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December 2015 Archives

December 1, 2015

How meeting Santa Claus at Walt Disney World has changed

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas throughout Walt Disney World, including the newly named Disney Springs, formerly known as Downtown Disney. And as is a long-standing tradition, Santa Claus is meeting with children and their families at his chalet in the shopping and dining district. This year, there are some changes you’ll want to be aware of before you go:

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** Santa’s Chalet has moved just past the World of Disney store and is located to the side of the stage, across from Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. The chalet itself, as well as the way the trees are decorated with toy trains and planes, remains the same. For some of us who enjoy visiting the same location year after year, that’s a welcome status quo.

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** What has changed is how guests queue up to meet Santa. All guests are asked to check in at the entrance, and they will be placed in a virtual queue and given a pager. So, even if Santa may not be available to hear what's on your children's must-have lists for another two hours, you won't have to spend that time in line. You can shop, grab a bite to eat, or even just rest your tired feet. I'm told the pagers work from Fulton’s Crab House to Earl of Sandwich. Guests are asked to return to the podium within 10 minutes of being paged. This is different from last year when the pager system was introduced and only used if the line got unwieldy; now it’s standard operating procedure. Last year, cast members tested the option of texting guests, too, when it was their turn to join the queue, but that is not being used this year.

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** As in the past, Disney PhotoPass photographers will take photos of your family with Santa, and guests are permitted to do so, as well. So, unlike some of the mall experiences, this trip to see Santa doesn’t have to cost you anything if you are happy with your own photos. We have found the lighting in the chalet to be a bit challenging for those of us using point-and-shoot or smartphone cameras, and this year’s experience was no exception. Still, purchasing a single photo from Disney is only about $15, and that’s still less expensive than many other Central Florida Santa meet-and-greets. And for many Walt Disney World annual passholders, the PhotoPass downloads of images are free, which is a nice perk this year.

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** Santa Claus is extending his time at the Disney Springs Chalet this year, and he will be there from noon to 10 p.m. daily through Dec. 24. Santa Goofy takes over Dec. 25 through 29 at Santa’s Chalet during the same hours.

Despite his busy schedule before Christmas, Santa Claus will be making varied appearances at Walt Disney World. It would seem impossible, but the Jolly Old Elf can be found in these additional locations:

** Epcot: Santa and Mrs. Claus meet guests and pose for pictures for 90-minute sets at 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. daily through Dec. 24 at The American Adventure. Plus, each country in the World Showcase also features storytellers who describe local holiday traditions. In many countries, the storyteller is a representation of Santa, such as Pere Noel in France and Father Christmas in England.

** Magic Kingdom: Santa meets with guests during the day through Dec. 24 and at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, where he also makes an appearance at the end of Mickey's Once Upon A Christmastime Parade. Admission to the party requires a separate ticket.



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December 3, 2015

Top Disney toys for 2015 holiday season

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With Hanukkah beginning Sunday and Christmas only about two weeks away, toy shopping clearly is on the minds of parents and relatives everywhere. And although kids are encouraged at this time of the year to tell us what their hearts desire, many adults also want to create that element of surprise with the “perfect” toy. So we press on in our search for toys that will provide long-lasting enjoyment for our children as well as delight them when the wrapping paper is torn away.

It would appear that every retailer and publication has its own list of “hot toys,” so what is a parent to do? In the interest of saving you some time, I’ve narrowed my scope to the top Disney toys this holiday season according to reputable sources. Here are my suggestions:

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Star Wars BB-8 Droid. Franchise fans and even those with a casual interest have been counting the days until the new movie, “The Force Awakens,” is released on Dec. 18. And, make no mistake, the Disney marketing team is well-prepared with merchandise, including toys. Consumers were able to get their hands on the first toys on Sept. 4 for “Force Friday” events at Toys R Us stores worldwide. But perhaps the most notable, and certainly the most memorable, toys feature the new droid, BB-8, who was revealed at D23 in August. The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio has singled out the BB-8 app-enabled droid by Sphero for an award in the Tween Category. According to the review on toyportfolio.com: “You can guide BB-8 with your smartphone or tablet. It responds and will react to your voice. They also loved how his head would pop off if they directed him into a wall. (We are talking 9 year olds after all!) Parents liked that it came with a well designed charging base to sit in - charging is via USB cable (included).” It’s priced at $149.99.

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Disney Infinity Star Wars 3.0 Starter Pack. Although The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio officials were reluctant to recommend video games over other types of toys, they did acknowledge the creativity involved with teens and tweens playing Disney Infinity. Disney Infinity has challenged popular Nintendo’s Skylanders in the video game arena since it debuted three years ago. Each year’s edition features new collectible character figures and unique opportunities to for the on-screen characters to interact with others in the Disney universe, such as Pixar favorites and Marvel superheroes. To read more about the Star Wars Starter Pack, see my previous blog post. You must have one of these gaming console systems to play the Star Wars Starter Pack: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo WiiU, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The Star Wars Starter Pack retails for $64.99. Additional pieces are sold separately.

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Disney Descendants Signature Dolls. The Toy Insider ranks these dolls modeled after the characters in the popular Disney Channel movie “Descendants” among the most popular gifts for elementary-school children ages 6 and older. That’s certainly not a stretch considering the movie was the network’s second-most-watched movie of all time. “Descendants” is based in the premise that the Disney villains (and some heroes) had children. The main characters – Jay, Evie, Carlos and Mal – are the offspring of Jafar, the Evil Queen, Cruella de Vil and Maleficent, respectively. The group is granted permission by the benevolent teenage son of King Adam and Queen Belle to leave the remote Isle of the Lost and attend prep school with the Disney heroes' kids. This, of course, leads to a battle of good versus evil set amidst the backdrop of typical teenage angst. The dolls come with an outfit, a locket and a sticker. Prices start at $19.99.

Disney’s Frozen toys. Some parents may feel the toy market is saturated with Frozen toys, and there is some truth to that. The Toy Industry Association gave The Walt Disney Company its 2015 Property of the Year award for Frozen because it had “had the greatest success spreading its brand or property throughout the industry while generating interest and excitement.” So while adults may be wishing they could let the movie go, kids are not willing to say goodbye to its engaging characters. And they won’t have to with a sequel on the horizon. Frozen toys are available at most major retailers, and Amazon.com has a sale on them that ends today (Dec. 3).

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Cinderella Castle for Walt Disney World Monorail Play Set. When I was at Once Upon a Toy store this week, I noticed that a new piece was being introduced and was curious because my son has been collecting monorail play sets for more than a decade. The box showed Cinderella Castle – smaller than the popular play set that has been sold at the resort for years. I wondered why the folks at Disney would want to introduce another Cinderella Castle, so I asked a cast member if she could open the box and let me see the toy. She was happy to do so, and I have to say I was disappointed. For $60, it’s basically just a statue. The castle does not open, the monorail does not travel through or around it, and the castle does not have any special effects. From what I can tell, the sole purpose of the piece is to be a model of the castle because the larger Cinderella Castle has been discontinued. In its place, Disney is now selling a pink castle that is supposed to represent all the Disney Parks castles worldwide. I don’t particularly like either toy, but they are the only choices if you are looking for a castle piece for your monorail set. And although I’m not thrilled with the new castle toys, I do recommend the Walt Disney World and Disneyland monorail sets. My son has gotten years of enjoyment from it, and I would imagine plenty of other children would enjoy reliving happy vacation memories.

Looking for more Disney toy ideas? DisneyStore.com is unveiling its "12 Most Wished for Gifts" every day through Dec. 12 on the website and the Disney Store Instagram account.



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December 8, 2015

Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter the dolphin, hosts holiday mini-camps

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For many of us, our furry pets are like family, and we include them in our Christmas celebrations with stockings, presents and holiday sweaters. But Florida residents and visitors can help marine life celebrate the season, too. I’ve written about SeaWorld Orlando’s Christmas Celebration, and today I’d like to tell you about how kids can get in the spirit at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter the dolphin.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium hosts Holiday Hoopla camps from Dec. 21-23 or Dec. 28-30. Campers also can choose to attend for a single day. Each day starts at 8:30 a.m. and goes until 4 p.m.

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The official description of the camps is as follows: "Join us as we learn all about our Florida marine life and their cold water cousins through fun-filled interactions with some of Clearwater Marine Aquarium's resident animals. Discover how blubber and fur work to keep animals warm, prepare treats to lift our rescued animals' holiday spirit and spend time out on the water, seeing animal adaptations in action. Tour behind-the-scenes areas, participate in a fish feeding session, play educational games and make crafts, as we compare animal adaptations here in Florida and in the coldest regions of the world. Have a Holly Jolly holiday full of fun at Clearwater Marine Aquarium!"

The three-day price is $175 for members and $195 for non-members. Single-day prices are $75 for members and $90 for non-members. At the time this blog was published, there was availability in both camps. Participants must be at least 5 years old. You can register on the Clearwater Marine Aquarium website.

Can’t attend a holiday camp in Florida? You can help the residents of Clearwater Marine Aquarium have a happy holiday by shopping in the online store, where all purchases help the organization’s mission of rescue, rehabilitation and release of marine wildlife. The store has introduced new merchandise for the holidays, including special “Dolphin Tale” play sets, clothing and plush animals.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium is just a 90-minute drive from Orlando. Whether you're a local resident looking for a little different holiday experience for the family this year or an out-of-state visitor who has never been this close to Winter's home, the holiday mini-camps are good reason to take a road trip.



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December 10, 2015

Coping with crowds at Walt Disney World for Christmas and New Year's weeks

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The busiest time of the entire year at Walt Disney World – the week before Christmas and the week before New Year’s Day -- is quickly approaching. And although being in a Disney theme park during the holidays is truly magical, it is also extremely crowded. So, it’s more important than ever to have a strategy and backup plans so that you don’t end up feeling like the Grinch when the crowds seem overwhelming.

Here are some tips for managing your expectations and coping with the crowds at Christmas:

** Know that the Magic Kingdom is likely to be the most crowded of the four parks at Walt Disney World on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve and be prepared for long lines and wait times. More than a decade ago, my husband and I spent Christmas Day at Magic Kingdom with relatives who could only visit that day, and we waited in some three-hour queues!

** Because of the Magic Kingdom’s popularity during this time of the year, it often reaches capacity in the morning, especially on Dec. 25 and 31. The park is closed to incoming guests in phases, and guests with one-day tickets arriving for the first time that day are among the first to be turned away. Guests who are re-entering the park, hopping from another park, have reservations, are staying at a Disney resort or are annual passholders increase their chances of being allowed back in.

** Be sure to book and use your FastPass+ selections for each day. This guarantees you’ll have a much shorter wait for at least three attractions, which will cut down on the frustration of long lines. After the initial three FastPass+ selections are used, guests can visit kiosks in the park to add additional selections for available space on attractions.

** Consider making dining reservations for table-service restaurants. This could be a welcome respite from the crowds that certainly will extend into the counter-service restaurants. Many experienced Disney World vacationers may laugh at this statement; after all, they booked their dining reservations for the holidays six months ago. It’s true that many, if not most, places may appear full. However, guests must cancel 24 hours beforehand if their plans change to avoid a $10 per person fee. So, be sure to check the reservation system a day or two before your desired date to see if a table has opened up.

** Even with dining reservations firmly booked, pack some snacks and bottled water to have on hand. This is especially important for families who have young children who will not be able to wait in long lines for snack vendors. Walt Disney World allows guests to bring in most foods and beverages -- except items in glass containers (not counting baby food) and alcohol.

** Give yourself plenty of time to secure a spot for holiday entertainment. The same Christmas parade, fireworks and stage shows that are offered during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party are shown in the Magic Kingdom during normal operating hours during the peak two-week holiday period. It’s an added value to your ticket, but everyone else wants to experience this entertainment, too.

** Finally, recognize that when the Walt Disney World parks are this crowded, you will not be able to see and do everything. Managing your expectations will help set the tone for the day. Take time to explore lesser-known attractions and take breaks from the crowds and weather as needed. Just don’t leave the park unless you want to risk not be allowed back in!

Here's a video taken during the week between Christmas and New Year's:



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December 12, 2015

What's new with this year's Disney Parks televised Christmas special

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In just two weeks, the annual “Disney Parks Unforgettable Christmas Celebration” will air on ABC on Christmas morning. This is the 32nd year for the Christmas special, which has undergone several changes, both in the production and the final television show. I experienced some of what’s new myself when I attended the taping at Walt Disney World, and Disney also has revealed other details.

For the first time in recent memory, the special was filmed only at Walt Disney World in Orlando. In other years, performances also were filmed at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and the show offered segments from each coast, leading viewers to think they were seeing what was actually happening in Disney Parks on Christmas morning. That may make some of you chuckle, but until the early 1990s, the Disney Christmas special really was filmed live on Christmas Day.

The Christmas special also has undergone quite a few name changes, but for decades it was called the “Walt Disney World Christmas Day Parade.” This year’s moniker, “Disney Parks Unforgettable Christmas Celebration,” encompasses all the Disney properties worldwide and introduces the new marketing campaign, “Unforgettable Happens Here.” The theme is carried out in the show in several ways, according to a Walt Disney World press release:

** Real-life stories of three families whose personal connection to Disney Parks will make their Christmas dreams come true.

** Magical memories from past Disney Christmas shows of yesteryear.

** Beloved Disney Park moments shared by actors and actresses from both classic and current Disney films.

But when the special was filming at Walt Disney World for four days in November, what guests wanted to experience were the musical performances. My 13-year-old son and I were among those who joined the crowds one day to hear Jason Derulo and Ariana Grande, and I was surprised by some of the differences since the last time I had attended the parade taping.

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First, although the official tickets to be in the audience were only offered to cast members, Disney made it clear that day guests and annual passholders were welcome to join the audience spots as space permitted. My son and I arrived shortly after the Magic Kingdom opened at 9 a.m., and we had no problem finding a spot at the front of the hub by Cinderella Castle. As fellow guests got tired and left the area, we moved forward until we were only about five people back from the stage during Ariana Grande’s last song. This was a much different experience than when we attended performances by Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers many years ago. Those were so jam-packed, you could hardly walk around the crowds, let alone find a spot if you didn’t have a ticket.

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Many of this year’s performers were chosen to sing their interpretations of Disney classics from the “We Love Disney” album, along with a mix of Christmas favorites. They were accompanied by Grammy Award-winning musician David Foster. The lineup includes the following artists (with descriptions from the official press release):

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** Jason Derulo shakes up this year’s parade with his rendition of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” – available on the “We Love Disney” album.

** International superstar, Ariana Grande pays tribute to the Greek demi-god, Hercules with the Disney favorite “Zero to Hero,” also available on the “We Love Disney” album, along with her latest single, “Focus.”

** Grammy-winning artist, Seal dazzles parade spectators with his interpretation of “This Christmas” and new hit, “Every Time I’m With You.”

** Country music legend, Reba McEntire sings her original song, “Going Out Like That” and the popular Christmas tune, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

** Breakout musical artist, Andy Grammer delights the crowd with medley of “Honey I’m Good” and his new single “Good to be Alive,” along with the iconic Christmas song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

** Rising pop star, Charlie Puth adds Christmas cheer with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and his own single, “One Call Away.”

** “Should’ve Been Us” singer, Tori Kelly spreads Disney magic with the beloved classic “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas” – available on the “We Love Disney” album – and the holiday favorite, “Winter Wonderland.”

** Soulful singer, Charles Perry jazzes up the festivities with a “World of My Own/Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat” medley and his own spin on the famous Christmas duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

** The cast of the Disney Channel Original Movie, “Descendants,” Dove Cameron, Cameron Boyce, Booboo Stewart, and Sofia Carson, pay tribute to Disney’s most infamous villains with “Rotten to the Core.”

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The “Disney Parks Unforgettable Christmas Celebration” is again hosted by Robin Roberts of ABC’s “Good Morning America” with correspondent reports from Jesse Palmer, Janel Parrish from “Pretty Little Liars” and Stitch. The special airs at 10 a.m. ET on ABC. Look for my son and I in the crowd by Cinderella Castle!



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December 15, 2015

The Force Awakens on Disney Cruise Line with Star Wars-themed spaces, activities

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This is the week Star Wars fans have been waiting ages for, and it’s finally arrived. The seventh film, “The Force Awakens,” hits theaters Friday, so it’s inevitable that conversations, TV specials and news outlets this week will focus on the Star Wars phenomenon. And, of course, Disney – which owns the franchise – is making the most of its popularity across the theme-park giant’s properties.

Recently, we have heard a lot about the Star Wars additions at Disney Parks, but what about Disney Cruise Line? Earlier this year, officials announced the ways in which the franchise would be incorporated on the fleet’s two largest ships, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, which are based at Port Canaveral, Fla.

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In November, the Dream debuted its Star Wars additions after a three-week dry-dock period. The lucky recipients? Kids ages 3 to 12 who visit the kids’ activity center, Oceaneer Club. This huge space has four areas that immerse children in separate Disney stories and characters -- and one has just become “Star Wars: Millennium Falcon.” As the title would suggest, this area allows kids to step into a life-size Millennium Falcon and pilot it, something that no doubt makes many of their parents jealous.

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The play area also features a version of the Jedi Training Academy experience at Walt Disney World that invites young Jedi hopefuls to learn lightsaber moves from a Jedi Master. They then can face off against Darth Vader. In addition, kids can chose to participate in Star Wars-themed crafts, games and activities or watch episodes from the Disney XD animated series, “Star Wars Rebels,” on a large screen.

Another first for a Disney Cruise Line ship is the Dream’s installation of a Disney Infinity video game room, which offers unique content. This year’s version of Disney Infinity focuses on Star Wars (of course).

Reactions online from members of the media and other passengers who have observed the new Star Wars offerings on the Disney Dream have been overwhelmingly positive. Both the play area and the Disney Infinity room are exclusive to the Dream.

Passengers on the Disney Fantasy will enjoy new Star Wars entertainment, rather than refurbished spaces, beginning in January. Eight cruises early in 2016 will offer a Star Wars Day at Sea. Each daylong celebration features a deck party and fireworks; insiders from the Star Wars galaxy who will meet fans and sign autographs; a Star Wars-themed nightclub; character meet-and-greets; screenings of Star Wars movies; Jedi Training Experience and other kids’ activities.

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Because the first Star Wars Day at Sea has not taken place yet, we do not have any feedback. However, it’s worth noting that the Star Wars activities on the Fantasy are designed for all ages, which likely would appeal to fans more. The Star Wars areas on the Dream are reserved for kids in the Oceaneer Club – except during the open houses, which are open to all passengers.

Would Star Wars experiences influence your decision to book a Disney Cruise Line vacation? Tell us in the comments, please.



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December 18, 2015

Enjoy different experiences at Walt Disney World, SeaWorld when temperatures drop this weekend

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Central Floridians and those visiting the theme parks will get a taste of winter – a Florida winter, that is – this weekend when temperatures are expected to dip into the 40s and 50s overnight. Locals (like me) already are planning which boots and sweaters to break out before the weather reverts back to daytime averages in the 80s. But whether you’re a resident or a visitor, this weekend offers an opportunity to experience the theme parks in different ways. Here are some ideas:

** Drink plenty of hot chocolate or warm coffee. Although this might not be appealing for most of the year in balmy Florida, this weekend will be the perfect time. SeaWorld has the best deal for hot chocolate, with its refillable souvenir mug. It works the same way as its drink cups -- after a one-time purchase of the cup, all refills are 99 cents. During SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration, the Christmas market sells a number of specialty hot chocolates with various flavors. At Disney World, coffee lovers can get their Starbucks fix in all the parks and Disney Springs. The popular chain also sells delicious hot chocolates.

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

** Holiday sleigh rides take place every night in December at Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Cuddle with your loved ones while enjoying some of the Christmas decorations and outdoor beauty of the area. The horse-drawn carriages depart from Crockett's Tavern near Pioneer Hall each night from 5 to 10 p.m. Each carriage holds four adults or two adults and three small children for the 25-minute rides throughout the property. Cost is $79 for the carriage, which can be reserved up to 180 days in advance at 407-WDW-PLAY.

** Have you ever wanted to try “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” as the classic Christmas song describes? You can at Walt Disney World! Guests are invited to have a complimentary tasting of the warm chestnuts at the Grand Floridian. Cast members are heating the chestnuts outside the lobby doors on the first floor. Inside, you can purchase them at the sweets shop inside the life-size gingerbread house.

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

** Need an excuse to shop? Now’s the time to buy that sweatshirt you’ve been eyeing. Or maybe the “purchase with purchase” deal is a blanket you actually will use.

** Finally, this should go without saying, but just in case: Steer clear of water rides, such as Splash Mountain or Journey to Atlantis, or the Splash Zone at the Shamu show. These places may be open but do you really want to spend the rest of your day shivering from wet, soggy clothes?



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December 19, 2015

Last chance for Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin's unique Christmas experiences

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Orlando visitors and locals looking for a Christmas experience unlike others at our renowned theme parks might want to check out the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resort. They’ll leave with unique photos and memories of a Florida holiday.

Guests are invited to “vacation with Santa & Mrs. Claus” while they rest up before the big night, Christmas Eve. What’s notable about this experience is that the pair is dressed in their tropical vacation clothes, and their tiki hut is decorated in Florida kitsch with pink flamingos and palm trees. Plus, their elf Kandy Kane is available to lend a hand and strike a pose. Cool photos, huh?

Santa and Mrs. Claus make appearances on select nights at the resort, and they only have two more dates left: tonight (Dec. 19) and Sunday (Dec. 20).

The fun begins at 6 p.m. when Mrs. Claus chooses a family to help her light the poinsettia tree in the Dolphin lobby. Then she invites guests to join her on the causeway, where the meet-and-greets start at 6:15 p.m. and last until 8 p.m.

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While outside enjoy the lighted palm trees, which “dance” in a musical light display every 10 minutes. Santa’s Dancing Lights Spectacular takes place through Dec. 31.

Families can begin their evenings early with complimentary cookie decorating in the Swan lobby at 5 p.m. This activity is also available both days. Nearby, guests can see an amazing chocolate Santa sculpture hand-crafted by two-time World Pastry Chef, Laurent Branlard. It features chocolate Santa sitting in his chair; a 7-foot tall, 400-pound chocolate nutcracker; chocolate fireplace; chocolate Christmas tree; and chocolate toy train. And it’s all completely edible!

Want to get in the holiday spirit even earlier in the day? Children are invited to visit the Holiday Hideout (on the first floor of the Dolphin near the central elevators ) between 12 and 4 p.m. for crafts, video games, board games and more. Children must be accompanied by an adult; this is not a babysitting service.

You don’t have to be staying at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin to participate in the above Christmas activities. You will have to pay to park, which is $18 for self-parking and $26 for valet service.

Families staying at the resort can request an Elf Tuck-In on Christmas Eve. An elf will come to your room to read a bedtime story and tuck in the children. The elf brings cookies and milk, a holiday plush toy, a magic key for Santa and a story book. This service costs $59 for one child and $25 for each additional child, and reservations are required. A service charge of 20 percent also is added.

The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin also offers continuous holiday movies on its in-room TVs and milk and cookies during the holiday movies through room service. And isn't that as much a holiday tradition as opening presents?



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December 29, 2015

What you need to know about American Girl's 2016 Girl of the Year Lea Clark

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She’s a mystery to thousands of girls who desperately want to know everything about her. What is her name and what does she look like? And equally as important: What makes her special and what are her talents? Her full identity is not unveiled until Jan. 1 each year, though American Girl teases its customers with clues leading up to the big reveal of its Girl of the Year doll each year.

The first video hint was posted on AmericanGirl.com on Sunday, and it showed Agoverseasfan (the YouTube handle for an unnamed girl who features all aspects of the dolls on her popular channel that has almost 1 million views). The hint revealed the doll’s name – Lea Clark – and her image. This hint confirmed what fans have speculated about since details about the doll leaked a month ago.

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Each American Girl of the Year comes with a book that tells her story. For Lea Clark, it’s “Lea Dives In” by Lisa Yee. The summary on the back cover of the paperback posted on Amazon.com gives us insight in the doll’s story: “Lea is ready for adventure on a family trip to Brazil, where her big brother Zac is studying the rainforest. She can’t wait to see the ocean – but quickly realizes she’d rather take photos of it than swim in it. Disappointed in herself, Lea longs to show Zac that she’s as bold and brave as he is. She finds inspiration in a new friend, who encourages her to embrace the excitement and beauty that Brazil offers. But when the fun turns to danger during a hike, Lea must prove to Zac – and herself – that she has what it takes to face adventure head on.”

From the images on the book cover, it appears that turtles play a big part in Lea’s beach adventures. Another promotional video for the 2016 Girl of the year shows a tween squealing her excitement while holding a snorkel and a camera in each hand – presumably more clues about what happens in the story and merchandise that could be offered. And websites dedicated to American Girl news have posted what they claim are photos of Lea’s outfits that will be sold initially. These unofficial images show clothes with a tropical flair, including an outfit specifically for hiking in the rainforest. Additional video hints will be posted on AmericanGirl.com this week.

Want to get your hands on the first batch of Lea Clark dolls? They will be for sale online and in stores on New Year’s Day. The advantage of going to a store to make your purchase is that participating stores, such as the one in Orlando, will have themed activities and crafts and a Lea Clark giveaway only available during the debut events. Orlando’s American Girl store is located at Florida Mall, close to the theme parks and other tourist attractions. The Girl of the Year events are from noon to 4 p.m. Jan. 1, 2 and 3 and are free and open to the public.

The Orlando American Girl store opens at 10 a.m. each day, which is when the Girl of the Year sales begin. Last year, there was an unprecedented number of customers at the Orlando location, and the dolls were sold out within a couple hours each day, according to store employees who had worked at other Girl of the Year launch events. This year, the store is better prepared for such crowds, managers told me. They do expect customers to line up outside the store before it opens, but they do not anticipate shortages of the doll, they said.

Are you planning to attend or have you attended a Girl of the Year welcoming party at the American Girl store in your city? Tell us about it in the comments.



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December 30, 2015

Making last-minute plans to celebrate New Year's Eve at Walt Disney World

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You might think that I’ve tried everything there is to experience at Walt Disney World because I’ve lived in Orlando for more than 20 years and I write about theme parks. But that’s not the case. In fact, my family and I are going to cross something off our collective bucket list on Thursday.

We have decided to spend New Year’s Eve at the Magic Kingdom for the first time, and I’m alternating between bursts of excitement and trepidation. My husband hasn’t had a New Year’s Eve off work in at least 12 years, so we decided to seize this rare opportunity and make some family memories. But I have to admit being a little leery of the crowds. Although we all can navigate the Magic Kingdom like our back yard, it’s been many years since we were there on such a heavily trafficked day. Plus, this year I am dealing with a knee injury that has really slowed me down – so much so that this will be only the second day in December that I have visited the parks, even though we have annual passes. Still, I know this can be a fun experience with a little preparation and the right mindset.

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These days, advance planning can go a long way toward an enjoyable day at Walt Disney World. That preparation takes two forms – making reservations as soon as possible for dining, attractions and other entertainment and knowing what to bring with you to the parks to maximize your comfort. Our ability to spend New Year’s Eve at the Magic Kingdom was not certain until just recently, which is very last-minute in the world of Disney reservations. I wondered if we’d be able to secure any dining reservations or even FastPasses.

The first step for our family was to purchase one-day tickets for my husband and children whose passes do not allow them admission on one of the busiest days of the year. I linked the tickets to our My Disney Experience account so we could book FastPasses, and … the system would not allow them to reserve any attractions. I persevered, thinking that couldn’t be correct. When I called the Disney World passholder hotline, I was transferred to the Internet Help Desk, where a wonderful cast member worked with me for quite some time. She was able to do two things I could not: She made sure the one-day tickets were “prioritized” so the system understood my family members were not blocked out as they normally would be and she assisted me in finding FastPasses that would work for my family because the inventory already was almost gone for New Year’s Eve. Although we didn’t get our first choices on times and attractions, I was just happy to know we have three rides where we won’t have to stand in hours-long queues.

Next, dining reservations. I know, I know: Fat chance finding anything at this late date, right? It’s true most table-service restaurants have long filled their reservations for this popular holiday, but guests who need or want to cancel dining reservations without a penalty must do so the day before. That means if your timing is right, you could luck into a spot. With some perseverance of calling and checking online at various times, we secured an early lunch at Be Our Guest. We’ll continue to check for a dinner location because I think a break from the crowds will be welcome on a long day in the park. If nothing becomes available, there are plenty of counter-service restaurants.

On to packing … Magic Kingdom traditionally reaches capacity and closes (and reopens) to guests on New Year’s Eve. The park is closed to incoming guests in phases, and guests with one-day tickets arriving for the first time that day are among the first to be turned away. Guests who are re-entering the park, hopping from another park, have reservations, are staying at a Disney resort or are annual passholders increase their chances of being allowed back in. With that in mind, we are going to heed the general advice of arriving early and staying late.

For such a long day, we plan to rent a locker (which we normally don’t do) to stash extras so we don’t have to haul them around all day. I expect to bring a small cooler for drinks; lots of snacks so we can avoid those lines and cut down on expenses if we already are buying two meals; raincoats because there is a 30 percent chance of rain; possibly extra clothes in case we get wet or just want a change because of the unseasonably warm weather; and a blanket to sit on for fireworks. What else would you bring?

I’ll be posting all day and night on social media, so please follow along with the links below. Happy New Year to everyone!



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About December 2015

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

November 2015 is the previous archive.

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