In the Shadow of the Mouse

Secrets of a theme park obsessed local who lives next door to Mickey, with annual passes to every Central Florida park

Disney chefs show their artistry at Epcot International Festival of the Arts

pw2You’d expect the Epcot International Festival of the Arts, the newest event at Walt Disney World, to be all about the visual arts, like drawing and painting. You’d be correct in your assumption, but you’d also be pinpointing just one part of a major festival that encompasses a much wider range. For example, in addition to art exhibitions, demonstrations, and seminars, you’ll find a salute to the performing arts in the form of concerts by Disney Broadway stars.

As if all that isn’t enough, look for the Walt Disney World chefs to showcase their own artistry, working in the medium of food. Epcot is well known for its International Food and Wine Festival, and the Flower and Garden Festival added special culinary offerings in recent years, too. Now you don’t have to wait until spring to indulge in new eats. The art festival will have eight “kitchens” serving up artistically-inspired dishes. I had a change to taste several of them, so I can attest that you won’t be disappointed.

Learn more about the special eats at Epcot

Chef Gregg Hannon shared the scoop on the Epcot International Festival of the Arts food offerings to help you prepare your taste buds for the January 13 debut:

Best dishes at the Epcot International Festival of the Arts

art2Out of all the dishes that I previewed, there really wasn’t anything bad, but if I had to choose just one dish, it would be the mushroom and truffle risotto. I mean, come on, mushrooms? Truffle? Parmesan cheese? What more can I say? I do have to admit that the trio of croissant donuts were a big winner, too, especially the cheese and tuna varieties. The shrimp ceviche was light and refreshing, and the scallops were a real winner for seafood lovers. I loved how the food had ties to the artwork, and some items were works of art themselves, like the colorful sugar cookies with hazelnut filling (think a Pop-Tart packed with Nutella…heavenly!)

You can see many of the food choices in the photo at the top of this article, and you’ll get to try them for yourself at the Epcot International Festival of the Arts, starting on the 13th and running Friday through Monday up until February 20. Stay tuned for more insider information to get you excited about the event.

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.

Disney World has new tours, characters, shows and more this summer

Recently I attended a Coolest Summer Ever event at Walt Disney World where I got a whirlwind look at what’s in store this summer. It’s hard to believe that we’re moving quickly toward the busy tourist season, but the May off-season is almost over and the tourists will soon descend on the Orlando parks.

If you’re vacationing at Walt Disney World this summer, or if you’re a brave local who can’t go too long without your Disney fix, check out these videos for a peek at what you can do:

Tour the Downtown Disney waterways in an amphibicar (seriously, how cool is this? These are originals from the 1960s!):

See the American Music Machine at Epcot (talk about talent!):

New Tour at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (this is on my must-do list as I’d love to learn more about how they care for the animals):

Meet Doc McStuffins at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (your Disney Junior fans will be so excited):

Teen Beach Movie 2 Party (just one more reason to head over to Typhoon Lagoon this summer):

99That’s just a quick sampling of what’s ahead, and Frozen Summer Fun returns to Disney’s Hollywood Studios this year, too. Come on, admit it, you love Olaf!  I most certainly do, and I was thrilled to meet him during the Coolest Summer Ever kick-off.

The heat came early to Orlando, so I’m already feeling like its summertime. The Coolest Summer Ever event just made this official (although Frozen Summer Fun doesn’t start until June 17), so now it’s time to enjoy!

5 things I learned at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is a place for fun, but it’s also got a strong streak of education interwoven throughout the festival. You can learn about water conservation, organic gardening techniques, ways to attract birds and butterflies, and much more.

I’m an old dog who definitely learned some new tricks at the festival last weekend. Here’s a list of the top five:

1) What I’m doing wrong with my bougainvillaea.

Did you know that you can talk to a Master Gardener at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival? The University of Florida sends experts to the Festival Center, which is open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Just walk on up and ask them a question about your garden woes. I’ve been struggling to grow bougainvillaea in a container, and it turns out that I woefully misinterpreted the watering instructions on the tag.

2) How to keep bamboo from spreading.

The Festival Center is also your headquarters for informative talks every weekend. I saw a talk by plantsman/author Jenks Farmer, who illustrated his informative presentation with colorful slides and a hands-on demonstration. I’ve often thought about using bamboo as a screening plant, but I fear its reputation for taking over. I learned about the two types (the clustered kind is more benign) and also how to keep the spreading type in check.

If you’d like to see Jenks Farmer’s whole talk, it’s in the video below:

td13) That bonsai trees go through the seasons just like their full-sized counterparts.

I know that bonsais are miniature trees, but I didn’t realize that they go through the same life cycle as their full-sized counterparts. A completely barren tree caught my eye; I thought it was dead but learned that it’s just a maple in its winter state. Soon the springtime will send it into full foliage again.

If you’d like to learn more about bonsai trees, too, check out the Central Florida Bonsai Club display in the Festival Center.

4) That there’s a special beer credential equivalent to wine.Growing up with a German grandpa, I developed a love of beer. It’s great that craft brews are a thing now and that Florida has so many breweries, as I love to try the many different varieties. However, I had no idea that beer has its own expert credential on a part with a wine sommelier: the Cicerone Certification Program.

I enjoyed a presentation by a cicerone while sampling the beer flight that’s available at the Smokehouse in the American Pavilion. Not only did I learn about the credential, but I also picked up some interesting facts about beer, including the full story behind IPAs. You can hear it all for yourself in the presentation below. The presentation isn’t a regular part of the festival, but the flight is available throughout the run of the event:

td25) That the oldest topiaries at the festival are the Fantasia critters.

I always enjoy talking to Eric Darden, who’s worked on the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival for 12 years and who’s already thinking about what Disney will do for 2016.

Chip, Dale, Anna, and Elsa are all new this year, but I was curious about the oldest topiaries still on display. He told me they’re the Fantasia critters, some of which you can see in the photo at right. Notice how they’re not as detailed as later toparies and certainly nowhere near the exquisite sculpting that gives Anna and Elsa their faces.

I love to compare how the older topiaries look quite basic compared to the amazing detail on the newer creations or all the different colors worked into various displays, most of which is done with natural materials. I love all the colorful gardens blooming around Epcot, but the topiaries are true works of art.

You can hear from Eric yourself in the video below:

What will you learn at this year’s festival? You’ve got until May 17 to find out.

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

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

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

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

Epcot

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

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

SeaWorld Orlando

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

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

Universal Studios Florida

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Celebration of Harry Potter

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

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

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

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

MinaLima (graphics for the films)…

And Warner Brothers Studios…

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

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

There was even a dueling demonstration:

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

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D23 press conference videos highlight archives, future of D23

The D23 Destination D Attraction Rewind event kicked into high gear today, but Friday featured two fascinating press conferences for fans of all things Disney.

The first was a chat with Becky Cline, Director Director of the Walt Disney Archives. Several archived items are on display at the event, and she talked about those treasures, as well as some of the other pieces in the collection and what it’s like to have a hand in saving and preserving Disney history. See it for yourself in the video below:

The second was a presentation by Adam Sanderson and Kristin Rodack of D23. They talked about the future of the wildly popular Disney fan club, including some membership changes. While silver memberships are going away, gold members will be able to upgrade to family memberships that give them the freedom to bring more family members to events. The duo also unveiled the 2015 D23 Expo art. You can see it all in the video below:

The event continues throughout Saturday and Sunday at the Contemporary Resort, highlighting the World’s Fair and beloved Disney attractions of the past (and some that have survived through the present, like Carousel of Progress). It’s just one of the D23 events that you can sign up for if you’re a member. There’s even a free membership level; if you’re a consummate Disney fan, check it out on the official website.

D23 Attraction Rewind is here: Yes, I could easily overspend in this store!

The D23 Attraction Rewind is now in town. It gets into full swing tomorrow (November 22), but I got a peek at the pop-up store, Mickey’s of Glendale, today, and let’s just say that I’m lucky I couldn’t buy anything at the sneak peek or my credit card would be smoking right now. Attendees were lined up in quite an impressive queue, and I could easily see why. There was a variety of Imagineering merchandise:

temp2

temp3

temp4

A great selection of Pleasure Island throwback goodies:

temp5

temp6

Artwork:

temp

Small World goodies:

temp8

And just generally a wonderful selection geared to the Disney enthusiast. One of my personal favorites was the Figment shirt:

temp7

temp1Since there’s a “former attractions” theme, along with a World’s Fair focus, I thought it was especially appropriate to reflect back on my favorite Disney World ride of all time. Yes, I know Figment’s still there, but the original Journey Into Imagination was a work of dark ride perfection that will never be equaled. Yes, that’s my buddy Figment in the photo at right. He’s one of the pieces featured in the archive display that’s also part of the D23 Attraction Rewind event.

The D23 Attraction Rewind continues on Saturday and Sunday at the Contemporary Resort and Convention Center, so I’ll have more reports on the panels and presentations. It’s always such a pleasure to hear from Disney legends and those “in the know” about what’s ahead, as well as memories of what’s been left behind.

If you’re not a D23 member, you can sign up for free for some fun member exclusives. If you’re not lucky enough to live in Florida like I am, or near Disneyland, it’s a great way to stoke your Disney passion all year ’round and maintain that connection, no matter where you live.

Videos show all the Frozen Summer fun at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Recently, I blogged about my day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios enjoying all the Frozen Summer activities. After all, who can resist playing in the snow in Florida, seeing Anna and Elsa, and singing “Let It Go” for the five hundred and thirty-fourth time?

If you haven’t made it over to the park to see it all for yourself, perhaps these videos will whet your appetite and inspire you to run over to the Studios. Just about everything, other than the ice skating, is included with your admission ticket, so it’s a nice little enhancement to a park that already has fun rides and shows like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Tours, Muppets 3-D, and the ever-popular Toy Story Mania.

Below, you’ll find a full overview of Frozen Summer, which runs through September 1:

This is an event that you’ll want to tough out until the end. As you saw in the video above, it’s capped with an impressive fireworks display. If you’re hearty enough to arrive at park opening and stay until close, you’ll begin your day with a cute welcome from Olaf, as seen in the video below:

The two big shows are the Frozen Sing-Along and Anna and Elsa’s royal welcome, which combines a mini parade with a cute little stage show. You can see it in the video below:

Frozen Summer is a great way for Disney to integrate one of its hottest (coldest?) properties into its parks. Anna and Elsa already to meet and greets at the Magic Kingdom, but that park is always the most popular, and it also has the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, so it doesn’t really need any other draws. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the perfect spot to act as the center of the Frozen action. In the video below, Creative Director Reed Jones talks about the event:

If you plan to make it out to Frozen Summer, you still have a while. Just hit the park by September 1 and you can witness snow in Florida, make your own snowman, and enjoy winter fun in the summer season.

A day at Disney’s Frozen Summer: Ice, snow, singing and sweets

b3“Frozen” is a box office phenomenon that remains wildly popular nearly a year after its theatrical release. The Anna and Elsa meet and greet at the Magic Kingdom routinely racks up multi-hour waits (hint: get a FastPass if you possibly can, but you need to do that early). Now the sisterly duo is spicing things up at Disney’s Hollywood Studios with Frozen Summer, a daily event that runs through September 1.

Nope, you won’t get to meet Elsa and Anna in person, but you’ll see them live in two shows, and you’ll enjoy winter activities that are pretty hard to come by in Florida at any time of year, like snowman building and ice skating. Just in case it’s been too long since you’ve heard “Let It Go,” you can get your fix at one of the daily singalongs.

I spent a day enjoying Frozen Summer, and I have to admit that it really brought out the kid in me. I arrived before park opening because I’m no fool: summer in Florida means massive crowds at Disney, especially with Anna and Elsa as an added attraction. Early arrival gives you a precious window of opportunity before the influx of humanity gets too overwhelming. If you plan to hit up Frozen Summer, I advise you to get there early too.

Once you arrive, you’ll get a cute little Olaf cutout that you can use for photo opportunities (and he doubles as a handy dandy fan, too). If you don’t get one at the entrance, they’re handed out at many kiosks around the park, too. As you can see in the photo below, Olaf and I managed to find Sven, or at least one of his relatives:

b2

Since I was there for rope drop, I had a prime spot for the little opening ceremony up on the main stage. There aren’t any live Frozen characters, but Olaf appears up on the screen.You can see the opening in the video below:

Then the rope goes down and the mad rush for Toy Story Mania begins. I thought that Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and the adjacent Frozen Funland might be crowded early on, but amazingly, it really wasn’t. I had no wait to step onto the snowy landscape and make a snowball:

b7

I watched the fun on the ice skating rink, although I didn’t try it myself. Instead, I headed next door for a little shopping at the trading post, where I got an Elsa Magic Band.

I was dazzled by the wide array of Frozen merchandise, from books to dresses to t-shirts to dolls and more. People were grabbing handfuls of dolls and toys (you can’t buy more than five of any one item). Thankfully, there are many registers for check-out so the line moves pretty quickly. I was able to use my annual pass holder discount, which was a nice plus.

b1Next on my agenda was watching the royal welcome, a miniature parade and presentation on the main stage. You can either stake out a spot early or buy the Frozen Package, which also includes special seating for the singalong show and a pre-fireworks dessert party. If you have limited time and want to be sure to get the full Frozen experience, then I highly recommend it.

If you’re not in the package area, you’ll want to pick a spot as close to the stage as possible so you can see it for the show.

Various performers head down the street, and Elsa and Anna pass regally by in a horse drawn carriage. Keep an eye out for Kristoff, too. After the parade, they head onto the stage for a cute little show, topped off with a pretty intense “snow” shower. You can see the whole experience on the video below:

b4By now, it was almost lunch time, so I headed to Starring Rolls, my favorite place to catch a quick bite at the Studios. I’d been drooling over all the delicious Frozen-themed goodies in Oaken’s, so I got an Anna cupcake (chocolate with butter cream icing) to go with my sandwich. The Olaf cupcakes are a nice treat too (carrot cake with cream cheese frosting). And yes, that is a bare butt cheek photo bombing my cupcakes at the top of the photo.

Next, I headed for the Frozen Singalong in the Premier Theater, which is just past Muppets 3D. The show has several advantages. First, it’s in an air conditioned theater than feels so good after spending time outdoors in the heat.

Second, it’s so much to watch all the little “Frozen” fans. The young girl in front of me was vociferously singing “Let It Go” as we waited for the show to start, and I was amazed that such a small child would know all of the words.

b5Even if you don’t know all the songs by heart, the words are projected onto three big screens. The singalong is led by two royal historians who tell a Cliff Notes version of the tale while Anna heads out to find Elsa. I was surprised at the amount of humor in the show. Yes, some of the jokes are a little corny, but I’ll admit that I laughed my way through it. All the best songs are featured, and “Let It Go” is in there twice. Kristoff fans will find him here, and of course Anna manages to round up Elsa for a snowy finale.

The third thing I liked about the show was that it wasn’t something where you have to make the kids sit still and quiet. Instead, they’re encouraged to sing their little hearts out, and they really do get into it. Heck, some of the adults were singing with as much gusto as the kids.

The show is presented several times each day. so get a schedule when you get to the park and work your day around your preferred time. You get to pick a specific time for your preferred seating if you get the package.

b6Being a lazy local, I didn’t stick around for the night time dance party and fireworks. However, I highly recommend doing so, especially if you don’t live close by and therefore don’t get an opportunity to run by spontaneously to see them. You can easily plan to spend a whole day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios or to take the boat to Epcot for part of the day and then return for the night time fun.

Everything but the ice skating is included with your regular park admission. Of course, it costs extra to spring for the Frozen Package, but it’s well worth the money, especially during the insane summer season. If you plan to hit up this event, do it by September 1, as it melts into oblivion after that date.

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.