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

Party at Raglan Road: Great Irish Hooley runs thru Sept. 7

temp11There’s always a party at Raglan Road, the venerable Irish pub that’s been at Downtown Disney for the last 10 years, but on Labor Day Weekend things are getting kicked up a notch with the Great Irish Hooley.

The fourth annual Great Irish Hooley runs through September 7th, with music, dancing, good food and drink flowing all through Labor Day Weekend.

This year, Raglan Road has added something new: beer tastings at 1 and 5 p.m. on each day of the event. Rye River Brewing Company created four beers especially for the Great Irish Hooley, so your taste buds will savor some unique brews (hint: my favorites are the watermelon beer and the hearty stout).

Beer tasting is just one small event in the overall festivities. A variety of bands will take the stage, both indoors and out, throughout the duration of the Great Irish Hooley. If you’d like the full entertainment schedule, you’ll find it on the official website.

temp13The Raglan Road Irish dancers are on hand, too, so be prepared for some lively stomping. The event is family friendly, and your children might even get a chance to go up on stage and show off their own dance moves.

Raglan Road is never a boring place, whether there’s a special event like the Great Irish Hooley or whether it’s just another night with the usual entertainment. It’s a great place for food and drink; I’m a big fan of Chef Kevin Dundon’s hearty Irish fare, and the restaurant is now offering some locally sourced seasonal specials. Right now, you can get delicious Florida seafood, and I hear tell that local pork might just be up in the fall.

It’s easy to get to Raglan Road, especially now that one of the parking garages is open at Downtown Disney. I strongly urge you to go to the Great Irish Hooley if you get a chance over Labor Day Weekend. I was there for a special party on the first night, and the craft beers were all wonderful, the bands were lively, and the dancers were as talented as ever. Even if you can’t make it out by September 7, there’s entertainment every day, as you’ll see if you check out the schedule on the Raglan Road website.

temp21Granted, you can pay for Epcot admission and dine around the world (and I highly recommend doing so, especially since the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is just around the corner), but you don’t have to go through all that trouble if you want to enjoy some ethnic cuisine immersed in an authentic atmosphere. Parking and admission is free at Downtown Disney, and Raglan Road is open daily for lunch and dinner, so try it out any time.

Give Kids the World Village holds blogger bash to raise awareness

g23Have you ever heard of Give Kids the World Village? It’s one of Orlando’s best-kept secrets: a quaint little resort tucked away in Kissimmee, just about 15 minutes away from Walt Disney World. However, if your family has a critically ill child, you might be all too familiar with the resort.

Give Kids the World Village is a place where sick youngsters get their fondest wishes granted, whether they want to meet Anna and Elsa, swim with a dolphin, or do anything else the Orlando attractions can offer. The resort provides an entirely free vacation to the children and their families, and they get to spend a worry-free week in a homey villa. Instead of focusing on the next doctor visit, all they have to worry about is what ride to go on first and whether it’s okay to have ice cream for breakfast again.

Give Kids the World Village is run entirely on donations, and less than 7 cents out of each dollar goes for administrative costs, that means that 93 percent of donations go right to providing services. In addition to donors, the resort relies on corporate partners like Boston Market, Papa Johns Pizza, and Perkins, all of which donate the food served in its restaurants; places like Krispy Kreme, which gives sweet treats; and companies like Hasbro, which provides toys for the weekly year-’round Christmas celebrations.


Give Kids the World Village just held its third annual Blogger Bash to help raise awareness of its work online. In the video below, Pamela Landwirth, wife of founder Henri Landwirth, talks about the resort’s mission:

Even celebrities like Kevin Bacon recognize the amazing work done at the resort. If you’d like to join him in the Ice Cream Challenge to help raise money for Give Kids The World Village, check out my recent article with full details (it also contains a video of Bacon losing the challenge to a six year old child and cheerfully paying his $6 penalty).


g9In addition to visiting the theme parks, kids have fun right at the resort, which has its own rides and offers visits by characters, movies, game shows, swimming, and a week of various holiday celebrations. At night, Mayor Clayton even goes around to the villas to do personal tuck-ins. Other characters, like Rugby and Reme, make regular appearances, too. It’s a place where happiness reigns, even for kids whose lives aren’t generally too happy when they’re in and out of hospitals.

Give Kids the World Village is one of my favorite charities, and my favorite place on the grounds is the Star Tower. Each child who visits creates a star, and fairies magically place it on the walls or ceiling. The stars stay there forever as a symbol of the happy memories made by each family. I always feel a bit melancholy when I see it because I know that many of those children didn’t live much longer when they returned home. Thankfully, others beat their illness, and even for those who didn’t, their families will forever cherish the memory of a time when they were able to let go of their cares, at least for a little while, and enjoy a truly magical world.

Epcot International Food & Wine Festival is fun with big bucks or on a budget

f8The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival rolls into town on September 25 and runs until November 16. If you’re familiar with the event, you know that it revolves around food and drink. Normally the kiosks are in World Showcase, but this year they’ve taken over Future World, too.

Technically the event is included with your Epcot admission, although you’ll need extra money to enjoy some food and drink. Is there other special fun you can take advantage of without paying anything over your admission cost? Sure! Here are some examples:

Marketplace Discovery Passport: Pick up your free passport and use it to help you plan your dining at the kiosks. Then have it stamped at each of your stops for a customized souvenir.

Back to the Basics: On Fridays, you can learn from the experts at informative talks on a variety of subjects. It’s a great educational opportunity, and it also gives you the chance to relax in the air conditioning. That’s a welcome respite in Florida in a part that’s name is often called an acronym for “Every Person Comes Out Tired.”

The Ocean Spray Cranberry Bog: The bog is back! It was missing in action in 2014, but you’ll once again get a chance to talk to growers and enjoy a free Craisins sample.

Eat to the Beat concerts: The concerts don’t require an extra ticket, and seating is first come, first served. See acts like Christopher Cross, Rick Springfield, Starship, and Styx alumnus Dennis De Young.

f9Of course, if you have some money to burn, the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival also boasts some amazing extra-cost activities. Party for the Senses is among the most popular offerings. It runs select days in October and literally turns you loose in a culinary playground of gourmet food and wine stations. You get to enjoy live entertainment while you nosh and drink to your heart’s content. It doesn’t come cheap; admission is $169, or $199 if you want a reserved table. Want to go whole hog and have your own bar and artisan cheese selection? Pony up $319 for a VIP experience in the Wine Lounge.

With this year’s The Chew tie-in, you can also sign up for “What’s Cookin’ With…” and meet a celebrity chef like Cat Cora or Jamie Deen. The chef changes each week and this brunch event runs $129 per person.

You can find the full range of premium options on the official Epcot International Food & Wine Festival website.

If you’d like to try something a little different, the Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Resorts offer the Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic for one weekend each year. This year it runs on October 30 and 31, allowing guests to sample food and wine at a variety of booths. That might sound a lot like Epcot, but the big difference here is that you can buy an “all you can eat and drink” wristband. That makes it a tremendous bargain because you don’t have to make difficult choices as you visit tempting booths with creations from the Swan and Dolphin Resort chefs and restaurants. The resort is conveniently located right between Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

You can also start the party early with one of the special pre-event classes on topics like wine blending, drink mixology, and pasta making. They’re great fun, as you can tell by the video below. Full details are on the official Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic website:

Yes, you can spend a fortunate on food, but my downfall is also the merchandise. This year, there are lots of Figment goodies mixed in among the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival merchandise offerings. He’s even on the annual passholder’s T-shirt.


That might be a good thing; I always feel like I gain at least five pounds each festival year. Now I can divert part of my food budget to merchandise with my favorite little purple friend.

Characters at sea: Carnival Cruise Line features Dr. Seuss favorites

b4You may be a big fan of Grinchmas at Islands of Adventure, and other Dr. Seuss characters like the Cat in the Hat and Things 1 and 2 who hang out there all year ’round, but did you know you can also celebrate Seuss at Sea on Carnival Cruise Line?

The Carnival Fun Ships have plenty of fun for adults, but they’re also kid-friendly, with activities and adventures for the younger family members. Seuss at Sea brings storytelling, parades, crafts, and other activities to the Carnival fleet. Best of all, it also includes everyone’s favorite Seussian meal: green eggs and ham. Sign up for the Seuss breakfast and you’ll dine on the title dish while you meet Sam I Am himself, along with other characters.

I was recently on board the Carnival Paradise in Tampa, and I can personally attest that green eggs and ham is delicious. If it looks a little too adventurous for you, don’t worry. There are plenty of other, more conventional options, like waffles, pancakes, and French toast, as well as a hearty steak and eggs breakfast. No member of the family will go hungry, no matter how fussy. Since the green eggs and ham is serve on English muffins, I added some of the Bearnaise sauce that’s normally part of the streak option and created an impromptu version of eggs Benedict.


The breakfast isn’t just some Seuss-themed food plopped randomly into a restaurant. The decor is whimsical, In Seuss-inspired colors, and there’s even an ice sculpture of the Cat in the Hat himself to greet you:


The food is quite creative, too. For example, both the pancakes and the strawberry parfait are make to resemble the Cat’s distinctive red and white striped hat:



Even the servers get in the fun. performing a little dance number:


Have your camera handy, as the characters all come by for photos while you’re dining. In addition to Sam I Am, I met the Cat and both of the Things.




The Dr. Seuss/Carnival partnership extends beyond just having the characters and activities on board. Tampa Rays baseball star Evan Longoria recently came on board the Carnival Paradise to read Dr. Seuss’s new book, “What Pet Should I Get,” to a group of youngsters. To see how his appearance benefited homeless pets, check out my latest article in my Doggone Orlando blog:

Kevin Bacon kicks off Ice Cream Challenge at Give Kids the World Village

Actor Kevin Bacon challenged a youngster to an ice cream eating contest at Give Kids the World Village, and the results were predictable: little Ethan beat him hands-down. It was all for a good cause, with the kick-off of the Ice Cream Challenge, a fund raiser that dares people to go head to head in ice cream eating contests. The winner is the one who eats the most ice cream in six seconds, and the loser has to donate $6 to Give Kids the World Village in Kissimmee. Of course, the winner is free to donate, too, and you can donate more if you wish; Kevin Bacon fans know why all the sixes are involved. Take a video of the challenge, post it to YouTube, and tweet it using the official hashtag: #GKTWChallenge

Here’s the full video of Kevin Bacon kicking things off:

Bacon has a charitable foundation,, that supports worthy causes. If you’re not familiar with Give Kids the World Village, it most definitely meets that criteria. It was founded as a place where kids with life-threatening illnesses could forget doctor visits and hospitals for a while as they enjoyed theme park vacations. The resort itself is also packed with fun activities, including a pool, rides, and weekly holiday celebrations that bring Christmas, Halloween, and other holidays to the young guests at any time of year. To take a tour of the resort, check out the video below:

If you’re up for the challenge, tackle some ice cream, then go to this web page to send in your donation:

Summer is the perfect time to cool off with ice cream, and this is the perfect way to do it. It’s a lot more comfy than pouring a bucket of ice water over your head, and your donation funds what’s literally the vacation of a lifetime for deserving kids and their families.

I met Paula Deen an Orlando nail salon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI love living next door to Walt Disney World, but one of the challenges, especially in the summer, is sharing my space with the mass influx of tourists. Everything from the theme parks to the grocery stores all the way down to the nail salons is packed with humanity during the peak season. My favorite nail salon is pretty much a walk-in place; in theory, you could make an appointment, but in practice it wouldn’t buy you much so your best bet is to just take your chances at what you hope is an off-time.

I decided that my toes needed a touch-up today and managed to catch a brief break in the crowd. It was the usual tourist circus, but little did I know that I was also about to run into Paula Deen and that she’s apparently a local.

There was only one open pedicure chair when I arrived, and it’s adjacent to the back of one of the couches in the waiting area. Two little kids, maybe three and five, were sitting there with a man (presumably Dad), and immediately spun around to stare at me in fascination. Living in Orlando, I’m pretty immune to kidlet antics, since virtually every restaurant is like a daycare from Hell all summer long. Besides, they were totally silent as though watching feet get primped was the most fascinating thing on earth. Either they were budding foot fetishists or just bored out of their minds.

Daddy, however, was not as mannerly at handling his boredom as his offspring. With the position of the couch, the kids were by my feet and he was by my head. He promptly whipped out his phone and started watching something with lots of screaming and loud explosions at full volume, without benefit of earphones. Uh, no. I’d finished my work early and was all about relaxing with a blissful hot stone pedicure as a treat. I didn’t feel like having it accompanied by a Michael Bay soundtrack.

Being from the south side of Chicago, I have no problem confronting rudeness head on. However, I thought it might be more fun to fight fire with fire. I brought up Amazon Prime on my phone, cranked my New Age playlist, and set it on the arm of my chair as close as possible to Explosion Boy. I told the man doing my pedicure, “I hope you don’t mind, but I want to relax so I have to drown out the rudeness.” Explosion Boy actually took the hint and turned it off, albeit with a sidelong glare.

I thought the rest of my pedicure would be uneventful, but little did I know that Paula Deen would soon come flouncing in the door. I should have realized she was going to put on a floor show when she bustled in, stared right at a man performing a pedicure on one of the women in a line-up of pedicure chairs that takes up the whole wall, and asked, “Do you do pedicures here?” Dude just rolled his eyes, and I couldn’t help saying, “I sure hope they do, because if not, I’m a little worried about what that guy is doing down there to my feet.”

Paula was soon ensconced in a chair a couple of seats down from mine. She then proceeded to boisterously complain that the salon was much too quiet. I’m not sure what she meant, as it had the usual buzz of low conversation among some of the people getting services, while others were simply kicking back to enjoy a bit of bliss. She proclaimed several times that she was from the South and that it’s just not the same here. Apparently she’s not good with geography and is also totally unaware that Tampa is home to the world’s largest Confederate flag. She yelped, “Hasn’t anyone here seen ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ or ‘Steel Magnolias?'” When no one spoke, she said, “No, huh? Well, that’s what a salon is supposed be be like.”

I still didn’t realize that I was in the company of Paula Deen herself, though, or her spiritual twin at the very least, until she asked the man doing her pedicure, “Who owns this place?” He responded, “Why, you want to buy it?” and she said, “Lordy, no! It’s Asian owned, right? I just wanted to know if it’s Asian owned because nails are your people’s thing, right?” I thought I was going to fall out of my chair; at least she didn’t says “Orientals.”

Presumably in an effort to change the subject before TMZ swooped in to see if Paula was wearing yellow face, the man said, “Where are you from? Georgia?” I swear I almost wet my pants when the Southern Belle said, “No, from Miami.” She must have realized how ridiculous that sounded because she swiftly added, “Miami is like the real south. I moved here to Central Florida, and it’s not the south at all. I’m moving back to Miami as soon as I can.”

The woman next to her made the mistake of making some sort of innocent comment, and Paula proceeded to talk her ear off for the duration, pausing only to boisterously exclaim, “I want to cheapest pedicure! Be sure to give me the cheapest one.” Vegas was naming her the odds on favorite in the “Clients Who Don’t Leave a Tip” category.

Alas, once she started chatting with her neighbor, I couldn’t hear her gems of wisdom anymore. It was time for my hot rock massage, so I drifted into sweet, sweet oblivion. I’ll admit I was a little sorry that the floor show was over, though. From Paula’s conversation, I gathered that she actually lived quite close to me, although she was counting the days until she could return the Confederate confines of Miami. It’s usually the tourists who provide all the entertainment, but today I got to enjoy Paula Deen live and in person with a routine better than any HBO comedy special.

Photo credit: “Pedicure 1″ by Stoive – Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The Republic is immersive, intriguing Orlando theater experience

286With a little over three months to go until Halloween Horrors Nights kicks off at Universal Studios Florida on September 18, followed by Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa on September 25, I’ve itching for a good interactive maze experience. Thankfully, I had a chance to visit The Republic, an immersive theater experience in Orlando.

While it’s not quite a Halloween maze, it borrows elements from that genre, merges them with theater and improve, and adds a sprinkling of Plato’s Republic and Greek mythology to come up with something that’s hard to describe but oh so fun.

My love of haunted houses is probably a big reason while I enjoyed The Republic so much, especially since I’m a theater fan too. It reminded me somewhat of the Alone experience at Howl-O-Scream, but a much more intense version. While Alone was a more personalized version of a Halloween maze in terms of being by yourself or only with your own group instead of in a conga line, it went by the typical rules of no touching of guests by scareactors and static scenes that play out the same for everyone.

282In contrast, at The Republic, you sign a waive that lets you in for full contact, possibly all the way up to being kidnapped. You know those scenes in traditional haunted houses where it looks like they grabbed someone out of the line, but it’s just a shill? Not at The Republic!

Also, it’s the flip side of Alone in terms of not being guaranteed to stay with your group. Instead, you’re very likely to be separated and become members of different social classes who are likely at odds with each other. Indeed, at times it seems like everyone is at odds with everyone, and it’s up to you to figure out who to trust and follow. The players’ actions determine the final outcome, which means that The Republic can play out very differently each time you experience it if you go more than once.

If you enjoy The Republic, you’ll probably want to fit in a repeat before it ends its run on July 25. Personally, I felt that the 90 minute show flew by because it was so easy to get immersed in the experience. It all felt a bit overwhelming, too, so I’d love to do it again now that I fully understand the concept. You’re in a dim, confusing maze of rooms, often attempting to fulfill a task as you encounter various characters and make decisions on alliances. It’s very much a live-action version of an RPG.

So where, exactly, is The Republic? It’s just off the I-4 Ivanhoe exit in Downtown Orlando, in a suitably creepy warehouse that houses an 18,000 square foot set. it debuted during the Fringe Festival and continues its run through late July. For ticket information visit the official website.

Want to meet some of the characters? Here they are!

Here are a few words from the show’s creater, Sarah Elger:

And finally, a tiny bit of the show to whet your appetite:


Pitbull takes up residence at Madame Tussauds Orlando

286Pitbull visited Orlando to play a concert at Universal Studios Florida, but now you can see him permanently in Orlando…or at least his double. A brand-new Pitbull model was unveiled at Madame Tussauds Orlando as the second addition since the wax museum opened at I-Drive 360, along with the Orlando Eye wheel and the Sea Life Aquarium, on May 4.

Earlier this month, Disney Channel Ross Lynch welcomed his likeness. Then Pitbull stepped up on May 29 to meet his doppleganger, complete with a tuxedo donated by the superstar rapper. I love the fact that he couldn’t resist tugging the figure’s ear. Many guests do the same when they see the celebs at Madame Tussauds due to the eerie likeness.

If you’d like to see the full video of the unveiling, it’s captured on the video below. Pitbull was suitably impressed by the figure that was created after artisans took 300 measurements and spent long months crafting it down to the finest detail, just as they do with all their wax likenesses:

Expect more unveilings in the future, as Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is most definitely not a static attraction. New celebs and other prominent figures are added all the time to locations around the country and the world.

Want to see the Ross Lynch unveiling? Here’s the video of the teen heartthrob meeting his match:

Cobra’s Curse spin coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa ramps up snake phobia

210Scared of snakes? Get queasy when you see their coils and shaky at the sight of their scales? Then you’ll want to beware in the Egypt section of Busch Gardens Tampa next year, as the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster is set to debut in 2016.

As the name suggests, Cobra’s Curse is themed to snakes, with a towering 80 foot tower that will leave no doubt as to the theme. The coaster will have a unique vertical lift, along with the spins typical of this type of ride. It will offer fun for coaster enthusiasts, but it will also be suitable for younger members of the family who’ve outgrown coasting with Grover and who want to start cutting their teeth on the more intimidating rides (the classic Scorpion looping coaster is great for that, too).

A real life herp was on hand at the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster announcement, along with plenty of concept area. As is typical at Busch Gardens, the ride will feature heavy theming that immerses guests in its Egyptian setting. It will sit near the suspended coaster Montu, adding a nice touch to that side of the park. You can see Montu off to the side in this construction photo:


And here’s some concept art showcasing a theme that will send snake phobics into fits:



Look good so far? Check out this video, which includes some virtual ride footage of the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster:

Pretty cool, eh? I suspect that SheiKra will always remain my favorite Busch Gardens Tampa coaster, but Cobra’s Curse will be a fun little indulgence. Speaking of other fun rides, don’t forget about Falcon’s Fury, which takes you more than 300 feet into the air before tipping you forward for a face-down plummet. Here’s the video of my very first ride:

Enjoy Falcon’s Fury, SheiKra, Montu, Cheetah Hunt and all the other fun rides while you count down to the Cobra’s Curse spin coaster in 2016.

SeaWorld Orlando Mako hypercoaster is just one part of new Shark Realm

210SeaWorld Orlando will soon be home to the tallest, longest, fastest roller coaster in Orlando. The Mako hypercoaster, named for a speedy species of shark, will rise 200 feet into the air by the time it’s done for the 2016 season, with top speeds of 73 mph and nearly a mile of track. Better yet for coaster enthusiasts like me is the fact that it’s built for maximum airtime. Be prepared to pop up in your seat repeatedly as you zip through the dips and hills.

I’m a long-time lover of B&M roller coasters like SheiKra and Montu at Busch Gardens Tampa, and B&M is also the company behind SeaWorld’s Kraken and Manta thrill machines, as well as Dragon Challenge at Islands of Adventure. I’m also a big air-time fan, and as of now we don’t have a good airtime option in Orlando. I pick up nice pops on ShieKra and Cheetah Hunt, but that requires over an hour of drive time to Busch. Now it looks like I’ll have my pop-out-of-your-seat thrills a lot closer to home.

SeaWorld announced Mako with flair, showing concept art and a virtual big-screen POV ride. Virtual reality is fine, but the park also wanted the media to experience a bit of Mako first hand. They offered crane rides 200 feet up to the spot where Mako’s lift hill will peak. Yes, it’s the same as SheiKra, but it’s so much more intimidating when you’re in a crane car dangling by what feels like a thread!


You can’t beat the view, though, with stunning sights like Kraken and the Orlando Eye looming over the Orange County Convention Center in the distance.



224Mako is just one part of what will become a whole area devoted to sharks. You’ve already got the Shark Encounter and Sharks Underwater Grill, a sit-down restaurant with an amazing aquatic view. Now those areas will become part of a bigger themed land known for now as Sharks Realm.

While the name will likely change down the road, the concept will stay the same. You’ll see sharks and learn more about them, including ways to help them. We tend to view them as vicious predators, and they’re no slouches when it comes to hunting down prey, but unfortunately man in making it hard for them to survive. You’ll learn about doing things as simple as eating sustainable fish to help ensure that sharks will still find a hospitable home in our oceans.

Mako should be ready for next year’s summer season. While it will be hard to wait a whole year for a B&M hypercoaster in Orlando, I’ll enjoy watching it rise up above the construction walls at SeaWorld. In the meantime, Manta and Kraken will still be in full operation, and of course you’ll see plenty of dolphins, orcas, sea lions, and other talented animals bringing their special brand of delight to park guests. If you haven’t seen Sea Lion High yet, here are some highlights: