October 21, 2014

Top 5 reasons to visit SeaWorld Orlando's Aquatica in the fall

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If you've never been to SeaWorld Orlando's water park, Aquatica, fall is the perfect time for checking it out. Many families with school-age children have fall breaks this month, and Aquatica could be a great way to spend some of that vacation time. My family and I have visited the water park at different times of the year, and we especially like the fall. Here are our Top 5 reasons why:

1. Unlike some of the other Central Florida water parks, SeaWorld's Aquatica offers several price breaks on admission right now. If you book your ticket online in advance and commit to a specific day, you will save at least half off regular admission. Weekday Splash and Save tickets are $19 and weekend tickets are $24. Want to enjoy the water park for the remainder of the calendar year? Pay just $37 for unlimited admission per person in 2014. (Regular admission is about $50 per day for adults.) In addition, Florida residents visiting SeaWorld's Discovery Cove receive unlimited admission to Aquatica through Jan. 31.

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2. The weather in Orlando is still warm enough for a day of hanging out in swimsuits. Temperatures this week will be in the 80s, and that doesn't leave room for shivering. In fact, when my children and I visited Aquatica on Sunday, the pavement still was hot enough for us to want to wear our flip-flops. It's also warm enough to crave an Icee from one of the most expansive selections we've ever seen near one of the kids' sections. Choose from Blue Raspberry, White Cherry, Coca-Cola, Orange, Watermelon, Lemonade, Banana, Strawberry, Kiwi Strawberry and Pina Colada. The kiosk even suggests ways to mix the flavors to create unique flavors for the Outback of Aquatica: Hooroo Runner, Outback Cherry Cooler, Tassie Lemon Twist and Walhalla Blast.

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3. As with other Orlando theme parks, crowds tend to be less severe at Aquatica in the Fall when most children are in school. The queue for Aquatica's newest thrill ride, Ihu's Breakaway Falls, does not extend from the eight-story platform to the ground. You get more for your money when you're able to experience more of the water park's signature attractions, and that should appeal to everyone, right?

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4. From tame to thrilling, there is enough variety in the water attractions at Aquatica that everyone can find something to enjoy. Roa's Rapids, Loggerhead Lane and the side-by-side wave pools appeal to all ages. Kata's Kookaburra Cove is designed for young children 48 inches and younger, while older children can hit up the fantastic Walkabout Waters. In addition, there are slides for families to experience together and individually.

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5. Of course, what sets this water park apart from others in the area is its focus on real animals and marine life. Perhaps the most stunning are the Commerson's dolphins that swim in the tank that Dolphin Plunge goes through. Many guests do not realize there are dolphins that look like much smaller versions of orcas. You'll also find other species, such as parrots and tortoises, in locations where visitors can learn about them.

Sure, water parks are a great summertime break from the heat, but living in Florida means our cool-down for fall still can’t diminish the cool features at Aquatica. Now is as fun a time as any to make a splash and still soak up the fun in the sun that often lingers well into December.

DISCLAIMER:
Recently, I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando at Aquatica. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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October 18, 2014

At Epcot, Chef Rick Bayless dishes on how to prepare authentic Mexican food

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Once again, Epcot Food & Wine Festival guests had a unique opportunity to explore culinary flavors and topics beyond the norm with one of the most proficient chefs of the day.

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Most people know Chef Rick Bayless as the winner of Bravo’s "Top Chef Masters" but his name also is synonymous with authentic Mexican cuisine north of the border and has been for quite some time. His highly rated PBS series, "Mexico – One Plate at a Time," is in its ninth season, he has published eight cookbooks, and he has three top restaurant concepts in Chicago.

The casual Frontera Grill was founded in 1987 and received the James Beard Foundation’s highest award, Outstanding Restaurant, in 2007. The 4-star Topolobampo served its first meals in 1991. And the very popular, fast-casual Xoco has been around since 2009, serving wood-oven tortas, steaming caldos, golden churros and bean-to-cup Mexican hot chocolate. Bayless' quick-service Tortas Frontera have changed the face of food service at O’Hare International Airport, while Frontera Fresco has brought Frontera flavors to several Macy’s stores and Northwestern University. His award-winning Frontera line of salsas, cooking sauces and organic chips can be found coast to coast.

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Bayless was a guest chef Friday during the Food For Thought series at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World. He has been a frequent speaker over the years at the festival. This year, he spoke about his start in the culinary arts while preparing various foods and offering cooking -- and eating -- tips to the audience.

How did you get started on this Mexico path?

I always loved food -- not just cooking it, but serving it, gathering around the table. My grandmother was hugely inspirational in my family about that. … She taught me the most important lesson I could possibly ever learn about cooking and that is you bring a lot more than just a dish to the table. … She was the one who taught me how to create a community around the table. That's why I say the profession of being a chef is one of the most noble you can have.

When I was 14, I was taking a Spanish class and I got super interested in the culture of Mexico … So, I planned a family vacation to Mexico. … My family had never been out of the country. We arrived in Mexico City at 9 at night and that's the time people are starting to go out to dinner … There is so much life there. There were balloon vendors, there were street vendors and I could hear them from the hotel. There were ladies roasting walnuts and you could smell it up into the room. There was so much vitality -- the joy of life -- coming out of that park. I felt like I had come home, and I continued to go back to Mexico every year and I continued Latin American studies in college. I decide to go to graduate school in anthropology and linguistics.

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Chicken Tinga Tostada with Avocado and Cheese


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Grilled Corn and Poblano Guacamole

Rules for street food anywhere in the world

A lot of times when people travel to Mexico, they don't know if they should eat in the marketplaces. I think those are the best places to eat because you can see everything -- how the food is held, how the food is prepared, everything about it. You go into a fancy restaurant and the dining room may look really pretty but you don't see the kitchen, so you have no idea what is going on.

1. Eat food that is well-done, well-cooked. That simmering pot of whatever is going to most likely be the best bet.

2. If they put fresh, raw garnishes on it, I usually say no. If I'm only going to be there for a short period of time, I skip that part of it. The only exception that I make -- and this may surprise some of you -- is salsa that contains chiles, cilantro, salt and acid. Cilantro is the thing in the plant world that is the most anti-microbial … It will kill pretty much any germ. Salt, chiles and acid are preservatives so salsa is a pretty good risk if you're going to have something that is fresh and you want to get the flavor of what they're doing. Raw onion and raw lettuce, I usually say I'm going to skip that because I don't know how they washed it and all that sort of stuff.

3. Do I want to eat there? Does it look good? Is it well organized? Is it clean? Are they taking care of things? If I say yes to [those questions], then I ask, "Are there a lot of people there?" If yes, it's either really good or really cheap. Sometimes it's just cheap and I throw that one out. If it's the same price as everybody else, then I say, "Fine, I'll eat at that one because it must be good, and they're going to have a lot of turnover, so nothing sits around for a long time. [That's important because] with marketplace cooking, there's no refrigeration. Basically, you want something that's cooked and kept warm.

On getting good recipes

You can't go anywhere in the world and ask for a recipe. First of all, they may not know what you are talking about. A recipe is a fairly recent invention that would have exact quantities and steps. In the really old cookbooks in Mexico, they would list the ingredients and the assume you would know the quantities and how to balance them for your own taste, and then they would list the most basic of steps. These were essentially notes from my kitchen and I assumed you already knew how to make the dish. The really detailed recipe have only come in the last 50 years or so, as we have gotten further and further away from the kitchen.

So the only way I could work with street stall cooks was to let them know that I knew how to make that dish. My first question was never, "Oh, can you give me your recipe and show me how to make it?" It was "Do you put this combination of chiles in there like the person down the street or do you just do it with one chile?" And I would only ask that question after I consumed a whole portion of whatever it is they made.

How to make freshest guacamole

Pairing alcoholic beverages with Mexican cuisine

Bayless has entered a partnership with the popular Negra Modelo beer, a dark-style lager that contains a slow-roasted caramel malt and is a complement to many dishes that he prepares. On the company's website, NegraModeloUSA.com, the chef has contributed recipes for entrees, such as Grilled Skirt Steak Tacos With Salsa and Negra Modelo, that are prepared with the beer. There also are recipes for items that pair well with the beer, such as the Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars that I sampled at the Food for Thought tasting at Epcot's Food & Wine Festival. This particular dessert -- which is to die for -- has been served at Bayless' Frontera restaurant in Chicago since it opened in 1987.

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Equally as delicious in the fall is the Mexican Snakebite Cocktail that we sipped at the tasting. As our treat to you, here's the recipe:

Ingredients
2 cups tamarind pulp
3 1/2 cups ice-cold apple cider, preferably fresh-squeezed and unpasteurized
4 (12-ounce) ice-cold Negra Modelos

Directions
1. In a blender, combine the tamarind and half of the cider. Blend to thoroughly combine.
2. Pour into a pitcher and stir in the remaining cider.
3. Cover and refrigerate until you're ready to serve.
4. When that moment comes, measure 2/3 cup of the apple cider mixture into 8 tall glasses, then slowly top off each one with half a Negra Modelo.
5. Serve right away.

Servings
8 (12-ounce) cocktails

Bayless says that adding 1 cup sugar to the tamarind base lessens the beer taste in the cocktail and other flavors emerge. No wonder I liked it so well!

If you have a chance to catch Bayless at future Epcot Food & Wine Festival events, I would recommend you consider it. Even though his Friday discussion and demonstration was a separate ticketed event, he offered a wealth of cooking information that you can take home with you into your own kitchen and share at your table. And that, as any foodie will attest, is priceless.

Check out our other Epcot Food and Wine Festival Videos:

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World and Negra Modelo. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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October 16, 2014

Part 1: A family's trip through Epcot's Food & Wine Festival

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As my kids have gotten older, they have come to appreciate, and even look forward to, the annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival almost as much as my husband and I do. Here, I'll share our family's favorites. Of course, every child's palate is different, but perhaps this guide will help your family find some new favorites you might not have considered.

Years of experience have taught my family that we need at least two visits to the event to be able sample everything that interests us. No matter which side of the World Showcase we start on -- and even with sharing the appetizer-size portions among our family of four -- we cannot make it past the American Adventure with any room left in our bellies.

Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Entrance

One thing we always start with is collecting a Marketplace Discovery Passport for each person in our group. My children -- ages 12 and 10 -- enjoy collecting the stamps at each marketplace, and the small books make a handy menu guide for the adults. We also purchase two of the Food & Wine Festival gift cards, so each child can wear one and swipe it for our purchases. Yes, they will fight over who gets the privilege of paying at each stop, so having their own cards works well.

This year, we began on the right and traveled counterclockwise around the promenade. At the first food booth, Scotland, my husband was excited to find the Innis & Gunn Original, Oak Aged Beer ($3.50), which he had sampled in previous years at a tasting seminar. Since that first event, he hasn't found it anywhere in Central Florida and was anticipating its return to the festival. It’s his favorite beer selection at the festival, and that’s saying a lot for someone who enjoys a range of beers from IPAs to stouts to American craft beers offered at the event.

Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Hawaii Pork Slider

My son, daughter and I slipped over to the adjacent Hawaii booth for one of our perennial favorites: a Kalua Pork Slider with Sweet and Sour Dole Pineapple Chutney and Spicy Mustard ($3.75). Everyone in my family loves this item, though the kids prefer theirs "naked" (without the chutney and mayo). A tip: Don't hesitate to ask cast members if you would like an item prepared without some of the ingredients. If it is possible to modify a dish, they are happy to do so.

Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Puerto Rico


Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Tostones Sangriiia


Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Braised Beef Lemonade

I persuaded the kids to skip the Desserts & Champagne kiosk early in our rounds with a promise of something sweet later in the night. Instead, we joined the line at the Puerto Rico marketplace, one we all had been looking forward to. There we sampled the Tostones with mayo ketchup ($3.50), which lived up to others we enjoy regularly in the Orlando area. My daughter and my husband tried the Slow Braised Beef with Puerto Rican-Grown Rice ($4.50), and they confirmed what I thought when I tried this dish at a preview: It didn't have as much flavor as I expected. The kids sipped the non-alcoholic San Juan Breeze ($2.75), a lemonade-flavored drink that they found to be too bitter. The sweet Gasolina Sangriiia Cocktail ($5.50) was a perfect pairing for an adult, however.

We bypassed the Refreshment Port in favor of more international fare, but this would be a good stop for families with picky eaters. Dole is a sponsor, so you will find fried chicken chunks with Dole pineapple sweet and sour sauce ($8.99), Dole Fruit Squish'ems Apple-Strawberry ($1.39), and Dole Whip Soft-serve ($3.99). Plus, this is the home of the trendy and popular croissant doughnut with cinnamon and sugar ($4.69).

Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Fishermans Pie

The Greece marketplace was skipped as my son made a beeline for Canada and its well-known Wild Mushroom Beef Filet with Truffle Butter Sauce from Le Cellier ($7.25). Meanwhile, my husband tried the Lobster and Seafood Fisherman's Pie ($3.25) and a Guiness Draught ($3.50) in Ireland. They both appreciated their selections.

Epcot International Food & Wine Festival France Short Ribs

We crossed the bridge and headed into the longest queue of the night in France. There, both children wanted their own servings of the Braised Short Ribs in Cabernet with Mashed Potatoes ($5.75), which they sampled more than once last year. It lived up to their memories. While I don't think they would have relished the Escargot Tart, I do think they might like to try the Wheat pasta gratin with mushrooms and Gruyere cheese on another visit.

By this point, we all were on the verge of being pretty full, but we pushed on, saving the Brazil marketplace for the next time. (The Crispy Pork Belly with Black Beans, Tomato, and Cilantro ($5.25) returns from last year. It is delicious.)

Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Belgium Waffles

As a die-hard Mickey waffle fan, I couldn't wait to get to the Belgium marketplace, where I sampled miniature waffles with Berry Compote and Warm Chocolate Ganache. Both were drizzled with whipped cream ($3.50) and delicious, but the berry topping had more flavor.

Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Carrot Cake

The other members of my family wanted to reach the Hops & Barley marketplace at the American Adventure, so we passed on Morocco, Japan and Block & Hans. One there, we shared a Fresh-baked carrot cake with Craisins and cream cheese icing ($3.75). I tried this at a Food & Wine Festival preview in July, and the version being sold in the theme park was just as good as the original. My husband sampled the Beer Flight that featured Samuel Adams Octoberfest, New Belgium Snapshot, Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat and Leinenkugel's Seasonal Shandy ($9.25). He was happy with all the selections.

At that point, we had to admit defeat, if you could call it that, because none of us could eat another bite. Oh, well, we'll have to go back to eat and drink our way around the other half of World Showplace another time! Luckily for us, the Epcot Food & Wine Festival runs through Nov. 10.

You can see complete menus (and pricing) for the International Marketplaces on the AllEars.Net resource page.



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October 13, 2014

Don't miss this treat: 1-day Memory Maker option at Disney World Halloween parties

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Trick or treat? Let me tell you, this is definitely a treat.

Walt Disney World has just announced a special offer for the remaining nights of Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party that I certainly wish I could have taken advantage of when I attended last month. Through Oct. 31, guests can purchase a one-day Memory Maker credit for just $39.

For those not familiar with the new terminology, Memory Maker is what used to be called Disney's PhotoPass CD. Basically, the service allows you to purchase all the professional photos taken of your family at Walt Disney World during your vacation. This new version delivers the photos as high-resolution downloads, rather than JPGs. Until now, there has only been one option: Purchase an unlimited number of photos for $199 after your vacation, or save $50 by buying the Memory Maker credit in advance.

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The new offer, which currently is being tested at Magic Kingdom, allows the guest to receive "all of your Disney PhotoPass photos taken on the day your event ticket is used, including character encounters and select dining and attraction photos are included — no matter how many you get or if they were taken earlier in the day before Mickey’s Not-So-scary Halloween Party," according to Kelly Glassburn, manager of marketing & communications for Disney’s PhotoPass Service.

That's one up-sell I would have happily bought!

For comparison, a download of an individual photo from Disney's PhotoPass costs $15 (unless there is a sale). I purchased four photos after my family's recent night at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, so this definitely would have been a savings for us. Considering the opportunities for family photos and shots with rarely seen characters at the party, I can easily see this being a good deal for guests. Plus, if you are relying on a smartphone or point-and-shoot camera, it can be difficult to get great shots in low lighting like what is the norm at the Halloween party. Using the professional Disney photographers will make your night so much more relaxing.

When my children were younger, there were a couple years they visited the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and A Pirate's League to be transformed into a princess and a pirate on the day of the Halloween party. We definitely would have gotten our money's worth with the new one-day Memory Maker product.

If this sounds like something you could use, stop by any ticket booth at the Transportation and Ticket Center to add the one day Memory Maker entitlement to your Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party ticket. It does have to be purchased before the party, but you can do so even on the day you are attending the event. This offer is good for the remaining party nights of Oct. 13, 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 24, 26, 28, 30 and 31. (Oct. 13, 16, 30 and 31 are sold out, but those ticket holders can add this option, as well.)

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Even if you are not going to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party this year, Disney's PhotoPass Service is offering you a treat. Log into your My Disney Experience account and claim PhotoPass ID COMEJOINTHEPARTY to receive a bonus shot of well-known ghosts from the Haunted Mansion.



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October 11, 2014

Where to find most popular Disney Halloween costumes

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It should come as no surprise to anyone who has a little girl in his or her life that costumes from the Disney animated blockbuster movie "Frozen" are among the most popular this year for Halloween, according to Yahoo search results reported by Disney Consumer Products.

Although this is the first Halloween since the movie's theatrical release, costumes for dress-up were in very short supply during the winter holiday season last year. The demand was so high that many parents were willing to pay double the retail price on sites such as eBay or wait in large crowds when new shipments were expected at Disney Stores nationwide.

A year later, the Disney marketing machine seemingly has caught up, and Anna and Elsa gowns and accessories can more easily be found at Walt Disney World, Disney Stores and other national retailers. The popularity of all things "Frozen," however, does not seem to be thawing.

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At Walt Disney World, guests can find Elsa's traditional ice blue gown and Anna's royal blue winter gown and red cape at Wandering Oaken's Trading Post at Hollywood Studios. The same gown for Elsa and Anna's green-and-gold coronation gown can be found at Sir Mickey's in the Magic Kingdom. That location also carries the royal wigs, crowns and other coordinating accessories. An assortment of Anna and Elsa merchandise also can be found in the gift shop at the Norway pavilion at Epcot and at World of Disney at Downtown Disney.

The stock at the resort is being replenished regularly, so check back if you don't find your child's size right away. I was able to find the coronation dress for my daughter after stopping back at Sir Mickey's several times. Another option is to call the mail order line at 877-560-6477. Items purchased this way can take up to 3 weeks to arrive, so this may be better if you are searching for the gown for a Christmas present rather than a Halloween costume.

One bonus about the costumes sold at Walt Disney World is that they typically have a larger range of sizes, extending to a youth extra large. Typically, that XL is a size 14-16.

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Costume sales at Disney Stores peak during the first week of October, Disney Consumer Products reports, so most related items are now on sale -- up to 40 percent off. "Frozen" items are not among those on sale at the DisneyStore.com, but there still is a great selection available in almost every size. Choose from regular and deluxe gowns for both Anna and Elsa.

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Both the online store and physical shops also carry an Olaf costume for kids. Although it is temporarily sold out, it is expected to be replenished next week, a spokeswoman told me.

Disney Store locations nationwide will be hosting a fun “Dress Rehearsal” event next weekend for kids to dress up in their Disney costumes, participate in a parade around the store, play games, crafts and more. The event takes place from 5 o 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17 and from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Oct.18. The minimum age to participate is 3. There also is a similar party for children of Disney Visa card members at 9 a.m. Oct. 18 at Florida Mall. This exclusive event requires an RSVP to obtain a pass, and card members must show their cards to enter the store before it opens.

Among other fun costume facts:

** The most popular costume in Disney Store history is Cinderella.
** Sofia the First was the top-selling costume at Disney Store last year.
** More than 2.1 million kids will dress up as Super Heroes this year.
** Spider-Man has been in the Top 5 for costume choices for the last 10 years, according to the National Retail Federation.
** In years with Star Wars theatrical releases, up to 10 million lightsabers have been sold in a single year.
** $350 million will be spent on costumes for pets.
** The first Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse costumes were introduced in 1932.
** 162 million Americans are expected to celebrate Halloween this year.



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October 9, 2014

Tickets on sale for Marvel Universe Live! in Orlando in December

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Avengers (and other Marvel fans), assemble! Feld Entertainment, the creator of Disney on Ice productions and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, is bringing its new live-action show to Orlando in December. Marvel Universe Live! debuted in July in Tampa.

Feld describes the show this way: "Featuring the most Marvel characters ever in one production, the story is framed around the battle over the Cosmic Cube, the source of ultimate power and one of the most feared and coveted treasures in the Marvel Universe, that has been shattered into pieces by the mighty Thor in order to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. With the pieces scattered across the globe, Thor’s villainous [half-brother], Loki, devises a scheme to clone its powers, inciting a threat that could not only decimate Earth but also obliterate the Universe."

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Tickets are on sale now for performances at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Dec. 6; and 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Dec. 7 at Amway Center. Prices range from $28.75 to $141.35, including fees. Seats are available through MarvelUniverseLive.com, Ticketmaster.com or the venue box office. Ages 2 and older must have a ticket to attend.

Actors and athletes in Marvel Universe LIVE! are required to have many physical skills, including everything from martial arts and motocross. Among those selected for this national tour are professional snow skater and three-time X Games champion Phil Smage (Captain America), WMX Pro National Champion and two-time X Games winner Ashley Fiolek (Hydra Agent), 2012 X Games Silver Medalist Louise Forsley (Black Widow), martial arts expert and AAU Junior Olympics/National Champion Kirk Jenkins (Wolverine) and long-time American Ninja Warrior professional course tester Eric Foster (Hawkeye). Their performances are enhanced by aerial stunts, pyrotechnics and state-of-the-art special effects.

“From the beginning we knew that to pull off a show of this magnitude we had to have a cast that was the closest thing we could find to real life Super Heroes,” said Shanda Sawyer, director of Marvel Universe LIVE!, in a press release. “These are intense roles that require performers who are experts in their fields with the ability to take those skills and apply them to a number of meticulously crafted sequences, all designed to push the limits of anything the audience has ever seen in an arena show of this caliber – and they need to do this day in and day out.”

It sounds like Nick Fury would approve.

For more information about Feld Entertainment, you also can read my blogs about Disney On Ice Presents Frozen and Disney Live! Mickey's Magic Show.



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October 7, 2014

Tips for families at SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular

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My family and I have attended SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular event, which takes place on Saturdays and Sundays in October at the Orlando theme park, for several years and have thoroughly enjoyed it. Here is what you need to know before you go during the 2014 season:

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1. Admission to the Halloween activities is included in your regular admission (or Fun Card or annual pass) to SeaWorld Orlando. Unlike at the other local theme parks, you do not have to pay extra to get in the Halloween spirit. Plus, the Spooktacular events take place from noon to 8 p.m., which means they last longer than Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Halloween Horror Nights.

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2. Certainly the whole family is welcome at SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular, but you should know that most of the activities are planned for children 12 and younger. In Penelope's Party Zone, for example, children can participate in story time with Princess Penelope, make easy crafts and play simple games. The popular Sesame Street's Countdown to Halloween stage production is presented four times each day in the Seaport Theater. The day wraps up with a bubble-filled Spooktacular Dance Party at the front of the park from 7 to 8:30 p.m. And, of course, the parties take place mostly during the daytime, which is ideal for little ones who have early bedtimes.

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3. To join the fun, head to the right side of the park -- Bayside Pathway, Bayside Stadium and along Shamu's Happy Harbor -- which is so festively decorated, you can't miss it. There are numerous fall photo opportunities along the way, as well as trick-or-treat stations and tons of costumed characters willing to pose for photos. Look for princesses, mermaids, stilt walkers and fish along the walkway, and Dolly the Dolphin, Shamu, and Pete and Penny Penguin in the party zone. For a small charge, you also can try your hand at games of skill, face painting, snacks and cookie decorating.

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Here's a short video of the "School of Fish"


4. What's new this year? The Dine With Shamu Halloween Spooktacular Brunch allows guests to get up close with the SeaWorld's signature killer whales during a delicious brunch. Participants receive one complimentary family photo with a Spooktacular photo frame, cookie-decorating kits for guests younger than 12 and a trick-or-treat bag of goodies. The menu includes seasonal fruits, vegetables and salads, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, slow-roasted and smoked chicken, natural roasted pork loin, scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes, sausage links and apple wood smoked bacon, assorted breakfast pastries and muffins, Coca-Cola products, orange juice, apple juice, milk, coffee and hot tea. Kids are welcome to select items from the main stations, but they also have their own buffet, which features chicken nuggets with dipping sauce, hot dogs, mac and cheese, waffles with maple syrup and assorted fruit toppings. The brunch takes place at 10:30 a.m. and costs $24 for adults and $14 for kids ages 2 to 9. Remaining available dates are Oct. 19, 25 and 26. This event is similar to the Dine With Shamu dinner, which my family really enjoyed. You can read about it here.

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5. Pass members have some special perks this year, too. Pass members can access an exclusive area in the Ports of Call Gardens through gates off Bayside Pathway that contains an extra treat station, where team members are handing out Fun Dips candy and sliced apples provided by Burger King. There also is a merchandise kiosk, an educational game for kids, a photo opportunity and a misting section for cooling off. In addition, a snack location is set up, and pass members can double their discount to 20 percent on food and drinks in the garden. Each day that pass members visit the garden, they can have their savings cards -- which were mailed out -- stamped and earn rewards, such free meals or behind-the-scenes-tours. The pass member garden is open from noon to 5 p.m. during the first three weekends of SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular.

Of course, if you and your family are looking for a bigger thrill, SeaWorld's giant roller coasters and exciting animal shows are taking place during the holiday weekends, as well.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando for its first Spooktacular event of the season. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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October 4, 2014

Kohl's introduces inexpensive Disney gifts for the holidays

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Disney fans, there are fewer than 100 shopping days left before Christmas. You have started, right?

Even if you haven't started checking items off your list -- or have yet to even make a list -- I have a suggestion to save you time and money. Kohl's Cares products for the 2014 holiday season are on the shelves now, and they offer a nice selection of Disney books and plush animals for just $5 each.

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When my children were younger, I loved to see which beloved stories the department store brought to life each season. The price tag and popularity of the characters made these books and stuffed animals great presents for my own kids, as well as recipients of gift exchanges and donations. As if that isn't enough to feel good about, 100 percent of the net profit from each Kohl's Cares collection supports children’s health and education initiatives nationwide.

Shoppers can select from these items in the current Disney collection:
** “The Lion King” book and Simba plush
** “101 Dalmatians” book and Patch plush
** “Mickey & Friends” book and Pluto plush
** “Dumbo” book and Dumbo plush
** “Disney Write and Erase, Look and Find” workbook
** Disney puzzle
** Disney tote bag
** Disney Mickey Mouse & Friends Christmas Favorites music CD
** “The Jungle Book” book and Baloo plush (available at Kohls.com)
** “Lady and the Tramp” book and Lady plush (available at Kohls.com)

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Since 2000, Kohl's has raised more than $257 million for kids health and education initiatives through the Kohl's Cares merchandise program and recognized more than 22,000 outstanding kids through the Kohl's Cares Scholarship Program.

Can't find the Disney merchandise on loved ones' wish lists in the Kohl's Cares section? Not to worry, the store carries multiple lines of Disney merchandise. A search of items branded with the oh-so-popular "Frozen" characters turns up a whopping 653 items on kohls.com. Less than a year after the movie debuted, the marketing machine has finally caught up with demand!

There are more than 450 Mickey Mouse-themed items, including my favorite giant waffle maker, Halloween costumes, jewelry, clothing, home decor and toddler items. There also are hundreds of selections imprinted with Minnie Mouse, Disney Princesses, Cars, Toy Story and other popular Disney franchises.

Still, it’s the Kohl’s Cares collection that really speaks to the spirit of the season in giving a little something extra for children. And it’s never too early for that, is it?



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October 2, 2014

Tickets on sale now for Disney Live! Mickey's Magic Show in Orlando

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Are you and your family looking for a lot of Disney magic without Walt Disney World prices? If so, you're in luck!

Disney Live! Mickey's Magic Show, presented by Stoneyfield YoKids Organic Yogurt, is coming to CFE Arena at the University of Central Florida, and tickets just went on sale. This stage show is produced by Feld Entertainment, the creators of the popular Disney on Ice productions. (See my review of the brand-new Disney on Ice Presents Frozen here.)

Mickey's Magic Show debuted in 2006 and is making a return to Central Florida on Sunday, March 8, 2015, for two shows: one at 1 p.m. and the other at 4 p.m.

The show is described this way: "Disney’s fabulous five – Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy and Goofy – take the stage with professional illusionists Brad Ross and Alex Gonzalez, and together they showcase a stunning sequence of magical acts. From the breathtaking levitation of Minnie and Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine to the Fairy Godmother transforming Cinderella’s rags into riches, the illusions will astound children and adults alike."

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In this interactive production, some children in the audience will be invited up on stage to assist in the magic. They become part of the show when they make a Magician’s Apprentice tissue-paper hat an inspect a trunk for “The Fastest Escape in the World.”

Six professional magicians helped design the props for this Disney Live! production, and they bring to life more than 35 illusions in the 90-minute Disney production.

“Disney Live! presents Mickey’s Magic Show gives children the opportunity to believe, to wonder and to imagine a world where anything is possible,” said Kenneth Feld, producer of the Disney Live! shows and producer of the most successful live illusion show of all time, Siegfried & Roy, in a press release.

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Director Jerry Bilik, has been a member of the creative team for every Disney On Ice and Disney Live! production since their inception, and has been involved in the creation of each new edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Bilik is the recipient of the Annual Composers’ Award from ASCAP and has scored songs for the movies "Real Life" and "Best Man." A former professor of music at the University of Michigan, he arranged music for a number of television series, too, including “Starsky and Hutch” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

“In every show we do, we try to exceed audiences’ expectations,” Bilik said in a press release. “With the sheer magnitude of the illusions, we are able to take the audience to a place far beyond what they would ever imagine. From the moment the magic begins on stage, audiences will be in for a visual surprise as they take part in a unique Disney experience.”

Tickets range from $24.65 to $62.35, including fees, and seats still are available in all price points through DisneyLive.com, Ticketmaster.com or the venue box office. Ages 1 and older must have a ticket to attend. Flash photography and videocameras are not permitted.



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September 30, 2014

Losing a tooth at Walt Disney World can be a pixie-dusted experience

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This month, my family discovered a new side of Tinker Bell when we stayed at Walt Disney World for the weekend to celebrate my children's birthdays. Can you believe the resident fairy knows the Tooth Fairy and often steps in for her when children lose their teeth while they are staying at the resort?

Earlier in the week, my almost 10-year-old daughter lost a tooth while we were at home, and the Tooth Fairy visited, leaving her usual monetary payout. So, it seemed out of the blue when my almost-10-year-old daughter announced on the drive to Animal Kingdom Lodge that same week that she had lost another tooth at school that day. She was somewhat worried about the Tooth Fairy being able to find her when she was away from home and staying at Walt Disney World.

That's when we broke the news that Tink often takes over for the Tooth Fairy at Disney properties, and her anxiety turned to excitement. There was much speculation with her older brother about what pixie-dusted prize the fairy might deliver. As it turned out, Tinker Bell went all out and left my daughter an autograph book and a collector's pin with her own image, an Animal Kingdom Lodge pen and Disney Dollars. It became a joke in our family that Tinker Bell really loves herself. After all, she left gifts that had her image on them.

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So, how does that Disney Magic happen?

It can begin by mentioning to a cast member at your resort what has happened. He or she may be able to assist Tinker Bell's efforts, though, of course, nothing is guaranteed. When I inquired, I was given the Tinker Bell autograph book for my daughter, which she loved. Other guests have reported receiving everything from pixie dust and balloons to cards signed by Tink and other small gifts. (Some resorts, such as Animal Kingdom Lodge, have restrictions about confetti and balloons because of the nearby wild animals.)

Even if a cast member is unable to offer assistance, most gift shops carry merchandise of some sort with Tink's image so parents can provide the fairy with help, as well. Other ideas: Look for other themed merchandise, such as a Disney toothbrush or fairy jewelry box or character wallet in which to put Disney Dollars for safe-keeping. Pressed pennies, which cost 51 cents, are popular, too, because they can be found all over Walt Disney World.

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My daughter was so thrilled by her special gifts that she wanted to thank Tinker Bell in person. Luckily, we were planning to go to the Magic Kingdom that day so we made it a point to stop by. She had a fun interaction with the mischievous fairy, and I got some great photos to remember the "magical moment."

Has your child lost a tooth at Walt Disney World? Tell us in the comments how you marked the occasion.



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