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

Have fun, score lots of beads at Universal Studios Mardi Gras on Saturday

mardi2Mardi Gras is running on select weekend nights through May 31 at Universal Studios Florida. That means you can get the full Mardi Gras experience (well, okay, minus the flashing), including Cajun food, street performers, bands, parade floats, and lots of beads. Prince Royce taks the main stage on Saturday, and genuine New Orleans bands will be playing in the Bourbon Street area. The headline concerts are nice (and they’re included with your park admission), but as a local, I enjoy going to the park on Mardi Gras nights just to soak up the ambiance. It’s nice to enjoy some gumbo, top it off with a colorful slice of king cake, and enjoy the antics of the street performers, set to a soundtrack of live jazz. mardi1I also love watching the parade, with authentic floats built by Kern, just like the ones you see in the Big Easy. There’s a rain of colorful beads from each float, and you can end up with quite a haul by the end. See all those beads I’m wearing in the photo? I wasn’t even trying to catch any. I was busily taking photos, but I was still pelted with enough plastic prizes to make Cleopatra jealous. If you’d like to get your own haul, here are some tips from your friendly local on how to accomplish it: 1) Take advantage of special viewing areas. If you’re an annual pass holder, their are special spots set aside just for you. If not, do you have young kids in your party? They can hang out in the Little Jesters area, a prime spot near the beginning of the parade. And that brings me to the next tip… 2) Stake out a spot near the parade’s start. It kicks off across from Mel’s Diner, and the people throwing the beads are chock full of energy right at the start. That means they throw early and often, to the point where beads will boink you in the head even if you’re not trying to catch them. The tossers are annual pass holders who volunteer for a spot on the floats. By the time they get to the end, their arms are tired and the rain of beads tends to lessen. Still, being at the end of the route isn’t always a bad thing… mardi33) Look for spots with less competition. Depending on the crowd density in the park, you might be able to find a spot toward the end of the parade route with very few people around. The people riding the floats might not toss as many beads, but you’ll still rack up a huge stash if you’re not fighting a crowd to get them. Those are my three tips, and the big batches of beads I’ve earned each year are proof that they work. The parade is great fun, even if you’re not in it for the baubles. You can see it in the video below:


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The next video gives you some insider insights into this year’s float and theme:


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The real Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana may be over, but you’ve still got plenty of time to enjoy the Universal Studios Florida version. Head out on one of the weekend event days by May 31 and enjoy a little bit of New Orleans in 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. Email comments and story ideas to

The old becomes new again at Legoland Florida

Yesterday I posted about the grand re-opening ceremony at Legoland Florida for the Florida Pool and Oriental Garden. Anyone who’s been around Florida for a long time knows that Legoland Florida actually sits on the grounds of the old Cypress Gardens amusement park. Sadly, that classic park couldn’t retain its money-making capacity in a modern age crowded with the likes of Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld Orlando. Its many incarnations failed until Merlin Entertainments swooped in and saved it from becoming another tacky lakefront condo development. Now it’s a family attraction once again, and although Lego is front and center, the Cypress Gardens area is still there (for the most part) and still retains its nostalgic charm.

If you’d like to see the full re-opening ceremony, it’s all there in the video below, featuring the park’s general manager, Adrian Jones, and Bob Gernert, former president of Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce.

Jones also took some time to chat one on one with the media about Merlin Entertainments’s commitment to retain the classic charm of Cypress Gardens while still moving forward with the Legoland Florida identity. You can see the full interview in the video below. In it, he discusses how you’re going to see more Lego elements popping up in the garden, but he also says that restoring the canals is the next big project. That will make the purists’ hearts sing, since the old canal boat ride was a Cypress Gardens icon.

If you just watched the video, did you also catch Jones’s allusion to the possible return of the topiaries? As he said, they’re in very poor shape, and it would be a lot of work to restore them to their former glory. But obviously that’s still on the table, so they may just re-emerge someday.

In the meantime, watch for the new Lego elements, but don’t expect to see the Florida Pool filled with floating bricks. That was a one-time display put in place just for the grand re-opening. The bricks are being sent back to their usual home in the Legoland Water Park lazy river.

Bob Gernert also gave interviews, and he spoke very candidly about just howt close Cypress Gardens came to being nothing but a memory before Merlin stepped in. You can hear his full interview below:

Thankfully, now the gardens are protected. Merlin agreed to maintain them as a condition of building Legoland Florida. Even better, they’ve gone beyond mere maintenance to get them into a shape that recalls their glory days and opens them to a whole new generation. Sure, kids might shrug and roll their eyes because Southern belles, banyan trees, gazebos, and pools shaped like the Sunshine State might not be as exciting as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter or an excursion on Expedition Everest out to the east or even Miniland right there at Legoland itself. But perhaps some of that natural beauty will still sink in and they’ll have fond memories of visiting a natural wonder like so many generations before them.

Florida Pool, Oriental Garden returns to Legoland Florida

b91It was back to the future at Legoland Florida this morning as some of the original Southern belles who once greeted guests at Cypress Gardens welcomed community leaders, elected officials, and member of the media to the long-closed Florida Pool and Oriental Garden.

Although I’m now a local, like most Floridians I’m a transplant who fled the north. Even though Cypress Gardens was Florida’s oldest theme park, I never got to visit it before it closed down for good in 2009 after faltering for many years. In its heyday, it was a spot for celebrities to hobnob, and its iconic Florida Pool was featured (albeit briefly) in the 1953 Esther Williams movie “Easy to Love.”

Unfortunately, a theme park that depends primarily on gardens as its draw wasn’t economically sustainable in an era of the biggest, baddest thrill rides and high technology shows. Then, of course, there’s competition like the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, which pretty much dwarfs anything a small theme park can possibly do.

b92By the time I moved to Florida in 2004, the park’s latest re-invention strategy had been hammered by the infamous hurricane trio of Charley, Frances, and Jeanne. Its wooden roller coaster was even christened the Triple Hurricane in homage to one of the worst years for storms in Central Florida history.

The park limped along erratically until September, 2009, when it was shuttered for good. While the loss of some rides and a water park might have seemed inconsequential, the fact that it was home to the historic gardens added a layer of urgency to somehow saving the classic attraction. Would the gorgeous gardens become a waterfront condominium complex? Would anyone ever be able to see the Florida Pool and take pictures by the sprawling banyan tree again, or would they become just another memory? Many classic Florida roadside attractions are no more, and Cypress Gardens seemed fated to follow in their footsteps.

Then, in January, 2010, Merlin Entertainments announced that it was building its latest Legoland theme park on the site. Legoland Florida opened in October, 2011, with much of the gardens restore and open to the public. However, the Oriental Garden and Florida Pool were still off-limits.

All that changed today (March 5, 2014) as the park’s general manager, Adrian Jones, teamed up with Bob Gernert, former Winter Haven Chamber Executive Director and Cypress Gardens historian, to cut the ceremonial ribbon with a pair of Lego scissors and declare the Florida Pool and Oriental Garden once again open to the public.

b90I was fortunate enough to be there for the opening, but perhaps the best part of all was the return of many of the original Southern belles, who used to stroll around in the original Cypress Gardens. When the park became Legoland Florida, they included Lego belles as an homage, but I was always sorry I’d missed the real thing. Now, it was like the past had overlaid the present as the live belles joined their Lego counterparts and the famous pool was lined with citrus as it had once been in the past, but it also was filed with a colorful cache of floating Lego bricks. Don’t worry, purists, the bricks will soon be returned to their normal home in the Legoland Florida Water Park.

Even though I’d never made it to Cypress Gardens, it gave me a sense of pride to see an old classic area restored to its former beauty and once again open to be enjoyed. There’s no way the park could ever have sustained itself in its original form. Fortunately, with the Lego brand name behind it, it has new life to bring memories to older visitors who remember it in its heyday and to create new memories with younger kids who come for the Lego models and rides and stay to gape in awe at things like the banyan, Buddha statue, gazebo and pool.

b93Will Legoland Florida restore even more of the original Cypress Gardens? Adrian Jones said the next big project is work on the canals, along with incorporating more Lego touches into the current garden areas. However, he strongly hinted that people who miss the topiaries might someday get a chance to see them again.

The canals need a lot of work, so it will be quite some time (if ever) before you can expect the classic boat ride to return, but there’s plenty to enjoy in the meantime, and it changes with every season. I love being a local because Cypress Gardens is a new experience as winter segues into spring, which brings new changes when it becomes summer and again when it tapers off into fall.

Locals’ Secret

If you’re planning to visit Legoland Florida and you want to get a lot done, head for the back of the park as soon as you get inside. People are drawn in by the Island in the Sky, the carousel, and other attractions at the front of the park. Resist the urge to stop! I repeat, do not stop! Start with the Dragon Coaster, or even Lost Kingdom Adventure, and work your way towards the back. You’ll be ahead of the crowd, which tends to move pretty slow, and your waits for things like Coastersaurus, Boating School, and Technic will be almost non-existent.

b94Sure, I have a distinct advantage with this strategy because I don’t have kids, and Legoland Florida is packed with families who have little ones in tow. That slows them down considerably. If you’re bringing kids, be prepared to hustle them a little more than they’re used to. Trust me, that initial rush will be worth it when you enjoy the major attractions with short lines.

Since this post is mainly about the garden, I’ll toss in another secret. Whatever you do, don’t visit the Cypress Gardens area when the pirate show lets out. The theater is right by the garden entrance, so people are naturally drawn there. Go in later in the day when the park is getting crowded and the show is still in session. You’ll be able to enjoy a peaceful oasis, knowing that you already did all the major rides.

If you’d like to take a tour of the first sections of Cypress Gardens that reopened in 2011, led by Landscape Manager Nigel Dunning, check out 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.

Construction tour video of Epcot Flower and Garden Festival: Event starts March 5

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Show officially starts on March 5, but I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview a few days ago. I saw what most guests never get to see: what goes on behind the construction walls as the gardening staff busily prepares for the big day.

Join me on the tour in the video below. It was led by Horticulture Manager Eric Darden and Horticulture Area Manager Heather Will-Browne (fun fact: Will-Browne is one of the original Walt Disney World Cast Members):

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Another cool part of the tour was visiting the Soccer Goofy topiary, which doubles as a photo op. It wasn’t quite done during the tour, but you’ll get the idea:

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I also learned in more depth about the Gardener’s Palette garden:

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I hope these videos whet your appetite to head out to the festival during its March 5 to May 18.

Locals’ Secret

This one isn’t practical if you only visit Walt Disney World once a year. However, if you have the luxury of visiting more often, come at the beginning of the Epcot International Flower and Garden Show and then return toward the end. The gardeners are continually replacing plans and sprucing things up as the warm weather replaces winter’s last chill. Thus, you’ll get to see many differences between the start and finish.

Orlando water parks: When tourists have the advantage over locals

Moderate crowd at Typhoon Lagoon.

Moderate crowd at Typhoon Lagoon.

I love living near Walt Disney World and the other theme parks. It means I can pop over any time I want, and I’ve also learned all the little tips that give locals an advantage over tourists. Unfortunately, I’ve also learned that there are some ways in which a tourist will always outdo me because they have a distinct advantage. For example, let’s take water parks. Northern U.S. and European tourists in the winter can swim and ride the water slides with impunity while Floridians watch and shiver from the sidelines.

I love living in Florida, especially at times like this winter when the rest of the country has gone through an obnoxious among of cold and snow. I lived in Chicago long enough to appreciate sunshine and palm trees when my old stomping grounds are battling below zero temperatures in a barren, snowy wasteland. That also means that my body has adapted, and my once thick northern blood has thinned out to the consistency of cherry Kool-Aid. It’s a good thing I don’t have to deal with the cold any more because I physically can’t.

A Different Concept of Warmth

Peaceful day at Aquatica.

Peaceful day at Aquatica.

Meanwhile, tourists from the north flock to Orlando, step off the plane into temperatures in the 70s or 60s, and sigh, “Oh, that warmth feels so good!” I’m in a jacket, and they’re running around in shorts and tank tops. Just as I could once comfortably swim when the outside air was 75, or maybe even a little cooler, they flock to Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, Wet ‘N Wild, and Aquatica and enjoy low crowds and practically non-existent lines. Their experience is limited only by the number of times their legs can handle the never-ending staircases.

If you’re a tourist and you hate me for being able to spontaneously head out to the theme parks any time I get the notion, now is the time to get your revenge. I love water parks, but they won’t be happening for me for another month or two. Laugh at me as you bounce around in the wave pool or zip down the twists and turns of a water slide. Make sport of my zero resistance to the cold as you sun yourself in a skimpy swimsuit. Know that I might be good at avoiding the crowds at almost all the theme parks, but my hands are tied when it comes to water. I’ll be there with the massive summer crowds because there’s no way I can compete with hearty Northern blood anymore.

Locals’ Secret

Wet 'N Wild has an express pass.

Wet ‘N Wild has an express pass.

So what if you can’t visit Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, Wet ‘N Wild, or Aquatica in the summer? What if you want to visit the water park at Legoland Florida that’s only open in the peak season? I’ll let you in on my secrets for minimizing the damage. First, get to the park before it opens. Not at opening time, but before. That way, you won’t kill valuable time waiting in a line forever for a locker, and you can stake out a decent spot if you want a chair. Then break butt to get to the back of the park while everyone else is saying, “Shiny!” as they’re drawn to the rides in the front.

If you’re not an early bird, visit the water parks at the end of the day. Exhausted, sunburned tourists leave in droves after a long hot, day, so the last hour or two are often virtually deserted except for locals who know this little trick. You’ll pack as many premium rides into that short time as you would in an entire midday peak time visit.

If you’re visiting Wet ‘N Wild and you have a little extra money to spend, opt for an express pass. This park is the only one that offers this handy dandy concept. It slashes your waits, even on the busiest days, because you get to use a special line just like FastPass at Walt Disney World or the express lines at Universal.

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.

How to enjoy the last weekend of SeaWorld Bands Brew and BBQ

b62Next weekend is the last weekend of Bands Brew & BBQ at SeaWorld Orlando. Alas, the park hasn’t announced the last two acts, which will finish up the season on Saturday, March 8, and Sunday, March 9, because “Blackfish” keyboard slacktivists bombard the artists’ Facebook pages with copy-and-paste rantings. They should be announced soon, and in the meantime, here are a few tips from a local to help you get maximum enjoyment:

If it’s a no-miss band for you, buy the VIP package. Yes, I know you don’t want to shell out more money on top of your ticket, but you get a meal as well as the VIP seats. If you were planning to eat anyway, it’s like buying a meal and getting your seat as a bonus.

If you don’t do it, expect to stake out a spot at least 90 minutes before the shore, and possibly more like two hours or more if it turns out to be a hot act. Really, though, it’s not so bad staking out your spot at Bayside if you don’t want to pay extra. If you have multiple people, you can take turns holding seats and going for food, beer, or restroom breaks (there are potties right across the way). But if you don’t want to waste all that time when you could be enjoying the park, pop for the VIP perks.

b60Get to the park early. No, the Bands Brew & BBQ area doesn’t open until 11:30, but you’ll get a chance to see Shamu Up Close. That experience will end once the Shamu Stadium rehab is done, so you really should catch it before then. There’s no firm date, but the stadium is likely to reopen around April.

Meanwhile, the trainers do periodic sessions throughout the day in the Dine With Shamu area, which has been temporarily repurposed as Shamu Up Close. The back of the park opens at 10 a.m., and I was one of the first over there on Sunday, March 2. I saw a weighing session as soon as I arrived, and 45 minutes later they did a full-blown training session. There’s no set schedule, so it’s all luck of the draw. Even if you don’t come for Bands Brew & BBQ, get over to SeaWorld before this great experience ends.

Eat early and sit in Ports of Call. The BBQ lines get longer as it gets closer to lunch time, and they continue to swell as people arrive later in the day for the concert. Don’t bother to fight for a table on the main drag once you have your food. Go across the way to Ports of Call, where there is plenty of seating, as well as activities for the kids. Many people don’t even realize it’s there, but the locals head right for it. They bring out animal ambassadors like eagles and gators in Ports of Call throughout the day, too.

b61Those tips should help you have a smooth and enjoyable experience. Plan to spend some time in the Bands Brew & BBQ area, as there are live bands on the small stage, appearances by Shamu and other characters, dancing, comedy, and merchandise kiosks. If you buy the craft beer sampler, you’ll also spend lots of time deciding which beers to down (hint: go for the maple).

With only one more weekend to go, it’s important to maximize your time. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather on March 8 and 9, get to the park early on one or both days, and have fun like a local!

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.

Secret sneak previews at Walt Disney World

One of the best things about being a local who lives in the shadow of the mouse is the opportunity to see things early at Walt Disney World. The tourists will flock to the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival when it starts on March 5th, but those of us in the know have already seen many of the topiaries and flower gardens.

Obviously, with a festival of that scope, Disney can’t toss it together overnight. Instead, it’s a work in progress, with preparation that starts early and literally continues until the opening day. Thus, right now you can see some of the classic topiaries, like Winnie the Pooh…

…Captain Hook…


…and Lady and the Tramp.


Better yet, you can get a sneak preview of some of this year’s brand new offerings. For example, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are already out in Germany, and they’ve got a never-before-seen level of facial detail.


b54Kermit and Missy Piggy are already on display, too. This is the first time the Muppets have been represented in topiary form. Muppets fans can thank the fortuitous timing of the new movie, “Muppets Most Wanted,” which is slated for a March 21st release. The duo is sure to prove popular, which will hopefully pave the way for more Muppet displays in the future.

You never know which topiaries will be out early, but if you’re in the Orlando area at any point before the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, I highly recommend trying your luck and popping over to check it out.

Locals’ Secret

You’re probably reading this blog in the hope that I’ll give out some of my locals’ secrets. I don’t want to give away everything, but I do have a great tip that’s related to the early Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival displays. You’ve probably heard about the insane crowds that flock the Magic Kingdom to see the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve fireworks every year. Did you know that Disney usually runs those displays a day early, too? Shhhhh, don’t tell anyone, but you’ll probably get to see the same show if you visit on July 3rd or December 30th. Then spend the actual holiday someplace a little saner and less crowded.

You’re welcome.

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. Email comments and story ideas to