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Dining Fine at Disney’s Food and Wine Festival

November 10, 2011

What an Entrance - Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

What do you get when you cross a mouse, world travel, and deliciousness?  If you said a scene from Ratatouille, you’d be right, but today I’m talking about the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival.   This annual event takes place for three months every autumn at The Walt Disney World Resort’s EPCOT Theme Park. It’s a major draw for all ages; featuring appetizer sized portions of some of the world’s most delectable offerings.  As if that weren’t enough to convince you to book your tickets now, there are also hundreds of beer and wine varieties, which means, there’s something for even those with the most discerning of palates.  I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy this event many times; however, my experience this year was perhaps my favorite thus far.

I came to Florida to participate in the Walt Disney World College Program, a competitive internship where college students are given the opportunity to work for a number of months at the Most Magical Place on Earth.  I had the good fortune, during my program, to live with some truly great people. We decided that we’d all get back together for Food and Wine.  So, last weekend we drove to EPCOT and immersed ourselves in the beauty and culture of the festival. 

EPCOT is divided into two unique sections, Future World and World Showcase.  Future World is an attempt to honor what Walt Disney’s EPCOT was originally intended to be – hence the name Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.  World Showcase is a sprawling horseshoe of culture.  Eleven country pavilions encircle World Showcase Lagoon and walking through them gives you the sense that you really are globe trotting.  World Showcase is the site of Food and Wine, but along with the regular eleven country line up (Mexico, Norway,China, Germany, Italy, USA, Japan, Morocco, France, The United Kingdom, and Canada) there are twenty eight participating cuisine choices.  When we arrived, we were certainly overwhelmed.  Not really having any game plan, we figured we might as well try a little bit of everything. 

Following World Showcase’s curve to the right, we passed a pavilion new to this year’s festival, Craft Beers.  It lived up to its name, offering eight inventive selections from which to choose.  You have the option, when it comes to drinks, to purchase a 6oz, 12oz, or 22oz serving.  I strongly recommend going with the 6oz option if you planning on doing a fair deal of sampling, trust me here I speak from experience.  We continued around and ran into a Food and Wine staple, Greece.  Please do yourself a favor and try the Spanakopita ($2.25.) You’ll love it.   Spanakopita, or spinach pie, is a classic Greek dish consisting of a pastry shell filled with spinach, feta cheese, onions, egg, and seasonings.  While it’s still not as good as my grandmother’s (who is not Greek), it remains a close second. 

Our next stop was Ireland (if you know me at all you know there I’ll never pass up a chance to carouse with my fell Irishmen).  Four Thousand pounds of lobster were used at the festival this year. I think I ate most of them personally.  Ireland, which is finally beginning to embrace seafood as a legitimate dining option, featured an exquisitely presented and absolutely delicious Lobster and Scallop Fisherman’s Pie ($3.25).  During my afternoon excursion, this was also the only place I opted for a 22oz beer ($11.75, I know, right!) It’s just that it’s a requirement when there’s Guinness  behind the bar.

We continued around the world passing the International Gateway, which is the back entrance to EPOCT that leads to the Disney Boardwalk Hotel and Entertainment district. Walking into France, there was only one thing on all of our minds, pastries. We were distracted, however, when we saw a small group of people ahead all dressed in kilts and shirts that bore the phrase “3rd Annual Eat, Drink, and Repeat Tour.” Intrigued I ventured over to inquire about how the third year was going. Turned out, they were a family from Scotland who use the Food and Wine Festival as a family reunion each year. Naturally, I figured that since we had already concluded the Irish merrymaking we should simply continue it with the Scots.

Our group, considerably larger now, made our way though France in search of something light, fluffy, and containing far too many calories. However, seeing the word’s “Crème Brûlée” made me quickly change course. For those of you unfortunate enough to have never tried it, Crème Brûlée is simply the best dessert ever, period. Meaning “Burnt Cream” in french, it is indescribably good. The base is a rich custard, which is contrasted by a level of caramel. EPOCT’s Crème Brûlée was flavored with chocolate and topped with carmalized sugar. Honestly, I would have paid $1000 for it, but it was only $3.25, so I ate two.

We continued around and were headed toward the American Pavillion when Singapore caught my eye. Well, it was actually the menu outside Singapore that grabbed my attention, but nevertheless, I simply had to stop. Written under the drink section were the words “Tiger Beer………$5.50.” I was puzzled, a little scared, and extremely curious. Eventually curiosity (or rather peer pressure from the Scots) won out and I bought one. Somewhat reluctantly, and with a vague fear I’d somehow transform into Charlie Sheen, I drank it. Frankly, it wasn’t bad. It was actually quite good, but for the life of me I don’t know why. There were no discernible flavors and I haven’t been able to come up with anything to which it is. Which means it gets the same treatment that art does from me. I liked it, but don’t try and tell me why its good just let me enjoy it.

Returning to normalcy, we entered the American Pavillion. There was a Sugar Ray concert going on when we arrived (yes that Sugar Ray, from the 90’s. Yes, I thought it was too awesome to be true too.) It was part of the Eat to the Beat Concert Series that accompanies Food and Wine. Some of this years headliners were Boyz II Men, Hanson, and Air Supply. Deciding to switch back to something more my taste we got a sampling of Sam Adam’s Cherry Wheat ($3.50) and a Turkey Leg ($9.19) and watched the concert, feeling distinctly American, despite being surrounded by men in kilts.

Next up was Poland and the Golabki – Pork Stuffed Cabbage – which was neither as gross or euphemistic as it sounds. I mean really, if it’s only $2.75, I’ll try anything once. Making the final turn around the horse shoe, we spotted a pavilion that was new for 2011, Scandinavia. I didn’t drink anything from here, mostly because everything they had started with an “X” and if that’s not ominous foreshadowing, I don’t know what is. However, I was daring enough to try the Taste of Scandinavia (Cured Salmon, Herring, and Shrimp Salad, $4.00). Try the Herring at Your Own Risk – Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You!

I figured I like shrimp; I like salmon, so I’ll probably like herring.  Long story short, I don’t like herring, but don’t let that stop you from trying it.    Rounding out the day was Mexico.  It is important to stipulate that Mexico is always the last place to go to in EPCOT.  Why?  Well it’s quite simple really, Mexico has tequila.  We all enjoyed a couple of Margaritas (at $10 a glass they weren’t too overpriced) and decided to call it a day.  Actually, that’s a lie. We didn’t call it a day; we went back around in the opposite direction and then we went around again.  When I think of how much money I spent that day, well, let’s just say I don’t like to think about, so please don’t bring it up. 

Our evening was capped off with Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, EPCOT’s nightly fireworks show over the World Showcase Lagoon.  During the show, in the middle of the lake, sits a giant spinning globe covered with LED video screens.  Videos of different natural events, animals, and environments are played on the globe throughout the show and it is truly beautiful to watch.  Perhaps, it was the tequila, but I found myself thinking of how extraordinary the world we live in really is, then the globe exploded and fireworks shot out of it. (Don’t worry it’s supposed to do this.)  After that all I could think of was how awesome fireworks are, but I had that one moment, so give me some credit. 

See, I Told You It Was Supposed to Do That

Food and Wine will continue this year until November 13th, so if you have the chance definitely give it a look.  If not the 17th annual festival will come around next fall and I can guarantee that I’ll be there, as I’m sure will my new be-kilted Scottish friends.  It probably won’t be that hard to spot us, so make sure you stop by and say hello.

Night Life In Downtown Orlando–Hot Spots

October 26, 2011

Downtown Orlando

More Than a Mouse™
There’s nothing like a family vacation, but sometimes the adults in the group want to head out on their own.  If this is what you’re after, then you’re in luck because there’s no place like Downtown Orlando for a great night on the town. 

So, it was a long day at the theme parks, but great news, the younger kids are worn out and ready to call it a night.  Now the older kids can leave the parents at home (or vice versa, whichever works) and look for something more geared to their own age.  You’ll quickly find that there isn’t a more eclectic mix of nightlife options than in Downtown Orlando. 

Parking is Easy
It’s certainly not as hard to navigate downtown as people say it is.  Get on I-4, get off I-4 and it’s just that easy.  Parking is also a breeze.  For tonight’s adventure, you’ll want to drop the car off at the Church Street Lot at 150 South Hughey Ave or the Garland Lot at 109 W. Pine Street. You’ll also want to make your night out a Friday, since you’ll have the most fun without paying weekend prices. Then head straight down the world renown Church Street.

Start with Dessert
Since you’ve probably already had dinner, a nice snack is a great way to start your evening.  There is no better person to see in downtown than Patti Schmidt, owner of the world famous sweet shop The Dessert Lady at 120 W. Church Street.

Indulge Your Sweet Tooth

They make the best Lemon Rum Cake I’ve ever tasted, but my all time favorite is their authentic and delicious New York Cheesecake.  They also have some great cocktails, an extensive wine list and awesome coffee drinks.  There truly is no better place than The Dessert Lady to get your night off on the right foot. They are open on Friday until 12 am, but since you’re making a night of it, I’d recommend spending your 9 pm to 10 pm hour here before heading further down Church Street. 

Looking Good at Club 23 Orlando
I guess it’s an appropriate time to mention, that when I go out, I like to look good.  Yes it’s a personal decision. I mean I could just wear my gym shorts and a t-shirt and still look fine. (Well, better than fine!) But I choose not to.  My point is, there are these things called dress codes.  Society has them so there aren’t a bunch of naked people running in the streets. Clubs have them so you won’t have to encounter the same smell coming from the next stool over as comes from the next seat over on the bus.  Places with dress codes are not prissy, they’re posh and they are worth your time.  One such place is less than two blocks ahead of you, just look for number 23 as you walk down Church Street.  Named for its street address, 23 W. Church Street, Club 23 Orlando is what some might call pretentioius but what I like to call trendy. 

Inside Club 23

I like to think of this club as the perfect midway point of a great Friday night.  Sure, there’s a $10 cover, which you can avoid if you get there early enough, but you know what you’re getting into for that money.  It’s a more upscale clientele that serve to make the environment inviting and more high-end than a lot of the other downtown venues.  23 oozes with old world charm, from the narrow staircase you have to climb to get in, to the long curvy bar, to the large plush couches and warm wood décor, this place is definitely more lounge than club. Thus it makes sense as a midway point.  Sit down, grab a couple martinis or any of their excellent beer imports and let your dessert digest.  The DJ’s in here do spin some great tracks, so by all means, feel free to dance, but it is a smaller place so there’s not a lot of room.  Which is why, at midnight, it is time to head back downstairs and on to the third and final stop of the night.

Rockin’ at the Rok
Exclusivity is one of those traits that always seems to make everything more attractive.  If something is rare or not overly know, than it becomes more valuable or more desirable.  The same can be said of places.  For example, if you’ve never been to Paris, but you’ve seen it on the Travel Channel then it makes you want to go.  It’s even worse if you know someone who’s been there because all they talk about is what a great time they had.  Now, I’d never suggest flying to Paris to cap off your night in Orlando, although it’s not the worst idea, but I can guarantee you’ll have bragging rights with most of your friends when you tell them you stopped at the Rok Room during your Orlando vacation.  Located at 41 W. Church Street, this is a true hidden gem and one of those places you’d never find unless you knew to look for it.

Inside Rok Room

Tucked neatly down a short alley, Rok Room is not your typical Church Street Bar.  That is to say, you get a different blend of music than you do at most places.  Rok Room lives up to its name. Huge pictures of rock and roll legends adorn the walls and the décor is chic but edgy.  There’s no cover, so that’s a plus, and the drinks aren’t over priced.  It’s a great place to end the evening because you can dance to some truly unique mashups of 80’s rock over modern hip hop or sit on the comfy white couches and have a conversation without losing your voice.  This place fills up fast after midnight, so time your arrival, but don’t worry too much, because they usually keep the music playing until after 2 am every night.  Overall, Rok Room is an experience, the light, the sound, it’s unique and a real must see. 

B Safe B4 U Go!
One more important tip as you head home, make sure to use your designated driver. DUI’s are not only expensive, they’ll probably ruin those happy memories you made at Magic Kingdom ealier that day.  Remember, even though you’re on vacation, jail cells are not good alternative accommodations, even if you are trying to save a little money. 

So, on your next trip, don’t feel bad about “taking a little me time.”  By which I mean “take me with you” as you head to downtown Orlando for some good old fashioned nighttime fun.

Love Is In The Air

September 29, 2011

I Don't Think This Post is About a Car

[Editor’s Note: Today we are delighted to introduce the newest member of the LanceAroundOrlando blogging team–TheRyanKing. He hails from the northeast and currently works alongside LanceAround and SunnyStefani at the Florida Dream Homes check-in center. We are delighted to be adding his razor sharp wit and profound insights to our blogging team–LanceAround]

What’s one of the most annoying things about Florida? Yes, having to pay that much money for admission to a theme park is one answer.  However, for those of us that live here, we’ll usually say, “It’s the bugs!”

It’s true. With its unique subtropical climate, Florida is one of the “buggiest” states in the country. But, twice a year, for two weeks at a time, Florida is overrun by an insect so terrible, so vile, that it’s very name strikes fear in the hearts of even the bravest Floridian. It’s…The lovebug!

I’m not kidding.

If you’ve been on vacation here, either in late April/early May or late August/early September, you’ve definitely seen them. There can be thousands of them at one time or just that one pair you can’t seem to get unattached from your shirt sleeve. If you look closely, that one annoying bug is actually two, joined together.

Lovebugs in Action

The Plecia nearctica, as they are scientifically known, are a member of the March fly family. They are also known as the honeymoon fly, telephone bug, double-headed bug, united bug and kissing bug and are found in the Southeastern United States; specifically in the gulf coast region. American entomologist Dilbert Elmo (D.E.) Hardy first reported on them in 1940. One male and one female will usually remain attached to each other, even after they finish mating, until death, which certainly adds a somewhat Shakespearean dimension to this otherwise mundane topic.

At only 1/4 inch, they would never appear to be much of a nuisance, but believe me when I say, “They are!” Why do we hate them so much? Well, it certainly isn’t because of their ferociousness. (They can’t hurt you since they don’t bite or sting.) Rather, it has to do with how they travel. See, love bugs travel in giant swarms, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands, which can cause a little problem. Think about driving down the highway. That’s right! Picture this, you’re leisurely cruising along, when all of the sudden it starts snowing black…in the middle of Central Florida…at the end of August. That’s really the best way to describe driving through a lovebug invasion. Except, unlike snow, your windshield wipers are useless as the squished bug juice just spreads around and makes it more difficult to see.

Your View on a Busy Lovebug Day

Inside the body of lovebugs is a slightly acidic juice. This isn’t a problem for a person. That is, until the juice runs into your windshield and bumper as you cruise down Interstate 4. This acid splatters across your glass and paint and, in about 30 seconds, dries in place. It becomes impossible to remove. Thankfully, all you need is a quick soaking of water and a sponge. But hurry, lovebug acid will strip the paint off your car if it’s left there very long.

A popular urban myth states that the lovebug was the result of a genetic experiment at the University of Florida gone horribly wrong. Supposedly, they crossed a fly and a mosquito in an attempt to create an enemy for mosquito larva. According to lore, they accidentally created a male lovebug, a pair somehow escaped into the wild and the population soon exploded. When you live in Florida you quickly assume that any myth about the University of Florida Gators was concocted by their arch enemies in Tallahassee, the Florida State Seminoles, and you take it with a grain of salt. (Next you’ll believe claims that Gatorade was created at the University of Florida and is never drunk by Florida State University football players — oh, wait, that one is actually true!)

Luckily this flying circus of lovebugs only lasts four weeks each year–two in the autumn and two in the spring. That means if you want to see them, you’ll have to plan your trip accordingly. Because, like the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall of China, lovebug season is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives.

And when you’re standing at the gas station, scrubbing the windshield of your rental car, remember to take a minute and reflect on the beautifully romantic life of the common Plecia nearctica (the “lovebug”) which you just ended at 70 miles per hour.