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Is DAK’s Beastly Kingdom DOA? — Part 3

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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December 1998. Everyone at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) is abuzz with news about Universal Studios expansion plans for its Florida property.

“I’ve heard that — on opening day — they’re going to have three mega-coasters up and running.”

“Well, I’ve heard that their ‘Spiderman’ attraction is going to blow the doors off ‘Star Tours’ and ‘Body Wars.'”

“That — plus ‘Jurassic Park – The Ride,’ that ‘Dudley Do-Right’ flume thing as well as the ‘Popeye’ raft ride. This new Universal park sound better than anything we’ve got in Florida.”

Were these Imagineers frightened at the thought of all these great attractions being built in a theme park just down the street from WDW?

Hell no. The folks at WDI were thrilled that Seagrams was spending a reported $2 billion to remake their Universal Studios Florida theme park into a Disney quality resort. Why? Because that meant that the Mouse would finally have some serious competition in Orlando.

You see, Disney CEO Michael Eisner is a very competitive guy. He hates to lose — at anything. If attendance at WDW started to noticeably slip due to the Mouse losing customers to Universal’s new theme park, Michael would have to do something. Eisner’s enormous ego just wouldn’t be able to handle the idea of Disney being No. 2 in the Orlando market.

So he’d turn to the Imagineers and say: “Make the best attractions you can.”

Not “Make the best attraction you can on a limited budget.” (i.e.: WDI’s recent controversial rehab of Epcot’s “Journey into Imagination” ride. During its three months of operation, the revamped version of that Future World attraction racked up more guest complaints than most shows produce in a year.)

Not “Make the best attraction you can with minimal changes to the pre-existing ride building.” (i.e.: The Magic Kingdom’s “Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin” actually runs its ride vehicles along the very same track and layout the building’s previous tenants — Delta’s “Dreamflight” and the unsponsored “Take Flight” — used.)

Not “Make the best attraction that reflects the sponsor’s agenda” (i.e.: Any exhibit you’ll find inside either version of “Innoventions.”)

Just “Make the best attractions you can.” Period.

And WDI would absolutely love to hear Michael Eisner say this. Because — for years now — they’ve been developing ideas for absolutely killer theme park attractions, only to be told by Disney Company senior management that ” Gee, we’d love to build that … but it’d be too expensive” or “No one else in the industry is doing that” or — worst of all — “We don’t have to try that hard.”

So now — for the first time ever — it appeared that Walt Disney World was going to have some real competition in Florida. And the top guys at the Mouse Works must have been taking Universal’s Islands of Adventure seriously, for — in January 1999 — they ordered WDI to work up a WDW contingency plan.

The purpose of the plan was this: Should Universal’s Islands of Adventure actually begin to seriously nibble away at Disney World attendance levels in 1999, the Mouse wanted a way to quickly recapture those wandering visitors. WDI felt that the easiest way to get folks excited about going back to WDW again was to add a huge new E ticket attraction for each of the four Florida parks. More importantly, they wanted to have each of these rides up and running in time for the kick-off of Walt Disney World’s 30th anniversary celebration in October 2001.

The Magic Kingdom was to have gotten “Fire Mountain,” a state-of-the-art roller coaster themed around story elements from Walt Disney Pictures’ Summer 2001 animated release, “Atlantis.” What would have truly been intriguing about “Fire Mountain” is that it was to have been the world’s first morphing coaster. Visitors would start their ride seated securely in their ride vehicle. At the midway point in the attraction — as “Fire Mountain” erupted — the bottom would have dropped away from their ride vehicle, leaving the riders dangling from above as they zoomed through the rest of the ride.

Over at the Disney-MGM Studios, that park’s signature attraction — “The Great Movie Ride” — would have gotten a massive makeover. In its place, visitors would have been asked to put on 3D glasses before taking a trip through the Chinese Theater’s “Villain Ride.” Here, WDW visitors would have been menaced by three dimensional recreations of Disney’s most famous fiends before the forces of good finally came to their rescue.

Epcot would have had its dated Future World “Horizons” pavilion pulled down to make way for the new “Mission: Space” attraction. This cutting-edge ride would use centrifugal force to give visitors the sensation of being blasted out into space. They would also feel tremendous G-forces pressing them down into their seats as well as a brief moment of weightlessness before their ride vehicle made re-entry.

As for Disney’s Animal Kingdom … well, since it was the least developed of all four of the WDW theme parks, adding just one new attraction wouldn’t have given visitors enough incentive to return to DAK. So the Imagineers opted to go for broke here. They suggested adding a whole new land to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Which land? You guessed it, kids. “Beastly Kingdom.”

Disney Management reviewed WDI’s plan in March of 1999 and agreed to put it into action if … and this is a really big “if” here, folks … it could be proven that Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure was having a significant detrimental effect of WDW’s attendance levels.

So — for the first time in the history of the Walt Disney Company — the Imagineers actually hoped and prayed for a competitor’s theme park to succeed. For — if Islands of Adventure really had an impact on WDW’s attendance — all of their great new proposed attractions would actually make it off the drawing board.

After two months of soft openings, Universal finally did officially open Islands of Adventure (IOA) on May 28, 1999. Just as the Imagineers had hoped, IOA had it all. Three huge roller coasters. Their state-of-the-art “Spiderman” attraction. Three water-based rides (“Jurassic Park – The Ride,” “Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls,” and “Popeye’s Bilge Rat Barges”). Everything a modern theme park needs to succeed.

Well … almost everything.

What was missing?

Crowds.

To this day, no one knows quite what went wrong with the launch of Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure. Some blame the marketing of the new park and resort, which somehow lead the public to believe that IOA wasn’t a whole new theme park, but rather just a new land that had been added to Universal Studios Florida (USF). (This certainly was a popular explanation within the boardroom at Seagrams. They asked for — and received — the resignations of most of USF’s marketing staff.)

Whatever the reason, the crowds just did not come out for IOA during its first year of operation. Universal’s new theme park under-performed in a spectacular manner, drawing less than half the projected number of bodies Seagrams had said would visit its revamped resort in 1999. Worse still, the limited number of visitors IOA got seems to have all been bodies that the new park lured away from its older Florida theme park. Unconfirmed reports suggest that attendance at Universal Studios Florida may have fallen off by as much as 30% during IOA’s first few months of operation.

But worst of all — at least from the Imagineers’ point of view — is that IOA was having virtually no impact on WDW’s theme parks. As the months went by, it became obvious that — in spite of the $2 billion Seagrams had spent — their revamped resort was having little or no effect on Disney World attendance levels.

Without proof that IOA was impacting WDW’s attendance levels, WDI’s ambitious plans for adding a brand new E-Ticket attraction to each of the Disney Company’s Florida theme parks by October 2001 seemed doomed to failure. Sure enough, Walt Disney Imagineering president Paul Pressler called a meeting at WDW’s WDI headquarters earlier this year to announce a radical rethink of the Florida property’s expansion plans.

At this meeting, Pressler said that — since IOA had obviously proven to be a non-threat to WDW attendance levels — there was no reason to go forward with the previously announced aggressive building program. In its place, Paul proposed a significantly spread out schedule as to which Florida Disney theme park got new attractions and when.

Pressler believed that it was now time to prioritize. WDW attraction construction money would be allocated first to whichever Disney theme park in Florida most needed a boost in attendance. That was obviously Epcot, which perpetually had problems drawing visitors back in for return visits. That’s why the Walt Disney Company opted to stage its 15 month-long Millennium celebration inside this Florida park.

Under the new schedule, the first new WDW E-ticket would be built inside on Epcot. “Mission: Space” would still rocket visitors off into the cosmos. Only now these visitors would have to wait ’til 2003 before they got the chance to board Disney’s shuttle simulator.

Next up would be the Disney-MGM Studios’ E-Ticket. However, construction on the “Villain Ride” wouldn’t even begin ’til 2003. Pressler’s plan was to have the “Villain Ride” up and running by May 2004 — just in time for the studio theme park’s 15th anniversary celebration.

After that, “Fire Mountain” would rise up over at the Magic Kingdom in 2006. This volcano-based Adventureland attraction would serve as the centerpiece of WDW’s 35th anniversary celebration.

Then in 2008, Disney’s Animal Kingdom would finally get its new E-Ticket. Just in time for that park’s 10th anniversary, “Beastly Kingdom” would throw open its doors. Visitors would then get to sample the thrills of “Dragon’s Tower” and wander the leafy green maze over at “Quest for the Unicorn.”

Obviously, Imagineer Joe Rohde and his DAK design team were tremendously disappointed with this last bit of news. But Rohde — ever the optimist — tried to stress the positive in this tough situation. “Okay, so it’s going to open 10 years late,” Joe said. “But at least ‘Beastly Kingdom’ will finally be part of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.”

At least, that was the plan … until Eisner got around to visiting Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure in January 2000.

Eisner and a small entourage quietly toured the park that day, riding most of the major attractions as well as scoping out a lot of the shops and restaurants. After Michael got back to California, he told the Imagineers that he thought that — while IOA wasn’t quite up to Disney standard — the place still looked pretty good.

There was a pause. Then Michael added “But a few of those attractions looked awfully familiar.”

This is where one of the scummier secrets of the theme park industry gets revealed: theme parks regularly steal attraction ideas from one another. Just like in the computer world or the auto industry, industrial espionage is just one of the many ways that theme park companies like Disney, Universal, Six Flags, and the Cedar Fair Corporation try to stay ahead of the competition.

Of course, Disney didn’t help matters by laying off hundreds of Imagineers following the disastrous opening of Euro Disney. Many of these disgruntled former Imagineers walked out the door, carrying with them the plans for the proposed attractions they had been working on when the Mouse let them go.

Among these folks were several Imagineers who had been working on the “Dragon’s Tower” attraction for DAK’s “Beastly Kingdom.” After a few months, these former WDI employees got hired by Universal to work on their proposed second theme park for Florida. They ended up being assigned to work on that park’s “Lost Continent” area.

“You guys got any ideas for attractions for this part of the park?,” their Universal bosses asked.

Indeed they did.

Now, before you get all indignant about the idea of Universal stealing ride ideas from Disney, please keep in mind that the Mouse has also been doing it for years. For example: how do you suppose the Skyway and Monorail ended up in Disneyland? Walt saw similar attractions while touring amusement parks in Europe in the 1950s. He decided to “borrow” the concepts of these rides from those European venues for installation at his Anaheim park.

And — while Tony Baxter is universally recognized as a modern master of Imagineering, having come up with the concepts for such classic Disney theme park attractions as “Big Thunder Mountain Railway” and “Splash Mountain” — employees of Knotts Berry Farm are all too willing to point out the similarities between those attractions and Knotts’ “Calico Mine Train” and “Log Ride.” Given that Baxter has admitted to spending a lot of his free time back in the 1960s when he was a Disneyland employee prowling around Knotts, is it possible that Tony could have — just like his hero, Walt — “borrowed” the concepts for these Knotts attractions to use as the basis for “Big Thunder” and “Splash Mountain?”

Anything’s possible, kids.

Anywho, back to Islands of Adventure … is “Dueling Dragons” an obvious rip-off of “Beastly Kingdom”‘s proposed “Dragon’s Tower” ride? Perhaps. But how can you rip off something that hasn’t actually been built yet?

Some might argue that Universal — being the first theme park company to build a mega-coaster that featured a dragon storyline with a queue area that was themed around a decrepit castle — must now get credit for creating that attraction. Which means Universal effectively owns that ride idea. That would mean that — should Disney ever go forward with their “Dragon’s Tower” attraction idea — the Mouse would now appear to be copying ride ideas from Universal, rather than the other way around.

Never mind that Disney came up with the original idea for a dragon-based coaster. Never mind that Universal may have acquired the concept for their dragon coaster attraction under somewhat questionable circumstances. In the end, all that matters is: Who built the ride first? Since Universal was the first to build a dragon-based coaster, that ride concept now belongs to them.

And — since Eisner didn’t want it to appear as if Disney was stealing ride ideas from Universal — he asked the Imagineers to remove the “Dragon’s Tower” ride from all future plans for “Beastly Kingdom.” But — without the tumble-down burned-out castle (that would have served as “Dragon’s Tower”‘s show building) to serve as the centerpiece for this proposed addition to WDW’s fourth theme park — “Beastly Kingdom” was left without a “weenie,” a strong visual element that would lure people down into this side of the park. Without “Dragon’s Tower,” “Beastly Kingdom” now seemed kind of pointless.

As painful as it might be, Joe Rohde and his Imagineering team now had to face facts. “Beastly Kingdom” — as they had originally planned it — was dead. WDI would now have to abandon all the witty plans they’d come up with for this part of the park and dream up some new attractions for DAK’s east side.

Mind you, there was no time to mourn “Beastly Kingdom”‘s demise. Rohde and his team were too busy fighting with Disney management over their bargain basement expansion plans for DAK’s Dinoland USA. Assuming that — when Disney’s “Dinosaur” movie opens in theaters later this month — this side of the park will see a huge surge of new traffic, Eisner ordered that several lightly themed off-the-shelf carnival-style rides be added to Dinoland USA to increase capacity.

Rohde was said to be furious when he learned of this plan, particularly since WDI had already put together an elegant expansion plan for DAK’s dino area. He’s reportedly particularly enraged that the name that his Imagineering team came up with for a runaway-mine-car-through-an-abandoned-dinosaur-dig ride — the Excavator — for Dinoland USA’s “Phase II” will now be used for a smallish kiddie coaster Eisner is quickly tossing into the area.

Adding to Rohde’s aggravation: DAK’s ‘temporary’ area — Camp Minnie-Mickey — was becoming all the more permanent as each day went by. Exit polls showed that this area’s “Festival of the Lion King” show was the most popular attraction in all of Animal Kingdom. So popular that Disney had to add additional seats to DAK’s “Lion King” theater to increase the show’s capacity. And — with “Lion King III,” another direct-to-video sequel to the original 1994 film, currently in the works — it could now be years before the “Lion King” phenomenon finally fades … leaving all the land around that once-thought-to-be-temporary theater available again for development.

As you can see, Rohde and his Imagineers didn’t have time to moan over “Beastly Kingdom”‘s loss. They’re too busy fighting with Disney Company management, trying to keep Eisner and Co. from ruining the park with their bone-headed cost-cutting maneuvers.

But is “Beastly Kingdom” really dead? At least for the immediate future, it would seem so. Any ambitious plans the Mouse may have had for expansion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom are now completely on hold.

Why for? Because there’s so much other stuff at DAK that’s currently in urgent need of repair. For example: Conservation Station is thought to be a complete disaster. Visitors repeatedly name that area as their least favorite part of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. So the Imagineers are frantically searching for ways to fix up that facility.

And then there’s Kali River Rapids. Though only a year old, the centerpiece attraction for DAK’s Asia area is already falling apart. There are currently so few of that attraction’s original rafts in working condition that visitors often have to wait as much as an hour in line before there’s a raft available for them to board.

But all those Disney unicorn and dragon lovers out there shouldn’t completely lose heart. Long-time Disney theme park observers know it’s wise never to consider a really great concept for a theme park show or attraction completely dead. For the Imagineers have this awful tendency to recycle abandoned ideas.

Consider Disneyland’s long proposed Discovery Bay. Though Tony Baxter hatched the concept for this Jules Verne-meets-Gold Rush-era-San-Francisco Frontierland expansion back in 1977, it wasn’t until 1992 that elements of this proposed Disneyland addition finally turned up in a Disney theme park. Unfortunately for all those US-based Discovery Bay fans, the park that got the land (DiscoveryLand, to be exact) that was inspired by Tony’s concept art was Disneyland – Paris. But some of Discovery Bay did finally make it off the drawing board.

So who knows? Maybe in ten years or so, some Imagineer may come with a clever way to rework the “Dragon’s Tower” storyline. Perhaps that long rumored South American Disney theme park will have a Sleeping Beauty’s castle with a thrill ride — rather than a walking tour — as its main attraction? Maybe this thrill ride will feature a huge AA version of the Maleficent dragon, snarling and breathing fire at riders as they whiz through the attraction’s finale? Stranger things have happened, kids.

Here’s hoping that — some day, in some way — dragons and unicorns turn up in a Disney theme park.

After all, there’s always room for a little more magic in the Magic Kingdom.

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.

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“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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