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

Cuba Libre restaurant at Pointe Orlando tempts me with empanadas

I’m a lover of Cuban food, or really, pretty much any type of Latin cuisine, so perhaps it’s no wonder that I was wowed by the Cuba Libre restaurant at Pointe Orlando on I-Drive. I’m fussy about my food, though, and I have to say that Cuba Libre’s unique tastes and quaint atmosphere combined into a standout experience that I can highly recommend.

cl11Cuba Libre has a full menu, with things like empandas, ceviche, black bean soup, and ropa vieja, as well as many special creations. However, at the event I attended, the empanadas took center stage. As a matter of fact, I even got to make some myself! I’ve eaten plenty in my lifetime, but this was the first time I’d ever played a hand in actually crafting one. April is Empanada Month at Cuba Libre, so I was simply getting in practice. Soon they were all ready to pop into the oven, as you can see in the photo at right.

We had a choice of making cheese, chicken, or beef empanadas. I went for the cheese and a beef and cheese combination. In the restaurant, you can also get ham empanadas. I tasted those, too, and give them a huge thumbs up. Meanwhile, here’s what my personal creations looked like once they were ready for me to try:


Cuba Libre also has a rum bar, and if you’re adventurous and in the mood for sampling, you can get a three rum flight. I tried that while I learned more about rum. Whew! It was a potent but tasty libation:


cl5Speaking of libations, you certainly couldn’t have a Cuban restaurant without mojitos. I got the opportunity to learn how to make one for myself. I managed to muddle my way through it, gingerly adding and shaking all the ingredients into a passable version. Of course, the bartender was much faster and displayed much more expertise, so I deferred to him when I was ready for a second round.

I also tried a variety of dips on plantain chips, including black bean hummus, Haitian eggplant salad and Cuba Libre salsa. They were all delicious, but my favorite by far was the guacamole. I’m a huge fan of guac in general, and this version had a unique twist: big chunks of grilled pineapple to add some sweetness to the typical flavor.


I also enjoyed a lobster empanada. See the dark color? That’s from squid ink!


cl9Of course, no feast is complete without dessert, and I was amazed at the tastiness of the cream cheese and guava empanadas. I know this might sound a bit crazy, but the flavor reminded me of a kolachky. I grew up on those, and they’re nearly impossible to find in Orlando. For some reason, this empanada struck my taste buds in the same way. I’ve missed that flavor for so long, so of course I had to have seconds.

All in all, it was quite an experience that left me hankering for more. I’m not a big fan of being on I-Drive in busy seasons, but Cuba Libre is well worth the trip. It’s in Pointe Orlando, which isn’t too far past the Orange County Convention Center, so you don’t have to brave the worst park of I-Drive, which is past Sand Lake Road. You can park right in the garage and get your parking validated at the restaurant, so all in all it’s a pretty painless experience.

If you’re a fan of salsa dancing, you’ll enjoy the party every Friday and Saturday night, starting at 10 p.m. For me, I’m all about the eating, and I’m really to explore some more of the vast Cuba Libre menu. If you’re a Latin food fan, you won’t go wrong if you try it too.

5 things I learned at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is a place for fun, but it’s also got a strong streak of education interwoven throughout the festival. You can learn about water conservation, organic gardening techniques, ways to attract birds and butterflies, and much more.

I’m an old dog who definitely learned some new tricks at the festival last weekend. Here’s a list of the top five:

1) What I’m doing wrong with my bougainvillaea.

Did you know that you can talk to a Master Gardener at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival? The University of Florida sends experts to the Festival Center, which is open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Just walk on up and ask them a question about your garden woes. I’ve been struggling to grow bougainvillaea in a container, and it turns out that I woefully misinterpreted the watering instructions on the tag.

2) How to keep bamboo from spreading.

The Festival Center is also your headquarters for informative talks every weekend. I saw a talk by plantsman/author Jenks Farmer, who illustrated his informative presentation with colorful slides and a hands-on demonstration. I’ve often thought about using bamboo as a screening plant, but I fear its reputation for taking over. I learned about the two types (the clustered kind is more benign) and also how to keep the spreading type in check.

If you’d like to see Jenks Farmer’s whole talk, it’s in the video below:

td13) That bonsai trees go through the seasons just like their full-sized counterparts.

I know that bonsais are miniature trees, but I didn’t realize that they go through the same life cycle as their full-sized counterparts. A completely barren tree caught my eye; I thought it was dead but learned that it’s just a maple in its winter state. Soon the springtime will send it into full foliage again.

If you’d like to learn more about bonsai trees, too, check out the Central Florida Bonsai Club display in the Festival Center.

4) That there’s a special beer credential equivalent to wine.Growing up with a German grandpa, I developed a love of beer. It’s great that craft brews are a thing now and that Florida has so many breweries, as I love to try the many different varieties. However, I had no idea that beer has its own expert credential on a part with a wine sommelier: the Cicerone Certification Program.

I enjoyed a presentation by a cicerone while sampling the beer flight that’s available at the Smokehouse in the American Pavilion. Not only did I learn about the credential, but I also picked up some interesting facts about beer, including the full story behind IPAs. You can hear it all for yourself in the presentation below. The presentation isn’t a regular part of the festival, but the flight is available throughout the run of the event:

td25) That the oldest topiaries at the festival are the Fantasia critters.

I always enjoy talking to Eric Darden, who’s worked on the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival for 12 years and who’s already thinking about what Disney will do for 2016.

Chip, Dale, Anna, and Elsa are all new this year, but I was curious about the oldest topiaries still on display. He told me they’re the Fantasia critters, some of which you can see in the photo at right. Notice how they’re not as detailed as later toparies and certainly nowhere near the exquisite sculpting that gives Anna and Elsa their faces.

I love to compare how the older topiaries look quite basic compared to the amazing detail on the newer creations or all the different colors worked into various displays, most of which is done with natural materials. I love all the colorful gardens blooming around Epcot, but the topiaries are true works of art.

You can hear from Eric yourself in the video below:

What will you learn at this year’s festival? You’ve got until May 17 to find out.

What do Anna, Elsa, Chip and Dale have in common at Epcot festival?

1aEvery year at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival you’ll see popular topiaries return, along with new offerings. This year you’ll see four new topiaries: the fabulous Frozen duo of Anna and Elsa and the mischievous chipmunks Chip and Dale. One of those pairs is classic and the others are new to the Disney line-up, but they all have the honor of making their topiary debut in 2015.

It may seem surprising that Chip and Dale haven’t shown up before, and this year there was a bit of a challenge since they’re part of the opening scene. Look for him in the back, with the chipmunks wreaking havoc in poor long-suffering Donald’s garden.

Here’s Eric Darden talking about how important it is for the characters to be in their proper scale. That means that Chip and Dale have to be in proportion to Donald as they torment him.

1bIf you watch the video, you’ll also discover that Anna and Elsa owe a lot to Snow White, and not just for blazing the Disney princess movie trail. Last year, the team was charged with trying to create realistic features on Snow White’s face. They were up to the taste, and Snow brought a new level of realism to the Epcot topiaries that continues with the sisters this year.

It’s easy to find all the new topiaries, since you can’t miss Chip and Dale right in the entry scene as you walk into Epcot. Keep going to World Showcase and you’ll find Anna and Elsa greeting you at the entrance.

The Epcot International Flower and Garden show runs through May 17. Like Elsa’s magic at the end of her movie, it will give you a breath of spring at the end of a long, harsh winter.

Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival: Well worth the drive to Tampa

bg6Orlando area food affectionados already flock to events like the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival and the Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic in the fall.

Now there’s a springtime alternative: the Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival, running weekends from March 7 through April 26.

Like the two Orlando festivals, this new kid on the block features music, food, wine, and beer in abundance, all set to the backdrop of a park packed with thrill rides and animal habitats. Is it worth the drive to Tampa (about an hour west down I-4 from the Disney area)? You bet!

I can personally recommend the festival because I had a chance to preview some of the food and drink while enjoying the music of Mighty Mongo:


I saw all the kiosks set up and ready to welcome the crowds and also enjoyed some kooky characters:



That’s Busch Gardens Tampa President Jim Dean hanging out with the stilt walkers:


bg14There were no crowds for the concert at the preview since there was only a limited number of guests, but expect it to be packed when the headliner acts, like Kool & The Gang, Kenny Rogers, and Steven Curtis Chapman, take the stage.

I tried several different items, including pork belly, the chicken sandwich, and macaroni and cheese with bacon (everything tastes better with bacon), but my two standout favorites were the scallops and the mango eclair. The scallops have a watermelon salsa that’s absolutely fresh and delicious. Even though I’m normally a chocolate person, the mango worked so well in eclair form that I couldn’t help having three!

I sampled beer and wine, too; I’m a fan of sweet and flavored beers, so I was all about the Bud Light Lime Strawberry and the pineapple cider. Whatever your taste in beer and vino, you’ll find something that fits.

Here’s Executive Chef Ron DeBonis talking about the process of creating food items for the festival:

bg16You can buy your food and drinks ala carte or purchase a package. You can even buy VIP concert seating if you want to ensure a good spot for your favorite performer without having to waste precious park time staking out a spot.Enjoy the festival at a leisurely pace, then head to your seats at concert time.

The problem with Busch Gardens Tampa is that there’s so much to do, even when there’s no festival going on. Now it’s an even bigger challenge if you come out for the Food and Wine Festival because you have to balance the rides, shows, and animals with food and drink. It’s a challenge I recommend you take on at least one weekend between March 7 and April 26.

Here’s what Busch Gardens Tampa President James Dean has to say about the festival:

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!


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.


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).


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.