Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hooray for Halloween (in Orlando it Starts in September)

People often complain about the Christmas season starting early. Once upon a time its kickoff was after Thanksgiving, but now it's here before the last jack o' lantern leaves the shelves. And speaking of jack o'lanterns, Halloween starts earlier now, too, especially since I live in Tourist Land. In Chicago the local haunted houses opened in mid-October. In Central Florida, they usually kick off in the last weekend of September.

Our two main Florida gigs are Halloween Horror Nights (Universal Orlando) and Howl-O-Scream (Busch Gardens Tampa). Both are big blow-out bashes full of haunted houses, scare zones and shows. I celebrated my first Halloween when I was literally only days old, so my blood runs orange at this time of year.

This year, I thought the fun would start today (Thursday, October 23) with Scream Cam at Busch Gardens. Each year us lucky media folk get a sneak peak at one of their houses, with a camera aimed directly at our faces to capture our screams. I figure that's a fair enough trade off. This year it started even earlier; I received an invitation to the Team Preview of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal on Wednesday. It's mainly for employees, but this year they invited some bloggers to come for a very special treat. We were issued flip cams and allowed to do something that is normally a HUGE no-no: film inside the houses. We only got an hour to do it, and then Universal collected the cameras to edit what we had captured. We all had to agree not to post any details of our sneak preview until Thursday night/Friday morning as midnight rolled into a new day.

My husband and I decided to park in the garage, even though we get free valet with our Premier passes. Uh oh, bad idea! The line stretched so far back that for a minute I thought I was flashing back to the opening days of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We get free Preferred, which is in a much better location in the garage, but I had no idea whether they would honor it at night. They did, thank goodness! Just another reason why I'm a huge Premier pass fan; they make it up in Valeet and Preferred parking fees alone, not to mention that you get free non-peak Halloween Horror Nights tickets too.

CityWalk was jammed back with people, but we finally made it to the globe and entrance arch where we were to meet the P.R. person. I itched with anticipation as we watched the crowd swell. It looked like a peak night, not just a limited preview. My husband taped the video that plays over the entrance; since it's outside, we didn't have to worry about the same prohibitions as posting our inside footage. Soon enough we were escorted inside, along with bloggers from the major Halloween Horror Nights websites. It felt good to be among people who are just obsessed with Halloween events as I am. Each of us was assigned to an escort, handed a flip camera with brand new batteries and turned loose in the park. Thankfully I own the exact same type of flip camera so there was no learning curve.

My husband had been studying the event map on (one of the sites that was also there) and had made some sort of plan in his mind. I had mentally plotted out which houses I wanted to see, but I deferred to him because he seemed to have created his plan for efficiency and I wanted to tape in as many houses as possible. I knew it would be a bit different than my usual experience since I would be narrated and wielding the flip, but it will still give me (and hopefully my readers) a flavor of what they were in for.

Actually the worst part of using the flip was the fact that Security is so engrained with the "No video or photography" rule that a good part of my tape audio is, "You have to put that camera away," spoken by various Team Members in various houses. I tried wielding my yellow neck badge but it's not very readable in the dark so I usually had to convince them that yes, I really did have permission to do it. Oh well, I'd much rather have them be paranoid because I hate it when people try to do flaash pictures during the event (at least our cameras were not very intrusive). Hopefully they'll keep up the same level of enforcement.

We actually made it through five of the eight houses with the camera and got some scare zone footage too. We then hit the last three houses and the Bill & Ted show. I am still waiting for the edited footage, which I should get sometime on Friday, but in the meantime here are some quick impressions of the houses. I don't want to go into detail because this was technical rehearsal, so things may change, plus I don't want to spoil anything.

Horror Nights: The Hallowed Past - A must do for any Halloween Horror Nights fan, if only for the wonderful memorabilia and scenes from favorite housese of years past. I won't say which ones, but my most cringe-inducing scene of all time was there and it still made me cringe as much as ever. I will warn that the spinning tunnel of doom can be found in here; I don't consider that a spoiler, since you find it somewhere every year. I want to go through this one many more times just to catch the amazing detail. This is one of the two houses entered by the Barney theater.

Catacombs: Black Death Rising - I definitely felt like I was in the catacombs in this one, and there were a ton of good jump scares and plenty of disorientation. Overall I actually noticed quite a few strobes this year, which is one of my favorite haunted house elements because of that disorientation factor. It primes you for the attack. This is the other Barney theater house.

Havoc: Dogs of War - Another good house for jump scares, startles and disorientation. It's behind Simpsons/Men in Black.

The Orfanage: Ashes to Ashes - This is Cindy's house (in the Jaws queue); she's the"lost icon" who has finally come into her own. I didn't get a lot of quality scares in this one, although that could well improve as the event goes on. I was more intrigued by the use of fire...yes, you will see real fire. I was amazed that Universal was actually going to use it since safety is a huge concern for haunted houses. They do it in a way that looked plenty safe even to a fire paranoic person like me.

Psychoscareapy: Echoes of Shadybrook - I love the Psychoscareapy franchise, especially "Home for the Holidays," but this is a much darker version of the theme. Don't expect a comedy house with light-hearted lunatics. This soundstage house is a dark spin on things with some very interesting effects.

Hades: Gates of Ruin - This one (a soundstage house) will assail your nose as well as your eyes, and it's another great jump scare house.

Legendary Truth - I don't want to spoil the effects in this one (a soundstage house), but trust me, it's good...really, really good. They had one particular effect I've only seen once before, back in a haunted house in Indiana. It made me leap in the air because it was so totally unexpected. I love how Universal brings back some of the good old stuff but ups the ante with the new stuff too.

Zombiegeddon - This is the year's comedy house, over in the Disaster queue. Everybody loves zombies, although quite honestly I must say I liked the scare zone even better than the house. The zone mixed zombies and Mardi Gras. Dfinitely a winning combination.

I know my opinion will change...often quite drastically...over the course of the event so I just wanted to give some generalities. For example, last year I was really "meh" on Leave it to Cleaver, but it became my favorite house by the end of the season. Same thing with Doomsday in 2008, ironically located in the same spot.

I'm hoping to have that coveted in-house video before we leave for the official Halloween Horror Nights grand opening on Friday, but in the meantime here is the video that plays at Universal's front entrance archway. When you're done watching it, check out my Orlando Examiner articles, including Halloween Horror Nights tips, by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Little Mailbox of Horrors

It's fun being a travel writer who specializes in theme parks...well, most of the time. I get to ride roller coasters, review resorts and restaurants. and generally have a good time all in the name of work. However, things turn sinister when September rolls around. That means it's almost October...and almost time for Central Florida's annual terrorfests, Halloween Horror Nights at Universal and Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens.

My first clue that my favorite season was near was getting the finger from Busch Gardens. You can see it for yourself below:

The severed finger in a jar came courtesy of Sylvie, the 2010 icon and head of the rock band MyX. As you can see, she has a unique way of getting back at former boyfriends (and hapless guys who just happen to cross her path).

Then, along came an innocent looking letter from Universal, including a flash drive inviting me to the media opening event and purporting to contain a special sneak peek of the event:

Alas, poor Heather Summers (the narrator) is stopped in her tracks by Fear himself. He's the 2010 icon, and you can see what he does to her by clicking here for my Examiner article, which contains the video.

But that wasn't all. Soon enough, the following letter showed up in my mailbox. Apparently poor Heather was having more trouble with Fear:

And what could be in this special box?

It's all wrapped up in a bloody piece of burlap:

Aha, a special branding iron with the mark of Fear:

Here's the XX branding iron in all its glory:

I'll be covering both Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream this weekend, so click here to join me on Twitter for live tweets.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dining with Donald and Goofy at Disney's Vero Beach Resort, plus champagne brunch

Note: This is a companion piece to my Examiner article, which can be read by clicking here.

What would a Disney resort be without a character breakfast? Disney's Vero Beach resort is no exception. It has a breakfast with Donald and Goofy on Saturday mornings, so of course my husband and I had to check it out. It's held in Shutters and runs till 11 a.m. We decided to make a late reservation so it could act as both breakfast and lunch. That also turned out to be perfect timing for the character appearances, since both Donald and Goofy showed up shortly after we were seated:

We got photos and autographs with the duo:

There were plenty of kids in the restaurant, but I noticed we weren't the only childless adults either. We watched the character interactions, and they spent a lot of time with the little ones. It was more relaxed than many of the crowded character meals at Disney World (I highly recommend the Garden Grill at Epcot if you want a relaxed experience; it's probably our favorite character meal on property, and Mickey and friends usually make it around to every twice there). We watched the wee ones having a blast playing with Donald and Goofy.

Mickey wasn't there in person, but he was represented by the tableware:

After our photo and autograph session, it was time for food. The breakfast is plated, but it's all you can eat. It starts off with a fruit plate and a nice variety of danishes (I saved a couple for a snack later):

Mickey was on the butter too:

And of course there were Mickey waffles! In addition, you get breakfast potatoes, sausage, bacon and scrambled eggs. There was more than enough for the two of us, although hubby did request another Mickey waffle:

I definitely recommend this meal because I never feel like a trip to a Disney property is complete without eating with the characters.

There is a champagne brunch at Shutters on Sundays that doesn't feature characters, but it does have bloody Marys and mimosas:

It is a buffet and is more upscale, with a large variety of seafood, plus sushi, cheeses and fruits. You can get a made to order omlette or choose from various hot items like fish, eggs benedict, carved to order meats, crepes, crab soup and plenty of other goodies. Some of the cold selections and the omlette station are shown below:

The buffet was a great send-off before we headed home on Sunday. We booked 11 a.m., which gave us time to pack the car and dine right before hitting the road. It is a special treat for seaood lovers like my husband, although I was quit content with the eggs benedict and omlettes.

I can't really compare the champagne brunch to anything at Disney World, but it did remind me of the Palo brunch on the Disney Magic and Wonder cruise ships. It wasn't quite as upscale as Palo, but it was a hearty meal with many tempting items.

Fine dining and fun dining at Disney's Vero Beach Resort (trip report, part two)

(Note: the companion article to this blog entry, on Examiner, can be found by clicking here.) There are two sit-down restaurants on-site at Disney's Vero Beach resort, as well as a quick service outlet called Bleachers near the pool. The Green Cabin Room, which is the lounge, also serves food during certain hours. There are plenty of off-site restaurants, too, if you want to save money or explore other areas, but my husband and I set our sights on the resort options. Since we were only visiting for a weekend, we wanted to make sure we tried the two sit-down eateries. We've heard that the burgers are excellent, too, but alas, we didn't have time for a fast meal on our whirlwind trip.

Sonya's is the more upscale of the two sit-down restaurants, on a par with the signature dining places at Disney World. Shutters isn't too far behind it, although the atmosphere is more casual. You may get sticker shock if you're not used to Disney World restaurant prices, but DVC members do get a discount.

We wanted to experience both fine dining and fun dining. On the fun side, Shutters has a character breakfast and a Sunday champagne brunch. But first, let's start with the fine dining, which encompasses our arrival night dinner at Shutters and our Saturday dinner at Sonya's.

Both Shutters and Sonya's offer reservations, and they accept walk-ups too. We did a walk-up on Friday night at Shutters, but we made reservations for our other meals at the check-in desk when we arrived. Below is the sign that greets you at Shutters, which is located on the pool side of the resort (you walk through it to get to Sonya's):

The overall menu is seafood heavy, but there are other options for people who prefer turf to surf. We started off with the conch fritters on our server's recommendation, and they were amazing! My husband wanted the calamari because the dipping sauce sounded appealing, so we got some of that sauce as well as what regularly comes with the fritters. We most definitely didn't regret the choice:

What's a Disney restaurant without fresh bread? In this case, it was corn bread (yum) and salt-topped rolls:

For dinner, I chose the triple tail, which I had never had before. It was the fresh fish of the day, and it turned out to be very mild, like a mahi or tilapia. It was served with a mango sauce, field greens and delicious vanilla rum flavored mashed potatoes:

My husband opted for the Old Bay-seasoned steam pot. He loved mussels but wanted a bit of a variety, so it was perfect for him. He gave me the crab legs, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could actually taste the seasoning. I've gotten steamed crab legs at Joe's Crab Shack with Old Bay, and I've never been able to taste it there:

Initially we were sad we had missed the seafood buffet at Shutters, which is only offered on Thursdays, but soon enough got over it because we both loved our meals. The only regret was getting too full to try dessert.

The next night we went to Sonya's, which was dressier than we expected. I don't know if there is a specific dress code, but based on the other patrons we were glad we had brought golf shirts (some were even more dressed up than business casual). You get to Sonya's by walking through Shutters:

I love the artisan cheese plates at the Disney World signature restaurants and was very excited to see something similar offered at Sonya's. Alas, I forgot to take a picture of my cheese plate, which included four varieties with raisins on the vine, honeycomb, and home made compote, but it got a big thumbs up from me. Of course, I could probably live on Disney cheese plates. My husband liked his curried she crab soup, as did I, but we are both big curry fans.

Sonya's features bread with three butters. One is regular, one has roasted red peppers, and one has garlic and chives:

Sonya's had a triple tail, but I forced myself to try something different. I got the salmon because of its preparation style, which included heirloom tomatoes. It was indeed a tasty option, and I shared the huge portion with hubby:

Of course, he had his own big meal to deal with. He took our server's suggestion and opted for the scallops. They are as large as they look, and the sauce was a great addition:

Once again, we were much too full to have dessert.

In my next entry, I will report on our dining fun hanging out with Donald and Goofy for breakfast and enjoying mimosas and bloody Marys at the champagne brunch. Click here if you missed part one of this trip report.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Disney's Vero Beach, a comprehensive trip report (part one)

Note: This is a companion article to my Examiner article. Click here if you haven't read it already.

My husband and I have discussed visiting Disney's Vero Beach ever since we moved to Florida. For those who are not familiar with it, it's a 211-room Disney Vacation Club resort on the Atlantic Ocean about two hours away from Disney World. It's not near theme parks, nor much of anything else, so it's the perfect place for some rest, relaxation, swimming and sand castle building. There are restaurants and activities for kids and families, like a pool with a water slide, bike rentals, and miniature golf, spa, and music in the Green Cabin Room lounge in the evenings. We thought it would be a neat place to spend a weekend, so we were very excited when Disney invited us to check it out.

There are several ways to get to Vero Beach from the Disney area (192, 528/95 and the Florida Turnpike). We chose the turnpike on a friend's advice, even though it takes you a bit out of yoour way and racks up tolls. It was worth it, as the two-hour drive was smooth sailing. We were greeted by a familiar Disney Vacation Club sign at the entrance:

Below is the check-in area. We arrived on Friday afternoon around 4 p.m. and there were a few people, but no line. Things did get busier at the desk on Saturday, although never unreasonble. Our room was ready (check-in time is actually 3) so we were able to park in the garage below the building and head right upstairs.

Our room was in the main building on the second floor, right by the elevators. The good part is that it was extremely convenient. We didn't need to use the elevator because there is a nearby staircase down to the main level from that floor, and the Green Cabin Room was on our level for easy access in the evenings. I was worried about hallway traffic because of the elevator, but I didn't really notice much. I always travel with a while noise machine, which helps a lot. The cute towel animal that was waiting to greet us is pictured below. The bad part was that we could hear our next door neighbors through the wall. Thankfully they were not wild late-night partiers. There was also a wedding on our second night, and I could hear the DJ and music in our room. I think they cleared out around 11 p.m. tho' so it didn't disrupt our rest.

Below is the cute towel animal that was waiting for us in our room:

There are DVC villas with separate bedrooms in other parts of the resort, including three bedroom freestanding cottages that reminded me of the treehouses at Saratoga Springs, but ours was a standard room with two beds. Size-wise it was equivalent to the deluxe resorts at Disney World It also had DVC amenities like a small refrigerator, microwave oven, paper plates, plastic cutlery, a toaster and coffee maker. You can see the beds below:

We also had a table and two chairs, which would be handy for eating in the room (although we stuck with the on-site restaurants):

There was a flat screen television with a DVD player. The radio by the beds has a docking station for iPods and MP3 players too, and the electrical outlet is well positioned for plugging in computers, cell phones, etc. DVC members get free wireless internet, or you can purchase it:

Below is the bathroom area, which has a toilet and tub that can be closed off from the sink. The hairdryer is hanging on the wall:

Below is the kitchenette area:

There are towels you can use at the pool or out at the beach:

All of the rooms have balconies. Ours overlooked the parking area and was tucked into the roof line so it had a solid wall, but most of the others have see-through railings. That's especially nice if you have an ocean view room:

Here is an example of the artwork in the lobby areas:

Here is the view just outside our room, looking at the staircase and Green Cabin Room, which faces the ocean:

There are many little sitting areas and alcoves around the hotel:

Here is our first view of the beach:

The pool has a neat little water slide and is kept warm and comfy. There is also a nearby hot tub, which we used in the evening. You can get food, rent bikes and play miniature golf in this area too. The pool is a very popular spot:

More beach shots. You can rent chairs and umbrellas:

The water was stirred up by Hurricane Igor during our visit:

Some made a sand castle earlier in the day:

More beach views:

Here are the various rental rates:

There is also a sign listing beach conditions and warnings:

We had a very full experience as we tried to do as much as possible in our brief weekend visit. The next parts of this trip report will cover the on-site restaurants, including Sunday brunch and a character meal; the spa; and fun activities, including miniature golf and the evening campfire (smores...mmmm!).