October 3, 2015

Tips for families at 2015 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival



Many visitors consider fall the best time to visit Walt Disney World, and one of the main reasons is the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. Who doesn’t like to eat, right? Some families with children may be deterred by the unusual foods, the crowds and the cost. All of those factors can be managed with a little forethought, however.

I am a planner, for sure, but when I go to the Food and Wine Festival, I don’t like having the entire day pre-planned. Instead, I like to know what my options are and have some alternate activities in case things don’t go as expected. Here are a few tips that have worked for my family through the years that I hope you will find helpful, as well.

1. The day and time you visit the World Showcase promenade makes a huge difference in how your experience will play out. The best time to go is on a weekday when the majority of the food booths open at 11 a.m. This is the least-crowded time, because locals tend to crowd the festival on weekends and evenings. If you cannot avoid a weekend visit to Epcot, then at least try to be in the park when the marketplaces start serving. And if you arrive sooner, you can check out the four kiosks that have expanded into Future World, which opens at 9 a.m.

2. Once you have chosen your festival day, use FastPass+ to book three attractions for the day. You don’t have to use them, but you just might be happy to take a break from eating and the Florida heat (or afternoon rain). For this reason, I would book FastPasses in the middle of the afternoon. And new to FastPass+ this year is the option to reserve a seat at an Eat to the Beat concert. Guests without sampler packages sometimes wait in line for hours, so if there is a performer you want to see, this could be a good solution for you.

3. When you get to Epcot, purchase festival gift cards that include the wristband. If your children are old enough to trust, allow each to wear one of the gift cards. My kids always get a kick out of paying, and it’s easier for my husband and I, too. If you do not want your children handling the money, the wristlet gift cards are still a good idea for the adults because it means not having to dig through your purse or wallet to pay at each marketplace. Swipe and then eat!

4. Get a festival passport for each family member. Each marketplace will stamp the passport (for free), and kids love collecting the ink. Plus, if you are a Walt Disney World passholder, you can get your passport stamped at Innoventions each day you visit the festival. On the third visit, cast members reward you with a collectible 20th anniversary wine glass.

5. Determine which direction you will start around World Showcase by looking at the menus in the festival passport. My family and I like to study the foods, and we choose the side that has the most things we are interested in right away because we usually only make it halfway around before we are full. As you are sampling the dishes, offer to share with other family members so you will not fill up as quickly, leaving more room to try other foods and drinks.

6. Everyone likes free stuff, right? Be on the lookout for giveaways, such as packets of Craisins by the Ocean Spray cranberry bog and Ghirardelli chocolate squares in the Bean to Bar display inside the Festival Center.

7. Speaking of the Festival Center, this is a great, air-conditioned place to take a break. There are exhibits and festival merchandise to peruse, a café for a bite to eat, low-cost demonstrations, and even a free movie screening about what it takes to prepare for the Food and Wine Festival.

8. Another place to cool off and rest tired feet is the Chase Lounge inside the American Adventure. Chase Visa credit and debit cardholders can access this lounge by presenting their cards. Inside the third-floor lounge, guests can enjoy complimentary beverages, a photo booth, animation sketch classes and charging stations for devices. My children were excited just to be allowed inside private rooms that typically are not open to the public.

9. Finally, the new Remy’s Ratatouille Hide & Squeak game takes family members on a scavenger hunt around World Showcase as the little chef collects ingredients for his signature dish. Maps and stickers for this interactive game can be purchased for $9.95 plus tax at Disney Traders, Festival Center, Pin Central, Port of Entry and World Traveler (International Gateway). Whether you choose to search for each ingredient or not, return your map to the redemption location at Port of Entry by November 16, 2015, to pick up a pin.

Remember that pacing yourself and taking breaks can make any day at a theme park more enjoyable, no matter what your age.


October 1, 2015

Epcot Food and Wine Festival event lets you choose the perfect burger


At a new premium event at this year’s Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, guests can help determine the best gourmet burger created by Disney chefs– after an evening of sampling, of course! The Rockin' Burger Block Party offers sliders that are inspired by recording artists who have left their mark on the beverage world, and those drinks are paired with the burgers. A DJ spins the musicians’ most popular tracks, adding to the evening’s upbeat atmosphere (and synergy).


AllEars Editor Deb Koma and I were invited to cover the first of three Rockin’ Burger Block Parties this festival season on Sept. 25 for AllEars.Net. When we checked in at World Showplace for the two-hour party, and we were given wristbands and programs and offered glasses of champagne. There also was a fun backdrop for those who wanted to take photos while they waited.


Inside the event space, we could clearly see the various admission options. Those who chose Nosh Pit seating for $199 (plus tax, including gratuity) were allowed early entry and guaranteed a private reserved table, a specialty cocktail toast, a premium bar and the closest seating to the stage in a sectioned off area. Reserved seating at $119 (plus tax, including gratuity) included a reserved table on the main floor, early entry and the cocktail toast. General admission at $99 (plus tax, including gratuity) does not guarantee a seat but does include all the food and beverage stations.


When we entered the dining space at World Showplace, the stations were open and ready to begin serving the early arrivals at 6:45 p.m. As media guests, Deb and I first were part of a group interview with the party’s celebrity chef host, Andrew Zimmern, of “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and two related shows on the Travel Channel. You can see Deb’s interview in the highlights video below:

Then, Zimmern took the stage to address the partygoers. He explained that the hamburger in America is a food from Germany that we Americans adopted about 120 years ago. Although it has been called an American tradition for more than a century, the hamburger has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as a food trend in the last five or six years, he said.


Partygoers who wanted to get started slowly could check out the Finger Foods Station, which included cheeseburger spring rolls, spicy sticky pig wings, vegetable pot stickers and lentil samosa. Most guests, however, seemed ready to dive into tasting the 14 different kinds of burgers. And even though the sliders and their side dishes are not huge portions, there is a lot of bread, so some of our friends used the strategy of splitting each slider in half to save room to sample all the varieties.

First up: Chef Carlos’ Smooth Burger (ground turkey and grape jelly burger with cheddar cheese, bacon and smooth peanut butter on a toasted bun) and Chef Tony’s Grouper Burger (grilled grouper patty topped with butter lettuce, vine-ripened romato and lime aiolo on a griddled bun). I enjoyed the combination of flavors on the Smooth Burger and would have gone back for seconds if there weren’t so many sliders to try! Deb did not care for the Grouper Burger, and I am not a huge fish eater, so I skipped it.

Chef Carlos' Smooth Burger

These burgers were paired with Maestro Dobel Tequila; Ciroc Vodka (Moscow Mule, Red Berry and Pineapple); Florida Orange Groves Winery (White Sangria, Key Lime Wine and Blackberry Wine); and Red Stag by Jim Beam and EFFEN Vodka (All Summer Long Cooler and American Dream). The musical connection: Ciroc Vodka is promoted by Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, and Effen Vodka is repped by rapper 50 Cent.

Chef Mikko's Bourbon Burger

The next grouping was Chef Mikko’s Bourbon Burger (Bourbon BBQ burger topped with cheddar cheese, fried onions and chipotle aioli on Parker House bun); Chef Marianne’s Sicilian Burger (pan-seared branzino patty topped with pecorino cheese, blood orange, raisin, onion jam and dried prosciutto on griddled bun); The Chew Burger (all beef sirloin, shortrib and brisket patty, cheddar cheese, carmelized onion mustard and sweet hot pickles on mayo toasted sesame bun); and Chef Jarrod’s Backwoods Burger (Grilled Cervena patty topped with Black Diamond cheddar, fried onions and juniper port wine ketchup on toasted bun). By far, my favorite burger in this group was Chef Mikko’s, although I also enjoyed The Chew burger, which had hints of the traditional burger toppings.

The Chew Burger

These four burgers were paired with Jim Beam Bourbon (Devil’s Cut, Kentucky Fire and Apple varieties) and Sauza 901 Tequila, which is Justin Timberlake’s label. Who knew?!

Chef Reynold's Chicago Burger

Traveling from the Midwest to the West Coast, we had Chef Reynold’s Chicago Burger (grass-fed beef patty topped with all-beef hot dog, relish and Hawaii cheese sauce on a poppyseed bun) and Chef Keith’s Cali Veggie Cheese Burger (Morningstar Farms bean burger topped with vegan cheese, marinated avocado and sriracha heirloom tomato ketchup on a vegan buttered bun). I’m not a huge fan of veggie burgers so I wasn’t tempted by Chef Keith’s creation. I did try the Chicago Burger but didn’t care for the slice of hot dog on the patty. Once I removed that, I enjoyed the burger more.

Also in the grouping was the Sweets Station, which featured cinnamon roll fireball bread pudding with cream cheese glaze, snickerdoodle crusted apple custard crisp and Vahlrona chocolate ganache brownie. All three were delicious, but quite a few people at our table were raving about the bread pudding, and I had to agree it was the best of the three offerings.


The state burgers and sweets were paired with Margaritaville Brewing Co. (Landshark Lager); The Dreaming Tree wines (Everyday White Wine, Crush Red Blend and Chardonnay); assorted hot beverages; and Little Rocker Station (specialty non-alcoholic beverage). Jimmy Buffett is affiliated with the Landshark Lager from Margaritaville Brewing Co., of course. (It's made by Anheuser-Busch, but it's sold in his restaurants.) The Dreaming Tree wines are Dave Matthews' (of Dave Matthews Band) label. Deb had the "Crush" Red Blend and said it was a nice, full-bodied red – her favorite wine of the night.


The next trio of burgers were Chef Judi’s Truck Stop Burger (mixed grill burger topped with fried egg, bacon grease fries and nacho cheese sauce on griddled bun); Chef Melissa’s Thai Shellfish Burger (shrimp and scallop burger topped with spicy thai slaw and cilantro lime mayo on sesame bun); and Chef Hanson Oklahoma Burger (grass-fed burger topped with BBQ pulled pork, cheddar cheese and onion fried on toasted Parker House bun). For me, and many other nearby diners, it was the Oklahoma burger, hands down, that got our vote from this group. Although the other sliders offered interesting combinations of flavors, Chef Hanson had the best toppings. Deb said the Oklahoma burger was in her Top 5 of the night.

Chef Hanson Oklahoma Burger

This group was paired with Hanson Brothers Beer Company (Mmmhops Pale Ale) – no surprise there; The Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Seasonal and Rebel IPA brews); and Voli Vodka (International Love Cosmopolitan, Voli Black and Voli Mango Coconut). Hanson is, of course, famous for its single "Mmm Bop," so the play on words for the brothers’ beer refers to that song. Voli Vodka is promoted by singer Pitbull.


Finally, the last of the burgers were Chef Nanor’s Middle-Eastern Burger (spiced lamb and feta cheese burger topped by pickled watermelon rind and Za’atar aioli on buttered bun); Chef Eggie’s Mallorcan Burger (coffee-crusted beef short burger topped with smoked gouda, garlic potato strings and sangria ketchup on medianoche roll); and Chef Dale’s Asian Cheese Burger (CVAP chicken duck burger topped with butterkase cheese, bulqogi braised pork belly and sweet Thai chili sauce on sesame bun). The Asian Cheese Burger was a crowd favorite, for sure.


The last grouping was paired with Niche Import Co. (Hex vom Dasenstein Pinot Noir and Sweet Hex vom Dasenstein Pinot Noir); Casa Noble Tequila (Margarita and Casa Noble Reposado Tequila); and Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum (Mai Tai and Red Head Rum, also called Macademia Nut Rum). Deb said she did not recommend the Hex vom Dasenstein Pinot Noir. She tried the Maragarita and I tried the Mai Tai, and both mixed drinks were exactly what you would expect in terms of flavor. Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum is from Sammy Hagar, formerly of Van Halen.

At the end of the evening, guests were encouraged to vote for their favorite burgers by placing a guitar pick in a jar at the desired station. At our party, it was a tie between Chef Mikko’s Bourbon Burger and Chef Dale’s Asian Cheese Burger. The tie was broken by a vocal vote of the audience, when advocates of the Bourbon Burger outyelled fans of the Asian Burger. A trophy then was presented to Chef Mikko’s team. On our way out of the building, guests were given more of the guitar picks as souvenirs.


There are two remaining Rockin' Burger Block Parties on Oct. 8 and Nov. 6. The cast of The Chew will host the event on Oct. 8, and "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro will be in the spotlight for the Nov. 6 party. Tickets can be purchased by calling 407-WDW-FEST (939-3378).

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World for its Rockin’ Burger Block Party. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.


September 29, 2015

Ocean Spray cranberry bog returns to 2015 Epcot Food and Wine Festival


Here’s berry good news! After a hiatus last year, Ocean Spray's popular cranberry bog is back at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival for the fourth year. If you've attended the festival, you've probably walked right past it on the central walkway leading to World Showcase.


Cast members in waders stand knee-deep in the colorful bog, demonstrating how rakes are used to turn the fruit during wet harvesting. Cranberries actually grow on long vines in marshy areas, not underwater as some people might think. The night before the harvest, growers flood the area with up to 18 inches of water. Then, they use the rake-like tools to loosen the cranberries, and the fruit floats to the surface.


So, what you're seeing at Epcot are the loose cranberries floating in water -- the final step of wet harvesting a crop. (Cranberries also can be picked dry, which is done with large machines that comb the berries off vines.) The festival schedule of September through November coincides with the annual harvest of cranberries in North America. Aside from being an interesting feature as part of the festival, the manmade bog at Epcot is a great visual way to demonstrate to kids how some of the food at the event is cultivated and harvested.


On Saturday, during the opening weekend of the festival, Ocean Spray invited members of the media to step into the cranberry bog, which contains more than 1,500 pounds of fresh fruit. Deb Koma and I were among those in the water taking photos, posting on social media and using Periscope for interviews with fifth-generation cranberry growers.


Although we were a bit nervous about keeping our smartphones from falling into the manmade bog, we didn’t worry about our clothing getting wet because the one-piece waders kept us completely dry. Ocean Spray even provided us with cute red knee socks to make the attached boots comfortable. (And the waders are sized according to the boots. Who doesn’t love that?!)

Here's an excerpt of our Periscope Broadcast:

Guests at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival can visit the Hops & Barley Marketplace through Nov. 16 to taste the carrot cake with Craisins (dried cranberries) and cream cheese icing. I sampled this dessert at the Ocean Spray reception and really liked it, even though I don’t usually enjoy carrot cake. At both the new Cheese Studio and the Wine Studio, guests can purchase La Bonne Vie goat cheese served with Craisin bread. Both the cake and the bread are vegetarian dishes. Across from the bog, visitors are invited to pick up a free sample of Craisins.

At Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom, trick-or-treaters can collect Greek yogurt-covered Craisins at one treat station.

Ocean Spray is an agricultural cooperative owned by more than 700 growers, many of whom have been in the business for generations.


September 26, 2015

We’ll miss Duffy the Disney Bear when meet-and-greets at Walt Disney World end next weekend


In a little over a week, Duffy the Disney Bear will be setting sail for new adventures that don’t include his post at Epcot any longer. Multiple media outlets are reporting that Walt Disney World has confirmed that Duffy’s last day to greet guests will be Oct. 3.


Duffy has been a fixture at Epcot since he arrived five years ago from Tokyo DisneySea, where he is wildly popular. His meet-and-greet area in Orlando is located across from Plaza Towers East -- where Duffy merchandise is sold -- and depicts various countries of travel.


Duffy’s story, which is outlined in a hardcover book that families can purchase, attributes his birth to Minnie Mouse, who lovingly sewed the teddy bear for Captain Mickey Mouse to take on his long voyages around the globe.

Minnie told Mickey, “You can keep him in your duffel and take him with you wherever you go.” Because of that, Mickey named the bear Duffy.


I attended a Disney World passholder preview for Duffy the Disney Bear in 2010, and guests there couldn’t wait for his arrival stateside. They, including my own young children, were eager to snap up the merchandise, especially the plush animal and his many outfits. For many, the toy bear held the same appeal as a Build-A-Bear plush with all the collectible accessories.

But the others who disliked Duffy and thought he had no place at Walt Disney World saw his arrival as a thinly disguised merchandising campaign. Sure, Duffy would greet guests, but there are no true original Disney storylines associated with the bear either in cartoon form, film or other media. Plus, there simply aren’t park attractions based on the bear and many guests just couldn’t identify with him. To them, he was just Mickey’s little-known teddy bear. And Duffy was actually the rebranding of another version of a Disney teddy bear. My daughter has the original plush Disney Bear, which is slightly smaller than Duffy but looks virtually the same.


The cynicism might be easy to understand – until, like our family, you witnessed firsthand a youngster excitedly running up to Duffy for an autograph or a hug. Sure, the bear might not be a character from the creative mind of Walt or the Pixar brain trust, but when our children were younger, they eagerly waited in line for a chance to see him at Epcot. And their nighttime routines and bedtime stories were filled with stuffed Duffy characters and Duffy storybooks at one stage of their younger lives. For us, Duffy was as much Disney for them as Bambi and the Fox and the Hound was for my husband and I.

And, so, we have come full circle with Duffy here in the United States. Even though the Disney Bear will no longer be greeting guests, the merchandise still will be sold on property, a spokeswoman told the Orlando Sentinel. No word on whether the video of the “Duffy The Disney Bear” book being read as a bedtime story on Walt Disney World hotel TVs will continue.

Meanwhile, another Disney character with a very real and long historical tie to the company will be making an appearance once Duffy leaves. Daisy Duck replaces Duffy the Disney Bear in the gazebo meet-and-greet at Epcot beginning on Oct. 4.

Everyone loves Daisy, of course. But everytime we pass Epcot’s Plaza Towers East, it will be hard not to think of a fluffy friend who used to greet us there.


September 24, 2015

Tips for families attending 2015 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party


It still may feel like summer in Orlando, but at the Magic Kingdom, fall came early (as it usually does) with autumn decorations and the first Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party mid-month. My family thinks this is one of the best hard-ticket events at Walt Disney World and has been attending the party for more than a decade. As such, we have some up-to-date tips for families who want to make the most of their time and money.

The party only lasts for five hours – from 7 p.m. to midnight – so you’ll need a strategy in order to do most everything that’s important to your group. Our family focuses on the entertainment that is unique to the party because we can choose to experience other things at Magic Kingdom another day.


First, know that your party ticket allows you to enter the Magic Kingdom at 4 p.m., even though most party activities do not start until 7 p.m. Early admission used to be a non-publicized perk and a tool to disburse the arriving crowds. Now, however, Walt Disney World touts the entrance time. You could, of course, use the extra time to experience attractions, but I think that three-hour window is best used to prepare for the party so you don't waste precious party time.


** Once you enter the park, head straight to the Firehouse in Town Square so you can pick up a special Halloween card for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom virtual game. Each person will need his or her party wristband to collect the card, beginning at 4 p.m. Because this is the only time you can get the card, I recommend collecting it and using it on another visit. There was no line at about 5:30 p.m. on the day we attended the party.


** Next, if you are interested in exclusive party merchandise, head into the adjacent Emporium store. In the center room, the goods are displayed in a section behind the cash registers. Cast members will allow a few guests – with party wristbands -- at a time to peruse and purchase items. This is a change from past years when the merchandise was not uncovered until 7 p.m. If you see something you like, don’t hesitate to purchase it because items can and do sell out later in the night. Other locations with party merchandise include Mickey’s Star Traders, Box Office Gifts and Frontier Trading Post.


** After shopping, I would either recommend having an early dinner before the party starts or getting in line for one of the popular meet-and-greets. If having an actual meal (as opposed to grabbing snacks on the go) is important to your group, don’t waste party time; eat beforehand. There are limited restaurants open during the party, so having dinner beforehand also gives you more choices for your meal. This may be especially important to families with small children. If the food aspect is not key to your group having a successful evening, then I would suggest getting in line for Jack Skellington and Sally or the Seven Dwarfs. Jack has moved back to the outdoor tent adjacent to Casey Jr. and there is a new, more detailed backdrop for photos this year. The Seven Dwarfs can be found behind Cinderella Castle near the gates to New Fantasyland. Both meet-and-greets routinely have lines of at least an hour, so if you do use your time before the party starts, you’ll have more time for the other entertainment later. Plus, it isn’t out of the question for some meets to start before 7 p.m. for guests with party wristbands.

Once the party starts, guests can begin trick-or-treating. This fun tradition is open to all guests, including adults, and bags are provided. Also, guests are invited to wear costumes, as long as they are family friendly. My own children love this tradition, which allows them to see the Magic Kingdom in a whole new way.


The big entertainment this year – Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular, Mickey’s Boo-To-You Halloween Parade, Celebrate the Magic castle projection show and Happy HalloWishes fireworks – are all scheduled a little later in the evening. Depending on your strategy, this may actually give you more party time. The first stage shows and parade are always more crowded than the later ones, so if everyone in your party can stay awake, choose later options. For example, you could choose to view Celebrate the Magic at 9:45 p.m. and Happy HalloWishes at 10 p.m. (the only times they’re available) and then grab a seat in the hub for the Hocus Pocus show at 10:40 p.m. and the second parade at 11:15 p.m. That gives you at least two and half hours to collect candy, meet characters, go on rides and more.

What to do when the clock strikes 7 p.m. if you are saving the big entertainment until the latter part of the evening?

Here are a few suggestions:

** The Fab Five are decked out in their costumes, and lines to meet them typically aren’t as long as those for Jack Skellington and the Seven Dwarfs. We waited 30 minutes last year to meet Mickey Mouse, who actually talks to guests. Mickey engages guests in conversation about their costumes and even strikes a pose himself.

** Check out the dance party in Tomorrowland, which features the Monsters University characters. (There is only one character dance party this year, down from two last year.) This is not a meet-and-greet opportunity so characters don't stop and pose but you may be able to capture some fun candid shots.

** Trick-or-treat. Be sure to walk along the pathway between Storybook Circus and Tomorrowland and go inside the Enchanted Tiki Room because these two locations have several candy barrels close together.


** If candy is not your thing, try one of the specialty foods at the party: ghost, monster and spider cupcakes and candy corn soft serve ice cream. We tried the candy corn ice cream at the end of the night and found a surprise in the bottom of each cone.

** Take advantage of short lines for attractions. You will be able to walk right on many of the rides, and others will have much shorter waits than a typical day. For example, we saw Seven Dwarfs Mine Train only had a 20-minute queue at one point. Some guests actually buy tickets to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party with no intention of experiencing the seasonal events. Instead, they plan to take advantage of the short waits for rides.


Finally, on our way out of the park, we had a photo of the kids taken in Town Square with the pumpkin statues and Cinderella Castle in the background. After learning that the PhotoPass photographers stay there until about 1 a.m., I thought it would be a nice change to get a photo with Main Street lit up instead of the afternoon image that we have taken for the last several years at the party. Unfortunately, the photographer was in a hurry and only took two quick shots of the kids and she zoomed in on them so much that you can’t see my daughter’s costume, which was the whole point. This was really disappointing after watching her spend ample time with the couple before us. But I didn’t realize the problem until we got home because it was the last thing we did at the party. So, if this shot is important to you, I recommend doing it earlier than we did and checking it online.

Have a tip or a question? Please share it in the comments.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.


September 21, 2015

‘Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular' at Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party just might put a spell on you


Despite the pleas and rumors from fans, a sequel has not been announced for the popular Halloween movie, Disney’s “Hocus Pocus.” However, if your broomstick can get you to Orlando, you can see the Sanderson Sisters in all their glory in a new stage show at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom this Halloween season.

“Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” debuted last week at the first Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, where the show is performed exclusively four times during each party night. (See details about the Halloween party, including dates and prices, on our AllEars.Net resource page.)

“In ‘Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular,’ the mischievous Sanderson Sisters from Disney’s ‘Hocus Pocus’ return to the mortal world for one night during the Halloween season,” wrote Shawn Slater, communications manager for Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts, Creative Entertainment, on the Disney Parks Blog. “With only a few hours to run amuck, the three sisters decide to use their magic to throw the best evil Halloween party this side of the graveyard!”

My family and I got to see “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” on Friday, and we really enjoyed it even though we hadn’t seen the movie (gasp!), which came out in 1993. The choreography, upbeat music, projections on the castle and inclusion of some familiar villains from other Disney stories makes this production appealing to all partygoers. And it just might inspire you to watch the fan-favorite flick, as it did us. (Hocus Pocus will be on ABC Family during the 2015 13 Nights of Halloween celebration on Oct. 19, 20, 24, 25, 27, 29, 30 and 31.)


Afterward, we could appreciate the details that were translated from the screen to the stage, such as the significance of the candle. Lighting it awakens the Sanderson Sisters -- Winifred, Mary and Sarah – in the movie after 300 years. That scene is replayed in the stage show with various candles that are lit on stage and in projections on the castle. The set also includes the wrought-iron gate from the cemetery that figures prominently in the movie and the bubbling cauldron used to concoct spells.





Walt Disney World’s Sanderson Sisters truly look like they could have stepped out of the movie, and their mannerisms match, as well. The trio replicates scenes of hypnotizing children and then attempting to put a spell on the audience with the help of other Disney villains. The show builds toward the finale, “I Put A Spell On You,” with all the characters, fireworks and then farewells.




“Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” is longer than the show it replaces, “Villains Mix and Mingle,” at almost 22 minutes. It does not offer the audience the opportunity to meet the villains as its predecessor did, although I’m sure fans would enjoy that experience.


On Friday, I spoke with Denise Case, show director for Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts, Creative Entertainment, about the new production.

Question: Why “Hocus Pocus”?

Case: Because we love, love, love the Sanderson Sisters. They were originated by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s a funny Halloween film. It’s become a real fan favorite for this time of the year. ABC Family shows it every year. … So we felt like the Sanderson Sisters were perfect for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.


Q: How do you think a younger audience that maybe hasn’t seen “Hocus Pocus” will relate to the show?

Case: I think younger audiences will like it because of the comedy -- the sisters are very funny. And they know the villains from some of their favorite movies. Dr. Facilier, obviously, from “The Princess and The Frog” and Oogie Boogie from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Jafar, Cruella de Vil. I think it really does have something for everyone, even if you’re not a “Hocus Pocus” fan.



Q: What did it take to get “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” on the stage? When did you start developing the show?

Case: We really started wrapping our hands around the high concept for the show at the beginning of this year, and we’ve been working on it very diligently ever since. It was a huge team effort.

Q: What is your favorite part of the show?

Case: My favorite part of the show has got to be the Sanderson Sisters’ entrance and the top of “I Put a Spell On You” just because of the audience reaction. The audiences are reacting as we hoped they would, so every time that happens, I just get really excited.

Q: I know this is only the second night that “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” has been performed, but what has the feedback been so far?

Case: Knock wood, it’s been really great. Guests seem to love it. The thing that I think makes me the happiest is that a lot of guests are telling us that they are seeing the Sanderson Sisters as they wanted to see them. I think we are fulfilling their excitement about the sisters and that makes me really happy because that was really important to us. We wanted to give fans and guests what they wanted.

Q: What time do you recommend guests see the show? (It plays at 8, 9:20 and 10:40 p.m. and midnight on the Castle Forecourt Stage.)

Case: Later in the evening – the 10:40 or midnight show – are best [if you want a less-crowded experience]. If you have little ones who can stay up late, I think the midnight show is a bunch of fun!

Can’t make it to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party? We have a video of the full “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” show for you to watch:

Finally, one last note from me: On the first night of Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, the Magic Kingdom offered a T-shirt with an image from the new show. It sold out that night, though a cast member told me it would be restocked and partygoers could bring proof they had attended a party (wristband, receipt, ID) and they would be allowed to purchase the T-shirt.

Also, Sept 21 through 27, DisneyStore.com will sell T-shirts that depict each of the Sanderson Sisters’ outfits plus another T-shirt with the logo for the Sanderson Sisters Witch Museum.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.


September 19, 2015

Magical Moments on our first trip to Disneyland


Disney theme parks and resorts are known for the “Disney Difference,” an often intangible factor that sets Disney Parks and Resorts apart from other entertainment experiences. Part of the “Disney Difference” can be attributed to the excellent level of service that cast members provide, but perhaps the seemingly random and unexpected experiences that cast members perform for guests contribute to this reputation, as well. Over the years, we’ve had many such experiences here at Walt Disney World, and on our recent first trip to Disneyland, we had several such “Magical Moments,” too.

On our first morning in Disneyland park, I wanted to take the quintessential Disney family photos in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, so we stood in line for a PhotoPass photographer. When we got to the front of the line, I explained that it was our first visit and I wanted to capture several images with various combinations of family members. This Disney photographer turned my request into a mini photo shoot, capturing each child separately, together and with my husband and me. Then, he noticed the kids were wearing birthday buttons and asked them to do special poses to indicate how old they are. We received a fun collection of family photos because the photographer was willing to spend a little extra time and work with us, rather than take the same old shots. It helped, too, I’m sure, that we were in front of the castle right after the park opened so it was not very crowded.

Another Magical Moment also happened on that first day. My family and I each wanted to get a complimentary “First Visit” button to wear for the week, so we stopped by Guest Relations. Imagine our surprise when we were told they had run out! How was that even possible, we wondered? The cast member could only recommend that we ask in each shop on Main Street, U.S.A., and at attractions throughout the park because they sometimes have their own stock of buttons to hand out. So, to appease my disappointed children, we began to pop into each store on Main Street and ask cashiers about the buttons. Each time, we were told they, too, were out of stock. About halfway down the street, however, a cast member said she didn’t have any at the counter, but if we would wait there, she would go search for some. We agreed, and it wasn’t long before she returned with buttons in hand for us.

On our second day, we also had the good fortune to be part of two Magical Moments. As I mentioned in my previous review of the Carthay Circle World of Color dinner package, we were surprised that after we placed our order, a server opened the doors to a balcony overlooking the Pixar Play Parade, which was traveling past the restaurant. We were invited to go outside and watch. It was a great vantage point, and the characters even knew to look up and wave to us.

But by far the most magical experience of our trip was meeting Alfred, a monorail pilot at Downtown Disney station. We had asked if we could ride in the front compartment with the driver, knowing we would have to wait a little longer because of the demand. But we knew it would be a special experience, and something we all would remember, because guests are no longer allowed to ride in the front car of monorails at Walt Disney World. However, the wait turned out to be a little longer than we expected – about 40 minutes -- because if a family was riding with the pilot when the monorail pulled into the Downtown Disney station, they were allowed to remain in the compartment until the ride terminated in Tomorrowland. Still, we were not upset. But Alfred was paying attention to our wait time and apologized, offering our family FastPasses that were good for any ride in either park to help make up for the time we spent waiting at the monorail station. We were stunned and happily surprised! Then, Alfred called the other monorail station and requested that the next train not bring passengers in the first car so that we could board. Besides his generous actions, Alfred entertained our kids and shared with us fun stories about his time at Disneyland and also what he knew of the monorail system at Walt Disney World, which made the wait pass quickly. Then he ushered us into the pilot’s car of the monorail, allowed the kids to take photos in the driver’s seat, and drove us himself to the Tomorrowland station.

These Magical Moments may not have seemed like much to the cast members who were making them happen, but to us, they were everything. They truly exemplified the Disney Difference.


September 17, 2015

What types of souvenirs do you buy at Disneyland?


Entering the gift shops at a Disney theme park can be an exciting, over-the-top experience for a first-time visitor. There are so many cool things that you didn’t know you needed until you see them! Few people can shop without a budget, so we must choose things that will be the most meaningful to us, and that certainly varies from person to person. I enjoy seeing what other people select as their treasures, so I thought you might like to hear what we brought back on our first trip to Disneyland. We were, of course, tempted by all the beautiful 60th anniversary merchandise!

Autograph books

Our first purchase -- on Main Street, U.S.A., no less – was a Diamond Celebration autograph book and pen set for each child. We had reservations for several character meals during our vacation, so we knew they would be put to good use, and the 60th anniversary design made them all the more special. While we were in The Emporium, we also picked up two of the Disneyland pressed penny sleeves and a free guide to locating the pennies, including some designed just for the D60 celebration.

Mouse-ear hats

Next, both of my children decided they wanted to spend their own money on a souvenir mouse-ear hat. My son really wanted a Diamond Celebration mouse-ear hat, but, unfortunately, that design was sold out. Instead, he decided to get a Made With Magic mouse-ear hat that lights up and syncs with the colors and the beat of nearby night-time shows. It also has a 60th anniversary patch, so it was a good compromise. My daughter chose a Minnie Mouse ear headband with sequined ears and a bejeweled blue bow, also part of the Diamond Celebration collection.


Of course, we couldn’t leave a Disney theme park without T-shirts! Each person in our family chose a T-shirt, and my children decided to get an extra item of clothing. The kids and I each selected a different Disneyland Diamond celebration T-shirt. My husband picked out a Disneyland Oswald shirt, while my almost-13-year-old son chose a different Oswald shirt and my almost 11-year-old daughter got an Ariel hoodie.

Trading pins

Although both kids collect trading pins, my son was more interested in adding to his collection with pins commemorating our vacation. He selected pins to represent his favorite attractions in each park and the Diamond Celebration.

Starbucks mugs

My son also wanted to finish his collection of Starbucks “You Are Here” mugs from Disney Parks, so he spent his money on one from Disneyland and one from Disney California Adventure. And then he discovered a special Diamond Celebration mug from Starbucks and more of his spending money was committed to the cause.

Build A Bear

My daughter, on the other hand, had her heart set on the Diamond Celebration Build A Bear plush at the Downtown Disney store. She saw the special edition stuffed animal displayed in the window early in our vacation and never forgot about it. We persuaded her to peruse the selection of other souvenirs at the resort before she committed such a large chunk of her money to this particular item. She agreed and ultimately decided that this was a valuable souvenir for her. The bear itself has D60 diamond pattern lining on the ears and feet, as well as a soft blue nose. My daughter purchased a D60 T-shirt and mouse-ear hat for the bear.

Cars Land

We all hated to leave Cars Land, so it was no surprise that some of us looked for souvenirs to remind us of this magical area. My daughter settled on a Mater drawstring backpack and Cars-themed keychain, while I purchased a light-up keychain replica of the neon Cozy Cone Motel sign.


I couldn’t resist adding a few of the D60 charms to my Pandora bracelet. Unlike at Walt Disney World, the special edition charms did not seem to be in short supply. My daughter spent the last of the money she had saved on an Alex and Ani Disneyland60 bracelet.

Club 33

Finally, we were pixie-dusted with the opportunity to have dinner at the members-only Club 33 inside Disneyland Park, and the club has it own merchandise that only can be purchased there. For this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we each splurged on souvenirs. My husband chose a baseball cap and a mug; I was excited to find a handbag and a baseball cap; and we picked out the Club 33 mouse-ear hats for the kids.


Probably the best – and most important souvenir -- for our family was the collection of professional photos we purchased with the PhotoPass+ package. For one price, we received unlimited photos taken during our vacation. (You can read more about PhotoPass+ here.)

Do you have a favorite souvenir from your trip to Disneyland? Tell us in the comments!


September 15, 2015

Tips for gearing up for fun at Disneyland's Cars Land


Since it opened in 2012, Cars Land has been the must-do area for most guests at Disney California Adventure. On our recent visit to Disneyland, my family and I fell in love with this section of the theme park, too. A guest – even one who didn’t ride the main attraction – would be hard-pressed not to enjoy the level of detail that makes Cars Land so immersive. It’s often been said that stepping into Cars Land is like stepping onto the movie set of “Cars” (if there were such a thing).

Guests can enter Cars Land in three ways: down Route 66, through the canyon arch by Pacific Wharf and through Bug’s Land behind Cozy Cone Motel. The first two entrances are the most spectacular.

Tip: Be sure to visit Cars Land during the day and at night for two different visual experiences. At sunset, the shops and restaurants along Route 66 light up in succession while “Sh-Boom” plays. It’s a magical moment, for sure.


The main attraction in Cars Land is, of course, Radiator Springs Racers. This ride uses the same technology as Test Track at Epcot with guests riding in 6-person vehicles. The course takes guests up in the mountains, past the waterfall scene from the movie, into Radiator Springs and either Ramone’s or Luigi’s, and out to race on the open roads.

Tips: Radiator Springs Racers (RSR) is by far the most popular attraction at Disneyland Resort. It does have FastPasses but they often are gone for the day by 10 a.m. Because of this, guests line up for rope drop by Carthay Circle and either proceed directly to the ride or they stop at the FastPass distribution machines, which are not located near the ride. Guests staying at one of the three official Disneyland hotels can enter Disney California Adventure (and Cars Land) one hour before park opening on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, but FastPass distribution does not begin until the park opens and guests may not line up for FastPasses until then.


The other attraction in Cars Land is Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, which features baby tractors pulling guests in trailers in a whip-around style ride. It’s great fun for all ages!

Tip: A third attraction, Luigi's Flying Tires, which was located behind Casa Della Tires shop, closed in February. A new attraction, Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters, will take its place in early 2016.


There are two counter-service restaurants in Cars Land, Flo’s V8 Café and Cozy Cone Motel. Flo’s serves typical diner foods: roast beef and turkey (sandwiches), mashed potatoes, macaroni & cheese, milkshakes and more. Cozy Cone sells a specialty at each “cone”: churros, soft-serve ice cream, bread cones and pretzel twists, plus various drinks.

Tips: At Flo’s, there are a lot more tables behind the restaurant, and back there you’ll have a fantastic view of Ornament Valley and the Cadillac Mountain Range. Cozy Cone doesn’t have many tables, so it’s more of a grab-and-go spot. But what it lacks in seating it makes up for with its delicious soft-serve ice cream, Red’s Apple Freeze drink and adorable gasoline-can-shaped souvenir cups.


If you want to capture photos of your family in Cars Land – and who doesn’t? – there are several PhotoPass spots and some unadvertised magic shots you can ask for. (Here’s why PhotoPass+ is a good value for your Disneyland trip.) Professional photographers are stationed at the Cars Land postcard at the entrance; on Route 66 with the landmarks in the background; at Cozy Cones Motel with Mater, Lightning McQueen or Red; and there is a camera on Radiator Springs Racers. If you can find an unattached photographer, be sure to ask for the magic shots, as well. He or she will take your group to three different locations, and when you view the photos online, a different character will appear in each.


Finally, the gift shops along Route 66 are named after characters or things the cars encounter in the movie: Ramone's House of Body Art, Sarge's Surplus Hut and Radiator Springs Curios. You can take home everything from T-shirts and postcards to tire-shaped hats and light-up Cozy Cones Motel keychains.

Tip: Take photos of any and all merchandise you might be interested in. If you forget to go back and purchase something, you can do so with the Disneyland Merchandise Mail Order line (800-362-4533). You’ll need to be able to describe the item to the cast member so he or she can look it up. Phone lines are open from 8 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Perhaps what makes Cars Land so special is that it is unique; no other Disney park has a Cars Land. And the excitement of discovering something new has us all gearing up for a fun experience.


September 12, 2015

Reviews of Disneyland's most popular character meals


Who could visit Disneyland and not meet some of their favorite characters? One of the easiest, and perhaps most efficient, way to do so is by attending meals where the characters circulate among tables rather than standing in lines in the theme parks. On our recent trip to Disneyland, we booked three character-dining meals: Storytellers Café, Ariel’s Grotto and Goofy’s Kitchen.

Our strategy for character meals was to schedule a late breakfast at each. We did this because we had dinner packages booked for some nights and evening plans on others. Also, my family and I like breakfast food, so that was more appealing than lunch in many cases. As for the time, we opted for 11 to 11:30 a.m. reservations because we were aiming for a mid-day meal. We didn’t want to take a break earlier in the morning when crowds are lightest in the parks.

The biggest downside to our plan was that we ended up being served lunch at one of the restaurants (Ariel’s Grotto) and almost missed the characters at another (Storytellers Café) – despite my following the times listed for meal service for each restaurant. So, if you enjoy breakfast, I would recommend making reservations at these two restaurants a little earlier than we did.


Our first character meal of the trip was the Chip ’n Dale Critter Breakfast at Storyteller’s Café in the Grand Californian, which features Chip ‘n Dale, of course, as well as Kenai and Koda (Brother Bear), Meeko (Pocohontas) and Terk (Tarzan). Our reservation was for 11 a.m. with breakfast service ending at 11:30 a.m. We checked in ahead of time, but it still took a bit to get seated and by the time we entered the restaurant at 11:20, we were told by a cast member that it was unlikely we’d see the characters. Both of my children were understandably upset by that news.

As soon as we were seated, I explained the situation to our server and asked if there was a way for us to see the characters before we ate. He said he would talk to the handlers, and he did his best to facilitate our request. He did get Chip ‘n Dale to come to our table for autographs and photos. He also encouraged our children to join the dance party with all the characters, saying that they would pose for photos and sign autographs when the music ended. We were surprised by this because at Walt Disney World characters return to circulating among the tables after a group moment. But, sure enough, the critters were happy to take a minute with my children.

Once the kids had met all the characters, we turned our attention to the breakfast buffet where we found cooked-to-order omelets, Storyteller's Cafe famous caramel French toast, eggs Benedict, Mickey waffles, sausage, bacon, bagels and lox, seasonal fruit, and fresh-baked pastries. We enjoyed the food, and no one in our party left hungry! The Chip ’n Dale Critter Breakfast is $29.99 plus tax for adults and $14.99 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9.

Storyteller’s Café also serves lunch and dinner, but characters are not present for those meals. Instead, perhaps guests are able to enjoy the lodge décor of the restaurant, which was both beautiful and cozy.


Our second character meal was at Ariel’s Grotto in Disney California Adventure. The Little Mermaid is my daughter’s favorite character, so we knew Ariel’s Disney Princess Celebration was a must for our family. Our reservation was for 11:30 a.m., a time we were led to believe would still be breakfast. We arrived at 11 a.m. and were told we could not check in until 11:20 a.m. and to come back then. When we returned, I requested a table inside “under the sea.” The cast member was able to honor my request, though she claimed we were given the last table indoors. (The restaurant also has a lovely, albeit hot in the summer, outdoor patio with a lovely water view of Mickey’s Fun Wheel and Paradise Pier.) Despite the hassle, I am very glad we were seated indoors because the décor was so well themed.


After check-in, we descended a spiral staircase to where Ariel was greeting guests. She posed for photos, which are included in the price of your meal, and signed autographs. The meal comes with one 8 x 10 image and four 4 x 6 prints. If you have purchased PhotoPass+, all the photos taken with Ariel can be added to your account. Then we were led to our table, where we found out we were having lunch, not breakfast.

Our meal was a set price of $40 plus tax for adults ($19.99 for children ages 3 to 9) for a three-course meal. Each person could choose soup or salad for an appetizer; sustainable catch of the day, pan-roasted chicken breast, grilled lobster tail salad or slow-roasted tri-tip for the entrée; and a dessert trio to wrap up the meal. The food was perfectly edible, but it was nothing outstanding, which left my husband and I feeling like we had overpaid for what we received. Our bill was about $200 and it certainly wasn’t on par with the meals we had at Blue Bayou and Carthay Circle.


Of course, we were not paying for just the food but the whole Disney Princess experience. In addition to Ariel, my kids met with Belle, Jasmine, Rapunzel and Tiana at our table. Each princess was announced as she swept into the dining room and made her rounds, causing a wave of excitement. Overall, I’m happy we tried Ariel’s Grotto for my daughter’s sake, but I’m not sure we’d go back on any future trips.

Ariel’s Grotto also offers a World of Color dinner package, but no characters are present during that meal.


Our final -- and best -- character meal was at Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel. Goofy is the host of a meal that is very similar to Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. The experience starts with each party having a photo taken with Chef Goofy. A photo package of one 8 x 10 and four 4 x 6 prints is included with your meal. If you have purchased PhotoPass+, all the photos taken with Goofy can be added to your account.


Our reservation at Goofy’s Kitchen was at 11 a.m., but we were pleased to find out that brunch would be served until noon. That meant we could enjoy breakfast favorites and well as some heartier lunch dishes on the five stations during our meal. We were excited to try our first Mickey pancakes and Goofy’s special peanut butter and jelly pizza.

In between our trips to the buffet, various characters stopped by our table, including Pluto, Minnie Mouse and Chip ‘n Dale. And although my children had been wearing their birthday buttons all week, this was the first restaurant where the servers brought out cupcakes and actually sang to them. We were beginning to think Disneyland had a ban on singing at tables!

Brunch at Goofy’s Kitchen costs $33 plus tax for adults and $17 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9.

Be sure to check hours for each character meal before you make reservations because they vary according to the season. Meals can be booked 60 days in advance.


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