Monday, March 23, 2015

Fun Playing With Food and Family at Walt Disney World

A beautiful thing happened in January 2015 - my mom decided that since her 75th birthday celebrations got "rained out" by storms in South Florida in January 2014, she would gather her children and grandchildren for a trip to Walt Disney World in January 2015. Bob and I had never been, and we looked forward to the adventure with my parents, my sister and my brother and his two boys (his wife couldn't make it). 

Our Spirit Airlines flight to Orlando turned out to be their first from CLE-Hopkins to Orlando, and so we were treated to some cake and fanfare. We joked that we'd best enjoy the cake, since given Spirit's "economy" approach, it would be the only food they'd ever be giving us!

Colazza's Bakery in Parma supplied the two massive sheetcakes, and I have to say, my pudding-stuffed piece was really delicious. 

St. Ed's Trash Tlkrs entertain the passengers and crowd
This was fun, if a little loud. The flight was on time and a great bargain. My only complaint is that Spirit tells you that the seats don't recline (which justifies their industry-smallest seat pitch). But on each leg of the trip, the seat in front of me dropped into my lap, which made the ride excruciatingly uncomfortable. No more Spirit for us. I saw "normal" sized people wincing and spreading their legs wide to fit in the seats. Bob, with two bad knees, pronounced it miserable. The service and the people delivering it, were, however, excellent.

Our check-in at Disney's Beach Club Resort was marred by a travel agent (and Disney - which refused to confirm the room reservation with me when I called them for that purpose because it was booked by a travel agent) screw up and a smoke-smelly first room. But the hotel manager really did manage to work some Disney magic after our first night to fix the problem and get us into a king-bedded room. 

By the time we could think about dinner, it was dark and late and we hadn't a clue how to work the Disney mass transit or reservation system. We followed the recommendation of our good friend Caren, who goes by the handle "Queen of Adventureland" and who really should open a Disney travel agency, and got a reservation at the Captain's Grille, Yacht Club Resort, walking distance from Beach Club. For all the kerfluffing over needing reservations, the place was half empty when we finally were seated after being made to wait a half hour for the appointed time. The food was hit and miss. 

Rosemary-brined Pork Tenderloin: Braised Pork Belly, White Bean Purée, Cherry Gastrique, Ham Jus, and Braised Brussels Sprouts.
Bob's entree was delicious. Fork-cutable pork, flavorful saucing and well-prepared sides. He got the better part of the deal.

Market Fish Special: Pan seared Corvina fish over a "Portuguese Stew" with potatoes, chorizo, seafood
A very mixed bag, and really unacceptable for an alleged "seafood" restaurant. The clams were ammoniated and inedible and I didn't even try the mussels; some of that bad smell got into the dish. The fish, however, was fresh and nicely cooked, served over a non-descript sauce and some tough and unremarkable chorizo. Not a truly impressive start, but could have been much worse.

Things brightened up considerably the next morning, when we cabbed over to the Animal Kingdom Lodge for an African-themed buffet breakfast at Boma. This was the rare buffet that got a lot more right than wrong, with items being made to order in modest quantities so the food felt fresh even though sitting on a buffet. 

Chakalaka - Spicy stewed tomatoes and onions

Pap - creamy white cornmeal porridge

Pap topped with Chakalaka, Grilled Tomato, Grilled Asparagus

African Spiced Corned Beef Hash - uses cornmeal instead of potatoes and was very delicious!

Mickey Waffles! (Pancakes to the left which we skipped.)

Bread Pudding

This was my only "Mickey Waffle" of the trip, and I have to say I really liked it! Especially with some caramel-pecan sauce (meant for the bread pudding) instead of fake sugar/syrup. 

Goat Cheese and Spinach Scrambled Eggs

Turkey Bobotie (meat pie)

Though pork is the traditional meat for Bobotie, this turkey version was very tasty. Eaten together with a bite of eggs and sambal, a lovely course.

Salads; my next plate has a taste of the Fruit Fool

Cured meats

Sliced cheese, toppings and garnishes, and smoked salmon. 

Bob and I puzzled at this portion of the display. Perhaps a little inside joke - a trio of items (cold cuts, cheese and smoked salmon) native to European countries who colonized Africa ? Certainly nothing African about them.

Ok, I had to be true to my New York Jewish roots and try some of the smoked salmon on a lousy food service mini-bagel with a schmear and red onion. The fish was actually very good.

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More salads we didn't try. They also had a spread of food-service breads and pastries, and made-to-order omelets that looked quite good, but we were too full to try them.

African Spiced Tater Tots. 
Our server insisted we try these; we both found them a bit too salty for our palates and nothing special. Overall, the Boma brunch was our best Disney meal and worth the $30 a person price (considering where we were). 

My parents would arrive at Beach Club later that day, as would my sister Chaya. They came in hungry, so we shared some noshes from the Market Express at Beach Club.

Kid's Turkey Sandwich 
I thought the Goldfish Cracker-inspired bread on Mom's sandwich was cute. Speaking of our hosts, the parents, here they are as we bused to Downtown Disney:

One of Mom's big plans was to ride the Characters in Flight...Operated by Aerophile ride at Downtown Disney. The tethered balloon goes 400 feet into the air. Bob was the only one in our party hardy enough to go up with her. That's my sister Chaya also documenting the liftoff:

Mom Getting Her Ride on at the Harley Store
Dinner at Portobello in Downtown Disney was a mixed bag of mostly food service items. Still, it was great to sit down with all of my parents, siblings and nephews; we hadn't done that in about five years.

Dinner at Portobello:

Calamari Appetizer

Arrancini (Fried Rice Balls)
These were actually pretty good.

Bob's: Rigatoni Calabrese
Italian sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, olives, escarole - nothing not to like!

Mine: Ravioli Gigante
Ricotta and spinach filled pasta, tomato, basil, toasted garlic; pasta said to be housemade. Not a bad dish, but nothing profound. The entrees overall were good but not outstanding; I wasn't impressed with Dad's Gnocchi with pork ragu. The best entree I tried here was Mom's Eggplant Parmesan.

My Family at One Table

Our first whole day together on Saturday started at Hollywood Studios, and some of the classic Disney rides. We hadn't coordinated breakfast, and expected to nosh as we went, but the rigors of obtaining Fastpasses and working the attraction logistics messed with that idea. We shared a couple of Mickey soft pretzels (made by Superpretzel, and actually very good) and had a couple of tastes, but our tummies were rumbling soon enough. Still, my nephew's skill with the Fastpass technology meant that we didn't really wait on any lines, and went from attraction to attraction pretty seamlessly. 

We finally had a break with an hour to wait for the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular (which was a lot of fun!) and grabbed some forgettable food from a fast-causal stand that I think was Backlot Express, selling mostly lousy burgers, hotdogs and fries.

After the show, we headed over to Epcot. The ferry left us off at the International Village, where we would dine that evening. We walked up to Futureworld, and resumed the mad dash of Fastpass and attractions. 

All of the whirlwind had put one monkey-wrench in my plans. As I'd learned at check-in, Disney does a great job conjuring magic with lead time, but they suck on the fly. I'd planned a birthday-cake-in-room celebration for Mom, which Caren had said was easily doable, but found out late that first night that they couldn't do it on short notice (meaning less than 36 hours). By the time I had a chance to come up with other plans, more time slipped away and they kept saying they just couldn't do anything. 

But they did sort of come through that second night, at Marrakesh in Epcot. Though initially they still couldn't quite get things right - the reservations made clear that one of our party was handicapped and in a scooter, yet the accommodations were up stairs and a bizarre and uncomfortable configuration of several small mis-matched tables. The food was mostly good, though not redolent with Mediterranean flavors as the aromas indicated. The belly dancing was fun to watch. And the whole family was at the table!

We started with a bunch of shared appetizers and bread service.

Assorted Appetizers: Falafel, Hummus, Baba Ganoush, Tabouli, Pita Crisps

Beef Brewat Roll 
Baked layers of thin pastry filled with seasoned minced beef, eggs, fried and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar - interesting effect of the sweet sugar on the savory dish. We also tried a similar dish with chicken, Chicken Bastilla - Layers of thin pastry stuffed with minced chicken and almonds, sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

Bob's: Couscous M'Rouzia Fassi
Braised beef served with prunes, balsamic vinegar, honey, sesame seeds and eggs. Tasty, but the meat was a little dry. Note the sulfur ring at the center of the hard cooked egg.

Mine: Couscous with Lamb Shank
Lamb shank with rolled semolina steamed and served with seasonal veggies - though this was a huge, beautifully cooked leg of lamb, there was no seasoning that screamed "Morocco!"; the only interestingly spiced item we tasted all night was the falafel.

So the outcome with the cake is that every Disney restaurant has "in house" cakes for moments like this, where they don't have lead time to fill a special order. The cakes are blank, and the restaurants are supposed to be able to write "Happy Birthday" or whatever on them. And they are pricey, my friends!

I ordered and paid for the cake at the hostess stand so it would be a surprise, they were supposed to write "Happy Birthday Bubbe" on it and deliver it to the table with Middle Eastern fanfare. The cake turned out white as snow (no inscription), but it had it's intended effect, and was actually pretty darn tasty for an "off the rack" product.

Mom likes her surprise

After dinner, we stepped outside and watched the impressive Illuminations fireworks show together. 

The outcome of the room mistake was an upgrade to an over-sized king-bedded room with a lovely terrace looking out over the beach, with views of the Swan and Dolphin resorts. We enjoyed coffee and tea on the terrace the next morning with the view.

We also realized that we'd better pack some food, since we'd again not made breakfast plans, and had a full day at Magic Kingdom ahead of us. These cookies from the Express store in the Beach Club were seriously chewy and gooey, which is how I like them (we also liked the Peanut version). 

Our family enjoyed a grand time at Magic Kingdom! 

Liberty Square Riverboat with Mom and Chaya (photo courtesy of Stanley Heller)

Here, Bob and I share a storied Smoked Turkey Leg while riding the Liberty Square Riverboat. I expected it to be nasty, but it was actually a very tasty lunch for us! Crispy skin, not too much smoke or salt, real turkey flavor.

Our dinner would take place at the Liberty Tree Tavern, so we could walk out and watch the Electric Parade after. Caren described this place perfectly - a "served family style" Thanksgiving-inspired meal of boring comfort food. But most of it was executed reasonably well, so while, like Caren, I wouldn't rush back, I can't complain about having eaten there. 

Patriot's Platter: Roasted Turkey Breast, Carved Beef, and Sliced Pork with Herb Bread Stuffing

The centerpiece meats were moist and tasty. Stuffing and gravy went along well. 

Mashed Potatoes and Mac N Cheese to the left

Frozen Green Beans and Corn 
This plate was the low-light. Frozen green beans at these prices???

Ice cream, strawberry sauce over strawberry cake rounds.
Everything but the ice cream tasted like plastic, but then doesn't ice cream fix anything?

We didn't have much time for dessert anyway - it was out to the street for the parade, then off to the Magic Castle for fireworks and a very impressive multimedia show both projected against and bounced off that building. A great time was had by all, though Chaya had to leave the party before dinner to return home and prepare for work the next day.

Ah yes, the next day. Dad had decided he wanted to go off property for breakfast with us before Mom and he would take off for Delray. Jeff and the boys were leaving Orlando directly from their condo, so we wouldn't be seeing them. We headed off in Mom's Honda Odyssey for breakfast. After meandering for an hour, we wound up at a Denny's and had a nice breakfast. Then, boom. Heading back up the ramp into the back of the van, I misjudged the space and jammed my right arm into the doorjamb. Long story short, I spent the rest of that gorgeous day at Urgent Care, getting x-rays, examination, drugs, and feeling a bit sorry for myself; the good news was that I didn't dislocate my shoulder again.

The parents dropped us back at Beach Club and headed off. Forlornly, we headed for a bite to eat at Beaches & Cream, another Caren recommendation. Though the frozen treats looked great, it was just too cold for us to want to eat ice cream.

Shared burger and fries plate
The burger and fries we shared were ok. 

Later, we headed over the to Boardwalk and checked out the bakery that produces all those birthday cakes, gooey cookies, and such, and enjoyed some entertainment.

Magical Mime
Following Caren's counsel, we then headed for a late dinner at Kimonos at the Swan Resort. Damn that Disney App - the reason there weren't any reservations available at this restaurant is because . . . the restaurant doesn't take reservations! We could have gone any time.

The Karaoke was firing up as we ordered. Four boys on a date at the next table were adorable, and kept cheering us up, and they were a lot of fun! The food wasn't bad either.

Egg Drop Soup
Not what I'd expect on a Japanese menu, but curiously satisfying under all the circumstances.

Dragon Roll: Spicy Tuna, Salmon, Avocado. Tempura Asparagus Roll

Alaskan Roll: Crab Salad, Avocado, Salmon
Considering the events of the day, a very pleasant ending.

We awoke Tuesday morning ready to head home. Again following Caren's counsel, we hopped the ferry to Picabu at the Dolphin Resort. We got there a little too early; they were still on a food-service egg breakfast. But our patience in waiting a short while was rewarded with a decent brunch.

Bob's Lunch special - Lasagna with 2 sides (black beans, cheesy cauliflower), cheesy breadstick
I said decent, not great. These were straight-out food service items, though served hot and fresh.

Fish of the day Tacos - Mahi
If only the food service guacamole had been a better product! The fish was cooked to order, and accompanied by soft corn tortillas, cheese, and salsa verde - not a bad meal at all. We also picked up what seemed to be a local Florida orange. 

And with that, we bought a few more of those comfort-food cookies for the road, then limped off to the airport (Bob on bad knees, me with a messed up shoulder). It could have ended a little better, but it was a magical weekend of food, family and fun. Happy Birthday Mom and thank you Mom and Dad for hosting our family for Fun Playing With Food at Disney, 2015!

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