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

Quick tour of what’s new at Walt Disney World: Frozen, Soarin’ and more

The Awaken Summer celebration is is full swing at Walt Disney World, with plenty of new attractions to draw in guests despite the wicked July heat. You want more Frozen? You’ve got more Frozen! How about a little more Star Wars? Sure, Disney’s thrown that in, too, along with a brand-new show at the Magic Kingdom. Even Disney’s Animal Kingdom is getting in on the action, with extended hours and new night activities. Let’s take a first-hand look at Awaken Summer and hear from some of the attractions’ creators:

Newest draws at Walt Disney World:

Frozen Ever After

If you like Frozen, you’ll love the Frozen Ever After ride that recently opened in the Norway pavilion. Even if you’re not a big Anna and Elsa fan, it’s hard not to get in the spirit of this creative and clever boat trip through Arendelle. The sisters also have a brand new spot to greet guests in their Sommerhus. It’s almost as much fun soaking in the queue line details as it is to meeting them. Here’s what Lauren Niederhiser of Walt Disney World Imagineering has to say about creating these new attractions:

And how about a ride on Frozen Ever After?

Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular

The Star Wars fireworks at Disney’s Hollywood Studios just got bigger and better than ever, with the addition of new pyrotechnics, lasers, and a projection show. Michael Roddy shares some insider info. on what it took to put the show together:

And here’s the show, although video doesn’t do it justice:

Soarin’ Around the World

Soarin’ has outgrown California. Now it takes riders on an epic adventure around the world, swooping over famous spots in places like France, India, and China (and you’ll love the ending). Art Director Jason Grants talks about the filming in the video below, which also has a ride clip from this new Walt Disney World attraction:

Animal Kingdom After Dark

If you’re a fan of the new ‘Jungle Book’ movie, head over to Disney’s Animal Kingdom for a limited engagement live show on Discovery River. It combines live performers and water effects to bring the most popular songs to life, as you can see in the video below:

While the ‘Jungle Book’ show will only be around until fall, the Tree of Life will continue to awaken every night, this summer and beyond. It has several different shows, with no scheduled times, so keep your eyes open whenever you’re in the vicinity. Meanwhile, get a sampling below:

And last but not least, it wouldn’t be Walt Disney World if Mickey Mouse didn’t have his own special Awaken Summer attraction. He stars in Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire at the Magic Kingdom, along with some favorite Disney friends. Want to know who? You’ll meet them all in this video of the show:

 

 

Join me on a Big Sky adventure in Helena, Montana

Montana is known as ‘big sky country’ and is nicknamed the treasure state, and starting next weekend you can join me on a journey to discover some of those treasures.

Although I usually cover the Central Florida attractions, I love to venture beyond the Sunshine State and share my travels to places from Canada to the Caribbean. This time around, I’m visiting Helena, Montana, where I’ll explore the cultural side of the city. Montana is a place of beauty, and I’ll most certainly be soaking that in, but I’ll also be immersing myself in the city’s history, art, and music.

Sampler of Helena, Montana, adventures

My trip reports will start next weekend, but here’s a sneak peek at some of the experiences I’ll be sharing:

Symphony Under the Stars: Each year, the Helena Symphony Orchestra plays on outdoor concert that draws a crowd of 15,000+ who stake out spots a day in advance to hear the music and marvel at the fireworks finale. Next weekend I’ll witness the show firsthand. It’s got a Broadway theme for 2016, with music from shows like “Wicked” and “Les Miserables.”

The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts: Brickmaker Archie Bray created this foundation back in 1951, and its on the National Register of Historic Places. Nestled in the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountain foothills, it’s a gathering place for artists who work in the ceramic medium. You can learn more about it in the video below:

The Montana Historical Museum: Although I’ve traveled out west quite a bit, Montana is a new state for me. I’m looking forward to learning more about its rich history at the museum.

The Holter Museum of Art: In addition to its modern art exhibition, this museum provides a place for the community to learn about art, including hands on programs.

4Cathedral of St. Helena: This magnificent cathedral dates back to the early 1900s. It was completed in 1918 and restored in the 1930s after a devastating earthquake. One of its notable features is its stained glass windows, which were imported from Bavaria, one of which its pictured at right. The cathedral underwent a large scale renovation in 2002 and is currently open for tours in addition to still functioning as a house of worship.

Tizer Botanic Gardens: Nature plays a big role in Montana’s beauty, and Tizer Botanic Gardens is a spot to soak it in. Tizer features rose, herb, vegetable, begonia and wildflower gardens, along with a gazebo and a secret garden on the banks of Prickley Pear Creek.

Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour: While much of my visit will center around art and culture, no trip to Montana is complete without marveling at the mountains and a chance to spot the region’s diverse wildlife. I’ll get that opportunity on the Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour.

That’s just a small sampling of the adventures that lie ahead in Helena, Montana, visit my blog starting next weekend for photos, videos, and full reports of my adventures discovering the treasures of the American west.

 

Cobra’s Curse kicks off its first summer at Busch Gardens Tampa

The Cobra’s Curse roller coaster is open for business at Busch Gardens Tampa, literally taking its riders for a spin after hauling them 70 feet via a unique elevator-style lift. It goes backwards, forwards, and ’round and ’round for an exhilarating (if somewhat dizzy) experience.

Can’t make it out to Tampa yet? Take a spin on Cobra’s Curse to get a flavor for this unique and highly themed experience:

Did that whet your appetite and pique your curiosity? These three videos will give you some insight into the Cobra’s Curse coaster’s design. First up, Busch Gadens Tampa President Jim Dean:

Next up: Brian Morrow, Vice President of Theme Park Experience Design:

And finally, Jeff Hornick, Director, Design & Engineering:

If you;re afraid of snakes, you’re probably telling yourself, “It’s all good, That giant cobra looming over the ride isn’t real.” Maybe not, but the video below shows why people with ophidiophobia. might want to be cautious around this new attraction. It has many resident reptiles living in their own special habitat:

Cobra’s Curse is a Game Changer

Busch Gardens Tampa is a great spot for roller coaster enthusiasts, with classics like Cheetah Hunt, ShieKra, and Montu, but Cobra’s Curse ups the game. It’s a unique experience that makes it well worth the journey to Tampa this summer. It’s just over an hour from the Orlando attractions area, with most of the ride on I-4 west. Busch Gardens Tampa combines its rides and shows with natural animal habitats, including a vast Savannah, that make for a nice break from the thrill rides if you need some down time. Head out to Tampa and make a day of it; if you arrive at park opening time, you can head to Cobra’s Curse first to avoid the long lines that come with the later crowds, then enjoy the rest of your day at the park’s other attractions.

 

 

 

Take a sneak peek at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

The 2016 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is a little more than two months away, but you can get a sneak preview of the tantalizing dishes coming to the park this fall by watching the video below:

The preview in the video took place at a special Tables in Wonderland event offering an early sampling of Epcot International Food and Wine Festival tastes. Not only did it cover food, but it also offered a taste of the festival wines, including mango and pineapple varieties (my two favorites). If you’re more of a beer person, you’ll find plenty of craft beers at the event, too:

And yes, the popular concerts are returning, along with Eat to the Beat dining packages. The only thing better than seeing your favorite artists right at Walt Disney World is having a reserved concert seat after enjoying a feast:

As always, 2016 is bringing a host of special seminars, dinners, and other dining experiences to Walt Disney World during the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. Some take place in the parks, while others are offsite at resort venues. You’ll learn about some of them in the video below. If they sound tempting, be up bright and early on July 21 because that’s when bookings begin. Be prepared to book fast because the most popular events, like Party for the Senses, book up almost instantaneously.

Spontaneity is Fine at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

Of course, you’ll have plenty of fun even if you just come out to Epcot with no special event bookings and even no plan. Just bring a hefty appetite, have a budget in mind, and start grazing your way around Future World and World Showcase. Free, handy event passports are available at the front gates if you need some guidance as you stroll along, tasting whatever strikes your fancy. You’ll have until November 14 to nosh on all the goodies. Then the countdown starts to the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival next spring.

 

 

Take POV ride on Mako: New SeaWorld coaster opens on June 10

Mako, the brand-new shark themed roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando is set for a June 10 opening, and test runs are going well. If you’re wondering what the new coaster will be like (and are trying to decide whether your nerves are steely enough to challenge it), check out this POV footage from one of the test runs:

As you can see, it’s just about done, but the site is still undergoing a transformation into a tribute to sharks. If you’d like to go on a construction tour, the two videos below take you behind the scenes:

Brian Morrow:

Mike Denninger:

If your excitement is stoked, head out to SeaWorld Orlando this summer. Plan to arrive early; Mako is sure to be the must-do ride.

Meet Darlene Love as she prepares for Epcot shows this weekend

Music legend Darlene Love plays at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival this weekend. The dynamic performer will take the stage three times a night (5:30, 6:45, and 8 p.m.) on Saturday and Sunday.

If you’re familiar with Love’s career, you know it dates back nearly 60 years, to the days of Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound. The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer is also an actress, too. You may have seen her on the stage, but she’s also been on the big screen in all four Lethal Weapon movies.

Love talks about acting, singing, working with big names, and visiting Walt Disney World in the video interview below, where she graciously takes time out of her busy schedule to chat:

At the end of the video, you’ll see some clips of her high energy performance. That lady can move!

Love is one of the last performers as the festival winds down, closing out its 2016 season on May 30. Next week, see Night Ranger May 20 to 22, followed by the Spinners May 27 to 30.

The music is great, but don’t forget that the festival is packed with topiaries, flowers, butterflies, educational seminars, and much more. Make it out for one last weekend before the countdown to the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival starts on September 14.

Celebrating Avocado Mexican Grill – Authentic food in Celebration

a1Celebration, Florida, is home to an eclectic mix of restaurants, from authentic Boston (I’m looking at you, Town Tavern) to amazing Thai (love me some Thai Tani) to the Cuban flair at the Columbia.

There’s one spot on Bloom Street, just past Starbucks and near the hotel, that’s never been able to find its identity as an eatery…until now. In the past, it’s gone through incarnations as a British tea room, Irish pub, and European bistro before taking a stab at Mexican cuisine as Avocado Mexican Grill. That attempt received a lukewarm reception, but instead of folding up its tents, the grill joined forces with some personnel from a Kissimmee Mexican dining powerhouse and transformed this modest restaurant into something truly authentic.

Trying Out the New Kid in Town

I had the pleasure of trying out the all-new Avocado Mexican Grill at its Cinco de Mayo opening. I’m very familiar with El Tenampa, the Mexican restaurant on East 192 from which it draws its new expertise, so I had high expectations. I’m absolutely hooked on the wet burritos and quesadillas caseras at El Tenampa, not to mention their horchata and aguas frescas, so the prospect of having their style of authentic cuisine right in my backyard was exciting. The question is, could this new incarnation hold up to the high standards of the restaurant that inspired it? I’m happy to say, “Yes! Yes, it does!”

a2One handicap for Avocado Mexican Grill is that it’s a very small restaurant. It does have both indoor and outdoor space, but it’s quite limited. The kitchen has limits, too, but it’s been redone, and a manager and cook have come from El Tenampa to help make the most of that limited space. I’m not a big one for sitting outdoors because I don’t like to be around smoking, but we had a cozy little table on the far side of the bar that served us quite nicely.

The menu at Avocado is much smaller than El Tenampa’s, reflecting the more limited kitchen space. While the wet burrito and quesadillas caseras were missing, there were plenty of items from which to choose. I purposely chose something I’ve had in the past at El Tenampa (flautas) so I could do a direct comparison.

The chips and salsa were exactly as I know and love them, albeit with a bit more heat. They weren’t overly hot, though, and the salsa was fresh and had plenty of cilantro. Yum! It’s always hard not to overindulge, but I knew that I needed to save stomach space for the feast to come.

Bring on the Main Course

a3The flautas were crispy, and the chicken was melt in your mouth tender. The beans and Mexican rice were up to my quality standards (I like the veggies in the rice), and, unlike the former Avocado incarnation, everything was sprinkled with real, crumbly Mexican queso. If I had to give any critique, the only thing I would say is that I’d like a bit more seasoning on the chicken, but that’s a very minor point. My husband had a tamale and enchilada, and he said they could easily have come right out of El Tenampa’s kitchen, so the cook has obviously transferred his skills quite well to his new Celebration domain.

To drink, my husband had the sangria, but I opted to try the horchata and lime aguas frescas. Pineapple is also on the menu, but they didn’t have any on this particular day. The horchata was delicious; lime isn’t my favorite aguas frescas, but it was certainly passable, and I’ll definitely try the pineapple next time I visit. I’m hoping they might expand the flavors, as I love more exotic options like tamarind and guava. There were also tequila samples in honor of Cinco de Mayo, and we learned that a tequila flight will be a regular offering.

a4The portions are a little smaller than those at El Tenampa (where the wet burrito could easily feed two), but you most definitely get enough to fill all but the most ravenous of appetites. Still, I had to find room for dessert so I could compare the fried ice cream. The Avocado version was a yummy treat and a perfect topper to a yummy Mexican meal, enough thought I know it’s not authentic…it’s still a major crowd pleaser.

The Verdict is In

My verdict on the new incarnation of Avocado Mexican Grill: authentic and amazing. Although they kindly comped my first meal, I’ll be there laying down cash on a regular basis. Mexican is my favorite type of ethnic food. When you grow up on the south side of Chicago in a neighborhood with Mexican families who like to share their home cooking, you get a taste for the real thing, and Americanized restaurants, or even Tex-Mex, just don’t fill the bill. I’ll be a regular patron at Celebration’s newest restaurant; the only thing that could make me happier is if sopa de fideo ever showed up on the menu.

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At Cirque du Soleil La Nouba, new acts bring fresh twist

If you haven’t been to La Nouba, the Cirque du Soleil show at Disney Springs, lately, you’ve been missing out on lots of new action. As of the beginning of this year, the show is 30 percent new content, including two dynamic opening acts. What could be more high energy than opening with break dancing? Here’s a taste of the B-Boys, who kick things off each night at La Nouba:

They’re followed by a talented husband and wife team who take to the air for an Aerial Bamboo performance. Meet them in the video below (I was shocked to find out that neither person in this talented duo is from a circus family):

The clowns Pablo and Pablo have been around for about a year now, and they’re still as hilarious as ever. Get to your seats at least 15 minutes before the official show time because you do not want to miss out on their crazy antics. Here’s just a little sampler:

As you can see, La Nouba’s new acts are all a great fit for the venerable show. If the videos whet your appetite to see it, check out show dates and ticket prices on the official website.

See the Willis Clan live at Raglan Road Jan. 19 to 22

temppThe Willis Clan is a family band with its very own TLC reality show. If you’re a fan of “The Willis Family,” you can see them live at Raglan Road from January 19 to 22.

Raglan Road, the Irish pub in Disney Springs, is well know for its entertainment, from rollicking live bands to talented fast-stepping Irish dancers. The Willis Clan takes the stage on January 19 and 20 from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. and January 21 and 22 from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Raglan Road’s convenient Disney Springs location makes it easy to visit, whether you want to catch the Willis Clan or just stop over for lunch, dinner, or drinks. The new parking garage makes it easy to drive over for a day or night of fun. Unlike the theme parks, parking is free, making Disney Springs and its stores and restaurants an even bigger draw.

I’ve seen the Willis Clan at all of their Disney Springs appearances. Every one of the kids, from oldest to youngest, it packed with talent, as you’ll see in the video below. Here’s their little pre-show sampler for the media:

Mom Brenda is the matriarch, and she joined the clan in chatting with me in the interview below:

Even the youngest family members can dance better than I could ever hope to! There’s no way you can watch this family perform and not be in awe of their talent.

If you’d like to see them, plan an evening at Raglan Road between January 19 and 22. It’s the perfect spot for casual drinks or a full-blown dinner. I recommend making reservations as it gets busy in the evenings, and the Willis family is sure to draw a larger crowd than usual.

Even if you don’t make it to one of the Willis shows, Raglan Road has entertainment every day, with bands and Irish dancers. Here’s the schedule:

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As you can see, day or night, there’s something happening at Raglan Road. Add it to your Disney Springs “must do” list if you want high energy entertainment and a tasty meal or a pint of Guinness in an atmosphere that just might convince you that you’ve teleported to Ireland.

SeaWorld Wild Days starts Jan. 16, runs for three weekends

jackSeaWorld Wild Days 2016 starts on January 16, which means that things are getting wild at the park…well, okay, wilder than usual.

You can see a variety of animals all year ’round, from sharks to orcas to dolphins to penguins to flamingos, and of course SeaWorld Orlando has a variety of animal ambassadors for close-up encounters. However, things get kicked up a notch during the annual Wild Days event, when each weekend has its own theme and focus.

The ever-popular Jungle Jack Hanna kicks things off on January 16 and 17, bringing some animal friends and sharing stories of his many decades working with animals. I had the pleasure of interviewing him this year; you can see our chat below:

Like SeaWorld, Jack is dedicated to conservation and is passionate about protecting animals and educating people so they learn to love the world’s creatures and want to protect them, too. That’s one of my favorite parts of visiting SeaWorld Orlando; although I’ve seen dolphins and sharks in the wild, I’ve never had the opportunity to see orcas in their natural habitat, so it always thrills me to see the SeaWorld pod. When I witness their power and intelligence, I gain new respect for their wild cousins.

Another SeaWorld animal that I’ve never seen in the wild is penguins, and they’re the focus on the second Wild Days weekend on January 23 and 24. Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is the gateway to SeaWorld’s penguin habitat, but during SeaWorld Wild Days, they get two days of focus. To get an idea of what’s in store, check out this video for 2015:

The final SeaWorld Wild Days theme is Sea Rescue, a weekend that focuses on the important behind-the-scenes work to help sick or injured animals. You might already be a fan of Sea Rescue on Saturday mornings, so Wild Days is great chance to hear inspiring rescue stories live on the weekend of January 30 and 31.

Most SeaWorld Orlando guests don’t see the backstage area where rehabilitation happens, but you’ll get a peek in the video below:

The SeaWorld Wild Days events are all included with your regular park admission ticket. Just make sure to visit on Jan. 16, 17, 23, 24, 30, or 31 and enjoy an added bonus.