You’ve Got a Friend in Toy Story Land

Now you can hang with Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang from Andy’s toy chest at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Opening at the end of June, this is the newest expansion at Hollywood Studios located behind the former Pixar Place. This colorful land is sure to make you smile and wax nostalgic. Not only do you get to enjoy the company of Andy’s toys, but you’ll also find many toys, craft supplies, board games, and more from your childhood in and around the area. It was unfortunately raining when my friend and I went, but we still had a great time! The rain certainly didn’t put a damper on our fun. So many wonderful details in the atmospheric design of Toy Story Land. Incidentally, you also get some great views of the progress on Galaxy’s Edge!

When entering Toy Story Land, you are greeted by Woody! You’ll definitely want to stop by for a photo. When you pass through the gateway to this land of toys, you’ll be shrunk down to toy size in order to fully enjoy all that Andy’s toy box has to offer. The element that stands out to me more than anything is the colorful nature of everything. Even on the overcast, dreary day that we were having, the colors brightened up the land. Between the giant footprints and towering privacy fence, it truly feels like you are one of Andy’s toys.

Unlike when the land first opened at the end of June, the wait times in the queues for Alien Swirling Saucers and Slinky Dog Dash are considerably less. Fortunately, the rainy weather contributed to the even lower than typical wait times while I was there. The main attraction (or E Ticket attraction for Disney enthusiasts) is the family roller coaster Slinky Dog Dash. Just to put the experience into perspective, the coaster falls somewhere between Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom and Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa. My favorite part of the Slinky Dog coaster is the launch! Not nearly as intense as Cheetah Hunt, but quite enjoyable! In terms of duration, it lasts longer than typical family coasters. I was also impressed by the guest cycle time. The cast members were on their A game with loading and unloading park guests. Although we waited in queue for about one hour, the line was consistently moving. You’ll notice there are ceiling fans throughout the queue and plenty to look at. My friend Brittany and I both immensely enjoyed Slinky Dog and felt it was worth the hour we waited.

Woodys Lunch Box is a window (quick service) restaurant in Toy Story Land, and although the menu has changed since opening day, there is still a sufficient variety for a quick meal. Check out the menu here!

Slink Dog Dash isn’t the only new attraction in Toy Story Land. You can experience some swirling fun with the aliens from Pizza Planet at Alien Swirling Saucers. In this glorified “tea cup” attraction, you and your friend board a flying saucer to whirl through the universe. Unlike Alice’s Magic Tea Cups, you have no control over how fast you spin as your flying saucer is connected to the mother ship. Still, it’s a cute, fun ride that was a need for Hollywood Studios.

Make Toy Story Land a must-do on your next Disney trip! Now that the summer is winding down, you’ll probably benefit from shorter wait times in this brand new area. With the rain, I was unable to experience any of the character meet and greets, but I did see green army men walking about. Hopefully next time, I’ll get a chance to say hi to Woody and the gang.

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#CorksAndCoasters: Full Review of Busch Gardens Tampa Food and Wine Festival

Delightful, delectable, delicious! It’s back, folks! And bigger, better than ever! Though only in its third year, Busch Gardens Tampa’s annual Food and Wine Festival demonstrates measurable growth in excellence in food, wine, brews, and entertainment. The number of kiosks and food and drink selection has increased, and the variety is outstanding. With a wide variety of sweet and savory foods as well as wine and beers from dry to sweet, you are sure to find multiple somethings to satisfy even the most discerning of pallets.

I highly recommend purchasing the punchable lanyard because it will speed up your time at the register and increase the enjoyment level of your experience. There is a sampler lanyard for every budget. Annual Passholders get the 15-item lanyard for the same price as the 12, and that’s what yours truly did. Every item I had last night was delicious! Used 8 of my punches so I can go back another weekend and sample some more. That’s right! If you do not use all your sample punches in one visit, you can bring your lanyard back another time. Pace yourself. There is so much to eat and drink that you’ll not want to overdo it in order to truly allow the unique flavor of every dish and delicacy to dance upon your taste buds.

Strolling along the main festival road in Gwazi Field, you’ll catch enticing aromas from the numerous kiosks aligning the meandering pathway past topiaries and vendors. If you have a question about anything at Food and Wine, incredibly helpful team members are always close by, and are eagerly awaiting to help direct you or offer suggestions to create a memorable experience that will earn your returned business. The printed festival guide makes locating what you want to eat and drink easy! In addition to food and drink listings, there is other helpful entertainment and park information as well. This is my third year at the festival, and I still pick up the guide because I want to make sure that I don’t miss a single opportunity for enjoyment. Since the concert last night was for a group that I am unfamiliar with and was mostly in Spanish (great for Spanish-speaking guests!), I did not take the time to chillax with the live music; however, I headed over to my favorite show at Busch Gardens and favorite theme park show period: Turn It Up: the Hottest Show on Ice.

So, what Food and Wine items did I select last night? I’m happy to share those with you! The first item on my list, which was recommended to me by a helpful team member, was the wine filled chocolate truffles! You heard me right. Two of life’s greatest enjoyments all rolled up into one amazing treat. If you love chocolate and wine like I do, you will not want to pass this item up. Following the chocolate truffles with wine, I went for the beef brisket on a spiced corn waffle with Amerbock BBQ sauce and paired that with Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec. Couldn’t ask for a better pairing of food and wine. I suppose I could’ve had the chocolate truffled filled with wine for dessert, but I just had to get those as soon as I found out about them.

Returning again this year is the wildly popular bison bacon sliders on a toasted brioche bun! Typically served with sriracha ketchup and a pickle, I don’t care for sriracha nor pickles, so the chefs in the food cabin were happy to modify my slider. I paired the slider with an Alexander Valley Merlot. After I finished my delicious bison slider, I headed over to the Moroccan Palace for Turn It Up! After the show, I made my way back over to the festival grounds to tickle my taste buds some more. For my final meal at the festival (for this visit anyway), I selected the Grilled Cheesecake Sandwich with raspberry drizzle and Short Rib and Brie grilled cheese on house-made brioche. Paired this savory and sweet offering with the William Hill Estate pinot noir. Scrumptious! Every item I selected during my first visit to the festival was a sheer pleasure!

I am looking forward to my next visit–I have 7 more punches on my sampler lanyard, after all. But will likely make a few more visits during the nearly two-month run of #CorksAndCoasters. If you are looking for some tips to enhance your experience, the festival is generally less crowded on Sunday than Saturday; however, the concerts can affect this. With the park hours extended until 9pm during the festival, you will have plenty of time for Busch Gardens’ famous coasters.

SeaWorld Christmas Celebration 2017

Where the Christmas season meets the sea! You don’t want to miss a single moment of this spectacular holiday seasonal event. From meeting Rudolph and friends to watching fantastic shows, there is something for everyone at Christmas Celebration. SeaWorld is your place in Orlando to experience the sights, sounds, and memories of Christmases from years gone by. Be sure to plan to arrive at the park by 3 o’clock in the afternoon because you will want to get to all the events–and the shows FILL UP early. With so much to do, you will benefit from downloading the SeaWorld app because you can easily keep up with the various showtimes. While the shows are the biggest draw at Christmas Celebration, don’t forget to checkout the coasters. Coasters in the dark! Since SeaWorld typically closes before or just at nightfall during most of the year, this is a perfect opportunity to ride your favorite coasters in the dark with little to no wait.

Before setting out into the park, I chose to dine at Shark’s Underwater Grill. Shark’s is a restaurant that I typically dine at when at SeaWorld because the food is delicious and the service is great. And since I am usually a party of one, I often get a table quickly. In fact, when I walked up to the host stand, they told me that they could accommodate me within 5-10mins. Well, nearly 30mins went by before they asked me if I had been called yet. Obviously, I had not been called. Turns out, they forgot about me. I could have checked with them earlier, but given I was a walkup, I thought that they were simply running behind. Once they discovered the unintentional mistake, they worked diligently to get me sat. As soon as I was sitting and placed my drink order, the manager on duty came over to me to apologize for being overlooked. My server told him that I was in a hurry because the seating delay was going to cause me to be late to the Clyde and Seamore Countdown to Christmas show. In an effort to recover me as a valued guest, the manager expedited my meal and arranged for VIP seats at the show! My server was quite attentive to my every need and successfully turned a negative start to an exemplary finish. That is the kind of service you get at Shark’s, it is a wonderful dining experience every time.

It’s a good thing I had a VIP seat because the Clyde and Seamore Countdown to Christmas show was packed, and I arrived 2mins to showtime. The hosts at the show were already expecting me and showed me to my seat in an expeditious manner. Largely unchanged, this show is pretty much the same as it was last year, but it is still such a fun show and will have you laughing the whole time. One of my favorite parts of the show is actually the pre-show when the audience all joins together to sing familiar Christmas songs and carols. Although it is a show geared towards the younger members of the audience, there are jokes and references for us adults to chuckle as well.

By far, THE most popular show at Christmas Celebration is O Wonderous Night. This returning show tells the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of the animals that were in the stable. As this show is also largely unchanged, here is my review from last year: Not your typical nativity story, O Wonderous Night centers around the animals located in the stable where Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus more than two thousand years ago. We get to hear the nativity story from the perspective of the animals who each played a special part in that wonderous night. If you plan to watch that show, you need to know that it is important to queue up at least an hour before showtime. It consistently fills up prior to curtain.

Winter Wonderland on Ice returns this year! Instead of opening with the Straight No Chaser-like pre-show, a violinist plays beautiful music as you wait for the show to begin. Much like the Christmas ice show at Busch Gardens, this show features many talented figure skaters in beautifully choreographed skating numbers to your favorite Christmas songs. To be honest, I still prefer the Busch Gardens show, but those skaters are at the park year-round so they can put more time into the show design. That being said, with SeaWorld placing the show on the water’s edge, the exquisite Sea of Trees can be seen behind the ice stage. Since the show is outdoors, SeaWorld is able to integrate some lite pyrotechnics in the show!

The Christmas Village at Port of Entry is always a treat! With special acapella groups, the Christmas village train set, and of course, you can meet Rudolph and Friends! This is the area where you can also enjoy hot chocolate, eggnog, craft beer, and cookies! Located near the Christmas Village is Santa’s Base Camp where you can meet the big man himself. With many places to sit down and relax, this is a great place to slow down and take in the smells and songs that make this “the most wonderful time of the year.”

While there are many amazing shows at SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration, the most spectacularly amazing show that you do not want to miss–even if to miss the crowd in the parking lot–is Shamu’s Christmas Miracles! Watching the daytime One Ocean show is incredible to behold, but nothing compares to the Christmas overlay the show receives each year. that captures your imagination! Much like with the other shows, the pre-show features special instrumentalists and sing-alongs. This year, there is a phenomenal saxophone player who is simply delightful and packs a powerful punch. In addition to the instrumentalist, there is a time for a Christmas carol sing-along. I just love singing familiar Christmas songs along with more than a thousand other park guests. SeaWorld pulls out all the stops at this nighttime spectacular as the iconic orcas put on a phenomenal show to close out the night.

Don’t miss SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration going on now through December 31st. And yes, it is included with your daytime park admission!

‘Welcome Christmas’ with a Holiday Who-bilation at Universal Orlando

image1“Welcome Christmas!’ From haunted houses to a holiday Who-bilation, Universal Orlando Resort transforms from a macabre landscape of familiar and endearing horror IPs to a bright, cheerful Christmas spectacular! Grinchmas and the Macy’s Holiday Parade offer a fabulous opportunity to experience the joy of the Holiday Season with friends and family. With both Universal Studios Florida (US) and Universal’s Islands of Adventure (IoA) theme parks providing ample opportunities to enjoy this festive season, you will find it hard to get it all in one day. With many of the events not beginning until after 3:00pm, the parks offer moderately extended hours until 9/10pm most nights with some later evenings between Christmas and New Years. IoA is home to the live show How the Grinch Stole Christmas and US houses the Macy’s Holiday Parade. Although those two events are the headliners, there are other smaller opportunities that are also very much enjoyable. From toy soldiers and elves handing out candy to many photo opportunities with large, familiar Macy’s balloons, there is sure to be something for everyone to enjoy.

While many people are all about parades and character meet and greets, my favorite parts of any Christmas limited engagement event at a theme park are the shows, lights, decorations, and music. I love seeing how the theme parks that I visit regularly transform into memorable fantastic holiday celebrations. For those who attend both the Halloween and Christmas events in the parks, it’s incredibly fun to experience the sensation of being in the same building or standing in the queue area that once housed a film/tv-based haunted house, but now is overflowing with colorful Christmas cheer. Both US and IoA are a bountiful buffet of holiday experiences that ARE INCLUDED with general admission or your annual pass. If you are traveling to the area or simply do not have an annual pass, I strongly suggest a 1-day park hopper ticket or a 2-day one park ticket. With happy holiday offerings going on in both parks concurrently, you’ll definitely want to enjoy both for a dynamic experience. Planned well, you can definitely watch both the Grinchmas show and the Macy’s Parade. The holiday season is the busiest time of year in the parks, so you’ll want to note that if you have a brief visit to Universal Orlando, there is a high degree of probability that you may not get to experience all the holiday offerings and the regular operating attractions. Just like the Christmas season creates hustle and bustle in the stores, there is quite the holiday hustle and bustle in the parks as well. All in all, this is the most magical time of year to visit theme parks! Unless you prefer Halloween, then September/October is your most wonderful time of the year!

Seuss Landing at Islands of Adventure is home to the official Grinchmas celebration! One of Dr. Seuss’ most beloved stories–if not THE most beloved–is the story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas published by Random House in 1957. Written as social commentary on the commercialization of Christmas, Dr. Seuss’ words in this story have impacted generation after generation through the original narrative, the animated classic, and Universal’s live action film starring Jim Carrey as The Grinch. You don’t have to be a Whovillian to feel a special tug at your heartstrings during the live performance of this most beautiful story at Seuss Landing. Many literary professors feel strongly that The Grinch was Dr. Seuss’ favorite character (followed closely by, if not on par with the Cat in the Hat). Being fond of the Christmas of year’s past, Dr. Seuss was growing irritated at the focus shifting from giving to selling. How the Grinch Stole Christmas was his way of cathartically getting these feelings off his chest. He essentially slid the mortal in sideways. Much like with most of Dr. Seuss works, this story is a creative social commentary on the state of Christmas in a post-modern society.

The best part of the Grinchmas show is how it brilliantly combines the efficiency of the storytelling found in the animated classic with the humor of the live action film. It’s neither adapting the animated movie for stage nor is it adapting and abridging the live action film for a theme park setting. The writers of the show, along with the music Chip Davis & Mannheim Steamroller, combine their efforts to create a whole new experience for park guests. There are scenes, jokes, and narration that you won’t find in the book, animated classic, nor live action film. So, just because you have read the book or seen either screen adaption, does not mean that the live show will feel redundant. I see the show every year and absolutely enjoy myself. This year, my friends and I had VIP seating so the show was all the more exciting. With a fantastic narrator, outstanding chorus, and excellent lead characters, this show will keep you entertained and touch that special Christmas place in your heart. “Where are you Christmas?” Right here! As this IS the story of The Grinch, the show includes familiar songs from the animated movie and live action film. The show is greatly helped by the characters not attempting to recreate their respective screen counterparts but borrowing from the book and both movies to create all new characters who embody the best of what the former had to offer. Even the Grinch is a combination of both Boris Karloff’s and Jim Carrey’s Grinches. Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy the show while the season begins to come to a close.

Across the lagoon from IoA is Universal Studios’ Christmas celebration with Macy’s Holiday Parade as the headliner! From Hollywood Blvd to The Garden of Allah to New York City, US has truly decked the halls across the park. Guests can experience the parade during the day or in the evening. With multiple runtimes, there is definitely a chance for everyone to get to enjoy the festivities. Prior to the running of the parade, elves, sugarplums, and other colorful holiday characters interact with guests. You may even get some candies and mints from Santa’s little helpers along the way. The parade floats are larger than life and effectively provide a comparable experience to that of the official Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. If you want a good spot from which to view the parade, be sure to line up at least an hour in advance if not a little more so.

There is so much to see and do as Universal Orlando celebrates the holiday season culminating with a top-notch New Year’s Eve celebration this year. As the festivities are included with general park admission, this is an event that anyone visiting the park can enjoy with their friends, family, and loved ones.