Stop and Smell the Roses

We all know the meaning of the sentence, but how often do we really apply the wisdom and stop to smell the roses?

March traditionally brings me to the Florida theme parks, and this year was no different.

At Universal Studios I had the opportunity to join the Krewe of the Jester float and celebrate Mardi Gras. It was a fun experience that I would not mind repeating next year. Universal Studios uses 4 million beads, 12,000 doubloons, and 2,050 pounds of confetti throughout the 50 days of the festival. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

One of my favorite experiences was seeing Rivers of Light, the new sound-and-light show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The animal scenes projected onto mist screens, giant floating lotus flowers spouting water, and the wonderful soundtrack really impressed me. I wish I could have seen the show several times, take it all in, and enjoy the sounds and sights without the pressure of reporting about it.

There were no roses but plenty of other flowers to enjoy at Epcot’s International Flower and Garden Festival. I love the larger-than-life topiaries, the scent of the flower beds, and the inventive gardens on display. The best moment, however, was meeting with friends for a few hours, enjoying the sights and culinary delights of the outdoor kitchens together.

On Sunday, March 12th, under gray skies, I was first in line to review Disney’s newest water park attraction, Miss Adventure Falls, at Typhoon Lagoon. Together with a good friend I braved the 68 F weather to report back about this new family-friendly ride.

So 12 nights and three hotels later, what’s not to like? I do love my job, and I am grateful for all the wonderful opportunities it offers, but I think that, at times, I forget to smell the roses. Gratefulness and appreciation are two different things. To stop and smell the roses is a wonderful philosophical approach to life but a difficult one to practice for a type A person such as me.

I am working on it!

Of Drones and Christmas Cheer

Disney Springs is all spruced up for the holidays this year, and it provides the backdrop for a new holiday experience featuring 300 show drones.

The Starbright Holiday—An Intel Collaboration takes place nightly at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. now through January 8th over Lake Buena Vista.

The 5-minute choreographed aerial performance of 300 drones is set to holiday music, and the drones create holiday images such as a Christmas tree, an angel, and a dove of peace.

The show marks the U.S. public debut of the Intel Shooting Star drone–a new type of unmanned aerial vehicle specifically designed for entertainment purposes, such as festivals and air and light shows.

But there is more. Every night at the Once Upon a Toy fountain play area, a Christmas tree lighting takes place at 6 p.m., and the new Christmas tree trail features 15 custom-decorated evergreens, each capturing a popular Disney character or movie.

I liked the Christmas tree trail a lot and I believe it really has potential, but think that there is room for improvement. Read: more trees, more bling, more decoration, bigger trees, and please bring back the traditional Christmas carols!

Talking about Christmas carols, throughout the evening, at the Once Upon a Toy fountain play area, toy soldier stilt walkers, carolers, and an a capella group take turns spreading holiday cheer, and a DJ spins holiday-themed music, making sure that you get into the Yuletide spirit. Make sure to look for the strolling piano at Town Center!

Walt Disney World is always decked out to the max, and Christmas is indeed the most magical time of the year to visit the parks. Check out a related story I did for TheMouseForLess.com and find out the top 10 reasons why Christmas is a perfect time to visit the Kingdom of the Mouse. If you are considering a stay at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, read my article here.

Check Out these Hip and Fun Watering Holes

New, Hip, and Fun Watering Holes Shine at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando

AbrakadaBARAbracadaBAR at Disney’s BoardWalk is the newest watering hole to open at Walt Disney World.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the bar for drinks with friends. The atmosphere is elegant, and the décor draws on the 1930s, the golden age of illusionists.

The lounge is intimate and offers plenty of seating. Similar to Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar at Disney Springs, the bar tells a story with props, vintage posters, and artifacts throughout the lounge, the hallways, and even the bathrooms!

Over at Universal Orlando, Strong Water Tavern is the new kid on the block. Located in the lobby of the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, the tavern offers a unique dining and drinking experience.

A Rum Captain is on hand to help you pick the drink that is just right for you, and the cocktails do the name of the tavern justice—they are strong!

watering holesThe Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar at Disney Springs is another great way to relax after a busy day in the theme parks. Make sure to request a table on the outside deck. It is a great place for sunset-watching.

And when you think it can’t get any better, believe me it will! In the Fall of 2017, George Miliotes, who formerly created an award-winning wine list for California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, will spearhead Wine Bar George at Disney Springs. Wine Bar George will offer more than 100 selections (both by the bottle and the glass) from renowned regions in North America and worldwide.

The bar plans to offer seminars with visits from renowned winemakers.

For drinks of a different kind, check out the steampunk-themed Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen and try one of the irresistible sundaes and milkshakes with unique toppings.

Ready to relax? Read more here!

Old Key West: My Favorite Spring Retreat

IMG_3224It is always a real treat to be at Old Key West, Disney’s first time-share property. Modeled after the Caribbean-style residences and guesthouses of the Florida Keys, the resort is the least Disney-esque of all Disney properties. To say that I love staying here is an understatement. I have been blessed to do so four times, yet I still get excited every time I get to go back.  I would love one day to stay here for an extended time and indulge myself in everything the resort has to offer.

IMG_7535Old Key West  has the roomiest accommodations in all of Walt Disney World. Each villa has a private balcony with views of the golf course, a pristine landscape, or the waterway. I stayed in a two-bedroom villa featuring a king-size bed in the master bedroom, two queen beds in the second bedroom, and a queen-size sleeper sofa and foldout chair in the living room. It is perfect for a family of six and can accommodate up to nine guests. I love to have a full kitchen, especially for longer stays. Walt Disney World offers lots of great restaurants, but there comes a time where I really enjoy having a meal with family and friends in a private setting.

Pool Time at Old Key West

Old Key WestOld Key West has four pools. The main pool also has  a hot tub, kiddie pool, a water play area, and (most amazingly) a free sauna inside the idyllic lighthouse. The other, smaller pools are located near buildings 19 and 20; buildings 39, 40, and 41; and another one near building 55. These are basic pools with plenty of towels and a hot tub. The bonus is that they are “quiet pools” where loud play is discouraged. Runners will enjoy the resort, as there are plenty of well-marked routes for a nice run. Want to golf? Search no more, as the golf course is right there on the premises of the resort and absolutely immaculate.

The resort has only one restaurant. Olivia’s is nice and offers casual dining. On the menu: seafood including conch dishes, slow-cooked prime rib, and Key Lime Tart. It is fine for a meal or two but nothing to write home about.IMG_3213

Disney Springs is only a boat ride away. Boats run every half hour; unless you are in a hurry, they are really a good choice. I love sitting back and enjoying a ride down the Sassagoula River. Keep in mind that the last boat back from Disney Springs leaves by 11:30 p.m.

There is something special about returning to this quiet and beautiful resort after a long day in the parks. I love sitting on the balcony of my home away from home, unwinding, sipping a glass of wine—and feeling that I am on vacation.

IMG_3432I love the parks, but I could see myself staying at Old Key West for a LONG time without ever leaving the resort. So I want to leave you tonight with my favorite view, taken from the balcony of my Old Key West Town House this March.

Next month, my son and future daughter-in-law will be visiting my new home here in Birmingham.  I can’t wait to finally share with them my world, the one outside of Walt Disney World.

The Importance of Memories

The last Autumn leaves slowly drift to the ground and the earth is preparing for the longest night of the year.  Memories of idyllic childhood days, and those of days not so long ago, are flooding my mind. A treasure trove of moments, some sad, others filled with laughter and joy.

Autumn on Highland Avenue

Autumn on Highland Avenue

A great quote by Burton Homes talks about travel memories. Homes says, “The only things I own which are still worth what they have cost me are my travel memories…the mind-pictures of places which I have been hoarding like a happy miser.”

Memories

With Idan and Laura in Las Vegas

And travel memories I have plenty. They are among my happiest. 2015 has been no exception. New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Las Vegas, lots of Florida (read Disney and Universal Studios), and even a cruise with The Mouse.

Memories Made in Birmingham

But not all memories are travel related. There were the memories made right here in Birmingham.

Memories

Mary Poppins with Theresa, Fran and Debra

Running my first hometown race, the Mercedes half marathon, was a wonderful experience. Seeing my colleague Tanya after she did the full marathon, dancing at race retreat, is certainly something I won’t forget.

With Tanya and Zach after the race

With Tanya and Zach after the race

Welcoming friends from out of town, celebrating holidays together, and publishing yet another edition of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids.

Memories

Welcoming Wendy to Birmingham

Enjoying a meal, music, or a walk with a friend: That’s the stuff memories are made of.

Walking with Annette

Walking with Annette

I believe that it is important to hang on to every memory we possibly can. It is the glue that keeps families and friends smiling, it is who we are, and it is a portal to those who are no longer with us.

Memories

With Papa and my brothers in Belgium

Ibn Battuta said, “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” May I add that it turns you into a memory maker.

Running Again and Then Some

Running Again and Other Mischief

Running Again

Wine & Dine Half Marathon Bib

It is not as if I have been sitting idle since my last post; on the contrary, I have been busy.  I know it is a lame excuse and one that no New Year resolution helped alleviate. The truth is I write for a living. There are the blogs, the Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest accounts, and the avalanche of emails, press releases, pitches, and other Pulitzer Prize-winning activities.

But back to running again. My last race was in November at Walt Disney World. Together with thousands of runners I participated in the runDisney Wine & Dine Half Marathon. This year the weather god was not with us and we ran for 13.1 miles in the pouring rain.  I can think of only one thing that would have made it more miserable and that would have been if Disney had canceled the race.
Running Again

Mulan and Mushu warming my hands

So we went our merry way from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, onward to The Studios. At Disney Hollywood Studios my iPhone rebelled against the rain as I tried taking pictures of the Osborne Family Spectacular of Dancing Lights. So much for race pictures!

By the time I reached the Boardwalk I thought that once at Epcot where the race ends I would jump on a bus and go straight to the hotel. Well, seeing Spaceship Earth and the volunteers cheering us on this cold and rainy night changed my mind. Why go home? I was soaking wet and so was everybody else, but we did it! Another half marathon and for me a Coast-to-Coast for that! I crossed the finish line and after getting my bling I headed to the Finish Line Party at the Food & Wine Festival at Epcot. And while the rain kept pouring I made a tour of World Showcase, sampling foods and meeting characters. My favorite interaction was at the Temple of Heaven at the China Pavilion where Mulan and Mushu where holding court. They didn’t mind my tired and not too sophisticated looks. They posed for a picture and took my hands in an effort to warm them.
Running Again

Wine & Dine Half Marathon Bling

My iPhone dried and decided to come back to life. The only casualty of that night was my wig, so this princess is going to be shopping for a new Merida wig.

The next day I returned to Epcot and so did the sun. Given enough time, the memory of this wet and at times miserable race will become a fun story to tell.

I have been twice to Orlando since the race and will do so again in March. I can’t wait.  In the meantime, I signed up for three more races. One here in Birmingham is coming up real soon. The Mercedes Half Marathon will be my second non-Disney race.

I’ll follow that one up running again in April by joining the Ironman 70.3 team of a friend. Her husband will do the swimming, she’ll bike, and I’ll run the half marathon.  The race takes place in New Orleans, and we aptly named our team “For Food, Booze & Bling.” Stay tuned for updates from The Big Easy.

Running Again and Then Some

May will bring a new challenge. While visiting my son in Los Angeles I am signed up for the Pixie Dust Challenge held during the Tinker Bell Half Marathon weekend in Anaheim, a 10K followed by a half marathon. I am so looking forward to be back in Los Angeles. What could be better? I’ll be spending time with my son, celebrating my birthday and Mother’s Day, and pushing my limits–just one bit further. And there is always the next Wine & Dine Half Marathon to sign up for!

Living on Highland Avenue South

Living Highland Avenue South

Running “Over The Mountain”

Not in my wildest dreams would I have sought to be living on Highland Avenue South.  Yes, “The South” was always a place I wanted to be, but Highland Avenue South in Birmingham, Alabama? I don’t think so!

Living on Highland Avenue South is wonderful. Picture a green and prosperous neighborhood and you get a good picture. Not quite “over the mountain” but just about that spot geographically. It is as beautiful a neighborhood as you could possibly wish for, and at the same time it is a huge challenge for a “flat land” runner like me.

Living Highland Avenue South

Home on Highland Ave S.

All along Highland Avenue South you can find the most wondrous vistas and experience the most excruciating training runs.

Suddenly names like Niazuma Avenue become the equivalent of Kilimanjaro. No longer do I think that I can run the upcoming Wine and Dine Half Marathon in Orlando in November. No, I think that having signed up for the Pixie Dust Challenge in May 2015 was sheer insanity!

Whenever I train for the upcoming races–and train I do–I feel exhausted and totally overwhelmed. There are muscles that hurt I did not know I even had, and, try as I may, there is simply no long distance road I can possible map that does not involve some crazy elevation.

Living Highland Avenue South

The Donnelly House

Having said all this, I would not want to live anywhere else in Birmingham but on Highland Avenue South.  I recognize that I am blessed to have found a neighborhood that is beautiful, welcoming, and historical. I have three parks to pick from, each one of them in literally 5 minutes’ walking distance from my doorstep.

At any given time and everywhere I look, there are historical homes and the buzz of Five Points South and the entertainment district. The homes on Highland Avenue South are amazing, such as the Donnelly House, a prime venue for weddings located a mere 3-minute walk from my home.

Is Living on Highland Avenue South the Dulcinea of my Dreams?

Palms at sunset in Orlando

Palms at sunset in Orlando

So what am I whining about? Nothing much really except for the physical pain of learning to run in a hilly terrain.

But wait–there is a little more. If I am honest, I admit that deep inside there is the dream of a place where palms are swaying in the wind, a place that illuminates nightly to a tune that dreams are made of. A home I never called my own, a home that family and friends feel is far- fetched for someone like me, a home that no matter what everyone else says, I still desire. Is it a realistic dream? Nope. But does it really matter?

For now, I will run like my life depends on it. I’ll be running and living on Highland Avenue South and save the dreams of Windermere for a later time. Windermere, after all, sounds like putting a name on a windmill. I just hope that–unlike in Don Quixote–Dulcinea will indeed be waiting for me.

 

 

 

Ratatouille: Disturb, Shake, and Stir

RatatouilleWebster’s dictionary describes the origin of the word Ratatouille as coming from the verb ratouiller which means to disturb, shake, and to stir.

If you are like me, you probably think of food, as Ratatouille is a wonderful classic French dish originating from the Provence region. Of course, there are those who associate the word with rat-turned-chef Remy in the Pixar movie Ratatouille. Yes, I am guilty of that too.

So, to me, Ratatouille is really all of the above, and it describes perfectly my life in the past three months: Disturb, shake, and stir! And God knows I’ve had my fair share of turbulence. It is now three months since I left New York City for Birmingham, Alabama. I am happy to report that I love discovering my new hometown and that I am re-discovering my love for cooking and entertaining.

Caramel Apples - RatatouilleMy blog, and some of my freelance writing, was put on a back burner but never really extinguished. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids 2015 is shipping to a store near you and gives me cause for celebration.

My latest article for Undercover Tourist was about my favorite snacks at Walt Disney World and I did report about the Frozen Mania that is sweeping The Kingdom of the Mouse.

Running, on the other hand, was put on ice for a while after foot surgery. Let’s just say it was another “disturbance” in the Force. I am up and running again, signed up for the Wine and Dine Half Marathon in Orlando in early November.

Book signing at Todd English - RatatouilleSo what else? Well, there was a book signing at Todd English P.U.B. for Gone Pro Alabama and I can’t wait for Paul Chibeba’s visit with me Down South in just a few weeks.

Except for Paul’s visit, the most exciting item on the menu is my first business trip. In a few days I will be heading, costume and all, to Lexington, Kentucky, to attend ScareFest.

My company publishes America’s Haunted Road Trips, a series of 25 books describing places that are known or said to be haunted. We will be presenting and selling our books for three days. I am really excited about this opportunity and hope to stir up interest in some of the most ghostly tales in this country.

It would seem unfair to talk about Ratatouille without sharing at least one good recipe. So without further adieu, I give you Julia Child’s Ratatouille recipe.

Sweet Home Alabama

Wedding party at beachTwo month agos, I lost my job of over 20 years. At first there was the initial shock and the fact that I had to tell family and friends. Next I embarked on a four-night cruise to witness the wedding of cousin Sergio. It was wonderful, and being surrounded by loved ones was much needed and welcomed.

Back in New York, however, my type A personality (and what I call my single mother syndrome) kicked in, and all I could think about was finding a new job and securing my future. My son is grown and supports himself, but would I have enough resources to retire in 10 years from now? Would anybody want to hire me at age 56? So what came next felt like being on a roller coaster, except that it wouldn’t end after 60 seconds of thrills and anxiety but would keep running on a loop.Moving

Tempus Fugit and two months later, I can report that I found a new job, packed up my home, and moved to Birmingham, Alabama. I am waiting for the closing date for the sale of my home in New York, and I’ve rented an apartment that I hope to move into soon. I am living with friends and hoping my furniture makes it Down South soon. There is only so much I can control, after all.

I managed to produce five articles whenever my back needed a rest from packing boxes and, yes, I turned in–on time– the 2015 revisions for the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids. I recommended Summer Fun at Walt Disney World and gave tips for visiting Disney Hollywood Studios during Star Wars Weekends. For those who have a green thumb, I suggested the Behind the Seeds Tour at Epcot and I kept my book’s Facebook page up and running with daily tips.

NatureAt times I wonder if I could have done anything differently or simply if I did the right thing. I guess only time will tell. What I do know is that I am grateful to have found a new job, grateful for family and friends, and grateful for the kindness of the people Down South.

While I have not explored much of my new hometown, my friends took me on several beautiful outings. Hikes in Red Mountain Park and Oak Mountain State Park provided much-needed relief from anxiety and stress. There is nothing more restoring than the healing powers of Mother Nature. Onward, Sweet Home Alabama!

Humanius est deridere vitam quam deplorare

Epcot In Bloom

Epcot In Bloom

Life has been a roller coaster lately. While I am a firm believer in making lemonade when life gives you lemons, I think instead of lemonade I will try my luck at Limoncello. Instead of lamenting, I want to look back at all the wonderful things I have experienced in the past six weeks.

I visited Orlando twice, ran my third Half Marathon during runDisney’s Princess Half weekend, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, discovered the new Spice Road Table restaurant, and saw the New Festival of Fantasy Parade at the Magic Kingdom. Another highlight was taking time to smell the flowers at Epcot’s International Flower and Garden Festival. Friends and family know that I love going South, and it was a blessing to escape brutally cold New York City. Soaking up the sun was wonderful, and my days at Epcot were among my happiest lately. What could be more relaxing than watching a heron resting on a floating garden and observing butterflies hatching? I was reminded of the days, unfortunately long ago, when I enjoyed regular visits to Juniper Springs, Florida.

Heron resting on a floating garden

Heron resting on a floating garden

Back in New York, family and friends provided solace and cheer while Mother Nature kept sending one winter storm after another. A surprise visit from cousins Bjorn and Tom brought much joy. On the other side of the country, Idan is working hard on a feature movie, and Laura is in Mobile, AL, working on a production with Bruce Willis–the stuff that makes moms proud!

We celebrated the wedding of Sergio and Nancy, and I can’t wait for our trip together with the entire family on the Disney Magic for their religious ceremony at Castaway Cay next month. I truly enjoyed making the bride’s bouquet, and I am thinking about what arrangement I can create for the Easter table.

Nancy & Sergio's wedding

Nancy & Sergio’s wedding

Spring finally arrived; while it is still rather cold, there is hope for warmer and kinder days ahead. There are still a few lemons lying around but not for long. I am working on the revisions for the 2015 edition of my guidebook, and soon the Facebook page of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids will reach 5,000 fans. There is so much to be grateful for. Even though the guidebook updates are lots of work, they are what keeps me going when things get tough. My freelance work, too, while labor intensive and not well paid, pushes me daily to move on, one word, one step, one day at a time. At the end of the day, it is indeed more natural to laugh at life than to lament it.