The Philadelphia Flower Show 2017

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Think Holland is across the ocean? This year Holland comes to America at the Philadelphia flower show! With spinning windmills of flowers, bridges, canals, and bikes galore, and a rainbow of tulips and daffodils that dance in the music and light, this year’s flower show could turn any thumb green (or orange).

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There is something for everyone at this year’s show at the Philadelphia Convention Center. I was impressed by all the beautiful ways that floral designers incorporated Dutch culture into their displays. From blue & white Delft pottery and tiles, to towering stacks and fountains of bicycles and bike parts that remind people to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle, there was no question what the 2017 theme was.

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Think that flower shows are for stuffy horticultural enthusiasts who are obsessed with pruning their roses? No! The Philadelphia Flower Show has something for everyone. We saw people of all ages enjoying the flowers with glee. I was struck by how many of the installations were closely related to contemporary art. The beautiful colors and textures of flowers and plants being used in the displays just added a natural element to the towering sculptures.

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The artful displays drew attention to the qualities of different flower types. Ornamental grasses, gerber daisies, and tulips were even shown off as elaborate “hats” in one display.

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Periodically, the hall would erupt into a musical lightship featuring the windmills. Everyone would stop to watch how the flowers changed colors in the synchronized lights.

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The best part of this was how the lighting raced through the hanging curtain of pommanders overhead.

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Towards the back of the convention hall were smaller displays, each featuring plants indigenous to Holland. Many of them appealed as secret gardens. One even showcased the ecological advantages of grass roofs on traditional Dutch houses.

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The center of the hall featured awarded winning botanical specimen in their respective categories. We had a lot of fun looking at terrariums, succulents, and African violets. Our favorite by far were the beautiful Bonsai trees! Some of the trees had been carefully “trained” by their gardeners for over fifty years.

The rest of the show is dominated by shopping kiosks featuring seeds, tropical bulbs, garden ornaments, flags, containers and even designer greenhouses.

Whether or not you have a green thumb, you are sure to enjoy the annual Philadelphia Flower Show!

Nomad Lounge at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

img_1461I probably should think twice before posting this one…but we have a new favorite spot to hang out at when we are in Disney…the new Nomad Lounge at the Animal Kingdom theme park.

It has just the right mix of “the safari truck dropped me off in the wilderness” mixed with “I could sip watermelon cocktails at this lounge all night.” The Nomad Lounge is located right next to the entrance to the new Pandora section of AK, slated to open in May 2017. We predict this will become more of a hot spot when Pandora opens.

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The lounge consists of two main seating areas, located to the left of Tiffins restaurant. The outside lounge features comfy chairs and couches and is open to the views of a forested river area, with cool breezes at night. This area would be lots of fun with a large group and a great place to take a relaxing break.

We opted to sit inside on a particularly sweltering day. The interior has an adventurist theme, with mirror-backed bar and pennants hanging from the ceiling that showcase features of life on safari.

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The cocktail menu has the vibe of a traveler’s sketchbook and features pictures of all of the beverages. We had a lot of fun looking through it, but this also made for tough choices!

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I ordered a “Jen’s Tattoo” cocktail and LOML had the “Leaping Lizard.” Both were great and refreshing on a hot day. The cocktail list was so inspiring, we ordered a second round.

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We also ordered some nibbles: The vegetarian summer roll with ponzu sauce ($8) and chicken tikka wings with black rice ($10). We found the food to be lacking and the portions to be rather small for the prices. Disney is usually expensive, but this was not the quality one would expect.

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Still hungry, and hoping for a winner, we ordered the coriander spiced pork ribs ($10). They were overdone and extremely tough, almost inedible.

Early on, the Nomad Lounge’s food options were extremely limited, so we basically ordered what they had on the menu. We have since heard that the options have been expanded to include Tiffins Bread Service, artisanal cheeses, beef sliders, fish tacos, and a charcuterie board.

With the drinks and the ambiance a grand slam, we are hoping that the Nomad Lounge can pick up its game in the bar bites area. They are still lacking some kind of salty nibble, like chips, often desired by those who linger!

Regardless of the food situation, we do think the Nomad Lounge will increase in popularity with the Animal Kingdom’s new night options and the opening of Pandora. Check it out next time you are in the Discovery Island section of the park.

 

Ten Magical Surprises Epcot’s World Showcase Has to Offer

img_1257Epcot is often overlooked as a place for Disney Magic as it lies in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom. But I am here to tell you that the magic truly abounds at Epcot with this top ten list!

10. Epcot has the BEST ice cream. That’s right, tucked in a corner of the France pavilion in Epcot’s world showcase is L’Artisan Des Glaces which scoops out the best ice cream in the World. Leave the Mickey pops to the kids, because this ice cream shop doles out original flavors like salted caramel, chocolate orange, and cinnamon with caramelized pecan. OK, they also have a mighty fine vanilla! Mango, strawberry, and mixed berry sorbets are also offered. If you are in the mood for something more exotic, you can get an ice cream sandwich made with ice cream in a french macaron or my personal favorite, the luscious croque glace which is served inside a warm brioche. And for the truly decadent, they offer a signature ice cream martini.

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9. Hidden Mickeys are everywhere in Epcot. It’s true! While you may have exhausted your hunt for hidden mickeys at the Magic Kingdom or your resort hotel, Epcot often has a fresh spin on your search for the mouse that manifests everywhere. Look high and look low, you’ll see hidden mickeys all over this park.

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8. Your photographs will look smashing! We might not be professional photographers, but thanks to Disney Imagineers carefully crafting every part of Epcot down to every detail anyone with a point-and-shoot camera will likely have photos that put National Geographic photographers to shame…ok maybe not quite that good, but you get the PICTURE. Epcot is one of my favorite places to take pictures in the world because of its landscaping and colorful flora beckons and inspires.

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7. There’s always an impromptu party. Imagine this…you are sitting on a bench sipping Prosecco and minding your own beeswax when a band of flag twirlers come marching into the piazza. You are riveted! At any given moment in Epcot there are all kinds of cultural performances to get you on your feet. Pay attention because the chair tumblers in France, drum players in Japan, or lumberjacks in Canada might be up to something. And this magic is all included with the price of admission.

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6. There are adult beverages in this park. If that’s not magic after a day full of hordes of screaming tourists and waiting for thrill rides in the hot Florida sun, then I don’t know what is. Maybe Mom and Dad are out on the town for an evening to themselves. Maybe you’re on your honeymoon. Maybe Susie loves Margaritas and Sammy loves Sake. Epcot is the park for all of these variables and more! Certainly one must be responsible in the parks so plan your itinerary accordingly. Epcot offers what the Magic Kingdom cannot: ahem, the opportunity to learn about the world’s beverages. Drinking around the world has become part of many an adult’s itinerary. If that’s something that interests you here’s a tip: You can print off a drink around the world passport from online (non-Disney sanctioned) or even engage in a rather mature and educational around the world Wine Walk passport (Disney approved). For the wine walk, check in at one of the three wine shops in the world showcase: the Weinkeller in Germany, Enoteca Castello in Italy, or Aux Vins de France.

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5. Learn About Art! The rich artistic traditions of many of the cultures represented at the World Showcase are actually paid attention to here at Epcot. Study the tile and stucco of Morocco throughout the showcase spot or stop into the Gallery of Arts and History on the left side of the pavilion. Learn about the the cultural constructs of cuteness in the Bijutsu-kan Gallery of Japan! China also often has interesting exhibits in their interior gallery space, ranging from a small model of the Terra Cotta Tomb Warriors to displays of Disney theme parks from all around the globe. Stop inside the pyramid in Mexico to see the “Animales Fantásticos” art collection and even watch artisans crafting in the inside marketplace.

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4. You can get your Frozen Freak on! Ok, so this one is a little controversial. But if you love Frozen, Epcot’s Norway is the place to be. Not only does it feature the new and fabulous Frozen dark ride to cool off in, you can meet Anna and Elsa in this cute little grass-topped cottage with a wait time of only 15 minutes! If that’s not magical enough, then whisk into the attached Frozen merchandise store and snag some of the best Frozen themed toys in Disneyworld, because it’s always well-stocked. After all that, you can stuff your face with schoolbread and start planning your next visit. Again, this is all controversial. If you are anything like LOML, your traveling companions will find you spritzing Geir for men at everyone in the Norwegian gift shop after a bit too much Aquavit as you proclaim loudly about, “how they ruined quiet little Norway. ”

That’s a hypothetical scenario, of course. Ahem…onward!

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3. It’s a magical foodie heaven. Epcot is where you can eat around the world, yes. You can have treats like fish and chips in the UK and then stroll over to Germany for bratwurst. You can stock up on chocolates to bring home and watch your pizza go right into the oven in Italy. If you are a bit more serious about your food, Epcot offers many fine dining experiences like Monsieur Paul or Le Cellier. My personal favorite: the sushi at Tokyo Dining. That’s a magical plate.

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2. You can find Zen. A quiet moment of introspection is nearly impossible at the Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studios. At Epcot’s World Showcase, there are many places to find your peace and get away from the crowds. Try crossing the footbridge by the koi pond in Japan or walk towards Le Cellier restaurant in Canada. The new perspective might surprise and the quiet moment will likely rejuvenate you! Enabling many more hours of touring magic.

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1. There’s fireworks galore. That’s right, Epcot’s Illuminations has fireworks to rival the other parks. What’s so magical here? Unlimited spots around the lagoon to see them clearly. Pick your favorite pavilion and park yourself with some treats in hand. The view, the music, the sparkling pyrotechnics…that’s a magical way to end your day indeed.

Teatime on the Queen Mary 2

If there’s one thing that makes Anglophiles love a trip across the pond the Queen Mary 2, it’s tea! You’ll certainly find plenty of it onboard the ship. A formal tea is offered daily in the aptly named Queen’s Room at 3:30. Be there a bit early to get a seat at one of the tables straight away and watch the “bringing out the tea” parade, which is oddly great fun.

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There’s no lack of tiny sandwiches at this tea. I don’t know why…but I love those tiny sandwiches with the crusts cut off, don’t you? On our trip, tea featured egg salad with tomato, cucumber, smoked salmon spread, and cold chicken sandwiches. Yum!

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A delicious assortment of pastries is also offered after the sandwich serving. While I like a nice little fruitcake, ahem, there’s plenty of offerings to satisfy your sweet tooth.

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The absolute BEST offering at the tea, however, is a QM2 scone! They are the most delicious scones we had ever tasted. Slathered with strawberry jam and Devonshire cream, the scone was remarkable and I am still thinking about it.

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If you are not interested in sitting down for an hour of proper tea in the Queen’s Room daily (or you are running off to an activity on the ship) rest assured, tea offerings are set out at 3:30 in the buffet area of the ship for a serve-yourself option. You will find the same tea sandwiches, scones, and some desserts upstairs on deck 7.

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One thing I found comforting on our transatlantic voyage were the great big tea boxes in the buffet area and down by the planetarium. At any time of day, you can choose from a variety of Twinings teas and brew yourself a nice mug of tea. This is handy when you are darting off to a lecture or want to sit out on the lounge chairs and gaze at the ocean in the brisk breeze.

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Victoria & Albert’s Review: A Ten-Course Tasting in The Queen Victoria Room

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I have to admit, I didn’t believe the hype about Victoria & Albert’s Restaurant at the Grand Floridian Hotel. When we were making honeymoon plans several years ago, I completely glossed over it and deemed it likely stuffy and way too extravagant for us. At the time, it probably was. Having “matured and endured” and honestly desiring an experience that would offer us a respite from the hordes of people and screaming children in the parks,  I made a reservation on Disney’s dining system four months in advance for the Queen Victoria Room at “Vicky & Al’s.” This is a sacrifice I was willing to make for the benefit of the blog on our most recent trip to Disney, ahem. I also could not secure a reservation in the main room because it was already booked solid. So I booked the Queen Victoria Room, not completely understanding what we were getting into, but knowing that it had a set tasting menu and that it would likely cost us the same amount as a brand new couch. I was prepared to dislike it, deem it uptight and overrated, and then move on to sampling the fine culinary offerings of the world.

I could not have been more WRONG.

There…I admit it.

The Queen Victoria Room at Victoria & Albert’s is a small wood-paneled room with a fireplace, a portrait of Victoria and Albert, and four well-appointed tables, all set apart from the main dining room. It offers a more intimate dining experience and a select ten-course tasting menu that is set each night by the chef. The lighting in the room was subdued, our table was covered with soft linens, and we immediately felt relaxed and at ease. I could have actually sat there all night. But the star of the show that evening was the food.

Our first course was an amuse-bouche: Cauliflower Panna Cotta. It was AMAZING. Just a few bites to tickle the palette, I could have eaten an entire plate of this for dinner and called it a night. There were three crispy little potato chips embedded in the panna cotta that played off the taste of the vegetable and made the cauliflower sing. And yes, that’s a nice mound of American caviar too.

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Our second course was roulade of smoked salmon with alaskan king crab. I am a big fan of smoked salmon, so I was delighted by this. LOML does not love seafood, but even he was enchanted by it.

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By the third course we were getting excited. If these were appetizer to tickle our palates, what on earth would the main courses bring?

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The third course was one of several fish courses: Alaskan Sablefish with Baby Bok Choy. This was served with a soy glaze and an accompaniment of freshly grated wasabi which made this dish burst with warmth and flavor.

The fourth course was a favorite of the night: Scottish Langoustine with Nage Crema. It was salty and bright, like a delicate lobster with the most delicious sea of sauce to swim in.

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At various points on the menu, you are permitted to “buy up” and sample a rare culinary delight that is not included with the ten-course tasting. LOML and I decided that I would try the first “buy up” of the evening: Wild Turbot with Toasted Capers and Preserved Lemon.

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This dish was a masterpiece. The fish was rich and moist and perfectly cooked and the sauce was the essence of lemon with a buttery finish. It melted in my mouth. I still think about this dish daily. It is one of the five most delicious plates I have ever enjoyed and there is no way I could ever reproduce it in my own kitchen…which to me is the mark of a culinary masterpiece.

Course number five was Truffled Bell & Evans Chicken with Blue Foot Mushrooms. I am sorry, I do not have a picture of this course because by now we were a bit tipsy from the wine pairing. This might be a good time to discuss the wine pairing. If you love learning about wine and can handle a nice amount of liquor in one evening, this wine pairing will be  a treat. However, if you are lightweight like myself, you will get hammered in a fine dining establishment and forget your chicken course. Note to everyone: second guess the wine pairing. Even though they are small pours, 9 different glasses of anything will sweep you off your feet. There. You have been warned.

Our sixth course was a more memorable smoky Berkshire Porchetta with Sherry Vinaigrette. We also loved the brightly-colored beets that accompanied this dish.

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The seventh dish was Australian Kobe Beef with Petite Potatoes with the option to buy up and have an additional sampling of Miyazaki Japanese Beef. LOML elected to try the Miyazaki and he raved about it beyond belief. He loves rare steak and this fit the bill. Evidently the Miyazaki Japanese Beef is a type of wagyu that has only been imported into the states since 2012. It extremely tender due to its feed of corn and wheat. It is a myth that is the result of a cow massaged daily at the hands of its owner. LOML still talks about this course with great reverence and at least I do not have to be concerned that I will come home one day to find a cow in the kitchen getting the full spa treatment.

LOML’s plate had tastings of both the Kobe (left) and the Miyazaki (right).

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My kobe beef was delicious and tender. The red wine reduction sauce that accompanied it made it even better.

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To wind down the meal, we were offered a sampling of cheeses in a cheese course. This made me very happy because my seat was facing the glass-domed cheese cart all night.

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Each piece of cheese had an accompaniment. For me, the sweet runny honeycomb was terrific with boucheron and I am hoping to be able to recreate the tastes of this plate at home.

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While we were enjoying our our cheese course we were able to enjoy watching our coffee and tea brew alongside the table in marvelous glass pots.

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Throughout the meal, one of our two kind attentive servers would set us at ease and teach us about the origins of the foods were were sampling. This was actually one of my favorite things about the evening.

The highlight of our culinary education was the introduction of our first dessert course: Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Wild Strawberries.

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Just before we dug in, I distinctly heard the server say that the tiny little strawberries, “grow under fallen trees in the woods of northern Europe.”

How romantic! Little medieval wild strawberries that you have to seek out in ancient forests a continent away. I was also three-sheets-to-the-wind from the wines (and port served with the cheese course) so I giggled as I tasted the dessert and pictured men in funny hats looking under logs for the dainty fruits, which I found rather ridiculous. Had LOML and I ventured too far into the culinary stratosphere?

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The berries were bursting with flavor.

Our final course was a Peruvian Chocolate Crunch. To me, it looked like an eye with long lashes from a Salvador Dali painting. In fact, in my stupor and fullness, it almost appeared to wink back at me knowingly. This was my least favorite course in the tasting. The chocolate was extremely rich and put me over the edge of feeling “full” to thinking “I don’t feel so well.”

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Our evening ended with a trip back to the kitchen to meet the chef, which was wonderful. We were able to thank him in person for the beautiful meal and see the inner workings of the kitchen. Everyone was very friendly and happy to answer our questions.

When we returned to our seats we were presented with a personalized copy of our menus and a sampling of chocolates that we were much too full to enjoy.

Our ten-course tasting menu in the Queen Victoria Room made V & A enthusiasts out of both of us. We fell in love with ambiance of Victoria & Albert’s Restaurant, we learned a lot about food and wine, and we had a bucket-list dining experience. The service at the restaurant is wonderful without being intimidating and the meal was absolutely delicious. What makes this restaurant so special is that they really do want to make you happy. If you are a Vegetarian or Vegan, do not shy away from a tasting dinner, as the chef will accommodate you and delight you with creative dishes. If you are an omnivore, you are in for a new treat every time you dine here!

There are, however a few minor drawbacks. This dinner is not for the faint of heart. You must be willing to try everything, even foods that you usually are not partial to. Also, in particular, I do not recommend the wine pairing. It was all just too much, particularly for me. Order a glass of your favorite cocktail or wine or champagne with dinner and focus on the food. If you are traveling light, you must also be prepared to bring a jacket and nice shoes and slacks for the gents, and a dress or dressy pants suit for the ladies. We brought nice clothes just for this meal and they did take up a lot of valuable room in our suitcases. It is also an extremely expensive evening. I am not complaining because we were mentally prepared for this, but unless you are a hedge-fund manager or sheikh,  you should save up in advance for such a night out so that you can fully enjoy it and not second guess yourself in any way. The restaurant will contact you prior your reservation to confirm any food allergies and they will remind you of the price per person. I am pretty sure they do this so as not to have any shocked customers.

Would we do this again? Yes, but likely years from now for a very special occasion. We would also like to try the main dining room someday to compare experiences.

Reservations can be made at Victoria & Albert’s Restaurant by calling 407-WDW-DVNA (939-3862) up to 180 days prior to your visit or by visiting the Disney World Dining Website.

*Jackets are required for gentlemen, dressy attire for women.

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QM2 Photo Essay: The Glorious Atlantic

I’ve been getting nostalgic for the Queen Mary 2. Nothing beats being out in the ocean and watching the many faces of the Atlantic. During a transatlantic journey, the colors, and textures of the water, wave heights and even the wake of the ship play against an endless shifting sky. Here is a photo essay of the Atlantic from our trip.

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Night Safari at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

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I am always up for a terrific safari, aren’t you? Zebras, ornamental grasses, Kudu, termite mounds…bring it on! However adventurous my nature, I do really like certain safety precautions in place. Take for example a friend who went on a “budget” safari in Tanzania. She paid a much lesser price for a super special “budget safari” that enticed her with romantic mosquito netting, mint tea, and basically no safety precautions. Once they dumped her off the bus, she was able to basically able to walk right up and pet the lions if she felt like it! No, this type of safari is not for me dear reader.

Now that you know my penchant for seat belts and extreme caution around large felines, you will completely understand why I absolutely LOVE Disney’s Night Safari at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. This is a wonderful evening tour of the savannah at the AKL’s Kidani Village Resort. *Do not confuse this with the new night Kilimanjaro Safari at the Animal Kingdom Park! This one is a small group VIP tour and much more of an education experience for animal lovers.

To start our adventure, we took the complimentary shuttle van from Jambo House over to Kidani Village and checked in at 9:45 PM  for our safari at the Sanaa Restaurant desk . We then joined our small group of ten people and two guides for our evening on the savannah. After tying on our glow-in-the dark entrance bands we were brought out the jeep that would take us out to the animals. The jeep has open sides so that you can see everything easily and take lots of pictures.

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Our guide Rebekah was amazing from the start, and the main reason why our nighttime safari was such a wonderful experience. She was very down to earth and extremely knowledgeable and made us feel so at ease. She actually loved our questions and taught us a ton about the night habits of the animals. She also showed us how to use…

Night vision goggles!!!

Every person on our hour-long tour received their own pair of night vision goggles to survey the savannah with. It was so fun to gaze out the sides of the jeep and spot animals all over the place doing their “night things” in the darkness. My favorite and first animal encounter of the evening was spotting zebras sleeping on their sides like little rag dolls in the grass.

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The jeep stopped at various points throughout the tour so that could take photographs through the night vision goggles.  It’s a little bit tricky and the images are never quite as sharp as when you look through the goggles with your own eyes, but after a bit we got some very nice images of the animals. The trick appears to lie in keeping the lens of your camera tightly within the rubber eyepiece and NOT zooming out too far, which makes the image fuzzier.

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We saw lots of animals on our Nighttime Safari, including giraffes, kudu, ostrich, gazelles, zebra and several exotic large birds. Rebekah taught us great things that I probably would not have learned anywhere else. She taught us the difference between horns and antlers (antlers can be lost, horns, not so much!)  She taught us that giraffes love sweet potatoes and that kudu have certain behavioral traits for establishing dominance. She also showed us that animals love them a big old pile of dirt! The best toy in the world is…a big pile of dirt to play and make holes in (tell that to your kids when they are begging you for Disney toys on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom).

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We also got to hold an ostrich egg on the jeep and Rebekah told us that ostriches are a bit flaky and “don’t listen”…and we got to see that in action!

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The evening ended with a ride past the animal barn. It was neat to see how part of it is raised up to accommodate the height of the giraffes. On the ride back to the front of the resort Rebekah also pointed out the bat house. You can thank the bats for the scarcity of mosquitoes at Disney! They eat them right up.

We were rather sad to leave the warm glowing lights of the Kidani Village Resort and all of our new animal friends. We were also sorry to have to give back the night vision goggles.

But we are glad to have returned them if it means you can enjoy them on your own Night Safari!

Disney’s Night Safari is a one hour VIP Tour booked in advance by reservation at (407) 939-8687 and costs approximately $70 US per adult.  Children 8 years and over may also attend.