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March 3, 2014

What's new at 2014 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

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If you find gardening at home challenging, imagine what it takes to design, implement and maintain the hundreds of thousands of flowers and plants that are on display at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. I found out when I recently was invited to a "behind-the-walls" media preview of this year's festival.

The centerpiece of the festival is the elaborate and lush entrance garden that guests view with Spaceship Earth as its backdrop. It's the first thing they will see when they first enter the theme park. This year's entrance garden is titled "Spring is In the Air!" and it features Goofy, Donald Duck and Daisy Duck topiaries celebrating spring with a fanciful butterfly hunt. Plus, there will be a real waterfall and pond with water lilies.

In recent years, inspiration for the entrance garden has come largely from Walt Disney's classic short films, said festival horticulture manager Eric Darden.

"I firmly believe that the best entrances we've done are exact lifts from some of Walt's shorts, like 'Hawaiian Holiday,' " he said. "That's what we're doing this year, as well, looking at several of the outdoor ones. Also, we're doing something fun. The billboard advertising campaign of the last several years has shown computer-generated characters so we tried to make our character [topiaries] look like that. Their faces are different, their eyes are different, so it's quite a challenge."

In addition to the intricacies of designing a flower bed that will make a great first impression on Walt Disney World guests, putting it together is no small feat, either.

"We always do it on Monday night -- two days before the festival opens," Darden said. "The idea being that we give ourselves an extra night in case something goes horribly wrong. Nothing has ever gone horribly wrong, but every one of us believes that if we were to change [the installation] to Tuesday night, that would be the year something would go wrong."

The process begins with the cranes entering Epcot through a "back stage" area behind Germany and making their way under monorail beams to the front of the park, where they will be used to set the topiaries in place. Once the topiaries, each of which can weigh several tons, are secured, the horticulture team begins placing the bedding plants.

"Then Heather [Will-Browne, an Epcot horticulture manager] and all of our real color experts will start looking, and there will be gardeners going back to our holding area and grabbing stuff. And then Heather will be walking around just dropping plants," Darden said. "So, we have a plan, and then there's probably another 40 percent of bedding plants put in. At the front entrance, you can't have too much color. Everyone says 'What's your bedding plant mix going to be here?' [And we say], 'Well, it's going to start with this, but what it's going to end up with, I don't know.' Heather's probably the biggest determiner of that."

Will-Browne, who has been a Walt Disney World cast member for more than 40 years, was the first female member of the horticulture team. This year, her color specialty is played out in the new Gardener's Palette area, which is presented by Transitions Adaptive Lenses.

"The fun part is that it is kind of a teaching garden," she said. "We have the color wheel displayed in flowers and then the seasonal gardens and the children's activity -- coloring in the color garden. I think this is going to be something that people really get something out of."

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Guests who have an interest in how color can be used in their own gardens can hear Will-Browne speak during one of the Greenhouse Stage presentations in the Festival Center. She is the featured speaker at 11 a.m. May 2, 3, and 4. Darden said that the presentation is one that she shares with Disney horticulture team members, as well.

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For the first time in the festival's history, guests will be invited to step into a topiary scene for a special photo opportunity. In the location that houses the cranberry bog during the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, there is a vignette of Goofy and Donald topiaries playing soccer. Guests can pose as the goalkeeper in this scene and have their photos taken.

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Among the other new exhibits this year are the Kermit and Miss Piggy topiaries, which are located between Germany and Italy. They were inspired by the upcoming movie, "Muppets Most Wanted," which hits theaters on March 21. The always-popular Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs have gotten a makeover this year. Snow White is the first character topiary to show detailed facial characteristics. The dwarfs have received an upgrade, too, mostly in the materials used for their beards. Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival has 79 character topiaries and 20 additional shaped topiaries.

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Other perennial favorites return this year, as well. There are more than 200 floating gardens in the waterway under the monorail. This year, some of the containers have LED lights, so the flowers can be enjoyed at night, like many of the topiaries and playgrounds that also are illuminated. The signature beds of colorful flowers designed to look like butterflies surround the waterway. Nearby, Tinker Bell's Butterfly House beckons guests inside to see the monarchs and the pixie-sized fairy houses.

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"It's not an official theme, but you will see a lot of butterflies [throughout the festival]," Will-Browne said.

The 21st annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival runs March 5 through May 18. Most of the attractions are included in regular admission to Epcot.

NOTE: If your kids are like mine, one of the things they most look forward to are the playgrounds that only are offered during the 75-day festival. I'll give you a preview tour of those areas on my blog tomorrow. In the meantime, please enjoy this peek "behind-the-walls" taken just a few days before the festival officially launches!



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March 4, 2014

2014 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival filled with fun activities for kids

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The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is filled with plants, of course, but it's also filled with fun activities for youngsters, too.

If your elementary-school-age children are like mine, they will gravitate toward three separate play areas that are only available during the festival. And, who could blame them? These hands-on gardens are filled with interactive fun. And by interactive, I mean the old-fashioned kind that includes climbing and playing.

The largest is Mike & Sully's Monstrous Garden, which is located along Imagination Walkway between Future World and World Showcase. Inside the "garden," families will find play equipment from Landscape Structures. This company has been providing -- and customizing -- the large play structures for the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival for years.

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On one side, younger kids will find a "Monsters University"-themed play structure just for them, complete with monster footprints leading up ramps, interactive games and tunnels to explore, and slides to make a quick getaway. The set is intended for children for ages 2 to 5.

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At the other end of the nearly one-third acre garden is a new play structure -- a net climber -- for older kids ages 5 to 12, and even adults. Be aware: The monsters have an eye (or several) on you from above, and parents can watch from shaded chairs along the perimeter.

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In addition to the unique play areas, this garden features monstrous-size Mike and Sully topiaries. Sully is one of Walt Disney's World's largest, weighing in at 4,300 pounds. It took almost 4,000 small plants to fill his frame. Although Mike is lighter at about 1,000 pounds, engineers had to incorporate the stack of books behind him to balance that weight.

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A collection of large, leafy plants, including elephant ears, rubber plants, sea grapes, fiddle leaf fig, banana plants and colorful bromeliads and hibiscus, create the garden's ambiance. These plants were chosen not just for their appearance, but also for their ability to withstand their location bathed in full sunlight.

"We have a lot of color, but it's not flowers," said horticulture manager Heather Will-Browne. "We have texture and foliage."

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Kids will find another interactive area in Mater's Parts, Plants & Play Garden on the walkway near Test Track. "Cars 2" stars Lightning McQueen and Mater are represented as topiaries overlooking another play structure from Landscape Structures that includes a pair of climbing rocks. There also are related car-parts games on the walkway to engage young guests. This section is geared toward ages 5 to 12.

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Finally, don't miss the Backyard Play Garden between Morocco and France. Sponsored by GoGo squeeZ, the area offers outdoor fun designed to keep the young and young-at-heart active and is a third separate area with play equipment from Landscape Structures.

Even though the area is a fun place to play, it also has a more-serious aspect, as well.

"There is a lot of concern in America about kids not getting enough time with nature, so what we're trying to do is give families lots of different ideas of fun, cute, interesting things that the parents and their children can do in their yard," said Eric Darden, festival horticulture manager. "The best way to get children eating vegetables is to have them grow it. If they grow it, then they're going to be much more likely to eat it."

To that end, the Backyard Play Garden offers displays of unusual fruit, plants that make "green juice" and a special planter that shows carrot roots growing. Guests are encouraged to eat a rainbow full of vegetables, grow their own pizza toppings, and plant pollinator and sensory gardens.

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One of the more unusual new ways to garden is to plant vegetables in hay bales, said Will-Browne.

"It's really a neat concept, because if you do this in your yard, once you're done -- about the same timing as when the vegetables are finished -- the bale starts to decompose and you can just spread it around. You get a really great compost or mulch from the straw," she said.

In addition to the play areas, families will find kid-friendly activities incorporated into other gardens throughout the theme park. There is a coloring activity at the Gardener's Palette area, a plant-guessing activity at the Florida Fresh outdoor kitchen, and a fairy house search at Tinker Bell's Butterfly House (including a new pirate fairy house in honor of the new Tinker Bell movie). Plus, guests can take home Wocka Wocka Wocka Watermelon Seeds at the Florida Fresh garden.



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March 7, 2014

Audubon presents new Hummingbirds at Home garden at Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival

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A new garden at this year's Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival invites guests not only to learn about a popular species of birds, but also to participate in a citizen science project sponsored by Audubon.

Hummingbirds at Home, which is located behind Mouse Gear in Future World, is a walk-though garden presented by Audubon that features Ruby-Red Penta, Coral Honeysuckle, Firebush, Cigar and Salvia plants.

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Naturalist Don Kendzior explained to participants on a recent media preview of the garden that there is a strong need for hummingbird conservation because of climate changes. "There is the mismatch between when the flowers are blooming and when the hummingbirds arrive in their breeding range," he said. "North America is the breeding range for hummingbirds, and Central Florida is [the area] for the Ruby-throated [hummingbirds]. They are arriving, but the plants that they need when they arrive are out of bloom."

Audubon scientists hope that with the help of residents throughout North America, they can collect data on how hummingbirds may be affected by changing flowering patterns. To this end, the Hummingbirds at Home garden at Epcot shows guests how they can create gardens -- container or traditional patches -- to attract the hummingbirds. Plus, guests can learn how to identify the most common hummingbirds in the United States and get migration updates.

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"What's really exciting is the festival correlates with the migration of the Ruby-throated hummingbird. They actually arrive this week [Feb. 28], and they will migrate north for the duration of the festival. When the festival concludes, they will have reached their northern points in Canada," Kendzior said. "We had the first sighting here just north of the Magic Kingdom on Tuesday [Feb. 25]. The males are coming right now. They usually are followed in two weeks by the females. And then they immediately start getting territory for their breed space."

These hummingbirds take a 20-hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan, so it could be a 2,000-mile migration, he said. Audubon officials are hoping for a breeding pair in the gardens.

Hummingbirds usually weigh between 2 and 5 grams -- about the weight of a couple of pennies, Kendzior said.

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Don't mistake the tall white birdhouses in the garden for hummingbird homes, though. They're actually the residences of purple marlins because hummingbirds build nests in trees.

It's's rare to see a hummingbird nest because their small size makes them difficult to spot in a tree. However, Kendzior has one to display at the festival. It was found on the ground in DeLand after a storm last year. "The female will usually raise two nestlings in there. The eggs are about the size of a pea. She makes this nest out of spider webs and lichens so it expands. This is what it looks like after it expands and the nestlings pushed it out. When she first made it, it was much smaller and tighter in."

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Guests are invited to participate in the Hummingbirds at Home citizen science project by visiting the garden at Epcot or Audubon.org/hummingbird for more details. Kendzior will be in the garden intermittently to talk with guests, and he also will give presentations at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. March 15 at the Greenhouse Stage in the Festival Center. In addition, Kendzior will talk about gardening with nature at noon and 3 p.m. March 17 and April 7 and 14 in the Festival Center.



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March 10, 2014

How passholders can sign up for MagicBands at Walt Disney World

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It's finally our turn! This month, Walt Disney World annual passholders are receiving invitations to customize and order their MagicBands. The resort has been testing its billion-dollar technology investment, called MyMagic+, for more than a year, but the test was limited to guests staying at Disney resorts.

So, annual passholders, if you've been waiting -- patiently or otherwise -- here is what you need to know about getting your MagicBands.

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First, for those who aren't familiar with the new vocabulary, a MagicBand is a waterproof bracelet with an RFID chip embedded in it that stores information about each guest electronically. Each MagicBand is designed to allow you to enter the theme parks with just a touch-and-go process; charge meals and merchandise to your account; open your hotel room door; make FastPass+ and dining reservations in advance and use them; and allow cast members to call you by name. (For a detailed explanation of FastPass+, please see my previous blog post here.)

Walt Disney World is issuing MagicBand invitations to passholders on a rolling basis in March, and the first bands will be shipped mid-month. To be considered, you first must create an online account at My Disney Experience and enter your current passholder card number. If you have more than one person in your family, link the members together. Then, check this Tickets and Passes page regularly. I did not receive an email notification, but rather discovered that my order was pending on the website.

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When you are eligible to order your MagicBands -- which are free, by the way -- the top of the page will have a spot that states "MagicBand Order" and a button that says "Add Shipping Address." To begin the process, click on "Add Shipping Address" and fill out that page.

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Next, you will be allowed to customize each MagicBand that is being shipped to the same address. That means you have a choice of colors: red, yellow, green, blue, gray, orange and pink. Don't worry if two family members want the same hue -- a scenario that certainly could cause siblings to do battle -- because each band is further personalized with a name imprinted on the inside.

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Once you are happy with the colors and names you have selected for your family's MagicBands, it's commitment time. Hit the "Ship Now" button to get in the queue for deliveries. Once you have clicked "Ship Now," no additional changes can be made.

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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.

Along with their MagicBands, Walt Disney World passholders will receive a special passholder slider for the band and a card to be used for discounts and parking, if applicable. Although these sliders are an exclusive for passholders, guests will find many accessories for their MagicBands, including sliders, covers and charms in gift shops throughout the property.

Finally, if you prefer not to use a MagicBand, which uses technology that can be read by short- and long-range readers at Walt Disney World, you can choose not to customize your MagicBands. Instead, ask at your hotel for an RF card, which cannot be detected by long-range readers.



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March 13, 2014

Check out new 'Frozen' character appearances and merchandise at Walt Disney World

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UPDATE on March 14: Walt Disney World announced today that Elsa and Anna will begin greeting guests on April 20 during the day at Princess Fairytale Hall in the Magic Kingdom. ThIs means the Epcot location is closing. FastPass+ will be available for the new meet-and-greet.

Disney's "Frozen" certainly has been in the news this month with its two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Song for "Let It Go." Now, fans finally will be able to purchase the DVD, and there are more opportunities to enjoy Frozen-related attractions at Walt Disney World.

Next week, on March 18 to be exact, "Frozen" fans will get what they've been waiting for - the opportunity to purchase a copy of the DVD. (It was released digitally on Feb. 25.) Two options are available: the Blu-Ray Combo Pack (Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy) and the DVD-only version. The soundtrack has been available for almost four months now.

And at Walt Disney World, "Frozen" merchandise is being restocked and new merchandise added to the shelves. The hottest items - Elsa and Anna costumes and accessories - have been sold out across property since the movie was released in November. In December, the only place to purchase one of the gowns was at one of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique locations with the "Frozen" makeover package that was available through Jan. 3. One of the fairy-godmothers-in-training there told me that the dresses were so popular they barely had enough to meet the demand. Merchandise Communications Manager Steven Miller reports that the dresses are being restocked in the coming weeks in the stores and at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique locations.

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Guests can find new T-shirts featuring Olaf the snowman and the sisters, books, Limited Edition iPhone cases and toys, such as Barbie-style dolls and various play sets, at World of Disney at Downtown Disney and in the theme parks, too. Some of the original merchandise options, such as hoodies, photo frames, pins and plush animals, don't appear to be as readily available.

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Elsa and Anna will have more of a presence in the theme parks, too. The royal sisters made their parade debut Sunday at the Magic Kingdom in the new Festival of Fantasy Parade, which can be seen daily at 3 p.m. They appear on the back of the Princess Garden float with a stationary Olaf. Can't wait until your next trip to Walt Disney World to see the parade? Check out our AllEars.Net video:

In addition, the pair continues to greet guests at the Norway pavilion at Epcot. Be forewarned: Anna and Elsa are so popular that the queue regularly reaches four- and five-hour waits. This is the only location to interact with the sisters, so your best bet is to get there early and be ready to race other parents from the front gate. The meet-and-greet starts at 9 a.m., even though the rest of World Showcase doesn't open until 11 a.m.

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:

Even though the warmer days of spring are here in Orlando, there seems to be no thaw in the excitement for all things related to "Frozen." Thankfully, Walt Disney World has lots to chill, er, thrill its many fans.



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March 15, 2014

SeaWorld Orlando educates and entertains kids with Just For Kids festival and Generation Nature initiative

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SeaWorld Orlando is focusing on kids this month -- educating and entertaining them at its theme park and inspiring them with a new conservation initiative.

Beginning March 22, SeaWorld Orlando kicks off its Just For Kids festival. On Saturdays through April 12, kids can celebrate the company's 50th anniversary with activities just for them. The new Rockin' Rockhopper Party begins each day at 11 a.m. with a family friendly DJ outside Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. The party also includes live penguin appearances, snow moments, snacks, fun, games, face painting and caricatures.

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On Just for Kids dates, younger guests can participate in an ocean adventure, learning about marine life and at the same time collecting a stamp and a limited edition Explorer's Card at each of four locations throughout the park. Kids who collect all four receive a free Junior Animal Ambassador Medallion. Tables are set up from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, SEA Garden, outside Shark Encounter and near Shamu Stadium. The new SEA Garden is an area where young guests can experience animal encounters during the festival.

Then end the night with Shamu and other characters at the Shamu Dance Party at the Village Square located at the front of the park. The party begins one hour prior to park closing with a stilt walker emcee who fills the square with music that the whole family can dance to, including popular line dancing songs. The Shamu Dance Party continues until 30 minutes after park closing.

This year's Just For Kids festival is a little different from the past two years and doesn't feature concerts by kid-centric artists or discounted animal up-close tours. It does run concurrently with SeaWorld's 18-month-long 50th anniversary celebration, which begins March 21.

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During the anniversary celebration, guests of all ages may be tapped by the Surprise Squad to receive prizes and experiences in the park. Plus, there are more animal encounters than ever, such as the flamingo parade. I saw these birds head out from the back-stage area a couple months ago, and it was a really funny sight to see them strutting along casually with their trainers. Be on the lookout, too, for the new mobile bubble lab vehicle and a Splash Dance.

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SeaWorld also hopes to spread its message of conservation through its Generation Nature initiative, which partners SeaWorld Kids with youth ambassador Bindi Irwin, daughter of famous 'Crocodile Hunter' Steve Irwin. The campaign aims to empower kids to make a difference with animals and nature and share their actions on multi-media platforms. GenN includes a website, digital apps, video blogs, online games and activities that highlight a new animal each month, such as polar bears, tigers, manatees and animals in back-yard habitats.

In GenN's inaugural month of March, sea turtles take center stage with a calendar that includes a video blog from Bindi about the obstacles these animals face. Because many sea turtles are affected by pollution, and nearly all waterways throughout the world are connected, March's GenN Conservation Challenge is to help "clean your world."  Families are asked to send in pictures of the oddest item they find during their clean-up, and some of the photos will be showcased online at the end of the month.

Parents also can download a fun and educational app about each month's animal. In March, the GenN app is "Ocean Tales: Turtles, Sharks and Dolphins" and features books, games, puzzles, pictures and videos. The app is available for download on iTunes.



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March 17, 2014

Disney World's new Festival of Fantasy Parade is a spectacle for the senses

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Like just about everyone else who has seen the Magic Kingdom's new daytime parade, Festival of Fantasy, my son and I loved it. Festival of Fantasy Parade showcases many parade firsts -- from special effects and a new soundtrack to the soaring heights of floats and new characters. Because there is so much to see, I really recommend making time to view the parade more than once, if at all possible.

We caught the parade during its first week on display, and I have only seen it once so far, so these are my first impressions. First, we were pleasantly surprised to be able to find a curbside seat about 45 minutes before the parade started (at 3 p.m. daily), despite it being a busy day in the theme park with sunny Florida weather. I had heard of folks waiting for hours on its launch date, so I wasn't sure what to expect with a brand-new parade.

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The parade steps off in Frontierland, and the show really is strong from start to finish. Richly dressed ballroom dancers lead the first float with Beauty and the Beast at the front. This Princess Garden float is lush with flowers, reminding me of some of the entries in the annual Rose Parade. The Princess Garden is one of the two floats recycled from a Toyko Disneyland parade, which Walt Disney World Ambassador Ty Arnold talked with me about here.

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Cinderella and Prince Charming are located in the center of the Princess Garden, and Tiana and Naveen are opposite Elsa and Anna from "Frozen" in the rear. These two sections of the float spin slowly on separate turntables so guests on each side of the parade route can catch a glimpse of the princes and princesses. Unfortunately, on the day we visited, the platforms were not working so we did not see Cinderella, Prince Charming, Anna or Elsa from the right side of Main Street, U.S.A. Still, the last-minute addition of the "Frozen" section, which includes a stationary Olaf, is a welcome one.

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We also were happy to see the new "Tangled" float, which carries Rapunzel and her long tresses. Flynn Rider and a group of thugs swing from moving pendulums. It's fascinating to watch this kind of movement on a parade float, and we couldn't help but wonder how they don't lose their balance.

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Next up, The Little Mermaid finally has her own under-the-sea float. The bright colors and conga-dancing fish definitely remind me of The Voyage of The Little Mermaid in New Fantasyland. The float is introduced by whimsical Lion Fish, Coral Fish and Seashell characters and followed by Seahorse performers. These costumes are over-the-top fabulous in design, and they inspired many "oohs" and "aahs" during our viewing.

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The Lost Boys, with high-energy choreography inspired by "Newsies," lead the Peter Pan float into view. This float has the Jolly Roger ship perched three stories high on a rainbow over Skull Rock. Inside Peter Pan and Wendy wave to crowds, while Captain Hook dangles from the ship's anchor and Tinker Bell excitedly greets parade watchers from the back of the float. Mr. Smee and the always-hungry crocodile Tick-Tock trail behind. There is a lot to see on this float, including smoke effects, but it's difficult to make contact with Peter Pan and Wendy when they're so high up. The Lost Boys do a good job of connecting with the crowds, though.

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Then, another newly minted princess -- Merida from "Brave" -- appears on her own float. She is preceded by Celtic couples dancing to traditional Scottish songs. The float is shaped like an enormous bagpipe, and it's topped by Merida's crown with Merida standing inside. On the back, look for the princess' brothers who appear in their bear forms.

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The "Sleeping Beauty" story is represented in the Festival of Fantasy Parade by a battle between Prince Phillip and a Steampunk-inspired dragon Maleficient that has everyone talking because of its ability to bend and flex while also breathing fire. This float was designed in a partnership with Tony Award-winner Michael Curry. It really was amazing to see in person, and the costumes of the accompanying thorn-inspired stilt performers and raven dancers are just as imaginative. Guests also see the three good fairies -- Flora, Fauna and Merryweather -- glide along.

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Finally, a 90-foot float, the second from Japan, helps end the parade with a splash of colors and characters. Look for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter, Daisy Duck, Chip and Dale, and many others, including the Fab Five. They are followed by my son's favorites, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, in a hot air balloon. This is a change from the previous daytime parade, which had the pair leading off the celebration.

Although I am not given to humming Disney tunes, I have found myself singing the catchy theme song for Festival of Fantasy Parade since seeing it over the weekend. The original theme song by composer Mark Hammond is carried throughout the parade, but as each float appears, music from that story is woven into the soundtrack. It is both fresh and familiar at the same time. The big question of when the soundtrack will be available for purchase has yet to be answered. So, in the meantime, please feel free to do what I do -- watch our video below on repeat.





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March 19, 2014

Seven Dwarfs Mine Coaster speeds to completion and opening

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Arguably the most anticipated attraction in the New Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom -- the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster -- is speeding to its completion and opening. We don't have much longer to wait for this ride, which was first announced more than three years ago.

The dedication for this attraction is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. May 2, according to the Hilton Hotel at Downtown Disney, and then presumably it would be open to the public afterward. Media have been invited to preview the roller coaster a few days beforehand, so it sounds like the finishing touches are on track.

The Disney Parks Blog just revealed the logo for the ride from Walt Disney Imagineering:

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The official Walt Disney World news outlet has been teasing us with images and details that have Disney fans counting the minutes until they can experience the attraction for themselves. Earlier this month, we were given a peek of what guests can see from the peak of the newest "mountain" ride at Walt Disney World.

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I was in the Magic Kingdom on Saturday and got a close-up look at some sections of the track where more of the construction walls had been removed. The photos below are looking at the attraction from the Castle Courtyard gates seen in the photos above. Looks like so much fun, right?

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With this project, Disney Imagineers tried something new and offered guests a glimpse at the progress through special windows built into the construction walls. This was done so guests could feel like they were part of the project from the beginning and have a sense of ownership in the attraction, I was told.

So, why all the hype for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train?

It's the first "mountain" attraction to be added to a Walt Disney World theme park since Expedition Everest made its debut at Animal Kingdom in 2006. "Mountain" attractions are typically the big coasters, but this one is being billed as family friendly. In fact, the height requirement is only 38 inches. Plus, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will feature the first-of-its-kind-ride-system with a train of vehicles that swing side to side, responding to every twist and turn of the track.

Finally, it adds an element to New Fantasyland that was created, at least in part, with boys in mind. If you remember, the original plans for New Fantasyland also included a Disney Fairies section. Developers decided to scrap that and scaled back the Disney Princess areas, which now are dedicated to Belle, Ariel, Rapunzel. Then, Snow White's Scary Adventures was closed and the location re-imagined to be Princess Fairytale Hall, a meet-and-greet set.

Take a look at the newest onboard ride video from Walt Disney Imagineering and tell us if you're excited about the upcoming opening.




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March 21, 2014

Disney movie review: 'Muppets Most Wanted'

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Like many people my age, I have a soft spot for the Muppets. I clearly remember going to the movies as a child, and "Rainbow Connection" was a song my friends and I couldn't stop singing. Fast forward a few (OK, many) years, and I'm just not as enamored of the new films as I was back then.

In 2011, we were reacquainted with -- and our children introduced to -- the lovable puppets in "The Muppets." That movie capitalized on the nostalgia of adults like myself, but it left us feeling as if there wasn't really a market for the Muppets in today's world. It was a sad message: That some things are best left behind as happy memories. And, though I loved the Muppets in the '80s, I have to wonder if that might not be the case here. Even under the Disney umbrella, how relevant are the Muppets to kids today?

We're getting another chance to find out when "Muppets Most Wanted" opens today. The sequel starts by poking fun at being just a sequel, but then it takes a completely different tone. There is none of the self-pity of the previous film. Instead, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the gang are almost immediately immersed into a worldwide adventure, and the movie feels action-packed.

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The official description goes like this: "Disney's 'Muppets Most Wanted' takes the entire Muppets gang on a global tour, selling out grand theaters in some of Europe's most exciting destinations, including Berlin, Madrid, Dublin and London. But mayhem follows the Muppets overseas, as they find themselves unwittingly entangled in an international crime caper headed by Constantine-the World's Number One Criminal and a dead ringer for Kermit the Frog."

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I certainly laughed more at this Muppet movie, which stars Ricky Gervais as the Muppets' manager Dominic Badguy, Tina Fey as a Gulag guard and Ty Burrell as the Interpol detective, than its predecessor. There are enough jokes and celebrity cameos to appeal to adults who want to like this film. And who doesn't swoon when Kermit joins Miss Piggy at the altar? Will she finally get Kermie to put a ring on it?

Those at the movie's helm seem to be headed in the right direction. Director James Bobin returns to this sequel Muppets movie after winning a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer for the first one. And Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for Best Original Song for "Man or Muppet," returns to the Muppets stage as music supervisor.

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Still, my 11-year-old son didn't find "Muppets Most Wanted" entertaining. Despite numerous trips through Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney's Hollywood Studios, he just doesn't have the same connection to the characters that I do. And, as such, the format of puppets going on an adventure seemed too childish for him to suspend his disbelief and enjoy the storyline. I found this telling because he usually does prefer Disney Channel movies and Pixar's quality animation over superhero or blow-things-up films.

I do think there is an audience for this new Muppets movie, but I think it may be one of nostalgic adults rather than the children the PG rating allows. Do you agree or disagree? Tell us in the comments.

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



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March 25, 2014

Walt Disney World and Nickelodeon Suites offer summer Girl Scout events

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Two Orlando resorts are offering Girl Scouts the journeys of a lifetime. Walt Disney World and Nickelodeon Suites have separate summer programs, and registration is open now for both.

If Girl Scouts choose to visit Walt Disney World with their troops, they can learn about the the many disciplines that it takes to run the resort and how those principles relate to their own lives. Girls can ride Space Mountain with the lights on, learn the secrets of The Haunted Mansion and design their own roller coasters. And that's just for starters.

"2014 Girl Unite: Dream, Act, Change," a program sponsored by Disney Youth Programs for girls in kindergarden through twelfth grade, is back for its third year at Walt Disney World. Registration has just opened for the summer sessions, which run May 29 through June 28.

Girls Unite offers educational activities in the areas of leadership (dream), science & technology (act), and conservation (change) that are tailored to grade levels and give participants a taste of a different Disney park for each course. Daisies and Brownies can choose from "Exploring Disney Animation History," "How Things Move" or "Principles of Animal Behavior." Juniors and Cadettes can learn about "Discovering Marine Life Conservation," "Energy & Waves Physics Lab" and "Managing Your Personal Brand." Seniors and Ambassadors can opt for "Disney Leadership Strategies" or "Energy & Waves Physics Lab." Each program lasts about 2.5 to 3 hours. (Grade requirements are strictly enforced for the programs.)

Every Girl Scout who attends Girls Unite at Walt Disney World will receive a special patch appropriate for display on their uniforms. However, it is up to the troops to determine which classes fulfill requirement for specific badges and journeys. The Girl Scouts of Citrus, the Orlando council, has developed a step-by-step list of things to do at Walt Disney World that will contribute to earning badges. It's even broken down by level. Check it out here.

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Troops create their own experiences by customizing the length of stay, resort hotel, and more. The basic Girls Unite experience is a three-day experience -- Thursday through Saturday -- and includes one of the above programs and three days' worth of theme park admission tickets. Troops can add programs and more days in the parks at an additional cost. Because there are no blocks of rooms reserved for Girls Unite, troops choose whichever hotel best suits their budget. (Scouts are not required to stay on Disney property.) If the troop books 10 or more rooms, the participants are eligible for a discounted rate through Disney Youth Programs. There is no dining plan available with Girls Unite. To get started, go online to the planning website.

Troop leaders, parents, siblings and guests are eligible for Girl Scout event prices, but annual passes are not valid. One chaperone per five girls is allowed at the educational programs.

One change this year is the lack of social opportunities planned for Girls Unite. Last year, girls could add on the experience of a private dessert party, the Sweets and Swaps Social, at Epcot with a special viewing location for IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, the nightly fireworks show. There also was a Kick-Off Sing-Along Dinner with character meet-and-greets, and special breakfasts.

Also in Orlando, the Nickelodeon Suites Resort is hosting its seventh annual Girl Scouts Thanks-A-Lot weekends from April 25 to June 8. The two-night weekend packages offer a Swap Exchange at the pool, plus other complimentary activities such as a self-guided scavenger hunt and karaoke, and a 2014 Girl Scout Patch. For an additional charge, girls can sign up for the Girl Scout Poolside Bash that includes lunch, slimings, entertainment and a character meet-and-greet.

The weekends of April 57-27, May 2-4 and June 6-8 are sold out. To register, visit the Nickelodeon Suites Resort website.



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March 27, 2014

Best foods to take home from Walt Disney World

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Many of us have our favorite foods at Walt Disney World -- those meals, snacks or sweets that we just *have* to taste as soon as we get the parks or hotels. What is it for you? Is it a world-famous Dole Whip? A Mickey waffle? A peanut butter-and-jelly milkshake? Or something more substantial, like the filet at Le Cellier?

Whatever your favorite Disney food is, if you're like me, you probably crave it between visits and may even try to recreate a version of it at home -- with varying degrees of success. Sure, Disney publishes wonderful cookbooks from its chefs, but wouldn't it be easier if we just took extra portions with us on our last day of vacation? Of course, that works better if you live locally or have driven to Walt Disney World and can pack your take-home food in a cooler.

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My absolute favorite thing to bring home from the Disney Parks are the caramel- and candy-covered apples. You can find them in several locations, including Big Top Treats at Magic Kingdom and Goofy's Candy Company at Downtown Disney, both of which feature at least five different versions at any given time. At, Karamell-Kuche in Epcot, the apples are covered in Werther's caramel. These treats are expensive, ranging in price from about $5 to $10 each, but they also are large enough to share, if you're willing. I have found that the apples travel well and stay fresh for several days if you do not ask to have them cut. They don't need to be refrigerated, either.

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It's pretty common to see families using their last snack credits on the Disney Dining Plan for the themed rice krispie treats that can be found in hotel gift shops and the parks. Who doesn't love these cookies that change designs seasonally and don't easily go stale? At this time of the year, guests will find Easter egg treats of all hues.

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The easiest foods to take out of the parks are the ones that are pre-packed and intended to go home with you or eaten at your leisure. Kids can find snacks such as Mickey Mouse-shaped crackers and snack mixes to bags of various candies. Parents might be more excited to find the Mickey-shaped pasta.

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Maybe the craziest foods I've taken home from Walt Disney World are the salads. I love the Broccoli Peppercorn Salad at Columbia Harbour House in the Magic Kingdom and the Wilderness Salad at Roaring Fork inside the Wilderness Lodge. Cast members are happy to put the dressing in a separate container and give you the salad in a to-go box. I've found this allows me to at least enjoy the salad the next day.

Of course, popcorn is fun food but you might not think of it as something that special to take home from the parks - unless you consider the fact that you can do so in a special commemorative plastic container that little kids will enjoy long after you leave the park.

The same concept applies to the drinks you can purchase at Animal Kingdom in an assortment of animal-themed cups. For youngsters, the apple juice tastes sweeter and the lemonade is cooler when it is being sipped through a straw atop a safari-themed menagerie of fun animal shapes.

Do you have a favorite food that you've been successful at taking away from Walt Disney World? Please tell us in the comments.



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March 29, 2014

A young model from Orlando helps Walt Disney World spread its magical message

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Recently, my family was excited to see that one of my daughter's friends was pictured in a full-page color ad for Walt Disney World in the Orlando Sentinel. And that piqued my curiosity about how child models are chosen for the company's advertising campaigns and what is involved with that experience.

In this case, Kayla Davis, who will turn 9 next month, is living out her own fairy tale. She began modeling at age 4, and her first photo shoot was for Disney, portraying a princess story time.

"It was truly a magical moment for Kayla," said her mother, Tammy Davis. "She was able to meet Jasmine and Snow White that day."

Tammy said that when Kayla expressed an interest in modeling at a young age, she decided to research what she and her husband could do to facilitate their daughter's dream. She cautions other parents who have children interested in modeling to take the time to find a reputable talent agency. One sign of trustworthy representation is that no fees are collected up front, she said.

The talent agency then handles the interaction between clients, such as Walt Disney World, and its talent, such as Kayla. So, for all the work Kayla has done for Disney World ads, she has not had to audition. Her agency forwards her information and photos when they see a job she might be qualified for, and then the client makes a request for certain models.

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For this most recent ad, Kayla had to be at the Magic Kingdom at 1 a.m. and work until 9 that morning. And although she was able to rest in between shoots, that's still a long night for a third-grader. To prepare, Tammy said she went to bed at 7 p.m.

Once she arrived on Disney property, her job began with having her hair styled and light makeup applied, plus a trip to the wardrobe department for the Belle shirt she is wearing in the ad. Kayla wore several different Disney Princess-themed outfits during the course of the shoot and thoroughly enjoyed that part of the experience, Tammy said.

During this particular shoot, Walt Disney World was showcasing its newest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, Be Our Guest, as the backdrop for a hiring campaign. The ad reads, "I made her feel like the Belle of the ball. #IamDisney"

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Kayla was required to pretend she was eating in the Fantasyland restaurant, which can be seen in the final full-page ad. She also had to pose for a slew of photos in front of the entrance to the castle. While she was on the job, Kayla got to see a big scene of Beauty and the Beast dancing. She said that interacting with the characters is one of her favorite parts about Disney modeling jobs. The Florida native also was infatuated with the windows in the ballroom of Beast's Castle that depict snow falling.

Kayla has done more shoots for Disney than any other company, her mother said. It certainly would seem that Disney has a way of making dreams come true for both theme-park guests and even others living out their own fairy tales.



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About March 2014

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

February 2014 is the previous archive.

April 2014 is the next archive.

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