Sunday, December 30, 2007

Restaurant Review - Old Spanish Sugar Mill, DeLeon Springs State Park, 601 Ponce DeLeon Blvd, DeLeon Springs, FL

The Old Spanish Sugar MillFor a fun, "worth a drive", breakfast place, you must try the Old Spanish Sugar Mill located inside DeLeon Springs State Park near Deland, FL. It is about an hour drive north of Orlando on 17-92, just north of Stetson University. Since it is located inside a State Park, you do have to pay a $5 fee per car to get into the park. This rustic grill and griddle house used to be a real mill and in fact the menu states that they still grind their own flour for the pancake batter.

The Old Sugar Mill serves family-style make-your-own breakfast every day exThe menu outside the doorcept Thanksgiving and Christmas. And, winter is the perfect time of year to go because the Sugar Mill has NO air-conditioning. There are a few fans going, but in the summertime, they really just move the warm air around.

The Old Sugar Mill doesn't take reservations, so the earlier you go, the better, as that will reduce your wait time for this very popular, yet small, restaurant. While you are waiting for your name to be called on the loud-speaker, you and the kids can enjoy what else the park has to offer. There is swimming available in the "always 72 degrees" spring, as well as a museum on the history of the park, a small playground, and boat rides.

As soon as I detected a name that sounded like ours, with our correct party size, we headed back to the restaurant from the playground. Hooray, it was our name! We were seated on old wooden chairs and benches surrounding a table with a long, flat griddle built into it. There are other items on the menu such as salads and sandwiches but we were there for the pancakes. When our server arrived at the table, she immediately turned the griddle on, and warned the kids that it does get hot and they should stay away from the griddle. Of course, LB didn't believe her, but figured it out when he hovered his hand about an inch from the griddle - "that's hot, Mommy!" All-you-can-eat (and make) pancakes are only $4.50 per person and you can also order mix-ins for $1.50 each such as blueberries, bananas, peanut butter, pecans, chocolate chips, apples or apple sauce . We ordered a bowl of chocolate chips and one of blueberries. To drink, LB ordered chocolate milk ($1) while BB attempted to order sweet iced tea. Our server explained that the iced tea is unsweetened and doesn't sweeten very well with the sugar. She said she would bring some hot water to mix the sugar in so we could try to get the tea sweet. I ordered a hot tea so avoided the whole sweetening issue.

LB's chocolate milk was a small carton with a juice glass on the side. I had forgotten that the restaurant is in a State Park so they don't allow straws to be served. However, our server did tell me that they don't mind if you bring your own straws in (something to remember for next time). They do have sippy cups available for the little ones but that kind of grosses me out, using a "community" sippy cup. LB made do with the juice glass. We tried to make BB's iced tea sweet but the server was right.. this must be special sweet-resistant iced tea as the hot water mixed with lots of sugar didn't work very well. Even my hot tea didn't get very sweet - strange.

Pitchers of pancake batterThe server then dropped off our bowls of chips and berries with the batter and we were ready to go. You will get two stoneware pitchers full of batter, one with a stone ground mixture of five different flours and one with an unbleached white flour. Making the pancakes are pretty simple. Spray the griddle with the provided no-sticPancakes on the griddlek cooking spray, pour a nice size dollup of batter, and then add mix-ins. When the top of the pancake starts to bubble, flip it over for a little bit and then it is done. There are several syrups provided at the table including butter, maple syrup, molasses and honey. The boys stuck mostly with chocolate chip pancakes although they tried both batters. I tried plain, blueberry, and, my favorite, blueberry and chocolate chip. We all agreed that the white flour batter was the best but that may be because it is the taste we are most used to as we thought the brown batter was a little too "wheaty".

By the way, pretty much everything at the Sugar Mill is make-your-own except the meats (sausage and bacon) and lunch items. The couple next to us were surprised when they asked for toast and scrambled eggs with their pancakes and received a few slices of bread and whole eggs. I guess you get your eggs More pancakes on the griddlethe way you want them that way! The restaurant is usually very crowded so service can be slow. That's fine if you already have your batter and are flipping away but it can take a long time to get your check so ask for it as soon as you are starting to get full. Also, a 15% gratuity is automatically added to your bill, probably so the servers don't get ripped off. I can see someone figuring, hey, I did all the work, why do I have to pay a tip? Also, you'll want to have at least two adults to make the pancakes. I took the kids by myself once and was pouring batter, flipping pancakes, or cutting food the whole time and didn't really have time to eat myself. The Old Spanish Sugar Mill is a fun place to go for down-home yummy pancakes for a very reasonable price. And, the more people that go with you, the more fun it is.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Restaurant Review - Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, Christmas at Dixie, 8251 Vineland Avenue, Orlando, FL

Update 1.8.08 - Dolly Parton's Orlando Dixie Stampede suddenly closed this weekend! Was the business doing badly? Was it for health inspection reasons? Nope, it was money. Apparently Dolly and her company were offered a boatload of money for the prime real estate that the Dixie Stampede sits on, with its prominent view of I-4. Reports say that the Dixie Stampede will return to Orlando, just in a new location. We'll see.

Dolly Parton's Dixie StampedeI have previously been to Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede "regular" dinner show in Orlando so I was curious to see what the Christmas show offered. The Dixie Stampede is located across the street from the Premium Outlet Mall (not to be confused with the new Prime Outlet Mall) in a very large Southern-style mansion and was definitely dressed for Christmas with wreaths and holly and Christmas trees everywhere. We went with my husband's family and luckily we had the first show of the day so we were able to park pretty close to the main building. Dixie Stampede times their shows so that you are getting out when the people from the other show are already waiting to get in, meaning that you have to park farther out in a later show because the first group of folks aren't even out of the building yet.

Dixie Stampede's pricing is pretty expensive which, sadly, is in line with the other dinner shows in the tourist corridor. Adult prices are around $50 and kids are $25, although you can usually find AAA or Florida Resident discounts for about half that price. The admission price includes a pre-show, and then a "four-course" dinner and main show. Pepsi products and other non-alcoholic beverages are all-you-can-drink and you are also entitled to two cups of beer or wine, but only during the main dinner. You must make reservations and/or pre-pay in advance and then you can either pay or pick up your tickets when you arrive.

Dixie Stampede recommends you arrive an hour and a half before your show to allow you to find parking, check-in, get your tickets, and find a seat for the pre-show, and it really does take that long. There is a line to get your tickets, a line to get in and take a picture, and then a line to get any drinks or snacks for the pre-show. There are large signs everywhere stating that cameras and video cameras are not allowed (shhh, don't them I snuck my camera in!) so Dixie Stampede is gracious enough to take your family's photo as you arrive... and then will sell it to you later for about $30 (yes, I bought it... I've bought it every time I've come - the kids look so cute on the little horses!). You are asked how large your party is and then you are corralled into the correct photo alcove depending on your group's size. We were a family of 10 so we were escorted into one of the larger rooms with a large Christmas tree, some rocking chairs and crates to sit on and the two cute rocking horses for the kids. The photographer arranged us, snapped our picture and then we were off to the pre-show... through a path along the gift shop where my kids pleaded with me for little stuffed buffaloes or horses. We made it to The Carriage Room without Slushies in souvenir boot mugshaving to buy anything. The Carriage Room is where the pre-show takes place and it reminds of an Old West Saloon, with lots of long narrow tables on two floors leading up to a small main stage. The Grandmas stayed with the kids while the rest of us went to the bar to get drinks and snacks. All non-alcoholic drinks, including the slushies and mixed fruit drinks, are $4 at the bar and come in a souvenir boot mug. I got myself a Sierra Mist with grenadine and then we got everyone else the strawberry slushie or the orange dreamsicle-like slushie. I also got a bowl of roasted peanuts for $2 for the kids.

The pre-show came on a little late as the kids were all getting antsy. We saw Tuey Wilson, a comic juggler. His act was very unusual with spinning balls and juggling cups and other objects but the kids really enjoyed it and ended up saying his act was their overall favorite part of the whole experience.

As soon as his act ended, we were herded (pun intended) into the main show arena. Don't know why they only have one small doorway to squeeze everyone into. For the "regular" show, you are seated on the North side or the South side of the Civil War. That's always kind of bothered me so I've always asked for the North side. The Christmas at Dixie show has a nicer theme. The premise is that Santa's toy shop has grown so big that he has expanded his operations to the South pole. So you are either representing the North Pole elves or the South Pole elves depending on where you sit. As you are seated, on hard benches in front of long tables set in rows, you meet your "elf" who will be serving you. Our elf introduced herself and then briefed us on the menu and asked what we would like to drink. I ordered a sweet iced tea, which I knew would be out of the fountain but I'm not a big fan of Pepsi products anyways. The rest of us ordered Pepsi or coffee while LB ordered water (he doesn't like soda or tea). The only "straws" at the table were really coffee stirrers; luckily, we had saved our drinks from the pre-show and ended up using those straws.

Another tip, get everyone to go to the potty before the show starts because there is no break in the show - the performers are on the whole time during dinner. The bathrooms are all at the top of the stadium and also have an Old West motif with a big trough for the sink.

The show itself is set up the same way as the non-Christmas show. The first part is Angel during Nativity sceneall about the performers and horses and the second half is a competition between the North and the South. There is an MC and a character called Skeeter for comic relief. For the Christmas show, there were some really amazing set pieces such as the ice skating and the live nativity scene. I was pretty skeptical about the Nativity scene and thought it might be cheesy but it was very well done. The three Wise Men ride in on live camels (which was exciting in itself), but the most breath-taking was went an angel floats down from the sky with full wings. Very nicely done.

During the first half of the show, our elf was very busy serving us our food. I don't know why Dixie Stampede doesn't serve a fully plated dish - instead our elf had to serve everyone in our row the first food item and then come down the row again for the next food item. And, I still can't figure out what the "four courses" were since each item was served individually. The meal Kid's meal with chicken fingersconsists of a warm buttery biscuit, a bowl of warm (not hot) creamy vegetable soup, a full (small) rotisserie chicken for the adults and chicken fingers for the kids, a slice of barbecue pork loin, a half herb-crusted baked potato, and a half corn-on-the-cob. The chicken is truly tender and juicy but it is just too Adult meal with full chickenbig of a meal for me, and a bit messy when you are trying to watch a show at the same time. I wished I could have gotten the kids' meal since the chicken fingers were also tender and looked more manageable. The creamy vegetable soup is a favorite of mine although I don't know why it is always served lukewarm. There is no spoon provided so you need to sip the soup by picking up the bowl and "drinking" it - maybe that is why the temperature is more moderate? I ate everything else except the pork loin, which I just didn't care for - I think it was too smoked or barbecued for me. LB did really good eating most of his food except for his soup (I polished it off for him). BB didn't eat anything except for the corn on the cob, because he was enthralled with the show. This can be a problem with kids - you want them to enjoy themselves and the show but you don't want them to be so mesmerized that they don't eat anything. Grandma M. wisely asked for doggie bags and our elf brought each of us one as no one had finished the full chicken.

Next, it was time for the North Pole vs. South Pole competition and dessert - a hot apple turnover. It was The Big Man himselfa little goopy instead of flaky but tasted okay. The competition is fun to watch because there is a lot of audience participation and the performers are really talented. The kids also like to see the pig races and ostrich races. As the show is coming to an end, Dolly herself appears on the large TV screen and reminds the MC that he forgot the last person in the show... Santa Claus. Santa comes out in a sled pulled by two horses and waves to everyone.

Now comes the very awkward part of the whole experience that happens every time I have ever come to Dixie Stampede - the request for the tip. Several other dinner shows in the area, most notably at Disney, will include gratuity in your ticket price so you don't have to go through this. Our elf came around and left a card on every table saying that it was a pleasure serving us and that no gratuity has been added to our bill and that excellent service is typically rewarded with 15%. Here is why this is so bizarre. In most cases (as was with ours), our tickets were already paid for several weeks ago with a credit card. Clearly the servers are not coming around with credit card readers so any tips MUST be paid in cash. Then, exactly what 15% are we supposed to calculate? Sure, an adult ticket is $50 but that doesn't mean the meal was worth $50 - I'm sure most of the cost is for the show and we are not going to paid $8 per adult and $3 per child for the tip (plus, we don't have the cash for it). So we all scrambled our cash together and came up with $20 for the 10 of us. Then our elf came to shake all of our hands and we slipped her the $20 and then ran out of there before she noticed. I really wish they would come up with a better way to do that because I'm sure the servers get left with nothing sometimes because the group doesn't have any cash left on them.

Right now, I'd say the Dixie Stampede is one of the better dinner shows, both in terms of food and definitely entertainment, in Orlando, especially along the tourist corridors of I-Drive and US 192. I'd definitely still try and use a Florida Resident or AAA discount every time, though, as then it is a much better value.

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