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February 12, 2017

That’s Not Poutine!

Gary Cruise banner

Every time I pass by the Canadian Pavilion at EPCOT I find myself marvelling at the amazing job the Imagineers did in capturing the essence of Canada!

How did those gifted designers figure out that we all enjoy wearing checkered lumberjack shirts? Who could have told them that after a long, tiring work-week we Canucks just can’t wait to grab an axe and chop down a tree . . . or enter a log rolling competition? How could they know that every Canadian rock band has a lead singer who plays the bagpipes?

I often find myself looking around in wonder, shaking my head, and thinking, “Boy, they sure do understand Canadians. They nailed it, EH?”

So imagine my delight when I sat down at Le Cellier several years ago and cracked open the menu. There, part way down the listing of side dishes, was a classic Canadian dish . . . poutine! “Wow” I thought, “I love poutine, this just has to be good!”

Le Cellier

Now, I know that most of you reading this are not Canadian so you are probably thinking, “Poutine? Poutine? What the heck is poutine?”

Poutine is classic Canadian cuisine! It’s Canadian comfort food. There are four basic food groups in Canada, maple syrup, beaver tails, butter tarts and poutine!

Poutine originated in the Province of Quebec in the 1950’s and quickly became a national favourite! Quebec is predominantly French-speaking and the French pronounce it “pooh-tin”. The English populace pronounce it “pooh-teen”. But no matter how they say the word, all Canadians agree that poutine is delicious!

There are several theories that try to explain how poutine came to be. My favourite version involves a Montreal cardiologist whose medical practice was floundering. He wasn’t sure how he was going to make the next payment on his Ferrari . . . so he whipped up a batch of poutine and let a local restaurateur have a taste. He started with some crispy French-fried potatoes, covered them with fresh cheddar cheese curds, then smothered it all with steaming-hot brown gravy. The restaurateur just loved the gooey mess and immediately began selling it in his restaurant. Before you could say “quadruple bypass” poutine sales were booming, arteries were hardening and the cardiologist’s practice was thriving!

Poutine

So that’s what poutine is. It’s a very simple recipe, crispy hot fries, cheddar cheese curds and piping-hot brown gravy. Carol and I have sampled a few unique variations over the years. Some chefs have added pulled pork or smoked brisket. We’ve even had a delicious version that was topped off with chunks of smoked meatloaf, but they all contained the three basic ingredients, fries, cheddar cheese curds and brown gravy.

Imagine my shock when I read the description on the Le Cellier menu! Fries, gruyère and a red wine reduction. What? Gruyère? Does gruyère even have curds? And wine reduction? Where’s the gravy?

It sounded nothing like poutine, in fact both Carol and I thought it sounded disgusting. We were skeptical but we decided to trust the chef. We cast common sense to the wind and ordered up a batch of “poutine”. Yuck! It was worse than disgusting. It was embarrassing. Not a proud moment for this Canadian!

I swore I would never order poutine again at Le Cellier, but as I wrote this blog, I checked the Le Cellier menu again. The poutine is now described as “fresh-cut fries, Gruyère, caramelized onions, French onion gravy $10”. I’m torn, the gruyère is still there, but at least there’s gravy. It might be worthy of a second chance someday! Maybe . . .

Last fall, as Carol and I explored a new area at Disney Springs, behind the Lego Store, a sign caught my eye.

The Daily Poutine

Could it be? Real authentic poutine?

I checked the ingredients . . . the “Classic Poutine” sounded good. The ingredients were correct.

Poutine Menu

All the others . . . they sounded nasty – just nasty. There is no place in poutine for Bolognese Sauce or Mushroom Cream Sauce. And fried yucca? Nope – that’s just all wrong!

Those variations are just pretentious imposters foisted on the public by snooty chefs who know nothing about poutine! To my untrained palate they sound about as appetizing as a Brussels Sprout Smoothie, Roasted Red Pepper Ice Cream or Pumpkin Pie Spiced Mashed Potatoes!

But once again Carol and I decided to give the “Classic Poutine” a try.

Big mistake . . . it was disappointing! Very disappointing.

The curds should melt in the gravy and make a gooey mixture that clings to the fries. That didn’t happen; the curds we had were cold in the middle. I don’t mean that they were cool – they were almost frozen. They were hard and chewy and just totally wrong.

Disney Springs Poutine

We tried to like the poutine, we really did, but we threw out more than half of the order they served us! Ugh!

So here’s my advice folks!

If you want to try genuine poutine, if you want to sample a real Canadian delicacy, skip the stuff they serve at Le Cellier . . . when you see that kiosk behind the Lego Store, just walk on by!

Come to Canada instead . . . then go to any McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, DQ, KFC, A & W, New York Fries or any of the Canadian fast food chains. They all serve great poutine.

Burger King

Wendys

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So do all street vendors and food trucks from coast to coast. And none of them use Bolognese Sauce, Mushroom Cream Sauce or fried yucca. That’s just WRONG. That’s not poutine!

I hope to see you up here in the Great White North real soon!

June 18, 2012

Safari in South Africa - Adventures by Disney Wrap Up

Guest Blogger Coleen Bolton concludes her Adventures by Disney trip to South Africa.

After spending about two weeks with the same people it was very hard to say goodbye, especially to our wonderful guides Craig and Chris.

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Adventures by Disney surpassed all of my expectations and I know that is largely due to the guides. Every day they were there sharing their passion and excitement for where our adventure was taking us. They did an amazing job of keeping us all together and on schedule which couldn't have been easy with 40 guests and an adventure that included a few trips through different airports.

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They were always on top of everything and making adjustments as needed to be sure we all had a stress-free adventure and that we didn't miss anything.

If there was something you wanted to do during the free time they were right there to help you make it happen.

They also always seemed to have that one thing you might have forgotten such as sunblock, band aids, or hand sanitizer. As a mom who is used to always having to be the one that remembers everything it was really nice to realize I didn't have to do that on this trip. The best part was that I didn't have to plan where we would go each day and I didn't have make sure we got there on time. I was able to just sit back and have the guides tell me where to be and all I had to do was show up.

There were a few kids on our Adventure and even though our schedule was very busy with some long days all the kids seemed to do really well. The youngest was 9 and I would say that is probably the youngest I would suggest for this adventure.

Disney of course does have special name for the kids, they are Junior Adventurers. There were some special things on the Adventure that were just for the Junior Adventurers and even though some of us adults really wanted to join the Juniors we couldn't. I think it is great that Disney has some things on each adventure that gives the kids a chance to be on their own.

I do think this Adventure did a great job of showing us multiple sides of South Africa. I went into this Adventure thinking Africa was just safaris and savannas. It was amazing to see there is so much more than I pictured. We got to see so much, yet I never felt like we were doing too much or were being rushed.

Africa was a place on my bucket list that I never really thought I would get to see and I thank Disney for making that dream a reality. I had thought that going to Africa would be a one-time thing, but I really fell in love with South Africa and am already thinking about going back.

This was my first Adventures by Disney and I am sure it won't be my last. Cruising used to be my favorite way to travel, but Adventures by Disney easily took that top spot.

If you have looked at the prices for an Adventure you might think they are expensive but I can say from experience they are worth every penny! If you were to price a cruise for the same length of time and then add in the cost for all the excursions you would need to do to even come close to all the things you get to do on an Adventure by Disney I think you would see that an Adventure is a great deal.

You might ask what makes Adventures by Disney different than some other land tour company and that is easy to answer -- it's the Disney Difference. First off I think most people would agree that when you are doing something with the Disney name you are pretty sure you are going to get quality. For me I also feel safer doing something that Disney is part of. Going off to a foreign country like Africa isn't something I would have done without a feeling that I would be safe throughout my entire trip.

Then of course there are the little things, like we never waited in line to do things and most times what we got to do was exclusive to Adventures by Disney. We would hear people comment as we walked by following the Adventures by Disney sign and even if we couldn't understand the language they were speaking it was clear they were thinking, "Wow, how did they get to do that?"

A big Disney difference were the wonderful people that Disney found to be part of our Adventure -- those that shared their knowledge, passion, and their personal stories at the different places we visited. These people enhanced our adventure and made it even more memorable.

Again I also have to mention our guides, as I cannot imagine any other tour company having guides that are as good as Disney's. Every day they were sure to tell us one thing and I have to say it right back: "we love you guys too!"

Thank you again to Craig, Chris, Janco, Alphie, Prince, and all the other wonderful people who made my Adventure unforgettable!

Now to think about which Adventure should I take next?

June 17, 2012

Safari in South Africa - Adventures by Disney Part 5

Guest Blogger Coleen Bolton continues with her Adventures by Disney trip to South Africa.

Day 9

Today started with tea and our morning game drive. It was a little chilly this morning so we didn't see as many animals as the day before. Our ranger and tracker tried really hard to find us a rhino, but no luck. It was still an amazing drive.

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It was clear we were the first truck to go down certain paths, since we were riding through the large webs that went from one side of the path to the other. It was a bit scary but our ranger and tracker took good care of us and swept the webs away as best possible.

We headed back for breakfast and then it was time for the one thing on the adventure I really wasn't looking forward to -- the reptile and bug demonstration. I have to admit I am glad I went. The speaker was very passionate about snakes. He made me realize that snakes are not as scary as I used to think. Snakes really don't want to bite people -- it's people that cause the snakes to bite.

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After that it was about time for lunch and then I was headed to the spa. I had a wonderful hot stone massage, which was nice to have at just about the end of the trip.The wellness center at Kampana is beautiful with its own private pool just for adults.

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I went from my spa appointment to afternoon tea and then back out for another game drive. We were still searching for that rhino with no luck. We did see a lot of other animals though, including some that we hadn't seen yet, like the wildebeest.

Sadly, after the game drive it was time for our farewell dinner. It was an amazing dinner with some great music and dance. The night ended with a Power Point show of some of the photos taken during the adventure.

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Since the trip isn't exactly over yet it wasn't too sad. We still have one more game drive in the morning followed by breakfast and sort of mini game drive back to the airport. We are all flying to Johannesburg so we will officially say goodbye to everyone then.

Day 10 & 11

Our last morning's game drive was a success -- we finally found a rhino! Not just one but two, just hanging out as we drove past and put on the brakes to back up and get a good look. It was bittersweet since we also knew this was the last time we would be driving the trails of Kapama.

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The game drives were the Africa I had pictured when I thought of going to Africa and they even surpassed my expectations. It was just so amazing to be driving around and be a part of the animal's world. It was sad to hear how people poach the rhinos, and some even found a way onto the preserve and killed one. They only want the horn so these poor animals die for no good reason. I hope that they can put a stop to the poaching so we don't lose these magnificent animals for good.

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After our game drive it was time to have breakfast and pack up. We headed back to the airport, which is sort of a mini game drive. We had a giraffe say good-bye to us as we left which was very cool.

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Due to flight issues some of us needed to add an extra day in Johannesburg. This is not normally part of the Adventure but Disney found us a great hotel to spend the night at and tomorrow we will do a short city tour before heading to the airport for our 16-hour flight back to New York and reality. Sala Kahle (pronounced say-lah kaw-lee), which means good-bye or go well.

June 16, 2012

Safari in South Africa - Adventures by Disney Part 4

Guest Blogger Coleen Bolton continues with her Adventures by Disney trip to South Africa.

Day 8

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Today's theme was the Big Five and our morning game drive started off with the king of the 5 walking right out in front of our truck. It was a male about 3 years old according to our ranger, Janco. He walked right up to our truck and right past us like he couldn't care less that we were there. It was so amazing!

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After watching him for a bit we were off to see what else we could find and we even luckier to find a couple lionesses and their cubs hiding out. They were not easy to see since they are very good at hiding but our ranger did a super job of getting us pretty close.

After the lions we ran into a pretty big herd of elephants. There were elephants of all sizes even a very small baby that our ranger said looked to be about a week old. It pretty much stayed under its mom so it was hard to get a good look. While we were watching one elephant eat some leaves he decided that the leaves were too high so he started to knock the tree down and it was coming right at our truck! Good thing our ranger has quick reflexes and started the truck up and backed us out pretty quick.

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By this point I think we were all just in awe and it was not even 7 am yet! We had now seen 3 of the big 5 -- Lion, Elephant, and Buffalo. We are still hoping to catch site of a rhino and leopard. Some of the other trucks said they saw rhino but so far no one has seen a leopard.

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After the morning game drive we returned to the lodge for breakfast -- it was hard to believe it was only breakfast time. After breakfast we had a wonderful demonstration by Trompie. He showed us archery and blow darts. I was picked to be his example and he said no matter what he could teach anyone to hit the target with less than five attempts. I didn't believe he could teach me to do that. He was an excellent teacher because I was able to hit the yellow bull's-eye on my second try! Archery is something I always wanted to try so it was so cool to be able to get to do that. There was also a beading demonstration by Motsatsi and we could all make a beaded necklace or bracelet. I never knew how big beading was in Africa.

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We had lunch and some time to relax before our evening game drive. We were lucky again tonight and found two sleepy cheetahs!


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This was perfect since the junior adventures were watching Disney's African Cats after dinner.


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The evening game drives are a lot of fun even if we don't see anything. Before it got dark our ranger drove us over to the river area and showed us all the damage done by the recent flooding. It was scary to see how much damage rain could do.

Today's word of the day is Boma, which most Disney World people have heard before -- but did you know that it comes from Swahili and means an enclosure normally used for livestock? Kind of funny that we know it as a place to eat. That doesn't only apply to Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, because here at the Kampana River Lodge we dined in the Rhino Boma tonight. It was another wonderful meal complete with bonfire. After dinner I snuck down into the snake pit with the junior adventures to watch the movie. It was a fun way to end another great day!

June 14, 2012

Safari in South Africa - Adventures by Disney Part 2

Guest Blogger Coleen Bolton continues with her Adventures by Disney trip to South Africa.

Day 4

Today started off with a drive to Stellenbosch, which is South Africa's second oldest city and also known as the wine capital. It is a very cute town with lots of Cape Dutch cottages. First we had a hands on cooking class and made Koeksister (pronounced cook-sister), and that was also our word of the day. A Koeksister is a pastry sort of like a doughnut dipped in syrup. We then got to work off our Koeksister with a bike ride to our lunch location.

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Our lunch was at Moyo in the Spier Wine Estate, a fun place where we almost felt like we were eating in a treehouse.

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After lunch there were two choices -- wine tasting or an eagle encounter. I am not big on wine so I chose the eagles and I am glad I did. It was a nice presentation where we had a couple owls land on us and got up close with a couple vultures.

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Compared to yesterday today was relaxing, but unfortunately we will be saying good bye to Cape Town bright and early tomorrow morning. We are headed to the airport at 5:30 am to make our way to Knysna (pronounced nize-nuh). Adventures by Disney is the only tour that flies to Knysna, others go by motorcoach and waste a whole day driving.

Day 5

Cape Town was a beautiful city and I am so glad I had the opportunity to visit it and soak up some of the culture. Today starts our visit to the Garden Route. This was like going out to the country compared to Cape Town. It was a quick flight away but it would have been an all day drive so I don't mind that we had to be up so early if it meant not spending a whole day on a bus.

When I used to picture Africa in my head I thought of the flat savannas and so far we haven't gotten to that part. Instead we have seen the vibrant waterfront and city of Cape Town which was bordered with rocky looking mountains. Now we are out in garden country where there are green covered mountains everywhere. Today we went a little bananas at Monkeyland and then watched the birds soar at the world's largest free flight sanctuary.

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After some lunch out in a vineyard we headed to our new home for 2 nights -- the Pezula resort. All I can say is - OH MY GUIDES! This resort is just A-Mazing! We don't just have rooms we have suites that even have a fireplace. This resort also has its own small castle that we were able to tour. We are only half way through our Adventure and I am already totally spoiled! I know that I will never be able to travel any other way than Adventures by Disney!

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September 29, 2011

Adventures by Disney: Barcelona Escape/Mediterranean Magic, Part V

by Erin Foster
Guest Blogger

MEDITERRANEAN MAGIC DAY 6, AT SEA

With one exception, our day at sea was just like the day at sea for other guests sailing on the Magic. Members of our group slept in, used the health center and spa, watched movies and shows, and ate, and ate, and ate, and generally enjoyed the amenities of the ship.

The special Adventures by Disney activity was an animation class. The restaurant Animator's Palate, the perfect spot to learn about animation, was closed for our exclusive use. Guide Dusty, who had been trained in animation instruction, walked us through a lesson on how to draw the classic Disney character we had encountered in Florence: Pinocchio. After we completed our creations, Pinocchio himself came out to give his opinion on work. I think he liked it.

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MEDITERRANEAN MAGIC DAY 7, PALMA DE MALLORCA

Another fairly easy day. We took a brief bus ride to Palma where our local guide, Beverly, told us some of the history of this Spanish island and walked us around the cathedral and surrounding Arabian-style gardens.

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The big activity of the day was a 45-minute old-fashioned train ride, literally through the mountains, to the Mallorcan port of Soller.

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We had a train car all to ourselves. On board, James and Dusty passed out fresh-squeezed orange juice and local pastries. Unfortunately, I can't recall the name of the pastry, which I found delicious, but I do remember everyone's reaction when Beverly told us that the name translated into English meant "lard cake." There were a lot of leftover treats that day.

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In Soller, we meandered through the village. I purchased the last of my souvenirs and gifts for folks back home, mostly olive oil, locally grown almonds, and flavored salts native to the area.

Our leisurely lunch was at Es Canyis, overlooking the sea. On this day, two children, from different families, both experienced a birthday. James and Dusty gave them cards, the restaurant brought them cakes with candles, and we all sang. A very happy birthday indeed.

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We dined on chicken smothered with almond sauce and a yummy dessert of "Floating Islands," basically pudding with meringue and caramel hovering on top. The recipe is available, in Spanish, on the restaurant's website. I'm going to find a translator, but I hope they don't find the word "lard" in there.

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And speaking of floating, we had about an hour after lunch to explore the seaside area. One of the Adventure families was ambitious and rented a paddleboat with an attached water slide for about $20 for the hour.

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James and Dusty saw that we were having so much fun that they delayed our departure, giving us more time to play.

And then we went back to the Magic to pack for disembarkation day. Sigh.

While the weather had been gorgeous the entire trip, and we had not seen a single cloud since we left the US, back in New York the weather situation was rapidly deteriorating. As we packed, we kept our in-room TV tuned to MSNBC, which was broadcasting frequent reports about the advancement of Hurricane Irene. We were scheduled to leave the next day from the Barcelona airport back to NY JFK.

We dragged ourselves away from the television to go to the Adventurers' farewell reception. Again, we had a public room on the Magic all to ourselves. This time it was Diversions, deck 3 forward.

Everyone in the group had the opportunity to share stories about their favorite parts of the trip and exchange contact information. Dusty and James had also created a fabulous slideshow of photos from the entire journey. There were more than a few laughs, and a number of tears as well.

One of the other women on the trip, a single mother, talked about how meaningful it was to go on vacation with her children and simply enjoy them. She didn't have to plan excursions, or make meal reservations, or arrange transportation. The Adventure guides did everything to allow her to "check her brain at the door" and just have fun. I couldn't agree more.

As a matter of housekeeping, James and Dusty explained that all the photos taken by the photographers on the Magic, as well as the many hundreds of photos they had taken on our outings, were included with our Adventures by Disney package. They gave us the ship's photo CD on board. The AbD CD would be coming from Disney PhotoPass in a few weeks.

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Late in the evening we received notice that our flight had been cancelled, as were all flights into the New York area for the next two days. My husband, with assistance from the Magic concierge, worked the phones with our carrier, American Airlines. They determined that we would get home only two days late, instead of three, if we left Barcelona and instead flew to London and then onto Philadelphia, where we could rent a car to return to New York.

Frequent readers of the AllEars® newsletter may recall that this is the second time in less than a year that a major Disney-related trip of mine was unexpectedly extended due to a major weather incident on the East Coast. I'm thinking Al Roker may want to start tracking my travels to hone his prediction quality.

MEDITERRANEAN MAGIC DAY 8, DEPARTURE DAY (NOT)

This was the last day of our Adventure, but now not the last day of our vacation. The cast on the Magic was extraordinarily helpful in allowing us extra time in our room in the morning so that we could spend more time on the phone solidifying our modified travel plans.

We then disembarked and headed to the airport, bound for London. The Disney part of our story ends there, with the exception being that our bonus sojourn in England allowed me to visit the London, Oxford Street, Disney Store. And of course, I had to take home a UK-exclusive Vinylmation as a souvenir of our extended stay.

We made it home safely after two weeks away, with memories to last a lifetime.

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September 28, 2011

Adventures by Disney: Barcelona Escape/Mediterranean Magic, Part IV

by Erin Foster
Guest Blogger

MEDITERRANEAN MAGIC DAY 3, FLORENCE

Our docking at La Spezia, Italy, was another tender day and another day in which our Adventures by Disney group was first off the Magic.

We were up and out early, so most of the Adventurers chose to nap on the hour-and-a-half bus ride to Florence. Guides James and Dusty periodically walked through the bus with an omnipresent basket of snacks and sweets.

Our guide in Florence was Samuelle, an excellent storyteller, but as we would come to find out later, also a savvy negotiation assistant.

Toward the end of the bus ride, we stopped at the Italian equivalent of a highway rest stop, chosen by AbD as a place with modern, clean bathrooms. I've travelled in Europe before and had hit-or-miss luck with the comfort of the facilities. Disney clearly had taken great care to make sure we were provided with the best conveniences possible. It was a little detail that made a big difference in the trip.

The rest stop included a small market and coffee bar. I think many of the children in the group found this stop to be equally, if not more, interesting than some of the museums and cultural sites. Harry Potter in Italian! Smurf-shaped marshmallows! Wine in a machine-gun-shaped bottle!

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Part of our morning was spent walking through the main thoroughfares of Florence. We passed both modern shops and a bazaar of local leather dealers. My personal favorite sight was the Florence Disney Store!

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During the guided portion of our morning, Samuelle, took us around the exterior of the Duomo cathedral, explaining details about the architecture and history of the building. We also toured the cathedral museum and Ponte Vecchio, with a side visit to the Grom gelateria. The Junior Adventurers got to participate in making a batch of hazelnut gelato and we all got to have an ample tasting of three delicious flavors. The overall favorite was blueberry.

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We also visited a special statue on the streets of Florence, a boar that, if you rub his nose, will ensure that you return to Florence in the future. Another charming tidbit we learned was that Florence was the birthplace of the Pinocchio story. Several shops sold Pinocchio marionettes as souvenirs.

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Lunch was of bruschetta, pizza, and beef and potatoes in a simple local restaurant. Then, onto the afternoon's activity: shopping! Florence is world-renowned for its wonderful gold jewelry and leather goods. My husband was in the market for a leather jacket. Local guide Samuelle pointed him to the best shop in town and his advice allowed us to save more than 30% on the jacket. Nice!

Back on the Magic in the evening, we ate at Lumiere's and enjoyed the Twice Charmed stage show in the Walt Disney theater.

MEDITERRANEAN MAGIC DAY 4, ROME

We docked at Civitavecchia (fun to say, try it) and took a nearly two-hour bus ride to Rome. This was by far the busiest day of the trip. Guides James and Dusty called it our "Amazing Race" day because we moved at breakneck speed trying to cover all the highlights of Rome in a single day. Obviously that's not possible, but we came pretty close. Luckily James and Dusty kept us supplied with water bottles and snacks throughout our tour.

The local guide today was Valentina. She was my favorite of all the local experts. In addition to being a trained archeologist with extensive knowledge of the historical sites, she was also a young mother able to share with us many stories about family life in Rome. Plus, I loved her chic haircut.

The first stop was Vatican City where we toured the grounds, the museum, the Sistine Chapel, and the Basilica. In order to enter the Basilica, we were required to have both our shoulders and knees covered. My girls balked at this because the temperature that day was a sweltering 102 degrees Fahrenheit. We compromised by bringing arm-covering scarves and having them wear sundresses with an under-layer of leggings. Once we were done with the Basilica, the scarves and leggings were quickly removed and stowed in a backpack.

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At the Vatican, Dusty gave us all pre-stamped Vatican postcards. We could write a message and send it home to ourselves or to a friend. Our card arrived a few days ago with an official Vatican postmark. Neat!

We walked through Rome and stopped briefly at the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, periodically taking water breaks at Rome's public water fountains. At the Trevi Fountain, guide James explained the tradition of tossing a coin in the fountain to make a wish. Before we even had a chance to start rummaging in our pockets for loose change, he produced a shiny penny for everyone in the group. So thoughtful. My wish is sure to come true.

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Another nice touch was when guide Dusty made sure to point out to me the restaurant Alfredo's, which was the model for the former flagship restaurant in the Italy pavilion at Epcot. He truly tried to personalize the tour for this obvious Disney geek.

Following a brief lunch of lasagna and tiramisu at a private club, we were off again to see the Forum and Coliseum. At the Coliseum, we were joined by another specialist guide who took the Junior Adventurers on an interactive mission for some hands-on learning about this historic site.

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Dinner was back on the Magic at Animator's Palate, followed by a deep, deep sleep.

MEDITERRANEAN MAGIC DAY 5, NAPLES

After speeding through the heat in Rome, we had a much more relaxing day on the outskirts of Naples.

Our tour bus passed by the ruins of Pompeii and we learned quite a bit about the history of that ill-fated town on the way to our morning visit, Agriturismo La Galatea, a family-run farm.

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At the farm, we took it easy, eating house-made bread and salami, learning the craft of mozzarella-making, bonding with the farm animals, making and eating pizza, and generally keeping out of the sun. This was a refreshing intermission after the frenetic pace of our Roman holiday.

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A memorable event for the Junior Adventurers was when guide James encouraged them to get into a playful flour fight with guide Dusty. Our group took the fight VERY seriously and Dusty become more than a little, well, dusty. The kids caked over his entire face. Dusty was incredibly gracious about this attack. He laughed, poked fun at himself, and generally made everyone feel at ease, even though I'm sure none of this could have been pleasant. Dusty was a big hero in the eyes of the kids.

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After the farm, we changed into bathing suits and made our way via hydrofoil to the nearby island of Capri. From Capri we boarded a smaller, private craft to do a bit of swimming in the Mediterranean. Swimming. Off a private boat. In the Mediterranean Sea. Need I say more?

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We wrapped up the day back on the Magic with a pirate dinner at Parrot Cay. We absolutely had to take the obligatory family pirate photo. I think the kids will kill me if I make this the Christmas card.

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September 27, 2011

Adventures by Disney: Barcelona Escape/Mediterranean Magic, Part III

by Erin Foster
Guest Blogger

BARCELONA ESCAPE DAY 4 - MEDITERRANEAN MAGIC DAY 1

This was the transition day. We slept in (yay!), ate a leisurely breakfast, and left the hotel in Barcelona in the late morning. Disney took care of our luggage and we boarded buses for the 20-minute ride to the Port of Barcelona to start our voyage on the Disney Magic.

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At this point, our day was much like anyone else's sailing on the Magic. We freshened up in our room, grabbed some buffet lunch at Topsiders, explored the ship, attended the safety drill, and danced at the sail-away party. My first stop was the ship's store, Treasure Ketch, where I purchased a DCL Mediterranean exclusive Vinylmation to add to my embarrassingly vast collection.

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As an extra nice touch, the Cruise Line left us a small fruit basket in our room and Adventures by Disney left us a case of Evian water and some fun AbD refillable water bottles. Since we had used DVC points to pay for part of the trip, DVC also left us a beautiful wooden keepsake box. This is the point where I'll mention that I had to purchase another suitcase in the ship's gift shop to transport all of our loot home.

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The sole organized activity for the day was a brief welcome reception for this leg of the trip. The reception took place in Studio Sea, deck four midship, with the room was just for us. Very fancy.

While all of the families on the Barcelona Escape trip were sailing on the Disney Magic (this was a requirement), not all of them were adding the Mediterranean Magic Adventures by Disney supplement to their cruise. Three of the Barcelona families (including mine) were cruising AbD style, while three were enjoying the Magic on their own (we continued to see them on the ship at meals and shows). While some left, we gained three new families for the remainder of our journey, two with elementary-age children and one young married couple.

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Dinner was on our own in the ship's regular dining rooms. Some Adventurers spent the evening enjoying the Magic's entertainment, but we hit the hay early to rest up for the busy touring time ahead of us.

MEDITERRANEAN MAGIC DAY 2, MONACO AND THE VILLAGE OF EZE

We sailed overnight and docked in the morning at Villefranche, France. Regular Magic guests had to arrange their own port excursions, but Adventures by Disney took care of everything for us.

Villefranche is a tender port, which means that instead of walking off the ship onto a dock, you have to take a small boat from the ship to the land. One of the perks of AbD is that they have priority over other guests on the tenders. They held the first tender off the boat for us.

We were joined by our local guide for the day, Patrice, an expert on Monaco and the French Riviera. Patrice gave us special "Whispers," basically small radios with one-ear earbuds that allow you to hear the guide well without him having to raise his voice. Most of our local guides used this method as well.

We strolled past the Monaco Oceanographic Museum, where we posed for shots with Jaques Cousteau's yellow submarine and toured a small garden of native plants.

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Next up was a visit to the Palace of Monaco, much of which functions as a museum. We were immersed in the history of this tiny principality and, of course, got to see many artifacts related to Princess Grace.

We viewed the changing of the palace guard, which is much smaller than the changing of the guard in London but still very regal, and we were allowed a brief time to explore and shop on our own. But mostly we were occupied by admiring the incredible view. Our guide Dusty commented that you can almost smell the money in Monaco. I think he's right.

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By the way, the blue patch in the center left is the town swimming pool.

Lunch was a spectacular buffet atop the roof at the Hotel Fairmont Monte Carlo.

Eating there, I felt more than a little like Princess Grace myself.

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The girls and I did a bit more exploring of the town and decided we were glad it was Sunday, meaning most of the over-the-top shopping temptations (Chanel, Louis Vuitton, etc.) were closed. However, the Casino was open and my husband stepped inside to play a few hands of blackjack. He won 100 Euros - or about 1/20th of what a room at the Fairmont would cost.

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A brief bus ride took us to the charming town of Eze, France, an ancient village in the mountains. We hiked through the town, past a succulent garden, for more of the most breathtaking views on the planet.

One of the most charming details about Eze is that the hotel there is located up such a rocky passages that donkeys are used to carry guests' luggage from lower areas up to their rooms. You can meet the donkeys at reception.

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Dinner was back on the Magic. Junior Adventurers (children) were welcome to use their family's regular dinner table, dine at a quick-serve venue, or in the kids' clubs. The adults in the group were invited to join Dusty and James in a private dining room at Palo, the ship's adults-only restaurant.

Despite being completely stuffed from lunch, this was a must-do activity for me. Suffice it to say that I let more than one notch out on my belt that day.

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September 26, 2011

Adventures by Disney: Barcelona Escape/Mediterranean Magic, Part II

by Erin Foster
Guest Blogger

BARCELONA ESCAPE DAY 2, EL GRAN MAESTRO

The day started with breakfast at the hotel's sunny patio restaurant. The selection was buffet-style and, due to the hotel's international clientele, included morning foods from a variety of cultures. My oldest daughter's typical plate included French-prep scrambled eggs, Spanish chorizo, and Japanese dumplings.

In addition to our two Disney guides, at each stop on the tour we were joined by local guides who were fluent in the language and expert in the culture of each locale. Our guide for Spain was Estrela, a font of information about art and history.

Our first stop of the day was Barcelona's Parque Guell designed by Antonio Gaudi, a monument to the Modernist art movement, now designated as a World Heritage site by Unesco. The fanciful structures and candy-colored undulating bench seemed more like a Willy Wonka movie set than a real-world experience. After Estrela led a brief walking tour, we were given time on our own to explore the park and purchase souvenirs.

The centerpiece of the park is Gaudi's mosaic salamander, which has become a visual icon for all of Barcelona. Representations of the salamander were ubiquitous throughout the city.

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Our next visit was to the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia. Construction on this Gaudi-designed church was begun in 1882 and continues today.

The Sagrada Familia visit was a great example of the Adventures by Disney difference. The queue to enter the cathedral that morning was easily 500 people deep, with a wait time of several hours. Disney and our guides arranged a special entrance and we were escorted in immediately upon arrival, bypassing all lines. This was typical of every one of our cultural site visits. We had a FastPass to Europe!

I had previously visited many European cathedrals but have never experienced anything as unique and uniquely breathtaking as the Sagrada Familia. In the nearly two weeks of our vacation, this visit was the highlight for me. I simply could stop staring at the soaring, color-saturated windows. I haven't figured out how yet, but I'm going to find a way to get back there someday.

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Our day continued with lunch at Can Travi Nou Restaurant where we dined on a family-style lunch of tapas. Before the meal, guide Dusty was at the ready with four different kinds of hand sanitizer for us to choose from. The contents of Dusty's Mary-Poppins backback was an endless source of fascination. An Adventurer broke a toe; Dusty pulls duct tape out of the backpack to tape it up. An Adventurer is thirsty; Dusty extracts a water bottle from his backpack. An Adventurer is overheating; Dusty pulls a massive Chinese fan from his backpack and creates a cool breeze. Amazing.

Back at the restaurant, I lost count once we crossed more than a dozen dishes that were brought to the table: tuna, roasted vegetables, marinated beans, sausages, chicken croquettes, pasta, mushroom casserole, a different variation on Crème Catalan, and on and on. We were welcome to have as much or as little as we liked. Most of the Adventurers took the opportunity to try several new dishes.

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Following lunch, we moved into a shady alcove where local artisans instructed us in painting glassware and pottery in the style of Gaudi.

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The end of our day was filled with a walking tour of Barcelona's historic Gothic Quarter and dinner on our own. My family was still adjusting to time zone changes. I confess that we took naps in the late afternoon and then went for a stroll around the neighborhood near the hotel. We ended up feasting on gelato for dinner. Only on vacation folks, only on vacation.

BARCELONA ESCAPE DAY 3, LA VIDA DE CATALONIA

Up early for another breakfast buffet at the hotel, then onto buses for an hour-long ride to Montserrat.

Montserrat means "serrated mountain." From a distance, it's easy to see why this name stuck. The jagged peaks of the mountain certainly resembled the edge of a serrated knife.

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Our principle cultural activity at Montserrat was a visit to the Cathedral to see the famed black Madonna, la Moreneta. We were allowed to place our hands on the globe in her hand as a blessing for good luck.

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When the church visit was done, we boarded a funicular and ascended further up the mountain for panoramic views of the valley below. We then were given an hour to either take a gentle hike down the mountain or ride the funicular back to the village for relaxation and shopping. The group split fairly evenly. Those who know me will not be surprised that I ended up in the exact inverse of the hiking; I purchased and ate several varieties of local chocolate.

Lunch was at the Restaurant Montserrat with a selection of cold meats or paella.

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Back in Barcelona proper in the afternoon, we headed out to Pueblo Espanol. Our guide James described this as the Epcot World Showcase of Spain. The tiny walled village is divided into sections with varying architecture to match the varying building styles in 15 different regions of Spain. Each "pavilion" had shops, restaurants, and artisan demonstrations typical of the represented region. Sound familiar?

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In addition to exploring, we were treated to dinner at Tablao de Carmen, with Flamenco dancers as the entertainment. If I had one word to describe the performance, I'd choose "fierce." These dancers were among the most passionate people I had ever seen.

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September 25, 2011

Adventures by Disney: Barcelona Escape/Mediterranean Magic, Part I

by Erin Foster
Guest Blogger

The Disney Magic made its home in the Mediterranean this summer and Adventures by Disney went with it, creating trips specially designed as companions to the Disney Cruise Line Mediterranean sailings.

I had the great good fortune to experience both of these special AbD trips, Barcelona Escape and Mediterranean Magic, in conjunction with a Magic voyage. Talk about a perfect summer vacation.

BEFORE THE TRIP

The combined booking for all components of the trip was quite complex. Based on heavy-duty number-crunching by my husband, we chose to make a partial payment using our Disney Vacation Club points. This meant that we were dealing with three different arms of the Disney company, AbD, DVC, and DCL, to construct our package.

We started with an extremely competent rep at DVC who spent nearly an hour and a half on the phone with us, acting as a liaison between each of the parties involved, communicating every step of the way. In the end, we were left feeling completely confident that our booking had been made in the most cost-effective manner based on our needs.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, we received periodic mailings from both DCL and AbD with packing tips, itinerary reminders, countdown calendars, and fun gifts like special Adventures by Disney backpacks for everyone in the family.

BARCELONA ESCAPE, ARRIVAL DAY

The first part of our trip was the Barcelona Escape. Barcelona Escape was a mini AbD experience. While most Adventure trips are 7 to 10 days long, the Barcelona trip was only three days and change and was offered as a trip extension only to guests sailing on the Magic.

We left JFK airport in the evening and after an overnight flight (direct!) we arrived only semi-exhausted at the Barcelona airport. We gathered our bags, made our way through passport control and were met on the other side by James, one of our unflappable, indefatigable, and utterly charming guides for the trip. You'll probably get sick of hearing me gush about our guides, but truly, there is not enough praise for them.

Following brief introductions, James escorted us to a private car with a driver instructed to take us to our home in Barcelona: the Gran Palace Hotel, about half an hour away from the airport.

Upon arrival at the hotel, we hopped right out of the car, with no need to tip the driver. All incidental gratuities along the way (drivers, local guides, waitstaff, bellmen, housekeepers) are included in your AbD package. Even later, gratuities for the Magic cast such as waiters and room attendants were include in our package.

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We were met at the Palace by Dusty, our other gracious and preternaturally competent guide. Dusty ushered us into the magnificent hotel lobby where he explained that our AbD program officially began in the evening, so we had the afternoon on our own to explore and freshen up after our travels. He offered restaurant suggestions, nearby activities, maps and guidebooks, and then had us taken to our rooms.

Because we were a family of five (myself, my husband Jeff, and our three daughters, 15-year-old Charlie and 11-year-old twins Josie and Louisa), we were given two rooms, one with a king-size bed and one with two single beds and a full-sized pull-out couch. The rooms were extraordinarily large, especially by European standards, and well appointed with slippers, robes, ample storage space, Jacuzzi-style tubs and rainshower showers, and L'Occitaine toiletries. There was also a business center and free WiFi in the lobby. They even had a pillow menu with six different types of firmness and construction to choose from.

Based on Dusty's suggestions, we ventured out for a simple tapas lunch at a restaurant about two blocks from the hotel: Divinus.

We feasted on plates of local dry hams, marinated artichokes, meatballs, and spicy shrimp.

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Then, again following Dusty's suggestion, we meandered down Las Ramblas, one of the biggest shopping streets in Barcelona. This busy avenue combined international chains (Zara clothing, for example) with small local street vendors. Our favorite part of Las Ramblas was the Mercat de Boqueria, a bustle of fresh food stalls.

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The afternoon ended with a quick stop in the Chocolate Museum, a bite-sized repository for information about the history and making of, you guessed it, chocolate. The best part - our tickets to the museum were chocolate bars. After your visit, you get to eat the ticket.

Many of the museum's displays were large sculptures constructed entirely of chocolate. Several of them used Disney characters and films for inspiration.

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Back at the hotel, we met up with our entire Adventure group -- Guides James and Dusty, plus a total of 23 guests from six families. AbD tours can accommodate up to 40 guests, but ours was pleasantly intimate. The children in the group ranged from age 7 to 17. Following quick introductions, we boarded a bus headed for a brief ride to El Xalet in the Montjuic district of Barcelona. On the way we passed some of the venues constructed for the 1992 Olympic Games as well as an ornate former bullfighting ring turned shopping mall.

At El Xalet, we bonded with our new friends, feasted on breads, salad, and a choice of roasted chicken or baked cod, and enjoyed spectacular panoramic views of the city. Dessert was a silky crème Catalan, the local sweet specialty which is sort of a cross between flan and tiramisu.

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As an example of the quick kindness of our guides, when the entrees were brought to the table, Dusty immediately saw that a 7-year-old boy in our group found the adult chicken meal to be more appealing than the child's breaded chicken meal he had ordered. Without batting an eyelash, Dusty immediately switched his own plate with the boy's, giving the young guest what he wanted, seamlessly and without incident.


July 6, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Final Entry

Emerald Isle - day 8 - Erin Go Braugh & Slan

We have an 8:45 am Aer Lingus flight out of the Shannon Airport which is about 30 minute drive from Dromoland Castle. Breakfast is normally included on this final day, but because our departure is so early, they have provided a small continental breakfast for us in the lobby. And believe me" a cup of coffee was a must at 6:30 am when the van arrived.

Shannon isn't the most convenient airport to fly out of in terms of flexible schedules. We used frequent flyer miles which made it necessary to fly back to London to catch our British flight back to Seattle. However it also required us to spend one more night in London to get the first class seats on the non stop flight home.

After our 1 hour and ten minute flight back to Heathrow, we reclaimed our bags and went in search of our hotel.

The Hilton London Heathrow is conveniently located at terminal 4. If you land at a different terminal, no worries. The underground train system will get you there in no time and it's a free ride between terminals.

There is a very curious path from the terminal to the hotel" well more of a habitrail really. It's fully enclosed with no window and no doors except the beginning and the end of the tube and is about a 6 minute walk at a leisurely pace.

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Anyway, we checked into the hotel and settled in for our overnight stay. We considered riding the tube into the city, but decided instead to enjoy the amenities of the hotel and catch the finale of "Britains Got Talent". (loved Diversity - that awesome dance crew deserved it!)

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No windows" no doors... OH!

That reminds me! I forgot to tell you my one and only haunted encounter of the trip! Its not much really" not like anything flew across the room, or some dashing knight rode down the hallway. But since my husband is the worlds greatest skeptic, refuses to admit there is a possibility that ghosts may be hanging out watching us, and he wanted to prove his point so much he jokingly dressed up for the occasion and I caught it on film, its worth posting.

One of my bucket list items is to stay in a haunted castle so I was very excited to hear about the castle stay on the itinerary. But alas, when we arrived for the welcome reception at Dromoland the host told us a little history but did make it a point to say it was not haunted. (insert groan of disappointment here")

But" When we moved rooms and settled in 229, Chris and I were standing together in the middle of the room and the TV came on all by itself as if to welcome us to the room. I felt a cold chill and looked at Chris" he looked at me as if to see if I had grabbed the remote and quickly concealed it, but it was sitting across the room on the table and he had to concede, there was no way either of us could have turned it on without the other one seeing it.

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He could tell I was about to go into my "see?? Ghosts do exist" routine" so he immediately began thinking of all the ways that could have happened - scientifically of course. (insert Beci rolling eyes here") I quickly grabbed a camera and snapped a few photos" just in case. J

On our last night, as we were packing I brought up the fact that the tv hadn't done anything strange since the first incident, and he decided to dress for the occasion.

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Next he's going to tell me there is no Santa Clause, Tooth Fairy, or Mickey Mouse. Geezzzz"..


Erin Go Braugh

An Irish phrase that means "Ireland Forever" or "Long Live Ireland"

I think I mentioned at the beginning that honestly Ireland was not my first choice of itineraries. But it was my hubby's turn to pick this time and I gotta say" I am sure glad he did.

My initial thoughts was it would be all about beer and leprechauns, but you may have noticed I haven't really spoken much about the little shoe cobblers that are masters at their art". and a good practical joke! Honestly there was so much richness and depth in the land and its people that I put pots of gold and rainbows we think of so often in the back of my thoughts almost immediately.

This is a land that at one time had a strict code of hospitality to friends and strangers alike, ensuring that if someone needed a meal or a roof over their head for the night, someone was there to lend a hand and provide it. Without a doubt it has been passed down generation to generation as evidenced by the warmth of the Irish people we encountered along the way.

It's also fitting that Disney has chosen this itinerary to share with its guests as Jennae and Francesc reflect that same spirit. Not only are they great people to hang with and chat with but they are master story tellers and entertainers. They were frequently the cause of the uncontrollable laughter and made sure our trip was truly magical

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I hope you get a chance to experience this wonderful itinerary and if you do here are a few tips for you:

Think about extending your trip. My biggest regret is not spending more time in Dublin and I would have loved to have an extra day at Dromoland Castle to enjoy all of the amenities they have to offer. I would advise that you consider arriving a day or two early and/or leaving a day or day after the trip concludes.

Prepare for all kinds of weather. Try to pack light but keep in mind the weather can change so I suggest packing for rain and shine, just in case.

Check your airlines baggage rules before you pack. Keep in mind if you travel on more than one airline, there will be more than one set of rules.

Keep your pins in a safe place! Everyday of the journey you will be awarded a special pin that's themed for the day and only given to guests on a particular Adventure By Disney itinerary.

Prone to motion issues? Pack some over the counter motion sickness meds - Dramamine, Bonine etc. Or check with your doctor for advice. It will come in handy if needed on the boat ride, or if you are near the back of the coach during the twisty and curvy portions of the road trip.

Be prepared to tip your guides on the last night. That is always confusing since all other tips like bell staff, drivers, etc are included. The guidelines for the guides are $5 - $9 usd per guest, per guide, per day. So an 8 day adventure will range from $40-$72 per guest per guide. They will accept US dollars or the local currency. But if you aren't carrying cash your last opportunity to find a cash machine is on day 6 in Adare, so plan accordingly.

Get involved and get to know your fellow travelers as early in the trip as possible to maximize your fun. There are lots of crazy photo ops and group silliness to partake in and they make for magical memories after the return home. Oh! And make sure you have brushed up on your limerick skills!

40 million Americans can claim some level of Irish ancestry so check your family tree before you leave.. Tiffany & Tina knew they had family roots not too far from the beaten track of the tour, so one day they rented a car to see if they could find an old family farm and they were successful! This lead me to check into some of my family roots when I returned and sure enough! My father's family can be traced back to the Richardson, Lewis and Holland clans all in the Killarney and Cashel area. So for my family it's not all that far to Tipperary after all - and I wish I had known that before I left.

To test the theory of the lazy cow - before you leave pay attention to how many US cows are standing vs laying down in various fields. (I couldn't resist that one)

Lastly - for a touch of Ireland in your own home" open a Guinness and make scones.
All you need is: 3 cups all-purpose flour / 1 tablespoon baking powder / 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter - at room temp / ¼ cup, plus 2 tablespoons sugar / 3 large eggs / 1/3 cup buttermilk / ½ cup raisins OR currants. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift together the flour ad baking powder - in separate bowl beat the butter until creamy and add ¼ cup sugar, beating until pale and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time then add flour mixture and buttermilk. Sprinkle the raisins over dough and fold in. using an ice cream scoop place mounds of dough on sheet and sprinkle on remaining sugar. Bake for 20 minutes. (Don't forget to dawn the appropriate attire which may be easier after you down the Guinness" or two.)

My eyes have truly been opened to the beauty, lore and history of this breathtaking country. And to experience it with such a fantastic group of people makes it all that much better!

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Thank you all for making my first trip to Ireland a wonderful, fun, entertaining and magical experience!

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Erin Go Braugh and until the next trip" Slan!

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

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

July 5, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 12

Emerald Isle - day 7 - Ever-Moher (part 3 of 3)

Rathbaun Scones and Sheep Herding

One of the unique things about an Adventure by Disney is they look for opportunities to immerse the guests in the local culture, well beyond the common tourist traps. Today a visit to Rathbaun farm provided such an experience.

We exited the coach and were shown to a room filled with picnic tables with various baking goodies on them. Basically if we were going to have traditional scones" by gosh we would have to make them ourselves!

So we were divided into groups and given our way happening and trend setting attire: a blue plastic apron, rubber gloves and a hair net. (this will be all the rage" I'm telling ya!)

Luckily I snagged the "official photographer" role for our group and Chris was elected captain. (i.e.: the one who would be in most of the shots) - While Tiffany and Tina were the official supervisors making sure Chris got the recipe just right. (Which I will be sure to include in my summary of the trip!)

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Once the mixture was complete and the scones lovingly cut and placed on baking sheets numbered for our table, we were led outside to explore the grounds, meet the animals and view demonstrations of sheep herding and sheering.

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One very special corner of the farm had an enclosure for a miniature pony and her 12 week only baby. Everyone was immediately drawn to this little sweetheart.

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Soon the smell of freshly baked scones filled the air and we called back to the gathering place to enjoy the fruits.. err scones of our labor. Topped with clotted cream and/or jam".. YUMMY!

We were very lucky to get to know Tiffany and her mom Tina over the course of our trip. As a matter of fact, Tiffany was the America's Funniest Home Videos online winner. Her prize was a choice of several Adventures By Disney itineraries, but I am sure glad she choose ours.

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As the day began to wind down, we boarded the coach to head back to the hotel. They have a falconry school on property and Ruby was ready and waiting for her next batch of students. In the meantime, they were collecting money for a local charity and offering the chance to hold her for a donation. You know me" I can never resist a good charitable effort and combined with an opportunity to hold such a majestic creature? Sign me up!

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And Now it's Time to Say Slan

We returned to our room to get ahead of the task of packing and freshen up for our final dinner together being held at Dromoland Castle. The room was bathed in the early evening sun that still shines around 8 pm, as well as the sounds of the live music provided by a vocalist quietly playing a guitar. This provided a magical atmosphere for the evening.

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The farewell dinners are always something very special. It's a time to reflect on the trip and reminisce about the adventures you have had together.

But first.. there's food!

The castle kitchen provided a wonderful menu including fillet of beef or a fish main course, and a dessert featuring white chocolate with Irish whiskey and ginger ice cream. Dare I say it again".. YUMMY!

The fun thing was when they served each table, the plates were covered as they set the plate down, then lifted off simultaneously to create a very dramatic reveal.

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The food was fantastic, the company was outstanding, but unfortunately it also came with the task of saying goodbye to our new friends. The guides had worked very hard during the trip to document our journey and we all enjoyed watching a slide show to relive the past week's shenanigans. (That has to be Irish for "very good time" right?)

After the presentation concluded, Francesc was kind enough to trace our journey on the maps that were given to us at the beginning. That will serve as a wonderful keepsake of this one of a kind adventure.

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It was time to say a final goodbye, farewell and slan to our new friends. We called it a night to get ready for our early pick up so we can make our flight back to London and our return stateside.

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

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

July 4, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 11

Emerald Isle - Day 7 - Ever-Moher (part 2 of 3)

On the Road to Monk's Pub

We climbed back on the coach en-route to our next important destination " Lunch.

Along the way we were treated to yet another natural wonder that Ireland has to offer. It's hard to explain but as we drove away from the cliffs, we saw the ocean as it snuggled up against the rocks and the greenery that we have become accustomed to over the past few days. And of course this pocket of the map has some fascinating random ruins as well.

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As the miles past behind us, the lush green began to give way to a more rugged and rocky terrain that seemed to provide the perfect environment for the resident wildlife.

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At points in the journey it almost seemed that you were transported to a alien planet with nothing but rocks covering the ground. Then just a few minutes and a couple of bends later, the green returned to the landscape.

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I love the picture of the cow enjoying the day. **Warning: Possible Irish lore approaching" ** (they really should have a sign for THAT!)

It may not be very apparent, but a cow standing is seemingly a rare site. It was pointed out to us early in the trip that for some reason, Irish cows are just not very high strung. Some even say they are lazy cause more often then not, you will find them lying around in the pasture. At first we laughed it off, but as we passed pasture after pasture and field after field, cows were hanging out enjoying the sun with their legs comfortably tucked underneath them. Personally I think it's the fact they are pretty smart and figured out a way to tap into the Guinness reserves. Now that's a happy cow!

A curious thing happened on the way to lunch. The road does tend to narrow a bit in this area and when two tour busses meet at a narrow patch, a fun little Irish gig on wheels ensues. A few times in reverse and forward again then repeat and the master bus wranglers manage to squeak past each other without a scratch! We waved at the people as they went by who seemed to enjoy the spectacle as much as we did.

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We arrived at our destination. Monk's Pub located along side the pier at Ballyvaughan. Reportedly its a fairly famous eatery in Ireland, known especially for is Seafood chowder.

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After lunch we spent a few minutes stretching our legs and walking out onto the pier to take in the scenery. There were a few vibrant purple jelly fish hanging out in the water enjoying the sun as we were.

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And in case you were wondering - what would happen if you decided to drive off the edge? Here is a nice illustration:

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To be continued......

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

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

July 3, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 10

Emerald Isle - Day 7 - Ever-Moher (part 1 of 3)

Today's word" Slan. - Pronounced slawn - it is Irish for goodbye or farewell.

We have one full day left of this adventure and the first item on the agenda is one that I have eagerly been looking forward and dreading all at the same time" the majestic Cliffs of Moher.

But first thing is first - FOOD!

The morning started with a wonderful breakfast at the Earl of Thomond Restaurant located in the main building of the hotel. As with all of the other days, except the arrival day, the cost was included in the cost of the trip. They had a breakfast buffet with a variety of bread, fruit, cheese, and cereal available for your starter then you had the option of ordering your hot meal from the menu.

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After breakfast we headed out to the coach to begin our last day of touring.

Journey to" not off" the Cliffs of Moher

Ok... lets just get the icky part out of the way. The dread comes from this very strange and unexplainable fear of heights I have as it relates to someone (that isn't me") driving a vehicle along the edge of a cliff. That includes my parents, my husband, and of course random bus drivers. Ok.. maybe not totally unexplainable.. I'm thinking its likely due to a car accident back in high school that ended in a roll down an embankment caused by a driver I know today only as 'Highway to Hell' - and now I have a case of "I must control the steering wheel". But that's a story for another time.

Anyhoo".. knowing we were going to the edge of something, I packed my trusty i-pod so just in case I needed a distraction, I could slip into my podcast world and forget about the possible 200 ft drop outside the window.

But the luck of the Irish was truly with me this day. I was pleasantly surprised that the journey to the cliffs was mainly flat and provided extraordinarily scenery. Offering many more opportunities to enjoy my new favorite pastime" finding new and exciting random ruins!

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The coach slowly crept up a hill until it finally came to stop in a parking area. Looking around there didn't seem to be any buildings or other human markings you would normally see at a major tourist attraction. I was pleasantly surprised to learn the visitor's center is actually built into the hill side to avoid damaging the natural beauty that surrounds the area, yet still provide a place where folks can learn more about the cliffs, the wildlife and the history.

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We walked past the structure for now and made our way up the path to the edge of the cliffs that rise from 394 ft to as high as 720 feet in some spots above the Atlantic ocean. If you look closely at the steps you can see traces of the fossils in the stone.

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The morning greeted us with the infamous Ireland mist and the edge was windy enough that you could lean into it and it would support your weight. Even with the clouds, the view was stunning.

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Its comforting to know that danger can be communicated easily even without the benefit of an interpreter. These signs can be found dotted all around the area.

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In reality I think it's these people the sign folks are trying to get a strong message across to. It's a picture that is on display inside the visitor's center showing the wackiest of all tea parties, this side of Wonderland of course.

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If you look really closely you can not only tell that the wind was calm that day". either that or they made really good hat pins in those days. But you can see a faint line from the top of the left hand corner leading down. While it doesn't show up to well in this retake, it appears to be a pulley system to move things.. likely insane people" from one side to the other. With ancestors doing crazy stuff like that, no wonder we wear bike helmets and protective padding at every opportunity.

...to be continued.

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

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

July 2, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 9

Emerald Isle - Day 6 - Ring around the Kenmare - Continued

Storming the Castle

As we pulled up to Dromoland Castle and saw several members of the castle staff standing in formation outside to greet us, it was obvious we were going to be staying in a place that is beyond extraordinary.

There is a lot of history here. They believe the first structures on property were built in the 15th or 16th century including a tower house. Over time there were as many as three different houses on the site occupied by local Gaelic families; the Obriens and the Mclnermys.

The castle is now owned by an American and has been turned into a luxury resort, spa and golf course. President George W. Bush stayed here in 2004 to attend the EU-US summit that was held at the castle.

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A reception was waiting for us when we arrived. Staff was on hand to serve us a beverage and provide an official welcome. We were escorted to the lobby to obtain our room keys, settle in and freshen up before dinner that night.

Chris and I had a short walk to our room and once we got in we discovered the first drawback of castle life.

Luckily we do have plumbing and running water" whew!

But unfortunately - No air-conditioning. And the position of the windows in the room faced a small courtyard that wasn't getting much air coming in naturally through the open windows. Those of you who know me have already had that "oh boy.. that's not good" thought flashing through your mind - for those who don't know me all that well, since I was a kid I seem to have a personal, built in space heater making any 80 degree day simply uncomfortable. A ceiling fan in the middle of winter is not uncommon.

I went to the front desk and asked about the possibility of moving rooms and I was very open to a paid upgrade if one was available. The gal at the front desk was more then accommodating and placed us in a room in one of the newer wings with a nice view of the main building.

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Not all rooms are alike, which is refreshing and unique. We loved the décor here in 229. The sitting area was a nice touch and the bathrooms were spacious featuring a double sink and separate bath and shower.

I also asked about the different room categories there and while there wasn't too much in terms of availability due to large wedding party checking in, she was kind enough to show me around. The most impressive I was able to see was room 501 in the main tower - and it has got to be a bell services nightmare.

There are no lifts in the tower and the only way to reach it is via a very narrow winding staircase, 3 floors up. It's quite a hike but once you get there it is very impressive. The only thing it was lacking was an abundance of windows which would have been needed on this very warm day. In that particular room you would get a a taste of how Rapunzel or Princess Fiona may have felt. I hope to go back someday during a little cooler time so I can try staying in the tower! I will be sure to bring a lot of tip money for the poor guy who carries the luggage up those steps.

I was told that usually the weather is not as nice as it has been the past few days, making air conditioning about as useful as an ice maker on a glacier. So if you visit just be prepared to ask for a fan if you are lucky enough to see the clear skies and warm weather we have been blessed with during this trip.

After we settled in, Chris and I walked around the grounds a bit to take in the beauty of the place. The ducks pretty much own the place. They get right of way as the golf carts roll through the grounds.

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Traditional Irish Night

Dinner and a show was on tap for the evening. We met in the lobby and boarded our coach for a 15 minute trip down the highway to the Corn Barn at Bunratty Castle. As we entered we were greeted by the 'Fear an T' (Irish for man of the house) and offered a welcome drink of Irish liqueur or Mead - or honey wine a favorite to the area.

The venue is cozy with large tables packed as close to each other as possible. Tip: if you think you might want to get up and move around during dinner, sit on the end. They served a four course meal including salad, choice of Irish stew, a veggie dish or salmon, boiled potatoes and apple pie for dessert.

Between courses and following dinner, Irish dancers and singers take the stage.

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After dinner we went back to the hotel to get some much needed rest to prepare for tomorrow and a visit to the great cliffs of Moher.

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

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

July 1, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 8

Emerald Isle - Day 6 - Ring around the Kenmare

It was 6 am when the alarm went off telling me to get out of bed and get ready for the final moving day of the adventure. Our next home away from home is a real castle " and I cannot tell you how excited I am about that!

But first there is breakfast at the hotel and a long drive and a lot of things to experience in front of us.

I crown thee, King Puck

One thing I learned" the Irish love their livestock. And not just for their wool. As we traveled through the little town of Killorglin we learned about an annual ritual where they actually crown a goat, King Puck. No.. really.

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August 10th marks the beginning of a 3 day festival where a wild goat is crowned King Puck and is treated like royalty for the duration of the celebration that attracts up to 100,000 visitors. The festivities include music, drinking, a fair, a little more drinking, and dancing - with a side of drinking.

There are several theories about the origins but the tradition but one says it started back in the 1600s and its theorized that a goat alerted the town to the advancing military of pillager Oliver Cromwell. (never mind that Cromwell was likely never made it that far west". But that's not the point my friend. Pour those guys another Guinness!)

Surfing" In Ireland?

Really! Our first stop was Inch Beach. A 2 mile stretch of sand on the Dingle Peninsula where the tide can actually recede up to a mile out at low tide. The coach pulled up to a restaurant with a coffee bar so we grabbed a mocha and made our way out to beach.

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Adare

Just 10 miles from Limerick City, featuring thatched roof buildings and home to a major golf course, Adare is renowned as one of Irelands prettiest villages.

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We were on our own to explore a little and find a spot for lunch. There were many places to choose from and we ended up at a corner pub. They had a nice selection of sandwiches, fish and chips, etc. And those who prefer liquid lunch, they seem to be really well stocked with Guinness.

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Random Ruin Alert!

After some time exploring the picturesque town, we climbed back on board for the coach for the last leg of the drive to Dromoland Castle.

One of the great things about traveling on a coach is that you are free to let your eyes wander and take in the beauty of this land. I must say, it's astonishing to see the number of random ruins along the journey. Of course we have seen many historical structures on this trip and you would expect to see these as a tourist attraction, or off limits due to safety issues, etc.

But it's amazing to see these incredible pieces of history, many dating back before the US was a twinkle in anyone imagination, just standing there. In the middle of a field, next to a river, or even next to a modern house.

Some out on the horizon and others just yards off the main road. What happened in these structures? If walls could talk - what a tale they would tell huh? Here are a couple we spotted today.

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

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

June 30, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 7

Emerald Isle - Day 5 - Ring around the Kenmare

Have I got a word for you: Muckanaghederdauhaulia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenmare Bay Eco-Cruise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 29, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 6

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

Journey to Torc Waterfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ross Castle - Courtesy of the O'Donoghue clan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 28, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 5

Emerald Isle - day 4 - Cycle of Kings and Queens

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

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

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

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Muckross House

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

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

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

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

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

June 27, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 4

Emerald Isle - Day 3 - Celtic Kingdoms - Continued

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

Why, eat lunch of course!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Killareny Plaza Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 26, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 3

Emerald Isle - Day 3 - Celtic Kingdoms

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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A spot of tea anyone?

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

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

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The Rock of Cashel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 25, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 2

Emerald Isle - Day 2 - Life on the Liffey Continued

Dublin Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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It's Time for Liquid Lunch!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 24, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Emerald Isle - Part 2

Emerald Isle - Day 2 - Life on the Liffey

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

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

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

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The Vikings Came to Town

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

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

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

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Christ Church Cathedral

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

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

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


June 22, 2009

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

London - Day Three

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

Hampton Court Palace

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

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

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

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Windsor Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 21, 2009

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

London - Day Two

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

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

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Parliament

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

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

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


Westminster Abby

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

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Lunch in a Pub

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

Tower of London

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

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

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

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

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

June 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

My Journey to the Emerald Isle

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

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

Flight Dynamics

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

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

London - Day One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 14, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Costa Rica - Part 3

Day Three:

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

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

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

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

Riding Sky Tram

Family in harness

Getting hooked on

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

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

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

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

Hotel Kioro Grounds

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

Day Four:

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

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

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

Pineapple on plant

Pineapple field

Pineapple Harvest

Enjoying Juice

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

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

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

rafting

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

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

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

Volcano at Night


Day Five:

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

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

natureair.jpg

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

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

Iguana with cake

Iguana with lettuce

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

Hotel Parador view

Hotel Parador view

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

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

Day Six:

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

Bat under leaf

Sloth in tree

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

Monkey in tree

Capuchin

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

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

Coconut Machete

Coconut Stand

Drinking coconut

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

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

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

Day Seven: Departure day.

Family with the Guides

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

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

March 13, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Costa Rica Part 2

By Erin Foster
March 2009

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

Day One:

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

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

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

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

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

Day Two:

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee tasting

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

coffeecherries.jpg

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

topiaryarches.jpg

topiarylion.jpg

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

volcano1.jpg

volcano2.jpg

volcano3.jpg

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

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

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

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

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

May 11, 2008

Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic - Day 6

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken was part of the first ever Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic Tour!

Day 6 - It's Time to Say Goodbye

Once again the day begins with the 5:30 am wake up call. I decide to snooze for awhile until I remember I have to pack and get ready for the luggage pick up and I do not want to be too late to breakfast. This will be my last chance to hang out with all these people who have become good friends just over a matter of days.

Today we are invited to the Chip & Dale Critter breakfast at Storyteller Café. Since we do not have a schedule to keep except to meet our transportation to the airport, we can show up at our leisure anytime between 7 am - 9 am. I manage to get my act together and join in on the fun around 8 am.

Unfortunately some of the adventurers had early flights so I missed saying goodbye - err I mean - till we do another adventure. (I am just not a fan of goodbyes). So we enjoyed a wonderful buffet breakfast and did the ritual exchange of email addresses saying we all hope to keep in touch. There were lots of hugs around the room with the occasional interruption by Chip and/or Dale to bring a bit more fun into the mix.

Some of the travelers had autograph books they asked others to sign and the guides also had a memory book that we could record some thoughts on our adventure. Sadly it was coming to a close. I hugged Michelle and off she went to catch her transportation to the airport. Others went to catch their rides too but some had time to kill and went to the parks. I had to go pack.

When I was ready to leave, I sent a text to the park goers who were now back at the hotel. They came down to the lobby to say goodbye one more time. Quinn and Diana met me outside as well and had my bag ready to go. The town car was a little late so it gave us all a chance to chat some more. A few minutes later, we were back to goodbye - err - see ya soon hugs, and I was off to the airport to catch my flight.

Beci and the Adventures Guides

On the flight back to home I got to thinking about the times I have been in the company of die hard Disney fans. When the topic of those true 'behind the velvet rope' experiences come up - like being immersed in the creativity of Imagineering, or the history of Walt's Apartment, etc - Many people would say they would do about anything for those experiences. Well, now here is your chance.

One of the objections I hear when talking with clients about taking an Adventure By Disney is that its so expensive. But when you consider what you get - hotel, most of your meals, transportation, sure. But it's the special, unique experiences that you can't really put a price on - it is worth every penny and then some.

Behind the scenes tours like Jimmy Kimmel Live, The El Capitan Theater, and the rare opportunity to be inside the gates and visit Jim Henson Studios and the Creature Shop.

To visit the birthplace of the ideas and witness the creative process from inside the walls of Imagineering, as well as inside the barn where Imagineering took its first baby steps. To walk through the halls of the animation building where so many of the classics were born at the Walt Disney Studios.

To visit the apartment and see the view from Walt's perspective as he perfected the art of creating magic. All of these experiences allow the individual to truly walk in Walt's footsteps and see his world from his eyes. wow.

And if that wasn't enough value, there is shopping at Mickey's of Glendale!!
ok, I couldn't help myself there.

What I meant is ...

The value of new friends and those little moments that just happen

- Sing-alongs on a bus with a bunch of people who you didn't even know 2 days ago - not to mention the standing ovation onboard.

- Sharing our favorite Disney books with a group over breakfast - (thanks Brent & Nick)

- Realizing you are simply a group of lemmings because not only will you follow a paddle sign, you will also follow the tallest guy in the group if he holds his hat in the air.

- Watching everyone turn into happy squealing 6 year olds at 'pin time'. (yes another little bit of Disney magic!)

- Talking my new friends onto the Tower of Terror not once - but twice even though a couple of them where not so sure they would live through the experience. The good news is Tracey and I have a date in December to go again when we are both in WDW later this year.

- Having a new appreciation for "daisy's eggs". (thanks scott, I think)

- Being able to baby sit Stitch for an hour or so. (thanks brad)

- Being reminded that not everyone has been to Disneyland and getting the opportunity to see a family and a few others experience the original park for the first time. That is an experience in itself.

- Realizing that you and your new friends are living proof that you are never too old, or too young, to be fascinated by a muppet, or to appreciate the magic.

I could go on and on and so can the group. Since I returned the email bin has been buzzing with everyone sharing their pics and favorite memories. All of this was not only worth the cost, but in the end, it was priceless.

I would like to end by saying thanks to all the guests who shared the experience with me and made it memorable, the guides for making it extra magical and to follow along my usual tradition of waving to Walt as I leave the park - to say thanks for setting such a high bar and making magic that just keeps getting better everyday.

Till Next time.

Walt's Pad

Read Beci's Entire Backstage Magic Blog!

Beci Mahnken is the President/CEO of MEI & MouseFanTravel.com . To date she is a vetran of 3 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 40 cruises including 16 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney.

May 10, 2008

Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic - Day 5

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken was part of the first ever Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic Tour!

Day 5 - Behind the Orange Grove

It was a late night last night and the alarm came early again to ensure we made the 7 am meet time. But who could resist all the rides just begging to be queued up for? I mean, we can always sleep after vacation, right?

The day begins at a favorite character brunch spot, Goofy's Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel. This is a buffet that features all of the normal breakfast fare, plus some items you may not want to try - ever. Brad was a brave soul and jumped feet first right into trying the peanut butter pizza. While others in the group started out on the right track with fruits, etc, but then realizing they had left their own kids at home, went right for the soft serve ice cream!

Goofy's Kitchen Entrance

Goofy's Kitchen Seating Area

Goofy's Kitchen Ice Cream

We enjoyed the company of lots of characters, besides our table mate of course. (as you can tell the group started acting like a big family of brothers and sisters having fun on mom & dad's credit card) Alice, among others, stopped by below to sign Brocks autograph book. We also saw Baloo and even Goofy made a special trip away from his chef duties to say hi too!

Alice at Goofy's Kitchen

After breakfast it was off to the resort entrance to Disney's California Adventure. We arrived at the gate well before park opening and the guides led to our first stop on today's journey, Soarin Over California! Park closed - nice. This really is the ultimate Fastpass. We load in two bays for the ride then before the pre-show, one of the groups were told they are going on a different adventure - backstage! Our group gets on the ride and we enjoy one of my favorite attractions on property. Once our ride was over, the other group was loaded into their hang glider - slash - giant erector set - and we were escorted behind the scenes to watch our comrades from a very unique perspective - under the screen! It was truly remarkable and has to be seen in person to really appreciate it.

Soarin' at Disney's California Adventure

Once everyone had exited the building we were met by a Soarin cast member who gave us some background on the attraction and showed us the source of those wonderful pine and orange scents we experience as we fly over the state. They poured a few of the yummy-smelling little beads in a cup and passed it around. We were given the ok to touch them which had the consistency of a hard gel like substance but they were really quick to ensure they got all of them back before we left.

We said goodbye to our new friends at Soarin and made our way across the empty park to the Hollywood Pictures Backlot area. As we crossed the plaza we saw the main gates in the distance with a line of people waiting to get in. It's great to be in an empty park!!!

 Disney's California Adventure Before Official Opening

Our next stop - Disney Animation. We paused to view a special welcome message and take a group shot.

 Disney Animation

Once inside we were treated to a special visit with everyone's favorite Turtle, Crush, as well as a lesson in how to draw Mickey at the Animation Academy. Personally I can barely draw anything beyond a stick figure so I tapped Jim to put his wonderful work of art on display for the picture below. They had tubes waiting for us to collect our works of art so we could take them home and proudly display them above the fireplace. Jim, yes. Me, no way? Mine was neatly folded and stashed in my backpack to be disposed of later in the closest recycle bin. Art just wasn't my calling - a lesson I learned early in life while playing with those art tests in the back of the TV guide.

 Animation Academy - How to Draw Mickey

And Disney being, well, Disney, they will find any excuse to celebrate something and make a guest feel special. This time they had ears for the folks celebrating a birthday in April and May. Here are three of the people who are getting old this month!

 Birthday Ears

The rest of our afternoon was scheduled on our own, so I was able to talk a few brave souls into coming along with me to my other favorite ride - The Tower of Terror. It was Haydee's first ride (check out the faces on these victims - errr - lucky guests) and we made sure she was in the front row so no amount of eye closing was going to take any of the fun away.

Michelle on the other hand... is this really the same Michelle who played mountain goat on the rim of the Grand Canyon on our Southwest Adventure and giggled at the rest of us for having heart failure watching her? REALLY? Because the way she was holding onto my arm on this ride, you'd' swear she was actually scared of falling or something.

I am happy to report that according to the ride pic, Haydee was brave enough to let go at least once, with at least one arm. And Michelle didn't leave a bruise on my arm, much to my surprise.

 Tower of Terror

We had the rest of the afternoon to relax and enjoy the parks, the resort, the pool, nurse our feet, nap, write blogs, or in my case, run around like a mad woman looking for boxes to ship my loot from the Mickey's of Glendale safely home. Quinn had anticipated my challenge and went out of his way to have some boxes available at the business center that would do the trick. I spent some time packing and taping boxes to fedex back home and they should arrive by Thursday. It will be like Christmas, or more accurately, a game show of how many shirts and collectables can you grab in 30 minutes all over again!

Later that evening, we met one last time at the sorcerer hat at Disneyland Hotel to walk as a group to our Farewell Dinner. This is always a bitter-sweet event because it means the adventure is almost over. The venue was Sleeping Beauty's Pavilion above Goofy's Kitchen with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the hotel pool area. The tables were decorated with old movie reel centerpieces and the festivities began just as the sun began to set. Dinner was a buffet style with plenty of choices - including pasta, meats, salads and of course dessert - along with wine, beer and soda to wash it all down.

Farewell Dinner

The group was very excited to learn that we had a special guest in attendance for the evening. Disney Historian, Stacia Martin would be taking requests to draw the favorite characters of the Adventures by Disney guests. wow! We got in line and put our names on the list while each of us really had trouble trying to decide on just one! Mine was Sorcerer Mickey. He reminds me of my Daddy who loved Fantasia - so that would be an easy one for me.

When I hear my name, we are asked to come forward and be introduced to Stacia. She invited each person to watch and talk with her as she created her original art just for you

Disney Historian, Stacia Martin Draws Sorcerer Mickey for Beci

Disney Historian, Stacia Martin Draws Pooh for Laura

Disney Historian, Stacia Martin Draws the Cheshire Cat for Nick

As the dinner winds down its time to go around the room and tell everyone what their favorite moment has been from the trip. It's amazing how many people change their answer from day 1 when they ask - what are you looking forward to most.

Quinn and Diana have a special 'goodnight kiss' for us too. They have prepared a video of memories from the past few days. It's amazing that it seems like weeks ago that we were in Hollywood and now it's just about over - after a couple more pictures of course!

Mickey and Minnie stopped in to say goodbye to the group and take photos for another keepsake to remember the adventure.

Beci, Michelle, Minnie and Mickey

But wait! It's not over yet! We still have a fireworks show see!

Someone grabs the sign - which is now a requirement for someone to have anytime we go anywhere in a group - and off we go to a VIP viewing spot in Disneyland. They has a roped off area at the Plaza Pavilion which offered an ok view of the action including Tinkerbell's many flights over the crowd and around the castle. It did have some obstruction issues but it was a fair trade for not having to fight the crowds for a spot.

After the show, we all went out exploring on our own. Some headed back for the hotel while others took our stack of FastPasses to see how many more rides we could fit in before we have to say goodbye in the morning.

Who's up for Haunted Mansion? Then Big Thunder, and of course we have to go on Space Mountain again right? hmmm. It is late, maybe Fantasyland will be light on crowds! We finished the night with the classics - Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the Storybook adventure and Dumbo was our nightcap.

It's been a great day!

Tomorrow, its time to say Goodbye.

Read Beci's Entire Backstage Magic Blog!

Beci Mahnken is the President/CEO of MEI & MouseFanTravel.com . To date she is a veteran of 3 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 40 cruises including 16 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney.

May 9, 2008

Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic - Day 4

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken was part of the first ever Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic Tour!

Day 4 - Walt's World

The alarm went off at 5:30 am to ensure I had enough time to shower and do a little work before our 7 am meeting time in the lobby of the hotel. From there we walked towards the gates of Disneyland entering long before the general public. This provided us with a special magical moment of walking down Main Street with just our group and a couple of cast members who were busy getting the park ready for the guests. What a treat to enjoy the park in such a peaceful and calm atmosphere.

Empty Disneyland

Empty Disneyland

Empty Disneyland

Empty Disneyland

Michelle and Beci in Disneyland

At the end of the street we arrived at the Plaza Inn for a breakfast buffet with and visits from some old friends including Minnie, Chip, Dale and the star of the show, The Fairy Godmother. She wandered around the room checking everyone's plates to ensure they had the proper nutrition required for the days events. Check out her 'shock and awe' below when she discovered James David (his in-trouble name) didn't select enough fruit on his trip through the buffet line.

Plaza Inn

Chip at the Plaza Inn

Fairy Godmother and Jim at the Plaza Inn

Minnie at the Plaza Inn

After breakfast we gather our belongings and put away our cameras and cell phones because we are headed backstage. Our first stop is the Indiana Jones Adventure. We enter into a backstage door to see a few of the ride vehicles on display. The cast members give us a demonstration of the ride vehicle hydraulic capabilities and the gyrations it goes through when guests are on the ride.

Matt, the teenager and most likely the best gamer in the group, is handed the joystick control to give it a whirl. I think he has a future in thrill ride programming. Of course no demonstration would be truly complete unless we had a chance to experience what we just saw. So we were escorted up to the load area and onto the cars. No lines, no wait. Wow! I could get used to this.

Next stop, the Big Thunder Ranch area where we meet Courtney who tells us about the history of the horses and animals in the park. We took a peek into the building that houses memorabilia including awards and ribbons that have been earned over the years. It was neat to learn the horses not only work at the park but are shown as well. We were given the unique opportunity to feed the local residents and I couldn't help but notice that the moment the cast member appeared with the feed, the scene somewhat mirrored the events at Mickey's of Glendale the previous day.

Big Thunder Ranch Area

Big Thunder Ranch Area Feeding the Goats

After our visit to our new 4 legged friends, we put our cameras away again and head backstage to meet Ed and Vern at the roundhouse. They tell us more about Walt's love for steam trains and history behind the engines we see today. Then its back to the Circle D ranch to visit the small house which was once the real home of the Dolly and Owen Pope. The Pope's are the only people who ever lived at Disneyland and actually took care of the ranch which at one time had 220 horses etc.

Courtney meets back up with us and explains that the horses only work 2 hours per day and have 1 week off per month. They are allowed to work 5 years in total and then are retired. It's a record breaker in Anaheim so we enjoyed a rest break and the guides had water handy to re-hydrate.

Of course with all this activity we are ready for lunch! We work our way to New Orleans Square where there are tables waiting for us at Café Orleans. We are greeted by a line of cast members with beads a plenty to welcome us and we work our way to our seats. Lunch was a set menu with a variety of choices but the favorites of the group were the blackened chicken Caesar salad and the infamous Monte Cristo sandwich. Dessert was a plate of Mickey head beignets. wow, Im in heaven here!

Cafe Orleans Menu

Cafe Orleans  Monte Cristo

Cafe Orleans Salad

New Orleans Square - Michelle

The entertainment was a resident pirate who tried on several occasions to get away with the beignets, but we were watching so he visited with each guest and spun tales of his high seas adventures.

New Orleans Square - Pirate

We ended our visit to New Orleans Square with a picture on the stairs leading to the Dream Apartment and a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean, VIP entrance again with no lines or wait.

New Orleans Square Stairs

Could this possibly get any better?

Why - YES!!!!

We walked back down Main Street and gathered in front of the Fire Department building. There we divided into 3 groups because the places we would be visiting next would be a slightly tighter fit.

But first things first - please stow all electronic devices - cameras and cell phones out of site and out of hands.

I was in the group that was to be the first to ascend the stairs to Walt's Apartment. Wow. I was about to step into a room filled with history. To stand where he did as he watched guests enjoy his park. I get a chill just thinking about that. But I am jumping ahead of myself.

Walt's Pad

We passed the backstage gate and to the right was the staircase that leads to the private room above the firehouse. The Tour Guide paused to tell us a story about how Walt's grandkids would sneak across the small street behind the building and into the jungle on the other side. Jungle? The rear of the apartment backs up to a portion of the Jungle Cruise ride. Can you imagine having that park to play in as a kid?

The door has a hand crank bell that signals someone is about to enter and as the door opens we are met with a room where time seems to have stopped. The small dwelling consisted of the main room which also served as sleeping quarters with 2 sofa beds and bathroom, decorated in Victorian furnishings with red and white as the main color scheme.

A small kitchenette area to the right inside the entry way features a few conveniences like his original griddle which he used to make gilled cheese sandwiches and other simple items. Across the room stands an antique Regina Music box that stands approximately 4 feet high and was a gift from Walt to his wife Lillian. To the right was the entry to the bathroom and to the left was a table with a Victorian style rotary phone that Walt actually used. It was featured in the August 1963 pictorial for National Geographic showing Walt on the phone. This was one of the few times the apartment was photographed.

Looking towards the park you see two red couches that serve as beds, face each other from opposite sides of the room. One was for Walt and the other for Lillian so they could be together when Walt was putting in so many hours creating his magic. Between them is the infamous lamp that you can see from the street below. It's a tradition that the cast members leave the lamp on to honor Walt and to symbolize that he is always looking over his park.

We were told it was ok to sit on some of the furniture as long as we ask which ones before taking any action. Brock and I sat down on the couch to the right, near the phone. Then as I was gazing at all the items around the room a wave of emotion just hit me out of no where. I looked at the lamp and realized I was looking at the same view he had as he gazed onto the park that he built to make his guest's dreams and wishes come true. This wonderful, creative man became a grandfather to more then one generation and this was quite and emotional moment. Luckily we were allowed a group photo that was taken by the guides camera only - so I do have a treasured keepsake from the visit.

Thanks Walt. You have certainly made this little girl's dreams a reality.

Reluctantly we departed the apartment to make room for the next group. But we weren't quite done reliving history just yet.

We made our way to the Train Station where the Lillie Belle would arrive shortly to take us on a Grand Circle tour of Disneyland. While we waited, we were shown the VIP parade viewing area for the afternoon parade. Unfortunately they only had 20 seats available for the group of 36. I think they counted on the fact that some would decline the invitation to attend, but I think this is an area they need to tweak on this itinerary to ensure no one is turned away from such a great perk!

Reserved VIP Parade Viewing Area

The Lilly Belle is a parlor car that was removed from general service in favor of the open style cars as Walt felt they offered a better view of his Grand Canyon and Primeval World attractions. About 10 years later the suggestion was made to revive it as a bicentennial car. That idea resulted in the private car now known as the Lilly Belle - named after Walt's wife Lillian. She decorated it in her favorite Victorian style and included family pictures to add a touch of Walt to the place.

This unique experience begins with your private conductor escorting you to the car and punching your VIP keepsake ticket. Then you board the train and get settled in for a train ride of a lifetime around Disneyland.

Lilly Belle  Conductor

Lilly Belle

Lilly Belle

Lilly Belle

The afternoon was on our own, so we met up with the group later that night for a VIP viewing of Fantasmic. I will go on the record to say I prefer the show at Disneyland over Disney World. Yes, even with the massive crowds that make it impossible to get anywhere around the lake area.

After the show a group of us headed out to take advantage of the fast passes we had in hand. Jungle Cruise (best in the dark) Buzz Lightyear and Space Mountain were all on the agenda. We even created a magical moment for guests who wanted to get on Space Mountain but the 60 minute wait was to long for them. Our fast passes were dated and there was no way we would use them all. So some lucky folks got to enjoy Space Mountain with very little wait.

Today - good memories & great friends.

Tomorrow - California Adventure, here we come!

Read Beci's Entire Backstage Magic Blog!

Beci Mahnken is the President/CEO of MEI & MouseFanTravel.com . To date she is a veteran of 3 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 40 cruises including 16 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney.

May 8, 2008

Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic - Day 3B

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken was part of the first ever Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic Tour!

Making the Magic - Day 3 Part 2

Back on the bus and a few minutes later we are driving through the gates of The Walt Disney Studios. In 1937 Disney released his first full length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which received wide acclaim. Walt saw a need to expand the studio and used the profits from that production to build this studio in Burbank. For this reason, the dwarfs are shown holding up the roof on the main administration building.

Walt Disney Studios Building

Walt Disney Studios Mickey Avenue Sign

We walked onto the lot and wandered streets to the animation building. Once inside we walked down the long hall that was covered in original background art and animation cells from some of the famous films over the years. Directly across from the animation building is Inking and Painting. The cool thing is they are connected by an underground tunnel to protect the artists work from the elements when being transported from building to building.

Walt Disney Studios Animation Building

Walt Disney Studios Hyperion

We exited the animation building and headed to Disney's Legends Plaza. In 1998 this plaza was dedicated to commemorate 75th anniversary of the company and the plaza features bronze plaques and sculptures to honor the gifted animators, imagineers and others who have had a significant impact on the company. We spent quite a bit of time looking around, taking in the history and taking pictures too.

Walt Disney Studios - Disney's Legends Plaza

The picture shows a bronze of the Legends award that is given.

According to the website:

The Spiral ... stands for imagination, the power of an idea.
The Hand ... holds the gifts of skill, discipline and craftsmanship.
The Wand and the Star ... represent magic: the spark that is ignited when imagination and skill combine to create a new dream.

Walt Disney Studios - Disney's Legends Plaza Bench

Our lunch stop was at the Commissary at the Studios. We were given a voucher good for entrée, side, beverage and dessert - in a counter service style. there were many choices from soups and salads to deli sandwiches, pasta, burgers and pizza. Of course we were on a working studio lot so were on the lookout for familiar faces. This visit the group reported seeing Marty Skylar of Imagineering fame.

Walt Disney Studios - Commissary

Walt Disney Studios - Commissary

After lunch we had more shopping time, then it was back to the bus for the drive to the Disneyland Resort. The drive had a soundtrack. In Hollywood we heard classic TV show tunes of the 70s like the Love Boat, and as we got closer to Disneyland the theme changed to monorail and current Disney themes. We had a blast singing the classics and giggling like little kids. I think Walt would be proud.

Going back to the first day when we met at the welcome reception, the guides asked how many people had never been to Disneyland. I was amazed at the number of people who raised their hands! One of them was Haydee (below). Her son Alex had asked her on this trip and she was very excited to experience the magic of her first Disneyland trip with her son. When we took the exit I looked back at her and she was all teary-eyed.

Haydee on the Adventures by Disney bus

Being a veteran of many visits to Disneyland, this caused me to stop for a moment and remember what it was like to walk through the gates of Disneyland on my 7th birthday with my Daddy in tow. Then again on my 21st birthday, after driving all night from a show in Las Vegas, seeing it for the first time from and adults eyes. Now I am going to be blessed to see it again, this time watching this wonderful lady who is about to turn into an 8 year old right in front of us. This is what I love about the power of this place and the magic of Disney.

We pulled up to Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa which is the flagship of the 3 Disneyland resorts, and we were escorted into the lobby to receive our room keys and info packets. Right away we headed for our rooms, with all the bags from the shopping spree as I wasn't about to let those out of my site. Thanks to Brent & Brock, we managed to get everything where it needed to be. And we aren't even talking about the luggage. The bellman will deliver those shortly.

Here is where we hit the first room snag, and frankly 3 days in was pretty good considering we were the inaugural group on this itinerary. We found our room and opened the curtains to find ... gravel and a wall. Now I'm not normally the kind to push the issue when I get unlucky on the draw, especially when standard room view is what's promised when you book this tour, but frankly I didn't even know there was such a room that had nothing but a gravel wall in front of you.

Putting my vacation planner hat on, I decided it would be best to raise the issue so this doesn't happen to others in the future. I went downstairs and found our guides. One of the Adventures Managers was also on property and he immediately took on the action item to take a look at the problem. I was very impressed by the care and concern they displayed and left it win their capable hands to work out.

In the meantime, 4 of us adventurers were ready to go Soarin! Michelle, Brent, Brock and I had just enough time to run over to California Adventure and go thru the single rider queue before returning to prepare for the welcome reception. I met the Adventure staff in the lobby who advised they have moved us and the bell staff has moved our luggage as well. They handed us new room keys and stated they would ensure that particular view will no longer be assigned to Adventures Guests.

Wow. How wonderful to see in action what I have come to expect from the Disney brand. Great customer service and a fast resolution to a challenge complimented by a smile and a sincere "thank you for bringing this to our attention." We head up to the new room and indeed, we have a nice standard view with barely a hint of gravel. This will due very nicely.

After unpacking and a change of clothes, we headed to the lobby to meet the gang for the evening festivities. There we were greeted by the David, the 2008 Disneyland Ambassador who officially welcomed us to Disneyland. Michelle and I were also presented with special repeat guest pins!

Michelle and Beci with Disneyland Ambassador David

We walked over to the Disneyland Resort and enjoyed a wonderful welcome reception featuring a wine tasting at the Cellar. We were offered a selection including a Pinot noir from Camelot, a chardonnay from Century Cellars and finally a Johannisberg reisling from Robert Mondavi Private Reserve. (yum!).

Wine Tasting at Disneyland

Wine Tasting at Disneyland

The guides also choose this as the setting to congratulate the anniversary couples in the group, presenting them with appropriate head wear.

Anniversary Couple on the Adventures by Disney

Another Anniversary Couple on the Adventures by Disney

The reception also featured a selection of appetizers as well as a guitar player who sang and set the perfect mood for the festivities. As the reception was winding down we were lead upstairs to Hooks Point Restaurant for dinner. We were offered a salmon dish or a mesquite grilled chicken entrée with accompaniments and Key Lime pie for dessert.

Hooks Point Restaurant

"You've just been on quite an adventure and enjoyed a wonderful dinner. Now what are you going to do?"

Why, we are going to Disneyland of course!

After dinner we are ready for some theme park fun! We head over to the gates together and group all the first time visitors at the front of the line so they are the first to enter the park. Once inside we are lead down main street by way of "the paddle".

No not THAT kind of paddle! THIS kind of paddle!

Disneyland at Night

It tends to draw attention thus has become the symbol that you have attained the coveted "teachers helper' spot in the group.

Disneyland at Night

We were led to the Haunted Mansion, but we walked right past the front entrance and made our way around the right hand side of the building to a special entrance across from the pet cemetery. We entered into a special stretching room where the cast member asked 5 bodies - err guests - to lay down in the dead center of the room and just about gave them a heart attack when the lights came back on by standing directly over them. (reminds me I need to blog about my haunted mansion experience that left me not only speechless, but breathless as well)

Anyway, after that we were given some special fast passes and given the rest of the evening on our own to explore the park.

Its an early day tomorrow. We are set to explore Walt's World! Stay tuned!

Read Beci's Entire Backstage Magic Blog!

Beci Mahnken is the President/CEO of MEI & MouseFanTravel.com . To date she is a veteran of 3 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 40 cruises including 16 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney.

May 7, 2008

Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic - Day 3

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken was part of the first ever Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic Tour!

Here is Day3 of her blog - Making Magic:

Since the theme for the day is Making Magic, now is a great time to tell you about our guides.

But, before I do, let me just say, I was never keen on the idea of group travel. It always conjured up thoughts of waiting on people who are slower then I am or trying to catch up to people going faster then I am and trying not to be that person holding up the group, yet still wanting to avoid being rushed. You get the picture. Then I went on my first Adventures By Disney to London & Paris and my whole idea of what group travel was, well, changed.

Each adventurer has at least one thing in common when we walk in the door - a love for all things Disney and we can share our stories of being a fan, how many times we have been on various theme park rides (Tower of Terror!!!) or the crazy things we do to avoid riding on others. (For me - anything that has anything to do with water) Anyway. That one thing bonds the group right out of the gate and you find you enjoy being around these people as if it was a group of longtime friends who have gathered each year and miss each other in between trips. Then when you get home, you miss them. Seriously.

The guides play a key role in the success of that group dynamic. They create a warm welcoming feeling the moment you meet them and help everyone get to know each other with the greatest of ease. And for me, there is an added benefit. I am usually the one having to stress about the details. Even on vacation with my family there is an element of stress to make sure everything is as magical as it can possibly be.

Adventures By Disney takes care of everything with the kind of TLC that I give my clients and my family on their vacations. And after 3 of these trips I can say I am extremely pleased with the consistency. These folks are on top of everything and you can turn to them for assistance at anytime. They always respond with a smile and are a great example of the Disney service standard we are all so accustomed to.

The magic makers on this trip? Diana & Quinn

Diana (pronounced deeana) is a 13 year veteran of the Walt Disney Company. She has had a wide variety of experience including Food Ops, Administration, Walt Disney Travel Company and was a guide on the Spirit of America Adventure. She is extremely friendly, has an infectious smile and is at ease with everyone in the group, especially the kids.

Quinn is also a long timer, having dedicated 14 years to Disney. He started in attractions in Fantasyland, worked his way into guest relations and earned his plaid vest which is a very high honor to achieve. Most recently working in communications, he has been a finalist for the Disneyland Ambassador position which with his knowledge and stellar service skills, he would be a natural at that job.

Diana and Quinn Adventures by Disney Guides

My only complaint so far on this trip? Having to be up and packed, ready for luggage pick up at 7 am. Somehow I managed to sleepwalk my way though the packing process and set the luggage just inside the door for the hotel bell services to retrieve and transport to the bus.

Then I remembered - its IMAGINEERING DAY!

I'm wide awake now! We head to breakfast at a restaurant in the hotel called Twist. They had a very nice breakfast buffet with eggs, a variety or meats, fruits, cereals, and breads. A great way to start the day!

After breakfast we all gathered in the lobby and began squealing like 8th graders about the days itinerary. The bus was a bit delayed in LA traffic, so Quinn handed out our id badges for the day. Oh that was cool and it felt like we were holding winning lotto tickets.

Imagineering ID Badges

Alex and Haydee

Once the bus arrived we loaded up and headed out on the 45 minute ride to Disney Imagineering. Along the way we were given some news.

First - before leaving the bus we would be required to hand over all cameras and cell phones and leave them on the bus.

Second - We would be allowed 30 minutes to shop in the very exclusive "Mickey's of Glendale". This is the Cast member store that is the only place where you can purchase Disney Imagineering gear. This store is not open to the public, so it's a very special benefit to this adventure and the news completely drown out the disappointment of having to leave my camera behind.

But wait! There's more! -- Each person in the group will also get a coupon good for 40% off ONE item. I just about had heart failure as I started digging on my wallet to ensure I had an appropriate credit card! More on that in a bit.

As we made the left turn past the buildings, it was hard to tell anything Disney was going on, unless you were paying attention to the address markers which are shaped like a cast member name tag, or if you happen to get a glimpse of something Disney in a window now and then.

Below are some of the exterior shots before we had to put away the cameras.

Imagineering Exterior

Imagineering Grounds

We got off the bus and met David, an imagineer who would be our guide to all the wonders beyond the glass doors in front of us. As we entered the building we walked down a long hallway that was decorated with various posters and drawings commemorating the history of Disney including attractions, films and events.

The hallway itself was like being in a museum and we could have spent hours staring at each of the pieces along the way. But there was a schedule to keep so we made our way to room full of chairs and a screen where we saw a presentation on the history of Imagineering and some news on upcoming projects that have been officially announced.

After the presentation, we were split into our 2 groups and off we went to visit a few of the departments to see what's happening. Our first stop is the sculpture studio. When you walk in you are greeted with a large room with a high ceiling and glass cabinets around the perimeter of the room filled with pieces. Valerie, also an imaginer/sculptor who studied under one of the masters Blaine Gibson, introduced us to the marquettes (pre-mold) they use as part of the process to get to the size they want for the project. There were examples of the presidents heads, many characters, Walt, Mickey and even the marble Snow white and seven dwarfs sculptures that were in Disneyland park but were replaced after years of wear and tear..

Next we moved to a sweet sound studio where we enjoyed an amazing sound presentation of the technology they use for the Lincoln attraction. Anyone remember the Civil War presentation where you are the young soldier getting his haircut? It's also available for your hearing pleasure at Sounds Dangerous. It was the same technology with the headphones and all, but plus'd up a notch or two in the dark. It was extremely cool! Of course you automatically assume it's a trick with the headphones, but in fact, the headphones themselves are pretty much standard, straight off the rack variety.

He explained the recording process was actually the real wonder with the ingenious use of a head with strategic microphone placement and recording processes that produces a recording of the sounds just as a human would hear them. They have a head rigged with microphones that they affectionate call "Klaus" and apparently have put the poor guy through all kinds of paces for the love of realistic sound.

From there we moved down a hallway past a large open area with mock ups and models of what appeared to be the designs for the new and improved California Adventure Park. Of course, nothing was close enough to see detail and it was very noticeable that anything within our eye line was already out there for public consumption, but still, it was magical!

Last stop on the tour, before shopping of course, was a visit to Joe Cocker. This is A100 animatronic that put on quite a show, even without skin. It allowed you to see the skeleton and wiring as a demo to see what it really takes to make a human form move and sing. Why Joe Cocker? Seems his favorite tune is "Feelin Alright" complete with back up singers in the form of 3 heads (no bodies) on a table a couple of feet away.

After the demonstration, we exited the building into a courtyard where there were a couple of vintage ride vehicles like a people mover and a skyway bucket from Fantasyland.

In front of us was a building with "Mickey's of Glendale" on the side, and I heard the words, "You have 30 minutes to shop and your time starts now!" For those Top Chef fans out there, I felt like it was a quick fire challenge, or as if I just stepped into a twisted game show of grab as much as you can in 30 minutes, but then you have to pay for it!

It was a frenzy of finding the right sizes, shapes and colors for everyone on the list. Then I had an idea. I saw some very special items that I thought might be of particular interest to Disney fans, especially those attending MagicMeets! So I bought a few items that will be added to the silent action for the Dream Team Auction. Watch the announcements on the auction site!

Periodically you would hear off in the distance, "you have 10 minutes left to shop". "You have 3 minutes left to shop" - Personally I am hoping they have a security tape of that day - it would be a great to watch the mayhem! Side note - Thanks to all the folks who ended up behind me in the check out line. Its for a great cause and I appreciated your patience.

After the feeding frenzy at the shopping stop, Michelle and I loaded our multiple oversized, overstuffed bags on the bus and we headed to the next stop. Walt Disney Studios.

oh! one thing I wanted to mention - A couple of times on the trip we experienced true magical moment or two but even though others are posting the spoiler, I will refrain from detailing it here. I want you to feel that's sense of "Oh! My! God!" the way I did.

Read Beci's Entire Backstage Magic Blog!

Beci Mahnken is the President/CEO of MEI & MouseFanTravel.com . To date she is a veteran of 3 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 40 cruises including 16 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney.

May 6, 2008

Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic - Day 2b

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken was part of the first ever Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic Tour!

Here is Day 2 Continued:

Lights, Camera, Adventure! -the Afternoon Update

I am in serious danger of dating myself here, but some of my earliest memories were of my best friends - Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, and of course Kermit the Frog. I was an only child and found Sesame Street to be a welcoming environment of folks who always had a smile for me and where I learned all the basics like how to count while not being scared of vampires, sing my ABCs, and giggle at the funny guy who couldn't seem to carry 12 banana cream pies no matter how hard he tried. My mom found it to be the perfect babysitter for an hour each afternoon when she needed a break from the little angel in the house.

With all this nostalgia running through me, I was very happy to hear that Jim Henson Studios was one of the tour stops. Little did I know just how special it was going to be or how it would touch me.

After the Jimmy Kimmel adventure we boarded the bus for our 5-10 minute journey around the corner and down the street to the studio that Charlie Chaplin built. Yes, you read that right! The studio was actually built in 1917 by Mr. Chaplin who filmed several of his classics there including Gold Rush, and the Great Dictator. Charlie sold the studio in 1957 and owners have included Red Skelton and CBS.

Several of the original buildings are still in place and the site was designated a Historical Cultural monument. In 1999 the Henson family purchased the lot and as the pictures below illustrate, they have ensured Charlie's legacy remains including a Kermit stature at the top of the gate sporting a top hat and tails.

Beci and Michelle at the Henson Sign

Welcome Sign at Henson Studios

Michelle and Charlie Chaplin

Once we passed through the guard gate and had a chance to look around the main courtyard. Even though the studio sits on a busy street the craziness that is LA seemed to melt away and a peaceful tranquility comes across you in these surroundings. There are several buildings that make up the complex including the main offices, administration, a production facility, state of the art recording studios where "We are the World was recorded, and yes, the creature shop!

Adventures by Disney Guide leads the way

We divided into to groups and were on our way to explore this gem. While the studio does offer limited tours, it is a working facility and does not have the usual 'walk up - on the hour tour schedule' you see with other area attractions. To get the kind of access we had was truly amazing!

The first stop was a small theater where we viewed a video make just for the Adventures By Disney tours which featured a couple of real characters - Bobby Vegan (a pig) and Samson Knight (a bull).

They provided an overview of the history of the facility. We moved to the main reception lobby where they have glass cases displaying many of the awards and accolades they have received over the years. On the opposite wall is a large picture of the man himself - Jim Henson. This became a very popular picture spot so we could tip our hat to the genius behind all the muppet magic.

Jim Henson Awards

Beci and Michelle with Jim Henson Portrait

Then it was time for the much anticipated creature shop! But not before our cameras and cell phones were locked away so none of the excitement would leave the grounds before their time.

We approached a plain looking building and as the doors opened we could see desks and tables filled with animatronics and puppets in various states of production. There is so much Muppet eye candy in this room, it's a shame we have to rely on our memories because I'm not sure I can do it justice.

My eyes went right for the oversized highchair with a baby dinosaur sitting in it. Anyone remember those famous words "Whos the baby?". ABC ran Dinosaurs from 1991 to 1994 and this little critter was front and center. There were also several characters from the movie "Cats and Dogs" including a few of the little Dobermans who were so good at taking orders and Mr. Tinkles who still sits on his cushion not doing much of anything because the material used to make up his jaw is a little worn. Other items on display - more like hanging around in plain site - included a couple of the tin shoulders from the Sam Eagles Grand finale of Muppet Vision 3-d and what looked like a model used in the David Bowie ala-muppet classic, Labyrinth.

We met Mike Oosterom who is a master puppeteer and actor who has an impressive body of work including the infamous Groundlings improv group. He is also part of the Helson alternative troop called Puppet Up (www.puppetup.com) which is an uncensored comedy show made just for us older kids that already know our ABCs.

Mike gave us a demo of how they work with puppets which isn't anywhere as easy as it sounds. Some of these are impressive marriages of art of technology requiring anywhere from 2 to 6 people to operate all the elements of the figure. He provided a hands-on demonstration of the challenges of working with the puppet and keeping an eye on the video monitor. Truly amazing!

We were able to view Brian Henson's office who now conducts the company business from his late father's office space. There were so many figurines, awards, and memorabilia that you could be occupied for hours looking at each piece. Then we were lucky enough to watch some green screen production work for an upcoming PBS series 'Sid the Science Kid' set to air Sept 2008.

We enjoyed a nice lunch in the beautiful Southern Californian weather and just before our tour ended, Mike joined us in the courtyard with one of his Puppet Up friends. Each person in the group had an opportunity to get a pic and interact with the star herself.

Beci,Mike Oosterom

Mike Oosterom and Adventures by Disney Group

I was very bummed when it was time to depart. This was truly a highlight for me and its only DAY 2!


As we boarded the bus, our guides informed us that they had a little surprise for us - with the caveat that we understand how special this is because the next portion of the trip will not always be on the Backstage Magic Tour due to scheduling reasons.
So we got lucky this time!

Hmmm, after experiencing 2 other Adventures by Disney trips I can tell you, that always means something cool. And this time was no exception.

We were headed to Griffith Park. The die hard Disney folks out there will remember this is the site of the carousel where Walt would take his daughters to enjoy a day in the sunshine and helped to inspire him to dream up Disneyland so families would have a place to play together. But if you are thinking that's where we were going, you'd be wrong. Unfortunately the carousel wasn't actually open that day, but some very special folks volunteered their time to open up another special place in the park where we could bask in inspiration.

Since 1999, Griffith Park has also been the home of Walts' Barn which is also known as 'The Birthplace of Imagineering'. The barn was originally built by Walt in 1950 and was surrounded by his own 1/8th scale railroad on his property in Holmby Hills. It was his private workshop that he considered his personal 'happy place'.

The railroad was named Carolwood Pacific Railroad, after the street on which he lived. He operated the railroad until 1953 when Disneyland became his priority. It was his love of the train was the inspiration for the trains that now run the parameter of the parks today.

When the family sold the house in Holmby Hills, Walts family made arrangements to move the barn to the Los Angeles Live Steamers facility in Griffith Park as Walt was a charter member of the train enthusiasts club. In addition, that would mean the barn would always be surrounded by the trains that Walt loved so much.

We toured the barn which is a treasure-trove of Walt history including his personal workbench, tools, trains, and even one of his pork pie hats.

Walt's Barn in Griffith Park

Walt's Bench in Griffith Park Barn

Walt's Train Barn in Griffith Park

Walt Disney and Trains

After the tour, we had the opportunity to ride one of the trains! Below you see our Adventures By Disney Guides ready for their turn. Many of use elected to ride twice!

Adventure by Disney Guides

We boarded the bus for the trip back to the hotel where everyonetimen their own. Many went to Jimmy Kimmel Live, others hit the town to have dinner in one of the many restaurants in the area.

Tomorrow... Imagineering!

Read Beci's Entire Backstage Magic Blog!

Beci Mahnken is the President/CEO of MEI & MouseFanTravel.com . To date she is a veteran of 3 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 40 cruises including 16 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney.

May 5, 2008

Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic - Day 2a

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken was part of the first ever Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic!

Here is Day 2 of her blog: Lights, Camera, Adventure! - the Morning Report

Yes, I will admit it. I am not a morning person. There. I said it. Even in my own time zone having to be up around 7:45 is hard enough, but being awake, showered, dressed and ready to tackle a day on nothing but hotel room coffee. Well, it's a challenge. But today was the first full day of exploring Hollywood the Disney way which made it a little easier to accept.

We met our fellow band of adventurers in the hotel lobby and once gathered we were on our way in search of food and yes, coffee. Luckily we were just a short walk to our exclusive Breakfast with Ariel inside Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store.

Breakfast at Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store

The room was set up with festively decorated tables and Little Mermaid music playing to set the stage. Servers brought beverages and we were given few breakfast options that included the regular breakfast fare along with some especially themed choices.

Breakfast Menu for Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store

Mickey Waffle at Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store

Our first surprise of the day? Ariel stopped in for a visit!

Beci and Michelle with Ariel

And we also found a not-so Hidden Mickey!

Hidden Mickey

They also had activities for the kids and kids at heart. They set up an activity station at the counter complete with pics of the Little Mermaid characters that you could cut out and assemble to make your very own mobile.

Ariel Activities

After we were all fed and caffeinated, it was time for the first of 4 major tour spots, the El Capital Theater which was conveniently located adjacent to the Disney Soda Fountain.

Elcapitan

Our guide to this treasure was Ed. He was on the restoration team and had a wealth of knowledge to share. The El Capitan Theatre opened in 1926 and was known as "Hollywood's First Home of Spoken Drama" due to the fact that it was host to live stage productions until the mid-1930s when showing movies. In 1941, the theater played host to the premier of "Citizen Kane" and in 1989 it was lovingly restored to showcase it's populate detail.

The El Capital Theater is also home to the a fascinating 1920s era Wurlitzer pipe organ that not only plays what you would expect, but is also able to replicate all kinds of sound effects, birds, drums, sirens, etc - all the bells and whistles which ironically is exactly where the phrase the was born. We were treated to a serenade of sounds and a rendition of happy birthday for one of our group members before moving onto the stage itself for a short tour of the backstage area.

Elcapitan Organ

We then moved to our next tour of the day. Right next door is the historic former home of the Hollywood Masonic Temple which was renovated by the Walt Disney Company and now is the location of the Jimmy Kimmel Live Show.

As we entered the building we were informed this is one of the many locations on the Adventure where photography is a very big no, no, so unfortunately we do not have any visuals for you on this one. We were met inside the door Operations Manager Kelly Wong, and Production team member Chris Nuzzi. We started the tour with a clip video to familiarize us with the show and then we visited all the nooks tucked away in the corners of this historic building.

We were taken into the control room to see how the logistics of the live show that goes to tape, is executed. We also views the editing areas, dressing rooms, green rooms (complete with pool table and video games) and stage area that holds less the 200 people. Most of us were a little surprised that the audience area was as small as it was but makes for a wonderfully intimate experience. If you ever want to see the show.. get there early.

Or better yet, when the guides say "who wants tickets?", raise your hand... fast!! Unfortunately they had only a few tickets so when the demand exceeded the supply, they did a drawing for winners. 10 lucky winners attended the show tonight and we can't wait to hear about it over breakfast!

I think the highlight of the tour was a chance meet and greet with the infamous "Uncle Frank" - yes, he is actually Jimmy's Uncle and has become somewhat of a celebrity himself, as well as Guillermo. They talked with us for about 10 minutes sharing their background and stories of their adventures with Jimmy. Very cool.

We did do a group photo with the only camera allowed - the guides camera. So we are looking forward to seeing that one. OH! And apparently the restoration didn't get rid of a few tenants! Kelly told us about a few happy haunts that seemingly call the historical building home. From the kids laughter near the elevator to the mysterious man in the Zoot Suit wandering the halls, there are characters hanging out ready to say hello at the most unexpected times.

After exiting the building we were able to view the outside stage area and waved good-bye as we boarded our buss for the next destination - Jim Henson Studios. Look for those details in my next post!

Read Beci's Entire Backstage Magic Blog!

Beci Mahnken is the President/CEO of MEI & MouseFanTravel.com . To date she is a veteran of 3 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 40 cruises including 16 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney.

May 4, 2008

Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic - Day 1

MouseFanTravel President Beci Mahnken was part of the first ever Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic Tour!

Here is Day 1 of her blog:

It all started with a mouse".

Actually this morning, it all started with a 5 am alarm buzzing to ensure I made it to Seatac Airport in time for my flight to Los Angeles for my third Adventure by Disney.

This time it's the inaugural Backstage Magic Tour that includes the highlights of Hollywood and the magic of the Disneyland Resort in California. That's right! We are a group of 36 very willing guinea pigs for this adventure and are the first guests to experience this very unique itinerary.

When I landed at LAX I was greeted just outside the security doors by one of our guides, Diana (pronounced Deeana) and our very friendly driver who made sure my checked luggage was retrieved from the carousel and wheeled to my personal town car. Well, I must admit I did have to share. Luckily one of my agents, and Adventures By Disney expert, Michelle Cunningham arrived around the same time I did. She was waiting with Diana so we could spend some time together catching up on the 13 mile trip to our hotel.

Adventures by Disney Greeting at LAX airport

We arrived at the beautiful Renaissance Hollywood Hotel which is located at the Hollywood & Highland complex where the Kodak Theater hosts the Academy Awards each year.

It is also centrally located to many of the areas highlights including Grauman's Chinese Theater and of course the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Upon our arrival we were escorted into the lobby where we met our second guide, Quinn. He provided our room keys with instructions for meeting the rest of the gang, who will be our family for the next 5 days, later that afternoon.

Michelle checks in

Michelle and I are roomies on this trip. We have a standard room with a décor that mirrors the hotel's mid-century modern design style. The rooms are nicely appointed with coffee maker, fluffy duvet covers, a nice selection of Lather brand bath amenities and nice floor to ceiling windows with wood blinds.

Renaissance Hollywood Hotel

We were welcomed with a host of Adventures by Disney goodies too including a tote bag, lip balm, fans, and other items to make our adventure more comfortable,

Adventures by Disney Goodies

At 4 pm we ventured down to the Twist Restaurant at the hotel for snacks and the opportunity to meet our fellow travelers. Within 15 minutes we had met several new friends including Brent and Brock from Nashville.

One of the best parts of these adventures is having the opportunity to meet a group of new people who share our love for all things Disney. Even if you have nothing else in common, you can talk for hours on that subject alone. But honestly, this group of 36 guests won't have to hard of time bonding. Everyone seemed to be getting along and getting to know each other from the start, aided by a couple of ice breaker games at the reception as the opening act The main event was yet to come.

After some housekeeping we were escorted to the Trastevere Restaurant just out side of the hotel in the Hollywood & Highland Center where we enjoyed a nice variety of Italian antipasti and choice of several entrée options with chicken, pasta and fish options. I had the chicken dish, that I dare not try to pronounce, and it was wonderful. The dessert was a traditional tiramisu that I think even Annette, Mouse Fan Travel's official dessert connoisseur, would certainly approve of. A selection of beverages including soda, beer and white or red wine was the option for dinner and coffee was offered with dessert.

The main event was a Disney trivia event in game show format starring our fellow adventurers. It was great entertainment and I will save the details for the exception of the fact that singing was in fact involved. It was a wonderful way to start an adventure!

Ice Breaker Game

Tomorrow - a 7:45 am meet time for breakfast and special tours including The Jimmy Kimmel show and the Jim Henson Studios!

Read Beci's Entire Backstage Magic Blog!

Beci Mahnken is the President/CEO of MEI & MouseFanTravel.com . To date she is a veteran of 3 Adventures By Disney trips, more then 40 cruises including 16 with Disney and countless Walt Disney World and Disneyland adventures. Read her blog on the London and Paris Adventure by Disney.

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This page contains an archive of all entries posted to All Ears® Guest Blog in the Adventures by Disney category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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