Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Great Movie Ride Dinner: Tables in Wonderland

What:  Tables in Wonderland Dinner in the Great Movie Ride

Where:  Disney's Hollywood Studios

When: July 17th 2010

The whole event came about thanks to AJ over at the Disney Food Blog who posted the Tables in Wonderland listings when they came out for the month of July.  I've never been on the Tables in Wonderland email list, although I've been a member for years (back when it was Disney Dining Experience).  I've seen Tables in Wonderland dinners before, but they are always quite pricey, and I'm hesitant to lay out that much money apiece on a meal without some further inducement.  But when I saw that dinner was being served inside the Great Movie Ride, I was a goner.  The food is great - the experience is what sold me.  I dithered about the event, planning to wait and ask Bret if it would be all right, but the knowledge that the reservations capped out at 80 people kept nagging at me, and I eventually decided to put our names in via the Tables in Wonderland (TiW) email system.  I figured that I would just see what happened - if we weren't able to get seats, so be it; we'd save the money. 

I was, however, unspeakably excited when my cell phone rang 4 days later to confirm the booking for the evening of Saturday, July 17.  I pored over the menu provided, took careful note of the fact that cameras were  "allowed at the event.  Photography will be allowed in designated areas" and that the dress for the evening was "Casual Evening Attire."   

On the afternoon of the 17th, we arrived at the studios around 6:20.  Two greeters at the front gate spotted us and waved before we even reached the turnstiles. They had seen we were dressed up and assumed we were there for the dinner.  They confirmed our names on the list, but we didn't need their escort since we had our passes in hand.  Going through the turnstiles, we made a visit over to the Art of Disney Animation to enjoy the art store and have a look at the Toy Story 3 exhibit currently in the show exit area.  I thoroughly enjoyed that area, as always, and there were several books I might have purchased if I had not been on my way to a dinner event. 

Around 7:00, we headed over to the front of the  Great Movie Ride and checked in with the two delightful cast members there. The ladies checked our names off on the list, gave us star-imprinted wrist bands, and chatted with us about the event itself. We discussed our excitement over seeing the details and theming in the ride at our own pace, and they actually even recommended a Disney art book! They told us to just wait in the courtyard; our "director" would arrive a little before 7:30.   In the interim, we wandered the area, looked at the hand/foot prints in the pavement, and snapped a few photos.  The crowd continued to grow around us, and eventually, we joined in the picture taking frenzy, asking someone to snap our photo for us.

Just about 7:30 sharp, our director emerged from the building.  A sprightly gentleman garbed in a vintage suit, argyle socks, a straw hat, and a silk scarf, he announced himself as Otto von Bon Bon, director extraordinaire, our host for the evening.  The actor was delightful - he seemed to be working on channeling Fritz Lang with his outrageous affected German accent and megalomanical pronouncements. Chewing on his still-wrapped cigar, he informed us that we were to be his guests tonight, and that he was going to show us the sets of several films he was working on.  And, he added, several that he had nothing at all to do with. He broadly forbade us to take pictures while actively posing for the cameras, and warned us not to take pictures within the ride with the same sincerity. With a flourish of his megaphone and a bit of flirtation with one of the ladies waiting in line, he invited us into the theatre, and we followed him into the Great Movie Ride.

I was actually rather sorry that we didn't pause in the queue; I would have liked to snap photos of the dresses from Shakespeare in Love and Narnia and of Mary Poppins's horse, but I guess that everyone was eager to get to the main event. And, of course, those things are available any time the ride is open.  We moved into the pre-show room and paused at the bottom load area.  It was silly, but I still felt a thrill coming into that pre-show room and seeing it completely empty, all the twists and turns of railing roped off and empty.  I've been through that line so many times, and walking into that area, with the movie montage playing on the screen at the front, and knowing that there was no line, this was all for us, was quite a thrill. 

We paused at the bottom of the room to let everyone else file in after us.  While we were waiting, Otto again reminded us of his name, and took a few moments to crack a few suitably horrible jokes (what do you call it when you drop a piano down a mine shaft?  A flat minor...). During his spiel, the cast member at the door controls was a much fun as Otto, encouraging us to applaud where appropriate (and mouthing "he'll be mad") and giving us the across-the-throat "cut" sign when we shouldn't encourage him.   Once we had all cued up, Otto officially welcomed us to his movie set, and brought us through into the regular load area.  The area was brightly lit, with not a ride vehicle in sight.  We moved down the platform a few steps, and then Otto stopped, brandishing his megaphone.  "These are work lights," he explained, lifting the megaphone to his lips. "Turn these things off, will you?"  There was that wonderful "thunk" that emulates a switch being thrown, and the area went into ride mode. The lights dropped, the lights on the background of the Hollywood skyline began to light up, and the beginning strains of "Hooray for Hollywood" filled the room.  In front of us the neon of the marquis blazed out, and the dark cave of the ride yawned open. 

Otto guided us down the stairs onto the ride track, and I couldn't stop grinning.  Around me, I could hear other guests singing along with the music, and there was energy in the air.  This was it! 

We moved past the dark entrance and rounded the first corner to see the swirling light patterns on the one-way screen.  The back lighting kicked in, and there was the Buzby Berkeley scene in all its silver glory. At that point, the group started to split up a bit.  I paused to take pictures of the Berkeley scene; I have to admit my respect for the man.  Probably unlike a lot of the other people in the group, I've watched Berkeley films for my degree, and the man was amazing - he was one of the first directors to make the camera dance.  I ducked through the crowd, snapping a picture of Gene Kelley on his lamp post just singin' in the rain, and then followed the crowd into the Mary Poppins scene.  We paused for several moments there, enjoying the atmosphere and the nostalgia.  I think Mary Poppins provides a lot of good memories for both of us, and the area music with Mary, Bert, and the dancing chimneysweep silhouettes brought out that sense of childhood wonder all over again.

From there, we moved around the corner into the gangster scene, where a black-cloth covered table was waiting for us. 

The table was staffed by a large, classically clad gangster brandishing a Tommy-Gun and his feather-bedecked moll.  She was busily calling party names in a nasal-voiced New York accent that was thick enough to cut with a knife.  Her gangster associate was busy correcting her pronunciation, the two of them playing their parts to the hilt.  When our name was called, we went over to retrieve the little card with our names and our table assignment for dinner - Calamity Jane. 

We hung out at the back of the room for a while, enjoying the banter between the characters.  It seemed that the gangster, Tony, had been providing a good bit of financial encouragement (and a few threats) to the cash-strapped Otto in exchange for the guarantee that his girl would star in Otto's next picture.  Evidently, their presence there was for the purpose of her "audition," and their help was just a means to an end.  The actors were delightful, playing their parts and interacting as they moved through the crowd.  As we stood back there, we spotted a tray with virgin Shirley Temples, and since we had had a long wait in the heat outside, we gratefully snagged those.  Moving forward, we saw a lengthy line that evidently led to the bar and queued up, enjoying the piano music being played by a performer somewhere ahead of us to the left. 

Along the wait, we did encounter 2 trays of hors d'oeuvres.  One had a lone, last white serving spoon bearing the Dillinger’s Seared Shrimp with Dill. Bret snapped that up, and declared it absolutely delicious.  After perhaps 5 or 6 minutes, we encountered a second tray, again with only a few items left.  We were able to grab Bonnie and Clyde’s favorite Chive-stuffed Potatoes for each of us.  The potatoes were in shells of new potatoes no more than an inch across.  The interior had been scooped out and replaced with a delicately swirled bite of something loaded with cream and chives. They were heavenly, and I could have had about 5 more. 

We finally reached the bar, which was a large, black affair at the right of the room (standing in front of the black gangster vehicle for those familiar with the scene). The bartender was a slight gentleman who looked like a blending of William H Macy and Alton Brown, and I believe he was a saint.  There were 2 beers (a Busch light and a Heinekin), a white Zinfandel, a chardonnay, several mixed drinks, and a cabernet.  Since I'm a red-wine girl, I went for the Canyon Road Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was lovely, no harsh tannins, and a smooth, rich flavor.  The piano player was still playing along, and I was enjoying the music, but the crush of people at the front of the room was rather intense, so I retreated toward the rear, finding a spot at one of the standing tables.

After a few minutes, the characters moved toward the front of the area.  It was time for the "audition."  The young lady's warm-up was suitably horrible, with the actress working the Singing in the Rain scratchy voice to its fullest potential.  After a moment, the gangster stepped in to "give her confidence," telling her that he'd sing a line first, and she could follow him.  Of course, it turned into a full performance.  The "gangster" was actually a powerful tenor 2/ baritone, who rolled through a medley of Italian classics, filling the space with his rich voice.  As he ended, the crowd broke out in applause and whistles, and as things quieted down, Otto stepped forward to tap Tony on the chest and declare that he was going to put HIM in the picture.  Brandishing his megaphone, Otto beckoned us into the next scene, telling Tony to bring his "makeup artist" with him if he wanted. 

Stepping into the warm light of the Wild West scene was a truly remarkable transition.  The right hand side of the area was filled with tables topped with red and white checked cloths, and labeled with signs matching the cards we had been given earlier. We streamed into the room, milling about to take pictures as we found our way to our designated table and said "hello" to the others at the table with us.  The tables each seated 10.  We were located closer to the entrance of the room, and my seat faced John Wayne atop his horse.  The environment was really amazing, and it gave a chance to appreciate all the wonderful details of the ride.  We read the wanted posters and newspaper clippings attached to the walls, and Bret actually noticed that just inside the entrance, mostly concealed from the ride vehicles by a tree branch, is a noose.  Now that's something you don't see every day in Disney... Furthermore, we took the time to look at the floor and realized that there doesn't seem to be a "ride track."  Evidently, those cast members driving the ride vehicles are not just there to deliver the spiel and add life and joy to the ride - they really are driving.

As we settled in, Otto visited each table, telling us that he "had important production work to do...oh, all right, I have to use the restroom."  He excused himself, and headed back out the way we had entered.  Watching him go, I realized that the bar had followed us.  It was situated just inside the scene, and right behind it were two cast members with the lighted "light saber" lights that Disney usually uses for directing parade traffic guarding the entrance.  Within a moment, our "host" for the new scene stopped by our table - Momma.  The actress was dressed in sterotypical "western" wear with a stiff gait and wild hair.  She was wielding a dangerously large turkey leg and an arsenal of even more dangerous jokes.  She interacted with everyone at the table, asking the lady beside me if she had crocheted the sweater she was wearing and then pausing to call out to her "boys" - the musical entertainment that had just emerged on an elevated stage to our right, near the area exit. 

The "boys" were a 3-man band, a tuba, a banjo, and a guitar.  They were lively and thoroughly enjoyable, playing a variety of "Ol' West" tunes such as Rocky Top and Disney classics like the "Bear Necessities."  They were delightful without being overwhelming.  In the course of the meal, they played 2 sets, and when they left, the piano player from the gangster scene filled in, providing a rich flow of music from one end of the room or the other throughout dinner.

Dinner itself began pretty quickly with a bowl of Creamy Free-range Yard Bird Corn Chowder with Grilled Flatbread.  The corn chowder was wonderful - rich and creamy with a perfectly seasoned flavor.  It was the kind of soup that you want a large bowl of on a cold evening. The "grilled flatbread" was fairly nondescript, reminding me of grilled flour tortilla.  I tried dipping some in the soup, but it didn't really add any amazing compliment to the soup.  The quiet, efficient servers were already clearing soup bowls before I had finished my portion, so I was a little behind in getting my next course, but that was all right, since I had no intention of letting that soup go without finishing every drop.

The waiters emerged from the back with huge metal bowls piled high with salad.  The presentation was quite lovely, and they proceeded to serve out portions for each of us at the table.  This was the  Wild Greens tossed with Cactus and Cilantro Vinaigrette plated tableside and topped with Carrot Tumbleweeds.  The greens were lovely and fresh, and the Vinaigrette was nice, if a bit bland.  I saw a lot of the others around the table salting their portions, and after a few bites, I did the same.  As always, I enjoyed the mixed greens with the variety of flavors. It was during this course that our House made Roasted Onion Bread with Butter arrived, and it was definitely worth noting.  Quite frequently, bread at any restaurant is just a tad stiff.  It's been sitting out for a little while as part of the natural serving flow, and although tasty, it can be a hint stale.  The onion bread was amazing, not only because of its sweet-smoky taste, but because the bread itself was moist and tender as if it had just come off a baker's rack.  It was delicious and incredibly fresh. 

The main attraction arrived not long after as the waiters emerged with towering trays of individually covered plates stacked three high.  The Mesquite-grilled Beef Filet with Herb Butter, Truffle Mac and Cheese, and Molasses Pinto Beans.  The main entree was thoroughly lovely.  The beef filet was tender enough to cut with the butter knife without difficulty, and it was done to a perfect medium (perhaps on the medium-rare side, but the lovely texture of the cut  gave it a velvety mouth feel with none of the gummy sliminess that I associate with rare meat).  The spices on the exterior were flavorful, and the meat was of excellent quality.  And then there was the truffle mac and cheese.  I'm honestly conflicted about whether to give that mac and cheese its own paragraph; it just may deserve it.  Now, in all honesty, I'm a big mac and cheese lover. Heck, I love comfort food in general, and mac and cheese is hard core comfort food for me. The truffle mac and cheese was incredibly rich and smooth.  The pasta was nicely done, and the cheesy, truffly goodness was smooth and wonderful, not oily at all.  The lady seated next to me was impressed enough to comment on that portion of her dinner in particular.  Overall, our table liked the filet, but we loved that mac and cheese.  The pinto beans were also excellent.  I'm not a big baked beans fan, but Bret ate both of our portions and declared them delicious - a good balance between sweet and savory. 

In the course of the meal, Bret got me another glass of wine, since the alcoholic goodness was unlimited for the dinner, and I must say that the cabernet was lovely with the steak and mac and cheese
After our plates were cleared, Otto reappeared (we joked that it was a really long bathroom break), and announced that we would be walking through several more of his "sets" on our way to dessert.  He led the way, and we peeled ourselves off our chairs and headed off into the darkness. 

This was actually the part of the experience I was a little hesitant about.  I am a total and complete scaredy-cat, and I get a bit freaked out by the Alien section of the ride normally, let alone going through it on foot.  I could feel the hesitation in my step as we headed through the darkened doorway and I could hear the radio call audio coming out of the next room.  The star fields loomed before us as we turned the corner, and I actually snapped a picture of them.  I don't think I had ever appreciated that effect in the ride; it really is a brilliantly simple scene-setter to make the transition to a completely new time and place.  When we arrived, the area was filled with people, and I was able to take Bret's picture with Ripley - that's something you don't get to do every day.  I also snapped photos of the brilliant detail on the space suits at the side, and managed to get several pictures of the alien at the side wall without getting too close to it.  As I snapped the fourth picture of the wall-bursting alien, I heard the hiss of steam above and behind me, and I knew that my nemesis - the overhead alien - was cycling in.  I took several shots of the creature, and was thoroughly disturbed to learn that, in the flash of my camera, the thing has a highly disturbing screaming skull visible in its head.  Lovely.  I'd just finished reviewing my shots when the darn thing went off again, leaving me skittering toward the next room.

That room was, blessedly, Indiana Jones.  I loved getting to gawk at the recreation of the Well of Souls, and Bret and I both took pictures with the snakes and the Ark.  As we moved through, one of the lovely ladies from out front, now bearing the orange light-saber, was kind enough to point out the R2-D2 on the wall that I had read about, and I was able to get a picture of it as well.  I could actually have stayed in that room a bit longer, not only because I wasn't eager to head into the zombie world of horror film but also because as a humanities teacher, the detail was actually really amazing.  It's only a footnote on the ride-through, but seeing it without rushing, the area is actually quite remarkable.

We  moved on through the zombie area (again, remarkable detail in the theming, and you miss it when you ride through), the Tarzan scene (which was a lot of fun with Otto shouting "direction" at Tarzan through his megaphone), and the Casablanca scene.  It was lovely, again, to appreciate the detail.  That plane is really something, especially when you can appreciate its scale.  From there, we moved past the Sorcerer's Apprentice screen and into...Munchkinland.

The Munchkinland scene was beautifully decorated.  With its hyper-saturated colors and fantasy theming, that area is a wonderland to begin with, and the addition of tables each marked with a giant jar of lollipops topped by a huge lollipop from Dylan's candy company only added to the atmosphere.  We moved across the room to the huge urns of coffee.  The bar was still following us, but I knew that I had to drive home before too long, and a cup of coffee seemed a far more appealing idea than another glass of wine. The coffee was piping hot, and quite good, and it was served in "real" cups, not the disposable kind common in large service areas.  Beyond the coffee was a table of wonders.  There were all sorts of finger-sized desserts.  There were cannoli upended in one side of a plastic container, the filling in the other.  There were ladyfingers served the same way, with the cream in the other side of the plastic serving container.  Beside the more mundane offerings of small cookies and muffins, a large tray offered little confections that reminded me of zebra domes, only they were green.  Now, anything that is reminiscent of a zebra dome is quite all right with me, so I quickly snagged one of those.  Beyond that were a variety of little confections on sticks that looked to me like white and milk chocolate covered marshmallows.  I grabbed two of those as well.

Moving away from the serving table, we found a couple we had shared our dinner table with and settled down next to them.  The zebra-dome thingie turned out to be a grasshopper dome, a lovely mint concoction on a chocolate crust base.  I was sorry I didn't have more than one of those; my goodness they were delicious.  The muffin was fresh and delicious, and the ladyfinger was delightfully light and good.  The chocolate coated creation on a stick turned out to be a rolled, creamy icing of some sort that was quite delicious, and I devoured that quickly. 

While we were eating, Otto was busy screaming "No pictures" while posing with guests, but he was quickly upstaged by the arrival of the star of the evening - Glinda the Good Witch of the North.  Glinda was amazing, pretty and gracious in an unbelievable concoction of shimmering taffeta and silk, she swirled through the tables with grace and ease, waving her blinking wand ahead of her.  She was an instant hit, and Everyone (yes, I capitalized that on purpose, because I mean Everyone) wanted a picture with her. The actress was really amazing - she had a gentle grace that really "sold" her part, and her costume was truly spectacular.  Someone should turn her loose at a princess meet and greet; I think the little girls would congregate on that dress - Bret certainly did.  Eventually, she stepped up on one of the "sidewalks" behind us,and led us in a sing-along with the munchkins which was, of course, interrupted as the Wicked Witch of the West emerged in a plume of smoke. The animatronic was impressive as always, and we had front row seats to the exchange, which was delightful.  Glinda boldly delivered the complimenting lines to the figure and vanquished her, then led us in a sing-along with the munchkins.  We filed out past the yellow brick road and into the final holding area of the ride.

A lot of the group was slow heading out; they were still taking pictures of Glinda and of the yellow brick road.  Otto, who was in the final room kept heckling the people behind us, again shouting "no pictures," and trying to gently move everyone along.  Finally, the majority of us arrived in the theater, and Otto instructed some unseen projectionist to "cue the lights."  We stood there in the dim twilight, watching the history of film unfold before us on a screen that seemed even larger from a standing vantage point, and then the doors opened, spilling us into the unload area and back out into the humid air of the summer night around 10:15. 

The Rock-n-glow dance party was wrapping up, and we paused for a moment, arms around each other, to just enjoy the awesome music.  We were delighted to see a lot of young adults (and adults) dancing in front of the stage, and even after park closing, the band seemed to have a decent crowd still fired up.  We headed down Hollywood Boulevard to the strains of "We Will Rock You," and climbed into the car to drive home.

Overall, the experience was a wonderful one.  I would definitely recommend it to others. If nothing else, the experience of taking one's time walking through the Great Movie Ride is remarkable, especially if you love movies and Disney theming.  Furthermore, the opportunity to take one-of-a-kind photos is unmatched.  Although the confirmation email said that pictures were allowed "in designated areas," there was no place where we were limited in picture taking.  Certainly, Otto gave us constant "no pictures" warnings, but they were obviously intended as sarcasm.  The food was wonderful.  My main criticism of the night was the passed reception.  There were not enough servers or enough hors d'oeuvres to go around. For my husband to get 2 bites and me to get 1 at a "passed reception" seemed rather inadequate. That seemed unfair, and I was a bit resentful of that set-up.  Other than that, everything was handled beautifully.  I loved the fact that each "stopping point" in our meal had characters and entertainment, and I thought that the whole experience was absolutely delightful. 

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