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

Long-Awaited Rivers of Light show now playing at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

a113Back in April of 2016, I got a taste of a new show, Rivers of Light, that was in development at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. At that time, I saw the lotus boats and learned about the inspiration behind the show, whetting my appetite to see the whole thing that summer. Alas, Rivers of Light took longer to complete than planned, but it debuted on February 17, and I have to say it was worth the wait.

Nighttime at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Disney’s Animal Kingdom was long thought of as a half day park, but over the past year it’s transformed into a much fuller experience that draws guests in after dark. You can go on safari, where there’s a permanent sunset and many nocturnal animals that you don’t see stirring much during the day. You can grab a spectacular night view from the top of Expedition Everest or marvel as the Tree of Life awakens with a projection show (see the video below).

Beauty flows in Rivers of Light

Now you can add Rivers of Light to the Disney’s Animal Kingdom entertainment roster. The show takes place in a 5000 seat amphitheater on Discovery River, where I guarantee that you’ll feel chills as you watch the elegant animal-themed floats, the boats bearing story-tellers, and the waterworks that create a stage for Disneynature footage celebrating a variety of wildlife. I barely knew where to look, as there was so much going on out on the water, from fountains to lasers to shadow puppets. Disney even managed to work some impressive fire into a water show. It’s something you have to see in person, but the video below offers a little sampling:

I thought that Rivers of Light would be a good show, but I was unprepared for just how much I loved it. It’s unlike anything else at Walt Disney World, and as I watched it, I imagined how much I would love to see something like it at Epcot in a revamped version of Illuminations. Floats for each country in the style of the animal floats and water projections with the type of footage that’s now shown on the globe would be breathtaking. I do love the current version of Illuminations (especially the music), but the state of the art technology used at Disney’s Animal Kingdom definitely set me to dreaming about how it might be incorporated elsewhere.

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Getting seats for Rivers of Light

I’m sure Rivers of Light will be very popular this summer as word gets out that it’s a must-see at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, so I’m glad there are a couple of ways to ensure that you get a seat. First, you can use the free FastPass+ system. Just be sure to do that as early as you can to ensure that you get your desired date. If you don’t mind spending some money and plan to eat a big meal in the park anyway, opt for a dining package that gives you a hearty repast as well as good seats.

I personally already have FastPasses to see this show again. It’s the sort of show that you want to see more than once to catch all the little details, and preferably from multiple angles to catch it from every perspective. Yes, it was a long time in the waiting, but the best things are worth waiting for, and Rivers of Light definitely falls into that category.

Silver Spurs Rodeo brings excitement to Kissimmee all weekend

qIf your only experience with Central Florida is as a home to major attractions like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida, you probably have no idea of Kissimmee’s cattle country heritage and the annual Silver Spurs Rodeo. Along with oranges, Florida is a major beef and dairy producer, which you can read about on the Fresh From Florida website, and it has a rich history in the cattle industry. Given that background, it’s especially fitting that Kissimmee is home to the Silver Spurs Rodeo, the largest event of its kind east of the Mississippi.

Rich Rodeo History

If you want a taste of the action, the Silver Spurs Rodeo runs now through Sunday. You’ll find full details on the official website and you can learn more about the history of the rodeo in this video:

Events at the Silver Spurs Rodeo

Events include bull riding, bronc riding, barrel racing, team roping, steer wrestling, and more. Learn more about the fine art of bull riding in the video below:

An Insider’s View

What’s it like to actually be in the ring? Find out about the adrenaline rush here:

Every rodeo has its queens, and the Silver Spurs Rodeo is no exception. Learn what they enjoy about the event and what they’re most looking forward to in the video below:

If you want some thrills and chills that go far beyond the theme parks, head out to the Silver Spurs Rodeo this weekend and join in the fun!

Epcot International Festival of the Arts offers spontaneous fun

The Epcot International Festival of the Arts is brand new for 2017, and I’m already in love with it. It combines so many of my favorite things, like Broadway music, delicious food, and of course artwork by talented artists. One of the best things about living right next door to Walt Disney World is being able to spontaneous run over to the festival. It runs Friday to Monday up through February 27, which gives me ample opportunity to pop over for a hour or two.

What can you do if you, too, are a local who wants to take in The Epcot International Festival of the Arts during an evening when you have a little extra time? Here are the highlights of one of my recent adventures:

Broadway performers at Epcot

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The Epcot International Festival of the Arts features a rotating slate of Broadway stars performing multiple times a night. I was lucky enough to see Josh Strickland and Ashley Brown on my impromptu. I loved all of their songs, but their “Frozen” duet was by far the best.

You might be able to get a seat even if you just pop over to the park on a whim, but if not, you can usually find standing room in the back where you can still be enveloped by the music and also get a nice, wide view of the stage. I love the fact that there’s even a live band providing the music for these amazingly gifted performers.

1aaaArt everywhere around Epcot

With the Epcot International Festival of the Arts in full swing, you’ll find art all around the park, and sometimes even in unexpected forms and places. One of my favorites is the chalk art, which I loved when it was part of the Festival of the Masters at Disney Springs back when it was Downtown Disney. Now the colorful chalkworks pop up all around World Showcase, with the artists creating them live in front of the guests..

Even though the artists draw the pictures during the day, their work still remains at night for you discover as you make your way around the different countries. I just loved this example at the America pavilion, prominently featuring Lady Liberty. The effect after dark is so cool.

If you want to search out the chalk art at night, walk into the pavilions and watch for special lighting. For me, it’s almost like my personal treasure hunt. All of the artworks are lit up so you can easily see them, although not all have the same 3-D effect as this one. The pictures are all themed and styled to each country.

Dining at the Epcot International Festival of the Arts

There are so many special food options at the Epcot International Festival of the Arts that you’d have to visit several times in order to try them all. Here’s the scoop on a few of the options:

1aaaaHowever, I must admit that sometimes the regular Epcot dinner offerings draw me away from the kiosks. Last time I was at the festival, I ended up at the character dinner at Garden Grill in the Land pavilion. I enjoy that restaurant for so many reasons. First, it’s a sumptuous meal with seasonal changes, and the food is always so fresh and delicious.

Second, it’s served family style so you can try everything with no difficult decisions. The only problem is managing to save room for dessert.

Third, I love how the restaurant rotates through a scene from the Living with the Land ride. It just feels so “Disney” to me. And last but not least, you’ll see Mickey, Pluto, Chip, and Dale. It’s definitely one of the more laid-back character meals at Walt Disney World, with lots of quality character interaction. It’s one that I often recommend to friends with kids for that very reason.

Sadly, there aren’t too many more weekends left to experience the Epcot International Festival of the Arts, but never fear! If you miss it, the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival takes over the park on March 1, ensuring that there’s more festival fun all the way through May 29.

Free evening parking at Universal Orlando Resort means more CityWalk for locals

Universal Orlando Resort recently announced that parking is free after 6 p.m. While that doesn’t help you if you’re heading out to the theme parks early, it’s a boon for locals who want to enjoy the CityWalk shopping and dining district. If you’re not familiar with CityWalk, it’s the area that you walk through from the parking garages to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, but it’s also packed with its own amusements.

There’s no admission charge for CityWalk, although you have to pay to park, even if you’re not going into one of the two theme parks. However, with the new “free after 6 p.m.” offer, you can head over for dinner and a stroll without paying a dime, other than whatever you spend at the restaurants and stores.You can also catch a movie at the theaters or play a round or two of miniature golf. The only catch is that it’s not valid during Halloween Horror Nights, which is a mere seven months away. It’s a real treat as a local to be able to hop in the car and head over for a quick nosh.

2yyyCowfish at CityWalk

I’m a big fan of most of the CityWalk dining venues there, but I do have three favorites. I’ve loved Cowfish ever since it opened, and it’s my go-to after a night of scares at Halloween Horror Nights or a general visit to Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure. Sushi and burgers are a winning combination, and I love their tuna appetizer and the decadent milkshakes that I always top my meal with. They have some great Bento Boxes that allow you to try a variety of good things all it one sitting, and be sure to customize your own animated fish while you’re waiting for your table or before you leave.

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium

Speaking of decadence, that brings me to another big favorite: Toothsome Chocolate Emporium. They have insanely delicious shakes, too, and a full menu that works in chocolate in creative ways. The bread is to die for! While Cowfish has the namesake aquatic creature swimming in a tank in the diningroom, Toothsome has its proprietor, Penelope, and her steampunk robot assistant, Jacques, who you can meet if you pay a visit. See them here in the media presentation from the restaurant’s opening:

NBC Sports Grill and Brew

Last but not least, if you’re just in the mood for a burger or some other good old-fashioned bar food and a nice, cold beer, the NBC Sports Grill and Brew is the perfect spot. I love the wide variety of beer; even when I’m not hungry, I’ve been know to stop in for a brew or two. Look at all of those delicious dishes in the video below that you can wash down with your choice of beer:

CityWalk has plenty of other great places to eat, but those are my top three. Now you can try them out for yourself without paying a parking fee. Just be sure to arrive after 6 p.m. and the parking is on Universal.

Universal Orlando honors Harry Potter at 4th annual event

wandThis past weekend, Universal Orlando Resort once again honored the Boy Who Lived and the entire Wizarding World with its fourth annual “A Celebration of Harry Potter.” This event, which debuted in 2014, has grown bigger and better every year. Not only does it bring an exciting line-up of movie celebrities to the Universal parks, but it also covers everything from the London studio tour to the graphic designs from MinaLima to books from Scholastic and more. As you can see by all the fans in the photo, wearing their wizard robes with wands held aloft, Harry’s popularity is as strong as ever.

Overview of the event

If you didn’t get to this year’s “A Celebration of Harry Potter,” the video below will show you some of what you missed. The opening festivities give an overview and set up a sense of excitement for the whirlwind weekend:

Meet the celebrities

It’s nearly impossible to see and do everything over the course of the event, which runs from Friday to Sunday. The Expo itself can take several hours of browsing time, and with all the panels and demonstrations, the time flies by every year. One of the most popular draws at “A Celebration of Harry Potter” is the celebrity appearances. In the video below, you’ll see Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Warwick Davis (Professor Flitwick and Griphook) and Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), all of whom were on hand this year to chat about their experiences in the franchise films:


The festivities are over for another year, but you can still get your dose of Harry Potter any time at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. The two parks feature Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, connected by the Hogwarts Express, to provide any-time immersion in the Wizarding World. Be sure to try the frozen butterbeer!

Top 5 first-day activities at the Epcot International Festival of the Arts

The rain couldn’t dampen the first day of the Epcot International Festival of the Arts, the brand-new event at Walt Disney World. The festival runs Friday through Monday from now until February 20. I was there bright and early in the morning and had a blast until the rain finally drove me away. I still have a lot more to experience, but here’s my early report with the top five activities I experienced on day one, in no particular order.

Top 5 of Epcot festival fun

temp77The Living Statues. I love the Living Statues over at Disney Springs, and they’re now at Epcot for the duration of the festival, saluting the spirit of Future World. While I enjoyed all three and laughed out loud at their antics with guests, I loved the middle one most because he was drawing a picture of my favorite purple dragon. That’s a nice lead-in to my second list item…

The special merchandise. It’s very heavy on Figment, which is fine with me. I already have Figment all over my house, and by the time the event is over, his presence will increase quite a bit. There are t-shirts, toys, tumblers, and even a Figment scavenger hunt. He’s definitely getting some love at the Epcot International Festival of the Arts.

The seminars. I attended my first one today, and there are so many others going on throughout the festival that I plan to hit many more. I learned all about animation cells, both as part of productions and as collectibles, today. The seminar schedule is on the Walt Disney World website, and they’re held Odyssey, at the crossroads of Future World and World Showcase on the Mexico side.

temp4The Broadway music. I always enjoy the concerts at the various events that run at Epcot throughout the year, but the Epcot International Festival of the Arts has one of the best-ever offerings. They’re bringing Broadway stars to perform on the America Gardens stage, with three shows per night every Friday through Monday until February 20. The music, sung with a live band accompaniment, is guaranteed to give you chills. Josh Strickland and Ashley Brown kicked things off for the first night, with many more great performances to come.

temp78The grazing. Culinary art is among the art forms that gets a salute at the Epcot International Festival of the Arts. Bring your appetite and graze among the kiosks as you enjoy the visual and performing arts lurking around every corner. The food itself is artwork. The plating is so pretty and precise that you’ll feel bad ruining it…but your taste buds will demand that you do so.

Enjoy the Epcot International Festival of the Arts now through February 20. It runs from Friday through Monday, and most of the fun is included with your ticket, although you’ll want to check out the extra-cost offerings as a little treat.

Disney chefs show their artistry at Epcot International Festival of the Arts

pw2You’d expect the Epcot International Festival of the Arts, the newest event at Walt Disney World, to be all about the visual arts, like drawing and painting. You’d be correct in your assumption, but you’d also be pinpointing just one part of a major festival that encompasses a much wider range. For example, in addition to art exhibitions, demonstrations, and seminars, you’ll find a salute to the performing arts in the form of concerts by Disney Broadway stars.

As if all that isn’t enough, look for the Walt Disney World chefs to showcase their own artistry, working in the medium of food. Epcot is well known for its International Food and Wine Festival, and the Flower and Garden Festival added special culinary offerings in recent years, too. Now you don’t have to wait until spring to indulge in new eats. The art festival will have eight “kitchens” serving up artistically-inspired dishes. I had a change to taste several of them, so I can attest that you won’t be disappointed.

Learn more about the special eats at Epcot

Chef Gregg Hannon shared the scoop on the Epcot International Festival of the Arts food offerings to help you prepare your taste buds for the January 13 debut:

Best dishes at the Epcot International Festival of the Arts

art2Out of all the dishes that I previewed, there really wasn’t anything bad, but if I had to choose just one dish, it would be the mushroom and truffle risotto. I mean, come on, mushrooms? Truffle? Parmesan cheese? What more can I say? I do have to admit that the trio of croissant donuts were a big winner, too, especially the cheese and tuna varieties. The shrimp ceviche was light and refreshing, and the scallops were a real winner for seafood lovers. I loved how the food had ties to the artwork, and some items were works of art themselves, like the colorful sugar cookies with hazelnut filling (think a Pop-Tart packed with Nutella…heavenly!)

You can see many of the food choices in the photo at the top of this article, and you’ll get to try them for yourself at the Epcot International Festival of the Arts, starting on the 13th and running Friday through Monday up until February 20. Stay tuned for more insider information to get you excited about the event.

Get ready for A Celebration of Harry Potter, coming to Universal on January 27

art6A Celebration of Harry Potter returns to Universal Orlando Resort on January 27, bringing a full weekend of Wizarding events to the two Universal theme parks. Get ready for celebrity Q & A panels, film props, wand dueling demonstrations, and much more. The best thing about the celebration is that virtually everything is included with your theme park admission. Get a two park ticket that lets you into Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure and you’re limited only by how much you can pack into your day.

As a local, I’m fortunate enough to be able to visit Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley any time I wish, if only to quaff a quick, refreshing Butterbeer after a spin on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Even with the Wizarding World at my fingertips, I can’t help but get excited about this annual event where Harry Potter mania goes into full gear.

Highlights of this popular Harry Potter event

What exactly can you see and do at A Celebration of Harry Potter? The videos below, shot in past years, sum things up quite nicely.

See a wand being created:

Hear from Harry Potter film celebrities:

Watch live wand dueling:

Witness a movie make-up demonstration:

If this sampler has you wanting more, block out your calendar for the weekend of January 27 and head out to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure to immerse yourself live in the Wizarding World. This event draws big crowds every year, so come early and plan to spend the day from opening until closing time to take in as much as you possibly can. Check the event schedule and plan out your day so you don’t miss any of the must-do panels and demonstrations. Leave plenty of time for the expo, too, as it will be hard to tear yourself away from the treasure trove of Harry Potter-related booths and activities.

Brand-new Epcot International Festival of the Arts debuts January 13

One of the best things about living near Walt Disney World and having an annual pass is being able to take advantage of the special events like the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival and the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. Those are always two of the biggest highlights of every Disney fan’s year.

With two festivals that cover the spring and fall, and a holiday celebration in between, there’s not much more that could happen at Epcot, right? Wrong!

Brand New Festival Coming to Walt Disney World

art5Make room for the Epcot International Festival of the Arts. This new event starts on January 13 and runs every Friday through Monday until February 20. The festival is an eclectic melding of just about every art form you can think of, from painting to chalk drawings to crafts to photography to Broadway music to other performance arts and the art of creating fine cuisine.

The video below contains an overview of the festival:

Like Epcot’s other events, it’s included with your admission ticket, but you’ll want to budget some funds to try out some of the extra cost activities and to try food from the eight different “kitchens.” For Figment fans, be sure to buy the Figment scavenger hunt kit so you can track down your favorite purple dragon in famous works of art around the world. It’s for kids, but you can bet that adult Figment fans (I’m raising my hand here) will love it, too.

Plan a Full Day at Epcot

art4There will be so much going on at the festival that you’ll need to spend a full day at the park, or better yet, make multiple visits if possible. You’ll want to stroll around viewing the artwork and catch the special entertainment on the Fountain Stage and the Broadway singers at America Gardens. You can easily graze on the special food offerings while you do that, since they’re in tapas style portions. The platings are a work of art, too, so you might feel a little bit guilty eating them.

Want to learn more about Walt Disney World’s newest way to draw visitors after the holiday madness and before the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival draws in the spring crowd? Stay tuned to this blog for articles focusing on each unique aspect, like food, live Disney artists, Disney on Broadway stars, and more.

Day Three: Leaving Helena for Tizer Gardens

2Day three of my visit to Helena, Montana, dawned bright and early, as I was slated to meet my host, Mike, for breakfast at the No Sweat Café in Last Chance Gulch, followed by a drive to Tizer Gardens. Alas, we discovered that it’s closed on Mondays, so our plans switched to Jorgenson’s, a restaurant and hotel that looks unassuming at first glance but that has quite a history. He told me it used to be a favorite hangout for politicians, with many deals being closed over drinks in the bar.

Fueling up for Tizer Gardens trip

3It was a little too early for drinking, but the breakfast menu was packed with plenty of tempting options. I went for the homemade French toast, which was hearty enough to fuel me for a long day of walking ahead. After our meal, the first order of business was driving about 20 minutes outside of Helena, and up in elevation, to Tizer Botanic Gardens and Arboretum.

I’m an amateur gardener myself, so I was anxious to see the all the different species growing at Tizer, especially since it’s located in a place with such a short growing season. Since it’s at a higher elevation, it has a scant 64 days vs. about 90 down in Helena. Little did I know that Tizer Botanic Gardens not only has native plants, trees, and flowers, but that it’s also a testing ground for outside species and an official weather station for NOAA.

4I learned all that and more from Richard Krott, the botanical wizard who runs Tizer Botanic Gardens and Arboretum along with his wife, Belva. For the first part of the visit, I strolled around taking photos of all the whimsical scenes and various sitting spots throughout the gardens. It’s a popular place for weddings, with a fairytale cottage that doubles as the bride’s dressing room, and it has a variety of paths to explore and play areas for the children. High teas are held periodically in the gardens, and I can’t imagine a more quaint spot to enjoy a spot of afternoon tea and other goodies.

Serene spots at Tizer Gardens

5Tizer Botanic Gardens was wonderfully serene, with Prickly Pear Creek running through gardens teeming with colorful flowers. As you walk, you have to keep your eyes open for the trees embedded with tools and little scenes set up with gnomes, fairies, and the like. It would be a perfect spot to bring a picnic lunch and choose one of the resting spots and simply chill amidst nature’s lively rainbow. There were plenty of bees, of course, and I even spotted busy little hummingbirds flitting about.

6After soaking in the floral ambiance, I had the pleasure of getting a tour from Richard, who took me over to the testing grounds where he tries out exotic species from around the world, including Australia, South Africa, and even Siberia. He showed me some rare and unusual trees, flowers, and plants, including hardy species that can live at the most frigid temperatures.

I also learned that you can grow grapes in Montana, which always gets my attention, since I’m always interested in wines from various U.S. regions. I did an online search after leaving the gardens, and sure enough, Montana has several wineries.

7I also learned that Tizer Botanic Gardens is one of only three accredited private arboretums. While it might just look like a lovely spot to the casual observer, it’s also an important testing ground for the Plant Select and All American programs. It has 450 conifers and 500 different deciduous trees, along with the hundreds of flowers. If you visit, be sure not to miss the testing area, which is across the small road from the main gardens. Richard will also be happy to demonstrate how he trains the trees to grow in various “patterns,” as he’s doing in the photo below:

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9While Tizer Gardens is outside of Helena, it’s well worth the drive for both avid gardeners and vacationers who just want to find that “sweet spot” of serenity. Bring the kids along because there’s plenty of space for them to run and play and many fun little “finds.” I could have spent an afternoon just chilling out among the flowers and listing to the babbling of the creek, but a busy day was still ahead of me. Stay tuned for the rest of day three as I hop aboard the Last Chance Train Tour.

If you missed my previous posts, start with the first post from day one here.