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March 2013 Archives

March 2, 2013

Disney: Mickey's Typing Adventure is a fun way for kids to learn proper typing techniques at home

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My elementary-school-age kids are learning their way around a computer keyboard at school -- and I don't mean the correct keys to push to play Disney's Club Penguin or other computer video games. They are learning proper finger positions for typing and practicing their speed during computer lab. I expect to hear complaining about these exercises, after all, because they are based on repetition, which can get boring for kids their age.

Learning to type doesn't have to be dull and monotonous, though. Disney has found a way to teach typing skills while still keeping kids engaged in learning through fun and games. Disney: Mickey's Typing Adventure is geared toward ages 6 to 12 and is powered by the educational program Typing Instructor. The computer game allows the user to become a hero as he or she uses learned typing skills to help save Mickey Mouse and his friends Daisy Duck, Goofy, Minnie Mouse and more from a mysterious spell in the medieval kingdom of Typelandia.

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When my son was given the opportunity to test drive Disney: Mickey's Typing Adventure, he jumped on it. My husband installed the program on our computer late one night. The next morning, my 10-year-old son saw the application's icon on the desktop and started going through the tutorials himself before we even mentioned it was available.

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There are 11 typing courses with a total of 160 lessons. As the user progresses through the typing courses, he or she rescues Disney characters and moves to the next level of gameplay. Each child begins his or her adventure at the Village, where they can visit Ye Old Magic Shoppe, the Arcade, the Library and the Academy. Typing lessons and challenges are housed in the Academy, while the Arcade, of course, offers games based on the keys the child has learned so far. The Library is a place for children to practice typing their favorite Disney stories once they have learned the entire keyboard.

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Kids get immediate feedback on their typing efforts -- whether it's a lesson, challenge or game. They can see their Word Per Minute (WPM) scores, accuracy percentages and performance results for key, finger, hand and row. All results are printable, and there are certificates of achievement, as well.

Disney: Mickey's Typing Adventure is available for PC or Mac computers, and a web version is being developed for classrooms. The list price of the game is $39.99, though it has been sold on Amazon for $27.99 and a Groupon recently was offered for $17. We think this game-typing tutorial is worth every penny, at any of these prices, if your kids like Disney characters and have yet to learn to type.

DISCLAIMER: I was provided a copy of Disney: Mickey's Typing Adventure for review. This did not influence my opinions about the product. In fact, I already was planning to buy the program because I thought it would be a good fit for my children.

March 5, 2013

Disney's Earport, The Magic of Disney offer pixie dust and souvenirs at Orlando airport

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Have buyer's remorse after visiting Orlando's theme parks? If you traveled by plane, you have an opportunity to rethink the souvenirs you didn't purchase.

Orlando International Airport has two stores that stock merchandise from Disney Parks: Disney's Earport and The Magic of Disney. Disney's Earport is the larger of the two retail shops and is located near the security checkpoint for Gates 60 - 129. The Magic of Disney is located near the less-busy security checkpoint for Gates 1 - 59.

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On a recent departure from MCO, I stopped in Disney's Earport to see if anything had changed since my last visit. The merchandise has been updated, of course, but the store's design is much the same. There are at least three fun and free photo opportunities. To the right of the store, visitors will find an almost-life-size statue of Snow White sitting on a royal banquette, where they can join her. On the opposite side is Goofy trying to balance a stack of cookies. The center facade features a raised image that contains Mickey Mouse and an icon from each of the four parks at Walt Disney World.

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Another fun feature outside the store is a magical mirror reflects images of three different Disney princesses, depending on your viewpoint. Inside, visitors will find an image of Cinderella Castle over which Tinker Bell's pixie dust lights up. A flat-screen television shows the sights and sounds of Walt Disney World, and for those who are arriving, admission tickets can be bought at the store, avoiding long lines at the theme parks.

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Merchandise includes Disney-themed items that will be useful for travel, such as DVDs, CDs, travel blankets, pillow pets, hoodies, carry-on bags, suitcases, luggage tags and an assortment of snacks. There also are plenty of souvenirs for home to remind you of your memorable vacation, including T-shirts, picture frames, photo albums, kitchenware, pins and toys. You even can purchase the huge Cinderella Castle or monorail play sets and have it shipped home from the airport.

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If you get home and realize you still didn't get all the souvenirs you planned to buy, or need a Disney-themed gift, you have two options. You can call the Walt Disney World Mail Order department at 877-560-6477 (toll-free) 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday or email it at Merchandise.Guest.Services@DisneyParks.com and describe what you're looking for. The cast members who staff this line may ask where you saw the item, as detailed a description as you can offer and if you have the SKU number. See full details on this AllEars.Net resource page.

Your other option is to check online at DisneyStore.com, which offers more than 500 items from Disney Parks.

March 7, 2013

Vera Bradley to debut 2 Disney patterns in fall 2013

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I have been on a years-long quest to find the perfect bag to carry at Walt Disney World, and I have carried dozens of styles during the past decade. I love my Disney Dooney & Bourke bags for everyday duty, but they just don't work for me when I'm at a theme park.

Like most women, I am picky about my preferences for a bag. For a day at a Disney park, my bag has to be big enough to fit some essentials from my regular purse -- sunglasses, money and credit cards, lip gloss and medicine. In addition, I have to have room for my personal electronics: an iPhone, a rechargeable battery pack that charges my phone and the kids' iPods, and a small point-and-shoot camera. And I'd like to be able to find those things in my bag without it being so jam-packed that I have to dump out the contents to do so.

In addition, when I'm in the theme parks, I don't want to carry my bag in my hands or on my arms, which means it needs to be a backpack or similar to a messenger bag.

Last year, I hit upon the perfect style for my needs from Vera Bradley. The cross-body bag, called the Hipster, is slim yet roomy. Most importantly, it's the right size at 11 inches by 11 inches, and it comes with a 52-inch adjustable strap. Like all her products, the Hipster is machine washable, which is a definite plus after a day of traversing the parks, riding the attractions and enjoying the dining options -- from juicy burgers in Tomorrowland to melting Mickey ice-cream bars in Fantasyland.

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So, naturally, I was beyond excited to learn this week that Vera Bradley is partnering with Disney to create two colorful patterns inspired by Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse: Midnight with Mickey features the characters on a black background, and Just Mousing Around has a bright pink backdrop. The photo of the new patterns released by Disney shows -- drumroll please -- the Hipster! The Disney Parks Blog says the patterns also will be available on duffel bags, totes, cosmetic bags and more.

The bad part? We have to wait until fall to get our hands on these great new bags. They will be sold at Disney World, Disneyland and online at DisneyStore.com. Prices are expected to be comparable to other Vera Bradley bags of similar styles and regular Disney discounts will apply, according to Merchandise Communications Manager Steven Miller.

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In the meantime, visitors at Epcot can see the new patterns up close at a display in the festival center of the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. The center is located between Mission: SPACE and Universe of Energy in Future World, and the festival runs through May 19.

Disney Cruise Line was the first Disney property to add Vera Bradley products to its retail shelves on the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy. However, those patterns do not feature characters and are not exclusive to the ships, like the Disney Dooneys are.

March 9, 2013

Gardens of the World Tour returns during Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

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Beginning this week, gardening enthusiasts can experience a special guided tour during the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. Horticulturalists lead visitors on a walking journey through every country in World Showcase during the Gardens of the World Tour. This is the 20th year for the tour, which is only offered to the general public during the festival. I was among the guests on the first tour of this season.

After receiving our audio headsets, we began with an introduction to the landscaping practices at Walt Disney World. Our tour guide and Gardener Specialist Brenda Sandberg has been with the theme park for 6 years and began our tour by explaining the park's pesticide use. Sandberg said that Epcot's 90 horticulturalists use weak pesticides in limited quantities for the safety of the animals and people who come in contact with the park's many plants.

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The helicopter bed

Walking through Future World, Brenda pointed out the unusual names of some of the flower beds. For example, the dominant, raised bed in front of Spaceship Earth at the front of the park is called the "helicopter bed" among cast members. The name came from an event the day before the grand opening of the park in 1982, when a helicopter hovered over the area to allow a photographer to shoot promotional photos. The wind generated from the rotor blades caused all the flowers to be blown out of the bed, leaving the horticulturalists scrambling to replant everything under a tight deadline. Anecdotes such as this one make the tour interesting for any Disney fan, not just avid gardeners.

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Bromeliads near Mexico


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Mexico's chiclet tree

As we made our way to World Showcase and traveled through the countries, we were treated to many details about the individual plantings. I was amazed by some of the subtleties I have never noticed in all my years of visiting Epcot. Did you know that the foliage around the Mexico pavilion is designed to include species from a rainforest? If you walk up the path on the right of the front of the pyramid, before the character meet-and-greet area, you will see everything from multicolored bromeliads to a chiclet tree.

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China's subtle landscape


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Japan's Koi pond

Can't tell the difference between the China and Japan pavilions? China has more natural landscaping and a more contemplative setting than Japan, whose water gardens are louder and flower colors bolder. Another fun fact: China's pond cannot stock Koi fish because birds of prey found the large open pond to be an easy buffet. Japan's layered and hidden ponds make a better home for the Koi fish because they are tucked away in a protective corner of the landscaping.

For many, this tour is an opportunity to find out how the gorgeous topiaries featured in the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival are nurtured and maintained. I had hoped we would go behind-the-scenes to see such demonstrations in a greenhouse, but most of this tour takes place in the guest areas of the theme park.

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A free-form topiary


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A standard topiary

We did learn that there are three types of topiaries at Disney World: free-form, standard and character. The free-form topiaries are, of course, ones where nature is allowed to take its course. Standard topiaries can take a decade or more to grow because plants at the base of a metal frame are trained to grow and cover the shape over time. Character topiaries are built using plant "plugs," which gives horticulturalists the ability to use a variety of materials. Also, the plugs allow the character topiaries to be rebuilt in a much quicker fashion than the others if plants are damaged or die. All three types of topiaries can be seen outside the United Kingdom pavilion.

The Gardens of the World Tour is designed for those ages 16 and older, and with good reason. It's really an educational tour with a lot of information presented over the course of a three-hour stroll throughout Epcot. My 8- and 10-year-old children would have been really bored if they had been allowed to participate. Plus, there is a lot of walking and standing. Our guide planned ample bathroom breaks during the tour, and some of those stops were at locations with water fountains. Be aware that unlike Epcot's Segway tours, though, this one does not provide bottles of water to its participants, so you may want to bring your own.

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Exclusive tour pin

Those who complete the Gardens of the World Tour receive a collectible pin that is only available to participants. They also receive a festival poster, which sells for about $20 in the park's retail outlets. The tour, itself, is $60 plus tax per person, and discounts for Disney Visa cardholders, Disney World annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club members apply. Tours begin at 9 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursday and Fridays through May 17 and can be booked by calling 407-WDW-TOUR.

March 12, 2013

New Rapunzel-themed restrooms open at Disney World's Magic Kingdom

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Another new Disney Princess section has quietly opened at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom this past weekend, and it's certainly a place where a girl can let down her hair and relax. Guests who pass through the area certainly will feel as if they stepped into the pages of Tangled, the Disney story of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider.

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Rather than a featured attraction, though, this brand-new area -- located between it's a small world and the Haunted Mansion -- offers guests various forms of comfort. The large structures may look like they could house a village restaurant, store and cottage, but, in fact, the facades hide large public bathrooms. Granted, these are perhaps the best-themed bathrooms in the Magic Kingdom. Elaborate murals decorate the walls and ceiling, patterned tile work continues the motif, and stall doors are made to look like horse stalls. In addition, soap dispensers have been upgraded to hands-free versions, and guests can skip paper towels if they choose the air dryers for their hands. The bathrooms also are quite large, unlike the new facilities inside Be Our Guest restaurant, for example.

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Outside, guests will find recognizable props from the animated movie, including the famed tower where Rapunzel lets down her hair; an abundance of the beautiful lanterns released into the air; and the frying pan that Rapunzel clocks Flynn with and that he later uses as a weapon against the palace guards. Humorous "Most Wanted" posters of villains decorate the outer walls and also appear inside the men's bathroom, I'm told. In front of the buildings is ample seating and even some stroller parking. (Seasoned park-goers will remember this area was a designated stroller parking lot before its renovation.)

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Farther down the walkway to the left, guests are treated to a delightful waterfall in front of the Tangled tower. This makes for a wonderful photo opportunity. On the back side of the tower is what appears to be a walkway leading up the hill to its base.

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Across from the village square is a fenced area with tables and stools made from "barrels" and benches created from what look like split logs. Hidden in the upright "tree stumps" are recharging stations for electronics. Each contains four outlets. What a welcome addition! On the day we visited, however, we and other guests around us experienced intermittent difficulty with the outlets. Of course, that was only the second day the area was open, so, understandably, some bugs may need to be worked out. (A second charging station is planned for the tent that houses the FastPass machines in Storybook Circus, a cast member told me.) The area also is designed to be a respite from hot weather with misting fans, the cast member said. While we all certainly can appreciate those plans, I have to wonder about the use of misters in a section where cellphones and videocameras will be laid out while batteries are charging.

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On the other hand, I do really like that thoughtful Imagineers created a scavenger hunt of sorts for guests in the Tangled area. A sign indicates that there are Pascal statues hidden in the landscaping, and we were told there are 10 to find. No doubt based on the popularity of finding hidden Mickeys, this game is a welcome distraction for kids while parents rest and recharge. A tip: Most of the Pascals are located near the seating area -- but not all of them.

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The new Tangled area at Magic Kingdom is wonderfully detailed, making guests feel immersed in the story of Rapunzel. Although we have been told repeatedly that there are no plans to move the Rapunzel meet-and-greet from Town Square Theater to this new location, it's really difficult to believe after seeing the new area. Surely, this elaborate theming is destined to be more than the location of the theme park's newest bathrooms.

March 14, 2013

Disney World, Disneyland to raise minimum age of unaccompanied kids in parks

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In less than two weeks, kids and families may have to rethink some of their plans at Walt Disney World when a new admission policy goes into effect.

Guests who are younger than 14 years old will be required to be accompanied by another guest who is at least 14 years old. The new policy goes into effect on March 23, and it applies to all gated attractions at Disney Parks in the United States. That means it affects Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, DisneyQuest, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon, Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure.

Currently, The Walt Disney Company ticket policy states that only guests younger than 7 years old have to be accompanied by someone 14 or older. This policy clearly is outdated, and a revision makes sense.

My daughter is 8 years old, and I can't imagine allowing her to roam free at Walt Disney World -- and she knows the parks like her own backyard because we're locals with annual passes. Of course, my main concern is for her safety. Sure, Disney cast members are wonderfully helpful, but they can't personally supervise everyone in the parks. An 8-year-old traveling solo or with another child is no match for someone who might do them harm.

Another concern is that children this young do not have the ability to make good decisions, and they may misjudge situations that can get them into hot water, such as taking safety risks at the water parks or going to parts of the park at which they are unfamiliar. Plus, 8-year-olds do not know how to handle money well, so keeping track of their spending money and feeding themselves in the parks can be challenging.

At age 8, my daughter does get some freedom in the Disney parks, such as going on an attraction while I wait at the exit. However, there is no way I would split up with her for an extended period in the same park, let alone leave her and go somewhere else. I feel the same way about my 10-year-old, who is very responsible.

I understand that this policy may be more disruptive for parents of kids who are 12 and 13, because they probably can handle the parks on their own, especially if they are familiar with Walt Disney World. Perhaps a better policy change would have been one that allows children 12 and older to enter the Disney Parks on their own.

Still, some may say that, like so many other decisions, this one should be determined by the parents. If parents think their children are mature enough to spend the day at a Disney theme park by themselves at age 8, then they should have that right, some would say. In our litigious society, though, The Walt Disney Company oftentimes will be held liable by those very same parents if something happens to their children.

How do you feel about the admission policy change, and how much freedom do you give your children at Walt Disney World?

March 16, 2013

Ridley Pearson says fans will help write last 'Kingdom Keepers' book in series

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"Kingdom Keepers" readers: Get ready for a couple of new adventures. Author Ridley Pearson has some exciting news for fans of the young-adult series that is set in Walt Disney World and aboard Disney Cruise Line ships.

Of course, readers of the series know that the sixth installment, "Kingdom Keepers 6: Dark Passage," hits shelves April 2. But what they probably don't know is that after they read the book, readers actually can participate in the writing of the seventh and final book in the series - and they will be able to read most of it as chapters are produced weekly.

"I have outlined the seventh book, but I really feel so grateful to the readers that I felt it a little unfair if I was the only one who decided how this whole world was going to come to a close," Pearson said when my 10-year-old son, a "Kingdom Keepers" fan, and I interviewed him recently at Epcot.

So, Pearson has spent two years with the help of a software company, to develop an app called Kingdom Keepers Insider (KKI). (Initially, it was referred to as Kingdom Keepers 7 Fan Fiction Experience.) The free app will be available across all platforms, and there will a web version for people who don't have access to an iOS or Android device.

Pearson described Kingdom Keepers Insider like this: "I'm going to post a chapter every Sunday and a piece of the outline for the next week. The readers will come in and vote on things and give me suggestions and write fan fiction that I will actually clip right into the book. Then I will finish that next chapter and post it Sunday, and we'll start the process over. So, in real time, the reader will be seeing what the book is going to be as I'm writing it and help me decide where it goes. Near the end, we'll stop that and I'll finish the book on my own " It's really going to be a fun process."

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Pearson is embracing fan fiction, something many authors might not do, so we had to ask his thoughts on all the stories written by fans who are inspired to create their own stories with his characters.

"I haven't experienced much of it because I didn't want anyone coming back and suing me and saying, 'Oh, that was my idea.' But it's a world that is so active in the Kingdom Keepers world. I have experts that I work with - high school juniors and seniors who are really well-read in the series - and they participate in all this and they are all part of KKI," he said. "This software protects me, but allows people to write fan fiction within it that then I can use if I want. Everyone is happy."

But hardly anyone is happy about the series drawing to a close, including Pearson. "I kind of wish it wasn't, but I have always felt it should. I don't like open-ended series," he said. "I wanted to end this originally at five books, and Disney talked me into seven."

For fans who dread April 2014, when the last "Kingdom Keepers" book will be released, Pearson offers some comfort -- there will be a second "Kingdom Keepers" series.

"We were debating something considerably different for the second series, and I think it won't be all that different in a lot of ways because I'm having a hard time letting go of the characters and the readers polled are having a hard time letting go of it being about the [Disney] parks. They'll be older. I hope it will be mostly the same characters and also set in the Disney parks," he said.

"On my last book tour, I took a hand poll of what people wanted - the same characters or the same locations. It was weird because I expected it to go one way, but it was 50-50. I was going to take the same characters and move them overseas into kind of a different world -- more our world, but with the Overtaker world coming into our world. I haven't started it yet. So we'll just have to see."

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In the meantime, Pearson is poised to begin his national book tour for KK6 in April. "In 'Kingdom Keepers 6,' the Kingdom Keepers are halfway through a long cruise that's going through the Panama Canal, and there are added Overtakers and there are some added helpers to the Kingdom Keepers. The stakes are much higher because of the Overtakers involved, and some really scary stuff happens that readers may not forgive me for," Pearson said.

He may well find out when he visits 11 stops on his book tour, beginning April 2. Pearson will be back at Walt Disney World to meet fans and sign books toward the end of the run. He is scheduled to appear from 4 to 7 p.m. April 10 at Once Upon a Toy at Downtown Disney Marketplace and from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. April 11 at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Admission is required to attend the theme-park signing. (You can read about last year's event on my previous blog post.)

A tip to fellow Kingdom Keepers fans: We have attended the Downtown Disney book signings for the last two years and readers line up well before the start time. Fans should expect the same as this popular series continues with the last two books.


March 19, 2013

Radio Disney brings fun and fitness to festival in Altamonte Springs

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Are you looking for some Disney fun this weekend -- without having to step onto Walt Disney World property during the busy Easter weeks?

Radio Disney AM 990 has just the event for Central Florida families. Join the Road Crew and actor Calum Worthy (Disney Channel's "Austin & Ally") at the Magic of Healthy Living Festival at Cranes Roost Park from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 23.

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Calum Worthy

The Magic of Healthy Living is a national initiative that The Walt Disney Company launched in 2010 to help children and their parents lead healthier lives. It focuses on nutritional guidelines and, most recently, standards for food advertising. On its Magic of Healthy Living web site and the companion Disney site, Family.com, there are ideas for exercising, recipes for delicious healthy foods, explanations of how to be health-conscious in the Disney Parks and even encouragement for trying new activities and foods.

At the festival, the focus will be on offering hands-on ways to deliver the message of healthy living, including fun options for getting active. The Ultimate Field Day area offers kids the chance to hula hoop, jump rope, try their hand at a ring toss, attempt a soccer goal and more. Of course, the Road Crew will be playing the latest music to get the crowd dancing. There will be more than 30 vendors lining Cranes Roost Boulevard and offering activities and information, including a kids' yoga demonstration by Florida Hospital for Children.

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Eric Darden

Walt Disney World, too, is among the vendors, and Eric Darden, horticulture manager for the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, will be representing the theme park at the booth. He will share tips about gardening as a great way to grow healthy foods and also take part in a 30-minute presentation on the amphitheatre stage at 2 p.m. during which he'll accept questions from the audience. Walt Disney World also will be giving away seed packets to visitors who stop by the booth.

Beginning at 12:30 p.m., Calum Worthy will take the stage and answer questions that were submitted earlier in the day in writing by festival-goers. Afterward, he will be available to meet and talk with fans.

Visitors who are 16 years old or younger also will be able to enter the Radio Disney Music Awards Ultimate Sweepstakes, which gives the winner a trip to Los Angeles to experience the awards show as a VIP.

March 21, 2013

Kids tour Epcot Flower and Garden Festival TRYit food booths and rate favorite menu items

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Last weekend, Deb and I walked around World Showcase with my 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter during the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. Our goal was to have the kids sample the TRYit selections at each Garden Marketplace so we could give readers an idea of where their time and money would best be spent.

TRYits are foods that Disney chefs have prepared to encourage kids to try something new. The term TRYit, though, has been associated with Disney's Magic of Healthy Eating campaign for some time now. The national initiative, which was launched in 2010, aims to help children and their parents lead healthier lives. It focuses on nutritional guidelines and, most recently, standards for food advertising. One of the touchstones of the campaign is teaching kids to try new foods and activities.

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Fruits By The Glass

We started our food journey with the Fruits By The Glass booth in the center of World Showcase Plaza. The TRYit is a Wild Berry Slush for $2.50. It was no surprise to me that both kids loved this drink. After all, it essentially is a fruit smoothie, and they would drink those every day if they were allowed. My children also shared the Honest Kids Super Fruit Punch ($2.75), which is a juice pouch that is available at most of the Garden Marketplaces. They said that it tasted "watered down," which I'm sure is because of the low sugar content, especially when compared with the Capri-Suns they normally drink. A better option for them and other kids more accustomed to something sweeter probably would have been the Minute Maid Light Lemonade for the same price.

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Pineapple Promenade

Next, we decided to walk counter-clockwise around the lake. At the Pineapple Promenade, there are no TRYits, so we moved on. The adults, however, reserved the right to come back and reward themselves with the Dole Whip with Siesta Key Spiced Rum after the afternoon trek.

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The Cottage: Savories, Trifles and Tea

In the United Kingdom, chefs suggest that kids try the Baked Goat's Brie with Kumquat Chutney ($4.50) and the Waterkist Farms Heirloom Tomatoes with house-made Mozzarella, Minus 8 Vinegar and Basil ($3.50). Both of my children liked the brie, which is baked in a flakey pastry and served with a sweet chutney. When Deb Koma sampled this dish, she noted that the chutney made what could be an excellent dish too sweet for her taste. But perhaps that is the difference between a refined adult palate and a child's taste for as sugary treats - and the sweeter the better. The Heirloom Tomatoes were not met with the same enthusiasm, though; my daughter liked them better than my son did.

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L'Orangerie

We arrived in France, and the kids saw they would be tasting the Tarte á la Ratatouille et frommage de chévre (zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, onions and tomato tart with goat cheese -- $4.50). That doesn't sound too kid-friendly, does it? Both kids sampled the dish, but it was my daughter who was quite enthusiastic about it. I took a bite and enjoyed the tarte. I would compare it to a thin-crust pizza topped with an abundance of vegetables. Although it wasn't a TRYit, the Verrine charlotte au péches (carmelized peaches with rosemary and light vanilla cream -- $5) also was on our list to sample. This resembles a fruit parfait and is quite appealing visually. Unfortunately, both the kids and adults in our group agreed it was delicious until your spoon tucked into the rosemary sauce, which left an unfamiliar if not unpleasant aftertaste.

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Taste of Marrakesh

In Morocco, the TRYit is Baghrir (a Moroccan pancake with honey, almonds and Argan Oil -- $3). While both children were willing to try this dish, I don't think they were able to get past their Western association of syrup with a sweet pancake, and they definitely didn't like the nuts. They also sampled the Harissa and Lemon Confit Chicken Drumettes with chermoula and cucumber salad ($5), which is not a TRYit. But with chicken a perennial kid favorite, we thought we'd give it go. Both children did like the chicken, though they were slightly unaccustomed to its spicy flavor.

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Hanami

I'm not sure how everyone was still hungry when we got to Japan, but we ordered one of each dish. Both children really liked the YakiSoba Pan (fresh grilled vegetables, carrots, onions and cabbage with Japanese noodles and teriyaki sauce served on a bun with mayonnaise and Beni Shoga -- $4) and didn't want to put it down. My daughter and another friend in our party tried the Chirashi Hanazushi (grilled salmon, cooked shrimp, and crab stick served over a bed of fragrant ginger rice with Volcana and Dynamite sauce -- $6). They both declared it good but so hot and spicy that their eyes watered. The TRYit for this Garden Marketplace is the dessert Frushi (fresh strawberries, pineapple and cantaloupe rolled with coconut rice atop a raspberry sauce sprinkled with toasted coconut and whipped cream -- $4.50). Both kids enjoyed this dish, and my picky son actually asked for seconds.

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The Smokehouse: Barbecue and Brews

The smells of good old barbecue at the American Adventure led us to the courtyard, where traditional favorites are served. There are no TRYits at this marketplace. Still, we ordered the Pulled Pig Slider with Cole Slaw ($5.50) for the kids because they enjoyed a similar item at last fall's Food & Wine Festival. Unfortunately, this was not the same thing, and they just picked at it. The adults in our group raved about the Smoked Beef Brisket with Collard Greens and Jalapeño Corn Bread ($6.75) and the Rocky Road Brownie Mousse ($3). My husband tried the Beer Flight: Mama's Little Yella Pils, (pilsner), Liberty Ale (IPA), and two organic selections: Red Ale, Blackwater Porter ($13). He said it was a good sampling of beer he typically wouldn't encounter in the parks. He especially enjoyed the smooth porter, though he said he would have like a little more bitterness in the IPA.

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Primavera Kitchen

Next door in Italy, the Lasagna Primavera (spinach Lasagna, green peas, zucchini, mushrooms, broccolini, béchamel and fresh tomatoes with garlic and basil leaves -- $6) is the TRYit selection. We all gave this "two thumbs up," or as my daughter says, "10 Mickey fingers." Despite the greenery, the kids were willing to taste this lasagna and actually enjoyed it. Deb didn't have to twist the kids' arms to get them to try yet another dessert -- the Panna Cotta al Limoncello (limoncello flavored Panna Cotta with wild berries -- $5). They liked the overall dessert well enough, but it was the berries that really excited them the most.

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Bauermarkt: Farmer's Market

Germany was my children's favorite stop on our food tour. They still are talking about the food they ate there! The TRYit is a Potato Pancake with house-made Apple Sauce ($2.75). The applesauce usually is served on top of the pancake, but we asked for it in a separate container, and both children liked the dish divided this way. The real must-have, though, is the German Meatloaf Sandwich with Sweet Mustard and Fried Shallots ($3.75), which is not a TRYit. My daughter loves meatloaf anyway, and my son does not. Both, however, could not stop eating this sandwich. They said the meatloaf actually tastes more like a sausage.

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Lotus House

Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes! My children tasted their third version of the day in China with the Spring Pancake with Grilled Chicken and Green Apple ($4.50), which is the TRYit. This combination did not wow anyone in our group. However, my daughter ate every one of the crunchy pieces of fruit in the Beijing-Style Candied Strawberries ($3.50).

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Jardin de Fiestas

The TRYit in Mexico is another dessert: Flan de Guayaba (guava custard -- $3.50). We somehow skipped this Garden Marketplace, and I think it was because we all were trying to save room for the goodies at the next, and final, food booth.

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Florida Fresh

Perhaps one of the most-talked-about dishes at the Flower & Garden Festival is the Watermelon Salad with pickled Red Onions, BW Farms Baby Arugula, Feta Cheese and Balsamic Reduction ($3.50). It also happens to be a TRYit. Certainly my children like watermelon, but I was curious to see if the addition of red onions would stop them from enjoying this version. It did not, though they had to compete with the adults for the remainder. The other TRYit at this marketplace is the Angel Food Cake with macerated Florida Berries ($3.25). It, too, was a hit. Finally, my son wanted to compare the Strawberry Slush ($2.50) with its Wild Berry counterpart he had first sampled. The verdict: Wild Berry is better, though he wouldn't turn either down.

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What did we learn from our fun-filled feast around World Showcase Lagoon?

All kids, of course, have different tastes and culinary expectations. Such was true of my oldest child, who was more reserved in his excitement about new food dishes, and my youngest, who was more adventuresome and willing to try new things.

Yet it was clear that, regardless of whether my kids enjoyed all the menu items they tried, our station-to-station journey showed just how much variety there is in TRYit dishes at this year's Flower & Garden Festival. With a little effort to try something new, it's quite possible your children will find their own unique TRYit dish, and they just might LIKEit, as well.

March 23, 2013

Mickey Mouse helps prepare Easter baskets at Disney resorts

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If you're among the many families traveling to Walt Disney World in the next week, your children may be wondering how the Easter Bunny will find them when they are on vacation. Not to worry, Mickey Mouse has you covered.

Disney cast members have been helping Mr. Bunny build his baskets and deliver them at the resorts here. After all, it's a lot of work for just one rabbit!

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The process for ordering -- or creating a customized basket -- is much the same as it has been for the last several years. Beginning this week, in almost all the Walt Disney World hotel gift shops, there will be a selection of pre-made Easter baskets from which guests can choose. (The start dates for this merchandise varies, but all locations will have their baskets in place by March 28. They will be available up to and including Easter morning.) Traditionally, these baskets have pirate, princess and Mickey Mouse themes, and prices range from $40 to $65.

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Perhaps, though, you'd like to create a more individual basket. If you can dream it, cast members will try to do it! Customized baskets start with a white basket, green grass, shrink wrap and your choice of bow -- pink, yellow, blue, purple -- for $7 plus tax. The rest of the price is determined by the toys and treats you add to the basket. There is no charge for labor.

As another favor to Mr. Bunny, gift shops at the hotels will store the baskets, if guests prefer, because it's difficult to hide them in rooms ahead of time from curious little ones. At the Grand Floridian and Animal Kingdom Lodge, cast members will even deliver the baskets to the rooms.

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For a personalized basket (or Easter bag for tweens), Disney Floral & Gifts can embroider your child's name on the fabric and include egg-stra special treats for Easter morning. Mickey's (or Minnie's) Easter Surprise 2013 is $89.95. Mickey's (or Minnie's) Grand Easter Surprise 2013 even includes a letter from Mickey explaining how he helps the Easter Bunny at Walt Disney World. The Grand Easter Surprise 2013 also includes Mickey or Minnie's "footprints" and confetti to place in the room. To order these gifts, call 407-WDW-GIFT.


March 26, 2013

Get up close with Magic Kingdom's steam trains with behind-the-scenes tour

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It's no great surprise that boys of all ages seem to like trains. So I knew that when my husband and 10-year-old son enrolled in Disney's "The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains" tour, they'd have a good time. I just didn't realize how much they would enjoy it until afterward, when both shared details of the outing.

My husband was kind of a train nerd when I met him years ago and even played with electric trains as an adult -- though he was quick to explain it was called "model railroading" and not "toy trains."

Our son also follows in his dad's footsteps and always has enjoyed the steam locomotives at Magic Kingdom, as well as the train at Animal Kingdom, Epcot's garden railway display in Germany, and the holiday model-train exhibits at the Disney World resorts.

Clearly, I knew, the Magic Kingdom tour of its rail operations was the kind of educational program that would appeal to the both of them and others like them who appreciate the romance of the rails.

The three-hour tour gives guests 10 and older a chance learn all about the train operations at the Magic Kingdom and get an up-close, hands-on tour of the engine cabs and tenders, and a look inside the roundhouse where the trains are stored and maintained. Tour participants also get to ride some segments of track that are off-limits to regular guests, and they even get to see some spectacular mechanical feats performed as the engine boilers are set alight and steam pressure builds.

Recently, my husband and son parked at the Contemporary Resort visitor's lot (which is allowed for this tour) and walked over to the entrance of Magic Kingdom before the park opened. Once passing through the baggage-check site, they and others awaiting the tour gathered in the center of the plaza at the Kodak picture spot for the Main Street Station.

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Not only is this spot a centralized location for everyone on the tour to meet, but it proved to offer a unique vantage point from which to get a one-of-a-kind photo as the tour's private train did something it rarely does during the rest of the hours of the day. After the train pulled into the front of the Main Street station, the engine actually stopped in the middle of the track segment in front of the station, giving tour participants a privileged photo opportunity that most park guest will never have.

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After the train arrived for that photo op, it then advanced along the track as normal and awaited the tour group. At this point, the tour's leader guided the group toward the station. On the day my husband and son attended, it was only a group of 6, so everyone had plenty of room to gather around the conductor for the tour, Matt Simsburg of Connecticut, who led them to the station and into the last car of the train.

After a quick "all aboard," the tour then left for a nonstop ride to the Fantasyland station. There, a railroad worker threw the track switch behind the train, allowing the consist to back up and travel in reverse toward the roundhouse, where all of the Magic Kingdom's four trains - the No. 1 Walter E. Disney, the No. 2 Lilly Belle, the No. 3 Roger E. Broggie, and the No. 4 Roy E. Disney - are housed and maintained.

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It was there where my husband and son got to experience the engines and tenders up close and learn about the intricate mechanical workings of these iron horses. They both got to watch several of the trains as they prepared for their first official passenger runs of the morning, and they were allowed to climb into the cab of one engine and get a detailed rundown on all the various mechanical components used by the engineer and fireman.

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One visual highlight, they both said, was when flames were set to the engine's boilers; another came when the crew of the departing trains built up excess pressure in the boilers to trigger a steam "pop-off" valve test in which a plume of white steam is sent skyward above the monorails overhead and probably is heard over the entire backlot of the park and beyond.

After learning about these procedures and much more, my son and husband boarded another train and got to see how the engineers test track safety systems and perform other mechanical tests required before the trains are put into service at the park for the day.

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All along the way, conductor Matt was offering a wealth of insider information and answering the group's many questions. The participants learned plenty of historical facts about the rail line (Did you know that one of Henry Flagler's actual Florida East Coast bridges once had to be replaced after a hurricane in the Keys and now spans a waterway in Frontierland?). They heard interesting trivia about the route, too. (Just what is under the tunnel near the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction?) Plus, they learned details about the track's grade (its slope) at various parts of the route and how it can affect the trains' speed and braking ability.

They even got a short lesson on train-whistle communication and the importance of the engine's bell as the train pulls into the station. (It's not just a sound effect. Rather it is an actual signal to the workers at the station about a specific action about to take place.)

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Eventually, the group traveled back to the Main Street station. Arriving soon after the park had opened for the day, they disembarked for a short break. Afterward, the group then assembled inside one end of the station as their tour leader Matt gave them a historical account of Walt Disney's early love of railroading, a detailed look at how Disney designed and operated his own private and legendary "Carolwood Pacific Railroad" setup at his California home, and a telling of how the Magic Kingdom's four engines were re-created from the relics of actual, working engines in a time long past.

My husband said he had a lot of familiarity with most of the information presented in this part of the tour. As he told me, most rail fans probably already have a passing knowledge of Walt Disney's forays into railroading, both the actual trains of his youth and the smaller scales he created later for fun and for his themed attractions.

But he did say that one part of the discussion segment was new to him and, he said, surprisingly revelatory.

Tour leader Matt explained how Disney, in the 1940s, was much impressed with the Henry Ford Museum and its Greenfield Village, and how - on a train ride from the east coast back to California - Walt began sketching the first ideas for what later would become Disneyland. Disney's world-changing ideas about themed attractions, Matt pointed out, literally were born aboard a train, and those ideas have included some form of railroading at most of Disney's themed attractions ever since.

My son, at 10, might not have grasped the cultural or societal significance of what he was hearing, but he certainly did love the last thing he would take away from the tour that day. Matt presented him and everyone else in the tour group with a special-edition trading pin available only to tour participants.

If you take the tour, know that it leaves from the front of Magic Kingdom promptly at 7:30 a.m. You must be at least 10 years old to take part, and no camera or video photography is allowed along some backlot areas. (You are free to take pictures and video during the roundhouse tour, though.) The tour costs $49, plus tax, and also requires park admission. Annual passholders, Disney Vacation Club member and Disney Visa cardholders are eligible for discounts. Call 407-WDW-TOUR to book.

March 28, 2013

'My Yard Goes Disney' host Brandon Johnson takes guests behind the scenes of backyard makeovers at Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

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Brandon Johnson, host of "My Yard Goes Disney," returns to the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival this weekend as one of the featured speakers from HGTV, which sponsors the annual Walt Disney World event. Last year, he gave Home & Garden Television viewers a sneak peek at some of the amazing backyard makeovers that were featured on the second season of "My Yard Goes Disney."

This year, Johnson will offer festival-goers a more in-depth look at what it took to create those over-the-top, Disney-themed yards that made fans so ecstatic. Of course, the resources available for each yard were extensive. Lucky families chosen for the makeovers were given Mickey-shaped swimming pools, zip lines and even treehouses and campgrounds that were inspired by the families' favorite attractions at Walt Disney World and Disney Cruise Line. (Unfortunately, "My Yard Goes Disney" has not been renewed for a third season.)

Johnson will give 30-minute presentations on ways to make your own yard go Disney at noon and 3 p.m. March 29 to 31. Johnson will explain how to recreate some of the design elements featured on the show that blend Disney imagination with HGTV design. After each presentation, he will meet and greet the audience. I recently spoke with Johnson about his upcoming visit.

Can you tell us more about the beyond-the-scenes details you'll be revealing about those fantastic "My Yard Goes Disney" makeovers?

This time I'll be featuring three new families and going a little deeper into the creation process. I've tripled the amount of [photos] from last year -- so much to show! But you'll just have to come to the festival to see it all unfold.

What do you think most prohibits homeowners from redoing their backyards themselves?

It's a combination of " cost, time, resources and experience. I'm sure there are families that have the capability, but to execute the design to its fullest extent is where most get stuck. Our job is to take [their] most precious Disney memories and bring them to life in [their] backyard in a way a family never thought possible. These families have access to some of the most talented craftsmen in the business. Plus, having a huge crew cuts the installation time in half.

How can Disney guests take the magic of the festival home and apply it to their own homes and yards?

I'd do a brainstorm session of all your favorite Disney memories, narrow down a theme, color palette and then begin making sketches of what you'd like to create. Think about what you're willing to let go of in your backyard and how the new space could be used in the most efficient way. Give each space a function: A play area, dining area, relaxation area, etc. Incorporate family memories with the landscape. An example: Perhaps you plant specific flowers because they remind you of your wedding or a time you took a trip to one of the various Disney destinations.

What do you most enjoy about the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival?

It's such a gift to share the joy I've experienced while working on MYGD with the attendees. Of course, Epcot's topiaries are sensational and the food is incredible. Disney and HGTV take good care of me so I'm very grateful for the opportunity to participate in the festival.

When you come to Walt Disney World, what is your favorite thing to do?

I'm an adrenaline junky so I head for The Rock 'n' Roller coaster, Star Tours and Tower of Terror at Disney Hollywood Studios. Then, I pop over to Animal Kingdom to ride Expedition Everest or Mission: SPACE at Epcot. I truly love just walking around the parks and getting lost in all the incredible stimuli. [There is] so much to do and see. My time is usually limited, so I squeeze in as much fun as fast as I can!

Disney Channel fans recently saw you return to "Shake It Up" for the season finale. What other projects are you involved with now?

My next project is quite a departure from my character Gary Wilde on "Shake It Up." This time I'm the host a brand new adventure, reality competition show called, "72 Hours" premiering at 9 p.m. EST on June 6 on TNT. This has, by far, been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. We drop nine strangers into the wild of some of the most remote locations on the planet. They're then divided into three teams of three and given 72 hours to find a briefcase full of $100,000 using only a GPS unit, a two-way radio and a bottle of water. Every episode is a new location and new cast. We shot the show in Fiji, New Zealand, Tasmania, Hawaii and the Southern Rockies. " From the second the show starts, buckle in, because it's full throttle from then on!


March 30, 2013

Easter activities spring to life early at Epcot

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Walt Disney World has given its guests an "egg-stra" special Easter gift by extending the time its holiday activities are offered at Epcot -- and there's still time for kids to take advantage of the fun. As part of the Limited Time Magic campaign this year, events throughout the resort that historically have taken place only on Easter Day began a week earlier. We really like this idea, and set out to experience the fun ahead of the holiday crowds.

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Among the "Spring Fling" activities are ones that my elementary-school-age children have enjoyed at Epcot's United Kingdom pavilion in the past. A traditional egg hunt takes place every 10 minutes in the maze garden each day from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Children ages 3 to 9 can sign up with the cast member stationed at an Easter-basket-themed podium in the UK section of the park. Then, based on their start times, other cast members will direct them to the correct queue along the maze.

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These egg hunts are well-organized and efficient. Children receive cute Easter-themed bags with handles and are told they may choose five plastic eggs when they enter the maze. Parents typically are not allowed in the maze, so plan accordingly. (There is another more simple egg hunt in an adjacent open space that is set up just for toddlers and their parents.) At the end of the maze, a cast member counts each child's eggs, which are filled with holiday trinkets and candy, and adds two marshmallow Peeps to the mix. New this year: duck-shaped plastic eggs.

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Children ages 8 to 12 also can participate in the Easter egg relays from 11:40 a.m. to 3:40 p.m. These all take place at 40 minutes after the hour, and children can sign up at the same location. Then they line up in the middle of the plaza. Two teams of seven kids will race a loop around the gardens with their eggs perched precariously on large spoons. Both of my competitive children enjoyed this activity, which was humorously narrated by a couple of cast members in their Easter finery. Win or lose, all children receive prizes at the end of the race.

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Space is limited for these activities, which is why the registration is required. We did see some children go more than once, which is permitted as long as you sign up and receive a ticket each time.

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Also in this same area behind the UK pavilion, guests will be able to meet Mr. and Mrs. Bunny from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. The couple is happy to pose for photos and sign autographs. A Disney's PhotoPass photographer also is stationed with the bunnies, if you'd like to purchase a professional photo.

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Children ages 3 to 9 also can gather eggs at the Innoventions East-er Garden in Future World East. This hunt does not offer any landscape challenges, like the UK maze, and all the plastic eggs are scattered on the lawn. Because of this setup, the Innoventions East-er Garden may be better suited for young children without an older sibling or friend to guide them, or for those parents who prefer to see their children at all times. Nearby, there also are a bunny ring toss and Easter egg beanbag toss for all ages.

There are many other Easter Festivities around the parks!

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About March 2013

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

February 2013 is the previous archive.

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