When Christmas {Train} Comes to Town

Like most toddler boys, Little Lion Man is obsessed with trains.  Although when my oldest daughter was his age, she loved trains too.  In fact, because she loved Thomas and trains so much, we saw The Polar Express in the cinema when she was close to his age, however, she was a timid toddler and a few of the scenes frightened her.

But it didn’t frighten my Little Lion Man.  He hollered out, “Whoa!” when he watched the Polar Express cascade down the mountainside like a roller coaster.

Since Little Lion Man loves locomotives, we boarded the 7 ½ gauge CP&G Railroad at Crews Lakes Wilderness Park for a ride on the Christmas Train to the “North Pole”.  When Little Lion Man spotted the little engine chugging down the track, he had a similar reaction to The Polar Express. “Whoa!  Mama, it’s a train!”

Winding along tracks through the woods, reminded me of a similar train in England years ago.  On that train ride long ago, Allana met my friend, Suzie, her mum and Father Christmas.

But I digress.

Over the track and through the woods to Santa Claus we go went, but Little Lion Man wanted nothing to do with the big man in red.  He preferred to watch the trains arriving at the station.

After a quick photo opportunity and an even quicker word with Santa to remind him of the toys to bring, we were back on our way home.

At the end of the day, that little train ride brought a great deal of joy to one little boy.

And the rest of us had fun too. 

Merry Christmas!

What Christmas music is moving you this season?

Visit Xmas Dolly and Jade Louise Designs for more Music Monday.

Denise Mestanza-Taylor+

Tampa Theatre Dazzles at Christmas

When my sister and I attended a showing of Holiday Inn last year, the Tampa Theatre instantly became a new Christmas pastime.  This year, I enjoyed the new holiday tradition with my girls when we were invited to attend The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Since the 1920s, the magnificent Tampa Theatre has been entertaining and dazzling audiences for generations and my daughters were no exception.  With its gorgeous Mediterranean style décor, they felt like princesses strolling through a starry-lit castle.

The royal red carpet treatment continued when my princesses chose balcony seats.  They loved experiencing the sights and sounds of a movie from new heights.

Just like in its early days, an organist serenades the audience before the featured presentation.  For an extra special treat, Mrs. Claus made a guest appearance and shared stories with the audience.

To pay tribute to a golden era gone-by, the organist led the audience in a few sing-a-longs before the featured presentation.

Before the movie started, I slipped away to the concession stand for the usual cinema snacks of popcorn and soft drinks, but the Tampa Theatre also serves non-traditional libations such as beer and wine.  While at the concession stand, I spotted a vintage replica blown glass ornament of the famous flashing Tampa Theatre marquis.  Since the proceeds of the ornament benefit the restoration and maintenance of the theatre, I added an ornament to my popcorn and beer tab.

As for The Muppet Christmas Carol, I had never seen the film before, so it added an element of something new for all of us.  Although the sound had some technical difficulties (which is completely understandable for a theatre nearly a century old), we still enjoyed the movie.  Michael Caine made the perfect Scrooge and the Muppets delivered all the musical, silly, loving charm would expect from any Muppet movie.

My girls loved the movie, but the beauty and overall experience of the Tampa Theatre makes any movie even more magical.

Each December, the Theatre offers a Holiday Classics Movie Series on the big screen, with the opportunity to sing along to carols with the Mighty Wurlitzer organ before each show, in the unmatched elegance of the city’s historic movie palace. Tickets for the Holiday Classics Movie Series are $9 for adults and $7 for children, seniors, military and Tampa Theatre members at the box office, or online at TampaTheatre.org ($2 convenience fee applies).”

*My family and I received a tour of the Tampa Theatre and tickets to The Muppet Christmas Carol in exchange for my honest review.  My opinions and love for the Tampa Theatre are real and my own.*

Denise Mestanza-Taylor+

A Holiday Sampling at Datz

Last Wednesday, Christmas came early when Chef Jason and our friends at Datz prepared a holiday tasting for the Tampa Bay Bloggers.

As usual, Datz rolled out the red carpet with chilled cocktails ready and waiting for us.  This holiday cocktail, Wreck the Halls, mixes 360 Madagascar vanilla vodka, Kahlúa peppermint mocha and Adult Chocolate Milk, which made our evening very merry and bright.

For our first course, we sampled Flatbreads topped with fig, pear, goat cheese and arugula.  The combination of tangy fruits and goat cheese with the crispness of the flatbread bundled a bit of Christmas flare in every bite.

Then, we nibbled on new-to-me dish, Poutine.  The gooey, gravy goodness and the fries were a meal in itself. (After all, chips and gravy is a British delicacy.)  Toss in some cheese curds and a fried egg on top and now you have a complete dinner.  But ours didn’t stop there.

Next, we noshed on Corn Fritters with Powdered Sugar and Jalapeño Maple Syrup.  The heat and sweetness of the jalapeño maple syrups finished the fritters off perfectly.

Photo credit to Datz

Our holiday sampling quickly became a feast once the main course arrived, Black Tea-Spiced Baby, Free Rage Chicken with Asian Pear Chutney served with Curried Vegan Winter Stew.

 Just when we thought we couldn’t possible eat another bite, Chef Jason saved the best bite for last: Battered and Fried Oreos.  It was deep fried slice of heaven.

But our evening didn’t end with dessert.  To wrap up our tasty evening, the Tampa Bay Bloggers and I participated in a Secret Santa Swag Swap.  Upon arrival, we placed our gifts under a slim Christmas tree, a beautiful centerpiece.

Jina of Behold the Turtle took home my Turbie Twist.

I scored some lovely lingerie from Raffi of Running Betty.  Thanks to this sexy little number, I’ve been added to Santa’s naughty list for sure.

The evening was epic, but don’t take my word for it.

For more reviews of our Datz holiday sampling and our fun Secret Santa Swag Swap, visit my fellow Tampa Bay Bloggers.

Running Betty

My Fascinating Life

By the way, the Tampa Bay Bloggers are so tasty, we were featured in the menu just below Eddie Vedder.  Yep, we’re as hot and juicy as Eddie.

Denise Mestanza-Taylor+

Christmas Town at Busch Gardens

I’ve been dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.  Last Friday night, Christmas Town at Busch Gardens turned my white Christmas dream into a reality filled with real snow (not the usual soapy kind) and Santa.

Upon entering the park, cheerful carolers greeted us with glad tidings.

With joyful anticipation of everything that lay ahead, my family and I didn’t know where to start first.  So, we followed the path to Jingle Bell Junction for a pint-sized, holly-jolly train ride.

After Jungle Bell Junction, the girls to a quick spin on the Gwazi Gliders and then we ventured through the Christmas Town Village to Snow World.  Though there was a chill in the air, the sweet smells of the Christmas Town Village warmed us and visions of snowflakes danced in our heads as the colorful lights of the Christmas Town Park magically appeared as snowflakes with the help our 3-D glasses.

Still staring through the spectacular sights of our 3-D glasses, we almost missed the wonders of Snow World.  Upon entering the icy winter wonderland, dancing snowman smiled and welcomed us.

Once inside the Snow World playground, the girls and I dashed to the snow tubing slide.

After our snow ride, we scurried through the densely packed snow to help repair a decapitated Frosty and then we pitched a few snowballs.

With our fill of snow (Is that even possible?), we wandered along Ice Wonder Way, a frozen pathway that sparkled and shimmered in the night with an electric blue snowflake shower.

As snowflakes cascaded down, a living angel statue led us to Cheetah Hunt for a no line, no waiting experience, which was the case with most of the rides that evening.  (Incidentally, Cheetah Hunt rates as one of my all-time favorite roller coasters.  It’s a Busch Gardens must-do.)

After Cheetah Hunt, we headed to the North Pole to Santa’s House. Happy elves entertained us with stories about cookies and Santa Claus as we waited to visit with jolly ol’ St. Nick and Mrs. Claus.  Once inside their home, Mrs. Claus welcomed us with cookies and good cheer in the hopes that St. Nick soon would appear.

With a swift secret knock, our happy elf hosts led us to a hidden room behind a hall of mirrors, like something out of Wonderland.  In a toasty warm room filled with toys and snow globes, the girls cuddled around Santa Claus and shared their Christmas requests.

Emmalynn asked Santa for a pony, but Santa sadly replied, “The ponies don’t travel well in the cold.  The sleigh is too high for them.”

“But, I wanted a My Little Pony, Santa.”

“Now, I can deliver that!”

A big kid myself, I couldn’t resist the chance to jump of Santa’s lap and Allan couldn’t resist telling Santa that I had been naughty.  I’m not sure if I made Santa’s naughty or really naughty nice list this year.

You know what be nice?  If we could do the evening all over again.  We had such a fabulous time at Christmas Town at Busch Gardens and now I’m dreaming of another white Christmas and a Jars of Clay concert too.

*Christmas Town runs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday now through to December 23 and is a separate-ticketed night event.  Regular daytime admission is not required or included. General admission for Christmas Town is $39.99 plus tax. Busch Gardens annual pass members will receive the deepest discounts with advance online priced at $24.99 for adults and $9.99 for children, and special offers are available for guests wishing to upgrade their paid daily admission to Busch Gardens. Families with children ages 3 to 9 will enjoy a special advance-purchase price of $9.99 for their youngest members.*

**The Tampa Bay Bloggers, my family and I received VIP tickets to Christmas Town in exchange for this review.  The opinions shared are my own. **

Denise Mestanza-Taylor+

Another Spooktacular Time

Every year, my kids look forward to our Halloween tradition, SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular.  My children absolutely love SeaWorld and all the fun SeaWorld’s Halloween Spootacular offers, but what I love most about this Halloween experience is that the trick-or-treating party atmosphere is included with a one-day admission.

Unlike previous years, the weather has been ridiculously warm for October and I advised my girls to wear something cool for fear that dressed as Merida and Finn, they would suffer heat strokes.  So, Allana modified her Adventure Time Finn costume by wearing a sweatband instead of Finn’s usual bear fleece cap.  Instead of Merida, Emmalynn decided to match her sister’s costume by dressing as the Bubblegum Princess from Adventure Time.  Liam could stay cool in his road costume from last Halloween and thankfully, the shirt still fit him.

Since we had some time to spare before the official open of SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular, I hopped into the single rider queue for Manta, the most amazing roller coaster in Orlando.  On Manta, riders sit parallel to the track to simulate the feel of an underwater flight of a giant sting ray.

After my Manta moment, we made our way down the trick-or-treating path and we eventually found ourselves at Penelope’s Party Zone, located at SeaWorld’s Bayside Stage.  Much like last year, the under-the-sea dance celebration is the most happening Halloween hot spotWith happy pumpkins leading the dance steps and an energetic DJ pumping out tunes to make every creature move, this underwater Halloween dance party is non-stop fun for all ages.

 

Additional craft tables and art easels have been added to Penelope’s Party Zone this year.  My girls enjoyed assembling the free foam craft witches.

The Spooky Sand Art Station and Apple Decorating Post have returned once again for an additional nominal cost.  At the Apple Decorating Post, large tasty apples or brick-size Rice Krispies treats are dipped into chocolate or caramel sauces and then topped with sprinkles, candies and other sweets of your choosing.

Since I have three children with very different tastes, each could build their own tasty creation.

I especially liked the additional treats for grownups.  Beer in a boat and other soft drinks are now available inside Penelope’s Party Zone to help keep guests cool in this Halloween hot spot.

Just outside the party zone is a new stop, Penelope’s Photacular, where guests can show off their most Spooktacular costume which might make a celebrity guest appearance in a virtual costume parade before the Shamu Rocks show.

Since there was candy to be collecting, no one in my Halloween herd wanted to pose with Shamu, but the polar bear at Wild Arctic was a great catch in Emmalynn’s eyes.

And of course, there were lots of candy stations to visit for trick-or-treating, but sadly there were no mini bananas or peanuts as in previous years.  Those treats were replaced with unlimited quantities of Vitamin Water, which was quite refreshing in the heat, although Liam was more fond of the little boxes of raisins.

After visiting all trick-or-treating stations, Liam and I stopped to cool off at the splash pad inside Shamu’s Happy Harbor while the big kids rode some rides.  Once again, SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular was a huge splash for my family.

SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular takes place every weekend in October (6-7th, 13-14th, 19-21st, and 26-28th) and the daytime event runs from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.

If you have concerns about food allergies, all park restaurants are equipped and trained to take care of guests with allergen needs.  SeaWorld Park restaurant managers and supervisors will work one-on-one with guests and oversee the preparation of each allergen-friendly meal from start to finish. “Chef Cards“, filled out in advance by guests to outline the foods to avoid, are handed to a chef before the preparation of the meal.

For more information about allergen-friendly meals or to purchase advance tickets for SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular, visit SeaWorldOrlando.com.

Denise Mestanza-Taylor+

Datz What We’re Talking About!

What do you get when you mix some of the best food in the bay with some of Tampa Bay’s best bloggers?  You’re guaranteed conversation and food that leaves you craving for more.

Last Saturday, the Tampa Bay Bloggers (Top left to right Running BettyGone Bananas, Fit Kids PlaygroundDigital Running and Run DMT) met to share blogging conference experiences and current projects.  Though everyone always learns so much from our meetups, the food truly set this meetup apart from all the others as Chef Jason of Datz created a special menu full of fall flavors just for us.

Our four course meal started with Butternut Squash and Apple Bisque topped with a five-spice froth, an item not currently on the menu.  The froth melted before any of us could capture it, however, capturing everyone’s expressions as they sampled the soup (or “Fall in a Bowl” as we coined it) would have been equally momentous.  Surprisingly less sweet than anticipated, the spices added an unexpected and pleasant savoriness  to the soup.

Next, Chef Jason served us family style platters of Figgy Piggy Salad followed by equally ginormous portions of Roasted Beet Salad.  The combination of the dried mission figs and the pumpkin seeds of the Figgy Piggy Salad offered such an unusual crunch and texture to salad.  Try as we might to replicate Chef Jason’s creation in our own kitchens, we would need to learn the secret to his warm bacon vinaigrette first.

*Photo provided by Datz*

The peppery arugula topped with pickled onions offered such a lovely tartness to of the Roasted Beet Salad.  The goat cheese and the balsamic glaze added just the right sweetness and balance to finish the salad.

*Photo provided by Datz*

For our final course, Chef Jason presented his newest addition to the Datz fall menu, Harvest Ravioli.  Pillows of squash raviolis served with sage and brown butter sauce and shaved parmesan are the finest of fall comfort food and Chef Jason highly recommended trying the raviolis with scallops, which sounds unbelievable.  Unfortunately, I had to take everyone’s word as to how wonderful the raviolis were because they contained walnuts and an epinephrine shot would have really ruined the evening.

*Photo provided by Datz*

Since I missed out on the raviolis, I ordered the famous Datchos, a pile of Datz homemade potato chips served with chili, cheese, jalapenos, sour cream and blue cheese drizzle and scallions.  I added pulled chicken to my pile of Datchos, a suggestion from our server, Maite, whose knowledge of craft beers and food pairings made an already spectacular meal even better.

We couldn’t end the evening without sampling some dessert, such as the Peanut Chocolate Explosion and a Seven Layer Chocolate Cake.  Two large slices of rich, heavenly cakes shared between us because apparently someone in the bunch had a chocolate craving.

*Photo by Kirsten of Gone Bananas*

My only regret is that we didn’t have a larger turn-out for the event but I’m blaming it on the FSU/USF game and not the location nor the food.  Hopefully, Datz and the Tampa Bay Bloggers can team up again.

In the meantime, I’m asking Santa for more Datz during the holidays.  Is it too soon to add Datz to my Christmas wish list?  Because nothing says Christmas like a Figgy Piggy pudding Salad from Datz!

Want to join our next Tampa Bay Blogger meetup?  Join us on Facebook for updates on food and fun with your favorite local Tampa Bay Bloggers.

Tweet @datz4foodies to tell Datz you fell in love with the fall menu and you read about it via Run DMT @denisermt.

For inquires or reservations, visit Datz at datzdeli.com.

Denise Mestanza-Taylor+

Dine with Shamu

For those who love the Shamu, get ready for a whole new, up-close experience with SeaWorld Orlando’s most famous resident that will leave you craving more.

 Dine with Shamu offers poolside entertainment with an educational twist on how to preserve the ocean’s habits and resources all while dining on an delicious assortment of seasonal and sustainable items.

 With this exclusive behind-the-scenes highly entertaining experience only available at SeaWorld Orlando, guests will witness the bond between SeaWorld trainers and these incredible creatures.  

Almost equally enjoyable as the presentation, guests will find the buffet very pleasing.  With four types of meats (grain-fed Black Angus strip loin, cinnamon-cured roasted pork loin, rosemary-glazed free range chicken and cod), vegetarian options, kid-friendly meals, tasty side dishes and several signature desserts, there is something for everyone to enjoy.  In addition to a remarkable meal, the wait staff offers outstanding service with a smile.  Our server, Anne Marie, was very accommodating and made our dining experience a very pleasurable one.

 After our dinner and a show, my family and I had the opportunity to speak with the warm and fuzzy animal trainers at the Shamu Under Viewing exhibit.  My youngest daughter loved chatting with Amber.

Amber demonstrated a few of her commands and even encouraged one of the whales to greet at my daughter.

To enjoy your own up-close experience with Shamu and the trainers, make your reservations at SeaWorld.com or call 1-888-800-5447.  Reservations can also be made at the in-park reservations center.

And here’s a deal to make your dining experience even more enjoyable!  Make a reservation between now and December 25, 2012 and receive a FREE child’s meal (ages 3–9) with each full-paid adult reservation!

My family and I enjoyed an all-paid dining experience in exchange for my honest opinions and review.  I received no compensation for this review.

 Denise Mestanza-Taylor+