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MomFest: A Passport to Flavortown

MomFest: A Passport to Flavortown

Why keep all the fun to yourself? Why not share it when you have a chance? That's what Sherill and I did recently. Our plan was to go to Disney World for the annual International Food & Wine Festival at Epcot Center. We stumbled into that purely by accident a few years ago and found it to be outstanding, so we took my parents with us last year. 

This year, we decided to make another run at taking them along. It wasn't nearly as easy a negotiation as last year. Mom was sort of on board, but Dad wasn't sure he really needed to fly anywhere again. Ever. So we quickly discovered another angle. Sherill's mom, Sharon, said she'd love to go along, but only if my mom went along, too. 

Peer pressure isn't always a bad thing. We put it to good use and talked both moms into making the trip. As the date of departure grew near, I think both of my parents did a little bit of math. They realized that this trip -- Sunday afternoon through Friday night -- would be the longest the two of them had been apart in more than 61 years of marriage. 

Scheduling actually worked out better than I thought it would. We managed to get flights lined up for the three of us Iowans to leave Minneapolis around 9:00 Monday morning and arrive in Orlando around 1:00. Sharon lives in Michigan, so we were able to get her on a plane out of Detroit to arrive in Orlando within a few minutes of us. On the way back, our flights were only two minutes apart. Vacation is never as fun when you have to make an extra trip to and from the airport for one more passenger. 

Scurvey Prevention Program

We got our rental car and headed for our favorite condo, but first made another executive decision. A bag of peanuts on the flight wasn't really a meal. We needed to eat, and we didn't want to do something plain. This was Disney. A burger and fries just won't do it. We'd head to Downtown Disney. That didn't require a ticket for our non-annual-pass-holding guests, so we wouldn't have to spend a hundred bucks to get them in the gate at the parks for half a day. We'd go one better and take them to Paradiso 37, where Sherill and I had dined with our Morrocan friends earlier this year. We would dine on food from all of the Americas -- Central, South and North. 

Elsie and Sharon quickly discovered that Sherill and I take food seriously. We started everyone (but me) off with a Lemon Drop (vodka, lemon juice, sugar and a lemon slice). We may have made it sound more like lemonade than what it actually is, but you need to under-sell some stuff to your parents sometimes. Elsie thought it was awesome! 

"Have another one. We'd hate to see you get scurvy on vacation!" 

Shrimp ceviche

Then we ordered some appetizers -- Paradiso 37 Queso, which was imported cheeses flavored with spinach, cilantro, peppers, chiles and onions served with tortilla shells, and Yucatan Style Ceviche, which was lightly poached shrimp, fresh lime juice, fresh chiles cucumber and avocado. By the time our entrees arrived -- Surf & Turf (BBQ shrimp, Argentinean skirt steak, corn on the cob, grilled vegetables and grilled corn cakes), Chilean Salmon, Caribbean Crab & Fish Fritters, and Baja Fish Tacos, we ended up sharing the whole works just so everyone would get a taste of all the glory in front of us. 

That's when we began to review the whole concept of Food & Wine Festival to the moms. It's about food variety and small portions. You don't want to risk an entire meal at some country where the giant plate may not be to your liking, and may set you back anywhere from $20 to $50. Instead, you can spend anywhere from $1.50 to maybe $6 and get a smaller portion. Next thing you know, you've tried a whole bunch of foods and still haven't spent a fortune. 

The moms were quite agreeable by that point. Perhaps it was the lemonade's influence, but they were really starting to like the idea of food variety without a lot of risk. 

Flavor by the foot at 'Ohana

Just before we were ready to leave, we discovered something else at Disney World we had never found before. Precipitation. Most of our trips in the past had been between November and early April. This was September. It doesn't sprinkle at Disney World. It pours. It also takes that humidity gauge and pegs it at the maximum level. This was not 67 degrees in February. This was 87 degrees in September. Fortunately, it didn't last long and we were able to get back to the car without getting soaked. 

Our first full day at the park started with another tremendous accidental discovery. It came via email. I had completely forgotten about some plans I had made months before on a hunch. My inbox was reminding me of those plans and requesting me to cancel them in plenty of time so as not to be charged $10 per head if I forgot before the deadline.

I had made reservations to go to 'Ohana at The Polynesian Resort near Magic Kingdom for their nightly Polynesian Feast. Talk about a great lapse of memory! It takes weeks, if not months, to get a reservation at 'Ohana. We were about to stumble into a table at the last minute. The date had been a total wild guess on my part when I booked the reservations this spring. 

It didn't take long to remind Elsie and Sharon about 'Ohana before they remembered that meal. "You know; the place where they keep bringing giant skewers of grilled meat to you all night long before they finish it off with a huge plate of bread pudding." 

Three feet worth of grilled meat on a skewer, just inches from your face tends to make a lasting impression. Ever had that happen when a salad shows up?

Crickets. I'm hearing crickets.

Poncho precipitation protection

All the heat and humidity made for some seat-of-the-pants planning. Elsie broke her wrist last winter, so she wasn't able to operate a scooter like she did on her previous Disney visit. We got a wheelchair for her instead so that she didn't try to walk our usual five to eight miles per day. That meant I was her driver. That also meant I was more inclined to stop and visit plenty of indoor exhibits where they had air conditioning. I wasn't pushing her fast enough around the park to generate a lot of breeze.

We were heading down the exit ramp at The American Adventure in Epcot when the rain started again. Sherill realized that the gift shop nearby had ponchos, so she made a mad dash to get us some protection from the weather. A little smart phone work with the weather radar app revealed that this weather event wasn't going to be brief. We were essentially at the opposite end of the park as our vehicle, so that was going to be a really, really mad, uncomfortable dash to give up and head back to the condo for the day.         

Sherill scored us four ponchos. We got them out of the package and the cheap plastic smell instantly took me back to about Christmas 1976 or so. I was pretty sure these ponchos were recycled from old Stretch Armstrong action figures. 

You will notice in the photo that the ponchos fit many of our group members quite well. Those of us who shop at Royal Majesty For the Obese Or Gangly Gentleman didn't really get a perfect fit. Many of us stayed dry. One of us stayed dry-ish. I soon discovered that the poncho worn by the person in the wheelchair made an excellent downspout to transfer all of the rain from her topography pretty much right to my lower leg and shoes. 

Our last full day at Disney World during MomFest left us with another decision. Our whole group didn't want to do absolutely everything together. We would divide and conquer to optimize everyone's fun. Sherill and Sharon would head to the pool for a while and then go shopping at the outlet mall next to the condo. Mom and I would head back to Epcot. We hadn't been able to meet up with Zineb, our favorite server at Spice Road Table in the Morocco exhibit and we needed to take one more ride on Elsie's all-time favorite -- Soarin'

We had kind of used Soarin' as an incentive during our negotiation process. When I say that Mom loves the ride, I'm serious. All I have to do is watch as we go over hills and down into valleys on the ride and she is beside herself with excitement and joy. We had already done one round on Soarin' a couple days before, but I knew we needed to do another one to make this trip complete. 

I managed to secure Fast Passes for us to go on Soarin' between 6:55 and 7:55 PM. We hit another food booth or two and then made our way to The Land around 6:30. There was no line for the boat ride, Living With The Land, and I know mom enjoys that, so we went through that one and then sat in the food court for a few minutes before our Fast Passes were valid for entry at Soarin’. 

As we sat down in our seats to begin the ride, a family of four was seated to Mom's right. The two kids were probably eight and ten and the parents were in their late 30's or so. Elsie sat next to the dad, who looked a bit intimidated. 

"Have you ever been on this before?" she asked him.

"No, I haven't," Dad replied with more than a little trepidation as he looked at his son, who was equally unsure. 

"Well, you're going to love it!" Mom exclaimed. "It's great!" 

Mom was fired up like she was working on commission for Walt himself. 

With that, we were ready to begin our trip through California via the bird's eye flight simulator known as Soarin'. 

Elsie loved every second of it. She'd laugh and gasp every time we would swoop down through another landscape. They don't allow photography on Soarin', so I can't show you any pictures of how it went, but I think I got almost as big a kick out of watching my mom enjoy herself as she got from the ride itself. 

Elsie and Zineb at Spice Road Table

After our trip on Soarin', we headed to Spice Road Table. I saw Zineb walk through the patio to wait on a table as we got there, so I knew we wouldn't miss her this time. Our hostess put us at one of Zineb's tables inside near the window. Mom sat and watched as Zineb talked to the couple at the table across from us and then behind us without realizing we were there yet. I had my back to the other table, so Zineb couldn't tell it was me sitting there. She finally came over to our table a minute or two later and greeted Mom. Then she turned to greet me. 

"Well, hello, dear," I said as casually as I could. 

The expression on Zineb's face changed instantly. Mom said she could see Zineb's eyes double in size when she realized it was me. She sort of climbed onto the table to give me a big hug. 

For a place that's only been open about nine months, you probably don't see a lot of servers greet guests like that. Clearly, you don't know Zineb. She is the best of the best. That's why we have always loved her. Mom felt the same way by the time we were finished and ready to head back. Our timing was perfect, because we managed to have great seats inside the restaurant for the fireworks extravaganza that Epcot puts on each night. It was a great way to end our time at Disney World for this trip. 

Our return home wasn't quite as planned. A fire at the radar control tower near Chicago caused a lot of delays for a lot of travelers. As we got our bags loaded into the airport shuttle van in Minneapolis, another traveler was asking the driver some questions. She had a rather un-Midwestern accent, which caught my attention right away. 

New Zealander at Mall of America

Lindsay is a school teacher from New Zealand. She had been in the US for a while working on a project in Portland, Oregon, and had been diverted to Minneapolis at the last minute when the Chicago radar issue arose and she had to find a place to stay overnight until her newly-scheduled flight left the next day. 

Talk about a tough break. Unplanned travel hassles. Unfamiliar city. Foreign country. A whole different level of frustrating and lonely. 

I made a decision, based on the limited facts we discovered on our way to the hotel. We would take Lindsay out to eat with us and maybe show her The Mall of America. That might take a bit of the sting off of an otherwise less-than-perfect day for her. Besides, we might be better ambassadors than the pizza delivery guy or room service staff who could potentially deliver a meal to Lindsay without our offer. 

After clearing it with Sherill, I extended the offer of dinner to Lindsay and she accepted. We made our way to the picture of American retail paradise and enjoyed a great meal with our new friend from the other side of the world. 

Lindsay has now extended an offer to us to come and visit her sometime in New Zealand. Coincidentally, I have a friend in New Zealand who I'd love to visit in person sometime. She sent me a very poignant email several years ago that I shared with the people at Medtronic.

You can never know too many people, right? They add a lot of flavor to life.


Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.

Read more blogs from Jeff.

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