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September 24, 2016

Shop the Food and Wine Festival

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Those that know me, know that I don't care much for shopping. I know, however, that many of you DO, so I spent a few minutes during opening weekend of this year's Epcot International Food and Wine Festival in the festival shops, checking out some of the event-specific merchandise. I found lots of things that would make perfect souvenirs, or gifts for those that you had to leave at home.

Lovers of the big purple Figment will be happy to know that he has returned as a festival mascot of sorts, and he dominates much of the merchandise. You can find him on t-shirts ($24.99 regular, $29.99 v-neck)

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On mugs ($14.99), salt and pepper shakers ($9.99/ea.), aprons ($26.99), oven mitts ($14.99) and even ornaments ($19.99)...

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And of course Chef Figment is featured on one of the festival's two special event posters ($24.99).

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Figment even graces some of the special festival passholder merchandise this year, like this Passholder t-shirt ($29.99)...

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But it's not all Figment, if for some reason he's not your thing. Some of the other festival merchandise is a bit "retro", borrowing themes and motifs from Food and Wine Festivals gone by.

There are Taste Your Way Around the World t-shirts (the burgundy v-neck is $32.99; there's also a gray-blue short-sleeved shirt, as well as a long-sleeved shirt and blue scoop-neck shirt [not pictured] for around $37 each)

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There are also "Taste" wine bottle ornaments ($12.99)....

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Taste Your Way Around the World housewares include Tea Towels (pair $21.99), Small Plates ($14.99), and Salt and Pepper Shakers ($9.99 each)...

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One thing I thought was a bit different, and practical, was an insulated bottle bag ($34.99)...

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Taste Your Way Around the World is also the design of another 2016 Festival Poster ($24.99):

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There's also a very useful notched plastic plate, perfect for when you're juggling multiple food and drink samples from the global marketplaces. I remember when they first introduced these plates a few years ago -- they were just $4.95. They're up to $6.99 ($7.50 including tax) now.

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If you're looking for a plain ball cap, never fear -- there's a festival cap for you ($26.99)....

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Another design you'll find on a variety of merchangise caters more to beer lovers -- "Brews Around the World." You'll find mugs ($14.99), t-shirts ($27) and caps ($29.99). (No, I don't know why they are more expensive than the other caps.)

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One item I almost always purchase is the Festival Cookbook. This year it's $24.95, and includes recipes from not only the Food and Wine Festival, but from the spring's Flower and Garden Festival as well.

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By the way, Chef Gregg Hannon and Pam Brandon, author of the Festival cookbook, will be on hand for a special signing at Showcase Plaza's Port of Entry on September 27 and 28, after a 3 p.m. cooking demonstration.

For the plush lovers, I didn't see much, but I did spy this adorable Food & Wine Festival Chef Mickey for $26.99:

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Finally, if you want to take home a bottle of wine from one of the festival events you attend, stop over at the Festival Center's wine shop. But if you want something specifically to remind you of the 2016 event, pick up a bottle of the the Festival's special label wine -- both the cabernet and the chardonnay are listed at $22 a bottle:

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You can find all of this merchandise at the Stockpot Shop in the Festival Center. Many of the same items can be found around the other festival shops around World Showcase -- there's one near Germany, one between Morocco and Japan and one near Canada. There are also merchandise kiosks on the bridge connecting Future World to World Showcase, and you may find other related merchandise in the shops in World Showcase Plaza.



July 12, 2016

First Look: Art Smith's Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Shine Bar

by Jack Marshall
AllEars.Net Team

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I took a stroll over to Disney Springs this morning to get a look at the new restaurant by Chef Art Smith, "Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Shine Bar." I didn't get the chance to eat there yet, but I do have some "first look" photos to share.

Main Restaurant Entrance

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Shine Bar Entrance

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Chef Art Smith himself was on hand today to greet new patrons!

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Reception

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Looking into the kitchen

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Dining Areas

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Enclosed, air-conditioned patio

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Shine Bar Area

You can come into the Shine Bar and order a drink (it's a full bar) without having a meal here.

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The Shine Bar offers a limited takeout menu (they call it "grab and go"), but this food cannot be consumed on premises.

The restaurant is currently offering a Disney cast member discount, but no other discounts -- they may honor other discounts (DVC, Annual Passholder, Tables in Wonderland) in the future.

We have the current menu for Homecoming HERE.

Watch for more photos, including those of the food, coming to AllEars.Net soon!



July 2, 2016

Sneak Preview: 2016 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

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Tables in Wonderland held its annual “sneak preview” of the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival for its members this past Sunday, June 26, at World Showplace in Epcot. The festival, which will run an extra-long 62 days in this, its 21st year, begins September 14.

"Yes, we're going to need lots of stamina this year," said Michael Deardorff, Epcot Executive Chef. "This will be a 62-day sprint. We'll have to hit the ground running, but we'll be ready."

Deardorff noted that as the festival has grown "exponentially bigger and bigger" each year, the festival team has become like a machine, with all its parts in sync.

That synchronicity was apparent during the preview, as the various components came together to present a wonderful representative sampling of the new or reimagined food and beverage items that will be featured in the marketplaces (aka food booths) scattered around World Showcase and even into Future World.

Let's start with the food and beverage offerings, which obviously were the stars of the afternoon.

We were greeted at the door with a refreshing cocktail -- Spiked (with vodka!) Orange Iced Tea, which will be introduced at the Hops & Barley marketplace.

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I was eager to try as many of the new food items as I could, and I managed to hit nearly all of them. Here were the stand-outs, at least as far as my tastebuds and me were concerned:

Pork Tenderloin with Cannellini Bean Ragout and a Zinfandel Reduction, which will be found in the Wine and Dine Studio

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This was my overall favorite of the afternoon -- a tender chunk of lean pork atop the flavorful beans, with a hint of the red wine adding a little zing. There's not much else to say about this dish except Yum.

Chicken and Dumplings with mushrooms and spinach, which will be found in the returning Farm Fresh marketplace

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This was a real palate-pleaser for me, even though it's not that photogenic -- nothing really fancy, just juicy white meat with a fluffy light dumpling accompanied by sauteed mushrooms and spinach in a savory sauce.

Grilled Beef Skewer with apricots, romaine and feta cheese, from The Chew Collective marketplace:

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The lightly seasoned meat is accented by the sweetness of the fruit, which in turn contrasts with the sharpness of the feta. I thought it was a nice dish, but my piece of beef was tender. A friend's was gristly and tough, so she didn't rate the plate as highly.

Seared Scallop, Truffled Celery Root Puree, Brussels Sprouts and Wild Mushrooms, also to be featured in the Wine & Dine Studio

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My second favorite bite of the day. Who would ever think that a sweet, mild scallop would pair so well with the sharp, slightly bitter sprout? But it's a match made in heaven, so tasty. Chef Mike noted that to create this dish they took the scallop out of the Scotland marketplace where it had been featured for the past few years, and gave it a Napa Valley twist. A smart move, in my opinion.

Duck Confit with Creamy Polenta and Fire-roasted Salsa

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The duck was tender and perfectly pink, and the polenta creamy as promised in the menu. I didn't get much heat from the dash of salsa that topped the plate, but that was OK -- it was still a tasty morsel.

Loaded Greek "Nachos": Pita Chips, Meatless Sausage Crumbles, Vegan Tzatziki, from the Greece marketplace

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This was the biggest surprise for me -- honestly, I'm not sure I would have known this was a vegan dish if I hadn't been told. I'd just had real nachos the day before (the fantastic loaded nachos at the new place in Disney's Hollywood Studios Echo Lake Eats), so it was interesting to me to compare the two dishes. The pita crisps were a perfect substitute for tortilla chips and the onion, kalamata olives, lettuce, tomato were basically what you'd expect on real nachos. According to Chef Mike, the "sausage" is a Gardein product (Gardein has partnered with the festival for other vegan dishes over the years) and the "feta" is actually specially seasoned tofu. "We think it's an awesome plate. It was fun to do and it turned out great," said Chef Deardorff. I have to agree with him.

Oikos Greek Yogurt Vanilla Cake Soaked in Ouzo with Yogurt Whipped Cream and Pistachios, another item from the Greece marketplace

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This is my kind of dessert. Not too sweet, and a perfect complement to a cup of coffee. Come festival time, I can see myself taking a plate of this dense cake to an out-of-the-way spot with an espresso from one of the coffee stands to watch IllumiNations.

Quesito: Puff Pastry with Sweetened Cream Cheese and Guava Sauce, from the new Islands of the Caribbean marketplace

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I absolutely loved this dessert, too. Crispy light puff pastry with a not-too-sweet cream cheese filling -- it's like it was made with me in mind. The guava sauce was a little too sweet for me, but overall I thought this was a great new offering.

There were a few new items I didn't get to, most notably the Smoked Brisket & Pimento Cheese on Griddled Garlic Toast, which Chef Mike predicts could be the big favorite this year. Calling it an open-faced version of a grilled cheese sandwich, he admits that they developed this dish based on the popular smoked brisket from the Epcot Flower & Garden Festival. It will be featured at the Hops & Barley marketplace, where I will eventually try it, I'm sure.

So, what was the other big news coming out of the preview?

First, you may have already heard that the cast of ABC-TV's "The Chew" (Chefs Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Carla Hall, and Clinton Kelly and Daphne Oz) will be returning to the festival, taping episodes October 5-7, which will then air the week of October 10-14.

Other interesting news was the announcement of several new programs that take the festival out of Epcot and into some of the resort hotels.

• Brunch with a Twist at Citricos at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa

• Culinary Adventures with a Master Chef at Contemporary Resort's Convention Center

• Behind the Scenes at Trader Sam's Grog Grotto at the Polynesian Village Resort

• The Secret of Flavor at Yachtsman Steakhouse at the Yacht Club Resort

We have details on these offerings, including dates and pricing, on the Festival Special Ticketed Events page.

Other new aspects to the festival this year:

-- Eight new celebrity chefs will be appearing over the course of the festival: Maneet Chauhan; Elliott Farmer; Fabio Bongianni; Masaharu Morimoto; Duff Goldman; Paul Wahlburg; Graham Elliot; and Geoffrey Zakarian.

-- Making their Epcot debut, Wang Chung will be the musical group kicking off the festival's Eat to the Beat concert series this year. Other new acts confirmed include The BoDeans, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Living Colour and Delta Rae. (The full, official schedule of Eat to the Beat concerts has not yet been announced.)

-- Eat to the Beat Concert Packages, which guarantee reserved seating for the nightly concert along with a table service meal in Epcot, are now available at breakfast (either buffet or family-style) at two locations: Garden Grill and Akershus Royal Banquet Hall.

-- The former mixology seminars that used to take place at 6 p.m. each day in the Festival Center have morphed into a new program called "Mix It, Make It, Celebrate It!" The program will be offered at 4 p.m. daily and will include other hands-on activities besides mixology, such as cake decorating and garnishing. It will also come with a heftier price tag: $49 per person.

-- The "Boot Camp" concept isn't new to the festival, but the two offerings under this umbrella are. The first, hosted by Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson, is called "Exploring Wines the Mondavi Way," and will celebrate the 50th anniversary of this well-known winery. The second, "Demystifying Bourbon the Jim Beam Way," will explore bourbon production through the eyes of a master distiller.

For a more in-depth description of these and all the signature and premium programs that will be available, visit the Festival Special Ticketed Events page.

In fact, be sure to check out all our Food and Wine Festival pages, with photos from the preview and other details HERE.

Because this was a "sneak peek," we were warned that there may be changes or tweaks to some of these programs, so take that under advisement. But you don't have long to wait for the final, full schedule of festival offerings -- it will be online at epcotfoodfestival.com on July 11, with booking for the general public opening at 7 a.m. July 21. (Some events MAY be open for booking a few days in advance for Disney Vacation Club and Tables in Wonderland Members, Golden Oak residents, Disney Visa Cardholders and Annual Passholders. Keep checking back to AllEars.Net for updates!)



May 13, 2016

Afternoon Tea at Crescent Solarium Disney's Beach Club

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Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

For many years Walt Disney World has offered a popular afternoon tea at the Grand Floridian Resort. Earlier this year the Disney Parks Blog announced a new tea offering: Afternoon Tea at Crescent Solarium, which would be held for a limited time in the Solarium at the Beach Club Resort. It didn't line up with our February dates, but then a new set of dates for April appeared, and Alert Reader Deb Koma was able to book a reservation for five of us for Sunday, April 17. (Future dates offered are May 5-8, June 16-19, August 11-14, and September 1-5.)

Reservations must be booked by calling WDW Dining - they are not available on-line. A credit card guarantee is required.

Since I've had the opportunity to sample the other two Disney afternoon tea offerings this year (Grand Floridian and Steakhouse 55 at the Disneyland Resort) I was looking forward to trying this new one - and of course I can't help comparing the three. They are all different experiences, but all enjoyable.

Lee and I arrived at the Solarium for our 1:00 reservation. We are used to entering the Solarium from the Beach Club lobby side - but that door is now closed, and actually opens into the kitchen! The main entrance to the Solarium is from the walkway between the Beach Club and the Beach Club Villas.

The Solarium is really a lovely space - lots of windows and light. I found it very cozy and welcoming. I think we all found it more informal than the Grand Floridian.

We were escorted to a low table set for 5 people - three on a sofa, and two of us in cushioned chairs. Awkward, because our knees were not under the table and we had to lean forward to reach our plates or cups. The seats, especially for those on the sofa, were too deep, but there were no cushions to put between us and the seat back. That was uncomfortable, and those on the sofa had to sit forward, with no back support, for the whole meal.

Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

There were some traditional tables, but they were for parties of two or four. Any larger parties were at the low tables.

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Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

Our server arrived quickly to introduce himself, offer us water, and tell us about the menu.

For adults there are three different tea services offered: Sea Side Park Tea, Sandy Cove Tea, and Prince Cove Tea. All three include your own pot of tea, scones with lemon curd, clotted cream, and jam, and house-made pastries and desserts. The Sea Side and Sandy Cove teas offer a course of tea sandwiches and canapes also, with the Sea Side adding an additional artisan cheese and fruit plate as the first course. The first course of the Prince Cove is a house-made charcuterie and cheese plate. So that we could sample everything we ordered one Prince Cove, two Sea Side, and two Sandy Cove, and then we shared the extra courses.

I should mention that there is also the Short Sands Beach Tea for children ages 3-9. Also, no discounts are available.

Crescent Solarium Afternoon Tea Menu

We all chose to start with a glass of sparkling wine: Blanc de Bleu Brut. It was very pretty. While there is some blueberry added I didn't taste any blueberry flavor - it was just a nice sparkling wine.

Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

The tea menu offered a variety of black, white, and green teas as well as herbal selections. I chose a black tea named Shanghai Rose: "an exotic blend of hand-picked, fresh black tea leaves, infused with the sweet and sultry flavors of seductive lychee and fragrant red rose petals." It was certainly floral - a little too floral for me. It was fine, but I would order something different next time. Others in our party sampled the Organic Vanilla Rooibos, Imperial English Breakfast, and Thunderbolt Darjeeling.

Each of us received our own tea pot and tea strainer. The essential item that we were missing was a tea cozy to keep the pot warm. We all noticed that the tea in our pots cooled off too fast, and we had to ask for more hot water to warm it up. (Our server told us they had requested those, so I hope that issue will be addressed in the future.)

Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

One very nice aspect of this tea is that it was served in courses. (The Grand Floridian Tea used to be served that way, but now almost all the food items are brought at one time.) The first course for us was the Charcuterie Plate for the Prince Cove Tea and the Cheese Plate for the Sea Side Park Tea.

The Charcuterie Plate included rabbit sausage, "piggy pie" and Bonne Bouche goat cheese. Interesting presentation on a substantial wooden board.

Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

The Sea Side Park Artisan Cheese plate featured Valdeon Blue, Drunken Goat and St. Andre Artisanal cheeses with fruit. Another very nice presentation. This was enough for two people to share.

Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

For the second course four of us received individual tea sandwich and canape plates. (The Prince Cove did not include that course, though Ms. Prince Cove was still working on her charcuterie plate.) There were salmon rillettes, cucumber and cream cheese, Old Bay lump crab salad and chicken curry on house-made breads. Very elegant and sophisticated offerings - which was not quite what I was expecting in that setting. We were all surprised that the bread was toasted - that's very non-traditional. While this was another beautiful presentation I was disappointed in it because the servings were all very small - most of the sandwiches were about two bites. Everything tasted very good, there just wasn't enough of it for me.

Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

The third course was blueberry-lemon and cranberry-orange scones served with clotted cream, house-made lemon curd and jam. The orange in the cranberry-orange was a little too intense for my taste, and I preferred the blueberry-lemon. The lemon curd was really not very good. And again, I thought the servings were too small. I like a nice big scone. These were both fairly sweet, also.

Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

The final course was the dessert plate - we all received one. Again, lovely to look at...but VERY small portions. The offerings were chocolate filled cake, raspberry cookie, lemon poppy seed cookie with lemon curd, and a Madeline cookie with a light lemon glaze on top. I thought they looked better than they tasted.

Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

The service was excellent. Everything was paced very well, and we didn't feel rushed at all. There's something very refreshing and soothing about afternoon tea - I find that it really renews my spirit, and I felt that here as well. It was very relaxing - if only our chairs had allowed us to sit back and get comfortable.

My overall impression of Afternoon Tea at Crescent Solarium is that it was a lovely experience and I really enjoyed the setting and the relaxed atmosphere. I thought the food was beautiful and well-presented, but would have been more appropriate in a more formal setting. And I would have liked larger portions. However, I had run a half marathon that morning, so my appetite was probably larger than it would be normally. Many of the foods we had were fairly rich, where smaller portions are appropriate and (usually) satisfying.

I personally prefer tea at the Grand Floridian - it's a more traditional tea, and more my idea of what I expect from a proper afternoon tea, especially the sandwich selections and the scone course. That would be my first choice, but if it weren't available, I would happily choose to enjoy tea at the Crescent Solarium again. That seemed to be the consensus among my tea companions, as well. It was an event that we all enjoyed - just a couple of things that would've made it even better.








April 29, 2016

Snack Counter at BoardWalk's Screen Door General Store

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I was walking along the BoardWalk last week and stopped in at the Screen Door General Store, just to grab a few seconds of air conditioning before continuining on my walk to the Walt Disney World Dolphin. To my surprise, I was greeted by a long bakery case, filled with cookies, candy apples, fudge and more.

"That wasn't here before," I thought.

But apparently I was thinking out loud, because the cast member behind the counter answered me, "We've been here just about three weeks."

I guess it makes sense -- the BoardWalk's other purveyor of sweet treats, Seashore Sweets', closed a few weeks ago, possibly to make way for the addition of a lounge for the currently-being-renovated Flying Fish Cafe.

The new counter is located near the Screen Door's refrigerator cases, right when you first walk into the store. In addition to the bakery items, there are also slushy machines selling frozen fruit punch and a few other drinks.

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On offer are a variety of things to make your sweet tooth sing: rice crispy treats, caramel and decorated apples, cookies and fudge. Most of the cookies seem to be on the Disney Dining Plan, available for a snack credit. The candy apples are not on the Dining Plan, as they cost a bit more ($10.99 each).

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The cast member couldn't tell me if the addition was permanent, although I suspect it might go away once the new Ample Hills Creamery, coming further along the BoardWalk in the space next to the ESPN Club, opens.

In the meantime, though, if you're looking for goodies, you know where to go!



February 8, 2016

A Different Kind of Wine Bar

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You probably know that there's a wine bar in one of the shops inside Epcot's Italy pavilion. And that you can get a variety of wines by the glass at Les Vines de France in the France pavilion. But did you know that there was a place to try a different kind of wine stowed away in the back of the Japan pavilion at Epcot?

Yes, there is a bar serving up samples of sake, the traditional rice wine of Japan.I think this is one of those hidden treasures that not many people know about, although it's been here for years. Unless perhaps you're a sake aficionado....

Which, I admit, I'm not, but I do like to try new things, and this is a good spot for that.

So how do you find this place? Walk all the way to back of Japan's Mitsukoshi Department Store. If you're standing near the Hello Kitty display, keep walking. If you're opposite the "pick your own pearl" stand, keep walking. Walk all the way back to where you'll find a wide variety of Japanese food specialty items. Items like Pocky, yummy chocolate-dipped cookie sticks, and other Asian sweets. Then, on your left, tucked into the back corner, you'll see it. The big sign that cries "SAKE BAR" overhead, and the little bar where you can sample some!

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If you're like me, and know little about this alcoholic rice wine, you can start by educating yourself with the "Sake Matrix" that's on display.

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This divides the sakes that are available to try into four quadrants, classifying them from dry to sweet and light to heavy. You can learn a little more about the sakes from talking with the cast members pouring, of course, but be sure to also consult the little "cheat sheet" menu that's available. I 've not tried it yet, but I'm intrigued by the description for the Murai Nigori Genshu cloudy sake: "Very strong in alcohol with a creamy confection that can hit you like a ton of bricks if you're not careful. Sip slowly!" Forewarned is forearmed, I guess!

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There are about 10 different varieties on hand, and samples are in the $5 to $10 range. They include the traditional aperitif plum wine, a fizzy low-alcohol sake called Hana Awaka Sparkling, and the award-winning fruity and dry Mu Junmai Dai-Ginjyo.

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There are even a few other alcoholic beverages on offer, such as an unfiltered Ginga Kogen Beer. So far I've only tried the Wakatake, which is a pure, dry rice sake and the Yuzu Omoi, a citrus-flavored drink.

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Many of these beverages, which come in beautiful, decorative bottles, can be found for sale on the opposite wall, so after you've found a sake that's to your liking, you can take some home with you!

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Next time you find yourself around the Japan pavilion and you're feeling a little adventurous, consider taking a meander through Mitsukoshi shop and exploring the world of sake that awaits you.

As they might say in Japan: Kanpai!

December 21, 2015

New Star Wars Experiences at Disney's Hollywood Studios

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Star Wars fan that I am, I have to say that I was thrilled to learn that new Star Wars-related experiences would be starting in Disney's Hollywood Studios on December 1, just in time for my holiday trip to Walt Disney World. I was even happier to find out that there would be a media preview of the new experiences the day after my arrival. How convenient!

The only catch was that I had to be AT the Studios by 7 a.m. that morning. That directive, harsh as it was must have come from Lord Vader himself! In any case, there I was at 7 a.m. along with AllEars.Net Feature Writer Alice Miller, and we were treated to all the Star Wars we could handle in one short morning.

Our experience started as we approached the Animation Courtyard, which is now home to the new Star Wars Launch Bay, billed as the home base of all things Star Wars in the theme park.

White-uniformed First Order Stormtroopers greeted us and other guests asking to see our identity cards. What was really cool was that they could actually talk -- no more mute Stormtroopers!

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We entered the Launch Bay and noted that the old outdoor queue for the Animation Tour has been fully re-themed. Walls are lined with posters and artwork from all of the films in the Star Wars saga.

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After a short wait, we entered the small Launch Bay Theater to watch a 10-minute, behind-the-scenes film, featuring interviews with directors, writers, producers and others who are or have been part of the Star Wars universe. It was especially interesting to me to hear from new Star Wars director J.J. Abrams.

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From there, we had plenty of time to browse the different galleries of the Launch Bay, which are filled with replicas of props, starships, weapons, costumes and more from the first six Star Wars films, as well as some from the newest entry to the saga, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

I started in the Celebration Gallery, walking under the famous tagline: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." In this first room there are ships from the Rebel and Imperial fleets from all the films. From there, I took a walk down the Celebration Hallway, which features life-size replicas of such iconic movie vehicles as a speeder bike and a pod-racer.

As both mom to a Star Wars fan and a fan in my own right, I spent the better part of an hour examining all the exhibits, thinking, "Yeah, I made that speeder bike out of Legos, we did that TIE fighter as a model, we have that Slave 1 toy... " In other words, they really have a lot of cool stuff!

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Finally, there is a Preview Gallery that features artwork and props from The Force Awakens.

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From there you enter the area known as The Cantina, which has elements pulled directly from the Mos Eisley cantina scene in the original 1977 film, Star Wars: A New Hope. For those who don't know, the cantina is sort of a dive bar populated with a mixture of unsavory aliens -- and it's the place where Luke and Obi-Wan famously meet Han Solo and Chewbacca. Appropriately, you can meet up with a variety of characters in this themed area -- our encounter that morning was with a Jawa, a short, burlap-robed creature whose pinpoint eyes glow out from under its oversized hood. Jawas are known to scavenge the desert, and this little guy tried to persuade us (without talking) to give up our watches, rings, phones and camera before moving on to the next visitor. (On a visit to the Launch Bay the next day, I had the chance to pose with the bounty hunter Greedo -- I'm not sure what other characters you might encounter there.)

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star wars launch bay

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Be sure to check out all the little scenes, including the one on the far wall, the Lost and Found, which has some cool props hidden there.

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Just beyond the Lost and Found is the Star Wars Game Center, where you can play current and upcoming video games, including new Disney Infinity 3.0 with content created exclusively for the Launch Bay.

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In the area just below The Cantina (in the space that used to have the character meet-and-greets in the old Animation Building), you have a choice to make: Do you want to visit Chewbacca, the 7+ foot tall hairy Wookiee who is a hero of the Rebellion? Or do you want to take a walk down the Dark path and pay a visit to Darth Vader? I chose Chewie because I only had limited time that morning (and also because "once down the dark parth you start, forever will it dominate your destiny!")

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After meeting up with the Wookiee, we entered the Launch Bay Cargo area, which, of course, is the home for all manner of Rebel Alliance and Imperial merchandise. From mass-market toys to high-end collectibles, if it's related to Star Wars, you can probably find it here.

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This is also the place you can find all sorts of special Star Wars-themed MagicBands, and a D-Tech on Demand spot where you can customize your cell phone cases.

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We eventually had to tear ourselves away from the Launch Bay and head across the park to the ABC Sound Studio, former home of the Sounds Dangerous attraction. The theater now houses "The Path of the Jedi," a short film that mashes up the storylines of the first six films in an effort to bring those unfamiliar with the Star Wars saga (what do you mean there are people who have never seen these movies?!) up to speed.

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The film does a fair job with the material -- let's face it, it's not easy to cram a couple dozen years of film history into 10 minutes. But if you have never seen any of the movies, or if it's been a while and you need a refresher, this film does the job.

After viewing The Path of the Jedi, we sat in on a Q & A session with some of the Imagineers and others involved in bringing these multi-layered Star Wars experiences to fruition.

Creative Director for Walt Disney Imagineering Brent Strong spoke with enthusiasm about the project, and how he feels there's never been a better time to be a Star Wars fan.

We also had a chance to hear from Tony Giordano, show director, who was involved in the revamped Jedi Training Academy and talked about the new fireworks show, "Symphony in the Stars: A Galactic Spectacular."

In addition, Executive Chef Christine Weissman was there to talk about the Star Wars-themed food and beverage offerings, and Steven Miller from Walt Disney World Merchandising spoke about all the cool, new Star Wars merchandise.

(I also had the chance to see some of the food up close, and I'll have a separate post devoted to the Star Wars-themed food and beverage offerings later.)

After the Q & A, we had a short break and were treated to a taste of some of the cupcakes. Alice found that as evil as Darth Vader can be, she could sense the good in him... or in the chocolatey-peanut butter goodness of his cupcake, at least.

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The last part of the morning's festivities was a visit to the renamed "Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple." The show is largely the same as before -- children ages 4-12 are given the chance to battle with enemies from the Dark Side in a cute 20-minute interactive show. The chief differences are the new set, a new villain (the Seventh Sister from the Disney XD Series, Star Wars Rebels) and a new underlying storyline -- that the villains are not real, so that the children understand what they are really fighting against are merely reflections of their own fears. It's a nice idea, but I'm sure if you asked the youngest kids among the group I saw, they would tell you that they were really using their light sabers to hack away at the REAL Darth Vader.

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Unfortunately, there was no way for us to see the new fireworks show, since it only just debuted last Friday, on December 18, when The Force Awakens opened in theaters.

Even without the fireworks, all of these new Star Wars experiences certainly satisfied the Star Wars fan in me -- and I definitely plan to revisit the Launch Bay a few more times to catch all the little details I'm sure I missed. I have to say, though, that this taste of what Disney has done so far leaves me hungrier than ever for the promised "Star Wars Land" that is not even breaking ground in Walt Disney World until 2016!

I hope The Force is strong with me, because otherwise I don't know how I'm going to wait!


December 15, 2015

The Ganachery Opens at Disney Springs

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by Linda Eckwerth
AllEars Team Member

The Ganachery, a new shop that showcases hand-crafted chocolate, opened at 10:30 a.m. today, December 15, in Walt Disney World's Disney Springs.

Just about everyone loves chocolate, and that was apparent from the crowds this store's opening drew! Lines of people waiting to enter were long throughout the morning, but after about a 35-minute wait I managed to get in and take a few photos of -- and sampled! -- some of the amazing chocolate that's being made on site.

I was greeted at the door by a cast member, who was handing out tiny free samples. (I was told that a cast member would probably be stationed outside at least through the holidays to help with the crowds.)

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The tiny shop, which only holds about 20 people at a time, is designed to resemble an old-time drug store. Copper pots and pans dangle from the ceiling, and the decor is all dark woods, antique-looking photographs, and little bottles and mortars and pestles.

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And of course... chocolate. Lots and lots of it!

You can watch some of the magic being made behind a glass partition.

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The head chocolatier here is Amanda, who came to The Ganachery from Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Many of the chocolates have unique flavors, and they hand out a guide so that you can keep track of what you're tasting. Also, if you have allergies or other special dietary concerns, there is a book with all ingredients listed.

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I tried to get a photo of all the different products available, but with all the people swarming around, it wasn't easy.

They were making "chocolate enrobed stollen," a holiday specialty, while I was there. They cost $12.

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Chocolate bars like these below cost $8 each.

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Chocolate pops were $5 each.

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Tubes of "crispy chocolate pearls" were also $5 each.

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And individual samples like these below were $3 a piece. But the more you buy, the more you save: six pieces for $15; nine pieces for $21; a box of 12 pieces, $27.

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Currently, The Ganachery, which is owned and operated by Disney, is a one-of-a-kind shop, but if the idea catches on, who knows? Additional outlets could be opened elsewhere in the resort, and even in Disneyland!


November 23, 2015

Backstage Tales Reveals Animal Kingdom Secrets

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As a fan of all of the special tours I've taken at Disney's Animal Kingdom over the years (including the Wild Africa Trek and the now-defunct Wild by Design and Wildlife Discovery Excursion), I was eager to try the new-ish Backstage Tales tour, which started in spring of this year. I say "new-ish" because Backstage Tales replaces, for the most part, Animal Kingdom's now-retired Backstage Safari tour. While many of the elements of the new tour are the same as the old one's, which I somehow managed to never take, they tell me that several have been changed based on guest feedback.

My Backstage Tales experience started on a misty fall morning. Since I needed to be AT Animal Kingdom by 7:30 a.m. I took a cab from my hotel (the Walt Disney World Dolphin). (I imagine that you could take one of the early morning breakfast buses that Disney offers, but I didn't want to chance it.)

After leaving the hotel around 7 a.m., I found myself walking up to Animal Kingdom's turnstiles by 7:15, where a cast member told me I was just the third guest in the park -- I was so early, how I was not the first is beyond me!

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Off to the left of the park entrance I found a few cast members with iPads waiting to check in tour participants. Paula and Dan checked my ID and had me sign a standard waiver (which said basically that I wouldn't hold Disney responsible if anything bad happened to me on the tour) and gave me my name tag.

As I waited for the rest of the tour group to assemble, I spotted a hawk in a nearby tree -- a cool, if unofficial, welcome to Animal Kingdom and the morning's festivities.

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On this morning only two others joined my group -- two lovely gentlemen from the UK. There were supposed to be two other tourists joining us, but after waiting several minutes and getting a questioning call from our first stop wondering where we were, our guides decided the others were no-shows, and we embarked on our 3-hour-45-minute adventure.

After giving us headsets that would allow us to hear the guide over crowd noise, or if we wandered out of normal earshot, the guides told us a little about themselves. (Interestingly, Paula and Dan also work together over at the Dolphins in Depth program at Epcot -- perhaps I'll see them there soon!). Using the iPad, Paula then introduced us to Walt Disney's commitment to wildlife, and talked about his early True-Life Adventure series films.

The scene thus set, we made our way to the Aviary, located in the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail at the back of the park. Our guides reminded us that photos were not allowed when in any "backstage" areas, which is standard for most Disney World tours and which is why this report is, unfortunately, light on my own pictures. Taking photos while in the park with the rest of the guests, however, was obviously allowed, and I managed to get a fairly nice shot of the iconic Tree of Life, without other people around.

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When we reached the Aviary, we were met by Nick, one of the park's bird specialists. He shared with us the banding system they use to identify and keep track of the aviary's myriad winged residents.

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We were also given the chance to "feed the birds." I couldn't help but hum the tune quietly to myself, although I don't think the Mary Poppins' bird lady used the same "food" we did -- mealworms! Nick gave us each latex gloves if we wanted to dip our hands into the squirming worms, which we each did, quickly throwing out a handful that was just as quickly gobbled up. It did allow us some up-close-and-personal bird viewing, especially since there were no other park guests around yet to distract us, or the birds.

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From the Aviary, our guides finally took us backstage, where we boarded a vehicle that drove us past all the animal barns, many of which you can see when you're riding the park's Wildlife Express train to Rafiki's Planet Watch.

We stopped at the elephant and rhinoceros barn, where we were met by another animal specialist who talked to us about the training, care and feeding of these giants. We had the opportunity to meet Frank (so-called because of his blue eyes) and another rhino, while the cast member shared some fun anecdotes about working with these animals. I really do wish I could have taken some photos at this point -- we were so close to the animals I could have reached through the bars of their habitats and touched them. This could have been due to the small size of our group, though -- I don't want you to think that every tour gets such an up-close-and-personal look at the animals, because according to other reports I've read that's not the case.

From there, it was back to the vehicle and off to the Animal Nutrition Center, which prepares the approximately 9,000 pounds of food consumed by Animal Kingdom residents each day.

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This was a fascinating peek into what it takes to feed the 250 different species represented in the theme park. One of the cast members working during our visit was preparing the next day's meals for all the small mammals, following detailed instructions from an overly large ring binder that contained the critters' regular dietary requirements, as well as instructions for when to include special treats or "enrichments." I got a chuckle out of learning that the porcupine loves jelly and gets a smidgen of the sweet treat just once a month. I could just imagine his (or her) delight: "Oh boy! It's Jelly Saturday!"

Not as funny were the menus being prepared by the cast member at the other station. He was charged with feeding larger animals, and so was surrounded by large bags of frozen mice, rats, even rabbits, as well as various kinds of fish and raw meat. Thus killing any desire I might have had to work in the Animal Nutrition Center.

At this point were were about midway through our morning, so we were escorted to a break room in the Education Building. After a quick pit stop to the restroom, we were treated to a conversation with Scott, a zoological manager at Animal Kingdom who told us about his involvement with Operation Migration and its efforts to help whooping cranes.

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While we listened to Scott, we were given a treat of our own -- a rice krispies treat and a bottle of water. We were also given a keepsake "Backstage Tales" water bottle.

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After our break, it was off to the backstage area of Conversation Station, one of my favorite areas of Animal Kingdom. I love heading up to Rafiki's Planet Watch early in the morning in the hope of seeing some animal procedures in Conservation Station's operating room. I always find that fascinating. Imagine my surprise when we were actually walked into the back rooms there and learned about the tools the 11 vets and eight vet techs use and how they often have to improvise due to the exotic nature of their "patients." I was a little disappointed that there were no procedures taking place during our brief stop, but what happened next more than made up for it.

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When we had first stopped at the rhino and elephant barns, we noticed that we could see Animal Kingdom's "Pride Rock" -- the lions' habitat -- from the rear. One of the male lions had been in full view, causing to inwardly curse at the no-photos rule. But our upset turned to delight when our final stop on the tour was the "Big Cat" house. Again, I believe it was due to the small size of our group -- just three of us plus the two guides -- but we were treated to a long visit with Savannah, the 19-year-old matriarch of the lion family at Animal Kingdom. While the animal specialist told us about the habits and lifestyles of the lions at Animal Kingdom, the graceful cat lay on her side, but an occasional tail or ear twitch indicated that she was listening and watching our every move. It was a real treat to spend such a long while in such proximity to her. In fact, I spent so much time observing her, I missed some of what the animal specialist was telling us.

After that, it was time to say good-bye to the backstage area, and our guides walked us back out into Animal Kingdom. We said our good-byes, but not before Dan and Paula gave us our shiny, 20th Anniversary Disney Conservation Fund badges, a reminder that a portion of the tour proceeds is donated to the Fund.

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To sum up, all I can say is, "Wow!" It was a terrific tour and I'm so glad that I took it. It was a lot of walking, but at a leisurely pace, and fortunately the weather cooperated -- not too hot, not too cold, not too wet. I know all the literature about the tour emphasizes that animal interaction is not guaranteed, but obviously I hit it lucky with such a small group -- I really do think that enabled us to spend as much time as we did with both the rhinos and the lioness.

I feel that this tour was definitely worth the $90 price tag, although when you book remember to ask about DVC, Annual Passholder, and Disney Visa discounts -- I only paid $81.48, including tax, with my Disney Visa discount. (The total price would have been $95.85 otherwise.)

Another nice thing about this tour is that children older than 12 can go (although those under 18 must be accompanied by a participating adult.

You can book the tour by calling 407-WDW-TOUR.


October 12, 2015

Hulk in Paradise

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by Erin Blackwell
AllEars® Team Member

Hulk! You hear the name and you immediately get a mental image: big, fierce, muscles out to everywhere, green --

Ooo, we were doing so good until that last word. The big guy we’re talking about this time is Hulk Hogan, a professional wrestler and actor, including being the lead for the short-lived show, Thunder in Paradise. And that is what this is about, because Thunder filmed in Walt Disney World.

I don’t just mean in the then-Disney-MGM Studios’ soundstages, far from the public eye. No, the show filmed at numerous spots right out in the open, such as the Grand Floridian beach and the Morocco Pavilion in Epcot. Disney even built a water tank in the Studios for close-up scenes and undersea shots; they pointed it out to you during The Studio Backlot Tour.

Let’s back up.

My husband and I were going through television channels on a lazy day when we saw the Grand Floridian on the screen. We stopped (of course we stopped), thinking we had found a Walt Disney World special. Then Hulk Hogan walked up the beach and we got really confused. That’s too good to change the channel: we had to find out why Hulk Hogan was at the Grand Floridian. And so, we discovered the Thunder in Paradise reruns on TNT.

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Here’s a summary if you’ve never seen the show: Ex-Navy Seal Randolph J. "Hurricane" Spencer (Hulk Hogan) and Martin "Bru" Brubaker (Chris Lemmon, son of the late, great actor Jack Lemmon) work as mercenaries. They travel around the world on their futuristic boat "Thunder". Spencer is also a widower and raising his daughter Jessica (Ashley Gorrell). Add Kelly LaRue (Carol Alt), who owns and manages the beach bar, "Scuttlebutt Bar N' Grill", and Jessica’s uncle, Edward Whitaker (the late, wonderful Patrick Macnee), who owns the beach resort (played by The Grand Floridian) where Spencer and Brubaker live. (Patrick Macnee passed away the day before I wrote this. Oh, Mr. Steed, we will miss you. One person reading this will realize I started with naming one Avengers character and now spoke of another, whole different Avengers character. If I wasn’t happily married, I would wed the person who got this reference. As it is, I tip my bowler to you.)

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Hogan described the show as "Baywatch" with action/adventure.

If you’re a Thunder in Paradise fan for Hulk Hogan and for the show itself, then this article probably isn’t for you because I’m focusing on the Walt Disney World angle. But please contact us and give us your input for your fellow fans. We’d love to hear from you!

As I just said, I’m looking at why others became viewers. My husband and I watched it because our inner Disney Geeks loved picking out what Walt Disney World location they were using.
AllEars.Net has a weekly game under the Photo Blog called “Where in the World Photo Fun”. Created by former team member Barrie Brewer, it’s a photo trivia game where players guess where a picture thumbnail is in Walt Disney World.

For us, Thunder in Paradise was a TV version of “Where in the World”. Here’s an imagined sample conversation between such fans, once they discovered they are both Walt Disney World lovers.

Person 1: Hey, have you ever seen that Hulk Hogan show?
Person 2: The one in Disney World? Yeah!
Person 1: Did you see the one where they ran through Morocco and then turned into the fez store --
Person 2: And they were inside the Treasure Room in the Adventurers Club! And the one inside the Indiana Jones stunt show!
Person 1: You know what else I like?
Both: The boat!

Besides the above locations, other Disney World spots were: Fort Wilderness, Old Key West, Epcot’s Future World, as well as other World Showcase locations. I saw an episode that looked like they used the aquarium at the then-Living Seas, but after checking photos of the attraction during the production year, it’s clearly not and must be the water tank at the Disney-MGM Studios. They also used a few non-Disney locations, but that was rare. And as I already mentioned, you saw the Grand Floridian every week, since its beach served as the Thunder family home as well as LaRue’s beach bar, with the Polynesian in the background.

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When I researched this article (that’s right, I actually did research!), I found the scene shown in the graphic above. My heart froze seeing what looked like the Grand 1 yacht exploding. Think about it: The GRAND 1! Clearly they wouldn’t do it; the effects would be safely behind it or it was a whole different boat. In fact, the one pictured doesn’t look like the yacht used in the past 10 years, but when I checked the 52’ Sea Ray yachts of that time, it could be it. Probably not though.

Still freaked me out when I saw it. Imagine if it had been the Grand 1: you have the specialty cruise booked and Disney has to call you to offer you a different one because, “Hulk Hogan is blowing up the boat that day.”

Thunder also gave different views of well-known attractions. For example, when they filmed at the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, they used the back alleys you can’t see from the audience, plus unique angles on the truck, plane, and the Cairo buildings. It even gave you close-ups of the stuntmen who play the villains. You still knew where you were, but you got a “backlot tour” view of the attraction. The same episode used the roofs at the Morocco Pavilion; when have you ever thought about the upper levels of those buildings?

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By the way, I would have done ‘pay per view’ for the episode in the Adventurers Club Treasure Room if they had let some of its actors play their roles in that scene. Come on: Samantha and Hathaway discussing the place? Hodges discussing the treasures in the room? How about sneaking in a “We climb the highest mountains, just to get a better view. We plumb the deepest oceans, 'cause we're daring through and through!" The Adventurers were (and are) professional actors with impressive resumes and they have done other Disney spots, such as “Top 7 Must See” features. I would buy that episode on DVD too for them. I might be the only one who would, but my statement still stands.

My husband and I never saw them film the show while we were in Walt Disney World; I’m surprised that we didn’t even know about it.

Maybe some of you did see it in production; you saw them bring in camels, parrots, and other touches to Morocco, or you were on Pleasure Island when they were setting up the Adventurers Club scene. (I heard a rumor that you can hear the Friendship boats sounding their horns when Thunder filmed in Morocco once.) It had to be tough at times for guests though, because attractions and shows couldn’t run while they were being used for filming. For example, the monorail couldn’t go through while they used the Polynesian and the Floridian. So thank you to everyone who had a piece of their vacation delayed while Thunder in Paradise filmed, because your sacrifice brought magic to me at home in such a different, fun way. Hopefully you enjoyed seeing a television show in production to make up for not seeing what you intended to that day.

We didn’t sit down to watch Thunder each week, but if we were home and channel flipping, we’d remember and put it on. It lasted one season (plus its initial straight-to-DVD movie before it moved to TV and Disney). It also got an interactive movie (video game) from Phillips CD in 2007.

I wish I could have ridden in the Thunder boat. Imagine them adding it to the watercraft rentals once the show was cancelled. A few people think the Sea Raycers are too fast for some to handle; this one would come with a rider in the rental agreement: “Please don’t kill yourself or other guests.”

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If the show had been a hit, maybe they would have had a specialty cruise like the pontoon boats or the Grand 1. Maybe we’d have a Thunder in Paradise Experience. You would ride in the boat with the provided captain dressed like a mercenary (for extra, you could drive the boat), you would dock at the old Discovery Island, run around finding clues and fighting bad guys. When you finished, back you went on the Thunder to land at the Grand Floridian where you celebrated an adventure well done at the Scuttlebutt Bar N' Grill.

Just kidding. But I might have finally seen it being filmed or at least come out of whatever cave I was living in and heard about the show.

So, to Thunder in Paradise, Walt Disney World fans thank you. We’re so glad Orlando beat out Tampa as a location or playing “Ha! That’s the Polynesian!” would never have happened. Plus, credit where credit is due. The show brought millions of dollars to Orlando since they used local people for the work (and spent money for housing for the small percentage of non-Orlando workers) and used local vendors for all they needed.

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Thunder in Paradise still has a fanbase online. Google it to hear what they have to say and to learn more about the show. I already asked that fans of the show please write in with your thoughts. Now I’m asking that if you ever saw an episode being filmed or if you watched it the way I did, let’s hear from you too!

If you haven’t seen the show and would like to, for itself or to play “I know where they are in Disney World," a select few episodes were released on DVD by Lionsgate. The “Thunder in Paradise Collection” can be found online and in some stores. Netflix and Hulu don’t carry it, but I have seen it on a free video site, although it’s not the clarity of a DVD.



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