Adults

A Guide to Universal Mardi Gras 2017

by on January 26, 2017

Thousands of plastic beads patiently wait to be tossed into the hands of eager park guests. Spicy Cajun food will soon be devoured. Parade performers practice endlessly, waiting for their time in the spotlight. Universal Mardi Gras 2017 is about to begin!

With more consecutive nights than ever before, Universal Mardi Gras 2017 looks to be a bit different than years past. There’s lots to see and deux so check out this guide to make sure you don’t miss a beat!

This year Universal Orlando’s Mardi Gras is a little shorter than before, February 4 to March 24, 2017. However, this year is different because the parade, special food, and other festivities will bring the best of the Big Easy every single night through March 24, 2017.

French Quarter Courtyard – Food and live bands

One the best features of Universal Mardi Gras are the bands brought in from New Orleans itself that perform in the French Quarter Courtyard (in the New York area of the park near Revenge of the Mummy and across from the soon-to-open Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon). Many people aren’t aware that these authentic bands perform in the French Quarter Courtyard, but they are a real treat and straight from the land of the Big Easy, so check them out.

Here’s the line up:

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10 Romantic Things to Do on a Disney Cruise

by on January 20, 2017

10 Romantic Things to do on a Disney Cruise

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, people!  Are you ready?  Well you better get ready, because it’s coming!  According to your local Target’s seasonal aisles, it’s been coming since December 26th.  So you’re behind!  You better make some plans.  Preferably some romantic plans with the one you love.  I’m here to help.  I have 10 cruise ideas for you.  Use them on Valentine’s Day or to make up for Valentine’s Day, it doesn’t matter!  Here are 10 ideas for romance on a Disney cruise.

1. Pop the Question – At first it may appear that number one is just a shameless excuse to use my now favorite-photo-of-all-time in my blog post! In that vein, I present said photo of my son proposing to his girlfriend on the Disney Fantasy a few weeks ago! Perfect, right?  But that’s not why this suggestion is number one!  That’s just a very (very) happy bonus.  Insert all the smiley emoticons in the world.  But seriously.  If you are ready to take the next step with the one you love, there aren’t many prettier places to do it!  Find a quiet deck at sunset, pick a beautiful island, or drop down on one knee in the atrium craziness before dinner if you want what will probably be a wildly enthusiastic audience!  There are a lot of great opportunities to propose onboard.  It may be the perfect place for you!

2. Leave the Children at Home – Disney cruises are not just for families with children! I’ve done several adult-only cruises, two with just my husband and a few with groups of friends–and I’ve loved every one. If you want the ultimate romantic Disney cruise, leave your children at home, and get away by yourselves.  You won’t regret it!  Think about quiet mornings on the verandah sipping coffee together.  Blissfully alone!  Don’t forget to request a table for two in the main dining rooms!

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Disney Romance at Old Key West

by on January 18, 2017

With Valentine’s Day a month out, we’re looking at some places at Walt Disney World that offer the chance for couples to get away from the usual park experience and enjoy some romance – Disney style. Disney’s Old Key West Resort is a surprisingly great resort pick if you are looking for some Disney romance with your significant other. At least it was a surprise to my husband and me when we made a recent adults-only getaway and stayed there for the first time.

As Disney Vacation Club members, we often plan our trips months in advance, but this trip was planned within a much shorter time frame. Old Key West is one of the DVC resorts that is more likely to have availability when planning just a couple months out.We were thrilled to find a room there for our dates. While we were excited for our first stay at this resort, what we didn’t expect was how much a part Old Key West would play in the overall romantic mood of the trip.

© Sarah Graffam

Covered walkway leading to the riverfront

So here’s a rundown of reasons why you should consider Old Key West Resort when planning your next couples trip to Disney World.

Disney Romance Factor 1: Setting

Old Key West’s layout is very spread out, with a central Hospitality House and two- to three-story buildings in pastel colors throughout several “neighborhoods.” This layout, especially for the buildings that are a bit tucked away, is extremely conducive to the feeling of privacy that enhances romance. The abundant foliage, palm trees, water features, and golf course fairways create an atmosphere of relaxation and seclusion away from the busy parks.

The slow pace extends to the Hospitality House where you can wander with your sweetie under a wide covered walkway that opens onto the riverfront and dock area. Upon arrival at the resort, take a stroll together through the walkway out to the river. This transition creates a similar reveal, and a feeling of “you are here,” as when walking under the railroad station into Magic Kingdom’s Town Square—but without the crowds. This first impression of the resort was one of the earliest indications that our time at Old Key West would be even more relaxing and romantic than we expected.

© Sarah Graffam

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Disney World Valentine’s Day Romance: Mix and Match Your Plan

by on January 17, 2017

Valentine's Day Romance at Walt Disney World

While Disney World is known for being a magical place for families, its fantastic variety of dining, attractions, entertainment, and recreation options also make it a great place for couples to find some romance. With the approach of Valentine’s Day, you may be thinking about how to spend an ideal day of romance, Disney World-style. This article offers a framework for a plan and plenty of ideas to inspire your own Disney World Valentine’s Day.

Disney World Romance Step #1: Breakfast

What better way to start off Valentine’s Day than with a leisurely breakfast. Although taking a park by storm at rope drop is a key strategy in time-efficient touring, Valentine’s Day is a perfect day to take a slower approach. Here are some great resort and in-park options. Keep in mind that the location of your choice can be a stepping stone to the next part of your plan.

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SATURDAY SIX: Six Disney Gifts Santa Can Bring Back to the North Pole (AKA The Best of the Disney Outlet Stores in 2016)

by on December 24, 2016

This week’s SATURDAY SIX is an annual tradition. Six Disney Gifts Santa Can Bring Back to the North Pole (AKA The Best of the Disney Outlet Stores in 2016). Some readers of this weekly column may not know that we also have The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! where every single month for over three years we have braved the insanity of the Orlando Premium Outlet parking lots to cover the two Disney outlet stores (more info on them – including addresses –  are at the end of the article.)  In fact, we even had a very special Three Year Anniversary edition with some congratulatory notes from some very impressive names in the theme park community.

Now, while some Christmas dreams do come true, such as Ralphie Parker getting his official Red Ryder BB gun and Your Humble Author getting a Han Solo blaster back in the day, other Christmas gifts deserve to go straight to the Island of Misfit Toys. Today we will take a look at some of those very items, starting with…

# 6 – Glow With The Show Ears

Let it glow.

Our first item this week was the first ever Made With Magic piece of merchandise to hit the Outlets. These were the Mickey Ears that lit up with different colors to Glow With the Show during some of the nighttime spectaculars at the parks. I have no actual financial numbers to support my theory, but having been the parks many, many times and only seeing a handful of guests wearing these, I’m going to assume Disney took a complete bath on this idea. It’s an item that cost over $25, are heavier than a normal pair of Mickey Ears, and the person wearing it can’t even see it glow. They were reduced to $9.99. This pair of Ears is particularly garish in design.

# 5 – Hats that are “Big In Japan”

This next item I had been waiting for ever since they showed up at the regular Disney stores over two years ago. These hats where you look like you are wearing the carcass of a dead Disney character on your head and are next level bananas. Apparently these bonkers hats are huge over at the Tokyo parks, but to be fair they also line up for hours just for popcorn. Popcorn!  To be even more fair, if I were out there I’d be in line with them. Originally $21.95, these were reduced to $5.99.

Goofy hat.

Donald hat, as seen in the Art of Animation gift shop.

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SATURDAY SIX: Third Annual Theme Park Turkeys of the Year

by on November 26, 2016

This week’s SATURDAY SIX is one of our favorites as we present the Third Annual “Turkeys” of the Year. For Thanksgiving this week we took a look back at things both Disney and Universal fans should be thankful for, but today we are going to go the other way. Gather ’round as we continue the fine tradition of awarding six Theme Park “Turkeys” to the craziest, most outrageous, or just downright weird stories of the year, concluding with the coveted Golden Turkey award. Let’s kick off the ceremony with a food situation that blew us away….

# 6 – That Time Disney Charged $12.99 For a “Hurricane Box”

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Art by Juliette Elton (@JulietteElton)

In early October, the state of Florida had its biggest weather scare in almost a decade with the oncoming Hurricane Matthew. Most of the models used by meteorologists had Matthew slamming into the East Coast, and then continuing straight up through the center of the state hitting Orlando. Seemingly playing a weird game of chicken, Disney and Universal both waited until just about the last possible moment to announce their hard ticket events of Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Halloween Horror Nights would be cancelled for Thursday, October 6th,  and all the Orlando theme parks would be closed on Friday, October 7th.

With the storm bearing down on Florida, food everywhere was being cleared off the shelves at Walt Disney World. Lines appeared at the hotel food courts that seemed impossible to believe were true (but they absolutely were.) The food court at Port Orleans French Quarter was in the process of being refurbished, and there WDW was offering a $12.99 boxed meal that included a sandwich, an apple, a bag of chips, and a cookie. Pictures of the paltry boxed lunch hit social media and news outlets, including the Orlando Sentinel, with most of the reaction being very unfavorable to Disney.

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SATURDAY SIX: Six Reasons We LOVE the Walt Disney World SWAN and DOLPHIN

by on November 19, 2016

This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at Six Reasons We LOVE the Walt Disney World SWAN and DOLPHIN. Disney has three classifications for their resorts: Value (including Pop Century and Art of Animation), Moderate (Caribbean Beach and Coronado Springs), and Deluxe (The Poly and The Contemporary). Three of the Deluxe resorts are not run by Disney, these include Shades of Green (owned and operated by the US Armed Forces) and the Swan and Dolphin. For over 25 years the Swan and Dolphin has been a part of the Starwood chain of resorts. While Starwood was bought by Marriott in September of this year, the hotels continue to be run under their respective brands (Swan being part of Westin, while the Dolphin part of Sheraton.)

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Walt Disney World Swan.

Both the Swan and Dolphin are considered Disney Deluxe Resorts. While neither hotel offers the Disney Magical Express to and from the airport, or participates in the Disney Dining Plan, guests do get the normal WDW on-site ammenities including Extra Magic Hours, Disney transportation, and early access to Fast Pass+. How do the Swan and Dolphin stack up compared to the other on-site resorts?  Well, today we are going to check out our favorite parts of these two incredible hotels, and let’s begin our list with…

# 6 –  Todd English’s bluezoo

One of the most underrated restaurants on Disney property is Todd English’s bluezoo located on the ground floor of the Dolphin. The bar area is visually stunning, and sets up the unique food and drink menu perfectly. Recently we did a tongue in cheek look at a Disney Value Resort Bar Crawl, but one thing that stood out at those bars – along with many others on Disney property – is a reliance on the standard Disney bar menu. Todd English’s bluezoo is the complete opposite of that. Whether you get a Burnt Orange that arrives on fire or a Swedish Fish with its infused foam, the drinks served at bluezoo are served with creativity and flair.

The dining room of bluezoo is deceptively large. While the menu is filled with some great items (especially if you’re a seafood fan,) what shocked us was the crispy Asian pork ribs. I didn’t think anyone would come close to touching the quality of Morimoto Asia’s Hoisin sticky spare ribs, but bluezoo’s are somehow better. While many probably wouldn’t think of bluezoo as the first choice to bring your kids, there is actually a part of the menu for kid’s appetizers, entrees, and desserts. The whimsicly named “desserted island” is among the most fun at WDW.

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Smoking Red Sangria. (photo by Brandon Glover)

bluezoo_burtorange_glover

Burnt Orange – “herradura blanco infused with brûléed orange and muddled with agave nectar, grand marnier, and orange juice. topped with a flaming orange.” (photo by Brandon Glover)

swan_bluezoo_ribs

Crispy Asian pork ribs. (photo by  Brandon Glover)

swan_bluezoo_dessertedisland

Desserted Island. (photo by Brandon Glover)

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Disney World Swan and Dolphin: A Foodie Paradise

by on November 11, 2016

The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin is a resort that evokes lots of curiosity. It is unlike any other resort on Disney property because it straddles the line between being a Disney resort and being a Starwood property. Its history is rich and intriguing, but this post is not about the ins and outs of this whimsical resort. Besides the architecture, décor, and infrastructure there is something else that really sets this resort apart from all of its neighbors: the food and beverage.

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Photo by Brandon Glover

The quality of their food and beverage operation is not just evident in their variety of restaurants and dining options, but also showcased once a year on a grand scale. The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic is an incredible event that puts this resort at its best. I’ll share some of my experience at this magnificent event as well as an overview of the variety of dining options found at this resort.

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Photo by Brandon Glover

Variety of dining options

In the beginning the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin operated as two separate hotel companies. The Swan is a Westin and the Dolphin is a Sheraton. During the first years of operation these two brands were separate entities, not part of the same parent company like they are now under the Starwood Hotels banner.

Model of the vast resort - photo by Brandon Glover

Model of the vast resort – photo by Brandon Glover

This initial separation between the two hotels helped set the foundation that the Swan and the Dolphin could be complete destinations on their own and thus provide enough dining variety among themselves. Each wing has at least one quick service option, one casual sit down restaurant, and one signature restaurant. Plus there is in-room dining and a personal pantry delivery service, oh and don’t forget the authentic sushi restaurant with a lively late night karaoke scene.

The best dining options

The signature dining at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin is bar none the standout experience of the resort. Each restaurant is distinctly different from the next. It’s hard to decide which of the signature restaurants is best for a romantic date night or an impressive night with colleagues.

Todd English's bluezoo's creative cocktails - photo by Brandon Glover

Todd English’s bluezoo’s creative cocktails – photo by Brandon Glover

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An Animal Kingdom Convert: Winning a Skeptical Spouse Over to the DAK Side

by on November 9, 2016

I have got to admit that Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the park we typically skip on our trips to Disney World. It’s a bit hard to pinpoint exactly why this happens. Maybe because our plan quickly fills in with at least two days or partial days at Magic Kingdom and Epcot, our must-do parks. Maybe because we also like to spend a day at one of the water parks and time visiting the deluxe resorts. Maybe because we love the thrill rides at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and have been enjoying the increasing number of Star Wars related offerings. Maybe because on the days we have visited Animal Kingdom, it has felt like one giant sauna by mid-morning.

© Sarah Graffam

Expedition Everest at dusk

In early 2016, however, there were hints that something was starting to happen at Animal Kingdom. There was talk of an incredible projection show coming to the Tree of Life, nighttime hours to experience Kilimanjaro Safaris plus Expedition Everest and Kali River Rapids, a new lounge and signature level restaurant, new dancers and musicians, and a brand new nighttime water show with amazing effects.

© Sarah Graffam

Tree of Life Awakenings

In late spring 2016, many of these new experiences became available. Okay, so there were some overall delays, and the much-hyped Rivers of Light show was replaced with a decidedly less impressive show during the spring and summer. (Rivers of Light has yet to come on line, though there are some indications—and lots of hope on the part of park visitors—that it could do so soon.) Even so, I was certain that the new experiences that had already come to the park were worth giving Animal Kingdom another shot.

My husband, though—not so much. So, on our most recent trip, I was determined to get him over to Animal Kingdom. If you also have a reluctant tourist on your hands when it comes to Animal Kingdom (or are even one yourself), read on to see how one convert was convinced.

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What makes I-Drive 360 and Tin Roof worth a visit?

by on November 2, 2016

I-Drive 360 will soon enter its second year in operation, but what makes it worth a visit? There are some hits and misses here, that’s true. The misses, like a gift shop selling the same mugs and t-shirts you can find along less desirable strips of highway, make it difficult to be on the level of Universal Orlando’s CityWalk or Disney Springs. The hits, however, make it a worthwhile destination.

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Photo by Brandon Glover

The hits

Though Madame Tussaud’s Wax Figures don’t appeal to me all, not a day goes by that I don’t see someone in my social media feed posting selfies with their favorite wax celebrities. It looks to be a fun, inexpensive attraction. Secondly, SeaLife Aquarium appears to have some beautiful settings and lots of great photo opportunities.

Combine these two attractions with a breathtaking ride aboard the Orlando Eye and now you’ve got a great afternoon mapped out. I’ve been aboard the Orlando Eye twice. I felt a swell of pride as we rose above and gazed out over the attractions area. On a clear day, Fall is a great season to hop on board and enjoy the views from the Orlando Eye.

Photo by Brandon Glover

Photo by Brandon Glover

I-Drive 360’s best feature is actually their dining offerings. I appreciate that there is a range of options to fit practically any budget. Most of the restaurants are popular chains, but there is one in particular that is my favorite reason for visiting I-Drive 360. Tin Roof is the place! Every night live music can be heard pouring out of this place. It is vibrant and friendly. Best of all, the food is fantastic and a new menu has elevated Tin Roof to an even higher level, making it a must-visit for anyone who likes good music and great food.

Tin Roof’s new menu

Let me first say, I enjoyed Tin Roof’s previous menu so when they announced that a new menu was coming I got a little worried. Thankfully the revamp has taken a good thing and made it great! A group of local social media and blogging enthusiasts were invited to try out the new menu, but many of us were already regulars at Tin Roof, so this was a real treat!

Appetizers

On a night out, especially with friends, I tend to gravitate towards ordering 2-3 appetizers and sharing them as a group. So it’s important to me that this part of the menu have some stand outs. In fact, one of the items has now become something I crave on occasion.

Photo by Brandon Glover

Photo by Brandon Glover

Dixie Biscuits ($9.00)

These little bad boys became the hit of the table. Love at first bite! Three sliders are presented on the plate and I would have a hard time sharing them. A new star of the menu is the house smoked beef brisket. It is served in a few ways, but in this case it is sandwiched in between a deep fried biscuit – yes, that’s right a deep fried biscuit, then topped with cheddar cheese, bacon, and peach jam. Everyone at the table loved these!

Photo by Brandon Glover

Photo by Brandon Glover

Bacon Mason ($5.00)

For those that enjoy the simple things in life, this one’s for you. A nice stack of crispy bacon is served alongside peach preserves. The end. For $5.00 this is a quick and easy snack to share.

Photo by Brandon Glover

Photo by Brandon Glover

Poppers ($7.00)

Confession: I love pimento cheese. It is a slightly spicy creamy, cheese spread that nearly every Southerner knows from their childhood. These little croquettes are filled with peppadew and pimento cheese, then wrapped in bacon. My one qualm with these poppers is they can be difficult to eat without being messy.

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