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January 2013 Archives

January 1, 2013

Where to find healthy, tasty salads at Walt Disney World

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It's January 1 and time for all those New Year's resolutions to kick in. For many of us, among our annual promises is one to eat healthier and/or lose weight.

Admittedly, this can be tough when you're visiting Walt Disney World. And, if this is your once-in-a-lifetime vacation, it's understandable that the calorie content of your meals and snacks is not your top priority. For some, though, eating well continues on vacation. It's always a bonus to get home and find you haven't gained weight, right?

Because I live in Orlando and am fortunate to visit The Most Magical Place on Earth frequently, I want to find foods that fit my dietary needs without feeling like I am being deprived while visiting a theme park with my family. For me, this means mostly quick-service foods with protein and a lot of vegetables, limiting the carbs and sugar. More often than not, I end up eating salads.

To that end, here are some of my favorite salads in the Disney parks that are available at counter-service restaurants (for the most part), are comparatively inexpensive, and are more interesting than a basic garden salad.

Magic Kingdom

In the summer of 2011, Columbia Harbor House in Liberty Square at Magic Kingdom added several healthy dishes to a menu that was heavy on fried foods. That's when the Broccoli Peppercorn Salad was introduced to the menu, replacing the BLT salad.

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Broccoli Peppercorn Salad

It contains mixed greens, garden vegetables (including peas, corn and carrots), chicken, broccoli, bacon and Parmesian tossed with a creamy Peppercorn dressing." What the Disney description doesn't tell you is that the grilled chicken also is served warm on the salad, and there is a generous amount of protein for the $8.19 price. I really love this salad and usually have it when I'm at Magic Kingdom. A bonus: Columbia Harbour House is located close to New Fantasyland.

If I am looking for tasty salad at a sit-down restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, I choose the Chicken Strawberry Salad at The Plaza restaurant. It contains fresh garden greens, grilled chicken breast, fresh strawberries, Gorgonzola cheese and is tossed in a white Zinfandel vinaigrette dressing for $14.99. It's also filling, which is key when you're limiting what you eat.

Animal Kingdom

For many, a trip to Disney's Animal Kingdom is not complete without a meal at Flame Tree BBQ. The counter-service restaurant not only serves up delicious barbecue favorites, but it also has unique outdoor dining with terraces that overlook fountains, foliage and even Expedition Everest. (Many years ago, an open-air boat also shuttled Disney characters around the lake, and diners on the lowest terraces could exchange waves while dining. We miss that!)

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Barbecued Chicken Salad

My longtime favorite here is, you guessed it, the Barbecued Chicken Salad for $7.79. However, the ingredients were changed last summer, and it doesn't have quite the same appeal for my taste. The thin slices of chicken still are coated with the restaurant's signature spice rub, but garbanzo and pinto beans have been added, as well as tortilla strips, to the salad. I liked the previous version better, but this still is a good option for healthy dining, in my opinion, and others might find it more tasty than I do.

Epcot

Talk about making the tough choices! Forgoing all the great food at Epcot is not my favorite thing to do, but I have found a salad that makes healthy eating not quite as painful. Sunshine Seasons in Future World's The Land serves a Roasted Beets and Goat Cheese Salad with honey sherry dressing for $7.89. I don't care for beets, so I always ask if I may substitute grilled chicken, and my request has been honored. (Sometimes there is a charge for the additional protein, though some servers consider it an even trade.) This salad also contains a generous portion of nuts, which helps make it satisfying.

Hollywood Studios

The Brown Derby at Hollywood Studios is known for its famous Cobb Salad, but I found this Disney theme park to be the most difficult in which to find a good salad at a counter-service restaurant. After experimenting with several salads -- including the Asian Salad (which has since been replaced) at ABC Commissary and the Fairfax Salad at Fairfax Fare -- I finally hit the jackpot at Backlot Express.

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Cantaloupe and Cucumber Salad

This restaurant, located near the Jedi Training Academy and Star Tours, now offers two interesting salads, though only one has protein included. The Southwest Salad with Chicken includes mixed greens, crisp corn tortilla, black bean relish and cilantro vinaigrette with hefty chicken strips for $8.49. The Cantaloupe and Cucumber Salad offers chopped romaine, red onion, tomato, green peas and Zinfandel vinaigrette for $6.49. I prefer the Cantaloupe and Cucumber Salad, but it definitely is not as filling without some protein.

If you have a favorite salad, please tell us about it in the comments. We'd also love to hear your tips for eating healthy when you're visiting Walt Disney World.


January 3, 2013

Disney Live!: Mickey's Music Festival is coming to Florida cities in March

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The newest Disney Live! stage production, Mickey's Music Festival, returns to Florida in March, and some tickets already are on sale.

Mickey's Music Festival is an original story about -- what else? -- a music festival that features popular Disney songs remixed to rock, pop, reggae, hip-hop, jazz and country. More than 25 characters from "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and Disney- Pixar's "Toy Story" join Mickey and his pals on stage for this performance.

On Saturday, March 2, the tour comes to the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, for one performance at 5:30 p.m. Tickets, which range from $15 to $50 plus service fees, go on sale to the general public at 10 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 18.

The production then travels across the state to Orlando, where Mickey's Music Festival will be performed the next day at the University of Central Florida Arena. There are two shows on Sunday, March 3 -- at 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. Those tickets are on sale now and also have the same price range. As of this publication, tickets still were available for floor seats. Children under the age of 1 year do not require a ticket, but they must sit on an adult's lap.

Looking for a discount? Audience members who sign up to be a preferred customer at DisneyLive.com can receive advance notice of tickets and exclusive offers.

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Mickey's Music Festival is a 90-minute production with a 15-minute intermission. Cameras and video-recording devices generally are allowed at this show as long as they do not interfere with other guests' viewing and the products are intended for personal use only.

Mickey's Music Festival debuted in 2010 in Spain, and the Feld Entertainment production has since toured the world. Feld Entertainment also produces the Disney on Ice shows, which also make an annual stop in Orlando, usually in September.

When my children were younger, we attended several Disney on Ice shows, but the stage production I remember best was one that spotlighted The Wiggles. We had excellent seats and my young son was completely mesmerized by the action. He sang every song and danced to many of them. When it came to an end, he clutched his gift bag and smiled the whole way home.

Here's a peek at what Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse have in store for upcoming audiences:


January 5, 2013

SeaWorld Orlando's Just For Kids festival begins Jan. 12

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SeaWorld Orlando kicks off its Just For Kids festival for the second year on Jan. 12. For four consecutive Saturdays, the theme park is offering families special entertainment and discounts on some of its popular animal experiences -- and many of the offerings are included with regular park admission.

Children (and their parents) can hear concerts by some of today's popular kids' performers, a couple of whom you've probably seen in the past during Disney Channel's morning programming for its youngest viewers. The performers include:

** Jan. 12 -- Imagination Movers
** Jan. 19 -- Laurie Berkner
** Jan. 26 -- Choo-Choo Soul
** Feb. 2 -- Kratt Brothers

Concerts are at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. in the Nautilus Theater, and tickets will be distributed across from the venue beginning each Saturday at 9 a.m. on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no additional charge for these tickets.

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Want a guaranteed seat for the music? Then book the Shamu & Friends character breakfast at the Terrace Garden Buffet restaurant. The 9 a.m. meal guarantees admission to the 2 p.m. concert, and the 11 a.m. breakfast saves you a spot at the 4 p.m. concert.

During the breakfast, families will have meet-and-greets with SeaWorld characters and will receive a 6 x 8 family photo.

The menu, which is subject to change, includes baked ham, scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes, biscuits and sausage gravy, bacon, sausage, French toast sticks, Belgium waffles, seasonal fresh fruit, breakfast pastries, yogurt, cereal, milk, juices, coffee, and assorted Coca-Cola products.

Reservations are required for the Shamu & Friends character meal, and children younger than 2 are free but require reservation. Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children ages 3 to 9.

Younger kids might also enjoy Elmo's VIP character breakfast. The popular red muppet brings one of his Sesame Street friends to a full-service breakfast -- with much the same menu as the Shamu meal -- at Sharks Underwater Grill. This breakfast also comes with character meet-and-greets, a 6 x 8 family photo, VIP seating for the 11 a.m. concert, and complimentary valet parking. Tickets are $49 for adults and $39 for children ages 3 to 9.

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For my family, though, the best benefit of the Just for Kids festival is the discount on the animal encounters. For the Dolphins Up-Close, Sea Lions Up-Close, Behind-the-Scenes and Family Fun tours, one child is free with each paid adult. On these tours, guests younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult. That savings can add up quicker than a orca can eat a pail of fish.

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Regular readers of my blog may know that my 8-year-old daughter is in love with dolphins and aspires to train them, so the Dolphins Up-Close Tour is a perfect activity for us. (You can read about our experiences on my previous post.)

In addition to concerts and tours, SeaWorld is hosting fun zones on Just For Kids days:

** New this year is Elmo Rocks!, a concert with Cookie Monster, Zoe, Abby Cadabby, Bert and Ernie at Seafire Inn.

** The Lakeside Patio becomes Shamu's Party Zone, which features a family-friendly DJ, games and character appearances.

** An Ocean Adventure program takes young guests to four Sea Star locations in the park for educational activities. Kids can collect cards and stamps at each location and then redeem them for a prize.

SeaWorld Orlando pass members receive additional discounts during the festival, such as 20 percent off dining in all cafeteria-style restaurants and merchandise in the gift stores. Admission to SeaWorld is $89 for adults and $81 for children ages 3 to 9 with a Fun Card, which allows admission all year long.


January 8, 2013

The many great reasons to visit Disney World in January

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In Orbitz's annual travel index, Orlando has been named as one of the "Sure Bets for Great Deals in 2013." This designation comes in large part due to the expansion of New Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom and great deals year-round at the Disney World hotels. So, in light of that news, let's take a look at why visiting Walt Disney World in January makes sense.

** As Orbitz mentioned and many theme-park fans know, some of the best deals can be found for Walt Disney Resort vacations because travel typically slows after the holidays. With the exception of New Year's, marathon and Martin Luther King Day weekends, the room rates are considered value prices. Pair that with an incentive deal, and a trip to Disney World may be within your budget. Disney recently announced an up to 30% resort discount for select dates, February - June.

** Because the kids have gone back to school, and it's not yet time for the staggered spring breaks, the crowds tend to be the lightest of the year in January. Sure, the parks may have shorter hours, but if your wait times are significantly reduced and you're able to experience all the attractions, that leaves you more time to explore the nightlife at Disney World outside the parks. Parents may want to book the kids club and have a night out to themselves.

** If your family believes there can never be too much Christmas magic, you may be in luck. Most holiday performances continue into the new year -- some for days and some for the week. And the Christmas decorations usually stay up through marathon weekend.

** Speaking of runners, the Walt Disney World Marathon -- a fun and prestigious race -- takes place in Orlando in January. But even if you are not a serious runner, that weekend can be a fun experience participating in shorter races, such as the family 5K, which can be walked. There are even races for kids, which means the whole family can start a new year of health and fitness together. With marathon weekend upon us (Jan. 12-14), the events are sold out for this year, but families still can have fun cheering on the runners.

** This week notwithstanding, Orlando's weather typically is cooler in January, lending itself to hot chocolate in the parks or beside a hotel's roaring fire while wearing those jeans and long sleeves. It's a nice change from the sweltering summer experience. Visitors also might find the campfires for roasting marshmallows at their deluxe hotels more palatable.

First-time visitors or guests who want to see specific attractions should be aware that because January is a slow period at Disney World, many refurbishments are scheduled then. Be sure to check the AllEars.Net list of closures if this is a concern for you. Ultimately, though, the tradeoff of missing a few attractions for better prices, fewer visitors and cooler weather may just be worth it.

January 10, 2013

Creativity, technology bring new Disney toys to life in 2013

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Playtime can be serious business for The Walt Disney Co.

The news coming out of Disney World this week about MyMagic+ and the coordinating MagicBand has many Disney fans excited about the application of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology in the parks that will allow them to customize their vacations.

But that isn't the only high-technology news involving the Disney brand. This week, it was revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that image-recognition technology will make the next generation of Disney-branded toys even more interactive for youngsters.

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The toys, marketed under the DreamPlay umbrella, will be equipped with the technology to recognize images, 3D objects, voice, speech, data and live video and with the capability to differentiate between millions of objects instantaneously. That means the physical toy can be tied into character-based content, such as games and animation, on smart phones and tablet devices. The content will be accessed through apps, rather than QR codes.

The technology was developed by NantWorks LLC: "The patented 2D and 3D recognition technologies instantly recognize the toy and allow children to interact, play and learn in ways that were not possible before. It is a seamless convergence of technology, storytelling and traditional toy play delivered through a single experience."

Partner JAKKS Pacific, Inc., which designs and markets toys, says the DreamPlay toys will hit shelves in the United States as soon as this fall and reach international markets in 2014.

"Today's announcement is an exciting first step toward our vision of re-imagining conventional toys as new forms of play and digital entertainment that will enrich and enhance how the consumer interacts with Disney products," said Bob Chapek, president of Disney Consumer Products.

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Disney Consumer Products already has some merchandise for children available that uses technology innovatively. The video below demonstrates Band-Aids that sing a "feel better" song using an iPad, a radio-control Spider-Man toy that actually crawls up walls, a Tinker Bell doll whose wings change colors based on color recognition, and the Disney Creativity Studio, which was available for iPads for the holiday season.

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In addition, DIsney Consumer Products is introducing new items from its domestic and clothing lines that are just as creative, though innovative technology does not play a part in their appeal. For little girls, there is a Cinderella costume that cleverly detaches from a sheet set, allowing for role play. My daughter definitely will be looking for the "sister hoodies," which feature a fairy wing design on the back and zip apart into two separate pieces so girls can share with their BFFs. For young boys, a Cars-themed table has secret racetracks and built-in storage for toy cars.


Also this week, Disney Stores launched a new line of merchandise based on the new DIsney Junior show "Sophia the First," which debuts on Jan. 11. Customers can find a costume and accessories, a picture book, plush doll, T-shirts and pajamas. A record 8.2 million viewers tuned in to see the movie premiere, "Sofia the First: Once Upon a Princess," in November.

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Whether through technological innovation or the simple power of creative play, these toys are just one more way in which Disney appeals to kids.

January 12, 2013

Disney Cruise Line offers Miami excursions on debarkation days

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Despite living in Orlando for almost two decades, I haven't really spent any time in Miami. Sure, I've driven through the area on my way to the Florida Keys, but I haven't taken the time to explore the city. That's about to change for me this spring when my family plans to visit some of the historic sites and even one of the newest attractions, the American Girl doll store, in Miami.

Still, Miami is a bustling metropolitan area that might leave some tourists confused about what to see and worried about finding their way in a large city. Disney Cruise Line has a solution for that for its cruise passengers, and it's an idea that I think will have widespread appeal for first-time visitors to the city.

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This year, both the Disney Wonder and the Disney Magic will be based at Miami's port; the Wonder is already there and the Magic joins her sister ship at the end of the summer. On debarkation day, Disney Cruise Line is offering port adventures, otherwise known as excursions, in Miami. The beauty of these offerings is that when you exit the ship, your luggage will go with you on the port adventure and then you will be delivered to the airport. Wouldn't you rather have one last adventure instead of killing time at the airport? I know I would.

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Among the excursions offered is a three-hour trip through the Everglades, the dense wetlands of South Florida that are teaming with wildlife and tropical vegetation. Guests who choose this adventure will board an air-conditioned motor coach and travel approximately 45 minutes to the national park. Once there, they will have a 30-minute airboat ride on the "River of Grass" and return to base to see a reptile show featuring alligators. Free time afterward allows passengers to explore the Jungle Trail, alligator farm and crocodile exhibits before heading to the airport.

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Not a nature person? Then perhaps one of the Miami city tours is for you. On the Disney Parks blog, Port Adventures Manager Arnaldo Zanonato recommends the "Best of Miami by Land & Sea": "This city highlights tour takes guests on a scenic drive and boat ride past iconic Miami locations. You'll drive through Little Havana, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, South Beach and other well-known areas and cruise on the famous Miami waters past celebrity mansions, historical buildings and the striking city skyline."

Miami excursions for debarkation day cannot be reserved in advance online; instead, they must be booked onboard the ship. Passengers who want to take advantage of these trips must have flights departing in the afternoon. The exact time varies based on the tour time.

To see real-time updates from his first Miami cruise this weekend, Disney Parks Blogger Jonathan Frontado is tweeting @DisneyCruise with #DCLMiami.

January 15, 2013

Build-a-Bear introduces Disney bear with Princess Weekend

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There was a little bit of Disney magic happening at Build-A-Bear Workshops across North America this past weekend, and my eight-year-old daughter and I dropped in at our local store to check out the festivities.

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To celebrate the new Disney Princess bear, which was released on Friday, Build-A-Bear invited girls to learn to curtsey and join a crowning ceremony, while boys learned to properly bow and then could be knighted. Children also were offered the opportunity to decorate a paper crown with jewel stickers to wear and then take home.

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Of course, the new Disney Princess bear and costumes were on display for those wanting to take home a furry friend. The bear, which is priced at $23, comes with an attached sparkly crown and its bottom paws have an image of the Disney Princesses on one side and a crown pattern on the other.

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Build-A-Bear Workshop has long carried a line of Disney character costumes that fit most of the store's 16-inch plush animals. During Princess Weekend, new outfits in the collection were introduced, most costing about $16. I'm amazed by these tiny outfits, which often remind me of my kids' past Halloween costumes. On this visit, I really loved the miniature versions of hats we see at Walt Disney World -- Pirate Mickey ears, Goofy ears and a Pluto cap.

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It's a two-way street, though, because not only does Build-A-Bear sell licensed Disney products, but the Orlando theme parks have modeled merchandise after the popular dress-up plush animals. At Disney Parks, Duffy the Disney Bear has his own line of clothing with costumes representing the countries at Epcot and the various seasons and events celebrated at the resort. The Duffy line costs more than Build-A-Bear, with the plush Disney bear priced at $30 and most costumes at $20. Duffy is widely available throughout Disney properties.

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At SeaWorld Orlando, guests actually can make plush animals, helping a team member with the stuffing just like at Build-A-Bear. My daughter was thrilled to find a dolphin among the many sea and land animals for sale. (A Build-A-Bear team member said the store last featured a dolphin about seven years ago.) In addition to the unique selection of marine animals, SeaWorld offers the best prices: $20 for each plush and $13 for each outfit. The Wild Creations workshop is located inside The Shops at Waterfront.

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January 17, 2013

Tips for families attending SeaWorld's Just For Kids festival

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SeaWorld Orlando's Just For Kids festival returns again this year on four Saturdays -- Jan. 12, 19, 26 and Feb. 2. I recently spoke with Muffett Baker, the theme park's entertainment production manager, to get her thoughts on the what not to miss at Just For Kids. Here are her recommendations for making the most of the festival and my tips for families.

This is the second year for the Just For Kids festival. What do you think made it a success the first year?

Muffett: This is a great time of year, and families wanted to get out and do something different after Christmas and the holidays were over. And, also, because it is geared toward the little kids and is something new. The artists we've brought in are part of their lives as something they see on TV.

Kristin: As a local parent, I'd have to say we were tempted by all the great discounts on the festival days. Kids are free for the Up-Close animal tours, which meant our family of four could have more one-on-one time with the dolphins and their trainers for $120 instead of $200.

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What are the most popular parts of the Just For Kids festival?

Muffett: The concerts have been great. They are really popular, and they're so much fun. Most of the artists are geared toward children and they know how to do all the things that kids want to see and hear and do. And then we have other interactive things throughout the park that children just really like to be a part of.

Kristin: That certainly was the case with Imagination Movers, the first concert on Jan. 12. My eight-year-old daughter and I attended the concert, even though the target audience was really the preschool or kindergarden set. But because the musicians were so good about interacting with the audience -- jumping into the crowd, high-fiving as many kids as possible, directing them to stomp and clap -- she could participate without knowing the songs and have a fun experience. We both enjoyed the final song, when the Imagination Movers covered One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful."

Speaking of concerts, if visitors do not get in line for tickets when the distribution begins at 9 a.m. on Saturdays, what are their chances of still getting to see the shows?

Muffett: I'd say pretty good.

Kristin: Last Saturday, tickets for Imagination Movers were still available at noon for the 2 and 4 p.m. shows.

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What tips do you have for first-time visitors for the Just For Kids festival?

Muffett: Plan out your day for everything you want to do, but make sure you make time to either come and get your concert tickets or purchase one of the breakfasts for a guaranteed spot. (See my previous blog post for details on the special character breakfasts.)

Kristin: If you have more than one day to spend at SeaWorld Orlando, focus on the Just For Kids events on Saturdays because they only occur then. If your chid is older, like mine, and is unsure about the concerts, he or she probably still will like Shamu's Party Zone, located near the concert venue. This area features a live DJ, games, crafts and character appearances. Plus, there's a face painting station and snacks available for purchase.

For returning guests, what is new this year?

Muffett: We've changed the footprint of it just a little bit, and we've expanded a little. We've got a little more of everything we had last year, and we also have the addition of the Elmo Rocks! show.

Kristin: My daughter liked that the reward for visiting the Ocean Adventure education stations was more substantial this year. Kids who visit all four locations and collect the corresponding stamps each receive a Shamu backpack clip.

When you are creating special events like this for SeaWorld, what goes into the process?

Muffett: Last year when we started talking about this, we thought about what kids like to do and how they like to interact. Then we thought about what areas of the park would accommodate that. Happy Harbor is great for kids, but there is not a lot of other footprint to build on. So, if we wanted to do the concerts, we needed to come over here [Nautilus Theater] and support them in this area of the park so it can be easy for everyone to see what we've got.

As soon as Just For Kids wrapped up last year, we started planning for this year and looked at how it worked, what we could do bigger, what we could do better, what we could change, and what we could try new. I think right now we just want to expand [the festival] a little at a time.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando during its Just For Kids festival. My opinions are my own, and this did not influence my article.

January 19, 2013

Disney Infinity marries Skylanders-style video game with beloved Disney characters

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This week, Disney Interactive Studios officially announced it will jump on the Skylanders craze with its own version of the interactive video games called Disney Infinity. Judging by the popularity of the Skylanders franchise and the Disney brand, gamers probably are going to have a difficult time waiting until the June release date.

For those unfamiliar with the original 2011 game Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure and its 2012 sequel Skylanders Giants, the popular video games allow players to collect plastic characters that are able to be incorporated into interactive video games when they are placed on an electronic base. The physical characters bring different attributes to the video games and also are collectibles.

I had, of course, heard of Skylanders when they debuted, but my 10-year-old son did not become really interested in them until late last year, when Skylanders Giants were the top items on his Christmas list. Now that I've seen them up close, it's easy to understand why Skylanders are so much fun. Given the overwhelming popularity of Disney and Pixar characters, I certainly would expect the same level of popularity for Disney Infinity, if not much more.

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Disney Infinity will be played much the same way as Skylanders is with a console gaming system, physical characters and the Disney Infinity Base. There will be 17 initial characters, including Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean," Sully from Disney-Pixar's "Monsters University" (the 2013 prequel to "Monsters, Inc.") and Mr. Incredible from Disney-Pixar's "The Incredibles." In addition, customers can purchase three play set pieces and 20 power discs (which can further change the play environment or a character's performance in that environment). The starter pack is priced at $74.99, and individual Disney Infinity figures will be $12.99.

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A unique aspect of Disney Infinity is the virtual toy box, where players can save the characters, vehicles, upgrades and gadgets they collect in their adventures. The toy box can be accessed at any time in the game to create one-of-a-kind experiences, even mixing items from the different movie franchises.

Like Skylanders, Disney Infinity will be available for a variety of console gaming systems, including Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii-U, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Disney's version also will be compatible with PC computers and mobile devices later in the year. One or two players can tackle the structured adventures, and "Toy Box" mode allows up to four players in the game.

The strength of Disney Infinity appears to be in its ability to allow players to create their own stories and solutions to obstacles. This open-ended style of play also is the focus of recent Disney Interactive products, Disney Epic Mickey 2: Power of Two and Disney Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, which were released in November 2012.

RELATED LINKS:

** Epic Mickey Games

January 22, 2013

Disney World's reworked Habit Heroes attraction opens

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Habit Heroes, an exhibit at Epcot's Innoventions that teaches guests about healthy lifestyles, reopened on Friday. It soft-opened in February 2012 but quickly was closed after widespread criticism about the game's insensitivity to overweight children.

I did not see the first version of Habit Heroes, but from what I've read -- and now have seen -- the infrastructure of the exhibit remains the same. There are three separate rooms, each with an activity -- exercising with motion-tracking technology; a video game with pull-string devices to shoot targets on large screens; and a game that combines teamwork, technology and exercise.

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The story and the focus, however, have changed. Childhood obesity is not the overall theme; instead, it's healthy living for everyone. And rather than entering a 100-year-old gym, visitors now prepare for a futuristic battle against the bad guys who contribute to unhealthy lifestyles: The Scorchers, whose goal is dehydration; The Zappers, who aim to distract people from being physically active; and The Blocker Bots, who block guests from getting the nutrients they need. Visitors learn to fight these villains with a different method in each room as they prepare to become Habit Heroes.

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At the end, guests can choose a rubber bracelet representing each facet of healthy living: red for activity; green for nutrition; and blue for hydration. In addition, they each receive a map that leads them to a location near Innoventions East to discover a "secret code" that can be entered into the computer kiosks outside the exhibit.

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When we received the maps, I thought it was a great way to wrap up the exhibit because scavenger hunts at Disney World, such as the Phineas and Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure, are so popular. We each took off on our missions, easily found the code words and returned, expecting to play a game on the screen. Instead, we punched in the codes and were asked for an email address so we could receive a link to a free app. That was disappointing. I wouldn't waste my time on the missions when my family could get in line for the Sum of All Thrills, a roller coaster simulator across from Habit Heroes.

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Certainly this exhibit, which is sponsored by Florida Blue and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, is sending an important message to families, and it is delivered in a much more appropriate fashion than the first version.

But the exhibit really is not as engaging for kids, or even adults, as you might expect for a Walt Disney World attraction. The cast member who serves as a tour guide through the rooms repeatedly chants, "Now is the hour to build our power," which can seem forced. And, with the exception of the pull-string video game -- much like the insanely popular Toy Story Mania ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios -- there isn't much to get excited about with the first and last games in the attraction. Those games feature brightly colored video images and sound effects, but there's little skill or strategy involved in the activities used to drive home the point about making healthy lifestyle choices. As any parent can attest, it's hard to capture kids' attention when you aren't challenging them.

It is possible to design educational exhibits that also are entertaining; this is what Disney Imagineers are famous for. My children love other Innoventions attractions like The Great Piggy Bank Adventure, where they learn about spending and saving money; and the Where's The Fire?, where they learn about fire safety. And they were dismayed to see last year that Don't Waste It!, a game about recycling, was removed to make way for Habit Heroes. After experiencing the new exhibit, I have to agree with them. By creating only a so-so attraction about an important topic for families, the exhibit's creators missed an opportunity to entertain AND teach.

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Full Video of the Revised Habit Heroes!

Original Habit Heroes Blog

Original Habit Heroes Press Release


January 24, 2013

Tell your kids about their heritage with personalized books sold at Epcot

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Deanna Bufo Novak

A new retail stand at Epcot shares the same mission as the World Showcase portion of the Walt Disney World park -- to educate visitors about countries around the globe. In this case, though, the nations are those that make up an individual child's heritage.

At kidsHeritage, Inc., guests design personalized books for the children in their lives. Each My Heritage Book can have up to four countries -- chosen from a list of 72 so far -- whose stories are woven into a light-hearted, yet educational, narrative that includes the child's name. There also is a letter to the child explaining his or her heritage, and pages where family customs can be hand-written and a family tree completed.

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The books are bound in the theme park and only take about 30 minutes to complete. Each My Heritage Book is priced at $42.95.

Can't find a country on the established list? The author, Deanna Bufo Novak, takes requests and will create pages just for you. She works with a panel of experts, including teachers and citizens from the countries, to ensure her research is accurate. This process takes two to three months per country. If you're lucky, the country you request already may be in the works, shortening your delivery time.

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Scott Novak

kidsHeritage, Inc. started as an Internet company eight years ago (MyHeritageBook.com), and its products have been featured in the Red Envelope catalog and at children's boutiques. Novak's husband, Scott, said the idea for the books came about when their daughter was born and they were searching for a way to share their Italian and Polish heritage with her.

Apparently, they weren't alone. Today, more than 70 percent of the books they produce include Italy as one of the four requested countries, Scott Novak said.

When pressed to name a country she is looking forward to adding to her catalog, Deanna Bufo Novak said the Bahamas are at the top of her list. "My family and I have gone there since I was a little girl. Now, we take my own children. " While I do know a lot about it from visiting so often, I am really looking forward to seeing it "come to life" with the information and beautiful illustrations and be a part of My Heritage Book."

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kidsHeritage also offers a book for younger children called "ABCs Around the World." These books teach the alphabet while taking the reader on a journey through 26 countries. This book can be personalized with a child's name, birth date, and photo, as well as the gift-giver's name, on the passport page. The child's name also appears on pages with letters from his or her name, to familiarize the child with spelling. The personalized version of "ABCs Around the World" sells for $37.95.

The Novaks also have developed related products such as an "ABCs Around the World" poster, jumbo puzzle and coloring book and a "My Heritage" bookmark and prints.

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"I started this [company] as a solution to a specific problem I was having - I wanted a tool to help me teach my daughter about her heritage. What I didn't realize then is the much broader implication of teaching children about heritage," Novak said. "Specifically, over the years, and through many discussions with parents, grandparents, children, and teachers, I have learned that teaching children about their own heritages leads to a greater understanding of the cultural diversity that surrounds them daily. Having a sense of pride in who they are helps them to be strong and confident individuals. As such, they are more likely to ask questions and want to learn about differences, rather than make judgments based on them."

The kidsHeritage, Inc., retail stand is located to the right of the American Adventure, across from the America Gardens Theatre. It's open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and Novak is there most days.

Novak, who has a degree in journalism but was a practicing attorney until she started this company, said she is living her dream today.

"I am a true testament to 'Dreams Come True!' " she said. "I had an idea, worked harder than I have ever worked in my life to turn it into a reality, and, most importantly, never gave up -- and there were a few times that I wasn't sure I could do it anymore -- because I believed in it so very much. Every morning, when I arrive at Epcot, I am in awe that I am really here and always incredibly thankful for this amazing opportunity."


January 26, 2013

Fulfill your need for speed at Test Track 2.0 in Epcot

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My family and I finally got to ride the new Test Track at Epcot last weekend, and -- though we all still enjoy the ride -- we're divided on whether we prefer the new version or the previous one.

For those who haven't read about Test Track 2.0 since it officially reopened on Dec. 6, the popular thrill ride was closed for more than half of 2012 while the inside of the attraction was re-imagined. Though the actual track for the cars remains the same, it feels altogether different with the new minimalist storyline, new futuristic imagery inside the attraction and new interactive concepts for guests to enjoy while waiting in line.

See for yourself with this Test Track ride-along video:

In the previous version of the attraction, which was sponsored by General Motors, guests were part of a storyline of testing cars by pushing them to extreme conditions, but it was in a more low-tech setting compared to the revised version today. Back then, guests were taken inside an industrial vehicle-testing laboratory filled with the loud clatter and pounding of mechanical testing devices that seemingly measured the structural designs of the cars and the safety afforded to crash-test dummies who rode in them.

Along the journey in the previous version, guests got a sense of how real passenger vehicles might be tested for braking ability or power over an inclined ramp, for example. Part of the transit also exposed guests to segments that suggested how cars and trucks are painted and exposed to extreme temperatures.

Of course, near the end of the route came a danger-avoidance steering thrill involving a semi-truck and, ultimately, the scream-provoking speed test in the open environment.

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Now, though, guests enter the Chevrolet Design Center at Epcot, where they first design and then "digitally" road-test their so-called SimCars. The futuristic journey takes guests through dark sets illuminated with neon lights. Have we stepped off the grid? It sure feels like it, given the Tron-like imagery seen along the journey now.

The ride is just as physically thrilling as before (remember - it's the same track as it always has been), but gone are the realistic Imagineering components that suggested that guests are in an actual vehicle-testing facility at General Motors. For realists like my husband, that diminished part of the fun of the attraction. He thought it was akin to riding the Expedition Everest coaster without the Himalayan mountain scenes or the Yeti.

He was impressed, however, with one new part of the revised attraction that all of us - and especially our kids - found to be creative fun.

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We agreed that perhaps the best thing about Test Track 2.0 is the design studio, where visitors actually draw their dream vehicles on large-screen computers and customize their shape, color, accessories, speed and more. These virtual concept vehicles are simple enough to create with touch-screen options that even young kids can do it. If there are questions, a cast member is standing by to jump in and help.

My 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son really enjoyed this process and even wished we had more time during this part of our wait in line before boarding our cars on the track.

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During another previous segment of our queue, we also got to use a touch-screen monitor to experiment with adjusting various aspects of vehicles to see how shape, power and various physical forces can affect a car's performance. It is an intriguing concept but one that my 8- and 10-year-old kids struggled with to make it work effectively. And, unlike the interactive games offered in the queue of, say, Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom, the kids didn't have their own individual workstations at which to experiment. So, as you might imagine, multiple kids would crowd the screen and push to jump in for their turn to play.

After guests disembark from their cars on the track, they do get to interact with other similar interactive games at individual stations, and most youngsters will find this enjoyable. Were we not in a race to make our next FastPass destination, we probably would have spent much more time in this area between the ride and the Test Track 2.0 gift shop.

Is the new version worth all the hype? Certainly. It's still a fun attraction that will thrill your inner speed freak and, with the latest revision, even spark some creative fun, too, as you design your dream car.

But taking on the role of a crash-test dummy in the previous version of the attraction left quite an " well, impact on us, and we'll always look back on that ride fondly, too.


January 29, 2013

Simple ways to create Disney valentines and where to find character sweets

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When it comes to ideas for creating clever, yet simple, valentines for kids, Disney Family.com is my go-to resource each year for Disney-themed crafts. With two weeks left until Valentine's Day, it's time for us to get to work!

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Disney Family.com takes the guesswork out of finding class valentines with your child's favorite Disney characters by offering printable valentines. Download and print cute valentine designs with Mickey and friends, the Muppets, Cars, Disney Princesses, Phineas and Ferb, and characters from "Tangled," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Toy Story" here.

The site notes that its printable crafts are specially designed with muted colors to not waste too much of your printer's color ink.

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Feeling a bit more creative? Try your hand at making adorable valentines, such as the Charm-ing Cars Valentines, Tinker Bell's Pop-Up Card, Belle's Valentine Bookmarks, Lumiere's Flickering Hearts Valentine or Sweet Skellington Valentines. Instructions for these designs and more can be found at Disney Family.com.

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Those who enjoy decorating for the holiday will find details about how to make a Fairy Valentine Tree, Daisy's Daisies, Pooh and Friends Valentine Garland and Mickey & Minnie paper flowers. Plus, there are templates for candy boxes adorned with Stitch, Mickey and Minnie and a variety of suggestions for accessories to coral your child's valentines, such as Mickey's Valentine tote.

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If you want to make more elaborate presents, consider a Mickey Mouse photo frame, Disney Valentine's Day stickers, and Mickey & Minnie cupcake doilies. Or, who could resist Piglet's Valentine Cupcakes, Minnie's Polka Dot Cookies or Honey Bee Mines?

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Of course, if you're running short on time for baking, there are some Disney-themed treats at national retail stores. Target has quite a large display dedicated to its new line of Disney Valentine's Day sweets, including chocolate-covered pretzels, cherry juju hearts, boxes and mugs with candies and popcorn. There also are the popular stacks of treat boxes with each tier containing a different treat. For many of these products, the Disney-themed containers are reusable.

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Toys 'R' Us has a Disney take on the traditional conversation candy hearts. And at Walgreens, customers can find an assortment of Valentine's Day merchandise featuring Mickey and Minnie, including novelty candy, figurines, plush animals and gift wrap.

Although a romantic trip to Walt Disney World might be a wonderful way to spend the holiday, clearly those who love Disney can share their passion without leaving their hometowns.

RELATED LINKS:
** Sweet Time with Your Sweetie
** Romance in the Parks
** Limited Time Magic - True Love Week


January 31, 2013

SeaWorld's Aquatica offers families water park fun with marine life

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Walt Disney World may have revolutionized themed water parks here in Orlando, but SeaWorld has created its own unique and kid-friendly version, too, that is equally as fun.

Over the last several months, my family and I have explored Aquatica, and we have been impressed with what it has to offer. Until recently, my experience with Orlando water parks primarily was limited to Disney World's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon.

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Dolphin Plunge

The wow-factor is similar at SeaWorld's park, but perhaps the most obvious difference is that Aquatica is themed to feature sea animals, of course, rather than a freak snowstorm in Florida or a tropical paradise left in the wake of a ravaging hurricane. A popular ride in the park is Dolphin Plunge, which is a steep tube slide through a tank where Commerson's dolphins swim and play. A tip for younger (and shorter) guests from team members: If you sit up when the slide goes through the tank, you will slow down and have a longer time to view the dolphins. My husband and I zoomed through the tank segment so quickly we got little more than a passing glance at the dolphins each time we experienced the ride.

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A Commerson's dolphin

Visitors who are not brave enough to take the plunge can see the dolphins from many other angles: at the water's surface, where daily training sessions are performed; an underwater viewing tank where guests can stand; and another view of the tank from the lazy river attraction. But note that if you choose the opposite path on the lazy river, Loggerhead Lane, you'll see a tank full of colorful fish instead.

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Loggerhead Lane

Want to see other wildlife? No problem here, because SeaWorld team members introduce guests to other exotic animals throughout the park, as well.

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Roa's Rapids

And while lazy rivers are a staple at water parks because of their widespread appeal for slow-moving relaxation, Aquatica offers a different take on a winding river with its fast-moving Roa's Rapids. In this attraction, visitors do not ride in tubes. Instead the experience can be almost like body surfing. The strong current propels guests forward whether they float or swim, bypassing islands and gushing geysers. Because of this, children shorter than 51 inches are required to wear a life vest. Roa's Rapids is one of our family's favorite attractions at Aquatica, and with multiple entry points, there is never a wait. The same is true of the park's side-by-side wave pools.

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Walkabout Waters

Like Disney's water parks, Aquatica has carved out play areas just for kids. At Kata's Kookaburra Cove, only those 48 inches and shorter may play. The miniature versions of popular rides give youngsters a thrill without parents having to worry about them being overrun by the older children. Kids of all ages, though, can play at Walkabout Waters, a 60-foot-tall play area where "rain" from buckets, fountains and blasters is continual.

Located next to Walkabout Waters are two family raft rides, Walhalla Wave and HooRoo Run. We found these rides to be quite a bit rougher than the family rides at Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. In addition to steeper banks and drops, these rides include dark tunnels. If your child is a daredevil, Walhalla Wave and HooRoo Run could be fun for the whole family. They're not gentle rides for timid parkgoers, though.

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Taumata Racer

There also are many different types of water slides for those with varying degrees of bravery. On Taumata Racer, guests lie on mats and fly through dark tunnels and then down a very steep hill. My 8-year-old daughter and I love this one. It's much faster than the Tobaggan Racers at Blizzard Beach, and I definitely had the sensation of my stomach dropping when my mat did. My 10-year-old son is a big fan of Omaka Rocka, which sends inner tube riders up half-pipe funnels backward and forward.

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Omaka Rocka

The food at Aquatica is similar to what is served in SeaWorld restaurants. Waterstone Grill serves burgers, sandwiches and salads; Mango Market offers favorites such as pizza, chicken tenders and French fries, plus so grab-and-go selections; and Banana Beach is an all-day buffet. Family picnics are available seasonally. Alcohol and Coca-Cola products are sold at Aquatica.

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Waterstone Grill

Of course, lockers and beach towels are available for rental. And sunblock and souvenirs are well-stocked, too.

Mickey and Co. certainly know a lot about making waves of magic at Disney World's two water parks, but the park that is home to Shamu also knows how to make a fun splash, as well.


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About January 2013

This page contains all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in January 2013. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2012 is the previous archive.

February 2013 is the next archive.

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