Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer Nightastic Review

Standing in the boiler room, you hear thunder clap in the distance. The lights blink and then go out. The cables of the elevators spark and almost snap. A little girl can be heard singing faintly somewhere in the background.

This is the new Tower of Terror - Summer Nightastic style. And it's awesome. Dare I say, I might like it better than the original. And it's not all that's great about Summer Nightastic.

This being said, I do admit that when Disney first announced their plans for Nightastic a few months ago, I was underwhelmed. I thought it was a poor attempt at trying to counter Harry Potter over at Universal. But then I came to understand that it wasn't supposed to go toe-to-toe, and it took experiencing it to fully understand. What it's supposed to be is a fun and cool evening treat for people who want something new in WDW. And that is definitely what it delivers - at least for the most part. And what it does, it does really well.

Basically, Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom hit this one out of the park. What they offer is outstanding. The Main Street Electrical Parade and The Summer Nightastic Fireworks Spectacular are AWESOME. I needed to see the MSEP in person to fully appreciate it (youtube does it no justice at all). And as we mentioned in the last article, it was a hit. I now see why those WDW old-schoolers were giddy with excitement for its return; it is a LOT of FUN, plain and simple.

The fireworks are also equally impressive. The 180 degree blasts really add to the spectacle. And when the castle goes to battle with Captain Hook - it's phenomenal. I loved it - it's as much a different experience from Wishes as is MSEP is from SpectroMagic. Both Wishes and Spectro pull at the heart strings while MSEP and the Nightastic Fireworks are all about the fun. A very different experience for sure, and for those who have seen the Spectro/Wishes combo multiple times, a welcome change. That's not so say we don't like the previous combo, but a little update to the Magic Kingdom evening presentation is a breath of fresh air. A little tip: stand somewhere in the Hub in front of the castle or on the Railroad platform; standing in the middle of Main Street, USA will obstruct your view of the peripheral fireworks.

Hollywood Studios' effort is also first-rate as well. First, the Rock & Glow concert under the giant Sorcerer's hat is also a tremendous amount of fun. Lead by Mulch, Sweat & Shears (one of my favorite live acts in WDW) and several different DJ's, it really adds to the festive, party atmosphere meant for Summer Nightastic. Mulch is a great amount of fun and those guys are really talented. I'm glad they are being showcased here. Their 80's set is particularly great.

But The Studios really hits the mark with the Tower of Terror. Now, I've heard several reviews that don't agree with the changes, but I can't disagree with that sentiment more. I LOVED the changes. What they've done has made the ride more creepy and exciting. And, in my opinion, it actually melds with the theming better. I'd love for it to stay this way.

The changes begin in the boiler room. You do hear thunder in the distance rumble and roll, and every once in a while a clap occurs followed by a dimming of the lights and finally they go out completely...and slowwwwwwly come back on. You also do hear the faint singing of the little girl who was on the elevator in 1939...it is very much creepy and effective.

After boarding the elevator, during the first stop after the door opens, a bright flash takes your picture...then the sequence happens where the "ghosts" appear, then the window breaks. Then you move on.

The next stop is the forward-moving sequence. But instead of the Twilight Zone inspired odd set pieces along both sides of the hallway, it has been turned into a black starlight field. After turning the corner and heading toward the drop sequence, a large photo appears of the elevator with all the guests seated (the pic taken during the last stop). The guests are then electrified and begin to dissolve and disappear from the seats...a very awesome effect.

After this, the doors open and you move into the elevator shaft. Instead of the typical "YOU ARE ABOUT TO DISCOVER..." line, there is nothing but darkness and creepy jazz music...and boy, does that work. Then the sound of thunder and cables snapping...and WHOOOOOOSH you drop. Then up to the top 3 full times. It is incredible...I can't rave enough about the Tower of Terror. And remember, we're talking about what was arguably my single favorite attraction in all of WDW to begin with - so it had set a high bar for itself. And it blew it away. I loved it; so did the whole family.

For everything that Magic Kingdom and The Studios did correctly, Epcot and especially Animal Kingdom didn't do AT ALL.

Now, at least Epcot has the return of the Sounds Like Summer concert series...and I do very much enjoy that and it's a welcome addition to the evenings at World Showcase. It is a lot of fun (when it's on the schedule), and even though it's not a brand new concept, it's something. And you can't complain too much about bringing something old back like the Sounds series since MK is using the same strategy with the Electrical Parade. But Magic Kingdom is also offering a lot more to go along with that. Epcot isn't.

And speaking of not offering anything, Animal Kingdom has cornered the market on this one for Summer Nightastic. Disney did proclaim that it would have "extended evening hours" for the summer, but I have yet to see that. Leaving the park open until 7 p.m. on most non-EMH nights is not my idea of "extended hours." I'm only upset about this because AK is so phenomenal at night - it's absolutely beautiful. But most people don't get to see that. This wouldn't be so bad if they actually did live up to their claim of extended hours, but they haven't. At least they are including the Taste Of Africa event after the Jammin' Jungle Parade every afternoon...however, that costs extra (sort of like a mini Food & Wine Festival). So, in essence, AK has really not done anything at all for Summer Nightastic.

But beside that, I love The Mouse's effort for this summer event. It's a whole lot of fun, and little extras like this is really what WDW excels in - it always adds so much to the park experience. I'm actually hoping they continue with the Electrical Parade, the Fireworks and the Tower of Terror changes well past the summer.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls...The Magic Kingdom Proudly Presents...

We had an opportunity to attend the passholder preview this past Saturday for the debut of Summer Nightastic! at Magic Kingdom. It didn't disappoint! In this article, we'll detail our first experience with The Mainstreet Electrical Parade. We watched both the 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. parade and the Summer Nightastic Fireworks Spectacular in between - we'll review the fireworks in an upcoming article.

I must start out by saying that my family really aren't huge parade fans (not that we don't like parades, we simply don't go out of our way to see them any more). I must also say that the kids had no idea about The Mainstreet Electrical Parade - the last time it came down the streets of MK, Chance wasn't even born yet and Katie was just a couple years old - so the news that it was finally coming back to The Mouse Of The South didn't hold much meaning for them. Hope remembers seeing it a very long time ago with only fleeting images as memories. I had never seen it in person.

The parade it replaced for the summer - Spectromagic - is cool. It has GREAT music and Hope loves the fact that it so heavily features princesses. The kids at this point could take it or leave it - the first couple times seeing it, it was more novel them, but not any more. So for us, it's a good time for a change. The Electrical Parade was just what the doctor ordered.

Now, I've heard the soundtrack on my ipod many times. I've also seen bits and pieces of the parade itself on youtube. So I was somewhat familiar with what it is...but that didn't do it justice at all. The Mainstreet Electrical Parade is unique and more importantly, FUN. I really enjoyed it, as did the whole family.

There's something very cool about how the lights shut off and the intro begins: "Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls...the Magic Kingdom proudly presents..." It builds a real sense of anticipation. And when you finally see the floats, it's very much a spectacle. For the first showing, we saw it from Liberty Square; seeing it coming across the Liberty Square bridge from the Hub helped feed that anticipation. Seeing these HUGE glowing floats from a distance coming closer as you're surrounded by a dark MK is a sight to behold...and a unique feeling to experience. For the second showing, we were in Town Square across from the Confectionary with a full view of the gates to backstage where the parade emerges from and then begins its route. Seeing it come out from backstage was also a treat.

My first impressions of the Mainstreet Electrical Parade was that it's...weird. Cool and fun, but strange. And for that, I love it. I want something different...something that really feels like its out of another place and time. It's sort of surreal. And I love it for that.

I mentioned how great Spectro's music is/was. And it is...but it is SO different from this one. Spectro's soundtrack is grand and sweeping - it evokes powerful feelings in return. Electrical Parade's is pure fun - people loved it so much that everyone broke out into clapping in unison. It's a feel-good parade in a different way that Spectro is a feel-good parade. And that's also not just an interesting comparison, but it says a lot for both. These parades are effective in that they bring out an emotional response in everyone - and a vastly different emotional response in each.

Unfortunately, I forgot the digital camera...I only brought the cell phone which has a very poor night-time camera, so the photos came out horrible. So for the sake of providing a visual, I'm inserting several from Kathy Werling's DisUnplugged blog...she's a great photog with great camera equipment...enjoy!

You can see Kathy's original blog post here.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Happy Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day from Around The Mouse! A huge thanks to all those who've served our country and have paid the price for our freedom. We are forever grateful.

Disney pin image courtesy of a great pin collecting/trading website, pinpics.com.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Two Great Pieces Of American Culture: Disney and Star Wars

Star Wars Weekends at Disney's Hollywood Studios is awesome. I say this not only because I grew up with the original trilogy in the late 70's/early 80's, but also because our kids have grown up with the prequel trilogy and love it just as much (and they've also fallen in love with the original series as well - yes!). So this event combines two great pieces of American culture: Star Wars and Disney.

I mean, honestly - how can you beat Jedi Mickey?

You can't. You can't beat Jedi Mickey. You can only hope to contain him!

Well, unless you're talking Jedi Mickey with R2-MK, of course! That's the only way to beat just Jedi Mickey.

Now, our love for Star Wars and Disney draws to us to this event every year. And there are some really, really GREAT aspects to these weekends. The single best aspect for our family has been the character interaction. Every year they outdo themselves and provide a great deal of entertainment. Whether it's characters in the meet and greet spots (which are spread out all around the Backlot area, Star Tours area and behind Muppet Vision) or characters roaming about freely in those areas, they all are FANTASTIC.

Below is a series of three photos that underscore what kind of fun guests can have with these characters. Aurra Sing is a peripheral character in the Star Wars universe (only having appeared in Episode I very briefly), but she makes for a terrific face character. We camped out for a while by the entrance/exit for the characters over by the Backlot Tour, because it turns out to be a perfect spot to get shots and time with these characters as they're entering and leaving the "stage". Check out Aurra and Chance as he waits for her to come out...she knows he's there, but he doesn't know SHE knows...until she lets him!

She played it up and I'm sure it's something Chance is going to remember for a long, long time. She didn't just pay Chance mind, though...she got right into Katie's face and had a staring contest! Aurra won.

Stormtroopers, Jawas, Clonetroopers, Jabba's Palace Guards, Tusken Raiders and more roam the streets and make for incredible photo ops. To us, this is the best part of Star Wars Weekends.

Also, the face characters at the meet and greet spots make conversation and know their Star Wars stuff, for sure. They can hold their own - because believe me, we tested them a little (I asked Luke if he's been to any good cantinas lately, and he responded, "Oh, there's just this one down in Mos Eisley....that's about all the entertainment we've got on Tatooine." Not bad.

And while we didn't see the parade this past weekend, we've seen it in years past...and it's worth it. Also, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Hyperspace Hoopla. If you haven't seen it yet, it's worth it. Crowded, but worth it. Well, OK...extremely crowded. So much so that if you don't set up camp early and get your spot, then you'll have a hard time seeing it. So get there well before show time.

And speaking of the crowds... now for the negative. There isn't much negative about the Weekends...except the crowds. It is insane, because it is so popular. But that's OK, because it's totally understandable. Just know that coming in, in order to get into the Jedi Training Academy, the autograph signings, the Jedi Mind Challenge or other limited-capacity events, you have to be there early. As in WAY before rope drop early. I heard that guests were lining up at 5 or 6 a.m....and we arrived for rope drop, and the kids couldn't get into the Jedi Training Academy even then! Oh well, lesson learned.

Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett) signing autographs.
You have to get an autograph fastpass to get
anything signed, and they were given out very quickly,
very early in the morning.

So in the end, regardless of the crowds, if you're a Star Wars fan, you gotta be here. And if you're a Star Wars AND Disney fan, then it's a moral imperative to be here!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Tom Sawyer's Island...?"

Being passholders for years, our kids have not been on some attractions for a long time - even years for certain ones. Winnie The Pooh, Snow White's Scary Adventure, Ellen's Universe Of Energy, Voyage of the Little Mermaid and a few others are attractions that have been done and there hasn't been much of an outcry to get back on them. One that both have been on - but it's been at least 4 years since the last time - is Tom Sawyer's Island at the Magic Kingdom.

So a few weeks ago, we took them to the Island because it was something "new" - something they haven't done in a really long time. Let me tell you - they LOVED it. LOVED it. They've been begging to go back ever since.

Well, I must admit that I probably never gave Tom's island much of a chance. First, it's a pain to get to. Second, with its trees and vegetation, it gets HOT. And they don't even have their quick service restaurant open any more (which is too bad - there's picnic tables and other great spots to eat at on the island). It probably didn't help that I was never much of a fan of Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn and company. Just a series of books and stories that as a kid I never took much interest in. So from a theme standpoint, I guess I just never gave it a second thought. So the thought of heading out there and spending an untold amount of time was not appealing.

I was wrong, and I admit it. Tom Sawyer's Island is really pretty cool. It's old school Disney, and a great place to explore. Of course, it's not the most technologically advanced attraction in WDW. And like I said, I wish Aunt Polly's food stand was still open.

The barrel bridge, the fort, the caves, the mines, the windmill and more make this a fun venture. Some great views of the vistas of Magic Kingdom including Big Thunder Mountain, a unique view of The Haunted Mansion, Frontierland and the Castle are also present from various vantage points around the island..

Now beware - the terrain on the island is old school. Very narrow paths, steeply graded and crooked walkways, dark spaces where it's hard to see in front of you and other obstacles are present. Personally, I love all of that - makes it a very different place to be and explore. However, some of those things can be very challenging to some people, especially those in wheelchairs and strollers. And I also admit the theming is actually very cool. Once again, Disney places you in that time period with their attention to detail. Some of it is absolutely wonderful.

So without further ado, here are some photos of our experiences at Tom Sawyer's Island...

The spooooooooky cave face! Ooooooooh!
OK, it's actually pretty cool.

The stables...

The Fort...the kids love this place. Lots of little spots to run and hide.

Love the view of the Mansion from here...

Gotta love a good old barrel bridge.

Cannons and guns to fire from high up on the Fort.
No wonder the kids love it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Around The Mouse Fitness - Healthy Eating In Magic Kingdom

When it comes to eating healthy, Magic Kingdom can be a major challenge - and in my opinion more so than any of the other parks, especially in comparison to Epcot, the first park of this Around The Mouse Fitness series.

There are some big differences between Epcot and Magic Kingdom in the realm of healthy eating. First, Epcot has many more table service restaurants than Magic Kingdom (11 to 4). And as we mentioned in the last article, it's usually easier to eat healthfully at table service restaurants because if you communicate with the server and/or chef about your wishes and dietary needs, they are usually very willing to work with you. In most cases you can ask for seasoned and steamed or baked veggies instead of rice or pasta. Or you can request a baked, broiled or grilled chicken or fish with no butter or oil and they can usually do something for you. Or a dressing or sauce on the side so you can use it sparingly and control the amount that goes on your food.

Also, Epcot has a very wide variety of food because of the nature of World Showcase. With 11 different pavilions from around the world showcasing their cultural culinary diversity, there is plenty to choose from. Magic Kingdom offers food that is more monochromatic in nature.

But that doesn't mean the original WDW park is devoid of healthy offerings and options altogether. One place I love that offers some healthy options is The Plaza Restaurant just around the corner off of Main Street, USA on the way to Tomorrowland. The Plaza has a Chicken Strawberry Salad with a White Zinfandel dressing that's really very good. Also, the Turkey Sandwich on Multi-Grain bread is a quality choice as well (just ask to hold the mayo and replace with mustard if you're a mustard fan).

Next in line for healthy choices is Cosmic Rays Starlight Cafe. The Grilled Chicken Sandwich isn't a bad option, and there are some good condiments to be had at the toppings bar - just avoid the mushrooms and onions as they are sauteed in butter and oil. You could also ask for the half rotisserie chicken - just make sure to take the skin off to save massive calories and fat. Also, it comes with mashed potatoes and seasoned veggies - you could ask for double veggies and be much better off.

Another Magic Kingdom counter service staple has a couple of items that fit the bill - the Columbia Harbour House. Just beware of the tuna sandwich - tuna fish is always tricky since because it's fish, many believe it to be healthy. Except, and in this case too, it's always mixed with full-fat mayo. Gotta stay away from that. But Harbour House does have a hummus sandwich that is very good and much better for you than the tuna - and definitely better for you than the battered deep-fried fish or chicken. Add the side of vegetarian chili and you're in good shape.

Our new favorite is a great counter service restaurant in Adventureland that's open only sparingly (usually only for lunch) - El Pirata Y El Perico. It is basically standard Mexican counter service-type food: burritos & tacos. But first of all, we love this restaurant because it's very cost-efficient...some of the cheapest counter service meals in the parks. Second, they have a vegetarian taco combo that is very good and relatively healthy. Instead of ground beef or chicken, the veggie taco comes chock-full with black beans - which are loaded with protein and fiber and next to no fat. Ask for double beans and no rice (which they've done for me), and it doesn't seem to be a problem. It also comes with a little side cup of white rice and black beans. Again, ask for more beans and no rice and it shouldn't be a problem. They also have a GREAT toppings bar with incredible salsa. Add some lettuce and diced tomatoes and you've got a great taco - you could choose to not eat the corn tortilla and be better off, but you could do worse even if you eat the shell.

One other location that I always recommend is the Liberty Square Market fruit stand beside The Hall Of Presidents. They offer a variety of fruit which are PERFECT summer snacks (or snacks for any time of year). Fruit is particularly great in the summer because most have a high water content (which will help keep you hydrated along with regular water consumption), a decent amount of fiber (to help you feel satiated) and fructose (natural complex fruit sugars) to give you energy to keep navigating the parks. Try going there instead of for the turkey leg! ;)

So that's a three counter service restaurants, one table service restaurant and a food cart area to take advantage of in the Magic Kingdom when it comes to healthy eating options. And while it's a battle to try and avoid the Dole Whips, the Churros, the Confectionary fudge squares and the Popcorn, it is possible to do!

Next up, Disney's Hollywood Studios!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Around The Mouse Fitness - Healthy Eating In Epcot

Epcot is the King Of Dining in The Mouse. It really is. Just think about how many restaurants - both table service and counter service - they have all around the park. Some of the best establishments in both categories are present: Le Cellier, Sunshine Seasons, Les Chefs de France, Tangerine Cafe, Biergarten, Coral Reef, and Teppan Edo just to name a few. The options are almost limitless.

But what about options when it comes to eating healthfully? What if a guest needs to limit or balance their calories? What if they don't want to blow their eating habits out of the water by coming to the vacation kingdom of the known world? Is it even possible to not blow it up?

It is possible. And it's very doable...especially at Epcot. You just have to pick your battles and know where to look.

First, let's be honest: most people who come to Disney World are on vacation and want to splurge - and they have every right to. And WDW has some of the best food you'll EVER taste, period. You don't want to miss it, and shouldn't miss it. But you can control it. The secret lies in eating healthy when the options make it at all possible, so it helps balance out the few times you truly splurge because the best options might not be there. That means knowing where those healthy options are present.

One of the best places to look for healthy options is the winner of Around The Mouse's best counter service restaurant, Sunshine Seasons. Don't get me wrong - there's plenty here that's REALLY unhealthy - so just going to this expansive restaurant in The Land pavilion doesn't make all the choices optimal. Amongst the best from which to choose from in Sunshine is:

Black Bean Soup
Seared Tuna on Mixed Greens
Spicy Thai Chicken
Oak Grilled Vegetable Flatbread
Grilled Salmon with Kalamata Olive Pesto
California Sushi Rolls
Cous-Cous side
Mixed Green Salad with Apple-Balsamic Dressing
Broccoli side

Our vote for healthiest choice would be the Seared Tuna on Mixed Greens (with Seasame Wine Dressing) with a side of black bean soup. The soup is low in calories and fat while being high in protein, fiber and complex carbs. The Tuna & greens is relatively low in calories, high in Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamins and minerals. Just be careful with the dressing - there are worse dressings out there (anything in the cream dressing department), but you don't want to go overboard. Also, just a little sushi goes a long way - the white sticky rice is nutritionally empty and very high on the glycemic index (see more on the Glycemic Index here). It is packed with veggies, however, at least giving it some nutritional punch.

Another great option in Future World comes from the surprising Electric Umbrella. This counter services next to Innoventions and across from Mouse Gears offers a good old fashioned Whole Wheat Turkey Wrap. Ask for no cheese and you have a low calorie, low fat, high protein and moderately high fiber meal. Mustard or a light Italian dressing can provide some extra flavor.

Moving over to World Showcase, the Yakitori House in the Japan pavilion offers their broiled Chicken Ginger Salad and Miso Soup. Both are low on calories and the Ginger salad high in protein and low in fat. The Miso Soup may be an acquired taste, but I love it.

The Tangerine Cafe has some offerings that can help a healthy diet. The vegetarian platter is wonderful, as is the Mediterranean Chicken Wrap. Sides of hummus, tabouleh, lentil salad and cous-cous are also good choices with quality nutritional value.

Of course, the stars of the dining world in Epcot are the table service establishments. Almost all of them will be more than willing to work with you on creating healthier options for your meal - remember, you're never relegated to only what's on the menu. The server and chefs will definitely assist in providing something tweaked to be healthier (no butter while sauteeing, dressings/sauces on the side, veggies instead of rice/pasta, extra spices or seasonings to add flavor, lower sugar options, etc.). Don't be afraid to ask.

Two places that might give you an issue as far as healthy options is Biergarten and San Angel Inn. And the Inn might be able to work with you as far as switching out ingredients or altering preparation, but Biergarten is a buffet - a buffet I love - but it is a LOT of heavy calorie, heavy sauce, heavy carb dishes. They do have some salads, but I don't know if I could justify spending upwards of $30.00 per person for a salad buffet. It pains me to say it because I flat-out love the place, but enter with caution.

In the end, Epcot has tons of options, even counter service options that can help you come to Disney World and not consistently have a 4,000 - 6,000 calorie day. That can add up quickly. So when you have an opportunity, look for some of the above recommendations if you need to watch your caloric intake.