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May 13, 2016

Afternoon Tea at Crescent Solarium Disney's Beach Club

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.

Beach Club Crescent Solarium Tea

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



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.


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).





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



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!


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.


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!


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.



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.


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!


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



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!

star wars launch bay

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.

star wars launch bay

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.

star wars launch bay

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!

star wars launch bay

star wars launch bay

star wars launch bay

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

star wars launch bay

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.)

star wars launch bay

star wars launch bay


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.

star wars launch bay

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.

star wars launch bay

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!")



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.




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.


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.


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.


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.

Jedi Training Trials of the Temple

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


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.)


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.



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

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


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.



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.


Chocolate bars like these below cost $8 each.



Chocolate pops were $5 each.


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


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.



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



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!


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.


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.


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.


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.





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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.)


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.


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?


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.”


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.


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.

October 10, 2015

Epcot Food and Wine Festival's Tasting Sampler Package



New this year at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is the Festival Tasting Sampler package, which includes:

-- 8 entitlements for food or beverage of your choice (with a few exceptions) at the Food and Wine Festival International Marketplaces.

-- priority seating at the 6:45 p.m. Eat to the Beat concert at America Gardens Theatre on the day for which the package is purchased.

-- a limited release 20th Anniversary Food and Wine pin that comes in three colors.

These packages cost $59 per person (total $62.85 including tax) and DO NOT include admission to Epcot.

Because this was a new offering, I wanted to be sure to try it out, so I purchased the package in advance on one of the first days it was available for sale back in late July. I was able to order it in the same way that I booked reservations for my other Food and Wine Festival events, by calling 407-WDW-FEST. At the time it was not available for purchase online, but I see that it is now. You can order the package just as you would book a Walt Disney World Dining reservation at

Booking the package was the easy part. More difficult was obtaining the physical credential for the package on the day I wanted to use it, the first Saturday of the festival. Perhaps I should have known that the finer points of distributing the package wouldn't have been worked out by the event's second official day, which was a very busy Saturday to boot.

I headed to the Festival Center that morning, but when I got there, the question became WHERE in the Festival Center could I pick up the package? After asking four cast members and a lot of confusion, I discovered that I needed to go to the right of the Intermissions Cafe, to the shop tucked in the back, where cookbooks and artwork are on display. (After you enter the Festival Center, walk down the ramp to the right and at the bottom, make a hard right. That's the space I'm talking about.)

The lines at the registers seemed to stretch for miles, but then, amidst the confusion, I noticed yet another line of people, way off to the side. At the front of THAT line was a single cast member with an iPad and an armful of lanyards. I overheard her explaining the Sampler Package to the woman standing in front of her. At last, I had found where I needed to be.

While I waited in that cramped space, I realized that many, if not most, of the people in line in front of me had not even purchased the package yet. As they each took their turn with the cast member at the head of the line, she patiently explained the package to them, took their payment and then gave them their lanyard credential and pin. Eventually, another cast member came along and the line moved a little more quickly. Finally it was my turn. Because I had prepaid, my transaction was quick. I heard an abbreviated version of the cast member's spiel and signed the iPad with my finger to indicate I had received my credential and pin.


They say the pin comes in three colors, but I wasn't offered a choice -- this seemed to be the only color available.

Altogether, the pick-up experience took way longer than it should have, especially since I had paid for the package in advance. Seems to me things could have been expedited considerably if they had had a specific check-in line for those who already had paid.

Once I had the credential in hand, I took a minute to look it over. It was a rectangular plastic card on a lanyard with a soft, wide strap. Those of you who recall Disney's "Year of a Million Dreams" promotion from almost 10 years ago might notice that the credential resembles the "Dream Fastpass" randomly given out to visitors, allowing them Fastpass privileges on a number of attractions throughout a particular theme park.


Around two sides of the card were eight tabs (four on each side), perforated for easy removal. Each one of these tabs is good for one food or beverage item at the 30 or so International Marketplaces found around World Showcase and, for the first time this year, in Future World. (There are certain exceptions; I'll outline them below.)


Along the bottom of the card was another tab, marked with the day's date, to be used to gain entry into the 6:45 p.m. Eat to the Beat Concert at the America Gardens Theatre.


On the back of the card are chefs' suggested pairings of the various foods and beverages and at the bottom there are the terms, conditions, and exceptions that apply to the package. When they say fine print, they mean it. Even with glasses it was hard to read!


So what does it say? Well, it tells you a few important things.

-- The Eat to the Beat concert coupon can only be used at the 6:45 p.m. show on the day you bought the package for.

-- The food and beverage coupons, however, can be used any time from the day you buy the package to the end of the festival on November 16, 2015.

-- The coupons are nonrefundable and nontransferable, however.

-- The coupons are good for almost all of the food and beverage items at the International Marketplaces with the following exclusions: beers larger than 6 oz.; the tasting "flights," such as the wine flights and the beer flights; champagne; and the Artist's Palette, found at the Wine and Cheese Studio.

When you consider how many options that leaves you, that's really not bad, especially when you take into account that many of the more expensive alcoholic beverages are included. You can maximize the sampler's value by choosing some of the most expensive items at the marketplaces. If, for example, you were to use the coupons for the La Passion Martini Slush in France ($9.95), the lobster roll at Hops & Barley ($7.95), the Le Cellier filet in Canada ($7.50) and the tzatziki martini in Greece ($8.00), you've already "spent" more than $30 (half the package's cost)... and you still have four more coupons to use.

And, by the way, using the coupons is as easy as can be, and really expedites your time in line -- I think paying for your items using the credential is even easier than using the nifty little festival gift cards, or your MagicBand. You simply place your order, present your credential, and the cast member breaks off the coupon tab or tabs needed to "pay" for your purchase.

The final component of the package is the priority seating for the Eat to the Beat concert. This can really come in handy on a crazy weekend night, when the crowd levels are at their highest.
When you're given your credential, you're told to arrive at the America Gardens Theatre about 30 minutes prior to the 6:45 show.


The line is on the Japan side of the theater, right next to the line for folks with the special Eat to the Beat Dining package. It's clearly marked -- if you can see the sign in the midst of the crowds of people milling about! Present your credential as you enter the seating area, and the cast member will break off the bottom coupon.

Performing the night I was there was former American Idol David Cook. Coming up are even more familiar names, like Hanson, Boys II Men, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Chaka Khan.


All in all, I really felt the Tasting Sampler was a worthwhile purchase -- essentially, you're pre-paying for your marketplace items, plus you get a nice collectible pin and special seating for the show thrown in for good measure. If they can iron out the kinks with the package pick-up process (and, who knows, maybe by now, two weeks into the festival, they have), then I would recommend it without any reservations.

They say that only a limited number of packages are available each day, although I'm not sure enough people know about this yet for it to be selling out. Still, if you want to give it a try, it might be worth the effort to book it in advance.

If you use the Tasting Sampler, or attend any of the Food and Wine Festival events, we urge you to visit our Rate and Review section and share your thoughts there, so you can help others plan their vacations!

And if you've already "tasted your way around the World," don't forget to take our poll and rate the foods and beverages you sampled.

October 5, 2015

2015 Food and Wine Festival Merchandise and Special Packages



Even though I am, admittedly, not much of a shopper, I do like to poke around the shops during the special events at Epcot. Last week found me nosing around the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival's Festival Center shop and the other Festival Shops scattered around the theme park's World Showcase to see what new, unusual and festival-specific merchandise was available.

One of the first things that caught my eye was this adorable Figment plush ($14.95)


I know everyone loves Figment, and it turns out that Figment is the star of the festival character merchandise this year, along with Mickey of course. He is featured on all sorts of things...

This t-shirt ($24.95)...


(You can also get the same shirt with sparkles for $32.95.)

Chef's toque ($19.95), apron ($26.95) and potholder ($12.95) ...




You'll find a lot of non-character merchandise that marks the festival's 20th anniversary, too. I especially liked this giant-sized coffee mug ($14.95), which just MIGHT hold enough caffeine to get me started in the morning:


I also thought these logo trash can salt and pepper shakers ($9.95) were too cute!


And of course there's the requisite t-shirts ($27.95):




And assorted glassware (shot glasses, etc.) and other drinking vessels, including this fancy, dishwasher-safe, insulated tumbler that keeps cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot ($24.95):


If you're looking for something new without the festival logo, you might want to go for the "Brews" line of merchandise. I think this line was started last year, but this year the items are really eye-catching, particularly this cap with a built-in bottle opener for those who never want to be caught unprepared ($24.95):


Of course, there are t-shirts to go with it ($27.95)...


Each year, the festival publishes a cookbook with the recipes from the menu items found in the Festival Marketplaces. This year's book is a real item to treasure, though -- it's a lovely hardbound book ($24.95), with a history of the festival over the past two decades. It's going on my cookbook shelf, for sure!


If you'd like to carry your own utensils with you, the festival has thought of that, too -- the shops offer a branded plastic knife, fork and spoon set in a convenient container ($14.95).


I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the festival poster ($24.95, or $209.95 signed and framed). I apologize for the glare, but no matter where I went, it was a problem:


And of course there are Limited Edition festival pins -- this one is $14.95:


Speaking of pins, you have the chance to get some fun pins if you play the new Remy's Hide and Squeak scavenger hunt. Buy a map at the shop at the World Showcase Plaza for $9.95 then look for hidden Remy's around the International Marketplaces, affixing the appropriate sticker to the map when you spot him. Return the map, and receive your choice of one of eight different Remy pins. (Of course, party-poopers like me who don't have the time or desire to find the hidden Remys can pick up their pin when they purchase the game map!)


I had the chance to speak with Ashley Taylor of Park Event Operations about the merchandise and some of the festival's special packages, too. You can see our little chat here:

Hope this helps you decide what you're going to be spending your festival souvenir dollars on!

Happy shopping!

September 30, 2015

Ferrytale Wishes: A Fireworks Dessert Cruise



Starting Monday, October 5, you can see the Magic Kingdom's Wishes fireworks in a whole new way -- on Ferrytale Wishes: A Fireworks Dessert Cruise.

The cruise, which sets sail from the Transportation and Ticket Center ferry dock, is on the General Joe Potter ferry, and makes a circuit around the Seven Seas Lagoon while guests nosh on an assortment of sweets treats. The cruise comes to a halt in front of the Magic Kingdom, affording a perfect view of the Wishes fireworks, then returns to the dock.

I had the opportunity to take this new cruise last week in advance of its official start date, so I thought I'd share some photos and video.

As I said, the cruise starts at the Ferry Dock at the Transportation and Ticket Center, where you check in with a Disney cast member.




Your boarding time varies according to when Wishes will be performed that night. The evening of my cruise, Wishes was going to start at 9 p.m. We had to check in at 7:45 for an 8 p.m. sail time. For 10 p.m. Wishes, everything shifts an hour later.

After checking in, you're welcomed with a glass of sparkling cider or champagne in a glowing plastic flute.


About an hour before the fireworks, you board the General Joe Potter, named for the Disney legend who developed the canals and underground utilities that made the operation of Walt Disney World possible. There are only about 150 guests sailing with you, so boarding wasn't rushed, nor was there a crush of people -- a nice change after a day in the crowded theme parks.



As you board you're given a menu and a souvenir plate that's notched to hold your beverage, which definitely comes in handy. Beverage stations along the walls are stocked with coffee, ice water and soft drinks, while at the far end are stations with alcoholic beverages: beer, wine, and two versions of a spiked pink lemonade, one with prosecco, the other with vodka.




Both high and low cocktail tables are scattered around the lower deck, the latter to accommodate children and guests in wheelchairs or ECVs. There is also a table with some desserts, and even more can be found on the upper deck.


Tables are loaded with desserts made by and themed to the resorts and theme park that encircle your cruise route. They're a departure from the usual Disney dessert party fare, showing a bit of whimsy and imagination. You have:

"The Grand" Key Lime Tart from the Grand Floridian...


Contemporary "Traditional with a Twist" Spiced Flourless Chocolate Cake...


Polynesian De-constructed Pineapple Upside Down Cake (that's it in the middle; sorry, didn't get a photo of it on its own)...


"Main Street" Mickey Balloon Tarts in a variety of flavors...


Mini "Firework" Cupcakes with a Pop...



No Sugar Added Florida Mango Panna Cotta...


and the showstopper -- at least it was to me: Cinderella's Sugar Slipper with Orange Financier (which is a ...



How beautiful are those slippers? I wanted to try one on, they were so perfect. They are pure sugar, though, so while you COULD eat them, you really wouldn't want to. Such a shame.

A nice inclusion on the buffet is the Fruit, Cheese and Cracker spread, for those who may prefer a little less sugar that late at night...


The ferry slowly cruises past the Magic Kingdom resorts for about an hour, allowing you plenty of time to take in the beauty of the illuminated grounds while sampling all the sweets. Trays are replenished frequently -- in fact, I never saw a tray less than half-full at any point during the evening. Periodically cast members circulate with other treats, such as Mickey bars and ice cream sandwiches. There's definitely no skimping and no shortage of treats on offer.

Shortly before fireworks time, the boat "weighs anchor" at the Magic Kingdom, so that you're positioned right in front of Cinderella Castle. (We noticed that we were also right in front of the new bungalows at the Polynesian Village Resort -- probably obscuring the view of the guests in those rooms.) As the show begins, I realized that the music and voices I was hearing were not coming from the park, but were being piped in via the boat's sound system so that we could hear everything perfectly.





Once the fireworks conclude, the ferry makes a fairly speedy return to the dock. I didn't check my watch, but others said we were back at the TTC by a little after 9:30 p.m.

As you disembark, cast members offer a tart but refreshing frozen Olaf strawberry-lemonade ice pop. Certainly made me pucker, but was a nice way to cleanse the palate after all that sugar!


The price for the cruise is $99 for adults, $69 for ages 3 to 9, including tax and gratuity. While the desserts and beverages are plentiful, I have to say I think that is a little steep, especially for children who probably shouldn't be eating $70 worth of sugary snacks right before bedtime. Having said that, though, it is a fairly exclusive event -- a limited number of guests, unlimited desserts and beverages (even alcoholic ones), and a terrific view of one of the best fireworks displays I've ever seen. As an added bonus, a cast member told me that on nights when Wishes is performed at 10 p.m., you'll also get to see the Electric Water Pageant as it makes its way around the lagoon. (We noticed it waiting to set off as we were pulling into the TTC dock.) The cruise could be a nice splurge for a birthday or anniversary, for example, or an ideal new thing-to-do for the frequent Disney-goer who has done it all before.

To give you a little more insight to the cruise, here's a video with highlights from the evening:

A few practical notes: As I mentioned earlier, the ferry can accommodate those in wheelchairs and ECVs, but only on the lower deck -- there are only stairs to the upper deck. There are, however, low cocktail tables available, and cast members are more than happy to assist with whatever is needed. Also, some of you regular ferryboat riders might be thinking, "Hey! There are no restrooms on board! That's not good." Rest easy: The General Joe Potter now has two restrooms to accommodate guests.

If you're interested the Ferryboat Wishes dessert cruise, you can make reservations by visiting or by calling 407-WDW-DINE.

(Author's Note: I was an invited media guest of Walt Disney World on this dessert cruise, but this did not affect my review. My opinions are my own.)

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