This week’s SATURDAY SIX is our annual Thanksgiving Special and takes a look at Six Reasons for Theme Park Fans to Give Thanks. For the most part, 2018 was a transition year for the Orlando parks. Disney is preparing for the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019 along with slowly building to the the resort’s huge 50th anniversary coming in 2021. Universal still has its lips sealed tight on what they are doing with Nintendo, and also aren’t saying a word about what looks to be an AMAZING Harry Potter coaster opening next year (the only information we know is what was put out by Pottermore, and even that is something Universal won’t acknowledge.) However, some cool things did open in 2018. As is our tradition in this fine blog series, for this Thanksgiving we are going to take a quick break from all the turkey, football games, and Black Friday pre-planning to count our blessings and thank the parks and resorts that we love so much. So, for one day only, we ask that all Disney and Universal fans put aside their differences and spend a brief moment appreciating all the wonderful things that we can share together, starting with…
# 6 – Chicken Guy! (Disney Springs)
It took a while to get there, but Disney Springs is now The Place To Be at Walt Disney World. In the past, it was unthinkable that a place could compete with the murderer’s row of restaurants at EPCOT and the park’s nearby resorts, but along came Homecomin’, Morimoto Asia, Frontera Cocina, The BOATHOUSE and more at Disney Springs. When it was originally announced, the idea of a Guy Fieri-led quick service built into the side of Planet Hollywood Observatory drew a couple chuckles, but when Chicken Guy! officially opened in September it drew rave reviews instead of laughs. While its chicken tender based menu looks like Shake ‘N Bake, it actually tastes great and is a reasonably priced alternative right smack dab in the middle of many table service options in the area. With over 20 sauces to choose from, each with its own fun logo, Chicken Guy! has something for everyone (and wont’ break the bank.)
One person that you need to look for during your trip is the fabled Chicken Guy! Sauce Slinger. Armed with various bottles of sauce, the Sauce Slinger can get you whatever sauce you need. From the well known Donkey Sauce, to the extremely popular Peri Peri spicy sauce, to our favorite Bourbon Brown Sugar BBQ, the Sauce Slinger will have – or can get – whatever you need.
# 5 – Bar 17 (Aventura Hotel)
With Disney off creating hotels will all the charm of Biff Tannen’s Pleasure Palace & Casino from Back to the Future II, Universal went the other way this year with the creation of Aventura Hotel. With a unique design that looks exactly like a fidget spinner, Aventura is a value priced hotel that is filled with the latest technology, including a Virtual Reality arcade and a tablet which controls pretty much everything in your room. The hotel is also about 20 steps away from the entrance to Volcano Bay, pound for pound one of the best parks of any kind in Orlando. However, the absolute highlight of Aventura is Bar 17 Bistro.
Bar 17 Bistro is located on the top floor of the hotel, and has its own dedicated express elevator. There is a large bar to sit at, but also many tables, high tops, and a bunch of unique seating areas including couches. From Bar 17 you have a wonderful look at the entirety of the Universal Orlando Resort, along with the nearby International Drive and beyond. Because of the nature of the parks and I-Drive, the viewing experience during the day is very different than at night. For example, the Krakatau volcano at Volcano Bay looks stunning during the day, but it completely transforms at night with all the various lighting features.
The “bar food” at Bar 17 Bistro is shockingly good, with the Bao Buns becoming an instant hit with guests. Guests can choose 3 different types of filling for $12, with options including braised pork belly, grilled grouper, chicken schwarma, duck confit, Mongolian beef, lamb satay, and more! There are also items including Wagyu beef sliders, grilled Spanish octopus, shiitake mushroom bruschetta, and several types of noodle dishes.
Of course there’s also a full bar, and you can’t beat this view!
While on the 17th floor, the side opposite Bar 17 Bistro is wide open. This allows the opportunity to get some great photos of the Universal Orlando Resort.
@Bioreconstruct – who is currently running away with this year’s theme park MVP award – not only gets all of us seemingly daily construction updates at WDW, Universal, and SeaWorld, but also channels the very spirt of Burgan Fine Art when at the drawing board. In this masterpiece, Bio draws Your Humble Author about to LOSE IT when seeing guests take pictures in portrait mode.
# 4 – Cinematic Celebration (Universal Studios Florida)
Can I get a Hallelujah?! After years of trying, Universal has finally delivered a nighttime spectacular that can compete with Disney’s offerings. Okay, it doesn’t quite meet the levels set by Happily Ever After or Illuminations, but the new Cinematic Celebration show in Universal Studios Florida holds up quite nicely compared to Rivers of Light and Seth Kubersky – author of The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando – likes it more than Fantasmic! at DHS. One feature that has made the show more enjoyable to watch than others held in the same lagoon is the fact that there is a centralized location in Central Park for the viewing audience. In previous shows, such as Cinematic Spectacular, guests could watch the show from literally anywhere around the lagoon, causing sightlines to range from “good” to “awful.” Its impossible to serve that many masters, and just trying to ends up disappointing a majority of them. With a more organized viewing area, Universal Creative can focus its efforts on the actual show, and boy did they. With the combination of fountains, water screens, projection mapping, and fireworks, the show displays many of the Universal park’s insanely popular brands (including Harry Potter, Fast & the Furious, and Despicable Me) and concludes with a rousing – by Universal’s standards at least – finale. One thing missing was a tribute to previous franchises, such as Back to the Future and Jaws, but I can see the decision being made to focus on brands that guests can experience in the park. It was great to see the inclusion of many Dreamworks properties, including Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon, and hopefully its a clear sign of those properties about to become a major influence in the parks along with Nintendo.
# 3 – Halloween Horror Nights 28 (Universal Studios Florida)
Last year Universal’s popular Halloween Horror Nights said goodbye to my personal favorite part of the event, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure. The long running stage show was always a highlight of HHN, with a wonderful mix of comedy, music, and more pop culture references than a whole season of Saturday Night Live. I was a bit worried that this year’s event just wouldn’t be the same, but along came Stranger Things.
First let’s backtrack a bit. Like many of you reading this. I’m not a horror guy. I put off going to HHN for years thinking it couldn’t be for me, and only tried it when they started bringing in The Walking Dead (because I love the comic book and at the time the TV show.) Once I experienced HHN I realized that it was for me. Unlike Mickey’s Not So Scary, the entire park becomes a completely different experience during HHN. Along with the various “haunted houses,” there are elaborate scarezones across the entire park. A whole bunch of food and alcohol kiosks come out in what I like to call “a working man’s food & wine.” Instead of fancy schmancy foods you’d find at EPCOT, you’ll get Twisted Taters on a stick or beer served in a blinky cup. These are my people!
So like I said, I’m not a huge fan of horror stuff, but some things I really like. I heard great reviews Netflix’s Stranger Things Season 1 and decided to give it a watch. I loved it. LOVED IT. Season 2 then came out and was one of those very rare occurrences where it was even better than the original season. So when Halloween Horror Nights announced Stranger Things would be the focus of this year’s event, I knew I’d be okay even if there was no Bill & Ted.
Turns out we were all more than ok, as many longtime fans agree that HHN 2018 was among the best in event’s history. The Stranger Things house was in many ways like Flight of Passage in Pandora: the World of Avatar; each night the line for the house’s became immediately long and stayed that way. However, the experience inside the house was so good that no one cared how long the line was. Other houses like Poltergeist, Scary Tales, and Slaughter Sinema also overdelivered. The scarezones were some of the best I’ve ever seen with Killer Klowns From Outer Space completely stealing the show. The merchandise for this year’s HHN was possibly the best it has ever been, including a terrific print featuring a mashup of Stranger Things and the iconic arch of Universal. The food options went all in on Stranger Things as well, with everything from waffles on a stick to waffle sundaes. When the HHN season was over, I realized that I would always miss Bill & Ted, but HHN is in good hands and the future looks very bright.
Academy of Villains is the show which took over the spot in the park where Bill & Ted took place. While nothing will ever be as good as Bill & Ted in my heart, I came to respect the work put into the AOV show. The use of music, lasers, great production values, and elaborate choreography made it an enjoyable experience.
# 2 – Toy Story Land (Disney Hollywood Studios)
DHS needs a lot of help, and it’s coming in the form of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at the end of next year. However Toy Story Land was just what the doctor ordered to get us there (along with the park’s other great things like Tower of Terror, Rock N Roller Coaster, and Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater.) Slinky Dog Dash is more fun than it has any right to be, and Alien Swirling Saucers gives us in Florida a small taste of the magic created with Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree out in Cars Land. Kids especially needed more things to do in DHS, and Toy Story Land caters to them in a major way. In a nice surprise for the rest of us, Toy Story Land was given a seasonal makeover with extra decorations and new food items arriving for the holidays (although we’ll cover that more in-depth next month.)
# 1 – Voodoo Doughnut (Universal Citywalk)
I know what you’re thinking, “A donut shop at #1? HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?!” But trust me, this is not just any donut shop, this is the one and only Voodoo Doughnut. The whimsical nature of Voodoo Doughnut fits right in line at Universal, home of Springfield USA and not to mention a resort that occasionally likes to poke a little fun at Disney. Outside of Voodoo sits an amazing donut throne photo op. Inside is home to one of the greatest collections of donuts my eyes have ever seen. Even more jaw dropping is the realization that many of Voodoo’s donuts are vegan (which also makes it much easier to pretend they are healthy alternatives to non-vegan donuts.)
When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010 there was a new phenomenon at Universal. People walking around with merch bags. Muggles did two things when they went into Hogsmeade, drank Butterbeer and bought something (whether it be a wand, chocolate frog, or house robe.) When Diagon Alley opened, the same thing happened. Now when you are coming into Universal Citywalk from the parking garages you are bound to see guests carrying another item on their way out, the signature pink boxes from Voodoo Doughnut. When you present a product that looks great, tastes great, and is reasonably priced, people will gladly stand in line for it (even if it’s at 10PM…for a donut!)
The cherry on top of the sundae – or should we say sprinkle on top of the donut – is the amount of donuts Voodoo has already made that are exclusive to the locations at Universal (there is a Voodoo in Orlando as well as one at Universal Studios Hollywood.) With the world becoming more and more “Instagram-able,” having limited time offerings as well as exclusive donuts help separate Voodoo from the pack. In just 2018 we saw the debut of the Universal Orangesicle, the Raptor Claw (to tie into Jurassic World: The Lost Kingdom,) a tombstone-themed donut for HHN, and a Grinch donut for Grinchmas.
# 367 – Fast & Furious: Supercharged – At least you tried.
Honorable Mention – The New and Improved OLD PORT ROYALE at Caribbean Beach
This October, Caribbean Beach finally finished the transformation of Old Port Royale. The new and improved Old Port Royale now includes the check-in area, which unfathomably used to be in a building away from everything else at the resort. The food court was completely renovated and changed into Centertown Market. The Banana Cabana pool bar went from one of the worst at Disney to one of the best. The restaurant Shutters was – thankfully – shuttered, and in it’s place rose Sebastian’s Bistro, themed to the crab from The Little Mermaid.
Each and every part of the new Old Port Royale is a MAJOR IMPROVEMENT over what it replaced. You can read our review of the experience by clicking HERE. With Caribbean Beach soon to become the “hub” of the Disney Skyliner, Caribbean Beach has become – in my eyes – the best moderate at WDW. Great pool area, Coke Freestyle machines across property, a second quick service at the far end of the resort, and now a fantastic Old Port Royale experience.
Meanwhile, we here at the SATURDAY SIX have much to be thankful for…
First and foremost we are thankful for you, Dear Reader. Every single one of you who takes the time to read these articles is appreciated. It truly takes a village for each SAT SIX to come together and there’s a lot of great people I
harass work with to get it done.
At TouringPlans there is the grand poohbah himself, Len Testa, along with his better half Laurel Stewart. They have been the most supportive people I have ever worked for. At any other theme park blogs, if I were to pitch an article about “weird stuff you can do with MagicBands because everyone has too many of them,” the answer would most likely be, “are you out of your mind?” Len and Laurel send back a picture of their cat wearing one. Julia Mascardo is rarely mentioned in my work outside of the Outlet Report, but she is always there listening to my ideas and giving much needed constructive criticism. Guy Selga answers any Disneyland question I have and is also my go-to person for anything related to Chandu Tails. A lot of you may know the great TouringPlans people who work on the blog or help run the Twitter machine; like Brian McNichols, Angela Dahlgren, Heather Keller, James Rosemergy, Seth Kubersky, Tessa Koten, and Rikki Niblet, but there’s also many people you may not know who do a lot of the “behind the scenes” work to help keep things running. People like Steve Bloom, Fred Hazelton, David Davies, and Gerelyn Reaves. In my life I’ve worked in big companies and in small ones – and have written for several websites along the way as well – but I’ve never been in a work environment that I’ve enjoyed anywhere near as much as TouringPlans.
For me personally I am blessed to have many wonderful people in my life thanks to the theme park community. Our SAT SIX editor-in-chief Megan Stump, who surprisingly still hasn’t ripped out all of her hair trying to get me to understand the difference between “its” and “it’s.” Here’s an example of one of our conversations just from this very article, “If you’re going to talk about doughnuts, you should probably spell them the same way the whole time.” – Meg. My response? “I don’t agree with Voodoo’s spelling. Only use it for their name.” That’s what she has to put up with on a weekly basis. Nobel Peace Prizes have been awarded to people who have put up with less aggravation.
I truly believe the SAT SIX is one of the best looking theme park articles, and that’s all thanks to the INCREDIBLE photographers that I know. This includes the one and only Brandon Glover, Captain Cruiseline Scott Sanders, @ViewsAndQueues, Mike Sperduto, Hunter Underwood, @HedgehogsCorner, Travis Terrell, and Michael Carelli, When @bioreconstruct goes into the theme park Hall of Fame, I’ll be there to give his introduction. Let’s also not discount the artists who have put “pen to paper” and created some great drawings, creators such as Shelby Denham, Joel Carrol, and Juliette Elton (who did the “Last Supper” work you see above.)
I have to pick a lot of people’s brains when it comes to choosing what to write about each week, and the people I reach out to are the ones whose opinion I trust and respect. People like Tim Grassey, Nick Exley, and TouringPlans’ resident millennial Joe Matt.
Every single person mentioned above is why the SATURDAY SIX exists. I can’t thank them enough, because while I get the lion’s share of the credit, without them there is nothing. I’d give each one of them a big hug if years at the Disney Outlet Store hadn’t me value “personal space” so much.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone. And be sure to subscribe to TouringPlans if you already don’t, because that LITERALLY is what keeps the lights on around here. Without TouringPlans subscribers there would be no Turkeys of the Year, no Special Investigative Reports, and certainly no Burgan Fine Art (well, maybe that’s a good thing. But you should subscribe anyway!)
So there you have it: Six Reasons Theme Park Fans Need to Give Thanks in 2018! See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you enjoyed yourself, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles, or, for your listening pleasure, check out the E-Ticket Report podcast. You can also follow Your Humble Author on Twitter (@derekburgan).
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Special Thanks to The Elite Brandon Glover, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, Mr. ‘Ohana Tim Grassey, the SAT SIX Fun Squad of Parkscope Joe and Nick, hot shot Michael Carelli, the sweet siren of secret shopping Hedgehog’s Corner, and Hermione Granger’s tutor Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. The SAT SIX is inspired each week by goofballs Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde and you Potterheads will enjoy Meg’s other blog work over at the Central Florida Slug Club.
FINAL PLUG! Did you know The 2018 Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando has a special edition of the SATURDAY SIX in it? Finally, someone came up with an actual reason to read a book. ORDER this baby now!