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July 29, 2017

Welcome back, Disney World passholders! Don't miss these experiences

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This week, it was announced that the summer blackout for Silver and Weekday Select passholders would be lifted early. As a result, those passholders can re-enter Walt Disney World parks on Tuesday, Aug. 1. If this applies to you, here’s a look at what you may have missed this summer and what you can look forward to during the month of August.

Animal Kingdom
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Of course, the big news this summer was Pandora The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom. This new area of the park, which officially opened on May 27, is based on James Cameron’s blockbuster, but you don’t have to have seen the movie to appreciate and enjoy Pandora. The centerpiece is a thrill ride – Flight of Passage – that allows a guest to ride on the back of a banshee. There also is a gentle boat ride, Na’vi River Journey, that takes passengers through the bioluminescent forest. A new restaurant, Satu’li Canteen, offers healthy and interesting “native” food. (I wrote extensively about Pandora at the start of the summer, so please click the links for more details.)

Hollywood Studios
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Aug. 13: Last day for Great Movie Ride. Located inside an iconic reproduction of the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Great Movie Ride is one of Hollywood Studios’ original rides from when it opened in 1989. It’s a 22-minute journey into the history of the movies with a cast of Audio-Animatronic characters re-creating memorable movie moments. The Great Movie Ride is being replaced with a new attraction, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, which will be the first-ever Mickey-themed ride-through attraction.

Aug. 27: Last day for “The Music of Pixar,” a celebration of the music, animation and characters of Pixar films. This show was introduced just for the summer 2017 season. It takes place in the Theater of the Stars. Featuring fun character moments and animated scenes on large video screens, a full orchestra performs selections of the soundtracks from films such as "Toy Story," "Up," "Finding Nemo," "Finding Dory," "The Incredibles" and "Cars."

Disney Movie Magic, a 10-minute pre-show to Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular, debuted at the end of May. It takes place about 30 minutes before the main show, in the same place – on the façade of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It features scenes from Disney’s hits including the Indiana Jones and the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series. No end date has been announced.

New character experiences also were added at Hollywood Studios for the summer, and no end date for these meet-and-greets has been announced. Cruz Ramirez from “Cars 3” joined the cast, as well as Star Lord and Baby Groot and BB-8 in the Star Wars Launch Bay. AllEars.Net founder Deb Wills visited all the new characters in one special day. Read about her experiences here.

Epcot
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Aug. 13: Say goodbye to Ellen’s Energy Adventure if you haven’t already. This is the last day for the attraction, which will be replaced by a new E-ticket attraction based on the action-packed world of Guardians of the Galaxy. It will be completed in time for the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World in 2021.

Aug. 13: Also on this day, something new will debut. Mission: SPACE launches its brand-new Green Mission will take guests on a stunning tour around the Earth, and an updated Orange Mission will soon make the trip to Mars even more spectacular.

Aug. 31: Epcot International Food & Wine Festival officially begins and lasts 75 days until November 13. AllEars Editor Debra Koma attended two previews, which you can read about here and here. See which if your favorites are returning and the new dishes you can sample.

Magic Kingdom
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The popular “Wishes” fireworks show bowed out on May 11, and the new “Happily Ever After” show took over on May 12. I was sad the old show was being retired, but I look forward to seeing the new version – especially after reading so many glowing reports from visitors who, like me, were sentimental about “Wishes.”

Walt Disney World passholders, have fun this week with the new-to-you experiences!





July 15, 2017

Celebrate Christmas in July at Walt Disney World

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I always thought it would be fun to have a “Christmas in July” party, but who really wants to drag all the decorations down from the attic a second time each year? Now you don’t have to because Disney Springs is hosting holiday events this month.

Beginning today (July 15), and continuing through July 30, the Marketplace side of Disney Springs will be spreading holiday cheer with merchandise, entertainment and treats.

Here’s what to look for:

** Santa will be meeting and taking photos with guests, but it won’t be in his chalet that usually appears in November. Instead, he will be dressed in his summer vacation attire at Disney’s Days of Christmas each day from 1 to 10 p.m.

** Of course, Disney’s Days of Christmas sells Christmas merchandise year-round so you can get a start on your shopping or decorating for your home.

** A DJ will be spinning Christmas beats.

** Enjoy Your Face will add some sparkle with holiday face painting designs.

** The Disney Springs fountains will be decked for the season.

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** Don’t forget about the permanent holiday-themed Fab Five statue tucked behind Disney’s Days of Christmas that makes a great backdrop for Christmas card photos.

** Hot chocolate may be a staple at Starbucks, but the popular coffee bar also will be serving its holiday-themed drinks during the two-week celebration.

** At Goofy’s Candy Company, guests will find peppermint bark, gingerbread cookies, Santa Mickey and Minnie specialty apples (my favorite!) and krispy treats.

** Head over to AristoCrepes to indulge in a gingerbread crepe.

** Need a drink after all this holiday cheer? Dockside Margaritas is serving Snowflake Margaritas.

Admission and parking in two garages at Disney Springs are free.

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If you want to keep that holiday spirit going, perhaps a stop by the Winter Summerland miniature golf courses is in order. The facility is located near the entrance to the Blizzard Beach water park.

Winter Summerland has two 18-hole courses: the Snow side, where Santa and his elves seem to be getting ready for Christmas, and the Sand side, which shows how they spend his off-season.

Guests who choose to play the Winter Course will see their golf balls travel up and down ski slopes, through a campfire, into an ice hockey game, past a squirty Snowman, and even up a peppermint twist. Along the way to the North Hole, some of your favorite Disney characters can be spotted saluting you. After sinking the last putt on Hole 18, you'll get a special greeting from Santa Claus, thanks to the WinterNet and a computer.

On the Summer Course, expect to see a beach theme for Santa and his elves. Make your golf ball slip past the camper and roasting turkey without disturbing its residents. Hop over a creek, past the opening clam shells, around the sand buckets and surfboards, through a loop, over a sleeping Santa's belly and into a gigantic sand castle.

You can't go wrong with either course. Take a break in between rounds at Santa's "Winterbago," a converted trailer that is home to the starter booth, gift shop and snack stand. There are lots of shaded picnic tables nearby, and cast members even have hula hoops for the young and young-at-heart.

If you're looking for a unusual photo for this year's Christmas cards, be sure to bring your camera. There are so many fun backdrops -- beginning with a big red sleigh that guests can sit inside and the icon Santa on a surfboard holding his golf clubs.

Winter Summerland is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Prices are $14 plus tax for adults and $12 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9 for 18 holes.





July 6, 2017

Disney's Blizzard Beach to host Club Penguin Island event

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Fans of Club Penguin Island will want to visit Blizzard Beach at Walt Disney World this month for a special day dedicated to them.

On Saturday, July 29, guests at the water park will have the chance to participate in lots of Club Penguin Island-themed activities, such as a penguin splash competition in the Ski Patrol area, coloring contests and a ‘snowball’ toss with water balloons, according to the Disney Parks Blog. The site promises more details will be released before the event.

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My children, who are now almost 13 and 15, spent a couple of their tween years enthralled with Club Penguin, so news of this themed day brings up a little nostalgia for me, and I can’t help but think how fun it might be for old and new Club Penguin fans.

Disney acquired the popular kids virtual world, Club Penguin, in 2007, and just this year closed the original site and launched Club Penguin Island in its place.

The new Club Penguin Island is not unfamiliar to older users, however. It’s still a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), which means millions of users are playing at the same time. Penguins can friend each other, and if the requests are accepted, users can interact in a variety of ways, including messaging. Meanwhile, players embark on island quests, earn special rewards, and take on daily challenges to level up their penguins.

The big differences between the original and the new game are that Club Penguin Island now sports 3D graphics; it is only available on mobile devices; and it is primarily a subscription-based app. You can download and access Club Penguin for free, but most of the content is only available to paid users at $4.99 per month.

When Club Penguin Island launched in March, Disney sought to reassure parents that safeguards remain in place because the game is targeted at kids and tweens:

“Club Penguin Island maintains a strong commitment to providing a secure environment for kids, with a new safety moderation system that includes a chat filter. The updated chat function features unique emojis and 3D animations, and personal expression is easier than ever with a fashion-forward penguin customization system. Players will also have access to familiar reporting tools, which lets them self-moderate the community.”

Want to revisit a childhood favorite or help bring to life the online world your child wishes he or she could step into? Tickets for Blizzard Beach admission on the day of the Club Penguin Island event are $62 for adults and children ages 3 to 8 pay $56.





May 9, 2017

You CAN make Disney's Mickey waffles at home

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If you’ve visited Walt Disney World, chances are you enjoyed a Mickey waffle for breakfast at some point. And if you did, I’m guessing you fell in love with the iconic food, like so many of us have.

The folks at Walt Disney World know how beloved their Mickey waffles are and have expanded the number of locations where they can be found. For years, the only way to see those magical waffles appear on your breakfast plate was to dine at a table-service restaurant. Now, however, Mickey waffles are on the menus at many quick-service restaurants, too. In fact, I’d say it’s probably more unusual to find a restaurant on Disney property that doesn’t serve Mickey waffles than one that does. (Still, to be sure, you can check all Walt Disney World menus on AllEars.Net.)

But what happens when vacation ends and it’s time to head home, where Mickey waffles are not as readily available?

For years, my family has tried to replicate that unique deliciousness in our kitchen. We have gone through three waffle irons in the process! We all have been happy with the results, though the waffles were not quite the same as the ones served at Walt Disney World. They were not quite as thick or crispy, which I think we can attribute to both the waffle iron and the waffle mix.

Now, however, we have discovered that we can buy the actual waffle mix that is used at Walt Disney World: Carbon’s Golden Malted Pancake & Waffle Flour. This patented mix, which was created 80 years ago, is made of high-quality wheat, flour and cornmeal blended with premium malt and natural flavorings.

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My family and I tried making Mickey waffles with Carbon’s Golden Malted Pancake & Waffle Flour this past weekend, and we definitely noticed a difference in the finished product. It started with my son walking into the kitchen saying, “It smells like Walt Disney World in here!” The Golden Malted mix also created a crunchier waffle than we were used to in the same waffle iron that we always use. That texture and the sweet flavor definitely created Mickey waffles that were the closest we have come to what is served at Walt Disney World.

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Making the waffles was simple, too, and not any more involved than other mixes we have used. Here’s what you will need:

1 cup Golden Malted Flour mix

1 egg

5 ounces water

2 Tablespoons melted butter

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Directions:

Beat eggs and liquid together.

Add flour and mix well.

Stir in melted butter and mix thoroughly.

Ladle onto hot waffle iron and remove when golden brown.

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Carbon’s Golden Malted Pancake & Waffle Flour can be purchased online. A 33-ounce canister normally costs $14.99, but it is 25 percent off right now during the Mother's Day sale. Golden Malted has a number of products and if you place an order that totals more than $49, shipping is free.

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DISCLAIMER: I received a sample of Carbon’s Golden Malted Pancake & Waffle Flour for the purpose of reviewing it. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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April 1, 2017

Walt Disney World tests virtual queues for water parks Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon

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You didn’t really think Walt Disney World would let Universal Orlando get a leg up by introducing new technology at its water park that opens in time for the summer tourism season, did you?

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Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay is, of course, getting a lot of buzz because it’s the newest water park in town – and because we have been able to actually watch the construction progress from Interstate 4.

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But it’s also introducing an industry first for a water park. Universal is touting its use of technology as a way to enhance guests’ experience. TapuTapu wearable bands will allow guests to enter virtual queues and avoid physical queues for the rides. Sounds a lot like Disney’s MagicBands, right? When the TapuTapu bands were announced, people wondered why Disney World was not using the technology it was the first to develop to compete at its Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks.

Well, this week the Orlando Sentinel reported that Walt Disney World is, in fact, testing a virtual reservation system at its two water parks through April 7. (No word yet on when it will go into effect full-time.) The attractions that are testing the new system are the Downhill Double Dipper, Slush Gusher and Summit Plummet at Blizzard Beach and Miss Adventure Falls at Typhoon Lagoon.

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The Sentinel reported that the system at Walt Disney World worked this way during the test: “The procedure resembled one of Disney’s old-school FastPass attractions. Visitors arrived at the base of the Double Dipper and were given the option of receiving a 15-minute time frame to return. The time was printed on a card with a rubber band attached for putting around guests’ wrists. At the appointed time, riders returned to the attraction to ride. The card warned that there would be a ‘moderate wait.’ The system was not connected to Disney MagicBands, and reservations could not be made digitally through the My Disney Experience app.”

The virtual reservation systems at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando water parks are included in the regular admission prices. However, Universal also will offer Universal Express, which allows the visitor immediate front-of-the-line access for one time per ride, excluding the Krakatau Aqua Coaster. Pricing changes depending on the season and ranges from $24.99 to $49.99 per person. Guests also can purchase Universal Express Unlimited for $49.99 to $79.99 per person. It also excludes Krakatau.

Volcano Bay will open May 25. You can read more about all the attractions at the Pacific Isle-themed water park here.

Do you think the virtual reservation systems will enhance your experience at Orlando water parks? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.


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January 26, 2017

Tips for enjoying cold weather at SeaWorld Orlando, Walt Disney World

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Attention, theme park visitors: Floridians will be celebrating winter beginning Friday. That’s because Orlando temperatures actually are going to dip into the 60s during the day and into the 40s at night for an entire week. Break out the parkas, hats and gloves! And don’t forget the boots – we must seize this rare opportunity!

If you’re from a colder climate than our normally balmy Florida weather, I’m sure you’re shaking your head, but I hope you are chuckling along with us, too. I’m originally from Indiana, so I know what it’s like to be truly cold outside, but this change in weather is the closest we get to a change in seasons here in Orlando. Humor us! My children were born here in Central Florida so they view this next week as an opportunity to not only break out the winter clothes but to drink gallons of hot chocolate.

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In all seriousness, when the forecast calls for colder than normal weather here, there are some things that theme parks do differently – and you, the visitor, should take into account, too. I’ve updated my annual story to include suggestions from readers as well as new information from the theme parks. Here are some things to keep in mind:

** Water parks will close. Disney's Typhoon Lagoon already is not open to guests because of scheduled maintenance, and Disney's Blizzard Beach is slated to be closed Friday (Jan. 27) through Sunday (Jan.29) because of the anticipated cold weather. Guests who had planned to visit the Disney water park still can enjoy the adjacent Winter Summerland miniature golf course, though. Reader George suggests an alternative is to take your favorite beverage and relax in your hotel’s hot tub. Reader Craig suggests waiting a day after the water park reopens to go, if your vacation allows, because the water park can be busier than usual after a closure.

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

At SeaWorld Orlando, many of the marine animals already thrive in cooler waters, such as the orca whales, sea lions and dolphins, so these temperatures don't affect their performances. The shows will go on! You might want to skip the Splash Zone, though. And although the penguins in the Antarctica attraction reside in a climate-controlled area, guests just might feel like they've stepped onto the South Pole, too, no matter how chilly it might be outside. Reader NT3 suggests bringing (or buying) a blanket or towels from your hotel room to sit on for attractions and shows.

** Steer clear of water rides, such as Splash Mountain or Journey to Atlantis. These places may be open, but do you really want to spend the rest of your day shivering from wet, soggy clothes and hair? If they are on your bucket list, be sure to stash some extra clothes in a locker for afterward.

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** Seize the opportunity to drink plenty of hot chocolate or warm coffee in the theme parks. SeaWorld has the best deal for hot chocolate, with its refillable souvenir mug. It works the same way as its drink cups -- after a one-time purchase of the cup, all refills are a little more than a dollar each. (Pass members can apply their discount to the refill price.) At Disney World, coffee lovers can get their Starbucks fix at locations in each of the four theme parks and two stores at Disney Springs. Of course, Disney visitors can sip on hot chocolate that’s readily available, as well.

** When vacationers arrive at the theme parks, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement and the anticipation of their favorite attractions. But when it's cold, adjust your schedule accordingly. Plan to visit indoor attractions in the morning or evening, when temperatures are coolest. As the day warms up, spend more time outdoors for a more pleasurable experience. Also, know that some outdoor roller coasters may be affected by the cold weather, and operators also have to wait for the tracks to warm up for the coasters to perform correctly and safely.

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

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** Finally, the No. 1 tip from locals and seasoned visitors alike: Dress in layers for changing temperatures. You may very well be comfortable in shorts in the middle of the afternoon, but once the sun goes down and the wind begins whipping across the lakes, you’ll be longing for a jacket -- or at the very least, a sweatshirt. Lockers are relatively inexpensive if you want to bring extra clothes and not have to carry them around all day. As reader Ashley said, “How much fun are you going to have if you're freezing for a couple of hours?”



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December 22, 2016

Walt Disney World rolls out The Magic Is Endless marketing campaign

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Goodbye #UnforgettableHappensHere. Hello #MagicIsEndless. Disney Parks unveiled its new marketing campaign for 2017 in the fall, and the slogan already has appeared in TV ads and numerous promotional materials from The Walt Disney Co. Expect to see it highlighted in this week’s Disney Parks Christmas special, too.

“The Magic Is Endless” has been described by Disney as “There is a world, like no other world. Where the things we love never end. And smiles and laughter have no limits. You’ll find them in four amazing Theme Parks. Feel them in relaxing Resort hotels. And discover them in places you don’t even know exist yet.”

The campaign aims to zero in on making “endless” memories at Walt Disney World Resort – both in the expected places, such as the theme parks, and at the less-well-known experiences, such as Disney Princess makeovers at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

This message likely will be highlighted in the renamed television special, “The Disney Parks’ Magical Christmas Celebration.” In addition to the usual musical performances and Disney parade shown on Dec. 25, the production is expected to feature real-life stories of families who have experienced (or will experience) some Disney magic.

“The Magic Is Endless” has its own splash page on the Walt Disney World website, and it’s loaded with tools to help customers book their perfect vacation and start making those memories. It highlights the new 4-Park Magic Ticket, which gives the guest one admission to each of the four Walt Disney World theme parks for a total of four days. Tickets must be used within 14 days of first use or by May 26, 2017, and some blockout dates apply. The cost of the four-day ticket is $279 plus tax for ages 10 and older.

The page also points readers to other special offers, such as a package that includes the 4-Park Magic Ticket and four-night accommodations at select Walt Disney World Good Neighbor Hotels, starting at $1,675 for a family of four. The package price is valid for arrivals most nights from January 3 through April 5 and April 22 through May 22, 2017. Packages must be booked by March 5, 2017.



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December 17, 2016

How to survive the Christmas and New Year's crowds at Walt Disney World

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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 – begins this weekend. 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! (Epcot will be the second-most-crowded on New Year’s Eve.)

** 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 dining 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 (excluding 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. Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, Holiday Wishes fireworks and Mickey’s Most Merriest Celebration begin on Dec. 23. It’s an added value to your ticket, but everyone else wants to experience this entertainment, too.

** It's tough to keep little kids from melting down in long lines so plan ahead to keep them entertained. Electronics, such as a parent’s cell phone or other handheld gaming device, are worth their weight in gold. Download some children's apps ahead of time. Be sure to pack the cords, too, so you can recharge the devices if needed. (You also can buy portable rechargeable batteries in the theme parks.) Pull out your family's copy of Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World's Best Kept Secrets and see how many classic Mickey icons you can spot in the queue. Or tuck a new coloring book and crayons or word-search book and pen in your bag.

** 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!



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December 13, 2016

Here's where you can meet Santa Claus at Walt Disney World

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Santa Claus has been listening to wish lists for about a month now at Walt Disney Springs, and if you haven’t checked if you’re on the Naughty or the Nice List, what are you waiting for? You can find the Jolly Old Elf at various locations around the resort at different times.

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As is a long-standing tradition, Santa’s Chalet is stationed at the Marketplace at Disney Springs, the former Downtown Disney shopping and dining district. It’s located to the side of the stage, across from Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. There is no cost associated with Santa’s Chalet, and you are not obligated to buy Disney’s photos. Cast members will use your camera or cell phone to take photos, and professional photographers will capture the moment, as well. If you have purchased a Memory Maker package or have certain Walt Disney World annual passes, free downloads of the photos are available with your account.

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If not, the Disney PhotoPass prices are reasonable, compared with visiting Santa at many malls and events. I speak from a decade's worth of experience of meeting Mr. Claus when I say this. You can order a download of your favorite photo on My Disney Experience for the regular price of $15. Once you download the photo, you can make as many prints as you wish.

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Don’t be put off by the long wait times posted at Santa’s Chalet at Disney Springs. 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 for another two hours, you won't have to spend that time in a physical 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.

Santa Claus will be at the Disney Springs Chalet from noon to 10 p.m. daily through Dec. 24. Santa Goofy takes over Dec. 25 through 30 during the same hours.

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

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** 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.

** Hollywood Studios. Step inside Once Upon a Time to find Jolly Old Saint Nick greeting good girls and good boys in a glamorous area from 10 a.m. to closing (with some scheduled breaks, of course) through Dec. 24. If the wait is longer than 30 minutes, guests are given pagers that work along Sunset Boulevard so they can do other things besides standing in line while their spots are held in a virtual queue. This location is new for 2016.

** 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.

If he's not called back to the North Pole, Santa likely will visit most Walt Disney World hotel lobbies in the evening on Christmas Eve.



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November 8, 2016

Celebrity performances for Disney Christmas specials expected to tape at Walt Disney World this week

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This year, The Walt Disney Co. is giving fans two extra holiday television specials in November in addition to its traditional Christmas morning show – and taping begins this week at Walt Disney World.

Filming will take place beginning tomorrow (Nov. 9) through Sunday (Nov. 13) at all four Walt Disney World theme parks, according to multiple media outlets. The Christmas parade will be taped only at Disneyland in California, which means only musical performances and other segments will be recorded in Orlando. No dates for taping on the West Coast have been announced so far.

For about a decade now I have attended – and written about -- tapings of musical performances Walt Disney World that are seen in the Disney Parks special that airs on Christmas morning. Typically, performances take place in front of Cinderella Castle or on a stage set up in Town Square at the Magic Kingdom.

Walt Disney World used to invite various groups, such as passholders, sports volunteers and even the general public, to apply for free tickets to the tapings. In exchange, ticketholders agreed to be in the audience for a block of time. For the last several years, however, only cast members were eligible for the tickets, and that is the case again this year.

But even if you don't have one of the complimentary production tickets, you still may be able to take part in the tapings -- or at least see some of the acts. The Magic Kingdom, where many tapings take place, opens to the public at 8 a.m. on Nov. 9 to 13. Passholders and guests who pay admission may enter the park, and if there is room in the roped-off areas for the pre-selected audience -- which usually happens later in the afternoon -- they may be allowed to join cast members.

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Last year, my son and I arrived when the park opened and easily were able to join the crowd in front of Cinderella Castle to see a few performers, including Jason Derulo and Ariana Grande.

A word of warning: This is an actual television production, which means that songs are sung multiple times to get the desired images from the correct camera angle. For example, on one of Ariana’s takes, her mouse ears fell off, so the crowd got to see her perform the song again. We weren’t complaining, especially because it was a song from her new album. Know that you most likely will spend more time waiting than viewing the events, and you shouldn't expect to see a seamless concert. I speak from experience when I say this can be a tedious process. Still, it can be a worthwhile experience if you know what to expect.

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So, who are the celebrity performers for 2016? Here’s what we know so far, courtesy of the Disney Parks Blog. No word on which stars are taping in California or Florida. More performers are expected to be announced in the days ahead.

“The Wonderful World of Disney: Magical Holiday Celebration” on ABC on Nov. 24, from 8-10 p.m. EST. Emmy Award-winners Julianne and Derek Hough will serve as hosts for this two-hour special from the Walt Disney World Resort, which will also feature “Descendants 2” star Sofia Carson, a duet by Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks, and a performance by Kelly Clarkson.

“Disney Parks Presents: A Descendants Magical Holiday Celebration” on Disney Channel on Nov. 25 from 8-9 p.m. EST. Musical performers include Dove Cameron, Cameron Boyce, Sofia Carson and Booboo Stewart, “Descendants 2” star China Anne McClain, Trisha Yearwood with Garth Brooks, and Kelly Clarkson. ABC stars and Disney Channel stars will also surprise philanthropic families around the country with once-in-a-lifetime experiences at the Walt Disney World Resort.

“The Disney Parks’ Magical Christmas Celebration” on ABC on Dec. 25, from 9-11 a.m. EST. Join holiday hosts Julianne and Derek Hough for a magical ride down Main Street and beyond for a celebration that brings together the beloved Christmas day parade with magical musical performances, surprise celebrity guests and heart-warming family stories. Musical performers on tap are Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks, Kelly Clarkson, Sofia Carson and Jordan Fisher.



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September 8, 2016

Walt Disney World requires finger scans of kids ages 3 to 9 entering its theme parks

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Walt Disney World has begun scanning the fingers of children who are entering its theme parks and water parks. Although many families had noticed the new practice and began posting about it recently on social media channels, the process was confirmed this week by the Orlando Sentinel and other news outlets.

Kids and all guests with tickets or annual passes -- which is anyone age 3 or older – now must have a finger scan associated with his or her admission media. The scan is not one of a person’s fingerprint but rather photos of different points on an individual finger that is then converted into a digital code.

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The technology is used to prevent fraud. Before the new practice was put in place, tickets or annual passes for young children could be transferred to others because there was no identifying information attached to the ticket or pass. In other words, children’s tickets could be handed off to friends, or even resold, to other kids in the same age range.

With the new policy, parents have the option to associate their own finger scans – instead of their children’s -- with their kids’ tickets. One complication with this, though, can occur when the parent whose finger scan is associated with the child’s ticket is not the one escorting the child into the park.

Walt Disney World officials say the “finger geometry” scans are not being saved in a company database. They are only associated with the individual tickets and annual passes as a security measure, and the visitor data is discarded within 30 days.

As a parent, I am not bothered by the expanded finger scan practice, though I know that some parents have expressed reservations about the technology. And neither is my more cynical husband, who often looks at the profit-making and marketing angles behind any such new technological advance. This technology does not uniquely identify a person; it simply reduces the chances you are using a ticket or pass that is not yours.

Walt Disney World has been collecting finger scans for more than a decade. (You can read about the history and see photos of the old machines on our AllEars.Net resource page.) And in that time, the process has become more commonplace not just among theme parks but with advanced technology, such as Apple Pay and other digital wallets.

Parents who have spoken out about the finger scans –- for anyone of any age – are, of course, concerned about their civil liberties. But does that argument really work today in the times in which we live and with the security surveillance all of have become accustomed to? Tell us what you think in the comments.



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August 16, 2016

Recipe for S'mores Gelato Shake at D-Luxe Burger at Disney Springs is cause to celebrate

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I cannot believe that my family and I missed celebrating National S’mores Day last week – Aug. 10 to be exact. Like many kids, my own tween and teen have many favorite desserts, but s’mores top their lists (and mine). From roasting the marshmallows over a fire to melting them in the microwave in a pinch, we relish the process and the resulting gooey sweet treat.

Certainly, each time we stay at a moderate or deluxe Walt Disney World hotel, we make time to visit the campfires staffed by cast members to roast marshmallows. (The marshmallows and sticks are complimentary for resort guests, but you’ll need to bring your own graham crackers and chocolate bars.)

At Disney's Fort Wilderness Campground, Walt Disney World hotel guests can immerse themselves in the traditional campfire experience. Two fires are lighted about 7:30 p.m. in the summer -- an hour later than the rest of the year -- and cast members let them burn throughout the evening so guests can cook whatever they'd like, from hotdogs to marshmallows. There are no complimentary marshmallows, but the nearby Chuckwagon sells supplies and guests are welcome to bring their own food, as well.

As much as we love the campfire experiences, this summer we discovered a new way to enjoy the flavors of a s’more: in a gelato shake at the new D’Luxe Burger restaurant that opened at Disney Springs in May. Now, my son and I especially cannot visit Disney Springs without feeling the urge to stop and splurge on one of the s’mores shakes. (They are expensive at $7 for one size.)

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The folks at D-Luxe Burger, however, have given us the gift of the recipe (via the Disney Parks Blog) for these delicious shakes to tide us over between visits.

Ingredients

12 ounces vanilla gelato
2 ounces whole milk
½ ounce dark chocolate sauce
1 ounce toasted marshmallow syrup
1 tsp crushed graham crackers
whipped cream, to garnish
mini marshmallows, to garnish
graham cracker, to garnish
dark chocolate sauce, to garnish

Directions

** Blend vanilla gelato, whole milk, dark chocolate sauce, toasted marshmallow syrup and crushed graham crackers until smooth
** Serve in a tall glass
** Garnish with whipped cream, mini marshmallows, graham cracker and a drizzle of dark chocolate sauce.

Chef’s note

At D-Luxe Burger, the vanilla gelato is made in-house, but for this recipe vanilla gelato can be purchased from the grocery store. Toasted marshmallow syrup can be found at specialty grocery stores.

Love s'mores as much as the Ford family? Tell us in the comments about the other s'mores-themed desserts at Walt Disney World that you've enjoyed!



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August 13, 2016

Walt Disney World annual passholders can buy friends and family deeply discounted tickets

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Walt Disney World is offering its passholders an unusual perk: a hefty discount on 1-Day Park Hopper tickets for friends and family. I’ve been a passholder for more than a decade, and I cannot remember seeing such a deal.

From Aug. 12 through Sept. 30, passholders can purchase the tickets at almost half off -- $79 per person – for up to six people per passholder. The regular price for the 1-Day Park Hopper is between $155 and $160 for adults and $149 to $154 for children ages 3 to 9. (The price range is because of Disney’s seasonal and tiered pricing.) 1-Day Park Hopper tickets allow guests admission to any or all of Disney World’s theme parks -- Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios – on that same day.

To take advantage of this offer, passholders must accompany their guests to a theme-park ticket window to purchase the tickets. This is the only way the tickets can be purchased, and the Park-Hoppers must be used the day of purchase.

While that deal is open to all annual passholders – local or not – there are two other ticket offers right now that cater to Florida residents. The 3-Day (and 4-Day) Florida Resident Disney Select Tickets give the guest access to one theme park per day for the number of days purchased at a significant savings. These tickets are not Park Hoppers, and they expire within six months of the first use or Dec. 17, 2017 – whichever comes first. There also are blockout dates: Dec. 15 to Dec. 31, 2016; Jan. 1 to Jan. 2, 2017; April 8 to April 21, 2017; June 5 to Aug. 10, 2017.

The 3-Day Florida Resident Disney Select Tickets are $199 plus tax per person (ages 10 and older), which makes the price per day about $66. The 4-Day Florida Resident Disney Select Tickets are $219, which makes the price per day about $55. Guests do have the option of adding the Park Hopper feature to this Florida Resident deal at an additional cost. For the 3-Day ticket, it’s an additional $27.50 plus tax, which makes the price per day about $75.50. For the 4-Day ticket, it’s an additional $34.50, which makes the price per day about $63 plus tax.

But when Florida residents are spending more than $250 for four days, they might want to consider an annual pass. The Florida Resident Silver pass has the same blockout dates as the Disney Select Tickets and includes admission to the four theme parks with Park Hopping AND parking included for one year for $389 plus tax.



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August 11, 2016

Welcome back, Disney World passholders! Here's what you missed during the blockout

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Friday marks the end of the summer blockout period for some local Walt Disney World annual passholders, and if you’re like my children, you’re counting the minutes! Silver annual passholders -- Florida residents who have not been able to access the theme parks all summer -- gain re-entry tomorrow (Aug. 12). And although some of the Awaken Summer experiences had debuted before the blockout period, there are plenty of new things for passholders and visitors alike to check out.

Magic Kingdom


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At the Magic Kingdom, Disney’s newest princess, Elena of Avalor, will be welcomed to Walt Disney World for the first time in a ceremony on the Cinderella Castle Forecourt Stage at 10:45 a.m. today. The limited-time show, “The Royal Welcome of Princess Elena of Avalor.” will be presented several times each day, beginning Friday. Check the daily times guide or My Disney Experience app for times. For more details, see my previous blog post.

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The same stage is home to a new production that debuted in mid-June: “Mickey's Royal Friendship Faire.” It replaces the long-running “Dream Along With Mickey.” Fans may be concerned that the new show doesn’t feature as many characters, but there is nothing to worry about on that front: “From the land of the bewitching bayous, Goofy has invited Princess Tiana, Naveen and Louis to add a little spice of New Orleans jazz to the party. Donald Duck brings some new friends he met in the land of the enchanted woods, where Daisy Duck introduces us to her special guests, Rapunzel and Flynn. Finally, Mickey Mouse shares a surprise with Minnie Mouse, as he has traveled to the land of the mystic mountains to invite Olaf, Princess Anna, and Queen Elsa, who swirls a blast of her icy magic.” Check the daily times guide or My Disney Experience app for show times.

This week also marks the start of a limited-time meet-and-greet with Belle at the Magic Kingdom. Usually, guests can only meet the princess who loves to read at the Enchanted Tales attraction in Fantasyland. However, through Aug. 31, she will meet with certain guests at Heritage House in Liberty Square from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. To take advantage of this experience, guests must have purchased Memory Maker, Memory Maker One Day or an annual pass that includes complimentary PhotoPass photos. Only one person in each party must have the required entitlement.

Epcot


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Frozen Ever After is probably the most-talked-about summer addition at Walt Disney World. The attraction in the Norway pavilion is, of course, based on the “Frozen” movie and it really does live up to its hype with it animatronics and special effects. Deb Wills and I rode Frozen Ever After on its opening day, and we both really enjoyed it. Her report is here and my blog post with tips for parents dealing with the long waits is here. The best thing you can do, above all else, is to get a FastPass. Be online as soon as your booking window opens and, if you cannot secure a ride reservation, keep checking back because other guests do change plans. Also, know that Elsa and Anna have moved from the Magic Kingdom back to the Norway pavilion and they meet guests there.

Soarin’ reopened as Soarin’ Around the World in mid-June with brand new projections, technology and a new movie. In addition, a third theatre has been added in hopes of reducing stand-by wait times. My family and I experienced the new digital screens and projectors, which give much sharper images than the old celluloid ones, and the new theater before our blockout dates and were impressed with the noticeable upgrade in quality. Now, we need to see the new movie, which takes guests on a tour of the great wonders of the world.

Hollywood Studios


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At Hollywood Studios, the “Star Wars”-themed fireworks show got a major upgrade with the addition of lasers, light projections and other special effects combined with music and iconic characters and scenes from the saga. “Star Wars: A Galactic Spectactular” incorporates scenes from all seven films in the “Star Wars” series. A tip from Deb Wills: “In order to fully see the fireworks and projections you need to be in front of the two huge towers on Hollywood Boulevard." If guests want to ensure a good viewing spot, they can book A Galactic Spectacular dessert party. The party takes place inside Star Wars Launch Bay, and 15 minutes before the fireworks show, guests are escorted to a VIP viewing area.

Have fun this weekend with the new-to-you experiences, guests and returning passholders! And please check back for details about all the fall activities that kick off in September.



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June 4, 2016

Walt Disney World passholders: What not to miss before blackout starts Monday

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Monday, June 6, is a not-so-magical day for many local Walt Disney World passholders. For Florida resident silver passholders, it’s the last day they can enter the theme parks until the blackout lifts on Aug. 12. So, for their last weekend of playing tourist, here are some new and limited-time attractions these visitors might not want to miss.

Epcot
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The original Soarin’ reopened last weekend and will have its swan song through June 16, the day before Soarin’ Around the World opens. Why you’ll want to see it again: The original Soarin’ is being shown on new digital screens and projectors, which give much sharper images than the old celluloid ones. (We saw Soarin’ Over California at California Adventure last summer after the projectors debuted there, and the difference was noticeable to visitors who are used to the older models.) Plus, a third theater has been added at Walt Disney World, so (we hope) that means shorter lines!

Last month, “Turtle Talk with Crush” at The Seas With Nemo & Friends added new characters from the upcoming Disney-Pixar movie “Finding Dory.” When Crush swims up to the “Human Tank,” he’s joined by Dory; Destiny, the whale shark; Bailey, the beluga whale; and Hank, the “septopus.” Plus, Squirt joins the fun for the first time.

The newest characters to meet guests at Epcot are Joy and Sadness from the movie “Inside Out.” Look for them in Innoventions West in Future World at the front of the park. Joy and Sadness greet guests at the console of Headquarters, but the queue first leads guests through Riley’s long-term memory and her Islands of Personality.

Hollywood Studios
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There is a lot of construction at Hollywood Studios these days, but even so, silver passholders who are Star Wars fans may want to make a trip. The current fireworks show, Symphony in the Stars: A Galactic Spectacular, that debuted in December is set to end June 16. It will be replaced by a new nighttime show that also will be Star Wars-themed and involve more than just fireworks – video projections, lasers and special effects. Still, Symphony in the Stars is a satisfying end to a day dedicated to Star Wars entertainment, including the re-imagined Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple experience for children, the live stage show “Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away” and Star Wars Launch Bay where guests can meet Kylo Ren,
Chewbacca and Jawas.

Animal Kingdom
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Animal Kingdom has the most new attractions and entertainment for silver passholders to experience. All the Awaken Summer offerings began last weekend, and I wrote about my first impressions on a previous blog post. “The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic” – Animal Kingdom’s first nighttime show – is a limited-time engagement and will be replaced with Rivers of Light when it is ready. At this time, no date has been announced so it’s unclear how long we will have to view “The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic.” Be sure to stop by and see the five-minute projection shows on the Tree of Life and the “awakening” of the tree that take place after dark. Passholders also might want to check out Kilimanjaro Safaris at night, Discovery Island Carnivale, Harambe Wildlife Parti or The Nomad Lounge and Tiffins restaurant. Extended summer hours run through Labor Day, Sept. 6 as of now, though I’m told they likely will be extended.

Magic Kingdom

Although there aren’t any seasonal events or new attractions at Walt Disney World’s signature park for the summer, are there passholders who don’t want to revisit all their favorites before taking a break? Whether it’s foods, such as Dole Whips and turkey legs, or roller coasters, such as Space Mountain and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, passholders are sure to have a must-do list for their last day before the summer break. And who could pass up the classic nighttime presentations of the Main Street Electrical Parade and Wishes fireworks?

And for Florida residents with silver passes, there are ways to get your Disney fix during the dog days of summer. Perhaps the best way is to visit the hotels. Guests are welcome to grab quick-service snacks, such as a Dole Whip at the Polynesian Village or Mickey waffles at Art of Animation. With a dinner reservation at a resort on the monorail loop or the Boardwalk area, you might be lucky enough to get a glimpse of the fireworks. At Animal Kingdom Lodge, guests can taste the flavors of Africa while viewing the animals from the lobby balconies. And, of course, there is Disney Springs. This entertainment district, which just opened its Town Center, has movies, bowling, video games, boat rides, shopping and restaurants all in one place. Finally, let’s not forget Disney’s water parks, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon, for a great way to cool off during the hot Florida summer!



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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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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 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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November 12, 2015

What’s new for 2015 at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party

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Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party has returned to the Magic Kingdom for select nights in November and December, bringing Christmas cheer to visitors and locals alike. My children and I attended the first party of the 2015 season and I will have several reports about what you can expect. First, here’s what’s new this year at the Christmas Party.

Holiday entertainment

Most of the entertainment this year is the same as last year, and that’s not bad news! Expect to see your favorite features of the party -- characters, stage shows, fireworks, the parade and the dance party. I can’t imagine not seeing Holiday Wishes – Celebrate the Spirit of the Season! It’s my favorite version of Wishes fireworks, hands down.

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There is one new addition to the evening’s entertainment, however, and you won’t want to miss it because it’s a unique show. VoicePlay performs its a cappella holiday concert four times each night (8:10, 9:05, 10:10 and 11:05 p.m.) on the Rockettower Plaza Stage in Tomorrowland. The five-part harmonies are produced by Earl Elkins, Jr., Geoff Castellucci, Layne Stein, Eliezer Jacobson and Tony Wakim. The group was started 15 years ago, and now tours the country with its production. In fact, after the last performance at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, VoicePlay heads out on tour again!

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card
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As has been the tradition since the interactive Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game debuted in 2012, a new holiday card will be given to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party guests. It’s free, like other Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom cards, and available at the Fire House on Main Street, U.S.A., and behind the Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe in Liberty Square beginning at 4 p.m. if you have your party wristband. This year’s design features Olaf and his Snowgies from the “Frozen Fever” short and is only available at the party.

Exclusive Christmas party merchandise
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Of course, there is new exclusive merchandise for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, including trading pins, a graphic MagicBand and T-shirts. There also is a passholder-only T-shirt and trading pin. The pins are only available at the Frontier Trading Post, which made for some long lines that my family and I experienced when both of my young pin collectors insisted on spending their money. MagicBands are only available at the Emporium. T-shirts can be purchased at the Emporium, Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe and Mickey’s Star Traders.

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All merchandise can be purchased beginning at 4 p.m. if you have your party wristband. I really like that event organizers have made the merchandise available before the party starts at 7 p.m. Not only does this disperse the crowds a bit, but it also allows families like mine to take care of purchases without sacrificing precious party time.

Complimentary professional photos

This is the first Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party for which most annual passholders can get free professional photos. When Walt Disney World changed its annual pass structure in October, it added free digital downloads of professional PhotoPass photos to most of the passes. (Only the Florida resident Silver, Disney Weekday Select and Epcot After 4 passes do not have the free photo download feature.) With this in mind, I would encourage you to stop and take a few professional photos. (Even if you are not an annual passholder, having your photo taken doesn’t cost anything and you can decide later if you want to purchase the photos.)

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Many people use this opportunity to take photos for their Christmas cards. A word of warning: If you are counting on a photo for this exact reason, allow for the possibility of needing a retake. Take your photo early in the evening and check it on My Disney Experience to make sure it is what you expected. It doesn’t take long for the professional photos to show up in your online account. Also, you might want to plan outfits (or props) accordingly.

This is the first year for the extra Cinderella Castle turrets to be covered in holiday lights, which makes a beautiful backdrop. There's also a new photo op in Adventureland that features a Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party ornament plus an elf and a reindeer from the Christmas parade.

Jungle Cruise festivities

The Jungle Cruise has been transformed into the Jingle Cruise for the third year with a "world-famous" holiday overlay. The back story, according to Jennifer Fickley-Baker on the Disney Parks Blog: “The Skippers are homesick for the holidays and to add cheer, they decorated the attraction queue and boathouse with homemade decorations, gifts and items from back home. Boats have temporarily been renamed with holiday monikers and the Skippers are armed with seasonal jokes. (Listen carefully in the queue, too – you may hear a holiday-themed radio broadcast playing in the background).”

But that’s not what is new. Jen recently reminded readers that the new Jungle Skipper Canteen, a restaurant under construction in Adventureland, still is scheduled to open this year. So, perhaps some lucky partygoers will be among the first to try out the new restaurant.

“Guests will be able to experience “World Famous Jungle Cuisine” in one of several unique dining rooms, including a crew mess hall and a once-hidden secret meeting room of the famed Society of Explorers and Adventurers,” Jen wrote.

In my next blog post, I’ll be giving tips for families attending Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.



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October 5, 2015

Here's how Walt Disney World annual pass increases will affect my family

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On Sunday, Disney fans woke up to the news that Walt Disney World and Disneyland had announced a restructuring of its annual pass programs. Of course, prices have increased, but some of the benefits and the names of the passes have changed as well, which can be a bit confusing. Today, I’m sifting through the details because my family and I renew our Walt Disney World passes next month, so we have to decide which passes make sense for our use in the coming year. Perhaps my comparisons and reasoning will resonate with you, too.

First, know that these changes do not affect the Magic Your Way tickets – single and multi-day -- that many visitors purchase. Next, the monthly payment option for annual passes still is only available to Florida residents.

Finally, the discount passholders receive for renewing each year has increased from 10 percent to 15 percent. And a cast member told me that the discount will be applied to passholders who have any pass in the current program and are moving to any pass in the new program. The discount is available 30 days before your pass’s expiration date and 30 days afterward. (If you renew in the 30 days after your expiration date and take the discount, the date stays the same, so it would make sense to renew beforehand. You always have the option to purchase a new annual pass if you miss the renewal window of 60 days but you will not receive the discount.)

My family and I have had Walt Disney World passes for more than a decade, and we have tried different combinations to best suit our needs. Currently, I have a Florida resident annual pass – with no blackout dates and parking included – and my husband and two children (who are considered Disney adults when it comes to pricing) have Florida resident seasonal passes, which have blackout dates at Christmas, Easter and most of the summer and do not include parking. We paid the renewal rate of $478.19 for my pass and the renewal rate of $297.14 each for my husband and two children in 2014. (Prices include tax.) So, our total cost this past year was $1,369.61.

The equivalent pass for me in the new system would be the Platinum Pass, which will cost $584.69 with my renewal discount and including tax. It offers the same benefits of admission to four theme parks with no blackout dates; parking and one complimentary MagicBand are included; PLUS the new benefit of unlimited downloads of Disney PhotoPass photos. Or, I have the option of switching to a new annual pass that offers similar benefits to what I have now: the Gold Pass. The Gold Pass is $496.29 with my renewal discount and including tax. The differences from what I have now are that it has blackout dates for two weeks at Christmas/New Year’s and two weeks at Easter/Spring Break, but I would gain unlimited downloads of photos from Disney’s PhotoPass. So, basically, am I willing to pay an extra $88.40 for the possibility that I might go into the parks by myself during the four blackout weeks? If I stick with the Gold Pass, I am paying an $18 annual increase over last year, which is pretty typical, but that is offset by the PhotoPass photos.

Or, I have a third option – downgrade to the same passes that the rest of my family has because at least one key benefit has been added. My other family members have the Florida resident seasonal pass, which is now called the Silver Pass. The renewal rate is $351.45 including tax. The benefits are the same as before – admission to four theme parks with blackout dates for two weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter and most of the summer. What’s new is that it now includes parking, which is a big deal when the rate just jumped to $20 per day for most vehicles. I guess that is what the $54.31 increase per ticket is offsetting.

So, if my family opts for the equivalent passes to what we have now, we will pay $269.43 more for the same privileges, plus Disney PhotoPass downloads, for the coming year. Although I do purchase Disney PhotoPass photos throughout the year, I don’t spend that much. However, price increases happen every year so I cannot wish away all of the $269.43. If I downgrade my pass to the Gold status, giving up admission during the four busiest weeks of the year and gaining PhotoPass downloads, I could save about $90, bringing our total annual increase to about $180. If I’m willing to give up summer entrance and PhotoPass downloads, as well, and settle for the Silver Pass, I could save about $233 on my own pass, bringing my family’s price increase to only about $36 for the year. For that $36, we would gain parking on each of the four passes.

What would you do?

Here’s another scenario to consider. Depending on our plans for summer, we sometimes buy Disney water park passes. It’s less expensive to purchase the Silver Pass (with renewal discount and tax) at $351.45 plus the Water Park Pass at $117.15 (new and including tax) for a total of $468.60. The Platinum Plus Pass, which includes 365 days admission to the four theme parks plus the water parks, ESPN Wide World of Sports and Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course and more, is $776.39. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does show that you could select the options you would use for about $300 less. As locals, my family and I often find that we don’t go to the parks as much in the summer because of the crowds and Florida heat, so applying the money from an upgraded annual pass to a water park pass makes more sense for us.

What strategies do you have when it comes to purchasing Disney annual passes?

For complete information on Walt Disney World ticket prices, see the AllEars.Net chart.



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July 16, 2015

UPDATED -- Review: Animal Kingdom's Harambe Market

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If you are a repeat visitor at Walt Disney World, chances are you have favorite foods at each of the theme parks that you can’t wait to sink your teeth into again. For my family and I, a visit to Animal Kingdom usually means a meal at Flame Tree Barbecue. We like the food there well enough, but part of our enjoyment of that restaurant is also the shaded seating overlooking the lake in front of Mount Everest. But, a new quick-service restaurant that opened last month has us rethinking our tried-and-true routine.

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Located in the Africa section of the park, Harambe Market mimics the atmosphere of an open-air marketplace and serves dishes that would be considered African street foods. My family and I recently tried some of the offerings and were pleased with what we sampled. And, when we found the perfect shaded table, we enjoyed the atmosphere of the market, too.

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Our experience began as we approached the area near Kilimanjaro Safaris at the back of the park. Yes, this is a trek from the front of the park, but we thought it was worth it. And, of course, if you’re already in the park, it’s not such a hike. Just keep this in mind if you’re planning on going to lunch first before your day’s activities in the park.

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Harambe Market is colorful, loud, and, when we arrived at 1:30 p.m., it was busy! By the time we finished standing in line, found a table and ate, it was 3 p.m. and the place had cleared out. I suspect the crowds were there in full force because of the novelty of a new eatery and the start of the summer season at Walt Disney World, but it never hurts to avoid peak meal times if you want to skip the lines.

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Although there are four shop windows advertising different menu items, know that you can pick any line to order from the entire menu. You do not need to stand in separate lines. The queue for the ribs – on the far right when looking at the storefronts -- was the shortest on the day we were there and it offered the most shade. Also, on the day we were there, cast members were at the front of the lines, handing out menus for customers to browse before they got into the lines.

Your choices include:

** Kitamu Grill: Skewered chicken and a kebab flatbread sandwich

** Famous Sausages: Corndog made with a South African boerewors sausage dipped in curry-infused corn batter

** Chef Mwanga’s: Spice-rubbed Karubi Rib paired with green papaya-carrot slaw

Each of these service counters offers a kids version of the main dish. For the chicken and ribs, it’s just a smaller portion with kid-friendly sides. For the sausage station, it’s a traditional corn dog instead of the sausage. A Kids Snack Pack with yogurt, apple slices, carrot sticks, Goldfish crackers, apple-cinnamon bar and choice of small lowfat milk or small water is also available.

** Wanjohi Refreshments: Craft draft beers like Safari Amber Lager; six South African wines by the glass, The Starr of Harambe frozen drink with Starr African rum and mango puree in a souvenir mug, red Sangria with Van der Hum tangerine liqueur, and non alcoholic tangerine lemonade or fountain beverages like Sparberry from Zimbabwe. (My husband loves a good IPA and he highly recommended the I-4 IPA from Orlando Brewing.)

For dessert, all the counters serve a coconut custard in a chocolate tart shell.

For complete menu details, including prices, see our AllEars.Net dining page.

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For our meal, my family and I tried the Karubi Ribs and the Boerewors Sausage Corndog. The guys tried the ribs, which are served with green papaya-carrot slaw on top and a cucumber and tomato salad on the side. Predictably, my 12-yer-old son did not like the slaw, but both he and my husband raved about the ribs, which are kind of like the variety they often order at Flame Tree Barbecue. This dish is a little spicier, but they both said they liked it equally as well, if not better than the other Animal Kingdom ribs.

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My 10-year-old daughter and I were tempted by the African version of a corndog for lunch. I thoroughly enjoyed the unexpected flavors of the sausage and the curry-infused corn batter and certainly would order it again. The sausage is served with a roasted broccoli and tomato salad that has a light and tasty dressing. My daughter, however, would have been happier with the traditional corndog that is offered on the kids menu.

Both the ribs and the sausage are served in generous-size portions – more than enough to be filling for one person or possibly two less-hungry patrons. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this marketplace is serving appetizer-size portions, as is done at kiosks during Epcot food and beverage festivals. If you want to sample several dishes, plan accordingly!

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I recently spoke with Animal Kingdom’s chef de cuisine Albert Youngman about how foods were created for Harambe Market -- specifically how he and his team chose flavors that would be palatable to guests who might not be accustomed to typical African foods.

“The earth tones of the flavors and the actual flavors that come from the cardamom and the coriander and cumin and things like that are very much tasted in all of our food [at Harambe Market], but it’s not overdone to where it’s offensive to our guests,” Youngman said. “So, we tried to get a balance with the food. So, you take the African corn dog, for instance. People sometimes are scared of curry, right? Curry means hot. But [the corn dog] is not really hot. It actually has more of an earth tone and a sweetness to it and we incorporate it with our sweet corn batter that helps that flavor kind of mend together.”

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On a second visit to Harambe Market for a media event, my family and I sampled the skewered chicken, which we missed the first time, and found it to be rather plain, not offering the interesting flavors of the other foods we’ve come to enjoy there. Still, Youngman said it is the most popular item at Harambe Market – both for adults and children. Perhaps that’s because it’s not a culinary risk for most people. Yet, this is exactly the place to try something new, he said. “If you just go out of your element a little bit, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.”

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At Harambe Market, guests seat themselves at the outdoor tables. Because of the crowds, we started at a table that was in the sun. When an umbrella table emptied, we jumped at the chance to sit in the shade, which definitely made our experience more pleasant. The marketplace is, of course, creatively decorated and the Wildlife Express train to Rafiki’s Planet Watch passes by in the back on a regular schedule. Disney officials have said that live entertainment eventually will be offered in the marketplace, as well.

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During the media event, I also spoke with Imagineer Emily O’Brien, who was the lead designer for Harambe Market. You can read about how the new restaurant was developed and what it’s like to be an Imagineer here.

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Last month, Zuri’s Sweets Shop opened across from Harambe Market. This African-themed shop is the first dedicated consumables store, said Steven Miller, Walt Disney World Merchandise Communications Manager. It features three new lines of goodies: one based on “The Lion King,” one inspired by the bold and colorful African Kente cloths, and one that celebrates African spices and flavors. Miller talks to me about the tasty treats in the video below:

We found Harambe Market to be a fun – and tasty – addition to the quick-service restaurants at Animal Kingdom. The African flavors offer guests exciting alternatives to the traditional sandwiches, salads, burgers and fries that we’ve come to expect at counter-service restaurants at Walt Disney World, and there are enough kid-friendly choices to please the little ones.

The trek to the far corner of the park might be a far one from the front gates of Animal Kingdom, but, based on our recent dining experience, the journey there is a rewarding one if you’re looking for good food in a uniquely themed atmosphere. But, just as you would on the savannah grasslands west of Nairobi, try to find a nice shady spot to enjoy your lunch unless you want to end up feeling as baked as the Chef Mwanga’s special.

Enjoy this video of the Harambe Market:

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World for my second visit to Harambe Market. The first visit was at my own expense. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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July 9, 2015

What to do if you get sick at Walt Disney World

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It had been a fun day of enjoying activities at Walt Disney World. After the fireworks, we were at our hotel room and getting ready for one more late-night splash in the pool before calling it a day. It was then, at about 11 p.m., that my daughter informed all of us that she wasn’t feeling well.

Has a similar scenario ever played out for your family while on vacation?

My daughter’s condition wasn’t dire enough to warrant waiting hours in a hospital emergency room to be seen by a physician, but she was feeling sick enough that we wanted to get her some relief before morning. Our search for medical treatment turned up several options.

Our first thought was to find an urgent-care facility and, as it turned out, there was one located just around the corner from where we were staying. Centra Care, which operates many locations around Central Florida and is affiliated with Florida Hospital, has a site close to Downtown Disney. It’s located at 12500 South Apopka Vineland Road (State Road 535), Orlando, FL 32836. It’s open from 8 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. Call 407-934-2273.

My husband and I have been to our fair share of after-hours clinics with our children, and we found this one to be efficient. The clinic takes many types of insurance plans, and the corresponding information required for check-in was handled through an easy-to-use computer system. The waiting room offered snacks and drinks for purchase as well as two televisions to help pass the time. It was a standard medical facility and waiting room, for sure, but the Disney-themed artwork in the examination rooms gave the place a little bit of magic and probably, truth be told, put a few youngsters more at ease in a medical setting.

After my daughter was seen, we were even offered the option to purchase her medications at the clinic. Although Centra Care doesn’t have the ability to apply insurance coverage to medications, the flat rate for the basic prescriptions we needed was well worth not having to go to a pharmacy and wait longer, especially after midnight. Plus, Centra Care has a complimentary shuttle that picks up and returns guests who do not have their own transportation.

There is another urgent-care facility farther down State Road 535: Buena Vista Urgent Care at 8216 World Center Dr., Suite D, Orlando, FL 32821. It is not open as late, however. Hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends.

For life-threatening and other emergency conditions, the closest hospital is Florida Hospital Celebration Health at 400 Celebration Place, Celebration, FL 34747.

If you should find yourself with a minor illness or ailment while touring Walt Disney World’s four theme parks or two water parks, know that each park has a First Aid center, usually located near the entrance or toward the front of the park. Nurses are available during normal park operating hours to offer over-the-counter medications, bandages and other quick remedies. First Aid centers can also store medications that require refrigeration and provide special containers for disposal of hypodermic needles. If you have a more serious illness, the nurses will direct you where to get such care.

We have stopped in the First Aid centers for Band-Aids, pain-relief medications and even a topical treatment for bug bites. There is no charge for these items. You simply sign the log, and the nurse will give you the appropriate dosage.

Their goal -- and presumably that of each guest who stops in -- is to feel better quickly so everyone can get back to enjoying a vacation at the Most Magical Place on Earth.



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July 7, 2015

National survey asks travelers what they think about selfie sticks and their use at Walt Disney World

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Walt Disney World’s ban on selfie sticks in its theme parks has put the topic in the news yet again. The total ban went into effect last week, following a partial ban that excluded the devices from roller coasters. (AllEars.Net readers told us what they thought about the use of selfie sticks on attractions here.) Now, the poles designed to hold smartphones for picture-taking are not allowed in the parks at all.

Walt Disney World certainly is not the only tourist attraction that has banned selfie sticks. Recently, Travel Leaders Group conducted a national survey about the use of selfie sticks at major attractions, and one question specifically mentions Walt Disney World.

“Selfie sticks are being banned at some very popular tourist attractions, such as Rome’s Colosseum, the Palace of Versailles, the Smithsonian and on Disney World rides. When asked, ‘If you knew it was prohibited and you saw another tourist taking photos with a selfie stick, what would you do?’ the responses were:

** 33.7 percent of respondents would say nothing
** 32.2 percent would tell a security guard or official personnel
** 26.2 percent were not sure what they would do
** 8.9 percent would say something directly to the person

So, fewer than half of respondents would voice their concerns when selfie sticks were used in situations where they are banned for safety reasons or for interfering with the enjoyment of other visitors. Would you feel motivated or comfortable saying something if you found yourself in this situation?

Interestingly, however, the majority of participants in this survey said they did not own a selfie stick. However, when asked, “If you were taking photos in a location that banned selfie sticks, what would you do?” most people who owned selfie sticks said they would abide by the rules and not use their selfie sticks. Less than one percent said they would still try to use their selfie sticks and hope not to get caught.

Related questions on the travel survey asked participants what they would do if they were visiting locations where photos themselves were strictly banned and what they would do if they saw visitors damaging attractions.

“When asked, ‘Have you ever taken photos at a location, destination or exhibit that strictly prohibited all photos (such as the Sistine Chapel, England’s Crown Jewels, certain Japanese temples, etc.)?’ most people said they have not done that. About 18 percent said they hadn’t taken such photos but they really wanted to sneak some pictures. Only about 10 percent admitted they secretly took photos when no one was looking.

“Tourists at Rome’s Colosseum were caught carving initials into the ancient site. Also, two tourists in Italy recently broke a piece off a historic statue while climbing it to take a picture. When asked, ‘If you were at a major tourist attraction and saw another visitor damaging the attraction (by carving their initials into it, walking off-path and trampling sensitive vegetation, breaking off a piece to take home as a souvenir), what would you do?’ almost 73 percent reported they would tell a security guard or official personnel. About 15 percent said they would say something directly to the person.

This is the seventh consecutive year for the consumer travel survey. American consumers were engaged predominantly through social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as through direct contact with travel clients for the following Travel Leaders Group companies: Protravel International, Results! Travel, Travel Leaders, Tzell Travel Group and Vacation.com.

Want to weigh in on any of the questions? Give us your thoughts in the comments.



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June 24, 2015

Stay safe at Walt Disney World in Florida's heat and humidity

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We all know Florida is brutally hot in the summer, but it’s been even more so the last couple of weeks with temperatures soaring. Orlando even tied a 17-year-old record of 100 degrees one day this past week!

I was reminded last week after spending the morning at Walt Disney World just how quickly a person can go from feeling fine to feeling sick from too much sun. You may think, like me, that you are not doing anything you don’t routinely do in the theme parks, but when the mercury and the heat index rise, it’s time to re-think some of your touring strategies.

First, those visitors who like to travel light should consider that they actually could benefit from some extra gear.

** Bring a reusable water bottle and fill and drink from it often. Walt Disney World has plenty of water fountains, and counter-service restaurants will provide cups of ice and ice water at no charge. If you really don’t want to tote around a reusable bottle, be prepared to fork over $2.75 for a bottle of Dasani water. (The price recently increased on Disney property.) Experts say you should be drinking water even if you’re not thirsty to prevent dehydration.

** Bring or purchase gadgets that help you keep cool, such as personal fans and misters. Can’t bear to spend the money? At the very least, bring a few washcloths in Ziploc bags that you can wet with cold water and place on your face and neck throughout the day.

Be sure to dress for the heat and humidity.

** Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. If your favorite shirt for vacation photos is black, try to find an alternative ahead of time.

** Hats will not only help with sun protection but also keep you cooler.

** Don’t forget the sunscreen!

Plan your day’s activities with the heat in mind. Temperatures are the highest between noon and 4 p.m.

** As much as possible, avoid standing in outdoor queues and waiting for parades and outdoor stage shows. Use your FastPass selections to limit exposure.

** Do not go from waiting an hour for the parade to waiting another hour for a stage show; try to alternate outdoor activities with indoor attractions so your body can cool off in the air conditioning. The Frozen Summer Fun activities come to mind here. Instead of waiting for the royal parade and Olaf stage show consecutively, break up the time in the sun by going to the sing-along in the new Hyperion Theater.

Finally, seek out a water adventure either in the park or at an entirely new park. Plan a day at Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon water parks. Break up a day in the theme parks by going back to your hotel and enjoying a dip in the pool. At the very least, book your FastPasses for Splash Mountain during the afternoon hours!



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June 13, 2015

Last days to enter Disney World's Coolest Sleepover Ever contest for chance to win night in Cinderella Castle

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Summer is all about lounging around – at the pool and in our pajamas. And Walt Disney World is giving four lucky Disney fans the “Coolest Sleepover Ever” -- inside the Cinderella Castle Suite at the Magic Kingdom. Interested? Make this your weekend project because you have until Sunday night to enter.

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Participants are asked to show their Disney Side by taking a photo of a summer outfit or treat inspired by Walt Disney World and posting it on Twitter or Instagram. Be sure to tag your photo with #DisneySummerContest. Entries will be judged on creativity, originality and relevance to the contest. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Outfits may be inspired by attractions or stories at the Orlando resort.

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You can check out the competition at http://coolestdisneysummer.com. Entries so far include handmade character costumes, visitors posing at Walt Disney World, delicious desserts and DisneyBounding.

Want to increase your chances at winning this rare prize? You can enter as many times as you like, as long as each entry is a new creation and a new photo on both platforms. Also, your entry must be a photo that has not been previously posted on Instagram and Twitter or entered in any other contest. In other words, you cannot go back and just add the hashtag to photos on your accounts. Videos posted to Instagram and Twitter are not eligible. Wording must be in English.

Contestants must be 18 years old and legal residents of the 50 United States, District of Columbia and Canada (excluding the Province of Quebec). Residents of Puerto Rico are not eligible to enter. For a complete list of official rules, click here.

In addition to the Coolest Prize Ever – the stay in Cinderella Castle – the top prizes include vacations at Walt Disney World. The Grand Prize winning entry for each social media platform (Twitter and Instagram) will win a five-day, four-night Walt Disney World vacation with flights, accommodations, five-day park hopper tickets, and a special Frozen Summer Fun VIP experience. The First Prize winning entry for each social media platform will win the same package without the Frozen experience. The Second Prize winning entry for each social media platform will win a Coolest Summer Ever gift basket.

The deadline to enter is by midnight ET Sunday.



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June 2, 2015

How Walt Disney World seasonal passholders can make the most of last week before summer blackout

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Sunday, June 7, is a not-so-magical day for many local Walt Disney World passholders. For Florida resident seasonal passholders, it’s the last day they can enter the theme parks until the blackout lifts on Aug. 14. So, for their last week of playing tourist, here are some new and limited-time attractions these visitors might not want to miss.

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** Hollywood Studios: Star Wars Weekends. It’s the fourth of five weekends dedicated to the popular science-fiction franchise. The key to being able to see and do as many of the themed activities as possible is arriving early. And by that, I mean well before the park opens at 8 a.m. each day. Guests interested in celebrity autographs (Ray Park, Jeremy Bullock, Ashley Eckstein, James Arnold Taylor for June 5 to 7) should plan to line up between 6 and 7 a.m. to get wristbands to exchange for Fastpasses for the day. Once the park opens, kids interested in the Jedi Training Academy should sign up right away. It’s also a good idea to arrive extra early for the 11 a.m. motorcade, which features the celebrities and dozens of Star Wars characters. In addition to all the special presentations and character meet-and-greets, the event ends with the special Symphony in the Stars fireworks presentation. Finally, don’t forget to stop by Mickey Avenue (between One Man's Dream and Toy Story Mania) with your annual pass and ID to collect your complimentary Star Wars poster. (For more details about Star Wars Weekends, be sure to check out all our blogs and videos on AllEars.Net)

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** Animal Kingdom: Harambe Market. This new open-air marketplace with African-inspired street foods just opened. There are four walk-up windows: Kitamu Grill (grilled chicken skewer, ground beef kabob flatbread), Boerewors Sausages (fried in curried corn batter), Chef Mwanga’s Ribs Shop (Spice-rubbed KARUBI Ribs) and WanJohi Refreshment (specialty cocktails, beer, wine). For a complete menu with prices, see our dining page. Seating is outside, though there is shade. A photo gallery can be found here.

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** Epcot: Disney-Pixar’s “Inside Out” preview. Walt Disney World guests can view a special preview of "Inside Out" at the Imagination Pavilion theater at Epcot throughout June. The short sneak peek repeats every 15 to 20 minutes and features in-theater effects and an exclusive introduction from the filmmakers. Critics who have seen early screenings of the much-anticipated animated movie from Pixar have already given it rave reviews. “Inside Out” opens in theaters on June 19.

** Magic Kingdom: Passholder favorites. Although there aren’t any seasonal events or new attractions at Walt Disney World’s signature park for the summer, are there passholders who don’t want to revisit all their favorites before taking a break? Whether it’s foods, such as Dole Whips and turkey legs, or roller coasters, such as Space Mountain and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, passholders are sure to have a must-do list for their last day before the summer break. And who could pass up the classic nighttime presentations of the Main Street Electrical Parade and Wishes fireworks?

And for Florida residents with seasonal passes, there are ways to get your Disney fix during the dog days of summer. Perhaps the best way is to visit the hotels. Guests are welcome to grab quick-service snack, such as a Dole Whip at the Polynesian Village or Mickey waffles at Art of Animation. With a dinner reservation at a resort on the monorail loop or the Boardwalk area, you might be lucky enough to get a glimpse of the fireworks. At Animal Kingdom Lodge, guests can taste the flavors of Africa while viewing the animals from the lobby balconies. And, of course, there is Downtown Disney, which is being transformed into Disney Springs. This entertainment district has movies, bowling, video games, boat rides, shopping and restaurants all in one place.

And there’s another place that Florida residents with Walt Disney World seasonal passes know well, of course. When it’s 95 degrees and 60 percent humidity, the locals know that it’s a small price to pay for a Disney fix and a cool respite with summer passes to Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks.



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May 26, 2015

Disney Channel's 'Teen Beach 2' stars kick off beach party at Typhoon Lagoon

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It's just about a month until the debut of the much-anticipated "Teen Beach 2" movie on Disney Channel, and we have some new details about what you can expect to see!

Walt Disney World kicked off its summer Teen Beach 2: Beach Party at Typhoon Lagoon on Friday, and we were there to hear as-of-yet unreleased songs from the soundtrack, see choreographed dances that will make kids want to jump up and join in, and talk to one of the stars, Ross Lynch, about his role in the new film.

The soundtrack from the original "Teen Beach Movie" reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart and was No. 1 on the soundtrack chart, and the new album would seem to be headed in the same direction with its peppy, high-energy tunes. Only one track has been released so far, "Gotta Be Me," which is performed by the four main actors - Lynch, Maia Mitchell, Garrett Clayton and Grace Phipps - and John DeLuca and Jordan Fisher.

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At the beach party, we previewed "Best Summer Ever" and "That's How We Do." Expect to see the latter song in a choreographed, large-scale production scene in the new movie. Partygoers got a taste of the dance moves, with surfer and biker characters teaching the crowd how to do "The Milkshake" and "The Jelly Belly." Most of the songs on the soundtrack are performed by the cast; after all, "Teen Beach 2" is a musical. (There is one song by Lynch's band, R5.) The soundtrack will be in stores on June 23.

"This music is a little more contemporary, more modern," Lynch told us. "The [music from the] first movie was more retro, like surf guitar."

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From left: Ross Lynch, Maia Mitchell, Grace Phipps and Garrett Clayton.


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"Teen Beach 2" also turns the tide, so to speak, on the characters. In the first made-for-television musical, Brady and Mack (Mitchell) were transported back in time to the 1960s, when surfer movies were all the rage. The sequel, however, brings retro surfers Tanner (Clayton) and Lela (Phipps) into the modern world, which, of course, is a set-up for many comedic scenes.

My junior reporters, my 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, talked to Lynch about his character, Brady, and what it was like filming "Teen Beach 2."

"It starts with Mack and Brady's relationship," he said. "Things are going strong, and they go back to school. School brings a little more conflict, and it gives the characters a little more of an emotional arc."

"I'm similar [to Brady] in some ways " but I'd say Brady is a little bit more " lazy. I'm not lazy. I work a lot and I always like to be productive."

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You can see our full interview with Lynch below:


"Teen Beach 2" premieres at 8 p.m. June 26 on Disney Channel.

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The Teen Beach 2: Beach Party at Typhoon Lagoon continues through July 5. It features a DJ spinning tunes from the movies on the stage by the clock tower adjacent to the wave pool. Costumed bikers and surfers, much like the characters in the movies, lead guests in dancing, hula hooping and tossing beach balls. The beach party also offers other traditional summer activities, including relays on the sand, a water balloon toss and a limbo challenge. Winners are awarded Teen Beach 2 beach balls as prizes. The beach party is included in regular admission to the Disney water park.

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Photo op available at Typhoon Lagoon at Walt Disney World through July 5.

Here's a look back at the original beach party when 'Teen Beach Movie' actors Clayton (Tanner), Kent Boyd (Rascal) and Chrissie Fit (CheeChee) surprised guests at Typhoon Lagoon two years ago.

You can read about my interviews with the trio here.

DISCLAIMER: I was invited by Walt Disney World to experience its new Teen Beach 2: Beach Party. This did not affect my story; my opnions are my own.



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May 21, 2015

Do you think Walt Disney World is right to ban selfie sticks on attractions?

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Selfie sticks: Love 'em or leave 'em?

In case you're like David Letterman and need an introduction to the monopods that allow tourists and social-media users to take better-positioned photos of themselves, allow me to explain. These sticks essentially extend the reach of your arm to allow for better composition of a self-portrait with your smartphone. Selfie sticks secure smartphones on one end, and users press a Bluetooth button on the other - or use a remote control - to snap the shot.

To be sure, selfie sticks have been gaining in popularity during the past year, and they sat firmly atop many holiday wish lists recently. Perhaps adding to their popularity is the inexpensive nature of the devices; entry-level selfie sticks can be had for less than $10.

Certainly, here in Orlando we have a greater opportunity than some cities to witness (and experience?) selfie sticks because of all our tourist attractions. And, of course, they are prominently visible at the theme parks. It's becoming quite common to see selfie sticks on Main Street, U.S.A., in the Magic Kingdom, as visitors pose for their iconic photos in front of Cinderella Castle.

However, selfie sticks are not allowed to be used on rides at Walt Disney World. (They can be stowed, along with other personal items, on the rides.) Still, guests are not getting the message, so the resort and its sister theme parks at Disneyland have posted warning signs near some attractions, such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, according to various media reports.

"Thunder Mountain has had an especially high number of incidents in which the ride had to be stopped because of selfie-stick use," the Orlando Sentinel recently reported.

As someone who documents with photos and video much of what I do in the theme parks, I just can't understand the need to use a selfie stick on a roller coaster. Is shooting that video really worth the very real possibility of injuring yourself or someone else on the ride? Especially when the images probably aren't going to be that stellar anyway as your smartphone bounces at the end of a 3-foot stick.

Walt Disney World is not the first tourist attraction to ban selfie sticks, though many of the other venues have done so more because the poles interfere with other visitors' experiences rather than their safety.

Have an opinion? Tell us what you think about selfie-stick use in the theme parks in the comments below.



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May 19, 2015

How teens can earn volunteer hours at Walt Disney World

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Students AND parents everywhere are rejoicing that school is almost out for summer break. My family certainly is among them! But along with the daydreams of lounging by the pool or at the beach without a jam-packed schedule might be the recognition that summer is a great time for kids to complete any required community service hours.

Theme-park fans, like my own children, may wonder if there are any volunteer positions at Walt Disney World. And, in fact, there are opportunities - primarily through ESPN Wide World of Sports. Unfortunately for my 12-year-old son, the minimum age has increased from last summer. You now must be at least 14 to volunteer and those younger than 16 must be accompanied by parents or guardians. All minors must have a parent of guardian's permission and a signed waiver.

Volunteers, also known as Sports Enthusiasts, can work at events held at the facility at Walt Disney World or at runDisney races held on Disney property. Currently, volunteer registration is open for the Amateur Athletic Union National Club Championships for Track and Field. Volunteer positions for start/finish line, field events, clerk's tent and awards tent are available from July 10 to 18. The application notes that all positions require physical exertion such as raking or lifting. Volunteer shifts are typically assigned on a first-come, first-served basis.

For runDisney races, volunteers may work at the Health & Fitness Expo or kid races located at ESPN Wide World of Sports or at the start/finish line or along the course of races that go through the parks. The next runDisney event in Orlando is the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon Weekend, which includes the half marathon, Mickey's Jingle Jungle 5K and kid races. All events take place Nov. 6 and 7. Registration for volunteers opens several months in advance, but it is not available yet.

Walt Disney World recognizes that even though its Sports Enthusiasts are volunteering for their own personal reasons, they could not host the races without the volunteers' help. As such, volunteers are given "appreciation," for their time. Each person receives a snack and one commemorative piece of apparel for the event.

In addition, volunteers are eligible to earn points toward a complimentary theme-park ticket. Each hour of service completed is equal to one point, and it takes 16 points to earn a day's admission to Walt Disney World. Earned tickets are mailed within 60 days of reaching 16 points.

To get started, you must register through Active.com. You have the option to access the information as a guest or to create an account, which streamlines future registrations.

Volunteers will receive confirmation in the mail of the shifts for which they have been scheduled about a month prior to the event. The mailing also will include further information on parking, directions, and other useful information.

Questions? Call the Sports Enthusiast Information Line at 407-938-3880, or email wdw.sports.enthusiast@disneysports.com.



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May 16, 2015

Magic Kingdom's 24-hour party is perfect way for this family to make memories

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While many families will focus on traditions of backyard barbecues and swimming for Memorial Day weekend, my family will usher in summer with our own tradition of staying up all night in the Magic Kingdom.

As Walt Disney World annual passholders, we are fortunate to be able to spend plenty of time in the theme parks on a regular basis. Some might wonder why would we want to brave the crowds and deprive ourselves of sleep when we go could back to the Magic Kingdom any day. After all, our children go to school all day before we head to the Magic Kingdom.

Sure, my husband and I enjoy the party atmosphere and some of the special entertainment, but what really drives us is our kids' desire to stay up all night in The Most Magical Place on Earth. They are old enough at 10 and 12 to actually make it until dawn, and their excitement is the stuff of family memories that we will recount for years to come. For them, the thrill isn't necessarily to stay in the park for 24 hours straight but to stay up all night in the park. Remember when you were younger and staying up on New Year's Eve was a big deal? Well, multiply that by 1,000!

Of course we will check out the special entertainment that will be offered at the Coolest Summer Ever kickoff event and the short middle-of-the-night queues for favorite attractions, but we also have a few must-do's of our own:

** Although guests are invited to dress up in costumes, we usually save that for Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. Instead, my daughter loves to wear Disney-themed pajamas for the event, and I may or may not be joining her this year. She's too old to wear her pajamas in public otherwise, but my daughter used to love changing into her PJ's in the park as a little girl.

** Our first stop on Main Street, U.S.A., is The Emporium to shop for event merchandise. Because we all have plenty of Disney T-shirts and don't purchase souvenirs on each visit like vacationers, this is a treat. We each add one of the all-nighter T-shirts to our collections.

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** My favorite souvenirs are photos of my family at locations you can't snap on any other day. Last year, there were clever clock backdrops that guests could pose in front of with their arms forming the clock's hands to tell the time. We also stop in front of a clock on Main Street, U.S.A., right before we leave the park to show how late we were able to stay up.

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** Sweets! More hours in the Magic Kingdom means more opportunities to sample the specialty food items, right? It's been hot weather at the last two 24-hour parties, so we have gravitated to the Eye Scream Sundaes and Mickey's Kitchen Sink Sundaes at the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor. This is one night where I don't limit the kids' sugar intake.

** Our last stop is breakfast in the Magic Kingdom. My husband and I are night owls, so our kids very rarely have the opportunity to eat breakfast in the theme parks, which qualifies it as special in their minds. This year, I will be leading the crew to breakfast because it's the first time Mickey waffles - my favorite -- will be served at the event.

Of course, then, we have another tradition, in which we drive home and go to bed and sleep into the afternoon.



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May 12, 2015

What to expect at Walt Disney World's Coolest Summer Ever 24-hour party

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In less than two weeks, Walt Disney World will host its third annual 24-hour party to kick off the summer travel season. Each 'all-nighter' has taken place at the Magic Kingdom on Memorial Day weekend and has included special entertainment, unique food options and even themed merchandise. Plus, guests are invited to dress in costumes to show their #DisneySide.

This year's Coolest Summer Ever event takes place from 6 a.m. May 22 until 6 a.m. May 23., and Disney officials have teased us with a few hints about the magic to be offered that night. Here's what we know so far:

** "Frozen" characters Anna, Elsa, Olaf and Kristoff will welcome park guests at 6 a.m. after an opening show and ceremony. (Although there has been no official announcement, it's widely thought that Olaf will begin meet-and-greets that night. The popular snowman has been seen meeting guests at resort hotels and private events since the fall. No word on Kristoff, and Elsa and Anna already are stationed every day at Princess Fairytale Hall.)

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Teen Beach 2's Maia Mitchell, Ross Lynch, Grace Phipps and Garrett Clayton

** A host of Disney Channel and Disney XD actors will appear in the Magic Kingdom during at least two themed events. First, the stars will serve as Grand Marshals during the Festival of Fantasy parade at 3 p.m. Afterward, look for some of the actors to join the Club Chill DJ dance party from 4 to 11 p.m. in Tomorrowland. (There also will be previews of upcoming films and music videos.) The actors who have been confirmed, include:

From 'Jessie': Karan Brar, Skai Jackson and Peyton List
From 'Austin and Ally': Ross Lynch, Laura Marano and Calum Worthy
From 'Liv and Maddie': Dove Cameron
From 'Teen Beach 2': Maia Mitchell, Garrett Clayton and Grace Phipps
From 'Decendents': Sofia Carson
From 'Mighty Med': Bradley Perry and Jake Short

Please note that there has been no indication as of yet that the actors will do meet-and-greets with guests.

** After the dance party in Tomorrowland, Rockettower Plaza becomes the location for sing-along screenings of Disney's "Frozen" from midnight to 4 a.m.

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** Other late-night dance parties will be hosted by Disney characters wearing their pajamas in Frontierland and the Castle Hub. Characters announced so far include Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Chip, Dale and Goofy. (At the first party, guests were able to meet Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, who were dressed in their PJs, in the Town Square Theater. Last year, although they appeared for the opening and closing ceremonies, the famous pair did not meet with guests individually, and many of us were disappointed. We are hoping that changes this year because that was one of our favorite souvenirs.)

** A morning dance party will take place, as well. Join your favorite heroes from "The Incredibles" in the #IncrediblesSuperDanceParty in Tomorrowland, starting at 9:30 a.m.

** Radio Disney personalities Ernie D, Brooke, Candice and Nate will broadcast live from the event from 8 a.m. to midnight.

** There will be additional showings of regular parades. The Move It! Shake it! Dance and Play It! Street Party will take place at 9:30 a.m. and 5:40 p.m., and the Main Street Electrical Parade will step off at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Olaf, Kristoff, Anna and Elsa 'put Magic Kingdom Park 'on ice' with pre-MSEP parade appearances,' according to the Disney Parks Blog.

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** Annual Passholders were invited last month to pre-order the event T-shirts, which feature Olaf and change colors when exposed to sunlight.

** A live Magic Cam feed will allow fans from home to catch glimpses of parades, shows and fireworks at select times during the event.

** For the first year, Mickey waffles will be served for an early-morning breakfast in the park. That's an unusual occurrence for quick-service restaurants at the Magic Kingdom, although they are routinely available at the character breakfasts. See you in line!

Take a look back at the all-nighter events in 2014 and 2013.



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April 6, 2015

Spring Break Beach Bash debuts this week at Disney's Yacht & Beach Club

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Spring break is a break from the routine, right? Well, Walt Disney World is making sure this time of the year truly lives up to its meaning for its resort guests. At Disney's Yacht & Beach Club hotel, for example, the staff has introduced a Spring Break Beach Bash this week - and it's open to all Walt Disney World guests, a cast member told me.

The Beach Bash is set up - you guessed it - on the beach behind the Beach Club, adjacent to the pirate ship water slide. And what they are offering far exceeds the nightly outdoor movie and marshmallow roast, which - for the record - we find pretty entertaining without any additions. But on select days this week, the activities have been greatly expanded.

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Along the sidewalk, tables are set up to offer guests a whole lot of free, family friendly entertainment. Kids can choose from among several crafts to make, and each receives a 'Happy Spring' bag of candy. Plus, there is a station handing out s'mores kits. (Typically, the deluxe resorts, such as the Yacht & Beach Club, provide marshmallows for toasting but sell the kits for between $5 and $10.)

In the sand, the recreation staff leads kids in games, including crab walks, water balloon tosses, relays, dance competitions and hula-hoop contests.

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Plus, Disney artists are stationed nearby, offering face painting, again free of charge, for children and adults alike. The images range from small classic Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse designs to full-face designs, such as the tiger my nephew chose. (Typically, face painting costs $12 to $15 in the Walt Disney World theme parks.)

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And to top it off, two pontoon boats were dedicated to the Spring Break Beach Bash. Cast members ferried groups of 10 visitors around on the lake to see the sights and sounds of the Boardwalk. These pontoon boats usually are reserved for the nightly fireworks cruises, which are not inexpensive.

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The Spring Break Beach Bash is another example of how Walt Disney World cast members make extra magic every day. My children and their cousins did not expect to spend their evening at the Beach Bash, but when they discovered it, they were thrilled with all the different activities. As a Disney World veteran, I certainly appreciated the value of the entertainment that was being provided at no cost.

The Spring Break Beach Bash is scheduled to take place again this week from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday at Disney's Yacht & Beach Club.



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April 3, 2015

Easter entertainment and dining at Walt Disney World

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It's Easter weekend at Walt Disney World, which means it's quite crowded. But the upside to all the extra visitors is that additional food and entertainment options have been added for the weeks before and after the holiday. Here's what to look for around the resort.

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In the Magic Kingdom:

** Guests can meet Mr. and Mrs. Bunny in the 'garden' adjacent to City Hall in Town Square from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sunday, April 5.

** An Easter pre-parade will be presented twice today and Sunday - at 11:45 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. - before the Festival of Fantasy Parade. In past years, the pre-parade has featured the Azalea Trail Maids, Daisy Duck, Thumper and Miss Bunny, Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh, and Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, of course.

** At least two eateries that do not have regular hours will be open through April 11. Aunt Polly's on Tom Sawyer Island is open for the first time in forever. It has a limited menu, but the novelty of having a snack on the island may be fun for veteran guests. Expect to find fresh fruit; chips; hummus with veggie chips; PB&J with apple slices, carrots and a drink; turkey sandwich with apple slices; and lemonade, strawberry lemonade, tea and water.

** The second spot is the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon, a quick-service restaurant for lunch and dinner. You can see the seasonal menu on our AllEars.Net resource page.

At Epcot:

** Mr. and Mrs. Bunny also take photos and sign autographs on Easter Sunday behind the United Kingdom pavilion near the maze garden.

** In the same UK area, children ages 3 to 9 can sign up for an Easter Egg hunt and kids ages 8 to 12 can participate in an Easter Egg Relay. When my children were younger, we did this for several years, and it was a lot of fun. You can read about our experiences here.

** Guests of all ages can take part in the Disney Egg-stravaganza, which is a hunt for eggs themed to Disney characters, through Sunday. To participate, each guest must purchase a map for $4.95 at Heritage Manor Gifts (American Adventure Pavilion), Pin Central, Plaza Towers (Port of Entry) and World Traveler (International Gateway). Record your finding and then turn in the map to Port of Entry for a surprise.

At the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa:

** Check out the exquisite display of edible Easter eggs in the lobby. Or take our virtual tour of the creations.

** Reserve your spot for a brunch at 1900 Park Fare today and Sunday at 1 p.m. This is not a character meal, but a spread fit for a princess.

What are you waiting for? Get hopping!



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April 2, 2015

Families will find a lot to enjoy at renovated Polynesian Village at Walt Disney World

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One of the original hotels at Walt Disney World, Disney's Polynesian Village has long been known as a favorite among families. And the completion of the recent renovations and expansion have reinforced that family comes first at this South Pacific-inspired resort.

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The biggest change certainly is the addition of Disney Vacation Club villas and Walt Disney World's first over-the-water bungalows. The Polynesian is the third and final hotel on the monorail loop to add DVC accommodations. Although DVC membership appeals to many types of repeat visitors, there's no denying that families often consider the timeshare company because it allows them more room and more dining options when traveling.

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"With the DVC bungalows and studios, you have so much more flexibility," said Kate Melody, a Disney Parks Moms Panelist and DVC member. "I have four children and so really the bungalows would be a better choice for us. Being a larger family, we like the flexibility of the villas. The new setup for the studios actually has a split bathroom, so for us in the morning trying to get four children plus Mommy getting ready - you want to look good for those PhotoPass photos - is a little bit of a challenge in a standard hotel room. That's one of the reasons we purchased Disney Vacation Club."

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Kate Melody (left) and Juliette Merchant

Juliette Merchant, another Disney Parks Moms Panelist, DVC member and mother of four, agreed, adding that she enjoys cooking when staying at Walt Disney World. "I cook every day of the week at home except Fridays. And when I come to a DVC resort, that's what I do," she said. "We may do one meal outside the villa each day, and that's probably lunch so the kids get a little bit of a treat. I cook breakfast in our villa, and I cook dinner. I love being able to feed my family the foods that I want to feed them. Of course, it's cheaper, but I know that they're going to eat what they're used to eating. For our family, coming to the resort is such a big draw for them they don't feel deprived if we're not going to every park (or restaurant.)"

Regardless of whether guests stay in hotel rooms or the DVC villas and bungalows, they share access to the resort's many amenities. The centerpiece for many families is, of course, the pool deck. At the Polynesian, the main pool -- the Lava Pool - has been under construction for almost a year. It's expected to reopen within the next two weeks with an additional 35,000 square feet of deck space, said Polynesian Village General Manager Norm Noble.

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Norm Noble

"The volcano [by the pool] has been redesigned, and it has a much more natural feel," he said. "I think people are going to connect with that. It's unique and different."

In addition, a new children's interactive water play area, Kiki Tikis Splash Area, has been added. It contains two smaller slides, while the volcano in the Lava Pool still houses one water slide.

A new eight-person infinity hot tub that overlooks Seven Seas Lagoon opens with the Lava Pool this month. That's an addition that guests repeatedly have requested because the Polynesian was the sole deluxe resort at Walt Disney World without one. A renovation completed in 2001 added warmer water areas and seating to one end of the pool, but they were a far cry from a hot tub.

The quiet pool is set to close for renovations when the new Lava Pool opens to guests.

"Nothing has changed with the marina and its offerings," Noble said. "However, the one thing we have created is the lawn where we are going to be able to do some different experiences. We're going to be able to move the lighting of the torch that we typically would do at 6 o'clock every evening. That's now going to be done on the lawn. And then we're also going to show movies for kids on the lawn. We did show them on the beach."

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You can read about other entertainment, such as hula lessons with Disney Legend Auntie Kau'i and the Spirit of Aloha luau, in my blogs from when we stayed at the Polynesian two years ago. Those entertainment aspects remain unchanged. Also, my AllEars newsletter feature gives an overview of our vacation experiences.

Disney's Polynesian Village houses two table-service restaurants, Kona Café and 'Ohana, plus two bars on the second floor of the main Ceremonial House. The recent renovations extended to the quick-service Captain Cook's restaurant and the new Pineapple Lanai, home of the famous Dole Whip ice cream, on the first floor.

The most-talked about location for adult beverages and small plates of food, however, is the new Trader Sam's Grog Grotto. This intimate, interactive bar and lounge is modeled after its very popular counterpart located in the Disneyland Hotel. The Florida edition also has additional seating outdoors at Trader Sam's Tiki Terrace, which has its own bar with live entertainment that is Polynesian-themed.

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Trader Sam's is the first bar at Walt Disney World to restrict access during some hours to those only 21 and older. You can read more about the policy in my previous blog.

In California, Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Room is set in the 1930s, while the Orlando location has 1,200 props based on a 1960s theme. And that timeframe is indicative of the newly designed areas throughout the resort.

"What we had here was an opportunity to look at that time period when tiki really hit its stride: post WWII to mid-20th century," said Kyle Barnes, the Imagineer responsible for overseeing the design and direction for the entire renovation at the Polynesian Village. "So we took that era as an inspiration for our furniture and then melded that with the original design of the resort itself."



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March 31, 2015

Should Walt Disney World bars and lounges serve only adults?

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Visitors familiar with Walt Disney World know how difficult it can be to get reservations at some of the most sought-after restaurants on property. Travelers scramble to secure hot tickets, like Cinderella's Royal Table and Le Cellier, when the booking opens 180 days in advance. And Be Our Guest (Beast's castle) in the Magic Kingdom? Forget it! You basically need to be staying at a Walt Disney World resort so you can book it even sooner or luck into a cancellation. So is it any wonder that some families have found a way to experience some of the top Disney restaurants without a reservation?

Recently, we have observed families with young children eating at the bars in restaurants such as the California Grill at the Contemporary hotel or lounges such as Tune-In adjacent to the 50s Prime Time Café at Hollywood Studios. Bar seating doesn't, of course, require a reservation, and may be the only way to gain entrance to a particular eatery that is booked solid six months in advance. Our family has never tried this, but I'm curious how other adults feel about sitting at a bar next to unrelated children. Do you feel like that area should be restricted to adults of legal drinking age or is first-come, first-served the best way to handle the open seating?

Walt Disney World has introduced a policy with its newest lounge, Trader Sam's Grog Grotto at the Polynesian Village, that is something of a compromise. The bar opens at 4 p.m. daily and welcomes all guests until 8 p.m. After that, access is limited to guests 21 years and older until closing time at midnight. Trader Sam's is modeled after the original lounge at the Disneyland hotel and serves "light bites" in addition to an extensive menu of specialty drinks. It is a highly anticipated addition to the re-imagined Polynesian hotel. Although Trader Sam's doesn't take reservations, it's expected to have hours-long waits for at least the first few months of operation, so I wonder if this clear-cut policy will make guests grumble or accept the inevitable. (Trader Sam's is in soft opening now and is expected to have its official opening toward the end of April.)

So, is eating at the bar a great tip for families or something that is best left to the adults? We'd love to hear what you think in the comments!



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March 26, 2015

Making magical Easter baskets at Walt Disney World

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Celebrating Easter at Walt Disney World certainly can put a little hop in your step. But for those with children expecting a delivery from the Easter Bunny on April 5, the logistics may seem difficult at best. Rest assured - the Easter Bunny can find kids anywhere, especially when parents and cast members can offer a little assistance.

Guests have three options for purchasing baskets at the resort.

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The first is pre-assembled baskets that are available in most hotel gift shops and lobbies during the week before Easter. These baskets typically are built around a theme. Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney Princesses and Frozen (of course!) are popular. Steven Miller, Merchandise Communications Manager at Walt Disney World, told me that that the best selection will be available on the Thursday before Easter.

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The second choice is for Walt Disney World guests to customize the baskets that are sold in the hotels. Cast members will start with a white basket, green grass, shrink wrap and the choice of a bow -- pink, yellow, blue, purple -- for $7 plus tax. The rest of the price of the basket is determined by the toys and treats chosen for the recipient. Popular items include plush Disney characters, Easter-themed crispy rice treats, coloring books, autograph books and assorted toys.

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So what are some of the more creative baskets cast members have seen over the years? A water-themed basket that featured goggles, beach toys and a swimsuit for the pool-loving child and a basket with a Disney Dooney & Bourke bag as its centerpiece for one lucky wife.

The average total basket price is about $50, though that obviously was not for the basket with the Dooney bag. There is no charge for labor.

Hotel gift shops will store the baskets until Easter morning if guests don't want to try to keep them hidden in their rooms.

The third option is the Custom Gift Builder service from Disney Floral & Gifts. This online service gives each customer the ability to select a container and all of the contents to tailor-make a gift.

Guests who like the look of traditional Easter baskets can choose a white basket with a handle and a personalized liner with the child's name. For those who prefer a container they can reuse, there are tote bags, backpack coolers, cinch sacks and Mickey Mouse-shaped trays. Prices for the containers range from about $17 to $60.

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There are more than 100 items that guests can add to their containers, and they are offered at a range of prices. The traditional chocolate bunnies, Peeps marshmallow chicks and various flavors of jelly beans are among the offerings.

Not sure what to put in an Easter basket to make it look irresistible? You can choose from one of the pre-arranged baskets for boys and girls and personalize it by adding the child's name. Prices range from about $70 to $97.

Baskets can be ordered on the Disney Floral & Gifts website or by calling 407-939-4438, and they will be delivered to your hotel room.



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March 24, 2015

Invitations to 2015 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration

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On Friday, March 20, the hashtag #DisneySMMC was trending in the United States -- and with good reason. For many mom bloggers, that day had the potential to be a roller coaster of emotions. That's because invitations to the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration were sent out, and everyone wanted to talk about their joy or disappointment and try to figure out just how to get on the coveted list.

The short answer is that attendance at "The Most Magical Social Media Conference of the Year" is by invitation only, although there might be some ways to increase your odds. (More on that below.) This year's conference takes place May 7 to 10 -- Mother's Day weekend -- at Walt Disney World. This is the sixth year for the conference, with all but one held in Florida. Last year it was at Disneyland.

The Disney Social Media Moms Celebration is a conference for bloggers who get professional communication advice from a range of speakers from national companies. Some of the past speakers have included wedding designer David Tutera; Matt Jacobson, head of market development at Facebook; Chris Brogan, president of Human Business Works, New York Times best-selling author and consultant; Ridley Pearson, the author of the "Kingdom Keepers" series for young adults and many other novels; and Rene Syler, former CBS' The Early Show Anchor and webmaster of goodenoughmother.com.

The four-day event also includes elements of a press junket, allowing conference attendees to experience what's new at the Disney Parks. Plus, it's a celebration that includes many fun family dinners and experiences. Participants pay their own way to the conference and a discounted registration fee that typically includes three nights at a deluxe resort, theme park tickets and dinners for the family, and meals for the blogger.

The big question is, of course, how to get invited to the conference. And, unfortunately, there is no definitive answer, except that it involves a lot of pixie dust.

I was among those fortunate enough to be invited to the 2011 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration, and I learned as much from my fellow bloggers as the amazing speakers. Moms who blog about Disney and other Orlando theme parks (like me) actually were in the minority. Most participants were mom bloggers who write about their daily experiences with their families, while some had specialized blogs for travel and other niches. It's a small group -- somewhere between 150 to 200 bloggers and their families attend.

Although most of this year's conference invitations have gone out -- there may be some last-minute emails if some participants are unable attend -- those interested in attending in 2016 might be able to increase their chances by getting involved online and in person.

** Begin by following and interacting on social media (when appropriate) with Maria Bailey, who helped create the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration. She is known as "the" authority on marketing to moms. She and her company, BSM Media, Inc., still are very involved with the conference. You also can connect with her by registering as a mom blogger at MomSelect.

** Be sure you are following on social media the Disney organizers behind the magic: @DisneySMMoms @DisneyParks @WaltDisneyWorld @DisneylandToday @DisneyCruise @DisneySports @runDisney @leannej (Leanne J. O'Regan, Walt Disney World Director of Social Media)

** Try to attend a Disney Social Media Moms Celebration on the Road. These mini conferences take place during the summer in a handful of cities throughout the United States. They are a good way to network and promote yourself to the organizers of the big conference at the Disney Parks. Although the 2015 dates have not yet been announced, you can sign up for an email notification on the official Disney Social Media Moms Celebration site. When you receive that notice, you can express your interest with a form on the site, and invitations will be sent out.



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March 21, 2015

Florida artists bring pixie dust and props to Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival

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Two Florida artists who have been spreading pixie dust at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival for years with their miniature fairy houses are back with new creations this year. And for one special weekend, you can meet them at the festival and purchase unique pieces from their company, the Prop Duster Dept.

Sisters Vikki Yarborough and Ronda Maseman work just like the Disney Fairies do -- by recycling objects that humans have discarded and by collecting things from nature.

Last year, they told me about their company's origins: "We are sisters that have been feeding off of one another's ideas and imagination, creating things together for many years. Our current path began with making various props for gardens -- wind chimes, stepping stones, scarecrows, bird baths, mosaic garden animals, topiaries covered in seeds and homes to attract fairies. The Prop Duster Dept. was born when someone said we make props dusted with pixie dust. The fairies then asked for more, so we took a side path to create these fantasy homes."

At this year's Flower and Garden Festival, guests can see their signature fairy house, which is the large one modeled after Tinker Bell's home in the Disney movies and features an overturned teacup. It's located adjacent to the Tinker Bell topiary outside the butterfly garden in Future World.

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"The large Tinker Bell house has been in the Festival since the DVD movies began [in 2008]," Yarborough told me. "We watched the movie to get the an idea which direction to go. With Tinker Bell's guidance, we found a large white teapot and a stump of wood for the base, similar to that in the movie; then added other natural items that Tink had used to decorate her house. Each year we bring her home after the festival and refurbish it to get it ready for the next year."

In past years, the festival also featured multiple fairy topiaries and their homes also were designed by Yarborough and Maseman. I was sad to see they did not return this year.

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However, the pair has created several other stunning pieces in the festival for visitors to enjoy. For example, outside the China pavilion, there is a ram statue made out of natural materials. It represents the Year of the Sheep, and signs in the surrounding garden explain the significance of the zodiac in the Chinese calendar.

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The sisters also have styled props for various gardens, including Miss Piggy's gardening gloves in her basket of gardening supplies, spice balls in Morocco, Winnie the Pooh's honey pots and the three pollinators - a bee, a snail and a butterfly - in Pooh's garden outside the U.K. buildings.

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The Prop Duster Dept. is responsible for this year's miniature gardens in Japan, as well. Yarborough and Maseman developed a Zen Garden, a Tea Garden and a Mountains Garden based on actual sites.

Guests can see more of the sisters' work and purchase pieces during the festival's Art in the Garden weekend, March 27 to 29. Their white artist tent will be located on the Canada side of the World Showcase promenade and will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. all three days.

Can't make it out to Epcot that weekend? Yarborough and Maseman will be showcasing their fairy houses at a garden tour event, The Private Gardens of Historic Orlando featuring Lake Eola Heights. It takes place in downtown Orlando from noon to 5 p.m. on April 19.

Maseman lives in Central Florida and teaches art to children during the school year and summer art camp at the Mount Dora Center for the Arts. In her spare time, she loves to paint miniature watercolors.

Yarborough lives in Fort Lauderdale with her husband of 36 years and five dogs. She has two grown sons, one who works at Disney's Animal Kingdom. When she's not creating pixie dust, she enjoys working with stained glass and other home projects.



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March 16, 2015

Walt Disney World to host On the Road to the Radio Disney Music Awards concert

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The 2015 Radio Disney Music Awards will be televised in a little more than a month, but in the meantime, fans can vote for their favorite musicians. In addition, Radio Disney is hosting a series of free concerts called "On the Road to the RDMAs" and one will take place at Walt Disney World.

The Orlando event will take place April 4 at Typhoon Lagoon, one of Walt Disney World's two water parks. Jacquie Lee, Sweet Suspense, The Fooo Conspiracy and Alex Angelo will perform, with Radio Disney's on-air personality Brooke Taylor hosting.

Lee is a pop singer best known for being a runner-up on Season 5 of The Voice. Sweet Suspense is an American all-female pop trio that were grouped together on "X Factor USA" by Simon Cowell. The Fooo Conspiracy is a Swedish pop boy band that opened for Justin Bieber at a 2013 concert. Alex Angelo produces and hosts his own weekly radio show on Radio Disney called the Saturday Night Party, making him the youngest nationally syndicated radio host. Last year, he was the DJ throughout the Disney Channel broadcast of the Radio Disney Music Awards.

The Typhoon Lagoon concert is included in the price of admission, which is $53 plus tax for ages 10 and older and $45 plus tax for ages 3 to 9.

The "On the Road to the RDMAs" concert tour kicks off on Saturday, March 21 in Macon, Ga. The Fooo Conspiracy, Megan Nicole and Alex Angelo will perform at The International Cherry Blossom Festival. The concert will be hosted by Radio Disney's Alli Simpson, sister of singer Cody Simpson, and Brooke Taylor.

Next, Jessica Sanchez, Jordan Fisher and Alex Angelo perform at the McDonald's Houston Children's Festival on March 28 in Houston. That concert will be hosted by Radio Disney's Candice.

Radio Disney listeners can win a trip to the Walt Disney World concert or one to be held at Disneyland in mid- to late April through its Radio Disney On the Road to the RDMAs Sweepstakes. The winner can choose which concert to attend and will view the concert by the stage, hang out backstage and introduce a performance with host Taylor.

To enter, listen for Radio Disney to announce the daily code word and enter it online. Code Word of the Day is valid from 6 a.m. ET on the day it is announced on-air until 5:59 am ET the following morning. The sweepstakes is open to legal residents of the 50 United States, DC or Canada (excluding Quebec), 16 years of age or younger. Sweepstakes ends at 6 p.m. ET March 26, 2015.

The 2015 Radio Disney Music Awards will be televised at 8 p.m. ET April 26 on the Disney Channel. Fans can vote until April 5 on the RMDA website, Facebook and Twitter, by text and through the Radio Disney phone app.



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February 19, 2015

Review: External batteries for theme-park use

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When I bought my first smartphone almost six years ago, I quickly realized that I would need the ability to recharge the battery without being tethered to an outlet. This has become increasingly important when I visit the theme parks, especially with all the photos and video I shoot and my frequent posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. So, over the years, I have purchased various external battery packs and talked with others about their preferences. Perhaps my experiences will help you if you are in the market for a way to recharge your phone or tablet on the go.

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My quest to find the perfect external battery began back when I had an iPhone 3GS and my children had iPods. The battery I purchased was very small (it fit in my palm) and plugged directly into our devices - no cords needed. It could be recharged with a shell that plugged directly into the wall. The downside was that it only provided about a 30 percent charge, which, in my mind, was good enough for emergencies, but not for regular visits to the theme parks. I don't think this type of battery is sold any longer.

Mophie Juice Pack

Next, I graduated to a Mophie Juice Pack. These juice packs not only offer recharging power, but they also serve as cases for smart phones.

Pros: The cases are slim enough that you can still slip your phone in your pocket, and you don't need to carry around a separate battery pack. You can charge your phone and the juice pack simultaneously.

Cons: The juice pack was not durable enough for me because I tend to toss my phone in my very purse, and I have been known to also drop it occasionally. My Mophie Juice Pack eventually did break. (In fairness, the designs have improved over the years, so this might not be the case any longer.) Also, the various Mophie Juice Packs give you a boost of about one full recharge (80 to 120 percent). That may be plenty for some people, but I actually need to recharge more often because I spend a lot of time tweeting and posting while I'm in theme parks.

Price: $80 - $120, depending on capacity

New Trent PowerPak Ultra 14000mAh External Battery

I have tried several of New Trent's external batteries, and they are a better fit for my needs and those of my family. This heavy-duty battery is compatible with most smart phones and 5V tablets.

Pros: PowerPaks have two or three USB outlets so you can charge multiple devices at the same time. Each battery provides up to six full charges before the battery itself must be recharged. I'm able to charge to my phone multiple times, plus those of my family members, while we are in the theme parks.

Cons: The external battery is heavy and will add weight to your backpack or bag. It's also too bulky to slip in your pocket.

List price: $100 for this model, though prices range on other similar models

Do you have a favorite external battery for your smart phone or tablet? Please tell us about it in the comments.

DISCLAIMER: If you purchase any of these items through the links to Amazon.com in this blog post, AllEars.Net receives a small payment. This, in turn, helps us bring you all the Walt Disney World news you look forward to.



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February 14, 2015

Urban Farm garden to debut at 2015 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

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With a recent string of chilly nights (and days) in Orlando, it may be difficult to think about being outside, let alone enjoying your back yard. But that's exactly what Walt Disney World gardeners have been doing. Plans for the 2015 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival have been in the works since last year's edition ended. The Flower & Garden Festival begins March 4 - just a little more than two weeks away!

Walt Disney World officials have given us a taste of what we can expect this year, and AllEars.Net has those details in our News Blog.

But a recent article in the Disney Rewards newsletter, a quarterly newsletter mailed to Disney Visa card members, offers more specific information about a brand-new garden. The Urban Farm garden will demonstrate "creative ways to grow fruits and vegetables, including raised beds, container gardening, and hanging methods that maximize productivity in small spaces." That sounds a lot like what Disney World does best, doesn't it? All three methods are easily visible throughout Disney property, though they are more often seen with flowers than food. Certainly, hydroponics and other growing methods for fruits and vegetables can be seen during the Living With The Land attraction at Epcot, however.

"The team is excited about this new garden because we all enjoy growing food," Eric Darden, horticulture content manager at Walt Disney World, said in the newsletter. "There's something so satisfying about saying, 'I'm going to run outside and pick some strawberries for my cereal this morning'."

In addition, there will be a display of home-size aquatic systems to raise fresh fish, information about chicken coops and raising chickens, and a beekeeping display.

"Currently, only about 35 percent of Americans are avid gardeners, but it is becoming a fast-growing trend," Darden said in the article.

Guests will be able sample foods that they might grow at home at the Urban Farm Fresh outdoor kitchen. Outdoor kitchens, which sell appetizer-size portions of foods, are similar to the booths at Epcot's popular Food & Wine Festival in the fall. Although the Urban Farm garden will be new, the Urban Farm Eats booth is not. It debuted last year and its menu included:

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** Land-grown eggplant "scallop" with romesco sauce and spaghetti squash $3.75
** Pickled beet salad with goat cheese cream, mizuna and pistachios $3.50
** Ghost pepper-dusted tilapia with crisp winter melon slaw and mint oil featuring
** The Original Sauce Man's Kick It Up Rub $4.75
** Cucumber lemon spa water, finished with a sprig of fresh mint $2.00
** The Vegan Vine Chardonnay $3.25
** The Vegan Vine Cabernet Sauvignon $3.25
** Redbridge Gluten-Free Sorghum Beer, Anheuser-Busch $6.50
** Seagram's Orange Citrus Sparkling Water $2.75
** Minute Maid Light Lemonade $2.75
** Dasani Bottled Water $2.50

No word on if the menu will remain the same.

This will be the third year that the Flower & Garden Festival includes outdoor kitchens. The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival runs through May 17 and is included in regular admission to Epcot.



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January 30, 2015

Where to watch the 2015 Super Bowl at Walt Disney World

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If your weekend involves the Super Bowl and Walt Disney World, that alone should make you feel like an MVP. To make sure you aren't left fumbling around for a place to watch Sunday's game or Monday's celebratory parade, we've got all the details and plenty of suggestions.

Those who don't care to watch Seattle battle New England -- or the commercial debuts or half-time show by Katy Perry -- can take advantage of the almost-deserted theme parks. Super Bowl Sunday is actually one of the least-crowded days at Walt Disney World, so make the most of it! The weather is expected to be nice, with only a small chance of rain.

Should you be in the other camp and among the millions of fans looking forward to the big game -- or just vacationing with someone who is a football fanatic -- there are plenty of places to catch the game on television screens at Walt Disney World. Probably the first one that comes to mind for many folks is the ESPN Club on the Boardwalk because of its sports theme, 100 television screens, and traditional "game day" food. Consequently, the ESPN Club fills up early -- folks have been known to arrive hours early to secure a spot. ESPN Club opens at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday. The restaurant does take reservations for its VIP packages, but those already are booked. However, you can call 407-WDW-DINE to check if there are any cancellations if you want a guaranteed table.

The ESPN Club is not the only place to watch the Super Bowl on Disney property, though. At Downtown Disney, Splitsville will have the game on its flat-panel screens, and the first floor will be open to walk-in visitors. Guests can order off the regular menu and bowl at normal prices. Planet Hollywood also will be showing the Super Bowl, while serving its usual menu.

In past years, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex has had two viewing locations open to the public -- ESPN Grill and the Jumbotron at the Welcome Center. The Grill is open again this year from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and will be showing the big game. The complex has not announced whether the Super Bowl will be shown on the Jumbotron because there are other sporting events scheduled in the complex.

And then there are plenty of viewing locations at the Walt Disney World hotels, starting with the comfort of your own room. NBC will be carrying the 49th Super Bowl in the Orlando market. Want to join your fellow fans? Most of the pool bars and hotel lounges also will have the game on, though they may not have multiple screens.

The Four Seasons Orlando is having a Super Bowl celebration this Sunday, February 1st at PB&G beginning at 4 p.m. PB&G is the southern-style lakeside casual restaurant. There will be a special game day menu, bar games, TVs for each pavilion, beers from each team's city and special cocktails to represent each team. No reservations needed. Valet parking will be validated ($5 per car)

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Finally, if you're going to be at the Magic Kingdom on Monday, be sure to check the Times Guide because you might be able to see your favorite player in person. The Super Bowl MVP traditionally comes to Disney World and will be feted in a celebratory parade down Main Street, U.S.A. Arrive early, though, because it gets crowded.

Some guests can continue their Super Bowl celebration all year with an offer from the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. Residents of both Washington and New England (valid New England states include Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) will receive a free night at the Walt Disney World hotel when booking two nights at the standard price before March 1 for stays through Feb. 3, 2016. Some restrictions apply. They also will receive a complimentary automatic room upgrade. To make reservations, they can call 1-800-227-1500 and mention their home state.



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January 17, 2015

Orlando Science Center’s Otronicon features hands-on exhibit from Walt Disney World

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Video gamers can get a look behind the screen, if you will, this weekend at the Orlando Science Center's Otronicon, a four-day event dedicated to technology and digital media. As one of the exhibitors, Walt Disney World will give visitors a glimpse into how technology is used at its theme parks and how attractions are designed.

Now in its tenth year, Otronicon runs Jan. 16 through 19. The science center describes the event this way: "Discover how we will live, learn, work and play in the years to come through video games, simulation and other technology - most of which is made here in Orlando."

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Disney's Imagineers present Math Magic 'Science Fair!' each day throughout the event. The exhibit has several demonstrations that will show the difference between digital and analog control for animated figures. Plus, visitors can see how simulations and mechanical engineering are used at Walt Disney World.

Last year's Disney exhibit included demonstrations of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) applications in popular Disney Parks attractions Toy Story Midway Mania, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Tours and Test Track. Visitors were able to get hands-on experience operating the computer programs that run some of the attractions.

Otronicon 2015 also features state-of-the-art medical and military simulators from Florida Hospital for Children and Lockheed Martin, respectively; workshops taught by industry professionals; and video-game development and competitions.

Admission to Otronicon is $19 per day for adults and $13 per day for children ages 3 to 11. Admission to Otronicon is free for Science Center members. Hours for Otronicon are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Jan. 16 -17 and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Jan. 18 -19.

Can't make it to Otronicon to check the theme-park exhibit? Look for other STEM demonstrations and celebrations during National Engineers Week next month at Walt Disney World. For the last several years, Raytheon has offered extra interactive experiences for the week. Raytheon, an aerospace and defense contractor that employs state-of-the-art electronics and communications systems for government and commercial projects, sponsors Sum of All Thrills at Epcot. This attraction allows guests to digitally design their own roller coasters and then experience a simulated ride in them.



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January 15, 2015

Fans invited to submit writing and artwork based on Ridley Pearson's 'Kingdom Keeper' books

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Author Ridley Pearson has long celebrated the fans who have made his "Kingdom Keepers" books best sellers, even inviting them to help him write the last novel in the original young adult series that is set at Disney properties. That book, "The Insider," was published last spring.

Since then, Pearson has been at work on a trilogy that picks up where "The Insider" left off. The first book in the new series, "The Return: Disney Lands," has a U.S. publication date of March 31. The author also has been busy creating "Fairlies Adventures," a series of novellas in the "Kingdom Keepers" series. The first, "The Syndrome," will be released March 3. And throughout the creative process, Pearson has again solicited submissions from fans, the best of which will be included in the projects and their promotions.

Although some writing contests have closed, there still are some ways young adults can be involved with their beloved "Kingdom Keepers" series. Last summer, Pearson invited readers to participate in eight writing challenges that ended on Sept. 1. The deadline has been reached, but the entries (and the winners) are posted on kingdomkeepersinsider.com, so fans can have a sneak peek at what will be in the finished novel.

Pearson sums up the plot on his website this way: "With the defeat of the Overtakers behind them, the five teenagers known as the Kingdom Keepers should be celebrating. By all accounts, they saved Disneyland from certain destruction. Why then did their mentor leave one last puzzle for them to decipher? The Keepers must solve a puzzle of the past, or be crushed under an evil that makes the Overtakers seem like gentle souls."

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As for the "Fairlies Adventures," Pearson says the name comes from the "fairly human" girls Amanda, Jess and Mattie. "Over the years, they've protected and supported the five Disney guides with their paranormal abilities," he wrote.

Writing challenges still are open for the first novella on TheKingdomKeepers.com. According to the website, "If you, collectively, can decipher the clues in time, you'll unlock sneak previews and behind-the-scenes intel on this awesome new book."

Plus, artists are asked to submit drawings of Amanda, Jess and Mattie by Jan. 17 for a chance to be featured in the book trailer. Submissions should be sent to Pearson's assistant Jen at jen@ridleypearson.com. Fans can view the art as it is submitted on Pinterest at http://www.pinterest.com/ridleypearson/fairlies/

The team has utilized fan art for projects in the past, including T-shirts for the book publicity tour.

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Speaking of the tour, for the last several years, Pearson has launched each new "Kingdom Keepers" novel at Walt Disney World. No word yet on whether he will be in Central Florida for the release of "The Return: Disney Lands," but stay tuned because we definitely are watching for the announcement. In the meantime, here are some tips and thoughts about what to expect at such a popular book signing, should it come our way again.



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January 10, 2015

Walt Disney World adds magic to Paws in the Park fundraiser and festival

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Pluto is showing his love for his fellow furry friends in Central Florida at the Paws in the Park fundraiser and festival at Lake Eola on Valentine's Day. Hosted by the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando, the annual family friendly event includes a pet walk, food trucks, vendors, demonstrations, agility contests and a kid zone from Walt Disney World. Plus, Pluto's owners are offering a fabulous prize to the top individual fundraiser.

The centerpiece of the annual event, which takes place this year on Feb. 14, is the dog walk that serves as a fundraiser for homeless pets and other initiatives of the SPCA of Central Florida. Registration is ongoing now. Participants can join as packs (a group of people who commit to raising at least $500 total) or as individuals. Participation is $25 for adults and $10 for children ages 12 and younger. Walkers can even register the day of the event for $35. All registrants receive a T-shirt, doggie bandana and admission to Splash Dogs Dock Diving, the Doggie Fun Zone and the Canine Sports Arena at the event. Walkers do not have to have dogs accompany them to participate.

There is no minimum fundraising requirement for individuals, but incentives are given for collecting amounts from $50 to $1,000. They include such prizes as dog toys, sports water bottle, collapsible bowl and commemorative pin, and six-month and one-year supplies of Frontline Plus. (Registration fees count toward fundraising totals.)

Packs and individuals are encouraged to attend a "pre-registration" event at the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando, 2727 Conroy Road, Orlando, FL 32839 on Feb. 11 to pick up their T-shirts and other prizes.

This year's top fundraising pack will win a lunch with Animal Planet star Victoria Stilwell at a dog-friendly Orlando restaurant. This year's top individual fundraiser will win a two-night stay at a Walt Disney World hotel for two people and two theme-park tickets with Park Hopper for one day.

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The walk begins at 9 a.m. with registration at 8 a.m., and the other activities go until 1 p.m. Stilwell is the featured presenter at Lake Eola, and she will be demonstrating various dog-training techniques from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Families won't want to miss the Disney Kids and Family Zone, presented by Walt Disney World, which has interactive activities everyone can enjoy. In addition, nationally recognized company Splash Dogs will offer dock-jumping competitions, and local pet resort Happy Paws hosts a Canine Sports area.

Entrance to park is free, but there is a charge to participate in the event activities. Those not joining the walk who would like to experience the other activities can purchase a $10 pass.

Sponsor WFTV offers these reminders:

** All pets must be at least 6 months old and have proof of vaccinations.
** Dogs only please. No female dogs in heat.
** Pets must wear a suitable collar.
** Keep your dogs on a 6-foot leash or shorter and under control at all times.
** Water for dogs will be supplied.
** Please be considerate and pick-up after your dog.
** For the enjoyment and safety of all participants, any aggressive animal will be asked to leave the park.
** Please obey all rules of Lake Eola. No swimming in the lake and no chasing the ducks or swans.



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December 29, 2014

Ideas for celebrating New Year's Eve outside the theme parks at Walt Disney World

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Walt Disney World's theme parks certainly know how to host splashy New Year's Eve parties. It would be difficult to top the lavish food, top-notch entertainment and spectacular fireworks. But if your family has younger kids who might not make it until midnight or you're looking for a less crowded celebration, here are some suggestions for other ways to ring in 2015 Disney-style. Most of these do not require advance planning, so you can even decide on Dec. 31 what your family wants to do.

Raglan Road

At Downtown Disney, Raglan Road offers live entertainment on two stages, plus dinner and late-night menus inside the restaurant and on the patio. But what makes this especially appealing to families may be the complimentary champagne toast at midnight in Ireland (7 p.m. EST) and again at midnight in Orlando. Obviously those under age 21 won't be partaking, but the celebration itself is fun. My daughter and I have had several enjoyable experiences at Raglan Road and definitely recommend it. Parking in the new parking garage is complimentary, and there is no cover charge for the evening.

Dinner and fireworks viewing at a resort hotel

Although it may be tough at this late date to get a reservation at one of the table-service restaurants at the hotels on the monorail loop - Contemporary, Polynesian or Grand Floridian - it is still possible to dine there and then view the fireworks. To do so, you'll need to park at the Transportation and Ticket Center, which costs $17 for the day if you're not staying on property or are an annual passholder, and then take the monorail or a bus to the hotel of your choice. (Because of the heavy holiday crowds, guests who are not staying at the hotels or those who don't have dining reservations will not be allowed to park in those lots.) Guests can eat in the quick-service restaurants at the three hotels and then view the fireworks from various public viewing areas, such as the fourth floor lobby or monorail platform at the Contemporary. Be aware that some hotel viewing areas are restricted to patrons of specific high-end restaurants.

Walt Disney World kids activity centers

If the adults in your group want to experience their own celebrations at Walt Disney World, the children can spend a fun evening in one of the resort's activity centers, which will have extended hours on New Year's Eve. The four locations open at 4:30 p.m. and will have the last pickup at 1:30 a.m. (Children will be able to rest or sleep when they get tired.) I'm told that the centers will not have special activities for the holiday. Still, when my daughter has spent time in the centers, she thoroughly enjoyed all the choices of entertainment. The centers welcome children ages 3 (must be potty-trained) to 12. The cost is $15 per hour per child, with a two-hour minimum. Dinner is included for those who are in the club during the time it is served. At the time of this writing, there still was space available in all four locations, but reservations are recommended. For more details, see the AllEars.Net resource page.

Celebration Town Center

The town of Celebration, located just outside the gates of Walt Disney World, hosts "Now Snowing Nightly" -- a flurry of soap bubbles -- through New Year's Eve, and it's open to the public at no charge. The last "snowfalls" of the season happen on Dec. 31 at 6, 7, 8 and 9 p.m. on Market Street. There's no need to queue up to experience the snow - just step into the street, which is blocked off from traffic. This event does not have a New Year's Eve countdown, but it does offer a last taste of the holiday season with gorgeous decorations, ice skating, "snow flurries," carriage rides and a variety of restaurants for dinner.

DisneyQuest

For the last several years, DisneyQuest, which houses five floors of video and virtual games at Downtown Disney, has hosted a family friendly event on Dec. 31. Unfortunately, that is not the case this year, and there is no word on whether the party will resume next year. Still, the attraction is a fun place to let pre-teens and teens spend time enjoying electronic gaming fun while parents check out some of the more adult offerings at Downtown Disney.

Celebrate early

The Magic Kingdom displays its New Year's Eve fireworks on Dec. 30, as well as Dec. 31. Fantasy in the Sky starts at 11:50 p.m. both days. Although it still will be crowded in the Magic Kingdom on Dec. 30, it definitely will not be as bad as it is on New Year's Eve. This might be a way to see the fireworks early and then enjoy a quieter New Year's Eve. If you are staying at a Disney resort, there also usually are family friendly activities planned for guests.

Happy New Year's Eve, everyone!



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December 23, 2014

Be Our Guest revisited: Fantastic dining experience at Walt Disney World

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Even two years after it opened, Be Our Guest still is the most difficult dining reservation to book at Walt Disney World. So, when I was able to secure a late-night table for a family celebration this past weekend, we all were counting the minutes until our dinner was served.

We first dined at Be Our Guest during passholder preview days two years ago, and my family and I hadn't been back since then. So, naturally, I was curious if it would live up to our expectations of our previous experience. The answer was a resounding "yes" from each of the four members of my family.

Our reservation was for 9:20 p.m., and I'm told the last parties are seated at 9:30 p.m. during normal operating hours. (Be Our Guest stays open later during busy periods, such as the holidays.) Because of the timing, we were able to watch Holiday Wishes from the bridge to the restaurant, which was a new experience. It's amazing to be so close to some of the fireworks that normally are seen from in front of Cinderella Castle.

When we entered Beast's castle, we were led to the ballroom, which is where most of the seating is located. And if it isn't spectacular enough on a regular day, imagine it decorated for Christmas. There was a beautiful Christmas tree in the center of the wall-to-ceiling windows that showcase the snowfall effect outside, just like in the story. Garlands also were draped along the walls, creating a festive atmosphere.

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The menu has undergone a few changes, as is to be expected, since we last visited. Popular dishes, such as the French Onion Soup and the Grilled Strip Steak, remain, however. We were happy to see the steak that is served with garlic-herb butter and pommes frites was still available because three of us had been dreaming of ordering just that! (It also is served with green beans.) It is a 10-ounce steak, which was large enough for my daughter and I to split one portion. My 12-year-old son ordered his own, though he did end up sharing with his dad. My husband again ordered the Pan-seared Salmon on Leek Fondue, which was served with served with creamy saffron-crushed potatoes. We all really enjoyed our meals.

Be Our Guest has an extensive wine list, and several imported beers are available, as well. My husband again enjoyed a dark belgian strong ale, Chimay Blue, and said it had a subtle hint of fruit that paired well with the salmon. Beast's castle also serves two signature non-alcoholic drinks: All-Natural Fruit Punch and All-Natural Lemonade. If you choose a light-up castle-themed souvenir goblet for the foamy drinks, the price quadruples. Almost $20 for a drink without alcohol!

Of course, we saved room for dessert. The Grey Stuff has been added to the menu since our last visit, and we were excited to taste the fabled dessert. Our server saw that we were wearing "I'm Celebrating" buttons and brought us a complimentary serving to sample. What a nice surprise! We also chose to share a Strawberry Cream Cheese Cupcake, a Triple Chocolate Cupcake, a Lemon Meringue Cupcake and a Chocolate Cream Puff. My children again loved the presentation of the desserts in a rolling trolley, which makes it difficult to turn down a sweet treat - not that I'm complaining!

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After dinner, we were invited to meet Beast in the library, which is the room that doubles as the checkout during lunch. This meet-and-greet was not available the last time we dined at Be Our Guest, and dinner at the restaurant is the only time and place for guests to meet Beast at Walt Disney World. We were the last family of the night to meet Beast and he patiently posed for a bunch of photos, including one the cast members suggested where the kids and Beast showed their "claws."

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My first impression of Be Our Guest was confirmed this past weekend: It is a delightful dining experience. We received outstanding service, and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal. Although the restaurant is expensive, the pricing is in line with other table-service restaurants at Walt Disney World. In fact, it costs less overall than dinner at Cinderella's Royal Table, which does not offer alcohol. Although securing a reservation can be a hassle, it is well worth the effort.

RELATED LINKS:
** Be Our Guest Menus: Lunch, Dinner, Kids

** Rate and Review Lunch

** Rate and Review Dinner




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December 20, 2014

Disney Princess makeovers added to 3 Walt Disney World hotel salons

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Hear yea, hear yea. The royal little princesses have another opportunity to look their best before parading around at Walt Disney World.

We reported last month that the dining room in Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom is undergoing renovations after the holidays and the Cinderella's Royal Table dining experience is moving temporarily to Citricos at the Grand Floridian Resort. And that got us to thinking: What what would royal dining be without the opportunity for young princesses to be transformed at the nearby salon?

Of course, Walt Disney World planners have thought of this, and the Ivy Trellis Salon will begin offering the new Perfectly Prepared Princess Package on Jan. 8. (Reservations will open on December 22; call 407-WDW-SPAS.)

Much like the makeovers offered at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, a popular salon run by the fairy godmothers-in-training with two locations at Walt Disney World, the new services designed for kids ages 4 to 12 focus on hair, makeup and nails.

However, what you get for your money is not quite the same. As the mother of a 10-year-old daughter who LOVES the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and has been fortunate to have visited it multiple times since she was a toddler, I have a keen interest in these types of experiences. Yet my first impression of the news of the makeovers offered as the Perfectly Prepared Princess Package is that they are significantly more expensive.

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The new Perfectly Prepared Princess Package has three options:

** Princess hairdo with a souvenir tiara -- $50.
** Hair-styling plus glow make-up -- $75.
** Hair, makeup and a fancy manicure -- $90.

By comparison, the entry-level Crown Package at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique includes hair, makeup and nail polish PLUS a face gem, princess sash and tote for about $60. Even considering that the new package offers a manicure and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique only paints a child's nails, that's still a $30 difference. And, sure, that could be explained as the cost of a spa service. But does a young girl really need a full manicure when painting her nails usually is just as exciting?

Certainly, parents can pick the option of the Perfectly Prepared Princess Package that best fits their budget, but I speak from experience when I say that many girls will feel cheated if they don't get all the treatments when the other young princesses are being indulged. In addition, visitors to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique take their makeup palettes, hair accessories and nail polish home with them. I would imagine this will be the same at the salon makeovers because each princess is given a new kit for sanitary reasons. One of my fondest memories is seeing my daughter at age 4 clutching that pink Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique bag for the rest of her day at the Magic Kingdom. She was so thrilled with her goodies that she would not let them out of her sight, and she even slept with them next to her pillow that night!

Still, I have to applaud the decision to add princess makeovers to more locations at Walt Disney World. (The Perfectly Prepared Princess Package also will be available at the Coronado Springs Casa de Belleza Beauty Salon and at the Yacht and Beach Club Resort Ship Shape Salon.) That's because the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique sites are so popular that you really have to make reservations far in advance, and even then, it can be difficult to book during busy periods. So, even with the higher cost considerations, the Perfectly Prepared Princess Package gives more families the opportunity to be immersed in the experiences that their children love. And after all, that's likely a large part of the reason they chose to vacation at Walt Disney World. And if you have any doubt about how important those experiences are to youngsters, just ask the countless number of little girls in princess dresses throughout the parks on any given day.



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December 17, 2014

What's new at Disney World's Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights in 2014?

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Who doesn't like to admire holiday light displays? It's fun to see how the neighbors decorate, especially if that Orlando neighbor is Walt Disney World.

My family and I joined AllEars editor Deb Koma and contributing photographer Jason Dz of DisneyGeek.com for a stroll through the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Hollywood Studios this past weekend. No matter how many times we see this display, which Walt Disney World acquired in 1995, it's never boring. Still, the folks at Disney try to offer a little something new each year for the many returning visitors.

** This year, the song "What's This?" from "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" has been added to the playlist. Jack Skellington's image also can be seen on the canopy of lights over Brownstone Street as the song comes to a close. Like a challenge? See if you can spot Jack in another location on the street, as well. (Skellington dressed as Sandy Claws meets guests during Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party for this first time this year. See the AllEars.Net video here.)

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** If you are an avid hidden Mickey hunter, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is the place for you! Not only are there almost 80 hidden Mickey symbols, but cast members are adding more through the last day of the show, which is Jan. 4. That means that each visit has the potential to be a different experience.

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** When the lights arrived in Orlando from Jennings Osborne's home in Arkansas, a lighted purple cat from the family's Halloween display was mistakenly included. Each year, cast members hide the cat in the Christmas display. This year, however, they are moving it within the display each day. Happy hunting!

** New Made With Magic light-up items, such as a wand, a Mickey glove and a Minnie ear headband - as well as the original Glow With The Show ear hats - are synched with the dancing lights. The accessories are sold at carts on the Streets of America for $25 each, but if you purchase them in one of the merchandise stores ahead of time, you can apply any discounts you might have, such as one for having a Walt Disney World annual pass or a Disney Vacation Club membership.

Here's a recap of some of my best tips from previous years, which still apply to this year's show. I hope they will help you make the most of your experience.

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

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** Guests also can enter the lights display by walking down Mickey Avenue, past Studio Catering Co. This may be the best bet for your family if you would like to meet Santa Goofy first in Tri-City Square. Goofy's Winter Wonderland debuted in 2012, and it's back again as a fun photo op. I recommend getting in line a little before 6 p.m., when he appears, because the line can grow quickly.

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

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

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



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December 4, 2014

Is runDisney's Expedition Everest Challenge on your calendar?

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As Orlando residents and longtime annual passholders, my family and I have experienced much of what Walt Disney World has to offer. One thing we have not tried, however, is runDisney races. That's about to change, though.

My husband has enjoyed running for many years, and recently our 12-year-old son has expressed as interest, too. I attempted to register them for the Family 5K at the Marathon Weekend in January, but I wasn't quick enough. Deb Wills had the same trouble, as well, unfortunately. We both were surprised to learn that many of the races that weekend sold out in hours!

So, our family regrouped, and my son decided he wanted to make his running debut at the Expedition Everest Challenge on May 2, 2015, at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Registration opens to the public at noon on December 16, but one of the perks of being an annual passholder is being able to register for runDisney events in advance. For this particular race, Disney passholders could begin registering at noon on Dec. 2. By that evening, though, the passholder spots were full.

I'm told that most runners attempt this particular race in teams of at least two people. That's because the challenge is more than just running a 5K - as if that wouldn't be enough of a challenge for some of us! After the runners finish the required 3.1 miles, they tackle an obstacle course and then a scavenger hunt. Upon crossing the finish line and collecting their medals, they can join a post-race party in Dinoland, U.S.A., which is included in the entry fee. The party features a DJ, and food and drinks can be purchased. Expedition Everest is open, as are Kali River Rapids and the rides in Chester and Hester's DinoRama.

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Team members have to be at least 9 years old, and if one team member is younger than 13, he or she has to be participating with an adult. The Expedition Everest Challenge is one of the few runDisney night races. It starts at 10 p.m., and the post party continues until 2:30 a.m.

This is the 15th year for the Expedition Everest Challenge, and it appears that it will be the last. The official runDisney page describes the 2015 race this way: "Take a final run on the wild side and uncover the mystery of the clues! Get your bragging rights as one of the final runners who faced the Expedition Everest Challenge before it's too late!"

Runners on various public message boards have speculated that this will make the Expedition Everest Challenge more popular, so be prepared to get online quickly on Dec. 16.

Registration will be available at runDisney.com. The race costs $125 per person or $240 for a two-person team. Entry fees include the challenge with Disney characters, a short-sleeve tech shirt, personalized race bib (if registered before March 3), a finisher medal, post-race refreshments, and the after-party festivities in the theme park. Friends and family members can purchase tickets to the after-party event for $49 for adults and $25 for children ages 3 to 9. Prices increase after March 23, 2015.



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October 28, 2014

Enter Disney Side contest this week for chance to win private Haunted Mansion party & stay in Cinderella Castle

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We're heading into that final stretch before Halloween -- time to do final checks on the kids' costumes, carve the pumpkins and add last-minute touches to the decor before the big night on Friday. If you were inspired by Disney Parks, you might want to take a photo of your work and enter the Haunt Your Disney Side Contest for a chance to win a private "Midnight at the Haunted Mansion" party and an overnight stay in Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World.

Disney describes the grand prize his way: "All of our happy haunts are just dying to meet the winner! One family of foolish mortals will attend a private party, hosted by 999 happy haunts inside Haunted Mansion. After Midnight strikes, and all the supernatural surprises have been sprung, you'll retire for one comfortably creepy stay in Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park, at Walt Disney World Resort."

The grand prize winner also receives an additional three-night stay at Walt Disney World with 5-Day Magic Your Way Tickets with Park Hopper option as well as travel arrangements, as needed. The vacation will take place between Jan. 19 and Feb. 21, 2015.

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In addition, judges will choose a winner in each of the four categories to win a gift basket filled with the latest Haunted Mansion merchandise and collectibles.

The contest kicked off earlier this month and runs through Nov. 4. Participants can enter photos in one of four Halloween categories: home décor, food and beverage, pumpkin carving and costumes.

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To enter, post your photo on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #DisneySideContest. If you tweet a photo submission, follow @DisneyParks on Twitter so judges can contact you if you win. If you don't have a Twitter or Instagram account, you can upload your photo at DisneySideContest.com, which also is where the official rules are posted.

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Rules to note:

** You must be a legal resident of the United States, the District of Columbia and Canada (excluding the Province of Quebec).

** You must be 18 years old, or the age of majority, in your area of residence as of the date of entry.

** You may not submit the same photo on all three platforms. However, a participant may have multiple entries provided they all are unique.

** Each entry must be a new post dated Oct. 6 or later. Participants cannot just add the hashtag to an older photo. Also, be aware that if Instagram or Twitter accounts are private, Disney judges may not be able to see such entries.



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October 18, 2014

At Epcot, Chef Rick Bayless dishes on how to prepare authentic Mexican food

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Once again, Epcot Food & Wine Festival guests had a unique opportunity to explore culinary flavors and topics beyond the norm with one of the most proficient chefs of the day.

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Most people know Chef Rick Bayless as the winner of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" but his name also is synonymous with authentic Mexican cuisine north of the border and has been for quite some time. His highly rated PBS series, "Mexico - One Plate at a Time," is in its ninth season, he has published eight cookbooks, and he has three top restaurant concepts in Chicago.

The casual Frontera Grill was founded in 1987 and received the James Beard Foundation's highest award, Outstanding Restaurant, in 2007. The 4-star Topolobampo served its first meals in 1991. And the very popular, fast-casual Xoco has been around since 2009, serving wood-oven tortas, steaming caldos, golden churros and bean-to-cup Mexican hot chocolate. Bayless' quick-service Tortas Frontera have changed the face of food service at O'Hare International Airport, while Frontera Fresco has brought Frontera flavors to several Macy's stores and Northwestern University. His award-winning Frontera line of salsas, cooking sauces and organic chips can be found coast to coast.

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Bayless was a guest chef Friday during the Food For Thought series at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World. He has been a frequent speaker over the years at the festival. This year, he spoke about his start in the culinary arts while preparing various foods and offering cooking -- and eating -- tips to the audience.

How did you get started on this Mexico path?

I always loved food -- not just cooking it, but serving it, gathering around the table. My grandmother was hugely inspirational in my family about that. " She taught me the most important lesson I could possibly ever learn about cooking and that is you bring a lot more than just a dish to the table. " She was the one who taught me how to create a community around the table. That's why I say the profession of being a chef is one of the most noble you can have.

When I was 14, I was taking a Spanish class and I got super interested in the culture of Mexico " So, I planned a family vacation to Mexico. " My family had never been out of the country. We arrived in Mexico City at 9 at night and that's the time people are starting to go out to dinner " There is so much life there. There were balloon vendors, there were street vendors and I could hear them from the hotel. There were ladies roasting walnuts and you could smell it up into the room. There was so much vitality -- the joy of life -- coming out of that park. I felt like I had come home, and I continued to go back to Mexico every year and I continued Latin American studies in college. I decide to go to graduate school in anthropology and linguistics.

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Chicken Tinga Tostada with Avocado and Cheese


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Grilled Corn and Poblano Guacamole

Rules for street food anywhere in the world

A lot of times when people travel to Mexico, they don't know if they should eat in the marketplaces. I think those are the best places to eat because you can see everything -- how the food is held, how the food is prepared, everything about it. You go into a fancy restaurant and the dining room may look really pretty but you don't see the kitchen, so you have no idea what is going on.

1. Eat food that is well-done, well-cooked. That simmering pot of whatever is going to most likely be the best bet.

2. If they put fresh, raw garnishes on it, I usually say no. If I'm only going to be there for a short period of time, I skip that part of it. The only exception that I make -- and this may surprise some of you -- is salsa that contains chiles, cilantro, salt and acid. Cilantro is the thing in the plant world that is the most anti-microbial " It will kill pretty much any germ. Salt, chiles and acid are preservatives so salsa is a pretty good risk if you're going to have something that is fresh and you want to get the flavor of what they're doing. Raw onion and raw lettuce, I usually say I'm going to skip that because I don't know how they washed it and all that sort of stuff.

3. Do I want to eat there? Does it look good? Is it well organized? Is it clean? Are they taking care of things? If I say yes to [those questions], then I ask, "Are there a lot of people there?" If yes, it's either really good or really cheap. Sometimes it's just cheap and I throw that one out. If it's the same price as everybody else, then I say, "Fine, I'll eat at that one because it must be good, and they're going to have a lot of turnover, so nothing sits around for a long time. [That's important because] with marketplace cooking, there's no refrigeration. Basically, you want something that's cooked and kept warm.

On getting good recipes

You can't go anywhere in the world and ask for a recipe. First of all, they may not know what you are talking about. A recipe is a fairly recent invention that would have exact quantities and steps. In the really old cookbooks in Mexico, they would list the ingredients and the assume you would know the quantities and how to balance them for your own taste, and then they would list the most basic of steps. These were essentially notes from my kitchen and I assumed you already knew how to make the dish. The really detailed recipe have only come in the last 50 years or so, as we have gotten further and further away from the kitchen.

So the only way I could work with street stall cooks was to let them know that I knew how to make that dish. My first question was never, "Oh, can you give me your recipe and show me how to make it?" It was "Do you put this combination of chiles in there like the person down the street or do you just do it with one chile?" And I would only ask that question after I consumed a whole portion of whatever it is they made.

How to make freshest guacamole

Pairing alcoholic beverages with Mexican cuisine

Bayless has entered a partnership with the popular Negra Modelo beer, a dark-style lager that contains a slow-roasted caramel malt and is a complement to many dishes that he prepares. On the company's website, NegraModeloUSA.com, the chef has contributed recipes for entrees, such as Grilled Skirt Steak Tacos With Salsa and Negra Modelo, that are prepared with the beer. There also are recipes for items that pair well with the beer, such as the Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars that I sampled at the Food for Thought tasting at Epcot's Food & Wine Festival. This particular dessert -- which is to die for -- has been served at Bayless' Frontera restaurant in Chicago since it opened in 1987.

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Equally as delicious in the fall is the Mexican Snakebite Cocktail that we sipped at the tasting. As our treat to you, here's the recipe:

Ingredients
2 cups tamarind pulp
3 1/2 cups ice-cold apple cider, preferably fresh-squeezed and unpasteurized
4 (12-ounce) ice-cold Negra Modelos

Directions
1. In a blender, combine the tamarind and half of the cider. Blend to thoroughly combine.
2. Pour into a pitcher and stir in the remaining cider.
3. Cover and refrigerate until you're ready to serve.
4. When that moment comes, measure 2/3 cup of the apple cider mixture into 8 tall glasses, then slowly top off each one with half a Negra Modelo.
5. Serve right away.

Servings
8 (12-ounce) cocktails

Bayless says that adding 1 cup sugar to the tamarind base lessens the beer taste in the cocktail and other flavors emerge. No wonder I liked it so well!

If you have a chance to catch Bayless at future Epcot Food & Wine Festival events, I would recommend you consider it. Even though his Friday discussion and demonstration was a separate ticketed event, he offered a wealth of cooking information that you can take home with you into your own kitchen and share at your table. And that, as any foodie will attest, is priceless.

Check out our other Epcot Food and Wine Festival Videos:

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World and Negra Modelo. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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October 13, 2014

Don't miss this treat: 1-day Memory Maker option at Disney World Halloween parties

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Trick or treat? Let me tell you, this is definitely a treat.

Walt Disney World has just announced a special offer for the remaining nights of Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party that I certainly wish I could have taken advantage of when I attended last month. Through Oct. 31, guests can purchase a one-day Memory Maker credit for just $39.

For those not familiar with the new terminology, Memory Maker is what used to be called Disney's PhotoPass CD. Basically, the service allows you to purchase all the professional photos taken of your family at Walt Disney World during your vacation. This new version delivers the photos as high-resolution downloads, rather than JPGs. Until now, there has only been one option: Purchase an unlimited number of photos for $199 after your vacation, or save $50 by buying the Memory Maker credit in advance.

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The new offer, which currently is being tested at Magic Kingdom, allows the guest to receive "all of your Disney PhotoPass photos taken on the day your event ticket is used, including character encounters and select dining and attraction photos are included - no matter how many you get or if they were taken earlier in the day before Mickey's Not-So-scary Halloween Party," according to Kelly Glassburn, manager of marketing & communications for Disney's PhotoPass Service.

That's one up-sell I would have happily bought!

For comparison, a download of an individual photo from Disney's PhotoPass costs $15 (unless there is a sale). I purchased four photos after my family's recent night at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, so this definitely would have been a savings for us. Considering the opportunities for family photos and shots with rarely seen characters at the party, I can easily see this being a good deal for guests. Plus, if you are relying on a smartphone or point-and-shoot camera, it can be difficult to get great shots in low lighting like what is the norm at the Halloween party. Using the professional Disney photographers will make your night so much more relaxing.

When my children were younger, there were a couple years they visited the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and A Pirate's League to be transformed into a princess and a pirate on the day of the Halloween party. We definitely would have gotten our money's worth with the new one-day Memory Maker product.

If this sounds like something you could use, stop by any ticket booth at the Transportation and Ticket Center to add the one day Memory Maker entitlement to your Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party ticket. It does have to be purchased before the party, but you can do so even on the day you are attending the event. This offer is good for the remaining party nights of Oct. 13, 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 24, 26, 28, 30 and 31. (Oct. 13, 16, 30 and 31 are sold out, but those ticket holders can add this option, as well.)

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Even if you are not going to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party this year, Disney's PhotoPass Service is offering you a treat. Log into your My Disney Experience account and claim PhotoPass ID COMEJOINTHEPARTY to receive a bonus shot of well-known ghosts from the Haunted Mansion.



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September 30, 2014

Losing a tooth at Walt Disney World can be a pixie-dusted experience

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This month, my family discovered a new side of Tinker Bell when we stayed at Walt Disney World for the weekend to celebrate my children's birthdays. Can you believe the resident fairy knows the Tooth Fairy and often steps in for her when children lose their teeth while they are staying at the resort?

Earlier in the week, my almost 10-year-old daughter lost a tooth while we were at home, and the Tooth Fairy visited, leaving her usual monetary payout. So, it seemed out of the blue when my almost-10-year-old daughter announced on the drive to Animal Kingdom Lodge that same week that she had lost another tooth at school that day. She was somewhat worried about the Tooth Fairy being able to find her when she was away from home and staying at Walt Disney World.

That's when we broke the news that Tink often takes over for the Tooth Fairy at Disney properties, and her anxiety turned to excitement. There was much speculation with her older brother about what pixie-dusted prize the fairy might deliver. As it turned out, Tinker Bell went all out and left my daughter an autograph book and a collector's pin with her own image, an Animal Kingdom Lodge pen and Disney Dollars. It became a joke in our family that Tinker Bell really loves herself. After all, she left gifts that had her image on them.

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So, how does that Disney Magic happen?

It can begin by mentioning to a cast member at your resort what has happened. He or she may be able to assist Tinker Bell's efforts, though, of course, nothing is guaranteed. When I inquired, I was given the Tinker Bell autograph book for my daughter, which she loved. Other guests have reported receiving everything from pixie dust and balloons to cards signed by Tink and other small gifts. (Some resorts, such as Animal Kingdom Lodge, have restrictions about confetti and balloons because of the nearby wild animals.)

Even if a cast member is unable to offer assistance, most gift shops carry merchandise of some sort with Tink's image so parents can provide the fairy with help, as well. Other ideas: Look for other themed merchandise, such as a Disney toothbrush or fairy jewelry box or character wallet in which to put Disney Dollars for safe-keeping. Pressed pennies, which cost 51 cents, are popular, too, because they can be found all over Walt Disney World.

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My daughter was so thrilled by her special gifts that she wanted to thank Tinker Bell in person. Luckily, we were planning to go to the Magic Kingdom that day so we made it a point to stop by. She had a fun interaction with the mischievous fairy, and I got some great photos to remember the "magical moment."

Has your child lost a tooth at Walt Disney World? Tell us in the comments how you marked the occasion.



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September 19, 2014

Epcot Food & Wine Festival design adorns Disney Dooney & Bourke bags and new Disney Dreaming pattern appears on Vera Bradley bags

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Fans of Disney Parks name-brand handbags -- like myself -- will be excited to learn that two new styles are about to be released at Walt Disney World. Today, there's a new look in The Disney Collection by Vera Bradley, and in a little over a week, guests can purchase the new Dooney & Bourke bags themed to the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival.

Beginning at 10 a.m. today (Sept. 19), the new Disney Dreaming pattern will be available on popular Vera Bradley bags in the Marketplace Co-Op at Downtown Disney. The floral pattern is done in shades of blue with purple and yellow accents, and it shows Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse "dreaming of Disney fun."

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According to Steven Miller, Merchandise Communications Manager at Walt Disney World, guests will find Disney Dreaming on some of the most popular bags in the collection, including the Hipster (my favorite!), a Zip ID Case (perfect for business cards) and the Vera Bag (a tote style). Photos on the Disney Parks Blog announcement of the release indicate Disney Dreaming also will be available in the Cosmetic Bag, All In One Crossbody and Mini Hipster styles, as well. Miller wrote that the Duffle and Ultimate Backback will hit shelves in early 2015.

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As someone who has purchased quite a few pieces in The Disney Collection by Vera Bradley since it launched in 2013, I would expect the pricing to be the same as other patterns: Hipster, $75; Zip ID case, $15; Vera Bag, $99; Cosmetic Bag, $35; All In One Crossbody, $54-plus; Mini Hipster, $65; Large Duffle, $99; and Backpack, $99. Purchasing limits are in effect for all Disney Vera Bradley bags: two of each style per person maximum. The new Disney Dreaming pattern will be sold online at DisneyStore.com/VeraBradley and at Disneyland later in October.

Miller also revealed that there will be a new Dooney & Bourke design on bags for the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, which begins today. This is the first time that a pattern has been introduced for the hugely popular festival. It shows Chef Mickey Mouse set among a colorful array of festival icons. The background and straps are black, and the three full-size bags will have a unique leather hangtag with the event logo.

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The Food & Wine Festival pattern will appear on the Large Shopper, Crossbody Bag, Satchel and Wristlet styles. Current pricing for these bags is as follows: Large Shopper ($248), Crossbody Bag ($228), Satchel ($268) and Wristlet ($88).

The new Dooney & Bourke bags will be sold exclusively at the Festival Center inside Epcot park beginning Sept. 29. (The Festival Center is located between the Universe of Energy and Mission: SPACE pavilions in Future World.) However, you can get a sneak peek at the bags beginning today in a display at the Festival Center. The collection is not expected to be sold online.

Happy Shopping!




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August 30, 2014

Disney Tsum Tsum plush animals are cute, collectible and going fast

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Is it too soon to think about Christmas shopping? Perhaps not if you want to get in on the Disney Tsum Tsum craze.

Tsum Tsum are collectible, log-shaped plush animals that look like Disney characters and come in three sizes. "Tsum Tsum" means "stack stack" in Japanese, which is the theory behind the shape. Creators want consumers to collect and stack the adorable faces. In addition, the colorful toys have the added functionality of a screen-cleaning material on their stomachs.

Tsum Tsum were introduced to consumers by Disney Japan last year as an offshoot to the mobile video game they star in. "Disney Tsum Tsum" has been described as a Tetris-style game in which players match and stack the figures. When the free app was released globally last month for iOS and Android devices, The Walt Disney Co. launched a collection of 30 different Tsum Tsum plush characters at select Disney Store locations nationwide, online at DisneyStore.com, in stores at Disney Parks, and at Aulani Resort & Spa in Hawaii.

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"Disney Japan has created some of our most successful and popular digital products and Disney Interactive is proud to be working closely with the team to extend their success globally," said Jimmy Pitaro, president of Disney Interactive, in a news release. "This is one of the first times that Disney has introduced a distinctly Japanese product to a global audience, and Disney Tsum Tsum offers our guests a unique combination of quality characters, compelling game play and an engaging social experience."

According to "The New York Times," the game has ranked as the No. 1 downloaded app for extended periods and more than 1.8 million of the stuffed animals have been sold in Japan. Now, Americans seem just as thrilled with the newest "it" toy.

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Disney introduced the Alice in Wonderland, Pooh and Pals, and Mickey and Friends collections of mini Tsum Tsums in its first wave of releases. The 3.5-inch plush animals sell for $4.95 plus tax online and carry a slightly higher price tag at the theme parks. In addition, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse were made available in the medium and large sizes. Those are priced at $12.95 and $24.95, respectively, online and $16.95 and $29.95 at Disney Parks.

Already, many of the Tsum Tsum toys are sold out. At Walt Disney World, the only location where Tsum Tsum toys are sold is Once Upon A Toy store at Downtown Disney Marketplace. A Disney spokesperson told me that the store has sold every mini Tsum Tsum in the first shipment that arrived at the beginning of the month. They do have a limited amount of the other sizes available. Good news, however: Disney Tsum Tsums are not limited-release merchandise, meaning more shipments will be arriving to fill the shelves.

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In the meantime, DisneyStore.com has a good variety of Tsum Tsum plush animals available. (There is a purchase limit of 4 per style per customer.) Customers also can check their local Disney Store locations. For those in Central Florida, that's the store at Florida Mall. A cast member there told me that the mini Alice in Wonderland, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Tiger were in stock as of this writing. That location also had the large Mickey and Minnie and the medium Minnie.

So, if you want to jump into collecting Tsum Tsums, where should you start? As you would expect, Mickey and Minnie are popular choices at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. If you can find them, Stitch, Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo also seem to have widespread appeal.

Even if you're undecided about whether your kids will enjoy this latest Disney collectible craze, take a tip from this mom. It's better to start shopping now and have something for the holidays just in case, rather than finding out at the last minute that there's been a Tsum Tsum addendum to the list for Santa.



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August 14, 2014

How to use Walt Disney World to give your kids a little more independence

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It's been said that once a mother gives birth to her child, the process of letting go begins. Sure, it may start with the separation of teaching a baby to sleep in his own bed. But, in what seems like the blink of an eye, your child is ready to take bigger steps toward independence -- whether you, the parent, are ready or not.

As my almost-12-year-old son prepares for his first year of middle school, I definitely have felt those tugs on my heartstrings this summer. And no matter how prepared you -- and your child -- are, it's still a bit disconcerting.

This week, my son was invited to go to the Magic Kingdom with a friend and her family for the day. What a great opportunity, right? Of course it was! The outing, though, got me thinking about how parents can grant their children some freedoms while on vacation without sacrificing their safety (or the parents' sanity).

For my husband and I, the decision to allow our son to go to Walt Disney World without us was not difficult. We know the family, and we are comfortable with our son's ability to navigate the Magic Kingdom under most circumstances. As Florida residents with annual passes to Walt Disney World, we have been taking my son to the theme parks since he was a baby. He is as familiar with the Magic Kingdom as he is his own back yard.

But our confidence in our son's ability to handle the bustling Magic Kingdom without the security of his parents has been built through a series of interactions over the years. It likely began on the trips when my husband was not present, and my son was too old to go into the women's bathroom with me. With instructions to "hurry," he tackled his business and I anxiously waited outside the men's loo, counting the seconds until he emerged.

Once that separation was mastered, we slowly added others. My son was allowed to go short distances without us -- to take a closer look at something as we trailed behind -- or to ride in an adjoining car on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority. Over the years, we have worked our way up to where we are now -- controlled independence in the parks. If my son doesn't want to experience the attraction that the rest of his family is going on, he can walk through the line and wait for us at the end of the queue. If he would like a drink, he can take the cash to a counter-service location, purchase one and come back to where we are.

That said, I am not comfortable with total independence from adults at this age, even if Disney is. This summer, the company lowered the minimum age for a minor to ride Disney's Magical Express, the complimentary bus service that shuttles resort guests between their hotels and Orlando International Airport, without an adult. Disney now allows kids ages 12 and older to ride without adult supervision; previously, the minimum age was 16. Even the minimum age to enter the Disney Parks unaccompanied by an adult is 14.

Of course, these are simply the written rules. Making the decision of what is appropriate for each child in his or her care is a parent's responsibility.

Do you use vacations as a time for teaching independence? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



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July 21, 2014

First Look: 2014 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

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A relatively recent tradition at Walt Disney World is to give Tables in Wonderland members a preview of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival about two months before it opens. Along with a growing appetite for the festival, this event, too, has increased in popularity.

I attended the preview with AllEars.Net founder Deb Wills and AllEars.Net photographer Linda Eckwerth, so that we could be among the first to share our impressions about what you can expect at the 19th year of the festival. We quickly discovered that doubling the number of participants and moving the venue to World ShowPlace caused a few growing pains this year with the quality of the service, but certainly not the quality of the food.

The event began with a reception that featured food stations, as well as two open bars. Among the offerings this year were dishes and drinks from Puerto Rico, the culture that will be highlighted at this year's food and wine festival. You can read our thoughts about the island marketplace in my separate blog post tomorrow.

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Among the other appetizers, Linda raved about the Sea Scallop with Spinach Cheddar Gratin and Crispy Bacon from Scotland. She said the combination of flavors was "perfect" and "very delicious."

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If I am discounting my affinity for the Puerto Rican dishes, my favorite was the CraB'less CraB Cake with Pepper Slaw and Cajun Remoulade featuring Gardein. This vegan dish will be served at the Terra marketplace. Perhaps what I liked best about it was that the slaw reminded me of the Kimchi slaw that was served with hotdogs at the South Korea kiosk last year. It's spicy hot! I agree with Linda, who pointed out that while the CraB'less CraB Cake had the texture of a crab cake, it did not necessarily taste like crab.

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We also sampled the Pao de Queijo, a cheese bread from Brazil, and the South Africa Bobotie with Turkey and Mushrooms. None of us had strong opinions about either dish.

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Our least favorite was the Nueske's Pepper Bacon Hash with Sweet Corn, Potatoes, Hollandaise and pickled Jalapeños. It looked delicious when it was being prepared in a skillet, but it tasted bland and was drenched in the sauce. The hash -- and other "home-grown" dishes -- will be among the offerings at the Farm Fresh stand, which replaces the Florida Fresh booth.

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Our appetizers were accompanied by a selection of adult beverages. Linda and I sipped the Aulani Sunset cocktail, which is made with Sammy's [Hagar] Beach Bar Rum. The drink is similar to what is served at Disney's Hawaiian resort, though the rum from the rock musician is a new addition. We agreed we could not taste the alcohol in the drink, and we weren't sure if that was because of the quantity or the quality. Either way, it's a sweet, delicious drink.

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Among the wines served at the reception was a Paperboy Red, which will be available at the Terra marketplace. Deb tasted this one and said, "The story is great. It's the first 100 percent fully recyclable wine bottle that is 80 percent lighter than glass and made with ultra-green packaging. But the great stops there. I wanted to like the wine -- who doesn't want to do more for the environment? -- but the first flavors are not pleasant. It opened up a bit toward the end of the sip, but the bad nose and start was off-putting. I even tried it later in the evening and liked it less."

Other choices included a chardonnay from The Great American Wine Company; Brut Sparkling Blac de Noir from Domaine Chandon; and Duke's Cold Nose Brown Ale, from Bold City Brewery in Jacksonville. The pale ale will be available at the Farm Fresh kiosk.

And that was just the reception; then we moved into World Showplace for a plated dinner, which also showcased dishes that will be served during the 53-day festival. Chef Jens Dahlmann, Epcot's executive chef, said there will be 35 new food offerings at this year's Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, along with guests' favorites.

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Our dinner started with a course from Greece: Vegetarian Moussaka. It seemed to be well-received by the diners around me, including Deb and Linda.

Deb said, "The Vegetarian Moussaka was excellent, and I'd swear it had meat in it! This was paired with the M-A-N Family Wine, Chenin Blanc, a South African wine. If you like Chenin Blanc, be sure to try this wine."

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Linda said, "I was hesitant at first, but after a few bites started to enjoy the flavors. Even though it was vegetarian, it really tasted as if meat were in the dish. The Chenin Blanc paired very nicely. I thought it brought out some of the spicy flavors in the moussaka."

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The second course was from Patagonia, the festival's newsiest marketplace. This course consisted of Roasted Verlasso Salmon with Quinoa Salad and Argugula Chimi Churri. Chef Jens pointed out that this particular fish is fully sustainable and simply prepared for a light taste.

"I really liked the Patagonia Course. Salmon can sometimes be overpowering in flavors, but this had a light taste," Linda said. "The Quinoa Salad was superb! It was hard to say which tasted better -- the salad or the salmon."

Deb said she liked the Quinoa salad better than the salmon.

Then, it was time for the third course, which was my favorite. The Carne Guisada con Arroz Blanco (Slow Braised Beef with Puerto Rican Grown Rice) came from the Puerto Rico marketplace. Deb enjoyed this dish as well, saying, "The braised beef dish from Puerto Rico was very good, the meat ever so tender. I will try this again." Still, Linda said that although the meat was tender, she thought the dish lacked flavor.

The Carne Guisada was paired with a sangria and a Medalla light beer. I'm not really a beer drinker, so I tried the Gasolina Sangriiia rum punch, which was very smooth. If you like sweet drinks, you'll love this one.

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We also were offered a taste of a somewhat new beer, MmmHops, from the band Hanson. The name is a play on the group's hit song, "MmmBop," and the pale ale is from the Hanson Brothers Beer Company. MmmHops was launched at select locations in 2013. The three brothers have been regulars at the festival's Eat to the Beat concert series, so this seemed like a logical tie-in, we were told.

Finally, the dessert trio arrived, and one of the sweets was the much-talked-about croissant doughnut, which can be found year-round at the Refreshment Port. The original Cronut was invented in New York City and is a pastry that is made by frying dough and then adding the sugar, filling and glaze. The Disney version we tried was more like a croissant doughnut hole that had a cinnamon-sugar flavor.

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We also sampled the Fresh Baked Carrot Cake with Craisins and Cream Cheese icing that will be available at the Hops and Barley marketplace. I enjoyed this dessert, but it might not be for you if you don't like Craisins because they are abundant in each serving.

The third dessert was the Warm Drinking Chocolate that is available at the Bean to the Bar location in the Festival Center. This thick chocolate drink is very rich. Can't wait to sample it? It's on the menu at Ghirardelli Chocolate Shoppe and Soda Fountain at Downtown Disney Marketplace.

At our event, the desserts were paired with Rose Regale, which Deb said goes well with just about any dessert.

The 19th annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival runs from Sept. 19 through Nov. 10. It is included with regular theme-park admission to Epcot. Will you be attending? Tell us what you're most looking forward to in the comments.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at the Tables in Wonderland event. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own. Deb and Linda purchased tickets to attend the event.



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July 15, 2014

Learn to draw Frozen's Elsa, Anna and Olaf at Walt Disney World

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For children -- and adults -- who love to create artwork, Walt Disney World offers several different venues where cast-member artists teach guests how to draw Disney characters. These experiences are free (with paid admission, where applicable) and usually don't require a long wait, which makes them a perfect activity in between FastPasses and show times.

"Frozen" fans will be happy to know that some of their favorite characters have been added to the choices at the Animation Academy inside The Magic of Disney Animation at Hollywood Studios. Guests now can learn to draw Elsa, Anna and Olaf. (Don't worry: If your budding artists is not going to be at the theme park any time soon, he or she still can learn the techniques from Disney character artist Brian James Fichtner in the videos below.)



Both of my children enjoy the drawing sessions, and recently they asked to join in the fun again. Drawing classes are offered every 30 minutes on the hour and half-hour. The classroom inside the Magic of Disney Animation is quite large -- everyone in our queue got a seat on the first try -- and the setup is fun, with each student sitting on a stool at a slanted drawing board, just like a "real" artist.

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We found out that, at the Animation Academy, the character subjects are selected based on guests' requests. However, if a character already has been drawn that day, the cast-member artist likely will opt for a different member of the Disney family to keep things interesting for repeat visitors. (This is different from Animation Academy inside Disney Quest at Downtown Disney, where the classes take place on the hour and there is a posted schedule of which characters will be the artists' subjects.)

The artists guide guests through the process of drawing a character, line by line. And the pencils they provide purposely do not have erasers. As the cast member explains, they want guests to understand these drawings are sketches. The pencil strokes are done lightly until the end, when the guests then go over their finished products with bolder markings.

Speaking of finished products, each guest leaves the Animation Academy with a pretty cool souvenir. Guests are invited to autograph their work at the end of each session, but they also could visit the subject of their sketch for a character signature if that character is in the park.

If you missed the class for the character you really wanted to be able to draw on your own, Walt Disney World sells books that teach visitors how to create Mickey Mouse and his pals from scratch.



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July 8, 2014

Is the Frozen Summer Fun Premium Package at Disney's Hollywood Studios a good value?

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Less than two weeks ago, Walt Disney World announced its new "Frozen Summer Fun -- Live at Disney's Hollywood Studios" event, and those of us with "Frozen" fans in our families began planning our visits to the theme park so we could see and do all the movie-themed activities.

And then, a few days later, the resort released the news that a Frozen Summer Fun Premium Package would be available. If you're like me, you started thinking about whether you could justify the cost because being able to skip the almost-certain long lines would make your day much more enjoyable. Here are some things you may want to consider.

Frozen Summer Fun runs through Sept. 1, and the premium package is available each day (unless it sells out). The cost is $59 for adults and $34 for children ages 3 to 9; both prices include taxes. So, for my family with children who are 9 and 11 years old, that would be $211. That's on top of park admission prices. Is it worth it?

The premium package includes refreshments and reserved viewing for Anna & Elsa's Royal Welcome procession in the morning, reserved seating at one afternoon showing of For the First Time In Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration, and a nighttime dessert party in a reserved area for viewing of the Frozen fireworks.

Know that you *can* see the procession, the show and the fireworks without purchasing the package, if you don't mind waiting in lines or on the curb of Hollywood Boulevard. This package is similar to the one offered during Star Wars Weekends. My family did not purchase that premium package, and we found ourselves in thick crowds who all want to see the same things. Remember: Hollywood Boulevard does not have the same capacity for waiting guests as Main Street, U.S.A., in the Magic Kingdom -- and even that currently is being revamped to accommodate more visitors.

So, you are paying to be able to skip the crowds in the hot Florida sun and also to have more time for other entertainment in Hollywood Studios. But the food and beverages that come with the Frozen Summer Fun premium package -- especially the dessert party -- are actually a step above what they serve at comparable hard-ticket events and shouldn't be discounted as part of the value of the package.

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In the morning before the processional, guests will be offered Mickey premium ice cream bars, frozen lemonade cups, frozen strawberry lemonade cups, and Dasani bottled water, Coke, Diet Coke and Sprite. If you figure one treat and one bottle per person, that adds up. At snack carts in the park, the Mickey bars are $4 and the frozen lemonade cups each are $3.75. Bottled drinks are about $2.50 each. So, for my family of four, that would be about $25 plus tax. But reports so far indicate that package participants are not limited to one of each item, so if you get a bottle of water to take with you afterward, you are saving more money, assuming you would have purchased the drink anyway. For those playing along, that would be another $10 or so for my family.

Many folks will be happy to know that alcoholic drinks are included in the Frozen Summer Fun dessert party. For comparison: Epcot's IllumiNations Sparkling Dessert Party includes two sparkling wines and a smaller assortment of desserts and costs $49 for adults and $29 for children ages 3 to 9. I think this example really illustrates the value in the Frozen offerings. The Epcot experience is only slightly less expensive and it doesn't offer as many selections at the dessert party or include the reserved seating and treats at the morning parade or afternoon show.

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So, what do you get at the Frozen dessert party? Adults can quench their thirst with one of these three alcoholic beverages: Iced Summer, a combination of rum, blue curaçao liqueur, pineapple juice and a splash of Sprite; Iced Coffee, a mixture of Baileys, Kahlua and coffee; or Warm Winter Grog, which contains citrus vodka, lemonade and ginger beer. In addition, sodas, bottled water and coffee or tea are available. Let's say that each adult in the family has two alcoholic drinks, and the average price of a cocktail or specialty coffee is about $10. That could be a savings of $40.

If your kids are like mine, they always ask for the brightly-colored -- and expensive -- drinks when we're visiting the theme parks. That desire will be satisfied at the Frozen dessert party with the choice of two virgin specialty drinks: Troll Juice, lemonade and blueberry Monin syrup; and Olaf's Summer Sunset, passion fruit, orange and guava juice, and peach Monin syrup. The latter sounds a lot like the POG juice that 'Ohana is so well-known for! These types of drinks typically cost $5-$6, so if my children try each drink, that would have cost at least $20.

And we haven't even discussed the sweets yet. The Frozen dessert party offers a selection of wonderfully-themed goodies: large Anna and Elsa cupcakes; Olaf cake pops; Anna yogurt push-pops; and a chocolate fondue station with fruit, marshmallows and cake. In addition, there are other dessert-party staples, such as Key lime tarts, brownie bites, lemon icebox cookies, Rice Krispie treats, strawberry shortcake and cookies. Plus, items from the Walt Disney World ice cream carts are available, including the Mickey bars, Mickey ice cream sandwich, chocolate-covered banana, strawberry bar and orange bar. It's difficult to put a price on this, but if I estimate two desserts per person at about $5 each, we would have spent $40 on sweets.

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So, based on my estimates, if my family of four had purchased the food and beverages included in the premium package individually at Hollywood Studios, we would have spent about $135. That means we are paying $76 for the reserved seating and viewing for four people at three Frozen events. To some, that may seem expensive, especially if they would not ordinarily spend that much on snacks and drinks in one day at a theme park. Others may find that a bargain for peace of mind and some breathing room at what are sure to be very popular events. We'd love to hear what you think.

Tell us in the comments and share a review HERE~

To book the Frozen Summer Fun Premium Package, you must call 407-939-1939. It cannot be booked online at this time.

Special thanks to MouseSteps.com for use of the photographs.



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July 1, 2014

What you need to know about taking food into Walt Disney World

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Walt Disney World is full of tempting treats, to be sure, but purchasing every snack, drink and meal on property during a vacation can get expensive -- especially with young kids. That's why many visitors choose to bring at least some of what they plan to consume with them. (Of course, there are other reasons for toting food, such as medical and dietary needs.) With very few exceptions, Disney allows guests to bring what they want to eat into its theme parks. Here's what you need to know.

First, the exceptions I mentioned above include glass containers and alcohol. The folks at the baggage-check tables at each Disney World theme park absolutely won't budge on these items, so don't even try to slip that beer into the Magic Kingdom. A exception to the exception is glass baby food jars, which are allowed.

There is no limit on the quantity of food that each guest, or family, can bring in. If you can carry it in a cooler, or multiple bags, that are each no larger than 24 inches by 15 inches by 18 inches, you are set. Be aware that no coolers with wheels or wagons are allowed. (Strollers and motorized scooters are the only wheeled items permitted at Walt Disney World parks.)

Still, Disney's policy is generous compared to other local theme parks. SeaWorld Orlando, for example, only allows guests to bring in baby food or those items needed for a restricted diet. Universal Orlando's published policy on outside food states the following items are permitted inside its parks: bottled water, small snacks that do not require heating, any food necessary for medical purposes, any food needed for dietary needs, baby food, and insulated bags that are no larger than 8.5 inches by 6 inches by 6 inches.

As an Orlando resident with elementary-school-age children, I almost always take food and drinks into Walt Disney World. When my kids were very little, we filled the bottom of their stroller with small coolers that housed toddler meals and other necessities. As they outgrew the carriage, we transitioned to backpacks for everyone, including an inexpensive cooler backpack that my husband usually wears. The bottom portion is insulated, and we typically take along juice pouches for the kids as well as any snack items that could melt. Because space is at a premium in the backpack, we don't use it for bottles of water. Instead we bring reusable containers that we fill at water fountains or with cups of ice water that are handed out at counter-service restaurants.

We have brought an entire meal -- sandwiches, chips, drinks -- in the backpack cooler on days when we expect to eat two meals in a park. This definitely helps keeps costs down and it saves on time. But if you don't want to carry your meal all day, each Disney World park does have lockers for rent that typically cost less than $10 for the day.

You may be wondering where to eat your meal if you do bring it with you. Disney allows guests to grab any available bench or table at a counter-service restaurant, whether it is indoors or outside. If it is during an exceptionally busy period and cast members are seating guests after they have purchased food, you may be asked to try another spot.

If you do bring an insulated backpack or soft-sided cooler, the bonus is that after you have consumed what you brought into Disney World, you will have a place to store any perishable treats you want to take home.



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June 12, 2014

Disney-themed ideas for Father's Day gifts kids can make at home

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Father's Day is just around the corner, which means moms of young children everywhere might be scrambling to finish those homemade gifts featuring handprints and footprints or kids' artwork. We all cherish those, to be sure. But if you're looking for some new ideas for crafts -- especially those with a Disney theme -- let me offer some easy and inexpensive ideas that can be completed in time for Sunday's celebration.

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For the Star Wars fan, Freeze Pop Sabers will help banish The Dark Side and keep everyone's hands from freezing in the process. No Carbonite here! This clever idea is in the June/July issue of FamilyFun magazine.

The directions:
For each, cut a 3-inch by 4-inch rectangle from gray felt. Fold it over a freeze pop and use fabric glue to seal the side and bottom edges. Clamp the fabric closed with binder clips or clothespins, if needed. Slip the felt off the pop. Glue on stripes and dots of black and colored felt. When your pop is frozen and the glue is dry, you're ready to battle the heat!

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I can't tell you how much I love this next gift, which is a free sheet of printable coupons. Dads who spent their vacations criss-crossing the theme parks of Walt Disney World to gather the old paper FastPasses will appreciate this present, as well. The twist on the time-honored tradition of giving fathers the gift of doing his household chores is that the coupons are designed to look like paper FastPasses, which were retired earlier this year.

The directions:
On Disney's Spoonful.com, go to this printable PDF, which includes six DadsPasses. You cannot edit the file, but there really isn't a need to. The expiration date is 2112, meaning the passes are good for Dad's lifetime. Just don't give him any trouble when he's ready to cash them in!

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Does the father in your family enjoy video games just as much as the kids? If so, the kids can create a personalized storage box for all your Disney Infinity figures and discs.

The directions:
This craft can be as simple or elaborate as you choose. Start with a box that is the size of a shoebox or larger. Cover it in plain craft paper or construction paper of various hues. Then, let your child decorate it. You can use pictures from the game pieces' packaging, stickers that show Disney characters or your child's own artwork. The possibilities are infinite!

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Turn an ordinary visor into a mouse-ear hat. Whether you're planning a trip to Walt Disney World or just want to show your appreciation for The Mouse, this hat will provide protection from the sun and rock Dad's Disney side at the same time.

The directions:
Purchase an inexpensive plain foam visor and a sheet of self-adhesive black foam from your local craft store. Cut out four circles of the same size and two small rectangle tabs. Place the rectangles between each pair of the circles on the edge and stick together. The rectangles will serve as tabs to be inserted through small slits on the visor. Once the ears are in place, tape the tab on the underside of the visor with colorful duct tape. This idea is modified from one on Disney's Spoonful.com

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Of course, no celebration is complete without cupcakes! Disney's Spoonful.com features these adorable beach-inspired Mickey Mouse cupcakes that are perfect for any summer holiday.

The directions:
Cut a square of freezer paper that is slightly bigger than the top of your cupcake -- about a 3.5 inch square. You'll notice that one side of the paper is shiny and one side is matte. On the matte side, draw or trace your design. Using a sharp craft knife, cut out your design. (This is a job for adults!) Frost your cupcakes with a knife or spatula. Lay your stencil, shiny side DOWN, on top of the frosting and press gently around the edges to prevent leaks. Pour graham cracker crumbs all over the top of the cupcake and then shake it gently over a bowl to remove the excess.

Happy Father's Day!



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June 5, 2014

Volunteer opportunities for kids at Walt Disney World's sports events

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It's almost summer, and for many kids, that means lazy days of hanging out with friends by the pool or at the beach. But older kids and teenagers also may be looking for volunteer opportunities to fulfill the service requirements that many high-school diplomas and college applications require. And that made me wonder: Does Walt Disney World offer volunteer positions?

The Walt Disney Co. does, in fact, have a strong network of cast members called VoluntEARS, who help in their communities. That program, however, is designed for employees and their families only. So, what's a kid who loves Disney to do?

The program runDisney actually offers a variety of volunteer opportunities during its races several times a year at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The minimum age varies, depending on the task, with 12 being the youngest age allowed. Some volunteer opportunities require the participant to be at least 15 years old.

The next runDisney weekend in Orlando is The Twilight Tower of Terror 10-Miler Weekend with races on Saturday, Oct. 4. Volunteer registration has not yet opened, but look for it on the runDisney website a few months before. Volunteers younger than 18 must have parental or guardian consent, and volunteers younger than 15 years of age must be accompanied by an adult. Minors must have adults complete waivers for them.

Volunteers -- or as runDisney calls them, "sports enthusiasts" -- are typically assigned to areas on a first-come, first-served basis. For this weekend, they may choose to work at Disney's Happy Haunted 5K Trail Run or The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror 10 -Miler if they are at least 12 years old. These jobs typically consist of filling cups with fluids and handing them to the runners or passing out medals at the finish line. Teens who are at least 15 years old may volunteer to work at Disney's Kids' Races or the Expo & Packet Pick Up on Friday, Oct. 3, or Saturday, Oct. 4.

Volunteers will receive confirmation in the mail of the shifts for which they have been scheduled about a month prior to the event.The mailing also will include further information on parking, directions, and other useful information.

Organizers of runDisney recognize that even though its Sports Enthusiasts are volunteering for their own personal reasons, they could not host the races without the volunteers' help. As such, volunteers are given "appreciation," for their time on the track. Each person receives a snack and one commemorative piece of apparel for the event.

In addition, volunteers at the expo, kids races or 5K are eligible to earn points toward a complimentary theme-park ticket. Each hour of service completed is equal to one point, and it takes 16 points to earn a day's admission to Walt Disney World. Earned tickets are mailed within 60 days of reaching 16 points. However, if you complete a shift at the 10-miler, you will receive a theme-park ticket for that day's volunteer effort at the end of your shift.

Sports Enthusiasts also are needed for events held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World. Currently, volunteer registration is open for the Amateur Athletic Union National Club Championships for Track and Field. Volunteer positions for start/finish line, field events, clerk's tent and awards tent are available for ages 16 and older from July 5 to 13. One point will be awarded for each hour of service.

Questions? Call the Sports Enthusiast Information Line at 407-938-3880, or email wdw.sports.enthusiast@disneysports.com.



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May 28, 2014

What families need to know about Disney World's Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

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Well, heigh ho! The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opens today, and it's definitely the hot new "ticket" at the Magic Kingdom. Before you rush to grab that FastPass reservation -- or decide if the new attraction is worth the standby wait -- here is what you need to know:

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** Perhaps the most important thing to understand about this attraction is that it was not designed to be a thrill ride, but rather an experience that would appeal to (almost) all ages. With that concept in mind, Disney Imagineers developed a gentle roller coaster that many who previewed it -- including our own Deb Wills -- rank in between Goofy's Barnstormer and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad on the nail-biter scale. Individual cars sway gently from side to side during the 2.5-minute ride, and still my husband said after riding it that the Mine Train is among the smoothest and tamest coasters at Walt Disney World.

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** The minimum-height requirement for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is 38 inches, compared with 35 inches for the Barnstormer and 40 inches for the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. This again points to the kid-friendly nature of the ride.

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** Unlike the now-defunct Snow White's Scary Adventures, the storytelling throughout this attraction based on Disney's animated version of "Snow White" is not at all frightening. Guests are queued through a landscaped outdoor setting before heading to the mine entrance, and even inside queues are lit up by dazzling "jewels." The ride itself focuses on the lovable Seven Dwarfs rather than the Evil Queen as Snow White's Scary Adventures did, and the theming throughout the coaster is amazing and what guests would expect from a dark ride.

** In its quest to create a new experience that would appeal to the widest audience, Disney seemingly took the gender of its guests into account. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was a late addition to the development of New Fantasyland. It's been said that Disney planners went back to the drawing board when they realized that a substantial amount of real estate in New Fantasyland was dedicated to the Disney Princesses (and, originally, Disney Fairies). They needed an attraction that would give boys and dads a reason to venture behind Cinderella Castle (aside from accompanying sisters and moms, of course). The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train certainly accomplished that with its adventuresome theming.

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** If the stand-by queue is not too long for your day's schedule, choose that option at least once. There are three interactive areas that are really cute, and the FastPass+ queue bypasses two of them.

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** In short, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is not a scary ride for most youngsters, and it's not boring for children and adults who seek bigger thrills. My 9-year-old daughter, who regularly rides Walt Disney World's "Mountain" coasters with my husband, thoroughly enjoyed the ride when she previewed it during a soft opening and can't wait to experience it again.

** So, where can you find your favorite characters from the ride? Snow White meets guests each day at the nearby Princess Fairytale Hall. The Seven Dwarfs come out of the mine for special appearances during Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, both of which require a separate ticket.

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** There are a couple of fun photo opportunities near the ride, as well. Guests exiting the ride will pass by the Dwarfs' cottage, and it makes a unique backdrop to remember the experience. (There are no professional photos taken on the attraction, as of this writing.) Or, have a friend or family member stand along the fence surrounding the ride, on the walkway to Storybook Circus. Have them snap the photo when your mine car crests the hill and Cinderella Castle is in the background. Really adventurous? Have your camera ready as you come out of the mountain on one of the highest drops of the ride. In front of you, you'll have a bird's eye view of the land enchanted by Belle and the Beast. To the right, Ariel's kingdom; to the left, Cinderella's Castle. Hope you have a fast shutter speed.

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** Although the stores near Cinderella Castle and on Main Street, U.S.A., carry a variety of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs merchandise, only one item so far is available that is attraction-specific. An open edition logo pin features Dopey and Grumpy and contains a swivel movement similar to the attraction vehicles created for the ride. It costs $9.95.



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May 20, 2014

Disney's Hollywood Studios brings Symphony in the Stars fireworks to Star Wars Weekends

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In a galaxy not so far away " Star Wars is being re-imagined and celebrated as only The Walt Disney Co. can do.

Although my family enjoys visiting Star Wars Weekends each year at Disney's Hollywood Studios, this year, we were really excited about seeing the fireworks show, Symphony in the Stars, which has replaced the HyperSpace Hoopla as each day's finale. Symphony in the Stars actually debuted in 2010 at the theme park's Last Tour to Endor special event. Since then, an abridged version has been shown as the entertainment at other one-offs, such as the Star Tours Galactic Party in 2011 and on May the Fourth in 2013, but it has not been shown regularly as it will be this year.

The 2014 version of Symphony in the Stars begins with a short pre-show led by James Arnold Taylor, voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi in "The Clone Wars" and the celebrity host of Star Wars Weekends. He pays tribute to many of the Star Wars fans in the park that day with a slide show of photographs of guests interacting with characters. (To be considered for your 15 seconds of fame, tag the Star Wars Weekends photos you post on social media with #swwfinale.)

Next, Taylor introduces popular characters from both the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, giving guests a final look at the some of their favorites. For those who are close to the stage in front of Sorcerer Mickey's hat, it's an excellent opportunity to get multiple characters in one photo.

Finally, it's time for the fireworks, which take place above the iconic symbol. Unlike at Epcot or the Magic Kingdom, fireworks are not presented regularly in this central location at Hollywood Studios. Even the casual observer will notice the differences in sight lines and crowd control when guests fill up Hollywood Boulevard, a noticeably smaller space than, say, Main Street U.S.A. or the promenade around Epcot's World Showcase. Plus, at just over seven minutes, Symphony in the Stars is shorter than Wishes or IllumiNations.

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Still, it's difficult not to get excited when the familiar sounds of John Williams' original music fill the air. Show Director Mark Renfrow recently was quoted on the official Disney Insider blog about his role in creating Symphony in the Stars:

"This music touches people. Everybody knows it, and when you hear it you suddenly go to a place. You go to the movies, and you remember these scenes, but you also remember how it felt when you first saw 'Star Wars.' Somehow, this particular show with this particular score feels like a reunion to me. I think that the audience will feel reunited and reconnected with this music - most shows are not like that, you're just watching the show. In this show, you're connected to it. And then because Star Wars takes place in space, you're already looking up into the sky. When the music comes to life in fireworks, you just can't help but visualize some of the things you've seen from the movies. You're immediately connected - and filled with wows."

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To be sure, there is something magical about seeing such a different kind of fireworks show in an unusual location at Walt Disney World. Guests can see Symphony in the Stars during the remaining Star Wars Weekends: May 23-25, May 30-June 1, June 6-8 and June 13-15.

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Viewing tips:

** My family and I underestimated how crowded Hollywood Boulevard would be. We arrived 30 minutes before the start of the pre-show, and the street and curbs were already filled from the stage to past the intersection with Sunset Boulevard. If taking photos of the characters is important to you, arrive even earlier and claim your spot up front. Otherwise, know that it might be difficult to see the pre-show, even on the larger screen, but viewing the fireworks will be fine anywhere on the street.

** Glow With The Show mouse ear hats work with this show, though we didn't see very many on the night we viewed the fireworks.

** Check the Times Guide when planning your day because some of the attractions close early for the fireworks.

** Be prepared to sit in traffic as you and your fellow fireworks fans leave Hollywood Studios at the same time. Star Wars Weekends and the fireworks are very popular, so there will be a mass exodus. Just don't count on the The Force to help you if decide to skip the bathroom break on the way out!



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May 16, 2014

Details revealed about the new Club Disney child-care center at Polynesian Resort

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Walt Disney World has been teasing us this spring with a steady stream of details about the renovations that have begun at the Polynesian Resort. Among the less-publicized changes is a complete makeover for the kids' child-care center, which is set to reopen June 14, a Disney representative told me.

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The center, which formerly was known as The Never Land Club, has been renamed Club Disney and characters from the story of Peter Pan have a much smaller role, though they certainly have not been banished altogether. The themes inside Club Disney are based on tales in classic Disney Little Golden Books including "Alice In Wonderland," "Pinocchio" and "Lady and The Tramp."

Young guests ages 3 to 12 enter the activity center through a book-page portal, I'm told, and they will find additional storybook pages decorating the walls and floor to help bring the various beloved stories to life.

In the section of the center themed to "Alice in Wonderland," children will see Cheshire Cat grinning at them from above five two-person stations set up for video game play with PlayStation consoles. Game players will perch on chairs made to look like mushrooms.

"Lady and The Tramp" is represented with a recreation of the alley scene in the story, in which the two share their infamous meal of spaghetti and meatballs. There are tables, which will be used for making crafts and also dinner, which is included in the price of child care. The adjacent Stromboli Theater shows Disney movies.

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A mural of Christopher Robin's window looking out to the Hundred Acre Wood from "Winnie The Pooh" serves a backdrop for story time and nap time. The iconic castle from "Cinderella" is a structure that has been built and furnished with royal pieces and gowns to encourage dress-up. Last but not least, a play area will allow kids to fly to Never Land to help Peter Pan take on Captain Hook.

With a month to go before Club Disney's opening, the meal plans have yet to be finalized. However, I'm told the procedure is likely to be the same as before -- children and their parents can order their dinners when they are checked in, and the food will arrive between 6 and 8 p.m. A cast member told me that kid favorites, such as cheeseburgers and hamburgers, will be available. Club Disney also is expected to offer more healthy options to suit a variety of palates, including grilled shrimp skewers, grilled chicken, grilled fish, a cucumber roll or vegetarian sushi.

The cost of having your child entertained and fully engaged so you can enjoy adult experience at Walt Disney World? Priceless, of course. In U.S. dollars, that translates to $11.50 per hour per child with a two-hour minimum.

Reservations can be made now by calling 407-WDW-DINE for June 14 and dates going forward. Cancellations must be made one day in advance or the parent will be charged $23. Walk-ups are welcome, based on availability, and you don't have to be staying at Walt Disney World for your child to be cared for at Club Disney. Club Disney will be open from 4:30 to 11:55 p.m. daily.

My children have spent time at other child-care centers at Walt Disney World: The Sandcastle Club at Disney's Yacht and Beach clubs and Camp Dolphin at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. (Read about those experiences in the links.)

Disney representatives told me that Club Disney will continue to host children's birthday parties with the same format and pricing as The Never Land Club. You can read about all the options in my story about Walt Disney World birthday parties here.



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May 15, 2014

What you need to know about 2014 Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World

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The galaxy has expanded with new offerings this year for Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World. Advance planning definitely is key to experiencing all that Disney's Hollywood Studios has to offer from May 16 to June 15. So, if you're prepared to master The Force, read my tips below and start scheduling your day to oppose the forces of the Dark Side. Or join Luke's father. Your choice, of course.

1. I can't say this enough: Get to Disney's Hollywood Studios before it officially opens at 8 a.m. if you want to sign up for children's events or get FastPasses for celebrity encounters. The Jedi Training Academy and Padawan Mind Challenge require registration, which is available immediately after the rope drop and are located in front of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Theater and ABC Sound Stage, respectively. Both kid events typically are full and have waiting lists by mid-morning. The system for distributing FastPasses for celebrity autographs begins outside the main gates to the right where guests must line up. You may not save a place in line for other party members, and distribution may begin before the park opens. (For more details about the celebrity meet-and-greets, see the AllEars.Net resource page.)

2. Because FastPasses for many attractions can be booked in advance online at My Disney Experience, be sure to schedule times for the Star Tours ride, and any Star Wars-themed stage shows featuring the celebrity guests, such as "Behind the Force," that interest you. For the first time in the event's history, Mark Hamill, who everyone here on Earth and in all the universes far, far away knows played Luke Skywalker in the original film trilogy, will be the celebrity guest from June 6 to 8. Guests staying at Disney resorts can book these FastPasses up to 60 days in advance, while other guests can book at 30 days out from their visit. Also, if you plan to have a table-service meal, make those reservations, too, because the theme park will be as busy as a Mos Eisley cantina during Star Wars Weekends. Resort guests can book dining reservations 190 days from the day they check in, and all other guests can book at 180 days prior to their visit.

3. Several special Star Wars-themed dining events were introduced this year. The Star Wars Dine-In Galactic Breakfast! at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant features favorite characters from the Dark Side, while Jedi Mickey's Star Wars Dine at Hollywood and Vine offers interactions with Disney characters dressed as Star Wars characters during a buffet dinner. The Feel the Force Premium Package includes reserved premium seats for the celebrity motorcade with snacks and drinks and a reserved viewing area and dessert during the fireworks. Most of these events sold out quickly, but you can always call 407-WDW-DINE to check for cancellations. (They do not show up on My Disney Experience.)

4. Don't leave Hollywood Studios early! The evening entertainment has changed from the popular Hyperspace Hoopla stage show to the new Symphony in the Stars fireworks. This state-of-the-art evening finale is expected to feature favorite Star Wars characters, a frenzy of fireworks and Glow with the Show elements at 9:30 p.m.

5. If you're a Florida resident, you can take advantage of the 3-day Discover Disney Ticket, which costs $129 and gives you admission to any of the four Walt Disney World theme parks for three separate days. It's good through June 6, which means you could choose to use it at the first three Star Wars Weekends or the first day of the fourth weekend. There is also a four-day option for $149. If you don't have a seasonal or annual pass, this is a great alternative because the regular price of one day's admission is almost $100 for an adult.

If the worst-case scenario comes to pass and you forgot to pre-book FastPasses, you couldn't secure reservations to Star Wars character meals and you ran into some serious delays on the planet Mustafar, there still are plenty of ways to make the day special for the Star Wars fans in your family. First, when you arrive at the park, go directly to Guest Relations and see if there are any openings for the meals you're interested in. While you're waiting in line there, use the My Disney Experience app on your smartphone to book any available FassPasses for attractions, including Star Tours. Then, stake out a place to see the Celebrity Motorcade at 11 a.m. There are so many Star Wars characters in one place that you can't help but feel immersed in the story universe. Afterward, be sure to stop by Darth's Mall for event merchandise and special interactive activities, including character meet-and-greets with Luke, Princess Leia, R2D2 and C-3PO. You will find other Star Wars character locations throughout the park, too. Treat your child to a Star Wars themed lunch pack or an amazing dessert at the counter-service locations. Finally, wrap up your day with the new fireworks show. If you're willing to brave the lines, The Force surely will be with you at Star Wars Weekends.



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May 13, 2014

Try a Florida turtle walk this summer or learn more about it at SeaWorld and Walt Disney World

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This summer, my family is going to experience a unique Florida event, one that both Walt Disney World and SeaWorld support, but it doesn't take place in a theme park.

Loggerhead sea turtle nesting season, which runs approximately May through October, gives Florida residents and visitors an opportunity to learn about the species. The turtles come ashore at night to lay their eggs in holes, or nests, on the beach and then they make their way back to the ocean. Only about 10 of the dozens of eggs laid in each nest will survive to adulthood, a Walt Disney World cast member told me.

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To increase the public's awareness about the plight of sea turtles, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allow a few trained and approved groups to conduct nighttime turtle walks along certain beaches in Brevard County. The walks take place in June and July, and registration opened this month. The walks fill up quickly because they are so popular, so sign up now if you are interested.

The Sea Turtle Preservation Society is one of the approved groups that conducts turtle walks in Melbourne Beach. They take place every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday night in June and Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights in July along with the first Friday and Saturday in August. Children must be at least 6 years old, and a donation of at least $15 per adult and $10 per child (ages 6 to 12) is required to participate.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy also offers guided turtle walks through the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Vero Beach, on Monday through Friday nights in June and July. In addition to the loggerhead turtles, endangered leatherback sea turtles nest in the Carr Refuge. Children must be at least 7 years old, and a donation of at least $15 per person is required to participate.

For both programs, turtle watchers meet promptly at 8:45 p.m. for a brief interpretive program on threats to sea turtle survival. Afterwards, participants will wait at beach crossover points with their guides while scouts search for a nesting loggerhead. Then, they take off on a beach walk that may be about a mile in soft sand. Turtle watches can last until midnight or later.

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At Disney's Vero Beach Resort, The Sea Turtle Conservancy also will kick off its Tour de Turtles in August. Started in 2008 by the Sea Turtle Conservancy, Tour de Turtles is a fun way to learn about the long migration of sea turtles from their nesting beaches to their foraging grounds. Tracking is done through satellite telemetry, with transmitters sending signals each time a turtle surfaces to breathe. Those who follow along at tourdeturtles.org will be exposed to the science and geography of sea-turtle migration. At the same time, researchers hope to gain more knowledge about the migratory practices of the endangered species because so much still is unknown. (Read more about Tour de Turtles in my previous blog post.)

Can't make it to the Treasure Coast to see the turtles for yourself?

You can learn more about turtle conservation on June 4 at Epcot's The Seas with Nemo & Friends. Walt Disney World celebrates World Oceans Day each year with interactive exhibits inside the pavilion. I wrote about past events here.

Or, if you are visiting SeaWorld Orlando, make sure to go to the Turtle Trek attraction, which is open year round. The tanks in the pre-show area house turtles that SeaWorld has rescued and is rehabilitating. Guests move from the animal habitat into the first 360-degree dome theater, which shows a 3D film about the life of a sea turtle. The movie is from the turtle's point of view and depicts its life -- including the daily dangers -- from birth to adulthood. (You can read more about it here.) The film's message is one of conservation: That everyday heroes can make a difference in nature.

Last week, SeaWorld Orlando's Aquarium Team traveled to Hobe Sound, Fla., to return three loggerhead sea turtles, and then to Sebastian Inlet in Melbourne Beach, Fla., to return a green sea turtle. The green sea turtle was rescued by a University of Central Florida turtle monitoring group and transported to SeaWorld Orlando by the Sea Turtle Preservation Society. So far in 2014, SeaWorld Orlando has rescued 29 sea turtles and returned 13 back to the water.



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May 7, 2014

Last-minute Mother's Day presents from Disney Floral & Gifts

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Did Mother's Day sneak up on you when you meant to order something from the Disney Parks or make a brunch reservation on Disney property? Don't worry! You can still recover nicely from your absentmindedness with the help of Disney Floral & Gifts.

The service helps create memorable moments for mothers celebrating at Walt Disney World and Disneyland or at home. There are several pre-packaged gift collections, or you can create your own from a large selection of containers and gift items.

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A Magical Wish is a gift to encourage the woman who has supported you to go after her own dreams. This gift is presented in a pixie-dusted box, topped with blue satin ribbon. A black velvet jewelry box inside holds an exclusive Swarovski crystal and silver-plated bracelet featuring three charms with the words "Dream, Wish and Believe." A magical wand and wish card are also tucked inside to remind her she has all she needs to create something magical. The price is $129.95.

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The Mother's Day Collection - Grand Family Celebration consists of an adorable insulated tote bag filled with treats for the whole family, a photo frame and a colorful bouquet of flowers. The bag is stuffed with goodies such as Minnie's Bake Shop Cookies and chocolate covered pretzels, and the arrangement includes red, yellow and fuchsia roses, plus white stargazer lilies. The cost is $191.95. Both the tote bag with treats and the flowers can be purchased separately, as well.

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The Mother's Day Collection - Royal Princess Celebration is a sweet set of gifts for a woman who loves pink and all things royal. An arrangement of pastel pink roses and carnations is accompanied by a delicious Cinderella Castle milk chocolate box with three conversation chocolates that remind mom to wish, dream and believe. She'll also discover her very own sparkling tiara. The cost is $152.95.

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If your budget is smaller, why not treat your mom to a Disney Balloon Bouquet in spring colors with an attached box of Mickey Mouse-shaped white, dark and milk chocolates for $49.95. My Fairy Tale Bouquet is an arrangement of roses and lilies topped with a light-up mirror in the shape of Cinderella Castle for $68.95.

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Think you know exactly what your Disney-loving mother would like? Use the Custom Gift Builder service to design the perfect present.

Disney Floral & Gifts delivers throughout Walt Disney World and also to many locations off property. Visitors can call 407-827-GIFT for more information regarding the delivery service area, and orders can be placed up to 2 p.m. for same-day delivery. You also still have time to place orders for at-home deliveries for Mother's Day, but certain products are excluded, such as fresh floral, fruit, balloons, bottles of liquid (including alcohol) and chocolate are for local delivery only. Choose next-business day shipping and order by noon EST Thursday to receive a gift in time for Mother's Day, which is Sunday.



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April 24, 2014

How do you feel about line jumping at Walt Disney World?

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With one of the busiest weeks of the year at Walt Disney World fresh in our minds - and the crowded summer season knocking on our door -- I'd like to discuss an issue that evokes strong feelings among visitors to Orlando's theme parks.

Few things anger out-of-town and local guests as much as watching others cut ahead of them in a queue they have invested a significant amount of time waiting in. Most people would, of course, agree that this behavior is unacceptable. After all, it forces the honest guests to wait in line longer and, consequently, experience fewer attractions per day. However, the line is a little blurred when it comes to defining what is line jumping and what is not.

When a guest blatantly disregards the queue system or pushes his or her way to the front out of some misguided sense of entitlement, it's pretty clear that they have line-jumped. Unfortunately, this sort of abuse is what led Walt Disney World to change the way it accommodates disabled guests. In the past, those guests and up to five other people in their parties were allowed front-of-line access at any ride at any time. Now, disabled guests are asked to use the FastPass+ system to guarantee they will not have long waits. The new system does require that disabled guests plan out their days, like others using FastPass+, and it (hopefully) slows the dishonest use of disability access.

But what about the everyday line jumping that most theme-park-goers experience?

Here is a scenario: A family wants to meet the Anna and Elsa characters from "Frozen." As we all know, the wait to see the sisters in the stand-by queue is anywhere from two to five hours every single day - despite their recent move to the Magic Kingdom. Most parents would agree that a wait of that length is impossible for children to endure and not a good use of the family's time and money.

So, the parents decide that one will stay in the long line to hold their place while the other parent takes the kids out to enjoy the park in the meantime. It's more pleasant for everyone involved, and the waiting parent is happy that his or her children are having other experiences.

My family of four used this strategy when we waited three hours to meet Jack Skellington at last year's Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.

But some say that this is considered line jumping. They believe that if you get out of line for any reason, you lose your spot, regardless of whether the rest of your party remained in line. I had no idea!

There are so many variables that go along with guests splitting up from their parties and rejoining them in line. Families with young children may need bathroom breaks, and families with older adults may not be able to withstand the sun for long periods. Visitors also could have medical reasons that are not readily visible. In any case, I have never seen cast members intervene when guests are rejoining their parties in line.

Still, when it was brought to my attention recently that some guests consider this behavior to be cutting in line, it made me curious to know what other Walt Disney World guests think. I'd love to get a conversation started in the comments. What do you consider to be line jumping?



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April 5, 2014

Tips for using your Walt Disney World MagicBand with Disney Infinity game

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Disney Infinity fans have known since the game system launched that if they receive and use a MagicBand, they can unlock special theme park content once they get home. With the rollout this week of MagicBands to day guests -- meaning everyone has access to the RFID bracelets -- I thought it might be a good time to remind visitors about the hidden content.

The key to collecting the Easter eggs in the game, which the Disney Infinity player will be able to save for future use, is patience. They are unlocked as you play the game over time.

To begin, you'll need to start the game in Toy Box mode with a character on the base. Then, touch your MagicBand to the spot where a game disc usually is placed. Within a couple minutes, a message will flash on the screen indicating that the MagicBand has been detected.

Spoiler alert: If you want to be surprised by the bonus content, you'll want to stop reading here.

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In build mode, look for the first surprise, Dragon's Gate, which is the entry into the bonus content, and it also unlocks a flying, fire-breathing dragon. Dragons have a long history in The Walt Disney Co. -- from Maleficent's dragon form in 1959's "Sleeping Beauty" to "Pete's Dragon" to Epcot's Figment -- and most recently they were re-introduced during the launch of New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom. On that day in December 2012, a dragon "flew" over the crowds, surprising everyone.
(You can see video here.)

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The dragon in Disney Infinity releases green capsules that contain the other Easter eggs during game play. It may take 10 to 15 minutes between drop-offs for each capsule to appear. The player should open each capsule when he or she sees it and save the content. The collection includes:

** Dragon's Domain, which includes "surfaces and objects inspired by the Disney Dragon."

** Dragon's Flight Sky, which is a new, mountainous and cloudy sky, perfect for the dragon.

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There is a fourth surprise, Dragon's Keep, that is not available on the Wii platform. You'll need Xbox 360, Playstation 3 or Wii U to access it. It's "a fantasy-filled Toy Box, for the Disney Dragon." This content gives the player a new, pre-built world to play in, and I have to say, it looks amazing. My family has a Wii, so we were unable to play in Dragon's Keep, but we have admired it in YouTube videos.

For those not familiar with Disney Infinity, here is a simple explanation of how the game works and what the pieces do. Beginning this month, the Phineas and Ferb Toy Box Pack is now available at retailers nationwide.

To read more about Disney Infinity, see my collection of blog posts here.



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March 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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March 27, 2014

Best foods to take home from Walt Disney World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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March 25, 2014

Walt Disney World and Nickelodeon Suites offer summer Girl Scout events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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March 19, 2014

Seven Dwarfs Mine Coaster speeds to completion and opening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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March 10, 2014

How passholders can sign up for MagicBands at Walt Disney World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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March 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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March 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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February 20, 2014

Biochemist and pageant winner Dr. Erika talks about getting kids excited about science

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To celebrate National Engineers Week at Walt Disney World, aerospace and defense contractor Raytheon is hosting a science theater production for children this week. The "Science Thrills Live" show is produced by Science from Scientists, a non-profit organization whose goal is to improve science and technology awareness in middle-school and late-elementary students.

Earlier this week, I talked with the founder of Science from Scientists, Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle, about her passion for getting kids involved with science. Ebbel Angle is a former Miss Massachusetts, MIT alumna, has a PhD in biochemistry from Boston University and is the host of the "Dr. Erika Show."

How do you get kids excited about science?

There are several ways. The first is to make it real, so rather than make it something that's covered in a textbook or described only as something they can imagine, you have to make it tangible. Part of the purpose of this science theater show is to make something they can see real and then correlate it back so you have real examples of scientific concepts.

The second way is by having the right people. You have to have fun, cool, charismatic folks talking about the material so you're dispelling the stereotype that all scientists are boring and have no other interests. So you have to find folks who are capable of talking to kids and getting them excited and making it understandable. Many scientists have a challenging time doing that.

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How does relaying your story as pageant participant help girls relate to you and your mission?

The purpose of it [her crown] is to show that science is not a single activity for which you could have no other interests. So for me, my secret is that I have done pageants, I play the piano, I have other interests. So whether you're an athlete or an artist, a magician or whether you like to play the kazoo, the point is that you can be a scientist or engineer and have other interests, as well. So, the messaging with the crown is "Look -- it doesn't matter what your other interests are. It doesn't affect whether you can become a scientist."

How do you reach out especially to girls and get them interested in STEM activities?

From what I've heard and from talking to girls between the ages of 5 and 13, the concerns are "Well, if I'm a scientist, no one will like me or I won't have friends" or "I'm going to be labeled a geek." No. 1: It's cool to be a geek because if you're not a geek, one day you'll probably be working for one. No. 2: Embrace who you are. " That doesn't affect whether or not you can be a scientist, a biochemist, an astrophysicist, an engineer.

So, the message to girls is "You are who you are. Be very comfortable with that. Don't let what other people say to you affect the decisions that you make. Don't let people harass you into thinking you can't do something because you're a girl. It's just the same as saying, 'You wear pink shoes, and, therefore, you can't be a scientist'."

Again, producing high-quality role models helps so girls say, "OK, that person is a scientist and they're pretty normal and have a life and other interests." And then just helping them to be themselves and encouraging them to be comfortable in their own skin and letting the rest go.

Do you find that kids are especially interested in one branch of science over others?

That's an interesting question. Historically there have been many fewer women in science, especially in engineering, than men. I think a lot of that has to do with role models. But now that there are more women in medicine, in the life sciences -- biology, chemistry -- you're seeing even more women apply. Statistics show that more women go to college than men these days, and there are quite a few in medical school and in the life sciences. But fewer in physics and computer science. I think part of that is that girls don't see many women, so as a result they have no role models.

So one of the things we try to do is find these people and say, " 'Come out, talk to kids, and say they can do it'." Maybe in the next five to 10 years we may start seeing a shift as more women [are more visible].

The trend has been very interesting even for boys. Girls outscore boys on the SAT, and their grades are better. I think there are a variety of different reasons. Boys tend to mature a little later and then they finally settle into themselves and become who they are later on. There's also a different mindset. I've noticed that men and women think very differently. As girls get older, they're less afraid to fail. Whether that's environmental or genetic, who knows? Boys don't care as much about just raising their hands and being wrong. But girls won't raise their hands if they're not totally sure.

Ultimately if the activities are good enough and the content isn't boring, I think you can encourage both simultaneously.

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Tell me a little about what are you working on in your professional life.

As the founder of Science from Scientists, I'm still involved. In Massachusetts, we send real scientists into the classroom every other week for the entire year to teach curriculum-relevant lessons. Science theater is one of our outreach programs, but our flagship program is in the schools. We want to improve both the attitudes and the aptitudes. We're looking for statewide test score improvement.

I'm also starting a biotech company. As a biochemist, I love studying diseases so that we can help people. How can we do something to cure the chronic conditions for which there are no cure -- Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS. The biotech [Counterpoint Health Solutions] is really geared at developing diagnostic tools as well as therapies for people who have or are in theory at risk for developing some of these conditions. So we have technology that can identify those people and then a way of helping them on the back end.

What would you like families to take away from these shows at Epcot?

This is such a great opportunity for us because we hope in the 15 minutes we have to reach the kids with science theater that we [inspire] them. We hope they wonder why a Coke bottle will spray eight feet in the air. Science is amazing and we take for granted how things work.

I think if you're a kid and you're born into all this amazing technology, you don't always appreciate just how complex and awesome it is that it exists at all. If we can at least open their eyes to start thinking about these things, they might want to be involved. I'm hoping this will at least help kids to ask more questions and to be more curious.

NOTE: The 15-minute "Science Thrills Live" shows are free with admission to Epcot and take place each day this week at 11 a.m. and 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. at the Innoventions Engineers Lab inside Innoventions West. Raytheon also sponsors the Sum of All Thrills attraction at Epcot, which allows guests to digitally design their own roller coasters and then experience a simulated ride in them.



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February 17, 2014

Unique Disney Fairies houses to be sold at Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

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Among the many things my family and I look forward to each year at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is the area dedicated to the Disney Fairies. What began as a promotion for the direct-to-DVD movies has grown from topiaries of each fairy to include a collection of tiny fairy houses, and the popular pieces have moved from a small Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden to inside the butterfly tent so they could be enjoyed by more guests each year.

My children and I love studying the small houses, which debuted in 2008, to see how the fairies have used everyday objects in new ways to create their homes. One of our favorites incorporates a roller skate, and another sprite took up residence in a teacup she embellished. (You can see photos of several of the fairy houses from past years on my blog here.)

Imagine my delight in learning that guests can purchase some of these houses for the first time for just two weeks during this year's Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. From March 22 to April 6, the creators and their one-of-a-kind pieces will appear in the Garden Oasis merchandise area in one of the pergolas near the Mexico pavilion. These clever garden homes actually are created for the horticulture department at Walt Disney World by Florida artists Vikki Yarborough and Ronda Maseman.

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"We are sisters that have been feeding off of one another's ideas and imagination, creating things together for many years," the two wrote. "Our current path began with making various props for gardens -- wind chimes, stepping stones, scarecrows, bird baths, mosaic garden animals, topiaries covered in seeds and homes to attract fairies. The Prop Duster Dept. was born when someone said we make props dusted with pixie dust. The fairies then asked for more, so we took a side path to create these fantasy homes."

Yarborough and Maseman work just like the fairies do -- by recycling objects that humans have discarded and by collecting things from nature.

"The creative process begins as other people's cast-offs found at flea markets, garage sales, yard sales, our own kitchen cabinets or garden shed. These items could be a sifter, old toy, copper tea pot, colander, bird house, paint cans, clay pots, and on the list goes. We never know what we will find," they wrote.

"Nature then provides us with " tree branches, sticks, bark, seed pods, leaves, moss, sand, dirt, shells -- anything that is found on the ground. The fairies don't want you to cut fresh stuff. We never leave the house without bringing a bag to gather the treasures we find. Then the fun begins, putting all these items together to create the homes."

Guests at Walt Disney World can see the results for themselves. The 21st annual Epcot Flower and Garden Festival begins on March 5 and runs through May 18. Most festival events are included in regular theme-park admission. The prices of the fairy houses will vary, based on the size and materials used.

And if you can't get enough of fairy creations, be sure to watch for "The Pirate Fairy," the fifth in the animated Tinker Bell movies, which is scheduled for release on April 1. Get a sneak peek here.

As magical as the fairy houses can be, the fairy topiaries were equally fun to see, as well, and they always made for a great photo backdrop with the kids. Unfortunately, I've recently learned that most of the topiaries will not appear this year as they have in years past. Tinker Bell will be located outside her butterfly house, though.



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February 14, 2014

Free and fun things to do at Walt Disney World on Valentine's Day

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Beginning today -- Valentine's Day -- guests will find a few surprises in the Walt Disney World parks for the sweetest of holidays. Best of all -- they do not require advance reservations, booking a FastPass or even an extra charge! So get ready to impress your honey without any stress.

As is the tradition, on February 14, the Disney princess meet-and-greets also will include each young woman's prince. Being able to get photos with the royal couples is a rare occurrence, usually limited to Valentine's Day, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, so take advantage if you can! See our video of the pairs out together last year in the Magic Kingdom.

Also in the Magic Kingdom is the Cinderella Castle projection show, "Celebrate the Magic." This amazing 10-minute show has various seasonal segments, including one for Valentine's Day that was introduced last year. "Celebrate the Magic" will be shown twice tonight -- at 9:45 and 10:35 p.m. Unlike when you watch the parade, there is no need to stake out your spot on the curb ahead of time to watch this show. Just step onto Main Street, U.S.A., and enjoy the magic. The Magic Kingdom is open from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Feb. 14.

New this year are complimentary screenings of "Blank - A Vinylmation Love Story" at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The film is a 39-minute, stop-motion, animated short that tells the story of an unpainted Vinylmation figure in search of his lost soulmate. It's the first of 12 episodes created by Disney Interactive Entertainment on the fifth anniversary of the collectible figures.

Show times are 11:30 a.m. and 1, 2:30, 4 and 5:30 p.m. today (Feb. 14) through Monday (Feb. 17) in the Premiere Theatre. Walt Disney World passholders can attend a special screening at 10 a.m. Feb. 14 and Feb. 16, and Disney Vacation Club members can attend a screening at 10 a.m. Feb. 15 and 17. Both groups are welcome to attend any of the other shows, which will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no charge for the movie, but theme-park admission is required.

Can't make it to Disney World for Valentine's Day weekend? "Blank - A Vinylmation Love Story" can be seen online for free here.

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If you fall in love with the figures, Disney is offering some special merchandise for a limited time at Hollywood Studios and online at http://www.DisneyStore.com/Blank. Through Feb. 23, guests can purchase 3-inch, create-your-own Blank and Bow figures, T-shirts and D-Tech on Demand cases for the iPhone 4/4S and iPhone 5/5S. In addition, Hollywood Studios will be selling just a few sets of 3-foot Vinylmation figures that resemble Blank and Bow. One pair will be signed by the Disney Interactive team who worked on the short. There also will be 50 blank, 3-inch Vinylmation figures with custom artwork by Disney Design Group artist Thomas Scott.

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February 13, 2014

Raytheon celebrates National Engineers Week with "Science Thrills Live" shows at Epcot

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No matter what your kids tell you, science can be fun, and one of Epcot's corporate sponsors, Raytheon, is offering theme-park guests the opportunity to discover this for themselves during special events planned for National Engineers Week, which is Feb. 17 to 21.

Raytheon, an aerospace and defense contractor that employs state-of-the-art electronics and communications systems for government and commercial projects, sponsors Sum of All Thrills in the theme park. This attraction allows guests to digitally design their own roller coasters and then experience a simulated ride in them.

But during National Engineers Week, the company also will conduct an interactive stage show called "Science Thrills Live" to demonstrate to Walt Disney World guests the exciting ways that science can be applied to objects in our everyday lives. Guests will learn about nucleation-triggered eruptions, thermoplastic recycling, and the conservation of angular momentum by watching soda explode and milk jugs melt and participating in a giant tug of war. The experiments will be conducted by actual scientists, and the show features Erika Ebbel, the host of "The Dr. Erika Show," and the founder of Science from Scientists.

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Erika Ebbel teaches students who have donned safety goggles about math and science.

The 20-minute shows are free and take place each day at 11 a.m. and 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. at the Innoventions Engineers Lab inside Innoventions West. Raytheon representatives will be handing out free T-shirts on Monday and sling bags on Tuesday through Friday.

Last year during National Engineers Week, Raytheon hosted family friendly sessions called "Coaster Crafters" that taught kids the basic physics behind designing roller coasters. You can read about it and see photos on my blog post here.

Can't make it to Innoventions at Epcot? There is an online version of Sum of All Thrills that allows users to create a roller coaster ride, pilot a jet fighter or race a bobsled -- and then relive their custom ride over and over again. A design table similar to the one used at Walt Disney World provides all the virtual tools users need to experience their own thrill ride and learn about some of the scientific concepts that make the attractions so exciting.

In another community effort to nurture interest in math and science, Raytheon also hosts the MATHCOUNTS national competition at Walt Disney World each spring. The contest brings together the nation's top middle-school students who have excelled at math. Raytheon's educational efforts are grouped under the MathMovesU initiative, which includes scholarships, competitions, interactive learning programs and tutoring.



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February 1, 2014

Where to watch the 2014 Super Bowl at Walt Disney World

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If you find yourself at Walt Disney World on Super Bowl Sunday (that's tomorrow, for those who are not professional football fans!), what's a guest to do?

Those who don't care to watch the game -- to the commercial debuts or half-time show by Bruno Mars -- can take advantage of the almost-deserted theme parks. Super Bowl Sunday is actually one of the least crowded days at Walt Disney World, so make the most of it! Even with the new limited FastPass+ system, you should be able to easily experience many attractions, and the weather is expected to be sunny and warm.

Should you be in the other camp and among the millions of fans looking forward to the big game -- or just vacationing with someone who is a football fanatic -- there are plenty of places to catch the game on television screens at Walt Disney World. Probably the first one that comes to mind for many folks is the ESPN Club on the Boardwalk because of its sports theme, 100 television screens, and traditional "game day" food. Consequently, the ESPN Club fills up early -- folks have been known to arrive hours early to secure a spot. The restaurant does take reservations, which many guests don't know, a cast member told me. So, call 407-WDW-DINE to check if there's a spot for you.

The ESPN Club is not the only place to watch the Super Bowl on Disney property, though. There are quite a few restaurants at Downtown Disney that will be hosting fans: Bongo's Cuban Cafe, Wolfgang Puck Cafe, House of Blues, Paradiso 37, Plant Hollywood, Rainforest Cafe and Fulton's Crab House.

Plus, Splitsville is having a Super Bowl-ing Party for adults ages 21 and older who want to see the big game on its 40 flat-panel screens. For $75, each person will receive complimentary appetizers and open bar from 6 to 9 p.m. Open bowling is an additional $20, and part of the proceeds will go to Orlando-based Clean The World Foundation, a non-profit organization that collects and recycles soap and shampoo products from the hospitality industry and distributes them to impoverished communities worldwide.

In past years, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex has had two viewing locations open to the public -- ESPN Grill and the Jumbotron at the Welcome Center. The Grill is open again this year, but it closes at 9 p.m., so that might not be your best choice, given that the game is unlikely to be over by last call. (Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m.) The complex has not announced whether the Super Bowl will be shown on the Jumbotron because there is a softball game scheduled on the field earlier.

And then there are plenty of viewing locations at the Walt Disney World hotels, starting with the comfort of your own room. Fox television station will be carrying the 48th Super Bowl in the Orlando market; that's Channel 11 at Walt Disney World resorts. Want to join your fellow fans? Most of the pool bars and hotel lounges also will have the game on, though they may not have multiple screens.

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Finally, if you're going to be at the Magic Kingdom on Monday, be sure to check the Times Guide because you might be able to see your favorite player in person. The Super Bowl MVP traditionally comes to Disney World and will be feted in a celebratory parade down Main Street, U.S.A.

Some guests can continue their Super Bowl celebration all year with an offer from the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. Residents of both Washington and Colorado will receive a free night at the Walt Disney World hotel when booking two nights at the standard price before Feb. 28 for stays through Feb. 3, 2015. Some restrictions apply. To make reservations, call 1-800-227-1500 and mention their home state.



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January 30, 2014

How to use new FastPass+ system at Walt Disney World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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January 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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January 23, 2014

What Disney World merchandise do you collect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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January 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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January 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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January 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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December 28, 2013

A look back at what was new at Walt Disney World in 2013

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In 2013, many new attractions contributed to our memorable moments at Walt Disney World. Here are some of the new additions at the resort this year, in no particular order. Enjoy a look back at what was new this year.

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** Elements from "Frozen" movie. From a segment in the Celebrate the Magic show on Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom to the Elsa and Anna meet-and-greet at Epcot's Norway pavilion, the hit animated feature is well represented at Walt Disney World. Fans also can find an artifact collection inspired by the movie in the Stave Church at the Norway pavilion and story boards from the film at the Art of Animation at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

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** Food marketplaces at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. The theme park's Food and Wine Festival is so popular that Disney planners decided to expand the format to its other well-attended festival. It took five years for the new marketplaces to come to fruition, and they were well-received in their first year at Epcot. So well, in fact, they will be returning next year, I'm told.

** Food trucks. The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival also inspired Walt Disney World to join the food truck trend. When the festival ended, the resort launched four food trucks that are based at Downtown Disney but can travel around the property. One of the trucks offers popular dishes from the Food and Wine Festival.

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** Glow With The Show mouse ear hats. A little more than a year after these fun hats debuted at Disneyland, they made their appearance at Walt Disney World. The ears on the hats light up and can be synchronized with friends and some of the big nighttime productions, such as Wishes fireworks, Fantasmic! and The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Hats cost $25 apiece and will work at both Disney World and Disneyland.

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** Scenes from the movie "Tangled." Fantasyland added a section dedicated to Rapunzel's story early this year. Unfortunately, it doesn't offer attractions, per se -- just cleverly themed bathrooms and a rest area with charging stations. There is a nice photo op by the tower, though.

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** Another piece of New Fantasyland. Speaking of Disney Princesses, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty (and their visiting guests) were given a new home at Princess Fairytale Hall in the courtyard behind Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom. This well-themed area is housed in what used to be Snow White's Scary Adventures.

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** For fans of "Up." Animal Kingdom launched a self-guided program for kids based on the Disney-Pixar movie called Wilderness Explorers. The free handbook directs participants to various locations throughout the park where they can earn "badges," much like Scouts do in real life.

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** Kingdom Keepers. Fans of Ridley Pearson's "Kingdom Keepers" series of books now have the opportunity to solve their own quests at both Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom. The self-directed scavenger hunts can be found in the 2013 and 2014 "Birnbaum Guides to Walt Disney World." These hunts are modeled after the one Pearson developed for Disney Youth Programs.

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** A Pirate's Adventure: Treasure of the Seven Seas. This is yet another attraction that guests can do at their own pace. Located in Adventureland, the hunt for treasure includes many surprises built into the existing infrastructure of the Magic Kingdom.

** Limited Time Magic. The 2013 campaign brought a variety of special experiences to the parks. Among them were two one-day-only events at Disney's Hollywood Studios: May the Fourth Be With You, which celebrated Star Wars, and Unleash the Villains on Friday, Sept. 13. Both celebrations offered special fireworks -- Symphony in the Stars and Villiainy in the Sky.

** New watering holes. New lounges popped up throughout Walt Disney World, including the Lava Lounge at Rainforest Cafe at Downtown Disney and the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge at Hollywood Studios.

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** Rare character appearances. In addition to the Long Lost Friends that appeared during Limited Time Magic events, Disney also brought out Jack Skellington and Sally from "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas." The pair commanded three-hour-long lines in 2012 and were only available at meet-and-greets this year at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and on select Disney Cruise Line sailings aboard the Disney Dream.

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** Jingle Cruise. Magic Kingdom offered its first holiday overlay at an attraction since the Country Bear Christmas Special closed in 2005. The Jungle Cruise takes on a holiday theme.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the updates and changes at Walt Disney World in 2013. Please tell us in the comments what you especially enjoyed this year.



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December 19, 2013

Personalized children's book at Epcot celebrates holidays around the world

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Epcot long has offered a global view of the holidays, and now the park offers something special that allows kids to read about holidays around the world, too.

kidsHeritage, Inc., the company that creates custom books for children and which has a retail site at Epcot, has a new offering for the holidays. "My Sleigh Ride Around the World" takes readers to different countries to learn about the local traditions for celebrating the holidays.

"It is a great fit with Epcot's beautiful Holidays Around the World celebration," author Deanna Bufo Novak told me recently. "Now, guests can take some of that magic home with them."

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The holiday book can be personalized with a child's name, birth date, and photo, as well as the gift-giver's name, date of journey and country of departure. A personalized copy of "My Sleigh Ride Around the World" costs $39.95, or guests can choose the standard version for $18.95.

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This book and the two others -- "My Heritage Book" and "ABC's Around the World" -- are available in the company's new location inside Heritage Manor Gifts at The American Adventure. Personalized copies are created on the premises and typically are ready in 30 minutes.

"I believe strongly in teaching children about heritage, other traditions, and world culture," Novak said. "This was a natural progression after my first two books, and with the holidays approaching, it was the perfect time."

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Not only do readers learn about varied customs, but Novak also has included pages that allow each child to further personalize his or her book by writing about favorite holiday traditions, what he or she is thankful for, and gifts he or she would like to give. The author said she hopes these pages remind everyone what the holidays are all about.

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Parents, grandparents and teachers are frequent customers, Novak said. "Teachers are personalizing the books for themselves to use in their classrooms," she said, adding that the holiday book is a multicultural exploration of the holidays and is, therefore, appropriate for a diverse student body.

"My Sleigh Ride Around the World" will be for sale as long as quantities last.

Novak often can be found working in Heritage Manor Gifts, especially Fridays and Saturdays, and is happy to autograph books when asked.

"I am incredibly thankful to get to do what I love so much, to be able to do it in Epcot, and to receive all of the wonderful feedback I do from guests," she said. "It really is a dream come true for me!"

To read more about "My Heritage Book" and "ABC's Around the World," please see my previous post.



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December 3, 2013

Disney World's Limited Time Magic allows guests to donate Duffy bears to Toys For Tots

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When the winter holiday season arrives, many parents look for concrete ways to demonstrate to their children the importance of giving to those who are less fortunate. For some, that mission is accomplished through their places of worship. For others, it is through community groups and charities.

One donation method, though, that is easy for children of all ages to grasp is the nationwide Toys For Tots program. Participants donate new, unwrapped toys during the months of October, November and the first part of December, and then the gifts are distributed during the second half of December. Toys For Toys, which is run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, aims to inspire hope in youngsters "that will assist them in becoming responsible, productive, patriotic citizens."

Local campaigns are conducted in more than 700 communities in all 50 states, including Orlando. And for this week, Walt Disney World is offering a special Limited Time Magic deal to benefit Toys For Tots. For each $5 donation from a guest, Walt Disney World will give a 17-inch Duffy the Disney Bear to Toys for Tots.

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I really love this promotion for so many reasons. Most importantly, these donations will put new "friends" in the hands of many children who really need them. Time and again, parents watch their children bond with special stuffed animals -- teddy bears or other loveys -- and the animals provide a sense of security and comfort. Imagine what they could do for children in families where futures are uncertain.

For families who can afford extras, like vacations at Walt Disney World, this offer gives them an easy way to share some of the Disney magic with those who are less fortunate. It's easy to make a simple donation and show children how it can help others. It's also a great teachable moment to ask your child to spend $5 of their own souvenir money to help other kids have a better Christmas and learn an easy lesson about personal sacrifice. Or, if children are too young to have their own money, parents can explain that instead of mom and dad enjoying a particular treat in the theme parks that day, they are donating the Duffy the Disney Bear instead.

The 17-inch Duffy the Disney Bear retails for $30, so guests can feel good about the value of their donations, too.

And, as teachable moments go, don't forget to note a historical aspect of the program either. Point to the Toys For Tots train logo at the collection site and ask the kids if they know where it was created. Then tell them how, in 1948, the logo actually was created by Disney animators as Walt Disney Studios joined with other Hollywood filmmakers to support this worthy program. That Disney-created artwork has been used ever since.

Donations for the Duffy bears are being accepted at Once Upon a Toy or World of Disney at Downtown Disney Marketplace though Dec. 8. In addition to subsidizing the plush bears, Walt Disney World is donating $200,000 to Toys for Tots this holiday season.



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November 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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October 24, 2013

Disney Vacation Club opens Villas at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa

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Disney Vacation Club, the time-share branch of The Walt Disney Co., opened its 12th property on Wednesday, The Villas at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Of course, one of the biggest advantages to this resort is that it is located on the monorail loop around Seven Seas Lagoon.

"It's like having your own home right here overlooking the Magic Kingdom," said Ken Potrock, Disney Vacation Club's senior vice president and general manager, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "That's what we set out to do -- welcome people home."


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Like its neighboring resort, the Grand Floridian, the Villas are designed to make guests feel like they have stepped back in time. The facade clearly matches the architectural style of the 1900s with the white walls and red tile roof. The interior spaces are appropriate as a look and feel of a bygone era, as well.

"The main idea in the storytelling [of the Villas] is that it be connected back to the Grand Floridian," Walt Disney Imagineer Debbie Peterson told me. "That storyline really celebrates a Victorian, turn-of-the-century feel, and we definitely wanted to make it a seamless transition. So, we wanted to bring the elegance, but then we also wanted to make it feel updated. And then we added some fun and uniquely Disney touches, so it's different but it's part of the same property."

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In the midst of beautifully appointed studios and villas, two such new features stand out. In each bathroom that includes a bathtub, guests will find television screens projected from within mirrors so they can catch up on their favorite shows while relaxing or getting ready to go out to the parks.

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Perhaps an even bigger wow factor is the clever way Murphy beds are disguised as bureaus in the deluxe studios and one-bedroom villas. The use of the Murphy beds makes The Villas at Disney's Grand Floridian the first DVC property to accommodate up to five guests in each deluxe studio. In addition to the space-saving design, the beds offer a touch of whimsy when they are unfolded -- murals with scenes from "Dumbo" (in the deluxe studio) or "Mary Poppins" (in the one-bedroom villa).

Why were these stories chosen?

"We started researching some stories from our Disney library, and we realized that "Alice In Wonderland" and "Mary Poppins" were both themes that took place at the turn of the century, and we said that we can have some fun making these connections with the Villas," Peterson told me. "The one last story that we discovered was "Dumbo," and it's actually a Florida story, so you'll see inspiration art with "Dumbo," "Mary Poppins" and "Alice in Wonderland" throughout the resort and the amenities."

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The penguins from the "Jolly Holiday" song in "Mary Poppins" are immortalized in a bronze fountain in the resort's lobby. This centerpiece is sure to draw guests in for a closer look, but don't miss the other visual reminders of the song and movie, such as the carousel horses.

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Next door, at the Grand Floridian, guests will find the addition of a water play area for young kids that is themed to "Alice in Wonderland," plus the Supercalifragilistic Breakfast, a nod to another catchy tune from "Mary Poppins." Unlike Disney Vacation Club's other monorail loop property, Bay Lake Tower, the Villas do not have their own swimming pool, kids' area or lounge. Those amenities are shared with its sister resort, which is within walking distance.

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There are 106 units in the newest DVC property, including six grand villas that each offer three bedrooms, four bathrooms, a full kitchen, a dining table that seats 12, a state-of-the-art media room and laundry facilities.

You can see a detailed description for each type of room in the new Villas at Disney's Grand Floridian on our AllEars.Net page. Videos and photos coming soon!



October 21, 2013

Glow With The Show ear hats debut at Magic Kindom

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Less than a week ago, Glow With The Show ear hats debuted at Walt Disney World during a Fantasmic performance. On Saturday, the hats began working with the Celebrate the Magic castle projection show and the Wishes fireworks presentation at the Magic Kingdom, and my children and I were in the thick of the crowds on Main Street, U.S.A., to witness the first displays.

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Our experience with the new light-up mouse-ear hats began earlier in the day when I purchased one for each of my children at The Emporium. The hats are available in one design (for now, at least) -- a multicolored pattern of Mickey Mouse faces on the cap and two "ears" that illuminate. Each Glow With the Show hat costs $25.

This seemed a bit pricey to me at first. But when I thought about buying a child a basic mouse-ear hat with an embroidered name and also purchasing a light-up toy for the night-time parade and activities, I realized I easily would exceed that amount. And I'm sure I'm not the only parent who would love to have one less purchase per child to keep track of at a theme park. (For the record: You can replace the AAA batteries yourself when necessary.)

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The hats, which debuted a little more than a year ago at Disneyland, can work independently, in cooperation with other hats worn by your group, and with certain night-time shows. Glow With The Show ears will light up individually when turned on. If you bump them with another hat and stay near the guest wearing that hat, the patterns of lights will appear synchronized. This is a fun discovery for wearers.

However, the real "oohing" and "aching" comes when you see the ears synched with a large-scale show, such as Celebrate the Magic. We stood in the hub near Cinderella Castle for our first viewing, and we had a decent view of the show and enough Glow With The Show ears in front of us to see the new effects. Of course, the farther back on Main Street you stand, the more ears you're likely to see.

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You'll quickly notice the ears of each hat match colors in the show and flash to the beat of some of the songs. One of our favorite effects was during the "Tangled" recreation in Celebrate the Magic when the lanterns appear to glow and float into the air and the ear hats matched the lanterns. Also visually pleasing was when the ears glowed red while the castle was bathed in blue with the projected white stars, mimicking Sorcerer Mickey's hat during Wishes. Take a look at some of the scenes from Celebrate the Magic in the video below:

Currently, Glow With The Show ears are synchronized with Celebrate the Magic and Wishes at Magic Kingdom (and the Halloween versions at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party on Oct. 20, 22, 24, 25, 27, 29, 31 and Nov. 1) and Fantasmic! at Hollywood Studies. Beginning Nov. 8, the hats will work with The Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Hollywood Studios and Holiday Wishes: Celebrate the Spirit of the Season at Magic Kingdom.

Glow With The Show ears can be purchased at The Emporium, The Chapeau and merchandise carts at Magic Kingdom and at Beverly Sunset, Once Upon A Time, Mickeys of Hollywood, Head to Toe and merchandise carts at Hollywood Studios. Hats purchased at any Disney park -- including Disneyland -- will work at all Disney World parks that are part of the program.

October 10, 2013

Chase VIP Lounge takes guests inside American Adventure Parlor during Epcot Food & Wine Festival

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This year, some guests at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival have the opportunity to step into one of Walt Disney World's private party spaces -- free of charge.

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The Chase VIP Lounge has moved from the Festival Center in 2012 to the American Adventure Parlor this year, and it is open to all Chase card members. Each card member may bring as many as nine guests. To access the space, there is a queue in front of the building, slightly to the right, where you can present your card.

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A cast member told me the lounge can accommodate 100 people. When capacity is reached, they let in guests as others exit. Those wishing to burn off some of the calories they have consumed at the festival can choose to climb stairs to the third floor, while the rest of us opt for the elevator.

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Upstairs, you'll be greeted by another cast member who will explain that complimentary drinks are available to the right in the Thomas Jefferson Dining Room. My family and I were excited to see two Coca-Cola Freestyle machines plus regular and decaffinated coffee, and guests are invited to drink to their heart's content. Beer and wine also are available for purchase.

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This room typically is rented for intimate wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners and farewell brunches. The dining room, which is reminiscent of Monticello during the late 1700s, can seat 50 guests. The main focal point of the area is a large curio cabinet filled with fine china and period artifacts.

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Moving out of the Thomas Jefferson Dining Room and to the left of the elevators is the colonial-style Main Living Room. It features comfortable couches, antique furniture and two cozy fireplaces. While the space functions as part of the Chase VIP Lounge, it offers guests two charging stations for a variety of mobile devices, Disney-themed board games and televisions. For weddings, the space typically is where guests would enjoy cocktails and appetizers. Beautifully appointed bathrooms are available at the far end of the space.

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The Main Living Room boasts sweeping views of World Showcase Lagoon and the America Gardens Theatre, where the Eat to the Beat concerts take place. Disney Chase card members are offered preferred seating at the concerts or all Chase card members can get preferred viewing of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth fireworks, while wristbands are available. When I stopped by the lounge at 2 p.m. Sunday on the festival's opening weekend, only seating for the first concert was unavailable. There were plenty of wristbands available for the fireworks area, which is a roped off area in front of the Italy pavilion, on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.

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The Chase VIP Lounge is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. It stays open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Like to see "hidden spaces" at Walt Disney World? Take my photo tours of other private lounges: Living Seas Salon and Siemens VIP Center.


October 3, 2013

Tomorrowland Terrace Dessert Party is a delicious way to view Wishes fireworks

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My 11-year-old son has had many special experiences at Walt Disney World because we live locally and are annual passholders. But one event he hadn't been to and *really* wanted to attend was the Tomorrowland Terrace Dessert Party. Disney fireworks are among his favorite attractions, and to be able to see them from the perfect vantage point while eating unlimited sweets -- well, that was the perfect birthday celebration recently.

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None of my family had been to the Wishes viewing party, so we weren't sure what to expect. We spent the day at Magic Kingdom, and when we noticed cast members beginning to set up in the evening, we stopped to ask a few questions. My son was assured that the tables were pre-assigned, based on when guests made their reservations.

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I had called every day for more than a month before the reservations were available for booking in the Disney system. During that process, cast members gave me different answers about how soon the reservations can be booked, but the most common answer was between 30 and 60 days out. None of the cast members could give me an exact date -- as they do with restaurant reservations -- so I continued my calling campaign.

If you are interested in the Tomorrowland Terrace Dessert Party, you might have to resort to the same plan because it is very popular and typically sells out quickly. My persistence paid off, though, because I secured a reservation for our preferred night and we had a front-row, center table.

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One thing to know, though, is that many attendees will get up from their tables when the fireworks begin and stand along the wall facing Cinderella Castle. They are not permitted to drag chairs over there, however.

So, given that your table is pre-assigned and you still will have a good view of the fireworks, there really is no reason to line up early for the party. Folks did begin a queue about 7:30 p.m., and they began entering the area about 7:45 p.m. on a night that Wishes were scheduled to start at 9 p.m.

There are two buffets with an identical selection of desserts, plus a fruit bar, beverage station and ice cream sundae table. There was a small line for food when guests first entered Tomorrowland Terrace, but it dissipated quickly as everyone chose their first round of goodies. After that, we were able to walk up to the buffets without a wait for the rest of the night. I'm told the space holds 200 people, and there were about 160 guests attending on our Saturday night in September.

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Among the desserts included: Tiramisu, Mango Shooters, chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies with sprinkles, classic cheesecake, fruit tart, banana creme tart, key lime tart, chocolate peanut butter tart, chocolate-dipped strawberries, crisped rice treats, brownies, vanilla and chocolate cheesecake, custard and canoli. There appeared to be something for everyone! Drinks were raspberry lemonade, Minute Maid light lemonade, iced tea, water, coffee, white milk, hot tea and hot chocolate.

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While we were enjoying our sweets, we could see the Main Street Electrical Parade pass by in the distance and then watch Celebrate the Magic, the castle projection show. Tomorrowland Terrace is not the ideal vantage point for either if you haven't seen them, but for repeat guests, it was nice. And, of course, this location has a great view of the fireworks, which is the main attraction. It is slightly to the right of the castle, but we could see everything, and a highlight is when Tinker Bell flies down from the castle and straight to Tomorrowland Terrace.

The desserts are plentiful and were refilled repeatedly for about an hour, or 8:45 p.m. in our case. Then, guests can help themselves to what is left until Wishes ends. By that point, we were stuffed! Even so, cast members encouraged my kids to take cookies with them. Throughout the evening, cast members repeatedly cleared our table and were helpful. Overall, we really enjoyed the dessert party. It is expensive for a family, but not having to fight crowds to see the fireworks is priceless.

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The Tomorrowland Terrace Dessert Party costs $25.99 for adults and $13.99 for children ages 3 to 9. You can make reservations at 407-WDW-DINE, and pre-payment is required. Walk-ups are welcome if the dessert party is not sold out.

October 1, 2013

Step into a cranberry bog at Epcot Food & Wine Festival

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Before this year, I hadn't really given much thought to how cranberries make their way from farms to my Thanksgiving table. But after stepping into more than 1,000 pounds of the fruit at Walt Disney World, I was curious.

Ocean Spray's cranberry bog is back at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival for the third year, and 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.

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On the opening night of the festival, Ocean Spray hosted a reception IN its cranberry bog for media, which I attended. I really wasn't sure what to expect, but it sounded like a unique opportunity I didn't want to miss. When it was my turn to enter the bog, I was given red knee socks (cute!) and asked my shoe size. Apparently the one-piece waders are sized according to the boots. Ladies, don't you wish all clothing was sized in that fashion?

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Once I slipped on the overalls, it was off to the bog. It was somewhat surreal to be standing in the midst of waves of cranberries as Epcot visitors stopped to ask questions and take photos. The waders kept me completely dry -- until the rain started -- and moving in the water was not difficult.

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In fact, Deb Wills and I were invited to sample foods made from cranberries while standing in the bog. To represent United States cuisine, we were served Seared Free Range Chicken with Craisin Moonshine Pearls and Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Craisin Ketchup. Both were delicious! Deb also interviewed Disney chef Damon in the bog about the versatility of cranberries:

And we explored the many culinary uses of the fruit, too. Outside the bog, we tried cranberry dishes from other countries: Cranberry & SeaSalt Cured Wild Salmon with Maple Sugar Crystals and Craisin Glazed Pork Belly with White Cheddar Maple Grits from Canada; Artisian Cheese Stuffed Mini Craisin Brioche and Craisin, Bacon and Brie Potato Gratin from France; Craisin Infused Five Spice Char Kobe Beef with Sriracha and Craisin Vegetable Fried Rice from Japan; Mole Shrimp Quesadilla with Cranberry Salsa and Pulled Chicken Craisin Tamales from Mexico; and English Mustard Dusted Scotch Egg with Cranberry Marmalade and Beef and Craisin Shepherd's Pie from the United Kingdom.

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Guests at the Epcot Food & Wine Festival can visit the Hops & Barley Marketplace through Nov. 11 to taste the Craisin Bread Pudding with Grand Marnier Anglaise, which is a vegetarian dish. At the bog, visitors are invited to pick up a free sample of Craisins (dried cranberries).

Ocean Spray is an agricultural cooperative owned by more than 700 growers, many of whom have been in the business for generations. Below, Deb talks with Todd May, a fifth-generation cranberry farmer, from Canada.

Do yourself a favor, and stop at the bog and learn more about cranberries and how they are harvested. You just might develop a whole new appreciation for a traditional American holiday side dish.


September 28, 2013

Take a tour of Epcot's private Living Seas Salon

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Everyday guests at Walt Disney World may not be aware that there are private restaurants, offices, suites and lounges tucked away among the buildings at Walt Disney World. These spaces are not accessible to the general public and, for the most part, also are not visible to the casual visitor.

The tradition started at Disneyland, of course, with Walt Disney's personal apartment and then Club 33, a members-only restaurant that remains an exclusive dining experience.

Perhaps the most famous hidden -- though by no means secret -- space at Walt Disney World, though, is the overnight suite in Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, which has received overwhelming attention since it was completed in 2006. During the next two years, one-night stays were given away daily to lucky families during a two-year promotion that was widely publicized.

But Epcot, with its large pavilions, is home to its share of fun and fabulous lounges, too. Some have corporate sponsors, such as the Siemens VIP Center that I visited for a media event last year, and others are run by Disney World. The latter can be booked by guests for special events.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Living Seas Salon, which is available for guest rentals. The space has been used for convention groups, weddings, bar and bat mitzvah's, local birthday parties and baby showers, said Janice Reindl, Walt Disney World Catering/Convention Services Manager.

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The entrance to the Living Seas Salon is on the right side of the pavilion, where the Coral Reef restaurant is located. A cast member took us into the first-floor lobby, and then we proceeded upstairs in an elevator that offers some magical special effects during the ride. When we reached our destination, the lift opened to a small reception area where offices and bathrooms are located.

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But the real show-stopper is visible at the end of a long hallway. There, guests will find a multi-level room with floor-to-ceiling windows that look into the aquarium that most park guests see from other angles inside The Seas with Nemo & Friends. More than 6,000 sea creatures representing more than 65 species -- including dolphins, sharks and stingrays -- swim by the large panoramic windows.

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The ocean theme is reinforced with rich wood interior, blue and green fabrics, and shell and fish details. Plus, there is a separate bar area. The main room at the Living Seas Salon can accommodate about 100 people, though Reindl said 84 is ideal with the existing seating for the best viewing of the marine life.

So, how much will it cost you to have a party at the Living Seas Salon?

The venue is priced at $500 plus tax, and your contract includes an agreement to spend a minimum amount on food and beverages. For dinner, that's $5,500 plus 21 percent service charge and 6.5 percent sales tax; the lunch minimum is $2,450 plus the service charge and tax; and breakfast is $1,500 plus the service charge and tax. The minimum amount can include appetizers, a meal, desserts, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. The venue fee is a flat rate and is not increased by the duration of the party, though Reindl told me most events last 3 to 4 hours.

Guests also can choose to enhance their experience by adding a jazz trio, character appearances or a visit from Scuba Mickey in the tank for additional costs. For questions or to book the Living Seas Salon, guests can call 407-828-3200.

September 19, 2013

A family touring plan for Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party 2013

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Here's a little trick that will help make Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party more of a treat: Map out a strategy for how you'll spend your time at the party so that you can avoid lines as much as possible and see more of the holiday attractions at the event.

With some additions to the party this year, my family changed our strategy for enjoying all the special Halloween activities only offered at the event, which requires separate admission.

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Although the party hours are from 7 p.m. to midnight, those with Halloween Party tickets are allowed to begin entering the Magic Kingdom at 4 p.m. If you call Disney World and ask, you will be told that party hours begin at 7 p.m., but this unannounced practice has been in place for years to allow the park to disperse the arriving crowds.

My best tip, especially this year, is to take advantage of the early entry! You can use that time for a number of things, including grabbing a bite to eat or getting transformed at The Pirates League or the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, so you don't have to spend precious party time on non-Halloween events.

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We arrived at the second party of the season about 5 p.m. and dedicated ourselves to activities in Town Square. There you will find a great, free photo opportunity with stacks of pumpkins framing a view of Cinderella Castle. We took a quick family photo while it was light out. A PhotoPass photographer is stationed there during the party if you want to purchase a professional photo.

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Then, we headed over to the outdoor spot adjacent to City Hall where we knew Jack Skellington and Sally from "The Nightmare Before Christmas" would be greeting guests, beginning at 7 p.m. The pair are new to the party this year, and early reports were that they commanded hours-long lines. (When they appeared at Downtown Disney last year during a Frankenweenie event, the lines had three-and-a-half-hour waits.) We snagged the first spot in line.

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We all wanted to see Jack and Sally, but none of us relished the idea of waiting two hours, so I tried to break up the time for my family by multi-tasking. We took turns in different lines, with some of us waiting in line at the Fire Station to collect the new Haunted Mansion card for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game. The new card is only available at the party. Distribution began at 4 p.m. at the Fire Station and behind Ye Old Christmas Shoppe for guests who had their party tickets and wristbands. Even if you don't play Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom during the party -- and we didn't -- it's still worth getting the card for another visit.

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We also looked at the exclusive party merchandise in The Emporium, when it was taken out at 6:30 p.m., and we had a bite to eat while we sat in line. Although we didn't avoid the long line for Jack and Sally, we chose to do our waiting before the party started so it wouldn't affect our ability to see the fireworks, parade and other shows. The pair didn't sign autographs -- probably to keep the line moving -- but they did hand out a cool autograph card designed just for the Halloween parties. You can see it in the video below:

There are other special character meet-and-greets, too, such as Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse in their Halloween costumes in Town Square Theater, Winnie the Pooh and friends in costumes in their regular location, and Snow White and all seven dwarfs near the gates to New Fantasyland.

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After seeing Jack and Sally, we moved to what my daughter most wanted to do: trick-or-treating. We headed back to one of the treat trails, which have multiple candy stations, near Splash Mountain so she and her brother could get plenty of sweets. It was disappointing to see that the cleverly carved jack-o-lanterns that were themed to "Song of the South" were missing from Br'er Rabbit's Laughin' Place Candy Patch this year. Also, the treat trail that runs along the walkway between Storybook Circus and Tomorrowland was reversed, with its entry near Space Mountain. The Alice in Wonderland decorations were missing from this trail, too. Both trails had fewer candy stations than in past years, which certainly is not a hardship when the candy is unlimited and included in your party admission. It just means you may have to do a bit more walking to fill your treat sack! (Guests with food allergies can exchange their candy from trick-or-treating for other goodies at City Hall.)

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Next up: attractions and dance parties. Space Mountain was closed for the first Halloween party of the year because it was undergoing a series of short refurbishments. It was, however, open during the party I attended. The last refurbishment is scheduled for Sept. 23 to 26. Nearby, the new Monstrous Scream-O-Ween Ball was taking place on the Rockettower Plaza Stage in Tomorrowland. The dance party is hosted by "Monsters University" scarers Mike and Sulley, and we saw other "Monsters, Inc." characters, as well. Woody's Happy Harvest Roundup takes place inside The Diamond Horseshoe in Liberty Square.

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You definitely won't want to miss Mickey's Boo To You! Parade, Celebrate the Magic projection show and Happy HalloWishes fireworks. The debate is whether to go to the first parade at 8:15 p.m. or the second at 10:30 p.m. (Celebrate the Magic and Happy Hallo-Wishes are only presented once -- at 9:15 and 9:30 p.m., respectively.) To be sure, the first parade is always the most crowded, with folks lining up at least an hour beforehand. If you have young children, this may be the only option for you, but if you can wait, I would recommend it. The second parade is a lot less crowded and you will be able to get some trick-or-treating, dancing and riding attractions done beforehand, which might tire the kids out enough to sit without complaining during the wait for the parade. If you choose to sit near the castle, you will be able to see the Disney Villains' Dance Mix and Mingle, which is performed at 7:45, 8:50, 10:05 and 11:15 p.m. The characters perform on stage and then descend into the crowds for a quick meet-and-greet.

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Finally, if all the candy doesn't satisfy your sweet tooth, the Magic Kingdom is offering specialty treats: a spiced pumpkin waffle sundae at Sleepy Hollow, ghost cupcakes at Gaston's Tavern, candy corn soft serve at Storybook Treats, Halloween cupcakes and cookies at Sweet Treats on Main Street, and Hitchhiking Ghost popcorn buckets at the popcorn carts.


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Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party requires a separate ticket. Prices vary, depending on date and possible discount. For a full breakdown, see the AllEars.Net resource page.

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

September 17, 2013

Tips for making the most of your visit to Epcot's Food & Wine Festival

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If you think it's hard to prepare a delicious meal for your family and keep everyone at the table happy, try doing it for thousands.

I had the opportunity recently to speak with Michael Jenner, operations manager for park events content development, about the upcoming Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. Here, he offers AllEars.Net readers a glimpse behind the scenes of such a large event at Walt Disney World and tips for guests on making the most of their time at the festival.

The first day that reservations are open is always crazy busy. What special events associated with the festival sell out quickly and what is still available now?

We sell about 50 percent of our inventory very quickly in the first couple hours on the first day. Our high-end events sell out, so Victoria & Albert's sells out. Our Wine View Lounge and our reserved seating for Party for the Senses has sold out. A lot of our signature dining events -- California Grill, Flying Fish -- have sold out. I would point out that for some of those events, they also are some of the smaller seating capacities. At Citrico's we have 10 seats there, so, of course, that went out. The Hibachi experience at Japan has eight seats and we do it five times, so obviously it sells out very quickly.

But there still are a plethora of events that are available: general seating at Party for the Senses, the Scotland opening dinner, our chocolate dinner, our beer dinner. Online we list what events are sold out. For culinary demonstrations, wine seminars and mixology, we hold back a certain number of those for day-of purchases, so when you come to the park and you're just discovering those events, you can walk up and there might be seats available.

Of the events that are still open at this point, what would you most recommend for a guest who is new to the Epcot Food & Wine Festival?

As a newbie to the festival, you can't go wrong with Party for the Senses. I know the reserved seating and the Wine View Lounge always sells out, but, in my opinion, that doesn't matter. You have 25 food stations and 25 beverage stations, which have at least three offerings, so you don't want to be sitting at any time. You need to be up and moving for that two hours, and you still will not get through all those stations. That is a true food-and-wine connoisseur's heaven.

You can go to every single [party], and it will be different each time. We have different chefs that come in -- Disney chefs and guest chefs -- and they each have their own unique item that they prepare. And we bring in different wineries. The entertainment is the same, the layout is the same, but the food and beverage elements are different for each one. Party for the Senses starts at $145 plus tax and park admission.

Last year's VIP Chef Tours got rave reviews from our readers. Why didn't those events return this year?

The person who made that happen was Chef Jens [Dahlmann, Epcot's executive chef], and that was a lot out of his day to escort 10 people around the park. It's better for us to have him oversee the festival and the marketplaces. Really, to do it again, we would do multiple days. To be honest, we just couldn't pull him out of the operation for that long. And then to put another chef or someone else into that role, it's not the same experience. It was a nice "let's try it" but when all is said and done, 60 guests got to experience that. " You never know, it might come back in future years, or at least one-offs. It's more important for us to have Chef Jens on the promenade, overseeing the marketplaces, now, though.

How do you keep the marketplace wines and the foods at the proper temperatures with the Florida heat?

The foods are prepared fresh in the marketplaces. Plus, they are not just little cabana tents. Each marketplace is a kitchen with refrigerators and grills. There is a whole compound behind Germany that we create just for the festival. There are at least 12 refrigerated semi-trailers for all the wines, and they are divided among events. The wines are kept there and then brought out to the marketplaces several times a day, so you don't have six cases of wine sitting in a marketplace waiting to be used all day long. The food items are brought out continuously throughout the day.

Since Epcot doesn't have utilidors (the underground tunnels at the Magic Kingdom), how do cast members at Epcot transport the foods and beverages continuously without being obvious?

We built these cart boxes that hide the food inside of them because you want to protect it from birds, people, etc. They're totally enclosed metal boxes that even have little lights along the top so at night people can see them, and they can see where they're going. It makes it easier and safe for our cast members as well as the guests.

Obviously, it's more crowded on the weekends than during the week at the festival. What tips would you offer for guests whose only opportunity to experience the festival is on the weekend?

Start at the back of the park, by France or Hops & Barley or somewhere back there. I will see at 11 a.m. on a Saturday, the marketplaces at the front -- Mexico, Argentina, etc. -- packed, and then I'll walk down a couple marketplaces and there's no one in line. It's a circle, so just start at a different place. A lot of people go right, even though are marketplaces are numbered the other way. As you get to the Eat to the Beat concert series [at American Adventure], it's busier at that side of the park.

Always use the passport. It's a great way of finding out what's in the marketplaces and what you've missed. You can check what you like and get the passport stamp. Guests using the Festival Center, having the festival guide and the festival passport have a greater experience.

Do guests tend to skip the Festival Center?

They do because they may not know about it. It opens at 9 a.m. with the rest of Future World, but the marketplaces don't open until 11 a.m. It's a great way to start off -- to see our wine seminars or visit our merchandise shop and collect your passport.

How early do families need to find seats at the Eat to The Beat concerts?

It depends. If you want to hit the 5:30 p.m. show, which is often the most popular show, check the line early. Some of the more popular acts have a line start at noon. But you don't have to sit in the theater to enjoy it. You can hear it around the promenade or standing close by, it's a great show.

Can you offer any tips for families who are bringing their kids to the Food & Wine Festival?

Weekdays are the best, if possible, but I know that's hard with kids in school. Or, go on a Sunday. Saturdays are awfully crowded. The Festival Center is good for kids, too. We do a seminar called Authentic Tastes three times a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays where we talk about whole ingredients -- like strawberries, sugar -- and there is a little sampling. Plus, there's the Chocolate Experience, which is phenomenal, and explains chocolate from bean to bar. Ghiradelli will be handing out chocolate samples, and our Disney pastry chefs have each created a chocolate sculpture, which is fun for kids.

I think all the marketplace menus are family-friendly because they're such small portions -- tapa size. Kids can try portions without parents feeling they have wasted a whole entree if they don't like it.

When I was a little kid, we would go to restaurants with buffets, and I was always told I had to try everything. And I loved it! I didn't have to eat it all, but I had to try it. What a great experience! That's what the Epcot Food & Wine Festival is like -- a buffet through all the marketplaces.

September 16, 2013

More Epcot International Food & Wine Festival dishes and beverages revealed

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With less than two weeks until the 18th annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival begins, I have more details about new foods, wines and beers that will be offered.

Members of the AllEars.Net staff first previewed some of the items at a Tables in Wonderland event in July, and you can read about those here. Now, Epcot Executive Chef Jens Dahlmann is sharing more tastes to tempt your palate.

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At the Hops & Barley Marketplace, a Griddled Lobster Tail with Garlic Herb Butter replaces last year's lobster claw and is paired with La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. Dahlmann said, "It will have the flavors of saltwater and drizzled butter -- and it doesn't get better than that!" I have to agree with him. Chef Marianne Hunnel, who is charged with finding the perfect beverage pairings for Dahlmann's creations, described the La Crema as a "match made in heaven."

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In the Africa Marketplace (which has evolved from the South Africa Marketplace of previous years), guests will find a Berbere Style Beef with Onions, Jalapeños, Tomato, Okra and Pap. Though many might find it delicious, this dish was probably my least favorite of all that I've sampled. I'm not a big fan of grits, which is what pap is similar to, and the flavor of the meat just didn't appeal to me.

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The Berbere Style Beef is paired with The Wolftrap Red from Africa, which is a blend of syrah, mourvedre and viognier. Deb Wills tried it at the previous tasting and said, "I have had this wine without food before and not cared for it. I tried it again to see how it went with food, and it paired well with the filet." She went on to say that fans of the viognier grape will really want to give this wine a tasting.

This year's new marketplace -- Scotland -- features a Vegetarian Haggis that has foodies and vegetarians talking. Chef Dahlmann described it this way: "It will taste like a beautiful, grainy vegetable patty, almost like the idea of a veggie burger, but we just make it really, really good. We serve it with neeps and tatties, or rutabagas and potatoes, so it is very traditional."

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Scotland also will sell a Scottish Banoffee Tart, which is layered with bananas, whisky, whisky toffee sauce and sweet cream and topped with chocolate shavings. If you like the taste of toffee, you won't want to miss this dessert!

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Beverages at the Scotland Marketplace include a Loch Lomond cocktail made with Scotch Whisky, Drambuie and Dry Vermouth; a flight of whisky, with the 12-, 15- and 18-year-old Scotch whisky; and Innis & Gunn Beer. "What's really great about the offerings is that guests who have always wanted to try an 18-year-old Scotch but didn't want to commit to a $100 bottle can taste it as part of the flight for $12 or by itself," Hunnel said.

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At the Desserts and Champagne Marketplace, festival organizers are introducing Frozen S'Mores, which taste just like you would think. They are made from Nesquik with toasted marshmallow syrup and topped with chocolate, marshmallows and a graham cracker. This is a non-alcoholic beverage that was developed for kids but is sure to be a hit with the young-at-heart as well.

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Finally, at the Refreshment Port, which is a permanent location near Canada, guests will find a special version of the wildly popular pineapple Dole Whip. This one is orange-flavored, and adults can add Creme de Cacao White liqueur for a flavor boost. Trust me when I say that you will want to enjoy this treat. What a great combination! Interestingly, the Cherryman Maraschino Cherry is a new product that has no artificial red dyes and is not as sweet as a traditional maraschino cherry. I really didn't notice much difference in the taste, though.

Dole has another new product at the Refreshment Port for the Food & Wine Festival: Pineapple beignets. These will be fresh pineapple rings that are dipped in bread and fried. In addition, the chicken shanks on the stand's current menu will get new sweet-and-sour dipping sauces for the festival.

There will be three Florida beers at the festival: Orlando Brewing Company is creating a brew called Sun Shade Organic Pale Ale just for the festival; the Florida Beer Company will bring its Devil's Triangle from Melbourne; and Cigar City Brewing in Tampa will serve Florida Cracker Belgian-style White Ale.

"I think I am most excited to get that energy [of the festival] back at Epcot," said Dahlmann. "The cast members get excited, the guests get excited, the promenade has a hustle and bustle. It's the driving energy with the love of food and wine. It's a feeling, not a particular thing. It's my favorite time of the year. It's like Christmas!"

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at a media preview for the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. This did not affect my story, and my opinions are my own.


September 15, 2013

Tour Princess Fairytale Hall in Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland before it opens

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The newest addition to the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland, Princess Fairytale Hall, opens this week, and it truly is fit for royalty. I previewed the princess meet-and-greet with my family at a recent Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween event, and we were enchanted by the experience.

Princess Fairytale Hall, which has been built in the space previously occupied by Snow White's Scary Adventures, is located just behind Cinderella Castle in what is called the Castle Courtyard. As you would expect of Disney Imagineers, the transition appears seamless. Guests who are not aware of the park's history would be hard-pressed to know the new attraction hasn't always been there.

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As families approach Princess Fairytale Hall, they will be able to choose from two queues. One leads to Rapunzel and a "visiting princess" and the other takes guests to Cinderella and her royal friend. The queues begin outdoors in a shaded area that sets the scene with heavily bricked walls and crown-shaped light fixtures that cast a slightly purple glow. Of course, Cinderella Castle and Prince Charming Regal Carousel are visible to those waiting in line outside.

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Before entering the hall, guests glimpse the gallery through beautiful stained glass windows. Each has a centered image that depicts a character from the Disney film story of Cinderella. We heard other guests "oohing" and "aahing" over the whimsical designs, and with good reason, given the artistic detail and the historical significance to Disney's film past.

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Once inside, guests will wind through several turns of the line. These, too, are decorated in true royal fashion with ornate iron gates, fancy chandeliers, colorful banners and beautiful arches. Most importantly for the royal realm of Central Florida -- there is air conditioning! After the last turn, guests step onto a rich carpet and enter the hall, where they will see portraits of Princesses Aurora, Jasmine, Tiana, Mulan, Snow White and Rapunzel lining the walls.

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When you finally reach the front of the queue, be sure to step forward so you can take a look at Cinderella's famous glass slipper, which is illuminated in a special case. What a thrill for little girls and other princess fans!

(Last month, the Disney Parks Blog was giving away three similar Fairytale glass slippers. They are made of 100 percent lead-free crystal and enhanced with a sparkling rhinestone pavé heart. Plus, the 6-inch shoe lights up. Inside the gemstone heart on the shoe is a hidden button that you press to bathe the slipper in blue light. The slipper is available for purchase through Disney Floral and Gifts. It can be added to an arrangement for $127.95.)

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Finally, it is time to meet the Disney princesses! A cast member will direct your party into the receiving room associated with your queue. The rooms are organized as exact opposites, with guests standing in a short line before meeting the "visiting" princess and then the "featured" princess. Rapunzel's meet-and-greet (on the left) is decorated in warm tones, while Cinderella's (on the right) is decorated in traditional blues. Both showcase replicas of props from the movies -- from storybooks for each princess to the king's bookends in Cinderella's room.

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My daughter met Snow White with Rapunzel and Aurora with Cinderella, and her enthusiasm was not dimmed by the number of times she has already seen her royal friends. I think a large part of the thrill is the feeling that she actually has stepped into a place that the Disney Princesses frequent. We have dined at Cinderella Castle for special occasions over the years and her excitement at being in the very place where the princesses "live" was palpable. She admired everything, and even my son, when he was in preschool, wondered about the daily routines of the princesses.

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Speaking of Cinderella's Royal Table, Cinderella will continue to meet with guests at the restaurant between greeting her guests at Princess Fairytale Hall.

Here are a few final tips for visiting Princess Fairytale Hall:

** To find out who the "visiting princesses" are each day, check the sign at the entrance to Princess Fairytale Hall. You also can look at the "characters" section of the My Disney Experience app or the printed daily Times Guide for the Magic Kingdom.

** On the night we previewed Princess Fairytale Hall, the queue for Rapunzel was consistently longer than the one for Cinderella. I'm not sure if this will hold true once the attraction is open, but it just might, given that it will be the only place on Disney property to meet Rapunzel.

** FastPass will be available for Princess Storybook Hall. There will be two FastPass options -- one for Rapunzel and a her princess friend and one for Cinderella and her visiting princess -- available at the distribution area near Peter Pan's Flight.

You can see more photos of Princess Fairytale Hall, which opens Sept. 18, in our AllEars.Net photo gallery and take our exclusive video tour with the Imagineers who worked on Princess Fairytale Hall.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at a media preview of Princess Fairytale Hall. This did not affect my story, and my opinions are my own.

September 13, 2013

Food trucks to bring favorite Disney Parks, Epcot International Food & Wine Festival dishes to Downtown Disney

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This year, fans of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival may be a little less sad when it ends because they'll still be able to find some of the most popular dishes from the event on Walt Disney World property. New food trucks, featuring old and new favorite foods, will be rolling into Downtown Disney as soon as mid-November.

Each of the four food trucks is themed to one of Walt Disney World's parks:

** The World Showcase of Flavors truck from Epcot is expected to feature items from the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, such as Grass-Fed Beef Sliders (new this year), Pierogies with Kielbasa and Lobster Rolls.

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Grass-Fed Beef Sliders
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Pierogie with Kielbasa
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Lobster Roll

** The Enchanted Fare truck from the Magic Kingdom will serve favorites from Disney Parks around the world. Disneyland enthusiasts already are salivating at the promise of Hand-Dipped Corn Dogs being available on the East Coast.

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Hand-Dipped Corn Dog

** The Superstar Catering truck from Hollywood Studios will look like an old city diner and offer a variety of meatball options, such as the Lamb Meatball Flatbread with Tzatziki.

** The Namaste Café truck from Animal Kingdom plans to serve Butter Chicken, Slow-Cooked Beef Short Ribs and Tandoori Spiced Shrimp.

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Slow-Cooked Beef Short Ribs

Foods will be priced between $8 and $15 per serving, with the shrimp and ribs likely to be among the most expensive. Also, the food trucks will accept quick-service credits of the Disney Dining Plan.

"We're very excited, and we expect for the food trucks to be a big hit at Downtown Disney and on Disney property," Walt Disney World Chef James Kleinschmidt told me Thursday. "We do have an existing food truck out at ESPN Wide World of Sports that's used for large events out there. But this is kind of taking the trucks to a new level. " Just the sight of them is going to be amazing."

The four Disney World food trucks will park at the West Side of Downtown Disney, near the Cirque du Soleil theater and House of Blues restaurant, from 5 to 11 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays until Disney Springs is completed in 2016, Kleinschmidt said. "We're in deep construction with the island [for Disney Springs]. West Side has the biggest open area, and we have a lot of people funneling through that side," he explained.

When construction moves to the West Side, a dedicated food truck park has been planned for the grassy area adjacent to Bongo's Cuban Cafe, he said. Even after that space has been transformed, the trucks still will have to move each night, as other community food trucks do.

Still, the Disney World trucks largely will remain on property, though Kleinschmidt said there may be special Disney and community events that put the trucks on the road. Expect to see them at the 2014 Marathon Weekend, for example.

"Disney has taken this on to kind of diversify our offerings and be able to be mobile as well," Kleinschmidt said. "It's an ever-growing trend. I was just at a Food Truck Rally this past weekend, and there were 22 food trucks there, which tells you that it's not going away."

Of course, food truck rallies are known for long lines, but as Kleinschmidt points out, Disney World is known for its effectiveness in managing lines. He says he thinks the one-stop dining experience will appeal to a variety of guests. Many visitors already come to different parks for their favorite foods, and soon they will be able to go to Downtown Disney and sample what they were craving. An added bonus: No admission needed!


September 11, 2013

New Haunted Mansion Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card released at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party

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Disney World is giving attendees at its 2013 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Parties another treat: an exclusive Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom spell card.

This is the second year for such a card, which only is given out at the parties that require separate admission. For those who haven't tried Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, which debuted in February 2012, it is a role-playing scavenger hunt throughout the various lands of the theme park. The ultimate goal is for each player to join Merlin in defeating the Disney villains. Participants can start or stop at any point in their day, and even continue the same game on different days if they retain their key cards. (Read more about Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom on my previous blog post.)

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The 2013 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party card is a Monster Spell featuring the Hitchhiking Ghosts from the Haunted Mansion. According to Disney World, "Players can use the card to direct poltergeists to scare away any Disney villains they may come across on their journey." The card states it gives the user the ability to use a flying attack, a flying boost and a flying shield. Plus, it triggers a different effect for each quest. Most spell cards only utilize one effect per character. In addition, users with MagicBands say that added to the effects of the spell card.

After the first Halloween party of the season on Tuesday, Twitter users reported that the 2013 cards were gone by 10 p.m. However, party attendees also were reporting that distribution of the cards began about 4 p.m. -- before the Halloween party officially started at 7 p.m. -- for those who already had checked in and had their party wristbands and tickets.

The Halloween Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom cards are distributed at the Firehouse on Main Street, U.S.A. Last year, there were long lines at the Firehouse location when the party started, which likely is why distribution began early -- to disperse the crowds, just as Disney officials try to do with early admission to the Halloween party itself.

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Apparently, when cast members ran out of the 2013 Halloween cards on Tuesday, they began handing out the 2012 version of Chip 'n' Dale. That Animal Spell card gives the mischievous pair a bag of tricks to battle Disney villains.

The moral of this Disney story of the exclusive Haunted Mansion Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom cards is to get to the distribution location early in the party if the game pieces (and collectibles) are important to you. Happy Haunting!

September 9, 2013

Disney Parks Moms Panel application process begins today

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Get ready, get set, type! The application process for the 2014 Disney Parks Moms Panel begins today, and those interested have until lucky Friday, Sept. 13, 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.

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 this week. 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 coveted spot on the Disney Parks Moms Panel is intense -- thousands apply each year and only about 20 new members are chosen. Beginning last year, applicants also were asked to declare a speciality -- Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, runDisney, Adventures by Disney, Disney Vacation Club and youth sports at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The name of a panel, though, is a misnomer. Over the years, dads and grandparents have joined the roster; it's not limited to just moms.

Unfortunately, there is no magical formula to being picked to provide the best answers about the Mouse. 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.

** 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 2014
. Please let us know how the process goes and if you are chosen to advance in the application process.

September 3, 2013

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit should have a meet-and-greet at Walt Disney World

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This week's Limited Time Magic Celebration at Disney California Adventure focuses on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Clarabelle's Hand-Scooped Ice Cream is featuring a special Oswald-inspired ice cream sundae in a Trolley Car Cup, and stores are highlighting their Oswald merchandise.

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Seeing again that Oswald mostly is represented at the Disney Parks in North America in merchandise makes me wonder why he doesn't have a larger presence. Since The Walt Disney Co. regained the rights in 2006 to one of Walt Disney's first animated characters, Oswald slowly has been making a name for himself with a new generation of fans. (Walt drew Oswald between 1927 and 1928 along with Ub Iwerks for Universal Studios.)

Most notably, Oswald has been featured in all three Epic Mickey video games. As such, Oswald is quite grumpy about being forgotten all this time and he's a little jealous of his "younger brother," Mickey Mouse. Still, the rabbit loves to have fun and is funny when he wants to be, and, ultimately, he tries to make the right choices.

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With the games' promotion, we've seen Oswald's image appear on more merchandise, including T-shirts, plush animals, watches, pins and even last summer's rabbit-ear hats at E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) that later were introduced in the Disney Parks. My son proudly wears his hat each time we go to the theme parks, and inevitably, other guests and cast members will comment, saying how fond they, too, are of Oswald.

Surely, the next step would be to have Oswald as a meet-and-greet character in the Disney Parks. Some Oswald fans have suggested that he be a black-and-white character who adds color, such as his blue shorts, during appearances. What a great idea! That concept reminds me of Animator's Palate on the Disney Wonder; it is an amazing experience to see the animation change from stark black and white to a rainbow of hues.

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And it would seem that near the Mickey Mouse meet-and-greet in Town Square Theater at Magic Kingdom would be the logical spot for an Oswald meet-and-greet location at Walt Disney World. After all, there's already a nod to Oswald and the characters' close relationship with a drawing of the pair posted in Mickey's dressing room. At Disney California Adventure, perhaps there is a spot near the rabbit's namesake store on Buena Vista Street.

Given the range of topics Oswald animated shorts covered during the early Disney years, there are a host of other locales that could be used just as appropriately at either the Magic Kingdom or other Walt Disney World parks. Face it: If cute little teddy Duffy and his, well " questionable " historical contributions to Disney's history and lore could lead to him having a meet-and-greet site at Epcot, then surely Disney's original creation deserves the same prestige at one of the parks here, as well.

So, fans of Oswald, tell us what you think! If you could design a meet-and-greet area in the Disney Parks with the Lucky Rabbit, what would it be like? I know we all agree it should have started already.

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For a class project, my son assumed the persona of Walt Disney, and he chose Oswald and Mickey as symbols of Walt's accomplishments.

August 15, 2013

2013 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party offers new treats

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Typically, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, the annual after-hours fall event at the Magic Kingdom, changes only slightly from year to year. This week, however, Walt Disney World officials announced some sure-to-thrill additions to the 2013 entertainment line-up.

Characters Jack Skellington and Sally (from Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas") will make their debut appearance at the party. Given the context of their story and the pair's widespread appeal, this meet-and-greet seems like a natural fit. Jack Skellington and Sally first appeared at Walt Disney World last September as part of Frankenweenie Weekend at Downtown Disney. Make no bones about it: Some guests waited three hours to meet these characters, which certainly is a testament to their popularity. At Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, you'll be able to find them in the Town Square area of Main Street, U.S.A.

Phineas and Ferb return for their second year at the holiday party. This time, however, they have been promoted from simply greeting guests to leading the Creepa Crew. The Disney Channel duo unofficially performed in this capacity last year, interacting with crowds waiting for the popular Mickey's Boo To You! Halloween Parade. Now, they will lead the Disney dancers and guests in a line dance -- the Not-So-Scary Street Jam -- performed to "Calling All the Monsters" by China Anne McClain.

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Speaking of dancing, another new event at the Halloween Party will be the Monstrous Scream-O-Ween Ball on the Rockettower Plaza Stage in Tomorrowland. The dance party will be hosted by "Monsters University" scarers Mike and Sulley. Dance parties have become a staple at after-hours events in the Magic Kingdom, and for good reason -- guests love to let loose and see their favorite characters doing the same thing. The Monstrous Scream-O-Ween Ball replaces Stitch's Club 626 in the same location.

Of course, two of the annual favorite entertainment experiences have been confirmed for the 2013 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Parties: Mickey's Boo-to-You Halloween parade, which begins with the Headless Horseman and features Disney characters in costume as well as the ghostly inhabitants of The Haunted Mansion; and Happy HalloWishes fireworks. Both of these events are only seen during the Halloween party. This is different from the Christmas parade and fireworks at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, which can be seen as part of regular admission to the Magic Kingdom during the weeks surrounding the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

The always-popular treat trails that offer concentrated trick-or-treating return, too. Guests can collect handfuls of candy at Alice and Mad Hatter's Treat Party, which begins in Storybook Circus in Fantasyland, and at Br'er Rabbit's Laughin' Place Candy Patch near Splash Mountain in Frontierland. We're told there may be a few new surprise candy stations, as well.

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Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party is a hard-ticket event, meaning guests must pay a separate admission price for the party, which lasts from 7 p.m. to midnight. (The Magic Kingdom usually allows party guests to enter as early as 4 p.m., but the Halloween events do not begin until 7 p.m.) Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party will be held on Sept. 10, 13, 17, 20, 24, 27, 29; Oct. 3, 4, 6, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18, 20, 22, 24, 25, 27, 29, 31; and Nov 1. Tickets are on sale now, and you can see the full breakdown on prices on the AllEars.Net resource page.


August 1, 2013

Preview of 2013 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

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At a Tables in Wonderland dinner on Saturday at Walt Disney World, guests were invited to preview some of the offerings for this year's Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. The popular event, which begins Sept. 27, allows Walt Disney World visitors to taste their way around the world via kiosks that sell foods and beverages representing various countries.

AllEars.Net founder Deb Wills, AllEars.Net photographer Linda Eckwerth and I attended the event, so we could share with you what to expect when the 46-day festival opens. Deb and Linda agreed to share their thoughts on the adult beverages because I'm really not a wine or beer connoisseur.

When we arrived, an open bar offered a variety of wines, beers and a signature cocktail. The frozen Polish Szarlotka, which will be available at the Poland kiosk, mixes the flavors of an apple tart and Polish vodka. Several of our dining companions declared it a delicious combination. Linda chose the Once Upon a Vine Chardonnay, which she said was refreshing considering it was so hot outside. She described the wine as crisp, with a touch of fruit and very little oak.

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Three appetizers were offered: Florida Grass-fed Beef Slider with Monterey Jack and Sweet & Hot Pickles from the Florida Fresh kiosk; Kimchi Dog with Spicy Mustard Sauce from the South Korea booth; and Crispy Pork Belly with Black Beans, Onions, Avocado and Cilantro from the new Brazil marketplace. Of the trio, we all liked the flavors of the crispy pork belly -- which is the same cut of meat as bacon -- best. I normally don't choose to eat spicy foods, but the Kimchi Dog was at first appealing, and then, addictive. I couldn't put it down! The three of us weren't overly impressed with the beef slider, even though grass-fed beef is trendy right now. Deb said she did like the meat, but the bun and the pickles didn't appeal to her.

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A Xingu Black Beer from Brazil was paired with the Crispy Pork Belly. Linda said, "This is a dark beer and, when poured, has a slightly tan, frothy head. It appears heavy but was actually a medium to light body. I tasted coffee and a little sweetness." She also sampled the Carnaval Moscato sparkling wine from Brazil and described it as slightly bubbly, but not as sweet as most Moscatos.

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For the salad course, we were served a very popular dish from the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. We all were excited to see the Watermelon Salad with Pickled Red Onions, Baby Arugula, Feta Cheese and Balsamic Reduction from the Florida Fresh booth. So delicious! It was paired with Florida Orange Groves Hurricane Class 5 Florida White Sangria. Linda said, "This was not like any Sangria I have had; It was light but very fruity. While it is a blend of five fruit juices -- passion fruit, pineapple, mango, lime and watermelon -- I was only picking up the pineapple. It was sweet. I think it paired well with the Watermelon Salad but it was not to my taste."

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Hostess Pam Smith and Chef Marianne Hunnel

I asked Chef Marianne Hunnel, content development manager of the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, if she thought the new Garden Marketplaces at the Flower and Garden Festival might help broaden the audience for the Food and Wine Festival.

"Typically, the demographic is very different," Marianne said. "I think that by incorporating the food and beverage piece as part of the Flower and Garden Festival, there could be a possibility of people becoming more foodies and more interested in the whole art of food and wine."

And, although the festivals may share the same audiences, they will not share the same food. Sadly, the Watermelon Salad was only making a special appearance at the Tables in Wonderland event. It will not be offered at the Food and Wine Festival.

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Our dinner entrees were the Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce from Le Cellier at the Canada pavilion and the Seared Scottish Salmon with Cauliflower Puree, Watercress and Malt Vinaigreet from the new Scotland marketplace. They were served with baby root vegetables. This was my first opportunity to try the Le Cellier filet mignon that guests repeatedly rave about, and I now can understand why. It was a most tender and delicious piece of beef! I am told the salmon was prepared perfectly, light and flaky without a heavy fish taste. The salmon will be featured at the new Scotland marketplace, along with Vegetarian Haggis with Neeps and Tatties (griddled vegetable cake with rutabaga and mashed potatoes) and Scottish Banoffee Tart (bananas, Scottish Whiskey toffee, Walker's Shortbread crumbles and sweet cream).

Marianne said, "It's very exciting that this country [Scotland] is being represented because we just had the "Brave" movie. But it was something that the Scottish government really wanted to work with us on this year and have a presence. It's not because of "Brave," but I'm sure "Brave" put some exposure to the whole country of Scotland. It just made sense that this was the year to do something like this. There are going to be a lot of surprises and delights for the guests with the dinners."

Our entrees were paired with two wines. Linda said the Mohua Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand went well with the salmon. "It was a light, crisp citrus wine. I tasted grapefruit, lemon and very little grassy notes."

Deb tasted the Wolftrap Red from Africa, which is a blend of syrah, mourvedre and viognier. She said, "I have had this wine without food before and not cared for it. I tried it again to see how it went with food, and it paired well with the filet. I still don't care for the wine, but that's because I don't care for the viognier grape. If you do, you must try this wine!"

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Finally, the best part of the dinner: a dessert trio of Chocolate Orange Cupcake, Hazelnut Chocolate Cheesecake and Morello Cherry Pistachio Mousse. The three of us enjoyed all three desserts, but we also had favorites. Linda and I agreed we'd be standing in line for the cupcake, while Deb preferred the mousse. The three desserts will be available as a trio or can be purchased separately at the Dessert and Champagne marketplace. Linda tried the Nicolas Feuillatte Rose Champagne and found it to be a little too sweet for her when combined with the sugary desserts.

Another dessert has been developed for the festival with kids in mind -- a frozen s'mores beverage made of frozen Nesquik, toasted marshmallow syrup and topped with graham crackers, Marianne told me. And she said there are plenty of foods and beverages for kids to sample, as well as experiences such as the Ghirardeli Chocolate Experience and the Ocean Spray Cranberry Bog.

"So many kids are being educated about different countries and the different foods from the countries. " Kids have the opportunity to taste sushi or the hot dog with kimchi and different things, so I highly encourage kids to explore. It's really a way that they can expand their flavors of the world without that commitment of a whole dinner," Marianne said.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at the Tables in Wonderland event. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.


July 30, 2013

Captain Cook's at Polynesian Resort serves many of Disney World's most popular foods

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I'm pretty sure the most important thing you need to know about Captain Cook's Snack Company at Disney's Polynesian Resort is that it sells Dole Whips. (Yes, there is a place outside the Magic Kingdom where you can get that popular pineapple dessert!) But you might not be aware that some equally popular Disney foods can be found at Captain Cook's, too.

First, the skinny on the Dole Whips. For years, the only place to find the frozen, soft-serve concoction was at Aloha Isle in Adventureland. Though the stand is not heavily advertised, you know it when you see the queues, which rival some lines for popular rides. Clearly, Dole Whips have a cult-like following. Aloha Isle sells pineapple Dole Whips in a cup ($3.79) or as a float with pineapple juice ($4.99).

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When Captain Cook's was renovated in late 2006, a Dole Whip machine was installed. The beauty of this addition is that customers help themselves after paying for the bowl. There is only one size bowl and the price is comparable to those at Magic Kingdom. (Pineapple floats are not available at this location.) During our stay at The Polynesian, we saw some very skillful Dole Whip architects getting the most for their money.

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If Dole Whips aren't reason enough for you to pop into Captain Cook's, consider two other Disney favorites on the breakfast menu.

Tonga Toast, which has its own share of passionate fans, is served at the quick-service counter in Captain Cook's. For those who have never heard of Tonga Toast -- gasp! -- it's a thick sourdough bread stuffed with bananas that is lightly fried and topped with cinnamon and sugar. Tonga Toast has been served at the Polynesian since the resort opened in 1971.

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And my absolute favorite breakfast food, a Mickey waffle, is available in several varieties. A kid's meal offers two smaller Mickey waffles with yogurt and seasonal fruit. A large Mickey waffle can be purchased with or without strawberry topping. Breakfast is served from 6:30 to 11 a.m.

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Big deal, you say? Mickey waffles are served across Disney property. They are a signature food, after all. That is true. But most of the places where Mickey waffles and Tonga Toast are served require reservations because they are table-service restaurants. This also means your meal is likely to be more expensive. I like knowing there is a spot where I can pop in at my leisure without a lot of planning and be served the Disney foods I love.

During slower periods, you may be able to park at the Polynesian if you tell the parking attendant you are going to Captain Cook's. At busier times, it may be necessary to park at the Transportation and Ticket Center and walk or ride the monorail to the resort.

July 23, 2013

Radio Disney kicks off TRYathalon tour; DisneyXD to air competition in August

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Radio Disney kicked off a national tour this weekend designed to bring the fun of DisneyXD's TRYathalon to kids across the United States. Orlando is one of the upcoming stops, and kids are invited to come out to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at 10 a.m. Aug. 31 to experience it.

Part of Disney's "TRYit" campaign planned to inspire kids and families to try a variety of new foods and exercise, the TRYathlon Road Tour features competitive challenges to encourage physical activity and to highlight nutritious foods needed to maintain a balanced lifestyle.

Event activities include the Hoop It basketball challenge, Build It shape building challenge, Kick It soccer goal competition, Plate It nutritious meal creation and Dance It interactive activities with prizes from the Radio Disney Road Crew. Participants at each stop can enter to win a runDisney Vacation for four at Walt Disney World.

Other tour stops are in Philadelphia, July 27; Chicago, Aug. 31; Boston, Sept. 7; Dallas, Oct. 19; Atlanta, Oct. 26. Radio Disney expects to add more stops.

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Radio Disney's TRYathlon Road Tour is based on Disney XD's TRYathalon, which is in its second year. The competition pairs Disney XD and Disney Channel actors with kids viewers. This year Leo Howard and Olivia Holt ("Kickin' It"), Calum Worthy ("Austin & Ally"), Jake Short ("A.N.T. Farm," "Mighty Med"), Spencer Boldman ("Lab Rats") and Bradley Steven Perry ("Good Luck Charlie," "Mighty Med") team up with three student athletes and contest winners. The competition will air at 9 p.m. ET Aug. 12 and 19 on Disney XD and is hosted by Hal Sparks and Tyrel Jackson Williams ("Lab Rats").

Beginning Aug. 13, NBA superstar Dwight Howard and White House chef Sam Kass each will host a series of "TRYit" interstitials on Disney Channel and Disney XD. Howard will teach viewers new exercises to stay in shape, and Kass will give kids and families tips on healthy eating and preparing recipes. "Disney TRYathlon" stars and "Lab Rats" actor Billy Unger will join Howard and Kass in Disney's "TRYit" interstitial series.

Kids can get involved with the "TRYit" campaign at home by tracking online the new health-conscious actions they've taken. Disney hopes to record 1 million "TRYit" actions. On July 29, DisneyXD.com/TRYit also will launch a web game in which users can test their skills in three "Disney TRYathlon" challenges.

Families who are visiting Walt Disney World during the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival in the spring can taste foods that Disney chefs have earmarked "TRYits" for kids. This is a great way for families to experience the festival together and to get kids to sample foods they may not otherwise be tempted to taste. My 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter spent an afternoon this spring in World Showcase sampling the TRYits, and they really enjoyed the experience. You can read about our journey here and the video is below.

July 11, 2013

Review: Spirit of Aloha luau at Disney's Polynesian Resort

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During my family's recent stay at Disney's Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World, we had the opportunity to attend the Spirit of Aloha dinner show, which is modeled after a traditional luau. Although I have been to an authentic cultural feast in Hawaii, I was looking forward to experiencing Disney World's long-running version for the first time.

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Category 1 luau seating

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Categories 2 and 3 luau seating

The event begins when the check-in opens at the Great Ceremonial House about 45 minutes before show time. The luau is offered twice each night -- at 5:15 and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. In general, seating is based on the category of table you select when you book the luau. For example, we paid for Category 1 seats (the most expensive) and were in the second tier of tables off to the side of the stage. A cast member told me the front row and the center tables were released to those who checked in before me. So, checking in as early as possible is key for getting those seats.

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Also, getting to the lobby early means you're less likely to have a long line ahead of you for the professional group photos being taken there. There is no obligation to purchase the photos, so why not get a shot of the family wearing leis in front of the waterfall? A PhotoPass photographer will bring prints of the photo to your table at the end of the meal. One package is offered: a 5 x 7 and four 4 x 6 prints of your group, plus a stock photo of the luau performers, for $35. We chose to buy the package, even though it was expensive, and my husband appreciated that I stopped asking him and the kids to pose in front of the waterfall afterward!

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After photos, guests can wander back from the Great Ceremonial House to Luau Cove, a short walk along the waterfront and beside the beach toward the Grand Floridian. Once seating begins, it moves quickly, but there is quite a queue in the beginning. A hostess explained that the meal is served family style, so we should ask if we would like more of any of the foods brought to our table. Also, she said, kids meals could be ordered separately (at no additional charge).

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The appetizers were waiting for us at our table: pineapple-coconut bread, mixed greens with honey lime vinaigrette, mango slaw, soba noodle salad and fresh pineapple. My husband and I enjoyed trying each item, but our young kids zeroed in on the bread and waited to see what was coming next.

Unfortunately, that's when our experience really went off course. It took our server at least 15 minutes to stop by to take our drink orders, and he was very rude and rushed in that first interaction. The inappropriate behavior continued when we tried to ask for more pineapple and bread and order a kids meal for my 8-year-old daughter. I have never been treated so poorly by a cast member in all the years I have been going to Disney World, and I was shocked at how he was behaving. So, as the stage production was beginning, I left the table to find a manager and ask for another server. That took quite some time, and the manager was of no help, either, stating that he could not reassign our table to another server. He offered no solutions himself.

So, I headed back to my table disheartened and angry that I would have to continue dealing with our server for the two-hour experience. There was no incentive for his behavior to change because the gratuity is included in the price of the luau, which is expensive, even with the inclusion of alcoholic beverages. The total for our family of four was about $250. (See full pricing information on the AllEars.Net resource page.)

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By now, I had missed the set-up for the show, so I had no idea what was going on, and the main courses already had appeared at our table. They included Aloha pulled pork, BBQ pork ribs, roasted chicken, jasmine rice with nori and a vegetable medley. My 10-year-old son was happy with the ribs, and my daughter settled on baked chicken nuggets. My husband and I tried each of the dishes, but weren't overly impressed with any of them.

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We tried to focus on the dinner show, which tells the story of Auntie Wini hosting a fun-filled luau to welcome home one of the local girls who has been living on the "mainland." It moves along slowly, but seeing the Hawaiian Wedding Song and the Birthday Hula performed are fun touches. Audience members are invited to join the professional dancers several times near the stage.

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The main attraction, however, is the final third of the show, which features traditional dances from Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Hawaii. The dancers and the costumes are mesmerizing, and who could look away when the Samoan fire knife performer takes the stage? A dessert of warm pineapple bread pudding with caramel sauce is served during this act, and we found it to be the best part of the meal.

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Still, our server's behavior, though out of character for most Disney cast members, certainly affected our evening and left my husband and I with little spirit of aloha (which means love in Hawaiian). We walked out of the open-air restaurant feeling like the dinner show was overpriced for what we received. Our kids weren't as aggrieved as we were, so perhaps the show is best recommended as a tropical -- though expensive -- diversion for youngsters after a long day in the theme parks. Aside from this, though, it's hard to think that our family will be saying aloha to this show again any time soon.

July 9, 2013

Auntie Kau'i at Disney's Polynesian Resort teaches guests to hula dance and make leis

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Disney's Polynesian Resort offers its guests many ways to be immersed in the South Pacific cultures it represents. For my young daughter, that meant spending time with Kau'i Brandt, better known as Auntie Kau'i, in the first-floor lobby of the Great Ceremonial House each day during our recent stay. At age 81, Auntie Kau'i is a Disney Legend, having been with the Polynesian resort almost since it opened.

She moved from the Hawaiian island of Oahu in 1971 to first open the Polynesian show at Disneyland and then a similar show at Walt Disney World. She was the master of ceremonies during the shows and has served as a cultural representative at the resort since its beginning.

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Guests can find Auntie Kau'i in the lobby of the Polynesian five days a week making leis at her table in the corner of the children's area. She is quick with a friendly smile and, when asked, an explanation that the leis she creates from real flowers are given to couples celebrating honeymoons or anniversaries. (All resort guests receive cloth-flower leis when they check-in or go to an activity.) These special leis also can be custom-ordered in the adjacent gift shop for $20 apiece. Auntie Kau'i said she creates about 20 such leis each day, mostly from carnations and ribbons.

My 8-year-old daughter was fascinated with the process of making leis, and Auntie Kau'i offered her and a friend the opportunity to try it themselves with enough cloth flowers to make bracelets. The girls were surprised that the kits contained pieces of Mickey-shaped pasta to use as spacers between the flowers. Now, those are truly hidden Mickeys!

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After serving cookies each afternoon, Auntie Kau'i also teaches guests how to dance the hula. The lessons are complimentary and last about 15 minutes. Women and girls are invited to don grass skirts and are given instruments to play to accompany the ukulele music. During the lessons, Auntie Kau'i and another cast member take turns demonstrating the movements while the guests mimic them. Then, the guests put it all together for their finale. Hula time each day couldn't come soon enough for my daughter -- even with all the competing activities at Walt Disney World.

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Auntie Kau'i, who has been dancing since she was 6 years old, also teaches lessons for two hours on Saturday mornings at the Polynesian resort. These, too, are free, and Auntie Kau'i told me she has many local residents who come regularly. In fact, some of the most dedicated are practicing for the Ho'ike dance competition on July 27 and 28 at the Wyndham Orlando Resort on International Drive. The two-day event features dance contests; vendors selling arts, crafts, jewelry, clothing, fresh flowers and hula implements; and a professional Polynesian production. Tickets can be purchased online at hoikehawaii.com.

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Auntie Kau'i clearly enjoys representing her culture on the mainland. When she was interviewed for an article in "Eyes and Ears," a Disney World cast member publication, Auntie Kau'i said, "I think I have the greatest job on earth. It is a lot of sharing [of her culture], and that is what it [aloha] is about."


July 6, 2013

Review: Lilo and Stitch Best Friends Breakfast at Disney's Polynesian

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One of the highlights during my family's stay at Disney's Polynesian Resort this week was the Lilo and Stitch Best Friends Character Breakfast. My son was really looking forward to this experience -- which we had never done before -- because he would get to meet with his two favorite characters, Mickey Mouse and Stitch. I was looking forward to sharing the experience with my family and good friends. Plus, I was eager to enjoy my favorite Mickey waffles, too.

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The Best Friends breakfast is served from 7:30 to 11 a.m. daily at 'Ohana on the second floor of the resort's Great Ceremonial House. Our reservation was for 10:30 a.m., and even with the holiday crowds, we were seated on time. Entering the restaurant, the host explained that the word " 'Ohana" means "family" in Hawaiian, and the meal would be served family-style. That started as we passed a kitchen counter and my daughter was asked to carry a basket of sweet breads to the table. She was happy to help, given how delicious the bread appeared.

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A good number of tables at 'Ohana are situated near large picture windows that offer views of the grounds and Bay Lake. (If you're having dinner at 'Ohana close to the time of the fireworks, you may want to request a table near the windows. There is no guarantee that the request will be granted, but the cast members do try to accommodate as many diners as possible.)

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Soon after being seated, our server arrived with a fruit platter and we were offered our choice of coffee, milk and juice. The juice is a smooth blend of passion fruit, orange and guava that is delicious. Then she brought a huge bowl that contained scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, biscuits, breakfast sausage and smoked bacon for us to share. There was plenty for the six of us, though our server told us she would bring more of any foods we requested. And then she returned with what I had been waiting for -- a bowl of Mickey waffles. (See prices and more photos of the breakfast on the AllEars.Net menu page.)

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The food, the service and the setting for tropical-themed breakfast were all excellent. But the character meet-and-greet segment of our morning was very much like an Experiment 626 adventure gone wrong.

We had just about finished eating before we saw the first of four characters: Lilo, Stitch, Mickey and Pluto. At first, we thought the timing was perfect. My husband and I have been to plenty of character meals at other Walt Disney World sites where we were getting up and down so frequently as the characters arrived at our table that we rarely ate much of the meal as we tried to take photos and arrange autographs.

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It quickly became apparent, however, that this morning's schedule wasn't well-paced, either. All four characters arrived in our corner of the restaurant in quick succession, which meant that guests at most nearby tables were up and trying to take photos at the same time. As anyone who has been to a character meal knows, there is no designed place for taking those photos -- you have to pose in small spaces on the fly. Still, the individual attention diners usually receive at character meals makes them a worthwhile experience for many.

Unfortunately, the character appearances at our Lilo and Stitch Best Friends Breakfast were chaotic, at best. There was only one handler for all four characters -- which a cast member told us is the new Disney World policy -- and that clearly wasn't working well on the day of our meal.

For example, characters appeared confused about where they were supposed to go. At one point, we had two characters at our table at the same time, and neither stayed long enough for me to get photos of both children with each of them. We also saw a character ignore another waiting family, which certainly was not the type of memory Disney strives to create. Having a dedicated handler for each character would have prevented these unfortunate situations.

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Before we left, we spoke to a manager about our experience, and she did bring one of the characters back to our table so we could get the photos we missed. That went a long way toward smoothing things over for my kids, who were at first upset over missed opportunities to meet certain characters or get coveted autographs. (Another downside to the new character handling policy is that often the characters need help signing autograph books. Without a handler nearby to help position books and pens, they sometimes don't pull it off well - such as this particular morning when one character signed his name over the autograph page signed by another character. The mistake left my son in tears until the manager could correct the mistake with a second signing.)

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One aspect of the character experience that did work well was the short parade through the restaurant. Kids were given maracas to shake to the beat of a Lilo and Stitch surfing song as they marched along with the characters, and they all seemed to enjoy the activity.

If 'Ohana means family, then - like in any family -- you often overlook the small things and focus on the positives. Though the character-greeting aspect was disconcerting for the adults at the table, my kids left the restaurant talking about how great it was to see their favorite characters at breakfast. In their eyes, they were still enjoying a tropical South Seas paradise just as they expected.

July 3, 2013

Places for Disney fans to celebrate Fourth of July outside the theme parks

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It's the day before the Fourth of July and, if you're still on the fence about how you and your family will celebrate our nation's birthday, here are a few last-minute ideas for those who want to spend it with fellow Disney fans outside the theme parks.

Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground has a full day of events planned for Independence Day, and some are open to the public and other Walt Disney World guests, space permitting. The annual golf cart parade gives guests staying at Fort Wilderness the opportunity to show off their patriotic spirit and decorating skills, and others the fun of seeing an amazing show of creativity.

Participants must register by 5 p.m. July 3 at the Bike Barn for the parade that begins at 9 a.m. July 4. Golf carts will make their way from the Hitch-and-Unhitch area near the front of the campground down Fort Wilderness Trail to Pioneer Hall. Guests and visitors are welcome to line the route to see the procession. At 10 a.m., awards will be handed out at Pioneer Hall, and Goofy, in his finest Fourth of July attire, will be available to greet guests for an hour. Cast members told me that everyone is welcome to attend these events, if the campground is not closed because it has reached capacity. Other facilities, such as the pool and the campfire, are reserved for guests staying at Fort Wilderness.

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Of course, those with dining reservations also are welcome at the resort. In fact, a popular evening is to frequent a Fort Wilderness restaurant for dinner and then wander down to the beach for the Magic Kingdom's Disney's Celebrate America! A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky fireworks. This year, Fort Wilderness has added some activities for those waiting for the nighttime show. The Independence Eve Beach Party includes:

5 to 6 p.m.: Beach games
6 to 7 p.m.: Bingo
8 to 8:50 p.m. Beach Party Boogie
9 p.m. Fireworks

Last year, my family attended Mickey's Backyard BBQ, which is an outdoor meal with traditional picnic foods, a live country band and Disney characters. We enjoyed this experience at Fort Wilderness with friends, but it might not be everyone. (Check out my review here.) Afterward, we all watched the fireworks from the beach. The view is somewhat obscured compared to some of the other resorts, but that did not diminish our enjoyment.

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Other years, we have planned dinner and fireworks viewing at the Polynesian and the Contemporary. Here is a look at what they have to offer. All three resorts (plus the Grand Floridian) have the added bonus of being able to see the Electrical Water Pageant. At this late date, it may be tough to get a dinner reservation for tomorrow, but don't discount cancellations. Guests must cancel most reservations 24 hours in advance or pay a fee, so it's worth a call to 407-WDW-DINE. You definitely will need a reservation to get into the restaurants -- standbys are almost unheard of -- and to park at the resorts on such a busy day.

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The town of Celebration, located in Disney World's back yard, is joining forces with MegaCon to host its first Sci-Fi Fourth of July on Thursday. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. with DJ Tami and performances by Oliver's Queen and Orlando singer and "American Idol" contestant Jordyn Kane. At 7:30 p.m., participants can compete in a costume contest to win prizes by dressing as their favorite movie-themed characters.

In addition, Celebration's Town Center will feature a KidZone with an assortment of inflatable games for kids and teens, such as a jousting area and bounce houses, face painting and more.

A patriotic celebration begins at 9 p.m. with a tribute to veterans, singing of the national anthem and a synchronized fireworks spectacular set to a Sci-Fi themed soundtrack. Admission and parking are free.

June 22, 2013

Don't miss: Roasting marshmallows and making s'mores at Walt Disney World hotels

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Many of us, the young and the young-at-heart, have fond summer memories of roasting marshmallows and making s'mores. Whether you enjoy the sweet treats blackened or just lightly toasted, you can make your dessert just the way you like it at Walt Disney World.

Most of the moderate and deluxe hotels at the Disney resort offer their guests complimentary supplies (marshmallows and roasting sticks) each night at a bonfire staffed by a cast member. For my family, this never gets old, so when we stay on property, we have to make sure we're at the hotel at least one of the nights at the proper time in the evening. Be sure to look at the activity sheet for your specific hotel to see when the fire is started each night.

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At Disney's Fort Wilderness Campground, though, guests can be immersed in the traditional campfire experience. Two fires are lighted about 7:30 p.m. in the summer -- an hour later than the rest of the year -- and cast members let them burn throughout the evening so guests can cook whatever they'd like, from hotdogs to marshmallows.

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The nearby Chuckwagon sells supplies, but guests are welcome to bring their own food, as well. If grocery shopping already is part of your vacation, bringing your own food will save you a bit because the prices are somewhat steep for s'mores ingredients. Here is a list of what you can buy. Come prepared with supplies or money to purchase your treats because there are no complimentary treats at the Fort Wilderness Campground like there might be at the other resorts.

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At 8 p.m., an entertainer leads guests in a singalong, which includes kid-friendly dances such as the Hokey-Pokey and the Chicken Dance. Don't forget your autograph books because Chip 'n Dale make their way through the crowd, stopping to visit with each guest.

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Finally, a Disney movie under the stars starts at 8:40 p.m. For nights with a double-header, the second movie begins at 10:15 p.m. The movie schedule is posted at the beginning of each month throughout the Fort Wilderness Campground. Many of the Disney World hotels also show outdoor movies at night, weather permitting, on their lawns or beaches. Bringing a blanket or some towels is likely to help kids get more comfortable so they can lounge, snuggle under them, and even fall asleep after a full day at Walt Disney World.

The campfire singalong is free and open to all guests staying on Disney property, not just those at Fort Wilderness.


June 18, 2013

Disney Infinity: My kids preview game with help from artist, designer

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Disney Interactive Studios invited gamers and Disney guests on both coasts to play its much-talked about new gaming system, Disney Infinity, this past week for the first time. At E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in Los Angeles, players formed long lines to try their hands at the game that has been compared repeatedly to Activision's Skylanders. In Orlando, the game was set up for two days at Car Masters Weekend at Downtown Disney's West Side.

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There was no way my 10-year-old son wanted to miss out on the opportunity to preview Disney Infinity two months before its Aug. 18 North America release date, so we headed to Walt Disney World and braved the crowds Sunday afternoon. When we arrived, the line to play the game was shorter than I expected, especially considering that people who played the demos were given the Dash ("The Incredibles") character piece, which will sell for $13.

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The Disney Infinity booth had four gaming stations set up -- two for playset-only mode and two for Toy Box mode. We asked to play the Toy Box version each of the three times we stood in line because that is the key difference between Disney Infinity and Skylanders. The Toy Box allows players to mix Disney and Pixar characters and environments, each creating their own unique games that they can share with their friends. Play-set mode, by comparison, puts the game characters in their own self-contained world that is appropriate only to their movie or TV show franchise.

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Jared Bald, senior designer for Toy Box, was among the staff at Downtown Disney showing visitors how to play the game. He said the developers he has worked with for the last two years compare the Toy Box in the game to a physical toy box, albeit one that holds many more of toys, but the fascination by young players is the same. "Give kids hundreds of toys on a living room floor and they will play for hours," he said. "There is no end to what they can do with Disney Infinity."

It took my son, who is an avid gamer, a few minutes to get acclimated to the game, but once he did, he was excited about the Toy Box option. He especially wanted to race his sister's characters in vehicles or on mounts. Could his Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster beat her Cinderella Coach?

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Disney Infinity concept artist Ben Simonsen

Ben Simonsen, a concept artist on Disney Infinity, said that designing the vehicles was, in fact, one of his favorite aspects of working on the Disney Interactive project. He said that my son's interest was indicative of what they had seen by other players at the demonstration: Kids seemed to be more focused on interacting with other players than progressing through a goal-oriented game. And Disney Infinity allows for that, to be sure.

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My 8-year-old daughter had one question, though, when encountering anyone affiliated with Disney Infinity: Will there be any Disney Princess characters? So far, none have been announced, but the coach vehicle and Cinderella Castle are available, as well as an environment from "Tangled" with Rapunzel, in the Toy Box. Although no one officially could confirm that any of the royal beauties will join the gaming system, it was suggested that they would be a logical progression, given their strong market brand.

Disney Infinity will have another booth with demo stations on Aug. 16 near Once Upon a Toy at Downtown Disney Marketplace. A Disney World cast member said that she hopes the game will be available for purchase at that time, and she expects developers to be there to answer questions and sign copies.

To read my previous articles about Disney Infinity, please click here and here.

Disney Infinity at E3


June 15, 2013

Fantasia Gardens at Walt Disney World offers miniature golf for beginners, pros

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This week, my children, a friend and I finally made it a point to play miniature golf at Walt Disney World's Fantasia Gardens. For years, we have chosen to sink our putts at the newer Winter Summerland courses located near Blizzard Beach, but it was time to check out the long-standing competition.

Fantasia Gardens is located across from the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel near Epcot. It is home to two very different courses: A traditional miniature golf course by the same name and Fantasia Fairways, an 18-hole golf course with water hazards, sand traps, roughs designed to be played only by putting. Make no mistake -- Fantasia Fairways is a challenging course for serious golfers.

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For that reason, we chose Fantasia Gardens for our foursome. As you would expect, the theme of Disney World's first miniature golf course is taken from Disney's 1940 animated classic, "Fantasia." Expect to see elephants and hippos, snowflakes and mushrooms, and Mickey Mouse and the film's iconic brooms dotting the course.

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My 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter noticed that Fantasia Gardens "rewards" players more often with squirting or spraying water than Winter Summerland does. Of course, they thought this was great fun, especially on a hot Florida afternoon! At Winter Summerland, there is one water feature on each 18-hole course, while Fantasia Gardens offers multiple opportunities for a good soaking.

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Perhaps the most fantastic is the water display on Hole 16, which is lined with the famous brooms and buckets. Walt Disney Imagineer Senior Concept Designer Joe Lanzisero explained the hole this way after Fantasia Gardens opened in 1996: "Everyone gets the payoff here. You don't have to do anything special to get the brooms to dump the water. The water squirts not only over the putting area, but over where the people walk, too. This is programmed so that the buckets shoot water in sequence, but if you make it to the putting green in one shot, the ball has to go by three sensors so all the buckets splash at one time."

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We also found out the hard way that Fantasia Gardens gives putters many more uphill battles than Winter Summerland does. This factor alone increased the difficulty factor, especially for the younger members of our group. Players have to have the magical touch to be able to hit the ball hard enough to make it to the top of the mound without sending it flying off course. This can be frustrating at times for inexperienced golfers. We all needed multiple attempts to propel our golf balls to the top on Hole 17.

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Nevertheless, two of the kids in our group managed to get a hole-in-one, and they were thrilled when cast members offered them a surprise for their efforts.

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Overall, we enjoyed our experience at Fantasia Gardens, but I think we'd all still pick Winter Summerland as our first choice for miniature golf at Walt Disney World. The Christmas-themed courses offer a better variety of fun challenges that are less frustrating for younger players, and there are fun photo opportunities and a picnic area. Players finish their round at the "clubhouse" with a candy cane.

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Prices for both Winter Summerland and Fantasia Gardens are $14 for adults and $12 for children ages 3 to 9 for 18 holes. Guests who decide to play both courses get a 50 percent discount on the second 18 holes played on the same or next day by showing their original receipts. Disney World passholders also can receive a 50 percent discount every time they play; the deal is good for the passholder and up to three guests.


June 11, 2013

Disney Infinity debuts at E3 today and possibly at Downtown Disney later this month

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With only two months until the scheduled launch of Disney Infinity, the highly anticipated gaming system that is expected to give Activision's Skylanders a run for its money, the marketing is ramping up. Participants at the three-day E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in Los Angeles that begins today will be among the first to play. It had been previously announced that the gaming platform would be available to guests at Orlando's Downtown Disney last week, but that didn't happen.

Disney Infinity allows players to place physical versions of their favorite Disney characters onto an Infinity Base and seemingly transport them into the virtual worlds of Monsters University, the Incredibles, Cars, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Lone Ranger. What sets Disney Infinity apart from Skylanders -- and other Disney Interactive games -- though, is its Toy Box feature, which allows users to mix various Disney and Pixar stories and characters.

Disney describes the Toy Box concept this way: "Unlock virtual toys from each play set - characters, buildings, weapons, gadgets and more - and bring them into the Toy Box where you can mix them all up to create your own game. In the Toy Box, there are no rules and you can create any adventure you want."

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Disney Interactive will be offering E3 participants the opportunity to try all of the announced play sets and the Toy Box mode at its 18 demonstration stations. In fact, when they approach the booth, those same attendees will feel as if they have stepped onto a life-size version of the Infinity base that lights up.

"If you look around from the base, you will catch glimpses of iconic Disney characters and environments, re-imagined as toys using our unique Infinity art style. You will see new characters like Wreck It Ralph and Tonto mixing it up with old favorites like Bullseye from Toy Story and Stitch," according to the press release.

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Executive Producer of Disney Infinity John Vignocchi

There also will be a photo op that features a Toy Box-like fusion of Cinderella's Coach and a monster truck in front of the famed princess's castle.

Among the Disney merchandise that fans are sure to stand in long lines to get their hands on: custom T-shirts, shirt sleeves or hoodies made from 10 combinations exclusively at the booth and pre-release Infinity character toys that will be distributed through a vending machine.

Like Skylanders, Disney Infinity will be available for a variety of console gaming systems, including Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii-U, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Disney's version also will be compatible with PC computers and mobile devices later in the year. One or two players can tackle the structured adventures, and "Toy Box" mode allows up to four players in the game.

Starter packs, which include the video game, Infinity Base, three play sets, three characters, one Infinity Power Disc and web codes, go on sale August 18 for about $75. Additional play sets are priced about $30 to $35.

Through June 23, Nintendo is hosting a booth outside Once Upon a Toy Store at Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World as part of its Wii U Tour. Guests can stop by and try at no charge a variety of Wii U games, including Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros. U, LEGO City Undercover and Need for Speed Most Wanted U. Disney Infinity was expected to be available, as well. Perhaps after the marketing splash at E3, it will be. We'll keep you posted; expect a review if it becomes available.

June 8, 2013

Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon vs. SeaWorld's Aquatica: Who has the better after-2 p.m. pass?

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As Orlando residents, my family and I have had various combinations of theme-park passes since our kids were toddlers. For several years, those included the popular water parks: either Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon or SeaWorld's Aquatica.

With school out for summer, now we are considering an option we haven't yet tried: The after-2 p.m. water-park pass that is available to Florida residents. For a reduced price, guests can purchase an annual pass that allows entry into the water parks only after 2 p.m. with no blackout dates.

The water parks offer this option, of course, because that's when the crowds start to thin out. Guests who have been in the water since 9 a.m. often are ready to head back to their hotels by mid-afternoon. Plus, in Florida, it's a given that many summer days include afternoon rain, which also clears a water park pretty quickly. Added to this is the fact that the afternoons often are the hottest parts of the days.

So, purchasing an after-2 p.m. pass is a gamble with the weather. But at about half the cost of a regular annual pass to the water parks, we think it just might be worth a try. The water parks stay open later in the summer, often until 8 p.m., so we potentially still could spend six hours on the slides and in the pools.

Now, the difficult decision: Which water park do we choose? Our family has happy memories at all three water parks. But on paper, Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon are the better deal.

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At Disney, the after-2 p.m. pass is $66.03 for adults and $53.25 for kids (including tax) ages 3 to 9. It allows the passholder entry into two separate Disney water parks for one year from the date of purchase. Plus, there is no charge for parking. In addition, Walt Disney World allows guests to bring coolers of all sizes, including large rolling ice chests, so it is possible to bring a meal and drinks for the day and save money. The only restrictions involve glass containers and alcohol.

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At SeaWorld's Aquatica, Florida residents can purchase an after-2 p.m. pass for $58.58 for adults and $53.25 for kids (including tax) ages 3 to 9. It is good only for the one park and only through the end of 2013. There is a $12 charge to park each time you visit. SeaWorld restricts coolers to a 16-quart size, and food is limited to snacks, bottled water, baby food and whatever is needed for those with dietary restrictions. Of course, alcohol and glass containers are not permitted. SeaWorld does have a small picnic area outside its gates and guests are allowed to use the tables for meals stored in their vehicles and then re-enter the water park.

But how do you measure value when your children prefer one water park over another? How would you decide? Please tell us in the comments.

June 4, 2013

Wilderness Explorers opens at Disney's Animal Kingdom, Inspired by 'Up' movie

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Animal Kingdom's newest attraction, Wilderness Explorers, is built around a theme from the Disney-Pixar film "Up." One of the main characters in the 2009 animated movie, Russell, is a Wilderness Explorer, which is a fictional version of Boy Scouts. As Russell is working to earn his final merit badge, he gets caught up in an elderly man's drama and ends up traveling on an unexpected journey.

Now Walt Disney World's newest theme park has developed a Wilderness Explorers program that encourages kids to learn about specific areas of their world by earning merit badges, similarly to how the group functions in the movie. The Wilderness Explorers attraction at Animal Kingdom, which debuted June 1, is open to all guests, though the materials are geared toward kids ages 7 to 10.

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With both of my children in the target age range and involved in real-life Scouting, our family was eager to try the new attraction this weekend. To get started, we visited the first troop leader post, which is located just over the bridge on the edge of Discovery Island. (There are other starting points in Africa, Asia, DinoLand U.S.A. and Rafiki's Planet Watch.)

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Troop leaders initiate kids by teaching them the Explorer call, which has three hand gestures and corresponding vocals: "The wilderness must be explored!" with hands framing a view; "Caw Caw" with hands shaping a bird; and "Roar!" like a lion (or other large beast) with paws up and out. They also say the Wilderness Explorers' Motto, which is a short pledge to be "a friend to all, be it plants or fish or tiny mole." Like real-life Scouts, kids earn their first badges after mastering the group's mission statements, and they receive a handbook outlining the other merit badges they can earn and a sticker to wear in place of "uniform."

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Wilderness Explorers can complete 30 additional badges -- which actually are stickers placed in their handbooks -- in any order or timeframe they choose. They don't have to be finished on the same day.

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In several sections of the park, multiple badge locations are grouped together, making it easy to complete related badges together. For example, six Wilderness Explorers stations can be found at Rafiki's Planet Watch. Here's a plan: Ride the Wildlife Express Train to Rafiki's Planet Watch, stop to earn the Habitat badge on the walk to the Conservation Station. Once inside, learn about Animal Nutrition, Veterinary medicine and Recycling to earn badges, which are requirements for the Conservation badge. Step outside into the Affection Section, a petting yard, and earn the Hand Washing badge after visiting the animals. Be sure to check the map in the handbook indicating locations for each badge to plot your course.

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Habitat badge


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Animal Nutrition badge


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Veterinary badge


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Brushing animals before earning Hand Washing badge


Some badges are more interactive than others, and that certainly affects the interest levels of the kids participating. My children really enjoyed the Animal Find badge, which challenged them to find 22 specific animals anywhere in Animal Kingdom during their day. When we stopped at the locations for the Asian and African Culture badges, they were taught a foreign-language phrase and were less enthusiastic about those experiences. Overall, my 8-year-old daughter was more excited about the Wilderness Explorers attraction than my 10-year-old son. She was happy to learn at each station and wanted to complete as many badges as possible. My son, on the other hand, was embarrassed to wear the Wilderness Explorers sticker and thought many of the exercises at the stations were too easy for him.

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African Culture badge


Wilderness Explorers has replaced the Kids' Discovery Club program, which featured six learning stations throughout the park. Those stations, such as one where kids dig for fossils and then assemble a color-coded dinosaur, have been absorbed into the new program as badge locations.

Wilderness Explorers is included in regular admission to Animal Kingdom. The attraction opens at 10 a.m. daily, one hour after the rope drop.


June 1, 2013

Downtown Disney's Portobello Restaurant to host Italian cooking school for adults

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Chef Tony Mantuano of Chicago's Spiaggia, Cafe Spiaggia and Bar Toma will be hosting an adult cooking class at Downtown Disney's Portobello Restaurant on Friday, June 14.

During the two-hour Pantry Raid cooking class, Mantuano will show participants how to use ingredients most people keep on hand at home to create a variety of Italian specialties. Among the demonstrations are pickling vegetables, fresh pasta preparation, and balsamic and honey tastings.

"Like our cooking classes for children, this class will have ample participation from audience volunteers, and the dishes that are demonstrated will be served to the class," said Steven Richard, area chef for Levy Restaurants and former executive chef at Portobello. 

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Also, wine will be paired with each of the dishes: Zonin Prosecco with antipasti, Bertani Valpolicella with pizza, Mazzei Badiola with pasta, and Ruffino Moscato with dessert."

Certainly, attendees at cooking classes have a desire to become better chefs themselves. I recently asked Chef Mantuano, though, what he thinks motivates adults to become creative cooks.

"I think adults are inspired by memories from their childhood and from their travels. We all want to recreate a dish our grandmother made or other family recipes. We also want to recreate them with our own little twist," he said. "I've added a few of my nonna's recipes, some with my own take, at my restaurants. I also love traveling and bringing home food memories to recreate favorite dishes or meals with my family or at one of my restaurants."

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The Pantry Raid class is designed to appeal to cooks of all skill levels, and Mantuano will offer tips, tricks and strategies to take away and use at home. For beginning cooks -- who might feel motivated, yet overwhelmed, by the many possibilities -- Mantuano offers this advice:

"Start with something simple and make a cuisine or dish you already like or know. This way you know what to expect in the end.  You do not want your first attempts at cooking to be overly complicated or with cuisines you're not sure of the flavor profile. For those who like authentic Italian food, I'd suggest making a spaghetti pomodoro. Find a great dried pasta brand, such as from Giuseppe Cocco, and a pomodoro recipe online either with fresh tomatoes (in the summer) or canned San Marzano tomato puree. This is typically a simple and easy-to-follow recipe that will help build up confidence in the kitchen. From there they can start advancing with other recipes." 

Mantuano encourages budding chefs to enjoy the entire creative process involved with cooking. He said he thinks many adults actually find the most pleasure in shopping for each dish.

"I think adults like sourcing ingredients the most. Going to their local grocery store or food shop to pick out the ingredients themselves is an exciting part of the process, especially as they get to know their butcher, fishmonger, cheesemonger, and others," he told me. "I think the more adventurous like going to the market and seeing what is in season and then figuring out a menu."

"The Portobello Pantry Raid cooking class, which runs from 1 to 3 p.m. June 14, is $49.95 per person. The class will be capped at 32 participants to maintain an intimate experience with Chef Mantuano. To make a reservation, call 407-828-8996.

May 30, 2013

New at Magic Kingdom: A Pirate's Adventure treasure hunt

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Going on a pirate's adventure never gets old, does it, mateys?

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The creative forces at Disney World are banking on that with a new scavenger hunt at the Magic Kingdom called, not surprisingly, A Pirate's Adventure. Located in a small building on the outskirts of Adventureland, just past the arches connected to Pirates of the Caribbean and across from the Pecos Bill and Tortuga Tavern dining area, is the spot where would-be pirates plot their raids. After a series of simple steps on a touch-screen computer, players will head out on one of five possible quests to help Captain Jack Sparrow locate the Treasures of the Seven Seas. They are armed with a paper map and a "magic talisman" (otherwise known as a RFID-chipped card).

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My 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter recently tested A Pirate's Adventure and found it to be a swashbuckling experience of map-reading, hidden clues and entertaining special effects. Each quest is fairly short -- about 15 minutes, if there are no lines -- and easy to solve. Every clue triggers a physical action, from a firing cannon to a moving skeleton, which are fun surprises for all ages. Of course, the wow factor is diminished a bit if players are waiting behind others with the same map who reveal the clues first.

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Still, the game allows players to explore Adventureland, taking them to some corners of the land that they previously may not have noticed. And certainly, like other scavenger hunts at Walt Disney World, A Pirate's Adventure offers guests an experience that can be had at their leisure -- in between dining reservations or FastPasses, for example.

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That widespread appeal of an attraction for all ages that doesn't have to be scheduled has led to the recent additions of several scavenger hunts in the theme parks. Epcot's Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure was reworked last summer as Disney Phineas & Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure. Guests help Agent P defeat his nemesis, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, by receiving assignments via a mobile phone (instead of a talisman). They, too, are rewarded with physical surprises in the countries of World Showcase.

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom debuted a little over a year ago. It's a game of a different sort, though, in which guests use collectible cards to cast spells on Disney villains. The game portals are screens placed throughout the Magic Kingdom, and the game has various levels of difficulty. This game relies more on strategy than physical cues. As such, each guest's experience is different, so those waiting in line won't necessarily have the reveal spoiled for them.

Back at A Pirates Adventure, if guests help Captain Jack succeed in all five missions, they'll be welcomed as part of his new crew.

Here's a video of the game (with spoilers)

May 28, 2013

My family's experience at Walt Disney World's Monstrous Summer All-Nighter

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How long could two kids and their parents last at the Magic Kingdom when the theme park was open 24 hours? We set out to find out Friday at the Monstrous Summer All-Nighter.

My husband and I are night owls, routinely staying up until 3 a.m. or later, so that was in our favor. However, both our 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter had a full day of school before we headed to the Magic Kingdom in the afternoon, so they were tired. But they were really excited about the event, so that adrenaline helped fuel their determination to stay awake.

When we arrived about 4:30 p.m., the Transportation and Ticket Center parking lot was already about two-thirds full. I wondered if the park would close because of capacity crowds at some point, but we continued to see folks arriving all night.

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Guests entering the park were given Monstrous Summer buttons and could collect a special Times Guide for the event. We headed straight into The Emporium to check out the event merchandise because I had hoped to get the kids' the All-Nighter T-shirts. Unfortunately, those only came in adult sizes and only the big sizes were left late in the afternoon. They were offered on DisneyStore.com for three days, though, so I ordered them online as we waited in attraction lines in the park.

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After that, we really didn't have an agenda -- just a loose plan of what we wanted to do, based on crowds. And, boy, were there crowds! The Magic Kingdom was jam-packed during the afternoon and evening hours for this special event, which fell on a Friday and the beginning of a holiday weekend. I'm told the crowds were much lighter when the park opened at 6 a.m. and through the morning hours.

We started off by riding the railroad to Adventureland to grab FastPasses for Splash Mountain for my husband and my daughter and to check out the new A Pirate's Adventure. (I'll have a review of that later this week.) Using the FastPass system definitely was key to getting on the popular rides without having hours-long waits. Still, we couldn't help but wish FastPasses were available all night. The system shut down by 1 a.m., and the crowds really didn't thin out until about 3 a.m. Consequently, Space Mountain and other popular rides still had long standby queues well after midnight.

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Earlier in the night, we had dinner at Columbia Harbour House, where just about every table was taken. I can't remember the last time I saw the counter-service restaurant so busy. From there, we let the kids decide which attractions they wanted to do. We took a break about 9:30 p.m. to have the special Monsters University-themed Eye Scream Sundaes at the Plaza Ice Cream Shop and watch the Wishes fireworks show.

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At that point we decided to get a double-stroller for my daughter and all our stuff. She hasn't ridden in a stroller for years, but we thought she would be the first to get tired and a ride for her might allow our son to stay longer. It was a good call, even for the $31 price tag. Then we headed out to experience more attractions. Shortly after midnight, we met up with Deb Koma and her son. (There were plenty of blog meets going on throughout the park, and AllEars.Net hosted one in the morning.)

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By 2 a.m., my kids had caught their second wind, much to my surprise, so we stopped by Disney's Up All Night Dance Party in front of Cinderella Castle and then got in the hour-long queue to meet Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse dressed in their pajamas. It was a long wait, but my son and daughter humored me. My daughter even changed into her own PJs for the photo.

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Afterward, the line for Space Mountain finally had dropped to 45-minutes so my husband and daughter joined the queue, while my son and I rode Peter Pan's Flight and The Haunted Mansion. Then, we all stopped by Cosmic Ray's for a breakfast sandwich and made our way out of the Magic Kingdom about 5 a.m. As we were leaving, guests were still coming into the park. We headed out, though, and pulled into our driveway east of Orlando at sunrise.

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Was it a crazy night? Absolutely. It was crowded in the park that night, many of the attraction lines were long, and the kids and husband got cranky at times as the hours wore on. But will my children remember the fun of being in the Magic Kingdom all night under the full moon and stars? You bet! That was a timeless memory that's worth a little missed sleep now for the magic they'll recall for years to come.


May 21, 2013

Tips for kids at Disney World's Star Wars Weekends

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Disney fans, who also are Star Wars fans, know that for four weekends in May and June, Disney's Hollywood Studios turns into a mecca for all things related to that galaxy far, far away. As the event has grown, so have the number of things that are geared toward kids.

My children, who are ages 8 and 10, now enjoy the excitement of the special event weekends, but there was one year when my son joined the ranks of the intensely fascinated. That was the year his night-owl parents took him to the theme park before it opened in a bid to get Jake Lloyd's autograph. (You can read about our experience here.)

This year, we had a more casual approach to our arrival time because we weren't seeking an autograph. That was a mistake, though. The Force is not with families who do not line up outside the turnstiles at least an hour before park opening.

The two kid-centric events -- Jedi Training Academy and Padawan Mind Challenge -- require registration, which is available immediately after the rope drop in front of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Theater and ABC Sound Stage, respectively. On Saturday, all 19 sessions of the training academy and two trivia games were filled by mid-morning and the wait list halted at 70 hopeful kids, a cast member told me. So, my top tip for families who have children eager to take part in the Star Wars activities is to plan for an early arrival.

Here are our favorite must-dos for families who want to maximize their Star Wars fun:

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1. Legends of the Force Motorcade and Celebrity Welcome -- Even if you're not a Star Wars fan, it's difficult not to get excited when you see this parade kick off. The familiar music and array of elaborately costumed characters create excitement, for sure. Plus, the celebrities and event hosts ride in a motorcade that culminates in a ceremony on the main event stage in front of the Sorcerer Hat. Guests wanting a curbside seat line up for this parade at least an hour ahead of time. We lucked into a spot this year about a half hour before the parade's start that wasn't half bad. Areas are blocked off near the right side of the stage for the parents of kids who are chosen for the parade, but there are spots behind them that line the front of the stage. We could not see the parade from that point, but half of the characters walked past us on their way to the stage, high-fiving my kids, and then we had a decent view of the ceremony on stage. It worked for us.

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2. Jedi Training Academy -- Kids ages 4 to 12 learn how to wield a light saber from master Jedi instructors on an outdoor stage next to Star Tours. Once they've mastered the basics, they take a turn battling someone from The Dark Side. Sign-up is required for this event, but the good news is that it is a permanent feature at Hollywood Studios. If you miss it during Star Wars Weekends, the event is available year round. Robes similar to the ones the kids don for the academy can be purchased in nearby Tatooine Traders for about $50, and there is a build-your-own light saber station, as well.

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3. Padawan Mind Challenge -- In this trivia contest, kids ages 4 to 11 use their mental forces to keep up with two galactic hosts on the main event stage in front of the Sorcerer Hat. Guest C3PO provides some laughs and encourages the kids as they use their light sabers to indicate answers. Registration is required for this event, which has two afternoon sessions.

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4. Merchandise and character photos -- Take time to visit Darth's Mall, the huge merchandise tent that is set up back behind Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. Here you'll find limited edition Star Wars items; Star Wars Weekends 2013 merchandise; photo opportunities with Luke, Leia, R2D2, C3PO, and the Rancor; and the "cast yourself in Carbonite" experience that was inspired by a scene from "The Empire Strikes Back." My daughter loved being able to meet Leia and R2D2, who played along when she gave him her princess crown, and my son added to his collection a special Jedi Mickey plush that marks the 30th anniversary of "Return of the Jedi." There also are many character meet-and-greets with those from The Alliance, The Empire and Mickey and pals seen dressed in Star Wars costumes throughout the park.

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5. HyperSpace Hoopla! -- End the day by viewing this hilarious dance competition in which Star Wars characters try to outdo each other in a dance-off set to popular music hits. This event has become so popular over that years that guests line up in front of the main stage well beforehand. (See the AllEars.Net Hyperspace Hoopla! video.) Disney also broadcasts the Hoopla on the large adjacent screen at American Idol Experience, and folks sprawl out on the cement to watch. My son and I were among them, and it was a pleasant way to see the show without being sandwiched in between all the other guests.

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Let me know your tips for kids at Star Wars Weekends, by leaving a comment below.


May 18, 2013

Disney introduces Princess-inspired quinceañera dresses and offers celebrations at theme parks

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Following the popularity of wedding dresses inspired by the Disney Princesses, a new collection of special-occasion gowns that hint at royalty has been developed for girls celebrating their 15th birthdays. The Disney Royal Ball Quinceañera Dress Collection debuted this week from Disney Consumer Products and Ashdon Inc.

Similar to a "Sweet 16," a quinceañera is a coming-of-age celebration for Latina girls. It often includes a religious ceremony and a lavish reception with family and friends. During the party, the birthday girl dances a waltz with her father and changes from flat shoes to high heels to signify the transition to womanhood.

"The Disney Royal Ball collection is designed to create a royal statement and a lifetime of memories," said Nick Yeh, CEO of Ashdon Brands, in a press release. "The gowns are fun to wear and fit wonderfully into traditionally festive environments, providing a magnificent and special way for Quince girls to realize their very own princess-inspired dreams."

The debut line features 21 gowns - two styles for each Disney Princess and a special new gown, "la Corona de la Princesa," that will be added to the line each year. Girls can pick from designs that represent the personalities of Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Tiana. Disney's newest princess, Merida from "Brave," does not yet have her own quinceañera gown.

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The Disney Royal Ball Quinceañera Dress Collection is available at specialty and formal-wear retailers in the United States and Canada. The dresses come in a range of colors in sizes 0-20 and are priced from $530 to $999. To see all the gowns, view the photo gallery.

In 2007, Walt Disney World added quinceañera parties to its booming party-planning business. Associates at Disney's Catered Events create custom celebrations for these milestone birthdays, which can be just as over-the-top as Disney weddings with Cinderella's glass coach and footmen, a tiered cake and character appearances.

Base pricing starts with a per-person charge for the venue, plated meal with cake, and background music. These fees begin at $85 per person. Enhancing the decor, food, music or more increases the cost, of course.

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The venues for the balls so far have been Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, Boardwalk Inn & Villas, Yacht & Beach Club Resort, Contemporary Resort, Coronado Springs Resort and the American Adventure Rotunda at Epcot. Guests certainly are not limited to these locations, however. Event planners work with the guests to design dessert parties, private viewings of theme-park fireworks or other special occasions. If you can dream it, Disney planners will do their best to make it happen.

Guests can begin planning a quinceañera at Disneyland by calling 714-520-7072 or at Walt Disney World Resort by calling 321-939-4648.

Through June 7, QuinceañerasMagazine.com is hosting La Corona De La Princesa sweepstakes, offering one reader the chance to win the Disney Royal Ball Quinceañera gown of their choice, a VIP weekend trip for two to Southern California, a $1,000 cash prize and more. The top 10 finalists will receive a Disney Royal Ball Quinceañera gown of their choice and a subscription to Quinceañeras Magazine. For contest details visit quinceanerasmagazine.com/articles/la-corona-de-la-princesa.

May 16, 2013

Disney Worldwide Publishing, Lilly Diabetes expand global collaboration

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Disney Publishing Worldwide has announced it is expanding its outreach to children with type 1 diabetes through a series of custom books that have been co-created with Lilly Diabetes, a subsidiary of pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly & Co. The books, which debuted in 2011, are being translated and made available in 18 countries through doctors' offices.

The Disney group entered a partnership with Lilly Diabetes two years ago to educate children and their families about the disease -- and to help them find a sense of normalcy in their lives. Now, the two companies aim "to reach even more families who have been impacted by type 1 diabetes - emphasizing what they can do instead of what they can't do, and offering stories of familiar characters, such as Mickey Mouse and his friend, Coco, the fun-loving monkey who has type 1 diabetes," said Lilly Communications Director Kelley Murphy.

Coco's adventures can be found in two titles that are part of the popular children's Mickey Mouse Clubhouse series, "Coco Goes Back to School" and "Coco and Goofy's Goofy Day." The latter is the first to be translated for global distribution. In "Coco and Goofy's Goofy Day," Coco shows Goofy that she can attend his birthday party, enjoy the treats and activities in moderation and still have fun. Goofy is the one who struggles with limiting himself on his special day.

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A third book starring Coco will be released this summer. "Coco's First Sleepover" was written to help children and their families prepare for the child's first night away from home after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes, which often has an onset in childhood, have high blood sugar levels, usually because their bodies do not produce enough insulin or respond to the insulin that is created. They must monitor their condition daily and adjust medicines, food and exercise accordingly.

To that end, another Disney book in the series is a cookbook, "Dishing it up Disney Style," with healthy recipes for the entire family to enjoy.

Tweens also will be offered books that address their concerns about sharing their type 1 diabetes with their peers. Among them are "Up for the Challenge," "Power Forward," "Running Interference" and "Hannah Montana - Uptight, Oliver's Alight"; the first two are being translated into languages other than English. Two new titles for kids ages 9 to 13 also will be introduced this summer: "Superstar Dreams" and "Covering the Bases."

In another effort to reach more families, the first three books that are being translated and the cookbook will be posted online when a new website is completed in August or September, Murphy said. In the meantime, Disney is hosting content from dietitians, psychologists, nurses and families on its website, spoonful.com/type1. It offers tips for everyday challenges and includes recipes and printable resources.

"Lilly Diabetes' objective is to bring safety, health, comfort and a bit of magic to children worldwide," said Andrew Hodge, international vice president of Lilly Diabetes, in a statement. "We saw the positive impact our collaboration with Disney Publishing Worldwide had on families living with type 1 diabetes in the U.S. over the last two years, and we are excited to expand our reach globally."

Lilly introduced the world's first commercial insulin and continues to market related medicines.

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And though guests at Disney Parks won't see the Coco character, the little monkey already is having a positive effect on some.

One AllEars.Net reader whose 9-year-old daughter who lives with type 1 diabetes said the resources were invaluable in her family's planning for an upcoming trip to Walt Disney World. "Coco carries her diabetic supplies in a backpack and wears a diabetes bracelet, too," said Sheila Meyle. "Thank you Disney and Lilly Diabetes for bringing this very important issue to the public's attention and making a friend of Mickey's seem as normal as all the kids with diabetes want to be."

AllEars.Net has a section about how to plan for a vacation at Walt Disney World when someone in your party is living with diabetes. Plus, we have updated and complete menus for all the resort restaurants, so you can plan meals in advance.

May 11, 2013

3 Levy restaurants host kids cooking school at Downtown Disney this summer

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UPDATE: The June 22 class is full, and a second cooking school has been added on June 29. To register for the later date, call 407-828-8996.

How are foodies born?

Everyone loves delicious food, but the truly dedicated -- those adventurous eaters who look forward to tastings, new restaurants and different recipes -- may also enjoy cooking and learning to create tasty dishes in their own homes. And for them, it's never too soon to start.

Levy Restaurants is again offering a summer cooking school for kids ages 6 to 12, who may be the foodies of the future. The kid-friendly cooking class takes place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 22, at Fulton's Crab House, Portobello Restaurant and Wolfgang Puck Café.

"It never ceases to amaze us each year how excited the kids are to learn about cooking," said Steven Richard, area chef for Levy Restaurants and former executive chef at Portobello. "There doesn't seem to be a minimum age requirement to be a foodie."

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Time to learn how to eat the Yummy Gummy Dessert Sushi these chefs created at Wolfgang Puck Café.

Budding chefs will be guided through preparing one recipe at each restaurant: Mini Crab Cakes at Fulton's, Ravioli Gigante with Tomato Basil Sauce at Portobello and Yummy Gummy Dessert Sushi at the Wolfgang Puck Café. And then the kids will be able to eat the dishes they are learning to prepare from each restaurant's executive chef and culinary team.

"We're bringing back the Dessert Sushi and Ravioli by popular demand," said Richard. "The kids seem to enjoy the hands-on manipulation of food the most, such as ravioli assembly and sushi role assembly."

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Young chefs pause before they work with fresh pasta at Portobello.

Aside from learning how to make something delicious to eat, children learn valuable skills when they learn to cook, Richard said. They develop a better understanding of organization, nutrition, and even math skills when it comes to measuring ingredients.

"Cooking is about planning your work and working your plan. Staying organized is key to professional cooks and that carries over to home cooking," he said. "Also, for me, cooking and feeding people is an important part of life. It's something that every culture shares. I think it's a positive thing to nurture a curiosity in cooking at an early age."

So, how do parents build on the enthusiasm for cooking that their children gain from the Levy event?

"Most of the good home cooks that I know are defined by a short list of things they do very well. I would stick to simple but satisfying items like a the tomato sauce that we do with the kids at Portobello. It's an item that can be built upon by combining with a simple pizza dough recipe or meat balls. You can apply it to a number of dishes like lasagna and chicken ptarmigan," Richard advises. "Follow your curiosity and cook what you like."

The Levy cooking school is $37 per child. Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis until the event is full. To sign up, call 407-828-8996. Parents are welcome to stay with their children during the cooking school or enjoy the four hours on their own at Downtown Disney. Levy also offers group cooking classes at all three locations for adults, which can be booked through the same phone number.

April 23, 2013

Disney's Animal Kingdom Celebrates 15th Anniversary on Earth Day

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On Monday, Disney's Animal Kingdom celebrated two festivities -- Earth Day 2013 and the theme park's 15th anniversary.

The day began with an opening ceremony at the Tree of Life that featured Josh D'Amaro, Vice President of Disney's Animal Kingdom, and Dr. Jackie Ogden, Vice President of Animals, Science and Environment, as speakers. Because this was open to the public -- and held before rope drop -- it garnered quite a crowd as fans gathered to celebrate and park-goers waited to be let into the rest of Animal Kingdom. The highlight was a performance of The Lion King's "Circle of Life."

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Of course, the day featured special anniversary merchandise, including free commemorative maps and buttons to all guests. The line to purchase items such as T-shirts, Vinylmation figures and pins at Creature Comforts stretched to two hours at one point. Didn't make it to the anniversary party? One T-shirt design is available at DisneyStore.com through Thursday.

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Disney's Wildlife Conservation Fund offered an anniversary button to all those who donated $1 or more to the charity. Disney matches all donations to the fund at 100 percent.

Animal Kingdom also hosted artists and photographers who specialize in landscapes and nature designs, and their work was available for purchase on Earth Day. And what birthday would be complete without a cupcake? This cute Worms & Dirt confection is for sale all week at Kusafari Coffee Shop and Bakery and Isle of Java.

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Throughout the park, visitors were able to learn more about Disney's conservation efforts with special displays. Perhaps the most fun for younger guests, though, were the five Party for the Planet stations that helped kids learn about various aspects of conservation and planet stewardship through hands-on activities.

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In Asia, the booth was located at the end of the Maharajah Jungle Trek. Kids were invited to "shop" at a store and asked to find the items that are most Earth-friendly. At the end, cast members explained how to choose "green" products to make a difference for wildlife and nature. In Africa, at the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, kids followed five simple clues to learn how to identify animals in the wild. Of course, one was dung, which had the children around us laughing. No surprise there since bathroom humor always is a hit among the younger set.

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Rafiki's Planet Watch hosted the other three Party for the Planet stations, and they were inspired by Disneynature films. Outside the building, guests could learn about flying creatures ("Wings of Life"). One neat tip a cast member suggested was to place a light under a sheet to attract bugs for observation. And she demonstrated devices to capture and study crawling insects, too. Inside, kids could play a computer game that helped them understand behaviors of cheetahs and lions ("African Cats"), and another tactile game to learn how chimpanzees create tools from objects they find in nature ("Chimpanzee").

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Along the way, kids were invited to address postcards to friends and family and drop them in mailboxes, and Disney would take care of mailing the cards for free. Also, kids who completed the activities at each station were given a prize, and, together, the five prizes formed a wildlife tracking kit.

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For a theme park that has spent the past 15 years promoting the safekeeping of the planet and its inhabitants, Monday's Earth Day events certainly were a natural fit.

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April 9, 2013

How fans can be Kingdon Keepers for a day at Walt Disney World

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This weekend, my 10-year-old son set out to be a Kingdom Keeper at the Magic Kingdom using the self-guided quest in Birnbaum Guides 2013 Walt Disney World edition. We didn't encounter any villains, but we did have fun with a new challenge in a favorite theme park.

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

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

Fans who weren't visiting the Magic Kingdom with their schools, though, were disappointed and had no such opportunity -- until this year's Birnbaum Guide was published. So, what can fans like my son expect from the individual self-guided quest?

"[The quests] are all me, so they're the same feel," Pearson told me recently. "I think that because of space limitations, they're certainly truncated. " They may be a little more difficult in YES, but those take 3 to 4 hours, and this one takes, maybe, an hour and a half."

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Don't be fooled, though. Birnbaum's Kingdom Keepers Quest is not simple -- at least not for a fourth-grader and his mother. We didn't have any difficulty finding the various locations in Magic Kingdom that the clues describe, but some of the codes and word play took multiple readings to decipher. This was especially true of the first quest in the set of five. Fortunately, you can solve the quests in any order and then put the clues together for the final answer, so we did skip the first one and save it for the end.

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Embedded in each quest are passages from "Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark," the first book in the series, which hint at some of the answers. And, if you have a smartphone and download an app, there are extra goodies you can unlock in the Magic Kingdom to help entertain and guide you through the quests. I don't want to give those surprises away, but the ones we saw were pretty darn cool. Plus, smartphone users can tackle an additional Expert Challenge Quest.

Can't get enough Kingdom Keepers? You're in luck. Disney Youth Education Series currently is testing a new quest for school groups at Animal Kingdom that will launch soon. Individual fans will get their own Animal Kingdom quest in the 2014 Birnbaum Guides for Walt Disney World, which will be released this fall.

"I'm just finishing now a new [Birnbaum quest] for 2014 that is four pages of Magic Kingdom and four pages of Animal Kingdom," Pearson told me. "I think we'll build that out as the years go forward."

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In the meantime, fans can meet Pearson this week when he appears at Walt Disney World to sign copies of the latest book in the series, "Kingdom Keepers 6: Dark Passage," which was released April 2. For details on these events and more about what's in store in the next Kingdom Keepers books, please see my earlier blog post.

April 6, 2013

Hands-on fun with Innoventions attractions can make Epcot guests feel like superheroes

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Sometimes, there's nothing more magical than hands-on interaction fun with a Disney Parks attraction, and that's the idea behind the Innoventions concept at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. And this week brought news about one of Marvel Comics's biggest superheroes making his ironclad effect on the West Coast.

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In California, the collection of interactive displays -- modeled after the World's Fair -- at Disneyland will gain an Iron Man exhibit on April 13 -- and will, of course, promote the upcoming the upcoming "Iron Man 3" movie. Iron Man Tech Presented by Stark Industries will include Tony Stark's Hall of Armor exhibit and a simulator that will allow guests to fire repulsor blasts just like Iron Man.

As popular as that promotional display is certain to be with theme-park guests, what would be a real blast is if rumors of a Stark Expo overlay of the entire Innoventions attraction comes to pass. MovieFone reports that the upcoming Iron Man Tech exhibit actually is a beta test for the overhaul of the site and, if it is successful, construction could begin in 2014.

My family -- and many others, I'm sure -- would like to see a Stark Expo, or even just Iron Man Tech, come to Orlando. Unfortunately, it won't happen because of the Marvel licensing pact with Universal Studios Orlando. Iron Man will only be seen at Walt Disney World in merchandise and the new monorail wrap.

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Still, our two Innoventions pavilions here in Orlando have a lot of fun to offer kids, even if the exhibits don't revolve around a popular super hero who is part of the Avengers project and routinely saves the world.

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At Innoventions West, families with elementary-school-age children won't want to miss The Great Piggy Bank Adventure and Where's the Fire? exhibitions. The Great Piggy Bank Adventure teaches children the importance of saving money and planning for the future with concrete examples, and guests actually carry their piggy banks from game to game. Where's the Fire? includes an interactive game house, where teams search to find the fire hazards in their home, and the Play It Safe Maze, where children 5 years old and younger can learn how to exit their homes in a fire. Both of the exhibits are so entertaining that kids may not even realize they are absorbing valuable information.

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Innoventions West also contains a video game section, where kids can play the latest games for free, and a character meet-and-greet area exclusively for Disney Visa card members. (See a full description of Innoventions on the AllEars.Net resource page.)

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At Innoventions East, roller coaster fans shouldn't pass up the opportunity to design their own attraction and ride it virtually at The Sum of All Thrills. This is not an attraction for the faint-of-heart, and there routinely are long lines attesting to its popularity. Test the Limits Lab is good, clean fun for all ages and temperaments -- though those needing to work out a little frustration may find the experience more cathartic than others. The test lab's six kiosks allow Epcot visitors to get a hands-on feel for how UL annually tests the safety of more than 18,000 products. Guided by cast members, guests can "implode" television screens, put vacuum cleaners through their paces and even drop 55-gallon barrels on firefighters' helmets to see whether they can withstand the impact.

Sure, the Walt Disney World Innoventions attractions might not feature the latest technological creations from Stark Industries, but the idea behind them are the same here as what guests at Disneyland enjoy. The hands-on fun is as entertaining as it is educational. And, who knows? After successfully saving money, escaping a fire or even riding a roller coaster of their own creation, the participants might even feel like superheroes in a way.

April 4, 2013

Tour Disney Fairy houses at Epcot Flower & Garden Festival and learn how to create one at home

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One of my family's favorite displays at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is the Pixie Hollow Garden. Sure, the topiaries of Tinker Bell and her fellow fairies are amazing, but what we really like to study are the miniature fairy houses.

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Near each topiary is a representation of what that fairy's house would be like. The tiny dwellings are imaginative in their use of everyday household items. One of the most memorable uses a roller skate as its base. Other miniature model homes that have been displayed for multiple years feature water cans and teapots. A Disney landscape artist said they use these objects because they help illustrate the size of fairies.

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The Epcot horticulture team has been creating these shelters since 2009, and there are some new fairy houses each year. That's largely because Pixie Hollow Garden has grown each year with annual direct-to-DVD Tinker Bell movies that feature new characters. This year, however, is the first since 2008 that a new Tinker Bell movie will not hit the shelves. ("Quest for the Queen" is expected in Spring 2014.) So, the theming highlights Tinker Bell and her long lost sister, Periwinkle, who was revealed in "Secret of the Wings" in October 2012. In fact, their topiaries are the focal point at the entrance to this year's garden.

Last year, Pixie Hollow Garden offered a special Winter Woods section that was made to recall the hues of snow and ice with beds of blue and white flowers. In years past, the garden contained a play structure for younger kids. This year, however, the play structure has been separated from the fairies; it still remains near the Test Track Walkway but has been re-imagined as a Radiator Springs outdoor area. The fairies have moved into the Butterfly House, which is located on the opposite side of the park. (Take a photo tour of the lifelike topiaries and even more images of the tiny houses in the AllEars.Net gallery.)

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Like other aspects of the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, the fairy houses can be replicated at home. Disney's April issue of "Family Fun" magazine shows readers how to create a miniature house, called a Toad Abode, with very little construction involved. The editors suggest buying a small birdhouse and placing it in a shallow pla