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

See the Willis Clan live at Raglan Road Jan. 19 to 22

temppThe Willis Clan is a family band with its very own TLC reality show. If you’re a fan of “The Willis Family,” you can see them live at Raglan Road from January 19 to 22.

Raglan Road, the Irish pub in Disney Springs, is well know for its entertainment, from rollicking live bands to talented fast-stepping Irish dancers. The Willis Clan takes the stage on January 19 and 20 from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. and January 21 and 22 from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Raglan Road’s convenient Disney Springs location makes it easy to visit, whether you want to catch the Willis Clan or just stop over for lunch, dinner, or drinks. The new parking garage makes it easy to drive over for a day or night of fun. Unlike the theme parks, parking is free, making Disney Springs and its stores and restaurants an even bigger draw.

I’ve seen the Willis Clan at all of their Disney Springs appearances. Every one of the kids, from oldest to youngest, it packed with talent, as you’ll see in the video below. Here’s their little pre-show sampler for the media:

Mom Brenda is the matriarch, and she joined the clan in chatting with me in the interview below:

Even the youngest family members can dance better than I could ever hope to! There’s no way you can watch this family perform and not be in awe of their talent.

If you’d like to see them, plan an evening at Raglan Road between January 19 and 22. It’s the perfect spot for casual drinks or a full-blown dinner. I recommend making reservations as it gets busy in the evenings, and the Willis family is sure to draw a larger crowd than usual.

Even if you don’t make it to one of the Willis shows, Raglan Road has entertainment every day, with bands and Irish dancers. Here’s the schedule:

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As you can see, day or night, there’s something happening at Raglan Road. Add it to your Disney Springs “must do” list if you want high energy entertainment and a tasty meal or a pint of Guinness in an atmosphere that just might convince you that you’ve teleported to Ireland.

Epcot Flower and Garden Festival is just around the corner: Get ready with this recipe

I know it’s awfully cold outside, at least for Florida, but take heart! The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is just around the corner. One of my favorite things about the festival is that it combines all the color and beauty of flowers and whimsical character topiaries with some culinary treats.

One of my favorite goodies in years past is the Piggylicious Cupcake, with bacon to pucaket in the “piggy.” That might sound a little strange, but the bacon, combined with a distinct maple flavor, actually makes an amazing taste combination on top of the yellow cake. If you can’t wait for the actual Flower and Garden Festival, which runs from March 2 to May 30 this year, here’s how to make your own Piggylicious Cupcakes at home (recipe courtesy of Walt Disney World):

Cupcakes Ingredients
Favorite Yellow Cake Mix
Equal amount of bacon fat to replace oil in mix
12 slices of bacon, cooked crisp and chopped fine

Maple Cream Cheese Icing Ingredients:
8-ounce package cream cheese
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 tablespoon real maple syrup, add more to taste if desired
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
crushed pretzel twists to garnish the cupcakes

Instructions

Cupcakes:

Follow directions for cake, replacing oil with bacon fat. Fold in bacon. Bake according to instructions.

Isn’t this easy?!

Maple Cream Cheese Icing:

1. Cream together cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy in a mixing bowl with paddle attachment. Mix in maple syrup.

2. Gradually add confectioner’s sugar until combined.

3. Frost cupcakes and garnish with crushed pretzels.

There, now, wasn’t that much easier than you thought? The cupcakes themselves are a breeze, and even the icing doesn’t take all that much expertise. Of course, I prefer my Piggylicious Cupcakes at Epcot, where I can nosh at them while strolling around World Showcase and soaking in all the atmosphere.

Watch for more details on the 2016 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival coming soon. It may seem chilly now, but the festival is less than two months away, so that means Spring can’t be far behind!

Top 10 Orlando holiday activities

The Christmas season at the Orlando attractions starts early and typically runs a bit past New Year’s day. There’s fun afoot in and around the theme parks and on International Drive. Here’s a little sampling of all the Orlando holiday activities:

1) Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Walt Disney World has plenty of holiday experiences scattered around its four theme parks, but the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights is a must-see this year for a rather melancholy reason. After 20 years at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the lights are leaving permanently after the 2015 holiday season to make way for the Star Wars expansion. They’re drawing crowds to say goodbye this year, and if you’d like to see them one last time, you have until January 3 to do it. Disney’s even holding nightly dessert parties if you’d like to indulge in sweets and adult beverages while enjoying the lights and music from a reserved spot.

There’s more information on the dessert parties on the Walt Disney World website, and you can enjoy a walk-through of this year’s finale display below:

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Last year for the Osborne Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

It’s the 20th year for the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and it’s also the very last year the the Osborne lights will appear at the theme park. That makes them a must-see for 2015 as you bid them a bittersweet adieu.

The Osborne lights, seen in the video below, came to Disney’s Hollywood Studios back in 1995 after Jennings Osborne, an Arkansas millionaire, lost his lawsuit with neighbors over his massive home light display. The neighbors took him to court because they were sick of the traffic jams caused by people who flocked to see the dazzling Osborne light show each year. Disney stepped in and gave the Osborne lights a new home, first on the studio tour back lot, then in the New York section of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The park is now making way for its new Pixar and Star Wars areas, which means the lights are being crowded out after the 2015 holiday season:

If you’re like me and you love the lights and want to give them a special send-off, book one of the special events offered at Disney’s Hollywood Studios this year. The first in the Merry and Bright Dessert Party, which runs every night at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. You get to sit in a special reserved area at the end of the street and enjoy a wide selection of tasty desserts while listening to the music, watching the lights dance, and soaking up the atmosphere. If you’re 21 or over, you can also indulge in some seasonal spirits to warm you in both body and soul as you get into the Christmas spirit. The party is $69 for adults and $39 for kids, and you can book it on the official Disney World web page.

The Osborne lights always draw a crowd, and this year more people are flocking to Disney’s Hollywood Studios than ever to see them for the last time. The party is a great way to relax outside of the crowd. People tend to head out of the park as closing time draws near, but the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights stays illuminated for a full hour after closing. Stay until the end of the party, then head out onto the street, where the crowd will have dwindled considerably.

If you really want to go all out for your last viewing of the Osborne lights, see if you can catch an available table for the Merry and Bright Dinner Reception. It only takes place on January 1, 2, and 3, and although it’s currently sold out, you may be able to catch a cancellation. I personally booked the last day so I can literally say goodbye to the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights at the last possible moment. You can find details here; it’s $99 for adults and $54 for chilren, and it includes a special shadow box memento with a real Osborne light bulb inside (you get a commemorative stadium blanket at the dessert party).

Even if you don’t do one of the special events, get out to Disney’s Hollywood Studios to say goodbye to this two-decades-long tradition. Walt Disney World is always a prime place to celebrate the holiday season, but a little bit of Christmas will feel like it’s missing once the Osborne lights are gone.

Videos show entertainment at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party

It’s that time of year again to enjoy snow on Main Street USA as you sip cocoa, munch on cookies, and drink in the Christmas spirit. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party has arrived at the Magic Kingdom to bring good cheer for another holiday season.

The party, which is a hard ticket event that starts after the Magic Kingdom closes for the evening, runs on select nights through December 18 this year. You’ll find details on the exact days and ticket prices on the official Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party website.

Why, exactly, is it worth the cost to buy tickets to this special event? After all, you can ride the Magic Kingdom rides and enjoy the decorations during the day. But here’s a little secret: you can go into the park at 4 p.m. with your party tickets, so if you want to save a day on your regular Disney tickets, book the party and then enjoy a non-theme park activity, like shopping at Disney Springs, renting boats at one of the hotels, or just lounging around the pool, during the day. Get to the Magic Kingdom at 4 and do as many of the regular daily activities as you can to free up your party time for the special entertainment.

I hear you asking, “What special entertainment?” Let me answer that question with some videos, shot at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party this year:

Holiday Wishes Fireworks Show

Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade

A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas

Celebrate the Magic Holiday Edition

Add all that to special character appearances (Jack Skellington, anybody?), exclusive party merchandise, a rare Floridian snowfall, and all the cookies and cocoa you can eat and drink and you’re got a very special way to celebrate Christmas, Disney-style. The last party is December 18, and tickets often sell out in advance, so choose your date and book the party as soon as possible.

The Chew airs episodes filmed at Epcot Food & Wine Festival this week

The Chew filmed a week’s worth of episodes at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival last week, and they air on ABC, starting on October 12, at 1 p.m. ET. Turn in between the 12th and the 16th, and you’ll recognize many of the locations, as well as some familiar faces like “The Festival of the Lion King” cast members and even Mickey Mouse himself.

The Chew co-hosts weren’t just on hand for the show. They also hosted the October 8th Rockin’ Burger Block Party, one of the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival special events. There’s one more party still to come, so if you’re thinking about signing up, go here for more details.

The co-hosts met with the media after the October 8th filming (which was for the October 15 show) to answer a few questions. Check out the video below for their thoughts on food, travel, and more:

If you’d like to know what’s coming up in the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival episodes, here are the full descriptions, including guest stars. All of these episodes of The Chew should air at 1 p.m. ET on ABC, although schedules are always subject to change:

MONDAY, OCTOBER 12 – “THE CHEW’S FAMILY VACATION” Carla Hall makes a delicious Norwegian roasted salmon & ranch potato galette; Michael Symon visits The Land at Epcot to check out the center’s hydroponic gardening program and makes a meal with its vegetables; Mickey Mouse and Goofy stop by to say hello.

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 13 – “MAKING MEAL MAGIC” Alfonso Ribeiro (ABC’s “AFV”); Mario Batali and Michael Symon square off with their recipes for angel hair with Brussel sprouts, bacon and walnuts and shrimp Fra Diavolo over linguine.
 
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 14 – “EASY FIVE STAR FEAST” Mario Batali visits Iron Chef Morimoto’s new restaurant at Disney Springs, Morimoto Asia; Bellamy Young (ABC’s “Scandal”). For more on Morimoto Asia (HIGHLY recommended) and other great Disney Springs eateries, check out this article.
 
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 15 – “TRY SOMETHING NEW!” Clinton Kelly and Carla Hall visit Disney’s Magic Kingdom; the cast of “The Festival of The Lion King” performs. This is the show after which the video interview was filmed.
 
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 16 – “YOUR PERFECT PARTY PLAN” The perfect party snacks and cocktails; “The Chew” co-hosts stop by the Rockin’ Burger Block Party; a look back at some of the show’s favorite moments at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival from Walt Disney World.

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.

 

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.

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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.

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.