Kristin Ford Archives

June 9, 2012

Disney helps protect ocean wildlife and you can, too


Yesterday Walt Disney World celebrated World Oceans Day with various education stations and interactive activities for kids inside Epcot's The Seas with Nemo & Friends. Even if you missed the event, though, you still can learn about ways in which Disney is helping to protect and promote the world's oceans.

World Oceans Day was proposed in 1992 at the United Nations' Earth Summit and officially recognized by the world body in 2008. Since then, a couple of organizations charged with protecting the world's oceans, The Ocean Project and the World Ocean Network, have coordinated celebrations each year in an effort to promote a better understanding of the importance of the seas.

A cast member explains why coral needs to be protected.

At one booth inside The Seas, a cast member explained how The Walt Disney Ço. is helping to protect coral reefs near Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line's private island in the Bahamas, by relocating sea urchins that help control the algae there. At another booth, guests could see the teeth of various sea animals and learn how they have helped the animals survive. At still another site, kids could play a game with cast members with the goal of teaching them about ocean conservation.

A dolphin's teeth.
A whale's vertabrae.

But my kids and I found the area dedicated to sea turtles the most interesting - and if you missed World Oceans Day, you still can get involved with these projects and make a difference.

Cast member Leslie Wells explains Disney's role in sea turtle conservation.

At three Disney sites, you can contribute to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund's sea turtle conservation efforts through the Adopt-A-Nest Program. You can do so at the gift shop at Epcot's The Seas with Nemo & Friends; the Out of the Wild shop at Animal Kingdom; and at Disney's Vero Beach Resort.

The adoption program, which launched on July 5, 2007, offers guests adoption packages for $50 that include a Disney Worldwide Conservation Hero Button, a "Finding Nemo" themed keychain, and an adoption certificate that lists the species of turtle and the date the eggs were laid in the nest. Guests can use their certificate numbers to track online their nest's success and possible hatchings at

Proceeds from the program benefit turtle and beach conservation efforts throughout the state of Florida.

A model of a sea turtle's nest illustrates the process of the eggs hatching.

At Disney's Vero Beach Resort, guests also can take guided tours of the beach during turtle nesting season, which runs approximately May through October. Turtle Troop, the tour arranged by the resort, is a popular summertime activity. And because visitors and residents to the Treasure Coast are aware of the precarious nature of baby sea turtles - only about 10 of the dozens of eggs laid in each nest will survive to adulthood - they tend to be the ones adopting the nests, a cast member said. Disney's Vero Beach guests are invited to use the same beaches where the sea turtle nests are marked and located.

In addition, trained Disney cast members monitor a stretch of coastline at Disney's Vero Beach Resort, collecting important data on sea turtle nests in cooperation with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In August, The Walt Disney Co. will participate in the Tour de Turtles, which is a marathon of sorts for migrating sea turtles. Disney describes the event this way: "For at least three months, Tour de Turtles will follow multiple sea turtles, using satellite-tracking technology, as they travel from their respective nesting sites to unknown foraging grounds, with the goal of being the first to complete the 2,620 km marathon. By tracking sea turtle migrations, scientists can learn more about these mysterious mariners and the routes they take. Just as with human marathons, each turtle swims to raise awareness about a particular "cause" or threat to their survival."

You can follow the Tour de Turtles at

From "Finding Nemo" to "The Little Mermaid," many Disney films and theme-park attractions have offered entertainment based on ocean settings and the animals who live there. But through various ongoing conservation and awareness programs, Disney clearly is going a step farther and educating as well as entertaining its theme-park guests and fans.

June 7, 2012

Disney's Art of Animation offers its guests a variety of outdoor and indoor recreation



Walt Disney World resorts are known for their recreational offerings, and the new Art of Animation hotel is no exception.

The centerpiece for the new hotel that is themed around four animated movies -- "Finding Nemo," "Cars," "The Lion King" and "The Little Mermaid" -- is The Big Blue Pool in the Nemo courtyard. At 12,000 feet, the pool is the biggest on Disney property, excluding the ones at the Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, and it is designed to be enjoyed by guests of all ages.


A zero entry at one end allows swimmers of varying abilities to wade in gradually. In the shallow water there, kids can splash under the dripping-water tentacles of four pinkish-purple jellyfish structures. The deepest area of The Big Blue Pool is the center at 4 feet, 9 inches. Perhaps the coolest feature, however, is the underwater sound system -- a first at Disney World. Guests who dive beneath the surface can hear Disney music and even messages from the "Finding Nemo" characters.

Like the recreation courtyards at other Disney resorts in the value category, the theming is larger than life. Imagineers want guests to feel as though they are experiencing the area from Nemo's point of view. It's difficult not to feel dwarfed when you're standing next to a 30-foot-tall Crush or a Mr. Ray sculpture with a 26-foot wingspan. Being immersed in the animated story is what sets this resort apart from others.


Other characters from "Finding Nemo" come to life in the adjacent Schoolyard Sprayground. Nemo and his father, Marlin, sit atop a 16-foot-tall sea anemone they call home in the movie. Tad, Chicken Fish, Sheldon and Pearl squirt water from the perimeter of the splash pad. Just beyond the sprayground is Squirt's Righteous Reef, a dry playground with three slides and a soft landing spot at each.


Cast members host family friendly activities, such as Bingo, water basketball and hula hoop games, poolside each day from 1 to 7:30 p.m. The most popular events -- The Big Blue Pool Party at 3 p.m., the Righteous Dance Party Extravaganza at 4 p.m. and Arts & Crafts at 4:30 p.m. -- occur when many guests return to the resort from the theme parks. At 9 each night, a Movie Under the Stars is shown on a huge inflatable screen near the pool. Guests can swim or relax in lounge chairs for the show. My almost-8-year-old-daughter was eager to dance to hit Disney songs and to make a shark-themed picture frame during her afternoon at the pool. She reluctantly took a break for dinner before donning her swimsuit again for the evening movie.

Older kids might enjoy the ping-pong tables on the Mr. Ray side of the pool, including one that allows for four players. (Family-style gaming seems to be a recent trend, with DisneyQuest installing a four-person air hockey table and a four-player Pac Man system.)

With so many activities to choose from, my elementary-school-age children soon forgot they were ever concerned that there wasn't a water slide at the pool. And when Art of Animation's other wings open this year, two additional swimming pools and a playground will be available to guests. The "Cars" section opening June 18 will house the Cozy Cone Pool, and "The Little Mermaid" wing will have the Flippin Fins Pool beginning Aug. 10. The Elephant Graveyard play area will be located in "The Lion King" courtyard on Sept. 15.

Guests visiting the swimming pools and playgrounds at Disney's Ar of Animation will want to remember to bring two things -- towels from their rooms because they are not distributed at the pools and their room keys because the new recreation areas are gated.


If it's a rainy day or you just need a break from the Florida sun, head inside Animation Hall for other recreation options. Many consider shopping a fun pasttime, and the Ink & Paint Shop offers resort-specific merchandise as well as popular Disney World souvenirs. Just outside the gift shop is Pixel Play Arcade for those who love to game. To play, guests must purchase a digital points card and choose how much money to load on it, beginning at $5. The arcade houses old-school favorites and newer attractions. A smart addition is the group of plush benches and small tables at the front for waiting parents.


Out in the lobby, tucked next to the front doors, is an area where guests can learn to draw various Disney characters step-by-step. An animator is there from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Monday to lead guests through the process. Classes start on the hour and are free. This is a popular activity at DisneyQuest and at The Magic of Disney Animation in Disney's Hollywood Studios. Of course, it's a perfect fit for Art of Animation.

Disclosure: I was a guest of Walt Disney World Resort during my stay at Art of Animation. This did not influence my story, and my opinions are my own.

June 5, 2012

Disney World's Art of Animation hotel suites well-planned for families



Walt Disney World has taken its focus on multi-generational travel a step farther with the addition of more family suites to its hotel inventory. On May 31, Disney's Art of Animation, the newest resort in the value category, officially opened its first wing with 320 family suites.

And there are more to come. By mid-August, Art of Animation will have two more wings open for a total of 1,120 suites. Although the theming for each wing will be based on a different animated movie -- "Finding Nemo," "Cars" or "The Lion King" -- the suites will offer the same amenities.

Each family suite can sleep up to six people, and the functional and innovative furnishings ensure everyone has adequate space. The suites are essentially two single rooms put together and divided into three living areas.


When you enter the suite, you'll first see a dining table with four chairs -- perfect for eating a meal that was prepared in the kitchenette or for use as a workspace. (Outlets are located above the side tables.) No need to balance a plate or computer on your lap! At night, the chairs -- which are quite sturdy despite being plastic -- are easy to stack and tuck in a corner when the Inova Table Bed is opened. This invention is similar to a Murphy bed, and it comes down easily as the table collapses underneath it. The Inova Table Bed fascinated my kids when we stayed in one of the Nemo suites recently and they couldn't wait to sleep in it.


The second area of the suite houses a kitchenette with a refrigerator, microwave, sink and coffee-maker. For families, having the equipment to easily prepare breakfast and even some other meals in the room can greatly enhance their Disney World vacation. Not only does eating in save money, but it also may save time when family members don't have to get cleaned up and travel to other locations for reservations. Also, Pop Art Pizza delivers the Italian pies and other popular entrees, along with sodas, beer and wine, to guest rooms, and the kitchenette is useful for saving leftovers and reheating them.


Next to the kitchenette in the family room is a sleeper sofa, a lamp table, two small coffee tables, an upholstered chair that spins, a television, chest of drawers and an area to hang clothes. This space is a comfortable place to hang out that converts into a second sleeping area at night. One cool feature here (and in the master bedroom) is that guests can plug in their videocameras and watch what they've recorded so far on the television. If that special experience wasn't taped properly, you'll know and have time to try again. Jacks for gaming devices and other electronics are also available.


The third area of the suite is the master bedroom, which has a queen bed, two nightstands, a chest of drawers with a television and DVD player, and a place to hang clothes. There are no closets in the family suites, but the master bedroom has several places to stash your suitcases. I usually am a heavy packer, and even with all my bags and suitcases, we had ample room to move around the suite.

In the Nemo suites, the decor of the rooms is coordinated with bright colors and an under-the-sea motif that kids and parents both are sure to love. Everywhere they look, they will find new details -- from the lamps shaped like sea urchins to the coral design in the backs of the plastic chairs to the wavy pattern in the carpet.


Guests also have two full bathrooms at their disposal, and they are designed to make you feel as though you are in the movie's submarine. The master bath incorporates the brown tones and offers a more upscale feel with a large, glassed-in rain shower and a vanity that looks like a piece of furniture. The second bathroom has a tub with a Bruce the shark shower curtain and toilet that are separate from the sink. On mirrors in both is etched the saying, "Fish are friends."

The family suites at Art of Animation are priced from $248 to $415, depending on the view and season. Guests soon can choose to stay in the "Cars" wing, which opens June 18, and "The Lion King" wing, which opens Aug. 10. The Little Mermaid wing -- the only part of the hotel with single rooms -- opens Sept. 15. Those rooms start at $95 per night.

Disclosure: I was a guest of Walt Disney World Resort during my stay at Art of Animation. This did not influence my story, and my opinions are my own.

June 1, 2012

HGTV's 'My Yard Goes Disney' returns tonight with 11 new shows



After a one-hour special in February, the second season of "My Yard Goes Disney" returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET on HGTV. The special and recent presentations at Walt Disney World by host Brandon Johnson offered fans a look at all the wonderfully themed and unexpected elements the show will feature this season.

During the February show, "My House Goes Disney," viewers were treated not just to the unveiling of an outdoor makeover, but also those of three bedrooms that five children share in their Lakeland, Florida, home. Even the family pet's space got a magical makeover. 

HGTV designers and Disney Imagineers took their inspiration for the interior makeovers from upcoming events at Disney Parks. For the oldest son's bedroom, Disney World's Art of Animation resort -- which opened its Nemo-themed suites yesterday -- was the model. Two younger boys will share a souped-up room based on the new Cars Land at Disney's California Adventure. And the two girls have a new room fit for a princess and a fairy, which were recently showcased at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. 

Outside, the family's backyard was modeled after their favorite Walt Disney World resort, Disney's Beach Club. The New England touches were evident in the deck surrounding the existing swimming pool, a new wading pool with a fountain, and even the Adirondack chairs.

And that was just the first house chosen for a Disney-style makeover this year! Host Johnson described others -- and even showed photos -- when he was one of the HGTV celebrity speakers at the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival in April.


" 'My Yard Goes Disney' is all about dreams coming true. We are about creating spaces that celebrate your family's favorite moments," he said.


Certainly the one-of-a-kind outdoor features are beyond most people's wildest dreams, as the new season of shows attest. For the Trautwein family, reminders of Epcot are now no farther than their backyard, which houses a Spaceship Earth-inspired greenhouse, a Mickey Mouse fountain and a science center for the kids. And if the family needs to get a little air time, they can take turns on a sky bike with a track 12 feet off the ground.


Another family's backyard fun was elevated to a higher level, as well. The Krantz family received quite a play fort, modeled after Disney's Treehouse Villas. This is no ordinary treehouse -- it gives residents a choice of bunkbeds for an afternoon nap and a roller coaster zipline to carry them to a splash pad on the ground.


"The Krantz family's backyard really spoke to me. I love adrenaline and speed. Their zipline roller coaster is incredible," Johnson said. "And their Explorer's Club takes imagination to a whole other level -- literally. It's almost 30 feet up in the air. Could you imagine having sleepovers there as a kid? Unreal!"


The We family loves to swim and splash and now they can do both at their own backyard lagoon with a private island, a nod to Disney Cruise Line's Castaway Cay. The lagoon has varying depths and includes a tropical reef, and the island in the center contains water play equipment that is reminiscent of Nemo's Reef on the Disney Dream. A new boardwalk offers space to entertain and a whole lot of palm trees add to the secluded feel.


My favorite new "My Yard Goes Disney" backyard is one inspired by Blizzard Beach. It has the signature floating "ice" in the pool with the net hanging above it for kids to grasp as they try to stay afloat while crossing. There's a sleigh for photo opportunities, just like at the Disney water park, and plenty of skis and "snow" to complete the theme. But the best part has to be the patio-turned-concession stand that offers guests frozen drinks, snow cones, hot dogs, popcorn, and the park's popular mini donuts.


Those who love Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground will be happy to see it, too, represented this season on "My Yard Goes Disney." Several of its popular features have been replicated for the Monize family: a 1,500-foot surrey bike path, an outdoor campground, an outdoor movie theater and a geyser that shoots 30 feet in the air to help keep the family cool in the Florida sun.

When you tune in tonight, though, the first of the 11 yards you will see this season will be that of the Morales family. HGTV describes it this way: "The Morales' daughters have all of their princess dreams come true as HGTV's designers turn one little girl's drawings for a Disney-inspired backyard into a reality. Host Brandon Johnson and the build team create a Snow White-style village, a backyard model train set that Walt himself would have loved and add a Cinderella-style dollhouse all the way from England. Mom and Dad get the royal treatment, too, with an extended entertainment area and a mini golf course reminiscent of Disney's Fantasia Gardens."

Here a sneak peek from HGTV:

To get the latest news about "My Yard Goes Disney" and other projects Johnson is involved with, be sure to check out his new website at

May 31, 2012

Say goodbye to Snow White's Scary Adventures at Disney's Magic Kingdom



Another one of the Magic Kingdom's original attractions closes today, May 31. After 40-plus years, Snow White's Scary Adventures will be shut down and the space reconfigured as part of the multi-year Fantasyland expansion project.

For many, today will be a day of fond farewells. For others, it's out with the old and in with the new.


When Snow White's Scary Adventures first opened in 1971, Snow White did not appear in any scenes within the attraction. Instead, guests were supposed to be experiencing the story, based on the 1937 Disney animated film, from the princess's perspective. In addition, the Queen-turned-witch popped up more often and the Dwarfs were seen less. Consequently, that version was considered by many parents to be scarier.


A refurbishment in 1994 toned down the witch's dominance of the attraction by adding Snow White to several scenes, including the classic Happily Ever After ending in which the Prince awakens Snow White from her spell. The Dwarfs also are more prominently seen alongside the ride, too. (Want to read more about Snow White's history with The Walt Disney Co.? See Jack's blog HERE.)


Although I always have a sense of deja vu when riding Snow White's Scary Adventures, I don't have specific memories of the attraction from my first childhood visit to the Magic Kingdom in 1979. I can recall a vague sense of adventure circling the wishing well and heading into the mines, but I do not remember being overly afraid.


By the same token, Snow White's Scary Adventures was not a ride that I begged to go on repeatedly, and neither do my elementary-school-age children today. My 7-year-old daughter would much rather be interacting with the Disney Princesses than just zipping by murals of them. For our family, spending 30 minutes in a queue for a meet-and-greet has more value than the same amount of time in this old-school ride. I can imagine we are not alone.

And so, although I am sad to see another bit of Disney World history disappear, I am excited about the new Princess Fairytale Hall, which will be built in the building that now houses Snow White's Scary Adventures. Set to open late in 2013, this location will be the new home for princess meet-and-greets.

Disney describes it this way: "The castle-like entrance will feature walls of stone and stained glass windows. The entrance will open into a large gallery -- an airy space with a high ceiling and portraits of Disney Princesses. When it's time for their audience with a princess, guests will proceed to an elegantly finished room to meet her."

In the meantime, guests can continue to meet the Disney Princesses, including Snow White, at the Town Square Theater at the front of the park. There, you can even get a FastPass and avoid a long wait. (A tip: The princesses rotate appearances in the theater. If Snow White is a must-see for your little girl and she is not there when your audience occurs, ask a cast member when she is scheduled to return.)

Snow White usually appears for meet-and-greets with all her Dwarfs at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party.

One of the last parts of the Fantasyland expansion to open will be the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster in 2014. This gentle ride is expected to use new technology to create a swaying train on a course that includes the Dwarfs' cottage and mine.

Are you among the fans eager for something new? Or would you have preferred that Disney preserve Snow White's Scary Adventures?

May 29, 2012

Meet Merida from Disney-Pixar's Brave at Magic Kingdom



A new character officially began meeting guests Friday at Disney's Magic Kingdom. Merida, the main character from Disney-Pixar's "Brave," is the fearless and impulsive daughter of Scotland's King Fergus and Queen Elinor. Her archery skills are as legendary as her impetuousness. She gets into a bit of trouble in the animated film, which debuts in theaters June 22, and must prove her bravery to save the kingdom.


At her Orlando kingdom, however, Merida is more regal than mischieveous. The new meet-and-greet has taken over the beautiful Fairytale Garden adjacent to Cinderella Castle. The area has been stripped of its purple canopy and banners and romantic touches that decorated the spot for Rapunzel and Flynn Rider. Instead, the old world stone facade has taken on a Scottish theme from the movie. New props include flags, archery targets, and Celtic banners and plaques depicting scenes from the story.


The Merida meet-and-greet begins just as the Rapunzel experience did -- with guests lining up on the hillside pathway between the Fairytale Garden and Cinderella Castle. Cast members allow 50 guests into the garden at a time. Once inside, parents wait along the wall to meet Merida, and kids are invited to a large table to color. (So, essentially, you are waiting in two lines.)


However, the second line goes much faster because in addition to coloring, kids can take a quick archery lesson from a cast member dressed in a kilt and traditional Scottish attire. The cast member helps each child aim a rubber-tipped arrow at a target a few feet away. (Don't worry: there is a net behind the target to protect unsuspecting parents.) While we waited in line, each of my children was able to try to shoot an arrow twice and they loved it.


Adding a unique interactive component such as the archery to this meet-and-greet area really improves the experience and makes what can be a long wait more worthwhile. The Tangled experience was called a "play-and-greet," which I always thought was a misnomer, but the Merida meet could use that term fairly.


As guests finally approach Merida, they'll notice the backdrop for their photo is a cart with the three adorable bear cubs from "Brave." The cubs are animated, continually moving their heads while sitting in place. When a photo is taken, however, notice how they freeze on the spot. Looks like the Imagineers thought of everything!

Merida is greeting guests from 9:15 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to the daily time sheet. However, when we stopped by on Saturday, she was staying out until 6:30 p.m.


Once you exit the courtyard, you won't have to look far to see Brave merchandising. Among the offerings on the cart are a Barbie-size Merida doll ($19), T-shirt ($28), an archery set ($20) and a large plush bear ($20). For little girls who want to dress up as Merida, the total outfit will set you back a pretty penny: Merida's green dress ($65), crown ($18), wig ($18) and the requisite archery set ($20). Better hope you can persuade her that outfit has to be her Halloween costume, as well.

Here's a look at the Merida meet-and-greet:

May 26, 2012

Be aware of changes at Disney's Hollywood Studios during Star Wars Weekends



So, you're planning a visit to Disney's Hollywood Studios during the month that includes Star Wars Weekends (through June 10 this year) and you have your entire day planned out, based on past experiences. Be aware that there are some minor changes within the park that might influence how you experience the day.

First, the Disney Channel Rocks! street show is set up a little differently. The float that normally rolls down Hollywood Boulevard with the performers is absent because there is not room for it to turn and park in front of the temporary Sorcerer Hat Stage. Performers instead enter from the side and use the stage. This really doesn't significantly alter the quality of the experience.

What it does affect, however, is your ability to get a good seat, and this format cuts down on confusion. Guests can stake out their spots on the concrete on any of the three sides whenever it's convenient for them. When the float is in the picture, guests who want to sit in the center section must line up on the right-hand side until it passes.

As you would expect, some of the other changes occur back in the area around the Star Tours -- The Adventures Continue attraction because that's where many of the Star Wars events are located. This section of Hollywood Studios is obviously more crowded, and there are a lot of roped off lanes to direct moving traffic away from guests waiting for the ride, character meet-and-greets and the Jedi Training Academy. (Too bad the smoking section hasn't been moved away from the crowds at this event!) Cast members enforce a one-way traffic pattern for guests exiting Tatooine Traders by directing them down the ramp toward the Streets of America. From there, guests can continue to the back of the park or circle around past the ABC Commissary to head toward the front. Give yourself some extra time to move through this section if you're trying to catch the end of a FastPass window or get to a show.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the stand-by wait for Star Tours to be less than an hour most of the day last Saturday, the first of the Star Wars Weekends. This is good news for guests who want to ride more than once and are juggling show schedules and FastPass tickets. When Star Tours reopened in 2011, it wasn't uncommon to see two-hour waits -- or longer -- and the queue was roped off all the way down the Streets of America.


The nearby Jedi Training Academy is available year-round and is always popular, but never more so than during Star Wars Weekends. If your child has his or her heart set on battling Darth Vader, be sure to sign up in front of Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! when you first enter the park. Even with extra show times added each day during Star Wars Weekends, the slots fill up quickly in the morning.

Finally, don't underestimate the popularity of Star Wars Weekends and the effect the crowds will have on your ability to enter Hollywood Studios. By noon last Saturday, the parking lot was completely full. Cast members were directing guests to park at Epcot for free and use a special ticket to board a bus back to the Studios. This process could add hours to the start and end of your day, so plan accordingly.

For additional information about Star Wars Weekends, see my post about fun things for kids to do HERE and tips for securing celebrity autographs HERE.

May 24, 2012

Tips for securing celebrity autographs at Disney's Star Wars Weekends



Last weekend's crowds again proved the popularity of Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World. And one of the biggest draws for park guests is the opportunity to meet Star Wars celebrities and get photos and autographs.

At many fan conventions, those privileges don't come cheap, let alone free. Consequently, guests line up early for the limited slots to meet their favorite Star Wars actors and personalities at Disney's Hollywood Studios. And when I say early, I mean before dawn.

Years ago, my young son wanted to meet Jake Lloyd (young Anakin Skywalker), so my husband and I tried to make it happen. We arrived at Disney's Hollywood Studios about 30 minutes before it opened. While Stormtroopers stood guard from atop the entrance, a small crowd waited for the turnstiles to open. When they did, guests raced back to Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! to get FastPasses and ensure a spot to meet a celebrity.

The stampede among guests was so out of character for an event at Disney World, where organized queues are the company's specialty. Since that day, we've been to plenty of crowded passholder events through the years - including concerts featuring Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus - and none surprised us more than that experience.

Disney clearly has learned from those days and has implemented a FastPass system that doesn't involve putting on your track shoes. Guests are asked to line up along the right side of the main entrance to Hollywood Studios and the tickets are distributed to the queue. There is no need to rush past your neighbors when you get inside because you must have one of the tickets to receive a celebrity FastPass.

The published rules on the Star Wars Weekends map state that each guest may receive one FastPass -- and you have to be present to receive the special ticket. In other words, one person cannot get celebrity autograph FastPasses for everyone in his or her group. After all the FastPasses are distributed for the day, a limited number of stand-by tickets will be issued. These tickets do not guarantee autographs, but they are offered in case a celebrity has time after the FastPass holders have had their turns.

So, how early do you have to hit the concrete for the golden tickets? Several cast members I spoke with advised guests to be in line between 5 and 6 a.m. for the park opening at 8 a.m. Earlier is better, they emphasized. They recalled one guest who camped out 44 hours before the first day of Star Wars Weekends. That certainly guaranteed the guest a FastPass, but it's not necessary, they said.

Ray Park, who plays Darth Maul, was the most popular ticket for the first Star Wars Weekend this year, the cast members said. He was very personable and chatty, though, and only got to a few guests with stand-by tickets before he had to get to his presentation in the park.

If you've joined the fans waiting for celebrity autographs, we want to hear about your experience in the comments.

May 21, 2012

Disney's Star Wars Weekends offer galaxy of fun for kids



Star Wars fans will, of course, be in their element at Disney's Hollywood Studios during Star Wars Weekends. But even if your kids cannot tell Luke Skywalker from Anakin Skywalker, they still can have a great time celebrating The Force.

First, get in a Star Wars mindset by riding Star Tours -- The Adventures Continue. The re-imagined ride opened last year with a 3D experience that takes riders through one of 54 sequences -- and you never know which journey you'll get.

The Star Tours ride empties into the Tatooine Traders gift shop and it's impossible to miss the roped off line for the latest Star Wars toys. New this year is the Droid Factory in the center of the store. There, the young and the young-at-heart can build their own droids with multiple color combinations, in R2-D2's likeness, and topped with Disney Parks' signature mouse ears hat.


A complete droid consists of a body, a dome, a left leg, a middle leg, a right leg and a novelty hat. Single droids cost $11.95 plus tax and a double package is $18.95 plus tax. (Walt Disney World passholder discounts are honored at Tatooine Traders.) The packaging includes a sticker sheet of letters and symbols so guests can name their creations.

When I checked at various times on Saturday, the line for the Droid Factory remained steady at 30 minutes. That didn't deter my kids or seem to bother them much when we waited. The Droid Factory debuted this past weekend, the first of four Star Wars Weekends, and there is only the one location at Disney World.

Several cast members said that the standard R2-D2 look was the most popular for those making droids. A close second during the opening weekend were the clear domes with red and purple trim. Coming in August: different color body parts and Indiana Jones fedoras, a cast member said.


If your child enjoyed the concept of putting together a toy, the store also offers guests the opportunity to build their own ultimate lightsabers. And kids ages 4 to 12 can test their lightsaber skills next door at the Jedi Training Academy.


Jedi hopefuls have the opportunity to do battle against The Empire after a bit of training from a master Jedi. The young rebels are provided with brown robes and lightsabers for the show, and they set out to learn some signature moves before Darth Vader appears. (Read more about the story behind the show on Jack Spence's blog.)

Jedi Training Academy started out as an event offered only during Star Wars Weekends, but it was so popular that Disney built a permanent stage so young guests could do battle every day. There are limited spots each day, so registering first thing when you arrive at the Studios is necessary. Even with 16 shows each day, the slots fill up quickly. Sign-ups are in front of Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!

(Years ago, when my nephew was really into Star Wars, children were chosen to participate in the Jedi Training Academy from the audience. That meant camping out by the stage for parents of kids whose top priority was the interactive Star Wars experience. This registration format certainly is a welcome change.)

Young guests won't want to miss the Star Wars Celebrity Motorcade that travels down Hollywood Boulevard and concludes with a short show at the Sorcerer Hat stage. In addition to the weekend's famous actors and personalities, the parade includes Jedi Mickey and many, many characters from the George Lucas films. The parade route is packed, so find a spot early if you want to take photos or have a decent vantage point. If you're a casual observer, grab a seat in front of the American Idol Experience and you'll see most of the characters go by, though not the celebrities.

Want more time with the characters? Photo opportunities with Disney characters dressed in their Star Wars costumes can be a fun experience. Look for Jedi Mickey, Stormtrooper Donald, R2-MK and Darth Goofy near the ABC Commissary. Star Wars characters from the movies and other Star Wars spinoffs also are stationed around Hollywood Studios for meet-and-greets.


You also can visit Darth's Mall, the main location for event merchandise, where there is a backdrop set up for photos with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and other perennial favorites. Just as my daughter walked up to meet Princess Leia, C-3PO stepped out to join them. She was thrilled with that surprise! And afterward R2-D2 joined the party behind us.

Finally, what child can resist a special Star Wars snack container for a themed treat? Most food locations sell a kids' power pack in a plastic R2-D2 container. It includes string cheese, carrots and ranch dip, yogurt, goldfish, a cookie and a drink for $10.99. If it's time for dessert, there are Darth Vader cupcakes for $4.99 or chocolate or strawberry mousse in a smaller R2-D2 container for $8.99. And may The Force be with you after all that yummy sugar!

May 19, 2012

Aspiring young chefs can learn to cook at 3 Downtown Disney restaurants


Young chefs work with about 30 feet of fresh pasta dough.

UPDATE: The class on June 23 has sold out. Levy Restaurants has added a second class on June 24 at the same time and price.

It's probably no surprise that many kids love to help their parents in the kitchen, but it's often with baking. Stirring and then sampling sweets is fun for all ages, right?

Levy Restaurants, however, is offering kids ages 6 to 12 the opportunity to make three delicious dishes at three different Downtown Disney restaurants at Walt Disney World. The kid-friendly cooking class takes place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 23, at Fulton's Crab House, Portobello Restaurant and Wolfgang Puck Café.

So, what will the budding chefs create? The professionals at each restaurant will help kids make Goin' Fishin' snack mix, ravioli gigante and dessert sushi, and then they will sample what they have created.

"Last year we had about 30 feet of fresh pasta dough spread out with kids elbow to elbow filling, forming and cutting ravioli to simulate what we do in our kitchen every day for one of our signature items, 'Ravioli Gigante'," said Steven Richard, area chef for Levy Restaurants and former executive chef at Portobello. "It was a huge hit, and we are doing it again this year."

Kids ages 6 to 12 learn to make sushi.

This is the third year that Portobello, Fulton's Crab House and Wolfgang Puck Café have teamed up to offer a spring cooking class for children. Richard said the young chefs have learned to prepare "variations of sushi ranging from the well-known, such as California rolls, to chicken finger rolls and this year's dessert sushi at Wolfgang Puck's. We've done pizza and homemade ravioli at Portobello. Fulton's has also done a range of things from chocolate chip cookies to the " Goin' Fishin' " snack mix that we will do this year."

Parents who might be hesitant to drop off their younger children are welcome to observe and even participate in the class. Others might seize the four hours that they know their kids are well-supervised and having fun to enjoy their own lunch and shopping at Downtown Disney.

"What we try to do for adult, as well as kids', cooking classes is to simplify and remove the mystery from things that people might not otherwise try at home. There is no reason why you can't make sushi, homemade pizza or fresh pasta at home, yet many people are intimidated to try it," Richard said. "Exposing children to a culture of home cooking is a very positive thing, and it can broaden the way that they look at food and inspire a healthy curiosity."

"Last year I made sushi for 16 second-graders [in his wife's elementary-school class] who had never tried it before. Most had never heard of it. By the end of the class, every one of them tried it and loved it," he said. "We get much of the same reaction when we do the classes in the restaurants. Imagine having your six-year-old asking for sushi instead of a burger and fries."

The Levy cooking class is $36 per child. Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis until the class is full. To sign up, call 407-828-8996.

May 17, 2012

Disney Channel, Disney Parks to host open auditions for performers


Selena Gomez, who starred as Alex Russo on Wizards of Waverly Place, was discovered at a Disney Channel open casting call.

Ever wonder how stars such as Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato got their start with Disney Channel? Like thousands of other hopeful child performers, they showed up for an open casting search the network was hosting.

These official auditions are rare, however, and may only occur once or twice a year in the United States. If you think you have what it takes to be the next star and you're ready to take your best shot, you're in luck. The next national casting call is right around the corner -- on May 26 in Kansas City, Missouri -- so it's time to talk the parents into a road trip.

Disney Channel is looking for boys and girls who can play characters between the ages of 10 to 18 and can act, dance or sing. If you can do all three, even better! (You don't have to be ages 10 to 18, but you have to look like you are.) Performers will be considered for upcoming original movies and series being produced for exhibition on Disney Channel and Disney XD.

Audition websites point out that most of Disney Channel's shows are comedic in nature, so having the timing to perform comedy bits is a plus.


Registration and auditions will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Kansas City Convention Center, 301 West 13th Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64105. An application and monologue will be provided upon arrival. (You can also download the application at Be sure to bring a current photo that Disney Channel representatives can keep. A parent or legal guardian must accompany you if you are a minor.

Both working child actors and those without experience are welcome and will be seen on a first-come, first-served basis. As such, be prepared for a wait and bring what you need to pass the time -- an ipod, drinks or snacks. A Disney Channel representative told me they have seen as many as 2,000 kids show up for an open call.

There is no fee to attend the tryout, but travel expenses and incidentals, such as parking fees, are your responsibility. Attending the auditions is not a guarantee of employment, and there will be no contracts to sign on May 26.

Talented teen actors who are interested in other Disney performance opportunities can apply to work in the Disney Parks. The minimum age to apply to be a Disney character performer in shows, parades and meet-and-greets at Walt Disney World is 16, though that requirement varies at other properties. There is an audition today (May 17) at 4 p.m. at Disney's Animal Kingdom Rehearsal Facility for dancers and actors to portray Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Snow White, Tinker Bell, and Rapunzel.

Actors 18 and older can attend an open call for comedic and improv actors at 9 a.m. Friday, May 18, at the same facility. Disney World is seeking to fill roles of a jedi master, Captain Jack Sparrow and his sidekick Mack.

Check out the upcoming calendar of auditions for Disney Parks and Disney Cruise Line at You'll also find information about what to expect and how to prepare for Disney auditions.

May 15, 2012

A mom's tips for finding Disney Crocs for all sizes



Crocs were invented in 2002, the same year my first child was born, and they quickly became a staple for my kids. Once my son and daughter were steady on their feet, we invested in a pair for each.

Because we live in Orlando and have annual passes for Walt Disney World, I could not pass up the itsy-bitsy brightly colored shoes with the traditional Mickey icon cut-outs. Too cute!


For my Florida kids, they are the perfect casual shoe. With their foam resin material, Crocs are comfortable for our frequent trips to the theme parks. They are simple for the littlest hands to put on and take off by themselves. If they get wet or dirty, they are easy to clean. No need to spend the day wearing wet shoes because a child couldn't resist the lure of a splash pad!

That said, I do think there are places where kids shouldn't wear Crocs. Obviously, they're not made for sports, and are not the best choice for even casual recreation, such as playing at the playground. The lack of deep treads on the bottom and the strap on the back of the shoe do not offer enough support for running and jumping. Because of this, my kids do not wear their Crocs to school.

Still, their Crocs get a good workout, so I keep an eye out for new styles and deals. Crocs typically range from $25 for toddlers up to $50 for adult sizes. For kids' Crocs with Disney designs, there are a few options.


First, take a look at, where current children's Disney styles include pictures of Mickey Mouse and Pluto; Woody and Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story; Winnie the Pooh and Tigger; Tow Mater and Finn McMissile; and Lightning McQueen and Francisco clog styles. There is also a navy and red Croc with icon Mickey design. Be sure to sign up for email alerts for sales, coupon codes and free shipping.


You can add a touch of Disney Magic to any style of Crocs with air holes by adding Jibbitz, the charms that personalize the shoes. carries about 100 different Disney Jibbitz designs and many more, including popular characters such as The Avengers and Hello Kitty. The average price is $3 per Jibbitz.

Other websites sell Disney Crocs, as well. has Disney Princess Crocs with free shipping and free returns. sells the kids' icon Mickey design in a variety of colors. offers both styles.

These choices usually run through size 3 Junior. What do you do if your child has outgrown that size and still wants Mickey Crocs?


Your best best is to shop at one of the Disney theme parks because they carry adult sizes and styles. My 9-year-old son recently chose navy blue Crocs with a subtle Mickey icon design. They look a little more grown-up, but still have a touch of whimsy. World of Disney at Downtown Disney has many styles of Crocs in its new crop -- from the adorable pint-size shoes to the subtle adult designs. If you won't be visiting Disney World any time soon, you can order them through the mail order department by calling 1-877-560-6477 or emailing

May 11, 2012

Top middle school students compete in MATHCOUNTS competition at Walt Disney World



The nation's top 224 middle school students who have excelled at math are competing in the MATHCOUNTS National Competition at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort this weekend. These students have earned their spots after winning school, local and state competitions. Now, they are vying for the titles of 2012 National Champion and National Championship Team.

Raytheon Company is hosting the event. If you're not familiar with the defense company, perhaps you'll recognize the name from its sponsorship of the Sum of all Thrills experience at Epcot's Innoventions. The exhibit gives students the opportunity to put their math skills to the test as they design and experience their own thrill rides. (Read all about the Sum of all Thrills on Jack Spence's blog

These Mathletes will solve problems using critical-thinking skills in both written and oral rounds in individual and team components. The competition problems focus on the 6th through 8th grade standards of the National Council of Teachers in Mathematics. Want to see if you're smarter than a middle school student? The championship will be broadcast live on, with the Countdown Round at 2 p.m. EDT on Friday, May 11.

Check out these MATHCOUNTS questions from a previous year and see what lies ahead:

Team Round (calculator permitted; 10 problems in 20 minutes; students work with three other team
Problem: A four-digit perfect square integer is created by placing two positive two-digit perfect square
integers next to each other. What is the four-digit square integer?
Answer: 1681

Countdown Round (no calculator; head-to-head challenge between two students; first-to-answer; no
more than 45 seconds permitted)
Problem: When Bob exercises, he does jumping jacks for 5 minutes and then walks the track at 4 minutes
per lap. If he exercised for 73 minutes on Monday, how many laps did he walk?
Answer: 17 laps
Problem: What number is 17 less than its negative? Express your answer as a decimal to the nearest tenth.
Answer: 8.5

If you're up for the challenge, try your hand at other real MATHCOUNTS competition questions on the MathMovesU Facebook page. Users will be able to answer questions, earn and share badges, advance to higher playing levels and challenge their friends.

This year MATHCOUNTS also has introduced a new element to the competition, the Reel Math Challenge video competition. Middle school students across the country were invited to create tutorial videos about math problems and their concepts that were based on the MATHCOUNTS School Handbook. Four finalist videos have been selected by a panel of MATHCOUNTS judges. The Mathletes will watch them and vote for the winner Saturday.

The individual Raytheon MATHCOUNTS National Competition Champion will receive the $8,000 Donald G. Weinert Scholarship to the college of his or her choice along with a trip to U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. Runners-up, as well as members of the winning team, also will receive college scholarships and trips to attend space camp. Each member of the winning video's team also will also receive a $1,000 college scholarship.

"The Raytheon MATHCOUNTS National Competition is the ultimate stage for our nation's rising young math stars to demonstrate their talents and achieve more in mathematics," said Lou DiGioia, executive director of MATHCOUNTS. "Our partnership with Raytheon enables us to continue to inspire excellence, curiosity and confidence in mathematics in U.S. middle school students and to help provide today's students with the foundation for successful careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics."

May 10, 2012

Ideas for celebrating Mother's Day at Walt Disney World



Celebrating Mother's Day at Walt Disney World is, of course, a wonderful treat in and of itself. But if husbands and children want to make the day perfect for the women in their lives, there is one simple thing they can do to make the day a success -- plan ahead.

If they're like me, what's important to most mothers is spending the day with family doing something fun. It doesn't have to be an expensive or unique experience, but it does have to be planned by our families. The gift -- besides spending time with our favorite people -- is that we don't have to make any decisions or pack the bags. For one day, we don't have to think ahead and plan for every eventuality. We get to just show up and enjoy the day.

To make this happen for the mother in your family, it's important to know what she enjoys. Are Mickey waffles the perfect way to start the day? Or is sleeping in and then lounging by the pool while the kids play even better? Does being the first one in line for Expedition Everest make her excited?

Here are a few suggestions that are sure to bring a smile to any Disney mom's face on Sunday:

1. Visit the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. It's beautiful with all the flowers and topiaries, and there are fun seminars and demonstrations for guests who like to garden. Herman's Hermit's, starring Peter Noone, will be performing. Plus, there are special activities and playgrounds for kids. If the little ones are happy, chances are, mom will be, too. (Florida residents still can purchase a three-day Walt Disney World ticket for $99 plus tax.)


2. If brunch is on the agenda, why not make it a character meal and let her feel like a kid again? Two of the most popular are Chef Mickey's at The Contemporary Resort and Cinderella's Royal Table in her Magic Kingdom castle. At this late date, you can try for a reservation cancellation by calling WDW-DINE. Another great character brunch is located at Disney's Beach Club in the Cape May Cafe, which has just reopened after renovations.

3. For shopping aficionados, give her a Disney gift card and the time to shop. Try a gift-shop crawl on the monorail loop. It's fun to see the beautiful hotels while she's browsing for souvenirs. Or, if she's more of a boutique shopper, plan a visit to Downtown Disney and stores such as D Street, Something Silver, Apricot Lane, PoP Gallery and TrenD.


4. Who doesn't like to visit the spa? There are many locations and services to choose from at Walt Disney World. Full-service spas, which include massages, facials, aromatherapy, salon services and exercise facilities, are available at the Walt Disney World Dolphin and Saratoga Springs Resort. (The Grand Floridian spa is closed for refurbishment.) There also are massage and fitness services at Animal Kingdom Lodge, Boardwalk Inn, Contemporary Resort, Coronado Springs, Wilderness Lodge and the Yacht Club. Disney World passholders receive 10 percent off one regularly priced service at the Saratoga Springs spa.


5. Wrap up Mother's Day with dessert and fireworks at one of the Disney World parks, resorts or restaurants. This can be as simple as grabbing a casual treat and a table outside one of Epcot's World Showcase restaurants or as formal as paying for a ticket to the Wishes Dessert Party at Magic Kingdom. One of my favorite resort spots for viewing the fireworks is the beach at the Polynesian resort. A bonus there is being able to see the Electrical Water Pageant.

What ideas do YOU have for celebrating Mother's Day at Walt Disney World? Leave a comment below!

May 8, 2012

The Avengers assemble on new app and other Disney products



Evidently, The Hulk isn't the only one who can smash things.

Joss Whedon's film version of Marvel's "The Avengers' pulverized the former record for a domestic opening weekend. With more than $200 million taken in for its U.S. debut, the blockbuster film ushered in the summer movie season and showed just how popular Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and Co. remain for fans of all ages.

Whether you caught the film this weekend or not, Disney Publishing has several stories in different formats for fans who want to continue the action at home. Narrated by comic legend Stan Lee, two new Disney storybook apps take readers into the world of The Avengers.

"Avengers Origins: Assemble!" has a lot to offer for its $5.99 price tag. The in-depth story follows Atlantis' Namor, who seeks revenge by attempting to conquer the entire human race, and The Avengers, who vow to stop him. In this version, the super heroes also include Ant-Man and The Wasp in the mix. (They weren't in the movie.)

What makes this storybook app stand out are all the interactive features. You don't even have to turn the page to follow along. Not only do the pages fade in and out with the action, but little hands can help with the plot. For example, readers are able to put on each super hero's mask and give him his weapon, move their fingers to help melt the ice that imprisons Captain America, and drag shields over the enemies to free The Avengers.

In addition, "Avengers Origins: Assemble!" offers three separate games each with three difficulty levels. The app is available for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.

A great deal: Through May 11, Disney Stores and Apple are teaming up to give away 100,000 coupon codes for a free download of "Avengers Origins: Assemble!" when a consumer purchases at least $20 worth of merchandise at all Disney Store locations throughout the U.S. and Canada.


Also new in Disney Publishing apps is a story about my daughter's favorite smashing character, The Hulk. In "Avengers Origins: Hulk," readers learn how Dr. Bruce Banner is transformed into The Hulk. This storybook app offers several positive messages about the importance of education, explaining that Banner loved to read and science was his favorite subject. Along the way, readers are invited to help toss a car, contain gamma radiation and punch a wall as The Hulk. It also has a seek-and-find feature, in which readers can try to collect six symbols in the course of the story.

"Advengers Origins: Hulk" is also available for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch and sells for $3.99 at the iTunes store. For that price, it's too bad there are not a few separate games included with the app.


For those that like their comics in a paper, instead of digital, format, Disney Publishing recently unveiled its Marvel Super Heroes Magazine. The new 36-page publication is written and drawn for boys ages 8 to 10 and features brain teasing puzzles, cool activities and cut-outs in addition to the story. The May 2012 issue also includes an exclusive poster of Iron Man. Marvel Super Heroes Magazine is sold on newsstands for $4.99 per issue, and an 8-month subscription costs $29.92.


Guests who visit Walt Disney World this summer will find that Monorail Red has been wrapped in an Avengers movie promo starring The Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Thor. It's eye-catching, for sure. Look for the Avengers monorail on the loop that leads to the Magic Kingdom and the resorts. Fans will not find any meet-and-greets with the Super Heroes on Disney property, however, a Disney spokeswoman confirmed. Although the company acquired Marvel in 2009, Universal Orlando still has an agreement that allows the characters to appear at Islands of Adventure.

May 4, 2012

Changes on Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom take place this week



Kilimanjaro Safaris Expedition is a fairly tame ride through the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, a 100-acre savannah in the Africa area of Disney's Animal Kingdom. Sure, there are some bumps when the driver intentionally speeds through the reserve, but the attraction is not designed to be a thrill ride.

As a mom who has ridden in the jeep-like vehicles with kids of varying ages, I was surprised to hear a cast member said that the attraction was being changed this week because some parents complained their children found it too scary. Apparently the ride's theme of protecting the reserve from elephant poachers is what they found frightening.

However, Walt Disney World announced a few months ago that the attraction would undergo changes to include more live animals, especially zebras. Publicists emphasized that the safaris still would offer a strong message of conservation, but they did not explain how that would play out.


For repeat riders, the first modification they will notice happens shortly after boarding the vehicle when the prerecorded message from the game warden to Simba 1 (your ride vehicle) is not played. Farther into the savannah, the audio-animatronic elephant, Little Red, who is stuck in the back of the poachers' jeep, is gone. And so is the abandoned poachers' camp. In their place is bright, new sod, which extends the savannah for the zebras that are expected to move in by fall. A watering hole also is expected to be created nearby.


Perhaps the most obvious change for kids who love this ride is when the vehicle does not speed up on its "chase" to help save the baby elephant. Instead, the vehicle maintains a slow speed during the whole "two-week" trip. A friend who rode it this week said her children would most miss bouncing across the rickety bridges, rocky hills and rivers in this new version of the safaris.

The ride currently wraps up with the driver talking about Disney's conservation efforts.

Although I am a little disappointed about the pacing of the refurbished Kilimanjaro Safaris, I do look forward to seeing more zebra and the possibility of being able to better photograph them when we're traveling at a slower speed.

This recent change to the ride's storyline isn't the first. Jack Spence describes what happened to the attraction shortly before Animal Kingdom's grand opening:

"Before the Animal Kingdom opened to the general public, cast previews were held to help the operations people work out the bugs that are inherent with the opening of any new facility. At this time, the Big Red-Little Red [mother and baby elephants] story had a much darker ending. At the end of the safari, guests came across the bloody carcass of Big Red, tusks removed, obviously downed by the nefarious poachers. Even though the dead elephant was fake, it was real enough looking to terrify little children and upset many adults.

"The Imagineers only wanted to drive home the point that killing animals is evil, but their message was too heavy-handed for a theme park and complaints were numerous at Guest Relations. With only a few weeks left before the official Grand Opening, something needed to be done. In the end, the carcass was removed and minor script changes were made leaving the fate of Big Red ambiguous.

"For the most part, guests riding Kilimanjaro Safaris are far more interested in spotting real animals than they are in fictitious stories about poachers. So in 2007 another script change was implemented. With far less chatter on the two-way radio, we now learn that a baby elephant is wandering the Reserve and we're asked to keep a lookout. We still pursue poachers at the end of our journey, but the lost elephant is never in any real danger."

To read more from Jack's two-part blog on Kilimanjaro Sarafris, go to AllEars pages and

May 3, 2012

Disney World scores with youth soccer camps this summer


The Haitian National Women's Under 17 soccer team played in the Disney Cup International Youth Soccer Tournament in 2010.

For many families, spring and summer are synonymous with soccer. This year, Walt Disney World is offering the ultimate soccer camp experience for players ages 6 to 18.

Players who join the Disney Soccer Academy will have interaction with and daily appearances by soccer stars from the English Premier League. The roster includes Craig Bellamy (Liverpool), Paul Robinson (England, Tottenham) and Aaron Hughes (Northern Ireland Captain, Fulham).There will be a special time for photos and autographs, too.

Two four-day camps will be held at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex: June 18 to 21 and June 25 to 28. Licensed coaches from around the world will train male and female athletes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. They will focus on technical development and small sided games, all while keeping the instruction age-appropriate.

A typical schedule has the players training at HESS Sports Field from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Lunch is served in the Sports Pavilion/Sony Playstation Pavilion for 90 minutes, and then training resumes from 1 to 3 p.m.

Players compete for the ball while participating in the Soccer Showcase at ESPN Wide World of Sports.

Parents and family members can stay and watch, but they are required to purchase admission to ESPN Wide World of Sports. Daily admission is $15.50 for adults and $10.50 children ages 3-9. Length-of-event passes can be purchased for $62 for adults and $42 for children.

Each player (or a minor's guardian) is required to turn in a waiver in order to participate. When the forms are completed, campers will receive their athlete credentials, which gains them access to ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex for the duration of the week.

Camp includes lunch, an event shirt and gifts for $390. (Aftercare from 3 to 5 p.m. is available for an additional $15 per day.) Best deal: Disney World passholders who register by June 1 using the code PASS are entitled to $100 discount. Register online at or call 1-877-714-5575. Players can bring their own ball or purchase an official camp ball on the first day.

Disney Soccer Academy is operated by Midwest Soccer Academy.

Disney Soccer Academy participants and spectators are eligible for specially priced Disney World hotel rooms. Book Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort for $112 plus tax per night by calling 407-938-4868. Theme park tickets are also available at a discount.

Rusty Scarborough, head coach of Disney's Soccer Showcase All-Stars (Raleigh, NC), demonstrates a drill during practice at Disney World.

In recent years, Disney World has continued to add youth and professional soccer tournaments. Next up: Disney's Memorial Day Soccer Shootout. In 2011, more than 400 teams played more than 500 matches in the competition's three days. This is an FYSA-sanctioned tournament, which is open to all USSF/FIFA affiliated organizations for boys and girls in age groups: U9-U10, U11-U12, U13-U14, and U15-U19.

In July, the ESPN Wide World of Sports hosts the Disney Cup International Youth Soccer Tournament, which has attracted teams from more than 20 countries for 13 years. It, too, is an FYSA sanctioned tournament and open to the same groups.

May 1, 2012

Tusker House offers Disney character meals with a taste of African cuisine


Tusker House's dessert bar is the first thing you see -- as it should be -- in the Harambe Marketplace.

Tusker House at Disney's Animal Kingdom is home to Donald's Dining Safari Breakfast and Lunch, the only character meals at that Walt Disney World park. Recently, I was invited to experience the lunch buffet, which features African cuisine, as well as plenty of American favorites.

Our experience began after we checked in at the outdoor podium. There is a large, shaded waiting area with tables and even a bar for those seeking adult beverages. It's definitely one of the nicer waiting areas, though you don't have to be eating at Tusker House to sit there. It's open to anyone in the Harambe, Africa section, which also has a snack counter on the opposite side from Dawa Bar.

When our party was called, we were led around the corner to a queue to have our pictures taken with Donald Duck. As with all Disney character photos, guests may take their own photos in addition to the ones snapped by the Disney PhotoPass photographer. A photo package that includes one 6 x 8 in a decorative folder and four 4 x 6 prints plus a character-only stock photo will be brought to your table during the meal. It's about $31 if you choose to purchase it. These photos also can be added to your Disney's PhotoPass account after purchasing the prints.

The Disney characters visit guests in four dining rooms.

Inside the restaurant, our hostess explained the concept of the Harambe Marketplace, which features quite a few short buffet lines. She stood in front of the dessert lines (yes, plural!) during her talk, and suggested that diners can even eat dessert first. The children in our party took her up on that, and I feel certain my kids would do the same, especially when they saw the chocolate-frosted donuts with colorful sprinkles.

For those of us who decided to eat our vegetables first, there were numerous salads, many with African-inspired flavors. As the main course, guests could choose from carved sirloin or pork loin, curry and rotisserie chicken and salmon, plus a selection of stews. And, of course, there were many side dishes. Vegetarians, there is a buffet just for you, too.

Kids can choose from white or wheat bread when making their own PB & J sandwiches. Chilled applesauce is on this bar, too.

The kids' buffet had a lot of the usual crowd favorites, but there were two fun additions -- corn dog nuggets and a table to make real peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The PB&J bar was a nice touch, especially when so many Walt Disney World kids' meals come with Smucker's uncrustables. The young and the young-at-heart are invited to choose items from the kids' buffet. (See a complete menu at the AllEars page

Daisy Duck strikes a pose.

In between your trips to the numerous buffets, Disney characters circulate through the four dining rooms, meeting families at their tables. Donald stays outside, but Minnie, Mickey, Daisy and Goofy greet guests inside, posing for photos and signing autographs. They each patiently allowed our party to take multiple photos, and Daisy really was funny -- striking pose after pose, like a model. One character also leads the kids around the room in a makeshift parade, complete with handheld instruments.

Lunch prices vary slightly depending on the season: Adults are $27.68 to $31.94; and children ages 3-9 are $15.97 to $18.10. (Tax is included; gratuity is not.) A standard, non-alcoholic beverage is included in this price. Admission into Disney's Animal Kingdom is required. These prices are typical of character lunches at Disney World.

Well-known Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde and his infamous earring are celebrated with these Tusker House decorations.

I would recommend Tusker House to those guests who love to try different foods and flavors, or those who already have a taste for African cuisine. And all the Disney character meals have one great advantage in common: They allow diners to meet many Disney pals in such a short time, which clearly saves time waiting in individual lines.

See the AllEars resource page to find out where all the Disney World characters dine.

Disclosure: As an invited media guest, my lunch was paid for by The Walt Disney Company. Opinions expressed herein are solely mine and do not reflect the opinions or policies of The Walt Disney Company or its affiliates.

April 27, 2012

'The Lion King' performer Amyia Burrell talks about her start at Walt Disney World


'The Lion King' performer Amyia Burrell (second from left) visited a Disney Performing Arts workshop with castmates (from left) Electra Weston, Nick Cordileone and Paul Sadler.

An actress with the touring production of a Disney show has returned to her roots and helped other performers with skills she has gained. Amyia Burrell, an ensemble performer for the award-winning national stage tour of "The Lion King," visited a Disney Performing Arts workshop this week and spoke with students about performing professionally.

Burrell plays a variety of animals -- with 14 costume changes -- in "The Lion King," which has an engagement at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in Orlando through May 14. She spoke to me this week about the show and what it's like to revisit Walt Disney World years after getting her professional start there. 

Burrell's first professional performing contract was at Walt Disney World when she was a 21-year-old dancer in "Mickey's Twas The Night Before Christmas." She went on to dance in "Cinderellabration" and "Dream Along With Mickey," also in the Magic Kingdom. Burrell also played Squirt in "Finding Nemo -- The Musical" at DIsney's Animal Kingdom during her stint at Disney Parks from 2003 to 2007.

During that time, Burrell went to another Disney property, Tokyo Disney, from 2004 to 2005 and performed in "Rhythms of the World." Since 2007, however, she has performed in the touring production of "The Lion King."

Describe your experience at Walt Disney World.

Working at Walt Disney World is an experience like no other. You just create this huge family and it's a wonderful work environment. You're around people who are amazingly wonderful all the time. I had the best experience of my life working here.

What was your favorite role?

I enjoyed every single one of those roles. Of course, I loved performing on the castle stage because it's just the most amazing place to perform. On the days it was kind of rainy, we got to do meet-and-greets. I loved doing the meet-and-greets -- just to go out and see the little girls who wanted to meet the princesses. "Nemo" was actually one of my favorite performances here. They did a really, really good job on that one.

Do you have childhood memories of Disney Parks?

My mom actually told me this story the other day. She grew up in California, and I did, too. She can remember her first time going to Disneyland Park with her dad. It is one of her most vivid memories. And coming to watch me perform for the first time on the castle stage at Walt Disney World, she said she was just in awe because the parks have such happy memories for her. That was such a wonderful story for me to hear.

Did you always want to be a performer?

I did. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I started dancing when I was 3. I actually went to college and studied bio-medical engineering, but I was unhappy that I wasn't dancing. When I got my first contract at Disney World, I said, "I'm going to go for it." This is something I've always wanted to do, but I never imagined myself at this point.

What is your favorite thing to do at Walt Disney World?

My favorite thing to do is to go to Animal Kingdom and go on the safari. I'm not a roller-coaster rider so I steer away from those. I love Animal Kingdom -- to do the safari or just walk around and see all the animals. [Burrell said she is excited to possibly check out Wild Africa Trek.]

You taught a workshop at Walt Disney World this week. What was that like?

We taught some choreography that coincides with what we do in the show [The Lion King]. It was a regular jazz workshop class that I taught with another one of the cast members, one of our dance captains from the show. We taught it to some cast members from "Festival of The Lion King" [a musical at Animal Kingdom], and we also had some of the staging specialists and character performers.

Do you get nervous before performances?

When there are shows that are extra special, like when your friends are there, I get a little nervous. Since I worked in this city for a long time, I've had a lot of friends come to my performances, and that kind of makes me nervous because I always want to do a good show.

What is your favorite scene in "The Lion King"?

I have a couple of favorite scenes. I love the opening number -- "The Circle of Life." I am one of the zebras and nothing beats this scene. We're standing off stage and we're doing our off-stage singing and we can hear the reactions from the crowd. And, actually, from where I stand out in the wings, I can kind of see the audience at one point. Seeing their reaction to what's going on on the stage when the sun first comes out and then giraffes move across the stage -- the audience just loves it. My first time seeing it, my mouth was open the entire time. The elephant coming down the aisle is just one of the most beautiful scenes I've ever seen.

I have to say that another one of my favorite scenes is "Lioness Chant." I love "Lioness Chant" because it's all of the females in the show -- singers and dancers -- and that's our one number where we're hunting. The gazelles are jumping across the stage and we're all swiping and hunting the gazelles. In the end, we make a big circle around a gazelle for the kill. The energy is so high on that part. It's an amazing scene to play in. There are six female singers and six female dancers and also the baby Nala.

Which Disney story would you like to see made into a Broadway show next?

When I was doing "Nemo," I actually thought it would make an amazing Broadway performance. I would actually like to be Nemo (not Squirt). I don't have a little kid's voice, but if I did do a role, I would love to play Nemo.

April 26, 2012

Disney Performing Arts workshop full of surprises, including visit from 'The Lion King' cast


Decatur Central High students learn choreography during a Disney Performing Arts workshop.

When I grew up in suburban Indianapolis, our high schools didn't have show choirs -- there was band, marching band and choir. But that was way before "Glee" capitalized on the popularity of the show choirs in schools today.

Yesterday, I watched performers from another Indianapolis high school, Decatur Central, take part in a Disney Performing Arts workshop. Tucked away in a studio behind Epcot -- "back stage" as Disney likes to call the area -- the students learned two dance routines for songs for which they had prepared the vocals in advance of their trip. There were jazz hands, jazz squares, a shake-and-bake step, original moves from the students, and even some high-fiving in the mix.

Their instructor, Thomas Murphy, is a longtime Disney performer and choreographer. In fact, he helped design the Disney Channel Rocks! street dance party at Disney's Hollywood Studios. He also performed at Tokyo Disney's "Disney World is Your World" show, which is the source of the workshop's two songs -- "D-Pop Magic" and "Disney World Is Your World."

Thomas Murphy and Minnie Mouse danced with the vocalists.

Murphy's upbeat personality kept the kids moving and motivated -- even at a 9 a.m. call time, which is practically the middle of the night for teenagers. He encouraged the vocalists to keep smiling when onstage, even if they make a mistake. "Performing is not from the neck down," he told them.

Decatur Central was participating in Disney's Show Choir Magic session, a workshop the group added to their Walt Disney World experience. The goal of the course is to give students a glimpse into the life of a professional performer.

The main objective for the 29 students traveling to Orlando, however, was to perform an original piece they prepared back home in Indiana on a Disney World stage for visitors. The group had to audition to be chosen for this honor. They fulfilled that dream Wednesday night at Downtown Disney.

The Indianapolis show choir poses with Minnie Mouse and 'The Lion King' performers.

Before they left the workshop, though, there were a few surprises in store for the vocalists. First, Minnie Mouse popped into the room and joined their dance routine. She knew all their moves and was not shy about leading the students with Murphy. Then, the group performed for a panel of "Disney show producers." What the students didn't know, though, was that the "producers" actually were performers from the national stage tour of "The Lion King."

"The Lion King," which is celebrating its tenth anniversary, is in Orlando at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre through May 14. Four performers from the Grammy-award and six-time Tony award-winning show answered questions from the students. The performers were Nick Cordileone (who plays Timon) and Amyia Burrell, Electra Weston and Paul Sadler (all ensemble performers).

Students ask questions of performers from the national stage tour of 'The Lion King.'

The Decatur Central students asked a variety of questions, including how to pursue a performing arts career and what makes professional performers nervous on stage, and they requested Cordileone voice Timon for them, which he happily did.

But what really got everyone laughing was when the performers talked about times they had flubbed their scenes and what they did to recover on stage. Sadler described his first role in "Phantom of the Opera" and completely forgetting his opening lines. He said he tried to buy himself time to think by running around the stage growling. His cast mates, of course, knew he should be speaking and had to turn away so they wouldn't laugh during the production, he said.

For Weston, it was an incident that occurred when she was playing Queen Sarabi in "The Lion King." She and Mufasa are supposed to present Simba to the other animals from atop Pride Rock. Unfortunately, they were halfway up the rock when it was discovered that she wasn't holding the lion cub. They both debated what to do, before Mufasa ran back to get Simba, and Weston had to maintain her composure and try to look regal in the process.

'The Lion King' cast members (from left): Paul Sadler, Electra Weston, Amyia Burrell and Nick Cordileone.

Clearly, with real-world anecdotes such as these and more, the students received valuable insight into acting, stage productions and how to create performance magic - something Disney excels at every day for its park guests.

Tomorrow, I'll share my interview with "The Lion King" cast member Amyia Burrell, who was once a Disney Parks performer.

April 24, 2012

Take a peek at new Disney Dooney & Bourke bags and find a deal


Dooney & Bourke Retro collection

In the last few years, some Disney fans have found a new, high-end souvenir to collect. Who wants to bring home more scrapbooks and T-shirts when you can choose an unusual, well-made handbag? Combining the whimsical designs of Disney with the well-known quality of the Dooney & Bourke brand, these stylish bags have become increasingly popular.

Disney Dooneys, as they are fondly called, are introduced in several new patterns each year. West Coast collectors are eagerly awaiting the release of two new collections on May 12 -- just in time for Mother's Day! The Retro collection with a unique color palette depicts traditional graphics and logos of the various lands inside Disneyland. This new line will be available in a variety of silhouettes including a wristlet, mini barrel, tassel tote, satchel and letter carrier as well as an iPad case, which is a first. Prices range from $78 to $268. On the release day, Ian Ray, creative director for Dooney & Bourke, will be signing the new Disney Dooneys from 2 to 5 p.m. at Disney Vault 28.

The second collection, called Buttons, is being kept under wraps until closer to its debut on May 12. Disneyland and Walt Disney World guests will be able to purchase the Buttons collection on its release date. Disney World guests will find the Buttons collection at TrenD at Downtown Disney West Side.

Dooney & Bourke Disney Cruise Line Fantasy Inaugural Voyages collection

A new Disney Cruise Line Dooney & Bourke collection debuted on the maiden voyage of the Disney Fantasy cruise ship earlier this month, and the bags feature more muted colors than most of the Disney Dooney bags we've seen so far. The design incorporates names and icons of all the ships on a blue-gray background.

"To make the new collection even more enticing for Disney Fantasy guests, the select collection silhouettes on the Disney Fantasy will feature leather embossed luggage tags that showcase they were part of the Inaugural Disney Fantasy Voyages," said Laura Caszatt, product developer for Accessories.

The new DCL collection includes a variety of shapes, including a wristlet, mini barrel, Susanna tote, satchel and travel duffle, and prices range from $55 to $395. These bags are exclusive to the Fantasy until this summer, when they will be available on all the DCL ships.

Upcoming Dooney & Bourke Disney Cruise Line collection

Another cruise collection will debut later in 2012 on Hawaiian itineraries. Disney offered a sneak peek at the striped, nautical satchel, which will cost $235. It, too, will have widespread availability on the ships later in the summer.

Dooney & Bourke Sketch collection Crossbody bags

Some of the most popular DIsney Dooney & Bourke bags both on land and at sea are from the Sketch Collection, said Erin Catalano, merchandise communication specialist at Walt Disney World Resort. The bags in the Sketch Collection show various colorful icons from the ships or Disneyland or Disney World.

Looking for a deal on these expensive bags? A few discounts can be yours for the asking. Stores on Disney World property that sell Dooney & Bourke bags will honor the 10 percent discount for annual passholders and 20 percent discount for premium annual passholders. Or, Disney Visa cardholders can get a 10 percent discount for any purchase over $50 at Disney World.

Dooney & Bourke Princess collection bucket bag

To find a deal on Disney Dooney & Bourke bags off Disney World property, visit the Dooney & Bourke outlet stores. There is one in Orlando Premium Outlets on Vineland Avenue (near Downtown Disney) and one in Orlando Premium Outlets at the end of International Drive. Both locations usually carry a small selection of Disney Dooneys and sell them at a 40 percent discount. Currently, the Vineland Avenue location has the Princess bucket bag for $99. (It originally sold for $165.) At the International Drive location, shoppers will find the Princess bucket bag, plus the Princess satchel with black background for $132. (It originally sold for $220.) That location also has several of the 2011 Disney Dream Inaugural Voyages Crossbody Bag for $74. (It originally sold for $165.) If you wished you had purchased one last year, now is your chance!

If you're not on vacation, you can still purchase Disney Dooney & Bourke bags. carries most of the bags you will find at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and occasionally even offers Disney Cruise Line bags. Currently, there are 27 bags for sale, and two of those are 2011 Disney Dream Inaugural Voyages bags, which have been marked down 40 percent. The website also has the Disney Sketch Crossbody Bag in four colors marked down 24 percent. Plus, any Dooney & Bourke purchase allows you to buy a Sketch credit card holder/keychain for $15. The one drawback with ordering online is that you cannot choose the pattern placement. For bags with a uniform pattern, such as the Minnie Mouse bows, this is irrelevant, but for patterns such as the popular Sketch collections, it can make a difference.

Dooney & Bourke Princess collection satchel

April 21, 2012

Tips for celebrating National Princess Week at Walt Disney World


Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway star in "The Princess Diaries" and "The Princess Diaries: Royal Engagement."

The first National Princess Week begins tomorrow, April 22, and its founders want to invite children "to celebrate the sparkle and wonder of every princess -- real, aspiring or imagined."

Academy Award-winning actress, singer and best-selling children's book author Julie Andrews is the face of the campaign. She starred with Anne Hathaway in two "The Princess Diaries" movies, which are being re-released on their 10th anniversary, and has co-authored with her daughter the popular "The Very Fairy Princess" series.

This collaboration between Target and The Walt Disney Company aims to allow children to create their own princess activities in their home towns. But if you're lucky enough to be visiting Walt Disney World, the home of the Disney Princesses, there are many experiences to be found, both large and small.

Here are some suggestions, based on my own family's experiences and ideas adapted from Andrews' ideas at

1. Start your day by wearing a tiara and keep it on everywhere you go. Bring your own from home, or you can purchase one in just about every gift store on Disney World property.

2. Build your own castle. If you are staying at a Disney World resort or planning to visit one of the water parks, find the sandy area and get to work designing a palace for royalty. A fun way to build the foundation is with the castle mold sold in most gift shops for about $6, and it makes a great inexpensive souvenir afterward. (For tips on visiting the Disney water parks, see my newsletter article at

3. Take a carriage ride and learn how to step into a carriage with grace and practice your royal wave. Andrews offers these suggestions:
** To enter a carriage, turn your body slightly sideways, and step in with the foot closet to the carriage. Bend forward slightly and lower yourself onto the seat. Draw your outside leg in after you. You can also keep both legs together and sit first, then draw them up and in after you. Do the reverse when exiting.
** To perform a royal wave, hold your arm out straight, bend it at the elbow, then with a relaxed, open palm, rotate your wrist side-to-side lightly, as you would if you were screwing in a light bulb.
Carriages leave from Port Orleans Riverside and Fort Wilderness resorts and cost $45 per group. (For details, see

Girls can choose from three Princess hairstyles at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

4. Make a reservation for the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Downtown Disney or inside the Magic Kingdom. At these salons, Fairy Godmothers-in-training will transform each girl into the princess she's always dreamed of being. Choose your royal treatments -- from hair, makeup, nails and an outfit. Prices start at $54.95. My daughter was transformed into Ariel when she was 4 and Belle when she was 7, and she was so excited about the experiences. (You can read more, plus see photos and video, at

5. Visit the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa for the My Disney Girl's Perfectly Princess Tea. "Rose Petal," a magical rose, hosts this event with Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) for children ages 3 to 11 daily (except Tuesdays and Saturdays) from 10:30 to noon. The party includes a sing-along, stories and traditional foods served with tea or apple juice. Girls receive "My Disney Girl" 18-inch doll dressed in a Princess Aurora gown with accessories, a tiara, Princess link bracelet, princess scrapbook page, a rose, and a "Best Friend" certificate. (Boys receive a Duffy the Disney Bear instead of the doll.) The price is $250 plus tax (includes gratuity) for one adult and one child. (Read guest reviews of this experience on at

Topiaries featuring royal couples are showcased at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival.

6. At the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival (through May 20), look for the princess-shaped topiaries in World Showcase. Classic Disney couples can be found between the United Kingdom and France pavilions, and characters from "Beauty and the Beast" are located in the fresh-cut flower gardens of France. In Germany, you'll find Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in topiary. (AllEars has explored every nook and cranny of the festival and you can find details at

7. See your favorite princesses in live performances at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Belle appears in her own 30-minute Broadway-style show daily at the Theater of the Stars, and Ariel tells her story during a 17-minute show at The Voyage of the Little Mermaid. On select nights, several of the Disney Princesses take part in Fantasmic!, a 25-minute show using water sprays as a backdrop for animation combined with live-action characters. (Get the lay of the land with this DHS page:

8. Take a ride on Snow White's Scary Adventures at the Magic Kingdom before it closes on May 31. It is one of the original rides from when the theme park opened 1971, though it was reworked in 1994 to make it less frightening. When the Fantasyland expansion construction is finished next year, there will be a new Dwarfs' cottage and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster. (You can stay up-to-date on the new Fantasyland rides and attractions at

Guests can meet Cinderella before their meal in her castle at Magic Kingdom.

9. Meet your favorite Disney Princesses in person for photos and autographs. Epcot and Magic Kingdom are the places to go for these encounters. Most of the princesses can be found inside the Town Square Theater at Magic Kingdom's entrance, though a few, such as Tiana, Ariel and Jasmine, are out in the park. Rapunzel moved last week from the Fairytale Courtyard to the Town Square Courtyard to make room for Brave's Merida in mid-May. At Epcot, the Disney Princesses can be seen outside various World Showcase pavilions, including Mulan in China. Check the daily guide for specific locations and times. (Plus, here are tips for finding your favorite princess:

10. Dine with the Disney Princesses. Cinderella hosts a breakfast, lunch and dinner in her castle at the Magic Kingdom with her Fairy Godmother and other princesses. My son and daughter really enjoyed this experience, both for the characters and the location. Reservations go quickly, so be prepared to book these meals exactly 180 days out. At Epcot, share a meal with royalty at Akershus Castle Royal Banquet Hall in the Norway Pavilion. At the Grand Floridian, guests can join Cinderella, Prince Charming, Lady Tremain (her stepmother), Drucilla and Anastasia (her stepsisters) at Cinderella's Happily Ever After Dinner. This buffet is one of the tastiest character meals, and the banter between the stepsisters and their mother is hilarious. Plus, little girls have a rare opportunity to dance with Prince Charming. (Find out how to plan your character meal at

Finally, at the end of your day, let your little princess snuggle in bed with some princess pajamas and a princess storybook before she dreams of all the fun she had celebrating the Disney princesses. Andrews suggests foregoing any peas under the mattress.

April 19, 2012

Disney to unleash Epic Mickey sequels on new gaming platforms


The powers of Oswald The Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse work together in Epic Mickey 2.

Disney has announced two sequels to its popular Epic Mickey video game for Wii -- Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two for Play Station 3, Xbox 360 and Wii platforms, and Disney Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion for Nintendo 3DS systems.

Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two brings Oswald the Lucky Rabbit into the game with Mickey, and legendary game designer Warren Spector and developer Junction Point Studios are introducing several new features, in addition to the expanded platforms.

Players will hear one of Walt Disney's first cartoon characters, Oswald, speak for the first time ever (voiced by Frank Welker). Oswald's electricity will combine with Mickey Mouse's magical paint brush to unlock new interactions; this suggests a new dual play format. In addition, the game aims to be the first to have characters singing at certain key moments. (Emmy award-winning composer James Dooley and lyricist Mike Himelstein were brought onboard to introduce the musical elements.)

Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two is again set in the world of forgotten Disney characters and theme park attractions called Cartoon Wasteland. In the original game, Mickey accidentally damages the world and is forced to try to fix it while fighting villains with his paintbrush.

Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion for Nintendo 3DS features dual screen mode, using both 2D (as seen in this shot) and 3D.

In Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion for the 3DS, the innovations have gamers even more excited. Players will be immersed in a side-scrolling game with interactive painting, a dual-screen mode and sharp graphics in 3D mode.

The "power of illusion" is described this way in the press release: "The game offers a special drawing and painting function that allows players to create rough versions of objects that magically transform into classic Disney-style 2D illustrations. Utilizing the game's unparalleled dual screen integration, players then move their creations to the top screen where they are further transformed into full-color, fully-rendered 3D visuals."

Created by developer DreamRift and Junction Point Studios, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion again is set in Wasteland, but this time, the game pays homage to the classic Sega Genesis title "Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse." The evil witch Mizrabel from that game finds herself an unwilling inhabitant of Wasteland, and unleashes a plot to escape using the Castle of Illusion to imprison and drain the cartoon essence from currently famous Toons. Players will take on the role of Mickey Mouse as he tries to save the Toons.

Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two is available for pre-order on for $44.99 and In Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion is listed at $34.99. Both have a release date of October 1.

In 2010, gamers could preview Epic Mickey at Downtown Disney's Festival of the Masters.

When the original Epic Mickey was released in 2010, my then-eight-year-old son couldn't wait to get his hands on the game. Disney previewed it at a booth at Walt Disney World's Festival of the Masters. Guests could test drive Epic Mickey on four screens, and experts were on hand to help players get used to a game where they determine the course of play based on the decisions they make at certain points in the game. In addition, Disney artists were offering drawings of Mickey Mouse with his Epic Mickey paintbrush and illustrations of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. It was a great experience.

My son did find the original Epic Mickey to be difficult to play at first. Once we purchased a guidebook, though, he was better able to learn a few tricks that he could build on to go even farther into the game.

Although it hasn't been announced yet, it's not too soon to hope for another such opportunity to experience the new games this year at Downtown Disney.

April 17, 2012

Disney Kids and Nature Celebration unites Disney Channel stars, Earth-friendly ideas


Disney Channel actors Laura Marano, Ross Lynch, Debby Ryan, Bella Thorne and Zendaya interacted with youth leaders at Disney's Friends for Change Youth Summit during the Disney Kids and Nature Celebration at Walt Disney World.

The Walt Disney Co. began celebrating Earth Day at Walt Disney World with a weekend that featured its new star chimpanzees, Disney Channel actors and kids who want to help save the planet.

The Disney Kids and Nature Celebration kicked off April 13 with the world premiere of DisneyNature's Chimpanzee movie, which will be in theaters April 20. It tells the story of Oscar, a young chimp, and his adventures in the forest with his family. Tim Allen narrates the film.

"My favorite scene is everyone's favorite -- when the chimp gets on the other one's back. To know that no matter what happens to you, someone is always going to be there for you. For me, that was beautiful and made me tear up," said Bella Thorne, who plays Cece on Disney Channel's Shake It Up.

Her co-star Zendaya, who plays Rocky, wasn't as sentimental. She said, "I just loved the funny moments. I think I am kind of a comedienne just because I'm on a comedy show, and I love that kind of stuff."

Dr. Jane Goodall attended the red-carpet premiere at Downtown Disney, and a portion of tickets sales during the first week will be donated to her Institute to protect chimpanzees. The renowned researcher spoke about her work and the importance of helping the planet.

Ernie D, the lead on-air DJ for Radio Disney, said, "When I talked to Dr. Jane Goodall on the red carpet, she basically said, 'If every country lived like the United States of America, we would need six Earths to sustain that for only 10 years.' That was mind-blowing to me."

(See Jack Spence's blog, which includes photos and videos from the premiere, at The McClain Sisters, including China Ann from Disney Channel's A.N.T. Farm, performed the movie's anthem, "Rise.")

Mickey Mouse, with Laura Marano and Ross Lynch from Disney Channel's "Austin & Ally," presented each Planet Challenge award.

The Disney Kids and Nature Celebration continued April 14 with a day dedicated to celebrating the winners of Disney Channel's Planet Challenge and youth leaders who are already helping the environment in their communities. An awards ceremony at Epcot's American Gardens Theatre honored Brickett Elementary's fifth-grade class from Lynn, Massachusetts for their project "Think Before You Idle" and Christa McAuliffe School - PS 28's seventh-grade class from Jersey City, New Jersey, for their "Project Reservoir."

Students from Brickett Elementary and Christa McAuliffe School - PS 28's pose with Laura Marano; Meg Crofton, Walt Disney World president; Jay Rasulo; and Ross Lynch.

Then, the group moved to World Showplace, an indoor venue at Epcot, to hear Craig Kielburger speak about how kids really can make a difference. He founded Free the Children, an organization dedicated to halting global child labor, when he was 12 years old. Kielburger explained how his requests for help were turned down repeatedly, but he continued his dogged pursuit of what he knew he needed to do. Today, Free the Children is one of the leading youth-driven charities that benefit children.

Kielburger emphasized that every individual has a gift that can be used to make the world a better place. I asked Debby Ryan, who plays the title role on Disney Channel's Jessie, how she thinks she can make a difference in the world.

"Craig has been a role model of mine for a while, and he is so passionate," Ryan said. "He has this phrase, which is 'shamelessly idealistic.' I am that way. I am so realistic and I know what the world is, but I also am idealistic in that I think that we can change some things. I picture the world the way I would like to see it and then I think we can backtrack and see the steps that you require to actually make those changes."

Jay Rasulo, senior executive vice president and chief financial officer of The Walt Disney Co., encouraged the 100 youth participants to be leaders and to not be afraid to fail. "I was most sure what I was doing was right when I was passionate about it and people told me it was a bad idea -- but I didn't think it was," he said.

The Disney Channel stars take the stage with Radio Disney personality Ernie D. at the Friends For Change Youth Summit.

After a break for lunch with music and games from Ernie D and the Radio Disney Road Crew, the kids got to work making some concrete plans to help their communities. They were divided into groups, each led by a Disney Channel star, to create Disney 365 spots, which are promotional messages that air on the network. These messages of planet stewardship, however, were intended to inspire the kids' local communities to get involved.

Debby Ryan works with a group of students at the Friends For Change Youth Summit to plan a community initiative to help the planet.

"I think that we are aware, but we are not willing to take action. Awareness is the first step, but some kids, and adults, too, feel too small and that they can't help," said Laura Marano, who plays Ally on Disney Channel's Austin & Ally. "Today, at the Disney's Friends For Change Youth Summit, you see 100 kids from around the world doing things and you realize you're never too small to help. You're never too small to pick up trash or conserve water or join different organizations. Let's not just be the generation that's aware but the generation that changed it."

Marano's co-star Ross Lynch, who plays Austin, chimed in: "We're destroying the planet, and we all need to get outside and experience it. I love to be outside, and I love to play sports. Half of the beauty of sports is the nature around you. What if that's not there? I feel like we're kind of being selfish because we're all using it for ourselves when we have to look at other generations to come."

Disney Channel is expected to soon announce a new initiative tied to its Friends For Change campaign. "I feel like the next phase of Friends For Change, which I'm so excited to get started on, is so much bigger," said Ryan. She said it's likely to replace the Friends For Change Games, which succeeded the Disney Channel Games that were taped at Walt Disney World in 2007 and 2008.

"I feel like I've been blessed to have fans and to have people that I'm able to reach out to," said Zendaya. "But everybody has a voice. If you can use that to speak up for something positive, then that's when we start making a change."

April 14, 2012

Disney World's Fort Wilderness Campground is for horse lovers



Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets at Walt Disney World is Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. This is especially true for horse lovers. My family has stayed at the campground several times and enjoyed many of the outdoors activities, but there are some great equestrian experiences that you can take advantage of without staying there.

Younger children can enjoy a short pony ride at the Tri-Circle-D Farm for $5. No reservations are necessary; just show up between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., and you can participate. (Hours are subject to seasonal changes.) This is a great before-dinner activity if you've booked a meal at the campground -- the ranch is located close to the restaurants, kids don't really get dirty, and it's not time-consuming.

A cast member will lead a pony to a small platform, where the child waits. Then, the animal stands patiently as a parent helps the child climb into the saddle. After guests take photos, it's time to go. Parents are asked to lead the ponies on a short, self-guided trail around the stables.

To participate, kids cannot weigh more than 80 pounds or be taller than 48 inches. My daughter is too tall for this activity now, but when she did ride, she was thrilled to be paired with a white pony "like Hannah Montana's."


The Tri-Circle-D Farm also is home to the Percheron and Belgian draft horses that pull the trolleys down Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom. Plus, there is a blacksmith shop on the premises and "Smithy," who maintains the horseshoe needs of the Fort Wilderness trail-ride horses and streetcar teams. Guests are invited to walk through the working barn and talk with cast members who may be caring for the horses and ponies.

Guided trail rides

Older riders can join a 45-minute guided trail ride, which leaves from the Trail Blaze Corral near the parking lot at the front of the campground. This is a pretty tame experience, with horses trained to stay single file, for the most part. Riders must be at least 48 inches tall and 9 years old and can weigh no more than 250 pounds. The price is $46 per person and current times are 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance by calling 407-939-7529.

Horse-drawn carriages

Horse-drawn carriage rides depart from Crockett's Tavern near Pioneer Hall each night from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Each carriage holds four adults or two adults and three small children for the 25-minute rides throughout the property. Cost is $45 for the carriage, which can be reserved up to 180 days in advance at 407-WDW-PLAY.


For Halloween and Christmas, there are holiday-themed carriage rides. Last year, we tried the Haunted Carriage Ride for the first time. It was scary enough to give my kids at ages 7 and 9 a thrill, but not intense enough to spook them.

The driver started the telling of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" before a recorded narrator picked up the tale, as the carriages traveled through the trees and along the shore of Bay Lake, stopping at key places mentioned in the story. For my children, there was only nervous anticipation leading up to the appearance of the headless horseman. However, the woods can be dark, depending on what time your ride occurs, and that can certainly affect small children.

The horse-drawn carriages are magically converted to sleighs for holiday rides through the grounds of the Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness Campground. Listen to Christmas music, see the holiday lights and get cozy under a blanket -- if it's cold enough in Florida -- during your ride.

Seasonal carriage rides have an increased price of $60 per carriage, and ride hours are usually a little different. Reservations can be made 90 days in advance.

Fort Wilderness also offers two nightly group wagon rides, which are $8 per adult and $5 for children ages 3 to 9. The rides usually depart at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. from Pioneer Hall and no reservations are needed. Groups of 30 can rent their own wagon ride for $300 an hour.

To read more about the carriage rides, see the page For details about Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, check out this page

April 12, 2012

Disney's dolphin presentations showcase cognitive research at Epcot


An Epcot cast member helps prepare the shape cards for dolphin training.

My almost-8-year-old daughter loves dolphins these days, something that's not uncommon for little girls, it seems. And, certainly, last year's Dolphin Tale movie inspired kids to to find out more about the mammals and other marine life.

Moved by my daughter's new passion, I began looking into what types of interactions and experiences with dolphins Walt Disney World offers its guests.

At Epcot, four dolphins -- Malabar, Rainier, Khyber and Calvin -- live in the aquarium at The Seas with Nemo & Friends. Visitors can watch them glide by and play from both the lower-level windows and the upper-deck viewing areas. And when the dolphins need a break, they can swim through a gate to pools "back stage" that guests cannot see.

Three times a day, trainers educate interested visitors about dolphin behavior with 15-minute presentations with the animals in the Observation Deck on the second floor. (A daily schedule is posted near the second-floor walkway to the dolphin tanks.)

A Disney dolphin looks at the shape card he is supposed to match.

"It's interesting to see how surprised guests are at how smart dolphins appear to be," said Kim, a long-time dolphin trainer at Disney World.

She said trainers try to show guests something different every day, but one of their current projects involves cognitive research to study how dolphins perceive surface area. For example, can a dolphin learn to recognize a triangle it has just seen because of its shape, size, or both? Kim said it can take a dolphin up to a year to learn to discriminate between shapes, something they hope translates to a useful skill in the dolphin's environment.

A dolphin tries to match a shape card he's seen by pointing to a bird outline.

During the presentation, one trainer will hold a shape card to the tank's glass and a dolphin will swim over to take a look. Then, the dolphin receives a signal to move to the next window and choose between two shapes to find a match. If he succeeds, he gets whistle and hand signals from the trainer and applause from the audience before heading to the surface for a food reward from another trainer. Guests usually find it amusing when the dolphin blows bubbles, pleased with himself for choosing the correct answer.

Disney's focus on dolphins is a scientific one, Kim said, rather than an entertaining one.

Disney World does have one up-close dolphin interaction called Disney's Dolphins in Depth. During this three-hour, behind-the-scenes program, participants learn how Disney cares for the dolphins each day, how researchers study and train them backstage and what issues are affecting marine life worldwide. During the last 30 minutes, guests stand in waist-deep water and interact with the dolphins. There is no swimming involved, and the group is limited to 8 people per day.

Participants must be at least 13 years old, and those 17 and younger must be accompanied by a parent. The cost is $194 plus tax per person; theme park admission is not required or included in this experience. Disney's Dolphins in Depth takes place at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

To read more about The Seas with Nemo & Friends, see the AllEars resource page at

April 10, 2012

Easter activities at Disney World a sweet treat for kids


Toddlers are invited to pose with oversized Easter eggs on the lawns at Epcot's U.K. pavilion.

This year, my children and I visited Epcot on Easter Sunday for the first time. Of course, we couldn't wait to check out the special holiday events, most of which were held outside the United Kingdom pavilion.

The setting was beautiful with the traditional green English gardens and mazes formed by hedges that were dotted with the colors from the variety of Easter eggs and spring flowers. In this area, kids could participate in three events -- egg hunts, egg relay races and meeting Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit.

This cast member was immersed in the Easter spirit Sunday as she coordinated activity reservations.

The maestro for all the Easter activities was a very patient cast member stationed in a life-size ribboned basket. It was her job to hand out reservation slips for the various events, which were limited to a certain number of children per session to avoid overcrowding.

Our group started with the Easter egg hunt for children younger than 3. Our friends were welcomed into a small area with a low wrought-iron fence and invited to choose five eggs to place in the Easter-themed bags they were given. In addition, they could pose with some Easter eggs that were almost as big as the kids. Very cute photos! No reservation was needed for this area.

The Maze Garden behind Epcot's U.K. pavilion added a fun twist to the annual Easter egg hunt.

Next, we lined up with our time slips for the egg hunt for ages 3 to 9. This search was located in the Maze Garden every 10 minutes. Cast members were efficiently hiding eggs on one side while kids were participating on the other. Eggs were placed in bushes and on walkways, and guests were again instructed to find five for their bags, and a cast member checked each bag at the exit. Of course, as most of the kids spilled out of the mazes, they eagerly opened the plastic eggs, which contained trinkets, stickers and candy.

Older kids were invited to participate in an Easter egg relay.

The Easter egg relay races for ages 8 to 12 were offered once each hour. Kids were first divided into two teams of 6 or 7 by two nature-themed characters from the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. I see this couple working together each year during the festival, and though their stage names change, their shtick doesn't. It's catchy and the kids can relate to their banter. The pair emceed the race, which involved each child balancing an egg on a large metal spoon while they speed-walked -- or ran -- a lap on the brick path that borders the gardens.

At the end, all the relay participants received goody bags with treat-filled plastic eggs. This, time, however, each bag had one special egg that contained a great prize, such as a Disney trading pin or a FASTpass for one of the big rides that was good during any time Sunday -- or the rest of the week.

Mr. Rabbit greeted guests while the Mrs. took a break.

Finally, we stood in the long line to meet Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit. It took us about 30 minutes to approach the popular couple, who were dressed in their Easter finery. Both appeared refreshed, despite all their early-morning deliveries.

The Easter events at the U.K. pavilion began at 11 a.m., and it was somewhat busy. By the time we had finished all the activities, though, the crowds had dwindled and there still were hours left to go for guests who wanted to join the fun.

Epcot also hosted a second Easter egg hunt location for ages 3 to 9 at the Innoventions "East-er" Garden (between Innoventions and Universe of Energy). The advantage there was that it opened earlier at 10 a.m., but it did seem more crowded than the U.K. location.

For my family, the walk back to the World Showcase was certainly worth it -- beautiful photos and so many activities in one place. We certainly would recommend it to any families looking for a little seasonal fun during their visits to Epcot.

April 7, 2012

DisneyQuest is more than video gaming for kids



DisneyQuest, Walt's Disney World's five-story gaming attraction at Downtown Disney, is all about the video games, right? Yes, but that's not all there is to do.

The entire second floor is set up for kids -- and adults -- to explore their creativity by making art, music and roller coasters. At the Animation Academy, guests sit at shiny red desks with embedded computers and learn how to draw Mickey Mouse and his friends from trained Disney artists. The instructor leads the aspiring artists through the process, step by step. Then, finished drawings are displayed in a slide show at the end of the class, and individuals can choose to purchase their drawings on paper. The Artist's Kit also includes a sheet with animation instructions so you can recreate your drawing at home, and you can add a collectible pin, too.


Each class at Animation Academy lasts 25 minutes, and a schedule of the featured characters and times is posted nearby daily. We found this attraction to be a welcome break from all the lights and sounds of the video games, and most kids love to draw and color. Plus, it's an unusual opportunity for guests at Walt Disney World. Only the Animation Courtyard at Disney's Hollywood Studios offers a similar experience.


In the center of the second floor is another drawing opportunity. A circle of Living Easels allows guests to create -- and recreate -- images to their hearts' content. This mostly involves pushing buttons to make the art come to life. A few years ago, we found the concept engaging. Now, with the popularity of touch-screen technology available on iPads, IPod Touches and iPhones, it doesn't seem as complex as some of the apps kids use on a daily basis. Still, it can be a fun diversion while waiting for an animation class. When your Living Easel work is complete, you also can choose to purchase a paper copy.


In the Radio Disney SongMaker booths, guests create custom CDs. The process begins with the guest choosing to be a male or female singer. Next, it's time to select the type of music from a large collection, including rock, pop, country, salsa and reggae. Then, pick your title and piece together your lyrics from funny and traditional sets of phrases. Finally, listen to your song and choose a CD cover. If you love your song, it is, of course, available to purchase. These booths always seem to be popular and provide lots of silly fun.

Remember the boy in "Toy Story" who dismantled toys and created bizarre, sad new ones? Well, you can be him at Sid's Create-A-Toy. Build your toy on the screen from a selection of parts and then take it home afterward (for a price).

Finally, there is the always-popular CyberSpace Mountain, where passengers design a roller coaster and then ride it. Artists can make this as tame or as wild as they choose, even including multiple loops. My 7-year-old daughter loves this simulator, but we ride it sparingly with her because her coasters are always back-to-back loops. There is a 51-inch height requirement to ride, but anyone can design a coaster. A DVD is available for purchase after your ride.

CyberSpace Mountain is similar to Sum of All Thrills, simulators located in Innoventions East at Epcot. Sum of All Thrills seems to offer a smoother ride, though, because it has more precise automation with passengers sitting in chairs connected to moving arms. On CyberSpace Mountain, riders sit in an enclosed capsule that rolls and leans, increasing the nausea factor, in our experience.

DisneyQuest is open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. One-day admission is $37 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9 and $43 for ages 10 and older. Annual passes are $71 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9 and $89 for adults. The Disney Quest & Water Parks Annual Passport is $105.44 for children ages 3 to 9 and $137.39 for adults.

Children younger than 10 must be accompanied by an adult, and strollers are not permitted in the building.

For more details, be sure to check out the resource page

April 5, 2012

Tips to keep kids happy while waiting in line at Disney World


EDITED%20space%20mountain%20game%202.jpg Large-screen video games were added to the Space Mountain queue.

The weeks before and after Easter are some of the busiest at Walt Disney World, which means that even with using FASTPass, you are going to be spending time in lines for attractions, as well as restaurants, transportation, stores and bathrooms on your vacation. That's hard enough for adults, but for kids, it can be seemingly impossible.

Cast members recognize this. The queues at Disney World have always cleverly helped tell the story of an attraction. Recently, Imagineers have begun to ramp up the effort to make lines more interactive as well.

The centerpiece tree from the adjacent playground and other interactive elements spruced up the queue for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

After a lengthy refurbishment, Space Mountain reopened at the end of 2009 with big-screen video games along the stand-by queue. When Pooh's Thoughtful Spot closed in April 2010, the huge tree was moved in front of The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh. The ride's queue now wraps around the tree and little guests can explore the garden-themed play area. In March 2011, a new queue for the Haunted Mansion opened, allowing guests to peruse the graveyard more fully while waiting to go inside.

Storybook Circus, the first area of the Fantasyland expansion project to soft-open, is expected to have an indoor interactive queue for Dumbo The Flying Elephant when that section of Magic Kingdom is complete.

Haunted Mansion fans were delighted with the optional graveyard tour in the queue.

But, even with Disney's improvements, it's tough to keep little kids from melting down in long lines. Here are a few things you can do to help keep them entertained:

** Tuck a new coloring book and crayons or word-search book and pen in your bag for surprises. The $1 bins at Target and Michael's often have these items themed with various Disney characters. Perfect to stash away until your trip!

** Bring snacks and bottles for water. Disney World allows guests to bring in their own food and drinks, except alcohol or glass containers, and there are water fountains throughout the parks. In addition, guests can request cups of ice or ice water at no charge from counter-service food locations. Having a snack in line not only saves time later, but it also gives everyone an energy boost.

** Pull out your family's copy of Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World's Best Kept Secrets and see how many classic Mickey icons you can spot in the queue. You can report any new finds to author Steven Barrett at Read his blogs on at

** Electronics, such as a Nintendo DS, iPod Touch, smart phone or other handheld gaming device, are worth their weight in gold. I resisted bringing electronics when my kids were little, because I mistakenly thought screen time had no place at The Most Magical Place on Earth. I have since decided they are perfect for long lines -- and maintaining my sanity. Be sure to pack the cord, too, because if the battery dies you can drop the device off at Guest Relations to charge for free.

** If you have a point-and-shoot or disposable camera, hand it to your child and see what he or she photographs. You might be surprised by the perspective of a child.

** Check out the theme-park map and plot your next few stops. This is more important than ever with the FASTPass times now being enforced. For more than a decade, the end time was ignored, meaning guests could come back any time after the window opened. (Read more about the reason behind the change in my post

** If all else fails, make friends with the families in line with you.

April 3, 2012

Disney World creates themed Easter baskets and lets guests customize their own


Beginning this week, the Easter Bunny's helpers hop into high gear at Walt Disney World resorts, preparing for the holiday on Sunday.

Guests at each hotel will be able to purchase pre-made Easter baskets -- or they can customize their own. The pre-made baskets are themed to pirates, princesses and Mickey Mouse, and they are priced to match customers' expectations at each resort. For example, Easter baskets at the Grand Floridian, a deluxe resort, usually are created with more extravagant items than, say, Port Orleans.

For Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, where I spotted the baskets, the price range for pre-made products was $40 to $50 each. For that price, here's what the child receives:


Pirate basket: pirate sword, spyglass, pirate hook, eye patch and earring, chocolate coins, Mickey and Pals gummies, Easter rice krispy treat, pirate gun with light and sound.

Princess basket: coloring book, neon hair clips, princess cup with straw, princess Sweet Tart candy, princess lollipops, two sets of princess silly bands.
Mickey Mouse basket: Mickey Easter egg plush, coloring book, Mickey and friends Pez candy, Mickey giant gummy, Mickey sugar cookie.

To get the ball rolling, a guest visits the hotel gift shop and either orders a pre-made basket or selects items in the store for a customized basket. Pricing for customized baskets begins with $7 plus tax, which covers the basket, grass, bow, shrink wrap and labor. All baskets are white and all grass is green. However, guests can choose the bow color -- pink, yellow, blue, purple. Then, it's up to the guest to determine the price, which is simply the additional total of the items purchased to go in the basket.

Walt Disney World sells these rice krispy treats for Easter.

Some of the most popular items to include are plush -- Easter egg Minnie or Easter egg Mickey or Thumper -- and candy, of course. In addition to the wide selection of Disney candy and holiday-themed rice krispy treats already for sale, basket makers will also have traditional Easter candy, such as Peeps, Cadbury eggs and hollow chocolate bunnies.

So what are some of the more creative baskets they've seen over the years? A water-themed basket that featured goggles, beach toys and a swimsuit for the pool-loving child and a basket with a Disney Dooney & Bourke bag as its centerpiece for one lucky wife.

Disney cast members will be taking orders and creating baskets all week -- right up until Easter morning. In fact, the gift shop stays open until 11 p.m. on Saturday and reopens at 6:30 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning at Caribbean Beach.

"Saturday night is when panic hits and we do most baskets. We do a few on Easter morning, too" said Summer Figueroa, retail guest service manager at the Caribbean Beach resort.

Gift shops at the hotels will store the baskets, if guests prefer, because it's difficult to hide them in rooms ahead of time from curious little ones. At the Grand Floridian and Animal Kingdom Lodge, cast members will even deliver the baskets to the rooms.

March 31, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 29, 2012

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


My son happily waits for his pirate makeover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about The Pirate's League in Jack Spence's blog from when the experience first opened Also, be sure to check out the AllEars resource page:

March 27, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing says princess like blue eye shadow, right?

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

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

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

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

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

One of the Disney Diva hairpieces.

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

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

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

To see other details about Walt Disney World's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, visit the resource page at

March 24, 2012

Tips for maximizing the value of Disney's PhotoPass CD



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

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

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

Load up on photos

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


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

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

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

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

Timing is everything

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

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

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

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

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

March 22, 2012

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


The Disney Dream sails past Jetty Park in Brevard County.

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

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

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

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

Port Canaveral is now home to the Disney Dream, which sails shorter Caribbean cruises, and the Disney Fantasy, which will travel on weeklong Caribbean voyages. (See the Fantasy's arrival at Port Canaveral at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 20, 2012

Disney World's Storybook Circus improves area for kids


Here's how The Barnstormer starts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storybook Circus has plenty of planned stroller parking.

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

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

Construction is ongoing for the second Dumbo ride.

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

Dumbo The Flying Elephant at night.

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

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

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

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

March 13, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

How cute are these bunny light-ups?

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

Less than a week left to purchase these shamrocks.

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

Ghost or snowman, anyone?

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

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

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


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

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

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

March 10, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birthday parties

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

March 8, 2012

Disney debuts reading apps for children of different ages


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apps with wide appeal

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

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

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

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

Most interactive app

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

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

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

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

Best reminder of the theme parks

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

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

Want to see for yourself before buying? Check out demonstrations of all the apps at

March 6, 2012

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



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

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

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

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

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


Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

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

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

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

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



March 3, 2012

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

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

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

But there are two great places where kids can climb, tucked out of the way at Magic Kingdom, and one at Epcot. (By the way, I'm not talking about the new interactive queues, like the one at The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh, which really help pass the time in line, or the gigantic playground at Disney's Hollywood Studios. I'm looking for "hidden" spots where kids can get moving vertically -- and burn off some of that pent-up energy.)

Under the Frontierland train station and adjacent to Splash Mountain is The Laughing Place, a cute playground designed for guests no taller than 40 inches. The main area looks like a room in the base of the tree, where characters from Song of the South live. Next door is a small house with a toddler slide. Every time I've walked past the play area, kids are climbing on the roofs, though I doubt that was what was originally intended by the Imagineers. The only thing I dislike about this play area is the lack of seating for waiting adults. (Jack Spence tells us more about the story of Br'er Rabbit at Disney World here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 1, 2012

Piloting Walt Disney World paddleboat a magical moment for my son

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

February 28, 2012

Epcot Flower & Garden Festival offers lots of activities for kids



If you think the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, which begins March 7, is just for adults, think again! Sprinkled throughout the beautiful scenery are several interactive opportunities for kids that will make parents smile as well.

For my elementary-age children, the hands-down favorite is the annual "Let's Get Moving" area along Imagination! Walkway. This is the only time during the year that guests will find play structures this elaborate at Epcot.

The first year we saw the crowded play area, my husband and I thought, "Why do we want to waste time at Epcot on a playground -- something we can do anywhere other than Walt Disney World?" But the bright colors and unusual shapes called to my kids, so we went inside to check out the PlayBooster play sets, which are made for ages 5 to 12.


Our opinion changed after we saw just how much fun our son and daughter had. Honestly, they would stay there for hours each visit if we let them! There is also a PlayBooster Weevos area just for 2- to 5-year-olds and a Sensory Play Center.

The photos pictured above are from the play set from the past few years. I'm told this year's new, larger equipment, the PlayBooster Vibe, is expected to look like this.


Bambi's Butterfly House

While you're on that side of Epcot, be sure to check out Bambi's Butterfly House. Hundreds of native butterflies float through the air and guests can see them growing at different life stages. Topiaries of favorite characters from the movie Bambi lead up to the enclosed gazebo.


Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden

Another must-do for our family is the Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden, which is located in the Test Track Walkway and presented this year by Disney's Secret of the Wings, which will be released in the fall. The garden, which first debuted in 2009, has grown as Disney has released each direct-to-DVD Tinker Bell movie over the last four years.

Inside the lush area, guests will find beautiful topiaries of the Disney Fairies and miniature fairy houses. The creativity and attention to detail in the houses is just amazing, and my kids enjoy trying to find everyday items incorporated in the structures. A Disney landscape artist said they use things like watering cans and teapots because they help illustrate the size of fairies.

Kids of all ages can make crayon rubbings in the garden, and young visitors (ages 2 to 5) can check out the Weevos play set and the Cozy Dome hide-away tucked into the landscape.

Adjacent to the fairy garden is Tinker's Nook, where kids can color and receive fairy stickers and seed packets.

New this year

The Backyard Play Garden, located between Morocco and France in the World Showcase, is a new play area full of unusual gardening ideas for families. See how to turn a concrete block wall into a planter, reuse an old bathtub outdoors or make the roof of your doghouse green. "The whole theme of the garden is getting your kids out of the house and into the yard," said Eric Darden, horticulture manager for the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival.

Also new this year is a Haiti garden near Germany -- only at Epcot! This is the first illuminated night garden in the 19-year history of the festival. Kids of all ages can participate and show off their creativity by coloring their very own Haitian "Tap-Tap." Families will also find other ways to delve into the Haitian culture and refreshments in this produce garden and marketplace.

(Check out the AllEars Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival page for even more details.)

There are many other kid-friendly aspects to the Flower & Garden Festival, from Sorcerer Mickey and Toy Story topiaries to concerts to HGTV presentations. Disney Channel fans won't want to miss Brandon Johnson, who plays Gary Wilde on Shake It Up, talk about his other show, My Yard Goes Disney, on April 13, 14 and 15. (The premiere of My Yard Goes Disney aired Friday, and you can get a sneak peek at what this season holds in my previous AllEars blog post.)

The festival, including all gardening programs and exhibits, is included in regular Epcot admission.

February 25, 2012

Meet 'Kingdom Keepers' author Ridley Pearson at Walt Disney World



Fans who missed Ridley Pearson when he visited Walt Disney World in January will be happy to know the author will be back on Disney property March 29 and 30 to greet readers. Pearson returns to Lake Buena Vista to preview and sign copies of the fifth installment of his hugely popular Kingdom Keepers series, which goes on sale April 3.

The signings of Kingdom Keepers V: Shell Game take place from 4 to 6 p.m. March 29 at Once Upon a Toy store at The Marketplace in Downtown Disney and 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. March 30 at The Writer's Stop inside Disney's Hollywood Studios. Park admission is required for the Writer's Stop event.

Once Upon a Toy will begin selling KK5 at 3 p.m., an hour before the signing begins, and The Writer's Stop will start sales when the park opens Friday. A wristband, which is required to meet Pearson, will be distributed to guests with each book purchase. If you purchase KK5 at Once Upon a Toy and want to get an autograph at The Writer's Stop, bring your book and receipt to get a wristband while supplies last.

Kingdom Keepers
is a young adult series published by Disney Hyperion that pits a group of kids against Disney villains trying to take over the Walt Disney World theme parks. KK5 is the first novel in the series to be set onboard a Disney Cruise Line ship, the Disney Dream.


Disney World hosted Pearson for similar events last year to preview Kingdom Keepers IV: Power Play, and I took my then-8-year-old son to meet one his favorite authors. It was the first time either of us had attended a book signing at Disney World, and we learned a few things from the experience.

First, don't underestimate how many fans will embrace the opportunity to meet Pearson. Last year, we left straight from school and got to Downtown Disney about 15 minutes after the signing started, and we were among the last fans to meet Pearson. I was just thankful we received the coveted wristbands so my son wouldn't be disappointed after waiting in the hot sun for almost two hours! From what I understand, the crowd size was double the number of fans who came out for the Kingdom Keepers III book-signing the previous year.

Know that in order to get an autograph, you are required to purchase KK5. Last year, it seemed that most of the people in line were like us and couldn't wait to get an advance copy, so no grumbling there. Each person with a wristband was allowed to purchase two copies of the book. Fans who wanted to purchase the book but didn't want to wait for an autograph were directed to a separate queue.

Finally, if the lines are anything like last year, expect your time with Pearson to be brief. He worked quickly to not disappoint his waiting fans, and although he was willing to answer a question or two while writing, he did not stop to pose for photos. Fans are allowed to take photos while he is signing, however.

Have a question about Disney Cruise Line's newest ship, the Disney Fantasy? Pearson might have the answer because he will be sailing on back-to-back preview cruises before the book signings. (See what differentiates the Disney Fantasy from its sister ships on this AllEars page.)

February 22, 2012

Kids Will Fall Under Spell of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom



Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, a new Walt Disney World attraction that is a role-playing scavenger hunt, officially opens today after getting a lot of buzz during the testing phase. On Saturday, my husband, 9-year-old son, 7-year-old daughter and I took our turn at trying to defeat the Disney villains.

We went in blind, not knowing much about how the game works, to try to see what it might be like for an unprepared guest to walk into the Firehouse and get started. After checking in, we received our key card to unlock the magical portals, five spell cards and a map for the other secret sites throughout the Magic Kingdom. (See photos of spell cards, the map and additional portals on the official AllEars Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom page.)

Our game began on Main Street, U.S.A., during the afternoon parade -- not an ideal time or place to start for the first time, by the way! But as we stepped up to the first portal, my kids were excited to try something new. Because we were playing as a family, we gave each child a "job" so they both could be involved -- one held the map and directed us to the portals while the other unleashed the spell cards. To be fair, they traded roles after each mission.

We all enjoyed the animation at the portal screens, which are cleverly hidden in existing structures, and seeing the various Disney characters on the spell cards use their special powers. For example, Rapunzel whips out her hair to do battle and Sorcerer Mickey's brooms whisk away the evil.



As parents, my husband and I especially appreciated that even if there is a line to check in at a portal, those waiting will not have the surprise ruined because the experience depends on which cards the guest plays. Seeing what lies ahead if you arrive at a checkpoint with another party is a disappointing aspect of the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure at Epcot. (Read what AllEars readers think about the Kim Possible Adventure.)


Another advantage to Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is that you can start and stop playing the game whenever you want -- take a break for a meal, a FastPass reservation, etc. And if you save your key card, it's good for life, a cast member told me. That means you can continue playing the same game until you defeat all eight villains and take on Hades in the finale, if you choose. Or, you can swipe your admission ticket once each day you enter the Magic Kingdom, get a new key card, and start fresh.


Each mission is designed to take 20 to 30 minutes in one particular area of the Magic Kingdom. That seemed to work well for my kids' attention spans. They were happy to complete one mission and then go ride some rides before returning to the game.

Our Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom experience focused on getting used to the basics -- until we ran into a helpful cast member. Enrique explained more about the strategy of the game -- certain spell cards are more effective on some villains than others at certain points in each mission. (Check the card for its energy attack, energy boost and energy shield point values.) Plus, you can increase your playing power by holding up to seven spell cards at the screen. Then, the powers of all seven characters will be directed at the villain. In addition, if you have one of the four fairy cards, you can win the game by using her spell at any point. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom has been testing in its "easy" mode, but two more difficult levels will be available as well.


Today, another engaging aspect of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom begins -- expanded trading of the spell cards. Guests who have played the game during the testing phase have been exchanging cards among themselves, but cast members now can be another resource. Guests are issued five random cards each day they play the game, and there are 60 total cards available. (There were an additional 10 cards issued initially, but Disney has stopped making them. So, if you get your hands on original cards numbered 61-70, hang onto them!) Already have a full set of spell cards? Walt Disney World is set to begin selling mystery packs of additional cards.


I have a hard time picturing first-time visitors to the Magic Kingdom planning their days around Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom -- there are just too many things to see and do to try to incorporate this game into a busy schedule when you're unfamiliar with the theme park. But I can certainly see its appeal for repeat and even multi-day guests and passholders. Scavenger hunts through the parks have long been popular with fan groups, and this new, permanent game has improved the experience for all ages.

February 20, 2012

HGTV’s 'My Yard Goes Disney' host says new things are in store for show’s new season


The second season of HGTV's popular My Yard Goes Disney kicks off this week with a one-hour premiere at 9 p.m. ET on Friday, February 24. I talked with the show's host, Brandon Johnson, about what viewers can expect this season and about how he enjoys his various Disney-related TV roles.

"We're going to be doing some things that are just a little bit more outrageous. We're doing things that we've never done before," Johnson said about the second season of My Yard Goes Disney. "We're going to be a lot more interactive than we were last year. "

This will be evident in the premiere, which Johnson jokingly called "My House Goes Disney" because the design team decided to renovate not just the yard, but some of the interiors as well. Even the space for the family pet was transformed with a magical makeover.

"We really want to do something special for this [Lakeland, Florida] family, and you'll certainly see why when you tune in," Johnson said.

So how outrageous are the yards going to get this year? Of course, Johnson can't give away too many details, but he did reveal this: "I can't say we've put in a roller coaster, but we've done something recently that is pretty unbelievable. ... It's got twists and turns, and you're up in the air. We're not just transforming stuff on the ground this year, we're going up in the air."

Johnson admits he would like this particular backyard for his own because he is a bit of an adrenaline junkie. His favorite ride at Walt Disney World is Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios. (Check out the AllEars page here to see what makes this Disney's Hollywood Studios attraction so great.)

"We're always trying to outdo the last thing, given the circumstances and the size of the backyard we get to work in. As always, it's playing off of the family's love of whatever their particular Disney experience may be," he said.

In addition, Imagineers consider what is new at Disney vacation destinations when creating their designs. This year, Disney will roll out Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, the Art of Animation hotel at Disney World, and the Disney Fantasy cruise ships. Wonder if we'll get sneak peeks?

Viewers can again expect to see other parts of the Disney theme parks featured in the show in some different ways. "We always have shots of the family enjoying themselves in various parks, and I'll be in there setting up stories," Johnson said. "This time we're also going to be going more into the places where some of these installations are created."

Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

If you don't happen to bump into Johnson when he's filming My Yard Goes Disney, you'll have other opportunities to meet him when he is a featured speaker at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. He will give 30-minute presentations on ways to make your own yard go Disney at noon and 3 p.m. April 13-15. Johnson will explain how to recreate some of the design elements featured on the show that blend Disney imagination with HGTV design. After each presentation, he will meet and greet the audience. (AllEars gives you the scoop on what's new at the 2012 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival.)

Disney Channel roles

When he's not busy with actual hosting duties, Johnson portrays a television host on Disney Channel's hit sitcom Shake It Up. He plays Gary Wilde, an the over-the-top character on the show's second season. He began developing the idea of a self-involved host when he had a recurring role as Brian Winters on Hannah Montana. Johnson said he was asked to portray Winters as a spoof of popular television host Ryan Seacrest, while making the character his own. Johnson built on his impression of Winters to create Wilde.

"It's a pretty amazing gift to be able to go to work and say this is how I make a living. I don't take it for granted at all. I've been extremely blessed to be a working actor and host for 10 years now," Johnson said. "I'm starting to come into something -- I'm not sure if the universe wants me to be an actor or a host, but it definitely seems to want me in front of the camera. I'll say "Thanks" and gladly hit my mark."

On Valentine's Day, Johnson launched his new website,, where there are links to all his social-media platforms. He enjoys connecting with fans and invites them to drop in and say "hi."

February 17, 2012

Girl Scouts to celebrate 100th birthday at Walt Disney World



Girl Scouts will have a unique opportunity to celebrate their organization's 100th birthday this spring with special events at Walt Disney World during Memorial Day weekend. "Bridging into the Next Century" takes place May 25 to 28 at Epcot in Orlando, Florida.

On Saturday, troops will recite the Girl Scout Promise in unison with all attendees and then participate in a one-time bridging ceremony. Afterward, they will receive commemorative keepsakes and can elect to attend a group breakfast in the theme park and have meet-and-greets with Disney characters. (Tips for meeting characters can be found at

Girl Scouts also will be able to learn about their organization's history with memorabilia on display at Epcot and explore Walt Disney World using a special booklet designed to guide girls toward activities that may help them complete National Proficiency Badge and Leadership Journey.

In addition, troops can elect to attend a Disney Youth Education Series program. During "Many Cultures, One World," girls will examine what defines culture and discover that while people come from many different backgrounds, they all have similar needs, interests and issues. (Because of advanced educational content and activities, this program is open to Brownies, Juniors, Cadettes, Seniors and Ambassador Girl Scouts. Daisies -- who are kindergarteners and first-graders -- are not eligible.)

Registration for the historic weekend is now open. The deadline is May 1, or when capacity has been reached. Packages and pricing options for Girl Scouts and their families can be found at for this event. Annual and cast member passes will not be accepted for these events.

A comparable event is being held at Disneyland in California the same weekend, but it has already sold out.

February 14, 2012

Disney World to enforce return times for FastPasses in March



Families planning to visit Walt Disney World after the first week in March may want to reconsider their touring strategies for the theme parks. Beginning March 7, cast members will enforce the end times on FastPass tickets, according to multiple reports and sources.

FastPasses are essentially reservation times for guests to return to the most popular Disney attractions at specific times in exchange for shorter wait times. Under the current system, a FastPass is issued for a one-hour window. However, cast members routinely do not enforce the end times, meaning guests can use their FastPasses anytime during the day once the start time arrives. (To read more about FastPasses, see the AllEars resource page.)

When cast members begin enforcing the FastPass policy in March, guests will be allowed to return five minutes earlier than the FastPass window starts and 15 minutes past the end time.

One common strategy for those familiar with the FastPass system is to ride attractions in the morning when the parks are less crowded and collect the maximum number of FastPasses -- one every two hours -- to use in the afternoon or evening when lines are longer.

With that option disappearing, families will need to determine their priorities -- experiencing more attractions per day by planning with the FastPass system or being able to explore at their own pace and take their chances on the standby lines.

Critics say that enforcing the FastPass windows will eliminate the spontaneity from a Disney vacation, as dining reservations, parade and fireworks times and other entertainment will have to be considered more closely with FastPasses. They also claim guests will be able to ride fewer rides. Those in favor of Disney using the system as it was designed remind guests they are not being forced to use FastPasses; they are simply an option for those who want to plan ahead.

Longtime Disney writer Jim Hill points out that enforcing the FastPass times is not a random change; it's being done to prepare for the rollout of the XPass system this year. XPass is a premium guest experience that is said to include such perks as FastPasses for every attraction a guest wants to ride, reserved parade seating in front of Cinderella Castle, special seats for the fireworks, dining reservations and more -- all booked from home well before a vacation starts.

Perhaps the most-talked-about aspect of the XPass system is the personalization of character experiences and rides for those with the RFID wristbands. Hill says characters will be able to greet guests by name and there even will be additions to rides such as it's a small world that allow computer-generated dolls to interact with the guests who created them. Hill reports XPass will first be made available only to guests staying at deluxe Disney resorts.

Disney World has not officially announced the XPass program, but it has been alluded to in public comments by company leaders talking about its NextGen project. Last summer, cast members at the Magic Kingdom tested a FastPass system for parade seating.

As one writer astutely observed: These changes, which begin by enforcing the FastPass windows, are a step toward Disney World offering all-inclusive vacations, where everything is planned for the guest, much like going on a Disney Cruise. Do they make you want to step onboard?

Leave a comment on your thoughts about these changes.

February 9, 2012

Introducing Kristin Ford


I'm new to AllEars, but I'm not new to the Disney experience. My love of The Mouse began, like so many others', with childhood family vacations to Walt Disney World. In 1979, I stayed at the Contemporary; rode the monorail to the only Disney World theme park, the Magic Kingdom; swam at River Country; and visited Discovery Island. I still miss The Skyway cable cars and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. At the same time, I'm excited to see the Fantasyland Expansion begin its rollout this year.

Some of you may recognize me as the former A Mom and The Mouse, my name when I blogged about all aspects of The Walt Disney Co. for the Orlando Sentinel. I also was a member of the newspaper's Theme Park Rangers blog team and the Visitor Guide editor for years before launched. I have been a journalist for almost 20 years.

As an Orlando local, I visit the Disney parks often with my husband and two elementary-school-age children. We have been fortunate to experience two Disney cruises onboard the Wonder and the Dream in the last couple years. After those experiences, my nine-year-old son announced he plans to be a Disney Cruise Line captain one day. My seven-year-old daughter alternates between wanting to be a mermaid like Ariel, her favorite Disney princess, and a dolphin trainer.

During my time covering Disney, one of the most amazing things I have discovered is how welcoming, passionate and knowledgeable members of the fan community are. I have had a wonderful time getting to know so many people and hope to meet even more in my new role at AllEars. I will be blogging on a regular basis at AllEars, writing feature articles for the weekly newsletter and also working behind the scenes.

Please come and say hello on Twitter @Kristin_B_Ford and at @AllEarsNet!

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About Kristin Ford

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