November 22, 2014

Mark your calendars: New holiday special 'Toy Story That Time Forgot' airs Dec. 2

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It's almost December, and that means it's about time for beloved Christmas specials to begin airing on television stations. New ads this week reminded us that among the classics is a new Disney-Pixar show, "Toy Story That Time Forgot," that is sure to join the ranks of must-see holiday programming.

The official description of "Toy Story That Time Forgot" describes the 22-minute animated show this way: "During a post-Christmas play date, the "Toy Story" gang find themselves in uncharted territory when the coolest set of action figures ever turn out to be dangerously delusional. It's all up to Trixie, the triceratops, if the gang hopes to return to Bonnie's room in this 'Toy Story That Time Forgot.' "

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Everyone's favorite toys are joined by battling dinosaurs (called the Battlesaurs) who don't know they are toys. It's been reported that the creative team took the time to design the Battlesaurs as if they were a real toy line. That certainly bodes well for future stories and marketing opportunities.

"Toy Story That Time Forgot" has been in development for three years. Apparently the animated special originally was supposed to be a short, much like "Partysaurus Rex" and "Hawaiian Vacation," which were attached to full-length feature films in theaters. Both are gems, keeping audiences wishing for more.

Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios Creative Chief Officer John Lasseter is said to have especially liked the concept and wanted to develop it into a longer story. Lasseter directed the original "Toy Story" film, and his innovative use of computer technology made him a household name.

The cast of "Toy Story That Time Forgot" includes Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen as Buzz, Kristen Schaal as Trixie, Kevin McKidd ("Grey’s Anatomy") as Reptillus Maximus, Wallace Shawn as Rex, Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants, Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head and Joan Cusack as Jessie.

"Toy Story That Time Forgot" is produced by Galyn Susman and directed by Steve Purcell. The special from Pixar Animation Studios debuts at 8 p.m. ET Dec. 2 on Disney-owned ABC.

Earlier this month, it was announced that Lasseter will direct "Toy Story 4," which will be released in 2017. Reactions from fans were mixed, some believing the trilogy had wrapped up the the story, while others are excited for a new installment.



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November 20, 2014

Review: 'The Complete Walt Disney World' by Julie and Mike Neal

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My family and I have long been fans of the series of independent Walt Disney World guidebooks that are written and photographed by Julie and Mike Neal. The 2015 edition of "The Complete Walt Disney World" has just been released, and I would again recommend it to anyone planning a trip to the Orlando resort.

Certainly what first attracts the reader to this book is the plentiful gorgeous photography. There are more than 550 color photos, and half of them are new to this particular edition. With such visual appeal, the guidebook almost could serve as a coffee-table book -- or at the very least, a great souvenir to help relive your vacation -- when you return home. My 12-year-old son, who has been to Walt Disney World too many times to count, has spent many enjoyable hours over the years studying these guidebooks.

But "The Complete Walt Disney World" is not just beautiful to look at it. It's also packed with valuable information that is organized in an easy-to-access format. Each ride and show is showcased on its own page or pages with a description, frank review and details such as hour-by-hour wait times and FastPass availability. And, there are some changes in the current guidebook to consider, as well.

"A big difference [in the 2015 edition] is in the tips and opinions," author Julie Neal told me. "We realized that information is a dime a dozen, but informed advice isn't. So we played up the tips and honest opinions to help readers make the best of their own trip to Walt Disney World."

As a former cast member and Florida resident who has spent more than 1,500 days at Walt Disney World, Neal certainly has the background to offer such guidance.

The tips sections may be especially important to families because these areas offer the practical information that visitors with children seek.

"For example, the Jedi Training Academy article goes to great lengths to help families who want to sign their children up to participate. And the writing for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train stresses to sit in the front for a milder experience that spends more time on the "show" aspects of the experience, and to sit in the back row for a more "roller coaster" experience. And like before, we have expansive tips on how to score big on both the Buzz Lightyear and Toy Story Mania attractions," Neal said.

I noted in a review of a previous edition of this guidebook that I especially liked the swimming-pool information in the Accommodations chapter, and that is included here, as well. It has a description of every Disney resort swimming pool and compares it to the other pools. My family especially can appreciate this because the quality of the water slide where we are staying is of the utmost importance to my children.

We also like the Animal Kingdom wildlife guides, especially since we recently stayed at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Habitat maps that have been expanded for this edition make it easy to spot exotic creatures throughout the park.

The only independent Disney guide ever honored by The Walt Disney Company, “The Complete Walt Disney World” is the winner of Disney's iParenting Media Award for Outstanding Family Product. Altogether the title has won 21 national and international book awards. Its list price is $24.95.

The Neals have another new Disney book coming out at the end of the year, too. "The Complete Walt Disney World: Fun Finds & Hidden Mickeys" focuses on the hidden and fun details Disney hides on its property. Plus, the Neals travel up Interstate 4 to offer their experience on touring Universal Orlando in their guidebook, "Complete Universal Orlando," which is scheduled to be released in the spring. Expect the same quality and quantity of photos and helpful details in both new guidebooks.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of "The Complete Walt Disney World 2015" to review. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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November 17, 2014

Orlando's newest themed attraction: American Girl store

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It’s no surprise that a lot of out-of-town visitors to Walt Disney World and the other Orlando themed attractions enjoy taking in the other sights and sounds – and shopping opportunities – offered here in Central Florida. Now, for many parents coming here on vacation, there’s an even greater enticement to spend at least a part of vacation time at one Orlando’s shopping meccas.

For many little girls -- including my own daughter -- a dream came true this past weekend when a new American Girl store opened in Orlando. The popular maker of dolls has fewer than 20 stores nationwide, and most are situated in large cities. Before the new location opened at Florida Mall, Miami was the closest store for Central Florida residents and its visitors.

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The grand opening celebration on Saturday and Sunday was expected to draw a combined total of about 10,000 shoppers. My daughter and I were among the crowds on Saturday, and although we had an almost three-hour wait to enter the store in the afternoon, we had an enjoyable time because of the all the additional themed activities and well-planned system for managing the crowds.

When we arrived, we first noticed a large pink tent set up in the parking lot in front of the new store. When we joined the queue there, we were offered bottles of water with the American Girl logo -- a nice touch -- and a brochure with all the scheduled entertainment while we waited to be assigned to a group to enter the store. Tickets were issued on a first-come, first-served basis and multiple methods were used to notify shoppers about which groups were being called to the store so they could do other things at the mall while waiting. (Guests had the opportunity to sign up for text and Facebook alerts, and there were large digital screens set up in the plaza outside the store and inside the mall.)

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An ice cream truck and tables covered in pink tablecloths were set up in the parking lot for waiting shoppers. In the outdoor plaza, girls could participate in two different crafts; get a sparkle tattoo and balloon animal; or pop into a photo booth or pose in front of an official opening screen -- all for free. There was so much to do, we didn't even make it into the mall before it was out turn to enter the store. I can't say enough how well the crowds were handled. We hardly felt like we were waiting because my daughter had so many other fun things to do.

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When our time was announced, we joined a short queue and were given a complimentary copy of an American Girl craft book. And then, we were inside the store! My daughter had visited the Miami store, so she was familiar with the different sections of the store and immediately set off to find the Doll Salon. She was intent on giving her doll the gift of a spa treatment (a careful cleaning of the doll's "skin") and a new hairstyle that she picked from a list of about 85 choices. The Doll Salon can accommodate a row of dolls at the same time, and the services are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. The hairstyles typically range from $10 to $20, and spa treatments are $5 to $12. Ear piercing also is available for $14.

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Next, we visited the Creativ-Tees kiosk, which is where guests can pick a design and have a matching T-shirts made for themselves and their dolls. Although American Girl sells coordinating outfits online and through its catalog, these T-shirts are only sold in stores. My daughter selected a beach design for her doll. The doll-size T-shirts cost $10, the girls' T-shirts are $24. Each store also has a selection of exclusive merchandise, including logo shirts with the city where the store is located.

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Then, we headed to the area that featured the clothing and accessories for the Girl of the Year, Isabelle. Each year, American Girl has a featured doll, who is only available for purchase that year. These dolls have a modern interests and are from different parts of the country. For example, Isabelle is a ballet dancer from Washington, D.C., and last year's doll, Saige, was an artist from New Mexico. American Girl stores typically have a photo opportunity set up that features the Girl of the Year, so visitors can pose with their dolls.

American Girl also offers eight historical dolls and 40 dolls that are made to look like the customer. Girls can choose from dolls with various combinations of skin tone, hairstyle and eye color to find one they can identify with. Each 18-inch doll costs $115 and is recommended for ages 8 and older. American Girl also makes Bitty Babies, which are 15-inch dolls that look like babies instead of companions and are aimed at a younger audiences of children ages 3 and older.

My daughter also likes to look in the book nook. Each store also has a designated area for a variety of American Girl books: historical stories, mysteries, modern tales, crafts and DVDs.

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The American Girl stores also have restaurants -- called Bistros or Cafes -- that serve afternoon tea, lunch and dinner. Of course, your little girl's doll is invited -- and expected -- to join the experience. In fact, if you child doesn't bring a doll, she will be offered one on loan for the meal. Dolls are seated in their own chairs that attach to the table and given doll-sized portions of food. My daughter and I had lunch at the Miami Bistro and she just loved it! Prices ranges are $4-$7 for appetizers, $8 to $15 for entrees and $4 to $7 for dessert. Afternoon tea is $13.50 per person.

The restaurants also host groups celebrating birthdays. Some locations, including the Orlando location, also have separate rooms for private parties. Reservations are recommended for all meals and parties and can be booked online at AmericanGirl.com.

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The new Orlando American Girl store is already decorated for the holidays. The window displays showcase winter scenes, such as one of the dolls riding in a carriage drawn by a horse. Inside, there is a gorgeous tree that makes a wonderful backdrop for photos. Once a store has been in operation for a few months, special events are scheduled at the store. For example, in December, other stores host events with Santa. I was told these won't happen in Orlando until 2015, however.

The store's regular hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. There will be special hours for the holidays.

If you’re a Central Florida parent of a girl who loves the dolls as much as mine, I imagine you’re happy there’s a nearby store that appeals to your child. If you’re visiting Orlando’s theme parks, though, and don’t live near an American Girl store, you might want to save time in your vacation for a quick trip to a place where special, one-of-a-kind dolls are the themed attraction.



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November 15, 2014

Tips for attending taping of Disney Parks Christmas special

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The theme parks usually get a jump on the holidays and begin their Christmas celebrations in November, and this year is no different. In addition to the annual tradition of holiday parties, fireworks and parades, The Walt Disney Co. already has begun production on its television special that airs on Dec. 25.

Earlier this week, segments of the Christmas Day show were taped at Disneyland, and that's when fans first realized some of the changes in store for the production. First, the show has been retitled "Disney Parks Frozen Christmas Celebration" from the "Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade." That should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen all the Frozen-themed entertainment that has been added to the holiday offerings at Walt Disney World this year. (Read more about A Frozen Holiday Wish and Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade here.)

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Rob Marciano

Expect those popular attractions to be showcased when the tapings occur here in Orlando. (More on that below.) But in sunny California, it doesn't appear that any "Frozen"-themed segments were taped. Instead, the West Coast got a new host this year, welcoming ABC News Senior Meteorologist Rob Marciano from "GMA Weekend."

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Other performers who taped performances at Disneyland in front of Sleeping Beauty's Winter Castle were Grammy-winning musical group Train singing "Shake Up Christmas"; Trey Songz performed “All I Want For Christmas Is You”; and Trisha Yearwood sang “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

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Lucy Hale

At Disney's California Adventure Park, Lucy Hale performed "Mistletoe" on a stage in Cars Land. The cast of ABC Family's "Baby Daddy" -- Tahj Mowry, Chelsea Kane, Derek Theler, Jean-Luc Bilodeau and Melissa Peterman -- also appeared in Cars Land.

Here in Orlando, taping for the production is expected on Saturday, Dec. 6 through Tuesday, Dec. 9 -- twice as long as in most recent years. I'm told that the additional time is needed because all the parade floats are being filmed in Orlando for the first time; in the past, filming of the floats was also done at Disneyland. In addition, celebrity performers' schedules may have contributed to the extended schedule. Walt Disney World officials do not release the taping dates, but historically production work occurs the first weekend in December. A source also told me that the large-scale dance number on Main Street, U.S.A., still is set for Saturday, and the other days will be used for the celebrity performances and taping of the actual parade floats.

Fans love to speculate who will be performing, but that, too, is a closely guarded secret, for the most part. Presumably, this is to help avoid overwhelming crowds that would be disruptive to other guests' park experiences.

For years, Walt Disney World invited various groups, such as passholders and sports volunteers -- and even the general public, to apply for free tickets to the tapings. In exchange, ticketholders agreed to be in the audience for a block of time. For the last couple of years, however, only cast members were eligible for the tickets.

But even if you don't have one of the complimentary production tickets, you still may be able to take part in the tapings -- or at least see some of the acts. The Magic Kingdom opens to the public at 9 a.m. on Dec. 6, 7, 8 and 9. Passholders and guests who pay admission may enter the park, and if there is room in the roped-off areas for the pre-selected audience -- which usually happens later in the afternoon -- they may be allowed to join cast members.

A word of warning: This is an actual television production, which means that songs are sung multiple times and individual floats are sent down Main Street over and over again to get the desired image from the correct camera angle. That means you most likely will spend more time waiting than viewing the events, and you shouldn't expect to see a seamless concert or parade.

I speak from experience when I say this can be a tedious process when you have young children. If you're determined to take part, though, I'd suggest bringing plenty of snacks, drinks and electronics to occupy the kids during the wait. Still, it can be a unique opportunity. When else would my daughter stand feet away from Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers while they serenaded the crowd with Christmas songs a few years ago?

Now, if Disney could just make her Christmas wish come true and get One Direction to stick around and visit Walt Disney World after their taping at Universal Orlando next week …

The Disney Parks Frozen Christmas Celebration airs at 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Dec. 25 on ABC.



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November 13, 2014

Make the most of your time at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

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Do you hear what I hear? Why, yes, it is Mickey and his friends singing Christmas carols at the Magic Kingdom holiday party that happens every year about this time. And if you’re planning on going and want to have yourself a very merry Christmas at the event, consider a little preparation before you go.

Whether you are a relaxed, go-with-the-flow kind of traveler or one who thrives on lists and reservations, it's important to have at least discussed the priorities of your group before arriving at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. There are so many things to do and everyone wants to feel as if they have gotten their money's worth because party tickets are not inexpensive. In my opinion, however, they are worth it if you use your time wisely.

For the most part, I am a Type A traveler, and like moms everywhere, I am the one who packs for the kids, plans the group photos, makes the dinner reservations -- and then collapses into bed satisfied at the end of a successful day. Here are things I consider before attending Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. I hope they will help you, too, make the most of your experience.

Before you go:

** Outfits. There are many great backdrops for family photos that could be used on Christmas cards and other photo gifts, so I usually plan what we will wear. You don't have to embarrass your husband with matching sweaters, but maybe he could be persuaded to upgrade his old T-shirt for the night. Pack accordingly, and don't forget festive hats or other holiday props to get in the spirit.

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** Disney's MemoryMaker. If you are staying at Walt Disney World on vacation and not attending the party as a day guest, purchasing MemoryMaker may be worth the expense. MemoryMaker will give you all the professional photos taken during your trip. If you order it at least three days before you arrive, you will save $50.

** Plan a relaxing morning at the hotel or another low-key event, so you will be energized when you arrive at the Magic Kingdom. Although most party events do not start until 7 p.m., your ticket does allow you to enter the park at 4 p.m. and there is plenty to do to take advantage of those three hours.

What to do before the party starts:

** Stop by the Fire House in Town Square to collect your special edition Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card. This year's card is Elsa's Icy Shield. More details here.

** If you haven't been able to secure a reservation for dinner at the oh-so-popular Be Our Guest restaurant, you might have a shot during Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. A fellow blogger told me that the cast members will take a limited number of walk-up reservations, usually beginning between 6 and 6:30 p.m. If you are able to get on the list, understand that this likely means sacrificing a couple of hours of party time. You have to decide if that trade-off is worth it to your party.

** If you are not trying for Be Our Guest reservations, have a quick bite to eat. We prefer a counter-service restaurant on party nights so we have time to get to all the entertainment. This year, however, we jumped right into a queue and never ate a meal, or much else, that night. If you think you might choose this last option, be sure to pack a few snacks if you have youngsters in your party.

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** This year's hottest character meet-and-greet is Jack Skellington dressed as Sandy Claws. On the first party night, we got in line about 5:30 p.m. and waited two hours. (This was the same queue time last year when Jack made his first appearance at Mickey's Not-So_Scary Halloween Party.) Because of the high demand, MouseSteps.com is reporting that Sandy Claws now is greeting guests beginning at 6:15 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. Only guests with party wristbands will be allowed in the queue. Either way, I recommend heading over to the line in Storybook Circus early so you can do your waiting before the party starts and other entertainment will be competing for your time. And though the line might be long, one good aspect of this meet-and-greet site is that it features a couple of charging stations for your electronics, so you can be productive in that sense as you wait in line.

** Also at 6:15 is the new "A Frozen Holiday Wish," the short stage show in front of Cinderella Castle during which the folks from Arendelle light up the 200,000 "icicles" adorning the castle. If you opt to wait for Sandy Claws early, this show repeats at 8 p.m.

** Check out the Jungle Cruise, which has been transformed into the Jingle Cruise for the second year. This "world-famous" holiday overlay can be experienced during regular park hours, too, but if you have some time to kill, it's a fun way to get in the Christmas spirit before the party.

Touring plan for party hours:

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** You won't want to miss Mickey's Once Upon A Christmastime Parade, which includes the Frozen characters for the first time this year, other beloved Disney characters, everyone's favorite toy soldiers and a certain Jolly Old Elf ho-ho-ho-ing. The parade is presented twice at 8:15 and 10:30 p.m., bookending the Holiday Wishes fireworks and Celebrate the Magic castle projection show. The first parade is always much busier than the second, so if you can wait, I'd recommend it. If the second parade is past little ones' bedtimes, plan on securing a spot along the parade route an hour in advance.

** Holiday Wishes at 9:30 p.m. is also another must-see. For this display, however, you can step onto Main Street U.S.A. or around the perimeter a few minutes before the start time. Our family's plan was to arrive on Main Street about 9:10 for the beginning of Celebrate the Magic at 9:15 and the fireworks at 9:30. When they ended 20 minutes later, we grabbed a spot on the curb for the second parade. The party we were attending was sold out, so even seats along the curb were scarce for the second parade. It's usually less crowded in Frontierland and Liberty Square, however.

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** During the party hours, there also are two stage shows -- A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas and Celebrate the Season -- that are presented multiple times throughout the night. Both are fun shows if you have time to catch them. We tend to make these a lower priority because there is only so long you can ask a child to sit still.

** Character dance parties occur continuously at The Diamond Horseshoe and Cosmic Ray's. We popped into Club Tinsel at Cosmic Ray's after picking up a complimentary serving of hot cocoa, cookies, apple juice and apple slices. The high-energy dance songs were popular with the kids in attendance and even the staffers in the restaurant, judging by all the dancing we saw.

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** The Disney characters are out in full force -- favorites such as the Fab 5 and more rarely seen characters such as Scrooge McDuck, Santa Goofy, the Seven Dwarfs and the princes. This year, Minnie Mouse debuted a new party costume.

** If you are in the market for souvenirs, be sure to check out the exclusive party merchandise. In addition to the usual assortment of T-shirts, ornaments and pins, there is a Limited Edition Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party MagicBand and a Limited Edition Olaf Christmas MagicBand.

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** Remember those outfits you so carefully planned? Don't forget to have at least one professional photo taken of your group once darkness falls. One of my favorite spots is the photo opportunity set up in Town Square with Main Street and the castle in the background. The other is on the bridge from the hub to Tomorrowland, where you will have a nice view of Cinderella Castle lit up with the icicles.

** Finally, if you're feeling like a scrooge and just want to escape the crowds, don't forget about all the attractions that are open. My family tends to focus on all the Christmas activities, but the rides actually have short lines -- no FastPasses needed -- if that's where your interest lies.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at a media preview of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. This did not affect my story, and my opinions are my own.



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November 11, 2014

New 'Frozen' holiday celebrations debut at Walt Disney World

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Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party is back, and there are quite a few new things for the 2014 season that likely will affect how you plan your party night -- especially if anyone in your group likes the animated hit movie "Frozen." My family and I attended the first party on Friday, and I have some tips to offer so you can see everything -- and everyone -- from Arendelle. Here is what you need to know about Ana, Elsa, Olaf and Kristoff and the order they appear at the party:

1. Elsa and Ana continue their regular meeting of guests in Princess Fairytale Hall during the day hours and during the official Christmas Party time from 7 p.m. to midnight. This is the same meet-and-greet as guests experience during the day with the pair in the same room but posing for separate photos. However, this could be your opportunity to avoid hours-long waits and the hassle of hard-to-get FastPasses. The queue tends to die down during Holiday Wishes fireworks, which begin at 9:30 p.m.

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2. This year's special Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card is Elsa's Icy Shield. You don't have to play the game during the Christmas party, but you can only collect this special themed card at the party, so stop by the Fire House in Town Square or the outpost behind Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe in Liberty Square. You must have your admission ticket (card or MagicBand) and a party wristband to claim your Sorcerers card, and distribution begins at 4 p.m.

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3. "Cinderella's Holiday Wish" -- the short show that preceded the lighting of 200,000 "icicles" on the castle -- has been replaced with the brand-new "A Frozen Holiday Wish" on the Castle Forecourt Stage. This is the first time Olaf has been seen as a character in the Disney Parks! The show takes place every night at 6:15 p.m. through Dec. 31, which means that non-party guests also have the opportunity to see "A Frozen Holiday Wish." If you are attending the party and choose not to take advantage of early entry -- your party ticket allows you to enter the Magic Kingdom at 4 p.m. even though party events do not begin until 7 p.m. -- there is a second showing at 8 p.m. "A Frozen Holiday Wish" lasts less than 10 minutes.


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4. Exclusive merchandise for Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party is brought out at 7 p.m., and guests with party wristbands can purchase T-shirts, ornaments, Limited Edition MagicBands and trading pins. Although these do not feature the "Frozen" characters, a Limited Edition dated Christmas party pin for passholders only shows Olaf's smiling face in front of Cinderella Castle. It costs $15.95 plus tax.


Anna and Elsa in Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

Olaf in Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

Kristoff in Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

5. Mickey's Once Upon A Christmastime Parade showcases the four "Frozen" characters near the start of the parade. You will see a carriage transporting Ana and Elsa, a cottage with Olaf the character (not just a statue), ice harvesters and Kristoff. With the exception of Olaf's new appearance, this is the same segment we saw in the Royal Welcome processional during the Frozen Summer Fun LIVE! at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Even so, it's fun to see the characters join the Christmas parade, which steps off in Frontierland at 8:15 and 10:30 p.m.

Speaking of Hollywood Studios, if you are in the mood for more festive "Frozen" celebrations, that theme park is offering a Frozen Holiday Premium Package, similar to the one my family and I experienced over the summer. This collection includes reserved seating in the Premiere Theater for the “For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration”; a "Frozen"-themed dessert party (with alcohol) at the end of Streets of America with viewing of The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights; a special holiday lithograph; and a "Frozen" pin. The cost is $89 for adults and $59 for children ages 3 to 9; this does not include admission to the park. Prices have gone up significantly since the summer package, which was $59 for adults and $34 for children. I truly enjoyed that experience and thought it was a good value for the money, but I'm not sure I would feel the same way about the holiday package, which includes one less event and a higher price tag.

If you are interested in booking the Frozen Holiday Premium Package, the bundle is offered from now to November 19, 2014; November 21 to December 9, 2014; and December 11, 2014 to January 4, 2015.

As usual, the "Frozen" sing-along show is open to guests without the premium package. In addition, visitors can make a snowman or purchase Frozen merchandise at Wandering Oaken's.

It might be Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, but it's clear that the "Frozen" characters aren't being left out in the cold, so to speak. With a little planning, neither will you, if you want to experience the fun of "frozen" all over again for the holidays at Walt Disney World.



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November 8, 2014

Spoiler-free review: 'Big Hero 6'

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There’s no doubt that Walt Disney Animation Studios’ newest production, “Big Hero 6,” is going to be an instant hit. After all, it takes the action of the Marvel comic on which it is loosely based and pairs it with the emotional storytelling for which Disney is known.

When the film opens, we find ourselves in San Fransokyo, a city that appears just as it sounds -- an idealized combination of San Francisco and Tokyo. Viewers will recognize landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Victorian houses, that have Japanese aspects added to their architecture. This sort of twist on the design, along with the colorful graphics and beautiful 3D effects, certainly shows the influence of Japanese anime on other styles of animation being produced today.

San Fransokyo is the home of Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) and his older brother, Tadashi Hamada (voiced by Daniel Henney). The pair live with their Aunt Cass (voiced by Maya Rudolph) above a cafe that the family owns. The brothers are both gifted in robotics technology, but Hiro is at a crossroads. He has graduated from high school at age 13 and spends his time building "bots" (short for robots) to fight in matches where owners and audience members bet illegally on the outcome. Tadashi believes that Hiro should join him at an exclusive robotics program at the nearby university and devises a plan to convince Hiro.

During an impromptu tour of the Nerd Lab at the university, Hiro meets Tadashi's eclectic band of friends in the department: GoGo, Wasabi, Honey Lemon and Fred. They each show Hiro their ambitious robotics projects, but, of course, nothing can top Tadashi's -- the lovable, huggable Baymax. Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) is a "heath care companion" that Tadashi has programmed to diagnose and treat 10,000 medical problems. Hiro is impressed by Baymax and the other projects and decides to apply to the school.

The movie's early themes that science is cool and smart kids are rewarded may be heavy-handed, but they are ones that children need to hear again and again. In today's educational arena where anti-bullying and anti-drug messages take center stage, it's nice to see positive messages presented in a format that kids can relate to.

During Hiro's demonstration of his microbot project that he is submitting as an application, he offers further inspiration that Disney fans will recognize. "If you can think it, microbots can do it," he says. Arguably the most famous quotation attributed to Walt Disney is "If you can dream it, you can do it."

It's at this point that events propel the kids into superhero roles. I don't want to give too many spoilers, so let's just say that the action picks up significantly and we have a classic comic-book battle of good vs. evil. Unfortunately, the motives of the bad guys might be a little murky for some younger viewers, which leave them scratching their heads.

Still, the 3D technology is put to good use in showing the many and varied ways Hiro's microbots can move. Thousands of the tiny robots are attracted to each other and then can be commanded through a neurotransmitter to work together to transport goods and people. In other words, a wearer of a headpiece can command the microbots to act just by his thoughts.

Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams shine when it comes to showing the relationship between Hiro and Baymax. Viewers will not doubt that a robot can feel the same emotions as humans and that the once-introverted Hiro has found a best friend in an inflatable bot. When I saw "Big Hero 6" at an advance screening, large segments of the audience alternately laughed and sniffled throughout the movie.

"Big Hero 6" is a movie experience that the whole family can enjoy together.

Be sure to get to the theater a few minutes early for "Big Hero 6" because you won't want to miss the accompanying Disney short. "Feast" is the story of a dog's journey from a homeless mutt to a cherished family member, and it's cleverly told by showing the different table scraps he receives at transitional times in his owners' lives.

DISCLAIMER: I viewed "Big Hero 6" at a media screening before its official release. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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November 6, 2014

Frozen-themed experience coming to select malls in United States for holidays

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Think kids are tiring of Disney's animated hit movie "Frozen" a year after its release? Think again. Disney Consumer Products just announced that it has sold more than 3 million Elsa and Anna role-play dresses at Disney Store and mass retailers in North America. To anyone who celebrated Halloween with children, the popularity of the royal sisters was apparent.

Now, the Sing-Along Edition of Disney's "Frozen" DVD is poised to hit shelves in less than two weeks (Nov. 18) and in celebration, a special experience is being offered inside 10 shopping malls throughout the United States, including three in Florida.

The Taubman malls will house interactive Ice Palaces where guests can sing "Let it Go" just like Elsa, or one of many other songs from the Sing-Along DVD, while experiencing a simulated snowfall. In addition, they can create a Frozen handprint, take a photo with Olaf on his ice throne, measure themselves against the "Are you as tall as Sven and Olaf" feature, and see scenes from the Academy Award-winning movie.

Each Ice Palace will have a gift shop that will sell the original "Frozen" DVD, Disney's "Frozen" Sing-Along DVD, themed dress-up items and plush toys. As we head into the holiday season, Frozen-themed toys are expected to be among the most sought-after by kids and already top most major holiday toy lists released by national retailers.

"The powerful connection families around the world have with Frozen and its characters is truly a phenomenon that has only continued to grow over the last 12 months," said Paul Gainer, executive vice president for Disney Retail at Disney Consumer Products, in a press release. "This holiday season Disney Consumer Products has expanded product categories and doubled our presence at retail to meet the strong demand for everything Frozen. The big freeze looks set to continue."

Shopping centers with the Frozen Ice Palaces also will offer the opportunity to visit with Santa Claus. Those who meet him will receive a complimentary Disney Frozen "Look and Find" book.

Participating malls include:

Cherry Creek Shopping Center (Denver, Colo.)
Dolphin Mall (Miami, Fla.)
Fair Oaks (Fairfax, VA.)
Great Lakes Crossing Outlets (Auburn Hills, Mich.)
International Plaza (Tampa, Fla.)
The Mall at Short Hills (Short Hills, NJ)
Sunvalley (Concord, Calif.)
Twelve Oaks Mall (Novi, Mich.)
University Town Center (Sarasota, Fla.)
Westfarms (Hartford, Conn.)

Disney's "Frozen" Ice Palaces will be available Nov. 6 through Dec. 24.



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November 4, 2014

Puerto Rican companies create flavors you experience at Epcot Food & Wine Festival

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If you live here in Orlando, you know that Puerto Rico has strong ties with Central Florida. Not only is there a sizeable population here that calls Puerto Rico its home island, but many restaurants in the region share the flavors of Puerto Rico, too.

This year, during the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, locals and tourists alike have experienced the flavors of Puerto Rico at the commonwealth’s marketplace pavilion presence at the festival.

And this past weekend I had the opportunity to learn a little more about two of the brands that are featured at the Puerto Rico marketplace at the event.

Of course, all good foods are made better by good drink. And there’s a Puerto Rican company that’s having an effect at Epcot.

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Gasolina Urban Blends are ready-to-drink adult cocktails that come in individual servings, much like juice pouches. The company's most popular flavor, Sangriiia, is being served at the Food & Wine Festival and has been so well-received that more than 100,000 glasses were sold in the first two weeks. It's made with premium Caribbean rum, Acai and other 100-percent natural fruit juices.

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Gasolina Sangriiia


I've tried the Sangriiia at multiple events and enjoyed it each time, so much so that I wondered if it can be purchased outside Puerto Rico, where it is manufactured. A Gasolina representative told me that liquor stores connected with Wal-Mart stores currently sell the products in Florida and the Northeast. Beginning in mid-November, however, Wal-Mart supermarkets will begin carrying the Gasolina products.

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Gasolina Original

This weekend, I also tasted the Gasolina Original, which contains premium Caribbean rum, Agave tequila and passion fruit and other juices. It, too, is a sweet, smooth drink. It has the highest alcohol content of the seven flavors at 11 percent. I also took a sip of the Mojito flavor, which is made with premium Caribbean rum and natural lemon juice. I tended to favor the sweeter drinks over one as sour as this one, but the Mojito is an acquired taste many enjoy today, so this flavor probably will be a popular one.

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Gasolina Mojito

Gasolina products complemented the food created by Mi Cosecha, a brand of the Greenpack company, at the event I attended. Mi Cosecha products are farm fresh fruits and vegetables that are peeled, cut and vacuum-sealed without preservatives. The company sells its products at retail chains, such as Wal-Mart and Costco; under a private label for a major fast-food chain in the United States; and through the Puerto Rico Department of Education's school lunch program.

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The Tostones (fried green plantains) at the Puerto Rico marketplace at Epcot are from Mi Cosecha. I've mentioned before that I have an affinity for Puerto Rican food because I lived on the island for three years when I was a child. So, I was happy to again sample the tostones at the party.

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Fried Tostones with Chipotle Mayo

We also were treated to many other dishes created with Mi Cosecha products. Take a look below:


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Cardamom Deep Fried Breadfruit Seasoned with Cured Ham Salt Topped with Garlic Atlantic Shrimp


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Deep Fried Taro (malanga) Balls Stuffed with Pork


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Mi Cosecha Malanga Chips with Pico de Gallo


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Chocolate Waffle with Vanilla Gelato and Papaya;
Puff Pastry filled with Sweet Papaya and Queso Fresco

If you really want to experience the flavors of Puerto Rico firsthand and do it surrounded with a touch of Disney magic, then don’t forget: Disney Cruise Line recently announced that the Disney Wonder will be making return sailings to San Juan in 2016.

OK, so if that’s a bit much for you, then consider this instead: You still can visit the Puerto Rico marketplace at the Epcot Food & Wine festival through Nov. 10.

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DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Mi Consecha and Gasolina Urban Blends. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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November 1, 2014

Walt Disney World guests can buy Toy Box Starter Pack for Disney Infinity 2.0 early

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Gamers and Disney fans (and, of course, their parents), are you counting the days until the Toy Box Starter Pack for Disney Infinity 2.0 hits store shelves? (For those who haven't marked their calendars, that's Tuesday, Nov. 4.) If you happen to be in Orlando, though, you actually can purchase the new game a few days early and get a gift with your purchase at Walt Disney Disney World.

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Once Upon a Toy, the toy store at the Downtown Disney Marketplace, will have the starter pack that contains Merida from Disney-Pixar’s “Brave” and Stitch on Nov. 1 (today!) and 2. The set also includes the video game disc; 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. This starter pack sells for $59.99 plus tax, and guests will receive one complimentary Disney figure with the purchase of a starter pack at this location on Nov. 1 and 2 (while supplies last).

Additional items being released at the store this weekend include figures of Maleficent, Donald Duck, Aladdin and Tinker Bell.

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Disney Interactive announced that Hiro and Baymax figures from the upcoming animated movie “Big Hero 6” also will be released nationwide on Tuesday, Nov. 4. Fans will be able to use Hiro’s mind-power and Baymax’s super strength, along with hundreds of items, locations, props and vehicles from across the Disney and Marvel universes to create all-new adventures born from the imagination of players. There will also be a “Big Hero 6” Chem Capsule Power Disc, which allows players to create a cloud of frost that freezes enemies right in their tracks.

The first starter pack for Disney Infinity 2.0 was released this fall and features Marvel characters. The Marvel Super Heroes Starter Pack includes the video game; three collectible characters, Iron Man, Thor and Black Widow; a Disney Infinity 2.0 base; two Toy Box game discs; a Marvel’s The Avengers play set piece; and a web code card. The list price for the Marvel starter pack is $74.99.

Neither starter pack for Disney Infinity 2.0 is available for the Wii or Nintendo 3DS systems, as the original version is. Instead, new gaming platforms have been added -- Playstation 4, Xbox One, iOS tablets and smart phones. They also will be compatible with Wii U, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PCs, which were platforms for the original game, as 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.

Disney Infinity 2.0 is rated E-10+ by the ESRB.



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