September 3, 2015

Orlando American Girl store offers 'Cinderella' package

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Two of my daughter’s favorite brands – Disney and American Girl -- are part of a special day in November in Orlando. If your child enjoys the same things, you may want to act now because tickets went on sale this week, and this event has not been announced on the American Girl website.

On Nov. 15, girls and their favorite adults can experience a modern twist on the beloved classic, “Cinderella,” with a trip to see “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at the Dr. Philips Center for the Performing Arts.

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Though almost all young girls are familiar with Disney’s film version of the Cinderella story, this production is the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that is on tour nationwide. The official description states: “This lush production features an incredible orchestra, jaw-dropping transformations and all the moments you love —the pumpkin, the glass slipper, the masked ball and more — plus some surprising new twists! Be transported back to your childhood as you rediscover some of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s most beloved songs, including “In My Own Little Corner,” “Impossible/It’s Possible” and “Ten Minutes Ago,” in this hilarious and romantic Broadway experience for anyone who’s ever had a wish, a dream... or a really great pair of shoes.”

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The American Girl package begins with participants meeting at the Florida Mall store at 10 a.m. for a brunch in the Bistro. Guests will order from a special menu just for this event because the Orlando restaurant does not normally serve breakfast.

At 11:45 a.m., they will board a bus for the Dr. Philips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando. Once there, attendees will have reserved seating in the Walt Disney Theatre in rows V, W and X in sections Orchestra Right and Left. “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” runs from 1 to 3:15 p.m. Buses will take participants back to the store with a return time of 4 p.m.

Reservations are required for this event. Tickets for the American Girl Goes To Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella package are $95 per person and are nonrefundable. To purchase tickets, call American Girl reservations at 877-247-5223.

My 10-year-old daughter and I attended the VIP advance screening of “Grace Stirs Up Success” this summer through the Orlando American Girl store and were very impressed with the outing. That event required us to board buses to another location, as well, and everything was well-organized and on time. In addition, there were many complimentary activities at the location before the movie, such as crafts, giveaways and photo opportunities. We certainly would attend another such event.

Although American Girl is only offering one date for its package, “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” will be on stage in Orlando for six dates: Nov. 10 through 15.

And here’s a fairy godmother’s tip: Though neither Disney nor American Girl really offer distinct Cinderella-themed dresses for girls’ dolls, that doesn’t mean the dolls can’t Disney-bound as many young girls no doubt will choose to do for the performances. Online craft sites such as Etsy offer a variety of Cinderella-themed dresses and costumes.

The magical pumpkin carriage, however, might be something you’ll have to bibbidi bobbidi build yourself.



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September 1, 2015

Mama's Pretzel Kitchen opens at SeaWorld Orlando

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At SeaWorld Orlando, you no longer have to settle for plain pretzels with melted cheese for dipping. The new Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen, which opened a little more than a week ago, serves 10 different kinds of pretzels and six dipping sauces. And guests can choose from eight craft and seasonal beers, as well as other beverages.

Though a pretzel by itself might not sound like a meal worth seeking out during a day in the park, the addition of the eatery gives SeaWorld guests one more food choice and another way to make sure everyone in your party is satisfied for the day.

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Want to try something a little out of the ordinary? How about the Bacon Pretzel Twist, the Bratwurst Pretzel Dog or the hearty Jumbo Pretzel Dog? If you have a sweet tooth, the Cinnamon Sugar Nuggets or the Jumbo Cinnamon Sugar Pretzel might hit the spot. Any of the pretzels can be paired with a variety of sauces: beer-infused cheese, beer-infused mustard, marinara, spicy mustard, cheddar cheese and cream cheese.

Orlando’s Pretzel Kitchen is not the first for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. The original store is located at the Busch Gardens Williamsburg park, and a second opened last year at Busch Gardens Tampa.

Executive Chef Hector Colon spoke with me at a recent media event for the new Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen. “The great thing about [our location] is that we do two pretzels that you can’t get anywhere else: The meatball pretzel and the mustard-infused pretzel. The meatball pretzel is three meatballs on the salty pretzel with mozerella cheese and marinara sauce.”

Acknowledging that those offerings might appeal more to adults and adventurous eaters, Colon said he thinks kids will like the pizza pretzels the best. “It’s two comfort foods together that everybody likes.”

To that end, SeaWorld is taking the pizza pretzel a step farther, Colon said. “We’re working on a family pretzel. It’s going to be a giant pretzel that is stuffed with cheese and pepperoni, but it is pizza-sized.”

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There is a range of prices for the pretzels at Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen. Soft pretzels and dessert pretzels are priced in the $5 range. Pretzel twists – which are specialty items and bigger portions – cost about $8 or so. Dipping sauces are less than $1 each.

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My husband also visited the Pretzel Kitchen recently and enjoyed the beer selection. The Shock Top Pretzel Wheat was an obvious choice for the location, he said, and he appreciated being able to get a Sierra Nevada Seasonal IPA there, too – a choice he didn’t think he had at other restaurants and locations in the park. Among the other beers for sale: Orlando Red Ale, Sam Adams Seasonal – Oktoberfest, Blue Moon – Belgium White, Woodchuck Cider, Bimini Twist IPA and Beach Blonde Ale.

Chef Hector said that although the dark beer pairs well with the pretzels, here in Florida it’s really hot so many people like the cold, light beer.

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Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen also sells, wine, specialty frozen cocktails, assorted Coca-Cola products, and ICEE frozen drinks.

Craft beers are $7.99 and a flight of 4 is $9.99. Wine – chardonnay and cabernet – costs $6.99 a glass.

Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen is located near Shamu Stadium and Shamu’s Happy Harbor.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando for the Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen media event. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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August 29, 2015

Disney Consumer Products previews fall merchandise for tweens at D23 Expo

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At the recent D23 Expo, Disney fans could find something new and fantastic to experience everywhere they looked. Despite all the temptations, though, my almost 11-year-year-old daughter zeroed in on the Disney Consumer Products pavilion and spent a good chunk of her day there. Rightfully so, too, because there were great preview products and giveaways that certainly were designed to appeal to tween girls.

Before we had even arrived in California for the event, my daughter had determined that she wanted to experience the Tinker Bell bun bar and the Minnie Lounge for an adorable mouse manicure. Both complimentary salon services were being offered in the Disney Consumer Products pavilion to guests of all ages as a means to promote new Tinker Bell and Minnie Mouse-themed merchandise.

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Both marketing ideas were popular with the crowds, too. My daughter happily waited an hour in each line for her turn with the professionals. At the bun bar, a hair stylist created the signature Tinker Bell topknot using a bun donut sponge and bobby pins and then decorated it with pony-tail holder with a gold bow, all of which each recipient was allowed to keep.

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Nearby, fairy lookalikes could peruse a selection of Tinker Bell merchandise. There were boots, flats and sandals inspired by Tink’s look, plus apparel. Another case displayed already-released Tinker Bell jewelry. (I wish we had gotten a preview of future Pandora charms!) In addition, several pairs of blank white canvas slip-on shoes were decorated with Tinker Bell’s likeness by Disney artists.

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In the Minnie nail bar, D23 Expo attendees were invited to select a design from four choices and it would be applied to one nail on each hand. Similar to the neighboring Tink bar, the Minnie nail bar also displayed Minnie Mouse-inspired apparel and Pandora charms, plus large-scale storyboards showing how to draw Minnie Mouse. At the nearby Disney Store, a new line of Minnie Mouse-themed home goods and apparel was introduced. It will be available to the public this fall.

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The Disney Consumer Products pavilion had plenty of other areas of interest for tween girls, as well. Among them:

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** Whisker Haven Tales with the Palace Pets. This display introduced fans of the royal animals to a secret realm deep in a fairy-tale land between the Disney Princess kingdoms called Animal Royal Kingdom of Whisker Haven, where the Palace Pets characters can meet up with their friends, play, and save the day. New products were on display. (Giveaway for attendees: collectible buttons)

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** Star Darlings. Disney introduced its new original brand: a diverse group of girls who dream of being able to grant the wishes of others to reclaim the wish energy that powers their beloved planet, Starland. More about this franchise can be found in my previous blog post. (Giveaway for attendees: bookmarks)

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** Disney’s Descendants. Participants got an exclusive look at the wicked world of fashion and toys inspired by the new hit Disney Channel movie. Plus, the cast did a meet-and greet. (Giveaway for attendees: Pose in Maleficent’s shadow)

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** Frozen. New merchandise, of course! For me, the most notable item was finally seeing normal-size Snowgee plush animals. The Disney Store sold tiny Snowgees attached to Olaf plush animals right after ‘Frozen Fever’ debuted. (Giveaway for attendees: large-scale photo op in Kristoff’s sleigh with Sven waiting to pull.)

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** Disney Princess craft. Attendees were invited to “unlock their inner princesses” by leaving empowering messages on a special Keys to the Kingdom gate.

The D23 Expo offered lots of sneak peeks of merchandise and crafts and fashion items that Disney-loving tweens will appreciate, and soon they will see these and more on store shelves. The temptations, and the choices, will be many – and just in time for the holidays.



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August 27, 2015

Disney poised to launch tween brand Star Darlings

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Parents of tween girls, hold on to your wallets! Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media previewed a new and original brand at the D23 Expo in Anaheim that is sure to be popular with the younger set. Disney Star Darlings are a series of characters that will be introduced first through paper books and digital books and then later with an app and merchandise.

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Disney Star Darlings are a diverse group of girls who dream of being able to grant the wishes of others to reclaim the wish energy that powers their beloved planet, Starland. To do so, they must “take classes where they learn how to grant wishes made on birthday candles, shooting stars, dandelions, wishbones and coins tossed into fountains,” according to the description on iTunes.

“The Star Darlings’ top-secret mission will take them to Wishworld (known in some places as Earth). There they will have to find the Wisher and figure out how to grant the wish before time runs out and they are stuck on Wishworld forever.”

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Leona

Tweens will meet the characters Sage, Scarlet, Leona, Libby and Vega to start, although there are 12 girls chosen for the challenge. Sage is confident and optimistic, but she sometimes says things without thinking and then falls all over herself apologizing. Scarlet is an independent starling, one who is not a touchy-feely kind of girl. Leona is a glittering pop star who sometimes forgets that it isn’t always about her all the time. Libby grew up in an astronomically wealthy family and has always gotten what she wanted. Still, she finds joy in helping others. Finally, Vega is a perfectionist and is at the top of her class at Starling Academy.

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Libby
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Star Darlings were created by Ahmet Zappa (son of renowned guitar musician Frank Zappa and one of the creative forces behind the Disney film “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” as well as “Fraggle Rock”) and his wife, Shana Muldoon Zappa, along with Barry Waldo, former VP of worldwide entertainment at Mattel, who worked on the best-selling girls property, Monster High, kidscreen.com reports. They began developing the brand aimed at girls ages 9 to 12 about four years ago.

My own almost-11-year-old daughter was excited about the new franchise when she saw a display at the D23 Expo earlier this month. Though there was a lot to compete for her attention at the expo, she actually slowed down to spend time studying the display at the preview pavilion when she came across it. I would imagine that, for other girls who enjoy reading these kinds of works like my daughter does, the book series will prove to be quite popular as it taps into common themes for girls her age. Another bonus: One of the Disney representatives told us the products will be sold at clothing retailer Justice, her favorite store.

The first two books, based on the characters Sage and Libby, will go on sale in North America on Sept. 15. The e-books will be available on iTunes on Sept. 2. You also can pre-order Kindle versions of the books at Amazon now and have them auto-delivered September 15. Want to see if the books are a good fit for the tween in your life? A substantial preview of each novel is available at http://books.disney.com/?s=star+darlings A release date has not yet been announced for the app, dolls and other merchandise.

And you’ll find a lot of additional information at the Disney-supported Facebook page at www.facebook.com/disneystardarlings



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August 25, 2015

Disney Citizenship aims to inspire kids and families at D23 Expo

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One division of The Walt Disney Company that is perhaps less well-known to those outside of Orlando and Anaheim boosted its presence at the D23 Expo with unique activities for convention attendees. Disney Citizenship hosted hands-on volunteer activities each day in its pavilion, and volunteers only had to donate a few minutes to get involved.

Disney Citizenship is a branch of the company that seeks “to promote the happiness and well-being of kids and families by inspiring them to join us in creating a brighter tomorrow,” according to the website. One way that Disney accomplishes this goal is through voluntEAR activities that benefit various communities. At the D23 Expo, the slogan “Be Inspired” was prominently displayed for those entering the pavilion.

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Each day, volunteers could participate in a different project. On Friday, bags were stuffed with books for First Book, which donates new books to children in need. On Saturday, packages that included toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs and small Mickey Mouse plush animals were assembled for the Red Cross to use for families displaced by disasters. Finally, on Sunday, we could make planting kits for Inside the Outdoors, which is a hands-on environmental education program administered by the Orange County (Calif.) Department of Education.

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Once D23 Expo participants finished each activity, they were encouraged to post on social media with the #DisneyCitizenhip hashtag. For each post on Instagram and Twitter, Disney donated $1 to the day’s charity organization. In recognition of their efforts, volunteers each received a Disney Citizenship D23 reusable tote bag each time they donated their time.

Disney Citizenship focuses on four key areas to build strong kids and families: think creatively, live healthier, conserve nature and strengthen communities. Large-scale displays in the pavilion illustrated how Disney is contributing to those goals.

For example, to encourage kids to “think creatively,” Disney provides opportunities for 83,000 kids to participate in the Magic of Play, 10,000 students to join Disney musicals and 10 million youth access to Code.org computer science tutorials. Disney promotes its Mickey check – a tool to help families identify nutritious choices in stores, online or on vacation – for healthy living. Did you know the steam trains at Disneyland run on recycled cooking oil from the restaurants at the resort? That’s an example of how Disney conserves nature. It also has donated more than $27 million to conservation projects in 14 countries. Finally, one way Disney helps strengthen communities is by giving back through volunteering; last year, Disney employees contributed more than 500,000 hours.

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But you don’t have to be a Disney employee to get involved. Check out and sign up for the latest Disney Citizenship projects online at http://citizenship.disney.com The deadline has just passed for students to apply for Summer of Creativity grants. Stay tuned for fall events from The Walt Disney Company.



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August 22, 2015

Disney Legend Marty Sklar, fellow Imagineers offer advice at D23 Expo to those wanting to join The Walt Disney Co.

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Imagineers are the cornerstone of The Walt Disney Company, creating much of the magic that guests experience in attractions, rides, environmental design and live entertainment at the theme parks and on the cruise line ships. As such, the jobs are coveted roles in the company, and kids, teens and college students – my almost-teen son included -- often wonder how they can land such jobs, and even make them into long-term careers.

At the D23 Expo last weekend in Anaheim, Calif., Disney Legend and Imagineering Ambassador Marty Sklar attempted to answer that question by presenting panelists whose paths to Imagineering varied but ultimately have led them to success. These current Imagineers also have contributed to Sklar’s book, “One Little Spark!” which served as the framework for the panel discussion.

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My son met Disney Legend Marty Sklar after the Imagineering panel.

Sklar pointed to two tools in his book — Mickey’s Ten Commandments and The Road to Imagineering — that have helped him become a revered Imagineer, one who worked with Walt Disney himself.

“The first thing I thought of was my Mickey’s Ten Commandments,” Sklar said. “Basically this is my philosophy for creating new things – Disney projects or community projects or just about anything that required creative leadership.”

Here is his list of must-dos:

1. Know your audience
2. Wear your guests’ shoes
3. Organize the flow of people and ideas
4. Create a wienie (visual magnet)
5. Communicate with visual literacy
6. Avoid overload – create turn-ons
7. Tell one story at a time
8. Avoid contradictions – maintain identity
9. For every ounce of treatment, provide a ton of treat
10. Keep it up (and maintain it)!

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Artist Patti Nelson illustrated “The Road to Imagineering” map on the inside of the book’s dust jacket. It’s designed to inspire and guide future Imagineers with some basic sentiments, such as “Ask why,” “Try things,” “Love what you do,” and, of course, “Dream it, Do it.”

The other panelists described their own roads to Imagineering, offering the audience some advice for breaking into Imagineering.

Daniel Joseph, a senior special effects designer, said, “I love to invent and create new things that can solve a problem or create a better experience where there once was a status quo. We have the ability to make the world a better place and make people happy and even mystified through the gift of design.”

“For me, Imagineering started where I grew up, which is one of the smallest states in the Union, Delaware, on the other side of the country – equally far from every Disney park possible. But, still, that’s where I managed to be inspired by Imagineering at a really young age.

“I had to teach myself about mechanics and other things because at school I was learning about civics and other things. I also at the same time got into making haunted attractions, little haunted houses in my basement, and did it for the neighborhood kids at age 11. Learning about all this stuff, like how to make a fog machine, are fun things to learn as a kid.

“I went to this Disney park in Florida and went on Haunted Mansion and Horizons and realized that people do these things for a living. So I amped up things and started making the haunted houses more and more elaborate, and I got in a few local newspapers. [Disney Imagineer and special effects creator] Yale Gracey to me as a teenager became like my Michael Jordan. I just wanted to learn everything about him, and I couldn’t believe that someone like this actually existed. So it became my goal to learn more and more about him and try to be like him and do things as he would do them.

“But I wondered how to do what I do and get a degree for it because there really is not an Imagineering degree. I chose industrial design and that was a lot of product design. … My dorm room became my R&D room with lasers and fog and inventions. … My thirst for knowledge hasn’t stopped. At home, right next to our baby’s room is a room of 3D printers. So nothing has changed.”

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My son with Imagineers Dex Tanksley and Daniel Joseph.

Dex Tanksley, an Imagineering project design manager, said, “If it wasn’t for Marty Sklar and the Imaginations program, I probably would be designing strip malls in Rochester, N.Y.!”

Tanksley entered the national Imagineering competition called Imaginations with two friends, and they won first place with the design for an indoor ski slope, which didn’t exist at the time.

“We even came up with characters like Dog-o-mite, who was the super secret agent snow dog. We created characters, a comic book, a model, drawings,” Tanksley said.

“When I first showed up on the scene here in Anaheim as an intern, my first experience was on the balcony of Club 33, looking at a new nighttime extravaganza called Fantasmic! and it just blew my mind. Looking at the amazing special effects and the great storytelling in a place that has been here for years. And it was a brand-new experience. That was the night I ended up being a fan of Mickey Mouse, and he’s been my favorite ever since.

“Next, I was given the opportunity to work with the design team on Indiana Jones. What a way to begin my career! Autopia was the first time I had the chance to take a design from the conceptual phase all the way through to construction. Those milestones are important to Imagineers because we take lessons we have learned back to Imagineering and we make the next attraction a better attraction.

“Why should the sky be the limit? If we let the sky be the limit, we wouldn’t have been able to advance what Walt started 60 years ago. Your imagination should be like the universe: To infinity and beyond!”

Shelby Jiggetts-Tivoney, a creative development executive, said, “I think it’s wonderful to have a vision and focus on it, but I think it can be equally rewarding to work from a role of attrition. Basically, I took anything I did badly, didn’t understand or didn’t like to do off the table. I went to school and to college and decided on a profession.”

Furthermore, she said, “You are never limited by your circumstances. I am very fortunate to share this stage with a number of people who fell in love with the parks at a young age and discovered Imagineering. … I have the opposite side of the journey. I didn’t go to a Disney park. I didn’t have any affinity for the Disney brand. It really wasn’t a part of my background. I’m from Richmond, Va., and my mom was a single mom for most of my childhood. She was a master of acquiring opportunities for us for free. Sometimes it would be cheese or powdered milk and other times it would be concerts.

“The National Endowment for the Arts and The National Endowment for Humanities were all part of the government-subsidized opportunities where artists toured the country. For me as a child, I was able to see a touring company of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I saw Judith Jamison, a brillant, brillant dancer do a performance called ‘Cry’ and it changed my life. This was modern-dance theater and it moved me and excited me and I saw the broader world of what performing arts can do.

“I didn’t know what in the theater I ultimately would end up doing, but I felt passionate about the theater. I did everything: production management, grant writing, script reader. My college career focused on only things that allowed me to read and write, not science or math. That taught me to be good at script analysis and dramaturgy so I matriculated and worked for Lincoln Center Theater, New York Shakespeare Festival , etc.

“I was fortunate enough to have been headhunted by Disney. While I didn’t have the understanding of Imagineering or any experience the parks, I entered through creative entertainment, which is the division that recruited me, and it’s been amazing. I’ve worked all over the world.”

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My son at an autograph session with Imagineers Shelby Jiggetts-Tivoney and Kevin Rafferty.

Kevin Rafferty, an executive creative director at Imagineering, was crucial to the development of the very popular Cars Land at Disney California Adventure. His path to Imagineering started as a dishwasher at the Plaza Inn on Main Street while he was earning an art degree. He worked his way up to the position of an Imagineer.

“When I got my art degree, I had an interview set up with Disney Studio, but then I saw a job board and it said WED Enterprises was hiring designers to work on Epcot Center. Although my job was entry level – dusting bottles, cutting masks, setting up chairs for artists – I learned from them. I did a lot of special projects on the weekend to try to prove that I could do this.

“Randy Bright, vice president of Creative and a writer by trade, recognized something in me,” Rafferty wrote for Sklar’s book. “He began to compliment my writing, and whenever he asked for my thoughts in a meeting, the floodgates burst open. Randy gave me my first break. I’ve listened and learned from the masters, paid close attention to my colleagues from all other disciplines, so much so that I’ve learned to think like them and have come to understand and appreciate what works, what doesn’t, and why in the wonderful world of Imagineering.”

Even if you couldn’t attend Sklar’s D23 Expo preentation, you can learn from the many Imagineers who contributed and the Disney Legend himself by reading his book “One Little Spark.”



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August 20, 2015

One family’s first-time experiences at D23 Expo

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Disney really should make T-shirts proclaiming “I survived the D23 Expo!” much like its theme-park attraction T-shirts expressing a similar sentiment. However exhilarating you find the biennial opportunity to explore all the branches of The Walt Disney Company, there’s no getting around the exhaustion that comes after three days of crowds, lines and excitement at the Anaheim Convention Center.

My family and I just returned from our first experience at the D23 Expo, and I have yet to unpack our suitcase of free goodies and things we purchased at the specialty shopping stores. But I can tell you we had fun collecting everything, seeing the larger-than-life displays, attending star-studded presentations and just taking it all in. Although I think we had a realistic idea of what to expect, we did learn some strategies during our weekend that could improve future visits.

First, let me say that I covered the D23 Expo as a member of the media for three days, which afforded me early entry to the Expo floor and reserved seating at the large-scale Disney Parks and Resorts presentation. My husband and two children bought their own tickets and attended with the general public for one day. For the most part, we experienced the Disney fan convention in the same way, and I spent part of their day – Saturday, which was sold out -- with them.

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Unfortunately, the day did not get off to a good start for my husband and two children. The convention center opened to the general public at 10 a.m., so my family lined up at 9 a.m. It took them 90 minutes to get inside and out of the heat! Not only were the lines long, but they were disorganized, as well, with few cast members to direct guests or keep others from blatantly cutting in line. It was frustrating for them, to say the least, and probably my family’s biggest complaint about the D23 Expo. My son was especially upset because he wanted to attend a small panel that began at 10 a.m., and he only managed to catch the second half.

Still, things improved once they all were inside the convention center. My husband and I used the divide-and-conquer method in order for our family to see and do as much as possible. I highly recommend this strategy if members of your family have differing priorities.

My almost 13-year-old son immediately joined me at the Imagineering panel with Disney legend Marty Sklar and four other Imagineers who contributed to his book, “One Little Spark.” The panelists discussed their individual – and divergent -- education and careers that led to them working as Imagineers, as well as how Sklar contributed to their time at The Walt Disney Company. Because my son is interested in possibly becoming an Imagineer one day, this was a valuable presentation for him. (I’ll be dedicating another blog post just to that presentation for other readers who have children with aspirations in Imagineering.)

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After the panel, he and I headed down to the expo floor to join the queue that had already formed with people who wanted the autographs of the five Imagineers on the panel. Even though we rushed downstairs and the signing didn’t start until 30 minutes after the panel ended, the line already wrapped back and forth though the queue several times and it wasn’t much longer before it was cut off. Then, I raced around trying to secure a copy of “One Little Spark” to have autographed. The Expo rules stated that autographing would only be allowed on merchandise purchased at the Expo, although we found out later that the policy was not enforced and many folks were willing to sign the free D23 Expo cards that were stacked on tables. In the end, my son and I were excited to have the personal interaction with the Imagineers.

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Meanwhile, my husband and my almost-11-year-old daughter were standing in a line to meet the cast of Disney Channel’s newest hit movie, “Descendants”: Sofia Carson, Dove Cameron and Cameron Boyce. They waited about 90 minutes, but my daughter couldn’t have been more thrilled. All three actors were great about interacting with her and even held her iPod to pose for a group selfie.

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From there, my daughter and her indulgent father joined a queue at the Disney Consumer Products pavilion where stylists were creating Tinker Bell buns for girls and women alike. It took about an hour for her to reach the front and take her place at one of three stations, and I arrived just in time to see the process. The complimentary hairstyles were offered as an incentive to advertise a new line of Tink-themed merchandise. Likewise, the Minnie Mouse manicures next door were promoting new Minnie products. My daughter and husband stood in that hour-long line, too! (Stay tuned for separate blog posts dedicated to upcoming Disney Consumer Product merchandise.)

We all had a lunch break at the convention center café and then split up again. I checked in to cover the Disney Parks and Resorts presentation; my son decided he was willing to wait three-and-a-half hours in a queue to meet the cast of ABC’s “Pretty Little Liars”; and my husband and daughter wanted to explore more of the Expo floor. We each were mostly happy with our choices. The Parks and Resorts presentation was full of exciting news punctuated by surprise appearances by actors, directors and celebrities working on the projects. I loved it! My son made friends with other kids in line for the meet-and-greet, and they and their electronic devices entertained one another. We checked in with him periodically and held his place for him to make bathroom breaks. The one disappointment was that although the event was advertised as a cast meet-and-greet, it turned out to be just one actor -- and one that was new to the show at that. There are no guarantees of appearances, of course, but it sure would have been helpful to share that information with kids who waited more than three hours to see their favorite actors.

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My husband and my daughter braved the extremely long line for the Disney Store, which was an opportunity to purchase collectibles and products from upcoming merchandise lines that have yet to be released. Although my daughter did spend her money on an Ariel wallet, she wasn’t tempted by much else because many of the items were high-end, limited-edition pieces. The pair also checked out other booths, including the one for Disney Parks. After my presentation, I joined a two-hour line for Mickey’s of Glendale, which was a rare opportunity to purchase Disney Imagineering merchandise. We stayed until the Expo closed at 7 p.m.

Things we did right:

** We stayed at the Hilton hotel adjacent to the Anaheim Convention Center. It was just steps away, so we could have taken breaks in our room if we needed to. This is something that might be important to keep in mind if you have small children who might need a midday break.

** We wore comfortable clothing and shoes in preparation for a long day.

** We each carried a backpack for things we collected, as well as bottles of water and snacks to get us through the long lines.

** We knew there was no way we could see and do everything, so each family member made a list of priorities for the day and we tried to get through at least two per person.

** We used the D23 Expo app, which was updated throughout the conference with many things that were not listed on the printed schedules and maps.

** We expected to stand in lines. We are veterans of the Disney theme parks, so even though standing in a two-hour line is not something we love to do, we can get through it without too much complaining if the end result is important to us.

In retrospect, I think my husband and kids would have benefited from spending two days at the convention. Even with our divide-and-conquer strategy, there was so much they didn’t get to experience. For example, my husband would have liked to have spent time in the Disney Archives display, but he forfeited that to be able to take our kids to more of what they wanted to do. I had a better shot at seeing more of the offerings since I attended all three days.

Overall, the D23 Expo was mostly what we expected. There was something for every type of Disney fan –- as long as you were willing to stand in line. Casual Disney fans may not appreciate the craziness of a large-scale convention, but for serious Disney fans, it’s an experience of a lifetime.

DISCLAIMER: I was a media guest of D23 at the D23 Expo for the purpose of covering the convention. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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August 8, 2015

Star Wars fans can buy exclusive merchandise on Force Friday at Toys 'R" Us

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Toys ‘R’ Us wants to make sure the force is with all Star Wars fans well before “The Force Awakens” – the seventh movie in the saga -- is released in December. To that end, it is hosting Force Friday on Sept. 4 at all of its stores – worldwide.

The hoopla begins at 12:01 a.m. when stores around the globe will open their doors with hundreds of new products related to the popular franchise on their shelves. Some of the merchandise will be exclusive to Toys ‘R’ Us. In addition, the midnight festivities will feature giveaways, including an exclusive poster and a limited edition LEGO Star Wars Commemorative Brick while supplies last.

For Star Wars fans visiting Walt Disney World, the closest Toys ‘R’ Us stores in Central Florida are at Florida Mall, 1631 Florida Mall Ave., and Orlando Outlets, 8200 Vineland Ave.

The company's international flagship store, Toys ‘R’ Us Times Square in New York City, will host a historic Star Wars toy exhibition leading up to the grandest midnight opening celebration of all, welcoming legions of eager fans with costumed characters, signing events, giveaways and more all day on Sept. 3.

The exhibition, which will be on display from Aug. 26 through Sept. 7, will feature prototypes, originals and early editions of some of the best-known Star Wars toys in the world, curated by Rancho Obi-Wan, Inc., a nonprofit museum that houses the Guinness World Record-certified largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia. Presented prominently throughout the store, "Destination: Star Wars – The Experience," will showcase dozens of notable collectibles based on all six feature films from the Star Wars Saga, including the original first four mail-away action figures from 1978, a large-sized Chewbacca figure in never publicly-released The Empire Strikes Back packaging from Kenner Products and a rare 2003 LEGO Star Wars Cloud City building set.

During the day on Sept. 3, the Toys ‘R’ Us Times Square in New York City will offer:

** A book signing and meet-and-greet with Steve Sansweet, Chief Executive Officer and President of Rancho Obi-Wan, Inc., storied Star Wars author and former Head of Fan Relations and Director of Content Management at Lucasfilm Ltd.

** An art class and meet-and-greet with fan-favorite Star Wars and science fiction artist, Jeff Carlisle.

** Star Wars product demonstrations and activations throughout the store, including Star Wars-themed 3-D action figure creation with 3D Plus Me, video gaming on Disney Infinity 3.0 Star Wars kiosks and experiencing intergalactic sound on Star Wars-themed headphones powered by SMS Audio.

** A LEGO Star Wars make and take for rebels looking to build their toy empire brick by brick.

** A Light Saber Academy with members of New York Jedi, a community of cosplayers, martial artists and teachers who share practical stage combat techniques oriented toward Light Sabers.

** Photo opportunities with costumed characters, including Furbacca, a character versioned after the Hasbro toy that makes wookiee sounds like Chewbacca, and Geoffrey the Giraffe.

** Ice cream flavors inspired by the Star Wars Saga from Scoops ‘R’ Us, the flagship store's in-house ice cream shop located on the lower level.

** Star Wars-themed cookie decorating at a "Wookiee" Cookie Party on Level 1.

** A panel discussion with Steve Sansweet and Jeff Carlisle for select lucky fans, which will also be live-streamed via Periscope @Toysrus on Twitter.

Those who cannot make it to a Toys ‘R’ Us store in person can purchase the new products online at Toysrus.com/StarWars beginning at 12:01 a.m. Sept. 4.



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August 6, 2015

Disney Channel's 'Descendants'

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Kenny Ortega just might be Disney Channel’s Fairy Godmother. After all, the director and choreographer delivered the network’s biggest franchise, “High School Musical,” almost a decade ago and now he has produced the most-watched cable TV movie of the year, “Descendants,” which aired on Friday.

The premise behind “Descendants” isn’t new, but the network does take an engaging look at what would happen if Disney villains (and some heroes) had children. The main characters – Jay (Booboo Stewart), Evie (Sofia Carson), Carlos (Cameron Bryce) and Mal (Dove Cameron) – are the offspring of Jafar, the Evil Queen, Cruella de Vil and Maleficent, respectively. The group is granted permission by the benevolent teenage son of King Adam and Queen Belle to leave the remote Isle of the Lost and attend prep school with the Disney heroes' kids. This, of course, leads to a battle of good versus evil set amidst the backdrop of typical teenage angst.

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Cameron and Kristin Chenoweth, who plays her mother, offer strong performances in the live-action “Descendants.” As Mal realizes that she doesn’t have to carry out her mother’s revenge plot and live with evil in her heart, the pair battles each other. Chenoweth is perfectly cast and hilarious in her role as Maleficent, while Cameron is quite believable as her willful daughter.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Ortega production without catchy music and choreography. I really liked the clever twist on the classic “Be Our Guest” tune from “Beauty and the Beast.” Cameron’s solo “If Only” is relatable to young viewers, even if the lip-synching is way off on this number. And there are large-scale production numbers, as well, such as “Did I mention I’m in Love With You?” on the lacrosse field and in the bleachers and the final number, “Set It Off,” after Ben’s coronation, which occurs in front of a castle with shooting fireworks.

The choreography for these songs seems more realistic – dance moves that you actually might see high school students doing – than, say, some of the made-up moves of Disney Channel’s other summer hit, “Teen Beach 2.”

Two years ago, Mattel delved into the world of villains’ offspring with its popular “Ever After High” books. New York Times best-selling author Shannon Hale was hired to write the tween books, which would then tie into a merchandise line. Earlier this year, a movie, “Ever After High: Spring Unsprung” debuted before a Netflix animated series about Apple White, daughter of the Fairest of Them All, and Raven Queen, daughter of the Evil Queen.

The “Ever After High” animated franchise has been wildly popular with its tween audience, but it certainly doesn’t appear to have a lock on the subject. “Descendants” already has racked up some impressive numbers:

** 6.6 million viewers tuned in to watch “Descendants” Friday on Disney Channel.

** 1.4 million viewers on the WATCH Disney Channel app saw the movie in the six days leading up its official television premiere.

** The “Descendants” soundtrack is No. 1 on iTunes for soundtracks and No. 2 for albums.

** “Descendants” prequel novel, "The Isle of the Lost," by Melissa de la Cruz from Disney Publishing Worldwide has been No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller List for 10 weeks.

Both derivatives, however, leave viewers with the feel-good message of “Be true to yourself.” But will they leave viewers wanting more and more? To this day, I can still sing many of the High School Musical songs and I fondly recall how much my children enjoyed everything related to the franchise. Will I be saying the same about “Descendants” in 10 years?



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August 4, 2015

Disney Cruise Line discontinues Mickey Mail autograph service

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For many younger travelers onboard a Disney Cruise Line ship, collecting autographs is a key part of the vacation at sea. Even my own children, who have annual passes to Walt Disney World and see the characters on a regular basis, were thrilled to come home with a fresh set of signatures. Now, however, one part of the autograph process is changing.

Disney Cruise Line had an unofficial program called Mickey Mail that has been discontinued, according to CruiseCritic.com. I‘m really disappointed to learn of this change because we used Mickey Mail on each of the three DCL cruises we have taken, and we still cherish the resulting products.

Here’s how it worked:

Guests could bring items – two per cabin -- to Guest Services at the start of each cruise and ask that they be autographed by specific characters. The magic signings happened behind the scenes, and the items were returned to cabins on the last night of the cruise. Guests were asked to include the pens or markers that they wanted to be used, and they too were returned. After reading the tip online, we also included candy with each request as a “thank you” for the cast members who provided the service.

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Mickey Mail was an opportunity to collect character signatures on something we would use, or at least see, every day. On our first Disney cruise many years ago, I took Mickey Mouse and Disney Princess pillowcases that I purchased online for my children. My daughter still insists on sleeping on hers each night, and my son’s is packed away as a keepsake.

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On the next sailing, I brought stuffed autograph dogs that I found for a couple bucks at a local craft store. On our third cruise at Christmastime, I purchased blank 9-inch Vinylmation figures at Walt Disney World for all the kids in our group, and they had them autographed in red and green Sharpies. The kids still have them displayed in their bedrooms.

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Another popular item to have autographed by the characters is the white border of a Disney picture or poster" or the mat inside a frame for your own photo. (Be sure to tape off the portion of the mat that is covered by the frame so complete autographs will be visible.)

Although Mickey Mail no longer is available, passengers still can create autographed keepsakes – they just will have to collect the signatures themselves at the meet-and-greets. One easy way to do this if you have a Disney Princess fan, is to be sure to attend the group signing. (Check for free tickets at Guest Services on Embarkation Day). Although you will have a wait, you can meet four or five princesses consecutively, rather than attending separate meet-and-greets throughout the ship.

Also, know that pillowcases, large-scale blank Vinylmations and certain photo frames are not available for purchase on the ships, so be sure to pre-purchase and bring them with you. If you like the idea of the Vinylmation but do not have a trip planned to the Disney Parks before your cruise, you can order them through the Merchandise Mail Order systems, but be sure to allow up to three weeks for delivery. Call 877-560-6477 for Walt Disney World and 800-362-4533 for Disneyland.

For a really special signature, don't miss the Captain's Signing session. My kids enjoyed this unique experience, and my son had his model ships autographed on each cruise.



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