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November 1, 2017

AllEars Newsletter Changes

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If you subscribe to the AllEars® and/or the Ears the Deal™ newsletters, you may know that they are distributed via an email service. Until recently, we used a service called MailerMailer. A few months ago, however, MailerMailer was acquired by a company called Campaigner, and as of last week our email lists have been migrated to this new service. With this change, you may notice some differences in how our newsletter emails come to you, so we thought we'd let you know what to expect.

First off, the emails will still come from our email address: allearsnewsletter@allears.net. If you haven't already, please be sure to put that email address, as well as the domain Campaigner.com, into your "always accepted" or "safe" list of senders so that our mailings aren't blocked or sent to your spam/junk folder.

The overall appearance of the newsletter should be unchanged, however, we will only be sending the newsletter out in HTML, not in plain text. If this is an issue for you, and you cannot see the newsletters in HTML, please drop us a note using our feedback form and we'll work something out.

Way at the bottom of each newsletter email, in the lower left corner, you'll find two personalized links, designed to make it easy for you to change your email address, your preferences, or even to -- gasp! -- unsubscribe. If you click on either of the links, you will be taken to the Campaigner.com website, where you can update your email preferences. (But we hope you don't want to unsubscribe!)

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Beyond that, we think that this change should be a fairly smooth one for you. You can read over our newsletter FAQ for additional details about our publications, and as always if you have any questions about anything, feel free to write to us using our feedback form and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

Thanks so much for reading along with us! We hope to continue sprinkling a little pixie dust in your email inbox for many more years to come!







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!)



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!



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.


September 28, 2015

Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar

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There are so many changes happening at Downtown Disney -- er, Disney Springs, I should say -- that it's tough to keep up!

But I was able to get over there the other day to check out the new waterfront lounge, Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar, which opened on Tuesday, September 22.

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Themed around a very minor character from the first Indiana Jones movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the new lounge quenches not just your thirst, but your thirst for movie memorabilia. The building, made to resemble an airplane hangar, is supposedly the establishment run by Indiana Jones's pilot Jock. You may remember Jock from an early scene in the film, as not only the pilot who helps Indy flee from the angry natives, but also owns pet snake Reggie.

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The lounge has a high ceiling and an airy feel, and the walls are lined with items that hark back to Jock's world-traveling, Indiana Jones-like exploits.

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There are even some sly references to other films with a Disney connection, such as Star Wars...

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And Marvel's Iron Man...

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And what about the drinks? What about the food?

Well, these items are also themed to the Indiana Jones movies, with offerings like "Good Dates," a reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark's poisonous "bad dates." These are yummy sweet dates stuffed with savory goat cheese.

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Among the other offerings are also "Lao Che's Revenge" (tasty, spicy-sweet sticky chicken wings), Brody's Brats and Snack of Ra, which is a combo of several African salad and dips, naan and an Ethiopian bread. You could easily make a meal, snacking around this relatively short menu that still manages to offer something for everyone.

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The drinks sport names like "Cool-Headed Monkey" and "Bam's Barnstormer" (with its inside-out paper umbrella, known elsewhere as the "Dark and Stormy"). They are colorful and fun, even though as of the day I was there the lounge still didn't have the special souvenir glasses to go along with many of the specialty cocktails.

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My one complaint, if there has to be one, is that there is such limited seating indoors. Since it's open seating, this leads to people being forced to hover over tables, waiting for others to finish up. Yes, there is plentiful outdoor seating, including Reggie's boat, an actual boat converted into a seating area off the main dock.

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If there's a nice breeze coming off of the water, it is lovely. However, this being Orlando, it might just as easily be hot and humid and/or stormy -- not conducive to having a nice, relaxing drink and a snack.

All in all, I really enjoyed Jock's -- though, I'm not sure how he warranted a place all his own, given his minor role in the Indiana Jones story as we know it. Still, it gives us all a chance to relive the movie memories as we peruse the paraphernalia around the room, and to say, one more time, "Snakes? Why'd it have to be snakes?"


September 22, 2015

D23 Expo 2015: The Magic Behind the Muppets

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I realize that D23 EXPO 2015 is old news by now, having taken place more than a month ago already, but I've been saving my write-up of this one panel discussion I attended specifically for this week.

"The Magic Behind the Muppets" was held the first day of the Expo, Friday, August 14, and aside from the "big hall" presentations, it was THE ONE panel discussion I had to see.

Even though I considered myself a bit too old for Sesame Street when it first came out -- I was all of about 9 -- I have to admit that I sneaked a peek now and then when my little sister was watching. And, I couldn't help it, I secretly fell in love with some of those crazy characters, especially Kermit the Frog and that adorable "fuzzy and blue" monster, Grover.

My Muppet Love grew in my late teens and early 20s, when The Muppet Show appeared on the scene. The variety show appealed to adults as well as kids, with corny humor mixed with a bit of anarchy, and featured a range of veteran performers and pop culture celebrities from Ethel Merman to Elton John to Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamil. I didn't miss a show. In fact, after I got married in 1981, my husband and I would race home after work to eat dinner in front of the TV with The Muppet Show syndicated reruns. Evening news, schmews.

So I think you understand why I HAD to see this panel.

The morning of the panel was the first chaotic day of the Expo, so I was a bit later getting into the room than I had planned. I ended up further away from the stage than I would have liked, so most of the photos here are official pictures from Disney, but I was there and that's what mattered!

The session was hosted by Entertainment Weekly's Marc Snetiker, who, judging from the grin on his face, was as pleased to be there as I was. One by one, he introduced the panelists, whose names are probably already familiar to you if you're also a Muppet fan:

Dave Goelz, the elder statesman of the group, who started working with Muppet creator Jim Henson in 1973 and is best-known for his work as the Great Gonzo (but he's also Bunsen Honeydew and Beauregard the bear)...

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Steve Whitmire, a part of the organization since 1978; he took over Kermit the Frog when creator Jim Henson died in 1990 and is also Rizzo the Rat...

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Bill Barretta, who voices one of my all-time favorites, Pepe the King Prawn (he's not a shrimp, OK?) and Rowlf the Dog, amongst others, has been with The Muppets since 1991...

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Eric Jacobson, with The Muppets since 2001, is now many of the characters created by Frank Oz, such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Sam Eagle...

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... and Matt Vogel, a relative newcomer to the Muppets (since 2007), the voice behind more recent characters like Constantine, Uncle Deadly and Robin the little frog.

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The camaraderie among this group was evident from the moment they took their seats. Through light-hearted anecdotes seasoned liberally with laughter, they related past Muppeting mayhem and answered questions from the audience both as themselves and along with their fabric and foam alter egos.

It soon became clear in moment like those illustrated in the video below that "The Magic Behind the Muppets" was the chemistry among the people tasked with making that magic.

Besides just giving fans a chance to gawk at these Muppet Men, one of the reasons for this panel was to promote the next chapter in the Muppets story -- a new ABC-TV show debuting this Tuesday night, September 22, at 8 p.m. After showing an in-depth, not to mention hilarious, trailer for the show, the men talked about its premise and what it has been like to work on this project.

Done in the "mock-doc" style of programs like ABC's "Modern Family," which interjects "private" interviews with the main characters into the running narrative, the show is very contemporary and set in the present day. Presented as a show-within-a-show, Miss Piggy has her own late-night television show and Kermit is her producer.

According to Barretta, Kermit has made only one mistake -- he has hired all of his friends to work for him. As a result, familiar faces populate the series. There's Pepe as one of Miss Piggy's writers, while skittish Beaker is handling props. The Swedish Chef is, naturally, in charge of the food (Craft Services), the Electric Mayhem performs as the show's band, and prim and proper Sam Eagle censors everyone in his role of Standards and Practices. Rowlf the dog operates the tavern across the street where everyone congregates after work.

"We are getting a chance to see what happens backstage after we call 'Cut!'" Barretta said. "We're focusing on the characters in their world."

"There's a real depth to the characters that we haven't seen before," Whitmire added, crediting the "very clever writers" that they have working on the scripts.

"The time feels right now," Jacobson noted. "And I'm so excited. I don't think I've ever been so excited about a project before."

Goelz eagerly agreed. "I don't think I've had this feeling since I worked on Fraggle Rock [a mid-1980s children's live-action series that featured Muppets called Fraggles]."

One of the things contributing to the Muppeteers' excitement is the way they have been able to shake things up a bit in this new incarnation of the show. Those of you who follow celebrity news will know that Kermit and Miss Piggy are no longer a romantic item -- a story that made headlines in the real tabloid press. Kermit even posted about it on his Facebook page:

After careful thought, thoughtful consideration and considerable squabbling, Miss Piggy and I made the difficult...

Posted by Kermit the Frog on Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Cue the melodramatic tension! This is bound to lead to some interesting storylines on the show and has allowed the writers to play with what the public thinks it knows about these beloved characters.

"Even the most casual fans have treated this like a real break-up," Whitmire laughed. "But I think it's good for the frog."

"We’re always learning,” Goelz added. “Every day we like to surprise each other with new aspects of the characters.”

After fielding questions from fans, the Muppeteers treated the crowd to a "behind-the-scenes" look at what it takes to make a Muppet scene. Six lucky volunteers were brought up to try their hand at operating their own Muppet.

Taking two recruits at a time, Whitmire demonstrated the proper way to the hold the Muppet (with arm fully extended overhead) and the correct way to make the Muppet speak. After a few minutes of practice, the two new Muppeteers had the chance to dance with the masters. Although the exercise was instructive, the results were simply sidesplitting when the group danced to Beyonce's "Single Ladies," followed by Pepe's rather suggestive dance to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."

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This latter episode begged the question, "Will the new Muppets TV show be TOO racy?"

"Oh, it will be a little edgy," Whitmire said, "but nothing that parents can’t let their kids watch.”

"We always have worked to amuse ourselves," Goelz explained. "After all, we're stuck there at work all day. That was even true of Sesame Street before me."

"Yes, with love and all due respect to our fans," Whitmire added, "we have always done this work for ourselves. But with this show, I have to say, I am laughing out loud when I read the scripts."

As the program ended after an all-too-short hour, I found myself thinking about how lucky I was to have been in that room to see those talents at work first-hand. That's the amazing thing about the D23 Expo -- the chances it gives you to get a glimpse into creative worlds that have had such a huge impact on you throughout the years. That's what keeps me coming back every two years and has me looking forward to D23 Expo 2017.

But first, I'm looking forward to this week. The Muppets. ABC. September 22 at 8 p.m. As Fozzie Bear would say: Wocka wocka!

July 16, 2015

2015 Food and Wine Festival Sneak Preview, Part 2

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I'm back with more news from the Tables in Wonderland preview of this year's Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.

I only just mentioned in passing the special ticketed dining experiences the other day. I already talked about the new Rockin' Burger Block Party, but forgot to share with you a few photos of the types of sliders that will be on offer at this experience.

There's the Oklahoma BBQ Beef Slider with Mmmhops Pale Ale Onion Fries and Smoked Bologna Baked Beans -- paired of course with Mmmhops Pale Ale, from the brothers of pop group Hanson.

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And we also had a chance to sample the South African Vegetarian Bunny Chow Slider with The Dreaming Tree Chardonnay Watermelon Salad -- in case you didn't know, The Dreaming Tree wines are affiliated with singer Dave Matthews (a personal fave!).

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As I look over the list of other programs for this year, I don't see many additions (and note quite a few subtractions). Still, I didn't mean to give the others such short shrift. There are a few things in this 20th anniversary year that are a bit intriguing.

New for 2015 are a Japanese Craft Beer Tasting and an Italian Food, Wine and Beer Pairing. The latter seems a combination of last year's Food and Beer Pairing with a more traditional Wine Pairing, I'm guessing to appeal to more participants. I'm not much of a beer drinker, but if I get the chance, either of these might be a good way to try to learn an appreciation for the beverage. I'll be seeing if I can make the times for those programs fit into my schedule.

Also, the programs "Sunday Mornings with..." and "Food for Thought" seem to be have been combined into the new "What's Cookin' with..." -- a series of twice-weekly programs featuring a light brunch, and a cooking demo and conversation with a celebrity chef, such as Andrew Zimmern, Robert Irvine or Carla Hall (from The Chew). Most of these chefs have been to the Epcot Food and Wine Festival before, however, as a devotee of the TV shows Chopped! and Iron Chef, I'm interested to see the names Amanda Freitag and Alex Guarnaschelli this year -- hope I'm in town to see one of them, at least.

What I am really interested in, however, is what's happening in the France pavilion.

You may have noticed as you read over the list the France pavilion is no longer offering the Grand Marnier tasting that they've had for the past several years. Instead a new experience is on the schedule: The Parisian Afternoon, Sandwiches, Macarons and Bubbles! To be held in the restaurant Monsieur Paul, this event promises an assortment of finger sandwiches, petit fours and unlimited mimosas -- all for $55 per person. Based on how enjoyable the Parisian Breakfast program they've offered the past few years has been, I can't wait to try the afternoon outing myself.

The team at France is also mixing up its tried-and-true French Regional Lunch program. This year they are abandoning the "regional" theme altogether, and Monsieur Paul will instead host French Family Meal Traditions. This new experience will allow guests to enjoy the chefs' favorite meals from their childhoods, in a long, lingering meal served family style and paired with "perfect" wines. As Eric Weistroffer, general manager of operations in the pavilion notes, "In France we eat like this -- a big family meal that lasts all afternoon, and as we are eating dessert we start to plan what we will have for dinner." It sounds like my kind of gathering!

Some of the other new things for the festival this year:

-- For the first time, the festival has its own private label wines! Called "Festival" the chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon come from California and were just bottled the other day, but we had a chance to sample them -- the red was surprisingly good. And I say surprisingly because it is such a young wine -- but there were notes of vanilla and berries that made my tastebuds very happy.

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-- In addition to the two new "Chew"-related booths that will be in Future World, there are two other new Future World booths making up an exhibit called The Art of Wine and Cheese. Designed to resemble an artist's studio, these two kiosks will be stocked with a selection of wines and cheeses arranged by color, allowing you to have fun will you pick your pairings. According to Chef Mike Deardorff, the cheeses will include an Oregon blue cheese and a chevre, or goat cheese, while the wines will be vintages from California, Oregon and Washington State.

-- The Food and Wine Festival Discovery Sampler Package which includes the following:

* 8 entitlements for food or beverage of your choice at 30 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 the package is purchased.

* Limited release 20th Food and Wine pin that comes in three color options.

PRICE: $59 per person, plus tax. Epcot admission is required.

Note that a limited number of packages are available each day.

-- Remy's Ratatouille Hide and Squeak, a scavenger hunt around World Showcase for young and old alike. To join the hunt, you'll have to purchase a map and stickers from a special location, then search for little statuettes of the "little chef" Remy, star of the film "Ratatouille", that have been hidden. Once you've found all the little statues and matched the ingredient stickers to your map, you can take the finished product for a special surprise, compliments of Remy.

I've had a number of questions from readers about the Festival Premium Package that was offered last year, but there has been no word yet whether it will return this year. The Eat to the Beat Dinner Package IS coming back, however. This package, available for lunch or dinner at a number of Epcot restaurants, includes your choice of appetizer, entree, dessert and non-alcoholic beverage (or one full buffet), as well as guaranteed seating at an Eat to the Beat concert on that day. For a list of participating restaurants and pricing, as well as a scheduled entertainment, check our Eat to the Beat page HERE.

Remember:

-- Details about festival programs are available online now (http://disneyworld.com/foodandwinefestival), giving those interested two full weeks to plan before booking starts at 7 a.m. on July 30 at 407-WDW-FEST (939-3378).

-- As in years past, Tables in Wonderland members, Annual Passholders, Disney Vacation Club Members, and Golden Oak Residents will be able to book culinary demos and beverage and mixology seminars early. This year early booking for these programs starts July 24 at 9 a.m. at 407-WDW-FEST (939-3378). A $2 discount is available to the above-mentioned guests for seminars and demos held Monday through Thursday.

-- The cast of The Chew will be filming a week's worth of shows October 7, 8 and 9. They will also be filming segments around Walt Disney World to be broadcast on upcoming shows. The co-hosts will also attend the Rockin' Burger Block Party on October 8.

I think that brings you up to speed on most of what's happening at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival this year. We'll certainly do our best to bring you any more details as they are announced.

Quick Ref Guide:

International Markeplace Menus with Photos

Special Ticketed Dining Events
Eat to the Beat Concerts/Dinner Package

Culinary Demos/Beverage Seminars

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at the Tables in Wonderland event. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.

July 12, 2015

2015 Food and Wine Festival Sneak Preview, Part 1

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It's that time of year again... as summer reaches its peak and we look toward the cooler temps of autumn, it's time to start thinking about the annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival!

In anticipation of that event, the Tables in Wonderland team hosted its yearly "sneak preview" of the festival for its members. Held in the spacious World ShowPlace in Epcot's World Showcase, I had the chance to sample some of the newest offerings and learn about what treats are in store for us for this, the festival's 20th anniversary.

Marianne Hunnel, area manager festival content development, hosted the preview, aided by Chef de Cuisine Michael Deardorff.

I don't know about you, but one of my favorite parts of the festival is visiting the Marketplaces that ring World Showcase. So I thought first I'd give you a run-down of the new and returning marketplace offerings:

The big news is that for the first time the festival is crossing into Epcot's Future World. A new area called "Next Eats" will feature two new marketplaces that are drawing inspiration from the television show, The Chew. (The Chew is playing a big part in this year's festival, in fact -- read the press release HERE.)

The first, Sustainable Chew, will feature recipes adapted from The Chew co-hosts. The plates and utensils used in this area will be recyclable, adds Chef Mike, further reinforcing the sustainability message of using techniques that protect the environment.

From this booth we had the chance to sample the pork spareribs with red wine and fennel and cheesy mascarpone grits, which was paired with a frozen "Chew-tini" -- a slushy-like drink made of organic Meyer lemon vodka, carrot-mango juice and a citrus sour mix.

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The ribs were tender and the cheesy grits were pure comfort food. I was especially pleased to learn that the the fennel that will be used in this dish will be among the herbs and vegetables actually be grown in Epcot's Land pavilion. As for the Chew-tini -- it was very refreshing, the kind of drink it's easy to have too many of without realizing it!

The other offerings this marketplace will have were not available to sample -- ricotta and zucchini ravioli with tomato sauce and vanilla panna cotta with fresh figs and pistachio brittle -- but Chef Mike said that his team will be ready by September to make the couple thousand ravioli that they'll have to produce every day.

A second new Future World marketplace at Next Eats will feature the Chew Lab, what Chef Mike referred to jokingly as a sort of "Muppet Labs." In this marketplace, Disney chefs are collaborating with “The Chew” to create tastes that use some of the hottest culinary tech trends.

The food offering we had the chance to try was a strip steak with parsnip "silk," balsamic glaze and arugula foam. Not a fan of the foam, but the steak itself was tasty.

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This dish was matched with a unique Smoking Hibiscus drink that featured Mezcal and a hisbiscus flower that was quickly frozen in liquid nitrogen on the spot.

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While I didn't care for the smoky concoction, I have to admit it was fun to watch them dunk the flower in the liquid nitro and watch it transform into a crisp garnish.

Another item from the Chew Lab also employs the liquid nitro technique -- a chocolate almond truffle with warm whiskey caramel. Mmmm. That's all you need to know.

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Other brand-new items that will be available during the festival (but weren't part of the preview) include a venison loin with a mushroom marsala sauce that will be found in the New Zealand marketplace, and buttered chicken and naan at the Africa marketplace. I can't wait for that!

Some of the returning and/or "reimagined" items that we sampled were the Pescado con Coco (seared grouper, rice and coconut sauce) from the Dominican Republic...

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Loaded Mac 'n' Cheese (with Nueske's Pepper Bacon) from the Farm Fresh marketplace...

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Fresh Potato Pancake with Scottish Salmon and Herb Sour Cream...

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the Citrus Thistle made with Hendricks Gin...

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and Haggis with Neeps and Tatties...

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And good news for purists -- this year's haggis is not a vegetarian version as offered in years past. According to Chef Mike, they have found an American company that makes a meat-based haggis that is NEARLY the same as that made in Scotland.

While there are 20 new or reimagined food offerings and 20 new beverage offerings, the special dining experiences also have a few fresh entries.

One item that jumps out at me is the new Rockin' Burger Block Party, which will be offered September 25, October 8 (when the co-hosts of The Chew will attend) and November 6. This promises to be night of eating, drinking and making merry, as you'll be able to dine on a variety of sliders inspired by recording artists who are somehow affiliated with the beverage industry (such Hanson, which has its own beer, marketed at the festival). The beverages at the event will be related to these musicians and guests will be able to enjoy it all while listening and dancing to tracks spun by a DJ.

For more details on this new event, and the other special dining experiences that require a ticket, check out the listing HERE.

That's all I have now to whet your appetite. I'll be back soon with details about the returning Eat to the Beat dining package, another special tasting package, and other Food and Wine Festival activities that you'll want to know about!

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at the Tables in Wonderland event. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.

November 10, 2014

Wandering Oaken Trading Post's New Location

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I almost hate to admit this, but I have not seen the movie "Frozen" yet. I know, I know -- Bad Disney Fan. For the record, I've bought the DVD, just haven't made the time to sit and watch. But, given the "Frozenification" of Walt Disney World these past few months, I FEEL as though I've seen it. Moreover, as I walk around the parks, at times I feel as though I'm living it!

Nowhere is this feeling more prevalent than in Disney's Hollywood Studios, which features a "Frozen" sing-along and other Frozen-inspired features.

I recently made a pass through the relocated Wandering Oaken Trading Post and Frozen Snowground and felt as if I had been transported to snowy Arendelle and was overwhelmed by all manner of things "Frozen."

To find the new location, walk to the park's Studio Catering Company and then follow the signs pointing you to what was the exit of the now-closed Backlot Tour, in the former AFI Showcase. There's a bit of theming there to let you know you're entering the somewhat rustic outpost.

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I really liked some of the details they've brought from the previous trading post, to fully convey the spirit of the film.

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If you have a "Frozen" fan who you'll be shopping for this upcoming holiday season, this is the place for you! Name a merchandise item and you'll find it here with Anna, Elsa, Olaf, Kristoff and/or Sven the reindeer decorating it. Just take a look at some of what you can find here:

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Plush Sven ($21.95)

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Olafs in Abundance! Plush ($17.95), Hat ($29.95), Talking Plush ($29.95)
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Walls and walls of dolls!
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Even Precious Moments Anna and Elsa!
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Note that many of these collectible-type items have a limit of five per customer.

Besides the cuddly toys, there's a wide variety of apparel and accessories, from jewelry to t-shirts (for boys and girls), pencil cases ($19.95), cell phone covers ($36.95), and of course the all-important Magic Wand ($9.39).

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To get a little more bang for your buck, note that there's currently a special offer: Buy $40 worth of merchandise and get this tote bag for $16.95:

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And Annual Passholders, don't forget about your discount!

Over in the Frozen Snowground, you can pick up some refreshments, and maybe even play in the expanded snow area. (The ice skating rink from the previous location didn't make the transition over to this spot.)

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And don't miss your PhotoPass photo op!

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All in all, this little area is well-themed and a nice side-trip while you're touring the park -- a great place to beat the heat and maybe pick up a souvenir or two for any of your family or friends who know how to "Let It Go!"

I'm sure I'll appreciate it even more once I see the film -- sometime soon, I promise!


July 31, 2014

Food and Wine Feeding Frenzy

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UGH! I feel as though I just finished the annual running of the bulls at Pamplona. And I am well and truly trampled.

OK, not literally, obviously. But figuratively that's what the annual frenzy to book Epcot Food and Wine Festival events has become for me.

For those of you who don't know, every year Deb Wills and I attend a variety of the Festival events, both to report on them for the AllEars.Net website and AllEars newsletter, and because well, let's face it, we really enjoy food and wine!

We book these events just like you do, because, you may be surprised to learn, we pay for these events ourselves. (Yes, sometimes we get an invitation to attend something as a media guest, but those occasions are in the minority, as we really do try to maintain an independent perspective when we're reviewing, not just the Festival, but anything Disney.)

We set our alarms and dutifully call 407-WDW-FEST at precisely 7 a.m. on the designated day(s). We get the panic-inducing ALL CIRCUITS ARE BUSY message and go through the infuriating phone tree. We wait an inordinate amount of time on hold (a long-distance call, by the way, not a toll-free number) listening to "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" while thinking, "Yeah, maybe, but right now today really stinks."

Once we get through to a real, live human being we endure as they slowly scroll through the computer screen searching for the event that we have asked about ("Is it at 1 p.m.? I don't see anything with that name..."). We can practically hear our chances at reserving the event whoosh past us as a hundred other guests book our coveted lunch or dinner. I often imagine myself reaching through the phone and taking over the cast member's computer, channeling Woody in Toy Story and screaming in exasperation, "Oh, give me that! Plus is positive, minus is negative!" If by some chance an event that we request is open, we hastily recite our Disney VISA card numbers and listen impatiently to the spiel about nontransferable, nonrefundable, yada yada yada, eager to move on and book the next event.

So, I've just concluded the 2014 bull-running, er, booking experience. I was attempting to reserve events for two trips: one for the first weekend of the festival, for research purposes, and one personal getaway weekend in October with my husband. Yes, I was planning on spending a lot of money, and I had my Disney VISA all warmed up. But after spending 45 minutes on hold on Tuesday, I was unable to book any Festival event that I wanted, save one. Today, I wasn't even able to get past the "ALL CIRCUITS ARE BUSY" message and gave up trying after 20 minutes of speed-dialing. Fortunately Deb Wills, who somehow managed to get in the phone queue ahead of me on both days, saw my frantic emails detailing my situation and was able to book several events for me while scheduling her own. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't be attending ANY of the festival events that I wanted.

Now I'm left here wondering, just as I did last year, and every year for the last 10+ years that I've been "running with the bulls," WHY? WHY does it have to be so frantic and infuriating? Why does a company that prides itself on providing excellent customer service consistently get this wrong?

Oh, it's not that Disney hasn't tried to expedite this process. They've put a selection of events online, so that you can conveniently book them yourself at your leisure. And they have implemented several "early booking" dates for certain guests -- those with Tables in Wonderland memberships, Annual Passholders, Disney VISA card holders and residents of the Golden Oak Community. Since I qualify for three of those categories, lucky me, I can book some of these events a few days ahead of the general public. So why am I complaining? That sounds like a good solution, right?

No, what that really means is that now I can call on TWO days, wait a half-hour each time, maybe more, and find myself STILL shut out of the events that I want to attend. Yeah, lucky me.

I know that by now some of you might be saying, "What's she complaining about? At least she can afford to go to these events -- they're too expensive for me." I know. First World Problems, as they say.

But I'm not alone. There are plenty of people who really enjoy the Food and Wine Festival and look forward to it as much as I do -- and dread the cursed "booking day" just as much, as well.

While I'm on interminable hold, feeling my normally low blood pressure skyrocketing, I'm surfing the Internet, reading message boards and Facebook. I see many folks chattering about the same thing. Some are triumphant: "I got through! And my cast member actually knew what she was doing! I got everything I wanted!" But most aren't: "I was on hold on two phones, my cell and my home phone, for 45 minutes! By the time I got through, the reserved seating for the Walt Disney dinner was gone." "I couldn't get the tequila lunch I wanted." "The cast member couldn't find the Eat to the Beat package, and put me on hold for another 10 minutes. When he came back, he said it wasn't in the system yet! By then, everything else I wanted to book was sold out."

So what IS the answer? How can Disney avoid leaving a bad taste in so many people's mouths? And more importantly, how can we all reserve at least some of the events we want without having to go through this annual feeding frenzy?

Is the problem understaffing? Are there simply not enough cast members working at 7 a.m. on "booking morning" to handle the call volume? When I call exactly at 7 a.m. and am told that my wait time will be "more than 30 minutes," I suspect that to be the case.

Is the problem insufficient training? I recall last year when a cast member told me that he could see the event I wanted in the system, but he didn't know how to book it. How is that possible? This year, a cast member told me that he couldn't find the thing I was asking about in the system. (This actually has happened to me almost every year.) It took five full minutes before the cast member located the event. And believe me, those five minutes are precious when you're competing with hundreds of other guests for a spot at a limited seating dinner. Needless to say, by the time he found it, the event was sold out.

I can't put all the blame on the cast members handling the phones, though. Some of them are wonderful -- extremely competent and pleasant, on a day that must be awfully stressful. I'm sure it's terrifying to have thousands of calls light up your phones at 7 a.m. on Food and Wine booking day. They probably feel like they're being thrown to the wolves as they have to deal with thousands of cranky callers, some of whom are probably not as nice and patient as I try to be when hearing repeatedly, "No. Sorry. Not that one either. Sold out. Sorry." I don't envy them at all.

I do have a few suggestions that might streamline the process. Like, if I'm calling WDW-FEST, which is presumably a phone line dedicated to festival events, why do I have to go through the usual Disney Dining phone tree? That takes up valuable time. Maybe there could be dedicated phone lines for specific events, so that people calling to reserve the Signature Dinners -- which have very limited seating and can be unbelievably pricey -- wouldn't be competing with people wanting to book the Food and Wine pairings.

But the truth is, I don't know what the ultimate solution is. I only know that, as a consumer, this annual Food and Wine Festival frenzy is what I would call A Very Bad Customer Experience.

Still, by the time September rolls around and I'm biting into my first sample from an International Marketplace, I probably won't remember how frazzled I'm feeling at this moment. The Epcot Food and Wine Festival is truly THE event at Walt Disney World that I look forward to and enjoy the most every year, so I know that once it starts I'll get caught up in all the new tastes and experiences. I'll plunge headlong into sampling as much of the Festival as I can and will enthusiastically report on everything I experience for AllEars.Net readers. It's what I do, every year. And I love it.

It's just that until then I'm left with this "trampled by the bulls" feeling.

Good thing I have six weeks or so to recover.


February 20, 2014

Testing.... Testing... 1... 2... 3

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Have you ever thought about what would make AllEars.Net better than it is?

We do, all the time.

That's why we periodically conduct reader surveys, and why we read each and every email we get, even though we can't possibly reply individually. We take our feedback seriously, and we are constantly trying to improve.

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Our latest attempt at improving the site is nearly ready to be unveiled. Over the past year and a half, we've been working on a comprehensive dining database that we think will be a useful tool in helping you plan your Walt Disney World vacations. Our goal is twofold -- to make it easier for you to have all the information you need about Walt Disney World dining at your fingertips, and to make it easier for us to keep that information up-to-date.

So we've pulled together all the information we have about almost every Walt Disney World dining location -- location descriptions, dining plan and discount info, menus, restaurant and food photos, videos, even recipes -- all into one place.

We're nearly done, but first we want to make sure that it all works the way we -- and you -- want and need for it to work.

So we're asking for your help -- call it a "beta test," if you will.

What we want is for you to poke around and try the new database, kick the tires so to speak, and let us know what you think of it. Here are the links you'll need to get started:

Dining Location Index
http://allears.net/dining/location

Menu Index
http://allears.net/dining/menu/

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I want to stress again that it's not 100 percent complete -- we realize there are a few pieces missing, like the search function, and maybe some of the menus are a little out of date. It is still a work in progress.

Still, we want to hear what you think. After you've tried it out a bit, leave us a comment at the end of this blog.

We won't publish your comments, but we will read every one and take them all into consideration, as we continue to build what we hope will be the most comprehensive and useful Disney dining database around.

Thanks in advance for all your help and your continued support!



June 7, 2013

Henna: That'll Leave a Mark!

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Now and then, I've thought about getting a tattoo -- nothing too flashy, but maybe just a small flower or butterfly, discreetly placed on a shoulder or inside the wrist. I've never actually committed to such permanent body art, though, partially because I'm a bit leery of the pain and needle involved.

What I have done several times, though, is indulge in getting temporary henna "tattoos," like those popularized by the Indian and Middle Eastern cultures.


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Henna is a plant that grows in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and across other hot, dry regions in Asia. Its dried leaves are ground into a powder and mixed with other ingredients to make a paste which, when applied to the skin, will stain it in much the same way that a used teabag will stain a surface its left on. No needles are involved in the process, making it an easy and relatively inexpensive alternative to true tattooing, which can be painful to both the skin and the pocketbook.

At Walt Disney World, there are two places you can get a lovely henna tattoo -- in the Morocco pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase, and at the Mombasa Marketplace in Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The latter location is where I've had henna tattoos done a few times over the last year. The process is quite quick, and completely painless.

First, choose your design from a book chock full of photos that show not only the patterns, but suggested placement. Prices range from $15 for less complicated patterns up to $35 for the more intricate designs.


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Once you choose your design, the cast member at the henna station will write an order for you, which you must take inside the shop so you can pay in advance. Take the receipt back out to the henna artist and have a seat.

Henna artists are skilled in drawing intricate patterns with the paste, which is applied with a type of pen -- sort of like a gel pen.


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I'm so impressed with how quickly these artists work, and they do it all freehand. Obviously, they've had loads of practice, but they move swiftly and confidently, creating beautiful swirls and flourishes without mistakes.


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Before you know it, your hand (or arm or leg or whichever body part you've designated for your henna) is decorated, and possibly even sprinkled with a little glittery "pixie dust." (That's a Disney touch -- I'm not sure whether traditional henna artists ever accent their work with glitter and jewels.)



The entire procedure from design selection to the application of the henna takes less than a half-hour (unless, of course, you have to wait for other customers for your turn with the henna artist). As I said before, there's no pain involved -- the paste has a strong odor, but it doesn't sting the skin when it's applied. There's just the light pressure of someone painting or drawing on you. (NOTE: If you have very sensitive skin or are prone to allergies, you may want to check with your doctor before getting a henna tattoo -- or perhaps test a very small amount of the paste on your skin to determine if you have a reaction.)

The henna paste must stay on your skin for several hours (the henna artists suggest at least eight) to really "soak in" -- the longer you can leave it on, the deeper the stain penetrates, and the longer the design should last. As the paste dries, it cracks and then gradually flakes off, revealing the henna "tattoo," which is initially rather orange in color. It darkens over the next day or so to a deep reddish-brown.


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How long the stain lasts depends on a number of variables. Thicker skin, like that on the palms of the hands, holds the stain longer. Also, keeping the henna area moisturized, using body lotion or baby oil, may help it to last a little longer. Conversely, if you swim in chlorinated water, which tends to dry the skin out, the henna may fade more quickly.

With time, your dead skin cells flake off, and the dye fades away. As you can see, this henna had really faded after about 10 days.


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The henna tattoos I've gotten have generally lasted about two weeks, despite my efforts to prolong them, but the henna artists I've spoken to say they've had the tattoos stick with them as long as a month.

As I said, that's not been my experience. For example, there's no trace of the latest henna tattoo I had -- it was applied at the end of April.


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Guess that means I'm ready for another, the next time I'm in the World!

May 3, 2013

Monstrous Summer Preview: Princess Fairytale Hall

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During the "Monstrous Summer" media event, I had the chance to get a little peek behind the construction walls surrounding the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and talk to Imagineers about the work being done on both the coaster, due to open in 2014, and the Princess Fairytale Hall, which will debut sometime later this year.

Alas, no photos were permitted behind the wall, but we do have some new artists' renderings of what Princess Fairytale Hall will look like. I was also able to get a few more details about the meet-and-greet location, which will be approximately on the site of the former Snow White's Scary Adventures, from Imagineers Pam Rawlins, assistant producer, and creative designer Jason Grandt.

According to Rawlins, when guests enter Princess Fairytale Hall they will be immersed into the "majestic world of the princesses."

"It will all be very elegant, with dark wood panelings and elegant finishes, with a bit of a gothic motif, so you really feel like you're in the castle," she says. "You will be a royal subject meeting your princess."


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"You'll enter through a tournament-type structure into the castle, and you'll pass our stained-glass windows that feature scenes and characters from classic movies, like Jacques and Gus-Gus from Cinderella," Rawlins explains. "Then you'll go through our Royal Gallery. This is a very airy, very open, high-ceilinged gallery, with our framed princess portraits and chandeliers, all very elegant."

Rawlins says you will then be received by your princess, and will be directed to one of two rooms, where you will meet up with either Cinderella and a friend, or Rapunzel and a friend.

"You won't know until that day who the friend will be," Rawlins adds.

Grandt notes that the Princess Fairytale Hall, while similar in purpose, does not borrow anything from the new Fantasy Faire character meeting spot that opened recently at the Disneyland Resort.

"I haven't even seen the California location yet," he says, "though I hope to this coming weekend."

Grandt also emphasizes the "opulent" furnishings and appointments the new Hall will have, particularly mentioning the princess character portraits that have been created.

"They are really beautiful," he adds, "I think you will really enjoy seeing them."



Although construction on the new meet-and-greet location seems to be moving apace, neither Grandt nor Rawlins would be more specific as to an actual opening date. "Later this year" was all either of them would say.


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Guess we'll have to wait patiently to meet our new Royal Highnesses! But it will certainly be nice to have them all in one place, in Fantasyland.


Disney Magic's "Splashtacular" Enhancements

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The biggest news from last week's "Monstrous Summer" media event was the announcement that the Disney Magic would be undergoing some significant changes when it goes into dry dock this coming September.


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Changes to the ship, the oldest in Disney's fleet, include a redesigned atrium entry, the incorporation of Marvel Comics into the kids' clubs with the addition of the Avengers Academy, new dining experiences and a revamped adult nightclub area. To read more about these enhancements, see the official press release HERE.

Imagineer Joe Lanzisero walked the audience through all of these changes, but seemed most excited by what's planned for the upper deck water play area of the ship.

For kids ages 3 and up, there will be a new AquaLab, an interactive water playground with pop jets, geysers and bubblers in an 1,800-square-foot space. There will also be a new Twist n' Spout water slide with more than 250 feet of loops and turns for guests between 38 and 64 inches tall.


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The littlest cruisers (up to age 3) can play in the new Nephews' Splash Zone, an interactive space with pop jets that features Donald Duck's nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie.

While Disney Cruise Line's newest ships, the Dream and the Fantasy, have the "water coaster" known as the AquaDuck, the Magic will be getting a significantly different water feature. Known as the AquaDunk, this is basically a high-speed water slide that drops its brave visitors three stories through a translucent tube that juts out about 20 feet beyond the side of the ship.


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Here's Lanzisero outlining the "splastacular" water feature changes coming to the Magic, including a short video of the AquaDunk experience:



And here's Imagineer Peter Ricci giving a few more details of the AquaDunk from The Disney Parks Blog:



The Magic will go into dry dock in Cadiz, Spain, on September 7. In spite of all the enhancements planned, the ship is expected to be completely transformed by the time it is due to leave dry dock on October 10.


May 2, 2013

Animal Kingdom's New Wilderness Explorers

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As promised, I'm planning to share some more details from the "Monstrous Summer" media event last week. I was going to include everything in one blog, but thought it might be more useful if I broke it out into individual topics. So let's get started!

One of the projects featured at last week's "Monstrous Summer" media event at Walt Disney World was the soon-to-debut "Wilderness Explorers" at Disney's Animal Kingdom.



The new program is an interactive experience that invites guests to explore Animal Kingdom in "engaging and challenging ways" aimed at deepening understanding of animals and the natural world we live in. The "Wilderness Explorer" theme is taken from the Disney-Pixar film, "UP!" -- one of the main characters, Russell, is a Wilderness Explorer himself.

Disney California Adventure already has a version of the Wilderness Explorer Program at its Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, but Walt Disney World's edition will obviously be different, due to the nature of its home park.


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In the Animal Kingdom iteration of the program, guests will take an official pledge. Then, as new "Explorers," they can wander the park at their leisure, armed with field guides that describe challenges they can complete to earn sticker badges along the way. There will be about 30 different badges available.

Imagineer Alex Wright was on hand at the media event and took a few minutes to describe the program:



According to Wright, many elements of the "Wilderness Explorers" program have already been subtly integrated into the theme park -- we might have walked right past them and not noticed.

Though the activity is geared to children ages 7 to 10, it's something that the whole family will be able to participate in and enjoy. Wright says that he expects that the first Explorers will be earning their badges very soon, within the next few weeks.

The Wilderness Explorers program will be included in admission to Disney's Animal Kingdom.

March 12, 2013

Flower and Food? Food and Vine? The Epcot 2013 Flower and Garden Festival

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This article appeared in the March 12, 2013 Issue #703 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

FlowersIn the interest of full disclosure I'll admit to you all up front that I do not have a green thumb. It's not that I can't grow plants, exactly -- it's more that I subject them to a slow and lingering death. I love plants, and gardens, I really do. I just don't know how to get them to flourish, so I tend to leave it to the professionals... or at least to my husband, who definitely wears the green thumbs in our family.

Still, I do enjoy looking at green things. I can appreciate the beauty of and skill behind perfectly manicured gardens and the explosion of color that springtime flowers bring after a bleak northern winter. That's why I have enjoyed visiting Epcot during its annual Flower and Garden Festival year after year.

But this year, I was looking forward to the festival, which started March 6 and runs through May 19, with a renewed enthusiasm. Why? Because a few months ago I learned of the addition of a miniature "Food and Wine Festival" taking place within the 20th Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. "Get a Taste of Spring" the festival organizers cleverly teased. You mean I get to eat and drink some new and exciting foods and beverages WHILE taking in the fabulous flowers? Sign me up!

Thus enticed, I anticipated this year's event eagerly. Not only did I have all the tasty new treats ahead of me, I was escaping from what I hope was Mother Nature's last-gasp of winter, last week's storm that threatened to dump multiple feet of snow on my Northern Virginia home.

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FIRST THINGS FIRST
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Rocky Road Brownie MousseEven though I've attended the Flower and Garden Festival many times before, I didn't really get to explore it last year at all, so I approached this visit as I normally do -- by concentrating first on what was new. As I noted at the outset, the biggest change this year, and maybe the thing seasoned visitors are most curious about, is the addition of the "food" element. Would this enhance or detract from the Flower and Garden experience? This added dimension intrigued me, so I spent a great deal of time eating my way around World Showcase's 12 Garden Marketplaces to evaluate it.

The Marketplaces themselves -- the physical structures -- are not unlike those you'd find at the Food and Wine Festival. In fact, I think most of them were actually re-purposed Food and Wine Festival booths given catchy names like Primavera Kitchen (in the Italy pavilion) and Bauernmarkt (in Germany). Stationed in front of each marketplace are at least two giant planters overflowing with fresh-growing produce -- vegetables and herbs, ingredients all used in the dishes being prepared in the marketplaces' tiny kitchens. The tie-in with the Flower and Garden Festival was obvious, and I thought made a lot of sense. Why not showcase the seasonality and freshness of the ingredients in an event that is essentially all about reconnecting with nature?

But what about what was going on INSIDE the Marketplaces? Were the Garden Marketplaces successful? In a word, yes. As Chef Jens Dahlmann, executive chef of Epcot, noted when talking to media the other day, one of his primary aims was to not replicate anything that you might find at the annual fall Food and Wine Festival. He definitely achieved that, and in some cases exceeded all expectations.

After visiting all of the marketplaces over the course of several days, and tasting nearly every item, here's my short list of winners and... well, let's not say losers. Let's call them... also-rans.

Winner #1: Shrimp and stone-ground grits with andouille sausage, Zellwood corn, tomatoes and cilantro, from the Florida Fresh Marketplace. Tender, perfectly cooked and seasoned shrimp coupled with creamy grits and a subtle kick of spicy sausage made for my favorite dish of the festival.

Winner #2: Watermelon Salad with pickled red onions, baby arugula, feta cheese and balsamic reduction, also at the Florida Fresh Marketplace. Who would have thought that the sharpness of feta would pair so well with juicy, sweet watermelon and onions? The combination of tastes and textures -- sweet, salty, crunchy, crumbly -- made for a totally surprising, and totally delicious, dish.

Winner #3: Lasagna Primavera at the Primavera Kitchen (Italy): Vegetable lasagna NEVER tasted so good. A slightly sweet tomato sauce, tender spinach pasta sheets, layered with peas, zucchini, mushrooms, broccolini and some of the best bechamel sauce I've had in a long time. The only reason I didn't go back for seconds was because the portion size was so generous.

Honorable Mentions: Limoncello Panna Cotta with wild berries and Green Asparagus and lobster with garden cocktail sauce (both at Primavera Kitchen); Frushi (Fruit Sushi at Hanami); and Rocky Road Brownie Mousse (The Smokehouse).

Now, for the not-so-good news:

Jardin de Fiestas FoodsAlso-Ran #1: Pulled Pig Slider with Cole Slaw (The Smokehouse): The oaky, smoky aromas wafting from the Smokehouse were tantalizing and the place looked great, so I had high expectations, but this pork left me cold -- little to no BBQ sauce, and the cole slaw was tart to the point of being inedible.

Also-Ran #2: Ginger and Green Tea Trifle at The Cottage (UK Pavilion): The other trifles in this trio of desserts (chocolate and wild berry) were perfectly scrumptious -- I had no idea the pretty green third cup would be such a let-down. The flavors just didn't work.

Also-Ran #3: Guava Flan at Jardin de Fiestas (Mexico): The orangey-brownish color of the flan alone was not very appetizing, but the musky, slightly tart flavor sealed the deal. Or maybe I just don't like guava.

Other items that disappointed: Dried out Ratatouille Tart with Goat Cheese at L'Orangerie (France); heavy and dry Savory Bread Pudding with Peas and Mushroom Ragout and Potato Pancake with housemade applesauce (both at the Bauernmarkt in Germany). The potato pancake in particular was disappointing -- the pancake was good and flavorful, but it was unnecessarily drenched with an overly sweet applesauce. Why?

That brings me to one of my complaints about several of the dishes in general. Why hide their natural goodness under gorpy, sweet sauces and dressings? The Angel Food Cake with macerated strawberries at Florida Fresh, for example, was nearly ruined by the gloppy, oversweetened strawberry sauce. It was so much better when the chef prepared a separate dish using only plain, fresh berries with the cream on the side. I had a similar issue with the Baked Goat's Brie with Kumquat Chutney, a savory pastry pocket with a scant amount of cheese, drowning in what tasted like peach pie filling. This had the potential to be one of my favorite treats -- love goat cheese, love pastry, love kumquat. Instead it fell somewhere in the middle, after I scraped off most of the chutney.

But don't let these quibbles discourage you. I really did enjoy the majority of the foods and beverages I sampled. (Did I mention the Hot Sun Tomato Wine? I should have -- it was great! As was the gorgeously pink Rosita Margarita with its rose petal garnish.) Yes, overall, I felt the Garden Marketplaces were well worth visiting.

OK, you're probably saying, enough about the food... what about the FLOWERS? What about the GARDENS?

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WHAT ELSE IS NEW?
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Garden PassportThough I thoroughly investigated the foodstuffs among the flowers, don't worry. I didn't forget to check out the other new features of this year's festival.

Starting at the front of the park, I encountered the new front-entrance topiary focal point: Party with Mickey & Friends. There I found Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Pluto and Goofy engaged in the cookout of our dreams. More than 15 varieties of flowers and plants make up this sweet-smelling centerpiece that looked great from every angle, even though it was hard to get a good photo of the badminton-playing Donald and Daisy.

Once I got to the Festival Center, one of the first things I discovered was the new Garden Passport. This pocket-sized booklet is a take-off on the popular Food & Wine Festival Passport that was started a few years ago. Take the passport to a cast member in each area you visit in Epcot to receive a stamp in the book! It's a fun idea for kids, but I noticed many adults getting in on the stamping action, too. The great thing about an activity like this is it encourages you to visit areas you might otherwise have skipped, and it is always an opportunity to have a little chat with a cast member so that you might learn a thing or two.

Along with the passports, it seemed to me that there were a number of new things geared specifically to attract the attention of the younger set. There's even a new symbol urging kids to "TRY IT!" which labels not only new experiences, but foods at the Garden Marketplaces that might be considered "kid-friendly."

One of these "TRY IT!" signs was posted at the new Radiator Springs interactive play zone in Future World East on the Test Track walkway, which already seemed to be a huge draw. Detailed topiaries of race car Lightning McQueen and tow truck Mater of the Disney-Pixar "Cars" films are stationed in this area that's decorated with gleaming hubcaps and gasoline cans. It's the perfect pitstop for young ones who want to climb around on the play equipment, or take a minute to try some of the hands-on or interactive activities, like finding Mater's missing shock absorbers.

Another new play zone claims a spot on the Rose Walk, promoting "Oz the Great and Powerful." This whimsical "Land of Oz" playground is actually entertaining for all ages, with old-time funhouse mirrors and giant plastic poppies, and play structures for both 2- to 5-year-olds and 5- to 12-year-olds.

Radiator SpringsKids will also enjoy seeing some of their favorite and more recent Disney characters brought to life. The ubiquitous Phineas and Ferb, from the Disney Channel cartoon that bears their names, finally have their own greenery alter egos -- you'll find them stationed in the Innoventions Plaza right behind Spaceship Earth, with a menacing Agent P peering over their fence. You'll also see the topiary prequel versions of Sulley and Mike Wazowski promoting their upcoming movie, Monsters University, in World Showcase Plaza. The detail on these new pieces, and the other "monsters" surrounding them, is impressive, but as I heard some observers noting, it would have been nice if Sully could have been a bit bluer.

While the stages and shopping areas of the Festival Center are set up pretty much as they have been in recent years, in the back of the building, you'll find a pleasant surprise. There's a retrospective depicting the evolution of horticulture at Disney Parks, including a tribute to Disney Legend Morgan "Bill" Evans, whose long career included transforming Anaheim orange groves into lush Disneyland attractions like the Jungle Cruise. Evans also worked on the master plan for Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center. Even after retiring in 1975, Evans consulted on the landscape design of Tokyo Disneyland as well as on the schematic designs of the Polynesian Resort, Discovery Island, Typhoon Lagoon and Disney-MGM Studios. He was involved in the selection of plants for Disneyland Paris and Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Finally, the Flower and Garden viewing doesn't have to stop when the sun goes down, as it has in years past. The horticulture team has added Illuminated Gardens, which literally shine a spotlight on the featured figures so that you can enjoy them longer. I found the illuminated Captain Hook topiary in the UK pavilion with the Croc menacing in the background especially dramatic -- in fact, I think I liked him even better at night!

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THE TRIED AND TRUE
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Woody TopiaryEven though there was plenty of "new" to see, I couldn't neglect my old festival favorites.

As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed the Butterfly House, which has a Tinker Bell and her Fairy Friends theme. Sadly, the day I visited was too cool for many of its 1000 or so butterflies to flutter by, but I loved peering into the chrysalis boxes, checking to see if any winged creatures were ready to burst free. The fairy topiaries have nearly all been moved into the butterfly house now, with the notable exception of Tinker Bell, who is perched with her sister Periwinkle outside. Don't miss the miniature pixie houses that dot the landscape as you browse around looking for fritillaries, monarchs and swallowtails. I still chuckle when I see the little home made from an old plastic roller skate.

Along with the brand new topiaries, there were many old standbys that I was happy to see again, some of which had been "rested" for the last few years: Buzz Lightyear and Woody were there, though not together (Buzz near Mission: SPACE and Woody in the American Adventure) and I must say I am impressed with the attention to detail on each of these figures. Woody even sports a pull-string on his back. The gawky old troll has returned to Norway after an absence of several years, and of course Winnie the Pooh and friends are scattered around the UK pavilion as usual. The Lion King figures are always beautiful to behold -- how the horticultural team is able to convey such movement and the nuances of these characters just by using ornamental grasses, ivies and moss, is truly a skill I would love to have. I also found the arrangement of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs topiaries to be especially clever this year. Something about the way they were lined up and the angle of the sun hitting them at various times of the day really brought the entire scene to life.

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HOURS OF
HORTICULTURE
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Don't let all my talk about food fool you. The Flower and Garden Festival still offers much more than just its feast for your eyes and, this year, taste buds. There's a wide range of informative demonstrations and hands-on activities for all ages.

This year's HGTV Designers' Stage, located in the Festival Center, kicked off its series with speaker Roger Swain, former host of PBS's "Victory Garden" show. (Yes, I remember it. I'm that old.) Upcoming speakers who will grace this stage Monday-Thursday at noon and 3 p.m. include local and nationally recognized garden experts. On weekends, HGTV personalities take over. The coming weeks will see the likes of Egypt Sherrell ("Property Virgins") and Brandon Johnson ("My Yard Goes Disney") speaking. The Greenhouse Stage, with talks scheduled at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily, will have even more local gardening experts and Disney horticulturists.

Also in the Festival Center, you'll find informal booths where you can "Ask an Expert" from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or get "Planting Pointers" at 1 and 4 p.m.

If you're really interested in seeing how Disney does it, you can take the three-hour Gardens of the World tour, only offered on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday during the festival run. It's $60 and gives you a chance to tour the park with a Disney horticulturist who shows off the special displays and shares some secrets. (Read Kristin Ford's blog about this tour,which she took last week.)

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MORE THAN
JUST FLOWERS
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By far one of the best side shows at the Flower & Garden Festival is the series of "Flower Power" concerts held on the weekends at the America Gardens Theatre in World Showcase. A cynic might say these performances by recording artists who were popular in the 1960s and '70s are just the last gasps of a bunch of has-beens -- but you won't hear that kind of remark from me! Over the years I have delighted to enthusiastic and nostalgic performances by Peter Noone, The Turtles featuring Flo & Eddie and the late Davy Jones. This year, they've added several acts I just might be willing to make a special trip to see -- including The Village People! If upcoming Flower Power acts (among them Paul Revere and the Raiders, Tommy Roe and Nelson) are even half as entertaining as the returning, must-see Peter Noone, you must make time in your flower-viewing schedule to catch at least one show.

And finally, while there are smaller shops with outside vendors scattered around World Showcase, the Festival Center is the central location for Festival-themed merchandise. You can find everything from the annual Flower & Garden Festival poster (which now costs a whopping $24.95) to t-shirts, caps, totes and more sporting this year's logo. There is of course, loads of other gardening related merchandise, from small tools to gazing balls, bird feeders to wind chimes. (I'll have a blog on Festival merchandise on AllEars.Net later this week!)

So, did I "Get a Taste of Spring," as the festival organizers had promised? Indeed I did. The addition of the mini food and wine fest injected some new life and stirred the interest of this non-gardener -- which I suppose was partially the point. I look forward to seeing how they'll improve upon the concept if they decide to go with it again next year (and I hope they do!). And of course the flowers, gardens and topiaries were a welcome sight for these greenery-deprived eyes. I'd like to visit again in a few weeks once all the plantings fill in a bit and give it a lusher look.

And to give that Vegetable Lasagna and Shrimp and Grits another try...

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RELATED LINK
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20th Annual Flower and Garden Festival Video Tour


January 29, 2013

Oooh La La! An AllEars.Net Meet

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The morning of January 25 was one of the foggiest I've ever seen on Walt Disney World property! When we ventured over to Epcot at around 8:15 a.m. we could barely see a foot in front of us.

Still it made for some interesting scenery along the walk from the Beach Club Resort into the theme park.

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Once we passed through Epcot's International Gateway, we made our way over to the France pavilion for our 9 a.m. meet and to try out the new Boulangerie Patisserie.


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The bakery had an impressive selection of both sweet and savory pastries, especially considering that it was just 9 a.m.!


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After choosing a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino, I took a seat to enjoy what looked to be an authentic French pastry. Sadly, my croissant had about as much chocolate in it as a single chocolate chip. But the pastry was flaky and buttery and the cappuccino strong and frothy, so I just made a mental note to try one of the other menu items on my next visit -- possibly the ham and swiss sandwich, which Linda Eckwerth gave a rave review, or the apple turnover. I overheard a few people waxing poetic over its merits!

Although the new Boulangerie Patisserie may lack some of the warmth of its former location, I found the new spot a definite improvement over the previous cramped conditions. In looking around at the metalwork and architecture of the seating area in particular, I wonder if they were trying to conjure up the feeling of the sort of cafe/bakery you might find in a Parisienne train station -- that's exactly what it felt like to me at least, and I enjoyed it.

What I also enjoyed was the chance to mingle with the 20 or so people who made the effort to come out to meet us on such an early and foggy morning. Sorry we didn't get a group photo, but we do appreciate the opportunity to say hello to so many of you!


Denise, a DC-area friend we've known since her now-27-year-old daughter was just 12 or 13, and her friend share a few minutes with Deb Wills
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Sandy F. and Gail, who we've known quite some time, along with Helen, who was "snowbirding" from my hometown of Pittsburgh, and Theresa, visiting from Staten Island, NY.
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Catherine and her mother, both from my current neck of the woods, Washington, DC!
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Long-time friends and locals Sara and Doug visit with Deb Wills.
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Barrie and Sutree, all the way from the Pacific Northwest.
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Jack Spence and a young fan from North Carolina.
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Thanks everyone for stopping by! And if you took any photos that you'd like to share, please let me know and I'll add them here.

Didn't get to see us this time? Don't despair -- we'll be having many more meets as 2013 rolls along. Be sure to check our Team Meets page for the latest updates HERE.


December 7, 2012

Disney Shares What's Happening "Around Our World" at Press Event

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The final day of the New Fantasyland press event began over at Downtown Disney's AMC 24 Theatre with Disney's presentation to update everyone on what's happening "Around Our World."

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Before the show there was much speculation as to whether any significant revelations would be made -- many were thinking (wishfully) that speaker Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering, would announce that a version of California Adventure's Carsland would be coming to Walt Disney World.

Let me tell you right off, the answer to that is...no. At least, there was no announcement to that effect. Instead the biggest news we heard, at least in my opinion, is that the previously announced Avatar Land, a new area in Animal Kingdom to be themed after the successful James Cameron film and its upcoming sequels, is definitely proceeding. (Rumors have circulated that perhaps the project was dead, since there hasn't been much news about it since it was originally announced.) According to the Vaughn, development of the new fantastical land is "still on track" and something that they're "very excited" about.

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Aside from that tidbit, the rest of the presentation served as a recap of what's been happening at Disney Parks and around the Disney universe most recently.

Meg Crofton, President, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Operations, United States and France (to give her full title), introduced the program by sharing a few bits of trivia about the New Fantasyland and Test Track attractions, now that they're officially open to the public.

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She revealed, for example, that there is a Hidden Mickey in the new Little Mermaid attraction that will only be visible once a year, on November 18 -- Mickey Mouse's birthday. She also pointed out this subtle tribute to the original Epcot attraction World of Motion -- it's the logo for the old ride, which originally occupied Test Track's site.

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In addition to his confirmation of the Avatar project, Vaughn also spoke at length about other recent developments around the Disney Parks.

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Vaughn of course highlighted the New Fantasyland and its many features, calling the Audio Animatronic Lumiere, found in the Enchanted Tales with Belle experience, the most advanced that Disney has at the moment. He also talked about the non-queue queue at the revamped Dumbo attraction, hinting that the "queue lounge" is something we might be seeing more of. Vaughn also talked briefly about the Princess Fairy Tale Hall, which will open in New Fantasyland next year, and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, not due to be finished until 2014. Vaughn said the train's thrill level will rank somewhere just below Big Thunder Mountain Railroad's, and added that the representations of the dwarfs themselves in the attraction will be "unique."

Vaughn also took the opportunity to announce the addition of a new gallery in Epcot, to be housed in the American Adventure. The Bernard and Shirley Kinsey Collection will be made up of 40 pieces of art, artifacts, books and documents from the Kinseys' personal collection of African-American art and history. The gallery will hold previews during African-American heritage month in February 2013, an will officially open in March.

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After recapping the new attractions at Disneyland Resort -- primarily Cars Land and the new Buena Vista Street -- Vaughn turned the program over to Karl Holz, President, New Vacation Operations and Disney Cruise Line.

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Holz also gave an overview of the latest news relating to his areas of responsibility, the Disney Cruise Line and Adventures by Disney. Future itineraries for both have already been announced -- the one item that was news to me was Holz's mention of a special princess event to be held in the Doges Palace in Venice, as part of the DCL's sailing in the Mediterranean next year.

Crofton concluded the presentation by giving a fuller explanation of Limited Time Magic, a program announced several weeks ago.

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The idea behind Limited Time Magic is to "give guests an extra dash of pixie dust" by providing themed weekly surprises that will create special memories. Crofton offered as examples of upcoming Limited Time Magic themes a week dedicated to pirates and a "love" week around Valentine's Day.

The presentation ended with the audience receiving its very own Limited Time Magic treat -- a selection from the "original boy band," the barbershop quartet known as the Dapper Dans. The foursome departed from their usual standards and delighted us with a medley of hits from recent REAL boy bands like Backstreet Boys, N Sync, and One Direction. If all Limited Time Magic offerings are as whimsical as this was, I'm excited for the program to start.

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DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at the New Fantasyland Press Event.

November 9, 2012

Food and Wine Pairing - Flavors of Morocco

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012
3:30 - 5 p.m.
$55 per person, plus tax.
Restaurant Marrakesh
Epcot

Menu

Aperitif: Joseph Drouhin Laforet Bourgogne Chardonnay
(Burgundy, France)
Merguez Sausage (beef and lamb) with grilled onions
and peppers
Paired with: Les Trois Domaines Guerrouane
Rouge DOG (Meknes, Morocco)
Lemon Chicken with Couscous
Paired with: Castle Rock Winery Pinot Noir (Mendocino,
California)
Shish Kebab - grilled tenderloin of beef with vegetables
Paired with Torres Ibericos Crianza
Tempranillo (La Rioja, Spain)
Baba Ghanouj with Pita Chips, Tomato Salad, Falafel

Wines by: Republic National Distributing Company

I've been to a number of Food and Wine Pairings throughout my years of attending Epcot's annual Food and Wine Festival, but I've never been able to make it to the one held at the Morocco pavilion's Restaurant Marrakesh, due to timing. (I'm generally at the festival over a weekend, and Marrakesh usually has their events mid-week.) This year, though, I was staying until Wednesday and was able to finally schedule a Food and Wine Pairing at this location. I'm glad that I could!

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I've always felt Restaurant Marrakesh -- the whole Morocco pavilion, in fact -- is an underappreciated oasis of exotic beauty in what can be a somewhat frenetic World Showcase. Sure, it gets a little loud when Mo'Rockin, the band that features Middle Eastern-inspired music and sometimes even a belly dancer, is performing, but if you meander into the pavilion's alleyways, you're treated to a much different experience -- an atmosphere that tries to replicate what you might experience in the souks of a Middle Eastern city or in a Arabic-influenced eatery.

Restaurant Marrakesh itself is worth a visit, and as I was a few minutes early for the 3:30 pairing, I took some time to look around the uninhabited seating area, while I sipped on the welcome aperitif (a glass of well-chillled, crisp Joseph Drouhin Laforet Bourgogne Chardonnay). The intricately carved woodwork and beautifully ornate tiles make this spot a treat for the eyes, as the aromas coming from the kitchen make it one for the nose.

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The 25 or so of us in attendance were seated at 3:30 in a back corner of the restaurant, and were soon introduced to Chef M'barek, who told us he'd been with Walt Disney World for 23 years. He spoke at length about not only the history of Restaurant Marrakesh, but of the evolution of Moroccan food. It seems that in addition to the obvious Arabic influences, Moroccan cooking was heavily influenced by Jewish immigrants who came from Spain, and later by the French, who acted as a protecting power until 1956.

Chef M'barek's commentary was supplemented by remarks from Brian, a representative of Republic National Distributing Company, which supplied the wines for the pairing.

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Our first dish was a spicy lamb and beef Merguez Sausage, served with a side of tomato, grilled peppers and onions. I loved the kick of the sausage, enhanced by just a hint of mint, and it paired beautifully with the only Moroccan wine we sampled that day, Les Trois Domaines Guerrouane Rouge. The Muslim culture of Morocco is not a wine-drinking one, so although the climate in some areas is conducive to grape-growing, the making of wines is still evolving in this region. Still, this red, a blend of several grapes (including Carignan, Grenache, Cinsault and Alicante), goes quite well with food -- fruity and light, without much tannin. TIP: This sausage is featured at the Morocco International Marketplace during the Food and Wine Festival if you'd like to try it for yourself!

Our second plate was a portion of Lemon Chicken, one of Restaurant Marrakesh's specialties, which came with a complement of couscous. This falling-off-the-bone poultry was savory and went surprisingly well with our second wine, the light Castle Rock Winery Pinot Noir. Our wine rep talked at length about the winery, which is based in Mendocino County, but unfortunately we heard little about the preparation of the chicken dish.

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A skewer of Shish Kebab followed the chicken, paired with my favorite wine of the afternoon -- the Spanish Torres Ibericos Crianza Tempranillo. Again, we heard more about the wine and the winery than we did about the food, which was a little disappointing, since this grilled beef with vegetables was tasty. I would love the recipe for whatever marinade the chef used!

When I saw the servers bringing out one more course, I hoped that we would be closing out the tasting with a sample of the restaurant's outrageously good bastilla -- layers of flaky phyllo pastry with vanilla cream, sprinkled with cinnamon, powdered sugar and toasted almonds. It's really a fabulous dessert -- if you ever go to Restaurant Marrakesh, I highly recommend it. Instead we were served a trio of "mezze", or small dishes that are commonly brought out as appetizers. The Baba Ghanoush (mashed, smoked eggplant) with toasted pita chips, Falafel (deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas) and a Tomato Salad were all wonderful, but I wish we could have heard the chef talk more about their place in Moroccan cuisine and how they were prepared.

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Overall, I'd say the restaurant does a good job of showcasing Morocco's signature flavors and foods in this program. Obviously, they are held back a little by the limited availability of Moroccan wines, but I would be willing to bet that there are other beverages they could offer to give participants additional insight into the Moroccan culinary experience -- even if they are non-alcoholic beverages. Also, because the program is billed as "The Flavors of Morocco," I think they should have spent a little more time covering the foods themselves. Other similar pairings I've attended have not only addressed the methods for preparing the dishes we sampled, but have also shared recipes and other helpful cooking tips. I would venture to guess that many aspiring "foodies" would welcome the opportunity to learn more about Moroccan cuisine, and Middle Eastern cooking in general, in a forum such as this.

That then brings me back to the perennial question: "Was this program worth the money?" I guess in this case my answer is a qualified, "Maybe." For $55, you do get to try several generous-sized portions of very nicely prepared food, accompanied by four thoughtfully selected wines, which were thoroughly explained by the wine representative. From that standpoint, you are certainly not short-changed. If, however, you are looking to learn more about Moroccan cooking and hope for the chance to talk with a chef about this exotic cuisine, you will probably come away a little disappointed, as I did.

Did you try the Morocco Food and Wine Pairing this year? Did you feel the same? We'd love to hear your thoughts -- please leave your comments on our Food and Wine Festival Rate and Review page HERE.

October 30, 2012

2012 Food and Wine Festival Merchandise

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If you're visiting Walt Disney World in the next few weeks, you'll surely be stopping by the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. When you do, you'll be impressed by the number of little specialty items you can take home as souvenirs for yourself or for favorite foodie.

There's a wide assortment of Festival logo merchandise this year, perhaps even more than in previous years. Along with the usual t-shirts (various styles/colors, but the one pictured is $31.95), caps, and tote bags, there are items for those who like to dabble in the kitchen and behind the bar, such as logo aprons ($24.95), oven mitt/potholder combos ($19.95), appetizer plates (four for $25) and shakers ($14.95).

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And of course, there's Duffy the Disney Bear, in his chef's toque, sporting a Food and Wine Festival emblem ($30).


But if you're looking for more unusual items, take a look in the Wine Shop in the Festival Center. There are miniature tequila bottles painted to resemble small "Day of the Dead" skulls for $9.95. The pretty bottle of Bohae Black Raspberry Wine (Bokbunjajoo), with its Asian influences apparent, makes a nice little gift, too, and sells for just $10.95. Another interesting bottle, not necessarily for what's outside, but more for what's on the inside, is that of the Chocolate Crave liqueurs. Made by John deKuyper and Sons, these sweet spirits feature Chocolate Chili, Chocolate Mint and Chocolate Cherry flavors and sell for $21.95. They've only been out about a year, and are distinctively different -- especially the Chocolate Chili. (Just remember, if you're flying home, you'll have to pack these liquid items in your checked luggage!)


If you're a fan of the Disney artist NOAH, you'll want to snap up a few of the Festival art pieces he's had a hand in designing this year. Aside from the Festival poster ($24.95), you'll find his designs, which deceptively resemble photography, but are actually paintings of bottles and wine in warm brown and golden hues, on clocks ($39.95), cutting boards, coasters, mugs, ceramic tile trivets, serving dishes and more. There are even some fine art pieces by NOAH, including some framed artwork that cost more than $1000. (OK, maybe those aren't exactly souven-ears, but they were so impressive I had to mention them -- I even spotted a Hidden Mickey in one piece.)



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In addition to the merchandise specific to the event, the Festival Center has done a good job of bringing together an array of other food-related Disney-designed items in one location. Mickey, Goofy and Donald each seem to have their own distinct lines of items, including aprons, clocks, and cutting boards, all of which will make nice take-home gifts.

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Happy Shopping!

October 16, 2012

AllEars.Net Meet and Greet at the UK Pavilion

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While we were in Epcot last week, members of the AllEars.Net Team had a meet and greet with readers in the back of the United Kingdom pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase. About 50 friends, old and new, turned out on this warm Tuesday morning and shared some laughs, and also traded AllEars.Net trading cards.


AllEars.Net Founder Deb Wills welcomes everyone and thanks them for their support of the site:

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Blogger Jack Spence signs an autograph for a fan.

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The obligatory group shot. Such a great turn-out that it was hard to squeeze everyone in!

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As I mentioned earlier, several readers had brought their AllEars.Net trading cards with them, and were trying to complete their sets. Two new cards were introduced for them to add, as well.

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Thanks to everyone who turned out for this fun get-together!

Be sure to check our Team Meets page to see if we're holding a meet the next you're going to be in the World!


October 7, 2012

Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tour

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012
10:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Festival Center
Epcot

Tour LanyardNew this year at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is the Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tour, a program that promised in its description a walking tour "around the world" through the International Marketplaces, hosted by a festival chef. Whenever there's a new offering at the festival, I'm eager to try it, but this program in particular intrigued me. I was anxious to hear some of the challenges of developing and executing the menus for the food booths scattered around World Showcase directly from a chef, and looked forward to sampling some of the new food and beverage items as well.

The group, which is limited to 12 participants per tour, met at the Spotlight Stage in the Festival Welcome Center (the stage located across from the Intermissions Cafe). After a brief introduction by festival content development coordinator Jerred Stephenson, we were each given a special lanyard to wear during the tour, along with a headset that would allow us to hear the tour guide even if we strayed from his or her side. Each participant received a tall glass of Taittinger Brut Champagne and we toasted the new program and the festival, and then we were on our way.

Led by Jerred and festival content development manager Michael Jenner, we crossed Future World and walked up to World Showcase Plaza, where we were greeted by Jens Dahlmann, executive chef of Epcot, who would act as our guide.

Chef Jens DahlmannBefore beginning the tour, Chef Jens spoke a bit about his background and about how this particular program came about. Having given a similar tour of the International Marketplaces over the last several years to a number of VIPs, like Tom Staggs (chairman, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts) and visiting chefs from around the world, Chef Jens realized that this sort of personalized experience would probably be appealing to Disney guests who were avid fans of the Food and Wine Festival. With some adaptation, the concept was introduced this year for a limited number of dates to a very limited number of guests -- and immediately all dates offered sold out. Yes, you could say the interest was out there.

We embarked on the tour in earnest by walking toward the Mexico pavilion, where we encountered our first stop -- the brand new Terra marketplace, which features 100 percent vegan products. Chef Jens, who has been in his current position for about four years, spoke with some pride about this addition to the festival, stating that many visitors had been requesting more vegetarian and vegan options. He joked that Jenner had wanted to give the new marketplace a catchy name, but he (Chef Jens) had nixed it, deeming it too silly. What the relative Disney newcomer didn't realize (Chef Jens has been with Disney just since 2004) was that Jenner's suggestion -- "Veggie Veggie, Fruit Fruit" -- had some nostalgic value. Instead, after bandying about a few other names (including the also-rejected "Earth") they settled on Terra.

Our first taste of the day was this marketplace's Chili Colorado with House Made Chips & Cashew Cheese, featuring Gardein Beefless Tips. I had sampled this dish back in July at the Tables in Wonderland Food and Wine Festival preview, and at the time marveled at the truly beef-like texture of the Gardein product. This savory sample had a bit of a chili kick to it, but I think most of the other tour attendees enjoyed it as much as I did. The crunchy chips were not overly salty at all and made an interesting counterpoint to the chewy chunks of faux beef, reinforcing Chef Jens' claim that he is "all about the flavor of the food."

After receiving Terra stamps in our Festival Passports, we took a few steps further toward Mexico and came upon the Caribbean marketplace, where we were treated to a refreshing cup of Bacardi Torched Cherry Frozen Cherry Limeade. This fruity, slushy drink was a welcome cold refreshment after the heat of the chili -- it was just a bit too large of a portion to down too quickly, though, especially since it was sneakily alcoholic.

Chili Colorado Frozen Cherry Limeade

 

As we walked to our next stop, Germany, Chef Jens spent some time explaining how the marketplaces were divided into color-coded zones, each managed by its own chef. Each zone has a central production area (in Norway, Germany, and Canada) that's basically operating 20 hours each day, in which the food is prepared then cooled down to the proper temperature before being transported to the individual marketplaces.

"The volume of food we are preparing here is unreal," he noted. " For example, we will go through 20,000 pounds of pork butt. I can project that we will sell 40,000 pork sliders [in the Hawaii marketplace], but we sold 2,500 just on this past Saturday. So we constantly tweak, tweak, tweak and try to gain speed and efficiency."

When we reached Germany, we were able to park ourselves at some picnic tables (they're celebrating Oktoberfest here!) and try two samples: the Schinken Nudel (Pasta Gratin with Ham and Cheese) and the Schöfferhofer Grapefruit beer from the nearby Brewer's Collection.

Schinken Nudel Chef Jens Dahlmann

 

I'm not much of a beer-drinker, but I found the Schöfferhofer unbeerlike and strangely refreshing -- almost like a citrus-y fruit punch, with a beer aftertaste. It was rather cloudy and orange in color, with almost no head, so it didn't look like much of a beer, either. I had tasted the Schinken Nudel the previous day and had enjoyed it, even though it wasn't quite like the macaroni and cheese it closely resembled. The tender noodles blended with a creamy, cheesy sauce were tasty, although would have liked a few more pieces of ham -- the bits of meat were so tiny that they didn't make much of an impact on the dish's flavor. One thing about this dish: the portion is surely one of the largest among all the international marketplaces.

As we departed Germany, we took a few moments to appreciate the pavilion's miniature railroad village, which was also observing the Food and Wine Festival, down to the detail of its very own cranberry bog.

Oktoberfest Miniature Oktoberfest Miniature

 

The next waystation on our itinerary was the second of the festival's two new marketplaces -- Florida Local. Again, Chef Jens talked about the challenges of bringing his idea for this new entry to fruition. As he noted, taking advantage of Florida's local produce required some detailed planning in order to not wipe out the stock of any particular farmer. More than a trend, he stressed, taking advantage of the bounty of the region, capitalizing on its strengths, "is the right thing to do." In this booth, we were presented with the Florida Shrimp Ceviche with Fire Roasted Vegetables, Fried Plantains and Cilantro. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, which was surprising given the conditions under which they were prepared, and the vegetables in sauce had a nice spice to them. The accompanying plantain, though, was bland and boring, and a bit greasy, adding nothing to the dish. Still, overall I'd rate the ceviche itself worth a taste.

Chef Jens Dahlmann Shrimp Ceviche

 

After walking past a few more food booths, we came to New Zealand where I hoped we might be tasting one of the savory dishes -- either the Seared Sea Scallop with Kumara-Red Curry Puree and Apple Radish Salad or the Lamb Meatball with Spicy Tomato Chutney. Nope. Instead they brought us a small glass of the Kim Crawford Un-Oaked Chardonnay to help extinguish the slight fire on our tastebuds created by the ceviche.

Chardonnay Chef Jens Walking Tour

 

We marched on to Canada, where we were treated to one of the premier food items presented at the international marketplaces this year: the renowned "Le Cellier" Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce. The filet was paired with a dark, chewy red wine, Mission Hill Family Estate Syrah. The filet replaces the Canada pavilion's previous perennial favorite, Maple Glazed Salmon. According to Chef Jens, after years of selling the salmon, he "just couldn't smell it any more," and decided it was time to introduce a new taste treat. Looking to Canada's signature restaurant, Le Cellier, for the recipe, the chef discovered that the labor-intensive mushroom risotto the beef is normally coupled with was not practical for production in the limited international marketplace kitchen. Instead, they developed a truffle butter sauce that is a worthy substitution. Chef Jens pointed out that the filet is center-cut, high quality Canadian beef, warranting the comparatively high ($6.50) price tag, but, as he asserted, this is in keeping with his goals of upping the standards of the food found in Epcot. That was hard to argue with, as I found the filet tender and seasoned perfectly, with plenty of buttery mushrooms to compliment it. The syrah, too, was a good choice, and I nodded when Chef Jens called it "the best match found anywhere among all the marketplaces."

"My vision is to provide authentic flavors," he claimed, "but I want you to not only enjoy tasting the food, but to enjoy smelling it and seeing it." He stood in the middle of the promenade at one point and gestured. "Here. What do you smell? Do you smell how good that is? This is what I have been trying to do for the past four years. Hopefully you see the transition."

Filet with Mushrooms Trio of Desserts

 

Our tour concluded, not surprisingly, at the Desserts and Champagne marketplace, where we had the opportunity to try the Moët & Chandon Ice Impérial champagne and a trio of desserts: Yogurt Panna Cotta with Orange Cake, Raspberries and Pomegranate; Lemon Custard Verrine with Blueberry Compote; and Dark Chocolate Mousse with Chili and Salted Caramel. Having tasted these desserts at the Tables in Wonderland event in July, I was not surprised to see them again, and my opinion of them did not change. The intensely lemon custard was my favorite of the three -- even though I am a recovering chocoholic, I can't say that the dark chocolate mousse wowed me at all. The champagne was interesting -- I'd heard from others about how unusual it was, and while it was a novelty to have ice in your sparkling glass, I didn't think it was enough to convince me to try it again.

Epcot Tumbler Food and Wine Cookbook

 

As we wrapped up, our hosts distributed oversized gift bags with an assortment of treats: a Festival Passport, a Festival cookbook (which Chef Jens graciously signed before we departed), a plastic palette plate (a notched dish designed to hold a wine glass as well as your food), and a light-up plastic tumbler with the Epcot30 logo.

So... bottom line? I found this new tour to be worth the $90, if you, like me, are an aspiring foodie who loves and anticipates the annual Epcot food and wine extravaganza with a passion. Even if you are vegetarian, or have other dietary concerns, this tour can be for you -- we had a vegetarian on the tour, and she was offered alternative tastes at every location, even if a food sample had to be obtained from a neighboring marketplace.

Tasting the food with Chef Jens, hearing his stories, and having unlimited access to him for two hours, was practically priceless. He repeatedly stressed how he and Chef Gregg Hannon, Epcot chef de cuisine have worked both consciously and conscientiously to upgrade the quality of the festival's food offerings, and also of the overall festival experience.

In fact, it was a pleasure to hear him talk about anything and everything, not just the Food and Wine Festival, but also the 45 or so kitchens around Epcot that he oversees, and even his own personal preferences when it comes to dining around the World. (He gives Sunshine Seasons in The Land major props.)


That's not to say that I don't have a few criticisms and warnings about the tour:


1. Starting us off with a glass of champagne was a nice touch, but it would have been even nice to have some time to enjoy it. After one sip we were on our way -- very awkward to carry a glass of bubbly at that pace, and even more awkward to chug the champage on your way out the door.


2. The day of our tour was extremely hot and humid. While water was offered at the stops later in the tour, it might have been a good idea to also offer a bottle before we got started.


3. Stamping our passports at each stop was a nice idea, but a bit awkward -- you're juggling a plate and a glass, sometimes without a table to rest on, and then you have to dig in your pocket or backpack
for the passport? It might be a better idea to give out pre-stamped passports to save that little time-consuming aggravation.


4. We were lucky enough to find seats and/or tables at many of our stops, but it would have been nice if we could have been guaranteed at least a table at each location. As I said previously, juggling glasses, plates, cameras, and backpacks became a challenge.


But these criticisms are minor when looking at the overall big picture. I would say that the single biggest complaint anyone might have is that these special tours are so difficult to get into. Chef Jens' time is clearly at a premium during the festival -- he himself said he is basically "living here" in Epcot at the moment -- so I would imagine it would be difficult to spread him any thinner. But I do hope that the festival organizers are able to expand this program in the future, so that others can enjoy such a special VIP Food and Wine Festival experience.

Vital Info:

Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tour -- Taste items from pre-selected Marketplaces and learn behind-the-scenes facts on how these dishes were created. The menu includes five food items and five alcoholic beverage items.

When: Wednesdays - Tour begins at 10:30 a.m. and lasts approximately two hours.

Where: Festival Center - Spotlight Stage, then select
marketplaces around World Showcase.

Price: $90 plus tax - Theme Park admission required.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This tour has sold out for the 2012 Festival. If you take this tour, please leave a review on our Rate and Review page HERE.


September 30, 2012

Big Top Souvenirs Opens

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I took a break from Epcot's Food and Wine Festival today to run over to the Magic Kingdom and see what progress had been made on Fantasyland since my last visit (back at the end of July).

I was happy to find that the new shop, Big Top Souvenirs had opened in the Storybook Circus section, so I spent some time wandering around and checking out the fantastic details.


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I love the circus tent motif, and they really have carried that theme out to an impressive degree, from the carpeting, made to look like canvas, to the sales desks that resemble circus train cars, to the trapeze and rope ladders suspended from the brightly lit ceiling. I especially liked the cast members' costumes.


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I didn't notice any merchandise that appeared to be specific to this shop, but still, it was all displayed in such a whimsical way it was very appealing.


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In the middle of the shop is a snack counter -- Big Top Snacks -- selling the types of goodies you get when you go to the circus: popcorn, cotton candy, caramel corn, slushies and caramel apples. But not just any caramel apples -- these are gourmet apples, with personality.


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I watched them making some chocolate-covered apples for a while -- loved that they were in the shape of Mickey, with marshmallows for the mouse ears.


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After leaving the shop, I wandered over to the other big tent, which will house a character greeting area called Pete's Silly Sideshow. Many thought it would be open this weekend, as well, but apparently its opening has been delayed. The outside of the tent piques your curiosity, though.


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There were a number of other things in the area that were also new to me, like the covered Fastpass area for Barnstormer and Dumbo, which also has several picnic tables.


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There were also some new snack carts (although didn't seem to be open as yet) with a brightly colored seating area.


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Just seeing all these little changes makes me even more anxious for the grand opening of the entire New Fantasyland on December 6!

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September 26, 2012

Frankenweenie 3D Preview

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I've just returned from a preview screening of the upcoming stop-motion animated film, "Frankenweenie," directed -- in black-and-white Disney Digital 3D! -- by Tim Burton and set for release next Friday, October 5.

The free preview was one of more than a dozen taking place across the country this week, sponsored by D23, The Official Disney Fan Club. Lucky me, the screening was at a megaplex just a few miles down the road, and I was actually able to get the free tickets!

I'm sad to say that I'm old enough to remember the original "Frankenweenie," a half-hour short conceived and directed in 1984 by Burton, who was an animator for Disney at the time. It wasn't released as planned in '84, though -- in fact, Disney didn't release the short until a decade later, on home video, after Burton had scored some success with feature films like "Beetlejuice" and "Batman." How sweet a validation it must be for the director, who was let go by Disney for "wasting resources" on what they considered family unfriendly themes, to be able to bring his idea to a more fully realized life all these years later -- under the Disney Studios banner, no less.

And what a great version this new film is. If you've ever seen any of the Frankenstein movies, or read the book, you know the general premise of "Frankenweenie" -- it's basically about bringing a dead creature to life, and what ramifications such controversial science brings with it.


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In this film, however, Victor Frankenstein is not a mad scientist, he's simply a grieving young boy who has tragically lost his best friend -- his devoted dog, Sparky. Encouraged by the instruction of a rather eccentric science teacher, Victor decides to tackle the ultimate science fair project and devises a way to bring Sparky back to life.

Things start out well for the reunited young hero and his reanimated pal, until a classmate discovers Victor's secret, and in a rather literal way, all hell breaks loose.


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Without revealing too many spoilers for those of you who know nothing about the original short or this incarnation, I will say that the film is populated with the left-of-center characters and dark humorous touches that have become Burton trademarks. (Watch for the "Good-bye Kitty" tombstone in the pet cemetery, a little poke at the popular "Hello Kitty" character.) And while the movie itself is firmly rooted in the classic horror genre, with nods to films like "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," there is no shortage of heartstring-tugging. I mean, what dog-owner cannot relate to the sadness that the threat of losing a pet brings?

The film is voiced by a familiar group of actors, led by SCTV alums Martin Short (who tackles three roles, including that of Father Frankenstein) and Catherine O'Hara (also pulling triple duty, including the raucous gym teacher). You may also recognize Martin Landau as the science teacher, and Atticus Shaffer (better known as Brick on ABC-TV's "The Middle) as Victor's creepy classmate Edgar (or "E") Gore. (Say it out loud a few times if you don't get the pun right away.) The uncharacteristic restraint that both Short and O'Hara show in their roles as Victor's parents lends a much-needed quiet undertone to the film -- but don't worry. They both are allowed to go a bit over the top in the other characters they voice.

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The story benefits from having been expanded to nearly three times its original length (this version is 87 minutes long), although many scenes actually seemed rushed, or cut short to me. (I would have loved to see Victor putting together his makeshift lab in a little more detail, for example.) Still, the scenes between the boy and his dog seemed to be just right -- touching and bittersweet. The 3D effects were well-executed (once the projectionist made a few adjustments at the film's start!) and really added a dimension to the movie that I didn't think would be possible -- especially considering the film was shot in black and white. As I watched, I marveled as I always do at stop-motion animation. I think that I'm a patient person, but I can't imagine the painstaking care that this art form must require. Even so, I must admit that it was easy to forget that I was watching an animated film of any sort -- and more than once I found myself tearing up, thinking of my own little four-legged companion waiting for me at home.


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There were many youngsters, and I'm talking about kids under 8, in the screening I attended, and I'm not so sure that this is really the film for them. While the humor in the movie's final 15 or 20 minutes may be enough to offset the earlier dark spookiness and implied violence for some, I have a suspicion that there will be several children having bad dreams tonight. Dying dogs, thunder and lightning, a cemetery at night, a snarling Godzilla-like creature and others brought back from the dead, and an angry mob -- these images all could be the ingredients for a few nightmares, so I'd be cautious about taking very sensitive children (or adults!) to see "Frankenweenie."

But if you enjoy Tim Burton's work and can appreciate what amounts to a loving tribute/parody of the classic horror movie genre, then by all means, treat yourself to "Frankenweenie" when it comes to a theater near you.


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For more about "Frankenweenie," visit the official site:
http://disney.go.com/frankenweenie/

August 3, 2012

Taste Your Way around the World! The 2012 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

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So, here it is, the beginning of August -- how did that happen? As the summer winds down (to my dismay), it's nice to know that the chefs at Walt Disney World are already prepping for my favorite time on their special events calendar -- the annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.

Many details for the festival have been released over the past few days, a sure sign that this annual event, the 17th, is just around the corner. In fact, it starts in just under 60 days, on September 28, and runs through November 12 -- 46 days this year. (Turns out that last day is Veteran's Day -- so why not take advantage of an extra day off?)

In anticipation of the coming reservations "D-Day" (7 a.m. on Tuesday, August 14), Marianne Hunnel, the event's content development manager, recently took time from her rapidly dwindling countdown to talk with me about this year's Festival. I also attended a "sneak preview" of the Festival, hosted by Tables in Wonderland, this past Saturday, during which I was able to sample some of the new tastes that will be introduced at this year's International Marketplaces. I know this is all a lot to digest (if you'll pardon the pun), but bear with me -- if you love the Festival as much as I do, it's all info you'll want to know!


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Hunnel notes that last year's theme, "A Passport to a World of Flavors," has evolved into this year's "Taste Your Way around the World."

"We like that travel element," she admits. "Last year's passport got you here, and this year we think we're taking you to some more adventuresome places."

I like adventure! So just what do Marianne and her team of event planners have planned for us? For starters, there will be two new International Marketplaces included in World Showcase -- one featuring the fresh cuisine of Florida, the other an all-new vegan outlet dubbed "Terra."

It's this latter addition that is creating a buzz among the Food and Wine Festival regulars I've been talking to. Terra (Latin for "earth") will highlight products from the Gardein line of vegan foods, as well as beverages that also use no animal products.

"We have heard from lots of guests over the years who were looking for vegetarian and vegan options at the marketplaces," Hunnel explains. "There were some items in previous years that were vegetarian, but we have gone to great lengths to make sure that everything in the Terra marketplace is vegan -- that is, animal products were not used to produce these items in any way."

The Terra marketplace will offer two savory vegan dishes, both specially created for the festival: Trick'n Chick'n Curry with Basmati Rice featuring Gardein Chick'n Breast, and Chili Colorado with House Made Chips & Cashew Cheese, featuring Gardein Beefless Tips.

The Chili was presented as an appetizer at the Tables in Wonderland event, paired with a vegan wine, Paul Dolan Pinot Noir.


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I guess it's hard to see from this photo, but when I tell you that no one at my table could believe that the "meat" in the dish was not really beef, I am not exaggerating. Some even thought they detected a bit of "fat" as they chewed. The texture and flavor were nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.

And speaking as someone who is not ordinarily a fan of pinot, I found the wine (which I'm told is from a sustainable, organic vineyard in Mendocino County) to be an excellent pairing, offsetting the spiciness of the chili perfectly. [An aside: If being vegan means not using any animal products, how can a wine, which is essentially just grapes, NOT be vegan? Some wines use materials known as "fining agents" to fine, or clarify, the wine. They remove materials that might otherwise stay in suspension in the wine, and in some cases can alter the flavor or color. These fining agents may be derived from animal products, such as gelatin, albumen (egg white) and casein (milk protein). Wines that use these types of fining agent are therefore not vegan. The Paul Dolan wines ARE.]

This experience left me really eager to try the other savory item, the Trick'n Chick'n Curry with Basmati Rice -- here's Disney's photo of it:



The booth will also have a Chocolate Cake with Passion Fruit Sorbet and Coconut Foam that sounds fabulous, and a Berry Smoothie, made with Silk, the almond milk.

The other new marketplace, Florida Local, "focuses on the fresh and exciting things the state of Florida has to share," says Hunnel.

It was also well-represented at the preview, as both of its menu items featured as part of the buffet reception. The colorful Florida Shrimp Ceviche with Fire Roasted Vegetables, Fried Plantains and Cilantro was a treat for both the eyes and the tastebuds. Fresh, plump shrimp were tossed with a very rich red sauce, accented by the aromatic cilantro -- definitely a WIN! as I have scrawled in my notes.


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I'm not quite as enthusiastic about the other Florida Local item, White Corn Arepa with Mangalitsa Pork Rilette and Zellwood Sweet Corn Salad. Two bites of the dry, heavy corn cake stuffed with a rather bland, stringy pork filling was enough for me, I'm sorry to say.


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The Florida Local marketplace will also offer some locally produced beverages, including Florida Beer Company's Florida Lager and Key West Southernmost Wheat, as well as Florida Orange Grove Key Limen wine. Yes, a lime-flavored wine, which Hunnel says is very refreshing, and pairs perfectly with the shrimp. It's also great with a splash of club soda as a wine spritzer, she notes. I didn't get to sample it at the Tables in Wonderland preview, but I might give it a try come September.

Other new food items that will be debuting at the International Marketplaces that I had the chance to sample at the preview:

-- Lamb Meatballs with Spicy Tomato Chutney -- These tasty morsels are a great replacement for the popular lamb slider the New Zealand marketplace has been featuring the past few years. They have that whole spicy/tangy/sweet/savory thing going on and I think that everyone is going to literally "eat them up!"


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-- Seared Mahi Mahi with Jasmine Rice and "Singa" Sauce -- I guess this is an improvement over the Shrimp Cake that last year's Singapore booth featured. But still, my piece of this usually succulent white fish was dry, oversalted and chewy. The jasmine rice was outstanding, however.

-- "Le Cellier" Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce -- This is something new for the Canada marketplace, taking the spot of the perennial favorite, Maple-Glazed Salmon. To me, there's no contest -- the beef is better. Tender and juicy, with just the right hint of truffle -- not overpowering at all.


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-- Yogurt Panna Cotta with Orange Cake, Raspberries and Pomegranate, Lemon Custard Verrine with Blueberry Compote, and Dark Chocolate Mousse with Chili and Salted Caramel -- This mini dessert trio represented the three new items that will be offered at the Desserts and Champagne marketplace. Of the three, the Yogurt Panna Cotta was my favorite -- light, creamy, and not too sweet, with just a hint of orange and luscious red raspberries on top. My only complaint was that the bottom of the dessert cup was so narrow I couldn't dig my spoon into it to get at much of the orangy cake goodness.


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The Lemon Custard Verrine was also good, but VERY intense. I heard some complaints from the other diners around me that they had too much blueberry and not enough custard, but in my case, I had plenty of lemon -- in fact, the dessert didn't just whisper "lemon" to you, it SHOUTED it, in all caps!


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As for the chocolate mousse -- well, I must admit I was a little disappointed. Everyone around me was raving about it, and marveling at the little kick the chili gave it, but for me it tasted just like an ordinary chocolate mousse. Which is to say that it was delicious, but not unusually so. Maybe I didn't get enough spice in my portion? All the more reason for me to try it again during the actual festival!


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There are a few other little tweaks to the food around the marketplaces -- the Black Pepper Shrimp are going to be replaced by Mongolian Beef with Chinese Steamed Bun at the China booth, the Mussels at the Belgium kiosk will be prepared slightly differently -- but the majority of the items are returning unchanged.

So what about other NEW offerings at the festival? Here are what I feel are the highlights:

-- Some of the biggest news surrounding the festival this year is the implementation of a three-tiered pricing structure for the popular Party for the Senses tasting offered most Saturday evenings during the event. For years one of the biggest complaints about this eating extravaganza has been the shortage of seating -- diners are expected to graze on their tapas-sized dishes without a designated place to sit, and are forced to float from table to table, noshing and conversing with strangers. The ensuing juggling act -- plate, wine glass, napkin, utensils -- has resulted in many disgruntled diners.


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The festival tried to address that issue by introducing the Wine View Lounge a few years ago -- it's an exclusive area within the World Showcase venue that guarantees you your own table, along with a number of other amenities, all at an additional fee. This year, the Party takes that one step further and is offering a mid-range tier that guarantees you a seat in a special area, without all the bells and whistles of the Wine View Lounge. Pricing for the Party events is now: General Admission $145/person + tax; Reserved Seating $170/person + tax; Wine View Lounge $270/person + tax.

-- One of the most enticing new offerings, to me at least, is the introduction of Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tours. Held on Wednesday mornings at 10:30, you'll get the chance to wander around World Showcase for two hours before it officially opens to guests with a chef, visiting five marketplaces and sampling their food and beverages. "What a great opportunity for the chefs to share their stories and insights with their guests," says Hunnel. "You generally wouldn't get this kind of experience, so we're really excited to be able to offer it."

-- Remember last year's cranberry bog, situated in Future World as you approached World Showcase Plaza? It's returning, but more than that, there's also going to be a watermelon patch! Sponsored by The National Watermelon Promotion Board, the patch will have actual live watermelon plants where you can learn about growing them and get tips from affable TV personality Mr. Food ("Oooh, it's so good!")



-- From the Bean to the Bar Hosted by Ghirardelli Chocolate Company -- "We've been wanting to do something like this for many years," Hunnel notes. "This is going to be located in the back of the Festival Center -- Walt Disney Imagineering is helping us create a space that will be perfect for this decadent chocolate experience!"

According to Hunnel, guests will have the chance to not only sample gourmet chocolates, but will be able to DRINK it -- the exhibit will be featuring a drinking chocolate that's like a liquid candy bar. There will also be chocolate sculptures created by Disney pastry chefs and informative displays on about the food's origins. From the Bean to the Bar will be open daily from 9 a.m. through park close.

-- Wine Sampling in the Wine Shop -- This is something I've often wondered why they DIDN'T have! Now, you can visit the Festival Center Wine Shop for daily wine samples provided by participating beverages companies. Open daily at 11 a.m., and 1, 3 and 5 p.m.


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Now that I've told you what's new, I want to fill you in on who and what are returning.

"It's such an honor for us that these people choose to be a part of our festival," Hunnel notes. "They could go to any festival in the country, but they come to ours. And for many of them, it's a sort of homecoming -- so many of them have been coming here for years."

Among those returning celebrity chefs is a veritable "Who's Who?" of personalities you might find currently on your television, on the Food Network, Bravo or even the Travel Channel: Keegan Gerhard, Robert Irvine, Andrew Zimmern, Bryan Voltaggio, Art Smith, Cat Cora, and Buddy Valastro (the Cake Boss, who this year will be expanding his repertoire from sweets to savory, presenting at a Kitchen Memories session).


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Other returning offerings are the wildly popular Mixology sessions, presented every evening at the Festival Center at 6 p.m. A certified Mixologist talks about a specific spirit, then shows you how to mix it up into three lively cocktails -- a presentation that is practical AND potable, not to mention highly entertaining and a bargain at $16.

Last year, the festival tried an experiment with its signature dinners, and offered, instead of wine dinner, a BEER dinner. Apparently that was so popular it is returning, presented again by Chef Jens Dahlmann (below), this year on November 9.


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What's missing this year? Well, most notably there will NOT be a First Bites Reception the night before the official start of the festival. There also will not be a Party for the Senses tasting on the first or last Saturday of the festival. Bummer.

Hunnel also notes that they've retired the "Authors without Borders" program, which allowed guests to visit with cookbook and other authors, and have instead increased the number of Authentic Tastes they'll be offering. "These will be presented by people responsible for finding this special ingredients," Hunnel explains. "Ingredients like oils, mustards, vanilla, sugars, different gingers... you'll have the chance to get know more about these ingredients."

The beloved French Regional Lunches at Bistro de Paris are on hiatus this year, also, due to the renovations that will be taking place at that location. Instead Italian Regional Food and Wine Luncheons will be held at the new Tutto Gusto in the Italy pavilion. They'll be Wednesdays and Saturdays from noon to 2 p.m. and will be $75 per person. (Also due to the work at the Bistro, the super-fun Grand Marnier tasting is relocated to the Festival Center this year. So glad that's not going away altogether!)

As the August 14 reservations date nears, Hunnel admits that she's starting to get anxious. "Everything starts to resonate now," she laughs. "It's like a Broadway opening, and the ticket sales are like our review, our report card. Did we do good? Are guests interested in what we're offering?"

"We want to make sure our guests are happy," Hunnel adds. "We listen to what our guests say, and I think that's one of the reasons we're so successful. I think our guests' expectations are so much higher here, than they are at other similar festivals, because people know we also offer the Disney experience."

I know that's part of the draw for me -- not just the amazing culinary delights I know await me, but that they will be presented with the quality and care I've come to expect from Disney. That's why I've already set the alarm on my iPhone for 6:45 a.m. EDT on August 14 -- I don't want to miss the chance to make my reservations!

What looks good to you? What will you be booking this year, as you Taste Your Way around the World?

July 28, 2012

2012 Food and Wine Festival Preview Preview

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No, that's not a typo in my title -- this is my preview of the Tables in Wonderland preview of "Taste Your Way around the World," the17th Annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.

Tonight's event is a buffet reception followed by a plated dinner, and it's been inspired by offerings that will be featured at this year's festival. Included will be dishes from several of the new marketplaces that will debut around World Showcase, such as vegetarian chili from the new "Terra" location and Florida Shrimp Ceviche. I'm also hopeful that they'll reveal more details about the signature dining experiences and other highlights of this year's festival.

I spoke to Food and Wine Festival Program Manager Marianne Hunnel the other day and plan to share her news, along with what I learn at tonight's dinner, with you all in the next few days. Until then, I'll leave you with a few images of the new food items that Disney has released so far.

Trick'n Chick'n Curry with Basmati Rice


Chili Colorado with House-Made Chips and Cashew Cheese

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Florida Shrimp Ceviche

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Are you drooling in anticipation now as I am? Run and get your bibs -- I'll have more Food and Wine Festival photos and news soon!


May 12, 2012

Disney Fantasy - Dining Overview

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Yes, I'm still writing about the Disney Fantasy! There was so much to tell about this ship, as you can imagine, it's taken a while to process it all -- I'm not sure when I'll ever catch up. But for those of you gearing up for the AllEars.Net Fantasy Cruise that commences on May 19, I wanted to make sure to get this very important aspect of the cruise experience online before you set sail!

As you might expect, there's a wide range of dining experiences aboard the Disney Fantasy to accommodate every taste, from fast food to fine cuisine. I had the opportunity to chat with Christine Weissman, manager of food standards and menu development for the entire Disney Cruise Line fleet, when I was on the Fantasy media preview cruise a few weeks ago. She spoke about what's different about dining on the Fantasy vs its sister ship, the Disney Dream, as well as some of the challenges of keeping the ship's larders stocked with something for everyone:

As Weissman indicates, the Fantasy has restaurants ranging from the fast-food Flo's V-8 Cafe, to a casual buffet, to more formal table service spots. Unfortunately, I didn't get to dine at either of the so-called "adult" dining spots, the upscale Remy and Palo, during the media preview cruise. Bad luck for me -- next time! And I didn't try any of the pizza or burgers at Flo's. But I did dine at the other eateries, and have some thoughts and lots of photos to share.

Cabanas

Cabanas has a split personality. A well-endowed buffet for breakfast and lunch, Cabanas goes table service for dinner. The space is bright and airy, with beautiful mosaics that feature scenes from Finding Nemo and that film's seagulls overseeing the activity.


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A bit noisy and cafeteria-like at breakfast, I found this the least satisfying meal offered here, even though everything is presented beautifully.


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The chocolate Mickey waffle was fun, but rather heavy, the muffins so dry and crumbly they were nearly impossible to eat, the sausage was extremely fatty, and the scrambled eggs had a consistency that made them unpleasant. No, breakfast was not good.

Lunch, however, was much better. The buffet features an assortment of hot and cold foods, as well as a stunning fresh seafood display and an impressive sushi table.


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I sampled the peppered shrimp and polenta cakes -- both rated a thumbs up.


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The salad bar was loaded with an assortment of dishes that were all very fresh-looking and fresh-tasting, like cucumbers in sour cream with dill, and pasta salads with a variety of vegetables. I could have just eaten from the salads alone.

Enchanted Garden

My first table service experience aboard the Fantasy was at the welcome buffet presented in the beautiful Enchanted Garden.


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The decor in Enchanted Garden is inspired by the gardens of the French palace of Versailles, with trellis-covered walls, floral landscapes and an airy, almost conservatory-like feel. Custom flower-shaped light fixtures start the day closed, then gradually "bloom" as the day progresses, while the ceiling changes from a daytime blue to an evening sky dotted with stars.


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We also dined one evening in the Enchanted Garden and had the chance to see it change over the course of an hour.

Our meal that evening started with appetizers:

I really enjoyed the tiny Thyme and Garlic Brioche, although I could have used a bit more of the filling, which was lobster, morels and porcini mushrooms and Leek Stew in a light buttermilk cream.


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The Cucumber Garden Roll, filled with delicate strips of carrots, bell peppers and zucchini, had a hint of cilantro and was dressed with lightly tart and lemony dressing.


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The asparagus soup was a little uninspired, relying too much on flour as its thickening agent.


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After a couple days of eating like there was no tomorrow, I asked our server if I could have a smaller portion of an entree. He obliged and brought me a scaled down version of the Caramelized Sea Scallops. Just four small scallops cooked perfectly on a bed of savory pearl pasta and sweet sundries tomatoes.


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Since I had been "good" about my main course, I decided a small dessert was in order as my reward. Faulty logic, I know, but the Steamed Lemon Buttermilk Pudding, which came with a dab of citrus reduction, was light and fresh and helped me to continue to delude myself into thinking that I wasn't overeating.


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Animator's Palate

While the star of the dining experience at Animator's Palate is undoubtedly the new show, Animation Magic (click HERE for a full description), the food at this restaurant runs a close second. Influenced by California's light style of cooking, there's an emphasis on freshness and creativity that mirrors the restaurant's artistic surroundings.

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Passengers on the regular seven-night Fantasy cruises will have the chance to dine at this restaurant twice, and will see a different menu each night. The night I dined here, however, the menu featured a sampler of appetizers -- Marinated Garlic and Herb Shrimp with zesty lemon aioli; Prosciutto with Melon; and Sesame-crusted Tuna Sashimi. All three morsels were well-prepared -- the shrimp was just tender and not overly seasoned, the tuna very fresh, but I wish the melon had been a bit riper.


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I opted to dine vegetarian, and had a hard time deciding between the two choices offered. In the end my decision didn't matter -- after our server realized he had brought me the wrong entree, he brought out the other as well, so I had the chance to sample both. Both were winners! The rich Farro stew with garlic roasted green beans, shallots, hazelnuts and shredded red radishes was a perfect mix of textures and tastes, while the Green Pea and Fava Bean Risotto drizzled with pesto sauce and toasted pine nuts was cooked perfectly and full of sweet pea flavor. I could easily have eaten both dishes in their entirety!


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Dessert was also a trio sampler plate, this time consisting of small tastes of a little apple tart, banana creme brulee, and lemon-infused cheesecake. The creme brulee was a little too sweet for me, but the tart was very good, and the cheesecake -- well, it reminded me of my mother's, with it's cream-cheesy top layer and lighter bottom. I wouldn't have minded more of that!


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Between the entertaining new show, and the wonderful food, this meal was easily my favorite of the cruise.


Royal Court

The most elegant of the family restaurants, the Royal Court simply drips of opulence, with exquisitely detailed mosaics, gilt-trimmed fixtures and crystal chandeliers that all incorporate touches of the royal Disney characters: glass slippers, apples, roses and tiaras.


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For example, Cinderella's coach is represented not only in the light fixtures around the room, but in the whimsical bread baskets placed on the table that are filled with a savory warm herb brioche accompanied by an olive spread.


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All this elegance is meant to take this dining experience a step beyond that of the equivalent restaurant on the Disney Dream, the Royal Palace. I'd say that it succeeds -- make that EXCEEDS -- on at least the physical level, if not on a culinary one.

As at Royal Palace, Royal Court, treats you to elegant, continental French cuisine, beginning with your starters.

My tablemate opted for the Double Baked Spinach and Cheese Souffle coated with a three-cheese cream -- she was glad that they skimped on the spinach as it's not her fave, but I think they could have used a bit more.



She also tried the Avocado-Citrus Salad with Iceberg and radicchio leaves and orange vinaigrette, while I decided on a classic Royal Market Green Salad with cherry tomato, cucumbers, peppered goat cheese, and a raspberry vinaigrette. Loved the generous portion of goat cheese!


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For dinner, I selected the Aged Angus Grilled Beef Tenderloin topped with garlic shrimp and served with sauteed snow peas and marquis potatoes with a cognac reduction. My beef was a shade overdone, and didn't quite live up to the "tender" portion of its name. My tablemate, who had requested the Double Cut Rack of Lamb with a Dijon Crust had an opposite problem -- even though she had been warned it would be prepared rare, she felt the lamb was too underdone.


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For dessert, I decided to indulge in the Grand Marnier Souffle infused with fresh orange zest and served with creme Anglaise, thinking that it would take some time to prepare and would allow me a few moments to digest a bit. But, no! Our server whisked the souffle out to me within just minutes after I had ordered -- guess they had them all made up and waiting to pop into the oven in the back. Despite this, the souffle was airy and melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and the vanilla sauce rich and not-too-sweet. My only complaint? A little on the small side. I wanted more!


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So there you have it -- my take on the array of family dining experiences on the Fantasy. Having not ever cruised on any non-Disney ships, I can't say how the fare compares with, say, Norwegian Cruise Lines or Royal Caribbean. I will say, though, that most everything (save for the breakfast at Cabanas) ranges from perfectly adequate to very, very good. So you might want to try to drop a few pounds before you set sail on the Fantasy -- or at the very least bring some very loose clothing, and forget about the belt-tightening while you're enjoying eating your way around the ship!

And if you want to read more about dining on the Fantasy, you might also be interested in Laura Gilbreath's food blogs from her experiences on the Fantasy's maiden voyage.


DISCLOSURE: As an invited media guest, AllEars.Net's cruise expenses for the Disney Fantasy Media Preview Cruise were paid by the The Walt Disney Company. Opinions expressed herein are solely mine, however, and do not reflect the opinions or policies of The Walt Disney Company or its affiliates.

April 30, 2012

Summer to Remember: Resort Showcase Day 3

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Sorry for the delay in finishing this report on the Summer to Remember Resort Showcase -- time got away from me and I had to catch up on a few things once I got back home. Without further delay then: the final full day of the event:

The day started early with a special breakfast and What's New/What's Next? presentation by Meg Crofton, president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Operations, U.S. and France. Deb Wills attended this event alone, while I stayed behind to update the website and work on some other things. As you may know by now, there were several relatively important announcements to come out of the presentation:

-- details about the redesign of Test Track in Epcot. Deb Wills interviewed a cast member working on the project and has more details on it HERE.

-- a better timeline about the opening of the next phase of Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland. For more details, click HERE.

-- details on the summer version of the castle projection show, The Magic The Memories and You!, which will include Phineas and Ferb and is set to debut on May 25. For the official press release and an artist's rendering, click HERE.

Following the presentation, the media was able to participate in a sort of information "expo", with stations featuring a variety of Imagineers and other cast members available to discuss the upcoming developments at Disney Parks. Deb Wills will have more video and details from the expo, including more on the Fantasyland construction, in the coming days.

In the afternoon, we headed over to Animal Kingdom to meet up with team members Jason (of disneygeek.com) and Kristin Ford for a special character lunch at Tusker House.

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On our way, we paused to check on the Discovery Trails and It's a Tough to Be a Bug -- in case you hadn't heard, earlier in the week a 5 lb. branch fell from the Tree of Life! No one was injured, but the attraction and the surrounding trails were closed immediately while the tree undergoes some "refurbishment." According to cast members in the area, the 3D show is still closed, as are the trails, but they will hopefully reopen soon.

I also had a close encounter with Dug, from the Disney-Pixar film UP! I hadn't seen him in the park before, though I had read that he was around. Squirrel!


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We had a little time to kill, and as we passed by Mombasa Marketplace I noticed that there was a henna artist doing tattoos. I'd been wanting to get one for a while, so on a whim decided that this was the day. After flipping through the book of designs, I decided on one that represents the characteristic "Kind." The artist was so adept that within five minutes I was sporting some lovely new "ink", enhanced by a sprinkling of glittery pixie dust... watch for a blog on the experience soon!


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I'd eaten at the character breakfast at Tusker House shortly after it had converted from a counter service restaurant, but had never dined there for lunch, so this was a new experience for me. Even though our lunch was scheduled for 1:30 p.m., the place was pandemonium. Long lines, cranky kids melting down -- it just didn't seem to be the most efficient way to handle the crowds. After waiting to be admitted, then waiting to get our photo taken with Donald, we were finally seated at about 10 minutes to 2.

The inside of Tusker House is largely unchanged from how I remember it -- it still has the cool decor, with African touches. And the food is still very good. Many of the dishes are very similar to what you might find in Boma, the buffet at Animal Kingdom Lodge -- Malay curry chicken, hummus, couscous, tabouleh, that sort of thing, all very tasty.


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The characters appearing at this lunch are Daisy, Mickey, and Goofy, all in safari attire. Because it was the end of the lunch period, we had a little more time with them than usual. Daisy in particular spent more than a few minutes with us, striking multiple poses.


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Read more about the Tusker House lunch in Kristin Ford's blog HERE.

It was 3 p.m. by the time we finished our "lunch" -- nearly time for our next event, over at Port Orleans Riverside. But we did take some time to watch the Street Party that had just begun outside the restaurant, featuring the Tam Tam Drummers and Bourudika.


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Over at Port Orleans, we found -- surprise! -- more food waiting for us. This time, it was in the form of a delightful Pirate Punch and Princess Tea Party on the lawn of the resort's Magnolia Bend section. Sweet and savory scones, an assortment of finger sandwiches and fresh fruit were beautifully displayed with table decor befitting the pirate and royal themes of Disney's storybook rooms. A wandering jazz band provided entertainment as the lovely Princess Tiana, from the film The Princess and The Frog, greeted guests.


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Several of the new Royal Rooms were open, so I wandered in to have a peek. I had seen the model for the rooms at last year's Resort Showcase and was interested to see how or if they had changed. There seemed to be only minor changes, most noticeably in the magical headboards, but it was still a treat to see the rooms in their finished state.


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The rooms definitely are beautiful, representing upscale improvements over Disney's other moderate resorts -- queen-sized beds, plusher fabrics, throw pillows -- and are rich in backstory and detail. I love spotting items that were "left behind" by visiting princesses -- such as the Magic Carpet from Aladdin's Princess Jasmine, and the footstool left by Beauty and the Beast's Belle. All 512 Royal Rooms are now finished, although I learned that the room renovations for the Alligator Bayou section of the resort are not yet completed. When done, those rooms will still have their rustic theme, but the trundle beds will have all been replaced by new Murphy beds that pull out from the walls.

As an added treat, a cast member even pointed out a very hard-to-spot Hidden Mickey in the table for me.


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(You can read more about the Royal Rooms at Port Orleans Riverside and see more photos in Kristin Ford's blog HERE.)


When our visit to the Royal Rooms was over, we (and by that I mean the media group as a whole) were taken over to Downtown Disney, where we were invited to experience the shopping and entertainment district on our own, after being treated to dinner at one of its 10 restaurants. AllEars.Net had been assigned to Rainforest Cafe, a spot I hadn't visited in years.

Currently under renovation (they're working on the big volcano outside, among other things), the restaurant is still operating -- and from all the hustle and bustle I would say that their refurbishment process is not hindering business. Noisy, with the sounds of wild animals and a periodic thunderstorm, the restaurant was exactly as I had remembered it. The extensive menu features burgers and other sandwiches, salads, pasta dishes and other entrees, as well as a long beverage list. Prices are moderate to high, but food is plentiful, and the atmosphere is definitely Disney-like, with all the animatronic creatures surrounding you.

After an overwhelming platter of assorted appetizers was brought to the table, I then tried to make my way through the Mediterranean pasta, with olives, feta cheese and asparagus. It was very good, but I didn't get too far -- I'd still not had the chance to digest lunch and afternoon tea!


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Our entrees were followed by chants of "Vol-Ca-Noooo!" as servers brought these chocolate exploding desserts -- triangles of rich, moist brownies were arranged to form a volcano around mounds of vanilla ice cream, topped by whipped cream and silvery streamers simulating lava and fire shooting from the peak.


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I really had no room, but managed to at least sample a bit of the chocolatey goodness. If you are looking for casual dining with a very American menu and plentiful portions, the Rainforest Cafe might be for you. If, however, you want a quiet, relaxed dining experience... well, you might want to look elsewhere!

Dinner was the end of the Resort Showcase for me. The only remaining event was a discussion with the Disney Moms Panel the following morning that I was unable to attend -- it was going home day.

But I'll be writing more about some of the things I experienced and learned at the Resort Showcase over the next few weeks -- I'll certainly be looking forward to visiting Walt Disney World again soon, for its Summer to Remember!


April 26, 2012

Summer to Remember: Resort Showcase Day 2

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Day 2 of the Summer to Remember Resort Showcase here at Walt Disney World was a busy one.

The day started early with a bus ride over to the convention center at the Yacht Club for a nice buffet breakfast.

Following the eggs, sausage and pancakes, we were treated to a panel discussion led by one of my celebrity idols, Samantha Brown, host of many a Travel Channel special on the Disney Parks, Cruise Line and Aulani. The panel, which also consisted of Leslie Ferraro, executive vice president, global marketing for Disney Parks and Resorts, Dan Lazar, president of market research firm Chatter, Inc., and Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of several books on parenting, focused on the "state of the American family vacation."


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The panelists discussed the merits of family vacations, and Lazar, whose company has recently conducted a study on such trends, talked about how our busy lifestyles can result in life becoming a "forgettable blur". Newman in particular stressed the importance of families vacationing together, and emphasized how even a bad vacation memory can become part of a family's "lore," and eventually be something that bonds the family in a good way. I know, I know, cynics among you may say that of COURSE Disney wants families to vacation, AND wants them to spend their vacation dollars at Disney -- but speaking from personal experience, I think the underlying message of the panel was valid. Vacations do serve to tie family members together in a special way and provide important lessons to the children.

After the panel discussion, the panelists were available for brief one-on-one interviews. As someone who is something of a travel enthusiast, I've followed Samantha Brown's adventures over the years, and was excited to have the chance to speak to her, however quickly. We only had a minute -- literally -- so I simply asked her what she found most challenging about covering the Disney Parks for her television shows. Below is a short video of her reply.



After the busy morning, I had a little free time to stop and smell the roses -- so where else should I go but to enjoy some time at the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival. It was great to see so many of the plantings in full bloom. I normally visit the festival during its first weekend, before everything has really filled in.


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A quick bite to eat and one trip on Soarin' later, I headed back to my room to get ready for the afternoon's big event -- a sneak peek at the new Art of Animation Resort, due to open on May 31.

I'm not going to lie -- I was anxious to see this place, after all I've been hearing about it for the past year or so. I was not disappointed. From the black and white sketches that gradually give way to full color images in the lobby, to the bold, bright colors of the Finding Nemo wing, to the desert-inspired Cars section, the resort is a masterpiece of Disney's famous attention to detail. I'll let some of my photos speak for themselves.


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Deb Wills also put a few short videos of the resort online:






After checking out as much as we were allowed to at Art of Animation, we returned to Epcot. Disney had arranged for dinner for all the media in our group at the various restaurants around World Showcase -- I was assigned to Biergarten, which was great since I haven't eaten there for a few years. The items on the buffet had not changed much, and the food was good -- and how can you not enjoy the oompah band (especially the saw player!)?

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Closing out the night was a viewing of IllumiNations from the World Showase Plaza. IllumiNations is just about my favorite thing in Walt Disney World, so any day that ends with that, is a good day indeed. Back at it again, tomorrow, for the "what's new, what's next?" presentation.


April 25, 2012

Summer to Remember: Resort Showcase Day 1

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Well, here I am back in Walt Disney World for a few days, for what's become an annual event in recent years -- the Resort Showcase, during which Disney shines a spotlight on everything that's new and exciting all around its parks and resort hotels, here in Florida and even worldwide.

This year's theme for the showcase is Summer to Remember, and so tonight's kick-off featured a quintessential summer activity -- the backyard barbecue. But not just any backyard barbecue. No, this evening we (a fairly large group of media and guests) visited Mickey's Backyard BBQ, which is held seasonally at the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. (NOTE: This does NOT mean that Disney World has changed the BBQ to a Phineas and Ferb theme. This was a one-time special BBQ staged for this media event. The BBQ is still Mickey's Backyard BBQ.)

The evening was taken over by a couple characters whose stars are shining brightly right now in the Disney universe -- none other than Phineas and Ferb, of the Disney Channel's wildly popular animated comedy-musical TV series that bears their names.

When we arrived at Fort Wilderness, we were directed to the pavilion, which usually hosts the character barbecue. Mini-blimps advertising Doofenschmirtz, the evil nemesis of Phineas and Ferb, marked the way, although he was nowhere to be found.


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I'd not ever been to the pavilion before, so I was interested in seeing the set-up, even though it was specially decorated for the night's event, rather than with its usual Mickey motif. A DJ spun current pop songs, including some well-known to viewers of the Phineas and Ferb show. There was even a trailer decorated to look like Perry the Platypus, the boys' sidekick who frequently turns into Agent P, a mysterious spy-like creature who battles the evil Doofenschmirtz.


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Special guests for the evening were the creators of Phineas and Ferb, Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh, along with the voice of Phineas, Vincent Martella.


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For those not familiar with the show, it follows the adventures of two boys as they fill their days of summer vacation. In the grand tradition of other cartoon series like Bugs Bunny and Looney Toons, Phineas and Ferb is entertaining on many levels -- innocent enough to appeal to children, but sophisticated in ways that speak to older viewers. The show has caught on so much that last year a "play and greet" experience featuring the duo debuted in Disney's Hollywood Studios. They also lead a dance party over on the West Coast at the Disneyland Resort. More recently, it was announced that the characters will take over the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure game in Epcot this summer.

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After our traditional barbecue dinner of hotdogs, hamburgers, chicken, baked beans, coleslaw and more, everyone had the chance to visit with Phineas and Ferb, as well as speak with their creators.


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Povenmire and Marsh told us a bit about how they were approached by Disney to bring their characters to the parks, and adapt what they do for the Kim Possible activity. Like their TV show, they said that the primary audience for the new game will be 6 to 12 years old, although they pointed out that nearly half of their viewers were older than 18. They even teased that they had had the chance to try the new game a little already themselves. But rather than reveal any specifics, they asked Martella to share some of the dialog he'd been recording for the new adventures, and he readily obliged.

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"Ferb, it's me again, will you pick up?" Martella laughed, slipping into his alter ego's voice easily. But none of the men could give us a date for when the new show would debut for the rest of us beyond "sometime this summer."


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Later, when we returned back to our room, we found that Agent P had apparently stopped by. He left us his signature fedora, as well as a pin lanyard, with a mission to find the perfect pin.


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I just might do that, as we continue on our exploration of what's new and what's next around this resort.


March 30, 2012

What's New on the Disney Fantasy: Europa

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This is another in AllEars.Net's blog series examining what makes the new Disney Fantasy different from its sister ship, the Disney Dream. Deb Wills and I have been writing about those differences this week, as we recap our experiences from our three-night media preview cruise on the Fantasy.

One of my favorite spots on the new ship is the adult nightclub area. Not that I am any kind of lounge lizard -- it's just that it was a really cool, well thought-ought place.

On the Dream, the adult nightspot area is called The District. I didn't really have the chance to spend much time there when I sailed the Dream preview cruise last year. In fact, aside from the champagne bar, Pink, and the changing scenery in the Skyline Lounge, I don't remember much about The District at all.

On the Fantasy, though, the nightclub area is themed around various cities of Europe. I've traveled to a number of European capitals, and really enjoy exploring the "Old World," so when I read about this, I thought it would be right up my alley. Oh yeah, I was right.

Dubbed Europa, the area features a central location, La Piazza, that acts as a hub (or the central square), with four other clubs branching off: O'Gills, a sports-bar/Irish pub; The Tube, a London-themed dance club with an electrified dance floor; Ooh La La, a boudoir-inspired Parisian champagne bar; and the Skyline lounge, which, like its Disney Dream counterpart, sports a cityscape backdrop that changes every 10 or so minutes.

The Europa theme hits you from the moment you step off the elevator at Deck 4 Aft.

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La Piazza

If you enter Europa from this direction, the first spot you'll encounter is La Piazza, which features Italian accents like Venetian masks from Carnevale, and Vespa motor bikes, and elaborate glasswork you might find in Venice's neighbor, Murano.

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La Piazza is brightly lit, with lots of seating and a very well-stocked bar patterned after an old-fashioned carousel. It's clearly meant as a hub for all the night-life activity -- it has the feeling of a central gathering spot, much like the squares you'll find in European cities, and sometimes features a live combo, which just adds to its vitality.

The Tube

Leading out of La Piazza is a curving pathway with images of the face of Big Ben and other familiar British icons projected onto the walls. You hit a button, a door swings open, and you find yourself immersed in the sights and sounds of London.


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When I spoke to Walt Disney Imagineering's Mike Davie, who was responsible for development of the Europa spaces, he said he was particularly proud of Europa's details, like the portals that led into each space. I have to agree -- seeing what was behind the door before upon my first entry into The Tube was definitely an "Aha!" moment for me.

I absolutely LOVED The Tube, and tip my hat to whoever was responsible for choosing the decor. Benches on one wall are upholstered to resemble British Rail and London Underground tickets -- there are even poles and straps like those you might cling onto whilst traveling on London's efficient subway system. The carpeting is dotted with British colloquialisms like "Jolly Good," and "Cheers!"


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Different seating areas feature different English themes -- one area is designated for the Crown Jewels, with shiny gold leather overstuffed seats, another has benches painted with the Union Jack. Behind the illuminated dance floor, there are old-style red telephone boxes, while the music of British artists of yesterday and today is pumped out of the DJ booth.


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I understand that once the Fantasy starts its regular seven-night sailings The Tube will also feature a live show with dancers, and a trivia game on pop culture. I could have definitely spent more time in The Tube!

Skyline Lounge

Despite how much I enjoyed the vibe of The Tube, I think that the Skyline was my favorite of the clubs on the Fantasy. As I mentioned earlier, the "gimmick" of this nightspot is the changing skyline shown on a 65-inch LCD screen behind the bar. At any given moment, you may be gazing on the serenity of a night in Paris, London, Athens, St. Petersburg, Budapest, Barcelona, or Florence. But it's not just a static image that you're seeing. Oh no. It's a video! Look closely and you'll see the taxis speeding along the street, and silhouettes of residents moving around in their apartments. Be sure to have one of the bartenders show you the little Disney touch that is hidden in every city scene -- so much fun to find. I'll start you out with one, revealed to me by bartender Adriano -- somewhere in the London scene, you'll find Mickey Mouse waving at you from one of the buildings!


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Dark and atmospheric, the Skyline Lounge has cozy corners and comfy seating that you can really sink into. The soft background music represents the city on display, and the drink menu (which changes throughout the evening) features specials with names inspired by the locales, like the gin-based "Londinium" or the "Aphrodite" from Athens. The Skyline was quieter than the other clubs, and I think that may remain the case, as I can foresee O'Gills and Ooh La La being more popular with most cruisers. Still, I enjoyed my time in the Skyline, and would have stayed there longer if I could have.


O'Gills

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Part sports bar, part Irish pub, O'Gills seems destined to become THE destination for many aboard the Disney Fantasy. With three big-screen TVs (103, 70 and 50 inches respectively) scattered around the pub, and three smaller monitors behind the bar, there are plenty of chances for visitors to catch their favorite sports match-ups. Rich leather seating areas, and gorgeous vaulted wooden ceilings, really lend an Old World feel to the pub, which, of course, has both Guinness and Murphy's Irish Stout on tap, as well as Stella Artois and a red lager draft (called, funnily enough, O'Gills) made especially for the pub.

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When I spoke to him about O'Gills, Imagineering's Davie confirmed what I had suspected: that the pub's name was taken from the 1959 Disney film "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," which featured a very young Sean Connery in one of his first major movie roles (and he SINGS in it!). You have to love the way Disney weaves little touches like that into everything it does.


Ooh La La

The final club in Europa is undoubtedly the prettiest. Inspired by the seductive look of a French boudoir, Ooh La La is home to opulent, plush chaises, velvet-tufted walls and ornate mirrors. This club is a place that beckons you to relax and indulge. Like Pink, the Disney Dream's champagne bar, Ooh La La offers a limited edition, private label champagne by Taittinger -- Ooh La La's features Jessica Rabbit from the classic film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit Roger?" on the bottle.

The nights we were aboard the Fantasy, Ooh La La seemed to be very popular, drawing big crowds eager to sip some champagne and sink into the almost decadently appointed room.


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The Restrooms

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The Restrooms? Is that another nightclub? No, seriously, I want to talk about the restrooms in Europa. In fact, I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention them. Why? Because these are some of the most beautiful restrooms I have ever seen anywhere, ever. Inspired by Spanish matadors and senoritas, the restrooms are covered in gorgeous mosaics. You have to see them to believe them, so I'll let the photos speak for themselves. One other note -- this is one of the few places on the ship where I found accessible restrooms... and they were just as beautiful as their regular counterparts.

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DISCLOSURE: As an invited media guest, AllEars.Net's cruise expenses for the Disney Fantasy Media Preview Cruise were paid by the Disney company. Opinions expressed herein are solely mine, however, and do not reflect the opinions or policies of the Walt Disney Company or its affiliates.

What's New on the Disney Fantasy: Animation Magic

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Curious as to what's so special about Disney's newest cruise ship, the Fantasy? Deb Wills and I have been sharing what we found to be the major differences between the Fantasy and its sister ship the Disney Dream over the last week, as we recap our experiences from our three-night media preview cruise on the Fantasy.

While every ship in the Disney Cruise Line fleet has a restaurant called Animator's Palate, the "show" performed during dinner varies. The restaurant on the classic ships, the Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder, simply features a change in the decor and atmosphere during the course of the meal. Everything starts off in black and white -- the paintings on the walls, even the servers' attire -- but ends in an explosion of color. On the Disney Dream, diners are treated to an interactive conversation with Crush, the sea turtle featured in the film Finding Nemo, using technology similar to that of the Epcot attraction "Turtle Talk with Crush."

The Disney Fantasy also offers an evening with Crush, but more importantly it is the home of an all-new, technically ingenius show called "Animation Magic."

The basic premise of the show is fairly straightforward: diners draw their own character on a placemat provided to them, and then through "Animation Magic" that character is brought to life on screens scattered around the restaurant.

Now, you can read that description and think you have a reasonably clear understanding of what is going to happen. But the truth is you have no idea how absolutely delightful this show is until you see it for yourself.

I don't want to spoil the fun too much for you, so you won't find any video of the actual show here. But I will share a few stills, along with a few personal observations.

The decor of the restaurant really sets the tone for what you are about to see. Details like preliminary sketches for many of your favorite cartoons, and the Pixar lamp Luxo, adorn the walls. The table settings are based on artists' tools, and even the lenticular menu is animated.


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Your server and your placemat provide very basic, easy-to-understand instructions about how to draw your character.


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Don't worry if you think you have limited artistic talent. I barely know which end of the pencil to hold, yet was able to come up with something usable. (See below.) The key thing to remember is to not draw on the blue outlines when creating your character. You're only given a choice of one color of marker (although that may change in the future) to help speed the drawing process along, then your placemat is collected and you enjoy your dinner.

We were fortunate enough to be seated directly in front of a screen -- we were almost a little TOO close -- so we had a front-row view of the gorgeous animated sequences from classic and current Disney (and Pixar) films that played out during our appetizers and main courses. I noticed that the cartoons began with scenes of gathering food, like the ants from "It's a Bug's Life" harvesting for the winter. Eventually the scenes graduated to preparing food, and finally eating and celebrating with food. (I felt a little smug when an Imagineer confirmed what I had discovered on my own!) The collection of clips shown is a treat in itself, especially for someone of my generation. Many snippets are from classic Disney cartoons that are seldom seen these days, including Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and the ORIGINAL Winnie-the-Pooh.


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Periodically throughout dinner, Sorcerer Mickey appears on-screen to tease you with what's ahead. Finally, sometime after you're through with your entree, maybe already starting on dessert, the main event begins with Lumiere, the candlestick from Beauty and the Beast, inviting everyone to "Be Our Guest."

I can't explain to you the excitement that rippled through the room as adults and children alike began to spot their drawings tripping across the screens before their eyes. Squeals of "There's mine! There's mine!" and a rumble of laughter filled the room. I confess, when I spotted my lame attempt at drawing dancing among the other figures, I couldn't help shouting out as well.

This is my masterpiece (you can see why I'm a writer and not an artist by trade!):


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And here's what it looked like once animated for the big screen:


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The show progresses for several minutes, and you wish it would go on longer. It is so cleverly done -- and just when you think it can't get any better, familiar Disney characters are interspersed with the audience's hand-drawn ones, adding another level of excitement. The show concludes with rolling credits, listing the names of all the evening's artist-diners.


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Truly, this was an unexpected highlight of the Fantasy cruise for me. I only wish I could have seen the show again -- I think the repeatability factor for this one is very high.

And oh, by the way, my dinner was exceptionally good this evening, too, but I'll have more on that when I get around to writing about the Fantasy's food.


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I had the opportunity to speak at length with Imagineer Bob Zalk, who is Senior Show Producer for the new Animation Magic presentation. He told me of the numerous challenges the Imagineers faced in bringing this new show to life, from deciding what sort of placemat should be used to designing entertainment that would not interfere with the service of a meal.

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It was no surprise to me that he called this one of the coolest projects he'd ever worked on. Again, as I said earlier, no video spoilers of the actual Animation Magic show here --in my opinion, it is really something magical that you should experience in person for yourself.


DISCLOSURE: As an invited media guest, AllEars.Net's cruise expenses for the Disney Fantasy Media Preview Cruise were paid by the Disney company. Opinions expressed herein are solely mine, however, and do not reflect the opinions or policies of the Walt Disney Company or its affiliates.

March 28, 2012

What's New on the Disney Fantasy: Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique

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We know a lot of you are wondering what's so special about Disney's newest cruise ship, the Fantasy -- what's new about it, and what makes it different from its sister ship, the Disney Dream? Deb Wills and I will be writing about those differences for the next several days, as we try to recap our experiences from our three-night media preview cruise on the Fantasy.

One of the things that is totally new for the Disney Cruise Line is the addition of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, a special beauty salon that transforms little girls into elegant princesses. Extremely popular on land, at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, the installation of the Boutique on the Fantasy is sure to prove a perfect fit.

As you approach the Boutique, which is located on Deck 5 Midship, you'll note that there are medallions on the exterior wall depicting a variety of Disney Princesses and Princes.


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Like its landlubber counterpart, the Boutique is a very regally appointed setting, with rich-looking marble floors and lots of pretty pink and glittery gold accents. It's staffed by Fairy Godmothers-in-Training, who will beautify little princesses with new hairdos, shiny nails, and elegant makeup.


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There are plenty of princess gowns, shoes, wands, tiaras, and other royal accountrements for purchase. And if you'd rather emulate your favorite mice, there are costumes for Princess Minnie, First Mate Minnie, and even Captain Mickey Mouse.

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The Boutique offers a variety of packages, some similar to those offered on land, others exclusive to the Fantasy.

Coach: choice of one hairstyle, shimmering makeup, face gem, cinch sack, and princess sash. Cost = $54.95

Crown: all elements of Coach PLUS nail polish. Cost = $59.95

Castle: all elements of Crown PLUS your choice of costume and coordinating wand, tiara, and shoes. Cost = $184.95

The Fantasy (exclusive to the Disney Fantasy): all elements of Crown PLUS tutu, sparkly t-shirt, and head band. Cost = $119.95

Under the Sea (exclusive to the Disney Fantasy): This package turns a little girl into a Little Mermaid, and includes a choice of swimsuit and cover-up, vibrant sun block application, Del Sol floral clip that changes colors in the sun, necklace, and nail polish. Cost = $99.95

And if you want to go all out, the Boutique offers the Royal Sea Package, which it says is "dedicated to every true Princess who ever dreamed her sneakers were glass slippers, and to girls who believe it's better to twirl than to walk, sing than talk and that everything goes better with sparkles!" The deluxe Royal Sea package comes complete with a Princess Royal Rolling Trunk created exclusively for the package, and also includes three makeover experiences: 1 Castle, 1 Under the Sea, and 1 Pirate package, PLUS a boutique frame with a photo of the Fairy Godmother, PLUS a special invitation with a glass slipper ribbon necklace, and a keepsake glass slipper from Cinderella's helpers. Cost for this deluxe package = $595.

Children must be between the ages of 3 and 12 to take advantage of the Boutique's services -- no adults, I was told, because after you reach a certain age you are no longer a princess... you are a Queen!
I guess that's the nicest way anyone has ever told me I was too old for something!

A unique aspect of the Fantasy's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique is that it even transforms itself! Every sailing has a designated Pirate Night, and on these days, the Boutique magically becomes The Pirates League, the place to go to "get your pirate on!"

Here, Disney's attention to detail really shines. On Pirate Day, burlap sacks bearing the Pirates League logo and the Jolly Roger cover the pretty salon chairs, and the sparkly princess outfits are replaced by buccaneer garb. Fairy Godmothers-in-Training become Pirate Lasses... and Lads! (But beware of the Jack Sparrow sound-alike there -- he'll propose marriage to any female who happens by! The scoundrel!)


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Nearly every trace of "princess-ness" is erased -- even those medallions on the exterior of the Boutique that I mentioned before show pirates instead of princesses!


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The basic pirate makeover costs $34.95, and will give you your own special pirate look and name. You'll also learn how to swashbuckle, and the Official Pirate League Oath. The First Mate package for boys also includes a bandanna, scars, fake teeth, eyepatch, and sword. For girls, the Empress package has shimmering makeup, face gem, nail polish, earring, eye patch, and sword. If you want to add a special pirate costume to either package, you'll pay $99.95.

Unlike the princess makeover, anyone over the age of 3 can be a pirate. Our time on the Fantasy was short, so we didn't have the chance to try it out, but AllEars.Net's Deb Wills is planning a Pirate Makeover for herself next week when she's sailing on the ship's Maiden Voyage -- so stay tuned!

Reservations for both Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and The Pirates League are strongly recommended -- and if these makeovers become as popular on the ship as they are in the theme parks, you will need them! You can make reservations online before you sail at www.disneycruise.com. Click "Planning Center" and choose "My Cruise Activities." Once on the ship, visit the Boutique in person or call ext. 9438. (NOTE: A $10 cancellation fee will be charged for all no-shows or cancellations with 24 hours of appointment.)

DISCLOSURE: As an invited media guest, AllEars.Net's cruise expenses for the Disney Fantasy Media Preview Cruise were paid by the Disney company. Opinions expressed herein are solely mine, however, and do not reflect the opinions or policies of the Walt Disney Company or its affiliates.

March 23, 2012

Fantasy Preview Cruise, Day 1

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Wow, what an exhausting and exciting Day 1 of the three-night Disney Fantasy preview cruise has been.

Because tomorrow is our day at sea, and I'm not at all confident that we'll have internet available to us, I thought I'd give you all a few highlights of the day and share some photos.

If you're familiar with the Disney Dream, the Fantasy's sister, you'll already know what a beautiful ship she is. I was impressed all over again at not only the size, but the grandeur of this ship -- from the sweeping staircases to the twinkling crystal chandeliers, everything about the Fantasy is BIG.


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We ate lunch at the buffet in the Enchanted Garden, which to the best of my memory, is identical to the restaurant of the same name on the Disney Dream.


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After lunch, I explored all the kids' areas on the ship. The "it's a small world" nursery was essentially the same as the nursery on the Dream, a very cozy place for the littlest voyagers (3 months to 3 years old). The Oceaneer's Club and Lab were also very similar to those on the Dream, but I really did enjoy Andy's Room there, featuring a grumpy looking Mr. Potato Head.


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I also made sure to check out the Edge, the area specially designed for "tweens" agse 10-14, and the Vibe, for older teens 14-17. I have to admit, I so enjoyed the "vibe" of the latter, that I almost didn't want to leave... but they told me that being a teenager at heart didn't count, so I out had to go! But look how cool it is:


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After our muster drill, we went up on deck to watch the Sail Away Party. Disney's Karl Holz was on hand to toast us as we finally set sail.


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Our dinner tonight was at the Animator's Palate, which I had really been looking forward to. If you've
read about the new technology in play here, you'll know that diners are asked to create their own character, which is then magically transformed into a cartoon before your eyes. I don't want to give up too many spoilers here, but I will say that it was an absolutely delightful presentation. I'm no artist, I guarantee you, but you can see my little red creation on the right here:


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So cute, really. And the food was pretty good, to boot. In fact, I had both of the vegetarian dishes (slight ordering mix-up -- the waitstaff is still working out the kinks!) and they were outstanding. Worth special mention was the Farro Stew, which also featured hazelnuts, green beans and radish, and a hint of lemon juice.


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We closed out the evening with a viewing of Wishes, a brand new show. Sorry no photos allowed.

Well, seems like it's taking longer and longer to load photos, and I keep getting disconnected and error messages, so I'm going to publish this now and hope you can see it. If you want to see more photos, you can take a look at those I posted earlier today to my Twitter account HERE. And be sure to follow Deb Wills and me, and the AllEars.Net Twitter acounts -- we'll be posting more whenever we're able to:

@AllEarsDeb = http://twitter.com/AllEarsDeb
@dcdeb_allears = http://twitter.com/dcdeb_allears
@AllEarsNet = http://twitter.com/AllEarsNet

I promise you that we have lots more photos and facts to share in the coming days, if the internet gods smile on us and keep us connected. Otherwise, it'll have to be after we're home! Ciao for now!

Mombasa Marketplace Wine Stop at Animal Kingdom

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Did you know that there's a corner in Animal Kingdom's Mombasa Marketplace that houses a small display of South African wines? No, neither did I! But there is.

The other day, I had a few hours before my flight back home, so Deb Wills and I decided to pay a visit to Animal Kingdom. As we entered the park, we noticed an intriguing sign.

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Wine tasting? In Animal Kingdom? While I wouldn't bat an eye if you told me this was over at Animal Kingdom Lodge, or even in Epcot, for some reason it never occurred to me that Animal Kingdom could host such an activity.

We wandered over to Mombasa Marketplace, which is located in Africa, directly across from the Tusker House restaurant, and found this attractive little set-up, immediately to our left as we entered.


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Not being much of a shopper, I can't tell you the last time I was in the Marketplace, so I'm not sure how long the wine nook has been there. But I have to say that finding it was a most pleasant surprise.

Most of the South African wines available are from Fairview, the family-owned wine and cheese business that produces its eponymous Fairview label, as well as the labels Goats Do Roam and La Capra. Sauvignon blanc, viognier, and chardonnay are among the varietals represented, along with several blends (both red and white) and a Goats Do Roam rose. Also on offer are several selections from Spice Route Wines, including a chenin blanc and red blend pinotage. Luckily for us, they also were serving a favorite we discovered at Kidani Village's Sanaa restaurant several months ago, the red blend Chakalaka.

According to Jim Killam, North Florida Sales Manager for Vineyard Brands, the shop features many of the wines you'll find offered over at the Animal Kingdom Lodge's restaurants in a spot that sees a little more traffic. Killam says the tasting event is something they host in that location only a few times a year, as it's a bit expensive to fly the winemakers up from South Africa.


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On this particular Sunday, however, Fairview's winemaker Anthony de Jager (pictured below) was on hand to sign bottles and oversee the tasting. The two or three-oz. samples being poured ranged from $2.75 to $5.25 (for the full-bodied Chakalaka). Based on Killam's recommendation, Deb tried the Spice Route pinotage, and found it to have a fruity aroma, somewhat tannic but not overly so. I had the Chakalaka, which didn't disappoint -- dark cherry and fruit flavors with an oh-so-slight oakiness, just as I remembered it.


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Even though they don't hold these tastings that frequently, the opportunity to try these wines in such a novel setting made for a nice change of pace. And now that I know they are there, I just might be tempted to duck into the Mombasa Marketplace to pick up a bottle every now and then.

UPDATE 3/28/12: Just obtained the pricing for the wines for sale in the shop. The following are the retail prices:

-- Goats do Roam Red, White & Rose' $11.95
-- La Capra Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Shiraz & Pinotage $14.95
-- Fairview Sauvignon Blanc $16.95
-- Fairview Pinotage $15.95
-- Fairview Viognier $21.95
-- Spice Route Chenin Blanc $18.95
-- Spice Route Pinotage $21.95
-- Spice Route 'Chakalaka' $25.95

March 16, 2012

It's Easy Being Green... at Raglan Road

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Well, it's nearly St. Patrick's Day, and even though I'm not Irish (a little bit of Welsh and English,
yes, but Irish, no) I have always observed the holiday. I wear green, including my little shamrock earrings, and sometimes even cook up a good corned beef and cabbage dinner.

But, according to the lovely people at Raglan Road Irish Pub, located at Downtown Disney's Pleasure Island, I've been doing it wrong -- and they are going to be showing me, and anyone else who will listen, how to do it RIGHT this year.

This weekend, Raglan Road is celebrating St. Patrick's Day in a big way.The invitingly cozy pub, accented with warm woods, leaded glass windows and Irish memorabilia, including photos of Irish icons like sir Bob Geldof, will be buzzing with live bands playing authentic Irish music, Irish dancing, and genuine Irish cuisine.


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To launch the weekend, Raglan Road's Master Chef Kevin Dundon hosted a four-course lunch and culinary demonstration that featured cuisine representative of the Emerald Isle, including a traditional loin of bacon with cabbage. Having garnered many accolades over the course of his career for his high standards and inventive take on Irish fare, Dundon, who has cooked for the Queen of England and many other celebrities, is a bit of a personality himself. Handsome and charming, with the gentlest of Irish brogues, Chef Dundon worked his culinary magic while entertaining a full restaurant with little anecdotes about St. Patrick's Day celebrations and the four dishes themselves.


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I was lucky enough to be invited to the luncheon by the restaurant, and had a front row seat to all the preparations.

Chef Dundon began with an appetizer of hickory-smoked Irish salmon, served on a bed of buttered leeks in a mead cream reduction. Not being a fan of things "smoked", I was dubious about this course, until I realized that Chef Dundon's idea of "a little bit of butter" -- that is, a lot -- matches my own. The smokiness of the salmon was so subtle that the freshness of the fish shined through. It was enhanced by the buttery goodness of the mead-sweetened sauce and the delicate flavor the leeks was the perfect compliment to the dish. I nearly licked the plate!


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Our second course was an "espresso" of tomato and gin soup, so called due to the intensity of the tomato (or "to-MAH-to" if you're Chef Dundon) flavor. After again adding "a little bit of butter," Chef Dundon explained that he doesn't use flour in any of his soups or sauces -- he relies on reduction to thicken and concentrate the flavors. No one needed to have worried that this soup would lack taste, however. Served over a dollop of creme fraiche (no, this lunch wasn't for weight watchers!), the flavor of tomato fairly burst in your mouth with each sip. Once again, societal niceties kept me from licking the bowl. That doesn't mean I didn't want to!

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These first two courses were paired with a chardonnay from Acacia. The creaminess of the wine perfectly suited the buttery courses, and it had just the right touch of acidity.

For the main course, Chef Dundon prepared a loin of traditional Irish bacon with Irish Mist glaze on a bed of colcannon potato with a parsley cream sauce and raisin cider jus. The term "bacon" in this case, though, is a little misleading -- it's more an uncured ham, carefully scored so that the flavor of the Irish Mist (a whiskey liqueur) can soak in. So if the Irish actually eat ham on St. Paddy's Day, why do we here in the U.S. celebrate with corned beef? It's what was available to the Irish immigrants who arrived in this country decades ago, according Chef Dundon. He, though, is an advocate of reverting to the "proper" dish, and attempted to sway all of us to his way of thinking with the succulent version of Irish bacon that he served up. I think he succeeded.



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We were served a pinot noir from Acacia to accompany this course. Amy, the wine represenative from Coastal Wine and Spirits, called the full-bodied pinot the perfect pairing for the main course. Not being much of a pinot fan, I wasn't expecting much, but to my surprise, the wine complimented the course beautifully.

We concluded the meal with a jam jar filled with rhubarb jelly topped with a light, creamy panna cotta. Chef Dundon accented the dessert with a buttery, shamrock shaped cookie, to provide some crunch. This was the only course I didn't finish, and not because I didn't enjoy it, but because I was too stuffed already with so much Irish goodness I had no room.


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If I had had any preconceived notions that Irish cuisine was going to be boring and bland meat and potatoes, or the everyday corned beef and cabbage, they were clearly banished by this point. This year, I will be celebrating St. Patrick's Day in an entirely different (and hopefully more authentic!) way.


You can't make it to Raglan Road this weekend for St. Patrick's Day? Don't despair! The luck of the Irish will still be with you if head over on June 20, the pub's "Midsummer Night Feast." They'll be celebrating with an equally delicious-sounding menu: picnic basket of assorted pates and jams; champagne splashed raspberry sorbet; stuffed suckling pig with vegetables and a Pimm's knickerbocker glory for dessert! (Pimm's is a fruity British liqueur -- notice how most of Chef Dundon's recipes include some sort of alcohol? Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

And for another taste of Ireland, it sounds like Chef Dundon has been cooking up a special
Raglan Road signature dinner menu for this fall's Food and Wine Festival. Called "an Ode to the Classics," it starts with Coquille St. Jacques and end with Cherries Jubilee. (Subject to change, of course -- October is still six months away.)

For more details about the Midsummer Night Feast, or any of the events happening at Raglan Road this weekend, call the restaurant at 407-938-0300 or visit raglanroad.com. You can also make reservations for Raglan Road through Disney Dining at 407-WDW-DINE.

Read more about the St. Patrick's Day happenings at Raglan Road and Pleasure Island HERE.


March 4, 2012

Recap: One More Disney Day

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So now that the 24 hours of One More Disney Day have passed, and I've had the chance to catch up on my missed sleep, I thought I'd share some of my favorite photos and impressions of the experience.

Deb Wills and I got up around 4 a.m. the morning of February 29, Leap Day, to begin our "One More Disney Day" adventure. We really had not planned to spend all 24 hours in the park, but we knew we HAD to be there for opening and closing, and figured we'd pop in periodically throughout the day to see how things were progressing.

Deb had booked a room for us at Bay Lake Tower so that we could walk over to the Magic Kingdom easily, but our plans to park there early in the morning were foiled by the crowds already backing up at the guard gate at 5 a.m. I got out of the car and walked over to the park, leaving Deb to deal with parking.

Though I'd been in Magic Kingdom after midnight several times in the past (remember the old E-Ride Nights?), I'd never been there so early before! It was extremely foggy -- I mean, so foggy it was the lead story on the news -- and it gave the whole area a very spooky atmosphere. The place seemed deserted, which was surprising to me. I had been expecting a huge crowd for the opening.


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As I approached the entrance, though, THERE were the people! Hundreds pressing in around the turnstiles -- that's what I'd been expecting.


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As we entered the turnstiles, we received a special set of One More Disney Day Mouse Ears and a commemorative button. (Thanks, Mike Scopa, for being our model.)


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We huddled around the Mickey Floral display in front of the train station to await the 6 a.m. kick-off. From where I stood, I could just barely see Mickey and Minnie, in their pajamas, as they greeted their fans.


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I already shared my video of the opening ceremony HERE. Sorry for all the Mouse Ears and tops of people's heads in the video -- but that's generally your view when you're as short as I am (5'1")!

After the opening -- which really wasn't that different from the Magic Kingdom's opening ceremony on any other given day -- we all shuffled into the park to see what 24 hours of Magic Kingdom madness had in store for us. As you can see, Main Street was thick with people.


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We noticed that the line for Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom registration at the Firehouse was almost instantly out the door -- and it pretty much stayed that way all day. There were numerous characters out and about and lines forming for them right away, as well. In fact, the wait for the Princesses in Town Square Theater shot to 20 minutes within a half-hour of the park opening.

As we made our way up Main Street, we stopped and asked people where they were visiting from, and if they had made the trip to Walt Disney World expressly for the "One More Disney Day" event. Interestingly, to us at least, nearly everyone we spoke to that early was a local -- the furthest journey anyone had made was a two-hour drive. As the day wore on, though, we encountered quite a few folks who had come from further afield, and many of those HAD come just for Leap Day.

As we reached the Hub around sunrise (7 a.m.-ish), the fog had cleared a bit and the day was brightening, but there was no chance of snapping a shot of the sun coming up over the castle as we had hoped. It was still beautiful, though.


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From there, we just meandered around the park, checking wait times and riding a few rides when we could. We also spent some time watching the progress on the New Fantasyland.


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We held an AllEars.Net meet at Pinocchio Village Haus at 9:30, and we were so thrilled at the turnout. Several of our readers came from out of state just for One More Disney Day -- we met people from all over, including North Carolina, New York, and Virginia (that I can remember -- sorry, if I forgot anyone!). Thanks so much to all who came out to say hello!


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After the meet, I walked around the park with a friend and we were able to ride Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, and several other rides, all with short waits of 15 minutes or less. While definitely not empty, the Magic Kingdom was not what I'd call over-crowded at all at that point. In fact, the longest lines I saw continued to be those at the character meet-and-greets, like Tinker Bell's Magical Nook (25 minutes 1 p.m.) and at the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom portals. It seems that many people had come for the opening ceremony, then had quickly left again -- probably to return later in the day.

After a late lunch at Columbia Harbour House (love that Lighthouse Sandwich!), I decided to leave the park myself for a break -- and possibly a nap. On my way out, I passed the Main Street Bakery, where they were showcasing special One More Disney Day treats.


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And as I left, I snapped a shot of the nearly abandoned turnstiles, which had been the scene of so much activity just nine hours earlier.


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When I returned later in the evening, after watching Wishes from the California Grill (where we had an absolutely amazing meal!), that same location was again buzzing with people entering for the evening.


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There was a serious exodus of people after the 10 p.m. parade, and walking up Main Street was like swimming upstream. Still, the park was by no means empty. In fact, I think it was even more crowded than it had been early in the morning. Characters were still out in force, and there was plenty of live entertainment to keep everyone not riding the rides occupied.

After watching the 11 p.m. showing of "The Magic, The Memories and You", we wandered around to see what rides were still available. Posted wait times for most rides had climbed -- 20 minutes for Pirates of the Caribbean (though it looked longer), 50 minutes for Space Mountain. Even "it's a small world" had a 15-minute wait, but we made sure that we didn't miss that!


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There was another showing of the Main Street Electrical Parade at midnight, but there didn't seem to be the wave of people leaving afterward as there had been earlier.


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Shortly before 4 a.m., I returned to a few of the spots I had photographed earlier, just for comparison's sake.

The turnstiles:

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Looking down on Main Street from the train station:

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The Main Street vehicles were all parked neatly around Town Square, and it was fun to be able to climb aboard and try them out. The kids (young and old alike) were loving it.


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I was surprised at how many people were still in the parks at 4 a.m., and even more surprised at the number of children still going strong. I really had thought crowds would dwindle in these wee hours, but I was proven wrong.


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We ran into a family on Pirates of the Caribbean who had just been in the park since the evening before and the daughter, about 8 or so, was urging her parents to take her to Universal after they were "done" at the Magic Kingdom! Ah, youth...

The energy emanating from the dance party in front of the castle was irresistible, and as I walked toward the Move It, Shake It, Celebrate It! floats that were stationed around the Hub, I noted that many of the participants here were twentysomethings who were clearly spending, if not the entire 24 hours, then at least all of the wee hours in the park. I thought this was a great idea for those die-hards. The enthusiastic DJ, high-energy music and familiar dances -- the hokey-pokey, a conga line -- were just the ticket to jolt you awake if you were feeling drowsy, and the characters joined in the fun.


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Dancing in the streets! on Twitpic

CLICK THE IMAGE FOR THE VIDEO!


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Even though there were still plenty of people in the park, lines at the attractions were practically nonexistent by 5 a.m. I guess maybe everyone had had their fill of rides by then. A number of rides had closed by that time, but we walked right on to popular attractions like Snow White's Scary Adventures and the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I mean, when can an adult ever spend time playing in the queue at Pooh? There are normally so many kids running around, you couldn't even if you wanted to.


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We also took a spin on the Carrousel, and walked right on to the Speedway -- that never happens!


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But, somewhat surprisingly, there were STILL lines at the portals for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game!


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Shortly before 6 a.m., we realized that One More Disney Day was drawing to a close, so we made our way to the front of the castle. The DJ wrapped up his dance party and the floats paraded down Main Street as he signed off, thanking everyone for spending One More Disney Day in the Magic Kingdom. The remaining park-goers waited, as I did, for something to signal the end of the event. But there was... nothing. It was all rather anti-climactic. No fireworks, no big HUZZAH... The regular Main Street atmosphere music (tunes from The Music Man) began playing. It was over, and I must admit, it was a bit of a let-down. All that hoopla for what amounted to little more than a slightly enhanced regular park day.

As I stood there talking to some friends about whether my trip the World for this event had been worth it, the lights around us gradually went down, and the music started for the "Kiss Goodnight", the little send-off that often ends the day in the park. And so I think that's an appropriate way for me to conclude my "One More Disney Day" report.


March 1, 2012

One More Disney Day Opening Ceremony

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It's been a hectic 18 hours so far here at Walt Disney World's "One More Disney Day" Leap Day celebration -- 24 hours of Magic Kingdom fun! I admit, I haven't been in the park the entire time -- we were up at 4 a.m. to be here before 5:30 a.m. for this morning's opening ceremony and by 2 p.m. or so I definitely needed a little break. We went back into the park tonight to see the Magic, Memories and You show and the midnight showing of the Main Street Electrical Parade, and we'll be popping back in in the wee hours to see the day-long event wind down at 6 a.m. Thursday morning.

Just to give you an idea of how the day started out though, here's a video of the morning's opening ceremony -- we'll have lots more photos in the next day or two! And if you're a night owl like me, be sure to follow our late night tweets on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AllEarsNet


October 27, 2011

2011 Food & Wine Festival Bonus: Chef Keegan Gerhard

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To me, one of the most exciting things about the annual Food and Wine Festival at Epcot is the long list of well-known and respected chefs it brings to Walt Disney World to share their expertise with Disneyphiles who happen to be foodies. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to attend demos by a number of chefs I would never have seen in person otherwise. Many have become household names, hosting their own television programs or writing their own cookbooks: Martin Yan, Cat Cora, and Bobby Flay, just to name a few.

Of all the chefs I've seen over the years, though, one of my favorites has to be pastry chef Keegan Gerhard, who has participated in the Epcot Food and Wine Festival every year since its first. His enthusiasm for dessert-making, coupled with his down-to-earth, approachable style make him a delight to watch in the kitchen setting. Widely known as the creator and spiky-haired host-turned-judge of Food Network's live Food Network Challenge Series, Chef Keegan was named one of the nation's top 10 pastry chefs of 2002 and 2004 by both Chocolatier and Pastry Art & Design magazines. Today, he's also Executive Pastry Chef/owner of his own restaurant, D Bar Desserts in Denver, CO.

I first saw Chef Keegan in person at last year's festival, at both the First Bites Opening Reception, and at a culinary demo, during which he prepared a delicious and whimsically named "Dessert Sandwich Situation." This year, I again caught the busy chef as he co-hosted the First Bites Reception, and at another culinary demonstration, where he presented an enhanced version of last year's dessert sandwich, Faux Foster Bananas Impostor. (Recipe at the end of this post.)


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Better than all that, though -- I was lucky enough to have a few minutes with Chef Keegan as he was preparing for the opening of this year's Festival at Epcot. We talked about how the annual event has changed over the years, as well as his thoughts on the state of food and pastry in particular, at Walt Disney World. We also chatted a bit about the impact his Food Network Challenge has had on pastry chefs everywhere, and what's on his horizon.

DMK: You've been coming to the Epcot Food and Wine Festival for 16 years running. What keeps you coming back?

KG: Yes, I've been to all of them. ALLLLLLLL of them! I think only Bob Waggoner [host of the PBS show "U Cook with Chef Bob"] and I have been coming here since the beginning. It's funny, it sounds set up, but Epcot is my favorite Food & Wine Festival, and there's two reasons for this. The very first year I was at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Florida, I was corporate assistant pastry chef and my boss Norman was asked to go but couldn't, but he sent me. No one thought much about it because it was the first year, and no one knew how it would be. First years of festivals are always sketchy. I liked it, it was great. The next two years were very transitional, and since year three they've made it better every year.

DMK: Do you do many other Food & Wine festivals?

KG: I do a ton of them. I know some chefs don't like to and only do them because they have to, but I enjoy them. I wish I could do more.

DMK: What is it about the Epcot festival that makes it special?

KG: In particular, the three things I like: First of all, the guest access. You're not terribly far removed, you have a lot of interaction with Disney guests, especially in events like Party for the Senses and Sweet Sundays. Sweet Sundays is an uncommon format. You get to make three desserts for people and you spend two hours with them, and you're eating a meal -- there's a little more camaraderie, a little bit more of a connection you can make with the audience than in a 30-minute demo. The obviousness of what Disney's created with Party for the Senses -- the interaction, the action stations, the cooking, the wine, the food, it's just a big event. There's a buzz in the air about it, so I love that part as well. The demos themselves are my passion, that's what first drew me. I have a big passion to teach people that dessert should not be intimidating. Dessert should be fun, you shouldn't be afraid of things you don't know in baking and pastry. You just have to learn a few tricks to build your confidence. I think the key in food is If you can teach people a few tricks and they build their confidence, then they can start to be creative. If you're afraid, if you're nervous, if you have anxiety in any occasion you can't really unleash your creativity, right? But once you gain some confidence, you make something 10 times, you think, 'Hey, what about this twist? What about that twist?' And then that's when your passion gets included, that's when you have a story about the food you're making. So in a demo, I get to tell stories about why and how I make things. That's probably my most common question I get: What inspires you to create food? I love to tell those stories. I always have stories about my desserts. I like to share those.


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DMK: Are there any special challenges to cooking here at Epcot's Food & Wine Festival?

KG: There are a few. In the beginning it was very challenging, because I don't believe that Disney realized how quickly it would grow. If you know the Odyssey, the entire festival happened in that building the first couple years. And there were 30 of us, and one oven. But once they realized what was going on they began to correct that. The Epcot Catering Center, where we work now, didn't even exist back then. So they grew it grew it grew it... But the challenge is always just cooking in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar equipment. But you know, I like that.

DMK: What about that makes it enjoyable? It seems that unfamiliarity would make things really difficult.

KG: My role on TV is kind of an odd one, if I'm being honest. I created the competition that became Food Network Challenge. I'm not a TV guy. I'm just a pastry chef. So to be on TV and get quote-unquote famous as a great pastry chef, but nobody had ever seen me make anything in nine years, it's kinda weird. So I much prefer the format of my restaurant, because at night I make desserts in front of you, like if you would go to sushi, but instead it's dessert, every night -- we can sit there and talk. It's like a live demo all night long. I'm sitting and interacting with people while I'm cooking. I prefer that, but in a situation like this, where you're a guest chef, you don't know anybody, you don't know where anything is, you have a couple of options. You can hide in a corner, or you can get involved. I believe that the oddity of that position on TV -- there's some responsibility there. Whether it's warranted or not, people look up to you. Whether it's warranted or not, our show has changed the industry some. I feel like I'm representing the pastry industry, Food Network, my show, and I'm certainly representing myself. So I try to set an example of how I think culinarians should be. I introduce myself to everybody. It used to be really easy -- there were only four guys. Now it's 70 people. It took me 45 minutes this morning. But you know what? If you just look somebody in the eye and say good morning to the dishwashers, to the stewards, to all the guys who worked really hard before you ever got here to get your ingredients together and they're curious to meet you, and they don't know how you'll be, you can put everybody at ease.


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I believe that food is a connection, and when you say that, it's usually about me to the guest or it's me at a demo, and you realize, hey, I'm a normal guy, and so we have a connection. It's the same in the kitchen, there's the same barriers to break down. I have to put them at ease. So I show them and cook with them and I teach them and I let them taste my stuff and I make it myself. There are some chefs that are so busy they just turn in their recipes, they don't have the time to stay here. I've always made the time to come and make my own food. I don't want to bring my own staff to cook, I want to cook with the guys who are already here.

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One exception was last year. Lisa, my wife, and I both were guest chefs, so we shut our restaurant down for three days and put a sign up that said, "Gone to Disney World." We brought our whole staff as a kind of reward for having been open two years. Oddly, 75 percent of our staff had never been here before, so they were wearing their 'First-Time' buttons -- It was life-changing for them!

All my passion for what I do, whether it's a food festival or TV or my restaurant whatever, I believe that food is a connection and I believe that the possibilities are limitless. I've been doing this for 16 years and I do at least two events, sometimes four. I like it that way, I like to work, and play at the end. It's special. People are already excited to be in Disney, and now Disney has made Epcot Food and Wine Festival an added attraction that some people plan their vacations around.

DMK: Having said that, have you had a chance to walk around the Food Booths around World Showcase?

KG: Not yet this year, but yes, I'm always intrigued to see how people react. I don't think that everybody understands that Epcot Food & Wine is going on. There's some people that come for it, and there's some people that don't. The people that just randomly come during festival are like, "Wow! Epcot really IS cool!" I always think, what about the people who come back in the summer and it's not the same?

DMK: Since you've been coming to Walt Disney World a while, you've probably had the chance to try a lot of the different restaurants. What are your favorite desserts here? And where do you like to eat when you come here?

KG: Oh, that's a good question. I can't be impartial because I know a lot of the chefs behind the scenes and a lot of time the personality is a draw for me to the restaurant itself.

I think Disney is extremely fortunate because they have a couple of really great pastry chefs. For example, if I look to dessert first, Erich [Herbitschek] at the Grand Floridian is amazing. When you go to Victoria and Albert's, it's over-the-top, crazy, amazing dessert, but everything that he makes is great. Another guy I think is a complete genius, and I actually just admire to no end, is Stefan Riemer. He's gotten promoted now into a corporate position in development with Disney's cruise line, but he turned the food and beverage situation and that buffet and pastry area at the Yacht and Beach Club around, and Boardwalk as well. So it's really exciting to see the food come up, because I was here when there wasn't really much of a food scene here, and when they really started to get serious about it, with California Grill and Spoodles and Flying Fish. It's evolved, and the emphasis has always stayed on great food. I consistently eat at Flying Fish, every time I come. (Chef) Tim Keating is a friend of mine -- my wife worked as a pastry cook for him at the Four Seasons Houston. I love Jiko. I think Jiko is so unexpected and uncommon for Disney. Who would think you could take a really cool, almost fine dining South African restaurant and put it at Disney? And if I'm being super-duper honest I always race my wife or my sous chef or my pastry cook on the [Kitchen] Sink at Beaches and Cream. Our plan of attack is Party for the Senses, sneak out and watch IllumiNations, and then run over and try to get to Beaches and Cream before it closes.

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DMK: Is the winner whoever feels sicker from eating so much ice cream?

KG: (laughs) It's hard to determine who wins, but it's just the fun of it all... You know, I like corny. I don't ever tell anybody this, but you know when I finally get to play in the park, after I've done everything? I always eat at Prime Time Café for lunch, always. And I never believe that they'll correct me, and they do. I didn't finish my peas last time and the server airplaned them to me before my dessert. Oh, and I love to eat at that weird little drive-in in the Studios [Sci-Fi Dine In Theater], where you watch movies. I mean, come on, even if you're grumpy and you sit in there, you're going to feel like a little kid, so I think it's cool.

DMK: So overall you enjoy dining at Disney World?

KG: A lot of the higher-end outlet chefs, from places like the [Yachtsman] Steakhouse, are chefs now in the Epcot Catering Center, so inevitably the level of the food that's put out -- even in the kiosks -- just kind of increases in quality. It's got a very symbiotic relationship, I think, because you have these great chefs from all over the country, and all over the world, coming to the Festival. Fortunately, Disney doesn't ignore that. They see what these guys do at Party for the Senses and they adapt that, and try to make that possible in the park for guests all the time. Disney has a big advantage because they're seeing some of the best culinary talent in the world come here. It would be easy to ignore and just stay on the same track. I'm proud of Disney that they kind of push the envelope a little bit. They don't do what's been done for 20 years, they're always doing new stuff.

DMK: So after Epcot's Food and Wine Festival, what's next for you? More Food Network Challenge?

KG: Well, we have done all of our holiday shows, so there's seven new episodes for Challenge to come that have not come on yet. I don't know yet if we're going to get re-signed. You find out every year. Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? But at the end of the day we've shot over 300 shows so they're going to be on for... EVER! Probably. I've done a couple other fun little things, made a couple of appearances on some other Food Network shows... I did an episode of Chopped All Stars, which will come on next year. I just shot two fun little random things for DIY Network for a show called Disaster House... And then a big focus for us will be to keep D Bar in Denver great and to get D Bar in the Hillcrest open in April.

DMK: You're opening a second restaurant?

KG: Yes, we're about to open in San Diego, in Hillcrest. Our favorite people in San Diego are these two brothers, Jon and Adam Schlegel, who own a restaurant called Snooze -- a cool breakfast place. They're like the breakfast version of D Bar. We're opening up side-by-side with them, on 5th and University Avenues. I'm known for pastry, but I was a chef for seven years before I was a pastry chef. D Bar is a restaurant, we do lunch and dinner, but we're very dessert-focused at night. In San Diego, at Hillcrest we'll be even more so. It will have 120 seats, it's a much bigger space. But we don't want to do a bunch of restaurants. We just want to do Denver and San Diego and --

DMK: And Disney World?

KG: Listen, I would do Disney -- but you gotta be a hotshot to do that, and I don't know if I'm big enough yet! But then we're looking for Austin (Texas) and that's all I really want to do. That will be enough, right?

For more excerpts from my interview with Chef Keegan, see the video below:


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Recipe for Faux Foster Banana Impostor

Nutella Panini

your favorite egg bread, such as Brioche
Nutella spread
unsalted butter, melted
vanilla bean
Method:
1. Cut crust off of bread to end up with a perfectly square shape.
2. Spread Nutella to make a sandwich.
3. Scrape vanilla bean and whisk seeds into the butter.
4. Brush vanilla butter on both sides of sandwich.
5. Use a Panini grill or toaster oven to toast the sandwich to golden brown crispiness.

Caramel Sauce

1.5 ounces water
8 ounces granulated sugar
1/2 ounce light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream, hot
1/4 ounce vanilla paste
pinch of salt
Method:
1. Cook water, corn syrup and sugar to a deep amber.
2. Combine cream, vanilla paste and salt. Bring to just a simmer or light boil.
3. Stop the cooking process of the caramel by adding the hot cream mixture.
4. Whisk until the mixture is smooth.

Banana Sorbet

10 ounces water
4 ounces granulated sugar
1.5 ounces Trimoline (which is inverted sugar, or use honey)
18 ounces roasted bananas
1/2 each lemon juice
rum to taste

Method:
1. Peel and slice bananas lengthwise. Lay on a sheet tray with a silpats and roast in overn 300F until the sugars begin to caramelize.
2. Combine all other ingredients and bring to a boil.
3. Put the syrup and bananas in a blender and blend until smooth.
4. Strain, cool, chill, then process in ice cream machine.

Plantain Chips

Plantains
Granulated sugar
Method:
1. Slice the plantains lengthwise to about 1/4-inch thickness.
2. Place each slice individually into the deep fryer at about 350F.
3. Once golden brown and crispy, remove and toss in granulated sugar.

Homemade Crème Fraiche

1/2 ounce buttermilk
2 cups heavy cream
Method:
1. Mix ingredients together thoroughly and place into a sealed container.
2. Keep contained out at room temperature for about 24 hours or until mixture has thickened to the point where it seems to resemble jelly.
3. Keep refrigerated after this point.

NOTE: In the photo above Chef Gerhard substituted cocoa nibs for the plantain chips.

September 30, 2011

2011 Epcot Food & Wine Festival: The First 36 Hours

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Well, it's happened again this year. I fly into Orlando for the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, and hit the ground running... I love this event so much, I always try to cram too much into too short a time.

Even though I've only been here about 36 hours so far, I already feel like I've lived a whole other lifetime... and food-wise, I really have. I've had the chance to sample so many savory and sweet delights, I thought I might give you a quick update. I plan to do more in-depth reviews of most of these experience over the next week or so, so be sure to look for those in the AllEars Newsletter and, of course, on the AllEars.Net website. But until I'm done feasting at the fest, here are my quick impressions via some photos that will hopefully speak a thousand or so words on my behalf.

I started out yesterday by interviewing pastry chef and Food Network star Keegan Gerhard. Chef Gerhard is just as down-to-earth and charming in person as he is on television, and we spent quite a while talking about the work he's done at Epcot's festival over the past 16 years, as well as what's next on his own agenda. (I'll share some video from the interview later this week.)

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I followed that interview with a quick trip around Epcot's World Showcase, where the Food and Wine Festival's International Marketplaces (aka Food Booths) were open in "preview" mode before Friday's official opening. I sampled a few items but wanted to make sure I didn't overdo it, since I knew I would be attending the Festival opening event, the First Bites Reception.

The Chicken Chipotle Sausage with Polenta from the Canada booth, a winner I remembered from last year -- It's a winner again, in my opinion, even if it's not the most photogenic dish:

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The feijoada (bean and pork stew) in Brazil -- definitely rated a "meh" from me:


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But the rice pudding with berries -- YUM! So creamy, so good!

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The First Bites Reception in the Festival Center was a nice preview of ALL the different sorts of activities you can experience during the festival's 45 days -- the food booths' offerings, culinary demos, wine tastings, HGTV personalities, and live entertainment. I found it ran a lot more smoothly this year, but still, I'm still contemplating whether it's worth the hefty price tag. I haven't quite made up my mind. (You can read my review of the 2010 event HERE.)


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My first Food & Wine Festival event today was "Kitchen Memories" featuring Victoria and Albert's chef Scott Hunnell, and pastry chef Erich Herbitschek. The three course they prepared for us were, in a word, fantastic.

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I followed that with a culinary demo hosted by Keegan Gerhard -- I *know*, more desserts! But someone has to do it. And so I muddled through, as Gerhard presented his take on the classic Bananas Foster -- a "dessert sandwich situation" that featured the chocolate-hazelnut spread known as Nutella, that he called "Faux Foster Banana Impostor"


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And all of that doesn't include the various wines that were paired with all of these delightful dishes!

As you can see, it's been an intense 36 hours of eating and drinking! Tomorrow, Saturday, I'll be taking the morning off from festing to head over to the Magic Kingdom to help it celebrate its 40th anniversary! But I'll be right back to Epcot later in the day, trying out some more food booths, and attending one of the new Mixology demonstrations -- I understand that they'll be featuring the pear cognac called Xante, and that they'll be showing us how to make three different cocktails! Sounds like fun!

I'll be posting updates all through the weekend on Twitter (follow me @dcdeb_allears) and on my Facebook page: facebook.com/DebraMartinKoma. If you have anything in particular you'd like to know, leave me a message here or tweet me and I'll do my best to come up with an answer for you.

OK, better get ready for tomorrow... I think the next 36 hours may be as whirlwind as the first were!



August 4, 2011

Billy Dee Williams Debuts Artwork at D23 Expo

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UPDATE: We just received word that the artwork by Billy Dee Williams mentioned in this blog will not be finished in time for the Expo. However, Billy Dee will still be appearing at the event to sign autographs and meet guests -- and celebrate the relaunch of Star Tours!


If you read the recent article in our AllEars® newsletter in which I "outed" myself as a Star Wars fan, it will come as no surprise to you to learn that I was super thrilled when I found out that actor Billy Dee Williams, better known as the charming rogue Lando Calrissian from the Star Wars films, was going to be attending the upcoming D23 Expo in Anaheim.

You can just imagine my further excitement, then, when the chance arose for me to join in yesterday on a conference call with Williams, who was set to talk about, among other things, the new artwork he has created featuring Mickey Mouse and the rest of the "Fab Five", which will debut at the upcoming D23 Expo.

I remember reading some time ago that Williams was an accomplished artist - he has work hanging in an impressive number of nationally known galleries, including the Smithsonian! - but I didn't realize how seriously he had returned to what was his first love in recent years.

In yesterday's half-hour telephone interview, Williams talked about Star Wars, of course, but also about his relationship with Disney.

"I've always related to Mickey Mouse," he said, when asked how his affiliation with the D23 Expo came about. "Like everybody else, I've been a Disney fan all of my life. I'm pretty much amazed by all of it" like most people. It's magical."

But how did he come to create something featuring Disney characters? I asked him. I could have understood if he had painted his character, Lando, and other Star Wars images, in tribute to the newly renovated Star Tours attraction... but Mickey? How did that happen?

"I went to the Disney archives a while ago, to see the history of Disney," he explained. "I thought it would be a nice idea to do something with the characters that we could make into a litho. It's a cute little idea - it's a very simple piece."

Williams described the work, which he did in acrylics and colored pencil, as a jazz presentation of the five characters - Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy - surrounding Williams himself.

"I was thinking of us as jazz musicians," Williams said. When asked if he had a particular jazz tune in mind when he developed the artwork, Williams laughed and thought a moment. "Well, Minnie is singing" but, yes. 'Take Five,'" he said, referring to the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet jazz instrumental.

The piece has been reproduced as a Limited Edition lithograph that will be available exclusively to D23 attendees for $99.95, which will include an autograph. Williams will be at the Expo for the unveiling of the work, and will also be available to pose with fans and sign autographs. (Note: Separate autograph tickets for Williams will be available for purchase for $40.)

"I'm looking forward to the Expo," Williams said. "I can't imagine anyone not having a good time at Disney."

The man whose 3-1/2-year-old grandson sometimes call him "Grandpa Lando," will be at the D23 Expo to pose for photographs with fans, and to sign autographs, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday, August 19, at the Coolwaters Productions booth in the Collector's Forum.

(Note: an image of the lithograph should be online in the next day or so -- I'll update
this blog post when it's available.)

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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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 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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January 20, 2011

First Photos from the Disney Dream

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Well, here we are at Castaway Cay! It's a gorgeous day, and we've been so busy -- there is so much to see! The ship is immense, and we're taking photos like crazy, but this is the first time we've been able to get online. I'm just going to share some random photos for you to whet your appetite... we'll have much, much more tomorrow!

Entering Ship

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Our State Room

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Oceaneer's Club

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Nemo's Pod (Kid's Play area)

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Lounge at The District

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Wild Boar at Royal Palace Restaurant

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January 19, 2011

"Let the Memories Begin" Kick-Off

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As you may have read, Disney is christening its newest ship, the Disney Dream, on January 19. As a precursor to the christening ceremony and cruise, a special event was held Tuesday night in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom for an assortment of guests, including members of the media, who were also treated to a briefing on what's new and what's next in the parks as Disney launches their new "Let the Memories Begin" campaign.

Many of the plans discussed at the briefing were announced earlier in the day, but the briefing, and the subsequent interviews we were able to conduct later, shed a little more light on them.

The briefing began at the Philharmagic Theater, with Al Weiss, president of Worldwide Operations, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Weiss stated that there were more projects in the works than ever before in the company's history and recapped additions to Disney parks around the world.

Weiss then introduced Walt Disney World Resort's president Meg Crofton, who officially kicked off the "Let the Memories Begin" campaign by talking about how memories were at the core of everything they do at the parks.

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"Ultimately it's not about the bricks and mortar," she noted. "Every time we add an element we think about the emotional experiences we're creating."

Crofton detailed several recent park additions or new "immersive experiences", such as the Wild Africa Trek experience which started a few days ago at Disney's Animal Kingdom. She also highlighted such features as the interactive queue area at The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, and the new "Tangled" Play and greet that allows children to play with Rapunzel and Flynn Ryder.

As she revealed that the renovated attraction "Star Tours" would reopen on May 20 - in 3D -- Crofton also had the chance to tease the audience a bit. Imposing music from the "Star Wars" films began to play, announcing the arrival of Imperial Stormtroopers and Darth Vader himself. "Now that's what I call 3D," Crofton joked as the villain and his entourage strode out of the theater.

Eric Jacobson, Senior Vice President of Creative Development, Walt Disney Imagineering, then took the stage to outline some of the major changes coming to Fantasyland as part of its current expansion project. Some of the changes were previously announced last year, like Under the Sea: Journey of The Little Mermaid, but there were several new attractions just announced today.

The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will feature first-of-its-kind ride technology that allows the cars to swing back and forth a bit as it takes riders both inside and outside on a journey starring the Dwarfs and even Snow White. The Scary Adventures of Snow White will close as a result, but on its site will be the new Princess Fairytale Hall, which will host a variety of princesses, including the newer members of the royal family, Tiana and Rapunzel. Finally, fans of the gentle coaster, Goofy's Barnstormer in Toontown will be happy to hear that it is being slightly rethemed, but will still feature Goofy. Redubbed The Great Goofini, . the storyline will have Goofy as a stunt pilot who is part of the Storybook Circus, new home to Dumbo All of these attractions will start "rolling out" in late 2012.

You can watch Deb Wills speak with Jacobson about the Fantasyland changes below:

Alan Bruun, associate creative director at Walt Disney World Entertainment, was tasked with introducing the new 10-minute castle show that is tied to the Let the Memories Begin campaign.

"The Magic, The Memories, and You," features photos of visitors to Walt Disney World taken during the day, and then projected on the castle in the evening. This basic description, however, fails to take into account the special effects also used to create an almost 3D effect and bring the castle to life.

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According to Bruun, as many as 500 photos shot during the day will be projected onto the castle -- but these photos are all selected individually, in a process that Bruun says involves as much 'high touch" as high tech, and then are interwoven into a "story" that tells the guests' experience.

After dinner in Frontierland and desserts in front of the castle, we had the chance to see the new show first-hand. I was skeptical at first as to whether watching photos of strangers would be entertaining at all. But after viewing the show, I must say I was pleasantly surprised and impressed. Some of the special effects are simply amazing, the music is stirring and of course the finale with fireworks is the perfect end to any show. I don't want to ruin all the surprises, but if you don't mind spoilers, we recorded the show here:


Tomorrow is a whole new kind of experience for me, as we take to the "high seas" and I get my first taste of cruising on the brand new Disney Dream! We'll have lots of photos and hopefully we'll get the chance to write a bit, if our luck with the internet holds out.

Follow Deb Wills and me on Twitter as we send mini-updates whenever we can:

Deb Wills = @AllEarsDeb
Deb Koma = @dcdeb_allears

December 20, 2010

New Gingerbread Tree at Disney's Contemporary Resort

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I haven't been to Walt Disney World during the holidays for two years, so the big Gingerbread Tree at the Contemporary Resort, located on the Grand Canyon Concourse Level adjacent to the monorail station, was new to me. Said to be inspired by the art of Disney Legend Mary Blair, the Gingerbread Tree is placed right in front of one of her impressive murals.

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The tree is made of gingerbread shingles and other confections and is 6 feet wide, 17 feet tall.

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They say it took the following to construct the tree:

-- 1050 pounds of honey
-- 800 pounds of flour
-- 600 pounds of chocolate
-- 600 pounds of powdered sugar
-- 180 pounds of apricot glaze
-- 140 pints of egg whites
-- 35 pounds of spices
-- tons of creativity with some Disney Magic and Pixie Dust

The Contemporary Bakery cast members needed more than three months and 1200 hours to produce, cut and bake the 4,939 shingles used to decorate the Gingerbread Tree.

In addition to all the goodies sold there at the Gingerbread Tree, the Contemporary Resort is offering hand-painted holiday ornaments made to order for $10.50.

Here's a list of what you can purchase after you've done drooling at the tree:

Butter cookie $4.00
Chocolate candy cane $4.00
Chocolate Happy Holidays Frame $11.00
Chocolate Monorail $6.00
Contemporary Season's Greetings Chocolate Frame $12.50
Butter Cookie Holiday Tree $16.00
Linzer Cookie $4.75
Dark Chocolate Lollipop $4.25
White Chocolate Lollipop $4.25
Princess Lollipop $6.00
Gingerbread Man $7.75
Gingerbread Ornament $8.50
Gingerbread Snowflake $4.00
Peppermint Bark $6.00
Hand-painted Ornament $10.50
Gingerbread House $55.00

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The shop at the Gingerbread Tree is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The artist who hand-paints and personalizes white chocolate ornaments is on hand 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays through Saturdays.

November 16, 2010

Gingerbread House at Grand Floridian

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Each year, the lobby of Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa hosts a magnificently festive creation -- a 16-foot-tall gingerbread house baked with 1,050 pounds of honey that takes more than 160 hours to decorate.

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I had the chance to see the house the other day as it was
near completion. Here are some photos taken from a variety of angles. Note the detail -- can you spy Tinker Bell in one of the windows?

I only wish I could share the delicious, spicy aroma with you! It was heavenly!


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The Gingerbread House opened to the public yesterday, November 15, and is now open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., selling gingerbread cookies and other holiday confections.


November 15, 2010

Holiday Decorations around Epcot

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I made a short trip to the World this past weekend (Nov. 12-14),
mostly for the end of the Food & Wine Festival. I couldn't help but
notice, however, that Christmas decorations are popping up all over.
Here are some of the more prominent holiday displays I noticed as I wandered around the park.

Starting at International Gateway:

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World Showcase Plaza

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In Germany
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Even in Sommerfest:

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In France
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Not only in the new Givenchy shop...

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... but also in the Bistro de Paris:

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In the United Kingdom
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In the American Adventure

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And finally, where I didn't expect them... Inside Club Cool:
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October 4, 2010

New Karamell-Küche in Epcot's Germany Pavilion

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Mmmm... I can still smell the amazing, buttery aroma of freshly made caramel, even now -- 24 hours after I first set foot in the new Karamell-Küche shop that opened just a few days ago in Epcot's Germany pavilion.

This new store, located on the site of the former Glas und Porzellan in the front of the pavilion, is sponsored by Storck USA, makers of Werther's Original Caramels. It's unique, in that it is the only freestanding retail location for Werther's in the world -- how did Epcot get so lucky?


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Not only does the shop sell a wide array of prepackaged Werther's candies, but each day cast members are busy making fresh caramel confections, including caramel apples and popcorn, caramel-drizzled cupcakes, rice krispie treats, cookies, strawberries, and much more.


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Not only is this place a treat for the nose and tastebuds, but it's a feast for the eyes, with attractive displays of its goodies, as well as the chance to watch the cast members at work. You can see them mixing up batches of savory hot caramel, or generously drizzling it over popcorn, cupcakes, and a variety of fruit and freshly baked items.


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All of this gooey goodness does not come cheap, of course. You can expect to pay $5.45 for a regular caramel-dipped apple, and up to $9.95 for a specialty, such as Rocky Road (covered with nuts, chocolate chunks, and marshmallows) or Apple Pie. But get this! Some of the items count as snacks on the Disney Dining Plan, including the small bag of caramel popcorn ($2.95), the gourmet caramels ($3.95), the chocolate and caramel covered strawberries ($3.95) and several of the various cookies (prices vary).


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If you're buying some of the regular Werther's candies, you can get 1.8 oz. roll packs for $.95, 4.5 oz. bags for $2.95. You can also get sugar-free Werther's: 1.48 oz. minis for $1.45; 2.75 oz. bags for $2.95 and 7.7 oz. bags for $8.95.

The shop is open during regular World Showcase hours, and the lines are currently long, but fast-moving. This is one sweet destination, if you'll pardon the pun, that you should definitely check out on your next visit to Epcot.



September 19, 2010

A "Really Cool Party": The New Food and Wine Classic at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin

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NOTE: Due to the amount of junk mail our blogs have been getting, we've implemented a new procedure for posting blog comments. After sharing your thoughts, there is one more box to complete before you press "Post." For now, type the word "blog" (without quotes) in this field (this word could change periodically). This will let the system know that a real person is writing and not some automated program that generates spam. Thanks for your help and understanding!

So you've been to Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival numerous times, and feel like you've done all the various special dining experiences, wine seminars and cooking demonstrations. Now you're looking for something new, something a little different.

Well, you have no further to look than just beyond Epcot's International Gateway, where something new is cooking over at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort.

According to Tony Porcellini, the resort's Director of Food and Beverage, the first Annual Swan and Dolphin Food & Wine Classic being held October 8 and 9, 2010 (coincidentally the second weekend of Epcot's big do) will give visitors a chance to attend "a really cool party, with cool scenery, entertainment, and a chance to learn about and enjoy food and wine in an unpretentious way."

"With our 17 restaurants and lounges, we have an array of food and beverage here at the Swan and Dolphin unlike most other resorts," Porcellini says, when describing how the Food & Wine Classic came about. "In fact, we have 600 people in our Food and Beverage Division. So we thought, 'Why not give people a chance to experience some of our passions?' We love food and we love to teach, so that's what we decided to do."

The two-day event will begin each evening by offering six different beverage seminars, led by one of the resort's beverage professionals. Porcellini, himself a master sommelier, will be heading up a session on "wine blending" that will look at a variety of wines and the wine-making process, followed by a chance to blend your very own meritage. These seminars, which range in length from 45 to 75 minutes, also include RIESLING RENDEZVOUS (covering the broad range of Riesling styles); MODERN MIXOLOGY (the science behind mixologists' methods); ALL THINGS SAKE (the history of sake along with tastings of various types); BEER, PLEASE! (discussing the process behind different brews and their impact on the food and beverage industry as well as a tasting of the multiple styles of beer); and BUBBLES (which of course covers the basics of champagne, finishing with a blind champagne tasting).

After these beverage seminars wind up at around 5:30 p.m. both evenings, the causeway between the Swan and the Dolphin hotels will be filled with a number of food and beverages stations that will allow guests to sample offerings from a cross-section of the resort's restaurants. Each station will be hosted by at least one chef or member from the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin.

"It was important for us to have one of our people at each table," Porcellini notes. "We want to try to demystify what we do, not do it pretentiously."

Among the offerings will be the chance to try a tasty morsel from Todd English's bluezoo. Friday night the station will offer a shrimp "steamroller," which fills an open-ended test tube with the elements of a classic shrimp cocktail that's been "deconstructed." On Saturday, you can sample bluezoo's southwest buffalo chicken "pipettes", presented in a similar unique style.

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Kimonos' station offers its classic "dragon roll" with salmon, avocado and shrimp tempura.

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The Fountain serves up vegetarian falafel both nights, while the Cabana presents a tuna tostito on Friday and a molded watermelon and crab salad on Saturday. And at Il Mulino you can "mangia" on mini polpetti (meatball) sandwiches on Friday, or a special "pasta creation" on Saturday.

Mini Polpetti (Meatball) Sandwich

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Or you can saunter over to the Shula's Steak House station either evening for a chance to "Pick Your Own Filet" -- you can literally choose your own 3 oz. portion of beef, which will be grilled to your specs, and served with creamed spinach.

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And finally you can finish off your eating spree with some treats for your sweet teeth -- famed executive pastry chef Laurent Branlard, a two-time World Pastry Champion, will present five miniature creations.

Many of the wines and spirits offered during the tasting portion of the event will be selections served at the resort's restaurants, but Porcellini notes that some will be unique to the Classic. One station will specialize in champagnes and the varietals from which champagne is made, while others will feature wines from the Veneto region, Australia, and Spain. Rieslings and handcrafted beers will also have special stations, and there will be a spot that continues with the earlier beverage seminar's theme of "mixology" -- along with mixed drinks it will host a bartending competition.

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bluezoo's "Bazooka Joe"

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Throughout the entire affair, music from three different live bands -- Philadelphia's Pieces of a Dream, The Latin Jazz All Stars and The Groovemasters -- will provide a "nice, laid-back vibe and atmosphere," as Porcellini puts it.

"We think this is the kind of event, and the kind of venue, where people will feel free to walk in and out," he adds. "Maybe they'll want to grab a glass of wine, then go to dinner at one of our restaurants, then come back out later. Or maybe they'll stay until the event ends at 9:30, then go to visit one of our lounges, at Shula's or Kimonos. It's not that structured and has a certain simplicity."

Yes, a laid-back event that is held outdoors. But what if the weather fails to cooperate? Don't worry, Porcellini asserts. There is a back-up plan that entails moving most of the festivities into the cavernous lobby of the Dolphin, and perhaps even over to the escalators that lead directly down to bluezoo, which also could host its own station.

While this all sounds like an ambitious start, Porcellini notes that they managed to pull this year's activities together in just four or five months.

"This is an event we're excited about, and we'll begin planning for 2011 immediately after this year's is over," he adds. "It's our intention is to grow bigger and bigger every year."

RELATED INFO:

The first Annual Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Food & Wine Classic will be held Friday and Saturday, October 8 and 9, 2010. Beverage seminars begin at 4:30 p.m. The causeway dining begins at 5:30 p.m. and runs until 9:30 p.m. Cost for the event when purchased in advance is $50 for the entire evening -- that includes one beverage seminar and unlimited tasting from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Food and wine samples also can be purchased "a la carte" on the day of event. Tickets are $2 each or 25 tickets for $45. Note that some samples may require more than ticket. Or you can purchase a bracelet for $50, which allows you unlimited food and beverage samples for the evening.

The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin is also offering for AllEars® Readers hotel packages that include this event. For reservations, call 1-888-828-8850 and refer to rate code EARFWC.

For beverage seminar reservations only, call 407-934-1609.



August 5, 2010

Festival 15: The 2010 Epcot Food and Wine Festival

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Fifteen years is a pretty long time, no matter how you slice it. And that's why this year Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival is shaking things up a bit. It's the 15th anniversary of the culinary event, which takes place October 1 through November 14, 2010, all around Epcot, even branching out to several other locations around the Walt Disney World Resort.

I recently spoke to Marianne Hunnel who, as area manager for Park Event Operations, has been charged with coordinating this year's event, and asked her to share some insights, particularly as far as what's new and different.

For the first time, guests actually have a chance to get a "sneak peek" of the festival, dubbed "Delicious Discoveries" this year. The Thursday night before the official opening guests can attend the "First Bites Opening Reception" in the Festival Welcome Center. The evening will be co-hosted by pastry chef Keegan Gerhard, of TV's Food Network, and Pam Smith, a registered dietician, cookbook author and perennial host for numerous Food and Wine Festival programs.

"We're very excited at this opportunity for guests to see a preview of this year's festival offerings," Hunnel says. "We'll have culinary demos, beverage seminars, marketplace tastings, and even a special cake from Mike McCarey of Mike's Amazing Cakes. It will really set the stage for what you're going to be able to see at the festival this year."

Hunnel adds that while they are still working out the details for possible "meet and greets" with the chefs, they do plan to keep the event to under 500 guests, to make it a "really special night." But don't worry -- this preview is just that, only a "taste" of the festival. "We're not giving the whole festival away," she notes. "This is just to whet your appetite."

So once whetted, how can you satisfy your appetite? What are some of the other offerings making their debut ?

For one thing, there's the rather unusually named "Taste, Shake and Indulge Like the French", which will be held on Saturdays in October. After a Grand Marnier tasting, guests will learn a bit about mixology, then have a chance to sample crepes suzette and more in the setting of the elegant Bistro de Paris in the France pavilion.

This emphasis on spirits was also present last year, when the festival introduced tequila tastings at its Mexican location La Cava del Tequila (the program returns this year).

Hunnel notes that the festival is not only providing opportunities to sample spirits, but also beers, particularly microbrews. In fact, right at the entrance of the World Showcase Plaza will be a special experience, "15 Beers for 15 Years," which Hunnel calls a "fun selection of beers from Oregon to Florida." She notes that you'll also be able to purchase bottled versions of the brews you find especially pleasing to the palate. (The Brewer's Collection marketplace will return this year, offering a variety of German beers, such as Rudeberger Pilsner.)

Another addition to the program listing is the "3D Disney's Dessert Discovery," to be offered each week of the festival on either Thursday or Friday evening at the World Showplace.

"This evening is all about desserts," Hunnel stresses. "It's different from the Sweet Sundays program (which is again offered this year) in that you are not served a meal. There will be some action stations (where food is prepared) and there will be some showy elements, but this is really about the desserts themselves."

The evening, which includes cocktails and cordial pairings, is capped off with a VIP viewing of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. Says Hunnel, "It's a great way to end your day... or rather, embellish it!"

Historically, the Food and Wine Festival has been centered in Epcot, with the occasional program or dining experience held at a resort. This year, however, there are 15 special "signature" dining experiences, 14 of which are located outside of Epcot.

"We've had a lot of feedback from guests that they are looking for dining events during the weekdays, not just weekends," Hunnel explains. "We decided to reach out to our other restaurants, particularly those in the Downtown Disney area, to see if they'd be interested in participating."

Their efforts were clearly successful. There are signature dinners planned at Downtown Disney's Portobello, Fulton's Crab House, Raglan Road, Bongo's Cuban Café, Paradiso 37 and Wolfgang Puck's. Other non-Epcot locations offering signature dinners include Victoria and Albert's and Citricos (Grand Floridian), California Grill and The Wave (Contemporary), Flying Fish Café and Kouzzina (BoardWalk), Jiko (Animal Kingdom Lodge) and bluezoo (Walt Disney World Dolphin). In a number of cases, the celebrity chefs attached to these establishments, such as Cat Cora (Kouzzina) and Todd English (bluezoo), will be on hand.

While those signature dinners will be on the high end of the price spectrum (ranging from $125 to $450 per person), you can get a taste of what's new at the festival for a decidedly more modest cost. Amidst the returning international marketplaces located around the World Showcase Lagoon are a few ones, notably booths representing South Korea and Belgium.

"We've tried to keep everything as traditional as possible for these countries," Hunnel explains. "We're even bringing special beverages from South Korea that are indigenous to the area -- a black raspberry rice wine called "bokbunja joo" and honey ginger tea -- to go along with the BBQ short rib and lettuce wraps that will be available."

The Belgium booth, too, will feature specialties of the region not found at Epcot before. The kiosk for the small country, home to world-famous Godiva chocolate, will feature a special Godiva iced coffee, along with steamed mussels, and waffles with a berry compote (but not all mixed together!).

The festival would not be complete without its popular Eat to the Beat concert series, which features bands performing nightly at the America Gardens Theatre. There are a number of performers new to the festival schedule this year, including Howard Jones, Rick Springfield, Air Supply and Hanson, along with popular returning acts Starship featuring Mickey Thomas and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (I saw them last year -- don't miss them!). And of course every Saturday night will see what Hunnel terms the festival's "pinnacle event," the tasting extravaganza known as Party for the Senses.

Last year's Party for the Senses evenings sported a different theme each week, a concept that has been abandoned this year. Instead, guest chefs will be "providing the flavors they want to create," Hunnel says. "If they have a specialty or something in particular they want to do, they'll be doing that." In addition, performers from Cirque du Soleil will be joining in the Party for the Senses again, after a several year absence.

When you add what's new to what's returning -- Food and Wine Pairings, Wine Schools, French Regional Lunches, Cheese Tastings, Tequila Tastings, Culinary Demos, Wine Seminars, and more -- this 15th anniversary festival shapes up to be 45 delicious days.

"It's so exciting to see how this festival gets bigger and bigger every year," Hunnel concludes. "We have something for everyone, whether you're novice or epicurean. I think everyone finds our festival to be not only a very credible event, but very magical in Disney's own special way."

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many of the special dining experiences mentioned in this blog sell out in advance. If you're interested, call for reservations as soon as possible: 407-WDW-FEST.

Also, you will be able to book certain culinary demonstrations and wine seminars online. These 45-minute programs are held several times each day and require a fee of $8 to $13 (tax included). If you've attended these sessions in previous years, you'll be happy to learn that this year's portion sizes will be a bit larger. According to Hunnel, they are still finalizing details on these programs, but they will be available for online booking before the end of August.


May 27, 2010

Summer Nightastic! Sneak Peek

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You've probably heard a lot lately about Summer Nightastic! -- the big doings coming to Walt Disney World starting this June 6 and running through August 14. (The Official Press Release is on our Disney News Blog.)

The biggest draw is undoubtedly the return of the beloved Main Street Electrical Parade to the Magic Kingdom. Along with this, Disney is also rolling out a new fireworks show for the Magic Kingdom, a music series in Epcot, changes to the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and a new dance party in Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Disney invited the media to take a "sneak peek" at what it has in store for this summer, and I had the chance to "pull back the curtain" and get some inside glimpses into what Summer Nightastic! will be all about.

The original Main Street Electrical Parade debuted in Disneyland in 1972. A version of the MSEP, which featured lit-up floats and an electronic ditty called "Baroque Hoedown", ran at Walt Disney World for years, until it was replaced by SpectroMagic, also an electrified parade. MSEP came back to Walt Disney World for a two-year stint (1999-2001), but was again replaced by SpectroMagic" until now.

According to Gene Harding, producer for Disney creative entertainment in Florida, the return of MSEP for Summer Nightastic! marks the return of "a classic attraction."

"This parade has so much nostalgia associated with it," he notes. "It really is at the point where it's spanning three generations - people who saw it as a kid in 1977 are now old enough to be bringing not only their own kids, but their grandchildren!"

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Creative Director Reed Jones, who performed in the parade's Cinderella Unit in 1979, agrees. "It's fantastic and I'm anxious to see the looks on guests' faces when they see this parade again. Bringing it back to Walt Disney World had its challenges, but it really was a labor of love."

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New to the Walt Disney World version of the parade when it makes its comeback on June 6:

--Tinker Bell atop her own float
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--a Pinocchio unit

--LED technology on the main MSEP drum float. (Be sure to spot the trail of pixie dust that starts on this float and then travels along the entire parade.)

--Updated music. It's still the same beloved "Baroque Hoedown," but a few things have been added or modified.

Disney also shared some fun, and to me, astounding, facts about the parade:

--It uses approximately 575,000 lights in six colors, plus clear. A lot of these lights are nothing more than ordinary incandescent lights you might use in your own holiday decorations!
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According to Harding, that's one of the things that gives this MSEP its charm. "It's not as perfect as if it were all LED or fiber optics," he claims. "It looks much more natural, which adds to the nostalgic feel."

-- The costumes in the parade use more than 11,000 lights. Samantha Goodwin, an entertainment costumer responsible for each garment, including fitting and functionality, say it took two semis with 210 boxes to carry all the costuming pieces from California to Florida.
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--Approximately FIVE MILES of wire is used throughout all the floats.

In addition to showing us many of the floats illuminated in a warehouse, Disney also gave us the chance to see what it feels like to operate one of the smaller vehicles. In the video below, Gene Harding gives me a brief training, but he assured me that the vehicles drivers are actually trained quite extensively on how to maneuver:


Summer Nightastic! will be more than just the return of the MSEP, though. The Magic Kingdom's night fireworks "Wishes," will be "going on vacation," says show director Chris Oyen, while the park is treated to a new display, the Summer Nightastic! Fireworks Spectacular.

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According to Oyen, who says this presentation is based on the fireworks that were shown during the Pirates and Princesses Parties, the Summer Nightastic! show begins with the Fairy Godmother summoning a celebration. She is joined by the fairies from Sleeping Beauty (Flora, Fauna and Merryweather), but soon a "villain will try to participate, but you know how it's going to end."

"Because this fireworks show has a limited run, we're able to do things we can't normally do," Oyen notes. "This will be the first time that regular day guests can see a show like this without the upcharge of something like the Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party. We will have fireworks all around the park (perimeter fireworks) and a few other surprises."

In addition to the fireworks show, Oyen has also been working on a Summer Nightastic program for Disney's Hollywood Studios. The Rock 'n' Glow Dance Party will shine the spotlight on the band Mulch, Sweat and Shears, which will perform five nights a week on a special stage in front of the park's Sorcerer's Hat. The dance party will run for about three hours before park closing, and will feature not only live music, but DJs, some Radio Disney personalities, Disney characters, and even some pyrotechnic effects. "It will be VERY rock and roll," Oyen asserts.

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror will be trotting out a new ride profile for Summer Nightastic! as well. Jason Roberts, show producer, was reluctant too share too many details, but would only tease that the changes on the attraction will be "noticeably different" to anyone who has ridden it before.

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"We really pushed to come up with something different," he explains. "We'll bring the guest into the story more than ever before. I think we have come up with the most version of the Tower of Terror to date."

Epcot's evening have not been neglected, as it will be host nightly to the Sounds Like Summer concert series on the America Gardens Theatre stage. More than just "tribute" bands, the performers appearing during this concert series will bring the essence of the music and artists to life.

"It will be like you're playing your old LPs," says Alan Bruun, associate creative director for new projects and special events. "We've required these bands to be authenticated by the artists whose work they are performing. So you won't just be hearing a band that covers the music of the Rolling Stones, but you will be hearing the music as the Rolling Stones performed it, as approved by the Rolling Stones themselves."

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The line-up for the Sounds Like Summer series can be found on the AllEars.Net Events page here.

Summer Nightastic! will run from June 6 through August 14, and according to the Imagineers I spoke to, everything reverts to its original status at that time. In other words, Wishes and SpectroMagic return, and the Tower of Terror goes back to the ride profile it has today - so if you want to experience any of these special changes, you better pack your bags and get to Walt Disney World sometime in the next eight weeks!


March 20, 2010

Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival Follow-up

Festival Follow-up
by Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor, AllEars®

It's not often that I get to visit Walt Disney World two weekends in a row, being that I'm from out of state and all, but due to an unusual confluence of events, that's what I found myself doing recently. As a result, I was able to tour Epcot the weekend *before* the annual Flower and Garden Festival started, and then again the weekend *after* it started. It was kinda neat to see the changes just a few short days had made, so I thought I'd share them with you.

When I was in Epcot before the festival started, the main entrance display had not yet been installed, so I was eager to see it. As horticulture manager Eric Darden had told me previously, the display featured Donald and Daisy Duck, as well as Goofy and Pluto, in a Canadian Rockies setting, camping out and "Celebrating the Great Outdoors," the festival's 2010 theme.

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True to form, the 14-foot Goofy topiary showed our canine friend in the awkward predicament of hooking his own pants with his fishing pole, while Canadian Mountie Donald and Pluto looked on. Off to the side Daisy calmly roasts marshmallows, the flames of her fire portrayed by bronze and copper-colored blooms. The scene is beautiful, accented by a waterfall and pine trees in the background, all set against the globe of Spaceship Earth, glinting in the sun.

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Another thing that was interesting to note were the individual topiary exhibits. Darden had commented during our tour that they were constantly looking at ways to improve upon each display, and I saw several cases of their last-minute tinkering. The Lion King exhibit in front of Spaceship Earth, for example, which features Rafiki holding the baby Simba up for all to see, had sparse foliage behind it when I saw it before the festival opened. But on my more recent visit, you can see how space had been filled in with bushy plants to give the whole scene a lusher look.

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In the Twining's Tea Garden in the UK pavilion, too, I saw the work of additional detailing. See the teacups before...

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and after...

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When I had visited before the festival had started, it had been a cold, dreary, rainy day, so many of my shots looked dull and lackluster. This was especially true in and around the Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden. But on my subsequent visit, not only was I treated to a blue sky and more vibrant colors, but the butterflies had been released, and I was able to capture quite a few flitting around Fawn's Butterfly House.

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The finished Art of Green Living Garden lived up to the expectations I had had for it -- truly had become a relaxing place to hang out, so much so that I couldn't get a decent photo of the seating, due to all the crowds. Sorry, you'll have to see it for yourself. But the whole area is just so beautifully designed, like a Tuscan garden area.

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Besides things that had been tweaked since my first visit, a number of activities and events had, obviously, actually started.

In the former Wonders of Life pavilion, operating under the name of "Garden Town" for the duration of the festival, the educational sessions were in full swing. I happened to run into festival manager Darden who was keeping an eager eye on things, who told me that the 2 p.m. water gardens talk that was underway was at full capacity -- 77 people. "There were that many in line 50 minutes BEFORE the talk started," Darden claimed excitedly. "It's a shame that we ended up turning people away, but that's never happened before - the turnout is great!"

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Over in the France pavilion, attendance was great for the Guerlain Fragrance Garden Tour that I took, too. The tour is offered at 2, 4 and 6 p.m. daily. I attended the 4 p.m. tour, which Guerlain Representative Caridad Canales told us is given by an International Program Cast Member. The group of about 20 others and I were led through the fragrance garden by Abou, a young man from Lyon, France, who was giving the tour for the first time.

He started by sharing a brief history of the Guerlain company, founded in 1828. He then proceeded to lead us around the garden, which is marked by groupings of plants whose essences go into Guerlain's many fragrances. At the Flora Nymphea exhibit, for example, there's an arrangement of planters with orange blossoms and lilac, for those are scents that go into Guerlain's Aqua Allegoria collection. At each exhibit, you'll also find a "scent box" that allows you to get a whiff of the fragrances. This year, there are new boxes, with knobs that turn, rather than the "lift the flap" type exhibits of previous years.

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Abou took about 20 minutes to walk us around the garden, also pointing on the hidden bees nestled among the plantings. Explaining that the bee is the symbol for the French monarchy, Abou added that when turned upside-down, the bee resembles a fleur de lis, a well-known symbol often associated with royalty. In addition to this walking tour of the garden, Guerlain also sponsors a scavenger hunt for children who would like to search for the hidden bees scattered around the pavilions floral arrangements. The tour concluded with Caridad handing out small complimentary samples of a Guerlain perfume.

Though this follow-up visit to the Flower and Garden festival did afford me the chance to see and do more, there were still plenty of things I didn't get to see, and a few activities I would have liked to have tried -- like the tour of the UK pavilion's Tea Garden (offered on weekends at 2, 4 and 6:30 p.m.).

Never mind. I'll get another chance -- lucky me gets to visit the Festival a third time next month, when I travel to Walt Disney World as chaperone for my son's school orchestra's trip!

March 3, 2010

An Insider's Look at the 2010 Flower & Garden Festival

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars.Net Senior Editor

It was a cold, rainy Saturday that found me traipsing through a near-deserted Epcot, touring along with Eric Darden, horticulture manager for the annual Flower and Garden Festival. Gone were the blue skies and sunshine of the previous day, but never mind -- the show must go on, and Darden was more than happy to give me, along with several other local journalists, a behind-the-scenes preview of what to expect from the 2010 festival, whose theme is, somewhat ironically on that miserable day, "Celebrate the Great Outdoors."

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"We are prepared for the cold weather," Darden explained as we trudged along through Future World. "We've had to cover the topiaries, but really it's done little damage to our festival-specific plants. We've lost some tropical plants, some shrubs, but in some ways the festival actually looks BETTER this year because of the freeze."

Better? My ears perked up, anxious to hear how he was going to spin this gardener's nightmare into a good thing.

"No, really, it's had a positive effect in many ways," Darden claimed. "We took the opportunity to replace some things that needed to be replaced -- and it's made a drastic improvement in some cases."

Darden pointed out one area in particular where overgrown plantings had been killed by the extended extreme cold. They had been replaced by low shrubs, effectively opening up the area so that the view was much less obstructed. That, Darden said, was how the view was always intended to be. "The sight-line is clear now. It's so much better, thanks to the cold weather."

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That wasn't something I had expected to hear, given that this year the Orlando area has experienced one of the coldest winters in memory, with many nights dipping well below freezing. I had, in fact, assumed I'd hear more about how starting the festival a few weeks earlier than usual (March 3 this year as compared to last year's March 18 start date, and 2007's April 5 start) had caused a lot of problems.

"Did it (the cold) cause more work? Yeah," Darden admitted. "But we were ready for it. And if you're ready for one frost, you're ready for 10. I think this year's festival is as fine as any we've done."

That kind of preparedness doesn't happen overnight. Darden, who is in his seventh year as festival manager, said his team begins working on the 75-day event a year in advance. With the earlier start this year, the group was faced with several new challenges, which Darden asserted was actually a good thing.

"Starting early forced us to use other plants -- pansies and other winter bedding plants, which have great color," he explained. "I think eight out of 10 gardeners will tell you that it's hard to beat a viola, which is in the pansy family. Our biggest challenge was protecting the topiary."

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Topiary, for the uninitiated, are those large statue-like figures made of all organic material -- moss, grasses, ivy, and other plants shaped around a metal frame to look like a 14-foot tall Goofy, or American Gothic Mickey and Minnie, or, my personal favorites, Bambi and friends (they're in the Canada pavilion).

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According to Darden, the cold weather required that the horticulture staff keep the topiaries indoors longer to shelter them from the elements. Unfortunately, "keeping them in-house is never as good as outdoors," and such cool, wet conditions are perfect for growing fungus, which can destroy the plants. Not something they want to deal with, given all the hours it takes to construct a single figure, and also given that the topiaries are among visitors' favorite aspects of the festival.

Epcot is displaying about 75 topiaries this year, from the aforementioned Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and Goofy, to newer characters like Tinker Bell's pixie friends found in the expanded Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden. Darden explained that while they do re-use topiaries from festivals gone by, they like to add new ones, even though it's a long, involved process.

To construct a new topiary, a Disney artist makes a maquette, or a small scale model, of the figure, just as they do for an animated film. After making castings of the maquette, they take the design to a welder who fabricates the frame, working with the artist. The whole process can take four to five months, then the plants are added, anchored in place by hair pins, but, as Darden said, "planting is the easiest and fastest part."

As we stopped in front of the Scar (the villain in The Lion King) topiary, I marveled at the level of detail. Long, dark Black Mondo Grass gave the lion his shaggy mane, while closely cropped variegated ficus and other greenery covered his face and body, which Darden said weighs in around 1300 pounds. Even without being told I could have identified this Disney bad guy, a testament to the amount of hard work, attention, and money, that go into designing the figure.

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"Disney really cares about the integrity of these characters," Darden added. "That's why you won't see actual faces on human characters like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty -- we wouldn't be able to get them the way we want them, so we leave the face up to your imagination."

In addition to the topiaries and the abundant, colorful plantings around Epcot, a number of themed gardens caught my fancy. My favorite was the Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden, which includes Fawn's (formerly Minnie's) Butterfly House. The pixie topiaries are bright and whimsical, and once the butterflies are released in the enclosed area I look forward to seeing them flitter around. I especially want to be sure to spend some time watching new butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in the little house located off to one side of the Butterfly House.

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Other gardens that we had a chance to see in progress included the Tuscany-inspired Art of Green Living, which plants all sorts of ideas in your head as to what you can do in your own back yard, and the children's play area, Let's Get Moving, located along the Rose Walk between Future World and World Showcase, and the brand new Princess Tiana's Wedding Bayou. Vegetable gardeners are not forgotten, as some exhibits include "edible landscapes" with plants such as olive trees, and many pots and beds feature herbs, cabbages, kale and other veggies.

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We also saw the unfinished Guerlain Fragrance Garden in the France pavilion. This year, the popular "lift and sniff" scent boxes that are usually a part of this exhibit will be divided between two locations -- their usual spot near the buildings in that pavilion, and another location more prominent on the promenade. In addition, the boxes have been redesigned for easier use -- instead of lifting a lid, there is a knob to turn that will release the scents.

The biggest area left to our imagination, though, was the entrance display, which wasn't to be installed until Monday, two days before the festival opens. Darden called the unveiling of that welcoming display one of his favorite days of the festival. This year, the exhibit features a 14-foot Goofy hooking his own pants with a fishing pole, Pluto in his "pup tent" (pun intentional), Donald Duck as a Mountie, and Daisy Duck roasting marshmallows, along with a six-foot waterfall.

The tour concluded with lunch at Tutto Italia in World Showcase's Italy pavilion. As we approached the restaurant, I noted the gorgeous topiary of Lady and the Tramp, surrounded by pots of pink, purple and white blooms. Even on the coldest and dampest of days, Flower and Garden Festival managed to warm my heart.

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February 26, 2010

ESPN Wide World of Sports Relaunches Amid Much Fanfare

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars.Net Senior Editor

"We want to make you feel like you've made the big time."

Ken Potrock, senior vice president of Disney Sports Enterprises, and George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN, were just two of several speakers who repeated this mantra yesterday during the day-long relaunching of what was formerly known as Disney's Wide World of Sports complex.

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Now christened ESPN Wide World of Sports, the 220-acre complex hosted a number of members of the media (including yours truly), as we toured the facilities, which encompass two field houses, a baseball stadium, soccer and softball fields, clay tennis courts, and much more. During the tour, we were treated to an inside look at all the recent changes that have taken place at the complex recently to "merge the two powerhouse brands of ESPN and Disney" in an effort to create an "immersive experience" for guests.

What's New:

--The Innovation Lab. This lab actually opened in October of last year, but what's new is the announcement that this location will be the hub for developing and testing ESPN's 3D technology. Chuck Pagano, Executive Vice president of Technology for ESPN, called the lab a petrie dish for growing and testing methods of "all things broadcast". We were given a sneak peek of 3D television, which ESPN will debut officially in June, when ESPN covers the FIFA World Cup Soccer games held in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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-- ESPN Wide World of Sports Grill. The former All Star Sports Café has been completely renovated and rethemed with ESPN décor and slogans.

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-- Playstation pavilion. Adjacent to the grill is the new Playstation pavilion, which houses 64 gaming stations (16 pods, each with four games), plus a kiosk featuring the game Singstar. Five different games are currently available for play, including brand new titles not yet available to the public. Visitors to the pavilion will be able to register a unique gamer name and pay for play time in increments of 30, 60 or 90 minutes. The Playstation pavilion is the first of what the ESPN WWoS complex is calling a "wait buster." As it was explained, this area will be the perfects time-killing location for athletes at the complex who have a game early in the morning and then another in the afternoon. That gap is not enough time to go to the theme parks to play, so they can visit the pavilion to while they wait for their next event.

--Customized Tee Shirts. Through a partnership with Champion the WWoS complex now has several locations at which athletes can design their own t-shirts to commemorate specific achievements or events. For example, if they have participated in a tournament, they could design a tee with their particular bracket, or scores. One such location is in the Josten Center, but others are mobile units that can be positioned at various spots around the different fields.

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In addition to all the recent changes at the complex, speakers like Potrock and Bodenheimer revealed what's in store for the complex in the future.

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-- At least 25 new events that will appeal to a wide range of guests, including untraditional events like "major league gaming." Other events will include a new baseball tournament in partnership with Rawlings called the "Golden Glove"; and other events that will focus on the health and wellness of children.

-- New and enhanced partnerships with corporate sponsors such as Josten's, which is now the exclusive medal and trophy provider for ESPN WWoS, CIGNA, CLIF energy bars and gels; and others.

The overall goal, as restated time and again throughout the day, is to make an athlete who comes to the complex loving sports, walk out knowing "that sports loves them back."

As the sun began to set, a host of sports celebrities and ESPN personalities assembled, walking the "green" carpet at the complex entrance. Notables including football star Chad Ochocinco and golfing great Annika Sorenstam stopped for photo ops and autographs, then joined the fans and others to watch the official opening ceremonies.

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Walt Disney World President Meg Crofton, Potrock, Bodenheimer, and Florida governor Charlie Crist, stressed the significance of this "reimagined" effort. Crist also emphasized that this complex's rebranding and new events would help boost the state's economy through growing tourism and jobs. He concluded, "It's the right thing to do, and the right time to do it."

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After the officials' remarks, Garrett Hartley, kicker for the 2010 Super Bowl-winning New Orleans Saints, came out to "kick-off" the opening by booting a football (brought out by Football Player Mickey) through the entrance's "goal posts" accompanied by fireworks and a shower of confetti.

The day's events concluded with a special performance of the Harlem Globetrotters, hosted by "coaches" Mike Golic and Mike Greenburg of ESPN. After more than an hour of slapstick tomfoolery, it came to no one's surprise that the Globetrotters won the game.

September 18, 2009

Recap of D23 Expo Day 3 & 4

Jet lag. Ugh. It's an awful thing.

It's taken me a few days to recover from being on the West Coast, sorry about that.

However, here I go, with a recap of Days 3 and 4 of the D23 Expo.

You already know about the biggest highlight of Day 3 -- Jay Rasulo's Parks and Resorts presentation, in which he announced a huge expansion of Fantasyland at Walt Disney World, as well as the update, finally, of the Star Tours attraction! If you missed that news, be sure to read HERE and view the videos my colleague Laura Gilbreath included in her blog HERE

There's also Disney's official video from that presentation here:

The rest of Day 3 was actually a string of disappointments for me.

I had intended to go to the Princess and the Frog presentation at 3:00 that day, but was shut out -- got over to the line too late, and when I say it was unbelievable, I'm not exaggerating:

When I went up to see if I could sneak in about 45 minutes after the show was supposed to start, I was told they were still trying to seat people -- they had to check bags/cameras and go through security! When I went back up 45 minutes after *that* I was told that they had only just started about 5 minutes before.

I had been planning to go to the Prep & Landing presentation after that, but because of the late start, that show wasn't going to start until
probably 7 p.m.! Prep & Landing is an animated holiday story done
by Disney for ABC -- the first time they've done anything specifically
for TV like that. Previews I saw for it in other presentations
were really cute, so I really did
want to see it... guess I have to wait until December, since I couldn't
stay until 7 p.m. -- I had dinner plans. Ah well.

Instead, I walked around down on the main floor and tried to see some
of the exhibits I'd missed. Most notable was the Storytellers Sandbox,
a cute interactive exhibit that had you getting your hands dirty in the sand, upon which various images were projected.

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I eventually wandered back to the room to work a bit, then had a lovely evening with my colleagues Deb, Laura and Lee at Catal in Downtown Disney. But that's the topic of another blog...

Day 4, Sunday. I would be lying to you if I said by Day 4 I wasn't exhausted. Running up and down the length of very long convention center multiple times a day, getting up at 6 a.m. and hitting the hay very late each day -- well, let's just say this convention-going isn't as glamorous as it sounds!

Still, I persevered.

Day 4 saw me over at the convention center early to be sure I had seating for the big John Lasseter presentation at 11 a.m. Not to worry, I managed to secure a good seat. Although we couldn't take photos, Disney did supply some footage from the presentation, at which Lasseter showed lots of clips of upcoming Pixar films, most importantly Toy Story 3 (in 3-D)!

Aside from Toy Story 3, we also heard about the upcoming sequel
to Cars, which has a great storyline featuring Mater the tow truck, as
well as the other original characters. There were also clips of Rapunzel, the new Tinker Bell series, Winnie the Pooh, and Princess and the Frog.
(I have to say, all told I saw about 45 minutes of this film this weekend,
and it only made me want to see the rest -- this looks like such a great
film!)

Later in the day, I desperately wanted to see the special Muppets presentation, but again was shut out due the crowds. How long must
those people who got in have waited?! I hear, however, that several
big Muppet announcements were made in this presentation, including that Muppet*Vision 3D was going to be upgraded to digital 3-D, and that there would be a new preshow video for this attraction. Also, they announced a Mobile Electrical Mayhem Band, along the lines of the
Mobile Muppet Lab that was tested in Epcot a while ago. I'm really sorry I missed this presentation, but they did take our names and addresses and promised to send us a "We're Sorry" gift. Maybe it will be a DVD of
the presentation we missed.

Since I couldn't get into the Muppets program, that freed me up to attend the second John Lasseter program of the day, "Imagineering Pixar for the Disney Parks." It was touch and go for a while, but eventually I managed to get in to this presentation, and it was so worthwhile! The Imagineers and Lasseter basically went over the evolution of how Pixar characters have been incorporated into Disney parks -- with some interesting factoids along the way.

Lasseter was as charming as could be but he really won the crowd over when, near the end of the session he spoke a bit about the importance of quality both for Disney and Pixar. After saying that they would rather
not do a project at all if they had to cut too many corners to meet a budget, he added:

"Are you gonna be the one explaining to everyone getting off the ride that it's successful because it's done on time and under budget, but it's a piece of crap?!"

Thunderous applause followed. Talk about tapping into the zeitgeist of the audience!

I believe Deb Wills captured this moment and the following press conference on video and will share it in her D23 Expo blog coming soon. If memory serves, this is where they casually dropped into the conversation that they would be doing an update soon of One Man's Dream in Disney's Hollywood Studios!

While we were in Pixar heaven, elsewhere in the convention center a bevy of Disney Channel stars were holding forth. Though no one from our team attended this event, Disney provided some footage here:

And thus ended my D23 Expo Adventures. I was sad that I wouldn't
be able to attend the debut of the Toy Story 1 and 2 in 3-D double bill, but my red-eye flight back to the East Coast awaited me.

In summary, I really enjoyed the D23 Expo -- every program that I got into was excellent, and overall I thought the whole weekend was extremely well done. In fact, I've written an article expressing my thoughts about the execution of the D23 Expo here: http://allears.net/btp/issue521.htm

Reflecting on it all, I think I would go to the Expo again next year -- I just need some time to recover from the jet lag!

September 13, 2009

Recap of D23 Expo Day 2

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor

Well, Day 2 of the D23 Expo was quite a day, if not as hectic as Day 1.

I started the day with a session that was supposed to feature authors Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, talking about the books that they write for Disney's subsidiary Hyperion -- they collaborate on a series of books that are prequels to the Peter Pan story (the "Peter and the ..." books) and Pearson writes a series of teen thrillers (the "Kingdom Keepers" series).

Unfortunately, Barry was not here in California, but he appeared live via a video link from his home in Miami. Though he was miles away, that did not decrease his humorous perspective on things. He was a delight to listen to, as was Pearson, whose work I was unfamiliar with -- but I'll be seeking him out now! I thoroughly enjoyed this presentation, both as a writer, and as a Disney fan.

The Kingdom Keepers books, if you don't know, are not only thrillers for younger readers, but are set IN the Walt Disney World theme parks. To research for these books, Pearson has been given "unfettered" access to the parks. This means he's been there at all hours, behind the
scenes, with the chance to ride Expedition Everest multiple times at 5 a.m., or walk through It's a Small World in the dark... without "that song" playing over and over again. His anecdotes about his experiences in the World, along with Barry's stories, made for a very entertaining session.

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After this presentation, I walked around the main Expo floor, checking out some of the exhibits that I'd missed earlier.

I encountered PUSH, the walking (OK, rolling) and talking trash can:

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Took a stroll through the Disney Consumer Products area, which had a larger-than-life recreation of Andy's Room from Toy Story:

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And I wandered past the Spectromagic turtle float again (Spectro Rules!):

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And then I made one of the most foolish decisions I've ever made -- I decided to NOT go to the presentation on upcoming Disney films, Disney Movie Magic. I decided instead to go back to the room and work on a blog.

Why was this such a foolish choice? Because at that presentation, a whole slew of celebrities showed up to help promote their latest films! I missed the opportunity to see producer Jerry Bruckheimer, directors Robert Zemeckis and Tim Burton, singer Miley Cyrus, and actors Nicolas Cage, John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston and... Johnny Depp. JOHNNY DEPP! I cannot believe I missed the chance to see Johnny Depp, in full Captain Jack Sparrow gear as they announced the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides. What a disappointment. *sigh*

My afternoon was not such a disappointment, however. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Although I had to wait in line for nearly 90 minutes (the Storytellers Theater, in which many of the more notable presentations are being held, only holds about 500 people so lines and wait times are incredibly long -- just like being at a Disney theme park!), the session "We Make the Music" was more than worth the wait. (I should also add that my wait was made a lot more enjoyable by my line-mate and AllEars reader Arturo -- our conversation made the time almost fly by. Thanks!)

The program featured a number of composers who have been involved in developing music for theme park attractions, and it couldn't have been more interesting. I was expecting maybe three musicians, but instead we had the opportunity to listen to Bruce Broughton (who composed the new score for the updated Spaceship Earth, as well as the music for Ellen's Energy Adventure, among other things); Joel McNeely (who wrote the music for the Tower of Terror in Tokyo and the recent Hall of Presidents update); husband and wife team Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn (responsible for the Toy Story musical that's performed on the Disney Cruise Line); Richard Bellis (the Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, Reflections of China in Epcot); and Michael Giacchino (Space Mountain in Tokyo, and most recently, the score for the new Luxo Jr. show in Disney's Hollywood Studios). Each of these composers has a non-Disney resume that is unbelievable -- many Emmy and Grammy awards among them -- but when you factor in their contributions to the parks, you have to be impressed.

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It was fascinating to listen to each of these composers discuss the challenges they've faced in developing music for the theme parks, as well as hearing snippets of those compositions. Many of them had extremely interesting anecdotes about traveling to Disney parks to get the sense of the space or attraction they were writing for -- I absolutely loved Richard Bellis's story about riding the Indiana Jones Adventure repeatedly with stopwatches and legal pads, trying to get a sense of where the music should go. Host Jeff Kurti, who has authored several Disney-related books, did a good job of keeping the conversations flowing, and even though the program ran a half-hour longer than scheduled, I was never bored.

That was pretty much all I had time for on Day 2, but I'll be back with a report on Day 3 soon. (If you haven't already, though, be sure to read the news update I published from Day 3 HERE.)


September 12, 2009

NEWS! D23 Expo - Day 3

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor

OK, OK, I know I said I'd write a Day 2 recap, and it's coming, I promise... but we have breaking news from TODAY.

And when the news breaks, the news breaks!

So, what's so important?

Well, today, at a presentation I attended just a little more than two hours ago, Jay Rasulo, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Chairman, made some really exciting announcements that I wanted to share right away!

First, the rumored expansion of Walt Disney World's Fantasyland is TRUE!

They are going to be more than doubling the size of Fantasyland and adding a number of
amazing new attractions.

The down side? Toontown is going to go away. Completely. Although the Imagineers have said they are going to try to save Goofy's Barnstormer somehow... they're just not sure how yet.

Based on Rasulo's presentation, and a press conference I attended afterward with several Imagineers and Rasulo as well, here are some of the major features of the expansion:

-- A country chateau where Cinderella lives with her stepmother and stepsisters, where you'll see her transform.
-- An area for Sleeping Beauty, in which you can make birthday cards for Aurora's Sweet 16 birthday party and give them to her.
-- Beast's Castle, which will house a 552-seat restaurant that is counter service by day, table service by night. The castle will have three areas, including the "West Wing", in which you will be able to see the Beast's private antechamber and the rose with dropping petals, featured in the animated film, Beauty and the Beast.
-- An "under the sea with Ariel" attraction, like the new Little Mermaid attraction in Disneyland, only with a completely different queue area.
--Expanded Dumbo -- Basically two Dumbo rides, and NO queue. Instead, there will be a 3-Ring Circus interactive play area with bleachers for adults, so that you can have fun while you wait for your "feather" to be called so that you can ride.
-- Pixie Hollow, which will be a second phase of the expansion, will eventually join the rest of Fantasyland.

Construction on the first phase of the expansion is expected to start soon, and, according to the Imagineers, impact on guests and existing attractions in Fantasyland should be minimal. The new areas should be completed by 2012, with the second phase following in 2013.

The second biggest announcement came as a good news/bad news thing.

The bad news? Star Tours in Disneyland is going to close in October 2010.

The good news? A whole new Star Tours, in 3D, will open in 2011!

The new attraction will feature scenes like the Pod Race in The Phantom Menace.

Although it was unclear when Star Tours in Walt Disney World will close, it, too, will be
receiving the new makeover.

For the official press release on this and other remarks Rasulo made today at the D23
Expo, as well as some artist renderings, check out our Disney News Blog HERE.

I'll be back more later with a recap of Day 2 and 3!

September 11, 2009

Recap of D23 Expo Day 1

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor

I'm taking just a few minutes here to give you a quick recap of the events of yesterday, September 10, the first day of the first-ever D23 Expo, AKA the Ultimate Disney Fan Experience.

Wow, is it ever! Someone described yesterday to me as like drinking out of a fire hose and they couldn't have been more right. There is so much coming at you, full force, from the moment you set foot in the doors of the Anaheim Convention Center.

I mean, every aspect of Disney you can imagine is represented here. When you walk in to the first floor convention hall area, it's simply breath-taking. It seems like every square inch of the place is crammed with something to look at or something to do or, well, let's be honest, something to buy. But still, if you're a Disney fan, what better place to find ways to spend your money?

Yesterday's big events were the kick-off keynote address by Disney CEO Bob Iger, followed immediately afterward by the induction of the 2009 Disney Legends. It seemed like it took forever to fill the 4000 seat Arena, due in part I guess to the fact that attendees not only had to check ALL electronics (everything, cell phones, cameras, etc.) before entering, but also had to pass through a security checkpoint.

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As a result, Iger's talk started a half-hour late. He opened with a montage of images from all of Disney's various business units, from TV to movies to ESPN to theme parks to you name it. Zac Efron, Captain Jack Sparrow, Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers... all of it. After pointing out Disney Legend Art Linkletter in the audience, Iger spoke about the meaningfulness of honoring the fans with the creation of the fan club D23, as well as other things happening within the company. When he mentioned Disney's recent announcement that it planned to acquire Marvel Entertainment, he met with enthusiastic applause.

A special treat of Iger's presentation was a 30-minute sneak peek of Disney's upcoming animated film, "The Princess and the Frog." As Iger noted, the clip we saw was only about 87% in color, with a temporary score in place. Still it was fascinating to see this work in progress. And I have to admit that I was so totally engrossed in the story I was disappointed when it ended! Iger said it was "destined to be a classic," and while as CEO I know that he has to say that, I agreed with him.

Another bonus was that singer Anika Noni Rose, who voices the lead character in the film, came on stage and performed one of the songs - she was fabulous, even though battling a bout of bronchitis.

The final surprise of the presentation was the awarding of a night in the Walt Disney Suite in Disneyland - an unexpecting audience member found a secret envelope taped under his chair and claimed his prize only after several awkward moments had passed. The young man was clearly stunned and mentioned as he accepted the prize that his father had been a street sweeper in Disneyland many years ago. Awww... that was really nice.

Following Iger's presentation and a 10-minute break, the Disney Legends ceremony began, hosted by television personality Tom Bergeron and Iger. It was extremely interesting to me to hear the backgrounds of the various legends, and I was pleasantly surprised that many were on hand to receive the award themselves - although a few of the awards were bestowed posthumously. But what a surprise to find out that present-day Imagineer Kim Irvine is the daughter of newly inducted Legend Leota Toombs Thomas - the Haunted Mansion's Madame Leota. Tony Anselmo (the voice of Donald Duck) and Bill Farmer (the voice of Goofy), both spiced up the proceedings by accepting their awards in character, and the audience was of course delighted to see former "Golden Girl" Betty White and comedian Robin Williams, who quipped that when Disney builds a theme park in Shanghai, perhaps they will have a character called, "Mickey Mao."

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The ABCs of Disney, which featured clips of many of ABC-TV's new shows, was another highlight for me. Following the snippets, actors Ed O'Neill, Patricia Heaton, Kelsey Grammer, and Courtney Cox (who was apparently a substitute for previously announced Joseph Fiennes) came on stage to talk about their new roles.

The new season of Dancing with the Stars was also touted, and dance professionals Derek Hough and Cheryl Burke performed a short routine, followed by one of this coming season's new contestants, singer Donny Osmond, with his partner Kym Johnson.

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After the presentation, Osmond, the Dancing stars and Bergeron were available for autographs and photos, but unfortunately the queue snaked halfway around the world - no autographs for me.

Aside from those big presentations, here are a few of things I saw that stood out to me:

--In the Parks and Resorts pavilion, the animatronic dinosaur Lucky and the lovable Wall-E are available for photo ops - Photopass photographers are even on hand! The two alternate appearances at 20-minute intervals, and I made sure to get my close-up with both.

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-- Also in the Parks and Resorts pavilion, there is a huge display on the upcoming new land for Disney's California Adventure, Carsland, with plenty of Imagineers available. Look for more on that, once Laura Gilbreath, our Disneyland correspondent, has a chance to get online.

-- As a more frequent Walt Disney World visitor, I was a little disappointed at the lack of exhibits relating to the Florida parks, but I guess there isn't much new going on there at the time. Jay Rasulo is supposed to be making a presentation on Saturday, however, so I'm anxiously awaiting that.

-- There's a special VoluntEARS area where attendees are encouraged to spend a few minutes working on a charity project. Yesterday they were putting care packages together, today getting people to send video messages to the troops overseas.

-- The collector's area is impressive - all sorts of Disneyana, memorabilia, various goods and services" THE place to stop for the Disney collector.

-- The Treasures of the Disney Archives room is amazing as well. So much history in such a small space. As a Mary Poppins fan, I got a bit teary-eyed when I saw her actual traveling costume, even though it was missing the famous parrot-head umbrella.

-- One of the last sessions of the day was an Afternoon with Imagineering Legends, featuring the likes of Marty Sklar, Don Iwerks, and X Atencio. I was shut out of that session, unfortunately, but was able to attend a brief press conference held afterward. The stories these men and women have to tell!

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I paid brief visits to the Baby Einsteins play area and the Disney Consumer Products displays -but I really need more time to investigate! Truly, there is so so much to see and do, it's almost like being at Walt Disney World - you just can't do it all!

OK, that's it for the Day 1 wrap-up. I have to get back over to the Convention Center now -- Need another drink from that fire hose!

July 18, 2009

A Conversation with Marianne Hunnel: 2009 F&W Festival

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor

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The other day, I had the chance to speak with Marianne Hunnel, manager of culinary programs for the upcoming Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. I asked her if she could "spill the beans," so to speak, about what we can expect at the annual 45-day eating and drinking extravaganza, which runs this year from September 25 through November 8.

"I'm really excited about this year's festival,"Hunnel stated. "We have such an exciting lineup of chefs and programs."

Hunnel, who, along with her husband, Victoria and Albert's chef Scott, just celebrated her 20th year with Disney, noted that they are still adding the final touches to many of the events scheduled for this year's festival. She did, however, share many, if not all, details of what's to come.

What's New?

"We're going to have three new kiosks around World Showcase," Hunnel said, referring to the international food booths scattered amidst the country pavilions around World Showcase Lagoon. "The first will be right as you enter World Showcase, and it will feature desserts and champagne. You can arrive at the festival and toast the day along with maybe a Grand Marnier parfait. Then if you're hungry for real you can move to straight to another new kiosk -- Rio de Janeiro, from Brazil."

The other new kiosk this year is Thailand, featuring samples of savory Thai food paired with, not wine, but beer.

"We've found that in many countries wine isn't necessarily as popular," Hunnel noted. "And it's sometimes not the best pairing with the food."

While there won't be any big "experiences" around World Showcase, like last year's Louisiana or Australia exhibits, there will be several additions that offer more than just the samples you'll find at the food booths. For example, the Edy's Ice Cream Experience will offer a variety of flavors and interactive activities. The Italian region of Puglia will also be represented for all 45 days of the festival. Located near the Italy pavilion, of course, you'll find demonstrations there on pasta-making and tastings, including tastings of Puglia-produced olive oil, which Hunnel claimed is "incredible in flavor -- fruity, sweet, the aromas." My mouth was watering as she waxed poetic -- I do so love food.

Hunnel also said that by the time the festival starts the new lounge, Cava del Tequila, will be open in the Mexico pavilion, and it will be the site of tequila tastings each Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"Spirits seem to be making a comeback," she noted. "There's a timeless tradition, obviously, of people enjoying spirits, but it seems that they are gaining in popularity again. Some guests at the festival like to explore different tastes like this, particularly when the people who crafted the beverages are present. It's an educational journey."

Also in Mexico, at least for part of the festival (the specific dates have yet to be determined) there will be chefs and demonstrations courtesy of the Mexican Tourist Board.

One program the Hunnel said she was very excited about is the new Celebrating with Family and Friends in the Kitchen. The concept is that a celebrity chef will prepare a three-course lunch for the audience, alongside one of their friends, another chef, or perhaps even a family member. The tentative schedule of these lunches is listed below.

What's Returning?

Although last year's experimental venture City Tastes is not returning, the ever-popular Party for the Senses will again be featured every Saturday, adopting at least one aspect of City Tastes -- a weekly theme.

"Each week, we'll be celebrating something," Hunnel noted, "from Comfort Foods with a Twist to Classical Cuisine presented in a new way." (Hunnel detailed the themes for each weekend, which I've listed at the end of this blog, along with other info she shared with me about other programs.)

The Party will, however, feature a new twist this year -- an exclusive Wine View Lounge, available for an additional fee, will give a limited number of guests the chance to partake of special amenities: a secluded area; private, reserved tables; and special menu items.

"Guests have expressed a desire to have an exclusive area like this," Hunnel noted. "We think this will be the place to see and be seen."

Also returning are the popular Sweet Sundays brunches, during which a celebrity chef prepares a variety of desserts after guests have a light brunch. Programs like Authors without Borders, the Wine School and other signature dining events, will also return. The Cheese Tastings are being offered again as well, although they'll be starting a little earlier than in previous years -- 10:30 a.m. Hmm, wine and cheese first thing in the morning -- Breakfast of Champions? Could be, could be...

Hunnel said that the final schedule, complete with dates, times and prices, should be available online at disneyworld.com within the next 5-10 days, but here are some specifics that she could share with me:

Celebrating Friends and Family in the Kitchen

" September 26 The Deen Brothers (Jamie and Bobby, sons of Food Network's Paula Deen)

" October 2 Suvir Saran

" October 9 Patti LaBelle (yes, the singer -- she has a cookbook out!)

" October 16 Dean Max and Paula DaSilva

" October 23 Alan Wong with Art Smith

" October 30 Cat Cora (possibly with her mother)

" November 6 Andrea Immer Robinson, M.S. - With husband John Robinson

Party for the Senses

" September 26 - Spanish cuisine/wines (chef Douglas Rodriguez will be on hand this week)

" October 3 - Comfort Foods with a Twist (think macaroni and cheese made with artisanal cheeses and homemade pasta)

" October 10 - South American (including chef Jeff Tunks)

" October 17 - Classical Cuisine presented in a new way

" October 24 - Asian (including chef Alan Wong)

" October 31 - Fall Harvest (including chefs Cat Cora and Tory McPhail of Commander's Palace in New Orleans)

" November 7 - Italian

Sweet Sundays

" September 27 Andrew Shotts
" October 4 Warren Brown & Mary Meyers
" October 11 David Guas of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, VA
" October 18 Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito
" October 25 Clair Clark from The French Laundry
" November 1 Geraldine Randalsome
" November 8 Jacques Torres

My mouth is watering already! I'll be covering the first weekend of the Festival and returning again later in October with my family for our annual visit. If you have any suggestions of things I should try specifically, drop me a note here and I'll make the supreme sacrifice of "researching" these fun food and wine events for our readers!

March 27, 2009

D23 Materials Arrived!

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars Senior Editor

Well, it looks like all of my D23 materials (for the new Disney fan club that was announced just a few week ago HERE) have finally arrived.

I wanted to share with you a little bit about them.

I first received the membership card with a welcome letter.

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It's a nice, sturdy credit card-sized card with a happy Mickey face on it. It even has my name and join date printed on the reverse side.
Nice.

A few days later, I received my copy of the new magazine and a colorful membership certificate.

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You may have already read about the new quarterly publication, Disney twenty-three HERE. Now that I have seen the magazine for myself, I can tell you it really is a collector's item for any Disney fan. Really
high-quality production values, gorgeous photos -- worth the individual retail price of $16.95, in my opinion.

They also tucked in a little D23 decal -- I nearly missed it and threw
it out with the packaging. I'm not sure where I'm going to put it, but
still...

Finally, yesterday my "exclusive D23 gift" arrived in a big cardboard
tube. What was it? A lovely lithograph of Mickey Mouse painting a smile on a globe. The lithograph is a reproduction of a piece that was created in honor of Mickey's 80th anniversary last year by artist Paul Felix, who is an art director at Walt Disney Animation Studios. The original portrait, done in oils, is entitled "Putting a Smile on the World," and is 24x36 inches on canvas.

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This lithograph, which comes with a certificate of authenticity verifying that it is the "exclusive 2009 Charter Year collectible gift" for D23 members, measures 20x30 inches. The certificate states that it is printed on archival 65# cougar natural cover stock, with fade-resistant, oil-based process inks.

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It really is a lovely print, definitely worth framing and displaying.

So... the yearly membership fee for D23 is about $75. The magazine alone costs about $17/issue and it comes out four times a year. So for the magazine by itself I'd be paying about $68.

The lithograph is obviously worth more than $7, so I'd say that this year, at least, the D23 membership is worth it -- if you're an avid Disney fan.

All that remains to be seen is whether it continues to provide value for money in the coming years...

March 11, 2009

More on the D23 Program

As you may have already read, on Tuesday, The Walt Disney Company launched D23, billed as "the first official community for Disney fans in the company's 85-year history." According to the official press release, D23 will provide fans with the opportunity to "go backstage and behind closed doors to get the inside scoop from every part of Disney, while experiencing the nostalgia, adventure and fantasy of Disney as never before."

To formally announce the program, Disney hosted a press conference via telephone, with Steven Clark, head of D23 and executive editor of its quarterly magazine "Disney twenty-three," Marty Sklar, Executive Vice President and Walt Disney Imagineering Ambassador, and Dave Smith, Disney's Chief Archivist.

According to Clark, this new program (named for 1923, the year Walt Disney began what eventually became Disney Studios) is unique in that it has "unprecedented support" from the entire Disney Company, from the very highest levels (that would be CEO Bob Iger), and across all business units.

"In the past we have had great traditions of reaching out to fans -- Disney Vacation Club members, annual passholders, even pin-traders," he noted. "But we have not had a singular fan offering, something for all Disney fans."

Rather than catering to these "sub-communities," as Clark put it, D23 will be open to all Disney fans -- at least, those willing to pay $74.99 per year for membership.

And what do you get for that annual fee? "Unprecedented access to Disney, behind the scenes," Clark said. "We really think D23 is the ultimate insider Disney experience. We're going behind closed doors, pulling back the curtains... We realize especially in this economic climate that this is not 'one size fits all.' The D23 site will provide a rich web experience at no cost. The Expo will cost $37 for one day, which we think is affordable for a full day of an outstanding Disney experience. And for those who want the full-year experience, we think there is a great deal of value for $74.99."

The key features of D23:

-- a new high-quality quarterly publication, Disney twenty-three, that features exclusive articles and photography, and behind-the-scenes looks at all aspects of Disney. Better yet, the publication is free of advertising, making it "63 pages of uninterrupted Disney," as Clark called it, and a true collectible in its own right.

--an all-new web site at Disney.com/D23, with frequently updated Disney news, features like "Ask Dave" (Smith, the Disney Archivist), blogs from the production teams, event info and more. The site will be open to the general public, but only D23 members will receive regular email updates on special event and merchandise opportunities exclusive to them.

-- a "Surprise Collectible Gift" and the opportunity to purchase exclusive member merchandise. Each member who joins D23 will receive an exclusive collectible gift from the new Walt Disney Archives Collection. ("And it's NOT a pin," Clark laughed.)This merchandise line was created specifically with D23 members in mind, and each piece is authorized by the Walt Disney Archives. D23 members will have exclusive or early access to a wide assortment of Walt Disney Archives Collection pieces. "We're hoping to offer products that are inspired by or are faithful reproductions of assets we have in the collection of the archives," Clark explained. "For example, we'd really like to produce something like the snow globe from Mary Poppins, but we're really just getting started." But, as Sklar pointed out, the program is not just about finding ways to sell fans more merchandise. "This is about the community of fans -- this is about YOUR Disney," he added.

D23 also will host special events for its members throughout the year, such as advance screenings of Disney films, or smaller member events in the various theme parks -- but the details for these have not been finalized and Clark was reluctant to say too much for fear of "spilling the beans." The organization's signature event, though, will be the D23 Expo, which will be held in Anaheim this September 10-13 (and probably for the next four years, as well). The Expo will be open to all, but D23 members will have the opportunity for early entry to the event, as well as specially discounted tickets both to the Expo and to Disneyland. More details about the Expo, which will feature lots of celebrities, keynote speakers, special activities like a fashion show and screenings, and perhaps even a wedding, will be announced soon when its dedicated site, d23expo.com, officially launches.

Among the other highlights of the conference call, it was interesting to hear Clark's assertion that the creation of D23 does not mean Disney is trying to compete with other unofficial Disney sites or the "blogosphere."

"There is a vast world of stories and perspectives out there, and there is a voracious appetite for consuming Disney trivia, and more," he said, admitting that as a fan he reads many other Disney-related sites. "We believe there is room for everyone," he noted, adding, "We are all celebrating the larger Disney experience." He added that they would love to have other organizations have a presence at the D23 Expo, and did not rule out fan sites having their own tables at the event.

He also did not rule out the possibility of fans contributing content to the D23 site at some point, but admitted that it was not something that had been considered. "It's an interesting idea," he said. "I'll have to run that idea by some others."

Also on hand for the conference call was Chief Disney Archivist Dave Smith, who gave a brief chronology of Disney's relationship with its fans over the years, from the Mickey Mouse Club up through the present day NFFC. Smith, along with others from the Disney Archives, has been involved in the development of the D23 program. He claimed that he, too, as a Disney fan, was eager to see the new organization launch. "In my four decades with the company," Smith noted, "I've witnessed how much the fans stand by Disney. It will be exciting to see how D23 develops in the years to come."

Author's Note: The television program "The View" is visiting
Disney's studios out in Calfornia this week. Clark noted that viewers might want to watch the program Wednesday, March 11, to see actress/host Whoopi Goldberg sing a stirring rendition of the Country Bears Jamboree's "Blood on the Saddle" along with a Disney archivist as she tours the archive facilities.

February 26, 2009

What's New, What's Next at Downtown Disney

by
Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor
AllEars®

I recently had the chance to chat with Kristi Koester, a manager of WDW Product Marketing, and we talked about what's going on with the Downtown Disney area. While there was a lot she couldn't talk about, because it's still in the planning stages, there were a few things she COULD reveal. Plus we had the chance to talk more at length about some plans that have already been announced.

kristi.jpg "When the night clubs closed on Pleasure Island (on September 28), we announced a complete transformation, not only of Pleasure Island, but of the whole Downtown Disney area," Koester says. "Over the past few months we have been working with Imagineers and many others to finalize this vision we have of making the area Disney's dining, shopping and entertainment metropolis."

Some of the changes to the area we're already seeing, she notes, pointing to the fall 2008 opening of T-Rex and the recent opening of the Design-A-Tee shop at the Marketplace. On the horizon is TrenD (pronounced trend-dee), an upscale, hip Disney fashion boutique, located on the site of the former Summer Sands in the marketplace, due to open in late March. And soon after that there will be a new, as-yet-unnamed restaurant with a Central and South American theme.

E-Brands Restaurants, based in Orlando, is the name behind the new restaurant, and the company already operates a number of high-concept eateries around the country, including Timpano Chophouse and Martini Bar, AquaKnox ( seafood), and David Burke (Modern American cuisine in Las Vegas). Nonetheless, Koester claims that this particular restaurant's concept is new to E-Brands, and will add to the mix of the Downtown Disney area, which she says is evolving from "night clubs" to "night life."

The new restaurant, which is slated to open later this year with a wine bar and a tequila bar, will also feature an impressive view of the waterfront.

"That's been one of the issues at Downtown Disney," she notes, "the real estate issue. You have this prime location sitting on the water and it was blockaded by all these buildings. The area needs to be contemporized and the waterfront opened up -- we're looking at ways to maximize this asset."

Another way Downtown Disney will "maximize this asset" is with Characters in Flight, the first Downtown Disney attraction, scheduled to open in April. This tethered balloon ride, situated in the water between Pleasure Island and West Side, is operated by the same company that runs a similar ride at Disneyland Paris. It will allow 30 participants at a time to go 300 feet off the ground and will last six minutes. The cost for the experience has not yet been set, but Koester notes that it will be quite an exhilarating ride.

"The ride will operate day and night," she explains, adding that the balloon will be illuminated in the evenings. "It's off-white, silhouetted with Disney characters, and will be quite a unique site hovering over the water at Downtown Disney."

When asked if this type of activity along with the closing of the night clubs, signals a shift to making Downtown Disney and specifically Pleasure Island more family-oriented, Koester shakes her head.

"No, I don't think that's it. I think the area will have a family focus, but will also be accommodating to others, not catering to one group more than another." She adds, "We're looking at rounding out what we have already and bringing in the best brands from all over. Not necessarily chains, but more unique experiences, like Raglan Road. We're looking at an array of dining possibilities, places with show kitchens, open lounges, that will appeal to everyone, not just families."

So what about bringing some of the old night clubs back, then? Specifically the beloved Adventurers Club, which was a uniquely Disney experience.

"I can tell you for certain that the Adventurers Club as it was will not be coming back to Pleasure Island," Koester states. "I'm afraid it will be a line in Disney history."

As for the rest of the changes the area will be seeing, Koester says they are coming, but as Imagineers are looking at transportation and a whole host of other related issues, it's been a challenge to develop and lock onto a finalized plan. But, she adds, there will be a succession of smaller announcements over the next 18 months to two years, as Disney reaches agreements with other partners who will open locations in the Downtown Disney area.

"As you can imagine, tough economic times like these tend to slow things down," she notes. "But you can expect an announcement at least of the overall vision for Downtown Disney early this summer."

February 23, 2009

ESPN Updated with Schedule! The Weekend Awaits!

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by Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor
AllEars®


ESPN The Weekend Schedule!

Some of you may know that I visited Walt Disney World during ESPN The Weekend for the first time last year, and that my son came away a winner after participating in the Dream Job Experience (read his blog a see video about the event HERE).

Well, he's twisted my arm, so I'm taking him down for the event again this year -- we'll be heading to WDW later this week!

While I was in the World LAST week, though, I had the chance to speak about ESPN The Weekend to Jason Dobbins of Disney's product marketing. For those of you who also might be going to the see the star athletes and ESPN personalities, here's what he had to tell me about this year's event.

The format for the event will be the same as last year's -- as Dobbins noted, it was so successful last year, they didn't see any reason to change anything this year. So you'll still see the motorcades with the athletes throughout the day, and they'll still have conversations under
the Sorcerer Mickey Hat.

There will also be live broadcasts of popular ESPN shows like "NFL Live" and "1st and 10," live ESPN Radio broadcasts, and interactive game shows like the returning Dream Job Experience and Stump the Schwab for fans to take part in.

In the former show, members are selected from the crowd and have a chance to act as broadcasters of a major sporting event. The
audience votes who does the best job, while the participant gets feedback from some celebrity athlete judges. (That's the one my son the ham participated in.) In the latter, select members of the audience team up with an athlete to answer trivia questions, hoping to outscore ESPN personality Howie Schwab.

Dobbins added that they have been trying to add on another new interactive experience with one of the athletes scheduled to appear, but details weren't quite ironed out when we spoke... so keep your eyes peeled for something new on the schedule!

Shows like these and other activities will again be spread out all over the park, some taking place in the Theatre of the Stars (working around showings of Beauty and the Beast), others possibly in the Sounds Dangerous theater. One of last year's venues, the ABC Theater, is now home to the new American Idol Experience attraction, so instead some shows will be held in what's now called the Premiere Theater, back in the Streets of America area of the park. That theater, former home of the Hunchback of Notre Dame show, is now fully enclosed and air-conditioned.

The theme park will also host the ESPN SportsZone, located behind Rock'n' Roller Coaster and the Soundstages. You get a really cool perspective of the park from back there, plus there's lots going on -- basketball and baseball "clinics", autograph signing... you won't be bored, that's for sure.

Sort of a random note: attendees will be treated to the introduction of a new Powerade product -- apparently, Coca-Cola is giving ESPN The Weekend guests an exclusive first taste.

A tentative list of attendees for the weekend's festivities can be found HERE, but remember -- it'll be changing up until the last minute, as details are being finalized. (But Steeler Lamarr Woodley had better show up, or I'll have one disappointed Pittsburgh fan on my hands!)

If you're heading south for the event, have fun! And if you spot me in the park (I'm sure I won't get out of Disney's Hollywood Studios all weekend!) be sure to say hi!

Watch for a report on the weekend when we get back.

December 15, 2008

Passholders' American Idol Experience Tour

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor

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At the outset, I have to say one thing: I am very excited to announce that I was the very first non-Disney cast member to set foot in the brand new American Idol Experience that is nearly set to debut in Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Yes, when Disney held its special Annual Passholder tour for the new attraction on Sunday, I was the very first person in the very first (10 a.m.) tour to set foot in the place. It was pretty exciting. For me, at least.

So, what did I learn on the tour? Well, lots of things. Most importantly, I guess, is that the new attraction is scheduled to open on February 14, 2009! Whatever the new attraction may be like, I'm always thrilled when something new opens.

What else can I tell you? Well, I'm sorry that I wasn't allowed to take photos on the tour, so I'll try to relate as much as I can remember.

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Since they couldn't really let us see the actual show that guests will experience come next February, they walked us through both backstage and in front of the stage.

When you enter the backstage area, you'll first encounter the auditioning booths... two as soon as you enter, another two further down the corridor. The whole area is very sleek and contemporary, done in royal blue carpeting, light wood, glass block and chrome. Though it wasn't there yet, the area will also eventually have a plasma screen TV, which will show an introductory video featuring American Idol's host, Ryan Seacrest.

But wait... Maybe I should back up a bit. For those of you who want to try out to be a performer at the American Idol Experience, you'll be able to pre-register online on Disney's site, before you come down to Walt Disney World, or you can just simply turn up to audition on the spot. (You'll have to be at least 14, though.) Those who audition will sing, a cappella, for a casting director in one of the four soundproof rooms. They'll be allowed to bring one guest with them throughout the whole process.

If selected during the audition process, the contestant will next spend some time in the producer's lounge, where they will be given an iPod holding 113 songs. They'll have up to 20 minutes to listen to the tunes on the iPod to decide which one they would like to sing at the next step in the process -- in front of the producer.

The producer's room is slightly large than the basic auditioning booth. There the contestant will sing with accompaniment and will learn whether they are passing on to the next phase -- to perform in front of an audience. There will be three to five contestants selected for each show.

Once the contestants are selected they will be given a special "vote for me!" lanyard to wear as they walk around the park for the remainder of the day, until they are tapped to perform. Contestants will receive a phone call about an hour before they are due to perform for the American Idol Experience -- that gives them time to talk with the stage coach, vocal coach, and hair and makeup people.
As the tour guide told us, everyone will truly be set up for success.

On the audience side, though, no special skills are necessary. As you're waiting in the outdoor queue, a crew will be filming you -- excerpts will then be intercut into a video that will somehow be used during the show. (Justin Guarini, runner-up from the first season of American Idol, will be featured in this video.)

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When you enter 1000-seat theater you'll find quite a sight. More sleek furnishings, blue carpeting and upholstery, but more than that -- the set is identical to the REAL American Idol show. Understandable, really, when you discover that it was designed by the same person who designed the set for the television show, Andy Walmsley.

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This "smart theater", as the tour guides called it, is equipped with some impressive technology. For example, the LED lights that it uses save enough energy to power 60 houses each day. In addition, during the performances, the contestants will wear a transmitter that will enable the lighting to follow them automatically -- no worrying about stepping out of the spotlight.

After the contestants perform, they will be evaluated by three judges, who will be patterned after the familiar format used on the American Idol television show. One judge will be the hip, cool judge, one will be nurturing, and one will be the "tell it like it is" judge -- you know, like Simon Cowell. However, as our tour guide reminded us, it IS Disney World, so this judge won't be quite so nasty. And, just like on the television show, while the judges have their say, it is the audience's vote that counts. Members of the audience cast their vote using the keypads embedded in their armrests.

There will be seven preliminary shows per day, each running about 20-25 minutes. The eighth and last show of the day will be the grand finale, which will last about 45 minutes. During the finale, the seven winners from the day's earlier shows will perform, vying for the big prize -- a Dream Ticket that gives them the chance to go before a producer of the actual American Idol show. As one of our tour guides described it, it's like a FASTPASS to AI -- it doesn't guarantee you'll be on the show, but it gets you past the auditioning process and directly to a producer.

Other participants who don't win the Dream Ticket will receive special commemorative souvenirs, too, but it sounds like the experience alone will be a fantastic memory to take home.

Our tour guides concluded by telling us that a Passholder Preview is coming soon -- no date given, though. If you're interested in going, be sure you're registered on Disney's passholder site, as the announcement will be coming by email.

Overall, I'm anxious to see this new show -- I'm probably one of about 10 people in the World who has never watched American Idol on television, but still, I think seeing the new live "Experience" will be interesting -- but only from the audience! There is no way I would ever audition for something like that myself!

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May 15, 2008

Media Preview Day at Disney's Hollywood Studios

by Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor

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Just back from Wednesday's Toy Story Midway Mania media preview at Disney's Hollywood Studios and I have nothing but good news to report.

Although it was a very low-key affair, the outcome had to have been better than Disney was hoping for -- everyone I spoke to thoroughly enjoyed the ride, many riding it multiple times not just for research purposes, but because they genuinely had that much fun.

My day at Disney's Hollywood Studios started around noon, when I checked in for the media preview. I was greeted by Justin Muchoney, Disney's first Chief Magic Official, who, it turns out, is from my (original) neck of the woods. His hometown, Seven Fields, Pennsylvania, (and Justin, I think they had it as Seven Field on your nametag!) is about 20 miles north of MY hometown, Pittsburgh. Justin told me that this event is just the first of about eight that he would be present for - with some occurring at Disneyland, as well. "So far," he said, "it's been amazing. I've had some training and everyone's been great - this truly is a Dream Job."

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And then Justin gave me a wonderful gift - a pass to ride the new Toy Story Midway Mania that I was to give out to a group of my choosing. Yes, I myself got to bestow a "dream" during this Year of a Million Dreams! What fun! (I eventually gave my dream pass to a mom, dad and son who were lunching at the Studio Catering Company. Son claimed he was a BIG Buzz Lightyear and Toy Story fan, so I thought it was only fitting. I didn't get their names, so Family X, if you're reading this, please drop me a note and let me know what you thought of the ride!

Around 1:30 p.m. in front of the Sorcerer's Hat, an abbreviated version of the imported-from-Disneyland Block Party Bash kicked off the media preview event. Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Bo-Peep and Mr. Potato Head, among other Toy Story favorites and assorted gymnasts and dancers, encouraged young audience members to do the twist and macarena, ending with an explosion of bouncing balls.

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Walt Disney World President Meg Crofton was on hand to welcome the media with remarks that reinforced what seems to be a recurring theme at Disney these days. Calling it an example of "classic Disney storytelling" Crofton quoted Mr. Potato Head, the greeter of the new attraction, saying, "It's a ride that's a game. It's a game that's a ride."

Noting that the attraction had been "playtested" exhaustively, Crofton asserted, "It's fun for the entire family. Toy Story Midway Mania joins an impressive lineup of new experiences here at Disney's Hollywood Studios."

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She then invited the media to fall in line and head over to "play away" at the attraction located in a soundstage along the former Mickey Avenue, now dubbed Pixar Place.

***SOME SPOILERS AHEAD***

For those of you who haven't read much about Toy Story Midway Mania, I'll refer you to Mike Scopa's blog about the attraction's Passholder Preview HERE for photos of the exterior and queue. (We also have more photos HERE.) As for the ride itself? Well, at the risk of giving out too many spoilers, the ride is a 4-D experience - that means in addition to seeing a series of 3-D scenes (yes, you have to wear the dorky 3-D glasses), you're also treated to other sensory effects, like a sudden blast of air or a spritz of water. The ride vehicles are designed to look like a carnival tram ride. Each car holds four riders who sit in couples, back-to-back. In front of you is a "spring-action shooter," a mounted gun that moves freely and has a pull-string with a large ball at the end of it. A monitor on the vehicle shows you your score.

It's a herky-jerky ride, as you whip around corners, pausing for a minute or so at each "game booth," where your shooter spews out darts or rings or balls at a variety of targets. Before you know it, your time at each station is up, ending with a pressure-inducing "5-4-3-2-1!" countdown, and then you're on to the next challenge. After facing five different games, your scores are tallied and the next thing you know you're walking out the door heading back to the entrance to give it another go.

So" my opinion of the ride? I loved it. Rode it five times, and noticed new things each time - also noticed that my score improved each time, as well - I ended up with a high for the day of 115,000-plus points. (I think the first time through I scored about 70,000.) Before riding, I was a little concerned about how the ride would be for the less coordinated among us, but I needn't have worried. The string is very easy to grip and pull, and the shooters are very maneuverable.

For those with other challenges, I noticed that there were several cars designed to accommodate wheelchairs or ECVs - guests can ride their chairs right into the attraction vehicle. I was happy to see that accessibility had been built right into the attraction from the beginning.

It's something I had the chance to speak about with Imagineer Chrissie Allen, who served as senior show producer for Toy Story Midway Mania.

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"Obviously, we wanted to make sure that everyone can ride this ride as comfortably as possible," Allen explained. "We made sure that this ride could engage as many guests as possible. That's something that we're passionate about. And," she added with a smile, "did you notice that the monitors onboard the vehicles have closed captioning?"

Allen noted that although this attraction integrates several different technologies in a new way, that was not the main goal in the design process. "Using all the new technologies isn't the imperative," she said. "In this ride, we use all these new tools, along with our usual 3-D and 4-D tricks, but we've incorporated them in a way to further the storytelling. At Disney, we love to tell stories in a seamless way - storytelling is the imperative."

Rilous Carter, vice president of Disney's Hollywood Studios, added that all the new interactive technology was key to the park's new style.

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"What we have started in Pixar Place is going to resonate with people for a long time," he said. "The park has added Block Party Bash, the new Playhouse Disney, new High School Musical show - these things are all less than a year old. Now we have a new 'toy' for everyone - no pun intended," he added with a smile.

He stopped short of calling the addition of these new attractions a "revitalization" of the nearly 20-year-old theme park. But Carter noted that with the new attraction based on American Idol coming in the fall, Disney's Hollywood Studios was likely to be noticed more and more, "and we want to enjoy the glory for a little while."

Part of that "glory" is supposed to come from the Block Party Bash, recently brought to Walt Disney World after a few years at Disney's California Adventure. There was a special media viewing area near the Sorcerer's Hat for this 3 p.m. street party, which I took advantage of, since I'd not seen it yet.

Block Party Bash is not so much a parade as it is a moving show that makes two 12-minute stops along its route. It's a vast improvement over the Stars and Motor Cars Parade, in my opinion - I never cared for the car-themed cavalcade, and I really didn't like its music. The Block Party Bash instead features a mish-mosh of contemporary dance tunes (from "Footloose" to "Shake Your Booty" to "The Twist" and "The Macarena") with choreographed dancing and gymnastics, and plentiful characters from Disney-Pixar movies.

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It was entertaining, and the little ones pulled from the crowd to participate really seemed to be enjoying themselves. But as I stood there in one spot in the direct sun for nearly a half-hour I had to wonder if I was the only one who was feeling fried to a crackly crunch? I think I would have felt the fun a bit more if I had been in the shade, or if the performances and been about half the time. Having seen this "bash" once, I don't feel the need to see it again anytime soon... unless it's a cool, cloudy day.

Never mind, there was still one more enjoyable part of the media day to come - a meet and greet with a new character. The new movie "Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," opens in theaters on May 16, and so to promote that film, a new Prince Caspian character will begin meet-and-greets in the Studios on that day. We had a chance to meet the new prince in advance of his "official" start date, and what a lucky thing that was. The young actor portraying the handsome prince is both dashing and gallant, as he poses for photos, making small talk with an indefinable accent and in character. (See my photo with him, as he very regally holds my hand in our posed photo. He is quite debonair - I can imagine he'll be extremely popular when he begins his official "meet-and-greet" duties!)

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The Journey into Narnia attraction, located between One Man's Dream and Toy Story Mania in the Studios, is slated to reopen soon with behind-the-scenes footage, sets and props from the new movie. When the attraction opens, the Prince Caspian meet-and-greet will be located near the beginning of the queue, against a backdrop of the "Dancing Lawn," the location where the Narnians first confront Prince Caspian in the film. As someone who avidly read the Narnia books as a child, I can't wait to see both the next installment in the film series, and this new walk-through attraction.

Finally, the very low-key but fun-filled media preview day concluded, and I made my way back home to my mundane existence in the wilds of northern Virginia.

But of course I'm already planning my next visit to the World... which will undoubtedly include a stop (or two) at the new Toy Story Midway Mania... and probably to Narnia, as well!

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About Debra Martin Koma Blogs

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to AllEars® Team Blog in the Debra Martin Koma Blogs category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

D23 is the previous category.

Disney Cruise Line is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.