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November 23, 2015

Backstage Tales Reveals Animal Kingdom Secrets



As a fan of all of the special tours I've taken at Disney's Animal Kingdom over the years (including the Wild Africa Trek and the now-defunct Wild by Design and Wildlife Discovery Excursion), I was eager to try the new-ish Backstage Tales tour, which started in spring of this year. I say "new-ish" because Backstage Tales replaces, for the most part, Animal Kingdom's now-retired Backstage Safari tour. While many of the elements of the new tour are the same as the old one's, which I somehow managed to never take, they tell me that several have been changed based on guest feedback.

My Backstage Tales experience started on a misty fall morning. Since I needed to be AT Animal Kingdom by 7:30 a.m. I took a cab from my hotel (the Walt Disney World Dolphin). (I imagine that you could take one of the early morning breakfast buses that Disney offers, but I didn't want to chance it.)

After leaving the hotel around 7 a.m., I found myself walking up to Animal Kingdom's turnstiles by 7:15, where a cast member told me I was just the third guest in the park -- I was so early, how I was not the first is beyond me!


Off to the left of the park entrance I found a few cast members with iPads waiting to check in tour participants. Paula and Dan checked my ID and had me sign a standard waiver (which said basically that I wouldn't hold Disney responsible if anything bad happened to me on the tour) and gave me my name tag.

As I waited for the rest of the tour group to assemble, I spotted a hawk in a nearby tree -- a cool, if unofficial, welcome to Animal Kingdom and the morning's festivities.


On this morning only two others joined my group -- two lovely gentlemen from the UK. There were supposed to be two other tourists joining us, but after waiting several minutes and getting a questioning call from our first stop wondering where we were, our guides decided the others were no-shows, and we embarked on our 3-hour-45-minute adventure.

After giving us headsets that would allow us to hear the guide over crowd noise, or if we wandered out of normal earshot, the guides told us a little about themselves. (Interestingly, Paula and Dan also work together over at the Dolphins in Depth program at Epcot -- perhaps I'll see them there soon!). Using the iPad, Paula then introduced us to Walt Disney's commitment to wildlife, and talked about his early True-Life Adventure series films.

The scene thus set, we made our way to the Aviary, located in the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail at the back of the park. Our guides reminded us that photos were not allowed when in any "backstage" areas, which is standard for most Disney World tours and which is why this report is, unfortunately, light on my own pictures. Taking photos while in the park with the rest of the guests, however, was obviously allowed, and I managed to get a fairly nice shot of the iconic Tree of Life, without other people around.


When we reached the Aviary, we were met by Nick, one of the park's bird specialists. He shared with us the banding system they use to identify and keep track of the aviary's myriad winged residents.


We were also given the chance to "feed the birds." I couldn't help but hum the tune quietly to myself, although I don't think the Mary Poppins' bird lady used the same "food" we did -- mealworms! Nick gave us each latex gloves if we wanted to dip our hands into the squirming worms, which we each did, quickly throwing out a handful that was just as quickly gobbled up. It did allow us some up-close-and-personal bird viewing, especially since there were no other park guests around yet to distract us, or the birds.





From the Aviary, our guides finally took us backstage, where we boarded a vehicle that drove us past all the animal barns, many of which you can see when you're riding the park's Wildlife Express train to Rafiki's Planet Watch.

We stopped at the elephant and rhinoceros barn, where we were met by another animal specialist who talked to us about the training, care and feeding of these giants. We had the opportunity to meet Frank (so-called because of his blue eyes) and another rhino, while the cast member shared some fun anecdotes about working with these animals. I really do wish I could have taken some photos at this point -- we were so close to the animals I could have reached through the bars of their habitats and touched them. This could have been due to the small size of our group, though -- I don't want you to think that every tour gets such an up-close-and-personal look at the animals, because according to other reports I've read that's not the case.

From there, it was back to the vehicle and off to the Animal Nutrition Center, which prepares the approximately 9,000 pounds of food consumed by Animal Kingdom residents each day.


This was a fascinating peek into what it takes to feed the 250 different species represented in the theme park. One of the cast members working during our visit was preparing the next day's meals for all the small mammals, following detailed instructions from an overly large ring binder that contained the critters' regular dietary requirements, as well as instructions for when to include special treats or "enrichments." I got a chuckle out of learning that the porcupine loves jelly and gets a smidgen of the sweet treat just once a month. I could just imagine his (or her) delight: "Oh boy! It's Jelly Saturday!"

Not as funny were the menus being prepared by the cast member at the other station. He was charged with feeding larger animals, and so was surrounded by large bags of frozen mice, rats, even rabbits, as well as various kinds of fish and raw meat. Thus killing any desire I might have had to work in the Animal Nutrition Center.

At this point were were about midway through our morning, so we were escorted to a break room in the Education Building. After a quick pit stop to the restroom, we were treated to a conversation with Scott, a zoological manager at Animal Kingdom who told us about his involvement with Operation Migration and its efforts to help whooping cranes.


While we listened to Scott, we were given a treat of our own -- a rice krispies treat and a bottle of water. We were also given a keepsake "Backstage Tales" water bottle.


After our break, it was off to the backstage area of Conversation Station, one of my favorite areas of Animal Kingdom. I love heading up to Rafiki's Planet Watch early in the morning in the hope of seeing some animal procedures in Conservation Station's operating room. I always find that fascinating. Imagine my surprise when we were actually walked into the back rooms there and learned about the tools the 11 vets and eight vet techs use and how they often have to improvise due to the exotic nature of their "patients." I was a little disappointed that there were no procedures taking place during our brief stop, but what happened next more than made up for it.


When we had first stopped at the rhino and elephant barns, we noticed that we could see Animal Kingdom's "Pride Rock" -- the lions' habitat -- from the rear. One of the male lions had been in full view, causing to inwardly curse at the no-photos rule. But our upset turned to delight when our final stop on the tour was the "Big Cat" house. Again, I believe it was due to the small size of our group -- just three of us plus the two guides -- but we were treated to a long visit with Savannah, the 19-year-old matriarch of the lion family at Animal Kingdom. While the animal specialist told us about the habits and lifestyles of the lions at Animal Kingdom, the graceful cat lay on her side, but an occasional tail or ear twitch indicated that she was listening and watching our every move. It was a real treat to spend such a long while in such proximity to her. In fact, I spent so much time observing her, I missed some of what the animal specialist was telling us.

After that, it was time to say good-bye to the backstage area, and our guides walked us back out into Animal Kingdom. We said our good-byes, but not before Dan and Paula gave us our shiny, 20th Anniversary Disney Conservation Fund badges, a reminder that a portion of the tour proceeds is donated to the Fund.


To sum up, all I can say is, "Wow!" It was a terrific tour and I'm so glad that I took it. It was a lot of walking, but at a leisurely pace, and fortunately the weather cooperated -- not too hot, not too cold, not too wet. I know all the literature about the tour emphasizes that animal interaction is not guaranteed, but obviously I hit it lucky with such a small group -- I really do think that enabled us to spend as much time as we did with both the rhinos and the lioness.

I feel that this tour was definitely worth the $90 price tag, although when you book remember to ask about DVC, Annual Passholder, and Disney Visa discounts -- I only paid $81.48, including tax, with my Disney Visa discount. (The total price would have been $95.85 otherwise.)

Another nice thing about this tour is that children older than 12 can go (although those under 18 must be accompanied by a participating adult.

You can book the tour by calling 407-WDW-TOUR.

October 12, 2015

Hulk in Paradise


by Erin Blackwell
AllEars® Team Member

Hulk! You hear the name and you immediately get a mental image: big, fierce, muscles out to everywhere, green --

Ooo, we were doing so good until that last word. The big guy we’re talking about this time is Hulk Hogan, a professional wrestler and actor, including being the lead for the short-lived show, Thunder in Paradise. And that is what this is about, because Thunder filmed in Walt Disney World.

I don’t just mean in the then-Disney-MGM Studios’ soundstages, far from the public eye. No, the show filmed at numerous spots right out in the open, such as the Grand Floridian beach and the Morocco Pavilion in Epcot. Disney even built a water tank in the Studios for close-up scenes and undersea shots; they pointed it out to you during The Studio Backlot Tour.

Let’s back up.

My husband and I were going through television channels on a lazy day when we saw the Grand Floridian on the screen. We stopped (of course we stopped), thinking we had found a Walt Disney World special. Then Hulk Hogan walked up the beach and we got really confused. That’s too good to change the channel: we had to find out why Hulk Hogan was at the Grand Floridian. And so, we discovered the Thunder in Paradise reruns on TNT.


Here’s a summary if you’ve never seen the show: Ex-Navy Seal Randolph J. "Hurricane" Spencer (Hulk Hogan) and Martin "Bru" Brubaker (Chris Lemmon, son of the late, great actor Jack Lemmon) work as mercenaries. They travel around the world on their futuristic boat "Thunder". Spencer is also a widower and raising his daughter Jessica (Ashley Gorrell). Add Kelly LaRue (Carol Alt), who owns and manages the beach bar, "Scuttlebutt Bar N' Grill", and Jessica’s uncle, Edward Whitaker (the late, wonderful Patrick Macnee), who owns the beach resort (played by The Grand Floridian) where Spencer and Brubaker live. (Patrick Macnee passed away the day before I wrote this. Oh, Mr. Steed, we will miss you. One person reading this will realize I started with naming one Avengers character and now spoke of another, whole different Avengers character. If I wasn’t happily married, I would wed the person who got this reference. As it is, I tip my bowler to you.)


Hogan described the show as "Baywatch" with action/adventure.

If you’re a Thunder in Paradise fan for Hulk Hogan and for the show itself, then this article probably isn’t for you because I’m focusing on the Walt Disney World angle. But please contact us and give us your input for your fellow fans. We’d love to hear from you!

As I just said, I’m looking at why others became viewers. My husband and I watched it because our inner Disney Geeks loved picking out what Walt Disney World location they were using.
AllEars.Net has a weekly game under the Photo Blog called “Where in the World Photo Fun”. Created by former team member Barrie Brewer, it’s a photo trivia game where players guess where a picture thumbnail is in Walt Disney World.

For us, Thunder in Paradise was a TV version of “Where in the World”. Here’s an imagined sample conversation between such fans, once they discovered they are both Walt Disney World lovers.

Person 1: Hey, have you ever seen that Hulk Hogan show?
Person 2: The one in Disney World? Yeah!
Person 1: Did you see the one where they ran through Morocco and then turned into the fez store --
Person 2: And they were inside the Treasure Room in the Adventurers Club! And the one inside the Indiana Jones stunt show!
Person 1: You know what else I like?
Both: The boat!

Besides the above locations, other Disney World spots were: Fort Wilderness, Old Key West, Epcot’s Future World, as well as other World Showcase locations. I saw an episode that looked like they used the aquarium at the then-Living Seas, but after checking photos of the attraction during the production year, it’s clearly not and must be the water tank at the Disney-MGM Studios. They also used a few non-Disney locations, but that was rare. And as I already mentioned, you saw the Grand Floridian every week, since its beach served as the Thunder family home as well as LaRue’s beach bar, with the Polynesian in the background.


When I researched this article (that’s right, I actually did research!), I found the scene shown in the graphic above. My heart froze seeing what looked like the Grand 1 yacht exploding. Think about it: The GRAND 1! Clearly they wouldn’t do it; the effects would be safely behind it or it was a whole different boat. In fact, the one pictured doesn’t look like the yacht used in the past 10 years, but when I checked the 52’ Sea Ray yachts of that time, it could be it. Probably not though.

Still freaked me out when I saw it. Imagine if it had been the Grand 1: you have the specialty cruise booked and Disney has to call you to offer you a different one because, “Hulk Hogan is blowing up the boat that day.”

Thunder also gave different views of well-known attractions. For example, when they filmed at the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, they used the back alleys you can’t see from the audience, plus unique angles on the truck, plane, and the Cairo buildings. It even gave you close-ups of the stuntmen who play the villains. You still knew where you were, but you got a “backlot tour” view of the attraction. The same episode used the roofs at the Morocco Pavilion; when have you ever thought about the upper levels of those buildings?


By the way, I would have done ‘pay per view’ for the episode in the Adventurers Club Treasure Room if they had let some of its actors play their roles in that scene. Come on: Samantha and Hathaway discussing the place? Hodges discussing the treasures in the room? How about sneaking in a “We climb the highest mountains, just to get a better view. We plumb the deepest oceans, 'cause we're daring through and through!" The Adventurers were (and are) professional actors with impressive resumes and they have done other Disney spots, such as “Top 7 Must See” features. I would buy that episode on DVD too for them. I might be the only one who would, but my statement still stands.

My husband and I never saw them film the show while we were in Walt Disney World; I’m surprised that we didn’t even know about it.

Maybe some of you did see it in production; you saw them bring in camels, parrots, and other touches to Morocco, or you were on Pleasure Island when they were setting up the Adventurers Club scene. (I heard a rumor that you can hear the Friendship boats sounding their horns when Thunder filmed in Morocco once.) It had to be tough at times for guests though, because attractions and shows couldn’t run while they were being used for filming. For example, the monorail couldn’t go through while they used the Polynesian and the Floridian. So thank you to everyone who had a piece of their vacation delayed while Thunder in Paradise filmed, because your sacrifice brought magic to me at home in such a different, fun way. Hopefully you enjoyed seeing a television show in production to make up for not seeing what you intended to that day.

We didn’t sit down to watch Thunder each week, but if we were home and channel flipping, we’d remember and put it on. It lasted one season (plus its initial straight-to-DVD movie before it moved to TV and Disney). It also got an interactive movie (video game) from Phillips CD in 2007.

I wish I could have ridden in the Thunder boat. Imagine them adding it to the watercraft rentals once the show was cancelled. A few people think the Sea Raycers are too fast for some to handle; this one would come with a rider in the rental agreement: “Please don’t kill yourself or other guests.”


If the show had been a hit, maybe they would have had a specialty cruise like the pontoon boats or the Grand 1. Maybe we’d have a Thunder in Paradise Experience. You would ride in the boat with the provided captain dressed like a mercenary (for extra, you could drive the boat), you would dock at the old Discovery Island, run around finding clues and fighting bad guys. When you finished, back you went on the Thunder to land at the Grand Floridian where you celebrated an adventure well done at the Scuttlebutt Bar N' Grill.

Just kidding. But I might have finally seen it being filmed or at least come out of whatever cave I was living in and heard about the show.

So, to Thunder in Paradise, Walt Disney World fans thank you. We’re so glad Orlando beat out Tampa as a location or playing “Ha! That’s the Polynesian!” would never have happened. Plus, credit where credit is due. The show brought millions of dollars to Orlando since they used local people for the work (and spent money for housing for the small percentage of non-Orlando workers) and used local vendors for all they needed.


Thunder in Paradise still has a fanbase online. Google it to hear what they have to say and to learn more about the show. I already asked that fans of the show please write in with your thoughts. Now I’m asking that if you ever saw an episode being filmed or if you watched it the way I did, let’s hear from you too!

If you haven’t seen the show and would like to, for itself or to play “I know where they are in Disney World," a select few episodes were released on DVD by Lionsgate. The “Thunder in Paradise Collection” can be found online and in some stores. Netflix and Hulu don’t carry it, but I have seen it on a free video site, although it’s not the clarity of a DVD.

October 10, 2015

Epcot Food and Wine Festival's Tasting Sampler Package



New this year at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is the Festival Tasting Sampler package, which includes:

-- 8 entitlements for food or beverage of your choice (with a few exceptions) at the Food and Wine Festival International Marketplaces.

-- priority seating at the 6:45 p.m. Eat to the Beat concert at America Gardens Theatre on the day for which the package is purchased.

-- a limited release 20th Anniversary Food and Wine pin that comes in three colors.

These packages cost $59 per person (total $62.85 including tax) and DO NOT include admission to Epcot.

Because this was a new offering, I wanted to be sure to try it out, so I purchased the package in advance on one of the first days it was available for sale back in late July. I was able to order it in the same way that I booked reservations for my other Food and Wine Festival events, by calling 407-WDW-FEST. At the time it was not available for purchase online, but I see that it is now. You can order the package just as you would book a Walt Disney World Dining reservation at

Booking the package was the easy part. More difficult was obtaining the physical credential for the package on the day I wanted to use it, the first Saturday of the festival. Perhaps I should have known that the finer points of distributing the package wouldn't have been worked out by the event's second official day, which was a very busy Saturday to boot.

I headed to the Festival Center that morning, but when I got there, the question became WHERE in the Festival Center could I pick up the package? After asking four cast members and a lot of confusion, I discovered that I needed to go to the right of the Intermissions Cafe, to the shop tucked in the back, where cookbooks and artwork are on display. (After you enter the Festival Center, walk down the ramp to the right and at the bottom, make a hard right. That's the space I'm talking about.)

The lines at the registers seemed to stretch for miles, but then, amidst the confusion, I noticed yet another line of people, way off to the side. At the front of THAT line was a single cast member with an iPad and an armful of lanyards. I overheard her explaining the Sampler Package to the woman standing in front of her. At last, I had found where I needed to be.

While I waited in that cramped space, I realized that many, if not most, of the people in line in front of me had not even purchased the package yet. As they each took their turn with the cast member at the head of the line, she patiently explained the package to them, took their payment and then gave them their lanyard credential and pin. Eventually, another cast member came along and the line moved a little more quickly. Finally it was my turn. Because I had prepaid, my transaction was quick. I heard an abbreviated version of the cast member's spiel and signed the iPad with my finger to indicate I had received my credential and pin.


They say the pin comes in three colors, but I wasn't offered a choice -- this seemed to be the only color available.

Altogether, the pick-up experience took way longer than it should have, especially since I had paid for the package in advance. Seems to me things could have been expedited considerably if they had had a specific check-in line for those who already had paid.

Once I had the credential in hand, I took a minute to look it over. It was a rectangular plastic card on a lanyard with a soft, wide strap. Those of you who recall Disney's "Year of a Million Dreams" promotion from almost 10 years ago might notice that the credential resembles the "Dream Fastpass" randomly given out to visitors, allowing them Fastpass privileges on a number of attractions throughout a particular theme park.


Around two sides of the card were eight tabs (four on each side), perforated for easy removal. Each one of these tabs is good for one food or beverage item at the 30 or so International Marketplaces found around World Showcase and, for the first time this year, in Future World. (There are certain exceptions; I'll outline them below.)


Along the bottom of the card was another tab, marked with the day's date, to be used to gain entry into the 6:45 p.m. Eat to the Beat Concert at the America Gardens Theatre.


On the back of the card are chefs' suggested pairings of the various foods and beverages and at the bottom there are the terms, conditions, and exceptions that apply to the package. When they say fine print, they mean it. Even with glasses it was hard to read!


So what does it say? Well, it tells you a few important things.

-- The Eat to the Beat concert coupon can only be used at the 6:45 p.m. show on the day you bought the package for.

-- The food and beverage coupons, however, can be used any time from the day you buy the package to the end of the festival on November 16, 2015.

-- The coupons are nonrefundable and nontransferable, however.

-- The coupons are good for almost all of the food and beverage items at the International Marketplaces with the following exclusions: beers larger than 6 oz.; the tasting "flights," such as the wine flights and the beer flights; champagne; and the Artist's Palette, found at the Wine and Cheese Studio.

When you consider how many options that leaves you, that's really not bad, especially when you take into account that many of the more expensive alcoholic beverages are included. You can maximize the sampler's value by choosing some of the most expensive items at the marketplaces. If, for example, you were to use the coupons for the La Passion Martini Slush in France ($9.95), the lobster roll at Hops & Barley ($7.95), the Le Cellier filet in Canada ($7.50) and the tzatziki martini in Greece ($8.00), you've already "spent" more than $30 (half the package's cost)... and you still have four more coupons to use.

And, by the way, using the coupons is as easy as can be, and really expedites your time in line -- I think paying for your items using the credential is even easier than using the nifty little festival gift cards, or your MagicBand. You simply place your order, present your credential, and the cast member breaks off the coupon tab or tabs needed to "pay" for your purchase.

The final component of the package is the priority seating for the Eat to the Beat concert. This can really come in handy on a crazy weekend night, when the crowd levels are at their highest.
When you're given your credential, you're told to arrive at the America Gardens Theatre about 30 minutes prior to the 6:45 show.


The line is on the Japan side of the theater, right next to the line for folks with the special Eat to the Beat Dining package. It's clearly marked -- if you can see the sign in the midst of the crowds of people milling about! Present your credential as you enter the seating area, and the cast member will break off the bottom coupon.

Performing the night I was there was former American Idol David Cook. Coming up are even more familiar names, like Hanson, Boys II Men, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Chaka Khan.


All in all, I really felt the Tasting Sampler was a worthwhile purchase -- essentially, you're pre-paying for your marketplace items, plus you get a nice collectible pin and special seating for the show thrown in for good measure. If they can iron out the kinks with the package pick-up process (and, who knows, maybe by now, two weeks into the festival, they have), then I would recommend it without any reservations.

They say that only a limited number of packages are available each day, although I'm not sure enough people know about this yet for it to be selling out. Still, if you want to give it a try, it might be worth the effort to book it in advance.

If you use the Tasting Sampler, or attend any of the Food and Wine Festival events, we urge you to visit our Rate and Review section and share your thoughts there, so you can help others plan their vacations!

And if you've already "tasted your way around the World," don't forget to take our poll and rate the foods and beverages you sampled.

October 5, 2015

2015 Food and Wine Festival Merchandise and Special Packages



Even though I am, admittedly, not much of a shopper, I do like to poke around the shops during the special events at Epcot. Last week found me nosing around the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival's Festival Center shop and the other Festival Shops scattered around the theme park's World Showcase to see what new, unusual and festival-specific merchandise was available.

One of the first things that caught my eye was this adorable Figment plush ($14.95)


I know everyone loves Figment, and it turns out that Figment is the star of the festival character merchandise this year, along with Mickey of course. He is featured on all sorts of things...

This t-shirt ($24.95)...


(You can also get the same shirt with sparkles for $32.95.)

Chef's toque ($19.95), apron ($26.95) and potholder ($12.95) ...




You'll find a lot of non-character merchandise that marks the festival's 20th anniversary, too. I especially liked this giant-sized coffee mug ($14.95), which just MIGHT hold enough caffeine to get me started in the morning:


I also thought these logo trash can salt and pepper shakers ($9.95) were too cute!


And of course there's the requisite t-shirts ($27.95):




And assorted glassware (shot glasses, etc.) and other drinking vessels, including this fancy, dishwasher-safe, insulated tumbler that keeps cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot ($24.95):


If you're looking for something new without the festival logo, you might want to go for the "Brews" line of merchandise. I think this line was started last year, but this year the items are really eye-catching, particularly this cap with a built-in bottle opener for those who never want to be caught unprepared ($24.95):


Of course, there are t-shirts to go with it ($27.95)...


Each year, the festival publishes a cookbook with the recipes from the menu items found in the Festival Marketplaces. This year's book is a real item to treasure, though -- it's a lovely hardbound book ($24.95), with a history of the festival over the past two decades. It's going on my cookbook shelf, for sure!


If you'd like to carry your own utensils with you, the festival has thought of that, too -- the shops offer a branded plastic knife, fork and spoon set in a convenient container ($14.95).


I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the festival poster ($24.95, or $209.95 signed and framed). I apologize for the glare, but no matter where I went, it was a problem:


And of course there are Limited Edition festival pins -- this one is $14.95:


Speaking of pins, you have the chance to get some fun pins if you play the new Remy's Hide and Squeak scavenger hunt. Buy a map at the shop at the World Showcase Plaza for $9.95 then look for hidden Remy's around the International Marketplaces, affixing the appropriate sticker to the map when you spot him. Return the map, and receive your choice of one of eight different Remy pins. (Of course, party-poopers like me who don't have the time or desire to find the hidden Remys can pick up their pin when they purchase the game map!)


I had the chance to speak with Ashley Taylor of Park Event Operations about the merchandise and some of the festival's special packages, too. You can see our little chat here:

Hope this helps you decide what you're going to be spending your festival souvenir dollars on!

Happy shopping!

September 30, 2015

Ferrytale Wishes: A Fireworks Dessert Cruise



Starting Monday, October 5, you can see the Magic Kingdom's Wishes fireworks in a whole new way -- on Ferrytale Wishes: A Fireworks Dessert Cruise.

The cruise, which sets sail from the Transportation and Ticket Center ferry dock, is on the General Joe Potter ferry, and makes a circuit around the Seven Seas Lagoon while guests nosh on an assortment of sweets treats. The cruise comes to a halt in front of the Magic Kingdom, affording a perfect view of the Wishes fireworks, then returns to the dock.

I had the opportunity to take this new cruise last week in advance of its official start date, so I thought I'd share some photos and video.

As I said, the cruise starts at the Ferry Dock at the Transportation and Ticket Center, where you check in with a Disney cast member.




Your boarding time varies according to when Wishes will be performed that night. The evening of my cruise, Wishes was going to start at 9 p.m. We had to check in at 7:45 for an 8 p.m. sail time. For 10 p.m. Wishes, everything shifts an hour later.

After checking in, you're welcomed with a glass of sparkling cider or champagne in a glowing plastic flute.


About an hour before the fireworks, you board the General Joe Potter, named for the Disney legend who developed the canals and underground utilities that made the operation of Walt Disney World possible. There are only about 150 guests sailing with you, so boarding wasn't rushed, nor was there a crush of people -- a nice change after a day in the crowded theme parks.



As you board you're given a menu and a souvenir plate that's notched to hold your beverage, which definitely comes in handy. Beverage stations along the walls are stocked with coffee, ice water and soft drinks, while at the far end are stations with alcoholic beverages: beer, wine, and two versions of a spiked pink lemonade, one with prosecco, the other with vodka.




Both high and low cocktail tables are scattered around the lower deck, the latter to accommodate children and guests in wheelchairs or ECVs. There is also a table with some desserts, and even more can be found on the upper deck.


Tables are loaded with desserts made by and themed to the resorts and theme park that encircle your cruise route. They're a departure from the usual Disney dessert party fare, showing a bit of whimsy and imagination. You have:

"The Grand" Key Lime Tart from the Grand Floridian...


Contemporary "Traditional with a Twist" Spiced Flourless Chocolate Cake...


Polynesian De-constructed Pineapple Upside Down Cake (that's it in the middle; sorry, didn't get a photo of it on its own)...


"Main Street" Mickey Balloon Tarts in a variety of flavors...


Mini "Firework" Cupcakes with a Pop...



No Sugar Added Florida Mango Panna Cotta...


and the showstopper -- at least it was to me: Cinderella's Sugar Slipper with Orange Financier (which is a ...



How beautiful are those slippers? I wanted to try one on, they were so perfect. They are pure sugar, though, so while you COULD eat them, you really wouldn't want to. Such a shame.

A nice inclusion on the buffet is the Fruit, Cheese and Cracker spread, for those who may prefer a little less sugar that late at night...


The ferry slowly cruises past the Magic Kingdom resorts for about an hour, allowing you plenty of time to take in the beauty of the illuminated grounds while sampling all the sweets. Trays are replenished frequently -- in fact, I never saw a tray less than half-full at any point during the evening. Periodically cast members circulate with other treats, such as Mickey bars and ice cream sandwiches. There's definitely no skimping and no shortage of treats on offer.

Shortly before fireworks time, the boat "weighs anchor" at the Magic Kingdom, so that you're positioned right in front of Cinderella Castle. (We noticed that we were also right in front of the new bungalows at the Polynesian Village Resort -- probably obscuring the view of the guests in those rooms.) As the show begins, I realized that the music and voices I was hearing were not coming from the park, but were being piped in via the boat's sound system so that we could hear everything perfectly.





Once the fireworks conclude, the ferry makes a fairly speedy return to the dock. I didn't check my watch, but others said we were back at the TTC by a little after 9:30 p.m.

As you disembark, cast members offer a tart but refreshing frozen Olaf strawberry-lemonade ice pop. Certainly made me pucker, but was a nice way to cleanse the palate after all that sugar!


The price for the cruise is $99 for adults, $69 for ages 3 to 9, including tax and gratuity. While the desserts and beverages are plentiful, I have to say I think that is a little steep, especially for children who probably shouldn't be eating $70 worth of sugary snacks right before bedtime. Having said that, though, it is a fairly exclusive event -- a limited number of guests, unlimited desserts and beverages (even alcoholic ones), and a terrific view of one of the best fireworks displays I've ever seen. As an added bonus, a cast member told me that on nights when Wishes is performed at 10 p.m., you'll also get to see the Electric Water Pageant as it makes its way around the lagoon. (We noticed it waiting to set off as we were pulling into the TTC dock.) The cruise could be a nice splurge for a birthday or anniversary, for example, or an ideal new thing-to-do for the frequent Disney-goer who has done it all before.

To give you a little more insight to the cruise, here's a video with highlights from the evening:

A few practical notes: As I mentioned earlier, the ferry can accommodate those in wheelchairs and ECVs, but only on the lower deck -- there are only stairs to the upper deck. There are, however, low cocktail tables available, and cast members are more than happy to assist with whatever is needed. Also, some of you regular ferryboat riders might be thinking, "Hey! There are no restrooms on board! That's not good." Rest easy: The General Joe Potter now has two restrooms to accommodate guests.

If you're interested the Ferryboat Wishes dessert cruise, you can make reservations by visiting or by calling 407-WDW-DINE.

(Author's Note: I was an invited media guest of Walt Disney World on this dessert cruise, but this did not affect my review. My opinions are my own.)

September 28, 2015

Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar



There are so many changes happening at Downtown Disney -- er, Disney Springs, I should say -- that it's tough to keep up!

But I was able to get over there the other day to check out the new waterfront lounge, Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar, which opened on Tuesday, September 22.


Themed around a very minor character from the first Indiana Jones movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the new lounge quenches not just your thirst, but your thirst for movie memorabilia. The building, made to resemble an airplane hangar, is supposedly the establishment run by Indiana Jones's pilot Jock. You may remember Jock from an early scene in the film, as not only the pilot who helps Indy flee from the angry natives, but also owns pet snake Reggie.



The lounge has a high ceiling and an airy feel, and the walls are lined with items that hark back to Jock's world-traveling, Indiana Jones-like exploits.



There are even some sly references to other films with a Disney connection, such as Star Wars...


And Marvel's Iron Man...


And what about the drinks? What about the food?

Well, these items are also themed to the Indiana Jones movies, with offerings like "Good Dates," a reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark's poisonous "bad dates." These are yummy sweet dates stuffed with savory goat cheese.


Among the other offerings are also "Lao Che's Revenge" (tasty, spicy-sweet sticky chicken wings), Brody's Brats and Snack of Ra, which is a combo of several African salad and dips, naan and an Ethiopian bread. You could easily make a meal, snacking around this relatively short menu that still manages to offer something for everyone.




The drinks sport names like "Cool-Headed Monkey" and "Bam's Barnstormer" (with its inside-out paper umbrella, known elsewhere as the "Dark and Stormy"). They are colorful and fun, even though as of the day I was there the lounge still didn't have the special souvenir glasses to go along with many of the specialty cocktails.


My one complaint, if there has to be one, is that there is such limited seating indoors. Since it's open seating, this leads to people being forced to hover over tables, waiting for others to finish up. Yes, there is plentiful outdoor seating, including Reggie's boat, an actual boat converted into a seating area off the main dock.


If there's a nice breeze coming off of the water, it is lovely. However, this being Orlando, it might just as easily be hot and humid and/or stormy -- not conducive to having a nice, relaxing drink and a snack.

All in all, I really enjoyed Jock's -- though, I'm not sure how he warranted a place all his own, given his minor role in the Indiana Jones story as we know it. Still, it gives us all a chance to relive the movie memories as we peruse the paraphernalia around the room, and to say, one more time, "Snakes? Why'd it have to be snakes?"

September 22, 2015

D23 Expo 2015: The Magic Behind the Muppets



I realize that D23 EXPO 2015 is old news by now, having taken place more than a month ago already, but I've been saving my write-up of this one panel discussion I attended specifically for this week.

"The Magic Behind the Muppets" was held the first day of the Expo, Friday, August 14, and aside from the "big hall" presentations, it was THE ONE panel discussion I had to see.

Even though I considered myself a bit too old for Sesame Street when it first came out -- I was all of about 9 -- I have to admit that I sneaked a peek now and then when my little sister was watching. And, I couldn't help it, I secretly fell in love with some of those crazy characters, especially Kermit the Frog and that adorable "fuzzy and blue" monster, Grover.

My Muppet Love grew in my late teens and early 20s, when The Muppet Show appeared on the scene. The variety show appealed to adults as well as kids, with corny humor mixed with a bit of anarchy, and featured a range of veteran performers and pop culture celebrities from Ethel Merman to Elton John to Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamil. I didn't miss a show. In fact, after I got married in 1981, my husband and I would race home after work to eat dinner in front of the TV with The Muppet Show syndicated reruns. Evening news, schmews.

So I think you understand why I HAD to see this panel.

The morning of the panel was the first chaotic day of the Expo, so I was a bit later getting into the room than I had planned. I ended up further away from the stage than I would have liked, so most of the photos here are official pictures from Disney, but I was there and that's what mattered!

The session was hosted by Entertainment Weekly's Marc Snetiker, who, judging from the grin on his face, was as pleased to be there as I was. One by one, he introduced the panelists, whose names are probably already familiar to you if you're also a Muppet fan:

Dave Goelz, the elder statesman of the group, who started working with Muppet creator Jim Henson in 1973 and is best-known for his work as the Great Gonzo (but he's also Bunsen Honeydew and Beauregard the bear)...


Steve Whitmire, a part of the organization since 1978; he took over Kermit the Frog when creator Jim Henson died in 1990 and is also Rizzo the Rat...


Bill Barretta, who voices one of my all-time favorites, Pepe the King Prawn (he's not a shrimp, OK?) and Rowlf the Dog, amongst others, has been with The Muppets since 1991...


Eric Jacobson, with The Muppets since 2001, is now many of the characters created by Frank Oz, such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Sam Eagle...


... and Matt Vogel, a relative newcomer to the Muppets (since 2007), the voice behind more recent characters like Constantine, Uncle Deadly and Robin the little frog.


The camaraderie among this group was evident from the moment they took their seats. Through light-hearted anecdotes seasoned liberally with laughter, they related past Muppeting mayhem and answered questions from the audience both as themselves and along with their fabric and foam alter egos.

It soon became clear in moment like those illustrated in the video below that "The Magic Behind the Muppets" was the chemistry among the people tasked with making that magic.

Besides just giving fans a chance to gawk at these Muppet Men, one of the reasons for this panel was to promote the next chapter in the Muppets story -- a new ABC-TV show debuting this Tuesday night, September 22, at 8 p.m. After showing an in-depth, not to mention hilarious, trailer for the show, the men talked about its premise and what it has been like to work on this project.

Done in the "mock-doc" style of programs like ABC's "Modern Family," which interjects "private" interviews with the main characters into the running narrative, the show is very contemporary and set in the present day. Presented as a show-within-a-show, Miss Piggy has her own late-night television show and Kermit is her producer.

According to Barretta, Kermit has made only one mistake -- he has hired all of his friends to work for him. As a result, familiar faces populate the series. There's Pepe as one of Miss Piggy's writers, while skittish Beaker is handling props. The Swedish Chef is, naturally, in charge of the food (Craft Services), the Electric Mayhem performs as the show's band, and prim and proper Sam Eagle censors everyone in his role of Standards and Practices. Rowlf the dog operates the tavern across the street where everyone congregates after work.

"We are getting a chance to see what happens backstage after we call 'Cut!'" Barretta said. "We're focusing on the characters in their world."

"There's a real depth to the characters that we haven't seen before," Whitmire added, crediting the "very clever writers" that they have working on the scripts.

"The time feels right now," Jacobson noted. "And I'm so excited. I don't think I've ever been so excited about a project before."

Goelz eagerly agreed. "I don't think I've had this feeling since I worked on Fraggle Rock [a mid-1980s children's live-action series that featured Muppets called Fraggles]."

One of the things contributing to the Muppeteers' excitement is the way they have been able to shake things up a bit in this new incarnation of the show. Those of you who follow celebrity news will know that Kermit and Miss Piggy are no longer a romantic item -- a story that made headlines in the real tabloid press. Kermit even posted about it on his Facebook page:

After careful thought, thoughtful consideration and considerable squabbling, Miss Piggy and I made the difficult...

Posted by Kermit the Frog on Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Cue the melodramatic tension! This is bound to lead to some interesting storylines on the show and has allowed the writers to play with what the public thinks it knows about these beloved characters.

"Even the most casual fans have treated this like a real break-up," Whitmire laughed. "But I think it's good for the frog."

"We’re always learning,” Goelz added. “Every day we like to surprise each other with new aspects of the characters.”

After fielding questions from fans, the Muppeteers treated the crowd to a "behind-the-scenes" look at what it takes to make a Muppet scene. Six lucky volunteers were brought up to try their hand at operating their own Muppet.

Taking two recruits at a time, Whitmire demonstrated the proper way to the hold the Muppet (with arm fully extended overhead) and the correct way to make the Muppet speak. After a few minutes of practice, the two new Muppeteers had the chance to dance with the masters. Although the exercise was instructive, the results were simply sidesplitting when the group danced to Beyonce's "Single Ladies," followed by Pepe's rather suggestive dance to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."


This latter episode begged the question, "Will the new Muppets TV show be TOO racy?"

"Oh, it will be a little edgy," Whitmire said, "but nothing that parents can’t let their kids watch.”

"We always have worked to amuse ourselves," Goelz explained. "After all, we're stuck there at work all day. That was even true of Sesame Street before me."

"Yes, with love and all due respect to our fans," Whitmire added, "we have always done this work for ourselves. But with this show, I have to say, I am laughing out loud when I read the scripts."

As the program ended after an all-too-short hour, I found myself thinking about how lucky I was to have been in that room to see those talents at work first-hand. That's the amazing thing about the D23 Expo -- the chances it gives you to get a glimpse into creative worlds that have had such a huge impact on you throughout the years. That's what keeps me coming back every two years and has me looking forward to D23 Expo 2017.

But first, I'm looking forward to this week. The Muppets. ABC. September 22 at 8 p.m. As Fozzie Bear would say: Wocka wocka!

August 30, 2015

Kidani Village Grand Villa Meet and Greet December 4th

Deb's Digest Blog

The final component of our 20th Anniversary Celebration is now finalized.

On December 4, 2015 we will be having a special meet and greet at a Kidani Village Grand Villa!

We are pleased to announce our SPECIAL GUEST is none other than the DREAMFINDER himself, RON SCHNEIDER! He is happy to meet folks and chat. Please note the photo below is from his days as Dreamfinder - he will not be in costume and won't have figment with him. (Scroll to bottom if you wish to order his book for signing.)


In addition to Ron, many of the AllEars Team and Mouse Fan Travel team will be in attendance (including Deb Wills, Deb Koma and Beci Mahnken to name a few). We will have a pin trading board, AllEars Trading Cards - including 2 new releases, and door prizes!


This link will take you to the ticket form. There is no charge for tickets but we want to manage how many folks are in the villa at any given time, so you must register for the event.

We will have water and light snacks. Please do not bring food or beverages into the villa. Also, no strollers in the villa. Please note that children must stay with parents the entire time.

We will not know the villa location until we check in. Specific information on how to find us will be provided approximately 2 weeks before the gathering.

Our Saturday Evening, December 5th, Signature Event at Epcot is sold out, but we are accepting Wait List Names.

On Sunday we will have a Meet and Greet in the Magic Kingdom from 10-11:30am. Come meet members of the AllEars and MouseFanTravel teams. Grab some coffee and pastry and head on over to the Tomorrowland Terrace. AllEars Trading Cards, lanyards and more!!!
Here is the Facebook Link to the event.

We look forward to seeing many of you in December!!!!

Here are the Amazon links to Ron's book if you would like to purchase it for him to sign!

We'll see YOU real soon!

August 13, 2015

D23 EXPO 2015: Preview Day Highlights



The D23 EXPO 2015 hasn't even officially begun and I am already exhausted!

After attending the previous three D23 Expos as a member of the media or as a "private citizen," I am going to this year's event with what is known as the Sorcerer Pass. This is part of a special package that comes with a number exclusive benefits (and a big price tag), among them the opportunity to get a sneak preview of a lot of the Expo before it officially opens tomorrow, August 14.

After obtaining my special Sorcerer welcome package first thing this morning, I spent the day taking advantage of all the previews that were offered. I thought I'd share some of the highlights with you.

One of the main benefits of the Sorcerer Pass is early access to the merchandise. Today Sorcerers were able to poke around in the three main Disney shops at the Expo: The Dream Store (D23 EXPO 2015-themed official merchandise and other specialty items from Disney Theme Park Merchandise), the Disney Store and Mickey's of Glendale (Walt Disney Imagineering exclusive merchandise). I'm not usually much of a shopper, but when the goods are this special, I found that I couldn't resist. You've probably seen a lot of the merchandise on other blogs already, but to give you an idea of what's available.

From the Dream Store:





From The Disney Store:



In Mickey's of Glendale:


OK, I admit it. I actually enjoyed shopping a little bit today and succumbed. I bought those last two shirts for myself. And maybe I got a few Star Wars-related things in the Dream Store -- I mean, how could I resist that adorable droid R4-D23 with its cute little Sorcerer's Hat? And maybe a Pandora charm found its way into my shopping bag as well. I couldn't help myself. But I think that's what the Expo does to you -- when you're surrounded by so much cool Disney merchandise, what's a die-hard Disney fan to do?

Another one of the perks of being a Sorcerer guest, is a sneak preview of the Expo show floor and the Disney Parks and Resort pavilion before the grand opening. For me, these looks behind the scenes were priceless.

Early in the day, we were shown around the floor, just to give us an idea of the lay of the land. No photos were allowed during this glimpse "backstage," as things were still very much in process -- forklifts carrying pallets of boxes and rolls of new carpeting, cherry-pickers lifting workers up to adjust displays, designers ripping fabric to drape around exhibits... it was such a beehive of activity and you could almost see things coming together as you stood and watched. The excitement was building!

But the real treat came later in the day, when we were taken for a special advance viewing of the Parks and Resorts pavilion.

SPOILER AHEAD -- if you're going to the Expo and want to be surprised as to what's on exhibit, read no further!

The first section of the pavilion is dedicated to the new area of Disney's Animal Kingdom that is being developed based on the film AVATAR. We were introduced to the exhibit with a film from "Alpha Centauri Expeditions" (ACE for short), the fictitious travel company that will transport guests to another world -- the world of Pandora. If you've seen the film AVATAR you'll be familiar with the sights shown in this short video (watch for the special cameo appearance of Imagineer Joe Rohde, responsible not only for this project but also Animal Kingdom, Disney's Aulani resort in Hawaii and so much more). The video gives big hints about the types of attractions guests will be able to experience when this new section of Disney's Animal Kingdom opens -- in 2017! Who can wait that long?

Further into the pavilion, we saw a model of Pandora, with cast members there to answer our questions.



They confirmed that among the attractions guests will be able to ride a banshee around floating mountains. There were also models of creatures and artifacts from Pandora, as well concept art.




As we exited the exhibit, we found a fun photo op -- a chance to pose with a striking bust of a Navi, one of the blue-skinned natives of Pandora. I was lucky enough to be joined in my photo op by the aforementioned Joe Rohde, who just happened to be entering the area when I popped back in for a quick second look.


The other major area of the Parks and Resorts pavilion focuses on Shanghai Disneyland. As the opening date for this new Asian Disney resort nears (2016 is right around the corner), more and more information has been released, but seeing the models, cast member costumes, artwork and even concept videos in person was quite interesting.







Every area of the new Shanghai resort was represented, from pirate-themed Treasure Cove to Gardens of Imagination, not forgetting the Disneytown shopping district and the Toy Story Hotel. Most exciting for me was learning more about Shanghai's Tomorrowland, which will feature a new ride called TRON Lightcycle Power Run, a coaster-style attraction where you will board a train that looks straight out of Disney's groundbreaking TRON films. We captured a short video of the exhibit here:

Coaster fan that I am, I hope that I'll be able to ride this attraction some day -- truly looks amazing!

And although it's an overused word, that's how most of today was -- amazing. All the little sneak peeks and behind the scenes glimpses that we got today did little more than whet my appetite for what's to come the next few days.

If you're curious to see what I see, follow me on twitter @dmk_allears and on Instagram @dcdeb52. And, if the internet gods smile on me -- I hope to also broadcast a Periscope or two -- you'll find those through my Twitter account as well. Hope you'll tag along with me as I explore!

August 10, 2015

2015 D23 Expo! Follow Along!

The D23 Expo begins in a few short days. Four members of the AllEars team will be in attendance, Deb Wills, Deb Koma, Kristin Ford, and Jeanine Yama.

Here's how you can stay in touch following the AllEars team that will be attending!


Twitter @allearsnet or


Twitter @allearsdeb or
Periscope: connect through twitter allearsdeb

Twitter: @dmk_allears or
Periscope: connect through twitter dmk_allears

Twitter: @Kristin_B_Ford or

Twitter: @justjeanine or

And don't forget to say hello and ask for your Free AllEars Trading Cards (while supplies last).


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