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March 1, 2012

Piloting Walt Disney World paddleboat a magical moment for my son

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Recently, my 9-year-old son had a magical experience at the Magic Kingdom that he can't stop talking about. Now, before you ask, "Well, aren't most experiences at Walt Disney World magical?" let me say this was an unexpected surprise. I'm sure you know what I mean -- when a cast member goes the extra mile to do something unscheduled or unplanned just to add a little pixie dust to a guest's day.

It began when my daughter and I went to meet with Rapunzel and my husband and son, seeking a little something more adventuresome, joined the queue to ride onboard the Liberty Belle, the Magic Kingdom's iconic riverboat. Like many boys, my son is fascinated by the different modes of transportation at Disney. So as he and my husband were chatting with a cast member about various aspects of the triple-deck paddleboat, my husband asked if guests were allowed to ride in the wheelhouse.

To my son's great joy, the answer was "yes." Not only that, but he was allowed to pilot the boat on its 17-minute journey on the Rivers of America around Tom Sawyer Island. (Before you fear for your life the next time you step on the Liberty Belle, know that it runs on a track and the "steering" is all part of the "story.") On the way up to the helm, my son passed through the captain's quarters, modeled after a cabin on a 19th century paddleboat. It was a unique site that many passengers might not readily notice behind the wooden doors that lead to the wheelhouse atop the Liberty Belle. (See AllEars photos of the captain's quarters with this feature.)

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Once up top, he had the best view on the ship, almost eye level with many of the adjacent attractions, such as the tallest hill on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The pilothouse isn't large, but there was plenty of room for the cast member and my son to man the open-window helm while my husband watched. There even was an elevated platform behind the wheel that allowed my son to stand a little higher and see out over the wheel and across the bow.

My son was encouraged to ring the bell and blow the horn at the halfway point of the journey. He had a unique vantage point for seeing all the familiar sites along the river: the Native American encampment, the white river markers, the wooden fort on the island. Perhaps the best part of the journey, though, was hearing about the pilot's experiences on the Liberty Belle. Luckily for him, the cast member who provided the tour was someone who had been manning the helm of the boat for some time, so he had lots of stories to share.

At the end of the trip, my son received a special pilot's license, good for one year at Walt Disney World. He was thrilled. We're just happy it specifies where he is allowed to pilot boats.

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You can read more about the Liberty Square Riverboat on AllEars: History of the Liberty Belle and taking a Ride on the Liberty Belle (includes video)!

Walt and the Promise of Progress City: The Building Blocks of Disney Theme Park Design

EDITOR'S NOTE: Over the next few months, AllEars.Net will be highlighting exclusive excerpts from Sam Gennawey's book, Walt and the Promise of Progress City. The book explores the process through which meaningful and functional spaces were created by Walt Disney and his artists, as well as how guests understand and experience those spaces. It also takes a look how Walt wanted to change the public's expectations about city life in the same way his earlier work had redefined what it meant to watch an animated film or visit an amusement park. In this month's excerpt, we learn about the signature building blocks that make Disney the innovators in theme park physical design.

The Building Blocks of Disney Theme Park Design
by Sam Gennawey

The Berm

At Disneyland, Bill Evans built a 20-foot mound of earth -- or berm -- that completely surrounds the park. A berm is a narrow ledge or shelf generally made of dirt with the top or bottom of a slope planted with trees and plants to control a view. Along the top edge is a dense layer of plant materials. At Disneyland, the berm is one of the defining physical features; it is what separates the theme park from the rest of the adjacent development and from the world. The use of the berm was adopted from both the Burbank studio and Walt's home in Holmby Hills. The berm allowed Walt to control the environment, create a more intimate setting, and prevent visual and sound intrusions. Bill Evans taught Walt: "Trees alone won't do that. It takes about a hundred feet of dense trees to block sound, but you can do that with about 20 feet of earth."

Referring to the berm at Disneyland, Norman Klein says in The Vatican to Vegas, "Technically a berm was the shoulder of earth that obscured Anaheim from visitors. As a narrative, the berm was the proscenium arch, marking the reassuring boundaries of the scripted space." The berm created a horizon for many of the vistas within the park. In the 1990s, the Disney Imagineers expanded the definition of the berm so that they could apply it to the stores and other indoor environments. Today, they consider the berm to be "the threshold... isolating the visitor from the street, and inviting a theatrical suspension of disbelief."

The Wienie

At the end of each pathway that radiates out from the Plaza Hub is what Walt called a "wienie" -- typically a strong vertical physical element that functions as a view terminus. Walt observed that people move toward things that are inviting, and, borrowing from silent-era comedy films, he coined the term "wienie" to refer to such things. Why wienie? In The Vatican to Vegas, Norman Klein quipped, "The movie dog jumps on cue because someone wiggles a frankfurter off screen. That is what Walt Disney meant by a wienie." John Hench defined a wienie as 'A beckoning hand [that] promises something worthwhile; its friendly beckoning fingers say, 'Come this way. You'll have a good time.'" Historian Steven Watts says wienies, "were the large visual attractions in each 'land', which caught the eye and drew people along preordained routes so that the crowds flowed smoothly." Wienies build memories and make for repeat visits. They are the centerpieces of the scripted space.

Virtual Reality

Disneyland is a virtual reality experience of the first order. The Imagineers used cinematic techniques and applied them to three-dimensional spaces. At the time of Disneyland's design and construction, the movie industry was going through major changes to compete with television. Cinemascope and 3­D movies were all the rage.18 Norman Klein said, "The screen that surrounded and invaded and was immersive in scale seemed particularly appealing. It seemed modern, panoramic, wall to wall." The early Imagineers based many of the Disneyland design considerations on a basic theatrical storytelling tool called the "Elements of Setting." In the theater and motion pictures, production designers rely on six elements to frame the experience: location, time, historical time, seasonal time, daily time, and weather. John Hench tailored this approach especially for theme parks, saying that designers must focus on form, space, and time -- with form being the story you are trying to tell. Hench said, "Disneyland wasn't really a radical step for Walt because even in the two-dimensional world of motion pictures space is implied. In fact, we used many of the techniques we had learned from the films and applied them to the third dimension. And when we set up a kind of story in our own mind, we would establish an imaginary long shot as if we were taking it with motion pictures." Karal Ann Marling warned, "The cinematic approach to architecture succeeds or fails with the first establishing shot."

In Walt's 1953 proposal for the park, he said, "Like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass, to step through the portals of Disneyland will be like entering another world." According to Jeff Kurtti in Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends, "For Walt, Disneyland was a world seen through fantasy, a place of warmth and nostalgia, full of 'illusion and color and delight.'" Kurtti continues to describe that "quality without a name" by saying, "Walt sought to create a 'storybook realism,' an essence of genuineness and authenticity that is more utopian, more romanticized than the actual environments could ever be."

So it is that each of the lands at Disneyland represents a major cinematic genre of the early 1950s. Main Street, U.S.A. is home. Adventureland is movie exotica. Frontierland brings to life all of the westerns that were on television and in the movies. Fantasyland allows Walt's animated films to come to life. Tomorrowland is a science fiction portal. John Hench suggested, "To design an enhanced reality we must intensify above all the visual elements of storytelling, creating a vibrant, larger-than-life environment."
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Interested in Walt and the Promise of Progress City? Order it through the AllEars.Net Amazon store HERE!


March 2, 2012

Disney Fantasy Christening March 1, 2012

Disney Fantasy Christening

Disney Fantasy Christening

Disney Fantasy Christening

Disney Fantasy Christening

Disney Fantasy Christening


Photos courtesy of Beci Mahnken, MEI and MouseFanTravel.com

Rediscover Disney Through the Eyes of a First-Timer

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You are a die-hard Disney fan, a lot like me! I know this is true because you are reading this blog. You must be a devoted fan if you are here at AllEars.net and discovered this link.

You know the Disney parks like the back of your hand. You have visited them so many times that you know the quickest way to get from the Haunted Mansion to the Pirates of the Caribbean. That's right . . . just past the Diamond Horseshoe you turn left, duck through the alley, pass the rest rooms and turn right into Adventureland.

You are aware that as you leave Frontierland and enter Adventureland things change. The background music changes, the plant life changes, the building facades change, even the texture of the concrete you are walking on changes. You have moved from one world and into another. You are in another place and another time.

There are so many little factors that all add up to what we call "The Disney Magic" . . . and you understand them. You feel The Disney Magic. You "get it".

You appreciate how the parks are designed to immerse you in magic. You notice all the little things that they really didn't have to do when they designed and built the attractions. But they built them in anyway; it's all part of the magic.

There are lots of people who don't get it. They don't feel the magic and they will never understand why you do. You probably have friends who say, "Why do you always go to Disney World? It's a place for kids." Others will tell you, "I went to Disney World (or Disneyland) one day. It was too crowded and there wasn't much to see." These people probably annoy you; they annoy me too.

Now cast your memory back to your first trip to a Disney park. Wasn't it overwhelming? Oh yes, it was wonderful, but there was so much to see and you didn't know where to start. I see those people in the parks all the time, just like I was back in 1977, confused or frustrated looks on their faces, looking at a guide map, bewildered.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could go back and do your very first trip over again, but this time do it with the benefit of all you now know about Disney? How much more could you have seen and enjoyed that first time if you knew your way around like you do today?

I wish I could make that happen, I'd sure like to have a "do-over" too.

But there is a way to enjoy that kind of experience. Take a friend who's never been there before and act as their tour guide. Give them the benefit of all you have learned. Pay it forward!

If you are at all like me you will enjoy watching them see it all for the first time. It's like a vicarious first time for me; I take pleasure in every oooh and aaah. It even works with someone who has not been there in a number of years as they see the new attractions and take delight in seeing their Disney favorites again.

My wife Carol and I have had the chance to do this several times. Each time it was a unique experience for us.

Over ten years ago we treated her parents to a week-long trip to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. We acted as their tour guides. Carol's Mom had been there a number of times, most recently in 1993, but for her Dad it was a first.

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He just loved the theming at the Port Orleans French Quarter resort and beamed as we took the boat ride to Downtown Disney. He soaked in every experience we threw at him and looked happier than I had ever seen him. My most vivid memory from the trip was watching him enjoy MuppetVision 3D. Visualize a seventy-two year old man giggling throughout the show . . . there is an inner child in all of us and its magic when we let that child loose!

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They enjoyed it so much that they have gone back six times on their own and also gone on three Disney cruises.

About six years ago we had just returned from the annual EPCOT Pin Trading Event and were telling my mother about the fun we had. She sighed wistfully and said, "I sure would like to get back there one more time." She had been there twice, the last time was 22 years prior in 1983. We decided to grant her wish and within a month we were back at our favourite place. We spent five glorious days racing around the parks pushing her in a wheelchair . . . she could walk, but we made much better time with the chair. In five days we saw virtually every attraction in each park. She was beaming, grinning from ear to ear the whole time.

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What was my seventy-six year old mother's favourite thing? Lets see . . . was it the banana split she had for lunch at the Plaza Restaurant? No. Was it riding in the front on the monorail? No. Was it Mickey's PhilharMagic where she reached out to grab the jewels as Ariel sang about "whoosits and whatsits galore"? No. When we were all done, we had seen it all, we asked what she would like to see again on the sixth day, our last day there. She quickly replied, "The Hall of Presidents." I thought it an odd thing for a Canadian to ask, but off we went . . . after all, it was her dream!

Recently, while we were camped at Fort Wilderness, we got a phone call from some long time friends from our home town. They were just leaving Nashville in their RV and decide to stop in to see us for a few days on their way to Key Largo. We arranged to have them assigned the campsite right beside us and they pulled in a few days later at noon. He had never been to Walt Disney World and she had not been there since the 1980's. They had a day and a half until they had to leave. Wow . . . what to do? We asked what they wanted to see, the reply was, "You are the experts, bring it on!" So we did.

The first day, after they had their RV set up, was all about resorts. Since they are campers we showed them around Fort Wilderness, then caught the launch to Wilderness Lodge and the Contemporary Resort Hotel.

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We took a quick spin around the resort monorail loop and pointed out the sights as we passed them by. After dinner at Trail's End we drove around in the golf cart and enjoyed the awesome Christmas decorations at "The Fort". We finished our day by watching Wishes and the Electric Water Pageant from the Fort Wilderness beach. Their comment at the end of the night? "Wow, we had a lot of fun today and it was all free!"

The next morning we hit the ground running. EPCOT! We covered the entire park in a day; we saw every attraction and rode every ride except Imagination.

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It was a whirlwind, but a great time. The highlights? Well, they are both car buffs so naturally they enjoyed Test Track but I really enjoyed watching them as they smelled the pine forest and the orange grove in Soarin'. He had a huge grin when we stopped near the archway at Innoventions to watch the Jam-itors play. In Canada we watched the CircleVision movie. You can almost see their cottage in the movie. Its near that bridge in the Thousand Islands. "Look," they said, "there's Smuggler's Bay." They were both tapping their toes as The British Revolution played behind the UK pavilion.

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After a great dinner at Chefs de France we continued our way around World Showcase and finished just in time to watch Illuminations. He asked, "Do they do this every night?" Yup . . . every night.

The next morning, as they pulled out, the thanks were effusive. But they didn't need to say thanks; just being able to watch them enjoy themselves had been thanks enough.

Our latest experience with a "first-timer" was just a few weeks ago. Carol used to visit Walt Disney World with her good friend Judy when the children were young. Judy had not been there since 1997 and her husband Scott had never been there. They booked a two-week trip and stayed at Port Orleans French Quarter; we decided to take the RV to Fort Wilderness and enjoy some time there with our friends. We had a great time and so did they!

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We didn't spend a great deal of time with them; they mostly explored on their own. We got them oriented at the parks Judy had not seen before and then let them enjoy it, at their own pace. Most evenings we met for dinner and I really enjoyed hearing Scott recap all the things they did each day.

I interviewed Scott after the trip so he could tell you about his experiences in his own words:

Gary: Your wife Judy had told you many things about Walt Disney World before you went. When you actually got there was it what you were expecting?

Scott: I was not expecting the size of the complex, I figured that the individual parks were quite large and that it would take a number of days to fully appreciate what they had to offer, but the space between each was huge! I had no idea the Disney property is so big.

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G: What was the most surprising thing during your visit?

S: First I was surprised to see so many school-aged children there during the school term and not on a school holiday. Secondly I was amazed at the sheer number of people there on a daily basis. And lastly I saw lots of old grey haired people there too!

G: What was your favourite experience or attraction?

S: My most enjoyable part of Disney was the EPCOT Park. There I was able to see, hear, smell, taste and learn all about different countries that I no doubt will never visit, and I was able to do this, for the most part, at a very leisurely pace.

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G: Is there anything you would like to do at Walt Disney World but didn't have a chance to do this time? Will you do it if you go back?

S: That's an easy question! I would like to play golf at two or three of the courses there. We're already talking about going back this October and I hope to play a round or two with my son-in-law.

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G: Was there anything you didn't like?

S: There was only one thing I didn't like about my vacation in Disney and that was leaving the lovely weather and returning to possibly two more months of winter here in Canada.

G: Is there anything you would do differently if you visit again?

S: If I was to visit Disney again I probably would not spend as much time in the Magic Kingdom. I found it quite confusing to navigate around. I am not a big fan of the Disney characters and I have not been brought up in a "magical atmosphere"; that's probably why I don't appreciate what the Magic Kingdom has to offer. The crowds there were larger too! I would shorten my stay at Disney Studios as well. There were a few things there that I found interesting. I really enjoyed Toy Story and Lights, Motors, Action. But for the most part I found it too was a little confusing to get around. The Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios weren't my favorites; EPCOT and Animal Kingdom had a lot more to suit my taste.

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G: What advice would you give to someone else who is visiting for the first time?

S: I would suggest that 2-3 weeks are required to completely see and do everything there is to enjoy. I would also recommend that you try all forms of transportation Disney offers as each is unique and each offers a different visual perspective on the way the complex was built. I really enjoyed the boat ride from Port Orleans to Downtown Disney. As we sailed past all those resorts and golf courses on our way to the shopping, dining and entertainment area I developed a real appreciation for the diversity of this amazing vacation destination. Oh yeah, also make sure you have reservations for dinner at 'Ohana. I sure loved those shrimp!

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G: People often say that Walt Disney World is only for children. How would you reply to them?

S: I felt that the main theme of Walt Disney World was to make children happy and it did! It also made it very easy for the parents to achieve that goal. It is a terrific spot for children. But I also felt that it was a great place to go for an adult vacation. It offers a great selection of accommodations and excellent dinning options. It certainly offers plenty of things to see and plenty to learn in a very safe and clean environment. Having seen everything for the first time I now look forward to going back for another relaxing vacation at Walt Disney World.

Every time Carol and I visit Walt Disney World with a "first-timer" we see something fresh, something brand new. Sure, we've seen it many times before but now we're looking from a fresh perspective. It really is like seeing it all again for the first time.

So if you're looking for a way to see "The Disney Magic" again for the first time, try visiting with a "first-timer". Take all that Disney expertise you have gathered over the years and Pay it Forward. We enjoy the experience and I think you will too!

March 3, 2012

Have you discovered these out-of-the-way play areas at Walt Disney World?

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Before I knew better, I wondered why parents would spend time at the various playgrounds within Walt Disney World when there are so many other unique things to do only on Disney property. Now, after taking my own kids to Disney World for almost a decade, I understand -- everyone needs a break!

You might have to look a little harder to find the playgrounds at Magic Kingdom these days. The two biggest play areas for young kids -- Pooh's Thoughful Play Spot and one in Mickey's Toontown Fair -- have been dismantled to make way for the new Fantasyland expansion, which begins rolling out this year.

But there are two great places where kids can climb, tucked out of the way at Magic Kingdom, and one at Epcot. (By the way, I'm not talking about the new interactive queues, like the one at The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh, which really help pass the time in line, or the gigantic playground at Disney's Hollywood Studios. I'm looking for "hidden" spots where kids can get moving vertically -- and burn off some of that pent-up energy.)
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Under the Frontierland train station and adjacent to Splash Mountain is The Laughing Place, a cute playground designed for guests no taller than 40 inches. The main area looks like a room in the base of the tree, where characters from Song of the South live. Next door is a small house with a toddler slide. Every time I've walked past the play area, kids are climbing on the roofs, though I doubt that was what was originally intended by the Imagineers. The only thing I dislike about this play area is the lack of seating for waiting adults. (Jack Spence tells us more about the story of Br'er Rabbit at Disney World here.)

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The next time your kids are exploring Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom, be sure to climb to the top of the hill, where a small play structure awaits. It's looks like a place where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn's imagination ran wild. A nearby area mimics one of the rafts guests ride across the Rivers of America; kids can stand at the helm to steer or ring a bell.

Over at Epcot, there is a fantastic interactive area inside the base of the Mission: SPACE ride. Enter through the gift shop and you'll find the Advanced Training Lab, which includes several different types of video games, plus play tunnels and a kiosk to email space postcards.

Space Base features two levels of connecting tunnels and lots of interactive features like buttons, sounds and nets. A big plus: I have yet to see young kids become afraid and stop in the tunnels. I think most parents are happy to not relive their climbs to the top of fast-food play structures to rescue sobbing youngsters.

Expedition: Mars is a joystick-controlled video game, and Space Race is a team competition in which as many as 60 people work together to send their rocket back to Earth. (You can read more about Mission: SPACE on this AllEars page.)

Looking ahead, when Storybook Circus is completed at the Magic Kingdom, it will feature a different sort of play area, and it certainly won't be "hidden." The Casey Jr. Roundhouse is all about water and will feature mist and fountains. Plus, little ones can check out the monkeys, elephants and camels. It's good to see that area of the park retain a water feature.

So, do you have some lesser-known play spots at Walt Disney World you'd like to share?

March 6, 2012

Disney introduces Epcot in Bloom, Disney Mobile Magic to new mobile users

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Disney is introducing two theme-park tools for mobile devices to new audiences.

At the end of February, iPhones users were excited to learn that the Disney Mobile Magic app is now available to them and Android users for free. Disney Mobile Magic debuted in 2009 for Verizon-only phones and cost $9.99 for a 180-day subscription. The much-talked-about app is the first official Disney Parks app to list wait times for rides and FastPass return times. (The app utilizes the same system that issues the times in the theme parks.)

Other interactive features for the app include GPS-enabled park maps to get you to your favorite characters, mobile games and the ability to make dining reservations. Verizon customers can unlock bonus content that includes sneak-peek videos, a pirates game, Disney character puzzle and Disney character quiz.

While my family was at Disney's Hollywood Studios this past weekend, we tried the app. We were most interested in the official wait times for rides. After all, that's what differentiates this app from others, or even Disney Parks' paper schedule. When the app worked, it definitely was a helpful tool. Coverage was spotty, though, and I'm not sure if that was due to our AT&T service, the park we were in, the weather, or some other factor. We'll keep trying, though. One downside is that the app will not display wait times until you are in an actual Disney park.

We did like that the app will allow you to set reminders for your FastPasses and shows you plan to attend. On the wish list: Making the app available in other countries and offering Wi-Fi in the theme parks so Disney Mobile Magic is available to more guests. I know my kids would love to be able to use their iPod touches while waiting in the queues.

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Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

Guests attending the 2012 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, which begins Wednesday, will be able to access a mobile website called Epcot in Bloom. The site is available now at http://m.epcotinbloom.com, but certain features are unlocked when the guest scans a QR code like the one below from inside Epcot. There are 12 audio tour locations and 14 topiaries that have QR codes.

The site includes maps, event guides and an audio guide. I especially like the "Kid Fun" section in the event guide. It's too bad, however, that the photo of the new play equipment -- which is always a big draw for kids -- is an older image. Hopefully, that will be fixed soon. You can see this year's new and more elaborate play equipment in the links in my AllEars article about kids and the festival.

Another fun aspect is the Topiary Hunt. There are more than 75 at Epcot and it's your job to find them! A character list tells you who to look for and which plants and flowers are used in each topiary.

This mobile website is similar to one that launched in the fall for the Epcot Food & Wine Festival and was quite popular. Disney World also had a website dedicated to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party last year.

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March 8, 2012

Disney debuts reading apps for children of different ages

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In recent weeks, Disney has released a versatile group of digital apps based on classic characters. Most work on all Apple devices -- the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. My 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son tested a group of beautifully illustrated storybooks with me.

The "The Lion King: Timon's Tale" and "Tangled: Storybook Deluxe" are the first full-length interactive storybook apps from Disney Publishing Worldwide to integrate film animation into reading. They are available for $4.99 and $6.99, respectively, on iTunes.

Both have "Read to me" and "Read on my own" features, which are useful as your child progresses in his or her reading skills. When the narration is turned on in the "Read on my own" section, words are highlighted as they are read. This mimics the finger-tracking that beginning readers are encouraged to do with each book.

I can certainly see the value in downloading apps like these for young kids' bedtime stories, especially when you're traveling. I remember weighing down suitcases with piles of books when we went on vacation when my kids were little, and apps such as these certainly would have helped me travel lighter.

Overall, though, we all agreed the "Tangled" app was a better value for the extra money. Both kids liked the coloring feature and my daughter enjoyed the "Catch the Lantern" game. Plus, it has other interactive opportunities for her to record her voice and solve puzzles.

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"The Lion King" didn't offer much beyond the storybook that appealed to my elementary-school-age children. Younger children, though, might get more out of the app's features, such as one that allows them to roar with the lions.

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Disney also has released "Beauty and the Beast: Storybook Deluxe," a 3-D version, for the iPad. Eleven scenes have been updated with animation from the re-released film, along with special 3-D effects - no glasses required. Plus, the app has been reduced from $8.99 to $4.99.

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Apps with wide appeal

"Pooh's Birthday Surprise" and "Toy Story Showtime" appealed to both of my children because of the popular characters and the related activities, even though they are at different reading levels.

Both apps are designed to reinforce early literacy concepts. After following along with the story on "Pooh's Birthday Surprise," readers can use tap-and-play technology to decorate cupcakes, replace items Tigger has bounced off a table, and help Pooh match his gifts to the givers. My kids liked the cupcake games the best, and I suspect that's because they reminded them of another of their favorite apps, "Cupcake Maker."

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On "Toy Story Showtime!" kids are invited to join Buzz Lightyear as he sets out to impress Jessie the Cowgirl in the talent show. As Buzz tries his luck at everything from comedy to juggling, emerging readers discover new vocabulary words. Afterward, they can dance in the talent show themselves by tapping "tap," "kick," "spin" and "bow" at appropriate times. Then, readers can create a dance for Buzz by clicking "twitch," "slide," "kick," "sway," "hop," and "bow." This is actually pretty amusing, even for my 9-year-old. Plus, there's a a spelling game afterward that puts different Toy Story characters on stage.

"Pooh's Birthday Surprise" and "Toy Story Showtime" each sell for $4.99.

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Most interactive app

The most interactive new Disney app that we tested is "The Amazing Spider-Man: An Origin Story." This story has integrated games into each section of the storybook. The activities allow readers to test their strength, swing through the city and use web-shooters to stop burglars.

"The Amazing Spider-Man app is a terrific first introduction to the Spider-Man story for young readers," said Stan Lee, who voices the narration of the characters he created.

Readers also have the chance to help Spider-Man suit up in his gear through drawing exercises and hunt for secret "No-Prizes" within the app, which were originally implemented in 1964 by Lee when a Spider-Man fan found a continuity error in a comic and wrote a letter to the publisher.

"The Amazing Spider-Man: An Origin Story" is more expensive at $6.99, but it offers more ways to keep kids interested in the story. We all liked the games interspersed in the story.

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Best reminder of the theme parks

If you're missing the Disney theme parks, the "it's a small world" app is for you. This continually moving app is beautifully illustrated by Joey Chou and certainly recalls the classic ride. It takes readers on a global journey with the original Sherman Brothers' song lyrics, which appear on the screen. I think this app would appeal to younger children who are not into gaming yet, or to adults who are looking to pass the time. There are no additional games or interactive features included with this app. It does end with a bang, though, as some of the children are lying down watching fireworks light up the sky over and over again.

Consumer Reports actually recommends this app, which costs $3.99.

Want to see for yourself before buying? Check out demonstrations of all the apps at http://www.youtube.com/disneydigitalbooks

March 9, 2012

Disney Vinylmations – I tried not to get hooked!

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The first time I set eyes on a Vinylmation was December 2008; I was in the Art of Disney Store at Downtown Disney. There was a little white vinyl figure of Mickey standing on the shelf; there were actually quite a few of them. A young couple was admiring them and she announced that she just had to have one. Without trying to sound too "out of it" I asked the cast member what they were. The cast member shrugged, rolled her eyes and explained that it was a "Vinylmation". The 3 inch white Mickey was released November 7th at the Festival of the Masters and the objective was to paint or decorate your own Mickey. Hmmm - I didn't think I wanted to do that.

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During December 2008 Disney released the first series of Vinylmations; it was called Park Series 1 and consisted of 12 different designs. The 3 inch figures were each in a blind box, you didn't know what you were getting, and they were sold from a case that contained 24 blind boxes. Each case had 2 times 10 of the designs, 3 times one of the designs and 1 of one design that was called a chaser. Of course the chaser was not only the rare item to find but also a mystery as the picture of the chaser was not on the outside of the box or case. The first series was a limited release and when they were gone of course another series would be available.

I didn't have any interest in these little guys at that time; I just didn't get it. Then in April of 2009 I was at the World of Disney store in NYC and they had cases of the Urban Series 1 Vinylmations. This series was also a blind box series and you know what they say about curiosity, well my curiosity got the better of me and I bought two boxes. That was the start of a new collecting obsession for me, I had taken a bite of the apple and I was hooked.

The first box I opened was a solid gold Mickey - how boring! The second box I opened was some weird design. Well I would just trade them for something I liked, not a problem. I almost traded that gold Mickey but for some reason decided to hang on to it. I later found out it was the chaser and was a grand prize to have.

With each series of 3 inch Vinylmations released there are also a couple of 9 inch characters released. The 9 inch Vinylmations are in window boxes so you can see what you are getting. Sometimes the 9 inch Vinylmation will also have a 3 inch companion Vinylmation in the box. I try not to look at these guys; I only own one 9 inch and I want to keep it that way.

I like the 3 inch Vinylmations for a few reasons. One, they are small and easy to display; second, they are not expensive. They started out at $9.95 and are now selling for $12.95. The third reason is that you can get designs that mean something to you. For example one of my favourite Vinylmations is the Annual Passholder Orange Bird; it brings memories of the earlier days at the Magic Kingdom when the Orange Bird used to hang out at the Sunshine Terrace. Fourth, I like that there are Vinylmations to commemorate different events at Disney, like the Totem from the Alaska cruise on Disney Cruise Line and the Toy Soldier from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. Last but not least they are tradable and I love meeting and trading with people; it's a fun way to get to know people who share the Disney spirit.

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By the time Park Series 2 was released in 2009 Vinylmations were catching on big! It didn't take long for Disney to realize they had a good thing going and they started releasing more and more series. The Park and Urban series are up to number 8 now and there have been several other fun series such as Alice In Wonderland, Cutesters, Toy Story, The Muppets, Star Wars, Villains, Animations, Holiday, and Have a Laugh to name a few. These have all been blind box series and each with a coveted chaser.

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There have also been several window or open box series, which means you know what you are getting when you buy it. These include Animal Kingdom, Nightmare Before Christmas, Flags, Occupations, Big Eyes, Nerds Rock and more. The open box is also used for special event Vinylmations such as the 40th WDW Anniversary series and Marathon Vinylmations and Flower and Garden, Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party and so on.

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Vinylmations can be purchased in just about any shop at Disney but the place that has the widest variety and the newest releases is DStreet at Downtown Disney West Side. Here you can also buy other merchandise with Vinylmations designs such as shirts, purses, bags and hats.

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You can also trade in the store. In most of the stores that sell Vinylmations you will find a mystery trade box and a clear trade box. The mystery trade box is black and has either 15 or 24 compartments, each holding a Vinylmation. You don't know what is behind the number so you blind trade by picking a number and exchanging your Vinylmation for the one that is in the box behind your number. The clear boxes hold 3 Vinylmations and you can see them. If there is something in the box you want you can simply swap it with one of your own.

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I like to display my collection. I found that the Shot Glass Collection Case sold at Michaels Stores is the perfect size for Vinylmations. Some of the event Vinylmations come is special boxes that I don't open and some come in tins. I have shelves that I can display those on. But because Vinylmations are small you can tuck them away in lots of interesting spots.

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I try to keep up with the different releases by following the Disney Blog http://eventservices.disney.go.com/static/vinylmation/vault.html

There is always something fun and new happening in the world of Vinylmations.

March 10, 2012

Disney's Winter Summerland is great for golfing fun, birthdays

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A relaxed Santa greets guests at Winter Summerland.
A relaxed Santa greets guests at Winter Summerland.

Walt Disney World guests can choose between two cleverly themed miniature golf courses, Fantasia Gardens and Winter Summerland. My family has really enjoyed hitting the links at Winter Summerland, which is located near the entrance to the Blizzard Beach water park. (Guests can take the Blizzard Beach bus to get there and also park in the water park's lot.)

Winter Summerland opened in 1999 and has two 18-hole courses: the Snow side, where Santa and his elves seem to be getting ready for Christmas, and the Sand side, which shows how they spend his off-season.

Guests who choose to play the Winter Course will see their golf balls travel up and down ski slopes, through a campfire, into an ice hockey game, past a squirty Snowman, and even up a peppermint twist. Along the way to the North Hole, some of your favorite Disney characters can be spotted saluting you. After sinking the last putt on Hole 18, you'll get a special greeting from Santa Claus, thanks to the WinterNet and a computer.

Guests can putt through a giant sand castle at Winter Summerland.
Guests can putt through a giant sand castle at Winter Summerland.

On the Summer Course, expect to see a beach theme for Santa and his elves. Make your golf ball slip past the camper and roasting turkey without disturbing its residents. Hop over a creek, past the opening clam shells, around the sand buckets and surfboards, through a loop, over a sleeping Santa's belly and into a gigantic sand castle.

You can't go wrong with either course. Take a break in between rounds at Santa's "Winterbago," a converted trailer that is home to the starter booth, gift shop and snack stand. There are lots of shaded picnic tables nearby, and cast members even have hula hoops for the young and young-at-heart.

If you're looking for a unusual photo for this year's Christmas cards, be sure to bring your camera. There are so many fun backdrops -- beginning with a big red sleigh that guests can sit inside and the icon Santa on a surf board holding his golf clubs.

Winter Summerland is a great place for birthday parties.
Winter Summerland is a great place for birthday parties.

Birthday parties

Disney World used to organize kids' birthday parties at Winter Summerland, but they have since been discontinued. The "official" parties weren't elaborate -- just pizza, cake and goody bags, plus golf, of course.

A few years ago, we decided we could do the same, which cast members welcome. When I called to inquire, I was encouraged to use the facilities for a party, but it was emphasized that cast members wouldn't be able to organize or facilitate anything the group did. That may be strictly true, but I have to say I found the Disney employees working that day to be really helpful, especially when it began raining and we had to move everything.

We got to Winter Summerland early on a Saturday to set up snacks, cakes and a gathering activity. As the families arrived, kids were entertained with Mickey and Minnie coloring books that we brought, plus a hula hoop contest. By the time we teed off, we had about 25 kids playing and their parents caddying. (It was a joint party for my son and daughter, whose birthdays are two years and one day apart.)

Afterward, we sang "Happy Birthday" and cut into two cakes -- one for each child. My local grocery store decorated each cake to look like a golf course and I found Mickey and Minnie golf ornaments to use for the toppers.

Hit your ball down the ski slope on the Snow Course.
Hit your ball down the ski slope on the Snow Course.

Details

Guests who decide to play both courses get a 50 percent discount on the second 18 holes played on the same or next day by showing their original receipts. Prices are $12 plus tax for adults and $10 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9 for 18 holes. Disney World passholders also can receive a 50 percent discount every time they play; the deal is good for the passholder and up to three guests. In addition, each guest will receive one souvenir golf ball for each round played.

Winter Summerland is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. For questions, call 407-560-3000.

March 11, 2012

Disney Cruise Line Without Kids

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My wife Carol and I were anxious to sail with Disney Cruise Line. Time at sea and all those wonderful ports of call just sounded so appealing! We're avid Disney fans; we like virtually everything Disney and it just seemed like something we had to try!

There was just one thing holding us back. What about all those children? Won't there be kids everywhere?

Don't get me wrong, we like kids. We enjoy seeing children having fun wherever they are, particularly at Walt Disney World! But we are empty nesters and we have been for quite a few years. We have come to relish the quiet home life we lead. I like to think that we've earned the right to savour our preferred lifestyle. (Savouring my preferred lifestyle - it sounds so much nicer than admitting that I'm a grumpy old geezer!)

Every time we spoke about cruising with Disney I would start imagining . . . there I am relaxing in the hot tub, eyes closed and totally relaxed. Suddenly I'm cannon-balled by an unsupervised little munchkin! Sound far-fetched? It isn't. That has really happened to me at a Disney resort. I've had kids in the hot tub, fully equipped with flippers, masks and snorkels as they examined my toes at the bottom of the spa. This sort of thing disturbs me. That's not what hot tubs are for but how do you escape it with all those kids around?

When we vacation we try to have a nice, quiet sit-down meal at the end of the day. Disney parks and resorts offer some wonderful dining opportunities and we like to take advantage of them. So what about the dining rooms on the Disney ships? Will there be screaming children at our table or the table next to us? Will they follow us from dining room to dining room as we rotate through the ship's beautiful venues?

These were the sort of fears which held us back. Many of our friends told us we were being too cautious, the kids weren't that bad. Others said that they had hardly seen any children aboard and assured us that Disney cast members did such a good job with activities for the children that they were not a problem.

We waffled for several years before we finally took the plunge, so to speak, and booked our first Disney Cruise. We decided to "dip our toes in" with a quick four-day cruise. If we didn't enjoy it, well, it would just be a short ordeal.

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So off we went in January 2007 on a Bahamas cruise. To quickly end your suspense - we just loved it! Our friends were right, there were simply no grounds for all those fears we had suffered. It was amazing how much fun we had, and how little we saw of the children. Oh, there were plenty of kids and they were having just as much fun as we were but we hardly saw them and we were able to fully savour that lifestyle we prefer.

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As I write this article we have enjoyed six Disney cruises and we are booked on two more in the future. We really like it! So far all of our cruising has been on the Wonder and the Magic but we will sail on the new Disney Fantasy in just a few months.

How does Disney do it? How do they manage to create an environment where a crusty old coot like me can have a blast at the same time all those kids are having the time of their lives? It's pretty simple really, they just do two things, but they do them extremely well.

First they engage the children with an amazing array of activities and second they set aside lots of "adult only" space. That's it, plain and simple, but it works surprisingly well.

How do they engage the children? A special corps of well trained and highly motivated cast members greet kids in some wonderfully crafted "kid-friendly" places. These are amazing facilities for several specific age groups. Infants from three months to three years can go to a "day care" type facility called Flounder's Reef where they are expertly cared for. Kids from three to ten are welcomed at both the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab where a variety of toys, games and activities await them. Tweens have their own space called the Edge and teens go to Vibe. All these spaces have been designed by Disney Imagineers to capture the imagination of the targeted age group and all are chock full of things which appeal to the children and also captivate them. The kids are safe, secure and well supervised at all times.

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Friends of ours who have cruised with children are astounded at how much their kids have enjoyed it. Disney ships were built to entertain guests of all ages and they do it very well. The most frequent complaint we hear from parents is that they so seldom see their children. Many of the kids do not want to leave their friends to join their parents for dinner. Now that's a sign that the cast members are able to relate to the kids!

Now, what is there for the adults? Plenty. There are some great "adult only" spaces too.

We occasionally like to watch the wee ones and their parents swim in the Mickey Pool or watch the older kids frolic in the Goofy Pool, but when we're ready for some peace and quiet we head to the Quiet Cove Pool, in the adult only area on deck 9. We spend lots of time here.

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The pool is flanked by two hot tubs and there is no risk of cannon-balls or scuba divers in these spas. The sun deck is open to the elements with lots of loungers but it's also sheltered from the wind. Carol likes to bask in the sun while I stretch out in the shade with a book. This is the life!

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Next to the pool is the Cove Café, another adult space where you can just sit and relax or enjoy a specialty coffee or cocktail. On the Disney Wonder above the Cove Café, on deck 10 and overlooking the pool is the Outlook Café. This is a great spot to meet for cocktails before dinner. If you sail on the Wonder you may see me here in the afternoon reading my book!

The Vista Spa on deck 9 beside the Quiet Cove Pool is also for those 18 or older. Carol has enjoyed the spa a few times but I have not made it there yet. They have a variety of ways to pamper guests and all of our friends who have been indulged there speak very highly of the place so I'm confident Carol will coax me into Vista soon!

Our favourite adult-only place is Palo, the upscale dining room on deck 10 aft. You pay a small premium to dine at Palo and reservations are taken up quickly but it is oh-so worth it! There is a dress code but it's not onerous. No shorts, no tees, jackets for dinner and you pay a fee of $20 per person for brunch or dinner and $15.00 for "High Tea". Dinner is served every day while brunch and tea are only served on "sea days". You simply must dine at Palo!

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For the regular dining rotation we have always opted for the late seating. I think this gives us an older crowd. Most families with younger children select the early dining option and we have never had any issues with children in the dining room. The food and the service are always first class!

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One of the less obvious advantages of the way children are engaged by Disney Cruise Line cast members is the fact that they are seldom seen in some areas of the ship which are not restricted to adults. Sure, you will always find them at the Mickey Pool, the Goofy Pool and the deck 9 soda machine but there are plenty of areas where you hardly ever see kids. An example is the sun deck on deck 4, the Promenade Deck. This is another great spot to stretch out in the sun on a lounge or in a deck chair and enjoy sunshine, tropical breezes and salt air. Keep an eye out and you might find me here with my book! There are always plenty of joggers and walkers circumnavigating the ship, but very few children.

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The shows? They are great . . . not second-rate comedians and magicians. Disney has some amazing shows; Broadway style song and dance shows and of course some wonderful shows featuring Disney characters. Yes, there are children at the shows but you'll be having so much fun being a kid again that you may not notice!

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What about night clubs? Yes, there are sports bars, piano bars and pool side bars. It's all there folks and you don't have to worry about being swarmed by children.

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Of course I have to mention Castaway Cay, it's spectacular. Imagine a desert island where the Disney Imagineers were allowed to play . . . that's exactly what they did! This Disney-owned island in the Bahamas was re-done to perfection. It still looks deserted but it's covered in amazingly lush and beautiful tropical plants and flowers. Look around and you will find relics from older times; there are sunken ships, abandoned aircraft beside a run-down old air strip, a sunken statue of Mickey Mouse and many other unique sights along the wonderful white sand beaches. Of course there are activities for all ages but our favourite place is Serenity Bay, the adult only beach. It's blissful! We board a shuttle and pass the family beach and the teen beach on our way to pure Serenity! Aaaah! As I stretch out in a hammock under the shade of a palm tree and close my eyes my thoughts drift to Gilligan, the Skipper and . . . my heart-throb, Ginger. Castaway Cay reminds me a lot of that island paradise.

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Conveniently located just behind my favourite hammock is the Castaway Air Bar where they serve a nice selection of adult beverages and immediately behind the bar is Serenity Bay BBQ where a wonderful buffet lunch is served. The hot barbecue fare and fresh fruit tastes so much better when you are sitting under shady palm trees! This is heaven!

Many ports of call have adult only excursions too. There are plenty of tour options, enough to suit all tastes and age groups and since they are all selected by Disney you can rest assured they will be high quality tours.

So if you're shying away from a Disney cruise, like we did, because they may be too "kid-friendly" forget about that fear. It just isn't so!

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We tried it and we really like it! So jump in and give Disney cruising a try.

Come on in, the water's fine!

NOTE: All Disney Cruise Photos are from the Disney Wonder or Magic ships.

March 13, 2012

Light-up toys at Walt Disney World light up young faces

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Vendors sell the latest light-up lanyards at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

It's a recurring sight at Walt Disney World: As evening arrives, vendors begin walking the streets, selling an assortment of light-up toys and souvenirs. Kids, of course, plead for parents to buy the colorful, lighted items. The choices of laser-like swords, necklaces, spinners, wands and mohawk headware are tempting, especially to those waiting for night-time parades or shows.

When my son was a toddler, he chose a light-up Sorcerer Mickey spinner, and it became a fixture in his diaper bag for years. His fascination with that toy made it one of the longest-lasting souvenirs we have purchased at Disney World. We certainly got more use out of the light-up spinner than each balloon that we bought in the parks over the years. Typically, the light-up toys cost between $10 and $20 apiece, which is also the case for the giant helium balloons sold on Main Street, USA, in the Magic Kingdom.

Last fall, my more-grown-up 9-year-old son really wanted to buy one of the multi-colored light-up mohawks to wear for Crazy Hair Day at school. They were so popular that it took us several park visits to find a vendor that was wasn't sold out.

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How cute are these bunny light-ups?

Now, there is a new fascination for those who love the light-up toys in the parks -- lanyards with a seasonal message and small light-up icon. So far, Disney has sold ghosts for Halloween and snowmen for winter holidays. Spotted in the Disney parks now -- shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day and bunnies for Easter. Each holiday icon has multiple settings for its lights; users can choose from a solid color, strobe lights, fading colors and blinking colors.

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Less than a week left to purchase these shamrocks.

I would think these lanyards will have widespread appeal, and not just with kids. Because they are not Disney-branded items, the price is less at $7 each. With a lower price tag and changing design, repeat guests and passholders may see them as collectibles. My kids already do. Plus, unlike spinner toys that must find a home in a bag or stroller when not in use, these light-ups are meant to be worn and keep your hands free.

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Ghost or snowman, anyone?

A bonus: If your family collects enough light-up toys, over time you'll have another souvenir that any Disney fan can appreciate -- the ability to create your own Main Street Electrical Parade at home. Just pass out the light-up toys to the kids, turn out the lights and you'll have your very own "spectacular festival pageant of nighttime magic and imagination in thousands of sparkling lights."

OK, maybe not a thousand. But you get the point.

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Minnie Mouse's skirt twirls on this spinner toy in motion.

Tips:

** If you purchase the toys from a moving vendor, know that you'll need cash to pay for them. Some versions are available in gift stores, however, which take other forms of payment.

** If your light-up toy is defective and stops working shortly after purchase, a cast member will be happy to replace it if you show your receipt. This happened to my daughter with a Tinker Bell wand and to my son with a Christmas lights necklace.

** If you pack the toys in suitcases for your return home, be aware that the Transportation Security Administration may unscrew the battery panel. Be sure to check and reattach the panel to avoid a hazard to small children.

March 15, 2012

Disney World's Royal Guest Rooms designed for princesses

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Watching your own private fireworks show on demand is definitely a highlight.

Stepping into one of the new Royal Guest Rooms at Walt Disney World really does feel like you are entering the private chambers of a princess. The room is decorated in rich colors, gilded accents, ornate furniture and layers of fabric. My daughter said it was as if Disney added rooms to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique so that new princesses could stay after they were transformed.

The room's theme is based on the premise that Princess Tiana has hosted her royal friends in the rooms and each has left behind mementos to mark their visit. My 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son loved finding the treasures throughout the décor, including:

-- Tiana's letter welcoming her guests is part of the table design.
-- Jasmine's magic carpet is woven into the carpet design on the floor.
-- The sink faucet is shaped like Genie's magic lamp.
-- The shower curtain shows trinkets Ariel collects, such as the dinglehopper (bent fork).
-- Cinderella's carriage is carved into a plaque on the wall.
-- Crowns of favorite princesses adorn the bedspreads.
-- The wallpaper border features characters from various animated films, including "Beauty and The Beast."
-- Framed artwork shows the Disney Princesses posing at Port Orleans resort and the largest piece is 3D.

See an AllEars.net photo gallery of all the special details at http://allears.net/acc/g_PortOrleans-RoyalRooms.htm

There is even a hidden Mickey, the iconic shape of a Mickey Mouse head, in the scrollwork of the lamp over the table. (Love to search for hidden Mickeys? Be sure to check out tips from the ultimate expert, Steven Barrett, author of "Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World's Best Kept Secrets." He blogs about his latest finds twice a month on AllEars.net.)

But the best special effect, by far, has been placed in the room by Tiana. The headboards over the two queen beds are detailed scenes of a New Orleans bayou that are lit up by fireworks. Press the button on the headboard and your own private fireworks show starts whenever you want. As you can imagine, the fireworks were on a continual loop in our room as the kids reclined with their heads at the foot of the bed to watch.

The Royal Guest Rooms are located in Port Orleans Riverside, Building 90. A second "Southern mansion" -- Building 95 -- will be completed by June. In total, there will be 512 Royal Guest Rooms. Rates start at $189 per night, with increases depending on view and season. The remainder of the more than 2,000 Riverside rooms will be renovated this year and keep a New Orleans theme. (See the AllEars resource page on Port Orleans Riverside at http://allears.net/acc/faq_dxl.htm)

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Port Orleans Riverside guest rooms look like Southern mansions from the outside.

A few tips for those considering a stay in the Royal Guest Rooms:

** Doors and windows face external, public walkways. Consider whether you'll keep the curtains open and your comfort level if you decide to book a water view, which would face a quiet pool or the Sassagoula River.

** As is the case with many Disney World hotel rooms, the number of outlets can't keep up with travelers' growing cache of electronics. If you have a lot of devices to charge, be sure to bring an outlet strip.

** If your child goes to bed between 6 and 10 p.m., tune in to Channel 38 on your room's television. In November, all Disney World resorts began offering a read-along bedtime story, "Duffy the Disney Bear: Mickey's New Friend" on a loop.

When you finally rouse yourself from relaxing like royalty in your room, Disney's Port Orleans resort offers plenty of amenities and activities for the whole family. I'll take you through many of them in my blog on Thursday.

Wish Disney Imagineers had created some special rooms for the boys in your family? Look no further than Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, where pirate rooms were introduced in 2009. The 384 themed rooms have pirate ship beds, buccaneer accessories and swashbuckling décor. (See Jack Spence's photos from the pirate rooms at http://land.allears.net/blogs/jackspence/2009/02/caribbean_beach_resort_pirate_1.html)

March 17, 2012

Never a dull moment for kids at Disney's Port Orleans Resort

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Disney's Port Orleans Resort might feature a design of stately mansions and refined landscaping, yet it offers plenty of fun amenities and activities for kids. My family and I happily discovered this when we stayed at Riverside in one of the new Royal Guest Rooms.

These Disney story rooms are designed to appeal to those who love Disney Princesses. (You can read about all the incredible details in my AllEars post: http://land.allears.net/blogs/guestblog/2012/03/disney_worlds_royal_guest_room.html.) But whether you stay in a Royal Guest Room or a New Orleans style room, there are so many fun options to fill a day at the resort that you probably won't spend all day in the rooms.

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The Sassagoula River winds between the Riverside rooms and another themed set of buildings called French Quarter, creating a beautiful setting for paths that are used by runners, walkers, bike riders and horse-drawn carriages. Along the way, guests will be immersed in award-winning landscaping and gardens reminiscent of the old South.

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There are seven swimming pools interspersed throughout the grounds, and Riverside and French Quarter each have a main pool with a slide and hot tub. There are even spigots for "jumping water." I think my kids could have played all day at the Riverside pool, which also features an afternoon party with games and music for kids.

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Adjacent is a small playground and an area for the nightly campfire, where families can toast marshmallows and make s'mores. After the fire, movies are shown on a large, inflatable screen on one of the mansion's lawns.

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The hub of activity for the resort, which houses the registration area, gift shop, restaurant and food court, looks like a riverboat dock. Its centerpiece is a large, water-powered mill at one end of the food court. At the opposite end of the dock, guests can rent kayaks, two-seat speedboats, pontoon boats, Surrey bikes and quadricycles.

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My husband and son went out exploring on the Sassagoula River in a Sea Racer, which only goes about 5 miles per hour, the cast member on duty reassured my speed-averse son. They meandered past the French Quarter, Old Key West Resort and eventually into the lake that borders Downtown Disney. It's a great way to see some of Disney's resorts -- and golf fairways -- from a unique perspective not otherwise seen by guests.

Another boating excursion is offered just for kids ages 4 to 10, the Bayou Pirate Adventure Cruise. According to the description, "Legend has it that a pirate captain lost his treasure somewhere along the Sassagoula River. Join in this two-hour adventure that includes a boat excursion and a snack." It costs $34 per child. Reservations can be made by calling 407-WDW-PLAY.

Kids might also be interested in catch-and-release fishing on Ol' Man Island, getting their hair wrapped at a dockside stand or taking a turn in one of the largest video arcades at Disney World.

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For a snack or a meal, families can visit the Riverside Mill Food Court, which has various stations open from 6 a.m. to midnight. There are so many choices -- from carving stations and a speciality shop to fresh tossed salads and a bakery -- that it's an eatery that will appeal to a wide variety of tastes. Plus, who can resist sitting near the giant waterwheel that turns constantly?

Next door is Boatwright's Dining Hall, a table-service restaurant that features many traditional Creole dishes, such as jambalaya, crawfish and gumbo. It's a comfortable atmosphere made even cozier by a fireplace in the center. We all enjoyed a delicious dinner there. The highlight for both of my children was the make-your-own-sundae that topped off the meal. (See menus and pricing for Boatwright's Dining Hall and Riverside Mill Food Court at http://allears.net/menu/menus.htm#res)

Too tired to get cleaned up for dinner? Sassagoula Pizza Express will deliver to your room from 4 p.m. to midnight.

You can find even more information about Port Orleans Resort at AllEars resource pages http://allears.net/acc/faq_dxl.htm and http://allears.net/acc/faq_po.htm.

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March 20, 2012

Disney World's Storybook Circus improves area for kids

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Here's how The Barnstormer starts.

As we pulled up to the reopened and newly themed Fantasyland stop on the Walt Disney World Railroad, my kids could hardly wait to jump out and race toward the new Storybook Circus section of the Magic Kingdom.

We slowed them for a few minutes to look around the station, Carolwood Park, whose name is a nod to Walt Disney's backyard railroad, Carolwood Pacific. The station's brick facade and muted colors certainly make it look appropriate for the era in which the Disney classic "Dumbo" was introduced in the 1940s. There are fun props, such as old-fashioned luggage and a railroad weather vane, tucked in corners and atop buildings. Be sure to look down, too, or you'll miss the imprints of peanut shells and animal feet in the walkways. There are even exposed brick paths that recall the days when trolleys were prevalent. (You can see lots of photos from of Carolwood Park and Storybook Circus on Deb's blog and Jack's blog.)

This section of Fantasyland features rides and attractions that largely appeal to younger kids. As such, it's likely that many parents will be making frequent trips to bathrooms with their offspring, and Disney has provided a welcome addition with the new, larger facilities that have been moved near the railroad station.

Another aspect that cried out for relocation was the designated smoking area adjacent to the old Fantasyland train station. It never made sense to me why officials would allow smokers to be so close to the youngest of children. Plus, passengers on the Walt Disney Railroad definitely could smell the fumes as they approached the station or were waiting for their trains to depart again. There are no indications yet whether this location will remain a smoking section once the construction is complete, but I'm hopeful that the lack of ashtrays and signage means a change is coming. And my 9-year-old son said as much, as well, when he explored that end of the station while awaiting the arrival of the next train. (Both ends of the station offer prime locations for up-close photos of the steam engines as they roll in.)

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The queue for The Barnstormer reflects new details about The Great Goofini.

As we left Carolwood Park, we headed into Storybook Circus, which soft-opened last week. (A soft opening is the period before an official opening, when certain attractions are open to the public while they are being tested. Rides can be shut down at any point for adjustments.) We walked straight over to The Barnstormer, the same kiddie roller coaster from Mickey's Toontown Fair. The track and the cars haven't changed, except to be rethemed to align with the Storybook Circus idea. Instead of racing through a barn, riders will "crash" through an airport tower and a billboard on the short ride with The Great Goofini. My 7-year-old daughter, who hasn't met a roller coaster she didn't like, appreciated the changes.

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The Barnstormer departs from the same station, but it is rethemed.

The biggest change with The Barnstormer is that the queue has been moved to the opposite side of the coaster. Despite Disney's attempts to add shade with target-themed overhead coverings, it's still pretty hot waiting in the line -- and it's not even summer yet. Still, we all liked the new queue, which allows guests to watch the trains depart, and there are a lot of clever circus-themed elements to take in while you're waiting. Both kids laughed at the humorous themed art seen along the walkway, and my son really got a kick out of how one of Goofy's crashed rockets, with its saddle attached, still had a lit fuse on its back.

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Storybook Circus has plenty of planned stroller parking.

Guests will find designated stroller parking between The Barnstormer and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. This decent-size area will surely help keep the walkways open and the overflow to a minimum, which benefits everyone. As an added feature, my son found that this area gave him a prime viewing of the roller coaster, and he stayed here to watch it run while the rest of us explored nearby.

Dumbo The Flying Elephant has been uprooted from behind Cinderella Castle and reworked for Storybook Circus. The new version will eventually have two rides that turn in opposite directions, so the elephants meet in the middle. In addition, the circus tent behind the attraction will house an interactive queue to make the wait more entertaining. My son was disappointed this feature wasn't working when we attended, and he looks forward to exploring when it opens. Both additions are aimed at making the always-long wait for Dumbo more palatable.

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Construction is ongoing for the second Dumbo ride.

Currently, the new Dumbo is the only half open while the older version is being refurbished. Purists will notice the muted colors of one of Disney's iconic attractions have been changed to vibrant, primary colors of a circus. In addition, Timothy Q. Mouse is missing from the top of the ride. Instead, guests will hear Dumbo's friend talk to them as they board the attraction. (Though my kids noticed this, it seemed as if my husband was the most bothered by not seeing Dumbo's little friend atop the attraction.)

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Dumbo The Flying Elephant at night.

The most beautiful aspect of the Dumbo redo that has been revealed so far is the addition of water and LED lights below the spinning elephants. At night, the lights change rapidly during each ride -- a show you can enjoy without waiting in line, thanks to the new layout that includes a planned viewing area. As a parent, I really love that this version of Dumbo makes taking photographs and waving to little ones who are looking for familiar faces so much easier. And having a water and light show is definitely entertaining.

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LED lights make for a rapidly changing show under the Dumbo attraction.

Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak station is next to open in Storybook Circus, according to the current Magic Kingdom maps distributed in the park. For those who are a bit rusty on the story of Dumbo, Casey Jr. is the locomotive that brings the circus to town in the film. Walt Disney World promotional materials describe the area this way: "[It] will feature water squirting from playful monkeys, elephants, and camels as Casey lets off billows of nice, cool steam."

We're looking forward to seeing the replacement for Donald Duck's boat, and, of course, what's hidden in all the circus tents!


March 22, 2012

Public can view Disney Fantasy from Jetty Park and join Sail-A-Bration

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The Disney Dream sails past Jetty Park in Brevard County.

Disney Cruise Line's newest ship is sailing out on preview cruises this week, and Disney fans can catch a glimpse of the Disney Fantasy without being onboard. Jetty Park, which is adjacent to Port Canaveral, overlooks the channel where the cruise ships enter the port in the mornings and head out to sea in the afternoons.

If you want to watch the cruise ships, head north to the park's 1,200-foot fishing pier. The ships pass so close to land that those watching on shore can see the passengers wave and hear the horn play its classic Disney songs. The Fantasy played "New York, New York" when it arrived in New York City last month. Wonder what it will play in Florida?

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Jetty Park's Pier is a 24-hour fishing spot and the best place to watch Port Canaveral's cruise ships pass through the channel.

The parade begins about 4:30 p.m. as the ships make their way down the channel. It's slow progress, which is great for those taking photos, and, if you're lucky, spotting the dolphins that sometimes frolic around the ships. During the many times my family has watched the ships from the pier, the DIsney ships were always last. The Fantasy is next scheduled to leave on Friday, March 23, Monday, March 26 and Saturday, March 31. (Get the inside scoop on the Fantasy from Deb Wills and Deb Koma, who will be onboard beginning March 23. Follow them on Twitter @allearsnet , on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/AllEars.net or on the website at allears.net)

Port Canaveral is now home to the Disney Dream, which sails shorter Caribbean cruises, and the Disney Fantasy, which will travel on weeklong Caribbean voyages. (See the Fantasy's arrival at Port Canaveral at http://land.allears.net/blogs/dnews/2012/03/disney_fantasy_arrival_at_port_1.html)

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A view of Jetty Park Beach from the open deck of a Disney Cruise Line ship.

On Saturday, March 31, the Canaveral Port Authority will be hosting a Sail-A-Bration at Jetty Park for the maiden voyage of the Fantasy. The public is invited to come out and bid 'Bon Voyage' to the passengers and crew during a party from 4 to 6 p.m. Radio Disney and Disney characters are expected to entertain the crowd, and prizes such as theme park tickets will be given away.

Last January, attendees were given white Mickey Mouse glove signs to wave from the pier when the Disney Dream passed by on her maiden voyage shortly after 5 p.m.

Free shuttle rides will be available, beginning at 3:30 p.m. from event parking. Visitors are asked to bring a non-perishable food item to donate to the Central Brevard Sharing Center and their lawn chairs. Last year's event was well-attended.

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A Disney Cruise Line ship heads out to sea after passing by Jetty Park.

And if cruise ships are not the main draw for some visitors to this sprawling public park, the Brevard County site offers a wide variety of fun things for families to do.

Jetty Park is a 35-acre public park that includes a family beach with year-round lifeguards, a 24-hour lighted fishing pier with fish-cleaning tables and wheelchair access, a renovated campground for tents and RVs, an air-conditioned refreshment center, a tackle shop, a playground and outdoor showers and changing rooms.

Cars are not allowed to drive on the beach, which has a wide expanse of sand and a long shallow ocean bottom. In addition, the beach is clean and not noisy. There is a vendor that rents chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, paddle boards and boogie boards. Plus, it's a great place to see rocket launches from Kennedy Space Center and to spot submarines in the waters offshore.

Jetty Park has made a number of improvements in preparation for the 2012 summer season. Among them are new beach initiatives, such as Surf School and better sand-cleaning equipment, and renovated campgrounds with WiFi and its first cabins.

There are fees for day parking and camping at Jetty Park. For cars, day parking is $5 for Brevard residents and $10 for those from other counties. Camping fees range from $18 to $47, depending on the utilities included and the season. For campground or picnic pavilion reservations, call 321-783-7111.

March 24, 2012

Tips for maximizing the value of Disney's PhotoPass CD

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The price of a Disney's PhotoPass CD increased this week, and the response on various Disney message boards and websites was somewhat negative. That's understandable. After all, who wants to spend more money these days? But just because the price of the PhotoPass CD is going up doesn't mean there aren't ways to maximize the value of the service.

The list price for a PhotoPass CD has gone up from $149.95 to $169.95. But did you know that visitors can pre-order the CD and save big bucks? The pre-arrival promotion is now $129.95, up from $99.95. The advance purchase works as a credit and can be applied to your order once you have loaded all your photos into your account.

There's even a money-back guarantee -- if you don't take enough photos or dislike the PhotoPass photos from your vacation, you can return the credit for a full refund. Be aware that the refund is only good for 90 days from the pre-purchase date.

Load up on photos

There's no disputing that the cost of Disney's PhotoPass CD is expensive. But if professional images are among your must-have vacation souvenirs, knowing the value of the CD might allow you to consider budgeting for it.

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To maximize your investment, be sure to take as many photos as possible during your visit to Walt Disney World because there is no image limit to the PhotoPass CD program. Let photographers know you are buying a disc and they are usually happy to take extra shots. If you pre-order the CD, only photos added to your account after the purchase will be included on the disc. (See how Disney's PhotoPass system works on this AllEars resource page: http://allears.net/tp/ppass.htm)

Families interested in formal portraits can visit the PhotoPass center inside Guest Relations at Downtown Disney and there is no sitting fee. That location has a traditional gray background and props that are the norm for photo studios, and these photos can be added to your disc.

Some popular character meals give you the option of adding photos to your PhotoPass account after you purchase prints at the restaurants. These locations include Cinderella's Royal Table, Princess Storybook Dining, Chef Mickey's, Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show, Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, Mickey's Backyard Barbecue, Donald's Safari Breakfast at Tusker House, O'hana (breakfast only) and 1900 Park Fare.

A handful of rides -- Test Track at Epcot, Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom and Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios -- will allow you to add images to your PhotoPass CD. For Space Mountain and Tower of Terror, prints or downloads must be purchased first at the ride and then you can add them to your online account.

Timing is everything

For local residents or guests who plan multiple visits within a short period, timing can help you get more photos on your CD. For example, guests have 30 days after their photos are taken to claim them online. Once the photos are added to a PhotoPass account, users then have another 30 days to view and make purchases.

To keep photos "active" for a longer period of time -- and collect more images for your CD -- wait until the end of the first 30-day period to claim your photos. (You can check images in the theme parks, at Downtown Disney and at deluxe resorts if you want to see a particular shot ahead of time.) If you still can't stretch the life of the photos for another visit, consider purchasing a 7-day extension for $4.95 or a 15-day extension for $9.95.

Using this strategy in the fall, I was able to fill my PhotoPass CD with images from my kids' visits to A Pirate's League, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and a few other days in the theme parks and water parks.

Before you order your actual CD, look through your photos and add borders, character autographs and park logos as desired because you won't have access to these Disney tools after you own the photos. You can make copies of the photos and have several versions in various sizes with different embellishments.

Finally, your PhotoPass CD comes with the copyright for you to print the photos for your personal use. You can elect to receive the PhotoPass CD as an actual CD via mail or as digital downloads.

March 25, 2012

To Walt Disney World in a Motor Home - Part 1

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In two previous blogs I've told you about Halloween at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground and I've described all the reasons why our dogs enjoy vacationing there. We just love "The Fort"; it's the best campground we've ever found and we always look forward to taking the RV there!

Have you wondered what it would be like to travel to your favourite vacation destination in a small house that rolls down the highway? There are no suitcases to carry, no weight restrictions, no limits to what we can bring and every night we sleep in our own bed! It's a great way to travel and we really enjoy it! Let me describe the experience for you.

On our first day we're always up bright and early, full of excitement. The RV is mostly packed so while Carol moves the last few perishable items from the fridge in the house to the fridge in the motor home I take the car to Tim Horton's and hurry back with coffee and a bite of breakfast. Then we check the lights on the car we tow behind the rig - yup, they work fine! The last chore is to hook the dog's harnesses to the seat belts on the couch and off we go. Zak and Blue are seasoned travellers and are quite cozy there. We usually pull away at about 7:00 a.m. We will travel 382 miles to Harrisburg Pennsylvania before we stop for the night.

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This is when Carol can finally relax! She has been busy for days getting ready. We can't park the RV at home very long; it's too big to fit in our driveway. So Carol begins assembling everything we're taking along and she stacks most of it in a spare bedroom. The day before departure we pick up the motor home from the storage barn about 20 miles away, pull it up in front of the house and fill it with everything we'll need. Do I need warm weather clothes or cool weather clothes? Doesn't matter - bring them all and hang them in the closet. Clothing, food, cameras, computers, lawn chairs, totes full of decorations to fit the season and so much more, we stow it all away, hang the bikes on the bike rack and hook up the tow-car. Aaah! Now we're ready to leave in the morning!

Within five minutes of departure we are eastbound on the freeway, Highway 401, for about 25 miles then we turn south and cross the Ivy Lea Bridge to Hill Island. This is the same bridge you see in the CircleVision Theatre at EPCOT's Canada Pavilion. When you fly down that beautiful section of the St. Lawrence River, dotted with islands and see that huge bridge you are less than 25 miles from or home.

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Riding in the RV is much different than riding in your car. One of the big advantages is that you sit up high, well above the guard rails and barriers. The sight lines are great and we can see so many things that you miss riding in a car. Even when we are stuck behind a long line of traffic we can see over top of the cars ahead and determine what's going on well ahead of us.

The Canada/US border runs between Hill Island, Ontario and Wellesley Island, New York. There is seldom a long line when we arrive at about 7:30 a.m. so we are quickly through Immigration and southbound on Interstate 81. The process is much the same as if you were driving your car, you pull up, hand your passports out the window, answer a few quick questions and they hand back the passports and wave you on. Soon we cross the next bridge over the St. Lawrence as we leave Wellesley Island behind and continue south on the mainland.

The first few hours, through the most northern part of New York State, we see almost no traffic as we drive through rolling hills. I just set the cruise control at about 63 miles per hour and we watch the miles roll by! We move a bit slower than most traffic so I keep an eye on the mirrors and the back-up camera. That's the only way I can see the tow-car, it doesn't show in my mirrors.

Once we pass Syracuse the hills become a little larger and begin to think that they are mountains and of course they are! We're in the Appalachians. I-81 climbs and descends again and again as it winds its way through the mountains, following the course of the Susquehanna River. Soon we pass Binghamton and by the time we cross into Pennsylvania, at about 11:00 a.m., we are faced with some serious mountains. The transmission gears down and the engine roars a bit as we climb the steepest of slopes but we seldom lose any speed. Once we break over the top and begin to descend the cruise control acts as an engine brake to control our speed as we go down. This too causes the engine to roar and I occasionally have to use the brake pedal to slow us down. The dogs don't like the mountains; the engine roar disturbs their sleep. Carol occasionally roars too, "Do you know how fast you're going?" This also disturbs the puppies!

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We make our first fuel stop in northern Pennsylvania. Gasoline is about 30% cheaper in the USA; we pay very high gas taxes in Canada so we do not fill up at home if we can avoid it.

This section of I-81, in northern PA, is just terrible! It's full of bumps, patches and potholes. In many areas it's like driving on a washboard. The state is working on it, but they sure need to hurry up the repairs. Ouch! There is some amazing scenery through the north part of Pennsylvania but we would enjoy it a whole lot more on better roads.

Every few hours we stop at a rest area or pull into the parking lot at a shopping mall so I can stretch my legs and the dogs can have a walk. We look for somewhere which has plenty of room to turn the RV around. When the car is hooked on the back it's about 65 feet long and you cannot back up unless you disconnect the car. We try to avoid pulling into a place if we cannot see the way out! We've goofed a couple of times and believe me, it's no fun!

A few hours after crossing the state line we start to see fewer steep grades as we follow more valleys through the Appalachians and by mid afternoon we reach our destination, Harrisburg East Campground in the state capital. We like to cover about 350 miles each day and get set up in a campground before dark.

One of the difficulties during our first few days of travel in the winter months is finding campgrounds which are open. By the time we hit the Carolinas there is no problem finding campgrounds, but in the north most of them close in October and reopen in April. We have found a few which stay open year round. Harrisburg is one of these year-round locations and it's often an important stop for us. In the winter we winterize the rig here on our way home and we flush out the winter anti-freeze from the water lines on our way south.

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We have a well rehearsed routine once we stop for the day. Carol directs me as I drive the RV into the campsite, watching to make sure there are no low hanging branches or obstacles I cannot see from behind the wheel. She makes sure that I'm close enough to hook up all the utility connections but far enough away from trees and posts that they won't interfere with our three slide-out rooms. Once the rig is situated she takes the dogs out for a walk while I unhook the tow-car and begin to hook up the electrical connection, fresh water line and cable TV. Before I'm finished Carol and the dogs are back. She runs out the slide-outs, drops the hydraulic levelling jacks, sets several flashing digital clocks and sets up the coffee pot to brew our java for the next morning. Voila! We're settled for the night. We have it down to a science . . . it usually takes less than 20 minutes.

We normally do some shopping our first day. We don't take much food across the border. There are some restrictions on what you can take and groceries are normally much cheaper south of the border so we stock up once we're there. So after the driver has had a rest and the dogs have had a good romp we head off shopping and then find a restaurant for a bite of dinner. Yes, I know, you were expecting that Carol would cook a nice nutritious dinner for the driver, but that doesn't often happen. She seems to think that she's on vacation when we're travelling in the RV . . .

We're normally back by 8:00, reconnect the tow-car and settle in for an evening of television. There's another long day coming tomorrow.

On our second day we will cover 362 miles and stop at Wytheville Virginia. The coffee-maker is usually set to come on at about 6:45 and once it starts to gurgle Blue hops on the bed to announce the arrival of morning. After a few cups of coffee, a bowl of cereal and a shower I unhook the utility connections while Carol pulls in the slides, retracts the jacks, battens down everything inside and hooks up the dog's seat belts. We're normally back on the highway just after 8:00 a.m.

This is one of my favourite days of driving. There are still mountains, but the southern part of Pennsylvania is relatively flat and the highway is good. Soon we are in the Shenandoah Valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Appalachians to the west. It's beautiful rolling countryside with some amazing vistas.

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After about an hour we reach the Pennsylvania/Maryland state line. Within 40 minutes we will have been in 4 states, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and then Virginia. Wow! During this time we have crossed two historic rivers, the Potomac and the James, and passed by many famous Civil War battlegrounds. Since we're Canadian we didn't learn much in school about the Civil War but we're learning! Carol keeps the laptop on the dash in front of her and we use it as our GPS. It's name is Sadie! We use a USB stick and have a 3G internet connection so she can "Google" any questions we have along the route. Hmmm . . . the Mason-Dixon Line - who were they? The Cyrus McCormick Homestead - who was he? Molly Pitcher Highway - who was she?

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I use questions like those to keep Carol busy as we roll along. She reads a bit and spends some time on Facebook, keeping up with friends and family as well as updating them on our progress as we make our way south. Me? I just love driving the RV and I seldom get bored. Sometimes I get a bit like James Thurber's character, Walter Mitty. I'm Snowman, a long distance trucker hauling 400 cases of Coors beer to Georgia for Big Enos Burdette. Other times I'm captaining a submarine or flying a jumbo jet. I can always keep my mind busy as the miles roll on!

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We travel for two complete days on I-81 and this route avoids the congestion of major cities like Baltimore MD and Washington DC. There are very few large cites so we don't encounter too many traffic delays, we just sit back and enjoy the scenery! We often look at the signs for such attractions as the Natural Bridge, the Sky Line Drive through Blue Ridge National Park and many others. We add these to our bucket list.

When the afternoon sun shines on the Blue Ridge Mountains it is easy to understand how they got their name! It can be breathtaking at times as you look out at row upon row of peaks shrouded in a faint blue haze.

By mid-afternoon we reach our destination, Wytheville Virginia at the junction of I-81 and I-77. We fuel up again before we head to the campground. The RV is on a Ford chassis, powered by a 6.8 liter V10 engine and burns regular gasoline. It has a 75 gallon gas tank and we get about 8 miles per gallon. Depending on gas prices, fuel for our 2,810 mile round trip will cost between $1,200 and $1,600. The Wytheville KOA campground is close to the freeway and we are normally settled and all set up before 4:00. Then we relax a bit and give the dogs a romp before heading out to dinner. After a long day on the road we're happy to spend a quiet night reading and watching TV.

Stay tuned for Part 2!!!

March 26, 2012

To Walt Disney World in a Motor Home - Part 2

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Yesterday I shared with you the first 2 days of our travels to Walt Disney World in a motor home. Today I'll finish the report!

The third day we follow our well established routine, up just before 7:00 a.m., unhooked and back on the highway by 8:00. Our destination is Walterboro South Carolina about 322 miles away.

This is the day we leave the mountains behind, but not before we drive off the edge of the world! Within minutes of pulling out of the campground we leave I-81 behind and turn south on I-77. The road rolls up and down as we steadily climb for about 30 miles to the peak of the Blue Ridge chain. Once you hit the top you start down the other side and begin a six mile plunge out of Virginia and into North Carolina. Carol does not like this hill! She bites her lip as we hurtle down and down . . . past several runaway truck ramps. The engine roars as the cruise control tries in vain to check our speed. I pump the brakes regularly, but not often enough for Carol! It takes several days for the white-knuckle marks to fade from the dash after our descent. But on a clear day it is very pretty! It can be an awesome view, but more often than not it's raining or foggy as we pass so the scenery takes a back seat to the terror!

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When we hit the bottom in North Carolina and I have once again saved my precious bride from certain death she starts breathing again and leans back to enjoy the rolling hills and the pretty rivers and lakes of the area. We will be in the "lowlands" for the rest of our journey.

No matter what time of year we travel we enjoy watching the season change as we head south. Whether its spring, autumn or winter things always get greener and greener as we head further south and the change becomes much more pronounced once we make the drop down that huge hill at Fancy Gap and Mount Airy.

On this morning we travel through the heart of NASCAR as we pass Mooresville, Lake Norman and Statesville North Carolina. We zip through Charlotte and cross the state line into South Carolina. We skirt around Columbia on I-77 and then turn south-east on I-26 for only 53 miles before we reach I-95 and head south again. Green rolling hills, lush forests and prosperous looking farms everywhere!

This is palm tree day! Carol has her eyes open all afternoon, darting left and right, and is always thrilled when she spots that first palm tree. It has to be posted on Facebook! Hooray, it's official - we're in the south! The dogs don't get too excited about palm trees; after three days they just want to get off that couch! Grrr!

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When we reach I-95 we are only about 35 miles from our stop for the day at Walterboro South Carolina. The campground there, New Green Acres, is just off the highway and is canopied with tall pine trees. The campsites are huge pull-thrus; there is no need to disconnect the tow-car. It's a very pretty spot and there is always plenty of space to let the dogs run and romp for a while.

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Of course, we do disconnect the car and head off for dinner before we settle in for the evening.

This is normally the first stop along the route where we hook up the sewer hose and drain the holding tanks before we pull out. The grey water tank and the black water tank each hold about 50 gallons so we can travel several days and both shower each day without dumping the tanks. We carry 60 gallons of fresh water and 96 pounds (23 gallons) of propane. The propane fuels the 35,000 BTU furnace and when we are not plugged in to 120V power it also operates the refrigerator and the 10 gallon water heater. The onboard generator provides up to 5,500 watts of 120V power when we cannot plug in to "shore-power" so we can operate the two roof-top air conditioners, the microwave and the central vacuum no matter where we stop along the way! It sure is a great way to travel!

Our fourth day it's a shorter drive, only 244 miles to St. Augustine Florida. Interstate 81 runs parallel to the Atlantic coastline and we are seldom more than 10 miles from the ocean. In this gently rolling lowland area we cross many tidal rivers and endless salt marshes as we enjoy the warm salty breeze from the Atlantic. Within an hour we cross the state line into Georgia.

Carol continually scans the banks of the rivers and marshes we cross looking for any sign of alligators along the shore or manatees in the rivers. She has had a few gator sightings but no manatees so far!

Soon we skirt past Savannah and make another fuel stop at Brunswick Georgia before crossing into Florida at about 11:30. We always stop at the Florida Welcome Centre on I-95. It just wouldn't be right if we didn't pull in for that free sample of fresh Florida orange juice!

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We pass through downtown Jacksonville at noon and in all of our trips through this city (Touch wood!) traffic on the interstate has not been too congested in the middle of the city.

Shortly after 1:00 p.m. we pull into North Beach Camp Resort at Vilano Beach, just a few miles north of St. Augustine. It's nice to have a short day on the road and we're usually all set up by 2:00 p.m.

We really enjoy St. Augustine and we stop there almost every trip. The dogs always enjoy a romp on the beach in the afternoon and we just love to poke around the historic old town area of St. Augustine. There are a couple of stores we almost always visit too, Carol has to drop into the Disney Character Outlet Store and I have to snoop around the nearby Camping World store.

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Just a few trips back we discovered a wonderful local restaurant, O'Steens, where we usually have a feast of fried shrimp! Yum! Then on our way back to the camp we drive around the historic area which is magnificently lit at night. It's truly beautiful!

From St. Augustine it's only 129 Miles to Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. We don't usually get away at our normal time, we relax a bit the last morning. We want to arrive well before the 1:00 p.m. check-in time so we're on the road by 9:00. After another hour on I-95 we turn west on I-4 for an hour then Orlando looms into sight. Hallelujah . . . soon the Disney signs appear.

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We pull off I-4 onto Disney Property and arrive at the best campground we have ever seen.

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The guard at the security gate says, "Welcome home!" and directs us to the drive-thru check in gate.

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We like to check in early in the day, we think it gives us a better chance of getting one of our favourite campsites. All of the sites are great of course, but we do have a handful of favourites.

Typically the sites are not cleaned and ready for us when we arrive so we drive a few hundred yards to the "overflow parking lot" where Carol walks the dogs while I unhook the tow car. Then we load the dogs back in the RV, start up the onboard generator and turn on the air conditioners to keep the dogs comfortable while we drive to Downtown Disney for lunch at the Earl of Sandwich - it's a tradition!

Soon the cell phone buzzes with a text message - our site is ready. Carol drops me at the RV and she heads for the campsite as I follow behind her. She directs me as I back it into position.

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This time our set-up routine is a little more involved; in addition to the normal utility connections we have palm trees, Mickey lamps, rope lights and several big totes full of seasonal decorations to put up. First we unpack all the hatches under the RV.

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Set up takes a few hours this time, but of course it's a labor of love and we enjoy it!

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By 3:00 p.m. or so we are finished. Aaah! Home again, it sure feels good to be back in out Happy Place!

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So that's a summary of a typical trip in our motor home. I hope you enjoyed riding with us. If you would like to see more details and pictures from a specific trip or two, take a look at our blog site at www.carol-anne.ca Follow the link to "The Disney Room" and browse through our trip reports. Don't forget to sign the guest book!

March 27, 2012

Magical makeovers at Disney World's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique create princesses

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My daughter and her Fairy Godmother in training at the Downtown Disney location.

If your children love to play dress-up, you won't want to miss Walt Disney World's fantastic experiences for transforming guests into princesses and pirates. Both the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and The Pirate's League have just introduced new makeovers and packages, too.

We surprised our 9-year-old son and 7-year-old-daughter with appointments last fall on the day we planned to attend Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. Both experiences were wonderful, and they got to wear their new looks until midnight. Today, in Part 1, I'll offer some tips for the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. On Thursday, I will take you inside The Pirate's League.

Walt Disney World has two Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique locations -- inside Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom and inside World of Disney at Downtown Disney Marketplace. Most recently, our appointment was at World of Disney, though my daughter had a makeover at Cinderella Castle when she was younger. On party nights, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and The Pirate's League can get busy, so book ahead of time, if possible. You can make reservations up to 180 days in advance at 407-WDW-STYLE (407-939-7895).

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Sitting in the royal chair after the FairyTale Princess makeover at Cinderella Castle.

For our family, planning a trip to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique starts with making sure my daughter has a Disney princess gown and accessories that fit. The Boutique offers a complete Castle package that includes a costume, but it runs about $200. For us, it's a better value to have my daughter wear her own gown or change into it once she gets to there. She usually has at least a few princess dresses that she wears into the Disney World theme parks for the fun of it. (Because of this, I am always on the lookout for deals. I stop by the Disney Store at my local mall to get after-Halloween sales, and sometimes the same Walt Disney World dresses can be found at a fraction of the price on eBay.)

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Nothing says princess like blue eye shadow, right?

Honestly, my daughter has never complained about not picking out a dress at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique because she is so excited about the main event -- getting her hair, nails and makeup done by a Fairy Godmother in training. That Crown package, which also includes the BBB sash, now runs $59.95. You can save $5 if you skip the nail polish (Coach package), but my daughter loves that part and the girls get to keep the bottles of polish afterward, so it's not even a consideration for us to skimp on this feature. In addition to the polish, girls take home a pretty pink gift bag that includes the makeup, a pink comb and face gems that were used during their transformation. On the two occasions my daughter has visited the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, she has clutched that little pink bag like a purse for days afterward, and then it sits in a place of honor on her nightstand, where she can admire and reuse all her goodies.

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Getting her nails done and keeping 2 bottles of polish costs just $5 more.

Recently, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique introduced a new package, whose price point falls in between the Crown and Castle -- the Courtyard for $89.95. It features an exclusive hairstyle, a princess cinch bag, Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique T-shirt and a tutu. (The BBB T-shirt is available in youth sizes from S to XL and adult sizes S to XL. The BBB tutu is available in two sizes, small and medium.) Plus, girls will receive the makeup, nail polish, sash and face gems that other packages include.

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This 'do proved painful for my daughter, but she was happy during the preparations.

Girls can choose from three hairstyles at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique: Disney Diva, Pop Princess and Fairytale Princess. When my daughter was 4, she chose the FairyTale Princess, which is where the hair is smoothed into a bun and topped with a tiara and jeweled Mickey hair clip. It's very pretty, but it's also very tight and my daughter complained within minutes of the hairstyle being finished. As soon as we snapped her finished portrait, she took it out. If your child has a tender head or gets frequent headaches, you may want to choose another style.

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One of the Disney Diva hairpieces.

On her most recent visit to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, my daughter selected the Disney Diva hairstyle. Her hair was pulled back again, but we asked her Fairy Godmother in training to keep it looser. This style adds a long hairpiece in the back that comes in various colors and has tiny braids and Mickey Mouse-shaped embellishments. The front of the hairpiece is teased, and jeweled Mickey hair pins finish the look. My daughter was much happier with this look. She -- and her doll -- have worn the hairpiece and clips numerous times since her special appointment, too.

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The studio at Disney's PhotoPass Center at Downtown Disney Marketplace.

Both locations do have multiple PhotoPass photographers to help you capture your child's transformation, and you are welcome to use your own camera as well. Each time, I had planned to purchase Disney's PhotoPass CD, and when I alerted the photographers, they were willing to take extra images. If you are at the World of Disney salon and would like formal finished portraits, head to the nearby PhotoPass center. That site has a gray backdrop and a chaise lounge for your child to pose like royalty. Be sure to bring any props you might like. For example, my daughter brought a rose to hold when she was wearing her Belle costume. (For tips on maximizing your PhotoPass CD purchase, see my previous article at http://land.allears.net/blogs/guestblog/2012/03/_the_price_of_a.html) At the Magic Kingdom, be sure to stop by the Town Square Theater to have your daughter's photo taken with her favorite princess.

To see other details about Walt Disney World's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, visit the AllEars.net resource page at http://allears.net/btp/bibbidi.htm


Walt and the Promise of Progress City: Spatial Manipulation

EDITOR'S NOTE: Over the next few months, AllEars.Net will be highlighting exclusive excerpts from Sam Gennawey's book, Walt and the Promise of Progress City. The book explores the process through which meaningful and functional spaces were created by Walt Disney and his artists, as well as how guests understand and experience those spaces. It also takes a look at how Walt wanted to change the public's expectations about city life in the same way his earlier work had redefined what it meant to watch an animated film or visit an amusement park. In this month's excerpt, we learn about the way the Imagineers play with your expectations about what you are seeing as you wander through the parks.

Spatial Manipulation
by Sam Gennawey

In many respects, Disneyland is the world's largest toy train set. Of the locomotives that circle the park to the buildings along Main Street, Walt said, "It's not apparent at a casual glance that this street is only a scale model." He added, "This cost more, but made the street a toy and the imagination can play more freely with a toy."

To achieve this effect, the Imagineers adapted a film technique called forced perspective and applied it to three-dimensional design. John Hench defined forced perspective as "a form of one-point linear perspective in which receding space is compressed by exaggerating the proximity of the implied vanishing point to the viewer." In film, the process adds depth to the image. In three-dimensional design, the illusion adds height. The perspective is "forced" because the first floor of a building is full scale, the second floor is smaller in scale, and the third level is even smaller. As the structure continues to rise, the materials continue to get smaller in scale.

Forced perspective is used to adjust the scale of the architecture to meet the storytelling need. These are not full-scale reproductions of historic structures. The size of the buildings has been manipulated, and the unfolding of the spaces is purposefully staged to reinforce the overall narrative. Forced perspective also provided the Imagineers maximum flexibility in the design process. Forced perspective is the quality that makes buildings feel taller than they really are while making the environment more comfortable and intimate. The physical space that the guest passes through is compressed, which aids in the storytelling process. This is why Disneyland seems cozy and friendly, particularly to children.

In Magic Lands, John Findlay says, "The overall effect of the built environment was impressive but not intimidating." Hench noted, "It's one of the special charms of Disneyland that not only is the architecture related, but the ideas are related. You get the impression of ambience." Architect John Kaliski observed, "The qualities that most impress me are intricacy, detail, and the ability to be constantly lost in the details, which are tactile and human scale." He feels that "the New Orleans street as well as some of the cul-de-sacs are places of imploded time that in effect are almost authentic. Understanding how to craft this and create this is part of the work of urban design and architecture and it is done to an exemplary state in portions of Disneyland."

He did have some concerns. "The part for me [that] is claustrophobic is the relentless fantasy and lack of cultural complexity combined with the manipulation of too many experiences." Karal Ann Marling saw it differently. "In the movies, the experience is continuous and unbroken, but in Disneyland, it is discontinuous and episodic, like watching television in the privacy of one's home, each ride a four- or five-minute segment, slotted in among snacks, trips to the rest room, and 'commercials' in the form of souvenir emporia. And it is always possible to change the channel."

Forced perspective plays tricks with the guest's perception of space and time. Walt knew that at the end of a long day, people did not want to feel like the exit was so far away. To slow people down, the first floor of the Main Street train depot was built at full scale, and the structure looks much larger than the buildings in the foreground. The scale of the depot contrasts with the rest of the Main Street facades, with the result that the street appears to be very short. The guests are now convinced that the exit is not far away, and they feel they can slow down and savor their last few moments in the park. They might even do a little bit of shopping along the way. To make the facades more personal, the storefront windows are lower than usual so that children have better access to view the displays.
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Interested in Walt and the Promise of Progress City? Order it through the AllEars.Net Amazon store HERE!


March 28, 2012

Cap'n Jack's Restaurant: Downtown Disney's Overlooked Dining Location

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to dining at Downtown Disney, I have a certain group of restaurants that are my favorites which I tend to go to again and again. On a recent trip to Downtown Disney, however, I decided to try a restaurant that I have never even set foot in despite the countless times I have walked past it or seen it from across the lake. Cap'n Jack's Restaurant certainly does not have the name recognition of some of the other dining locations at Downtown Disney and curiously, amongst my friends, family, and coworkers, no one I talked to had ever dined there either; all I really knew about it was that it is primarily a seafood restaurant.

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With the wide variety of dining choices at Downtown Disney, Cap'n Jack's seems to get overlooked. However, sometimes these lesser-known restaurants can surprise you and turn out to be some of the best. Given the restaurant's relative obscurity, I was very curious to finally give it a try, especially since I am the type of person always willing to try something new.

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Overview:
The area that is now the Downtown Disney Marketplace actually dates all the way back to March 22, 1975 when the area first opened as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village. The area was first promoted as a "restful shopping atmosphere similar to a New England seaside village" and included a wine cellar, tobacco shop, pharmacy, pet store, and small kiosks to watch craftspeople make candles, pottery and candy. If you look closely at the design of the buildings in the Marketplace section of Downtown Disney, you can still see remnants of that original seaside village theme and, of course, no seaside village would be complete without a seafood restaurant.

I never realized this, but Cap'n Jack's was one of the original restaurants at the Shopping Village when it opened in 1975, making it one of the older dining locations in all of Disney World. Being a Disney history buff, this gave me much more respect for the restaurant knowing that it had been around for that long. While numerous other restaurants at Downtown Disney have come and gone, Cap'n Jack's has withstood the test of time, so clearly they have to be doing something right.

Atmosphere:
The first thing that really stands out about Cap'n Jack's is its location; the restaurant literally sits right on top of the water. Its shape and location give the restaurant an appearance similar to that of Narcoossee's at the Grand Floridian.

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Once you have entered Cap'n Jack's the atmosphere is quintessential nautical New England. The hardwood floors and wood-paneled walls set the tone for the dining room, but the theming is taken even further with all the little details of the décor.

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All around the restaurant you will find various bits of seafaring and nautical touches, ranging from ship's wheels, compasses, and other navigational equipment to lobster traps.

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Along the walls of the dining room are numerous black and white photographs and paintings of sailing vessels, steamships, and lighthouses, all of which lend an added degree of authenticity to the dining experience. There were certainly elements of the dining room that reminded me of seafood restaurants I have been to back home in Rhode Island.

Nautical Painting

Lighthouse Painting

The only element that betrayed the theming of the restaurant was the music that was playing. I found it odd that despite the New England-style décor the music was predominantly tropical. I entered the restaurant hearing Jimmy Buffett singing Margaretville and throughout the course of my meal there was various calypso, reggae, and other Caribbean-sounding music. One song I heard that I found to be both a funny and ironic twist on the restaurant's theme was "Come Sail Away" by Styx.

The real allure of the restaurant, however, rests not in its nautical décor but with the tremendous views offered from its numerous windows. As noted earlier, the restaurant juts out into the lake, which means that the dining room's circular shape offers great panoramic views from all sides of Downtown Disney and Saratoga Springs. In addition, the tables are positioned in such a way that no matter where you sit you will have a good view outside.

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The overall feel of the restaurant is casual and laid-back. The dining room even features a large bar that makes the perfect place to come and enjoy a drink while taking in the beautiful views.

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It is certainly a restaurant that can be enjoyed by families travelling with smaller children, but also by adults. In this way, Cap'n Jack's offers a nice alternative for those in the mood for seafood but looking for something a little more family-friendly and relaxing than Fulton's Crab House located just across the lake.

The Menu:
Originally being from New England I love all types of seafood, so I was excited to see what Cap'n Jack's menu had to offer. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed with the selection. I found the menu to be pretty straight forward, featuring many standard seafood dishes with nothing too exotic or extreme.

There were not too many appetizer offerings to choose from and they included Peel N' Eat Shrimp for Two ($13.99) served with cocktail sauce, Smoked Trout Fillet with Horseradish Cream ($8.99), Spinach & Artichoke Dip ($7.49), a Mixed Greens Salad ($5.49) with a choice of ranch dressing or papaya vinaigrette, Hearty Vegetable Soup ($3.99), and New England Clam Chowder ($5.49).

Because I went during lunchtime, there are some offerings that are only available during the day. These sandwiches provide some additional choices to a menu that is not too large. The lunch options include an Open-Faced Crab Cake Melt Sandwich ($18.99) served on top of garlic focaccia bread topped with tomato, tartar sauce, and melted provolone, a Cajun Tilapia Sandwich ($12.99) on a toasted hoagie roll with a house-made tartar sauce, topped with sliced tomato and onion, an Open-Faced Chicken Parmesan Sandwich ($13.99) on top of garlic focaccia bread, a Pot Roast Sandwich ($12.99) served on a toasted garlic hoagie roll and topped with onions and melted provolone cheese, and a Tuna Nicoise Sandwich ($11.49) which includes white albacore tuna mixed with potato, green beans, eggs and a vinaigrette dressing served on a croissant with sliced tomato, onion, and lettuce.

The rest of the items on the menu are available for both lunch and dinner and consist of primarily seafood offerings. However, being originally from New England and having been exposed to so many varieties of seafood dishes while living there, I was very disappointed with the limited scope and diversity of the menu.

The entrée offerings include Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes ($24.99) with Cajun mustard aioli, green asparagus tips, and roasted garlic red skin potatoes, Roast Chicken Breast ($18.99) with sherry wine sauce, mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables, Citrus Shrimp Salad ($15.99) that includes assorted greens, marinated shrimp, papaya, apple, and tomato with a citrus vinaigrette, a Baked Salmon Fillet ($19.99) with citrus-caper butter sauce, buttered steamed potatoes, and seasonal vegetables, a Baked Tilapia Filet ($19.99) with a cool mango salsa, rice pilaf, and seasonal vegetables, Caesar Salad with Blue Crab Meat ($15.99), with Grilled Chicken Breast ($12.99), with Salmon Fillet ($16.49), or with Shrimp ($14.49), Penne Pasta Alfredo ($13.99), with blue crab meat ($19.99), with grilled chicken breast ($19.99), or with Shrimp ($18.99), Old Fashioned Beef Pot Roast ($17.99) with onion ragout, red-skin mashed potatoes, and seasonal vegetables, and Shrimp and Penne Pasta ($19.99) in a creamy lobster sauce.

The dessert offerings are limited and fairly uninspired. Among the choices are a Double Chocolate Cake with Ice Cream ($5.99) drizzled with Caramel Sauce and Raspberry Sauce, Key Lime Pie ($5.49), White Chocolate Raspberry New York Cheesecake ($5.49), and a Fresh Fruit Salad ($4.99). I would much rather pass on dessert altogether here and head to the nearby Ghirardelli Soda Fountain for one of their delicious sundaes.

For an appetizer I decided to try the New England Clam Chowder. I am very picky when it comes to chowder and have had it in more restaurants than I can count. The chowder at Cap'n Jack's was not bad, but it was certainly not something to write home about; there was nothing really special about it that made it stand out. I prefer my chowder to be a little on the thicker side and this one was a little thin, but it still had a nice creamy flavor. While the chowder had a generous amount of clams and potatoes, they were chopped up into very small pieces. Personally, I think having larger pieces of potato and clams in chowder allows you to enjoy their flavors more because they stand out and don't get lost in the flavor of the broth.

Clam Chowder

A big test for me when it comes to chowder is how much pepper I need to add. The best chowders are those that can stand alone by themselves and don't need any pepper for extra flavor. The chowder at Cap'n Jack's was just a little bland and I needed to add a bit of pepper to kick it up a notch.

For my entrée I decided on the Open-Faced Crab Cake Melt Sandwich. This dish is really a sandwich in name only as it would be difficult to eat without the assistance of a knife and fork. I was happy to find that this dish was much more flavorful than the chowder. To start, the focaccia bread was toasted to a nice golden brown so that it was crispy on top but still soft inside. The bread was flavored with herbs and garlic, but I did not find these to be too strong so as to overpower the crab cake. Instead, the focaccia paired very well with the crab cake while also providing a nice contrast in texture.

Crab Cake Melt

The crab cake itself was very good. I have had crab cakes elsewhere that combine so many other ingredients with the crab that they actually start to take away from the crab's flavor. This was not the case here. Not only did the crab cake have nice-sized chunks of crabmeat, but it was also extremely moist. I was not sure how the provolone cheese was going to pair with the crab cake and was scared that it might be too strong and overpower the crab. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the flavor of the cheese actually went along very well with the crab. The only part of the sandwich that I did not care for was the tomato that topped the crab cake; its flavor just stood out too much and took away from that of the crab.

Overall, I was pleased with my meal. Was it the best meal that I have ever had at Disney? No, but I would not say it was bad by any means. However, I do feel that the restaurant is missing a golden opportunity by not offering a wider array of seafood dishes. The menu is very simple and if I am really in the mood for seafood there are several other restaurants at Disney World that I would go to before coming back here because of their more diverse offerings.

Service:
The one thing that stood out most about the service at Cap'n Jack's was how slow it was. I did not have a reservation but was still seated right away, which was great especially considering that it was a Saturday afternoon. Once I was seated, however, it was a very long time before my server ever came to my table. This was a constant theme throughout the course of the meal. It took a long time for me to get my drink, my appetizer, my entrée, and my bill at the end of the meal. I really cannot understand why the service was so slow either because the restaurant was not exactly crowded. I am all for having a calm and relaxing meal when I go out to eat, but this was bordering on being unbearable. If you are in a rush and looking for a quick meal, this is definitely not the restaurant for you.

Dining on a Budget:
One positive thing about Cap'n Jack's menu is that all the dishes are fairly reasonable by Disney standards. If going for lunch the sandwiches are an especially good value. If you have your heart set on crab cakes, I would definitely recommend getting the sandwich for lunch as it is $6 cheaper than the crab cake meal and is still very filling. Even other items like the Citrus Shrimp Salad for $15.99 or the Caesar Salad with Shrimp for $14.49 are a good deal. It is prices like these that make Cap'n Jack's an alternative if you are at Downtown Disney, in the mood for seafood, but do not necessarily want to have an expensive meal at Fulton's Crab House.

Cap'n Jack's does participate in the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. In addition, Annual Passholders receive a 10% discount for lunch as do Disney Vacation Club members. Cap'n Jack's also participates in Tables in Wonderland, offering its members a 20% discount.

The Overall Experience:
This was my first ever experience with Cap'n Jack's and, while I am glad that I tried it at least once, I have other restaurants at Downtown Disney that I enjoy much more. However, if you have a situation where you are looking for somewhere to eat at Downtown Disney and there are long waits at all of the restaurants, Cap'n Jack's lesser-known status makes it easier to get a table. This is probably the only way that I would find myself eating at Cap'n Jack's again; this is not a restaurant that I would specifically plan a trip to Downtown Disney to go an eat at.

The restaurant has a lot of nice things about it, such as its beautiful location right out on the water and its charming New England nautical theme, but there are other aspects that leave more to be desired (such as the menu needing a complete makeover). One of the great things about Disney World is that there are so many different dining locations available, so even if you try Cap'n Jack's and find that it is not quite to your liking there are several other restaurants across property that specialize in seafood available for you to try.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Cap'n Jack's Restaurant and post your own too!

March 29, 2012

The Pirate's League at Disney World gives families swashbuckling makeovers

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My son happily waits for his pirate makeover.

The Pirate's League in the Magic Kingdom immerses guests in the swashbuckling world of pirates and their wenches by transforming them into new recruits for Captain Jack Sparrow's crew. We set out one day last fall to give my then-8-year-old son an experience he had been yearning for since he became fascinated with pirates.

The Pirate's League has been around for almost three years, but when my son decided to be a pirate for Halloween, it was the first time we had darkened the doors of the lair that is tucked in between the the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and its gift shop.

Our adventure began with my son choosing The Cursed Pirate from five looks in The First Mate package, which includes a reversible bandana, The Pirate's League sash, earring and eye patch, sword and sheath, temporary tattoo, unique pirate coin necklace, removable teeth and a personalized pirate oath. This package now costs $34.95, plus tax. Costumes can be purchased in the gift shop next door or guests can wear their own outfits.

The Pirate's League certainly is not limited to boys; I have seen whole families come out of the experience together. In fact, The Empress package is designed for ladies and includes all of the above, plus vibrant makeup, nail polish and a face gem for the same price.

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The transformation begins with a coat of thick white makeup that thoroughly covered his freckles.

Then, my son received his official pirate name, -- a complicated procedure that included spinning a ship's wheel, which turned a pair of dice in a treasure chest, and matching the numbers in a captain's log. Next, he was led further inside to the Muster Station where we waited for the wench assigned to his transformation. We passed the time with a veteran pirate, who told my son and daughter stories and jokes.

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After being transformed into The Cursed Pirate, my son takes the official Pirate's Oath.

When it was his turn, my son took his place in the chair and was transformed into a skeleton, which he proudly wore for the rest of the day (and night). The Cursed Pirate is one of the most popular makeovers at The Pirate's League. Recently, though, Walt Disney World added two new packages that are sure to be hits.

The Mermaid package -- first offered in 2011 for the release of the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise -- has been brought back because of its popularity. A cast member last year told me that The Pirate's League had to discontinue the package before its scheduled end date because they ran out of supplies after such high demand. The Mermaid includes luminous mermaid makeup application, makeup palette, face gems, special hairstyle and color changing hairclip, nail polish, mermaid sash and color changing necklace. Price is $39.95, plus tax.

Disney Junior fans ages 3 and older can choose The Jake and the Never Land Pirates package, which transforms a guest into the main character of the show. The package includes Jake facial effect, bandanna with faux hair, plus the official Pirates League sword and sheath, treasure bag and pirate coin necklace, all for $29.95, plus tax.

After his makeover, my son took the pirate's oath and then entered a "secret" room, which he thought was very cool. Hidden treasure was revealed to him and his official portrait was taken by a PhotoPass photographer. (Guests are welcome to take photos during the transformation, but cameras are not allowed in the secret room. Also, no Disney PhotoPass photographers are available during the makeovers, so it's up to guests to document what they want for their scrapbooks.)

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Captain Jack Sparrow's Pirate Tutorial gives kids the opportunity to interact with Disney's most popular pirate.

Afterward, newly minted pirates can join the daily Adventureland Pirate Parade, meet Pirate Goofy nearby or learn how to sword fight at Captain Jack Sparrow's Pirate Tutorial.

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Pirate Goofy greets Magic Kingdom guests outside The Pirate's League.

You can read more about The Pirate's League in Jack Spence's blog from when the experience first opened http://land.allears.net/blogs/jackspence/2009/06/pirates_league.html. Also, be sure to check out the AllEars resource page: http://allears.net/tp/mk/piratesleague.htm


March 31, 2012

Disney author Ridley Pearson shares what's coming next in 'Kingdom Keepers' series

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Author Ridley Pearson debuted his new 'Kingdom Keepers V: Shell Game' at Downtown Disney on March 29.

"This is Ridley Pearson, Ace Detective, Kingdom Keeper, currently hiding out somewhere in Walt Disney World with a suspicious-looking woman with a long, long pen and a piece of paper."

So began my interview this week with author Ridley Pearson, who was at Walt Disney World for pre-release book events for the fifth installment in his popular Kingdom Keepers series for young adults.

Pearson's love of mysteries -- he readily shared that he enjoyed The Hardy Boys series as a young teen -- made me wish we could duck into a utilidor or, at the very least, find a secret room. But, instead, our sunglasses, my 9-year-old son and a friendly publicist had to throw any villains off our trail.

Copies of Kingdom Keepers V: Shell Game were on sale Thursday at Once Upon A Toy store at Downtown DIsney and Friday at The Writer's Stop at Disney's Hollywood Studios. After purchasing books, hundreds of fans queued up at Downtown Disney on Thursday to meet Pearson and get his autograph. (KK5 goes on sale nationally on April 3.)

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Fans waited hours for the opportunity to buy 'KK5' before its release date and to meet Pearson.

Kingdom Keepers V: Shell Game is set onboard Disney Cruise Line's Disney Dream, but the author had just stepped off back-to-back preview cruises on the newest ship, Disney Fantasy, so, of course, I had to ask him for a comparison of the two ships.

"The Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy are two of the most amazing cruise ships to work the sea. They are sister ships so I would never pick one sister over the other for fear the other would club me over the head with her umbrella," Pearson said. "They both are just sensational. They aren't even ships; they are experiences. I've been on both ships for over a week at a time, and you want to be on them for 3 or 4 weeks. And still, I don't think you would have had every experience you can have. Part of their attraction is this infinity of experience."

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Pearson's 'Kingdom Keepers V: Shell Game' is promoted on the Disney Dream, where it takes place.


Still, after being pressed, he will admit a certain fondness for the Dream because of the incredible access he was given while researching KK5 and KK6. (Yes, the sixth installment of the series also is set onboard the ship.)

"I have been places that even some crew members have never seen. I've been down in the engine room. I've been inside the galleys. I've been in the broadcast center. I've been in the security offices. I was very, very privileged. As a reader, you get to experience these things as I did."

Readers also will take a trip to Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line's private island in the Bahamas. Pearson teased fans by saying an airplane makes a mysterious landing on the tropical paradise in KK5, but I wanted to know more.

"I was just so surprised to see this giant runway. It's not even that Disney uses it very often, but I immediately, upon seeing, it said, 'That's got to find its way into my story,' as well as a tower that is set off in sort of the brushy area. All of a sudden, the story threads came into a single thread and I realized that the Overtakers were going to be bringing something really funky and smuggling it onto the ship, and the only place they could possibly do that was Castaway Cay. So that ends up a big part of Books 5 and 6.

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'Kingdom Keepers' books were in high demand before the book signing.

"The other thing is that the story of the Kingdom Keepers, the Overtakers, is growing darker and more complex, and this book is really the breakaway for all of that. Things are about to get very heavy in Book 6, and Book 5 is sort of the gangway to that."

It's a loosely kept secret that Pearson relies on his teen daughters for input on his young adult books. Not only do they read the books, but he says, "A lot of what the Kingdom Keepers go through emotionally in my books is based on the lives of my kids. So the Kingdom Keepers continually get older in the series because my kids are getting older and dealing with boyfriends (or "louts" as he jokingly calls them). I see them go through this torture, and I put into my books."

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Emma Smith's shirt displays the entries in a contest for a logo for Pearson's upcoming book tour.

Pearson's writing obviously resonates with his young, passionate readers. In line for the book signing Thursday, one teen fan was thrilled that the timing of her Disney World vacation would allow her to meet Pearson, her favorite author. Emma Smith, 13, of Tipp City, Ohio, entered a recent contest on the author's website, ridleypearson.com. The challenge was to design a T-shirt for the KK5 book tour, and then fans were able to vote on their favorites. In addition, they could purchase shirts that showcase all the images or just one in particular.

"I love drawing and I like his books a lot, so I thought it would be fun to enter," she said.

Fans should check the website often for other contests and book tour information for Pearson.

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Emma's 'KK5' design is among those featured on her T-shirt.

So what's next for the author? He's in the process of writing Kingdom Keepers VI, which will be followed by the seventh and final book in the series. Pearson won't reveal the backdrop for that book, except to say, "You'll have to stay tuned, but the ZIP code will change." The books are due out on the first Tuesday of April in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

"We would sure hope to be back in Walt Disney World, releasing ahead of time. This is to me, the best of all fans, and if we can give them an advantage by letting them get the book before the rest of the country, that's all the better," he said.

In the meantime, his next trip back to The Most Magical Place on Earth is at the end of April, when he will be a speaker at the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration.

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About March 2012

This page contains all entries posted to All Ears® Guest Blog in March 2012. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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