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June 2013 Archives

June 1, 2013

Downtown Disney's Portobello Restaurant to host Italian cooking school for adults

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Chef Tony Mantuano of Chicago's Spiaggia, Cafe Spiaggia and Bar Toma will be hosting an adult cooking class at Downtown Disney's Portobello Restaurant on Friday, June 14.

During the two-hour Pantry Raid cooking class, Mantuano will show participants how to use ingredients most people keep on hand at home to create a variety of Italian specialties. Among the demonstrations are pickling vegetables, fresh pasta preparation, and balsamic and honey tastings.

"Like our cooking classes for children, this class will have ample participation from audience volunteers, and the dishes that are demonstrated will be served to the class," said Steven Richard, area chef for Levy Restaurants and former executive chef at Portobello. 

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Also, wine will be paired with each of the dishes: Zonin Prosecco with antipasti, Bertani Valpolicella with pizza, Mazzei Badiola with pasta, and Ruffino Moscato with dessert."®

Certainly, attendees at cooking classes have a desire to become better chefs themselves. I recently asked Chef Mantuano, though, what he thinks motivates adults to become creative cooks.

"I think adults are inspired by memories from their childhood and from their travels. We all want to recreate a dish our grandmother made or other family recipes. We also want to recreate them with our own little twist," he said. "I've added a few of my nonna's recipes, some with my own take, at my restaurants. I also love traveling and bringing home food memories to recreate favorite dishes or meals with my family or at one of my restaurants."

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The Pantry Raid class is designed to appeal to cooks of all skill levels, and Mantuano will offer tips, tricks and strategies to take away and use at home. For beginning cooks -- who might feel motivated, yet overwhelmed, by the many possibilities -- Mantuano offers this advice:

"Start with something simple and make a cuisine or dish you already like or know. This way you know what to expect in the end.  You do not want your first attempts at cooking to be overly complicated or with cuisines you're not sure of the flavor profile. For those who like authentic Italian food, I'd suggest making a spaghetti pomodoro. Find a great dried pasta brand, such as from Giuseppe Cocco, and a pomodoro recipe online either with fresh tomatoes (in the summer) or canned San Marzano tomato puree. This is typically a simple and easy-to-follow recipe that will help build up confidence in the kitchen. From there they can start advancing with other recipes." 

Mantuano encourages budding chefs to enjoy the entire creative process involved with cooking. He said he thinks many adults actually find the most pleasure in shopping for each dish.

"I think adults like sourcing ingredients the most. Going to their local grocery store or food shop to pick out the ingredients themselves is an exciting part of the process, especially as they get to know their butcher, fishmonger, cheesemonger, and others," he told me. "I think the more adventurous like going to the market and seeing what is in season and then figuring out a menu."

"®The Portobello Pantry Raid cooking class, which runs from 1 to 3 p.m. June 14, is $49.95 per person. The class will be capped at 32 participants to maintain an intimate experience with Chef Mantuano. To make a reservation, call 407-828-8996.

June 4, 2013

Wilderness Explorers opens at Disney's Animal Kingdom, Inspired by 'Up' movie

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Animal Kingdom's newest attraction, Wilderness Explorers, is built around a theme from the Disney-Pixar film "Up." One of the main characters in the 2009 animated movie, Russell, is a Wilderness Explorer, which is a fictional version of Boy Scouts. As Russell is working to earn his final merit badge, he gets caught up in an elderly man's drama and ends up traveling on an unexpected journey.

Now Walt Disney World's newest theme park has developed a Wilderness Explorers program that encourages kids to learn about specific areas of their world by earning merit badges, similarly to how the group functions in the movie. The Wilderness Explorers attraction at Animal Kingdom, which debuted June 1, is open to all guests, though the materials are geared toward kids ages 7 to 10.

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With both of my children in the target age range and involved in real-life Scouting, our family was eager to try the new attraction this weekend. To get started, we visited the first troop leader post, which is located just over the bridge on the edge of Discovery Island. (There are other starting points in Africa, Asia, DinoLand U.S.A. and Rafiki's Planet Watch.)

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Troop leaders initiate kids by teaching them the Explorer call, which has three hand gestures and corresponding vocals: "The wilderness must be explored!" with hands framing a view; "Caw Caw" with hands shaping a bird; and "Roar!" like a lion (or other large beast) with paws up and out. They also say the Wilderness Explorers' Motto, which is a short pledge to be "a friend to all, be it plants or fish or tiny mole." Like real-life Scouts, kids earn their first badges after mastering the group's mission statements, and they receive a handbook outlining the other merit badges they can earn and a sticker to wear in place of "uniform."

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Wilderness Explorers can complete 30 additional badges -- which actually are stickers placed in their handbooks -- in any order or timeframe they choose. They don't have to be finished on the same day.

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In several sections of the park, multiple badge locations are grouped together, making it easy to complete related badges together. For example, six Wilderness Explorers stations can be found at Rafiki's Planet Watch. Here's a plan: Ride the Wildlife Express Train to Rafiki's Planet Watch, stop to earn the Habitat badge on the walk to the Conservation Station. Once inside, learn about Animal Nutrition, Veterinary medicine and Recycling to earn badges, which are requirements for the Conservation badge. Step outside into the Affection Section, a petting yard, and earn the Hand Washing badge after visiting the animals. Be sure to check the map in the handbook indicating locations for each badge to plot your course.

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Habitat badge


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Animal Nutrition badge


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Veterinary badge


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Brushing animals before earning Hand Washing badge


Some badges are more interactive than others, and that certainly affects the interest levels of the kids participating. My children really enjoyed the Animal Find badge, which challenged them to find 22 specific animals anywhere in Animal Kingdom during their day. When we stopped at the locations for the Asian and African Culture badges, they were taught a foreign-language phrase and were less enthusiastic about those experiences. Overall, my 8-year-old daughter was more excited about the Wilderness Explorers attraction than my 10-year-old son. She was happy to learn at each station and wanted to complete as many badges as possible. My son, on the other hand, was embarrassed to wear the Wilderness Explorers sticker and thought many of the exercises at the stations were too easy for him.

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African Culture badge


Wilderness Explorers has replaced the Kids' Discovery Club program, which featured six learning stations throughout the park. Those stations, such as one where kids dig for fossils and then assemble a color-coded dinosaur, have been absorbed into the new program as badge locations.

Wilderness Explorers is included in regular admission to Animal Kingdom. The attraction opens at 10 a.m. daily, one hour after the rope drop.


June 6, 2013

SeaWorld's new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin - Mixed Reactions

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My family was crazy enough to brave the crowds at SeaWorld on Memorial Day -- and we even got in the two-and-half-hour line to experience the new Empire of the Penguin attraction in the new Antarctica section. Unfortunately, I was overly optimistic about what we would experience and what my kids would enjoy.

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A two-hour-plus queue winds back around Pacific Point Preserve, where the sea lions live. SeaWorld was prepared for the interest in its new attraction with lines roped off, large umbrellas offering ample shade from the Florida sun, and free cold water stations. Still, asking my 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter to stand in line that long was asking for trouble. So, I stayed in line and my husband took the kids to burn off some energy in Shamu's Happy Harbor.

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With a bit of good timing, they rejoined me as we entered the ride building. Unfortunately, that's where things fell apart during our experience. The ride had "technical difficulties" no fewer than five times, adding more than 30 minutes to our wait. And unlike at Walt Disney World, where cast members are efficient about informing and directing guests when something goes wrong, the SeaWorld team members that day didn't do much of either.

Although the lack of information during an extended theme-park wait certainly is frustrating for anyone, it really put a damper on the experience for our family. My husband had another afternoon commitment, so he left before riding, and my cautious son was so leery of the ride after all its stops and starts that he refused to go on it at all. A team member did offer everyone in our ride vehicle a one-time front-of-the-line pass so we could experience Empire of the Penguin again without the frustrations.

Still, I can't help but wonder why SeaWorld chose not to perform soft openings of the ride -- as many theme parks do -- to work out any bugs in the attraction. This would have been especially important before holiday weekend crowds converged there.

My daughter, who did ride Empire of the Penguin with me, enjoyed the tale of Puck the penguin and was mesmerized by the multi-colored icicles. She was not intimidated by the scene when the leopard seal chases Puck, and she seemed wowed by the reveal of the penguins in their habitat. She certainly would go again.

When we stepped off the ride, we met my son in front of the swimming penguins. A cast member led him to the habitat and even offered to stay to with my son, though I felt comfortable with him walking the short distance from the ride queue by himself. We all took a quick peek at the penguins -- neither of my children were willing to stay in the 30-degree Fahrenheit temperature for more than a few minutes in their summer outfits!

My daughter mentioned she thinks SeaWorld should offer the use of heavy coats, as they do at Gaylord Palm's ICE! each year. Visitors could bring their own hoodies or fleece jackets, but I think that's a bit unrealistic at a Florida theme park in the nine hot months of the year. Of course, there is the underwater viewing area of the penguins in an adjacent room that is warmer.

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One interesting aspect of the penguin habitat was that the lighting was different from when I saw the exhibit at the media preview three days beforehand. A publicist explained that's because SeaWorld simulates the levels of sunlight at Antarctica at various times of the day.


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After we exited Empire of the Penguin, we opted for an early dinner at Expedition Cafe, the new quick-service restaurant in the Antarctica area. My son and I sampled the Orange Chicken and brown rice from the Asian counter, and we both liked it. At the media event, Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Operations Hector Colon had explained that orange chicken is the top pick for kids at Asian restaurants, and we could understand why. My daughter tried the Shamu Kid's Meal of a chicken wing and French fries at the Stateside counter and ate it all, though it wasn't her favorite meal experienced in the park.

Afterward, we sampled the new drink from Coca-Cola, South Pole Chill, which is a SeaWorld exclusive. My children don't drink much soda and weren't sold on the flavor, which tastes like a light cream soda. However, as a Diet Coke addict, I really liked it! The nearby Glacial Collections store sells refillable cups that are like the penguin version of Mr. Potato Head, and these certainly appeal to kids, my own included.

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Children also might enjoy meeting the character Puck, who appears throughout the day across from Empire of the Penguin. And beginning this month, SeaWorld is offering a new Penguins Up Close tour, which allows guests to pet real penguins and have their photos taken with the birds. The price is $59 for adults and $39 for kids ages 3 to 9.

Maybe I was expecting too much from an untested attraction on one of the busiest theme-park days of the year. I hope that, once the mechanical issues are resolved, we can return again and perhaps both my kids will have a more engaging experience at this attraction like they've had repeatedly at the dolphin and Orca sites at SeaWorld. Until then, though, I imagine they will choose to chill at some of their other favorite attractions and shows in the park.

June 8, 2013

Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon vs. SeaWorld's Aquatica: Who has the better after-2 p.m. pass?

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As Orlando residents, my family and I have had various combinations of theme-park passes since our kids were toddlers. For several years, those included the popular water parks: either Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon or SeaWorld's Aquatica.

With school out for summer, now we are considering an option we haven't yet tried: The after-2 p.m. water-park pass that is available to Florida residents. For a reduced price, guests can purchase an annual pass that allows entry into the water parks only after 2 p.m. with no blackout dates.

The water parks offer this option, of course, because that's when the crowds start to thin out. Guests who have been in the water since 9 a.m. often are ready to head back to their hotels by mid-afternoon. Plus, in Florida, it's a given that many summer days include afternoon rain, which also clears a water park pretty quickly. Added to this is the fact that the afternoons often are the hottest parts of the days.

So, purchasing an after-2 p.m. pass is a gamble with the weather. But at about half the cost of a regular annual pass to the water parks, we think it just might be worth a try. The water parks stay open later in the summer, often until 8 p.m., so we potentially still could spend six hours on the slides and in the pools.

Now, the difficult decision: Which water park do we choose? Our family has happy memories at all three water parks. But on paper, Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon are the better deal.

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At Disney, the after-2 p.m. pass is $66.03 for adults and $53.25 for kids (including tax) ages 3 to 9. It allows the passholder entry into two separate Disney water parks for one year from the date of purchase. Plus, there is no charge for parking. In addition, Walt Disney World allows guests to bring coolers of all sizes, including large rolling ice chests, so it is possible to bring a meal and drinks for the day and save money. The only restrictions involve glass containers and alcohol.

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At SeaWorld's Aquatica, Florida residents can purchase an after-2 p.m. pass for $58.58 for adults and $53.25 for kids (including tax) ages 3 to 9. It is good only for the one park and only through the end of 2013. There is a $12 charge to park each time you visit. SeaWorld restricts coolers to a 16-quart size, and food is limited to snacks, bottled water, baby food and whatever is needed for those with dietary restrictions. Of course, alcohol and glass containers are not permitted. SeaWorld does have a small picnic area outside its gates and guests are allowed to use the tables for meals stored in their vehicles and then re-enter the water park.

But how do you measure value when your children prefer one water park over another? How would you decide? Please tell us in the comments.

June 11, 2013

Disney Infinity debuts at E3 today and possibly at Downtown Disney later this month

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With only two months until the scheduled launch of Disney Infinity, the highly anticipated gaming system that is expected to give Activision's Skylanders a run for its money, the marketing is ramping up. Participants at the three-day E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in Los Angeles that begins today will be among the first to play. It had been previously announced that the gaming platform would be available to guests at Orlando's Downtown Disney last week, but that didn't happen.

Disney Infinity allows players to place physical versions of their favorite Disney characters onto an Infinity Base and seemingly transport them into the virtual worlds of Monsters University, the Incredibles, Cars, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Lone Ranger. What sets Disney Infinity apart from Skylanders -- and other Disney Interactive games -- though, is its Toy Box feature, which allows users to mix various Disney and Pixar stories and characters.

Disney describes the Toy Box concept this way: "Unlock virtual toys from each play set - characters, buildings, weapons, gadgets and more - and bring them into the Toy Box where you can mix them all up to create your own game. In the Toy Box, there are no rules and you can create any adventure you want."

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Disney Interactive will be offering E3 participants the opportunity to try all of the announced play sets and the Toy Box mode at its 18 demonstration stations. In fact, when they approach the booth, those same attendees will feel as if they have stepped onto a life-size version of the Infinity base that lights up.

"If you look around from the base, you will catch glimpses of iconic Disney characters and environments, re-imagined as toys using our unique Infinity art style. You will see new characters like Wreck It Ralph and Tonto mixing it up with old favorites like Bullseye from Toy Story and Stitch," according to the press release.

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Executive Producer of Disney Infinity John Vignocchi

There also will be a photo op that features a Toy Box-like fusion of Cinderella's Coach and a monster truck in front of the famed princess's castle.

Among the Disney merchandise that fans are sure to stand in long lines to get their hands on: custom T-shirts, shirt sleeves or hoodies made from 10 combinations exclusively at the booth and pre-release Infinity character toys that will be distributed through a vending machine.

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.

Starter packs, which include the video game, Infinity Base, three play sets, three characters, one Infinity Power Disc and web codes, go on sale August 18 for about $75. Additional play sets are priced about $30 to $35.

Through June 23, Nintendo is hosting a booth outside Once Upon a Toy Store at Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World as part of its Wii U Tour. Guests can stop by and try at no charge a variety of Wii U games, including Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros. U, LEGO City Undercover and Need for Speed Most Wanted U. Disney Infinity was expected to be available, as well. Perhaps after the marketing splash at E3, it will be. We'll keep you posted; expect a review if it becomes available.

June 13, 2013

Radio Disney to travel Central Florida this summer with family entertainment

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The Road Crew from Radio Disney AM 990 is going to be traveling back and forth across Central Florida this summer, bringing music, games and prizes to a lot of family friendly local events. The experiences are inexpensive or free and often include prizes and fantastic giveaways.

Here's the upcoming schedule for those Disney DJs:

June 13

Orange County Public Library, South Creek Branch: 11 a.m. at 1702 Deerfield Blvd., Orlando. The Radio Disney Road Crew caps a weeklong library tour for its Summer Fun Kick Off promotion. This is an interactive event for the whole family.

June 15

Fifth Third Street Fair in Sanford: 10 a.m. to noon at 109 Bernini Way. Come out and hear Radio Disney hits while enjoying some family time.

Sea Turtle Odyssey at New Smyrna Beach: 7 to 9 p.m. at the Shoppes at Seaside Station on Flagler Avenue. The event itself kicks off at noon with educational opportunities hosted by Canaveral National Seashore, Marine Discovery Center, Marine Science Center and NSB Turtle Trackers. After the Radio Disney Road Crew wraps up, families can watch a movie under the stars, "A Turtle's Tale: Sammy's Adventure."

Summer Saturday Nights at Brevard Zoo in Melbourne: 5 to 7 p.m. at 8225 N. Wickham Road. Summer Saturday Nights take place every Saturday in June and July at the zoo from 5 to 9 p.m. Admission is just $6. Many of the animal exhibits are open until dusk, and special animal encounters begin at 7 p.m. Plus, there are live musical performances and a kids' water play area open until 7:30. Last admission is at 8 p.m.

June 21

New Fantasyland Mobile Experience in Orlando: 1 to 3 p.m. at Orlando Premium Outlets at 4951 International Drive. At this event, Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts will share the latest news about its New Fantasyland section of the Magic Kingdom. Enter to win a family four-pack of tickets to the Magic Kingdom to experience New Fantasyland for yourself!

Monsters U Premiere in Ocoee: 5 to 7 p.m. at West Oaks Mall, 9401 W. Colonial Drive. Radio Disney's Road Crew will be throwing a red carpet event to celebrate the opening of Disney-Pixar's "Monsters University." Families can enter to win passes to see the sequel to "Monsters Inc." following the party.

June 22

Kids' Run at Winter Springs Town Center: 3 to 5 p.m. at 434 Tuskawlla Road. The event kicks off with the race, so be sure to wear your running shoes! Afterward, celebrate with Radio Disney's Road Crew.

June 29

Summer Saturday Nights at Brevard Zoo in Melbourne: 5 to 7 p.m. at 8225 N. Wickham Road. The AM 990 Road Crew returns to the East Coast for another fun family night.

Fifth-Third Community Appreciation Event in Conway (Orlando):
11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 10401 Curry Ford Road. Fifth-Third Bank invites families to come out and enjoy free entertainment.

June 15, 2013

Fantasia Gardens at Walt Disney World offers miniature golf for beginners, pros

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This week, my children, a friend and I finally made it a point to play miniature golf at Walt Disney World's Fantasia Gardens. For years, we have chosen to sink our putts at the newer Winter Summerland courses located near Blizzard Beach, but it was time to check out the long-standing competition.

Fantasia Gardens is located across from the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel near Epcot. It is home to two very different courses: A traditional miniature golf course by the same name and Fantasia Fairways, an 18-hole golf course with water hazards, sand traps, roughs designed to be played only by putting. Make no mistake -- Fantasia Fairways is a challenging course for serious golfers.

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For that reason, we chose Fantasia Gardens for our foursome. As you would expect, the theme of Disney World's first miniature golf course is taken from Disney's 1940 animated classic, "Fantasia." Expect to see elephants and hippos, snowflakes and mushrooms, and Mickey Mouse and the film's iconic brooms dotting the course.

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My 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter noticed that Fantasia Gardens "rewards" players more often with squirting or spraying water than Winter Summerland does. Of course, they thought this was great fun, especially on a hot Florida afternoon! At Winter Summerland, there is one water feature on each 18-hole course, while Fantasia Gardens offers multiple opportunities for a good soaking.

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Perhaps the most fantastic is the water display on Hole 16, which is lined with the famous brooms and buckets. Walt Disney Imagineer Senior Concept Designer Joe Lanzisero explained the hole this way after Fantasia Gardens opened in 1996: "Everyone gets the payoff here. You don't have to do anything special to get the brooms to dump the water. The water squirts not only over the putting area, but over where the people walk, too. This is programmed so that the buckets shoot water in sequence, but if you make it to the putting green in one shot, the ball has to go by three sensors so all the buckets splash at one time."

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We also found out the hard way that Fantasia Gardens gives putters many more uphill battles than Winter Summerland does. This factor alone increased the difficulty factor, especially for the younger members of our group. Players have to have the magical touch to be able to hit the ball hard enough to make it to the top of the mound without sending it flying off course. This can be frustrating at times for inexperienced golfers. We all needed multiple attempts to propel our golf balls to the top on Hole 17.

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Nevertheless, two of the kids in our group managed to get a hole-in-one, and they were thrilled when cast members offered them a surprise for their efforts.

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Overall, we enjoyed our experience at Fantasia Gardens, but I think we'd all still pick Winter Summerland as our first choice for miniature golf at Walt Disney World. The Christmas-themed courses offer a better variety of fun challenges that are less frustrating for younger players, and there are fun photo opportunities and a picnic area. Players finish their round at the "clubhouse" with a candy cane.

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Prices for both Winter Summerland and Fantasia Gardens are $14 for adults and $12 for children ages 3 to 9 for 18 holes. Guests who decide to play both courses get a 50 percent discount on the second 18 holes played on the same or next day by showing their original receipts. Disney World passholders also can receive a 50 percent discount every time they play; the deal is good for the passholder and up to three guests.


June 18, 2013

Disney Infinity: My kids preview game with help from artist, designer

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Disney Interactive Studios invited gamers and Disney guests on both coasts to play its much-talked about new gaming system, Disney Infinity, this past week for the first time. At E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in Los Angeles, players formed long lines to try their hands at the game that has been compared repeatedly to Activision's Skylanders. In Orlando, the game was set up for two days at Car Masters Weekend at Downtown Disney's West Side.

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There was no way my 10-year-old son wanted to miss out on the opportunity to preview Disney Infinity two months before its Aug. 18 North America release date, so we headed to Walt Disney World and braved the crowds Sunday afternoon. When we arrived, the line to play the game was shorter than I expected, especially considering that people who played the demos were given the Dash ("The Incredibles") character piece, which will sell for $13.

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The Disney Infinity booth had four gaming stations set up -- two for playset-only mode and two for Toy Box mode. We asked to play the Toy Box version each of the three times we stood in line because that is the key difference between Disney Infinity and Skylanders. The Toy Box allows players to mix Disney and Pixar characters and environments, each creating their own unique games that they can share with their friends. Play-set mode, by comparison, puts the game characters in their own self-contained world that is appropriate only to their movie or TV show franchise.

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Jared Bald, senior designer for Toy Box, was among the staff at Downtown Disney showing visitors how to play the game. He said the developers he has worked with for the last two years compare the Toy Box in the game to a physical toy box, albeit one that holds many more of toys, but the fascination by young players is the same. "Give kids hundreds of toys on a living room floor and they will play for hours," he said. "There is no end to what they can do with Disney Infinity."

It took my son, who is an avid gamer, a few minutes to get acclimated to the game, but once he did, he was excited about the Toy Box option. He especially wanted to race his sister's characters in vehicles or on mounts. Could his Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster beat her Cinderella Coach?

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Disney Infinity concept artist Ben Simonsen

Ben Simonsen, a concept artist on Disney Infinity, said that designing the vehicles was, in fact, one of his favorite aspects of working on the Disney Interactive project. He said that my son's interest was indicative of what they had seen by other players at the demonstration: Kids seemed to be more focused on interacting with other players than progressing through a goal-oriented game. And Disney Infinity allows for that, to be sure.

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My 8-year-old daughter had one question, though, when encountering anyone affiliated with Disney Infinity: Will there be any Disney Princess characters? So far, none have been announced, but the coach vehicle and Cinderella Castle are available, as well as an environment from "Tangled" with Rapunzel, in the Toy Box. Although no one officially could confirm that any of the royal beauties will join the gaming system, it was suggested that they would be a logical progression, given their strong market brand.

Disney Infinity will have another booth with demo stations on Aug. 16 near Once Upon a Toy at Downtown Disney Marketplace. A Disney World cast member said that she hopes the game will be available for purchase at that time, and she expects developers to be there to answer questions and sign copies.

To read my previous articles about Disney Infinity, please click here and here.

Disney Infinity at E3


June 20, 2013

Disney's lovable puppies return in 'Super Buddies' DVD

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Who can resist watching a litter of Golden retriever puppies play? Certainly not me or my kids, especially since we have our own mischievous Golden, Sunshine, at home. Add a little Disney magic to a naturally amusing gathering, and the antics of the pups easily became a popular movie series.

The franchise began in 1997 with the theatrical release of "Air Bud." It featured Buddy, a golden retriever with athletic abilities. Its sequel, "Air Bud: Golden Receiver," came out the following year, and then followed 11 movies that were released directly to DVD. About halfway through the series, the stories began to focus on the puppies rather than the original dog.

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The Buddies return on Aug. 27 in a new adventure, "Super Buddies," that clearly builds on the recent popularity of Disney's film "The Avengers."

Walt Disney Studios describes the 130-minute "Super Buddies" this way: "An ordinary day at Fernfield Farms turns extraordinary when Budderball, Mudbud, B-Dawg, Buddha and Rosebud discover mysterious rings that grant them each a unique super power. Before you can say, "Buddies, assemble," the pups unleash their amazing abilities and race to the rescue when a shape-shifting bully from outer space threatens the planet. But can they succeed in kicking major tail without revealing their new secret identities?"

My children, now 8 and 10 years old, still love all the Buddies movies and watch them over and over again and try to remember when our Sunshine, now 7, was a puppy. They always appreciate her a little more after watching one of these movies, and she winds up with a bowl of treats.

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For several seasons, the Buddies -- like other franchises The Walt Disney Company wants to promote -- have been featured in the Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade. The Space Buddies were seen sitting on the curb among the guests one year, while the Santa Buddies posed in a sleigh on Main Street, U.S.A., for another.

As an Orlando resident, I have been to several of the Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade tapings at Walt Disney World, and it's entertaining to watch the trainers try to command the squirming puppies for certain camera angles as the crowd "oohs" and "aahs." One year, a trainer rewarded the guests lining the sidewalks by carrying some of the pups over and allowing them to be petted.

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"Super Buddies" will be sold in Blu-ray and DVD combo packages. Can't wait until then? Check out the official website to play games, create a superhero comic with the Buddies and watch video clips from the various Buddies movies.

June 22, 2013

Don't miss: Roasting marshmallows and making s'mores at Walt Disney World hotels

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Many of us, the young and the young-at-heart, have fond summer memories of roasting marshmallows and making s'mores. Whether you enjoy the sweet treats blackened or just lightly toasted, you can make your dessert just the way you like it at Walt Disney World.

Most of the moderate and deluxe hotels at the Disney resort offer their guests complimentary supplies (marshmallows and roasting sticks) each night at a bonfire staffed by a cast member. For my family, this never gets old, so when we stay on property, we have to make sure we're at the hotel at least one of the nights at the proper time in the evening. Be sure to look at the activity sheet for your specific hotel to see when the fire is started each night.

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At Disney's Fort Wilderness Campground, though, guests can be immersed in the traditional campfire experience. Two fires are lighted about 7:30 p.m. in the summer -- an hour later than the rest of the year -- and cast members let them burn throughout the evening so guests can cook whatever they'd like, from hotdogs to marshmallows.

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The nearby Chuckwagon sells supplies, but guests are welcome to bring their own food, as well. If grocery shopping already is part of your vacation, bringing your own food will save you a bit because the prices are somewhat steep for s'mores ingredients. Here is a list of what you can buy. Come prepared with supplies or money to purchase your treats because there are no complimentary treats at the Fort Wilderness Campground like there might be at the other resorts.

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At 8 p.m., an entertainer leads guests in a singalong, which includes kid-friendly dances such as the Hokey-Pokey and the Chicken Dance. Don't forget your autograph books because Chip 'n Dale make their way through the crowd, stopping to visit with each guest.

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Finally, a Disney movie under the stars starts at 8:40 p.m. For nights with a double-header, the second movie begins at 10:15 p.m. The movie schedule is posted at the beginning of each month throughout the Fort Wilderness Campground. Many of the Disney World hotels also show outdoor movies at night, weather permitting, on their lawns or beaches. Bringing a blanket or some towels is likely to help kids get more comfortable so they can lounge, snuggle under them, and even fall asleep after a full day at Walt Disney World.

The campfire singalong is free and open to all guests staying on Disney property, not just those at Fort Wilderness.


June 25, 2013

Review: Disney-Pixar's 'Monsters University' earns passing grade

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"Monsters University," the prequel to the 2001 Disney-Pixar film "Monsters, Inc.", finally hit theaters this weekend. It seemed a long time coming because the promotion of this movie has been ongoing and seemingly omnipresent, especially for Orlando residents who frequent Walt Disney World. Perhaps that's why I had such high expectations for the movie. "Monsters University" is a fun family movie with a clever premise, detailed imagery and beloved characters. What it lacks, though, is the wit and drama of previous Pixar films -- and even last year's "Wreck-It Ralph" from Walt Disney Animation Studios.

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"Monsters University" tells the story of how Michael Wazowski ("Mike") and James P. Sullivan ("Sulley") met, as the title infers, when they were college students studying to become professional scarers. The pair have a not-so-friendly rivalry in their classes and social lives, but a series of events forces them to compete on the same team in order to have a chance of attaining their college degrees. Along the way, Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) both learn lessons about teamwork, friendship and loyalty.

To be sure, Mike and Sulley appeal to a wide audience in this film. The large number of children in the theater where I saw the movie were engaged with the story, judging by their outspoken comments. And adults who have attended a university on a traditional campus will relate to the film plot's many typical college activities, such as getting a student ID, meeting a dorm roommate and pledging a Greek fraternity or sorority.

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Also, in "Monsters University," the animation -- clearly a key element on which Pixar Animation Studios has built its reputation -- is on par with other Pixar movies, such as the "Toy Story" franchise. The population of monsters is richly detailed and moves fluidly through the story. My family saw the film in 3D, and although those effects were well-executed, too, they were not integral to enjoying the movie.

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But the story here barely earns a passing grade. Though heart-warming, it is not as fast-paced or as humorous as films such as "Wreck-It Ralph," or even the original, "Monsters, Inc." The story line of this film just doesn't feel as compelling as Ralph saving Penelope or Mike and Sulley protecting Boo from the monster world, so it's more difficult to be emotionally invested in the outcome. Also, the jokes in the film aren't that funny. Today's parents -- and possibly other adults who enjoy animated movies -- have come to expect today's animated humor to be presented in layers, with some jokes appealing to kids and others aimed at the older viewers. That really doesn't happen in "Monsters University," which seems to draw its laughs by relying on some of the same themes we already saw in "Monsters Inc."Ě From the human-child scream simulator to the Child Detection Agency squad to Mike's joy at seeing a badly shot photo of himself on his student ID, the punch lines come across as unoriginal and, unlike most Pixar productions, unsurprising.

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Overall, Director Dan Scanlon does give it the old college try with "Monsters University," but the product is not the A-plus work we've come to expect from Pixar. Still, families likely will enjoy this summer movie because it is fun to learn the back story of Mike and Sulley and to be transported to their world. And viewers who stay in their seats until the last credit rolls will be rewarded with "extra credit" (a final scene in the movie).

But if this film were a college class assignment, the letter grade might only be a C or B- at most. And if Monstropolis were relying on kids' laughter to energize the monster's world, it probably would be better served in showing a rerun of the original than a less-energized prequel.

June 27, 2013

SeaWorld's Summer Nights offers old favorites, plus a few surprises

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Summer officially began last weekend, and with it, SeaWorld's Summer Nights festivities. Through August 11, the theme park stays open later hours and offers two popular nighttime shows and a character dance party.

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A perennial favorite, Sea Lions Tonite has returned, and my family and I think it's one of the best shows at SeaWorld. Talented sea lions, otters and a walrus parody favorite SeaWorld shows and attractions with a little help from their trainers. The popular show is laugh-out-loud funny, and even includes an Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin joke and a gentle poke at The Mouse, too. Be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before show time to get a decent seat. The wait passes quickly, though, because a mime hilariously interacts with the audience, keeping everyone entertained.

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Shamu Rocks, SeaWorld's unique combination of a rock concert and a killer whale show, has been updated for the 2013 season. The audience still will experience a high-energy show with catchy, classic-rock music and colorful lighting. The hair-band rocker with the Shamu guitar returns, too, and the animal trainers do more dancing than at the One Ocean daytime event.

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The change, though, comes at the end of the park's signature show, when fireworks have been added behind the stadium and in view of the spectators. The pyrotechnics certainly blend in with the concert feel of the show and are beautiful behind Shamu Stadium. Unfortunately, this addition is at the expense of the Reflections: Fireworks and Fountains Show Finale at Bayside Stadium. That water, lights and fireworks show is not being offered this summer, which is a disappointment in some ways because it was an enduring crowd-pleaser and one that my kids enjoyed seeing every chance they could.

Shamu Stadium typically opens 45 minutes before the show, and lines will form on the ramps, so get there early. The splash sections seemed to fill up first. Pre-show entertainment consists of live, camera-captured scenes of audience members, which never fails to amuse.

With SeaWorld open until 10 p.m. during the summer, guests have the opportunity to ride the new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at night. That section of the park is beautifully lit up after dark and the queue did seem shorter when we were there. Guests can cap off their evening with a dance party with the SeaWorld characters from 9 to 10:30 p.m. in the Village Square (adjacent to Guest Services).

On July 4, there will be special additions to the Summer Nights lineup. Fans of the retired fireworks show will be excited to know that a patriotic Reflections show is scheduled for that night only. Beforehand, the SeaWorld Celebration Singers, an ensemble group of singers and a nine-piece band, will perform a variety of popular music, including traditional marches and patriotic tunes. The concert starts at 9:30 p.m. and the fireworks are at 10 p.m.

Also, in celebration of the national holiday, SeaWorld will be hosting a Bayside Cookout from July 3 through 6. Along the Bayside pathway, guests can purchase a one-third-pound bacon cheeseburger, footlong hot dogs, BBQ pulled pork sandwiches, kids' meals and five flavors of Dippin Dots. Bayside Cookout will be open 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the end time extended until 8 p.m. on July 4.

SeaWorld is open an extra hour -- until 11 p.m. -- the Fourth of July.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando during its Summer Nights kickoff. My opinions are my own, and this did not influence my review.

June 29, 2013

Orlando’s Gatorland offers another kind of animal kingdom that will appeal to families

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When I was invited to spend the day at Gatorland -- "The Alligator Capital of the World" on Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando -- with a group of Central Florida bloggers, I was sure it would be a VERY different theme-park experience than my usual visits to Walt Disney World and SeaWorld. I have to admit to being a bit squeamish about the killer reptiles, and I wondered how quickly my children would get bored in a gator-centric environment. After all, my young kids are more accustomed to huggable Mickey and friends and smiling sea mammals at the theme parks. But as we found out on our first visit, Gatorland offers quite a few fun activities for families -- and not all directly involve the park's star reptiles.

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We did begin our tour of the park with activities that centered on the gators, though. First was an up-close encounter that allows guests to stand on a shore in the Breeding Marsh, just feet from the gators, while feeding them. During our Adventure Hour experience, a trainer led small groups into the fenced area.

The gators in this area clearly know that they will be fed and did not display aggressive behavior while we were there. In fact, they bobbed offshore in the water until the trainer encouraged them to approach the shore, where they slid up and stopped. This behavior actually reminded me of the dolphin feedings at SeaWorld. Obviously, gators are much more dangerous, but they acted in the same fashion as other animals that have learned what is expected to receive a reward.

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The trainer stayed close to the gators while members of our group were encouraged to don gloves and throw raw meat to the gators. Surprisingly, at least to me, the reptiles waited patiently for the food and didn't really fight over it. My kids felt comfortable enough with the situation to participate in the feeding and pose for a couple photos.

The Adventure Hour experience must be reserved in advance and costs an additional $10 per person.

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Afterward, we headed to the Gator Wrestling Show, which takes place several times each day and is open to everyone. During the show, a trainer wrestles a medium-size gator out of the shallow water and onto the sand, all the while making jokes and explaining typical gator behavior. Then, he displays some feats I certainly wouldn't want to attempt.

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Before and after each show, guests are invited to try Rookie Wrestlin' -- sitting on a gator that has its mouth tightly taped shut while a photo is taken. We saw kids and adults alike participate in the iconic photo shoot, and my kids, both proving they are true Florida natives, were eager to join them. It costs $10 per person for the experience, and if you choose to purchase the professional photos, it's at an additional cost. Guests are welcome to take pictures from outside the gator enclosure, though.

Then, my kids and I took a break for lunch at Pearl's Patio Smokehouse, where there is a variety of typical theme-park food. Our friends offered my children a sample of their fried gator bites, which they said tasted like chewy chicken nuggets. (The gator bites came from farm-fed alligators in Georgia, not retired Gatorland stars.) The Smokehouse is the main eatery, but there also is a snack bar, coffee shop and a fudge kitchen, all within a short distance of one another.

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While we waited for the next show, we took in some of the many exhibits and animal areas that line the main walkway. There you'll find Parrot Playground, Very Merry Aviary, White Gator Swamp, Snakes of Florida, Allie's Barnyard, Turkey and Fallow Deer, Flamingo Island and Emu Enclosure.

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Finally, it was time for the show that made Gatorland famous -- the Gator Jumparoo Show -- where the reptiles are coaxed to jump vertically out of the water by the possibility of a tasty snack of raw chicken. It's set up as a friendly competition between would-be trainers Bubba and Cooter, and guests stand around the enclosed lagoon to watch the show. In this area are some of the biggest -- and scariest -- alligators at the park.

After the Jumparoo, my kids were begging to do the activities that didn't involve gators -- they wanted to cool off with ice cream, take a train ride and visit the new Gator Gully Splash Park. Wristbands that cost $2 apiece give you all-day access to the train, which circles about half the park. It's difficult to see many animals, though, from the slow-moving train.

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The real draw for young kids is the splash area that opened in 2007. Two gator statues house squirt guns and anchor the water play zone, and there are many other ways for kids to get soaked, including dunk buckets and jets of water. This area has enough variety to entertain my 8- and 10-year-old kids as well as younger children. There are changing rooms nearby, though they are small and do not include bathrooms.

Despite a full day at Gatorland, we still did not get to try everything the park has to offer. Cuban and Nile crocodiles are housed at the back, and the Breeding March is also a wildlife refuge, where guests can see endangered wading birds. Plus, there also is a third show, Up-Close Encounters, which surprises audience members with exotic animals.

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Perhaps the biggest enticement for older kids is the Screamin' Gator Zip Line, which takes adventurers along 1,200 feet of rope between five towers that are each 7 stories tall. The zip line travels over Cuban and Nile crocodiles and the Alligator Breeding Marsh. It's a two-hour experience that costs $69.99, which includes park admission. Participants must be at least 37 inches tall and weigh no more than 275 pounds.

Tickets for Gatorland are $21.99 for adults and $13.99 for kids ages 3 to 12. Through Sept. 2, Florida residents pay $9.99. Gatorland is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Gatorland during its Central Florida Bloggers event. My opinions are my own, and this did not influence my review.

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About June 2013

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

May 2013 is the previous archive.

July 2013 is the next archive.

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