Thursday, June 23, 2016

Attraction Review: Soarin' Takes Flight Around The World!

On June 16, Soarin' Around The World made it's world debut as part of the grand opening of the new Shanghai Disney Resort in China.  The very next day, the new film premiered at the U.S. Disney theme parks.  At Walt Disney World's Epcot, Soarin' opened a third theater inside The Land Pavilion, in an effort to reduce long waits for this very popular attraction.  Initial reports indicated a massive crowd queued up for the ride at park opening, but by mid-day, the stand-by waits were as little as thirty minutes.

Over at Disney California Adventure, Soarin' Over California also changed to the new international film.  There was no fanfare or build-up for the new attraction at the park where the Soarin' attraction was born.  The ride closed for one day to change the film and add new scents (the attraction went through a lengthy refurbishment in 2015 to prepare for the new film).

I arrived at Disney California Adventure that morning not knowing what to expect.  All I knew for sure was that I was going to ride Soarin' twice, so that I could give an accurate review.  Mission accomplished!  The park opened at 8AM.  But this was an "Extra Magic Hours" day, so hotel guests got into the park an hour before everyone else.  I'm assuming Soarin' was open during that time.  When I got to the attraction at 8:15, the stand-by wait was 45-minutes.  I grabbed a FastPass, and did something else to pass the time.

The queue area for the DCA ride has not changed.  Only the lower panel of the wood sign in front of the attraction was changed to reflect the new name of the film. Once inside, everything is still the same, with the photos of California's aviators on the walls in the first section of the building.  The music may be slightly different in the queue area.  One thing noticeably different is the fact that you can now hear thunderous rumbling coming from the theaters.

Once in the boarding area, the pre-ride video that once showed the names of locations in California flying by has been replaced with a "Raiders of The Lost Ark" type of graphic, where a line travels to a location on a map, and the name appears.  Up next is the pre-flight safety video with your "Chief Flight Attendant, Patrick."  Fans will be happy to know that actor Patrick Warburton is still featured.  In fact, it's the exact same video.  In a somewhat strange lack of a move, Disney chose not to update the video.  Instead, they edited the clip, removing only the sound when he says "Soarin' Over California".  In what looks like a bad Godzilla movie, his lips keep moving during "Over California", but you don't hear it.

SEMI SPOILER ALERT (some new scenes will be revealed below)

After you enter the theater and board the attraction, you take off, and the film begins.  While Disney did a nice job of teasing the new film, they did a masterful job of not revealing too much.  The film starts with a view of the Matterhorn in Switzerland, before transitioning to the Arctic Circle where polar bears frolic around and a massive section of glacier falls into the water.

From north, we travel way south, to Sydney Harbour in Australia, where we see two famous Sydney landmarks.  The journey takes us to several other amazing landmarks, monuments and world wonders, before finishing back at Disneyland.  Only at Disney California Adventure will the film begin and end with a Matterhorn.  That's because the Epcot version now finishes at Epcot, and the Shanghai version ends in that park.

The scents that went away from the DCA version of the ride earlier this year are back.  Even one or two new scents will be experienced during the ride.  Thankfully the score for this film is pretty-much the same, with an updated version of the original "Soarin' Over California" score by composer Jerry Goldsmith.  Fans will appreciate the addition of new instrumentation throughout.

I know many people (especially fans of Soarin' Over California) were skeptical of a new Soarin' film replacing the California version in a California park.  Many people thought this would be better suited just for Epcot.  I've probably ridden the original Soarin' more than one hundred times.  Most of those were at DCA. I have been a huge fan of this attraction, the music and the California theme ever since it opened in 2001.

But as well as Soarin' Over California was made, and as great as the original version of this ride was, I knew there was an opportunity to take this new format around the world, and highlight more sights. With Soarin' Around The World, Disney has done just that.  They've also added a whole bunch of new Disney "Magic" to this film.  Sure, there's no longer a golf ball flying at the screen (supposedly hit by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner).  But the new effects in this film will impress, and even surprise many riders.   I believe they could have selected a couple of different locations.  But everything seems to fit.  Maybe a future version will give us New York or another major city.  Maybe we'll someday see a rain forest, or other natural wonders.  I was hoping to see the Grand Canyon. But that's just me.

What I do know is this new version of Soarin' has created an exciting new ride for these parks, and the millions of fans who visit them.  I am so happy I got to ride this classic attraction twice on opening day, and look forward to returning tomorrow, and beyond.  In 2001, Soarin' Over California gave us a brand-new attraction experience, that instantly became a Disney classic. This year, technology and Disney Imagineering has raised the bar on that experience, giving us Soarin' Around The World, and taking a great attraction to new heights.


Did you know? 
Jerry Vargas is an Authorized Disney Travel Specialist with Magical Vacation Planner. He can plan all of the details for your next Disney dream vacation.  His services are free, and Magical Vacation Planner is recognized as one of the top Disney "Earmarked" Travel Agencies in the United States.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The BEST of: Disneyland - Food

Welcome to a new Disney Park Fan Blog series: "The BEST of ".  During this open-ended series of posts, I will examine many of the things that make Disney theme park experiences unique, and break them down into short lists of "bests".  I'm starting the series off with the best food experiences at The Disneyland Resort.  For this post, I'm breaking the Disneyland food experience up into a dozen different categories.  You can decide in the comments if you agree with these selections, and/or add suggestions of your own.  Enjoy!

BEST Theme Park Treat: Dole Whip
For many people this is a no-brainer.  Dole Whips and Disney seem to go hand-in-hand.  There is only one place at the Disneyland Resort where you can get this quintessential treat, and that's the Tiki Juice Bar at the entrance to Adventureland.  Specifically, right next to the entrance to the Enchanted Tiki Room.  Just look for the often very long line, and you've found it.

The Dole Whip is a refreshing pineapple soft-serve treat, served in a plastic cup, or as a float, in a cup of pineapple juice.  This is one of the most popular treats at Disneyland.  The Tiki Juice Bar also serves pineapple juice on its own, and fresh pineapple spears.  TIP! There are often two lines for the Tiki Juice Bar.  Look inside the queue area for the Enchanted Tiki Room, and if the other side of the Tiki Juice                                                        Bar is open, you may have a shorter wait.

BEST Burger: Village Haus Restaurant
If you are looking for a large, indoor place to enjoy great food and get away from the heat, Village Haus Restaurant in Fantasyland won't disappoint.  The 1/3 Lb.  Angus Pastrami Burger is my favorite burger at Disneyland. This burger features pastrami, swiss cheese and caramelized onions, and is served with your choice of French fries or fresh fruit.  Village Haus also offers plenty of outdoor seating for people watching.

BEST Breakfast: Mickey Mouse Pancake
Rancho Del Zocalo is the only location where you will find this famous Disneyland exclusive.  Three pancakes are cooked together on a griddle to form a Mickey Mouse head.  The finished hotcake is dusted with powdered sugar, and then decorated with fruit to form Mickey's eyes, nose and mouth. The pancake is served with your choice of bacon or sausage, along with maple syrup and whipped butter.

This fan favorite recently moved to Rancho Del Zolalo (next to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), from the River Belle Terrace restaurant.  The restaurant also serves other American and Mexican-inspired breakfast dishes.  TIP! If you arrive to the park at "rope drop", head over to Rancho Del Zocalo for your Mickey Mouse Pancake, and you just might have the entire place to yourself.  There are even outdoor heaters available on those cooler mornings.

BEST Sit-Down Restaurant: Blue Bayou *
You haven't experienced Disneyland until you have dined at Blue Bayou Restaurant.  This Cajun and Creole-inspired menu offers some of the best food in either park.  But the experience is what makes this place The Disneyland Resort's most popular restaurant.  Blue Bayou's dining room is located inside the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.  Whether you are enjoying a Monte Cristo sandwich for lunch, or Surf and Turf for dinner, it's always nighttime on the bayou.  If you are lucky enough to get a waterside table, you will see "fireflies" across the water, as boats with park guests float by as they set sail on their swashbuckling adventure.

BEST Snack Food: Beignets
Never heard of these (pronounced "ben-yays")?  These deep friend French Donuts are made to order all day long.  Beignets are light, fluffy and delicious, and are covered with powdered sugar.  These New Orleans favorites have found a home at Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen in Downtown Disney, where they can be ordered off the main restaurant menu.  They are also available at Jazz Kitchen Express (counter service, next door), where they are served in bags of 4, 6 and 10.  TIP! If you like your beignets shaped like a Mickey Mouse head, you can find them inside Disneyland at the French Market in New Orleans Square.  While not always as good as the Jazz Kitchen version, these ones are often available in seasonal flavors, like pumpkin and peppermint.

BEST Place For "Healthy" Food: Pacific Wharf Cafe
The food at Disney California Adventure is considerably underrated, when compared to Disneyland. Finding healthy food options in either park can be a challenge.  Portion sizes are usually too big for light eaters, and burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, etc aren't the best options for anybody.  Pacific Wharf Cafe in the area of the same name has a few above average options for those who want a good meal without all the guilt.

The Turkey Pesto Club is a great choice. Slice turkey, bacon, Swiss cheese and Pesto Aioli are stacked on a Sourdough baguette.  This sandwich is the perfect portion, and very good.  Another great option here is the Chinese Chicken Salad.  How many restaurants have a salad in a bread bowl? This may sound like a strange combination, but it really works.  And did I mention the bread is Boudin Sourdough, baked inside the Bakery Tour attraction right next door? Need I say more?

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BEST Meal In A Cone: 
Cozy Cone Motel
Head over to Carsland at Disney California Adventure to visit the Cozy Cone Motel.  This quick service food court of sorts offers several snack items.  But the bread cones at Cone #3 are a great meal in themselves.  The Chili Cone Queso and the Chicken Verde Cone are the menu standards. But the special cones are my personal favorites.  The Mac & Cheese cone is also topped with crumbled bacon, and the BBQ Pulled Pork cone is topped with cole slaw.  Both are amazing, and after you have eaten the inside, and the cone itself, you will have just had lunch on the go.  But if you are still hungry, the other "cones" feature churros, soft-serve ice cream and popcorn.  So go ahead and stay awhile.  It's not called a "motel" for nothing.

BEST Buffet/Character Meal:  Goofy's Kitchen*

 When it comes to buffets, I prefer Las Vegas, followed by Walt Disney World.  But Disneyland has a few buffet locations to choose from.  Goofy's Kitchen at The Disneyland Hotel has been around for years.  It is one of the only restaurants on property that was designed as a buffet, and offers the best variety of all of the buffet locations at the resort.  Open for breakfast and dinner, this eatery has plenty to choose from, even for the the most picky of eaters.  The family restaurant has lots of options for the kids.
And best of all your host Goofy, and many of his pals are hanging around to meet you and your family.

BEST Homestyle Cookin': Plaza Inn Fried Chicken
While Plaza Inn at the end of Main Street U.S.A. is known for its character breakfast buffet in the mornings, this opening day restaurant is famous for its fried chicken at lunch and dinner.  Plaza Inn (formerly Red Wagon Inn) is a Disneyland landmark, and the golden fried chicken in one of the most popular dishes in the park.  Each dish is served with three pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables and a biscuit.  Pot roast and pasta dishes are also available if chicken isn't your thing.  Be sure to save room for dessert. There are plenty to choose from.

BEST Fine Dining: Carthay Circle Restaurant*
The replica of the Los Angeles theater where "Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs" had its world premier is not only Disney California Adventure's icon.  It's also the best restaurant in the park.  This "signature dining" location offers extensive lunch and dinner menus in a plush, art-deco dining room.

Where Blue Bayou at Disneyland has the atmosphere that can't be missed, Carthay Circle has the better menu.  Appetizers like the Fried Biscuits and the Fire Cracker Duck Wings are very popular.  Entrees like the Crisp Duck Confit, Artichoke Crepes, and Grilled Angus Beef Barbacoa are favorites.  The desserts, like the Meyer Lemon Custard Tart are to die for.
The Carthay Circle Lounge features a full bar, along with menu service as well.

TIP! "World of Color" dining packages are available at lunch and dinner, for you to enjoy a special meal, and reserved viewing area for the "World of Color" show in the evening.

Best Fun Food: Corn Dog Castle
Many people will tell you the best corn dogs at the Disneyland Resort are at the Little Red Wagon in Disneyland.  The truth is, the corn dog itself is the exact same thing that is served at Corn Dog Castle in Disney California Adventure.  So why should you go here instead of the more popular Little Red Wagon?  Two reasons.  Corn Dog Castle has three batter-dipped items to choose from.  The original Corn Dog, the spicy Hot Link Corn Dog, and the Cheddar Cheese Stick.  Each item comes with sliced apples or a bag of chips. Little Red Wagon only has the original Corn Dog.

The second reason is the lines.  While Corn Dog Castle can get very busy, the lines at Little Red Wagon are ridiculous, and there's nowhere to sit.    TIP: Corn Dog Castle has ample seating to the left of the building. But if the tables are full, simply walk over to the Paradise Gardens area (next to Goofy's Sky School), where you will find plenty of tables and chairs (and shade).

BEST Meal To Share:Monte Cristo & Pommes Frites*
New Orleans Square is home to Café Orleans.  The patio seating at this restaurant provides the best view of the Rivers of America and the many people strolling along its banks.  Café Orleans is also the best place to enjoy not one, but two different versions of Disneyland's famed, deep fried Monte Cristo sandwich. The original ham, turkey and cheese version is a fan favorite.  A three-cheese version with Swiss, Mozzerella and a double creme Brie is also available.  When coupled with the garlic and parmesan infused Pommes Frites (French Fries), this lunch or dinner combo is the perfect meal for two or even three people to share.

So there you have it.  Disneyland is extra special in the hearts of many because this resort has been able to fit so much into such a compact space.  Where food is concerned, this is especially true.  I don't believe there is any place where you can find so much variety in such a small area. I'm sure you have other items that are your favorites and did not make the list.  Feel free to share them in the comments.  Maybe they will make a future list of Disney Park "Bests".
If you are planning a visit to The Disneyland Resort, and haven't experienced some, or all of these foods, bring this list along with you.

*Reservations are highly recommended for dining at Blue Bayou Restaurant, Goofy's Kitchen, Carthay Circle Restaurant and Cafe Orleans.

Jerry Vargas is an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner. For information on his free services,  CLICK HERE.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Review: "Frozen - Live At The Hyperion"

It was Memorial Day, 2016 when I took the drive over to Disney California Adventure with the goal of seeing the day's first performance of The Disneyland Resort's newest stage show, "Frozen - Live At The Hyperion." Last Fall, in a somewhat controversial move, the powers that be at Disney announced the end of a successful thirteen-year run of the beloved and very popular "Aladdin: The Musical Spectacular", replacing it with a new show, based on the very popular 2013 Disney animated film, "Frozen". The "Aladdin" show would close on January 10, 2016.

Four and a half months after Aladdin and the Genie took their final bows, "Frozen - Live At The Hyperion" opened, just in time to kick-off the Summer season. Demand for the new show during its opening weekend was high, because: 1. It's something new at a Disney Park. 2. It's a holiday weekend. 3. It's Frozen. We arrived at the park just before "rope drop", and got in a FastPass line near Oswald's Service Station, just beyond the main gate. Because it was ten minutes until park opening, the line was held at the beginning of Hollywood Blvd.

After the park was opened, the line was escorted through Hollywood Land to the FastPass area, which is to the left of the Hyperion Theater, It took about thirty minutes to get to the machines, where we picked up our FastPasses for the 12:30 show. We hit a few rides, including Soarin' Over California, Toy Story Mania and Tower of Terror, before having lunch, and returning to the Hyperion for the first show.

The Orchestra queue was full, and the Mezzanine line was about three quarters full, with thirty minutes left on the FastPass return time. The "stand-by" line was a mob scene, located on the street in front of the queue entrances. It was pretty obvious that very few stand-by people would get to see the first show, and all of them would be on the balcony level. By this time, all FastPasses had been distributed for the day. The people in the stand-by line were going to have a long afternoon ahead of them, waiting for a show that they may not see.

The theater doors opened about twenty minutes before showtime. Our Mezzanine seats were on the left side of the theater, just above the side balcony. I'd say the seats weren't bad. At least weren't on the balcony above, which no longer has the benefit of characters flying by, like Aladdin, Jasmine and Genie did in the last show.
There's no big curtain hiding the stage from view. The entire stage is visible from the time you enter. Video projection technology is used to create the background of Arendelle during what is believed to be summer. Only a few over-sized set pieces are used in the show. Like giant doors, that lower from the rafters, allowing characters to enter from behind. There's also a large staircase that rotates, carrying Queen Elsa over the audience during her performance of the signature song, "Let It Go."

The show itself is fairly entertaining, with a top-notch cast of singers and actors who portray the "Frozen" characters quite well. The musical numbers were great, and all-too familiar to a crowd of "Frozen" fans. The Anna character provides many of the funny lines, while Elsa is more dramatic. Olaf the snowman is a puppet (think Iago from "Aladdin") as is Kristoff's reindeer, Sven. Both puppets provide some comic relief, as does the Duke.
The show tries to pack much of the movie into a production that lasts a little over an hour. Because the "Frozen" story in the film is complex and jumpy, the flow of this production is a bit choppy.

Projection mapping is used throughout the show, replacing traditional sets. At first, this is impressive because it is unique for a live theater show. But the gimmick got old very quickly, leaving me hoping for real sets, which never appeared. There are a few other nice effects used throughout the production.

I have little doubt that "Frozen" fans will enjoy this new musical. For a theme park show, Disney has pulled-off another big production. This is not Aladdin. And if you go in expecting to see something as entertaining and funny as that show was, you may be sorely disappointed. While I am admittedly not a big fan of "Frozen", I did find this show entertaining. But where I probably saw the Aladdin show twenty or more times, I would only go back to "Frozen" if I was bringing my nieces to see it for the first time (in forever:)
This show will not last for thirteen years, or anywhere close to it. I believe this was already Disney's plan after closing "Aladdin". The heavy use of projection mapping instead of traditional sets was more than a cost-cutting measure. It's also an easy way to change shows without constructing new sets and backgrounds. It is quite possible now for Disney to rotate shows, or switch to a new show with less downtime.

"Frozen" has been enjoying a wave of popularity that I don't think can be sustained. While the first film was a massive success, I don't think the sequel will be as big of a win for Disney. And I've always felt that this movie lacks the generational appeal that other Disney films have. With plans for a Broadway musical of "Frozen", this show will probably take its final bow at Disney California Adventure, after the Broadway version opens in New York. This will make room for the next show Disney may already have planned for the theater. That means you probably have two to three years to catch "Frozen - Live At The Hyperion."

My grade for "Frozen - Live At The Hyperion: B+