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August 1, 2013

Preview of 2013 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

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At a Tables in Wonderland dinner on Saturday at Walt Disney World, guests were invited to preview some of the offerings for this year's Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. The popular event, which begins Sept. 27, allows Walt Disney World visitors to taste their way around the world via kiosks that sell foods and beverages representing various countries.

AllEars.Net founder Deb Wills, AllEars.Net photographer Linda Eckwerth and I attended the event, so we could share with you what to expect when the 46-day festival opens. Deb and Linda agreed to share their thoughts on the adult beverages because I'm really not a wine or beer connoisseur.

When we arrived, an open bar offered a variety of wines, beers and a signature cocktail. The frozen Polish Szarlotka, which will be available at the Poland kiosk, mixes the flavors of an apple tart and Polish vodka. Several of our dining companions declared it a delicious combination. Linda chose the Once Upon a Vine Chardonnay, which she said was refreshing considering it was so hot outside. She described the wine as crisp, with a touch of fruit and very little oak.

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Three appetizers were offered: Florida Grass-fed Beef Slider with Monterey Jack and Sweet & Hot Pickles from the Florida Fresh kiosk; Kimchi Dog with Spicy Mustard Sauce from the South Korea booth; and Crispy Pork Belly with Black Beans, Onions, Avocado and Cilantro from the new Brazil marketplace. Of the trio, we all liked the flavors of the crispy pork belly -- which is the same cut of meat as bacon -- best. I normally don't choose to eat spicy foods, but the Kimchi Dog was at first appealing, and then, addictive. I couldn't put it down! The three of us weren't overly impressed with the beef slider, even though grass-fed beef is trendy right now. Deb said she did like the meat, but the bun and the pickles didn't appeal to her.

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A Xingu Black Beer from Brazil was paired with the Crispy Pork Belly. Linda said, "This is a dark beer and, when poured, has a slightly tan, frothy head. It appears heavy but was actually a medium to light body. I tasted coffee and a little sweetness." She also sampled the Carnaval Moscato sparkling wine from Brazil and described it as slightly bubbly, but not as sweet as most Moscatos.

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For the salad course, we were served a very popular dish from the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. We all were excited to see the Watermelon Salad with Pickled Red Onions, Baby Arugula, Feta Cheese and Balsamic Reduction from the Florida Fresh booth. So delicious! It was paired with Florida Orange Groves Hurricane Class 5 Florida White Sangria. Linda said, "This was not like any Sangria I have had; It was light but very fruity. While it is a blend of five fruit juices -- passion fruit, pineapple, mango, lime and watermelon -- I was only picking up the pineapple. It was sweet. I think it paired well with the Watermelon Salad but it was not to my taste."

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Hostess Pam Smith and Chef Marianne Hunnel

I asked Chef Marianne Hunnel, content development manager of the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, if she thought the new Garden Marketplaces at the Flower and Garden Festival might help broaden the audience for the Food and Wine Festival.

"Typically, the demographic is very different," Marianne said. "I think that by incorporating the food and beverage piece as part of the Flower and Garden Festival, there could be a possibility of people becoming more foodies and more interested in the whole art of food and wine."

And, although the festivals may share the same audiences, they will not share the same food. Sadly, the Watermelon Salad was only making a special appearance at the Tables in Wonderland event. It will not be offered at the Food and Wine Festival.

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Our dinner entrees were the Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce from Le Cellier at the Canada pavilion and the Seared Scottish Salmon with Cauliflower Puree, Watercress and Malt Vinaigreet from the new Scotland marketplace. They were served with baby root vegetables. This was my first opportunity to try the Le Cellier filet mignon that guests repeatedly rave about, and I now can understand why. It was a most tender and delicious piece of beef! I am told the salmon was prepared perfectly, light and flaky without a heavy fish taste. The salmon will be featured at the new Scotland marketplace, along with Vegetarian Haggis with Neeps and Tatties (griddled vegetable cake with rutabaga and mashed potatoes) and Scottish Banoffee Tart (bananas, Scottish Whiskey toffee, Walker's Shortbread crumbles and sweet cream).

Marianne said, "It's very exciting that this country [Scotland] is being represented because we just had the "Brave" movie. But it was something that the Scottish government really wanted to work with us on this year and have a presence. It's not because of "Brave," but I'm sure "Brave" put some exposure to the whole country of Scotland. It just made sense that this was the year to do something like this. There are going to be a lot of surprises and delights for the guests with the dinners."

Our entrees were paired with two wines. Linda said the Mohua Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand went well with the salmon. "It was a light, crisp citrus wine. I tasted grapefruit, lemon and very little grassy notes."

Deb tasted the Wolftrap Red from Africa, which is a blend of syrah, mourvedre and viognier. She said, "I have had this wine without food before and not cared for it. I tried it again to see how it went with food, and it paired well with the filet. I still don't care for the wine, but that's because I don't care for the viognier grape. If you do, you must try this wine!"

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Finally, the best part of the dinner: a dessert trio of Chocolate Orange Cupcake, Hazelnut Chocolate Cheesecake and Morello Cherry Pistachio Mousse. The three of us enjoyed all three desserts, but we also had favorites. Linda and I agreed we'd be standing in line for the cupcake, while Deb preferred the mousse. The three desserts will be available as a trio or can be purchased separately at the Dessert and Champagne marketplace. Linda tried the Nicolas Feuillatte Rose Champagne and found it to be a little too sweet for her when combined with the sugary desserts.

Another dessert has been developed for the festival with kids in mind -- a frozen s'mores beverage made of frozen Nesquik, toasted marshmallow syrup and topped with graham crackers, Marianne told me. And she said there are plenty of foods and beverages for kids to sample, as well as experiences such as the Ghirardeli Chocolate Experience and the Ocean Spray Cranberry Bog.

"So many kids are being educated about different countries and the different foods from the countries. "¦ Kids have the opportunity to taste sushi or the hot dog with kimchi and different things, so I highly encourage kids to explore. It's really a way that they can expand their flavors of the world without that commitment of a whole dinner," Marianne said.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at the Tables in Wonderland event. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.


August 3, 2013

Tips for dining with young kids on Disney Cruise Line

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For many adults, one of the pleasures of going on a cruise vacation is the food. Not only are the portions abundant, but so are the choices. In addition, passengers have the opportunity to dress up and be served multiple-course dinners in beautifully decorated restaurants. Many guests enjoy this change of pace from their everyday lives, and they look forward to the experience each night.

This is true of parents, too, but those of us with young children probably need to take a little time at home to help our kids prepare for these "fancy dinners." And we need to adjust our own expectations, as well.

When my children were 6 and 8 years old, we sailed on the Disney Wonder, our first Disney cruise, and my kids were exposed to their first three-course, two-hour meals. It was a family vacation, just the four of us, so my husband and I opted to stick together. However, parents can drop their youngsters off at the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab -- where they will be fed and will have a fabulous time -- so the adults can eat in peace.

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My daughter loved having the opportunity to dress up. From sundresses to party dresses to her pirate costume for Pirates IN the Caribbean, she was ready for it all. Shorts are frowned upon in the dining rooms, even for kids, but that was more an issue for my son, who did not want to stop what he was doing to change and get ready for dinner each night.

Once we arrived at our table, we encouraged our son and daughter to try new foods. If they were skeptical, we let them order a "backup" dish. This tactic cut down on any significant complaining. Despite practice at home, neither mastered the art of balancing their napkins on their laps, and we had to resort to the kids sitting on the napkins. No one was the wiser.

Perhaps the most taxing part of such a long meal is keeping children entertained so the whining doesn't ruin the dinner for the adults. We began each meal by talking about our favorite memories we made that day and we discussed what we would be doing the next day. In between, the kids colored or played the word games on their menus, and they did pretty well. Two hours is a long time, but each dining room also has built-in entertainment. For example, at Animator's Palate on the Wonder, the restaurant and the servers' uniforms transform from black-and-white to color as the meal progresses.

The one thing we did not do is allow our children to use electronics. I am not opposed to 3DS systems, iPods or mobile phones among kids in more casual, counter-service settings, but we didn't think this was the place for them. Truthfully, I think that battle gets more difficult as kids get older.

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We were fortunate to sail on the Disney Fantasy in December with our extended family, and we still managed to banish the electronics from the dining rooms. My children, who are now 8 and 10 years old, were sailing with their cousins of the same age, which was entertainment enough for them. Still, I was surprised by how much the kids used the cruise journals I put together beforehand. I printed sheets designed for our cruise ship and ports of call that allowed the kids to easily record their thoughts about the trip. Then, I added a cover and had each set of pages bound. The four kids often pulled these out in between courses at dinner to complete that day's pages, allowing the six adults some time to talk and relax. My nephew even decided to use the back sides of the pages to collect autographs.

That said, we still made sure to get reservations at Palo for an adults-only brunch and dinner during the seven-day cruise.


August 6, 2013

AMC Downtown Disney 24 offers family friendly movie experience

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Like many places at Walt Disney World, the AMC Downtown Disney 24 offers an experience beyond what you typically would expect at a similar multiplex at the shopping mall. From special programs to foods and premium seating, AMC Downtown Disney 24 has helped set a new standard for movie theaters -- and it's all definitely family friendly.

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Let's face it: Taking a family to the movies is expensive. And, yes, tickets at AMC Downtown Disney 24 are even slightly more expensive than your neighborhood theater. But my husband and I think the experience is worth it when our family of four splurges to see a long-awaited film.

First, at the AMC Downtown Disney 24, there is an array of snack choices beyond the usual popcorn and candy. Expect to also find ice cream with mix-ins, gourmet popcorn, flavored pretzels, hot sandwiches, hot dogs, freestyle Coca-Cola machines, Icees and more. Even if my kids usually opt for the traditional buttered popcorn, my husband and I appreciate the other choices. My kids love making their own Icees as part of the thrill of the experience, too.

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The roomy, highback chairs in each theater are comfortable, and our two kids like to raise the armrests to make one long couch, if you will. But perhaps equally important is the stadium seating there. With such a seating arrangement, it's difficult to complain about anyone else blocking your view of the screen. Less whining from the kids makes for a better experience for the whole family.

Finally, AMC theaters offer unique programs for special-needs families. For example, the chain offers monthly screenings of popular movies in a sensory-friendly environment. In those theaters, the lights are turned up, the sound is turned down and "audience members are invited to get up and dance, walk, shout or sing."

AMC Downtown Disney 24 also is accessible to kids with other disabilities and offers assisted listening devices, closed captioning, descriptive video and wheelchair access.

Another reason to take time to see a movie at Walt Disney World: AMC's Fork & Screen, where guests can dine while watching current movies. The menu includes cocktails, appetizers, sandwiches, desserts and more, which are served right to your seat. (See the complete menu on the AllEars.Net resource page.) Guests choose their seats when they purchase their tickets so their party is guaranteed to stay together. Guests have to be at least 18 years old or accompanied by an adult, which presumably leads to quieter movie watching.

Want to experience AMC Downtown Disney 24 for less? Disney World annual passholders get $2 off adult evening tickets. Active military personnel can save $3 off after 4 p.m. with ID. There also are discounted tickets all day on Tuesday for seniors ages 60 and older and students ages 13 and older with ID all day on Thursdays.

Another tip: I try to cut our costs by using rewards programs, such as ones from Coca-Cola and Disney Movie Rewards, to purchase tickets and vouchers. Sometimes, these passes are not valid for the first two weekends after a movie is released, but we don't mind waiting for a free movie at Disney World. By doing what we can to save money for our movie-night experience, it's easy to give two thumb's up (or would it be eight?) for the AMC Downtown Disney 24 as a family friendly destination here in Orlando.

August 8, 2013

Ideas for celebrating kids' birthdays at SeaWorld Orlando

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Since we began visiting SeaWorld Orlando regularly a couple years ago, my son has been fascinated with orca whales and my daughter's love of dolphins has grown. Naturally, when their birthdays rolled around last year, they wanted a celebration that featured their favorite marine animals. (My children's birthdays are one day apart, so some years they have opted for a joint party.) SeaWorld -- and its other Orlando parks, Aquatica and Discovery Cove -- don't offer organized birthday parties, but there certainly are ways to celebrate a special occasion on property.

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The main event for my kids' birthday weekend was a day at Discovery Cove for our family instead of each child having a party. A day at Discovery Cove is pricey -- usually ranging form $219 to $399 per person, depending on the time of year, and including a dolphin swim. But Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive park, which means your ticket provides breakfast, lunch, snacks, drinks and alcoholic beverages; wetsuit and equipment used for snorkeling; lockers, towels and sunscreen; and unlimited admission to SeaWorld and Aquatica for the 14 days surrounding your visit. Discovery Cove only admits 1,300 guests per day, so the park is not overcrowded.

Guests wade with stingrays (that have be debarbed), snorkel among exotic fish in a saltwater lagoon, feed tropical birds in a free-flight aviary, float down a lazy river and relax on white-sand beaches. The highlight of the day for many is, of course, a 30-minute interaction with dolphins. As we stood in waist-high water, a trainer directed a dolphin to swim over, and we were allowed to pet him as the trainer explained different behaviors and facts about dolphins. Then, each family in our small group posed for photos with the dolphin. Finally, it was time to hold onto the dolphin's dorsal fin for a short swim. It was an amazing experience for all of us!

Guests even can enhance the experience by having a dolphin deliver a buoy with a personalized message. This is part of the Celebration Package, which also includes a Discovery Cove tote bag; choice of a deluxe photo frame or plush toy; and 25 percent off your choice of a photo package for $129. There are a limited number of Celebration Packages scheduled each day, so they must be booked in advance. Guests also can purchase a cake at Discovery Cove, or even bring one themselves.

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That weekend, we also went to Dine with Shamu at SeaWorld for the first time. Though my son definitely enjoyed Discovery Cove, he was more attracted to whales than dolphins, so we wanted to try something that catered to his interests. We had a great experience there, as well. Both of my children enjoyed the buffet and the front-row seat to some behind-the-scenes dolphin behaviors. And because we told our server the kids were celebrating birthdays, they each received a piece of chocolate cake with sprinkles and gummies. The server also sang "Happy Birthday." (You also can order a specialty cake when making a Dine With Shamu reservation.)

When we went to Dine With Shamu in the fall of 2012, SeaWorld offered a deal where one child was free with each paying adult. Current prices range from $29 to $34 for an adult and $19 to $24 for children ages 3 to 9 for the dinner show, which includes unlimited food, beer and wine. To read all abut our experience, including the full menu, please see my previous blog post.

SeaWorld also offers private VIP tours, which could be another way to celebrate a special occasion. They include preferred parking, front-of-the-line access, reserved seats at shows, animal interactions, a meal at Sharks Underwater Grill and a tour guide for up to seven hours. The rate is $299 per person for ages 3 and older.

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Finally, we decided to stay at the SeaWorld Renaissance hotel that weekend to avoid multiple drives back and forth to our house. While there, some family friends joined us at the hotel pool one day. The main pool is beautiful, surrounded by plush chairs and a restaurant with a bar. The kids enjoyed "riding" on the inflatable dolphin and whale I had purchased at Target. There also is a splash area just for kids that features two water slides.

I served our friends fish food (a mixture of colorful crackers and cereals) from a traditional glass fish bowl. Our cupcakes were topped with two shades of blue frosting, and the plastic whales and dolphins that can be purchased in bulk at SeaWorld. And they each took home a towel that had been fashioned into a dolphin or whale tail. (A good friend sewed strips of Velco or ribbon at one end to form the waist, and I used hairbands to fashion the tail.)

If your kids are fascinated by the aquatic life featured at SeaWorld Orlando, activities like these and more can be a perfect way to make a splash for birthdays or other special occasions.


August 10, 2013

Review: Disney's 'Planes' movie doesn't really get off the ground

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Disney's animated "Planes" movie is one that its creators say will take viewers "above the world of Cars." But how high it flies toward that goal just might depend on your age.

Unlike Disney-Pixar's "Cars," this new film has little humor for adults to enjoy. And, given its uninteresting or original story line, there's little chance that "Planes" will have the widespread appeal of the 2006 John Lasseter production that introduced us to Lightning McQueen and Mater.

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The first thing that keeps this film grounded is the fact that the plot is formulaic: An unfulfilled main character (crop-duster plane Dusty Crophopper, voiced by Dane Cook) dreams of expanding his horizons and becoming a racer. With a mentor's help, he does so, overcoming hardship and finding friendship along the way. And, in the end, he achieves the win he thought was impossible.

Watching "Planes" is, in some ways, akin to reading a G-rated romance novel -- you know a happily-ever-after ending is guaranteed if the main characters can just survive their struggles. That in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when the journey is predictable AND uninspired, the movie itself becomes something similar to an hourlong flight delay on the tarmac.

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Writer Jeffrey Howard's many allusions to the well-loved 1986 film "Top Gun" have the potential to draw laughs from the adults in the audience, but those opportunities are squandered. Dusty's mentor, the gruff Skipper (voiced by Stacy Keach), comes off as one-dimensional. The scenes aboard the aircraft carrier are mostly serious, and the use of "Top Gun" stars Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer to voice characters is a wasted effort when audiences don't even know they are in the movie until the credits roll.

Why wasn't the recognizable song "Danger Zone" from "Top Gun" strategically placed in "Planes"? Surely, that would have gotten as many laughs as the overplayed "Love Machine" did at the screening I attended.

Dialogue and music aside, Director Klay Hall doesn't make good use of 3D effects to help viewers share the experience of racing an airplane. Even the scenery, which ranges from the depths of the ocean to Southwestern canyons and Himalayan mountain peaks, feels flat when such a variety of terrain should be natural for 3D animation. Clearly, this film can't fly away from the fact that it originally was to have been released straight to video. If it had, such less-than-stellar production values could be more easily dismissed.

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Of course, these are all observations by a parent who has watched numerous movies aimed at children. My own kids had mixed reactions to "Planes." My daughter, soon to turn 9, actually enjoyed the film. She laughed at the jokes and was eager to see what would happen to Dusty Crophopper. My almost-11-year-old son was indifferent, though; he wouldn't have chosen to see "Planes," but he found some parts enjoyable.

So, perhaps DisneyToon Studios does know its audience, and in this case, it's a very young set of viewers. Still, as Pixar Animation Studios has shown, parents shouldn't have to simply endure an animated show for the sake of their kids. Movies can be made to engage the adults in the theater, too. Unfortunately, though, "Planes" is not one of them.

DISCLAIMER: I viewed "Planes" at a media screening before its official release. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.

August 13, 2013

Review: Disney's 'Planes' video games stay true to story

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Much like the just-released Disney movie "Planes," the companion video games from Disney Interactive are aimed at a young audience and rated for everyone. As such, they are a fun way to continue the story. For older kids, though, the challenges might not be enough to sustain their interest.

My almost-11-year-old son piloted both a console and a handheld platform of the game, and he found them to be similar to each other and true to the story line of the movie. (For my review of Disney's "Planes," please see my previous blog post.)

My son first tested the Wii version, which offers four modes of play: Story, Air Rallies, Free Flight and Balloon Popping. Story is just as it sounds -- missions based on the actual movie -- and Balloon Popping is self-explanatory, as well. Air Rallies gives players the chance to race, while Free Flight explores the game's 10 locations. Playing a console version of the game requires participants to use both a nunchuck and Wii remote simultaneously -- something that can be difficult for young players until they get the hang of it.

My son liked the selection of characters -- 10 choices, and some are reprised by the actors who voice them in the movie. Players can store up to three profiles, and the auto-save feature is a nice touch. He did not like the long tutorial, or basic flight training, at the beginning, though. Sure, it's a necessarily evil for beginners, but advanced players would like to get right to the game and figure out the controls themselves. Once he made it through the tutorial, he found the game to be pretty easy for his age and skill set. For beginning gamers, though, the aerial contests may be just the right level of difficulty.

Disney's "Planes" for Wii can be experienced by one to two players at a time, with the second using a drop-in and drop-out feature. Expanding gameplay to more than just two people might have helped it soar with families having kids of different ages.

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Unlike the "Epic Mickey" sequel games, Disney's "Planes" is very much alike across platforms. The Ninetendo 3DS version also starts with a series of tutorials to get players up to speed. Then, they can take off as one of six characters and soar through six environments inspired by the film. Again, there are four modes of play -- Story, Challenge, Racing and Ballloon Popping -- and more than 40 challenges and missions.

StreetPass, a 3DS feature that allows users to share content when they physically pass by each other, is enabled on Disney's Planes. Based on Mii figures, the social system grants players more access depending on the number of connections they make. My son does love this feature about his 3DS, though at his age, he did not want his friends to know he was playing the "Planes" game because he thought the games, like the film, is more for the younger set.

Disney's "Planes" is available exclusively on the Nintendo platforms of Wii U, Wii, DS and 3DS. Prices range from $29.99 to $49.99.

DISCLAIMER: Disney Interactive provided me with review copies of Disney's "Planes" for Nintendo's Wii and 3DS systems. This did not affect my review or my son's reactions; my opinions are my own.

August 15, 2013

2013 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party offers new treats

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Typically, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, the annual after-hours fall event at the Magic Kingdom, changes only slightly from year to year. This week, however, Walt Disney World officials announced some sure-to-thrill additions to the 2013 entertainment line-up.

Characters Jack Skellington and Sally (from Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas") will make their debut appearance at the party. Given the context of their story and the pair's widespread appeal, this meet-and-greet seems like a natural fit. Jack Skellington and Sally first appeared at Walt Disney World last September as part of Frankenweenie Weekend at Downtown Disney. Make no bones about it: Some guests waited three hours to meet these characters, which certainly is a testament to their popularity. At Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, you'll be able to find them in the Town Square area of Main Street, U.S.A.

Phineas and Ferb return for their second year at the holiday party. This time, however, they have been promoted from simply greeting guests to leading the Creepa Crew. The Disney Channel duo unofficially performed in this capacity last year, interacting with crowds waiting for the popular Mickey's Boo To You! Halloween Parade. Now, they will lead the Disney dancers and guests in a line dance -- the Not-So-Scary Street Jam -- performed to "Calling All the Monsters" by China Anne McClain.

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Speaking of dancing, another new event at the Halloween Party will be the Monstrous Scream-O-Ween Ball on the Rockettower Plaza Stage in Tomorrowland. The dance party will be hosted by "Monsters University" scarers Mike and Sulley. Dance parties have become a staple at after-hours events in the Magic Kingdom, and for good reason -- guests love to let loose and see their favorite characters doing the same thing. The Monstrous Scream-O-Ween Ball replaces Stitch's Club 626 in the same location.

Of course, two of the annual favorite entertainment experiences have been confirmed for the 2013 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Parties: Mickey's Boo-to-You Halloween parade, which begins with the Headless Horseman and features Disney characters in costume as well as the ghostly inhabitants of The Haunted Mansion; and Happy HalloWishes fireworks. Both of these events are only seen during the Halloween party. This is different from the Christmas parade and fireworks at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, which can be seen as part of regular admission to the Magic Kingdom during the weeks surrounding the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

The always-popular treat trails that offer concentrated trick-or-treating return, too. Guests can collect handfuls of candy at Alice and Mad Hatter's Treat Party, which begins in Storybook Circus in Fantasyland, and at Br'er Rabbit's Laughin' Place Candy Patch near Splash Mountain in Frontierland. We're told there may be a few new surprise candy stations, as well.

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Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party is a hard-ticket event, meaning guests must pay a separate admission price for the party, which lasts from 7 p.m. to midnight. (The Magic Kingdom usually allows party guests to enter as early as 4 p.m., but the Halloween events do not begin until 7 p.m.) Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party will be held on Sept. 10, 13, 17, 20, 24, 27, 29; Oct. 3, 4, 6, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18, 20, 22, 24, 25, 27, 29, 31; and Nov 1. Tickets are on sale now, and you can see the full breakdown on prices on the AllEars.Net resource page.


August 16, 2013

Disney Infinity on sale today with free gift at Downtown Disney

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Those of you who have been counting the days -- um, minutes -- until the release of Disney Interactive's new gaming system Disney Infinity know that Sunday is the day when it goes on sale nationally. But guests at Walt Disney World can pick up the starter kit two days early and get a free character piece with the purchase.

Today, a gaming booth is set up at Once Upon a Toy store at the Downtown Disney Marketplace. From 4 to 9 p.m., guests can play Disney Infinity with creators of the game. (However, Disney Infinity will be available for purchase at the store when it opens.) My son, who is among those chomping at the bit to get his hands on Disney Infinity, was fortunate to have this experience back in June when a Disney Infinity gaming booth was part of Car Masters Weekend. (Read more about what he learned from one of the concept artists and a game designer here.)

At that time, my daughter asked the game developers a most pressing question: Will any Disney Princesses be joining the game? They hinted the royal beauties may be coming, and, at the D23 Expo last weekend, it was revealed that Rapunzel would indeed be released in the second wave of characters later this year. Other female characters include Vanellope von Schweetz ("Wreck-It Ralph") and Anna and Elsa ("Frozen"). Additional new character pieces include favorite characters Jack Skellington, Wreck-It Ralph, Phineas and Agent P.

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D23 participants were given a Sorcerer Mickey character piece, and, of course, some already have made their way onto eBay. Before you shell out the hundreds of dollars they are selling for, though, know that the Sorcerer Mickey character will be available for purchase in January.

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," the "Lone Ranger" and "Toy Story." What sets Disney Infinity apart from a similar game like Skylanders, though, is its Toy Box feature, which allows users to mix various Disney and Pixar stories and characters.

In other recent Disney Infinity news, it was announced Thursday that a series of collectible figures with enhanced gaming abilities -- called Infinity Crystal Series -- will be sold exclusively at Toys 'R' Us. These figures will help players earn bonus experience points and health to give their characters an extra edge and more play time, plus access a special in-game area to display their crystal figures. Additionally, Toys 'R' Us is the only retailer that will offer exclusive Power Discs, which when placed on the Disney Infinity base, unlock unique in-game powers, vehicles, gadgets and more.

Power Discs also unlock music. The Disney Infinity soundtrack includes: "Condorman Main Theme," "Jessie's In Trouble," "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes," "Peter Pan Ride Music," "Sugar Rush Showdown," "Re-Animation," "Saving Metroville," "End Title," "Wow - Score," "Gitchee Gitchee Goo," "Sugar Rush," "Recognizer," "Zurg's Planet," "Wall-E," "Mickey Mouse March," "Something That I Want," "All In a Golden Afternoon," and "Tracks from Tron: Evolution."

Anticipating great demand for Disney Infinity, the Toys 'R' Us will open an hour early on Aug. 18 -- the official launch day in North America. On Sept. 7, all Toys 'R' Us stores nationwide will host a Disney Infinity Power Disc Trade event from noon to 2 p.m., giving kids the opportunity to exchange their own Disney Infinity Power Discs with other fans and receive special offers on Disney and Disney Infinity products.

August 20, 2013

Disney Princess Royal Salon & Palace Pets apps allow users to play as stylists

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Disney Publishing has released a new app this month that is sure to be a hit with Disney Princess fans, if my 8-year-old daughter's excitement is any indication.

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The Disney Princess Royal Salon app allows users to play as Royal Stylists for four of the most popular princesses: Cinderella, Belle, Rapunzel and Ariel. Once the stylist chooses the princess who will receive the benefit of her cosmetology skills, the stylist chooses her subject's destination. Among the parties are a royal ball, a masquerade, a holiday celebration and a special occasion.

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Then the stylist can put her skills to work on her subject's hair. Tapping first the wand and then tapping near the princess's head makes a hairstyle appear. Users also can brush individual sections of hair, which is a little more difficult, to create unique looks. The Fords' Royal Stylist prefers up-do's for Ariel.

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Next, users can choose their princess's wardrobe and accessories. When her subject is finally ready to go, the stylist can use her device's camera to take a photo, which can be added to the app's scrapbook or emailed to friends and family.

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Disney Princess Royal Salon is available for iOS devices and costs $4.99 in the iTunes Store.

You can see AllEars Senior Editor Deb Koma test the Disney Princess Royal Salon app at the D23 Expo:

Earlier this summer, Disney Publishing released its free Disney Princess Palace Pets app, presumably to sell the Disney Princess audience on a related franchise. Honestly, I can't believe it's taken this long for a Disney pet tie-in to come to market. It seems like a perfect match.

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The Disney Princess Palace Pets app could be considered a companion app to the Royal Salon app, though it is not being promoted that way. In Palace Pets, the user also visits the salon, but this one is for the royal dogs, cats and even a horse.

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Palace Pets offers a bit more back story about each animal at the beginning of the app than does Disney Princess Royal Salon. Then pet stylists actually cover the animals in soapy bubbles, rinse them and put them under the dryer, before the styling begins. Of course the user brushes the animal's coat and then the stylist picks out accessories, such as a flashy collar or a tail that mimic's Ariel's mermaid tail. This app does't have the scrapbook feature, so users will have to take photos themselves on their device, which is not difficult.

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Palace Pets is available for iOS devices and is free in the iTunes Store.

My daughter thoroughly enjoys both Disney Princess Royal Salon and Disney Princess Palace Pets and would recommend them to other kids who love to play dress-up or have an interest in fashion and hair styling. On her wish-list when the apps update: To be able to move the styled pets to the Royal Salon app so they could be reunited with their owners.

August 22, 2013

Disney and Hallmark create at-home birthday party kits

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At our house, birthday-party planning for the kids begins almost as soon as the current celebration concludes. And by that, I don't mean that I am organized enough to commit a year in advance to what my children will like and want to do with their friends, but they can dream about the possibilities. We all like to look ahead, so why not?

In reality, I actually do plan several months ahead of time of the events, because I like to have time to find and collect supplies, make reservations, create items we need -- and I enjoy the process. But for parents who don't have the time or inclination to devote as much planning to a child's celebration, Hallmark has just introduced some elaborate and immersive birthday party kits with many favorite Disney, Pixar and Marvel characters.

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The Dream Party line is launching with four themes:

** Disney Princess: The Royal Event of the Year
** Disney-Pixar "Cars": The Birthday Grand Prix
** Minnie Mouse: Minnie's Bow-tique Birthday
** Spider-Man: Spider Heroes Unite

These themes offer way more than just the traditional plates, napkins and favors. Room Transformation Kits make decorating easy and come with up to 22 pieces to decorate the ceilings and walls, balloon drops, hanging centerpieces, snack caddies, doorway curtains, and wearable items for the guest of honor. Prices per item range from $3.49 to $8.49.

Every good party should keep its attendees entertained, and the Hallmark Dream Party line offers activities and games that do just that. For example, each theme has a backdrop and props that can be used for photo opportunities. Party games include a Disney-Pixar "Cars" Red Light Green Light game, Spider-Man scavenger hunt, Pin the Bow on Minnie Mouse and a Disney Princess Tiara Bingo game. Prices range from $2.99 to $7.49.

Finally, goody bags are part of the mix, too. Hallmark offers kid-friendly souvenirs to send home with the guests to ensure they remember the good times at the party. These include bottles of bubbles with wands, stickers, favor bags and 48-piece party favor packs for eight guests. Prices range from $1.89 to $9.99 for packages with multiple favors.

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"In today's world of social media, parents see all of the great birthday party ideas on Pinterest or on blogs but can feel overwhelmed trying to do it on their own," Cindy Mahoney, vice president of Hallmark Licensing, said in a press release. "Dream Party brings clever, affordable products to parents that make it easy to pull together the party with the Disney characters their kids love."

Hallmark Dream Party products will be available nationwide at Walmart stores and at select independent party specialty stores.

August 24, 2013

Disney Cruise Line changes dress code, smoking policy

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Disney Cruise Line recently changed two of its guest policies -- one regarding smoking and the other the dress code in the main dining rooms on its ships. Both new policies are the result of guest feedback, we're told.

Beginning Nov. 15, smoking on stateroom verandas will be banned, and passengers who violate this new rule will be charged a $250 fee for stateroom cleaning and replacement of linens. (Smoking in interior spaces already was prohibited.) Common outdoor spaces on each of the four ships are designated for smokers. On the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, these include:

** Outdoors on Deck 4 starboard side from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. only
** The starboard side open-air decks 9 and 10 (excluding the Mickey Pool area).

On the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, smoking is permitted on:

** Deck 4 port side, aft, the outside Promenade Deck from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.
** Deck 12 port side, aft, the outdoor area that is accessible through the Meridian Lounge
** Deck 13 port side, forward, by Currents Bar

Like many other non-smoking DCL passengers, I applaud this change. I have been fortunate to sail on several Disney cruises and in different types of rooms. It was disappointing when we paid extra for the veranda and couldn't enjoy it at times because our neighbors were outside smoking.

Some say that tolerating smoking on the verandas must be expected, but I don't agree. Perhaps if every stateroom had a balcony and every passenger paid the same rate, that argument might have some merit. It also would be different if the United States, where the Disney ships most often depart, had not set new standards in the last two decades of trying to minimize the health risks smokers impose on those around them.

This new policy protects the majority of non-smoking passengers while still giving smokers locations to light up. Plus, when veranda rooms are among the most expensive, all passengers should be able to use those balconies at their convenience -- and not just when the smokers aren't out.

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The other change onboard Disney Cruise Line ships is in the dress code for the three main dining rooms on each vessel. Though the new policy is not yet posted on its website, Disney Cruise Line officials announced the company will relax its requirement of "cruise casual" attire -- pants, capris, casual skirts and dresses -- and allow passengers to wear shorts to dinner at Animator's Palate, Parrot Cay, Lumiere's, Triton's, Enchanted Garden, Royal Palace and Royal Court.

I certainly understand why DCL has loosened this policy, but I can't say it doesn't make me a little disappointed. Clearly, passengers have said that wearing shorts would enhance the experience for them -- or potential guests have said that "dressing up" for dinner has given them pause about a booking a Disney cruise.

Believe me, I get it. It does require planning and packing more clothes so that each member of the family has something to wear during each day and each evening. Plus, wrestling my young son into appropriate clothing each night got old.

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But once we were on our way to a three-course dinner in dining rooms where three waiters take care of each passenger and dinner is served at fancy table settings, it's apparent how appropriate the cruise casual dress code is. And the former dress code is not formal by any means -- we routinely saw boys and men wearing khaki pants and golf shirts -- but, for the most part, you did have to change for dinner and the nighttime Broadway-style show. Now, passengers are permitted to show up in shorts, and you can bet there will be plenty of inappropriate styles.

I could better understand the dress-code change if the main dining rooms were the only restaurants serving dinner, but they are not. There are quick-service restaurants by the pool, plus room service, which is complimentary, for the most part. Passengers can opt out of the dining rooms on any night, and some do for formal and semi-formal nights.

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When Disney designed its cruise ships, Imagineers did so with a theme of sophistication that echoed the historical heyday of ocean travel. From the ships' outward appearances to the design elements found in their dining rooms, bars and theaters inside, that well-thought-out design paid homage to a time when travel by ocean liner came with an air of elegance and adventure.

Now, with this more-relaxed dining dress policy, I fear that much of that feeling will be lost. Sure, the dΓ©cor in the dining room will be just as spectacular as before. But as you look over at the diners around you, the experience will appear little different than what you might find in most any restaurant catering to tourists.

August 27, 2013

First look: Disney Halloween costumes

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It's beginning to look a lot like "¦ Halloween at Walt Disney World. With the first Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party just three weeks away, the fall decorations are making their way onto Main Street, U.S.A, at the Magic Kingdom, and costumes have moved to the front of gift shops in all the theme parks.

Last weekend, my daughter and I spent some time at Mouse Gear at Epcot oohing and aahing over all the fancy costumes. She's about to turn 9 and she still loves all the Disney Princess gowns, which I'm certain is because we're annual passholders at Walt Disney World and she sees the princesses often. In any case, at Disney World, customers can find beautiful costumes year-round for Merida, Tiana, Aurora, Cinderella, Jasmine, Snow White, Belle, Ariel and Rapunzel for about $65 each.

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Of course, DisneyStore.com and its retail locations sell dresses for these same princesses at about $45 apiece. We have purchased princess costumes from both places, and they are among the highest quality fabrics and wear well, compared with costumes found at big-box stores. For us, that's a consideration because my daughter wears them not just on Halloween but also to the theme parks throughout the year. Perhaps the biggest advantage to the costumes at Walt Disney World, though, is that the sizes are more varied. At DisneyStore.com, princess costumes come in sizes 2/3 through 10. At Walt Disney World, the costumes go all the way up to size 14/16.

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Plus, at Halloween, there are two different Minnie Mouse costumes for sale on Disney property. One is the traditional red with white polka dots, and the other is Minnie styled as a witch in orange with black polka dots and purple trim. The dress comes with tights, and the coordinating hat is a mixture of gorgeous details. The Minnie witch dress is priced the same as the other fancy gowns at Disney World, and the hat is about $25.

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Beautiful accessories are available to complete each royal look, too. Guests can choose from crowns ($17.95), headbands ($13.95), wands ($19.95), wigs ($19.95), a gloves-and-purse set ($19.95), and a necklace-and-earrings set ($15.95). Would-be princesses can choose from two glittery shoe styles -- a jeweled ballet flat ($29.95) or a gold sequined flip-flop ($21.95). Both types of shoes come in sizes 5/6, 7/8, 9/10, 11/12, 13/1 and 2/3.

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Want to purchase one of the Disney World costumes, but you won't be in the theme parks soon? You can contact Merchandise Guest Services and place a mail order by phone (877-560-6477), fax (407-352-6369) or email (Merchandise.Guest.Services@DisneyParks.com). Be sure to allow at least three weeks to receive your order.

Ordering from DisneyStore.com has its own advantages with a more extensive line of Disney costumes, including the other two official princesses, Mulan and Pocahontas; a Rapunzel wedding gown, Tinker Bell; Sofia the First; Glenda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West from "Oz"; Doc McStuffins; Izzy from "Jake and the Never Land Pirates"; and Jessie from "Toy Story." Accessories also are available, and shoes are designed to match each costume.

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Boys costumes are available at both Disney retailers, as well. At Mouse Gear, we spotted the always-popular Buzz Lightyear and Capt. Jack Sparrow costumes (about $65 apiece) that have been sold for years. In fact, my son had the rogue pirate costume and loved it so much he wore it for the last two years. At DisneyStore.com, little boys can choose from Peter Pan; Captain Hook; Jake from "The Never Land Pirates"; Mike Wazowski; pit crew from "Cars"; Iron Man; Spider-Man; Captain America; The Hulk; Tonto; Woody; and Mickey Mouse.

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Shipping at DisneyStore.com is free with orders of $75 or more.

August 29, 2013

Wildlife expert Jack Hanna returns to SeaWorld Orlando in September

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Animal expert and television personality Jack Hanna is returning to SeaWorld Orlando for a weekend of special appearances and shows.

Hanna is the host of "Into The Wild," during which he and his family take viewers on animal adventures around the world, paying special attention to endangered species. Hanna was the longtime director of the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo, but he got his start at the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford from 1973 to 1975.

Known as "Jungle Jack," Hanna brings his exotic animals to four shows that are included in regular admission to SeaWorld. Hanna's past "co-stars" have included clouded leopards, chatty kookaburra birds, penguins, otters and majestic eagles. Show times are at 1:15 and 3:15 p.m. Sept. 14 and 15 in the Nautilus Theater, an indoor venue. Seating is first-come, first-served.

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Guests can guarantee themselves seating in a reserved section by booking breakfast or dinner with the famed host. The breakfast takes place at Sharks Underwater Grill at 9 a.m. and includes a meet-and-greet with Hanna, a complimentary 6 x 8 family photo, and reserved seats for the 1:15 p.m. show.

The menu features scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, breakfast potatoes, French toast sticks, seasonal fresh fruit, cereal, breakfast pastries, juice, milk, coffee and hot tea. Guest also can choose crepes filled with farm-fresh scrambled eggs, spinach and mushrooms; pastries and muffins; and seasonal fresh fruit. Mimosas are available for purchase for guests 21 and older. Tickets are $49 for adults and $39 for children ages 3 to 9.

New this year is dinner with Hanna at Dine with Shamu, where he will entertain guests with animal stories and will answer questions. Diners also will receive a complimentary 6 x 8 family photo and have reserved seats for the 3:15 p.m. show. Dine with Shamu is at 5 p.m. each day and costs $59 for adults, which includes one alcoholic beverage for those 21 and older, and $49 for children.

The adult buffet features seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, certified sustainable seafood, slow roasted and smoked chicken, yellow rice with Creole shrimp, herb-crusted strip loin of beef, seasonal accompaniments, fresh breads and desserts. Kid favorites that are offered are spaghetti with marinara sauce, chicken nuggets with dipping sauce, hot dogs, mac and cheese, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

For more about what to expect at Dine with Shamu, please read my previous blog post.

SeaWorld also hosts Sleepovers with Jack Hanna at its San Antonio park. There, participants have the similar opportunities to interact with Hanna, with the added bonus of spending the night near some of the theme park's animals. (SeaWorld Orlando also offers sleepovers, but not during Jack Hanna Weekend.)


August 31, 2013

Disney Halloween merchandise highlights Haunted Mansion, Jack Skellington

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Good news for Disney fans who love to decorate for Halloween -- the merchandise collections in the theme parks continue to grow each year, and a large number of the holiday items already are available at DisneyStore.com.

Shoppers can find classic items, such as ceramic Mickey Mouse-shaped jack-o-lanterns that can be illuminated with candles, and light-up trick-or-treat containers. There are new, small Mickey, Minnie and Duffy plush animals, and Minnie's witch costume also comes in child sizes for adorable Halloween costumes. (See more about Disney costumes in my previous post.) There's even a new outfit for the regular-size Duffy the Disney Bear -- his first Halloween costume. Plus, there is an assortment of small items such as antenna toppers and ornaments.

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Much of the new Halloween merchandise, though, is Haunted Mansion-themed. This certainly is no surprise with the attraction's legions of dedicated fans. Collections include spooky glassware, candelabras, an hourglass, a musical jewelry box, gargoyle bottle stoppers and candle holders, ornaments and coasters. Among the best new items, in my opinion, are the iPhone cases and the Madame Leota snow disc.

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With the release of the 20th anniversary edition of Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" approaching on Sept. 10, an expanded line of Jack Skellington merchandise can be found in the Disney theme parks and online, as well. A perennial fan favorite, the Pumpkin King is pictured on mouse-ear hats, plush dolls, mugs, bowls, bags, gloves, light-ups, pins, keychains, T-shirts and more -- for guys and gals. Can you dare to resist these thrilling souvenirs? (Don't forget: Jack Skellington and Sally will be meeting guests at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party this year for the first time. See details here.)

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If you're staying at Walt Disney World or Disneyland this fall, you can ask Mickey and Minnie to decorate your room and surprise your loved ones. Orlando visitors can choose Mickey's Spooktacular Celebration, which includes a light-up banner, creepy hidden surprises, cobwebs, candy, Mickey and Minnie stuffed animals and a personalized Ghost Mickey pillowcase. In California, guests can order the Skellington Mickey's Haunted Adventure in their resort rooms. In addition to the banner and plush animals, this package contains an illuminated Jack Skellington head, a candy-filled jack-o-lantern, a cobwebbed candelabra, a personalized note to the family, Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas"-themed playing cards, tiny tombstones and a fleece blanket.

These and other similar Disney-themed Halloween items found online and in the parks can bring some magical fun to your holiday this year. And, if you have smaller children, they'll even be more whimsical than terrifying, as many Halloween items often can be. For parents, that's a real treat.

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About August 2013

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

July 2013 is the previous archive.

September 2013 is the next archive.

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