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April 28, 2018

There's Still Time to "Party for the Planet" Until May 5!



Each year, Disney's Animal Kingdom celebrates its anniversary on Earth Day, April 22, with a "Party for the Planet," filled with special animal experiences and hands-on activities around the theme park. This year, in observance of Animal Kingdom's 20th anniversary, they've extended the party to a two-week celebration, concluding on May 5.

That means if you're headed to Walt Disney World this coming week, there's still time for you to enjoy all of the many activities that Disney's Animal Kingdom has lined up. Here's an overview of what you may encounter.

Located just to the right after you pass through Animal Kingdom's security, you'll see a special 20th anniversary "photo frame" photo op -- be sure to get your picture taken there to commemorate the day!


There are other photo ops scattered around the park -- look for the PhotoPass photographers and ask them about handheld anniversary-themed props and also about special MagicShots that are available.

Once you enter the park, be sure to pick up the Party for the Planet passport, located near the times guides and park maps. It's a handy little reference (pictured at the top of this blog) to help you keep track of all the various offerings.

As in previous years, Rafiki's Planet Watch (RPW) tends to be the hub of much of the Party for the Planet activity. In this area, you'll find lots of hands-on, interactive experiences for the younger set, as well as numerous animal encounters. Animal "ambassadors" will be exhibiting lots of smaller critters, from reptiles to birds and small mammals, in and around Conservation Station. When I was there, I was lucky enough to see several snakes and a surprisingly tiny screech owl.


Outside of Conservation Station, at the Affection Section, there's the usual petting zoo-like area, with goats, donkeys, pigs, and more, as well as an expanded schedule of up-close "Animal Encounters" on the little stage tucked away on the side. On the hour, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., you'll get to see a variety of small animals up close -- maybe you'll even get to hold one!


(For the record, no, I did NOT hold this opossum! But I did learn a lot about it.)

If you arrive early enough in the day, you might also be able to catch a simple animal medical procedure -- they are performed in the veterinary clinic and you can watch from the big window or overhead monitors. The doctors will answer your questions during the procedures, which are usually suitable even for the squeamish. I have to admit that this is one of my favorite areas in Animal Kingdom. Over the years, I've seen such fascinating (to me, at least) procedures as the neutering of a tiny rat, the removal of scales from a snake's eyes, and a blood draw from a Florida cooter (turtle). I always learn something here, and I think that's one of the most valuable things about Animal Kingdom in general.


There's also face-painting, caricature drawing, character meet-and-greets (Rafiki and Doc McStuffins [above], who is outside the vet clinic) and an Earth Month "Sharing Tree" activity that allows youngsters to decorate a paper leaf with a message about why they love the Earth, which is then added to other leaves on the tree.


The characters, animal demos and medical procedures are part of the normal activities at RPW, but during the Party additional times are scheduled so that it seems there is always something going on.

Also at Rafiki's Planet Watch during the Party for the Planet is a series of talks given by animal care experts who share anecdotes about the individual animals they work with at the park. Called "My Story, A Day in the Life of..." you'll find the talks taking place at a little bench on the right, just after you enter Conservation Station. You might hear a hilarious story from a giraffe handler, or some interesting tidbits from one of the primate keepers -- if you love animals, you'll love to hear their stories.


You might also be interested in a short backstage "sneak peek," for a look at the inner workings of the park. You could visit the Animal Nutrition Center or the Invertebrate Building or one of a few other areas -- just ask at the main information desk when you enter Conservation Station.

You can find out here, also, about A Path Less Traveled, a collection of several experiences designed to give guests a behind-the-scenes look at the park. For $59 person, you can participate in the Caring for Giants elephant program, take a backstage tour of the Veterinary Hospital and Animal Nutrition Center, help perform a purple martin birdhouse nest check and get VIP seating at the nightly show, Rivers of Light. To book one of the remaining spaces (remember, it's just available until May 5), call 407-WDW-PLAY.

But the Party for the Planet isn't just being celebrated at Rafiki's Planet Watch. Around the park, you'll find special 20th anniversary merchandise, from t-shirts and ball caps to limited edition pins and Dooney & Bourke Disney animal print handbags.


There's even a special limited-release banshee, found in the Rookery in Windtraders in Pandora - The World of Avatar. Bathed in the colors of Pandora -- a mossy green and mauve -- this unique toy comes with its own perch and retails for $99.99... if it's not sold out by the time you get there!


You can read more about the 20th anniversary merchandise and where to find it in Kristin Ford's blog HERE.

A lot of the merchandise is, as you might expect, "conservation-minded," such as the reusable tote bag. And don't forget -- if you purchase anything while in Animal Kingdom, make a donation of at least $1 to the Disney Conservation Fund (Disney matches your donation dollar for dollar) and you'll receive this snazzy special edition button. (You can also buy the button outright for a $1 donation.)


Of course, the park is also offering special edibles during the Party for the Planet. I'm not a fan of all these specialty cupcakes with four inches of frosting that have been springing up all over the World, but if you are, you're in luck. There are two to commemorate Animal Kingdom's 20th anniversary -- one featuring the park's iconic Tree of Life, with bright green frosting atop a vanilla base (available at Flame Tree Barbecue and Creature Comforts), the other a chocolate cupcake frosted to resemble our Planet Earth (found in Pizzafari and Restaurantosaurus).


Speaking of Restaurantosaurus, it's there that you'll find another special food item -- a meatless burger by "Impossible Burger" with avocado and tomato.


Nomad Lounge is also serving up a plant-based dish from "Impossible Burger" -- meatless sliders on a brioche bun with tomato chutney and smoked onion, and yucca fries on the side. I didn't try the burger, but I sampled the sliders, which were tasty, though a little on the dry side. The yucca fries, however, were anything but "yuck"-a -- they were, in fact, quite yummy. I hope they find a permanent home on some restaurant's menu.


Nomad's adjoining signature restaurant, Tiffins, also gets in on the anniversary action, featuring a three-course chef's tasting menu at lunchtime (from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) that highlights the cuisines of Africa, Asia and South America. Tiffins is also hosting a series of special four-course dinners with one of the park’s conservation experts, such as Dr. Scott Terrell, Director of Animal & Science Operations for the park. (Cost for these "Tiffins Talks" is $165/person -- as of this writing, the remaining dates still have space available. You can make reservations online at or at 407-WDW-DINE.)

In addition to the limited-time offerings of the Party for the Planet, the 20th anniversary of Animal Kingdom saw the launch of a few new regular attractions that are definitely worth making time for.

Pandora - The World of Avatar introduced the Pandora Conservation Initiative's Utility Suit. This 10-foot-tall mechanical suit is operated by a human pilot who interacts with guests, explaining the flora and fauna of the land while delivering an ecological message about taking care of our planet. If you're familiar with the original AVATAR movie, you'll recognize that the Utility Suit is inspired by its Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) suits of power armor.


You'll find the Utility Suit and its pilot across from Satu'li Canteen periodically throughout the day, and I think it's well worth a few minutes of your time. The size of the suit is impressive, and the pilot -- at least the one I saw -- was very entertaining. He just needs to find a way to get the crowd to back away from him a bit and let him show off how he can walk and move a little more.

Over in Asia, there's the replacement for the Flights of Wonder bird show, which closed at the end of last year. I always enjoyed Flights of Wonder and, fortunately, UP! A Great Bird Adventure borrows heavily from its predecessor. At just under 30 minutes, the new show eliminates the rather tired "Guano Joe" tour guide element, and replaces it with healthy doses of the characters Wilderness Explorer Russell and his talking dog Dug from the film Disney-Pixar film UP. Their appearances are interspersed with segments featuring about 15 species of birds from North and South America, Africa, and India exhibiting natural behaviors.



If, like me, you were a fan of the old show, you'll be happy to note that some familiar avian faces return like Frasier (the Crowned) Crane, Miles the Trumpeter Hornbill -- even the stately bald eagle makes a brief appearance at the end of the show.

(Kristin Ford also reviewed the new show in her blog HERE.)

Oh, and speaking of Wilderness Explorers reminds me -- if your kids want to participate in the Wilderness Explorer activity, there's a special Party for the Planet merit badge available at the Discovery Island HQ. As you continue exploring the park, you can find exclusive Wilderness Explorer Party for the Planet activities and merit badges in Asia, Rafiki's Planet Watch and Upcountry Landing, too.


I guess you can tell that I'm rather partial to Disney's Animal Kingdom -- and that's even when the Party for the Planet isn't going on. But when it is, I really find so much to do and see there, truly I think there's something to appeal to everyone.

You can see it all and Party for the Planet yourself there now through next Saturday, May 5.

DISCLAIMER: I was a media guest invited by Walt Disney World to attend the Earth Day festivities on April 22, but my opinions are my own.

March 21, 2018

A Stroll Down Memory Lane... Magic Kingdom 1973


Recently, my husband and I did some home renovations, which led us to clearing out a lot of closets and throwing out a lot of old junk. Wow, it's amazing what you accumulate after you've lived somewhere for 25 years!

In the midst of Operation: Purge, my husband decided it was time to finally convert all of our old 35mm slides into digital scans. He went online, found a company that he thought sounded like a good bet, then packed up and shipped off 3,000 (yes, I said 3,000!) slides to this company. Within several weeks, they had converted all our slides to digital, and we were able to see them online. A few weeks later, they returned the slides to us, along with five CDs chock full of our old and precious memories. It really was a worthwhile process. Now if only the packrat in me would allow me to throw out the physical slides!

In any case, amongst all those scanned images were many Disney memories, dating back to my husband's first trip to Walt Disney World in November 1973. He was just 14 and his class went on a school trip ostensibly to visit Cape Canaveral. Unfortunately, it rained the day they planned to visit, so they ended up spending a day at that new amusement park over Orlando way... I thought it would be fun to share some of his photos from that trip, to reminisce over things that aren't there any more, and laugh (or cry) over how things have changed.

Take a look at the Contemporary. What a difference 45 years makes!


They've kept the front of Magic Kingdom pretty much the same, though.


Of course, these topiaries in the front of the park are long gone. They were placed there originally to entertain guests coming over to the Magic Kingdom via the monorail, when there still wasn't that much to look at. (And if, like me, you don't remember ever seeing these, you might want to read more about them in this AllEars® feature by Jim Korkis.)



Main Street USA and the Castle have changed some.




I think the view toward the Haunted Mansion is about the same as it was -- well, OK, the trees have gotten way bigger.


We'll pause for a moment to mourn the loss of the Nautilus and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (closed in 1994) ... *sigh*



And the Mike Fink Keelboats (closed in 1997, I think) ...


And the Skyway (closed in late '99) ...


But at least we still have the fort on Tom Sawyer Island (even though it's undergone a name-change)!


And the Riverboat!


Is this the Swiss Family Treehouse? It's so dark, it's hard to tell and my husband can't recall, but I guess it must be.


We have Double Dumbos now, so that's a definite improvement... for some Disney-goers, at least!


And I think we can all agree that Pluto looks much better today without those scary eyebrows!


Sadly, these are all the photos he took. I wish we had more, but he was only 14, after all, and spent more time riding rides than taking photos.

But hang on a minute... what do I see here? Scans of our family trips from the 1990s and early 2000s? Well, they'll have to wait for when I have time to take another stroll down Memory Lane...

December 17, 2017

Anyone CAN COOK: Cheddar Cheese Soup!


by Joan L. Feder
AllEars.Net Staff Writer

As Chef Gusteau says in the Disney-Pixar film "Ratatouille," “anyone can cook”, and AllEars would like to help you recreate some of your favorite Disney foods at home. Now that winter weather is upon us, what better way to begin than with one of the most popular Walt Disney World recipes there is? This Cheddar Cheese Soup started out on the menu at the Canada pavilion’s Le Cellier Steakhouse, and has been served there and during Epcot's Food & Wine Festival for the better part of two decades. It has been modified by Disney chefs over the years, but it is still a fan favorite.


While I am not a chef, I am an enthusiastic home cook and foodie; here are some tips that I’ve found helpful over the years. First, ALWAYS read any recipe all the way through before you begin. Next is something that the French call “mise en place”, which means everything in its place. It is more than just gathering the ingredients, it is doing all your prep work before you start cooking. Measure your ingredients, chop your veggies, grate the cheese; I even line the ingredients up in the order I need to add them. It makes even complicated recipes easier to master.


Now, on to the soup! Start by cooking the bacon over medium heat in a Dutch oven or large pot (this one is 4½ quarts). Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until lightly browned. Tip: Instead of chopping the slippery bacon, I like to cut it into the pan using my “food only” kitchen shears.


Add the butter, celery and onion, and cook for about 5 more minutes until the onion softens and starts getting translucent.


Add the flour and cook for about 4 minutes, stirring constantly. It will get very thick and gloppy, but don’t panic. Then whisk in the chicken stock (I use low- or no-sodium stock so I can control the saltiness) and bring it to a boil for 1 minute. Reduce the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes more, stirring occasionally.



Add the milk and keep simmering for 15 minutes. It is important to do this gently, you do not want to boil the milk, or it could burn/stick. Low and slow are the keys here.


Remove from heat and add the cheese, and the Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces, stirring until the cheese melts and the soup is smooth. Stir in the warm beer. Add salt and pepper to taste. You can thin the soup with warm milk if it seems too thick.


Garnish with chopped chives, and enjoy your edible visit to Canada!


Epcot’s Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup
Servings: 10
Total Time: 60 minutes

½ pound of bacon, cut into ½ inch pieces
1 medium red onion, diced into ¼ inch pieces
3 celery stalks, diced into ¼ inch pieces
4 tablespoons of butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken stock
4 cups whole milk
1 pound grated white cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
1 cup warm beer
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Chopped chives to garnish

Cook the bacon for about 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring often, until lightly browned.

Add the butter, celery and onion, and cook for about 5 minutes until the onion softens.

Add the flour and cook for 4 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the chicken stock and bring it to a boil for 1 minute. Reduce the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes more, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the milk, and simmer for 15 minutes. Do not boil after adding milk.

Take the pot off the heat, and add the cheese, and the Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces, stirring until the cheese melts and the soup is smooth. Stir in the warm beer. Add salt and pepper to taste. You can thin the soup with warm milk if it seems too thick.

Serve hot and garnished with chopped chives.

November 1, 2017

AllEars Newsletter Changes


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If you subscribe to the AllEars® and/or the Ears the Deal™ newsletters, you may know that they are distributed via an email service. Until recently, we used a service called MailerMailer. A few months ago, however, MailerMailer was acquired by a company called Campaigner, and as of last week our email lists have been migrated to this new service. With this change, you may notice some differences in how our newsletter emails come to you, so we thought we'd let you know what to expect.

First off, the emails will still come from our email address: If you haven't already, please be sure to put that email address, as well as the domain, into your "always accepted" or "safe" list of senders so that our mailings aren't blocked or sent to your spam/junk folder.

The overall appearance of the newsletter should be unchanged, however, we will only be sending the newsletter out in HTML, not in plain text. If this is an issue for you, and you cannot see the newsletters in HTML, please drop us a note using our feedback form and we'll work something out.

Way at the bottom of each newsletter email, in the lower left corner, you'll find two personalized links, designed to make it easy for you to change your email address, your preferences, or even to -- gasp! -- unsubscribe. If you click on either of the links, you will be taken to the website, where you can update your email preferences. (But we hope you don't want to unsubscribe!)


Beyond that, we think that this change should be a fairly smooth one for you. You can read over our newsletter FAQ for additional details about our publications, and as always if you have any questions about anything, feel free to write to us using our feedback form and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

Thanks so much for reading along with us! We hope to continue sprinkling a little pixie dust in your email inbox for many more years to come!

August 24, 2017

Updates to My Disney Experience


Have you opened your My Disney Experience App lately? I hadn't for a few days, but when I did this morning -- lo and behold! I was greeted with a number of enhancements that will make the app even more useful than it already was.

One of the new notifications told me that I am now able to renew my annual pass right there using the app.


Thankfully, I don't have to worry about that for... well, for 356 days, the app tells me, as you can see in the screenshot below. (Although I'm not sure about that math...)


Did it always tell you the days remaining, by the way? I've never noticed that before. Am I that unobservant? Don't answer that -- rhetorical question.

Anyhow... I also see that I can now keep track of my Disney Resort Hotel purchases.


I have to say that this is a really good addition. I'm not really a shopper, but once you tie your credit card to your MDE account, that darn MagicBand makes it so easy to spend money. "Yeah, I'm a bit hungry -- I need a snack." Touch the MagicBand to a touchpoint and BOOP! Mickey ice cream bar! "I could go for a cold drink." BOOP! Frozen margarita! "Oh, that's a cute t-shirt!" BOOP! Nifty new t-shirt with a matching one for hubby to go with it. Yeah, it's a good idea for me to have those numbers right there in front of me on the app, reminding me to rein it in a bit.

Finally, and most useful for those of you on the Disney Dining Plan, you can track your DDP usage. The screen clearly shows how many credits you have "spent", and how many you still have available. As you can see, the app will even track how many refillable mugs you have in use.


Probably most importantly, you can quickly determine how many snack credits you have yet to use. This can really help you maximize the Dining Plan. No more panicking on your last day because you suddenly discover that you have to use six snack credits before you leave Disney property in an hour, or you lose them. And best of all, no need to collect crumpled paper receipts in your purse or pocket like a packrat, just so you can keep track of your so-called "entitlements." Just a flip through the app and you know what's what. Knowledge is power!

These latest updates, combined with the recent expansion of the Mobile Food and Beverage Order function, really make the app a handy tool before and DURING your vacation, and I'm looking forward to trying them out on my next Disney vacation, which is in... let's see what the app says.

34 DAYS! Hurray! See you then!

July 15, 2017

2017 Epcot Food and Wine Festival Preview, Part 2



The 22nd Annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is running 75 days this year, starting on August 31 and carrying on until November 13. Booking for the festival's premium experiences starts on July 20 (or July 18 for certain guests). This weekend saw not one but two previews for this culinary extravaganza -- the Media Preview, followed by annual Tables in Wonderland-hosted preview event.

Lucky me, I was able to attend both! Here's my recap of what I learned at the Tables in Wonderland event. (You can find my thoughts on the media preview HERE.)

First things first -- something all of you who plan to visit during the festival this year should know. While booking for the special dining experiences (Party for the Senses, Signature Dining, culinary demos/beverage seminars, etc.) opens to the general public at 7 a.m. (Eastern) on July 20, EARLY BOOKING opens for select "affinity" groups on July 18! On that date Annual Passholders, Golden Oak Residents, Tables in Wonderland Members, and DVC members can book ALL events starting at 9 a.m. (Eastern). In addition, the above-mentioned groups can receive a $2 discount on beverage seminars and culinary demonstrations for Monday through Thursday only. Call 407-WDW-FEST (939-3378) to book these events. (Also, some events may be booked online at

Among the other important news items that were announced at this preview, Marianne Hunnel, content development manager for the Food and Wine Festival, revealed that changes were being made to the grand tasting events known as Party for the Senses. This year, Hunnel said, the decor for the parties, which are held in the World Showplace in Epcot, will be updated. In addition, there will be seating for everyone, not just those who pay extra for the premium seating areas. There will be five of these parties over the course of the festival, with two themed evenings: on September 23, chefs from Disney Springs restaurants will be featured, while on October 21, chefs from the Disney Parks will be in the spotlight. The other party dates are October 7 and 14, and November 11.

Signature dining experiences once again extend into the Disney resort hotels, with several returning favorites, such as the Trader Sam's Grog Grotto event. There are also a number of special luncheons and dinners at restaurants around the World, from in-park locations like Tiffins to Morimoto Asia and STK at Disney Springs.

Unfortunately, no additional information was available for the culinary demonstrations, beverage seminars, or Mix It, Make It, Celebrat It! workshops -- that is, we still don't know which chef or winemaker will be appearing on which dates or times. We hope that info becomes available soon, since early booking is just a few days away!

The expanded duration of the festival means that the number of Eat to the Beat Concerts has been increased, too. This year, there will be 11 new acts performing, and a total of 32 acts altogether, a figure that entertainment coordinator Stacey Simmons called "the most ever." Newcomers to the festival include country singer Lauren Alaina, the Hooters, 10,000 Maniacs and personal favorites American Authors (you have to love their song, "Best Day of My Life") and '80s legends Squeeze. (Yes, you will find me as close to the front row as I can get during their shows!)

Notable for its absence this year is the Chase Lounge, which for the past few years has provided an appreciated respite for Disney Chase Visa and Debit Card holders. Also missing this year was any mention of the popular Tasting Sampler package, which allowed you to buy eight sample "coupons" in advance to use at will. Last year's Rockin' Burger Block Party and the Yelloween events are also not on the schedule.

But of course there is more about the food! Culinary director Gregg Hannon said that there will be about 39 new menu items at the marketplaces, in fact. There were quite a few more samples at the Tables in Wonderland preview than I'd had at the media preview, and I made sure I found my way to all of them. To wit:

Seafood Salad with shrimp, bay scallops and mussels will be found in the Spain marketplace.


The Warm Irish Cheddar Cheese and Stout Dip with brown bread was oh so good -- so good that you wanted to drink it like a soup! (And I may or may not have been guilty of that...)


The Chocolate Picante from the Flavors from Fire marketplace is a very rich, dark chocolate mousse with cayenne pepper, chili powder and raspberry dust. Way better than I expected it to be.


Also from that marketplace, the Sweet Pancake with Spicy Chipotle Chicken Sausage and Onion Jam, with Maple Butter Syrup, was a mixed bag. Loved the chicken sausage -- it had just enough kick, and its savoriness contrasted well with the sweet syrup. The pancake, however, was heavy and rather flavorless.


I liked the Banana-Almond Soft-Serve Sundae with berries and crunchy chocolate oats well enough. You'll find in the new Almond Orchard marketplace (sponsored by Blue Diamond Almonds).


It may not photograph that well, but I really enjoyed the Ethiopian Red Lentil Stew with vegan yogurt and quinoa. The entire dish is vegan, I believe, and though it's billed as "spicy" I felt it had just the amount of heat to make it interesting.


A real surprise was the Pomegranate Beer, made by the same folks (Schoffenhofer Hefeweizen) who brought you the popular grapefruit beer you'll find in Epcot's Germany pavilion (and elsewhere, I'm sure). The pretty pink beverage was light and refreshing, even to this non-beer drinker.


It's hard to make some drinks look interesting in photos, but for the sake of comprehensiveness, I will tell you that I also tried the Cucumber and Lemon-Lime "Hard" Water (5% alcohol), the Black Raspberry Mead (ick), the Liberated Pinot Noir (meh), the Sparkling Pineapple Wine, the New Zealand Frozen Wine Cocktail (with Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc), and the refreshing RGB: Citrus Apple Freeze, which will be part of the Light Lab (see Part 1 of this blog) and is supposed to turn colors from Red to Green to Blue (RGB, get it?) depending on the lighting.





So, that's about all we know about the 2017 Epcot Food and Wine Festival for now. For more details on the signature dining events and other dining experiences, be sure to check out our collection of Food and Wine Festival pages, and don't miss our reviews from last year to get an idea of what to expect.

2017 Epcot Food and Wine Festival General Info

Marketplace Menus for 2017 Epcot Food and Wine Festival

Special Ticketed Food and Wine Festival Events

Culinary Demos, Beverage Seminars, Mix It Make It!

2017 Eat to the Beat Concerts Announced!

The Chew Returns to Food and Wine Festival; Launches Sweepstakes

July 14, 2017

2017 Epcot Food and Wine Festival Preview, Part 1



The 22nd Annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is running an unprecedented 75 days this year, starting on August 31 and carrying on until November 13. Booking for the festival's premium experiences starts on July 20 (or July 18 for a few events for certain guests). This weekend sees not one but two previews for this culinary extravaganza -- today was the first, the Media Preview, followed by tomorrow's annual Tables in Wonderland-hosted preview event.

Lucky me, I get to attend both!

I thought I'd share a little of what I learned so far with you -- highlights of what's new, along with photos and other details. Later, after the Tables in Wonderland preview, I'll fill you in on the rest of the currently available information.

Our presentation, which was held in World Showplace, began with remarks from Melissa Valiquette, vice president of Epcot, and Epcot's Executive Chef and culinary director Gregg Hannon.



As they both remarked, this year not only marks the 22nd annual Food and Wine Festival, but coincides with Epcot's 35th anniversary (on October 1). In observance of that, the number 35 comes into play in several ways -- there will be, for example, 35 global marketplaces scattered around Epcot's World Showcase and into Future World. There will also be an exhibit in The Odyssey dedicated to the theme park's 35th that will run the entire length of the festival. By the way, food items in the Odyssey, which houses the Craft Beer marketplace, will be throwbacks to the early days of Epcot. Look for some old favorites to resurface.

Of course the main focus of the festival is the food and beverages!

Based on the sampling of items we were treated to, I have to say I'm really excited about what's new this year. First of all, there are three global marketplaces returning after absences of from the festival for seven or eight years: India, Thailand and Spain. As a big fan of all three cuisines, I can't wait to try everything these food booths will offer. There are also a number of brand new marketplaces, some of which offer dishes that were available at previous festivals (like the returning Nueske's bacon mac and cheese), along with first-time selections.

I sampled a few things already:

From the NEW marketplaces, many of which are "inspired" by ABC's "The Chew", the lifestyle show whose hosts will once again be attending the festival in early October:

Active Eats: This new marketplace features small plates that are designed to boost and sustain your energy level. I had the chance to try the Sweet Avocado Crema with strawberries, yellow cake and a yummy tortilla streusel.


Coastal Eats: If you're a seafood lover, this will perhaps be your first destination at the festival. I tried the Seared Scallops with roasted corn and butterbean succotash, and chipotle butter sauce. I'm a huge scallop fan, and while I thought this dish was very good, it seemed to be missing something. Or maybe my tongue was already burned out from the curry and spices I'd already had with other samples. I'll definitely have to give this one another try.


Flavors from Fire: This marketplace will spotlight foods that have been touched by flame. The item on offer was Smoked Corned Beef with crispy potatoes, pickled onions and blonde ale beer fondue.


The Light Lab: The festival is attempting to be a bit more "family friendly" this year with a number of new activities. (Look for the "smiling strawberry" icon on this year's festival guide maps to find them!) One of these is the Light Lab, which will feature products, both edible and not, that will glow in the dark.


In this little exhibit at the preview, a bartender was demonstrating the beverage T=C2 (squared), which was vanilla tonic water poured over cotton candy. Yes, it was was sweet as it sounds! Also, this beverage shifts colors depending on where you -- in the dark room it appears to be green. Take it out into the light and it's red! This little science experiment is sure to entertain young and old alike. You can see my short Instagram video of it here:

Some of the other tasty treats I tried:

From Spain: the savory Charcuterie in a Cone, with Spanish meats, cheeses and olives and the Sweet Olive Oil Cake with powdered sugar and lemon curd. Loved the charcuterie, loved the cake (would be great with a cup of coffee!), but the lemon curd not so much.



From Thailand: the Red Hot Spicy Thai Curry Beef with rice had a nice kick to it, was one of my favorite "bites" from this preview.


From India: Madras Red Curry with Roasted Cauliflower, Baby Carrots, Chickpeas and basmati rice was another favorite of mine. This vegetarian option wasn't as spicy hot as I was anticipating, but it just burst with flavor.


The popular Hawaii marketplace is returning with a dish that is, surprisingly, truly representative of the Hawaiian culture: Teriyaki-glazed SPAM Hash with pototes, peppers, onions and spicy mayo! It seems that the Aloha State loves its tinned meat and now you can try it in an innovatively prepared way:


The Cheese Studios is also returning, and it has really changed up its trio of cheesy comestibles. There's a profiterole (cream puff) topped with Boursin garlic and herbs cheese and apricot jam; a slightly tangy smoked salmon pinwheel with Boursin shallot and chive cheese; and a strawberry macaron with Boursin pepper cheese. I can't help myself, I love the cheesey goodness!


I didn't get to try many of the alcoholic offerings -- I was working, after all -- but I did manage a few sips of the new Passport 35 Triple Chocolate Milk Stout from the Florida Beer Company. The aroma of chocolate was obvious, and softened the strong stout -- I think it will be a hit.


In addition, there was a good overview of the new festival-themed merchandise that will be available. Here's a quick run-through:

I was able to get prices on most of the items mentioned in the video, as well:

The large Dooney & Bourke bags: $318
The Passholder D&B bag: $308
Crossbody D&B bag: $178
D&B WAllet $158

For the Figment fans, and I know there are lots of you out there:

The adorable Figment ear hat is $24.99.
The new Figment-inspired MagicBand, which has an exclusive theme designed by Dooney & Bourke, is $48.
The Figment t-shirts are $29.99.
Apron: $26.99
Mitt $14.99
Ornament $19.99
Mug: $17.99
Pin: $14.99

As for the Taste Your Way around the World shirts, both men's and women's are $29.99. The design is slightly different for both shirts. New this year, the festival is offering the women's shirts in a few different styles. One is a more fitted shirt, which comes in sizes Small to Extra Large. There are also shirts available in a "curvier" style, in sizes 1X, 2X and 3X.

There's also a new lightweight "hoodie", which features the festival logo on the front and the names of the countries of World Showcase down the sleeves. This was $42.99 and even though it's billed as a "men's" item, is definitely something both genders could (and I'm sure WILL) wear.

Chef Gregg told me that Saturday's Tables in Wonderland preview will have some additional offerings that the media preview didn't offer, so I'm really looking forward to see what else is new. Also, I'm expecting that the TiW event will provide more details about the premium dining experiences that will be on offer, as well as information on booking, packages and more.

So stay tuned for part 2 of my Food and Wine Festival Preview, coming later this weekend!

June 19, 2017

A Little Preview of the Copper Creek Waterside Cabins



We're now just about a month out from the grand opening of the new Copper Creek Villas & Cabins, the 14th Disney Vacation Club development -- and the second at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. While I like the Wilderness Lodge itself well enough, it's never been my favorite resort at Walt Disney World. I must say, though, after touring the new Copper Creek waterside cabins a few weeks ago, I'm very excited to see these new additions to the DVC open their doors.

Situated on the shore of Bay Lake, the 26 new cabins (sometimes referred to as the "Cascade Cabins") continue and build on the Lodge's overall theme of the Pacific Northwest. When the original Villas at Disney's Wilderness Lodge were renamed to Boulder Ridge Villas, the idea was to reflect the late-19th century railroad hotels of the American West’s national parks region, with elements that also connected to Walt Disney's love of trains. The new Copper Creek Villas and Cabins expand on that theme, and are also inspired by the legendary mining and railroad history of the Pacific Northwest. The cabins in particular are meant to represent the lakeside homes of the railroad workers.

Deb Wills had a chance to speak with Imagineer Mitch Mioelli, project manager of Copper Creek, a few months ago after a hard-hat tour of the area while under construction and he shared some of resort's back story here:

The two-bedroom cabins accommodate eight, with a master bedroom with king bed, a second bedroom with a queen bed, and a pull-out sofa in the living area that sleeps two. There is also a single (bunk-size) pull-down bed in the queen bedroom and a twin-size sleeper chair in the living room.

The decor of the cabins is what initially caught my attention. While the original lodge is very rustic and dark with heavy wooden touches and a dark, heavy color scheme to match, the cabins are light, bright, and feel very spacious. This is all achieved using natural products -- granite, stone and wood are all very much present, yet they are used in such a way to create what I felt was a "contemporary rustic" atmosphere.



The moderately open floor plan and subdued blue and light gray colors employed are largely responsible for the bright, airy feeling.


Light granite countertops are reflected in the shiny stainless steel appliances in the kitchen, which flows seamlessly into the cozy living area. The focal point of this space is the stone hearth and gas fireplace, topped with a rough-hewn log mantel. Floor-to-ceiling windows let in copious amounts of sunshine, and afford scenic views of Bay Lake, which is just steps away.



Out on the screened-in, wrap-around porch you'll find a gated hot tub as well as a picnic table overlooking the lake, along with a pleasant surprise. There's a special seating area around the corner, so that you can enjoy that gorgeous living room fireplace from the other side! That's right, it's a two-sided fireplace! I could just imagine sitting out there on a cool night (Florida does sometimes get them!), sipping a cup of hot chocolate, or perhaps something stronger, at the end of long park day.


The bedrooms are equally bright and full of little surprising touches. For one thing, there is so much storage here -- much more than I've seen in other DVC units recently. I'm thinking specifically of the similar waterside Bora Bora Bungalows that opened at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort a few years ago. There are elevated platform beds, which allow for luggage storage underneath, as well as full-sized nightstands and dressers with lots of drawers. The second bedroom has a cushioned window seat, with even more drawer space underneath.




I also love the decor choices that were made, with artwork that simulates a cross-section of an old tree for example, and lamps with rough-cut chunks of stone as their bases. There was even a highly lacquered, actual cross-section hunk of a tree trunk as wall art hung in the entry way. Exposed wooden beams and iron rails accent the rooms, with butcher block and other wooden finishes throughout the kitchen area.

Ken Potrock, SVP and GM Disney Vacation Club and Adventures by Disney, excitedly agreed with me when I spoke to him about how beautiful I found the cabins. "I love the decor in these cabins and the villas, too," he said. "I really love the colors and I love all the natural elements -- the woods, the stone, all those touches."

"I also love the design of these villas and the cabins," Potrock continued. "Our members told us what they wanted and how they used these spaces and we really listened, from storage space to seating in the living areas. They told us they don't want any old hotel, they want themed hotels. I think with Copper Creek especially we've succeeded in meeting their needs AND their wants."

You can take a short video tour of the Copper Creek Cabins here (along with some sneak peeks of the other Copper Creek Villas and Geyser Point Bar and Grill):

The Copper Creek Cascade Cabins will open on July 17, 2017, along with the rest of the Copper Creek Villas, and are available to rent starting at 87 points per night, or at $1,835 per night (plus tax!) for non-DVC members. (Which means someone wealthy has to adopt me so that I can stay there sometime!)

April 17, 2017

A Trip to the Lost and Found



I've been visiting Walt Disney World for the better part of 25 years, and I really thought I had seen it all -- ridden every ride, seen every show, stayed at every resort. But during a recent trip, I discovered an area of the World that I had never been to before. The Lost and Found.

Flash back to a few weeks ago. It was a lovely spring morning in Orlando, and I was so happy to be starting Day 3 of a non-working, get-away weekend at Walt Disney World with my husband.

"Uh oh." I heard him say, as he was looking through his wallet. "I think I lost my credit card."

Ugh. I think we all know that sinking feeling, right? After taking a few minutes to mentally retrace his steps, he determined he must have left it the previous evening at the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge, where we'd had a drink before going inside the restaurant for dinner.

I looked at the time -- not even 9 a.m. I didn't think anyone would be at the restaurant yet, but thought it might be worth trying to call over there. I knew that lost items would eventually be sent to the central Lost and Found location, but because each of the parks has its own Lost and Found at Guest Relations, I hoped that maybe they still had the card there. There was no answer when we called the restaurant's direct line, so we headed over to Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Once there, we split up -- my husband went to the restaurant while I waited in line at Guest Relations. After a few minutes, he rejoined me, empty-handed. When I got to the front of the line a cast member told me we were too late -- all lost items had already been sent on to Central Lost and Found. In fact, they were probably sent after park closing the night before. She gave me their card and told me to call them some time after 1 p.m.

Which of course we did. At the stroke of 1 o'clock my husband called and gave his info to the cast member. After a few tense moments while the cast member looked around, I saw a smile spread over my husband's face. The wayward card had been found! The cast member told my husband to come over no later than 7 p.m. that night to retrieve the card at the Central Lost and Found location at the Transportation and Ticket Center.

Secure in the knowledge that our credit card was secure, we were able to enjoy the rest of the day, soaking up the sunshine and the glorious Epcot Flower and Garden Festival. By the time 5 o'clock rolled around, my husband was anxious to pick up his card.

"I'll go, you don't have to come," he told me. That's when I realized I had no idea where he was going beyond "over to the TTC." "Are you kidding?" I replied. "In the name of Research, I MUST see the Lost and Found center!"

We took the monorail over to the TTC, but weren't sure exactly where to go from there. If there was a sign, we didn't see it, and the card we had said only "on the east side" of the TTC. Which way was east?

We walked toward the trams to the parking lots and looked right, then left.


Aha! Over to the left, my husband spied a sign.


We followed the arrow, and a short distance ahead of us we saw it -- Central Lost and Found.



It's a quiet location, as you might guess -- not a lot of activity over there, and there also didn't seem to be an overabundance of staff. There was a family ahead of us, hoping against hope to find their teenage son's prescription sunglasses that he'd left... well, somewhere. No luck, but they filled out a form hopefully so that they could be contacted if the glasses turned up.

As they left, my husband told the cast member that he was there to claim his credit card and that he'd been told it was in Vault 24. The cast member disappeared to locate the mysterious "vault," which gave me the chance to look around the room.



Very utilitarian, but with cute Disney touches and a spacious, if not plush, waiting area.


Finally, the cast member returned, had my husband show his ID and then sign for the reclaimed article.

So our story had a very happy ending, and I got to explore a previously unknown corner of Walt Disney World, making my knowledge of the Most Magical Place on Earth more nearly complete.

If you discover that you've lost something while vacationing in Walt Disney World, here are a few tips.

-- Try to pinpoint where you lost the item, as best you can. Also try to recall when you last saw the item, or when you think you may have lost it.

-- If you need to file a lost article form, provide as much detail about the item that you can. There are hundreds caps, cameras and pairs of sunglasses lost each week in the World -- the more detail you can provide the better able Lost and Found cast will be able to pair you with your recovered item.

-- Call before you decide to make the trip over to Central Lost and Found, to save yourself a wasted journey. Items lost in the parks the previous day are generally delivered to Lost and Found by 1 p.m.

In general, these are Disney's policies on retaining lost items:

Every Walt Disney World theme park and water park has a lost and found in its Guest Relations office. Most items are kept there for a day.

If you realize later that you've lost something, you'll need to contact Central Lost and Found at 407-824-4245. As I said above, Central Lost and Found is physically located at the Transportation and Ticket Center and is open seven days a week, between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. They can also be reached by mail if you need to contact them once you get home at PO Box 10000, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-1000. Lost and Found keeps valuable items (wallets, purses, credit cards, prescription glasses and cameras) for 90 days. Items of lesser value (sunglasses, hats, toys and clothes) are only held for 30 days.

If you lost an item at a Disney Resort Hotel, it will be turned in to the hotel's Lobby Concierge.

If you've lost something on a Walt Disney World Bus, it will be turned in to the nearest Guest Relations location at a theme park and then delivered to the Lost and Found at the Transportation and Ticket Center within 24 hours.

If you lost something on the Monorails or Magic Kingdom Watercraft, it will be kept on board until the end of the day and then turned in to Lost and Found at the Transportation & Ticket Center.

If you lost something at Disney Springs, it will be turned in to Guest Relations at the Welcome Center in Town Center. After three days, it will be delivered to Lost and Found at the Transportation & Ticket Center.

If you lost something at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex it will be turned in to, and will be kept at, Guest Services there.

And if you lost something on Disney's Magical Express, and it's been lost for less than 30 minutes, contact 866-599-0951. If the item has been lost for more than 30 minutes, you'll have to contact Mears Transportation Group at 407-423-5566.

Let's hope you never have to pay a visit to Central Lost and Found, but, life being what it is, you just may have to some day. No one really WANTS to go there (except someone like me!), but it's nice to know that it IS there if you need it, it's easy to get to, and is very efficiently run.

April 5, 2017

Express Transportation at Walt Disney World Theme Parks



When I first heard about Walt Disney World's new Express Transportation service a few months ago, I was a bit skeptical.

Sure, it sounded good on paper -- travel from theme park to theme park, bypassing main park entrance check-ins and long waits for standard bus transportation, or having to drive and park yourself -- but would people really be willing to PAY for this service?

I finally had the chance to try it out myself and I have to admit I'm a skeptic no more.

When the service was first launched earlier this year, it cost $15 for a single day, or $24 for up to seven consecutive days. One sign that the service has caught on and that people ARE willing to pay? The price has already jumped in just a few short months, to $19/$29 respectively.


So here's how it works:

You can purchase this service at Guest Relations or at the actual Express Transportation check-in area in each of the parks. To be eligible to purchase, though, you must have a valid WDW ticket that has the Park Hopper option. This includes Annual Passes. Note that there are no discounts for children ages 3-9, but children under 3 are free.

Once you've paid up, the option is added to your My Disney Experience account, so that all cast members need to do is scan your MagicBand or RF card before you board.

You check in for the bus service at one of the four Express Transportation locations. As of this writing they are:

-- In Magic Kingdom: near the exit of Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin in Tomorrowland

-- In Epcot: on the east side of Spaceship Earth (actually on your left as you're coming in from the park's main entrance)

-- In Disney's Hollywood Studios: in what they call "Coaster Courtyard," which is behind the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, near the Sunset Showcase

-- In Disney's Animal Kingdom: along the side of the Dawa Bar in Africa (the path that leads down to Festival of the Lion King) NOTE: On the flyer, the location is given as in front of Kilimanjaro Safari, but it had moved to the Dawa Bar location as of my visit last week.

When you check in, tell the cast member which park you are hopping to, and they'll let you know when the next departure is. Each park has its own bus, and they run about every 30 minutes.

A few minutes before departure, a cast member will usher you backstage (remember, no photos allowed in backstage areas!) and you will board the WDW bus to your next park. I had thought perhaps it would be a mini-van or smaller shuttle bus, but nope, it's a regular, full-size bus. On one trip, there were only four other passengers besides me; on another there were eight of us in total.

The bus takes you to your destination and you are greeted by another cast member who guides you through the backstage area and out into the park. No waiting for a bus or the tram to the parking lot, or wandering around looking for your car in the simmering Orlando heat. No driving to and from theme parks. And best of all you completely bypass security bag-checks and long lines at the turnstiles.

What a timesaver! Especially during peak seasons, like this past week with its spring break crowds! My trip from the Studios to Epcot took 17 minutes, from the time I boarded until the time I was walking under Spaceship Earth. I was lucky that I didn't have long to wait for a bus, but even the next day when I was traveling from Animal Kingdom, I only had to wait about 10 minutes before the next bus to Epcot. I felt that it saved me a lot of time and trouble -- plus I had a few minutes to snack on a Mickey pretzel while I waited.


The Express Transportation service starts at 10 a.m. and is supposed to run until the parks close. One of the days I was using it however, I saw this sign, noting that the service ended at 8 p.m. that evening. Be sure to check the closing time if you're planning to use it to shuttle between the parks later at night.


All things considered, I think Express Transportation is a fabulous idea, and I will definitely use the service again when I'm planning a day of multi-park hopping. I think the price is a little steep for families though, since there are no discounts for children -- $76 for one day for a family of four, or $116 for a week? Ouch. On the other hand, if you have room in your budget, it does save you time and hassle, and with a couple little ones in tow, that might make the difference between a pleasant day and... well, an unpleasant one.


Have you tried this new service? Do you think it's worth the money? Let us know in the comments below!

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