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Is DAK’s Beastly Kingdom DOA? — Part 2

In this three part series from early 2000, Jim Hill looks at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the unfortunate series of events that led up to the park — and the company — losing a land, many talented Imagineers, and worst of all: guests.

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Okay, kids — before we get back to the story of how “Beastly Kingdom” ended up on Disney Animal Kingdom’s (DAK) endangered species list — you need to understand what the Mouse’s original expectations were for its fourth Walt Disney World (WDW) theme park. Here’s what Disney CEO Michael Eisner had hoped would happen when DAK opened on April 1998:

Attendance levels would go through the roof at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney-MGM Studios, as a record number of visitors rushed down to Florida to check out WDW’s fourth theme park.

Guests who had previously stayed on property at Walt Disney World hotels for four days would now book five day vacation packages — just to be sure that they didn’t miss any of the new shows and attractions that had recently been added to the resort.

All this extra guest traffic would result in increased revenues for WDW’s hotels, shops and restaurants — which would have an immediate positive impact on the Walt Disney Company’s bottom line.

Eisner and his staff would bask in the glow of the unparalleled success of Disney’s Animal Kingdom for a moment … then get right back to work, brain-storming ideas for WDW’s fifth theme park.

That what Uncle Michael had hoped would happen, anyway. Reality proved to be infinitely harsher.

In spite of the Mouse’s rosy projections, Disney’s Animal Kingdom — in its first year of operation:

Actually drove down attendance levels at the other three WDW theme parks: In 1998, 8% fewer guests visited the Magic Kingdom; 9% fewer went to the Disney-MGM Studios; while Epcot’s attendance levels dipped a startling 11%.

What happened? In a word — cannibalism.

“Cannibalism” is the term Disney Company executives use to describe what happens when a brand new theme park opens and begins eating into the attendance levels of the older, more established parks at the same resort.

In 1982, when Epcot opened, that park initially cut significantly into the number of guests that annually visited the Magic Kingdom. However — over time — attendance levels at Magic Kingdom bounced back to what they once were after the newness of Epcot had worn off. Meanwhile, Epcot Center began drawing guests all on its own to WDW. In the end, it all worked out just fine.

A similar thing happened in May 1989, when the Disney-MGM Studio theme park threw open its gates. For almost a year, attendance levels at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot slumped while guests opted to go to the new WDW theme park rather than visiting their old favorites. But — once again, over time — the situation sorted itself out. Attendance levels at the older WDW parks slowly rose back up to where they once were, as the Disney-MGM Studios began luring millions of new tourists to come see Disney’s Florida resort.

The Mouse had been anticipating that — when Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened — that it too would initially bleed guests away from the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney-MGM Studios. That’s why Eisner had had the Imagineers add new attractions and/or complete major rehabs to each of the older WDW parks in the 18 months prior to DAK’s opening.

This was Uncle Michael’s brilliant scheme. He honestly believed that — if the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney-MGM Studios each had new rides and shows for visitors to see — guests who had come down to WDW just to see Disney’s Animal Kingdom during its first year of operation would still end up of staying on property an extra day or so just to check out all the new stuff at the other parks.

On paper, that really did seem like a brilliant plan. Too bad reality got in the way.

What happened to ruin Eisner’s plan? For starters, Epcot’s heavily hyped new thrill ride — GM Test Track — was beset with horrible technical problems and ended up opening a full 18 months behind schedule. So that park really had nothing new to offer to returning WDW guests the year DAK opened.

Over at the Disney-MGM Studios, a much anticipated addition to the park — “David Copperfield’s Magic Underground” restaurant — never made it off the drawing board because the magician’s outside financing for the project disappeared. It would now be months after DAK’s opening before the studio theme park’s next big attraction — an East Coast version of Disneyland’s “Fantasmic” — would be ready to start entertaining WDW visitors.

As for the Magic Kingdom … truth be told, very little thought was put into to adding new shows and attractions to WDW’s first theme park. The Magic Kingdom had always been the favorite with Disney World visitors. Eisner and WDI felt that — what with the recent “Mickey’s Toontown Faire” redo as well as the 25th anniversary parade that was still running daily at the park — there was still plenty of semi-new stuff to entice people into making a return trip to the Magic Kingdom.

So — given all the money the Walt Disney Company had pumped into the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney-MGM Studios to counter-act the effects of DAK’s opening — Eisner had anticipated that the attendance levels at WDW’s older parks would only dip by 5% in 1998. He was said to be furious when — almost across the board — attendance fell by almost twice that amount at all three of the other WDW theme parks.

This news immediately put WDW’s management team into crisis mode. The big boys in Burbank wanted attendance levels at each of the older WDW parks driven back up immediately. The managers of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney-MGM Studios reminded Eisner and Company that — in order to do that — they’d need money fast for new shows, parades and attractions. Eisner immediately agreed to free up some funds for the Florida park.

And where did Eisner get the money to create these new WDW shows? You guessed it, kids. He snagged the funds that had been previously earmarked for expansion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Specifically, the money that would have been set aside for construction of “Beastly Kingdom.”

Again, Rohde and his Imagineers began complaining about the short-sightedness of Disney management’s fiscal planning. With that money gone, it would now be five years or more before there’d be any money in the budget to create any new significant attractions for DAK.

WDW managers admitted that this was true. But — given all the problems that Disney’s Animal Kingdom was having during its initial year of operation — it didn’t seem too wise right now to complain about the park’s future. Unless these problems got resolved quickly, it didn’t look like DAK would have much of a future.

What sort of problems was Disney’s Animal Kingdom having back then? You name it, the park was having problems with it. For example: Due to the twisty, turny nature of the park’s walkways as well as all the lush vegetation, guests were constantly getting lost as they walked through the park. Disney had to spend thousands on new, bigger signage for the theme park to help guests find their way around the place.

Then there was all the troubles with DAK’s shops and restaurants. Particularly during the first eight months Disney’s Animal Kingdom was open (when only the African safari adventure was up and running), the Mouse had an awful time getting guests to stay inside the theme park past 4 p.m.

What was the problem? Due to the horrible heat in Florida, most of the animals along the African safari route would go lie down in the shade — disappearing entirely from view — by about 10 a.m. each morning. Once DAK management learned that its African menagerie had begun dropping from sight most days before noon, it quickly put the word out to WDW’s hotels to encourage their guests to visit DAK as early in the day as possible.

This resulted in a completely unworkable traffic flow situation at DAK. By 7:30 a.m. most mornings during that first summer of operation, the park would already be full. By 8 a.m., there’d be a two hour long line in the queue for the African safari ride as well as guests waiting for over an hour to get in to see “It’s Tough to Be a Bug.” Given that so few of Disney Animal Kingdom’s restaurants had been designed to serve breakfast, there were never enough places open at that hour to handle all those sleepy, cranky people looking for food. That first summer at DAK was a complete disaster.

But — as bad as the early morning hours at DAK were — the late afternoon was even worse. Why for? Because the crowds — having blown through Disney’s Animal Kingdom minimal number of shows and attractions in just a few hours — had already left the park for the day. By 4 p.m. most afternoons, you could have fired a cannon down the middle of the street in Safari Village and not have wounded a single soul.

Having the park virtually empty by late afternoon played hell with DAK’s projections for food and merchandise sales. All the managers of the park’s stores and restaurants were begging WDW management for help in turning around their depressed sales. (The folks running the giant “Rainforest Cafe” at the entrance of Disney’s Animal Kingdom were particularly desperate. They had paid big bucks for the right to build this branch of their restaurant chain right outside the entrance to WDW’s newest theme park. But most evenings, barely a third of the cavernous cafe had any guests in it.)

WDW management tried to come up with a solution to DAK’s traffic flow problems. But it quickly became obvious that there’d be no quick fixes for this situation. After all, it wasn’t like Disney could do here what they did at Epcot and the Disney-MGM Studios to keep guests in the park at night. Since the lights in the skies and all the noise was sure to frighten the animals, a nightly fireworks display was out of the question.

There was also some talk of creating a special night-time parade to roll through the streets of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and entertain guests after dark. For a time, WDW management even considered bringing Disneyland’s much maligned “Light Magic” streetacular to Florida to provide after-hours entertainment at DAK.

But Rohde and his team of WDI designers quickly killed any talk about night-time streetaculars at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. They pointed out that the park’s streets and trails were just too tight and narrow to allow even the smallest floats easy passage. The Imagineers reminded WDW management how much trouble DAK’s small day-time parade — “The March of the Art-imals” — was having making its way around the park in broad daylight. Imagine how much trouble a similar parade would have making its way around DAK in the dark.

Rohde’s team insisted that the solution to the traffic flow problems at Disney’s Animal Kingdom was obvious: beef up the parts of the park that didn’t rely on real animals. That meant adding new shows to Dinoland USA as well as finally building Beastly Kingdom. By adding these additional shows and attractions, WDW management would give guests a real reason to stay at DAK after dark — rather than trying to trick visitors into staying with a lame after-hours parade and/or a smallish fireworks display.

Privately, officials in WDW management agreed with the Imagineers that this was the logical, reasonable way to fix Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The trouble was that the folks back in Burbank weren’t acting reasonably or logically right now. Disney Company management had panicked when they had seen the drastic dip in attendance at WDW’s three other theme parks. Now they were running scared.

And Eisner had already okayed WDW management’s decision to grab the money that had been earmarked for DAK expansion and use it for bolstering sagging attendance at the other three WDW theme parks. That meant that Imagineering had next to no money left to fix all the glaring problems at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. More ominously, it now looked like it would be five years — or more — before WDI could afford to add any significant new attractions to DAK.

It was a very depressing time for the Disney’s Animal Kingdom design team. But — again — Rohde told his Imagineers not to lose heart. He told them that DAK — in particular “Beastly Kingdom” — might still be saved yet.

For Joe knew that Seagrams / MCA was spending two billion dollars to expand its Universal Studios Florida theme park complex — which was just down the road from WDW. And the centerpiece to this ambitious expansion project was a brand new theme park: Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure.

Rumors were flying around the theme park community that Seagrams / MCA was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their new Florida park because they were out to top Disney. Universal wanted “Islands of Adventure” to have such amazing state-of-the-art attractions that this park would top any ride that could be found at Walt Disney World.

Secretly, Rohde and his Imagineers were hoping that Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure would be a huge success. Why for? Because the Walt Disney Company would then be embarrassed that it didn’t have the best rides in Florida anymore. And then maybe the Mouse would get worried that they were starting to lose guests to the new Universal park.

If that happened … well, then Eisner would finally have to open up his wallet then, wouldn’t he? Just as a matter of pride, he’d have to insist that WDI install the greatest rides that they could come up with at each of the WDW parks. For Disney’s Animal Kingdom, that could only mean that the Imagineers would finally get the chance to build “Beastly Kingdom.”

That was how Joe Rohde hoped things would play out, anyway.

Well, in the spring of 1999, Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure did finally open up. Unfortunately, it was not quite the roaring success Joe had hoped for.

Worse still, some of the attractions to be found in the new park looked awfully familiar …

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse’s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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