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

Brand-new Epcot International Festival of the Arts debuts January 13

One of the best things about living near Walt Disney World and having an annual pass is being able to take advantage of the special events like the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival and the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. Those are always two of the biggest highlights of every Disney fan’s year.

With two festivals that cover the spring and fall, and a holiday celebration in between, there’s not much more that could happen at Epcot, right? Wrong!

Brand New Festival Coming to Walt Disney World

art5Make room for the Epcot International Festival of the Arts. This new event starts on January 13 and runs every Friday through Monday until February 20. The festival is an eclectic melding of just about every art form you can think of, from painting to chalk drawings to crafts to photography to Broadway music to other performance arts and the art of creating fine cuisine.

The video below contains an overview of the festival:

Like Epcot’s other events, it’s included with your admission ticket, but you’ll want to budget some funds to try out some of the extra cost activities and to try food from the eight different “kitchens.” For Figment fans, be sure to buy the Figment scavenger hunt kit so you can track down your favorite purple dragon in famous works of art around the world. It’s for kids, but you can bet that adult Figment fans (I’m raising my hand here) will love it, too.

Plan a Full Day at Epcot

art4There will be so much going on at the festival that you’ll need to spend a full day at the park, or better yet, make multiple visits if possible. You’ll want to stroll around viewing the artwork and catch the special entertainment on the Fountain Stage and the Broadway singers at America Gardens. You can easily graze on the special food offerings while you do that, since they’re in tapas style portions. The platings are a work of art, too, so you might feel a little bit guilty eating them.

Want to learn more about Walt Disney World’s newest way to draw visitors after the holiday madness and before the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival draws in the spring crowd? Stay tuned to this blog for articles focusing on each unique aspect, like food, live Disney artists, Disney on Broadway stars, and more.

Day Three: Leaving Helena for Tizer Gardens

2Day three of my visit to Helena, Montana, dawned bright and early, as I was slated to meet my host, Mike, for breakfast at the No Sweat Café in Last Chance Gulch, followed by a drive to Tizer Gardens. Alas, we discovered that it’s closed on Mondays, so our plans switched to Jorgenson’s, a restaurant and hotel that looks unassuming at first glance but that has quite a history. He told me it used to be a favorite hangout for politicians, with many deals being closed over drinks in the bar.

Fueling up for Tizer Gardens trip

3It was a little too early for drinking, but the breakfast menu was packed with plenty of tempting options. I went for the homemade French toast, which was hearty enough to fuel me for a long day of walking ahead. After our meal, the first order of business was driving about 20 minutes outside of Helena, and up in elevation, to Tizer Botanic Gardens and Arboretum.

I’m an amateur gardener myself, so I was anxious to see the all the different species growing at Tizer, especially since it’s located in a place with such a short growing season. Since it’s at a higher elevation, it has a scant 64 days vs. about 90 down in Helena. Little did I know that Tizer Botanic Gardens not only has native plants, trees, and flowers, but that it’s also a testing ground for outside species and an official weather station for NOAA.

4I learned all that and more from Richard Krott, the botanical wizard who runs Tizer Botanic Gardens and Arboretum along with his wife, Belva. For the first part of the visit, I strolled around taking photos of all the whimsical scenes and various sitting spots throughout the gardens. It’s a popular place for weddings, with a fairytale cottage that doubles as the bride’s dressing room, and it has a variety of paths to explore and play areas for the children. High teas are held periodically in the gardens, and I can’t imagine a more quaint spot to enjoy a spot of afternoon tea and other goodies.

Serene spots at Tizer Gardens

5Tizer Botanic Gardens was wonderfully serene, with Prickly Pear Creek running through gardens teeming with colorful flowers. As you walk, you have to keep your eyes open for the trees embedded with tools and little scenes set up with gnomes, fairies, and the like. It would be a perfect spot to bring a picnic lunch and choose one of the resting spots and simply chill amidst nature’s lively rainbow. There were plenty of bees, of course, and I even spotted busy little hummingbirds flitting about.

6After soaking in the floral ambiance, I had the pleasure of getting a tour from Richard, who took me over to the testing grounds where he tries out exotic species from around the world, including Australia, South Africa, and even Siberia. He showed me some rare and unusual trees, flowers, and plants, including hardy species that can live at the most frigid temperatures.

I also learned that you can grow grapes in Montana, which always gets my attention, since I’m always interested in wines from various U.S. regions. I did an online search after leaving the gardens, and sure enough, Montana has several wineries.

7I also learned that Tizer Botanic Gardens is one of only three accredited private arboretums. While it might just look like a lovely spot to the casual observer, it’s also an important testing ground for the Plant Select and All American programs. It has 450 conifers and 500 different deciduous trees, along with the hundreds of flowers. If you visit, be sure not to miss the testing area, which is across the small road from the main gardens. Richard will also be happy to demonstrate how he trains the trees to grow in various “patterns,” as he’s doing in the photo below:


9While Tizer Gardens is outside of Helena, it’s well worth the drive for both avid gardeners and vacationers who just want to find that “sweet spot” of serenity. Bring the kids along because there’s plenty of space for them to run and play and many fun little “finds.” I could have spent an afternoon just chilling out among the flowers and listing to the babbling of the creek, but a busy day was still ahead of me. Stay tuned for the rest of day three as I hop aboard the Last Chance Train Tour.

If you missed my previous posts, start with the first post from day one here.

Day Two: Rock of Ages at Grandstreet Theatre in Helena

m39I’m a season subscription holder to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando because I’ve always been a Broadway fan. I still miss Chicago’s vibrant theater scene, but Orlando has stepped things up recently. However, when I was invited to visit Helena, I had no idea that it has quite an amazing theater scene of its own.

The Grandstreet Theatre is a historic site in Helena dating back to 1901, when it was built as a Unitarian church. Now it’s home to plays of an amazing caliber of quality, considering that it uses mostly local talent, mixed in with summer stock professionals.

The theater was restored in 1996, giving it an ambiance sorely lacking in newer buildings like the theater in Orlando. One of the things I loved about Chicago’s theaters was their sense of history and ornate beauty. While Grandstreet isn’t quite as fancy as those, it felt like coming home again to be in a theatre with that rich past and an impressive level of detail. Just look at that window above the sign.

m40The ’80s return to Helena

I’d never seen ‘Rock of Ages,’ so I was thrilled to see a new (for me) show. I know there’s also a movie, but from what I’ve heard, it doesn’t hold a candle to the play. I can see how that would be true, especially after experiencing the show, where the performers break the fourth wall a few times. You can’t really do that in a film, unless it’s ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo.’

My young adulthood was spent in the 1980s, so I knew the songs from the musical score all too well, having lived through the days of big hair and glam rockers. As a jukebox musical, the show is heavy on singing, and the cast pulled it off with aplomb. My only regret was that it had pre-recorded music instead of a live band, but I know it would be very hard to pull off live music in this type of show in such a small theater.

The humor is risqué at times, but ‘Avenue Q’ is one of my all-time favorite plays, and I also liked ‘Book of Mormon,’ so that wasn’t a problem. I found myself laughing throughout the whole show, and the two-plus hour run time flew by. I discovered that it’s coming to Orlando soon, so I might just have to see it again for comparison.

One of the things I really enjoyed was that you could go up on stage before the show and buy a drink at the ‘Bourbon Room.’ I didn’t have a pre-show libation, but of course I had to go up for a photo op:


Afterwards, I took my seat in the fifth row, right hand side, which provided a perfect view of all the action. Even though it’s an older theater, there’s some staggering of the seats to help vertically challenged persons such as myself, and there’s also a balcony if you want that overhead panoramic view.

I’d never really thought of Helena was having such a vibrant cultural scene. Sure, it’s got enough natural beauty to draw visitors, but between the symphony and theater, I was pleasantly surprised. Just as Symphony in the Stars had been packed, the theater was full and the audience had a high energy level. It’s obvious that the residents value and support the arts. As you can see in the photo below, the show earned a standing ovation:


Dinnertime in Helena

I had dinner at Bert & Ernie’s after the show. It was a relatively short walk down Last Chance Gulch, and the menu looked quite eclectic (plus you’ll see Ernie inside):


Originally I was thinking of a burger, but the tuna tempted me away. The service was prompt and friendly, the food was delicious, and the side dishes had a nice spice to them. I also tried a couple of beers, including Not Your Father’s Rootbeer (which I’ve been meaning to try). I usually limit myself to one, but since I wasn’t driving, I figured why not. I skipped dessert since the ice cream serving sizes at Big Dipper, which I’d had in the afternoon, were massive and had more than sated my sweet tooth for the day.





Since my body’s still on Florida time, I called it a night after dinner and some writing and photo organization. I love the fact that the Holiday Inn in downtown Helena has plenty of electrical outlets, plus a dedicated USB station. So many hotels don’t have nearly enough power for charging my laptop, two cell phones, mobile hotspot, camera, spare power pack, etc. (yes, I travel will way too many devices), and I end up unplugging lamps and crawling around to find hidden outlets. For once, my power needs are all met conveniently.

I wanted to get an early start for the next day’s adventures. I had several things still on my agenda, so I knew the hardest part would be figuring out what to do and how to fit it all in with just two more days to go. My luck ran out with the connecting hotel room door, as I could hear the occupants as though they were in with me. When the noise didn’t stop by 10:30, I whipped out my cell phone, cranked up my handy dandy white noise app, turned it on, and slept like a rock (in fitting with the day’s theme). If you’re sensitive to sound like I am, those apps are real life savers. Given the fact that I’ve been doubling my daily step goal on my tracker, I needed a good rest to gear up for the next day’s adventures. Stay turned to read about day three soon. In the meantime, go here if you missed the first part of day two or want links to day one.

Day Two: A capitol experience in Helena, Montana

m18Helena is the state capitol of Montana, and as such, one of the places to visit is the state capitol building. That actually wasn’t my original plan for day two of my Helena adventure. I was hiking to the capitol building to pick up the Last Chance Tour Train, but when I arrived, I discovered that it doesn’t run on Sundays. Oops! I discovered that, unlike the nearly 24/7 tourist attractions in Orlando, much of Helena shuts down on Sunday.

A change in plans

Oh well, since I was there, I decided that I might as well tour the state capitol building, which was indeed open. The security guard warned me that the governor was there to do some filming. so I was surprised they were still letting the public in. I remembered that Mike said the governor is a casual guy who you can see in his office or even call up on the phone, but things are NOT like that in Florida, so I had a hard time wrapping my mind around this totally different lifestyle. If the Florida governor was filming, the general public wouldn’t get anywhere near the place.

m17With self-guided tour map in hand, I set forth of my exploration The original parts of the capitol building date back to 1896, and the old-school craftsmanship is obvious. It was a delight to go through the hallways, admiring the artwork, stained glass, and woodwork. I was also shocked to see Governor Steve Bullock, who was, indeed, filming right out near the stairs. I tried to stealthily get some photos, and he saw me up on the balcony and actually said hello. I’ll admit I was tongue-tied, as I definitely couldn’t imagine our illustrious Sunshine State governor doing the same. I was him on the way out, just as the filming wrapped up, and he offered to take a photo with me. I couldn’t believe it! I thought Mike had been exaggerating, but apparently not.

Here are some photos from the history-steeped interior of the state capitol building:







m25 A new friend in Helena

That’s one thing I really love about Montana. There’s a definite air of friendliness and hospitality that apparently starts at the top. Things have a slower pace, too. Yes, it has a lot for tourists to do, but that crazy tourist town bustle is missing. You can just chill out and enjoy yourself. I immersed myself even more in that local feeling as I strolled the mostly residential neighborhood on my way back to the hotel. I was missing my menagerie of pets, and I came up a big, lazy Siamese cat sunning himself on the sidewalk, so I got a nice kitty fix.

A slice of Helena gubernatorial history

As I continued down the road, I passed the historic governor’s mansion. I was slated to visit it later in the week, but the historical society was having a special event. They were also selling tickets for a tour of ten private gardens, but alas, I was scheduled to see the play ‘Rock of Ages’ that afternoon so I couldn’t take the time to drive around and find them.

Thankfully, I DID have time to tour the mansion. What a slice of history, and so beautifully restored! There were interpreters in each section to tell stories of the families who lived there, bringing history to life. It’s a three-story home, and the part that fascinated me the most was the family member with a wooden leg who watched the children up on the third floor, navigating a twisty and treacherous staircase! I also liked the tale of the governor’s enterprising daughters; since his home was the first to get a newfangled toilet, they charged their friends a penny to come over and flush it. Below is a sampling of photos:












m37Refueling time

I spent so much time immersed in history in the mansion that I realized I hadn’t had lunch yet and it was almost time for ‘Rock of Ages.’ I hurried back, stopping for ice cream at Big Dipper (yes huckleberry again) and tacos at Taco del Sol in the Last Chance Gulch pedestrian mall. I finished my meal just in time to get ready for the walk to the Grandstreet Theatre for the show. Find out how I liked it in the next installment. To go back and read about my first day, start here and follow the links at the end of each article.

In the meantime, the tasty tacos from Del Sol are pictured below, and that’s my huckleberry ice cream (along with a scoop of bubblegum) to right.


Day One – Symphony Under the Stars in Helena

They don’t call Montana Big Sky Country for no reason. There’s very little light pollution, giving a clear view of the night sky. It was still daylight when I headed to Carroll College, home of a Helena annual tradition, Symphony Under the Stars, but I knew that by the concert’s end, it would be dark enough for fireworks.

A Helena family tradition

The college was a little hike, but even though the other writer was driving, I figured I’d walk for some exercise and to avoid the hassle of finding a parking spot. My host, Peter, had texted that he’s staked out space in a great location on top of the hill, strategically close to the port-a-potties (as well as a Baskin-Robbins food truck). He said he also brought a picnic dinner, which was fine with me since my only substantial food besides my breakfast on the plane was a hot dog and ice cream before the boat tour.

m13I arrived at the college, along with droves of people, all carrying chairs, coolers, and other paraphernalia befitting a giant lawn party. I soon found Peter and his family and friends, and indeed their spot was perfect. It was right at the top of the hill, with a straight shot view of the concern stage. They also had a feast of chips, cold chicken, cheese, and other yummy picnic staples, along with icy cold drinks. It was a lovely show of Montana hospitality, and it made me happy that my trip coincided with Symphony Under the Stars. While the Helena Symphony plays year ‘round, this show only runs once a year.

This event is a big fundraiser for the symphony and also for the Boy Scouts, who charge a few dollars to let people put out their blankets the day before. And believe me, you NEED to do that to snag a prime spot. There’s also a massive canned food collection to benefit the food bank.

m14I did make a mistake and give in to the Baskin-Robbins temptation. The sun was going down and the breeze was picking up, so as a Floridian, I was soon shivering and realized that I’d forgotten my sweatshirts at the hotel. Thankfully, between the blankets and a sweatshirt loaned by my hosts, I managed to stay comfy. I even dozed a bit while listening to the Broadway music performed by the orchestra and professional singers. The whole event had a festival atmosphere, with families enjoying a taste of culture and kids running and playing and delighting in how their glow sticks lit up the night as darkness fell.

The very last song was ’76 Trombones,’ a perfect accompaniment to the fireworks finale. You could hear the crowd’s awe as the colorful spectacle lit up the night sky. It was over all too soon, and I had my one taste of shades of Orlando in Helena. I decided to drive back with the other writer, and the ensuing traffic jam as 17,000 people all tried to leave at once was on a par with the mayhem after the fireworks in Celebration.

Below you can see the night turn to darkness:




The event was definitely worth the traffic. It was a true taste of life in Helena and a wildly popular event that brings all the locals out of an evening of family fun. Even though I was ready to crash after being away for nearly 24 hours straight, I drift off to sleep with content after a day of soaking in natural beauty capped by a night of music, fanfare, and fun.

Day two of my adventures is coming soon. If you missed my previous posts, you’ll find the Gates of the Mountains boat tour here and my travel here.

Day One – Helena Check-in and Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour

My commuter flight into Helena arrived on time, and I was a bit early that I wouldn’t be able to find Mike from the Convention and Visitors Bureau if it was anything like Orlando International (a big THANK YOU to the bureau for sponsoring this trip). I need not have worried. It’s a small airport where you walk off the plane and are mere steps away from the baggage area. I quickly found him and his wife waiting to welcome me to their little corner of paradise. And paradise it was! I could see that coming in on the plane as I marveled at the mountains, and it was even more beautiful to be surrounded by nature’s majesty on the ground. You get a great view of the Sleeping Giant formation from many parts of Helena, so they pointed it out as we were driving in. We also made a quick run by the city park, which has several trailheads for hiking.

Helena home away from home

m5They drove me to my home away from home, aka the downtown Helena Holiday Inn. It’s just about as centrally located as you can get, on the end of the Last Chance Gulch pedestrian mall. It’s not a fancy place, but it’s comfortable, convenient, and friendly. They were just getting my room ready when we arrived, so soon I was settling in up on the fifth floor with a view of the mountains from my window. The room had a connecting door, which always scares me after many prior bad experiences with noisy neighbors at other hotels, but thus far that’s proven to be unfounded.

Although I had a tentative schedule, things changed up right away. There was another writer visiting town who was leaving the next morning, and he was planning to drive to the Gates of the Mountains boat tour. I’d be taking over the rental car he was driving on Sunday, but it made sense of us to head to the boat tour together. We just had to be sure to make it back to town for Symphony Under the Stars.

It was only a 20-minute drive from downtown Helena, so we made it for the 3 p.m. tour (there’s also a 4 p.m. but that would have been cutting it close since it’s a two hour boat ride). The country surrounding the marina is gorgeous, and it’s easy to imagine how impressed Lewis and Clark were when they discovered this country while traveling on the Missouri River.

I hadn’t had any lunch yet, and it was already 5 p.m. Florida time, so I grabbed a hot dog and some huckleberry ice cream before embarking on the boat. Apparently huckleberries are ubiquitous in the area, and the ice cream was a big winner.

The tour company operates two vessels. One is completely open, and the other has an enclosed interior and an open outside back deck. We were on the latter, so I divided my time between inside and out. The guide regaled us with tales of the area and pointed out landmarks and interesting rock formations. Alas, there was no wildlife; I suspect they’re more likely to be spotted on early tours. He also told use the tragic tale of the Mann Gulch forest fire that killed thirteen firefighters back in 1949.

The Gates of the Mountains boat tour was a perfect introductory activity for my first day. While Helena itself is beautiful, nestled in its mountain surroundings, the natural beauty of the river and its surroundings reminded me while people love to come out west for vacations. It’s such a far cry from my usual Florida tourist surroundings. Add in the fascinating history and you have a winner. I was sad that I was on a working trip as I would have loved to just kick back and soak in the serenity. Alas, I had to snap photos and video to document the journey. Still, it was gorgeous country, even when viewed through a viewfinder. I’ll let nature speak for itself:








All too soon, our two-hour journey was over. I enjoyed both the scenery and the history lesson. Now it was time to get ready for Symphony Under the Stars. The start time was 8:30 p.m., but I was slated to meet my host at 6:45 for some good old fashioned tailgating, or rather, blanket gating. Since the concert start translated to 10:30 p.m. Florida time, and since I’d been up for 3:30 a.m., I hoped that I’d been able to stay awake enough to enjoy the concert. Read all about it in this post, and go here if you missed the first post about my adventures.

Day One – On the way to Helena, Montana

m2My Helena, Montana, adventure began bright and early on Saturday morning…or should I say, late at night. I was up at 3:30 a.m. to get to Orlando International on time, since there’s a two hour time difference between Florida and Montana. I didn’t get to bed too early because I was at a Disney Springs event, but I was still up before the alarm went off. My excitement at heading to Helena overpowered my desire for sleep.

Although I prefer direct flights, that’s not available on this route. Instead, I booked Delta flights via Salt Lake City. Many years ago I had an insanely bad experience with Delta, but more recently I had an excellent experience that overshadowed the bad one, so I was looking forward to the flight. I decided to pay the surprisingly reasonable upgrade charge for first class. I’m not the best flyer, and the first leg is four and a half hours, so I thought it would be nice to have more space. There are meals, too, but I couldn’t get too excited about breakfast that early.

A sleepy first-class flight

With first class, you get priority boarding and dedicated carry-on space. That was lucky because it was a full flight, with people having to gate check bags. The first class compartment wasn’t overly fancy since it was an older 757-200, but the seats were comfy and there was more space, and I enjoyed the pre-flight orange juice.

Breakfast was a choice of eggs or oatmeal. I opted for the latter, although I slightly regretted it because the eggs smelled very good. The oatmeal was tasty enough, with fruit mixed in, plus fresh fruit, yogurt, and a bagel:


After the meal, I started watching the latest “Star Wars” on the personal entertainment system, but drifted off to sleep. I woke up and turned it off, figuring I’d drift off again, but also I never did. I enjoyed discovering that T-Mobile offers a free hour of mobile WiFi and unlimited free texting from the air, so I played around with that and watched the new “Jungle Book” on the overhead screen, with my own music as the soundtrack.

I did get some light cat napping, and when I was awake, I marveled at the scenery as the mountains came into view below. It made me realize how much I’ve missed the west. Soon enough we were descending into Salt Lake City from a relatively uneventful flight, other than a couple of bouts of turbulence.

Brief stop is Salt Lake City…next stop, Helena!

Knowing that Salt Lake City has a high Mormon population, and knowing the smoking laws in most states, I was shocked to see an actual smoking room in the airport. I would think Utah would have strict enough smoking laws to preclude that. The only power outlet to recharge my phone was right by the room. Thankfully, the ventilation was excellent, although each person exiting smelled of a thousand cigarettes as they walked by. Oh well, I was just happy to have access to power.

Sadly, I discovered that I’d have to gate check my bag because my next plane was a puddle jumper from Salt Lake City to Helena. I’d upgraded to an exit row to at least be safe from getting further smooshed by reclining passengers, but otherwise I knew I was in for a packed-sardine experience. Thankfully, it was only an hour and a half flight, and I knew that when it was over, I’d be in Helena! Yes, this is what I was waiting anxiously to see:


My Helena schedule is jam packed, and I’m particularly excited about the Symphony Under the Stars, my first night’s activity. Although I might be drifting off due to the early start of my day, I look forward to hearing a live concert of Broadway music, capped off with a massive fireworks display. Even though it’s July, I packed a sweatshirt because the temperatures apparently dip down into the 50s at night, and that’s downright frigid for a Florida gal. Go here to read about the next part of day one.

Gaylord Palms Resort combines princesses and pirates to please every kid

It’s a well-known fact that kids love princesses and pirates. This summer, the Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando melded the two together into a winning combination for its ongoing Summerfest celebration. Now through August 21, families who stay at the resort can take advantage of a wide array of fun activities themed around royalty and a swashbuckling pirate crew.

Takeover at the Gaylord Palms Resort

I’ll bet you didn’t even realize that pirates are in charge of the Gaylord Palms Resort this summer. And these aren’t just any pirates. They’re Captain Blackheart the Pirate King and his daughter, Princess Priscilla, along with a full crew of characters. You can dine with them at breakfast, where they’ll happily give you a pirate name and swear you in as part of their crew, play pool games led by a pirate, attend a session of stories and chanties, make your own tiara or sword, and even go on your very own treasure hunt. The magic of Summerfest can even transform you into a mermaid or shark!

The video below shows a quick overview of some of the activities:

I had the chance to experience Summerfest firsthand, and I had a blast even as an adult. My favorite activity was Princess Priscilla’s Coronation Breakfast. It was a real feast, but the thing I liked best was the interactivity. It wasn’t a rushed experience where the characters stop by for a quick photo, then rush to the next table. They spent a good bit of time interacting with every guest, handing out pirate names and having them take a solemn pirate oath to join the crew and avoid the alternative of walking the plank. I discovered that my official pirate name is Barnacle Barb:


Here’s some of the fun at the breakfast:

The story time is lots of fun, too, and it ends with s’mores…mmmmm!

You’ll find full Summerfest details on the Gaylord Palms Resort website. It only lasts until August 21, when Captain Blackheart and his crew have to head back to the high seas in search of new adventures. But don’t worry, as things are never dull for long at the Gaylord Palms Resort. I know it’s still the sweltering summer, but Ice! is just around the corner when Christmas at the Gaylord Palms kicks off later this year. Need a little sampler to help you stay cool? Here’s last year’s exhibit, and stay tuned to find out this year’s theme very soon:



Skull Island: Reign of Kong brings King Kong back to Universal Orlando Resort

In its early days, Universal Orlando Resort featured some iconic movie animals, like King Kong and the original shark named Bruce straight out of the movie ‘Jaws.’ Those days are history, but as they say, history has a habit of repeating itself. King Kong is back now, albeit next door at Islands of Adventure, and his new Skull Island: Reign of Kong ride is already packing in riders.

Skull Island: Reign of Kong grand opening

The ride has been in a soft opening phase for a few weeks now, but this morning it celebrated its official grand opening with all the fanfare that you see in the video below:

It’s a richly themed ride, starting in the queue line and continuing to the five different drivers, each with a specific personality. And when you meet Kong face to face…well, let’s just say that you won’t be disappointed.

Beware the skulls (and boo holes)

19As you navigate the queue line, you’ll notice that skulls are an ongoing theme in the decor. You’ll also get a year ’round taste of Halloween Horror Nights when someone or something pops out at you from a boo hole.

The Skull Island:Reign of Kong ride truck has no restraints and no track, so you move freely through sometimes wild maneuvers. 3-D glasses enhance your experience as you wind through Kong’s jungle habitat. Even though the natives are chanting “Kong…Kong…Kong,” you might just luck out if it’s a “no sacrifice” day. You’ll spot some archeologists who aren’t quite so lucky and a wide variety of creepy critters. Beware, as they’ll turn their wrath on you!

Fortunately King Kong is around, and you get to witness an epic battle. Animatronics have come a long way since he first appeared in Kongfrontation next door. You’ll gasp in awe at the right of the massive ape and thank your lucky stars that you’re making it out alive.

Skull Island:Reign of Kong is sure to keep drawing the crowds this summer, so get to Island of Adventure early and head to the big ape’s territory before the crowds thicken. If you get a chance, try to ride more than once as there are various driver characters, so it’s a different experience with each one.

Why does a Floridian need a vacation? Top 5 reasons to visit Montana

22I’m a non-native Floridian who never wants to live anywhere else, as I love the Central Florida region. It’s like paradise living in the midst of Theme Park Country, so it might seem strange that I’m heading 2,500 miles from home for a Helena, Montana vacation. While there’s plenty to do in Florida, I have five good reasons why I’m eagerly anticipating my upcoming Western adventure:

The mountains

As a Florida gal, the closest I get to mountains is among the gently sloping hills of Clermont. I love the West and the mountains and have spent some time in the Smoky Mountains, Alaska (yep, I’ve driven a dog sled) and the Canadian Rockies (walking on a glacier is amazing) and have visited dude ranches in South Dakota (there’s nothing like watching the fireworks over Mount Rushmore from horseback at night), Wyoming, Colorado (it’s amazing to see snow in July), and California. I miss that scenic country and am thrilled to be heading back out West again.

Lower crowds

In Florida, people flock down here to visit and/or live. While that slowed during the 2008 recession, construction is everywhere again and people are moving in or at least coming down in mass tourist packs. Yes, some cities in Montana are touristy, but there are also still wide, open spaces. It’s a nice change of pace from the daily battles with I-4 and crowds everywhere you turn in the Orlando tourist corridor.

Variety of activities

Yes, that sounds funny coming from someone who lives in the nation’s number one tourist destination. I love the theme parks dearly, but I get to see them as much as I want. Outside of that, there are only so many times you can ride in a helicopter, play mini golf, or drive around a go-kart track. Montana has outdoor activities like horseback riding, boating, hiking, and mountain climbing in a much different atmosphere than Florida.

The Montana weather

It’s been beastly hot in Florida this year, and that’s really saying something. Temperatures in the upper 90s and soaking humidity are a summer staple, but it started very early this year. I look forward to the cooler temperatures in Helena and perhaps even donning my seldom-worn long sleeved shirts, or perhaps even (gasp!) a light jacket at night.

A new adventure

I love to travel; as I mentioned earlier, I’ve been out west many times, most often at dude ranches where exploring on horseback is the main activity. Remember that old clip of the horseback riders on the mountain in Soarin’? I’ve done that in real life, along with whitewater rafting, zip lining, and other adventurous pursuits. I’ve run through most of the adventure that Central Florida has to offer, so it’s time for a brand-new experience in another state to add to my ongoing count.

Join me on my Montana adventure, starting with weekend with daily trip reports. In the meantime, enjoy the scenery (photo in this article is courtesy of the Helena Convention and Visitors Bureau; I’ll see the river firsthand during my trip).