October 22, 2016

STK Orlando at Disney Springs introduces fall menu


With the temperatures in Orlando finally dipping to the point that we’re not uncomfortable the minute we step outside, it’s beginning to feel a lot like fall -- or as much of a fall season as we can expect in the Sunshine State. And while that means locals might break out the long sleeves and boots this weekend, for those in the culinary field, it signals the opportunity to change up their menus.



As such, Executive Chef James O’Donnell has introduced his fall seasonal menu, which is available in addition to well-known signature dishes, at STK at Disney Springs at Walt Disney World. I was invited to a dinner to sample his creations, and I had the opportunity to chat with the chef afterward.

The fall STK menu focuses on seafood because that is what is fresh and in demand in the Orlando market, Chef James said. About 20 percent of the menu items at STK Orlando are exclusive to the Disney Springs location, including Florida grouper, chilled rubbed rack of lamb and seared tuna, according to the Disney Parks Blog. I tasted the seasonal variations on all three popular dishes.

“The lamb is my favorite,” Chef James said. “I love lamb, and lamb with ras el hanout. the date chutney, the sweet and a little tartness from some tamarind in the chutney and then some sweet potatoes and the spice from the lamb. It’s my favorite.”

There also were new takes on Buratta, which is a trendy cheese used in salads, and raw tuna and roasted scallops, which all appear in other dishes on the regular lunch menu and dinner menu.

“With fall, it always is spices for me,” Chef James said. “My grandfather is from Lebanon, so there is those things like ras el hanout where you’re blending sweet spices with more savory spices and it feels like fall to me. That’s where the za’atar, ras el hanout, sumac come into these dishes.”

Here are the mouth-watering descriptions of items on the fall menu:



Buratta served with local heirloom tomatoes, Arugula Pesto and Kalamatta Olive Croutons



Seared Tuna served with Thumbelina carrots, black Sesame Tahini and preserved lemon


Roasted Scallop served with short rib jam, barley risotto and red wine sauce


Florida Grouper served with mussels, chorizo and aged sherry vinegar


Spice Rubbed Rack of Lamb served with sweet potato, shaved apple and date chutney



Apple Crumb Cake served with spiced apples, caramel sauce and dulce de leche ice cream



Poisoned Apple made with Malibu rum, Prosecco wine, Grand Marnier liquor, fall flavors including cinnamon, and served with a green apple garnish and caramel rim on the glass


The Harvest made with Maker’s Mark bourbon, apple cider, pumpkin, cinnamon syrup, lemon juice and egg white

STK Orlando’s new fall menu is available now, and Chef James said it’s likely to stay for about three months. Quarterly changes are the norm, although he does take weather and availability of ingredients into account for menu planning.

“We’re dealing with 80 degrees rather than 100 degrees so it feels like fall to me at this point,” he said.


October 20, 2016

How to save money on a Disney Cruise Line vacation


Is it possible to go on a Disney cruise vacation and not spend a lot of money on extras and still have a great time? Yes! Disney cruises are packed with activities and options, and you most definitely can have a great time and keep your budget intact. To do so, it’s important to know what is included and what costs extra. Here’s a breakdown:

** Gratuities. It is customary to tip your room stewart, head server, server and assistant server. Tipping is, of course, not mandatory, but most people do tip the suggested amounts ($12 per day per person for the combined amount for four cast members) on their cruises for the excellent service they receive on a Disney cruise. Disney does allow you to pre-pay these tips if you would like for convenience and budget reasons. Know that the ships now automatically add the recommended amounts to your onboard account, but you can have them removed if you choose. In my mind, tipping is just part of the cruise, not an “extra,” but I’m including it here because it is something that is not part of your initial cash outlay.

** Alcohol and specialty beverages. These drinks can add up quickly. If you don’t want to blow your budget, bring the allowable amount of alcohol per adult (six cans or bottles of beer OR two bottles of wine no larger than 750 ml) onboard and at each port. If you received an onboard credit, use that for your bar tab and do not go over the amount. Finally, if you like specialty drinks, check out the Drink of the Day, which will be less expensive than ordering your usual at the bar and you can use the souvenir cup for additional discounted drinks. There also is a refillable beer mug program.


** Food. Food in the main dining rooms, quick service on the pool deck (including sodas), and room service is included in your cruise fare. What is not included: Sodas and tipping for room service; the upcharge for dining at adult-only Palo and Remy restaurants; and Vanellope’s Sweets & Treats on the Dream. On our first cruise (and our last), my husband and I did not go to Palo or Remy because we wanted to experience all three main dining rooms. We did try the new Vanellope’s Sweets & Treats this time, but visiting the complimentary soft serve ice cream station on the pool deck has been a favorite memory on every cruise for both of my children so I don’t think they would have been hugely disappointed if we skipped it.


** Excursions. On shorter cruises, especially the three- and four-night Bahamian voyages, there is no need to sign up for expensive excursions. Sure, they are fun if you have the time and money to spend, but there is so much to do on the ship that it is a destination in itself. You will not be bored if you do not book excursions, I promise. We never get off the ship in Nassau and instead use the day as a pool day, but you could just as easily do many other things during that time. Honestly, my children have never complained about not going to Atlantis or another destination.

** Castaway Cay. There are opportunities to spend more money on Disney Cruise Lines’ private island, but again, you do not have to. If you get off the ship early, you can participate in the free runDisney Castaway Cay 5K (with a bib and medal) or grab prime lounge seats with umbrellas. Lunch on the island is included; drinks at the bar are not (see above). Snorkeling gear can be rented, but you also can bring your own if you don’t mind a little inconvenience, and the use of life vests and the snorkeling trail is free. There are excursions and water sports rentals, which cost extra, but there also are water slides, water rope climbing, a splash zone and life-size sidewalk games that are included at no charge.


** Costumes. Want your family to dress up for pirate night or your little one to wear a fancy Disney Princess dress? Bring them with you. You do not have to go to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (as much as we loved it) or The Pirate’s League to feel special. Or just use some makeup and the pirate bandanas that are provided.

** Photos. There is no getting around it – purchasing your professional cruise photos is expensive. If you can be happy with images taken on your camera or mobile phone, you will save a bundle. Me, not so much. I have bought different photo packages on every cruise we have sailed – and not regretted it at all. I think this is largely due to my desire to capture my children’s experiences, but if it were just my husband and I sailing, I might be less inclined to buy the packages.

That said, if you are planning to buy photos, there are a few ways to save. First, pre-order your package at mycruisephotos.com and save 15 percent. The discount is not available on the ship, but you can get a refund if you find you haven’t taken enough photos or don’t like the images as long as you do so before you leave the ship. Then, make the most of your package, especially if you purchased unlimited digital copies or prints. More photos equals a lower cost per photo. So, we took advantage of many of the photo opportunities, including two that I normally would pay for at a local studio. I made sure to get the pro shots of my children in their Halloween and pirate costumes, and we all dressed for a family portrait and individual images of the kids. This means I don’t have to pay for family photos for Christmas cards nor do I have to buy school photos, which I never like anyway. Win!

** Souvenirs. This is the other downfall for me. I’m happy to skip the bar tab in order to be able to shop. Having souvenirs that remind me of my vacation make me happy during my regular, routine days at home. If you’re like me, you’ve got to set a budget or find ways to stash extra cash before your trip.

If you’re not a big shopper, you can still come back with some nice complimentary mementos from the voyage: Castaway Club members receive a gift in their staterooms (usually is a tote or backpack); postcards are in the desk in each stateroom; bandanas left in the stateroom for pirate night; H20 bath products for the stateroom; collectible pins you trade with the ship’s officers; magnets that you made for your stateroom door you now can hang in the fridge; souvenir cups from specialty drinks; birthday pins from Guest Relations; and the above-mentioned Castaway Cay 5K bib and medal.

Bon voyage!


October 18, 2016

Clearwater Marine Aquarium scares up Halloween fun with mini camps and Winter the dolphin costume contest


Fearwater Marine A-Scare-ium – um, Clearwater Marine Aquarium -- home of Winter the dolphin, is gearing up for its holiday camps, beginning with its Sea Monster Mash on Oct. 29.

Kids ages 5 years and older can learn about vampire squid, goblin sharks, ghost shrimp and other deep sea creatures, visit the goo-station and make “fish” slime, create an icky "bioluminescent" fish anatomy picture, get entangled in a food web, play ghoulish games, and feed creepy crustaceans.

The event runs from 2 to 4 p.m. and costs $10. Children are invited to wear their Halloween costumes.

My daughter dressed her Winter plush up as a Florida tourist for this contest.

Even if you can’t make it to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see Winter, you can participate in Winter’s Costume Giveaway. The contest, which goes through Oct. 31, asks fans to dress up their Winter the dolphin plush animals for Halloween. Then post a photo of the costume on Winter’s Facebook page or on their own Instagram account with the hashtag #WintersCostume. You must have a public profile to enter via Instagram.

According the the aquarium, the winner will be the costume that is judged most creative. A prize package worth more than $75 will include an array of Winter, Dolphin Tale and Clearwater Marine Aquarium items. The winner will be announced at 4 p.m. Nov. 1 on Facebook.

Be sure to read the official contest rules here.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium also offers full-day “Sea of Thanks” camps from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the first half of Thanksgiving week. Families can choose just one day or a three-day package:

Nov. 21: Wonderful Whistles. Learn about charismatic Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins and how they communicate with one another. Discover your inner dolphin by designing your own signature whistles.

Nov. 22: Home Sweet Home. The Clearwater Bay estuary is home to many residential dolphins. Learn about the wild dolphin population that call the estuary home and their home on a boat tour of the bay (weather permitting).

Nov. 23: Funny Family. Much like people have different family members, so do dolphins. Learn about CMA’s resident dolphins and other animals that are related to them and make a family tree to take home. After a day at camp, tour Clearwater Marine Aquarium with your family. (Enjoy free admission for up to three family members after 4 p.m.)

A single day costs $75 for members and $90 for non-members. To attend all three days, the price is $175 for members and $195 for non-members.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Holiday mini-camps return on Dec. 21-23. Campers also can choose to attend for a single day. Times and pricing are the same at the Thanksgiving camps.

The official description of the camps is as follows: "Join us as we learn all about our Florida marine life and their cold water cousins through fun-filled interactions with some of Clearwater Marine Aquarium's resident animals. Discover how blubber and fur work to keep animals warm, prepare treats to lift our rescued animals' holiday spirit and spend time out on the water, seeing animal adaptations in action. Tour behind-the-scenes areas, participate in a fish feeding session, play educational games and make crafts, as we compare animal adaptations here in Florida and in the coldest regions of the world. Have a Holly Jolly holiday full of fun at Clearwater Marine Aquarium!"

All animal activities are included in the three-day combo package. When purchasing a single day program, activities will vary by day, and Clearwater Marine Aquarium does not guarantee a specific activity on a specific day.

At the time this blog was published, there was availability in all of the camps. You can register on the Clearwater Marine Aquarium website.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium is just a 90-minute drive from Orlando. Whether you're a local resident looking for a little different holiday experience for the family this year or an out-of-state visitor who has never been this close to Winter's home, the holiday mini-camps are good reason to take a road trip.


October 15, 2016

Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique veteran gives Disney Cruise Line salon a whirl


I guess you could call my 12-year-old daughter a veteran of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Walt Disney World. She has been an eager customer at the royal beauty salons four times since her first visit at age 4.

For those not familiar with the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique locations, they are magical Disney salons that are staffed by fairy godmothers-in-training who grant princess makeovers to girls ages 3 to 12. They have been so popular that The Walt Disney Company continues to add locations, the most recent being on its cruise ships. (The Disney Fantasy was the first four years ago, followed by the Disney Magic and Disney Dream last year. The Wonder will emerge from its dry dock with a salon next month.)

Fast forward to my family’s recent cruise on the Disney Dream. My daughter decided that she wanted to experience the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique on the ship for the first time. Sadly, it would be her last time, too, as she is aging out of the experience. Still, my daughter thoroughly enjoyed her time at the onboard Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and declared it the best one yet, which made this momma’s heart fill with happiness.


Although the premise of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique is the same on ship and on shore, there are some nuances that make veterans like my daughter swoon with delight.

First, the outfit. When my daughter was younger, we brought fancy Disney Princess dresses with us, and she changed into them at the salon. At her last appointment at Walt Disney World and this one on the ship, she chose a more grown-up tutu and T-shirt combination that we purchased from the salon.

My daughter selected the Celebrations Package, which includes a nautical outfit, choice of hair style, makeup and face gem, nail polish, Princess tote and Princess sash. She was really excited about the outfit, which is a ship exclusive. And, actually, the Dream offers several outfits that little girls can only get onboard. In addition to the one my daughter chose, there also is the Minnie Mouse sailor outfit and a mermaid-themed swimsuit and cover-up that comes with a colorful sunblock application, hair clip, necklace and nail polish. (The sailor outfit and mermaid swim suit and wrap can be purchased separately in one of the gift shops. We did this with the mermaid set on a cruise four years ago, and my daughter really enjoyed wearing it when we got home.)

We scheduled my daughter’s appointment for late afternoon after the Sail Away Party to maximize her makeover, knowing that she would not be swimming that night and that we had reserved times for the Princess Gathering and the Frozen Meet-and-Greet the next morning. When we arrived at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the fairy godmothers-in-training all gathered to sing “Happy Birthday to You.” It was my daughter’s actual birthday that day, so this was a welcome gesture. Next, we were led to the royal dressing room, which seemed even more luxurious than the ones at Walt Disney World, especially with the porthole!

Once my daughter was changed into her new Celebrations outfit, we met my daughter’s fairy godmother-in-training, Louise from Ireland. Of all the cast members we’ve encountered in this role, Louise was by far our favorite. She struck just the right balance between treating my daughter like she was more grown up and yet still keeping the fantasy alive. She managed to make the experience stand out with special touches, such as granting my daughter two wishes at the end – one for being a princess and one for her birthday – and giving her a Disney Cruise Line birthday sash instead of just a regular Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique sash.


As my daughter was being pampered, we all got a surprise: Pluto came into the salon for a few minutes and paused to greet and interact with each girl. My daughter was just so tickled by his visit. Characters do not make appearances the Walt Disney World locations of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, so it was unexpected fun. I have no idea if that is a regular occurrence on the cruise ships.


My daughter noticed a few other differences between the ship and shore Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique: the nail polish is a gold glitter (Tinker Bell’s pixie dust) onboard, while it is a choice of baby blue or pale pink at the resort; the face gems are a different style; and the tiaras are a solid silver color. All of these subtle changes helped make a familiar process just a little more special.


We were both a little reluctant to leave when it came time to say goodbye to Louise, so my daughter vowed to come back the next day to show off her Halloween costume. When we did, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique had been transformed into The Pirate’s League and Louise’s “twin sister” was working. She admired by daughter’s Tower of Terror bellhop costume and promised to tell Louise all about it. (You can read more about The Pirate’s League in Deb Koma’s blog from when it opened on the Disney Fantasy.)


Louise had one last bit of pixie dust to sprinkle, however. On our last night, she left a Magical Moments certificate commemorating my daughter’s experience and a special hair clip outside our stateroom door. After that, there was no doubt in our minds that Louise is ready to graduate to a full-fledged fairy godmother.



October 13, 2016

I survived Disney Cruise Line's Castaway Cay 5K



I never thought that one of my vacation goals would be completing a 5K. My family and I were on a Disney cruise, for crying out loud, and I was willing to sacrifice precious beach time on a tropical island, not to mention extra sleep and the Cabanas buffet, in order to join actual runners on a hot trail. I blame it on the special runDisney medal.

I became focused on this particular runDisney event earlier this year when we booked our three-night Bahamian cruise and I realized my children were old enough to participate. You see, my husband and my kids have been running runDisney races at Walt Disney World for several years, but I have not been able to join them. I suffered a knee injury four years ago and had been dealing with subsequent complications since then. Just 11 weeks before we set sail, I had a total knee replacement surgery, and I decided one of my recovery goals would be to walk the Castaway Cay 5K. (I would not be cleared for running by the time of our cruise at the beginning of October.)

Despite my determination to complete the 5K, I found myself questioning my decision when I was in the company of a group of serious and casual athletes that morning. The last time I could consider myself an athlete was when I was in high school, many years ago, and I had not trained at all for this event. I was relying on the fact that I used to be a quick walker and that I log many miles at Walt Disney World as an annual passholder.

On race morning, we met at 8 a.m. at Evolution, an adult lounge, where we received official Castaway Cay 5K bibs (cool!) and basic instructions. The minimum age to run the 5K is 10 years. Participants with younger children were encouraged to be at the front of our group departing the ship so they could drop their children at the kids’ club on the island.


We had to walk about a mile just to get to the starting place, Pelican Point, for the 5K. (Trams normally run to this location, but not for the start of the race.) The brisk walk was not a casual, sight-seeing stroll; we did not stop for photos or anything else! Once we reached Pelican Point, we were reminded of the race route, which can be a bit confusing, and the water stops. We also were told that the staff would count the mile we walked to the starting line if we were unable to do the second loop on the course, which also was about a mile.

And with a verbal cue, we were off! My husband and my 14-year-old son took off running, while my 12-year-old daughter stayed behind to walk with me at the back of the pack. We each quickly realized that what we had heard about the heat and humidity being oppressive, even at 9 a.m., certainly was true. My family of runners had written off complaints about the Bahamian weather and assumed they would be better equipped to deal with it as Florida residents who regularly exercise in 90-degree weather. Not so! Even my son, who as a competitive swimmer is the most physically fit of all of us, said the heat got to him and he had to walk part of the race.


I struggled almost from the start with the complications I was having with my feet, although my knee felt fantastic. And the heat certainly didn’t help. My daughter and I pushed on through what a cast member called “The Loop of Death” or “The Loop of Fun” -- your choice, he said – for the first lap. That part of the course is thick with trees and brush and, frankly, not very scenic even though there were some themed props. When we came out of the loop, we grabbed more water and headed down the runway to a parked plane and back. I realized at that point that I was going to have to take the option of counting the trek over as part of my 5K, and skip the second “Loop of Death.” Definitely “The Loop of Death.” My swollen and painful feet just couldn’t go any farther, so my daughter and I kept up our pace back to the start/finish line.

My son was there to greet us, and my husband who also completed the entire course appeared shortly after us. Our family posed with our medals by the starting sign, creating the souvenir that I most wanted from this Disney cruise.


** Sign up for the Castaway Cay 5K onboard the ship at either Guest Relations or the Port Adventures desk. There have been mixed reports about a cap on the number of participants so I’d recommend signing up on your Embarkation Day.


** This runDisney race is free. Yes, you read that correctly. The cost of the 5K – and your bib and medal -- is included in your cruise fare. Those familiar with runDisney races know what a deal that is!


** Cast members provide a storage box for belongings you do not want to carry during the race. That way, you do not have to return to the ship if you do not want to. My family and I were so sweaty and tired after the 5K that we definitely wanted to go back to our room to get changed and grab our beach things. Plus, I wanted to take a photo in front of the ship with our bibs and medals. I'm glad we did because the photographers were gone from that location when we re-emerged back onto the island.


** Want some merchandise to announce your accomplishment? I sure did! Conveniently located adjacent to the start/finish line is Buy The Seashore, which sells Castaway Cay 5K T-shirts, tech shirts, hats, collectible pins and window decals. A smaller selection of items is available at the other gift shop, She Sells Sea Shells and Everything Else, which is closer to the ship.

** The Castaway Cay 5K takes place on the island each day that a ship docks there. This race is different from the Castaway Cay Challenge 5K, which is paired with a race during from the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend to give participants the same medal regular 5K participants receive plus a challenge medal. That event is set up more like other runDisney races with characters on the course plus special activities and speakers onboard the Disney Dream.


October 11, 2016

Trip report: Disney Cruise Line's Halloween on the High Seas


My family and I just returned from a frightfully good time on the Disney Dream’s Halloween on the High Seas three-night cruise. And although we are not new to Disney cruising, this was our first time celebrating Halloween onboard one of the ships. And we found it to be full of treats.


Halloween on the High Seas began four years ago on the Disney Dream and has since expanded to all four ships in the Disney Cruise Line fleet. (The Wonder is in dry dock so it cannot participate this season.) Halloween on the High Seas takes place in September and October and is family friendly.


As we boarded the Dream, my family and I immediately felt immersed in the celebration when we saw traditional fall decorations of pumpkins and leaf garlands adorning the three-story, open atrium. The large portholes in public spaces on the several decks have fun designs, too, such as jack o’lantern faces and spider webs.

The Pumpkin Tree

The centerpiece of Halloween on the High Seas is a giant Pumpkin Tree in the atrium. This multi-day experience begins with a Caretaker character explaining about the barren tree and other Halloween customs. Passengers are invited to write their names on pumpkin seed cards and to return to check on the tree the next day. When they do come back to the atrium, passengers find that the seeds supposedly have grown into the 60 pumpkins that bring the dead tree back to life. The pumpkins light up during the reveal and "dance" along to music.


Following along with the Pumpkin Tree’s transformation doesn’t take much time. Each daily segment lasts about 15 minutes and takes place between the two dinner seatings. As a parent, I appreciated that Disney reserved the space close to the stage for children. My 12-year-old daughter was able to sit with the other kids and have a clear view of the presentation. Adults must stand behind them, so I recommend arriving about 20 minutes early if you want a great view. Otherwise, it can be difficult to see from the back of the atrium.


Families are encouraged to pack costumes for Halloween on the High Seas voyages. I can see this being a fun activity on longer cruises, but on our three-night sailing, the Halloween party falls on the same night as the Pirates IN the Caribbean celebration. That means many families will have their pirate costumes double as their Halloween costumes -- and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But my daughter wanted to wear her Halloween costume in addition to a pirate costume, so we rushed to make that happen. Mickey’s Mouse-querade Party takes place twice in the atrium: typically at 3:15 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. We chose to go to the second party, but there’s no reason you couldn’t go to both parties if you wanted to. The parties only last 45 minutes so you’ll want to be on time in order to fully participate.


At each Mickey’s Mouse-querade Party, the Fab Five – Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy and Donald Duck – come dressed in their Halloween costumes and lead guests in a dance party. They do not stop to pose for photos, but you can get some fun shots of them interacting with the kids if you’re quick. There are simple Halloween-themed games set up in the atrium, as well, and we saw some of the characters join in.


Perhaps the activity that everyone at the party is most looking forward to is trick-or-treating. There are two treat stations each on Decks 3, 4 and 5 overlooking the atrium, and guests of all ages can begin at any location. Each station has complimentary treat bags, and cast members generously dole out handfuls of candy. Don’t have a costume? Don’t worry! You can still trick-or-treat. We saw plenty of guests wearing Halloween T-shirts, like my 14-year-old son, and just regular clothes.

More Halloween activities

In addition to the signature events of the Pumpkin Tree and Mickey’s Mouse-querade Party, there are daily Halloween activities for families and in the kids clubs and adult lounges.

On Embarkation Day, there was a special late-night presentation of “Nightmare Before Christmas” that was shown in 3D and as a “Sing and Scream Along.” My husband and my daughter caught the tail end of the show, which they have seen many times, in the Walt Disney Theatre. At the end, Jack Skellington and his love, Sally, appeared on stage and then led passengers out to the lobby where they posed for photos. This was the only time the pair made an appearance during the cruise. In fact, they are rarely seen at Disney Parks as well, only coming out for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.


In keeping with the theme, on the second night the Broadway-style production is “Villains Tonight!” hosted by Hades and his sidekicks Pain and Panic. “It all begins when Hades finds out he might lose his position as Underworld top dog after seeing that his Evil-O-Meter has hit an all-time low. So he enlists the help of Disney’s most awesomely loathsome villains in an attempt to raise the Underworld’s evil factor,” according to the official description.

On the third night, Haunted Stories of the Sea takes place up on the pool deck and is broadcast on the large FunnelVision screen. This didn’t seen as crowded as other events on our cruise, but that may very well have been because it was the last night and passengers were busy with other activities.

In between, the Oceaneer Club and Lab, Edge tween club and Vibe teen club had plenty of Halloween crafts, which my daughter loved, and their own Halloween parties. Plus, one of the adult lounges hosted a costume contest for those 18 and older.

Halloween on the High Seas dates

Halloween on the High Seas continues this year through sailings that include Oct. 31. Dates for 2017 have been announced, too. Sailings with these start dates will participate in the Halloween festivities:

Disney Magic: Sept. 27 – Oct. 28

Disney Wonder: Sept. 15 – Oct. 27

Disney Dream: Sept. 4 – Oct. 30

Disney Fantasy: Sept. 2 – Oct. 28


October 8, 2016

What is it like to be in the audience at ABC's The Chew?


Hurricane Matthew may have forced ABC’s The Chew into a compressed taping schedule at Epcot this week, but the genial cast didn’t show signs of the pressure at the production I attended Wednesday morning. The Chew was shooting on location at Walt Disney World to promote the 21st Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.


As a member of the local media, I was invited to view the taping of the cooking show and participate in a group interview with the cast afterward. You can watch the interview here:

Although this was not the first time I have been in the audience of a television production, it certainly was a different – and more fun -- experience.


Our small group of bloggers was seated close to the stage about a half hour before the taping was scheduled to begin. Once the other audience members filed in, the show’s comedian, R.C. Smith, began to warm up the crowd. Smith did a great job keeping the crowd excited about the show. He told jokes, he interacted with the audience, and he even got people to clap and sing along to high-energy songs both before the taping began and on the commercial breaks.

Before the cast segments began, the audience had some “work” to do. We were asked to clap and laugh at different intervals while the cameras filmed crowd shots that would be edited into the final program. The cast – Clinton Kelly, Carla Hall, Mario Batali, Daphne Oz and Michael Symon – came out on stage and greeted the audience before heading down the pathway they would use for their entrance at The Chew’s start.


Then it was time for the show, which focuses on cooking shortcuts, to begin. The episode’s theme was Kicked Up Classics. As such, the chefs taught us new takes on Veal Parmesean (It wasn’t breaded); bratwurst (It WAS breaded); and an adult grilled cheese (It was reinvented with pumpkin and gorgonzola dolce).


In addition, Chef Carla gave viewers a look at Art Smith’s Homecoming, a new restaurant at Disney Springs. She had visited with Smith earlier in the week when he taught her how to make his signature Hummingbird Cake. (Smith was Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef for about a decade. His Hummingbird Cake was one that Winfrey often requested for birthday celebrations.) As a special treat, audience members each were given a piece of the signature cake to sample while the video of Hall’s visit played at the taping.


Sound good? Recipes for dishes made on the show are posted online an hour before the show airs. Kicking Up Classics will air at 1 p.m. EST (noon PT) Tuesday (Oct. 11) on ABC affiliates.


If cooking is the main dish, audience games and celebrity appearances are the sides. In between the cooking segments, participants were chosen to play games that related to the classics theme, including one where the contestant had to match Disney theme parks with their opening dates. And R&B singer Ne-Yo made an appearance, claiming he wasn’t a cook but was willing to learn how to prepare a new dish.

Even if you couldn’t attend a taping of The Chew, fans can taste dishes inspired by the talk show at The Chew Collective at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. Look for Grilled Beef Skewer with Romaine, Apricots and Feta Cheese; Ricotta and Zucchini Ravioli with Rustic Tomato Sauce; and Peanut Butter and White Chocolate Mousse with a Caramel Drizzle. The dishes can be paired with this year’s exclusive new Festival Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, also available at The Chew Collective.

The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival runs through Nov. 14, and admission is included with your Epcot ticket or annual pass.


October 4, 2016

What I learned on my 4th Disney cruise


Although we are not new to Disney Cruise Line, having sailed on the Wonder, Dream and Fantasy, it had been almost four years since our last voyage. In that time, our children have grown up a bit and some things have changed on the ships. So, in our planning for our three-night-sailing on the Disney Dream over the weekend, we re-imagined what a Disney cruise means for our family. Here are some of the changes.

Disney Cruise Line Navigator app

Since the last time we sailed, Disney Cruise Line has launched its Disney Cruise Line Navigator app, which can be run through the ship’s Wi-Fi on each passenger’s personal mobile devices at no cost. The app allows passengers to view cruise activities, menus, deck plans, shopping opportunities and more.

But the best feature in my opinion is Onboard Chat, which allows passengers to text each other onboard. This was a game-changer for my family because each of my children has a cell phone, and we were able to easily communicate with each other. I felt a lot more comfortable allowing my children, ages 12 and 14, to separate from us knowing we weren’t relying on a dry erase board posted on our stateroom door to communicate with each other. Unlike the expensive Wave phones in each stateroom, we found the app simple to use and convenient because we all were toting our phones around to take photos anyway.

Character meet-and-greets

As with any Disney vacation, character meet-and-greets are a hallmark of the cruise experience. Locations for the various characters are listed in the navigator (paper and app), but two gatherings are unannounced and require passengers to sign up ahead of time. In the past, that meant making a beeline to the Port Adventures desk to obtain the coveted tickets, which are complimentary, to meet the Disney Princesses and Frozen’s Anna and Elsa.

Since June, however, passengers have been able to reserve tickets to these character meet-and-greets online at the same time they are eligible to book port adventures and other onboard experiences. If either event is a must-do for your child, be sure to reserve a time online as soon as you are eligible to do so. Anna and Elsa are only out during the special Frozen set. The Disney Princesses will appear individually throughout each cruise, but meeting them as a group is fun and so efficient. On our cruise, my daughter met Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and Belle.

If you are unable to secure a meet-and-greet reservation online, there usually are a limited number of tickets available at the Port Adventures desk onboard. The Frozen event is in such demand that it is held in Animator’s Palate so that those who were unable to get tickets are not disappointed by seeing characters they cannot meet.

Castaway Cay 5K

When Disney Cruise Line ships stop at Castaway Cay, passengers have the opportunity to run (or walk!) a 5K on the private island in the Bahamas. The Castaway Cay 5K is much less formal than runDisney events -- more on that in another blog post – but participants do receive bibs and finisher medals. Best of all, the cost of the race is included in the price of your cruise.

My husband and children have been bitten by the runDisney bug and have been running events at Walt Disney World for a few years now, so this opportunity really appealed to them. On our last cruise, my daughter was not old enough because the minimum age is 10 years. And I was determined to join them and make this my first Disney 5K. (After a knee replacement surgery this summer, being able to walk the 5K was a recovery goal for me.) We each succeeded in completing the 5K and came home with our new race bling. If you want to participate, sign up at Guest Relations once onboard and follow instructions for the group meeting place on the ship. There is no limit on the number of participants, and you do not have to worry about being swept if you are at the back of the pack!


Professional photos taken on a cruise are expensive, and even when I take my own photos, I’m still tempted to buy the professional ones, too. On past cruises, I spent a lot of time poring over the prints to narrow my choices down to a reasonable number of photos and stick with some sort of budget. On this cruise, however, we were offered the relatively new option to pre-purchase a photo package at a 15 percent discount through the third-party photographers at MyCruisePhotos.com. The purchase comes with a guarantee that if you are unhappy with the photos or do not take enough to justify the cost, you can get a refund – as long as you do so before you leave the ship.

My husband and I opted to pre-purchase the package that included all our photo prints and all the photos taken saved in a digital format. To get our money’s worth, we made sure to stop for a lot of photos. Honestly, though, most of the photos were taken at events and activities we had planned to attend anyway. We came home with almost 100 prints and the ability to print the images in any quantity or size. Considering each 8 x 10 costs about $20 individually, we were pleased with our purchase.

What not to bring onboard

In September 2015, Disney Cruise Line changed its alcohol policy, much to the disappointment of many passengers. The once-lenient policy was often viewed as a perk that helped balance out the high prices of Disney cruises. But the company placed tighter restrictions on what can be brought onboard: Now, each adult age 21 and older can bring a six-pack of beer or two unopened bottles of wine onto the ship at the start of the cruise. Adults can purchase and bring onboard the same amount at each port. Disney Cruise Line will confiscate any alcohol above the allowable amount and return it to passengers at the end of their cruises.

Disney Cruise Line also has placed restrictions on some items for staterooms. You no longer are allowed to bring:

** Irons. This is because of the risk of a fire. They are available in the laundry room, however.

** Over-the-door shoe organizers. These were popular with passengers who used them to organize small items, but the metal hooks were damaging the paint on the stateroom doors.

** Power strips. Apparently, they are causing circuit problems in stateroom. This is a pain for those of use who have a lot of devices to charge each night – and who doesn’t? Multi-USB chargers are allowed, however, which could be a solution for charging many cell phones simultaneously.

** Extension cords. There are a limited number available at Guest Relations, and they can be checked out with a $50 deposit. I was able secure an extension cord for my heating pad without a problem, and Disney Cruise Line will make the cords available for medical devices, such as CPAP machines.

Disney Cruise Line has made many changes in the last four years, most of which made our cruise experience even better. In coming blog posts, I’ll tell you more about what we experienced on our recent cruise.


October 1, 2016

Tips for celebrating birthdays on Disney Cruise Line ships


As you read this, my family and I are (finally) sailing on the Disney Dream somewhere in the Bahamas. As you can imagine, we have been counting the days and anticipating the fun for months!


The impetus for booking a three-night trip on the Disney Dream was mostly to celebrate the kids’ birthdays. My son turned 14 on Thursday, and my daughter is 12 as of yesterday, our departure date. So, how are we celebrating their birthdays onboard?

** First, soon after making our reservations, I requested that Disney Cruise Line note in our reservation that we are celebrating the kids’ birthdays. I was asked which night we would like to celebrate at dinner because our servers will bring each child a complimentary dessert that is not on the regular menu, and the presentation usually includes the traditional singing. It’s a fun way to make birthdays special. (Actual birthday cakes can be ordered ahead of time through Disney Cruise Line for an additional charge.)

** At Port Canaveral, we asked for complimentary Disney Cruise Line buttons when we checked in. (You can also go to Guest Relations on the ship.) Don’t underestimate these buttons: My kids love wearing them because cast members and even guests will say “Happy Birthday” all day long. Plus, you never know when some extra pixie dust may be sprinkled for special occasions!

** Once we got into our stateroom, I decorated the door with our family magnets. I have updated our collection to include birthday greetings for each child. Plus, I made a personalized birthday sign to hang from the Fish Extender hook next to the door.

** For the first time, I also ordered one of the room-decorating packages from Disney Cruise Line. There is a birthday package, but I opted for the Halloween package because it has more components, including some things that will make nice souvenirs for the kids. And, after all, we are sailing on a Halloween on the High Seas cruise. The package consists of five dangling signs, a window cling, a large magnet, a pillow and a small black tree that lights up. On the card, I wrote, “Happy Spooky Birthday!” Originally, I had planned to bring items to decorate the stateroom myself, but then I learned that adhering items has to be done with magnets (just like stateroom doors) to prevent damage or you risk a $100 fine. While that still was possible if I wanted to attach magnets to everything, I opted to go with the easier route. Plus, the room is decorated upon arrival, which is a great surprise.

** We allowed each child to choose one extra activity during the cruise. My daughter wanted to go to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for the Celebration Package, which comes with a tutu and T-shirt and is a little more grown-up than a princess dress for a 12-year-old. My chose riding on a jet ski with his dad at Castaway Cay. Both kids picked something they have never done on a Disney cruise, so I know they are excited.

** Finally, we gave each child a small bag of cruise-themed goodies the day before we sailed. I ordered reusable Disney Cruise Line tote bags and picture frames from the Shop Disney Parks app. (Cruise merchandise also is available through DisneyStore.com.) I made Halloween on the High Seas journals by printing pages at home and having them bound at an office-supply store. I also ordered a personalized design through an Etsy shop to create magnets for the Castaway Cay 5K, which we plan to run for the first time. (I haven’t heard of official 5K magnets being sold on the island.) Because we are Walt Disney World annual passholders and I am in the parks frequently, I purchased some mystery pin packs to give the kids starter pins to trade on the ship. And each child received a certificate for money they can spend on souvenirs.

Do you have a favorite way to celebrate birthdays when traveling with Disney Cruise Line? Tell us about it in the comments, please.


September 28, 2016

What's new and next at SeaWorld Orlando for 2017


SeaWorld Orlando has announced eight new ways it plans to take visitors under the sea and inspire them with marine life in 2017.

Perhaps the most-talked-about addition is the Virtual Reality experience that will be added to Kraken in time for the summer season. Kraken will be the first roller coaster in Central Florida to have a Virtual Reality overlay.

The story of the coaster is that “There is a crack in time in a sea bed and you’re going to dive into that crack and you’re going to discover a world of times gone past – animals that used to live in our oceans and animals that might have lived in our oceans and you’re going to have a close-up encounter with the Kraken herself,” said Brian Morrow, vice president of theme park experience design for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.

SeaWorld has developed its own custom Virtual Reality system that it plans to integrate into the current ride. Passengers will have the option to place the headset on themselves to experience the overlay or to ride the coaster without the addition.


“[The Virtual Reality system is] fully 3D with audio. Fully immersive. Fully tethered, fully synchronized so we won’t have any motion sickness issues,” Morrow said.

Kraken opened in 2000 and remains one of SeaWorld Orlando’s most popular coasters with its floorless seats and seven inversions. Morrow said the attraction only will be taken down for two months to add the Virtual Reality experience.

The current minimum height requirement to ride Kraken is 54 inches, but Morrow said he didn’t know if it would be same for the Virtual Reality overlay.

SeaWorld Orlando also is adding more of what of what guests love in another area – its themed festivals and parties. In February, the theme park will launch its Seven Seas Food Festival, which will take place for 14 weekends in the spring.

Hawaiian Pulled Pork Slider served with Pineapple Pepper Cole Slaw and Asian BBQ sauce
Watermelon Gazpacho topped with Tecate Beer Jalapeño Foam
Vermont Pound Cake Grilled Cheese topped with a freshly made Raspberry Sauce

“You’re going to get a chance to travel around the world right here at SeaWorld and taste cuisine from the shores and the coasts and little stands and roadside kitchens that you can find all over the globe. You’ll get to taste food from Hawaii, North America, South America, Mediterranean, all over the world,” Morrow said.


At about the same time the food festival begins, a new bar featuring microbrews, will open at the Waterfront. FlameCraft Bar with its expansive lagoon views will be designed to look like lantern repair shop, and patrons will be able to sample 15 draft craft beers that are sourced locally. Many of the beers also will be available during the food festival.

A second party, Electric Ocean, will debut for the summer season and become a daily nighttime event that includes lighting, music and pathway entertainment.

“[We asked ourselves] what would happen if we dove deep in the water and the bioluminescent animals all started talking to us with light and it transformed the park as it transitioned from daytime to dusk to nighttime,” said Morrow.

“And it wouldn’t be a great night festival if it didn’t have a great finale. You’re going to get to participate in an electric dance party on our lake, surrounded by fountains with a finale of fireworks like you’ve never seen come from this organization.”


Also for Summer 2017, SeaWorld Orlando’s Dolphin Nursery will become more interactive. Large-scale acrylic windows will offer up-close viewing, including multiple levels to give kids a face-to-face perspective with dolphin calves. New slide out areas and lifting floor will also allow for easier access to mom and baby for the veterinary and animal care teams.

The next generation of multi-purpose digital displays will allow SeaWorld educators to share information about dolphin behavior, biology and conservation with our guests by interacting with video from the team’s educational and animal care content.

Morrow said that beginning Memorial Day weekend, the Nautilus Theatre, which has been dark, will house a dedicated summer show. Details are not being announced yet.


Aquatica pass members can look forward to a new pavilion designed for their exclusive use, much like the one at SeaWorld Orlando, just in time for spring break. The Aquatica space will feature concierge service, complimentary sunscreen and fountain beverages, a separate entrance to Banana Beach and private animal encounters.

SeaWorld Orlando pass members now can purchase new, innovative passes that allow them to bring different guests for each visit. The “host” purchases an annual pass for $168 and also a transferrable pass at the same time for $208. The host then can use the second pass to bring anyone he or she chooses with the second pass, but it is limited to one visit per day and the host must accompany the guest. This pass offer also is available for a SeaWorld and Aquatica combination at $192 for the host pass and $232 for the transferrable pass. Also, a special offer right now adds three months free to a regular annual pass.


Finally, beloved Christmas character Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and friends -- including Clarice, Bumble, the Abominable Snow Monster and Yukon Cornelius -- and Rudolph-themed attractions will be making their debut as part of the 2016 Christmas Celebration at SeaWorld Orlando. They will return for 2017 with additional experiences.

“Our company is going through a fantastic moment in time where we’re creating our future,” Morrow said. “We’re developing experiences that not only matter but experiences that can create a lifestyle with purpose within our guests to explore, protect and help this environment that we all live within.”


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