September 18, 2014

'Dolphin Tale 2' surely will inspire more children to appreciate marine animals

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One of the joys of parenthood is being able to share your interests with your children. (It's not too difficult to persuade them to go to the Orlando theme parks with me!) But perhaps even more wonderful is being introduced to your children's passions and having the chance to learn from them and their interests.

Three years ago, my then-seven-year-old daughter and I saw "Dolphin Tale" at the movie theater. Like so many other children, she fell in love with its star, Winter, and dolphins in general. Before that film, I didn't have much more than an average knowledge of dolphins, though I certainly appreciated their gentle nature and beauty.

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Since then, we both have learned together about marine life as we visited Clearwater Marine Aquarium where Winter lives; became pass members at SeaWorld Orlando, where my daughter has participated in dolphin feedings, taken up-close tours and talked with trainers; spent a day at Discovery Cove where we swam with a dolphin; witnessed a rehabilitated manatee release at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge; and watched an endangered sea turtle make a nest and lay its eggs on a Brevard County beach under the watchful eyes of a state-licensed guide.

These experiences have been fascinating, fun and probably not something my husband or I would have explored had it not been for my daughter's passion. You see, she wants to be a marine biologist and a dolphin trainer. Fortunately, we live in Orlando -- and not Indiana, where I grew up! I'm not naive enough to believe that her interests might not change before she goes to college in eight years, but I am supportive of what inspires and motivates her now.

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The sequel to "Dolphin Tale" debuted in theaters over the weekend, and I'm certain it will move a new audience to become interested in dolphins, sea turtles, pelicans and other marine life. Although some aspects of the story have been changed for the big screen, of course, "Dolphin Tale 2" is based on a true story -- one of rescuing yet another young dolphin, named Hope. (Fun fact: Hope arrived at Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the day film crews wrapped shooting for the original film.) This family friendly movie does offer its audience some life lessons, though perhaps not as dramatic as the original movie. Ultimately, "Dolphin Tale 2" takes viewers on a journey to a feel-good ending.

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The young stars of the movie -- Nathan Gamble (Sawyer) and Cozi Zuehlsdorff (Hazel) -- have visited the aquarium to meet with fans and to promote "Dolphin Tale 2" in the months leading up to the sequel's release. My daughter was fortunate to be able to meet them and Austin Highsmith (Pheobe) over the summer. You can watch their question & answer session with Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates that we attended here. (Fun fact: Yates appears in "Dolphin Tale 2"; see if you can spot him.)

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"Dolphin Tale 2" also brings back veteran actors Harry Connick Jr. (Dr. Clay Haskett), Kris Kristofferson (Reed Haskett), Morgan Feeman (Dr. Cameron McCarthy) and Ashley Judd (Lorraine Nelson) to reprise their roles. One notable cameo is that of surfer Bethany Hamilton, whose arm was bitten off by a shark. Her appearance reminds us of the many children (and adults) who have been inspired by Winter. The bottlenose dolphin was nursed back to health after the loss of her fluke and was successfully fitted with the first prosthetic tail fin.

If, like my daughter, you just can't get enough of Winter and her friends, you, too, can visit Clearwater Marine Aquarium and see them for yourself. The facility is just a 90-minute drive from Orlando. It's not a planned tourist attraction, so don't expect elaborate displays, shows and rides. What you will find at the working hospital is amazing in its own right -- volunteers and staff working to save animals, and you can visit the creatures and talk with the trainers. Plus, if you've seen "Dolphin Tale" and "Dolphin Tale 2," it's fun to recognize and walk through the places featured in the movie.

Included in your ticket to Clearwater Marine Aquarium is transportation and admission to Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure in downtown Clearwater. This location shows images, re-creations and actual props from the movie. For a bottlenose to fluke explanation of what you can do at the two locations, see my post from last year.



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September 16, 2014

Tips for families at 2014 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party

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My family and I have been attending Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom since my son and daughter were babies. It's been more than a decade since our first party! In that time, there have been changes, for sure, but many staples are still part of the evening. Having experienced the Halloween fun with my children at all different ages, I would like to offer some tips for families.

1. Know what is most important for your family to see and do at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party before you arrive. You only have five hours of party festivities -- if you arrive on time and stay until midnight -- so a plan will help ensure your family won't be disappointed. Do you want to meet characters, see the special Halloween fireworks and parade, trick-or-treat, ride attractions with very short lines -- or a combination of all of these?

2. To make the most of your party time, I highly recommend arriving at the Magic Kingdom before the 7 p.m. start time. Your ticket allows you to enter as early as 4 p.m., even though the activities don't start until 7 p.m. We have been going early for years and we use that time to accomplish several things on our -- well, my -- to-do list:

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** First stop for the Ford Family is the pumpkin-themed photo opportunity in Town Square with Cinderella Castle as a backdrop. This is available during the night, too, with a PhotoPass photographer, but I like to get it done while the line is short and the kids (and their costumes) are fresh. Plus, if you don't plan to buy the professional photo, you have better lighting for cellphone and point-and-shoot cameras.

** Adjacent to the photo op is the Firehouse, where party participants can collect a special Halloween card for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom virtual game. Each person will need his or her admission ticket AND party wristband to collect the card, beginning at 4 p.m. Because this is the only time you can get the card, I recommend collecting it and using it on another visit.

** Have dinner before the party starts so you all will have energy for the evening, and the kids have something besides sugar in their already-excited systems. There are limited restaurants open during the party, so having dinner beforehand also gives you more choices for your meal.

** If you want to meet some of the most popular characters, such as Jack Skellington and Sally or the Seven Dwarfs, you will have a wait. That time in line can vary throughout the party but often runs at least an hour. By getting in line early, you can meet these popular characters shortly after the party starts, leaving more party time for things other than waiting in queues. If waiting that long in line seems an impossible feat for your little ones, I'm told that the best time to see popular characters is during the fireworks at 9:30 p.m. This also is true for Anna and Elsa, who had wait times of 10 to 40 minutes during the Sept. 12 party.

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3. No matter how many times we've seen them, our family always makes viewing Mickey's "Boo-To-You" Halloween Parade and Happy HalloWishes fireworks a priority. The first parade at 8:15 p.m. is almost always more crowded than the second at 10:30 p.m., so if your children can stay awake for the later viewing, you might get a better curbside seat. Otherwise, be prepared to stake out your spot early. It's worth it! New to the parade this year are Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope van Schweetz. Happy HalloWishes can be viewed from many more locations around the park. I didn't feel like I could stand in the crowds on Main Street this year, so I tried sitting on the walkway in the Rose Garden and I had a wonderful view that was just slightly to the side. The castle projection show, Celebrate the Magic, takes place at 9:15 p.m. each night. Also, if you choose to sit in the hub, you are likely to catch the Villains Mix and Mingle show on the Castle Forecourt Stage.

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4. Trick-or-treating! Don't discount how much fun it is for kids to collect "free" candy at Walt Disney World. My children, almost ages 10 and 12, still love this. Trick-or-treating usually is our first official Halloween activity once the party starts. Be sure to hit the treat trail that starts by the railroad station in Fantasyland and ends by Space Mountain in Tomorrowland to collect more candy in a shorter time. Other candy stops are located throughout the park, denoted by an orange Mickey Mouse balloon, and marked on the party map.

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5. Have a favorite character? Even if it's not one of the rarely seen characters that command long lines, you still might consider waiting in a short line at the party for a photo. As you can imagine, as longtime Walt Disney World pass holders and Florida residents, we have many, many photos with Mickey Mouse. And we still waited 30 minutes to see him this year. For one thing, this is the first year that "Talking Mickey" is wearing his Halloween costume for photos during the party, which was a unique experience. Mickey also is willing to strike a pose that matches a costume. For my son, who was dressed as a wizard from Harry Potter, he helped cast a spell. (The rest of the Fab Five are decked out in their costumes, as well.)

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6. Have time to kill in between planned events? Pop into one of the dance parties. Club Villain is new this year at The Diamond Horseshoe in Liberty Square and the Monstrous Scream-o-Ween Ball takes place at the Rockettower Plaza Stage in Tomorrowland for the entire five hours. When my kids were younger, they loved dancing with the characters. Note: These are not meet-and-greet opportunities so characters don't stop and pose but you may be able to capture some fun candid shots.

Have a tip or a question? Please share it in the comments.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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September 12, 2014

Disney Channel to air new stories of kids who are making a difference

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The Walt Disney Company tries to inspire kids and families to take positive actions in countless ways, and it does this through several approaches. Central Florida parents may be most familiar with the annual Disney Dreamer and Doer awards that are bestowed by Walt Disney World on students who are making a difference in their communities. But the company has long recognized such students on the national level, as well, and it is launching a new initiative this month.

Perhaps the most memorable ads from recently are the Disney Channel campaigns aimed at tweens and teens that feature the network's actors. A few years ago, the Friends For Change campaign initially sought to teach young viewers the value of conservation. The ads focused on how each individual truly can make a difference in a global project, such as the stewardship of our planet. The campaign took full advantage of Disney's multiple platforms, spreading the message in its theme parks, on the television network and Radio Disney, on Disney.com, in Disney Store locations, and more.

Now, Disney Channel is expanding its Emmy Award-winning segments, "Make Your Mark," and it is keeping the spotlight on the kids -- rather than Hollywood stars -- who have made a difference and can inspire others to do the same.

The first five new segments air today on Disney Channel and WATCH Disney Channel, allowing viewers to watch on TV, tablets, smartphones and computers. The segments will also be scheduled on DisneyChannel.com and Disney Channel's YouTube channel.

One segment features 15-year-old Dylan Brady from Sea Cliff, N.Y. As a Youth Ambassador for the Tourette Syndrome Association, Dylan helps to inform and enlighten others about TS and share his message of acceptance and tolerance for all. He also hopes to inspire other kids with the story of how he overcame his disability to become the lead singer and drummer in a band.

An aspiring physician and an inventor, 16-year-old Mallory Kievman from Manchester, Conn., wants to help cancer patients, who often suffer from hiccups as a side effect of their treatment. She devised a proprietary recipe for a lollipop, made from natural ingredients including apple cider vinegar and sugar that can affect the nerves in the throat and mouth believed to cause the hiccup reflex.

Judy Adams, age 15, from New Paltz, N.Y., started Dimes for Downs three years ago to raise funds to help grant wishes for others with Down syndrome. Her organization now has 10 branches across the U.S.

During his nine-month hospital recovery from surgery to remove a tumor, 16-year-old Cameron Cohen of Los Angeles taught himself a computer programming language and developed his first app, the popular "iSketch," which allows users to draw and share pictures from smart phones and tablets. With his earnings, Cameron then donated funds to the hospital to purchase electronics for other young patients undergoing extended stays.

The final segment debuting today shows 12-year-old Osama Abdulazeez from San Diego who is a refugee from Iraq. Osama works to help other refugee children in his community through the local organization Youth and Leaders Living Actively, which assimilates refugee children into American society through soccer and education.

"Peers can have a great influence on kids and teens, and through these stories about young people making a real difference, we aim to inspire a generation of kids to take action that can change the world and themselves through service, a sense of optimism and values they uphold," said Ron Pomerantz, Disney Channel's vice president for marketing and creative, in a press release.



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September 11, 2014

Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at Epcot's Food & Wine Festival

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The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival begins in less than a week -- and most of us food and wine and Disney fans need no excuse to go! But the Disney Parks Blog recently suggested an angle that might be a fun way to experience the festival if you have more than one day to spend sampling the many foods and beverages.

National Hispanic Heritage Month officially is celebrated September 15 – October 15, and the festival at Walt Disney World has many opportunities to immerse guests in several Spanish and Latin cultures. Why not dedicate a day to these delicious dishes and customs?

In my preview story, I told you all about the offerings from Puerto Rico, which is the festival's highlighted marketplace. At the Puerto Rico experience, there will be four foods to sample: Carne Guisada con Arroz Blanco (Slow Braised Beef with Puerto Rican Grown Rice); Sweet Corn Sorullitos (sweet polenta fries) and Bolitas de Queso (cheese fritters) with Mayo Ketchup; Ensalada de Carrucho (Caribbean conch salad with onion, tomato and cilantro); and FlanCocho (vanilla caramel custard with chocolate coffee cake).

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Caribbean Conch Salad

Guests can taste these specialties and sip Medella Light Beer, Gasolina Sangriiia rum punch, a frozen San Juan Breeze with Don Q Limón Floater (also available as non-alcoholic lemonade) or Chilled Club Caribe Mango Rum, neat, at the festival's first two-story marketplace. The colorful backdrop of Old San Juan will be recreated to allow guests to explore the history and culture of The Enchanted Island.

They also can opt for an even more immersive experience with the “Experience Puerto Rico – The All Star Island” gala, a premium event in the park’s World ShowPlace pavilion at 7:30 p.m. September 20. The two-and-a-half-hour dinner will feature authentic cuisine and entertainment. Plus, there will be a selection of beverages, including handcrafted cocktails made from Puerto Rico's world-renowned rum distilleries. It costs $99 plus tax per person, gratuity included. For tickets, call 407-WDW-FEST (939-3378).

The newest marketplace at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, Patagonia, will showcase the tastes of Argentina and Chile. It will offer sustainable Roasted Verlasso Salmon with Quinoa Salad and Arugula Chimichurri and Grilled Beef Skewer with Cimichurri Sauce and Boniato Purée; and a Beef Empanada. The Chilean Cono Sur Bicicleta Viognier and Argentinean Terrazas Reserva Malbec are suggested wine pairings; other beverages at the marketplace will be Pascual Toso Sparkling Brut and Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir Rosé.

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And, of course, the popular Mexico marketplace returns with three guest favorites: Shrimp Taco with Fried Shrimp, Pickled Habanero Pepper and Onions on Flour Tortilla; Rib Eye Taco with Marinated Ribeye, Roasted Chipotle Salsa and Grilled Scallions on a Corn Tortilla; and Sweet Corn Cheese Cake. Visitors can try a Dos Equis beer, Sangria, a Mango-Strawberry Margarita or a Tequila Flight. Be sure to check out the scheduled performances of the internationally acclaimed Mariachi Cobre band.

In addition to sampling the offerings at the marketplaces, guests can take advantage of Hispanic and Latin culinary stars hosting dining events and demonstrations. The lineup of notable chefs includes Puerto Rico’s Maira Isabel, who will create a variety of recipes with Puerto Rican ingredients at scheduled culinary demonstrations and during the September 20 gala. Other Latin American chefs participating include Paula DaSilva of 3030 Ocean in Miami Beach; Lupe Sanchez of La Hacienda de San Angel and San Angel Inn at Epcot, and several other chefs from a variety of Walt Disney World Resort restaurants.

Some Festival Center activities are included with Epcot admission. Premium wine and culinary programs require reservations and separate event admission. Guests can call 407-939-3378 to make reservations.



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September 9, 2014

Disney celebrates quinceañeras with princess-inspired dresses and parties at theme parks

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Last year, girls celebrating their fifteenth birthdays were among the first to be able to choose celebration gowns that represent the personalities of their favorite Disney Princesses. The Disney Royal Ball Quinceañera Dress Collection by Disney Consumer Products and Ashdon Brands made its debut in May 2013. Now, the just-released collection for 2015 includes 13 new gowns, including two designed with the royal sisters of of the highly popular animated movie, "Frozen," in mind.

Similar to a "Sweet 16," a quinceañera is a coming-of-age celebration for Latina girls. It often includes a religious ceremony and a lavish reception with family and friends. During the party, the birthday girl dances a waltz with her father and changes from flat shoes to high heels to signify the transition toward womanhood.

"With new dresses inspired by Anna and Elsa from Disney's Frozen, the collection offers reminders of even more inspiring and strong characters for Latina teens to channel on their special day," said Nick Yeh, CEO of Ashdon Brands, in a press release.

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Anna's dress features contemporary rosemaling, which is a decorative painting; beadwork; and symmetry in its shades of deep pink and blue. According to the official description, "This gown captures Anna's warmth and exuberance and shimmers with a natural and organic elegance."

Elsa's dress, obviously inspired by snow and ice, has a dramatic palette of icy blues and purples "that deliver a cool elegance reminiscent of the beauty that sets in eternal winter."

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Other princesses represented in the collection include Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, Rapunzel, Aurora, Snow White and Tiana. In addition to the princess-inspired dresses, "la Corona de la Princesa," is a deluxe version of a ball gown that is added to the line each year.

The Disney Royal Ball Quinceañera Dress Collection is available at specialty and formal-wear retailers in the United States and Canada. The dresses come in a range of colors in sizes 0-20 and are priced from $550 to $999. To see all the gowns, view the photo gallery.

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In 2007, Walt Disney World added quinceañera parties to its booming party-planning business. Associates at Disney's Catered Events create custom celebrations for these milestone birthdays, which can be just as over-the-top as Disney weddings with Cinderella's glass coach and footmen, a tiered cake and character appearances.

Base pricing starts with a per-person charge for the venue, plated meal with cake, and background music. These fees begin at $85 per person. Enhancing the decor, food, music or more increases the cost, of course.

The venues for the balls so far have been Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, Boardwalk Inn & Villas, Yacht & Beach Club Resort, Contemporary Resort, Coronado Springs Resort and the American Adventure Rotunda at Epcot. Guests certainly are not limited to these locations, however. Event planners work with the guests to design dessert parties, private viewings of theme-park fireworks or other special occasions. If you can dream it, Disney planners will do their best to make it happen.

Guests can begin planning a quinceañera at Disneyland by calling 714-520-7072 or at Walt Disney World Resort by calling 321-939-4648.



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September 5, 2014

Review: Disney on Ice Presents Frozen

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"Frozen" fans are in for a cool treat with Feld Entertainment's newest Disney on Ice production. The show is making its worldwide debut in Orlando this weekend, and I was invited to preview it at the final dress rehearsal and media event.

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One of the hallmarks of all Disney on Ice shows is that no matter what the main story is, the production includes appearances by Mickey Mouse and Pals and the beloved Disney Princesses. To be sure, Feld knows its audiences. As much as my 9-year-old daughter loves "Frozen," she also was excited to see Ariel, her favorite princess. Mickey and Minnie Mouse host the retelling of the "Frozen" story. What do the classic Disney characters have to do with newcomers Elsa and Anna? A whole lot, it turns out, when the concept of true love is illustrated on ice.

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Speaking of characters, "Disney on Ice Presents Frozen" gives audiences their first look at some of the animated characters in real life. Perhaps the most exciting -- at least in my family -- was when Sven and Olaf each take the ice. The reindeer can be seen as a baby, with young Kristoff, and also as an adult pulling the sled. The show's creators even manage to illustrate the snowman's detachable parts. (Visitors to Disney Parks already have seen Elsa, Anna and adult Kristoff in parades or in person.) In addition, the secondary characters come to life in an impressive fashion. The trolls have elaborate costumes, and even Marshmallow, the giant monster, makes a commanding appearance.

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"Disney on Ice Presents Frozen" adapts the hit movie in a faithful depiction of the original. The audience is taken through the story, scene by scene. There are, of course, a few necessary changes that casual viewers may not even spot. My "Frozen" fans, though, were quick to tell me afterward that the "Love Is An Open Door" scene was out of order. They also pointed out that Anna tries to bribe Kristoff with carrot soup rather than bunches of carrots. These were amusing variances, though, and nothing that took away from the spectacular production. Friends who had never seen the movie -- gasp! -- had no trouble following this version of the popular story.

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The ice skating in this "Frozen" show is amazing, even without the story-telling. When Anna and Hans skate together, it's so beautifully choreographed that it is reminiscent of a pairs routine in a figure skating competition. It's impossible to look away from the graceful moves and tricks. Kristoff also surprises the audience with a skating stunt later in the show. We appreciated the skaters' use of small stages along the perimeter of the rink. When they stepped up (and out of the action), they were able to interact with audience members, which thrilled the kids. The characters alternate locations, engaging different segments of viewers.

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"Disney on Ice Presents Frozen" makes excellent use of props and special effects. One of the most effective is the set of uniquely shaped video screens anchored in the lighting equipment overhead. The screens, which can be seen from all sides of the arena, offer images that are like the changing sets on a stage. The creative use of ropes of lights makes viewers think they are seeing a running fountain on the ice and icicles in the air. Changing patterns and colors of lights on the ice also help set the mood. Who would have thought it could feel like summer in an ice rink during Olaf's big number? And if you think it's possible to have a Disney on Ice production without pyrotechnics, think again.

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"Disney on Ice Presents Frozen" has all the elements of a Broadway production and the appeal of a sing-along. (You'll even have the opportunity to belt out "Let It Go" more than once during the course of the show.) This show does not disappoint! If you have not purchased tickets for the sold-out shows this weekend in Orlando, you're in luck because additional seats have been released. You can purchase tickets at www.disneyonice.com. The production will tour nationally for most of 2015, and new dates continue to be added.

If you do attend a "Disney on Ice Presents Frozen," here is a look at some of the merchandise for sale. Audience members also can choose to have their faces painted to look like Frozen characters or participate in photo shoots, both for additional charges.

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DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Feld Entertainment at the dress rehearsal of "Disney on Ice Presents Frozen." This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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September 4, 2014

Central Florida's Give Kids The World Village grants wishes for kids wih life-threatening illnesses

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Last weekend, I was invited to tour Give Kids The World Village during the second annual Blogger Bash. This event was designed to educate bloggers, so they, in turn, can serve as "Awareness Angels" and help others learn about this worthwhile charity, which is funded through corporate and personal donations.

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Give Kids The World Village is a 70-acre nonprofit, whimsical resort located near Central Florida's well-known theme parks and attractions. Children with life-threatening illnesses and their families are treated to weeklong vacations with free accommodations in the Village's villas.

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But it's not just the stay that is complimentary -- families receive donated tickets to SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World; transportation; meals in the Village's Gingerbread House Restaurant and Katie's Kitchen; and other activities in the Village. The goal is to provide families already burdened with medical expenses with a cost-free vacation so that they can relax and make precious memories together.

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"Hopefully what we are doing is trying to create happiness that will inspire these children to go back and renew their battle against their illness," said Pamela Landwirth, Give Kids The World president. "About half of all children diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses wish to come here [to Orlando]."

There are so many fun things to do at the Village that families could be entertained for the entire week without leaving its grounds. Halloween is celebrated every Monday night with costumes, face-painting and trick-or-treating. Every Thursday it "snows" on Avenue of Angels, and families are invited to a winter holiday that includes horse-drawn carriage rides, a traditional Christmas dinner and presents. Other nights have themed activities, as well: a princess & pirate party, a pool party and game night with the world's largest Candy Land board and pieces.

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They try to "bring [kids] into a world where it's life's simplest pleasures to the stuff that dreams are made of," said Landwirth.

One of those simple pleasures is the Ice Cream Palace, which is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Children and their families are encouraged to have ice cream as often as they would like. In fact, it's suggested -- quite often -- that ice cream makes a great breakfast!

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Give Kids The World Village has used the novelty of that idea to build its national Ice Cream for Breakfast campaign, which is the organization's signature fundraiser. Emily Ellyn, who has appeared on "Food Network Star" and "Cupcake Wars," is the campaign's spokesperson and spoke at the Blogger Bash.

"I had that tug on my heartstrings, and I tied on my apron strings," said the celebrity cook. She's encouraging families everywhere to host their own ice cream socials. Check out icecreamforbreakfast.org for tips and a tool kit.

So, how does a family arrange a trip to Give Kids The World Village?

The process begins when a doctor identifies a child between the ages of 3 and 18 as one with a life-threatening illness, and the family is paired with one of more than 250 partnering wish-granting organizations from around the world. If the child's one wish is to visit any of Central Florida's attractions, the organization can refer the child and family to Give Kids The World Village.

Since 1986, Give Kids The World has served over 122,000 families from all 50 states and more than 73 countries. The organization was founded by Central Florida hotelier Henri Landwirth, who was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps during WWII. The Village opened in 1989 and grew to 140 villas.

In addition to trips to theme parks and themed parties, visitors also can try other activities in the Village, such as playing miniature golf, getting their nails done at the La-Ti-Da Spa or taking a spin on a handicapped-accessible carousel. Plus, characters from Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and Nickelodeon Suites Resort make special visits to the Village, and there even are resident characters, such as Mayor Clayton and Miss Merry.

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"When the kids get to come to the Village, it totally changes their demeanor and their mood," said Brad Loewen, the father of a former wish recipient, at the Blogger Bash. "It also changes the family dynamic. The siblings are now thankful to that sibling, the Make-A-Wish kid, instead of being a downer. They're the reason that they get to come have … all that fun."

Each week more than 1,500 volunteer shifts are filled to help wish families experience their memorable vacations. If you would like to find out how you can help, visit givekidstheworld.org or call 1-800-995-KIDS.



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September 2, 2014

Apply this week for 2015 Disney Parks Moms Panel

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One of Walt Disney's many famous quotations that inspire his admirers is, "Everyone needs deadlines." And if you love Disney Parks, there is a deadline this week that you won't want to miss.

At 10 a.m. ET today (Sept. 2), the application process for coveted seats on the 2015 Disney Parks Moms Panel opens. And your deadline to complete the first round is noon ET on Friday, Sept. 5.

The Disney Parks Moms Panel has evolved from its inception in 2008, but its goal remains the same: to provide vacation-planning advice from adults in families that are interested in and knowledgeable about the Disney properties. For the most part, the panelists' jobs are to answer a number of written questions each week, though there also are some public appearances by the group. In exchange, The Walt Disney Co. provides the selected panelists with a paid trip to one of the Disney properties for training, which is required. In the past, the trip has been scheduled during the first half of December and includes the panelists' immediate family members.

Now, Disney Parks Moms Panelists not only help plan magical vacations for guests heading to Walt Disney World, but they also answer questions about Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Vacation Club, runDisney and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Despite the name, however, panelists are not just limited to those who are mothers -- dads and grandparents have been chosen, as well.

If you are the one all your friends turn to when they plan Disney vacations, this may be a golden opportunity for you! To get started, visit MomsPanelSearch.com this week. If the application process is the same as in recent years, you can expect to answer written questions in the first round. About a month later, applicants are notified whether they have been selected for the next round, which requires submitting a short video and answering more written questions. The final round consists of a phone interview.

Competition for a spot on the Disney Parks Moms Panel is intense -- thousands apply each year and only about 20 new members are chosen. But as the panel's creator, Walt Disney World Director of Social Media Leanne O'Reagan, wrote on the Disney Parks Blog: "The most recent panelists to join the team include several who have applied every year, a few who applied for the very first time, and those in between. Dreams really can come true."

And there is no magical formula to being picked to provide the best answers about all things Disney. I can tell you, though, that several factors weigh heavily in the evaluation process:

** Writing ability. Your application must be flawless, with no grammar or spelling errors or typos. After all, your job is going to be providing written answers for the Disney website. (In fact, the moms panel's answers are not reviewed or approved by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online prior to posting.)

** Accuracy. Double-check your Disney facts to make sure things haven't changed since your last experience. This will be vital when you are answering questions online for families planning Disney vacations.

** Your personality. Disney is not hiring publicists or copy writers for this panel. Instead, the company is looking for engaging personalities who can express themselves clearly in an enthusiastic way.

Get to know the current Disney Parks Moms Panel at http://disneyworldforum.disney.go.com/panelists.aspx You also can see the types of questions they answer -- which are pretty much about anything and everything!

Good luck to everyone who applies for 2015. Please let us know how the process goes and if you are chosen to advance in the application process.



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August 30, 2014

Disney Tsum Tsum plush animals are cute, collectible and going fast

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Is it too soon to think about Christmas shopping? Perhaps not if you want to get in on the Disney Tsum Tsum craze.

Tsum Tsum are collectible, log-shaped plush animals that look like Disney characters and come in three sizes. "Tsum Tsum" means "stack stack" in Japanese, which is the theory behind the shape. Creators want consumers to collect and stack the adorable faces. In addition, the colorful toys have the added functionality of a screen-cleaning material on their stomachs.

Tsum Tsum were introduced to consumers by Disney Japan last year as an offshoot to the mobile video game they star in. “Disney Tsum Tsum” has been described as a Tetris-style game in which players match and stack the figures. When the free app was released globally last month for iOS and Android devices, The Walt Disney Co. launched a collection of 30 different Tsum Tsum plush characters at select Disney Store locations nationwide, online at DisneyStore.com, in stores at Disney Parks, and at Aulani Resort & Spa in Hawaii.

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“Disney Japan has created some of our most successful and popular digital products and Disney Interactive is proud to be working closely with the team to extend their success globally," said Jimmy Pitaro, president of Disney Interactive, in a news release. “This is one of the first times that Disney has introduced a distinctly Japanese product to a global audience, and Disney Tsum Tsum offers our guests a unique combination of quality characters, compelling game play and an engaging social experience."

According to "The New York Times," the game has ranked as the No. 1 downloaded app for extended periods and more than 1.8 million of the stuffed animals have been sold in Japan. Now, Americans seem just as thrilled with the newest "it" toy.

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Disney introduced the Alice in Wonderland, Pooh and Pals, and Mickey and Friends collections of mini Tsum Tsums in its first wave of releases. The 3.5-inch plush animals sell for $4.95 plus tax online and carry a slightly higher price tag at the theme parks. In addition, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse were made available in the medium and large sizes. Those are priced at $12.95 and $24.95, respectively, online and $16.95 and $29.95 at Disney Parks.

Already, many of the Tsum Tsum toys are sold out. At Walt Disney World, the only location where Tsum Tsum toys are sold is Once Upon A Toy store at Downtown Disney Marketplace. A Disney spokesperson told me that the store has sold every mini Tsum Tsum in the first shipment that arrived at the beginning of the month. They do have a limited amount of the other sizes available. Good news, however: Disney Tsum Tsums are not limited-release merchandise, meaning more shipments will be arriving to fill the shelves.

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In the meantime, DisneyStore.com has a good variety of Tsum Tsum plush animals available. (There is a purchase limit of 4 per style per customer.) Customers also can check their local Disney Store locations. For those in Central Florida, that's the store at Florida Mall. A cast member there told me that the mini Alice in Wonderland, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Tiger were in stock as of this writing. That location also had the large Mickey and Minnie and the medium Minnie.

So, if you want to jump into collecting Tsum Tsums, where should you start? As you would expect, Mickey and Minnie are popular choices at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. If you can find them, Stitch, Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo also seem to have widespread appeal.

Even if you’re undecided about whether your kids will enjoy this latest Disney collectible craze, take a tip from this mom. It’s better to start shopping now and have something for the holidays just in case, rather than finding out at the last minute that there’s been a Tsum Tsum addendum to the list for Santa.



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August 28, 2014

Disney Interactive offering free download of Disney Infinity for Wii U

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Good news for families, like my own, who have been playing the popular Disney Infinity game on their Nintendo Wii systems and want to continue playing the game on the latest Nintendo platform without having to repurchase the game.

When Disney’s revamp of the Disney Infinity game comes out next month, Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes will only be able to be played on Nintendo’s Wii U, not the Nintendo Wii or even the company’s 3DS platform.

Disney Infinity 2.0 also will be compatible with Playstation 4, Xbox One, iOS tablets, PCs and smartphones. But what about all the Nintendo gamers who have been playing Disney Infinity on Wii since the game was released a year ago?

Well, Disney Interactive is making it easier to enjoy playing the original game on the Nintendo Wii U, if you choose to upgrade game systems, with your existing accessories. You can get the free download at the Wii U eShop and then use your Wii U Gamepad to start creating worlds in the Toy Box or unlocking items in the Play Sets. You also will be able to enjoy online multiplayer modes of play, as well.

This free download is a great concept that gives gamers who already own Disney Infinity toys and the game for Wii a chance to move up to the Wii U and still play with their game pieces without buying a new copy of the game for Wii U.

Note that you will need a Disney Infinity base and figure to use the free 9.15 GB download.

Like the Disney Interactive site explains: "Play as Sulley in his early student days in the world of Monsters University, plunge into adventure as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean, and activate the powers of Mr. Incredible on a quest to save the world from Syndrome and his super villains in The Incredibles Play Set."

“Disney Infinity launched one year ago, and in that time the number of Wii U players has significantly expanded,” said John Blackburn, Vice President and General Manager of Avalanche Software, in a press release. “Given our commitment to compatibility for our players, we wanted existing Wii owners to be able to experience the Wii U version of the first game for free. With the upcoming launch of the 2.0 Edition of Disney Infinity we want all Nintendo players to experience the game’s Wii U functionality.”

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Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes is scheduled to hit shelves in September. In addition to the heroes and villains, other collectable characters to be released include Donald Duck, Jasmine, Aladdin and Tinker Bell.

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Merida and Stitch will be featured in a new Toy Box Starter Kit for Disney Infinity 2.0. It also includes the same video game disc as the Marvel Super Heroes Starter Pack; a Disney Infinity base; Disney Originals “Toy Box Game Discs” – Stitch’s Tropical Rescue and Brave Forest Siege; one web code card; and a poster. The Toy Box Starter Kit goes on sale in November.

Activision, which owns competing franchise Skylanders, offered a similar incentive earlier this summer. Gamers with Skylanders Trap Team for Wii were offered the Wii U version for free.



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