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July 8, 2011

Theme Park Snapshot - July 6, 2011 Epcot

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I had a few hours to roam around Epcot Wednesday night after spending a great day at Animal Kingdom Lodge, sampling some of their special activities (the "Untamed" Lunch with an Animal Specialist at Sanaa, and the Jiko South African Wine Tasting - I'll be writing about them in more detail soon). Just thought I'd share some of the things that were of interest or new to me since my last visit.

As I passed through Future World, I took a detour over to Pixie Hollow, the current home of Tinker Bell and her fairy friends. It's in the same location it occupied during the Flower and Garden Festival earlier this year - to the right of the main entrance of MouseGear, tucked into a little corner of garden greenery. The fairies were out working on "blooming spring" as the sign said - done with their meet and greet duties for the day. It was around 7 p.m. so I wasn't surprised. I've always imagined that fairies are more "morning people".


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There were several new things in World Showcase that were on my must-see list, starting with the band that's taken up residence in the UK pavilion, replacing mainstay Beatles look- and sound-alikes the British Invasion. The new four-man group, called The British Revolution, presents a "history of British rock" in less than an a half-hour that is most entertaining. Their set started with the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin'", followed in rapid succession by an abbreviated rendition of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones, and selections by Manfred Mann, Led Zeppelin, and The Who. After a rollicking version of the Beatles "I Saw Her Standing There" that got the audience yodeling along, the foursome brought us out of the 1960s with a bit of The Clash ("Should I Stay or Should I Go"), Queen ("We Will Rock You") and the Police ("Message in a Bottle"). As much as I loved listening to the old Beatles tunes that had been playing in this pavilion for years, British Revolution were definitely on the right track with this 25-ish minute set list - as the woman next to me said, "I loved British Invasion, but these guys are really good!" After closing out with a few more snippets of Beatles (Sgt. Pepper and Hey Jude), these guys even stuck around for autographs and photos with their newfound fans.


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As I meandered around, I discovered some walls up in the Japan pavilion, and peeking from behind the walls what appears to be a semi-permanent structure. I asked around but no one seemed to know what the new building would be, or when it will open. I don't know" thinking maybe an outdoor sake bar? Guess we'll find out soon!

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Over in the China pavilion, they've renovated their department store into the recently reopened "House of Good Fortune." The former Yong Deng Shangdian shop is not as harshly lit, and the various departments seem less cluttered and more well -defined. At the center of the store when you walk in you're greeted by a huge statue of Buddha, who presides over all the shops' many offerings, including a new Kidcot Fun Station.

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I had read recently about some changes at the Outpost. The not-quite-a-country pavilion has added a kiosk dubbed "The Bead Outpost" due to the wares it's selling there - beads. These beads are all made of recycled paper - and not just any paper, but old Disney theme park guide maps!


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I was intrigued. If I hadn't been told these beautiful, multi-colored, multi-shaped beads were made of paper, I would never have known. As the cast member there explained, though, the jewelry is part of the "Bead for Life" program, a nonprofit organization that is designed to "eradicate poverty, one bead at a time." The Disney guide maps are sent to Uganda, where Ugandan women craft the water-resistant beads, earning them funds for medicine, housing and more. All net proceeds from the sales of the beads are reinvested, as well.

In looking at this unique jewelry, it's interesting to note that every so often you can make out a character or two, a P here, an S there. The beads come in every conceivable color, and are available as bracelets ($10), anklets ($12), chokers ($15), longer necklaces ($20) and earrings ($7). You can also string your own choice of beads to come up with your own unique creation. I admit it - with my birthday coming up, I decided to treat myself and bought a few items. As a perfect ending touch, my purchase was given me its own unique wrapping - an old park guide map, folded and taped into the shape of a little gift bag.


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All in all it was a fun evening, even though it was just a few hours. As my bonus for the day, I was treated to a gorgeous Spaceship Earth, beautifully illuminated by the setting sun.

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July 14, 2011

Passport to a World of Flavors: The 2011 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival Preview

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Each year, as the middle of the summer approaches, my thoughts start to turn to... no, not time at the beach, or an exotic vacation abroad. My thoughts turn to what the autumn brings -- the annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival at Walt Disney World! (Yeah, I'm kinda odd like that!)

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I love the Food and Wine Festival at Epcot -- as my waistline can attest. It's a six-week-long event filled with so many diverse experiences: a chance to sample food and beverages from around the world presented both in fancy dinners and informal tastings, celebrity chefs, cooking demonstrations, seminars, not to mention an impressive array of live entertainment. This year's festival, Epcot's 16th, starts September 30 and runs through November 13, sporting the theme of "A Passport to a World of Flavors." I recently had the chance to speak with Marianne Hunnel, who as Event Content Development Manager, is responsible for overseeing much of what goes on during this culinary cornucopia of eating and drinking events.

"It's so much fun to find these little discoveries and then share them with our guests," Hunnel enthuses, as she talks about what's new at this year's festival. "This year especially I'm excited to see the hard work of so many people showcased -- things that we have been talking about for several years have finally come to fruition, and it's very exciting to watch that happen."

So what are the new things that Hunnel is most excited about?
You may know that for the duration of the festival, a couple dozen food booths, known as International Marketplaces, are placed around Epcot's World Showcase Lagoon. Each of these marketplaces represents a country or a region and offers small portions of dishes indigenous to the area, along with native beverages as well. In the Italy marketplace, for example, you may find ravioli and chianti, while in Morocco you might find a kebab and mint iced tea.

This year, there are several areas that have never been represented at the festival before: Portugal, Hawaii (inspired by the new Hawaiian Disney Vacation Club, Aulani) and the Caribbean.
The Caribbean marketplace will feature a braised beef dish over rice called Ropa Vieja, as well as Jerk-Spiced Chicken Drumstick. Beverages in this booth will be tropical -- a frozen Rock Coconut Mojito and a frozen Dragon Berry Colada. (One of the sponsors here is Bacardi.)

Hawaii also will not have a "wine presence," but will instead offer Kona beer and a rum-based Seven Tiki Mai Tai to accompany its tuna poke (cubes of tuna sashimi, aka uncooked) with seaweed and Kalua pork sliders. Note: don't confuse Kalua with the liqueur Kahlua -- Kalua is the barbecue method used to cook the pork!

Portugal's booth will offer a wine bar, as well as calamari salad with olives and smoked paprika.

"We've been talking to people in Portugal about doing this for many years," Hunnel explains. "They've wanted to break out of that paradigm, that Portugal just has port wines. I'm excited to see this come about."

Hunnel notes that even returning marketplaces are going to be changing things up a bit -- in France, for example, they're going to offer Coq Au Vin.

"We talked to the managers and chefs at our operating participants," she says, "and they're doing a lot of other fun new things, too, including quite a few new dining events that they've not done in the past."

("Operating participants," by the way, are those locations around World Showcase that are not owned and operated by Disney, including the restaurants in Mexico, France and Italy.)

In France, for example, they will again be holding the French Regional Lunches as they have done the past few years, but they are also introducing a dining experience called, "The Best of Bocuse." Hunnel says this dinner will be "all about Paul Bocuse," the famous French chef who had a hand in developing the restaurants in the France pavilion. Mexico will not only continue with its popular Tequila Tastings in the La Cava tequila bar, but will add a tequila tasting plus lunch at its new La Hacienda. Not to be outdone, the Italy pavilion will offer beer and pizza tastings from 2 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays in its newest restaurant Via Napoli, as well as an Italian dessert and wine pairing, and a special dining event on October 23 featuring Italian white truffles.

If it seems like you're reading about more than wine at some of these programs you're not imagining things. The last few years there has been a growing shift to include spirits at the festival as well as beers, especially hand-crafted beers. This year that trend continues, with mixed drinks also being added to many marketplace menus.

"There has been such an incredible spin in the food and beverage world regarding beer," Hunnel notes. "It's almost being treated similar to wines now -- there are even certifications you can get for learning about the various beers."

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To follow that trend, Hunnel says that they are featuring eight craft beers from around North America in one of the marketplace booths. Brews from Canada, Lousiana, New Hampshire and Colorado will be included. But if crave an imported ale or lager, fear not -- you'll still find plenty of international beers at other marketplaces like Germany.
If beer and wine aren't to your liking, but you're still interested in an alcoholic beverage, you might want to swing by the Scandinavian marketplace, where they'll be featuring a Xante Sunshine Cocktail -- an aromatic concoction of pear liqueur made from cognac, lime juice and elder flower. Or maybe you'd prefer the sparkling sake from South Korea that will be offered at the First Bites reception and some of the beverage seminars. Or there's always the mixology seminars that will be offered each evening at 6 p.m. in the Festival Center.

But wait... there's more! (I sound like an infomercial, but it's true!) The special dining experiences will extend beyond the borders of Epcot, and spill out into restaurants around the Walt Disney World Resort. There will be an assortment of dinners at several of the Downtown Disney restaurants -- Bongo's, Wolfgang Puck -- as well as dinners at The Wave, Victoria and Albert's and two opportunities to partake of exclusive dinners at California Grill. Over on the BoardWalk, Cat Cora's Kouzzina will host a number of special events as well, many attended by the Iron Chef America champion herself.

Speaking of celebrity chefs, they will be out in force this year -- names you might recognize if you're a fan of Top Chef or any of the cooking-themed Food Network and Travel Channel shows include Alan Wong, Robert Irvine, Art Smith, Suvir Saran, Jamie Deen, and Keegan Gerhard. In fact, Gerhard is returning to host the kick-off for the festival, its "First Bites Reception," held the evening before the festival officially begins in the Festival Center (formerly known as the Wonders of Life pavilion). Buddy "Cake Boss" Valastro is also appearing at this year's festival. He'll be hosting a culinary demo on October 8 and a Sweet Sunday event on October 9. Other famous names you might spot in the festival's program are Andrew Zimmern, Bryan Voltaggio and Chris Cosentino, three chefs who are also dads, who will be sharing the spotlight with their offspring for a special event in the Festival Center to be held on October 29.

"This event comes under the umbrella of Disney's 'Magic of Healthy Living'," Hunnel explains. "These chefs were tasked with creating an incredible, healthy meal paired with a non-alcoholic cocktail. I've always wanted to do a very family-oriented event like this, and these kids cooking with their dads should be special."

Does it seem like I'm overusing the word "special"? Well, maybe I am, because there are a lot of new and unique offerings this year, and the word just fits. Take for example another "special" new event -- The Discovery of Chocolate. Offered on three Sundays (October 9 and 16, and November 6), this is a tasting that explores the many forms our favorite cacao bean can take.

"Each of these tastings is going to be very different," Hunnel asserts. "You'll have the chance to listen to experts talk about the origins of chocolate, while tasting different types -- maybe Mexican versus Belgian, or white, milk and different types of dark chocolate. You'll be tasting them with a cocktail or maybe wine, and at the end of the program you'll have the chance to try two tapas-sized dishes made with chocolate, one savory and one sweet."

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Mmm, chocolate! I can hardly wait for that one!

In addition to all the new culinary programs, the Food and Wine Festival is pairing with HGTV for the first time this year to bring a series of entertaining programs on... entertaining. Well-known HGTV personalities like Vern Yip and Lisa LaPorta will be appearing every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Festival Center, presenting home entertaining seminars with plenty of tips for the upcoming holidays. These seminars will take place at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays.

And finally, kids might enjoy checking out the Cranberry Bog (sponsored by Ocean Spray) that's going to be on display near the World Showplace. I'm anxious to see this myself after seeing the latest batch of commercials featuring those two guys standing out in a bog. I wonder if we'll be able to wade in it ourselves?

Whew. I think that's all that's NEW this year, but that doesn't even take into account all the returning programs. For example, the First Bites Reception, Sweet Sundays, 3D Delicious Dessert Discoveries, Grand Marnier and Tequila Tastings, Cheese Seminars, Signature Dining Experiences, French Regional Lunches, Food and Wine Pairings in Morocco and Japan, Wine Schools -- these are all returning this year. Also returning is the Friends and Family in the Kitchen series, renamed Kitchen Memories. (Hunnel's husband Scott, of Victoria and Albert's fame, will be featured the first weekend in that series, by the way.) And of course, what would the Food and Wine Festival be without the Party for the Senses, the signature Saturday night grand tasting event? These will be back, but not, unfortunately for every Saturday of the festival. There will be no Party on the first Saturday, October 1, nor will there be one on October 29.

Complimenting all the eating and drinking is the chance to make merry with the Eat to the Beat Concerts. This year, there are a number returning acts, like Hanson and Howard Jones (who I WILL see this year, I promise!), as well as new-to-the-series performers like The Pointer Sisters and The Orchestra (which is former members of ELO).

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Now I know you're all wondering what all the details are -- times, dates, prices, how to book, etc. Unfortunately, these sorts of details are still being finalized, so Hunnel couldn't really be specific about everything.

"We hope to get everything online by the beginning of August, if not sooner," she says. "But we want to make sure we have everything accurate -- we know how people plan their trips around a certain event or chef, and we don't want to disappoint anyone by announcing something too soon."

So... we have to be patient a little while longer.

Hope I've given you something to mull over while you're sitting on the beach, or taking that vacation abroad this summer, and dreams of the Food and Wine Festival are dancing through your head.

Remember 407-WDW-FEST -- that's the number to call beginning at 7 a.m. on August 16 to make reservations.

RELATED LINKS:

Official Press Release 2011

Special Events (more details to come)

Eat to the Beat Concerts

2010 Festival Overview

Read other Readers' Reviews of Previous Festivals


July 29, 2011

Untamed! Lunch with an Animal Specialist at Sanaa

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When I was staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge back in May, I found out about two programs at the resort that were news to me. Jiko, the table service restaurant at the Lodge's Jambo House, was offering a weekly South African wine tasting (more on that in an upcoming blog), and Sanaa, the hidden gem of a restaurant at the Lodge's Disney Vacation Club extension, Kidani Village, was hosting what it called the "Untamed" lunch, also weekly, with a Disney Animal Specialist.

When Deb Wills and I returned to Animal Kingdom Lodge just a few weeks ago, we decided to stay out of the beastly heat of the theme parks for a while to take advantage of these special experiences.

We arrived at Kidani Village well before the 11:30 a.m. program start time, after taking the short shuttle ride over from Jambo House. (If it hadn't been 90 degrees already, we would have walked, but ugh, the humidity was killer!) Since we had time before the restaurant even opened, we walked out the downstairs back exit of the resort and watched some of the animals on the savanna. They were surprisingly active given the heat of the day. Zebras, giraffes and a few other hoofed animals were browsing, giving us up-close and personal views. That's one of the nice things about Kidani Village -- the savanna there was definitely designed so that you feel a little closer to the animals than you do over at Jambo House.

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After a few minutes of melting in the increasingly hot outdoors, we headed back inside to await our lunch appointment.

Cast members at Sanaa set the stage for the experience by performing a brief ceremony at the restaurant's entrance to announce its opening at 11:30.

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To keep the experience intimate, the Untamed lunch is limited to 12 participants. Luckily for us, there was only one other couple in attendance that day, so we were treated to a VERY personal experience. (By the way, I'd love to give a shout out to our tablemates, whose names I thought I had written down -- but apparently I didn't. So sorry! But it was great to meet you and share the lunch with you both!)

We were ushered to a table set apart a bit from the main dining area, close by a window, so we could view the animals as we dined. The table was beautifully set, with an array of condiments already displayed to get us in the mood.

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Before we got started, Chef Bob came out from the kitchen to greet us and speak a little bit about the food we were about to enjoy.

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If you've never dined at Sanaa you're in for a real treat, especially if you happen to like trying more exotic cuisines. As Chef Bob explained, Sanaa employs many East African traditions and serves food that is clearly influenced by Indian flavors. But if you think Indian food means spicy, and that perhaps you won't like it, think again. Yes, the food relies on spice, but spice doesn't necessarily mean hot -- in this case it means flavorful. In fact, when you see the word curry, what that's really saying is that the food is well seasoned, and bursting with flavor. Sanaa serves several curries as part of the Untamed lunch, and you really ought to give them a try. But if you don't want to, or have other dietary concerns, don't worry -- they are able to accommodate you, as long as you give them enough notice.

After explaining about the kitchen's cooking methods, Chef Bob introduced our first course -- the bread service, which was to be eaten with many of the condiments already on the table. There was red pepper hummus, garlic pickle and cooling cucumber raita as well as several different chutneys: mango, mint and tamarind. The breads included (from the top down in the photo) crispy pappadum (made of lentil flour), paneer paratha (a doughy flatbread filled with cheese), onion kulcha and naan (a puffy plain bread brushed with clarified butter called "ghee").

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As we dove in to the starters, our Animal Specialist, Steve Metzler, introduced himself and the program began in earnest. Steve, whose title is assistant animal operations manager, has been with Disney for more than 10 years, starting way back when Disney's Animal Kingdom was new, as a Kilimanjaro Safari driver. He eventually went on to help open Animal Kingdom Lodge, and then worked for several years on the development and opening of Kidani Village. Today, Steve's position is basically that of assistant curator for all the 220 animals at the Lodge (110 mammals, 110 birds). He not only supervises the animal keepers and works with veterinarians, he also is involved in taking care of everything from the tiniest detail to major problems. Last year, he even had the chance to travel to South Africa as part of an exchange program.


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"I am, amazingly, doing what I wanted to do," he said. "I always wanted to work with animals since I was little -- it's a dream job."

Steve went on to illustrate to us just how perfectly suited to this job he was, regaling us with tales of aggressive zebras and successful breeding programs, and explaining the difference between reticulated and Masai giraffes. He also shared tips on how to see more animals at the Lodge -- vary your schedule from day to day, walk around and look from different spots, and don't forget to look from the stairwells at Jambo House.

Steve talked, too, about how they attempt to mix animals that guests expect to see (the main attractions like zebras and ostriches) with less common species that might give a little extra special "magical moment" like the red river hogs, and of the unique challenge of maintaining what amounts to a 24-hour-a-day operation.

"Animal Kingdom Lodge never closes," he pointed out. "Guests want to see the animals when they are in their rooms, so we have to work around that when we want to restore the habitats, or care for the animals."

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As lunch progressed (first with a sampling of three Sanaa salads, then with our entrees of shrimp in green curry sauce and chicken in red curry sauce), we learned more about the different habitats at the Lodge, and how certain animals don't get along with others -- even within the same species. Steve also talked about how the animals are trained to come in from the savannas voluntarily. They learn if they come inside when they hear the percussion block, they will get the "jackpot" -- their main meal for the day. This allows the keepers to examine the animals in a controlled setting, and perform any vet-type procedures that may be necessary, without having to chase the animal around the savanna. Steve also explained how the philosophy at the Lodge differs somewhat from that of Animal Kingdom.


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"We don't want to replace Animal Kingdom," he noted. "We're the place you STAY when you go to Animal Kingdom, not instead of. Here at the Lodge we talk more about how we manage the animals -- we don't mind if you see the equipment or the pens, for example."

One of the things that struck me during our lunch is the emphasis Disney seems to place on making sure that the Lodge experience is as good for the animals as it is for the guests who stay there. Steve spoke at great length of the challenges of striking that balance between what's responsible regarding the animals with what the guest wants to see.

"We can't just keep these animals to show," he explained. "We need to be actively breeding them, and doing what is best for them. And it has to be sustainable -- we have to make it happen."


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After a wonderful trio of desserts from the Sanaa menu (Chocolate Cake, Orange-Sesame Cake with Passion Fruit Kulfi, and the absolutely to-die-for Chai Cream, center in the photo), Steve took us outside to conclude the program and introduced us to one of Kidani Village's residents -- a critically endangered radiated tortoise from Madagascar, named "Chappy" after one of Sanaa's chefs.


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Currently, Steve said that the Untamed lunch, which is only about two months old, is hosted mostly by managers who work with the animals, but that eventually animal keepers and possibly veterinarians will be joining in. That will only enhance what is already a stellar program.

Yes, I said stellar. The thing I always ask myself after I attend a special program like this is, "was it worth my time and/or money?" In this case, I have to answer myself (and is it wrong that I answer myself?) with a resounding YES. The food at Sanaa is outstanding -- I've always thought so, and truly believe this restaurant is one of the best-kept secrets at Walt Disney World. But more than just enjoying a wonderful meal in an amazing setting -- I mean, where else in Florida can you watch zebras and giraffes out the window while you dine? -- the Untamed lunch gives you the opportunity to discuss in-depth what it's like to work with the animals at Disney World. The hour and 45 minutes we spent with Steve fairly flew -- I could easily have stayed longer.

Whether you're an animal lover, or a Disney lover, or just looking for something off the beaten path while you're on your Disney vacation, the Untamed lunch has something to offer. Plus you not only learn about Disney's conservation efforts, but you have the satisfaction of knowing you are also contributing in some small way -- a portion of the cost of the lunch goes to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. And while the format of each lunch will be similar, the opportunity to talk to a different animal specialist each time lends this experience a high "repeatability factor" -- that means I would do it again, without hesitation.

The Who, What, Where, Whens:

As I said earlier, these luncheons are held Wednesdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. at the Kidani Village restaurant Sanaa. A four-course menu is served. (Special diets can be accommodated; request at time of booking.) Cost is $49 for ages 10 and up, $29 ages 3-9 (with a special kids' menu). Price includes tax, gratuity and a $5 contribution to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. Only 12 participants per lunch. To make reservations call 407-938-6922; select Option 3 and leave a message.


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About July 2011

This page contains all entries posted to AllEars® Team Blog in July 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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