Archive For The “Disney” Category
Chef Mickey’s Character Dining at Disney’s Contemporary Resort
My Grandson, Apollo, was turning 3 years old and I wanted something spectacular and memorable to mark this special occasion. As Florida residents and Disney Annual Passholders, we frequently take him with us to the Disney theme parks. We have been ever since he was 9 months old. So simply attending Magic Kingdom (his favorite) or Animal Kingdom wasn’t unique enough. It had to be a little more unusual — something as remarkable as the Disney Parks but distinctively different. We wanted him to know this day was not the same as our usual visits to Disney. After all, it’s not every day a toddler turns three, is it?
We opted for a Disney Character Brunch at Chef Mickey’s inside the Contemporary Resort Hotel. Hubby and I love the California Grill on the 15th floor of this hotel; in fact, it’s one of our favorite fine-dining restaurants on Disney property. But, certainly Chef Mickey’s would be very different then the award-winning exquisite cuisine experienced in their signature dining spot high atop Seven Seas Lagoon. We knew there would be no comparison, but hoped, and even expected, Chef Mickey’s to be just as noteworthy. The following Review reveals whether this popular Disney restaurant met our expectations.
Chef Mickey’s Check-in Procedure
Upon arriving at Chef Mickey’s we checked in with the hostess. Our brunch reservation was for 12:55 and we arrived at least 15 minutes early, just as Disney recommends. We were given one of those restaurant “pagers” — the kind that light up and vibrate when your table is ready. This one was pure Disney though, as it included trivia questions about Walt Disney World, each with multiple choice answers. The birthday boy latched onto ours, so we didn’t get to play. A small price to keep an active toddler somewhat occupied!
After receiving the “pager” we were told to get in line for a family photograph, taken by Disney photographers. (Perhaps the reason they request that you show up early.) Of course, there’s no obligation to purchase the photos. But you know how that goes. Once you see those adorable shots, you just have to have one. The photo process is the same as in the Disney theme parks. After shooting several poses the Disney photographer scans your Magic Band or PhotoPass Card and they are conveniently linked to your online Disney account where you can preview and purchase them. I must admit, ours came out much better than expected. And yes, I did purchase one!
Shortly after our photo shoot, the “pager” went off. Coincidence or strategic? I’m not sure, but the anticipation was growing for Apollo who was more than ready to see his favorite Disney Characters.
Birthday’s Are Special at Chef Mickey’s
Here’s the first thing that impressed me: A Birthday Card signed by all 5 of the Disney Characters that were present that day was already on our table. Apollo discovered the card immediately and was elated to see who it was from. However, the real surprise here was for me. In my quest to keep an active and adventurous 3-year-old under control, I had forgotten to request anything special for Apollo’s birthday upon check-in. I booked my reservation online through the official Disney dining website, but unlike some other restaurant reservation forms, there was no spot to place a special request. Typically, you are to mention any special occasions to the hostess, who in turn alerts the restaurant staff. But a conscientious hostess saved the day! Apparently, she had noticed that Apollo was wearing his Disney Birthday Button and acted on it, without me having to ask. Kudos to this young lady for her attentiveness. I could tell that birthday’s are special here at Chef Mickey’s, and the hostess and servers go above-and-beyond to make sure your child is recognized.
As you can see, we were also celebrating Apollo’s very first Disney Annual Pass. Children under 3 have free theme park entry, but ages 3 – 9 require a child’s ticket. A milestone for Apollo who was becoming increasingly upset that he didn’t have his own Magic Band like Mimi and Pappy. We chose a fire-engine-red color for him! After our brunch at Chef Mickey’s he was able to use it for the first time at Magic Kingdom. He was prouder than a peacock on Pine Island! In the mind of a 3-year-old, he’s all grown up now.
Chef Mickey’s: Buffet-Style Quick Service Disney Dining
Chef Mickey’s is a casual buffet-style restaurant serving American cuisine in a large open area that is brightly colored with a
lively loud atmosphere. Since it’s a buffet, you can feed hungry kids (and Grandma’s) quickly. There’s no waiting to order, other than the included non-alcoholic beverage of your choice. Our server greeted us almost immediately after we were seated, and took our beverage selections. Service was fantastic the entire time, but that’s to be expected with a buffet. Our server was an older woman (a bit surprising to me in a place with a gazillion hyper kids running loose) and was excellent at offering drink refills and clearing the dirty dishes from our table in order to make room for the next trip to the buffet. We never had to flag her down for anything.
Chef Mickey’s Food Choices for Brunch
For me, this was the weak link in my Chef Mickey’s experience. Don’t get me wrong, there was certainly no shortage of food. And with unlimited trips to the buffet, you could eat till your heart’s content. It was the food quality that was disappointing. For Apollo’s very first birthday we took him to lunch at Tusker House in Animal Kingdom, which is also a Disney Character buffet. I really enjoyed the food there, and thought the quality was excellent. I was expecting the same at Chef Mickey’s, but the food quality was a let down. I concluded that the food is much better at Tusker House but the Disney Character interaction is superior at Chef Mickey’s. Therefore, it boils down to what’s most important to your family… food quality or the Character experience.
Because we booked a brunch reservation we had both breakfast items and lunch selections on the buffet. I really appreciated the separate buffet bar with food choices made especially for children. It included all of Apollo’s favorites — things like chicken nuggets, mac ‘n cheese, potato nuggets, and Mickey-shaped waffles. I particularly liked the baked salmon, fresh carved baked ham (with choice of sauce), and seasonal kale salad. Pretty much everything else I tried, I didn’t like — the spare ribs were overcooked and tough, the kielbasa was also tough, the smoked salmon way too salty for my taste buds (couldn’t eat more than two bites), lobster bisque was a big disappointment (ate a few spoonfuls just because I felt guilty leaving so much in my cup), and I should have passed on the chocolate chip pancakes I forced myself to eat. Hubby liked the cheesy potato casserole and said the peel-n-eat shrimp were okay. But in the end, I would have to agree with Apollo… dessert was the best part of the meal (don’t tell his Mother, but he had two portions!).
As previously mentioned, return visits to the buffet are unlimited, so I suggest sampling a variety of foods in small portions then returning for the ones you liked best. I also noticed there were some vegetarian-friendly foods as well as Gluten-free options. Here’s the link to Chef Mickey’s brunch menu.
TIP: For tourists visiting Walt Disney World or Florida residents staying on Disney property I would recommend Chef Mickey’s for breakfast. The breakfast foods on the buffet seemed to be better, and it is less expensive than brunch. Also, it’s probably better time management to eat breakfast and then spend the day at the Disney parks, rather than have to leave the parks in the middle of the day for brunch.
The Disney Characters: The Main Attraction
As with all things Disney, the Characters are usually the main attraction. And so it was at Chef Mickey’s! There were 5 different Characters the day we were there — Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto, and Goofy (Apollo’s favorite). I was amazed at the effort put forth by the Characters to stop at every single table. In addition, they allowed ample time for each family to take photos or short video clips. You never have to be concerned about your child missing a visit from them. Even if you’re at the buffet and think they’ve bypassed your table, don’t worry, they’ll come back around. The Characters seemed to meander the restaurant in a strategic fashion and were excellent at making sure no child was missed. After all, isn’t that what we really paid for?
Whenever the Disney Characters were making the rounds, it was quite a lively scene, to say the least. At Chef Mickey’s you don’t have to put a muzzle on your child’s mouth. They can make as much noise as they want and it won’t be a distraction to other diners, because their kids are roaring with laughter and ear-splitting noisy as well. One thing to keep in mind is that the Characters DO NOT talk. Therefore, any “Happy Birthday” song requests must be made with the staff who will do the singing, and the Characters will break out with napkin swinging and dancing. This seemed to happen about every 15-20 minutes. Some songs were not birthday related, but appeared rather impromptu. These short bouts of sporadic interactive song-and-dance with the kids were awesome and certainly kept them occupied. Of course, if you just want your little mouseketeers to eat, the dancing could become a distraction, for sure!
TIP: Bring your own camera or cell phone for photos in the restaurant. The only Disney photographer available is the one for the family photo while you’re waiting to be seated. There were NO photographers inside Chef Mickey’s.
TIP: Very small children may be terrified of the Disney Characters (as Apollo was during his 1st birthday at Tusker House). For little kids they’re so much bigger in real life than watching them on TV. It may help to have them watch YouTube before going to the restaurant. There are a multitude of video clips from Chef Mickey’s to choose from.
The Icing on the
For some people “the icing on the cake” is simply a metaphoric expression. But at Chef Mickey’s it was so much more than that. To our surprise, a yummy-looking “Birthday Cupcake” was delivered to Apollo by our server, Ms. Teresa. (Remember, we had forgotten to request these additional birthday items!) For the second time during our visit to Chef Mickey’s I was “wowed” by their keen sense of awareness of any special occasions being celebrated, like our Grandson’s birthday. Even though Mimi messed up, the ‘Mouse’ seemed to work his Disney magic, and we all lived happily ever after. Well, you get the idea, right? The only way Chef Mickey’s could go from good to great, was by making a BIG deal over Apollo’s 3rd birthday… and they surpassed our expectations in that regard.
Ms. Teresa brought the cupcake to Apollo, then proceeded to light the candle. It didn’t matter that he didn’t like it (the icing was lemon flavored, somewhat tart for a toddler, I suppose). Pappy enjoyed eating the cupcake along with the decorative chocolate Mickey-ears, while Apollo had a blast playing with the “candy confetti!”
While the food is not fantastic and the prices are pure Disney (fantastically high), to see the non-stop smile on Apollo’s face and hear his contagious giggling with frequent outbursts of laughter, was priceless! That said, it was worth every penny AND a return visit!
A Few More Tips…
TIP: Because of the popularity of this Disney Character Dining experience, it books up quickly. But even if the reservation system indicates it is totally booked, don’t give up. I recommend checking several times a day (both online and by calling). With Disney Dining there are always cancellations. I made our reservations only a few days before we went!
TIP: If you’re driving to the Contemporary Resort to have brunch at Chef Mickey’s, please note that free valet parking is NOT included (as it is with some Disney restaurants). We paid $25 to valet park and an additional $5 tip. A bit pricey, and I wouldn’t do it again. You have the option to self-park (a mile away), or here’s an idea… The Magic Kingdom is only a short (10 minute) walk to the Contemporary Resort if you’re coming from there. Or, take the “Resort” Monorail from the Magic Kingdom which stops directly at the Contemporary!
TIP: Attention Annual Passholders… Don’t forget to ask for your 10% dining discount. Our total bill for brunch for 2 adults and 1 child was $104 + tax and tip. The $10 discount paid for half of the gratuity!
Have you been to Chef Mickey’s? Please share your experience or helpful tips with our readers. Or, perhaps you have a question about this Disney restaurant. Simply reply in the comment box below!
Epcot Festival of the Arts Premier
Epcot has a brand new festival. It’s called the Epcot International Festival of the Arts. The inaugural event runs from January 13 – February 20, Fridays through Mondays only. This first-ever celebration is the result of mixing visual, culinary, and performing arts inspired by cultures from all over the world. Anytime you introduce something new, there’s always room for improvement. Disney knows that better than any other company out there. It’s a given that future Festival of the Arts will be bigger and better than this initial one, but honestly, they set the bar pretty high — higher than my expectations.
Initially, I thought they probably just came up with a concept to fill in the low-attendance time period between the holidays and the beginning of the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival (see photos of the 2016 Epcot Flower and Garden Festival here). I was convinced it was simply Disney flexing their master-marketing muscles; a month-long money-making scheme in the middle of the off-season. I was wrong!
Color and Creativity Everywhere!
For a moment, upon entering the theme park, I thought I was at the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival. On display at the main entrance was a sea of sensational color — gorgeous fuchsia and purple blooms. It looked like someone had taken gallons of brightly colored paint and splattered them everywhere; eye catching, to say the least. This spectacular burst of color set the stage for what was to come at the Festival of the Arts; I’m sure it was strategic.
Epcot Living Statues
After leaving the impressive picturesque area just inside the front gate (probably the best “selfie” spot in the entire park), I couldn’t wait to encounter the next “wow” moment at the Festival of the Arts. I didn’t have to wait long. There was live entertainment at the Fountain View Stage and Plaza in Future World. Well, maybe “live” isn’t the best word to describe it. There were three different life-size cast figures expertly sculpted; one in silver, the next in gold, and the third in a bronze material. A large crowd had gathered around the human representations, so of course I had to investigate the reason for their popularity. Turns out the statuaries were alive and breathing. Well, I never seen them blink or utter a word, but I know real blood was running through their veins because I did see them move at times.
Long lines had formed by families who watched in awe as the statues came to life. Sporadically they would interact with guests posing for photos. Every now and then the calculated moves were downright hilarious. The living statues brought back fond memories of the ones that used to be stationed around the France Pavilion many years ago. The death of Epcot’s living statues was a sad day for me, so imagine my joy to witness their resurrection at the Festival of the Arts.
NOTE… The entertainment in this area changes throughout the day. I got to see the remarkable living statues, but you may see a vocal ensemble singing American pop tunes, a festive marching band, a splendid jazz quartet, or a lively choral performance by some of Central Florida’s finest high schools and universities.
Galleries Throughout the Park
As I walked away from the living statues, I couldn’t help but think, “How in the world do they do that?” Some of these street artists pose as statues for hours at a time. Incredible concentration and focus!
Well, I had only been inside the Festival of the Arts for less than half an hour, but I was already loving it. The immense amount of creative gifts and talents in the world never ceases to amaze me. My next stop was one of the Art Galleries spread throughout the park at the Odyssey Festival Showplace in Future World East. On display here was the work of Mary Blair, Herb Ryman, and some Disney Original Art. I’m under strict orders from hubby not to bring home any more artwork, so my willpower was getting quite a workout browsing the masterpieces on display. There was a variety of artistic styles, which made my window shopping even more enjoyable.
Food Studios at the International Festival of the Arts
Regardless of which Epcot festival you attend, it just wouldn’t be as memorable without the creative food offerings that are custom-made for each event; food items that aren’t available any other time of year. We were first introduced to food kitchens at Disney’s Food and Wine Festival, then food kiosks at International Flower and Garden Festival were added, and here they are again at the Festival of the Arts. Only this time, the food was waaaay more gourmet-ish! Each small plate was an edible work of art almost too beautiful to destroy, rivaling the presentation and flavors found in any 5-star restaurant. The prices ranged from $6 – $14, a bit hefty for just a few bites, but no regrets here. In all fairness, each one was quite labor intensive to put together. Watching the chefs work their mouth-watering magic made the delectable morsels even more wonderful. Hubby and I tried eight different gourmet treats; each was flat-out fantastic!
Meet the Artists!
Each weekend of the Epcot Festival of the Arts features different artists. A highlight of our visit was meeting the various creators. Every one of them shared unique facts and tidbits about their creative art skills. To me, the stories behind the art can be as incredible as the art itself! For example, we met Jeff Laibson who specializes in the art of music. Each musically inspired piece is full of rhythm, and emotionally evocative. You see, this artist is also a renowned composer; a musician who has performed all over the world with some very famous people. He later became a professor of music at the University of Miami. His artwork was absolutely amazing, and the conversation as warm as an old friendship.
Then there was Rodel Gonzalez. He’s got artistic DNA from his father and grandfather, who were artists. His artistry, like Jeff Laibson, also became evident in the field of music. At the age of 20 he founded “Side A” in the Philippines. He was the lead singer and the band’s most prolific songwriter. The band is still active today and is currently the longest-lived band in Manila.
When you attend the Festival of the Arts, don’t just scurry by the displays that are not your “style” — take a moment to engage the artist. I guarantee you will learn something!
What happens when you mix visual, culinary, and performing arts inspired by cultures from all around the world? You get a global masterpiece! You get the Epcot International Festival of the Arts! I believe the inaugural event was a success, at least in my book. I’m sure Disney has just laid the foundation of something awesome that will be built upon for many years to come. Kudos to “the Mouse” for producing a top-notch artistic production to fill the void between holiday happiness and those first blooms of spring at Epcot!
UPCOMING EPCOT FESTIVALS…
2017 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival Dates: March 1 – May 29
2017 Epcot Food & Wine Festival Dates: August 31 – November 13
Have you been to the inaugural Epcot International Festival of the Arts? Please share your experience with our readers. Or, perhaps you have a question about this premier event. Reply in the comment box below — I’ll try my best to answer it!
Christmas Tree Trail Debuts at Disney Springs
What could be better than the newly redesigned Disney Springs? The new Disney Springs at Christmas, of course! As a long-time Florida resident, I look forward to seeing the dazzling decorations at the Disney theme parks and upscale hotels every year. It’s a holiday highlight for me. I’m especially excited when they change something or add a new element to an already fabulous festive celebration. Everything the ‘Mouse’ does is mammoth, so I fully expected the new Christmas Tree Trail at Disney Springs to be another over-the-top dramatic display of awesomeness!
But, brilliant it wasn’t. It’s a rare occasion that I’m disappointed by anything Disney does, but these Disney-designed displays were anything but remarkable. Nothing extraordinary here; in fact, the Christmas Tree Trail was quite ordinary! Perhaps I’m just spoiled by the likes of the 45-foot-tall holiday tree in the lobby of Disney’s Grand Floridian Hotel, or the myriad of other awe-inspiring trees spread throughout Disney properties. Or maybe the memory of the breathtaking presentation of the Festival of Trees at the Orlando Museum of Art was too fresh in my mind. Maybe. But given the spectacular transformation of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs, whereby the metamorphosis was no less miraculous than watching a beautiful butterfly evolve from a caterpillar, I envisioned an unforgettable inauguration performance by the trees on the trail. Not an unreasonable expectation from the Disney decorating-Divas, right?
15 Different Disney-themed Trees
The holiday enhancement to the newly redesigned Disney Springs Marketplace area is a free (I know, the words Disney and free usually don’t jive!) walk-through experience that consists of fifteen trees, each one inspired by a different Disney character or story. Here’s a list of the ones that received a starring role in the Christmas Tree Trail premiere:
- Mickey and Minnie Mouse
- Beauty and the Beast
- The Princess and the Frog
- The Little Mermaid
- Mary Poppins
- The Jungle Book
- 101 Dalmatians
- Alice in Wonderland
- The Muppets
- And… one with no name! Perhaps Moana??? I don’t know; take a look and tell us what you think it is!
Christmas Tree Trail Photo Tour
Christmas Tree Trail: Perfect Backdrop for Holiday Photo Cards
It’s not that my time spent touring the Christmas Tree Trail was bad, it just wasn’t grand. The trees were done on a much smaller scale than I expected. Most of them were about the size of my own Christmas tree; 7 – 7 1/2 feet. I thought the themes were great, and the decorations were nice, but most of them looked like typical Disney ornaments that can be purchased in almost any Disney gift shop. (Hmmm, suddenly I might see a connection here! A monumental marketing ploy if that’s true.) Usually Disney holiday trees are quite elaborate — one-of-a-kind masterpieces that you wouldn’t expect to see anywhere else. And very difficult to duplicate. But with a brief visit to the Days of Christmas shop or the popular World of Disney store you can replicate any tree that you’ve seen here, without a degree in interior design.
Another surprising element of the Christmas Tree Trail was the accessibility of the trees. There was nothing around the perimeter of the trees to keep people (and curious kids) from touching them or handling the decorations. I noticed that smaller children really seemed to enjoy the trees. And since there were no boundaries protecting them, families were able to capture group photos while holding the trees on their lap (well, almost!). Perhaps the trees were meant to be interacted with. I didn’t see any “Do not touch” signs or “You break it, you bought it” threats.
*TIP… The trees make a beautiful backdrop for a family photo, perfect for those holiday photo cards. Plan a family photo session in front of each one, then pick your favorite! (Unlike the theme parks, I didn’t see the presence of official Disney photographers, but someone is always willing to snap a picture of you and your family if you ask them.)
During our stroll through the Christmas Tree Trail we were able to enjoy a light ‘snowfall,’ Florida style! The artificial snow is a nice attempt to make the experience a little more ‘magical.’ Far from a blizzard or white-out, it did succeed at causing our hair, glasses, and nose to become snow covered (or should I say “soap covered?”) The day we attended was quite chilly, by Florida standards. The high temperature on that Sunday afternoon in mid-November was only in the 60’s, with a sustained wind that made it feel much colder. (I know, we’re so spoiled here in the Sunshine State!) So, for a brief moment, I envisioned I was back home for the holidays. The faux snow gently falling, along with Christmas music playing in the background (another [pleasant] surprise, as that’s not always politically correct anymore) created a wonderful feel-good wintry moment for my senses. I can’t help myself!
Christmas Tree Trail Photography Tip
Disney advertises live toy soldiers, singers, and a full slate of other additions to the Christmas Tree Trail experience but I didn’t see any of that. I chose to view the trees during the day, as most nighttime photos I’ve seen make it difficult to see the decorations. (I don’t use professional nighttime camera lenses.) And, Disney uses an over-abundance of ‘blue’ spotlights which turns every tree into an icy blue color.
*TIP… For the best photos, I would recommend viewing the trees during daylight hours. Then, if time allows, do another walk-through after dark, to experience the nighttime effects and maybe shoot a short video or two. I doubt you’ll see girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, but you may capture snowflakes that stay on your nose and eyelashes!
A fun way to put a cherry on top of your Christmas Tree Trail tour is a visit to Aristocrepes. Here, you can purchase a Gingerbread Pumpkin Crepe and gourmet hot chocolate. (A kiosk with warm roasted chestnuts and hot mulled cider would have caused me to linger a little longer!) These are special foodie items that are only available during the holiday season, which lasts until January 8, 2017 at Disney Springs.
I’m not sure I would recommend a special trip to Disney Springs for the sole purpose of seeing the Christmas Tree Trail, but if you’re already there, then by all means take a minute to view the trees. They’re a little out-of-the-way, at the far end of the complex, so they are easily missed. The trees are located in the Marketplace section, where the old Downtown Disney bus stop used to be. On the way, plan a stop at World of Disney which is all decked out for the holidays. With over 50,000 items, it’s the world’s largest assortment of Disney merchandise! Splurge on a holiday hat or deck your neck with those infamous Christmas bulb light-up necklaces. With a little forced effort, you’ll be in the yule mood sporting a holly jolly Christmas at the “Happiest Place on Earth!”
UPDATE: Christmas Tree Trail 2017
I’m happy to report that the 2017 Christmas Tree Trail at Disney Springs will be bigger and better than the 2016 premier, according to an official Disney announcement. Yay… as it was in dire need of improvement!
This year, the Christmas Tree Trail will expand to twenty-five trees. Many of the evergreens will be larger than last year’s trees. There will be ten new trees inspired by Disney classics including Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Snow White, and Dumbo.
Definitely worth a revisit for me!
Sound Off… It’s Your Turn…
What was your favorite tree on the Christmas Tree Trail? What does the “no name” tree represent? While visiting Disney during the holidays, would you take the time to see these trees? Share in the comments below, I’d love to know!
Welcome to the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival 2016 photo tour! Here, you’ll get a taste of what’s new, some oldies-but-goodies, what I liked, and what I loved! And, as we journey on this epicurean trip around the world, i’ll share a few helpful tips for your next visit to Epcot’s most popular annual event.
The theme for the 2016 Food & Wine Festival is ‘Taste Epcot.’ The front entrance to Epcot nicely displays the theme, and it’s the perfect back-drop for a group or family photo to begin your day. With a little patience, Disney employees are more than happy to photograph the moment for you, but be prepared to wait in line during the busiest hours.
Although the main attraction of the Food and Wine Festival is, of course, the food — let your stomach growl long enough to slow down and enjoy stunning views of fabulous flora all decked out in their finest fall colors. Sure, they’re not as spectacular as the springtime Flower and Garden Festival displays, but definitely worth a look.
Another worthwhile diversion is a quick stop at Club Cool. If you entered Epcot through the main front gates, you have to pass by it anyway enroute to World Showcase where most of the Festival food kiosks are located. Inside is a gift shop featuring pretty cool Coca-Cola-branded merchandise, along with a FREE (I know, I know, the words free and Disney are rarely used together) tasting of soft drinks from around the world. There are 8 different cola flavors found in places like Greece, Thailand, Japan, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Peru, Brazil… and my favorite, Italy. The Italian cola is called Beverly, and it’s like drinking a non-alcoholic aperitif before dinner to stimulate the appetite. It’s actually a traditional part of Italian refreshment culture. Beverly has a very bitter flavor that people either love or hate. I love it… my hubby, well, not so much! The beverage machine is self-serve, so feel free to sample as many as you like. For me, this is a fantastic place to cool down from the Florida heat and wet my whistle at the same time. Try it, and let me know which is your favorite!
My second stop (right after Club Cool) was the most ingenious idea my husband has ever had. (After almost 40 years together, that’s saying a lot!) He recommended that we purchase a pre-paid Disney Gift Card. There are a number of Festival-themed Disney Gift Cards to choose from. We selected the mini-sized gift card (which is their most popular). The mini card features the Festival logo, and is attached to a wearable wristlet. You can choose the dollar amount to put on the card. We started with $100. There are no fees involved and it is accepted everywhere, no exceptions. Some of the other gift cards have limitations regarding usage. A Disney employee took the time to explain all options and any restrictions.
They’re available at select merchandise locations throughout Epcot, like the one pictured above where I purchased mine. The beauty of these cards?… well, they make paying a breeze! The average price for individual food and wine offerings at the kiosks are between $5-$7. It was always inconvenient for me to charge such a small amount at every stop, and the added stress of making sure I didn’t lose the card. With my new Disney Gift Card on my wrist, I simply show it, they scan it, and ta-dah… I’m ready to eat! No more fiddling in my pocket or purse. Such an easy way to pay!
With more than 30 delicious and exotic marketplaces available for the Food and Wine Festival, one must choose wisely, as it’s almost impossible to sample everything. Our first stop was at Farm Fresh. We almost passed this one up, as the offerings seemed a bit boring — nothing exotic. It was more like traditional ‘comfort food.’ But I’m so glad we tried it. Hubby had the Loaded Mac ‘n’ Cheese which was superb. Made with cheddar cheese, pepper bacon, green onions and peppers, it had a nice little ‘kick’ to it. Nothing boring here! The flavor combinations were excellent and left you wanting more.
I had the Chicken and Dumplings, made with stewed chicken, mushrooms, and spinach. Oh my goodness… I never thought I would be raving about such a simple dish. The sauce was extremely tasty, it was loaded with tender generously-sized chicken chucks, and the dumplings… well, I have never had dumplings so good. They were huge, and literally melt-in-your-mouth. I’m not kidding. I was raised on Pennsylvania Dutch cooking where dumplings are king, but these were the best I have ever had! I don’t know how they got them so light and moist. Typically they’re very dense and heavy. I had to resist the temptation to order another portion! My only complaint about this stop was that the food temperature on both items was barely warm.
Look at the size of those dumplings…
Next stop for us was Mexico. One of those ‘oldies-but-goodies’ for my husband is the Taco de Camaron. It’s a battered shrimp served over a flour tortilla with crispy purple cabbage and chipotle mayonnaise. He loves his food hot and spicy… very hot and spicy! This dish is far from hot and spicy, but flavorful nonetheless with the chipotle. He would have liked it kicked up a hundred notches on the heat index, but still enjoyed it, as always.
I usually pass on the Mexican offerings being we live in central Florida where Mexican food and restaurants abound. But I broke tradition and opted for the Barbacoa Enchilada. Unlike hubby, I don’t do well with spicy food. I love it, it just doesn’t like me. Upon ordering, I asked the Disney employee if there was anything spicy in it. She patiently described the ingredients, and offered me to return it if I didn’t like it. Wow… that’s the first time I was given a money-back guarantee during the umpteen times we’ve attended the Food and Wine Festival. Turned out to be very smart customer service — I loved it! The corn tortilla tasted just like the hand-made ones I had in Guatemala. The beef barbacoa was excellent, and the mole sauce was surprisingly outstanding. And yes, I stopped by to thank the young lady on my way to the trash can. This is one of those ‘repeat’ items i’ll have during my next visit to Epcot in a few weeks.
[***Question: Have you ever taken the time to thank a Disney employee for going above and beyond what was expected of them? Please share in the comment section at the end of this article. Many Disney employees earn little more than minimum wage, work outside in the heat, humidity and tropical downpours, and hear complaints all day long. Oftentimes we’re quick to complain and slow to compliment those in the hospitality industry. Make it a point to give ‘kudos’ when appropriate. We may never know the positive effect in that person’s life!]
By now you’ve heard that one of the most popular Epcot attractions has been totally re-done. SOARIN’ has become SOARIN’ Around The World. We were able to get a FastPass for it so we took a brief respite from lunch to try the new version. It was awesome! Hubby liked the old version better, but I respectfully disagree. It remains my favorite Epcot ride.
Since the heat index was over 100 degrees this September day, SOARIN’ was the perfect way to cool down and beat the heat for a while. But after our hang-gliding experience around the world, we were ready to indulge in our next round of tasty treats. The Wine & Dine Studio is one of the new marketplaces at the Festival this year. And what a great addition it was! Of everything I tried, it was here that I had my number one tasting food item — the seared scallop! I kinda cheated with this choice because I already knew from the pre-Festival tasting event with members of the Press that this was a favorite among the voters. Because of that, hubby and I both had the same thing, something we rarely do.
The seared scallop was served over a truffled celery root puree (something I’m not usually fond of) and brussels sprouts with wild mushrooms. Oh my goodness… heaven on earth! This dish is worthy to be served in any 5-star restaurant this side of Mars. You have to try it. ‘Nuff said!
Even if you pass up on the Wine & Dine Studio, stop by long enough to shoot a couple of photos. It’s a beautiful area as evidenced by the slideshow above. It’s also one of just a few areas that offer a place to sit your food and beverage down while eating. They have an ample amount of counter space under the trellis for that.
Our next stop was the Islands Of The Caribbean, another new entry this year. This area gets my vote for the most beautiful displays. Lush landscaping and small vignette-type displays feature islands like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica (see slideshow below). They also have a couple of thatched-roof tiki huts with tables to get you out of the hot sun while you munch on Mojo Pork, Quesito or other Caribbean cuisine tapas.
Hubby’s tummy was getting full but I was still going strong. I tried the Pescado con Coco: seared grouper, pigeon peas and rice, with coconut sauce. The concept was great (i’ll try almost anything with a coconut sauce!) but I probably wouldn’t have it again. The rice was too salty for my taste buds (the olives, most likely), and it had large chunks of sausage that weren’t mentioned in the ingredients, which I’m not a fan of. The grouper was great, as was the sauce, but was hoping for a stronger coconut flavor. Overall… good, but not a repeat item for me.
One thing I really liked this year at the Food and Wine Festival was the style of the food kiosks. Each one was a tiny replica of the type of architecture that is indicative of the country it is representing. I’ve included a few of them in the photos below…
Our final stop was at Brazil — not because we wanted this culinary adventure to end, but because our bellies were busting at the seams! We had done our homework and looked over a listing of each food item in advance of our visit. We had a good idea of what we wanted to sample before we even got there. Since we attend the Food and Wine Festival multiple times each year, we limit our food to 5 or 6 countries during each visit. With great anticipation we were looking forward to trying the crispy pork belly with black beans and tomato at Brazil. Once again, hubby and I ordered the same thing.
I have fond memories of the very first time I had crispy pork belly. It was at Disney, at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood Studios. Gosh, that had to be about 10+ years ago. It was so incredible, it became the gold standard by which I measure every crispy pork belly appetizer I try. None has ever compared to that first experience. That’s why I was so excited to sample it at Epcot. Hubby and I both agreed that although it was great, it was not phenomenal as I was expecting. I thought it was a little too lean. I mean, come on… if you’re gonna have pork belly, then pork fat should rule! Despite my criticism, some people we chatted with said it was the best item at the Festival, in their opinion.
To end our epicurean tour around the world, we chose to have dessert in Norway, rather than a food kiosk from the Festival. The Kringla Bakery is a permanent part of the World Showcase at Epcot and we love the berry cream puffs from there. Plus, it was another opportunity to go inside to escape the blazing hot sun.
The berry cream puff was the perfect ending to a perfect day at Epcot’s International Food and Wine Festival. Interested in the cost of today’s tasting tour? Well, for everything i’ve included in this article, plus 2 bottles of water, the price tag was $64.31. We’ve been attending the F&WF since its inception 21 years ago, and have witnessed steady price increases, but still consider this event one of our Disney favorites. Here’s another tip: as locals, we always go on a weekday, and try to get there early in the day. As you can see from the photos, most of the kiosks had little or no line!
Stay tuned for our next visit where we’ll be sampling even more delectable dishes. This year, the event runs from September 14th – November 14th, 62 days of deliciousness!
Have you been to Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival? Maybe you have a question about the event. Or perhaps you have a tip of your own that you’d like to share with our reader’s. Please post your question or comment in the reply area below.
Disney Springs Grand Opening Celebration
The Grand Opening Celebration of the newly redesigned Disney Springs is in full swing. It takes place during July and August of this year. You might remember this newly expanded entertainment and shopping complex by its former name: Downtown Disney.
Change doesn’t come easy for me. I’m the type of person who holds so tightly to my comfort zone I have to be pried away from it with a crowbar. So, I was definitely not a happy camper when Disney announced the complete overhaul of Downtown Disney, a place I had become quite fond of. I liked it just the way it was. After all, I had been attending the complex since 1976, one year after its inception. Then I remembered the multiple rebrandings I had lived through over the past 40 years. It began in 1975 as Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village but 2 years later was renamed Walt Disney World Village. Then in 1989 it transformed into Disney Village Marketplace, only to become Downtown Disney 8 years later. Through every dramatic change in appearance its landscape had become better. Much better. So then… change is good! At least that’s how my analytical mind tried to reason this latest metamorphosis.
Know Before You Go: Disney Springs Has Parking Garages, Parking Lots, and Valet Parking
It was the final day of a certain movie that I really wanted to see, and since the AMC Movie Theatres in Disney Springs had an afternoon showing, it was the perfect opportunity for hubby and I to see a movie and check out the changes to this iconic Disney property.
***TIP: When attending the AMC Theatres at Disney Springs, be advised there are 24 different theaters, with an entire section for the Dine-in Theatres (featuring in-theatre dining, full bar, and premium seats). You cannot get from one section to the other without going outside and walking around the perimeter of the [very large] building. Yes, we found out by experience, and it almost caused us to miss the start of the movie. There seemed to be ample Disney employees around, so it’s best to ask one of them to direct you to the proper AMC entrance.
***TIP: There are 2 new multi-level parking garages at Disney Springs. One is called the “Orange Garage” and the other is the “Lime Garage.” If attending the AMC Theatres, you want to choose the “Orange Garage” since it’s the closest one. Another option would be the Parking Lots named Watermelon, Grapefruit, and Mango, which are a short distance away from the AMC Theatres. All parking is complimentary with the exception of the 3 Valet Parking areas surrounding Disney Springs. Giving consideration to your parking choices in advance will save valuable time upon your arrival.
***TIP: Disney Resort Hotel Guests have access to free bus transportation to Disney Springs from all Disney hotels. A few of them like Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, Old Key West Resort, and Port Orleans Resort can also get to Disney Springs by boat.
Progress is impossible without change
~ Walt Disney
So, What’s New At Disney Springs?
All of my fears about losing my beloved Downtown Disney were unfounded. In fact, for me, the new Disney Springs was ‘love at first sight!’ My eyes bore witness that the extreme makeover was something good and positive, a real game changer. There was nothing about the redesign that I didn’t like. It was pure awesomeness. Here are some of the impressive improvements…
There are now 51 dining options at Disney Springs — literally something for everyone! Whether you’re looking to mingle with Celebrity Chefs or simply grab a gourmet cupcake, it’s all here. From Asian to Cuban to Japanese to Irish and Italian, and every cuisine in between, the choices are truly global. I’ve always liked the authentic Old Havana-style atmosphere of Gloria Estefan’s Bongos Cuban Cafe™ and frequented The Dining Room At Wolfgang Puck® Grand Cafe for its creative Californian cuisine, but now Disney has added even more famous Chefs to the melting pot.
Japanese master chef Masaharu Morimoto (widely known from the Food Network’s Iron Chef America) has chosen Disney Springs as the venue for his very first “Pan-Asian” restaurant. Not only is the food outstanding and visually appealing, but wait until you see the interior of this 2-story dining experience with its 20-foot-long glittering chandeliers and private dining spaces. The second level is a sushi bar and lounge. For a light bite or snack try Morimoto Asia™ Street Food — it’s ‘fast food’ that is flat-out good!
Chef Morimoto showed his playful side when he joined Chef Mickey Mouse at the restaurant’s grand opening to create a 60-foot sushi roll!
Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine
Another new addition to the Celebrity Chef line-up is Chef Art Smith’s Homecoming. If you’re a fan of Southern feel-good favorites like I am, you’ve got to try this one. It features farm-to-fork cuisine with some of my all-time favorite comfort foods like Church Lady Deviled Eggs, Bee Haven Bay Fried Green Tomatoes, Addie Mae’s Chicken & Dumpling Soup, Shrimp & Grits, and Fried Chicken & Doughnuts. Wash it all down with Sweet Tea Shine (sweet tea, fresh-squeezed lemon, and moonshine!), then save room for an authentic homespun treat for dessert… the Shine Cake, a slice of Chef Art’s irresistible moonshine cake!
Chef Art has worked for Florida governors and big names like Oprah Winfrey. He is a native Floridian (hence the name of the restaurant, Homecoming) and a 2-time James Beard Foundation winner. The eatery not only serves up classic Florida fare, but much of the interior was constructed using elements from Florida like cypress, camphor, and eucalyptus. Even the zinc tabletops were made in the Sunshine State and the murals (inside and out) were painted by a local Tampa artist, Matt Callahan.
Frontera Cocina at Disney Springs™
If it’s Guacamole, Carnitas, and Fried Plantains that you’re craving you’ve come to the right place. Frontera Cocina at Disney Springs™ is the brainchild of Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless. You may remember him from the TV show ‘Mexico: One Plate at a Time’ on PBS. Here at Disney Springs his gourmet Mexican dishes are served in an upbeat, contemporary atmosphere and the outdoor patio showcases stunning water views of the blue/green “springs.” Right next to the patio is a walk-up window which is a great place to try some Beef or Pork Tacos or a Blood Orange Jalapeño Margarita without taking in a full sit-down meal.
Another up-scale newbie to Disney Springs is STK Orlando®. Yes, I’ve heard that ‘The Mouse’ has been munching on those mouth-watering steaks! STK is certainly not new to the steakhouse scene, only to Central Florida. With locations in places like New York City (3 of them), Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington DC, London and Milan, tourists from across the nation and around the world will recognize this remarkable eatery. It’s not your Daddy’s traditional American steakhouse with dreary dark wood and stuffy atmosphere. STK Orlando® is a swanky, high-energy, chic steakhouse where you’ll find yourself compulsively shooting scores of selfies to share on all your social media outlets. Did I mention swanky? — Yep, by every definition of the word, stylishly modern and expensive. You don’t have to dress up to impress your date, simply show up!
Paradiso 37, Taste of the Americas
Another high-energy-vibe restaurant addition to Disney Springs is Paradiso 37, Taste of the Americas. The chefs here have managed to create a menu that is as diverse as the Americas themselves, representing the culinary differences found in North, Central, and South America. If you’re not into a fun nightlife vibe with live, loud music, you’ll want to try this one during the day. Although they offer full course entrees, the appetizers (tapas) seem to steal the show here. Don’t be afraid to order several in lieu of an entree. Paradiso 37 is a popular beverage spot as well. Beverage, as in adult beverages. Probably the floor-to-ceiling tequila bar with 50+ kinds is a sure giveaway for that! It’s pretty impressive, actually, even for a tea-toddler like me. They also boast “the world’s coldest draft beer” — a cool 29° or slightly below. Twenty-nine degrees with anything in Florida is a fantastic thing. Although the newly redesigned Disney Springs is extremely family-friendly (like most things Disney), it’s best for the kiddos to experience this hotspot during afternoon hours.
The BOATHOUSE® specializes in steak and seafood in an upscale waterfront prime location. The nautical-themed restaurant also features a more casual outdoor menu with an emphasis on sandwiches, burgers, and of course lobster rolls! Save room for their famous key lime pie in a mason jar or the gigantic Gibsons s’mores baked Alaska for 4. After dinner set sail in one of the Amphicar vintage vehicles for a 20-minute tour of Disney Springs. If classic cars from the 30s, 40s, and 50s don’t float your boat, splurge for a romantic guided tour aboard the Captain’s Italian Water Taxi or the 19th-century steamboat Lady Rose where you’ll enjoy a champagne toast and chocolate-covered strawberries ($75 per adult for a 30-minute cruise). It’s kinda like the exclamation point to an outstanding day at Disney Springs!
May 2016 — The Opening of Animal Kingdom at Night
It’s here… the long awaited opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park at night! This is a first for Disney; never before has Animal Kingdom been open after dark. Previously, of the 4 Disney Parks in Orlando, Animal Kingdom had the shortest hours. Since its inception, the park always closed at dusk. There was a good reason for that — the animals! After all, this park is dedicated to the animals. And animals, like you and I, need proper care and rest. Bright lights and loud noises are known to be very stressful for certain animals. So you can imagine the immense challenge that Disney had in creating a nighttime experience that pleased its guests without compromising the pampering and well-being of the animals. But hey, if anyone is up for a challenge… it’s Disney!
Hubby and I experienced Animal Kingdom at night on June 1st, just 5 days after its debut. Just like a Hollywood Premier, there was much chatter and anxious anticipation from Disney fans, fanatics, and critics. So yeah, I just had to see for myself what all the buzz was about. As seasoned Annual Passholders we have the luxury of choosing to spend an entire day or just a few hours at the theme parks. With a heat index of 106° that day, guess which option we chose? We arrived at Animal Kingdom around 5:30 PM — that’s about the time of day the fiery heat of the Florida sun begins to dissipate. When we went on Wednesday the park was open until 11:00 PM. We had done our homework, scheduled our 3 FastPass+ attractions in advance, and planned on staying late.
The Festival of the Lion King — A Kaleidoscope of Color!
Our first stop was The Festival of the Lion King performance in Africa. I regret not taking the time to view this incredible show in previous visits. I was thinking it would be too ‘juvenile’ for me without my grandson present… WRONG! It’s a 30-minute high energy Broadway-like stage show of puppetry and colorful pageantry celebrating, of course, Simba. The little lion prince and his friends take the liberty to do their version of the story, a bit different from the movie, but hey, the would-be king can do what he wants! There were dazzling dancers, stilt walkers (how do they do that?), gigantic moving floats with animatronic characters, larger-than-life puppets, acrobatic monkeys, and (near and dear to my heart) a fire dancer twirling his torch. [Did I mention I used to do that? No, really! Waaaay back in the day, I was a competitive twirler using multiple batons, knives, and fire batons (have you ever smelled singed hair or fingernails?). But I’m all grown up now, only a spectator with enormous respect for those who attempt such fascinating feats.] Disney also managed to strategically insert at least 6 songs from the film — Hakuna Matata, Be Prepared, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, and The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Circle of Life signaled the grand finale, which, quite honestly, came a bit too soon for me. I thought the fast moving production was magnificently done. Even if you’re doing an adult-only Disney vacation, you need to make room for this energetic tribal celebration. You’ll leave the theatre feeling good… and refreshed (it’s also a great place to cool down!).
Finding Nemo — The Musical
Our next stop in Animal Kingdom was the 7:00 show of Finding Nemo — The Musical, located in Dinoland. Thus far, the park looked and felt just like it did on any of our previous visits, but the sky was still sunny and bright. Finding Nemo is a stage show whereby Disney took a hugely popular non-musical animated movie and recreated it into a musical production; the first time Disney had done that. The show is almost entirely portrayed through outstanding puppetry mixed with colorful props, animated projections, really cool lighting, and under water effects that only Disney masterminds could produce. Now when I refer to “puppetry,” you need to reprogram your brain to think of puppets the Disney way… not those tiny little (boring) hand puppets we remember as a kid. No, you need to envision gigantic, humongous, colossal creations that so cleverly camouflage the puppeteers that you forget real people are controlling them. Two of the puppets in particular were so massive they practically consumed the entire stage. Remember Crush the turtle? Well, he was the cadillac of puppets since he was as big as a car. Then there was Nigel, the pelican, who was so tall his head almost went through the roof. I’m not kidding. It’s a 40-minutes show, unless they have technical difficulties right in the middle of it like they did during our show. Even so, they fully recovered, and after a 10 minute delay the show went on. It’s a great story line with elements of drama, humor, and suspense — I won’t give away the plot, though, in the rare event that you haven’t seen Finding Nemo.
I was impressed with both The Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo. However, if time is an issue and you have to choose just one, I would recommend The Lion King. The non-stop high energy vibe is a bit more exhilarating. Both of them are indoors allowing you to wipe the sweat from your brow.
***TIP #1 For both of the aforementioned shows, because of the layout of the theaters, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house! In other words, you can arrive late in line and still be assured a good viewing spot. Therefore, you can save your FastPass+ to use on busy ride attractions rather than these two shows.
***TIP #2 If you’re a camera buff like I am, be advised that Finding Nemo does not allow flash photography or video lights. While you’re waiting for the show to start, set your camera to nighttime setting (with no flash) and you won’t miss any good photo opportunities. In The Lion King it’s okay to use flash photography.
After Dark in the Park
By the time we had exited Finding Nemo — The Musical it was 7:50 and sunset was just a half hour away. Animal Kingdom was beginning to take on a whole new look and ‘feel.’ It was dusk, and small pockets of lights were popping up here and there. The lighting was not over-done. In fact, some areas in the park were very dark with little or no lighting. At times, it became difficult to read the signage. Several times we asked a Disney Cast Member for directions.
We had some time to spare before our scheduled FastPass+ at Kilimanjaro Safari, so we stopped at Yak & Yeti’s™ counter service for a bite to eat. Hubby had the Teriyaki Beef Bowl and I chose the Honey Chicken. We shared a side of Pork Egg Rolls. By the time we finished it was quite dark in the park and time to head over to the Safari.
We walked through Harambe, the African village within Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. This is where the Harambe Wildlife Parti takes place. Playing on the stage was the Burudika Band, a group of Afro-Pop musicians performing music popular in Africa. Park guests were dancing in the street to their upbeat tunes. Harambe also has a vibrant marketplace and diverse eateries. You’ll notice from the photo below that the daytime crowds had thinned out. In fact, this section was quite un-busy by Disney’s standards. We did not see the advertised stilt walkers, the Karibu Sisters, the Harambe Soccer Meerkats, or the Village Acrobats. I’m not sure if they were not performing this night or if they were in a different spot and we missed them. Again, Animal Kingdom at night is a brand new Disney experience, and like any opening, they are still working on perfecting things.
Kilimanjaro’s Safari Nocturnal Encounter — Highly Disappointing!
We arrived at the Kilimanjaro Safari and took our place in the FastPass+ line. Our wait was approximately 10 minutes, far better than the 30-minute posted wait time in the standby entrance. I had been on the Safari ride umpteen times before, but was excited to be able to view the nighttime habits of the animals. For some of them, the setting sun doesn’t signify bedtime. For instance, lions lounge around during the day, but become more active at night. Antelopes only sleep in short spurts as they’re constantly aware of predators who desire them for dinner (of course, they don’t realize their home is Disney, and not the African savanna in the wild!).
We boarded our open-air safari jeep and my camera was pre-set to ‘nighttime’ as I didn’t want to miss a photo opportunity. Unfortunately, during our 18-minute expedition into the 110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve, we only seen a few animals… maybe 6 or 7 at best. I was certain our bumpy transport through the rugged terrain would yield many glimpses of the rarely seen nocturnal habits of certain animals. But exploring the African savanna at night wasn’t the unforgettable journey I had anticipated. At times, the tour seemed like we were actually in Africa with some elements of adventure and suspense. It was eerily quiet, except for weird unidentifiable animal noises in the distance and surrounding bush. I expected something to jump out at any moment… but, nope! Sometimes the 18-minute tour seemed like an eternity and actually, well, for lack of a better word, boring. That was my personal opinion, but in exiting the ride, I overheard many people expressing the same sentiment. I felt bad for the droves of park guests who stood in the standby line for upwards of half an hour. I fully understand that, just like the daytime Kilimanjaro Safari Tour, everyone’s experience will differ. After all, even Disney magic can’t control the actions of live animals. Even though I was disappointed, hopefully your tour will yield better results.
How Disney Prepared for Nighttime at Animal Kingdom
To me, it seemed that Disney spent a ton of time and money on something that can be very hit or miss. The Kilimanjaro Safari nighttime project actually started 3 years ago. Everything had to be done carefully to ensure they wouldn’t disturb the animals. Here’s a few of the changes they made to the Safari:
- Doubled the animal population. Many of the animals receive their pampering after dark. For example, this is when the elephants get bathed backstage. And yeah, the process is a little longer than bathing a dog! So, in order to have enough animals on display for the tour, they almost doubled the animal population by both breeding and acquisition. They even added 2 new species — hyenas and painted dogs.
- Disney installed soundproofing. For some of the animals noise can be bothersome and even stressful. As you know, Disney’s nighttime shows can be very loud, so Disney installed soundproofing around the areas of certain animals. Soundtracks for their new nighttime shows were played over and over again so the animal caretakers could observe what they could comfortably tolerate. Fireworks were a definite no go! Even though Disney’s other 3 theme parks have them, they were considered too stressful for the Animal Kingdom inhabitants. Instead, they created a nighttime show with floating lanterns and huge water screens called, “Rivers of Light.”
- Special Safari lighting was installed. In order for the Safari guests to be able to see, special lighting had to be installed. The positioning of the lights and the wattages had to be carefully considered. To maintain the quality of life for the animals, Disney wanted a softly lit environment, something that looked like ‘natural’ light. Now, parts of the savanna was made to look like the glow of the setting sun. Other parts are still dark with no special lighting so the animals can choose whether to roam in the light or remain in the dark. (The latter was the case on my tour!)
As mentioned, we only seen a handful of animals during our nighttime Kilimanjaro Safari Tour. I captured this giraffe (photo above) in the darkness. In addition, I saw some Nile Crocodile, a White Rhinoceros, Nile Hippopotamus, Sable Antelope, and a few unknown birds. Unfortunately, my photos were too dark for the animals to be recognizable. I’m glad I took the nighttime Safari to see what all the fuss was about. But honestly, unless I’m hosting out-of-town visitors who insist on seeing it, it was my first and last nighttime Safari. For me, the whole idea of taking a Safari ride is to view animals, and the daytime tour at Animal Kingdom is much more conducive for that!
The Tree of Life Comes Alive!
One of the highlights of my visit to Animal Kingdom at night was watching the park’s iconic Tree of Life come ‘alive.’ I’ve always enjoyed looking at the Tree of Life, the centerpiece of Animal Kingdom, and marveled at the artistic carvings of various animals in the trunk of the massive 145-feet-tall, 50-feet-wide sculpted tree. But this night it was even more spectacular. One of the new nighttime additions to the park is the “awakenings,” as Disney calls it. They are high-tech projection shows that feature short stories (about 3 0r 4 minutes long) of a particular animal. “Magical fireflies” kick off each scene. When you see the tiny dancing white lights surround the tree, that is your cue to look up. The flickering fireflies seem to “awaken” the animal carvings that suddenly come alive and almost appear realistic.
The first was the story of a red fox and its unlikely friendship with a polar bear. (Only Disney can turn a lush green forest into a winter wonderland before you can blink your eyes.) For me, this was the most visually stimulating of the 2 shows. It was action-packed and at times the tree seemed to explode. The second story was a playful deer and bird in the woods. Simply incredible! Disney has taken the invention of projection mapping technology to new heights. I would have liked to see them all. Disney Cast Members have said there is no set time for the projection shows, and in the Animal Kingdom brochure there is no set schedule listed. They are advertised as random, but seem to be every 15-20 minutes. We watched 2 of them in half an hour. But even when the projections are not being played, the bright, almost psychedelic-looking, changing colors on the Tree of Life create continual photo and video opportunities. Yes, this is definitely a not-to-be-missed event in Animal Kingdom after dark.
New Evening Experiences at Animal Kingdom
Disney is working on a new animal-friendly nighttime water and light show called, “Rivers of Light.” A sneak peek into the previews looks pretty spectacular, but the opening has been delayed. There is a temporary water show called, “The Jungle Book: Alive With Magic” that debuted on May 28th. Like any Disney “first” it’s difficult to see it without waiting in the standby line for hours, scheduling a FastPass+ (which was already maxed out for the night we went), or booking a pricey combination dinner/show package which allows VIP seating for the show. Initially we opted for the standby line, but changed our mind when we approached the brand new 5,000-seat amphitheater. Patience is a virtue but sometimes I’m not a virtuous woman! Wasn’t in the mood to exchange 2 hours of my time for a 20-minute show — after all, I am a local so I’ll catch it later.
Part of the new evening experiences at Animal Kingdom include a few of the daytime classics… after dark. Not all of the attractions remain open at night, but in addition to Kilimanjaro Safari, 2 hugely popular ones, Expedition Everest and Kali River Rapids are both available until the park closes. Also, a new full-service restaurant called “Tiffins” has opened along with the “Nomad Lounge” right next door. The menu items look a bit more exotic and upscale compared to other restaurant offerings in the park. A must-try for me and the foodie in your family!
All in all, I had a great night at Animal Kingdom. A few disappointments for sure, but the overall atmosphere after dark was worth a visit. I think it’s especially nice for adults. It almost has a ‘romantic’ feel to it. Perhaps its all the deliberately dimly-lit little alcoves hidden here and there — and really, all the best things in life happen in the dark!
Have you been to Animal Kingdom at night? I’d love to hear about your experience. Or maybe a question popped into your mind while reading this article. Submit either of them via the comment section below! And… have a “magical day!”
Epcot Flower & Garden Features International Flavors from Around the World
Woo hoo… this year Disney has increased the length of the super-popular Epcot Flower and Garden Festival from 75 days to a full 90 days. That’s perfect for me, as I always visit multiple times throughout the dazzling display. Not only am I captivated by the horticultural genius of the Disney topiaries and spectacular bursts of color as far as the eye can see, but it takes several visits just to sample the fantastic food made especially for the festival — food offerings that are not available any other time of year.
During the Flower and Garden Festival, Outdoor Kitchens are erected around World Showcase Lagoon. These temporary kitchens (pictured below) are small kiosks which look a lot like the Marketplace Booths at Epcot’s Annual Food and Wine Festival (one of my favorite events of the year!). They feature delectable little morsels served on small plates that would be similar to an appetizer portion or tapas-sized menu item. Keeping in line with the theme of World Showcase, each Outdoor Kitchen features food from a different country. It’s a great and inexpensive way to try international flavors and cuisines from cultures you may never have the opportunity to visit.
Epcot’s Outdoor Kitchens Around World Showcase Lagoon
This year the International Flower and Garden Festival included 13 Outdoor Kitchens, with most menu items priced between $3 and $8. Hubby and I have gone twice thus far, and spent an average of $50 each visit. Not bad for a date night out, including dinner! Of course, entrance into Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival requires a Disney Theme Park Ticket. (We use our Florida Resident Weekday Select Pass, which is an incredible value for us.)
TIP: For those of you participating in the Disney Dining Plan, many of the food items from the Outdoor Kitchens are available as a snack credit, a welcomed addition to the typical snack choices at Epcot!
Here’s What We’ve Sampled So Far at the 2016 Epcot Flower and Garden Festival…
The Garden Passport: A Great Epcot Flower & Garden Festival Souvenir
A fun thing to do (and a great souvenir as well) is to pick up a free little booklet called “Garden Passport” available at each Outdoor Kitchen location. As you embark on your mouthwatering foodie mission around World Showcase Lagoon, you can have your Passport “stamped” every time you purchase food or drink from the corresponding country. It’s a wonderful reminder of all the delicious goodies that you tried. Since hubby and I are local and attend the Flower and Garden Festival often, we do not usually bother with the stamps, however, we rely heavily on the Garden Passport to pre-plan our dining choices along the way. The Garden Passport includes a complete listing of all the Outdoor Kitchens along with their respective offerings. Each kiosk typically has about 3 food items and 3-8 unique beverage choices.
When you plan your visit to the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival, be sure to factor in time to try at least a few of the Outdoor Kitchens. It’s kinda like gourmet globe-trotting. Trust me, you will not regret it!
TIP: Standing in line is not usually my favorite thing to do, but in regard to the Outdoor Kitchens, it’s not a bad thing. Whenever there is no line, the food is almost always dried out from sitting in the warmers or under the heat lamps. For example: during our 2nd visit to the Flower & Garden Festival we repeated 2 of the same food items that we especially liked during our 1st visit. The Shrimp Tacos from Mexico and the Onion Tarte from France were both somewhat disappointing the 2nd time around because they had been warmed. Do yourself a favor and choose an Outdoor Kitchen where people are waiting in line. The food will likely be freshly prepared and worth the wait!
Hey Disney Foodies…
The dates for Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival 2017 have been announced!
March 1 to May 29, 2017
Have you been to Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival? If so, what was the highlight of your trip? Please share your experience or any helpful tips for our readers in the “comment” box below!
Let the Blossoming Begin, Spring is Here!
It’s one of those dazzling Disney events that I look forward to every year. The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is a great way to jump into Spring. Although everything about the Festival is awesome, including the special food offerings, my favorite thing is the one-of-a-kind Disney Topiaries. They are amazing living sculptures of Disney Characters that are created by world-class horticulturists. In recent years, some of them have been illuminated for nighttime viewing — so even after dark it’s a great destination.
This year, I counted 17 Topiaries listed in the Garden Passport that were strategically placed throughout the Epcot Theme Park. Of those, 2 of them were brand new. One is located at the main entrance and features this year’s theme: Fresh Epcot. The display is called ‘Fresh Food, Fun, & Flowers!’ It showcases Donald, Daisy, Huey, Dewey and Louie. The other one can be found at Future World East, and is called ‘Ranger Mickey & Friends.’ It’s presented by the National Parks Foundation in honor of their centennial anniversary. Our National Park Service turns 100 years old on August 25, 2016.
Even though many of the Topiaries have been on display in previous years, I never get tired of looking at them. Oftentimes, the repeated Topiaries will be moved to a new location with a new backdrop or scenery, creating a whole new vignette. The visual stories they tell, without words, are nothing short of incredible. But then again, Disney is the Grand Pooh-bah of magical effects and mind-blowing creativity.
I present, for your viewing pleasure, a photo tour of many of the 2016 Disney Topiaries. Let me know what you think, and please comment as to which one is your favorite!
Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival Photo Tour
Vintage Epcot Flower and Garden Festival Photos:
Some of My Favorite Topiaries from Previous Years!
Did you choose a favorite Disney topiary? Let us know in the “Comment” box below, and see if our readers agree!
Mark Your Calendars…
Disney’s Annual Celebration of Spring
2017 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival Dates: March 1 to May 29, 2017