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July 2012 Archives

July 3, 2012

Best places to see Disney World fireworks outside Magic Kingdom

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A view of Magic Kingdom's fireworks from the Polynesian beach.

Some of the best places to watch the Fourth of July fireworks at Walt Disney World, in my opinion, require planning ahead a bit -- or a touch of pixie dust. With America's birthday just around the corner, you may need to wish for that extra bit of magic to make this plan work this week -- or mark your calendars for next year.

For my family, watching "Disney's Celebrate America! A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky" presented in the Magic Kingdom is best done from outside the park. Because we're local residents, we don't mind skipping the crowds there, knowing we can go back at a later, less busy time. Our preference is a view from one of the Magic Kingdom resorts -- Polynesian, Grand Floridan, Wilderness Lodge, Fort Wilderness or Contemporary.

Over the years, we have made dinner reservations at various restaurants in these hotels and afterward walked out to the beach for a drink and the fireworks. This is where the pixie dust comes in: If you don't already have a dinner reservation for Independence Day, you'll need to check for a cancellation. Most Disney World hotel restaurants won't have room for walk-ins on July 4, and you absolutely need to have a reservation to be able to park at the hotels.

An opening actually may be easier to find this year than in the past because of the new dining policy that requires guests to cancel reservations they aren't using or pay a service charge. For most restaurants, the cancellation must be made 24 to 48 hours in advance. So, start checking online or call 407-WDW-DINE.

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Guests line the public balconies at the Contemporary to watch Fourth of July fireworks.

For us, another bonus of watching the Fourth of July fireworks from a Magic Kingdom hotel is being able to see the Electrical Water Pageant, which stops in front of each resort. I have happy childhood memories of watching the water pageant from our balcony at The Contemporary and enjoy the nostalgic experience with my kids.

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A view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks from in front of the Contemporary and Bay Lake Tower.

Last year, we met friends for dinner at Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary. Afterward, we stepped outside in front of the monorail tracks and Bay Lake Tower to watch the nighttime show. It was a fantastic spot for seeing all the fireworks, which are shot off around the perimeter of the Magic Kingdom and not just behind Cinderella Castle. The one downfall, though, is that the music that accompanies the patriotic fireworks was not piped into that location, as it is others. The observation deck of The Contemporary, for example, did have speakers with the music, and that location filled up with guests very quickly.

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Guests wait on the beach in front of the Polynesian for the patriotic fireworks.

Our favorite spot to watch fireworks on the Fourth, though, is the beach at the Polynesian, after having eaten a delicious dinner inside. We've definitely seen this location get more busy over time. Some years, there are even parties catered at Sunset Point, which has a direct view of Cinderella Castle. The beach has a few hammocks and a volleyball net, but most people bring chairs and blankets. It's a relaxed atmosphere with room to move around, which is great for the kids.

This year, "Disney's Celebrate America! A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky" will be shown at 9 p.m. July 3 and 4. Do you have a favorite spot to view the Magic Kingdom Fourth of July fireworks? Please tell us about it in the comments.

July 5, 2012

Disney On Ice brings new 'Rockin' Ever After' show to Orlando and Lakeland

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Disney On Ice is making its annual stop in Central Florida in September, and this time a new princess will be putting on her skates. Merida from Disney-Pixar's Brave joins other popular royalty in "Rockin' Ever After."

Feld Entertainment describes its latest show this way: "Jam to a Scottish jig as a group of royal contenders from the latest Disney-Ā•Pixar film, Brave, competes for headstrong, sharp-shooting Merida, making her ice debut! Experience a show-stopping performance as Sebastian makes waves with Ariel. See a chorus of harmless hooligans from Tangled get a visit from the sassy and spirited Rapunzel and her charming ally Flynn. And, get your feet moving as the Beast and his enchanted entourage put on a spectacular show for Belle."

The show will be performed Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 in Lakeland at The Lakeland Center. Show times in Orlando at The Amway Center are 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7, 3:30 p.m. Sept. 8, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8, 1 p.m. Sept. 9 and 5 p.m. Sept. 9.

Ticket prices range from $15 for balcony seats to $52 for front-row seats (taxes and fees not included). Pre-sales for returning customers are going on now, and tickets will go on sale to the general public on July 20 through Ticketmaster and the box office.

We took our kids to see a couple of Disney On Ice shows when they were younger, and we all really enjoyed the experiences. The producers and choreographers adeptly bring Disney stories to life, linking them together in one cohesive production. The sets are very realistic, too. In fact, one staple for many of the tours is Cinderella's carriage, which always prompts oohs and aahs from both the children and the adults.

The shows are designed to include audience participation, too. I'm certainly not talking about kids donning skates, though one show allowed a few lucky children to ride in a car of sorts on the ice. The performers do usually ask all the kids to help banish villains in different ways. For a show that included The Incredibles, children were given special red-and-black cuffs and asked to press a button on them at a key moment in the performance.

At the shows we attended, my children couldn't take their eyes off the performers because they didn't want to miss the next amazing skating stunt. In last year's "Dare to Dream" tour, the skaters even performed aerial acrobatics during the "Tangled"¯ segment when Rapunzel lets down 2,000 feet of hair.

Disney On Ice stages about 1,200 performances annually in North America, and these shows truly offer kids a taste of the Disney magic.

July 7, 2012

Mickey's Backyard BBQ is great All-American activity for the summer

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Heading to Mickey's Backyard BBQ for the first time on the Fourth of July, I was a little skeptical about how the Fort Wilderness dinner show would play out -- especially for my kids, who have experienced other similar dining experiences elsewhere at Walt Disney World.

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Many of those other dinner shows were the subjects of glowing online reviews, and my family and I usually had an idea of what to expect before we showed up for the first time. Not so with the Backyard BBQ, though. In fact, what little information I could find online even contained several negative comments about the food and the experience.

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But all seven people in our party had a great time, and there were no complaints about even the smallest detail. We took AllEars.Net readers' advice and arrived about an hour before the start time. Although this did mean some standing around, it also allowed us to be near the front of the line for our choice of seats. (There is a playground near Pioneer Hall, so the kids could burn off some energy and break up the wait.) Cast members even walked the queue, serving drinks.

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When it was time to enter the outdoor pavilion, cast members took groups of 20 to 25 guests and led them to picnic tables with benches. No stampede at this rodeo! We requested a table in the front, bordering the main dance floor. Cast members assured us there were no bad seats in the pavilion, but I do think our location was perfect for our two families. It allowed the elementary-school-age kids to come and go on the dance floor, in view of the adults who were eating and hanging out.

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As soon as you are seated, cast members invite you to visit the buffets. There are four lines serving the identical menu, so we never really saw a long queue form. Guests can choose from BBQ chicken, pork ribs, hot dogs, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, tossed salad, potato salad, cole slaw, corn bread, baked beans, corn on the cob, watermelon and ice cream bars. Lemonade, ice tea, beer (Bud Lite) and wine (red, white or blush) are included, too, in this all-you-care-to-eat dinner. The food remains available almost until the end of the 90-minute experience. Everyone in our party enjoyed the meal, and we actually found the food to be even more flavorful than we expected, given the venue's outdoor setting and the food choices. (Those with special dietary concerns can request ahead of time to be served meals that meet their needs.)

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Live entertainment begins shortly after everyone is seated. This means the dinner experience is loud, so if you are sensitive to noise, you might want to reconsider. We had to shout to hear each other, but that didn't bother us at all. There was too much going on to have an in-depth conversation anyway. The live country-western band was good, playing popular and patriotic songs. A cowboy performs rope tricks and even invites a few lucky kids in the audience to join him. Plus, there is line dancing to well-known favorite songs.

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Throughout the evening, Disney characters are circulating among the diners. They dance with the kids and pose for photos. If they are not on the dance floor, Mickey Mouse and his pals might even sign autographs. Please know that this is not like other Disney World character meals; the characters do not come to each table, so you are not guaranteed to see each one. I'm told that the usual characters at Mickey's Backyard BBQ are Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Chip and Dale.

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For our Fourth of July dinner show, we also saw Donald Duck, Pluto, Phineas and Ferb. The characters were decked out in their Colonial-era threads, though they usually wear western get-ups. Another difference for the holiday was that Mickey and Minnie stayed outside the pavilion posing for photos the entire time. They did not join the festivities on the dance floor, which they normally would do.

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All-in-all, we enjoyed Mickey's Backyard BBQ immensely. Perhaps the guests who did not have a good experience were ones who had different expectations for the meal and the dining ambience. But make no mistake: This experience is not comparable to an indoor character meal. It's an outdoor, casual picnic with rollicking entertainment to delight youngsters and get everyone out on the dance floor.

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For our celebration of the Fourth, the experience was as summertime-appropriate as the Mickey ice cream bars the kids enjoyed for dessert afterward.

Prices, which include tax and gratuity, are $54.99 for adults and $31.99 for guests ages 3 to 9. Mickey's Backyard BBQ is open seasonally.


July 10, 2012

Disney World's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique offers Merida makeover

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Through July 28, both Walt Disney World locations of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique are offering a special makeover -- The Merida Package -- in honor of the star of Disney-Pixar's "Brave." This magical makeover includes a fiery and curly Merida wig, shimmering makeup, face gems, princess sash and princess tote bag for $54.95.

Essentially, this is the Coach package with the wig substituted for an up-do. (The wig sells for about $18 in the Magic Kingdom's Emporium and the cart outside the Merida meet-and-greet if you want to purchase it separately.) One little girl we met had been to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and selected the Disney Diva hairstyle with a red hairpiece instead of the wig to pair with her Merida dress. This is a great option for when The Merida Package ends or for those who think a wig might be too hot in the Florida summer heat.

My daughter chose the Disney Diva hairstyle during her visit to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in the fall and loved it. I have been impressed with the durability of the hairpiece, which my daughter and even her American Girl doll have worn several times since then. (You can read more about our experiences at the Bibiddi Bobiddi Boutique in a previous blog post.)

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Girls who select The Merida Package can have their nails painted for an additional $5, and they keep the two bottles of royal nail polish afterward. Princesses-to-be also can opt to purchase the Merida dress and crown at the Bibiddi Bobiddi Boutique at an added cost. However, little girls also are welcome to wear or bring their own Merida gowns and accessories to the salon, which can save their Fairy Godmothers a bundle.

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The Disney Store, with locations in malls across the country and an online presence, sells the same green Merida gown you will find in the Disney Parks for about $15 less ($65 versus $50), though the wig is comparable in price. In addition, Disney Store sells Merida's blue formal games dress for the same price as the green version, her gladiator sandals for $16.50 and a light-up wand for $10.50; none of these are available in the theme parks. (One caveat is that the sandals only go up to size 2/3.)

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If you're looking for less expensive options, try Target or Toys R Us, which both sell complete Merida costumes. Toys R Us carries a blue dress and a green dress for $24.99 each; a set of glow Wisp earrings with a crown for $9.99; and an archery set for $24.99. The wig, which is priced at $14.99, is free with a $30 Brave purchase through July 21, 2012. At Target, the blue dress is $5 cheaper, and the store also sells the green version. The wig and jewelry-and-crown set are priced similarly, but there is no offer for the free wig with purchase.

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If you choose to surprise your child with a dress you already have purchased, she still will be given the royal treatment at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique inside Cinderella's Castle in the Magic Kingdom and inside World of Disney at Downtown Disney Marketplace. In fact, she'll be able to use the royal changing rooms at either salon, which is a fun way to start her transformation.

Reservations are recommended for the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and can be made by calling 407-WDW-STYLE.

July 12, 2012

Disney spends millions on Club Penguin Internet safety campaign for kids

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Although it doesn't feature the traditional Fab Five, Club Penguin is one of The Walt Disney Company's wildly popular products. In fact, since Disney acquired the online game in 2007, it has grown to be one of the largest virtual worlds for children, with 175 million accounts worldwide, according to some sources. Because of its reach, Club Penguin is taking a leadership role in promoting and ensuring online safety for kids, its co-founder recently said.

For those who don't have a child (or two) obsessed with Club Penguin like I do, allow me to introduce you to the puffles and their penguin owners who live on Club Penguin Island. First, Club Penguin offers two types of accounts -- free and paid. Users who pay the monthly rate of $7.95 have more access and more options, of course. (If you buy time in blocks, there is a discount: $39.95 for six months and $59.95 for a year.) To hear my kids tell it, you HAVE to have a paid account to do the fun stuff, so that's why they save their money to continue their memberships.

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Club Penguin is like many other virtual worlds in that users play games to earn a currency to feather their nests and dress their players. In this case, penguins earn coins that they can use to purchase clothing for themselves, hats for their puffles and decorations for their igloos. Physical coins with online codes are attached to plush puffles and penguins and play sets sold in stores, and these unlock bonus items, such as extra puffles or clothes. The big Walt Disney World theme park gift shops and Once Upon a Toy at Downtown Disney carry the plush puffles, backpack clips and books. You can also find merchandise, including gift cards, at retailers such as Target and Toys R Us.

Club Penguin is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), which means millions of users are playing at the same time. Penguins can friend each other, and if the requests are accepted, users gain access into each other's igloos and can interact in other ways, such as messaging. This makes the game more interesting, but it is easy to see how it can open the door for abuse if proper controls are not in place.

"From the very start, our vision for Club Penguin was to create a safe place for my kids and their friends to play online. The scale may now be bigger than I could ever have imagined but that philosophy has not changed," said Club Penguin co-founder Lane Merrifield and now executive vice president of Disney Online Studios in his recent keynote speech at the Children's Media Conference, a U.K. industry meeting held earlier this month.

The urgency of ensuring a safe online playground has been brought to public attention again after moderators of a competing game, Habbo Hotel, have been accused in a British television report of allowing pedophiles to use the game to communicate with children. In response, Disney is spending $4.5 million on an Internet safety campaign with advertising on television, websites, magazines, and within Club Penguin and its other virtual worlds.

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Safety aside, the game is designed for fun. And Club Penguin continues to introduce new content and ties to other Disney characters. Beginning July 19, penguins dressed as the lead characters from Disney Channel's "Shake It Up" -- Cece and Rocky -- will host an Ultimate Jam music party on the virtual island. This parallels the current dance-off, Make Your Mark Ultimate Jam, being promoted on Disney Channel, in which the winner will appear on "Shake It Up."

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Merrifield also talked about the future of children's media, saying: "As the boundaries of platforms are disappearing, and new methods of storytelling are emerging"¦ I believe that storytellers of the future will need to be able to think three-dimensionally about their characters and story arcs.

"If a child chooses to engage on a mobile device or through toys, their experience can be similar or different to a friend who chooses to use other platforms to engage with the story"¦ It becomes the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure."

July 14, 2012

SeaWorld Orlando's TurtleTrek takes visitors on amazing journey

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Thanks to a new Orlando attraction, we now have a better understanding of some Florida wildlife that we got to see in a completely new way. TurtleTrek opened at SeaWorld Orlando just in time for the summer crowds, and we recently joined the tourists to check it out.

TurtleTrek is the first 3D domed 360-degree attraction in the world, and that's certainly the best part of the experience. Inside the theater, about 200 audience members are immersed in the story of Nyah, following the green sea turtle from hatchling to adult. The computer-generated movie is even from her perspective, which adds to the larger-than-life feeling.

Nyah's journey from the sand to the water is not without struggle, portraying the real-life dangers hatchlings face. Only about ten of the dozens of eggs laid in each turtle nest will grow into adulthood. Nyah goes up against a shark, a crab and a swooping bird and still comes out alive and moving forward. The special effects during these segments make the audience jump and then laugh at how real they seem. However, it's not too scary for kids to enjoy.

The seven-minute movie is fast-paced and the turtle's environment is breathtakingly beautiful. In fact, the audience stands during the presentation, and there definitely are parts where guests will want to hold on to the handrails.

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Before the movie, visitors will see real turtles in their SeaWorld tanks. If you'e familiar with The Seas With Nemo & Friends at Walt Disney World, you'll recognize the vantage point of seeing into the aquariums from below the surface. It's fun to watch the turtles swim and glide, though I have to confess to thinking they move just as Crush does in Disney's "Finding Nemo."

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Guests also will see four manatees in a separate tank. (TurtleTrek has taken over the building where the Manatee Rescue attraction was previously based.) These huge gentle sea cows are amazing to watch. The SeaWorld employee who was giving the informative talk in this section of the attraction said they really don't carry a lot of excess weight. They're just big-boned. Ha!

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The TurtleTrek theater exits onto a deck, where guests get yet another view of the turtles -- this time from above. Guests are welcome to stay out here as long as they like, unlike the inside viewing rooms, which are designed to entertain before the movie.

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On the day we visited TurtleTrek, the posted wait time was 40 minutes. Although the queue isn't really themed or interactive, as guests have come to expect at DIsney World, it is in the shade, which is a welcome relief from the hot Florida sun. The time seemed to pass fairly quickly and before we knew it we were entering into Nyah's world.

July 17, 2012

Tips for helping your kids start pin trading at Disney World

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My son and daughter have been trading pins at Walt Disney World for almost four years now and the excitement of it hasn't dulled. As a parent, I think it's a fun hobby for them, and it adds a bit of excitement to our trips into the theme parks. I'd like to share a few tips we've learned along the way, in case pin-trading is something you're considering.

First, be aware that Disney does have some basic rules for pin trading:

** Teach your child to ask to view a cast member's pins. Do not grab at lanyards.
** Pins must be metal and represent a Disney event, character, location or icon, and be in good condition.
** There is a limit of two trades per guest with the same cast member.
** No money can be involved in the trade.
** Cast members with green lanyards can only trade with kids ages 3 to 12.

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Allowing your child to approach the cast member while you listen is a great way for them to learn and practice social interaction skills in a safe, controlled environment.

The start-up costs for pin-trading may seem expensive if you're buying for more than one child. This activity certainly can be pricey for the serious collectors. But if you're just trading for fun, there are some ways to lower expenses.

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First, you'll need something to display your pins. Many guests choose lanyards, which typically are the least-expensive option. You can purchase them in just about any Disney World gift ship, or perhaps you already received some as part of a Disney promotion. For example, Disney Cruise Line gives lanyards to returning cruisers and Disney World passholders received them one year as well. Another option is a soft album, and these come in various sizes and prices. The smaller ones actually have straps and can be worn as a bag or purse.

My children have multiple lanyards -- one for pins they want to save and one for pins they are willing to trade. After losing a few pins that were near-and-dear to their hearts, we invested in the locking backs -- about $10 for 10 backs. Now, though, I almost wish we had bought the more expensive album-type bags because I think they would allow easier access to the pins -- no locking backs needed -- and there would be less opportunity for loss because of the zippered closure.

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The other big expense is the pins themselves. Pins in the parks start at about $7 and increase in price. This can add up quickly if you want to give your child a handful to get started. You can purchase a starter set, which contains several pins and a lanyard. Those prices begin at about $30.

But, if you're not picky about the design, many guests recommend purchasing pins on eBay for the best deal. Typically those lots contain anywhere from 25 to 100 pins, making the average cost less than a dollar per pin. Don't need 100 pins? Perhaps you can split the lot with friends. Be aware, however, that some of these sellers are offering scrappers, which are pins not authorized by Disney and cannot be traded on property.

Guests who are really into pin trading look forward to an annual event at Epcot that is just for them. This year's "Disney Trade Celebration 2012 - Mickey's Circus" takes place from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on September 7 and 8. Event admission is $120 per person plus Epcot admission, and registration has opened. For all the details, check out here.

Also, Downtown Disney Marketplace's Disney's Pin Traders is continuing to host monthly events with Disney Design Group artists. Artist Adrianne Draude, who is behind the creation of a number of Walt Disney World pins, will be meeting with fans and signing pins from 5 to 7 p.m. on July 27, August 10, and September 28. (Be sure to subscribe to the AllEars.Net newsletter for all the latest news of special pin-trading events.)

For answers to many other questions, check out Disney's official pin-trading site, and please share your pin-trading tips and experiences in the comments.

July 19, 2012

Surprising the kids with a Disney vacation

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Can you keep a secret? A really big secret?

If so, you might be a parent or grandparent who wants to surprise the special child in your life with the news that your family is going on a Disney cruise, to Walt Disney World or another Disney theme park. There are so many fun and easy ways to deliver this one-of-a-kind message. It's really just a matter of choosing what works best for your family.

Since my family and I live in Orlando and are fortunate to have Disney World annual passes, there's little surprise in showing up there. But boarding a DCL cruise ship remains a very special occasion. Before my children, then ages 7 and 5, stepped onto the Disney Wonder for our first family cruise a few years ago, I knew I wanted to completely surprise them with the news. I began gathering items in preparation for the big reveal, which would be a themed family lunch and movie.

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First, I ordered the Disney Cruise Line planning video, which is free. (This takes several weeks to arrive, so order early, if possible.) Next, I looked on eBay for kids' pirate costumes for Pirates IN the Caribbean night on the Wonder. I knew my daughter would want to dress up. My son was going through a phase where he thought dressing up was for kids younger than him, so we got him a cool Mickey pirate T-shirt.

Then, I made a trip to one of the Walt Disney World outlet stores in the Orlando area to scope out the DCL merchandise. These stores carry theme-park quality merchandise that has been discontinued or overstocked, and prices are routinely 40 to 50 percent off. I found some cruise T-shirts, photo albums and trinkets. (Back then, the outlets were the only places on land that guests could purchase DCL merchandise. Now, a nice selection is available on DisneyStore.com.)

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So, while their dad took them to soccer practice, I transformed the kitchen table into a party scene with all my goodies. When they came home for lunch, they were stunned to see everything and knew what it all meant. We had a fun lunch, discussing what we were all looking forward to, and afterward we watched the planning DVD. Parents with an interest in cooking could also make a recipe or two that is served on the ship. (Be sure to check out the AllEars.Net index of hundreds of official recipes from Disney Cruise Line and Walt Disney World.)

When we broke the news that we would set sail on the Disney Dream last year, we drove the kids out to Port Canaveral. They didn't find this unusual because we have been going to nearby Jetty Park beach for years. But instead of entering the state park, we pulled into a channel-side parking lot where we could see the ship and share our news. Afterward, we went to lunch and again discussed the upcoming trip. Every other sentence in that conversation contained the word "AquaDuck!"

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For our family, the anticipation of the trip is a big part of the fun, so we like to have time to plan and dream about what's to come. Some parents, however, revel in the awe they see when their kids realize they are not going to Grandma's house and instead are about to land in Orlando. For those folks, the trick is not in planning a reveal but in being able to keep the secret a lot longer.

Recently, my parents, who live in another state, used a video call to tell all the grandkids that their Christmas present will be a cruise on the Disney Fantasy in December. I tried to persuade them to wear their snorkel gear for the big announcement, but my parents didn't need any special props to excite the kids for what awaits.

Have a creative way to share the news of an upcoming Disney vacation? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.

July 21, 2012

SeaWorld Orlando features fun summer-only entertainment

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SeaWorld Orlando celebrates summer the way some theme parks celebrate the holidays -- with new shows and experiences, plus longer hours. Through Aug. 14, the park stays open until 10 p.m. as part of Summer Nights, and guests can take in performances planned just for the season.

The park's iconic killer whales perform in a nighttime high-energy show, Shamu Rocks!, that is set to music and colorful lights. Water fountains from the daytime show, One Ocean, have been added to Shamu Rocks! Perhaps the best way to describe this experience is that it's a blend of a concert of classic rock hits with marine animal performances. There's even a performer pretending to play a Shamu guitar, and the animal trainers do more dancing than their usual shuffling to the beat.

Shamu Rocks! is only performed once each night in the summer, so if you want good seats, be sure to get there early. Shamu Stadium typically opens 45 minutes before the show, and lines will form on the ramps. Surprisingly, to us anyway, the splash sections filled up first.

My elementary-school age kids really enjoyed this show. Even the wait was entertaining thanks to the big-screen entertainment, showing live scenes of audience members in Shamu Stadium.

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When the show ends, it's an easy walk over to Atlantis Bayside Stadium to see Reflections: Fireworks and Fountains Show Finale. On the night my family attended, we arrived and were pleased to find the stadium sparsely filled and we had our choice of seats. Once again, there was pre-show entertainment, this time in the form of an energetic drum corp and acrobats on stilts. This show encouraged the kids to dance in the aisles, so they weren't preoccupied with when the show would begin. Reflections is a water, lights and fireworks show and its new soundtrack includes segments from the killer whale show, "One Ocean." The pyrotechnics are contained to the space over the bay, no doubt for the safety of guests and to not disturb all the animals.

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The third summer show is Sea Lions Tonite, in which the park's talented sea lions, otters and walrus parody favorite SeaWorld shows and attractions. This year, a new spoof based on the latest killer whale show, One Ocean, has been added.

In addition to shows, SeaWorld hosts Summer Nights Central, a party on Bayside pathway. The fun begins at 6 p.m. each night with family friendly music from a DJ during the week and live music from bands on the weekends. Adults can purchase beer, wine and frozen drinks at the party, and the young and the young-at-heart might enjoy seasonal treats of cotton candy and Blue Bunny ice cream.

Looking for a thrill? Head over to Manta roller coaster for a moonlit ride that's only possible seasonally. My daughter is still at least an inch shy of the height requirement, so I haven't been forced to confront my Manta fears yet.

SeaWorld also offers guests a summer guided tour of the park at an additional charge that includes front-of-line access to the most popular rides, an opportunity to feed dolphins and reserved seating at Shamu Rocks! and Reflections. This Summer Nights VIP Tour also takes guests to the Makahiki Luau dinner show.

Even with the summer crowds, SeaWorld Orlando is easy to navigate. From my perspective as a frequent Disney World visitor, this is largely because the park and number of visitors are so much smaller than what I usually expect when I go to an Orlando theme park. It's a welcome change of pace.

July 24, 2012

Disney characters bring magic to your house with calls and postcards

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What child wouldn't be thrilled to have a favorite Disney character call him or her? It's not impossible. In fact, Disney families have three choices for such calls and they're all free, courtesy of The Walt Disney Company.

Kids turning 2 to 7 years old can receive a birthday message from the title character in "Jake and The Never Land Pirates," Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse via phone and animated video. You can even request both greetings.

To sign up, Disney fans must register on Disney.com and subscribe to the Disney Junior "It's Your Birthday!" mailing list. (If you're already a member, make sure you have opted to receive The Disney Junior offer.) Then, sit back and wait for your instructions. You'll receive an email about five weeks before your child's birthday with an invitation to schedule your call and/or video.

This offer is limited to United States residents. Calls are not available to area codes originating from WA, GA, KY, MS, NE, TN, ID and LA. For full details, go to the official Disney page.

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If you have an older child, become a member of Disney Movie Rewards and you can surprise that special someone with a Disney Enchanted Call from his or her favorite character for any occasion. It's free to sign up on DisneyMovieRewards.com and easy to schedule the call. Enter code ENCHANTED CALL and then follow the online directions.

Enchanted Calls are open to residents of the United States and Canada, excluding Quebec and ID, WA, GA, KY, MS, NE, TN, and LA in the U.S. There is a limit of one call per member.

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Finally, if you will be vacationing on a Disney Cruise Line ship, let Mickey or Goofy share the news. Once you have logged in to Disney Cruise Line's planning page, you can select the character and theme before being given the option to personalize the call. Simple instructions will be given to schedule the phone call.

Residents of the states of ID, WA, GA, KY, MS, NE, TN, and LA ARE eligible for this promotion, but they must use alternate instructions to retrieve their calls. Guests can schedule these calls up to a year in advance. There is a limit of two calls per reservation.

See full Disney Cruise Line details or leave a message for a Disney support operator at 800-404-5590.

Also, guests who stay at Disneyland or Walt Disney World properties can request wake-up calls from the characters.

The Walt Disney Company has so many ways to sprinkle Pixie Dust and here is yet another way they extend the magic to your home. Kids can write letters to their favorite characters, and they will receive autographed postcards in return. What a great way to encourage writing and the lost art of handwritten letters! Be sure to have your children explain why the characters are special to them. (Parents also can pen these notes, especially if their children are too young to write or they are planning a surprise gift.)

Send your letter to either of these addresses and allow up to eight weeks for delivery:

Walt Disney World Communications
P.O. Box 10040
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-0040

The Walt Disney Company
Attn: Fan Mail Dept.
500 South Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521

July 26, 2012

Finding the magic for kids at Downtown Disney's Marketplace

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If you're looking for some Disney magic without going into the Orlando theme parks, why not spend part of a day at Downtown Disney's Marketplace?

When my children were younger, one of their playgroups actually met at the open-air shopping district because there were so many free and low-cost fun things for the kids to do. And, although some aspects have changed, there still are plenty of activities to entertain the younger set.

First, be sure to bring a swimsuit, towel and sunscreen (or at least a change of clothes) for the kids because there are two areas with jumping water fountains. The larger one is located between Once Upon A Toy and Earl of Sandwich, and the smaller water feature is adjacent to the back entrance to Disney's Days of Christmas. There are benches around the fountains for parents, and bathrooms are nearby so changing afterward is easy.

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Little ones are sure to enjoy the train ride and a small carousel. Each costs $2 per ride per child, but parents are free. My children always sought out the lone "teacup" on the carousel because they thought that made the ride a little more special. All that spinning made me happy I was the one taking photos!

Nearby, Once Upon a Toy has play areas set up among the unique Disney-themed toys. Younger kids are likely to be interested in the tables set up to build Mr. Potato Head figures with the theme-park pieces, while the older kids will gravitate to the middle of the store where Nintendo DS, Wii and Playstation Station systems allow them to test the newest Disney video games.

Kids who are into Disney pin-trading can make a stop at the pin-trading center to see what cast members have to barter for their collections. (For tips on pin-trading with kids, please see my blog post.)

Ridemakerz, the custom remote-control car shop, is located inside Team Mickey. And while these cars can be expensive to purchase, there is an area bordered by bumpers that allows guests to test their new cars or other demo cars. Taking these souped-up cars for a spin can be entertaining.

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World of Disney, the largest store to carry Disney merchandise, also is home to one of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique locations. At these salons, Fairy Godmothers in Training transform little girls into Disney princesses. These experiences typically require reservations and can be pricey. But the Fairy Godmothers in Training often are circulating in the store or standing outside the entrances, and they will offer kids a sprinkle of pixie dust for free. It's a small thing, but my almost-8-year-old daughter still loves to get the glitter in her hair.

Next door is the expanded Lego Imagination Center, where kids will find tubs of LEGOs to build creations and a raised slope to race them outside. Inside, the main room features a hub of computers where kids can design LEGO structures and play games. Parents also will find another play table filled with LEGOs tucked inside a separate room.

Don't forget to stop for lunch amidst all the fun! There are several places for a light bite, plus the always-fun Rainforest Cafe or T-Rex restaurants. If you're not familiar with the concept, these two restaurants transform while guests are dining. At Rainforest Cafe, a thunderstorm shakes the jungle and animals and a meteor shower descends on T-Rex. Afterward, pop into the Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop, where a cast member is always handing out seasonal samples.

Our last activity is usually to ride the water taxi from The Marketplace to West Side and back. It's free and the kids consider it an attraction, not just transportation.

I hope these ideas will be useful for guests with kids who want to dive into the Disney magic on a day they may not be going into the Disney theme parks. For my family, Downtown Disney is a fun way to get our Disney fix when the blockout dates are in effect for seasonal passes.

July 28, 2012

Meet SeaWorld Orlando's amazing dolphins

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Dolphins, dolphins and more dolphins! If you or someone in your family just cannot get enough of these adorable mammals, SeaWorld Orlando has a number of dolphin experiences to fill your entire day.

My almost-8-year-old daughter's love of dolphins prompted our family to purchase SeaWorld passes this year, and we have been exploring all the ways in which she can get close to her favorite animals. Here is a little bit of what we have learned from our visits.

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Blue Horizons

Blue Horizons, the show where you see dolphins and their trainers perform amazing feats together and individually, is a fun show for all ages. The performance, which happens multiple times each day, also features tropical birds and ariel acrobats that fly toward the audience. There really are no bad seats in Whale & Dolphin Theater, but if you want a center spot, be sure to line up at least 30 minutes early, especially with the summer crowds. Also, know that employees will be walking through the stands selling snacks and drinks, so there's little need to stand in a line elsewhere -- unless you want to refill your soda mug.

Finally, if your child is a little starstruck by the human performers and would like to meet them, you're in luck. They usually line both sides of the walkways leading out of the stadium and are happy to pose for photos and talk with guests.

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Dolphin Cove

To meet some of the park's dolphins, guests can head to adjacent Dolphin Cove, where they can choose from three experiences. There's an underwater viewing area for this large dolphin pool, plus two interactive areas on the surface. On the far side of Dolphin Cove, guests can see the dolphins as they swim by and possibly pet them if they stop. In our experience, this doesn't happen often because these smart animals know they will be fed on the other side of the pool.

Dolphin feedings that are open to guests usually take place five times per day on the gated side of Dolphin Cove. Because of the limited space and popularity of these interactions, queues can form as much as an hour before the event, so plan accordingly. (Unfortunately, most of this line is in the sun, so at least grab a drink to keep hydrated.) Each guest entering the feeding area MUST purchase a tray of fish for $7 ($6 for annual passholders). There are no exceptions to this rule -- even if you just want to take photos of your kids petting the dolphins. Our solution is to purchase four trays and give each child two so their experience lasts longer and we have more opportunities to videotape and capture images.

Even with double the fish, the feeding goes by quickly. The dolphins will swim right up to the edge of the pool and open their mouths, waiting for the fish, not unlike dogs begging for food. Guests are instructed to pet them under the chin as they drop the food in. My daughter never gets tired of doing this, even though she finds the dead fish gross. Sometimes when she's feeding I manage to sneak in a friendly pat -- no fish for me, thanks!

During the dolphin feedings, SeaWorld photographers will stand on the opposite side of the pool and take photos, which you can view immediately afterward. We haven't had much luck with the professional photos but we have managed to take quite a few memorable shots on our own. When the group feeding is finished, guests are directed to the hand-washing station to clean up.

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Dolphin Nursery

A short walk from Dolphin Cove, guests will find the Dolphin Nursery, an area for pregnant dolphins, mothers and babies to bond without interference from the males of their species. This is a smaller dolphin pool, but the view from the sides is quite good. SeaWorld Orlando recently announced that mom dolphin Starkey gave birth to a baby on June 30, and both can be seen in the nursery.

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Dolphins Up Close Tour

If you want to interact with the moms and babies, it's time to sign up for the Dolphins Up Close Tour. This experience begins at the nursery where guests learn how SeaWorld cares for dolphins and then they participate in a scatter feed. The technique of dropping fish all over an area of the pool at the same time mimics feeding in the wild and helps teach baby dolphins to hunt for food. Trainers then guide the older dolphins through a few tricks for the viewers.

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Next, the group walks to the gated area of Dolphin Cove for the most exciting part of the tour -- some one-on-one time with a dolphin and a trainer who will teach participating guests basic hand signals. My kids were thrilled when our dolphin responded to their motions. They also had plenty of time to pet the dolphin and we got some great photos.

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My family participated in the Dolphins Up Close Tour at the beginning of the year during the Just For Kids festival, when children were free with a paid adult. Normally tickets for the tour are $50 for an adult and $30 for a child ages 3 to 9.

Other dolphin experiences

We are planning to go to two other SeaWorld Orlando properties this year for dolphin experiences, and I'll be bringing you the details on what to expect if you are planning similar trips. We're heading to Discovery Cove, where both kids will swim with the dolphins for their birthdays, and Aquatica, where we plan to slide right by all those smiling creatures when we're playing at the water park.

If you're going to be visiting Walt Disney World, there are a couple of dolphin programs there, as well.

July 31, 2012

Ideas for unusual family photos at Walt Disney World

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For many Walt Disney World visitors, photos of their magical vacations are the best souvenirs. At the top of everyone's list, of course, is the iconic image of the family on Main Street, U.S.A., in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom. That's followed closely by the photos of kids with the characters and having fun on rides. Those are some of my most treasured photos, too, but I'd like to offer a few ideas for other fun family photos at Walt Disney World that might not be as popular but will be just as memorable:

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** Walt Disney World resorts have beautiful lobbies and grounds that can be perfect for group photos. We love the entrance to the Polynesian, with its lush, tropical plants and waterfalls, and I have taken several photos of the kids there over the years.

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** If you are staying at a Disney resort with a beach, consider using the location in your own backyard, so to speak. The monorail loop resorts have Cinderella Castle in the background, which is hard to top. The light on the beach will be best in the morning or late afternoon, but remember to bring sunglasses for the kids if there's a chance they may be facing the sun for the photos.

** Check out the larger-than-life statues of beloved Disney characters at the new Art of Animation resort. Guests are welcome to walk through the public areas, where they will find characters from "Finding Nemo" and "Cars." Tours also are offered daily. "The Lion King" section opens in August and "The Little Mermaid" wing opens in September.

** Take a photo in Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom with the the construction behind you. The fence and cranes may seem less than ideal now, but it will be a great memory in the future once all of the new Fantasyland attractions open.

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** Recreate a favorite childhood photo at Walt Disney World. If the attraction or location is still there, revisit it now and have a photo made in the same spot. My kids wish we could recreate many of my childhood photos at River Country -- especially the one where my sister and I are dropping off slides into the pool. Unfortunately, River Country has closed.

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** Epcot is the one theme park that the monorail enters, so if you are willing to wait a few minutes for it to pass by, you can capture a unique family photo. This is an especially pretty and colorful option during the Flower & Garden Festival.

** At Animal Kingdom, one of our favorite places to eat is on the bottom terrace of Flame Tree Barbecue. Keeping those drinks upright for the walk downhill is worth it because there's a great view of Expedition Everest while you're dining. This is also a good spot to take a family photo with the attraction in the background -- you will get more of it than at the Kodak Picture Spot that is closer to the ride.

** Speaking of food, if your family has discovered a favorite treat, ask another guest to take a picture of you all enjoying it. Dole whips, anyone?

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** You can take Christmas themed-photos even when the parks are not decorated for the holidays. Winter Summerland, the miniature golf course adjacent to Blizzard Beach water park, is full of great props. From the life-size sleigh out front for visitors to pose in to the Disney character statues that look like they are made of snow, this attraction has it all. Another great backdrop with Christmas characters is located outside Disney's Days of Christmas store at Downtown Disney Marketplace.

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Do you have a favorite off-the-beaten-path location for your best Disney photos? Tell us about it in the comments, please!

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About July 2012

This page contains all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in July 2012. They are listed from oldest to newest.

June 2012 is the previous archive.

August 2012 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.