Return to Florida

Dolphin Hotel Walt Disney World |

Sunshine! Palm trees! View from my room.

Last week I returned to Florida for the first time since I left in January 2014. After making it known on social media I was in Orlando for work, no fewer than three people asked within a short time if I would be visiting South Florida during my trip to the Sunshine State. (Nice to know I’m missed!) Although I thought of ways to incorporate a trip south into my trip, the timing and logistics weren’t in my favor. But I need to return soon.

In my time away, I’ve missed Florida more than and in ways I never thought I would. It’s a weird place known for its crazy stories—hope on Twitter and search #Floriduh, @FloridaMan and @FloridaWoman, if you don’t believe me—but we were all there together trying to enjoy life. It’s a crazy place but, as a resident, it was my home. Returning brought mixed feelings; I left almost eight years of my life and experiences there. Last week I was an outsider looking in. As someone staying at a Disney hotel for work, I was a tourist passing through.

Erin McKenna's Bakery Walt Disney World |

Having an afternoon snack of Erin McKenna’s Bakery brownie cupcakes and coffee and the Walt Disney World Boardwalk.

But I didn’t have much time to dwell on the past, as my work trips are jam packed with activities. After landing in Orlando I was working the next 10 hours, and started working the next day eight hours later. Day two I gave myself an hour and a half break (mostly to eat lunch) and walked over to the Boardwalk to grab some vegan treats from Erin McKenna’s Bakery (formerly Babycakes, which I love and have written about here and here). Otherwise, the meals I had at the Swan and Dolphin hotels weren’t up to the Disney standard I had previously experienced, and vegetarian options were limited, even when I asked, so that was disappointing.

What I lacked in food variety I made up for in beer. I was on a mission for a Yuengling Lager and Cigar City Jai Alai, which I had. I was also able to have a few other Cigar City beers (Florida Cracker and Inversion) and a Funky Buddha Floridian.

Valerie Swan Hotel |

Getting a little sun and a cool drink at the Swan Hotel pool before heading back to Minnesota.

Despite being busy with work, I was able to sneak in a few hours of pool time soaking in that glorious Florida sun, being reminded how much I “glisten” in the heat and humidity. Despite that, I need to make an effort to plan a trip back to the place I called home a majority of my adult life.

Walt Disney World Monorail Pub Crawl

It’s getting warmer in Florida. And I knew Disney would start to become more crowded as the summer vacation guests arrive. So to beat the heat and crowds, I knew this trip would be perfect for something I haven’t done on my list yet: The monorail pub crawl.

The Disney monorail stops at three resorts near the Magic Kingdom: The Polynesian, the Grand Floridian and the Contemporary. I really wanted to check out these hotels, especially the first two, so we set out to grab a drink at each and explore the grounds. We didn’t make it to the Contemporary because of time, but maybe another trip.

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From the monorail ticket and transfer station, the first stop is The Polynesian. A tropical resort where each building is named after a different island or group of islands in the Pacific Ocean, this was a fun place to visit since I’ve never been to that part of the world. We went to the Tambu Lounge and looked through the drink menu. All the drinks looked and sounded really good, but I went with the Lapu Lapu because it is the signature drink and it’s served in a pineapple! Bill grabbed a backscratcher, which had rum, whiskey, pineapple juice, other liquids and came with a backscratcher! We had fun walking around in the lush environment.

Next stop is the Grand Floridian. I was equally excited for this, because it is a Victorian-style hotel with an emphasis on old-school Florida. We went to Mizner’s Lounge, which doesn’t open until 4:30. We had time to kill before it opened, so we walked around, checking out the many upscale restaurants, listening to the live band and looking at all the great artwork and impressive lobby from all sides.

We got to Mizner’s Lounge. It is named after architect Addison Mizner, who pretty much built Boca Raton, the city in which I live. And his work is very unique and noticeable in South Florida, having built in the Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival styles. He sounded like a larger-than-life character as well. The lounge is located behind the band on the second floor, so you can hear them perform while enjoying a drink. I had a Mizner gin martini, and everyone else had various old-fashiond drinks except Bill, who has the ultimate Disney tourist drink with a glowing ice cube. It was really tasty and fun to watch, as the ice cube changed colors, lighting the drink.

The next stop on the monorail is Magic Kingdom and then the Contemporary, an ultra-modern hotel. We didn’t make it there, but maybe if I need to escape the Magic Kingdom in the future, I’ll check it out. And I wouldn’t mind grabbing a drink at the Wave or Outer Rim bars.

Have you done the monorail pub crawl? What did you drink?

Vegetarian at Le Cellier Steakhouse

Stop me if you have heard this one: A vegetarian walks into a steakhouse and thinks, “What have I done?!?”

Except that wasn’t the setup to a joke, that was me Wednesday as I walked into Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot’s Canada Pavilion.

Since purchasing my Disney pass, I’ve started to follow Disney food blogs and pay attention to what people are saying. Already a fan of Epcot and after a great dining experience at Teppan Edo in Epcot’s Japan, I got braver and suggested to Bill we try Le Cellier. It seems to be one of the highest-rated and hardest-to-get-into restaurants in all Walt Disney World. I had the confidence that even a steakhouse could accommodate a vegetarian, so I looked at the menu, was pleased and booked a reservation. For the day we wanted (two months out) there was one seating time for dinner.Yeowza!

Ten days before our reservation I called the Disney dining hotline to confirm there would be something for me, and was assured there would be, but they noted it on my reservation. When I walked up to the host stand, the woman confirmed that one person in our party is vegetarian, telling me they have great vegetarian food. I was excited.

Then I walked inside and it hit me, “I’m a vegetarian and am about to sit in a steakhouse for an hour or so.” (Although I am a vegetarian, my husband and family are not, so I’ve been around meat-eaters my entire life. Although I am a vegetarian for ethical reasons and would love to help anyone become a vegetarian, I understand it is a very personal choice and I’m not going to judge those who eat meat.)

As we walked in, the host took us by the dessert table. The selections looked great, but we aren’t dessert people. We walked into the small dining room (which explains why it’s hard to get reservations) and sat at our table. Le Cellier is French for the cellar, and the dining room does look like a wine cellar.

Our server arrived and went over the entire menu with me and said if I wanted to, she could bring out the chef to talk about off-the-menu options. I said no thank you, the main dish option sounds delicious, and I went with it. A vegan dish, I had a quinoa and potato cake with royal trumpet mushrooms, baby beets and wilted ramps. I’m not sure if it was all in olive oil or what spices were in it, but it was so flavorful and cooked perfectly. And I think the vegetarian option changes with the seasons, which is always a good sign meaning the chef is picking the freshest ingredients and wants to try new things.

Quinoa and potato cake with royal trumpet mushrooms, baby beets and wilted ramps.

Before the meal, we ordered a whisky flight and a beer flight. The whisky flight included Crown Royal (harsh), Pendleton (smooth) and Forty Creek (bold). The beer flight was a selection of three Unibroue beers: Éphémère Apple (nice, light apple flavor), Blanche de Chambly (wheat) and Trois Pistoles (light tasting for a dark beer with a nice carbonation to follow). Each beer sample was 4 ounces, I would guess, a good amount for both of us to get a sample and see what we think.

Whisky flight and beer flight

Along with our drinks, our server brought us a selection of rolls: pretzel(!), sourdough and multigrain. And when we were getting low on bread, Linda (the manager, I believe) asked if we wanted more (yes!) and how we liked out drinks. She mentioned they just added the beer flight around Christmas and it was so popular they kept it. They also have samples of ice wine (a dessert wine) and martinis. We wanted a full drink each after, but between dinner and eating and drinking elsewhere around Disney that day, it was just too much awesomeness and we were full!

All in all, as a vegetarian I felt very comfortable and the staff was helpful and knowledgeable. This really was a great experience and we had a great time eating here. I would believe the hype that it is worth the wait to get in and eat here. And being vegetarian didn’t make me feel as if I was missing out on any of the experience or getting short-changed at a steakhouse.

Have you been to Le Cellier or another table service restaurant at Disney? What did you think?

My February 29: One More Disney Day

To celebrate that extra day we get every four years, Disney decided to open Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Disneyland for One More Disney Day from 6 a.m. February 29 to 6 a.m. March 1. Since this had never been done and I have a pass, I checked it out.

I figured since it was the middle of the week and the middle of the night it would be pretty relaxing and a different atmosphere. And that’s where I underestimated people’s love and dedication to Disney.

It wasn’t like the one time I went in the summer, but it’s not the out-of-season midweek trips I’m used to. In fact, as I was heading to Magic Kingdom at 9 p.m. (along with everyone else as the other parks closed) I was worried it might get to capacity before I got there from what I was hearing a photo I saw. It wasn’t crazy getting in but it was busy inside the park. Everyone was lined up all up Main Street for the Electrical Parade. I grabbed a spot at the castle and watched it with the visual display and upbeat song on repeat. It really was great.

View from the castle

Then I walked to some rides and that’s where the craziness really began. There were people everywhere. People were still in the park from the day, people were coming in just for the night, it was crazy. But it was fun to be a part of that, and it was following a full day at Hollywood Studios and Epcot. In total I hit three parks in 14 hours.

But how do you fuel such a trip? With a solid breakfast. And I did that by hitting up Babycakes at Downtown Disney. If you are a regular to the blog, you know I’m becoming a big fan of this vegan bakery, and it’s a must-stop on every trip to Disney (and New York, it’s home base). I got the amazing waffle sandwich filled with frosting and cookie crunch and topped with maple and vanilla sauce. So good, yet so sugary. (Pro tip: Don’t go on Hollywood Studio’s Tower of Terror right after eating this. Trust me.) I also got a slice of banana chocolate chip loaf, which was actually better because it was a perfect balance of bread and sweetness.

Such a good way to start the day: Waffle sandwich and banana chocolate chip loaf.

Later in the day I hit up La Cava del Tequila in Epcot’s Mexico Pavillion. This is becoming another can’t-miss spot on any trip to Disney. I wanted an afternoon snack and drink. I got an avocado marg (so creamy and satisfying, like drinking guacamole but in a really good way!) and some chips and salsa. The salsa is more of a sauce, but has a kick to it and they give you a big plate of chips. Aaaaand it was free since I follow them on Twitter (@cavadeltequila). Great way to rest and recharge on a long, hot day.

From top: Classic margarita, chips and salsa, avocado margarita.

Another spot I have to visit each trip is the Germany Pavillion, where I grabbed a pretzel, Altenmünster Oktoberfest and a German peanut snack with a hard cheesy and spice coating, NicNac’s.

Pretzel, beer and NicNac’s

While on the trip I hit up two breweries, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse the first night, where I had dinner and sampled some beers. About 10 minutes east of Disney, it is a cross between Cheesecake Factory (for the food) and Rock Bottom (for the drinks). Good food and good beer. While at Disney I tried the sampler from Big River Grille and Brewing Works. The beer was decent but the food choice and atmosphere were just ok. If you want to check out one of these, my vote is for BJ’s.

It was a quick trip to Disney, but I successfully packed a lot in.

How did you spend your extra day this year?