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

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.

Shhh, don’t tell anyone, it’s the slow season at the theme parks

As a local, I’ll admit that I’m spoiled. I don’t wait in long lines for theme park attractions. At Disney World, I grab a FastPass+ for a couple of my favorite attractions during the busy season, visit my park of choice for a couple of hours, then hightail it home when my crowd tolerance reaches its limit. At Universal, I go late in the day, since my Premier annual pass gives me Express access after 4 p.m. At SeaWorld, I arrive at opening time and head to the farther-back attractions while the arriving hoards are dazzled by the likes of Manta and do things closer to the front gate.

But every few months I get a real treat: a tiny bit of off-season time. The most notable periods are those right before Memorial Day and Labor Day, but there’s also a nice chunk of slow time right after the mad holiday rush. The crowds head home, their credit cards and energy levels depleted, and don’t think about another vacation for at least a few weeks. Meanwhile, I can enjoy Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, and SeaWorld Orlando at a more leisurely and spontaneous pace than I’m normally able to do.

What are my top three favorite parks to visit during this rare period of quiet time? Here they are in no particular order:

Epcot

2You have to be careful at Disney, since marathon weekend falls in this period, but otherwise Epcot tends to be quiet until the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival starts in early March. The lines can be a little long in Future World right around opening time, since World Showcase doesn’t open until 11 a.m. I like to come a little later, take a leisurely global tour in World Showcase, then head back to Future World where the lines have typically died down to enjoy Soarin’ and Test Track a few times, then hit Nemo and Spacehip Earth on my way out.

If you’re a Flower and Garden fan, I advise coming out early in the festival. The crowds pick up throughout its run, although it’s fun to visit at both the beginning and the end so you can see how the displays change over time as the season gets warmer.

SeaWorld Orlando

1There’s so much to do outside at SeaWorld, and January weather is usually perfect to do it. The chance of rain is rare compared to the summer, and it’s generally cooler and much less humid. Normally a day at SeaWorld means working around the show schedule to make sure you get to each arena with plenty of time to get a good seat.

Lower off-season crowds means you don’t have to get to Shamu Stadium 45 minutes early or to rush to Blue Horizons long before showtime. That means more time to enjoy underwater viewing and the rides and exhibits like Turtle Trek, the sharks, and Wild Arctic. It also means shorter lines at Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, where you must do the ride to get to the amazing open-air penguin habitat.

Universal Studios Florida

3Actually, while I love all of Universal, my big recommendation for the off season is Diagon Alley. It’s still the new kid on the block, and as such, it’s wildly crowded at busy times of year. You can’t fully appreciate all the detail in this area when you’re too busy trying not to get run over by a stroller or otherwise trampled in the crowd.

Thankfully, the off-season lull gives Harry Potter fans a chance to take it easy and really explore all the shops, noting the fun details of the displays and the amazing architecture of the buildings outside. It’s also fun to buy an interactive wand and take some time to cast spells. There’s a line to do so during the busy season, but you won’t have to wait for other wizards to practice ahead of you when you visit in the rare lull.

There is a time when Harry fans will find themselves in the midst of a crowd. A Celebration of Harry Potter runs for three days, starting January 30, but it’s worth braving the mob to see exhibitors like Pottermore and Scholastic and attend panel discussions with some of the movies’ stars.

These are my own personal choices, but this is a great time to visit any of the theme parks. Just beware of the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as students generally have a long weekend, which means a reprise of the crowds.

What’s next at the parks? Harry Potter at Universal and nice food and garden mix at Epcot

Now that the holidays are over and the theme park Christmas events are winding down, what’s next for Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort? Things never stay quiet for long at the major central Florida parks, and both Disney and Universal have some big guns set to blaze in the early months of 2015.

A Celebration of Harry Potter

Universal already has Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley all year long, but they step up the Harry Potter theme January 30 to February 1 with the return of their popular A Celebration of Harry Potter event. It’s an exhibition for Muggles who can’t get enough of the boy wizard and his world. As you might expect, you get to see celebrities from the movies. Here’s a panel discussion from last year with Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), and Devon Murray (Seamus Finnigan).

The cast was also on hand for the event kick-off, as seen in the video below:

It was a very chilly night, but that didn’t deter the massive crowd who came to the parks to kick things off.

In the exhibit area, you’ll see companies closely associated with the Harry Potter brand, like Pottermore…

MinaLima (graphics for the films)…

And Warner Brothers Studios…

One of my favorite parts was hearing Kazu Kibuishi talk about what it was like to work with Scholastic and reimagine the Harry Potter covers:

I also had the opportunity to attend a media Q & A with the cast:

There was even a dueling demonstration:

As you can see by the videos, it’s a total geek-out for Harry Potter fans. The exhibition is included with your park ticket, and I highly recommend coming early and making a day of it so you can be sure to see everything. It gets quite crowded, so you’ll need as much time as possible to catch the cast talks and see all the exhibitors.

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

Meanwhile, over at Walt Disney World, the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival kicks off on March 5. I always view the festival opening as my unofficial early Florida spring kick-off. I’m an avid gardener myself, so I love being surrounded by the colorful blooms around the park and marveling at the clever, colorful topiaries.

Last year, I got to go behind the scenes to see some of the preparations for the festival. Check out the tour and it will help you imagine what’s going on already as we move full speed toward this year’s opening in just two months:

The Festival Horticultural Manager, Eric Darden, takes great pride in his work, as you can see from this 2014 interview:

Of course, in recent years the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival has gotten even better with the addition of food…yum! Chef Jens and his crew make sure that the Outdoor Kitchen kiosks rival those you’ll find at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival later in the year. Here’s what he had to say last year:

I’m a big fan of the talks, demonstrations, and workshops in the Festival Center too (that’s the Wonders of Life Pavilion for all you old-timers). With HGTV as sponsor, the festival always features some familiar celebrity speakers. I had the pleasure of seeing Vern Yip last year:

There are local gardening experts, too, like the always amusing Robert Bowden of Leu Gardens. His talk is hands-on, and I still have the plant I potted at last year’s presentation:

There are Flower Power concerts, too, so plan to stick around and catch one if you’re an oldies fan. The concerts, talks, and workshops are all included with your Epcot admission, and you can buy a handy wrist gift card to make your dining more convenient.

As you can see, the first quarter of 2015 will be anything but boring at the Orlando theme parks. That’s one of the things I love most about living in the shadow of the mouse. I never have a chance to suffer from post-holiday depression because as soon as the New Year passes, I’m already anticipating the next exciting events.

A whirlwind Orlando Christmas, and it’s not over yet: Where to extend your holiday

Christmas is a whirlwind time in the Orlando area because there’s so much to do in and around the theme parks. I’ve had some amazing opportunities throughout the season, and I’d like to share them in this recap. If they whet your appetite to extend your own Christmas season a little, never fear. Most of them are running through the end of the year or even a little beyond.

One of the highlights of every year is my annual visit with the Grinch. Just as little kids look forward to telling Santa Claus what they want to find in their stockings on Christmas morning, I love to chat with the Mean Green One on his version of Christmas cheer. You know that you leave out milk and cookies for Santa, but what does the Grinch prefer? Trash, of course, but no kitty litter please!

He’s always such a hoot:

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You can still meet the Grinch yourself this year up until January 3 and see the adorable “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” live stage show at Islands of Adventure. The show is scored by Mannheim Steamroller, and they do live concerts next door at Universal Studios Florida each year. Unfortunately, those are over, but here’s a fun little tidbit from one of this year’s shows: the Grinch cast performing an abbreviated reading live with the band:

Mannheim Steamroller may be gone, but the Macy’s Parade remains at Universal Studios Florida til January 3, too. The parade is always great fun, and this year there’s a new wiggle worm balloon, along with the Chloe the Clown balloonicle. What the heck is that? Find out from John Piper himself, direct from the Macy’s studio. First, here’s what the inside looks like:

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And now, here’s more on the balloons and the parade from John himself (don’t you love his entrance?):

And here’s the parade itself:

It’s well worth extending your Christmas season to run over to Universal Orlando Resort. While you’re there, I highly recommend trying the new Cowfish restaurant on CityWalk. It’s burger/sushi fusion…seriously…and it is soooo good. How did that concept ever see the light of day? Let the founders themselves tell you:

I don’t have much space for food porn in this article, so I’ll be doing a separate one, soon. Meanwhile, here’s some fresh, delicious sushi to tempt you:

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The desserts are insane, too (one involves Nutella…need I say more?).

Meanwhile, Christmas continues over at Walt Disney World. Sadly, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is over for the year, but it was as much fun as always. Here’s a highlight reel from this year’s party to whet your appetite for 2015. “But it’s much too early,” you might say. It’s never too early, especially since tickets go on sale well in advance of the party and sell out quickly. I recommend planning now and buying tickets for your preferred date as soon as they go on sale:

Christmas at Epcot continues with the Candlelight Processional running through December 30. Steven Curtis Chapman is the closing narrator; I love both him and his music, but I have to admit that the narrator I was most excited about this year was Neil Patrick Harris, I know he’s appeared many times before, but somehow the planets had always aligned in a hostile manner that kept me from seeing the show. Finally, this year I saw him:

I’m sad that the Candlelight Processional is over soon. I love the live music and the stirring story of the nativity, but I know that technically Christmas is over. Still, things actually run all the way until January 4 over at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. That’s where the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights carries on Jennings Osborne’s tradition of amazingly excessive decor. There’s something magical about standing in the middle of all those lights and letting their rhythm and the sound of the music envelop you. Here’s one song to give you a sampling:

January 4 is also the last day for Christmas at the Gaylord Palms Resort, featuring the annual Ice! display. This year, Ice! is themed to the Nutcracker and, better yet for the big kids, it features an ice bar right in the middle of the display. There’s nothing like a literally ice-cold sampling of Johnny Appleseed to warm you up inside:

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Here’s a video of the entire display, including the lovely nativity that ends up every year’s display:

Ice! is just one small part of Christmas the the Gaylord Palms. Stick around for the Luminescence show, browse the beautiful decorations, catch a bargain in the Christmas store, and, best of all, take a spin on the alpine tube slides. Ice! is 9 degrees inside, but the alpine slopes are surprisingly warm, even though you’re sledding on real snow:

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SeaWorld Orlando continues its Christmas celebration all the way through New Year’s Eve. It’s the perfect season extending option for animal lovers. I’m a huge fan of the “O Wondrous Night” show, which tells the nativity from the animals’ point of view. They’re puppets to start out with, but their real life counterparts take the stage for the big finale. What’s it like working with four-legged, furry and feathered stars? Hear from their trainer, Joel Slaven:

I loved meeting some of the animals up close:

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Of course, I also enjoy the Shamu Christmas Miracles show because I love seeing Katina, Makaio, and the rest of the orca pod show their awesome power and intelligence. The talented skaters in Winter Wonderland on Ice wow me, too, but this year, I must admit that the thing that stood out most for me was the living angel statue. She was hilarious (and a bit devious, as you can see from the photo):

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Here are some highlights of the SeaWorld Christmas Celebration. You can still enjoy it up through January 31.

I love living in Orlando, even in the heat of the summer when the temperature flirts with triple digits, but I must admit that, next to the Halloween haunt season, Christmas is truly the best time to live in the thick of the theme parks. It’s hard to believe that the special events are almost over already, but never fear…like Frosty the Snowman, they’ll be back again before you know it.

Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic offers amazing cuisine this weekend

tempIf you’re a Disney fan, you’re probably already familiar with the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, which continues through November 10 at the theme park. However, you might not realize that this weekend brings the fifth incarnation of another popular Epcot-area food fest. On October 31 and November 1, the Swan and Dolphin resorts host the Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic, a two-day celebration of delicious food and drink.

If you’ve never visited the Food and Wine Classic before, check out the video below for highlights from the media preview. I was fortunate enough to attend this tasting of several of the featured items, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed everything I tried in both the food and beverage categories.

My special favorites were the pork dish, with sauce that made its flavors sing and the shrimp shooter, which makes shrimp cocktail as much fun as it is tasty. I was also hooked on the hot and cold bananas foster panini with vanilla ice cream:

Those items and many more will be available at the Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic on October 31 and November 1, with different items on each night just to keep things interesting. You can attend one or both nights and either buy tickets if you plan to eat and drink a limited amount or get an all-you-can-eat-and-drink band. I highly recommend the latter because it keeps you from having to make difficult choices. See two items that both sound good? Flash your band and try them both!

If this sounds like a perfect way to spend your weekend, you’ll find more information on the official website. I know it’s Halloween, so think of it as trick or treating for adults. Instead of collecting candy at doors, you sample adult treats like gourmet food, wine, and beer, and you don’t even have to dress up in a costume to do it.

The event itself is loads of fun, but if you want to round out your evening, sign up for one of the pre-event seminars. You’ll find them all listed here, but they cover topics like pairing cheese and port, creating sushi, making pasta, blending wine, and mixing your own drinks. Below is a video that covers the food-related sessions, which also involve alcoholic libations:

Want to go for pure drink? Here’s a description of the wine, beer, and spirits sessions:

Last year I had the pleasure of attending the Italian wine seminar. I thought it would be a tasting, with moderate samples of each of the wines described. “Taste” meant full portions and generous re-pours, so by the time I headed out to the causeway to attend the actual event, I was already in a great mood courtesy of the Italian vinos. Here’s a video of the session, which is also offered this year:

This year there’s also a beer garden which you can enjoy for an upgrade fee. Check out the video below to see why that’s a good idea if you’re a beer lover:

The Swan and Dolphin resorts are within walking distance of both Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot, so it’s easy to combine a day at the parks with a night of indulgence. You can also just head out for the evening to enjoy the food, drink, live entertainment, and a nice view of the Epcot fireworks. If you’d like to stay overnight so you don’t have to worry about over-indulging, the Swan and Dolphin have special Food and Wine Classic packages.

If you’re a food and wine fan, or if you’re just looking for a fun way to spend the weekend, the Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic beckons. Whether you sign up for a seminar before you hit the booths or just come out for a night of drinking and dining, you’re guaranteed to have a great time.

Boost your anticipation for Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

tempAre you excited yet about the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, which starts September 19 and runs through November 10? I most certainly am, as a foodie and someone who loves Walt Disney World. The festival melds those two loves together in a perfect marriage of visiting my favorite Disney park (with Soarin’, Spaceship Earth, Turtle Talk With Crush, World Showcase, and Illuminations, how can I go wrong?) with an amazing itinerary of food and libations. I’m lucky to be a local who can hit it up several times over the two month span, but many tourists plan their yearly trips around this event.

On Thursday, I had the great pleasure of sampling some of the new dishes and imbibing in some of the drinks that are featured at the festival this year. I also got to chat with Evan Rosenthal, Restaurant Guest Service Manager, about those drinks and to hear from Chef Jens Dahlmann about the amazing edibles on tap for 2014.

First, here’s Evan:

And now, here’s Jens:

Although I enjoyed everything at the preview, I fell in love with certain items. Here are my top three recommendations in no particular order:

Florida Grass Fed Beef Slider With Pimento Cheese

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I know sliders are overdone these days, but this one is a welcome departure from the typical bar food. Yes, it will satisfy the meat-and-potatoes fan, but I loved how the generous sprinkling of chopped onions gave it some zip and how the sauce had a pleasant little bite without being too overwhelming. Yes, it has some spice, but not enough to scare off the timid diner.

Baked Lobster Alfredo

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The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival team took another dish that tends to be overdone these days and made it into yet another item that I can’t wait to eat again when the festival starts. Lobster mac and cheese is everywhere, but this Baked Lobster Alfredo version is packed with sweet lobster meat that’s a perfect counterpoint to the cheese. Add in crunchy topping and you have a perfect comfort food that’s also upscale enough to fit in the festival context.

Roasted Verlasso Salmon With Quinoa Salad and Arugula Chimchurri

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I have to make a confession here. Yes, the salmon is sushi grade and seared to perfection, but that’s not what won me over about this dish. I absolutely loved the sauce, and the quinoa salad could easily stand on its own.

temp12And what about dessert? There are plenty of sweet treats to finish off your meal, but Barb’s personal recommendation is the Creme Brulee Caramel Fleur de Del. It’s a sea salt caramel crème brulee that’s substantial without being too rich or overwhelming. The flavor is to die for.

If you’re planning to visit the festival, get there early, and try to avoid the local crowd by visiting during the week. Even though the portions are taster-sized, they’re still large enough to fill you up after three or four kiosks. If you get there at lunch time, plan to stick around all day and do another round at dinner to maximize the number of dishes you try. You still won’t be able to make it all the way around the world, but you’ll get a great representative sampling.

If you really want to go whole hog, combine the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival with the Swan and Dolphin Food& Wine Classic, which runs on October 31 and November 1. You can read more about it in this post.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog In the Shadow of the Mouse.

When rain at the theme parks is a GOOD thing: How to take advantage

b5It’s most definitely summer in Florida, and the almost-daily rain storms prove it. Normally they start in the afternoon, but we’ve seen a few come in the late morning recently. Usually they let up, but sometimes they seem to hang on forever. If you’re in Orlando on vacation, that will no doubt make you impatient as you huddle under shelter in the theme park of your choice, wonder if you’ll pass out under the steamy humidity of your rain poncho, and wonder if the rain will ever stop so the fun can resume.

Believe it or not, you can use the pervasive Florida rain to your advantage. It’s something the locals all know, and tourists can use this trick too. Other people hate the rain just as much as you do, and that means many of them bail back to their hotels. If your family is prepared to tough it out, you’ll enjoy much shorter lines and a lesser crowd, even in the peak of the summer.

The first rule of preparation is to dress appropriately for the rain. Yes, those rain ponchos are uncomfortable, but they’re a necessity if you want to stay dry and don’t want to lug an umbrella around. I recommend wearing shorts with them; otherwise, long pants can still get uncomfortably soaked. Also, choose water-friendly shoes like Crocs or flip-flops (I personally opt for Crocs knock-offs on wet days). That way, you won’t be sloshing uncomfortably in soaked shoes and socks and developing a nasty case of blisters. Bring a waterproof bag to carry your belongings.

Once you’re properly suited up, get out there and enjoy the park! Just be sure to choose a park with lots of indoor attractions or rides that don’t shut down when it’s wet out. Virtually all outdoor rides are closed for safety when there’s lightning, but some can run in rainstorms as long as the lightning isn’t nearby. If you want to keep most of your fun indoors, places like Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Universal Studios Florida are ideal. Even SeaWorld, with all its outdoor shows, has more inside attractions than you might imagine, like Antarctica, Turtle Trek, the shark exhibit, the Manta aquarium, and Wild Arctic.

If you don’t want to get wet, you can still use the rain to your advantage. Choose a day with a long, vicious downpour, then wait until it stops and head immediately to your theme park of choice. It should be nearly deserted, since most of the attendees will have fled the inclement weather. You can get in some good ride time before they return. If it’s late enough in the day, the crowd might never build again and you can enjoy the solitude until closing time. This is especially helpful if you want to see one of the hot new Orlando attractions, like the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom or Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.

I use the rain to my advantage all the time, and I recommend that you do, too. You can’t stop the summer rain in Florida, but you can make it work to your benefit.

In the meantime, please enjoy one of my favorite old SNL bits. This is the kind of confidence I want to have in my weatherman:

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.