April 22, 2017

Review: Disneynature’s Born in China

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Disneynature’s newest film, “Born in China,” features the breathtaking cinematography that the studio division is known for, but, sadly, the story itself feels forced. I had high hopes for the movie after seeing all the ads with the adorable panda bears, but it just isn’t as engaging as other Disneynature movies.

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“Born in China” follows the lives of three families of animals -- the majestic panda, the savvy golden snub-nosed monkey and the elusive snow leopard -- that live in China’s vast terrain. Director Lu Chuan and narrator John Krasinski take the audience on a journey that allows us a front-row seat to watch each species grapple with raising its young in a challenging environment. In between each story, we also learn a little about tribes of antelope and red-crowned cranes.

What sets Disneynature films apart from other wildlife documentaries is the filmmakers’ ability to expose the animals’ individual personalities while imposing an engaging storyline on their behaviors. This is possible because the filmmakers spend years in the wild, studying, following and documenting particular groups of animals. In this case, they condense what they have learned into a story that is told within the framework of the changing seasons.

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We are drawn into the snow leopard’s world with the introduction of Dawa, a powerful female who is protecting two young cubs in the craggy cliffs of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. But over the course of the year, we see how her job as protector has its ups and downs, especially because she lives a solitary life without adult companions. In the end, the circle of life – defined as “love, hardship, hope” – plays out.

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Swinging from trees and crashing down from them is Tao Tao, a rebellious golden snub-nosed monkey. He and some other adolescents in the tribe have become outcasts from their families and are dubbed The Lost Boys. Tao Tao shows us the pure joys of being a monkey but also the very real danger from a Goshawk that can swoop in at any time and carry off the babies.

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In the bamboo forest, we find what we have been promised – a lumbering, roly-poly panda bear, Ya Ya, and her cub, Mei Mei. We learn that for Ya Ya, this fleeting maternal period in her life is one she cherishes because it’s one of the few times she will have companionship. But as Mei Mei grows, she seeks her freedom, ultimately gaining it once she can climb a bamboo tree by herself. In between, we see some of the most darling images that are sure to melt anyone’s heart.

“Born in China” is the ninth movie from Disneynature. And while it is far from a disappointment, it is a little dry. Having seen many of the Disneynature films, my family and I have come to especially enjoy the productions that are able to successfully combine the amazing photography with a humorous storyline. “Born in China” has its moments, but it just couldn’t compare to “Monkey Kingdom,” which was narrated by Tina Fey. As my children said, “Born in China” feels more like an educational film than an entertaining one. (You can read more about the producer’s perspective in AllEars.Net blogger Jeanine Yamanaka’s blog here.)

“Born in China” is rated G, and there is little that would make it inappropriate for families. There are scenes that show animals’ deaths, and while they may tug at your heartstrings, they are not gory. “Born in China” is a short film at just 76 minutes.

For everyone who sees “Born in China” during opening week (April 21-April 27, 2017), Disneynature will contribute $.20 per ticket to World Wildlife Fund through the Disney Conservation Fund, with a minimum guaranteed donation of $100,000.

DISCLAIMER: I viewed “Born in China” at a media screening before its official release. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.


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April 20, 2017

Celebrate Earth Day 2017 at Disney's Animal Kingdom, Epcot

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Saturday is Earth Day, and Walt Disney World is celebrating!

Animal Kingdom is marking April 22, which is also the theme park's birthday, with its annual Party for the Planet. This year, however, the celebration will be expanded to three days: April 21 through 23.

Guests are encouraged to connect with nature by engaging in fun activities in every land of the park. There are more than two dozen family friendly games and special interactions with animal-care experts planned throughout the park. For example, in the Oasis, guests can select one of ten different animal cut-outs (while supplies last) to enhance their photographs and raise awareness of the animals Disney is helping protect through the Reverse the Decline, Increase the Time initiative. Guests are encouraged to share their photos on social media with #DisneyAnimals At Flights of Wonder, those who arrive early can meet a Disney veterinarian and take part in special conservation-themed pre-show.

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Disneynature is the sponsor of the Party for the Planet, and several activities focus on its newest film, “Born in China.” Look for:

** Along Maharajah Jungle Trek in Asia, guests can take part in an activity focused on snow leopards. They also can pick up a free activity packet (while supplies last) based on the film.

** Disney PhotoPass photographers will take special Magic Shot images based on “Born in China” and have fun Earth Day props to be used to enhance photos.

(For more on the movie “Born in China,” look for my review on Saturday.)

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For other fun party activities, check the Party for the Planet Times Guide available at the front of Animal Kingdom. There will be vendors in Discovery Island invited to the park just for the Earth Day celebrations; face-painters and caricature artists at Conservation Station; and sweets including a chocolate cupcake with chocolate mousse fillings and buttercream icing at Creature Comforts in Discovery Island and panda-themed cookies and candy apples at Zuri’s Sweets in Africa.

Earth Day also will be celebrated throughout the weekend at Epcot. Most of the activities will be located inside The Seas with Nemo & Friends and in the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival Center. At the Festival Center, several nonprofit organizations will give free presentations:

** 11 a.m.: Colors of the Wind: Florida’s Birds of Prey by the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey

** Noon: Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife by the National Wildlife Federation

** 2 p.m.: Hawks, Eagles and Owls - oh my! by the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey

** 3 p.m.: Planting for Pollinators – Saving Bees and Butterflies by the National Wildlife Federation

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The Seas with Nemo & Friends pavilion will have special activities set up for guests. In past years, these have included displays that help children learn how turtle excluder devices protect sea turtles and how conservation efforts save coral reefs, manatees and sharks.

Epcot’s Flower & Garden Festival also is hosting a citizen-science project in which guests can help identify which plants attract the most butterflies. According to the Disney Parks Blog, “Last year, Epcot guests observed a butterfly garden at the festival and recorded which plants attracted the most butterflies. Because of this research, we identified two native plant species – blanket flowers and chapman’s cassia – as butterfly favorites! We shared that data with the Disney Horticulture team members, and they are planting more of these flowers to attract butterflies around the Walt Disney World Resort. This year, we are testing a new suite of plants at the Flower & Garden Festival, and we need your help to determine which ones our native butterflies like best! This is a fantastic activity for guests of all ages, and families can participate together.”

Earth Day Weekend is a great time at Walt Disney World for families to learn about various aspects of conservation and planet stewardship.


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April 17, 2017

Tips for Disney's 2017 Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend -- The Dark Side

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Orlando may have just wrapped up the four day mega convention, A Star Wars Celebration, but that doesn’t mean the Force isn’t still in town. Beginning Thursday, April 20, runDisney kicks off its second annual Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend – The Dark Side – at Walt Disney World.

Here are a few tips to make the most of the weekend:

** Give yourself time to look around the Health & Fitness Expo at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex during packet pickup on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It's a showcase for the latest products, including race-themed merchandise. Be aware that official runDisney merchandise specifically designed for the weekend typically sells out quickly. The Expo is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission and parking are free.

** The Expo is great place to pick up last-minute Star Wars-themed running gear. In addition to the official runDisney merchandise, vendors also will have items for sale. Plus, there usually are special themed photo backdrops – and sometimes characters – only available to runners who present their bibs. So, even if you don’t have time to stop during packet pick-up, you may want to come back after your race with your medal.

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** The Dark Side 10K and half marathon courses have changed this year, and runners will start from the Ticket and Transportation Center parking lot. However, runners will not be able to park there on race days. Runner drop-off will be available in the Charter Lot at Magic Kingdom by the Transportation and Ticket Center or the Charter Lot at Epcot.

** Reminder: Race photos are handled by the Disney PhotoPass staff and will be available to view at MyDisneyPhotoPass.com (select Walt Disney World) and on the My Disney Experience app within 24 hours of the event. To link your photos, you will need to enter the 11-digit RaceID followed by your 5-digit bib number. If your bib number is less than 5 digits, add zeros at the beginning of your bib number to complete the 16-digit code.

If you are not a Disney Parks passholder with Disney PhotoPass benefits, you can purchase Memory Maker One Day or the Memory Maker package that includes all photos from your Walt Disney World vacation. Memory Maker One Day is $59 and can only be purchased through the My Disney Experience app. (Click on the three bars at the top left of the screen and then choose “PhotoPass,” not “Memory Maker.” Tap a photo and your choices will appear.) Memory Maker One Day begins at 6 a.m. ET on the day you select. The Memory Maker package is $169, but guests who purchase it online at least three days in advance of their arrival at the resort will save $20. The Memory Maker package starts at 12 a.m. on the day you first download or unlock digital content and lasts for 30 days.

** Afterward, head over to Hollywood Studios and immerse yourself in a galaxy not so far away. You can see the Star Wars stage show, the March of the First Order with Captain Phasma and plenty of stormtroopers, and meet Kylo Ren, Chewbacca and BB-8. Plus, don’t forget to ride Star Tours and stick around for the Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular fireworks to end the night.


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April 14, 2017

SeaWorld Orlando announces Infinity Falls water rapids ride and Pop bubble show

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SeaWorld Orlando is doing it again – promising to thrill its visitors with the tallest drop on yet another new ride. This time it is Infinity Falls, a water rapids ride scheduled to open in time for the Summer 2018 season.

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“Infinity Falls is an adventure that feels like you are on Class IV river rapids. It’s the world’s tallest drop on a river rafting ride set in an exotic jungle setting and the chance for our guests to play the roles of scientists and explorers to help this fragile ecosystem right here at our park in Orlando and have an immediate impact on freshwater ecosystems globally,” said Brian Morrow, vice president of theme park design experience.

SeaWorld has created the 40-foot drop at the end of the Infinity Falls ride with the use of a unique elevator lift for each eight-person ride vehicle. Still, this is a family-friendly ride that is open to anyone at least 42 inches tall.

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“But it’s more than just a ride,” Morrow said. “We have characters and animals that live in these fragile [freshwater] environments on the river shore like sloths, reptiles, birds, etc. Those guys will all be here as well and they’ll all be part of a very important story to share as well about the fragility of this environment and how we can make a difference. Infinity Falls represents the next generation of experiences that matter for the organization and for this park as we develop brand-new ways for our guests to turn “play with purpose” into direct and immediate impact on ecosystems around the planet.”

Infinity Falls will be located in the Sea Garden area of SeaWorld Orlando, adding four different levels of topography to the landscape, Morrow said. He said that there is a big demand for water rides, especially in Orlando, and SeaWorld only has one, Journey to Atlantis. Expect to see construction walls go up next week and work to begin.

Meanwhile, the theme park is preparing to open two new experiences soon for the Summer 2017 vacation season. On May 26, a new show – “Pop” starring world record holder and bubble master Fan Yang – debuts in the Nautilus Theater.

“It is a show inspired by our natural world, a show inspired by the bubbles we find in the natural ocean – the bubbles we find in the froth and the foam at the shore, the bubbles a penguin can leave behind as it is diving through the water, the bubbles that dolphins and beluga whales actually blow, and even shapes like jellyfish and deep sea creatures,” said SeaWorld’s Steve Welch. “Those things were inspirational for us, and they are core and crucial to make this show a SeaWorld experience.”

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The star of the one-man show, Yang, was asked how he became interested in bubbles. “When I was a little boy, I was fascinated watching bubbles forming at the base of the river. It was actually created by a small waterfall and the vortex. I was always thinking, how can I make bubbles big. And then I started to mix various solutions and tried to come up with the perfect blend of the formula to make it last longer to be big enough to do different things. I never thought I would bring this kind of media to stages around the world. It has taken me about 35 years to have the show like today. The show is incorporating science, art and entertainment all together for audiences of all ages.”

Yang’s bubble artistry will be set to a majestic score created by Grammy award-winning producer Dan Rudin that will be heard on a brand-new sound system in Nautilus Theater and a laser light show that will highlight the beauty of the bubbles. Video screens on either side of the stage will enable all guests to see “Pop.”

Finally, the Kraken roller coaster will debut with its Virtual Reality overlay on June 16. It closes on Monday for employees to prepare for the new experience.

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“It’s going to take you into a new story told by SeaWorld of legendary sea creatures and exotic underwater environments like you’ve never seen before,” Morrow said. “When you put your headset on, you’re going to be in Sea Base. Our coaster station will be transformed into this environment digitally – 3D, 360 stereoscopic-sound-involving conversion experience. Once you leave the sea base, you dive into the ocean and we found there is seismic activity taking place. And we go take a look. We get sucked into a glowing crack and into a world we could not have imagined. … This is an action-packed cinematic coaster experience we are delivering.”

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Guests can choose to ride Kraken Unleashed (the Virtual Reality experience) simply by putting on a headset, or they can ride the Kraken coaster as is.

“I know the ride well, but after the first two elements, you lose track of where you are, so it instantly changes it from the coaster you knew to a very different experience [with the headset],” Morrow said.

He also hinted that the reopening of the coaster will come with a new system of helping visitors manage wait times, which he said can be longer for more immersive experiences.


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April 13, 2017

SeaWorld Orlando's 2017 summer camp registration is open

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I have written a lot about the unique experiences that SeaWorld Orlando offers children at its summer day and resident camps, and for the last two years my dolphin-loving daughter has experienced the fun for herself. She loved every minute of the five days! We’re already making plans for her to attend another camp this summer, and you can too, because 2017 registration is now open.

SeaWorld Orlando offers a wide variety of day camps for kids from preschool age through middle school. Sleep-away camps are available for middle- and high-school students. All of the camps are designed to allow children to interact with the marine animals as well as learn about the park's animal residents. The first camp begins June 5, and the last camp of the summer begins July 31. They all run Monday through Friday.

Day camps are organized by grade level for children going into preschool through eighth grade. Campers will focus on a different animal each day – including whales, sharks, dolphins, penguins and sea lions -- and learn about them through songs, take-home arts and crafts, as well as by talking with zoological staff. Lunch, snacks, a camp T-shirt and water bottle are included in the price of camp. Participants who meet the height requirements also will have the opportunity to experience rides together.

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The camp themes and experiences seem to remain the same from year to year, and this year is no exception. However, there are multiple offerings for each grade level, so campers who return more than once will continue to have experiences that are new to them.

Children ages 3 and 4 can experience Seafari from 9 a.m. to noon each day. The price is $275, and this is the only camp planned for a parent and child to experience together. That price is for the pair, a complimentary T-shirt and water bottle for the camper, and a snack each day. The camp offers up-close animal encounters, crafts and select animal shows.

Camps for children going into grades 1 through 8 take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day and cost $350 per week. (SeaWorld pass members can save $50 per camp by registering through the pass member website or by calling 1-800-406-2244.) After care is available from 3 to 5 p.m. for an additional $75 per camper per week.

Programs for upcoming kindergarten and first-graders include: Sea Hideaway (learn how animals find the best hiding places and explore animal camouflage); Do You See What I Sea? (find out how your senses compare to sharks, whales, dolphins and much more); and Secrets of the Sea (uncover the secrets of killer whales, polar bears, and other sea critters).

Kids going into second and third grade can pick from these topics: What's For Lunch? (find out what types of food the animals eat and then help feed dolphins, flamingos and sting rays); Ocean Odyssey (discover why some animals migrate and where they go); and Animal Addresses (learn how killer whales, sea lions, penguins and other animals adapt to their surroundings).

Campers entering fourth and fifth grades in the fall have their choice of Animal Antics (explore the world of animal behavior and training with up-close encounters); Walk on the Wild Side (learn about a variety of animals with hands-on experiences); and Feeding Frenzy (learn how SeaWorld prepares food for over 41,000 animals and feed some of the residents).

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Two years ago, my then-10-year-old daughter, who wants to be a marine biologist and dolphin trainer, attended the Animal Antics day camp. Despite our family having annual passes to SeaWorld Orlando for years, my daughter was really excited about each day’s activities. She especially loved all the animal encounters, which are not things you can do in the park without a special small-group tour, and the behind-the-scenes activities. The campers also were able to talk to a variety of animal trainers, which she took full advantage of. This summer, my daughter will be able to delve into even more experiences related to her future career.

Upcoming sixth- to eighth-grade campers focus on careers related to animal care: Wild Careers (go behind the scenes to see what it's like to work with the animals and help construct toys for them); Marine Biology 101 (discover what it's like to be a real marine biologist and conduct hands-on experiments); and Animal Sciences (learn how biology, geography and other sciences all play a role in studying marine animals and visit the park's research facilities). During these three camps, the participants will spend one day at Aquatica, SeaWorld's nearby water park.

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Last summer, my daughter attended Marine Biology 101 and had another great week full of fun experiences. This year, she is eager to go back and try Animal Sciences or Wild Careers.

For day camps, a same-day after-camp admission to SeaWorld is available at a discounted rate.

Students going into seventh through twelfth grades can attend resident career "sleep-away" camps. These campers experience what it takes to train and work with marine animals and have the opportunity to touch a penguin, snorkel in a shark cage, work with the animal care staff and create an enriching environment for our animals. Plus, participants spend a day at Discovery Cove swimming with dolphins, snorkeling with tropical fish and rays and feeding exotic birds in a free-flight aviary. They also will visit Aquatica.

Resident camps cost $1,200, which includes all camp activities, lodging onsite at SeaWorld and at its partner hotel for five nights, plus all meals and snacks. Supervision and guidance is provided 24 hours a day for the entire duration.

SeaWorld camps are accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA), a nationally recognized association focused on health, safety and program quality.

For more information, visit SeaWorldCamps.com/Orlando or call 1-800-406-2244.


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April 11, 2017

You can join Disney in supporting National Wildlife Federation's campaign to save monarch butterflies

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When I come across a reference to Ranger Rick, the National Wildlife Federation’s ambassador, fond memories of my tween years come rushing back when I had the plush version of the raccoon and a subscription to the magazine. Now, he is turning 50 and is appealing to a new generation with initiatives to save the monarch butterfly.

The Federation has a longstanding commitment to bringing back America's monarch butterfly population, which has declined by 90 percent in the past 20 years. It supports the nationwide Mayors' Monarch Pledge, which has so far recruited 300 cities, counties, and towns in the monarch flyway to create more habitat and educate their residents. It also supported the designation of Interstate 35 as a monarch highway.

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The Disney Conservation Fund is supporting the federation’s focus on protecting the monarch butterfly and pollinator populations with the 2017 Butterfly Heroes campaign. Now in its third year, Butterfly Heroes provides kids and families with the inspiration and tools to work together, to enjoy nature, and to make a difference starting in their own backyards. The campaign equips those who pledge to plant and maintain a regionally-specific garden that provides food sources and habitats for monarchs, other butterflies and pollinators.

Plus, those who pledge to be a Butterfly Hero can be entered in a sweepstakes to win a trip to Walt Disney World to see monarch butterflies in action at the 2018 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. All pledged participants who share photos of their Butterfly Heroes planting and outdoor activity by September 30, 2017, will be entered.

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Anyone who uploads a photo of himself or herself making the American Sign Language hand symbol of a butterfly by June 1, 2017, will be entered into a contest to receive a Ranger Rick Garden Habitat Fun Pack and $500.00 gift card. The fun pack includes the Ranger Rick Amazing Butterflies book (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and a new Ranger Rick CD featuring "The Monarch Song" from the award-winning children's band, The WhizPops.

"At our core, the National Wildlife Federation is dedicated to fostering a deep appreciation and passion for wildlife and our incredible outdoor world," said Collin O'Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, in a press release. "We believe that immersion leads to action - and that by introducing hundreds of thousands of American children to the monarch butterfly's mind-blowing metamorphosis we will inspire a generation of conservationists to act.”


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April 10, 2017

Star Wars fans have slew of bonus features on Rogue One Blu-ray, DVD to enjoy

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Just in time for next week’s Star Wars Celebration in Orlando and Galactic Nights at Walt Disney World comes the Blu-ray and DVD release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Directed by Gareth Edwards, Rogue One has become the seventh highest-grossing film of all time in the United States, garnering two Academy Award nominations.

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For Star Wars fans, it’s felt like a long time since the movie left theaters. But this week, Rogue One was released On Demand and as a Blu-ray DVD Combo Pack with plenty of bonus features. Here’s a look at what you’ll get:

** A Rogue Idea – Hear how ILM’s John Knoll came up with the movie’s concept and why it’s the right film to launch the Star Wars stand-alone films.

** Jyn: The Rebel – Get to know Rogue One’s defiant, resourceful survivor, and hear what it was like for Felicity Jones to bring her to life onscreen.

** Cassian: The Spy – Diego Luna shares insights into his complex, driven character, who becomes a hero through selflessness, perseveranc,e and passion.

** K-2SO: The Droid – Explore the development of this reprogrammed Imperial droid, from initial pitch and character design through Alan Tudyk’s performance.

** Baze & Chirrut: Guardians of the Whills – Go deeper into the relationship between these two very different characters, with Chinese superstars Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen.

** Bodhi & Saw: The Pilot & The Revolutionary – Forest Whitaker and Riz Ahmed reflect on Saw Gerrera, the broken Rebel leader, and Bodhi Rook, the Imperial pilot who defects.

** The Empire – Meet a dangerous new Imperial adversary…and cross paths once more with the most iconic villain of all time.

** Visions of Hope: The Look of Rogue One – The filmmakers describe the challenges and thrills of developing a bold new look for the movie that can fit within the world of the original trilogy.

** The Princess & The Governor – See what it took to bring the vibrant young princess of Star Wars: A New Hope—as well as one of her most memorable foes—back to the screen.

** Epilogue: The Story Continues – Filmmakers and cast celebrate Rogue One’s premiere and look forward into the future, to the Star Wars stories yet to be told.

** Rogue Connections – Uncover Easter eggs and film facts hidden throughout the movie that connect Rogue One to the Star Wars universe.

Perhaps most exciting is the Epilogue: The Story Continues, which gives fans a glimpse at what might coming in future projects. Disappointingly, there are no deleted scenes, even though the film was reworked at the eleventh hour so there should be a lot left on the cutting room floor.

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Standard packaging is available as well as these retailer exclusives:

Target Exclusive: 5-disc set includes collectible packaging with interchangeable character covers and exclusive bonus content (Blu-ray 3D + two Blu-ray + DVD + DVD exclusive content – 2 additional bonus features + Digital HD + collectible packaging)

Best Buy Exclusive: 4-disc set with exclusive SteelBook packaging (Blu-ray 3D + two Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD + SteelBook packaging)

Walmart Exclusive: 3-disc set with exclusive K-2SO packaging and two Galactic Connexions trading discs (two Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD + K-2SO packaging + two Galactic Connexions trading discs)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story also is available to own on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere.


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April 6, 2017

STK Orlando at Disney Springs launches weekend brunch

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Looking for a weekend brunch in Orlando that offers more than the typical breakfast foods served at a traditional buffet?

Just in time for Easter, STK Orlando at Disney Springs has launched its upscale brunch. The new service includes fun twists on favorite foods, the hefty steaks STK is known for, new cocktails and a DJ spinning tunes, giving the brunch more of a party atmosphere.

Guests are seated on the lower level for this event, with their choice of tables, booths and bar seating. The DJ is positioned centrally near the stairs, so if you prefer a quieter atmosphere, you might want to request a table farther away from the action.

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Monkey Bread

STK’s brunch has a separate menu, and diners can choose from appetizers, sandwiches, salads, entrees, sides and steaks. Our table started with the Cinnamon Monkey Bread with Cream Cheese Icing ($6), which is perfect for those with a sweet tooth. Or, try a bag of Stuffed Donuts with a new flavor daily for the same price.

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Nueske’s Smoked Bacon

The appetizers offer new, interesting selections, such as the Hangover Cerviche with shrimp, mussles, crab, octopus, jalapenos and house-made clamato ($21), as well as popular dishes from the main menu, such as the Tuna Tartare with Hass avocado, soy honey emulsion and taro chips ($18) and the Lil’ Brgs with Wagyu beef, special sauce, sesame seed bun ($18). I tried the Nueske’s Smoked Bacon with balsamic BBQ, celery leaves and pickled onion ($16). It was a beautiful presentation and a thick piece of meat – not at all what most of us think of as bacon.

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Big Lil’ Brg

For those who have a favorite in the classic Big Lil’ Brg ($24), it is available during brunch. Guests also can choose the STK Salad ($23), which consists of skirt steak, tomatoes, chimichurri and Point Reyes blue cheese, or the Beef Short Rib and Egg Sandwich ($19) with pickled onions, aji amarillo sauce and hand-cut fries. One of the guests at our table ordered the Avocado Toast ($16) with poached eggs, smoked bacon and shaved radishes, and she really enjoyed it.

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Avocado Toast

Among the entrees, diners will find Shrimp & Grits ($23) and Old School with eggs, thick-cut bacon and fingerling potato home fries ($16), but there are also the inventive Fried Chicken & Funnel Cake served with sriracha honey, lime and burnt onion powdered sugar ($25) and the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes with marinated berries, lemon curd and whipped cream ($14). My companion tried STK’s take on the popular chicken-and-waffles combo and thoroughly enjoyed it, while I sampled the pancakes, which were delicious. Portion sizes at the STK brunch are quite generous, and I could have easily shared with another person or taken home plenty of leftovers.

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Fried Chicken & Funnel Cake
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Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

For those looking to impress, The Ultimate Brunch for Two serves up Dry Aged Tomahawk Steak, Butter Poached 2 Pound Lobster, King Crab Scrambled Eggs and a Bottle of Veuve Clicquot ($275). And the restaurant’s signature steaks are available in a variety of sizes and cuts with toppings and sauces.

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On the cocktail menu, guests will find Frose, raspberry sorbet dropped in chilled rose ($13); a mimosa with apple, melon and citrus ($12); a Jolly Rancher-flavored martini, whose flavors will change weekly ($14); and the Strawberry Cobbler ($15) from the main menu, among other choices. I tried the Strawberry Cobbler, which has Belvedere, fresh muddled strawberry and a graham-cracker crust on the rim of the glass. It’s delicious, especially for those who don’t like drinks with a heavy alcohol taste.

Brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and reservations are available by calling the restaurant directly at 407-917-7440. The restaurant will have special offerings for Easter Sunday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, as well as a monthly brunch party with special menu items, themed cocktails and live entertainment.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of STK Orlando on the first day of its new brunch. My opinions are my own, and this did not affect my story.


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April 4, 2017

SeaWorld Orlando's Dolphin Days show debuts with focus on trainers, education

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On Saturday, SeaWorld Orlando officially debuted its new dolphin show called Dolphin Days, and of course my dolphin-loving daughter and I were in the stands to watch.

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Dolphin Days focuses squarely on bottlenose dolphins and the education of the audience, which is different from the long-running Blue Horizons show it replaces. Dolphin Theater’s former show emphasized performance – from storytelling to colorful sets to thrilling human acrobatics – and the dolphins were the star performers. Dolphin Days, however, puts on display the bond between the dolphins and their trainers and seeks to explain how SeaWorld cares for the animals.

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Those who have seen Blue Horizons likely will observe that Dolphin Days is a more low-key show. Don’t be fooled, though, into thinking it won’t be exciting. The dolphins still perform amazing feats, many of which were a part of Blue Horizons. But perhaps audience members also will leave the 20-minute show inspired to get involved with dolphin conservation. Trainers introduce each dolphin by name, describing their personalities and seeking to make that personal connection with audience members. They explain common dangers that dolphins face and encourage each person to make a difference in dolphins’ lives.

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Dolphin Days does introduce some new elements, as well. There is a pre-show that involves a trio of bumbling construction workers. Their slapstick humor did prompt many laughs as guests were streaming in before the show we attended. Dolphin Days also adds audience participation with the use of a young volunteer who learns a dolphin command from a trainer.

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The new show retains an interactive factor by keeping the meet-and-greets afterward with the dolphin and bird trainers. (Yes, the macaws are still part of the show.) Despite my family’s frequent visits to SeaWorld, my daughter still enjoys talking with the trainers and having her photo taken with them. It’s a great opportunity for children and teens who want careers working with marine animals.

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Another version of Dolphin Days debuted at SeaWorld in San Diego in 2015. The two shows are similar but not exactly the same. For example, in the California version, the young audience volunteer is invited to feed a dolphin, but that doesn’t happen in Orlando.

Tips for enjoying Dolphin Days:

** There were five performances on Saturday, but that can change from day to day. Be sure to check the times the show is scheduled for the day you visit on the paper maps, the app or the website.

** Plan to arrive at least 30 minutes before show time for the best selection of seats.

** We prefer to sit lower in the theater for the best view, but the higher seats are under a cover that provides relief from the sun and summer showers.

** The first five rows are the Soak Zone, and you (and your gear) really should expect to get wet if you sit in that section.

** If your child wants to volunteer to take part in the show, sit in the first few rows and toward the center of the theater because that’s where the trainer is positioned during that segment of Dolphin Days.


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April 1, 2017

Walt Disney World tests virtual queues for water parks Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon

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You didn’t really think Walt Disney World would let Universal Orlando get a leg up by introducing new technology at its water park that opens in time for the summer tourism season, did you?

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Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay is, of course, getting a lot of buzz because it’s the newest water park in town – and because we have been able to actually watch the construction progress from Interstate 4.

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But it’s also introducing an industry first for a water park. Universal is touting its use of technology as a way to enhance guests’ experience. TapuTapu wearable bands will allow guests to enter virtual queues and avoid physical queues for the rides. Sounds a lot like Disney’s MagicBands, right? When the TapuTapu bands were announced, people wondered why Disney World was not using the technology it was the first to develop to compete at its Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks.

Well, this week the Orlando Sentinel reported that Walt Disney World is, in fact, testing a virtual reservation system at its two water parks through April 7. (No word yet on when it will go into effect full-time.) The attractions that are testing the new system are the Downhill Double Dipper, Slush Gusher and Summit Plummet at Blizzard Beach and Miss Adventure Falls at Typhoon Lagoon.

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The Sentinel reported that the system at Walt Disney World worked this way during the test: “The procedure resembled one of Disney’s old-school FastPass attractions. Visitors arrived at the base of the Double Dipper and were given the option of receiving a 15-minute time frame to return. The time was printed on a card with a rubber band attached for putting around guests’ wrists. At the appointed time, riders returned to the attraction to ride. The card warned that there would be a ‘moderate wait.’ The system was not connected to Disney MagicBands, and reservations could not be made digitally through the My Disney Experience app.”

The virtual reservation systems at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando water parks are included in the regular admission prices. However, Universal also will offer Universal Express, which allows the visitor immediate front-of-the-line access for one time per ride, excluding the Krakatau Aqua Coaster. Pricing changes depending on the season and ranges from $24.99 to $49.99 per person. Guests also can purchase Universal Express Unlimited for $49.99 to $79.99 per person. It also excludes Krakatau.

Volcano Bay will open May 25. You can read more about all the attractions at the Pacific Isle-themed water park here.

Do you think the virtual reservation systems will enhance your experience at Orlando water parks? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.


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