March 28, 2015

Author Ridley Pearson discusses newest 'Kingdom Keepers' books, 'The Syndrome' and 'The Return: Disney Lands'

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New York Times best-selling author Ridley Pearson visited his home-away-from-home -- Walt Disney World -- this week to launch a book tour promoting his newest novel in the popular “Kingdom Keepers” series. Although the original series of seven books set in the Disney Parks and on Disney Cruise Line ships wrapped up last year, Pearson is writing a trilogy of sequels under the name “The Return.” The first, “Disney Lands” was made available early to theme-park guests who attended two book signings at the resort.

During his time at Walt Disney World this week, Pearson sat down with my children and I to discuss his latest work. My 12-year-old son is an avid Kingdom Keepers reader, and my 10-year-old daughter just started discovering the adventures for herself, so we had plenty of questions for the author.

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Question: How did you decide the premise for this next trilogy in the Kingdom Keeper series?

Answer: For “The Return,” the challenge for me as a writer was to not write the same book and just put a different title on it. … I’m fascinated with the idea of something between employment and internship with the super creative young people that Disney runs into, which would take the shape of an Imagineering school. I wanted to write a series about the Imagineering school, so “The Syndrome” leads you into Imagineering school and “The Return” picks up there. And it happened that I was still dragging my feet not knowing where the conflict would come from. I got an email from a 10-year-old reader, and he said, “What if one night Finn got on the King Arthur carousel and when he got off, things were totally different?” And I said, “Well, there’s the series!”

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Q: Although society’s increasing dependency on technology is an underlying theme in “The Return,” the trilogy really focuses on another subject. Tell us about that.

A: Clearly, the trilogy is more about the backstory of The Overtakers. Who is responsible? Are the villains themselves responsible? Is there a human behind it? If there is, how does that relate to Barracks 14 and the Fairlies? As we dug into that more in the Kingdom Keepers series and we discovered that there was a divide even among The Overtakers, how did that come to be? Why are Maleficent and Ursula in two different camps of the same villainy. Wouldn’t they be stronger if they were united and probably have more power if they were united? Clearly, in the Kingdom Keepers series, they represent two different sides of the same dark side. That will be fully explored in this trilogy. I hope that this trilogy will become this massive “a-ha” for KK readers. I’ve been working on this stuff since the second book and I sort of waited 8 years [for the reveal]. It’s a culmination of a lot of outlining and work and seeding.

Q: One of the really special things about the Kingdom Keepers books is that you describe parts of the Disney Parks and Disney Cruise Line ships that most people don’t see. What behind-the-scenes research did you do for “The Return: Disney Lands”?

A: In “The Return,” there is a mixture of Disneyland past and present. And, creatively, I really wanted to look at where Disney started and where they have evolved to. “The Return” series, I hope, will accomplish that in a lot of ways.

I’ve been to the [Walt] Disney Archives multiple times. Anything you do at the Archives is unusual. They let me have access … Walt was prescient enough to have stenographers in every meeting and there are photos of the carbon copy pages of all those meetings in the archives. You get to go into these loose-leaf notebooks and listen to Walt talking to all the creative people behind all of the amazing animated films and the park and everything else. That was remarkable insight they’ve given me.

They brought out the original book in the fairytale animated films that they turn [the pages of] when they say, “Once upon a time…” With white gloves, they turned them for me just the way they were turned in the films.

I’ve been upstairs in the property side of it with [Disney archivist] Kevin Kern and handled all these amazing artifacts from the films. The biggest goosebump moment was walking through the archives at one point and [Walt Disney archives director] Becky [Cline] stopped me and grabbed me by the arm and said, “Look!” There were Dave Barry’s and my books on shelves in the archives. It never occurred to me that Disney would bother to archive my books, but they archive everything Disney. I’m going to be there forever. I about cried. And they’ve got all the scripts from “Peter and The Starcatchers.” It was just remarkable. I’m just a little footnote of Disney history in there. It gave me goosebumps.

Inside the parks: I was inside Walt’s apartment, which I’ve been in multiple times now, and I had a little plot séance in there. I was just stuck on this plot piece and I asked to just be left alone and I just sat on the floor in there, and it all filled in. It just sort of solved itself.

I’ve been inside the Dream Suite out there and that’s been incredible. I’ve been inside the train complex and inside Lilly Belle where she’s parked, so I’ve had some terrific experiences, but not like maybe going down the utilador. There is no utilador out there, but I’ve found tunnels and things left over from old rides. I’ve been up in the sky lift station that is off limits. It was crumbling and old and there were words written up there. You know that’s The Overtakers’ hangout in the seventh book.

I’ve done some really fun stuff [at Disneyland] but nothing like seeing the dolls move in [it’s a] small world. I was on the ride after dark with no music and no movement. The dolls were frozen, looking really scary, and you could hear the boat – creak, creak, creak, splash, splash, splash – and out of the corner of my eye, I saw two of the dolls step forward. I literally jumped! I was with an Imagineer and I said, “Did you see that?” And he said, “Don’t be silly. It’s turned off. You didn’t see anything.” Well, multiple people have seen this happen, so it turned out I wasn’t the only one. It sure freaked me out.

Q: Have you started writing the second book in the new Kingdom Keepers trilogy? Will fans again be invited to write segments through specific challenges?

A: Yes, I have started "Disney Divides," and I hope so. We did that with the first book, and they wrote some of the quotations that go throughout the book. They were brilliant. I actually had to vet these because I wasn’t sure people hadn’t borrowed these quotes. They were so wise and spot on. I worked with Colloquy Books to do this and I kept saying, “Are you sure these weren’t plagiarized off the Internet somewhere?” And they said they were all original and they were wonderful. So I hope to do something like that. I love working with the Insiders. It could start up pretty soon now that I’m writing and I’ve outlined the whole thing. We would have a better idea of what to ask for.

Q: We noticed the cover art has changed between editions of the first book. Why? And do you help come up with the art ideas for the book?

A: Disney does the covers for the books, and they did an old woodblock cover for the first edition of the first book that I loved. But they didn’t like it, ultimately, so they changed that look. I wish the whole series had had that look. And then we had what they call a second pass, so they published all the books under a different look. And they were nice enough to listen to some changes that I would prefer. I really wanted to bring the villains’ eyes out, so the third and final look to the books are the villains’ eyes with the kids running and doing different things. I still hope for one more pass I’d love to get the kids off [the cover] so it’s just the eyes and a piece of the park. I think “The Return” cover is amazing and I doubt we’ll ever change those at all.

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Q: What is your favorite book that you have written?

A: I think the first Kingdom Keepers book will always be an iconic book for me, just the way I love Magic Kingdom because it’s iconic and it started it all. My favorite book by far is “The Return,” and I had the most fun I’ve ever had writing “The Syndrome” because I got to write from inside Jess’s thoughts and inside Amanda’s thoughts and inside Mattie’s thoughts. I love Amanda, so to be able to be Amanda for several months is an amazing experience for me and I hope to do more of that.

Q: But what about Finn?

A: Oh, I love Finn. Finn is me, really. I’m a combination of Philby and Finn.

The Return: Disney Lands” goes on sale on March 31. “The Syndrome” already is available.



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March 26, 2015

Making magical Easter baskets at Walt Disney World

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Celebrating Easter at Walt Disney World certainly can put a little hop in your step. But for those with children expecting a delivery from the Easter Bunny on April 5, the logistics may seem difficult at best. Rest assured – the Easter Bunny can find kids anywhere, especially when parents and cast members can offer a little assistance.

Guests have three options for purchasing baskets at the resort.

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The first is pre-assembled baskets that are available in most hotel gift shops and lobbies during the week before Easter. These baskets typically are built around a theme. Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney Princesses and Frozen (of course!) are popular. Steven Miller, Merchandise Communications Manager at Walt Disney World, told me that that the best selection will be available on the Thursday before Easter.

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The second choice is for Walt Disney World guests to customize the baskets that are sold in the hotels. Cast members will start with a white basket, green grass, shrink wrap and the choice of a bow -- pink, yellow, blue, purple -- for $7 plus tax. The rest of the price of the basket is determined by the toys and treats chosen for the recipient. Popular items include plush Disney characters, Easter-themed crispy rice treats, coloring books, autograph books and assorted toys.

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So what are some of the more creative baskets cast members have 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.

The average total basket price is about $50, though that obviously was not for the basket with the Dooney bag. There is no charge for labor.

Hotel gift shops will store the baskets until Easter morning if guests don’t want to try to keep them hidden in their rooms.

The third option is the Custom Gift Builder service from Disney Floral & Gifts. This online service gives each customer the ability to select a container and all of the contents to tailor-make a gift.

Guests who like the look of traditional Easter baskets can choose a white basket with a handle and a personalized liner with the child's name. For those who prefer a container they can reuse, there are tote bags, backpack coolers, cinch sacks and Mickey Mouse-shaped trays. Prices for the containers range from about $17 to $60.

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There are more than 100 items that guests can add to their containers, and they are offered at a range of prices. The traditional chocolate bunnies, Peeps marshmallow chicks and various flavors of jelly beans are among the offerings.

Not sure what to put in an Easter basket to make it look irresistible? You can choose from one of the pre-arranged baskets for boys and girls and personalize it by adding the child's name. Prices range from about $70 to $97.

Baskets can be ordered on the Disney Floral & Gifts website or by calling 407-939-4438, and they will be delivered to your hotel room.



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March 24, 2015

Invitations to 2015 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration

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On Friday, March 20, the hashtag #DisneySMMC was trending in the United States -- and with good reason. For many mom bloggers, that day had the potential to be a roller coaster of emotions. That’s because invitations to the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration were sent out, and everyone wanted to talk about their joy or disappointment and try to figure out just how to get on the coveted list.

The short answer is that attendance at “The Most Magical Social Media Conference of the Year” is by invitation only, although there might be some ways to increase your odds. (More on that below.) This year’s conference takes place May 7 to 10 -- Mother’s Day weekend -- at Walt Disney World. This is the sixth year for the conference, with all but one held in Florida. Last year it was at Disneyland.

The Disney Social Media Moms Celebration is a conference for bloggers who get professional communication advice from a range of speakers from national companies. Some of the past speakers have included wedding designer David Tutera; Matt Jacobson, head of market development at Facebook; Chris Brogan, president of Human Business Works, New York Times best-selling author and consultant; Ridley Pearson, the author of the "Kingdom Keepers" series for young adults and many other novels; and Rene Syler, former CBS' The Early Show Anchor and webmaster of goodenoughmother.com.

The four-day event also includes elements of a press junket, allowing conference attendees to experience what's new at the Disney Parks. Plus, it's a celebration that includes many fun family dinners and experiences. Participants pay their own way to the conference and a discounted registration fee that typically includes three nights at a deluxe resort, theme park tickets and dinners for the family, and meals for the blogger.

The big question is, of course, how to get invited to the conference. And, unfortunately, there is no definitive answer, except that it involves a lot of pixie dust.

I was among those fortunate enough to be invited to the 2011 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration, and I learned as much from my fellow bloggers as the amazing speakers. Moms who blog about Disney and other Orlando theme parks (like me) actually were in the minority. Most participants were mom bloggers who write about their daily experiences with their families, while some had specialized blogs for travel and other niches. It's a small group -- somewhere between 150 to 200 bloggers and their families attend.

Although most of this year’s conference invitations have gone out –- there may be some last-minute emails if some participants are unable attend –- those interested in attending in 2016 might be able to increase their chances by getting involved online and in person.

** Begin by following and interacting on social media (when appropriate) with Maria Bailey, who helped create the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration. She is known as “the” authority on marketing to moms. She and her company, BSM Media, Inc., still are very involved with the conference. You also can connect with her by registering as a mom blogger at MomSelect.

** Be sure you are following on social media the Disney organizers behind the magic: @DisneySMMoms @DisneyParks @WaltDisneyWorld @DisneylandToday @DisneyCruise @DisneySports @runDisney @leannej (Leanne J. O’Regan, Walt Disney World Director of Social Media)

** Try to attend a Disney Social Media Moms Celebration on the Road. These mini conferences take place during the summer in a handful of cities throughout the United States. They are a good way to network and promote yourself to the organizers of the big conference at the Disney Parks. Although the 2015 dates have not yet been announced, you can sign up for an email notification on the official Disney Social Media Moms Celebration site. When you receive that notice, you can express your interest with a form on the site, and invitations will be sent out.



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March 21, 2015

Florida artists bring pixie dust and props to Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival

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Two Florida artists who have been spreading pixie dust at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival for years with their miniature fairy houses are back with new creations this year. And for one special weekend, you can meet them at the festival and purchase unique pieces from their company, the Prop Duster Dept.

Sisters Vikki Yarborough and Ronda Maseman work just like the Disney Fairies do -- by recycling objects that humans have discarded and by collecting things from nature.

Last year, they told me about their company’s origins: “We are sisters that have been feeding off of one another's ideas and imagination, creating things together for many years. Our current path began with making various props for gardens -- wind chimes, stepping stones, scarecrows, bird baths, mosaic garden animals, topiaries covered in seeds and homes to attract fairies. The Prop Duster Dept. was born when someone said we make props dusted with pixie dust. The fairies then asked for more, so we took a side path to create these fantasy homes."

At this year’s Flower and Garden Festival, guests can see their signature fairy house, which is the large one modeled after Tinker Bell’s home in the Disney movies and features an overturned teacup. It’s located adjacent to the Tinker Bell topiary outside the butterfly garden in Future World.

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“The large Tinker Bell house has been in the Festival since the DVD movies began [in 2008],” Yarborough told me. “We watched the movie to get the an idea which direction to go. With Tinker Bell’s guidance, we found a large white teapot and a stump of wood for the base, similar to that in the movie; then added other natural items that Tink had used to decorate her house. Each year we bring her home after the festival and refurbish it to get it ready for the next year.”

In past years, the festival also featured multiple fairy topiaries and their homes also were designed by Yarborough and Maseman. I was sad to see they did not return this year.

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However, the pair has created several other stunning pieces in the festival for visitors to enjoy. For example, outside the China pavilion, there is a ram statue made out of natural materials. It represents the Year of the Sheep, and signs in the surrounding garden explain the significance of the zodiac in the Chinese calendar.

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The sisters also have styled props for various gardens, including Miss Piggy’s gardening gloves in her basket of gardening supplies, spice balls in Morocco, Winnie the Pooh’s honey pots and the three pollinators – a bee, a snail and a butterfly – in Pooh’s garden outside the U.K. buildings.

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The Prop Duster Dept. is responsible for this year’s miniature gardens in Japan, as well. Yarborough and Maseman developed a Zen Garden, a Tea Garden and a Mountains Garden based on actual sites.

Guests can see more of the sisters’ work and purchase pieces during the festival’s Art in the Garden weekend, March 27 to 29. Their white artist tent will be located on the Canada side of the World Showcase promenade and will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. all three days.

Can’t make it out to Epcot that weekend? Yarborough and Maseman will be showcasing their fairy houses at a garden tour event, The Private Gardens of Historic Orlando featuring Lake Eola Heights. It takes place in downtown Orlando from noon to 5 p.m. on April 19.

Maseman lives in Central Florida and teaches art to children during the school year and summer art camp at the Mount Dora Center for the Arts. In her spare time, she loves to paint miniature watercolors.

Yarborough lives in Fort Lauderdale with her husband of 36 years and five dogs. She has two grown sons, one who works at Disney's Animal Kingdom. When she’s not creating pixie dust, she enjoys working with stained glass and other home projects.



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March 19, 2015

Tips for registering for runDisney races

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My husband has enjoyed running for a long time, but my 12-year-old son’s newfound interest in the sport has opened our eyes to runDisney races. With his love of Disney and our proximity to Walt Disney World, my son naturally wanted his first races to be runDisney 5Ks.

My family is far from unique in the desire to run those magical miles, but until I began tackling the registration process, I did not know just how popular the runDisney races have become. Getting a bib for a runDisney event has become as challenging as securing a dinner reservation at Be Our Guest.

Race veterans no doubt know their way around the process, but for other fellow newcomers, I’d like to share what we’ve learned so far.

First, know that registration for runDisney events takes place many months in advance. You can find a schedule here. There are two remaining race weekends in 2015 at Walt Disney World -- Expedition Everest Challenge and Wine and Dine Half Marathon – and both already are sold out. However, the next races you can choose to run are during runDisney’s biggest weekend – Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend in January 2016 – and they go on sale to the public on April 28.

runDisney races are selling out more quickly than ever, some within 30 minutes of being available to purchase. So, what’s a runner to do?

First, take advantage of early registration if you are eligible. Annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club members typically can register two weeks in advance. However, this does not guarantee you can register for a particular race. A percentage of bibs is designated for early registration, and, unfortunately, those seem to fill up just as quickly as the spots open to the general public. Still, it’s worth a shot, especially if you are trying to register multiple runners. I was able to register my son for Mickey’s Jingle Jungle 5K during the Wine and Dine weekend, but the early registration closed before I could register my husband or my 10-year-old daughter.

If that happens to you, don’t panic. Do prepare for the public registration, however, by planning to be on your computer and ready to go with all your information and credit or debit card in hand when the registration window opens at noon ET on the designated day. In addition, have a separate person on a different computer prepared to register each runner. If you try to do more than one booking yourself, you run the risk of not getting everyone registered. These two tips are the most important pieces of advice I can offer – and runDisney will tell you the same things. You really have to divide and conquer to get multiple runners registered. Also, note that the Active.com system forces you to register and pay for each person separately anyway.

Suppose you still can’t get everyone in your group registered for a particular race or you want to run more than one race in a weekend and couldn’t get everything in the system before the spots filled up. There are still two avenues open to you, if you act quickly.

Runners can register with a charity group that is approved by runDisney. Look under each race weekend tab on runDisney.com for the list of charities and contact them directly to find out the individual requirements. Each group has an allotment of bibs and in exchange for meeting a fund-raising requirement, you can secure one. Some charities also include room stays, pre- and post-race parties and other perks for different levels of fund-raising. Don’t have time to fundraise? Some runners choose to pay the charity donation themselves and write it off on their taxes. Charity spots seem to fill up quickly, too, but they do take names for wait lists.

The other option is to book a race through a runDisney travel partner, which also are listed on the official website. These travel agencies also have an allotment of bibs that they can issue if you book your weekend stay through them. They advertise special rates for Walt Disney World hotels, theme-park tickets and other race amenities.

Finally, know that ALL runDisney purchases are non-refundable and non-transferable, whether it’s a race bib or commemorative merchandise.

Although I managed to secure bibs for two upcoming runDisney 5Ks for my family members, they have yet to run a race. When they do, look for more newcomer tales from the races.



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March 16, 2015

Walt Disney World to host On the Road to the Radio Disney Music Awards concert

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The 2015 Radio Disney Music Awards will be televised in a little more than a month, but in the meantime, fans can vote for their favorite musicians. In addition, Radio Disney is hosting a series of free concerts called “On the Road to the RDMAs” and one will take place at Walt Disney World.

The Orlando event will take place April 4 at Typhoon Lagoon, one of Walt Disney World’s two water parks. Jacquie Lee, Sweet Suspense, The Fooo Conspiracy and Alex Angelo will perform, with Radio Disney’s on-air personality Brooke Taylor hosting.

Lee is a pop singer best known for being a runner-up on Season 5 of The Voice. Sweet Suspense is an American all-female pop trio that were grouped together on “X Factor USA” by Simon Cowell. The Fooo Conspiracy is a Swedish pop boy band that opened for Justin Bieber at a 2013 concert. Alex Angelo produces and hosts his own weekly radio show on Radio Disney called the Saturday Night Party, making him the youngest nationally syndicated radio host. Last year, he was the DJ throughout the Disney Channel broadcast of the Radio Disney Music Awards.

The Typhoon Lagoon concert is included in the price of admission, which is $53 plus tax for ages 10 and older and $45 plus tax for ages 3 to 9.

The “On the Road to the RDMAs” concert tour kicks off on Saturday, March 21 in Macon, Ga. The Fooo Conspiracy, Megan Nicole and Alex Angelo will perform at The International Cherry Blossom Festival. The concert will be hosted by Radio Disney’s Alli Simpson, sister of singer Cody Simpson, and Brooke Taylor.

Next, Jessica Sanchez, Jordan Fisher and Alex Angelo perform at the McDonald’s Houston Children’s Festival on March 28 in Houston. That concert will be hosted by Radio Disney’s Candice.

Radio Disney listeners can win a trip to the Walt Disney World concert or one to be held at Disneyland in mid- to late April through its Radio Disney On the Road to the RDMAs Sweepstakes. The winner can choose which concert to attend and will view the concert by the stage, hang out backstage and introduce a performance with host Taylor.

To enter, listen for Radio Disney to announce the daily code word and enter it online. Code Word of the Day is valid from 6 a.m. ET on the day it is announced on-air until 5:59 am ET the following morning. The sweepstakes is open to legal residents of the 50 United States, DC or Canada (excluding Quebec), 16 years of age or younger. Sweepstakes ends at 6 p.m. ET March 26, 2015.

The 2015 Radio Disney Music Awards will be televised at 8 p.m. ET April 26 on the Disney Channel. Fans can vote until April 5 on the RMDA website, Facebook and Twitter, by text and through the Radio Disney phone app.



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March 14, 2015

Movie review: Disney's Cinderella and Frozen Fever

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Warning: Limited spoilers ahead

Disney’s live-action version of the fairytale classic “Cinderella” finally opens this weekend after much publicity and cross-promotion by the media giant. And it’s a charming retelling of the well-known story -- one that keeps viewers’ attention, for the most part, and leaves us satisfied with the ending.

Obviously, the biggest hurdle that Director Kenneth Branagh had to overcome was finding a way to present the tale in a way that would entice viewers to go to the theater when they already know how the story unfolds. One modern method of engaging an audience is to create prequels or characters’ backstories. We saw this technique last year with Disney’s “Maleficent.” In this case, we learn about the relationships between Cinderella (played by Lily James), her mother (Hayley Atwell) and her father (Ben Chaplin). The strong bonds among the family members explain Cinderella’s later decisions that we see play out, often to her detriment.

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James is perfectly cast as Ella, who later comes to be known as “Cinder-Ella” after sleeping by the dying fire. She is charming, graceful, beautiful and totally believable as Cinderella. We forget that James also is Lady Rose MacClare on “Downton Abbey.” One of the stepsisters, Drisella, is played by a fellow “Downton Abbey” castmate, Sophie McShera. And they are not the only accomplished actors in the film. Cate Blanchett is convincing as the stepmother, Helena Bonham Carter comes to life as the Fairy Godmother, and Richard Madden is Prince Charming,

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“Cinderella” is quite a visual feast, as well. The costumes in this movie are so rich and exquisitely detailed, and not just in the grand ballroom scene where attendees are dressed in their finest. In addition, special effects allow viewers to actually see the slow transformation of the pumpkin and mice into the carriage and horses –- and the bumpy ride back to their original forms after the clock strikes midnight. Plus, various and multiple camera angles make viewers actually feel like they dancing at the ball with Cinderella and Prince Charming.

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And yet, “Cinderella” (and most things related to the Disney Princesses) could have a narrower audience than some other Disney films. Naturally, many little girls will consider this a must-see movie, while boys who are not toddlers might not be as charmed. As for my own children, my 10-year-old daughter loved the movie while my 12-year-old son found the second half to drag once he got past the new background material at the beginning.

As much as my daughter enjoyed the movie, she did point out that it was unusual for a Disney movie to depict three deaths – Ella’s mother and father and later the prince’s father, the king. She found that unnecessary to the story-telling, but my son noted that in addition to the obvious plot reasons why the characters must die, the deaths also served as a way for Ella and Prince Charming to bond.

Overall, “Cinderella” is an entertaining movie with a good message that is woven throughout the story: “Have courage and be kind.” That certainly is a lesson we all can take to heart.

Frozen Fever

If “Cinderella” doesn’t draw the male audience members, the “Frozen” animated short that is attached to the beginning of the film just might. “Frozen Fever” is the highly anticipated seven-minute feature that advances the story of the mega-popular “Frozen” characters. It’s delightful, and quite possibly, alone worth the price of a movie ticket.

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When the short opens, it’s Anna’s birthday and Elsa is determined to make it the best celebration ever because she wasn’t around for her other birthdays. However, Elsa catches a cold, which jeopardizes everything she had planned.

"Frozen Fever" is chock full of merchandising opportunities – from new dresses on the sisters to a new, adorable character that is introduced. Some products already are available on DisneyStore.com and at Epcot for the Flower and Garden Festival, and I’m sure there are many more to come. Plus, The Walt Disney Company announced this week that a full-length sequel to “Frozen” is in the works.

DISCLAIMER: I viewed "Cinderella" and “Frozen Fever” at a media screening before their official release. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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March 12, 2015

Disney offers cash prizes to software developers for new fitness apps

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Developers, assemble! The Walt Disney Company has teamed up with Creative England, a nonprofit group, to sponsor a competition to come up with new fitness apps for families using Disney and Marvel characters. The reward? A £95,000 (or more than $148,000 in U.S. cash) prize.

The competition in England was designed “to target software specialists outside London’s highly competitive development scene,” according to a press release, though only companies in England are qualified for the competition.

Matt Carroll of Disney said in the release that the competition was seeking submissions that take advantage of the latest heath technology trends, such as wearable fitness sensors.

“We hope developers will be inspired to come up with fun and engaging digital solutions using Disney’s stories and characters for families to use, which will positively effect [sic] a healthier way of life,” Carroll wrote.

Disney officials said the company’s decision to back the competition follows the success of a Pirates of the Caribbean add-on for the Disney Infinity video game created in Brighton by local developer Studio Gobo.

Disney and Creative England’s competition will award £5,000 (more than $7,500) to three regional developers in the first round to prepare a ‘proof of concept’. One team will then win £80,000 (more than $125,000) in funding to help develop a final product.

Disney is just one large company that is seeking to secure a piece of the lucrative fitness technology industry. This week, Apple introduced its new watches that are touted to have a fitness component that is an integral part of the devices. But it’s not just in the mobile tech realm in which Disney has turned to sports to reflect some of its core values and tap into poplar pastimes for its fans.

The Walt Disney Company has continued to build its ties to professional and amateur sports, too. Last week, the company announced its sponsorship of the new Orlando City Soccer Club. Also, the popular runDisney division appears to be growing by leaps and bounds with new races, health and fitness expos, and related events. In addition, Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando hosts amateur sporting events of all types year-round and continues to attract positive fan exposure even with little marketing compared to that of the resorts and theme parks here in Orlando.



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March 10, 2015

Kids can have fun, too, at 2015 Epcot Flower and Garden Festival

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At first glance, you might think the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is something only for adult guests to experience. After all, how many children are really thrilled by the slow-paced joys of gardening? Yet children actually can enjoy plenty of activities at the festival, making it a great day for families to spend time together.

During the festival, two fun playground-type areas are installed at the theme park. This is the only time these play structures are available at Epcot. The largest is Mike & Sully's Monstrous Garden, which debuted last year and is virtually unchanged this year. It is located along Imagination Walkway between Future World and World Showcase. Inside the "garden," families will find play equipment from Landscape Structures. This company has been providing -- and customizing -- the large play structures for the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival for years.

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On one side, younger kids will find a "Monsters University"-themed play structure just for them, complete with monster footprints leading up ramps, interactive games and tunnels to explore, and slides to make a quick getaway. The set is intended for children for ages 2 to 5.

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At the other end of the nearly one-third-acre garden is a net climber for older kids ages 5 to 12, and even adults. Be aware: The monsters have an eye (or several) on you from above, and parents can watch from shaded chairs along the perimeter.

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In addition to the unique play areas, this garden features monstrous-size Mike and Sully topiaries. Sully is one of Walt Disney's World's largest, weighing in at 4,300 pounds. It took almost 4,000 small plants to fill his frame. Although Mike is lighter at about 1,000 pounds, engineers had to incorporate the stack of books behind him to balance that weight. In addition, groups of monsters formed from plants guard the entrance to the playground.

Mike & Sully's Monstrous Garden is one of the illuminated gardens, meaning it is lit up for nighttime playing.

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The “Cars 2” play area with Mater and Lightning McQueen topiaries has been re-imagined this year as the Cactus Road Rally. It is in the same location on the walkway near Test Track, and the play equipment from Landscape Structures also is the same. Cactus Road Rally is a smaller play area designed for kids ages 5 to 12, but there is a lot for visitors of all ages to enjoy visually.

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What’s different about the “Cars” area this year is the array of plants. The gardens showcase cactus plants in various shapes and sizes as well as other succulents that live in the desert, which is the setting for the “Cars” movies. It’s fun to spot the car parts and accessories that are interspersed in the playful flower beds.

Cactus Road Rally closes at dusk.

Although the play areas certainly are the highlight for elementary-school-age children, there are other experiences at Epcot’s Flower and Garden festival designed with kids in mind. Guests who are young and young-at-heart will enjoy the Butterflies on the Go! Exhibit. Inside the enclosure, visitors can see 10 species of butterflies up close and might get the opportunity to see them emerge from their chrysalises.

In addition, scavenger hunts are always popular with families, as evidenced by the many different types of quests in each Disney park. For the festival, however, there is a game for young children to find where five character topiaries are located. Parents can see the hunt and print the instructions in Black and White HERE!

And although it is not a scavenger hunt per se, many kids (and adults) enjoy collecting stamps from the Outdoor Kitchens and other festival-specific locations for their Garden Passports. These booklets are available in the festival center, festival merchandise locations and the Outdoor Kitchens for free.

Epcot Executive Chef Gregg Hannon recommends that children try these dishes:

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** Cachapa con Queso Sweet Corn Pancake with Farmers Cheese (Botanas Botánico)

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** Veggie Quesadilla -- Flour tortilla filled with Monterrey Jack cheese and mixed vegetables (Jardin de Fiestas, Mexico)

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** Watermelon Salad with onions, B&W Gourmet Farms baby arugula, feta cheese and balsamic reduction (Florida Fresh, Germany)

** Pineapple Soft-Serve (Pineapple Promenade, World Showcase Plaza)

My 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son have enjoyed sampling foods and beverages at the Outdoor Kitchens the last two years. Here are their tried-and-true recommendations:

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** Beijing Style Candied Strawberries (Lotus House, China) The large strawberries are very ripe and juicy, and the crunchy, sweet coating makes them even more delicious.

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** Dessert Frushi -- Pineapple, Strawberries and Melon rolled with Coconut Rice, served with Raspberry Sauce, sprinkled with Toasted Coconut and Whipped Cream. (Hanami, Japan)

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** Harissa Chicken Kebab with Sweet Couscous Salad (Taste of Marrakesh, Morocco) They both enjoyed the spicy flavor of the chicken but weren't as adventurous with the cold couscous salad.

And The Smokehouse: Barbecue and Brews kitchen at the The American Adventure also is a good bet for children. My husband and I tasted the four menu items being served there during the 2015 opening weekend, and they are likely to appeal to kids.

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The Pulled Pig Slider with Cole Slaw and the Smoked Debreziner Sausage with house-made kraut and mustard weren’t my favorites, but they certainly were plain enough to appeal to picky palates. The Beef Brisket Burnt Ends Hash with white cheddar fondue and pickled jalapenos was especially good. The beef, potatoes and cheese are flavorful and likely will give this dish wide appeal. Be warned, though, that some might want the jalapenos on the side. Finally, the “Piggylicious” Bacon Cupcake with Maple Frosting and Pretzel Crunch is just as good as it was last year. The combination of the three flavors is delicious.

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Do you have tips for enjoying the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival with children? Please share them in the comments.



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March 7, 2015

D23 Expo 2015 contests to award Disney fans with trip to Aulani, $2,300 cash prize

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Dedicated Disney fans already are counting the days until the next D23 Expo in Anaheim, Calif., largely because of all the exclusive Disney experiences. But this week D23 announced that it is upping the ante with two new contests that will culminate at the fan convention and award winners with a whole lot of magic.

The first contest, Mousequerade, invites participants to create their own Disney-inspired costumes for a chance to win a trip for two to Aulani. Costumes must fall into one of these categories:

** Heroes Unmasked
** Once Upon a Costume
** The Wonderful Worlds of Disney
** Best of Star Wars
** Weird, Wild, and Goofy!

Submissions will be evaluated on the basis of creativity and originality, quality and craftsmanship of costume, and relationship of costume to the contest theme. 15 finalists will be chosen in each category to appear on stage at D23 on Aug. 14 for the final, live judging.

To get started, fill out the entry form at d23expo.com/mousequerade and submit a photo of yourself dressed in the costume by April 30. Be sure to read the official rules about what types of costumes are allowed. You must be 18 years old and a resident of one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia to compete.

The second contest, D23 Expo Design Challenge, honors Disneyland’s 60th anniversary by encouraging artists to create their own interpretations of Sleeping Beauty Castle. The winner will take home a cash prize of $2,300. Submissions will be evaluated on the basis of creativity, originality and artistic expression.

Twenty-three finalists will be selected and their artwork will be on display throughout the D23 Expo weekend on the show floor, located in the Walt Disney Archives area.

To enter, visit d23expo.com/designchallenge to submit sketches or proposed artwork by April 30. It’s important to also read the official rules about what can and cannot be included with your creation. You must be 18 years old and a resident of one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia to compete. The winning artist will be chosen prior to the start of the D23 Expo.

Finalists in both competitions will receive two complimentary tickets to attend the D23 Expo 2015. Contestants do not need to be members of D23 to enter either contest. The Expo takes place Aug. 14 to 16 at the Anaheim Convention Center.



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