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March 1, 2009

The "American Idol Experience" Experience!

by
Jennifer Badcock
AllEars® Guest Blogger

The American Idol Experience is AWESOME!

My husband and I were there the Friday before the Super Bowl. Our plan was to visit three parks that day and we hit the Studios late morning. There was a cast member at the tip board passing out time cards for auditions for the new American Idol Experience, so I took one.

We rode Tower of Terror and Rock'n' Roller Coaster first and actually missed my audition time, but they took me when I returned anyway.

First, you are taken into a small area with a few audition rooms, and the "red room." I auditioned for a "producer" with a song of my choice, a cappella, and was a little surprised when she said she'd like for me to move on to the next audition. I was escorted to the "red room" where the whole experience was explained (it was actually the second or third cast member to explain the process, but it's new and they want to cover the bases).

I signed a couple of forms -- releases, etc. -- and was given a song list and an iPod. The iPod had all the songs from the list with and without vocals so you could choose two songs and practice.

My husband sat with me, offering advice until the room began to fill up with "contestants." It got too loud to hear yourself think with all of us belting out songs, trying to see if we could actually hit all the notes!

In the red room there is a board that lists any songs not available. My guess is that those are the songs the winners of earlier shows are singing so that two people aren't singing the same song at the finale. When you're happy with your two songs (they encourage you along if you spend too much time making your song choices), you wait outside the next audition room until it's your turn. You can hear through the door pretty well, which makes you a little nervous! (The first producer explained that they are only selecting people who will do well in competition. It is not their intent for anyone to be laughed at.)

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In the second audition I was asked to sing my first song choice with the music (and the words on a screen behind the producer, karaoke-style). He then asked me to sing the second song, then bits of the first song again. As I went through part of the first song again he began typing on his computer, and when he turned off the music he switched on a video of Ryan Seacrest who said he couldn't tell me I was going to Hollywood, but I was going to the show. Actually, I don't remember exactly what he said because I was completely shocked to be going anywhere besides on to Epcot (our third planned park of the day)! How many 45-year-old moms get this chance?

So then I was given a return time (about an hour and a half later), which would give me and the two other contestants chosen for that show (an adorable 20-year-old young man touring the country performing at veteran's hospitals, a 30-year-old mom of a 2-year-old, and me) 10 minutes for a makeup person to clean us up a little, 10 minutes with a great "voice coach" who worked on making bits of the song better and on showmanship, and 10 minutes to practice on our own with the iPod again.

We also did a complete run through of the show. It is sooooo much like being on American Idol! The crew is great and make you feel completely comfortable. You sit backstage in an area that feels like you are truly backstage in Hollywood.

We had the female host, and she's not Ryan Seacrest, but it's not really American Idol either. She was great.

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Each contestant had a different intro before his or her performance. Mine was an interview with the host and a clip of my "supporters" -- my husband in the audience and folks in the queue who didn't even know me! One contestant had a video of tips from a true American Idol contestant and the other had video clips of his audition process.

The judges are caricatures of the real judges. Their comments to all three of us were very typical of what Randy, Paula and Simon would say.

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What a ham I am! But being on that stage was so realistic! And... I was dressed for the park -- not a performance!

The Simon-like judge agreed with Paula's comments when responding to my performance, but reminded me that I'm a bit "mature" for this -- duu uuhhh!

The adorable 20-year-old won our round of competition and had the chance to compete in the finale for the chance at an audition for the REAL American Idol.

After a long day of patience on my husband's part and the number 3 best experience of my life (behind marrying him and having my two children) we made it to Epcot for a lovely evening -- all as it should be.

March 5, 2009

Epcot Flower and Garden Festival

DizneyMike's World

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As I traveled through Epcot today I noticed that there is quite a bit of activity in preparation for the upcoming Flower and Garden Festival. The Flower and Garden Festival runs March 18th through May 31st and is not to be missed. Disney does such a wonderful job putting in thousands of beautiful flower and plants. Anyway, here's some pictures of what I saw:

The following pictures are of topiaries that are located in back of Spaceship Earth.

Mickey Topiary

Dancing Birds

Most of the flowerbeds surrounding the small ponds at International Gateway have been planted with bright, beautiful flowers.

Bed of Flowers


A lot of activity is happening near where the rose garden and Tink's play area was located last year.

Crew at work

Donald Topiary

Goofy Topiary

Goofy and Donald Topiary

As you leave the International Gateway and approach Canada you can see more work being done.

Temporary fence near Canada

Another view

The area between France and Morocco has a large wall hiding what they are doing there.

Looking towards Morocco

The area between Germany and heading towards China also has a large wall with work going on behind it.

Looking from Germany

Looking towards Germany

Finally, the Flower Power Concert Series line-up in posted in front of the American Gardens Theatre. This year the concerts are only going to be performed on weekend nights. Attending these concerts is always a highlight for me. I really enjoy them!

Flower Power concerts lineup

Well, that's all for now. As my good friend says "see ya real soon" - DizneyMike

Mike Bachand (aka DizneyMike) is a long time Disney Enthusiasts. Over the years Mike and family made numerous trips down to WDW from their home in Massachusetts. Now Mike and his wife live year round in the Orlando area. He is a Florida Annual Passholder who visits WDW on an average of once a week. Besides his love for WDW, Mike has a large collection of Disney books, figurines and ornaments and is a former Disney Cast Member working as a Concierge at the Contemporary Resort.

March 11, 2009

The Muppets Passholder Speaker Event

Saturday, March 7
by Guest Blogger Sue Van Vleet

On March 7, 2009, Disney's Hollywood Studios held an exclusive Passholder event featuring the Muppets. The original session was scheduled for 3:00pm, but they added an 11:00am event. I attended the 11:00am session. We all met near the entrance to the Backlot Tour and were lead in groups backstage to a theatre. Prior to the speakers we watched a pre-show starring Rowlf and Sam Eagle (I think this was the original pre-show for Muppet*Vision 3D).

The Muppets Passholder Speaker Event

A cast member who specializes in Passholder perks introduced the first guest: Craig Shemin. Mr. Shemin is on the board of directors of the Jim Henson Legacy and was a writer for the Muppet Show (among other things). He began by telling us about the early days of Jim Henson and the Muppets. Then he showed us clips of "Sam and Friends," the first Muppet show, as well as the first national TV appearance by Muppets on the Today Show with Dave Garroway. More clips shown were eight second commercials and the Muppet version of "Glow Worm" through the years.

Mr. Shemin then introduced Dave Goelz, the Muppeteer for Gonzo the Great. He continued with the Muppet stories and showed more clips. One of the clips was from a documentary done during the last season of The Muppet Show that showed the logistics of shooting one number ("In The Navy" starring pigs on a Viking ship). We also saw a blooper reel from a 1990 show shot at Walt Disney World.

Mr. Shemin and Mr. Goelz then took questions from the audience. While I like the Muppets and truly enjoy The Muppet Show - there were some true Muppet fanatics in the audience who were thrilled to be asking questions of Mr. Goelz.

After a few questions from the audience Mr. Goelz brought out the real star of the event - Gonzo. And then Gonzo took some questions as well. We learned a bit about Camilla, his chicken girlfriend and how he travels, among other things.

Another highlight of the event was the introduction of Heather Jenson, one of Jim Henson's daughters. The funniest story she told was about wearing Miss Piggy's clothes during The Muppet Show years.

At the end of the event we were each allowed to have a picture taken with Gonzo and Mr. Goelz. This was another wonderful Passholder event and I'm so glad I was able to attend.

Sue and Gonzo

Sue Van Vleet
St. Augustine, FL
I've been visiting WDW since 1972 and have moved from Iowa to Florida in 1993. Since then I'm able to visit almost whenever I want. I'm an Annual Passholder, DVC member, and I love all things Disney!!

March 12, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Costa Rica

By Erin Foster
March 2009

COSTA RICA TRIP PLANNING

As Disney fans, my family became aware of the Adventures by Disney tours almost immediately after they became available. Exploring the world with our family while being treated to the same great attention to detail and quality of service that we had come to expect from our many visits to Walt Disney World was an opportunity that was just too good to pass up. So for us, it wasn't really a question of if we would eventually taken an Adventures by Disney trip, but rather where and when.

Many of the European trips appealed to me (I love the charm and sophistication of European travel), but after spending many hours reviewing the various tour options, everyone else in my family chose the Costa Rica Path to Pura Vida as their destination of choice. Zip lines! Wild monkeys! I was roundly outvoted, so Costa Rica it was.

There are minimum age limits for all the AbD trips. The minimum for Costa Rica is age four. However, one of headliner activities on the trip, the zip line excursion, has a minimum age of eight, so we knew we wanted to wait until our younger children (twin girls) were at least that old. This was a great decision for us, as you'll see later on. Because of scheduling issues with family commitments, we ended up going on the trip when our twins were nine and our older daughter was 12.

Once we decided we were ready to go, my husband called Adventures by Disney and spoke at length with a representative who answered several questions we had about the accommodations and described all the costs associated with the trip. We were informed that there was an early-booking discount available that would give us substantial savings. AbD also told us that they could arrange to book our air transportation for us, but because we had some frequent flyer miles available, we decided to get our flights on our own. We were lucky enough to secure seats on one of the few non-stop flights from the New York area to Costa Rica.

Our biggest decision about our trip was how to pay for it. We are Disney Vacation Club members and could have used our DVC points to cover some or all of the trip. However, in doing the math we figured out that because we still wanted to spend good deal of vacation time at Walt Disney World, our points would work harder for us if we used them at WDW rather than with Adventures by Disney. We decided to pay for the trip with cash. We would later learn that three of the other families on our trip were also DVC members. They all chose to use points for the trip, so this is something for DVC members consider carefully based on their unique travel patterns and financial situation.

Once the trip was booked and we made our deposit, an Adventures by Disney agent called us to confirm our flight information and to make sure that our passports were in order. One aspect of travel to Costa Rica that AbD does not discuss is the medical aspect of travel to Central America. We mentioned our trip to our personal physician who recommend several preventative vaccinations. However, many other members of our tour group did not take any medical precautions and all were absolutely fine. This is something you may want to discuss with your own doctor.

A few months before the trip, we received an update call about the trip from AbD. There had been an earthquake in Costa Rica that impacted one of the advertised activities for the trip. The La Paz Waterfall Gardens that were described in the AbD literature had become inaccessible. The representative explained that an alternative activity, a tour of the Espiritu Santo coffee farm, was being arranged. The rep spent a good deal of time on the phone answering our questions. I have to say that as a serious coffee addict, I was actually quite excited about the change in the itinerary.

The next time we heard from AbD was about a month before the trip. Two large boxes arrived from UPS. They contained welcome packets with luggage tags, some travel instructions, a suggested packing list, and some gifts: sturdy AbD messenger bags for myself, my husband, and my older daughter and colorful shoulder packs for the twins. The bags were a great surprise and ended up working well as personal carry-ons for the plane ride.

I spent the week before the trip packing a big suitcase for each of us. As it turns out I, as usual, over packed. I brought lots of jeans and sweatshirts, thinking they would be needed in the evenings. I also brought a few dressy outfits for each of us. None of this was necessary as the entire trip was warm and casual. The only thing I under packed was sunscreen. I had brought two large bottles with us, but these were gone by the 4th day of the trip. We were able to buy more at our last hotel, but I would certainly recommend that you bring gobs of sunscreen with you.

Then after many months of waiting for trip to finally arrive, we were off "¦

To be continued ...

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Erin Foster lives with her husband and three daughters just outside New York City. She has been to Walt Disney World at least 30 times. In late 2007, Erin was selected to be part of the first ever Walt Disney World Moms Panel. Since then she has answered nearly 4,000 questions from guests about every aspect of Disney World travel at disneyworldmoms.com. She is not a Disney employee and her postings here, there, and everywhere are her own and do not represent the positions or opinions of the Disney Company. Costa Rica, the Path to Pura Vida, is her first Adventures by Disney trip.

March 13, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Costa Rica Part 2

By Erin Foster
March 2009

My family and I recently returned from a week-long Adventures by Disney excursion to Costa Rica, the Path to Pura Vida. As a longtime Disney park-goer, I was well aware of the level of the attention to detail and family friendly service Disney provides. We chose Adventures by Disney because we wanted to have that level of service while branching out to show our children (three girls ages 12, 9, and 9) a bit more of the world. The trip exceeded even our very high expectations.

Day One:

We awoke predawn and after a relatively quick four and a half hour direct flight from frigid Newark, we arrived at sunny Juan Santamaria airport in San Jose Costa Rica. Right from the start we were met with great Disney service. A representative holding a sign with our name on it met us as we exited the plane. She pointed us to the baggage claim and immigration, both of which were finished within 15 minutes. Another representative then greeted us and immediately put us into a comfortable, air-conditioned van for the 20-minute ride to the Hotel Intercontinental.

Our two Adventure Guides for the week, Mike and Bernal, met us at the hotel entrance. Much more about them later, but suffice it to say that they were two of the warmest, most charming individuals you'll ever meet. Bernal handed us cool, fruity drinks and told my daughters about our itinerary, while Mike helped my husband Jeff with the check-in. Before I knew it, we were in two connecting rooms overlooking the hotel pool.

That first afternoon we were on our own. We dined at one of the Interncontinental's world-class restaurants, Factory Steak and Lobster. While we waited for our entrees, our server brought us complimentary house-made made empanadas. Yummy! The steaks, salmon, and fresh corn we ordered did not disappoint.

After lunch we went for a stroll to the nearby Multiplaza Escazu, the largest mall in Costa Rica. My kids had never been to a non-English-speaking country before, so even the familiar stores (Benneton, Hallmark) seemed interesting with Spanish signage. Their favorite spot was a large toy store where they enjoyed looking at Hannah Montana merchandise in Spanish.

When returned to our room, there were gifts for us from Disney, two nice tote bags with binoculars, and some books for the kids. The girls swam at the hotel in the evening and we all turned in early to get rested up for our adventure.

Day Two:

We packed our bags and left them in the room for the hotel staff to transport to our Mercedes Benz coach bus that would be our main mode of transport for the week. Then, we headed downstairs to a private dining room where we would have breakfast and meet the other members of our tour group.

Breakfast was typical of the morning meals we would have every day: a buffet with eggs, pastries, bacon, cereal, fruit and yogurt, along with ever-present rice and beans and plantains. Our guide Mike introduced me to the national sauce of Costa Rica, Lizano. This all-purposed flavoring is everywhere and is used as a topping for eggs, meat, rice, and just about anything else you can think of.

There were 27 members of our tour group. Four couples with no children, a family with 11-year-old twin boys, a family with an 11 year-old girl, a family with a 6 and 8 year old girls, a couple with their 13 year old granddaughter, and our family of 5. The mix of adults and children balanced well and we were all fast friends.

Our first stop on the tour was to have been the La Paz Waterfall and butterfly gardens. However, an earthquake a few months earlier had made access to that area difficult, so we first made our way, via bus, to the Espiritu Santo coffee plantation tour in Naranjo (Disney had informed us of the switch several weeks before our departure.)

Our guide Bernal, a Costa Rican native, had grown up on a coffee farm so he was able to give us an entertaining and informative history of coffee in Costa Rica on the bus ride to the tour. We were greeted at Espiritu Santo by samples of four different coffee roasts grown just steps away from where we were standing. Even the children had fun tasting the different intensities of coffee ranging, from very mild to Wake-Up-Right-Now.

Coffee tasting

We then got to see every step of coffee production, from the planting of seedlings, through harvest of the beans (they look like cherries on a bush), cleaning, drying, roasting (23 minutes for a light roast), and packaging. The entire crop of the farm we toured Arabica beans sold exclusively to Starbucks. I have a two-Venti per day Starbucks habit, so when I heard that I felt like the mother ship was calling me home.

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After the coffee tour, we made a brief stop at a park next to the church at Zarcero. This is the site of a fanciful topiary garden filled with larger-than-life stylized birds, lions and other creatures.

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We then made our way through mountainous terrain (many thanks to our patient and skilled driver) to the Hotel Kioro Arenol at the base of the active Arenol volcano. We were immediately shown to our rooms in one of several small outbuildings. These rooms were easily the largest standard hotel rooms I had seen in my life, larger than several apartments I've had over the years. Each room had two queen-sized beds, a large daybed, a spacious sitting area, a writing desk, a bathroom, a separate shower area with a rainshower-style head, plus a full-sized hot tub. Because we were a party of five, we were required to have two rooms. Our connecting accommodations took up the entire first floor of a building. But the best feature of the hotel was the view from the rooms. This was taken while I was sitting on my bed:

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The grounds of the Hotel Kioro were lush with tropical plantings. Other features included two pristine pools, a seven-level hot spring, a small gym and game room, restaurants, and a spa with a menu of services as thick as a phone book. Our package included two free tropical fruit masks, but I we never did get to use them because we were too busy relaxing in the hot springs.

Dinner with the group was in a private dining room in the hotel. Most of the adults chose fresh fish from the menu and there were some typically American choices available for the children. After dinner we were treated to a performance by a native dance troupe and members of the tour were invited to learn some Costa Rica dance moves.

Day Three -- To be continued ... zip lines, rafting, pineapple farm tour, up close and personal with monkeys ...

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Erin Foster lives with her husband and three daughters just outside New York City. She has been to Walt Disney World at least 30 times. In late 2007, Erin was selected to be part of the first ever Walt Disney World Moms Panel. Since then she has answered nearly 4,000 questions from guests about every aspect of Disney World travel at disneyworldmoms.com. She is not a Disney employee and her postings here, there, and everywhere are her own and do not represent the positions or opinions of the Disney Company. Costa Rica, the Path to Pura Vida, is her first Adventures by Disney trip.

March 14, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Costa Rica - Part 3

Day Three:

We started the day with a buffet breakfast at the Hotel Kioro Arenal. Through the panoramic windows, we had breathtaking views of steam and ash boulders being emitted from the top of the volcano. Our Adventure guide Mike told us that there were only a few dozen completely clear and sunny days in the area. We were lucky enough to have two of them.

Our first activity was the zip line excursion at the opposite side of the Arenal volcano. While the bus ride there was not long, we did travel over some unpaved "roads" and I was again grateful that we had a highly skilled driver. Upon arriving at Sky Trek Adventures, we were shown a video about zip lining and given instructions about what the activity would involve.

At this point, we were given the option to zip our way through the rain forest or take a nature walk to see the area's flora and fauna. About half a dozen members of our group opted out of the zip line experience, including a 6-year-old girl who was too young to qualify for zipping (the minimum age was 8), one other child, and a few of the adults.

The nature walkers took off with our guide Bernal who gave them an informative tour that including sightings of sloths, giant butterflies, and countless unusual plant species. The rest of us got suited up with helmets and harnesses and headed off for a Sky Tram ride (picture the old Skyway at the Magic Kingdom) over the jungle to reach the first zip platform.

Riding Sky Tram

Family in harness

Getting hooked on

We had two brief practice zips in which we were taught the proper position to ride (in a tuck, with your back to the ground), how to slow down (open your legs), and what to do if you get stop short of the end platform (turn yourself around, then go hand over hand to pull yourself in). Then we were off for the thrill of a lifetime. Each of the next six zip lines were different, the longest line was 2,500 feet, the highest was 524 feet above the rain forest floor, and the total distance covered was nearly 2.5 miles.

The children were required to ride the lines with Sky Trek guides so that their weight would be enough to propel them across the full distance of the lines. The children were also the first to go over the lines because the guides needed to circle through quickly to assist the maximum number of guests. I don't have words to describe the sensation you get when you see your nine-year-old daughter flying on a thin cable over the jungle at 30+ miles per hour. She was laughing with glee, but I had to choke back a scream.

Before long it was my turn to ride. My harness was clipped on the wire, an attendant gave me a push and all of a sudden I was hurtling through space. The wire buzzed and trees were zooming past. I was afraid of not stopping in time and afraid of stopping too early. And most of all I was wondering what on earth I was doing swaying in the wind over the treetops at automobile speeds. In about a minute, I had made it to the first high platform. My overall impression was, "mmm, I don't really think I need to do that again." But once you decide to take the first line, there's no turning back. Our tour guide Mike acted as cheerleader and therapist and made sure we all were happy as we continued the adventure. The next five lines each got progressively easier and I was finally able to look around while I was flying and enjoy the majesty of Lake Arenal, the volcano, and the lush surroundings. Back on terra firma, I met back up with my kids who were begging for more. They loved every minute of it!

We returned to the hotel for a buffet lunch of chicken, fish, vegetables, and the ever-present rice and beans. Various members of our group spent the next several hours at the hotel napping, swimming, or enjoying the services at the spa.

Hotel Kioro Grounds

In the evening we were transported to the nearby Hidalgo Hot Springs. This multi-tier natural spring had areas that ranged in temperature from well over 100 degrees to a cool 75 degrees. We happily hopped from one pool to another while enjoying a beverage and the company of our tour mates. Surviving the zip lines together was a fabulous opportunity for bonding. Dinner at the springs was steak with tortillas and homemade guacamole.

Day Four:

We started with another breakfast buffet. Rice and beans with Lizano were now as familiar in the morning as Rice Krispies and milk (though those were available too).

Our first stop of the day was the Coriscana Pineapple Plantation, one of the largest in Costa Rica. Here we learned the Costa Rica is the largest pineapple exporter to the US, supplying Dole, Del Monte and other brands. And sure enough, since I've been home, every identified pineapple I've seen has been from Costa Rica.

Our tractor tour of the plantation included a lesson in pineapple production, from planting the tiny buds (they look like soft pink pinecones) to harvesting and packing the ripe fruit.

Pineapple on plant

Pineapple field

Pineapple Harvest

Enjoying Juice

Of course the best part was when our pineapple guide plucked fruit off the plant, hacked off the rind with a machete and then served us slices right there in the field, delicious and juicy. At the end of the tour we were treated to fresh pineapple juice served in hollowed out pineapples, so sweet.

We then continued on the bus to the site of Aventuras del Sarapiqui, for a river rafting experience on the Sarapiqui River. Our hosts provided us with a picnic lunch of tacos with fresh tortillas - one of the tastiest meals of the trip.

The Adventures by Disney materials advertised the rafting experience as being in class 2-3 rapids. Because of the earthquake I mentioned previously, we were unable to experience the section of the river with the class 3 water, so our tour was a more gentle class 1-2 float, with only small sections of white. All the members of our tour from the youngest to the grandparents were easily able to participate.

rafting

My husband was a bit disappointed that we didn't have more water thrills, but I was perfectly happy to use the raft ride as a chance to get a closer look at some of the Costa Rican wildlife. It was thrilling to see a dozen species of birds and hear howler monkeys in the trees. Our raft guide, Mau, beat on his chest like Tarzan and the howlers would mimic him back. After our trip we learned the Mau was the raft guide filmed in the Travel Channel program Disney's Best Kept Secret, if you happen to catch a rerun of that program you can see our jungle friend.

To spice things up a bit the raft guides and our Adventure Guides staged an impromptu cross-raft water gun battle. The splashes were a great way to cool off!

For dinner, each family was on their own. Most of us chose to have a simple dinner from the menu at the hotel restaurant. We finished the evening with a dip in the hot tub in our room. While soaking, we enjoyed an amazing view of the Arenal volcano at night.

Volcano at Night


Day Five:

We left our luggage outside our hotel room at 7:00 a.m. Our bus driver took the bags on a six-hour drive over mountain terrain to our next destination.

Meanwhile, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of, you guessed it, rice and beans (again, other choices were also available). Then we took a quick jaunt to a tiny airstrip where our group piled into two 19-seat prop planes.

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The plane ride was a half-hour hop over the mountains to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica with stunning scenery every moment of the way. We were at our next home, the Hotel Parador, just outside of Quepos. We were greeted by staff with cool washcloths and cold fruit drinks. So refreshing!

Lunch on the terrace was grilled-to-order sandwiches, burgers, chicken, or steak, accompanied by a lovely selection of salads and fruit. Our companions during lunch were a group of giant iguanas, some as big as my arm. Although I'm sure we were not supposed to do this, many in the group (OK, me too) ended up feeding them. Their favorite appeared to be carrot cake, though they actually took lettuce from one of our tour-mate's hand.

Iguana with cake

Iguana with lettuce

After lunch we were shown to our rooms. While the rooms were smaller and less well appointed than those at the Arenal Kioro, they were still perfectly fine and here too the views were incredible.

Hotel Parador view

Hotel Parador view

We had the option to go on a hike in the afternoon, but the entire group opted to relax by the pool. Adventure guide Mike played a spirited game of Marco Polo with the kids, chatted with all the adults, and generally made sure that everyone got a as relaxed as possible.

For dinner, the children were invited to a Junior Adventurers dinner in a private room at the hotel where they munched on pizza and chicken. Mike and Bernal had planned to show them a movie after dinner, but the kids voted to have a mini talent show instead. So our Adventure Guides got to enjoy karaoke and hip-hop performed by my kids. They are my heroes! While that was going on, the adults in the group were downstairs at the Parador restaurant feasting on shrimp kebabs and salmon.

Day Six:

After breakfast (rice and beans!) we headed out to Manuel Antonio National Park. We had nature guides accompany us through the forest with scopes to help us find and identify the wildlife. During the one-hour stroll we saw several sloths, bats, land crabs, and countless bird species.

Bat under leaf

Sloth in tree

By mid-morning we were at the Manuel Antonio beach, an absolutely perfect stretch of sheltered water that was the warmest ocean I had ever encountered. After cooling off, we were joined at the edge of the ocean by a family of more than a dozen capuchin monkeys. They were everywhere, climbing overhead, jumping from tree to tree and sometimes just lounging on the branches. Many times these incredible primates were only 5 or 6 feet away from us. We even got to see a mother carrying her baby on its back.

Monkey in tree

Capuchin

Being in such close proximity to such intensely beautiful and strangely human creatures in the wild was an experience I'll never forget.

After more time in the water, we walked back to the National Park entrance where our guide Mike treated us all to fresh coconut milk. A local vendor hacked the top off a coconut for each of us and we slurped up the juice inside with a straw. Very refreshing!

Coconut Machete

Coconut Stand

Drinking coconut

Lunch was on our own. We chose to eat at a local spot called The Marlin and then followed our meal with some shopping at a beachside bazaar for local trinkets and handicrafts.

My husband and two of our girls chose to stay at the beach for more water time, while I took our tour shuttle back to the hotel with our other daughter to have hot showers and cool drinks.

For our final group dinner, there was an extensive buffet including such treats as grilled lobster and decadent made-to-order crepes. As an after-dinner surprise, Mike and Bernal treated us to a slideshow of shots they had taken of the group throughout the trip. I barely even noticed them taking the photos, but they got some priceless shots of our vacation time together.

Day Seven: Departure day.

Family with the Guides

After breakfast, we loaded back into the tiny prop planes and were taken back to the airport at San Jose. Mike and Bernal dropped us all at the main terminal where we said our goodbyes to them. Everyone hugged and exchanged email addresses. A few members of the tour group were staying on in Costa Rica, but the majority of us went on through passport control and security at the airport to wait for our flights home.

Even before we left, my family began debating which Adventures by Disney tour we'd do next. My husband wants Alaska, one daughter wants the American Southwest, one wants Ireland, and the other the Galapagos Islands. I'd still like to try France or Italy, but I'm sure no matter where we end up, it will be an adventure to remember.

March 25, 2009

I DO Believe in Fairies! Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival

by Emily Owens Pickle

I Do Believe in Fairies-I do, I DO!

One huge addition to the 2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival is Pixie Hollow. Tinkerbell had a lovely fairy garden at the 2007 show and either I overlooked it last year, or it was majorly scaled-back.

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow


Adjacent to Minnie's Magnificent Butterfly Garden, the pixie hollow is sure to delight the young and not-so-young in your party. Tinkerbell is front and center to welcome you into her world.

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow


Tink's friends are here to welcome you, too!

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow


Can you find all of the fairy houses?

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow


2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow


2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow


2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow


What do fairies do when they need to escape?

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow


Of course! Though if you needed to fly, the fairies have left plenty of pixie dust on the ground

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow


I promise you'll have plenty of happy thoughts.

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Pixie Hollow


March 30, 2009

Three for Tea and Tea for Three - Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival

by Emily Owens Pickle

One of my favorite exhibits at the Flower and Garden Show is the English Tea Garden at the World Showcase, United Kingdom.

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Tea Time

The word 'fanatical' or 'addicted' might come to mind when describing my feelings for coffee in all shapes and styles. However, I also enjoy the occasional cup of tea and this garden is a tribute to all things chamomile, oolong, and peppermint hosted by the London-based tea company, Twinings (pronounced with a long 'i' like 'mine').

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Tea Time


Large 'cups' of tea are displayed throughout the gardens and include a description and some attributes of the different types of tea.

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Tea Time

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Tea Time


A little about the tea garden host, Twinings. Driven by a recession in the 1600s, the Twining family moved from the town of Gloucestershire and into the hustle and bustle of London accompanied by their young son, Thomas Twining. In 1706 Thomas purchased a coffee house in London after spending time working for the extremely wealthy East India Company. Thomas set out to convince the London elite of tea's superiority over coffee, a drink that dominated the male social-scene (think Starbucks, minus espresso, plus powdered wigs and a brandy with every cuppa' Joe).

Thomas succeeded and the Twining tradition of tea is now in its third generation. A few quick Twining facts:

The Twinings logo is considered the oldest logo in continuous use in the world

A famous writer during the American Revolution made careful note regarding the Boston Tea Party that it was not Twinings tea the Boston rebels tossed into the sea.

In 1941 a bombing destroyed part of the Twinings shop in London; within a few hours, the family had set up tables at the entrance and resumed tea sales as usual

(Information taken from http://www.twiningsusa.com/Twinings/HistoryOfTwinings.php)

The hydrangas are beautiful.

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Tea Time

The hybiscus are also amazing!

2009 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival Tea Time

Make the garden a cool and relaxing part of your day. In the words of Bernard-Paul Heroux, 'There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.'


March 31, 2009

Finding Disney Magic on Broadway

by Alice McNutt Miller

poppins.jpg

My husband, two pre-teen and teenage daughters and I recently planned to travel to New York City for the weekend to see one of my nieces play basketball for her college team. As with many of our vacations, we tried to work a little Disney magic into our itinerary. With three Disney musicals currently playing on Broadway, the question was not whether to go see one of the amazing Disney theatrical productions, but which one to choose. The Lion King, Mary Poppins or The Little Mermaid? We had seen The Lion King on stage in London last year during a spring break visit, so the decision came down to what the best deal would be for tickets for either Mary Poppins or The Little Mermaid.

Plan Ahead . . .

Seeing live theater in New York, particularly Broadway blockbusters, can be an expensive proposition. Securing discounted tickets for Broadway shows is where good planning (or not) comes into play. If you have only one date or time that you will be able to see a show, you should plan as far in advance as possible, and buy tickets ahead of time. The Disney website http://disney.go.com/theatre/index.html#/home has information on all of the shows, and links to purchase tickets. These links will take you to the Ticketmaster website, and to full-price tickets for each show. However, there may be discounts available, and with a bit of work, you may be able to find them.

As Disney Vacation Club members, we had been offered a special discount for certain shows, but unfortunately, I waited too long to act once our dates were set, and all of the seats with this discount were sold out. I did a web search for "Disney on Broadway discounts," and was able to find a code for discounts that were being offered for Mary Poppins, playing at the New Amsterdam Theatre, for the day and time that we wanted to see a show. By using that code on the Ticketmaster website, I was able to get a $35 discount on each of our tickets, allowing me to purchase tickets that were normally $86.50 for $51.50 (plus various surcharges, tax, etc.). Tickets are normally $121.50, $86.50, $61.50 and $31.50. Mary Poppins it was!

Or Don't!

If you cannot plan ahead because your dates are not certain, you can always try the TKTS Discount Booth in New York on the day of the show. TKTS Discount Booths (run by the non-profit Theatre Development Fund) offer tickets to Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals and plays at up to 50% off of the box office prices. The Broadway location is located near Times Square in Father Duffy Square on Broadway and 47th Street. You can look at the TKTS information on the Theatre Development Fund websitewww.tdf.org ahead of time to see what was on sale last week, in order to get an idea of what might be available for your planned date. A number of Broadway shows have closed recently, which makes getting discount tickets a bit more difficult. According to the website, same-day discounted tickets are "never" available for The Lion King, and are "sometimes" available for The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins. Hours for the Times Square ticket booth are Monday through Saturday from 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and Sundays from 3:00 p.m. until one-half hour before the latest curtain time being sold for evening performances. For matinee performances the hours are Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Plan to line up well in advance of showtime, particularly on weekends and holidays.

The Theater

The New Amsterdam Theatre (214 West 42nd Street), along with the New Victory, Lyceum and Hudson theaters, is one of the oldest surviving legitimate theaters on Broadway. The theatre opened in 1903 with a production of Shakespeare's Midsummer Nights' Dream. Florenz Ziegfeld staged his Follies at the New Amsterdam from 1913 through 1927 (there are stories that the theater is still haunted by one of the Ziegfield dancers). In 1937 the New Amsterdam was converted to a movie house, and then it fell into disuse. The theater was purchased by the Nederlander Organization 1982, which planned to reconvert it back to its original use, piggybacking on the proposed redevelopment of the Times Square area. However, major structural problems, combined with the uncertainty of the City's economic health repeatedly delayed the reconstruction. New York State purchased the New Amsterdam in 1992 and subsequently resold it to the Walt Disney Co. for $29 million when Michael Eisner saw the theater's potential. The complete reconstruction of the theater between 1995 and 1997 signaled Disney's confidence in Times Square and anchored the further redevelopment of the area.

The Show!

We arrived at the New Amsterdam Theatre at 1:00 p.m., half an hour prior to show time. There was quite a crowd queued up on the cold winter day, with lots of excited kids and adults waiting to get in for the show. Once the doors opened, we found our way into the theater and up the stairs to our seats in the center of the left portion of the mezzanine level. The theater is absolutely gorgeous. The 42nd Street Beaux-Arts entrance opens into one of the finest Art Nouveau theater interiors in New York. Carved and painted plaster, carved stone, carved wood, murals and tiles all combine to evoke what it was like going to the theater at the turn of the century. We promptly sent the kids to the snack bar in the rear of the mezzanine for candy and bottles of water. A few moments later, the lights dimmed, the music began, and it was time for the show!

Mary Poppins is a collaboration between Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of The Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Les Miserables. This production (the book for the play was written by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes) is based both on the Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers and the classic 1964 Walt Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. As a result, the play is quite different from what Disney fans might remember from the film, although there are some tributes to the movie hidden in plain sight (like penguins riding in baby carriages in a park scene in the play - remember the penguins from the sidewalk chalk scene in the film?).

A review in The New Yorker magazine called the musical: ". . . a strange and beautiful thing, containing an astonishing variety of moods and distinguished by a faithful rendering of the books' brisk and sophisticated comic sensibility." Indeed, the production has maintained many of the elements of the film version, including beloved songs by Robert and Richard Sherman, like "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Let's Go Fly a Kite" and "Feed the Birds." New songs by Anthony Drewe and George Stiles blend seamlessly with the classic songs, and bring additional depth to the stage version. "Practically Perfect" was an amazingly catchy tune that my girls sang over and over on the drive home. I thought that the "new" Mary Poppins was a bit more prickly and distant than Julie Andrews played her, but I also thought that Mr. and Mrs. Banks characters were more developed and more sympathetic. There is a wonderful touching scene where Mrs. Banks is preparing for a dinner party ("A Spoon Full of Sugar"), but the event is a disaster because no guests arrive. In addition, there is a fantastic and whimsical scene set in Mrs. Corry's shop, where people can buy words as well as gingerbread ("Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious"). There is also a new character, the evil Miss Andrew, Mr. Banks' old nanny, who he calls upon to step in when Mary Poppins leaves. Miss Andrew is a very harsh nanny, and believes that children should be subjected on a regular basis to a horrible medicine that tastes like cod liver oil ("Brimstone and Treacle"). The sets were gorgeous, the costumes lush, and the voice talents of the actors superb. Mary Poppins is currently played by Scarlett Strallen, who played the role in London's West End production (it is no longer playing there), and Bert is played by Adam Fiorentino.

The Side Trip

Disney fans who happen to be in New York for a show, or for any other reason, should not overlook the World of Disney Store on 5th Avenue at 55th Street. The store is huge, with three floors of Disney merchandise, including pins (you can do pin trading with cast members and there are monthly pin-trading events), a make-your-own crown station, Disney candy, Mr. Potato Head and an Art of Disney Gallery. We were lucky enough to happen onto the store a few minutes before a scheduled character meet and greet with Chip and Dale and Donald Duck. A Disney's Photopass photographer was on hand to capture the magic on film. Not to miss merchandise included a very cute (but, unfortunately, not available in my size) "I (Mickey Ears) NY" t-shirt.

Disney Theatrical Productions Coming to your Town

If you would like to see one of Disney's fantastic theatrical productions but won't be making it to New York any time soon, don't despair, several of the shows will be touring nationwide and may be coming to a theater near you. Mary Poppins' North American tour is scheduled to begin performances at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre March 11, 2009. The tour will continue with performances in Cleveland, St. Louis, Dallas, Los Angeles and Minneapolis.

The Lion King will be opening at the Mandalay Bay Theatre in Las Vegas, with previews beginning on May 5, 2009, and a touring version of the show will be going to East Lansing Michigan, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Sacramento, California, Edmonton, Alberta, Calgary, Alberta, Anchorage, Alaska and San Diego, California in 2009. Check HEREhttp://disney.go.com/theatre/aroundtheworld/#/home/ for schedules.

If you live outside of North America, or are planning a trip any time soon, you can also check the website for international venues for Mary Poppins (the United Kingdom), The Lion King (Hamburg, London, Tokyo and other Japan locations, Paris), Tarzan (Hamburg, the Netherlands), Beauty and the Beast (Moscow, South Africa, Barcelona) and High School Musical on Tour (Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom).

Select merchandise from the Disney on Broadway productions can be found on Disneyshopping.com.

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About March 2009

This page contains all entries posted to All EarsĀ® Guest Blog in March 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

February 2009 is the previous archive.

June 2009 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.