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October 16, 2017

Savor, Sip and Sparkle at California Grill

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We attended the Celebration at the Top - Savor, Sip and Sparkle event at California Grill on Sunday, October 1. This was a MNSSHP night at Magic Kingdom, so we started at 9:15PM with fireworks at 10:15. Times vary with the MK fireworks schedule.

We arrived and checked in at the California Grill podium on the second floor, then we were escorted up to the restaurant and shown to the event rooms. They had a table with "glow" flutes of sparkling wine as we exited the elevator. There was a large room with tables and a bar on one side, and a smaller room with maybe 8 small tables and the food stations on the other side.

Each table had a light-up necklace for each guest to take home as a party favor. We decided to sit in the smaller room since the seating in the larger room was already almost full. The waitstaff were wonderful and made sure our glasses were always full. In addition to the sparkling wine they had a full bar available, but we did not order anything from the bar.


Food selections were sushi rolls - California, Veggie, and Spicy Tuna.

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There were mini lobster rolls topped with micro greens on the sushi table as well.

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For hot selections we had pork belly Bao buns, chicken satay skewers, and 2 choices of flatbread - BLT or Cheesesteak. The appetizers are all served buffet style so guests can serve themselves and come back for additional bites at leisure.

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We struck up a conversation with a lady at the next table who was traveling solo from the UK, and before we knew it we were headed out to the observation deck for Hallowishes. The music was piped in and we had a lovely view of the show. At the conclusion of the fireworks we went back inside for dessert.

The dessert offerings were an assortment of "mini" portions including fruit tarts, chocolate ganache cupcakes, and vanilla cheesecake. We chose to have coffee along with dessert.

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They had one of the photo frames for guests to pose with to commemorate the evening as things were winding to a close.


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We really enjoyed this event! It is offered on select Sundays for $99 per person.

March 12, 2017

BeaverTails

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About a month ago Carol and I enjoyed a Canadian delicacy at FebFest, a winter carnival that takes place in our city every year.

FebFest

Our downtown transforms into a winter wonderland as residents enjoy the outdoor skating rink behind City Hall.

FebFest Hockey

There are hockey and curling games to watch.

FebFest Ice Sculpture

FebFest Ice Sculpture

There are ice sculptures to enjoy.

But the best thing of all – there are BeaverTails!

FebFest BeaverTail Kiosk

FebFest BeaverTail

Do you remember when they sold BeaverTails at EPCOT? Weren’t they delicious?

No, no . . . I’m not talking about the big flat tail from that large toothy rodent! I’m talking about a tasty deep fried pastry which originated in Canada! A piece of dough, about the same size and shape as a beaver’s tail, is deep fried to a golden brown then either dredged in sugar and cinnamon or topped with something gooey and sweet!

BeaverTails products

They are always fresh, never pre-cooked. Your BeaverTail will be in your hand about 20 seconds after it leaves the fryer! Hot and delicious!

FebFest Menu

There are similar pastries sold in other areas, referred to by such names as fried dough or elephant ears, but somehow none of them sound as appetizing to me as a BeaverTail! It’s another uniquely Canadian food!

We unusually eat them outdoors and in the winter so I suspect that the contrast, cold weather and a hot snack, really enhances our enjoyment. I prefer the original BeaverTail, dredged in sugar and cinnamon. That's probably a good thing because I'm a very sloppy eater and Carol would never allow me to try one covered with all that runny, gooey stuff!

BeaverTails were first sold in Killaloe, a small Ontario town about 100 miles north of the city Carol and I call home.

Killaloe

It was 1978 when Grant and Pam Hooker sold their first pastries at the Killaloe Craft and Community Fair. They were an instant hit! It wasn’t long before the Hookers were busy every weekend, traveling all over eastern Ontario selling their delicious hot pastries at festivals and county fairs.

Two years later, the Hookers opened up the first BeaverTails store at the Byward Market in nearby Ottawa.

BeaverTails Byward Market Store

It was an instant success!

President Obama at the Byward Market

President Obama stopped at the Byward Market for a BeaverTail in February 2009.

Soon BeaverTails were selling like crazy along the world’s longest skating rink. Every winter Canadians enjoy skating along a 7.8 kilometre (4.8 mile) stretch of the historic Rideau Canal as it winds its way through downtown Ottawa.

Rideau Canal Skateway

Usually it is frozen by early January and ploughs and zambonis are used to keep it clean and fresh for skaters until the end of February. Food trucks and refreshment kiosks are a common sight on the ice along the sides of the canal and the BeaverTail stand always has the longest line of skaters waiting for a delicious treat!

Rideau Canal BeaverTail Kiosk

Today there are more than a hundred BeaverTail outlets across Canada; most of the permanent stores are in high traffic tourist areas.

BeaverTail Mobile Kiosk

BeaverTail Truck

There are mobile units and food trucks that travel to festivals and events, like the one Carol and I bought our pastries from a few weeks ago at FebFest!

You can find BeaverTails at most ski resorts in Canada.

BeaverTails at Mont Tremblant
Mont Tremblant in Quebec

Grouse Mountain
Grouse Mountain, Vancouver BC

You can buy BeaverTails at Niagara Falls.

BeaverTails Niagara Falls

You can buy BeaverTails in Dubai, Tokyo and South Korea.

BeaverTails Japan

BeaverTails Japan Menu

But you can’t buy a BeaverTail at EPCOT. What’s with that?

What do you think folks? Does Disney need to bring back the BeaverTail?

March 6, 2017

Disney Legend Marty Sklar learns that inspiration can be a two-way street

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Marty Sklar, center, poses for a photo after his presentation at the Festival of the Arts in Epcot in February. From the left are Julian Robinson, Chuck Schmidt, Marty, Janet Schmidt and Gail Robinson. [Courtesy of Gail and Julian Robinson]


"One little spark, of inspiration, is at the heart, of all creation." - Richard and Robert Sherman

Inspiration comes in many forms. Sometimes, all you need to be inspired is just one little spark.

Take, for example, the young woman who told an inspirational story during a question-and-answer session at a recent Festival of the Arts workshop conducted by Disney Legend Marty Sklar in the Odyssey Festival Center in Epcot.

"This is more of a comment than a question," she began. "I was trying to decide what type of career path I wanted to take when my college professor suggested that I read your book, One Little Spark! I did, and it inspired me to pursue a career as an Imagineer. I'm currently working as an intern with Walt Disney Imagineering."

Add that woman to the very long list of people Marty Sklar has inspired over the years. And, in a roundabout way, add Marty Sklar to the list of people the woman has inspired during her still-young career. More on that later.

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The artwork of both Herb Ryman, above, and Mary Blair were on display at the Odyssey Festival Center at Epcot during the inaugural Festival of the Arts. [AllEars.Net]

Marty's workshop at the Festival of the Arts was part of a troika of appearances by the former creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering at his beloved Epcot: There was the sold-out presentation at the Odyssey on Feb. 11, then a book signing on Feb. 12 in the Art of Disney at Epcot, and finally a return to the Odyssey on Feb. 13 for a talk about the artwork of Disney Legends Herb Ryman and Mary Blair.

During his Feb. 11 workshop, Marty talked about his two books, Dream It! Do It! and the aforementioned One Little Spark!

"My first book was sort of takeoff on one of my favorite songs, '50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,' by Paul Simon, although that in no way reflects my real life. My wife Leah and I will be celebrating our 60th anniversary on May 12th.

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Bob Gurr and Marty Sklar have done a number of Disney events over the years, the most recent being a presentation at the Texas Transportation Forum. [AllEars.Net]

"It was more about 50 ways to get started. Nothing I had done prepared me to write Dream It! Do It! I first had to come to grips with the question: 'Do I really have something worthwhile to say?' In the end, I found out that writing a book takes a lot of patience, research and flexibility.

"And every writer needs a good editor and I was fortunate to have been able to work with Wendy Lefkon from Disney Editions. Her support and help, particularly with accessing material from the Disney Archives, was very important."

His follow-up book, One Little Spark!, took a deep dive into the world of Imagineering. It also provided a guide map for people aspiring to join the Walt Disney Company's much-heralded and respected creative wing.

Both of Marty's books have been unqualified successes and have resulted in book-signing tours over the last few years that have literally spanned the globe ... from Shanghai, China, to Toms River, N.J. "I just signed a contract with a Brazilian publisher for Portuguese editions of both books," Marty said. "Dream It! Do It! already has Japanese and Mandarin Chinese versions."

I asked Marty if there is another book in the works. That's when I learned that inspiration can be a two-way street.

"Yes, I've started working on another book, but it's hard to get motivated," he admitted. "But the Festival of the Arts audiences – including my separate book signing on Sunday – have inspired me to get moving."

During his workshop on Saturday, Marty said he was "really excited about the first-ever Festival of the Arts. It's wonderful to see the works of the Disney artists on display her at Epcot. Forgive me if I get a bit emotional. I worked on Epcot from 1973 until it opened in October of 1982 ... almost 35 years ago. Today, Epcot is the sixth-most visited park in the world. It's great to see the arts have joined in the fun here."

Inside the Odyssey, some of the works of Legendary Disney artists Herb Ryman and Mary Blair were on display, serving as a fitting backdrop to Marty's presentation, as well as the Festival in general.

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A poster advertising the Texas Transportation Forum had a very Disney feel to it.

Marty's appearance at Epcot capped off another whirlwind stretch for the now 83-year-old. Prior to his Epcot stint, he and fellow Disney Legend Bob Gurr, who is 85, gave presentations at the Texas Transportation Forum, which ran from Feb 5-7 in Austin.

The title of their keynote talk was "Imagineering a Legacy: How Disney's Designs Influence Today's Transportation." Who better to talk about transportation issues than two of Imagineering's guiding lights, two Disney giants who were always pushing the envelope and developing creative and forward-thinking solutions to a myriad of problems?

Both Marty and Bob gave perspective and context on how Imagineering's "great sense of innovation can be applied to the transportation problems of today," according to the event program. "The Imagineers had to think outside the box to overcome many issues, including developing new and innovative transportation systems."

"I guess we were a big hit." Marty said. After their presentation in front of 1,500 people, "another 500-600 were at our Breakout Session. They said some of the government people [doing other Breakout sessions] were not thrilled – we had by far the biggest audience!"

"Yes, we both had a blast," Gurr added. "1,500 Texas government folks, all friendly Republicans. Well organized and ready for tall tales from Disney's past more than issues of transportation. The panel presenters did all of that, while we made up stories."

Stories that no doubt inspired those in attendance to dream up new and creative ways to tackle many of today's pressing transportation issues.

December 26, 2016

Disney Legend Charlie Ridgway, who passed away Dec. 24: There will never be another like him

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Charlie Ridgway conducts an interview on Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World prior to the beginning of WDW's 15th anniversary celebration in 1986. [The Walt Disney Company]


"There will never be another like him."

In the hubbub of the holiday season, the passing of Disney Legend Charlie Ridgway on Dec. 24 may have gone unnoticed to most casual Disney fans ... but not to the people who knew him, worked for him, admired him and flat-out loved him.

"I wanted to let you know that our dear Charlie, 93, passed away today," former Walt Disney World publicity director Rick Sylvain messaged me on Christmas Eve.

Our dear Charlie.

That pretty much sums up the feelings of so many people whose lives were touched by the kind-hearted gentleman from Missouri, whose humble beginnings as a radio disc jockey and Midwestern newspaperman belied his legendary status in Disney's star-studded firmament.

Charlie, the master of spinning Disney's world as the company's chief press agent at both Disneyland and WDW, followed in his father's footsteps and earned a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Despite his journalism pedigree, he began his career in radio because his father, who covered the agricultural beat for the Chicago Tribune, told him that "newspapers are bound to be a dying breed and encouraged me to get into radio. He was pretty wise."

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Charlie sets up a publicity photo of Donald Duck in the shadows of Cinderella Castle. [The Walt Disney Company]

Charlie landed a job at a 5,000-watt radio station in Erie, Pa., in the late 1940s after serving honorably during World War II. After about three years, though, he got a job offer from the Erie Dispatch, "my first job as a newspaperman. That job lasted about a year before I decided I needed to get into a bigger market. I had fallen in love with Los Angeles during the war, so I decided to go out there in 1952."

Charlie, his wife Gretta and their young family moved west, to a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles called Anaheim. He got a job as a general reporter with the Los Angeles Mirror-News and became aware of a construction site near their house when he and his family passed it on their way to the beach on weekends.

That construction site, rising up from large fields of orange groves, was to become Disneyland. It was Charlie Ridgway who was among the first journalists to do a story on Disneyland in early 1955 prior to opening ... and it was Charlie who was among the hundreds of frazzled journalists on hand to cover opening day on July 17, 1955.

Indeed, Charlie covered Disneyland for several years, for both the Los Angeles Mirror-News, then the Long Beach Press-Telegram, before he accepted a job offer from Disneyland in 1963 in the park's publicity department, doing the bulk of the office's writing.

A legendary career with Disney was launched.

From his tiny office above the police station near City Hall, Charlie dreamed up new and creative ways to get the word out on Disneyland, among them the press event he helped set up for the grand opening of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in 1967.

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Charlie signs a copy of his book, "Spinning Disney's World," several years ago.

"We sailed all the press people around in the sailing ship Columbia and then came in and fired the cannons and had a big sword fight on the deck." In addition, buccaneers boarded the ship from smaller craft and pirates fell from the ship into the river during their duels. Once the press folks were in a swashbuckling mood, they disembarked the ship and "stormed" the entrance of the Pirates of the Caribbean to gain access.

"I was in on that," Charlie said proudly during an interview with me in early 2014.

In the years that followed, Charlie was the go-to guy when it came to dreaming up fun and creative ways to publicize the park. Then, in 1969, Charlie was asked to move to central Florida to drum up publicity for Walt Disney's "latest and greatest dream" ... Walt Disney World.

"The first trip I made when I took the job at the end of 1969 was to go to New York. I went to Time, Life and Look magazines and all the major newspapers and I also went to Washington to National Geographic."

Look Magazine wanted to be the first publication to have a cover story on WDW, but the Magic Kingdom was still six months from completion. "It was way too early," Charlie said. "There wasn't that much really finished. But we were able to gerrymander things and produce pictures that looked like it was really done."

Charlie also played a key role in the classic photo that appeared on the cover of Life Magazine a few weeks before WDW opened.

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The Life Magazine cover prior to the opening of Walt Disney World in 1972 which Charlie Ridgway helped set up. [Life Magazine]

"I suggested we do a mob-scene photo and we carried forward from that point," Charlie said. "We went to Life with the idea and they liked it. They sent down one of their very best photographers [Yale Joel]. He got up on a stand with an 8 x 10 view camera to shoot the picture. Of course, that was the one we shot in front of the castle. We assembled as many cast members [3,000 of the 5,000 on staff at the time] as we could get there."

Charlie also was the architect of many elaborate press events during his years at WDW, events that saw literally thousands of members of the media invited to experience first-hand the magic and wonder of The Vacation Kingdom of the World.

Perhaps the most significant press event in Charlie's eyes was the grand opening of Epcot in October of 1982. It was the first time in broadcast history that television stations from around the country were able to carry an event live, thanks to a still-untested satellite uplink technology. "It was a rather feeble attempt, by today's standards," Charlie said, but it worked beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

It was Charlie at his finest. "We used to sit around marketing meetings dreaming up crazy ideas," he said.

Charlie's "crazy ideas" left a lasting impression on those folks who were privileged to work with him.

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The author with Charlie Ridgway during lunch in 1992. [Chuck Schmidt collection]

"I don't think he realizes how important he is to all of us and how much influence he's had on our careers," Michelle Baumann, who was hired by Charlie more than 25 years ago, told me a few years ago. "To give you an idea of what kind of person Charlie was, I was hired back during the time when photo captions had to be pasted onto the backs of the publicity photos, which was pretty tedious and time-consuming, but Charlie would be right there with us, doing the grunt work, not giving it a second thought.

"Every once in a while, we'll be stumped with something and someone in the office will say, 'What would Charlie do?' He made that much of an impression on us."

Rick Sylvain and a bunch of Charlie's "old guard" were scheduled to take him out to lunch on Dec. 14, but the luncheon had to be scrapped because of Charlie's failing health.

"So many of us owe so much to that man," Rick said. "I know he rescued me from a nasty newspaper strike in Detroit in 1995 and launched me on 20 years that I will never forget.

"There will never be another like him."

December 22, 2016

Backstage Magic Tour

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by J. Scott Lopes
AllEars.Net Guest Blogger

Have you ever wanted to go behind the scenes to see what goes on backstage at Disney World, to see how they make and maintain some of your favorite attractions? If you have then the Backstage Magic Tour is for you!

Disney refers to the Backstage Magic tour as “an insider’s look at the heritage, daily operation and cast member roles that create the 'magic' at Walt Disney World Resort." I had been thinking about this 7-1/2-hour tour for several years, wondering if it would be the best use of my time at the parks. Despite my apprehension, I finally made the commitment a few weeks ago, and I am so glad that I did.

I know that tours can book up quickly, so once I decided to do it I booked it right away. (You can cancel within 48 hours if needed.) A few days before the tour, I received a call and a confirmation email, which also served to let me know that open-toe and open-heel shoes are not permitted on the tour.

The tour starts early, at 9 a.m., with the meeting time at 8:45 a.m at Epcot's Guest Relations located just outside the park entrance, in a specially marked area.

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Based on my experience with early morning tours, I recommend that you use a taxi cab or Uber if you do not have your own transportation. Unlike some of the other tours where they will help you find and join the tour group if you are late (my experience with a few of the tours unfortunately), they specifically state that this is not possible for this tour. Instead, they will rebook you for a different day based on availability if you are late. Note that the taxi drop-off location for Epcot is very close to Guest Relations, however you do need to go through bag check. I decided not to bring a camera on the tour, and instead relied on my phone, mostly because there are very few times when you are allowed to take pictures during the tour, only one of them in a backstage area.

Just before 9 a.m., our tour guides Tom and Paul joined us. They talked with us about the tour, checked us in, gave us our name tags, and note if any participants had any food allergies.

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We also had the option to take a picture, which they referred to as an "establishing shot," because there would not be too many opportunities for pictures. (You can see mine at the top of this blog.)

Ready to start on our journey, we made a restroom stop (one of many during the day), then proceeded to board our transportation for the day, a Disney Cruise Line bus, where we had access to complimentary bottled water.

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Once on board, we talked a bit more about our day ahead. Our guides shared some stories, discussing a special event Disney has for its cast members during which they can bring their pets to work and take pictures with them in front of the castle. They also talked about the onsite healthcare staffed with nurses and doctors, onsite pet care, and how easy it is to pick up prescriptions at the onsite pharmacy.

The tour bus was almost full, and there were approximately 40 guests on this tour. Due to the size of the group, many times throughout the day we split into two smaller groups.

Our first stop was a good example of this, as we stopped at the American Adventure in the World Showcase. At this stop, we were given our listening devices, and safety glasses, as we would need both when we were backstage watching the morning test for the American Adventure. During the test, we were able to watch part of the show from behind the rear projection screen, and also viewed the show props and animatronic figures moving on a hydraulic mechanism. Paul discussed how Disney goes to great lengths to make sure that everything is detailed, such as using medical grade glass eyeballs in the audio animatronics as well as real hair and dentures.

After viewing that area, we moved outside into the America Gardens Theatre area. World Showcase was not open yet, so it was considered a backstage area and pictures were not allowed. While we were waiting other cast members were all abuzz as they were filming a wedding with a bride and groom rushing out to a horse-drawn carriage. There were also carriages in Canada and China pavilions, and although at first the guide speculated it was staged, we found out later that it was a real wedding, supposedly being filmed for a reality show that will air sometime in 2017.

After discussing some of the external details of the American Adventure pavilion, we boarded the bus for Costuming, which used to be housed in Disney’s Hollywood Studios (you might remember that the Backlot Tour tram would drive though it), but has been relocated to a new building. Just like when an attraction is removed, and some props are reused in other areas, the old costuming sign from Hollywood studios has been reused in the new building. During this stop, we were shown a wall that contained button and fabric samples of the costumes that are used. We also got an up-close look at two of the costumes from the soon-to-open Rivers of Light show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. There were many cast members working on various costumes, however one thing that was impressive is that during the holiday season, a theme is selected and scraps of fabric are used to create teddy bears that are then donated. A similar event where they make pet beds also happens, both of which show how Disney and its cast members like to give back to the community.

Our next stop was Textile Services. This particular location handles laundry from the moderate and deluxe resorts. At the laundry facility, we were given the opportunity to take a special picture, the only one that was allowed in a backstage area. In this photo op, you get to have your picture taken in one of the laundry bags that they use to transport the laundry between sections of the plant.

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At Textile Services, you get to view how they process the sheets and towels, and use machinery to fold them. One of the fun facts that our guides shared with us is that Textile Services has the lowest job turnover (a human resources term for how long employees stay in a particular job). They also told us that Disney requires cast members in guest-facing roles to be able to speak English, but those who don’t can work in an area like Textile Services that doesn't have guest interaction. We were also shown the inspiration for the hallway of doors scene in Monsters, Inc. On the way out, our tour guides coordinated the group in yelling out thank you and waving, as these cast members usually don’t get thanked by guests for their important roles.

We then proceeded to the Wilderness Lodge, where we had lunch at the Whispering Canyon Cafe.

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This family style, All-You-Care-To-Enjoy Skillet included Slow-smoked Pork Ribs, Barbecued Pulled Pork, Roasted Glazed Chicken, and Western-style Sausage served with Mashed Yukon Potatoes, Corn on the Cob, and Cowboy-style Baked Beans. For dessert we enjoyed the Granny Smith Apple-Caramel Tart.

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This was delicious -- everyone in the group was impressed! The cast members were very good about making sure that the tour members who had dietary restrictions were well taken care of.

After lunch, we discussed some of the Lodge's Christmas decorations before boarding the bus again.

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Our next stop was Central Shops. We toured the facility, where we had an audio-animatronic demonstration using a Tiki bird and also a polar bear from the old Norway pavilion attraction, Maelstrom. While in the shops, we could view many different props and ride vehicles being worked on. One engineer was using a laptop and digitizer to 3D scan an elephant. Another group of technicians was working on making a fiberglass item. We also walked through the paint room where a craftsman was prepping a wooden horse for painting. After viewing the shops we walked across the street to view a storage warehouse.

We then boarded the bus and were off to our last stop, Magic Kingdom, where we were taken though the utilidoors. You may have seen this backstage area if you have ever taken the Keys to the Kingdom tour, although I feel like this visit might have been a little more extensive. We were then brought back on-stage and given a special treat to watch the Festival of Fantasy Parade near the town hall.

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After the parade was finished, we regrouped and made our way backstage to re-board the bus. We then headed back to Epcot where we were given a special commemorative pin only available to guests who take this tour.

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Overall, I was pleasantly surprised on what a great tour this was and recommend that every Walt Disney World fan take it a least once.

The Backstage Magic Tour is currently $275 per person plus tax and can be booked by calling 407-WDW-TOUR. Note that this tour does not require separate park admission so if you are in a situation where you have a day without a park ticket, this tour might be a good choice for you. When booking the tour, be sure to ask about discounts for Chase Disney Visa, Disney Vacation Club, Annual Passholder. (Visit AllEars.Net's Walt Disney World Special Tours and Experiences page for more information about the tours currently offered.)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

J. Scott Lopes is a long time Disney fan who first went to Walt Disney World as a child in 1989 and has enjoyed traveling to Orlando ever since. He is interested in all things Disney Parks related and especially interested in the Walt Disney Imagineering division and all of the work and detail that they put into everything that they engineer.


December 10, 2016

Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party for Teens and Young Adults

by Evan L. Weston
AllEars® Guest Blogger

We're deep into the heart of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party season, and that means the scramble is on to snatch up passes for the Magic Kingdom's premier specially ticketed event.

In my feature article in the November 15 edition of the AllEars® newsletter, I discussed how Magic Kingdom tends to be the most difficult park to convince the teen and young adult demographic to try, and the Christmas Party can exacerbate some of those perceptions. The event is built not around thrills or a club atmosphere, but around exclusive character meets and once-a-year shows and parades. But don't let the surface events fool you; there's plenty of fun to be found for our subset, including every young adult's absolute favorite thing in the world. Say it with me...

FREE FOOD!

MVMCP Food

Yes, there are not one, not two, but eight complimentary treats included with your Christmas Party admission! The offerings include four different cookies, three beverages, and what turned out to be my girlfriend's favorite, a blue raspberry snow cone that you should definitely have before it gets too cold! On the food side, the best offerings are the snickerdoodle cookies, on hand at Tortuga Tavern in Adventureland, and the peppermint bark cookies from Tomorrowland's Lunching Pad. If you're out on a cool Florida night, you can pick up hot chocolate at both of those locations, but I tended towards the spiced hot cider, located all the way in the back of the park at Pete's Silly Sideshow. It's worth the trek, if only to gawk at the sometimes three-hour line to meet the Seven Dwarves!

Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party also includes a benefit you shouldn't discount: some of the shortest waits you'll ever see on the Magic Kingdom's flagship attractions.

MVMCP Lines

With capacity limited and most of the attention focused on the shows and parades, attractions that normally see wait times exceeding an hour often can be done in under 20 minutes. Space Mountain, for instance, never went higher than 25 minutes at any point during our Friday night visit to the Christmas Party. Line times plummet further after Holiday Wishes and especially after the final parade; just after 11 p.m., only the uber-popular Seven Dwarfs Mine Train had a wait higher than 20 minutes, sitting at a very doable half an hour.

Lastly, for those looking to get into the Christmas spirit, Holiday Wishes is well worth your time. Don't bother waiting forever in front of the castle for a premium view, though; instead catch it from the side of the castle (where plenty of the show is still visible) and stay near a hub exit, ready to break back for the rides before the crowd disperses. It's really not a bad view:

Holiday Wishes

For other entertainment, Tomorrowland features four performances a night from VoicePlay, a supremely talented, Orlando-based a cappella group that came to fame on NBC's "The Sing-Off." The shows are, for whatever reason, never particularly crowded, and offer a very cool theatrical experience. It's absolutely wild what these guys can do with just their voices!

Between free food, short waits, and a little bit of Christmas magic, be sure to remember that Magic Kingdom, even Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, has something for everyone in the family!

Mickey & Minnie

December 5, 2016

Art Smith's Homecoming beefs up Disney Springs' restaurant offerings

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Guests at Art Smith's Homecoming in The Landing neighborhood at Disney Springs prepare to dig in to some of the restaurant's signature items. [Courtesy of Art Smith's Homecoming]

As celebrity chefs go, Art Smith is the antithesis of the flashy food mavens you often see on TV cooking channels. He's thoughtful, articulate and genuinely down-to-earth.

But that doesn't mean Smith isn't passionate about what he does.

When Smith partnered with the Walt Disney Company to create Art Smith's Homecoming, one of the crown jewels of the newly transformed Disney Springs shopping, dining and entertainment district, he did so with the intention of bringing back the traditional family dining concept that's been lost in the hustle and bustle of our 21st Century lifestyles.

"It's great to see people enjoying food," Smith said during a recent interview at his restaurant, located in The Landing neighborhood of Disney Springs, the district's own version of "restaurant row."

Smith is a proponent of what he calls "celebrational family food," as well as sharing at the dinner table. "I like to serve food that's 'shareable'," meaning the meal is placed at the middle of the table and everybody just digs in.

"The sharing of food makes it more precious. And where I came from, we always had a salad with every meal."

Smith is no stranger to preparing delicious food, owning restaurants or being in the spotlight.

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Chef Art Smith is a proponent of family style, shareable dining. [Courtesy of Art Smith's Homecoming]

He has cooked for several political leaders and celebrities, and was even Oprah Winfrey's personal chef for several years. "Oprah taught me some great lessons," he says with a laugh, "including, 'Wine with food, thank you very much!'"

He's appeared on a number of television shows and specials, has written four books, has traveled the world as part of the State Department's Chefs' Program, owns restaurants in Chicago [TABLE fifty-two] and Washington, D.C. [Art and Soul] and has won several awards, including the James Beard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year in 2007.

Indeed, if there's one takeaway from talking to Smith is that he's a caring individual.

He cares about his home state of Florida [he's a sixth-generation Floridian whose great-grandfather was a moonshiner], making a commitment to use only Florida-grown products in Homecoming [as it says on the sign outside his establishment, "Florida Kitchen, Southern Shine"]. He also cares passionately about teaching children sound nutritional values. To that end, he founded the non-profit Common Threads. He's also on the board of a nutrition program in Minneapolis called Kids' Cafe.

Smith and his husband, Jesus Salgueiro, have four adopted children, so for him, the stakes are pretty high when it comes to children's nutrition.

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Church Lady Deviled Eggs are one of many must-have selections at Art Smith's Homecoming. [Courtesy of Art Smith's Homecoming]

Years ago, "I played the whole funny fat chef thing," he said. At one point, he admits, his weight ballooned over 350 pounds. He credits healthier food choices and running marathons for helping him drop more than 100 pounds. "We have four kids. I wanna live a long, healthy life for them. You have to be responsible when it comes to your food choices, including cutting down on sugar and salt consumption. My No. 1 rule is don't drink your calories. When you take better care of yourself, you take better care of others."

Smith is involved in a number of projects which reaffirm his commitment to responsibility when it comes to the field of agriculture.

He recently purchased a former jai alai arena with plans to build a bakery and market. "I wanted to create a real farmer's market, one that showcased fresh items from Florida farms. You have to remember there are a lot of hard-working families on our farms," Smith said, adding that "Florida is the winter pantry of America."

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Art's Fabulous Fried Chicken is buttermilk-brined, moist and tender. [Courtesy of Art Smith's Homecoming]

He also purchased an Antebellum house with the idea of turning it into a school of sustainability.

"Most chefs don't know where their food comes from," Smith says, adding that many have a "Cisco-to-table mentality," meaning they take food from a delivery truck, cook it, then serve it. "Chefs should be more conscious of health and wellness."

He's also involved in helping to bring back the sagging oyster industry in Florida. "In Apalachicola, the water has changed so much and the oyster industry has suffered because of it." An oyster farming program he helped initiate at a local community college is so popular that it has a six-year waiting list.

Smith is the first Disney College Program graduate to open a business on Disney property, a fact that he's very proud of. "That's me when I was a young pup," he says, pointing to a picture of himself while in the program in 1980.

"I'm a big believer in internships," he said. He's also a big Disney fan. "I admire the sense of team spirit at Disney, the sense of family. It's no wonder so many people stay and work here for as long as they do." Smith first visited Walt Disney World when he was just 12; he and his family stayed at the Polynesian Resort.

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According to Chef Art Smith, Homecoming's desserts "taste like momma made 'em." [Courtesy of Art Smith's Homecoming]

Sense of family is so important to Art Smith and it shows through in the signature items Homecoming offers.

His Church Lady Deviled Eggs are truly mouth-watering. Momma's Mac and Cheese ... delicious. His buttermilk-brined Fabulous Fried Chicken is moist, tender and absolutely scrumptious. Addie Mae's Chicken and Dumplings ... superb. There's also fried catfish, shrimp and grits and an assortment of sandwiches and burgers. Homecoming also has a full bar with a variety of signature drinks.

And then there are the rich, decadent desserts ... desserts, Smith says proudly, "that taste like momma made 'em."

Smith says that Homecoming was five years in the making, but during the process, he never once thought about how much it would cost. "I'm a big believer in dreaming it and making that dream come true.

"I hope you find inspiration here. For all of us, the sharing of a meal is a common, anticipated ritual that reunites us with loved ones and brings a sense of balance to our lives. It's my heart's desire ... to serve a simple, unfussy meal of freshly made foods ... and see how it enriches your lives."



November 6, 2016

Changes at Ft. Wilderness

By Guest Blogger Kay Belin

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This past summer Fort Wilderness went through a huge change when they took a popular cabin loop and turned it into a camping loop. Many guests were disappointed as they watched "their" cabins disappear from the Fort. For many weeks you could actually see some of them sitting on the old landing strip on the way to the Magic Kingdom.

Work began to make new sites for RV camping. Concrete pads were built and electrical and water connections were put together for each site. I think everyone had thought that these new sites would be premium sites meaning long pads, high quality picnic tables, and all the other amenities of premium sites. The 2100 loop finally opened late summer and it was a surprise to see that it is now an added Full Hook-up loop and not Premium.

The pads are different from the other four Full loops, 1600-1900. The new pads have short concrete pads with a very small amount of sand pad in front of them. They have instead added a larger area of sand pad to the side and its just big enough for the picnic table. The loop itself is a very pretty loop with many large trees and some sites backing up to a drainage stream. The pads and area are very level and most sites appear to have easy access for backing into them.

There is an old comfort station located in the middle of the loop but at this time it is not available. Thus, two loops will now use the comfort station located next to the 1100 Loop.

Check out the pictures showing the different configuration of the pads.

These are the older pads in the 1600-1900 loops.

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These are the pads in the new 2100 camping loop. The 2100 loop will be a quieter area but the pads might not best meet your needs with your longer RV.

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Fort Wilderness is looking good these days. Lots of trimming and sprucing up the area has taken place. All cabins have been refurbished and are beautiful and include big screen TV's and queen beds. You can often catch a sight of the many turkey and deer who also call this resort their home making it a very special place to stay.

October 16, 2016

The Utilidors at Magic Kingdom

Gary Cruise banner

Did you know that as you walk along Main Street USA at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom you are walking on the second floor of the park?

Yes, it’s true! As you walk through the Magic Kingdom there is a whole unseen world just below your feet. It’s a series of service tunnels which cast members call Utilidors. The name is a mash-up of Utilities and Corridors.

Florida is very flat and it’s mostly made of sand. If you dig a hole almost anywhere in Florida you will find water just a few feet down! That’s why very few homes in Florida have basements; most are built on concrete pads which lay directly on the sand.

Back in the mid 60’s when Disney began construction in Florida the Utilidors were the first thing they built! They didn’t excavate the tunnel system; they built it on top of the ground. Then as soon as the network of tunnels and service areas was completed they began dredging sand to create the Seven Seas Lagoon. All the sand they dredged was piled around the Utilidors and raised the ground level throughout the Magic Kingdom by 10 to 12 feet. Just like that the Utilidors were underground!

Here’s an experiment for you! The next time you are entering the Magic Kingdom, after you’ve gone through the bag-check area, stop for a minute and look ahead toward the Main Street Train Station. Do you see that gentle but steady upward slope? Now turn 180° and face the Seven Seas Lagoon. Do you see the downward slope?

That’s where all the sand went when they created the lake. As you walk up that slope you are walking from ground level to the second floor!

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The picture above shows the construction of the Utilidors. Click on the image to see a larger version. Those cars and trucks in the foreground, at the very bottom of the picture are parked in the Utilidor, in the area that we now know as The New Fantasyland. In the background you can see Cinderella Castle taking shape, and at the very top of the picture are the buildings at the top end of Main Street USA. The Plaza Ice Cream Parlor on the left and Casey’s Corner on the right. The Utilidors run under all of it!

Over the years Carol and I have enjoyed a number of tours at Walt Disney World. I really enjoy getting behind the scenes to get a glimpse of the “backstage” areas and listen to some of the insider information that the guides share with guests.

One of our first tours was the “Keys to the Kingdom” tour at the Magic Kingdom and it remains one of my favourite!

Why was it special? Because we got to go down into the Utilidors!

We weren’t there very long, but it was a real eye-opening experience.

There really is a tiny city down there that is totally invisible to guests just a few feet above!

Overhead are color-coded pipes, ducts, flues and conduits carrying all the necessary utilities to keep the theme park functioning. On the walls are signs and arrows providing directions to the many corners of the park which can be accessed underground.

Underfoot are tiled or polished concrete floors, some with directional stripes like in a hospital to help folks navigate. “Follow the purple stripe to the wardrobe department.”

It’s a hive of activity. People, equipment and merchandise are in constant motion.

There are forklifts moving inventory to the stores and restaurants above, there are cast members walking to work or heading to a break room or a meeting room. There are lockers and lunch rooms for the cast members, wardrobe, makeup and personnel departments. Cast members can even do their banking or get a hair cut in the Utilidors.

As our tour group walked through the main corridor beneath The Emporium we heard a very loud rumble overhead. It was so loud that our tour guide paused in her presentation and continued once the racket had died down. “That was the trash going to the recycling department.” she said.

There is a system of big pipes overhead that form a huge air-powered garbage chute, sort of like a giant central vacuum system. Cast members open hatches located in backstage areas around the park and toss in the trash. It all gets sucked to the central recycling area where it’s sorted for processing.
Not my idea of the world’s best job;
• “paper in dumpster A”
• “plastic in dumpster B”
• “food waste in dumpster C”
• “carefully wipe the sunglasses and cell phones then sent them to Lost and Found”

Magic Kingdom Utilidors

The diagram pictured above shows the extent of the system of tunnels. It extends south to Tony’s Town Square Restaurant, north to the Pinocchio Village Haus Restaurant, east to Tomorrowland and west to Frontierland and Adventureland.

Disney asks guests to refrain from taking pictures while backstage, so I have no pictures of the Utilidors to share with you. The two images I have included in this blog are used in many web sites with no source mentioned. Whoever originally provided the images, thanks for sharing!

There’s plenty more than the Utilidors included in the Keys to the Kingdom tour, but in my opinion the opportunity to walk down those stairs and navigate a bit of the tunnel system was worth the entire cost of the tour!

If you haven’t already done the tour, give it some thought for a future trip!

Details can be found HERE.

May 2, 2016

You're Stronger Than You Seem

by Laura Schmitt
AllEars Guest Blogger

Laura Schmitt “Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. - AA Milne”

Christopher Robin says the above to Pooh Bear, as they sit side by side. This bear of little brain may not ever bounce high like Tigger, or soar like Owl, but he is always a source of love and strength for the entire Hundred Acre Wood family through his constant simplistic loving nature. Pooh, fluff protruding and stitches popping, manages to pull together an unlikely cast of characters and hold them with the most important strength of all... love and friendship.

If we look at Pooh Bear, we may only notice a worn stuffed toy, but if we focus on the heart of the character, we can find ourselves tumbling into a wealth of strength that bounces and soars. It is because of this bit of magic that we all learn to look deeper while we search for surprises in the world of Disney. Like Pooh Bear, my oldest child hides an extraordinary strength that others will not see by looking with their eyes, but anyone who knows her will experience and appreciate what that really looks like.

Ten years ago, a mom, dad, 6-year-old girl and her 4-year-old sister visited Walt Disney World for the first time. During that visit, the 6-year-old marveled with astonishment at how large Piglet was in person, and how lovely it was to run through the Hundred Acre Wood in real life. All smiles, gasps of astonishment, and laughter, we delighted to such an extreme during that first visit that we went back to Walt Disney World nine times in the decade that followed.

Life brought us many changes during that time. The most notable for my daughter was the introduction of her disease. Our daughter was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a disease of the connective tissue that affects the entire body. For her, this meant a deterioration of her joints and daily shoulder dislocations that have progressed to hip subluxations and fainting. Life turned upside-down for all of us as we tried to smooth all paths for a child who could no longer bounce her way through life.

As EDS has claimed more and more of our child, we found that in Disney World, the magic is "one size fits all." When she could no longer walk, or ride jarring rides, or stand for long periods, we found that in the parks, and with a wheelchair, she could still be that strong little bear who delighted at a towering Piglet and lit up at the sight of a real life castle. Disney offers its magic to everyone in the same loving and inclusive way that Pooh Bear embraces Piglet. He doesn’t look at his frightened little friend and think, "This won’t be for you." Instead, he stands by him and they travel each path together. Disney manages this by allowing access to disabled people through cleverly designed park spaces, handicapped entrances, and wonderfully trained cast members across the parks. The system for transferring to and from a wheelchair is as graceful and easy as stepping in and out of a ride when working with the incredible cast members.

Even the entertainment comes in bursts of spectacle geared for any body's ability. There are new amazements to enjoy, experience and encounter with every new trip to the parks.

Planning for a visit Magic Kingdom over a very busy spring break, we plan ahead and go into the park for an advanced dining reservation before park opening. This helps our daughter by letting her avoid that large and incredibly frightening crowd upon entering the park. We glide from a wonderful breakfast straight to the honeypots that tour us through Pooh’s magical storybook, and laugh the whole time. I don’t know if she remembers her early years of story time on my lap, as we read this very adventure day after day, or if her own readings of A.A. Milne are fresher in her mind, but I watch the words falling from the pages and marvel that we are back in the story, again.

Because the park is flat, and the lines allow the width of her chair, it is easy for us to navigate with her confined to her safe space. From that ride, we move on to other family favorites, all accommodating for her abilities, such as Haunted Mansion, Mickey's PhilHarmagic, Pirates of the Caribbean, Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, and more. If she has enough energy to stay into the afternoon, we watch the parade from the safe wheelchair-designated space roped off by cast members, and maybe even enjoy some dairy-free root beer floats from Main Street.

It can be hard for a bear of little brain to "think, think, think," and in the stories we find Pooh frustrated that he can’t remember what he set out to do. For my daughter, it's hard to see eyes on her for being in a wheelchair. She feels like people are judging her, or wondering what is wrong with her, which from natural curiosity, they may be. You see, she can stand up and walk for a bit, and everything will look completely normal. She does not look like she has a disability.

What others can’t see is that as she freezes and grimaces, her shoulder has slid out of its socket, or her hip has subluxated partially out of its socket. She concentrates on putting it back where it belongs without further injury, and this happens so many times each day, we have given up keeping count. Another thing they cannot see is the blinding, burning, and sometimes numbing pain.

Because May is Ehlers Danlos Awareness month, I wanted to share this with our fellow Disney fans. Like us, you may embrace the parks, the movies, the magic, and we may even see some of you at Magic Kingdom on a day in the near future. I’d ask that you remember that not all disabilities are visible.

Despite the pain and struggle my little bear faces each day, she shows remarkable strength. She doesn’t know it. She meekly thinks of herself as a scared and timid little Piglet in many ways, but the fact that she perseveres through pain, dislocations, and fainting sessions and keeps moving forward is enough to make me cheer for her every day: “You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think!"

At Disney World, where she is included in all aspects of the magic, her laughter soars and her smile bounces throughout our time away. The magic in the air is almost healing in a way, because she seems lighter and happier where it is so easy to be immersed in good times with family and old storybook friends.

There is no cure for Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, but we keep hoping that the marvels of medicine will come up with something in her lifetime. If Disney has taught us anything it’s that anything you can dream can come true, so we keep raising awareness, dreaming big, and savoring our magical moments together whenever and wherever we find them.

Ten years after their first visit to Walt Disney World, a mom, a dad, a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old girl are heading back to their favorite, inclusive and magical place. The very first thing they will do is stop in for breakfast and a hug from their favorite storybook friends at Crystal Palace. You may even see them as you go about your own magical sort of day. You can be certain that "wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place... they will always be playing." -- A. A. Milne

About the Author: Laura Schmitt and her husband Eric live in Illinois with their two daughters, Taylor and Ella. Laura is a freelance writer, an avid Disney World enthusiast and a nutrition educator who is helping her daughter raise awareness for EDS through http://ehlersdanlossyndromehere.blogspot.com/

April 27, 2016

Review: Early Morning Magic at the Magic Kingdom

by Guest Blogger Kay Belin

My husband and I had a short Walt Disney World vacation planned when I noticed that Disney was offering something new called Early Morning Magic. I am always one to want to experience what is new in the World so I jumped on this opportunity and made reservations for the first date it was being offered, April 26.

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We were told to be at the Magic Kingdom queues around 7:30am to check-in and we would then enter the park to be escorted to Fantasyland at 7:45. Not knowing if early morning buses would be running we hopped in a taxi and arrived in plenty of time. We checked in and received a yellow paper band for our wrists and stood in line for the queues.

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It was soon apparent that everyone who had bought this experience was grouped with all those guests who had early morning dining reservations. It was a bit of a crowded experience and a lot of waiting. We waited to go through the queue and then waited again as a mass group right before the entrance tunnel. Then one more time we waited inside the tunnel as a group. I was never quite sure why we had to wait in all of these locations and why the Early Morning Magic guests were not separated from the others. It was confusing for everyone.

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When they let us loose it was around 7:45am and it was a calm walk down Main Street to Fantasyland. We did not stop for the castle photo but also did not rush. We were not escorted as the information had mentioned but it was nice to just enjoy an empty park and stroll at our own pace.

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The Early Morning Magic event offered three Fantasyland attractions for us to enjoy: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and Peter Pan's Flight. We headed to what we knew would be the most popular choice, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. We were met with no lines and no wait and hopped right on and enjoyed our first attraction of the day. When we exited you could go right back to the loading area without leaving the building which was nice.

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We opted to head to Peter Pan's Flight and do our next attraction. Again there was no line and no wait and we were on immediately to enjoy my husband's favorite ride. Next stop was the last attraction offered, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and again walked right on. I checked my watch and saw that we had done all three attractions and it was only 8:03am. My question to myself was now what were we going to do for another hour.

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My husband isn't a lover of roller coasters of any kind so I decided to head back to the Mine Train and do it again solo. I actually could have done it another ten times if I had wished to ride that many times. They were asking guests to get out of the cars after each trip but you literally could just walk back on.

One of the perks to getting this extra park event was that it included a full breakfast. So that is exactly where we headed next. Breakfast is served in Pinocchio Village Haus located right in the center of Fantasyland.

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Two identical buffet sides were set up and the offerings included scrambled eggs, vegetable frittata, two kinds of sausages, bacon, potatoes, fruits, assorted pastries, assorted cheeses and cold meats, and waffles. Two juice flavors were options as well as milk and water. They also had a coffee station offering regular coffee, decaf coffee, and assorted teas. We thought the food selections adequate and everything tasted great. We were not disappointed in the all you can eat buffet that was included in this special ticket. Breakfast was offered until 10am so if you wanted to ride the attractions for the full hour you could still come and enjoy this private dining event once the park opened.

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After breakfast I decided to do the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train one last time. It was now about 8:45 and with the park opening at 9am that morning it was good to get the most popular attraction under my belt once again before the crowds descended. What surprised me and disappointed me was the fact when we walked over we saw that the stand-by line was filling up. Why? Because th queue included some of the early dining guests. We had heard the announcement of the park opening show as we left breakfast so didn't think guests could all be there yet but wondered about the crowds building.

I walked through the FastPass line and was immediately stopped by a cast member who asked if I had a FastPass. I was stunned and said no but that I had bought the Early Morning Magic ticket and showed her my yellow wristband. She was hesitant but allowed me to join the line. Yes, I am saying the line now. They were allowing all the standby line guests to enjoy the attraction and I had to join into that line. Of course the wait was not long but I was just surprised that it was inferred that only those guests who paid for this special ticket would enjoy the three attractions until park opened at 9am.

My opinion of this event is mixed. Unless you have family members who are avid Seven Dwarfs Mine Train fans this will not appeal to older children who would rather be on Space Mountain. You will also have to be careful that your group can all enjoy the three attractions that are offered as I saw a few times that young children did not meet the height requirement for the Mine Train and they were very disappointed.

I personally felt that they certainly could have at least two more attractions open such as Under the Sea-Journey of the Little Mermaid and Its a Small World as they both are in the same area if they wanted to keep it compact. If not then Dumbo and Barnstormer would be great additions. But three attractions just didn't offer enough to do for the hour in the park. I appreciated not waiting in the long lines those attractions draw during the day but I found we had so much extra time on our hands and didn't know what to do.

The cost for the Early Morning Magic ticket is $69 for adults and $59 for children 3-9. This is on top of the admission ticket you must have for the park that day. It does include a full breakfast and the opportunity to experience three attractions but I felt that was a bit steep. Characters were not out and if they wanted to make it a better value for their guests it would be nice to have one character meet and greet and at least two more attractions open to enjoy. It was difficult for me to find out how many Early Morning Magic tickets are sold for each date but I finally was told that it was around 200 so if this is something you wish to experience you will need to grab a reservation quickly.

Because of the cost of the ticket I hope they will encourage the three attractions that are included to stay open only for the ticketed guests until the published time of the park opening which is 9am. I understand that the Magic Kingdom will often open early if crowds become heavy at the entrance but it was disappointing that with my ticket I lost 15 minutes of private enjoyment of the attractions.

All in all we enjoyed our quiet time in the park but I doubt we will encourage our family to purchase this special event ticket if it is continued past June unless more is added to enjoy.

March 14, 2016

Card Walker gets the ball rolling on Epcot

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Spaceship Earth, Epcot Center's icon, during the early stages of construction. [The Walt Disney Company]


CHUCK SCHMIDT / Still Goofy about Disney
AllEars.net Guest Blogger

"What are we going to do about Epcot?"

With those words, first spoken in 1974, then-Disney president Card Walker got the ball rolling on what is arguably the most ambitious project ever taken on by the Walt Disney Company after Walt's death in 1966.

According to former Walt Disney Imagineering leader Marty Sklar: "That was the start of eight years of figuring out what to do, and it was a pretty fantastic eight years, I must say. But that was really the start. I give Card a lot of credit, because he didn't let that dream die."

"That dream" was Walt Disney's vision for a city of the future, a Utopian complex that would tackle the problem of urban blight and would introduce new, forward-thinking ideas on how to improve the human condition.

"Some aspects, some version [of Walt's Epcot concept] would have happened and it would have changed a lot, because the evolution of these projects is so dynamic," Marty said. "I have this ad I kept in my office all the time. It was from IBM. It said 'The Future is a Moving Target.' And nobody saw that as clearly as Walt Disney did, believe me."

Once Card Walker decided to give the go-ahead for Epcot, it was up to a team of individuals -- Marty Sklar, John Hench, Carl Borgirno, Don Edgren, Jack Lindquist and Randy Bright among them -- to figure out exactly what Epcot's mission should be ... and, perhaps more importantly, how that vision would be paid for.

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An aerial view of Epcot during construction, with Spaceship Earth taking shape and many of the monorail beams in place. [The Walt Disney Company]

From the outset, the team was emphatic what Epcot shouldn't be ... namely, another theme park. "If you think about it, at that time, and even today, it had to have that contrast," Marty said. "Why should we go into competition with ourselves? So the contrast was good."

So the team embarked on a crusade of sorts, reaching out to a variety of leaders from a diverse field to get their thoughts and ideas on the ambitious, first-of-its-kind project.

"We decided we had to test the water, so we held what we called The Epcot Future Technology Forums, starting in 1976," Marty said. "Ray Bradbury [the noted science fiction writer who contributed to Epcot's communication theme] was the first speaker. And we invited people from academia, from government, from corporations and just smart people that we found through our research and it was really fascinating because we had these long discussions.

"We'd show Walt's film and we had translated that into potential directions. It was very early on. And after every one of these conferences, these people would say to us, 'The public doesn't trust government to do this, the public doesn't trust what industry tells them, but they trust Mickey Mouse. So you guys have a role in this.' Well, that was very nice to hear people say that, but what the heck do you do about that?

"I went back to Card Walker, who was a marketing man from his experiences with the studio, and we decided to go back to the whole idea that Walt had said, that no one company can do this by itself. And that's when we started going out to all the big corporations and said, 'OK, here's what we're planning to do and we want you to be part it.'"

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Walt Disney Imagineering leader Marty Sklar on-site during Epcot's construction. [The Walt Disney Company]

Getting American industry to fall in line "was a huge selling job," Marty remembers. General Motors was the first company to hear the pitch about Epcot. The automotive giant had put together a committee of its own, called The Scenario 2000 Advisory Committee, which was formed to help chart GM's course for the future.

So Marty and company "packed up two truckloads of models and artwork and we hired John McClure Sr. John had been the art director for the Hall of Presidents, but more importantly, he was one of the great art directors in Hollywood. He did Hello, Dolly and Cleopatra, among other things, so John set up our presentation.

"They gave us their whole design center in Warren, Michigan. They had an area where they introduced their cars. It was big ... huge. They gave us the whole thing. We set up these models and Card Walker put together all the people that were key to the project — Donn Tatum, Dick Nunis, Jack Lindquist and the new Disney Channel people, who were just getting started. Everybody that was gonna be part of making this thing work" was there.

"We made a big presentation to Roger Smith and his Scenario 2000 Advisory Committee, and when we were finished, Roger said 'I want to do this. There's only one problem: I've got to convince my management.' He was the vice president of finance at the time, later chairman. Jack Lindquist and I were left behind and the next day, at 7 o'clock in the morning, we made a presentation to Pete Estes, the president of GM, and they became the first ones to sign a contract at the end of 1978."

Suddenly, corporate America became intrigued with this exciting Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

General Motors' participation "broke the dam, if you will, and Exxon was right behind them," Marty said. "We made so many presentations that we figured out that we couldn't get the top people to go to Florida or California, so we went to RCA and said, 'Do you have a place that we could set up as a presentation center,' and they did.

"They had a recording studio at the Avenue of the Americas and 46th Street where Andre Costellanez used to do his recordings and they said we could have it for a year. And so we rented it and we brought all our models and artwork and we put a staff there and any time of the day or week, if we wanted to set up a meeting, with companies headquartered in the New York area, as most of them were in those days, they could call up and say, 'Yeah, I'd like to have my chairman come in and see your project.'"

At that point in time, Epcot had morphed from a city of the future into two separate sections of one park, one focused on American industry and new technologies, the other one showcasing as many countries as possible in a permanent, world's fair-type setting.

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Card Walker and other dignitaries break ground during ceremonies kicking off Epcot Center's construction. [The Walt Disney Company]

"That's how we communicated to the companies," Marty added. "We started out with trying to do two projects. One was international and the other was so-called Future World area, and we found that we couldn't get enough sponsorship for both, so we pushed the two of them together basically and that became Epcot Center."

Journalists who had seen detailed drawings of a domed city with futuristic modes of transportation had a hard time accepting this new Epcot. "Walt left a very sketchy outline," Jack Lindquist said. "It was developed at that time (1966) to influence the Florida legislature. We needed something bigger, bolder, more dramatic than another Disneyland."

Walt asked famed Disney artist Herb Ryman — who had made a name for himself in 1954 by drawing the first rendering of Disneyland which Walt used as part of his pitch to potential investors — to help conceptualize Epcot. "Draw me something to talk about, Herbie," he said. But what Ryman came up with was far more grandiose than almost anyone had imagined. It turned out to be more fantasy than fact-based.

Still, "The media wouldn't let that Epcot go away," Lindquist said. "They had that image [of a domed city] in mind, but nobody really knew what Epcot was."

"I'd say we are doing exactly what we talked about when Walt was alive," John Hench said when asked if the company was departing from Walt Disney's original vision. "Walt introduced ideas as, you might say, the title in Scene One. He knew better than to drop the big scene into people's minds at the beginning. We're engaged in Scene Two now."

Scene Two would take years to be completed and would run up over a billion dollars in construction costs. It was a huge gamble on the part of the Walt Disney Company and its president, Card Walker, especially when you consider that after ground was broken in central Florida for Epcot, plans were put in motion to build another first-of-its-kind Disney park ... thousands of miles and one vast ocean away, in Japan.

The man known as Card was rolling the dice ... and the stakes couldn't have been higher.

Next time: Card Walker comes to terms with a Disney presence in Japan.

February 29, 2016

Under Card Walker's guidance, Epcot begins to take shape

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One of the many concept drawings, done in the mid-1960s, depicting the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow -- Epcot. [The Walt Disney Company]

CHUCK SCHMIDT / Still Goofy about Disney
AllEars.net Guest Blogger

In early 1956, several months after E. Cardon Walker hired Marty Sklar to produce The Disneyland News, Card was named vice president of advertising and sales for Walt Disney Productions, getting the word out such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The promotion was the start of a meteoric rise up the company ladder for Card who, like Marty, was a graduate of UCLA. In what seemed like rapid succession, Card was appointed to the company's Board of Directors in 1960. In 1965, he was named vice president of marketing, then executive vice president of operations in 1967, and executive vice president and chief operating officer in 1968. In 1971, he became company president. Five years later, he was named Disney's chief executive officer.

During his tenure as a top executive in the Disney corporate ranks, Card not only oversaw the creation of Epcot, but Tokyo Disneyland and The Disney Channel as well, providing a steady hand at a time when the company was still trying to find its way after the deaths of Walt Disney and his brother Roy.

With the success of The Disneyland News on his resume, Marty Sklar returned to UCLA in the fall of 1955 to complete his studies. After graduation in 1956, Marty accepted a position in Disneyland's publicity department, working with the likes of future Disney Legends Eddie Meck, Jack Lindquist and Milt Albright. Marty and his PR cohorts dreamed up a number of noteworthy initiatives, including Vacationland Magazine, all of which made great strides in promoting the park because, as Marty put it years later, "Disneyland wasn't a slam dunk during those first few years."

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Marty's relationship with Card Walker remained strong.

"I had the good fortune to come out of a group that reported to Card at Disneyland," Marty said, "and I stayed very close to him over the years. Even after I had gone to WED [WED Enterprises was the forerunner of Walt Disney Imagineering] in 1961 to work on the New York World's Fair, I still did a lot of writing for publicity and marketing. I also was responsible for the annual report. Card kept me close to him all that time.

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Walt Disney poses for a photo after recording The Epcot Film in 1966. Two months after filming, Walt died. [The Walt Disney Company]

"To have somebody in that position trust you so much to continue to promote me, if you will, talk me up with Walt and other executives in the company, was quite an honor. And he knew I had written all that material for Walt for Epcot, of course."

Marty was responsible for writing the script for what became known as The Epcot Film. In it, Walt presented, in meticulous detail, his vision for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow ... a city of the future that was the heart and soul of Disney's planned move to central Florida. Included with the film were concept drawings, many by artist Herb Ryman, a Disney Legend. Many of Ryman's renderings depicted a futuristic metropolis featuring monorails, PeopleMovers and a dome encasing the entire complex.

Filming of The Epcot Film took place in October of 1966; Walt Disney died just two months later, leaving the company he had founded and nurtured for decades in a lurch. With plans already in motion for the move to Florida at the time of Walt's death, Epcot was put on hold and the company concentrated on opening the world's first destination resort: A Disneyland-style theme park, on-property hotels and expansive recreational facilities.

Questions persisted about Epcot

After Walt died, "we continued to get questions about Epcot," Marty said, particularly from those people who had seen the early concept drawings. "After Roy [Walt's brother, who took over as company leader after Walt's passing] died in December of 1971, Card and Donn Tatum took up the mantel. I really think Card felt he had a debt to pay to Walt and he had to fulfill that debt as chairman of the company."

In May of 1974, Card Walker took Marty Sklar aside and asked him one of the most important questions of his career: "What are we gonna do about Epcot?"

Walt's original concept for Epcot, to create a city of the future where residents would live and work and where news ideas and systems would be introduced, was problematic, if next to impossible to bring to reality, at least without Walt Disney's guidance. "We knew we couldn't experiment with people's lives," Card said. "You couldn't have spectators peeking in people's kitchen windows."

Still, the Disney company was committed to building something on the property that reflected and fulfilled Walt's dreams of a great, big beautiful tomorrow.

"In a real sense, the concept of Epcot has been unfolding from the very beginning," Card said. "From the outset of planning and through the design, construction and installation stages of Walt Disney World, Epcot has been the ultimate goal."

According to Marty, "Card made a number of different speeches about ideas for Epcot. These speeches evolved into his vision of the project.

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As his wife Rosalynn looks on, left, President Jimmy Carter chats with Disney executive Card Walker in the Contemporary Resort. Seen over Walker's left shoulder in the background is Marty Sklar.

"I have a photo in my office of president Jimmy Carter in 1976 at the International Chamber of Commerce conference at the Contemporary. President Carter spoke to the conference. We brought all the work we had done to that point and put it in a ballroom at the Contemporary. We invited President Carter to come see, as well as leaders from all over the world."

The photo shows Card Walker talking to President Carter, with First Lady Rosalynn Carter to their right and Marty Sklar standing in the background. Donn Tatum is behind Mrs. Carter.

"Card really felt indebted to Walt for his whole career. This [Epcot] was Walt's big dream. He made a number of different speeches around the country," trying to get as many corporate leaders on board. "He was a good salesman. For example, The Living Seas pavilion. It wasn't part of the pavilions on opening day. It came about when Card was playing golf with Harry Gray, the CEO of United Technologies. [The Living Seas, now known as The Seas with Nemo and Friends, opened in 1986, four years after Epcot's opening.]

"Walt always said that no one company can do this [Epcot] by itself," Marty added. "Participation by the country's major companies was the key" to bringing Epcot to life.

One of Marty's chief responsibilities at the outset was to help bring as many of those companies on board as possible. "It was the start of eight incredible years of trying to figure out just what to do."

Next time: The long and winding road leading to Epcot's opening day.

December 17, 2015

Club Disney at the Sunset Showcase

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by
J. Scott Lopes
AllEars.Net Guest Blogger

Sunset Showcase, a new flex space (Disney speak for a multipurpose venue), was recently opened, and is currently hosting Club Disney, a club environment that has a DJ playing Radio Disney top 40 songs along with Disney characters to dance with. The space is located near Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. It is accessed by a gated entrance located to the right of the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster FastPass+ queue.

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Inside the space, there is a DJ booth along with a quick service food location for snacks:

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(We have the snack menu for Club Disney HERE.)

The center of the space has a dance floor complete with large screens around the room and a Mickey-eared disco ball:

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In addition to some comfortable seating around the room, there are also large touch screens that are set up for virtual finger painting:

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The outside area is also large and spacious and I can see a lot of potential for using this space for various events.

Starting mid-January, Sunset Showcase will host Club Villain, a special ticketed event that will feature Disney villains geared towards adults because of the DJ and alcohol being served. I was told the event will be family friendly, though -- preferably for children 10 and up.

Reservations are being taken for Club Villain now. You can read more about it HERE.

This is a great space to check out on your next trip!

About the Author:

J. Scott Lopes is a long time Disney fan who first went to Walt Disney World as a child in 1989 and has enjoyed traveling to Orlando ever since. He is interested in all things Disney Parks related and especially interested in the Walt Disney Imagineering division and all of the work and detail that they put into everything that they engineer.


November 16, 2015

REVIEW: Breakfast at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater

Sci Fi Breakfast Mickey Waffle

by David S. Abel
AllEars.Net Guest Blogger

Usually all the new things open or start just days after I return home from a trip to Walt Disney World. Therefore I was quite excited when I saw that the Sci-Fi Dine-In at Hollywood Studios was going to begin offering breakfast during my recent visit! And naturally I had to make reservations for the first day.

Sunday, November 1, my traveling party arrived at the Sci-Fi Dine-In about 10 minutes early for our 9:30 a.m. breakfast reservation. The four of us were promptly seated in a car that seats six towards the back of the drive-in and were given our road maps (menus).

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The breakfast is a fixed price of $23.99 per person, which seemed a bit high, but once we figured out exactly what was included, it didn’t really seem that bad.

Each person receives three pastries (a croissant, a double chocolate muffin and a cinnamon bun), choice of a yogurt parfait or fresh fruit, choice of entrée and a beverage.

Sci Fi Breakfast Pastries and Yogurt Parfait

Amongst our party we ordered the Steak and Eggs, Shrimp and Grits and Mickey Waffle. We all started with the yogurt parfait which included raspberry and vanilla yogurts with fresh berries and granola. My Steak and Eggs was very tasty, and the platter was served as you might expect at an expensive gourmet restaurant.

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There was a slight delay from ordering our beverages until they were delivered and our order taken. I chalked that up to the fact that it was the first day and they didn’t have everything running smoothly yet. Otherwise our server was good and really played up the drive-in/car themes.

The movie screen seemed to show the same sci-fi clips they usually show. I thought it would’ve been neat if they showed more [space-related] cartoons during breakfast.

I had read some speculative comparisons to the breakfast offered during Star Wars Weekends when this was first announced, unfortunately I’ve never experienced that breakfast so I can’t confirm any similarities.

I can say, though, that we all left full and happy, and that we had an enjoyable breakfast. I believe this could be a nice alternative to the sit-down breakfast at Hollywood & Vine.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Breakfast at Sci-Fi is being tested from November 1, 2015 to January 23, 2016. This is a fixed price breakfast. $23.99 plus tax adults, $12.99 plus tax ages 3-9.

November 3, 2015

Ft. Wilderness Renovated Cabins

By Guest Blogger Kay Belin

Since the end of summer, crews have been busy refurbishing the Fort Wilderness cabins. Guests will be pleasantly surprised at the changes that have taken place and will continue to make it a sought after resort reservation. The cabins are especially enticing for the larger families since they can sleep six. In the past this was a tight squeeze but now it is a much more comfortable option. Work is currently going on in Loop 2600.

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The cabins themselves have stayed the same structurally. Since this is technically a wetlands area they cannot change the building profile. So Disney used their magic and pixie dust on the inside.

Guests will find new carpets and window treatments and new flooring throughout. There is also updated and new lighting. All cabins have had new decks built outside.

Probably the biggest change is the addition of a queen bed in the bedroom. With the bunks remaining as well as the nightstand I thought this might make for a very tight room but was pleasantly surprised that it looks and feels great. The new queen bed is also one where you can store your luggage or other gear underneath giving you more room. The closet and drawers remain the same and maybe during the next renovation they will address the small size of the closet.

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The bathroom has been updated with new countertop, tile backsplash, hardware etc. You now have four storage drawers as well as a large area of the countertop to keep personal items close at hand. Although the cabins have only one bathroom it is a large area for several to use at one time.

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The largest area of the cabins is the kitchen/dining/living room. Disney has added a great coat rack at the main door entry so you have a place for those pesky rain ponchos on rainy days.

The dining table is the same with the bench seat and three additional chairs allowing for six or more to sit and eat comfortably.

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Big changes happened in the kitchen and it all looks wonderful. New countertops and cabinets seem to open the room up and they have moved the sink and appliances to different locations. Disney removed the stove and oven and replaced them with a two burner cooktop and large convection/microwave unit. Some guests are intimidated by a convection oven but I can assure you that it is just as easy to cook food in it as a normal oven. I cook foods from meatloaf, pies, brownies and more in my small convection oven in my motor coach. There are new refrigerators and dishwashers making the kitchens some of the most updated ones on property.

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The final changes to mention are the ones that happened in the living area. The Murphy Bed is gone! In its place is a new queen sleeper sofa upholstered in a material that will repel just about anything that you could think of spilling on it including red wine! I find the color a bit too light for the decor but am happy that they addressed the possibility of spills happening on the furniture.

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The old small tv and cabinet have disappeared and in its place is a 55" flat screen tv mounted where the murphy bed once was located. Under the TV they have added 6 drawers helping overcome the small closet space.

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I am excited about the changes and excited that Disney is listening to the needs of the guests. The cabins have needed a true refurbishment for a long time and the results are definitely positive.

Check out over 50 new photos of the Ft. Wilderness Cabins!

Take a video tour!!

November 2, 2015

Epcot DiveQuest: Under the Seas

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by Randi Briggs
AllEars Guest Blogger

This activity at Disney World’s Epcot has become a favorite for my husband and me. If you scuba dive, then you must try this dive when visiting the World. There are two dives conducted on most days -- one at 4:30 and one at 5:30 (times do vary occasionally). You must be able to produce scuba certification (C-card) and children must be 10 years old or older and in the company of an adult.

Our recent dive was scheduled for 4:30. We met at Epcot's main Guest Relations office inside the park, and then were escorted to the Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion.

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We were taken on a short tour of the aquarium facilities, including the manatee habitat and the dolphin facilities. We saw where the tons of food for the animals and fish were prepared each day. They explained how animals in need of medical help were handled and treated. All in all, a very interesting tour.

We were then taken to the locker/shower rooms where we changed into "shorty dive skins." The only items of your own that are allowed are prescription dive masks and dive watches.

When everyone in the group was ready, they escorted us through the building (yes, where the guests are!) and then through another section of the aquarium to the spot where we would enter the water. They take care of everything for you. There is a dive master in charge, and several other dive masters helping in the water and out. Safety for the divers and the aquatic citizens is always first. My husband and I were helped with our tanks, fins and masks, and we slowly swam our way over to a buoy where we waited for the rest of the divers to assemble.

When the dive master called out "Dive, dive, dive!" the magic began. I can’t even begin to explain the excitement as I began to descend into a watery world filled with fish of every kind and shape. This included sharks, manta rays, and turtles (can you say Crush?). A video photographer accompanied the divers, and for a while the dive master led us through a magical world filled only with the sounds of your own breathing and bubbles through your regulator.

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We passed the rather good-sized shark (obviously well fed, since he didn’t seem interested in eating the "seals" -- us -- swimming in his habitat) and the photographer made an effort to film as many of us as he could with the shark.

The animals were very unconcerned and curious about the divers. They took one look and then ignored us, as if to say, "Ho hum, more of those creatures with the funny skin that make all that breathing noise in the water."

I am fascinated each time we make this dive. Wonder comes alive again for me and my husband.

One of the more fun activities while in the tank is to go over to the aquarium windows looking into the Coral Reef Restaurant and interact with the guests. Divers can wave, trying to get the children to laugh and ask for a taste of the food. The most fun is when you can get someone to smile. Last time we did the dive, a diver spied a pretty girl with friends through the glass at the restaurant, and pantomimed that he was trying to get her number to ask her for a date. It was pretty amusing to watch her laugh and blush with her friends.

Family and friends that are unable to dive are able to watch you from the windows in the pavilion, so many divers spend a good deal of time there showing off for kids and family members.

The dive lasted about 45 minutes, but felt like 10. There was just so much to see and it was so much fun swimming with the fishes. It was disappointing to hear the dive master start banging two rocks together, which is the signal to begin to ascend and leave the magical water world behind.

As we reached the surface and began the dog paddle to the stairs out of the water, we were exhilarated, sorry the dive was over... and really, really hungry! The dive masters helped everyone with their equipment and handed out towels as they escorted us back through the pavilion (dripping wet, hair sticking out at interesting angles). It is interesting that almost no one noticed us walking through.

After showering and cleaning up, we all met in a room where we watched the video that was made of our dive. The DVD costs $35, which is a bit high, but almost everyone bought one. We also got a great T-shirt to commemorate the dive.

After we left, we had dinner reservations at the Coral Reef, and requested a table next to the aquarium so we could watch the next group of divers and relive all the fun and wonderful moments again.

For those of you who dive, this would not be considered a challenging dive at all. It is easy, relaxing and tons of magical fun. We would do this again in a heartbeat!

EDITOR'S NOTE: DiveQuest costs $179 per person. To make reservations for this tour, call 407-WDW-TOUR. Be sure to ask about any available discounts (DVC, AP, Disney VISA for example). If you've participated in DiveQuest, please share your thoughts in our Rate and Review section HERE.

April 20, 2015

Disney on a VERY Limited Budget

DISNEY ON A BUDGET.......AN EXTREME BUDGET!
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By Guest Blogger: Kay Belin


Summer is coming and it is time to plan vacations so it is a good time to discuss a trip to Walt Disney World. Recently, I was asked by a family with very limited means to see if there was a way they could bring their two children to the parks for a long wished for vacation. They were willing to do anything but their budget was extreme. It had been a dream for them for many years to surprise their two children.

After hearing their story I knew I had to do some deep research and figure out what they could do as I wanted to make magic and tell them this trip was indeed possible. So here is one way you can do a Walt Disney World trip on a VERY limited budget. Each day and month prices and deals do change so this is planned on the general prices. Always check to see what is being offered during the time you wish to vacation as you might be able to save even more.

One of the best times to come is September when the summer crowds have gone home. Prices at resorts are generally at their lowest during this time as well. For this limited budget for a family of four (2 children over age of 12) I chose this month and attempted to not exceed $2000. Impossible you say? Well not really but you have to be adventurous and willing to try something new perhaps. For this family I was helping they were willing to do almost anything to be able to bring their children.

Camping.........this is a great way to enjoy family time together and save money versus paying for more expensive hotel rooms. With modern technology you are not longer sleeping on hard ground or fighting off flying friends at night. At Disney camping is almost called "glamping" which means glamorous camping. The sites at the Fort Wilderness campgrounds come complete with grills, picnic tables, water, electricity, and cable hookup right at your own site.

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The comfort stations are pristine with wonderful restrooms, individual shower rooms, laundry facilities, telephones, and ice machines. There are multiple trash pickups each day so you don't worry about critters coming to visit to see what you have left over. The pads are level and half of each one is concrete with the other half a dense sand making staking out tents very easy.

Disney has thought of everything you might require when it comes to camping so even if you have never done this it is a great place to start. Each site will have trees for some shade so you are not baking in the Florida sun. Bus transportation is within feet if you choose to leave your car at the site for the day. You can boat to the Magic Kingdom and take the Disney bus transportation to all of the other parks.

The beauty of camping at Disney is the simple fact that you can save money on your food. Driving will generally be the best option when traveling down to Walt Disney World so it allows you to bring coolers of food with you. Because you will not have a freezer it is recommended that you bring food staples for breakfast and a lunch that are not highly perishable and then find a nice spot in the parks or on property to have one bigger meal each day.

Character dining and shows will be more expensive but you can find great quick service locations offering good meals for the lowest prices. Fort Wilderness also has a wonderful restaurant, Trails End, which is open for breakfast and dinner buffets and menu lunch service. Breakfasts average $18-$20 per person, lunch around $25, and dinner about $26.

Fort Wilderness is almost a secret park in its own right. You will have two pools to choose from for swimming pleasure, fishing in the canals, hiking and walking trails, canoe and bike rentals, and a free Chip and Dale campfire Singalong each night followed by a Disney movie under the stars. You are likely to see many deer and turkey in the area and there is a peacefulness in the campgrounds that is a refreshing change from the hectic crowded atmosphere of the parks.

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For a family of four (two children over the age of ten) staying at the Fort Wilderness Campgrounds in the tent sites for three nights and purchasing four day park tickets for each family member, they can enjoy a Disney vacation for $1473.64. This is the package price when booking and purchasing at the same time with Disney via phone or at www.disneyworld.com. If you opt to reserve your tent site only that cost is $168.75. To add four day park tickets for each comes to $1299.32 showing a difference of only about $5 from the package price. All of these prices include tax and can change at any time. If you budget about $30 a day per person for one meal in the parks or resorts for three days you will need to add $360 which still keeps you below the $2000 number. If that still is above what a family can afford you can drop one day of park tickets and save about $127.80 from the vacation price above.

You can find rental tents at many sports retail stores and if you want to simply rent one from Disney they will have it set up for you on your site at your arrival. Rental of a Disney tent will add to the cost as they are $30 a night. The convenience might be worth it so all you need to bring are coolers, air mattresses, and sleeping bags. During almost any month of the year I would also suggest you bring a fan.

If you are not adventurous then your next best budget bet is to head to the All Star resorts. Staying at the same time in September at All Star Sports will cost you almost an additional $300 and for those on an VERY limited budget this is a lot of money.

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So can a family of four do Disney for four days and three nights with park tickets under $2000? Absolutely yes, with a dose of adventure and fun mixed in! A Disney vacation can come in all budgets and experiences but no matter how your family wishes or needs to travel I can guarantee it will be filled with pixie dust all along the way.

What are your ideas for spending time at Walt Disney World with your family while on a very limited budget?

December 18, 2014

Frozen Premium Package Review

by J. Scott Lopes
Guest Blogger

I recently experienced the VIP Frozen Premium package at Disney's Hollywood Studios. This package consists of two parts. The first part is reserved seating for the Frozen "First Time in Forever" Sing-along. The second component is a Frozen-themed dessert party, which includes a limited release Frozen pin and lithograph.

Once I arrived at the park I checked in at the MyMagic+ service center (the former location for Sid Cahuenga's near the front of the park), where I was able to select my show time for the Frozen sing-along, and also receive my lanyard.

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The First Time in Forever: A "Frozen" Sing-Along Celebration was held in the Premiere Theater, which had a special entrance on the Streets of America for this package.


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I went to this location at my selected time and was led into the theater to the section of reserved seats, located in the first few rows. The theater was perfectly themed -- no detail was left out. They even had icicles around the sound booth:


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The sing-along started with Anna, but was hosted by two royal historians of Arendelle, and they added a lot of comedic value to the show:


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During the show there were many opportunities to sing along, and if you didn't know the words (although almost everybody did!) they had multiple screens that showed the lyrics:

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Kristoff and Elsa also joined the show:

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The dessert party takes place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and is held at the end of the Streets of America in an area that used to be part of the Backlot Tour. The entrance to the area is on the side that faces the restrooms near the Lights, Motors, Action show. A member of my party happened to be in an ECV, and we were having trouble getting to the entrance, so when we explained the situation to a cast member they accommodated us by letting us enter though the other side of the event. While we waited for the event I checked out the Wandering Oaken's Frozen Snowground, where kids could play in the "snow" and there was lots of Frozen merchandise for sale.

Once we were allowed into the party area, we found a wide variety of themed desserts, such as Anna and Elsa cupcakes:

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Olaf cake pops

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There were lots of other dessert items and drinks, including hot tea and coffee, hot chocolate, bottled water and soda, and specialty alcoholic beverages.

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Besides the desserts, the greatest benefit of attending the dessert party is that you get a terrific view of The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights without having to mingle with the crowds, unless you want to:

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As is common at Disney events, attendees receive a limited release Frozen pin and litho:

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This was the first time in"... well, this is actually the first time that I have ever attended a Disney dessert party. I think that Disney put together a great event that was well-themed, and also gave a great view of the Osborne lights.

I would recommend this event to anyone, especially people who want to view the lights in a less crowded area.

Tickets for this special Frozen Holiday Premium Package can be purchased for $89 per adult and $59 per child, from now until January 4, 2015. Park admission is required, but tax and gratuity are included.

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J. Scott Lopes is a long-time Disney fan who first went to Walt Disney World as a child in 1989. He has enjoyed traveling to Orlando ever since. He is interested in all things related to the Disney Parks, especially Walt Disney Imagineering and all of the work and detail that they put into everything that they engineer.


October 20, 2014

Gluten Free Dining at Walt Disney World

Hi All Ears Readers. My name is Christy Fish and I am a Disney Vacation Club Member, Disney Enthusiast, and avid All Ears Reader. I also happen to have Celiac disease and need to eat gluten free. Below please find my latest information from my last trip my husband Blake and I took to Walt Disney World. Happy Reading!

2014 Gluten Free Dining at Walt Disney World
(on the dining plan)

*Standard Dining Plan we chose includes: 1 counter service meal (Entrée, drink, dessert), 1 table service meal or buffet (entrée, drink, dessert), and 1 snack.

*All of the table service restaurants we have dined at have had the Ener-G Tapioca rolls. Feel free to request them to be served warm and toasted, as they taste much better this way.

*Please take note that if your gluten sensitivity is severe, you may need to be much more careful and ask locations to clean off their grills, and consume only fried items in a dedicated GF fryer. Please discuss your gluten free concerns in depth with any manager or chef at each location you dine.

Animal Kingdom

Counter Service: Flame Tree Barbeque (Discovery Island)

I ordered the Half Rotisserie Chicken, but substituted fries instead of the baked beans/coleslaw combo out of personal preference. Blake ordered the ½ slab of St. Louis Ribs served with baked beans and coleslaw. Both items were GF. This is my favorite counter service location any where in WDW. My husband stated his ribs were amazing, tender, meaty, and perfectly seasoned. The chicken was tender, had a wonderful dry rub that was flavorful but not spicy. The fries were excellent and fresh out of the fryer. I was assured this location has a dedicated GF fryer. For dessert, they had a few selections of pre-packaged GF brownies and cookies. I chose the Enjoy Life pack of Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies. This location had a manager out to take my order right away and made all the food fresh.

Table Service: Tusker House (Africa)

What a wonderful buffet experience. I stayed away from buffets since being diagnosed with Celiac disease, but this restaurant had me singing a happy tune. The chef came over within 15 minutes, as they were extremely busy during this breakfast buffet. I informed him that I love Mickey waffles and was wondering if he could make them gluten free. He said of course and then walked with me to the buffet to show me everything I could have. I could eat a lot of buffet items. Eggs, sweet potato hash (so delicious), fruit, cheese, bacon, sausage, ham, pork tenderloin, and the oven roasted potatoes to name a few. After we sat back down from the buffet, he brought me a plate of mickey waffles and a GF muffin. The food was excellent and service very accommodating.

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Epcot

Counter Service: Sunshine Seasons at The Land (Future World)

This is my favorite counter service location at this park. There are many different food bays to choose from. I chose the Pork Chop with BBQ Chutney and Mashed potatoes with no gravy. It was a hearty and thick pork chop that was tender and not dry. The BBQ Chutney is also sweet, tangy and delicious. Mashed potatoes were thick and creamy as always.

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The dessert here for me was a treat: Crème Brulee from the baked goods section.

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Table Service: Coral Reef (Living Seas-Future World)

I ordered the Grilled NY Strip Steak served with Roasted Potatoes, Mushrooms, Spinach, and Red Wine Sauce. I ordered sans Mushrooms out of personal preference. The Steak here was cooked medium as I requested and it was a good meal. The steak at Le Cellier is far superior in quality and flavor in my opinion. The service at Coral Reef and atmosphere was well done. The dessert I ordered was The Chocolate Wave with fresh Raspberries and Raspberry Gelato. I order this every time I eat here. This dessert is flourless and always GF. It is decadent, rich, and heaven on a plate. I apologize for no pictures on this one as I think I may have been too busy devouring it.

Table Service: La Hacienda de San Angel (Mexico-World Showcase)

I give this restaurant's food, décor, and atmosphere a 10 out of 10. I ordered the Pollo al Pastor which is Achiote marinated chicken served with roasted vegetables, beans and pineapple relish; served fresh with homemade corn tortillas and rice. It was wonderful. One of my new favorite places. The food was fresh and light. The marinade on the chicken was sweet, and the pineapple relish was delicious. The Mexican rice flavored with tomatoes was fantastic. It felt so nice to have a meal that did not feel really heavy. For dessert I chose the Nieves or traditional Mexican sorbets. I had mango and raspberry. It was the best sorbet I have ever had. Two very large scoops with chunks of fresh fruit. This is a meal I will continue to come back for every year at WDW. Oh, and did I mention if you wait a little longer for a table by the window, you can watch Illuminations from this restaurants windows. It sits right on the water.

Hollywood Studios:

Counter Service: Rosie's All American Café (Sunset Blvd)

I ordered the 1/3 lb. Angus Cheeseburger with fries on a GF bun. It took a very long time for a manager to come to take our order at this location. The bun was not very good, but the fries and burger itself were nicely done. The normal run of the mill burger and fries. For Dessert: Enjoy Life Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Table Service: Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano (near Muppet Vision)

Mama Melrose's is my favorite table service restaurant at Hollywood Studios because I usually have a hard time eating GF at Italian locations. Not here at all. We dine here every trip. The head chef Frank whom my husband and I have seen every year since our honeymoon is absolutely fantastic. The first time we dined here I asked him what I could have that was GF and he responded by saying, "What would you like, I can make you anything on the menu Gluten Free." For people with Celiac disease that is one of the most amazing things to hear at any restaurant.

This trip I ordered the Carne D' Italia Flatbread with pepperoni, house-made sausage, pancetta, and spicy marinara sauce on a GF crust. This crust was delicious. It was on the flat bread side, but still had a doughy texture to it. The sauce, cheese, and toppings all tasted very fresh.

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My husband ordered the Penne alla Vodka with GF rice pasta and chicken. I tried it and it was delicious.

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Dessert: Flourless chocolate fudge cake made on premises, which the server told me, is not on the menu, but they always offer it to GF patrons. This dessert is dense, fudgy, and outstanding.

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Other years I have also ordered the following dishes GF and all were outstanding: Oven-baked Chicken alla Parmigiana with marinara sauce topped with melted mozzarella (no breading) with GF pasta, and the Charred Strip Steak with GF five-cheese baked macaroni.

This restaurant has also done several magical things for us in the past as we often celebrate our anniversary here. We have received fast passes, champagne toasts, and gluten free cheesy garlic bread. This was not all in one experience, but little bits over the 4 years we have dined here. They really know how to bring out the Disney Magic at this location.

Magic Kingdom:

Counter Service: Be Our Guest (Fantasyland) Lunch Only

We were unable to secure reservations for dinner at Be Our Guest, but did not want to miss out on seeing it this trip, as it was not open during our last trip. We stopped by the restaurant the day before and asked a cast member what time we should arrive. She kindly informed us that lunch starts at 10:30am and we should arrive 30 minutes prior to get in line as it gets very long quickly. We arrived in the line at 10am and were the 4th party in line. Doors opened promptly at 10:30. What a beautiful restaurant. It is exactly like stepping into the movie. I was in awe.

The way to order was through kiosk, which I like. And they had an allergy option. It was so nice to not have to wait for a manager to come over to take my order. They serve your food on an adorable cart right to your table with real silver ware. I ordered the Carved Turkey Sandwich served on a GF bun with Dijon mayonnaise and Pomme Frites.

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For dessert, a GF Lemon-raspberry cream puff . The dessert was very good here. Especially because it is difficult to make a GF cream puff.

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The food, sadly it was not good at all. The fries were cold and limp, and the sandwich was made on the GF bread. The greens on the sandwich looked old and rotten, and the turkey was not very good quality. I am unsure why the food didn't taste fresh since we were some of the first lunch guests of the day. I feel this restaurant is definitely worth going to just see it once. I have never had dinner there, so we will be trying that our next trip to see if table service has better quality food.

Counter Service: Columbia Harbor House (Liberty Square)

Service here is always impeccable and very accommodating. I ordered the GF Chicken Tenders and Fries. These are the best GF chicken tenders I have had on Disney property. They also have a dedicated GF fryer. Dessert: OMG GF Brownie. It was huge, fudgy, and excellent for a pre-packaged dessert.


Counter Service Cosmic Ray's Starlight Café (Tomorrowland)

Service is also fantastic and very accommodating here as well. I ordered the 1/2 Rotisserie Chicken with Mashed Potatoes and a seasonal vegetable and Blake ordered the BBQ Pork Sandwich with a GF bun with fries. Both were delicious. Fries were made fresh, as was the rest of the food equally hot and tasty. Dessert was an OMG GF Brownie and Enjoy Life Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Downtown Disney:

Table Service: Raglan Road

Raglan Road is my favorite Downtown Disney table service location because the entertainment is wonderful and the food is delicious. The service was outstanding and musicians/dancers fantastic. We left very full. I ordered the Mammy's Roast Chicken which is a lemon thyme roasted half chicken with mashed potatoes. It was wonderful and fresh as always.

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My husband ordered Keen Eye for the Shepherds Pie. Both dishes were GF. My husband stated the meat in the Shepherd's Pie was tender and flavorful. He stated it tasted fresh and was very filling.

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For Dessert: Strawberry & Apple Crumble which was fresh strawberries and apples in a tart with berry compote and vanilla bean ice cream. This dessert is not naturally GF; but the server informed us they could make special GF ones! This was a perfect combination of tart and sweet. Most definitely one of my very favorite desserts at Disney.

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Port Orleans French Quarter Resort:

Quick Service: Sassagoula Float Works

We came here specifically for the GF beignets. I have never had any beignets and was afraid I never would with Celiac disease. We asked to speak with the chef. He was so nice and from Paris. I have never had real beignets but my husband has and he said the GF ones were delicious and very close to tasting like real beignets.

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Below you will find a list of other places we have eaten on some of our past trips to WDW.


Animal Kingdom:

Table Service: Rainforest Café (Entrance to Park)

Very accommodating. Did not have GF bread or rolls at the time we went, or dessert other than ice cream. Chef came out and spoke with me directly. I was able to easily order the rotisserie chicken.

Counter Service: Pizzafari (Discovery Island)

Amy's Rice Crust GF pizza. I am not a fan of this brand, but if you like Amy's you will love this location.

Epcot:

Table Service: Le Chefs De France (France, World Showcase)

Accommodating. I was able to order rotisserie chicken, but no dessert available other than sorbet.

Table Service: Marrakesh (Morocco, World Showcase)

I was able to order chicken, and any kebabs. I was unable to have rice, as it was not GF here. Sorbet was the only option for dessert.

Table Service: Le Cellier (Canada, World Showcase)

This restaurant has become a signature dining experience and now requires two table service credits per person per meal. This restaurant carries my favorite steak on Disney property. I usually order the filet mignon with cream cheese mashed potatoes and the GF maple crème brulee for dessert. The steak is always cooked perfectly to order, the cream cheese mashed potatoes are to die for, and the maple crème brulee is the best I have had anywhere. This restaurant truly sets itself above and beyond all standards .The service has always been spectacular and chefs extremely accommodating.


Counter Service: La Cantina de San Angel (Mexico, World Showcase)

I was able to order the nachos and tacos de pollo as they are made with corn tortillas. Chips are corn as well, but fried in a fryer with non-GF items. Service was a little tough, and food was average.

Counter Service: Electric Umbrella (Future World)

I was able to order the 1/3 lb. Bacon Cheeseburger on a GF bun with fries. The service was good, and the food average. Nothing outstanding.

Hollywood Studios

Counter Service: Backlot Express (near Star Tours)

I have ordered the GF chicken tenders and fries multiple times at this location. It is very crowded and often takes a bit of time for a manager to come over and take our order. Once that is done, I must say the GF chicken tenders and fries have always been delicious and fresh at this location.

Magic Kingdom

Table Service: Tony's Town Square (Main Street)

We have only eaten here once because although the service was great, the food was a bit bland and lack luster for my taste. I ordered the GF pasta with marinara sauce. This is a good solid choice for anyone wanting good service and the adorable Lady and Tramp décor.

Counter Service: Pecos Bill Café: (Frontierland)

I ordered a cheeseburger on a GF bun and fries. It was fresh and good. The fixins bar here has a wide variety.

Snacks: Aloha Isle (Adventureland)

I have to admit one of my favorite Disney treats is a vanilla Dole Whip root beer float. I also love all the other flavors of Dole Whip. They are not only GF, but dairy free as well.


Animal Kingdom Lodge Jambo House

Counter Service: The Mara

I ordered the rotisserie chicken and mashed potatoes. It was excellent. The chef came out and informed me that he could make almost anything on the menu GF. He even told me he could prepare GF zebra domes, which is Animal Kingdom Lodge's infamous dessert. I also noticed in the grab and go case that they had Babycakes GF desserts pre-packaged.


Boardwalk Resort and Villas

Counter Service: Boardwalk Bakery

I have ordered the smoked turkey sandwich on GF bread, fruit cup, chips, and they often have some sort of pre-packaged cupcake. Main meal good at this location, GF cupcake not so much.

Table Service: Big River Grille and Brewing Works

Food here is good, but not great. Service is always excellent. I usually order the NY strip steak. I have been unable to get dessert here that is GF.

Table Service: ESPN Club

Service was excellent. I ordered a burger on a GF bun with fries. Dessert option was gelato only.

Contemporary Resort

Table Service: California Grill

We have only eaten here once and it was on our honeymoon. The manager and waiter knew the occasion. Service from the manager who found us a wonderful seat by the window was impeccable. Our waiter was okay. View and fireworks amazing. The GF bread was warm. I ordered the oak fired filet of beef with roasted potatoes. It was prepared nicely, but lacked much flavoring. The potatoes were a bit dry and bland. When I asked the server about dessert, he stated they had a pre-packaged GF brownie. He did not offer to do anything special with it. I asked if they were able to make me a brownie sundae with ice cream and hot fudge using the pre-packaged dessert. He said yes and put the order in. This is a signature dining experience, which requires two table service credits. I was very surprised they did not have a GF dessert that was not pre packaged. The waiter came back with the brownie sundae, which was still mostly frozen in the middle. The ice cream was good, but there was no hot fudge, just cold chocolate sauce. This may have just been an off day for this restaurant as I have read that many people have had wonderful experiences here. I plan to try it again on our next trip.

Downtown Disney

Rainforest Café and T-Rex

Both are very accommodating, but no GF bread or buns at current time we dined. Ice Cream Sundaes were the GF dessert option.


Bongos Cuban Café

Wonderful service, food, and atmosphere. We often go for a late dinner on a weekend night when they have a live salsa band. I have ordered the Arroz con Pollo and the Pollo Asado. My husband usually gets the Churrasco a lo Cubano (Cuban style Skirt Steak). GF dessert option was flan at the time. I am not sure if they still carry it.

July 16, 2014

Jim's Attic: The Boardwalk Mutoscopes

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The Boardwalk Mutoscopes by Jim Korkis

Located in the Disney Boardwalk Inn and Villas resort hallway directly across from the restrooms near the Belle Vue Lounge are a green and a red Clamshell Mutoscope. At one time, there was also a mutoscope that was painted white with gold trim.

Mutoscopes were originally manufactured from 1895 to 1909 by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company.

The red and green mutoscopes are authentic operating machines from this time period and you can still clearly see the appropriate markings on the front of the machines.

The cast iron clamshell was one of the most durable styles and is so named because of the clamshell design pattern on both sides.

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Mutoscopes were basically a huge mechanical "flip book" with about 850 sturdy photographic prints on individual cards attached to a central core and flipped by a hand cranked ratchet. Each coin-operated machine only had a single reel, often an excerpt from an existing silent film but sometimes original and lasting about a minute.

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Here's something that I learned about mutoscopes in 1996:

The viewer could control the presentation speed but only to a limited degree. The crank could be turned in both directions, but this did not reverse the playing of the reel. Nor could the patron extend viewing time by stopping the crank because the flexible images were bent into the proper viewing position by tension applied from forward cranking.

Stopping the crank reduced the forward tension on the reels causing the reel to go backwards and the picture to move from the viewing position; a spring in the mechanism turned off the light and in some models brought down a shutter which completely blocked out the picture.

How did I learn all this information about mutoscopes? Because the red and green ones were rescued by me in 1996 which is why they are still around today.

For the opening of Walt Disney World, the Disney Company bought a very large collection of authentic mutoscopes, mechanical games and Orchestrions (music boxes like "Big Bertha" at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa) from Paul Eakin in the 1970s and moved them all from where they were being displayed and stored in Missouri to Florida. (Some machines from the Disneyland collection were also shipped out to Florida.)

Eakin's collection of machines operated for many years at the Million Dollar Museum in Sikeston and The Gay 90s Melody Museum located in St. Louis. Both Missouri museums were closed when Eakin sold the bulk of his collection to Walt Disney World.

These two particular mutoscopes were part of that collection and were enjoyed by Disney guests at the Main Street Penny Arcade until it closed March 19, 1995 to become part of Main Street Athletic Company.

A handful of the machines were eventually moved to the Main Street Train Station while the rest were stored under Cinderella Castle in a small, leaky room in the Utilidoors. Most of the collection is no longer in storage but was sold off to private collectors in 1997.

In the early part of 1996, I was hired as an animation instructor at the Disney Institute. One of the programs I developed and taught was on animation history. I was able to convince my manager Larry Lauria that having a mutoscope or two would add greatly to the guest experience.

I was the representative who was sent to examine the machines in storage and decide which two should be selected since some were in pretty bad shape. I was shown how to open the base and make minor repairs using a large, twisted paperclip since the interior equipment was no longer produced.

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To my surprise, the older cast member, who was the only one to care for the machines and who has long since retired, asked me what reels I wanted for the machines.

He led me to a storage cabinet and on the shelves were unopened boxes of reels. My heart soared when I found a silent Felix the Cat excerpt "Cat in a Bag" where Felix hides from a boxing bear in a bag (probably a selection from the 1921 "Love Punch" short animated by Otto Messmer and now long out of copyright) and then found another still unidentified silent animated film clip.

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When the Disney Institute stopped offering individual programs to guests in 2000 and then later left the physical space in 2002, I feared for the fate of the machines but they found a new home at the Boardwalk where a little tender loving care may help them spring back to life to continue to delight guests.

RELATED INFORMATION AND LINKS
Disney Historian Jim Korkis goes up into his imaginary attic to rummage around his archives and often stumbles across an unusual story about Walt Disney World. Those who have met me know that I take real joy in talking about Walt Disney.

====================
Check out Jim's other "From the Attic" Blogs

Full features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives: http://allears.net/ae/archives.htm

Jim Korkis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of three new books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com:
The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse
Who's Afraid of the Song of the South AND

"The REVISED Vault of Walt":


July 6, 2014

From the Tickle Trunk – Walt Disney World News 1981

Gary Cruise banner

According to The Walt Disney Archives, the Magic Kingdom's first map wasn't a guide map as we know it today, but a multi-page newspaper called The Walt Disney World News. The first edition, with a huge headline "Vacation Kingdom Opens," celebrated the opening of the park with photos of company founder Walt Disney, Walt Disney World Ambassador Debby Dane, and the Windsor family, the first visitors to enter the park on Oct. 1, 1971. It also told the story of how, in order to be the first guests admitted, the entire Windsor family, mom, dad and sons slept overnight in their Volkswagen in a nearby parking lot.

Alas, we do not have a copy of that newspaper in the Tickle Trunk, but I was able to find a few pages from it on the Disney Parks Blog site. The park's first map appears on page 4 of the newspaper and is followed, on pages 4 and 5, with a listing of attractions, shops and restaurants in each themed land.

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It must have seemed comical when guests opened these 8-page tabloid-sized newspapers to find their way around the parks. It would have been quite a handful!

The Magic Kingdom Park Map, as we know it today, appeared in late 1972 but the production of the tabloid-style newspaper continued into the 1990's. Once the park map was introduced in 1972 the purpose of the newspaper seems to have changed. The content became more focused on things outside the Magic Kingdom. In my opinion, the entire purpose of the publication may have been to demonstrate to guests that Walt Disney World was more than just a theme park, a whole lot more! It promoted the many activities guests could enjoy in the resorts and in the shopping area at Lake Buena Vista.

The newspaper was printed monthly and included in the check-in package guests received when they arrived at Disney resorts. Copies were available to all other guests at City Hall in the Magic Kingdom. Carol and I have copies of ten different editions of the newspaper in the Tickle Trunk, spanning the years 1981 to 1992 and I'll share them with you over the next few months.

Let's start with the two issues from 1981, January and February. Carol received them both that year, while she was staying at Polynesian Village Resort.

Before we get started, let's look at the time frame . . . what was happening at our happy place?

There was still only one theme park, The Magic Kingdom, but EPCOT was nearing completion and would open in less than two years.

Disney resorts consisted of The Contemporary Resort, The Polynesian Village Resort, The Golf Resort (renamed The Disney Inn in 1986 and Shades of Green in 1994) and Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground.

The shopping area, opened in 1975, was known as The Village at Lake Buena Vista; in 1989 it was renamed Disney Village Marketplace and then in 1995 it became Downtown Disney.

Here is what the January 1981 issue looked like:

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Page 1 had an interesting article about music at the Magic Kingdom, in all it's venues. The Dapper Dans are jumping and clicking their heels in the lead photograph!

The second article on page 1 invites guests to shop at Walt Disney World Village. The photo shows the Empress Lily in the background. We now know her as Fulton's Crab House.

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January_1981_Page_3

January_1981_Page_4

Pages 2 through 4 focus on dining, entertainment, golf, tennis and fishing. Here are a few noteworthy articles:

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The first Character Meal - Dinner á la Disney at the Golf Resort.

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Fine dining at the Contemporary Resort's Gulf Coast Room!

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Even fishing - there was something for everyone her!

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Guests could enjoy some smooth jazz at the Village Lounge.

Let's take a look at the February 1981 issue which Carol picked up on the same trip.

The front page as well as page 4 were almost identical to the January edition, only the park hours section on page 1 had changed.

There were a few differences inside though.

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On page 2, The Fifth Dimension and Mickey Finn had finished their gigs at The Top of the World (today known as California Grill), Mel Tormé and Billy Eckstine now rounded out the list of entertainers.

February_1981_Discovery_Island
On Page three there was a terrific description of Discovery Island.

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A world of shopping awaited at The Village.

February_1981_Advertisments
Naturally there were some cute advertisments.

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You could arrange tennis lessons for the whole family at the Contemporary Resort.

February_1981_Junior_Golf
There was even a "wee links" course at the Golf Resort.

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Adventurous guests could taste exotic south seas treats at the Polynesian Village.

Even with only one theme park there was so much to see and enjoy at Walt Disney World in 1981. It was, and still is, a pretty amazing playground for kids of all ages!

And there's still plenty of good reading left in that old Tickle Trunk, this is just a small sampling. I hope you enjoyed it!

July 2, 2014

Jim's Attic: The History Behind the Saratoga Springs DVC Resort

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Jim Korkis: The History Behind the Saratoga Springs

Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa officially opened May 17, 2004 with a "health-history-horses" theme. The Development Manager for the project was Kevin Cummings which was ironically appropriate.

Cummings was born and raised in Saratoga Springs, New York, the city that was the inspiration for the new Disney Vacation Club resort. In fact, at the time, his twin brother still lived in that historic upstate New York town so Kevin would go back to visit several times during the year, especially to attend the races.

In his role as a Development Manager, Kevin oversaw the hiring of the project's design professionals, from the design architect to the working architect, to all the engineers.

"I coordinate them as a team to come up with the design for our project," he told me when the resort first opened.

As soon as Kevin heard that the new resort was to be inspired by the tranquil towns of upstate New York in the 1800s, he told everyone, "It's got to be Saratoga! We took trips up there to look at the architecture, and I'd show my friends around since I knew the lay of the land. I knew exactly where to look, where the best architecture was"North Broadway, Union Avenue, and all the special buildings that we took bits and pieces of our design from for the resort."

Working with Boston-based Graham Gund Architects (who had worked on Disney's Vero Beach Resort, the Celebration Hotel in Celebration, Florida, and Disney's Coronado Springs Resort), the team, according to Kevin, "went up and down the East Coast looking for different elements to be put to use for our buildings. Of course, the major part of the architecture is based on Saratoga. But we were very careful to use actual design elements"it's really real, what you're seeing, we didn't make this stuff up.

"Of course, I knew the history from growing up and going to school there, the local history, and the history of the racecourse. It's not a racetrack "it's a racecourse" the oldest racecourse in the United States, going all the way back to 1863. In the 1920s and '30s, especially, Saratoga was the place for the upper class to summer, and they all went during the racing season. It was known as the 'August place'. Saratoga Springs used to have more hotel rooms than any other U.S. destination."

Kevin helped develop a binder filled with photos from the research trips so that the smallest details like the awnings would be accurate.

Kevin was also instrumental in naming many of the features like the High Rock Spring Pool after one of the actual "healing springs" found in the city and frequented by celebrities like U.S. Presidents.

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Street names such as Union Avenue and Broadway will also be familiar with people who know Saratoga Springs. Kevin wanted to see the name of the street he grew up on included, but it didn't make the cut.

What most reminded Kevin of his hometown were the three towers. "We have three different building types, and we have three different tower designs on the Guest room buildings. They're right at the entrances, and they rise 70 feet into the air"those elements really strike you. You'll see them all over Saratoga, even the colors. The blues, greens, reds, and yellows we used to paint the buildings"the greatest homes in Saratoga Springs have those colors. That's what really hit me"the colors of the buildings...and the towers. No doubt about it."

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Having a reference to Saratoga Springs on WDW property is nothing new.

Since the opening of Walt Disney World in October 1971, there has been a major architectural reference to Saratoga Springs, New York in the Magic Kingdom. The majestic train station is an adaptation of one that was in that city at the turn of the century and has greeted Disney theme park guests for over forty years to remind them they are on the East Coast.

RELATED INFORMATION AND LINKS

Saratoga Springs Fact Sheet

Saratoga Springs Videos

In-Depth Look at Saratoga Springs - Three Part Blogs

Disney Historian Jim Korkis goes up into his imaginary attic to rummage around his archives and often stumbles across an unusual story about Walt Disney World. Those who have met me know that I take real joy in talking about Walt Disney.

====================
Check out Jim's other "From the Attic" Blogs

Full features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives: http://allears.net/ae/archives.htm

Jim Korkis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of three new books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com:
The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse
Who's Afraid of the Song of the South
"The REVISED Vault of Walt":


June 6, 2014

Review: Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course

by Guest Blogger Phil Creglow

I think it's safe to say that golf isn't at the top of the priority list for a lot of guests who are planning a vacation at Walt Disney World. As an avid golfer, I will admit that golf is a niche sport that can be expensive, time consuming, and at times is frustrating for everyone who plays the game. Does that mean that a round of golf would fail to make for an enjoyable experience at Disney? Can guests looking for a break from the parks find fun and relaxation on a golf course? I wanted an answer to those questions and made a visit to Disney's Oak Trail golf course.

Disney's Oak Trail Golf Course


Disney's Oak Trail golf course is a 9-hole course that is surrounded by the more famous Disney Magnolia 18-hole golf course. Oak Trail is listed as a walking course suitable for families and golfers of all skill levels. The par-36 course offers a variety of tees - 2,913 yards for adults to 1,713 yards for kids - and includes access to the Magnolia driving range and putting green. As a Disney Premium Annual Passholder, I was eligible for complimentary green fees at Oak Trail, so I made a tee time online for 9:32 AM on a Wednesday.

I started my morning by checking in at the pro shop 45 minutes prior to my tee time. For me, every round of golf requires a warm-up at the driving range. Complimentary range balls were not provided so I had to purchase a small bucket of range balls for $7. That is overpriced in comparison to most courses but I paid for them anyway just to keep my normal pre-round routine. The driving range was rather narrow but offered decent turf conditions and several target greens at various yardages. The 1st tee at Oak Trail is conveniently located near the driving range so I could take some time warming up and then proceed to check-in with the starter just prior to my tee time.

The first hole at Oak Trail (photo below) is a very short par 4 and advanced players will be tempted to try and drive the green.

Disney's Oak Trail Golf Course Hole #1

This is followed by a short par 3 and then two average length par 4s. These holes are bunched together and it's not uncommon to see players from other holes wandering into your fairway to hit stray shots. Trees line the fairways but there are plenty of openings to place your ball back into play. The greens are small on all four holes making it easier to putt for beginners and kids, yet provide challenging targets for advanced players. Sand bunkers guard all four greens. (Hole #5 shown below.)

Disney's Oak Trail Golf Course Hole #5

After leaving the 4th green, the course changes dramatically. The next three holes are longer - including two par 5s - and water does come into play. The par 5 5th hole features a S-shaped design requiring three precise shots for an opportunity at a birdie putt. The par 4 6th hole (photo below) requires players to hit over a water hazard in order to reach the green in two. Dense woods surround the green so accuracy is required.

Disney's Oak Trail Golf Course Hole #6


The par 5 7th hole is short for a par 5 but sand bunkers guard the front side of the narrow, elevated green. These three holes will be demanding for beginners, especially the carry over the water on the 6th hole. Advanced players will also be challenged here, more so than any other holes on the course. This is also your opportunity to take in the natural surroundings, which on this day featured massive wild turkeys near the 5th green and two gators in the pond between holes 5 and 7. This area of the course offers one of the more peaceful settings I have experienced on Disney property.

Finally, the course finishes with the par 4 8th hole and the par 3 9th hole. Shorter hitters will find that water is in play along the left side of the 8th fairway. The 9th hole is very short but the greenside sand bunker is deceiving and intimidating. This hole is where you return to the familiar sounds of Disney as the Walt Disney World Railroad whistles in the background.

Now for a few tips regarding Oak Trail:

- If you drive your own vehicle to the course, be prepared to show your photo ID. The pro shop shares property with the Shades of Green Resort, which is an Armed Forces Recreation Center. Just tell the security guard you have a tee time at the golf course and you are on your way.

- The pro shop will not recognize Magic Bands to pay for golf or claim discounts! Be sure to bring your Disney Vacation Club card, annual pass or resort hotel card if you will be claiming available discounts.

- Food and beverages are available outside of the pro shop. A beverage cart was parked just past the 4th green but had left by the time I approached the 8th tee. Take this into consideration if you require beverages or food on the course. You will want to stock up before your round just in case beverage cart service is not available. There is a drinking fountain near the 6th tee box.

- If you are like me and require a warm-up session at the driving range, only buy the $7 small basket of range balls. Why? $7 is expensive for a small basket and you are likely to find plenty of extra range balls that have been left behind by other guests. The putting green is behind the pro shop; so start there first before making the walk to the driving range.

- If you are a single or a twosome, be prepared to pair up with other players, especially on busy days. This was nice since I prefer not to play golf by myself, was paired with three other players and we all had an enjoyable round discussing all things Disney, Orlando and sports.

- You can call (407) WDW-GOLF or visit golfwdw.com to make a tee time online. Green fees are listed at $38 but are either discounted or complimentary depending on whether you are resort guest, Disney Vacation Club member or annual passholder. Junior and twilight rates are also available.

- Club rentals, shoe rentals and pull carts are available for use at Oak Trail. Check with the pro shop in advance for availability and pricing. Like the green fees, equipment rental discounts are available for resort guests, Disney Vacation Club members and annual passholders.


I completed my round in 2 hours. Course conditions were good but not pristine. A couple of greens had areas under repair and I noticed two sand bunkers that were damaged by either heavy rain or just poor drainage. As of this writing, Oak Trail is closed for refurbishment and is scheduled to reopen on June 4, 2014.

Disney's Oak Trail Golf Course Hole #4 Green Repair


With the reasonable pace of play, the opportunity to walk, and complimentary green fees as a Premium Annual Passholder, Oak Trail will be a regular golf destination for me. Avid golfers with more time and money to spend may be better off playing one of Disney's 18-hole courses, which include Magnolia, Palm and Lake Buena Vista. While Oak Trail is advertised as a family-friendly golf course, I did not see any kids playing the course during my visit. My playing partners were all taking the morning to play golf and then reconnect with their family and friends either for lunch or in the parks later that afternoon.

Fun? Yes. Relaxing? Yes. I think my playing partner Art from New York had it right when he said, "Oak Trail is my vacation from my vacation."

Phil Creglow rediscovered Disney two years ago following a twelve year hiatus. After relocating to Orlando in 2014, he is on a mission to make up for lost time by making frequent visits to the Disney parks, participating in runDisney events, and sampling the best food and beverages available at Walt Disney World.


May 21, 2014

Jim's Attic: Humphrey the Bear at Wilderness Lodge

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Humphrey the Bear at Wilderness Lodge
By Jim Korkis

Disney's Wilderness Lodge Resort is the only Disney resort hotel to have an official mascot, the brown bear. Images and allusions can be found throughout the resort including bear tracks imbeded in the walkways.

To make that potentially fearsome mascot more friendly for younger guests, some of the brown bear images are of the Disney animated character Humphrey the Bear, a lovable, overweight brown bear who lives in the fictional Brownstone National Park.

Humphrey is most prominent on a totem pole on the outside of the Mercantile Store in the lobby of the resort. A smiling Humphrey is at the bottom of the pole supporting frontier garbed Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck on top of him.

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Over the years, the store has sold exclusive merchandise featuring the image of Humphrey.

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In addition, Humphrey pops on signage throughout the resort that many guests fail to notice. On the road leading to the Wilderness Lodge, just to right before the archway, is a round metal sign with silhouettes of Mickey Mouse being followed by Humphrey.

At the entrance to the Villas at Wilderness Lodge is another metal sign with the silhouettes of Mickey walking along and Humphrey riding on top of an old fashioned penny farthing bicycle to mark the bike crossing path.

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Only seven Disney cartoon characters have starred in their own theatrical cartoon series. Humphrey the Bear was the last one to do so before the Disney company decided to stop making theatrical cartoon shorts.

Humphrey starred prominently in four Donald Duck cartoons, Rugged Bear (1953), Grin and Bear It (1954), Bearly Asleep (1955), and Beezy Bear (1955).

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He was so popular that Disney gave him his own series but only two cartoons were completed, Hooked Bear (1956) and In the Bag (1956).

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In addition, Humphrey appeared in the opening credits for the original Mickey Mouse Club television series in 1955 holding the trampoline on which various characters bounce Mickey Mouse high into the air.

Humphrey the Bear does not speak but communicates through expressive grunts supplied by voice man Jimmy MacDonald who also did the voice of Mickey Mouse. Sometimes, director Jack Hannah would step in to supply some of the grunts.

Hannah directed all the Humphrey the Bear animated appearances in the Golden Age of Disney animation and since he lived in the same city where I grew up, I got a chance to interview him many times. He was actually the very first Disney animator I ever interviewed.

"For the sake of something new, we tried the Duck with a bear and it seemed like an immediate success for them to play against each other," Hannah revealed to me in an interview. "Later, when we started thinking of another picture for the bear, it seemed natural to be in a National Forest and that's how the Little Ranger came into being. The Little Ranger always treated his bears like his own pets and I always found that funny as did the audience."

Humphrey has also appeared in cartoons made for television including House of Mouse and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. He even has a short cameo at the end of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

While Humphrey never appeared in any cartoon featuring him in the circus, he was recently revived to be included in the New Fantasyland expansion. He is prominent on the sign for Big Top Treats "Circus Snacks Galore" with him happily munching away on a caramel apple. In addition, that same image is used on a Storybook Circus poster.

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However, while he may sneak over to the Magic Kingdom to grab a tasty treat, his official Walt Disney World home is Wilderness Lodge.

Disney Historian Jim Korkis goes up into his imaginary attic to rummage around his archives and often stumbles across an unusual story about Walt Disney World. Those who have met me know that I take real joy in talking about Walt Disney.

RELATED INFORMATION AND LINKS
Disney Historian Jim Korkis goes up into his imaginary attic to rummage around his archives and often stumbles across an unusual story about Walt Disney World. Those who have met me know that I take real joy in talking about Walt Disney.

====================
Check out Jim's other "From the Attic" Blogs

Full features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives: http://allears.net/ae/archives.htm

Jim Korkis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of three new books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com:
The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse
Who's Afraid of the Song of the South
"The REVISED Vault of Walt":


April 27, 2014

The Tickle Trunk – Memories of Disney

Gary Cruise banner

Carol has a Tickle Trunk. It's filled with wonderful Disney memories!

Most Canadian readers will remember Mr. Dressup, Casey, Finnigan and the Tickle Trunk . . . but for others, I will explain. Mr. Dressup was the star of a children's show which ran on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation network from 1967 to 1996. His sidekicks were two hand puppets, Casey and Finnegan, a child and a dog who lived in a treehouse in Mr. Dressup's back yard.

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In most episodes Mr. Dressup would get a costume from a big, brightly painted steamer trunk which he called his Tickle Trunk. The costume might be for an animal, policeman or fireman. Donning the costume (after all, he was Mr. Dressup), he would play the role suggested by the outfit. The Tickle Trunk appeared to be charmed - it always had the right costumes, in the right sizes, neatly folded at the top. That simple steamer trunk really was magical; it transported Canadian children to some very imaginative places for three decades!

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Mr. Rogers Neighborhood aired in Canada too, but if you ask any Canadian kid of that era they will assure you, "Mr. Dressup was waay more fun!"

I've mentioned before that Carol saves every piece of paper from each Disney trip, tickets, park maps, resort check-in packages, brochures, flyers, napkins . . . you name it, she probably has it! When she gets home all of that material finds a permanent spot in a big wooden trunk - for years now we've called it Carol's Tickle Trunk!

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Of course, Carol's Tickle Trunk is magical too. Whenever she opens the lid we are instantly transported to our happy place! The best of memories come floating out!

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As you might expect, the trunk has been full for years. It takes some management! When we get home from a trip some new treasures go in and some older treasures get culled and placed in new homes.

When Carol started collecting pins in earnest in 2001 she scoured the Tickle Trunk and pulled out some classic old pins. They now have a special place of honor in her pin collection.

Her collection of Disney buttons, acquired over the decades, now live in a button bucket!

The resort registration packages from each Disney trip, along with park maps, timetables, and plenty of other paper now fill a filing cabinet drawer. Each trip is in its own folder.

But there's still plenty of treasure in that magical wooden trunk!

Just a week or two ago I was writing a blog about Disney park tickets, so naturally we had to go to the Tickle Trunk to find a few old ones. On the way to the bottom of that trunk, where those tickets from 1977 live, we uncovered some buried treasure!

What did we find? Here's a small sampling:

Ten old copies of the "Walt Disney World News"
This four-page newsletter was produced by Disney, a fresh copy each month in the early years, and included in check-in packages at all Disney resorts. The tabloid sized papers are full of fascinating information!

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1981

WDW_News_1990
1990

Magic Kingdom Club/Disney Club Membership packages
Who knew Disney had so many clubs . . . The Magic Kingdom Club, the Magic Years Club and the Disney Club. Carol has old membership cards, brochures and magazines for all of them!

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Magic_Years_Magazine_Winter_1993
1993

Disney_Club_News_January_2003
2003

Dinner á la Disney & Breakfast á la Disney Tickets
Before there were character meals there was Dinner á la Disney! Dinner was served in the Trophy Room at the Golf Resort, now known as Shades of Green. Breakfast á la Disney was served aboard the Empress Lily, now known as Fulton's Crab House. There were no character meals in the Magic Kingdom in the early years!

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River Country / Discovery Island Tickets
River Country was the original Disney water park, located beside Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Two slides dropped guests into a man-made pool. The rest of the slides and water adventures took place in the natural waters of Bay Lake.

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Just across the water from River Country was Discovery Island, a tropical paradise filled with exotic birds and blossoms.

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Disney Matchbook covers
In days of yore cigarette smoking was allowed in most areas at Walt Disney World and most resorts and restaurants had matches available for guests. Carol's collection lives in a pretty metal box in the Tickle Trunk.

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Children's "Wonders of Walt Disney World" Books
This program of day-long seminars was offered by Disney for children from 10 to 15 years of age. Son Rob went on two of the four seminars they offered in the mid 80's and Carol has the proof!

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Wonders_Text_Book


Disney Post Cards
Yes, there are postcards. Lots and lots of postcards.

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But there's something all those things have in common. All of that stuff, all those oddities and curios which remain in that trunk; they are all filled with fond memories of happy days. Sweet recollections from magical Disney trips!

Stay tuned, once in a while I'll pull something out of the Tickle Trunk and tell you a little bit more about it in a new blog.

April 13, 2014

The Evolution of Disney Tickets

Gary Cruise banner

Walt Disney World tickets have certainly changed over the years!

No, I'm not going to rant about the price of tickets; other folks have that very well covered! I think that Disney tickets have always represented great value, so I'm going to talk about the tickets themselves. Let's look at the form of the tickets; are they paper or plastic? What they will buy for you? How have they changed through the years?

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In the beginning there were E-Tickets. Yes, I know . . . there are at least two generations of folks out there who don't know what old geezers like me are talking about when we refer to an E-Ticket. So, let me explain!

In 1971 when Walt Disney World opened they used the same ticketing system that had worked successfully at Disneyland since 1959. Guests paid a small General Admission fee ($3.50 for an adult) and then paid an additional fee for each attraction they visited. The attraction fees were paid using pre-packaged booklets of tickets which guests could purchase at the Ticket and Transportation Centre or at several booths in the park.

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The most popular attractions were referred to as "E-Ticket Rides" since they required an E-Ticket from your book. The mildest or least popular attractions required an A-Ticket. All rides and attractions were marked with the type of ticket required!

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In those early years there were several "Adventure Magic Key Ticket Books" with tickets for 7, 9 or 11 adventures. The 11 Adventure Magic Key Ticket Book cost $5.75 in 1971 and contained one A-Ticket, one B-Ticket, two C-Tickets, three D-Tickets and four E-Tickets. Additional tickets could be purchased individually if you needed them.

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At each attraction guests would tear the appropriate ticket out of their booklet and present it to the cast member. It sounds cumbersome by today's standards, but that's the way things worked 40 years ago and it worked well.

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Prices slowly increased during the 70's and the ticket booklets changed as well. By 1976 there was a 2 day 18 Adventure Book.

When I first visited the Magic Kingdom in 1977 things were a bit different; they were still selling books of tickets, but guests could now purchase a 2-Day Magic Kingdom Passport which covered Magic Kingdom admission for 2 days, all rides and attractions, two days transportation to Magic Kingdom and the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Center. This was my first Disney ticket; although the Adventure books continued until 1982 - I never used an E-Ticket!

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Things changed in late 1982 when EPCOT opened. The ticket booklets were phased out in June of that year and guests could only purchase one day passports for either park or multi-day World Passports which included both parks and allowed access to all attractions. These paper tickets were stamped with the date as guests entered the park. Re-entry was permitted with a hand-stamp. (The "Park-Hopper" was born! However, it wasn't until 1994 that the term "Park-Hopper" was coined by Disney and added as a ticket option.)

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The first Annual Passport was introduced in 1982; what a bargain at $100.00. Alas, I have no picture of one of those original passports. Today Annual Passports entitle holders to discounts in many Disney shopping and dining venues as well as periodic discounts at some Disney resorts. I have been unable to determine if these discounts were available in the 80's.

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The Annual Passport pictured below, purchased in November 1989, was the first of many Annual Passports for my wife Carol. In addition to unlimited entry at the theme parks, it also provided free parking and a discount at Disney resort hotels.

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Disney-MGM Studios opened May 1, 1989 and that brought some more changes. The one-day ticket now cost $28.00 and covered any one of the three parks, with a re-entry privilege, but no park-hopping.

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The three, four or five-day World Passports did allow park-hopping.

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The 1990's brought a multitude of changes. In 1990 a 5-Day Plus Super Pass was introduced. It covered all three theme parks, plus Pleasure Island, Typhoon Lagoon, River Country and Discovery Island. Wow - that's a lot of park hopping for $110.00

What could possibly be better than 5-Day Plus Super Pass? I'm so glad you asked! In 1991 along came the 5-Day Super Duper Pass - it included unlimited admission to the Disney-MGM Studios, Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center any five days with no expiration date, plus unlimited admission for seven days to Typhoon Lagoon, River Country, Discovery Island and Pleasure Island. Naturally it included unlimited use of the transportation system linking the parks.

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In 1992 technology began to creep into the ticketing process. Disney switched from all hand stamped tickets to turnstiles that automatically read the ticket's bar code, stamped the admission tickets and punched out a number from the lower left corner of the ticket each time an admission was used. At the same time, 4-Day All Three Parks Passports were replaced by a 4-Day Super Pass and a 4-Day Super Duper Pass.

In 1994 they discontinued sales of the Super Pass and Super Duper Pass and coined a new term, Park Hopper, when they introduced the 4-day Park Hopper and the 5-day World Hopper. Disney introduced the first Premium Annual Passport this year, to the best of my knowledge this was the first plastic card, credit card sized. The Premium Annual Passport included unlimited access to the three theme parks, two water parks, Pleasure Island and Discovery Island.

I haven't been able to determine when Walt Disney World began adding guest pictures to Annual Passports, but it was 1989 or earlier since Carol's picture is on that 1989-90 passport pictured above. Those guest photos were discontinued in 1996, the same year that mylar paper tickets with a magnetic strip on the back replaced the previous paper tickets with bar codes.

For the first time, different categories of ticket displayed the same image on the face of the ticket. A 5-day ticket and a 10-day ticket might look identical on the surface; the magnetic strip contained information on the guest's entitlements and privileges. Biometric finger scanners were added in conjunction with the new magnetic strip tickets.

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Both Disney's Animal Kingdom and DisneyQuest opened in 1998. Admission to the Animal Kingdom park was included in all multi-day Park Hopper passports and admission to DisneyQuest was included in the Premium Annual Passport.

The next significant change in tickets took place in 2005 when the "Magic Your Way" ticket was introduced. This ticket plan has changed a bit but remains in effect today. Guests could purchase a one, two, three or four day Magic Your Way Base Ticket which gave access to any one park each day of the term - there was no Park Hopping with the base tickets. There were also five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten day Magic Your Way tickets which gave guests the option of purchasing a Park Hopper feature and a Water Park Fun & More feature.

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In March 2010 the new Premier Passport was offered. This ultimate passport includes all the features of the Premium Annual Passport, unlimited access to the four Florida theme parks, the two Florida water parks and DisneyQuest but it also includes unlimited entry at both Disney theme parks in Anaheim California. Sounds like a "must-have" for every true Disney fan! Carol and I used Premier Passports in 2010 and again in 2013. We really enjoyed the 20% discount on merchandise and food purchases and were disappointed when Walt Disney World reduced it to 10% in 2013. The discount is still 20% at Disneyland Resort in California.

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This brings us to the most significant ticketing change in Disney history - Magic Bands.

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Disney is spending about a billion dollars (that's right - billion - with a "B") to take advantage of RFID technology. The program started trials in September 2013 with selected resort guests and was very recently expanded to include Annual Passholders. These guests now receive a wrist band which contains an RFID chip.

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The ticketing structure and pricing remains unchanged and guests still receive a plastic ticket in the form of a Key To The World Card or Annual Passport, but all of their entitlement data is programmed on the RFID chip. There is no need to show your ticket when you enter a park, just hold your Magic Band up to a scanner, place your finger in a biometric reader, and away you go.

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The band also unlocks the door to your room in a Disney resort and it will open the entry gate when you drive into the resort. If you have a credit card on file with Disney and have elected to have charging privileges, the band even acts as your credit card - just scan it and enter your PIN.

What else can the bands do? Well, some pretty amazing stuff! You can use them with the "My Disney Experience" program to manage FastPass+. Up to 60 days before your trip to Walt Disney World, from the comfort of your own home, you can go online and book up to three FastPass+'s for each day of your trip.

On the appointed day, during the pre-determined one-hour time window you simply head to the FastPass Return line, scan your Magic Band and away you go! There is no need to get to the park early and rush off to pick up a FastPass. How cool is that! Alas, you can only get FastPass+'s for one park per day - no Park Hopping. I hope that option comes along soon.

A quick word of advice - be sure to use My Disney Experience to book your FastPass+'s in advance. All the old FastPass distribution machines have been removed from the parks. There are a few FastPass+ kiosks in the parks but at this point in time the lines are long. Very long!

So, in 43 years Disney has moved from little booklets of tear-out tickets to the amazing RFID technology of today's Magic Bands. I don't know about you, but I have certainly enjoyed the journey!

I wonder what the next step in the evolution will be?

P.S. AllEars.net Archivist Jack Marshall has compiled a very detailed list of prices for specific tickets, year by year, and pictures of hundreds of vintage old tickets. Click this link to see more: WDW Ticket History

April 9, 2014

Jim’s Attic: The Story of Beacon Joe

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The Story of Beacon Joe
By Jim Korkis

Which original Disney character appears in three different attractions at Walt Disney World and was originally created for Disneyland?

I always hated it when teachers asked questions like that and they already knew the answer" and I was a public school teacher for several years after I graduated college so I always tried to help the students with the right answer.

The answer is in the title of this blog installment: Beacon Joe.

However, for many Disney fans that can still be a puzzling answer. When The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction opened in May 1967, it was the last Disney attraction personally overseen by Walt Disney himself.

It was Walt's idea to have the shallow boats drift leisurely through the Blue Bayou before plunging down a hidden waterfall to begin the pirate adventure. The musical chirp of unseen crickets and the faint glow of fireflies against the background of an indigo sky dotted with stars and slowly wafting clouds artistically frames this location to give it a false sense of calm.

The always innovative Walt Disney conceived of a quiet, upscale restaurant that would actually be inside an attraction. It was an idea that had never been done before and it was an instant hit with the many visitors to Disneyland. (My favorite treat at Disneyland is a Monte Cristo sandwich in the restaurant.)

There were discussions of including live entertainment in this quiet, restful environment but after a dress rehearsal during a trial dinner, Walt reportedly said, "In this restaurant, the food is going to be the show, along with the atmosphere".

Right across from the Blue Bayou restaurant and to the left of the guests in the boats is a shack where a bearded man wearing overalls leisurely rocks back and forth plucking out a tune on his banjo. That's Beacon Joe.

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Disney Legend Marc Davis designed both the character and the shack. In fact, the initial concept drawings came from his original designs for a Thieves Market that was going to be part of the attraction when it was planned to be a walk-through experience.

The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction was initially not going to be installed in Florida so to brighten up the steamboat voyage around the Rivers of America in Frontierland, Davis installed Beacon Joe and his shack just around an upper curve in the river.

Joe was not there at the opening in 1971 but made his appearance sometime in late 1972 just before the opening of Tom Sawyer's Island in 1973 along with other residents added to the river banks like the Native Americans in their village.

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Joe is the last outpost of civilization before guests drift into the frontier wilderness.

He sits on the porch of his shack in front of Alligator Swamp smoking his corncob pipe. He keeps track of the river's occasional course changes and marks the river accordingly for the river traffic.

His faithful dog intensely watches a jumping fish (that looks suspiciously like a repainted piranha from the Jungle Cruise) with his head turning from left to right.

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Beacon Joe also appears in Tokyo Disneyland. He can be seen fishing, surrounded by barrels and with his faithful dog on the nearby stairs, near the large trestle of the Western River Railroad as the steamboat maneuvers around the Western River.

However, I mentioned that Beacon Joe appears in three different attractions just at Walt Disney World. It is not unusual for the Disney Company to re-use audio-animatronics sculpted figures. For instance, President Thomas Jefferson shows up as a sheriff on a balcony in The Great Movie Ride, along with some Caribbean pirates re-used as gangsters earlier in the attraction.

The character sculpt of Beacon Joe is used in The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction as the standing pirate in the last jail cell at the end of the ride trying to coax a dog to give him the key to the door. He also shows up clean shaven and wearing a crown at the ballroom banquet table in The Haunted Mansion.

Just like a supporting character actor in a film, Beacon Joe quietly makes his appearances to help the storytelling but never feels the necessity to be the star of the show. However, now, you know where he is and why he is there so give him a wave or a shout on your next visit.

RELATED INFORMATION AND LINKS
Disney Historian Jim Korkis goes up into his imaginary attic to rummage around his archives and often stumbles across an unusual story about Walt Disney World. Those who have met me know that I take real joy in talking about Walt Disney.

====================
Check out Jim's other "From the Attic" Blogs

Full features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives: http://allears.net/ae/archives.htm

Jim Korkis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of three new books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com:
The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse
Who's Afraid of the Song of the South
"The REVISED Vault of Walt":

March 12, 2014

Jim’s Attic: A Short History of Tony’s Town Square Restaurant

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A Short History of Tony's Town Square Restaurant By Jim Korkis

When Main Street U.S.A. opened at the Magic Kingdom in Florida in October 1971, right there in Town Square was the Town Square Café with an open air porch where patrons could watch the stream of guests rushing in and out of the park.

The food and beverage location offered breakfast, lunch and dinner and was themed to the elegant Victorian era. Originally, the venue was going to be sponsored by a coffee company but the proposed participant backed out.

It ended up being sponsored by Oscar Mayer from 1971-1981. Diminutive spokesman for the company, Little Oscar (actually affable George Molchan) in his white chef's hat, was there greeting guests and handing out the iconic wiener whistles to eager children.

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However, it was not a variety of Oscar Mayer hot dogs that were served at the location but upscale fare like a Monte Cristo sandwich and Crepes Jambalaya. Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola were available as well on the menu.

When Oscar Mayer declined to renew its sponsorship, the location was taken over by Hormel who handled the operation from 1981 to 1989. The menu was a large four page newspaper entitled "Town Square Times" with the first page devoted to the history of the Hormel company. The new sponsor still sold a Monte Cristo sandwich along with a Main Street Deli Plate and Fresh Catfish.

When Hormel decided not to continue sponsorship in 1989, the Disney Company did an extensive rehab of the restaurant converting it into Tony's Town Square Restaurant.

The restaurant references the Italian restaurant in the Disney animated feature classic Lady and the Tramp (1955) where two canines shared a romantic moment over a plate of spaghetti and meat balls.

The proprietor of the film's eatery is a larger-than-life, black-mustached, friendly character named Tony voiced by actor George Givot, known for his dialect comedy and fine singing voice, who passed away in 1984.

After a recent rehab, Tony's image is now smiling from a brand new overhead sign.

The waiting area has a television playing a clip from the film and the interior of the restaurant is decorated with Lady and the Tramp artwork as well as a sculpted fountain.

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For over thirty years, Don "Ducky" Williams has been a Senior Character Artist at Walt Disney World. During that time, he supplied artwork for memorable pieces of merchandise like the special limited edition lithographs for the Disney Cruise Line and the Disney Vacation Club.

Sometimes, his talents were tapped for unusual projects like Tony's Town Square Restaurant.

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"I did the artwork for all the china, signage, menus, etc. In fact, when it first opened, it had plates, saucers, creamers and more with my Lady and the Tramp artwork on it," commented Williams when I interviewed him. "They found the guests loved it so much that they kept stealing it so they replaced them with regular china. The remainder they had they sold at Disneyana conventions.

"Do you see all those framed paintings on the wall? There are twelve of them and I did them all. Those are the original paintings framed under glass, not prints or reproductions. If they ever change out that place, I would love to have those back to put up in my house."

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Disney enthusiast Greg Ehrbar was responsible for writing the original two-sided kid's menu that was designed to resemble the comics section from the "Main Street Gazette". Besides the menu, it featured games and puzzles and an original comic strip. Unfortunately, this particular menu has been retired.

Some Disney fans are unimpressed with the menu offerings at Tony's but everyone is appreciative of the artistic "theming" of the space and how it captures the spirit of one of Disney's most beloved animated features. I wonder if there are any left over hot dogs in the back from Oscar Mayer for Tramp's many friends?

Deb's Note:
Ducky was a special guest of AllEars during our December to Remember Celebration in 2011. We designed a special AllEars Trading Card dedicated to his work at Tony's Town Square.

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RELATED INFORMATION AND LINKS
Disney Historian Jim Korkis goes up into his imaginary attic to rummage around his archives and often stumbles across an unusual story about Walt Disney World. Those who have met me know that I take real joy in talking about Walt Disney.

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Check out Jim's other "From the Attic" Blogs

Full features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives: http://allears.net/ae/archives.htm

Jim Korkis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of three new books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com:
The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse
Who's Afraid of the Song of the South
"The REVISED Vault of Walt":


February 9, 2014

Liberty Tree Tavern: A "Revolutionary" Dining Experience

Andrew Rossi

As soon as you set foot in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom you feel as though you have been transported back to 1776. Although it is the smallest of any of the Magic Kingdom's lands, it may be the best themed of them all. From its replica of the Liberty Bell to its colonial architecture, wooden stockades, and even smaller details such as a window with two lanterns signifying the "two if by sea" of Paul Revere's midnight ride, Liberty Square provides a view into what life was like in the thirteen original colonies. If Walt Disney were around today, Liberty Square would probably be his favorite place in the Magic Kingdom as he was once noted as saying, "If you could see close in my eyes, there's an American flag waving in both of them."

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Liberty Square features a little bit of everything. It has two of the most classic Disney attractions in the Haunted Mansion and Hall of Presidents, various little shops such as Yankee Trader and Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe, as well as a number of dining experiences, such as Sleepy Hollow for snacks and the counter service restaurant Columbia Harbour House. Even though Magic Kingdom has a limited number of sit-down restaurants, Liberty Square's Liberty Tree Tavern still tends to be overlooked by many as they make their way past toward Frontierland. However, this restaurant provides Guests a tremendously themed dining experience that helps make it one of the best dining options at Magic Kingdom.

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Overview:
The Liberty Tree Tavern's very name is one filled with history and heritage befitting of Liberty Square. In 1765 the British government imposed a Stamp Act on the American colonies. It required all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards in the American colonies to carry a tax stamp. In August 1765, a crowd gathered in Boston under a large elm tree to protest this hated tax. Patriots who later called themselves the Sons of Liberty hung an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the colonist chosen by King George III to impose the Stamp Act, in the branches of the tree. It was the first public show of defiance against the Crown and spawned the resistance that led to the American Revolution. A sign saying "Tree of Liberty" was later nailed to the trunk of the tree and soon other cities and towns across the thirteen colonies began creating their own Liberty Trees with lanterns hung amongst the branches. As resistance to the British grew, flags bearing a representation of the Liberty Tree were flown to symbolize the spirit of liberty. Liberty Square features its own Liberty Tree and the restaurant that bears its name pays homage to several of the Founding Fathers who played a major role in the creation of the nation.

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Atmosphere:
One of the most endearing characteristics of the Liberty Tree Tavern is how well it carries the overall theme of Liberty Square inside the restaurant. Every element of the restaurant, from the lighting to the furniture to the costumes worn by the servers, all contributes to the Colonial/Revolutionary Era feel. One of the first words that comes to mind to describe the feel of the restaurant is quaint, with a tremendous level of detail and authenticity that give it an old-world charm. The restaurant is divided into a series of smaller rooms, giving it a much more intimate feel. As you walk through the dining area you feel as though you are passing through different rooms in a house, each having a different look and feel in terms of décor, color, and architecture.

Each of these rooms, in fact, is specifically themed to one of the Founding Fathers and the architecture and décor of each reflect their different backgrounds and the roles they played in gaining American independence. Among the Founding Fathers honored are Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, as well as Betsy Ross.

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In addition to featuring their portraits, each room features various themed elements that help to tell the story about that particular person.

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It comes as no surprise that the John Paul Jones room has strong nautical influences with model ships, navigation equipment, and nautical knots. Both the Jefferson and Washington rooms on the other hand have a decidedly more upscale feel, reflecting their well-to-do Virginia lifestyle.

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Meanwhile, the Paul Revere room has a much more simple appearance reflecting his humble occupation as a silversmith.

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The level of detail found throughout the entire restaurant is outstanding and there are probably many elements that go unnoticed by most Guests. While larger objects such as the faux fireplaces, portraits and paintings of the Founding Fathers, and colonial-era muskets all contribute to the overall theme of the restaurant, it is really the smaller items which greatly add authenticity to the dining experience.

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Everywhere you look throughout the restaurant your eye always seems to pick out some new detail, with many of the items looking as though they could belong in a museum. Some of the more interesting items included ceramic pipes, a copper tea kettle, maps of the thirteen colonies, an old-fashioned flat iron, a butter churner, and an alphabetical list of members of the Sons of Liberty.

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Whether it be maps, lanterns, blankets and quilts, cooking utensils, or pewter dishes, all these little details complete immerse you in the overall theme of Liberty Square and make you feel as though you are dining in a colonial-era home. This level of detail and theming found in the Liberty Tree Tavern is definitely Disney Imagineering and storytelling at its best.

The Menu:
The Liberty Tree Tavern is a restaurant that gives you a totally different dining experience depending on whether you go for lunch or dinner. Lunch offers an al a carte menu featuring an array of classic Americana cuisine. Meanwhile, dinner is an all-you-care-to-eat meal served family style that includes roast turkey breast, carved beef, smoked pork loin, mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables, herb bread stuffing, and macaroni and cheese. Given the choice between the two, I prefer lunch over dinner because the lunch menu has a number of interesting choices and at a cheaper price than the family-style dinner. While the menu features nothing overly exotic or elegant, it does offer many traditional Americana favorites.

For lunch, the appetizer offerings include the Crab and Spinach Dip for Two ($10.99) featuring blue crab combined with spinach and cream cheese served with warm flatbread, Declaration Salad ($5.49) combining field greens and vegetables tossed with your choice of tavern-made dressing or roasted garlic buttermilk dressing, Tavern Fried Cheese ($5.99) served with marinara sauce, New England Clam Chowder ($7.49), and Today's Soup Kettle ($5.99), which happened to be chicken noodle on the day I was dining there.

The menu also features a good array of entrée offerings ranging from New England Pot Roast ($18.99) with braised beef in a cabernet wine and mushroom sauce served with mashed potatoes and garden vegetables to Freedom Pasta ($19.99) featuring fusilli pasta with sauteed chicken, seasonal vegetables, and mushrooms tossed in a cream sauce, The Liberty Boys BLT ($13.99) topped with slow roasted pork, fresh greens, and tomatoes on house-made bread with caramelized shallots and a mushroom-mayonnaise spread, the Pilgrims' Feast ($15.99) which combines traditional roast turkey with herb bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, and garden vegetables, the Colony Salad ($14.49) featuring apples, sweet pecans, applewood smoked cheddar, dried cranberry craisins, and grilled chicken tossed with field greens in a honey shallot vinaigrette, an Angus Chuck Cheeseburger ($13.99) topped with bacon and cheddar or mushrooms and provolone, and the Vegetarian Burger ($11.49).

There are also several delectable desserts available. Among these are the Ooey Gooey Toffee Cake ($7.49) featuring a vanilla cake with a toffee filling, caramel sauce, and vanilla ice cream, Martha Washington's Cake ($7.99) which is a slice of rich chocolate cake, layered with a chocolate coffee icing, Fruit Crisp ($5.49) combining baked seasonal fruits with a crisp streusel topping and homemade ice cream, and Johnny Appleseed's Cake ($7.49) filled with apples and craisins and topped with ice cream.

For my entrée I decided upon the New England Pot Roast, which happens to be one of the restaurant's most popular dishes. After sampling just a few bites I could see why this dish came so highly recommended by my server. The braised beef was cooked to perfection and so tender that it fell apart at the touch of my fork. Alongside the beef were a generous portion of carrots, celery, mushrooms, and onions all atop a heaping helping of mashed potatoes, which had a smooth and fluffy consistency. Topping it all off was a rich cabernet wine and mushroom sauce that provided a tremendous flavor that soaked into the beef and potatoes. This is the type of home-style comfort food that you can expect at the Liberty Tree Tavern and was the perfect meal to warm up on a cool January afternoon.

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For dessert I chose the Ooey Gooey Toffee Cake, which has become one of my favorite desserts in all of Disney World. One of the things I like most about this dessert is the mixing of so many different flavors. The chocolate, caramel, toffee pieces, and vanilla ice cream all have their own distinct flavors, but combine together deliciously. The cake itself was served warm with the appearance and taste of a big, thick chocolate chip cookie. Topping the cake is a large scoop of vanilla ice cream whose refreshingly light taste provides a nice compliment to the more rich and heavy cake. The toffee pieces that top the dessert give added flavor and texture along with a healthy amount of chocolate and caramel sauce. It is certainly a filling dessert and can easily be split by two people, but it is so good that you might want to eat the whole thing yourself.

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Service:
I was very impressed by the efficiency of the service at Liberty Tree Tavern. Even though the restaurant was a little crowded during the lunchtime rush, I was still seated very quickly and, upon placing my order, the food was brought out in a very timely manner. However, the meal did not progress so fast that I felt like I was being rushed. I also noticed that the restaurant had good number of servers, which gave each a smaller number of tables to wait upon and allowed them to offer more attentive service to their Guests. My server frequently checked in on me to make sure that I was enjoying everything and to see if he could get me anything else that I might have needed. In fact, he was so attentive that never once did my glass of water get more than halfway empty before he came around to fill it back up. My server was also very helpful in pointing out several of his favorite items on the menu, which dishes were the more popular choices, and provided a little description of each.

Dining on a Budget:
If you are looking to save a little bit of money, then lunch at Liberty Tree Tavern is definitely the way to go rather than dinner. Not only are the lunch prices more reasonable, but you also get a fairly wide selection of choices on the menu and portion sizes that are generous. One of the best values on the menu is probably the Pilgrims' Feast, which gives you a full Thanksgiving dinner for just $15.99. Other economical options would be the Colony Salad for just $14.49 or the Liberty Boys BLT that costs $13.99. Seeing other people get these I noticed that the portions are likewise a very good size, but if you still wanted a little something more you could always split an appetizer or dessert. Speaking of appetizers, the Tavern Fried Cheese is a great value at just $5.99.

The Liberty Tree Tavern is on the Disney Dining Plan and worth one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. Thus, if you are on the Dining Plan, you would actually get a better value for your money by going here for dinner, which regularly costs $34.00. While the restaurant does participate in Tables in Wonderland, there are no further discounts for either Annual Passholders or Disney Vacation Club members.

The Overall Experience:
While Magic Kingdom may not have many sit-down restaurants, this lack of quantity does not necessarily mean a lack of quality. I highly recommend the Liberty Tree Tavern because it is truly the type of dining experience that you expect to get from Disney. It all starts with a great theme which is carried throughout the restaurant in the tiniest of details and creates a fully immersive dining atmosphere. This combines with food that may be simple and traditional, but is also extremely tasty and generously portioned. Along with efficient service and reasonable prices, this all helps to create a memorable dining experience that can be enjoyed by the entire family. Next time you are at the Magic Kingdom and are looking for a little break from all the hustle and bustle, lunch (or dinner) at the Liberty Tree Tavern is a great way to relax, refresh, and get reenergized for the rest of your day.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Liberty Tree Tavern and post your own too!

January 21, 2014

Earl of Sandwich: A Simple Meal Fit For Royalty

Andrew Rossi

One of the great things about dining at Disney World is that there are no shortage of options, even if you are just looking for a quick bit to eat. While many of Disney's full service restaurants garner great popularity and acclaim, there are also numerous compelling counter service options to be found as well. Just because you may not have the time to devote to a sit-down meal, or even if you are dining on a more stringent budget, does not mean that you have to suffer in terms of the quality food that you are receiving. While some of these locations feature the staple burgers, hot dogs, and pizza, there is such a great variety of food to be found at counter service restaurants across the parks, resorts, and Downtown Disney.

One of my favorite counter service restaurants at Disney World is actually found at Downtown Disney. The irony of this restaurant is that it is not actually Disney-owned, but part of a chain that has locations all across the United States. Nevertheless, when it comes to counter service dining, there are not too many locations at Disney World that can match Earl of Sandwich.

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Located at the Downtown Disney Marketplace, Earl of Sandwich offers great variety of sandwiches, wraps, and salads at a very reasonable price; it comes as no surprise that the restaurant is always packed with people. The Earl of Sandwich alone is a worth a visit to Downtown Disney and, if you do not feel like waiting maybe an hour or more for a table at one of the full service restaurants, offers a great alternative for both lunch and dinner.

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Overview:
The story of the invention of the sandwich helps provide the back-story for the Earl of Sandwich restaurant. John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, was commander of the British navy, a noted explorer, as well as someone who greatly enjoyed gambling and card games. As the story goes, Montagu was so busy that he had very little time for food and came up with the idea (possibly while playing a game of cards) of putting meat between two slices of bread for a quick and easy meal that could be eaten on the run. As a result, in 1762, the sandwich was named in honor of its inventor. Now, nearly 250 years later, the Earl of Sandwich restaurant continues this tradition and boasts that it is home to "The World's Greatest Hot Sandwich." The Earl of Sandwich's illustrious history and tradition is set forth in the restaurant's official charter and aptly describes the restaurant's premise and objective:

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Atmosphere:
Earl of Sandwich has become extremely popular and is always crowded no matter what time of day you go, but especially during the peak dining times. For this reason, seating (or lack thereof) can become a real issue. The restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor seating, but it can sometimes be difficult to find a table. This can clearly be seen on extremely hot or colder days because people do not want to eat outside and there is not enough indoor seating to handle everyone. The seating area inside is not very big and the tables are packed very tightly together. Combined with the large crowds, this makes it a little loud inside the restaurant. If you are looking for a quieter dining experience, it is probably best to find a table outside.

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All that being said, there are several aspects of Earl of Sandwich's atmosphere that are very appealing. The restaurant's high ceilings give it a much-needed open feel (especially with the tables being so close together) and the light fixtures, book shelves, faux fireplace, and fresh-cut flowers on every table give a little touch of refinement to what is an otherwise very causal and laid-back environment.

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The classical music playing in the background is also a nice added touch, even though it can be somewhat difficult to hear at times. All this helps to give the restaurant a little taste of 1762; you can almost feel as though you are sitting in John Montagu's parlor waiting to play a game of cards.

An aspect of the atmosphere that probably goes unnoticed by most guests is the Earl of Sandwich Historical Society. Located around the corner from where you place your order, the Historical Society is a full wall that features maps, pictures, paintings, and other information about the history of John Montagu.

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Here you can find, among other things, a portrait of the Earl of Sandwich as well as the family coat of arms. It really helps to give the restaurant a level of detail and history that goes beyond what you would typically expect to find in a counter service restaurant.

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The Menu:
One of the things that stands out most about the menu at Earl of Sandwich is the sheer number of options. Each of their sandwiches are $5.99, are made to order, and served on one of their fresh artisan loafs. The menu includes The Original 1762, with fresh roasted beef, cheddar, and a creamy horseradish sauce, The Earl's Club, featuring roast turkey, smoked bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sandwich sauce, the All American, topped with roast turkey, buttermilk ranch, cranberries, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and tomato, the Italian, which includes salami, capicola, roasted ham, mortadella, mozzarella, tomato and a zesty Italian dressing , The Full Montagu, featuring roast beef and turkey with sharp cheddar and Swiss cheese, romaine lettuce, tomato and the Earl's mustard sauce, Cannonballs, with meatballs, mozzarella parmesan cheese, and marinara sauce, the Tuna Melt, featuring albacore tuna salad and Swiss cheese, the Chipotle Chicken Avocado, topped with grilled chicken, bacon, cheddar, avocade, lettuce and chipotle sauce, the Hawaiian BBQ, featuring roasted ham, grilled chicken, Hawaiian BBQ sauce, Swiss cheese, and fresh pineapple, the Ham and Swiss, topped with roasted ham with Swiss cheese and the Earl's mustard sauce, the Holiday Turkey, complete with turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce, the Caprese, topped with mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil, and balsamic vinaigrette, the Caribbean Jerk Chicken, with grilled chicken, roasted red and banana peppers, and a spicy jerk sauce, and the Best BLT, featuring smoked bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, and seasoned mayonnaise.

The menu does not stop with sandwiches, but also includes an array of wraps, all of which are $5.99 as well. Among these are the Buffalo Chicken, with grilled chicken, cheddar, romaine, tomato, buffalo sauce, and ranch dressing, Chicken, Bacon & Avocado, topped with grilled chicken, bacon, romaine, avocado, bacon, tomato, cucumber, and balsamic vinaigrette, the Baja Chicken, featuring grilled chicken, cheddar, romaine, tomato, fajita seasoning, chipotle seasoning, and balsamic vinaigrette, the BBQ Ranch Chicken, which includes grilled chicken, cheddar, romaine, cilantro, tomato, crispy onions, BBQ sauce, and ranch dressing, the Thai, with grilled chicken, romaine, Chinese cabbage mix, sweet chili sauce, and Thai peanut dressing, the Chicken Caesar, topped with grilled chicken, parmesan, romaine, croutons, and Caesar dressing, and the Spicy Tuna, which includes albacore tuna salad, romaine, tomato, kalamata olives, pepperoncini peppers, chipotle sauce, and balsamic vinaigrette.

For those looking for something a little on the lighter side, there are also a number of salads available, which are also $5.99. These include The Earl's Cobb, topped with grilled chicken, smoked bacon, Swiss and cheddar cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, cranberries and ranch dressing, the Baja Chicken, featuring romaine, grilled chicken, cheddar, cilantro, avocado, tomato, roasted corn, black beans, tortilla strips, and a red wine vinaigrette, the Chicken Caesar, with grilled chicken, field greens and romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese, croutons, classic Caesar dressing, the Chicken, Berry and Almond, featuring spinach, grilled chicken, fresh strawberries, fresh blueberries, almonds, and balsamic vinaigrette, the Greek, which includes romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, feta, tomato, kalamata olives, pepperoncini peppers, and a zesty Italian dressing, the Asian, featuring romaine, grilled chicken, Chinese cabbage, mandarin oranges, almonds, wontons and an Asian dressing, the BBQ Chicken, which includes field greens, grilled chicken, cheddar, cilantro, tomato, crispy onions, BBQ sauce and ranch dressing, and the Thai Chicken, with field greens, grilled chicken, Chinese cabbage, sweet chili sauce, wontons, and a Thai peanut dressing.

There are also various side items available for purchase, including potato salad ($1.99), pasta salad ($2.29), the coleslaw ($1.99), and potato chips ($1.29). It is really a menu that offers something for everyone and the hardest part is really deciding what you want to order.

Despite all the variety on the menu, I have a small number of mainstays that I gravitate to each visit. This time I decided on The Original 1762, with fresh roast beef, cheddar, and a creamy horseradish sauce. I think the best place to start talking about the sandwiches is the bread because this is really what makes them so special. While bread alone does necessarily not make a sandwich, it can certainly break a sandwich. At Earl of Sandwich, however, is a highlight unto itself. Every sandwich is made to order so you know it is always going to be fresh and hot. The bread is perfectly toasted so it is slightly crispy on the outside but still soft and warm on the inside. The bread is so good that I could just go there, order some toasted bread, and be completely satisfied.

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There have been times that I ordered The Original and the roast beef was a little too rare for my liking, but most of the time it is cooked absolutely perfectly with just a slight hint of pinkish color. For those of you who might be scared away by the horseradish sauce, it is not too strong at all and really serves compliment the roast beef rather than being too overpowering. The horseradish helps add to the flavor of the sandwich and gives it just a little bit of a kick, making it something more unique than your standard roast beef sandwich.

Along with the sandwich I chose a side of potato salad. The light and refreshing flavor of the potato salad provided a perfect complement to the heartier flavor of The Original. The potatoes were red-skinned and were cooked just right so as to be not too soft and mushy nor too hard. The potato salad did have a strong mayonnaise base, but also featured a slight hint of dill to provide some extra flavor. While the potato salad did not have the same "wow" factor as the sandwich, it was still a good accompaniment for the meal.

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Dessert at Earl of Sandwich is definitely something that should not be overlooked. Even though the sandwiches can be very filling, it is worth saving room for dessert. Like the rest of the menu, there are a good number of dessert offerings to choose from, ranging from fresh baked chocolate chip cookies ($1.99) to brownie bites ($3.99), brownie sandwiches ($2.49), cupcakes ($2.49), bread pudding ($2.49), strawberry shortcake ($2.99), and even ice cream sandwiches ($3.29).

My favorite dessert by far is the Peanut Butter-Filled Brownie Sandwich. The one word I could come up with to describe this dessert is heavenly. The brownie is extremely moist and also has chocolate chunks throughout that gave it added texture and flavor. The peanut butter filling is extremely smooth, sweet, and creamy; the combination of peanut butter and chocolate is just perfect. This is a very rich and heavy dessert and is easily big enough to be split by two people (but it is so good that you may just want to eat the entire thing yourself).

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Service:
Like with every quick service dining location, the Earl of Sandwich is able to serve a large number of guests in a small amount of time. Because the restaurant is so crowded, this efficiency takes on an even greater importance. Guests place their order at one end of the counter and are then given a pager to let them know when their food is ready. Everyone then makes their way down to the other end of the counter to pay. The service is often so fast that, by the time you pay for your meal, your pager is already vibrating to let you know to go pick up my order.

The service at Earl of Sandwich is so quick in part because they have so many people working behind the counter. The only problem I noticed was that they sometimes resorted to yelling as a way of keeping the guests moving in line. While it seemed that they were doing this in order to serve as many people as possible, it was unfortunate that it came at the expense of their interaction with the guests. I have seen other quick service locations throughout Disney World that are able to provide speedy service but still have Cast Members who are able to interact with guests in a way that is both pleasant and personable. This might be due to the fact that Earl of Sandwich is not a Disney-owned restaurant.

Dining on a Budget:
When it comes to dining on a budget, there are not too many places in Disney World that are better than Earl of Sandwich; it may be the best value on all Disney property. The prices are all very reasonable, the food is great, and the portion sizes are big. With sandwiches, wraps, and salads all just $5.99, this is cheaper than most of the offerings found at other counter service locations across the parks and resorts. When you also take into account that side items are just around $2.00 and desserts range between $2.00 and $3.00, you can have a whole meal for a very reasonable price. If you are dining on a budget, Earl of Sandwich is definitely the place to go.

It is also worth mentioning that Earl of Sandwich is on the Disney Dining Plan and worth one counter service credit.

The Overall Experience:
One of the reasons why I like Earl of Sandwich so much is consistency. All the times that I have been there I have never been disappointed. I always know my sandwich is going to be hot and fresh, the portion size is going to be big, and the price is going to be reasonable. This is the recipe for success that has made Earl of Sandwich so popular. The quality of food is definitely worth having to wait in what can often be a long line. Even though it is a chain restaurant, Earl of Sandwich has become synonymous with Downtown Disney. Next time you are looking for somewhere to eat at Downtown Disney, and you do not feel like waiting a long time for a table at one of the sit down restaurants, definitely consider giving Earl of Sandwich a try. Its cuisine may be simple (just sandwiches, salads, and wraps), but its quality is top notch and the prices are extremely affordable. After you try it once, you will want to go back again and again.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Earl of Sandwich and post your own too!

December 18, 2013

D23’s Holiday Splendor

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D23's Holiday Splendor Event Friday, December 6 and Saturday, December 7, 2013

What if you had an opportunity to view the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights with just a handful of others, all of you with special ears that blink in time with the lights and music? How about reserved seating for the Candlelight Processional and a private dessert party while you watch IllumiNations, Reflections of Earth? Are you interested in Disney history, and how the holidays have been celebrated at Disney Parks throughout the years? If so, D23's Holiday Splendor event may be for you! The schedule for the event starts with an evening viewing the Osborne Lights in the Hollywood Studios, then continues the next day with a full day of scheduled events in Epcot. (Please pardon the quality of the following photos. Somehow I got out of the house without a real camera on this trip, and only had my phone to snap pics with.)


Friday, December 6. Private viewing of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

The event began with check in at 8:15 p.m. on Friday evening at the Premier Theater in Disney's Hollywood Studios (near the Lights, Motors, Action show at the back of the park). Guests who did not have park tickets were able to check in at the entrance to the Park, and were escorted to the Premier Theater. After checking in we were given a set of "Glow with the Show" ears,

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and a pair of special glasses, that we were instructed to bring with us the next day as well. (I wish that the cast members had actually let people know what the glasses were for, as I saw that some folks never put them on.)

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After getting the goods, we were instructed to meet at the Studio Catering Company at 8:50 p.m. to gather for our private viewing time. At 9 p.m., after the rest of the park guests exited, the Lights were turned back on just for us! We had 15 minutes as a group to wander around and see the lights. It was a pretty amazing sight, as everyone in the group (I'd guess about 100) had on the Glow with the Show ears, which were blinking in unison with the music. The glasses made the lights look like little Mickey's. I think I remember them being handed out to everyone as they entered the viewing area a few years ago, so these might have been leftovers from then. It was a great start to the event!

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Saturday, December 7. Breakfast, holiday presentations, The Scavenger Hunt, access to the Hospitality Suite in The American Adventure pavilion, reserved seating for The Candlelight Processional, dinner in the Rotunda in The American Adventure pavilion, Illuminations Dessert Party.

At 9:30 a.m., check-in started at the Odyssey pavilion in Epcot. Today, everyone attending the event needed to have valid park admission. If you had checked in already the night before, showing your lanyard to the cast member at the door gained you admission to the lobby of the pavilion, where a "light" breakfast buffet was spread. Guests who had not attended the Osborne Lights portion of the event the night before checked in and received their Glow with the Show ears and Mickey glasses.

I was pretty impressed with the "light" breakfast, having expected maybe some pastries and coffee. Offerings included a selection of mini muffins, a nice fruit salad and an egg, hash brown and sausage casserole. There was also coffee, tea, orange juice and water.

As guests entered the room to claim seats, there was a display of yummy holiday pastry treats to be oohed and aahed over, in addition to a display of some choral robes for the Candlelight Processional.

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After everyone sat down with their breakfast, Laura Sanchez, from D23 Events kicked things off with a welcome and an overview of the day.

Steve Vagnini, Disney Archivist, presented Walt at Christmastime, showing archival photographs of Christmases and Christmas traditions throughout Walt's lifetime, from wishing for a new pair of boots to keep him warm on his childhood paper route, to the lists he kept of presents that were given to the children of Disney Company staff, to the television Christmas specials of the early 1960s.

Disney pastry chefs, Jeff Barnes (the Contemporary) and Yoly Lazo Colon (Epcot), then talked about Holiday Sweets, particularly focusing on the processes involved in creating the amazing gingerbread houses, trees and other displays throughout the resort (they get started making the gingerbread in January!), but also including other yummy treats on offer.

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Here are some photos of several of the creations the chefs discussed that I took later in my trip:

The Mary Blair-inspired gingerbread tree at the Contemporary (which had to be specially anchored because of the vibrations of the monorail passing through)

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and the gingerbread installation in the Land Pavilion at Epcot, which has contributions from all of Disney World's head pastry chefs.

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(May I also say that the Linzer cookie that I bought at the Contemporary was just about the most amazing cookie that I have ever eaten! If you can, you should run right over there and buy one now!)

Next up was Forrest Bahruth, Show Director, Candlelight Processional, who gave a very interesting history of the event, starting with a group of a capella singers in Disneyland in 1955, continuing to the opening of the show in 1994 at Epcot. Bahruth also explained some of the changes made this year to the current show, including changing the backdrop, adding new "stained glass windows" on the sides of the stage, updating the choir robes, and changing the shape of the "tree" made of singers, and updating the narration to be more understandable for international guests.

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Behind the Magic of Glow with the Show was the topic of the next presentation, from Erin Catalano, Disney Park Merchandise. Swearing us to secrecy, Catalano gave us a basic explanation of the technology behind the operation of the ears, which light up and blink in sync with the music and visuals of several shows in Disney parks around the world. The special ears were first developed to be used in conjunction with The World of Color show at Disney's California Adventure, and were then adapted for the fireworks show at Disneyland Paris. At Walt Disney World, the ears can currently be used with Fantasmic! and the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at the Hollywood Studios, and Celebrate the Magic and Wishes at the Magic Kingdom. Tip: Batteries can be replaced free of charge at any shop that sells the ears.

Finally, Graham Allan, Historian, presented Seasons Past, a presentation of remembrances from seasonal presentations of the past thirty years in the parks. He showed clips of various Christmas parades in Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and a particularly interesting clip of a special Christmas water pageant at Tokyo DisneySea.

After the presentations, it was time for The Scavenger Hunt! (Alternatively, guests could take time to view the Holidays Around the World offerings, ride the rides or just hang out in the Hospitality Suite in the American Adventure Pavilion.) I opted to do the scavenger hunt, and spent a crazy four hours trying to track down all of the 100 items. (YOU try to count all of the red baubles on the main Epcot Christmas tree, it is not as easy as it sounds.) Next year I need a team!

At 5:45, we gathered in front of the American Adventure Pavilion to be escorted to our reserved seats for the Candlelight Processional, which was being narrated by Whoopi Goldberg that evening. I was a bit disappointed as our seats were way at the back on the side, and did not offer a very good view of the stage. Guests with dinner packages were seated in front of us. I did enjoy the show, however, and made special note of the changes that were pointed out earlier in the day by Forrest Bahruth.

After the Processional, we proceeded to dinner in the American Adventure Rotunda. As we entered the Rotunda, servers were waiting with, wait for it, trays of wine and beer. After the exhaustion of the scavenger hunt, I was ready for that adult beverage (and there was an open bar at the back, if anything other than wine or beer was desired).

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The dinner was served buffet-style and was really quite delicious.

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After dinner, the winner of the scavenger hunt (with a score of 91!) and the runners up (73, and 74, I believe) were announced, and we were directed to the back of the room, where two special guests were waiting to meet all of us!

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As we left the Rotunda, we picked up our goodie bags, which included special artwork prepared just for the event, and a yummy cookie among other fun items.

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The group was then escorted to the Terrace des Fleurs near the France Pavilion for a Dessert Party and IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth viewing. The desserts were yummy, and the view of Illuminations was amazing!

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So in the end, did I think that the Holiday Splendors event was worth the relatively steep purchase price of $205? Considering that the event allowed premium viewing opportunities for three of the major Disney World Holiday events (the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, the Candlelight Processional and the holiday version of IllumiNations), included two substantial meals (and alcoholic beverages!), the Glow with the Show ears, a bag full of goodies, in addition to the presentations, I actually do feel that it was a good value. I did wish that the event were run a bit more like a tour, however, as I felt that we were simply turned loose on the Osborne lights without any real welcome, and there were no introductory remarks for either the Candlelight Processional (also our reserved seats for this were pretty terrible) or IllumiNations, either. I understand that this was the second year for this event, and it would be great if they offered it again next year, as I REALLY would like to win that scavenger hunt!


ABOUT THE REVIEWER:

Alice McNutt Miller is a lifelong Disney fan whose fondest childhood memories include "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday nights and her first trip to Disneyland when she was 10 years old. Alice and her family are Disney Vacation Club members, and have visited every one of the Disney parks throughout the world. They live in Vienna, Virginia.


November 13, 2013

Experience the Exotic Flavors of Africa at Jiko

Andrew Rossi

A visit to Animal Kingdom Lodge is a truly immersive experience. This resort, quite possibly better than any other at Disney World, completely transports Guests to an entirely different world. While its open savannah with its array of animals gets much of the attention, Animal Kingdom Lodge has so much more to offer. The resort is truly a celebration of African culture and this is reflected as soon as Guests enter into the awe-inspiring lobby. The architectural design of the Jambo House lobby reflects the detail of African craftsmanship, with its thatched ceilings and intricate wood carvings. Meanwhile, the large windows help to highlight the African-inspired landscape of the savannah just outside. Throughout the lobby are numerous examples of African art, including masks, headdresses, paintings, pottery, and carvings, all of which lend an even greater sense of immersion.

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Of course, no cultural experience would be complete without showcasing the cuisine and Animal Kingdom Lodge delivers with three tremendous full service restaurants. With Sanaa at Kidani Village and Boma and Jiko at Jambo House, visitors to Animal Kingdom Lodge have no shortage of dining options to choose from. Each of these restaurants provides their own unique twist on African cuisine and has something different to offer, but it is Jiko that stands out as the resort's Signature dining option.

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Overview:
Jiko is the Swahili word for "cooking place," making it an apt name for this restaurant. Being one of Disney's Signature restaurants, Jiko offers a truly unique and memorable dining experience. Just as Animal Kingdom as a whole seeks to immerse Guests into African culture, Jiko highlights various aspects of African cuisine while also providing its own unique spin by blending in elements of Indian and Mediterranean flavors. In addition to its cuisine, Jiko has received notoriety for its vast array of African wines. Combined, this helps to make Jiko one of Disney's most exotic dining experiences, showcasing African flavors made with the freshest ingredients.

Being a Signature dining location, you know that you can expect the highest quality in all facets of the dining experience. This Signature status also means that Jiko features a dress code. Men are encouraged to wear khakis, slacks, jeans, dress shorts, and collared shirts. Sport coats are optional. For women it is suggested that they wear capris, skirts, dresses, jeans, dress shorts. There are also certain articles of clothing that are not allowed in the dining room, such as tank tops, swimwear, hats, cut-off or torn clothing. Jiko's Signature status also helps to make it a very popular dining destination. As such, reservations are highly recommended and should be made well in advance.

Atmosphere:
Jiko is a completely immersive experience and it really all begins with the restaurant's color palette. As soon as you enter the dining room, your eyes will immediately be drawn to the bold, blue ceiling overhead.

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Standing out in stark contrast to the deep blue are dozens of bird-like structures suspended from the ceiling, which are also a sign of good luck.

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The restaurant's effective use of color continues down to the walls, which can feature warm red, orange, yellow, and gold tones. Throughout the course of your meal the lighting and coloring on the walls will actually change to mimic an African sunset. The effect is subtle, but beautifully done.

The restaurant features some other striking characteristics. Upon entering, Guests are first greeted by a wall of wine, with the bottles held in very unique display racks. At Jiko, its wines play as important a role as its cuisine in introducing Guests to the flavors of Africa. In fact, Jiko features the largest selection of African wines at any restaurant outside of the continent.

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As you progress from the Jiko's bar area to the main dining room, the restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows really become evident.

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These massive windows overlook a beautiful water feature strewn with boulders and also offer tremendous sunsets views. The windows likewise help to bring a little of the outdoors into the restaurant, as the natural environment is such an important aspect of African life.

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Another unique feature of Jiko is its open kitchen. Here you can watch as chefs prepare appetizers utilizing two large and colors wood-burning ovens.

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One of the great features of this open kitchen is that it is surrounded by a counter where Guests can sit to enjoy their meal. This is where I had the opportunity to dine while I was here and it makes for a very memorable experience. There is no added cost for sitting at this counter and it allows for Guests to observe and converse with the chefs as they prepare various dishes.

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The décor of the restaurant is very subtle with a few themed elements, such as the columns which are adorned with gold rings. The rings represent the neck rings worn by women of the Ndebele tribe of South Africa, which are a symbol of beauty and wealth.

Overall, Jiko's décor is one that relies more on color, lighting, and texture rather than decoration, but it still distinctly African in look and feel. It is a restaurant that has a simple elegance about it that help make it the perfect destination for a romantic night out. It's quiet and intimate setting combined with its beautifully exotic feel help make Jiko one of the most unique dining experiences in Disney World.

The Menu:
Just as Jiko's atmosphere goes a long way in immersing Guests into the culture of Africa, the restaurant's menu plays an equally important role. It is a menu that is constantly changing depending upon what ingredients are fresh and in season yet always highlights the unique flavors, tastes, and ingredients of African cuisine.

The menu features an array of appetizers including the Grilled Wild Boar Tenderloin ($17.00) with pap, chakalaka, white truffle oil, and cilantro, South African Vetkoek ($12.00), which are three house-made Naan pastries filled with herb-braised rabbit, coconut-egg curry, and vegetable curry, Inguday Tibs in Brik ($10.00) featuring mushrooms, spinach, and cheese in crispy filo with a curry vinaigrette, Fire Roasted Oysters on Half Shell ($17.00) with lemon butter, house-made hot sauce, horseradish, and smoked tatsoi, the Taste of Africa ($9.00) including an assortment of African inspired dips with pappadam, poppy seed lavosh, and house-made naan, and an Artisanal Cheese Selection ($15.00).

Also available as appetizers are a selection of flatbreads baked in the restaurant's wood-burning ovens. These include Roxanne's Kitfo Leb Leb ($13.00) topped with beef carpacio, feta cheese, pistachio-basil pesto, berbere, and tomatoes, KG's Peri-Peri Roasted Chicken ($10.00) topped with lime chakalaka, lamb chopper cheese, and pickled sweet bell peppers, and the Roasted Cauliflower ($10.00) topped with masala, roasted cipollini onions, lamb chopper cheese, and mitmita gremolata. There are also a few soups and salads to choose from such as the "Mozambique-Style" Tomato Salad ($15.00) with heirloom tomatoes, peaches, avocado, mache, arugula, and feta cheese, the Jiko Salad ($15.00) with heirloom spiced melon, rockett, mizuna, peppered chevre, and a blackberry vinaigrette, and the Taktouka Tomato Soup ($10.00) featuring vine-ripened tomatoes, peppers, and purple haze grilled cheese.

The entrée choices feature everything from seafood to chicken to beef and even vegetarian options. While some of the ingredients may seem a little exotic, the servers are very helpful in explaining each of the dishes if you have questions. One may think that African cuisine is very spicy, while this is true of some of the dishes, there are others that are not.
Among the entrée offerings are the Spicy Botswana-Style Beef Short Rib ($42.00) served with cassava-potato puree, sambal, mushrooms and fava beans, "Nigeria-Style" Pan-Roasted Whole Local Sea Bass ($46.00) accompanied by sweet potatoes, red sauce, and chili pepper pickle, West African "Jerked Scallops" ($35.00) with basmati rice, red quinoa, baby rainbow carrots, and coconut curry sauce, Curry-Rubbed Lamb Loin ($37.00) with cauliflower puree, eggplant-artichoke zaalouk, and olive-walnut tapenade, Seared Barbarie Duck Breast ($40.00) accompanied by potato and spinach masala, royal trumpet mushrooms, and port emulsion, Oak-Grilled Filet Mignon ($45.00) served with an ancient grain pilaf, heirloom pole beans, and South African red wine sauce, Tagine Chicken ($34.00) with preserved lemon, artichokes, olives, cinnamon couscous, harissa, and saffron jus, and a "Braai Pie" ($29.00), a pastry filled with squash, sunchokes, carrots, garbonzo beans, and wilted greens.

If you still have room for dessert, the choices include a Milk Tart ($11.00) with gooseberry jam and goat's milk balsamic ice cream, Kenyan Coffee Creme Brulee ($9.00), Cheesecake ($9.00) with white chocolate, toasted coconut, mango sauce, and pineapple chile sorbet, the Chocolate and Tea Safari ($10.00) featuring a Tanzanian chocolate cake, free form "kit kat," and green tea ice cream , and the Cinnamon-Chocolate Flourless Cake ($10.00) with sesame crisp, chocolate sauce and herb-citrus salad.

I decided to start my meal with the Taste of Africa ($9.00). This appetizer came with an assortment of three different types of breads and four sauces for dipping. The first type of bread was pappadam, a thin, crisp Indian bread made from lentil flour. Next was poppy seed lavash, a thin, crispy flatbread. Finally there was naan, a slightly thicker oven-baked flatbread of Eastern Indian origin. The sauces were bhuna masala, a curry consisting of tomato, coconut, tamarind, and chili peppers, sagh dahl, made with lentils, spinach, garlic, and chilis, Moroccan chermoula, with a mixture of herbs, oil, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, and salt, and kalamata hummus, made from mashed chickpeas, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and olives.

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With each of the breads having different consistencies and textures and each of the sauces varying in degrees of spiciness, this appetizer made for a lot of different combinations. It was a great way for being able to sample a wide variety of different African flavors.

For my entrée I had heard many people rave about Jiko's Oak-Grilled Filet Mignon ($45.00). However, whereas the dish is now served with an ancient grain pilaf, it had for a long time been accompanied by macaroni and cheese. When I inquired about this to my server he commented that it is still a common request and they would be more than happy to prepare the dish that way.

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The filet was extremely tender and juicy, just slightly seasoned so that the spices did not overpower the steak but rather helped to enhance its flavor. Topping the filet was a red wine sauce, made from an African wine reduction, which provided a slight sweetness that paired perfectly with the steak and provided a contrast to the spices it was seasoned with. Finally, the macaroni and cheese was incredible. It might seem like an odd accompaniment for a filet, but the two paired together extremely well. Rich and creamy, the macaroni and cheese also absorbed some of the juice from the steak and blended well with the red wine sauce. Overall, this was an extremely flavorful dish. While Jiko's menu may have many items that appeal to more adventurous diners, this filet is something that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Service:
Just as a Signature restaurant offers the utmost in terms of high-quality food, drink, and atmosphere, the service is likewise some of the best to be found in any Disney dining locations. The service at Jiko was certainly on par with that I have received at other Signature dining locations across property. From the moment I was seated my server was extremely attentive to my needs. Being my first time dining at Jiko, I was very appreciative that my server took time to explain many of the items on the menu, giving recommendations on those dishes that were a little more on the spicy side and those that were less so. With a menu featuring so many ingredients that many people may be unfamiliar with, it was very helpful to have someone explaining how each dish was prepared. Aided by the fact that severs at Signature restaurants usually have fewer tables that they are waiting upon, my server was always checking in to see if I needed anything and to make sure all the food was to my liking. There were also little touches throughout the meal that helped make the dining experience special. This started with a hot towel being brought out prior to the start of the meal to wash my hands, a small sample of a salmon cake appetizer the chefs had just prepared, and a complimentary pistachio cookie following the meal. It is all these things that help separate the service at Signature dining locations.

Dining on a Budget:
Being a Signature restaurant, dining on a budget is something that is a little difficult to do at Jiko. However, although the menu is a little pricey, you are absolutely getting what you pay for in terms of quality. If you are going to splurge for on a meal while visiting Disney World, this would be one of the dining locations to do it at. That being said, if you are looking for a more economical experience at Jiko the best bet would be to try one of the restaurant's flatbreads. Ranging in price from $10 to $13, these flatbreads are a good-sized portion and could easily be paired with another appetizer or a dessert to make for a relatively inexpensive meal. Another thing to keep in mind if you are really in the mood for African cuisine (but at a cheaper price) is one of the Animal Kingdom Lodge's other dining options, Sanaa. Located at Kidani Village, this restaurant still offers similar exotic African flavors to those found at Jiko but in a slightly more casual setting and with more affordable prices.

Jiko is on the Disney Dining Plan, but as a Signature restaurant is worth two table service credits. The restaurant does participate in Tables in Wonderland, giving members a 20% discount. However, there are no additional discounts for Annual Passholders or Disney Vacation Club Members.

The Overall Experience:
Animal Kingdom Lodge has always been among my favorite Disney resorts thanks to its tremendous theming and attention to detail. As soon as you set foot into the lobby, you become completely immersed in African culture and it is easy to forget that you are in the middle of Disney World. Animal Kingdom Lodge is also home to some of the most unique and exotic dining experiences on property. I have always been a big fan of Boma and Sanaa, but now after finally trying Jiko I can safely add this to my list of must-do Disney dining locations. Combining the exotic elegance of the restaurant's atmosphere with the exotic flavors and tastes of Africa, Jiko is a culinary adventure the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else at Disney World. While it might be a little more on the expensive side, this is one Signature restaurant that is definitely worth the price.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Jiko and post your own too!

October 20, 2013

"Simple is Delicious" at the Wolfgang Puck Express

Andrew Rossi

For my latest review I have decided to do something a little different. While all my past reviews have focused on Disney's table service dining locations, I have realized that I have been overlooking the numerous counter service restaurants located around property. For many Guests travelling to Walt Disney World, these quick service dining locations are their primary dining options, either because they want to dine on a budget or they don't want to spend the time it would take to have a full service meal. One of the great things about Disney World is that it features a tremendous variety of counter service options that go beyond merely hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken nuggets. In fact, some of the quick service locations across property offer dining experiences that are nearly just as good as a full service restaurant. This review will highlight one such location.

When one hears the name Wolfgang Puck, the thought of a casual, quick service dining experience is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. This is, however, exactly what is offered at the Wolfgang Puck Express at the Downtown Disney Marketplace. Specializing in sandwiches, salads, pizzas, and pastas, this restaurant certainly lives up to its slogan that "simple is delicious."

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Overview:
Downtown Disney offers plenty of dining options and features a wide array of cuisines, but despite this it always seems as though every restaurant is packed. For those Guests who have not made reservations in advance, this often means very long waits. Fortunately, there are several quick service locations here as well for those Guests who may not want to wait. Tucked back between Disney's Days of Christmas and Mickey's Pantry, the Wolfgang Puck Express can sometimes be overlooked, but it offers a dining experience worthy of its famous namesake.

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Presenting a more casual take on some of the signature dishes that made chef Wolfgang Puck famous, this dining location offers a great alternative to the large crowds found in Downtown Disney's various sit down restaurants. The restaurant is what could be considered an "enhanced" counter service location; you place your order at the counter as you enter, find a table to sit at while your food is being prepared, and then have your meals delivered directly to your table. The result is the feel of a sit down restaurant but with much quicker service.

Atmosphere:
The Wolfgang Puck Express is not the largest dining venue, but it still offers plenty of seating. While the restaurant used to feature a large covered patio for outdoor seating, this space has now been enclosed to allow more diners to enjoy the climate-controlled environment during the hot summer months.

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There are still a few tables located outside for those wishing to dine al fresco. What is nice about the restaurant's location is that it is tucked out of the way, so if you are eating outside there are not a lot of people walking and there is very little noise. While the restaurant's decor has no specific theme, the overall design is very minimalist and simple, giving it a casual and laid back atmosphere.

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The restaurant's sense of openness, with its high vaulted ceilings and numerous windows which allow for plenty of light, give the dining room a sense of being larger than it actually is. The only real visual décor elements in the main dining area are black and white photographs on the walls.

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One of the best elements of the restaurant's atmosphere is the area just after the counter where you place your order.

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As you make your way into the main dining area you pass through a room that makes you feel as though you are walking through the kitchen. Not only are there pots and pans hanging from racks on the ceiling, but you are able to see right into the area where the chefs are preparing the food as well as the large oven used for making the pizzas. This part of the restaurant presents a bit of a contrast from the main seating area, a more classic style as opposed to the modern feel of the dining room.

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The Menu:
For a counter service restaurant, the menu at Wolfgang Puck Express is very extensive. It is certainly safe to say that it is a menu that offers something for everyone. It starts with their numerous salads which include Butter Lettuce ($7.00) with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette, Caesar ($7.00) or served with chicken ($11.00), Chinese Chicken ($11.00) with crispy wontons, cashews, ginger, and a sesame honey dressing, Roasted Beet ($9.00) with goat cheese, oranges, candied pecans, fresh greens, and balsamic dressing, Curried Chicken ($13.00) with apples, lettuce, golden raisins, avocado, and toasted pecans, Rotisserie Turkey Cobb ($14.00) mixed with eggs, bacon, beans, tomatoes, gorgonzola, avocado and balsamic, Greek ($10.00) topped with feta, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and a creamy yogurt dressing, and Barbecued Chicken ($11.00) with romaine, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, crispy tortilla strips, and ranch dressing.

If you are more in the mood for a sandwich there are several to choose from. These include the Pesto Chicken Salad ($10.00) topped with romaine, red onions, and plum tomatoes, the Rotisserie Turkey Club ($13.00) with avocado, bacon, red onion, plum tomatoes, and romaine, Chicken Aioli ($10.00) with mozzarella, romaine, tomatoes, red onions, and a cilantro aioli, the Roasted Turkey ($14.00) topped with cheddar, caramelized onions, arugula, port wine sauce, house dressing, and a horseradish cream, Meatloaf ($14.00) accompanied by provolone, bacon, tomato chutney, horseradish cream, and crispy onions, and the Roasted Vegetable ($13.00) with mozzarella, pesto, lettuce, tomato, and a horseradish cream.

The menu also features a number of pizzas prepared in the restaurant's wood-fired oven. Among these are the Traditional Margherita ($11.00), Fennel Sausage ($11.00) topped with pesto, roasted sweet peppers, and mozzarella, the Classic Cheese ($10.00), Pepperoni and Mushroom ($11.00), Barbeque Chicken ($13.00) topped with red onion, cilantro, tomatoes and a smoky BBQ sauce, Seasonal Vegetables ($12.00), Four Cheese Pesto ($12.00) featuring parmesan, mozzarella, fontina, and goat cheese with plum tomatoes, fresh basil, and sun-tomatoes, and the Spicy Chicken ($13.00) with sweet peppers, tomatoes, fresh cilantro, and parmesan.

For those looking for a heartier meal than sandwiches, salads, or pizzas, there are also several "Wolfgang's Classics" to choose from. These include a Half Rotisserie Chicken ($16.00) topped with garlic butter and rosemary and accompanied by mashed potatoes, Oven Roasted Salmon ($18.00) topped with fennel, tomatoes, arugula, and a horseradish cream, Spaghetti ($12.00), Spaghetti and Meatballs ($16.00), Spaghetti Bolognese ($15.00), Chicken Alfredo ($15.00) with peas and bacon, Macaroni and Cheese ($11.00), and Bacon Wrapped Meatloaf ($15.00) topped with a port wine sauce and crispy onion rings and served alongside mashed potatoes.

For my meal I started with the Butternut Squash Soup ($6.00), which was absolutely delicious. Smooth and creamy, it was just the right consistency. The soup came garnished with chives and a roasted pepper swirl, which proved to be the perfect complement to the squash by adding a little kick of spiciness. The soup itself was somewhat sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, and the red pepper and chives actually helped to enhance the flavor without being too overpowering. The soup was thick, rich, and filling and also came with a small slice of bread which was perfect for dipping. The serving size is large enough that this could easily be split between two people.

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Next I chose the Barbeque Chicken Pizza ($13.00). The barbeque sauce itself had a little hint of smokiness, but it certainly did not overpower the other ingredients. In fact, I would not have minded if there had been a little more barbeque sauce on the pizza. The pizza came topped with a good amount of chicken and red onions that paired very well with it and added even more flavor. I was worried that the cilantro would be too strong, but there was just the right amount to compliment the other flavors and provide an added little kick. The pizza itself had a very thin crust, nice and crispy along the edges but softer toward the center. The dough was light and cooked to perfection, with the edges of the pizza just slightly burned enough that it added to the flavor. Again, this is another dish that could easily be shared, especially if starting with a soup or salad beforehand.

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Service:
At a counter service restaurant one of the things you expect is fast service and the two servers taking orders were very efficient so the line of Guests ordering never became too backed up. Because of the way the restaurant works, once you place your order at the counter you then find a table in the dining room and have your food delivered to you. While the food was brought out in a timely manner and the server asked me if I needed anything when he first delivered my meal, it seemed as though all the servers walking about the dining room were most concerned with getting the tables cleaned and turned over rather than checking in on the Guests who were eating. While this is certainly important in a quick service restaurant that has a high turnover rate, it seemed to come at the expense of their interaction and attention to the Guests who were currently dining there.

Dining on a Budget:
The Wolfgang Puck Express is a great option for dining on a budget, especially if you want an experience similar to the Wolfgang Puck Café (also found at Downtown Disney) at a more affordable price. For example, the Butternut Squash Soup that costs $6.00 at the Express is $8.00 at the Café. While the menu selections are fewer and simpler than the Café, the quality and taste are just as good. In addition, you will find that the portion sizes at Wolfgang Puck Express are big enough that sharing a dish between two people becomes an easy way to save even more. If each person were to get a soup or a salad, splitting a sandwich or a pizza would be more than enough for a meal. If you are still hungry, you could always get a dessert as well, all of which are also reasonably priced.

If you are on the Disney Dining Plan, the Wolfgang Puck Express is one of the best values for your counter service credits as the meals you will find here are of tremendous quality (certainly better than just getting a burger or hot dog in the park) and the serving sizes large enough that you will almost certainly have leftovers. The best way to maximize your Disney Dining Plan is finding those restaurants that will get you the most for your money. For example, you could get a cheese pizza from Pizza Planet for $9.00 or you could go to Wolfgang Puck Express and get the Barbeque Chicken Pizza for $13.00 or even something like the Oven Roasted Salmon for $18.00 all for the same one counter service credit. In many ways, dining at Wolfgang Puck Express is almost like dining at a table service restaurant for a counter service credit.

The Overall Experience:
At this point I should note that while this review is of the Wolfgang Puck Express located in the Downtown Disney Marketplace, there is also one on the West Side as well. However, the West Side location is smaller and its menu options are more limited. The Wolfgang Puck Express is a great place to grab a quick bite to eat and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Downtown Disney who does not feel like waiting a long time for a table at one of the sit-down restaurants. Bearing the name of Wolfgang Puck, you know that the food is going to be of a high quality and the Wolfgang Puck Express certainly delivers, offering a calm and relaxing meal in a quiet and laid-back environment. Not only is it one of the better counter service restaurants to be found in Downtown Disney, but I would consider it one of my favorites among all quick service restaurants in Disney World.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of the Wolfgang Puck Express and post your own too!

October 9, 2013

Experience a World of Flavors at Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival

Andrew Rossi

Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival has returned for its 18th year. As always, the Food and Wine Festival features a variety of events and demonstration in addition to the popular marketplaces scattered around World Showcase. One of the most enjoyable things about the festival is that it allows you to sample the cuisines of many different countries that you do not normally get to experience. The festival is a dream come true for the adventurous eater, allowing one to encounter new ingredients, flavors, and dishes both exotic and unique. With so much to see and do, you could easily spend a whole day (or more) enjoying all the festival has to offer. To start off, here are just a few tips to maximize your time and get the most out of your Food and Wine experience.

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Saturdays and Sundays are the busiest days of the week at the Food and Wine Festival, when many of the locals come to enjoy the event. This results in greater crowds and congestion along the World Showcase promenade and much longer lines at the food stands. It is best to avoid the weekends. If you can, try to visit Monday through Thursday when the lighter crowds make the festival much more enjoyable. In the same vein, World Showcase opens at eleven o'clock and this is definitely the best time to head over to sample the various festival marketplaces. Most guests tend to spend the morning in Future World and then make their way to the back of the park in the afternoon, resulting in larger crowds and longer lines as the day progresses.

Just as with everything at Disney World, it helps to plan ahead when attending the Food and Wine Festival. If you just walk up to every booth and order what sounds good you will end up spending way too much money. Almost every dish offered at the festival sounds, smells, and looks really good, but there will be some dishes that stand out to you more than others. It is better to see what every stand has to offer and then decide on the dishes you want to try most. Although the portion sizes of the food may seem small, they can be filling and after having just three or four different dishes you can easily find yourself starting to get full. Do not rush and get a lot of food from the first few stands you visit and, if traveling with someone else, you may want to consider sharing dishes, which also allows you to sample an even greater variety.

This year's 46-day festival features over twenty-five ethnic marketplaces and more than 220 food and beverage menu items. In addition to returning favorites such as Ireland, Australia, and Argentina (just to name a few), this year's festival marketplaces also include the return of Brazil as well as a brand-new Scotland booth marketplace. Here are some of the highlights.

Argentina is consistently one of the most popular of the festival marketplaces. Distinguished by its bright yellow color, this marketplace is also marked by the amazing aromas of the food being prepared inside.

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The Grilled Beef Skewer with Chimichurri Sauce and Boniato Purée is one of my must-have items at the festival each year. The chimichurri sauce has a very strong and distinctive flavor (like a slightly spicy pesto) and definitely gives the dish a bit of a kick. The boniato puree, on the other hand, is milder and has the texture, consistency, and flavor of mashed potatoes. The beef itself is tender and juicy, its flavor really enhanced by the chimichurri. While its $5.00 cost makes it more expensive than many other dishes at the festival, it is a high-quality dish that is certainly worth the price.

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Australia is a marketplace whose menu has gone through some changes over the years, but this year's offerings might be some of the best it has ever featured.

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A new dish to the festival this year is the Garlic Shrimp with Roasted Tomatoes, Lemon Myrtle and Rapini. This dish features three generously sized shrimp and tremendous flavor. If you are a fan of garlic, you will certainly love this dish. Contrasting the garlic-flavored shrimp is the rapini. Also known as broccoli rabe, this vegetable has a distinct and slightly bitter flavor, but one that matches very well with the shrimp. For $4.50 it is definitely a good portion size and packs a serious amount of flavor.

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South Korea was introduced to the festival just a few year ago and since its inception has been a big success. This year's marketplace features a new offering in addition to a returning favorite.

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The Kimchi Dog with Spicy Mustard Sauce is new to the festival this year. The kimchi dog itself is a little spicy, but not overwhelmingly so, and the mustard sauce provides another added kick. Countering this, however, is a light and refreshing coleslaw which provides a nice mild contrast. While the portion size may not be the largest, this is still a good value at $3.75 and is certainly something unique among the festival offerings.

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Africa is the new name of the marketplace which in previous years has been South Africa. With the name change comes some new flavor as well.

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The Berbere Style Beef with Onions, Jalapeños, Tomato, Okra and Pap is certainly not a dish for the faint of heart; it is definitely one of the spicier dishes at the festival this year. This dish can be likened to a spicy stew or a gumbo, and one with a great amount of flavor. All of this spiciness, however, is in contrast to the pap which has a flavor and consistency very similar to grits and helps provide some balance to the dish with its mild flavor. With a very generous portion size, this is one dish that is good to share and its $4.25 price also makes it a great value.

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Florida Local is the marketplace that highlights the various tastes and flavors of the host state, relying on locally-grown products and featuring an assortment of in-state wines and beers.

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It is here that you can find the Florida Grass Fed Beef Slider with Monterey Jack and Sweet & Hot Pickles. The beef slider was surprisingly juicy and the Monterey jack cheese provided just enough of a kick. I am not usually a fan of pickles, but their sweetness adds some nice extra taste that contrasts that of the beef and cheese. While not anything fancy or exotic, this is a good dish for those who may be a little less adventurous and for $3.75 definitely worth the price.

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New Zealand is a marketplace that typically has some intriguing choices and this year's festival is no different.

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I am not usually a fan of mussels, but the Gratinated Green Lip Mussels with Garlic and Herbs looked absolutely fantastic (not to mention that it seemed as though everybody at the marketplace was ordering them). This is another dish with a tremendous amount of flavor, with the garlic and herbs really enhancing the taste of the mussels. The mussels themselves were cooked to they were perfectly tender while the coating of bread crumbs on top added some additional flavor and texture to the dish. With three good-sized mussels, this is definitely a great value at $3.00.

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Belgium has always been the place at the festival to find waffles and this year the marketplace features three to choose from.

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When you think of waffles, one topped with beef might not be the first thing that comes to mind but that is exactly what is featured in the Potato and Leek Waffle with Braised Beef. This is such a unique and flavorful dish. To start, the waffle itself is so soft and fluffy with the potato giving it just a slightly heavier consistency. Meanwhile, the braised beef is so tender and flavorful and it actually pairs extremely well with the waffle. Overall, this is probably my favorite dish at the festival thus far and its generous portion size is definitely worth its $4.00 price.

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Desserts & Champagne is a great marketplace to end your journey around World Showcase, providing a selection of smaller-sized dessert offerings.

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There are two choices that are standouts to me at this marketplace. The first is the Hazelnut Chocolate Cheesecake. Don't let the portion size fool you. Although it appears small in size, it is definitely a rich and filling dessert. Surprisingly, the flavor of the hazelnut is not as prominent as one might expect and the dessert had more of a chocolaty taste. For $1.75, this is a great conclusion to you Food and Wine adventures.

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The second intriguing option is the Frozen S'mores. This frozen drink is a kicked-up version of a refreshing chocolate smoothie. Coming topped with marshmallows, chocolate shavings, and graham crackers, this is a drink that you might also need a spoon to enjoy. It is also very sweet and it's portion size just large enough. The prefect refreshment on a hot Florida day, this dessert is certinaly worth its $3.00 price tag.

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Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival continues through November 11. If you have never experienced the festivities before, it is definitely worth a visit. Be sure to come hungry!

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You can further examine all the marketplaces and menus this year's Festival has to offer here.

See how others are rating the various Festival marketplace offerings here.

If you have been to the Food & Wine Festival this year, you can take part in the survey as well by clicking here.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

September 24, 2013

An Alien Tale

by Keith Gluck
Guest Blogger

Alien Encounter Exterior

October 11, 2013, marks 10 years since the closure of the Magic Kingdom's ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. While we all know the story told during the ride, which featured a diverse cast of big-screen veterans, I wanted to delve into the story behind the infamous attraction. So I sat down recently with Jerry Rees -- creative genius, storyteller in all media, and the man who was involved in almost every aspect of the project's creation.

In August 1993, work began on a $100 million makeover of the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland. The land's appearance had become somewhat dated, thanks in part to "one designer back in the '70s predicting the future of architecture," according to Imagineer Eric Jacobson. In charge of design for the entire park, Jacobson set out to give the land a fresh look (the new theme was "yesterday's future"), as well as update or replace many attractions. Mission to Mars was on the chopping block, and Disney decided to replace it with an attraction called ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.


Mission to Mars Exterior


Alien Encounter would be like no attraction Disney had ever done. There was a time when the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland was thought of as legitimately scary, but it was toned down and infused with more gags. The Phantom Manor in Disneyland Paris opened in 1992, and scored slightly higher on the scare scale than its American cousins. However, none of Disney's mansions could ever produce the same reactions as the centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom's 1995 "New Tomorrowland" did.

The official line on Alien Encounter tagged it as, "A sensory thriller from Disney and George Lucas." It featured performances from Tyra Banks, Jeffrey Jones, Kathy Najimy, Kevin Pollak and, initially, Phil Hartman.

The show was designed to utilize a variety of mediums in which to tell guests its story, including audio-animatronics, video screens, and advanced audio effects. Enter Jerry Rees, the man who orchestrated the multi-faceted show "Cranium Command" for Disney just a few years earlier.

"Since Imagineering had gotten used to me as a 'film plus' director, meaning that I was comfortable merging film aspects with in-theater animatronics, effects, lighting, etc.," Jerry remarked, "they cast me with the 'everything plus the kitchen sink' Alien Encounter attraction."

At first, Jerry was only asked to direct the attraction's main media aspects, such as the pre-show promo for XS-Tech, the voice performance of the XS-Tech spokesbot S.I.R. (Simulated Intelligence Robotics), and the main theater "live" broadcast footage.

"I was not initially asked to direct all of the non-media in-theater storytelling aspects," Jerry said. "So after finishing the assigned aspects, I wished the project well and felt rather sad to see it go off for installation in the park without me."

That would change, however, after Michael Eisner reviewed the installed attraction. Eisner, along with a few others (including Marty Sklar), felt that the overall story wasn't being communicated dynamically enough. Jerry was called back in.

"Michael gave the 'bring Jerry in' instruction, and for the first time I was invited to direct the full experience soup-to-nuts," Jerry recalled. "I was delighted, since I'd been drooling to be involved with all aspects all the way to the finish line!"

Rick Rothschild was assigned to be Jerry's producer. The two met up in Florida and went through the entire attraction together, so they could assess what it needed and where. According to Jerry, they were "bubbling with ideas" upon exiting the ride. They put their ideas to paper almost immediately, and ultimately those notes became the foundation for all of the improvements they would make over the following six months.

"During that time Rick and I lived and breathed, ate and slept Alien Encounter!" Jerry declared. "It was all-consuming and very exciting."

One noticeable change completely altered the mood of the attraction's pre-show. S.I.R., voiced by Phil Hartman, would no longer be a friendly spokesbot who sang to himself while the audience filed into the pre-show area. English actor Tim Curry was brought on as the new voice of S.I.R., and he managed to add an underscore of menace to the narration.

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"I loved working with Phil on the first pass of the S.I.R. voice," Jerry remarked. "But ultimately, after listening back to the tracks, I felt that a more edgy 'tech evangelist' would be more effective. Tim nailed it!"

Jerry came up with some clever motivation for Tim, asking him to picture himself as a southern evangelical preacher who was delivering the message of X-S to his congregation. Jerry also worked with S.I.R.'s audio-animatronic animator, helping to ensure that the appropriately grandiose body language would be implemented.

Like Cranium Command, Jerry had to juggle several different elements that would all ultimately have to come together in order to tell one cohesive story. Never an easy task, I asked him which aspect of this production he found the most challenging. He responded, "The most challenging aspect -- and also the most fun aspect -- was coordinating all the elements so that it was completely believable that a giant alien creature had escaped and was on the loose in the broken theater. This involved film, normal and binaural audio in bizarre speaker arrays, animatronics, live actors, hidden actuators, vapor, wind fans, and much, much, much more. Each audience member was even splattered by 'bug bits' (water) at the end when the creature was exploded. The myriad of cooperative storytelling elements was staggering. And super fun!" Jerry's unique ability to visualize multiple yet separate show components made him the perfect choice for an attraction of this nature.

Extraterrorestrial Alien Encounter enjoyed an 8-year run terrorizing guests in the Magic Kingdom. The level of terror, however, might also have been the reason for its eventual demise.

"So far as I know, there was never an official reason given for its closure," Jerry remarked. "It was very popular. My best guess -- and the guess from other insiders I've chatted with -- is that it was closed because it was located in the Magic Kingdom, where parents have an expectation that they can let their kids run free and all rides will be appropriate. There is no such expectation at Disney's Hollywood Studios, where Tower of Terror scares the heck out of people all day long. My firm belief is this -- if the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter had been built at Disney's Hollywood Studios rather than the Magic Kingdom, it would still be playing today."


Keith Gluck has been a Disney fan his entire life. While Disneyland is his 'home park,' he has been to and adores Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris. He runs thedisneyproject.com, and also volunteers at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. If you were to ask him his favorite thing about Disney, his answer would always be, "Walt."


August 27, 2013

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

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Fifteen years ago September, the beloved Magic Kingdom attraction
Mr. Toad's Wild Ride permanently closed its doors.

by Keith Gluck
Guest Blogger

During early planning for Walt Disney World, Chief Operations Officer of WED Enterprises Richard Irvine tapped Imagineer (and future Disney Legend) Rolly Crump to spearhead all of the Fantasyland attractions.

Thrilled with the assignment, Rolly immediately began formulating ways to improve upon the existing dark rides from Disneyland. One of the rides Disney decided to carry over was Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, which was extremely popular in Anaheim. In fact it was so popular, Vice President of Operations Dick Nunis advised Rolly that they should build two identical Toad rides, one right next to the other. Rolly did not share his vision. "I thought that was a dumb idea," Rolly said. "I told him to let me think about it for a while, and I'd come up with something better." And come up with something better, he did.

Rolly designed a two-track ride system that was housed in the same show building, giving riders two noticeably different ride experiences. On track one, passengers traveled through Toad Hall's library, over a farm, through Town Square, in and out of jail, past a shootout between cops and weasels, down the wrong way of a railroad tunnel, and ultimately, to Hell.

Track two also started riders out in Toad Hall, but through the Trophy Room instead of the library. The journey continued through a gypsy camp, Town Square, Winky's Tavern, the countryside at night, and their own Hell, also by way of the wrong way of a railroad tunnel.

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The design was brilliant. Rolly even had the two tracks nearly intersect at points, giving the illusion of an impending head-on collision. Not only did having a second track double ride capacity, but in the 90s they started using motorcars that carried four passengers compared to Disneyland's two.

The ride was a huge hit, and a perennial guest-favorite from Opening Day.

In fall of 1997, however, rumors of its closure began to circulate. On October 22, the Orlando Sentinel addressed the rumor, reporting that Disney was considering replacing Toad with a ride based on Winnie the Pooh. Toad fans came out in earnest, devising ways to keep their beloved attraction open.

On October 23, Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst (stars of the soon-to-be-aired television movie Tower of Terror) were asked their thoughts on the report while at Walt Disney World. 'That's one of my favorite rides,' cried Dunst. 'Save Mr. Toad!' That same day, a Save Toad website debuted.

Petitions were signed, Save Toad t-shirts and buttons were worn, and letters to Disney executives were written, all in a concerted effort to rescue the rambunctious amphibian known to some as J. Thaddeus.

On December 7, 1997, a peaceful protest labeled a "Toad In" was held outside of the attraction. Many more Toad Ins would follow, and Rolly later recalled, "They would walk around in front of the ride and chant and cheer. I was really touched by that." As the months went on, support for the Toadies' plight grew as various news outlets across the country picked up the story. Aside from surprising a few executives at Disney, the valiant efforts to save Mr. Toad went unrewarded. After nearly a year filled with rumors, petitions, and uncertainty, Disney finally made the official announcement on September 2, 1998.

Five days later, Mr. Toad took guests on one last wild ride, to nowhere in particular.

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Photo Credit: http://www.math.miami.edu/~jam/toad/

Keith Gluck has been a Disney fan his entire life. While Disneyland is his 'home park,' he has been to and adores Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris. He runs thedisneyproject.com, and also volunteers at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. If you were to ask him his favorite thing about Disney, his answer would always be, "Walt."

June 17, 2013

Jim’s Attic: Missing Merlin

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Jim's Attic: Missing Merlin
By Jim Korkis

Every two weeks, Disney Historian Jim Korkis goes up into his imaginary attic to rummage around his archives and often stumbles across an unusual story about Walt Disney World.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I am Merlin, adviser to King Arthur and right now it is my job to discover which one among you is qualified to be temporary royal ruler. Since the responsibilities are so great, I will be selecting several people throughout the day to share these burdens of leadership. So, have no fear! If you get selected, it is just a part time job!"

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Not only do I personally miss the Sword in the Stone Ceremony with Merlin in the Magic Kingdom, but the walk-around Merlin has been missing since 2006 even though he is the star of the popular Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom interactive experience.

What a missed opportunity not to have Merlin personally welcoming new apprentice sorcerers or dedicating the New Fantasyland!

Disneyland, as part of the Limited Time Magic promotion, temporarily brought back a truncated version (no comic performer) of the beloved Golden Horseshoe Revue from January 10, 2012 through February 4, 2012 to packed houses.

However, reportedly, a handful of guest complaints about the raciness of the can-can dancers and Miss Lilly going out into the audience to harmlessly flirt help doom the show being temporarily revived at WDW's Diamond Horseshoe.

If Walt Disney World would really like to do a Limited Time Magic entertainment promotion, then I would cheer for a return of Merlin, especially since the mechanics of the sword still work fine and several "friends" of Merlin are still employed by the company, as well as director Chris Oyen, who shepherded the original show for over a decade as well as doing writing on the script.

"Walt [Disney], the wizard, never knew that I patterned Merlin the magician after him when I wrote the script," remembered storyman Bill Peet who gets sole credit for scripting the 1963 animated feature "Sword in the Stone". "In his book, T.H. White describes the wizard as a crusty old curmudgeon, argumentative and temperamental, playful at times and extremely intelligent. Walt was not quite a curmudgeon and he had no beard, but he was a grandfather and much more a character, and in my drawings of Merlin, I even borrowed Walt's nose."

The beloved live action show where Merlin selects a young guest from the audience to attempt to pull the sword from an anvil to become the new temporary ruler of Fantasyland (until the next show in a half hour) premiered at Disneyland in the Summer of 1983 after the opening of the New Fantasyland so this year marks Merlin's 30th anniversary as a park character.

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At Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the show opened in 1993 (though other sources claim 1994) and delighted guests until its final performance on August 15, 2006.

I clearly remember the August 15th date because that is my birthday and in the Fall of 1995, I assisted in the portrayal of Merlin. When I was a "friend" of Merlin, people could clearly see what Disney costumers called "Santa Claus cheeks" and the animated black eyebrows barely hidden by glued on white eyebrows.

The costume was heavy, the props cumbersome and eager autograph seekers often thought the character was Father Time or Pagemaster from the 1994 film but it was a delightful little show that gathered substantial crowds.

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My personal feeling is that Fantasyland could use a little more magic and the man for the job is a return of Merlin.

RELATED LINKS
====================
Check out Jim's other "From the Attic" Blogs

Full features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives: http://allears.net/ae/archives.htm

Jim Korkis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of three new books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com:
The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse
Who's Afraid of the Song of the South
"The REVISED Vault of Walt":


February 3, 2013

A Quiet and Casual Lunch at the Grand Floridian Café

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to fine dining the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa has some of the most exclusive restaurants in all of Disney World. First and foremost among these restaurants is Victoria and Albert's. An eleven time recipient of the prestigious AAA Five Diamond Award, this restaurant offers innovative cooking with a menu that changes daily, impeccable service, and opulent décor. Narcoossee's specializes in seafood and features a breathtaking location with stunning panoramic views of the Seven Seas Lagoon. Citricos features a Mediterranean-inspired décor and menu in addition to an award winning wine list that is one of the most extensive in all of Disney World. Each of these restaurants are what Disney classifies as Signature dining locations. Signature restaurants are the cream of the crop amongst the numerous dining locations to be found all across Disney World, offering elegant and refined settings that create truly unique and memorable dining experiences.

Overshadowed by its more prestigious neighbors, the Grand Floridian Café is easily missed even by those who are staying at the resort. Although it might not have the same name recognition, this restaurant provides a great alternative for those who may not be looking to dine in as formal a setting nor have the budget for these other Signature dining locations.

GFC Signage

Overview:
Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa certainly lives up to its namesake. When it comes to Disney resorts, its grandeur is second to none. The Grand Floridian is all about elegance as soon as you enter the lobby and this is carried throughout the rest of the resort.

GF Lobby

While the Grand Floridian Café ties into the overall Victorian theming and charm of the resort, it does so in a more casual and subdued way, which helps to create a comfortable and calm setting in which to enjoy your meal.

The Grand Floridian Cafe is located in the main building of the Grand Floridian. Situated in an un-imposing location tucked away from the lobby, it can easily be passed by as one makes their way toward the resort's marina. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, easily accessible by boat or monorail from the Magic Kingdom, and located at one of Disney World's marquee resorts, it is surprising that the Grand Floridian Café is largely overlooked when it comes to Disney dining locations. This, however, is part of its allure. The restaurant's relative obscurity makes for a quiet and relaxing atmosphere, often without need of a reservation, which provides a much-needed escape from the crowds as well as the hustle and bustle of the theme parks.

Atmosphere:
The Grand Floridian Café has an atmosphere that I can best describe as casual elegance. It has the same Victorian style as the rest of the resort, but with a more comfortable and laid-back feel. The restaurant's dining room is bright and inviting, featuring a color palette of white and cream.

GFC Dining Room1

GFC Dining Room2

Its high ceilings give the restaurant a very open feel, which is also aided by its large windows.

GFC Windows

Not only do these windows allow in ample sunlight throughout the day, but they also offer stunning views of the resort's courtyard and rose garden.

GFC View

These windows really help to bring the outdoors into the restaurant, with the roses from the garden continuing onto each table top. This flower motif is also continued on the wallpaper and carpeting as well.

GFC Table Roses

Subtle touches like the restaurant's lace curtains and beautiful floral arrangements lend a sense of sophistication, but overall this is a very inviting setting to dine with the entire family including small children.

GFC Flowers

The overall décor is very subdued and simple. The dining room's curtains, floral wall paper, and light fixtures all add a sense of Victorian charm.

GFC Light Fixture

In addition, a variety of water-color paintings of fruits and vegetables as well as several weather vanes featuring farm animals give the restaurant a little character and whimsy.

GFC Paintings

GFC Weather Vane

The Grand Floridian Café compliments the look and feel of the resort as a whole but it also provides a nice change from the elegance and refinement of the rest of the resort and its other Signature restaurants. Overall, there is really nothing about the restaurant's atmosphere that is going to make you say "wow," but it provides a tranquil and relaxing setting in which to enjoy your meal. This is aided by the fact that the restaurant is not usually very crowded, especially during lunchtime hours. Dining here is truly a great escape; you really have no idea that you are just minutes away from the Magic Kingdom.

The Menu:
The Grand Floridian Café's menu presents classic American fare, but with a little flair. Breakfast is served from 7am until 11am and the menu features traditional items such as the American ($13.49) featuring two Eggs served with biscuits, bacon, sausage and breakfast potatoes. There is also a Mickey Waffle ($10.99) served with bacon or sausage and a Ham and Cheese Omelet ($11.49) served with breakfast potatoes. There are, however, some breakfast items that are given a little twist, such as the Lobster Eggs Benedict ($17.99), Citrus Pancakes ($12.49) with roasted pecans and sun-dried cranberries topped with orange butter, and Vanilla-Laced French Toast ($11.99) which is dipped in a vanilla-flavored batter and served with bacon or sausage.

Lunch, served from 11:45am until 2pm, features a menu dominated by a lighter fare of sandwiches and salads. These include two of the restaurant's signature lunch items. First is the Grand Floridian Burger ($19.49) that is topped with butter-poached lobster with a red onion marmalade, crispy prosciutto, and arugula and there is also The Grand Sandwich ($13.49) served open-faced with hot ham, turkey, bacon, and tomato with a rich Boursin cheese sauce and fried onion straws.

Additionally, there is the Rustic Chicken Sandwich ($12.99) topped with a sun-dried tomato pesto and Dijon mayonnaise, a traditional Reuben Sandwich ($10.99), a Tuna Nicoise Salad ($18.49) with mixed greens, fingerling potatoes, green beans, kalamata olives, and tomatoes , Caesar Salad with shrimp ($15.49) or grilled chicken breast ($14.49), and a Cobb Salad ($15.49) with diced turkey, bacon, avocado, blue cheese, eggs, chives, and tomatoes.

If you are looking for a heartier lunch there is the Orecchiette Pasta of the Day ($15.99) that can also come served with shrimp ($19.99) or grilled chicken ($17.99) as well as the New York Strip Steak ($26.99) served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

Dinner is served from 5pm until 10pm. The menu's appetizers are the same for both lunch and dinner, including Pan-Seared Lump Crab Cakes ($11.49), Shrimp Cocktail ($12.99), Caesar Salad ($5.49), a Seasonal Salad ($5.99), French Onion Soup ($7.49), and a Seasonal Soup ($5.99).

For entrees, the dinner menu replaces all the sandwiches and salads on the lunch menu with exception of the Grand Floridian Burger. The menu instead features Pan-Roasted Chicken Breast ($18.99) with a mushroom risotto, roasted mushrooms, and chicken pan juice, Shrimp and Grits ($19.99) served on top of creamy mascarpone cheese grits, a New York Strip Steak ($29.99) accompanied by crushed fingerling mashed potatoes and a brandy-green peppercorn sauce, a Grilled Pork Chop ($21.99) with sweet potato-smoked gouda gratin and sautéed spinach topped with chimichurri, and Orecchiette Pasta of the Day ($18.99).

The dessert options are the same for both lunch and dinner and include Chocolate Fondue ($6.99) served with dark chocolate ganache and fresh fruit, Key Lime Tart ($3.29) with a chocolate crust, New York-Style Lemon Cheesecake ($3.49), Boston Cream Pie ($3.49), Fresh Berry Tart ($3.49) with a layer of almond cake topped with seasonal berries and an apricot glaze, and Seasonal Sorbet ($4.99).

For my lunch I inquired as to what the Seasonal Soup was for the day and was told that it was a Butternut Squash Soup. I immediately decided to order this because it is a type of soup that I greatly enjoy but is not found in too many restaurants. This was butternut squash soup with a twist, however, as it was served with diced apples and bacon and came topped with a whipped maple cream.

GFC Butternut Squash Soup

The soup was presented with a fairly generous dollop of this whipped cream in the center and was then mixed in. The soup itself was so rich and creamy, but I found it to be not quite as sweet as other butternut squash soups I have had in the past. Some added sweetness was provided by the diced apples as well as the maple whipped cream. I was really surprised at how well the flavor of the apples blended with the butternut squash and complimented the slight saltiness of the bacon (whose flavor was not nearly as overwhelming as I had thought it would be). These added components really helped to make this butternut squash soup unique.

I was very undecided about my entrée as both the Grand Floridian Burger and The Grand Sandwich sounded very intriguing. Instead, I chose to go with the Orcchiette Pasta of the Day. On this particular day the pasta was served with green beans, peas, carrots, mushrooms, and sun dried tomatoes topped with a creamy asiago cheese sauce.

GFC Pasta

The sauce was the real highlight of the dish as it had such a rich and creamy flavor to which the vegetables provided a light and refreshing contrast. Of all the vegetables, the flavor of the sun dried tomatoes really popped. The pasta was also seasoned generously with crushed black pepper that helped to provide an added kick. I was also very impressed with the portion size as well as the amount of vegetables that were mixed into the pasta. One of the great things about this particular dish is that it is always changing depending on what is fresh.

Service:
One of the aspects of the Grand Floridian Café that really impressed me the most was the impeccable service. The Cast Members at this restaurant were some of the friendliest and most personable that I have experienced at any Disney dining location. It started as soon as I approached the entrance of the restaurant and the hostess immediately struck up a conversation with me when I told her it was my first time dining there and we continued to chat as she showed me to my table.

My server was extremely helpful in explaining the various menu items, including descriptions of the soup of the day and the orcchiette pasta that both won me over to ordering these dishes. We discussed a variety of topics including the Grand Floridian resort, Disney World, and living in Florida. He always seemed to be nearby whenever I needed anything. This is one of the primary advantages to dining at a restaurant that is typically less crowded. My server only had a couple of tables to wait on and there was really no rush to get tables turned over in order to seat additional parties as is evident at some of the more popular restaurants. This allows for the servers at the Grand Floridian Café to provide very personal and attentive service and it is something that makes it very likely for me to dine here again in the future.

Dining on a Budget:
Of course, when compared with the other dining options at the Grand Floridian, the Grand Floridian Café is a far more reasonable dining option. This is especially true at lunch time where the menu's variety of sandwiches and salads are all good values by Disney standards. To put it into perspective, if you were at Magic Kingdom and went to Pecos Bill's to order the Deluxe 1/3 Pound Angus Cheeseburger it would cost you $10.59. For just a few dollars more you could escape from the crowds and enjoy a meal in a far more quiet and relaxing setting with higher quality menu items such as the Rustic Chicken Sandwich for $12.99. Not only are the prices reasonable, but the portion sizes are very generous.

The Grand Floridian Café is on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The restaurant also participates in Tables in Wonderland, offering members a 20% discount. In addition, Annual Passholders can receive a 10% discount on lunch Mondays through Fridays. Disney Vacation Club members get a 10% discount on breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The Overall Experience:
This was my first time dining at the Grand Floridian Café, but after my experience there I know that it will not be the last. With its quiet, casual elegance that incorporates the resort's Victorian charm, a reasonably priced menu that features a variety of different options from sandwiches to salads to full entrees, and friendly and attentive servers, the Grand Floridian Café is certainly worth a visit and not only if you are staying at the resort.

With such easy accessibility by boat or monorail from the Magic Kingdom, the Grand Floridian Café would be a great option for a middle-of-the-day break from the park, giving you the chance to relax and reenergize and enjoy some peace and quiet. In addition, since dining reservations can sometime be hard to come by in the Magic Kingdom, the Grand Floridian Café is the type of restaurant that you do not need to make reservations for months in advance. Overall, I was very impressed by the Grand Floridian Café. It is a dining location worthy of being located at one of Disney World's marquee resorts.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Grand Floridian Cafe and post your own too!

January 12, 2013

Earl of Sandwich: Perfecting Sandwich-Making Since 1762

Andrew Rossi

One of the great things about dining at Disney World is that there are no shortage of options, even if you are just looking for a quick bit to eat. While many of Disney's full service restaurants garner great popularity and acclaim, there are also numerous compelling counter service options to be found as well. Just because you may not have the time to devote to a sit-down meal, or even if you are dining on a more stringent budget, does not mean that you have to suffer in terms of the quality food that you are receiving. While some of these locations feature the staple burgers, hot dogs, and pizza, there is such a great variety of food to be found at counter service restaurants across the parks, resorts, and Downtown Disney.

One of my favorite counter service restaurants at Disney World is actually found at Downtown Disney. The irony of this restaurant is that it is not actually Disney-owned, but part of a chain that has locations all across the United States. Nevertheless, when it comes to counter service dining, there are not too many locations at Disney World that can match Earl of Sandwich.

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Located at the Downtown Disney Marketplace, Earl of Sandwich offers great variety of sandwiches, wraps, and salads at a very reasonable price; it comes as no surprise that the restaurant is always packed with people. The Earl of Sandwich alone is a worth a visit to Downtown Disney and, if you do not feel like waiting maybe an hour or more for a table at one of the full service restaurants, offers a great alternative for both lunch and dinner.

Earl_Exterior

Overview:
The story of the invention of the sandwich helps provide the back-story for the Earl of Sandwich restaurant. John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, was commander of the British navy, a noted explorer, as well as someone who greatly enjoyed gambling and card games.

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As the story goes, Montagu was so busy that he had very little time for food and came up with the idea (possibly while playing a game of cards) of putting meat between two slices of bread for a quick and easy meal that could be eaten on the run. As a result, in 1762, the sandwich was named in honor of its inventor. Now, nearly 250 years later, the Earl of Sandwich restaurant continues this tradition and boasts that it is home to "The World's Greatest Hot Sandwich." The Earl of Sandwich's illustrious history and tradition is set forth in the restaurant's official charter and aptly describes the restaurant's premise and objective:

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Atmosphere:
Earl of Sandwich has become extremely popular and is always crowded no matter what time of day you go, but especially during the peak dining times. For this reason, seating (or lack thereof) can become a real issue. The restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor seating, but it can sometimes be difficult to find a table. This can clearly be seen on extremely hot or colder days because people do not want to eat outside and there is not enough indoor seating to handle everyone. The seating area inside is not very big and the tables are packed very tightly together. Combined with the large crowds, this makes it a little loud inside the restaurant.

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If you are looking for a quieter dining experience, it is probably best to find a table outside.

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All that being said, there are several aspects of Earl of Sandwich's atmosphere that are very appealing. The restaurant's high ceilings give it a much-needed open feel (especially with the tables being so close together) and the light fixtures, book shelves, faux fireplace, and fresh-cut flowers on every table give a little touch of refinement to what is an otherwise very causal and laid-back environment.

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The classical music playing in the background is also a nice added touch, even though it can be somewhat difficult to hear at times. All this helps to give the restaurant a little taste of 1762; you can almost feel as though you are sitting in John Montagu's parlor waiting to play a game of cards.

An aspect of the atmosphere that probably goes unnoticed by most guests is the Earl of Sandwich Historical Society. Located around the corner from where you place your order, the Historical Society is a full wall that features maps, pictures, paintings, and other information about the history of John Montagu.

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Here you can find, among other things, a portrait of the Earl of Sandwich as well as the family coat of arms. It really helps to give the restaurant a level of detail and history that goes beyond what you would typically expect to find in a counter service restaurant.

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The Menu:

One of the things that stands out most about the menu at Earl of Sandwich is the sheer number of options. Each of their sandwiches are $5.99, are made to order, and served on one of their fresh artisan loafs. The menu includes The Original 1762, with fresh roasted beef, cheddar, and a creamy horseradish sauce, The Earl's Club, featuring roast turkey, smoked bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sandwich sauce, the All American, topped with roast turkey, buttermilk ranch, cranberries, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and tomato, the Italian, which includes salami, capicola, roasted ham, mortadella, mozzarella, tomato and a zesty Italian dressing , The Full Montagu, featuring roast beef and turkey with sharp cheddar and Swiss cheese, romaine lettuce, tomato and the Earl's mustard sauce, Cannonballs, with meatballs, mozzarella parmesan cheese, and marinara sauce, the Tuna Melt, featuring albacore tuna salad and Swiss cheese, the Chipotle Chicken Avocado, topped with grilled chicken, bacon, cheddar, avocado, lettuce and chipotle sauce, the Hawaiian BBQ, featuring roasted ham, grilled chicken, Hawaiian BBQ sauce, Swiss cheese, and fresh pineapple, the Ham and Swiss, topped with roasted ham with Swiss cheese and the Earl's mustard sauce, the Holiday Turkey, complete with turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce, the Caprese, topped with mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil, and balsamic vinaigrette, the Caribbean Jerk Chicken, with grilled chicken, roasted red and banana peppers, and a spicy jerk sauce, and the Best BLT, featuring smoked bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, and seasoned mayonnaise.

The menu does not stop with sandwiches, but also includes an array of wraps, all of which are $5.99 as well. Among these are the Buffalo Chicken, with grilled chicken, cheddar, romaine, tomato, buffalo sauce, and ranch dressing, Chicken, Bacon & Avocado, topped with grilled chicken, bacon, romaine, avocado, bacon, tomato, cucumber, and balsamic vinaigrette, the Baja Chicken, featuring grilled chicken, cheddar, romaine, tomato, fajita seasoning, chipotle seasoning, and balsamic vinaigrette, the BBQ Ranch Chicken, which includes grilled chicken, cheddar, romaine, cilantro, tomato, crispy onions, BBQ sauce, and ranch dressing, the Thai, with grilled chicken, romaine, Chinese cabbage mix, sweet chili sauce, and Thai peanut dressing, the Chicken Caesar, topped with grilled chicken, parmesan, romaine, croutons, and Caesar dressing, and the Spicy Tuna, which includes albacore tuna salad, romaine, tomato, kalamata olives, pepperoncini peppers, chipotle sauce, and balsamic vinaigrette.

For those looking for something a little on the lighter side, there are also a number of salads available, which are also $5.99. These include The Earl's Cobb, topped with grilled chicken, smoked bacon, Swiss and cheddar cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, cranberries and ranch dressing, the Baja Chicken, featuring romaine, grilled chicken, cheddar, cilantro, avocado, tomato, roasted corn, black beans, tortilla strips, and a red wine vinaigrette, the Chicken Caesar, with grilled chicken, field greens and romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese, croutons, classic Caesar dressing, the Chicken, Berry and Almond, featuring spinach, grilled chicken, fresh strawberries, fresh blueberries, almonds, and balsamic vinaigrette, the Greek, which includes romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, feta, tomato, kalamata olives, pepperoncini peppers, and a zesty Italian dressing, the Asian, featuring romaine, grilled chicken, Chinese cabbage, mandarin oranges, almonds, wontons and an Asian dressing, the BBQ Chicken, which includes field greens, grilled chicken, cheddar, cilantro, tomato, crispy onions, BBQ sauce and ranch dressing, and the Thai Chicken, with field greens, grilled chicken, Chinese cabbage, sweet chili sauce, wontons, and a Thai peanut dressing.

There are also various side items available for purchase, including potato salad ($1.99), pasta salad ($2.29), the coleslaw ($1.99), and potato chips ($1.29). It is really a menu that offers something for everyone and the hardest part is really deciding what you want to order.

Despite all the variety on the menu, I have a small number of mainstays that I gravitate to each visit. This time I decided on The Original 1762, with fresh roast beef, cheddar, and a creamy horseradish sauce. I think the best place to start talking about the sandwiches is the bread because this is really what makes them so special. While bread alone does necessarily not make a sandwich, it can certainly break a sandwich. At Earl of Sandwich, however, is a highlight unto itself. Every sandwich is made to order so you know it is always going to be fresh and hot. The bread is perfectly toasted so it is slightly crispy on the outside but still soft and warm on the inside. The bread is so good that I could just go there, order some toasted bread, and be completely satisfied.

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There have been times that I ordered The Original and the roast beef was a little too rare for my liking, but most of the time it is cooked absolutely perfectly with just a slight hint of pinkish color. For those of you who might be scared away by the horseradish sauce, it is not too strong at all and really serves compliment the roast beef rather than being too overpowering. The horseradish helps add to the flavor of the sandwich and gives it just a little bit of a kick, making it something more unique than your standard roast beef sandwich.

Along with the sandwich I chose a side of potato salad. The light and refreshing flavor of the potato salad provided a perfect complement to the heartier flavor of The Original. The potatoes were red-skinned and were cooked just right so as to be not too soft and mushy nor too hard. The potato salad did have a strong mayonnaise base, but also featured a slight hint of dill to provide some extra flavor. While the potato salad did not have the same "wow" factor as the sandwich, it was still a good accompaniment for the meal.

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Dessert at Earl of Sandwich is definitely something that should not be overlooked. Even though the sandwiches can be very filling, it is worth saving room for dessert. Like the rest of the menu, there are a good number of dessert offerings to choose from, ranging from fresh baked chocolate chip cookies ($1.99) to brownie bites ($3.99), brownie sandwiches ($2.49), cupcakes ($2.49), bread pudding ($2.49), strawberry shortcake ($2.99), and even ice cream sandwiches ($3.29). My favorite dessert by far is the Peanut Butter-Filled Brownie Sandwich.

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The one word I could come up with to describe this dessert is heavenly. The brownie is extremely moist and also has chocolate chunks throughout that gave it added texture and flavor. The peanut butter filling is extremely smooth, sweet, and creamy; the combination of peanut butter and chocolate is just perfect. This is a very rich and heavy dessert and is easily big enough to be split by two people (but it is so good that you may just want to eat the entire thing yourself).

Service:
Like with every quick service dining location, the Earl of Sandwich is able to serve a large number of guests in a small amount of time. Because the restaurant is so crowded, this efficiency takes on an even greater importance. Guests place their order at one end of the counter and are then given a pager to let them know when their food is ready. Everyone then makes their way down to the other end of the counter to pay. The service is often so fast that, by the time you pay for your meal, your pager is already vibrating to let you know to go pick up my order.

The service at Earl of Sandwich is so quick in part because they have so many people working behind the counter. The only problem I noticed was that they sometimes resorted to yelling as a way of keeping the guests moving in line. While it seemed that they were doing this in order to serve as many people as possible, it was unfortunate that it came at the expense of their interaction with the guests. I have seen other quick service locations throughout Disney World that are able to provide speedy service but still have Cast Members who are able to interact with guests in a way that is both pleasant and personable. This might be due to the fact that Earl of Sandwich is not a Disney-owned restaurant.

Dining on a Budget:
When it comes to dining on a budget, there are not too many places at Disney World that are better than Earl of Sandwich; it may be the best value on all Disney property. The prices are all very reasonable, the food is great, and the portion sizes are big. With sandwiches, wraps, and salads all just $5.99, this is cheaper than most offerings found at other counter service locations across the parks and resorts. When you also take into account that side items are just around $2.00 and desserts range between $2.00 and $3.00, you can have an entire meal for a very reasonable price. If you are dining on a budget, Earl of Sandwich is definitely the place to go.

If you have a AAA card, you will receive a 10% discount on your items.

It should also be noted that Earl of Sandwich is on the Disney Dining Plan and worth one counter service credit.

The Overall Experience:
One of the reasons why I like Earl of Sandwich so much is consistency. All the times that I have been there I have never been disappointed. I always know my sandwich is going to be hot and fresh, the portion size is going to be big, and the price is going to be reasonable. This is the recipe for success that has made Earl of Sandwich so popular. The quality of food is definitely worth having to wait in what can often be a long line. Even though it is a chain restaurant with locations across the country, Earl of Sandwich has become synonymous with Downtown Disney. Next time you are looking for somewhere to eat while at Downtown Disney, especially if you do not feel like waiting a long time for a table at one of the sit down restaurants, definitely consider giving Earl of Sandwich a try. Its cuisine may be simple (just sandwiches, salads, and wraps), but its quality is top notch and the prices are very affordable. After trying it once, you will want to go back again and again.

See past restaurant reviews by guest blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Earl of Sandwich and post your own too!

November 25, 2012

Ft. Wilderness Christmas -- Dave “The Castle Guy”

Gary Cruise banner

In December 2008 Carol and I spent a few weeks at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. We took part in a Disney fan meet known as "MouseFest". Carol and I, along with our friends John & Erin from New Jersey, co-hosted a walking tour of the campground to admire all the seasonal décor. About 45 of us wandered the campground admiring the lights, inflatables and the other imaginative displays. Someone we passed that evening said, "Be sure to check out site #551 - it's great." Alas, we didn't make it that night! It was the following night when Carol and I circled the 500 loop and saw Dave "The Castle Guy" for the first time.

Dave's Castle at night

Wow . . . we were in awe when we saw his creation! Carol took a short video which I later uploaded to YouTube. I sent some friends a link to the video and urged them to visit Site 551 before they went home.

We didn't return for the Christmas season again until 2011 when we were fortunate enough to camp just a few campsites down from Dave and his awesome display.

Dave's Castle at night

We visited back and forth with Dave many times during our stay and during our few weeks together he told me the story of "The Castle Project".

This is how he described it, "In December 2007 my wife Dee and I spent 10 days at Fort Wilderness Campground, Disney World. You would not believe what folks were doing to their campsites. The Christmas decorations were out of this world. The campers really put their imaginations in high gear. All the time and effort they spent decorating their sites was really impressive.""

For me, it was inspiring. If you haven't been to Fort Wilderness at Christmas, you should stop by. It is well worth the trip. All the campers are in a wonderfully good mood and the sights and sounds of Christmas fill the air. It's truly a magical place to be during the holiday season."

"When we returned home to Titusville, Florida I started thinking about making something for our own campsite. I thought, 'What would be the coolest thing I could have on our campsite?' The answer immediately came to mind 'Cinderella Castle'. So, in April of 2008 I started on The Castle Project."

Dave's Castle at night

Dave's labour of love took eight months to complete. He started with a six foot by four foot piece of three quarter inch thick Medium Density Overlay (MDO), a resin-coated plywood which is very weather resistant. Dave took a picture of Cinderella Castle, blew it up to the correct six foot by four foot proportions and printed it out on 26 sheets of photo paper.

Adding the picture to the background

He described the decoupage as the most difficult task in the entire project; he applied the photo sheets to the MDO and then covered them with six coats of clear acrylic sealer.

Then he cut the castle out, beginning with a precision jig saw for the rough cut and then finishing the finer features with a Dremel hand-held tool.

Cutting out the castle with a jigsaw

Rough cut of the castle

Next step, Dave drilled some holes. There are 427 lights on the castle.

Drilling front holes for the lights

Each hole was drilled from the front and then countersunk on the back to accommodate the light socket. That's 854 holes to drill! I'm exhausted just thinking about it!

Countersinking rear holes

Dee took charge of the trees which flank the castle. The first year there were 16 trees, now there are 26. Dee securely fastened each and every light so that they will survive the packing and repacking that is required every year. Everything about the castle is designed to be durable yet portable!

When Dave starts talking about the electronics my eyes start to glaze over. I can appreciate how The Big Bang Theory's Penny feels when she's talking to Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Since I don't understand any of the technical stuff I'm going to quote Dave again, "The castle is controlled by 16 channels of lighting. It is surrounded by 16 Christmas trees so that adds another 16 channels of lighting. Above the trees are 3 lighted snowflakes, each representing a Disney character. All this has been put to beautiful Disney music, "When You Wish upon a Star" and Disney's "Wishes", with fireworks added in for the grand finale. It ended up being 48 channels of lighting that first year. Everything is controlled through my laptop!"

Adding the wiring

Wiring up the castle

The Software that runs the show is "ShowTime Software Suite S3" from a company named "Light O Rama". Much of the hardware is from the same company, Dave currently uses 5 Light O Rama (LOR) 16 channel controllers, 3 LOR Cosmic Color Ribbons with 150 channels each and 1 LOR Cosmic Color Pixel with 100 channels. Just imagine how glassy my eyes were as I typed this paragraph!

From the start Dave knew the first song he had to sequence would be "Wish Upon A Star". It's his favourite Disney song and it touches a spot in the hearts of all Disney fans. He selected the Eric Kunzel version, it's beautiful. Then he used 4 tracks from Disney's "Wishes" to finish it off. The grande finale is made up of 5 audio tracks of fireworks. Wow . . . when you see and hear it I think you will agree that it's amazing!

Ready for dry runs

After all the lights were installed on the castle, the Christmas trees were prepared, the lights and soundtracks were sequenced it was time for a test.

It works

Dave set it all up in his garage, crossed his fingers and started the show. It was perfect - it ran like a charm. Next stop - Fort Wilderness!

Dave and Dee transport the Castle in their 40 ft motor home. The MDO castle lays on the bed while they are underway. Everything else is stored below in the cargo bays. One rule Dave has is that EVERYTHING has to fit in the motor home. He doesn't want to tow a trailer so he keeps it all pretty compact. It takes him around ten hours to set everything up and around four hours to break everything down and pack it away for transport.

The castle in daylight

When Dave returned with his completed castle in 2008 he was a bit nervous. As he puts it, "We returned to Fort Wilderness Campground on December 7th, 2008. As I was putting put up the castle show, I thought to myself, "People are going to think I am crazy, this guy has gone off the deep end." Boy, was I wrong! It was a total blockbuster hit. It was the talk of the campground. The reservation office folks were telling people checking in to "make sure you see the castle show in the 500 loop". I have never met so many great people. It was a total blast!

Dave has improved and enhanced the castle show each year since then. "In 2009 we returned to Fort Wilderness with 64 channels, 10 more Christmas trees and a VERY special appearance by "Tinker Bell" (Tink is really hard to book during the holidays, you know). It's the latest in lighting technology."

"In 2010 I decided to light up the whole motor home in the show. That was fun. I also added another musical sequence, Disney's Holiday Wishes."

"In 2011 I added another musical sequence, Disney's "Remember the Magic". They used to play it at Disneyland years ago. It's a great song."

"This year, 2012, I am introducing a new musical sequence. It's a mix of Disney favourites. I have also done a lot of fine tuning to all the other Disney songs. I have added a new "Tinker Bell" effect that I'm trying out. There are also a couple of surprises that I'm keeping a secret. The Castle show is now at 80+ channels and has 7000+ lights."

"The Castle show starts automatically and runs continuously from 6:00 p.m. every evening. It shuts itself down at 10:00 p.m. Quiet time at the Fort starts at 10:00 pm."

Dave's Castle at night

Dave's castle show has been featured in Orlando Attractions magazine and on a local television station but if you haven't seen it live . . . you really haven't seen it!

The thing Dave most enjoys about his castle show is the opportunity it gives him to meet all the Fort Wilderness campers and Disney fans. He puts it like this, "Every night you can find me at my campsite meeting folks and talking about the castle and all the other wonderful decorations at the Fort. Last year a group of about 120 AllEars fans stopped by to see the Castle show; what a great group of people."

"Another thing I really enjoy is giving out glow sticks to all the kids who stop by; kids young and old. Last year I gave out several hundred! I am really stocking up on them this year."

The horse-drawn sleigh rides and wagon rides which tour the campground do not make any stops, except at Christmas when they all pause for a few minutes at Dave's castle. Golf carts and pedestrians stop too! In fact, there's often a traffic jam in front of Dave and Dee's campsite . . . but it's the happiest traffic jam you have ever seen. Dave hasn't just built a castle . . . he's made magic! I'm sure Walt looks down occasionally on Dave's castle - and Walt smiles!


Click on the arrow to see a 15 minute sequence from of the 2010 Castle Show.

This year Dave and Dee will be at Fort Wilderness from December 5th through December 26th. The castle should be up and running by December 8th and the last show will be on Christmas Day.

If you are planning to visit Walt Disney World in December a trip to Fort Wilderness is a must. Set aside an evening to tour the campground and enjoy the amazing Christmas décor.

For some tips on how to get to Fort Wilderness and a few suggestions for your tour of the campground read the last few paragraphs a recent blog here.

So come on over and join the happiest traffic jam on earth! Don't forget, Dave will be waiting to meet you . . . and he just might have a glow stick for you! Go check out his castle . . . you will be amazed!

October 21, 2012

Nine Dragons: World Showcase's Overlooked Restaurant

Andrew Rossi

I have had the opportunity to dine at nearly all of the restaurants in World Showcase, but there has been one that has continually eluded me. With all the various cuisines and dining options available throughout World Showcase the idea of dining in China has always been low on my priority list. After all, Chinese restaurants are so common and I could even have Chinese food delivered to my own house rather than going to Epcot. When dining at Disney World I tend to prefer the types of dining experiences that are less common, but recently I finally decided to give Nine Dragons at Epcot's China pavilion a try.

I realized that, even though I have had Chinese food at numerous locations, I should not be so quick to group Nine Dragons together with all of them. Italian restaurants are just as common as Chinese restaurants and yet I still greatly enjoy Via Napoli for its authentic pizza and hibachi-style Japanese restaurants are becoming much more prevalent but I still continue to dine at Teppan Edo. I hoped that the same would hold true for Nine Dragons.

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Overview:
One of the primary goals of World Showcase is deepening Guests' understanding and appreciation of the countries they are visiting. World Showcase is a place to educate and entertain, somewhere Guests can experience first-hand the cultures, histories, sights, and sounds of eleven different nations. As such, every aspect of these World Showcase pavilions helps to offer insight into their country's culture and people; their attractions, shops, and restaurants all have different stories to tell. With Nine Dragons this story starts with the restaurant's name.

The name Nine Dragons is very fitting because both the number nine and dragons have special significance in Chinese culture. In China, dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers such as control over water, rainfall, hurricanes, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck. Throughout the country's history, the Emperor of China has used the dragon as a symbol of his imperial power and strength.

The number nine is likewise special in China, as it is the largest possible single digit, and is considered to be an extremely lucky number. Dragons are frequently connected with the number nine. Dragons are usually described as having nine characteristics: its head is like a camel's, its horns like a deer's, its eyes like a hare's, its ears like a bull's, its neck like an iguana's, its belly like a frog's, its scales like those of a carp, its paws like a tiger's, and its claws like an eagle's. Chinese dragons also traditionally have 117 (9x13) scales and have nine offspring. Throughout China, Nine Dragons Screens (walls with images of nine different dragons) are typically found in imperial palaces and gardens. Thus Nine Dragons at Epcot is firmly rooted in Chinese history, culture, and traditions which is reinforced even more with the visual imagery used throughout the restaurant.

Atmosphere:
Visually, China has one of the most beautiful pavilions in all of World Showcase. The architectural beauty and attention to detail is truly breathtaking. Thus, you begin to be immersed into Chinese culture before even setting foot inside any of the buildings. A lively color palette of red, green, blue, and gold really make the buildings stand out and then all the tiny details lend an added sense of authenticity.

Nine_Dragons_Exterior

Nine_Dragons_Exterior2

Some people may pass these buildings by without giving them a second look, but if you really take your time you can fully appreciate all the craftsmanship that went into their design. One of my personal favorite touches is the figures on the corners of the roof:

Nine_Dragons_Exterior_Details

The interior of the restaurant is a blend of traditional and contemporary and dragon imagery is carried throughout. This is evident from the moment you enter the restaurant and are greeted by a beautiful glass mural depicting two dragons chasing a glowing pearl.

Nine_Dragons_Entrance_Mural

Even more impressive is when you look up and see the decorative artwork on the ceiling featuring a golden dragon motif. The intricate details in this are truly something to behold.

Nine_Dragons_Entrance_Ceiling

Even the woodwork continues the dragon imagery and serves to highlight the skill and craftsmanship of the Chinese artisans who created the works.

Dragon_Woodwork

Along the one of the walls of the dining room is a display featuring a variety of delicately crafted glass artwork, all of which pays tribute to the more classical Chinese style.

Glass_Art1

Glass_Art2

Glass_Art3

Despite all these traditional Chinese touches, the dining room has more of a modern feel. Sleek and streamlined, the dining room itself is a nice reflection of modern-day China where old and new, classic and contemporary, blend together harmoniously. The tables are all aligned in straight rows, but I felt as though they were placed very close together. I dined here at lunch when it was not very crowded, but I can imagine it might feel slightly tight and cramped during the busier times of the day.

Nine_Dragons_Dining_Room1

Nine_Dragons_Dining_Room2

The dining room itself is very large, but it is divided into a series of smaller sections by rosewood wall panels.

Wall_Partitions

One of my favorite aspects of the décor was the restaurant's lighting, which provides a modern spin on classic Chinese lanterns. The lanterns add a splash of color to an otherwise restrained color palette. Also, the more subdued lighting adds a touch of intimacy to the dining room.

Nine_Dragons_Lighting

Another nice aspect of the dining room is its huge windows overlooking the World Showcase promenade and lagoon. If you are dining here I would definitely recommend requesting a seat by the windows. It is a great place for people watching during the day and at night would offer a nice, although somewhat obstructed, view of Illuminations.

Nine_Dragons_Windows

Overall, the detail and theming of Nine Dragons exceeded my expectations. While the contemporary touches give it a more upscale feel it is still a calm and relaxing setting to enjoy your meal. If you are looking for a more quiet dining experience I would definitely recommend going for lunch rather than dinner, but it is an atmosphere that can be enjoyed by families with children and adult couples alike.

The Menu:
Nine Dragons features separate menus for lunch and dinner, but both are very similar with just a couple of dishes that are exclusive to dinner. The appetizers are divided between hot and cold. The Cold Appetizers include Cucumber Salad ($5.98), Fragrant Chicken ($5.98) served with a fragrant green onion dipping sauce, and Spicy Beef ($8.68) tossed with a cilantro-chili dressing. For those who cannot decide on just one, there is the Appetizer Trio ($11.98) that features all three.

Hot Appetizers feature several traditional Chinese favorites in addition to some less conventional items. For the traditional there are Pot Stickers ($6.98), which are sautéed pork and vegetable dumplings, as well as Shrimp and Chicken Egg Rolls ($7.98). For someone looking for something a little different there is the Walnut Shrimp Toast ($7.98), which is actually classic Chinese snack. Other appetizers include Shrimp and Taro Lollipops ($9.98) that present a playful take on a traditional dim sum favorite and General Tso's Chicken Dumplings ($10.98) which provides an innovative twist on a classic, featuring steamed dumplings drizzles with a tangy Chinese Red Sauce.

While many of the entrée selections are the same for lunch and dinner, the prices are different. For the following entrée, the first price listed is lunch and the second is dinner. Among the entrees featured are Honey Sesame Chicken ($16.98, $18.98), Sweet and Sour Pork ($15.68, $16.98) served with lightly spiced spinach noodles, Peppery Shrimp with Spinach Noodles ($17.98, $21.98), Kung Pao Chicken ($15.98, $17.98) accompanied by peanuts and dried chili peppers, Canton Pepper Beef ($15.98, $18.98) stir-fried with onions, green, and red peppers in a savory broth, Fragrant Five-Spiced Fish ($21.98), Nine Dragons Fried Rice ($15.98) stir-fried with shrimp, chicken, ham, eggs, vegetables and touch of chili spice, and Chinese Chicken Salad ($12.98) featuring savory sliced chicken, mixed greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, golden raisins and walnuts with your choice of sweet ginger or peanut-coconut dressing.

Among those entrees available just for dinner are Spit Roasted Beijing Chicken ($18.98) served with a side of smooth mashed taro, Shrimp and Steak ($26.98) featuring grilled shrimp and steak served with bok choy and drizzled with sweet lightly spiced Chinese red sauce, and the Zha Jiang Noodles Sampler ($19.98) which allows you to mix and match your noodles with fresh vegetables and two classic sauces: sweet and savory minced pork and spicy diced chicken.

The dessert choices are somewhat limited and include Coconut Rice Pudding ($7.98) topped with cinnamon and wonton crisps, Chinese Ginger Cake ($6.68), and two choices of ice cream, either Strawberry-Red Bean or Caramel-Ginger ($3.98).

For an appetizer I was very tempted to try the Pot Stickers, but I have had these at so many other Chinese restaurants and wanted to try something a little different and instead opted for the Walnut Shrimp Toast. When it was served to me it did not look at all like I was expecting. I had thought it would be similar in appearance to a bruschetta, with thin slices of toasted bread topped with shrimp and walnuts. Instead the bread was cut much thicker, although it was still nice and crusty.

Walnut_Shrimp_Toast

What was very surprising was that I did not immediately notice any shrimp. However, I quickly found that the entire top of the toast was coated with a finely-chopped layer of shrimp which at first glance had actually looked like cheese. While it may not be the most visually impressive appetizer it was very tasty. I really liked the combination of the shrimp and walnuts, which presented a nice contrast in flavor and texture and yet went together really well. The toast came served along with sweet and sour sauce for dipping which provided even extra flavor.

For my entrée I chose the Sweet and Sour Pork. I really liked the presentation of the dish, simple yet effective. The bold reddish-orange color of the pork really popped on the white plate. The pork was lightly battered, cut into small, bite-sized pieces, and was very tender. Looks can be a little deceiving. Because of the small pieces of pork and the large size of the plate it first looked like the portion size was not very big, but when I actually started eating I was surprised to find there was much more food than first appeared. I found the sweet and sour sauce to be slightly more on the sweet side and had a fairly thick consistency, which I really enjoyed. Accompanying the pork were cubes of pineapple, which added a light and refreshing flavor to the dish the complimented the pork extremely well.

Sweet_and_Sour_Pork

Also served alongside the pork were what the menu called lightly-spiced spinach noodles. I think the lightly-spiced is a little of a misnomer because the noodles had a ton of flavor. If you are not a fan of garlic you would probably not care for these noodles because that was the predominant flavor along with a slight hint of crushed red pepper. These noodles had a definite kick to them and they presented a nice contrast to the sweeter-flavored pork.

Spinach_Noodles

Overall, it was a very good meal that offered something a little different from what I normally order at Chinese restaurants.

Service:
I think the service at Nine Dragons can best be described as courteous but quiet. My server was certainly attentive to all my needs and quickly responded whenever I needed anything, but she was also very reserved and almost shy. I think this can be attributed more to cultural differences than anything else. This is one of the things that I enjoy most about dining in World Showcase. It does not matter what country you are dining in, the servers there will be natives of those countries. This makes them more than just waiters and waitresses, but rather cultural representatives who, along with the atmosphere and the cuisine, help with the overall sense of immersion into that particular country. At other restaurants around World Showcase I have had great conversations with my servers about their homes and have been able to gain a little more insight into their various cultures. I was not able to have that same type of interaction at Nine Dragons, although I did find that my server's English was very good and easy to understand (which is not always the case when dining in World Showcase).

Dining on a Budget:
When it comes of dining at Nine Dragons, I would definitely recommend going there for lunch rather than dinner. Not only is the restaurant less crowded, but the menu is largely the same and the prices a little less expensive. Some dishes, like the Fragrant Five-Spiced Fish for $21.98 and the Nine Dragons Fried Rice for $15.98, are the same price for both lunch and dinner. However, others like the Honey Sesame Chicken, $16.98 for lunch and $18.98 for dinner, are a little less expensive.

Another good value, for both lunch and dinner, is the Treasures of the Dragon prix fixe menu. The lunch option is $29.68 and includes an option of Hot and Sour Soup or Chicken Consomme for an appetizer, Fragrant Five-Spiced Fish, General Tso's Chicken, or Beef Sichuan for an entrée, and Chinese Ginger Cake, Strawberry-Red Bean Ice Cream, or Caramel Ginger Ice Cream for dessert. The dinner option is $33.68 and includes a Chinese Dim Sum appetizer featuring pot stickers and vegetable spring rolls, an entrée option of either General Tso's Chicken, Fish Sichuan, or the Happy Family Duet, which is comprised of stir-fried slices of beef and chicken with water chestnuts and vegetables alongside spicy and tangy shrimp, and either Chinese Ginger Cake, Strawberry-Red Bean Ice Cream, or Caramel Ginger Ice Cream for dessert. These prix fixe menus are a good way of sampling a greater variety of the countries cuisine. While you do not save a ton of money, it usually works out as though you are getting the dessert for free as oppose to ordering each of the items separately off the menu.

Nine Dragons is on the Disney Dining Plan and is one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. The restaurant does participate in Tables in Wonderland with members receiving its 20% discount. Annual Passholders can also save 10% on food and non-alcoholic beverages Monday through Friday during lunch hours. Disney Vacation Club members receive the same 10% discount for both lunch and dinner.

The Overall Experience:
Nine Dragons definitely exceeded my expectations. It is more than just your typical Chinese restaurant that you might find in your home town and get take-out or delivery from. Everything from the atmosphere's fine details and intricate craftsmanship to the cuisine and even the service all helped to immerse you into Chinese culture. While the menu did feature many traditional Chinese dishes that are common on the menus of many other restaurants, I was also pleased to see that they had some less-conventional items as well.

All that being said, there are so many restaurants in World Showcase that there are quite a few that I would choose to dine at before going back to Nine Dragons again. I am not saying that my meal here was bad. In fact, it was quite the contrary. It just does not have the same level of uniqueness that makes some of the other World Showcase restaurants so special and popular. If I am making the trip to Epcot, I have several other restaurants that I like a lot more than Nine Dragons. I am certainly glad that I tried the restaurant because it was something new and different for me, but it will probably be some time before I dine there again. If you have never tried Nine Dragons before, it is certainly a possible alternative if you are not able to obtain reservations at some of the other World Showcase restaurants.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Nine Dragons and post your own too!

September 30, 2012

Disney Fun – With a Group

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Have you ever been a part of "group activities" at Disney? We have, and it can be loads of fun! We have met some wonderful people and made some lasting friendships as a result of our involvement in group fun at Disney.

Back in 2004 Carol was planning our December trip to Walt Disney World. She had recently gotten involved with Tagrel.com, an internet fan community, and in one of the threads she had read about something called "MouseFest". It was a group of different internet communities who gathered at Walt Disney World for the first time in early December 2003. MouseFest #2 would be taking place while we were there. She wanted to check it out. A few folks she had "met" online were going to be there and they had some activities or "meets" planned.

We had some reservations - What if they're all geeks and weirdo's? So we approached the whole event with caution. We were extremely wary as we sidled toward the group who had assembled for our first meet . . . we were trying to sneak up without being seen. If they were really weird we could just walk away!

This first encounter was a group ride on Kilimanjaro Safari. The event was hosted by some people we had never met before, Deb Wills and her AllEars.net team. What do you know, these people were normal . . . well, maybe not normal . . . but they were just like us.

Meeting at Kilimanjaro Safaris

Deb was there to greet us and we were extremely excited when she handed us each an AllEars button! Soon we were off; about 200 of us joined the line and our group filled truck after truck to ride through Africa. Most of the folks knew the recorded script by heart and before long we were all reciting the radio banter along with Warden Wilson Matua. Our driver attempted to stick with his normal story but eventually he abandoned the script and roared with laughter as we took over the narration. It was a great ride . . . I'm sure we must have seen some animals, but that seemed secondary compared to all the other fun we were having.

Riding Kilimanjaro Safaris

As soon as we left Kilimanjaro we walked down the road to nearby Harambe Fort to begin a Hidden Mickey search. Dr. Steven Barrett, the famous Hidden Mickey hunter, was there handing out clue sheets and explaining the ground rules. There were subtle clues directing us to some not-so-obvious Hidden Mickeys. Soon we had teamed up with a couple of Tagrel.com "friends" we were meeting for the first time and off we went. What a blast we had, searching for elusive images of the mouse and snapping pictures of them. Back at Harambe Fort Steve told us a bit about the origin and history of Hidden Mickeys and then he drew for some door prizes. Wow! I won one of Steve's Hidden Mickey books and he autographed it for me.

Steve Barrett the king of Hidden-Mickeys

It was a great day! We met two well known personalities in the Disney fan universe, Deb Wills and Steve Barrett. We laughed a lot, we learned a little bit and we made some new friends and acquaintances. We were hooked! We never missed MouseFest after that! Each year it got bigger and better.

Alas, like many good things it ended too soon. The last MouseFest was held in December 2008. But don't despair . . . while MouseFest is a thing of the past, there are still plenty of groups who get together for Disney fun!

Tagrel.com Disney Fan community.jpg

Tagrel.com has regular gatherings at Walt Disney World we refer to as "Tag-O-Mania" and when we occasionally get together at Disneyland it's "Tag-A-Venture". The next Tag-A-Venture will be held in mid October 2012 and the next Tag-O-Mania will likely be in early December 2013.

Tagrel friends at Expedition Everest

What do we do? Plenty!
Do we have fun? YES!

Toy Soldiers at Toy Story Mania

Picture us heading to It's a Small World. Yes, I know, many of you don't like it. The music just won't quit . . . it's in your head all day. But when you ride with 50 or 60 friends it creates some new memories. It's kind of special to remember sailing through this old attraction when the two boats in front of yours, and the two boats behind it, are filled with your friends and everyone in all 5 boats is loudly singing along with that tiresome old tune!

Once, at the Tower of Terror we filled an entire elevator car with Tag-O-Maniacs. At the end of the ride when the elevator car rotated and the exit door slid open we all screamed at the top of our lungs. It was quite a surprise for the doorman who was poking his head in the door ready to startle us!

Tower of Terror

Group meals are fun too. When the server asks, "Where are you folks from?" it's nice to be able to say, "I'm from Canada, he's from Boston, those two are from Albuquerque, she's from Seattle, the old guy is from Scranton and the lady in the corner - I have no idea where she lives."

The most frenzied activity I've ever seen at Walt Disney World was a Tag-O-Mania event called "Capture the Magic". We formed teams of about six people and took off on a photo-scavenger hunt. Each team received a list of about 40 riddles which had to be solved to find cryptic clues. The clues sent you to places all around the Magic Kingdom where the team had to be photographed in some crazy activity.

We had to find strangers, two generations in the family, to "Walk like an Egyptian" with us on Main Street USA.

Walk like an Egyptian

We had to arrange the team in Liberty Square with the team's bodies (along with two total strangers) spelling out the word Mickey.

Spelling out M-I-C-K-E-Y

We had to find a cast member and have them join us as we performed a can-can dance in front of Country Bear Jamboree.

Can Can Dance

It was impossible to complete all of the tasks in the allotted 90 minutes but we sure had a blast trying!

One of the nice things about the Tagrel meets, and all the other groups too, is that you can pick and choose what you want to participate in. There is a published list of events and you select which ones to get involved in. There is no pressure and no one takes attendance! You can still have plenty of time to your self!

But of course Tagrel.com is not your only option if you're looking for group activities. There are plenty of other groups.

AllEars.net has regular meets in the parks throughout the year. You can find details here. There is a unique AllEars Trading Card created for each meet and these cards have become a very popular item with Disneyana collectors!

Last year we took part in "A December to Remember", the 15th Anniversary celebration for AllEars.net. It was magical - Mouse Fan Travel worked with Walt Disney World officials to dazzle us with some "extra magic"! As always they did a magnificent job. We enjoyed all of the events but one of the highlites for us was a session with noted Disney artist Don "Ducky" Williams.

Ducky Williams

Ducky has an amazing life story and he tells it very extremely well, all while drawing Disney characters on his easel.

Ducky Williams

Ducky Williams

There was some over-the-top pixie dust one night. Mouse Fan Travel arranged a private viewing of The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. After Hollywood Studios closed for the evening a group of about 150 of us were escorted back to enjoy the lights with no crowd! WOW! What a treat!

Osborne Lights

Osborne Lights

There are many other Disney fan communities who meet at the parks as well. Here are just a few of them:

Reunion, co-hosted by WDW Today & Mouse Fan Travel, takes place each year in early December. Details are here.

Lou Mongello of WDW Radio hosts a regular "Meet of the Month". Details are here.

RADP, the grand-daddy of all the internet groups, also meets each year in December. Details are here.

So if you are an avid Disney fan but you have not participated in any of the many group activities, what's holding you back? It's time you added this new dimension to your Disney experience! Find an Internet Fan Community that appeals to you and sign up for some fun. You'll be surprised how many new friends you will make!

If you have already taken part in some of the groups I've mentioned then you know how much fun it is when you get together with folks who share your addiction to Disney!

September 9, 2012

I Find It Surprising . . .

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I find it surprising that someone could visit Walt Disney World 41 times and not ride the Tea Cups or explore Tom Sawyer Island. Very surprising!

I mentioned in a previous blog that my wife Carol and I "hang out" at Tagrel.com It's our favourite Disney Fan community. A recent discussion thread on the Tagrel forums asked members to complete the question "Am I the only one who's never . . . "

My last two blog entries focused on all the things you can do at Walt Disney World outside the theme parks and I was simply boggled when I read some of the responses to the Tagrel question. There is a huge variety of things to do outside the parks but it really surprises me what some veteran Disney fans have skipped inside the parks! Most of us in the Tagrel community are not what you would call casual Disney fans. We are real diehard fans - we are the folks who put the merely fanatical fans to shame. That's why I find it so hard to imagine!

Consider Mark, who started the thread on Tagrel.com. He has made 19 visits to WDW and he's a Disney Vacation Club owner. Mark has never been to Tom Sawyer Island, never been to Rafiki's Planet Watch, never taken a trail ride at Fort Wilderness and never visited Downtown Disney's West Side.

Tom Sawyer Island - Fort Langhorn

Rafiki's Conservation Station

Fort Wilderness Trail Ride

Susan is also a DVC owner and has enjoyed a whopping 41 Walt Disney World vacations. As I mentioned earlier, Susan has never ridden the Tea Cups or crossed over to Tom Sawyer's Island. She has never played mini golf, never taken a trail ride at Fort Wilderness, never eaten in Cinderella Castle, never been to Raglan Road or the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theatre.

Fantasyland Tea Cups Ride

Tom Sawyer Island Floating Bridge

Raglan Road

Sci-Fi Dine-In Theatre

Naturally there are plenty of folks who have never done the thrill rides like The Tower of Terror, Mission Space or any of the roller coasters. That's understandable; some people don't tolerate the motion very well.

Plenty of folks have never had a Turkey Leg; I can understand that. I've tried one but they're not one of my favourite things.

But some of the answers remain astounding. There are avid Disney fans and frequent park visitors who have never had a Mickey Bar . . . yes; you read that correctly . . . they've NEVER HAD A MICKEY BAR!

Mickey Bar

A friend from New Jersey insists that the Mickey Bar is the fifth basic food group!

Mickey Bar the Fifth Food Group

Several others have never seen Fantasmic . . .

Fantasmic

. . . never had a Dole Whip. (I prefer the Pineapple Float)

Dole Whip

Pineapple Float

Others have never seen Flights of Wonder. It's an attraction we seldom miss; Carol and I consider it one of our "must-do's". How can anyone pass it by?

Flights of Wonder

Of course, Carol and I are really no different; there are still plenty of things we have not done. We have covered the parks quite thoroughly but Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is a different story. We have taken our motor home to "The Fort" eleven times and most times we stay for two weeks. In all those weeks at our favourite campground we have never seen a movie at Chip 'n Dale's Campfire Sing-A-Long and we've never gone to Mickey's Backyard BBQ.

Chip and Dale Sign

BBQ Pavilion Sign

There are plenty of restaurants we have yet to enjoy and many attractions, both inside and outside the parks, which we haven't seen in a long, long time. Should we sit down, analyze the parks, make a list of things we have not done and then devise a plan so we can mark them all off the list? Or would that take the spontaneity and some of the fun out of our vacations?

Yeah, I think we'll stick with our spontaneous approach!

I guess the main thing that thread on Tagrel.com pointed out to me was the diversity of interests and tastes among Disney fans. We are all very unique individuals and different things appeal to each of us. This is a good thing! It adds variety and colour to our lives.

We are truly fortunate that Walt Disney World offers such a wide array of attractions to choose from; there will always be enough variety there to engage the child in all of us, despite our different tastes!

So, how about you? The question is, "Am I the only one who's never . . . ?"

How would you complete the question?

August 12, 2012

Think Outside The Parks – Part 2

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I ended Part 1 of this blog by saying that Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is a hidden gem. If you have not visited the campground you don't know what you're missing.

Many people think "I'm not a camper so Fort Wilderness has nothing to offer me or my family." How wrong they are! There are plenty of families who are not campers but just love to vacation in Fort Wilderness Cabins. You can read all about those luxurious cabins here and there are pictures of the cabins here.

But there is an almost endless list of activities to enjoy at Fort Wilderness even if you're not staying in a cabin or campsite there!

Take a trip over to "The Fort" and have a look. You can get to the campground on a Disney bus or you can board a boat at Magic Kingdom, the Contemporary Resort or Wilderness Lodge.

Fort Wilderness Sign

What can you do there? It's a long list. A very long list!

How about an Archery Lesson? Go to the Bike Barn, near the Meadows Trading Post and enjoy a lesson with an experienced archery coach. The 90-minute experience costs $25 (plus tax) per person, includes equipment and instruction and can be booked up to 90 days in advance.

Archery bows

Archery target

Mount a horse and take a 45 minute Trail Ride - These guided horseback rides are offered 5 times daily (8:30, 10, 11:30 a.m., 1, and 2:30 p.m.) at the Tri-Circle D Livery at Fort Wilderness. The cost is $46 per person.

Trail Ride

Trail Ride

Rent a bike at The Bike Barn and explore Fort Wilderness ($9 plus tax/hour, $18 plus tax/day). Tour around the loops of campsites or follow a nice paved trail to Wilderness Lodge. A side trail skirts along the shore of Bay Lake for part of the ride. Keep your eyes open - there are plenty of deer and waterfowl to see along the route.

Bike Barn

Bike riders

The campground is laced with rivers and canals. Rent a canoe, kayak or paddle boat at the Bike Barn ($6.50 plus tax/1/2 hour; $11 plus tax/hour) and get back to nature.

Canal

Canoe

If you enjoy tennis, there are two lighted tennis courts beside the Meadows Swimming Pool and complimentary tennis equipment is available for resort guests at the Bike Barn.

Join Chip & Dale for a campfire, sing-a-long and a movie.

Chip and Dale Sign

The campfire program is free and is open to all WDW resort guests. It generally begins around 7 p.m. during the fall/winter season and 8 p.m. after the time changes in April through the summer. It is held near the Meadow Trading Post in the campfire area. The program begins with a sing-a-long led by a Disney Cast Member and then a marshmallow-roast around two campfire rings.

Chip and Dale Singalong

Chip and Dale Campfire

You can bring your own marshmallows or buy them at the Chuck Wagon. They even sell kits so you can make s'mores! Chip & Dale make an appearance to visit with guests and sign autographs. The sing-a-long lasts about 40 minutes. Then a Disney animated features or two is shown on a large outdoor screen. Seating is available in bleachers or on benches.

Visit Tri-Circle-D Ranch at The Settlement, near the dock and marina. All those horses you see working at the Magic Kingdom are stabled at Tri-Circle-D Ranch and you can visit them in their home.

Tri Circle D Ranch

Tri Circle D Ranch.jpg

You may see a blacksmith shoeing Cinderella's Ponies or the horses seen on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. There is a nice visual tribute to horses from Disney movies and an amazing steam calliope is on display. Children 2 to 8 years old, weighing no more than 80 pounds, can ride a pony - Cost $5.

Pony ride

Go fishing, catch and release fishing is permitted in canals and lakes. Do not fish from the bridges; that's a no-no. Forgot your fishing tackle? No problem, you can rent tackle and purchase bait at the Bike Barn.

Fishing

If you prefer fishing on the lake or just want to tour Bay Lake head to the Fort Wilderness Marina (open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily). You can book a chartered largemouth bass fishing excursion on Bay Lake, which includes a professional guide, refreshments (soft drinks, coffee, hot chocolate & water), fishing gear and a dozen shiners. For more details look here. If you want to tour Bay Lake you can rent a 21' Suntracker Pontoon Boat ($34.74/half hr) or try one of the Mercury Water Mice ($21.59/half hour; $27.23/45 minutes; $30.05/hour).

Pontoon boats

Sea Raycers

The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue is the most popular and longest-running dinner show at Walt Disney World. It has been running for almost 40 years! The show is held at 4:00, 6:15 and 8:30 p.m. nightly at Pioneer Hall.

Pioneer Hall

Reservations are a must and can be made up to 180 days in advance. Your dinner will include fresh baked bread, tossed green salad with vinaigrette dressing, country fried chicken, smoked BBQ pork ribs, mashed potatoes, baked beans, strawberry shortcake, coffee, soft drinks, hot and iced tea, unlimited beer and wine. While you enjoy your all you can eat dinner, you are entertained by good old fashion country & western singers, dancers and comedians. Be prepared for slapstick comedy, corny jokes and lots of singing and dancing - it's a rootin' tootin' good time! There are several seating and pricing options.

Hoop Dee Doo Revue

There's another dinner show too! Mickey's Backyard BBQ Dinner Show is an all-you-can-eat Disney Character dance party with Mickey, Minnie and friends. This kid-friendly family dinner is held from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. each Thursday and Saturday in the middle of a covered, open-air Pavilion at Fort Wilderness directly behind Pioneer Hall.

Backyard BBQ Pavilion

The buffet includes smoked BBQ chicken, BBQ pork ribs, hot dogs, hamburgers, cowboy beans, macaroni and cheese and corn on the cob along with salads, breads and desserts. There is live music from a country-western band, line dancing, rope tricks and plenty of fun for kids of all ages. Reservations are required.

Backyard BBQ Pavilion

 Backyard BBQ Roping

Try your hand at horseshoes, shuffleboard, tetherball, basketball and beach volleyball near the Meadows Trading Post. Let your children climb, slide and play at outdoor activity areas located at Pioneer Hall, the Meadows Recreation area, Creekside Meadow and the Marina/Beach area.

Take the Wilderness Back Trail Adventure Segway Tour. You can join a group of up to 10 people and take a Segway X2 Personal Transporter to view the scenery of Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground and Wilderness Lodge. The two-hour tour costs $85.00 and some discounts may be available. Details are here.

Segway X2 Personal Transporter

If you are at Walt Disney World in October or December you are in for a treat. Set aside an evening and head to Fort Wilderness. Take a walking tour, rent a golf cart or book one of the special seasonal wagon or carriage rides. Whatever way you choose to travel you will be amazed. Many of the campers decorate their campsites for Halloween and Christmas and most of the displays are lavish! It's an easy walk from the marina to the camping loops where you will see the décor. Words don't really describe it but these few pictures and a video will.

Halloween Sites 1

Halloween Sites 2

Halloween Sites 3

Christmas Sites 1

Christmas Sites 2

Christmas Sites 3

Christmas Sites 4

Here's a 5 minute video showing the amazing display a camper created for his campsite! Click on the arrow and watch it to the end!

I'll wrap up this blog with suggestions for two wonderful ways to end your day at Walt Disney World.

1. Take a horse-drawn wagon ride. Board an old-fashioned, horse-drawn wagon in front of Pioneer Hall for a 45-minute scenic tour around Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Wagons hold up to 35 guests and rides depart at 7:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. nightly ($8.00 Adult; $5.00 Child (ages 3-9) Children under 3 are complimentary). For a more romantic experience with your "special someone" try a relaxing 25-minute horse-drawn carriage ride through Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. The small carriages hold 2 adults and 1 small child while larger carriages hold 4 adults or 2 adults and 3 small children. The first ride leaves at 6 p.m. and the last ride departs 9:30 p.m. The 25-minute ride costs $45. See more details here.

Carriage Ride

2. Watch Wishes from the beach. Stop by Crockett's Tavern and pick up your preferred adult beverage then head to the beach area beside the marina dock. Find a table and chairs on the deck or stretch out on the lounge chairs along the beach. Soon you will hear Jiminy Cricket narrate the show; the sound track to Wishes is piped in for your enjoyment. You won't see the low fireworks on Cinderella Castle but the higher altitude effect are reflected off Bay Lake and it's an awesome display. Don't rush off, at 9:45 the Electric Water Pageant sails past with the nightly show. WOW!

Electric Water Pageant

No matter what Disney resort you are calling home during your vacation you must visit Fort Wilderness. It is so much more than a campground . . . and you have to see it to believe it!

Walt Disney closed his remarks at the opening of Disneyland by saying, "Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world." The promise Walt made over 57 years ago has certainly come true and I hope the same imaginative growth continues at Disney resorts around the world. This commitment to continuous growth and change in the parks ensures that there will always be new and exciting things to do "outside the parks" as well.

So that's a snapshot, a mere sampling, of some of the things you can do at Walt Disney World when you "think outside the parks". As I said before, there are many more activities I haven't mentioned. I'm not sure Carol and I will ever be able to get them all done, but we will sure have fun trying!

What "outside the park" things do you enjoy most?



P.S. - I'm always looking for new subjects to blog about. Is there anything you would like to see me cover in a future blog?

August 5, 2012

Think Outside The Parks – Part 1

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There are plenty of things to do at Walt Disney World without going to a theme park!

A couple of years ago, while we were heading home from Florida's Gulf Coast in our motor home, we stopped for a four-day stay at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Our Annual Passes had expired; we each had a One-Day Base Pass. We decided that we would not renew our AP's; we would use the One-Day Base tickets to spend a day at EPCOT and enjoy the Flower & Garden Festival. The rest of the time was "park-free" and we kept very busy. In fact we were so busy with non-park activities that we added two extra days to our vacation!

It is truly amazing the wide variety of things you can do at Walt Disney World outside the parks. Carol and I are just like most Disney guests, we often get so focussed on the theme parks that we miss out on many other exciting opportunities for fun. Some of them are even free!

Let's take a few minutes to look at what you can do when you "Think outside the parks"

Let's start with Downtown Disney. This is where Carol likes to shop, shop, shop. But of course there's plenty to do without shopping. Take a free boat ride along the Sassagoula River to the Port Orleans resorts, Old Key West or Saratoga Springs. You pass some breathtaking scenery along the way. Check out all the giant Lego figures outside the Lego Store.

Lego Figures

Watch a movie at the AMC Theatre; there are 24 screens! How about bowling? Splitsville will be opening at Downtown Disney in the fall of 2012. There are always children's entertainers, shows, choirs and bands performing at the Waterside Stage near the World of Disney Store. Sit for a while at the open air amphitheatre and enjoy the show while you relax and wait for those die-hard shoppers!

Downtown Disney Waterside Stage

Disney Quest offers five floors of video games and virtual reality fun. Don't forget Cirque du Soleil . . . Carol and I have seen close to a dozen different Cirque shows and La Nouba is at the top of our list of favourites!

After you've had your fun at Downtown Disney you might want to play a round or two of mini-golf. There are two great courses, Fantasia Gardens located near the Swan Resort's Convention Centre on EPCOT Resorts Boulevard and Winter Summerland near the entrance to Blizzard Beach. Fantasia Gardens features pirouetting gators, tutu-clad hippos and dancing water fountains. Putt your way through five musical sequences from Fantasia.

Fantasia Hole

Fantasia Hole

Winter Summerland is themed as Santa's permanent off-season retreat. The elf-sized course is divided into two 18-hole experiences. One course carries the snow-clad Florida look reminiscent of Blizzard Beach, and the other has a more tropical holiday theme, with Christmas ornaments hanging from palm trees.

WinterSummerland Entrance

WinterSummerland Hole

Whichever course you choose you are sure to have a good time!

If you're a real golfer and you'd prefer a full-sized golf experience you are in luck! Walt Disney World is home to four beautiful 18-hole golf courses; the Palm, Magnolia, Osprey Ridge and Lake Buena Vista courses as well as a 9-hole course, Oak Trail. Didn't bring your clubs? Not to worry, they have plenty of rentals!

Magnolia course

Osprey Ridge course

If your interests lean more toward water sports you won't be disappointed. There are two great water parks, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Blizzard Beach is themed as a ski resort which has had a "meltdown". Slalom courses, bobsled and toboggan runs are now downhill waterslides. The creek of melted snow that formed at the base of the mountain is a relaxing "lazy river" tube ride. The chairlift now carries swimmers instead of skiers and the former ski jump is the tallest and fastest water slide in the world.

Blizzard Beach

Blizzard Beach Lazy River

Blizzard Beach Pool

Blizzard Beach Toboggan Racers

The second water park, Typhoon Lagoon, is a lush tropical paradise. There are water slides galore, a lazy river and the wave pool is truly awesome. You can take a surfing lesson in the wave pool! Looking for more adventure? Try swimming with the sharks or take a plunge down Crushin' Gusher - a wild and crazy water roller coaster!

Typhoon Lagoon Wave Pool

Typhoon Lagoon Wave Pool

Typhoon Lagoon Surfing

Would you like to take a boat ride on your own? Many Disney resorts have marinas where you can rent a Sea Raycer personal watercraft or rent a pontoon boat for a family outing. The Disney property has plenty of lakes and rivers to explore! And fishing is allowed, catch and release only!

Sea Raycer

Pontoon Boat

If you like to live on the edge, how about Para-sailing? Head to the Contemporary Resort. At the marina you'll find Sammy Duvall's Watersports Centre where you can book your aerial adventure!

Parasailing

Attention NASCAR Fans: Next to the Ticket & Transportation Centre is Walt Disney World Speedway, home of The Richard Petty Driving Experience. Here's your chance to drive or ride in cars that were used in past Indianapolis 500 events. Or you can hop behind the wheel of a supercar by Ferrari, Lamborghini, Audi, or Porsche and take a few laps. What are you thrill-seekers waiting for?

Richard Petty Track Ferrari

Take advantage of Disney's terrific transportation system to do a bit of resort hopping. All the resorts feature amazing themeing and some wonderful pools, most with afternoon activities for children. Enjoy a movie on the beach at the Polynesian Resort some evening, then watch Wishes from the beach. So romantic!

At Port Orleans Riverside visit the River Roost Lounge where Yee Haw Bob performs Wednesday through Saturday from 8:30 p.m. to midnight. This free show is a foot-stompin' sing-along. You and your children will love it.

Port Orleans Riverside Yee Haw Bob

Just down the road, at Port Orleans French Quarter, Elliot Dyson performs Wednesday to Saturday, 8:30 p.m. to midnight at Scat Cat's Club. Elliot plays a mean saxophone, a bluesy guitar and sometimes adds some steel drums to the mix. You'll be singing along at Scat Cat's too!

Port Orleans French Quarter Elliot Dyson

While you're at Port Orleans take a horse-drawn carriage ride along the beautiful Sassagoula River. It's a very romantic way to wrap up a day at Disney with the special person in your life!

See the Electric Water Pageant as it passes by the Magic Kingdom area resorts. This amazing (and free) show has been running every night since October 26, 1971. It will pass by the resorts the same time every evening. Polynesian Resort - 9 p.m., Grand Floridian - 9:15 p.m., Wilderness Lodge - 9:35 p.m., Fort Wilderness - 9:45 p.m., Contemporary Resort - 10:05 p.m., Magic Kingdom - 10:20 p.m. (only when the park is open past 10:00 p.m.)

Electric Water Pageant

If you are at the Polynesian Resort at 6:00 p.m. watch the Torch Lighting Ceremony just outside the main lobby door. The short show features an authentic Polynesian dancer who does a traditional fire-knife dance, and lights the torches leading into the Great Ceremonial House. Another Polynesian entertainer completes the scene with chants and authentic drumming. The ceremony is presented each evening, Tuesday through Saturday, at 6 p.m.

Polynesian Torch Lighting

The Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show at the Polynesian Resort is a real treat. The cast of Polynesian singers and dancers will capture your attention as they tell the story of their culture with humour, song and dance. The grand finale, the fire dance, will leave you speechless.

Spirit of Aloha

Enjoy a walking tour of Wilderness Lodge with a Ranger. The "Wonders of the Lodge" tour is offered at 9 a.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The tour focuses on the resort's architecture and how the Lodge was built. The ranger takes you outside, talks about landscaping, and then goes back inside and talks about the artwork, the metal work, the Totem Poles and the paintings.

Wilderness Lodge Lobby

Check out Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Animal Kingdom Lodge Lobby

After you have admired the amazing African artefacts in the lobby walk out the doors opposite the main entrance and you will find the Arusha Rock Savannah. There are over 100 animals grazing on three different savannahs. You can see Ankole Cattle, Bongo, Blesbok, Eland, Grant's Zebra, Greater Kudu, Impala, Reticulated Giraffe, Thomson's Gazelle, Waterbuck, Red River Hogs, White-Bearded Wildebeest, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Blue Crane, East African Crowned Crane, Greater Flamingo, Marabou Stork, Ostrich, Pink-Backed Pelican, and Ruppel's Griffon Vulture.

Arusha Rock

If you visit the Arusha Rock Savannah after dark you might enjoy a special treat. The African guides on duty often have night-vision glasses which you can use to spot the animals in the dark.

Arusha Savannah

Just before you return to the lobby you will see a huge fire-pit surrounded by wooden chairs. Guides light up the fire and tell African folk tales here every night at Arusha Firepit.

Arusha Firepit

You can feed flamingos at the Flamingo Pond, play wildlife games in the Sunset Lounge, decorate cookies at Boma . . . there are almost limitless things to do at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Ask at the front desk for a list of activities and times.

At the EPCOT Resort Area you can tour around Disney's Boardwalk and check out the many restaurants and shops. Stop into Beaches and Cream - even if you don't have the appetite for a Kitchen Sink Sundae you can still enjoy watching someone else eat one!

Kitchen Sink Sundae

Rent a surrey bike and tour the area.

Boardwalk surrey bikes

Watch street performers who appear throughout the day. Tour the adjacent Yacht Club, Beach Club and Swan & Dolphin Resorts. Check out the Stormalong Bay Swimming Pool shared by the Yacht & Beach Clubs. Wow!

Are you convinced yet? Walt Disney World offers just so many things to do without going to a theme park. The things I have mentioned so far just scratch the surface. There are so many more activities . . .

I have visited Walt Disney World more than thirty times and there are plenty of things I haven't gotten to yet! It's a challenge and I'm working at it!

I know, I know, you're probably thinking . . . "But Gary, you haven't mentioned Fort Wilderness!" Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is a hidden gem. If you have not visited the campground you don't know what you're missing. As a matter of fact there is so much to do at the campground that it will be a chapter of its own.

I will cover "The Fort" in Part 2 of this blog. Stay tuned!



P.S. - I'm always looking for new subjects to blog about. Is there anything you would like to see me cover in a future blog?

July 22, 2012

These Are A Few Of My Favourite Disney Things

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What is your favourite park at Walt Disney World?

What are your "must-do" rides or activities?

What are the things you only do once in a while?

Main Gate

One of the greatest things about Walt Disney World is the diversity of experience you can enjoy there. With the four theme parks, two water parks, golf courses, hotels, campground, scores of restaurants and all the surrounding attractions there is virtually no limit to the things you can enjoy.

Many of our friends who, like Carol and I, are frequent visitors have established some favourite attractions and activities, things they "must-do" every time they visit Walt Disney World.

Here's my list of favourites. Let's start with my favourite park, the Magic Kingdom.

Magic Kingdom

Why does this park top my list? Well, it's the classic, the first Florida park. This is where I first took my children in 1977. It is chock-full of good memories and will probably always be my "special place"! I remember the huge grins on both my daughter Michelle and son Steve's faces as we rode Dumbo together all those years ago. They loved It's A Small World and Peter Pan's Flight.

Peter Pan

About two years ago my son Steve took his family and they stood in line for 90 minutes to see Peter Pan. His comment? "What a hokey ride . . . why did I stand in line an hour and a half for that?" It will never be hokey for me because I'll always remember Steve's reaction when we rode it together in 1977. Peter Pan is one that Carol and I ride every visit.

The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean are two more that we never miss.

Mansion

Pirates

These rides are not "hi-tech" like some of the newer attractions but they still transport me to another world or another time. As I ride I sing along with the 999 happy haunts and the scallywag pirates. "Yo-ho, Yo-ho, a pirates life for me!" As we pass through Adventureland we are always compelled to savour a cold treat. Carol heads to Sunshine Tree Terrace to pick up a Citrus Swirl while I scoot to Aloha Isle for a Pineapple Float. We meet in the middle somewhere and try to achieve simultaneous brain-freezes.

We take a spin with Buzz Lightyear almost every trip.

Buzz

This ride brings out the worst in us. We become ultra-competitive, each trying to outscore the other as we blast Emperor Zurg into the next galaxy! It's great fun!

We enjoy many of the other rides as well but we don't feel compelled to enjoy them every time we visit. Once in a while is good for most of them. Of course, Wishes, the fireworks spectacular, is a "must-do" as well. We try to position ourselves at the back of The Hub, near Casey's Corner to get the best view of the show with Cinderella Castle in the foreground. That leads me to the one other snack we always stop for . . . a Casey's hot dog. Yum!

Many will probably be surprised at my second place ranking. Disney's Animal Kingdom ranks second for me. Why? Well, it's all about the animals.

Tiger

Meercat

Both Carol and I love seeing the animals. We walk all the back trails around the Tree of Life to see and photograph things most visitors miss. Hint: If you walk these trails at noon you will often see cast members feeding the animals and the animals will be front and center for you. There are plenty of photo-ops around noon on the Tree of Life Trails.

Kilimanjaro Safaris is an irresistible draw for us. We sometimes ride it twice, once in early morning and then again just before the park closes. Hint: You can get better pictures from the back row of the truck, but be prepared for the bouncing! It's the bumpiest seat!

Lion at Coppies

Carol is not a fan of roller coasters; she does not like the upside-down experience, but for some reason she really enjoys Expedition Everest. I don't understand why, but I'm glad she does. We ride together once and that's enough for her. I sometimes go directly to the single-rider line and take another spin.

Expedition Everest

After coaxing for a while I finally convinced Carol that coasters are smoother and less stressful if you raise your arms and stop fighting against the rocking and shaking motion. Once she tried it she agreed with me and now she often rides with her arms in the air. The only problem is that she cannot stop giggling when her arms are up. So if you see a woman on Everest, arms in the air and giggling like crazy - that's Carol!

Flights of Wonder is another great show we always enjoy. It always surprises us how many people walk by and skip this awesome performance. The need for conservation is delivered in an entertaining and inspiring fashion. Carol has co-starred in the show four times.

Flights of Wonder

When they ask for volunteers in the owl segment she is always up and waving her hands. Another regular stop is at the gibbon habitat near Kali River Rapids; we love to watch them swinging around their island. If you ever hear them calling to each other you will never forget the experience!

Gibbons

If we have lunch at Animal Kingdom it is almost always egg rolls from the quick service counter at Yak & Yeti; try them - they're great!

Third for me is EPCOT. This park is all about education . . . but the learning at EPCOT is all bundled up in a package of fun so you really don't notice. Educators need to look into this to see how it's done . . . learning can be fun!

Our first "must-do" is the very first attraction, Spaceship Earth.

Spaceship Earth

History, communication and science in one easy lesson; we seldom miss it. Another regular is Soarin'.

Soarin

I like the hang-glider ride more than Carol does, but she humours me and rides along with me. It all evens out when I stifle my yawns as I wander through Germany's Der Teddybar shop with her.

We always look for Off Kilter, the celtic rock group who play beside the Canada pavilion, we both enjoy them.

Off-Kilter.jpg

When I hear the Jamitors or The British Revolution I stop to listen while Carol dashes off to shop. Our interests aren't always the same but there are so many things to do that we can both enjoy ourselves at all times.

Dining at EPCOT is great, there are so many good restaurants, but our favourite is Canada's Le Cellier. We seldom miss having dinner at Le Cellier.

Last, but certainly not least is Disney's Hollywood Studios. This is also a wonderful park full of many terrific attractions, rides, sights and sounds. I love the "Streetmosphere", the many street entertainers who put on such entertaining shows.

Streetmosphere

I can sit and watch them again and again, which works out well because Carol can shop again and again!

Studios is home to the newest ride at Walt Disney World, Toy Story Midway Mania. Similar to Buzz Lightyear it's a giant video game that places you in the middle of the action. We try to ride Toy Story several times each trip if we can.

Toy Story Potato Head

We don our 3D glasses and turn into shooting demons, each of us once again striving to totally annihilate our beloved spouse. "I am not your mother . . . break those plates!"

We both enjoy the Tower of Terror and after riding it Carol generally heads down Sunset Boulevard to explore the Villains in Vogue shop while I head to the single-rider line for a spin on Rock 'n Roller Coaster.

Another "must-do" at Studios is a trip to the Animation Courtyard and a visit with David Rippberger, the Disney Ink and Paint artist who works in the Animation Gift Shop. David creates the hand painted animation cels which Carol collects and we like to visit with him to keep abreast of what's coming up next.

Our final irresistible lure at Studios is a relatively new discovery for us. Italian sausage in a bun at Min & Bill's Dockside Diner. We shared our first sausage in a bun about a year ago . . . as soon we bit into it we agreed we would never share one again. They are just too good to share! Don't miss this delicious lunch treat.

Of course no vacation would be complete without a trip to Downtown Disney. I always take my book along and find a spot to sit while Carol shops.

Days of Christmas Store

I read and people-watch while she scours through the Art of Disney Shop, the Disney Days of Christmas Shop and of course Disney's Pin Traders. Once she has worked up a good appetite she joins me and we head directly to the Earl of Sandwich.

Earl of Sandwich

This place has elevated the simple sandwich to an art form. Wow they're good! We often get back to "Earl's" several times during our stay!

There is so much to do outside the parks that I may make that the subject of another blog sometime. For now I will just mention two more of our favourite "non-park" things. First is dinner at 'Ohana in the Polynesian Resort . . . we never miss it. Great food, great location, great value! If you time it right and get a window table you can watch the Wishes fireworks extravaganza from your table. They pipe in the soundtrack too!

Second is a camping favourite, if we're staying in our RV at Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground we head to the beach at the campground a few evenings during our stay. There is a nice little patio beside the dock and we relax at a patio table as we watch Wishes. They pipe in the soundtrack here as well and as an added treat the fireworks are reflected on the waters of Bay Lake. It's a terrific place to watch the show with no crowds! Shortly after Wishes is over the Electrical Water Pageant sails past . . . what a great way to end a day!

So those are a few of my favourite things! There are so many things to do at Walt Disney World that it just never gets stale for us and I doubt that it ever will!

What are your favourite things?

June 26, 2012

Dining Under the Sea at the Coral Reef Restaurant

Andrew Rossi

For years the Coral Reef Restaurant was a mainstay whenever I visited Disney World; no vacation was complete without dining there. Whenever someone would ask what one of my favorite Disney restaurants was I would answer without hesitation saying the Coral Reef Restaurant. However, a few years ago I had a couple of less-than-stellar experiences there; the food quality and quantity, the menu choices, and even the service was not nearly as good as I had been accustomed. It was not just me. I discovered that other friends and family members had disappointing experiences at the Coral Reef Restaurant. As a result, I stayed away for quite some time but recently decided to give it another try. Much to my surprise and delight, I found that the Coral Reef Restaurant had vastly improved since my previous visits and was once again how I remembered it when it was among my favorite restaurants at Disney World.

Coral Reef Signage

Overview:
The Coral Reef Restaurant is truly a unique dining experience among all the restaurants at Disney World. While the food certainly contributes to the overall experience, it is the view into the aquarium that makes dining here so special.

Underwater1

The 5.7 million gallon aquarium is the second largest in North America (next to Atlanta). It is so big that Spaceship Earth could fit inside of it with enough room to spare to drive a Disney bus around the perimeter.

Underwater2

In fact, if you were to take an inch of water from the surface of the aquarium it would be enough to fill a standard size swimming pool.

Underwater3

The glass through which diners look through is eight inches thick and is made of special acrylic designed not to magnify or distort the view.

Underwater4

Inside, the aquarium contains nearly 3,500 individual specimens of marine life comprising 65 species, including everything from sea turtles to sting rays to sharks. Each table in the restaurant has a fish-finding guide to help diners identify the different types of marine life they see swimming by. This is the same underwater environment that be viewed on The Seas with Nemo and Friends attraction as well as from the observation deck of Seabase, providing a different angle from these other locations. This massive aquarium gives the restaurant a certain sense of grandeur and wonder; there is just something about the underwater world that fascinates us.

Atmosphere:
I would describe the Coral Reef Restaurant as being family-friendly upscale. The restaurant's subdued lighting and predominantly blue-green color palette give the restaurant a more elegant and intimate feel.

Coral Reef Dining Room1

At the same time, however, there are more whimsical touches (such as the light fixtures shaped like shells) and children of all ages are greatly entertained watching the various marine life swimming past throughout their meal.

Light Fixture

In this way, the Coral Reef Restaurant provides a great atmosphere for those couples looking for a romantic night out but at the same time provides a fun and entertaining environment that can be enjoyed by the entire family.

Coral Reef Dining Room2

The restaurant has a definite underwater theme, but with a more artistic and abstract flair. This is evident as soon as you enter the waiting area. It is this area that helps set the tone for the rest of the restaurant and begins to immerse you in the undersea environment. Here you will notice that walls move in a curved, wave-like pattern and the floor is covered with a beautiful and intricate seashell mosaic of blues and greens that is carried throughout the rest of the restaurant.

Coral Reef Entrance Hall

There is also a variety of artwork meant to resemble various fish and marine life.

Coral Reef Decor

The aquarium is certainly the main allure of the Coral Reef Restaurant and, despite the dining room's large size, every table offers a great view.

Coral Reef Dining Room3

The tables are all positioned to face the aquarium and arranged on multiple levels. As you move further away from the aquarium windows the tables become more elevated, meaning that tables even at the very back of the dining room have an unobstructed view.

Coral Reef Dining Room4

Coral Reef Dining Room5

In fact, it might actually be better to be positioned further away from the windows as that affords a larger perspective of the aquarium as opposed to being right up against the glass.

The constant visual of the fish swimming by makes for a very calm and serene environment for your meal. The restaurant's subdued lighting and predominantly blue-green color scheme make the dining room a cool escape from the hot Florida weather. The Coral Reef Restaurant is a perfect example of how Disney restaurants help to transport and completely immerse you in a new environment; dining here almost makes you forget you are in the middle of a theme park. This restaurant is a great way to take a break from the all the hustle and bustle and all the crowds. It provides an upscale and quiet, yet relaxing, environment to enjoy a meal while at the same time taking in the majestic beauty of the undersea world.

The Menu:
It should come as no surprise that the Coral Reef Restaurant features a menu that is predominantly comprised of seafood dishes. That being said, there are still a variety of choices that will appeal to seafood and non-seafood lovers alike. While the lunch and dinner menus contain some subtle differences, the appetizer offerings are the same for both.

The appetizers include several different seafood offerings such as Crispy-Fried Shrimp ($11.99) with Coral Reef slaw and a spiced rémoulade, Crab Cakes ($11.99) with a tropical fruit salsa, Fish Tostadas ($8.99) with cabbage, avocado-cilantro cream, and fresh lime, a Rustic Seafood Stew ($11.99) with clams, mussels, white fish, and toasted ciabatta, Creamy Lobster Soup ($7.99) made with tarragon and brandy, Mixed Field Greens ($6.99) with seasonal fruit, blue cheese, candied walnuts, and a balsamic vinaigrette, and, for those who might have difficulty picking just one appetizer, the Appetizer for Two ($16.99) that includes the crab cakes, crispy-fried shrimp, and the creamy lobster soup.

The entrée offerings, for both lunch and dinner, tend to lean more toward the gourmet side, with an emphasis on presentation, the combination of different flavors, and the use of lesser-known ingredients that help give their dishes a little more exotic flair. If you are in the mood for seafood, this is certainly the restaurant for you. Both the lunch and dinner menus offer a wide variety of fish prepared in many different ways including an Orange Ginger-Glazed Scottish Salmon ($22.99) with a vegetable stir-fry, Grilled Mahi Mahi ($24.99) with shrimp, hearts of palm, jasmine rice, cilantro, and a coconut-lime sauce, Seared Rainbow Trout ($19.99) with a warm salad of white beans, arugula, tomatoes, crispy bacon, aged balsamic vinegar, and brown butter, and the Coral Reef Lobster Orecchiette Pasta ($26.49) with white cheddar cheese and basil oil.

If you are in the mood for something other than seafood there is the Seared Chicken Breast ($21.99) served over spaetzle finished with smoked Bacon and chicken broth, Braised Pork Shank ($25.99) with couscous and spring vegetables, Grilled New York Strip Steak ($31.99) served with roasted potatoes, mushrooms, spinach, and a red wine sauce, and, for vegetarians, the Vegetable-Potato Strudel ($18.99) with a tomato compote and basil oil.

The only difference between the lunch and dinner menus is that the lunch menu features a Caesar Salad ($11.99) that can be served with chicken breast ($15.49) or with shrimp ($17.49) while the dinner menu contains a Pan-Seared Sustainable Seasonal Catch (market price) served on basil risotto with bay scallops, a warm tomato salad, and a white wine butter sauce.

There are a good variety of dessert options as well including the restaurant's famous Chocolate Wave ($8.49), a Key Lime Mousse ($7.99) with roasted pineapple and mango sauce, Classic Vanilla Crème Brûlée ($7.99), a Baileys and Jack Daniel's Mousse ($7.99), and a Cherry Cheesecake($7.99).

Whenever I dine at the Coral Reef Restaurant I always start my meal with the Creamy Lobster Soup. This is my favorite lobster bisque that I have had anywhere in Disney World and maybe anywhere outside of Disney as well. For me, the best kind of lobster bisque is that which has a definite lobster flavor but without having too strong of that seafood/shellfish taste. I like bisques that tend to be more on the thicker, creamier side and that is exactly what the lobster soup at Coral Reef Restaurant is like.

Creamy Lobster Soup

In addition to its creamy consistency and flavor, there is just the slightest hint of brandy that gives the soup just a little kick. In addition, there are very large chunks of lobster meat that ensure the flavor of the lobster is still present. This is one appetizer that is certainly very rich and filling. Having one bowl all to yourself could easily fill you up before even having your entrée. The soup is big enough that it can be enjoyed by two people.

When deciding on my entrée I enquired as to what the Pan-Seared Sustainable Seasonal Catch was and was informed that it was salmon. I immediately decided that this was what I was going to get for my meal since salmon is one of my favorite types of fish. This entrée has changed slightly since I got it just about a month ago. The fish now comes served on basil risotto with bay scallops, a warm tomato salad, and a white wine butter sauce. When I got this entrée, however, it was served with a wild mushroom risotto with bay scallops and a parsley-truffle oil.

Salmon

The salmon was prepared absolutely perfectly so that it was slightly crispy on top but still nice and moist inside. It was also a very generously-sized piece of salmon, large enough that I was not able to finish it all. Salmon itself is a fairly mild-flavored fish, so it was the risotto that really enhanced the overall taste and really made the dish what it was. It is no stretch to say that the wild mushroom risotto was one of the richest, creamiest risottos I have ever tasted. I am not usually the biggest fan of mushrooms, but here they really complimented the salmon quite nicely without overpowering the flavor of the fish. The bay scallops in the risotto were very tender and were small enough that they might have gone unnoticed if not mentioned on the menu, but they added just the slightest bit of extra flavor to the dish. The parsley-truffle oil had almost the flavor of a light pesto, which paired very nicely with both the risotto and the salmon. Overall, this was a very elegant dish, not only presented beautifully but also featuring a tremendous combination of flavors and textures.

For dessert I chose one of the menu's signature items, the Chocolate Wave. This dessert is akin to a chocolate soufflé and features a warm dark chocolate cake with a white chocolate Grand Marnier center that oozes out when you cut into the cake. The cake itself is so moist that it seems as though it can literally melt in your mouth. While the white chocolate filling has a slight hint of Grand Marnier I did not find it to be too overwhelming, its slight citrusy flavor giving the dessert just an extra little kick. This is definitely a rich, decadent dessert and, after having a filling meal, can easily be split and enjoyed by two people.

Chocolate Wave

Service:
The tremendous service I received was something that definitely stood out on my most recent visit to the Coral Reef Restaurant. While I have never had bad service here in the past, I found my server on this visit to be especially attentive. Even though she was waiting on several tables, my sever took time to explain several dishes on the menu and offer her own recommendations. She was also very accommodating. When another member of my party noted that we would be splitting the lobster soup she immediately offered to bring it in two separate bowls instead of sharing out of the same one. She also had no problem with substituting various items on the menu when another member of my party wanted to try the grilled mahi mahi but have it with the mushroom risotto instead of the jasmine rice that was listed on the menu.

I also found my server to be very pleasant and personable. She was from Hawaii and we quickly struck up a conversation about the new Aulani resort. Most importantly, my server was constantly checking in on us to make sure we were enjoying everything with our meal. I could tell she was truly passionate about her job and it made my experience here all the better.

Dining on a Budget:
The Coral Reef Restaurant is certainly not the cheapest dining option at Epcot, but you definitely get what you pay for in terms of both atmosphere and food quality. If you are looking for a truly special and unique dining experience that can be enjoyed by your entire family, then it is worth splurging a little to dine here. That being said, there are some ways to dine here without completely breaking the bank. One option that I would recommend is making a meal out of appetizers. The Creamy Lobster Soup for $7.99 is absolutely huge and very filling. Combining that with another appetizer would most likely be more than enough for a meal. The Crispy-Fried Shrimp for $11.99, the Crab Cakes for $11.99, and the Rustic Seafood Stew for $11.99 are all other appetizer offerings that are more economical than ordering an entrée. The best value is probably the Appetizer for Two ($16.99) that includes the crab cakes, crispy-fried shrimp, and the creamy lobster soup. Ordering this as a meal for one person would probably be more than enough food.

The Coral Reef Restaurant is on the Disney Dining Plan and is only one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. This restaurant is definitely one of the better values when using the dining plan, a great way to get the most for your money. The restaurant also participates in Tables in Wonderland and thus offers members a 20% discount. Unfortunately, the Coral Reef Restaurant does not offer discounts for either Annual Passholders Disney Vacation Club members.

The Overall Experience:
The Coral Reef Restaurant is truly a dining experience; while the food is fantastic, it is just one aspect that makes the restaurant so special. The atmosphere is like none other found in Disney World, one that is so unique and so immersive that you will almost completely forget that you are in the middle of a theme park. This is a restaurant that I have dined at many times, having some great experiences but also some less-than-stellar experiences in recent years. After staying away for a while I am happy to say that the Coral Reef Restaurant has returned to a position of prominence that it once enjoyed. Although it had fell out of favor with me for some time, I can now say that the Coral Reef Restaurant is back on my list of must-do Disney restaurants.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Coral Reef Restaurant and post your own too!

June 9, 2012

Disney helps protect ocean wildlife and you can, too

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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.

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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.

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A dolphin's teeth.
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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.

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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 http://www.nestingturtles.com/adoptanest/

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

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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 http://www.tourdeturtles.org/

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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"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!"

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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.

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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.

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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 http://www.officialbrandonjohnson.com/

May 29, 2012

Walt and the Promise of Progress City: The Florida Project

EDITOR'S NOTE: Over the past few months, AllEars.Net has been highlighting exclusive excerpts from Sam Gennawey's book, Walt and the Promise of Progress City. The book explores the process through which meaningful and functional spaces were created by Walt Disney and his artists, as well as how guests understand and experience those spaces. It also takes a look at how Walt wanted to change the public's expectations about city life in the same way his earlier work had redefined what it meant to watch an animated film or visit an amusement park. In this month's excerpt, the final in our series, we learn about Walt Disney's goals for the Disney World project.

The Florida Project
by Sam Gennawey

What would motivate somebody as successful as Walt Disney to take on one of the most difficult challenges that anybody could tackle: the reinvention and renewal of our urban spaces? Could it be, after changing the world of animation and the amusement park industry, he felt he had a higher calling?

Walt Disney said, "I don't believe that there's a challenge anywhere in the world that's more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities." Walt felt that something was wrong with the way cities were designed, and he believed that, with the proper application of new technologies and creative thinking, he could create a city that would demonstrate to others how they could solve their urban planning problems.

Walt was not a fan of cities, and he really could not understand why anybody would want to live in one. He felt that his growing up in the country had given him a sense of independence, individualism, and democratic character. Perhaps because he spent a lot of time on the streets of Kansas City as a boy, his image of city centers was that they were overcrowded, unclean, sometimes dangerous places, and always filled with visual chaos. Walt was especially disappointed with the way Los Angeles was becoming choked in urban sprawl. Walt sensed that many American cities and suburbs were disorienting and inefficient.

On the 1948 train trip to the Chicago Railroad Fair, Walt had told Ward Kimball, "I can't figure out why in the hell everybody lives in the city where they don't have any room and can't do anything. Why don't they come out here where they have this great empty land, filled with opportunity and silence?" Disney biographer Bob Thomas, author of Building a Company, speculated that Walt's interest in city planning could be "an outgrowth of his lifelong search for better ways of doing things: adding sound, color, full-length stories, and dimension (via the multiplane camera) to animation; revolutionizing outdoor entertainment." In The Triumph of the American Imagination, author Neal Gabler said Walt wanted to "create an entire urban environment from scratch: a perfect city."

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury declared "that the first function of architecture is to make men over, make them wish to go on living, feed them fresh oxygen, grow them tall, delight their eyes, make them kind... Disneyland liberates men to their better selves. Here the wild brute is gently corralled, not squished and squashed, not put upon and harassed, not tromped on by real estate operators, not exhausted by smog and traffic." In 1960, Bradbury suggested to Walt that he should run for mayor of Los Angeles because he was the only man who knew how things work. Bradbury really believed that Walt understood the issues, especially when it came to public transit. Bradbury said, "I'm all for making Walt Disney our next mayor... the only man in the city who can get a working rapid transit system built without any more surveys, and turn it into a real attraction so that people will want to ride it." Walt's reply was, "Why should I run for mayor when I am already king?" Again, in 1964, Bradbury suggested that Walt was the only person who could "save us from our own self-destruction." He added, "[Walt] Disney is a city builder. He has already proven his ability to construct an entire community, plus rivers, plus mountains, from the gas lines up. He has already solved most of the problems that beset Los Angeles."

Disney Legend John Hench said, "Disneyland was very courageous on Walt's part, and Florida shows the most guts of anything... to take a kind of civilization, make it ideal, and then to make it practical." With the success of Disneyland, Walt understood that there was a better way to organize and manage the urban environment. When done properly, this new thinking would create a world with the kind of places we want to return to again and again -- because they are based on a "timeless way of building" and offer a higher quality of life for everyone. Walt also understood that he was the person best suited to take on the challenge.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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."

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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

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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.

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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 http://tv.disney.go.com/disneychannel/opencasting/DCOpenCallForm2010_Final.pdf) 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 DisneyAuditions.com. 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

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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!

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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.

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First, take a look at Crocs.com, 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.

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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. Crocs.com 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. ShoeBuy.com has Disney Princess Crocs with free shipping and free returns. SurfandDirt.com sells the kids' icon Mickey design in a variety of colors. Zappos.com 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?

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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 wdw.mail.order@disneyworld.com.


May 14, 2012

New RFID FastPass Testing First Hand Report!

There has been lots reported about the Next Gen FastPass system. Recently, Walt Disney World performed a test for approximately 2 weeks to see how things were progressing.

In addition to our Report on AllEars, guest blogger John Leary writes in with his experience!

My family had an unexpected bit of magic added to our recent trip to Walt Disney World. Shortly after landing at MCO, we were greeted by a hostess at the front of the Disney Magical Express queue. She asked if we had a few minutes to take a brief survey and try out in a new Fastpass service. We hastily agreed, grinning ear-to-ear, and followed her over to one of the small tables in the nearby sitting area.

There, two cast members explained the testing process. They asked for our email address, and the best day and time bracket for us to use the new Fastpass system. We then picked four Magic Kingdom attractions we wanted to visit, two from each side of a survey card. The cast members explained that we'd receive an email confirming our schedule of selected attractions, spread throughout the day and time range we selected. Each attraction on the schedule had the typical one-hour window in which to use the Fastpass. Finally, each member of our party received their own Fastpass card, and we were off to our Resort.

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Being Disney Park veterans, we were familiar with the current Fastpass process. We arrived at the start to an attraction's Fastpass line, a cast member would place our card next to the new Fastpass reader (which look like a ball on a pole), and make sure we were scheduled for that attraction at that date and time. We noticed our Fastpass cards did not have a magnetic strip or bar code, so we assumed it used RFID (radio frequency) technology to identify each of us. Each cast member was also equipped with an iPad in a case, which displayed our first names when our card was scanned, or other information if needed.


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If the Fastpass card was valid at that time and location, the Mickey icon on the card scanner glowed a bright green. If you arrived at the wrong date/time, the icon glows blue, and alerts the cast member via their iPad to your correct Fastpass schedule. We also witnessed the icon glow red, when it seemed the cast member was having technical issues scanning another guest's card.

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Continuing down the Fastpass line, the second cast member (who typically takes your paper Fastpass ticket) also scanned our card, and we joined the main ride queue as usual.

Throughout our day, we noticed different card reader devices. The most typical Fastpass card reader was the "ball on a pole" version. But at our visit with Mickey at the Town Square Theatre, the cast member read our cards through a sensor on the back of her iPad. And when passing Stitch's Great Escape, we noticed a card reader that looked more like the current Fastpass ticket distribution kiosks.

Admittedly, we had the most fun using both our paper ticket Fastpasses and our Fastpass card at the same time throughout the day. Between Fastpasses and short morning lines, we rode Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin to our heart's content. We unfortunately missed one of our scheduled Fastpass card reservations due to an unexpected nap for our toddler, but the cards worked without any problems throughout our testing experience.

Imagining how Disney could use this new system for our future visits, I have mixed feelings. The organizer in me loves the idea that we can potentially plan a day's worth of Fastpasses before our vacation begins. But part of my disappointment has to do with their need to now enforce valid return times on Fastpass tickets because of this new system. I know, I know - this was always their policy - I just got used to the convenience of the rule being bent.

Being an avid ParkHopper ticket user, I would find less value in park hopping if we were locked to one or multiple day's Fastpass schedule if we were restricted to one park. Being near-obsessive with planning table-service meals, I'd be worried that the Fastpass system would assign us a Fastpass attraction that conflicts with a previously-booked restaurant reservation. And though it's of little consequence, having cast members scan my card twice at each attraction felt a little redundant to me.

As a whole, we found the new Fastpass system as easy to use as it was fun, and we have great hopes for how Disney uses this new technology to make our future trip planning that much more enjoyable.


May 11, 2012

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

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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 http://land.allears.net/blogs/jackspence/2009/10/sum_of_all_thrills.html)

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 ESPN3.com, 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
members)
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

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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 http://land.allears.net/blogs/jackspence/2011/01/kilimanjaro_safaris_at_animal_1.html and http://land.allears.net/blogs/jackspence/2011/01/kilimanjaro_safaris_at_animal_2.html.

April 27, 2012

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

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'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

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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."

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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.

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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).

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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.

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'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

Walt and the Promise of Progress City: A New Standard for Clean

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

A New Standard for Clean
by Sam Gennawey

Before Disneyland, most amusement parks were rather seedy places. The operators thought of the customers as "marks" and were not above a little bit of shady play if it would earn a little more money. If somebody left with a dime in his pocket, the operator was not doing his job well enough. Trash was tossed anywhere and little attention was paid to the landscaping or architecture.

"By 1952, amusement parks were often identified with the tarnished world of film noir, of scandal beneath the big top, and carnies," according to Norman Klein. Patrons felt unsafe in many areas of a traditional amusement park. Walt said that he wanted Disneyland to be different from the "dirty, phony places, run by tough-looking people." When Walt described the idea for the park to his wife, she asked, "Why would you want to build an amusement park? Amusement parks are dirty. They don't make any money." Walt's reply was, "That's the whole point. I want a clean one that will."

Walt sensed there was a change happening in the American culture. Families in the 1950s had begun to reset their expectations for what was meant by progress. There was a growing national consensus that proclaimed that cleanliness and uniformity was a sign of progress. With the spread of freeways, people preferred to patronize modern, familiar motel chains and eat in clean coffee shops housed in space-age Googie23-style buildings. Walt assumed correctly that they would want to visit a different type of family amusement park as well. Karal Ann Marling noted, "If Disneyland was a place of amusement and escape, it was also, in its own way, a kind of pre-EPCOT utopia, a better, cleaner, more pleasant and resonant American place than 1955 afforded the average urbanite who drove to Anaheim on the Santa Ana Freeway." When Walt gave a tour of the park, a journalist commented that everything would soon be covered in litter. Walt curtly replied, "It'll never happen." "Why not?" asked the reporter. "Because, we're going to make it so clean people are going to be embarrassed to throw anything on the ground," was Walt's reply. Walt was right. Disneyland had validated people's expectations for cleanliness of public spaces, and the park would in time redefine the standard.

Disney Legend Marty Sklar said, "In the Disney theme parks, a dirty floor or an out-of-order facility may individually be of minor significance, but in the long run, they will diminish visitors' expectations of everything we do." Historian Judith Adams noticed, "Everything about the park, including the behavior of the 'guests,' is engineered to promote a spirit of optimism, a belief in progressive improvement toward perfection." Walt's drive toward a spotless environment became legendary. Architect Charles Moore noted, "No raw edges spoil the picture at Disneyland; everything is as immaculate as in the musical comedy villages that Hollywood has provided for our viewing pleasure for the last three generations. Nice looking, handsomely costumed young people sweep away the gum wrappers almost before they fall to the spotless pavement."

Imagineer Bruce Gordon said, "At the time Walt was thinking about building a park, most amusement parks were not in a place you'd want to let your kids go on their own. The parks were kind of dirty, in seedy neighborhoods. You wouldn't want to drop off your kids there and meet them three or four hours later, the way you can in a Disney park today."

Today, virtually every commercial business district in every city goes out of its way to be as clean as Disneyland. This was not always so. Cultural historian Richard Francaviglia took a look at Marceline's Main Street during the time that Walt lived there as a young boy. "It was unpaved, rutted and rilled and horse manure helped turn it into a soupy quagmire." Walt did not accept his childhood experience as a given; he recreated the image of a traditional central business district and raised our expectations for quality, variety, and surprise.

The level of cleanliness was not the only change in the traditional central business district. By the early 1950s, many historic Main Streets in the United States had been threatened by shopping malls followed by suburban housing tracts to the suburbs. Downtowns had become run down and were considered irrelevant. New regional shopping malls -- like Victor Gruen's Northland Center in a Detroit suburb and his enclosed Southdale Center near Edina, Minneapolis -- were the new center of commerce. To compete, many cities reinvented their historic central business districts by prohibiting automobile traffic and creating downtown pedestrian malls. Most of these conversions failed, furthering the decline of many downtowns.

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Interested in Walt and the Promise of Progress City? Order it through the AllEars.Net Amazon store HERE!


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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. DisneyStore.com 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.

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Dooney & Bourke Princess collection satchel


April 17, 2012

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

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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 http://land.allears.net/blogs/jackspence/2012/04/chimpanzee_disneynature_world.html The McClain Sisters, including China Ann from Disney Channel's A.N.T. Farm, performed the movie's anthem, "Rise.")

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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

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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."

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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.

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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 AllEars.net page http://allears.net/btp/carriage.htm#fw3 For details about Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, check out this AllEars.net page http://allears.net/acc/faq_fw.htm

April 12, 2012

Disney's dolphin presentations showcase cognitive research at Epcot

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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.)

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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.

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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 http://allears.net/tp/ep/e_seas.htm

April 10, 2012

Easter activities at Disney World a sweet treat for kids

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 AllEars.net resource page http://allears.net/btp/dqfaq.htm


April 5, 2012

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

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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.

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

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Haunted Mansion fans were delighted with the optional graveyard tour in the queue.
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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 http://www.hiddenmickeyguy.com/. Read his blogs on AllEars.net at http://land.allears.net/blogs/stevebarrett/

** 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 http://land.allears.net/blogs/guestblog/2012/02/disney_world_to_enforce_return.html)

** 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

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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:

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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.

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Princess basket: coloring book, neon hair clips, princess cup with straw, princess Sweet Tart candy, princess lollipops, two sets of princess silly bands.
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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.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 29, 2012

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

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My son happily waits for his pirate makeover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March 28, 2012

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

Andrew Rossi

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

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

Restaurant Exterior1

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

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

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

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Restaurant Exterior3

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

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

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Nautical Theming2

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

Nautical Painting

Lighthouse Painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clam Chowder

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

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

Crab Cake Melt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

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

March 27, 2012

Walt and the Promise of Progress City: Spatial Manipulation

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

Spatial Manipulation
by Sam Gennawey

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nothing says princess like blue eye shadow, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the Disney Diva hairpieces.

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

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

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

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


March 26, 2012

To Walt Disney World in a Motor Home - Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 25, 2012

To Walt Disney World in a Motor Home - Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for Part 2!!!

March 24, 2012

Tips for maximizing the value of Disney's PhotoPass CD

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

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

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

Load up on photos

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

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

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

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

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

Timing is everything

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

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

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

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

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

March 20, 2012

Disney World's Storybook Circus improves area for kids

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Here's how The Barnstormer starts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Storybook Circus has plenty of planned stroller parking.

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

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

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Construction is ongoing for the second Dumbo ride.

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

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Dumbo The Flying Elephant at night.

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

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

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

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


March 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 15, 2012

Disney World's Royal Guest Rooms designed for princesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 13, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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How cute are these bunny light-ups?

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

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Less than a week left to purchase these shamrocks.

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

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Ghost or snowman, anyone?

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

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

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

Tips:

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

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

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

March 6, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

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

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

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

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

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March 3, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 2, 2012

Rediscover Disney Through the Eyes of a First-Timer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G: What was your favourite experience or attraction?

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

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

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

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G: Was there anything you didn't like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 1, 2012

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

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

The Building Blocks of Disney Theme Park Design
by Sam Gennawey

The Berm

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

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

The Wienie

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

Virtual Reality

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

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

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


Piloting Walt Disney World paddleboat a magical moment for my son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 25, 2012

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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."

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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, www.officialbrandonjohnson.com, 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

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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 http://allears.net/tp/fur.htm)

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 www.DisneyURL.com/GirlScouts100 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

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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 7, 2012

Disney Fun With Your Pets

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My wife Carol and I have been Disney fans for decades, but did you know that our dogs, Zak and Blue, are Disney fans too? They just love to head to Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground with us. It's a very pet-friendly place. It's Disney's only pet-friendly resort.

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The 788 campsites are arranged in "loops"; each loop is a road which exits the main road and contains twenty or more campsites. When we first started visiting our favorite campground there were only a few "pet-friendly" loops, but now seven of the twenty camping loops welcome pets. And it's not just dogs, there are plenty of cats and we've also seen some unexpected pets such as parrots there.

We often see dogs or cats laying on the dash of motor homes as we walk past. Some folks even bring collapsible dog runs with them and set them up on their site so the pets are not tied all the time.

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Naturally there are rules, but they all make perfect sense. Pets must be leashed and controlled and you must "pick-up" after them. There are areas set aside for "pet walks" and there are areas, such as around the comfort stations, where pets are not allowed. These areas are all well marked.

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Is there a fee for pets who camp with you? Yes, Disney charges $5.00 per day if you camp with pets. That is a flat fee; it is not $5.00 per pet. The one fee covers all your pets. What do you get for your five dollars? Quite a bit . . . it really is a bargain! The pet facilities are excellent.

The pet walk areas near each of the pet-friendly loops are spacious and scenic. Most of them run beside one of the canals that criss-cross the campground on their way to Bay Lake. There are handy bag dispensers at the entrance to the pet walk area and a few more located along the walk. Most people are conscientious and pick up anything the little dears leave behind.

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Fort Wilderness has plenty of wildlife to keep your pet's attention. We've encountered squirrels, armadillos, turtles, deer, wild turkeys and even a few small gators! Fortunately the dogs didn't notice the gators!

The off-leash doggie park, called "Waggin' Trails", is a fairly recent addition and it has become a favourite for our pups! It is located beside the 300 camping loop and opened in 2010. Our boys just love to head over and romp with their new BFF's. There's always someone new for them to play with.

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Zak and Blue just love Fort Wilderness because they get so much more attention there than they do at home. While we are at "The Fort" we tend to walk them more than we normally do and they really enjoy their time along the canals and at Waggin' Trails. Of course they also enjoy just walking around whatever loop we are camped in. There are always new scents to sniff and other dogs to meet. Many of the other pet owners come out to chat with Carol and I so the pets have a visit too! Often there are extra cookie treats for them as we make our way around the loop.

Zak and Blue really enjoy riding on the golf carts we rent. The first few times on a cart they were both nervous but they've learned that a ride on the cart often means a trip to the dog park and now they are anxious to hop aboard. Sometimes there's too much activity for the dogs and they just can't keep up!

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What they really enjoy though are the "extra special" activities. The dogs have enjoyed some unique experiences over the years; they never know quite what to expect next.

A few years ago there was a special "Pet Day" at Downtown Disney and we took Zak and Zoë.

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They loved meeting Santa Claus who was waiting beside The World of Disney Store to meet four-legged Disney fans!

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In years past we would sometimes take the dogs to the theme parks and leave them in the kennels which were conveniently located near the entrance to each park.

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This gave the pups a great opportunity to mingle with their favourite Disney characters.

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They have even gotten to meet some of our good friends from the Disney fan community.

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The kennels at each park were closed recently and kennel services are now provided by Best Friends Pet Care from their new location on Bonnet Creek Parkway across from Port Orleans Riverside. They offer a full slate of services including grooming and pampering!

The highlight of the year for pets at Fort Wilderness has to be the annual "Pet Costume Parade" held on Halloween. It's a blast for the four-legged participants and the two-legged ones as well. There are usually about one hundred dogs and two or three very wary cats.

The pets parade past the judging table beside the Waggin' Trails park and then stroll through the 300 loop where adoring crowds of campers applaud them.

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The parade ends inside the off-leash park where prizes are awarded in a variety of categories.

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Zak and Blue have a howling good time at the Costume Parade!

Having the dogs with us changes our vacation experience in a very positive way too! When we fly down to WDW and stay in some other Disney resort we tend to spend long hours in the parks. We head out early and stay late, trying to cram as much as we can into every day. Having the boys with us forces us to take a break and attend to their needs. So when they're along we normally spend the morning at a theme park and then head back to The Fort for the afternoon. After spending time with the dogs and relaxing for a while we head back to a park for the evening. It's so much more relaxed for us . . . we savour the Disney experience rather than try to cram it all in! Aaah - so nice!

So if you think you might like to treat your dogs to a Disney vacation, it's easy to do. Make a reservation at Fort Wilderness and come join us.

Zak and Blue would be happy to show your pets around their favorite place!

January 31, 2012

Walt and the Promise of Progress City: Site Design

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

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by Sam Gennawey

Make no mistake. The spaces within the park are not representative of reality but become a hyper reality -- stylized and tightly edited versions of the real thing. The buildings are shrunk and edited to meet the needs of the story that binds everything together. However, Disneyland is a legible urban environment.

As a result of the innovative site design plan for Disneyland, guests are provided with a comprehensible orientation and an environment that induces a change of mood. Key to this was Walt's decision to set his park within a strong boundary, with only a single entrance, and with a radial, or hub-and-spoke, circulation system.

Walt picked Marvin Davis to be the master planner for Disneyland. From the very beginning, Walt was clear about his intentions for Disneyland. He told Davis, "I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train." He said he wanted the railroad tracks on the high ground so guests could preview all the wonderful things that would be inside the berm. Davis described the site design process for Disneyland, "I was working in what they call the Zorro building as the project designer for master planning of the Park at the time. This was before they even knew where the Park was going." Davis continues, "Before they bought the property-I guess I must have done, well I know I did 129 different schemes for the solution of the thing - different entryways - until finally it developed into the scheme that it is now with the single entrance and the walk for the avenue, which is Main Street, up to the center of the hub. Walt's idea was to have the whole thing as radials from that hub."

In August 1953, Walt walked into Marvin Davis' office with the map of the property he just purchased in Anaheim. Walt took out a pencil and drew the exact placement of where he wanted his train. The drawing showed the railroad tracks running around the perimeter forming a triangular boundary. That basic outline still represents the boundaries of the park. Understanding that constraint, Davis knew what to do next.

Walt looked at all sorts of public spaces and their circulation patterns. He said, "I've been studying the way people move at museums and other entertainment places. Everybody's got tired feet. I don't want that to happen in this place." He called this problem "museum feet." He described the feeling when "the ache of having walked too much just to get through the place" made the visit unpleasant. He figured that he could mitigate this issue through better planning. "I want a place for people to sit down and where older folks can say, 'you kids run on. I'll meet you there in a half hour,'" Walt said. "Disneyland is going to be a place where you can't get lost or tired unless you want to."

Walt and Davis decided that the best solution to avoid "museum feet" was to lay out the park's circulation plan like a bicycle wheel. This is known as the radial plan. It has also been called the hub-and-spoke pattern because the pathways radiate out in every direction like spokes connected to a hub on a bicycle tire. Davis noted, "The overall shape of the park, with its single entrance, was Walt's and that was the key to the whole thing. Walt was very circulation conscious, and he wanted a single entrance so that they could control the number of people that came in, and know the number that went out, and know what's in the park." The benefit of this layout is that no matter where you go, it is easy to find a way to come back to a familiar central area. "[Walt] wanted to solve everything with the radial idea," recalled Marvin Davis in a 1991 interview with authors and filmmakers Richard and Katherine Greene. It gave "people a sense of orientation-they know where they are at all times."

This radial plan concept was so successful that the design pattern has been embedded in virtually every Disney theme park. Walt remarked, "The more I go to other amusement parks in all parts of the world, the more I am convinced of the wisdom of the original concepts of Disneyland. I mean, have a single entrance through which all traffic would flow, then a hub off which the various areas were situated." He added, "That gives people a sense of orientation-they know where they are at all times. And it saves a lot of walking."

Main Street is more than just a narrow pathway to get you from one point to another. One Disney executive called it a "mindsetter." J.G. O'Boyle said, "Main Street, U.S.A. has a more significant function-it serves as a meticulously coded social instrument designed to communicate a complex set of instructions-a theme-to each of the guests-instantly, harmoniously, and wordlessly." O'Boyle concluded, "That message is a reminder of our shared cultural identity."

At the end of Main Street, just in front of the castle, is a circular park called the Plaza Hub. This is the central gathering spot within the park. "Walt observed how families made decisions about what to do next," John Hench said." He concluded that they needed a lot of space, as they would stop and gather around with one child or two hanging outside the group." The solution was the use of "hubs-open, essentially circular spaces that afford views in many directions-[and that] facilitate decision making. From a hub, guests can see and point to many of the choices they might make." Hench added, "Decision-making is very fatiguing. Relating things that are unrelated is fatiguing". If you start wandering from one thing to another, not quite knowing what you want to see, you will wear yourself out." He suggested that "You come to a point in the park that we know is a decision point, we put two choices. We try not to give them seven or eight so that they have to decide in a qualitative way which is the best way." Walt and his team gave this careful consideration in an attempt to manipulate crowd flow. In the book Vinyl Leaves, author Stephen Fjellman said, "The Disney strategy is to disperse people as widely as possible and to keep them moving." Even the stores along Main Street were planned with interior pathways to mitigate congestion on the street.

Some of the destination decisions had been made early in the design process. Davis stated, "We knew we wanted the fantasy rides up at the end of Main Street, once you go through the castle. Then the other lands just logically took their place." To eliminate the confusion common to visiting an unfamiliar place, each land has a "Main Gateway"; these gateways are all similar in design, are laid out to form a group, and are all easily visible from the Hub.

Guests standing in the hub can tell from each gateway what they might expect once they have passed through that portal. The guest can decide to walk east into the future toward Tomorrowland, north toward the castle drawbridge and Fantasyland, west toward the stockade at the entrance of Frontierland, or veer off path just a bit and enter Adventureland. Each path radiates out from and returns to the Plaza Hub.

Since Disneyland opened, research has been done to determine how the park influences guests on a subconscious level and what this means to human behavior. The structures along Main Street are both functional and symbolic. They reinforce our self-image and form a collective memory. John Hench said, "Part of it, I suppose, was Walt's exploitation of very old survival patterns. He had an instinct for this. I think that if anyone really wanted to take the time to examine it, he would see that these survival patterns are the basis for our aesthetics, our sense of pleasure." The result is an environment that demonstrates a higher degree of life. Main Street, U.S.A. creates an opportunity for the guest to decompress and to agree to accept a mutually understood pattern of expected behavior. The visit becomes more slowly paced, less stressful, and friendlier. This is not a competitive urban environment but one that projects the idealized image of a different time and place.

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Interested in Walt and the Promise of Progress City? Order it through the AllEars.Net Amazon store HERE!


January 25, 2012

A Special Cruise on the Grand 1

by Sandi Lamborne
Guest Blogger

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On Saturday January 14, 2012 we chartered The Grand 1 Yacht as a birthday surprise for our friends. We started out trying to reserve a pontoon boat but learned that we had too many people in our group, so we decided to go for the "once in a lifetime" chance to ride the Grand 1. The Yacht can take up to 18 guests. It can take 17 if you decide to have a butler aboard, but you only need a butler if you are ordering "hot" food for your guests.

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The Grand 1 is a 52-foot SeaRay Sedan Bridge Cruiser. While speaking to Captain Hooper we were told it was a 2007 and it was recently refurbished. We took pictures of each stateroom and the salon, but they really don't do it justice.

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We elected to leave from The Grand Floridian but you can choose to leave from any resort marina. As a matter of fact, some of our guests were running late as they were using the Disney transportation buses from Old Key West. We told our captain they were just leaving the stop at Fort Wilderness and he said we could have picked them up there instead of having them take the bus the rest of the way to The Grand Floridian.

The price is $520 an hour (plus $33.80 tax, and we did tip the captain and first mate). We weren't sure if that would be enough time, but we had little ones aboard that had a busy day planned Sunday and we didn't want them out too late. The hour turned out to work perfectly.

The boat goes out a half-hour before Wishes. On the day we chartered the Grand 1, Wishes was at 8 p.m. so we were told to be at the marina by 7 p.m. Most of us got there by 7 or a bit earlier. It was a slightly chilly night so the captain graciously let us aboard and turned on the heat... suddenly we were glad we didn't all fit on the pontoon. If you close the glass sliding doors, the salon was toasty warm and even the bridge had heat and clear plastic curtains that the captain had snapped shut.

We ordered a 10-inch cake for our birthday celebrations. That came to $70 by the time they added in the delivery to the yacht and taxes, but it was one of the best cakes I have ever had. We ordered the vanilla cake with the custard and strawberry filling and a whipped cream icing. The cake was supposed to be delivered and set up before we boarded, but there was some type of mix-up with the time in the kitchen so we waited on the bridge as they set up the cake in the salon. They placed a tablecloth on the table with the cake and sprinkled candy Mickeys around. It also came with a serving knife, real plates and silverware, candles, matches, and plenty of napkins.


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By the time our last guests got aboard it was a bit past 7:30, but it was still plenty of time to cruise Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon while we sang Happy Birthday and ate cake, before we settled into position for the fireworks. (Some of the guys aboard were even watching some of the playoff game on the TV).


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The captain unsnapped the bridge for people up top and those of us downstairs stepped out of the salon onto the aft deck to get ready for Wishes.

The Grand 1 has speakers throughout so the the music from Wishes can be heard from anywhere in the yacht. It was amazing and we could hear our guests oohing and aahing with each colorful burst.


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After Wishes we headed back to The Grand Floridian. The little ones had a ball exploring the rest of the Yacht. I'm not even sure they knew we were moving, as it was such a smooth ride and there was so much to see on board. Even the smallest stateroom with bunk beds had TVs at each end of the beds. There was one slightly nervous moment when two of our little ones locked themselves in the master stateroom, but one of the moms was able to talk them through how to unlock the door and everyone had a big laugh and we didn't have to leave anyone on board.

It was a magical experience and a great way to see Wishes. It was like Disney set them off just for us.


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December 22, 2011

San Angel Inn: From Mexico City to Epcot

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to the countries of World Showcase, Mexico is one of my favorites to spend time in. While the pavilion's Mayan pyramid exterior is certainly impressive, it is what lies inside that makes Mexico truly unique among all the countries. It is unfortunate that more than a few guests to Epcot do not even know that there is an indoor portion to the Mexican pavilion and just pass by without getting to experience one of World Showcase's most immersive atmospheres. When it comes to transporting guests to a totally different time and place, no country does it quite as well as Mexico. From the minute you step inside you will almost forget that you are in Disney World and become completely immersed in the sights and sounds of a bustling Mexican nighttime marketplace.

Of course, no journey to Mexico would be complete without sampling the country's cuisine. Fortunately for guests, the pavilion offers a variety of dining options, from La Hacienda de San Angel and La Cantina de San Angel along the shores of the World Showcase Lagoon to the pavilion's tequila bar La Cava del Tequila. Each dining location has a something a little different to offer, but my personal favorite is the San Angel Inn. Not only does this restaurant deliver authentic Mexican cuisine, but it features an atmosphere unlike any other at Disney World.

San Angel Signage

Overview:
The San Angel Inn has its roots in Mexico itself and has a very fascinating history. The origins of the San Angel Inn in Mexico City actually go all the way back to 1692 when a beautiful hacienda was built near the town. Originally intended to be a monastery, the hacienda served as a tranquil retreat for the Mexican aristocracy. Among some of the more notable figures to visit the hacienda were General Santa Ana and Pancho Villa. The hacienda actually became a pulque (an alcoholic cactus beverage) factory before being purchased by the San Angel Land Company in 1906. The hacienda was then converted into a hotel and restaurant and named the San Angel Inn.

The San Angel Inn at Epcot's Mexico pavilion looks to continue the legacy of the original in Mexico City and deliver a dining experience which is truly authentic. As is stated on the restaurant's menu the San Angel Inn strives to "present the subtle flavors and surprising tastes which are genuinely Mexican." However, this is a restaurant that delivers an experience which is about so much more than just the food and this is what so successfully helps to create a complete sense of immersion into Mexican culture. The San Angel Inn is a restaurant that combines the "style and spirit of old Mexico, the warmth of hacienda hospitality, and the assurance of exceptionally fine food." Together, this is what makes the San Angel Inn a truly memorable dining experience.

Atmosphere:
The mood is set as soon as you step into the pyramid and make your way to the Plaza de los Amigos (Plaza of the Friends). The nighttime setting of the marketplace was specifically chosen by Disney Imagineers because it would be more authentic to the operating hours of a typical Mexican market. The marketplace is crammed with various carts and stands selling traditional Mexican items ranging from sombreros and piñatas to blankets, ceramic pottery, jewelry, and other hand-made goods.

Marketplace

As you meander your way through the marketplace toward the rear of the pavilion you will eventually come to the San Angel Inn. The restaurant's out of the way location may sometimes cause it to go overlooked by those not specifically seeking it out.

Dining Area1

One of the most notable features of the San Angel Inn is its position along the banks of the Grand Fiesta Tour boat ride. Guests sitting at tables on the water's edge dine as they watch other guests in their boats passing by. The Mayan pyramid and lush tropical jungle on the opposite side of the river serve as an impressive backdrop for the restaurant. There is even a smoldering, smoking volcano that erupts occasionally as well. It is certainly a beautiful setting to enjoy your meal.

Boat Ride

This is a concept the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in Disney World, but most likely has its roots in Disneyland with the Blue Bayou Restaurant which sits inside of Pirates of the Caribbean.

The nighttime setting of the restaurant gives the San Angel Inn an intimate, slightly romantic feel. The atmosphere is so effective in creating an open-air, outdoor feel that you may actually forget that you are dining inside. Despite being right next to the Grand Fiesta Tour and adjacent to the busy marketplace, the restaurant is surprisingly quiet. This is a great restaurant if you are looking for a romantic meal, whether celebrating an anniversary or just wanting to spend some time alone away from the kids. At the same time, it is still a restaurant that is perfect for the entire family. Children will be greatly entertained watching the boats sail by on the river and the restaurant, although more upscale and refined, still has a warm and inviting feel.

Dining Area2

San Angel Inn not too long ago underwent a minor change in its décor, one that might go unnoticed by most but still had an impact on the overall feel of the restaurant. Prior to this, the San Angel Inn featured tables and chairs that were very bright and vibrant in color.

Old San Angel

These yellow tables with their green, pink, red, and yellow chairs were replaced by tables draped with white tablecloths and natural-colored wooden chairs. Even the layout of the tables in the restaurant was changed, with tables now positioned in straight rows.

New San Angel

On the tables themselves, the place settings now feature new flatware and china that is inspired by those found at the original San Angel Inn in Mexico City.

Table Settings

These changes not only help give the restaurant more of an upscale feel, but also increase the sense of authenticity. You really feel as though you are dining in the middle of Mexico.

The Menu:
Just as the San Angel Inn's décor was recently changed, the menu also underwent some transformations to deliver more authentic Mexican dishes similar to those found at the restaurant's Mexico City counterpart. The lunch and dinner menus are relatively similar with the major difference between the two being the price. The prices that I include here reflect those found on the dinner menu.

The menu features many intriguing appetizer offerings including Coctel de Camaron ($12.00), an Acopolco-style shrimp cocktail with a spicy marinated tomato sauce. Other items are the Tostadas de Tinga ($10.00), pulled chicken seasoned with roasted tomato and chipotle served on tostadas with refried beans, green tomatillo sauce, queso fresco, and sour cream, Tlacoyos de Chilorio ($11.00), corncakes topped with refried beans, pork, queso fresco, green tomatillo sauce, and sour cream, Tacos de Filete ($13.00) featuring beef tenderloin served on soft flour tortillas topped with a chipotle pepper sauce, Sopa Azteca ($7.00) served with fried tortilla strips, avocado, cheese, and pasilla pepper, and Ensalada Cesar ($10.00). It might seem unusual to see a Cesear salad at a Mexican restaurant, but it was actually created in Mexico in the 1920's by a restaurateur named Caesar Cardini and has been served at the San Angel Inn in Mexico City since 1963.

The entrée selections offer a little something for everyone with a variety of meat and seafood dishes. One common thread throughout all the dishes is their tremendous flavor, using a variety of herbs and seasonings you may not be familiar with. While there are many spicy selections on the menu that are certainly not for the faint of heart, there are others that are a little more mild in flavor. If you are an adventurous eater who likes to try new and different dishes this is a great restaurant for you, if not, my best advice would be to ask your server to provide recommendations as to which of the menu items are on the milder side.

Entrée selections include Mole Poblano ($23.00), a grilled chicken breast served over poblano rice with a mole sauce made of nuts, spcies, chiles, and a hint of cocao, Pollo a las Rajas ($23.00) featuring a grilled chicken breast served with a red pepper and onion cream sauce over poblano rice, Mahi Mahi a la Veracruzana ($23.00) prepared with capers, olives, bell peppers, Spanish onions, and tomatoes, seasoned with white wine and spices, and served over poblano rice, Tilapia al Huitlacoche ($25.00) served over poblano rice and finished with a corn mushroom sauce, Carne Asada a la Tampique ($28.00), featuring a grilled beef tenderloin topped with red bell pepper and onions served with a cheese enchilada, refried beans, Mexican rice, and guacamole, Chile Relleno ($24.00), a poblano pepper stuffed with pork, pine nuts, and almonds topped with a roasted tomato sauce, Lomo de Puerco en Pipian ($26.00), a pork tenderloin served over roasted vegetables and a "pipian" of pumpkin, chilies, and almond sauce, and Camarones a la Diabla ($26.00) featuring roasted shrimp and poblano rice served over a yucca puree and topped with a chile sauce.

You might want to save room for dessert because there are several delectable options available including Crema Bavaria ($8.00), a creamy Bavarian mousse served with mixed berries, cinnamon, and orange liqueur, Isla Flotante ($8.00), a caramelized lime meringue served over vanilla sauce with mixed berries, Helado de Dolce de Leche ($7.00), which is caramel ice cream, and Crepas de Cajeta ($8.00) featuring warm crepes topped with caramel sauce and toasted almonds.

For my entrée I decided on the Carne Asada a la Tampique. What drew my attention to this entrée was not only the steak itself, but also the variety of accompaniments that it comes served with. The steak itself was extremely tender and juicy, grilled just the way I ordered it (medium-well so that it was just slightly pink in color on the inside). The steak had a great taste on its own, but it also came topped with grilled red peppers and onions the provided even extra flavor. The steak had the noticeable taste of crushed black pepper and was probably seasoned with the pepper before being grilled. While this flavor was certainly not overpowering by any means, it did provide a nice little kick to the steak without taking away from it.

Carne Asada

Alongside the steak was a generous portion of Mexican rice and refried beans. I found the rice to be a little on the dry side, but it still had good flavor and a slight spiciness. I was very impressed with the refried beans. I am not the biggest fan of refried beans, but these were extremely good, providing a nice contrast in flavor and texture to that of the steak. Also served with the steak was a cheese enchilada. While this is a less conventional item to have with a steak, I actually found the two went along well with each other. The softness and cheesiness of the enchilada provided a contrast to the flavor of the steak and gave the dish a distinctly Mexican feel. Overall, I found the serving size to be very generous, the steak and its accompaniments making for a very filling meal.

For dessert I ordered the Crepas de Cajeta and it was one of the sweeter desserts I have had. The crepes come completely smothered in caramel sauce. While the crepes themselves were nice and light, the sauce was extremely rich and filling and I was not even able to finish the entire dessert. The crunchiness of the almonds provided a nice contrast in texture to the softer crepes and they helped add a little extra flavor to the dish.

Crepes

I do not usually say this, but this was a dessert that was almost too sweet. I love caramel, but the sauce really overpowered the crepes. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the dessert, I think a little less caramel sauce would have actually been better . Also, a scoop of vanilla ice cream would have gone a long way in providing a much needed light and refreshing contrast in flavor.

Service:
As with all the restaurants around World Showcase, the servers at San Angel Inn are actually from Mexico. This is something that helps to add an extra degree of authenticity to your dining experience. The severs here do much more than take your order and deliver your food, but they actually help transport you to Mexico; they are cultural representatives that can give insight into what life in Mexico is actually like. I have had several experiences here and other restaurants across World Showcase where severs will openly talk about life in their native countries and how things in the United States are different from their homes. This really helps add a whole other element to your dining experience and enables guests to gain greater appreciation of these foreign cultures; it is something that makes dining in World Showcase unique.

As with any restaurant, you will have some severs that are more talkative and personable than others. One downside to having severs with English as their second language is that there is sometimes a language barrier. Your server might not fully understand some questions you may be asking and guests can sometimes have difficultly understanding what the servers are trying to say. That being said, I found all the servers at San Angel Inn to be very courteous and respectful, seeking to deliver the best dining experience possible.

Dining on a Budget:
My best advice if you are looking to save some money would be to dine at San Angel Inn for lunch rather than dinner. While the menus are very similar, the lunch items are generally cheaper. Even those items that are found on both the lunch and dinner menus are cheaper at lunch. For example, the Pollo a las Rajas costs $17 for lunch, but for dinner the price jumps to $23.

One of the best values on the menu is the Traditional Mexican Lunch/Dinner. This is a prix fixe selection that includes an appetizer, entrée, and dessert and, even though there are no substitutions allowed, it is very reasonable price. The lunch offering includes Sopa Azteca (a traditional tortilla soup), Falda, which is a grilled skirt served with corn, spring onions, and black refried beans, and Flan for dessert all for just $25. The dinner is comprised of Tostadas de Tinga, which is pulled chicken seasoned with roasted tomato and chipotle served on tostadas with refried beans, green tomatillo sauce, queso fresco, and sour cream, Tacos de Pescado (fish tacos with cabbage, lime, and a green tomatillo sauce), and the Crema Bavaria dessert all for $34.

If you were to order just the Tostadas de Tinga and Crema Bavaria off the dinner menu individually the cost would be $18 alone, so it is like you are getting the entrée for $16. Making the deal even better is that both lunch and dinner offerings come with a soft drink included in the price. These three course meals are a great way to sample a greater variety of Mexican flavors for a very reasonable price.

The San Angel Inn is a slightly less expensive option, for dinner and especially for lunch, than La Hacienda de San Angel located outside on the shores of the World Showcase lagoon. However, it should be noted that the menus and dishes offered at the two restaurants are totally different from each other. If you are in the mood for Mexican food but just want a quick and relatively inexpensive meal, I would highly recommend La Cantina de San Angel (also located outside along the lagoon) which has a variety of offering ranging from tacos and nachos to empanadas. This is one of the better-quality quick service dining locations you will find at Epcot with prices ranging from $10 to $12.

The San Angel Inn does participate on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one table service credit for both lunch and dinner. The restaurant also offers a 10% discount for Annual Passholders, but only for lunch on Mondays through Fridays. There is no discount for Disney Vacation Club members, however. The San Angel Inn does participate in Tables in Wonderland and thus offers the 20% for members.

The Overall Experience:
The San Angel Inn delivers a truly memorable dining experience on multiple levels. The restaurant features a menu of flavorful, authentic Mexican cuisine, a group of dedicated and passionate servers from Mexico itself, and a breathtaking, one-of-a-kind atmosphere that is unmatched by any other dining location in Disney World. All these things combine help make the San Angel Inn one of the most immersive restaurants in World Showcase. You are so completely wrapped up in the sounds, sights, and tastes of Mexico that you will easily forget that you are actually sitting in the middle of a theme park.

While both the food and service are extremely good, it is the restaurant's atmosphere that keeps making me want to go back again and again. It is a restaurant that enables you to feel as though you are dining outside under the stars, but without having to put up with insects or the elements. Calm and quiet, with a slightly refined and romantic feel, the San Angel Inn is certainly one of the most beautiful restaurants you will find in all of Disney World. Dining here is about so much more than just the food, it is about the complete dining experience; it is a little bit of Mexico in the middle of Florida.

See past reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of San Angel Inn and post your own too!

December 21, 2011

Tables in Wonderland Holiday Party

by John Bowers
Guest Blogger

This event was held Saturday December 17, 2011 in the Norway Lounge in Epcot.
Price: $115 per person, plus tax. Gratuity is included.

Let's pop the champagne, we have good reason!
The holidays are here and we're celebrating the season!

The cookies have been made, the wrapping is done.
It's time to sit back and have a little fun!

The decorations are up, the lights are aglow.
Let's celebrate with folks we know!

Five to ten o'clock on Saturday, the seventeenth of December
You are invited to the Tables in Wonderland Holiday Party for a night to remember.

Norway Lounge at Epcot is where we'll be,
So bring your Holiday Spirit and be ready to party!

Tables in Wonderland Norway Holiday Party

Please join us for a little bubbly and good cheer
to toast the Holidays and the coming New Year!

5:00pm - 5:30pm Reception
5:30pm - 7:45pm Dinner
8:15pm - 9:00pm Candlelight Processional with celebrity narrator Chita Rivera (entertainment subject to change without notice)
9:00pm - 10:00pm IllumiNations Viewing

Holidays Around the World Menu

Reception

Passed Selection of Chilled French Influenced Items
Tuna Nicoise Spoon
Wild Mushrooms with Fennel and Leeks
Grilled Poulet Rouge with Grape Pearls
Moët Impérial - France

Plated Dinner

New Zealand Influenced Salad Course
Baby Romaine Leaves with Roasted Kumara, Apple Radish Slaw and Lemon Vinaigrette
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc - New Zealand

California Influenced Appetizer Course
Grilled Artichoke, Shaved Zucchini, Heirloom Tomato and Curry Coriander Smear with Pea Tendrils and Oven Dried Prosciutto
Chandon Pinot Meunier - California


Argentinean Influenced Entrée
Green Chile Barbeque Braised Beef Shortrib
Chimi Churi Roasted Yuca with Onions and Garlic served with Fresh Roasted Corn
Terrazas Afincado Single Vineyard Malbec - Argentina

French Influenced Dessert
Grapefruit Custard Brulee with Raspberries, Mint Chifonade and Grape Tuile
Moët Ice Impérial - France

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Tables in Wonderland hosted a Holiday Party on Saturday, December 17, 2011 at the Norway Lounge at Epcot. The Norway Lounge is a space mostly above the Maelstrom attraction.

We had a nice (short) reception, with the three delicious passed tidbits (tuna nicoise,
wild mushrooms, and the poulet rouge) and an open bar featuring a chardonnay, a merlot and a champagne.

About 5:30, we were seated, eight people to a table, for dinner. I believe there were about
8 tables.

Since the theme was 'Holidays Around the World,' the food was themed around different countries. The reception treats had been French-influenced, and our salad course was New Zealand-influenced. An unusual component of the salad was roasted kumara. Kumara, it turns out, is what the Kiwis call a sweet potato. What else to pair with a light New Zealand-influenced salad, but a crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc, of course. Cloudy Bay, which burst onto the scene with outstanding sauvignon blanc in about the mid-1990s, was the winery.


Tables in Wonderland Norway Holiday Party

Our next course was a California-influenced appetizer. Grilled artichoke, with some zucchini, tomato, and a nicely spicy curry coriander smear. Exotic and tasty. And a Chandon Pinot Meunier, a red wine that compares to pinot noir, to sip with it. Pinot meunier, if you haven't had it, is a real surprise.

Tables in Wonderland Norway Holiday Party

Down to Argentina for the main course. Green Chile Barbeque Braised Beef Shortrib, along with roasted yuca. Yuca is also called cassava, it's similar to a potato. Unique, and very good. The shortrib, wow, they must have slow braised it for days. Rich and (as they say) so tender you could cut it with a fork. And with Argentinian-influenced beef, what else? An Argentinian malbec, specifically a Terrazas Afincado malbec. Similar to a cabernet or maybe a bordeaux-blend, malbec has really taken off in Argentina, and is an excellent value in red wine that pairs well with beef.

Tables in Wonderland Norway Holiday Party

For dessert, we headed back to France for creme brulee and raspberries. Interesting base for the creme brulee: grapefruit. It was more like a flan than a brulee, but I didn't hear any complaints about the rich taste. The dessert wine was the most interesting part of the dinner: Moet Ice Imperial Champagne. A champagne you drink over ice. Seriously! Google it, you'll see. Serve it for your holiday party, you'll be the talk of the town, I promise.

Tables in Wonderland Norway Holiday Party

As we departed the Norway Lounge to go to the Candlelight Processional, we were each given a beautiful potted white poinsettia. A very thoughtful gift from Disney, and quite a surprise. Imagine what about 65 people looked like, all walking from Norway over to the America Gardens theater, each one carrying a potted poinsettia.

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We had reserved seating for the Candlelight Processional, and our celebrity narrator
was the Broadway theater legend Chita Rivera. If you've seen the Processional, I don't need to tell you how beautiful and truly moving it is. If you haven't seen it, see it. There are very few dry eyes in the house at the end of that show.

Tables in Wonderland Norway Holiday Party

Tables in Wonderland Norway Holiday Party

Finally, we gathered our poinsettias and were led over to the terraced area in front of the Italy pavilion, for our own little private spot to watch Illuminations. After the regular Illuminations show ended, Disney nailed a big exclamation point on the holiday evening with a spectacular display of fireworks and lasers that left us all wide-eyed. No matter how many times you've seen fireworks displays out there, you always walk away impressed.

A very special evening, with all the usual Disney hospitality touches. Happy Holidays!

November 27, 2011

Have a Jolly Good Time at the Rose and Crown

Andrew Rossi

When it comes to truly immersive dining experiences, Epcot's World Showcase offers a tremendous variety of restaurants to try. While each country's restaurants offer something a little different for guests, they share a common thread in that they all strive to achieve a level of authenticity that helps immerse guests into that country's cuisine and culture. The restaurants in World Showcase are among the most unique in all of Disney World. These are restaurants that are about so much more than just the food they serve; it is truly about the complete dining experience.

These are all restaurants help to transport guests, introducing them to cultures that can sometimes be very different from our own. They are able to do this not only through their unique cuisine, but also through tremendously detailed decors and servers who are actually from that country. My next few reviews will highlight several of these restaurants beginning here with the Rose and Crown, a restaurant that will truly immerse you in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the United Kingdom.

Rose and Crown Entrance

Overview:
When it comes to all the various cuisines found around World Showcase, the United Kingdom is probably not on the top of many lists. Overshadowed by the more well-known foods of other countries such as Italy, Mexico, and France people might tend to overlook the Rose and Crown or dismiss it for one of these other options instead. It is true that the United Kingdom is probably known more for its beer than its food, but a meal at the Rose and Crown will certainly help to open your eyes to the different dishes and flavors of English cuisine.

Here in lies one of the great values of World Showcase, and specifically its restaurants: the ability to allow guests to experience cultures and cuisines that they may have never experienced before. It is restaurants, like the Rose and Crown, that allow guests to step out of their comfort zone and be adventurous, trying new foods and experiencing new flavors that they may never have tasted before. If you have never really sampled English cuisine, the Rose and Crown is certainly worth a visit, delivering a truly authentic and immersive dining experience unlike any other in Epcot.

Atmosphere:
The Rose and Crown's high degree of immersion and attention to detail start before you even set foot inside the restaurant. Even though there is just one restaurant inside, the building's exterior has the appearance a several different structures. The varying architectural details and designs found on the building's facade are meant to reflect four distinct pub styles found in different areas of the United Kingdom (and each is also reflected with a corresponding room inside the restaurant as well). The first style is the "city" or "street" pub that dates from the Victorian era of the 1890s and is distinguished by a facade of brick and wood paneling.

City Pub Exterior

Next comes the Dickensian pub, its Elizabethan-styled exterior includes the restaurant's large brick-walled, flagstone terrace, a slate roof, and a timbered facade. Also featured is the "waterfront" or "river" pub. Located on the rear of the restaurant, facing the water, it is a modest stone building with a clay tiled roof and decorative doorways.

Waterfront View

The final section of the building's exterior is the "country" or "provincial" pub found in the suburbs of the 17th and 18th centuries, featuring a slate roof and plaster facade with stone-quoined corners.

Provincial Exterior

The Rose and Crown is unique among World Showcase dining locations because it functions as both a sit-down restaurant and a walk-in pub. If you enter Rose and Crown through its front entrance you will find yourself in the pub, featuring a large bar as well as some additional seating that is available at a first-come-first-serve basis. Guests can order drinks at the bar to either to have inside the pub or take with them to go. This pub section of Rose and Crown can become very crowded, especially at night and on weekends, and its boisterous, lively atmosphere is carried throughout the rest of the restaurant. This really helps to give Rose and Crown a lively and energetic atmosphere that really makes it feel like an authentic English pub.

As with the pub section of the restaurant, the main dining room (which is actually entered into through a side entrance) features a decidedly laid-back, relaxing feel. In fact the motto of the Rose and Crown, as seen on the restaurant's entrance and on the menu, is "Otium cum Dignitate," Latin for "Leisure with Dignity," which perfectly describes the overall feel of the restaurant.

Rose and Crown Signage

The dining room, just as with the restaurant's exterior, is divided into a series of smaller rooms and as you pass from one to another you are transported to a different styles of pubs found in various part of the country. Each room has its own distinct feel and character along with a wide array of tiny details and theming that help to truly immerse you into different aspects of British culture from different time periods.

The first section is reflective of the Victorian era "city" or "street" pub, the likes of which would have been found in London. This is the grandest and most elaborate of the restaurant's rooms, featuring a large mahogany bar, etched glass, and a molded plaster ceiling.

City Pub1

City Pub2

The next room is far smaller and is reminiscent of the "country", "provincial" pubs of the English suburbs. This section has a far more intimate and modest feel. Here you can find many more outdoor, rustic touches such as antlers, a hunting horn, as well as pewter cups and teapots. This part of the restaurant actually feels more like an English country home than a pub.

Provincial Room1

Provincial Room2

Moving through the restaurant you next come to the room representing the Dickensian pub of the Elizabethan era. This room is not only larger in size, but also features more elaborate and intricate decorative elements. One of the main features of the room is its wood-paneled walls that really help to give the room more of an upscale feel.

Elizabethan Room

Adding to this is the room's large fireplace (although this is just decorative in purpose).

Elizabethan Room Fireplace

Along the tops of the wall are numerous porcelain dishes of various colors and styles, their intricate details adding a sense of refinement to the room.

Porcelain Dishes1

Porcelain Dishes2

The final room is reflective of the "waterfront" pub and has a distinctive inn-styled feel. Here the walls are completely covered with various knick knacks that reflect the pub's river locale, such as black and white photographs of sailboats, knots, compasses, and other seafaring items. Also adorning the walls are framed newspapers that lend an even greater sense of authenticity to this section of the dining room.

Waterfront Dining Room1

Waterfront Dining Room2

No matter what section of the dining room you are seated in there are large windows that let in ample amounts of sunlight during the day and offer tremendous views of the World Showcase lagoon.

Outside View1

Outside View2

One of the main allures of Rose and Crown is its tremendous location and the ample outdoor seating found on its patio. The restaurant's patio is fully covered and wraps around the entire side and rear of the building; it is a great place to enjoy your meal with a great view.

Patio Seating

The covered seating along with the breeze coming off the lagoon means that, even during the hottest months of the summer, the patio is a relatively cool location to enjoy your meal. The patio seating is in high demand during the day, but even more so at night when it is a prime viewing location for Illuminations. While outdoor seating cannot be guaranteed when making reservations at the restaurant, you are able to request a table outside.

Of course, no English pub would be complete without some live entertainment and at the Rose and Crown this is provided by the Hat Lady. With her numerous, crazy, colorful hats, the Hat Lady performs at select times throughout the day in the pub entertaining guests with jokes and encouraging everyone to sing along to well-known songs. One of the loudest moments I ever heard inside the Rose and Crown was when the Hat Lady started playing "Don't Stop Believing" and nearly everyone joined in the chorus.

Hat Lady

This entertainment helps provide an added degree of energy and excitement and helps to establish the restaurant's authentic English pub feel. This is not necessarily the type of restaurant to go to if you are looking for a quiet, romantic meal, but if you are looking to have a good time with friends or family the Rose and Crown is definitely a dining location that you want to try and is great for the entire family.

The Menu:
The Rose and Crown features three distinct menus: one for lunch, another for dinner, and a third just for the pub section. The lunch and dinner menus are similar, but have some items that are exclusive to one or the other.

When it comes to appetizers the menus for both lunch and dinner are the same and feature several intriguing choices, some familiar and others unfamiliar. There is a Trio of United Kingdom Pasties ($16.99) featuring a sausage roll, mushroom wellington, and beef pasty, Pan-Roasted Mussels ($10.99) with tomatoes, herbs, and a bass ale reduction, a Trio of United Kingdom Cheese ($9.99), Winter Squash Bisque ($4.99), and Potato and Leek Soup ($3.99), Mary and the Lads ($9.99), shrimp cocktail served with a spicy Bloody Mary mix, and Scotch Eggs ($8.99) which are fried hard boiled eggs wrapped in sausage meat and served with a mustard sauce.

For entrees, the lunch menu includes a Grilled Pork Brisket ($15.99) served with marble mashed potatoes, green beans, and a mushroom ragout, there is also the Sunday Roast ($16.99) accompanied by Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes, and seasonal vegetables with a shallot gravy, Bangers and Mash ($14.99), the United Kingdom Pub Burger ($13.99) topped with bacon, cheddar cheese, and crispy shallots, Fish and Chips ($16.99), a Romaine Salad ($13.99) with chicken, bacon, and a mustard vinaigrette served with cheddar cheese scones, Shepherd's Pie ($17.99) with lamb, onions, carrots, and mushrooms topped with mashed potatoes and cheddar cheese, and a Corned Beef Sandwich ($11.99) served on toasted sunflower bread with cabbage, Swiss cheese, and spicy mustard.

The dinner menu features several of the same dishes, but also includes some additions as well. There is a Grilled Salmon ($20.99) with caramelized marble potatoes, baby carrots, and a malt vinegar reduction, Grilled Sirloin and Fried Fish ($26.99) served with Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes, seasonal vegetables, and a red wine sauce, Pan-Roasted Cornish Hen ($18.99), and a Pork Duo ($15.99) featuring grilled brisket with a mushroom ragout and braised pork with mashed potatoes and a red wine sauce.

The dessert menu is the same for both lunch and dinner and includes Cheesecake ($5.49) with a Drambuie ganache, Irish Whiskey Caramel Custard ($5.99) a Bakewell Tart ($5.49) with a cherry compote, Sticky Toffee Pudding ($4.99) served with a warm vanilla custard and hot butter-rum sauce, and a No Sugar Added Fruit Tart ($5.49) with layers of yellow sponge cake, fresh fruit, and custard topped with whipped cream.

If you do not have dining reservations and are not able to get a table in the restaurant's main dining room, or if you are just looking for a quick bite to eat, there is the option of eating in the pub section. The pub menu is simple and features items on the regular lunch and dinner menu that pair particularly well with a beer from the bar. There is Fish and Chips ($7.99), Scotch Eggs ($8.99), the Trio of United Kingdom Cheese ($9.99), and the Corned Beef Sandwich ($11.99). One item that is unique to the pub menu is the English Bulldog ($6.99), a split banger stuffed with mashed potatoes, chopped bacon, Irish cheddar, and a spicy mustard sauce.

For my entrée I decided on the Sunday Roast. When I placed my order my waitress commented that it was her favorite item on the menu, something she recommends to everyone, and I am happy to say that it lived up to her high praise. When the dish was set in front of me I was first impressed with the large portion size, with a generous helping of roast beef and equally large amounts of potatoes and vegetables. The roast beef was very tender, the meat nice and moist. The flavor of the beef was greatly enhanced by the shallot gravy that complimented it extremely well. I did not find the flavor of shallots to be too overwhelming, but it did add a nice bit of extra flavor to the dish.

Sunday Roast

I was surprised to find that the dish came with not only roasted potatoes but also mashed potatoes as well. I was initially a little disappointed that there were only two roasted potatoes, but I actually liked the mashed potatoes more. The mashed potatoes were smooth and creamy and had a decidedly buttery taste. I really enjoyed the string beans especially because they were cooked perfectly so as not to be too mushy nor too crunchy.
What interested me most about the dish was the Yorkshire pudding, something which I had never tried before. I found the Yorkshire pudding to be very similar in flavor, texture, and consistency to a popover. It was a light, fluffy pastry that provided a nice contrast to the heartier roast beef.

For dessert I was very intrigued by the Sticky Toffee Pudding and I will not hesitate to say that it was one of the better desserts that I have had in all of Disney World. This dessert is not the type of pudding that you may be familiar with, but more like a soft, moist cake. This is a dessert with tremendous flavor and I really enjoyed the way that the contrasting flavors of the warm vanilla custard and hot butter-rum sauce combined with one another. I found that there was just the slightest flavor of rum, not overwhelming but just enough to give the dessert a little bit of a kick.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Service:
One of the great things about the restaurants of World Showcase is that you get to interact with people actually from these countries. The Cast Members working at each of the restaurants are more than just servers, but rather are "cultural representatives" who help give us some insight into the lives and customs of the countries they are from. I found the servers at Rose Crown to be extremely pleasant, peppy, and friendly. My server in particular was very talkative. We had a long conversation about how she was making the transition from England and getting used to the different environment and culture of Disney World and the United States.

I also found the servers here to all be very polite and courteous. When I asked my server about the Yorkshire pudding she went out of her way to explain how it was prepared. She also offered explanations of other items on the menu and gave recommendations of her own personal favorites. I found it a little funny at first that my waitress kept referring to me as "hun," "sweetie," or "my love," but then I realized that the servers at other tables were referring to their guests the same way. I found this to be a reflection of English culture and how the servers at Rose and Crown were genuinely concerned with making their guests feel welcome; it showed that they really cared about ensuring their guests had the best dining experience possible.

Dining on a Budget:
When it comes to the sit-down restaurants around World Showcase, Rose and Crown is actually one of the more affordable for both lunch and dinner. The lunch menu, however, does feature some cheaper options. Less expensive items on the lunch menu such as the United Kingdom Pub Burger ($13.99), Romaine Salad ($13.99), and Corned Beef Sandwich ($11.99) are replaced with pricier items at dinner such as the Grilled Sirloin and Fried Fish ($26.99) and the Grilled Salmon ($20.99).

One item I would not suggest ordering at Rose and Crown is the Fish and Chips largely because of its $16.99 price tag. Located just outside of the Rose and Crown is the Yorkshire County Fish Shop which offers Fish and Chips for $8.19. If you are in the mood for Fish and Chips I would go here instead. While the size may not be as large as the one served inside the Rose and Crown dining room, it is still a good-sized portion and filling enough to be a meal unto itself.

In addition, Fish and Chips can also be found on the Rose and Crown's pub menu for $7.99. The pub menu, while not as extensive as the dining room's lunch and dinner menus, is a great alternative if you are looking for an authentic English meal at a more affordable price while still enjoying the immersive atmosphere that Rose and Crown has to offer. In addition to the Fish and Chips the pub menu also features a cheaper version of the Scotch Eggs appetizer for $8.99, the Corned Beef Sandwich for $11.99, and the very intriguing English Bulldog for $6.99.

The Rose and Crown is on the Disney Dining Plan and is worth one credit for both lunch and dinner. While there are no discounts for Disney Vacation Club or Annual Passholders, the restaurant is a part of Tables in Wonderland and offers its 20% discount.

The Overall Experience:
English food might not be my favorite type of cuisine, but dining at the Rose and Crown has showed me that it can deliver a wide range of great-tasting and flavorful dishes. This is the type of restaurant that is great for trying something new, to break away from foods you are used to eating in your everyday life. The Rose and Crown is a nice change of pace from the other restaurants around World Showcase, not only in terms of the food on its menu but also because of its very distinct atmosphere.

With its pub-like feel, the Rose and Crown is one of the more lively and energetic dining locations in all of Epcot. Combined with its immersive theming and attention to detail, you really feel as though you have been transported to England. Only adding to the restaurant's allure is its tremendous location right on the World Showcase lagoon, offering tremendous views by day and an ideal location for watching Illuminations at night. Dining at Rose and Crown is a fun, laid-back, relaxing dining experience that is great for everyone in the family, kids and adults alike. Not being too familiar with English cuisine, Rose and Crown certainly exceeded my expectations in every facet of my dining experience and I look forward to returning there again in the future.

See past restaurant reviews by Guest Blogger Andrew Rossi.

Check out Reader Reviews of Rose and Crown and post your own too!

November 4, 2011

A Little Taste of Food & Wine

Andrew Rossi

Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival is one of my favorite times of year at Disney World; there is so much to do, so much to see, and so much good food to taste. One of the things I enjoy most about the Festival is that it allows you to sample the cuisines of so many different countries that you do not normally get to experience. The Festival is a dream come true for the adventurous eater, allowing one to encounter new ingredients, flavors, and dishes both exotic and unique. Epcot is always my go-to park when it comes to great food and this is all the more heightened during the Food & Wine Festival.

Festival Signage

This year's Festival features twenty-nine international marketplaces ranging from Singapore to Portugal to the Caribbean Islands and with so much good food to be found it can sometimes be very difficult to decide which dishes to try. As you walk around World Showcase and look at various menus you quickly find yourself wanting to try everything, the pleasant aromas filling the air only adding to the temptation. Of course, it would cost far too much money to try every single item that the Festival has to offer and so here I present a few of my favorites in the hope it will help you