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Where to eat? Lunch at Disneyland's Red Rose Taverne

By Robert Niles
Published: February 24, 2017 at 4:09 PM
The Red Rose Taverne opened officially at Disneyland this morning, overlaying Fantasyland's Village Haus Restaurant with a Beauty and the Beast theme to celebrate the upcoming release of the Disney live-action film.

Disneyland revamped the menu as well as tweaking the restaurant's look with new murals and signs. Since the old menu featured burgers and flatbreads, we decided to opt for a couple of more unique items from the new menu, ordering the Enchanted Cauli-Flower Sandwich and the Slow-cooked Beef Poutine. [$10.99 each]

Red Rose Taverne

I really wanted to like the cauliflower sandwich, and I loved each component, especially the tempura-battered green beans and spicy lime aioli. But the stack of thickly-sliced cauliflower, the beans, lettuce, and tomato on ciabatta simply wouldn't fit in my mouth. Perhaps if Disney had separated the cauliflower florets before seasoning and roasting them, this could have been an even tastier (and flatter!) sandwich, but that would have created the problem of keeping the florets on the bun without resorting to taste-bullying melted cheese to hold the thing together.

Opt instead for the poutine, which might be my favorite counter-service item at Disneyland right now. Featuring pot roast-style beef, big hunks of cheese curds, and pickled onions, all atop spicy waffle fries and drowning in yummy beef gravy, this isn't finger food — even for a beast. But it's hearty and delicious and even better than the poutine Disney's serving on the east coast at Disney Springs. You can order it on a flatbread [$9.49] , too, but it appears that you get much more of the gooey good stuff on the regular plate.

And that ciabatta I couldn't eat on the cauliflower sandwich served quite nicely in sopping up the extra gravy from the poutine.

The drink is Gaston's Famous Brew [$4.99], an apple-mango juice topped with passion fruit foam. It's basically a sweeter, non-frozen version of Disney World's LeFou's Brew (which Disneylanders know as Red's Apple Freeze from Cars Land). The souvenir mug is an $8 upcharge, but the counter host poured mine into one by accident, so I got it for free. (As others were, too. Score one for opening day confusion.)

But the one thing I saw on nearly everyone's tray this morning was the Grey Stuff [$5.49]. One of the dishes named-checked in Disney's "Be Our Guest" song, the Grey Stuff was legend among Disney fans before it became an actual food item with the opening of Walt Disney World's Be Our Guest restaurant in 2012.

This version is a vanilla mousse, perched atop a sugar cookie and swirled around a chunk of red velvet cake, which encases a single raspberry, like a hidden rose underneath. (Get it?) Yes, it's fussy as all get out, but the combination of flavors and textures works to give life to the rather ordinary mousse, and finding the raspberry inside delights. This is an inspired dessert and well worth enduring the line to try before Disneyland takes it away.

Yes, Red Rose Taverne will be open "for a limited time," but Disneyland said the same thing about the Star Wars-themed Galactic Grill overlay of Tomorrowland Terrace and that's still around more than a year later, so who knows? But while it lasts, grab a poutine and a Grey Stuff, cozy up to one of the murals (if you can find an empty table - barring table-saving is one element of Be Our Guest I would have liked to see added here)... and enjoy. "After all, Miss, this is France."

Well, at least until Disneyland turns it back into the Village Haus and makes it Italy again.

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Universal Orlando announces dates for Halloween Horror Nights 27

By Robert Niles
Published: February 23, 2017 at 3:44 PM
Sure, it's February, but for horror fans, it's never too early to start thinking about the next edition of Universal's Halloween Horror Nights. Universal Orlando today announced the dates for this fall's event, which will run for 34 nights, starting Sept. 15.

Tickets and vacation packages also are now on sale for Halloween Horror Nights 27, which is a hard-ticket, after-hours event at Universal Studios Florida. Here is the schedule of nights for this year's event:

Sept. 15-17, 21-24, 29-30
Oct. 1, 4-8, 11-15, 18-22, 25-31
Nov. 3-4

"Flex" tickets good for one of any of the nights during the event are now on sale for $80.99 at halloweenhorrornights.com/orlando/tickets.html. If you're not considering going on a Saturday night, you can save $11 by getting a Sunday-Friday Flex Ticket for $69.99.

Vacation packages start at $225-339 per person per night for stays at Universal Orlando's on-site hotels. Those are available at halloweenhorrornights.com/orlando/vacation-package.html.

Last year's event included houses featuring American Horror Story, The Exorcist, Halloween, Krampus, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Walking Dead, in addition to original IP, including event icon Chance.

Which franchises and characters are you hoping to see at this year's event? We expect Universal to start revealing properties sometime this spring.

Our review of last year's event:

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Here's your first look at the menu for the 2017 DCA Food & Wine Festival

By Robert Niles
Published: February 23, 2017 at 12:08 PM
Disneyland has announced the menu for this year's Food & Wine Festival, which runs March 10-April 16 at Disney California Adventure.

This year's festival nearly doubles the number of marketplaces from last year's event, which marked the return of the festival to the Disneyland Resort after a five-year absence. The festival will offer food at 11 marketplaces this year, as well as taking over the menu at the Paradise Garden Grill, which now has become standard practice at DCA's festivals.

The marketplace themes this year will be ingredients rather than California geography, which should help fans navigate the many offerings. It makes sense for Disney to offer geographic marketplaces at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival that clearly inspired California Adventure's event — that's a natural extension of World Showcase's national pavilions. But in a state where every community has mashed up cuisine from the countless ethnic backgrounds of their residents, pavilion names such as "LA Style" and "By The Bay" told people nothing about what they served.

So here is the food line-up for this years festival, courtesy Disney:

Nuts About Cheese
Brie toast with fig and mint and roasted California almond crumble
Baked ham and Swiss cheese Croque Monsieur roll with smoked pistachios
Chevre fromage blanc tartine infused with rosemary and honey, topped with toasted hazelnuts
Almond milk tea with pudding

I Heart Artichokes
Artichoke carbonara with garlic aioli and smoked bacon
Grilled and chilled artichoke hearts with Romesco sauce
Creamy artichoke and dark chocolate cake pop
Orange iced tea with orange pearls

Garlic Kissed
Grilled beef tenderloin slider with chimichurri sauce
Black garlic soy-braised pork belly bao with pickled vegetables
Garlic-rosemary and avocado oil ice cream pop

Olive Us
Chilled Cioppino soup with shrimp, crab claw and grilled olive bread
Warm olive focaccia with olive oil and sea salt
Vanilla bean creme fraiche panna cotta with Amarena cherry jus and madeleine

Bacon Twist
Baby iceberg and heirloom tomato wedge with peppered bacon and blue cheese dressing
Smoked bacon mac and cheese with barbecue-seasoned crispy onions
Maple-bacon Whoopie Pie

Lemon Grove
Roasted cauliflower and Meyer lemon-infused yogurt cauliflower puree with sundried tomatoes and fried capers
Duck confit on potato smash with Meyer lemon preserves
Meyer lemon macaron with blueberry marmalade, Meyer lemon cream and blueberry dust
Cherry lemonade with cherry pearls

Seafood…Sustained
Salmon tataki with avocado-wasabi puree and Furikake dust
Cage-free cream cheese deviled eggs with farm-raised smoked trout and chives
Passion fruit posset and coconut chia with mango compote and jelly
Mango agua fresca

The Onion Lair
French onion mac and cheese topped with parmesan crumble and chives
Braised Wagyu beef on creamy polenta with haricot vert and red onion salad and roasted Cipollini onion
Chocolate-hazelnut and raspberry Feuillete tart
Strawberry pineapple float with vanilla ice cream and strawberry pearls

Off the Cob
Sweet corn nuggets with beef chili, spring onions and sour cream
Jackfruit carnitas banh mi nachos with cilantro crema and "pickled" de gallo
Roasted sweet corn custard tart with honey tuille and smoked chili-infused chocolate sauce

Sweet & Sourdough
Bay shrimp Louie salad served in a mini Boudin sourdough boule
White cheddar lager soup topped with bacon, served in a mini Boudin sourdough boule
Milk chocolate sourdough bread pudding with vanilla bean sauce

LAStyle
Chicken Teriyaki slider with spicy pineapple jam
Korean barbecue beef short rib tacos with Kimchi slaw
Fresh strawberry compote, lemon verbena and vanilla bean shortcake parfait
Pineapple-strawberry float with vanilla ice cream and strawberry pearls

Paradise Garden Grill Beer Garden
Beer-battered cod served with steak fries, sweet slaw and spiced remoulade
Potato and cheese pierogis with vegetarian sausage served with grilled Anaheim chilies, caramelized onions and sour cream
Beer-braised pork tacos served with pickled apple slaw, black beans and queso
Sausage platter trio served with braised red cabbage and warm potato salad
Large soft pretzel served with beer-mustard dipping sauce
Salted caramel budino with vanilla bean Chantilly cream
Bienenstich cake with honey-glazed almonds, filled with vanilla bean custard

The big question yet to be answered is how much any of this will cost. Items at last year's festival ran 15-45% higher here than for similar items from the previous Epcot Food & Wine fest. Disney last year initially offered an AP holder festival passport that ended up costing more per item than buying dishes individually. DCA kept the marketplace prices high for its holiday food festival last year but did bring them down a touch for the recent Lunar New Year fest. Will Disney reduce the prices from last year's event to encourage more sales? Or will prices stay up... and fans continue to stay away? We will find out when the event launches next month.

Review of last year's event:

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Joe Rohde: Why 'Avatar' fits in Disney's Animal Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: February 21, 2017 at 11:45 PM
Walt Disney World's most ambitious themed land to date opens this spring, with the debut of Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom on May 27. To promote the new land, creative director Joe Rohde is talking about the inspiration for putting this franchise in Animal Kingdom, and why the marriage of the highest-grossing film of all time with Disney's most "non-fiction" theme park makes sense.

In the two-and-a-half-minute video, Rohde talks about the mission of Disney's Animal Kingdom, for which he was one of Disney's creative leaders back when the company was developing the park in the 1990s.

"If you think about the intrinsic value of nature, transformation through adventure, and personal call to action — these are the value of Animal Kingdom," Rohde said. "But if you say them again, those are the themes of the film Avatar. So Avatar and Animal Kingdom will nest into each other very, very neatly."

In addition to creating an immersive practical environment for the moon of Pandora, which was depicted through digital animation in James Cameron's 2009 film, Avatar, the new land will offer two attractions for visitors: Flight of Passage, a Soarin'-style flying theater attraction where visitors will fly on mountain banshees, and Na'vi River Journey, an indoor boat ride through a bioluminescent forest, complete with a Na'vi animatronic.

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Katy Perry goes to which theme park in her latest video?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 21, 2017 at 11:20 PM
Part of the fun of graduating from fan to full-fledged theme park geek is being able to identify even the most fleeting glimpses of theme parks and their attractions in movies, TV shows, and music videos. Well, Katy Perry's latest video should give theme park geeks plenty to gawk over.

Yes, the video for "Chained to the Rhythm" hides its real-life theme park setting with a lot of post-production design. But I'll bet that many of you could figure out which park in which Perry and her team shot the video, anyway. Guesses?

Well, okay, it wasn't that hard. Since so much video production in the U.S. is done in Los Angeles, when productions need to shoot in a theme park, many of them end up the road in Valencia, at Six Flags Magic Mountain. The park plays the role of a glam-futuristic "Oblivia" theme park in the message-heavy video, which was directed by Matthew Cullen and shot at the park last month. How many actual Six Flags Magic Mountain rides can you find?

The big attraction in the video is Six Flags Magic Mountain's Full Throttle, which Perry rides during the song. Compare the video's treatment of the ride with our video from Full Throttle's opening day in 2013.

"Chained to the Rhythm" is the lead single from Katy Perry's upcoming fifth studio album. The song also features a rap by Skip Marley, who, yes, is the grandson of music legend Bob Marley.

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Universal steps up promotion of a unifying brand for its theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: February 21, 2017 at 10:17 PM
Universal's theme parks dropped a new ad campaign today. Okay, that normally would not be terribly significant news, except that the new campaign brands "Universal Parks & Resorts" in Hollywood & Orlando, rather than the separate "Universal Orlando Resort" and "Universal Studios Hollywood," as the company has publicized consistently in the past. The campaign includes the launch of a new UniversalParks.com website.

This marks Universal's most public attempt to date to create a unifying brand for its theme park business. Of course, Universal's relatively new to the game of actually owning the theme parks that carry its brand. Before 2011, Universal jointly owned its Orlando resort with Blackstone Group, and Universal owner Comcast bought majority control of USJ Co. — the owner of Universal Studios Japan — in 2015. Prior to those moves, Universal actually had full ownership only of its original, Hollywood property, which was the fourth most-visited of the Universal-branded theme parks, following Universal Studios Japan and the two Universal Orlando parks.

The fifth Universal-branded theme park, Universal Studios Singapore, is owned and operated by Resorts World Sentosa, under license from NBCUniversal. Its attendance lags the other Universal theme parks, drawing 4.2 million visitors in 2015, compared with the 13.9 to 7.1 million annual visitors at Universal's other parks, according to the most recent TEA/AECOM Theme Index attendance report.

Here's the new commercial, by the way:

Notice the heavy shade thrown toward Disney's princess franchise toward the end there. While Universal might just now be working to establish a unifying brand for its theme parks, it's long honed a specific, unifying identity for them, and this commercial reinforces that message — that Universal is the place for people who looking for something a little more thrilling, a little more challenging, and well, a little less earnest than Disney's shiny, happy, princess lands.

(Now, whether Universal consistently delivers that kind of experience, and whether Disney's parks really are that simplistic, both are subjects for other debates that will keep all of us eagerly engaged in a never-ending Disney vs. Universal flame war. But that's the message that Universal is going for here, IMHO.)

The Walt Disney Company's theme parks years ago adopted a common "Disney Parks" branding for its properties, going so far as to scrap park- or even resort-specific branding on paper cups, plates, and plastic souvenir bags in favor of the "Disney Parks" brand. Many fans hated that move and continue to long for more park- and resort-specific branding, so we'll see if Universal begins to emulate Disney on its in-park branding as well as its national ad campaigns.

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Six Flags announces its second theme park in China

By Robert Niles
Published: February 21, 2017 at 9:44 PM
Six Flags today announced the location of its second planned theme park resort in China. The new resort will include a Six Flags-branded theme park and a water park, to open in 2020 in Bishan, just outside Chongqing in central China.

The project will developed by the Riverside Investment Group Co. Ltd., Six Flags' Chinese partner. In 2014, Six Flags and Riverside Investment Group announced plans to partner on "multiple" theme parks to be built in China over the next decade. The first Six Flags park in China — to be located in Haiyan, about 45 miles south of downtown Shanghai — broke ground last year and is scheduled to open in 2019. That US$4.6 billion mixed-use development will locate the amusement park on the coast of Hangzhou Bay.

Six Flags has yet to release details on rides that it will include in either of the parks, except to say that they will include "record-breaking roller coasters, live shows, thrilling water attractions and more."

Six Flags is joining American competitors Disney and Universal in partnering to bring its theme parks to the Chinese market. Disney opened Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005 and followed with Shanghai Disneyland last year. Universal Studios Beijing broke ground last fall and is expected to open sometime around 2020.

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