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September 1, 2015

Mama's Pretzel Kitchen opens at SeaWorld Orlando

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At SeaWorld Orlando, you no longer have to settle for plain pretzels with melted cheese for dipping. The new Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen, which opened a little more than a week ago, serves 10 different kinds of pretzels and six dipping sauces. And guests can choose from eight craft and seasonal beers, as well as other beverages.

Though a pretzel by itself might not sound like a meal worth seeking out during a day in the park, the addition of the eatery gives SeaWorld guests one more food choice and another way to make sure everyone in your party is satisfied for the day.

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Want to try something a little out of the ordinary? How about the Bacon Pretzel Twist, the Bratwurst Pretzel Dog or the hearty Jumbo Pretzel Dog? If you have a sweet tooth, the Cinnamon Sugar Nuggets or the Jumbo Cinnamon Sugar Pretzel might hit the spot. Any of the pretzels can be paired with a variety of sauces: beer-infused cheese, beer-infused mustard, marinara, spicy mustard, cheddar cheese and cream cheese.

Orlando’s Pretzel Kitchen is not the first for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. The original store is located at the Busch Gardens Williamsburg park, and a second opened last year at Busch Gardens Tampa.

Executive Chef Hector Colon spoke with me at a recent media event for the new Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen. “The great thing about [our location] is that we do two pretzels that you can’t get anywhere else: The meatball pretzel and the mustard-infused pretzel. The meatball pretzel is three meatballs on the salty pretzel with mozerella cheese and marinara sauce.”

Acknowledging that those offerings might appeal more to adults and adventurous eaters, Colon said he thinks kids will like the pizza pretzels the best. “It’s two comfort foods together that everybody likes.”

To that end, SeaWorld is taking the pizza pretzel a step farther, Colon said. “We’re working on a family pretzel. It’s going to be a giant pretzel that is stuffed with cheese and pepperoni, but it is pizza-sized.”

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There is a range of prices for the pretzels at Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen. Soft pretzels and dessert pretzels are priced in the $5 range. Pretzel twists – which are specialty items and bigger portions – cost about $8 or so. Dipping sauces are less than $1 each.

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My husband also visited the Pretzel Kitchen recently and enjoyed the beer selection. The Shock Top Pretzel Wheat was an obvious choice for the location, he said, and he appreciated being able to get a Sierra Nevada Seasonal IPA there, too – a choice he didn’t think he had at other restaurants and locations in the park. Among the other beers for sale: Orlando Red Ale, Sam Adams Seasonal – Oktoberfest, Blue Moon – Belgium White, Woodchuck Cider, Bimini Twist IPA and Beach Blonde Ale.

Chef Hector said that although the dark beer pairs well with the pretzels, here in Florida it’s really hot so many people like the cold, light beer.

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Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen also sells, wine, specialty frozen cocktails, assorted Coca-Cola products, and ICEE frozen drinks.

Craft beers are $7.99 and a flight of 4 is $9.99. Wine – chardonnay and cabernet – costs $6.99 a glass.

Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen is located near Shamu Stadium and Shamu’s Happy Harbor.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando for the Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen media event. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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September 3, 2015

Orlando American Girl store offers 'Cinderella' package

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Two of my daughter’s favorite brands – Disney and American Girl -- are part of a special day in November in Orlando. If your child enjoys the same things, you may want to act now because tickets went on sale this week, and this event has not been announced on the American Girl website.

On Nov. 15, girls and their favorite adults can experience a modern twist on the beloved classic, “Cinderella,” with a trip to see “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at the Dr. Philips Center for the Performing Arts.

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Though almost all young girls are familiar with Disney’s film version of the Cinderella story, this production is the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that is on tour nationwide. The official description states: “This lush production features an incredible orchestra, jaw-dropping transformations and all the moments you love —the pumpkin, the glass slipper, the masked ball and more — plus some surprising new twists! Be transported back to your childhood as you rediscover some of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s most beloved songs, including “In My Own Little Corner,” “Impossible/It’s Possible” and “Ten Minutes Ago,” in this hilarious and romantic Broadway experience for anyone who’s ever had a wish, a dream... or a really great pair of shoes.”

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The American Girl package begins with participants meeting at the Florida Mall store at 10 a.m. for a brunch in the Bistro. Guests will order from a special menu just for this event because the Orlando restaurant does not normally serve breakfast.

At 11:45 a.m., they will board a bus for the Dr. Philips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando. Once there, attendees will have reserved seating in the Walt Disney Theatre in rows V, W and X in sections Orchestra Right and Left. “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” runs from 1 to 3:15 p.m. Buses will take participants back to the store with a return time of 4 p.m.

Reservations are required for this event. Tickets for the American Girl Goes To Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella package are $95 per person and are nonrefundable. To purchase tickets, call American Girl reservations at 877-247-5223.

My 10-year-old daughter and I attended the VIP advance screening of “Grace Stirs Up Success” this summer through the Orlando American Girl store and were very impressed with the outing. That event required us to board buses to another location, as well, and everything was well-organized and on time. In addition, there were many complimentary activities at the location before the movie, such as crafts, giveaways and photo opportunities. We certainly would attend another such event.

Although American Girl is only offering one date for its package, “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” will be on stage in Orlando for six dates: Nov. 10 through 15.

And here’s a fairy godmother’s tip: Though neither Disney nor American Girl really offer distinct Cinderella-themed dresses for girls’ dolls, that doesn’t mean the dolls can’t Disney-bound as many young girls no doubt will choose to do for the performances. Online craft sites such as Etsy offer a variety of Cinderella-themed dresses and costumes.

The magical pumpkin carriage, however, might be something you’ll have to bibbidi bobbidi build yourself.



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September 5, 2015

2016 Disney Parks Moms Panel search starts this week

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Get ready, get set, type! The application process for the 2016 Disney Parks Moms Panel begins at 10 a.m. ET Tuesday (Sept. 8), and those interested have until noon ET Tuesday, Sept. 15, to express their interest.

The Disney Parks Moms Panel has evolved from its inception in 2008, but its goal remains the same: to provide vacation-planning advice from adults in families that are interested in and knowledgeable about the Disney properties. For the most part, the panelists' jobs are to answer a number of written questions each week, though there also are some public appearances by the group. In exchange, The Walt Disney Co. provides the selected panelists with a paid trip to one of the Disney properties for training, which is required. In the past, the trip has been scheduled during the first half of December and includes the panelists' immediate family members.

Now, Disney Parks Moms Panelists not only help plan magical vacations for guests heading to Walt Disney World, but they also answer questions about Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Vacation Club, runDisney and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. And they do it in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Despite the name, however, panelists are not just limited to those who are mothers -- dads and grandparents have been chosen, as well.

If you are the one all your friends turn to when they plan Disney vacations, this may be a golden opportunity for you! To get started, visit MomsPanelSearch.com beginning Tuesday. If the application process is the same as in recent years, you can expect to answer written questions in the first round. About a month later, applicants are notified whether they have been selected for the next round, which requires submitting a short video and answering more written questions. The final round consists of a phone interview.

Competition for a spot on the Disney Parks Moms Panel is intense -- thousands apply each year and only about 20 new members are chosen. But as the panel's creator, Walt Disney World Director of Social Media Leanne O'Reagan, wrote on the Disney Parks Blog: "The most recent panelists to join the team include several who have applied every year, a few who applied for the very first time, and those in between. Dreams really can come true."

And there is no magical formula to being picked to provide the best answers about all things Disney. I can tell you, though, that several factors weigh heavily in the evaluation process:

** Writing ability. Your application must be flawless, with no grammar or spelling errors or typos. After all, your job is going to be providing written answers for the Disney website. (In fact, the moms panel's answers are not reviewed or approved by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online prior to posting.)

** Accuracy. Double-check your Disney facts to make sure things haven't changed since your last experience. This will be vital when you are answering questions online for families planning Disney vacations.

** Your personality. Disney is not hiring publicists or copy writers for this panel. Instead, the company is looking for engaging personalities who can express themselves clearly in an enthusiastic way.

Get to know the current Disney Parks Moms Panel at http://disneyworldforum.disney.go.com/panelists.aspx You also can see the types of questions they answer -- which are pretty much about anything and everything!

Good luck to everyone who applies for 2016. Please let us know how the process goes and if you are chosen to advance in the application process.



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September 6, 2015

Raglan Road offers free craft beer tastings during Great Irish Hooley this weekend

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As if The Great Irish Hooley isn’t reason enough to visit Raglan Road at Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) during the holiday weekend, this year the restaurant and pub is offering complimentary samplings of limited edition craft beers.

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Ireland’s Rye River Brewing Company created four beers especially for the festival and transported them to Orlando:

** Raglan Road Saison
** Raglan Road Fruit Salad Weiss Beer
** Francis’ Big Bangin’ IPA
** McGargles Jims C02 Stout

Through Monday, Sept. 7, guests can participate in beer talks and tastings at 1 and 5 p.m. each day. Each class is led by a brewmaster from Rye River and expected to last about 45 minutes. Those who are interested in attending are encouraged to show up early because space is limited and seats will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

My husband and I were among the first to taste the beers on Friday, the first day of the Hooley, which is an Irish party. In this case, it’s a four-day Irish celebration that marks the halfway point to St. Patrick’s Day. Although I am not a big beer drinker, I was game to try the specialty beverages. My husband enjoys various styles of beers – and some more than others. For example, he routinely drinks IPAs and occasionally stouts, so he especially enjoyed several of the offerings at the tasting at this year’s Hooley. But he also was pleasantly surprised by another variety of beer being offered as part of the tasting, too.

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First, he said the Francis’ Big Bangin’ IPA was one of the smoothest Indian Pale Ales he’s ever had. It was described by Rye River Brewing Company founder Niall Phelan as an “American-style” IPA single malt with a 7.1 percent ABV. He discussed the IPA’s citrus tones before the tasting, and my husband said they came through clearly and refreshingly. It was one of his favorites, even though he typically likes a more hoppy taste that comes from a traditional IPA.

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The so-called Fruit Weiss beer, or wheat beer selection, was one that my husband said he’d never typically order in a bar – until he tried it at our tasting. The beer had a refreshing taste of watermelon that was light-tasting and flavorful without being too sweet or syrupy, he said. It definitely answered the challenge put out by Raglan Road of creating drinkable beers for the Florida heat and humidity. My husband even persuaded me to try it and I found it to be enjoyable, as well.

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The one beer variety my husband panned was the Saison. It was good, he said, but it was just much too sweet for his taste. Though the brewers described the complexities of flavors in the beer, my husband remarked that it might be something he would drink with a dessert and not with a main course.

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The Uncle Jim’s Stout, though, was a pleasure for him. Infused with a rich aftertaste of tones of chocolate and coffee, it finished smooth. Though you could compare it to the well-known Guinness, it seemed to a standout that might even surpass that iconic Irish brand of stout, my husband said. Clearly, he was impressed.

Phelan had a surprise for those who love to try new beers. “Being Irish, we changed our minds at the last minute. Because [the IPA] is so good we decided to release it,” he said. It will be available in mid-October across Florida, in Chicago and in New York in bottles and draft.

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The Rye River beer sampling is just one part of The Great Irish Hooley, which is in its fourth year at Raglan Road. My daughter and I attended the first year, and she loved all the family friendly activities. Kids are again invited to learn how to dance with the amazing professionals who perform in between sets of the nine different bands that are playing this weekend. Plus, there is complimentary face-painting for the young and the young-at-heart. And, of course, you won’t want to miss the authentic dishes by Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon.

“Ten years since opening, and four years since our first Hooley – we’re still going strong, and we’re excited to share our traditions, as well as the best of Irish bands and entertainers,” says John Cooke, a Raglan Road founding partner and Dublin native.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Raglan Road for a media preview of the craft beer samplings. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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September 8, 2015

Review: Disneyland's Blue Bayou Fantasmic! dinner package

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Last month, my family and I went to Disneyland for the first time. Some AllEars readers may recall from my newsletter feature that I had booked several dining reservations on Disney property, including two dinner package reservations. We wanted to try the restaurants, but we also really wanted to ensure we had a good view of the night-time shows that require FastPasses. Here are our impressions of the Fantasmic! package we selected.

Our first experience was the dinner package at Blue Bayou at Disneyland park with preferred viewing for Fantasmic! I had been told ahead of time that this restaurant is one of the few whose reservations are difficult to secure, so I booked it as soon as the 60-day window opened. At that time, I also requested a table with a water view, although the cast member warned me she couldn’t guarantee that. (Blue Bayou overlooks the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, which starts off with the boats floating past the lovely Louisiana setting inside the restaurant.)

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Fast-forward two months. When we checked in for dinner I again asked if we could have a water-view table, and I was told that if we had checked in 90 minutes early, they could have accommodated our request. I’m not sure if we would have been willing to wait at the restaurant for 90 minutes, but I would have liked to have been given that option when I made the reservation.

Nonetheless, even though we sat toward the back of the restaurant, we had a wonderful dinner at Blue Bayou. Each meal included a choice of an appetizer, entrée and dessert from a special menu. Diners could choose from a salad, gumbo or shrimp cocktail for the appetizer; surf & turf, jambalaya, chicken breast, filet mignon, salmon, beef strip loin, portobello mushroom or lamb for the entrée; and crème brulee, chocolate hazelnut cake or apple-cranberry galette for dessert. The wait staff will take your entire order at the beginning to ensure timely service.

Our server told us up front that the surf & turf is the best value for our money because it was the most expensive dinner on the menu. Consequently, most of the people in our group did order surf & turf and said they thoroughly enjoyed it. The dinner consists of a Petite Pacific Northwest Lobster Tail and Broiled Filet Mignon, Blue Bayou Au Gratin Potatoes, Seasonal Vegetables and Bearnaise Sauce. Several of us also selected the Blue Bayou Salad with tomatoes, caramelized pecans, blue cheese and cranberries. It, too, was well-received by our group. Our table ordered a mix of the desserts, and everyone was pleased. Personally, I find it hard to go wrong with chocolate cake, though I was too full from dinner to do more than take a bite or two.

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Our dinner package also included commemorative Fantasmic! seat cushions that do not come with any other Fantasmic! packages and cannot be purchased elsewhere. The design of the seat cushion is clever; when you punch out the pre-cut piece to make a handle, the piece becomes a floating keychain. So, you’re really getting two complimentary souvenirs.

After we paid the bill, the server gave us our FastPasses for the early showing of Fantasmic! The tickets indicated that we didn’t need to line up before 8:30 p.m. for a 9 p.m. showtime. That may be true for guests who don’t care where they sit for the show, but we weren’t those people, so we began searching for the queue about 7:30 p.m. And search we did! We asked four separate cast members before finally stumbling upon the correct location, which was not well-marked. (For the record, the queue starts near the river just before you get to the Haunted Mansion.)

At about 8 p.m., guests were given Blue Bayou cards and allowed to walk down the ramp and gather as a large crowd in a roped off area. At 8:30 p.m., the rope was dropped and the crowd surged forward into a single line toward the viewing area. Once we got to the viewing area, we were able to stake out seats front and center – the perfect viewing spot for Fantasmic! (By the way – seating is on the ground so that’s where the seat cushions and blanket we brought came in handy.) As an added bonus, we were able to stay in the same spot and see the Disneyland Forever fireworks 10 minutes after Fantasmic! ended.

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For sure, you pay a premium for the best viewing area for Fantasmic! and one of the most sought-after restaurants at Disneyland. It was $61 plus tax for adults and $23 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9. But we all thought the meal and the seating were excellent and well worth the price. Our only complaint was the lack of clear directions and crowd control involved in lining up to get into the viewing area. Would we recommend the package to other newbies like ourselves who want to experience both the restaurant and the night-time shows? Without a doubt.



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September 10, 2015

Review: Disneyland's Carthay Circle World of Color dinner package

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As I mentioned in my last blog post, on our first trip to Disneyland last month, my family and I decided to splurge on two top dining experiences that allowed us premium seating for the popular night-time shows that require FastPasses. In this post, I will relate our experiences with the Carthay Circle World of Color dinner package.

Like its counterpart Blue Bayou at Disneyland, Carthay Circle at Disney California Adventure is the top-tier choice for dining, and it comes with reserved admission to a popular night show, in this case to the best viewing location for World of Color: Celebrate. Unlike Blue Bayou, World of Color packages are available for lunch and dinner. We chose dinner because of our schedule and the entrée selections, but those who are more flexible might enjoy saving some money at lunch and still having the same great seating.

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Walking into Carthay Circle is like stepping back in time to the opening night of “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs” in 1937. That’s because the restaurant is a reproduction of the now-demolished Carthay Circle Theatre, which was where Walt Disney’s first feature-length film premiered.

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Carthay Circle restaurant’s decor reflects the romance and glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including references to the accomplishments of Walt Disney and his original animators. See Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Courvoisier cels — the only animated art ever to hang in Walt Disney’s home — and scenes from the movie painted on the vaulted ceiling of the second-floor main dining room. Seating is also available on two open-air terraces and in four private dining rooms. (The first-floor lounge has it own, separate menu.)

When we checked in for our reservation, the hostess told me they were seating on the terraces. After a hot day in the parks, we really did not want to sit outside. Plus, we wanted to enjoy the restaurant’s unique décor, so I just said we preferred to eat inside and she accommodated our request. We had a choice of an ornate elevator or a winding staircase to the second floor.

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Once there, we were seated in an intimate booth in one of the rooms adjacent to the main dining room. We actually were the first party to be seated in the room, but it soon filled with other families. Once again, we were able to make our dinner selections from a three-course, fixed menu for the dinner package. This time, however, the chef was Andrew Sutton, who also is the executive chef of the award-winning Napa Rose restaurant at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa and at the exclusive members-only Club 33 at Disneyland park.

The appetizer course was the Carthay Circle Salad; entrees included the choice of lamb meatballs, chicken and spinach ravioli, parmigiano reggiano gnocchi, sustainable fish of the season, salmon, pork chop, steak or a chicken breast; and dessert was either a lemon pound cake or a dark chocolate mousse bar. For this dinner, we all tried different entrees. My husband had the sustainable fish of the season, which was served with root vegetables and Swiss chard with orange-radish salad. I chose the thick-cut pork chop, which was served with California mushroom chili and onion fondue with fresh cherries. My daughter chose an adult-size portion of the chicken strips from the kids’ menu, and my son again selected the steak, this time a grilled angus with Yukon potatoes, leeks, fresh fava beans and a Cabernet jus. We each were pleased with our selections. For dessert, we all sampled the dark chocolate mousse bar, which had three small desserts. The kids and I decided the sophisticated s’mores dessert was our favorite, hands down. It’s worth noting, too, that my husband said he enjoyed the beer selection available.

At the start of our dinner, we had a nice surprise when the wait staff opened the doors to the balcony so diners could go out and watch the Pixar Play Parade. We hadn’t had time yet to see the parade so it was great fun to view it from our unique vantage point.

For the second consecutive night, we had excellent food and service with our dinner package. Carthay Circle was the same price as Blue Bayou -- $61 plus tax for adults – which we consider pricey for a family of four. Still, it did include our World of Color reserved premium viewing. For us, it was worth it for our first-time experience at both the restaurant and the very popular show.

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As for the World of Color viewing area reserved for Carthay Circle diners: It was located in the center of the production as promised, and there seemed to be plenty of room for everyone. Most people stand for this show, unlike Fantasmic!, where they sit. There were two benches available on a first-come, first-served basis for those with disabilities.

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Cast members began admitting people to the various roped-off viewing sections about an hour before the show, which was 8 p.m. for the early World of Color. Guests are allowed to bring food and drink into the sections. About 15 minutes before the show, audience members are invited to play Fun Wheel Challenge on their electronic devices. This game asks players to match the colors on their mobile-device screens that are lighting up on the Ferris wheel. The winner is the quickest and most accurate participant, and he or she then gets to control the color patterns on Mickey’s Fun Wheel for 30 seconds. My children really enjoyed this game.

We all were impressed by World of Color: Celebrate. I had heard from some passholders that they preferred the original show better because the 60th anniversary edition was heavy on Neil Patrick Harris. I can understand that criticism, because his parts did seem to get equal time with those of Walt Disney and the history of Disneyland. Still, for Walt Disney World veterans who hadn’t seen this show, it was a treat.



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September 12, 2015

Reviews of Disneyland's most popular character meals

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Who could visit Disneyland and not meet some of their favorite characters? One of the easiest, and perhaps most efficient, way to do so is by attending meals where the characters circulate among tables rather than standing in lines in the theme parks. On our recent trip to Disneyland, we booked three character-dining meals: Storytellers Café, Ariel’s Grotto and Goofy’s Kitchen.

Our strategy for character meals was to schedule a late breakfast at each. We did this because we had dinner packages booked for some nights and evening plans on others. Also, my family and I like breakfast food, so that was more appealing than lunch in many cases. As for the time, we opted for 11 to 11:30 a.m. reservations because we were aiming for a mid-day meal. We didn’t want to take a break earlier in the morning when crowds are lightest in the parks.

The biggest downside to our plan was that we ended up being served lunch at one of the restaurants (Ariel’s Grotto) and almost missed the characters at another (Storytellers Café) – despite my following the times listed for meal service for each restaurant. So, if you enjoy breakfast, I would recommend making reservations at these two restaurants a little earlier than we did.

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Our first character meal of the trip was the Chip ’n Dale Critter Breakfast at Storyteller’s Café in the Grand Californian, which features Chip ‘n Dale, of course, as well as Kenai and Koda (Brother Bear), Meeko (Pocohontas) and Terk (Tarzan). Our reservation was for 11 a.m. with breakfast service ending at 11:30 a.m. We checked in ahead of time, but it still took a bit to get seated and by the time we entered the restaurant at 11:20, we were told by a cast member that it was unlikely we’d see the characters. Both of my children were understandably upset by that news.

As soon as we were seated, I explained the situation to our server and asked if there was a way for us to see the characters before we ate. He said he would talk to the handlers, and he did his best to facilitate our request. He did get Chip ‘n Dale to come to our table for autographs and photos. He also encouraged our children to join the dance party with all the characters, saying that they would pose for photos and sign autographs when the music ended. We were surprised by this because at Walt Disney World characters return to circulating among the tables after a group moment. But, sure enough, the critters were happy to take a minute with my children.

Once the kids had met all the characters, we turned our attention to the breakfast buffet where we found cooked-to-order omelets, Storyteller's Cafe famous caramel French toast, eggs Benedict, Mickey waffles, sausage, bacon, bagels and lox, seasonal fruit, and fresh-baked pastries. We enjoyed the food, and no one in our party left hungry! The Chip ’n Dale Critter Breakfast is $29.99 plus tax for adults and $14.99 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9.

Storyteller’s Café also serves lunch and dinner, but characters are not present for those meals. Instead, perhaps guests are able to enjoy the lodge décor of the restaurant, which was both beautiful and cozy.

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Our second character meal was at Ariel’s Grotto in Disney California Adventure. The Little Mermaid is my daughter’s favorite character, so we knew Ariel’s Disney Princess Celebration was a must for our family. Our reservation was for 11:30 a.m., a time we were led to believe would still be breakfast. We arrived at 11 a.m. and were told we could not check in until 11:20 a.m. and to come back then. When we returned, I requested a table inside “under the sea.” The cast member was able to honor my request, though she claimed we were given the last table indoors. (The restaurant also has a lovely, albeit hot in the summer, outdoor patio with a lovely water view of Mickey’s Fun Wheel and Paradise Pier.) Despite the hassle, I am very glad we were seated indoors because the décor was so well themed.

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After check-in, we descended a spiral staircase to where Ariel was greeting guests. She posed for photos, which are included in the price of your meal, and signed autographs. The meal comes with one 8 x 10 image and four 4 x 6 prints. If you have purchased PhotoPass+, all the photos taken with Ariel can be added to your account. Then we were led to our table, where we found out we were having lunch, not breakfast.

Our meal was a set price of $40 plus tax for adults ($19.99 for children ages 3 to 9) for a three-course meal. Each person could choose soup or salad for an appetizer; sustainable catch of the day, pan-roasted chicken breast, grilled lobster tail salad or slow-roasted tri-tip for the entrée; and a dessert trio to wrap up the meal. The food was perfectly edible, but it was nothing outstanding, which left my husband and I feeling like we had overpaid for what we received. Our bill was about $200 and it certainly wasn’t on par with the meals we had at Blue Bayou and Carthay Circle.

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Of course, we were not paying for just the food but the whole Disney Princess experience. In addition to Ariel, my kids met with Belle, Jasmine, Rapunzel and Tiana at our table. Each princess was announced as she swept into the dining room and made her rounds, causing a wave of excitement. Overall, I’m happy we tried Ariel’s Grotto for my daughter’s sake, but I’m not sure we’d go back on any future trips.

Ariel’s Grotto also offers a World of Color dinner package, but no characters are present during that meal.

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Our final -- and best -- character meal was at Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel. Goofy is the host of a meal that is very similar to Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. The experience starts with each party having a photo taken with Chef Goofy. A photo package of one 8 x 10 and four 4 x 6 prints is included with your meal. If you have purchased PhotoPass+, all the photos taken with Goofy can be added to your account.

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Our reservation at Goofy’s Kitchen was at 11 a.m., but we were pleased to find out that brunch would be served until noon. That meant we could enjoy breakfast favorites and well as some heartier lunch dishes on the five stations during our meal. We were excited to try our first Mickey pancakes and Goofy’s special peanut butter and jelly pizza.

In between our trips to the buffet, various characters stopped by our table, including Pluto, Minnie Mouse and Chip ‘n Dale. And although my children had been wearing their birthday buttons all week, this was the first restaurant where the servers brought out cupcakes and actually sang to them. We were beginning to think Disneyland had a ban on singing at tables!

Brunch at Goofy’s Kitchen costs $33 plus tax for adults and $17 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9.

Be sure to check hours for each character meal before you make reservations because they vary according to the season. Meals can be booked 60 days in advance.



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September 15, 2015

Tips for gearing up for fun at Disneyland's Cars Land

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Since it opened in 2012, Cars Land has been the must-do area for most guests at Disney California Adventure. On our recent visit to Disneyland, my family and I fell in love with this section of the theme park, too. A guest – even one who didn’t ride the main attraction – would be hard-pressed not to enjoy the level of detail that makes Cars Land so immersive. It’s often been said that stepping into Cars Land is like stepping onto the movie set of “Cars” (if there were such a thing).

Guests can enter Cars Land in three ways: down Route 66, through the canyon arch by Pacific Wharf and through Bug’s Land behind Cozy Cone Motel. The first two entrances are the most spectacular.

Tip: Be sure to visit Cars Land during the day and at night for two different visual experiences. At sunset, the shops and restaurants along Route 66 light up in succession while “Sh-Boom” plays. It’s a magical moment, for sure.

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The main attraction in Cars Land is, of course, Radiator Springs Racers. This ride uses the same technology as Test Track at Epcot with guests riding in 6-person vehicles. The course takes guests up in the mountains, past the waterfall scene from the movie, into Radiator Springs and either Ramone’s or Luigi’s, and out to race on the open roads.

Tips: Radiator Springs Racers (RSR) is by far the most popular attraction at Disneyland Resort. It does have FastPasses but they often are gone for the day by 10 a.m. Because of this, guests line up for rope drop by Carthay Circle and either proceed directly to the ride or they stop at the FastPass distribution machines, which are not located near the ride. Guests staying at one of the three official Disneyland hotels can enter Disney California Adventure (and Cars Land) one hour before park opening on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, but FastPass distribution does not begin until the park opens and guests may not line up for FastPasses until then.

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The other attraction in Cars Land is Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, which features baby tractors pulling guests in trailers in a whip-around style ride. It’s great fun for all ages!

Tip: A third attraction, Luigi's Flying Tires, which was located behind Casa Della Tires shop, closed in February. A new attraction, Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters, will take its place in early 2016.

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There are two counter-service restaurants in Cars Land, Flo’s V8 Café and Cozy Cone Motel. Flo’s serves typical diner foods: roast beef and turkey (sandwiches), mashed potatoes, macaroni & cheese, milkshakes and more. Cozy Cone sells a specialty at each “cone”: churros, soft-serve ice cream, bread cones and pretzel twists, plus various drinks.

Tips: At Flo’s, there are a lot more tables behind the restaurant, and back there you’ll have a fantastic view of Ornament Valley and the Cadillac Mountain Range. Cozy Cone doesn’t have many tables, so it’s more of a grab-and-go spot. But what it lacks in seating it makes up for with its delicious soft-serve ice cream, Red’s Apple Freeze drink and adorable gasoline-can-shaped souvenir cups.

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If you want to capture photos of your family in Cars Land – and who doesn’t? – there are several PhotoPass spots and some unadvertised magic shots you can ask for. (Here’s why PhotoPass+ is a good value for your Disneyland trip.) Professional photographers are stationed at the Cars Land postcard at the entrance; on Route 66 with the landmarks in the background; at Cozy Cones Motel with Mater, Lightning McQueen or Red; and there is a camera on Radiator Springs Racers. If you can find an unattached photographer, be sure to ask for the magic shots, as well. He or she will take your group to three different locations, and when you view the photos online, a different character will appear in each.

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Finally, the gift shops along Route 66 are named after characters or things the cars encounter in the movie: Ramone's House of Body Art, Sarge's Surplus Hut and Radiator Springs Curios. You can take home everything from T-shirts and postcards to tire-shaped hats and light-up Cozy Cones Motel keychains.

Tip: Take photos of any and all merchandise you might be interested in. If you forget to go back and purchase something, you can do so with the Disneyland Merchandise Mail Order line (800-362-4533). You’ll need to be able to describe the item to the cast member so he or she can look it up. Phone lines are open from 8 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Perhaps what makes Cars Land so special is that it is unique; no other Disney park has a Cars Land. And the excitement of discovering something new has us all gearing up for a fun experience.



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September 17, 2015

What types of souvenirs do you buy at Disneyland?

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Entering the gift shops at a Disney theme park can be an exciting, over-the-top experience for a first-time visitor. There are so many cool things that you didn’t know you needed until you see them! Few people can shop without a budget, so we must choose things that will be the most meaningful to us, and that certainly varies from person to person. I enjoy seeing what other people select as their treasures, so I thought you might like to hear what we brought back on our first trip to Disneyland. We were, of course, tempted by all the beautiful 60th anniversary merchandise!

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Autograph books

Our first purchase -- on Main Street, U.S.A., no less – was a Diamond Celebration autograph book and pen set for each child. We had reservations for several character meals during our vacation, so we knew they would be put to good use, and the 60th anniversary design made them all the more special. While we were in The Emporium, we also picked up two of the Disneyland pressed penny sleeves and a free guide to locating the pennies, including some designed just for the D60 celebration.

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Mouse-ear hats

Next, both of my children decided they wanted to spend their own money on a souvenir mouse-ear hat. My son really wanted a Diamond Celebration mouse-ear hat, but, unfortunately, that design was sold out. Instead, he decided to get a Made With Magic mouse-ear hat that lights up and syncs with the colors and the beat of nearby night-time shows. It also has a 60th anniversary patch, so it was a good compromise. My daughter chose a Minnie Mouse ear headband with sequined ears and a bejeweled blue bow, also part of the Diamond Celebration collection.

T-shirts

Of course, we couldn’t leave a Disney theme park without T-shirts! Each person in our family chose a T-shirt, and my children decided to get an extra item of clothing. The kids and I each selected a different Disneyland Diamond celebration T-shirt. My husband picked out a Disneyland Oswald shirt, while my almost-13-year-old son chose a different Oswald shirt and my almost 11-year-old daughter got an Ariel hoodie.

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Trading pins

Although both kids collect trading pins, my son was more interested in adding to his collection with pins commemorating our vacation. He selected pins to represent his favorite attractions in each park and the Diamond Celebration.

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Starbucks mugs

My son also wanted to finish his collection of Starbucks “You Are Here” mugs from Disney Parks, so he spent his money on one from Disneyland and one from Disney California Adventure. And then he discovered a special Diamond Celebration mug from Starbucks and more of his spending money was committed to the cause.

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Build A Bear

My daughter, on the other hand, had her heart set on the Diamond Celebration Build A Bear plush at the Downtown Disney store. She saw the special edition stuffed animal displayed in the window early in our vacation and never forgot about it. We persuaded her to peruse the selection of other souvenirs at the resort before she committed such a large chunk of her money to this particular item. She agreed and ultimately decided that this was a valuable souvenir for her. The bear itself has D60 diamond pattern lining on the ears and feet, as well as a soft blue nose. My daughter purchased a D60 T-shirt and mouse-ear hat for the bear.

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Cars Land

We all hated to leave Cars Land, so it was no surprise that some of us looked for souvenirs to remind us of this magical area. My daughter settled on a Mater drawstring backpack and Cars-themed keychain, while I purchased a light-up keychain replica of the neon Cozy Cone Motel sign.

Jewelry

I couldn’t resist adding a few of the D60 charms to my Pandora bracelet. Unlike at Walt Disney World, the special edition charms did not seem to be in short supply. My daughter spent the last of the money she had saved on an Alex and Ani Disneyland60 bracelet.

Club 33

Finally, we were pixie-dusted with the opportunity to have dinner at the members-only Club 33 inside Disneyland Park, and the club has it own merchandise that only can be purchased there. For this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we each splurged on souvenirs. My husband chose a baseball cap and a mug; I was excited to find a handbag and a baseball cap; and we picked out the Club 33 mouse-ear hats for the kids.

PhotoPass+

Probably the best – and most important souvenir -- for our family was the collection of professional photos we purchased with the PhotoPass+ package. For one price, we received unlimited photos taken during our vacation. (You can read more about PhotoPass+ here.)

Do you have a favorite souvenir from your trip to Disneyland? Tell us in the comments!



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September 19, 2015

Magical Moments on our first trip to Disneyland

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Disney theme parks and resorts are known for the “Disney Difference,” an often intangible factor that sets Disney Parks and Resorts apart from other entertainment experiences. Part of the “Disney Difference” can be attributed to the excellent level of service that cast members provide, but perhaps the seemingly random and unexpected experiences that cast members perform for guests contribute to this reputation, as well. Over the years, we’ve had many such experiences here at Walt Disney World, and on our recent first trip to Disneyland, we had several such “Magical Moments,” too.

On our first morning in Disneyland park, I wanted to take the quintessential Disney family photos in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, so we stood in line for a PhotoPass photographer. When we got to the front of the line, I explained that it was our first visit and I wanted to capture several images with various combinations of family members. This Disney photographer turned my request into a mini photo shoot, capturing each child separately, together and with my husband and me. Then, he noticed the kids were wearing birthday buttons and asked them to do special poses to indicate how old they are. We received a fun collection of family photos because the photographer was willing to spend a little extra time and work with us, rather than take the same old shots. It helped, too, I’m sure, that we were in front of the castle right after the park opened so it was not very crowded.

Another Magical Moment also happened on that first day. My family and I each wanted to get a complimentary “First Visit” button to wear for the week, so we stopped by Guest Relations. Imagine our surprise when we were told they had run out! How was that even possible, we wondered? The cast member could only recommend that we ask in each shop on Main Street, U.S.A., and at attractions throughout the park because they sometimes have their own stock of buttons to hand out. So, to appease my disappointed children, we began to pop into each store on Main Street and ask cashiers about the buttons. Each time, we were told they, too, were out of stock. About halfway down the street, however, a cast member said she didn’t have any at the counter, but if we would wait there, she would go search for some. We agreed, and it wasn’t long before she returned with buttons in hand for us.

On our second day, we also had the good fortune to be part of two Magical Moments. As I mentioned in my previous review of the Carthay Circle World of Color dinner package, we were surprised that after we placed our order, a server opened the doors to a balcony overlooking the Pixar Play Parade, which was traveling past the restaurant. We were invited to go outside and watch. It was a great vantage point, and the characters even knew to look up and wave to us.

But by far the most magical experience of our trip was meeting Alfred, a monorail pilot at Downtown Disney station. We had asked if we could ride in the front compartment with the driver, knowing we would have to wait a little longer because of the demand. But we knew it would be a special experience, and something we all would remember, because guests are no longer allowed to ride in the front car of monorails at Walt Disney World. However, the wait turned out to be a little longer than we expected – about 40 minutes -- because if a family was riding with the pilot when the monorail pulled into the Downtown Disney station, they were allowed to remain in the compartment until the ride terminated in Tomorrowland. Still, we were not upset. But Alfred was paying attention to our wait time and apologized, offering our family FastPasses that were good for any ride in either park to help make up for the time we spent waiting at the monorail station. We were stunned and happily surprised! Then, Alfred called the other monorail station and requested that the next train not bring passengers in the first car so that we could board. Besides his generous actions, Alfred entertained our kids and shared with us fun stories about his time at Disneyland and also what he knew of the monorail system at Walt Disney World, which made the wait pass quickly. Then he ushered us into the pilot’s car of the monorail, allowed the kids to take photos in the driver’s seat, and drove us himself to the Tomorrowland station.

These Magical Moments may not have seemed like much to the cast members who were making them happen, but to us, they were everything. They truly exemplified the Disney Difference.



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September 21, 2015

‘Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular' at Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party just might put a spell on you

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Despite the pleas and rumors from fans, a sequel has not been announced for the popular Halloween movie, Disney’s “Hocus Pocus.” However, if your broomstick can get you to Orlando, you can see the Sanderson Sisters in all their glory in a new stage show at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom this Halloween season.

“Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” debuted last week at the first Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, where the show is performed exclusively four times during each party night. (See details about the Halloween party, including dates and prices, on our AllEars.Net resource page.)

“In ‘Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular,’ the mischievous Sanderson Sisters from Disney’s ‘Hocus Pocus’ return to the mortal world for one night during the Halloween season,” wrote Shawn Slater, communications manager for Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts, Creative Entertainment, on the Disney Parks Blog. “With only a few hours to run amuck, the three sisters decide to use their magic to throw the best evil Halloween party this side of the graveyard!”

My family and I got to see “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” on Friday, and we really enjoyed it even though we hadn’t seen the movie (gasp!), which came out in 1993. The choreography, upbeat music, projections on the castle and inclusion of some familiar villains from other Disney stories makes this production appealing to all partygoers. And it just might inspire you to watch the fan-favorite flick, as it did us. (Hocus Pocus will be on ABC Family during the 2015 13 Nights of Halloween celebration on Oct. 19, 20, 24, 25, 27, 29, 30 and 31.)

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Afterward, we could appreciate the details that were translated from the screen to the stage, such as the significance of the candle. Lighting it awakens the Sanderson Sisters -- Winifred, Mary and Sarah – in the movie after 300 years. That scene is replayed in the stage show with various candles that are lit on stage and in projections on the castle. The set also includes the wrought-iron gate from the cemetery that figures prominently in the movie and the bubbling cauldron used to concoct spells.

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Walt Disney World’s Sanderson Sisters truly look like they could have stepped out of the movie, and their mannerisms match, as well. The trio replicates scenes of hypnotizing children and then attempting to put a spell on the audience with the help of other Disney villains. The show builds toward the finale, “I Put A Spell On You,” with all the characters, fireworks and then farewells.

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“Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” is longer than the show it replaces, “Villains Mix and Mingle,” at almost 22 minutes. It does not offer the audience the opportunity to meet the villains as its predecessor did, although I’m sure fans would enjoy that experience.

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On Friday, I spoke with Denise Case, show director for Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts, Creative Entertainment, about the new production.

Question: Why “Hocus Pocus”?

Case: Because we love, love, love the Sanderson Sisters. They were originated by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s a funny Halloween film. It’s become a real fan favorite for this time of the year. ABC Family shows it every year. … So we felt like the Sanderson Sisters were perfect for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.

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Q: How do you think a younger audience that maybe hasn’t seen “Hocus Pocus” will relate to the show?

Case: I think younger audiences will like it because of the comedy -- the sisters are very funny. And they know the villains from some of their favorite movies. Dr. Facilier, obviously, from “The Princess and The Frog” and Oogie Boogie from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Jafar, Cruella de Vil. I think it really does have something for everyone, even if you’re not a “Hocus Pocus” fan.

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Q: What did it take to get “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” on the stage? When did you start developing the show?

Case: We really started wrapping our hands around the high concept for the show at the beginning of this year, and we’ve been working on it very diligently ever since. It was a huge team effort.

Q: What is your favorite part of the show?

Case: My favorite part of the show has got to be the Sanderson Sisters’ entrance and the top of “I Put a Spell On You” just because of the audience reaction. The audiences are reacting as we hoped they would, so every time that happens, I just get really excited.

Q: I know this is only the second night that “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” has been performed, but what has the feedback been so far?

Case: Knock wood, it’s been really great. Guests seem to love it. The thing that I think makes me the happiest is that a lot of guests are telling us that they are seeing the Sanderson Sisters as they wanted to see them. I think we are fulfilling their excitement about the sisters and that makes me really happy because that was really important to us. We wanted to give fans and guests what they wanted.

Q: What time do you recommend guests see the show? (It plays at 8, 9:20 and 10:40 p.m. and midnight on the Castle Forecourt Stage.)

Case: Later in the evening – the 10:40 or midnight show – are best [if you want a less-crowded experience]. If you have little ones who can stay up late, I think the midnight show is a bunch of fun!

Can’t make it to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party? We have a video of the full “Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular” show for you to watch:

Finally, one last note from me: On the first night of Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, the Magic Kingdom offered a T-shirt with an image from the new show. It sold out that night, though a cast member told me it would be restocked and partygoers could bring proof they had attended a party (wristband, receipt, ID) and they would be allowed to purchase the T-shirt.

Also, Sept 21 through 27, DisneyStore.com will sell T-shirts that depict each of the Sanderson Sisters’ outfits plus another T-shirt with the logo for the Sanderson Sisters Witch Museum.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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September 24, 2015

Tips for families attending 2015 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party

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It still may feel like summer in Orlando, but at the Magic Kingdom, fall came early (as it usually does) with autumn decorations and the first Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party mid-month. My family thinks this is one of the best hard-ticket events at Walt Disney World and has been attending the party for more than a decade. As such, we have some up-to-date tips for families who want to make the most of their time and money.

The party only lasts for five hours – from 7 p.m. to midnight – so you’ll need a strategy in order to do most everything that’s important to your group. Our family focuses on the entertainment that is unique to the party because we can choose to experience other things at Magic Kingdom another day.

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First, know that your party ticket allows you to enter the Magic Kingdom at 4 p.m., even though most party activities do not start until 7 p.m. Early admission used to be a non-publicized perk and a tool to disburse the arriving crowds. Now, however, Walt Disney World touts the entrance time. You could, of course, use the extra time to experience attractions, but I think that three-hour window is best used to prepare for the party so you don't waste precious party time.

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** Once you enter the park, head straight to the Firehouse in Town Square so you can pick up a special Halloween card for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom virtual game. Each person will need his or her party wristband to collect the card, beginning at 4 p.m. Because this is the only time you can get the card, I recommend collecting it and using it on another visit. There was no line at about 5:30 p.m. on the day we attended the party.

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** Next, if you are interested in exclusive party merchandise, head into the adjacent Emporium store. In the center room, the goods are displayed in a section behind the cash registers. Cast members will allow a few guests – with party wristbands -- at a time to peruse and purchase items. This is a change from past years when the merchandise was not uncovered until 7 p.m. If you see something you like, don’t hesitate to purchase it because items can and do sell out later in the night. Other locations with party merchandise include Mickey’s Star Traders, Box Office Gifts and Frontier Trading Post.

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** After shopping, I would either recommend having an early dinner before the party starts or getting in line for one of the popular meet-and-greets. If having an actual meal (as opposed to grabbing snacks on the go) is important to your group, don’t waste party time; eat beforehand. There are limited restaurants open during the party, so having dinner beforehand also gives you more choices for your meal. This may be especially important to families with small children. If the food aspect is not key to your group having a successful evening, then I would suggest getting in line for Jack Skellington and Sally or the Seven Dwarfs. Jack has moved back to the outdoor tent adjacent to Casey Jr. and there is a new, more detailed backdrop for photos this year. The Seven Dwarfs can be found behind Cinderella Castle near the gates to New Fantasyland. Both meet-and-greets routinely have lines of at least an hour, so if you do use your time before the party starts, you’ll have more time for the other entertainment later. Plus, it isn’t out of the question for some meets to start before 7 p.m. for guests with party wristbands.

Once the party starts, guests can begin trick-or-treating. This fun tradition is open to all guests, including adults, and bags are provided. Also, guests are invited to wear costumes, as long as they are family friendly. My own children love this tradition, which allows them to see the Magic Kingdom in a whole new way.

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The big entertainment this year – Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular, Mickey’s Boo-To-You Halloween Parade, Celebrate the Magic castle projection show and Happy HalloWishes fireworks – are all scheduled a little later in the evening. Depending on your strategy, this may actually give you more party time. The first stage shows and parade are always more crowded than the later ones, so if everyone in your party can stay awake, choose later options. For example, you could choose to view Celebrate the Magic at 9:45 p.m. and Happy HalloWishes at 10 p.m. (the only times they’re available) and then grab a seat in the hub for the Hocus Pocus show at 10:40 p.m. and the second parade at 11:15 p.m. That gives you at least two and half hours to collect candy, meet characters, go on rides and more.

What to do when the clock strikes 7 p.m. if you are saving the big entertainment until the latter part of the evening?

Here are a few suggestions:

** The Fab Five are decked out in their costumes, and lines to meet them typically aren’t as long as those for Jack Skellington and the Seven Dwarfs. We waited 30 minutes last year to meet Mickey Mouse, who actually talks to guests. Mickey engages guests in conversation about their costumes and even strikes a pose himself.

** Check out the dance party in Tomorrowland, which features the Monsters University characters. (There is only one character dance party this year, down from two last year.) This is not a meet-and-greet opportunity so characters don't stop and pose but you may be able to capture some fun candid shots.

** Trick-or-treat. Be sure to walk along the pathway between Storybook Circus and Tomorrowland and go inside the Enchanted Tiki Room because these two locations have several candy barrels close together.

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** If candy is not your thing, try one of the specialty foods at the party: ghost, monster and spider cupcakes and candy corn soft serve ice cream. We tried the candy corn ice cream at the end of the night and found a surprise in the bottom of each cone.

** Take advantage of short lines for attractions. You will be able to walk right on many of the rides, and others will have much shorter waits than a typical day. For example, we saw Seven Dwarfs Mine Train only had a 20-minute queue at one point. Some guests actually buy tickets to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party with no intention of experiencing the seasonal events. Instead, they plan to take advantage of the short waits for rides.

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Finally, on our way out of the park, we had a photo of the kids taken in Town Square with the pumpkin statues and Cinderella Castle in the background. After learning that the PhotoPass photographers stay there until about 1 a.m., I thought it would be a nice change to get a photo with Main Street lit up instead of the afternoon image that we have taken for the last several years at the party. Unfortunately, the photographer was in a hurry and only took two quick shots of the kids and she zoomed in on them so much that you can’t see my daughter’s costume, which was the whole point. This was really disappointing after watching her spend ample time with the couple before us. But I didn’t realize the problem until we got home because it was the last thing we did at the party. So, if this shot is important to you, I recommend doing it earlier than we did and checking it online.

Have a tip or a question? Please share it in the comments.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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September 26, 2015

We’ll miss Duffy the Disney Bear when meet-and-greets at Walt Disney World end next weekend

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In a little over a week, Duffy the Disney Bear will be setting sail for new adventures that don’t include his post at Epcot any longer. Multiple media outlets are reporting that Walt Disney World has confirmed that Duffy’s last day to greet guests will be Oct. 3.

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Duffy has been a fixture at Epcot since he arrived five years ago from Tokyo DisneySea, where he is wildly popular. His meet-and-greet area in Orlando is located across from Plaza Towers East -- where Duffy merchandise is sold -- and depicts various countries of travel.

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Duffy’s story, which is outlined in a hardcover book that families can purchase, attributes his birth to Minnie Mouse, who lovingly sewed the teddy bear for Captain Mickey Mouse to take on his long voyages around the globe.

Minnie told Mickey, “You can keep him in your duffel and take him with you wherever you go.” Because of that, Mickey named the bear Duffy.

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I attended a Disney World passholder preview for Duffy the Disney Bear in 2010, and guests there couldn’t wait for his arrival stateside. They, including my own young children, were eager to snap up the merchandise, especially the plush animal and his many outfits. For many, the toy bear held the same appeal as a Build-A-Bear plush with all the collectible accessories.

But the others who disliked Duffy and thought he had no place at Walt Disney World saw his arrival as a thinly disguised merchandising campaign. Sure, Duffy would greet guests, but there are no true original Disney storylines associated with the bear either in cartoon form, film or other media. Plus, there simply aren’t park attractions based on the bear and many guests just couldn’t identify with him. To them, he was just Mickey’s little-known teddy bear. And Duffy was actually the rebranding of another version of a Disney teddy bear. My daughter has the original plush Disney Bear, which is slightly smaller than Duffy but looks virtually the same.

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The cynicism might be easy to understand – until, like our family, you witnessed firsthand a youngster excitedly running up to Duffy for an autograph or a hug. Sure, the bear might not be a character from the creative mind of Walt or the Pixar brain trust, but when our children were younger, they eagerly waited in line for a chance to see him at Epcot. And their nighttime routines and bedtime stories were filled with stuffed Duffy characters and Duffy storybooks at one stage of their younger lives. For us, Duffy was as much Disney for them as Bambi and the Fox and the Hound was for my husband and I.

And, so, we have come full circle with Duffy here in the United States. Even though the Disney Bear will no longer be greeting guests, the merchandise still will be sold on property, a spokeswoman told the Orlando Sentinel. No word on whether the video of the “Duffy The Disney Bear” book being read as a bedtime story on Walt Disney World hotel TVs will continue.

Meanwhile, another Disney character with a very real and long historical tie to the company will be making an appearance once Duffy leaves. Daisy Duck replaces Duffy the Disney Bear in the gazebo meet-and-greet at Epcot beginning on Oct. 4.

Everyone loves Daisy, of course. But everytime we pass Epcot’s Plaza Towers East, it will be hard not to think of a fluffy friend who used to greet us there.



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September 29, 2015

Ocean Spray cranberry bog returns to 2015 Epcot Food and Wine Festival

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Here’s berry good news! After a hiatus last year, Ocean Spray's popular cranberry bog is back at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival for the fourth year. If you've attended the festival, you've probably walked right past it on the central walkway leading to World Showcase.

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Cast members in waders stand knee-deep in the colorful bog, demonstrating how rakes are used to turn the fruit during wet harvesting. Cranberries actually grow on long vines in marshy areas, not underwater as some people might think. The night before the harvest, growers flood the area with up to 18 inches of water. Then, they use the rake-like tools to loosen the cranberries, and the fruit floats to the surface.

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So, what you're seeing at Epcot are the loose cranberries floating in water -- the final step of wet harvesting a crop. (Cranberries also can be picked dry, which is done with large machines that comb the berries off vines.) The festival schedule of September through November coincides with the annual harvest of cranberries in North America. Aside from being an interesting feature as part of the festival, the manmade bog at Epcot is a great visual way to demonstrate to kids how some of the food at the event is cultivated and harvested.

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On Saturday, during the opening weekend of the festival, Ocean Spray invited members of the media to step into the cranberry bog, which contains more than 1,500 pounds of fresh fruit. Deb Koma and I were among those in the water taking photos, posting on social media and using Periscope for interviews with fifth-generation cranberry growers.

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Although we were a bit nervous about keeping our smartphones from falling into the manmade bog, we didn’t worry about our clothing getting wet because the one-piece waders kept us completely dry. Ocean Spray even provided us with cute red knee socks to make the attached boots comfortable. (And the waders are sized according to the boots. Who doesn’t love that?!)

Here's an excerpt of our Periscope Broadcast:

Guests at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival can visit the Hops & Barley Marketplace through Nov. 16 to taste the carrot cake with Craisins (dried cranberries) and cream cheese icing. I sampled this dessert at the Ocean Spray reception and really liked it, even though I don’t usually enjoy carrot cake. At both the new Cheese Studio and the Wine Studio, guests can purchase La Bonne Vie goat cheese served with Craisin bread. Both the cake and the bread are vegetarian dishes. Across from the bog, visitors are invited to pick up a free sample of Craisins.

At Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom, trick-or-treaters can collect Greek yogurt-covered Craisins at one treat station.

Ocean Spray is an agricultural cooperative owned by more than 700 growers, many of whom have been in the business for generations.



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About September 2015

This page contains all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in September 2015. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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