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Universal Creative tweaked the magical formula it used to create Hollywood’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter



Given that there are already Wizarding Worlds in Orlando
& Osaka, why should Harry
fans now travel to Hollywood
to experience the third theme park incarnation of that magical realm which J.K.
dreamed up?

Because — as Professor Flitwick (who teaches the Charms
class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) might say — the third
time's the charm. Universal Creative took all of the lessons that they learned
while creating the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter for Universal's
Islands of Adventure
(not to mention all of the tweaks and refinements that
were made for the versions of Hogwarts Castle & Hogsmeade which were
conjured up for Universal Studios Japan back in July of 2014). The end result
is that Universal Studios Hollywood's version of The Wizarding World of Harry
(which officially opened to the public earlier this morning) may be the
most immersive, hyper-detailed theme park environment ever created.

You see, even though the two earlier versions of The
Wizarding World have been hugely popular with theme park goers all over the
globe, given that this one was being built in Hollywood (i.e., the movie-making
magic capital of the world), Universal Creative really felt that they had to
step up their game. So this time around, no detail was too small to reconsider
or revisit. Take — for example — the faux snow that covers the rooftops of Hogsmeade

Photo by Jim Hill

"Since we built the first Wizarding World in Orlando,
some of our production & design techniques have been richly enhanced. Which
is why we decided to change the way that the snow sits of the roofs out here in
Hollywood. We wanted things to look
as real as they possibly could in this version of Hogsmeade. Which is why we
even changed the way we formed the icicles that hang down from so many of the
village's rooftops and window sills," said Stuart Craig, the production
designer of all the "Harry Potter" films. Who — at J.K. Rowling's
personal request — worked with Universal Creative to translate the characters
& settings from the 7 "Potter" books & 8 motion pictures into
one truly immersive theme park experience.

Mind you, one of the main reasons that the Universal
Creative revisited many of the design choices that they'd made with the Orlando
& Osaka versions of the
Wizarding World was Southern California's strong
sunlight. The very sunlight that convinced motion picture pioneer Carl Laemmle that
230 acres of ranchland high up in the Hollywood Hills would be the perfect spot
to build a silent film studio — one Universal City — back in 1915. But as far
as Alan Gilmore (i.e., the supervising art director for the "Harry Potter"
films as well as all four of the Wizarding Worlds that have been built to date)
is concerned, that super-strong sunlight was both a blessing and a curse.

"The quality of light here in Southern
California is amazing. It's so vivid. It almost feels like hi-def
when you look at objects here. Which is why — as we were designing the
Wizarding World for Universal Studios Hollywood — we knew that we had to take the
almost unforgiving quality of that sunlight into account. Which is why we
enhanced a lot of the colors & the textures that we used on the West Coast
version of Hogwarts Castle
& Hogsmeade.
So that they'd then look as good as they should in this particular
setting," said Alan.

Photo by Jim Hill

Of course, there were some advantages to being able to build
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter on the Upper Lot at
Universal Studios Hollywood. Chief among them being that Hogwarts
Castle was now surrounded by the
Hollywood Hills, which could then stand in for the Scottish Highlands. Which —
to hear J.K. Rowling tell the tale — is where  Harry Potter's alma mater has been hidden away
from the prying eyes of Muggles.

"Back in the Fall of 2010 when we first began designing
this version of the Wizarding World back in London,
we built models of the whole terrain in & around Universal Studios
Hollywood. We built both computer models and physical models just so we could
then determine the best possible positioning for Hogwarts
Castle," Gilmore continued.
"We actually designed views to take advantage of the way this version of
the castle would sit up in the Hollywood Hills. Take — for example — when the
queue for 'Forbidden Journey' passes through the space where Madam Sprout
teaches her Herbology classes. As guests move through those greenhouses at the
back of the castle, they're going to get this lovely view of the nearby
mountain tops."

And speaking of things to view … Those who have previously
experienced the original 2D version of "Harry Potter and the Forbidden
will be in for something of a shock once they climb aboard one of
Universal Hollywood's flying benches. For — as Thierry Coup (i.e., the SVP of
Universal Creative) explains — they actually went back into that ride film
(which was shot in 2008, right after production of "Harry Potter and the
Half-Blood Prince"
had wrapped) and added a lot of brand-new 3D elements.

Photo by Jim Hill

"Take — for example — the first flying scene over Hogwarts
Castle. Thanks to 3D-HD, we were
able to go back into that ride film and make it seem as though that dragon was now
getting much, much closer to the guests. Even closer than we had him
before," Thierry enthused. "And we did the same thing with the snitch
in the quidditch match. Also the dementors. Thanks to the way we've used 3D to enhance
this ride film, the dementors now get right up in your face and you can feel
their breath."

And to make sure that this new hyper-realistic 3D-HD version
of the "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride film fits in
seamlessly with the rest of this attraction, Universal Creative has gone
through and added more sets, scenery & detailing to Hogwarts Castle. With
the end result being that the USH's version of this dark ride is now the most
immersive version of "Forbidden Journey" on the planet.

"We had gotten such a positive response from all of the
guests who rode this attraction in Orlando
& Osaka that — when it came to
Hollywood — we wanted to try and
raise the bar one more time. Which is why — as you've been on this attraction
before and are now riding your flying bench through USH's version of the Forbidden
Forest — you'll notice that we've
expanded that forest. Likewise the Chamber of Secrets. We added a lot more sets
to that section of  the attraction as
well," Coup continued. "A lot of theme park fans already thought that
'Forbidden Journey' was one of the best dark rides out there. With the changes
that we made to the Hollywood version of this
attraction, we were hoping that we could turn it into the ultimate immersive

Photo by Jim Hill

And the plussing continued in other parts of Hogwarts
Castle. To make sure that this was
the most authentic version of the Wizarding World produced to date, Universal
Creative — working with their partners at Warner Bros. — has placed props
that were used in the production of the eight "Harry Potter" films in
various spots around this enormous show building.

"Take — for example — in the Dark Arts class in
Hogwarts, we have the actual desks from that set. And the chalkboard in there
is the original chalkboard as well," Gilmore said. "What's really
great is that Universal Creative's prop team has made props of such high
quality is that they blend seamlessly with the film props. So it's all one
seamless place really."

But — of course — because this is the version of The
Wizarding World that was being built at Universal Hollywood … Well, since so
many movie-making professionals would soon be coming by this theme park to see
what all the fuss was about, it was absolutely crucial that that the various
film tricks which Universal Creative used during the construction of this
newest "Harry Potter" land be right on the money.

Photo by Jim Hill

"That's why I just love the view the people get just as
they come through the gates at Hogsmeade
Village. We were able to do
something in Hollywood that we just
weren't able to do in Orlando or Osaka.
Which was position Hogwarts Castle
in such a way that it actually looms up behind the village," Thierry said.
"Thanks to the brilliance of Stuart and Alan — plus a few classic film
tricks like forced perspective — we were able to make Hogwarts
Castle look as though it were 700
feet tall. That was our goal going into this project. And we've achieved it. It
feels … Well, magical."

And just so you know: This may not be the last time that
Universal Creative refines its take on the Wizarding World. In the concept art
that was released last February for Universal Studios Beijing, "Harry
Potter" fans couldn't help but notice that this 1000-acre / $3.3 project
featured yet another version of Hogsmeade & Hogwarts Castle.

So how will the mainland China
iteration of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter differ from the Orlando,
Osaka and Hollywood
versions? Well, short of taking Professor Trelawney's divinations class, I
guess that we'll all just have to wait 'til 2019. Which is when the Universal
Studios Beijing theme park and resort is supposed to open in the Tongzhou
district to the east of China's

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on April 7, 2016

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



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 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



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



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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