Oct 052016
 

By Teresa Pitman

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Imagine you’re a skipper on one of the Jungle Cruise riverboats in Magic Kingdom. You’ve had a long day pointing out the backside of water and shouting “Shoo! Shoo!” at that menacing hippopotamus. But finally, your boat is docked.

Where are you going to go for a drink and dinner?

The obvious choice: Jungle Navigation Co. Skipper Canteen. This new table-service restaurant opened in December 2015 and (the story goes) started off as a spot for the skippers to eat, with private rooms that were opened up for guests. Now it’s open to all.

Eager diners walk up to a broad white-painted front porch surrounded by greenery where they can check in. The cozy wicker chairs at the entrance give you a relaxing place to wait if the rest of your party is a bit slower to arrive. (Okay, I admit it, I actually dozed off while waiting!) It definitely has that dining-in-the-jungle feel.

We had a party of 11 (with ADRs) and as soon as everyone arrived we were quickly taken to a table large enough for everyone. The inside of the restaurant replicates the exotic feeling of that front porch, but has dark wood walls, floors and tables, making the room feel pleasantly cool on a hot day.

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Our friendly server was one of the best we’ve had: she interacted well with the children, was very knowledgeable about the menu and kept us laughing with jokes and Jungle Cruise stories.

The décor fits the story perfectly, with artifacts from the various locations on the Jungle Cruise ride, books with intriguing titles on the library shelves, an exotic butterfly collection and more. When the little ones were restless, we took them for walks around the restaurant to see more of the items on display. If you enjoy restaurants with plenty to look at, this is likely to become one of your faves!

You’ll also be entertained by the menu listings: amusing names for the various dishes like “Tastes Like Chicken (because it is!)” and “Trader Sam’s Head on Shrimp” make choosing what you want to eat more fun and remind you of the humour of the Jungle Cruise ride. We also enjoyed the Fanta Melon Frosty drinks (a Coke product from Thailand). (And no, you can’t order Beverly here.)

There is even a “Kungaloosh!” dessert for fans of the much-missed Adventurer’s Club.

I’ll confess that Magic Kingdom has long been my least favorite park for meals, but the Canteen has kicked it up several notches. The food we had was excellent, with plenty of spice and flavor, and there were options that pleased everyone from the vegans in our group to the somewhat picky little kids. I had the Curried Vegetable Crew Stew and was delighted to find that the sauce was delicious and the vegetables were all cooked perfectly.

The Canteen is now on the top of our list for future WDW trips – we can’t wait to try it again.

Oct 212015
 

By Teresa Pitman

Eating Vegan at the Magic Kingdom

It’s the heart of Disney Magic. The first place many people think of when they hear the words “Walt Disney World.” The favorite park of most kids. But what’s it like eating at the Magic Kingdom for vegans?

To be honest, it’s not always easy. As a vegan (meaning I eat no meat or fish or animal products such as eggs or milk), it’s sometimes a challenge to get a tasty and satisfying meal in the park with Cinderella Castle. However, there is good news: it’s definitely been improving in recent years. Here are some tips for hungry vegans:

Snacks:

  • Dole whip! Yes, Dole whip is now vegan! Enjoy!
  • WDW popcorn is vegan despite that rather buttery taste.
  • Soft Mickey pretzels are also vegan, and they are delicious with mustard.
  • Check the carts for popsicle-type treats and fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • The Main Street Bakery has a nice selection of fruit and vegetable snacks as well.

Quick-service:

My favorite quick-service spot used to be Columbia Harbor House. The chili is vegan and you can get steamed broccoli to go with it! You can also get the Lighthouse sandwich made vegan by leaving off the broccoli slaw. However, I also have a shellfish allergy and was told on my last visit that there is potential for contamination of ALL foods sold in the restaurant so I have stopped eating there – a big disappointment for me.

Be Our Guest offers a hearty quinoa salad during their quick-service lunch which has good reviews.

Gaston’s Tavern has Sabra brand hummus and pretzel chips to dip, as well as raw vegetables which unfortunately come with a non-vegan dip. Makes a nice light lunch if you skip the other dip. LeFou’s Brew is also vegan!

Pecos Bill’s now has a vegetable and rice bowl, Cosmic Ray’s has a rather uninspired veggie burger, and I have heard that you can get vegan pizza at Pinocchio Village Haus. Generally, not much to get excited about!

 

Full-service:

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Be Our Guest wins for me here! The Seasonal Salad Trio was a wonderful appetizer with great flavour and variety, and the Ratatouille main course was also delicious. Definitely worth checking out for vegan eaters.

But after that, the choices are slim. Cinderella’s Royal Table serves a fairly plain vegetable and rice dish for vegans. Liberty Tree Tavern has a vegetable sandwich (with vegan mayo!) for lunch. However, if you go for supper, you will have to pay the full price ($32) even though you just get the sandwich and salad and other diners are having a big turkey dinner. So if you want to eat there, lunch is a much better value for your money. The Plaza restaurant can make their vegetable sandwich vegan for you. Crystal Palace is fun for the characters, but you’ll find very few vegan options on the buffet.

Vegan food can be tasty and flavorful, but I find these dishes are all pretty bland. On the other hand, if you are just trying to fill your tummy so you have the energy to do Space Mountain again, they’ll work.

Another option: nearby hotels

One of the good things about Magic Kingdom is that several hotels are quickly accessible. You can hop on a boat or the monorail and be at a resort in a short period of time, and that expands your eating options. Some of our favorites:

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Trail’s End at Fort Wilderness. Normally this buffet would not be too vegan-friendly, but the wonderful Chef TJ is working there now and making incredible multi-course meals for vegans who visit. You will leave absolutely stuffed and very happy!

Kona Café at the Polynesian. The Pan-Asian Noodle dish can be made vegan and is very tasty; we have also had the chefs make us special vegan dishes when asked. You can also buy Dole Whip at the Polynesian.

The Wave at the Contemporary has a Curry Vegetarian Stew, and Artist’s Point at Wilderness Lodge has a Vegan Lo Mein. I’ve also had some outstanding vegan meals at California Grill.

These options will give you meals with more flavor and spice than the run-of-the-mill veggie burgers.

So while I find the vegan meals at Magic Kingdom aren’t always as magical as they could be, you won’t go hungry while you’re there!

Apr 222015
 

By Teresa Pitman

Flint

If you haven’t been to Disney’s Animal Kingdom for a while, you’ll be in for a little surprise next time you go. Two little surprises, actually: in the past year, two new gorilla babies – both boys – have been born into the gorilla family troop that guests see when they follow the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.

Baby Cory was born in August, 2014, to a new female who had joined the troop. Disney works with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in determining which males and females from all the zoos in the network should be permitted to mate, to reduce the risk of genetic diseases in their offspring. This female came from the San Diego zoo.

In September, baby Flint was born. He already has a big sister, four-year-old Lily, who is naturally very curious about both babies but also a little put out that her mother has less time to play with her. (Human parents, recognize anything here??)

I had my first chance to see them when I visited WDW in February of this year, and I was completely charmed. Cory’s mother demonstrated how effectively her baby can cling to her body as she moved quickly around their living area. Flint’s mother came and sat by the window as she carefully checked him over, lifting up each little arm and leg to make sure all was well; Lily then joined them and she and Flint played a kind of peek-a-boo game over their mother’s back. Gino, the big silver-backed male and father of Lily, Cory and Flint, took up a watchful position nearby.

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It’s a rare opportunity for visitors to be able to observe a gorilla family in relatively natural surroundings. In the early months, the mothers keep their babies close to them all the time. Once the baby is able to move around on his own, she’ll still keep him close by, but he’ll begin to interact more with the others in the troop.

Like human babies and toddlers, the gorillas like to play with toys. I’ve watched Lily drape a blanket over her head and run around looking like a Halloween ghost, or pile rocks and twigs in a bucket, then dump them out again. Once Flint and Cory are more mobile, they’ll be provided with toys, too.

Dr. Jackie Ogden, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks, told me in a recent interview about some of the gorilla conservation work Disney is involved in. Ogden’s graduate research was on gorillas so they have a special place in her heart. Disney has partnered with others to build a gorilla sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for orphaned or rescued gorillas with the goal of preparing them to be released back into the wild.

“The community is very remote, but the local people are very enthusiastic about the sanctuary. Most of the staff working there are local,” she says. Not only are the gorillas in need of help are cared for, but there is also an emphasis on education for the community, and of finding alternative sources of work and food that doesn’t involve hunting or harming endangered species.

“Our gorillas here in the park are helping their cousins in Africa,” Ogden says. “Guests are encouraged to donate to conservation causes or purchase items made in Africa.”

Disney received re-accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in March 2015. Ogden quotes from the Association’s report on the Disney Parks blog:

  • “The level and commitment to animal care sets the gold standard for our community. Veterinary, nutrition, training, browse program and enrichment programs are state of the art.”
  • “The keeper staff is professional, passionate and engaged.”
  • “Overall safety culture is extraordinarily strong across the organization, and staff training exceeds all expectations.”
  • “Disney’s Animal Kingdom staff has been successful in making conservation a key value of The Walt Disney Company. The current positive impact and future potential of this change cannot be overstated.”
  • “New interpretive programs, including Wilderness Explorers and Wild Africa Trek, add both breadth and depth to program offerings.”

As an animal-lover, knowing that Disney is providing good care to all the animals – not just the gorillas – makes me enjoy my visits that much more. If you go soon, be sure to say hello to Cory and Flint for me. And take the time to chat with the cast members in the area – I promise they will have some entertaining stories about the gorilla babies to share with you.

 

Jan 282015
 

Eating Vegan in Animal Kingdom

 

By Teresa Pitman

In the months before Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened, there were rumors that all the restaurants in the park would be vegan, out of respect for the animals that would be living in the park. You can’t imagine the excitement in my mostly-vegan family when we heard that! We dreamed about enjoying black bean burgers, lentil soups and tofu stir-fries in our favorite vacation spot…

That dream soon ran into reality: those were only rumors and the restaurants that were eventually build include mostly meat-based options.

Don’t worry, though – you’re in Walt Disney World! You will be able to find vegan options that you can enjoy as you visit the animals and prepare to flee from the Yeti.

Here are some of my favorite options:

Snacks:

Animal Kingdom has some excellent vegan snack options.

Stop first at the Gardens Kiosk near “It’s Tough to Be a Bug.” This colorful booth has both vegan and gluten-free snacks (including items from the much-missed Babycakes. Ed. note: Babycakes will be returning to Disney Springs soon, in the form of Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC.). The Cast Members there can also give you information about other dining options. The menu changes from time to time, but usually includes treats such as vegan ice cream (Tofutti), vegan doughnuts, cookies and cupcakes (from Babycakes) and hummus with vegetables. Stuff a few of the packaged items in your bag and head off to enjoy your day.

Near the entrance to the Kilimanjaro Safaris, you’ll find a fruit and vegetable cart. The foods offered do change from time to time, but you can usually find containers of grapes, apples, bananas, cut-up celery and carrot sticks, etc. This vendor also sells vegan soft pretzels with mustard sauce. So good.

My other favorite snack is available at several locations: the chocolate and nut-covered frozen banana. These are wonderful on a hot day! Some of the ice-pops are also vegan (ingredients are listed on the packages, so just ask to see them).

Counter-service:

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Sadly, the counter-service options in Animal Kingdom are limited. At Tamu Tamu refreshments, for example, your only option is the Fruit Salad. The Quinoa salad – which looks so promising, since it even includes tofu – actually has feta cheese mixed in so it is not vegan. And it comes pre-mixed so they can’t prepare it with the cheese left out.

And the black bean burger at Restaurantosaurus? Not vegan.

Mr. Kamal’s kiosk has recently added a vegetarian menu – so recently that I haven’t had a chance to check it out. I understand, though, that the falafel dish (minus the sauce, which contains dairy) is vegan. I would guess that the edamame is as well. I believe the samosas are the same as the ones at Tusker House and not vegan.

You can also get pizza with vegan cheese (Daiya) at Pizzafari.

So, moving on…

Table-service:

Tusker House. Let me say it again: Tusker House!! I love this place. It is like a mini-version of Boma, with great theming and characters to visit your table. The buffet menu varies, but there are generally a good number of vegan options, and I have found the chefs to be VERY accommodating and helpful in preparing vegan versions of some of the items for us. I enjoy the spicier African flavors as well. Fruit is usually the only dessert option, but the chefs can often bring out some vegan ice cream for you (and hey, didn’t you pick up some treats when you were at the Gardens Kiosk?).

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Another option is one that many people don’t think of: Rainforest Café. Located at the entrance/exit to Animal Kingdom, this restaurant has a vegan burger (they call it the Natural Burger) that isn’t anything special but will fill up your tummy after a long day in the parks. You also get to enjoy the jungle décor and occasional storms. I like the bar, too, where the stools have tails and zebra stripes.

The Yak and Yeti restaurant has a Vegetable Lo Mein that can be made with tofu. The noodles have egg in them but you can ask them to substitute rice or rice noodles. You can also ask to substitute tofu (since they have it lying around in the kitchen anyway) for meat in any of the meat dishes. The Maple Tamarind Chicken with tofu replacing the chicken is good, and I’ve heard rave reviews of some of the other dishes with tofu replacing the meat. Just make sure that the chef knows you don’t want any dairy or egg in the sauces, either.

One more possibility, if you find yourself wanting more dining options: take a quick bus ride (or drive your car) to Animal Kingdom Lodge, just a short distance away. There you can eat at Boma, Jiko or Sanaa, all excellent restaurants with an array of vegan options and chefs who will happily prepare something special for you.

As you can see, there are quite a few options that are available for vegan diners. I hope this guide helps you in your dining experience.

Apr 162014
 

By Teresa Pitman

disney with dexter 206We were barely settled in our seats, the host of the show just getting started, when a tour guide wandered in with his little flag on a stick waving over his head. I confess that I groaned just a little. I was feeling a little fed up with tours after a whole passel of teenagers raced in front of me to get in line for the bus that morning.

But I quickly realized that the “tour guide” was just part of the show – the hilarious part. He professed to be afraid of birds, and his lack of knowledge about our feathered friends meant he could ask all the questions we were wondering about but felt too embarrassed to share.

The show? Flights of Wonder, shown several times a day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in a large shaded theater. You might have zipped right past it on your way to Expedition Everest  – and hey, I understand the lure of the Yeti – but you might have seen a cast member or two standing outside the entrance with an owl or hawk perched on one person’s wrist or flying between them. Go ahead – stop for a few minutes and watch this preview, then head on in, find a seat on the benches, and prepare to enjoy yourself.

The theater is under a canvas roof so it is shaded on sunny days and there are large fans to help cool things off in hot weather. The seats are all low benches and the theater is sloped upwards from front to back so everyone has a good view of the stage.

disney with dexter 208Each show is a little different, as the show’s host introduces a variety of birds who perform what look like tricks, but are really just natural behaviors done in response to cues from the host (and rewarded with treats). One bright little bird, for example, stole the “tour guide’s” flag and then returned for the stick. (There were some cheers when that happened, mostly from me – I am not fond of those flags!) A small parrot sang an incredibly clear and pitch-perfect version of “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” and got a round of applause from the crowd.

These birds (while highly entertaining) are just the warm-up. The real audience-pleasers are the larger birds of prey who fly from the stage to another handler at the back of the disney with dexter 223audience, sometimes just inches over the heads of the guests. Just feeling the wind in your hair as the birds’ wings pass over you is a thrill. Another bird flew into the audience to take a dollar bill from a guest’s outstretched hand, and later returned it to the same person. Pretty impressive given the size of the crowd.

As the birds impressed us with their abilities, the show’s host explained why birds are important and what we can do to protect them. Vultures, for example, may not look all that cute and adorable but they play a vital role in getting rid of the carcasses of animals that have died. With each new bird that appeared on stage, our bird-fearing tour guide got a little braver and near the end was actually feeding a bird or two out of his hand.

disney with dexter 213 (2)One part I especially enjoyed was when three women were invited up onto the stage to take a photo of a bird who would be released from the back of the theater to fly towards them. The host played up what a great opportunity this would be to get a close-up of a bird in flight. Of course, what these unsuspecting guests didn’t realize was that the bird would fly right at them – as though he was going to land on their heads – and only swoop up onto the ledge behind them at the last moment. The expressions on their faces were priceless.

At the end of the show – with the tour guide now transformed into a bird-lover – the host and other handler wait with some of the birds who have entertained us to answer any questions and pose for photos. They were very knowledgeable and provided a great opportunity to see some of the birds up close – especially for the little kids.

I’ve seen other bird shows, but I have to say Flights of Wonder has all of them beat. The tour guide makes it funny and entertaining, and having these magnificent birds soaring overhead is definitely awe-inspiring. For a change of pace in your busy park day, take half an hour and get to know some of the beautiful birds that share our planet.

Jan 222014
 

By Teresa Pitman

Rafiki's Planet WatchYou know that Walt Disney loved trains, so you’re not surprised to discover one in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But this is really one of the oddest trains you’ve ever seen. How many trains have seats facing sideways?

The Wildlife Express does.

Climb aboard and take your seat (the nicely themed station is near Kilimanjaro Safaris) and you’ll find yourself looking out on one side of the train as it moves slowly down the track. Keep looking, and you’ll see some of the night-time quarters of the animals from the Safaris. Most of the buildings or pens are labelled with large signs so you know exactly which critters live there, and if you are lucky you may see some of the animals who’ve been kept in their pens for one reason or another. I’ve seen rhinos, giraffes and hippos at various times.

Callista Disney trip 271When the train stops – and there is only one stop! – you will have arrived at one of the often-missed gems of Animal Kingdom: Rafiki’s Planet Watch. Your visit begins with a relaxing walk through the woods. You might want to stop for some of the activities for kids set up along the way (especially if you have a young Wilderness Explorer with you who is trying to complete some badges) and cast members are there, ready to tell you more about some of the animals you’ll see.

But let’s say you just did Expedition Everest seven times in a row…a leisurely stroll down the path between lush gardens might be exactly what you need to recover.

Relaxed now? Good, because you’ve arrived at your destination: Conservation Station. You might want to look first at the huge mural just inside the entrance, with its stunningly detailed paintings of animals – and plenty of hidden Mickeys. I have been told there are actually dozens of them but I’ve only found a couple.

For animal-lovers, this building is a fascinating place. Disney employs several veterinarians to look after the animals, and their examining and operating rooms are right here, with large glass windows so visitors can watch. If you’ve only ever taken your dog or cat to the vet, this is a very different experience! The veterinarians who work here need to know how to care for a wide variety of animals. On any given day you might see a snake undergoing surgery, a Thompson’s gazelle getting his annual check-up or an injured bird having his wing set. Most check-ups are done in the morning, but later in the day, or on days when nothing is scheduled, there will often be videos playing on the TV sets of past animal care treatments.

Another room is home to some of the researchers studying the Animal Kingdom animals. Some, for example, are analyzing the calls and sounds made by the elephants so that we can better understand how they communicate with each other. Others are tracking rehabilitated sea turtles and manatees to learn more about where they travel and how they feed. Various posters and displays in the window tell some of their stories of discovery. Other rooms provide information (and samples!) about the food prepared for the animals and about their habitats.

If you are looking for some characters, Pocahontas and Rafiki are often here and enthusiastic about meeting with visitors.

You may also meet another kind of “character.” Throughout the day, Cast Members will bring out smaller animals such as lizards, birds and small mammals for visitors to see and (often) touch – a great opportunity to learn more about some of these species. (Sometimes they bring out other things too – an alligator’s tooth or samples of “poop” from various creatures.)

Callista Disney trip 274If you didn’t get enough animal interaction that way, step outside to the Affection Section. Be sure to wash your hands first – you don’t want to carry any germs to the animals. Inside, you’ll find pigs, goats and sheep wandering freely, as well as some other animals behind fences that aren’t quite so friendly. Brushes are available to groom the animals.

This area is another example of Disney’s efforts to meet the animal’s needs as well as the interests of their guests. There are roped-off areas where the animals can go if they don’t want to interact with people. Having this available helps the animals to feel less stressed, and many of them clearly enjoy being brushed or patted by the people who visit. Take a few minutes to chat with one of the Cast Members on hand as well – they know the animals well and can tell you fascinating facts about them. They may even show you how the animals are trained to accept medical treatments and to let people examine them for possible health problems.

It’s also interesting to watch the animals interacting with each other – some of the goats are bossy and determined to get the best spots in the shade, others are sneaky and still others just accept their spots at the bottom of the pile. A lot like people, I’d say.

When you are ready, you can wander back down the path and catch the Wilderness Express again for another sideways-seated ride back to the rest of the park. On a busy day, Planet Watch can be a peaceful break that takes Disney’s message about nature and conservation to a deeper level.

And you might even get to touch real elephant poop!