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

Johnsonville sausage review: A homemade take on bangers and mash

20I love British and Irish breakfast foods, even down to black pudding (if you don’t know what that is, a little Google Fu will reveal that “pudding” is a definite misnomer). Bangers and mash, i.e. sausage and mashed potatoes, make a hearty breakfast, and they’re also good later in the day. I have them often during the Halloween Horror Nights season because I often dine at Finnegan’s in the lull between regular the park closing and its reopening for the Halloween event.

I’m a member of Crowdtap, an awesome online community where I get a change to try new products and share my opinions. I’ve always enjoyed Johnsonville sausage, but Crowdtap introduced me to one of their products I’d never had before: Vermont Maple Syrup Fully Cooked Breakfast Sausage. This new product cooks up in less than 60 seconds, which is perfect for me because I barely have time to eat breakfast, let alone cook up something elaborate.

The Johnsonville sausage isn’t just for breakfast, though. I was planning on bangers and mash for dinner tonight, but I had some Johnsonville maple sausage in the house as part of a Crowdtap review (they provide the product and I provide an honest opinion). I’d already eaten some for breakfast a week or so before, so I decided to cook up my own bangers and mash with a maple twist.

Since this Johnsonville sausage is fully cooked, you can nuke it in the microwave or prepare it on the stove. I prefer the latter, as you can’t beat that frying pan browning. Given the sweet flavor of the maple, I decided to give my traditional bangers and mash a twist: add some sweet red cabbage to the mix. Red cabbage and mashed potatoes are frequent side dishes in my house, so I just added my Johnsonville sausage and voila!


Just as I figured, the sweetness of the cabbage was nicely complimented by the sausage’s maple flavor. The maple is distinct but subtle, so it didn’t overwhelm anything else. It was an interesting choice of meal, but it sated my bangers and mash craving. I’ll still hit up Finnegan’s when I head out to Halloween Horror Nights, but I think tonight’s dinner will be fish and chips. In the meantime, I can’t wait for the new campaign that Crowdtap cooks up. Hopefully it’s as pleasing to my tastebuds as this one.

SeaWorld Halloween Spooktacular brings fun and a big bargain

The SeaWorld Halloween Spooktacular runs through Halloween every weekend at SeaWorld Orlando. Not only is it a fun way for kids and families to celebrate the holiday, but it’s also a big bargain. Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party is a great place to bring your kids and let them trick or treat, but it’s a hard ticket event that runs after the Magic Kingdom closes. At SeaWorld, the Halloween Spooktacular also features trick or treating, and it’s included in your regular park admission ticket.

You can hear more about the SeaWorld Halloween Spooktacular from Muffett Baker in the video below.

If the Halloween Spooktacular sounds like fun, check out the video below for some scenes of this SeaWorld celebration:

As you can see, it’s more than just letting the kids wear their costumes and taking them out for candy. They can meet a variety of Halloween characters, dancing, play games, meet animal ambassadors, see the Count in a Sesame Street show, and even learn a thing or two about conservation. SeaWorld opens at its regular time during the Halloween Spooktacular, but the event itself starts at noon and runs through 7 p.m., with a dance party near the front entrance that starts an hour before closing time.

Rockin’ Burger Block Party adds designer burgers to Epcot Food and Wine events

Who doesn’t love a burger? Better yet, who doesn’t love trying a wide variety of burgers, from a pan-seared branzino patty topped with pecorino cheese, blood orange, raisin, onion jam and dried proscuitto to a shrimp and scallop burger topped with spicy Thai slaw and cilantro lime mayo to a chicken and duck burger topped with butterkase cheese, braised pork bellu and sweet Thai chili sauce?

If those descriptions are making you drool, book a reservation at one of the two remaining Rockin’ Burger Block Parties at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. This event, which is new for 2015, is packed with designer burgers and all sorts of alcoholic libations to top them off. In addition to the burgers, there’s finger food and a host of sweet endings, like cinnamon roll fireball bread pudding with cream cheese glaze, snickerdoodle-crusted apple custard crisp, and Valrhona chocolate ganache brownies. As if all there weren’t enough, a DJ spins tunes to keep you entertained throughout the evening.

The two remaining Rockin’ Burger Block Parties run on October 8 and November 5. If you opt for the October date, you’ll meet celebrities from The Chew. The first party featured Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” Here’s his presentation:

Zimmern also chatted with the media, as you can see in the question and answer session below:

Want to see what you can eat firsthand? Check out this video slideshow, then call 407-939-3378 to book your spot. General admission is $99 for all you can eat and drink, and $119 gets you a reserved table. If you want to go all out, book the Nosh Pit for $199, with special food and drinks.


Shallow Grave brings old-school haunts to Winter Haven

17Before I fled to the sunshine in Florida, I used to live in Chicago. We had Fright Fest at Six Flags Great America, but other than that, our haunts were of the local variety. Most were fundraisers for various civic groups and churches, and some were professional productions held in stadiums and fairgrounds. Two of my favorites were held in an abandoned church in Berwyn and an old botanical garden building just across the Illinois/Indiana border.

I love living in Central Florida and having major events like Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream right in my own backyard (Universal Studios in Orlando and Busch Gardens in Tampa), but I’ll admit to missing my early haunt-hitting days. Thus I was thrilled to discover I’ve got a equivalent just a little farther afield: The Shallow Grave out in Winter Haven, not much more than half an hour’s drive from Walt Disney World.

Double Dose of Haunting

11The Shallow Grave actually has two haunted houses, Haunted Hills and ADHD (Attention Deficit Haunt Disorder). They’re located in warehouse space on 559 (exit 44 on I-4, turn left onto 559 and keep driving til you get there, being careful to follow the right curves in the road). On the way, I discovered a restaurant called The Clock that’s the closest thing I’ve ever found in Florida to a Greek-style Chicago diner. That doesn’t mean Greek-style food (although many have saganaki and lamb), but rather the overall diner fare that typically includes comfort food like liver & onions,or breaded pork and veal cutlets. They offer the meals ala carte or as a “dinner” that includes soup or salad, hearty sides, a dessert like rice pudding.

The Clock didn’t use the Greek restaurant terminology, and they didn’t have the cutlets, but they most definitely had the full-on dinner package and offered liver and onions, so I got my Chicago on and fueled up for the terror ahead. The Shallow Grave was only a mile or two away, and lines were already forming even though the sky decided to open up with a short but vicious deluge.

20Before experiencing the two houses in all their scareactor-filled glory, I had a chance to walk through Haunted Hills to admire the set design and take photos. Both houses combine scareactors with animatronics and automated effects, and I must confess that one of those effects got me, even though I saw how it worked before I walked by it.

As you can see in the photos, owner Joe Phillips puts a lot of care into set detail. It’s a shame you don’t get to see it when you’re walking through while under attack, but the Shallow Grave does offer lights-on day visits, too. They’re good for kids too young for the full experience or curious haunt fans who want a chance to admire the handiwork.

The fun starts before you even get inside, with a variety of characters roaming the queue line. You have two options: wait in the regular queue, which wasn’t too bad on the night I visited, probably due to a combination or the early hour and the rain, or buy a Quick Death pass that lets you skip to the front. Regular admission for both houses is $25, and Quick Death is $40.

22I loved both of the houses, although Haunted Hills was my favorite (but the gator in ADHD is…well…I don’t want to spoil any surprises, so let’s just say you’re not going to miss him). Both Haunted Hills and ADHD are masterful at the way in which they blend the animatronics and automatic effects with the live scareactors, and they have a high ratio of live bodies inside to ensure that you’re constantly being attacked. One area where The Shallow Grave is quite different from its counterparts is that the scareactors can touch you. They do it very subtly, and they might not do it at all, but when they do, it’s always to good effect.

I don’t recall any haunted houses, even in Chicago, where the scareactors could touch you, other than the memorable Silo X where you got a bright flashlight shined in your face, got spun around and thrust into pitch blackness to find your way along with a few other hapless souls. Ah, memories! I also loved the original Asylum Experience there, but it relied a little too heavily on set/automatic effects. The Shallow Grave houses have a couple of effects that remind me of that old haunt, but in a much better way with all the live bodies waiting to terrorize me.

27One nice change of pace at The Shallow Grave vs. the theme parks was going inside in small groups vs. a never ending conga line. They split you down to about six people and leave time in between groups, so in theory you’ll only be in there with a small number of people and won’t miss all the scares because you’re caught in a crowd. This worked very well in Haunted Hills, but the group ahead of us in ADHD decided to continually stop for some reason, so we caught up to them and the people behind us also caught up because of The Group That Would Not Go. That was just an anomaly, though, and I can’t really say it impacted my experience too badly, although that might be part of why I liked Haunted Hills better due to getting the full intimate experience.

If you visit The Shallow Grave, which runs on select nights through Halloween, be sure to stop by the Pelican’s Snoballs truck for a sweet and cold treat. If you’re hungry, Burger Bus is on hand, too, but even if you come after dinner, there’s always room for shaved ice. I loved the intriguing variety of flavors and combinations. Carrot cake is excellent, but I ended up doing my own combination of fireball cinnamon and marshmallow. Sounds weird, tastes delicious.

You’ll find ticket prices and other details for The Shallow Grave on their website. Meanwhile, here’s what owner/producer Joe Phillips has to say about his attraction. He also gives the back story for each of the houses:

Disney Springs gets official new name, has excellent eateries

Downtown Disney officially became Disney Springs on September 29, but many of the news stores and restaurants are already open ahead of the overall Disney Springs project completion, slated for 2016.

If you’d like to see the official name change, the full ceremony is in this video:

Raglan Road

Even when it was Downtown Disney, the area has always been home to some wonderful dining options. One of my favorites is Raglan Road, the venerable Irish pub that features cuisine from celebrity chef Kevin Dundon, with comfort food and Irish dishes like fish & chips, Guinness-infused stew, and bangers & mash. Raglan Road is also showcasing locally sourced seasonal items, meaning you’ll find something new, like Port Canaveral seafood or locally sourced pork, depending on when you visit.

Raglan Road has been at Downtown Disney for a decade now, and it looks poised for a long run at Disney Springs. Below, hear from Raglan-Road co-owner Paul Nolan as he talks about his restaurant’s 10 year run and what’s ahead:

The Boathouse

Along with the old, there’s plenty that’s new. This past summer, I had the great pleasure of dining at The Boathouse, a restaurant that makes perfect use of its waterfront real estate at Disney Springs. Not only does it feature hearty food with an upscale flare, served with a nautical backdrop, but it also runs amphibicar tours at the adjacent dock. What’s an amphibicar? The video below answers that question with a live demonstration:

As you can see, they’re classics. Meanwhile, if you dine at The Boathouse, your choices include fresh seafood, hearty steaks, and burgers, a special take on mac and cheese, and an absolute must-do dessert: the S’mores Baked Alaska. I’m a fan of both of those desserts, and I can attest that melding them together creates a cooling taste treat like no other. Here are a few Boathouse dishes to whet your appetite.




Yes, that dessert is every bit as wonderful as it looks and yes, it’s best to bring a group as it’s a massive mountain of chocolaty goodness. Of course, that seafood was pretty darned delicious, too.

Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar

One of the newest Disney Springs additions is Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, another dining spot with a waterfront location. It’s heavily themed to Indiana Jones’s pilot, with memorabilia lining the balls and tasty tapas and specialty drinks stuffing its menu. Below. you’ll see Chef Bill Brown describe the food:

Morimoto Asia

Near Raglan Road, The Boathouse, and Jack Lindsey’s, you’ll find the newest of the Disney Springs restaurants, Morimoto Asia, named for Iron Chef Morimoto. The Iron Chef himself was on hand for the opening, as you can see in the ceremony, where he event serenaded the gathered crowd:

Chef Morimoto also have a tuna carving demonstration and couldn’t resist a little clowning around:

His restaurant features Asian cuisine from places like Japan, China, and Thailand, but all with his signature flair. I normally hate Asian shrimp in general and shrimp tempura in particular, but his was such a heavenly departure from the norm that I had two helpings and returned for dinner to have some more later in the week. Don’t expect the usual batter-heavy dish with teriyaki sauce on the side. The lightly battered shrimp has its own sauce, and it would be a sin to add anything else.

As you can tell, it’s a hard choice deciding on where to dine when you visit Disney Springs. I can’t even choose a favorite myself, since it depends on what I’m craving on any particular night. If you’re a local and want a nice meal or you’re a tourist who needs to escape from the theme parks for a while. Disney Springs is already a nice option for dining, entertainment, and shopping and getting better all the time.

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: