April 17, 2015

Review: Disneynature's 'Monkey Kingdom' celebrates Earth Day admirably

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“Monkey Kingdom,” Disneynature’s newest film that opens nationwide today, gives viewers a front-row seat to view the lives of macaque monkeys living in Sri Lanka. What sets the film apart from other nature movies, though, is the story narrated by comic Tina Fey.

Director Mark Linfield (Disneynature’s "Chimpanzee," "Earth") draws viewers into “Monkey Kingdom” by humanizing the struggle of the monkeys. His crew filmed a troop of monkeys for 1,000 days – almost three years – and during that time, personalities emerged that helped Linfield find the focus for the film. His leading lady, Maya, is a scrappy underdog who wants to better her lot in life.

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Through Maya, we are introduced to the caste system of the jungle. Some macaque monkeys definitely are more equal than others, and poor Maya is at the very bottom of the heap. But she is industrious and motivated to improve her situation by working within the monkey hierarchy, which is fascinating in its layers of alpha animals.

Maya’s personal journey also takes viewers on a journey through the Sri Lanka jungles, countryside and even into an “urban jungle.” Some of the funniest scenes in the movie take place when the monkeys break into a house in the city that is decorated -- and fully stocked with snacks and treats – for a child’s birthday party.

“Monkey Kingdom” is the eighth film from Disneynature, and as we’ve come to expect, it delivers gorgeous photography of its subjects and their various habitats. One of the most unusual sequences is when the monkeys, and other animals of the jungle, have their annual feast on winged termites, which overwhelm the sunlit fields. We see during the film’s credits that the filmmakers were positioned incredibly close to their subjects, even shooting underwater so we can see the monkeys swimming. Who knew monkeys were adept at searching for food in ponds?

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“Monkey Kingdom” is rated G, and there is little that would make it inappropriate for families. Although there is fighting between Maya’s troop and a rival group of monkeys, the scenes are not overly wrought with violence. Even when a predator makes a kill – and be assured, there is the inevitable Disney plot device of a death – what is shown is no worse than what audiences see in Disney’s animated movies.

Overall, ‘Monkey Kingdom’ is an enjoyable movie for audiences of all ages. Plus, by going to see it during opening week, viewers can feel good about contributing to a worthy cause. For every ticket sold through April 23, Disneynature will make a donation to Conservation International to help protect monkeys and other endangered species in their natural habitats.

Visitors at Walt Disney World can see a sand sculpture dedicated to ‘Monkey Kingdom’ take shape near The Outpost in World Showcase at Epcot. Artists will begin working today and the big reveal will be on Earth Day (April 22).

DISCLAIMER: I viewed ‘Monkey Kingdom’ at a media screening before its official release. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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April 14, 2015

Central Florida students can apply to be Disney Dreamers and Doers

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Oscar season may be over for now, but Walt Disney World’s version of the famed awards are in full swing. Everybody knows what the Oscars are. But do you know what the "Mousecars" honor? The exclusive golden Mickey Mouse statues are bestowed on some of the most promising students in Central Florida next month through the Disney Dreamers and Doers program.

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For more than three decades, this award program has recognized local students who have inspired others and made the world a better place. In return, The Walt Disney Co. hopes to inspire and reward the area's student leaders with theme-park tickets -- or even annual passes -- to Walt Disney World and provide Disney-themed keepsakes, such as the Mousecars.

Disney relies on each school in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake and Polk counties (plus the Florida Virtual School) to nominate one child for the honor of being named a Disney Dreamer and Doer.

The process begins when students are asked to nominate themselves by writing a 300-word paragraph describing their achievements. These achievements don’t necessarily have to be academic. The official rules give these examples of student contributions: "strengthening their families; conservation/environmental projects; helping others; safety; school achievement in spite of barriers; improving their schools; serving as a role model for siblings/friends; or other positive actions."

Then, the student asks a teacher to champion his or her application by writing a 75-word endorsement. The two essays are turned in to the school's principal by the school's announced deadline, and a school winner is chosen based on the strength of the essay. (Grammatical accuracy is not a factor.)

This year’s deadline for each school to submit its Disney Dreamer and Doer winner is April 24. That means each school likely has set earlier deadlines – within the next two weeks -- that local students will want to check.

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In total, there are about 400 students from elementary, middle- and high-school students in Central Florida chosen to receive the one-day park-hopper tickets, medals and certificates.

Once a school's Disney Dreamer and Doer is chosen, he or she is entered in a larger competition, Disney's Shining Stars. The awards are given to 18 students -- one elementary, middle and high school student in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake and Polk counties and from the Florida Virtual School. Disney officials, not school principals, choose the Shining Stars. Shining Stars receive Disney World annual passes for their immediate families for one year, Mousecar statues and certificates noting their accomplishments.

"Students may be comfortable in the spotlight, or shy away from it. Some take positive action that is visible; some actions may not be visible to many," the Disney press release states. "We believe all students do good things and have the potential to be a Disney Dreamer and Doer. We look forward to hearing about students in each of these categories."

Among last year's winners are a student who learned to give back after living in a homeless shelter; a student who organized book drives for needy kids; and a student who excelled in science education with a goal of creating clean, unlimited power sources.

Schools will be notified by May 8 if their students are among this year's Shining Stars.

April 11, 2015

Registration is open for Disney Soccer Academy for kids

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Orlando City Soccer Club, the City Beautiful’s first professional soccer team, certainly has brought new local fans to the game. And if your children are among them, one way to channel that enthusiasm might be with a four-day clinic at the Disney Soccer Academy. The summer camps take place at ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World and promise appearances from some of the game’s biggest stars. And perhaps just as winning for parents is the fact that the price has dropped from last summer’s camps.

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Registration now is open for the two camps, which take place June 22 through 25 and June 29 through July 2, and you do not have to be a Florida resident to participate! Parents can register their children, who must be ages 5 to 18, online or in person from 8 to 9 a.m. June 22 and 29. There is no limit on the number of players who can attend each session.

Athletes are put in groups on the field, where they are taught by licensed coaches from around the world. The focus is on technical development and playing games with small teams; kids practice their shooting, dribbling and defending skills. Plus, professional English Premier League and Brazilian soccer players get in the games with the kids.

"It's an opportunity for children to come and be involved with current professional players. … We have some of the top of the line stars coming out to be involved and play with the kids," said Glen Buckley, Soccer Academy director, on the Disney website.

Disney Soccer Academy is run by Midwest Soccer Academy, which has been training athletes of all ages and abilities since 1973.

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Although each camp day runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., it is not all under the hot Florida sun. Warm-up and the first training session take place from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Then, kids break for lunch, which is included in the camp cost, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. They head back out onto the field for a second training session from 1 to 3 p.m. For an additional cost of $60 per week, players can stay for aftercare from 3 to 5 p.m.

If there is inclement weather, alternate activities may be planned and refunds will not be issued.

The cost of one session at the Disney Soccer Academy is $349. In addition to the instruction and lunch, the price also includes an event T-shirt and a gift for each athlete. Friends and families are invited to watch the clinics, and they pay a separate admission charge. Daily admission is $17 for adult guests (ages 10 and older) and $12 for children (ages 3 to 9). Spectators also can purchase a Length of Event pass, but those prices have yet to be announced.

Athletes who are 17 and younger must check in with their legal guardians on the first day of camp. Everyone who is participating – athletes and coaches – must sign waivers and turn them in the first day before they will be issued their credentials.

Athletes and their legal guardians are required to book camp accommodations at Disney's Athlete Housing program and through Disney's Sports travel provider, GET Sports, unless certain conditions are met, such as living within a 90-minute drive or having reservations at a family-owned timeshare. For more details, visit Get Travel.



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April 6, 2015

Spring Break Beach Bash debuts this week at Disney's Yacht & Beach Club

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Spring break is a break from the routine, right? Well, Walt Disney World is making sure this time of the year truly lives up to its meaning for its resort guests. At Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club hotel, for example, the staff has introduced a Spring Break Beach Bash this week – and it’s open to all Walt Disney World guests, a cast member told me.

The Beach Bash is set up – you guessed it – on the beach behind the Beach Club, adjacent to the pirate ship water slide. And what they are offering far exceeds the nightly outdoor movie and marshmallow roast, which – for the record – we find pretty entertaining without any additions. But on select days this week, the activities have been greatly expanded.

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Along the sidewalk, tables are set up to offer guests a whole lot of free, family friendly entertainment. Kids can choose from among several crafts to make, and each receives a ‘Happy Spring’ bag of candy. Plus, there is a station handing out s’mores kits. (Typically, the deluxe resorts, such as the Yacht & Beach Club, provide marshmallows for toasting but sell the kits for between $5 and $10.)

In the sand, the recreation staff leads kids in games, including crab walks, water balloon tosses, relays, dance competitions and hula-hoop contests.

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Plus, Disney artists are stationed nearby, offering face painting, again free of charge, for children and adults alike. The images range from small classic Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse designs to full-face designs, such as the tiger my nephew chose. (Typically, face painting costs $12 to $15 in the Walt Disney World theme parks.)

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And to top it off, two pontoon boats were dedicated to the Spring Break Beach Bash. Cast members ferried groups of 10 visitors around on the lake to see the sights and sounds of the Boardwalk. These pontoon boats usually are reserved for the nightly fireworks cruises, which are not inexpensive.

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The Spring Break Beach Bash is another example of how Walt Disney World cast members make extra magic every day. My children and their cousins did not expect to spend their evening at the Beach Bash, but when they discovered it, they were thrilled with all the different activities. As a Disney World veteran, I certainly appreciated the value of the entertainment that was being provided at no cost.

The Spring Break Beach Bash is scheduled to take place again this week from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday at Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club.



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April 3, 2015

Easter entertainment and dining at Walt Disney World

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It’s Easter weekend at Walt Disney World, which means it’s quite crowded. But the upside to all the extra visitors is that additional food and entertainment options have been added for the weeks before and after the holiday. Here’s what to look for around the resort.

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In the Magic Kingdom:

** Guests can meet Mr. and Mrs. Bunny in the ‘garden’ adjacent to City Hall in Town Square from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sunday, April 5.

** An Easter pre-parade will be presented twice today and Sunday – at 11:45 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. – before the Festival of Fantasy Parade. In past years, the pre-parade has featured the Azalea Trail Maids, Daisy Duck, Thumper and Miss Bunny, Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh, and Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, of course.

** At least two eateries that do not have regular hours will be open through April 11. Aunt Polly’s on Tom Sawyer Island is open for the first time in forever. It has a limited menu, but the novelty of having a snack on the island may be fun for veteran guests. Expect to find fresh fruit; chips; hummus with veggie chips; PB&J with apple slices, carrots and a drink; turkey sandwich with apple slices; and lemonade, strawberry lemonade, tea and water.

** The second spot is the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon, a quick-service restaurant for lunch and dinner. You can see the seasonal menu on our AllEars.Net resource page.

At Epcot:

** Mr. and Mrs. Bunny also take photos and sign autographs on Easter Sunday behind the United Kingdom pavilion near the maze garden.

** In the same UK area, children ages 3 to 9 can sign up for an Easter Egg hunt and kids ages 8 to 12 can participate in an Easter Egg Relay. When my children were younger, we did this for several years, and it was a lot of fun. You can read about our experiences here.

** Guests of all ages can take part in the Disney Egg-stravaganza, which is a hunt for eggs themed to Disney characters, through Sunday. To participate, each guest must purchase a map for $4.95 at Heritage Manor Gifts (American Adventure Pavilion), Pin Central, Plaza Towers (Port of Entry) and World Traveler (International Gateway). Record your finding and then turn in the map to Port of Entry for a surprise.

At the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa:

** Check out the exquisite display of edible Easter eggs in the lobby. Or take our virtual tour of the creations.

** Reserve your spot for a brunch at 1900 Park Fare today and Sunday at 1 p.m. This is not a character meal, but a spread fit for a princess.

What are you waiting for? Get hopping!



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April 2, 2015

Families will find a lot to enjoy at renovated Polynesian Village at Walt Disney World

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One of the original hotels at Walt Disney World, Disney’s Polynesian Village has long been known as a favorite among families. And the completion of the recent renovations and expansion have reinforced that family comes first at this South Pacific-inspired resort.

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The biggest change certainly is the addition of Disney Vacation Club villas and Walt Disney World’s first over-the-water bungalows. The Polynesian is the third and final hotel on the monorail loop to add DVC accommodations. Although DVC membership appeals to many types of repeat visitors, there’s no denying that families often consider the timeshare company because it allows them more room and more dining options when traveling.

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"With the DVC bungalows and studios, you have so much more flexibility," said Kate Melody, a Disney Parks Moms Panelist and DVC member. "I have four children and so really the bungalows would be a better choice for us. Being a larger family, we like the flexibility of the villas. The new setup for the studios actually has a split bathroom, so for us in the morning trying to get four children plus Mommy getting ready – you want to look good for those PhotoPass photos – is a little bit of a challenge in a standard hotel room. That’s one of the reasons we purchased Disney Vacation Club."

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Kate Melody (left) and Juliette Merchant

Juliette Merchant, another Disney Parks Moms Panelist, DVC member and mother of four, agreed, adding that she enjoys cooking when staying at Walt Disney World. "I cook every day of the week at home except Fridays. And when I come to a DVC resort, that’s what I do," she said. "We may do one meal outside the villa each day, and that’s probably lunch so the kids get a little bit of a treat. I cook breakfast in our villa, and I cook dinner. I love being able to feed my family the foods that I want to feed them. Of course, it’s cheaper, but I know that they’re going to eat what they’re used to eating. For our family, coming to the resort is such a big draw for them they don’t feel deprived if we’re not going to every park (or restaurant.)"

Regardless of whether guests stay in hotel rooms or the DVC villas and bungalows, they share access to the resort’s many amenities. The centerpiece for many families is, of course, the pool deck. At the Polynesian, the main pool -- the Lava Pool – has been under construction for almost a year. It’s expected to reopen within the next two weeks with an additional 35,000 square feet of deck space, said Polynesian Village General Manager Norm Noble.

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Norm Noble

"The volcano [by the pool] has been redesigned, and it has a much more natural feel," he said. "I think people are going to connect with that. It’s unique and different."

In addition, a new children’s interactive water play area, Tiki Kiki Splash Area, has been added. It contains two smaller slides, while the volcano in the Lava Pool still houses one water slide.

A new eight-person infinity hot tub that overlooks Seven Seas Lagoon opens with the Lava Pool this month. That’s an addition that guests repeatedly have requested because the Polynesian was the sole deluxe resort at Walt Disney World without one. A renovation completed in 2001 added warmer water areas and seating to one end of the pool, but they were a far cry from a hot tub.

The quiet pool is set to close for renovations when the new Lava Pool opens to guests.

"Nothing has changed with the marina and its offerings," Noble said. "However, the one thing we have created is the lawn where we are going to be able to do some different experiences. We’re going to be able to move the lighting of the torch that we typically would do at 6 o’clock every evening. That’s now going to be done on the lawn. And then we’re also going to show movies for kids on the lawn. We did show them on the beach."

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You can read about other entertainment, such as hula lessons with Disney Legend Auntie Kau’i and the Spirit of Aloha luau, in my blogs from when we stayed at the Polynesian two years ago. Those entertainment aspects remain unchanged. Also, my AllEars newsletter feature gives an overview of our vacation experiences.

Disney’s Polynesian Village houses two table-service restaurants, Kona Café and ‘Ohana, plus two bars on the second floor of the main Ceremonial House. The recent renovations extended to the quick-service Captain Cook’s restaurant and the new Pineapple Lanai, home of the famous Dole Whip ice cream, on the first floor.

The most-talked about location for adult beverages and small plates of food, however, is the new Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto. This intimate, interactive bar and lounge is modeled after its very popular counterpart located in the Disneyland Hotel. The Florida edition also has additional seating outdoors at Trader Sam’s Tiki Terrace, which has its own bar with live entertainment that is Polynesian-themed.

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Trader Sam’s is the first bar at Walt Disney World to restrict access during some hours to those only 21 and older. You can read more about the policy in my previous blog.

In California, Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Room is set in the 1930s, while the Orlando location has 1,200 props based on a 1960s theme. And that timeframe is indicative of the newly designed areas throughout the resort.

"What we had here was an opportunity to look at that time period when tiki really hit its stride: post WWII to mid-20th century," said Kyle Barnes, the Imagineer responsible for overseeing the design and direction for the entire renovation at the Polynesian Village. "So we took that era as an inspiration for our furniture and then melded that with the original design of the resort itself."



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March 31, 2015

Should Walt Disney World bars and lounges serve only adults?

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Visitors familiar with Walt Disney World know how difficult it can be to get reservations at some of the most sought-after restaurants on property. Travelers scramble to secure hot tickets, like Cinderella’s Royal Table and Le Cellier, when the booking opens 180 days in advance. And Be Our Guest (Beast’s castle) in the Magic Kingdom? Forget it! You basically need to be staying at a Walt Disney World resort so you can book it even sooner or luck into a cancellation. So is it any wonder that some families have found a way to experience some of the top Disney restaurants without a reservation?

Recently, we have observed families with young children eating at the bars in restaurants such as the California Grill at the Contemporary hotel or lounges such as Tune-In adjacent to the 50s Prime Time Café at Hollywood Studios. Bar seating doesn’t, of course, require a reservation, and may be the only way to gain entrance to a particular eatery that is booked solid six months in advance. Our family has never tried this, but I’m curious how other adults feel about sitting at a bar next to unrelated children. Do you feel like that area should be restricted to adults of legal drinking age or is first-come, first-served the best way to handle the open seating?

Walt Disney World has introduced a policy with its newest lounge, Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at the Polynesian Village, that is something of a compromise. The bar opens at 4 p.m. daily and welcomes all guests until 8 p.m. After that, access is limited to guests 21 years and older until closing time at midnight. Trader Sam’s is modeled after the original lounge at the Disneyland hotel and serves “light bites” in addition to an extensive menu of specialty drinks. It is a highly anticipated addition to the re-imagined Polynesian hotel. Although Trader Sam’s doesn’t take reservations, it’s expected to have hours-long waits for at least the first few months of operation, so I wonder if this clear-cut policy will make guests grumble or accept the inevitable. (Trader Sam’s is in soft opening now and is expected to have its official opening toward the end of April.)

So, is eating at the bar a great tip for families or something that is best left to the adults? We’d love to hear what you think in the comments!



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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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