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October 2, 2012

Dine With Shamu gives SeaWorld Orlando guests up-close and behind-the-scenes look at killer whales



My family and I recently dined with some really big eaters. And I mean really big.

We enjoyed a theme-park meal with a different kind of entertainment than we had previously experienced. Dine with Shamu reopened in July after a hiatus of more than two years, and we decided to surprise the kids with the dinner as part of their birthday weekend at SeaWorld Orlando.


The experience begins by checking in before the 5:30 p.m. meal at the underwater viewing area for one of the behind-the-scenes pools for the killer whales. The Dine With Shamu pool is connected to the other tanks in Shamu Stadium, home to the daily One Ocean show and summer's Shamu Rocks! When the gates are open, the whales swim between the pool and come right up to the viewing glass, amazing guests with their sheer size.




After check-in, a photographer will take a complimentary photo of your party before sending you up the ramp to the entrance to wait for the restaurant to open. When it does, a dozen or so waiters come out to greet guests and escort each group to their assigned table. The restaurant basically curves around the length of the whale pool, with a glass partition for separation. It's covered, but is an open-air atmosphere. Tables for four are arranged two deep, so there really are no bad seats. But if you make your reservation in advance you can request to be in the front row.



Once you are shown to your table, you will be invited to visit the buffet, which is designed to be mainly sustainable and natural foods. Main dishes include all-natural grain-fed beef sirloin, open-flame grilled free range chicken, pork loin with no preservatives or additives and certified sustainable seafood. Fresh fruits, salads and sides are seasonal offerings. There also is a bread table and a dessert bar that features such favorites as chocolate cake, red velvet cake, strawberry shortcake and chocolate chip cookies. The kids' buffet includes hot dogs, sea shell pasta with tomato marinara and meatballs and macaroni and cheese. (The menu is subject to change seasonally.) Beverages are Coca-Cola products, hot tea, coffee and unlimited beer and wine for the adults.


We found the food to be better than your typical counter-service meals at Orlando theme parks. I especially liked the salads and the pork loin, which was served with a chutney. My husband said the fish was good. My children were happy with all the usual kid favorites, and they always love getting to choose their meals at a buffet. When we told the server they both were celebrating birthdays, my son and daughter each received a specially decorated piece of chocolate cake with sprinkles and gummies.



Make no mistake, though. You are not at Dine With Shamu so much for the food as for the stars of the show -- the Shamu namesakes. The trainers and mammals began their presentation about 6:15. Trainers move around the pool, talking about the whales in the wild and their care at SeaWorld, while the whales play. It mostly is an educational presentation, with a few tricks thrown in for good measure. Don't expect to see a choreographed show like you would if you are sitting in Shamu Stadium. This is a behind-the-scenes experience and each evening can vary, depending on which whales are available and cooperating. The show might be short, but the experience remains original.


Along with the other safety features that are new to the Dine With Shamu pool, an additional "slide-out" was added as well. Slide-outs are the shallow areas along the edge of the pool that whales learn to slide out of the deep water and up onto so guests can better see them. During the day, the whales can be found sunning themselves in the slide-outs, we were told.


Once the whale presentation is finished, guests begin to leave. So, the whole experience lasts about an hour or so.

SeaWorld is offering a great deal right now: For each paying adult, one child ages 3 to 9 can eat free for reservations made before Dec. 25, 2012. The adult price is $29 for the remainder of 2012. (It was $49 when the Dine With Shamu reopened in July.) Park admission is required for this experience.


October 4, 2012

Free pumpkin templates allow families to carve Disney character jack-o-lanterns


As the air turns cooler -- at least in some parts of the country! -- and the orange and black replace school supplies on store shelves, our thoughts turn to fall holidays. Each year, it seems that decorating for Halloween grows more popular, and one of the most common elements is a jack-o-lantern.


Many of the big retailers sell pumpkin-carving kits that allow families to recreate their favorite Disney characters. Here's a tip, though. Disney's Family.com posts a larger selection of character templates online -- and they are free. Choose from:

* Jack Skellington
* Mickey Mouse
* Minnie Mouse
* Vampire Mickey
* Devil Donald
* Goofy
* Phineas
* Ferb
* Perry the Platypus
* Kermit the Frog
* Winnie the Pooh
* Tigger
* Mike Wazowski
* Sulley
* Rapunzel
* Ariel
* Snow White
* Tinker Bell
* Lightning McQueen
* Tow Mater
* Maleficent's dragon
* Stitch Witch


Disney Family.com offers these instructions for the templates once they have been downloaded:

1. There are two ways to transfer your design onto the pumpkin. One is to copy it freehand onto a clean, dry pumpkin with a water-based marker (mistakes can be easily corrected with a paper towel). The other is to tape your template to the pumpkin, then score the design into the skin by poking holes through the template with a nail or plastic poking tool (available in some pumpkin-carving kits).

2. Carve by starting at the center of your design and working outward (this avoids putting pressure on areas already carved). Begin with the innermost and smallest details. As each shape loosens up, gently push it out of the pumpkin with a finger or a dull pencil point (a good job for young kids).
Tip: If you cut something you didn't intend to, perform an ad hoc pumpkin surgery: Stick a toothpick through the flesh side of the piece and fit it back into place.

3. Lastly, put your jack-o'-lantern in a place of honor (away from flammables), and remember to blow out all candles before you go to sleep.

Over the years, my family has tried various templates for different versions of Mickey Mouse and Disney icons at our house. Here's a look at what we accomplished.




Feeling a bit more creative and want to design your own pumpkin face? Perhaps you'll find inspiration from these jack-o-lanterns that decorate the Magic Kingdom for Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party. Imagineers have carved shapes that represent nearby shops and attractions. Can you guess where some of these gourds were found?




We'd love to hear about your most creative Disney jack-o-lanterns in the comments!

October 6, 2012

Kids and families will find plenty to sample at Epcot International Food and Wine Festival


Visiting the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival can be a wonderful evening for adults. In fact, many Disney fans and local residents look forward to this special event all year. But the fun isn't just limited to the grown-ups. For children who are at least elementary-school-age and a little adventurous in their tastes, there's quite a lot to explore. (And if your kids are younger, they may be happy to stay in the stroller, while you sample the adult foods and beverages.)


For families, it's likely to be more about the food than the wine and beer. Repeat visitors will, no doubt, be looking to see if their favorites have returned. My own children are happy to see these specialties on the menus again:

** Hawaii marketplace: Kalua pork slider with sweet and sour Dole pineapple chutney and spicy mayonnaise
** Argentina marketplace: Beef Empanada
** Canada marketplace: Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup
** Scandinavia marketplace: Swedish Meatballs with Lingonberries
** Germany marketplace: Roast Bratwurst in a Pretzel Roll


I think their absolute favorite was the Kalua pork slider. I say that because my daughter wanted to go through that line three times. The one dish they tried and really didn't care for was the Cheese Fondue at the Cheese marketplace. My son and daughter, like many kids, love to eat finger foods that come with a dip of some sort, so they were drawn to the fondue. But when they discovered the cheese wasn't cheddar or American, they were ready to feed it to the birds. (The melted cheese has a sour taste, which probably is more suited to adult palates.)


Jennie Hess, a Disney spokeswoman for the Food & Wine Festival and mother of two sons who attend the festival each year, recommends these new, kid-friendly dishes:

** Terra marketplace: Trick'n Chick'n with Curry and Basmati Rice (vegan dish)
** Florida Local marketplace: White Corn Arepa with Mangalitsa pork and Zellwood sweet corn salad
** Germany marketplace: Schinken Nudel
** New Zealand marketplace: Lamb Meatball with Spicy Tomato Chutney


Be sure to save room for dessert, which is offered at several marketplace locations. Or, live dangerously and stop by the Festival Center on your way in and check out the Bean to the Bar Chocolate Experience by Ghirardelli. Guests will receive free chocolate samples and can purchase an inexpensive cup of delicious drinking chocolate that tastes like a liquid candy bar. How many kids do you know who would turn that down?


Another fun, and educational, exhibit is the Ocean Spray "Discover the Cranberry Bog" in Future World, where guests can see how cranberries are harvested and learn more about their history. Plus, there are free Craisins for the kids!  Not far from there, the Mr. Food Watermelon Patch features the giant fruits growing on vines and storyboards about watermelons.


Families who enjoy cooking together really seem to like the culinary demonstrations at the Festival Center, which cost $11 or $14 per person, and the complimentary Authentic Taste Seminars hosted by Driscoll's each Friday through Sunday, Hess said. Also, at the Port of Entry merchandise location families can enjoy a seminar featuring Epcot chefs and industry pros at 3:15 p.m. daily. For an updated schedule of events, see the AllEars festival page.

There's no doubt that the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival offers a fun and delicious diversion for adults. But don't hesitate to take your children on an adventurous discovery of different foods from around the globe, either. It just might open up a whole new world of dining options for your family.

All Ears is your one stop shop or Epcot's Food and Wine Festival Information

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October 9, 2012

SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular brings gentle underwater fantasy to life




For our family, the thrills and chills of Halloween still are on the tame side, especially for our elementary school-age kids. Rather than the blood and gore nightmare imagery of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando, we instead enjoy the gentler fun of Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party.

This year, we decided to check out SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular, which is included in regular admission to the theme park or Fun Cards and annual passes. Spooktacular takes place on weekends in October and is designed with young children in mind. Although all children are welcome to participate, the event features characters from Sesame Street and activities for preschoolers.

The centerpiece of SeaWorld's Spooktacular is the Underwater Fantasea Path that runs along Bayside Pathway, past the stadium and Wild Arctic, and through Shamu's Happy Harbor. It hosts 15 trick-or-treat stations, games of skill, characters, face painting, snacks, Penelope's Party Zone and Penelope's Photacular. (Penelope Pumpkin is SeaWorld's signature Halloween character.)



The trick-or-treat stations at SeaWorld are run similarly to those at Magic Kingdom, with an employee tossing name-brand candy in each guest's complimentary bag. What is different, though, is that the trick-or-treating is only open to families. When I asked, a SeaWorld customer service representative said that adults typically will not be given candy, unless they are accompanied by children. At Disney World, all paying guests are encouraged to don costumes and trick-or-treat. Come to think of it, on the day we attended, we didn't see any adults dressed up at SeaWorld -- just young children were seen in costumes.


Along the path, there are ample opportunities for Halloween fun, but most of it comes at an additional price. Games typically are $3 per person, face painting is $12 to $15, and snack prices vary.



Penelope's Party Zone, which is housed on the Bayside Stadium stage, however, offers young guests a selection of complimentary activities. There are character interactions, such as a meet-and-greet with Penelope Pumpkin and stories acted out by other sea creatures. Children can make themed crafts, sit at easels to decorate coloring pages or dance to a DJ's spooky music.


Two activities on the stage have additional fees: Create Your Own Spooktacular Treat and Sand Art. At the treat counter, guests decorate caramel apples or chocolate Rice Krispie treats with sprinkles, marshmallows, Reese's Pieces, candy corns and gummies for $5 apiece. There's a slight discount for passholders, too. At the sand art booth, kids use pieces of rounded sea glass and sand to decorate preformed shapes of sea life, including dolphins and starfish. These pieces of art take two hours to dry, so plan accordingly.





Perhaps the best thing about the Underwater Fantasea Path is the sheer number of characters who roam among guests and pose for photos. Unlike at Disney World, face characters and furry characters are not a common occurrence at SeaWorld. But they were out in full force on the first day of Spooktacular. We saw princesses, mermaids, stilt walkers, fish and more. We also stood in line to meet Dolly the Dolphin, Shamu, and Pete and Penny Penguin. (A number of photos taken at Penelope's Photacular, where Shamu and Dolly hang out, each day are chosen to be displayed before that evening's Shamu Rocks! show.)




Despite much cajoling, I could not persuade my elementary-school-age children to watch the Sesame Street's Countdown to Halloween musical at the SeaPort Theatre. They did not want to be reminded that they, too, once loved Elmo as much as most children do. Sesame Street fans also can start off each Spooktacular day with Count von Count's Spooktacular Breakfast, which includes a buffet and plenty of time with the popular characters. Prices are $24.99 for adults and $14.99 for children ages 2 to 9.

Throughout October, children with creative costumes may be chosen as "Super Starfish of the Day." They and their families will be given VIP treatment, including limited wait times on rides, reserved seats at shows, lunch vouchers and souvenir photos with the Shamu.


SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular is open from noon to 8 p.m. on October 13,14, 19, 20, 21, 26, 27 and 28.

October 11, 2012

A look back at discontinued Haunted Carriage Rides at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground



I was surprised, and disappointed, to learn that Walt Disney World has discontinued its seasonal Haunted Carriage Rides at Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. When we stayed in the cabins last fall, we took the ride for the first time and enjoyed the special Halloween experience. It was just the right amount of thrill, without being too scary, for our then-7-year-old and 9-year-old.

The reservations filled up quickly -- months before the October rides -- so it's curious that Disney would put a stop to something so popular. The only information the recreation department could offer was that an outside vendor runs this experience and it was their decision. Disney fans have speculated that the rides are being updated or moved to another location.

Haunted Carriage Rides were one of only two places on Disney World property that guests could see the Headless Horseman. (The other is at the start of Mickey's Boo To You! Halloween Parade during Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party.) He didn't appear right away at Fort Wilderness, though.



Guests began their adventure at the Blacksmith's Shop at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch, where four open carriages lined up on the half hour for a 25-minute journey. They headed out past Pioneer Hall and the Settlement Trading Post and into the woods. The driver started the telling of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and then a recorded narrator picked up the tale, as the carriages traveled through the trees and along the shore of Bay Lake, stopping at key places mentioned in the story.


The shoreline was windy and the woods were dark for the later carriage rides, which added to the spooky atmosphere. My children understood that at some point, they likely would encounter the headless horseman, and they kept an eye out. When he did gallop alongside the carriage toward the end of the ride, they were surprised.


The Haunted Carriage Rides were $60, and each carriage held four adults or two adults and three children.

Regular carriage rides still are available at Fort Wilderness, and guests who book this are likely to see many elaborate Halloween decorations that campers traditionally put up around their campsites. The cost for the non-themed rides is $45 for the 25-minute trip.

October 14, 2012

Disney character costumes among kids' top picks for Halloween 2012


Party City analyzes pop culture, the latest fashion trends and Hollywood blockbusters to prepare for the year's biggest costume crazes. This year, the Halloween retailer is sharing which characters you can expect to see when you open the door to trick-or-treaters. It's probably no surprise that Disney characters are perennial favorites.


Classic Disney Princess costumes are always big sellers for little girls, the retailer says. This year, though, look for a new addition to the royalty -- Merida from Disney-Pixar's "Brave." Sellers, including the Disney Store, have reproduced her "Hero" (green) and "Games" (blue) dresses for the spooky season.


Cinderella also is expected to be popular because the classic movie was released on Diamond Edition Blu-ray and Disney HD Digital for the first time on Oct. 2. Disney Store is anticipating the demand for Cinderella costumes by offering three versions: original Cinderella, Deluxe Wedding Cinderella and Limited Edition Cinderella. The store points out that all Disney Princess costumes feature story-telling trim on their skirts, with shimmering glitter accents and intricate details.

The Disney Fairies are big business this year, too, likely because of the popularity of PIxieHollow.com and the direct-to-DVD movies. "Secret of the Wings," which stars Tinker Bell and her long-lost sister Periwinkle, will be released on Oct. 23. (Periwinkle already is greeting guests at the Magic Kingdom.)


For boys, it's all about the superheros, and this certainly is the year with Disney acquiring Marvel and "The Avengers" being released in theaters and on DVD. Disney Stores are selling Captain America, Thor, The Hulk and Iron Man costumes. Younger boys may identify more with Jake from "Jake and the Never Land Pirates," a popular television show on Disney Junior.

Can't find a costume modeled after your child's favorite Disney character? Try giving the Walt Disney World mail order department a call at 877-560-6477 because the Disney Parks carry different selections than the national retail chain. For example, Disney Store isn't selling any costumes from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise this year, but the gift shop outside the ride at Magic Kingdom offers two swashbuckling boys costumes and one for wenches. We also spotted a rare Perry the Platypus costume at Disney's Hollywood Studios last month. Also, many of the costumes in the parks come in sizes that are larger than what Disney Store carries.

If you're feeling creative, you may be able to piece together a costume to represent a beloved character. Perhaps your child is anticipating "Wreck-It Ralph" and would love to dress up as the title character. Or your child is obsessed with Club Penguin and wants to be a puffle. How about hard-to-find Phineas and Ferb costumes?

Several years ago when the "High School Musical" and "Camp Rock" movies were popular and costumes had yet to flood the store shelves, I had to come up with Troy and Shane costumes for my son and Mitchie and Gabriella outfits for my daughter. I'm not a seamstress, so I resorted to many shopping trips to find items that would mimic what they wore in the TV movies.

Have a tip or creative idea for a Disney character costume? Tell us in the comments, please.

October 15, 2012

Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and Ariel's Grotto soft open in Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland





My family and I were excited to find out that New Fantasyland was open to guests this past weekend as part of a "dress rehearsal" for its soft opening next month. Having already experienced Enchanted Tales with Belle, our family headed farther into the Magic Kingdom's new section to ride Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and the meet the star, Ariel, in her new grotto.



Those who have been to Disney California Adventure quickly will realize that the Florida version is almost identical to The Little Mermaid -- Ariel's Undersea Adventure on the inside. But the queue here has been greatly enhanced and is much more interactive. I have never ridden the California ride, so I'll be giving you a look at this attraction through a fresh perspective.




First, for repeat riders and those who don't care to experience the new queue, FastPasses are available for Journey of the Little Mermaid at the machines near Mickey's PhilharMagic. Fans of The Little Mermaid, though, will not want to miss the queue, at least the first time. The theming outside really immerses guests into Ariel's world -- from Prince Eric's castle to waterfalls over craggy rocks with starfish and shells everywhere you look. Be sure to look for Prince Eric's boat and footprints in the sandy beach. It's beautiful, but be aware that it's hot in the Florida sun with little shade.


When the queue leads guests inside the oceanfront caverns, they can look forward not only to cooler temperatures, but also a fun game for all ages. Crabs are trying to sort out Ariel's collection of human objects. On multiple screens throughout the queue, a digital crab will bring out thingamabobs and show them to the guest. The crab will attempt to add each item to his pile because he doesn't know what goes together. The guest is asked to point to objects that don't match to help the crab correctly sort the whozits and whatzits that are part of Ariel's treasure trove.


My elementary-school-age children definitely wanted to try this game, but it was frustrating when they pointed at the crab and he didn't react about half the time. I wondered if perhaps their height influenced the location of where they pointed, but a cast member I spoke with said the sensor is located overhead so that shouldn't be an issue. We did go through the queue twice to see if there was a learning curve with the game, but my kids had similar results each time. Perhaps that is something that will be addressed when the attraction is tweaked before its grand opening on Dec. 6.


Another highlight of the queue is an animatronic Scuttle, who talks to the crowd and engages in digital games of his own. Throughout the queue, various nautical set pieces help tell the story familiar to anyone who has seen "The Little Mermaid."


Guests board the ride in clamshells that feel much like the Doom Buggies and their track at Haunted Mansion, with the ride vehicles traveling in half-circles to see various scenes from Ariel's life and even going backward down a ramp. When the vehicles perform this maneuver, digital bubbles are projected on the clamshell in front of the guest. Hold your breath! Combined with sounds of the sea, it's a clear indication you are traveling beneath the sea to experience Ariel's world.




The Little Mermaid's landscape is full of color, movement and song, and guests will journey through favorite scenes with familiar friends from the classic story. There's no avoiding Ursula, but in the end, Ariel (of course) still lives happily ever after with Prince Eric. (Ursula's scene is a short part in the ride, so parents of young children probably won't need to be too worried about the fright factor.)


Ariel fans will find beautiful photo opportunities in the outdoor queue and at the attraction's entrance, but they can meet the actual princess in her new grotto adjacent to the ride. That wait, though also themed, is not interactive, so it feels like an eternity with a daughter excited to see her favorite Disney Princess and a 10-year-old son who wants nothing to do with something so "girly."



Still, the actual meet-and-greet was efficient, though we were not rushed once we were inside with the princess. Only two families are allowed in the room at a time -- one is with Ariel and the other is next in line, getting ready. The entrance door is closed, which allows for a more private and quieter experience. Ariel is wearing her mermaid outfit again, now that her grotto has returned to Magic Kingdom. (She had been greeting guests in her human form in Adventureland during the construction of New Fantasyland.) There is a Disney PhotoPass photographer to capture the character interaction, and, as always, guests are allowed to use their own cameras, too.


Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and Ariel's Grotto are sure to be popular additions to Fantasyland. For fans of the classic Disney film, once they dive into this sea, they'll long to be, part of Ariel's world for many more visits.

Here's a peek inside the ride:

October 18, 2012

Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin hosts 3rd annual Food & Wine Classic




At a time when many are relishing the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, a nearby venue recently offered guests another opportunity to sample foods and wines they might not usually try. The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, within walking distance of Epcot, hosted its third annual Food & Wine Classic this past weekend on the walkways between the two buildings.

For those who wanted to learn a bit more about adult beverages, seminars were offered in the Swan during the hour before the festival started. Guests could taste wines, mixed drinks and beer paired with various foods to bring out their best flavors. My husband attended "Beer -- please," which was an entertaining and informing session.




The seminar was designed, instructors said, to explore beers beyond the typical Budweisers, Coors and Miller Lites. Brian Exner, general manager of the resort's Kimonos, led the discussion for about 22 participants. The group first explored the major ingredients of beer-making and the different styles of beers. Then the seminar launched into what the participants found the most enlightening - a tasting of different styles of beers and some of the foods they complement. Some of the choices: a Czech-style pilsner, Mama's Little Yella Pils, an Innis & Gunn aged ale and a Mountain Livin' Pale Ale brewed in Colorado. The highlight, though, was enjoying samples of Einbecker schwarzbier and slices of crispy bacon. For those who wanted something sweet, there even was a Rogue Chocolate Stout sampled over chocolate ice cream. Yes, you read that right - beer over chocolate ice cream.


Meanwhile, out on the promenade, booths with food, wine and beer samples from the hotel's restaurants and lounges were ready for hungry guests to start nibbling at 5:30 p.m. There were twelve food stations, and our group made it to most of them during the three-and-a-half-hour festival without having to rush.

Shrimp Cocktail Steam Rollers


Jumbo Lump Crab Cake Sliders

Fried Pickles

Among my favorites were Shrimp Cocktail Steam Rollers from bluezoo, Jumbo Lump Crab Cake Sliders from Garden Grove, Fried Pickles from Cib's Steak House and the s'more dessert from Laurent Branlard. The steam roller is an individual serving of shrimp cocktail served in a glass tube that you consume all in one shot. It's a fun and clever way to serve a classic appetizer. Fried pickles were a novelty for me and quite yummy. If the line weren't so long for the popular Cib's booth, I would have gone back for another serving. The desserts looked like works of art, but the adult version of a s'more was what captured my tastebuds. Just like at a Fort Wilderness campfire, s'mores are tough to resist!

S'mores dessert (right)


Dragon roll

Kimonos restaurant came highly recommended, so I was persuaded to try sushi for the first time. I had a Dragon Roll with crispy shrimp, tuna and avocado, and it was delicious. On Saturday, Kimonos was serving Spicy Yellow Fin Tuna, Nori and Seasoned Rice. Most of the food booths have different menus for each of the two nights, so guests can attend both nights and have different experiences.

Oysters and a Bloody Mary shooter
Chef Todd Engish and me

We stopped by the Todd English booth so some of the people in our group could try oysters served with various sauces and Bloody Mary shooters. I didn't try them, but my husband enjoyed both. The outgoing celebrity chef was present to greet guests, sign autographs and pose for photos. (Chef Michael Mina also joined the outdoor festival this year with his Hamachi Parfait, Crispy Rice Cake and Wasabi Tobiko.)

There were 32 beverage stations, most of which served wines, but a couple had beer, and even sake. Plus, a recurring class, Cocktail 101, was offered on the terrace. Throughout the Food & Wine Classic, guests enjoyed live music from three bands on a stage in front of the Dolphin.


Wristbands for the festival, which provided unlimited access to food and beverages, were $80 per night. Guests also could choose to buy a la carte tickets for $2 apiece; most dishes cost 2 to 4 tickets each. Beverage classes before the festival cost $40 per person. The hotel also offered packages for guests who wanted to stay the night after sampling the beverages.

Perhaps the best part of the experience is that if you find a food or beverage that you love, you won't have to wait a whole year to sample it again. Most of the Food & Wine Classic menu items are served year-round in the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin.

One further note: Although children are welcome to attend the Food & Wine Classic, we did not see many there. Our own children had a great time at the hotel's Camp Dolphin kids club, which I will be writing about in another blog post.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin for its Food & Wine Classic. This did not influence my review, and my opinions are my own.

October 20, 2012

Parents can enjoy night out while kids have fun at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin's Camp Dolphin


Walt Disney World Swan


Walt Disney World Dolphin

Parents visiting the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin can enjoy an evening to themselves while their children have their own special kind of fun. Camp Dolphin, located on the lower level of the Dolphin building, is designed just for kids ages 4 to 12.

The concept of a kids club in a large resort is not foreign to my own kids, who have enjoyed themselves at The Sandcastle Club at Disney's Beach Club on several occasions. Until recently, they had yet to visit Camp Dolphin, though. Their opportunity came last weekend when my husband and I attended the Food and Wine Classic at the resort.

Camp Dolphin operates a little differently than kids clubs in other Disney World hotels. That's because the Swan and Dolphin belongs to the Westin hotel chain, even though it is located on Walt Disney World property.

There are similarities, though. Both experiences begin with parents making reservations for their children, though the clubs will take walk-ups if space is available. Camp Dolphin opens at 5:30 p.m. each day, an hour later than the Disney World clubs, but they all close when Cinderella's coach turns into a pumpkin (which we all know is midnight).

Miss Thelma

Perhaps the most obvious comparison comes when families see the physical size of Camp Dolphin -- it's quite small compared to The Sandcastle Club. Camp Dolphin can accommodate up to 18 children with two counselors present. Thelma, who has been a camp coordinator at the Dolphin for 19 years, explained that during busy periods, such as holidays, the camp moves to one of the ballrooms.




Still, Camp Dolphin has all the basic components for kid fun: Video games, movies, crafts and counselors who will supervise and entertain youngsters in an environment where parents will not worry about their well-being. On the night my children visited, the theme for the crafts was "A Very Merry Unbirthday," which included card-making and birthday tiaras for the participants. Blackout Bingo was played for prizes, and when we arrived to pick up our children, they were just settling down with a mound of pillows for movie time.

Dinner at Picabu

Dinner is included for children who are in Camp Dolphin from 7 to 8 p.m. Counselors take the kids to nearby Picabu (Peek-A-Boo) restaurant, where the meals they have pre-selected from a menu of traditional kid favorites, such as cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, chicken fingers and hot dogs, are served. Then, they are treated to ice cream from The Fountain ice cream shop. (At The Sandcastle Club, parents help children place dinner orders when they are dropped off and the meals are served in the club. They are served cookies and milk later in the evening.)

Ice cream from The Fountain

Pricing varies slightly between the five Disney World kids clubs and Camp Dolphin, as well. At The Sandcastle Club, parents pay $11.50 per child per hour, with a two-hour minimum. At Camp Dolphin, the price is $10 per child per hour with no minimum. Plus, each adult who orders an entree at Shula's Steak House, Todd English's bluezoo or Il Mulino New York Trattoria in the hotel earns two complimentary hours for a child at Camp Dolphin. This offers also applies to an adult who purchases a spa service at Mandara Spa.

Our children enjoyed Camp Dolphin, and my husband and I appreciated the ease of checking them into a safe environment so nearby as we enjoyed what the resort had to offer. It's not hard to imagine that we will return, giving the kids a night out and enjoying the same ourselves.

October 23, 2012

'Secret of the Wings' allows Tinker Bell and Disney Fairies to sparkle in 3D



My elementary-school-age children have happily anticipated and enjoyed each direct-to-DVD movie in the Tinker Bell series. Today, the fourth installment hits shelves, and we think it's the best yet.

Disney's "Secret of the Wings" is another computer-animated chapter in the back story of Tinker Bell, Disney's most famous fairy. It originally was to be called "Tinker Bell and the Mysterious Winter Woods," which follows the naming trend of the previous three Disney Fairy movies. But the title was changed, and the movie took longer to finalize this time around, leaving fairy fans to wait two years between movies. They had been accustomed to a new story every fall.


It seems, though, that the wait was worth it. "Secret of the Wings" is a beautiful movie -- that is rich in story and imagery. It's the first in the franchise to be presented in 3D, and this format really enhances all the details of Pixie Hollow and the Winter Woods. Viewers will love seeing the movie up close and with better definition -- from the Snowy Owls flying by with baskets made by the fairies to the individual snowflakes that cascade down from above the trees.


Viewers, especially the children in our theater audience, were amazed when they saw the process of how the animals receive their winter coats as they cross into the Winter Woods. Tinker Bell (voiced by Mae Whitman) evoked a laugh when she hesitantly tried to get in on the transformation, as well. The mischievous tinker fairy is determined to visit another season, but, unfortunately, her wings cannot tolerate the cold.

Her attempts to reach the Winter Woods unexpectedly reunite Tinker Bell with the sister she never knew she had. Tinker Bell and Periwinkle, a frost fairy, were born of the same laugh but separated as children. Once they meet, they want to get to know each other and be together, but the seasons are conspiring against them. Tinker Bell needs to remain where it's warm -- in Spring, Summer or Autumn -- and Periwinkle (voiced by Lucy Hale) must stay in Winter. If they fairies don't stay where they belong, their wings could be broken.


Fairies who have debuted in the previous films appear here, too, including Silvermist, Fawn, Iridessa, Rosetta, Vidia, Terrence, Clank, Bobbie and Queen Clarion. We are introduced to winter fairies Lord Milori, Dewey, Gliss, Spike, Sled and Slush, who take us deep into the Winter Woods. It's fun to see the new fairies reveal their talents and work together with their warm-weather friends to help Tinker Bell and Periwinkle. Clank and Bobbie uphold their reputations as inventors with their amazing snowmaker, and Queen Clarion and Lord Milori may surprise you with their secret.


The fairies' journey explores themes that are not unusual for a Disney movie: standing up for what you believe in, protecting family, the value of perseverance and a little bit of a G-rated love story. Together, though, the themes make "Secret of the Wings" compelling for children and Disney fans alike. My children were engrossed in the movie from start to finish.

The soundtrack for "Secret of the Wings" reads like a Who's Who of current and former Disney Channel stars, with tracks from Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Bella Thorne, Zendaya, Bridgit Mendler, Laura Marano and Tiffany Thorton. The theme song, "The Great Divide," is by The McClain Sisters.

Guests who are visiting the Magic Kingdom in the next few months can meet Periwinkle and Tinker Bell (in her winter costume) at Tinker Bell's Magical Nook. They will pose for photos in their new Winter Woods set and sign autographs. See photos and read about the new meet-and-greet in my blog post. I'm curious to see how the fourth Tinker Bell movie may influence the Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden at Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival because the pixie-size houses and fairy topiaries are some of my favorite parts of the annual event.

"Secret of the Wings" is available today on DVD, Blu-Ray and Blu-Ray 3D. Look for a preview of the next Tinker Bell movie, due out in Spring 2014.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest at a screening of Disney's "Secret of the Wings." This did not influence my review, and my opinions are my own.

October 25, 2012

Gaston's Tavern in New Fantasyland serves up LeFou's Brew, pastries and even healthy snacks





After hearing so much about LeFou's Brew -- which some call Disney World's answer to Universal Orlando's uber-popular Butterbeer -- my family and I couldn't resist the opportunity to sample the drink during the recent "dress rehearsal" of New Fantasyland. Also, this gave us the perfect reason to stop by Gaston's Tavern for the first time.

The signature drink is made from frozen apple juice (no sugar added), has a hint of toasted marshmallow and is topped with all-natural passion fruit-mango foam. Sounds perfect for kids who have been raised on apple juice, right? I sure thought so.

My children, who are ages 8 and 10, disagreed, however. They were not fond of the concoction. Perhaps it's an acquired taste, or maybe it's meant more for adults. After all, it is served in a so-called pub -- Gaston's Tavern. And I've read lots of comments from adult guests who did enjoy the drink. (Rest assured, I did not take my children into a bar; Gaston's actually is a restaurant and it does not serve alcohol.)


Still, families might want to purchase one LeFou's Brew and allow everyone to try a sip before investing in a round. Each drink costs $4.49, or $9.99 with the souvenir stein or goblet. Of course, if you have children, each is going to want his or her own cup decorated with Belle and a rose or Gaston and Beast, so be prepared.

If you've visited Disney's California Adventure, you may have already tried LeFou's Brew, which is named after Gaston's bumbling sidekick. It's the same recipe that is sold at the new Cozy Cone Motel in Cars Land.


Gaston's also serves a limited menu of roasted pork shank, pastries, and fruit and vegetable snacks. When we visited, our family couldn't resist the warm cinnamon roll. One serving, which costs $3.99, was plenty for each of the four of us to have a decent-sized serving. The cinnamon roll is topped with a gooey glaze, rather than just the traditional white frosting. There were no complaints from our crew -- and no crumbs left behind either.

Parents looking for healthier choices will find apples with caramel sauce, a mixed vegetable cup with dip, and hummus and chips. Drink options include fountain Coca-Cola products, bottled water, milk (including soy and chocolate), orange juice, coffee, hot tea and hot chocolate. See the full menu on AllEars.Net's resource page.




Gaston's Tavern is designed to look like it does in the film: a hunting lodge with plenty of antlers. At Walt Disney World, it's a small counter-service restaurant with a dining room off to each side of the registers. Though it may be small in size, the restaurant accurately represents Gaston's larger-than-life personality and gives diners a sense of being in the French countryside.


The man himself greets guests outside near the statue he dedicated to himself.



October 27, 2012

Save those Disney Dollars! New Fantasyland merchandise is in Magic Kingdom stores


For many Walt Disney World visitors, shopping for souvenirs is an integral part of the vacation experience. Who doesn't like to have a reminder of a special trip, especially to the Most Magical Place on Earth?

The hunt for that perfect T-shirt, cap or photo frame can be as enjoyable as the product itself with all the beautiful and creative merchandise displays that engage shoppers. The window displays at The Emporium in the Magic Kingdom and at World of Disney at Downtown Disney are certainly worth a pause as you rush by to the main attractions.

Recently, new merchandise has arrived in the Magic Kingdom to coordinate with the "dress rehearsal" for New Fantasyland attractions and the opening of Storybook Circus. If you have Belle and Beast, Little Mermaid or Dumbo fans at your house, start saving your money!




The new BonJour Village Gifts carries mostly Belle and Beast merchandise, which makes sense since it is located near Gaston's Tavern and Be Our Guest restaurant. There you'll find new Belle T-shirts for girls and women and Gaston's Tavern T-shirts for men, as you might expect.






Some of the more unusual items for sale, though, are the light-up castle goblets; gargoyle frames and candle holders; a Jim Shore statue of Belle; and a collection of dishes and stemware and pillows inspired by the Be Our Guest restaurant.



For younger guests, there are foam shields, swords and crowns -- in both girl and boy versions. So cute! Before the grand opening on Dec. 6, there is a limit of four per guest on some of the items, such as the dishes and frames. New merchandise continues to arrive in preparation for the big celebration.


Need a dinglehopper? You can find one for sale -- seriously! -- at Sir Mickey's, which is located behind Cinderella Castle. That gift shop now carries Ariel merchandise themed to the New Fantasyland ride, Under the Sea -- Journey of The Little Mermaid. The Disney Parks Blog recently revealed the new line, which also includes T-shirts for kids and women, hoodies, cups, mugs, dolls and plush characters.


Carla Lewandowski, senior franchise and brand manager with Disney Theme Park Merchandise, explained, "For this new assortment, we were inspired by the many colorful scenes found in the actual attraction. We really liked the scene with Sebastian and the undersea band, and you'll see many moments from that scene on the new items."



Moving into Storybook Circus, guests will find colorful displays of Dumbo merchandise when they enter Big Top Souvenirs across from the namesake attraction. It's mostly T-shirts, mugs, plates and plush that are themed to the new area of the park, and they are located at the entrance.


This store is huge and has a very wide assortment of merchandise. It even houses two embroidery stations for personalizing mouse ear hats and the center of the "tent" is a kitchen where delicious treats are made and sold.

Steven Miller, merchandise communications manager at Disney World, shared with me that some of the first items created for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which is set to open in 2014, will be pins in upcoming mystery pin sets.

October 30, 2012

What you should know if a hurricane threatens your Disney vacation


As a longtime Sunshine State resident who has survived 18 hurricane seasons, I really feel for East Coast residents and what they are facing because of Hurricane Sandy. It's frightening, to say the least, to see a massive storm slowly approaching your home.

For my husband and I -- and most of Central Florida -- the scariest events in recent years occurred in August and September 2004 when Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne passed over the Orlando area. Our son was almost 2 years old and I was 8 months pregnant with my daughter when Charley devastated our area, ripping roofs off homes, knocking power out for days, and stopping traffic with a forest of downed trees.

Two of those storms forced Walt Disney World to close its parks, which is a rare occurrence. Last year, Hurricane Irene neared Disney Cruise Lines' private island, Castaway Cay, and Sandy just hit it on the way to Atlantic City. So, what can guests expect when a hurricane threatens their Disney vacation?

First, when you are planning a trip to Port Canaveral or Orlando, know that hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30 -- half of each year. The peak months for storms are August and September.

If a hurricane warning is issued by the National Hurricane Center for the Orlando area or your place of residence no more than seven days before your arrival date at Walt Disney World, you can cancel or reschedule your Magic Your Way vacation without any fees imposed by Disney. This policy only applies to stays booked directly through Disney, and it doesn't guarantee you will receive any offers or discounts from your original booking. It also does not apply to dining experiences, special events, or sports and group packages.

Guests who book their trips through travel agents or tour operators will need to contact them directly for information about cancellation policies. This also is true for airlines, rental-car companies and other related services.


But what if you're already at Disney World? In 2004, the Disney World parks were open for half a day on the day Hurricane Charley was expected to make landfall. As you would expect, they were quite uncrowded. Then, guests were asked to hunker down in their hotels as the hurricane made a nighttime pass over Central Florida. Cast members worked to inform everyone what to expect, and even offered extra entertainment to pass the time indoors. The parks opened again in the morning, after what had to have been a very long night for maintenance crews working to clear debris.

AllEars' Anita Answer was staying at Saratoga Springs Resort when Hurricane Charley hit Orlando. Here is her account of that day.


Reader Barbara from Pennsylvania was staying at POP Century Resort during Hurricane Frances. You can read her report, too.

When a hurricane threatens Disney Cruise Line guests, there actually isn't much you can -- or should -- do. Ships have enough time to to steer clear of hurricanes. This may result in alternate ports or some rough waters, but passenger safety generally isn't an issue. Plus, at one week before departure, passengers will forfeit the entire cost of their cruises if they cancel. DCL may change the ship's departure date, as it did in 2004 when the three hurricanes affected Central Florida.


When Hurricanes Irene passed near Castaway Cay last year, it did damage the idyllic Bahamian island. Cleanup delayed one ship's visit by a day, but that was the only information DCL officials released. (There is a hurricane "bunker" on the island for permanent residents, I'm told.) Hurricane Frances also damaged the island.


Hurricane Sandy, though, passed directly over the island, last week, which presumably would cause more damage. Disney Cruise Line officials, though, have not released any details and typically prefer not to discuss damages. The next ship is scheduled to dock at Castaway today.

Perhaps the best advice from longtime travelers and travel agents is to purchase trip insurance for your Disney vacation. Be sure you understand what your policy coves when it comes to weather.

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About October 2012

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

September 2012 is the previous archive.

November 2012 is the next archive.

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