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

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.

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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.

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:

Teen Beach 2 Stars surprise fans at Typhoon Lagoon Party

There’s not a lot that would lure me away from the Magic Kingdom on a 24 hour day of the Coolest Summer kick-off, but I’ll admit that I did bail to Typhoon Lagoon (see my early morning experience, including a full video of the welcome, in this article). How could I resist, when it was the Teen Beach 2 Beach Party debut, with a special appearance by Ross Lynch (Brady), Maia Mitchell (McKenzie), Grace Phipps (Lela), and Garrett Clayton (Tanner).

Yes, I’ll admit it: I really enjoyed the first movie, especially the end when the 1960s gang was transported to the present day. I’m looking forward to June 26 when I can find out what happened to them. I met some of the stars at Typhoon Lagoon back in 2013, when the water park hosted a summer party based on that first flick, Teen Beach Movie. Now here I was again, kicking off another summer of fun and chatting with the gang about their sequel, Teen Beach 2. You can see it all on the video below:

I also talked one on one to Maia, who teased about the new movie and shared some dance moves:

Obviously, the gang won’t be on hand throughout the summer, but the party most certainly will be. It kicks off several times a day and including dancing and contests like water balloon tosses, hula hoop competitions, and a limbo session. Check the schedule on the times board in the park and make sure you’re there for some sand, sun, and fun.

Here’s a little blast from the past: my chat with Garrett Clayton from 2012:

And my 2012 interview with Chrissie Fit:

Watch for the Disney Channel debut of Teen Beach 2 on June 26! Personally I can’t wait to watch the surfers and bikers adapt to cell phones and other hallmarks of modern life.

Disney 24 hour kickoff features Mickey, Minnie and Frozen gang

There’s not much that can rouse me out of bed at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m., but the Disney 24 hour summer kick-off at the Magic Kingdom does it every year.

It’s Memorial Day weekend, which means the Magic Kingdom opened at 6 a.m. on Friday and stays open until 6 a.m. on Saturday for a full Disney 24 hour experience for those brave enough to tough it out. It’s the start of the Coolest Summer Ever, which is why Anna, Elsa, Olaf and Kristoff took over the opening festivities. Guests started arriving an hour early, and Mickey and Minnie rolled out of bed in the wee hours to be on hand to greet them. They didn’t even take the time to change out of their PJs, but they looked dapper nonetheless. They were also a heck of a lot more energetic that I would be without an IV infusion of caffeine. I did manage to catch a quick chat with them:

Just before 6 a.m., the Frozen gang took to the train platform and the steam engine pulled in with more Disney friends. Here’s the entire opening ceremony for the Disney 24 hour Coolest Summer Ever event:

Then guests streamed into the park to kick off what, for many, would be 24 hours of non-stop Disney fun. After a hearty breakfast, I headed over to Tomorrowland, where I had a Space Mountain FastPass. Amazingly, the wait was only 10 minutes, even without one. Next up was Buzz Lightyear and the Wedway Peoplemover (yeah, I know that name dates me, but that’s what it will always be to me). Of course, I had to make a quick stop at the time clock, where I memorialized the hour at which I’d dragged my half-asleep carcass into the park:

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There are lots of great photo ops throughout the park, and the 24 hours event is one of the few days that the Magic Kingdom relaxes its costume code for adult guests. In the past, I’ve worn my PJs to get an overnight photo with Mickey and Minnie, but today I saw lots of “big kids” dressed up in character garb, particularly Anna and Elsa. The Frozen juggernaut rolls on!

6Speaking of Frozen’s popularity, Olaf is featured on this year’s souvenir shirt, a really cute number what changes color in the sun. Of course, I had to get one to add to my collection.

The rides, shows, and character appearances continue long into the night during the Magic Kingdom’s 24 hour stints. Some people will make it for the whole 24 hours, while others will crash in the middle and still others will head over in the evening to just do the overnight experience. No matter how you enjoy it, the Coolest Summer Ever kickoff is the best way to experience the official start of the summer Disney season.

I did have to leave the Magic Kingdom in the early afternoon. No, I didn’t crash. The reason was much more exciting, as you can read by jumping to my next article here. Hint: You’ll love it if you’re a Teen Beach Movie fan. You might just see some of your favorite celebs on video.

Disney World has new tours, characters, shows and more this summer

Recently I attended a Coolest Summer Ever event at Walt Disney World where I got a whirlwind look at what’s in store this summer. It’s hard to believe that we’re moving quickly toward the busy tourist season, but the May off-season is almost over and the tourists will soon descend on the Orlando parks.

If you’re vacationing at Walt Disney World this summer, or if you’re a brave local who can’t go too long without your Disney fix, check out these videos for a peek at what you can do:

Tour the Downtown Disney waterways in an amphibicar (seriously, how cool is this? These are originals from the 1960s!):

See the American Music Machine at Epcot (talk about talent!):

New Tour at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (this is on my must-do list as I’d love to learn more about how they care for the animals):

Meet Doc McStuffins at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (your Disney Junior fans will be so excited):

Teen Beach Movie 2 Party (just one more reason to head over to Typhoon Lagoon this summer):

99That’s just a quick sampling of what’s ahead, and Frozen Summer Fun returns to Disney’s Hollywood Studios this year, too. Come on, admit it, you love Olaf!  I most certainly do, and I was thrilled to meet him during the Coolest Summer Ever kick-off.

The heat came early to Orlando, so I’m already feeling like its summertime. The Coolest Summer Ever event just made this official (although Frozen Summer Fun doesn’t start until June 17), so now it’s time to enjoy!

5 things I learned at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is a place for fun, but it’s also got a strong streak of education interwoven throughout the festival. You can learn about water conservation, organic gardening techniques, ways to attract birds and butterflies, and much more.

I’m an old dog who definitely learned some new tricks at the festival last weekend. Here’s a list of the top five:

1) What I’m doing wrong with my bougainvillaea.

Did you know that you can talk to a Master Gardener at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival? The University of Florida sends experts to the Festival Center, which is open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Just walk on up and ask them a question about your garden woes. I’ve been struggling to grow bougainvillaea in a container, and it turns out that I woefully misinterpreted the watering instructions on the tag.

2) How to keep bamboo from spreading.

The Festival Center is also your headquarters for informative talks every weekend. I saw a talk by plantsman/author Jenks Farmer, who illustrated his informative presentation with colorful slides and a hands-on demonstration. I’ve often thought about using bamboo as a screening plant, but I fear its reputation for taking over. I learned about the two types (the clustered kind is more benign) and also how to keep the spreading type in check.

If you’d like to see Jenks Farmer’s whole talk, it’s in the video below:

td13) That bonsai trees go through the seasons just like their full-sized counterparts.

I know that bonsais are miniature trees, but I didn’t realize that they go through the same life cycle as their full-sized counterparts. A completely barren tree caught my eye; I thought it was dead but learned that it’s just a maple in its winter state. Soon the springtime will send it into full foliage again.

If you’d like to learn more about bonsai trees, too, check out the Central Florida Bonsai Club display in the Festival Center.

4) That there’s a special beer credential equivalent to wine.Growing up with a German grandpa, I developed a love of beer. It’s great that craft brews are a thing now and that Florida has so many breweries, as I love to try the many different varieties. However, I had no idea that beer has its own expert credential on a part with a wine sommelier: the Cicerone Certification Program.

I enjoyed a presentation by a cicerone while sampling the beer flight that’s available at the Smokehouse in the American Pavilion. Not only did I learn about the credential, but I also picked up some interesting facts about beer, including the full story behind IPAs. You can hear it all for yourself in the presentation below. The presentation isn’t a regular part of the festival, but the flight is available throughout the run of the event:

td25) That the oldest topiaries at the festival are the Fantasia critters.

I always enjoy talking to Eric Darden, who’s worked on the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival for 12 years and who’s already thinking about what Disney will do for 2016.

Chip, Dale, Anna, and Elsa are all new this year, but I was curious about the oldest topiaries still on display. He told me they’re the Fantasia critters, some of which you can see in the photo at right. Notice how they’re not as detailed as later toparies and certainly nowhere near the exquisite sculpting that gives Anna and Elsa their faces.

I love to compare how the older topiaries look quite basic compared to the amazing detail on the newer creations or all the different colors worked into various displays, most of which is done with natural materials. I love all the colorful gardens blooming around Epcot, but the topiaries are true works of art.

You can hear from Eric yourself in the video below:

What will you learn at this year’s festival? You’ve got until May 17 to find out.

What do Anna, Elsa, Chip and Dale have in common at Epcot festival?

1aEvery year at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival you’ll see popular topiaries return, along with new offerings. This year you’ll see four new topiaries: the fabulous Frozen duo of Anna and Elsa and the mischievous chipmunks Chip and Dale. One of those pairs is classic and the others are new to the Disney line-up, but they all have the honor of making their topiary debut in 2015.

It may seem surprising that Chip and Dale haven’t shown up before, and this year there was a bit of a challenge since they’re part of the opening scene. Look for him in the back, with the chipmunks wreaking havoc in poor long-suffering Donald’s garden.

Here’s Eric Darden talking about how important it is for the characters to be in their proper scale. That means that Chip and Dale have to be in proportion to Donald as they torment him.

1bIf you watch the video, you’ll also discover that Anna and Elsa owe a lot to Snow White, and not just for blazing the Disney princess movie trail. Last year, the team was charged with trying to create realistic features on Snow White’s face. They were up to the taste, and Snow brought a new level of realism to the Epcot topiaries that continues with the sisters this year.

It’s easy to find all the new topiaries, since you can’t miss Chip and Dale right in the entry scene as you walk into Epcot. Keep going to World Showcase and you’ll find Anna and Elsa greeting you at the entrance.

The Epcot International Flower and Garden show runs through May 17. Like Elsa’s magic at the end of her movie, it will give you a breath of spring at the end of a long, harsh winter.

Five things to see and do at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Show

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival returns to Walt Disney World on March 4 and runs through May 17. The name sounds deceptively simple…Flower and Garden Festival…but those are just two small components of a massive overall event. Here are five things you’ll find if you head out to the park this year to enjoy this annual celebration of everything green and growing:

1) Flowers

o7Yes, they’re first in the same, and you’ll find them blooming all over the park. Being a local, I love to come to the event when it first starts because even though it’s March, it feels like it’s officially spring. I got an early preview this year, so I’m already in a spring state of mind even though it was quite chilly as I checked out the colorful flower beds.

Did you know the flowers get changed out over the course of the event? Florida can still get cold in March, but temperatures often soar by May. Flowers that like the chill end up being replaced by those that thrive in the heat in some of the festival beds.

I love the colorful flowers by the water underneath the monorail tracks, as well as the pots that are actually out in the water, and I also enjoy subtle touches like the red, white and blue flowers at the American pavilion in World Showcase.

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2) Gardens

o9The festival is packed with gardens that will give you new ideas to take back home to your own space. Whether you live on unending acres, have a relatively small yard, or do container gardens on a patio or balcony, you’ll be inspired at Epcot. There’s a definite emphasis on water conservation and also growing your own food. You’ll even see a nod to keeping chickens and bees, both of which are becoming more and more popular in suburban and urban areas.

You’ll also find playgrounds for the kids in the Cars- and Monsters-themed gardens. Parents can relax while kids get a chance to run a little wild. I particularly like the Cars garden this year, as it has a lot of space devoted to cacti and other succulents. They’re typically associated with the desert, but many actually thrive in Florida.

Yes, some of the cactus plants have intimidating needles, but don’t worry about the kids. Those plants are safely tucked away behind a fence to prevent anyone from getting impaled.

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3) Topiaries

o1Topiaries are a mainstay at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, and they’ve evolved in amazing ways over the years. Once upon a time they were green bushes trimmed and grown in shapes that were pretty good representations of the Disney characters. Now their features have gotten more and more realistic, and green has given way to a whole rainbow of colors. They’re designed carefully to ensure that they’re a proper representation of the characters, right down to making sure they’re at a proper scale when they’re in a multi-character scenes. You’ll see that with Chip and Dale in the entrance scene this year, with the two little chipmunks tormenting poor Donald.

Of course, the big addition for 2015 is Elsa and Anna, and they’re really stunning. The same technique used to make Snow White so life-like last year was used to design everyone’s favorite sisters. Compare them with this rendition of Belle and you can see just how far things have come:

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4) Food

f1Food was added to the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival a few years back, and it was a hit. The offerings continue to be refined, improved, and updated, and I promise you won’t be disappointed this year. Of course, I’ve never been disappointed with the food in any year, but this year features some returning favorites, like shrimp and grits, and tasty new options like burnt brisket hash and a fantastic quinoa vegetable naanwhich.

I had an opportunity to try several of the items, and there wasn’t a bad one among them. Everything is fresh and flavorful, in keeping with the festival theme. You may already be familiar with the versatility of kale, but if not, I highly recommend trying the salad that’s available at the festival. It’s a light, sweet salad that makes it fun to get in your serving of veggies.

f9Even though this isn’t the food and wine festival, you’ll find adult libations, too. Check out the Florida beers on tap and other options, like the key lime wine. The drinks are very refreshing, especially in the later days of the festival when temperatures start to rise. I’m looking forward to one item in particular, although it’s not exactly a drink. The kiosk by France will offer an adult version of frozen peach iced tea. I’m all about flavored iced teas, so I can’t wait to give it a try.

Speaking of France, you’ll also want to check out the delicious strawberry macaroons. If you need some energy to make it all the way around World Showcase, they’ll give you a proper sugar rush. Add some caffeine from the frozen iced tea and you’re ready for a full day of seeing and doing everything.

Of course, you can get macaroons at any time from the bakery in the French pavilion. It’s the perfect spot to stop in the morning for a bit of quick breakfast, since you can get there before the main part of World Showcase opens. They also have very tasty lunch options, and you can dine in the lovely ambiance of the Belle, Beast, Lumiere and Cogsworth topiaries during the festival. Here’s a strawberry macaroon to get you drooling:

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There’s also a moist and yummy tres leches cake and lemon tarts topped with blueberries, among the other dessert options:

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5) Concerts

Last but not least on our list is the concerts. They’re included with your park admission ticket and take place in the theater on the waterfront by the American pavilion. Here’s the schedule:

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Excited yet? Experience all this and more at Epcot from March 4 through May 17.

Night of Joy 2015 line-up is packed with stars

Disney has announced the 2015 line-up for Night of Joy, and the Magic Kingdom event will be packed with big-name Christian music talent. Here’s who you’ll see during the two-day event, which runs September 11 and 12 this year:

Friday, September 11

  • TobyMac
  • MercyMe
  • Jeremy Camp
  • Colton Dixon
  • Big Daddy Weave
  • Francesca Battistelli
  • Rend Collective
  • I Am They

Saturday, September 12

  • Skillet
  • Lecrae
  • For King & Country
  • Mandisa
  • Matt Maher
  • Jamie Grace
  • Seventh Time Down
  • Veridia

Night of Joy is always an action-packed weekend, with the biggest decision being, “Which performers do I see?” The shows take place on three stages, so you’ll need to plan out your night. Here’s a little flavor of what you can expect. First, Mandisa’s opening medley from last year:

And TobyMac from 2013:

The concerts are high energy, and the park is packed with fans who are out to praise and celebrate. You can read my recap of last year here.

Tickets aren’t on sale yet, but they should be released in the spring. Watch www.nightofjoy.com for details in the coming months.

Elsa’s doing magic at Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom til January 12th

Elsa’s been lighting up Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom every night since Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party started in November, and she’s not done yet. The other Disney holiday activities have been put to bed for another year, but Elsa, along with Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf, is still on vacation in Florida and she’s not going to stop her work until January 12th.

You can see everyone’s favorite ice princess use her powers to ice the castle through this coming Monday. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the show (I particularly like it because it has a walking, talking Olaf):

Even if you miss her performance, she and Elsa will still be on hand to greet guests at Princess Fairytale Hall (whatever you do, get a FastPass+ to avoid the long waits). They’re a lot of fun to meet, as I discovered earlier in 2014:

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Given all their Frozen fame, the sisters have had a busy year at Walt Disney World. They also brought a chill to the summer at Disney’s Hollywood Studios with a parade, the Frozen sing-along show, a local branch of Oaken’s Trading Post, and even ice skating and a snowy play area. Here’s their special welcome parade that ran each day:

This overview of the whole event features scenes from the show (yes, I know you’re probably tired of hearing “Let It Go,” but I promise that it’s actually a lot of fun, and not just for the kids…there are plenty of laughs interspersed with the songs):

You can still catch the show, but Elsa and Anna’s horse-drawn carriage and float moved over to the Magic Kingdom just in time for the Christmas festivities. See them in the Christmas parade here:

And if that’s not enough Frozen fun for you, remember that the ride in Norway is currently under refurbishment and will eventually debut with a new Frozen overlay, Hopefully that means the trolls will still be around.

Yes, I know that’s a lot of Frozen, but you have to admit that it’s still wildly popular. Eventually their fame flame will burn out…or would that be melt down? Either way, soon enough a new Disney hit will take its place, but Elsa and Anna fans are getting lots of changes to meet their heroines in the meantime.