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November 12, 2015

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

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

Holiday entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

Complimentary professional photos

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

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

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

Jungle Cruise festivities

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

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

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

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



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July 16, 2015

UPDATED -- Review: Animal Kingdom's Harambe Market

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

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

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

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

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

Your choices include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy this video of the Harambe Market:

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



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July 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us in the comments and share a review HERE~

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

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



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January 7, 2014

New details about Magic Kingdom's upcoming Festival of Fantasy Parade

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"What time is the 3 o'clock parade?" Cast members and Walt Disney World regulars chuckle about this supposedly common question from first-time guests to the Magic Kingdom. This year, however, the question may not be about when the parade takes place rather what it is all about.

The Magic Kingdom's "Celebrate a Dream Come True Parade" wrapped up a five-year run on Saturday, making way for a brand-new daytime parade to come this year. (Take a look back at Jack Spence's blog from the previous parade's opening day.) The "Festival of Fantasy Parade" is expected to debut in the spring, and Walt Disney World so far has released only a brief description and some of the concept artwork. You can take a peek here.

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2013-2014 Walt Disney World Ambassadors Tye Arnold (left) and Rich Tamayo

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Tye Arnold, one of the 2013-2014 Walt Disney World ambassadors, about the new parade. "There are a lot of new floats that have been designed after New Fantasyland opened [in 2012]," he said. "So a lot of the stories that have come alive there will come alive on the floats throughout the Magic Kingdom."

Specifically, expect to see floats and characters from "The Little Mermaid," "Sleeping Beauty," "Dumbo," "Pinocchio," "Peter Pan," "Tangled" and "Brave." Of course, there will be a signature float for Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, as well.

Clearly, the Disney Princesses will be out in full force in this parade. "Rapunzel is a big part of this parade," Arnold said. "It's kind of neat to see a newer character, a recent princess in our line-up of Disney Princesses."

What about Disney's newest unofficial addition to the royal family -- the Ice Queen, Elsa, from "Frozen"?

"We haven't heard if any of the 'Frozen' characters will be in the parade. 'Frozen' just came out, and this parade has been in the works for quite some time," Arnold said. "I don't think, at this time, 'Frozen' will be a part of it."

Although guests might not see the ice spells of Elsa or hear the wacky humor of Olaf the Snowman, they nonetheless will see some amazing feats on the floats.

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"We have some of the largest floats we've ever had in one of our parades. One really interesting one will be Captain Hook's pirate ship. Wendy and Peter will be 28 feet above the buildings on Main Street. It's going to be really impressive," he said. "It's cool enough just to look up and see the buildings on Main Street, but then to have them [the characters] even higher?"

The Walt Disney Co. has a history of moving its parades and shows among its parks worldwide to keep vacations memories fresh for repeat visitors. The "Festival of Fantasy Parade," however, has been created as a new experience with new costumes and music to go with the floats.

"It's a brand-new parade, but it does have some incorporated pieces so some of the floats are coming from our Tokyo park. " Part of a train set is coming from Tokyo. We like to bring in some of the older pieces to add character, but it's also nice to have something fresh," Arnold said.

The "Celebrate a Dream Come True Parade" is not moving to another Disney theme park at this time, he said.

"Festival of Fantasy Parade" is planned to begin at the same time the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train attraction in New Fantasyland opens this spring.



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October 21, 2013

Glow With The Show ear hats debut at Magic Kindom

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Less than a week ago, Glow With The Show ear hats debuted at Walt Disney World during a Fantasmic performance. On Saturday, the hats began working with the Celebrate the Magic castle projection show and the Wishes fireworks presentation at the Magic Kingdom, and my children and I were in the thick of the crowds on Main Street, U.S.A., to witness the first displays.

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Our experience with the new light-up mouse-ear hats began earlier in the day when I purchased one for each of my children at The Emporium. The hats are available in one design (for now, at least) -- a multicolored pattern of Mickey Mouse faces on the cap and two "ears" that illuminate. Each Glow With the Show hat costs $25.

This seemed a bit pricey to me at first. But when I thought about buying a child a basic mouse-ear hat with an embroidered name and also purchasing a light-up toy for the night-time parade and activities, I realized I easily would exceed that amount. And I'm sure I'm not the only parent who would love to have one less purchase per child to keep track of at a theme park. (For the record: You can replace the AAA batteries yourself when necessary.)

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The hats, which debuted a little more than a year ago at Disneyland, can work independently, in cooperation with other hats worn by your group, and with certain night-time shows. Glow With The Show ears will light up individually when turned on. If you bump them with another hat and stay near the guest wearing that hat, the patterns of lights will appear synchronized. This is a fun discovery for wearers.

However, the real "oohing" and "aching" comes when you see the ears synched with a large-scale show, such as Celebrate the Magic. We stood in the hub near Cinderella Castle for our first viewing, and we had a decent view of the show and enough Glow With The Show ears in front of us to see the new effects. Of course, the farther back on Main Street you stand, the more ears you're likely to see.

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You'll quickly notice the ears of each hat match colors in the show and flash to the beat of some of the songs. One of our favorite effects was during the "Tangled" recreation in Celebrate the Magic when the lanterns appear to glow and float into the air and the ear hats matched the lanterns. Also visually pleasing was when the ears glowed red while the castle was bathed in blue with the projected white stars, mimicking Sorcerer Mickey's hat during Wishes. Take a look at some of the scenes from Celebrate the Magic in the video below:

Currently, Glow With The Show ears are synchronized with Celebrate the Magic and Wishes at Magic Kingdom (and the Halloween versions at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party on Oct. 20, 22, 24, 25, 27, 29, 31 and Nov. 1) and Fantasmic! at Hollywood Studies. Beginning Nov. 8, the hats will work with The Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Hollywood Studios and Holiday Wishes: Celebrate the Spirit of the Season at Magic Kingdom.

Glow With The Show ears can be purchased at The Emporium, The Chapeau and merchandise carts at Magic Kingdom and at Beverly Sunset, Once Upon A Time, Mickeys of Hollywood, Head to Toe and merchandise carts at Hollywood Studios. Hats purchased at any Disney park -- including Disneyland -- will work at all Disney World parks that are part of the program.

October 3, 2013

Tomorrowland Terrace Dessert Party is a delicious way to view Wishes fireworks

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My 11-year-old son has had many special experiences at Walt Disney World because we live locally and are annual passholders. But one event he hadn't been to and *really* wanted to attend was the Tomorrowland Terrace Dessert Party. Disney fireworks are among his favorite attractions, and to be able to see them from the perfect vantage point while eating unlimited sweets -- well, that was the perfect birthday celebration recently.

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None of my family had been to the Wishes viewing party, so we weren't sure what to expect. We spent the day at Magic Kingdom, and when we noticed cast members beginning to set up in the evening, we stopped to ask a few questions. My son was assured that the tables were pre-assigned, based on when guests made their reservations.

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I had called every day for more than a month before the reservations were available for booking in the Disney system. During that process, cast members gave me different answers about how soon the reservations can be booked, but the most common answer was between 30 and 60 days out. None of the cast members could give me an exact date -- as they do with restaurant reservations -- so I continued my calling campaign.

If you are interested in the Tomorrowland Terrace Dessert Party, you might have to resort to the same plan because it is very popular and typically sells out quickly. My persistence paid off, though, because I secured a reservation for our preferred night and we had a front-row, center table.

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One thing to know, though, is that many attendees will get up from their tables when the fireworks begin and stand along the wall facing Cinderella Castle. They are not permitted to drag chairs over there, however.

So, given that your table is pre-assigned and you still will have a good view of the fireworks, there really is no reason to line up early for the party. Folks did begin a queue about 7:30 p.m., and they began entering the area about 7:45 p.m. on a night that Wishes were scheduled to start at 9 p.m.

There are two buffets with an identical selection of desserts, plus a fruit bar, beverage station and ice cream sundae table. There was a small line for food when guests first entered Tomorrowland Terrace, but it dissipated quickly as everyone chose their first round of goodies. After that, we were able to walk up to the buffets without a wait for the rest of the night. I'm told the space holds 200 people, and there were about 160 guests attending on our Saturday night in September.

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Among the desserts included: Tiramisu, Mango Shooters, chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies with sprinkles, classic cheesecake, fruit tart, banana creme tart, key lime tart, chocolate peanut butter tart, chocolate-dipped strawberries, crisped rice treats, brownies, vanilla and chocolate cheesecake, custard and canoli. There appeared to be something for everyone! Drinks were raspberry lemonade, Minute Maid light lemonade, iced tea, water, coffee, white milk, hot tea and hot chocolate.

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While we were enjoying our sweets, we could see the Main Street Electrical Parade pass by in the distance and then watch Celebrate the Magic, the castle projection show. Tomorrowland Terrace is not the ideal vantage point for either if you haven't seen them, but for repeat guests, it was nice. And, of course, this location has a great view of the fireworks, which is the main attraction. It is slightly to the right of the castle, but we could see everything, and a highlight is when Tinker Bell flies down from the castle and straight to Tomorrowland Terrace.

The desserts are plentiful and were refilled repeatedly for about an hour, or 8:45 p.m. in our case. Then, guests can help themselves to what is left until Wishes ends. By that point, we were stuffed! Even so, cast members encouraged my kids to take cookies with them. Throughout the evening, cast members repeatedly cleared our table and were helpful. Overall, we really enjoyed the dessert party. It is expensive for a family, but not having to fight crowds to see the fireworks is priceless.

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The Tomorrowland Terrace Dessert Party costs $25.99 for adults and $13.99 for children ages 3 to 9. You can make reservations at 407-WDW-DINE, and pre-payment is required. Walk-ups are welcome if the dessert party is not sold out.

September 28, 2013

Take a tour of Epcot's private Living Seas Salon

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Everyday guests at Walt Disney World may not be aware that there are private restaurants, offices, suites and lounges tucked away among the buildings at Walt Disney World. These spaces are not accessible to the general public and, for the most part, also are not visible to the casual visitor.

The tradition started at Disneyland, of course, with Walt Disney's personal apartment and then Club 33, a members-only restaurant that remains an exclusive dining experience.

Perhaps the most famous hidden -- though by no means secret -- space at Walt Disney World, though, is the overnight suite in Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, which has received overwhelming attention since it was completed in 2006. During the next two years, one-night stays were given away daily to lucky families during a two-year promotion that was widely publicized.

But Epcot, with its large pavilions, is home to its share of fun and fabulous lounges, too. Some have corporate sponsors, such as the Siemens VIP Center that I visited for a media event last year, and others are run by Disney World. The latter can be booked by guests for special events.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Living Seas Salon, which is available for guest rentals. The space has been used for convention groups, weddings, bar and bat mitzvah's, local birthday parties and baby showers, said Janice Reindl, Walt Disney World Catering/Convention Services Manager.

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The entrance to the Living Seas Salon is on the right side of the pavilion, where the Coral Reef restaurant is located. A cast member took us into the first-floor lobby, and then we proceeded upstairs in an elevator that offers some magical special effects during the ride. When we reached our destination, the lift opened to a small reception area where offices and bathrooms are located.

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But the real show-stopper is visible at the end of a long hallway. There, guests will find a multi-level room with floor-to-ceiling windows that look into the aquarium that most park guests see from other angles inside The Seas with Nemo & Friends. More than 6,000 sea creatures representing more than 65 species -- including dolphins, sharks and stingrays -- swim by the large panoramic windows.

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The ocean theme is reinforced with rich wood interior, blue and green fabrics, and shell and fish details. Plus, there is a separate bar area. The main room at the Living Seas Salon can accommodate about 100 people, though Reindl said 84 is ideal with the existing seating for the best viewing of the marine life.

So, how much will it cost you to have a party at the Living Seas Salon?

The venue is priced at $500 plus tax, and your contract includes an agreement to spend a minimum amount on food and beverages. For dinner, that's $5,500 plus 21 percent service charge and 6.5 percent sales tax; the lunch minimum is $2,450 plus the service charge and tax; and breakfast is $1,500 plus the service charge and tax. The minimum amount can include appetizers, a meal, desserts, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. The venue fee is a flat rate and is not increased by the duration of the party, though Reindl told me most events last 3 to 4 hours.

Guests also can choose to enhance their experience by adding a jazz trio, character appearances or a visit from Scuba Mickey in the tank for additional costs. For questions or to book the Living Seas Salon, guests can call 407-828-3200.

September 19, 2013

A family touring plan for Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party 2013

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Here's a little trick that will help make Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party more of a treat: Map out a strategy for how you'll spend your time at the party so that you can avoid lines as much as possible and see more of the holiday attractions at the event.

With some additions to the party this year, my family changed our strategy for enjoying all the special Halloween activities only offered at the event, which requires separate admission.

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Although the party hours are from 7 p.m. to midnight, those with Halloween Party tickets are allowed to begin entering the Magic Kingdom at 4 p.m. If you call Disney World and ask, you will be told that party hours begin at 7 p.m., but this unannounced practice has been in place for years to allow the park to disperse the arriving crowds.

My best tip, especially this year, is to take advantage of the early entry! You can use that time for a number of things, including grabbing a bite to eat or getting transformed at The Pirates League or the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, so you don't have to spend precious party time on non-Halloween events.

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We arrived at the second party of the season about 5 p.m. and dedicated ourselves to activities in Town Square. There you will find a great, free photo opportunity with stacks of pumpkins framing a view of Cinderella Castle. We took a quick family photo while it was light out. A PhotoPass photographer is stationed there during the party if you want to purchase a professional photo.

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Then, we headed over to the outdoor spot adjacent to City Hall where we knew Jack Skellington and Sally from "The Nightmare Before Christmas" would be greeting guests, beginning at 7 p.m. The pair are new to the party this year, and early reports were that they commanded hours-long lines. (When they appeared at Downtown Disney last year during a Frankenweenie event, the lines had three-and-a-half-hour waits.) We snagged the first spot in line.

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We all wanted to see Jack and Sally, but none of us relished the idea of waiting two hours, so I tried to break up the time for my family by multi-tasking. We took turns in different lines, with some of us waiting in line at the Fire Station to collect the new Haunted Mansion card for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game. The new card is only available at the party. Distribution began at 4 p.m. at the Fire Station and behind Ye Old Christmas Shoppe for guests who had their party tickets and wristbands. Even if you don't play Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom during the party -- and we didn't -- it's still worth getting the card for another visit.

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We also looked at the exclusive party merchandise in The Emporium, when it was taken out at 6:30 p.m., and we had a bite to eat while we sat in line. Although we didn't avoid the long line for Jack and Sally, we chose to do our waiting before the party started so it wouldn't affect our ability to see the fireworks, parade and other shows. The pair didn't sign autographs -- probably to keep the line moving -- but they did hand out a cool autograph card designed just for the Halloween parties. You can see it in the video below:

There are other special character meet-and-greets, too, such as Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse in their Halloween costumes in Town Square Theater, Winnie the Pooh and friends in costumes in their regular location, and Snow White and all seven dwarfs near the gates to New Fantasyland.

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After seeing Jack and Sally, we moved to what my daughter most wanted to do: trick-or-treating. We headed back to one of the treat trails, which have multiple candy stations, near Splash Mountain so she and her brother could get plenty of sweets. It was disappointing to see that the cleverly carved jack-o-lanterns that were themed to "Song of the South" were missing from Br'er Rabbit's Laughin' Place Candy Patch this year. Also, the treat trail that runs along the walkway between Storybook Circus and Tomorrowland was reversed, with its entry near Space Mountain. The Alice in Wonderland decorations were missing from this trail, too. Both trails had fewer candy stations than in past years, which certainly is not a hardship when the candy is unlimited and included in your party admission. It just means you may have to do a bit more walking to fill your treat sack! (Guests with food allergies can exchange their candy from trick-or-treating for other goodies at City Hall.)

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Next up: attractions and dance parties. Space Mountain was closed for the first Halloween party of the year because it was undergoing a series of short refurbishments. It was, however, open during the party I attended. The last refurbishment is scheduled for Sept. 23 to 26. Nearby, the new Monstrous Scream-O-Ween Ball was taking place on the Rockettower Plaza Stage in Tomorrowland. The dance party is hosted by "Monsters University" scarers Mike and Sulley, and we saw other "Monsters, Inc." characters, as well. Woody's Happy Harvest Roundup takes place inside The Diamond Horseshoe in Liberty Square.

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You definitely won't want to miss Mickey's Boo To You! Parade, Celebrate the Magic projection show and Happy HalloWishes fireworks. The debate is whether to go to the first parade at 8:15 p.m. or the second at 10:30 p.m. (Celebrate the Magic and Happy Hallo-Wishes are only presented once -- at 9:15 and 9:30 p.m., respectively.) To be sure, the first parade is always the most crowded, with folks lining up at least an hour beforehand. If you have young children, this may be the only option for you, but if you can wait, I would recommend it. The second parade is a lot less crowded and you will be able to get some trick-or-treating, dancing and riding attractions done beforehand, which might tire the kids out enough to sit without complaining during the wait for the parade. If you choose to sit near the castle, you will be able to see the Disney Villains' Dance Mix and Mingle, which is performed at 7:45, 8:50, 10:05 and 11:15 p.m. The characters perform on stage and then descend into the crowds for a quick meet-and-greet.

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Finally, if all the candy doesn't satisfy your sweet tooth, the Magic Kingdom is offering specialty treats: a spiced pumpkin waffle sundae at Sleepy Hollow, ghost cupcakes at Gaston's Tavern, candy corn soft serve at Storybook Treats, Halloween cupcakes and cookies at Sweet Treats on Main Street, and Hitchhiking Ghost popcorn buckets at the popcorn carts.


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Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party requires a separate ticket. Prices vary, depending on date and possible discount. For a full breakdown, see the AllEars.Net resource page.

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

September 17, 2013

Tips for making the most of your visit to Epcot's Food & Wine Festival

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If you think it's hard to prepare a delicious meal for your family and keep everyone at the table happy, try doing it for thousands.

I had the opportunity recently to speak with Michael Jenner, operations manager for park events content development, about the upcoming Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. Here, he offers AllEars.Net readers a glimpse behind the scenes of such a large event at Walt Disney World and tips for guests on making the most of their time at the festival.

The first day that reservations are open is always crazy busy. What special events associated with the festival sell out quickly and what is still available now?

We sell about 50 percent of our inventory very quickly in the first couple hours on the first day. Our high-end events sell out, so Victoria & Albert's sells out. Our Wine View Lounge and our reserved seating for Party for the Senses has sold out. A lot of our signature dining events -- California Grill, Flying Fish -- have sold out. I would point out that for some of those events, they also are some of the smaller seating capacities. At Citrico's we have 10 seats there, so, of course, that went out. The Hibachi experience at Japan has eight seats and we do it five times, so obviously it sells out very quickly.

But there still are a plethora of events that are available: general seating at Party for the Senses, the Scotland opening dinner, our chocolate dinner, our beer dinner. Online we list what events are sold out. For culinary demonstrations, wine seminars and mixology, we hold back a certain number of those for day-of purchases, so when you come to the park and you're just discovering those events, you can walk up and there might be seats available.

Of the events that are still open at this point, what would you most recommend for a guest who is new to the Epcot Food & Wine Festival?

As a newbie to the festival, you can't go wrong with Party for the Senses. I know the reserved seating and the Wine View Lounge always sells out, but, in my opinion, that doesn't matter. You have 25 food stations and 25 beverage stations, which have at least three offerings, so you don't want to be sitting at any time. You need to be up and moving for that two hours, and you still will not get through all those stations. That is a true food-and-wine connoisseur's heaven.

You can go to every single [party], and it will be different each time. We have different chefs that come in -- Disney chefs and guest chefs -- and they each have their own unique item that they prepare. And we bring in different wineries. The entertainment is the same, the layout is the same, but the food and beverage elements are different for each one. Party for the Senses starts at $145 plus tax and park admission.

Last year's VIP Chef Tours got rave reviews from our readers. Why didn't those events return this year?

The person who made that happen was Chef Jens [Dahlmann, Epcot's executive chef], and that was a lot out of his day to escort 10 people around the park. It's better for us to have him oversee the festival and the marketplaces. Really, to do it again, we would do multiple days. To be honest, we just couldn't pull him out of the operation for that long. And then to put another chef or someone else into that role, it's not the same experience. It was a nice "let's try it" but when all is said and done, 60 guests got to experience that. " You never know, it might come back in future years, or at least one-offs. It's more important for us to have Chef Jens on the promenade, overseeing the marketplaces, now, though.

How do you keep the marketplace wines and the foods at the proper temperatures with the Florida heat?

The foods are prepared fresh in the marketplaces. Plus, they are not just little cabana tents. Each marketplace is a kitchen with refrigerators and grills. There is a whole compound behind Germany that we create just for the festival. There are at least 12 refrigerated semi-trailers for all the wines, and they are divided among events. The wines are kept there and then brought out to the marketplaces several times a day, so you don't have six cases of wine sitting in a marketplace waiting to be used all day long. The food items are brought out continuously throughout the day.

Since Epcot doesn't have utilidors (the underground tunnels at the Magic Kingdom), how do cast members at Epcot transport the foods and beverages continuously without being obvious?

We built these cart boxes that hide the food inside of them because you want to protect it from birds, people, etc. They're totally enclosed metal boxes that even have little lights along the top so at night people can see them, and they can see where they're going. It makes it easier and safe for our cast members as well as the guests.

Obviously, it's more crowded on the weekends than during the week at the festival. What tips would you offer for guests whose only opportunity to experience the festival is on the weekend?

Start at the back of the park, by France or Hops & Barley or somewhere back there. I will see at 11 a.m. on a Saturday, the marketplaces at the front -- Mexico, Argentina, etc. -- packed, and then I'll walk down a couple marketplaces and there's no one in line. It's a circle, so just start at a different place. A lot of people go right, even though are marketplaces are numbered the other way. As you get to the Eat to the Beat concert series [at American Adventure], it's busier at that side of the park.

Always use the passport. It's a great way of finding out what's in the marketplaces and what you've missed. You can check what you like and get the passport stamp. Guests using the Festival Center, having the festival guide and the festival passport have a greater experience.

Do guests tend to skip the Festival Center?

They do because they may not know about it. It opens at 9 a.m. with the rest of Future World, but the marketplaces don't open until 11 a.m. It's a great way to start off -- to see our wine seminars or visit our merchandise shop and collect your passport.

How early do families need to find seats at the Eat to The Beat concerts?

It depends. If you want to hit the 5:30 p.m. show, which is often the most popular show, check the line early. Some of the more popular acts have a line start at noon. But you don't have to sit in the theater to enjoy it. You can hear it around the promenade or standing close by, it's a great show.

Can you offer any tips for families who are bringing their kids to the Food & Wine Festival?

Weekdays are the best, if possible, but I know that's hard with kids in school. Or, go on a Sunday. Saturdays are awfully crowded. The Festival Center is good for kids, too. We do a seminar called Authentic Tastes three times a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays where we talk about whole ingredients -- like strawberries, sugar -- and there is a little sampling. Plus, there's the Chocolate Experience, which is phenomenal, and explains chocolate from bean to bar. Ghiradelli will be handing out chocolate samples, and our Disney pastry chefs have each created a chocolate sculpture, which is fun for kids.

I think all the marketplace menus are family-friendly because they're such small portions -- tapa size. Kids can try portions without parents feeling they have wasted a whole entree if they don't like it.

When I was a little kid, we would go to restaurants with buffets, and I was always told I had to try everything. And I loved it! I didn't have to eat it all, but I had to try it. What a great experience! That's what the Epcot Food & Wine Festival is like -- a buffet through all the marketplaces.

September 16, 2013

More Epcot International Food & Wine Festival dishes and beverages revealed

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With less than two weeks until the 18th annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival begins, I have more details about new foods, wines and beers that will be offered.

Members of the AllEars.Net staff first previewed some of the items at a Tables in Wonderland event in July, and you can read about those here. Now, Epcot Executive Chef Jens Dahlmann is sharing more tastes to tempt your palate.

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At the Hops & Barley Marketplace, a Griddled Lobster Tail with Garlic Herb Butter replaces last year's lobster claw and is paired with La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. Dahlmann said, "It will have the flavors of saltwater and drizzled butter -- and it doesn't get better than that!" I have to agree with him. Chef Marianne Hunnel, who is charged with finding the perfect beverage pairings for Dahlmann's creations, described the La Crema as a "match made in heaven."

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In the Africa Marketplace (which has evolved from the South Africa Marketplace of previous years), guests will find a Berbere Style Beef with Onions, Jalapeños, Tomato, Okra and Pap. Though many might find it delicious, this dish was probably my least favorite of all that I've sampled. I'm not a big fan of grits, which is what pap is similar to, and the flavor of the meat just didn't appeal to me.

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The Berbere Style Beef is paired with The Wolftrap Red from Africa, which is a blend of syrah, mourvedre and viognier. Deb Wills tried it at the previous tasting and said, "I have had this wine without food before and not cared for it. I tried it again to see how it went with food, and it paired well with the filet." She went on to say that fans of the viognier grape will really want to give this wine a tasting.

This year's new marketplace -- Scotland -- features a Vegetarian Haggis that has foodies and vegetarians talking. Chef Dahlmann described it this way: "It will taste like a beautiful, grainy vegetable patty, almost like the idea of a veggie burger, but we just make it really, really good. We serve it with neeps and tatties, or rutabagas and potatoes, so it is very traditional."

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Scotland also will sell a Scottish Banoffee Tart, which is layered with bananas, whisky, whisky toffee sauce and sweet cream and topped with chocolate shavings. If you like the taste of toffee, you won't want to miss this dessert!

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Beverages at the Scotland Marketplace include a Loch Lomond cocktail made with Scotch Whisky, Drambuie and Dry Vermouth; a flight of whisky, with the 12-, 15- and 18-year-old Scotch whisky; and Innis & Gunn Beer. "What's really great about the offerings is that guests who have always wanted to try an 18-year-old Scotch but didn't want to commit to a $100 bottle can taste it as part of the flight for $12 or by itself," Hunnel said.

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At the Desserts and Champagne Marketplace, festival organizers are introducing Frozen S'Mores, which taste just like you would think. They are made from Nesquik with toasted marshmallow syrup and topped with chocolate, marshmallows and a graham cracker. This is a non-alcoholic beverage that was developed for kids but is sure to be a hit with the young-at-heart as well.

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Finally, at the Refreshment Port, which is a permanent location near Canada, guests will find a special version of the wildly popular pineapple Dole Whip. This one is orange-flavored, and adults can add Creme de Cacao White liqueur for a flavor boost. Trust me when I say that you will want to enjoy this treat. What a great combination! Interestingly, the Cherryman Maraschino Cherry is a new product that has no artificial red dyes and is not as sweet as a traditional maraschino cherry. I really didn't notice much difference in the taste, though.

Dole has another new product at the Refreshment Port for the Food & Wine Festival: Pineapple beignets. These will be fresh pineapple rings that are dipped in bread and fried. In addition, the chicken shanks on the stand's current menu will get new sweet-and-sour dipping sauces for the festival.

There will be three Florida beers at the festival: Orlando Brewing Company is creating a brew called Sun Shade Organic Pale Ale just for the festival; the Florida Beer Company will bring its Devil's Triangle from Melbourne; and Cigar City Brewing in Tampa will serve Florida Cracker Belgian-style White Ale.

"I think I am most excited to get that energy [of the festival] back at Epcot," said Dahlmann. "The cast members get excited, the guests get excited, the promenade has a hustle and bustle. It's the driving energy with the love of food and wine. It's a feeling, not a particular thing. It's my favorite time of the year. It's like Christmas!"

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at a media preview for the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. This did not affect my story, and my opinions are my own.


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 4, 2013

Wilderness Explorers opens at Disney's Animal Kingdom, Inspired by 'Up' movie

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Animal Kingdom's newest attraction, Wilderness Explorers, is built around a theme from the Disney-Pixar film "Up." One of the main characters in the 2009 animated movie, Russell, is a Wilderness Explorer, which is a fictional version of Boy Scouts. As Russell is working to earn his final merit badge, he gets caught up in an elderly man's drama and ends up traveling on an unexpected journey.

Now Walt Disney World's newest theme park has developed a Wilderness Explorers program that encourages kids to learn about specific areas of their world by earning merit badges, similarly to how the group functions in the movie. The Wilderness Explorers attraction at Animal Kingdom, which debuted June 1, is open to all guests, though the materials are geared toward kids ages 7 to 10.

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With both of my children in the target age range and involved in real-life Scouting, our family was eager to try the new attraction this weekend. To get started, we visited the first troop leader post, which is located just over the bridge on the edge of Discovery Island. (There are other starting points in Africa, Asia, DinoLand U.S.A. and Rafiki's Planet Watch.)

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Troop leaders initiate kids by teaching them the Explorer call, which has three hand gestures and corresponding vocals: "The wilderness must be explored!" with hands framing a view; "Caw Caw" with hands shaping a bird; and "Roar!" like a lion (or other large beast) with paws up and out. They also say the Wilderness Explorers' Motto, which is a short pledge to be "a friend to all, be it plants or fish or tiny mole." Like real-life Scouts, kids earn their first badges after mastering the group's mission statements, and they receive a handbook outlining the other merit badges they can earn and a sticker to wear in place of "uniform."

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Wilderness Explorers can complete 30 additional badges -- which actually are stickers placed in their handbooks -- in any order or timeframe they choose. They don't have to be finished on the same day.

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In several sections of the park, multiple badge locations are grouped together, making it easy to complete related badges together. For example, six Wilderness Explorers stations can be found at Rafiki's Planet Watch. Here's a plan: Ride the Wildlife Express Train to Rafiki's Planet Watch, stop to earn the Habitat badge on the walk to the Conservation Station. Once inside, learn about Animal Nutrition, Veterinary medicine and Recycling to earn badges, which are requirements for the Conservation badge. Step outside into the Affection Section, a petting yard, and earn the Hand Washing badge after visiting the animals. Be sure to check the map in the handbook indicating locations for each badge to plot your course.

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Habitat badge


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Animal Nutrition badge


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Veterinary badge


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Brushing animals before earning Hand Washing badge


Some badges are more interactive than others, and that certainly affects the interest levels of the kids participating. My children really enjoyed the Animal Find badge, which challenged them to find 22 specific animals anywhere in Animal Kingdom during their day. When we stopped at the locations for the Asian and African Culture badges, they were taught a foreign-language phrase and were less enthusiastic about those experiences. Overall, my 8-year-old daughter was more excited about the Wilderness Explorers attraction than my 10-year-old son. She was happy to learn at each station and wanted to complete as many badges as possible. My son, on the other hand, was embarrassed to wear the Wilderness Explorers sticker and thought many of the exercises at the stations were too easy for him.

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African Culture badge


Wilderness Explorers has replaced the Kids' Discovery Club program, which featured six learning stations throughout the park. Those stations, such as one where kids dig for fossils and then assemble a color-coded dinosaur, have been absorbed into the new program as badge locations.

Wilderness Explorers is included in regular admission to Animal Kingdom. The attraction opens at 10 a.m. daily, one hour after the rope drop.


April 9, 2013

How fans can be Kingdon Keepers for a day at Walt Disney World

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This weekend, my 10-year-old son set out to be a Kingdom Keeper at the Magic Kingdom using the self-guided quest in Birnbaum Guides 2013 Walt Disney World edition. We didn't encounter any villains, but we did have fun with a new challenge in a favorite theme park.

For those not familiar with the term "Kingdom Keepers," it comes from a popular series of books by the same name from author Ridley Pearson. The Kingdom Keepers are students who protect the theme park from Disney villains, known as Overtakers in the books.

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In 2011, Disney Youth Education Series (YES) launched the first Kingdom Keepers Quest, a self-guided tour that Pearson helped design to create an immersive experience for the series' fans at Magic Kingdom. Because that program also has educational components -- such as building skills in problem solving, creativity, language arts, mathematics and critical thinking -- it is offered to groups of students.

Fans who weren't visiting the Magic Kingdom with their schools, though, were disappointed and had no such opportunity -- until this year's Birnbaum Guide was published. So, what can fans like my son expect from the individual self-guided quest?

"[The quests] are all me, so they're the same feel," Pearson told me recently. "I think that because of space limitations, they're certainly truncated. " They may be a little more difficult in YES, but those take 3 to 4 hours, and this one takes, maybe, an hour and a half."

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Don't be fooled, though. Birnbaum's Kingdom Keepers Quest is not simple -- at least not for a fourth-grader and his mother. We didn't have any difficulty finding the various locations in Magic Kingdom that the clues describe, but some of the codes and word play took multiple readings to decipher. This was especially true of the first quest in the set of five. Fortunately, you can solve the quests in any order and then put the clues together for the final answer, so we did skip the first one and save it for the end.

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Embedded in each quest are passages from "Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark," the first book in the series, which hint at some of the answers. And, if you have a smartphone and download an app, there are extra goodies you can unlock in the Magic Kingdom to help entertain and guide you through the quests. I don't want to give those surprises away, but the ones we saw were pretty darn cool. Plus, smartphone users can tackle an additional Expert Challenge Quest.

Can't get enough Kingdom Keepers? You're in luck. Disney Youth Education Series currently is testing a new quest for school groups at Animal Kingdom that will launch soon. Individual fans will get their own Animal Kingdom quest in the 2014 Birnbaum Guides for Walt Disney World, which will be released this fall.

"I'm just finishing now a new [Birnbaum quest] for 2014 that is four pages of Magic Kingdom and four pages of Animal Kingdom," Pearson told me. "I think we'll build that out as the years go forward."

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In the meantime, fans can meet Pearson this week when he appears at Walt Disney World to sign copies of the latest book in the series, "Kingdom Keepers 6: Dark Passage," which was released April 2. For details on these events and more about what's in store in the next Kingdom Keepers books, please see my earlier blog post.

April 6, 2013

Hands-on fun with Innoventions attractions can make Epcot guests feel like superheroes

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Sometimes, there's nothing more magical than hands-on interaction fun with a Disney Parks attraction, and that's the idea behind the Innoventions concept at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. And this week brought news about one of Marvel Comics's biggest superheroes making his ironclad effect on the West Coast.

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In California, the collection of interactive displays -- modeled after the World's Fair -- at Disneyland will gain an Iron Man exhibit on April 13 -- and will, of course, promote the upcoming the upcoming "Iron Man 3" movie. Iron Man Tech Presented by Stark Industries will include Tony Stark's Hall of Armor exhibit and a simulator that will allow guests to fire repulsor blasts just like Iron Man.

As popular as that promotional display is certain to be with theme-park guests, what would be a real blast is if rumors of a Stark Expo overlay of the entire Innoventions attraction comes to pass. MovieFone reports that the upcoming Iron Man Tech exhibit actually is a beta test for the overhaul of the site and, if it is successful, construction could begin in 2014.

My family -- and many others, I'm sure -- would like to see a Stark Expo, or even just Iron Man Tech, come to Orlando. Unfortunately, it won't happen because of the Marvel licensing pact with Universal Studios Orlando. Iron Man will only be seen at Walt Disney World in merchandise and the new monorail wrap.

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Still, our two Innoventions pavilions here in Orlando have a lot of fun to offer kids, even if the exhibits don't revolve around a popular super hero who is part of the Avengers project and routinely saves the world.

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At Innoventions West, families with elementary-school-age children won't want to miss The Great Piggy Bank Adventure and Where's the Fire? exhibitions. The Great Piggy Bank Adventure teaches children the importance of saving money and planning for the future with concrete examples, and guests actually carry their piggy banks from game to game. Where's the Fire? includes an interactive game house, where teams search to find the fire hazards in their home, and the Play It Safe Maze, where children 5 years old and younger can learn how to exit their homes in a fire. Both of the exhibits are so entertaining that kids may not even realize they are absorbing valuable information.

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Innoventions West also contains a video game section, where kids can play the latest games for free, and a character meet-and-greet area exclusively for Disney Visa card members. (See a full description of Innoventions on the AllEars.Net resource page.)

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At Innoventions East, roller coaster fans shouldn't pass up the opportunity to design their own attraction and ride it virtually at The Sum of All Thrills. This is not an attraction for the faint-of-heart, and there routinely are long lines attesting to its popularity. Test the Limits Lab is good, clean fun for all ages and temperaments -- though those needing to work out a little frustration may find the experience more cathartic than others. The test lab's six kiosks allow Epcot visitors to get a hands-on feel for how UL annually tests the safety of more than 18,000 products. Guided by cast members, guests can "implode" television screens, put vacuum cleaners through their paces and even drop 55-gallon barrels on firefighters' helmets to see whether they can withstand the impact.

Sure, the Walt Disney World Innoventions attractions might not feature the latest technological creations from Stark Industries, but the idea behind them are the same here as what guests at Disneyland enjoy. The hands-on fun is as entertaining as it is educational. And, who knows? After successfully saving money, escaping a fire or even riding a roller coaster of their own creation, the participants might even feel like superheroes in a way.

April 4, 2013

Tour Disney Fairy houses at Epcot Flower & Garden Festival and learn how to create one at home

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One of my family's favorite displays at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is the Pixie Hollow Garden. Sure, the topiaries of Tinker Bell and her fellow fairies are amazing, but what we really like to study are the miniature fairy houses.

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Near each topiary is a representation of what that fairy's house would be like. The tiny dwellings are imaginative in their use of everyday household items. One of the most memorable uses a roller skate as its base. Other miniature model homes that have been displayed for multiple years feature water cans and teapots. A Disney landscape artist said they use these objects because they help illustrate the size of fairies.

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The Epcot horticulture team has been creating these shelters since 2009, and there are some new fairy houses each year. That's largely because Pixie Hollow Garden has grown each year with annual direct-to-DVD Tinker Bell movies that feature new characters. This year, however, is the first since 2008 that a new Tinker Bell movie will not hit the shelves. ("Quest for the Queen" is expected in Spring 2014.) So, the theming highlights Tinker Bell and her long lost sister, Periwinkle, who was revealed in "Secret of the Wings" in October 2012. In fact, their topiaries are the focal point at the entrance to this year's garden.

Last year, Pixie Hollow Garden offered a special Winter Woods section that was made to recall the hues of snow and ice with beds of blue and white flowers. In years past, the garden contained a play structure for younger kids. This year, however, the play structure has been separated from the fairies; it still remains near the Test Track Walkway but has been re-imagined as a Radiator Springs outdoor area. The fairies have moved into the Butterfly House, which is located on the opposite side of the park. (Take a photo tour of the lifelike topiaries and even more images of the tiny houses in the AllEars.Net gallery.)

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Like other aspects of the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, the fairy houses can be replicated at home. Disney's April issue of "Family Fun" magazine shows readers how to create a miniature house, called a Toad Abode, with very little construction involved. The editors suggest buying a small birdhouse and placing it in a shallow 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.

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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.

RELATED LINKS:

** Kids tour Epcot Flower & Garden Show TRYit food booths

** My Yard Goes Disney' host Brandon Johnson takes guests behind the scenes of backyard makeovers at Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

** Gardens of the World Tour

** Oz-themed play structures

** Check out our extensive Epcot Flower and Garden Festival Information!

April 2, 2013

It's curtains for Disney Channel Rocks! at Disney's Hollywood Studios after April 6

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

High School Musical Pep Rally (2007):

High School Musical 2: School's Out (2007):


High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2010):

Disney Channel Rocks! (2010):

March 30, 2013

Easter activities spring to life early at Epcot

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

There are many other Easter Festivities around the parks!

March 28, 2013

'My Yard Goes Disney' host Brandon Johnson takes guests behind the scenes of backyard makeovers at Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

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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!


March 26, 2013

Get up close with Magic Kingdom's steam trains with behind-the-scenes tour

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

March 21, 2013

Kids tour Epcot Flower and Garden Festival TRYit food booths and rate favorite menu items

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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.

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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.

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Pineapple Promenade

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.

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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.

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L'Orangerie

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.

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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.

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Hanami

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.

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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.

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Primavera Kitchen

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.

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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.

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Lotus House

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).

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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.

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Florida Fresh

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.

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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.

January 26, 2013

Fulfill your need for speed at Test Track 2.0 in Epcot

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


January 22, 2013

Disney World's reworked Habit Heroes attraction opens

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Full Video of the Revised Habit Heroes!

Original Habit Heroes Blog

Original Habit Heroes Press Release


January 8, 2013

The many great reasons to visit Disney World in January

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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.

January 1, 2013

Where to find healthy, tasty salads at Walt Disney World

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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.

Magic Kingdom

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.

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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.

Animal Kingdom

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!)

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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.

Epcot

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.

Hollywood Studios

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.

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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.


September 13, 2012

Periwinkle joins Tinker Bell in Winter Woods of Disney Fairies meet-and-greet

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

September 10, 2012

Sneak peek: New Fantasyland's Enchanted Tales with Belle

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

July 17, 2012

Tips for helping your kids start pin trading at Disney World

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

For answers to many other questions, check out Disney's official pin-trading site, and please share your pin-trading tips and experiences in the comments.

July 10, 2012

Disney World's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique offers Merida makeover

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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.

June 14, 2012

Ideas for celebrating Father's Day at Walt Disney World

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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.

Cars

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.

Golf

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.)

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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)

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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.

Family time

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.

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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.

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About Theme Parks

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in the Theme Parks category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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