Where to stay when booking a Tokyo Disneyland Vacation?

Let’s assume that you are a major Disney fan who has probably never been to Japan before and your number one priority on this trip is to visit Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea, because you are Disney nerd and have to see ALL the Disney parks… but you have either never been to Japan before (or not often), and as such you ALSO want to see Tokyo!  So, that said: Where do you stay?

In short, the answer is to find lodgings as near as possible to Tokyo Station. Look for either hotels, and/or (if you want to save money) any of the many Airbnbs that are an easy walk to the JR line’s Tokyo station, on what I like to refer to as the green circle (i.e., Yamanote) line. (If you want a GOOD and cheap Airbnb in that neighborhood, and I’m talking under $67/night for your own apartment, and there are more than few like that, you’ll need to book well in advance, as the early bird gets the worm.) I strongly suggest doing this rather than staying at any of the Disney Resort hotels out in Urayasu City, next to the JR Maihama Station which is located directly adjacent to Tokyo Disneyland (but which is NOT Tokyo). Here’s why….

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The red arrow points to the Maihama Station, which is directly adjacent to the Disney properties.

Firstly, Tokyo is NOT Orlando, and while Orlando might not have much to draw you away from the Disney parks, Tokyo does. That said, Tokyo station sits right in the center of historic Tokyo; it is just east of the government buildings, the Emperor’s Palace, and it is an easy walk away from the Ginza, which is just south of it (i.e., wedged firmly between the historic and the modern);

Additionally, the station sits at the nexus of the red Marunouchi Line, which will take you directly to Tokyo Disney, and the green Yamanote line, which will take you to pretty much everywhere else that you as a tourist might want to go while in Tokyo. And while from the above map, Tokyo might not look so big, the reality is from Shinjuku (the station on the far left of the circle, and also one of the major Tokyo hotspots) to Disney by train will cost close to $4, and take you a good 40 minutes to an hour of travel time, where as from Tokyo station to Disney is a short 15 minute hop that costs all of around $2.20.

And, as I will discuss in more detail later in this post, the station is an attraction in and of itself.

Let’s face it, Orlando is essentially a midsized American town with a population of only around 270+ thousand, making it only the 73rd largest city (out of 19,354 “incorporated places”) in the country. While established in 1875 (mostly as a farming town near which rich people from northern cities, like Chicago, went to spend their winters after the first highways were built — and hence still has some nice historic homes from that period in the adjacent suburbs, like the aptly named Winter Park), the whole of the Orlando greater metropolitan area (population 2,387,138 million) does not in fact, other than some good food and a TON of amusement parks have much going for it. In fact, of that population 32.4% of the inhabitants, a 2003 study found, owe their employment to the Disney parks; and this number does NOT include the jobs created by Universal, Sea World, etc.  The whole area really doesn’t have ALL that much to offer in the way of history and/or culture; granted, there’s a decent ballet, some local theater groups (made up of mostly park employees yearning to be noticed by Broadway or Hollywood), a tiny handful of museums (if you don’t include tourist traps like chocolate museums) but really not much. Yes it is one of the entertainment capitols of the world, with an unusually VAST number of amusement park options within its metropolitan area, and hence an equally large selection of top of the line restaurants drawn there to feed the affluent locals, and tourists who want to eat outside of the parks; but I mean really, how many people go to the Orlando area for their vacation, and even bother stepping foot in downtown Orlando’s museums (let alone Kissimmee proper) or even know that those historic homes are even there? Let alone do any of them care? In fact, till Disney, in the mid 1960’s surreptitiously decided to buy up land in order to build his 2nd Disney park in the undeveloped areas between Orlando, Florida and Kissimmee, most people had never heard of the place. So if you go to Orlando, really… most visitors want to be on or right near the parks, because that is what they come for as a tourists.

Tokyo is not that, this is FRIGGING Tokyo! Tokyo’s history dates back to the late twelfth century, and has been the capital city of Japan since 1868. Historically it’s one of the largest and oldest and yet most modern cities on the planet, with a city population of 9.2+ MILLION (versus Orlando’s 270,934 thousand), with a greater metropolitan population of 13 million (to Orlando’s 2.4+ million)! In fact since 1968, it has been the world’s largest city. In terms of culture and history, it’s up there with London & Paris, let alone New York City,  for criminy sakes!!  It’s one of the best, most most modern, most exciting cities in the whole world with some of the best food on the planet (in Tokyo the bar is raised so high that even places like Denny’s are forced to be better than they would be here in the US)! So, as much as I LOVE me my Disney, if you come to Tokyo and don’t take some time to see Tokyo, especially if you’re someone whose not already very well aquainted with the place … then I’m sorry to say it, but something is seriously wrong with you.

Now granted, the Disney corporation wants you to stay at one of their hotels, or at least at one of the non-Disney owned hotels located on what is ostensibly their Island…. and of course that is an option. There are a HUGE number of hotels options scattered around the island, and in the case of DisneySea, there is one that is essentially inside the park. And you could, if that’s what you want to do, come to Tokyo Disney and JUST see all of what is on offer within the Disney bubble. The Hotels are of course very nice, and have a lot of nice amenities — as is ALWAYS true for Disney properties

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While there’s one of these princess beauty salons inside the park, there’s also one at the hotel
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As noted elsewhere, convienience stores in Japan area a whole different experience, and the one located in the hotel specializes in all products Disney, along with a really nice selection of affordable eats to take up to your room or eat there …. (in fact I am pretty sure that the same seafood gratin meal I ate freshly made while inside the park was being sold cold in the refrigerator here)

And Disney has built a fairly large mall called Ikspiari (similar to Disney Springs) with over a hundred businesses (shops, restaurants, a food court, etc.,) as well as a 16 screen movie theater, that is attached to the train line that links Disneyland and DisneySea.

And by the way, if you go to DisneySea, even though you could walk everywhere, you will REALLY DO want to buy a ticket for the special Disney train extension, in part because it kind of rocks.

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but mostly because, while it’s an easy five-minute walk from Maihama station to Disneyland, it’s a good 20 minute+ walk from there to Disney Sea… and who in the heck wants to do that at the end of along day at the park?

… but the reality is if you stay at the Disney resort, while you’re very close to Disney and save maybe a 40 min total in commute time per day (depending on how long it takes you to walk from your hotel to Tokyo Station)… there’s really not anywhere near as much to do out there as there is in Tokyo proper. And if you have never been to Toyko, even just the walk from your hotel to the train, or hanging out for a late night bite (the park and the mall essentially close around 10pm, while Tokyo is a 24 hour town) after returning from the park, will give you a taste of the place. In fact, you could easily spend a full day just exploring the maze that is Tokyo train station, because with its two hotels, art museum, multiple department stores and independent shops… and lord knows how many restaurants, it arguably has way more to offer than Disney’s tiny Ikspiari does.

For those who don’t know, Tokyo Disneyland is located on what at this point is mostly an artificially constructed island that sits in Tokyo Bay. While there’s always been a small island in the area, which is the Edo River’s delta, that previously held a tiny fishing village, the reality is that island was greately expanded through the creative use of garbage. There are in fact a whole series of these constructed islands in the bay, and ALL of them are essentially Tokyo’s Garbage dump. Once you get outside of the resort, what you’ll find is a small sleepy bedroom community for those who either work at the parks, or can’t afford to live in Tokyo proper, i.e., not much. You’re really, in my own opinion, better off staying near Tokyo station.

Halloween at Three Disney Parks, worldwide: Paris, Tokyo, & Orlando

Every year, all of the Disney parks celebrate a selection of the major ‘western’ holidays, and this includes Halloween. As no two parks are exactly alike, neither do any of them do the Halloween festivities alike. As such, I’ve decided to dedicate a blog post to those differences — As I experienced them. So far I’ve been lucky enough to be in three of the six Disneyland parks during Halloween: Paris in 2008, Tokyo in 2013, and Orlando in 2015 (the only one called the Magic Kingdom instead of Disneyland).

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So for instance, while Disney bounding (wearing modern street clothes that echo Disney characters) is something you’ll see year round at the US parks (if you know what you’re looking for)

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The girl on the left is Disney Bounding Snow White, the other girl is doing Minnie mouse

full-out costumes/Cosplay for anyone above the age of 14 are not allowed at any of the parks, in order to protect the brand and more importantly for fear of people confusing staff with visitors; except, that is, during the Halloween festivities (although even that is regulated, and the rules –often as reflection of security concerns — vary by park). That said, the extent to which the regular customers embrace that varies wildly both individually and culturally. That said, each of the parks has a very different ‘flavor’ as to how Halloween is done.

 

Paris Disney: where Spooky and eerie Halloweens rule

On October 29, 2008 I was in Disneyland Paris; this was back when it was still called Euro Disney Resort, and controlled not by the US Disney corporation but rather by local interests, and as such, much may have changed in the last 10 years in how Halloween is celebrated. To be honest … my experience of the park at that time was that, as a whole sucked rocks so bad that I was not at all surprised when a few years later I heard that Disney US had suspended any expansion plans, and initiated a take-back of control of the park; it was a process that began with the aforementioned name change, and that was completed just last year — so that they have only recently announced plans to begin the expansion that had been intended from when the park first opened in 1992. When I visited, it had been open about 16 years, was managed still by a subsidiary, (created I think in order to make the French feel like they were in control of the thing…) and well, like I said it sucked… BAD. The staff was impressively lazy and rude (oh have I got stories!!), the bathrooms was offensively dirty and smelly, and well… a far cry from “The happiest place on earth.”

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All of the Disney parks are intentionally designed to provide similar yet unique experiences, as a draw for folks like me to visit all of them, and Paris has some really good rides. For example, while I think EVER park has a variation of the “Haunted Mansion,” most of these rides tend to be more fun and quirky then they are spooky or scary, with the exception of the Paris version. Called “Phantom Manor,” this ride dark to the point of being down right creepy; unlike the other versions it includes a cohesive story line that is intentionally eerie. (Read this story synopsis to see just how much).
(Also watch this ‘ride-through’ YouTube video shot in 2015, and even if you don’t speak French you’ll note that music is also a heck of a lot spookier than at the other rides.)

Here’s also an interesting hour-long documentary on YouTube about what the Imagineers where going for when they developed the Disneyland Paris’ Phantom Manor, if you’re so inclined.

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The Phantom Manor decorated for Halloween, complete with the cast member in the green gown, with a pumpkin head, standing on its balcony behaving ghoulishly towards the crowds

ANYWAY, back to the topic at hand…. the same way that Disneyland Paris does a creepier haunted mansion, it also has a much creepier Halloween than the other parks do. Rather than the normal array of Disney characters posing for photos with the guests, you’re more likely to see staffers dressed as happy Jack-o-lantern and smiling ghouls were everywhere. As are Pumpkins, ghoulish decorations and the almost constant presence of orange paint, so that from the moment you walk into Main street, you are CLEAR that Halloween is being celebrated at Disney.

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Note the orange paint on the ground in he upper right corner

For the kids there were bright red candy apples (ala the poison apple from Snow White), and face-painting

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Halloween themed gifts and collectables

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And pumpkin themed decorations, both to look at and to have one’s picture taken with

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All of these is relatively normal, although the more you looked at the decorations, the more they became dark, grotesque and marginally perverted.

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Children posing with burial vaults?
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There’s something vaguely “Little Shop of Horrors“-esq about this decoration
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I’m not sure what is going on with this skull, but I surely didn’t expect to see something like this at a Disney park
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Is it me, or is this dark-o-lantern eating the brains of character below her?

So yes,Halloween at Disneyland Paris’ like it’s haunted mansion ride, is a good deal darker and more ghoulish than what one would expect from a Disney attraction.

 

Tokyo Disney: subtlety and nuances of Japanese culture

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On October 24th, 2013, while working in Seoul, South Korea as a professor, during one of the school holidays I had a chance to visit Tokyo, mostly with the intention of going to Tokyo Disneyland (YES, when I go to Tokyo I want to go to Disney, what’s your point?). This was actually my 2nd, or possibly third visit. The first time(s?) I went was back in the mid 1990’s while I was doing a summer internship with Eisai Pharmaceuticals in Tokyo. This (third?) visit in 2013 was my first chance to see the adjacent DisneySea park, which opened it’s doors in 2001. While there are things about the Tokyo Disney parks that frustrate me the Tokyo parks are among my favorites, in large part because they offer some of the best people watching opportunities. (Among the annoyances: the ATM’s in the park do NOT accept foreign bank cards — the mind boggles, especially since the food carts are cash only. For the restaurants you need a preexisting reservation, or you have to stand in line, literally — and sometimes for over an hour. There is no ‘come back at around 2:00’ with a txt messaging system if something opens up earlier, like in the states. And unlike the US parks there’s no service that allows you to spend your money at will and have all your purchases sent to the front gate for later pick up.)

The major reason the people watching is so good is that the Japanese love all things ‘Kawaii, aka, cute‘ to the point of a national obsession, and when the Japanese go to Disneyland they embrace that element of all things Disney with childlike abandon. As a result, wearable for sale items, like Disney ears, hats etc., exist in a much larger variety than in the USA, and they are pretty much ALL gender neutral. Unlike the USA where almost everything is Minnie Mouse (with the requisite bow), since men and boys are as likely to want to wear these things as women, Disney provides. So, not surprisingly, when they celebrate Halloween, they want to embrace the cute (and not the scary, like in Paris), and Disney delivers on that end as well.

That and, as the Japanese also appreciate subtlety in aesthetic (Shibui),  the holiday is a lot less, “in your face’ than it was in Paris.

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The above image for instance is Disney Main street during the Halloween period, compares it to the pictures of the same local in Paris that I posted and you’ll noticed a distinct difference. In fact but for the orange flowers on the lamp-post there really isn’t much in the way of Halloween happening. A little further into the park, just past main street, and you begin to see decorations,

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but again the decorations are no where as near in your face as in Paris ones, in fact its as though you’re being eased into Halloween. As there are bigger ones to come, behind the castle. Think of the parks this way, you enter the park through World Bazar (otherwise known as Main street USA) at 6:00 (where there was almost nothing in the way of holiday decorations), while it is possible to exit from there directly to AdventureLand, MOST people keep going straight, towards the castle, which is at the center of the clock.

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Once they’ve reached central park, most people will then go left to Adventureland which in Tokyo has New Orleans theme/Pirates of the Caribbean, 7:00 on the map, but it really isn’t till you hit

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Westernland (9:00) that you start to see decorations, and these are for the most part, up on top of building, rather than down at ground level (i.e., in your face)

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Note how the decorations mimic actual carved pumpkins, and are fun, rather than something out of child’s nightmare, like in they were in Paris… also older Japanese women will often use an outing to Disney as an excuse to wear their Kimono.

Even those decorations are not the garish bright orange that we saw in Paris, but a more subdued naturalistic looking pumpkin type decorations that could almost pass for real.

When you leave Westernland (10:00), heading towards where Crittercountry and Fantasyland meet — where the haunted mansion is located, the decorations get much more vibrant, but still cute, and with a lot of pumpkins that almost look real.

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Note all the people politely lined up in order to have a staff member take their pictures with the decorations. (In Japan this is done with the customer’s cameras, I was just there a few weeks ago, and they still don’t have the photo services with professional photographers at the ready, that you see at the Magic Kingdom.

And then of course, there are more of them around the Haunted Mansion (please forgive the poor quality of the photos), if anything, the tree of jack-o-lanterns that sat before it is probably the scarriest decoration in the whole park

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Forgive the poor quality of these photos, my old iphone 4s wasn’t up to the job

When you get into Fantasyland at 9:00, that is where you the colors and decorations become intense, but by this point you’ve been eased into it, so it not in any way shocking to the sensibilities, like in Paris. (If you DO go to Tokyo Disneyland I strongly suggest going on the Winnie the Pooh ride, there’s nothing like it in any of the other parks — it does NOT ride on tracks — see this video.)

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And then, if you enter Toontown section of the Disney park, which is designed for young children, that is when the decorations become their most extreme, but EVERYTHING in that section of the park is oversized and cartoonish, so it’s in keeping…

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A common thing at the park is to see girls in pairs who have gone to extreme lengths to dress alike, like these girls have… also note the little girl in the duck costume

After Toontown, Tomorrowland didn’t have much going on in the way of Halloween decorations, so that the total effect is of the most extreme decorations all being towards the back of the park (10:00 to 2:00, if viewing the map as a clock)

In addition to decorations, Tokyo Disney had some Halloween/orange themed eats (had all of them, they weren’t bad… although I remember wondering why the cream in the doughnut was orange flavored instead of pumpkin).

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One of the “big things” at Tokyo Disney is there are popcorn carts everywhere, but (unlike in the states where they’re pretty much either buttered or caramel, with the most distinctive thing about the carts being each has a different character spinning the wheel)

in Japan (sort of like their obsession for flavored Kit Kat bars) there’s a WIDE variety of flavors come of which change seasonally, and some of those can get a bit wacky… the curry smells better than it tastes (in my opinion), and I strongly suggest avoiding the shrimp flavored popcorn.  (And here’s a few different videos I found on YouTube of people taste testing various flavors)

That said, just like at the popcorn places in the US parks, Tokyo Disneyland sells collectible popcorn cases that vary with the themes of the rides, or major holidays like Halloween. The major difference I’ve found between the two is that the US ones seem to be intended for single use and hence fall-apart quickly — I purchased a vampire Mickey at DisneyWorld’s Halloween party and it fell apart as soon as I got it home — the Japanese popcorn cases are impressively durable; in Japan if you bring it back on subsequent visits you will get a small discount on the cost of a refill, so they are built with that in mind; after I purchased the one pictured below, I gave it to the 7-year-old daughter of the friends I was staying with, she and it was reported to me that she continued to use it for about a year afterwards as a purse, in addition to bringing it with her to Disney for popcorn refills. That is how strong these suckers are.

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Flavored popcorns at Tokyo DisneyLand and DisneySea, and the special Halloween case being offered

And of course there is a special Halloween influence to the parades

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But as I said, some of my favorite aspects of Tokyo Disney is the people watching, because just as the whole Cosplay movement began in Japan, the Japanese are far more likely ‘enthusiastically’ embrace the opportunity to show up to the parks in FULL costume (this article was posted 2015 two years after my visit —  at which point it had gotten so extreme, seriously check out the article, that in 2016 I heard that Disney had finally reeled them back in a bit) than other folks do. Back when I went in 2013, the trend was still a bit more laid back, but still impressive. Then, as I noted below the picture above, one of common trends was seeing girls coordinating their outfits, and the other is men who are unabashed in wearing cute stuff alongside the women (something you’d almost never see in the states).

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Two middle-aged Japanese housewives embracing the orange: standing up they were also coordinated, but in a much more subtle way than younger girls

That said, what really blew my mind was I saw a few different couples (men with their girlfriends and or wives) where the wife was dressed normally, but man was dressed in what the Japanese refer to as “Lolita Fashion” a trend that’s been going on in Japan for about as long as I can remember (so at least 30 years — I remember buying some of this back when I was in my 20’s and Japanese sizes still fit me). Think of it as a MUCH cuter version of Goth fashion.

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Don’t be confused, the person in the purplish dress is most definitively a male, the one in the Alice in Wonderland influenced baby-doll outfit I’m also pretty sure is a guy (look at the hands), but in this case not entirely

Like I said, the Lolita style is a very big deal in Japan, people will invest thousands of dollars in these outfits (they are definitely NOT cheap), and there are malls in trendy places like Harajuku and also Shinjuku that have whole floors of department stores devoted to the devotees of these styles. I even once spotted a Japanese girl at Epcot in Florida who showed up wearing Lolita fashion (the moment I saw the dress, she was ahead of me in line at one of the Epcot food festivals, I started chatting with her in my limited Japanese).

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This Japanese girl was at Epcot in 2017 with her boyfriend, she is also dressed in a Lolita Fashion; She’s wearing a Beauty and the Beast inspired outfit — note her dress’ fringe pattern
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Minishops in a Mall in Shinjuku that has a full floor devoted to the style

 

 

So while these styles are a thing in Japan, and some of them are highly influenced by Disney characters, such as Lewis Carol’s Alice… it’s a questionable line of are they Cosplay or fashion. As such, individuals who show up wearing it other than during Halloween may face some problems with the costume police at Tokyo Disneyland’s front gates. That said, what amazed me was not people were wearing it, but that Japanese MEN were wearing it… and wearing what was decidedly and clearly women’s fashions.

One of the things about Japanese culture is that there’s a time and a place for everything. Japan has had a long history of cross dressing, and, apparently, Disney’s Halloween has become one of the times and places where it is now acceptable for the growing trend of Japanese men with cross dressing tendencies, which the Japanese refer to as Otokonoko, to embrace their inner princess. So if you’re there during Halloween, make sure to keep an eye out.

As I mentioned before, there are currently two parks at Tokyo Disney, the Land (which is essentially Disneyland like in Los Angelus, or the The Magic Kingdom) which is a family oriented park, and DisneySea, which has a distinct nautical theme (although with touches of Epcot, as it offers a chance to “travel” to places like Venice, the Arabian Coast, Cape Cod & historic New York, Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, a lost river delta in South America (which has the AWESOME Raiders of the Lost Ark Ride), and an area for smaller children (that you really HAVE to see, it’s awesome) aimed directly at the Little Mermaid — you get to essentially go “under the sea.” DisneySea is considered the more “adult” park, and was intentionally designed to be suitable for taking your girlfriend on a romantic date.

Here while there are Halloween decorations they are kept subtle throughout the park, when you first enter the park, there’s a venetian styled banner above the doorway that if you look very closely, says Halloween 2013… and has a bit more orange in it that usual, but that’s about it…

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And then when you pass the gate and enter the central lake — effectively the design replacement of garden at the center of the Magic kingdom — again more orange has been added to color pallet, but that’s about it.

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This statue had a carved pumpkin hanging by a cord around his neck (??, no I don’t get it either)

When you enter American section again there are orange banners that say happy Halloween

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Note the couple (boyfriend/girlfriend) off to the side dressed alike, this tends to be more of a Korean trend than a Japanese one, based on what I’ve seen. (So there’s a good chance those two are in fact Korean,

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and the decorations that were at ground level were so naturalistic that I remember thinking they might have even been using real pumpkins, trying to replicate what it would look like in the states, but I wasn’t sure. IMG_0942

And of course there were girls dressed alike, and men embracing the cute, just like across the park at Tokyo Disneyland.

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Besides the decorations I showed, I found very little else (in the non-European sections of DisneySea that were celebrating the holiday. For instance, while you might think this is a Halloween decoration,

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in fact it’s a “Día de Muertos” decoration that’s a permanent fixture in the South American section of the park.

Disney in the DisneyWorld:

In the US while there are a nice selection of Halloween decorations scattered throughout the park, MOST of them can be found near the entrance and in the main street area

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Other than that, really not so much… Instead Disney has used it as yet another opportunity to separate you from your money. I.e., if you want to really experience Halloween at the US parks, you’ll need to buy a special ticket (pass holders only get a tiny discount, and only on low attendance nights) to”Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party,” (which was a counter bid to Universal Studio‘s far more popular “Horror Nights/Fright Nights” events. (I think I’ve noticed a pattern, in that the discounted nights at Disney seem to be the ones that are scheduled directly against a Horror night, so that tells you something. Personally I HATED Horror Nights, but I’m 50, it’s not designed for me, even the Wikipedia page admits as much.)

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The special even essentially consists of three additional aspects, which even though I had a top of the line season pass with no block out dates, etc., I had to pay an extra $69 for… 1) access to trick or treating from various spots around the park (the candy was pretty run of the mill);

2) The ability to watch a special show called the Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular:

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then 3) a special parade, called Mickey’s “Boo-to-You” Halloween Parade

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The coolest parts I got photos of, the headless horseman, especially when he pops up in a very dark spot, like where I was sitting is very cool…

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And then if you’re sitting in a dark place the ghosts from the haunted mansion dance by, and they’re slightly glow in the dark

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And then finally, 4) what I feel is the REAL draw for hard-core Disney fans, is the ability to stand in some VERY long lines… I’m talking like well over an hour in some cases, to have you picture taken with character that are never otherwise available to have your picture taken with, which includes ALL of the dwarves at one time, some of the Disney villains:

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Found a YouTube video where a woman goes through all the things to do at the party, and since unlike me she wasn’t on a diet, she ate all special party only deserts they were selling (yah, you paid $69+ to get in, and you have to pay to buy these special deserts)

So that said, one of my favorite things to do is people watch, and since Halloween is one of the few times the parks allow adults to come in costume, it can get interesting.

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The bottom left group was really creative, they’re the emotions from the Pixar movie “Inside out”
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This family, the adults came dressed as the Orcs from Frozen while the children came dressed as Anna, Elsa and Kristoff (how brilliant is that?)

My aborted visit to Tokyo DisneyLand (pout): with lots of cultural notes once you get past the gripping

Why yes, when I go to the Tokyo I DO want to go to Tokyo Disney more than I want to look at temples, what’s your point? unfortunately, my travel partner (he’s only going to be here during my first few days in Japan), wasn’t anywhere as enthusiastic as I was, and went pretty much straight into a teenage funk upon our arrival, which made it much less fun for me. By the time we’d only been there for only three hours (after paying $75 to get in.. grrrr), he declared he was leaving, and I could stay if I wanted to….

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen these two characters wandering the parks in DisneyWorld

To be fair: He hadn’t wanted to go the park in the first place (claiming he’d been to Disneyland in LA already), and had thought we might go to DisneySea instead… and then because we went on the Saturday, instead of the Friday as initially planned (because it had been raining, and my brain was unusually fatigued from flying only two months after a major concussion; so instead of Disney, I given him the first day agreeing to do whatever he wanted, which was indoor stuff mostly anyway, and also because fair is fair); but I therefore expected that on the second day we’d do the parks, which is what I wanted and was a more outdoor thing. But, as a result, however, we ended up going on weekend day (and where it’s a general rule to NEVER go to any of the Disney’s on weekends, this is doubly true for Tokyo). As such, the park was densely packed with massive crowds and almost every ride had waits of over an hour or more. When he cried uncle, offering that I should stay by myself, I knew I wasn’t well enough to do that; that it was in effect actually unsafe for me to be there alone … because my balance was still a bit off (an actually worsened by the recent flight), and too much information was coming at my brain at once, so that it was a tad overwhelming, etc. …. so we left. (By the time we were doing dinner… not at the park, I had decided to spend the tomorrow at the airbnb resting and let him wander on his own).

That said, he was the one who took the above photos of me with Jiminy Cricket and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother … because for SOME bizarre reason Tokyo Disneyland has not instituted roaming professional photographers everywhere, like the US parks have. (One of my ongoing annoyances with Tokyo Disney is they are nowhere near as skilled as the US parks at separating the customer from his/her money… but then again they don’t need to be because, it’s also been one of Disney’s most profitable parks, since its opening… in large part because of how much the Japanese love all things Disney.)

… Anyway, on this day we were able to have grab a meal, at Plazma Ray’s diner, one of the new (since my last visit) counter service/takeaway restaurants in Tomorrow Land

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I had the vegetarian curry. First, I am seriously curious about how did they get the eggs to look like that, and secondly, in my 30 years of coming to Japan, translation into English has only barely improved. It SHOULD say, “Please dispose of sharp objects in the specified/designated container”

After our lunch we walked around a little bit; and this was an interesting thing to see. Historically Disneyland USED to have the canoe rides, then got rid of them, and then brought them back temporarily while the Rivers of America steam boat was undergoing refurbishment… but

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I think Tokyo Disneyland MAY (and I could be wrong about this) be the only place left which still has Walt’s original plan of canoes, rafts and a Steamboat all sharing the Rivers of America area at once. It would make sense if that were true, because Japanese, even today, would never do something like intentionally try to tip the canoes, etc., which is something US teenagers would totally do.

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I was really tempted to get some of this barbecue flavored popcorn in the Lightning McQueen popcorn case; I mean could a combo be more southern than a NASCAR based cartoon character and barbecue?  That and it would have been a new flavor of popcorn for me to have tried (As I discuss in this post, Tokyo Disney is into multiple flavors of popcorn — and please note barbecue isn’t even on the list of the blog post I linked to — the same way their Kit-Kat bars come in huge assortment of flavor), but it was off my diet and I wanted to lose some of the weight I’d gained in Australia

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Anyone who has ever been to Japan knows they really LOVE, I mean LOVE vending machines. they are everywhere, and while most of these sell drinks, if you look hard enough you’ll find vending machines selling pretty much EVERYTHING (and I mean everything, check out this blog), so it was no surprise that in spite of there being no shortage of shops, food stand and restaurants, Tokyo Disneyland would of course also have a vending machine.

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For those who don’t know it, cleanliness in Japan is a cultural obsession, to the extent that the same word “Kirei” is used to mean clean/tidy and/or pretty/beautiful. But whereas, in Korea the focus is on making things look clean (in actuality if you were to walked barefoot in the hallways of my university, or run your hands along the handrails, both would be quite black with muck by the time you were done) Koreans don’t so much clean as they try to hide the dirt by spreading it around. The Japanese aren’t like that, for them clean is hygienically clean. Japanese traditionally take hot soaks daily, but only after scrubbing themselves clean outside of the bath, so as to not dirty the water; in places like hotels, after maids clean a surface, like a handrail, you’re sure to find inspectors coming along as soon as they’re done and giving the surface the white glove test, just to be sure. You find this same obsession in the park.

Although on this first day we only managed to be there for three hours (after paying $75, grrrr) I was really happy that we managed to get at LEAST into the Japanese version of Country Bear Jamboree  (I have at this point located and downloaded to my iPhone pretty much all of the original songs the original show was based on, no I’m not a geek, why do you say that?) This show was slightly different that the US one, so for instance I know enough Japanese to know the translation of “Mama don’t whop little Buford” isn’t correct, plus there are some additional songs.

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I was tempted to buy these, Countree Bear Jamboree dolls aren’t sold at DisneyWorld, here they have one for every character

and, we also managed to get into the Enchanted Tiki Room, which had been modified to include the Lilo and Stitch movie — I have to say this new version it beats the crap out of when the Magic Kingdom changed its show to include Iago, annoying parrot from Aladdin, a change which happily they have undone (its back to the original)

A nasty habit that I’ve been trying to break my travel partner of (since he was an undergraduate) is smoking. He’s not a particularly heavy smoker, but he is addicted. One of the interesting changes I’ve noticed this trip (in most part because of him, I don’t smoke so not my issue) is Japan is increasingly ostracizing her smokers. Where in the US there are smoking sections off to the side, in Tokyo Disney they were forced COMPLETELY out of the way. So for instance, we were near the Big Thunder Mountain ride (please note just how LONG the line is for this thing)
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when my friend decided he needed a smoke…. THIS is where he got sent to, quite litterally down a hole in the side of the mountain. I didn’t go in to see what exactly the situation was, but it was a far walk from where all the other people were, and in Japanese society, that’s meaningful.
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Some suggestions on how to do a Disney World vacation and not go broke

I’ve had a one year Disney world pass now for two years now, and I’ve sort of gotten it down.

Where to stay:
Pretty much all of the areas that are just off of the DW campus, where the hotels are, are also ‘cheek to jowl’ with Airbnb rentals that are often nicer, and for less money than what the hotels have to offer. ALSO, if you’re someone who cares about a good reliable wifi connection, the reality is that I’ve NEVER found Wifi at a hotel to be anywhere as good as the wifi in a private home, particularly if it’s one where they’re renting you a room in their own home — rather than a property they rent out entirely.

When I first got to Orlando this year I was renting an Airbnb space from a perfectly nice divorced elderly guy. The “home” was actually a double wide/trailer (but from the inside you can’t REALLY tell that) located just south west of the park. I was paying about $34/night for a HUGE air conditioned bedroom with a ceiling fan, that has a walk in closet, an ensuite bathroom that has a shower and a jacuzzi tub, free parking in his driveway, full usage of the kitchen, and located in a gated development with a guard that has a pool and a weight room. My host offers up free coffee from his Keurig (most Airbnb hosts do). Now granted, I could stay at a flea bag motel for around $45 a night, but why would I want to?

For Thanksgiving I drove up to Georgia to stay with my friends up in Dalton, and then came back to Orlando a 2nd time, and am now staying at a different Airbnb in the newly developing (I remember 20 years ago when this whole area was NOTHING but orange groves) west side of campus… in a home that can’t be more than a year or so old. I have a beautiful and comfortable room in the home of a young Brazilian couple again for about $34/night.

Additionally, if wifi is important to you, my experience is the wifi at Airbnb’s where the owner is living in the same space with you are almost always way better than what is offered from the hotels. (AVOID the ones where the owner seems to have 4 or 5 spaces to rent in different locations… I want my owner living IN my house, this may mean a bit less privacy but it USUALLY, emphasis on the usually, assures a much higher standard of customer service, in my experience.)

This year, I’m going to be headed to my friend in GA for Thanksgiving holidays, and then moving to a different Airbnb that’s again just at the edge of the park, but this time a bit north west of it in an area that was all orange groves in 2002 (the first time I came to Disney for an extended stay) but is now housing developments and strip malls … again for about $34/night. And around Disney there’s very little new home building that isn’t part of a development, and all of those include pools and weight rooms, some of the more expensive ones even have golf courses — but those Airbnb’s in those, when they exist, are much pricer as a result, although still less than at a hotel resort with a golf course.

I think Disney is aware of the problem (for them) and is as such upping their hotel game. Currently the ONLY Disney hotels that call to me ‘enough’ for me to be willing to pay their rates, is 1) the infinitely long Wilderness Lodge next to animal kingdom, where every single room overlooks a sort of zoo like area, so you can look out of your bedroom window and see giraffes and wildebeests; and 2) the currently in development star wars themed hotel where apparently the “windows” will make you feel like your on a space ship, your assigned a story line upon arrival that you’re supposed to play out, and all the staff are in costume and character at all times (including some aliens) … THAT would be worth $300/night — but even then I would want to find friends to share the room with.

Shopping:
Disney is impressively expensive. As a rule, I do NOT BUY ANYTHING on campus until I have had a chance to visit the two (and you should go to both) outlet shops that sell discontinued Disney merchandise, and Disney discontinues stuff every few weeks. These shops ONLY carry things that were either available ONLY at DisneyWorld shops (not the Disney stores in malls), or are left over from various Disney Cruises. To give you an idea of the prices, T-shirts that sold for $36.99 on campus are $12.99 at these stores, stuff that was $39.99 sell for $14.99, and items that were $14.99 are marked down to $2.99…. and unless marked “as is” or “all sales final” (in which case the discounts will be steeper, because the merchandise is damaged), all items come with a full refund 30 day guarantee. SO, you can grab that Mickey Mouse jacket that they only had one size too large for you at one store, and then return it to the other one if that branch has it in your size.

While the selection is much smaller, odds are you’ll find at least a handful of items you like, and at those prices, well, the items seem to get cuter. So where allow yourself only one item, (because if you look the prices are essentially 1/3 of what they’d be in the park) here you can get three items for the same price. AND if you think about how much you’d have paid for that “reasonably priced” hotel room located equidistant from DW as your Airbnb — which would currently be between between $70 and $150 night…  (although there are flea bag places going for $45 a night just a bit father off) well…

Like I said there are TWO of these stores, both are in outlet malls in shops adjacent to the food courts (so ask folks where the food court is, as to my experience the teenagers working in those places often don’t know the Disney stores are even there):

One is in the ‘Premium Outlet on Vineland Ave’, located just a bit east of DisneyWorld:

while the other is about 20 minutes north in the ‘Orlando International Premium Outlets’ that are just east of the Universal Amusement parks Campus:

Once I have “satiated” my need for cute Disney stuff…. I currently have six new really cute Disney T-shirts that I picked up last night, as well as some new luggage tags (star wars themed), that’s when I start shopping the parks in earnest…. usually finding I can’t justify their prices, especially having just purchased six new T-shirts.

Food:
Firstly, you CAN of course always bring your own snacks to the park, or eat a good breakfast at home, limit yourself to a light lunch, and then wait to get off campus to eat dinner… There’s no shortage of Denny’s, Ihops, etc., not to mention there are a few Bahama Breeze restaurants scattered just outside the edges of the park, that offer a late night happy hour from 9pm to midnight where they have really good/tasty half price appetizers, where the calorie hit is listed on the menu (I like the fresh crab, shrimp, mango and avocado stack, for about $7.50  @300 calories ).

BUT assuming you don’t want to… one of the best held food secrets of Disney world is that firstly, there are Macdonald’s scattered around the parks, but of course this means getting in your car and driving over there because none of the DW rapid transit goes there.

AND the gas station food: You know that gas station that’s one right near Magic Kingdom? Pretty much every park has one not TOO far outside the parking area, if you willing to walk it. The one next to the Magic Kingdom is the one where they have actual mechanics available to fix flat tires, or swap out dead batteries so that you can at least get home. It, and all the other ones, actually have REALLY tasty hot food for sale, not kidding. These stations on the Disney property (all of them) are NOT offering up your normal gas station food, which you’d have to be a little desperate to eat… nope, these are the same sort of fare at the same sort of prices, but at MUCH higher quality. The wings for instance, are REALLY good, and their nice big pieces of chicken like at a restaurant (my mouth is actually watering as I write this). So, don’t be surprised to see Disney staffers at these places, dressed up in the outfits they wear working for on site restaurants, all of them buying pizza, subs and wings from these places during their lunch and dinner breaks.

Kid’s portions:
While Disney’s sit down restaurants won’t let you do this, the fact of the matter is that if you approach a fast food location and as an adult ask for the child’s portion, the staff will never question you about it… they’ll just assume the child is with a different adult already seated at a table. Even at Hollywood’s canteen, where waiters bring the food to the table, no one has ever made an issue that I opted for the child’s $7 half portion of grilled salmon rather than paying $15 for the adult sized portion.

 

 

 

Dapper Day at the Magic Kingdom

It’s Nov 17th, 2017 (well, 2am in the morning on the 18th) and today Dapper Day held one of its multiyear events at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, i.e., people watching extraordinaire — which is a good thing because the park was so ridiculously full that I could forget about doing anything else (the thanksgiving schools vacation period has started).

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While the Dapper organization co-ordinates with Disney, and works hard to stay on their good side, and is best known for their regular Disney outings, the Dapper organization isn’t actually part of Disney, nor is it promoted by them. However, since the events celebrate fashion, and are not a form of Cosplay (and their website STRONGLY discourages anyone from showing up in any sort of full costume), as long as none of the attendees to their events show up in anything that could be considered “a costume” they are not, technically, affected by the Disney rules against costumes.

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Dapper Days currently happen in both of the U.S. Parks, and the Paris park, and according to their website, “All sophisticated attire is encouraged from vintage-inspired classics to chic, contemporary looks. Active and retired military are encouraged to wear their dress blues or service uniforms if they like.”

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In honor of dapper day, I got new ears… when I got it home I snipped away the black veil that was attached to it…

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Hanging with friends in Eastern Tennessee

This last few days were sort of a new thing for me, but highly enjoyable. I met up with an old (platonic) friend of mine who I knew from when I was living in the SF area, and we spent four days traveling together in Tennessee as a test of our compatibility as travel-partners, before we committed to longer trips.

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First we rented an affordable hotel room in the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee area (Dollywood/Gatlinburg/Smokey Mountains National Park) — with two beds, because I usually don’t sleep well with others. I was really happy to discover 1) he’s a very heavy sleeper who, 2) doesn’t snore — like not at all. Apparently… I don’t snore either, I am however quite the chatterbox while dreaming, but he said it didn’t bother him (like I said, heavy sleeper). Also, he has a job that allows him to work remotely, so he’d wake at around 7am, work at his computer till noon — about when I finally woke up — and then once I was awake did his business calls/meetings with co/workers while I was checking emails and getting ready — i.e., he’d get about 6+ solid hours of work in — and then we went to lunch (see my post, “I stand corrected: There IS good food in Dollywood!”)

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and do tourist stuff together in the afternoons and evenings. The first day we opted to go to Gatlinburg, which is right down the road from Pigeon Forge, a town I am said to say that I had completely overlooked last time I was here. All I’m going to stay is next time I think I’ll SKIP Pigeon forge and focus on Gatlinburg… we both liked it a lot more.

Granted, we were there for only a few hours, and essentially spent all our time at the Anakeesta attraction, a chair lift to the top of the mountain, and then when you get to the top it’s sort of a bridge among the trees… which bounces around a lot when you walk on it.

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Photos from the Anakeesta Attraction in Gatlinberg, TN

Afterwards, in the late evening we walked around Gatlinburg, and did some shopping.

 

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I’m a sucker for leather. I negotiated down the price of this hat (it is utterly impractical to my current lifestyle), which was already on sale, so I had no choice but to buy it. Happily, when we got back to the hotel I searched for it on-line and found I’d gotten quite the deal on it.

While walking around a shop keeper called out to my friend, who stands a good 6’5″ or such, and asked him to help her hang her Xmas decorations in front of her shop. He’s such a sweet guy that he agreed.

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After hanging out and doing tourist stuff, he went to sleep at his normal time, while I stayed up doing my computer stuff and watching movies on my laptop (with the screen strength turned down and wearing earplugs so as to not disturb him).

UNFORTUNATELY on our second day, when we had intended to try going to Dollywood, or driving around the Smokey Mountains National Park, his job went into a little over-gear unexpectedly, so we had to work around that, but it was ultimately all good. For myself, I spend so much time traveling that it’s no biggie if weather or life derails my plans, and I told him that going forward, we’d be doing longer stays (I prefer 2 weeks in a place rather than 2 days), so that if the same were to ever happen it would really NOT be a big deal for me. But it stressed him out, so he found himself a place where he could get some work done and, since we had two separate cars, we agreed to meet up at his friend’s home in Cookeville, TN (essentially what will one day be a suburb of Nashville, assuming it ever turns into a major city) later that evening.

Since I had about two hours to kill before we were supposed to arrive at his friend’s home — even considering the drive there — I decided to do a quick swing through the Smokey Mountains National Park.

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Note the kayaker about to brave the rapids, there were in fact two guys.

Later that night (which was Halloween’s eve) we met up at his friends home…. to find her dressed like a cat… So, I got inspired, and dressed us up in some costume bits that I conveniently had stashed in my car. (In about a month I was going to go to a Dr. Seuss costume party at the home of friends in Florida.)
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I’m supposed to be the skeptical pet gold fish from The Cat in the Hat story, while I dressed my friend as The Lorax . Being Australian and unfamiliar with Dr. Seuss for the most part, at first he wasn’t game with wearing the hat; but, then once we had explained to him how the Lorax was the ultimate conservationist fable for kids…

… conservation being a cause that my friend totally supports — he got into it with a will (the hat was mine, the rest of the outfit is something he picked up at a hippy type music festival he’d attended on his travels, cause he swings like that). We all went out to dinner dressed like that…

Later her friend showed up, and she remembered she actually had a “Cat in the Hat” hat in her garage and dug it out for him… and we went out again to meet up with some friends of theirs at a bonfire (where everyone immediately recognized which characters we were, which was gratifying).

Anyway… a good time was had by all, and I may have found myself a travel partner for some of my future travels… now we just need to decide where we want to go.

 

 

 

 

Cherry blossoms in D.C.– or one more item off from the ol’bucket list (with comparisons to S. Korea)

My whole life I’ve always wanted to see Japanese Cherry blossoms in bloom, and in particular wanted to see them in Washington, D.C.. I am a Japan-o-phile, almost by trade, and I’ve “lived” (or more rightly had extended stays) in Japan, but never in the spring, and as such have not until this week actually seen Japanese Sakura in full bloom

This feeling of a deficit in my lifetime experience is even more odd when you consider that I’ve lived in Korea for two and a half years; not only that, but I was working (as a professor) at the Kyung Hee University Campus in Seoul, which is renowened as one of the best cherry blossom viewing locations in the city.

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The view from the front steps of the Business School, where I taught courses for the Marketing Department
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Multiple images taken from around the KHU campus

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Not to mention I made regular visits to the Lotte World Amusement park (World’s largest indoor theme park (and yes, of course I had a season pass), which is one of the other “go to” viewing locations in Seoul during the few fleetings days of Cherry Blossom season.

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See the Disneyesque wonderland in front of the gargantuan “forest” of 56 identical apartment blocks? That’s the outdoor section of Lotte world. The Indoor section is across the bridge and in that big white building off to the rightIMG_9972

Just like DisneyWorld’s Magic Kingdom, Lotte World sits alongside a man made lake, around which are planted a massive quantity of Cherry trees. While there is an entrance fee to the section of the Lotte park where the rides are, pedestrians are free take the path that circles the lake, making this another favorite spot for the residents of Seoul to enjoy the cherry blossoms.IMG_9973

While I won’t go into it here at length, but every time I entered Lotte World I was always wondered how Lotte managed to NOT get sued by Disney for infringment (the extent to which the former is almost a mirror image of the latter is almost laughable); but, I ultimately decided that the sheer size of the Lotte corporation — or to use the Korean term, Chaebol — which is a multinational in it’s own right just like Disney, probably has a lot to do with their immunity from Disney’s legal team.

For some reason, as I was in Korea and I regularly walked to work along paths that quite litterally rained cherry blossoms on my head….IMG_4138

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those trees never looked “quite right” to me, as they were willowy, and looked more like regular cherry trees, rather than the thickly gnarled wood and blossom heavy branches that hung with twisted beauty, as depicted in Japanese paintings. And therefore, these Korean trees never filled my personal need in me to see that beauty in the real world.

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As such, I still LONGED to have that experience before I died, and part of how I timed my current trip to D.C. (arriving on March 18th), was that I  should have arrived WELL in advance of the cherry blossoms (normally early to mid April) …

Can we say Global Climate change?

This last winter while I was in Florida, avoiding normal “cold” of Chicago’s winter, and the the folks back home were busy playing golf in Feburary, and walking around in shorts… while we snowbirds down in Florida had maybe one or two days that actually made it into the low 70’s. Washington D.C. was also uncharacteristically warm, so that friends of mine who had to be there for work in late Febuary were commenting on how trees were already starting to blossom, and everyone was talking about how the cherry blossom season was most likely going to be over a month early this year. ARGH!!!!

The weather gods were however on my side, and early March brought with it a dive in the tempretures and a late nor’easter complete with snow, followed by alternating warm and freezing days, so that the risk then became that of the cold damaging the blossoms that had started to bud too early.

But, as luck would have it, I was FINALLY able to get my cherry blossom fix in a way that was fully satisfying, albeit FREEZING COLD:

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Don’t let the Sunny skies fool you, what the pictures don’t show was that while the temps were in the mid 50’s (Ferinheit) there were wind gusts of almost 60mph so that it felt more like sub freezing; and there are lots of pictures (not shown) of me holding on to my hat for dear life.  As it was in the 50’s I had not thought I needed gloves, so that by the end of the day my fingers had frozen were frozen so solid that I could no longer manipulate the buttons on my iphone

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After I’d had my fill … or more to the point I could no longer move my fingers enough to take any more photos … I headed to a Japanese inspired resturant that my friend in Dalton, GA (who used to live in D.C.) STRONGLY suggested I HAD to try…

Teaism is a teashop/resturant chain with three locations in the D.C. area, and rotating seasonal menus, that offers up popular and highly affordable dishes. The one I went to was in Penn Quarter  and proved to be very tasty. 

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Ochazuke: A very traditional Japanese dish of rice and tea “soup,” served with your choice of pickled plum/ salmon or shrimp (I opted for the salmon)

O’chazuke is something I’ve never seen served in the U.S.A., but have had before on my trips to Japan. It is a VERY old and traditional Japanese dish that became popular in the Heian period (794 to 1185 A.D.)

 

Eating Healthy at Disneyworld: Low fat & Low carb eating strategies

How to spend 2 months in Disney-world, without breaking your diet, and even LOOSING weight. It can be done, but it will cost you — literally.

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That said, I honestly don’t think it’s possible to do it without straining your pocket book (unless you make all your own meals), and even if you try, you’re going to be eating grilled salmon or a salad for pretty much every meal — and there’s only so much salmon a girl can eat.

Most of what’s available at Disney “fast food” places isn’t all that healthy … excepting the obligatory grilled salmon, salads, and small bags of snacking tomatoes and/or apple slices the menus are geared far more towards the palates of children than the concerns of parents. A lot of self control WILL be required on your part, and you’ll have to INSIST on sit down restaurants, and speaking with the chef when ordering. No really, ask to see the chef. One of the fabulous things about Disney is that if you start off the conversation with your waiter with THESE words… “I have health issues that restrict my diet” they have been TRAINED to not pass go, to not collect $200, and just go get the chef.

So for instance, a few days ago I went to eat at Tiffen’s, one of the two sit down restaurants at Animal Kingdom:
Waitress: “I’ll give you a few minutes to make up your mind”
me: “let me preface this with I have health issues….” and before I could finish my sentence she said:
“Would you like me to send out the chef?”
Me: “Yes please “– happy smile…
He came out and we talked, he has decided to grill the red snapper that they usually deep fry, and is making all sorts of other alterations to the accompanying items, 100% Forbidden/black Rice instead of the Jade blend they would normally use — no oil or carrots added to the (cole)slawed green papaya (carrots are a very HIGH sugar veggie), and no black bean sauce (cause he said that had oil in it too), etc.

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Animal Kingdom/Tiffen’s: Intended for two people, I had enough left over for a 2nd meal.

Normally: This dish would be Crispy Sustainable Fish served with Som Tam (green papaya salad) and Black Bean Sauce served with Jade Blend Rice  — and  I was expecting to pay about $43, based on the price of a similar entree (this dish was from the prix fixe menu), but after a 20% discount they’re giving to all yearly pass holders at certain restaurants, it only cost me $36.64 including tip… so about $18.32 per meal.. not bad.

Where rice in general is a VERY bad idea, and should be avoided… seriously… ONE rice bowl of white rice has as much sugar in it as FOUR crispy cream doughnuts!!!!! Me, I would MUCH rather have the doughnuts.

Black rice, sometimes known as ‘forbidden rice’, while still carbohydrate heavy, is at least a better option — even though it too should be eaten sparingly, as it it contains protein and other nutritional goodies. For those not familiar with it, a one-half cup serving of cooked black rice, contains about:

  1. 160 calories
  2. 1.5 grams of fat
  3. 34 grams of carbohydrates (which is my per meal maximum)
  4. 2 grams of fiber (double the fiber of brown rice)
  5. 5 grams of protein  (the highest amount of protein of all the rices)
  6. 4% DV for iron

P.S., Black rice is LOADED with antioxidants… more than blueberries

Initially I had come in to the restaurant thinking I would get the grilled octopus appetizer, but he immediately vetoed that, informing me that they pouch it in olive oil before grilling it — which makes now think I should be asking about that cooking technique from now on before ever ordering it again.

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So, while there are certain fast food dishes that Disney does pretty well, and going that way will save you money… for the most part they’re not really healthy options from the standpoint of an adult whose only growing in the wrong direction. Their mac and cheese is really tasty, and you can find it topped with lobster, shrimp, and even beef brisket (@Magic Kingdom next to the Carousel, limited hours, usually closed by 8pm even if the park is open till 1am) … And while there’s chicken pretty much everywhere, it’s pretty much either rotisserie or fried; and for those who don’t know… fried is actually the healthier option, assuming you remove the skin. Rotisserie chicken is cooked in such a way that the fat saturates the meat rather than dropping down off the chicken, making the chicken moister but also MUCH fattier. Disney also does REALLY good tomato soup, in any variation of the sort, but again it’s NOT low fat… and last year I gained a good 20 pounds in two months eating all of it…

As many of you know, about this time last year, Jan/Feb of 2016 (after many months expanding sizes but of just not wanting to know the truth), I weighed myself on one of those massive scales outside of a Publix Supermarket (the dominant chain in Florida), and clocked in at 200lb… SHOCK!!! The cause was simple, I tend to eat my feelings and the death of my father, who was also my best friend, shook me hard; and then, the process of going through probate was so emotionally stressful that, as I like to put it, I developed a deep and intimate relationship with both Ben AND Jerry. (Insert laugh) However, after seeing that my weight was almost DOUBLE what it had been in my 20’s was enough to motivate me to start making better food choices.  Then at my checkup in May of 2016, I weighed in at 187 lb (better), but I learned that, rather like a goose being prepared for Foie Gras, I’d managed to eat myself into Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.  I discussed this at length, previously, in my blog post called: A matter of health (feel free to follow the link).

For those who would rather not: brief review, my doctor informed me that my liver numbers were HORRIBLE, and that if I didn’t seriously make some changes they’d have to find me a new one. *GASP* … suffice it to say I was scared, and fear of death is a much stronger motivator than mere vanity. The doctor put me on a LOW fat and low carb diet (the latter being something I’d been mostly doing anyway, because I have been pre-diebetic for maybe 15 or more YEARS), and suggested I give up red meat entirely, and focus on just eating fish. Three months later (after traveling through Canada) I came back for more extensive testing, where I weighed in at 149lb, and the doctors were SO happy with me (and my liver numbers were so improved) that they just said, “you don’t NEED to loose more weight at this point, your BMI is healthy, but keep doing what you’re doing and we won’t need to put you on any medication.” (Normal weight for a woman my age (not considering frame) is 107.8 – 145.6 lbs

BUT, my weight in my 20’s had been about 110 to 115, and everything I’ve read the ideal weight range a woman in her 50’s with my height AND frame is 114-127, so I might not NEED to loose more weight, but as long as I’m not feeling like I’ve been denying myself, and I don’t… I want to lose that last 10. So, after that I returned back to Orlando, where I continued to drop weight until today, albeit at a slower rate (of maybe half a pound a week); at least until about a week ago when I made the mistake of buying my own digital scale, rather than relying on that of whatever Airbnb I happened to be staying with at to time, Murphy’s law. However, that too was good, since having realized I was not only no longer dropping, but actually starting to gain, I did a review of my eating habits and realized I’d been slowly adding a lot of fruit to my diet. I removed that, and quickly went back to loosing weight again.

Currently, I’m at 133.8 lb. I figure I have 10 more lbs to lose to get back to my happy weight — and hopefully ALL my old clothes will then fit again. I’m 5’4″ and have a very slender frame — tiny wrists, and should have a 28″ circumference to my rib cage, but am currently still at 30 inches, so that essentially, right now, I’m still two inches too big in all my measurements. (And as you can tell from the pictures below, there is such a thing as having breasts that are too big.)

So, that said, here are before and after shots of me a year ago, and me a few weeks ago (I have since gotten rid of the oil-slick hair, and am now sporting a pixy short haircut)

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Before and after shots; I tried to find similar angles, and used the size of my head as a point of reference for sizing the photos

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(They might not be the most flattering pants, but tourism I prefer cargo pants where I can load up my pockets rather than lug around a backpack or purse. In those pockets are a full set of keys, an iPhone, a man’s wallet, a backup iPhone battery with all the obligatory cables, and ear phones, and hanging from my belt look one of those microfiber clothes for cleaning my glasses.

So, as to my qualifications to speak about loosing weight while at the parks, the proof is in the pudding and I know of what I speak….

The first rule, while the most obvious, is the hardest to obey… USE SELF CONTROL!

If you’re at epcot for the Arts and food festival and you see options like this, SAY NO!

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It doesn’t matter that you can rationalize that  the serving size is small, the answer is NO! ‘Cause I promise you, at these events you’ll not eat just one… and there’s always the next booth selling something delectable, and the next… and you’ll walk out of there having gorged yourself on a lot of small servings …  I know this from experience.

And of course, the corollary to this rule is that when you see things like, that slice of chocolate cake at Hollywood Studios that’s almost as big as your head,  or that cinnamon bun in the Belle Section of Magic Kingdom, which is about the same size… for those items as well the answer is still a resounding NO!

— and honestly, having had the pleasure of eating both items, I can honestly testify that they’re OK, but really NOT worth the calories… I think that cinnabon at 880 calories actually IS a tastier cinnamon bun.

BUT, and this is a big one, DO NOT DENY YOURSELF EITHER!!!

As a general rule, from day one on this diet I have not denied myself. While it’s pricey, it’s hard to feel your sacrificing your pleasure of food to your diet when you are eating things like Lobster, fresh oysters, shrimp, salmon, crab, etc.

So while I’m saying DON’T buy those deserts, I am not saying don’t have desert. My suggestion is to hold out till you pass a Starbucks on your way OUT of the park (there’s one in EVERY park, usually near the entrance — Animal kingdom being the exception) and buy yourself a cup of plain coffee or tea (decaf) and ONE (and JUST one) of their cake pops — I LOVE the chocolate one with pink sprinkles, as it is by far the chocolatiest of the bunch.

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While for some reason the Starbucks in the parks do NOT include any dietary information, here is a pic of the comparable item sold outside of the parks (and remember to eat it slowly, nibble at it.. savor it). Now think about it, if that TINY (but oh so tasty) pop of gooey fudgey chocolate cake is around 200 calories at $2.25, what would that massive slice of cake have run you?

Now granted, if you have a group of about 6 people you could buy that slice of cake and cut it up into portions for about the same calories… but I travel alone….

I’ll be honest, Last year when I was at Disney, and posting all my food choices to the internet, my friends were making comments like, “do they even HAVE vegetables at Disney?” and “would it kill you to eat a vegetable?

So it’s ultimately about choices… that and asking to talk to the chef.

Epcot’s Restaurants: 

Last year I went to Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot’s Canada, and I ordered their Filet Mignon a AAA Canadian Beef Tenderloin, with mushroom risotto, asparagus-tomato relish, sitting on a truffle-butter sauce, with a side of their signature Poutin (french fries, Gruyere, caramelized onions, french onion gravy), and the Crème brûlée for desert.

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Quite tasty, but probably not the healthiest of choices.

This year I did it differently… I ordered the Venison.

Ladies and Gents, if you have a choice between game meats or normal things like beef or chicken, go for the game! Seriously..  Three ounces of venison has 140 calories and less than 1 gram of fat, while the same sized serving of beef tenderloin (offering the same amount of protein), has 179 calories and 7.6 grams of fat, three of which are saturated!!!

Bison steaks are actually a healthier bet even then Venison and I argue tastier than beef steak– but so far I have yet to find it offered in any of the in park restaurants (one of the on site hotels apparently has it); Do NOT however be fooled, the same can not really be said of Bison burgers. Those should be avoided. While they ARE better than beef burgers, they are NOT lower in fat than chicken, which the bison steak is pound per pound. Burgers NEED the fat to bind the bits of meat into the patty shape, so manufacturers will throw in EXTRA fat from the bison, or add in ground beef, into the mix.

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Epcot: Canada: Le Cellier Steakhouse

Also, per normal I SPOKE WITH THE CHEF, and was told that the Venison was supposed to be sitting on this creamy pasta thing; so I asked him if they could switch out that fatty carb for something in the way of green vegetables, and was given a massive plate full of grilled asparagus, mushrooms and Brussels sprouts instead.

Also, as a rule, start off eating the veggies, filled up on them and then get started in on the meat after you’ve taken the edge off your hunger. Again, having filled up on high fiber veggies, I was only able to eat half of the meat portion (and had enough veggies left over) that I was able to get two meals out of it.

Sadly, Canada is one of the few places that has game meat… at pretty much every other restaurant you’re going to have to turn your eyes to either an appetizer (again, talk to the chefs about how they’re prepared)

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Epcot: Italy, Tutto Italia Ristorante: Pasta Fagoli (Pasta and bean soup), a filling nutritious snack to sip slowly while your group is snarfing down pasta

Or, most likely, you’ll have to settle on nice piece of fish with side of green vegetables

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Epcot China: Nine Dragon’s Restaurant, sustainable fish of the day was Orange Roughy

This fish was pan fried and hence probably a little more oil then I prefer. I warned them ahead of time about my issues, and they replaced the rice with broccoli …. Apparently they do NOT have Chinese cabbage here (very sad)

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Epcot France: Monsieur Paul, Black cod (my favorite fish) sauce on the side, refused the bread and the rice

There are a few places around the park where I found Black Cod being served (TRY the on at Morimoto Asia in Disney Springs)… if you have not tried it (otherwise known as Sablefish in the USA, but has different names world wide) it’s light and flaky with a very high Omega 3 fat content. My favorite preparation is the Asian way, marinated in miso for 24 hours or more… but the way Chef Paul did it was also tasty.

And even if you are Epcot for one of the various tasting festivals that draw locals in during the off season, there are “better choices.” Again, ALWAYS look to the fish option, but pay attention to the details…

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Believe it or not even at these food booths you CAN ask them to please NOT add the Lemon-Thyme Beurre Blanc — otherwise known as butter — but make sure you make the request to the person who calls out the orders when you hand them your receipt, and then make sure to repeat it AFTER they say it, LOUD … the chefs are so remote controlled back there that you sort of have to wake them up.

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I’m not going to bother going through EVERY park and talking about food options at each, because basically the same rules hold true.

Opt for a sit down restaurant unless you want to be eating nothing but grilled salmon and salads for your whole stay, and ask to speak to the chef and choose a seafood or game meat (if available), and work with the chef on how they can modify what’s available to meet your dietary needs.

For snacks, there are apple slices and bags of cherry tomatoes at every park sold either at stands or behind fast food counters.

Remember to have ONE serving of FULL FAT dairy a day… while this may sound counter intuitive, there’s a slew of studies that have found that folks who maintain dairy fat in their blood stream actually loose weight faster — I guess our metabolisms have evolved to figure if there’s milk, we can’t be starving, and there’s no need to slow the metabolism even though calorie intake has decreased. Also, studies are finding that from a cholesterol standpoint our bodies process that sort of fat differently, and if you too are a woman you need the dairy for bone health. I STRONGLY suggest ONE full fat cheese stick a day as a late night snack after returning from the parks … I opt for a nice sharp cheddar.

Oh, and least I forget!!!!
DO NOT DRINK YOUR CALORIES!!!! And for G-d’s sake, stay away from artificial sweeteners (no really, if you don’t know about WHY you should NEVER consume these things, read this!)!!!  Get used to drinking unsweetened teas and coffee — its difficult at first, but I promise you after a few weeks your palates will adjust and you’ll grow to prefer it, or of course water is always the best option.

Dollywood

Worth a visit if you’re in the area, having the advantage of the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains. Shows for the adults, and roller coasters for the kids. If you go on a weekday off season you’ll almost never have to wait in a line.

Did I mention I’ve been to ALL the DisneyParks, some than once? I can’t do roller coasters, I have benign positional vertigo which means any ride that relies on centrifugal forces is a really bad idea for me. In Hong Kong’s Ocean Park I went on one of those water rides where the boat slowly spins and bounces through the water channel … I was nauseated for the next four hours — those rides for little kids where it’s swings attached to a central poll and all it does it rotate slowly? Ditto. So, while Dollywood has rollercoasters (a few) those are not why I love amusement parks.

I got to the park on a VERY low attendance day. I’m not sure how many parking lots the place has (they seem to wrap around a hill), but I arrived at noon only to find a parking spot in the 3rd lot (C for Candy Cane), and as I rode the tram to the main gate I spotted both of the other lots with cars were still about 80% empty. Parking is not organized and directed the way they do it at Disney World, where if you forgot where you parked your car but can tell them about what time you arrived, they can tell you EXACTLY where you are parked (assuming you parked where they told you to). Here you pay for your parking, pass through the gate, and then it’s catch as catch can, and most people seem to come in looking for spots close to the tram stop and just ignore the rest of the lot, moving on to the next one once they feel they’ll have to walk to far — insanely disorganized. (This would be like Disney patrons only parking in about the first 20 spots in a row and moving to the next row up).

The gods however were with me upon my arrival. I got to the front gate to buy a ticket to spot a woman who looked like she worked there standing by the ticket counter with a man along side her:
“why you here Hun”
“I need to buy a ticket…”
The guy standing next to her said “honey it’s your lucky day, I have been standing here for a 1/2 hour trying to give away this extra ticket.”
It seems season card holders are given some extra tickets for friends and this ticket was about to expire (or some such). Rather than just toss it he decided to be charitable and give it to a stranger, only everyone but me had already purchased their tickets before arriving.
This free ticket turned out to be a double good thing, as about three hours in massive storms kicked up which resulted in most of the rides, and such, shutting down because of lightning.

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Even though Dollywood advertises itself as good for people who get dizzy, I did not find this to be the case. In the whole park there were only two rides that were not bad for me were the Dollywood Express Train ride (with a genuine old antique soot and smoke producing steam engine), and a ferris wheel (which I didn’t bother riding). But I whole heartedly suggest the train, beats the heck out of the Disney Train which takes you through and around the park as well as into the surrounding woods.

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Other than that, Dollywood is about the performances. Now you’d think she’d have her pick of talented but unsuccessful country artists of various genres, but I found the three performances I heard to be beyond underwhelming.

That said, wifi at the park SUCKS, there was no 4g… Nothing!! There was supposed to be free Wifi which I connected to at the front gate, but no connection. I wasted a good half hour trying to find connectivity that lasted for more than a minute near the front gate area and finally gave up… I did however finally find some inside one of the restaurants towards the back of the park, Miss Lillian’s Chicken Shack.

Food at the park is kind of bizarre. You can spend $10 to $12 on a single sandwich, or for $14.95 you can have an all you can eat buffet… Miss Lillian’s included four kinds of salads, smoked or fried chicken, smoked turkey legs, and chicken fried steak, and all you can eat of four kinds of desserts (I had the banana pudding). It was all sort of cheap quality stuff, for $14.95 it was a deal. And there is a a lady walking around the place who looks like she was a rip off of Minnie Pearl’s character from the TV show, “Hee Haw” (it was on US TV from 1969 — 1992) annoying the customers and playing a bit of banjo. I strongly suggest passing the food stalls and opting for the sit down restaurants instead which all seemed to be pretty good deals.

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Finally, the park has a sort of Renaissance faire aspect to it, in that there various crafts not just available for sale, but being performed for you: carvers of wax, workers of leather, and blowers of glass, etc. You can order things like a custom aluminum sign for your house, and then watch it being made.

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There’s no good Food in Dollywood

(Mia Culpa: I revisited Pigeon Forge in October of 2017, and in retrospect I realized my error lay in my sampling bias which was towards eateries aimed at tourists, all of which offer all you can eat/belly busting portions. What I now know is that food in Dollywood comes in TWO varieties, 1) quantity over quality (such as all the places described above), or 2) quality over quantity. So, please read this, but then please follow the link to the 2nd review)

Seriously, opt for a national chain or the grocery store; there’s nothing to eat here that’s worth breaking your diet. As you guys have probably figured out by now, I take food seriously…  both of my parents were great cooks, and I grew up traveling all over the world and my parents liked to eat. As such, one of the ways I judge a town is by how well it eats… and Pigeon Forge eats badly; from what I could tell from the two days I spent there, tourists ratings of restaurants were based soley on portion size and rather than on quality or taste, so that in leu of flavors, most cooks there seemed to rely on portion size and the salt & fat combo to keep customers happy. Pretty much everything I ate was bland, and none of these places could have survived in say, Chattanooga (a town with an active restaurant scene).

— My first meal after checking into my hotel was at the Old Mill Restaurant In Pigeon Forge proper which was suggested not only by the hotel staff, but by yelp and google reviews (4.5 stars with 277 reviews) as being the best local cuisine non-chain eatery in town. It’s a HUGE building meant to look like a converted mill.

Once you’ve been seated, and have ordered you will be served corn chowder, corn meal fritters and maple infused butter, as well as a salad with your choice of dressing… standard, to fill you up while you wait for your food to be cooked. As you can see from the picture, right there you’ve got enough food for a meal.

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First I got the chicken and dumplings: this was an absolute blech, my dumplings were inedible bits of semi raw dough that reminded me more of Japanese mochi (pounded rice) than of dumplings, and the gravy tasted of artificial chicken stock and salt — seriously it’s a sad day when you can compare a $18.99 dish to a can of hormel.

The waiter asked me how my meal was, and I was honest. He offered to let me order something else, and I flipped it out for chicken fried steak (also $18.99)… which is one of my favorite foods…. again, Blech, it tasted like bad cafeteria food.

Normally I hate wasting my money and will always pack up left overs to take home and eat later, but this food was so nasty that I left it all pretty much untouched.

To their credit, when the waiter saw I had unhappy with both dishes, he had the manager comp my bill.

 

— Miss Lillian’s Chicken Shack, is actually inside of Dollywood. If you take the train ride, this the place where Miss Lillian runs out to meet the train waiving her banjo in the air (and she does this every time — I felt sorry woman who plays the character). One of the things that killed me at Dollywood was there were food stands all over the place selling you a sandwich, or some such for about $12.99, which looked to be more bread than meat — i.e., massively over priced. While at the same time if you skipped the ‘fast food’ in option of a sit down, like at Miss Lillian’s, for $14.95 you got an all you can eat buffet with four kinds of salads, smoked chicken or turkey legs (you had to request the legs), fried chicken, and chicken fried steak and a choice of three deserts (or you can take all of them). Of the mains, I think the smoked chicken was the best and it’s all you can eat, so you can keep going back and refilling your plate. So while its not the greatest food on the planet, it’s hard to argue with all the smoked chicken and salad you can eat for $14.95.

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And there is a a lady, the aforementioned Miss Lillian, who is dressed up like she was ripped out of hee haw (think Minnie Pearl’s cousin), whose job it is to annoy the customers who won’t play along with the shtick, and maybe play a bit of banjo 

 

 

Paula Deen’s Family Kitchens — which I had to try because of her cooking show empire, and all the scandal around her, just so that I could say I had.

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I had intended to try this place my first night, as it’s a set price of $21.99 for adults ($10.99 for kids), and you HAVE to order three mains, four side dishes and a dessert even if you came alone, so I thought … What the hell, why not (apparently people traveling alone are usually put off by this)… But then the waiter warned me — after I’d been seated — that you are NOT allowed to take your leftovers!!! WTF? They don’t provide to go boxes and apparently they won’t even let you pack it up if you bring your own containers. SERIOUSLY? I paid for it, why can’t I take it if I want to (talk about fascist!). 

However, after having seen that old mill was charging $18.99 for a main, which I hadn’t taken home either, I decided to just go for it, with the caveat of tasting it all but only finishing what was good. I ordered, after discussing it with the waitress, Catfish (on the waitresses insistence), Fried Chicken, and smothered pork chops as my mains, with greens, squash casserole, macNcheese and succotash (which I’d never tried before) as my sides;

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— the best things (and hence the only dishes I finished) were the catfish and the squash casserole, all the rest of it just got pushed to the other side of the table after an initial taste. The fried chicken was incredibly dry, the pork chop was nothing special and a bit bland, the succotash was way too salty as were the greens… the Mac and cheese was ok… but it was Mac an cheese (nothing special, not much better than stouffer’s frozen in my opinion, which is sad considering she’s supposed to be this famous chef)….. my dessert is banana pudding which my southern friend had already instructed should be “lighter than air” if it’s any good, and this most definitely was NOT