Recently Miss Bonnie and I checked out the first part of the massive Fantasyland expansion in the Magic Kingdom to open – the Storybook Circus – or at least the first part of that part to open…

I’m not going to try and give you a complete rundown or photo essay of our visits (once during the day and once at night), but just a few quick notes. Anyway the bit that’s opened is already all over the web, so if you’re behind the curve, take a look at the initial coverage by our friends at AllEars and the DIS.

At this time, all that is open is the newest (of the soon to be dueling duo) Dumbo ride, the re-themed Barnstormer roller coaster and the Fantasyland train station (and associated restroom facilities).

The new Dumbo is colorful, and with it’s new water features around the base is especially appealing after dark (the Orlando Theme Park News blog and Inside the Magic both have nice videos online).

Several posters around the area show Goofy’s many  exploits as the daredevil The Great Goofini: from being shot out of a cannon, to entering the squared circle with a huge Ursidae, to strapping a saddle onto a rocket…

Being the Rocket Boy that I am, it should go without saying that I loved the still-smoking remnants of Goofy’s ill-fated rocket ride in the Barnstormer queue…

More than one of my launches have ended this way...

But the best themed area is the train station (paying homage to Walt’s Carolwood Pacific backyard train)…

and the nearby restrooms themed to the Casey Jr. Circus Train.

While we were there, I felt the need to visit the restroom facilities – and inside I noticed this sign:

Now I’ve seen such notices around neighborhoods where non-potable water is used for sprinklers and so forth, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in a men’s room… and especially where it was placed:

So thanks Disney-Legal! Yes, I was thirsty, and if I hadn’t been warned I would have seriously considered going in for a quick watery respite… phewww… potential non-potable catastrophe averted!

We now await further openings in the Fantasyland area, and hopefully even more interesting signage!

Now back to the kitchen – see you soon!

It’s the best thing I do…

September 1, 2010

Okay, so let’s start by saying this post has nothing to do with Disney, and originally didn’t have anything to do with food either (and as we’ll see that did change…), but it’s something I’ve been involved with for several years and feel very strongly about, so I wanted to share it with you anyway… so if you want to pass on this, go ahead… but I hope you stay around…

In 2002 to commemorate the Centennial of Flight, the Team America Rocketry Challenge (aka TARC) was created. This event was aimed at high school students, with the main objective being to generate interest in them looking at aerospace engineering as a career choice. Sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA, the trade organization representing aerospace companies) and the National Association of Rocketry (NAR, the longest-running hobby organization devoted to model rocketry), this “one-time” event was so successful that it has been held annually ever since.

Teams from around the country compete for a chance to attend the finals in Manassas, Virginia. Around 7,000 young people take part each year to try and become members of one of the 100 teams that are selected to compete for their share of $60,000 in cash and scholarships. Each year the students are presented with a task that simulates a “real-life” engineering project… their objectives may involve reaching a specific altitude with their rocket, or achieving a specified flight time, or perhaps a combination of both… all the time with their rocket carrying a fragile payload that has to be protected and returned intact… that payload being a raw hen’s egg… and sometimes two…

During the year leading up to the event, hundreds of volunteers (most of them NAR members) serve as mentors to many of the teams, guiding them in building techniques, safety issues and the like. The students ultimately have to design and build their contest rockets totally by themselves.

Part of the beautiful Great Meadow field

At the finals, roughly 100 volunteers from the NAR spend their own time and money to travel to Virginia to run the event. These volunteers come from all walks of life: plumbers, fish farmers, real-life rocket scientists and even a four-time shuttle astronaut – all of them share a love of rocketry, science and look to “pay forward” to the next generation. Along with the NAR volunteers, many AIA staffers and the crew of the Great Meadow equestrian field (where the finals are held) put in lots of hard work to make the weekend run smoothly.

One of the rocket ranges at the finals being prepped for the days event

In addition to the contest itself, many displays are set up by the likes of NASA and several aerospace companies. Many colleges and universities also have been in attendance recruiting the contestants to attend their institutes of higher learning.

Over the years many celebrities and dignitaries have graced the grounds of Great Meadow during the TARC finals: Buzz (don’t call him Lightyear) Aldrin, Homer Hickham (of October Sky fame), Secretary of Defense Gates, as well as several officials from NASA, the military (the Secretary of the Air Force attended this past year), a senator here and there… but this past year, a special celebrity also made an appearance… but we’ll get to that in a bit…

Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley (in the blue shirt)

Secretary Donley addressing the crowd at the awards ceremony

Okay, so that’s the kinda dry nuts & bolts… for my personal experience…

I’ve been very fortunate to be involved on many levels in this event… as a mentor I’ve worked with several teams, two of which made the finals, and one of these, a team from Riverview High in Sarasota, FL actually finished in the top five one year (the little buggers actually got to meet Buzz Aldrin… did I get to meet Buzz Aldrin? No… hell I watched him walk on the damn moon years before those kids were born… Did I get to meet him??? Noooo… okay, I’m not bitter… move on Andy…). I’ve also been a supplier to many teams around the country each year – in addition to the “Real Job” I own a small business that makes model rocket kits and supplies and the like (if you’re curious you can check out Aerospace Speciality Products), but the best part is working at the finals…

The kids each year have been uniformly polite, enthusiastic and just darn glad to be there… all types of kids are there too, not just the “science nerds” that you might expect (and yes, they are there…), but jocks and cheerleaders too… I come away each year feeling very good about the future of the world and our country… you see and hear so much about the negative things about some of America’s youth, but I’m here to tell you that there are lots of great, smart kids out there that are going to take us through the decades to come.

I’ve flown rockets since grade school, so in the (many, many) decades since I started, I’ve spend countless days on fields all around the country flying rockets, but I’ve never had a better day on any flying field that the days I’ve spent at TARC, and I never fly a rocket… and I think those days are not just the best days I’ve had on a rocket field, but some of the best days I’ve ever had anywhere (and yes, including Disney…). It’s the best thing I do…

If you’d like more info on TARC, especially if you or some bright young person you may know or have sired might be interested in becoming involved, check out the Team America Rocketry Challenge website.

And yes, this is the event where I always go and eat Vietnamese food the night before (see the post Vietnamese Vittles in Virginia).

Oh yeah… I did mention a food connection and a celebrity, didn’t I??? Well, on the day of the finals this year we were visited by none other that Duff Goldman, the Ace of Cakes himself!

The Food Network star came with a metallic cake that was flown as a payload in a large high-power rocket.

Duff checking out the rocket that will fly the cake

Scale model of the cake-carrying rocket, with remnants of the cake payload

The payload section of the cake-carrying rocket

He spent most of the day (with a Food Network film crew in tow of course) at the launch, hanging out with the kids, and generally seeming to be a pretty cool guy…

Sadly I didn’t have to opportunity to meet him personally, but I did get a chance to have a piece of the cake that flew on the rocket (it was a cake, moist, not bad, but honestly nothing too unusual flavor-wise, but I can at least say I ate a Charm City cake…)… and too bad that none of the other Charm City Cakes crew were in attendance… actually I kinda have a thing for Mary Alice… and Elena… and Katherine….

Okay… check out the new Ace of Cakes episode on Thursday September 2, 2010 to see Duff at TARC! Of course if you’re reading this after that, “check your local listings”, okay, the Food Network listings for the many reruns that will exist for Ace of Cakes…

Now back to your “normal” Eating (and Drinking) around the World…

Each year, I make a trek up to Manassas, Virginia to spend a weekend with several hundred teenagers… okay, get your minds out of the gutter…

I’ve been involved with a great program called the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) since it’s inception several years ago – this is a program aimed at teens to encourage them to learn more about science and engineering, and more specifically to get them to look at aerospace engineering as a career choice.

I’m actually going to do a long post about this soon, and yes, it does have a (surprising) food-related component to it!

At any rate, I, along with over one hundred other volunteers, make our way to Virginia each year to help run the finals of this event.

My great friend Bill the Dolphin usually meets me there, and it has become somewhat of a tradition that we eat Vietnamese food at a small place we found one of our first years there, and this year was no exception.

We started our repast by ordering a couple of “33” beers… must have the local beverages of whatever cuisine your having Bill insists… twist my damn arm…

mmmm.... beer.... good....

After a quick perusal of the menu, we ordered a couple of new (to us) appetizers – would hate to get in a rut by ordering the same thing we had a year ago… or the year before… or the year before… or

First was “Butter Frog Legs” – according to the menu “These succulent frog legs are made with our seasonings for a taste you never forget”. Two large flattened pieces of meat, served atop onions and herbs were presented to us. Breaded and fried, I would not have recognized these as frog legs – and since there was no butter flavor or sauce, we determined that the “Butter” part of the title of the dish really meant “butterflied” and the translation was a bit less then perfect…

Butter Frog Legs

Now, if you haven’t had frog legs before, no, they don’t really taste “just like chicken”… but they are (at least to me) a bit like a cross between dark meat chicken and pork. They do have fairly small leg bones in them that you have to watch for, but over-all this was a nice plate, but nothing I’d say I have to have the next visit. Since Bill had never had frog, this was something new to him (and a new preparation for me).

Please dear readers, just don’t tell Tiana…

Our other appetizer was a real hit – Bill selected the “Fresh Autumn Rolls” – “A hearty and enticing combination exclusive to us. Grilled pork, half of spring roll, lettuce and rice vermicelli.” Two large cold rolls encased in rice paper had made their way to our table to join the now nearly-departed hoppers. About half of the innards contained the vermicelli, while down one side was the split fried spring roll and along another side was the cold grilled pork. A sweet dipping sauce was along for the ride. Filling and delicious, this was unlike any other spring-roll type item I’d had before. In fact, the next morning I was wishing we’d ordered a couple of those to go to have for breakfast! This I would for sure have again on my next trip back… and will look for something similar to try on my next Vietnamese dining excursion elsewhere… I hope it’s not really “exclusive” to just this restaurant!

Fresh Autumn Rolls

Autumn Roll Innards

Since the restaurant is named Pho Gourmet, we both decided on pho for our main courses (or at least part of our main course…). Pho, for those who don’t know, is a flavorful broth filled with various goodies – meats,veggies and lots of noodles. Usually it will be accompanied by sprouts, peppers and herbs to add to your bowl as your own tastes desire. It is probably the most popular and famous dish in Vietnamese cuisine.

I ordered a traditional beef-based one that included sliced eye-round steak, flank steak, fat brisket (pieces of fat, that is), soft tendon (which I was never exactly sure I found, or if I did had no idea what it was) and bible tripe (this I found…). The broth was rich, the nicely hot peppers and fresh basil on the side plate made good additions. I picked through the various meat items trying to identify (for good or for bad) them all… even the obvious innards were not strong tasting, and even the brisket fat wasn’t too “fatty” tasting after swimming in the broth and noodles. Some may not enjoy the texture of the included items, but I liked the variety (you can order many variations on the dish: just eye-round, or that and the flank, etc if you wish to avoid the intestinal items…).

Beef Pho

Bill ordered the seafood pho, with “Big” shrimp, scallops and squid (and of course noodles) in a seafood broth.

Bill tasted the broth and I thought he was going to need a moment alone… I slid my spoon into his bowl for a taste myself… damn that was tasty stuff! These folks know how to make some soup!

Seafood Pho

There was a generous amount of the seafood in his dish, and we sat mostly in silence (which is a rare thing when Bill is around) other than the slurping and chewing as we throughly enjoyed our bowls of pho goodness. We had both ordered the “regular” size bowls, with Bill proffering the idea (especially considering the economical pricing of the entire menu) that we could also order another entree to share and be able to try something else (I like the way my friend thinks!). But even the regular size pho was a more than generous portion, so after both after the soup and appetizers (as well as several refills on the beers, of course) we feeling a bit full as we plowed into our “other” entree.

The “Caramel Pork in Hot Pot” caught Bill’s eye as the menu promised “Sliced pork and onions simmered in caramel sauce and black pepper” and was pronounced to be spicy (which my dining partner and I both favor). Served with rice on the side, the chewy pieces of pork were in a nicely sweet sauce, but neither of us detected much of the influence of the supposed black pepper, nor was it very spicy (which was easily remedied with a bit of the fresh hot peppers left from the pho and some of the ubiquitous sriracha sauce). It was an okay dish, but not great. This is an example of a time we should have asked for guidance from our server on what would have been our best spicy choice from the (probably overly) extensive menu.

Caramel Pork in Hot Pot

Our server by the way was a very enthusiastic and attentive young man. Despite his thick accent and somewhat limited English, he did a wonderful job in seeing to our needs. Towards the end of our meal he asked us if we had been there before and we explained yes we had been there several times, but it had been once a year over the course of many years. He asked if we’d be coming back, and we told him yes we most certainly would – in another year, that is… I still don’t know if he quite got the concept, but he wished us well and I think he’ll be looking for us back sooner than we’ll be there (and I wish I could be eating there much more often!).

Also after we told him how much we had enjoyed the pho, and our likes for spicy dishes,  he brought back a menu and recommended a dish (Pho Bo Kho, beef stew with carrots) to try on our next visit (or to also ask for at another Vietnamese place).

It was a great meal spent with a great friend – if you’re in the Manassas area stop by, have some good food and tell them hello (or whatever the Vietnamese equivalent if that is) from Eating and Drinking Around the World!

For the for Pho Gourmet website click here.

We’ll see you soon (or as soon as we can get around to it… so don’t sit there holding your breath) with details from my TARC weekend. Back to the kitchen!

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