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November 2, 2013

Walt Disney World to expand cancellation policy for dining reservations at table-service restaurants

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You've got your Walt Disney World vacation booked. You have a resort room reserved and your park tickets are set up, as well. All you need next is a taxi from the airport, a tube of sun block and "¶ oh, yea, dinner reservations.

It used to be that making dining reservations at Walt Disney World wasn't imperative, unless you wanted to attend a character meal or dinner show. Those days, though, are as long gone as the Magic Kingdom's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction. Now, for most of Walt Disney World's table-service restaurants and special meals, guests need to make Advance Dining Reservations (called ADRs by Disney aficionados) before they arrive at the resort to guarantee they will be able to eat at the restaurants of their choosing. This is especially true of the busier times of the year, such as the upcoming holidays, at Disney World.

It can be difficult, though, to determine where a family will want to eat six months beforehand. Because of this, some guests in the past routinely have double- or even triple-booked meals at various locations and then just let the reservations they didn't use lapse. Unfortunately, this means other families who wanted those reservations couldn't get them *and* Disney World restaurants lost money on unoccupied tables. (The reservation system does not set aside any tables for walk-ins, so if a restaurant is completely booked, guests who ask in the parks will be told it is full. This might not be the case, though, if parties don't show up for their reservations.)

So, to tackle this issue of unused reservations, Walt Disney World is poised to expand its dining cancellation policy that took effect with signature restaurants two years ago -- and it will cost indecisive guests. The policy change was scheduled to take effect last week but has been delayed temporarily.

Once in place, the dining policy for all sit-down restaurants will require that guests cancel their reservations one day prior to the scheduled meal. This means you have until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on the day prior to your reservation to make up your mind.

Guests who cancel after that time or who do not use their reservations will face a $10-per-person no-show fee for that dining reservation. Cancellations will be accepted by calling 407-WDW-CNCL, through the My Disney Experience website or app, and at Guest Relations in the parks and hotels.

The pre-paid policy for certain special dining experiences, such as character meals at Cinderella's Royal Table, remains unchanged. Guests who have booked those meals have one day to cancel for a full refund.

Remember that an ADR does not mean that a table will be waiting for your party at the appointed time. Rather, it means that you will be the next seated. So, you may have a short wait after you check in. It's not a perfect system, but it beats having to rely on Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe for your family's fine-dining experience. (Sorry, Sonny Eclipse, but your cosmic burger and chicken joint is no Be Our Guest dinner dining experience.)

Guests can book reservations 180 days ahead of time; those staying at Disney World hotels can book 190 days in advance. The online system opens at 6 a.m. ET and 407-WDW-DINE begins at 7 a.m. ET.

When this cancellation policy is applied to all table-service restaurants, will it change the way you plan your meals? We want to know what you think! Please tell us in the comments.



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November 5, 2013

Do you have what it takes to be a Kingdom Keeper at Disney's Animal Kingdom?

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Am I smarter than a fifth-grader? I guess I have to admit I'm not after my adventure last weekend with my 11-year-old son at Disney's Animal Kingdom. We set out to solve one of the new Kingdom Keepers Quests in the "2014 Birnbaum Guides to Walt Disney World" that was released at the end of September.

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For those not familiar with the term "Kingdom Keepers," it comes from a popular series of books by the same name from author Ridley Pearson. The Kingdom Keepers are students who protect the theme park from Disney villains, known as Overtakers in the books.

In 2011, Disney Youth Programs launched the first Kingdom Keepers Quest, a self-guided tour that Pearson helped design to create an immersive experience for the series' fans at Magic Kingdom. Because that program also has educational components -- such as building skills in problem solving, creativity, language arts, mathematics and critical thinking -- it is offered to groups of students.

Fans like my son, who weren't visiting the Magic Kingdom with their schools, though, were disappointed and had no such opportunity, so the self-guided adventures were created with Pearson's input. In 2012, the first individual tour took Kingdom Keepers fans through five quests in the Magic Kingdom.

As a fourth-grader, my son found the challenges in the Magic Kingdom to be difficult enough to keep his attention without being so overwhelming that he wanted to give up. Some of the clues came from "Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark," the first book in the series, which means participants need to have some basic knowledge of the characters in the book. (There is a new Kingdom Keepers Quest set in the Magic Kingdom in the Birnbaum Guides.)

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The new Kingdom Keepers Quest at Animal Kingdom uses a few clues from the second novel, "Kingdom Keepers II: Disney at Dawn," word play and the ability to read a map (or familiarity with the theme park's layout). My son breezed through the first of four quests at Animal Kingdom, only to be stumped by this clue in the second: "Now think of yourself as floating/flying. Find P.O. Box 275 stuck to a wall in the area." And I couldn't offer any assistance.

We searched high and low for this item, having spotted several other P.O. Boxes identifiable by small print, to no avail. We even resorted to asking two cast members, who had no idea what we were talking about. There was construction in the area at the time of our adventure, so I have to wonder if the P.O. Box in question was behind those walls. If you do find P.O. Box 275, please tell us where in the comments below!

When participants successfully complete the Animal Kingdom quest, they will have a code to enter online to receive a printable reward for their hard work. The Kingdom Keepers Quests take about 60 to 90 minutes total to complete -- compared with 3 to 4 hours for the Disney Youth Programs version. (The folks at Disney World, though, are in the process of developing an Animal Kingdom quest for school groups, too.)

Self-guided scavenger hunts and games -- such as Kingdom Keepers Quests, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, and A Pirate's Adventure: Treasure of the Seven Seas -- are a popular trend at Walt Disney World recently, and with good reason. The adventures can be completed in short periods of time in between FastPasses and dining reservations with little to no wait. In addition, the games can be stopped and resumed at will, making the flexibility appealing. The activities are fun and mentally stimulating, giving park guests one more way to outsmart a villain and protect a Disney kingdom. And don't worry if you need help. Just ask the nearest fifth-grader you find.



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November 7, 2013

Test drive Disney Infinity at Festival of the Masters at Downtown Disney this weekend

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Creativity comes in many forms, and some might speak to youngsters a little more readily. Thankfully for kids who will be at Walt Disney World's signature art festival this weekend, a video game will part of the artistic creations on display as Disney Interactive again has a presence at the Festival of the Masters. The event begins Friday at Downtown Disney.

The gaming division of The Walt Disney Company will offer guests the opportunity to play Disney Infinity at its booth at the festival. If you're on the fence about whether to buy the game for a holiday gift, this is your opportunity to take it for a test drive.

The game was released in North America in August so many Disney fans, including my 11-year-old son, already own some platform of the system. For them, this is an opportunity to talk to the Avalanche Software artists and programmers who helped develop the game. They will staff the booth, giving players pointers at four Xbox 360 stations.

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Disney Interactive had a similar set-up at its booth at Car Masters Weekend at Downtown Disney in June. The four stations were configured to allow guests to try playset-only and multi-player versions with the Toy Box feature. The Toy Box aspect is a key difference between Disney Infinity and Activsion's Skylanders, which also uses collectible figures with in its video game. Disney Infinity's Toy Box mode allows players to mix Disney and Pixar characters and environments, creating unique games that players 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.

The new Toy Story playset and Jack Skellington figure will be among those available for the demonstration. My son had hoped that Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz from "Wreck-It Ralph" might be available for a preview, but a Disney publicist said they aren't part of the booth. (Ralph is scheduled to be released on Nov. 22 as an exclusive at Best Buy. Vanellope will be a Target exclusive available on Nov. 24.)

Visitors who play Disney Infinity at the demonstration booth also will be given game merchandise, such as a T-shirt or hat, while supplies last, the publicist told me.

The Disney Interactive booth will be located outside the Once Upon a Toy store at the Marketplace, where the gaming division has set up before, such as when it was was promoting its Epic Mickey titles. The booth will be open during regular festival hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 8 and 9, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on November 10. Admission and parking are free.

To read my other stories about Disney Infinity, please click here, here and here.

There's also another digital artistic creation on display that probably will appeal to old and young alike. I'm told Disney Interactive also will have a booth for its newest iOS app, Disney Animated, that showcases 53 animated Disney films. The app, which sells for $13.99, takes users behind the scenes of the animation process. That demonstration booth will be located on the West Side near Cirque du Soleil.



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November 8, 2013

Festival of the Masters offers plenty of free, kid-friendly fun this weekend

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What child does not enjoy making arts and crafts projects? This weekend, youngsters can participate in fun, free projects at Walt Disney World during the Festival of the Masters at Downtown Disney.

In recent years, the long-running outdoor festival that showcases fine art has expanded its scope, adding more and varied activities that appeal to the whole family. Basing the festival on creativity, and not just traditional art forms, has allowed there to be more activities that engage children. For example, amazing sidewalk chalk drawings by adult artists have been a staple at the festival. But who do you typically see outside drawing on driveways? Children, of course! So they have been given their own space to work, too, amid the 1,000 square feet of sidewalks that will be covered.

When sponsor Michaels Stores joined the Festival of the Masters two years ago, experts began offering presentations, how-to experiences and Make-It, Take-It booths -- many of which were designed for youngsters. This year, kids can make and take home a Mickey ear wood frame and a sun visor, color a Disney masterpiece featuring characters from the upcoming movie "Frozen,"Ě and contribute to a larger-than-life mural. These activities are located on the West Side of Downtown Disney near Bongos Cuban Cafe.

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In previous years, animators also were stationed in the area to teach guests how to draw their favorite Disney characters. The classes were modeled after the Animation Academy inside DisneyQuest but also can be seen on Disney property in the lobby of the Art of Animation hotel. The animators take about 30 minutes to walk guests of all abilities through the process. My own children really enjoy the Animation Academy each time we go to DisneyQuest, and it's easy to see how this is a popular activity at the Festival of the Masters, too.

If the visual or decorative arts aren't what your kids enjoy the most, they might enjoy the performance art that will be on display at the festival. On the plaza in between DisneyQuest and Cirque du Soleil, performers from La Nouba will appear from 4 to 4:15 p.m. each day. In addition, there will be performance artists on stage at Waterside Stage throughout the day.

The applied arts also get their due at the festival, too. On the Marketplace side, kids can help build LEGO masterpieces and work on an interactive mural at the LEGO Imagination Center. Little MissMatched and Rainforest Cafe also are scheduled to offer kid-friendly activities, as well.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Disney Interactive has two booths to demonstrate its new video game system, Disney Infinity, and a new iOS app, Disney Animated. The Infinity booth is located in front of Once Upon A Toy in the Marketplace, while the Disney Animated booth is on the West Side. You can read more about both here.

Festival of the Masters begins today and runs through Sunday. Friday and Saturday hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and it's open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission and parking are free, as are all the kids' activities I have described. How often can you say that about a Walt Disney World event?



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November 12, 2013

Review: Jingle Cruise, the holiday overlay of Jungle Cruise, at Magic Kingdom

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Have you heard the latest Disney cruise news? No, not the Disney Magic retrofit.

Chances are, if you've been to the Magic Kingdom any other Disney theme park with the exception of Disneyland Paris, you've ridden on the "World Famous" Jungle Cruise attraction. This long-standing ride takes visitors deep into the jungles of Asia, Africa and South America, and its family friendly nature attracts new guests each day.

So, when it was announced that the ride would receive a holiday overlay this year -- the first since the Country Bear Christmas Special -- the news created quite a lot of excitement among fans. We were teased with some clues from the folks at Disney, but we all wanted to see the transformation for ourselves.

The big reveal happened Friday, Nov. 8, and I experienced the additions during that night's Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. (The holiday overlay stays in place for day guests and for those attending the separate-ticket parties.) Honestly, the many festive touches are great holiday fun, but I don't think the Imagineers went far enough with the Christmas makeover. After all, the Jungle Cruise is known for its over-the-top corny jokes and obviously animatronic and low-tech features. How could anything be too much for this laugh-out-loud ride?

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Here's what to expect (spoilers ahead): When you step in line, you will notice a Christmas tree that appears to be made of palm fronds and ferns with rustic decorations. It's both clever and appropriate to the Jingle Cruise theming. In fact, if you were a wisecracking Jungle Cruise boat skipper, you might even say it's a "natural"Ě extension of the attraction's theme. As you wind through the queue and approach the office of jungle radio broadcaster Albert Awol, you'll see more traditional decorations, such as holiday lights, poinsettias, garlands and even a small silver tree, which would have been typical of the 1960s. (I'm still scratching my head about that since the ride is set in the 1930s. Why the disconnect on historical eras?)

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As you edge closer to the front of the queue, you'll see the Christmas lights that adorn the building on the river and that the names of the boats have been changed. Articles of clothing are tossed over the first part of each sign, and new holiday-themed monikers appear: Brrrrr Bertha, Icicle Irma, Eggnog Ennie, Poinsettia Sal and Sleigh Ride Sadie. Plus, the skippers and dock crew are wearing jungle-themed Santa hats with their regular uniforms. I'm sure the new headwear even got Trader Sam's attention.

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But step aboard the Jungle Cruise boat, and it's (mostly) business as usual. By that I mean that, of course, the attraction follows the same track and passengers see the same sights. And that's what I found a little disappointing -- with the exception of Trader Sam's holiday attire, I didn't notice any holiday touches to the ride itself. Why weren't there other clever additions, like the tropical Christmas tree in the queue? Even a well-placed Santa hat would have garnered some laughs.

Speaking of laughs, the skippers do add some holiday-themed jokes to their repertoire, introducing themselves as "popcorn stringers" and "secret Santas." Some of the scenes are recast as "gift-wrapping stations" and "holiday parties." Others still have the classic lines, such as "Behold, the back side of water!"

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While I'm sure many repeat visitors and Disney fans are thrilled to finally have the gift of a holiday overlay on an attraction at Walt Disney World, this one just may not be exactly what they wished for if they were expecting something totally new. If that's what you're expecting, then the cruise skippers might be right -- you really are in de Nile.

The Jingle Cruise debuts at Disneyland on Tuesday, Nov. 12.



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November 14, 2013

Tips for making the most of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

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It's been a few years since I've attended Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, so I was excited to return to the holiday festivities at the Magic Kingdom this year. My elementary-school-age children and I showed up with a short list of things we definitely wanted to do, but we didn't have the jammed-packed schedule my family adhered to at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.

Judging by our experience at this recent party and others, it's a good idea to have a general idea of what you want to see and do rather than simply arriving at the front gate and then trying to decide about all the offerings. Take it from Santa: A list can guide you well.

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Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party is a hard-ticket event, which means you will need to buy a ticket separate from your other Disney theme-park tickets. Tickets are on sale now and have different price points because of variables such as dates and discounts. You can see the full breakdown here.

Because you're paying extra for this special event -- which, by the way, I think is worth the price -- you probably want to get the most for your money. For many of us, that means enjoying all the holiday activities and entertainment that can only be done at the party before spending time on the usual attractions that are open every day.

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For years, party-goers have known that they could enter the Magic Kingdom beginning at 4 p.m., even though the party events don't start until 7 p.m. It was an unofficial policy designed to disperse all the arriving guests over time. This year, though, Walt Disney World has publicized the early entry, too.

If at all possible, you'll want to arrive at the Magic Kingdom at 4 p.m. to maximize your time. My favorite things to do during those extra hours are:

** Take a family photo in Town Square next to the large props of toy soldiers with Cinderella Castle in the background. The line grows as the party progresses, so doing this in the afternoon or early in the night will save you precious party time.

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** Stop by the adjacent Fire House and pick up your free Christmas Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card. You don't have to play the game during the party, but you can only collect this special themed card at the party. You must have your admission ticket (card or MagicBand) and a party wristband to claim your Sorcerers card. At the first 2013 Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, guests also were given last year's Christmas and Halloween cards as a bonus.

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** Ride the Jingle Cruise, which replaces the Jungle Cruise for the holiday season. (See a full report on the new holiday overlay in my previous blog post.)

** Eat dinner, but save room for the complimentary snickerdoodle cookies and hot cocoa served during the party. There are seven stations set up -- see the official party map posted on AllEars.Net -- and you may go to each as often as you like. The stations also serve packets of apple slices and Minute Maid apple juice. My children, who rarely have turned down a sweet, were as excited about the apples and juice as they were the cookies and hot cocoa. Maybe they were just trying to get on Santa's good list.

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** Cinderella's Holiday Wish takes place at 6:15 p.m. in front of her castle. This is a short show in which the Fairy Godmother comes out and grants Cinderella's wish to have the castle decorated for the holidays. That's when 200,000 lights are turned on and the castle shimmers with what looks like an awe-inspiring array of icicles.

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** If you're interested in exclusive party merchandise -- shirts and pins -- you'll want to be at The Emporium on Main Street or any of the other four locations about 6:30 p.m. when cast members bring out the goods. Only guests with party wristbands will be allowed in the area to browse and purchase. Be prepared for crowds.

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** Have your heart set on a special character photo? Line up by 6:15 to 6:30 p.m. to avoid longer queues once the party starts at 7 p.m. This is one of the few opportunities to meet Captain Jack Sparrow; the Seven Dwarfs all together; Mary Poppins, Bert and Penguin; many princesses with their princes; Mickey and Minnie in their holiday attire; Scrooge McDuck and Daisy; and Winnie the Pooh and friends in their winter garb. Also, Santa Claus meets guests in the outdoor spot next to City Hall.


Once the party starts, you can focus on the holiday entertainment.
The highlights of the party, to be sure, are Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, Celebrate the Magic castle projection show and Holiday Wishes fireworks. You won't want to miss any of these!

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The parade steps off in Frontierland at 8:15 and 10:30 p.m. I'm often asked where the best spot is to view the parades, and I think a lot of that depends on personal preference. I almost always like to watch the special parades on Main Street, U.S.A., because I love having the castle as a backdrop for photos. That said, it is much more crowded there than other areas along the parade route. This year, we found last-minute, front-row seating in Frontierland, and we grabbed it. I appreciated not having other guests hovering over me or having to camp out for an hour for a great spot.

A bonus was being entertained before the parade by The Notorious Banjo Brothers and Bob in Frontierland. (You can see their performance in the video below.) Be aware that the first parade is always more crowded than the second, so if you have older children, you might want to wait to see it.

After the parade, we walked over to Main Street, U.S.A., to watch Celebrate the Magic projected on Cinderella Castle before the fireworks. It has a holiday segment at the end that is beautiful, and you can view it in our AllEars video below.

Then, it was time for my son's favorite, Holiday Wishes -- Celebrate the Spirit of the Season. This 12-minute version of Wishes fireworks features six songs and fireworks that match the lyrics with different formations. It's just amazing when they form a Christmas tree around the castle during "O Christmas Tree." And the wow factor certainly matches the festivity of the season when the fireworks are shot off along the perimeter, a trick that is only used for special occasions. New this year: Glow With The Show mouse ear hats are synchronized to the fireworks, which makes a fun addition.

The party also includes two ongoing dance parties with characters: Woody's Hootin' Holiday Open House at The Diamond Horseshoe and Club Tinsel at Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe. Plus there are several showings of two stage shows -- "Celebrate the Season" on the Cinderella Castle Stage and "A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas Show" on Rockettower Plaza Stage.

Not tired yet? There are always attractions to visit and the special-ticket events like this party can cut down on ride wait times. My daughter couldn't resist the 10-minute wait for Space Mountain at our sold-out party and rode it multiple times.

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If you're vacationing at Walt Disney World after the last party on Dec. 20, you won't have to miss all the holiday fun. Beginning Dec. 21, Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade and Holiday Wishes are performed in the Magic Kingdom through Dec. 31 in place of the regular parade and fireworks. Santa Claus will appear daily until he returns to the North Pole on Christmas Eve.

So, if you're going to the party, make your list, check it twice, and then enjoy the holiday events most important to you and your family. What could be more very merry than that?


DISCLAIMER:
I was a guest of Walt Disney World at a media preview of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. This did not affect my story, and my opinions are my own.



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November 16, 2013

What to know before you go to the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

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Every year about this time, folks start to climb up into their attics to drag out boxes of outdoor holiday lights and inflatable decorations. That's all fine and good, of course, but if you and your family are looking for a really spectacular holiday light display, there's really only one show in town.

What began as one Arkansas family's Christmas lights is now a 5 million-light display at Disney's Hollywood Studios that guests to Walt Disney World won't want to miss during the holiday season. The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is a breathtaking display that covers the Streets of America and includes spinning carousels, angels, toy soldiers, and Santa and his reindeer. You might even see a few hidden Mickeys, too.

Unlike a stroll through your neighborhood, though, there are a few things you might want to know before you go:

** Cast members direct the flow of guests onto the Streets of America, and you'll be asked multiple times to walk with the crowds. This really is in your best interest, both for safety reasons and to lessen your frustration at trying to see the lights along with so many other people. You will be asked to walk past Star Tours, Pizza Planet, Muppet Vision 3D and the Phineas and Ferb meet-and-greet, before finally rounding the corner of the attraction. From there, you're on your own to explore the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at your own pace, exiting on the opposite end of the Streets of America and walking past the ABC Commissary.

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** Guests also can enter the lights display by walking down Mickey Avenue, past Studio Catering Co. This may be the best bet for your family if you would like to meet Santa Goofy first in Tri-City Square. Goofy's Winter Wonderland debuted last year, and it's back again as a fun photo op. The backdrop for meeting Goofy is, of course, rows and rows of holiday lights, lighted Christmas trees and even toys covered in lights.

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** Speaking of photo opportunities, there is so much to capture here on your camera or videocamera so you can enjoy it again at home. Don't panic, though, if you forget your equipment or find your view blocked by others. Disney's PhotoPass photographers are set up in multiple locations on the Streets of America, in addition to the Santa Goofy meet-and-greet. One of the most popular spots year after year is in front of the 70-foot Christmas tree in the center of the display. We've also seen photographers roving by apartment steps, the lighted bicycle and other fun backgrounds.

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** The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights can get claustrophobically crowded on weekends, so if you have young children, be prepared to keep a close eye on them. Even seasoned park-goers may be surprised how easy it is to get separated in these crowds.

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** Light-up necklaces and other accessories are popular at this experience. New this year, though, are the Glow With The Show ear hats, whose colors are synched with the dancing lights for the first time. The hats and other accessories are sold at carts on the Streets of America, but if you purchase them in one of the merchandise stores ahead of time, you can apply any discounts you might have, such as one for having a Walt Disney World annual pass.

** Stay on The Streets of America long enough to see the lights dance and the snowflakes fall. After each choreographed song, there is an intermission of about seven minutes when the lights don't dance while other holiday music plays or characters talk.

** The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights begin each night at 6 p.m. with a small opening ceremony when a lucky guest "flips the switch." The attraction usually stays on past park closing, so guests can linger a bit as the crowds clear. It stays in place through Jan. 5 and is included in regular theme-park admission.



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November 20, 2013

Disney's "Frozen": Spoiler-free review

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Here's a wonderful new Disney film release that, despite its title, won't leave any movie-goers out in the cold.

After all, how could Walt Disney Animation Studios lose with an animated film that encompasses themes of the struggle of good and evil, girl power, sisterhood, princesses, epic adventure, and a lovable and funny snowman? "Frozen" really is a great new animated movie that will melt the hearts of families this holiday season.

My 9-year-old daughter and I recently were invited to a preview screening of the upcoming movie, and we both were enchanted with the film. Readers of this blog might recall that the last animated Disney film we saw, "Planes," left us with opposing viewpoints. Not so this time!

"Frozen" is Disney's adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, "The Snow Queen." The original story was popular in its own right and has appeared in many works since it was first published in 1845.

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In this version, Elsa the Snow Queen (voiced by Idina Menzel) struggles from a young age to control her ability to inadvertently create icy spells. Her sister, Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), suffers with her own demons, trying to overcome the loneliness of being estranged from her sister and of her sheltered life as a princess. The personal journeys of the two sisters intersect when Elsa's powers cause an eternal winter in Arendelle, and she flees with Anna in pursuit to save the kingdom.

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Along the way, Anna and the audience meet several likable characters, such as mountain man Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven. The pair agree to help Anna find her sister and break the spell, with direction from some magical trolls.

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And then there is Olaf, the wacky snowman (voiced by Josh Gad) who steals many of the scenes. Elsa created him before she knew the extent of her powers, and his light-hearted antics certainly will make viewers laugh. The snowman introduces himself by saying, "I'm Olaf and I like warm hugs!" But what he really longs for is to experience a sunny day. Impossible, right? Maybe not, when you have the Snow Queen on your side.

The journey to find Elsa takes many twists and turns -- no spoilers here -- giving boys enough adventure to keep them interested in a tale of a princess and a queen. At the same time, the girl-power theme is satisfying without being too cliched. Some of the kids in the theater actually cheered out loud at a couple of moments in the action.

My daughter pointed out that "Frozen" is not the only animated Disney movie in recent years to rely on the theme of an undesired freeze creating a potential disaster for sisters. In last year's "Secret of the Wings," the fourth installment in the Disney Fairies series, Tinker Bell and her sister Periwinkle flaunt the rules for fairies and put Pixie Hollow in jeopardy.

Story aside, viewing "Frozen" is enjoyable because directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee's use of 3D animation is well-integrated in the story, and the film has been shot in widescreen format.

And it's not just the technical aspects of the film that are so polished. The film has garnered acclaim from a range of film critics for its excellent work in characterization, casting and screenplay, as well.

Most notably, "Frozen" has a soundtrack with eight original songs from husband-and-wife songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, including the powerful "Let It Go" performed by Menzel and which also is covered by Demi Lovato. Because the music is so well-done, some critics are even calling this movie a musical -- or at the very least a film that easily could be adapted to a Broadway production.

Before that happens, though, viewers will have to go see it in theaters beginning Nov. 27, which is a holiday gift to look forward to.

A word of advice: Be sure to arrive at your theater in plenty of time to see the short feature before "Frozen" called "Get A Horse!" It's a ride you won't want to miss.

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



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November 22, 2013

Disney Infinity's new characters for the holidays will please both boys and girls

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For many Disney Infinity fans, this weekend just might be more exciting than Black Friday. Don't expect to skip the lines, though, unless you pre-ordered the gaming merchandise being released soon.

Several eagerly anticipated pieces are being released, including the first official Disney Princess character and several other popular female figures. Today, players can purchase Rapunzel from "Tangled" (a Wal-Mart exclusive) and Ralph from "Wreck-It Ralph" (a Best Buy exclusive). On Sunday, everyone's favorite computer-game glitch, Vanellope von Schweetz, will be released only at Target. And on Tuesday, the day before "Frozen" hits theaters, a toy pack with the movie's characters, Anna and Elsa, and two related power discs will be available in stores.

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Recently, I was able to ask Disney Infinity's executive producer, John Vignocchi, about the infusion of girl power coming to the game.

Why were Rapunzel and Anna and Elsa chosen as the first princesses? Why not some of the classic Disney Princesses, such as Cinderella (who already has her coach in play), Ariel, or Belle? When can we expect to see those figures?

Princess Rapunzel, Anna, Elsa and Vanellope deliver some serious girl power to the Disney Infinity Toy Box. The decision to use Rapunzel was partially due to timing; "Tangled"Ě was just wrapping when we were developing Infinity¬†and it just seemed like a natural choice. She also delivers unique gameplay options with her frying pan. Which brings up a good point - timing is important, but even more critical is the gameplay each character can bring to Disney Infinity.¬†Frozen's Anna and Elsa deliver grappling mechanics and freezing power, and Vanellope's glitch is a unique power that kids are going to love. [It will allow her to teleport short distances and glitch out characters that come in contact with her.]¬†In terms of the future, we are working in tandem with all areas of Disney to determine future additions.

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Will Rapunzel use her hair to her advantage?

Yes, Rapunzel's hair (and her frying pan) are major aspects of the character that will translate into fun gameplay. It was really amazing to work with the Disney animators on Rapunzel.¬†"¶ Through our collaboration we were able to craft what turned out to be one the game's most detailed figures.

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"®"®Will Anna or Elsa use snow and ice to their advantage?

Yes, definitely. The cool thing is that not only do you get Anna and Elsa in one pack, you get two power discs that help layer the sky and ground into a winter wonderland theme.¬†And of course, we wanted to make sure that would play to the pair. Anna has a fun climb and swing mechanic and Elsa has what we are calling a "cold shoulder"Ě feature where she uses the snow and ice in unique ways. [Anna will be able to use her grappling hook to get to hard-to-reach places and use her shovel to defeat enemies. Elsa will utilize her magical ice abilities, such as using the Freeze Ball to stop opponents in their tracks.]

Do you have any indication if characters like Rapunzel and Anna and Elsa and Vanellope are leading more girls into gameplay with Disney Infinity? Is that the design of their concept?"®"®

Disney Infinity is a family game, so we have chosen a line-up of characters that appeals to boys and girls. In fact, Mrs. Incredible, Violet and Jessie are extremely popular characters with boys and girls because of their unique gameplay abilities. I know the addition of Rapunzel, Anna, Elsa and Vanellope is highly anticipated, and we expect them to be popular with girls. They also will allow every player to create all-new stories in the Toy Box.

Are there any holiday surprises for players to unlock in Disney Infinity?

Make sure to check out our Toy Box Thursdays because we have a few fun holiday-themed challenges coming up that fans will enjoy.  We are also so impressed by the creations that the Infinity community has created, and every week they keep topping themselves. We can't wait to see what they do with these new themed challenges. [The winners of the Toy Box Thanksgiving Parade Challenge can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDM4wAft_vw]

Clearly, these new holiday-season game characters offer infinite possibilities of Disney Infinity gameplay for both boys AND girls, and the upcoming challenges will appeal to all players, too.

The new merchandise also seems to promise a lot more fun than standing in line at the mall this Friday, as well. Where's the power disc to make that day more bearable?



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November 26, 2013

Where to find 'Frozen' characters at Walt Disney World

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Has Olaf, the wacky and lovable snowman, in "Frozen" melted your heart yet with his appearances in trailers for the upcoming film?

The characters from Disney's "Frozen" already are being integrated into attractions at Walt Disney World. Here's where you can find the new animated film come to life:

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Anna and Elsa greeted guests after a recent Disney Parks Blog meet-up.

** Meet Anna and her sister Elsa in the the Prinsesse Plass across from Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in the Norway pavilion at Epcot. The royal sisters are greeting guests and pose for photos. Be sure also to stop by the nearby Stave Church, where you can see a collection of Norwegian items in an exhibit that is titled "Norsk Kultur, Inspiration for Disney's Frozen."

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** Little girls ages 3 to 12 can opt for the "Frozen" package at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where young guests are transformed into princesses. The "Frozen" packages include a choice of the Anna or Elsa wigs, shimmering makeup, face gems, nail polish, a Princess sash and a Princess cinch bag for $59.95 plus tax. The Anna or Elsa costumes and crowns can be added for an additional charge -- about $65 plus tax for the gowns and $18 plus tax for the crowns. The Frozen packages are available at both locations (World of Disney at Downtown Disney and Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom) through Jan. 3 or while supplies last. To make reservations, call 407-WDW-STYLE.

** If you find yourself at the Magic Kingdom, be sure to stay for the "Frozen" segment in Celebrate the Magic, which is the show projected on the facade of Cinderella Castle. It takes place each night 15 minutes before Wishes fireworks. You can take a sneak peek here:

** At Disney's Hollywood Studios, concept art and actual images from the film can be viewed inside the Art of Animation attraction. See artwork of the sisters, the queen, the royal horses and the breathtaking winter scenery before they came to life on the big screen. Viewers will recognize the trolls, Hans, Kristoff, Sven and, of course, Olaf. There are examples, too, of how animators create movement, such as how Anna's traveling coat should flow with each lift of her arms.

** Olaf primarily appears at Disneyland Resort, at the time of this writing. He is the star of the new "Winter Dreams" version of the World of Color show, and he is available for meet-and-greets in Fantasyland. I hope that means he soon will make his way to the Sunshine State. After all, he longs for summer, right?

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For now, guests in Orlando can find two cute photo opportunities with Olaf at Downtown Disney. Those who see the movie at AMC Downtown Disney 24 will notice a hula-loving Olaf in his tropical outfit in the lobby of the movie theater. A smaller, winter version of Olaf is positioned outside Santa's Chalet near World of Disney on the Marketplace side of Downtown Disney.

** There already is a good selection of "Frozen" merchandise at Walt Disney World. In addition to the costumes mentioned above, there are plush versions of Sven and Olaf (in his winter and summer versions), toddler dolls of Anna and Elsa, Barbie-type dolls of Anna and Elsa, pocket-size miniature doll sets, play sets with figures, pens, photo frames, a pin set, a T-shirt and hoodie.

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Disney's "Frozen" opens in theaters Nov. 27. (See my spoiler-free review here.) The soundtrack, which is excellent, is available beginning Nov. 25.



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November 28, 2013

SeaWorld Orlando offers plenty of cost-saving deals for the holidays

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Like the other big theme parks in Central Florida, SeaWorld Orlando is a busy place during the holidays. And not only does the marine park have plenty of special experiences for guests, it also offers quite a few money-saving deals for visitors and residents alike during this holiday season.

** Starting with SeaWorld admission, guests can save a little green when they go to see the wonders of the blue oceans at the park. SeaWorld's 2014 FunCard is on sale now and it's valid for the remainder of 2013 and all of next year -- with no blackout dates. So, adults pay $92 plus tax and kids ages 3 to 9 pay $87 plus tax for the holidays and an entire year of general admission.

Or, if you're going for just one day, you might want to take advantage of the weekday rate of $50 for a single ticket. This offer is good through Dec. 20. SeaWorld pass members also can save 50 percent off a single day's admission for up to six guests. That offer is good through Dec. 25 and is not limited to weekdays.

** In addition to the all the amazing animal shows, interactions and attractions, guests who visit SeaWorld on select days through Dec. 31 also can experience SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration at no additional charge. This is a wonderful value, especially when you consider that other area theme parks require separate tickets for holiday events.

SeaWorld guests can choose from a number of moving shows, including Shamu Christmas Miracles; the always funny Clyde and Seamore's Countdown to Christmas; O Wonderous Night, The Christmas Story told through the eyes of live animals; Winter Wonderland on Ice, an ice skating extravaganza; and Reflections: Fireworks and Fountains Finale. Kids won't want to miss The Polar Express Experience, and young kids will enjoy Elmo's Christmas Wish. Plus, the Sea of Trees is a beautiful attraction to take in while sipping hot chocolate on those cooler nights in December. (Please check back for more details about this year's events.)

** Aquatica is offering significant savings on a single day's admission during December. By reserving a specific date online, guests can pay just $19 for a day of fun at the water park. (Regular admission price is $56 for adults and $51 for ages 3 to 9.) Each guest can purchase up to six tickets. Sure, the weather is a bit chillier this month, but the water is always heated to 82 degrees. My family and I have been to Aquatica in January and had a great time without spending our day huddled under beach towels. Florida residents also have a limited-time offer that allows them to purchase an Aquatica annual pass using the monthly payment program.

** Finally, tonight at 12:01 a.m. ET -- technically, that's Friday -- SeaWorld Orlando will announce its own version of holiday shopping deals on "Blue Friday." The offers will be for some of the "most exclusive park experiences," SeaWorld says, and can be purchased online through 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 2 (Cyber Monday). To take advantage of the deals, shoppers can follow SeaWorld on Facebook and Twitter or sign up for email.



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November 30, 2013

Samantha Brown Disney special is 1 of our favorite holiday shows

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Family traditions are a large part of celebrating holidays, of course. And these things that we do year after year become ingrained in our collective memories. Among the most memorable traditions are the foods we eat, the decorations we cherish, and even the movies and television specials we watch.

Like so many others, our family looks forward to certain shows in December -- even though we have them on DVD and could watch them at any time during the rest of the year. Must-see holiday TV for our family includes "Frosty the Snowman," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." And my husband and I always watch the 24-hour marathon of "A Christmas Story" late on Christmas Eve.

When my son was very little, though, he became fascinated with a Christmas special on the Travel Channel, "Walt Disney World Holidays with Samantha Brown." It first aired in 2003, though I think we caught it a year or two after that. During those 45 minutes, host Samantha Brown takes viewers on a tour of many of the popular Christmas-themed activities at Walt Disney World. Plus, she also goes behind the scenes, showing the audience where all those gorgeous Christmas decorations are stored, how the popular poinsettia balls and topiaries are created and more. For my young son, the special was a little slice of heaven, combining his love of Walt Disney World and Christmas with an energetic TV personality.

We have watched "Walt Disney World Holidays with Samantha Brown" so many times that my son and I can quote the one-liners to each other. "At 3 a.m. "¶ not a creature is stirring, not even a Mouse," we say in unison.

After one holiday season of watching the show repeatedly, the next year I decided that I would surprise my son with a day at Walt Disney World during which we would do many of the things Samantha Brown does in the show. We primarily focused on visiting the amazing decorations at the resorts. We stopped by the Grand Floridian to see the life-size gingerbread house and reminded each other what Sam says: "Please don't eat the house!" My children remembered that she peers into the coin purses hanging from the Victorian tree in the lobby, and they did the same.

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From there, we headed to another edible display at Disney's Beach Club -- a gingerbread carousel. This display actually spins and, if you look closely, you might find a Hidden Mickey or two. Nearby, the BoardWalk Inn has its own gingerbread display. The show depicts an old-fashioned boardwalk amusement park, though it has morphed into a gazebo scene since then. Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge has a gingerbread display, too. This one is of an African marketplace. "Vegetables made out of chocolate. Isn't that the way it should be?" Sam asks.

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The Travel Channel special highlights activities in the theme parks, as well, some of which no longer take place. So, watching the show now is a fun way to remember old favorites, such as the Epcot Tree-Lighting Ceremony and the Lights of Winter. As Sam says, "I think this is one of the very best holiday presentations in all of Walt Disney World. Whatever you do, don't miss it!" Many of us agree with her and wish those events still took place.

Still, plenty of the holiday celebrations in the theme parks remain the same since the show debuted. Like Samantha, we have enjoyed a family dinner at Liberty Tree Tavern, which serves a traditional holiday meal of turkey and all the fixings, and we have celebrated at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. At Epcot, we have journeyed through the countries to experience "Holidays Around the World" and have attended the moving Candlelight Processional.

There is one holiday-themed activity at Walt Disney World that is shown in the special that we haven't done -- tour the Holiday Services Warehouse, where all the decorations are stored. That experience actually is available as part of Disney's Holiday D-Lights tour, but the minimum age is 16 and my son is 11. Clearly, that just might become a holiday activity in the future.

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Years later, I actually met Samantha Brown on the media preview sailing aboard the Disney Dream. It was a fangirl moment for me, and I wished my son had been with me. Samantha was just as nice as she appears to be on TV, and she even wrote my son a note for his autograph book.

The Travel Channel no longer shows "Walt Disney World Holidays with Samantha Brown" in its rotation. It was replaced by "Disney Holiday Magic with Samantha Brown," which was filmed in 2007 and updates the resort's activities, including The Osbourne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Surely, it's time again for the host to come back for another sequel!

Does your family have a special holiday tradition at Walt Disney World? What about a favorite Disney-themed holiday special on TV? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.



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About November 2013

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

October 2013 is the previous archive.

December 2013 is the next archive.

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