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December 29, 2014

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

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

Raglan Road

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

Dinner and fireworks viewing at a resort hotel

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

Walt Disney World kids activity centers

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

Celebration Town Center

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

DisneyQuest

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

Celebrate early

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

Happy New Year's Eve, everyone!



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July 11, 2013

Review: Spirit of Aloha luau at Disney's Polynesian Resort

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During my family's recent stay at Disney's Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World, we had the opportunity to attend the Spirit of Aloha dinner show, which is modeled after a traditional luau. Although I have been to an authentic cultural feast in Hawaii, I was looking forward to experiencing Disney World's long-running version for the first time.

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Category 1 luau seating

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Categories 2 and 3 luau seating

The event begins when the check-in opens at the Great Ceremonial House about 45 minutes before show time. The luau is offered twice each night -- at 5:15 and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. In general, seating is based on the category of table you select when you book the luau. For example, we paid for Category 1 seats (the most expensive) and were in the second tier of tables off to the side of the stage. A cast member told me the front row and the center tables were released to those who checked in before me. So, checking in as early as possible is key for getting those seats.

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Also, getting to the lobby early means you're less likely to have a long line ahead of you for the professional group photos being taken there. There is no obligation to purchase the photos, so why not get a shot of the family wearing leis in front of the waterfall? A PhotoPass photographer will bring prints of the photo to your table at the end of the meal. One package is offered: a 5 x 7 and four 4 x 6 prints of your group, plus a stock photo of the luau performers, for $35. We chose to buy the package, even though it was expensive, and my husband appreciated that I stopped asking him and the kids to pose in front of the waterfall afterward!

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After photos, guests can wander back from the Great Ceremonial House to Luau Cove, a short walk along the waterfront and beside the beach toward the Grand Floridian. Once seating begins, it moves quickly, but there is quite a queue in the beginning. A hostess explained that the meal is served family style, so we should ask if we would like more of any of the foods brought to our table. Also, she said, kids meals could be ordered separately (at no additional charge).

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The appetizers were waiting for us at our table: pineapple-coconut bread, mixed greens with honey lime vinaigrette, mango slaw, soba noodle salad and fresh pineapple. My husband and I enjoyed trying each item, but our young kids zeroed in on the bread and waited to see what was coming next.

Unfortunately, that's when our experience really went off course. It took our server at least 15 minutes to stop by to take our drink orders, and he was very rude and rushed in that first interaction. The inappropriate behavior continued when we tried to ask for more pineapple and bread and order a kids meal for my 8-year-old daughter. I have never been treated so poorly by a cast member in all the years I have been going to Disney World, and I was shocked at how he was behaving. So, as the stage production was beginning, I left the table to find a manager and ask for another server. That took quite some time, and the manager was of no help, either, stating that he could not reassign our table to another server. He offered no solutions himself.

So, I headed back to my table disheartened and angry that I would have to continue dealing with our server for the two-hour experience. There was no incentive for his behavior to change because the gratuity is included in the price of the luau, which is expensive, even with the inclusion of alcoholic beverages. The total for our family of four was about $250. (See full pricing information on the AllEars.Net resource page.)

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By now, I had missed the set-up for the show, so I had no idea what was going on, and the main courses already had appeared at our table. They included Aloha pulled pork, BBQ pork ribs, roasted chicken, jasmine rice with nori and a vegetable medley. My 10-year-old son was happy with the ribs, and my daughter settled on baked chicken nuggets. My husband and I tried each of the dishes, but weren't overly impressed with any of them.

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We tried to focus on the dinner show, which tells the story of Auntie Wini hosting a fun-filled luau to welcome home one of the local girls who has been living on the "mainland." It moves along slowly, but seeing the Hawaiian Wedding Song and the Birthday Hula performed are fun touches. Audience members are invited to join the professional dancers several times near the stage.

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The main attraction, however, is the final third of the show, which features traditional dances from Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Hawaii. The dancers and the costumes are mesmerizing, and who could look away when the Samoan fire knife performer takes the stage? A dessert of warm pineapple bread pudding with caramel sauce is served during this act, and we found it to be the best part of the meal.

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Still, our server's behavior, though out of character for most Disney cast members, certainly affected our evening and left my husband and I with little spirit of aloha (which means love in Hawaiian). We walked out of the open-air restaurant feeling like the dinner show was overpriced for what we received. Our kids weren't as aggrieved as we were, so perhaps the show is best recommended as a tropical -- though expensive -- diversion for youngsters after a long day in the theme parks. Aside from this, though, it's hard to think that our family will be saying aloha to this show again any time soon.

July 9, 2013

Auntie Kau'i at Disney's Polynesian Resort teaches guests to hula dance and make leis

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Disney's Polynesian Resort offers its guests many ways to be immersed in the South Pacific cultures it represents. For my young daughter, that meant spending time with Kau'i Brandt, better known as Auntie Kau'i, in the first-floor lobby of the Great Ceremonial House each day during our recent stay. At age 81, Auntie Kau'i is a Disney Legend, having been with the Polynesian resort almost since it opened.

She moved from the Hawaiian island of Oahu in 1971 to first open the Polynesian show at Disneyland and then a similar show at Walt Disney World. She was the master of ceremonies during the shows and has served as a cultural representative at the resort since its beginning.

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Guests can find Auntie Kau'i in the lobby of the Polynesian five days a week making leis at her table in the corner of the children's area. She is quick with a friendly smile and, when asked, an explanation that the leis she creates from real flowers are given to couples celebrating honeymoons or anniversaries. (All resort guests receive cloth-flower leis when they check-in or go to an activity.) These special leis also can be custom-ordered in the adjacent gift shop for $20 apiece. Auntie Kau'i said she creates about 20 such leis each day, mostly from carnations and ribbons.

My 8-year-old daughter was fascinated with the process of making leis, and Auntie Kau'i offered her and a friend the opportunity to try it themselves with enough cloth flowers to make bracelets. The girls were surprised that the kits contained pieces of Mickey-shaped pasta to use as spacers between the flowers. Now, those are truly hidden Mickeys!

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After serving cookies each afternoon, Auntie Kau'i also teaches guests how to dance the hula. The lessons are complimentary and last about 15 minutes. Women and girls are invited to don grass skirts and are given instruments to play to accompany the ukulele music. During the lessons, Auntie Kau'i and another cast member take turns demonstrating the movements while the guests mimic them. Then, the guests put it all together for their finale. Hula time each day couldn't come soon enough for my daughter -- even with all the competing activities at Walt Disney World.

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Auntie Kau'i, who has been dancing since she was 6 years old, also teaches lessons for two hours on Saturday mornings at the Polynesian resort. These, too, are free, and Auntie Kau'i told me she has many local residents who come regularly. In fact, some of the most dedicated are practicing for the Ho'ike dance competition on July 27 and 28 at the Wyndham Orlando Resort on International Drive. The two-day event features dance contests; vendors selling arts, crafts, jewelry, clothing, fresh flowers and hula implements; and a professional Polynesian production. Tickets can be purchased online at hoikehawaii.com.

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Auntie Kau'i clearly enjoys representing her culture on the mainland. When she was interviewed for an article in "Eyes and Ears," a Disney World cast member publication, Auntie Kau'i said, "I think I have the greatest job on earth. It is a lot of sharing [of her culture], and that is what it [aloha] is about."


July 6, 2013

Review: Lilo and Stitch Best Friends Breakfast at Disney's Polynesian

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One of the highlights during my family's stay at Disney's Polynesian Resort this week was the Lilo and Stitch Best Friends Character Breakfast. My son was really looking forward to this experience -- which we had never done before -- because he would get to meet with his two favorite characters, Mickey Mouse and Stitch. I was looking forward to sharing the experience with my family and good friends. Plus, I was eager to enjoy my favorite Mickey waffles, too.

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The Best Friends breakfast is served from 7:30 to 11 a.m. daily at 'Ohana on the second floor of the resort's Great Ceremonial House. Our reservation was for 10:30 a.m., and even with the holiday crowds, we were seated on time. Entering the restaurant, the host explained that the word " 'Ohana" means "family" in Hawaiian, and the meal would be served family-style. That started as we passed a kitchen counter and my daughter was asked to carry a basket of sweet breads to the table. She was happy to help, given how delicious the bread appeared.

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A good number of tables at 'Ohana are situated near large picture windows that offer views of the grounds and Bay Lake. (If you're having dinner at 'Ohana close to the time of the fireworks, you may want to request a table near the windows. There is no guarantee that the request will be granted, but the cast members do try to accommodate as many diners as possible.)

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Soon after being seated, our server arrived with a fruit platter and we were offered our choice of coffee, milk and juice. The juice is a smooth blend of passion fruit, orange and guava that is delicious. Then she brought a huge bowl that contained scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, biscuits, breakfast sausage and smoked bacon for us to share. There was plenty for the six of us, though our server told us she would bring more of any foods we requested. And then she returned with what I had been waiting for -- a bowl of Mickey waffles. (See prices and more photos of the breakfast on the AllEars.Net menu page.)

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The food, the service and the setting for tropical-themed breakfast were all excellent. But the character meet-and-greet segment of our morning was very much like an Experiment 626 adventure gone wrong.

We had just about finished eating before we saw the first of four characters: Lilo, Stitch, Mickey and Pluto. At first, we thought the timing was perfect. My husband and I have been to plenty of character meals at other Walt Disney World sites where we were getting up and down so frequently as the characters arrived at our table that we rarely ate much of the meal as we tried to take photos and arrange autographs.

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It quickly became apparent, however, that this morning's schedule wasn't well-paced, either. All four characters arrived in our corner of the restaurant in quick succession, which meant that guests at most nearby tables were up and trying to take photos at the same time. As anyone who has been to a character meal knows, there is no designed place for taking those photos -- you have to pose in small spaces on the fly. Still, the individual attention diners usually receive at character meals makes them a worthwhile experience for many.

Unfortunately, the character appearances at our Lilo and Stitch Best Friends Breakfast were chaotic, at best. There was only one handler for all four characters -- which a cast member told us is the new Disney World policy -- and that clearly wasn't working well on the day of our meal.

For example, characters appeared confused about where they were supposed to go. At one point, we had two characters at our table at the same time, and neither stayed long enough for me to get photos of both children with each of them. We also saw a character ignore another waiting family, which certainly was not the type of memory Disney strives to create. Having a dedicated handler for each character would have prevented these unfortunate situations.

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Before we left, we spoke to a manager about our experience, and she did bring one of the characters back to our table so we could get the photos we missed. That went a long way toward smoothing things over for my kids, who were at first upset over missed opportunities to meet certain characters or get coveted autographs. (Another downside to the new character handling policy is that often the characters need help signing autograph books. Without a handler nearby to help position books and pens, they sometimes don't pull it off well - such as this particular morning when one character signed his name over the autograph page signed by another character. The mistake left my son in tears until the manager could correct the mistake with a second signing.)

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One aspect of the character experience that did work well was the short parade through the restaurant. Kids were given maracas to shake to the beat of a Lilo and Stitch surfing song as they marched along with the characters, and they all seemed to enjoy the activity.

If 'Ohana means family, then - like in any family -- you often overlook the small things and focus on the positives. Though the character-greeting aspect was disconcerting for the adults at the table, my kids left the restaurant talking about how great it was to see their favorite characters at breakfast. In their eyes, they were still enjoying a tropical South Seas paradise just as they expected.

July 3, 2013

Places for Disney fans to celebrate Fourth of July outside the theme parks

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It's the day before the Fourth of July and, if you're still on the fence about how you and your family will celebrate our nation's birthday, here are a few last-minute ideas for those who want to spend it with fellow Disney fans outside the theme parks.

Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground has a full day of events planned for Independence Day, and some are open to the public and other Walt Disney World guests, space permitting. The annual golf cart parade gives guests staying at Fort Wilderness the opportunity to show off their patriotic spirit and decorating skills, and others the fun of seeing an amazing show of creativity.

Participants must register by 5 p.m. July 3 at the Bike Barn for the parade that begins at 9 a.m. July 4. Golf carts will make their way from the Hitch-and-Unhitch area near the front of the campground down Fort Wilderness Trail to Pioneer Hall. Guests and visitors are welcome to line the route to see the procession. At 10 a.m., awards will be handed out at Pioneer Hall, and Goofy, in his finest Fourth of July attire, will be available to greet guests for an hour. Cast members told me that everyone is welcome to attend these events, if the campground is not closed because it has reached capacity. Other facilities, such as the pool and the campfire, are reserved for guests staying at Fort Wilderness.

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Of course, those with dining reservations also are welcome at the resort. In fact, a popular evening is to frequent a Fort Wilderness restaurant for dinner and then wander down to the beach for the Magic Kingdom's Disney's Celebrate America! A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky fireworks. This year, Fort Wilderness has added some activities for those waiting for the nighttime show. The Independence Eve Beach Party includes:

5 to 6 p.m.: Beach games
6 to 7 p.m.: Bingo
8 to 8:50 p.m. Beach Party Boogie
9 p.m. Fireworks

Last year, my family attended Mickey's Backyard BBQ, which is an outdoor meal with traditional picnic foods, a live country band and Disney characters. We enjoyed this experience at Fort Wilderness with friends, but it might not be everyone. (Check out my review here.) Afterward, we all watched the fireworks from the beach. The view is somewhat obscured compared to some of the other resorts, but that did not diminish our enjoyment.

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Other years, we have planned dinner and fireworks viewing at the Polynesian and the Contemporary. Here is a look at what they have to offer. All three resorts (plus the Grand Floridian) have the added bonus of being able to see the Electrical Water Pageant. At this late date, it may be tough to get a dinner reservation for tomorrow, but don't discount cancellations. Guests must cancel most reservations 24 hours in advance or pay a fee, so it's worth a call to 407-WDW-DINE. You definitely will need a reservation to get into the restaurants -- standbys are almost unheard of -- and to park at the resorts on such a busy day.

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The town of Celebration, located in Disney World's back yard, is joining forces with MegaCon to host its first Sci-Fi Fourth of July on Thursday. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. with DJ Tami and performances by Oliver's Queen and Orlando singer and "American Idol" contestant Jordyn Kane. At 7:30 p.m., participants can compete in a costume contest to win prizes by dressing as their favorite movie-themed characters.

In addition, Celebration's Town Center will feature a KidZone with an assortment of inflatable games for kids and teens, such as a jousting area and bounce houses, face painting and more.

A patriotic celebration begins at 9 p.m. with a tribute to veterans, singing of the national anthem and a synchronized fireworks spectacular set to a Sci-Fi themed soundtrack. Admission and parking are free.

June 22, 2013

Don't miss: Roasting marshmallows and making s'mores at Walt Disney World hotels

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Many of us, the young and the young-at-heart, have fond summer memories of roasting marshmallows and making s'mores. Whether you enjoy the sweet treats blackened or just lightly toasted, you can make your dessert just the way you like it at Walt Disney World.

Most of the moderate and deluxe hotels at the Disney resort offer their guests complimentary supplies (marshmallows and roasting sticks) each night at a bonfire staffed by a cast member. For my family, this never gets old, so when we stay on property, we have to make sure we're at the hotel at least one of the nights at the proper time in the evening. Be sure to look at the activity sheet for your specific hotel to see when the fire is started each night.

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At Disney's Fort Wilderness Campground, though, guests can be immersed in the traditional campfire experience. Two fires are lighted about 7:30 p.m. in the summer -- an hour later than the rest of the year -- and cast members let them burn throughout the evening so guests can cook whatever they'd like, from hotdogs to marshmallows.

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The nearby Chuckwagon sells supplies, but guests are welcome to bring their own food, as well. If grocery shopping already is part of your vacation, bringing your own food will save you a bit because the prices are somewhat steep for s'mores ingredients. Here is a list of what you can buy. Come prepared with supplies or money to purchase your treats because there are no complimentary treats at the Fort Wilderness Campground like there might be at the other resorts.

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At 8 p.m., an entertainer leads guests in a singalong, which includes kid-friendly dances such as the Hokey-Pokey and the Chicken Dance. Don't forget your autograph books because Chip 'n Dale make their way through the crowd, stopping to visit with each guest.

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Finally, a Disney movie under the stars starts at 8:40 p.m. For nights with a double-header, the second movie begins at 10:15 p.m. The movie schedule is posted at the beginning of each month throughout the Fort Wilderness Campground. Many of the Disney World hotels also show outdoor movies at night, weather permitting, on their lawns or beaches. Bringing a blanket or some towels is likely to help kids get more comfortable so they can lounge, snuggle under them, and even fall asleep after a full day at Walt Disney World.

The campfire singalong is free and open to all guests staying on Disney property, not just those at Fort Wilderness.


March 23, 2013

Mickey Mouse helps prepare Easter baskets at Disney resorts

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.


October 11, 2012

A look back at discontinued Haunted Carriage Rides at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


July 7, 2012

Mickey's Backyard BBQ is great All-American activity for the summer

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


July 3, 2012

Best places to see Disney World fireworks outside Magic Kingdom

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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