August 30, 2014

Disney Tsum Tsum plush animals are cute, collectible and going fast

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Is it too soon to think about Christmas shopping? Perhaps not if you want to get in on the Disney Tsum Tsum craze.

Tsum Tsum are collectible, log-shaped plush animals that look like Disney characters and come in three sizes. "Tsum Tsum" means "stack stack" in Japanese, which is the theory behind the shape. Creators want consumers to collect and stack the adorable faces. In addition, the colorful toys have the added functionality of a screen-cleaning material on their stomachs.

Tsum Tsum were introduced to consumers by Disney Japan last year as an offshoot to the mobile video game they star in. “Disney Tsum Tsum” has been described as a Tetris-style game in which players match and stack the figures. When the free app was released globally last month for iOS and Android devices, The Walt Disney Co. launched a collection of 30 different Tsum Tsum plush characters at select Disney Store locations nationwide, online at DisneyStore.com, in stores at Disney Parks, and at Aulani Resort & Spa in Hawaii.

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“Disney Japan has created some of our most successful and popular digital products and Disney Interactive is proud to be working closely with the team to extend their success globally," said Jimmy Pitaro, president of Disney Interactive, in a news release. “This is one of the first times that Disney has introduced a distinctly Japanese product to a global audience, and Disney Tsum Tsum offers our guests a unique combination of quality characters, compelling game play and an engaging social experience."

According to "The New York Times," the game has ranked as the No. 1 downloaded app for extended periods and more than 1.8 million of the stuffed animals have been sold in Japan. Now, Americans seem just as thrilled with the newest "it" toy.

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Disney introduced the Alice in Wonderland, Pooh and Pals, and Mickey and Friends collections of mini Tsum Tsums in its first wave of releases. The 3.5-inch plush animals sell for $4.95 plus tax online and carry a slightly higher price tag at the theme parks. In addition, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse were made available in the medium and large sizes. Those are priced at $12.95 and $24.95, respectively, online and $16.95 and $29.95 at Disney Parks.

Already, many of the Tsum Tsum toys are sold out. At Walt Disney World, the only location where Tsum Tsum toys are sold is Once Upon A Toy store at Downtown Disney Marketplace. A Disney spokesperson told me that the store has sold every mini Tsum Tsum in the first shipment that arrived at the beginning of the month. They do have a limited amount of the other sizes available. Good news, however: Disney Tsum Tsums are not limited-release merchandise, meaning more shipments will be arriving to fill the shelves.

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In the meantime, DisneyStore.com has a good variety of Tsum Tsum plush animals available. (There is a purchase limit of 4 per style per customer.) Customers also can check their local Disney Store locations. For those in Central Florida, that's the store at Florida Mall. A cast member there told me that the mini Alice in Wonderland, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Tiger were in stock as of this writing. That location also had the large Mickey and Minnie and the medium Minnie.

So, if you want to jump into collecting Tsum Tsums, where should you start? As you would expect, Mickey and Minnie are popular choices at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. If you can find them, Stitch, Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo also seem to have widespread appeal.

Even if you’re undecided about whether your kids will enjoy this latest Disney collectible craze, take a tip from this mom. It’s better to start shopping now and have something for the holidays just in case, rather than finding out at the last minute that there’s been a Tsum Tsum addendum to the list for Santa.



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August 28, 2014

Disney Interactive offering free download of Disney Infinity for Wii U

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Good news for families, like my own, who have been playing the popular Disney Infinity game on their Nintendo Wii systems and want to continue playing the game on the latest Nintendo platform without having to repurchase the game.

When Disney’s revamp of the Disney Infinity game comes out next month, Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes will only be able to be played on Nintendo’s Wii U, not the Nintendo Wii or even the company’s 3DS platform.

Disney Infinity 2.0 also will be compatible with Playstation 4, Xbox One, iOS tablets, PCs and smartphones. But what about all the Nintendo gamers who have been playing Disney Infinity on Wii since the game was released a year ago?

Well, Disney Interactive is making it easier to enjoy playing the original game on the Nintendo Wii U, if you choose to upgrade game systems, with your existing accessories. You can get the free download at the Wii U eShop and then use your Wii U Gamepad to start creating worlds in the Toy Box or unlocking items in the Play Sets. You also will be able to enjoy online multiplayer modes of play, as well.

This free download is a great concept that gives gamers who already own Disney Infinity toys and the game for Wii a chance to move up to the Wii U and still play with their game pieces without buying a new copy of the game for Wii U.

Note that you will need a Disney Infinity base and figure to use the free 9.15 GB download.

Like the Disney Interactive site explains: "Play as Sulley in his early student days in the world of Monsters University, plunge into adventure as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean, and activate the powers of Mr. Incredible on a quest to save the world from Syndrome and his super villains in The Incredibles Play Set."

“Disney Infinity launched one year ago, and in that time the number of Wii U players has significantly expanded,” said John Blackburn, Vice President and General Manager of Avalanche Software, in a press release. “Given our commitment to compatibility for our players, we wanted existing Wii owners to be able to experience the Wii U version of the first game for free. With the upcoming launch of the 2.0 Edition of Disney Infinity we want all Nintendo players to experience the game’s Wii U functionality.”

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Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes is scheduled to hit shelves in September. In addition to the heroes and villains, other collectable characters to be released include Donald Duck, Jasmine, Aladdin and Tinker Bell.

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Merida and Stitch will be featured in a new Toy Box Starter Kit for Disney Infinity 2.0. It also includes the same video game disc as the Marvel Super Heroes Starter Pack; a Disney Infinity base; Disney Originals “Toy Box Game Discs” – Stitch’s Tropical Rescue and Brave Forest Siege; one web code card; and a poster. The Toy Box Starter Kit goes on sale in November.

Activision, which owns competing franchise Skylanders, offered a similar incentive earlier this summer. Gamers with Skylanders Trap Team for Wii were offered the Wii U version for free.



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August 25, 2014

UPDATED: What's new for 2014 at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Walt Disney World

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UPDATE 2: There will not be a "mingle" after the Villains Mix & Mingle stage show, as there as been in years past. To meet the villains, look for greeting areas throughout the park, Club Villain dance party or the pre-paid Sinister Soiree.


UPDATE 1:
The Evil Queen and Maleficent will NOT be in Princess Fairytale Hall. They are only available at the Sinister Soiree dessert party, which costs $99 per person.

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This year, Halloween at Walt Disney World begins even earlier than usual. Typically, the resort offers its first Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party during the second week of September. This year, the first party is Sept. 1 -- that's next Monday! Presumably, the early date is planned to catch guests vacationing at the resort for Labor Day weekend.

Expect to see the fall decorations going up along Main Street, U.S.A., this week and throughout the Magic Kingdom, where the party takes place. Already, we saw plenty of Halloween merchandise at The Emporium over the weekend, and the store has two of its window displays dedicated to the upcoming holiday.

Although the basic format of the party remains the same, there are, of course, some tweaks and changes to the entertainment lineup. Perhaps the most significant are the character meet-and-greets. In the past, the princes posed with their beloved Disney Princesses. This year, characters such as Flynn Rider and Prince Charming will not be attending the Halloween party. (They will be present at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, however.)

Instead, Disney is capitalizing on the increasing popularity of its villains. And if lines at its recent Villains Unleashed and Rock Your Disney Side All-Night events are any indication, you'll want to join these queues early. Jafar will be meeting guests in Adventureland, the Queen of Hearts near Mad Tea Party in Fantasyland, and Lotso near Buzz Lightyear in Tomorrowland. Originally, it was reported that the Evil Queen and Maleficent would appear with Snow White and Aurora at Princess Fairytale Hall, but that is no longer the case. Instead, the same princesses that are there during the day will be appear at the hall during the party: Elsa and Anna on one side and Cinderella and Rapunzel on the other.

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Walt Disney World also is introducing a Villains-themed dance party inside The Diamond Horseshoe in Liberty Square that has been named Club Villain. (This party replaces the Toy Story-themed dance party that featured Woody, Jessie and Bullseye.) Expect to find Cruella De Vil, Dr. Facilier, Anastasia, Drizella and Lady Tremaine -- and there may be other surprise villain visitors.

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Plus, Disney has announced that a popular baddies staple will return: Villains Mix & Mingle – Live on Stage. The Mix & Mingle is a short performance on the Castle Forecourt Stage that has featured Maleficent, Dr. Facilier, Queen Grimhilde, Captain Hook, Cruella de Vil, Queen of Hearts and Judge Claude Frollo. In the past, the characters descended into the audience for photos afterward, but that has changed and will not occur this year.

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Walt Disney World also is introducing a special dessert party that only will be offered during Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. Villains' Sinister Soiree: A Wicked Takeover of Cinderella Castle not only offers treats and preferred viewing for the 8:15 p.m. Mickey's "Boo To You" Halloween Parade and Happy HalloWishes fireworks, but it also is the first dessert party to have characters. Lady Tremaine and her villainous friends will entertain guests, accompanied by a live piano player, at Cinderella's Royal Table inside the castle. The dessert soiree starts at 10:15 p.m. On Sept. 1, 9 and 12, there also is an 11:45 p.m. dessert party, as well. The price is $99 per person, which includes the preferred seating for two events, desserts and non-alcoholic specialty drinks, an autograph card and a souvenir Maleficent dragon cup. That price is in addition to your admission to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. To make a reservation, call 407-939-5262.

In other character news, the Seven Dwarfs will return together for photo opportunities, as will Jack Skellington and his lady love, Sally, from "The Nightmare before Christmas." Both sets traditionally are very popular, so I recommend lining up well before the party officially starts at 7 p.m. so you don't waste precious party time. Also, Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope will join Mickey's "Boo To You" Halloween Parade for the first time. (The pair won't be meeting guests during the party, but guests can interact with them daily at Disney's Hollywood Studios.)

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Since the interactive game began, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom has issued a new card each year that only can be obtained during Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. This year, the card will feature the Helmsman pirate from the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Past years' cards have depicted Chip 'n' Dale and the Hitchhiking Ghosts. To pick up your card, go to the Firehouse on Main Street, U.S.A. You'll need to show a party ticket and a wristband to receive the card. This means each person actually has to be present to collect his or her card. In past years, distribution has begun before the party actually starts.

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Another new attraction that Disney officials have hinted at is "Mayhem at the Mansion," an augmented reality game that will be available during Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party nights. Guests need to download an app for iOS and Android devices and then use it to take photos of themselves and ghosts throughout the theme park that they find using a map. The app would appear to be similar to Aurasma, which is used at Hollywood Studios for Star Wars Weekends and Frozen Summer Fun events.

The official description of the game, from StitchKingdom.com, states: "It was just a matter of time. With so much going on outside those walls that house 999 happy haunts for more than four decades, some of them are bound to get restless and seek some time away and now they’ve managed to do just that. And now, now it’s up to you, the foolish mortals, not only to find them, but to capture them — capture them and return them to the Haunted Mansion before it’s too late! And if you happen to grab a souvenir photo along the way, all the better."

A Disney official confirmed that "Mayhem at the Mansion" is coming to the Halloween parties and indicated more details would be released soon.

Of course, guest favorites will be returning to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, including Happy HalloWishes fireworks, unlimited trick-or-treating for the young and young-at-heart, and the Phineas and Ferb Creepa Crew pre-parade interactive experience. Plus, select attractions will be open, and the lines typically are pretty short. (FastPass+ is not available during the party.)

Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party takes place on 26 nights from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. (Please see the AllEars.Net resource page for other details, including pricing, which varies, and available discounts.) Halloween night already is sold out. Remember that you can enter the Magic Kingdom at 4 p.m. with a ticket to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, even though the party activities don't start until 7 p.m. That extra time is great to get dinner out of the way and line up for character meets, so you preserve more of your party time for the special events.

And check back at AllEars.Net, where several team members will be attending various nights of the Halloween party to bring you full coverage of the event.



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August 22, 2014

Tips for making the most of Walt Disney World's Frozen Summer Fun Premium Package

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Previously I wrote about what is included in the Frozen Summer Fun Premium Package in order to help you decide if the cost is worth the purchase. Now that my family and I have had the opportunity to experience the premium package for ourselves, I have a few tips for those who have it on their calendars, as well.

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Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the package, is that although it does guarantee you preferred and reserved viewing for three of the most popular "Frozen" events, that does not mean you are guaranteed a front-row spot. For that, you will need to plan to line up in the premium queues. (More on that with each event description.)

I realize that for some people, being close to the front and not having to wait for those spots is good enough. But if you or your little ones want to choose your viewing location, plan to spend some of your time waiting. Because we are annual passholders, we decided to focus just on "Frozen" activities that day. Others may be trying to get to as many other attractions as possible, so waiting is not a good use of their time.

My family and I purchased the premium package for a Saturday, which already is more crowded than a weekday now that school is back in session. We arrived at Disney's Hollywood Studios about 8:45 a.m. and waited for the park to open. We previously had purchased the limited edition Olaf MagicBands and were happily surprised to see them trigger a rainbow of colors when tapped against the entrance scanners.

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Once inside the theme park, we grabbed the "Frozen" showtimes guide and our Take-along Olafs and headed back to the check-in area near Min and Bill's Dockside Diner. It was about 9:15 a.m. at that point, and we were the first to start a queue. Although the check-in time is listed as 10:30 a.m. on My Disney Experience, I had read that others began checking in at 9:30 a.m. Sure enough, that happened with our group, too. I was glad we went straight there, because at the time of check-in, you choose the show time for your preferred seating at the "For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration." We were able to secure seats for the first show at 12:30 p.m.

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We were told the reserved viewing area for the parade would open at 10 a.m. Knowing that our kids wanted to be in the front by the rope for the Welcome Procession with Anna and Elsa, we opted to stay in line. When the section did open, we walked straight ahead and sat down by the rope. We could have chosen to have our kids sit in the children's section, but only one parent is allowed to accompany them, and we wanted to be together as a family. That area would be a good option for families who did not get in line early, because their little ones would still have an unobstructed view of the characters.

Once seated, we took turns going to the snack cart for drinks and ice cream. It was brutally hot that day, so we each had more than one bottled drink. The frozen lemonade also really helped battle the heat, too! Participants in the premium package are invited to enjoy unlimited Mickey premium ice cream bars, frozen lemonade cups, frozen strawberry lemonade cups, Dasani bottled water, Coke, Diet Coke and Sprite. Although there was only one cart for the reserved section, the line moved quickly because guests were not fumbling with payments.

Then, we had a perfect view of the parade, and after Anna and Elsa passed us, the rope to our section was opened to allow us to walk right up to the stage, ahead of the guests who had not purchased the package. We were able to get a ton of great photos and even my youngest child had a great view of the stage.

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After the welcome, we headed over to the Premiere Theater for the sing-along. We arrived over there about 11:30 a.m. and again were first in line for the premium package participants for the 12:30 p.m. production. Be aware that there is a separate line for package participants to the right of the theater, while others with tickets will go to the left. Cast members began letting us into the theater at noon.

If I have a complaint about any part of the premium package, it was the seating process for the sing-along. Three rows are reserved for participants behind two rows for guests with disabilities. And even though I stood in line an hour before showtime so that I could have my choice of seats in those three rows, cast members still tried to force my family and I to sit in the corner. We politely declined. I have heard this isn't always the case, however. It sounds like the seating process might depend on the cast members working that day. In addition, cast members filled the seating reserved for those with disabilities with guests in the standby queue, so folks who didn't pay for the premium package had better seats than we did. Frustrating! That said, the sing-along show is outstanding and appeals to "Frozen" fans and other guests, too.

After the sing-along, we had the afternoon free until the evening's fireworks and dessert party. So, we refueled with a counter-service lunch and then headed over to Wandering Oaken's Frozen Funland so our kids could ice skate and build a snowman. This area is not part of the premium package, but the line to enter the building was not long.

Those interested in ice skating should head to the right and walk all the way to the far wall, where there is a queue. You'll sign a waiver, pay $10 per person per half hour, choose a skating time, and pick up your skates and required helmet. Skaters also are offered complementary socks, in case they are among the many we saw wearing flip flops.

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Cast members clear the ice every 30 minutes and then allow the next group out to skate. My kids had a blast skating, and I appreciated that there was a PhotoPass photographer capturing their fun since my husband and I were not out on the ice. When their time was up, we turned in the skates and walked to the other side of the rink to join the queue to build a snowman. This line moved quickly, too. Each group is allowed to choose buckets and shovels, and they have 10 minutes to create a frozen sculpture. My Florida-born kids found it more difficult than it looked on TV -- because their hands were so cold -- but they had a lot of fun attempting to make something recognizable.

When we were building a snowman, Wandering Oakens Cousins on Ice, professional ice skaters, came out for a spectacular 10-minute show. The kids really enjoyed this presentation.

Next, we exited the Funland side of Wandering Oakens and joined the line for the Trading Post -- a.k.a. gift shop -- side of the building. This is where you will find the coveted Anna and Elsa costumes, official Frozen Summer Fun T-shirts, limited and open edition Frozen-themed MagicBands, plush Frozen characters and so much more merchandise. We found what looks like a long line to move quickly here, as well.

By the time we finished at Wandering Oakens, the Coolest Summer Ever Dance Party in front of the Sorcerer's Hat was beginning, so we walked by and chose to sit and have a snack instead of dinner, knowing we had the bountiful dessert party coming up.

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Premium package participants are allowed to enter the reserved area for the dessert party from 8:30 to 10 p.m. We checked in about 7:45 p.m., and there already were a few people in front of us. Still, when the rope dropped, we made our way to a table that was centrally located without any trouble. There is no seating at the dessert party, but we were pleasantly surprised to see so many small round tables available. It seemed that there were plenty of places for guests to place their food and drinks without having to share with folks they might not know.

In addition, there is quite a selection of desserts, drinks and adult beverages. Among them: Anna and Elsa cupcakes; Olaf cake pops; Anna yogurt push-pops; a chocolate fondue station with fruit, marshmallows and cake; Key lime tarts, brownie bites, lemon icebox cookies, Rice Krispie treats, strawberry shortcake; and cookies. Plus, items from the Walt Disney World ice cream carts are available, including the Mickey bars, Mickey ice cream sandwich, chocolate-covered banana, strawberry bar and orange bar. There are bottled sodas and water; two virgin specialty drinks for kids; and three mixed drinks with alcohol for the adults. Best of all, there were enough food and drink stations that long lines never formed.

We really enjoyed the DJ and the live music on stage leading up to the fireworks. And 90 minutes was more than enough to get our fill of dessert and drinks. Being inside the dessert party is not the best location for viewing the fireworks because you are so close to the main stage under the Sorcerer’s Hat, but if you consider them just one part of the experience, you won't be disappointed. The "Frozen" fireworks dessert party was my favorite of the three dessert parties I have experienced at Walt Disney World, and I think that alone would have been worth the price of the premium package.



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August 21, 2014

SeaWorld sponsors family friendly mac-n-cheese competition at Orange County Convention Center

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Need a fun, inexpensive activity in Orlando for your family this weekend?

Look no farther than the Orange County Convention Center, which is the location for the first O-Town MacDown on Saturday. Sponsored by SeaWorld, the competition gives professional chefs and amateur cooks the opportunity to vie for the title of Orlando's Mac-n-Cheese Champion. And attendees will benefit from their efforts with an invitation to sample their creations.

Judges include Emily Ellyn from the Food Network, Orlando Sentinel’s food editor Heather McPherson, WDBO’s news director Joe Kelley, SeaWorld Executive Chef Hector Colon, Louis Perrotte of the American Academy of Chefs Hall of Fame and Disney Chef Michael Bersell.

In addition to the food component, the event will include live entertainment from The SeaWorld Groove Chefs, who transform kitchen gear and BBQ grills into makeshift musical instruments; magician and comedian Tony Brent from the WonderWorks Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show; acoustic guitarist Islay Rodriguez; The Orlando Improv All-Stars; and The Magic and Mayhem Comedy Magic Show.

Celebrity chefs will host cooking demonstrations, too. Look for Emily Ellyn; Jillian Hopke, the owner of Orlando's Jillycakes and a winner on "Cupcake Wars"; Maira Isabel, executive chef at Disney World Golf Courses; Jody McLeod, culinary operations manager at SeaWorld Orlando; and John Radcliff, culinary director for 4R Restaurant Group.

A kids’ fun zone will feature face painting, bounce houses and a macaroni art station, and there will be meet-and-greets from theme-park characters, such as Shamu and Dolly from SeaWorld Orlando. Plus, there will be additional live entertainment designed just for kids. Check out the Mad Scientist Interactive Show; Elevate Live, a group of Central Florida kids ages 5-20 who perform a Top 40 / pop-style singing and dancing show; The Bumbles and The Honey Bees Too, a high-energy educational show for 3- to 8-year-olds; The Literacy Alliance: Scrambled Fairy Tales; and Orlando's Mr. Richard.

Attendance and participation at the O-Town MacDown benefits Give Kids The World Village, a 70-acre, nonprofit resort in Central Florida that provides weeklong, cost-free vacations to children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

Although the deadline to enter the macaroni-and-cheese cooking competition has passed, tickets to visit the O-Town MacDown still are available. Until 5 p.m. Aug. 22, tickets can be purchased online at a discount. Prices are as follows:

** $10 for adults, which includes all the mac-n-cheese you can eat.

** $5 for kids ages 3-12, which includes all the mac-n-cheese you can eat and the Kids Zone. (Ages 2 and younger are free.)

** $35 for VIP tickets, which includes unlimited mac-n-cheese, premium seating in the VIP area, free O-Town MacDown T-shirt and a free beverage.

Tickets at the door are $15 for adults and $10 for kids. Parking will be discounted to $9 at the convention center.

The event takes place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Orange County Convention Center, Hall D2 West concourse.




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August 16, 2014

SeaWorld Orlando visitors will be able to interact with killer whales in new ways in the future

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On Friday, SeaWorld Entertainment announced major expansions for its three theme parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego. The multi-million-dollar project will create first-of-its-kind environments for its signature killer whales.

Named the Blue World Project because of its size and scope, the construction will begin in San Diego, which has a target opening date of 2018. Then, Orlando and San Antonio parks will follow. Each new environment will have a total water volume of 10 million gallons, nearly double that of the existing facility, and a surface area of nearly 1.5 acres. The wow factor comes with the views that will be more than 40 feet tall, providing guests with the world’s largest underwater viewing experience of orcas. Plus, guests will be able to walk alongside the whales as if they were at the shore.

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And although each SeaWorld park is different, the goal is to have the same features in each killer whale environment, said Terry Prather, president of the Orlando park, at a news conference.

"[The new environment] will support the whales’ broad range of behaviors and provide choices that can challenge the whales both physically and mentally. Among other things, it is planned to include a “fast water current” that allows whales to swim against moving water, thus functionally increasing speed and diversity. Innovative features focused on husbandry and animal care will offer SeaWorld’s animal health professionals and independent scientists unique access to the whales that can lead to a better understanding and care of the animals both in the parks and in the wild," according to a press release.

SeaWorld is constantly looking for ways to get people closer to its animals and inspire them more, Prather told media. Certainly, inspiring guests to become involved with conservation efforts is what sets SeaWorld apart from other theme parks.

“For 50 years, SeaWorld has transformed how the world views marine life. The unprecedented access to marine mammals that our parks provide has increased our knowledge of the ocean and inspired generations,” said Jim Atchison, Chief Executive Officer and President of SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. “Our new killer whale homes and research initiatives have just as bold a vision: to advance global understanding of these animals, to educate, and to inspire conservation efforts to protect killer whales in the wild.”

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Former SeaWorld trainer Mark Simmons told ABC News that the new environments will provide the killer whales with improved mental stimulation, emphasizing that the type of environment is more important than the size of the body of water where they live.

"I think it's an enhancement, an obvious evolution of SeaWorld's mission," Simmons said in an ABC News story.

As part of the Blue World Project, SeaWorld has pledged $10 million in matching funds focused on threats to killer whales in the wild, especially those identified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration related to the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale. That includes new projects already funded this year: one that will help to understand the hearing ranges of killer whales and the other that will provide insight into nutritional status and reproduction of the Southern Resident Killer Whale. The matching funds will be in addition to killer whale research conducted by SeaWorld’s scientists, which includes nearly 50 studies to date.



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Radio Disney to close Orlando station and most others

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Earlier this week, the Walt Disney Co. announced it is planning to sell all but one of its Radio Disney stations. The move is a sign of the times, the company said, because most of its listeners access its broadcast content digitally.

According to published reports, only about 18 percent of Radio Disney listeners hear the network's programming via AM or FM broadcasts. Instead, they choose satellite radio, the Internet and mobile devices that use digital radio distribution apps. To be sure, that is the case at our house. My 11-year-old son, who started out listening to Radio Disney on an actual radio as a kindergartner now prefers to listen to music through Pandora.

The Walt Disney Co. will retain one Radio Disney station -- KDIS-AM (1110) in Los Angeles -- which will generate Radio Disney's national content for the digital platforms.

Locally, Orlando's WDYZ, AM 990, which broadcasts Radio Disney for all of Central Florida, will close Sept. 26. Although kids and parents still will be able to digitally access the content they enjoy, it's still a loss for our market. Radio Disney is one of the few family-friendly stations that focus on music that pre-teens want to hear. (Others that are "safe for little ears" play pop music, too, yet their playlist isn’t created specifically with youngsters and pre-teens in mind.)

In addition, Radio Disney was a presence in the Orlando area with its many fun promotions and appearances. My family and I have attended many through the years and will miss those fun opportunities. The station's Road Crew brought family friendly activities to festivals, openings and special events, such as Noon Year's Eve in Tampa, just to name one. (Once, when my son was a Cub Scout on a eco-field trip, he actually saw the Radio Disney Road Crew taking part in a community event at the Orange County landfill. Talk about eclectic marketing.)

Of other marketing efforts, perhaps most notably is the annual holiday concert in Celebration, which is the planned community not far from the gates of Walt Disney World. The free concert showcases winners from Radio Disney's annual Next Big Thing (N.B.T.) competition and always attracts a crowd of pre-teens and teenagers. When announcing the news of the station's closing, Disney did say it will continue to focus on events such as N.B.T., so perhaps there is hope the concert will continue.

In February, Radio Disney kicked off its first "On the Road to the RDMAs [Radio Disney Music Awards]" tour with a free concert in Central Florida. Families were invited to go out to the Leesburg Mardi Gras Celebration to hear Mexican-American rapper Becky G and British pop rock band The Vamps, and to meet rock band Before You Exit from Orlando.

In addition, Radio Disney has brought its national on-air personalities and Disney Channel actors to Central Florida for various events, which were unique opportunities for fans to meet their favorite stars. Creative Director and lead DJ Ernie D, a.k.a. Ernest Martinez, has been a frequent visitor, as well as actors Laura Marano, Ross Lynch, Debby Ryan, Bella Thorne and Zendaya in recent years.

Despite my disappointment in hearing that Radio Disney was selling most of its radio stations, the news isn’t entirely a downer for parents who have come to trust the stations as ones their kids could listen to without being exposed to some of the more grown-up aspects of adult radio stations.

After all, Radio Disney still will exist in the digital realm, including various Internet app platforms (both Disney’s own apps and others) and via Sirius XM satellite radio for the car. Also, Disney’s Top 30 song segment is still distributed on various AM and FM stations nationwide.

Still, I just hope we’ll continue to see something similar to the stations’ Road Crew having a community presence here in Central Florida, adding friendly faces and a little bit of Disney magic to some of the family outings we attend.



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August 14, 2014

How to use Walt Disney World to give your kids a little more independence

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It's been said that once a mother gives birth to her child, the process of letting go begins. Sure, it may start with the separation of teaching a baby to sleep in his own bed. But, in what seems like the blink of an eye, your child is ready to take bigger steps toward independence -- whether you, the parent, are ready or not.

As my almost-12-year-old son prepares for his first year of middle school, I definitely have felt those tugs on my heartstrings this summer. And no matter how prepared you -- and your child -- are, it's still a bit disconcerting.

This week, my son was invited to go to the Magic Kingdom with a friend and her family for the day. What a great opportunity, right? Of course it was! The outing, though, got me thinking about how parents can grant their children some freedoms while on vacation without sacrificing their safety (or the parents' sanity).

For my husband and I, the decision to allow our son to go to Walt Disney World without us was not difficult. We know the family, and we are comfortable with our son's ability to navigate the Magic Kingdom under most circumstances. As Florida residents with annual passes to Walt Disney World, we have been taking my son to the theme parks since he was a baby. He is as familiar with the Magic Kingdom as he is his own back yard.

But our confidence in our son's ability to handle the bustling Magic Kingdom without the security of his parents has been built through a series of interactions over the years. It likely began on the trips when my husband was not present, and my son was too old to go into the women's bathroom with me. With instructions to "hurry," he tackled his business and I anxiously waited outside the men's loo, counting the seconds until he emerged.

Once that separation was mastered, we slowly added others. My son was allowed to go short distances without us -- to take a closer look at something as we trailed behind -- or to ride in an adjoining car on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority. Over the years, we have worked our way up to where we are now -- controlled independence in the parks. If my son doesn't want to experience the attraction that the rest of his family is going on, he can walk through the line and wait for us at the end of the queue. If he would like a drink, he can take the cash to a counter-service location, purchase one and come back to where we are.

That said, I am not comfortable with total independence from adults at this age, even if Disney is. This summer, the company lowered the minimum age for a minor to ride Disney's Magical Express, the complimentary bus service that shuttles resort guests between their hotels and Orlando International Airport, without an adult. Disney now allows kids ages 12 and older to ride without adult supervision; previously, the minimum age was 16. Even the minimum age to enter the Disney Parks unaccompanied by an adult is 14.

Of course, these are simply the written rules. Making the decision of what is appropriate for each child in his or her care is a parent's responsibility.

Do you use vacations as a time for teaching independence? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



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August 12, 2014

What will replace Clyde & Seamore sea lions show at SeaWorld Orlando?

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On Sunday, SeaWorld Orlando's longest-running show, "Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island," sailed off into the sunset. After 15 years, the theme park decided it's time for its beloved sea lions, walruses and otters to embark on a new adventure.

"It's bittersweet," said Todd Coffman, assistant curator of animal training. "I love this show, but I'm ready for the chance to do something new and different."

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Coffman spoke with reporters and bloggers on Friday about the pirate-themed production's last performances and gave us a few hints about what we can look forward to when a new show debuts in 2015.

What can you tell us about the new show that is coming to Sea Lion & Otter Theater?

You can expect the same amount of humor and laughs that you get with this current show. At Sea Lion & Otter Theater, the thing that makes us great is that people get a chance to laugh. When they go to see Shamu, there is the wow factor. When they see "Blue Horizons," there is an emotional connection. At Sea Lions, it's all about laughter.

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Are there other successful elements that will translate to the new show?

I think one of the things that makes "Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island" so popular is that we have the ability to change our segments to keep it fresh. We can take a lot of things that are happening in the news and in the world and we can make jokes about those and put them into the show. So it's always fresh for the audience. That will happen in the new show, as well. We'll never get away from that. That's the staple of what the sea lions show does. What keeps people coming back is that this is a place for laughs. …. Even when the animals don't do exactly what they're supposed to do and we have to improv, we love that. We have fun with it, and of course, the audience has fun with it. So, all those elements together make this a winning recipe.

SeaWorld is known for its ability to entertain crowds who are waiting in its stadiums for its big shows to begin. Will the new sea lions show have a pre-show, similar to the mime at "Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island"?

We're still working on the whole concept -- the scope, the characters -- so it's kind of too early to talk about that, but our plan is to make it every bit as enjoyable as our current show. We're not going to go backwards.

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Will Sea Lion & Otter Theater remain open while the new show is being developed?

No. We're going to tear down this entire set, and we're going to rebuild it with a brand-new themed show. (The construction means that there will not be a Christmas sea lions show for the 2014 season.)

During that time, what will the sea lions be doing?

They still will be in their pools out back, participating in all their usual activities, plus training for the new show. It takes three to five years of training before a sea lion will perform in a show. We have gotten to the point where we train all sea lions to do all the behaviors. We have 12 sea lions in our collection and, discounting our pups who aren't quite there yet, we've got about eight sea lions who can do Clyde or Seamore.

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How do you train the sea lions?

Having a relationship with the animals is vital to training. Not anyone can just go out and start teaching them to do tricks. We build the relationship through a number of ways, including sessions where we just hang out. A target ball, though, is used to teach almost all behaviors. And the sea lions are rewarded with fish, whisker scratches and rubdowns. Sea lions are not just food-motivated animals, they're also motivated by their own curiosity. They love to learn.

What is the most difficult behavior to train?

Some of the harder behaviors that we train are the ones when we have to train them to do nothing. They have to sit there and wait and watch. For me, my favorite is always the dinner segment, where the sea lions steal fish off the plate. It's a very behaviorally crisp segment. The animals are really responsive. If you watch them, they wait for very simple, subtle cues from us and the responses are quick and sharp. That's been one of the hardest things to maintain here. We have a large cast of trainers here -- 17 people -- and multiple people play the same role, so we have to make sure that everyone is doing it exactly the same way.

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While Sea Lions & Otter Theater is closed, where can guests see the sea lions?

Pacific Point Preserve will remain open for feeding and viewing while the new sea lion show is being developed. Guests will continue to be able to see them, hear them bark and feed them. The up-close experience will change slightly, however. The separately priced hourlong tour will focus on an Asian small-clawed otter and trainer rather than the sea lions.



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August 8, 2014

Disney Parks sponsors 6-city KaBOOM! Play Together Tour with free family fun

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Beginning this month, families in six cities in the United States will get to experience play areas designed by the world-renowned Disney Imagineers. Disney Parks is sponsoring the KaBOOM! Play Together Tour, which is planned to give families the opportunity to connect at free events.

KaBOOM! is a national non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all kids get a childhood filled with the balanced and active play needed to thrive. Disney Parks partnered with KaBOOM! this spring for a contest to find America's Most Playful Family. Families were invited to tell judges how they stay active together. The winner -- Trish's family from Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico -- received her choice of a trip to Walt Disney World or Disneyland and the opportunity to grant play equipment to a community group in her state.

Now, Disney and KaBOOM! want to help strengthen family bonds with fun and free play. The tour features a state-of-the-art, pop-up play attraction with team-building stations, games that build mental and physical play prowess, and an incredible family-friendly obstacle course.

Registration is open for the first city, Anaheim, at kaboom.org/playtogether. Spaces are limited, so it's recommended you reserve your time as soon as it becomes available. You'll enter the obstacle course, which takes about 10 minutes to complete, within the one-hour time block you select on your registration. After you reach the finish line and raise your family flag, you're invited to stay for the other activities.

The tour schedule includes:

** Aug. 16-17: Anaheim -- Center Street Promenade, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
** Aug. 20: Sacramento -- Location to be announced, 3 to 8 p.m.
** Aug. 23-24: San Francisco -- Marina Middle School, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
** Aug. 30-31: Chicago -- Lincoln Park, Grove 2, near Lincoln Park Zoo, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
** Sept. 6-7: Atlanta -- Old 4th Ward Skate Park, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
** Sept. 13-14: Kissimmee (near Orlando) -- Mill Run Park, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Disney VoluntEARS will be on hand to support each tour stop. As one Disney spokeswoman said, "Bringing families together is at the heart of everything we do."

On its website, KaBOOM! cites research that shows that active play matters in many areas of a child's development. For example, the group says 80 percent of school principals report that recess has a positive effect on academic achievement, and increased access to play opportunities through playgrounds and parks provide significant immediate and long-term health benefits, such as chronic disease prevention. In addition, 96 percent of pediatricians say that play helps build kids’ social skills and confidence.

The partnership for this promotion couldn’t be more ideal. After all, Disney Parks and its Imagineers are known for playful attractions, and KaBOOM! shares its vision of nurturing, inspiring and empowering kids and families. Now, with the Play Together Tour making its way across the country, families will have another creative way to experience fun together through active play.



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