Disneyworld Redux (thanks to Hurricane Irma)

Disneyworld!! We have not been since last September. We were planning to go again this September, as a combination birthday/going off to college trip, but Hurricane Irma vetoed that idea. :(. So we rescheduled the trip to last weekend, when Marcus had a 3 day weekend. He brought a friend, Matthew, along for the trip. It was Matthew’s first trip, and it reminded us that there are certain rides we love because of the memories that don’t necessarily appeal as much to a teenage boy going for the very first time (can anyone say “It’s a Small World?”)


Because we had to reschedule the trip, the only place available for us to stay was the Four Seasons (it’s a hardship, but someone had to do it!). The rooms at the Four Seasons are much nicer and roomier than at even the high end Disney resorts, but there is, obviously, much less Disney theming and the system is not as tied in as at the Disney resorts. For example, while you can get Magic Bands at the Disney desk at the hotel, you cannot put park charges on it, and they don’t serve as keys to the room either. All of which makes perfect sense. And it’s a great add for Disney because there are certainly folks who would come and stay at the Four Seasons who would not stay at a Disney hotel. (We are not one of them, as you might have guessed.)
The new Pandora ride—“Flight of Passage”—the more popular of the two Pandora rides—is amazing. It’s a cross between Soarin’ and Star Tours and is an order of magnitude better than either. The premise is that you are flying on a banshee through the world of Pandora, so there’s a big screen like Soarin’, but you are on a contraption that mimics being on a banshee (a kind of giant flying bird). The banshee even breathes as it sits between your legs. It’s pretty mind-boggling and definitely a fantastic addition to the park. (Time to update the Disney tome!)

in the world of Pandora

We also visited Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney), which we have not been to for years. It, too, has grown and improved and is a nice place to visit in the evenings or whenever you want a little down time from the parks (as difficult a concept as that is to imagine).

Disney Springs

With the older one off to college, it gives the younger one an opportunity to catch up on the number of trips to Disneyworld count. This is Marcus’s 55th trip, so he has only a few more before he ties his sister. (Not that this is a competition or anything!)

Disneyworld and an 18th Birthday

In the category of “How to Make Me Feel Really Old” falls the 18th birthday of our daughter (I assume our son’s 18th birthday will fall into the category of “How to Make Me Feel Really Really Old.”)
Our daughter elected to celebrate this momentous occasion of being able to sign legally binding contracts by spending it in Disneyworld.  Fortunately, her birthday coincided with a school 3 day weekend, which made it perfect.
We managed to spend time in all 4 parks, although Magic Kingdom received the brunt of our attention.  It makes me feel all warm and gushy inside to know that this now 18 year old young woman still loves Disney and still loves the Magic Kingdom.  (She may still turn out to be a serial killer, but at least she’ll be a serial killer who loves Disney.)
We stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, so we woke up each morning to the sight of giraffes, zebras, and other wildlife right outside our balcony.
High points of the trip include:
— being at Magic Kingdom when the park opened at 7:00 am

early morning at the Magic Kingdom

early morning at the Magic Kingdom

— getting a how-to-be-a-warrior lesson from Mulan in the China pavilion at Epcot

— being entertained by Dara Vamp at The Brown Derby

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— seeing the parks decorated for Christmas

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Happy 18th birthday, sweetie!!

Disneyworld & the Osborne Family Lights

We haven’t been to Disneyworld for the Christmas season in years, but when we learned that this would be the last year of the Osborne Family Lights at Hollywood Studios, a visit was a must do and off to Orlando we went on the first weekend of December.

We landed on Friday evening and headed straight for the lights. They were even more spectacular than I had remembered.

Osborne lights

Osborne lights

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IMG_1562Saturday morning was the Wild Animal Trek, something we had never done before. (Shock!) It takes place at Animal Kingdom, and half the trek is done with a harness so that you go over bridges and look at hippos and crocodiles up close and personal. The other half of the trek is essentially a VIP version of the Safari ride. The ride was particularly memorable for two reasons: first, there was a baby rhino out and about and feeling particularly frisky, chasing zebras and running around (so adorable!); and two, we had a (successful) proposal in the group when we broke for lunch (also adorable).

baby rhino!

baby rhino!

wild animal trek

wild animal trek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the trek, we resumed our normal Disney activities with multiple rides of various rollercoasters and other rides at the parks. We returned to Hollywood Studios, had dinner, and headed for the lights one last time on Saturday. <sad face>

It was a spectacular trip. We had forgotten how festive Disneyworld is for the holiday season, and it was a good reminder. As our daughter said, “I really wasn’t in the Christmas spirit until I saw the lights again.”

Disneyworld…the ultimate Americana experience

We now have a third child (a temporary one, before you all get too excited about the news). Yinan is an exchange student from Beijing going to our kids’ school, and she is staying with us for the school year. She is a lovely person, and my only concern about her is how she could put up with our weird family for so long.

Anyway, we decided to celebrate Marcus’s 13th birthday by—you guessed it!—a weekend at Disneyworld. Naturally, Yinan came along (as well as one of Marcus’s best friends). You can’t get a more quintessential American experience than Disneyworld.

With the help of Disney’s guide service, we managed to get to all four parks—Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom—in two days. Even more impressively, we spent the first day entirely in Magic Kingdom and managed to hit the highlights of three remaining parks all on the second day.

There isn’t much to say about Disneyworld that I haven’t already said, either in previous blog posts or in my travel tome about it. That being said, it was really an even more amazing experience to go with someone who had never gone before. Yinan was a great sport about it—tried every ride and food experience (as you know, with us, it is also about the food).

And Tarl, our guide, was fabulously super. Without him, there would have been no possible way to hit three parks in one day (plus lunch, of course).

Happy birthday, Marcus, and welcome to the United States, Yinan!

on Space Mountain

on Space Mountain

Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom)

Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom)

with our guide, Tarl

with our guide, Tarl

Be Our Guest restaurant (Disneyworld)

One of the newest restaurants in the Magic Kingdom in Disneyworld is the Be Our Guest restaurant, located in the Beast’s castle in the new part of Fantasyland.  We were lucky enough to get a dinner reservation due to a cancellation when we were last there in March.  Dinner was quite the spectacular evening.

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To begin with, there are 3 dining halls to eat in.  There is one room resembling the Beast’s room in the castle, complete with a petal-dropping rose.

There is a second room that looks like the room Belle could have eaten her first meal in.

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And the third room is the main ballroom of the Beast’s castle.

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The dinner menu is surprisingly cosmopolitan for a Magic Kingdom restaurant (but, after all, this is France, and dinner is never second best).  We started off with appetizers consisting of the Assorted Cured Meats and Sausages.  The menu says it serves two, but the servings are so generous that the dish can easily serve four without a problem.

assorted charcuterie

assorted charcuterie

But we also added the seasonal salad trio, which consists of a roasted beet, gold raisin and orange salad, a tomato and roasted shallot salad and a watermelon, radish and mint salad.  The consensus around the table is that the watermelon, radish and mint salad was the best of the three, although all were good.

trio of salads

trio of salads

The boy ordered the grilled strip steak with garlic-herb butter and pommes frites and the rest of the family all had the braised pork served coq au vin style (eight hour slow cooked pork with mushrooms, onions, carrots and bacon served with pureed cauliflower and seasonal vegetables).  The steak and pomes frites expert pronounced the steak to be excellent, and the pork was flavorful and tender.  Again, serving portions were very generous.

braised pork

braised pork

And, finally, there is dessert.  Who could resist ordering the “grey stuff” when it’s offered on the menu and guaranteed to be delicious?  It turns out that the “grey stuff” is excellent buttercream frosting on top of a rich chocolate brownie.  We also ordered the chocolate cream puff for kicks, but the grey stuff was clearly the winner.

the grey stuff

the grey stuff

chocolate cream puff

chocolate cream puff

the grey stuff as solo act

the grey stuff as solo act

On top of that was Disney’s characteristic friendly service.  Our waitress was attentive, friendly, and chatty.  You can also have your picture taken with the Beast after your meal.

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The restaurant also has a kid friendly menu (it is Disney, after all).

If jamming as many rides as possible into a day is your goal when at the Magic Kingdom, eating here is probably not a good idea, as the experience is leisurely.  But for a delicious meal or for a Beauty and the Beast fan, this is a delightful dining experience.  We highly recommend it!

Disney Half-Marathon & 5K

Jim and I have been training to run a half-marathon since June.  (I haven’t wanted to mention it because I didn’t want to jinx us.)  We chose the Disney Wine and Dine Half-Marathon which was held at Disneyworld this past weekend on the theory that if we were really going to run a half-marathon, what better place to run it than at Disneyworld?

Training has had its ups and downs.  But, fortunately, the wonderful thing about training together is that very rarely do we have the same timing.  So, for example, about 2 months into our training, I hit a wall, and if it weren’t for Jim, I would never have gotten out of bed to run.  But he pushed me out the door and once we were at the track, it was much easier to just go ahead and do it.

We did most of our training at the Y for two reasons.  First, running outside during a Washington, DC summer and the accompanying heat and humidity would have resulted in us stopping almost immediately, either because we would have ended up in the ER due to heat exhaustion or because we would have moved immediately to the West Coast where there’s no humidity.  And, second, the track was easier on our knees.  Despite all our precautions, we ended up with some training injuries.  Jim pulled a thigh muscle and then a calf muscle and lost about a month of training near the end.  My knees started hurting about a month ago, and I’ve alternated between knee braces and knee bands to help with the pain.  A new pair of shoes also helped.  (I like Adidas Tempos.)  We discovered that wristbands for our ipod nanos really made running to music easier, and we created a running playlist with up tempo music (with many suggestions from our teenage daughter).

Some friends of ours very kindly volunteered to come down with us.  They and our kids ran Mickey’s Jingle Jungle 5K on Saturday morning through Animal Kingdom.  I’m told it was quite the festive atmosphere with Disney characters lined up along the route, the park decorated for Christmas, and Christmas music piped in.

After the 5K, we all had breakfast, and then our friends took their kids and ours to the Magic Kingdom while Jim and I napped and stressed about the race.  We spent some time by the pool (we were staying at the Yacht Club), had a light dinner, and then headed to the start point.  Our friends also watched the kids for the evening.  (I know, I wouldn’t have done it either.)

The half-marathon didn’t start until 10:00 pm Saturday.  Because it was our first half-marathon, we were in the last group that didn’t start until closer to 10:30.  It was a cool night (mid-60s), but you didn’t notice it once you started running.  The race started at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, wound its way through Animal Kingdom, then through Hollywood Studios, and finally through the front half of Epcot, finishing up at the Epcot parking lot.

The first 5 miles went very smoothly.  I will say that while I have always thought of Disneyworld as being relatively flat, I have revised my opinion.  🙂  As with the 5K, there was much visual stimulation to be found.  There were various Disney characters along the way (I remember the dancing hippos from Fantasia most vividly), there were colorfully decorated and themed mile markers, and live bands playing up-tempo music.

Miles 6-10 were more difficult but still quite manageable.  At Mile 11.5, Jim came down with leg cramps, which made the last mile and a half somewhat tortuous (especially for him).  But we finished in about 3 hours (he gave me permission to run the last mile without him).  There was an after-party at Epcot that we cheerfully ditched.  We were in our hotel room by about 2:30 am and in bed a little after 3:00 am after icing our various aching body parts.  We were up at 6:45 to see our friends off and then to celebrate our daughter’s birthday.  With the help of some Advil and ice, we managed to hobble around Epcot for the better part of the day before flying home.

Running the half-marathon was a surprisingly fun experience, but, then, it is Disney, after all.  We really feel like we have accomplished something that we never dreamed was possible 5 months ago.  But the idiocy only goes so far.  We are most definitely NOT running a full marathon!

Birthday Dinner at Disneyworld

We celebrated our son’s birthday dinner at Disneyworld at a restaurant called Citrico’s in the Grand Floridian hotel.  It’s pretty casual, as most Disney restaurants are, but the food is surprisingly good.  With five reasonably sophisticated eaters, there were a lot of fun choices.

Dinner started with an amuse bouche from the chef of venison with capers.

amuse bouche of venison with capers

There were a variety of appetizers ordered, including arancini (crispy risotto with crimini mushrooms, asiago, and charred tomato coulis),

arancini

a charcuterie plate (with prosciutto, beef bresaola, duck breast prosciutto, and palacio chorizo),

charcuterie plate

a cheese plate (with murcia al vino from Spain, fourme d’Ambert from Auvergne and petit agour from the Basque region),

cheese plate

a macerated heirloom tomato salad,

macerated heirloom tomato salad

and sautéed shrimp in lemon, white wine, tomatoes, and feta cheese.

sauteed shrimp

I’ve also included a photo of the cheese plate description.

description of cheese

There were only two different main courses ordered at the table (evidently, we suffered appallingly from a lack of originality when ordering that night).  The most popular dish was Berkshire pork two ways, consisting of a rotisserie pork tenderloin and roasted pork belly with aged white cheddar polenta, escarole, Brentwood corn salsa and cherry gastrique.

Berkshire pork two ways

The other main course was Madeira-braised short ribs served over trofie pasta with wild mushroom ragout and truffle crème fraiche.

madeira braised short ribs

There was a celebratory birthday treat of miniature vanilla ice cream cones with sprinkles on top.  Unfortunately, these were consumed before I could get a photo of the dish (I often lose dessert photos that way).

The birthday boy was quite happy with the birthday festivities.  Of course, popcorn and hot dogs would have been fine since he was already at the happiest place on earth!

Beijing & Hong Kong 2012

We had a fabulous trip to Beijing and Hong Kong!  In Beijing, we finally got a chance to see the renovated National Museum.  Jim and I had last seen it in 1987, and the museum now has more than 5,000 square feet of exhibit space.  The Chinese government had hoped to have it open in time for the 2008 Olympics, but differences on how to cover the various political events delayed the opening until about two years ago.

The museum has two wings–the Hall of Rejuvenation and the Chinese antiquities wing.  The Hall of Rejuvenation covers the history of China starting with the Neolithic age.  The more recent the events, the more amusing the commentary.  (Did you know that Sun Yat-sen’s revolution overthrowing the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 was incomplete because it was not a workers’ revolution?  Neither did I.)  The Chinese antiquities wing has some stunning pieces.  In fact, the exhibits are so extensive that we did not have time to see them all.  (A return visit is on the list.)  One of the more stunning pieces is this large bronze vessel from the Shang Dynasty (16th – 11th century BC).

National Museum bronze

For more about what to see in Beijing, you can go to the Travel section of my webpage.

We then flew to Hong Kong.  After several hours there, our kids independently announced that while they couldn’t live in Beijing, they could live in Hong Kong without a problem.  And it’s quite easy to understand why.  Hong Kong is a unique blend of British and Chinese culture.  It has the order and cleanliness of Britain with an overlay of Chinese culture, language, and commerce.  It is an amazing city!

We went up to the Peak to see some stunning views of Hong Kong:

the Peak

But, without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was Hong Kong Disney.  It was interestingly unique to see Cinderella’s Castle amid the surrounding countryside (typically, Disney likes to have the parks be a world unto themselves, but space constraints made that infeasible here):

Hong Kong Disney

I’ll have my Hong Kong travel tome up in the next couple of days with more details of where to go and what to see.

Victoria & Albert’s, Grand Floridian, Disneyworld

As I mentioned in my previous post, there is just something richly amusing about the fact that the highest rated restaurant in Florida is located in Disneyworld.  (Perhaps it’s picturing the reaction of all those folks who turn their noses up at the thought of visiting The Happiest Place on Earth.  I once had a friend who told me, “I can’t believe you like Disneyworld!  You come across as such a sophisticated person!”)  🙂

Anyway, Victoria & Albert’s is on the 2nd floor of the Grand Floridian hotel, the nicest hotel (in our opinion) in Disneyworld.  (Mind you, half the family still prefers the Polynesian over the Grand Floridian, mainly due to the theme, but the Grand Floridian is still the nicest of the Disney hotels.)  The minimum age for diners is 10 years.  Jackets are required, but ties are optional.  We sat in the Queen Victoria Room and had the tasting menu.

We started out with the requisite amuse bouche, which consisted of a soft poached quail egg with Galilee caviar, chicken liver terrine, cauliflower panna cotta, and porcini mushroom cappuccino.  I’m not sure whether you can tell from the photo, but the porcini mushroom cappuccino had mushroom powder sprinkled on it to make it look like cinnamon.  Oh, and it was divine.  There was a division of opinion as to whether the chicken liver terrine or the cappuccino were the best dishes in the amuse bouche, but you couldn’t go wrong with either.

amuse bouche

Next, for the adults, was an Alaskan king crab with herb aioli and miniature greens.  We asked the restaurant not to serve the kids seafood, on the theory that they would have a better experience as a result (it proved to be a brilliant thought on Jim’s part to make that request).  So, the kids were served seared bison with jicama and hearts of palm salad.  There were homemade croutons seasoned and served tableside.  You could choose from French olive oil (a mild oil), Spanish olive oil (a stronger olive taste) or walnut oil.  For the salt, you had your choice of fleur de sel, a fennel-flavored sea salt, and a British flake sea salt.

alaskan king crabbison

One of our favorite dishes came next:  a “cold smoked” Niman ranch lamb with Fuji apple and curry dressing.  The lamb was unbelievably tender, and the Indian spices brought out the terrific flavor of the lamb.  It was a family hit.

lamb

Another bifurcated course—the adults were served Alaskan salmon with bamboo rice and soybeans, and the kids had sake-soy marinated Kurobuta pork with bok choy and soybeans.  I am not a huge fan of salmon (other than as sushi), but this dish was terrific.  The salmon is wild, not farm-raised (it makes a surprisingly big difference in taste), and it was cooked perfectly, just a bit underdone, and with just a bit of miso glaze.  While the pork in the kids’ version did not go as well with the seasonings as the salmon, the pork itself was marvelous—tender and juicy and full of flavor.

salmonpork

The salmon and pork were served with real grated wasabi served on a sharkskin board.

wasabi

The least impressive (but still delicious) dish was the poulet rouge with calamarata pasta, forest mushrooms and black truffles.  Okay, so by definition, the black truffles made it a very yummy dish, and the homemade calamarata pasta was made to look like calamari (hence, the name) and was delicious as well.  The chicken actually tasted like chicken (it’s amazing that we now have chicken that is sold in grocery stores that doesn’t taste like chicken at all, but I digress).  Under normal circumstances, I would be impressed with this dish, but given the parade of really amazing courses, this one did not stand out.

chicken

The next dish was Minnesota elk tenderloin with a braised red cabbage tart.  The elk was perfect—not too gamey, but full of flavor and tender.  The tart crust was made by the pastry chef (who grew up in Austria), so it was all that a crust should be.

elk

The last non-dessert course was Australian Kobe-style beef with a garlic-potato puree.  The beef was delicately marbled the way Kobe beef should be.  Evidently, the farmer who raises these delectable beef cattle interviews each chef who is interested in getting the beef, and only sells the beef if he determines the chef has the necessary qualifications or skills.

kobe beef

Before I describe the desserts, I can’t forget the bread.  There was a French baguette served with whipped butter from Vermont, a black truffle brioche served with black truffle-flecked butter, and an Austrian brown bread served with salted butter.  The overwhelming family favorite was the black truffle brioche.

Next up was the cheese course (you can see a photo of the cart).  For the ¾ of the family who opted out of the cheese course, we had either white chocolate gelato or spiced apple, red currant, and peach sorbet.

cheese cartwhite chocolate gelatosorbet

A slight tangent about the coffee maker.  It was invented by two medical folks, and it is a great science experiment for the family.  Not to mention that it brews delicious coffee!

coffee maker

The first official dessert was green apple baba with sour cream ice cream.  We were a little skeptical about the ice cream, but it was quite delicious, and the slight acidity matched up well with the sweetness of the apple baba.

green apple baba

The final course was a Peruvian chocolate cylinder with elderflower sauce accompanied by a chocolate and navan bubble.  The chocolate bubble was an El Bulli-style dish, which popped in your mouth, filling it with chocolate flavor.  The dish was also served with a similar style of caramel “poppers.”  Yum!  The chocolate cylinder and chocolate ribbon weren’t exactly shabby either.

chocolate cylinderchocolate bubble

Overall, the restaurant was an amazing experience.  Mike and Beth were our servers, and they were skilled and friendly and were great, not only with us, but our kids.  Definitely a grade A dining experience!