Kristin Ford is a freelance writer who lives in Orlando. She wrote about The Walt Disney Co. during many of her 17 years as a journalist at the Orlando Sentinel, before joining the AllEars.Net staff. Kristin writes about Disney news from a parent's perspective, covering Walt Disney World, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Channel, Disney Publishing and Disney Interactive and more. You can follow her adventures through the parks with her husband and two elementary-school-age children here and on Twitter @Kristin_B_Ford.
Disney Infinity: My kids preview game with help from artist, designer
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Fantasia Gardens at Walt Disney World offers miniature golf for beginners, pros
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Disney Infinity debuts at E3 today and possibly at Downtown Disney later this month
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."
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.
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.
Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon vs. SeaWorld's Aquatica: Who has the better after-2 p.m. pass?
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.
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.
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.
Wilderness Explorers opens at Disney's Animal Kingdom, Inspired by 'Up' movie
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.
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.)
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."
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.
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.
Animal Nutrition badge
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.
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.
Downtown Disney's Portobello Restaurant to host Italian cooking school for adults
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.
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."
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.
New at Magic Kingdom: A Pirate's Adventure treasure hunt
Going on a pirate's adventure never gets old, does it, mateys?
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).
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.
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.
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.
My family's experience at Walt Disney World's Monstrous Summer All-Nighter
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Tips for kids at Disney World's Star Wars Weekends
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let me know your tips for kids at Star Wars Weekends, by leaving a comment below.
Disney introduces Princess-inspired quinceañera dresses and offers celebrations at theme parks
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.
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.
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.
Disney Worldwide Publishing, Lilly Diabetes expand global collaboration
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.
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.
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."
3 Levy restaurants host kids cooking school at Downtown Disney this summer
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."
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."
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.
Disney's Animal Kingdom Celebrates 15th Anniversary on Earth Day
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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").
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.
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.
How fans can be Kingdon Keepers for a day at Walt Disney World
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
Hands-on fun with Innoventions attractions can make Epcot guests feel like superheroes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Tour Disney Fairy houses at Epcot Flower & Garden Festival and learn how to create one at home
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.
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.
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.)
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 plastic plant saucer with small flowers and moss that are appropriate for your area of the country. (Be sure to drill drainage holes in the saucer beforehand.) Then, accessorize with doll furniture, small toys or craft-store items, such as a miniature fence.
Finally, wait for the fairies to move in. Though you're not likely to see them, you'll be alerted to their presence when things have been moved around in the saucer.
It's curtains for Disney Channel Rocks! at Disney's Hollywood Studios after April 6
Like Disney Channel viewers around the globe, my elementary-school-age children were die-hard "High School Musical" fans. They eagerly anticipated each of the sequels and the accompanying soundtracks. I'm pretty sure we single-handedly supported the merchandising branch of the franchise with all the clothing, costumes, Barbie-type dolls and dance mats that littered our play room.
Unlike many other "High School Musical" fans, though, my children also are fortunate enough to live in Orlando and have annual passes to Walt Disney World, where they regularly could see a live musical production based on each of the movies at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Since 2007, the theme park has offered guests the opportunity to see their favorite "High School Musical" songs performed -- and even participate in the show by learning dance steps from the professionals.
The first moving stage show was High School Musical Pep Rally (which ran January – September 2007). It was followed by High School Musical 2: School’s Out (September 2007 – September 2008), High School Musical 3: Senior Year (October 2008 – September 2010) and, finally, Disney Channel Rocks! (October 2010 – April 2013). Through each production, the anthem "We're All in This Together" remained a constant, and I'm sure, brought back memories for fans.
Disney World recently announced that the current show, Disney Channel Rocks!, will have its swan song on April 6. Although I certainly can understand the decision -- much of the material is dated, even with the addition of "Camp Rock 2" songs in the fourth version of the production -- I have to admit I also was a little sad to hear the news.
I remember when seeing the pep rallies that traveled down Hollywood Boulevard and stopped in front of Mickey's Sorcerer Hat was a must-do each time we visited Hollywood Studios. My children had their favorite viewing spot and loved to participate. And, clearly, they were not alone. But as their interests and ages have changed, they have moved on, and I suspect that's the same for many "High School Musical" fans.
So, what's next for Hollywood Studios? Disney World hasn't announced what entertainment, if anything, will take the place of Disney Channel Rocks! It would seem that Disney's Channel's "Shake It Up" would be a natural fit with its story of a televised dance show, if theme-park officials want to keep the elements of music and dance that appeal to young Disney fans.
In the meantime, take a look back at each of the four "High School Musical" pep rallies in the videos below.
Walt Disney World has given its guests an "egg-stra" special Easter gift by extending the time its holiday activities are offered at Epcot -- and there's still time for kids to take advantage of the fun. As part of the Limited Time Magic campaign this year, events throughout the resort that historically have taken place only on Easter Day began a week earlier. We really like this idea, and set out to experience the fun ahead of the holiday crowds.
Among the "Spring Fling" activities are ones that my elementary-school-age children have enjoyed at Epcot's United Kingdom pavilion in the past. A traditional egg hunt takes place every 10 minutes in the maze garden each day from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Children ages 3 to 9 can sign up with the cast member stationed at an Easter-basket-themed podium in the UK section of the park. Then, based on their start times, other cast members will direct them to the correct queue along the maze.
These egg hunts are well-organized and efficient. Children receive cute Easter-themed bags with handles and are told they may choose five plastic eggs when they enter the maze. Parents typically are not allowed in the maze, so plan accordingly. (There is another more simple egg hunt in an adjacent open space that is set up just for toddlers and their parents.) At the end of the maze, a cast member counts each child's eggs, which are filled with holiday trinkets and candy, and adds two marshmallow Peeps to the mix. New this year: duck-shaped plastic eggs.
Children ages 8 to 12 also can participate in the Easter egg relays from 11:40 a.m. to 3:40 p.m. These all take place at 40 minutes after the hour, and children can sign up at the same location. Then they line up in the middle of the plaza. Two teams of seven kids will race a loop around the gardens with their eggs perched precariously on large spoons. Both of my competitive children enjoyed this activity, which was humorously narrated by a couple of cast members in their Easter finery. Win or lose, all children receive prizes at the end of the race.
Space is limited for these activities, which is why the registration is required. We did see some children go more than once, which is permitted as long as you sign up and receive a ticket each time.
Also in this same area behind the UK pavilion, guests will be able to meet Mr. and Mrs. Bunny from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. The couple is happy to pose for photos and sign autographs. A Disney's PhotoPass photographer also is stationed with the bunnies, if you'd like to purchase a professional photo.
Children ages 3 to 9 also can gather eggs at the Innoventions East-er Garden in Future World East. This hunt does not offer any landscape challenges, like the UK maze, and all the plastic eggs are scattered on the lawn. Because of this setup, the Innoventions East-er Garden may be better suited for young children without an older sibling or friend to guide them, or for those parents who prefer to see their children at all times. Nearby, there also are a bunny ring toss and Easter egg beanbag toss for all ages.
'My Yard Goes Disney' host Brandon Johnson takes guests behind the scenes of backyard makeovers at Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival
Brandon Johnson, host of “My Yard Goes Disney,” returns to the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival this weekend as one of the featured speakers from HGTV, which sponsors the annual Walt Disney World event. Last year, he gave Home & Garden Television viewers a sneak peek at some of the amazing backyard makeovers that were featured on the second season of "My Yard Goes Disney."
This year, Johnson will offer festival-goers a more in-depth look at what it took to create those over-the-top, Disney-themed yards that made fans so ecstatic. Of course, the resources available for each yard were extensive. Lucky families chosen for the makeovers were given Mickey-shaped swimming pools, zip lines and even treehouses and campgrounds that were inspired by the families’ favorite attractions at Walt Disney World and Disney Cruise Line. (Unfortunately, "My Yard Goes Disney" has not been renewed for a third season.)
Johnson will give 30-minute presentations on ways to make your own yard go Disney at noon and 3 p.m. March 29 to 31. Johnson will explain how to recreate some of the design elements featured on the show that blend Disney imagination with HGTV design. After each presentation, he will meet and greet the audience. I recently spoke with Johnson about his upcoming visit.
Can you tell us more about the beyond-the-scenes details you’ll be revealing about those fantastic "My Yard Goes Disney" makeovers?
This time I'll be featuring three new families and going a little deeper into the creation process. I've tripled the amount of [photos] from last year -- so much to show! But you'll just have to come to the festival to see it all unfold.
What do you think most prohibits homeowners from redoing their backyards themselves?
It’s a combination of … cost, time, resources and experience. I'm sure there are families that have the capability, but to execute the design to its fullest extent is where most get stuck. Our job is to take [their] most precious Disney memories and bring them to life in [their] backyard in a way a family never thought possible. These families have access to some of the most talented craftsmen in the business. Plus, having a huge crew cuts the installation time in half.
How can Disney guests take the magic of the festival home and apply it to their own homes and yards?
I'd do a brainstorm session of all your favorite Disney memories, narrow down a theme, color palette and then begin making sketches of what you'd like to create. Think about what you're willing to let go of in your backyard and how the new space could be used in the most efficient way. Give each space a function: A play area, dining area, relaxation area, etc. Incorporate family memories with the landscape. An example: Perhaps you plant specific flowers because they remind you of your wedding or a time you took a trip to one of the various Disney destinations.
What do you most enjoy about the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival?
It's such a gift to share the joy I've experienced while working on MYGD with the attendees. Of course, Epcot's topiaries are sensational and the food is incredible. Disney and HGTV take good care of me so I'm very grateful for the opportunity to participate in the festival.
When you come to Walt Disney World, what is your favorite thing to do?
I'm an adrenaline junky so I head for The Rock ‘n' Roller coaster, Star Tours and Tower of Terror at Disney Hollywood Studios. Then, I pop over to Animal Kingdom to ride Expedition Everest or Mission: SPACE at Epcot. I truly love just walking around the parks and getting lost in all the incredible stimuli. [There is] so much to do and see. My time is usually limited, so I squeeze in as much fun as fast as I can!
Disney Channel fans recently saw you return to "Shake It Up" for the season finale. What other projects are you involved with now?
My next project is quite a departure from my character Gary Wilde on "Shake It Up." This time I'm the host a brand new adventure, reality competition show called, "72 Hours" premiering at 9 p.m. EST on June 6 on TNT. This has, by far, been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. We drop nine strangers into the wild of some of the most remote locations on the planet. They're then divided into three teams of three and given 72 hours to find a briefcase full of $100,000 using only a GPS unit, a two-way radio and a bottle of water. Every episode is a new location and new cast. We shot the show in Fiji, New Zealand, Tasmania, Hawaii and the Southern Rockies. … From the second the show starts, buckle in, because it's full throttle from then on!
Get up close with Magic Kingdom's steam trains with behind-the-scenes tour
It’s no great surprise that boys of all ages seem to like trains. So I knew that when my husband and 10-year-old son enrolled in Disney’s “The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains” tour, they’d have a good time. I just didn’t realize how much they would enjoy it until afterward, when both shared details of the outing.
My husband was kind of a train nerd when I met him years ago and even played with electric trains as an adult -- though he was quick to explain it was called “model railroading” and not “toy trains.”
Our son also follows in his dad’s footsteps and always has enjoyed the steam locomotives at Magic Kingdom, as well as the train at Animal Kingdom, Epcot’s garden railway display in Germany, and the holiday model-train exhibits at the Disney World resorts.
Clearly, I knew, the Magic Kingdom tour of its rail operations was the kind of educational program that would appeal to the both of them and others like them who appreciate the romance of the rails.
The three-hour tour gives guests 10 and older a chance learn all about the train operations at the Magic Kingdom and get an up-close, hands-on tour of the engine cabs and tenders, and a look inside the roundhouse where the trains are stored and maintained. Tour participants also get to ride some segments of track that are off-limits to regular guests, and they even get to see some spectacular mechanical feats performed as the engine boilers are set alight and steam pressure builds.
Recently, my husband and son parked at the Contemporary Resort visitor’s lot (which is allowed for this tour) and walked over to the entrance of Magic Kingdom before the park opened. Once passing through the baggage-check site, they and others awaiting the tour gathered in the center of the plaza at the Kodak picture spot for the Main Street Station.
Not only is this spot a centralized location for everyone on the tour to meet, but it proved to offer a unique vantage point from which to get a one-of-a-kind photo as the tour’s private train did something it rarely does during the rest of the hours of the day. After the train pulled into the front of the Main Street station, the engine actually stopped in the middle of the track segment in front of the station, giving tour participants a privileged photo opportunity that most park guest will never have.
After the train arrived for that photo op, it then advanced along the track as normal and awaited the tour group. At this point, the tour’s leader guided the group toward the station. On the day my husband and son attended, it was only a group of 6, so everyone had plenty of room to gather around the conductor for the tour, Matt Simsburg of Connecticut, who led them to the station and into the last car of the train.
After a quick “all aboard,” the tour then left for a nonstop ride to the Fantasyland station. There, a railroad worker threw the track switch behind the train, allowing the consist to back up and travel in reverse toward the roundhouse, where all of the Magic Kingdom’s four trains – the No. 1 Walter E. Disney, the No. 2 Lilly Belle, the No. 3 Roger E. Broggie, and the No. 4 Roy E. Disney – are housed and maintained.
It was there where my husband and son got to experience the engines and tenders up close and learn about the intricate mechanical workings of these iron horses. They both got to watch several of the trains as they prepared for their first official passenger runs of the morning, and they were allowed to climb into the cab of one engine and get a detailed rundown on all the various mechanical components used by the engineer and fireman.
One visual highlight, they both said, was when flames were set to the engine’s boilers; another came when the crew of the departing trains built up excess pressure in the boilers to trigger a steam “pop-off” valve test in which a plume of white steam is sent skyward above the monorails overhead and probably is heard over the entire backlot of the park and beyond.
After learning about these procedures and much more, my son and husband boarded another train and got to see how the engineers test track safety systems and perform other mechanical tests required before the trains are put into service at the park for the day.
All along the way, conductor Matt was offering a wealth of insider information and answering the group’s many questions. The participants learned plenty of historical facts about the rail line (Did you know that one of Henry Flagler’s actual Florida East Coast bridges once had to be replaced after a hurricane in the Keys and now spans a waterway in Frontierland?). They heard interesting trivia about the route, too. (Just what is under the tunnel near the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction?) Plus, they learned details about the track’s grade (its slope) at various parts of the route and how it can affect the trains’ speed and braking ability.
They even got a short lesson on train-whistle communication and the importance of the engine’s bell as the train pulls into the station. (It’s not just a sound effect. Rather it is an actual signal to the workers at the station about a specific action about to take place.)
Eventually, the group traveled back to the Main Street station. Arriving soon after the park had opened for the day, they disembarked for a short break. Afterward, the group then assembled inside one end of the station as their tour leader Matt gave them a historical account of Walt Disney’s early love of railroading, a detailed look at how Disney designed and operated his own private and legendary “Carolwood Pacific Railroad” setup at his California home, and a telling of how the Magic Kingdom’s four engines were re-created from the relics of actual, working engines in a time long past.
My husband said he had a lot of familiarity with most of the information presented in this part of the tour. As he told me, most rail fans probably already have a passing knowledge of Walt Disney’s forays into railroading, both the actual trains of his youth and the smaller scales he created later for fun and for his themed attractions.
But he did say that one part of the discussion segment was new to him and, he said, surprisingly revelatory.
Tour leader Matt explained how Disney, in the 1940s, was much impressed with the Henry Ford Museum and its Greenfield Village, and how – on a train ride from the east coast back to California – Walt began sketching the first ideas for what later would become Disneyland. Disney’s world-changing ideas about themed attractions, Matt pointed out, literally were born aboard a train, and those ideas have included some form of railroading at most of Disney’s themed attractions ever since.
My son, at 10, might not have grasped the cultural or societal significance of what he was hearing, but he certainly did love the last thing he would take away from the tour that day. Matt presented him and everyone else in the tour group with a special-edition trading pin available only to tour participants.
If you take the tour, know that it leaves from the front of Magic Kingdom promptly at 7:30 a.m. You must be at least 10 years old to take part, and no camera or video photography is allowed along some backlot areas. (You are free to take pictures and video during the roundhouse tour, though.) The tour costs $49, plus tax, and also requires park admission. Annual passholders, Disney Vacation Club member and Disney Visa cardholders are eligible for discounts. Call 407-WDW-TOUR to book.
Mickey Mouse helps prepare Easter baskets at Disney resorts
If you're among the many families traveling to Walt Disney World in the next week, your children may be wondering how the Easter Bunny will find them when they are on vacation. Not to worry, Mickey Mouse has you covered.
Disney cast members have been helping Mr. Bunny build his baskets and deliver them at the resorts here. After all, it's a lot of work for just one rabbit!
The process for ordering -- or creating a customized basket -- is much the same as it has been for the last several years. Beginning this week, in almost all the Walt Disney World hotel gift shops, there will be a selection of pre-made Easter baskets from which guests can choose. (The start dates for this merchandise varies, but all locations will have their baskets in place by March 28. They will be available up to and including Easter morning.) Traditionally, these baskets have pirate, princess and Mickey Mouse themes, and prices range from $40 to $65.
Perhaps, though, you'd like to create a more individual basket. If you can dream it, cast members will try to do it! Customized baskets start with a white basket, green grass, shrink wrap and your choice of bow -- pink, yellow, blue, purple -- for $7 plus tax. The rest of the price is determined by the toys and treats you add to the basket. There is no charge for labor.
As another favor to Mr. Bunny, gift shops at the hotels will store the baskets, if guests prefer, because it's difficult to hide them in rooms ahead of time from curious little ones. At the Grand Floridian and Animal Kingdom Lodge, cast members will even deliver the baskets to the rooms.
For a personalized basket (or Easter bag for tweens), Disney Floral & Gifts can embroider your child's name on the fabric and include egg-stra special treats for Easter morning. Mickey's (or Minnie's) Easter Surprise 2013 is $89.95. Mickey’s (or Minnie's) Grand Easter Surprise 2013 even includes a letter from Mickey explaining how he helps the Easter Bunny at Walt Disney World. The Grand Easter Surprise 2013 also includes Mickey or Minnie’s "footprints" and confetti to place in the room. To order these gifts, call 407-WDW-GIFT.
Kids tour Epcot Flower & Garden Show TRYit food booths and rate their favorite menu items
Last weekend, Deb and I walked around World Showcase with my 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter during the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. Our goal was to have the kids sample the TRYit selections at each Garden Marketplace so we could give readers an idea of where their time and money would best be spent.
TRYits are foods that Disney chefs have prepared to encourage kids to try something new. The term TRYit, though, has been associated with Disney's Magic of Healthy Eating campaign for some time now. The national initiative, which was launched in 2010, aims to help children and their parents lead healthier lives. It focuses on nutritional guidelines and, most recently, standards for food advertising. One of the touchstones of the campaign is teaching kids to try new foods and activities.
Fruits By The Glass
We started our food journey with the Fruits By The Glass booth in the center of World Showcase Plaza. The TRYit is a Wild Berry Slush for $2.50. It was no surprise to me that both kids loved this drink. After all, it essentially is a fruit smoothie, and they would drink those every day if they were allowed. My children also shared the Honest Kids Super Fruit Punch ($2.75), which is a juice pouch that is available at most of the Garden Marketplaces. They said that it tasted "watered down," which I'm sure is because of the low sugar content, especially when compared with the Capri-Suns they normally drink. A better option for them and other kids more accustomed to something sweeter probably would have been the Minute Maid Light Lemonade for the same price.
Next, we decided to walk counter-clockwise around the lake. At the Pineapple Promenade, there are no TRYits, so we moved on. The adults, however, reserved the right to come back and reward themselves with the Dole Whip with Siesta Key Spiced Rum after the afternoon trek.
The Cottage: Savories, Trifles and Tea
In the United Kingdom, chefs suggest that kids try the Baked Goat's Brie with Kumquat Chutney ($4.50) and the Waterkist Farms Heirloom Tomatoes with house-made Mozzarella, Minus 8 Vinegar and Basil ($3.50). Both of my children liked the brie, which is baked in a flakey pastry and served with a sweet chutney. When Deb Koma sampled this dish, she noted that the chutney made what could be an excellent dish too sweet for her taste. But perhaps that is the difference between a refined adult palate and a child's taste for as sugary treats – and the sweeter the better. The Heirloom Tomatoes were not met with the same enthusiasm, though; my daughter liked them better than my son did.
We arrived in France, and the kids saw they would be tasting the Tarte á la Ratatouille et frommage de chévre (zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, onions and tomato tart with goat cheese -- $4.50). That doesn't sound too kid-friendly, does it? Both kids sampled the dish, but it was my daughter who was quite enthusiastic about it. I took a bite and enjoyed the tarte. I would compare it to a thin-crust pizza topped with an abundance of vegetables. Although it wasn't a TRYit, the Verrine charlotte au péches (carmelized peaches with rosemary and light vanilla cream -- $5) also was on our list to sample. This resembles a fruit parfait and is quite appealing visually. Unfortunately, both the kids and adults in our group agreed it was delicious until your spoon tucked into the rosemary sauce, which left an unfamiliar if not unpleasant aftertaste.
Taste of Marrakesh
In Morocco, the TRYit is Baghrir (a Moroccan pancake with honey, almonds and Argan Oil -- $3). While both children were willing to try this dish, I don't think they were able to get past their Western association of syrup with a sweet pancake, and they definitely didn't like the nuts. They also sampled the Harissa and Lemon Confit Chicken Drumettes with chermoula and cucumber salad ($5), which is not a TRYit. But with chicken a perennial kid favorite, we thought we'd give it go. Both children did like the chicken, though they were slightly unaccustomed to its spicy flavor.
I'm not sure how everyone was still hungry when we got to Japan, but we ordered one of each dish. Both children really liked the YakiSoba Pan (fresh grilled vegetables, carrots, onions and cabbage with Japanese noodles and teriyaki sauce served on a bun with mayonnaise and Beni Shoga -- $4) and didn't want to put it down. My daughter and another friend in our party tried the Chirashi Hanazushi (grilled salmon, cooked shrimp, and crab stick served over a bed of fragrant ginger rice with Volcana and Dynamite sauce -- $6). They both declared it good but so hot and spicy that their eyes watered. The TRYit for this Garden Marketplace is the dessert Frushi (fresh strawberries, pineapple and cantaloupe rolled with coconut rice atop a raspberry sauce sprinkled with toasted coconut and whipped cream -- $4.50). Both kids enjoyed this dish, and my picky son actually asked for seconds.
The Smokehouse: Barbecue and Brews
The smells of good old barbecue at the American Adventure led us to the courtyard, where traditional favorites are served. There are no TRYits at this marketplace. Still, we ordered the Pulled Pig Slider with Cole Slaw ($5.50) for the kids because they enjoyed a similar item at last fall's Food & Wine Festival. Unfortunately, this was not the same thing, and they just picked at it. The adults in our group raved about the Smoked Beef Brisket with Collard Greens and Jalapeño Corn Bread ($6.75) and the Rocky Road Brownie Mousse ($3). My husband tried the Beer Flight: Mama's Little Yella Pils, (pilsner), Liberty Ale (IPA), and two organic selections: Red Ale, Blackwater Porter ($13). He said it was a good sampling of beer he typically wouldn’t encounter in the parks. He especially enjoyed the smooth porter, though he said he would have like a little more bitterness in the IPA.
Next door in Italy, the Lasagna Primavera (spinach Lasagna, green peas, zucchini, mushrooms, broccolini, béchamel and fresh tomatoes with garlic and basil leaves -- $6) is the TRYit selection. We all gave this "two thumbs up," or as my daughter says, "10 Mickey fingers." Despite the greenery, the kids were willing to taste this lasagna and actually enjoyed it. Deb didn’t have to twist the kids’ arms to get them to try yet another dessert -- the Panna Cotta al Limoncello (limoncello flavored Panna Cotta with wild berries -- $5). They liked the overall dessert well enough, but it was the berries that really excited them the most.
Bauermarkt: Farmer's Market
Germany was my children's favorite stop on our food tour. They still are talking about the food they ate there! The TRYit is a Potato Pancake with house-made Apple Sauce ($2.75). The applesauce usually is served on top of the pancake, but we asked for it in a separate container, and both children liked the dish divided this way. The real must-have, though, is the German Meatloaf Sandwich with Sweet Mustard and Fried Shallots ($3.75), which is not a TRYit. My daughter loves meatloaf anyway, and my son does not. Both, however, could not stop eating this sandwich. They said the meatloaf actually tastes more like a sausage.
Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes! My children tasted their third version of the day in China with the Spring Pancake with Grilled Chicken and Green Apple ($4.50), which is the TRYit. This combination did not wow anyone in our group. However, my daughter ate every one of the crunchy pieces of fruit in the Beijing-Style Candied Strawberries ($3.50).
Jardin de Fiestas
The TRYit in Mexico is another dessert: Flan de Guayaba (guava custard -- $3.50). We somehow skipped this Garden Marketplace, and I think it was because we all were trying to save room for the goodies at the next, and final, food booth.
Perhaps one of the most-talked-about dishes at the Flower & Garden Festival is the Watermelon Salad with pickled Red Onions, BW Farms Baby Arugula, Feta Cheese and Balsamic Reduction ($3.50). It also happens to be a TRYit. Certainly my children like watermelon, but I was curious to see if the addition of red onions would stop them from enjoying this version. It did not, though they had to compete with the adults for the remainder. The other TRYit at this marketplace is the Angel Food Cake with macerated Florida Berries ($3.25). It, too, was a hit. Finally, my son wanted to compare the Strawberry Slush ($2.50) with its Wild Berry counterpart he had first sampled. The verdict: Wild Berry is better, though he wouldn't turn either down.
What did we learn from our fun-filled feast around World Showcase Lagoon?
All kids, of course, have different tastes and culinary expectations. Such was true of my oldest child, who was more reserved in his excitement about new food dishes, and my youngest, who was more adventuresome and willing to try new things.
Yet it was clear that, regardless of whether my kids enjoyed all the menu items they tried, our station-to-station journey showed just how much variety there is in TRYit dishes at this year’s Flower & Garden Festival. With a little effort to try something new, it’s quite possible your children will find their own unique TRYit dish, and they just might LIKEit, as well.
Ridley Pearson says fans will help write last 'Kingdom Keepers' book in series
“Kingdom Keepers” readers: Get ready for a couple of new adventures. Author Ridley Pearson has some exciting news for fans of the young-adult series that is set in Walt Disney World and aboard Disney Cruise Line ships.
Of course, readers of the series know that the sixth installment, “Kingdom Keepers 6: Dark Passage,” hits shelves April 2. But what they probably don’t know is that after they read the book, readers actually can participate in the writing of the seventh and final book in the series – and they will be able to read most of it as chapters are produced weekly.
“I have outlined the seventh book, but I really feel so grateful to the readers that I felt it a little unfair if I was the only one who decided how this whole world was going to come to a close,” Pearson said when my 10-year-old son, a “Kingdom Keepers” fan, and I interviewed him recently at Epcot.
So, Pearson has spent two years with the help of a software company, to develop an app called Kingdom Keepers Insider (KKI). (Initially, it was referred to as Kingdom Keepers 7 Fan Fiction Experience.) The free app will be available across all platforms, and there will a web version for people who don’t have access to an iOS or Android device.
Pearson described Kingdom Keepers Insider like this: “I’m going to post a chapter every Sunday and a piece of the outline for the next week. The readers will come in and vote on things and give me suggestions and write fan fiction that I will actually clip right into the book. Then I will finish that next chapter and post it Sunday, and we’ll start the process over. So, in real time, the reader will be seeing what the book is going to be as I’m writing it and help me decide where it goes. Near the end, we’ll stop that and I’ll finish the book on my own … It’s really going to be a fun process.”
Pearson is embracing fan fiction, something many authors might not do, so we had to ask his thoughts on all the stories written by fans who are inspired to create their own stories with his characters.
“I haven’t experienced much of it because I didn’t want anyone coming back and suing me and saying, ‘Oh, that was my idea.’ But it’s a world that is so active in the Kingdom Keepers world. I have experts that I work with – high school juniors and seniors who are really well-read in the series – and they participate in all this and they are all part of KKI,” he said. “This software protects me, but allows people to write fan fiction within it that then I can use if I want. Everyone is happy.”
But hardly anyone is happy about the series drawing to a close, including Pearson. “I kind of wish it wasn’t, but I have always felt it should. I don’t like open-ended series,” he said. “I wanted to end this originally at five books, and Disney talked me into seven.”
For fans who dread April 2014, when the last "Kingdom Keepers" book will be released, Pearson offers some comfort -- there will be a second "Kingdom Keepers" series.
“We were debating something considerably different for the second series, and I think it won’t be all that different in a lot of ways because I’m having a hard time letting go of the characters and the readers polled are having a hard time letting go of it being about the [Disney] parks. They’ll be older. I hope it will be mostly the same characters and also set in the Disney parks,” he said.
“On my last book tour, I took a hand poll of what people wanted – the same characters or the same locations. It was weird because I expected it to go one way, but it was 50-50. I was going to take the same characters and move them overseas into kind of a different world -- more our world, but with the Overtaker world coming into our world. I haven’t started it yet. So we’ll just have to see.”
In the meantime, Pearson is poised to begin his national book tour for KK6 in April. “In ‘Kingdom Keepers 6,’ the Kingdom Keepers are halfway through a long cruise that’s going through the Panama Canal, and there are added Overtakers and there are some added helpers to the Kingdom Keepers. The stakes are much higher because of the Overtakers involved, and some really scary stuff happens that readers may not forgive me for,” Pearson said.
He may well find out when he visits 11 stops on his book tour, beginning April 2. Pearson will be back at Walt Disney World to meet fans and sign books toward the end of the run. He is scheduled to appear from 4 to 7 p.m. April 10 at Once Upon a Toy at Downtown Disney Marketplace and from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. April 11 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Admission is required to attend the theme-park signing. (You can read about last year's event on my previous blog post.)
A tip to fellow Kingdom Keepers fans: We have attended the Downtown Disney book signings for the last two years and readers line up well before the start time. Fans should expect the same as this popular series continues with the last two books.
Disney World, Disneyland to raise minimum age of unaccompanied kids in parks
In less than two weeks, kids and families may have to rethink some of their plans at Walt Disney World when a new admission policy goes into effect.
Guests who are younger than 14 years old will be required to be accompanied by another guest who is at least 14 years old. The new policy goes into effect on March 23, and it applies to all gated attractions at Disney Parks in the United States. That means it affects Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, DisneyQuest, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon, Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure.
Currently, The Walt Disney Company ticket policy states that only guests younger than 7 years old have to be accompanied by someone 14 or older. This policy clearly is outdated, and a revision makes sense.
My daughter is 8 years old, and I can't imagine allowing her to roam free at Walt Disney World -- and she knows the parks like her own backyard because we're locals with annual passes. Of course, my main concern is for her safety. Sure, Disney cast members are wonderfully helpful, but they can’t personally supervise everyone in the parks. An 8-year-old traveling solo or with another child is no match for someone who might do them harm.
Another concern is that children this young do not have the ability to make good decisions, and they may misjudge situations that can get them into hot water, such as taking safety risks at the water parks or going to parts of the park at which they are unfamiliar. Plus, 8-year-olds do not know how to handle money well, so keeping track of their spending money and feeding themselves in the parks can be challenging.
At age 8, my daughter does get some freedom in the Disney parks, such as going on an attraction while I wait at the exit. However, there is no way I would split up with her for an extended period in the same park, let alone leave her and go somewhere else. I feel the same way about my 10-year-old, who is very responsible.
I understand that this policy may be more disruptive for parents of kids who are 12 and 13, because they probably can handle the parks on their own, especially if they are familiar with Walt Disney World. Perhaps a better policy change would have been one that allows children 12 and older to enter the Disney Parks on their own.
Still, some may say that, like so many other decisions, this one should be determined by the parents. If parents think their children are mature enough to spend the day at a Disney theme park by themselves at age 8, then they should have that right, some would say. In our litigious society, though, The Walt Disney Company oftentimes will be held liable by those very same parents if something happens to their children.
How do you feel about the admission policy change, and how much freedom do you give your children at Walt Disney World?
Gardens of the World Tour returns during Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival
Beginning this week, gardening enthusiasts can experience a special guided tour during the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. Horticulturalists lead visitors on a walking journey through every country in World Showcase during the Gardens of the World Tour. This is the 20th year for the tour, which is only offered to the general public during the festival. I was among the guests on the first tour of this season.
After receiving our audio headsets, we began with an introduction to the landscaping practices at Walt Disney World. Our tour guide and Gardener Specialist Brenda Sandberg has been with the theme park for 6 years and began our tour by explaining the park’s pesticide use. Sandberg said that Epcot's 90 horticulturalists use weak pesticides in limited quantities for the safety of the animals and people who come in contact with the park’s many plants.
The helicopter bed
Walking through Future World, Brenda pointed out the unusual names of some of the flower beds. For example, the dominant, raised bed in front of Spaceship Earth at the front of the park is called the "helicopter bed" among cast members. The name came from an event the day before the grand opening of the park in 1982, when a helicopter hovered over the area to allow a photographer to shoot promotional photos. The wind generated from the rotor blades caused all the flowers to be blown out of the bed, leaving the horticulturalists scrambling to replant everything under a tight deadline. Anecdotes such as this one make the tour interesting for any Disney fan, not just avid gardeners.
Bromeliads near Mexico
Mexico's chiclet tree
As we made our way to World Showcase and traveled through the countries, we were treated to many details about the individual plantings. I was amazed by some of the subtleties I have never noticed in all my years of visiting Epcot. Did you know that the foliage around the Mexico pavilion is designed to include species from a rainforest? If you walk up the path on the right of the front of the pyramid, before the character meet-and-greet area, you will see everything from multicolored bromeliads to a chiclet tree.
China's subtle landscape
Japan's Koi pond
Can't tell the difference between the China and Japan pavilions? China has more natural landscaping and a more contemplative setting than Japan, whose water gardens are louder and flower colors bolder. Another fun fact: China's pond cannot stock Koi fish because birds of prey found the large open pond to be an easy buffet. Japan's layered and hidden ponds make a better home for the Koi fish because they are tucked away in a protective corner of the landscaping.
For many, this tour is an opportunity to find out how the gorgeous topiaries featured in the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival are nurtured and maintained. I had hoped we would go behind-the-scenes to see such demonstrations in a greenhouse, but most of this tour takes place in the guest areas of the theme park.
A free-form topiary
A standard topiary
We did learn that there are three types of topiaries at Disney World: free-form, standard and character. The free-form topiaries are, of course, ones where nature is allowed to take its course. Standard topiaries can take a decade or more to grow because plants at the base of a metal frame are trained to grow and cover the shape over time. Character topiaries are built using plant "plugs," which gives horticulturalists the ability to use a variety of materials. Also, the plugs allow the character topiaries to be rebuilt in a much quicker fashion than the others if plants are damaged or die. All three types of topiaries can be seen outside the United Kingdom pavilion.
The Gardens of the World Tour is designed for those ages 16 and older, and with good reason. It's really an educational tour with a lot of information presented over the course of a three-hour stroll throughout Epcot. My 8- and 10-year-old children would have been really bored if they had been allowed to participate. Plus, there is a lot of walking and standing. Our guide planned ample bathroom breaks during the tour, and some of those stops were at locations with water fountains. Be aware that unlike Epcot's Segway tours, though, this one does not provide bottles of water to its participants, so you may want to bring your own.
Exclusive tour pin
Those who complete the Gardens of the World Tour receive a collectible pin that is only available to participants. They also receive a festival poster, which sells for about $20 in the park's retail outlets. The tour, itself, is $60 plus tax per person, and discounts for Disney Visa cardholders, Disney World annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club members apply. Tours begin at 9 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursday and Fridays through May 17 and can be booked by calling 407-WDW-TOUR.
Fulfill your need for speed at Test Track 2.0 in Epcot
My family and I finally got to ride the new Test Track at Epcot last weekend, and -- though we all still enjoy the ride -- we're divided on whether we prefer the new version or the previous one.
For those who haven't read about Test Track 2.0 since it officially reopened on Dec. 6, the popular thrill ride was closed for more than half of 2012 while the inside of the attraction was re-imagined. Though the actual track for the cars remains the same, it feels altogether different with the new minimalist storyline, new futuristic imagery inside the attraction and new interactive concepts for guests to enjoy while waiting in line.
See for yourself with this Test Track ride-along video:
In the previous version of the attraction, which was sponsored by General Motors, guests were part of a storyline of testing cars by pushing them to extreme conditions, but it was in a more low-tech setting compared to the revised version today. Back then, guests were taken inside an industrial vehicle-testing laboratory filled with the loud clatter and pounding of mechanical testing devices that seemingly measured the structural designs of the cars and the safety afforded to crash-test dummies who rode in them.
Along the journey in the previous version, guests got a sense of how real passenger vehicles might be tested for braking ability or power over an inclined ramp, for example. Part of the transit also exposed guests to segments that suggested how cars and trucks are painted and exposed to extreme temperatures.
Of course, near the end of the route came a danger-avoidance steering thrill involving a semi-truck and, ultimately, the scream-provoking speed test in the open environment.
Now, though, guests enter the Chevrolet Design Center at Epcot, where they first design and then “digitally” road-test their so-called SimCars. The futuristic journey takes guests through dark sets illuminated with neon lights. Have we stepped off the grid? It sure feels like it, given the Tron-like imagery seen along the journey now.
The ride is just as physically thrilling as before (remember – it’s the same track as it always has been), but gone are the realistic Imagineering components that suggested that guests are in an actual vehicle-testing facility at General Motors. For realists like my husband, that diminished part of the fun of the attraction. He thought it was akin to riding the Expedition Everest coaster without the Himalayan mountain scenes or the Yeti.
He was impressed, however, with one new part of the revised attraction that all of us – and especially our kids – found to be creative fun.
We agreed that perhaps the best thing about Test Track 2.0 is the design studio, where visitors actually draw their dream vehicles on large-screen computers and customize their shape, color, accessories, speed and more. These virtual concept vehicles are simple enough to create with touch-screen options that even young kids can do it. If there are questions, a cast member is standing by to jump in and help.
My 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son really enjoyed this process and even wished we had more time during this part of our wait in line before boarding our cars on the track.
During another previous segment of our queue, we also got to use a touch-screen monitor to experiment with adjusting various aspects of vehicles to see how shape, power and various physical forces can affect a car’s performance. It is an intriguing concept but one that my 8- and 10-year-old kids struggled with to make it work effectively. And, unlike the interactive games offered in the queue of, say, Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom, the kids didn’t have their own individual workstations at which to experiment. So, as you might imagine, multiple kids would crowd the screen and push to jump in for their turn to play.
After guests disembark from their cars on the track, they do get to interact with other similar interactive games at individual stations, and most youngsters will find this enjoyable. Were we not in a race to make our next FastPass destination, we probably would have spent much more time in this area between the ride and the Test Track 2.0 gift shop.
Is the new version worth all the hype? Certainly. It’s still a fun attraction that will thrill your inner speed freak and, with the latest revision, even spark some creative fun, too, as you design your dream car.
But taking on the role of a crash-test dummy in the previous version of the attraction left quite an … well, impact on us, and we’ll always look back on that ride fondly, too.
Disney World's reworked Habit Heroes attraction opens
Habit Heroes, an exhibit at Epcot's Innoventions that teaches guests about healthy lifestyles, reopened on Friday. It soft-opened in February 2012 but quickly was closed after widespread criticism about the game's insensitivity to overweight children.
I did not see the first version of Habit Heroes, but from what I've read -- and now have seen -- the infrastructure of the exhibit remains the same. There are three separate rooms, each with an activity -- exercising with motion-tracking technology; a video game with pull-string devices to shoot targets on large screens; and a game that combines teamwork, technology and exercise.
The story and the focus, however, have changed. Childhood obesity is not the overall theme; instead, it's healthy living for everyone. And rather than entering a 100-year-old gym, visitors now prepare for a futuristic battle against the bad guys who contribute to unhealthy lifestyles: The Scorchers, whose goal is dehydration; The Zappers, who aim to distract people from being physically active; and The Blocker Bots, who block guests from getting the nutrients they need. Visitors learn to fight these villains with a different method in each room as they prepare to become Habit Heroes.
At the end, guests can choose a rubber bracelet representing each facet of healthy living: red for activity; green for nutrition; and blue for hydration. In addition, they each receive a map that leads them to a location near Innoventions East to discover a "secret code" that can be entered into the computer kiosks outside the exhibit.
When we received the maps, I thought it was a great way to wrap up the exhibit because scavenger hunts at Disney World, such as the Phineas and Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure, are so popular. We each took off on our missions, easily found the code words and returned, expecting to play a game on the screen. Instead, we punched in the codes and were asked for an email address so we could receive a link to a free app. That was disappointing. I wouldn't waste my time on the missions when my family could get in line for the Sum of All Thrills, a roller coaster simulator across from Habit Heroes.
Certainly this exhibit, which is sponsored by Florida Blue and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, is sending an important message to families, and it is delivered in a much more appropriate fashion than the first version.
But the exhibit really is not as engaging for kids, or even adults, as you might expect for a Walt Disney World attraction. The cast member who serves as a tour guide through the rooms repeatedly chants, "Now is the hour to build our power," which can seem forced. And, with the exception of the pull-string video game -- much like the insanely popular Toy Story Mania ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios -- there isn't much to get excited about with the first and last games in the attraction. Those games feature brightly colored video images and sound effects, but there’s little skill or strategy involved in the activities used to drive home the point about making healthy lifestyle choices. As any parent can attest, it’s hard to capture kids’ attention when you aren’t challenging them.
It is possible to design educational exhibits that also are entertaining; this is what Disney Imagineers are famous for. My children love other Innoventions attractions like The Great Piggy Bank Adventure, where they learn about spending and saving money; and the Where's The Fire?, where they learn about fire safety. And they were dismayed to see last year that Don't Waste It!, a game about recycling, was removed to make way for Habit Heroes. After experiencing the new exhibit, I have to agree with them. By creating only a so-so attraction about an important topic for families, the exhibit’s creators missed an opportunity to entertain AND teach.
The many great reasons to visit Disney World in January
In Orbitz's annual travel index, Orlando has been named as one of the "Sure Bets for Great Deals in 2013." This designation comes in large part due to the expansion of New Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom and great deals year-round at the Disney World hotels. So, in light of that news, let's take a look at why visiting Walt Disney World in January makes sense.
** As Orbitz mentioned and many theme-park fans know, some of the best deals can be found for Walt Disney Resort vacations because travel typically slows after the holidays. With the exception of New Year's, marathon and Martin Luther King Day weekends, the room rates are considered value prices. Pair that with an incentive deal, and a trip to Disney World may be within your budget. Disney recently announced an up to 30% resort discount for select dates, February - June.
** Because the kids have gone back to school, and it's not yet time for the staggered spring breaks, the crowds tend to be the lightest of the year in January. Sure, the parks may have shorter hours, but if your wait times are significantly reduced and you're able to experience all the attractions, that leaves you more time to explore the nightlife at Disney World outside the parks. Parents may want to book the kids club and have a night out to themselves.
** If your family believes there can never be too much Christmas magic, you may be in luck. Most holiday performances continue into the new year -- some for days and some for the week. And the Christmas decorations usually stay up through marathon weekend.
** Speaking of runners, the Walt Disney World Marathon -- a fun and prestigious race -- takes place in Orlando in January. But even if you are not a serious runner, that weekend can be a fun experience participating in shorter races, such as the family 5K, which can be walked. There are even races for kids, which means the whole family can start a new year of health and fitness together. With marathon weekend upon us (Jan. 12-14), the events are sold out for this year, but families still can have fun cheering on the runners.
** This week notwithstanding, Orlando's weather typically is cooler in January, lending itself to hot chocolate in the parks or beside a hotel's roaring fire while wearing those jeans and long sleeves. It's a nice change from the sweltering summer experience. Visitors also might find the campfires for roasting marshmallows at their deluxe hotels more palatable.
First-time visitors or guests who want to see specific attractions should be aware that because January is a slow period at Disney World, many refurbishments are scheduled then. Be sure to check the AllEars.Net list of closures if this is a concern for you. Ultimately, though, the tradeoff of missing a few attractions for better prices, fewer visitors and cooler weather may just be worth it.
Where to find healthy, tasty salads at Walt Disney World
It's January 1 and time for all those New Year's resolutions to kick in. For many of us, among our annual promises is one to eat healthier and/or lose weight.
Admittedly, this can be tough when you're visiting Walt Disney World. And, if this is your once-in-a-lifetime vacation, it's understandable that the calorie content of your meals and snacks is not your top priority. For some, though, eating well continues on vacation. It's always a bonus to get home and find you haven't gained weight, right?
Because I live in Orlando and am fortunate to visit The Most Magical Place on Earth frequently, I want to find foods that fit my dietary needs without feeling like I am being deprived while visiting a theme park with my family. For me, this means mostly quick-service foods with protein and a lot of vegetables, limiting the carbs and sugar. More often than not, I end up eating salads.
To that end, here are some of my favorite salads in the Disney parks that are available at counter-service restaurants (for the most part), are comparatively inexpensive, and are more interesting than a basic garden salad.
In the summer of 2011, Columbia Harbor House in Liberty Square at Magic Kingdom added several healthy dishes to a menu that was heavy on fried foods. That's when the Broccoli Peppercorn Salad was introduced to the menu, replacing the BLT salad.
Broccoli Peppercorn Salad
It contains mixed greens, garden vegetables (including peas, corn and carrots), chicken, broccoli, bacon and Parmesian tossed with a creamy Peppercorn dressing." What the Disney description doesn't tell you is that the grilled chicken also is served warm on the salad, and there is a generous amount of protein for the $8.19 price. I really love this salad and usually have it when I'm at Magic Kingdom. A bonus: Columbia Harbour House is located close to New Fantasyland.
If I am looking for tasty salad at a sit-down restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, I choose the Chicken Strawberry Salad at The Plaza restaurant. It contains fresh garden greens, grilled chicken breast, fresh strawberries, Gorgonzola cheese and is tossed in a white Zinfandel vinaigrette dressing for $14.99. It's also filling, which is key when you're limiting what you eat.
For many, a trip to Disney's Animal Kingdom is not complete without a meal at Flame Tree BBQ. The counter-service restaurant not only serves up delicious barbecue favorites, but it also has unique outdoor dining with terraces that overlook fountains, foliage and even Expedition Everest. (Many years ago, an open-air boat also shuttled Disney characters around the lake, and diners on the lowest terraces could exchange waves while dining. We miss that!)
Barbecued Chicken Salad
My longtime favorite here is, you guessed it, the Barbecued Chicken Salad for $7.79. However, the ingredients were changed last summer, and it doesn't have quite the same appeal for my taste. The thin slices of chicken still are coated with the restaurant's signature spice rub, but garbanzo and pinto beans have been added, as well as tortilla strips, to the salad. I liked the previous version better, but this still is a good option for healthy dining, in my opinion, and others might find it more tasty than I do.
Talk about making the tough choices! Forgoing all the great food at Epcot is not my favorite thing to do, but I have found a salad that makes healthy eating not quite as painful. Sunshine Seasons in Future World's The Land serves a Roasted Beets and Goat Cheese Salad with honey sherry dressing for $7.89. I don't care for beets, so I always ask if I may substitute grilled chicken, and my request has been honored. (Sometimes there is a charge for the additional protein, though some servers consider it an even trade.) This salad also contains a generous portion of nuts, which helps make it satisfying.
The Brown Derby at Hollywood Studios is known for its famous Cobb Salad, but I found this Disney theme park to be the most difficult in which to find a good salad at a counter-service restaurant. After experimenting with several salads -- including the Asian Salad (which has since been replaced) at ABC Commissary and the Fairfax Salad at Fairfax Fare -- I finally hit the jackpot at Backlot Express.
Cantaloupe and Cucumber Salad
This restaurant, located near the Jedi Training Academy and Star Tours, now offers two interesting salads, though only one has protein included. The Southwest Salad with Chicken includes mixed greens, crisp corn tortilla, black bean relish and cilantro vinaigrette with hefty chicken strips for $8.49. The Cantaloupe and Cucumber Salad offers chopped romaine, red onion, tomato, green peas and Zinfandel vinaigrette for $6.49. I prefer the Cantaloupe and Cucumber Salad, but it definitely is not as filling without some protein.
If you have a favorite salad, please tell us about it in the comments. We'd also love to hear your tips for eating healthy when you're visiting Walt Disney World.
Peek inside The Legend of Jack Sparrow before it officially opens at Disney's Hollywood Studios
The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, a new attraction at Disney's Hollywood Studios, is undergoing a soft opening ahead of its grand opening on Dec. 6. My family and I were able to cast off and experience the new attraction this past weekend and get a glimpse of Disney's beloved and rum-loving pirate.
Our wait for the show was about 30 minutes in a queue outside the soundstage that formerly was home to the Journey into Narnia attraction. This is not an interactive queue, like so many recent additions at Walt Disney World, so be prepared with something for the young kids to do to pass the time -- electronic games, coloring books or small toys usually will do the trick.
Because guests are admitted to the attraction in large groups, you'll want to keep your party together. There really is no reason to rush inside because you can see well enough from most spots. You first will enter a small room where a talking skull mounted high on the wall invites guests to join a pirate adventure.
Then, you'll walk into the main room, which is dominated by the centerpiece that is Captain Jack Sparrow's ship, the Black Pearl. The backdrop contains large screens that will feature most of the action in this theatrical production. The scene also is fully developed with three-dimensional pirate vignettes along the walls.
I wondered if we would be able to view actual props from "The Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, but so far there is no sign of that. The attraction does take guests through the four films of the popular franchise while they watch battles and key actions play out in front of them. And one lucky child is invited to participate in the show.
Perhaps the most surprising element in the eight-minute show is when Sparrow appears -- the high-definition projections make it hard to believe it's not an actor interacting with the audience. It really is that good.
Parents with young children should be aware that the theater does get quite dark and the action can be loud and scary, so it may not be appropriate for all ages. If your child does like Disney's pirate franchise, The Legend of Jack Sparrow offers a taste of the swashbuckling life at a theme park that previously did not have one.
To see a video of the attraction and more photos, click here.
Review: Dinner at Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland
At a recent passholder preview of New Fantasyland, my family and I were thrilled to discover Be Our Guest was open for dinner that evening. Reservations were being accepted outside the restaurant for that night only.
Cast members were accommodating when we asked to be seated in the West Wing. Because it's such a small dining room compared to the Ballroom, there are no promises made that guests will get a table there, but the hostess will take a request when you check in and are given a pager. The Ballroom and the West Wing are the only two dining rooms open for dinner.
Entering Be Our Guest for dinner was an entirely different experience than when we queued up for lunch. Our host led us directly through the great hall, where cast members lined the entrance to the Ballroom and wished us "Bon Appetit!" As we entered the Ballroom, it was obvious the lights had been dimmed, and the atmosphere was a little more formal. Tables were set with electric candles and red cloth napkins folded into the shape of roses. As we were led to the West Wing, we noticed that the food trolleys now lined the walls and were filled with desserts.
We chose the West Wing because we wanted to experience the thunderstorm and its effects on the Enchanted Rose and Beast portrait. (See my previous post for more details about the entertainment in the West Wing.) This, coupled with the fact that the doors to the kitchen exit into the West Wing, make this dining room louder than the Ballroom. That didn't bother us at all, but please be aware if you have young children or someone with hearing issues, this might not be the best spot for you to dine. (When my son was a toddler, the thunder at Rainforest Cafe really scared him.)
Once we were seated and perusing the menu, my husband and I were having difficulty narrowing our selections because everything sounded so delicious. My eight-year-old daughter, however, was struggling because she didn't see any of the traditional kid favorites and she can, at times, be a picky eater. (See the kids' dinner menu here.)
And there is the dilemma for some parents: Their little girls may be excited to step into Belle's world but disappointed when they can't fully enjoy the experience because the kids' menu is a little more grown-up than their palates. Our server handled the situation beautifully, though, when we explained the situation. She asked a chef to come to our table, and he was very helpful about finding a solution. In my daughter's case, he offered the baked au gratin macaroni that is usually served with the adult pork chop and paired it with French fries. My daughter was satisfied, and we were pleased about the restaurant's flexibility.
My son chose the thyme-scented pork rack chop with au gratin macaroni and seasonal vegetables and raved about it. My husband and I found it to be quite tasty, too, when we sampled the portion he was unable to finish. One caution: The pork was heavily seasoned with pepper.
My husband tried the pan-seared salmon on leek fondue, which was served with creamy saffron-crushed potatoes. The salmon was a moist and meaty serving of fish that flaked nicely on the fork. I had the grilled strip steak with garlic-herb butter, which was very flavorful and tender, and pommes frites. The portion was so large that I ended up sharing quite a bit with my husband, who certainly was not complaining. (See the full dinner menu here.)
Be Our Guest has an extensive wine list, which you can see here. Several imported beers are available as well. My husband tried 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 -- ouch!
Although Be Our Guest 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 but does include a photo package. The only price that really stunned me was the non-alcoholic drink. We saw plenty of diners, including children, sipping away, though.
Still, our dinner experience at Be Our Guest was outstanding. Our server was attentive to our needs, keeping our drinks and bread basket filled and plates cleared. She was knowledgeable about the menu, too. Of course, our favorite part of her service was when she rolled the dessert trolley to our table. Guests can choose a cupcake -- strawberry cream cheese, triple chocolate or lemon meringue (Belle's favorite) -- or a cream puff -- chocolate, passion fruit or lemon-raspberry. We all tried the triple chocolate cupcake, which was quite a sweet ending to an excellent dinner.
Review: Lunch at Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland
Did someone say, put our service to the test?
During a recent passholder preview of New Fantasyland, I was excited to find Be Our Guest open for lunch AND dinner. With Be Our Guest dinner reservations booked into March, this was a rare opportunity to dine at Magic Kingdom's newest restaurant. Given that each meal has a separate menu and different service, my family and I decided to dine there twice in the same day -- and we were happy we did. Today, I'll tell you about our lunch experience and then I'll be back with a separate blog post about dinner.
First, lunch is a step up from other Disney World counter service restaurants in that guests order their food and then it is brought to their tables by the waitstaff. No juggling trays, bags and kids at the same time! As we entered Beast's castle, we were directed into the Armory Room for a short wait. We were entertained there by the Suits of Armor who talk to each other and to guests. Plus, the lunch menu is displayed on waist-high screens for guests to peruse.
At the end of the hall, guests are greeted by a cast member at a podium who asks about the size of your party and hands your group a small red monitor with a rose motif on the top. It actually contains Disney's new RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology and allows cast members to identify you inside the castle, and most importantly, bring your lunch to the correct table. Rose in hand, you will be directed to a manned kiosk or unmanned touch screen to order, depending on your preferred method of payment.
Although we were directed to a manned kiosk, which would seem to cut down on ordering mistakes, we still ended up with problems with our children's meals. First, the cast member did not explain that kids have an option to substitute side dishes, and we missed the fine print. My daughter ordered the Mickey Meatloaf, which is served with broccoli and zucchini, and my son chose the slow-cooked pork with sauteed green beans and mashed sweet potatoes. Both would have preferred French fries with their meals.
Their meals also came with desserts, which the cast member did not enter into the system, and consequently, were never delivered. My son also never received his apple juice, and a server told him to pick something else from the beverage station, even though he wanted the juice. Clearly, there are some bugs that are being worked out by the staff as the restaurant prepares for its official opening.
Once our order was placed, we were free to choose a table in the Ballroom, West Wing or Rose Gallery. It was a tough choice, but we opted for the far end of the Ballroom, where we could see the "snow" falling outside the windows. Beautiful! We were invited to collect our silverware, which is metal and not the plastic that is typical of counter-service restaurants, and drinks from a station that included Coca-Cola products, coffee, hot chocolate and iced tea. Then, while we waited for our food, we toured the other rooms.
The centerpiece of the Rose Gallery is a large-scale replica of a music box made by Maurice and showing Belle and Beast dancing. The walls are decorated with portraits from the tale and other pieces of art. This is the only room with banquettes, if you prefer that type of seating. Also, the Rose Gallery only is open for lunch.
The West Wing is Beast's hideaway before Belle's love tamed him. It's dark and foreboding, and the furnishings appear to have been ravaged by Beast's frequent fits of anger. Thunder can be heard in this room, making it louder than the others. When the last petal on an Enchanted Rose drops and the thunderstorm is upon the room, a portrait of Belle's handsome prince changes to an image of Beast. (Read more about the design of restaurant from Imagineers here.) Photos will be included on my dinner review because we were seated in the West Wing.
Returning to the grand Ballroom, our food was being delivered via trolley after just a short time. My husband ordered the Quinoa, Shallot and Chive Salad, and I had the Vegetable Quiche, and we were pleased with the flavors of each meal. Both were served with baby lettuce coated with Champagne vinaigrette, which was fantastic. (This dressing is served on a side salad on the dinner menu, as well.) We found our lunch selections to be delicious.
Even with the problems with the kids' meals, we'd certainly give Be Our Guest another try for lunch. (See the full lunch menu here and here.) After all, our lunch experience was during a "dress rehearsal." Plus, our children were so engrossed in their surroundings that they even forgot that cupcakes were included with their meals. Other parents, I'm sure, can agree that's quite a testament to how much fun they were having in the imaginative surroundings.
Clang, Clang, Clang Goes the Trolley ... with seasonal Magic Kingdom shows
As my family and I made our way down Main Street, U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom a couple weeks ago, we saw the park's old-time trolley stopped and performers dancing on the pavement. There's nothing unusual about that, if you're in the Magic Kingdom before lunchtime.
What was different, though, was the music and the show itself. I expected to hear "The Trolley Song” (“Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley …”), but instead unfamiliar, less peppy music blared from the speakers. Apparently, with little fanfare, Walt Disney World introduced a fall trolley show -- and it may be one of several new seasonal trolley shows.
The new show featured two alternating songs: "Harvest Moon" at the first and third stops and "Autumn Leaves" at the second and fourth stops. (The trolley's current schedule has stops planned for 8:20, 9:15 and 10:10 a.m. and noon.)
The performances still featured the six couples, but in this Main Street Trolley Show, they were dedicated to the season with choreography that shows them mimicking falling leaves and kissing a scarecrow, while singing about the "magic of autumn." New costumes reflected the rich seasonal hues of orange, gold, brown, purple and green.
But with Main Street, U.S.A. now trimmed for the holidays, the Trolley Show changes again to its Christmas version. The performers don their green and red attire, the props are holiday-inspired and the trolley car is decorated with greenery, ornaments and bows.
This is one holiday performance that is included in regular admission to the park and cannot be found at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. In fact, those who enter Magic Kingdom in the afternoon will miss it.
Not so long ago, my husband and I -- both night owls -- would drag ourselves out of bed, pack up two small children and drive the 45 minutes from our home to Walt Disney World earlier than we are accustomed to because our son loved the Main Street Trolley Show. He won't admit it now, but he was fascinated by the performances and the unusual mode of transportation. (In between performances, the trolley ferries guests from one end of Main Street, U.S.A. to the other.)
My son's interest forced me to slow down and appreciate another layer of entertainment at Walt Disney World that I might otherwise have bypassed on my way to my favorite rides.
To read more about the Main Street Trolley Show and see a video that includes four camera angles of the traditional show, see Jack Spence's blog.
Taping of Orlando segments of Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade expected later this month
It may just be the start of November, but the folks at Walt Disney World and Disneyland are busy planning and taping segments for this year's Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade, which airs -- you guessed it! -- on Dec. 25.
Over the weekend, several musical acts performed at Disneyland for the ABC special. Lucky guests saw Ross Lynch from Disney Channel's "Austin & Ally" sing "Christmas Soul" on Main Street, U.S.A.; Backstreet Boys recorded "Christmas Time Again" in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle; and TobyMac took the castle stage to perform "Christmas This Year."
Mario Lopez is the Disneyland host, and Maria Menounos and Nick Cannon are rumored to anchor the Walt Disney World segments. The trio shared hosting duties last year, as well. Neither resort announces its lineup of performers or the taping schedule ahead of time.
However, the Christmas special traditionally is taped in California in early November and in Orlando the first weekend in December. That looks like the case again this year. According to an organization representing hundreds of student musicians and dancers scheduled to perform in the parade, taping will take place Friday, Nov. 30 and Saturday, Dec. 1. Sunday, Dec. 2 is earmarked as the rain date.
Typically the Friday date is dedicated to recording the featured musical acts performing in front of Cinderella Castle and on Main Street. Saturday focuses on the parade itself. Last year, though, Justin Bieber taped his song on the Castle stage early Saturday morning, likely to avoid crowds of park-goers.
For years, Walt Disney World invited various groups, such as passholders and sports volunteers -- and even the general public, to apply for free tickets to the tapings. In exchange, ticketholders agree to be in the audience for a block of time. Last year, only cast members were eligible for the tickets, and several Disney employees have indicated their registration already has begun 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 opens to the public at 8 a.m. on Nov. 30 and 9 a.m. on Dec. 1 and 2. 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.
A word of warning: This is an actual television production, which means that songs are sung multiple times and individual floats are sent down Main Street over and over again to get the correct camera angle. That means you most likely will spend more time waiting than viewing the events, and you shouldn’t expect to see a seamless concert or parade.
I speak from experience when I say this can be a tedious process when you have young children. If you're determined to take part, though, I'd suggest bringing plenty of snacks, drinks and electronics to occupy the kids during the wait. Still, it can be a unique opportunity. When else would my daughter stand feet away from Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers while they serenade the crowd with Christmas songs?
Epic Mickey sequels go on sale early at Disney World's Festival of the Masters
Fans of the best-selling Disney Epic Mickey Wii game can play the sequels at the upcoming Festival of the Masters at Downtown Disney and then purchase them more than a week before their United States release date.
Disney Interactive Studios again will host a booth at the free annual outdoor arts festival. The sequel to the Wii game, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, will be released on all console platforms on Nov. 18, but guests who stop by the booth will be able to play Epic Mickey 2 on Xbox, PlayStation 3 Move and Wii platforms.
Another sequel, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, is designed for Nintendo 3DS systems and also will be available for guests to test drive. It, too, will be released on Nov. 18. Experts will be on hand to help guests get the hang of the side-scrolling game that allows them to choose their journey. (To read more abut the games and my interview with Warren Spector, please see my previous story.)
And though the graphics in the Epic Mickey games certainly qualify as art, the booth will offer guests other ways to become immersed in the art of the Disney video games. Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who are the stars of the games, will be featured in an original painting by David Garibaldi, the performance artist.
Plus, Disney artists will be on hand to create complimentary character sketches for guests. When we visited the first booth in 2010, my son was thrilled to receive sketches of Mickey and Oswald. Our artist, Jason Peltz, was happy to discuss with us how he got his start as an artist, which was a wonderful bonus since my son has a strong interest in art, and certainly, all things Disney.
This year the artists will draw Mickey, Oswald, Gremlin Gus, Horace Horsecollar, Elliot (Pete’s Dragon), Lonesome Ghost, Clarabelle Cow, The Mad Doctor and Peg Leg Pete. Each guest may request one sketch.
At the first booth, we heard guests ask repeatedly about Epic Mickey-themed merchandise, but none was being sold. Disney listened and this year, fans can buy Oswald ear hats at nearby stores. Also, those who purchase any of the Epic Mickey sequels during the Festival of the Masters will receive a collector's pin of Mickey and Oswald.
The Epic Mickey booth will be located adjacent to Once Upon a Toy Store on the Marketplace side of Downtown Disney. It will be open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. November 9 and 10 and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. November 11. There no charge for admission or parking at Festival of the Masters.
EDITOR'S NOTE: You can also buy Epic Mickey games through the AllEars.Net Amazon store here.
What you should know if a hurricane threatens your Disney vacation
As a longtime Sunshine State resident who has survived 18 hurricane seasons, I really feel for East Coast residents and what they are facing because of Hurricane Sandy. It's frightening, to say the least, to see a massive storm slowly approaching your home.
For my husband and I -- and most of Central Florida -- the scariest events in recent years occurred in August and September 2004 when Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne passed over the Orlando area. Our son was almost 2 years old and I was 8 months pregnant with my daughter when Charley devastated our area, ripping roofs off homes, knocking power out for days, and stopping traffic with a forest of downed trees.
Two of those storms forced Walt Disney World to close its parks, which is a rare occurrence. Last year, Hurricane Irene neared Disney Cruise Lines' private island, Castaway Cay, and Sandy just hit it on the way to Atlantic City. So, what can guests expect when a hurricane threatens their Disney vacation?
First, when you are planning a trip to Port Canaveral or Orlando, know that hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30 -- half of each year. The peak months for storms are August and September.
If a hurricane warning is issued by the National Hurricane Center for the Orlando area or your place of residence no more than seven days before your arrival date at Walt Disney World, you can cancel or reschedule your Magic Your Way vacation without any fees imposed by Disney. This policy only applies to stays booked directly through Disney, and it doesn't guarantee you will receive any offers or discounts from your original booking. It also does not apply to dining experiences, special events, or sports and group packages.
Guests who book their trips through travel agents or tour operators will need to contact them directly for information about cancellation policies. This also is true for airlines, rental-car companies and other related services.
But what if you're already at Disney World? In 2004, the Disney World parks were open for half a day on the day Hurricane Charley was expected to make landfall. As you would expect, they were quite uncrowded. Then, guests were asked to hunker down in their hotels as the hurricane made a nighttime pass over Central Florida. Cast members worked to inform everyone what to expect, and even offered extra entertainment to pass the time indoors. The parks opened again in the morning, after what had to have been a very long night for maintenance crews working to clear debris.
AllEars' Anita Answer was staying at Saratoga Springs Resort when Hurricane Charley hit Orlando. Here is her account of that day.
Reader Barbara from Pennsylvania was staying at POP Century Resort during Hurricane Frances. You can read her report, too.
When a hurricane threatens Disney Cruise Line guests, there actually isn't much you can -- or should -- do. Ships have enough time to to steer clear of hurricanes. This may result in alternate ports or some rough waters, but passenger safety generally isn't an issue. Plus, at one week before departure, passengers will forfeit the entire cost of their cruises if they cancel. DCL may change the ship's departure date, as it did in 2004 when the three hurricanes affected Central Florida.
When Hurricanes Irene passed near Castaway Cay last year, it did damage the idyllic Bahamian island. Cleanup delayed one ship's visit by a day, but that was the only information DCL officials released. (There is a hurricane "bunker" on the island for permanent residents, I'm told.) Hurricane Frances also damaged the island.
Hurricane Sandy, though, passed directly over the island, last week, which presumably would cause more damage. Disney Cruise Line officials, though, have not released any details and typically prefer not to discuss damages. The next ship is scheduled to dock at Castaway today.
Perhaps the best advice from longtime travelers and travel agents is to purchase trip insurance for your Disney vacation. Be sure you understand what your policy coves when it comes to weather.
Save those Disney Dollars! New Fantasyland merchandise is in Magic Kingdom stores
For many Walt Disney World visitors, shopping for souvenirs is an integral part of the vacation experience. Who doesn't like to have a reminder of a special trip, especially to the Most Magical Place on Earth?
The hunt for that perfect T-shirt, cap or photo frame can be as enjoyable as the product itself with all the beautiful and creative merchandise displays that engage shoppers. The window displays at The Emporium in the Magic Kingdom and at World of Disney at Downtown Disney are certainly worth a pause as you rush by to the main attractions.
Recently, new merchandise has arrived in the Magic Kingdom to coordinate with the "dress rehearsal" for New Fantasyland attractions and the opening of Storybook Circus. If you have Belle and Beast, Little Mermaid or Dumbo fans at your house, start saving your money!
The new BonJour Village Gifts carries mostly Belle and Beast merchandise, which makes sense since it is located near Gaston's Tavern and Be Our Guest restaurant. There you'll find new Belle T-shirts for girls and women and Gaston's Tavern T-shirts for men, as you might expect.
Some of the more unusual items for sale, though, are the light-up castle goblets; gargoyle frames and candle holders; a Jim Shore statue of Belle; and a collection of dishes and stemware and pillows inspired by the Be Our Guest restaurant.
For younger guests, there are foam shields, swords and crowns -- in both girl and boy versions. So cute! Before the grand opening on Dec. 6, there is a limit of four per guest on some of the items, such as the dishes and frames. New merchandise continues to arrive in preparation for the big celebration.
Need a dinglehopper? You can find one for sale -- seriously! -- at Sir Mickey's, which is located behind Cinderella Castle. That gift shop now carries Ariel merchandise themed to the New Fantasyland ride, Under the Sea -- Journey of The Little Mermaid. The Disney Parks Blog recently revealed the new line, which also includes T-shirts for kids and women, hoodies, cups, mugs, dolls and plush characters.
Carla Lewandowski, senior franchise and brand manager with Disney Theme Park Merchandise, explained, "For this new assortment, we were inspired by the many colorful scenes found in the actual attraction. We really liked the scene with Sebastian and the undersea band, and you’ll see many moments from that scene on the new items.”
Moving into Storybook Circus, guests will find colorful displays of Dumbo merchandise when they enter Big Top Souvenirs across from the namesake attraction. It's mostly T-shirts, mugs, plates and plush that are themed to the new area of the park, and they are located at the entrance.
This store is huge and has a very wide assortment of merchandise. It even houses two embroidery stations for personalizing mouse ear hats and the center of the "tent" is a kitchen where delicious treats are made and sold.
Steven Miller, merchandise communications manager at Disney World, shared with me that some of the first items created for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which is set to open in 2014, will be pins in upcoming mystery pin sets.
Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and Ariel's Grotto soft open in Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland
My family and I were excited to find out that New Fantasyland was open to guests this past weekend as part of a "dress rehearsal" for its soft opening next month. Having already experienced Enchanted Tales with Belle, our family headed farther into the Magic Kingdom's new section to ride Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and the meet the star, Ariel, in her new grotto.
Those who have been to Disney California Adventure quickly will realize that the Florida version is almost identical to The Little Mermaid -- Ariel's Undersea Adventure on the inside. But the queue here has been greatly enhanced and is much more interactive. I have never ridden the California ride, so I'll be giving you a look at this attraction through a fresh perspective.
First, for repeat riders and those who don't care to experience the new queue, FastPasses are available for Journey of the Little Mermaid at the machines near Mickey's PhilharMagic. Fans of The Little Mermaid, though, will not want to miss the queue, at least the first time. The theming outside really immerses guests into Ariel's world -- from Prince Eric's castle to waterfalls over craggy rocks with starfish and shells everywhere you look. Be sure to look for Prince Eric’s boat and footprints in the sandy beach. It's beautiful, but be aware that it's hot in the Florida sun with little shade.
When the queue leads guests inside the oceanfront caverns, they can look forward not only to cooler temperatures, but also a fun game for all ages. Crabs are trying to sort out Ariel's collection of human objects. On multiple screens throughout the queue, a digital crab will bring out thingamabobs and show them to the guest. The crab will attempt to add each item to his pile because he doesn't know what goes together. The guest is asked to point to objects that don't match to help the crab correctly sort the whozits and whatzits that are part of Ariel’s treasure trove.
My elementary-school-age children definitely wanted to try this game, but it was frustrating when they pointed at the crab and he didn't react about half the time. I wondered if perhaps their height influenced the location of where they pointed, but a cast member I spoke with said the sensor is located overhead so that shouldn't be an issue. We did go through the queue twice to see if there was a learning curve with the game, but my kids had similar results each time. Perhaps that is something that will be addressed when the attraction is tweaked before its grand opening on Dec. 6.
Another highlight of the queue is an animatronic Scuttle, who talks to the crowd and engages in digital games of his own. Throughout the queue, various nautical set pieces help tell the story familiar to anyone who has seen “The Little Mermaid.”
Guests board the ride in clamshells that feel much like the Doom Buggies and their track at Haunted Mansion, with the ride vehicles traveling in half-circles to see various scenes from Ariel's life and even going backward down a ramp. When the vehicles perform this maneuver, digital bubbles are projected on the clamshell in front of the guest. Hold your breath! Combined with sounds of the sea, it's a clear indication you are traveling beneath the sea to experience Ariel's world.
The Little Mermaid's landscape is full of color, movement and song, and guests will journey through favorite scenes with familiar friends from the classic story. There's no avoiding Ursula, but in the end, Ariel (of course) still lives happily ever after with Prince Eric. (Ursula's scene is a short part in the ride, so parents of young children probably won't need to be too worried about the fright factor.)
Ariel fans will find beautiful photo opportunities in the outdoor queue and at the attraction's entrance, but they can meet the actual princess in her new grotto adjacent to the ride. That wait, though also themed, is not interactive, so it feels like an eternity with a daughter excited to see her favorite Disney Princess and a 10-year-old son who wants nothing to do with something so "girly."
Still, the actual meet-and-greet was efficient, though we were not rushed once we were inside with the princess. Only two families are allowed in the room at a time -- one is with Ariel and the other is next in line, getting ready. The entrance door is closed, which allows for a more private and quieter experience. Ariel is wearing her mermaid outfit again, now that her grotto has returned to Magic Kingdom. (She had been greeting guests in her human form in Adventureland during the construction of New Fantasyland.) There is a Disney PhotoPass photographer to capture the character interaction, and, as always, guests are allowed to use their own cameras, too.
Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and Ariel's Grotto are sure to be popular additions to Fantasyland. For fans of the classic Disney film, once they dive into this sea, they’ll long to be, part of Ariel’s world for many more visits.
A look back at discontinued Haunted Carriage Rides at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground
I was surprised, and disappointed, to learn that Walt Disney World has discontinued its seasonal Haunted Carriage Rides at Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. When we stayed in the cabins last fall, we took the ride for the first time and enjoyed the special Halloween experience. It was just the right amount of thrill, without being too scary, for our then-7-year-old and 9-year-old.
The reservations filled up quickly -- months before the October rides -- so it's curious that Disney would put a stop to something so popular. The only information the recreation department could offer was that an outside vendor runs this experience and it was their decision. Disney fans have speculated that the rides are being updated or moved to another location.
Haunted Carriage Rides were one of only two places on Disney World property that guests could see the Headless Horseman. (The other is at the start of Mickey's Boo To You! Halloween Parade during Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party.) He didn't appear right away at Fort Wilderness, though.
Guests began their adventure at the Blacksmith's Shop at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch, where four open carriages lined up on the half hour for a 25-minute journey. They headed out past Pioneer Hall and the Settlement Trading Post and into the woods. The driver started the telling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and then a recorded narrator picked up the tale, as the carriages traveled through the trees and along the shore of Bay Lake, stopping at key places mentioned in the story.
The shoreline was windy and the woods were dark for the later carriage rides, which added to the spooky atmosphere. My children understood that at some point, they likely would encounter the headless horseman, and they kept an eye out. When he did gallop alongside the carriage toward the end of the ride, they were surprised.
The Haunted Carriage Rides were $60, and each carriage held four adults or two adults and three children.
Regular carriage rides still are available at Fort Wilderness, and guests who book this are likely to see many elaborate Halloween decorations that campers traditionally put up around their campsites. The cost for the non-themed rides is $45 for the 25-minute trip.
Richard Petty Driving Experience at Walt Disney World offers great NASCAR fun for kids
A new experience at Walt Disney World puts children in the front seat of a real NASCAR vehicle with a professional driver and allows them to feel the thrill of racing. Recently, my 8-year-old daughter was quick to volunteer to try it, so she could discover the excitement for herself.
Junior Ride-Alongs debuted June 17 at the Richard Petty Driving Experience location at Walt Disney World Speedway. The experience is open to children ages 6 to 13 years who are at least 48 inches tall. It costs $59 plus tax for the three laps.
My daughter, who loves to ride Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and usually is game for just about anything, was a little nervous when we arrived at the track for her Junior Ride-Along. I think that had to do more with not knowing what to expect than with any anxiety about the speed of the car. You'll see how uncharacteristically serious she is at the start of the video below.
The check-in for all Richard Petty Driving Experiences is located at the infield, so guests drive under the track before parking in the center of the action. Once inside the building, parents will need to sign waivers for their participating children.
Then, it's time to suit up. My daughter was helped into a one-piece, long coverall to protect her from any parts of the car that may have heated up in the Florida sun. Next, we headed outside to pick up her other safety equipment. She was given a soft, knitted cap to go under the snug-fitting helmet, and a HANS (Head and Neck Support device) was fitted around her neck and attached to her helmet.
She looked like a professional before she ever got in the car!
With a little assistance, she slid into the car seat through the window. Watching her, I had flashbacks to "The Dukes of Hazard." Then she was buckled into a special five-point harness. Her seat was custom-built for this children's program by The Joie of Seating, which makes racing seats for professional drivers. Two of the 20 or so race cars at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the WDW Speedway are outfitted for children.
My daughter's friendly driver, Justin Simpson, was quick to explain that she could tell him each lap how she was feeling by giving him a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," and he would adjust his speed accordingly. Professional drivers typically go about 100 miles per hour for the Junior Ride-Alongs and up to 160 miles per hour for the adult ride-alongs.
Although she was apprehensive in the beginning, she soon was giving him multiple thumbs-ups as the car sped around the track. By the end of the ride, my daughter was grinning from ear to ear and asking to go again. The whole experience was complete in 20 minutes.
"[The Junior Ride-Alongs] are a great way for us to increase the Disney atmosphere and family experience at the track, and that's what we're all about," said Simpson, who also is the operations manager at Orlando's Richard Petty Driving Experience.
He explained that adding this experience for kids allows the whole family to participate in a sport they may follow together at home.
Fans who want to take home a souvenir of their once-in-a-lifetime experience can purchase a video like the one below for $49; photo plaques for $39 and $69; or a 5 x 7 photo in a themed folder for $17.50. Adult ride-alongs cost $99.
Reservations are not necessary for ride-alongs, which are available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Although the Walt Disney World Speedway is the only location to offer the Junior Ride-Alongs so far, the Daytona International Speedway is expected to start the program by early 2013.
For additional questions, visit DrivePetty.com or call 1-800-237-3889.
DISCLAIMER: My daughter was a guest of the Richard Petty Driving Experience. This did not influence my review, and my opinions are my own.
New Segway tour gives guests unique views of Epcot
I took my first-ever ride on a Segway through the crowds at Epcot this week, and I have to say, the prospect was a little daunting. I mean, how many guests can you clip before they expel you from the theme park?
Rest assured, though, that safety is a top priority at Walt Disney World, so cast members are not going to allow you to do anything too risky.
I was signed up to take Epcot's new "Keep Moving Forward: See the World, Share the Dream Segway Tour," which debuted on Sept. 17. This guided tour starts in Future World and then covers most of World Showcase in the three-hour experience. Beginning Sept. 28, times for the three-hour experience shift because of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival; you may start at 7:45, 8:30 and 9 a.m.
My fellow travelers and I met at Guest Relations inside the park, where we checked in, signed a waiver and were asked to select from two breakfast options, which would be ready for us after our training. The offerings include a full breakfast platter or lighter fare with a pastry and fruit, plus a beverage of your choice. I was very happy to see plenty of caffeinated options for my morning commute.
Afterward, it was time to head over to Innoventions West for our training. The seven of us first were fitted with helmets, and we listened to a cast member explain the basic operations of the Segway. Then, we had to face the thrill (or our fears, depending on how you look at it) and get on the two-wheeled vehicles.
The Segways really are not complicated to operate, but you do have to get used to balancing on a moving platform, which at first is harder than it looks. You ride forward by pressing your toes down and leaning your whole body ahead, and you stop by leaning back on your heels. (When you book this tour, the reservationist will tell you to wear flat-bottom shoes.)
Epcot's Segways are programmed to only go 6 miles per hour, so you're not going to be racing the monorail, but you still can get hurt if you're not paying full attention and remaining balanced. For this reason, guests riding on Segways are not allowed to have anything in their hands, such as cameras or cell phones, or any purses, backpacks or fanny packs on their bodies. There is a pouch attached to the front of the Segway where guests are asked to put such items, and the weight limit for them is 10 pounds.
During the practice session, we learned to propel ourselves backward and forward, go up and down ramps, duck under drooping tree branches, and even complete an obstacle course with cones. Not one of us fell off the Segways or crashed them into anything. Off to a good start!
Next, our tour guide led our parade of Segways out into Epcot and over to The Land pavilion for breakfast. It was exhilarating and at the same time nerve-wracking. Remember the first time you drove a car, and you worried about everything that could go wrong? I just knew some little princess was going to jump in front of my Segway and I wouldn't be able to stop in time. Of course, that never happened because the two guides with our group helped warn guests about our approach.
We rode our Segways "backstage" and parked by the door to The Land that is near the restrooms on the ground floor. We were taken to a reserved seating area and served the breakfasts we ordered. At first, I hoped we could skip the breakfast so we would have more time to ride, but I realized that after the practice, our legs and feet already were a bit stiff and sore and we needed a break. The previous Epcot tour did not include breakfast, though the price was the same.
About forty minutes later, our guide gave us headsets and we got ready to tour World Showcase. The headsets are another new addition and really worked well. They were small enough to be unobtrusive and they allowed the participants even at the back of the line to hear the guide. The tour itself takes about an hour, beginning at the Mexico pavilion and traveling around to Canada. The guide points out interesting historical facts and details about Walt Disney's plans for each country in World Showcase. In addition, the tour is designed to allow riders to test their newfound skills with such activities as "slaloming" through the columns in Italy, navigating the winding path through the miniature village in Germany and circling through The American Adventure gardens.
The guide takes everyone to one location for a quick stop and will take photos of guests on their Segways, if they wish. All too soon, it's time to return to Innoventions West and park the Segways.
"Keep Moving Forward: See the World, Share the Dream Segway Tour" is $99 plus tax. Annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club members will receive a 15 percent discount and Disney Visa Card members get a 20 percent discount.
This Segway tour is limited to those 16 and older. (Guardians must be present for ages 16 and 17.) Participants also must weigh between 100 and 250 pounds and are required to sign a waiver. To book, call (407) WDW-TOUR (939-8687).
An inside look at the exclusive Siemens VIP Center at Epcot
When you’ve walk underneath Spaceship Earth, you probably think you know all about what’s inside the structure that houses the geodesic sphere and the ride’s post-show attractions.
But there’s one area that isn’t seen by the vast majority of visitors to Epcot.
Today, I'm giving you a look inside the Siemens VIP Center, a place at Epcot not usually seen by most guests because it is reserved for Siemens employees and their customers. I was invited inside the exclusive space for a Disney Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion media event. (My interview with game creator Warren Spector and new details about the second wing of the 3DS game are coming Monday.)
The Siemens VIP Center is located above the post-show gaming area of Spaceship Earth, one of Walt Disney World's most recognized icons and one that Siemens sponsors. To access their lounge, employees use a special door inside the first-floor gaming area. Once inside, they enter a passcode they have been assigned on the company website prior to their visit, and doors open to a small lobby.
Here, guests will get their first glimpse of one of the defining elements of this private space -- the lighting. Siemens, a company that operates in 194 countries, owns lighting manufacturer Sylvania, and it's apparent in the LED displays in the downstairs lobby and in the main spaces on the second floor.
The color palette is infinite, said Director of Operations Jim McCaskill, and the system can be programmed to use a specific shade if it's needed. Typically, though, they stick to about a dozen colors.
"Blue is most popular for dinners and evening events. During the day, we run an orange in meetings because light orange works best for reflectivity when you're writing and working," McCaskill said. "Occasionally we'll do multiple colors or a sequence."
Employees and their guests can choose to take stairs or an elevator to the second floor, where they will be greeted by a receptionist and enter the open-area lounge. There, they can help themselves to complimentary beverages and even learn a little more about their company through interactive exhibits.
"Like anybody in a big company, you may just know your sector and may not really understand some of the others," he said.
One touch screen displays Siemens information, as well as park data, including the weather and wait times for attractions. Another uses facial recognition software from security systems to dress up the viewer in various disguises. That screen also allows the user to take a turn at programming the colors in a walkway on the floor that leads to the large meeting space.
This room, whose doors proclaim "Innovators at Work," is much larger and offers sweeping views of Epcot's Future World. When it's not being used for customer meetings, product launches or dinner parties 180 days a year, the meeting space also is open to Siemens employees.
"We have a very large contingent of Siemens employees in the Orlando area, in the energy sector out by UCF, and in addition to that, we have so many international travelers," McCaskill said.
Although Siemens employees and customers make up most of the guest list in the lounge, they are not the only ones who can take a break there.
"From Day 1, we have opened up the Siemens lounge to Give Kids The World (an Orlando charity that provides theme-park experiences for seriously ill children). Those families have a lot of challenges in the park, and sometimes they just need a quiet place to come and rest," he said.
Siemens also has started a new program this year in cooperation with Shades of Green, a Walt Disney World resort for military personnel. The company offers members of the Armed Forces passes to the lounge when they buy their discounted tickets at the resort. McCaskill said he sees about 25 military families visit every few days.
The Siemens VIP Center operates from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. In addition to Spaceship Earth, Siemens sponsors IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.
Tips for families attending Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party
My family has attended Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party every year for almost a decade, and although we have tweaked our touring plan for the evening as changes to the party come and go, it essentially remains the same. Here, I offer our tried-and-true strategies for maximizing fun for young kids during this year's five-hour party.
To begin, know that kids and adults alike will dress up in costumes for the party, so get planning! These can be as elaborate or simple as you like, but remember that because this is a family night, gory costumes and the like are not welcome. However, ingenuity is on display. We have seen so many clever Disney-themed costumes over the years -- from a Dole Whip to FASTPasses to entire families dressing as characters from a single movie. Our most attention-getting costume was one worn by our son who went as Ghost Mickey one year.
For the last two years, my own children have enjoyed having an afternoon makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and The Pirate's League. That means we have had a couple of princess and pirate costumes, which never go out of style at Disney World! Both salons stay open later than usual on Halloween party days to accommodate extra guests. The BBB was running pretty close to on-time this year, but we waited more than 30 minutes past our appointment time at The Pirate's League. Because of this, I would recommend giving yourself plenty of time in between reservations for either place and/or restaurants. And be sure to make reservations early because they tend to fill up quickly on party days.
That brings me to my next tip: Even though the party doesn't start until 7 p.m., the folks at the Magic Kingdom typically will allow you to enter before the actual party starts, usually between 4 and 4:30 p.m. You are not guaranteed early entry, but I have not heard of anyone being turned away during the last several years. If you already are in the park with a day pass, you can go to the front gate between 4 and 7 p.m. to show your tickets and get a wristband, which is required for the party. Cast members in party attire also will be stationed in several locations in the park, and you can visit them for wristbands as well.
We always go early, which gives us time to take a family picture in the Halloween photo spot on Main Street, U.S.A. and have dinner so we don't waste precious party time. One thing to be aware of, though, is that some restaurants close early on party days. And by that, I mean they close even before the 7 p.m. witching hour rolls around. We were surprised to find Columbia Harbor House closed at 5:15 p.m. last Friday. Be sure to take a look at Jack's blog for a list of which restaurants will open during Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party.
This year, one of the new party offerings is a Halloween card for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card game that debuted earlier this year. Even if you don't plan to play the game during the party -- and we didn't -- it's worth getting the special card since that's the only time it is offered. We saw folks lining up outside the Main Street fire station as early as 6:30 p.m. We got in what appeared to be a rather long line about 6:45 p.m., but it moved quickly, and we had our cards within 15 minutes. Cast members designated a separate line for guests who just wanted to pick up the card and not start a new game and that certainly helped. Know that you will need to have your Halloween Party admission tickets, which will be punched, to claim SotMK Halloween cards.
After that, the party was in full swing, and we headed off to visit the must-see characters and trick-or-treat. Many parents of little kids choose to see the first Mickey's Boo To You! Parade at 8:15 p.m., but it is jam-packed every year. Guests stake out their places more than an hour ahead of time. I certainly understand that little ones might not be awake for the 10:30 p.m. parade, and this is one that's not to be missed. For our family, however, it's more important to get out into the park.
We hit the treat trails -- one between Storybook Circus and Tomorrowland and the other near Splash Mountain -- so the kids can gather a bunch of candy quickly. There also are individual treat stations throughout the park. Cast members are generous when they put handfuls of candy in each bag, and, for those who have asked, there is plenty of chocolate and other yummy treats in those barrels. The thrill of actually trick-or-treating in the Magic Kingdom is one that doesn't lose its appeal in our house.
Once the candy stash has been established, we usually stop for any special character photos my children have requested. Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are wearing their Halloween costumes in the Town Square Theater. This year, Duffy the Disney Bear has moved from his photo spot adjacent to City Hall and can be found at the Liberty Belle boarding area in Frontierland. In his place, Phineas and Ferb are greeting guests at the prime location in Town Square. Captain Jack Sparrow is in Adventureland, and the Seven Dwarfs are near Splash Mountain. The Disney Villains will pose with guests after each Mix & Mingle dance show on the Castle Forecourt Stage.
We also usually take time to ride a few attractions because there is just about no wait. How can you resist a five-minute wait for Space Mountain and walking right on to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at night, even if you have been on both coasters more times than you can count? My daughter likes to visit the dance parties, as well, in Tomorrowland and Frontierland.
Then, our goal is to be back on Main Street, U.S.A. by 9:30 p.m. for the special Happy HalloWishes fireworks, followed by the Villians Mix & Mingle and then the second parade. When all that wraps up, we usually join the crowds and head out about 11 p.m. This year, though, my 8-year-old and 10-year-old got a second wind so we stayed until the bitter end, hitting a few more rides and candy spots.
A little bit of planning and strategy before you attend the Halloween festivity will go a long way toward helping you and your family enjoy all the party offers. Now isn’t that not so scary?
Periwinkle joins Tinker Bell in Winter Woods of Disney Fairies meet-and-greet
It's beginning to look a lot like winter in one corner of the Magic Kingdom. Tinker Bell's Magical Nook in Adventureland, home to meet-and-greets with the Disney Fairies, has taken on a sprinkling of snow and ice, along with the usual pixie dust.
The new environment has been created especially for frost fairy Periwinkle, who joined the character lineup at Walt Disney World on Sunday. Periwinkle makes her first appearance in the newest Disney Fairies direct-to-DVD movie, "Secret of the Wings," which will be released on Oct. 23. In the meantime, Periwinkle and her long-lost sister, Tinker Bell, are signing autographs and posing for photos with guests daily.
Much of the experience is unchanged from when it moved from the now-defunct Mickey's ToonTown Fair section of the theme park. The queue winds through the main room, where there is fairy art on display. It's interesting, but certainly not enough to capture little ones' attention for the duration. (Waits of 45 minutes are not unheard of at the Magical Nook.)
When guests reach the front of the queue, they are escorted around the corner to line up in front of the tall grass that frames the entrance-way. In the fairy room, the sets are designed on a large scale so that guests feel like they are the size of the fairies. It works, but I found the technique that was used in ToonTown more fun. There, guests walked down a long hallway where the scale changed from human-sized to pixie-sized before they entered the fairy room.
Still, once inside, guests will now feel as though they stepped into Pixie Hollow and Winter Woods, where Tinker Bell meets Periwinkle. Tinker Bell is wearing her winter costume, complete with long sleeves, tights and boots. Her wings light up, which fascinated my daughter, and they had a talk about how that happens.
Periwinkle's set looks more wintery, with blue and while elements, like her costume. There also are snow drifts and powder on the trees, and the lighting helps set the tone for a few shivers.
Disney World officials plan to change the Magical Nook sets and fairies seasonally, a Disney spokeswoman told me. Periwinkle is expected to be available for the winter season, and no end date has been announced so far.
On a related note, I'm told that Disney World will not host complimentary screenings of "Secret of the Wings," as it had with other movies in the Tinker Bell series. For several years, passholders were invited to sign up to preview the movie on a large screen inside one of the theme parks.
Sneak peek: New Fantasyland's Enchanted Tales with Belle
Guests who were disappointed when "Storytime With Belle" in the Fairytale Garden was discontinued have a lot to look forward to when its replacement officially debuts on Dec. 6 in the Magic Kingdom.
Enchanted Tales with Belle, part of New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World, was open to guests during select times this past week while cast members tested the new interactive experience. This marked the first time that guests were invited beyond the new castle walls, and we were fortunate to be offered the opportunity to take a first look at the new attraction.
After passing under the archway, my children and I walked through winding paths, eventually lining up in front of the cottage of Maurice, Belle's father. The top of Beast's castle is visible high up the mountain in the background, giving guests the impression they have stepped right into the story, Beauty and the Beast. (The Beast's castle will house Be Our Guest restaurant, which opens Nov. 19.)
While in line, guests will notice many clever details, including a well, lanterns, wooden buckets, a wheelbarrow, wagon wheels and even chairs built into the walls of the queue. Cast members dressed as townspeople greet visitors along the way. There is a FASTpass entrance, though cast members I spoke to weren't sure where the ticket distribution will be located.
Guests enter Maurice's cottage in the main room where they will see a cozy fireplace, stacks of books everywhere -- Belle does live here, after all -- and even a portrait of Belle as a young girl with her mother. Belle's mother never is mentioned in the story, so it's wonderful to see what she looks like. (Guests using FASTpasses will skip this room, I'm told.)
From the hearth, guests are admitted to Maurice's workshop in groups of about 45, according to a cast member. This area has even more detailed theming, giving guests plenty to study while they wait in front of the magic mirror. Maurice's drawing board and sketches are evident, his tools are scattered throughout the space, and his creations are perched on shelves and hanging from the ceiling.
Then the cast member announces, "Take me back to the day Belle and Beast fell in love." The lights dim, and the mirror that Beast is said to have given Maurice undergoes an amazing transformation and becomes a magic portal into Beast's castle. What appears to be a solid wall is now an entranceway into a room where Wardrobe awaits the group. A cast member explains that children and adults alike are invited to play parts in the retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which will be a surprise for Belle.
A talking Wardrobe interacts with the group as the cast member hands out props and selects participants for the reenactment. The great thing about this experience is that there appears to be enough parts for every child in the room, so no one who wants to participate will be left out. Encourage your child to volunteer because the payoff with Belle is worth it. (More on that to come.) There are certain character roles that are filled each time -- Beast, Suits of Armor, Mrs. Potts and Chip, Dungeon Bars, Footstool, Horse, Laughing Frames. We also saw Plate and Silverware used.
Once the parts are assigned, the actors and the rest of the group are led into one of two identical libraries. (Of course, you're not supposed to know there are two libraries, but we went through Enchanted Tales with Belle twice and happened to get the different rooms. My children are old enough to notice everything was opposite what they had just seen. Not to worry, though, because we all know they need two rooms to get all the guests in place and then Belle can go back and forth between the libraries more quickly.)
In the library, Lumiere directs the audience to sit on benches while the actors are moved to the front of the room. The lights are dimmed, so everyone can yell, "Surprise!" when Belle enters the room. Then, cast members help the guest actors deliver their simple lines to Belle. The experience is interactive for the audience, as well, when guests are invited to howl with the wind, shiver in the dungeon and gallop with a horse. Belle then leads the actors around the room to the peppy song, "Be Our Guest."
The play concludes when Belle dances with the guest portraying Beast. The first boy we saw in this role was very young and sweet as Beast. The second was older and easily embarrassed, which gave the audience a chuckle. My 8-year-old daughter portrayed Footstool and Horse on different visits and enjoyed every minute. Being a little more reserved, my 10-year-old son chose to just watch. He was amazed by the magic portal, but not as interested in a Disney Princess experience.
Afterward, cast members introduce each member of the "production," and Belle presents them with bookmarks. As Lumiere says, the token "is in appreciation to mark the occasion." A Disney PhotoPass photographer takes posed photos of Belle with each individual actor (and also captures action shots during the experience.) On the way out, guests are given special Enchanted Tales-themed PhotoPass cards so they can see all the images from their specific session.
Our wait time for Enchanted Tales with Belle was about 25 minutes, but it's sure to be longer when the attraction officially opens and word spreads about how truly magical the experience is.
New Phineas and Ferb interactive experience opens at Downtown Disney
Phineas and Ferb, characters from the Disney Channel hit show, are turning up in yet another spot at Walt Disney World. Now, guests don't even have to go into the theme parks to meet up with the animated versions of the duo and their counterparts Dr. Doofenshmirtz and Agent P.
Phineas and Ferb & YOU: A Brand New Reality is a virtual experience set up adjacent to Bongos Cuban Cafe on the West Side of Downtown Disney. Guests queue up in a themed area, and when their turns arrive, they step into a fenced area to interact with the characters on a large screen before having their photos taken.
There are 20 different pre-programmed scenarios, including dancing “The Platypus Walk” to getting caught in Dr. Doof’s Freeze-inator. My daughter had the honor of "pushing" Perry the Platypus (Agent P) in a stroller. Cast members help position each guest in the photo area to compose the image, which then can be retrieved and shared online afterward.
Each experience at Phineas and Ferb & YOU: A Brand New Reality lasts only a couple minutes, which keeps the line moving and the wait down. It's so simple that guests of all ages can have fun participating, and it's free. Clearly this is not a complex attraction, but it is great for killing time while guests are waiting for dinner or a movie nearby. And, of course, a Phineas and Ferb merchandise cart has been set up in front of the experience.
Phineas and Ferb & YOU is open from 2 to 9:30 p.m. daily through December 1. If you’re looking for a more three-dimensional experience with the characters, the pair actually meets guests daily at Hollywood Studios near the exit to Muppet Vision 3D. Also, guests also can find Perry and Dr. Doofenshmirtz at Agent P's World Showcase Adventure at Epcot, which opened this summer. (To read my review of the new Epcot attraction, please click here.)
Expect to see a lot more of Phineas, Ferb, Perry and others from the hit Disney Channel animated series in the days ahead. After all, they will appear in their first feature-length, 3-D movie next summer. Various web reports have stated that, though the characters will be animated, the film will be a live-action theatrical release and that it, like the TV series, will feature musical numbers.
2012 Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party - What's new and different!
Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party at Disney World's Magic Kingdom will have a few new treats for guests this year.
Last year, Mickey's Toon Town Fair was closed during the September and October party dates, which cut down on the square footage of the party and forced the relocation of some treat stations. But what a difference a year makes. With the opening of Storybook Circus in the same location comes the return of Alice & Mad Hatter's Treat Party between Storybook Circus and Tomorrowland. The Alice in Wonderland-themed walkway contains cool, lighted decorations and enough candy to satisfy any sweet tooth.
In addition, there will be a candy stop near the Fantasyland train station, and the Dumbo the Flying Elephant and The Barnstormer attractions in Storybook Circus will be open during the party, a Walt Disney World spokesperson told me. The twin Dumbo carousels are especially beautiful at night with their lights and water shows.
Last year, Br’er Rabbit’s Laughin' Place Candy Patch was added near Splash Mountain in Frontierland and it will remain again this year. This treat trail also is well-themed, as you would expect from Disney, with jack-o-lanterns featuring "Song of the South" characters. The queue did seem to back up more quickly here than the Alice & Mad Hatter's Treat Party.
The balloons marking the candy stations will have a new look this year -- lighted Mickey pumpkins will take Goofy Candy Company's place.
Disney planners hope to make the wait for Mickey's Boo to You! Halloween Parade more pleasant for guests by adding some pre-show entertainment on Main Street, USA, and in Town Square that will include music and "streetmosphere." Guests will be invited to join a line dance during the Not-So-Scary Street Jam! The featured song will be “Calling All the Monsters” by China Anne McClain.
Here's a look at the dance steps, if you want to practice so you're a pro on party night:
The Boo To You! parade, which is performed twice each night, is one of the highlights of the party and guests typically stake out their spots for the first time more than an hour before it starts. The parade features characters only seen during this event, such as ghosts and gravediggers from the Haunted Mansion, and it starts with a the Headless Horseman galloping by.
Other party favorites will return, including the Happy HalloWishes fireworks show, The Villains Mix & Mingle stage show, dance parties and meet--and-greets with rarely seen Disney characters. I'll be attending Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party the first week and bringing parents tips for making the most out of their haunted night with the kids.
Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party takes place from 7 p.m. to midnight September 11, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28, 30; October 4, 5, 8, 11, 12, 14, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25, 26, 28, 30, 31; and November 2. Prices vary depending on date, time of purchase and discounts. For complete ticket details, see the AllEars.Net information page.
First look: 2012 Halloween costumes and merchandise at Disney World
Parents everywhere just finished shopping for clothes and supplies associated with a new school year, and already the store shelves are starting to show signs of the next retail opportunity -- um, holiday -- Halloween.
Is it too soon to start planning Halloween costumes and parties?
Maybe for some parents, but if you're someone who enjoys sewing it's understandable that you need to start now on your handmade creations. And if you have more than one costume to whip up, you certainly need the extra time. Or, perhaps, you need to spread out the cost of multiple costumes, so starting the shopping early helps with the budget.
And then there are those of us who just love the excitement of the holiday and aren't bothered by the extended retail season. I really dislike seeing Christmas merchandise before Halloween, but I don't mind the orange and black before there's even a hint of coolness in the air. Strange, huh?
Recently, we noticed some of the first kids' Halloween costumes have made their way into stores on Disney World property. The resort regularly stocks Disney princess dresses, including that of the newest addition to the royal family, Merida from Disney-Pixar's Brave. (To read more about where to find Merida gowns for girls of all ages, please see my previous blog post.)
Pirate costumes for both boys and girls also are a staple, and the widest selection can be found in the gift shop adjacent to A Pirate's League and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Magic Kingdom. There are two boys' outfits -- Captain Jack Sparrow and Will Turner -- and one generic Disney pink pirate costume for girls, as well as many T-shirts and accessories to create your own look.
At Disney's Hollywood Studios, we recently saw a kids' furry Perry the Platypus costume that was adorable. With this costume, only your child's face would escape the blue and orange of Agent P.
Also at the Studios, we spotted the new 2012 Halloween Minnie Mouse costume, and Mickey's girl is taking on a more traditional look. For the last few years, Minnie's costume sold at Disney Parks was orange and purple. This year, it is orange and black polka dots with green trim and a Minnie Mouse cameo on the neckline. Although the coordinating hat wasn't in the store we visited, it is already online at DisneyStore.com.
So far, we spied two new designs on Walt Disney World treat sacks for this year. The iconic glow-in-the-dark pumpkin Mickey bucket wasn't yet available, but it, too, is already online at DisneyStore.com.
New this year: a green Haunted Mansion Mickey Mouse lantern and orange door hanger. And, of course, the Halloween Mickey and Minnie plush have been updated with their new costumes.
You can bet Disney World retail locations will have more choices for Halloween costumes as the holiday approaches. Be sure to let us know if you've seen something new for 2012's Fright Night.
What families need to know about free Wi-Fi at Disney World's Magic Kingdom
Finally! Walt Disney World has responded to the requests of so many guests who, like me, are tethered to their electronic devices. Earlier this month, free Wi-Fi became available at the Magic Kingdom.
For those of us who rely on Internet service with our smart phones and tablets, this could mean a boost in the ability to upload photos, videos and other dense data. Who doesn't want to share their memories in the making while they're visiting the Mouse? It's hard to resist in this era of constant status updates and tweets.
Be aware, though, that the new Disney Wi-Fi is not a guarantee of better connectivity because the bandwidth that's available depends on the number of users in your corner of the theme park. It does seem to help, though. On a recent visit to Storybook Circus, my family found the upload speeds to be slow in the crowded Casey Jr. area. On past visits, though, we often couldn't connect at all with our cellular service until we walked away from the splash pad and closer to the Dumbo The Flying Elephant attraction.
For my family, perhaps the best thing about the free Wi-Fi is that it allows my husband and I to better keep in touch with our kids by texting them on their iPods, which need Wi-Fi for texting. We don't think they need smart phones at their ages, but they are getting old enough to venture out from us in small ways, such as going to a nearby bathroom or kiosk, and it's comforting to have a way to contact them. (I realize many parents would not allow their children out of their sight at the busy Disney theme park, but my children have grown up there and know the lay of the land.)
Texting doesn't take a lot of bandwidth, of course, so its functionality is more reliable than than that of uploading photos or video chatting, for example. Being able to use the free Wi-Fi at the Magic Kingdom gives our family another communication tool and my husband and I some peace of mind.
Walt Disney World has said it expects to offer free Wi-Fi at Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and Downtown Disney by early 2013. All Disney World hotels have been upgraded to offer the complimentary Internet service.
If so, you might be a parent or grandparent who wants to surprise the special child in your life with the news that your family is going on a Disney cruise, to Walt Disney World or another Disney theme park. There are so many fun and easy ways to deliver this one-of-a-kind message. It's really just a matter of choosing what works best for your family.
Since my family and I live in Orlando and are fortunate to have Disney World annual passes, there’s little surprise in showing up there. But boarding a DCL cruise ship remains a very special occasion. Before my children, then ages 7 and 5, stepped onto the Disney Wonder for our first family cruise a few years ago, I knew I wanted to completely surprise them with the news. I began gathering items in preparation for the big reveal, which would be a themed family lunch and movie.
First, I ordered the Disney Cruise Line planning video, which is free. (This takes several weeks to arrive, so order early, if possible.) Next, I looked on eBay for kids' pirate costumes for Pirates IN the Caribbean night on the Wonder. I knew my daughter would want to dress up. My son was going through a phase where he thought dressing up was for kids younger than him, so we got him a cool Mickey pirate T-shirt.
Then, I made a trip to one of the Walt Disney World outlet stores in the Orlando area to scope out the DCL merchandise. These stores carry theme-park quality merchandise that has been discontinued or overstocked, and prices are routinely 40 to 50 percent off. I found some cruise T-shirts, photo albums and trinkets. (Back then, the outlets were the only places on land that guests could purchase DCL merchandise. Now, a nice selection is available on DisneyStore.com.)
So, while their dad took them to soccer practice, I transformed the kitchen table into a party scene with all my goodies. When they came home for lunch, they were stunned to see everything and knew what it all meant. We had a fun lunch, discussing what we were all looking forward to, and afterward we watched the planning DVD. Parents with an interest in cooking could also make a recipe or two that is served on the ship. (Be sure to check out the AllEars.Net index of hundreds of official recipes from Disney Cruise Line and Walt Disney World.)
When we broke the news that we would set sail on the Disney Dream last year, we drove the kids out to Port Canaveral. They didn't find this unusual because we have been going to nearby Jetty Park beach for years. But instead of entering the state park, we pulled into a channel-side parking lot where we could see the ship and share our news. Afterward, we went to lunch and again discussed the upcoming trip. Every other sentence in that conversation contained the word "AquaDuck!"
For our family, the anticipation of the trip is a big part of the fun, so we like to have time to plan and dream about what's to come. Some parents, however, revel in the awe they see when their kids realize they are not going to Grandma's house and instead are about to land in Orlando. For those folks, the trick is not in planning a reveal but in being able to keep the secret a lot longer.
Recently, my parents, who live in another state, used a video call to tell all the grandkids that their Christmas present will be a cruise on the Disney Fantasy in December. I tried to persuade them to wear their snorkel gear for the big announcement, but my parents didn’t need any special props to excite the kids for what awaits.
Have a creative way to share the news of an upcoming Disney vacation? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.
Tips for helping your kids start pin trading at Disney World
My son and daughter have been trading pins at Walt Disney World for almost four years now and the excitement of it hasn't dulled. As a parent, I think it's a fun hobby for them, and it adds a bit of excitement to our trips into the theme parks. I'd like to share a few tips we've learned along the way, in case pin-trading is something you're considering.
First, be aware that Disney does have some basic rules for pin trading:
** Teach your child to ask to view a cast member's pins. Do not grab at lanyards.
** Pins must be metal and represent a Disney event, character, location or icon, and be in good condition.
** There is a limit of two trades per guest with the same cast member.
** No money can be involved in the trade.
** Cast members with green lanyards can only trade with kids ages 3 to 12.
Allowing your child to approach the cast member while you listen is a great way for them to learn and practice social interaction skills in a safe, controlled environment.
The start-up costs for pin-trading may seem expensive if you're buying for more than one child. This activity certainly can be pricey for the serious collectors. But if you're just trading for fun, there are some ways to lower expenses.
First, you'll need something to display your pins. Many guests choose lanyards, which typically are the least-expensive option. You can purchase them in just about any Disney World gift ship, or perhaps you already received some as part of a Disney promotion. For example, Disney Cruise Line gives lanyards to returning cruisers and Disney World passholders received them one year as well. Another option is a soft album, and these come in various sizes and prices. The smaller ones actually have straps and can be worn as a bag or purse.
My children have multiple lanyards -- one for pins they want to save and one for pins they are willing to trade. After losing a few pins that were near-and-dear to their hearts, we invested in the locking backs -- about $10 for 10 backs. Now, though, I almost wish we had bought the more expensive album-type bags because I think they would allow easier access to the pins -- no locking backs needed -- and there would be less opportunity for loss because of the zippered closure.
The other big expense is the pins themselves. Pins in the parks start at about $7 and increase in price. This can add up quickly if you want to give your child a handful to get started. You can purchase a starter set, which contains several pins and a lanyard. Those prices begin at about $30.
But, if you're not picky about the design, many guests recommend purchasing pins on eBay for the best deal. Typically those lots contain anywhere from 25 to 100 pins, making the average cost less than a dollar per pin. Don't need 100 pins? Perhaps you can split the lot with friends. Be aware, however, that some of these sellers are offering scrappers, which are pins not authorized by Disney and cannot be traded on property.
Guests who are really into pin trading look forward to an annual event at Epcot that is just for them. This year's "Disney Trade Celebration 2012 - Mickey's Circus" takes place from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on September 7 and 8. Event admission is $120 per person plus Epcot admission, and registration has opened. For all the details, check out here.
Also, Downtown Disney Marketplace's Disney's Pin Traders is continuing to host monthly events with Disney Design Group artists. Artist Adrianne Draude, who is behind the creation of a number of Walt Disney World pins, will be meeting with fans and signing pins from 5 to 7 p.m. on July 27, August 10, and September 28. (Be sure to subscribe to the AllEars.Net newsletter for all the latest news of special pin-trading events.)
Disney spends millions on Club Penguin Internet safety campaign for kids
Although it doesn't feature the traditional Fab Five, Club Penguin is one of The Walt Disney Company's wildly popular products. In fact, since Disney acquired the online game in 2007, it has grown to be one of the largest virtual worlds for children, with 175 million accounts worldwide, according to some sources. Because of its reach, Club Penguin is taking a leadership role in promoting and ensuring online safety for kids, its co-founder recently said.
For those who don't have a child (or two) obsessed with Club Penguin like I do, allow me to introduce you to the puffles and their penguin owners who live on Club Penguin Island. First, Club Penguin offers two types of accounts -- free and paid. Users who pay the monthly rate of $7.95 have more access and more options, of course. (If you buy time in blocks, there is a discount: $39.95 for six months and $59.95 for a year.) To hear my kids tell it, you HAVE to have a paid account to do the fun stuff, so that's why they save their money to continue their memberships.
Club Penguin is like many other virtual worlds in that users play games to earn a currency to feather their nests and dress their players. In this case, penguins earn coins that they can use to purchase clothing for themselves, hats for their puffles and decorations for their igloos. Physical coins with online codes are attached to plush puffles and penguins and play sets sold in stores, and these unlock bonus items, such as extra puffles or clothes. The big Walt Disney World theme park gift shops and Once Upon a Toy at Downtown Disney carry the plush puffles, backpack clips and books. You can also find merchandise, including gift cards, at retailers such as Target and Toys R Us.
Club Penguin is 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 gain access into each other's igloos and can interact in other ways, such as messaging. This makes the game more interesting, but it is easy to see how it can open the door for abuse if proper controls are not in place.
"From the very start, our vision for Club Penguin was to create a safe place for my kids and their friends to play online. The scale may now be bigger than I could ever have imagined but that philosophy has not changed," said Club Penguin co-founder Lane Merrifield and now executive vice president of Disney Online Studios in his recent keynote speech at the Children's Media Conference, a U.K. industry meeting held earlier this month.
The urgency of ensuring a safe online playground has been brought to public attention again after moderators of a competing game, Habbo Hotel, have been accused in a British television report of allowing pedophiles to use the game to communicate with children. In response, Disney is spending $4.5 million on an Internet safety campaign with advertising on television, websites, magazines, and within Club Penguin and its other virtual worlds.
Safety aside, the game is designed for fun. And Club Penguin continues to introduce new content and ties to other Disney characters. Beginning July 19, penguins dressed as the lead characters from Disney Channel's "Shake It Up" -- Cece and Rocky -- will host an Ultimate Jam music party on the virtual island. This parallels the current dance-off, Make Your Mark Ultimate Jam, being promoted on Disney Channel, in which the winner will appear on "Shake It Up."
Merrifield also talked about the future of children's media, saying: "As the boundaries of platforms are disappearing, and new methods of storytelling are emerging… I believe that storytellers of the future will need to be able to think three-dimensionally about their characters and story arcs.
"If a child chooses to engage on a mobile device or through toys, their experience can be similar or different to a friend who chooses to use other platforms to engage with the story… It becomes the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure."
Disney World's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique offers Merida makeover
Through July 28, both Walt Disney World locations of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique are offering a special makeover -- The Merida Package -- in honor of the star of Disney-Pixar's "Brave." This magical makeover includes a fiery and curly Merida wig, shimmering makeup, face gems, princess sash and princess tote bag for $54.95.
Essentially, this is the Coach package with the wig substituted for an up-do. (The wig sells for about $18 in the Magic Kingdom's Emporium and the cart outside the Merida meet-and-greet if you want to purchase it separately.) One little girl we met had been to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and selected the Disney Diva hairstyle with a red hairpiece instead of the wig to pair with her Merida dress. This is a great option for when The Merida Package ends or for those who think a wig might be too hot in the Florida summer heat.
My daughter chose the Disney Diva hairstyle during her visit to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in the fall and loved it. I have been impressed with the durability of the hairpiece, which my daughter and even her American Girl doll have worn several times since then. (You can read more about our experiences at the Bibiddi Bobiddi Boutique in a previous blog post.)
Girls who select The Merida Package can have their nails painted for an additional $5, and they keep the two bottles of royal nail polish afterward. Princesses-to-be also can opt to purchase the Merida dress and crown at the Bibiddi Bobiddi Boutique at an added cost. However, little girls also are welcome to wear or bring their own Merida gowns and accessories to the salon, which can save their Fairy Godmothers a bundle.
The Disney Store, with locations in malls across the country and an online presence, sells the same green Merida gown you will find in the Disney Parks for about $15 less ($65 versus $50), though the wig is comparable in price. In addition, Disney Store sells Merida's blue formal games dress for the same price as the green version, her gladiator sandals for $16.50 and a light-up wand for $10.50; none of these are available in the theme parks. (One caveat is that the sandals only go up to size 2/3.)
If you're looking for less expensive options, try Target or Toys R Us, which both sell complete Merida costumes. Toys R Us carries a blue dress and a green dress for $24.99 each; a set of glow Wisp earrings with a crown for $9.99; and an archery set for $24.99. The wig, which is priced at $14.99, is free with a $30 Brave purchase through July 21, 2012. At Target, the blue dress is $5 cheaper, and the store also sells the green version. The wig and jewelry-and-crown set are priced similarly, but there is no offer for the free wig with purchase.
If you choose to surprise your child with a dress you already have purchased, she still will be given the royal treatment at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique inside Cinderella's Castle in the Magic Kingdom and inside World of Disney at Downtown Disney Marketplace. In fact, she'll be able to use the royal changing rooms at either salon, which is a fun way to start her transformation.
Reservations are recommended for the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and can be made by calling 407-WDW-STYLE.
Mickey's Backyard BBB is great All-American activity for the summer
Heading to Mickey's Backyard BBQ for the first time on the Fourth of July, I was a little skeptical about how the Fort Wilderness dinner show would play out -- especially for my kids, who have experienced other similar dining experiences elsewhere at Walt Disney World.
Many of those other dinner shows were the subjects of glowing online reviews, and my family and I usually had an idea of what to expect before we showed up for the first time. Not so with the Backyard BBQ, though. In fact, what little information I could find online even contained several negative comments about the food and the experience.
But all seven people in our party had a great time, and there were no complaints about even the smallest detail. We took AllEars.Net readers' advice and arrived about an hour before the start time. Although this did mean some standing around, it also allowed us to be near the front of the line for our choice of seats. (There is a playground near Pioneer Hall, so the kids could burn off some energy and break up the wait.) Cast members even walked the queue, serving drinks.
When it was time to enter the outdoor pavilion, cast members took groups of 20 to 25 guests and led them to picnic tables with benches. No stampede at this rodeo! We requested a table in the front, bordering the main dance floor. Cast members assured us there were no bad seats in the pavilion, but I do think our location was perfect for our two families. It allowed the elementary-school-age kids to come and go on the dance floor, in view of the adults who were eating and hanging out.
As soon as you are seated, cast members invite you to visit the buffets. There are four lines serving the identical menu, so we never really saw a long queue form. Guests can choose from BBQ chicken, pork ribs, hot dogs, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, tossed salad, potato salad, cole slaw, corn bread, baked beans, corn on the cob, watermelon and ice cream bars. Lemonade, ice tea, beer (Bud Lite) and wine (red, white or blush) are included, too, in this all-you-care-to-eat dinner. The food remains available almost until the end of the 90-minute experience. Everyone in our party enjoyed the meal, and we actually found the food to be even more flavorful than we expected, given the venue’s outdoor setting and the food choices. (Those with special dietary concerns can request ahead of time to be served meals that meet their needs.)
Live entertainment begins shortly after everyone is seated. This means the dinner experience is loud, so if you are sensitive to noise, you might want to reconsider. We had to shout to hear each other, but that didn't bother us at all. There was too much going on to have an in-depth conversation anyway. The live country-western band was good, playing popular and patriotic songs. A cowboy performs rope tricks and even invites a few lucky kids in the audience to join him. Plus, there is line dancing to well-known favorite songs.
Throughout the evening, Disney characters are circulating among the diners. They dance with the kids and pose for photos. If they are not on the dance floor, Mickey Mouse and his pals might even sign autographs. Please know that this is not like other Disney World character meals; the characters do not come to each table, so you are not guaranteed to see each one. I'm told that the usual characters at Mickey's Backyard BBQ are Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Chip and Dale.
For our Fourth of July dinner show, we also saw Donald Duck, Pluto, Phineas and Ferb. The characters were decked out in their Colonial-era threads, though they usually wear western get-ups. Another difference for the holiday was that Mickey and Minnie stayed outside the pavilion posing for photos the entire time. They did not join the festivities on the dance floor, which they normally would do.
All-in-all, we enjoyed Mickey's Backyard BBQ immensely. Perhaps the guests who did not have a good experience were ones who had different expectations for the meal and the dining ambience. But make no mistake: This experience is not comparable to an indoor character meal. It's an outdoor, casual picnic with rollicking entertainment to delight youngsters and get everyone out on the dance floor.
For our celebration of the Fourth, the experience was as summertime-appropriate as the Mickey ice cream bars the kids enjoyed for dessert afterward.
Prices, which include tax and gratuity, are $54.99 for adults and $31.99 for guests ages 3 to 9. Mickey's Backyard BBQ is open seasonally.
Best places to see Disney World fireworks outside Magic Kingdom
A view of Magic Kingdom's fireworks from the Polynesian beach.
Some of the best places to watch the Fourth of July fireworks at Walt Disney World, in my opinion, require planning ahead a bit -- or a touch of pixie dust. With America's birthday just around the corner, you may need to wish for that extra bit of magic to make this plan work this week -- or mark your calendars for next year.
For my family, watching "Disney's Celebrate America! A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky" presented in the Magic Kingdom is best done from outside the park. Because we're local residents, we don't mind skipping the crowds there, knowing we can go back at a later, less busy time. Our preference is a view from one of the Magic Kingdom resorts -- Polynesian, Grand Floridan, Wilderness Lodge, Fort Wilderness or Contemporary.
Over the years, we have made dinner reservations at various restaurants in these hotels and afterward walked out to the beach for a drink and the fireworks. This is where the pixie dust comes in: If you don't already have a dinner reservation for Independence Day, you'll need to check for a cancellation. Most Disney World hotel restaurants won't have room for walk-ins on July 4, and you absolutely need to have a reservation to be able to park at the hotels.
An opening actually may be easier to find this year than in the past because of the new dining policy that requires guests to cancel reservations they aren't using or pay a service charge. For most restaurants, the cancellation must be made 24 to 48 hours in advance. So, start checking online or call 407-WDW-DINE.
Guests line the public balconies at the Contemporary to watch Fourth of July fireworks.
For us, another bonus of watching the Fourth of July fireworks from a Magic Kingdom hotel is being able to see the Electrical Water Pageant, which stops in front of each resort. I have happy childhood memories of watching the water pageant from our balcony at The Contemporary and enjoy the nostalgic experience with my kids.
A view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks from in front of the Contemporary and Bay Lake Tower.
Last year, we met friends for dinner at Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary. Afterward, we stepped outside in front of the monorail tracks and Bay Lake Tower to watch the nighttime show. It was a fantastic spot for seeing all the fireworks, which are shot off around the perimeter of the Magic Kingdom and not just behind Cinderella Castle. The one downfall, though, is that the music that accompanies the patriotic fireworks was not piped into that location, as it is others. The observation deck of The Contemporary, for example, did have speakers with the music, and that location filled up with guests very quickly.
Guests wait on the beach in front of the Polynesian for the patriotic fireworks.
Our favorite spot to watch fireworks on the Fourth, though, is the beach at the Polynesian, after having eaten a delicious dinner inside. We've definitely seen this location get more busy over time. Some years, there are even parties catered at Sunset Point, which has a direct view of Cinderella Castle. The beach has a few hammocks and a volleyball net, but most people bring chairs and blankets. It's a relaxed atmosphere with room to move around, which is great for the kids.
This year, "Disney's Celebrate America! A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky" will be shown at 9 p.m. July 3 and 4. Do you have a favorite spot to view the Magic Kingdom Fourth of July fireworks? Please tell us about it in the comments.
Epcot's scavenger hunt through the global pavilions, Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure, reopened last week as Disney Phineas & Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure. Recently, my kids and I accepted two missions from Phineas & Ferb's pet platypus so we could check out the new version of this game.
I'm calling it a new version because Agent P is just about the same game as Kim Possible. Disney has not changed the basic clues, for the most part, within the countries. Instead, the update comes from the new characters, which certainly are more recognizable for today's young Disney Channel viewers.
Guests begin playing by stopping by one of four recruitment centers -- near Showcase Plaza, Italy, United Kingdom and Norway -- and a cast member will swipe one ticket per group and issue a F.O.N.E. (Field Operative Notification Equipment) device. If the game is not crowded, guests initially will be given three countries from which they can select a mission. After some simple instructions, you're on your way.
We noticed a welcome improvement with this version: Guests can start playing Agent P immediately, if space is available. With Kim Possible, guests received tickets indicating their start times later in the day. Agent P can accommodate about 30 guests per country at a time, a cast member told me. Guests have the option to continue playing with another mission, if slots are open.
Our roles as secret agents first took us to France, where we were charged with helping Agent P defeat his nemesis, Dr. Doofenschmirtz. Each mission has between five and ten assignments with code names. France has some cute clues, including one where the secret agents are instructed, "Say fromage!" when their pictures are taken. If you select this country, be sure to play until the end, because there is a clever surprise from Agent P on the last assignment.
When choosing the country of your mission, you might want to consider whether you'd like to play indoors or outside. In France, the assignments are all outside in the blazing Florida sun or afternoon rains. But in Mexico, where we landed on our second mission, the game was played inside the cool pavilion.
My elementary-school-age children really enjoy these types of scavenger hunts at Walt Disney World and they're big fans of Phineas & Ferb, so this was a fun attraction for them.
I think, though, that the other game of clues at Walt Disney World -- Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom -- has a big advantage over Agent P. Each portal in the Magic Kingdom is a different experience for every guest because of the way he or she plays the cards. With Agent P, the clues are the same for everyone, so if a line forms during the assignments, you see the clues unlocked by the party ahead of you.
Still, Agent P is a great way to entice kids' into the World Showcase pavilions. Each mission only lasts about 30 minutes, so it's not a big time commitment, and kids of all ages can play this game, with a little help from their parents or older siblings.
Dumbo interactive queue for kids soft-opens at Disney World
As has been the recent trend at Walt Disney World, another attraction is set to reopen with an interactive queue. For parents like me, these are welcome additions to help break up the long waits for our impatient children. It's hard enough to wait in a long line when you're an adult, but when you're a child, it's just cruel and unusual punishment to see the magic and have to wait to experience it.
The newest interactive queue is for the relocated Dumbo The Flying Elephant attraction at Magic Kingdom, and it features many firsts. We all can appreciate that the standby line enters an air conditioned building that is themed as a tent. Ahhhh. If you choose to ride Dumbo with a FastPass -- unheard of before the ride moved to the Storybook Circus area -- you will bypass the interactive part of the queue. FastPass users still enter the front of the tent, though, and see the attraction and experience the air conditioning, if only briefly. (FastPasses currently are distributed near Mickey's PhilharMagic.)
So, how does this queue entertain Disney's younger guests? It's essentially a cleverly-themed play area with seating for parents and a pager to alert each family when it's their turn return to the queue before boarding the ride. Guests are seemingly walking into the circus tent that Dumbo experienced in the classic movie.
First, they will be met by a cast member and asked about how many members are in their party. Then they will be given a pager that looks like a circus ticket. Once entering, they will see a center ring with toys playground equipment appropriate for toddlers. Overhead, Dumbo flies in circles around the center ring.
Outside that ring is a large, elevated play structure covered in nets. Kids can enter and perform as acrobats by climbing the ladder to a pretend high-dive, hopping up steps that look like trampolines or moving through the "burning" building, which is a replica of what Dumbo faced during his circus performances under the big top. Once inside the play structure, there are plenty of opportunities to run, jump and swivel. When kids are ready to come down, they can exit through two small slides that are fast enough to keep older children interested. Plus, they make various circus noises each time a guest slides. Parents will appreciate that the grandstand bleacher seating allows for clear sight lines of their busy children.
One of the most interesting aspects of this interactive area is the use of light. Spotlights are used to highlight the kids' movements. For example, when a child pops out of the Human Cannonball slide, a light appears at the bottom. When another child climbs the trampoline-shaped steps or the ladder to the high-dive, each footfall is lighted. Children can even press a button to light up the pretend fire in the burning building. Be aware that ambient lighting is used overall, so it may be a little darker than you're used to -- especially coming inside from the glare of the Florida sun. The mood lighting, if you will, is continually changing during your brief respite in the tent.
My husband really liked that the pagers are shaped like circus tickets. Timothy Q. Mouse, the rodent that befriended Dumbo, announces your time to leave the play area and get back in line and ready for your ride with Dumbo. The pager system works well and guests apparently are funneled to the least crowded of two Dumbo rides. (You don't pick which Dumbo to ride.) Then, take your seat and experience the dueling elephant carousels fly high over the Magic Kingdom.
Dumbo's interactive queue is in the soft-opening phase, being open to guests at various times as cast members test different aspects. It's expected to be be open full-time in July.
Disney's 'Brave' storybook, comic apps loaded with cool features
Two new apps from Disney Publishing have a lot of fun to offer kids who enjoyed seeing the new Disney-Pixar animated movie "Brave." They allow readers of all ages to relive the story and to become part of the experience with interactive features.
"Brave: Storybook Deluxe" stays true to the story of Merida, a Scottish lass who is determined to choose her life's journey, rather than accept her fate as a traditional princess. On this app, even the narrator has a Scottish accent, which was a great touch. And as a parent, I appreciated that each word is highlighted in red as he reads, mimicking the finger-tracking strategy taught to young readers. My almost-8-year-old daughter really liked the feature that allowed her to record her own voice reading the story and then play it back.
The story is chock-full of interactive icons, such as a bear claw that scratches the page with sound when it is clicked, a needle and thread that sew a tear on the page describing mending the tapestry, and even a Will-o'-the-Wisp floats at the bottom of one page.
In addition, the story links to the six coloring pages and puzzles when they relate to particular scenes. These extra features allow users to tap colors and then apply them to outlines of characters, in the same way the coloring pages operate on the Tangled app with Rapunzel. Users also can break a page into a puzzle and put it back together again.
Kids can choose from two games on this "Brave" app. In Merida's Challenge, they help the spirited princess shoot her bow and arrow while she is riding Angus, her horse. My daughter liked this game, which seemed easy enough for even the youngest reader. In Archer's Quest, readers go on a scavenger hunt through the story, searching for three separate bundles of arrows.
"Brave: Storybook Deluxe" is $6.99 and is available on iTunes for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
“Brave Interactive Comic” is a more advanced interactive graphic novel for kids ages 7 to 12. In the comic, each cell has some animation, plus music and sound. In addition, there are links to the concept art that inspired the movie. There is no narration option, however, which is a sure sign this is for older kids.
Probably the coolest feature on this app is the How-to-draw feature. There is a step-by-step course for users to actually draw Merida, Elinor, the triplets and Mor'Du on the screen. A line or two will appear and then the user copies it. The original (in blue) disappears and another guide appears. Young artists can use the magnifying glass to focus in on details of the drawing, and at the end, they can take a photo and save it.
I was surprised that my almost-10-year-old son who loves the Walt Disney World learn-to-draw books was not as fond of the same activity on his iPod. He said he found it difficult to maneuver, and he was frustrated when it didn't cooperate. Perhaps, he just needs more practice.
“Brave Interactive Comic” is $1.99 and available on iTunes for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
Finding art opportunities for kids at Disney World
Do you have a budding young artist in your family? If so, you might be surprised to learn that there are many opportunities for your child to explore his or her creativity while you're on vacation at Walt Disney World.
In recent years, Disney World has built on the popularity of the Magic of Disney Animation at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Inside this attraction, guests come to understand the process of developing characters for films, including seeing an artist's studio and artwork from a current film. In the attraction's Animation Academy visitors learn to draw popular Disney characters from a qualified animator.
Another location where guests can hone their drawing skills is at Animation Academy inside DisneyQuest at Downtown Disney. These 30-minute classes take guests through the process of drawing Mickey and his pals step-by-step. Be sure to check the posted schedule on the second floor when you arrive at the gaming attraction if there is a particular character you'd like to draw that day.
Afterward, guests can purchase their drawings for $5 each or a package that includes the drawing and a pin for $12. There is no other charge for Animation Academy. One-day admission to DisneyQuest is $37 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9 and $43 for ages 10 and older. (For more details, be sure to check out the AllEars.net resource page)
Most recently, a similar activity has been built in the lobby of the new Art of Animation hotel. Tucked in a corner to the left of the registration desks, guests will find comfy benches and an animation station, where the instructor shows line by line on a projection screen how to bring a Disney character to life. Here, guests draw on paper, while at the Magic of Disney Animation and DisneyQuest Animation Academy, the characters are created on a screen.
Art of Animation classes take place on the hour Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and are free to Art of Animation guests. (For more about the new Art of Animation hotel, be sure to read the AllEars.Net overview)
If you missed the class for the character you really wanted to be able to draw on your own, the resort sells books that teach visitors how to create Mickey Mouse and his pals from scratch. New on Disney World shelves: A guide to drawing Merida and other "Brave" characters. My children have collected just about all of these books on various trips to Disney World and continue to use them at home.
In addition to taking animation classes, young artists might enjoy watching professionals at work. At Magic Kingdom, guests will find street artists waiting to draw their portraits. As with most activities at the theme park, guests are invited to watch and even ask questions. This is a good opportunity for those interested in sketching to learn what it takes to do work on the spot.
Some hotels also have "resident" artists, such as the one at Port Orleans Riverside. A painter in the lobby from 6 to 11 p.m. will create customized face and full-body images for guests. Pricing starts at $15 for a black-and-white face painting and increases to $28 for a full-color body painting.
Families who visit Disney World in the fall are in for a treat: the Festival of the Masters takes over Downtown Disney from November 9 to 11. This is open-air art show offers one-of-a-kind paintings, photographs, sculptures, jewelry and more. Animation Academy is moved outside DisneyQuest and the sidewalk art is amazing.
Plus, there are many art opportunities for kids. Last year, my son was most excited by the Epic Mickey gaming booth. Not only did he get to preview the much-anticipated game, but animators were drawing Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and giving them to guests in line. A Disney spokeswoman confirmed there will be a booth for Epic Mickey 2 at this year's Festival of the Master. Admission to the festival is free.
If you've found other art opportunities for kids at Disney World, please tell us about them in the comments.
Disney aims to better kids' health by banning junk-food ads, improving theme park meals
Earlier this month, The Walt Disney Co. announced the next steps in its Magic of Healthy Living campaign: banning most junk-food advertising on its programs for kids and helping guests recognize healthy food in its theme parks and at retail stores with new labeling. I applaud and appreciate these moves.
Established in 2006, Disney's nutrition guidelines are aligned to federal standards by promoting fruit and vegetable consumption, limiting calories and reducing saturated fat, sodium and sugar. The new advertising standards will affect Disney XD, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Saturday morning shows on ABC stations, Radio Disney and online programming. The stations and websites have until 2015 to meet the new guidelines.
As a parent, I believe it is my job -- not Disney's -- to help my children eat healthfully and learn about proper nutrition for when they are old enough to make such decisions for themselves. But I've seen firsthand how susceptible children are to marketing that occurs during their favorite televisions shows or by their favorite characters, and I welcome this help with open arms.
The influence of television advertising was apparent to me again this week when my elementary-school-age children asked several times if we could eat at Subway this week. When I asked why, they explained that the current kids' meals toys are from Disney-Pixar's upcoming movie "Brave." (Disney made a conscious decision to limit its involvement with fast-food restaurants in 2006 by halting the licensing of its film characters for McDonald's Happy Meals.)
"The emotional connection kids have to our characters and stories gives us a unique opportunity to continue to inspire and encourage them to lead healthier lives,” said Robert A. Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co., in a press release.
Disney already has taken steps toward helping parents fight childhood obesity with changes it made in its California theme parks and at Walt Disney World. Six years ago, kids' meals were reconfigured so that fruits and vegetables and low-fat milk were automatically included with the meals -- unless parents opted out and asked for French fries and soda. The company says that of the more than 12 million kids’ meals served last year in its U.S. theme parks, parents stuck with the healthier options 60 percent of the time.
Now, Disney is turning its theme-park efforts to further reducing sodium in kids’ meals and introducing new well-balanced kids’ breakfast meals.
The Walt Disney Co. also introduced the Mickey Check, a symbol that will label as healthy licensed food in retail stores, on menus in theme parks and on qualified recipes on Disney.com and Family.com. I think this will be helpful to parents as well as send the message to kids that nutritious foods still can be fun and tasty. My children can spot the Mickey Mouse-shaped chicken nuggets, cheese and fruit packs as soon as we enter a grocery store. Now, they'll learn a little more about why the foods they like are good for their bodies, too.
Epcot's VISION house: A Disney World attraction for adults, older kids
The recent rain in Central Florida finally helped me persuade my kids and their friends to check out VISION house, a new attraction in Epcot's Innoventions that opened on Earth Day this year. Like many younger guests, they didn't want to take time away from rides and favorite activities for a tour, but the wet weather forced our group to slow down a bit and try something new.
VISION house replaces the House of the Innoventions, both showplaces for new and updated products for the home. The concept behind VISION house is sustainable living through environmentally friendly building choices.
The experience begins outside the house, where there is a clubhouse for little kids to play while their parents are waiting for a tour. You also can walk around the side of the house and see different aspects, including the family's electric hybrid car parked outside.
The first thing we noticed when we entered the house was the openness and lack of barriers. Unlike with its predecessor, VISION house is set up so guests are welcome to touch the fixtures and finishes of the home. Our group of kids took that invitation seriously, trying out the beds while the hostess explained the rooms' features. Another difference is that the innovative home systems and products are available now; they're not concepts envisioned for the future.
The five elementary school children in our group were most fascinated with the futuristic toilet in the master bathroom. They are of the age, of course, when bathroom humor runs rampant, especially among the boys. I have to agree with them, though, because the high-tech toilet from Kohler is pretty awesome. It has its own remote-control system, and users can warm their feet and seat, listen to music and raise the seat without touching it.
Overall, though, this attraction really is aimed at adults who, as homeowners, have a vested interest in the products or, perhaps, teens or college students studying home design or architecture. My kids didn't care that an electronic system can change the temperature of the house and its lights remotely, but my ears perked up at the possibility of saving on the electric bill.
Still, even for those guests who would like to follow the practices of green building, the costs can be prohibitive. Both options -- starting from scratch or retrofitting a home with many of these products -- are expensive. I did take to heart the hostess's suggestion that recycling furniture by passing it down through the family "reduces strain on resources and is a great source of family memories." Like the Monteverdes, the fictional family who lives in the VISION house, the Fords eat at a kitchen table that came from my childhood home.
Casey Jr. splash pad cool addition to Disney World's Fantasyland
Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station in the Storybook Circus section of Fantasyland opened Friday (June 15) to little fanfare, but families have a lot to be excited about. This new water play area in the Magic Kingdom offers a great respite from the Florida heat, and its design is a welcome improvement on the old Donald's Boat.
Casey Jr. is the steam engine that brings the circus to town in the movie "Dumbo," and that theming continues at Walt Disney World. The engine and tender appear to have pulled onto the turntable with four boxcars, each carrying a different animal -- giraffes, elephants (of course!), monkeys and camels. Guests will notice the subtle evidence of train tracks between the water play area and the nearby bathrooms, which are located in a building modeled after a roundhouse.
The soaking station brings the circus to life with its many sounds and the bustling activity of the water jets coming from the moving animals (and other sources). My kids are certain that the elephants shoot more water than the other animals because their trunks have multiple streams -- or so they say. About every 10 minutes, Casey Jr. begins his stationary journey, and guests will notice the locomotive sounds and the misting from the engine increase as he reaches his destination.
As we've come to expect with The Walt Disney Co., there is an incredible attention to detail in Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station. Casey Jr. opens and closes his eyes. One of the monkeys is wearing a hat that is actually a white Mickey Mouse glove. The elephant car has baskets of lettuce and bananas attaching for feedings. The detached boxcars even have aged chains trailing from the bottom, presumably where the cars would have been attached to one another. There is a lot to appreciate about this next step in the Fantasyland expansion project.
The most important thing to know about this attraction: You WILL get wet. And I do not mean just the kids frolicking in the splash pad. Parents sitting around the perimeter might be surprised to find themselves doused by a stream of water or mist blowing in the wind. Certainly, parents who are chasing after toddlers can expect to be just as wet as the little ones are because of the water shooting from so many angles and locations.
So, my best advice is to plan ahead and bring swimsuits and towels or an extra change of clothes for anyone who might be venturing near Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station. Also, be sure to pack sunscreen because there is not a lot of shade near the attraction. For those who find they don't have everything their little ones need, a nearby merchandise cart sells towels, water shoes, hats, sunscreen and more.
After spending more than an hour in the water, my almost-8-year-old daughter proclaimed that we have to visit Casey Jr. every time we go into the Magic Kingdom.
Ideas for celebrating Father's Day at Walt Disney World
It's not too late to plan a fun-filled Father's Day weekend at Walt Disney World -- and there are even some last-minute bargains to be had. From traditional pastimes in the most magical of locations to experiences created only by Disney, dads are sure to appreciate their happy day at The Most Magical Place on Earth. Let’s consider some of the things most dads enjoy – fast cars, sports, beer and spending time with their loved ones.
If your dad or husband is into fast cars, visit the Walt Disney World Speedway and let him get inside a NASCAR-style stock car for three laps with a professional driver. Ride-alongs through the Richard Petty Driving Experience start at $109 and do not require reservations. Looking for a splurge? Put him behind the wheel, starting at $449. (My husband, who is not a NASCAR fan, has experienced the ride-along and was surprised by how much he enjoyed it.) By booking ahead of time at 1-800-237-3889, you can get the ride-along for $59 for Father's Day. Also, any drive experience qualifies for a second one at half off, if booked in advance this week.
The Exotic Driving Experience -- allowing guests to drive supercars by Ferrari, Lamborghini, Audi and Porsche -- is new to Walt Disney World Speedway this year. It is not available on Father's Day, but you can purchase a ride for later in the month by calling 855-822-0149. Prices range from $169 to $419. (Read more about these thrilling experiences at http://allears.net/btp/petty.htm)
Is your man more comfortable in the stands? Make sure you visit Disney's Hollywood Studios and watch the “Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show" that is performed multiple times each day. This is a fun look at what it takes to film stunts, and there are plenty of surprises along the way. FastPasses are available for the 40-minute show.
Men who love to golf can choose from five courses on Walt Disney World property: Disney’s Palm and Magnolia, Lake Buena Vista, Osprey Ridge and Oak Trail. Last year, Arnold Palmer Golf Management took over the operation and maintenance of the courses. (Greens fees for the 9-hole Oak Trail are included in Disney World premium annual passes.)
If you want to spend time with the man of your family while he enjoys the game, why not try Disney World's family friendly miniature golf courses? Winter Summerland, located adjacent to Blizzard Beach water park, has 36 holes of wonderfully themed putting greens. Fantasia Gardens, located near the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin hotel, offers putting greens and a par-3 course. Cost is $12.52 per 18 holes for adults and $10.39 for ages 3 to 9. Passholders receive a 50 percent discount. Also, the second round on the same day is half off for all guests.(AllEars has more details about the courses here and here)
Drinking around the World
Dads who want to sample alcohol of different origins might want to consider an adults-only afternoon or evening at Epcot. With eleven countries represented in the World Showcase, there are quite a few options. Among the perennial favorites: La Cava del Tequila inside the Mexico pavilion for unique margaritas; Sommerfest in Germany for an Oktoberfest beer; Les Vins des Chefs de France cart in France for the Grand Mariner Orange Slush and the Grey Goose Citron Lemonade Slush; and the Rose & Crown Pub in the United Kingdom for various ales and lagers that can be combined.
Not going into a theme park on Sunday? There are many Disney hotels and restaurants that house cool lounges and bars. The Disney Food Blog gives us a list of the Top 10 here.
Maybe Dad's biggest desire for his special day is to make some unique memories with his children at Walt Disney World. At the Magic Kingdom, fathers might enjoy watching their daughters be transformed into the princesses of their dreams at the Bibiddi Bobiddi Boutique. He also might like to see his sweet little girl change into a menacing pirate at the Magic Kingdom’s Pirate League.
Others might like to share their love of trains with their kids, learning more about them through Disney’s “The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains" tour at Walt Disney World (ages 10 and older).
Perhaps dinner and a show about fatherhood would be just the ticket. If so, "Finding Nemo -- The Musical" is a Broadway-style performance daily at Disney's Animal Kingdom sure to entertain everyone in the family. Nearby, Flame Tree Barbecue offers the traditional favorite meals with outdoor terrace seating, and it gives Dad a break from manning the grill for a change. (See the menu here.)
These are just a few – and, granted, stereotypical – ideas, but there are so many more possibilities for celebrating Father's Day at Walt Disney World. With your imagination and all that Walt Disney World offers, you can create a very special day.