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January 2014 Archives

January 2, 2014

AMC's dine-in theatre at Downtown Disney gives families a fun option for seeing movies


Want a new twist on dinner and movie? How about dinner *while* you watch a movie? This concept is becoming more popular in cities throughout the U.S., and Walt Disney World began offering the inclusive screenings about two and a half years ago.

After a major renovation, the AMC movie theater at Downtown Disney reopened in May 2011 with six auditoriums dedicated to its Fork & Screen dine-in theatre. (It now offers eight such screens.) Patrons can order causal restaurant food and cocktails, beer and wine -- or just typical movie popcorn and candy with sodas -- and have their selections delivered right to their seats.

I was invited to the opening of Disney's Fork & Screen, but somehow with their busy schedules, the rest of my family had not seen a movie there. So, on a recent school break, we took the time to see Disney's "Frozen" at Fork & Screen and now they say they don't want to watch a movie any other way! (Fork & Screen is open to those 18 and older, unless children are accompanied by their parents or guardians.)


Your movie-going experience can begin at home if you choose to purchase your tickets online, which I definitely recommend. In doing so, you will choose your seats and then they are reserved for you. No rushing or standing in line at the theater -- love that! Although there is a small service charge for online purchases, if you join AMC's loyalty program, Stubs, those fees are waived. Ticket prices range from $10 to $15, depending on the time of show and type of ticket (adult, senior or child).


AMC recommends guests arrive at Fork & Screen about 30 minutes before the scheduled movie start so they can peruse the menu while the lights are up and place their orders. The menu includes burgers, flatbread pizzas, grilled sandwiches, appetizers and desserts. Plus, there are kid-friendly selections. Kids' meals, for ages 12 and younger, cost $7.49, while adult appetizers start at $7.99 and entrees at $9.99. Get a taste of the menu here.


Our family shared the bacon cheeseburger and the queso blanco dip & chips. The portions were generous and fairly tasty considering we were eating in a setting that wasn't a typical eatery. We also sampled the waffle sundae: two warm Belgium waffles topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled in caramel and sprinkled with candied bacon. Delicious!


We found the servers to be efficient and not at all disruptive as we were watching the movie. And eating wasn't a balancing act, either. Each row of seats has a bar-like table that runs the length of the row, offering a sturdy and comfortable way to eat. Speaking of comfortable, the seats are plush rocking chairs that are grouped in rows of four seats. That means every seat is either an aisle or one seat away from the aisle, which makes bathroom breaks less disruptive for everyone. Anyone with youngsters will understand the importance and value of this feature alone.

In fact, the Fork & Screen dine-in experience can be especially accommodating to parents who are juggling the responsibilities of keeping kids happy while making sure the grown-ups have a pleasant time at the movies, too. All in all, the concept can make "dinner and a movie" a fun night out for families and an all-in-one event.


January 3, 2014

Tips for visiting Walt Disney World and SeaWorld when it's cold outside


Florida might be a subtropical paradise, but it does get cold here at times, as this week's front proves. And, though "Frozen" might be a big winter hit in the theaters right now, you don't have to spend your days in the Orlando theme parks experiencing the same.

How will the cold affect your visit to Orlando theme parks such as Walt Disney World and Seaworld? When the mercury dips below 50, some things change even if others remain the same. Here are a few things of which to be to be aware:

** Water parks will close. Disney's Typhoon Lagoon already is not open to guests because of scheduled maintenance, and Disney's Blizzard Beach also will be closed today. Same goes for SeaWorld's Aquatica. Guests who had planned to visit the Disney water park still can enjoy the adjacent Winter Summerland miniature golf course, though.

** Some animals will stay indoors, but others will not be deterred by the cold. At Disney's Animal Kingdom, a three-hour process brings all animals indoors each night to climate-controlled areas. In the morning, they are given a choice whether to venture out or stay warm and cozy. When Florida has a cold snap, such as this one, extra precautions also are taken in the outdoor habitat, such as adding heating elements, for example. So, riding Kilimanjaro Safaris will not be a bust, but you're unlikely to see the Komodo dragon from the walkway along its outdoor habitat because it is sensitive to the cold. Same goes for some other animals, too.

At SeaWorld Orlando, many of the marine animals already thrive in cooler waters, such as the orca whales, sea lions and dolphins, so these temperatures don't affect their performances. The shows will go on! And although the penguins in the new Antarctica attraction reside in a climate-controlled area, guests just might feel like they've stepped onto the South Pole, too, no matter how chilly it might be outside.

** Steer clear of water rides, such as Splash Mountain or Journey to Atlantis, or the Splash Zone at the Shamu show. These places may be open but do you really want to spend the rest of your day shivering from wet, soggy clothes?


** Seize the opportunity to drink plenty of hot chocolate or warm coffee in the theme parks. SeaWorld has the best deal for hot chocolate, with its refillable souvenir mug. It works the same way as its drink cups -- after a one-time purchase of the cup, all refills are 99 cents. At Disney World, coffee lovers can get their Starbucks fix at new locations on Main Street, U.S.A., in the Magic Kingdom and near the Fountain of Nations in Epcot. Additional stores are planned!

** When vacationers arrive at the theme parks, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement and the anticipation of their favorite attractions. But when it's cold, adjust your schedule accordingly. Plan to visit indoor attractions in the morning or evening, when temperatures are coolest. As the day warms up, spend more time outdoors for a more pleasurable experience.

** If you're staying in the Disney resorts, don't forget that some, like the Fort Wilderness Resort or the BoardWalk Inn, offer enticing fireplace settings in their main lobbies. Others, such as the Polynesian Resort or the Beach Club, also offer nightly beachside fire pits complete with s'mores that also can be fun family escapes from the rare Florida cool-downs. The cozy evening gatherings around the fire can be the perfect way to wind down after a long day in the parks, too. Who knows, if you're outside at a fire pit, you might even catch a glimpse of a fireworks show, as well.


January 7, 2014

New details about Magic Kingdom's upcoming Festival of Fantasy Parade


"What time is the 3 o'clock parade?" Cast members and Walt Disney World regulars chuckle about this supposedly common question from first-time guests to the Magic Kingdom. This year, however, the question may not be about when the parade takes place rather what it is all about.

The Magic Kingdom's "Celebrate a Dream Come True Parade" wrapped up a five-year run on Saturday, making way for a brand-new daytime parade to come this year. (Take a look back at Jack Spence's blog from the previous parade's opening day.) The "Festival of Fantasy Parade" is expected to debut in the spring, and Walt Disney World so far has released only a brief description and some of the concept artwork. You can take a peek here.


2013-2014 Walt Disney World Ambassadors Tye Arnold (left) and Rich Tamayo

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Tye Arnold, one of the 2013-2014 Walt Disney World ambassadors, about the new parade. "There are a lot of new floats that have been designed after New Fantasyland opened [in 2012]," he said. "So a lot of the stories that have come alive there will come alive on the floats throughout the Magic Kingdom."

Specifically, expect to see floats and characters from "The Little Mermaid," "Sleeping Beauty," "Dumbo," "Pinocchio," "Peter Pan," "Tangled" and "Brave." Of course, there will be a signature float for Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, as well.

Clearly, the Disney Princesses will be out in full force in this parade. "Rapunzel is a big part of this parade," Arnold said. "It's kind of neat to see a newer character, a recent princess in our line-up of Disney Princesses."

What about Disney's newest unofficial addition to the royal family -- the Ice Queen, Elsa, from "Frozen"?

"We haven't heard if any of the 'Frozen' characters will be in the parade. 'Frozen' just came out, and this parade has been in the works for quite some time," Arnold said. "I don't think, at this time, 'Frozen' will be a part of it."

Although guests might not see the ice spells of Elsa or hear the wacky humor of Olaf the Snowman, they nonetheless will see some amazing feats on the floats.


"We have some of the largest floats we've ever had in one of our parades. One really interesting one will be Captain Hook's pirate ship. Wendy and Peter will be 28 feet above the buildings on Main Street. It's going to be really impressive," he said. "It's cool enough just to look up and see the buildings on Main Street, but then to have them [the characters] even higher?"

The Walt Disney Co. has a history of moving its parades and shows among its parks worldwide to keep vacations memories fresh for repeat visitors. The "Festival of Fantasy Parade," however, has been created as a new experience with new costumes and music to go with the floats.

"It's a brand-new parade, but it does have some incorporated pieces so some of the floats are coming from our Tokyo park. " Part of a train set is coming from Tokyo. We like to bring in some of the older pieces to add character, but it's also nice to have something fresh," Arnold said.

The "Celebrate a Dream Come True Parade" is not moving to another Disney theme park at this time, he said.

"Festival of Fantasy Parade" is planned to begin at the same time the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train attraction in New Fantasyland opens this spring.


January 9, 2014

A Disney fan's first impressions of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando




Though The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort opened to the public more than three years ago, I only recently discovered how unique it is, thanks to my 10-year-old son's love of the books and my recent role as a chaperone for his school's field trip to the park. If you're a fan of the popular stories from J.K. Rowling and are planning a visit yourself, I hope these observations and tips gleaned from my first visit will help you make the most of your experience.

My son and I found ourselves at Islands of Adventure on the Friday before Christmas. It's not uncommon for Orlando school chorus groups to perform in the theme parks, especially during the holidays, and I volunteered to help chaperone my son's group. Despite our frequent trips to other Orlando theme parks, we had not been to this one, primarily because my son does not enjoy big rides or roller coasters.

Still, he was very excited to go because he's reading the "Harry Potter" books and could not wait to see Hogsmeade come to life in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We both did a little research before our trip, but we could not plan everything the way we would have if it were to be just he and I. As a chaperone, I would be responsible for other students and we would have to allow for their interests, as well. Plus, we would arrive at the theme park just as the majority of guests do -- between 10 and 10:30 a.m. -- so beating the holiday crowds would be difficult.

Luckily for us, the other boys in our group were happy to start our day immersed in the story of Harry Potter. We walked quickly through the park, stopping briefly at the entrance to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for a few photos. Already the area was jam-packed with guests marveling at the detailed village. They must not have been daredevils, though, because the line for Dragon Challenge was only 10 minutes.



Our group moved quickly to that queue, which largely is inside a small castle and is themed to events in the movie adaptation of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." The ride features two roller coasters, which twist, turn, invert and are launched in a staggered pattern to supposedly chase each other, like Harry being chased by the Hungarian Horntail in the Triwizard Tournament. In fact, the blue track is called the Hungarian Horntail, while the red is the Chinese Fireball.


My son and I offered to hold backpacks and bags while the more adventurous students in our group prepared for the thrill ride. (If everyone in your party wants to ride, however, all personal belongings must be stored in the free lockers available at the start of the queue.) Guests who choose not to ride might enjoy wandering down the same trail they raced up to join the line. Take time to notice the perfect view of Hogwarts Castle -- a great photo opportunity -- and the blue car that is Ron's wrecked vehicle actually used in the movie production.

When riders exit Dragon Challenge, they end up near a stage in Hogsmeade Village, where they can view the Frog Choir, comprised of Hogwarts students and their large croaking frogs, and the Triwizard Spirit Rally, a colorful procession of Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students.




Across the village roadway is the imposing Hogwarts Castle, which houses the Forbidden Journey attraction. This ride is not a roller coaster, but rather more of a moving dark ride with drops and turns. Vehicles are lifted above the track by a robotic arm -- the technology is similar to that used on the Sum of All Thrills at Epcot -- and passengers wear shoulder bars for safety. I'm told Forbidden Journey can be frightening, though the special effects are amazing as guests "fly" around the castle, come face-to-face with the Whomping Willow and a horde of Dementors, and witness a Quidditch match.


If, like me, you can't ride Forbidden Journey for health reasons, don't discount seeing the castle. Touring the inside is just as much of an attraction as the ride itself. The details here are layered and continuous through the queue. My son recognized item after item and exclaimed with excitement at seeing reproductions from the books and movies come to life before his eyes. Islands of Adventure no longer offers a separate tour-only line for Hogwarts Castle, so you'll need to join the ride queue. The line moves quickly inside the castle, so if you want to linger, invite other guests to step in front of you.





A few tips for riding Forbidden Journey: This, too, is an attraction on which you cannot take personal belongings, so if you want to take photos inside the castle, don't plan on riding at that time. You will cut down on your wait time if you choose the single-rider line.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter includes a third ride, Flight of the Hippogriff. In this attraction, Hagrid is teaching wizards how to fly a Hippogriff before allowing a test flight over the Forbidden Forest and Hagrid's Hut. This mild attraction is much like The Barnstormer at the Magic Kingdom with gentle drops and turns. Perhaps the most exciting aspect is being able to see all of The Wizarding World from the top of the lift.


After taking in all the rides, it was time for lunch! Three Broomsticks is the only restaurant in the Harry Potter area, and it serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's a quick-service location, meaning you will order, pick up your food and then be seated. We found the service to be efficient and the team members patient when we asked a *lot* of questions.

The menu offers traditional British foods, such as Shepherd's Pie, Fish and Chips, and Cornish Pasties, though you also will find a theme-park favorite -- the smoked turkey leg -- and soup and salad. Lunch prices range from $7.99 to $13.99. There also is a children's menu with meals priced at $4.99. The food was decent, but not anything I would rave about. What is amazing, though, is the design of the restaurant and the attention to detail (again) in its decor. Supposedly, it was so well done that Three Broomsticks was incorporated in the "Harry Potter" films after it was built at Islands of Adventure.


My son and I were surprised to find that no carbonated beverages were sold at Three Broomsticks. (After a bus ride with the fifth-grade chorus and the morning at a theme park, I was definitely looking forward to a well-caffeinated Diet Coke.) Instead, we opted to try the non-alcoholic Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice. The famous Butterbeer is sold frozen or not and with or without a souvenir mug. Although we didn't dislike the Butterbeer, we preferred the Pumpkin Juice, which tastes like apple cider.


Attached to Three Broomsticks is Hog's Head pub, which also serves Butterbeer, a limited selection of real beer and some mixed drinks. Nearby are large bathrooms, which Moaning Myrtle haunts. The kids in our group thought that was hilarious!

After lunch, it was time to shop. We had heard about Ollivander's, the wand shop that can command hours-long lines. For just that reason, we were not able to experience this store. If you get there early or do decide to wait in the queue, though, you will be allowed into the shop in groups of 25. (Hence, the slow-moving line.) Once inside, a guest -- usually a child -- will be picked for the show, in which a wand chooses the child. It's quintessential Harry Potter, I'm told.


My son really wanted to see and select a wand, so we went next door to The Owlery. Even with the crowds, we were able to talk with one of the shopkeeps about the various types of wands that are categorized by birthdate and story character. My son decided to purchase a Christmas wand since that was the season of our visit. Wands are all priced at about $35. The Owlery also has a large selection of its namesake stuffed animals and a variety of other merchandise.

In the village you also will find shops from the "Harry Potter" stories, such as Zonko's Joke Shop, Honeydukes Sweetshop, Dervish & Banges and Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods. They all sell the items you have read about. Imagine taking home chocolate frogs, Muggle Magic juggling balls, the Master Book of Monsters or a Hogwarts House robe!

It was tough to leave such an immersive experience, but my son and I are looking forward to going back when the new Diagon Alley section opens at Universal Studios this summer. Guests will be able to ride the Hogwarts Express train between the two parks at Universal Orlando to experience both collections of Harry Potter attractions.

Just as Disneyland and Walt Disney World famously set the standards for themed attractions that could transport guests into other worlds, Universal Orlando Resort has done the same with its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And the attraction offers a powerful allure that goes beyond the simple thrill of a roller coaster or dark ride, as my son's experience will attest.



January 11, 2014

It's time to change locations of smoking areas at Walt Disney World


It's the beginning of January, and for many of us, that means a renewed focus on our health. We vow to eat better and stick to exercise routines. Many of our Disney friends who did not veer off track are even running in the races today during Marathon Weekend at Walt Disney World.

But in addition to healthy eating and exercising, there is another factor affecting the health of Disney World guests who are forced to confront it every time they step into the parks -- secondhand smoke. Each park has designated smoking areas, which makes sense and which I appreciate. I just wish some of these designated areas were relocated to less-busy sections of the parks so kids (and adults!) are not forced to hold their breath as they walk through the clouds of smoke.

Of the four theme parks, the Magic Kingdom seems to have some of the worst-placed designated smoking areas, in my opinion. I cannot believe that guests are permitted to smoke on the walkways that run alongside Cinderella Castle. Sure, it's a central location, but it makes little sense to me that crowds of smokers should be allowed where visitors want to pause to admire the castle and even take photos in front of it. After all, Cinderella Castle is practically synonymous with Walt Disney World and attracts all guests in the parks, especially young children.


Another smoking spot that I find almost as egregious is the Plaza Landing, which is surrounded by the Rose Garden, Tomorrowland Terrace and The Plaza restaurant. That location is prime real estate for fireworks viewing, but I certainly wouldn't choose to sit there, knowing my family and I would have to breathe the secondhand smoke. Unfortunately, the smoke also drifts to one side of Tomorrowland Terrace, where the nightly dessert party is held, and the iconic tables with the yellow umbrellas in front of The Plaza, so we generally bypass those, as well.

The fact is that smokers probably are no longer the majority of guests who visit the Magic Kingdom, so why are they being given the preferred locations to light up? It would make more sense to place the smoking sections in less-crowded areas.

There actually is one such designated smoking area that I think is located in an ideal spot. It's along the walkway between Tomorrowland and Storybook Circus. This area is not well-traveled, and there are alternative routes for guests who want to visit either land of the Magic Kingdom. Plus, it's an open-air section of the park, between the Walt Disney Railroad tracks and the Tomorrowland Speedway.

Smoking sections at Walt Disney World should be located in places where non-smokers are least affected by the health risks. It's time for a change at the Magic Kingdom. At Hollywood Studios, two of the designated smoking sections recently were closed. Perhaps that's in order at the Magic Kingdom, as well.


January 14, 2014

SeaWorld's Wild Days take visitors behind the scenes of animal care


SeaWorld Orlando has launched a new event this month called Wild Days that is aimed at spreading the company's message of conservation while giving visitors a look at what goes on behind the scenes when team members care for the animals.


At the first Wild Day, my daughter and I were invited to take a tour to see where many of the park's rescue and rehabilitation efforts take place. Located behind closed gates near the Key West dolphin area of the park is the hub of much of SeaWorld's animal-care efforts. Once inside, my daughter recognized the "Sea Rescue" team's truck and speedboat, which can be seen on the weekly television show. Interestingly, the propeller on the boat Dundee is located in the center of the craft to protect the manatees they are rescuing or releasing.

Turtle rehabilitation pools at SeaWorld Orlando

We arrived at the shallow turtle pools, where we were introduced to Little Hercules and Cobbler. These two sea turtles are blind and not able to be released into the wild, so SeaWorld has been charged with their care. While doing so, SeaWorld has been able to broaden its knowledge about turtles' eyesight, and the turtles have also served as blood donors for other turtles' surgeries, a staff educator told our group. Their neighbor, Pokey, is a rare Kemp's Ridley sea turtle who suffers from severe arthritis.

John Peterson stands in front of 2 manatee rehabilitation pools.

Next, we moved to the manatee pools -- two are located in the "backstage" area and one is actually in the tank visitors can peer into at the Turtle Trek attraction. John Peterson, supervisor of animal care and a SeaWorld employee for more than 20 years, talked about the rescue process.

"We're committed to the rescue, rehabilitation and return of our animals -- as quickly as we can," he said. Peterson, who can be seen on "Sea Rescue," explained that it is state and federal agencies, not rehabilitation facilities like SeaWorld, that determine if and when a rescued animal will be released.

"We will release wherever they tell us -- east coast, west coast, north, south, cold water, warm water," he said. "Some people wonder why you would release in cold water. We'll release [manatees] in the warm springs when the head count is high from all the manatees gathered there. Then, instead of being by themselves, they're with all these other animals and they will move back out and hopefully, if all works right like it normally does for us, we won't have to see them again."

When animals leave SeaWorld's care, they are tagged for identification and follow-up care as needed, Peterson said. That system -- plus a knowledgable ranger at Blue Springs -- enabled SeaWorld to learn about one of its very successful rescues. A baby manatee that was hand-fed and required round-the-clock care at SeaWorld was found to have assimilated to life in the wild and even produced an offspring.

SeaWorld guests can take the Behind-The-Scenes Tour and see these two areas, plus touch a shark, explore a hidden polar bear den and interact with a penguin. The normal price for the tour is $29 for adults and $9 for children ages 3 to 9, but during the month of January, it is offered as a buy-one, get-one-free experience.



As we were leaving the rehabilitation area of the park, we all had to laugh when a group of flamingos came strutting through the parking lot with two trainers in tow. The birds were on their way out for a stroll through the park. We followed the flamingos out into the park and made our way to the Dolphin Theater to see the "Blue Horizons" show. This is a must-do for our family when we visit SeaWorld.



If you arrive a few minutes before the show, you will get to see four pilot whales and their trainers work on some basic commands in the pool. Rescued from strandings, these four are the first pilot whales at the Orlando park, though San Diego does have some in its care.

"When we working with them in quarantine, we were still hoping they'd be released, so we weren't doing much training," a trainer told us. "We weren't even feeding [the pilot whales] above the water because, out in their natural environment, they'd need to eat below it. We weren't preparing them for a show."

Once the federal government determined they couldn't be released, SeaWorld trainers started positive reinforcement training with the pilot whales.

"They're very smart in their own way," she said. "They're not as quick as some of the dolphins. By their natural biology they don't move as quickly, so that sometimes takes us a little longer because they just can't move the way a dolphin moves. But they're picking up on the basics of what we do very quickly."

False killer whales were used in Blue Horizons until the last one died, and the trainer said they hope to use the pilot whales in the show, like they do in San Diego. Trainer talks, such as this one, are open to the public and part of guests' regular admission during Wild Days.

Later in the day, my family learned about California Sea Lions before the "Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island" show. We watched as a trainer asked Zoe to open her mouth wide to participate in her own healthcare. And we heard about Big John and Little Chris, who came to SeaWorld from Oregon when the federal government determined it would have to euthanize 90 sea lions a year from a river near the Bonneville Dam.



One of the most famous animal trainers was the keynote speaker during the first Wild Days weekend, Jack Hanna. "Jungle Jack," who entertained audiences with his stories and displays of rare animals, did not shy away from talking about the reality of being an animal trainer -- that sometimes things go wrong and the trainers can be injured or die. The result, he said, is that SeaWorld has taken an unfair beating on its reputation.

"I'll never forget the first time I came here with my girls, who were only 5 and 7 at that time. I got to see the most magnificent thing I'd ever seen in the world and that was the killer whales and the other animals that were here, the dolphins. I'll never forget that, just like the 350 to 400 million other people who visit SeaWorld parks," Hanna said.

"Dawn [Brancheau] who lost her life here was a friend of mine. I did the memorial service here at SeaWorld. Her family, her parents, are here today. " They came today to visit SeaWorld because they love SeaWorld. Dawn loved Seaworld. Dawn's life was SeaWorld. The whales were her life," he said as the audience applauded in memory of Brancheau's devotion to the animals with which she worked at SeaWorld.

SeaWorld's Wild Days continue on Jan. 18-19 and Jan. 25-26. Next weekend features the stars of "Sea Rescue," who will talk about the stories that have been featured on the show, including those of turtles, manatees, flamingos, pilot whales and dolphins. Plus, the rescue team will answer questions from guests. The last weekend focuses on penguins with talks from SeaWorld Animal Ambassador Julie Scardina and penguin activities for the whole family in the Antarctica section of the park. Check the daily times guide for Wild Days events.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld during its Wild Days event. My opinions are my own, and this did not influence my story.


January 16, 2014

Disney's 'Frozen' is being adapted for Broadway, Iger confirms



Fans of Disney's latest animated hit film "Frozen" were excited to get confirmation this week of what they had hoped (and suspected): The movie is being adapted to a stage musical.

Disney CEO and chairman Bob Iger said in a "Fortune" article that was published Monday that the company is in discussions to develop a Broadway show, though he warned there is no timetable. Iger told the magazine, "We're not demanding speed. We're demanding excellence."

That careful approach to creativity certainly seems to have paid off with the movie, itself, because it won the 2014 Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature on Sunday. Development of "Frozen," which is an interpretation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Ice Queen," began as early as 1943 with Walt Disney himself. However, it seemed that no one could find a way to make The Ice Queen relatable to audiences. Over the years, the project was revisited by group after group of talented Disney filmmakers, but with no success to green-light the project.

Finally, in 2011, the project was turned over Director Chris Buck ("Tarzan," "Home on the Range") and he recast The Ice Queen as misunderstood princess Elsa, a sister to Anna and no longer an evil villain as in the original story. Producer John Lasseter insisted on further development of the other main characters to make them resonate with audiences, as well. This approach clearly worked, because viewers of all ages have connected with the characters. My own daughter admired Elsa more than her down-to-earth sister Anna, asking for an Elsa costume and doll for Christmas.

She certainly was not alone as families enjoyed the film enough to view it multiple times and invest in the merchandise. "Frozen" toys flew off the shelves before Christmas at stores such as Toys 'R' Us, the Disney Store, and even at Walt Disney World retail outlets.

In addition, the "Frozen" soundtrack has topped charts. It's No. 1 on the Billboard 200, a feat that few animated soundtracks have achieved. Critics pointed out early on that the music of "Frozen" was created with a Broadway production in mind. The soundtrack features eight original songs from husband-and-wife songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, including the powerful "Let It Go" performed by Idina Menzel (who voices Elsa) and which also is covered by Demi Lovato.

Perhaps another sign that Disney executives had a stage production in mind from the get-go is that Robert Lopez, Menzel and Jonathan Groff (who voices Kristoff) all have extensive experience on Broadway. Lopez wrote the music for "The Book of Mormon," while Menzel is known for her role in "Wicked" and Groff was in "Spring Awakening."

Disney certainly has found success with taking some of its other beloved animated films to the live-action stage. After all, "The Lion King" is Broadway's fourth-longest-running show and its highest-grossing one of all time as of December. "Beauty and the Beast" was Broadway's eighth-longest-running production and grossed more than $1.4 billion worldwide. And Disney took another Hans Christian Anderson story, "The Little Mermaid," and turned it into a stage production that garnered several Tony Awards and a Grammy.

Fans of Disney's latest animated hit know that if the film is a successful stage musical, it clearly won't be the first time in forever. Still, it will be worth waiting for.

Related stories:

Spoiler-free review of "Frozen":

Where to find "Frozen" characters at Walt Disney World:

A Meet and Greet with Queen Elsa and Princess Anna - Video

"Frozen" Storybook Deluxe app:


January 18, 2014

Show Your Disney Side with new Disney Parks promotion


If you're reading this blog, chances are you have a Disney side to yourself. And now you can more readily share it with others.

Each year, the Disney Parks launch a marketing campaign that is carried through in national advertising and in the parks. Last year, guests were invited to experience "Limited Time Magic" -- special offerings in the theme parks that were only available for a short period. Several years ago, it was the "Year of a Million Dreams," which actually was extended to a second year. That campaign empowered cast members to give visitors daily surprises that ran the gamut from simple to almost unbelievable, with the most coveted being an overnight stay in the Cinderella Castle Suite each day.

So, what magical campaign is taking place this year?


If you're the least bit social-media savvy, then you already know that the 2014 campaign is "Show Your Disney Side." We started hearing about the new promotion in the fall when Social Media Director Thomas Smith announced it on the Disney Parks Blog. He said that a person's "Disney Side" is "the side of you that says 'yes' more often, laughs louder and lives life to the fullest. It's the side of you that embraces fun and comes out to play the moment you step through the gates at Disney Parks."

Disney fans are invited to share their "Disney Side" on social media platforms using the hashtag #DisneySide. (Walt Disney World has official channels on Twitter, Vine, Instagram, Google+ and Facebook.) And you can see others' images and videos at DisneySide.com.

The worldwide launch of "Show Your Disney Side" took place in November at Disneyland with a group of "all-star" bloggers -- those with some of the biggest followings and most memorable moments on social media -- who were invited to create "Disney Side" content for social media channels. Happiest Selfie on Earth, anyone? How about a look at what the creator of The Grumpy Cat videos can create at Disneyland?

Now, #DisneySide is making a concentrated splash again on social media because hosts of the Disney Side Home Celebrations have been notified and they are talking and tweeting up a storm. Families were invited to apply (through Jan. 5) to host at-home Disney parties during the last two weeks of February. To accomplish this, hosts receive a box of goodies for at least 10 parents and 10 children. The package that includes party favors, decorations, games, activities, recipe ideas and a special hostess gift. In exchange for taking part, winners agree to share their experiences online and offline.

Marketing a product via home parties is not a new concept, by any means, but it's been a while since Disney has used the technique. Clearly, the strategy is a great fit with social-media moms. How could they resist posting photos and showing off their Disney sides?

Although I haven't hosted a Disney-themed home party like this, I have enjoyed doing so with another kid-friendly brand that also was promoting its uniqueness with a crafting-party theme. It was a fun and special activity for my daughter and I, and I'm certain Disney's efforts will bring a lot of smiles and memories, as well.


Just because you may have missed out on the party promotion doesn't mean you can't show your love of all things Disney. For fans of the parks, the website is a fun one to explore. And with a little creativity, you even can make it a fun family event with the kids, too.

At the DisneySide.com site, you can upload your Disney-themed photos and videos for the world to admire. They can be vacation photos, of course, or staged ones, too. And the more over-the-top, the better your visual media might seem.

You can, of course, plan your Disney park visits at the website, too, and learn more about all the parks offer. Locals here in Orlando and other annual-pass fans might instinctually skip this section, but don't be so quick. After all, you might get reacquainted with some park attractions you haven't visited in awhile. And kids especially can have fun exploring at this part of the site if you have a weekend visit planned.

Finally, choose the "Reveal Your Disney Side" at the bottom left of the page. There you will find a fun quiz that will, in theory, reveal your true Disney side.


January 21, 2014

Shamu Up Close attraction debuts at SeaWorld Orlando, giving visitors an inside look at orcas' training and care




Most tourists who visit SeaWorld Orlando probably think of it primarily as a world-class theme park that offers an entertaining escape. But what makes the park's parent company unique is that it also focuses on educating the public about the care and conservation of marine animals while providing the fun Orlando's visitors have come to expect. During the new Wild Days event, SeaWorld has emphasized its message of nurturing nature, and now the park is giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how it cares for its orcas.

The new Shamu Up Close attraction opened on Jan. 6 in one of the "backstage" pools At Shamu Stadium. If you've been to Dine With Shamu, you're familiar with this location, which affords guests underwater views of the tank as well as viewing at the surface level.



Entering the attraction is done in the opposite way you would go to the meal location. Head up to Shamu Stadium and join the well-marked queue. Although the line might appear long, it does move quickly. Team members limit the number of guests allowed in the walk-through attraction so it doesn't become too crowded and difficult to see the orcas.

Once inside, you'll be able to walk up to the glass that separates guests from the tanks or sit on benches that have replaced the dinner tables. The orcas are swimming freely, and we watched a pair who floated on their backs and appeared to be sunning themselves for quite a while. Trainers walk next to the partition and are happy to answer questions from visitors.

About once an hour, trainers will conduct a training session with the killer whales. The times are not published, so be sure to ask a team member when you enter the Shamu Up Close area. On the day we visited, the sessions began at 45 minutes past the hour, but trainers were quick to say that times change from day to day.



As you can see in this video, we watched trainers reinforce desired behaviors using targets, or the long poles with foam balls on the ends. Marine animals learn to obey hand signals with positive reinforcement (such as a whistle and food), but when the animals are farther away, a hand signal alone may not work. So, trainers use the poles as an extension of their arms. (This same concept is used to train dolphins, as well.)

In addition to teaching behaviors for shows, trainers teach the orcas to participate in their own health care. Visitors can see another backstage pool beyond the Shamu Up Close pool where the whales are performing slide-outs, which is just what it sounds like -- the mammals sliding out of the deep pool onto a shallow bed. Once there, they can be weighed and checked by veterinarians. This maneuver also is performed during the One Ocean show by single orcas and by multiple whales together. I'm not sure guests can fully appreciate how large these animals are until they see them from nose to tail out of the water. It's truly amazing.

Shamu Up Close is scheduled to last through the week of April 7, when Shamu Stadium reopens. The One Ocean show is on hiatus while the main performance tank at Shamu Stadium is undergoing routine maintenance.

Seeing such majestic animals as the orca whales, or the playful dolphins my daughter loves, at SeaWorld inspires guests of all ages to learn more about them and even take action to help with their conservation. These up-close encounters cement that desire to become involved with the world around us, and that's worth the wait in line.


January 23, 2014

What Disney World merchandise do you collect?


If you're a regular reader of AllEars.Net, you and I (obviously) share a love of Disney, and perhaps other theme parks, as well. As my husband likes to say, we're of the same tribe. With so much in common, I'm guessing that you may also share my enjoyment of walking through all the gift shops at Walt Disney World and even the Disney Store at your local mall. You never know if you'll find something new that you really "need," right?

It may surprise you that, although I love to look, I'm not an avid collector of Disney merchandise like many fans. Unlike perhaps many of you, I do not even have a Disney-themed room in my house. Don't get me wrong -- I admire the attention to detail and hours of hard work that other fans have dedicated to recreating their favorite attractions or spotlighting their favorite characters in those rooms and which house their beloved merchandise. The Haunted Mansion seems to be an especially popular theme these days for some Disney fans. And have you seen the amazing Pirates of the Caribbean room Jack Spence has just conceived and created in his new home?

At my house, though, the Disney reminders are subtle yet sprinkled here and there like pixie dust through the rooms. Nonetheless, these items achieve the same effect that I imagine a Disney room would for others -- they make me smile and remember with fondness the occasion during which I purchased or received them.

T-shirts aside, here's a look at some of the Disney-themed merchandise my family has collected through the years that have become part of our daily lives:


** Fab Five popcorn set. This includes a big metal bowl and four smaller bowls, each decorated with a different character. We've had this set for years -- it wears well! It's our tradition to always use it for movie night at home; each family member uses his or her own bowl with a designated character. I bet you can guess who gets Goofy, right? The set still is for sale at Walt Disney World, and I believe it costs about $35. I love giving this set as a house-warming gift.

** Mickey Mouse-shaped cookie cutter. This is my other go-to kitchen item from Walt Disney World. For the longest time, the baking tools were hard to find, and I used an egg yolk shaper to make cookies and cut out my kids' sandwiches for school. Now, they are readily available at the theme park and sell for less than $10.


** Wooden Disney-themed picture frames and photos from Disney's PhotoPass. Some of the most cherished souvenirs I have from our theme-park trips are the professional photos of our family we have purchased over the years. My husband has to listen to me deliberate whether we should spend the money each and every time -- especially when we take the same shot on my camera -- but I have never been sorry I purchased the prints or downloads. There have been plenty of times when I offload the photos at home and they are not as I expected. There is no replacing the photos that show each child's wonder at meeting Mickey Mouse for the first time or the sheer joy of standing on the deck of a Disney Cruise Line ship.


** Mickey and Minnie garden statues and small pots for plants. Merchandise at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival tempts me every year. So far, I have kept my purchases to the garden statues and these tiny green pots. I keep the statues on our covered patio and the little planters in the house so the Florida sun cannot fade them. All of these items are still sold at the festival, though in different versions each year. If I remember correctly, the statues were about $25 apiece.

** Seasonal merchandise. Bring out the Halloween- or Christmas-themed merchandise in the Walt Disney World gift shops, and I have to shop! Halloween is more of a Not-So-Scary affair than a Haunted Mansion ghost-and-gravedigger theme at our house, so we have plenty of lighted Mickey-shaped jack-o'-lanterns -- but there's always room for one more! And, of course, we have Disney Christmas ornaments and mugs for hot cocoa. One of my favorite traditions is giving our son and daughter Disney World-themed Christmas pajamas each year, too.


** Walt Disney World monorail play set. My son has been receiving pieces of the monorail set for Christmas since he was very little. It began when he was fascinated by the Dumbo attraction, and I found the toy ride at one of the outlets. He finally completed the set this year when he received the retired Mad Tea Party toy. When my son was younger, he would spend many happy hours playing with these toys, which have since become collector's items.

** Disney-themed bags. If I collect anything, it's Disney purses. I have one Dooney & Bourke bag that I carry every day. Best gift ever! I also received each of the three Vera Bradley Disney patterns on hipster-style bags that were released in the fall. These are my favorite bags for a hands-free day in the theme parks.

I'm sure each of you has Disney-themed merchandise that you just can't do without, too. Tell us in the comments, please, so we can all plan our next shopping trips!


January 25, 2014

Walt Disney World's Epcot offers kids a variety of fun activities


Recently, a parent at my children's elementary school told me she would never take her kids to Epcot because there just isn't anything for them to do at that Walt Disney World theme park.

Huh? As an annual passholder who takes her young children to Epcot on a regular basis, I was really surprised to hear another local resident express this viewpoint. Sure, first-time visitors sometimes are under the impression that Epcot is designed with adults in mind. There's often the misconception among new visitors that the park can be a collection of educational exhibits grouped by nations around the world or tech sponsors at the front of the park. But surely locals know better, right?

Well, for those who don't and who might harbor the same misconception, let me offer a few ideas for some of the family friendly activities that can fill your day at the park.


** Thrill-ride attractions. For those who love a thrill, there are several rides every bit as heart-pounding as Space Mountain or Expedition Everest: Test Track, Soarin' and Mission: SPACE. Be sure to book a FastPass for these rides because the stand-by lines can get really long.

** Fun but not-so-fast rides. These are perfect for younger kids or those who prefer tamer experiences. Spaceship Earth offers guests an easy time-travel ride inside the iconic geodesic sphere; The Land ride takes guests through a futuristic greenhouse; Gran Fiesta Tour is a gentle boat ride in the Mexico pavilion; and Maelstrom in Norway is another boat ride with a single, small drop.

** Movies. Many of the pavilions at various nations play shows in theaters. OK, so they are educational. But they are quite interesting in showing other parts of the world, and several are even presented in breathtaking surround-screen formats. Canada and China take guests on tours with short 360-degree movies. Other pavilions, such as France and Norway, have more traditional theaters.

** Scavenger hunts. During the last few years, Disney World has added several self-guided quests in its parks. Epcot features Phineas and Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure, which is a great way to explore the nations at your own pace.

** Create a free souvenir. Younger kids may enjoy the Kidcot Spots, which allow them to color a mask in the shape of Perry the Platypus or Duffy the Disney Bear. Each country has a table for the coloring activity, and cast members will stamp the handle, so guests will have a collection of stamps, as well. Some also will write the child's name in the country's native language. My kids, like so many others, always want to stop at the Kidcot Spots, even though they've participated in this activity repeatedly.


** Character meet-and-greets. Epcot features some unique opportunities, the most recent of which is Anna and Elsa from "Frozen." The royal sisters still are drawing hours-long lines in Norway, and this is the only place to have a photo taken with the pair and get their autographs. Anna and Elsa are scheduled to remain at Epcot through the end of January, so now is the time to plan your visit.

** Food! Even picky eaters may enjoy the opportunity to sample snacks from different countries that they might not ordinarily be exposed to. This is especially true during Epcot's two large festivals -- Flower and Garden in the spring and Food and Wine in the fall -- which feature kiosks of appetizer-size portions. As my kids have gotten older and have started exploring different flavors beyond burgers and chicken nuggets, they look forward to our family days of sharing different dishes at Epcot.

** Fireworks. IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth takes place around World Showcase Lagoon and is a spectacular laser light and fireworks show set to dramatic music. What a way to close out your day!

These are just some of the fun things you and your family might enjoy at Epcot. At various times throughout the year, the park also hosts different concerts and seasonal events that you won't find in the other parks.

And, yes, Epcot lives up to its premise as a so-called Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that offers plenty of educational opportunities for young and old alike. Practically every attraction inside the park is a learning experience. But most every tech demonstration or national-heritage lesson is accompanied by a fun activity or attraction, as well.

So, for those who have not been to Epcot, rest assured that the first and foremost lesson you might learn is that the park is no different than Magic Kingdom when it comes to the amount of fun you can have there.


January 28, 2014

Disney expands its Princess brand to include the royals' pets


Could a spinoff of the Disney Princesses be the next big franchise for the The Walt Disney Co.? The signs sure point in that direction.

Last summer, the company introduced its Disney Princess Palace Pets with a free app that I wrote about after my 9-year-old daughter told me how much she enjoys it. It would seem she is not the only one. The app allows users to style the royal cats, dogs and even a horse after giving them baths. The Palace Pets app is available for iOS devices on iTunes.

According the the company's website, the app had been downloaded more than 2 million times by the end of October 2013 and its popularity led to further development of the toys. "[We] created a rich back story for each pet and a corresponding product line of figures, plush and play sets that allow girls to nurture and pamper their Palace Pets just like the Disney Princess characters," said Amelia Lukiman of Disney Consumer Products on the Disney Post blog.

Many of the toys are available at retailers such as Toys 'R' Us, Target and Amazon.com. Prices range from $6.99 to $29.99.


So far, we have been introduced to:

Ariel's kitten Treasure
Aurora's pony Bloom
Aurora's kitten Beauty
Belle's pony Petit
Belle's puppy Teacup
Cinderella's puppy Pumpkin
Cinderella's pony Bibbidy
Jasmine's tiger Sultan
Mulan's panda Blossom
Pocahontas' raccoon Wildflower
Rapunzel's puppy Daisy
Rapunzel's skunk Meadow
Rapunzel's pony Blondie
Rapunzel's kitten Summer
Snow White's bunny Berry
Tiana's kitten Lily
Tiana's pony Bayou


And in just a couple weeks, Build-A-Bear Workshop also will offer two plush Disney Princess Palace Pets. On Feb. 15, Cinderella's puppy, Pumpkin, and Ariel's kitten, Treasure, will be available to create and then dress and accessorize. They will retail for $25 apiece. (Clothing is purchased at an additional cost.)

Surely, it won't be long before the Palace Pets merchandise makes its way into the Disney Parks. After all, we've seen the popularity of other Disney characters that are animals, such as the stars of "The Lion King," "101 Dalmatians" and "Finding Nemo."


In the meantime, Disney Princess Palace Pets have their own channel on the Disney website at http://princess.disney.com/palace-pets. There, users can create drawings of the princesses with their pets, see a slide show of the pets and print coloring sheets of the Furry Tail Friends.


January 30, 2014

How to use new FastPass+ system at Walt Disney World


UPDATE on March 13, 2014:
Passholders are being invited this month to customize and order their MagicBands. Within a few days of completing this process, passholders gain access to booking their FastPass+ reservations online -- even before they receive their MagicBands. Passholders are permitted to book seven days of FastPasses in a 30-day period. The days do not have to be consecutive, and the three attractions in one park per day rule still applies. Once an existing day is used, another can be booked.


As of last week, all four Walt Disney World theme parks have converted to the FastPass+ system. Gone are paper FastPass tickets, and some other key changes are now in place. Here's what you need to know to cut your time spent waiting in line for attractions during your next visit to the parks.

AllEars.Net has a great new FastPass+ resource page that will answer most of your questions, and here are my tips based on my first experience using FastPass+ this week. Although FastPass+ was being tested for a large part of 2013, my family and I were disappointed to learn that both of our Disney stays in 2013 were at hotels that were not participating in the testing.

(If you did receive a MagicBand during a stay last year, you can book your FastPasses up to 60 days in advance on the My Disney Experience website. Read more about that on our resource page.)

As for the rest of us -- annual passholders and those not staying on Disney property, collectively known as "day guests" -- we can only book our FastPasses in the park on the day of our visit. That is, until we receive MagicBands. Annual passholders have been told they will receive the RFID bands this year, but no promises have been made to other guests not staying at Disney hotels.


Arriving in the park, the first thing day guests should do is head to one of the FastPass+ kiosks to book all their FastPasses for the day. You are allowed three per day, and they are free -- unlike at SeaWorld and Universal Orlando where you pay extra for front-of-the-line access. As you would expect, the kiosks closest to the front of the park are the most crowded, so you might have a shorter wait if you walk a bit farther toward the back of the park. Expect to wait an average of 30 minutes in the FastPass+ queue during morning hours, a cast member told me. The tradeoff is that you won't be crisscrossing the park collecting FastPasses all day long, as you might have in the past. You do it once and you're done for the day, unless you choose to make changes.

My family and I arrived at the Magic Kingdom about 1 p.m. on Sunday and proceeded straight to the FastPass+ queue in Tomorrowland, and it only had about a 15-minute wait. We were off to a good start! While we waited in line, we decided on which three attractions were our first choices for FastPasses. Under the new system, the three FastPass+ reservations must be for three different attractions in the same park. That's definitely something to keep in mind if you like to park hop. Also, if you want to experience a favorite attraction more than once, know that you will have to wait in the standby queue for subsequent rides. Plus, at Epcot and Hollywood Studios, guests are limited to one "E-ticket" ride, and the other two choices must be for less-popular attractions.


When we reached the front of the FastPass+ line, a cast member was stationed at each kiosk to help day guests. He asked for the ride we wanted to do most, so he could enter that first. He explained that Enchanted Tales with Belle usually is the first attraction to run out of FastPass+ reservations each day. Other popular attractions are Peter Pan's Flight, Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain and The Voyage of the Little Mermaid. He also said FastPasses to meet the Disney Princesses book more quickly than meet-and-greets with Mickey Mouse on many days, and Rapunzel is more popular than Cinderella at Princess Fairytale Hall.

Once the cast member inputs your selections, the system will generate the earliest available times for each of the three attractions. Each FastPass+ reservation is good for one hour, meaning you can arrive at the attraction any time during that time frame. Plus, there is a grace period of five minutes before the window starts and 15 minutes afterward. Because of the time constraints, the system will not allow you to book FastPass reservations that overlap.


After the system generates the first set of times, you can follow the instructions on the screen to see if other times are available. You might have a conflict with a dining reservation or want to see the afternoon parade at the initial time your FastPass+ is scheduled. This process is fairly easy. Once you have achieved your desired FastPass+ schedule, you can email a confirmation to yourself, take a photo of the screen, or write the times on a sheet that cast members will provide. (Guests with MagicBands will be able to see their FastPass+ reservations on their account on the My Disney Experience app.)



Then, head out into the park for your day. When it's time to use a FastPass+ reservation, go to the FastPass return line at the attraction and have your plastic RFID admission ticket handy. You will have to scan it twice in line. And that's it!

We found the new FastPass+ fairly easy to use, even without MagicBands. Granted we were visiting the park on a day that wasn't too busy and our schedule was flexible, but we were able to have a minimal wait for three attractions, which we rode consecutively. Using FastPass+ certainly helped us maximize our time, which is what FastPass+ is all about, from a guest's point of view.


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About January 2014

This page contains all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in January 2014. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2013 is the previous archive.

February 2014 is the next archive.

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