February 28, 2015

New Disney PANDORA charms and jewelry on sale in March

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This week, our friend Steven Miller, Merchandise Communications Manager at Walt Disney World, has released details and photos of a new Disney collection of one of my favorite brands: PANDORA. I’m ready to head up the queue now!

PANDORA released its first Disney-themed collection in the fall. It included 16 Disney Parks-specific charms and a silver bracelet, plus 25 additional Disney charms. The Disney Parks charms -- which are sold only at Walt Disney World, Disneyland and DisneyStore.com – have been so popular that they have frequently been sold out. (The other Disney charms are readily available at PANDORA retailers.)

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On March 12, PANDORA is releasing an additional six Disney Parks-specific charms and a safety chain. In the spring collection, shoppers will find sterling silver dangle charms in the shapes of the two iconic castles –- Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland and Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World. Each castle has the resort name on the bottom of the base.

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Each resort also will have another charm representing an attraction. For Disney’s California Adventure, there is a silver-and-teal charm depicting Mickey’s Fun Wheel. For Epcot, there is a silver replica of Spaceship Earth with the monorail circling the sphere.

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Additionally, the collection will include a “Minnie Mania” charm, which is the companion to “Mickey Mania” that was released in the original set. Both are colorful, featuring red, yellow, black and white enamel on a silver base. And the runDisney logo will appear on a dangle charm.

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Plus, a safety chain – something I was looking for in the original collection – will be available. Each side has a heart bead – one with a Mickey Mouse icon and one with a Minnie Mouse icon. The safety chain is attached on either side of the bracelet’s clasp so that if it opens without the wearer’s knowledge, the bracelet does not fall off the wrist.

Although prices for the new PANDORA Disney Parks collection have not been released, the pieces are expected to be priced similarly to those released in the fall. Bracelets were listed at $67.50, and silver charms ranged from $45 to $65. Safety chains in the regular PANDORA collection start at $40. (Pieces with gold accents cost more.) Disney Parks-specific pieces can be purchased at Uptown Jewelers in Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World and at La Mascarade d’Orleans in New Orleans Square in Disneyland, as well as at DisneyStore.com.

When the new PANDORA collection is released on March 12, expect the supply of previously released charms to be restocked online, Miller wrote on the Disney Parks Blog.

And as with the fall release, there will be new Disney PANDORA charms that are not Disney Parks-specific. Among those designs are Cinderella’s pumpkin coach, Cinderella’s dress and a “Frozen”-inspired snowflake, according to Miller. Those can be purchased at PANDORA stores throughout North America in March, as well as select Disney Parks locations.



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February 26, 2015

Ways you can interact with SeaWorld's dolphins now that public feedings have been discontinued

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SeaWorld Orlando announced this week that it has closed its popular dolphin feedings to the public. Our family, along with many others, will miss this rare –- and affordable -- opportunity to interact with dolphins.

Readers of this blog might recall that I began going to SeaWorld Orlando and writing about my family’s experiences there because of my daughter’s interest in learning about dolphins. Going to the dolphin feedings was one of the first things we did, and it became a regular stop on our visits. My then-seven-year-old daughter was in awe of the friendly dolphins, and being able to get so close to them was a dream come true for her.

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Because the dolphins obviously had learned they would be fed, they were not shy about approaching the visitors along the wall. For the price of a tray of fish -- $7 – each guest could feed, pet and take photos with the dolphins. In the three years since our first dolphin feeding, we have tried a variety of dolphin experiences in Florida. They all have been amazing, but none are as inexpensive as the now-discontinued dolphin feedings.

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Still, there continue to be experiences to interact with dolphins at SeaWorld parks – just not as many opportunities to feed the mammals without the direct supervision of a trainer. Visitors can book new Dolphin Encounter packages that start March 3 and will take place at the same location adjacent to Dolphin Cove. The packages, which will start at $15, will allow each participant to pet a dolphin with a trainer’s assistance. A $30 package also includes one 6 x 8 professional photo. Both Dolphin Encounters last 10 minutes and include an educational overview. The new packages are similar to what is offered at SeaWorld’s other parks in San Antonio and San Diego.

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In addition, SeaWorld Orlando continues to offer its Dolphins Up-Close Tour. When we experienced the tour a couple years ago, it included learning how to scatter-feed the mother and baby dolphins in the nursery. This is a different technique than what was used at the feedings at Dolphin Cove, where visitors drop a single fish into a dolphin’s open mouth. (Each tray contained four fish.) Scatter-feeding means tossing handfuls of fish into the water and is intended to teach dolphins how to hunt for food, as they would in the wild. During the tour, we also visited Dolphin Cove, where a trainer taught our family to communicate with the dolphins with hand signals, and we were able to take photos. The regular price of the Dolphins Up-Close Tour is $59 for adults and $39 for children ages 3 to 9. Prices may vary with the season, however.

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SeaWorld Orlando also has a sister park –- Discovery Cove -- dedicated to dolphin interactions. The park is known for its unique dolphin swims, which allow guests to be towed a short distance by a dolphin. Before that happens, though, a small group of visitors stands in the lagoon and learns about dolphins and interacts with one of the mammals assigned to them. The interactions don’t focus on feeding the animals, however. I visited Discovery Cove last month, and we spent the time before the swim petting various parts of the dolphin and learning some of the signals used by the trainers. Although a few of the people in our group were asked if they’d like to give the dolphin a fish, it didn’t seem as if that was a planned part of the experience. And, honestly, that was fine with me. It was far more memorable for me to be standing in the water next to dolphin, touching it, and then to swim with it than to feed it. (You can read about my experience at Discovery Cove and the dolphin swim on previous blogs.)

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And I suspect other SeaWorld and Discovery Cove visitors will feel the same way. It’s disappointing that the public feedings are no longer available, but the new Dolphin Encounters still allow visitors to touch and interact with the dolphins. And I’ve seen firsthand with my daughter, who surely will be a future marine biologist, how such interactions can inspire conservation in a new generation.



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February 24, 2015

Last week to apply for SeaWorld Orlando's new environmental scholarship

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SeaWorld Orlando is giving away $20,000 in scholarship money with its new Young Environmental Scholars Awards, and the deadline is fast approaching. Local seniors in Orange County have until March 1 to apply. That’s Sunday!

SeaWorld said the 20 $1,000 scholarships are intended to “reward high school seniors for their academic performance and passion for animals and the environment.” The one-time awards can be used at any college or university that the winner chooses to attend.

High school seniors in Orange County (Florida) with at least a 3.0 GPA are encouraged to apply for this scholarship and must visit this page on seaworldparks.com to complete the application. The application consists of written questions about the student’s plans to help protect the environment. Each applicant also must submit a video that summarizes his or her conservation plans. The video cannot be longer than 5 minutes and has to be uploaded to YouTube.

All of the applications received will be evaluated by representatives of SeaWorld’s Education & Conservation Team. They will consider originality, creativity, content, organization, neatness and the general presentation of the application.

The winners will be announced in the spring, and their awards will be presented by SeaWorld at the winning students’ school awards ceremonies. In addition, there will be a special event held at SeaWorld Orlando for the winners and their families to celebrate their accomplishment.

All winners will be notified by phone and/or email. Any award notification returned to the sponsor or its agencies as undeliverable will result in disqualification and the presenting of the award to an alternate winner. All application materials submitted become the property of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, and none will be returned.

The fine print of the rules: Winners may be asked to complete photographic and video release forms. No substitution of awards will be offered and non-cash prizes may not be redeemed for cash value. The award money is intended to provide funding for the winners college education and may not be transferred to a third party or be used for unrelated purposes. By accepting an award, all representatives agree to permit SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and SeaWorld Orlando to use their name, voice, picture or other likeness for advertising, marketing, public relations or other promotional purposes in connection with awards program or otherwise without further compensations. Federal, state and local taxes on award money, if any, are the responsibility of the winners.

A global leader in animal care and conservation, SeaWorld has assisted more than 24,000 orphaned, injured or ill animals over the last 50 years.



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February 21, 2015

Review: Disney's 'McFarland, USA' is a formulaic but feel-good movie

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Warning: Spoilers ahead!

In competitive sports, like most other aspects of life, coaches will tell their players that if something is working, there’s no need to change it. The same can be said of movie scriptwriting, too.

And Disney Pictures’ newest film, “McFarland, USA,” certainly lives up to this truism. But that’s not a bad thing because, though the film is predictable from start to finish, it’s still enjoyable entertainment for the family in the ways many other live-action Disney movies prove to be.

“McFarland, USA” is based on the true story of a down-and-out coach who builds a championship cross-country team at a poor high school in a farming community in California’s Central Valley. It’s the classic tale of the underdog – or in this case, multiple underdogs – struggling to prove their worth and coming out on top in the end.

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Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a newcomer to the predominantly Latino high school, where students must work alongside their migrant parents in the fields, picking crops before and after school. Not only is that concept foreign to White, so is the Hispanic culture, and it becomes apparent that he has a lot to learn if he and his family are to assimilate to their new hometown. But as he does so, White realizes that his hard-working students have talents that mesh well with cross-country runners, and he fights to start the school’s first team.

White’s willingness to learn cements his relationships with the seven runners. From tasting traditional Mexican foods to re-evaluating low-riding cars to experiencing a quinceanera, White, his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and their two daughters try to fit in, often with humorous results.

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After seeing “McFarland, USA,” my 12-year-old son aptly compared it to another Disney Pictures sports movie, “Million Dollar Arm.” It, too, told the story of a white coach who helps underprivileged kids overcome their economic circumstances and cultural differences to find athletic success. “McFarland, USA” feels formulaic, even though it is based on a true story that occurred in 1987.

Still, the film is not one that leaves audiences feeling cheated. Director Niki Caro shot much of the film on location in the San Joaquin Valley, and the mountainous vistas are simply gorgeous. And the actors’ performances in “McFarland, USA” are believable. Costner especially excels in his role as the transformed coach, and the seven young actors who play the runners are fun to watch on screen.

“McFarland, USA” is inspirational, even if the story is not a new one. Audience members at the screening I attended cheered out loud during several key scenes, and there were even some tears shed, if that gives any indication of the kinds of emotions this movie evokes.

If the movie doesn’t tug at your heartstrings – which seems improbable -- the ending surely will. Caro shows viewers the real-life counterparts to the actors, as they are now, and continues to tell their life stories. All seven runners went on to college, and were the first ones in their families to do so.

“McFarland, USA” is rated PG.

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



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February 19, 2015

Review: External batteries for theme-park use

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When I bought my first smartphone almost six years ago, I quickly realized that I would need the ability to recharge the battery without being tethered to an outlet. This has become increasingly important when I visit the theme parks, especially with all the photos and video I shoot and my frequent posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. So, over the years, I have purchased various external battery packs and talked with others about their preferences. Perhaps my experiences will help you if you are in the market for a way to recharge your phone or tablet on the go.

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My quest to find the perfect external battery began back when I had an iPhone 3GS and my children had iPods. The battery I purchased was very small (it fit in my palm) and plugged directly into our devices – no cords needed. It could be recharged with a shell that plugged directly into the wall. The downside was that it only provided about a 30 percent charge, which, in my mind, was good enough for emergencies, but not for regular visits to the theme parks. I don’t think this type of battery is sold any longer.

Mophie Juice Pack

Next, I graduated to a Mophie Juice Pack. These juice packs not only offer recharging power, but they also serve as cases for smart phones.

Pros: The cases are slim enough that you can still slip your phone in your pocket, and you don’t need to carry around a separate battery pack. You can charge your phone and the juice pack simultaneously.

Cons: The juice pack was not durable enough for me because I tend to toss my phone in my very purse, and I have been known to also drop it occasionally. My Mophie Juice Pack eventually did break. (In fairness, the designs have improved over the years, so this might not be the case any longer.) Also, the various Mophie Juice Packs give you a boost of about one full recharge (80 to 120 percent). That may be plenty for some people, but I actually need to recharge more often because I spend a lot of time tweeting and posting while I’m in theme parks.

Price: $80 - $120, depending on capacity

New Trent PowerPak Ultra 14000mAh External Battery

I have tried several of New Trent’s external batteries, and they are a better fit for my needs and those of my family. This heavy-duty battery is compatible with most smart phones and 5V tablets.

Pros: PowerPaks have two or three USB outlets so you can charge multiple devices at the same time. Each battery provides up to six full charges before the battery itself must be recharged. I’m able to charge to my phone multiple times, plus those of my family members, while we are in the theme parks.

Cons: The external battery is heavy and will add weight to your backpack or bag. It’s also too bulky to slip in your pocket.

List price: $100 for this model, though prices range on other similar models

Do you have a favorite external battery for your smart phone or tablet? Please tell us about it in the comments.

DISCLAIMER: If you purchase any of these items through the links to Amazon.com in this blog post, AllEars.Net receives a small payment. This, in turn, helps us bring you all the Walt Disney World news you look forward to.



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February 17, 2015

Registration is open now for SeaWorld Orlando's summer camps

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Does your child love animals? Does he or she dream of being a marine biologist (just as my 10-year-old daughter does)? Or perhaps you are looking for a unique camp experience for your child. If you said “yes” to any of these questions, SeaWorld summer camps may be a great fit for your family.

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. Registration is open now for all of the camps, which 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 8, and the last camp of the summer begins Aug. 3. 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, 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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Children ages 3 and 4 can experience SeaFari from 9 a.m. to noon each day. The price is $250, 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 in grades 1 through 8 take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day and cost $325 per week. (SeaWorld pass members can save $35 per camp by registering through the website or by calling 1-866-479-2267.) 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).

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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 60,000 animals and feed some of the residents).

The oldest campers, upcoming sixth- to eighth-graders, will 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.

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

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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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February 14, 2015

Urban Farm garden to debut at 2015 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

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With a recent string of chilly nights (and days) in Orlando, it may be difficult to think about being outside, let alone enjoying your back yard. But that’s exactly what Walt Disney World gardeners have been doing. Plans for the 2015 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival have been in the works since last year’s edition ended. The Flower & Garden Festival begins March 4 – just a little more than two weeks away!

Walt Disney World officials have given us a taste of what we can expect this year, and AllEars.Net has those details in our News Blog.

But a recent article in the Disney Rewards newsletter, a quarterly newsletter mailed to Disney Visa card members, offers more specific information about a brand-new garden. The Urban Farm garden will demonstrate “creative ways to grow fruits and vegetables, including raised beds, container gardening, and hanging methods that maximize productivity in small spaces.” That sounds a lot like what Disney World does best, doesn’t it? All three methods are easily visible throughout Disney property, though they are more often seen with flowers than food. Certainly, hydroponics and other growing methods for fruits and vegetables can be seen during the Living With The Land attraction at Epcot, however.

“The team is excited about this new garden because we all enjoy growing food,” Eric Darden, horticulture content manager at Walt Disney World, said in the newsletter. “There’s something so satisfying about saying, ‘I’m going to run outside and pick some strawberries for my cereal this morning’.”

In addition, there will be a display of home-size aquatic systems to raise fresh fish, information about chicken coops and raising chickens, and a beekeeping display.

“Currently, only about 35 percent of Americans are avid gardeners, but it is becoming a fast-growing trend,” Darden said in the article.

Guests will be able sample foods that they might grow at home at the Urban Farm Fresh outdoor kitchen. Outdoor kitchens, which sell appetizer-size portions of foods, are similar to the booths at Epcot’s popular Food & Wine Festival in the fall. Although the Urban Farm garden will be new, the Urban Farm Eats booth is not. It debuted last year and its menu included:

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** Land-grown eggplant "scallop" with romesco sauce and spaghetti squash $3.75
** Pickled beet salad with goat cheese cream, mizuna and pistachios $3.50
** Ghost pepper-dusted tilapia with crisp winter melon slaw and mint oil featuring
** The Original Sauce Man's Kick It Up Rub $4.75
** Cucumber lemon spa water, finished with a sprig of fresh mint $2.00
** The Vegan Vine Chardonnay $3.25
** The Vegan Vine Cabernet Sauvignon $3.25
** Redbridge Gluten-Free Sorghum Beer, Anheuser-Busch $6.50
** Seagram's Orange Citrus Sparkling Water $2.75
** Minute Maid Light Lemonade $2.75
** Dasani Bottled Water $2.50

No word on if the menu will remain the same.

This will be the third year that the Flower & Garden Festival includes outdoor kitchens. The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival runs through May 17 and is included in regular admission to Epcot.



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February 12, 2015

Tips for maximizing your day at SeaWorld Orlando's Discovery Cove

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With the many amazing experiences theme parks in Orlando offer, it would be difficult to pick a single favorite place. But SeaWorld Orlando’s Discovery Cove is among our family’s top picks because of the unique and relaxing day it provides guests.

In my previous blog, I wrote about the park’s signature Dolphin Swim Package. Although that certainly is one of the main attractions for many visitors to Discovery Cove, we also enjoy that there is enough to do at this park to fill a day for even the most active family.

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Reservations and pricing

First, know that Discovery Cove is not inexpensive. It is priced more like a resort than a theme park: Prices vary based on seasons and can increase as the date approaches. The current Florida resident special is $219 per person, and admission is more for out-of-town visitors, especially in the summer. Guests who do not want to swim with dolphins can purchase a Day Resort Package, which covers everything except the actual dolphin interaction, at a discounted price.

However, part of the appeal of Discovery Cove is that it is not crowded. Although officials won’t give an attendance number, it’s commonly thought that only about 1,000 guests are admitted each day. For these reasons, it is recommended that you book your reservations in advance. (Discovery Cove does allow one complimentary rescheduling should that need arise.)

Planning your day

Because you are paying a premium for your day at Discovery Cove, presumably you will want to make the most of it. As basic as this sounds, one way to do this is to know the operating hours: 7:15 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. This is not the day to sleep in! Check-in begins at 7:15 a.m., breakfast service starts at 8 a.m. and the waterways open at 9 a.m. You can take your time exiting the park, however. Guests can swim right up until 5:30 p.m. and still be able to shower, shop at the gift shops and purchase photos. As one team member told me, “We stay open until the last guest leaves.” My daughter and I were walking to our car about 6:45 p.m. and never felt rushed. (During colder periods, the park only is open Friday through Monday.)

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What’s included

Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive experience. Every admission comes with an all-you-care-to-eat breakfast, lunch, snacks, drinks and alcohol for those 21 and older. The meals include hot and cold entrees, as well as healthy and gluten-free options. Breakfast is served from 8 to 10:30 a.m., and lunch is 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. You may go through the serving line as many times as you would like during those times. Snacks and drinks are served at the Beach and Island Bars from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I think my daughter stopped every time we passed a bar for one of the frozen drinks and either a salted pretzel or warm chocolate-chip cookies. It’s fun to sit in the water seats (pictured) across from one of the bars, too.

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In addition to food and beverages, your admission includes complimentary parking, the use of a wetsuit (short and long styles are available) and life vests, a locker for the day, samples of sunscreen that is safe for the dolphins, the use of a mask and snorkel (and you keep the snorkel), unlimited towels, changing facilities with complimentary body wash, shampoo, conditioner and the use of a hair dryer, and bags to take home your wet swim suit. (An aside: Prescription-lens masks are available at Guest Services.)

Plus, Discovery Cove guests are given unlimited admission to SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica for 14 days after their visit to the day resort.

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Explorers Aviary

So, if you’re not eating and drinking or swimming with the dolphins, what can you do at Discovery Cove? My daughter especially loved hand-feeding the birds in the aviary. Team members provide cups of food, and guests can wander through three outdoor areas to entice the friendly birds to perch on the cups. The not-so-shy feathered friends rest on people’s arms and even their heads. My daughter thought this was hilarious! We did the feedings twice and found that the birds seemed to approach my daughter more in the morning than the afternoon, perhaps because they were not yet full. There are not set times for feedings; guests may enter the aviary any time between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. There is a hand-washing station at the exit.

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Wind-away River

The Wind-away River is my favorite non-dolphin attraction at Discovery Cove. It’s essentially a slow lazy river, but one that doesn’t really feel like a man-made attraction. The foliage on the banks is thick and lush, so you can’t see the rest of the park, for the most part. Swimmers enter the river through a cave that features waterfalls. At the beginning, you can pick up a “noodle” to use as a float, which I would recommend if you don’t have a life vest on and don’t want to swim the whole route. There are many spots that are too deep to stand. Also, there are a lot more lifeguards stationed along this lazy river than I have seen at other water parks. See Wind-away River for yourself in this video I shot:

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Freshwater Oasis

In the Freshwater Oasis, swimmers can see otters and marmoset interactions up close as they float or wade by their habitats. The marmosets are located behind a moat, and a team member talks abut the creatures and answers questions. The otters are behind a glass tank, and guests can look through their masks and snorkels under the water or view them above the water’s surface. The Freshwater Oasis forms a smaller circle than Wind-away River.

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The Grand Reef

The Grand Reef, which opened in 2011, is the newest addition to Discovery Cove. It covers 2.5 acres where about 125 species of marine life live. The reef is open to swimming and snorkeling, and guests seem to be most impressed by being able to be so close to stingrays whose barbs have been trimmed. The rays we saw were gentle giants, though their quick movement and size startled a few children, including my daughter. The rays allowed guests to touch them, and we even saw some of the babies in a special pen pop up as if seeking out a hand. Snorkelers also can see sharks, which are swimming behind a glass wall.

The Grand Reef also is the location for the Seaventure underwater tour. Guests wear dive helmets so they can walk along the reef floor to see and even touch the marine life. The adventure ends with schools of fish feeding around the divers. The program is about an hour long including orientation; the time underwater is about 25 minutes. Groups are capped at eight people per excursion, and the experience costs an additional $59 per person.

Upgrades

Discovery Cove offers several upgrades to enhance your day. My daughter and I were invited to enjoy one of them, a cabana, on our most recent visit. The cabanas are tucked into the landscaping around the waterways and are very private. Ours opened out onto the Grand Reef. It included a table and four chairs, two chaise lounges, a refrigerator, locker, sand toys, towels and the services of an attendant. Cabanas are priced at $199 for six people for the day and can be reserved up to three weeks before your arrival. It was such a treat for us to experience a cabana, but we didn’t have as much time as some families to enjoy it. We wanted to experience all the water aspects of the park and didn’t spend much time lounging. I can see cabanas being a good investment for groups that have folks that need shade or aren’t interested in being in the water the entire day.

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Other upgrades are the Trainer for a Day program, which is open to ages 6 and older, and special occasion packages that are described at DiscoveryCove.com. (Children ages 6 to 12 must be accompanied by a paid adult participating in the trainer program.)

Most people, including myself, would consider Discovery Cove an expensive experience, but perhaps if you factor in everything that is included and compare that total to what you would spend at another local theme park, it would be more comparable. Either way, Discovery Cove excels in offering unique experiences and animal interactions in an uncrowded tropical setting.

DISCLAIMER: My first visit to Discovery Cove was at my own expense, and I was a media guest for my second visit. This did not affect my review. My opinions are my own.



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February 10, 2015

Swim with dolphins at SeaWorld's Discovery Cove

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Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive theme park in Orlando that is part of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. As far as local theme parks go, it’s relatively new, having opened in 2000. (By comparison, SeaWorld is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.) In its short history, though, Discovery Cove has become synonymous with dolphins, and its layout literally is built around guest interactions with dolphins.

Certainly Florida offers many opportunities for visitors to get up close with bottlenose dolphins, but what sets Discovery Cove apart is its dolphin swim. Other locations allow guests to get in the water to pet and feed dolphins, but Discovery Cove makes it possible for guests to hold onto a dolphin’s dorsal and pectoral fins and “swim” through the water. For my elementary-school-age daughter, this was a dream come true.

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Here’s how it works. When guests check in at Discovery Cove in the morning, they are assigned times and locations for their dolphin interactions, which take place in one of the three pods of Dolphin Lagoon in the center of the park. A few minutes before that time, they are asked to go to the corresponding cabanas for the Sand Dollar, Seahorse and Starfish pods. There they fill out waivers and see a short video presentation about dolphins. A trainer also goes over what happens in the lagoon and answers any questions.

Once that 15-minute segment is completed, the small group of guests heads to the lagoon. Our group had nine participants, two trainers, a photographer and videographer. Talk about feeling special!

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Our trainer talked with us about how and where to touch dolphins before we were introduced to Thelma, an older bottlenose dolphin who is one of the matriarchs at Discovery Cove. Then she appeared and we were able to pet her multiple times, feed her a fish (if we wanted to), and give her some simple hand signals and see her respond. Throughout the interaction, our knowledgeable trainers shared a lot of information about the mammals.

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Then, it was time for the highlight of our 30 minutes with Thelma – the actual swim. Most people chose the deep-water swim, which required us to swim a short distance and tread water for a few seconds next to one of the trainers. When Thelma appeared, the trainer reminded each of us where to put our hands and then we were off! Thelma towed each of us back to where we could stand in the lagoon. She did all the work on the gentle ride. (Participants just hold on; they don’t actually have to swim.) If the deep-water swim not something you would like to do, the dolphins will do the same tow in the shallow water so you never have to tread water. Honestly, though, the treading water does not last long at all.

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Throughout the interaction, we posed for photos with Thelma. We each were shown how to “kiss” her for the photographer. Plus Thelma posed (tail up, mouth open in a “smile”) for family and individual shots. In addition, the photographer captured stills from each person’s swim. And the videographer recorded the entire session. All the images and video are available to purchase as part of a photo package or as a la carte products. Be aware that participants are not allowed to take personal cameras in the water, but other members of your party are welcome to capture images from the shore.

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Things to know before your dolphin swim:

** To participate in the dolphin swim, you must be at least 6 years old. Children ages 6 to 12 must be accompanied by a paying adult who also is participating in the dolphin experience.
** Do not worry about whether the dolphin will be able to pull you. We were told Thelma weighs 600 pounds and can pull more than twice her weight.
** Guests are asked to wear wetsuits, which are complimentary and come in enough sizes to fit everyone.
** Jewelry is restricted to what trainers are permitted to wear: A tight-fitting watch and wedding and engagement rings. Guests are asked to remove earrings, bracelets, necklaces, etc. In my opinion, it’s better to just leave those at home, but if you forget, you can always stash them in your complimentary locker.
** You also may wear a hat, glasses or sunglasses. This was of particular concern to me because everyone in my family needs glasses for more than just reading. Know that your head does not go under water at any time during the dolphin interaction – unless you choose to put it there! I wore my prescription sunglasses the entire time and was fine. My daughter chose to wear her glasses out into the water so she could see the trainer during the interaction, but took them off during the swim and photos.
** Dolphin swim times are booked on a first-come, first-served basis. Check-in begins at 7:15 a.m. and the park opens at 8 a.m. so get there early if you'd like your dolphin experience to be early in the day.

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As amazing as the dolphin swim is, that’s only a small part of your day at Discovery Cove. My next blog will bring you details about everything else you can do there!

DISCLAIMER: My first visit to Discovery Cove was at my own expense, and I was a media guest for my second visit. This did not affect my review. My opinions are my own.



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February 6, 2015

Playlist Live 2015 starts today in Orlando

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Carl Butler (right) recently was the Grand Marshal of a parade at the Magic Kingdom.

If you’re not familiar with Maker Studios and its catalog of entertainers, you will be soon. The Walt Disney Company bought the multi-channel network and YouTube video supplier last year for a deal that could be worth almost $1 billion. Its stars already have begun making appearances at Walt Disney World.

This weekend, many popular YouTube celebrities, including Maker Studios co-founder and vlogger Shay Carl Butler, will be back in Orlando for Playlist Live 2015, a three-day convention at Orlando World Center Marriott that begins today. Though many of the vloggers aren’t necessarily dedicated Disney commentators, they do often produce Disney-themed content. Zoella, The Daily Bumps and Olga Kay are among such performers. Playlist Live guest celebrity Teala Dunn is best known for her work on Disney TV shows such as “Dog With A Blog” and “Shake It Up!”

The event started four years ago in Orlando as a way for attendees to learn more about video production from experienced creators. It has grown to include meet-ups with popular stars, Q&As and short performances from featured guests, musical performances and a dance party, and an inflatable joust and interactive games.

Parents even will have their own lounge, much like similar facilities at rock concerts, so they can be on site if their children need them, but they’re not tagging along with their cool offspring.

My 12-year-old son is attending Playlist Live for the first time, and he has been counting the days until he can meet his favorite YouTubers (besides the Debs, of course): The Shaytards. This family first attracted viewers with its daily video blogs. Among the other popular entertainers at the convention are Tyler Oakley, Bethany Mota and a slew of others. For many of today’s teens (and tweens), social media stars are the celebrities they most want to meet, and Playlist Live gives them the opportunity to just that.

Although the convention quickly sold out, fans can peek in on the happenings online, of course, via the Playlist Live Virtual Experience. Fans can sign up HERE to be notified when the live streaming begins.

So, why would Disney want to acquire Maker Studios? As The New York Times pointed out, it’s not necessarily for its established personalities, though they play a part.

“Maker brings to Disney a substantial digital audience, some of the biggest stars in the space and also a real understanding of how to manage big brands on YouTube,” Brent Weinstein, who leads United Talent Agency’s digital media division, told The New York Times. “Look at what Maker has done for Epic Rap Battles and Snoop, and imagine what they can do for Iron Man, Mickey and Yoda.”

According to Variety, Maker gets about 5.5 billion views per month across its 55,000 YouTube channels.

“We can allow the Maker people to substantially improve the distribution and reach of shorter form video using these [Star Wars] characters and stories and add their expertise on the production side,” Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger told Variety.



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