage from one of last year’s shows:

Busch Gardens Tampa

February 7th and 8th are also the days at Bindi will appear at Busch Gardens Tampa, with three daily appearances in the Stanleyville Theater. You’ll have to wait a little longer to see Jack Hanna there, as he’s not heading to Tampa until April 18 and 19.

Busch Gardens is really hopping this spring, as it’s also kicking off its first ever Food and Wine Festival on March 7 with a concert by Gavin DeGraw. The following day Fifth Harmony takes the stage, and more musical acts will be announced soon. The music and culinary goodness will run every Saturday and Sunday from March 7 through April 26, and the shows are included with park admission.

Elsa’s doing magic at Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom til January 12th

Elsa’s been lighting up Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom every night since Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party started in November, and she’s not done yet. The other Disney holiday activities have been put to bed for another year, but Elsa, along with Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf, is still on vacation in Florida and she’s not going to stop her work until January 12th.

You can see everyone’s favorite ice princess use her powers to ice the castle through this coming Monday. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the show (I particularly like it because it has a walking, talking Olaf):

Even if you miss her performance, she and Elsa will still be on hand to greet guests at Princess Fairytale Hall (whatever you do, get a FastPass+ to avoid the long waits). They’re a lot of fun to meet, as I discovered earlier in 2014:

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Given all their Frozen fame, the sisters have had a busy year at Walt Disney World. They also brought a chill to the summer at Disney’s Hollywood Studios with a parade, the Frozen sing-along show, a local branch of Oaken’s Trading Post, and even ice skating and a snowy play area. Here’s their special welcome parade that ran each day:

This overview of the whole event features scenes from the show (yes, I know you’re probably tired of hearing “Let It Go,” but I promise that it’s actually a lot of fun, and not just for the kids…there are plenty of laughs interspersed with the songs):

You can still catch the show, but Elsa and Anna’s horse-drawn carriage and float moved over to the Magic Kingdom just in time for the Christmas festivities. See them in the Christmas parade here:

And if that’s not enough Frozen fun for you, remember that the ride in Norway is currently under refurbishment and will eventually debut with a new Frozen overlay, Hopefully that means the trolls will still be around.

Yes, I know that’s a lot of Frozen, but you have to admit that it’s still wildly popular. Eventually their fame flame will burn out…or would that be melt down? Either way, soon enough a new Disney hit will take its place, but Elsa and Anna fans are getting lots of changes to meet their heroines in the meantime.