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

Universal Orlando VIP tours are expensive, experience is priceless

temp3Once upon a time, before I moved to Orlando, I was one of the herd of tourists who dutifully visited the theme parks at least once a year. Normally I stayed on Disney property and didn’t bother to rent a car. Still, I made it a point to book a shuttle and devote a day to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.

With such limited time, I always booked a VIP tour to make sure I’d see all the main attractions. It’s a pricey proposition (around $170 to see one park in a day and $190 to see both if you book a general group tour and private tours just for your own group that start at a flat $1899). I did the general group tour and was always lucky enough to get paired up with relatively compatible strangers who were open to riding the thrill rides rather than hanging out all day in Seuss Landing.

I’ve lived in Florida 10 years now, and I have a premier annual pass that gives me Express access to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure lines after 4 p.m. every day, so I haven’t been on a tour since that time. However, the good folks at Universal were kind enough to let me go on a two-park VIP tour as part of my grand-opening stay at Cabana Bay Resort (I wrote about the hotel in this article). I decided to play tourist and see if the tour experience was still worth the money as it had been in the old days.

The media tour was sort of a hybrid between the general and exclusive VIP experiences. You can have up to 12 people on your tour if you book the non-exclusive version, but my group had seven. The two park tour typically lasts seven hours, which includes a lunch break (food is not included), and you’re guaranteed to do a minimum of eight major rides and attractions between the two parks. You also get lots of fun facts, trivia, and secrets from your tour guide. Our group racked up an impressive number, enjoying the following 13 attractions

  • Spider Man
  • Dr. Doom
  • Hulk
  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
  • One side of Dragon Challenge
  • Ollivanders Wand Shop
  • Transformers
  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
  • Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit Roller Coaster
  • The Simpsons ride
  • Revenge of the Mummy
  • Men in Black
  • ET

temp1That was with a lunch break, and we really didn’t rush. We paused for photos at regular intervals, met Dr. Doom, and watched the Marvel super heros parade out on their ATVs. You might actually get in even more rides than we did if you do the exclusive VIP tour, which runs for eight hours and includes a meal. The secret is that you get back doored onto all the rides, so you don’t even have to wait in the Express line. It truly is a VIP experience, from the moment you sign in, get your special lanyard, and enjoy coffee and bottled water as you want to get started to literally bypassing every ride wait. The only lines you don’t bypass are the ones for character photos, but my group lucked out and caught Dr. Doom just as he was coming on stage, so he graciously paused for photos with each of us. Who said villains were all bad?

All that might sound like enough to entice you into booking a VIP tour, especially if you’re visiting in the peak season, but all that instant riding wasn’t the highlight for me. Sure, I loved it and felt spoiled rotten, but I’m fortunate enough to visit Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure regularly, so it takes something extra special to impress me. The priceless part of the day for me was getting to go into two backstage areas where I’d never been before.

tempFirst, on our way into Men in Black, we actually got to go downstairs into the room where the aliens are sitting at the control panel. Yes, we were actually running around and taking photos with the aliens and over in the sitting area that’s part of the scene while people in the queue line above stared at us in wonderment. The only restriction is that you can’t touch the aliens. I felt like a kid in a candy shop! I had no idea that anyone was ever allowed down there. I almost felt a little sorry when I had to tear myself away from the scene and try to earn my suit on the ride.

Second, after riding Revenge of the Mummy, our guide, Matt, took us back inside and underneath the actual ride track. We couldn’t take pictures, since the flashes would spoil the darkness, but we were right under the spot where riders think they’ve come to the end. It was amazing to see the trains zipping over our heads.

If you book a VIP tour, you may or may not have the same experiences, although you’ve got a good chance. It depends on your party’s age and bravery make-up (for example, obviously little kids might be scared to go into the darkness of the Mummy’s inner workings). It’s also dependent on time and the consensus of what everyone prefers to do. If your exclusive group has an interest in seeing how the magic is made behind the scenes, or if you’re on a general group of compatible people, you’re got a good shot at it.

temp2I got some great photos in the Men in Black alien scene so I can prove that once upon a time I was actually down there. I even got to fill out a page in the Earth immigration log. The rest of the tour was a blast, too, as I can never get too much of rides like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster, Transformers, Spider Man, and Revenge of the Mummy, but I can do them any time. The only way to get that something extra is to book a VIP tour, and if I didn’t live within 15 minutes of Universal, you can bet I’d still be doing that every time I visited Orlando.

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.

First look at Cabana Bay Resort: Universal’s newest on-site hotel is retro rad

b3Cabana Bay Resort at Universal Orlando Resort welcomed its very first guests on March 31, and I’m happy to say that I was among them. I’ve watched the hotel rise up near I-4 over the past 18 months, and I’ve steadily gotten more excited about its retro theming (yes, I’m old enough to remember when those 1960s hotels were the real thing, not just a quaint novelty).

I was very pleased to get an invitation to stay overnight at Cabana Bay Resort on opening day in one of the family suites.The hotel has regular rooms, as well as suites that sleep six, which means it’s going to be a very popular option with larger families. I’m grateful to Universal for the chance to try it out.

Even though this hotel is considered the value-priced option out of all the Universal on-site hotels, I can assure you that Loews didn’t skimp on the theming or amenities. Really, the biggest difference you’ll notice from the other hotels (other than the fact that the rooms in the currently open section all open to the outdoors instead of an interior hallway) is that you don’t get Express line access at the parks. But that’s something you can buy separately, and you don’t really need it if you travel in the off season, so don’t let it scare you away from this wonderfully retro rad property.

e9The 1950s/1960s feel hits you from the moment you turn into the driveway and see the retro sign. You’ll do a double take at the classic cars all parked along the curb by the main building. Inside, the decor is bright and neon-heavy. The lobby itself is spacious and sunny, and if you wander around a bit, you’ll find places like the Universal Gift Shop, the well-equipped Jack LaLanne fitness center, and my personal favorite, the Galaxy Bowling Alley. There’s also a large arcade with modern games that kids in the 1950s could only dream of, but hey, you have to keep up with the times.

Indeed, you’ll find all the modern conveniences in the hotel rooms, too. Sure, you’ll chuckle at the throwback alarm clock, the Zest soap with classic logo, and the Alberto V05 shampoo and creme rinse (none of that new-fangled conditioner here), but you’ll also love the flat screen TVs, builtin hair dryers, mini fridge, coffee maker, and microwave.

The rooms also have an ingenious design for the bathrooms that means three family members can use different parts of the facilities all at once. The bathtub is in one section and the toilet is in another, with the sink in between. When you put six people all in one room, and they’re all struggling to get ready at the same time, that bathroom is going to save some bloodshed.

d4I stayed in a comfy family suite facing the pool in the Starlight section. The pool itself looked so cool and inviting, and a DJ kept things lively all afternoon. I love the high dive-inspired fountain, and there’s also a water slide for soggy splashdowns. If you wanted some quieter water time, there was also a popular hot tub.

I love to swim, but I’ll admit that the biggest activity draw for me was the Galaxy Bowling Alley. I hadn’t bowled in years, so I won’t even share my abysmal scores, but I loved donning the brand new bowling shoes, selecting a neon colored ball, and attacking the pins with gusto. The bowling alley also doubles as a nice place to eat, with table service burgers, hot dogs, and the like.

The Jack LaLanne fitness center looked appealing, too, especially given the fact that I couldn’t pass up the top-it-yourself yogurt in the food court, The court has everything from sandwiches to salads to pizza to burgers to comfort food like Swedish meatballs and tuna casserole. I tried the latter, and it was filling and delicious, just as you’d expect. Also, the lemon bars are downright sinful. I really did need to visit Jack, but I ended up at the Swizzle Lounge instead for a night cap. This lobby bar is a very popular hangout in the evening.

e14Although I didn’t check it out, there’s a walkway from Cabana Bay Resort to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. If you don’t want to hike to the parks, there’s also bus service via retro themed buses. Although I haven’t seen it myself yet, I’ve heard there’s even a surf board painted on top of the buses to complete the theming.

How does Cabana Bay Resort compare to the other on-site properties at Universal Orlando Resort? They’re all Loews hotels, so you can expect a certain level of quality, but it’s hard to make a direct comparison because the theming is so different at each. I’ll confess that I’m fond of Cabana Bay, but that’s probably because I was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, so I lived the era that many of the hotel’s guests only know through shows like “Mad Men.”

Would I stay at Cabana Bay if I weren’t here for a media event? Granted, I’m lucky enough to live only 15 minutes away from Universal, so I don’t generally need a hotel room, but if I did, I wouldn’t hesitate to book a room here. When I lived in Chicago, I visited Florida in the off season. That means I could easily get away without having Express access to the rides. I’d definitely be attracted by the pool and bowling alley, as it’s nice to have onsite activities if you want to take a day off from the theme parks.

Cabana Bay would also be a great Halloween Horror Nights headquarters, Die hards who come down for the event are more interested in the haunted houses than in hitting the park rides during the day, so Express wouldn’t be a big loss. Most of the HHN fans I know would rather save money on their hotel and put it towards Express for the house lines.

f3I love Walt Disney World dearly, but dare I admit that I like Cabana Bay better than most of the Disney value resorts? I have a soft spot in my heart for Art of Animation, but I find the icons at the other value properties to be a bit overwhelming and in your face. At Cabana Bay Resort, the theming is very prominent, but it blends naturally into the property. It doesn’t need to be larger than life to accomplish its goal.

I really got a kick out of playing tourist at Cabana Bay, and tomorrow (Tuesday) I’ll be heading off for a two park VIP tour of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Back when I really was a tourist, I always did the VIP tours to make sure I’d see all the major rides in one day. I’m anxious to see if the tours are the same, so I’ll be doing a full report this week. Keep your eye on In the Shadow of the Mouse for all the details.

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.

Just for Kids at SeaWorld Orlando brings my inner child out to play

Just for Kids, which runs on Saturdays through April 12 at SeaWorld Orlando, is exactly what its name implies. The little ones will love the dance party with Shamu and Puck the penguin, kid-friendly games, activity tables, collector cards, close encounters with animal ambassadors, showers of bubbles, character greetings with sea friends like star fish and mermaids, and the Elmo Rocks show. Their parents will enjoy the fact that the special activities are included with regular admission tickets.

b38But don’t let the name fool you. Kids are obviously the target audience, and they’ll have a blast if you make to SeaWorld on one of the next two Saturdays, but adults can have a great time too.

I may be approaching the half-century mark, but my inner child loves the fact that I live next door to Walt Disney World and have passes to all the Central Florida theme parks. Little Barbie likes to come out to play whenever I’m at an attraction, so she was front and center at Just for Kids.

The day started off with Elmo Rocks, a cute stage show featuring the Sesame Street characters. I cut my teeth on that show, so I was thrilled to see old friends like Ernie, Bert, and Cookie Monster. Elmo, Abby Cadabby and Zoe were a little past my time, but the show’s music was just as appealing to adults as to kids. I loved Bert’s rendition of “Hip to be Square” and his “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” number with Ernie, as well as Cookie Monster’s “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” as the others tormented him with cookie keep-away.

b39Next up was a visit to the Sea Garden for story time and visits with some of the Animal Ambassadors. SeaWorld mixes a conservation message into the fun, so the youngsters heard the story of a litterbug dodo bird that illustrated how trash can harm animals and the environment. Then it was time to meet some furry and feathered friends.

I’ve owned horses for over 30 years. but just like every other little kid, I always wanted a pony, so my inner child squealed with delight at the sight of the adorable miniature horse. The horse, like most of the other featured animals, is a rescue. In addition, I met two different types of eagles and a kookaburra. I also watched the nearby flamingos, who appeared to be having some sort of noisy birdy battle to show off for the crowd.

I managed to collect a goodly number of animal cards at the Sea Garden and various other locations. Some cards are standard, and some are special for SeaWorld’s 50th anniversary celebration. Kids who do the Just for Kids activities and collect the four associated cards can bring them to the main gift shop for a special prize. Even if you don’t make it to the park for Just for Kids, you can still get the regular cards when you visit the animal ambassadors in the garden or at other spots, like underwater viewing.

b40Next, I headed over to Antarctica, which always makes me shiver a bit among the huge carved ice blocks, even if the Florida heat. It was great fun seeing Shamu and Puck the Penguin in the Rockin’ Rockhopper party too. There was lots of line dancing, and of course the Chicken Dance. That was fine, but my animal-loving inner child was drawn into the gift shop, where two live penguins were on display. I dare anyone to look at a penguin and not smile.

Being a child at heart, I love carnival games, so of course I had to play the goblet toss over in Shamu’s Happy Harbor. It’s one of those games where skill counts to an extent, but you need some luck too. I have a bit of a knack for it, and I managed to score a giant Shamu. If you have younger kids, there are lots of special Just for Kids games with guaranteed prizes for them. Personally, I think the best one is the “Pick a lollipop” game. For that one, not only do players get a stuffed toy, but they also score a tasty Tootsie Pop.

My inner child proceeded to have a blast posing with the characters and the huge stuffed critter and even climbing on the “ride an orca” photo op with it. Then I passed the fun along by giving it to a group of teens who were coveting it as they passed me.

b41Alas, the rain was rapidly heading toward Orlando, so I had to packed up Little Barbie and call it a day. I managed to hit the parking lot just as the first fat raindrops started falling. I wanted to stay a little longer, but Florida weather is fickle and the forecast called for showers on into the evening. Still, I’d enjoyed an extremely full day, from the Sesame Street show to the character dance to meeting all the critters to winning my giant orca. I even learned that you can re-created the sound of a dolphin with plugged ears and a Slinky (seriously…ask about it at the orca underwater viewing).

My inner child was ready for a nap, since she always bows out when it’s time to drive I-4. It was s soggy drive home, but it was well worth a half day of fun. SeaWorld is always a great place, especially if you’re an animal lover who enjoys the priceless experience of seeing various marine mammals and other creatures up close. Add the Just for Kids activities and it’s the cherry on top of your Shamu sundae (yes, I recommend getting one of those for your inner child and your chocolate-loving adult).

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.

Self magazine calls tutu-wearing cancer survivor lame, backpedals fast

One of the things I love about living near Walt Disney World is that you never have to worry about your wardrobe. When you live in Tourist Central, it’s rare to find restaurants that insist on any sort of formal attire, and you can throw on any casual outfit and be content in the knowledge that there’s someone out there who will make you seem like a fashion plate by comparison. That’s perfect for me, since I’m a “jeans and t-shirts and what the hell is make-up?” kind of gal.

You can also get a little wild with your attire if you’re in an attention-seeking mood. Just look at all the mouse ear varieties people don at the Disney parks, from Mickey to Stitch to Goofy to Oswald ears and beyond. I personally have a monorail headpiece that makes it look like the train is driving through my head Steve Martin-arrow style. It hasn’t been available for years, so it’s a novelty and a fun conversation starter.

tutuYou normally can’t wear costumes into the theme parks if you’re not a kid, but that rule flies out the window every now and then. The main time is Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, when just about anything goes and some of the guest costumes rival those of the actual characters. However, if you’ve ever been to a runDisney race, you’ve surely seen Disney costumes aplenty. A big part of the fun is the crazy attire, and the runners get very creative.

Tutus are hot item at Disney and on the running circuit in general, and they add a splash of color and lightheartedness to an otherwise grueling endeavor. In its April issue, Self magazine decided to appoint itself judge and jury of the trend, pronouncing its verdict: “Lame.”

Problem is, the photo that the magazine used to illustrate its nasty little snark is a photo of a cancer survivor named Monika Allen. She was dressed as Wonder Woman, a costume completed by a tutu, because she was fighting brain cancer and right in the middle of chemo treatment when she ran the LA marathon where the snapshot was taken. You can see the nasty little Self piece in the photo accompanying article, which Ms. Allen’s company, Glam Runners, shared on its Facebook page.

The magazine dissed a woman for whom a super hero costume is quite appropriate, given the rigors of cancer treatment, and worse yet, it also ignored the fact that she sells tutus through Glam Runners, and donates the proceeds to the Girls on the Run charity to promote exercise for young women and help them build their confidence. She’s raised almost $6000 for that worthy cause

Here’s what Self used as its caption for the photo of this brave and enterprising woman:

A racing tutu epidemic has struck NYC’s Central Park, and it’s all because people think these froufrou skirts make you run faster. Now, if you told us they made people run from you faster, maybe we would believe it.

So who’s the lame one? I don’t think it’s Ms. Allen, and neither did thousands of others who lambasted Self when the story came to light. The magazine is suddenly backpedaling, with its editor in chief, Lucy Danzige, issuing a public apology on the magazine’s Facebook page:

On behalf of SELF, we sincerely apologize for our inadvertent insensitivity. I have personally reached out to Monika and her supporters online to apologize for the misstep and tell them we are trying to remedy the situation. At SELF we support women such as Monika; she is an inspiration and embodies the qualities we admire. We have donated to her charity and have offered to cover her good work in a future issue. We wish her all the best on her road to good health.

We all know that anyone wearing tutus is still “lame” in Self’s eyes and that the reason for this swift reversal is the fact that they realize they slipped into a dark, deep vat of horse manure with their wildly insensitive photo selection. Seriously, they didn’t notice the “Die Tumor Die” notation right on Ms. Allen’s friend’s bib? At least they’ve proven beyond a shadow of a doubt what “lame” really is.

Speaking of Walt Disney World and fighting deadly diseases, have you ever heard of Give Kids the World Village? It’s a magical place in Kissimmee for kids with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Learn more about it in my previous article.

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.

Give Kids the World Village gives special Disney trips to special kids

b7If you’re a Walt Disney World fan, you might think you know all about the magic of a trip to the four theme parks. The Magic Kingdom in particular is a place that gets even the most confirmed cynics to smile. When kids see their favorite characters in person for the first time, their squeals of delight will warm any heart.

But believe it or not, there’s a place that adds an additional dose of magic for families who need it the most: Give Kids the World Village. Located in Kissimmee, just about 15 minutes away from the parks, it’s a haven for children who suffer from life-threatening diseases. Their daily lives are often a whirlwind of doctor visits, hospital stays, and medical treatments. When they come to Give Kids the World Village, they can leave all that behind for a little while and be immersed in a magical world where losing your hair or being in a wheelchair or looking different is just par for the course.

The video below gives a quick tour of this amazing place. Families come here to visit Walt Disney World, but GKTW is a whimsical, wonderful destination all on its own. It has its own restaurants, a movie theater, character appearances, a fully accessible swimming pool, rides, and even horse-drawn wagons. Holidays like Halloween and Christmas are celebrated every week so every visitor gets a chance to experience them:

The visits are completely free for the families, from their accommodations in spacious villas to the food and activities at GKTW to their visits to Disney and the other theme parks.

b6Of course, it takes a lot of money to run the resort and provide those vacations. There are several generous corporate sponsors, as well as fundraisers throughout the year, and you can make a donation any time.

If you want to lend a hand without even leaving your keyboard, you can join the 40th Anniversary Ruby Tuesday promotion, a partnership with Rosen hotels that racks up a $1 donation for Give Kids the World for every Facebook “like” the Rosen properties get between midnight on April 21 and midnight on April 22.

“Like” the GKTW Facebook page now, in preparation for the promotion. You’ll get reminders as the big day approaches, and when it does, you can “like” the pages for any or all of these Rosen hotels:

Rosen Shingle Creek
Rosen Inn at Pointe Orlando
Rosen Plaza
Rosen Inn International
Rosen Hotels and Resorts Orlando
Rosen Inn Closest to Universal
Rosen Centre
Clarion Inn Lake Buena Vista

Watch the Give Kids the World Village Events web page for other ways you can help. You’ll feel good about spreading a little extra pixie dust to the families who need it the most.

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.

As a Halloween Horror Nights lover, I’m jealous of the Staten Island clown

I celebrated my first Halloween before I was even two weeks old, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s my favorite holiday. My family made the Addamses and the Munsters look downright normal, and my mom didn’t believe in babysitters, so she took me to see horror movies literally from my infancy. I was only three when I saw Night of the Living Dead, and I still remember the line, “They’re coming to get you, Bah-bra” (pretty creepy stuff when your name is Barbara, too). Thus, I suppose it was inevitable that I would either have an early nervous breakdown or fall in love the Halloween.

I took the latter route, and one thing I love about Orlando is that it’s a horror fan’s paradise. I frequent both Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida and HowlOScream at Busch Gardens Tampa as many nights as I can each season. I was thrilled when Universal officially announced the Halloween Horror Nights dates for 2014. For my fellow HHN fans, they’re September 19, 20, 25, 26, 27 and 28; October 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29, 30 and 31; and November 1.

Granted, that’s less than six months to wait, but it still feels like a long time for my next hardcore horror twist. Thus I was extremely jealous when I heard about the existence of the Staten Island Clown, who’s so popular that he even has his own Twitter hashtag: #siclown

Here’s a photo from Instagram:


What the heck is that? you might ask. Apparently it’s a creepy clown who’s popping up in various spots around the city, much like the Northampton Clown did in England last year. And, like his Northampton counterpart, it appears that the Staten Island version is part of a publicity stunt, as reported in various media outlets like the New York Post. He’s been linked to a film production company called Fuzz on the Lens.

b11These days, it’s never surprising when something viral is linked to a business or marketing campaign in some way. I think it’s pretty cool for a town to have its own creepy clown, whether it’s for publicity or simply because some deranged individual likes to go around creeping out people with coulrophobia, the official name for the fear of clowns.

Orlando definitely needs a creepy, wandering clown of its own. Heck, we already have a candidate: Jack, the Halloween Horror Nights icon, whose ability to strike terror into the hearts of the young, old, and drunk alike has been proven over the course of many years at HHN. Fans of the event tend to either love or hate him, and I’ll admit that I’m on the “love” side of the coin.

Jack hasn’t been around since HHN 20, the year that bid a grand farewell to all the old icons and used in a new era of fear, but I keep hoping to see him again someday. Can you imagine seeing that sinister face peeking out at you from a dark alley as you stagger down Church Street in the wee hours?

b13Tampa could have its own city-stalking clown, too. HowlOScream has featured the Circus of Superstition 3-D haunted house for the past two years, and with any luck it will be back for 2014. There are plenty of clowns, both inside and out, waiting to terrorize the masses. You can see one of them at right (note the horn in his hand, which he stealthily uses for his sneak attacks on those waiting in the queue line who think they’re safe from terror until they actually get inside the house).

But alas, there have been no creepy clown sightings in Orlando, Tampa, or anywhere else in the Sunshine State. I have only my fond memories of Halloween Horror Nights past, when I got to meet Jack in person and even got spattered with blood all over my white t-shirt at one of his shows.

Here we are hanging out at HHN 20:


In the meantime, I’ll just keep reminding myself, it’s less than six months until the local Halloween events start up once again.

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.

Want to make like Lucy? Stomp grapes, enjoy vino at Lakeridge Winery in Clermont

b22When you think of the comedy classic “I Love Lucy,” the grape stomping episode probably runs neck and neck with the chocolate factory as one of the series’ most iconic scenes. Have you ever wanted to live it out for yourself? Head over to Lakeridge Winery and Vineyard in Clermont this summer, whip off your shoes and socks, and have at it.

The 24th Annual Harvest Festival runs from June 20 to 22. Besides daily grape stomping contests, it features a wide variety of food, crafts, and musical entertainment. And, of course. there’s the wine. Lots and lots of it. Head into the cool, shady winery, brandish your glass, and stroll from barrel to barrel as you taste each of the delicious wines that Lakeridge has to offer.

If you’d like an overview of the festival, including yours truly stomping her little heart out, check the video below, which was filmed last year. I warn you, the stomping is much harder than it looks, especially in the summer Florida heat. Thank goodness things are automated these days:

Many of the Lakeridge wines are on the sweet side, which is just fine with me. I’m a big fan of Blanc Du Bois, a crisp, refreshing white, but Proprietor’s Reserve is oh so sweet and intense. Even if you don’t visit during the festival, the winery is open for tastings every day. You can learn about its history and the basics of wine making, then sample the vintage for yourself.

b23There’s also a second chance to play Lucy at the 20th Annual Harvest Grape Stomp, which takes place on August 16 and 17. The winery hosts a variety of other events, from Jazz and Blues concerts to a summer music series, throughout the year. The full schedule is on the Lakeridge website, with something happening just about every month.

I highly recommend visiting Lakeridge, even when there’s no event. Just learning about the wine making process and getting to taste the various wines is reason enough to head out to Clermont for a fun, low-key morning or afternoon. The winery might be less than an hour away from Walt Disney World, but it’s a world away from the glitz and glitter and tourist traps. You’ll be amazed that there’s a rolling vineyard so close to the theme parks, out amidst unspoiled forest and orange groves. It’s a rare glimpse at the real Florida.

Here’s a quick tour of the winery with winemaker Jeanne Burgess, who actually named the Blanc Du Bois grape variety:

Lakeridge Winery is very easy to get to. Depending on your starting point, just take 192, I-4, or the 429 toll road to Highway 27, then head due north and keep driving. If you’re a wine lover, or if you’re just looking for a low key change of pace from the crowded, intense theme park summer that’s just around the corner, it’s well worth the trip.

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.

The results are in: Airheads Trampoline Arena winner is Mary Ruth Helms

b46The winner of the Airheads Trampoline Arena Spring break giveaway is Mary Ruth Helms. Congratulations, Mary! Watch your email for instructions on how to claim your two free passes next week.

Even if you didn’t win the drawing, you can still enjoy the fun by visiting Airheads Trampoline Arena at 33 West Pineloch Avenue, Orlando, FL 32806. A big thank-you goes out to our friends at Airheads for providing the free passes for this giveaway.

If you’re a local business or attraction owner and would like to provide a giveaway for In the Shadow of the Mouse readers, please email me at

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.

SeaWorld teams up with Washed Ashore Project to highlight ocean pollution problem

b83For the most part, the Sea of Surprises at SeaWorld Orlando is a happy, upbeat celebration that honors the company’s 50th anniversary. It features mobile shows that will splash guests on hot days and teach about the science of bubbles. Kids (and adults) can get up close and personal with a variety of animals in the Sea Garden. Members of the Surprise Squad will wander all over the park, giving away gifts that range from small items like food vouchers and reserved show seating to larger awards like backstage tours and trips to other SeaWorld parks.

If you go to the Sea Garden to meet the eagles, possums, miniature horses, and other critters, your eyes will no doubt be drawn to the four colorful sculptures that portray an octopus, parrot fish, seahorse, and sea anemone reef. However, if you take a closer look, you’ll realize that what appears to be whimsical works of art are actually composed of trash.

b44The four sculptures were all created by the Washed Ashore Project, a group dedicated to bringing awareness of ocean pollution to the general public.Through its engaging artwork, it aims to build awareness of how we’re damaging the ocean and hurting animals with plastic and other debris. All of the garbage in the four sculptures came right from the ocean. According to the group, 90 percent of what it finds is petroleum based, like plastics and nylon rope.

If you’d like to learn more about the sculptures, as well as the animal ambassadors who will greet guests out in the Sea Garden, watch the video below. I interviewed senior animal trainer Corey Oxman at the 50th anniversary kickoff on March 21. She talked about the rescued animals used as ambassadors at the park and the amazing artwork that will hopefully make people think twice about leaving their trash on beaches or tossing it off of boats.

If you’d like to see the kick-off ceremony from that day, it’s in the video below.

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.

SeaWorld Orlando kicks off Sea of Surprises for 50th anniversary

b50SeaWorld is 50 years old today. No, not SeaWorld Orlando, which opened in 1973 on the heels of the Magic Kingdom’s debut two years prior. Rather, it’s a company wide celebration that honors the opening of the very first SeaWorld park in San Diego in 1964. That park still operates today, along with SeaWorld San Antonio. A fourth park, located in Ohio, opened in 1970 but was shuttered back in 2001.

SeaWorld Orlando remains a robust park, despite the efforts of the movie Blackfish and assaults by PETA. Regular visitors and those who know the trainers and who have gone behind the scenes take the Blackfish accusations with a grain of salt, since many are outdated or partially or completely false. I personally don’t take a movie seriously when it shows footage of one trainer, implying that it’s another, and shows an orca with dubbed in sounds, implying that it’s actual footage of Katina (who currently lives in Orlando) when one of her offspring was moved to another park.

I won’t go into all the fallacies here, as that’s a whole article on its own. You can read them for yourself on the MiceChat site in this article, which contains the perspective of a trainer involved with the film, and this article, which features an interview with Tilikum’s trainer.

b51In the meantime, SeaWorld Orlando is busily incorporating a variety of festivities, while will run for the next 18 months (no anniversary ever lasts a mere 12 months an Orlando theme park). I was at the opening event this morning, March 21, and witnessed the Surprise Squad handing out prize bags to excited guests. The squad will be out daily, randomly awarding prizes ranging from food vouchers, behind the scenes tours, and special show seating to trips to the other SeaWorld parks.

In the past, I’ve had some luck when other parks had similar promotions. I won Dream FastPasses at three of the four Disney parks during the Year of a Million Dreams and a front of the line pass at Legoland Florida on its first birthday. Hopefully my luck with carry through to the SeaWorld celebration.

The park has also added to mobile shows, Bubble Blowout and Splash Dance. Beware of the latter, as it’s designed to get you wet! Of course, that’s not always a bad thing in the vicious Florida heat.

The Sea Garden will be a hotbed of activity during the Sea of Surprises. Animal ambassadors will make regular appearances there, with special up-close meet and greets. On this first day of the celebration, I saw kids feeding a spoonbill, and I had a possum come right up to me as it ran around interacting with guests.

b83The Sea Garden also has four amazing sculptures that tie in with SeaWorld Orlando’s conservation focus. They’re all made of plastic debris and other trash that literally came out of the ocean. The sculptures, which were created by the Washed Ashore Project, may be colorful and beautiful to behold, but they represent a tragedy.

Even though most of the Sea of Surprises special features haved already debuted, there’s one that you can’t see for another three months. On June 21, Shamu’s Celebration: Light Up the Night will take the place of the long-running Shamu Rocks night show. At the moment, Shamu Stadium is closed for rehab, but it reopens on April 11 with the regular One Ocean show.

I strongly recommend getting to the park before that happens so you can see Shamu Up Close. This “mid-season replacement” for the orca show has been running ever since the rehab started, and it will end when One Ocean resumes. I love it because it gives you a chance to see how the orcas are trained and cared for behind the scenes. Have you ever wonder how the trainers teach them to do intricate jumps, twists, and turns? See how they use guide poles to tell the killer whales what they want them to do, coupled with liberal rewards. Those might be jello or ice or petting instead of fish, since the whales are well fed and prefer a variety of goodies.

The video below shows one of the training sessions, which happen approximately once an hour throughout the day. Remember, you only have until April 11 to witness these amazing interactions between human and orca, but you can enjoy the Sea of Surprises for the next 18 months.

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.