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June 5, 2009

D23 Flower & Fireworks Celebration at Epcot

Guest blogger Cedric Ching attended the first ever D23 event at Walt Disney World on May 31, 2009. He files this report:

THE INTRO/CHECK-IN

On Sunday, May 31st, 2009, I attended D23's first official member event in Florida: D23's Flower & Fireworks Celebration at Epcot. This event was limited to 200 guests.

Event Description from the D23 website:

"Join D23 at Epcot at the Walt Disney World Resort to celebrate its Members in all 50 states and more than 25 countries worldwide! Start the evening at the American Gardens Theatre with reserved seating for the Flower Power Concert Series Finale, starring the legendary Tony Orlando, to close the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. Next, head to a VIP location to mix and mingle with your fellow D23 Members over desserts and coffee, and then enjoy the spectacular nighttime extravaganza IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth from a private viewing area."

Check-in for the event was at Guest Relations outside and to the right of the park gates. There, guests presented their D23 membership card and were then handed a large envelope containing a number of items:


D23 Handouts


There was a letter from Steven Clark, the Head of D23, thanking us for joining them for the event and wishing that we enjoy what they had planned for us. Also included in the envelope were the following: a printout of the event description from the D23 website, a Flower & Garden Festival program, an Epcot park map, an "I'm Celebrating!" button for us to wear, a lanyard that would act as our credentials, and a FastPass to Soarin' good for anytime that day -- a very nice touch.

THE FLOWERS

I arrived at Epcot in the late afternoon, early enough to get checked-in and play a couple games at Innoventions West before heading onto the American Gardens Theatre where participants were to meet at 7:15pm.

American Gardens Marquee

D23 Group


Flower Power Sign


We had our own section at the 7:45pm Flower Power Concert -- the last performance of the festival -- and Tony Orlando was warm, enthusiastic, and a very audience-oriented entertainer. To start off the show, he conducted the crowd in singing the Mickey Mouse Club's "Alma Mater".


Tony Orlando conducting music


He and his band played some classics tunes, such as "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree", "Knock Three Times", and "Candida", with lots of audience participation and encouragement. He continued a sense of family and togetherness by recognizing the talents of his band members throughout the show and at one point having his sister up onstage to join him for a dance. He also invited his daughter and friends up on stage to lead the crowd on their cover of the Beatle's "Hey Jude".


Tony Orlando and Keyboardist

Tony Orlando with Guitarist

Tony Orlando and his Sister

Tony Orlando and and his Daughter


Tony Orlando also pointed out the D23 section and called to our section a number of times to cheerlead. And the special attention was an absolute thrill. Then to end the show, he had everyone come full circle and reprise the "Alma Mater". The show was a definite crowd-pleaser. Great job Tony!

After the concert, our section waited for most of the crowd to clear before we were escorted to our private viewing area for the IllumiNations fireworks extravaganza.


Enroute to Fireworks


THE FIREWORKS

The private viewing area was located in front of the France Pavilion, water-side, and had two levels. On each level, there were three dessert stations and plenty of tables to gather around.


Firework Viewing


One of the food stations had an arrangement of desserts -- a selection of some of Walt Disney's personal favorite recipes, which included: Butterscotch Haystack Cookies, Fantasia Cheesecake, Warm Apple Brown Betty, Chocolate Cream Pie, and a Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding.


D23 Photographer

Butterscotch Haystack Cookies

Warm Apple Brown Betty

At another station, a cast member was ready to make us either a Vanilla or Chocolate Coke Float. Being lactose-intolerant, I opted for just the soda and a couple/few of the plastic Disney cups.


Vanilla or Chocolate Coke Station


The third station had beverages, with a cast member there to offer us our choice of coffee, tea, or water.


Beverage Station

The limited number of guests made for more of an intimate setting, and it was very nice time getting to know other people that were there. When it came time for IllumiNations to begin, there was plenty of room to just enjoy the show. The view was fantastic.


Illuminations Fireworks

Illuminations Fireworks

And, from where I was standing, I was able to clearly see the Characters In Flight balloon up in the distance.


Characters In Flight Balloon


ANOTHER KISS/THE OUTRO

After IllumiNations, some friends from AllEars.net and I stayed and mingled a while longer before a cast member came around to tell us that they were going to start cleaning and had to kindly ask us to start making our way out. She told us that there were goodie bags waiting for us, and we quickly obliged. :)

Goodie Bag


The goodie bags contained a set of ten D23 buttons, each with a different character and slogan (you've seen these around). This parting gift was a wonderfully unexpected gesture and topped off an incredible night -- it was our second kiss goodnight.

Goodie Bag

Goodie Bag Buttons


D23's Flowers & Fireworks Celebration exceeded all of my expectations. The pace of the event was very comfortable and at no point did I feel crowded, which to some would be the price of the D23 membership in itself. My only suggestion for the organizers is to have more directions and signs for how and where to check-in. Overall, it was a very smooth operation with a lot of Disney special touches -- like the Soarin' FastPass, the recognition from Tony Orlando during the concert, and their selection of the desserts. It was an event where we truly made to feel like VIPs.

D23 did an absolutely amazing job with this one, and I look forward to attending more of their events.

Deb, Cedric, and others

**********

Cedric Ching is a resident of Florida's East Coast and tries to make it to the parks at least a twice a month with his camera and his Stitch, in search of magical moments. He enjoys taking pictures and running.

Cedric has completed two Disney marathons and one Goofy Challenge (will being running Goofy #2 with my two sisters in 2010) and loves the Yakitori House in Epcot for dining.

June 16, 2009

Star Wars Weekend VIP - Year of a Million Dreams Winner

We were on our second trip to Disney World last August 16th - August 23rd 2008.

The first couple of days were fine, nothing more than the normal rain that comes through every day in Orlando in August. The weather report got worse however, they were reporting that a hurricane was going to hit the coast. Fortunately, when it did hit the coast it was downgraded to Tropical Storm Fay.

It rained for 3 straight days. One day we were just waiting for the rain to slow down before we headed out to a park -- Animal Kingdom! It was raining really hard so I dropped the rest of the family off at the front gate and I parked the rental car. We met up in one of the stores just past the front gate.

Everyone decided to go over to the Dinoland U.S.A. My son wanted to ride Primeval Whirl. My wife took him to ride that while I took the 3 year old on Triceratop Spin. There was no line so we just walked right through and onto the next available car (dinosaur). When we finished the ride and were about to get out of the vehicle, I noticed some Dream Squad members by the exit.

I thought I would walk by and see what they were giving away, but just as I was about to go past them they stopped me. They said, "We have some good news for you!" I asked if we could wait until my wife and son got off Primeval Whirl before they said anything. You see, we had one Dream Fastpasses on our January trip as we were coming off the train at Magic Kingdom. Then there were just a couple of Dream Squad members handing out the passes but this time there were 7 or 8 of them waiting on us. I had a feeling that this was going to be better than fastpasses.

When my wife and son saw us standing there with the Dream Squad they didn't know what was going on. I told them we won something but I don't know what. They said "Let's go get out of the rain!" We went into the store in Dinoland.

The Dream Squad told us we had just won an all expense paid, VIP trip back to Disney in 2009. I asked what we did to win it. They said that the computer picked 1:00PM on August 20th at Animal Kingdom on the first seat of car number 8 on Triceratop Spin. They then took us to the front of the park to guest services to fill out all the paperwork.

james27.jpg


We had a choice of weekends to select. There was Soap Opera weekend, ESPN weekend, and Star Wars weekend. It was a pretty easy choice to make since we are Star Wars fans. Not only did Disney pay for all the trip expenses they also paid the taxes that we would have to pay to the IRS for winning a prize.

Fast forward now to May, 2009. It's time for our Dream Weekend in WDW!

Thursday, May 28th, was check in day for our Star Wars Weekend VIP experience. The hotel we selected was the Boardwalk Inn. We picked up the room keys and the information packet from Disney. The packet had our itinerary and 4 $300 gift cards. We were scheduled for a standard room but when we got to the room ( at the very end of the resort) we were surprised to see a boardwalk view. We were on the 3rd floor - the next to last room by the ESPN Club. This is a great location but it can be a little noisy until around 11 or midnight when most of the restaurants close. The view is spectacular though.


James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP


We went to EPCOT to spend the day and had reservations at Chefs de France at 5:00. We didn't tell the kids where we were going because we wanted to surprise them with Remy from Ratatouille at the restaurant. We walked around the park to see all of the attractions for the Flower and Garden Festival.

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

After seeing all the displays and riding Spaceship Earth we headed to the restaurant. After the waiter, Xavier, took our drink order, Remy made his way around to our section of the restaurant. What a great addition - I hope they extend this past September. Remy spent maybe 30 seconds at the other tables and then he made his way to our table. He was getting ready to leave but since we know (from reading this site) what to ask him, we asked if he knew how to dance. He then does his routine to "Can't Touch This".

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

We have the Tables in Wonderland card since we are season pass holders. On our last 2 trips whenever we tell the waiter we have the discount card, the service is usually horrible. They figure they have their 18% so why bother. Xavier was one of the best waiters we have ever had at Disney so we tipped around 25% I think.

We headed back to the hotel since we were going to get up and open Hollywood Studios on Friday and it was Extra Magic Hour morning. I stayed down on the Boardwalk to take a few pictures and the rest of the family went back to the room. When they got back to the room Disney had delivered 4 gift baskets with Mickey Jedi robes and Fx lightsabers. The kids then had a lightsaber duel down the hallway as I was walking back to the room.

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

We walked to Hollywood Studios in order to get in line for the Toy Story Mania morning dash. We were disappointed that the storm troopers didn't do their show before the park opens. We weren't really expecting the show since it was Extra Magic Hour but were still hoping. The park opened so we followed everyone else to Toy Story Mania. We got in line to get a fastpass with the hopes of getting them and then getting in the standby line to ride. About 3 people before I got to the machine it broke. The cast members tried to fix it but they couldn't get it to work. I told my son to go get in the other line which was about 20 people deep. He made it to that machine and they were still working on my machine. I handed him the tickets and we got our 4 fastpasses. We headed to the standby line and it was probably at about a 45 minute wait, at least, by then. We decided to just come back at our fastpass time.

We waited in line to get our picture with Boba Fett/Jango Fett. We wanted to get pictures with the characters today rather than tomorrow because we didn't know what the VIP schedule was going to be like.

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP


We also went and checked out all the Star Wars merchandise at Wicket's Warehouse. I think we used all of one of the gift cards in there. We had noon reservations at the Brown Derby so we watched the Star Wars parade at 11:40 before heading over.

We headed over to the Brown Derby for lunch and were seated at our favorite waiter Ryan's table. You will recognize him because he looks like actor Paul Giamatti. You never have to worry about service with Ryan no matter what dining plan you are on. He earns more than the mandatory 18% every time. We both had the ahi tuna, I get that every time there, and the kids had something from the kids menu.

We decided to go back to the hotel and let the kids swim. We needed to get the lightsabers shipped home so we went down to the business office at the hotel. We didn't have any boxes to ship them in other than the individual boxes that they came in. We decided the best way would be to tape them all together. I figured that it would cost at least $50 to ship them back to Texas since it was an awkward size and we needed boxes. The guy in the business center said he would have UPS box it up when they came by for pick up. The total cost to ship it all back was $18. This was another great service from Disney. We next decided to go over to the Yacht and Beach Club and try the Kitchen Sink at Beaches and Cream. This thing is massive. It has 8 scoops of ice cream, a can of whip cream and every topping that they have. We could only make a dent in this thing before we were full.


James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

The kids wanted to go swimming and I remembered that Tony Orlando was performing at EPCOT for the Flower Power series. I headed over to get in line for that and the rest of the family went back to the Boardwalk to go swimming. The line for the concert was backed up pretty far but after they let us go into the theater there were only about 7 rows in the front filled up. He came out and the first song he sings is "Tie a Yellow Ribbon". He performs a bunch of oldies and is a good entertainer. The concert lasts for about 30 minutes so I head back over to the swimming pool.

We headed over to the Boardwalk to get some food. The kids order pizza at the stand between Spoodles and the Flying Fish. While waiting on the pizza we go over and watch the magician who is performing on the Boardwalk. We have seen the same magician before at Downtown Disney but he puts on a good show and the kids love to watch him. We head back to the room afterwards and call it a night. Tomorrow is the big day so we want to be well rested.

We arrive in the lobby about 10 minutes before our scheduled meeting time at 9:00AM with our guide. Matt is already waiting on us. Here is a person that LOVES his job. He teaches school during the week and on the weekends he is a VIP guide with Guest Services. School is over for him the first week of June and he doesn't get a day off until the end of July. That is 7 days a week 10+ hours a day. He said that he doesn't consider it work. He gets to go to Disney and ride the rides all day. When he is working as a VIP guide he has to wear a long sleeve shirt and the plaid jacket no matter what the weather is like. On May 30th it was hot and humid. I can only imagine what it is like in August in that outfit. Matt says that we have his services until 9:00PM.

It is time to get in the big white van and make our way to Hollywood Studios. We park in the back of the studios by the Imagineering offices and enter the park by the Tower of Terror.

Matt needs to process our tickets so he puts us on the Great Movie Ride while he does that. We meet up at the exit and head over to ride Toy Story Mania. Matt flashes his badge and we go through the fastpass entrance. My 4 year old wants to ride with Matt so she can "show him what to do" on the ride.

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP


Matt tells me some of the secrets to getting a good score but I didn't do that well and didn't break 175,000. The next time I ride I will ride with him and we can use a little teamwork.

From Toy Story Mania we went and rode Star Tours. Star Wars Weekends seems to be the only time that this ride is busy. The ride seems a little dated to me at this point.

After Star Tours we go over to ride Tower of Terror. I am the only one who wants to ride it so Matt and I proceed through the fastpass entrance. He fills me on all the little details in the ride. The rest of the family is waiting at the exit in the gift shop. On our way out we run into Deb Wills. This is always a highlight of our trips. This is the second trip in a row we have seen Deb. In December we ran into her in the parking lot at Animal Kingdom where she graciously took a picture with my wife. As always Deb was very nice to us. We told her about our trip and she told me I should guest blog about our experience (so here I am :). She gave us some hats and lanyards and we were on our way.

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

Our first scheduled activity was the parade at 11:40 so we had some time before that so we went and rode Toy Story Mania again. This time I rode with Matt. I still didn't do very well. I believe Matt scored 187,000 and I had 174,000. We couldn't get the timing right on some of the bonuses. We made our way to the parade route where they had special seating for us in front of the American Idol show. We were seated beside one of the other VIP experience families from California. They won their trip at Disneyland.

The Star Wars parade is very interesting. I don't think there is another parade at Disney where the majority of the people in it aren't Disney cast members. They are just Star Wars fans in various outfits. The "501st Legion" is a bunch of people in Imperial Guard and storm trooper outfits, very good storm trooper outfits. There are clone troopers, Javas, sand people, Ewoks, rebel fighters, rebel pilots and an assortment of others that are just fans. Also in the parade are the weekend's celebrity guests. Peter "Chewbacca" Mayhew, Matthew Wood (the voice of General Grievous), Jay Laga'aia (Captain Typho) and Ashley Eckstein (voice of Ahsoka in the "Clone Wars"). Chewbacca, R2D2, ewoks, Boba Fett, Darth Maul and other characters round out the parade with Darth Vader bringing up the rear.


James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP


Our next event is a meet and greet with the celebrity guests for the weekend. We go to a building that is right across the street in front of Star Tours. The 2 other families that won a trip are there as well. Disney has a photographer there to take our picture. We get our pictures taken with Chewbacca and an ewok first, then Queen Amidala. The last characters that we met were Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker.

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

We then met Matthew Wood who is the voice of General Grievous and is sound engineer at Skywalker Ranch. He signed a picture that we had bought at Wicket's Warehouse of General Grievous for my son.

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP


Next we met Ashley Eckstein who signed the kids autograph book and a picture she had of her character. The last person that we met was Peter Mayhew. He is very tall as you can imagine since he plays Chewbacca. He walks with a cane but what you notice about the cane is it isn't an ordinary cane, it is a lightsaber with a rubber tip on the end. We didn't get to meet Jay Laga'aia.

We had lunch reservations at Mama Melrose's restaurant at 1:30 so we had little bit of time before then so we watched Muppetvision 3D. It was time to go to lunch when we finished the Muppets so headed over. This was the first time we had ever eaten here. The food was very good and it was good to sit down for a while. The best part of it though was that Disney paid for it.

The last scheduled event that we had was "Behind the Force" which is a look at how they make the Clone Wars cartoon series. While waiting for the theater to open we went over to the AFI showcase and saw the "Villains" exhibit. There were also assorted Star Wars characters out in front of the theater stopping for photo ops.

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

When it was time for the theater to open we were seated at the front of the theater. The show was interesting. It was Ashley Eckstein and Matthew Wood showing how they do the voices for the Clone Wars animated series.

We know had to rest of the day to do whatever we wanted. We decided not to stay for the Hyperspace Hoopla since we would have to fight the crowd. We wanted to go to the Magic Kingdom but my son's favorite ride is Test Track at EPCOT. We told him that it would take to much time to get over to EPCOT and then get to the Magic Kingdom. Matt says if you want to ride Test Track it won't take long because we park right behind it. It took us about 10 minutes to get into the parking lot behind Test Track. We went through the fastpass line and got on the ride. It was the 4 year olds first time on the ride. She loved it. We got off the ride and went through a back door and made our way back to the van. From the time we got into the parking lot and got back into the van was 20 minutes exactly.

We then headed over to the Magic Kingdom and parked right behind Main Street. We rode Winnie the Pooh, Splash Mountain, Jungle Cruise, and Pirates of the Caribbean. It was close to 7:30pm so we decided to head out. We wanted to get our picture with Matt so we stopped by in front of the castle to get one on our photopass.

James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

One of the other things Disney gave us was a code to get a free photopass cd. We made our way back to the Boardwalk and waited about 30 minutes for a table at Spoodles for dinner.

Sunday was check out day so we checked the bags at the front since our plane didn't depart until 8:00 PM. My 4 year old daughter and I went to the Magic Kingdom and my wife and son went to EPCOT. My son really wanted to do the Kim Possible adventure. At the Magic Kingdom we managed to ride Snow White, Winnie the Pooh, Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and the 4 year old's favorite ride Haunted Mansion. We also had to get the greatest dessert at Disney the Dole Whip. We then got on the monorail and headed to EPCOT to meet up. My son finally got his wish and was picked by the candy lady at the Japanese pavilion. She made him a dragon.


James Knowles Star Wars Weekend VIP

We had lunch at Cantina de San Angel and then walked around the World Showcase until it was time to head back to the hotel and catch Magical Express to the airport.

We had a great time on the trip. We spent a lot of money as well. I think we have around $100 left on a gift card. You just can't beat the VIP service. I would suggest to everyone who can afford the $1,800 (minimum per day) to do it. That is a little out of my price range but I can always "dream" to do it again someday. Thanks to everyone at Disney who made our trip a magical one.

James Knowles and family

June 20, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Pre-Adventure Day 1

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is back with another Adventure by Disney blog series.
To date she is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!

This time, she and her husband Chris travel to Ireland on "The Emerald Isle" Adventure.

This 7 night Adventures by Disney begins in Dublin before it crosses the Emerald Isle with stops in Killarney and Shannon. Experience the mirth and magic along the sweeping coastal cliffs, over the verdant rolling hills and among the ruins of ancient castles.

My Journey to the Emerald Isle

Even vacation planners need a vacation every now and then to recharge. I enjoy experiencing new destinations and all they have to offer. A few years ago I was able to try an Adventures By Disney trip and found it was just the right combination of structure and "me time" so I have gravitated towards them for my own R&R. This is my fourth ABD trip and my husband Chris was the deciding factor on where to go this time - The Emerald Isle. Most likely for the Guinness, but I'm sure there must be other reasons for the choice and I'm looking forward to seeing all Ireland has to offer.

Of course you can't fly half way round the globe without a stop in one of my favorite cities - London. So twist my arm, we decided to go three days early in hopes of easing the pain of flying eight time zones East.

Flight Dynamics

Friends have said that flying to London isn't too bad when they're leaving from New York or Washington DC, but from Seattle it takes slightly over nine hours, and packing into a tiny seat with no leg room is not the most relaxing way to travel. So to increase the odds of showing up refreshed and ready to go, we cashed in a chunk of frequent flyer miles and treated ourselves first class on British Airways. Nine hours in my own personal relaxation pod that is truly a wonder of multitasking design. The pod provides a seat that allows for a few feet of private space, features a pop up TV and the ability to seat two for dinner by way of a slide out table. When you are ready for a bit of rest, it converts to a lay flat bed and British provides comfy PJs and slippers to take home.

personalpod.jpg

After about an hour in the air, dinner was served. Not the peanuts and chips bags, but a nice selections of appetizers including a lobster salad and mushroom risotto, followed by beef, fish or chicken entrees. If you ever get a chance to fly international first class, take it. Even if you're just going to turn around and fly home, it's worth it because the flight experience becomes a destination in its own right. It's great to know you can actually use frequent flier miles for something useful, but the trick is to book as soon as the date is available

London - Day One

We arrived in London late Wednesday morning and after passport control and baggage reclaim, we were met by our driver who took us straight to our hotel. Knowing we only had a couple of days I looked for a hotel that was within walking distance to some of the spots I wanted to see. I found one located right around the corner from the front gates of Buckingham Palace. It was a very interesting boutique hotel called 41. You enter and are escorted by the staff up to the 5th floor of the hotel where you are seated at the check in desk and provided with a complementary drink of your choice while the staff checks you in and introduces you to the amenities in the lobby-common room-sitting area. By the time we had finished the check-in process and made it two doors down to our room, our luggage was waiting for us in our unique loft room.

hotel41_living.jpg

hotel41_bed.jpg

The room was like a small apartment with a sitting area, desk and fireplace on the first floor and a staircase leading to the bedroom and bathroom. The hotel offers a continental breakfast and honor bar during the day that turns into a 'raid the pantry' theme at night where they set out snacks and goodies to munch on before you retire for the night. Yummy!

They say the best way to beat jet lag is to get out and walk a bit for to exercise your legs while staying awake until the local bed time, so we headed out to do just that. First stop, of course, was just round the corner to Buckingham Palace. I'm never sure if it's more fun to watch the other people there or the limited action of the guards as they do their out and backs while tending to their duty until they are relieved. This time we lucked out as a small group of guards came out and marched in perfect order to the main gate where they each picked up what was obviously a very heavy music stand. Not quite the changing of the guard, but it was nice to see them doing some tidying up around the place. The Queen was in residence that day after all.

buckingham_1.jpg

buckingham_2.jpg

From there we decided that we would stroll over and see the other neighborhood palace at Kensington, so we headed off across Hyde Park. A bit more than half way into what is an incredibly long city park is the Prince Albert Memorial. This incredible structure was put up by Queen Victoria when her husband, Prince Albert died. It's a beautiful memorial from a woman who was obviously devastated by the loss of her Prince and an interesting stepping stone on the way to Kensington Palace where Victoria grew up. She was very nearly a prisoner of her mother and step-father. Quite a fascinating and very true story - ya just can't make this stuff up!

princealbert.jpg

The palace was the home of many of the Kings and Queens of England, including King George III, the last King of America. Kensington was also the home of Princess Diana and the two princes before her death in 1997.

By the time we finished Kensington it was just past 9:00 AM pacific time, we had been up all night long, and we were really starting to really feel the jet lag. We decided to head over to Piccadilly Square to get some dinner so we joined the eastbound rush hour commute and crammed ourselves into a train full of people on their way home. Five stops later we were above ground and looking for some dinner. Piccadilly and the theater district are great fun and a highly suggested place to go for an evening.

TIP: The London Underground, or Tube, is a wonderful way to get around the city and seeing the sites for a very reasonable cost. Less time spent in the city traffic is more time to soak in the sites!

Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

June 21, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Pre-Adventure Day 2

London - Day Two

The next morning we were out front of our hotel at 9:00 am to meet the guide we hired for the next two days. If you go to London and take a tour with anybody other than a Blue Badge guide, you're surely missing out. They are walking encyclopedias of all things having to do with the UK. The Blue Badge is "awarded by the Institute of Tourist Guiding, and is the highest guiding qualification in Britain. The training is detailed and comprehensive, the examinations rigorous and registration an achievement. It is possible that your guide has a university degree in guiding. These guides are highly suggested and were used during the London portion of the Adventures By Disney - Cities of Knights & Lights tour we took a few years ago.

Our guide, Russell, showed up right on time with one of the famous London black taxis to serve as our transport for the day, and we headed off for our first stop, Westminster Abby. When we arrived we learned that it was unexpectedly closed for the morning for a special service that hadn't been announced ahead of time. Our guide did some quick thinking, and suggested we do a quick walk around the local area. He gave us tons of information on everything in the area, including the history of Whitehall Palace. The structure used to occupy all of the ground currently along Whitehall Street, and was one of Henry VIII's many palaces. We also learned of the more recent history of many of the government buildings in the area, including 10 Downing Street (the residence of the Prime Minister- hence the ton of security in the pic below) and the War Department. Chris had loads of questions for him about World War II and Guy Fawkes and the Russell was just the guy to have around to answer them.

10downingstreet.jpg

Parliament

Once we finished our circle tour we were able to move up our visit to Parliament. This was a particular treat because the company we used to contract Russell to guide us was able to use their contacts to get us in the back door (literally). We went thru the metal detectors and thru a few doors and found ourselves just outside the House of Lords room where we watched the procession pass thru carrying the Queen's mace into the chambers. We then went up to the gallery where we were able to sit and watch the lords debate a number of issues of the day. From there we crossed over to the House of Commons side of the building and went into their chambers and watched them debate the matter of citizenship for members and families of the Brigade of Gurkhas .

bigben.jpg

Parliament is not in fact a building, but rather a body. The building is correctly known as the Palace of Westminster. Although it looks like it was built at the same time as Westminster Abby, it was in fact only built in the 1800s and designed to look like the Abby across the street. Between the street and the new building is Westminster Hall, which survived the fire which destroyed most of the original palace back in 1834. Westminster Hall is notable for being the place where in 23 August 1305 William Wallace was accused, tried, and dragged outside to be executed for treason against a country of which he was not a citizen. Unfortunately for Wallace, small details like citizenship were not of concern to King Edward.

Other trials that took place in the Hall include King Charles I at the end of the English Civil War, Sir Thomas More, and Guy Fawkes ("Remember, remember the fifth of November; The gunpowder, treason and plot"), a Catholic mercenary from York who tried to blow up the parliament, most of the Aristocracy, and King James I all in one revolutionary moment. Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, quartered, pressed, starched, etc. He leapt from the hangman's platform with the rope around his neck and broke his neck, avoiding the slow strangulation and disemboweling of his sentence. Smart guy.


Westminster Abby

By the time we finished with our parliamentary tour Westminster Abby had opened again. Unfortunately there are no pictures from within the Abby and to describe everything that is within would take weeks of writing and cost the lives of many digital trees. Suffice it to say that you can't turn around without stepping on the grave of somebody famous, or bumping into the tomb of a king. Elizabeth I is buried right on top of her half sister Mary and you can reach out and touch history right in front of you. A long list of other Kings and Queens ended their tours here as well. In Poets corner rest the tombs of a veritable who's who of English literature. If you ever visit here, plan to spend some time, and do a little research beforehand to so you don't miss anything in this vast structure.

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Lunch in a Pub

We left Westminster and headed for the Tower of London, but stopped first for lunch at the Lamb and Thistle pub. This is one of those great London finds hidden at the end of a no-cars lane. On the ground floor was a non-descript bar, but thru that and up a narrow stairway that I would never have found without our guide. It was another part of the pub where they also served a fantastic lunch - truly a hidden gem. After downing a plentiful serving of fish, chips, and mushy peas we continued on our way to the Tower.

Tower of London

The tower is still a working royal palace. It houses the crown jewels, and was used as a prison as late as during WWII. There is a common misconception that there were many executions at the tower, but in fact there were very few. Most of the people held at the tower who were executed were taken to the hill above the tower and executed in public. Only those of great privilege had the good fortune to be executed in private, within the walls of the tower. This includes two of Henry VIII's wives (Anne and Catherine) who were both escorted onto the grounds by way of traitors gate.

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Thanks to Showtime's series The Tudors, I managed to catch the Henry VIII bug and really wanted to immerse myself in the real places where history was made, and of course the day did not disappoint. The Tower of London and other noteworthy sites are celebrating the 500Th Anniversary of the Kings accession to the throne, and this location had a vast array or Henry's armor in the White Tower. This is one of the oldest buildings in the walls and is the location where they found the remains of the two murdered princes .

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After the Tower visit we returned to our hotel to relax a bit before another full day tomorrow outside of the city.

Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!

June 22, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Pre-Adventure Day 3

London - Day Three

One more day of kings, queens and England before we work our way to the Emerald Isle. We started the day with a few items from the continental breakfast bar and yes, Starbucks coffee dispensers with to-go cups waiting by the door. Our guide arrived in his nicely decked out Land Rover made for touring and we set off for the 45 minute drive to Hampton Court.

Hampton Court Palace

In case you haven't been watching the Tudors, here is a little history for you. Originally a monastery, Hampton Court was purchased by Cardinal Wolsey and turned into one of his many palaces. It was later taken over by Henry VIII and expanded to be one of his favorite palaces (he owned more than 50). It was here that he went on his honeymoon (six times).

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The complex is huge and would take a couple of days to touch more then just the surface and explore each public area. We were able to take in many of the greatest hits including the Tudor kitchens, the great hall where the King held court, Wolseys quarters, and the gallery hall where it's said after Queen Catherine heard of her upcoming date with the executioner, she broke away from the guards and ran down the hall to the closed door of the Kings private chapel. She banged on the door, pleading for her life but the guards took her to the tower anyway. Many believe they have seen her ghost in that hallway, begging for her life. Bummer! I didn't see her. That would have made for a great blog!

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One of the exhibits for the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII at Hampton Court, shows a set of 10 tapestries that Henry commissioned displaying the story of Abraham. These are considered by many to be the most valuable set of tapestries in the world, and one of them has been moved to a separate room where a special projector is used to display the original colors of the tapestry onto the now very faded fabric. The difference is amazing. Once you see what the original colors were you can understand why people paid huge sums to have these works of art created for their halls. The threads were wrapped with fine gold and silver wire that would have reflected the light, and all the dies would have been vibrant originally. Now they appear, like most tapestries, to be maroon, rust brown, and grey.

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Windsor Castle

It was approaching lunch time so we decided to begin our trek for Windsor. We had lunch in the former home of the great architect Christopher Wren before embarking on our private walking tour of Windsor Castle.

The quaint town full of shops and pubs sits right outside the gates of the castle complex. We found it interesting to find an American embassy, errr strike, a McDonalds within a few yard of the main gate, but I guess eve a queen might have a craving for fries every now and then. We did find this cute little crooked house that I couldn't resist taking a photo of.

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Inside we were able to tour several rooms and see incredible art as well as view St George's Chapel that houses the final resting places of several kings and queens including Queen Mary 1 , King Henry VIII and his most beloved wife of the 6 - Queen Jane Seymour.

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Tip: Check a few days ahead to confirm you visit to Windsor Castle as it is a working residence for the queen and special events or state visits may cause you to change your plans. It's good to have a plan B ready just in case.

Tomorrow: It's a flight to Dublin and meeting up with our fellow adventurers!

Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!

June 23, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 1

Emerald Isle Day 1 Meeting the Clan

Today I woke up to the now familiar English buzz of the hotel wake up call. It's time to pack up and head to Heathrow airport to catch our flight to Dublin. Unfortunately ABD was unable to book our London to Dublin flights so we were left to our own devices. I must say I was a little surprised at the lack of direct flights that did not require waking up at the crack of dawn to get to Dublin while meeting the required arrival time... and even more so from Shannon which will be our return point after the adventure ends. Of course there are the usual array of low cost airlines to Dublin which have very heavy restrictions on not only the bags you check, but the bags and weight you carry on as well. More on that in a bit.

Eventually we found a flight on Aer Lingus that would fit the timing needs and had booked it about 8 months before the trip. Word of warning" like many of the low cost airlines, you are nickel and dimed a a few times between buying your ticket and your flight. You pay additional to check bags, select seats, food and even beverages onboard. They also seem to have a love for changing your flight time and numbers and not proactively letting you know, so it's important to check and double check your itinerary online so you have access to the latest info. The reason I am tossing this out is I went in to our reservation record approx twice a week before we traveled and then 3 days before I noticed our flight number and departure time putting us in Dublin just 30 mins later then ABD requested as the latest arrival. Of course we just needed to notify them by way of the handy dandy emergency in route number and we were assured all was well.

TIP: Be sure to carry the information booklet with you in your hand carried luggage so you have the emergency contact info handy if needed.

The transfer company arrived at our hotel approx 3.5 hours before our flight giving us plenty of time to go through all of the airport red tape that comes with the check in process. We flew out of terminal one which is rumored to be the least busy and on this day it lived up to its reputation We had enough time grab a bite of lunch, stroll through some of the shops, and make our way to our gate. It's important to note that some of the processes may be a bit different the airports in the states. For example, some airlines will not have an assigned gate until just minutes before boarding however they do give you a range so you know the general area and you keep your eye on one of the many electronic displays to know when was has been posted.

TIP: Pay close attention to your surroundings in an unfamiliar airport before you estmate how much time you have to board your flight

Once we passed through security we entered into a large common area with shops and dining that have hallways that lead off to the different gate locations. These gates may be close, or in our case a 10 minute walk and another passport control check queue stood between us and the next passageway to the gate. Then I experienced the most interesting yet possibly ineffective process ever at an airport in terms of people control. It may be hard to follow without a map, but each gate has a series of sliding glass doors that can be pulled across when a plane lands so the passengers can get off the plane on to their next destination with relative ease since it directly connects to another glass enclosed walkway leading to baggage reclaim. Problem is, it also cuts off those waiting for another plane to move from gate to gate until the plane is empty. I found myself in an interesting dilemma when I was on one side of the walkway and the ladies room was on the other. If you really gotta go, it seems to take forever to unload a medium sized plane. I feel most sorry for those who want to take a quick restroom break just before they board their plane and when they come out, they find they are now cut off by the glass hallway and have that feeling they may not make it back to the gate before their own plane departs. Luckily that didn't end being me.

Aer Lingus takes the baggage thing very seriously. For checked bags you pay a fee and the bag is expected to be less than 44 pounds. Carry ons are restricted to the normal carry on size limits, but they also require them not to be over 13 pounds. If you carry a laptop and other necessities, you can hit that limit quite quickly.

TIP: Many of the hotels provide generously sized scales in the bathrooms. While many of us cringe at the thought of getting on one, they make handy tools for weighing luggage.

As you queue up to board, there are gates agents who comb the crowd looking for violators of the size and or weight rules and if anything is in question, they quickly grab it from you and ask you to follow then while they tag it and make it ready for the cargo hold. Once you are at that point, there is no discussion" they hand you the tag and you return to your spot in line feeling like a scolded puppy. Again" we managed to escape that fate but it made for interesting people watching while we waited to board.

Bad news part two" Apparently the airline had experienced several delays that day so the plane boarded about 45 minutes late. Once onboard the aircraft, we made our way to our seats in row 13 which luckily were exit row seats offering a little extra legroom. Unlike the US airlines, they would not allow us to put anything under the seat in front of us in this row, so they actually post a flight attendant there to guard the overhead bins for those in the exit row. Once seated, we were settled in for our 1 hour flight to Dublin.

It was a little rough crossing the channel by air, so the fasten seatbelt sign was on most of the way. As we crossed over the coastline we began to see the rolling mountains and green fields of Ireland. We landed approx 1.5 hours later than the original plan and almost two hours after we cleared through passport control and found our way to our bags. We emerged into the main arrival area of the airport and immediately began looking for the familiar Adventures By Disney plaque with our name on it. Sadly" nothing.

We found a place to put everything down and Chris went through checking all the drivers with their signs just in case we had missed each other". But with no result. Having been on several of the AbD trips I knew this was certainly not the norm, so I called the emergency number which reached the call center in the states. They wanted to be sure we were in the right place, but at the time they asked several questions thinking there must be some mistake and we simply had to be in the wrong place. After a few minutes of assuring them we weren't in the terminal, we weren't at baggage claim, and we were indeed in the place we should be, they connected us to one of our guides, Jennae, who said she would contact the driver and try to connect us. Quite honestly I am not sure what the problem was" but the original driver left the airport and they sent out a new one at the speed of light to retrieve us.

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After an hour wait at the arrivals area, we were united with the transfer coach and on our way to our home for the next two nights" The Westin Dublin.

On day one of an Adventure By Disney they hold a welcome reception and dinner to make introductions and allow the group to get to know their traveling companions for the next few days. The party had already started by the time we arrived to the hotel, but Jennae was waiting at the door to greet us. With room key in hand she instructed bell services to get our bags to our room and offered us a few minutes to freshen up then she would escort us to meet the rest of the clan.

We checked into room 314. The room was small but standard for a European hotel.

It also had an energy savings feature that requires you to slide your key into a slot just inside the door which enables you to turn on lights and activate plugs. The room had a queen sized bed, bathroom with separate shower and tub, nice sized dressing and storage area as well as a comfy desk and sitting area. In-room coffee maker and mini bar was also available and always a plus for those of us who enjoy the convenience when stuck in the room working or if you are me and crave a coffee fix the moment you get out of bed.

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We tossed some water on our faces, changed clothes and made our way down the lift to meet the group. We were escorted into a banquet room and introduced to the 22 other faces who would be our companions for the tour. This is an adults only tour, and the age range varied from middle aged couples to moms and daughters traveling together for some mum and kid bonding.

We were seated at one of the rounds of 8 and pointed into the directions of the buffet that had all kinds of selections. Salads, pasta, shrimp, beef, fish and some very yummy mashed potatoes. (we're in Ireland there HAS to be mashed spuds!) They also featured live entertainment in the form of a lovely lady playing a harp in the corner of the room. Unfortunately we missed the traditional ice breaking games and most of the harp performance due to the airport snag, but we did get "dessert! Lots of yummy sweetness to get things started on a sugar high!


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From the moment I met them, our guides were everything I have come to expect from a Disney cast member. Happy, smiling, warm and welcoming. Jennae & Francesc made sure everyone had everything they needed and the info we needed to feel right at home. They both have extensive experience at different departments in the Disney family ranging from WDW guest services to DCL to the entertainment group. It's so wonderful to chat with them both to learn about how their career paths and love for the guest experiences brought them to this wonderful adventure.

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After chatting in the lobby for a bit and realizing we all have mutual friends around the wonderful world of Disney, we retired to the room for the night to get settled and prepare for our first full day of exploring Dublin.

Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!

June 24, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 2

Emerald Isle - Day 2 - Life on the Liffey

The theme for the day is - Life on the Liffey which means "an life" in Irish, is the river that runs right through the center of city of Dublin. Our first full day in Dublin showed all off the rich history of this city as well as a taste of what Dublin offers the modern world.

The morning began with breakfast in the Exchange Restaurant in the hotel. They had a nice selection of fruits, cheeses, meats and cereal from a well appointed buffet as well as offerings from a hot breakfast menu. I must admit, it takes a moment to get used to the European version of bacon as its not the regular strips we used to in the US but very good nonetheless. And they are very serious about their croissants- they are huge! Breakfast was included in our package so we just walked in at our leisure, provided our room number so they could check us off the list and show us to a table and we helped ourselves. After breakfast, we gathered all of the items needed for the day, camera, light jacket, backpack, etc and met the group in the lobby and boarded our bus to begin our day of touring.

Dublin is a beautiful city with lots of architectural eye candy around every corner.

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The Vikings Came to Town

Our first stop was Dublinia. A heritage center at the heart of the medieval part of the city that features interactive exhibits of what life was like when the Vikings raided the city in 820-830 and traces history up to the reign of King Henry the VIII's Reformation. Our private tour was hosted by a guide in period costume who provides lots of detail of what life was like in those days.

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We learned how people got through the everyday basics of life from feeding their families, to creating currency to how to deal criminals who required punishment. Some prisoners took it more seriously then others.

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But on a less serious note, they also offered the opportunity to dress up, sorta. Check out my knight in shining chainmail!

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Christ Church Cathedral

Just a few steps out the door of the exhibit and we found ourselves standing in front of the beautiful Christ Church Cathedral. Its one of Dublins oldest and most recognized landmarks that dates back to 1030 when it was founded by Sitriuc, King of the Dublin Norseman. The current shape dates back to 1186 when it was reconstructed. Sunday services were in full swing so we learned of its history from the local expert and admired the architecture from outside on the grounds. For fans of the Showtime series "The Tudors" the cathedral was used as the backdrop for the wedding of King Henry VIII to his most beloved third wife, Jane Seymour.

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Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!


June 25, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 2

Emerald Isle - Day 2 - Life on the Liffey Continued

Dublin Castle

On the highest ground in the area, which is more of a slope overlooking the river, stands Dublin Castle. Evidence that a Viking fortress stood on the site dates back to the 930s and other archaeological finds suggests a wooden and stone castle was likely built around the time the Nomans came to town around 1169.

Over time various structures were added or rebuilt and the site has served as a prison, the seat of British power, a home for the dignitaries of the day, and even now plays host to European Unions Presidents, Heads of State as well as leaders of business and government. It is also a favorite among the Hollywood crowd appearing in numerous films including, Becoming Jane, The Medallion, and was the stand in as the Vatican in the pilot of Showtime's, The Tudors.

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Once inside our group was treated to a private tour of the State Apartments which are used for several government functions including the Presidential inauguration every seven years.

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The castle features several treasures including fabulous art and unique furniture including the throne built for the visit of King George IV in 1821 .

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One of the best conversation pieces was this 'courting couch'. This was a very useful piece of furniture in its day as the courting couple would sit at the opposite ends and an official chaperone or two could sit in the middle to ensure there was an appropriate amount of distance between the two. My how times have changed.

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It's Time for Liquid Lunch!!

We left the castle grounds and bus was waiting to take us to our next destination. Lunch!
But this wasn't just any café or pub along the way. We were heading to the Guinness Storehouse. Yes beer lovers, THAT Guinness.

In 1759 Arthur Guinness actually signed a 9000 year lease on the St James gate brewery for an annual rent of what would be equal to $72 usd today. (wonder how much of the brew was tapped before that negotiation, smart guy!)

The outside of the brick building looks like what one would expect for a former production facility then add in the herd of tourists that you would expect at a major attraction and you have a very busy place. It was bustling with people and I found it interesting that almost everyone we ran into in elevators, etc were Americans. (we love our beer!)

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The visitor's center is a modern marvel shaped in the form of a pint glass with escalators and glass everywhere you look. A men's chorus was performing in the ground floor atrium and the acoustics were perfect for carrying their tones through out the structure.

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We were lead to a private room where a buffet lunch was being served which of course included a pint of you guessed it... Guinness! They did provide other choices included pasta, chicken, fish salads, potatoes and dessert.

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After lunch we joined a Guinness tour guide who provided the history of the brewery as well as a walk through of the brewing process. We even had the privilege to see the backside of water!

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We also had an opportunity to get up close and personal with the various ingredients.

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After the tour we were given some time on our own to explore, so we decided to check out the 'Gravity Bar' on the 7th floor which offers a 360º view of the city of Dublin.

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We left Guiness and headed back to the hotel. The official events were over for the day leaving the group to scatter and explore on their own. However there were some optional activities for those who wanted to partake.

A tour of Trinity college which houses the "Book of Kells" which includes four Gospels of the New Testament transcribed by monks in the 6th though 9th centuries. Regarded as Irelands finest national treasure, it certainly is a masterwork of Western calligraphy.

This was an adults only adventure which offered another unique opportunity to attend a literary pub crawl that evening. We decided to return to the hotel and enjoy the resort amenities so we didn't not join in the fun, but the group who did said it was highly recommended!

The day will start early tomorrow as we need to pack and get ready for a road trip to our next destination. Killarney here we come!

Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!


June 26, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 3

Emerald Isle - Day 3 - Celtic Kingdoms

Its moving day and we are about to embark on a journey to the land of the Celtic Kingdoms. Today began with an early alarm and the reality of having to have the bags packed and ready for pick up by the hotel bell staff. One of the nice benefits of going on an Adventure By Disney is you do not have to lug your bags around. Luggage handling and tips for bell staff is included in the package so all we had to do is pack them up and have them ready by the door. The next time we'll see them is at our hotel in Killarney.

A little off topic here, but the moment we began talking about going to Killarney I got a song stuck on my head and as I write this my subconscious is signing along with such a fervor that I feel the need to mention it so it will happen to you as as well. (I like to share.)

Anyone heard of an old song "Christmas in Killarney"?
I remember it well from my youth. My dad loved many types of music from Billy Holiday to the Beatles.. and yes - even the Irish Rovers - who sang this little song about a traditional Irish Christmas. Thankfully in the age to the internet all you have to do is go to YouTube and type in "Irish Rovers Killarney" and you too can share so I'm not the only one humming it. Funny, I never really understood why my dad had such a love for these guys but I've learned a lot during this trip and now I think Im starting get it. More on that later.

Speaking of musical ties to the land we are roaming around - As a matter of fact is IS a long way to Tipperary - a town and county to the southwest of us - and we are about to hop on the bus and see just how long it truly is. Not sure where the musical tie is there? it's a famous WW1 British anthem that can also be found on YouTube.

But I digress.

We met in the lobby after another wonderful breakfast at the Exchange. Our guides confirmed the head and luggage count , we boarded the bus and were on our way.

When you travel abroad, you get a chance to experience things we take for granted in the US, simple things like what side to drive on, or what direction to look at when you cross the street. Watching street signs and other warnings becomes a game as you travel a cross a country on a bus and this time was no exception.

Today's tongue in cheek snippet is in honor of Star Wars weekend as I didn't realize there was any part of the planet where TIE fighters were actually prohibited. Or is it no more then 5 on any given day? Things that make you go - hmmmmmm

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A spot of tea anyone?

A great way to start the day is with a jolt of caffeine, or tea.. or really good hot chocolate.

About an hour and a half outside of the city of Dublin the bus pulled up to a nice little roadside hotel and we were lead to a café that served some yummy drinks and traditional scones. I couldn't decide between the call of chocolate and the need for caffeine so I went for the best of both worlds - a mocha!

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The Rock of Cashel

After another hour on the bus, listening to Jennae and Francesc weave tales of Irish lore, we began to climb up the side of a hill and turned a corner to get our first view of the Rock of Cashel.

Warning, the picture and most others just does not do it the true justice it deserves.

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The legendary origin of the site goes back to 432 AD. It's reputed to be the site of the conversion of the King of Munster by St Patrick and has been a center of royal and religious power.

When we first entered the main museum and visitors center we met a local expert who provided a tour of the interior of the vicars choral which featured beautiful tapestry and furnishings. From there she took us on a walking tour of the ruins and grounds.

The current buildings on the site date back to 12th and 13th centuries and its hard to explain but there is something truly magical there. You can really feel the energy and connect to the history as you explore the buildings and the surrounding grounds.

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The grounds are covered on three sides with graves with many marked with high crosses that look out over the valley below. These markers are exposed to the elements and are very hard to read.

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The beautiful scenery made the perfect backdrop to document the trip. Our guides were busy snapping pics of each couple including one of us.

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Built in 1127 by King Cormac, Cormac's Chapel is one of the oldest and best preserved structures. It is Romanesque in design and you can still see shapes and forms on the walls that at one time would have filled the chapel in color.

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The entrance has a strange form at the top of the door which looks more like a hippopotamus then anything. Al thought hippos aren't exactly running wild in Ireland.

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One of the most famous items on the site is St. Patrick's Cross. A concrete replica stands outside to mark the site where the Kings of Cashel and Munster were inaugurated. It is said that the cross has healing powers, particularly dental ailments, and if you are able to reach around the cross and touch your fingers, you will benefit from its powers. With encouragement from the guides the guys HAD to give it a try. But as I always say.. Adventures are always better with friends!

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The 12th century original is housed in the main visitor building and you can walk right up and have your picture taken next to the legend.

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Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!

June 27, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 4

Emerald Isle - Day 3 - Celtic Kingdoms - Continued

You just visited a 12th century castle, now what are you going to do?

Why, eat lunch of course!

We hopped back on the coach and traveled into the town of Cashel where we were free to scatter and find our own little slice of Irish foodie heaven.

Ok.. I must admit, my first thought when it came to this particular adventure itinerary was that I wasn't going for any real culinary experiences. I mean, when you think if Ireland you don't exactly think too far beyond potatoes and sheppard's pie. However, we have found the dining selections have been far beyond our expectations especially when you find a small local spot that really takes pride in its heritage and community. In Cashel, we found such a place.

As we pulled into town the guides pointed out a few of their favorite spots. They are very knowledgeable and will go out of their way to suggest a spot that will fit your taste and budget.

There were lots of options but several of us ended up at Henry's Fine Foods. It's a small storefront with plenty of seating in the back. They offer soup, sandwiches and very generous portions of fish and chips. Both Chris and I ordered the club sandwich which was terrific.

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Tip: Be sure to have a fair amount of euro handy by stopping at an ATM every once in a while. Many of the smaller shops do not accept credit cards. If you are not sure, be sure to ask before you order.

After lunch we had some time to wander through the shops and explore the area a bit.

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Even finding a map of the local area including a town specifically named for South Park fans. (ok only part of that is true)

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Killareny Plaza Hotel

We arrived in Killarney about an hour later and pulled right up to the front of our hotel. Our home for the next two nights is the Killarney Plaza Hotel right in the heart of town and within steps of shopping, pubs and Murphy's. (I'm getting to it Jennae.. I promise)

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We entered the lobby and our room keys were laid out on the center table and we received a very warm welcome from the town crier.

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The next stop was our room to settle in a bit and then head back down to the lobby for an optional meet meant for those of us with an overactive sweet tooth. (just one more paragraph and I will get to Murphy's.)

Being in the travel biz, I spend a lot of time in hotels, and I can say this one isn't exactly what I would expect for an upscale property. Its true that European standards and star ratings are much more generous then the US equivalent, but this particular hotel was more of a moderate then deluxe in terms of the room amenity quality.

It did offer some welcomed amenities like a flat screen tv, in-room tea maker, and a partial view of the Killarney National Park. But the mattresses were very hard and the bedding could definitely stand a heavenly bed upgrade. Maybe a pillow top, duvet and 600 count sheets would be a nice improvement.

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But on the flip side, you can't beat the location. This is a situation I have seen with other adventures in the past. Sometimes they will forgo a resort that might be considered more upscale for a primo location. And this one certainly fits the bill for convenience.

Ok.. Now on to Murphy's. Our guide Jennae had been talking about what was reported to be THE BEST ice cream spot in Ireland. And Chris and I were just curious enough to see if she could prove it. A group of us walked the block and a half to the small shop that features several unique choices including: Guinness (was there a question?), caramel/honeycomb, chocolate whisky truffle, and pink champagne. I tried the Baileys (yummm!) and Chris went with the chocolate whiskey.

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The schedule gave us a couple of hours off before dinner, so we returned to the hotel to unpack and relax a bit before the group dinner that night in the hotel.

After dinner, Chris and I called it an early night for some much needed rest to prepare for tomorrow and exploring Killarney National Park.

Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!

WDW Passholder Fireworks Events

Guest blogger Cedric Ching is back this time with a report on the Annual Passholder Fireworks Events at Walt Disney World on June 20, 2009.

Last Saturday (June 20, 2009), there were two WDW Passholder Events -- "A Blast With Brad", a fireworks demonstration at Disney's Wide World of Sports, followed by "Wishes! and More", a presentation that offered insight into the story and design of the popular nighttime fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom.

"A Blast With Brad" was held at Disney's Wide World of Sports and started at 4:00pm. To check-in guests, event cast members had two sets of wristbands -- gray for those who were registered for only this event and yellow for those who were also registered for that evening's presentation.

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After getting banded, we were led, in groups, down to the baseball practice field where the equipment for the fireworks demonstration was setup.

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There were covered bleachers, but as more groups arrived, cast members had to bring out additional benches and folding chairs.

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The demonstration began with a quick acknowledgment of the entities involved with the safety and regulation of hosting fireworks events on Disney property -- mentioned were the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the Department of Transportation, and Disney itself.

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Then it was time for some pyrotechnics.

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Disney Fireworks/Pyrotechnics Designer Brad Cicotti and his crew ran through a grocery list of fireworks, giving a brief description of each and naming shows where we may have recognized them from, such as "Magic, Music and Mayhem", "Dream Along With Mickey", and of course "Wishes!". They showed how a variation of the angle, color, or pace of the fireworks, different effects can be produced.

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Among the types of fireworks demonstrated were "gerbs" (fountains), comets, crossettes, and mortars. And as he set off shells of increasing intensity, Brad teased us saying that the next shell was a "concussion mortar".

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Although it was difficult for people in the bleachers to see the rockets that exploded overhead, the 40-minute demonstration, which included about 200 pieces, was quite substantial and very efficiently run.

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The event concluded with a Q&A with Brad.

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When asked about the number of shells used in their shows, he had to say that Disney typically does not discuss such matters. He did provide other other insights, such as that Disney orders their fireworks from Spain, China, Italy, as well as here in the United States. He mentioned that the pigments in the fireworks do denegrate quickly (especially red), and also that their systems were sophisticated enough that it would know which fireworks not to fire when certain weather conditions are detected.

It was a nice demonstration, but it was really, really hot outside. Still, who doesn't like to see fireworks up close?


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The second event,"Wishes! and More", started at 8:00pm with a presentation by Disney Imagineer and VP of Fireworks & Spectaculars Steven Davison at the Town Hall Theatre at the Magic Kingdom's Exposition Hall, and was followed by a viewing of the 10:00pm fireworks from a reserved area at the Magic Kingdom.

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[Due to the nature of the material covered, photography and video-taping weren't allowed during the presentation. Below, I tried to give you the essense of the information without really revealing anything. That said, you can do a quick search on YouTube for "Steven Davison Magical" and get a good sense of Steven's presentation style, which was energetic, enthusiastic, and inspiring.]

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Steven began his presentation, "Wishes: Storytelling With Fireworks", by asking the audience what we thought was the most important thing to consider when creating a fireworks show... Budget? Scope? Cool Shells?...

He suggested that it was the Story. He told us that the inspiration for Wishes! came from the story of Pinocchio. Sung at the very start of the Walt Disney film by none other than Jiminy Cricket:


"When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you

If your heart is in your dreams
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do

...

Like a boat out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true

Pretty, huh?

I'll bet a lot of you folks don't believe that...
about a wish coming true... do you?

Well, I didn't, either.

Of course, I'm just a cricket singing my way from hearth to hearth,
but let me tell you what made me change my mind.

One night a long time a..."


Next, Steven played for us the actual television commercial for Wishes! which presented the sky as the world's largest stage. And then he played the original demo of the theme song of Wishes! as performed by the composer Greg Smith.

Steven then walked us through the five sequences that comprise the story of Wishes!

Magic Starts With a Wish / Wishes Set Free
A Wish for Love
Magical Wishes
Villainous Wishes
A Wish Triumphant

For each sequence, he showed us the concept art, illustrated by Reggie Stanton, and explained how the design evolved. There were a lot of grand ideas that didn't make it in this show, but it all went to show how the story was really the most important element -- and that sometimes all of the embellishments are not necessary to successfully connect with the audience.

For the final sequence, Steven became the "Human Firework" -- accompanied by the Wishes! musical score, he acted out and described [in detail] all of the fireworks as they would appear. This demonstration was my impression of a Disney Imagineer realized. It was truly amazing.

During the presentation, he touched a couple times on Disneyland's current fireworks show "Magical" and also talked about the upcoming nighttime show set to open at Disney's California Adventure in Spring 2010, "World of Color", and indulged us with a small preview (*tease*). Afterwards, Steven held a brief Q&A in which we learned, among other things, that it took him and his team fourteen months to create Wishes!. The whole presentation was incredibly entertaining and insightful.

By then, it was time for us to make our way up Main Street U.S.A. to our reserved area, which was the area in front of the Tomorrowland Terrace Noodle Station.

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Although there weren't any desserts set up for us like at the D23 Flowers & Festival Celebration (we were spoiled before), it was still nice having the freedom to move around, and the 10:00pm Wishes! fireworks show was a wonderful ending to the day's events.

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Thank you Disney for these special opportunities. I look forward to future WDW Passholder events.

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**********

Previous blog by Cedric:
D23 Flower & Fireworks Celebration at Epcot

Cedric Ching is a resident of Florida's East Coast and tries to make it to the parks at least a twice a month with his camera and his Stitch, in search of magical moments. He enjoys taking pictures and running.

Cedric has completed two Disney marathons and one Goofy Challenge (will being running Goofy #2 with my two sisters in 2010) and loves the Yakitori House in Epcot for dining.

June 28, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 5

Emerald Isle - day 4 - Cycle of Kings and Queens

The official word of the day is coill, pronounced quill, which is Irish for forest. This is very fitting because the first item on the agenda is to explore the beauty of Ireland's first national park, Killarney National Park.

But we weren't going to pull up in any old tour bus. No. Disney had a nice surprise waiting for us. After breakfast in the hotel restaurant we walked across the street to our awaiting chariots.

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Each of the horse drawn jaunting cars could accommodate seven guests or so and featured a driver who doubled as a tour guide as we slowly traveled out of town and through the gates of the Killarney National Park. Along the way we were treated to the beautiful scenery of the park - lakes, trees, flowers, the green fields and even some random ruins, including an abbey dating back the mid 1400s.

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Muckross House

As the end of the trail stands the Muckcross house. Built in 1843, the 65 room Tudor style mansion played host to Queen Victoria, after 6 years of redecoration and improvements especially for her visit. (wouldn't it be nice to have that kind of advanced warning to prep for house guests?) It was purchased by an American in 1910 and given to his daughter Maud as a wedding present. When she died the family donated the house and surrounding estate to the Irish government who in turn passed the Bourn Vincent Memorial park act, and later creating the National park we see today. The interiors are stunning as many of the rooms have been restored to the original Victorian opulence. Lead glass chandeliers, beautifully carved woodwork and period art provide a glimpse into life in the 19th century.

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Traveling with a group has many advantages. You have a unique opportunity to meet some really great people and forge life long friendships. The guides take care of many of the little annoyances of travel so you can enjoy.

Case in point .. You want a really cool pic with all of your new friends on your camera and everyone else does too? The guides double as your own personal Photo Sherpa's! The really good ones can even take two pics at a time! Here's Jennae taking the pic above. (You go girl!)

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Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!

June 29, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 6

Emerald Isle - day 4 - Cycle of Kings and Queens - Continued

Journey to Torc Waterfall

Many of the Adventures By Disney trips I have taken have incorporated an opportunity to get some exercise on two wheels and I am very happy to say Emerald Isle is one of them. Some of our best memories on the itineraries have been the hour or so spent on bikes pedaling around like 10 year olds.

After we left the Muckross house, the group was given the option explore the grounds or hop on a bike and journey the primarily flat route to the trail head leading to the Torc Waterfall.

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Francesc lead the group as we parked our bikes and started the short hike up the well maintained trail.

Have you ever been to the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest? If not, have you seen 'Twilight" - when they were showing the green forests near the Forks, WA area? Either way, I would think I was there if I didn't know for a fact I was in Ireland.

It was amazing to walk alongside a babbling brook with a canopy of green overhead to the waterfall. And of course we had to have a little fun with it!

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A hearty lunch at the Muckross Gardens Restaurant was included in today's itinerary. They had a private area reserved for us so when we made our way through the maze of choices at the cafeteria we had a spot ready and waiting for us. You could choose salads, sandwiches, fish & chips, sheppard's pie, roast beef, mashed potatoes. I'm telling ya. These people take food pretty seriously" Yummy!!

After lunch we were given some time to explore the grounds and gardens or wander the shops on our own before hopping back on our bus to explore the next ruin on the agenda.

Ross Castle - Courtesy of the O'Donoghue clan

Standing on the edge of the lake is Ross Castle. Built in the 1400's by the O'Donoghues' it changed ownership several times and was actually among the last to surrender to Oliver Cromwell's advances through the country.

The castle is surrounded by Irish lore including the legend that O'Donogue Mor leaped out of the window at the top of the castle and disappeared into the waters of the lake where he now sleeps. But every seven years, on the first morning of May, he rises from the water on his white horse and circles the lake. Anyone lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him is assured good fortune.

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Here is where we also hear the story of the Children of Lir. A sad story really but legends and lore do tend to have an abundance of that don't they? Basically its about the anger of a stepmother who was jealous of the love her husband had for his children from a previous marriage She took it upon herself to turn his children into swans and lie to him about the fate of his offspring. Eventually he learns of the plot and banishes her from his land. However the children must endure 900 years of paddling around until they hear the bell of a new god in their land. There are several endings to the story, but I like the one where thanks in part to St Patrick bringing a new faith to Ireland, the spell is broken and they lived happily ever after.

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After our visit to Ross castle, we were given the option to hop the bus, or take the 10 minute walk back to the hotel. We choose the faster route so I could get back and do a few things like catch up on email, blog a bit etc.

The afternoon and evening were free to explore the town that is right at the doorstep of the hotel. Lots of great pubs, shopping and eateries. Not to mention the temptation of a second visit to Murphy's for ice cream. Maybe I'll try Chocolate whiskey this time.

Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!


June 30, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 7

Emerald Isle - Day 5 - Ring around the Kenmare

Have I got a word for you: Muckanaghederdauhaulia

I'm not kidding.. really. Say that ten times fast! (or even once")

It's the word for the day and is Irish for "Over the hill and the dale." And is the longest village name in Ireland.

And I have trouble with the names back home like - Snoqualmie or Stillaguamish. Yeesh..

Today we woke up to the first really overcast, cold and misty day we have encountered since the beginning of the trip. Up until now the sunny skies and mid to upper 70's temps had us lulled into a false sense of security that all the tales we heard about cold days and rainy weather was nothing more then Irish lore. For a while I had regrets about packing the heavier shirts and jacket but today has seemingly justified the action.

I must admit, I was feeling a little lazy today, so the weather offered the perfect excuse to sleep in a bit. However we did miss the optional serenity walk offered by the guides which by the sound of it would have been more then worth the loss of a little sleep.

We did manage to get ourselves up and to breakfast with plenty of time to make the meeting time in the lobby.

Kenmare Bay Eco-Cruise

We enjoyed a nice drive through the country to Kenmare Bay where we would board a small boat to experience an eco cruise around the bay.

On the lower of the two levels, was a covered seating area and small beverage bar serving up hot chocolate on this chilly day. The upper level was an open deck to take advantage of the view we did have through the fog and mist. Of course, take a bunch of adults on an adults trip (aka.. free of child supervision) and what do they do right after the introductory talk? Head right to the top deck rain for an hour of windblown fun!

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I think Francesc is doing his best reaction to the statement -"Oh My Gosh".. I'm on the SS Minnow?" or "Ice berg right ahead!" More likely he is holding on for dear life as the wind nearly knocking everyone around a bit.

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Of course there is a great pic of me doing my best South Park Kenny impression on the trip photo cd but since Photopass wont allow an immediate download, I will have to post it later when the CD arrives. Someone be sure to remind me ok? J

The Town of Kenmare
Back on dry land, we made our way to the small town of Kenmare which translates to 'Little Nest". With a population of just under 2000 the name is very appropriate.

The area was actually granted to an English scientist by good old rampage and pillager Oliver Cromwell, for the completion of mapping Ireland in 1656.

However, evidence of history going back to the bronze age (2200-500 BC) in the form of one of the largest Stone Circles in Ireland. These are believed to have been created for ritual and ceremonial purposes and were often oriented on lunar and solar events.

This circle is actually egg shaped and is comprised of 15 very heavy boulders with a seven ton capstone in the middle. Its suspected the center is a boulder dolmen, marking the grave of someone very important. So I have no idea why each couple decided they should try and move the dang thing. (With the encouragement of the guides of course!) No idea what could be unleashed around here - but I do love a good story.

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After giving up on the possibility of moving anything, we were set loose to explore the town and find lunch.

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The guides provided a few suggestions but it was made quite clear that one of the best opportunities for fish and chips on the entire itinerary could be found here in Kenmare. We were warned they do tend sell out, so several of us walked up the street in hopes of finding out just how good they are.

When we arrived we found the tiny shop was closed and there were many groans of disappointment. Chris was on a mission for the fish and chips and was not about to give up easily. He peered in the windows till he spotted a gal who indicted they would indeed be opening in about 15 minutes. (And the hungry peasants rejoiced!!)

We walked around the town window shopping a bit until we saw the door being propped open. The portions were very generous so Chris and I split a lunch serving and indeed they were terrific and reasonably priced as well.

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After lunch we explored the town and having a little time before the bus was set to depart. We stopped in a pub and enjoyed an Irish coffee which was conveniently poured in a to-go cup when we realized we didn't have much time before we needed to be back.

How Many Shades of Green are There?
The old song says there are only 40 but I think I passed that number and stopped counting days ago.

The drive back to Killarney was breathtaking. Beautiful, lush countryside and pockets of green everywhere you turn. Curiously placed stone walls set by families long long ago to mark their land and provide protected areas for their grazing sheep - and they still stand today.

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And even a hidden mickey " on its side". kinda.

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On the way the coach stopped at an overlook called 'Ladies View', named by the Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting on their visit to the area in 1861. And what do you see in forefront of that very majestic view?

Why.. ladies waiting of course! (on the men in their lives - no doubt) J

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Ok.. ok.. to be fair the guys had a chance to ham it up too!

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Upon returning to the hotel, we decided to relax a bit and spend some quality time together napping. (wow .. all that waiting must of really tired us out!)

Others in the group relaxed or attended a demonstration of Irish dance right there at the hotel.

Bags were set to be picked up in the morning as we will be headed to our final hotel. Is it really going on Day 6 already?

Missed an entry? Here's the link to the entire Emerald Isle Blog to date!

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken is a veteran of 4 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 50 cruises including 18 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney. Here is her blog on the Backstage Magic Adventure!

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About June 2009

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

March 2009 is the previous archive.

July 2009 is the next archive.

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