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

My Howl-O-Scream Scream Cam video and interview with Rob Cowie

They said there was nothing to fear. They always say that there’s nothing to fear. Every year they tell me that, and every year it’s a lie.

On September 24, the day before Howl-O-Scream officially opens at Busch Gardens Tampa, I once again found myself being strapped into Scream Cam camera gear as in years past, getting ready to experience my first Howl-O-Scream haunted house of the year. This year it was Unearthed: Scarlett’s Revenge, and I can personally attest to the fact that Scarlett is, indeed, out of the ground and out for blood. You can walk through the haunted house with me in the video below:

Yes, it’s pretty intense, and that’s only the first half of the house. I expected it to be top notch, as it’s the work of “Blair Witch Project” producer Rob Cowie, who’s working on Howl-O-Scream with Busch Gardens Tampa this year. I had a chance to talk to him before going into the house. Hear what he had to say below; his enthusiasm is contagious:

I’ll soon be visiting Howl-O-Scream, which runs on select nights at Busch Gardens Tampa through Halloween, so I can do a report on the full experience. In the meantime, here are some of my Scream Cam videos from years past:




Ah, memories! I can’t wait to make more at Howl-O-Scream 2015.

Make-up plays major role at Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream

When you’re accosted by Walkers and ghouls and demons and other creatures at Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream, you’re probably so immersed into their worlds that you don’t think about how otherwise normal people were transformed into these terrifying forms. At both events, talented costumers and make-up artists handle those transformations.

Busch Gardens Tampa shared a video that talks about costuming and make-up and the role it plays in Howl-O-Scream this year:

Meanwhile, at the media preview for Halloween Horror Nights, I witnessed a scareactor transformation firsthand. Then I was able to take a turn in the make-up chair, where I started out unscathed and ended up looking like a trauma victim. You can see both make-up sessions in the video below:

When you visit Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream this year, take some time to admire the artistry of the make-up and costumes. It’s hard to do inside the haunted houses, where you typically walk through in a conga line in rooms that are often too dark to see details, but the scare zones offer a good opportunity to really appreciate the artistry.

Halloween Horror Nights vs. Mickey’s Halloween Party: Videos show the difference

The two major hard-ticket Halloween events in Orlando are Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida. Both are Halloween-related, but that’s where the resemblance ends. The Disney event is a light-hearted family romp through the holiday, with trick-or-treating and friendly characters, while the other is all about terror, and characters like Jack the Clown are anything but amiable (although, to be fair, Jack commits his murders with a jovial attitude).

To give you a general idea of the difference, let’s do a video comparison. First, let’s look at Disney’s brand-new Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular show. Yes, it’s packed with “bad guys,” but in the upbeat Disney sense that’s very kid-friendly, with only brief moments of darkness:

Now, let’s take a peek into the Asylum in Wonderland 3-D haunted house at Halloween Horror Nights. Unlike the chipper Alice and Mad Hatter you meet in the Magic Kingdom, their counterparts in this haunted maze, along with other Wonderland characters, are anything but kid-friendly:

At Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, the characters are all over the park for meet and greets, many of them in cute Halloween costumes. You also get to see a huge gaggle of them in the Boo to You Parade, where even the Haunted Mansion ghosts are friendly. The only thing I find to be even mildly sinister is the Headless Horseman, who always kicks things off:

And here’s Jack, the jovial Halloween Horror Nights icon, who loves little children…or at least murdering them. Don’t worry, he’s an equal opportunity offender. He’ll pretty much torture and decapitate anyone he can get his hands on:

As you can see, these two events, which both run on select nights through November 1, have a very different tone. I love both of them for different reasons and love the fact that the Halloween season in Orlando spreads out for more than a month.

If you like your Halloween partying to be mild, opt for Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. If you go for all-out wild scares, then Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida. Can’t decide? Do what I do and opt for both!

Epcot International Food and Wine Festival preview spotlights culinary delights

temp2The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is just around the corner, officially starting on September 25 and running almost two months before it shuts down on November 16, but I had an opportunity to sample some of the cuisine ahead of time. I’m always a big fan of the event, and this year, for its 20th iteration, I assure you that Disney has outdone itself to up the ante once again.

Some of my favorite items at the preview included the Mixed Grill Burger and the Chew-approved Seared Grouper. The burger features a fried egg on top, which appealed to my inner child who loved fried egg sandwiches. The grouper has a coconut sauce with a pleasantly sweet flair.

I also enjoyed the Scottish smoked salmon, which is served on top of a potato pancake, and the Tuna Poke, which was delightfully fresh and flavorful. Granted, you can get sushi-grade tuna at many restaurants, but sometimes it has that fishy undertone that lets you know it’s not as fresh as it could be. The Tuna Poke had no such issues, and I’ll admit I might have had two (or maybe three) servings.

temp4Dessert was a Bundt cake trio, and my favorite by far was the Drunken Blue Velvet with Cream Cheese and Sugar Daisy. At a time when red velvet is thorough played out, this blue version was a refreshing change, and I loved the treasure hunt of digging up the cream cheese in the center.

Of course, I also indulged in the Chew Lab Liquid Nitro dessert. It was a treat to watch as well as to eat, especially for a chocoholic like me.

This year the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival broke free from its usual confines in World Showcase to expand with kiosks in Future World. It has the usual seminars, presentations, special dinners, and parties, but this year features some new events and options. In the video below, Marianne Hunnel talks about some of them, like the VIP option, which sounds like a great way to experience the festival without worrying about the crowds or hustling to the Eat to the Beat concerts early to get a good seat. You’ll find full details on the official Epcot International Food and Wine Festival website.

I also chatted with Citricos Sous Chef David Barrette about this year’s food offerings. If you’re a fan of Disney dining, you know how wonderful Citricos is (it’s one of my favorite upscale Disney restaurants), so he knows his food!

The festival is included with your Epcot admission ticket, but of course the food costs extra, as do some of the presentations and seminars.

Celebrity Jeopardy fans geek out as Trebek says ‘Turd Ferguson’

If you’re a classic Saturday Night Live fan, Burt Reynolds is probably second only to Sean Connery in your list of favorite Celebrity Jeopardy “guest stars.” While Connery, aka Darrell Hammond, has a knack for twisting innocuous-seeming topics into things like “Penis Mightier” and “Famous Titties” and insulting Alex Trebek’s mother, Reynolds, aka a spot-on Norm McDonald, typically insists on going by the name Turd Ferguson. No special reason. He just thinks that it sounds cool.

Contestant Talia Lavin, bringing an anemic $600 into the final Jeopardy round, didn’t have much chance of taking the championship crown, so she seized an alternate route to fame. You can see the classic moment below:

Yes, that’s the real Alex Trebek saying “Turd Ferguson” on the real Jeopardy show. That wave you felt when it aired last night was a collective geek-out sigh from the 1990s Saturday Night Live fan community. Lavin might not have scored a big monetary win, but she captured the hearts of Turd Ferguson fans everywhere and cemented her place in the Trolling Hall of Fame. My only disappointment is the lack of response from the audience; granted, I didn’t see it live, so perhaps there was a delayed reaction as at least some recognized her brilliance and the classic coup de grace they just witnessed.

Now, if we could only get someone with a talent for twisting category titles…

Meanwhile, here’s a taste of the “real” Turd Ferguson and a roster of other Saturday Night Live Celebrity Jeopardy contests for those who’ve somehow managed to miss out on this classic:

Halloween comes early to Central Florida: Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens

temp3Forget about Christmas creep. If you’re in Central Florida, your Halloween season officially starts on September 15, the day that Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party kicks off for 2015. It’s a hard ticket event at the Magic Kingdom that runs on select nights through November 1.

Don’t be fooled by the name, as this event isn’t just for kids. Adults can don costumes, too, and are welcome to join in the trick or treating.If that’s not enough of a sugar rush for you, the eateries sell special Halloween themed treats that are only available during the party (candy corn flavored ice cream, anyone?).

The party also features a special parade, fireworks show, and brand-new villains show this year, as well as costumed characters for unique photo ops. Get your tickets early on the Mickey’s Very Merry Halloween Party website, as many dates sell out.

me3Just three days later, Universal Studios Florida gets in on the act with Halloween Horror Nights, which also runs on select nights through November 1. If Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party is suitable for all ages, Halloween Horror Nights is strictly for those old enough to be thoroughly terrorized.

Jack the Clown is back this year, along with a number of venerable icons celebrating the event’s 25th year. 2015 bring an unprecedented nine haunted houses, along with scare zones throughout the park and roving chainsaw maniacs who bring the terror right to you. Jack also has his own show, in addition to the usual romp with Bill and Ted.

Halloween Horror Nights is a hard ticketed event, with single night and multi-night options. The official website has full details of all the different ticket types, as well as Express Passes (highly recommended if you visit on a peak night).

The following week, Howl-O-Scream kicks off at Busch Gardens Tampa. It’s another event for the older, more scare-proof crowd, and this year the park brought in Blair Witch Project producer Robin Cowie to kick things up a notch. In addition to the usual seven haunted houses (with Unearthed: Scarlett’s Revenge as the new entry this year), Howl-O-Scream also has an interactive card game. You can buy your card packs in the park.

temp144Like Universal, Busch Gardens Tampa offers a skip-the-lines pass for purchase, and it’s a life-saver on the most crowded nights. Howl-O-Scream also offers the Fright Feast Buffet, where you can dine while you watch the Fiends show, then enjoy the haunted houses an hour before the general crowds. All the options are listed on the official website.

SeaWorld Orlando waits until October to celebrate the Halloween season. The park’s Halloween Spooktacular starts on October 3 and runs on weekends through the 31st.

In addition to trick or treating for goodies like Tootsie Rolls and Airheads, kids can party with Penelope the fish, make crafts, dance, and generally enjoy the day and evening (the event runs from noon to 7 p.m.). The Count even has his very own Halloween themed show for the little Sesame Street fans in your family (and for adults who remember Count Von Count fondly).

temp145Most of the Halloween Spooktacular activities are included with a regular admission ticket, but this year SeaWorld Orlando has added an extra cost option for those who love the park’s orcas. The Dine With Shamu Halloween Spooktacular Brunch gives you a ringside sea to see the orca pod while dining on a buffet featuring seasonal items. Prices start at $28 for adults and $16 for kids and include a family photo and cookie decorating kits. Event details are the SeaWorld Orlando website.

After all that Halloween fun, you’ll no doubt be ready for Christmas, and that kicks off plenty early in Central Florida too. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party kicks things off on November 8, just one week after the Halloween decorations go into storage, followed by festivities at all the other parks and the Gaylord Palms Resort…but that’s another story. Stay tuned!

Mac & cheese takes center stage at Give Kids the World fundraiser

Do you love mac and cheese? Do you love to help out worth causes? Do you still need to make plans for the weekend? If you answered “yes” to those three questions, come out to the O-Town MacDown to indulge in lots of comfort food and help Give Kids the World Village at the same time.

The O-Town MacDown runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 12, at Osceola Heritage Park (yay! free parking!). See cooking demonstration by Cutthroat Kitchen Winner Chef Manny FD, watch fiercely competitive cook-offs, enjoy family activities and live entertainment, and eat as much macaroni and cheese as you can possibly handle.

The O-Town MacDown is a family friendly event with a kids zone for the little ones. They can get their faces painted, meet characters, and get creative in the macaroni art area.

Best of all, the O-Town MacDown benefits Give Kids the World Village, an amazing place in Kissimmee that provides dream vacations for critically ill children and their families. You’ll find more information on the O-Town MacDown on the official website, and learn more about Give Kids the World Village in the presentation below:

Here’s more about Give Kids the World Village from Pamela Landwirth:

Now take a tour of Give Kids the World Village to see this amazing place for yourself. This is what you support when you buy tickets to the O-Town MacDown:

Can’t wait for Halloween Horror Nights? These videos will whet your appetite

Halloween Horror Nights is just around the corner, but if you can’t wait until September 18, these videos should whet your appetite for all the mayhem ahead.

In this first video, you’ll see the full presentation where the media learned new details about the nine haunted houses at Halloween Horror Nights this year, as well as the scare zones and roving chainsaw hordes:

After the main presentation, I had a chance to interview several members of the creative team. Here’s the endlessly enthusiast Mike Aiello talking about his favorite time of year and the 2015 haunted houses:

Lora Wallace is full of enthusiasm this year, too, and you’ll see why as you listen to her describe the street experiences:

Charles Gray was also on hand to chat about the Easter eggs for fans hidden in the houses this year, as well as the lesser noticed elements that create the event’s overall atmosphere:

With only one week to go, Halloween Horror Nights 25 is getting its final touches. It kicks off on September 18 and runs on select nights this year through November 1. Whether you visit once or pack in as many visits to Halloween Horror Nights that you can during the season, you’re sure to have a terrifying time.

Halloween Horror Nights preview: Jack the Clown and a horrific transformation

me3Halloween Horror Nights starts on September 18 this year and runs on select nights through November 1, but I got a taste of this year’s terror on tap at the media preview. As you already know if you’re a Halloween Horror Nights fan, Jack is back, and he’s madder and badder than ever. Jack’s the murderous clown who Halloween Horror Nights fans know and love. I’ve seen him on the commercials this year, and he was there in person at the preview, full of his typical evil energy. He’s large and in charge this year, with his own show and a haunted house that features scenes from favorite houses over the previous 24 years.

Not only did I get to see Jack and check out props from the haunted houses and scare zones, but I also got to sample the Insidious house. It’s still under construction, but I was able to go through it three times and loved the set design and all the jump scares. It’s based on all three movies, so fans will feel instantly immersed. Even if you’re not familiar with Insidious and don’t understand the context, you’ll still appreciate the good old-fashioned scares.

Since Jack the Clown means a carnival theme, there were plenty of decadent carnival-inspired treats at the preview, like chocolate-covered bacon, churros, cotton candy, and chocolate-covered bacon (seriously, it’s really, really tasty). My favorite was the popcorn-breaded chicken with caramel sauce. Of course, I like southern-style fried chicken with honey, so caramel really isn’t all that big of a leap.

me2I didn’t have much time to eat, though, as I had to pour over the props, and there was one last thing I wanted to do: go through my own horrific transformation. Each year there are make-up artists on hand showing how they transform the scareactors. They also do a little of their magic on members of the media who don’t mind looking a little roughed up.

First I spent some time watching the scareactor transformation. In addition to the make-up, some of the Halloween Horror Nights scareactors wear prosthetic to make their look complete. Whether they work in one of the haunted houses or roam the streets as part of a scare zone, they all go through a nightly transformation from normal, everyday people to Walkers, ghouls, or other creepy creatures. It’s always fascinating to watch the make-up artists at work at the media preview, as it’s a part of the event that you don’t get to see when you’re there as a guest.

Here’s the scareactor undergoing her transformation:



I also had a chance to get a little gore of my own. Here’s my own experience in the make-up chair:



I can’t even imagine what the people out on CityWalk thought as I walked to my car!

I loved getting a taste of the Insidious house and hearing from the creative team about all the houses and scare zones this year. It’s going to be hard to wait for opening night, but come September 18 I’ll be heading through Insidious again and checking out the year’s other eight houses.

Great Irish Hooley videos highlight beer tasting and annual celebration

If you read my article about the Great Irish Hooley at Raglan Road, the Irish pub in Downtown Disney, you might be tempted to go this weekend. It runs through September 7, with food, drink, dancing, and music going on throughout Labor Day weekend.

If you’re on the fence and need a little more convincing, check out these videos on the four craft beers that were created especially for Raglan Road. You can taste them at 1 or 5 p.m. every day of the Great Irish Hooley, and take it from me, they’re delicious! I especially recommend the watermelon beer and the stout, although the IPA is wonderful too:


Raglan Road is about as authentic as you can get, down to the bar and other inside accouterments that came all the way from Ireland. Co-owner Paul Nolan is an Irish native himself, and he takes great pride in his pub and in the Great Irish Hooley. Here him talk about it in this video:

Even if you can’t make it down over Labor Day Weekend, Raglan Road has great food, drinks, and entertainment every day of the week. The Great Irish Hooley is just the icing on the cake (or would that be the malt vinegar on the fish and chips?)