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March 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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February 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No word on if the menu will remain the same.

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



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October 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

How did you get started on this Mexico path?

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

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

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Chicken Tinga Tostada with Avocado and Cheese


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Grilled Corn and Poblano Guacamole

Rules for street food anywhere in the world

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

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

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

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

On getting good recipes

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

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

How to make freshest guacamole

Pairing alcoholic beverages with Mexican cuisine

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

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

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

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

Servings
8 (12-ounce) cocktails

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

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

Check out our other Epcot Food and Wine Festival Videos:

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



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September 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Shopping!




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July 21, 2014

First Look: 2014 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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March 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In addition to the unique play areas, this garden features monstrous-size Mike and Sully topiaries. Sully is one of Walt Disney's World's largest, weighing in at 4,300 pounds. It took almost 4,000 small plants to fill his frame. Although Mike is lighter at about 1,000 pounds, engineers had to incorporate the stack of books behind him to balance that weight.

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A collection of large, leafy plants, including elephant ears, rubber plants, sea grapes, fiddle leaf fig, banana plants and colorful bromeliads and hibiscus, create the garden's ambiance. These plants were chosen not just for their appearance, but also for their ability to withstand their location bathed in full sunlight.

"We have a lot of color, but it's not flowers," said horticulture manager Heather Will-Browne. "We have texture and foliage."

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Kids will find another interactive area in Mater's Parts, Plants & Play Garden on the walkway near Test Track. "Cars 2" stars Lightning McQueen and Mater are represented as topiaries overlooking another play structure from Landscape Structures that includes a pair of climbing rocks. There also are related car-parts games on the walkway to engage young guests. This section is geared toward ages 5 to 12.

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Finally, don't miss the Backyard Play Garden between Morocco and France. Sponsored by GoGo squeeZ, the area offers outdoor fun designed to keep the young and young-at-heart active and is a third separate area with play equipment from Landscape Structures.

Even though the area is a fun place to play, it also has a more-serious aspect, as well.

"There is a lot of concern in America about kids not getting enough time with nature, so what we're trying to do is give families lots of different ideas of fun, cute, interesting things that the parents and their children can do in their yard," said Eric Darden, festival horticulture manager. "The best way to get children eating vegetables is to have them grow it. If they grow it, then they're going to be much more likely to eat it."

To that end, the Backyard Play Garden offers displays of unusual fruit, plants that make "green juice" and a special planter that shows carrot roots growing. Guests are encouraged to eat a rainbow full of vegetables, grow their own pizza toppings, and plant pollinator and sensory gardens.

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One of the more unusual new ways to garden is to plant vegetables in hay bales, said Will-Browne.

"It's really a neat concept, because if you do this in your yard, once you're done -- about the same timing as when the vegetables are finished -- the bale starts to decompose and you can just spread it around. You get a really great compost or mulch from the straw," she said.

In addition to the play areas, families will find kid-friendly activities incorporated into other gardens throughout the theme park. There is a coloring activity at the Gardener's Palette area, a plant-guessing activity at the Florida Fresh outdoor kitchen, and a fairy house search at Tinker Bell's Butterfly House (including a new pirate fairy house in honor of the new Tinker Bell movie). Plus, guests can take home Wocka Wocka Wocka Watermelon Seeds at the Florida Fresh garden.



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March 3, 2014

What's new at 2014 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

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If you find gardening at home challenging, imagine what it takes to design, implement and maintain the hundreds of thousands of flowers and plants that are on display at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. I found out when I recently was invited to a "behind-the-walls" media preview of this year's festival.

The centerpiece of the festival is the elaborate and lush entrance garden that guests view with Spaceship Earth as its backdrop. It's the first thing they will see when they first enter the theme park. This year's entrance garden is titled "Spring is In the Air!" and it features Goofy, Donald Duck and Daisy Duck topiaries celebrating spring with a fanciful butterfly hunt. Plus, there will be a real waterfall and pond with water lilies.

In recent years, inspiration for the entrance garden has come largely from Walt Disney's classic short films, said festival horticulture manager Eric Darden.

"I firmly believe that the best entrances we've done are exact lifts from some of Walt's shorts, like 'Hawaiian Holiday,' " he said. "That's what we're doing this year, as well, looking at several of the outdoor ones. Also, we're doing something fun. The billboard advertising campaign of the last several years has shown computer-generated characters so we tried to make our character [topiaries] look like that. Their faces are different, their eyes are different, so it's quite a challenge."

In addition to the intricacies of designing a flower bed that will make a great first impression on Walt Disney World guests, putting it together is no small feat, either.

"We always do it on Monday night -- two days before the festival opens," Darden said. "The idea being that we give ourselves an extra night in case something goes horribly wrong. Nothing has ever gone horribly wrong, but every one of us believes that if we were to change [the installation] to Tuesday night, that would be the year something would go wrong."

The process begins with the cranes entering Epcot through a "back stage" area behind Germany and making their way under monorail beams to the front of the park, where they will be used to set the topiaries in place. Once the topiaries, each of which can weigh several tons, are secured, the horticulture team begins placing the bedding plants.

"Then Heather [Will-Browne, an Epcot horticulture manager] and all of our real color experts will start looking, and there will be gardeners going back to our holding area and grabbing stuff. And then Heather will be walking around just dropping plants," Darden said. "So, we have a plan, and then there's probably another 40 percent of bedding plants put in. At the front entrance, you can't have too much color. Everyone says 'What's your bedding plant mix going to be here?' [And we say], 'Well, it's going to start with this, but what it's going to end up with, I don't know.' Heather's probably the biggest determiner of that."

Will-Browne, who has been a Walt Disney World cast member for more than 40 years, was the first female member of the horticulture team. This year, her color specialty is played out in the new Gardener's Palette area, which is presented by Transitions Adaptive Lenses.

"The fun part is that it is kind of a teaching garden," she said. "We have the color wheel displayed in flowers and then the seasonal gardens and the children's activity -- coloring in the color garden. I think this is going to be something that people really get something out of."

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Guests who have an interest in how color can be used in their own gardens can hear Will-Browne speak during one of the Greenhouse Stage presentations in the Festival Center. She is the featured speaker at 11 a.m. May 2, 3, and 4. Darden said that the presentation is one that she shares with Disney horticulture team members, as well.

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For the first time in the festival's history, guests will be invited to step into a topiary scene for a special photo opportunity. In the location that houses the cranberry bog during the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, there is a vignette of Goofy and Donald topiaries playing soccer. Guests can pose as the goalkeeper in this scene and have their photos taken.

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Among the other new exhibits this year are the Kermit and Miss Piggy topiaries, which are located between Germany and Italy. They were inspired by the upcoming movie, "Muppets Most Wanted," which hits theaters on March 21. The always-popular Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs have gotten a makeover this year. Snow White is the first character topiary to show detailed facial characteristics. The dwarfs have received an upgrade, too, mostly in the materials used for their beards. Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival has 79 character topiaries and 20 additional shaped topiaries.

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Other perennial favorites return this year, as well. There are more than 200 floating gardens in the waterway under the monorail. This year, some of the containers have LED lights, so the flowers can be enjoyed at night, like many of the topiaries and playgrounds that also are illuminated. The signature beds of colorful flowers designed to look like butterflies surround the waterway. Nearby, Tinker Bell's Butterfly House beckons guests inside to see the monarchs and the pixie-sized fairy houses.

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"It's not an official theme, but you will see a lot of butterflies [throughout the festival]," Will-Browne said.

The 21st annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival runs March 5 through May 18. Most of the attractions are included in regular admission to Epcot.

NOTE: If your kids are like mine, one of the things they most look forward to are the playgrounds that only are offered during the 75-day festival. I'll give you a preview tour of those areas on my blog tomorrow. In the meantime, please enjoy this peek "behind-the-walls" taken just a few days before the festival officially launches!



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February 17, 2014

Unique Disney Fairies houses to be sold at Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

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Among the many things my family and I look forward to each year at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is the area dedicated to the Disney Fairies. What began as a promotion for the direct-to-DVD movies has grown from topiaries of each fairy to include a collection of tiny fairy houses, and the popular pieces have moved from a small Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden to inside the butterfly tent so they could be enjoyed by more guests each year.

My children and I love studying the small houses, which debuted in 2008, to see how the fairies have used everyday objects in new ways to create their homes. One of our favorites incorporates a roller skate, and another sprite took up residence in a teacup she embellished. (You can see photos of several of the fairy houses from past years on my blog here.)

Imagine my delight in learning that guests can purchase some of these houses for the first time for just two weeks during this year's Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. From March 22 to April 6, the creators and their one-of-a-kind pieces will appear in the Garden Oasis merchandise area in one of the pergolas near the Mexico pavilion. These clever garden homes actually are created for the horticulture department at Walt Disney World by Florida artists Vikki Yarborough and Ronda Maseman.

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

Yarborough and Maseman work just like the fairies do -- by recycling objects that humans have discarded and by collecting things from nature.

"The creative process begins as other people's cast-offs found at flea markets, garage sales, yard sales, our own kitchen cabinets or garden shed. These items could be a sifter, old toy, copper tea pot, colander, bird house, paint cans, clay pots, and on the list goes. We never know what we will find," they wrote.

"Nature then provides us with " tree branches, sticks, bark, seed pods, leaves, moss, sand, dirt, shells -- anything that is found on the ground. The fairies don't want you to cut fresh stuff. We never leave the house without bringing a bag to gather the treasures we find. Then the fun begins, putting all these items together to create the homes."

Guests at Walt Disney World can see the results for themselves. The 21st annual Epcot Flower and Garden Festival begins on March 5 and runs through May 18. Most festival events are included in regular theme-park admission. The prices of the fairy houses will vary, based on the size and materials used.

And if you can't get enough of fairy creations, be sure to watch for "The Pirate Fairy," the fifth in the animated Tinker Bell movies, which is scheduled for release on April 1. Get a sneak peek here.

As magical as the fairy houses can be, the fairy topiaries were equally fun to see, as well, and they always made for a great photo backdrop with the kids. Unfortunately, I've recently learned that most of the topiaries will not appear this year as they have in years past. Tinker Bell will be located outside her butterfly house, though.



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February 13, 2014

Raytheon celebrates National Engineers Week with "Science Thrills Live" shows at Epcot

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No matter what your kids tell you, science can be fun, and one of Epcot's corporate sponsors, Raytheon, is offering theme-park guests the opportunity to discover this for themselves during special events planned for National Engineers Week, which is Feb. 17 to 21.

Raytheon, an aerospace and defense contractor that employs state-of-the-art electronics and communications systems for government and commercial projects, sponsors Sum of All Thrills in the theme park. This attraction allows guests to digitally design their own roller coasters and then experience a simulated ride in them.

But during National Engineers Week, the company also will conduct an interactive stage show called "Science Thrills Live" to demonstrate to Walt Disney World guests the exciting ways that science can be applied to objects in our everyday lives. Guests will learn about nucleation-triggered eruptions, thermoplastic recycling, and the conservation of angular momentum by watching soda explode and milk jugs melt and participating in a giant tug of war. The experiments will be conducted by actual scientists, and the show features Erika Ebbel, the host of "The Dr. Erika Show," and the founder of Science from Scientists.

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Erika Ebbel teaches students who have donned safety goggles about math and science.

The 20-minute shows are free and take place each day at 11 a.m. and 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. at the Innoventions Engineers Lab inside Innoventions West. Raytheon representatives will be handing out free T-shirts on Monday and sling bags on Tuesday through Friday.

Last year during National Engineers Week, Raytheon hosted family friendly sessions called "Coaster Crafters" that taught kids the basic physics behind designing roller coasters. You can read about it and see photos on my blog post here.

Can't make it to Innoventions at Epcot? There is an online version of Sum of All Thrills that allows users to create a roller coaster ride, pilot a jet fighter or race a bobsled -- and then relive their custom ride over and over again. A design table similar to the one used at Walt Disney World provides all the virtual tools users need to experience their own thrill ride and learn about some of the scientific concepts that make the attractions so exciting.

In another community effort to nurture interest in math and science, Raytheon also hosts the MATHCOUNTS national competition at Walt Disney World each spring. The contest brings together the nation's top middle-school students who have excelled at math. Raytheon's educational efforts are grouped under the MathMovesU initiative, which includes scholarships, competitions, interactive learning programs and tutoring.



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January 25, 2014

Walt Disney World's Epcot offers kids a variety of fun activities

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Recently, a parent at my children's elementary school told me she would never take her kids to Epcot because there just isn't anything for them to do at that Walt Disney World theme park.

Huh? As an annual passholder who takes her young children to Epcot on a regular basis, I was really surprised to hear another local resident express this viewpoint. Sure, first-time visitors sometimes are under the impression that Epcot is designed with adults in mind. There's often the misconception among new visitors that the park can be a collection of educational exhibits grouped by nations around the world or tech sponsors at the front of the park. But surely locals know better, right?

Well, for those who don't and who might harbor the same misconception, let me offer a few ideas for some of the family friendly activities that can fill your day at the park.

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** Thrill-ride attractions. For those who love a thrill, there are several rides every bit as heart-pounding as Space Mountain or Expedition Everest: Test Track, Soarin' and Mission: SPACE. Be sure to book a FastPass for these rides because the stand-by lines can get really long.

** Fun but not-so-fast rides. These are perfect for younger kids or those who prefer tamer experiences. Spaceship Earth offers guests an easy time-travel ride inside the iconic geodesic sphere; The Land ride takes guests through a futuristic greenhouse; Gran Fiesta Tour is a gentle boat ride in the Mexico pavilion; and Maelstrom in Norway is another boat ride with a single, small drop.

** Movies. Many of the pavilions at various nations play shows in theaters. OK, so they are educational. But they are quite interesting in showing other parts of the world, and several are even presented in breathtaking surround-screen formats. Canada and China take guests on tours with short 360-degree movies. Other pavilions, such as France and Norway, have more traditional theaters.

** Scavenger hunts. During the last few years, Disney World has added several self-guided quests in its parks. Epcot features Phineas and Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure, which is a great way to explore the nations at your own pace.

** Create a free souvenir. Younger kids may enjoy the Kidcot Spots, which allow them to color a mask in the shape of Perry the Platypus or Duffy the Disney Bear. Each country has a table for the coloring activity, and cast members will stamp the handle, so guests will have a collection of stamps, as well. Some also will write the child's name in the country's native language. My kids, like so many others, always want to stop at the Kidcot Spots, even though they've participated in this activity repeatedly.

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** Character meet-and-greets. Epcot features some unique opportunities, the most recent of which is Anna and Elsa from "Frozen." The royal sisters still are drawing hours-long lines in Norway, and this is the only place to have a photo taken with the pair and get their autographs. Anna and Elsa are scheduled to remain at Epcot through the end of January, so now is the time to plan your visit.

** Food! Even picky eaters may enjoy the opportunity to sample snacks from different countries that they might not ordinarily be exposed to. This is especially true during Epcot's two large festivals -- Flower and Garden in the spring and Food and Wine in the fall -- which feature kiosks of appetizer-size portions. As my kids have gotten older and have started exploring different flavors beyond burgers and chicken nuggets, they look forward to our family days of sharing different dishes at Epcot.

** Fireworks. IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth takes place around World Showcase Lagoon and is a spectacular laser light and fireworks show set to dramatic music. What a way to close out your day!

These are just some of the fun things you and your family might enjoy at Epcot. At various times throughout the year, the park also hosts different concerts and seasonal events that you won't find in the other parks.

And, yes, Epcot lives up to its premise as a so-called Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that offers plenty of educational opportunities for young and old alike. Practically every attraction inside the park is a learning experience. But most every tech demonstration or national-heritage lesson is accompanied by a fun activity or attraction, as well.

So, for those who have not been to Epcot, rest assured that the first and foremost lesson you might learn is that the park is no different than Magic Kingdom when it comes to the amount of fun you can have there.



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December 19, 2013

Personalized children's book at Epcot celebrates holidays around the world

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Epcot long has offered a global view of the holidays, and now the park offers something special that allows kids to read about holidays around the world, too.

kidsHeritage, Inc., the company that creates custom books for children and which has a retail site at Epcot, has a new offering for the holidays. "My Sleigh Ride Around the World" takes readers to different countries to learn about the local traditions for celebrating the holidays.

"It is a great fit with Epcot's beautiful Holidays Around the World celebration," author Deanna Bufo Novak told me recently. "Now, guests can take some of that magic home with them."

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The holiday book can be personalized with a child's name, birth date, and photo, as well as the gift-giver's name, date of journey and country of departure. A personalized copy of "My Sleigh Ride Around the World" costs $39.95, or guests can choose the standard version for $18.95.

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This book and the two others -- "My Heritage Book" and "ABC's Around the World" -- are available in the company's new location inside Heritage Manor Gifts at The American Adventure. Personalized copies are created on the premises and typically are ready in 30 minutes.

"I believe strongly in teaching children about heritage, other traditions, and world culture," Novak said. "This was a natural progression after my first two books, and with the holidays approaching, it was the perfect time."

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Not only do readers learn about varied customs, but Novak also has included pages that allow each child to further personalize his or her book by writing about favorite holiday traditions, what he or she is thankful for, and gifts he or she would like to give. The author said she hopes these pages remind everyone what the holidays are all about.

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Parents, grandparents and teachers are frequent customers, Novak said. "Teachers are personalizing the books for themselves to use in their classrooms," she said, adding that the holiday book is a multicultural exploration of the holidays and is, therefore, appropriate for a diverse student body.

"My Sleigh Ride Around the World" will be for sale as long as quantities last.

Novak often can be found working in Heritage Manor Gifts, especially Fridays and Saturdays, and is happy to autograph books when asked.

"I am incredibly thankful to get to do what I love so much, to be able to do it in Epcot, and to receive all of the wonderful feedback I do from guests," she said. "It really is a dream come true for me!"

To read more about "My Heritage Book" and "ABC's Around the World," please see my previous post.



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October 10, 2013

Chase VIP Lounge takes guests inside American Adventure Parlor during Epcot Food & Wine Festival

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This year, some guests at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival have the opportunity to step into one of Walt Disney World's private party spaces -- free of charge.

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The Chase VIP Lounge has moved from the Festival Center in 2012 to the American Adventure Parlor this year, and it is open to all Chase card members. Each card member may bring as many as nine guests. To access the space, there is a queue in front of the building, slightly to the right, where you can present your card.

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A cast member told me the lounge can accommodate 100 people. When capacity is reached, they let in guests as others exit. Those wishing to burn off some of the calories they have consumed at the festival can choose to climb stairs to the third floor, while the rest of us opt for the elevator.

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Upstairs, you'll be greeted by another cast member who will explain that complimentary drinks are available to the right in the Thomas Jefferson Dining Room. My family and I were excited to see two Coca-Cola Freestyle machines plus regular and decaffinated coffee, and guests are invited to drink to their heart's content. Beer and wine also are available for purchase.

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This room typically is rented for intimate wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners and farewell brunches. The dining room, which is reminiscent of Monticello during the late 1700s, can seat 50 guests. The main focal point of the area is a large curio cabinet filled with fine china and period artifacts.

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Moving out of the Thomas Jefferson Dining Room and to the left of the elevators is the colonial-style Main Living Room. It features comfortable couches, antique furniture and two cozy fireplaces. While the space functions as part of the Chase VIP Lounge, it offers guests two charging stations for a variety of mobile devices, Disney-themed board games and televisions. For weddings, the space typically is where guests would enjoy cocktails and appetizers. Beautifully appointed bathrooms are available at the far end of the space.

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The Main Living Room boasts sweeping views of World Showcase Lagoon and the America Gardens Theatre, where the Eat to the Beat concerts take place. Disney Chase card members are offered preferred seating at the concerts or all Chase card members can get preferred viewing of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth fireworks, while wristbands are available. When I stopped by the lounge at 2 p.m. Sunday on the festival's opening weekend, only seating for the first concert was unavailable. There were plenty of wristbands available for the fireworks area, which is a roped off area in front of the Italy pavilion, on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.

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The Chase VIP Lounge is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. It stays open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Like to see "hidden spaces" at Walt Disney World? Take my photo tours of other private lounges: Living Seas Salon and Siemens VIP Center.


October 1, 2013

Step into a cranberry bog at Epcot Food & Wine Festival

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Before this year, I hadn't really given much thought to how cranberries make their way from farms to my Thanksgiving table. But after stepping into more than 1,000 pounds of the fruit at Walt Disney World, I was curious.

Ocean Spray's cranberry bog is back at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival for the third year, and if you've attended the festival, you've probably walked right past it on the central walkway leading to World Showcase.

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Cast members in waders stand knee-deep in the colorful bog, demonstrating how rakes are used to turn the fruit during wet harvesting. Cranberries actually grow on long vines in marshy areas, not underwater as some people might think. The night before the harvest, growers flood the area with up to 18 inches of water. Then, they use the rake-like tools to loosen the cranberries, and the fruit floats to the surface.

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So, what you're seeing at Epcot are the loose cranberries floating in water -- the final step of wet harvesting a crop. (Cranberries also can be picked dry, which is done with large machines that comb the berries off vines.) The festival schedule of September through November coincides with the annual harvest of cranberries in North America.

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On the opening night of the festival, Ocean Spray hosted a reception IN its cranberry bog for media, which I attended. I really wasn't sure what to expect, but it sounded like a unique opportunity I didn't want to miss. When it was my turn to enter the bog, I was given red knee socks (cute!) and asked my shoe size. Apparently the one-piece waders are sized according to the boots. Ladies, don't you wish all clothing was sized in that fashion?

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Once I slipped on the overalls, it was off to the bog. It was somewhat surreal to be standing in the midst of waves of cranberries as Epcot visitors stopped to ask questions and take photos. The waders kept me completely dry -- until the rain started -- and moving in the water was not difficult.

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In fact, Deb Wills and I were invited to sample foods made from cranberries while standing in the bog. To represent United States cuisine, we were served Seared Free Range Chicken with Craisin Moonshine Pearls and Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Craisin Ketchup. Both were delicious! Deb also interviewed Disney chef Damon in the bog about the versatility of cranberries:

And we explored the many culinary uses of the fruit, too. Outside the bog, we tried cranberry dishes from other countries: Cranberry & SeaSalt Cured Wild Salmon with Maple Sugar Crystals and Craisin Glazed Pork Belly with White Cheddar Maple Grits from Canada; Artisian Cheese Stuffed Mini Craisin Brioche and Craisin, Bacon and Brie Potato Gratin from France; Craisin Infused Five Spice Char Kobe Beef with Sriracha and Craisin Vegetable Fried Rice from Japan; Mole Shrimp Quesadilla with Cranberry Salsa and Pulled Chicken Craisin Tamales from Mexico; and English Mustard Dusted Scotch Egg with Cranberry Marmalade and Beef and Craisin Shepherd's Pie from the United Kingdom.

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Guests at the Epcot Food & Wine Festival can visit the Hops & Barley Marketplace through Nov. 11 to taste the Craisin Bread Pudding with Grand Marnier Anglaise, which is a vegetarian dish. At the bog, visitors are invited to pick up a free sample of Craisins (dried cranberries).

Ocean Spray is an agricultural cooperative owned by more than 700 growers, many of whom have been in the business for generations. Below, Deb talks with Todd May, a fifth-generation cranberry farmer, from Canada.

Do yourself a favor, and stop at the bog and learn more about cranberries and how they are harvested. You just might develop a whole new appreciation for a traditional American holiday side dish.


September 28, 2013

Take a tour of Epcot's private Living Seas Salon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 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.


August 1, 2013

Preview of 2013 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

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At a Tables in Wonderland dinner on Saturday at Walt Disney World, guests were invited to preview some of the offerings for this year's Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. The popular event, which begins Sept. 27, allows Walt Disney World visitors to taste their way around the world via kiosks that sell foods and beverages representing various countries.

AllEars.Net founder Deb Wills, AllEars.Net photographer Linda Eckwerth and I attended the event, so we could share with you what to expect when the 46-day festival opens. Deb and Linda agreed to share their thoughts on the adult beverages because I'm really not a wine or beer connoisseur.

When we arrived, an open bar offered a variety of wines, beers and a signature cocktail. The frozen Polish Szarlotka, which will be available at the Poland kiosk, mixes the flavors of an apple tart and Polish vodka. Several of our dining companions declared it a delicious combination. Linda chose the Once Upon a Vine Chardonnay, which she said was refreshing considering it was so hot outside. She described the wine as crisp, with a touch of fruit and very little oak.

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Three appetizers were offered: Florida Grass-fed Beef Slider with Monterey Jack and Sweet & Hot Pickles from the Florida Fresh kiosk; Kimchi Dog with Spicy Mustard Sauce from the South Korea booth; and Crispy Pork Belly with Black Beans, Onions, Avocado and Cilantro from the new Brazil marketplace. Of the trio, we all liked the flavors of the crispy pork belly -- which is the same cut of meat as bacon -- best. I normally don't choose to eat spicy foods, but the Kimchi Dog was at first appealing, and then, addictive. I couldn't put it down! The three of us weren't overly impressed with the beef slider, even though grass-fed beef is trendy right now. Deb said she did like the meat, but the bun and the pickles didn't appeal to her.

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A Xingu Black Beer from Brazil was paired with the Crispy Pork Belly. Linda said, "This is a dark beer and, when poured, has a slightly tan, frothy head. It appears heavy but was actually a medium to light body. I tasted coffee and a little sweetness." She also sampled the Carnaval Moscato sparkling wine from Brazil and described it as slightly bubbly, but not as sweet as most Moscatos.

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For the salad course, we were served a very popular dish from the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. We all were excited to see the Watermelon Salad with Pickled Red Onions, Baby Arugula, Feta Cheese and Balsamic Reduction from the Florida Fresh booth. So delicious! It was paired with Florida Orange Groves Hurricane Class 5 Florida White Sangria. Linda said, "This was not like any Sangria I have had; It was light but very fruity. While it is a blend of five fruit juices -- passion fruit, pineapple, mango, lime and watermelon -- I was only picking up the pineapple. It was sweet. I think it paired well with the Watermelon Salad but it was not to my taste."

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Hostess Pam Smith and Chef Marianne Hunnel

I asked Chef Marianne Hunnel, content development manager of the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, if she thought the new Garden Marketplaces at the Flower and Garden Festival might help broaden the audience for the Food and Wine Festival.

"Typically, the demographic is very different," Marianne said. "I think that by incorporating the food and beverage piece as part of the Flower and Garden Festival, there could be a possibility of people becoming more foodies and more interested in the whole art of food and wine."

And, although the festivals may share the same audiences, they will not share the same food. Sadly, the Watermelon Salad was only making a special appearance at the Tables in Wonderland event. It will not be offered at the Food and Wine Festival.

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Our dinner entrees were the Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce from Le Cellier at the Canada pavilion and the Seared Scottish Salmon with Cauliflower Puree, Watercress and Malt Vinaigreet from the new Scotland marketplace. They were served with baby root vegetables. This was my first opportunity to try the Le Cellier filet mignon that guests repeatedly rave about, and I now can understand why. It was a most tender and delicious piece of beef! I am told the salmon was prepared perfectly, light and flaky without a heavy fish taste. The salmon will be featured at the new Scotland marketplace, along with Vegetarian Haggis with Neeps and Tatties (griddled vegetable cake with rutabaga and mashed potatoes) and Scottish Banoffee Tart (bananas, Scottish Whiskey toffee, Walker's Shortbread crumbles and sweet cream).

Marianne said, "It's very exciting that this country [Scotland] is being represented because we just had the "Brave" movie. But it was something that the Scottish government really wanted to work with us on this year and have a presence. It's not because of "Brave," but I'm sure "Brave" put some exposure to the whole country of Scotland. It just made sense that this was the year to do something like this. There are going to be a lot of surprises and delights for the guests with the dinners."

Our entrees were paired with two wines. Linda said the Mohua Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand went well with the salmon. "It was a light, crisp citrus wine. I tasted grapefruit, lemon and very little grassy notes."

Deb tasted the Wolftrap Red from Africa, which is a blend of syrah, mourvedre and viognier. She said, "I have had this wine without food before and not cared for it. I tried it again to see how it went with food, and it paired well with the filet. I still don't care for the wine, but that's because I don't care for the viognier grape. If you do, you must try this wine!"

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Finally, the best part of the dinner: a dessert trio of Chocolate Orange Cupcake, Hazelnut Chocolate Cheesecake and Morello Cherry Pistachio Mousse. The three of us enjoyed all three desserts, but we also had favorites. Linda and I agreed we'd be standing in line for the cupcake, while Deb preferred the mousse. The three desserts will be available as a trio or can be purchased separately at the Dessert and Champagne marketplace. Linda tried the Nicolas Feuillatte Rose Champagne and found it to be a little too sweet for her when combined with the sugary desserts.

Another dessert has been developed for the festival with kids in mind -- a frozen s'mores beverage made of frozen Nesquik, toasted marshmallow syrup and topped with graham crackers, Marianne told me. And she said there are plenty of foods and beverages for kids to sample, as well as experiences such as the Ghirardeli Chocolate Experience and the Ocean Spray Cranberry Bog.

"So many kids are being educated about different countries and the different foods from the countries. " Kids have the opportunity to taste sushi or the hot dog with kimchi and different things, so I highly encourage kids to explore. It's really a way that they can expand their flavors of the world without that commitment of a whole dinner," Marianne said.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at the Tables in Wonderland event. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.


July 23, 2013

Radio Disney kicks off TRYathalon tour; DisneyXD to air competition in August

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Radio Disney kicked off a national tour this weekend designed to bring the fun of DisneyXD's TRYathalon to kids across the United States. Orlando is one of the upcoming stops, and kids are invited to come out to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at 10 a.m. Aug. 31 to experience it.

Part of Disney's "TRYit" campaign planned to inspire kids and families to try a variety of new foods and exercise, the TRYathlon Road Tour features competitive challenges to encourage physical activity and to highlight nutritious foods needed to maintain a balanced lifestyle.

Event activities include the Hoop It basketball challenge, Build It shape building challenge, Kick It soccer goal competition, Plate It nutritious meal creation and Dance It interactive activities with prizes from the Radio Disney Road Crew. Participants at each stop can enter to win a runDisney Vacation for four at Walt Disney World.

Other tour stops are in Philadelphia, July 27; Chicago, Aug. 31; Boston, Sept. 7; Dallas, Oct. 19; Atlanta, Oct. 26. Radio Disney expects to add more stops.

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Radio Disney's TRYathlon Road Tour is based on Disney XD's TRYathalon, which is in its second year. The competition pairs Disney XD and Disney Channel actors with kids viewers. This year Leo Howard and Olivia Holt ("Kickin' It"), Calum Worthy ("Austin & Ally"), Jake Short ("A.N.T. Farm," "Mighty Med"), Spencer Boldman ("Lab Rats") and Bradley Steven Perry ("Good Luck Charlie," "Mighty Med") team up with three student athletes and contest winners. The competition will air at 9 p.m. ET Aug. 12 and 19 on Disney XD and is hosted by Hal Sparks and Tyrel Jackson Williams ("Lab Rats").

Beginning Aug. 13, NBA superstar Dwight Howard and White House chef Sam Kass each will host a series of "TRYit" interstitials on Disney Channel and Disney XD. Howard will teach viewers new exercises to stay in shape, and Kass will give kids and families tips on healthy eating and preparing recipes. "Disney TRYathlon" stars and "Lab Rats" actor Billy Unger will join Howard and Kass in Disney's "TRYit" interstitial series.

Kids can get involved with the "TRYit" campaign at home by tracking online the new health-conscious actions they've taken. Disney hopes to record 1 million "TRYit" actions. On July 29, DisneyXD.com/TRYit also will launch a web game in which users can test their skills in three "Disney TRYathlon" challenges.

Families who are visiting Walt Disney World during the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival in the spring can taste foods that Disney chefs have earmarked "TRYits" for kids. This is a great way for families to experience the festival together and to get kids to sample foods they may not otherwise be tempted to taste. My 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter spent an afternoon this spring in World Showcase sampling the TRYits, and they really enjoyed the experience. You can read about our journey here and the video is below.

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!

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 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.

March 9, 2013

Gardens of the World Tour returns during Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

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Beginning this week, gardening enthusiasts can experience a special guided tour during the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. Horticulturalists lead visitors on a walking journey through every country in World Showcase during the Gardens of the World Tour. This is the 20th year for the tour, which is only offered to the general public during the festival. I was among the guests on the first tour of this season.

After receiving our audio headsets, we began with an introduction to the landscaping practices at Walt Disney World. Our tour guide and Gardener Specialist Brenda Sandberg has been with the theme park for 6 years and began our tour by explaining the park's pesticide use. Sandberg said that Epcot's 90 horticulturalists use weak pesticides in limited quantities for the safety of the animals and people who come in contact with the park's many plants.

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The helicopter bed

Walking through Future World, Brenda pointed out the unusual names of some of the flower beds. For example, the dominant, raised bed in front of Spaceship Earth at the front of the park is called the "helicopter bed" among cast members. The name came from an event the day before the grand opening of the park in 1982, when a helicopter hovered over the area to allow a photographer to shoot promotional photos. The wind generated from the rotor blades caused all the flowers to be blown out of the bed, leaving the horticulturalists scrambling to replant everything under a tight deadline. Anecdotes such as this one make the tour interesting for any Disney fan, not just avid gardeners.

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Bromeliads near Mexico


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Mexico's chiclet tree

As we made our way to World Showcase and traveled through the countries, we were treated to many details about the individual plantings. I was amazed by some of the subtleties I have never noticed in all my years of visiting Epcot. Did you know that the foliage around the Mexico pavilion is designed to include species from a rainforest? If you walk up the path on the right of the front of the pyramid, before the character meet-and-greet area, you will see everything from multicolored bromeliads to a chiclet tree.

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China's subtle landscape


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Japan's Koi pond

Can't tell the difference between the China and Japan pavilions? China has more natural landscaping and a more contemplative setting than Japan, whose water gardens are louder and flower colors bolder. Another fun fact: China's pond cannot stock Koi fish because birds of prey found the large open pond to be an easy buffet. Japan's layered and hidden ponds make a better home for the Koi fish because they are tucked away in a protective corner of the landscaping.

For many, this tour is an opportunity to find out how the gorgeous topiaries featured in the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival are nurtured and maintained. I had hoped we would go behind-the-scenes to see such demonstrations in a greenhouse, but most of this tour takes place in the guest areas of the theme park.

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A free-form topiary


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A standard topiary

We did learn that there are three types of topiaries at Disney World: free-form, standard and character. The free-form topiaries are, of course, ones where nature is allowed to take its course. Standard topiaries can take a decade or more to grow because plants at the base of a metal frame are trained to grow and cover the shape over time. Character topiaries are built using plant "plugs," which gives horticulturalists the ability to use a variety of materials. Also, the plugs allow the character topiaries to be rebuilt in a much quicker fashion than the others if plants are damaged or die. All three types of topiaries can be seen outside the United Kingdom pavilion.

The Gardens of the World Tour is designed for those ages 16 and older, and with good reason. It's really an educational tour with a lot of information presented over the course of a three-hour stroll throughout Epcot. My 8- and 10-year-old children would have been really bored if they had been allowed to participate. Plus, there is a lot of walking and standing. Our guide planned ample bathroom breaks during the tour, and some of those stops were at locations with water fountains. Be aware that unlike Epcot's Segway tours, though, this one does not provide bottles of water to its participants, so you may want to bring your own.

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Exclusive tour pin

Those who complete the Gardens of the World Tour receive a collectible pin that is only available to participants. They also receive a festival poster, which sells for about $20 in the park's retail outlets. The tour, itself, is $60 plus tax per person, and discounts for Disney Visa cardholders, Disney World annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club members apply. Tours begin at 9 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursday and Fridays through May 17 and can be booked by calling 407-WDW-TOUR.

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 27, 2012

New Segway tour gives guests unique views of Epcot

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I took my first-ever ride on a Segway through the crowds at Epcot this week, and I have to say, the prospect was a little daunting. I mean, how many guests can you clip before they expel you from the theme park?

Rest assured, though, that safety is a top priority at Walt Disney World, so cast members are not going to allow you to do anything too risky.

I was signed up to take Epcot's new "Keep Moving Forward: See the World, Share the Dream Segway Tour," which debuted on Sept. 17. This guided tour starts in Future World and then covers most of World Showcase in the three-hour experience. Beginning Sept. 28, times for the three-hour experience shift because of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival; you may start at 7:45, 8:30 and 9 a.m.

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My fellow travelers and I met at Guest Relations inside the park, where we checked in, signed a waiver and were asked to select from two breakfast options, which would be ready for us after our training. The offerings include a full breakfast platter or lighter fare with a pastry and fruit, plus a beverage of your choice. I was very happy to see plenty of caffeinated options for my morning commute.

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Afterward, it was time to head over to Innoventions West for our training. The seven of us first were fitted with helmets, and we listened to a cast member explain the basic operations of the Segway. Then, we had to face the thrill (or our fears, depending on how you look at it) and get on the two-wheeled vehicles.

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The Segways really are not complicated to operate, but you do have to get used to balancing on a moving platform, which at first is harder than it looks. You ride forward by pressing your toes down and leaning your whole body ahead, and you stop by leaning back on your heels. (When you book this tour, the reservationist will tell you to wear flat-bottom shoes.)

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Epcot's Segways are programmed to only go 6 miles per hour, so you're not going to be racing the monorail, but you still can get hurt if you're not paying full attention and remaining balanced. For this reason, guests riding on Segways are not allowed to have anything in their hands, such as cameras or cell phones, or any purses, backpacks or fanny packs on their bodies. There is a pouch attached to the front of the Segway where guests are asked to put such items, and the weight limit for them is 10 pounds.

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During the practice session, we learned to propel ourselves backward and forward, go up and down ramps, duck under drooping tree branches, and even complete an obstacle course with cones. Not one of us fell off the Segways or crashed them into anything. Off to a good start!

Next, our tour guide led our parade of Segways out into Epcot and over to The Land pavilion for breakfast. It was exhilarating and at the same time nerve-wracking. Remember the first time you drove a car, and you worried about everything that could go wrong? I just knew some little princess was going to jump in front of my Segway and I wouldn't be able to stop in time. Of course, that never happened because the two guides with our group helped warn guests about our approach.

We rode our Segways "backstage" and parked by the door to The Land that is near the restrooms on the ground floor. We were taken to a reserved seating area and served the breakfasts we ordered. At first, I hoped we could skip the breakfast so we would have more time to ride, but I realized that after the practice, our legs and feet already were a bit stiff and sore and we needed a break. The previous Epcot tour did not include breakfast, though the price was the same.

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About forty minutes later, our guide gave us headsets and we got ready to tour World Showcase. The headsets are another new addition and really worked well. They were small enough to be unobtrusive and they allowed the participants even at the back of the line to hear the guide. The tour itself takes about an hour, beginning at the Mexico pavilion and traveling around to Canada. The guide points out interesting historical facts and details about Walt Disney's plans for each country in World Showcase. In addition, the tour is designed to allow riders to test their newfound skills with such activities as "slaloming" through the columns in Italy, navigating the winding path through the miniature village in Germany and circling through The American Adventure gardens.

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The guide takes everyone to one location for a quick stop and will take photos of guests on their Segways, if they wish. All too soon, it's time to return to Innoventions West and park the Segways.

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"Keep Moving Forward: See the World, Share the Dream Segway Tour" is $99 plus tax. Annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club members will receive a 15 percent discount and Disney Visa Card members get a 20 percent discount.

This Segway tour is limited to those 16 and older. (Guardians must be present for ages 16 and 17.) Participants also must weigh between 100 and 250 pounds and are required to sign a waiver. To book, call (407) WDW-TOUR (939-8687).


September 22, 2012

An inside look at the exclusive Siemens VIP Center at Epcot

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When you've walk underneath Spaceship Earth, you probably think you know all about what's inside the structure that houses the geodesic sphere and the ride's post-show attractions.

But there's one area that isn't seen by the vast majority of visitors to Epcot.

Today, I'm giving you a look inside the Siemens VIP Center, a place at Epcot not usually seen by most guests because it is reserved for Siemens employees and their customers. I was invited inside the exclusive space for a Disney Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion media event. (My interview with game creator Warren Spector and new details about the second wing of the 3DS game are coming Monday.)

The Siemens VIP Center is located above the post-show gaming area of Spaceship Earth, one of Walt Disney World's most recognized icons and one that Siemens sponsors. To access their lounge, employees use a special door inside the first-floor gaming area. Once inside, they enter a passcode they have been assigned on the company website prior to their visit, and doors open to a small lobby.

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Here, guests will get their first glimpse of one of the defining elements of this private space -- the lighting. Siemens, a company that operates in 194 countries, owns lighting manufacturer Sylvania, and it's apparent in the LED displays in the downstairs lobby and in the main spaces on the second floor.

The color palette is infinite, said Director of Operations Jim McCaskill, and the system can be programmed to use a specific shade if it's needed. Typically, though, they stick to about a dozen colors.

"Blue is most popular for dinners and evening events. During the day, we run an orange in meetings because light orange works best for reflectivity when you're writing and working," McCaskill said. "Occasionally we'll do multiple colors or a sequence."

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Employees and their guests can choose to take stairs or an elevator to the second floor, where they will be greeted by a receptionist and enter the open-area lounge. There, they can help themselves to complimentary beverages and even learn a little more about their company through interactive exhibits.

"Like anybody in a big company, you may just know your sector and may not really understand some of the others," he said.

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One touch screen displays Siemens information, as well as park data, including the weather and wait times for attractions. Another uses facial recognition software from security systems to dress up the viewer in various disguises. That screen also allows the user to take a turn at programming the colors in a walkway on the floor that leads to the large meeting space.

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This room, whose doors proclaim "Innovators at Work," is much larger and offers sweeping views of Epcot's Future World. When it's not being used for customer meetings, product launches or dinner parties 180 days a year, the meeting space also is open to Siemens employees.

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"We have a very large contingent of Siemens employees in the Orlando area, in the energy sector out by UCF, and in addition to that, we have so many international travelers," McCaskill said.

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Although Siemens employees and customers make up most of the guest list in the lounge, they are not the only ones who can take a break there.

"From Day 1, we have opened up the Siemens lounge to Give Kids The World (an Orlando charity that provides theme-park experiences for seriously ill children). Those families have a lot of challenges in the park, and sometimes they just need a quiet place to come and rest," he said.

Siemens also has started a new program this year in cooperation with Shades of Green, a Walt Disney World resort for military personnel. The company offers members of the Armed Forces passes to the lounge when they buy their discounted tickets at the resort. McCaskill said he sees about 25 military families visit every few days.

The Siemens VIP Center operates from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. In addition to Spaceship Earth, Siemens sponsors IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.


September 20, 2012

It's easy to be Finding Nemo at Walt Disney World

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If you or your children enjoy Nemo and his ocean friends, Walt Disney World offers plenty of opportunities to visit his Big Blue World. And, with the recent theatrical release of the 3D version of the film, now is the perfect time to dive right in and continue to experience the joys of the film.

We are in the middle of the limited-engagement theater release of "Finding Nemo 3D." If your children, like mine, were too young to see this Disney-Pixar classic when it first was released in theaters in 2003, now is your time to experience this colorful marvel on the big screen. The 3D effects really enhance an already wonderful movie. (This version is expected to be released on Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 4.)

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In support of the movie, Disney Publishing Worldwide has released two apps -- Finding Nemo: Storybook Deluxe and Finding Nemo Interactive Comic. In the storybook app, young readers will experience the story with a special set of effects, including underwater sounds, the ability to create bubbles and a Whale Chat with Dory. Like other Disney storybook apps, this one has different reading levels and allows kids to record their own voices reading the story. There also are new versions of kid favorites such as finger-painting pages, games and puzzles. Finding Nemo: Storybook Deluxe is $6.99 and is available on iPhones, iPads and iPod touches.

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Finding Nemo Interactive Comic is aimed at older kids, ages 7 to 12, because it's an advanced interactive graphic novel. It includes concept drawings by Disney Pixar artists who worked on the original film, sound effects and even step-by-step drawing lessons. Finding Nemo Interactive Comic is $1.99 and is available on iPhones, iPads and iPod touches, too.

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Planning a trip to Walt Disney World? There are several ways to visit with Nemo. The new Art of Animation Resort opened in May, allowing guests to feel like they have stepped into the movie. The Finding Nemo family suites are aptly themed and cleverly designed. From plastic coral chairs for the dining table to bathrooms fit for Bruce and friends to the school-of-fish artwork, every detail recalls "Finding Nemo." The Big Blue Pool, or main pool, has larger-than-life statues of many of the characters, and even offers music underwater, jellyfish figures that drip water, and a splash pad where Nemo's friends shoot water. In the restaurant and lobby, guests will find concept and landscape art from "Finding Nemo."

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At Epcot, The Seas with Nemo & Friends pavilion is the place to be. A ride by the same name takes guests on Marlin's journey to find his son as they travel under the sea in clam-mobiles. Much of the dark attraction projects the animated characters on the aquarium, but there also are some very cool effects, such as the moving jellyfish and riding the EAC with Crush. Outside the pavilion, guests will hear the sea gulls chirping "Mine! Mine! Mine!" and there is a great photo opportunity with statues of Nemo and friends.

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While inside The Seas pavilion, guests also can interact with the popular surfer sea turtle at Turtle Talk with Crush! This attraction uses 3D animation and allows Crush to talk back and forth with kids in the audience. During the 10-minute show, Crush tells jokes and performs some on-screen acrobatics.

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At Disney's Animal Kingdom, guests can experience a 30-minute Broadway-style show called "Finding Nemo - The Musical" at Theater in the Wild. This amazing performance showcases talented actors, singers, dancers and acrobats who use large, colorful puppets and animated backdrops to retell the story of "Finding Nemo." It also features the original song, "Big Blue World," which was written for this show and also can be heard at the end of The Sea with Nemo & Friends ride. "Finding Nemo -- The Musical" offers the only opportunity for guests to meet the Nemo characters; performers may bring their puppets back out to the stage after the performance and talk with guests.

When "Finding Nemo" was released in 2003, it was an immediate hit with filmgoers and critics alike. Its compelling storyline of parenthood resonated with family audiences, as did Nemo and Marlin's epic quest set against the timeless theme of loss and redemption. As with most all Pixar films, its visual beauty on the big screen was, and remains, unrivaled. Now, some nine years later, fans can continue to experience the film's characters and themes here in Orlando.

Just keep swimming. There's no telling what you might see.


September 6, 2012

New Phineas and Ferb interactive experience opens at Downtown Disney

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Phineas and Ferb, characters from the Disney Channel hit show, are turning up in yet another spot at Walt Disney World. Now, guests don't even have to go into the theme parks to meet up with the animated versions of the duo and their counterparts Dr. Doofenshmirtz and Agent P.

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Phineas and Ferb & YOU: A Brand New Reality is a virtual experience set up adjacent to Bongos Cuban Cafe on the West Side of Downtown Disney. Guests queue up in a themed area, and when their turns arrive, they step into a fenced area to interact with the characters on a large screen before having their photos taken.

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There are 20 different pre-programmed scenarios, including dancing "The Platypus Walk" to getting caught in Dr. Doof's Freeze-inator. My daughter had the honor of "pushing" Perry the Platypus (Agent P) in a stroller. Cast members help position each guest in the photo area to compose the image, which then can be retrieved and shared online afterward.

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Each experience at Phineas and Ferb & YOU: A Brand New Reality lasts only a couple minutes, which keeps the line moving and the wait down. It's so simple that guests of all ages can have fun participating, and it's free. Clearly this is not a complex attraction, but it is great for killing time while guests are waiting for dinner or a movie nearby. And, of course, a Phineas and Ferb merchandise cart has been set up in front of the experience.

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Phineas and Ferb & YOU is open from 2 to 9:30 p.m. daily through December 1. If you're looking for a more three-dimensional experience with the characters, the pair actually meets guests daily at Hollywood Studios near the exit to Muppet Vision 3D. Also, guests also can find Perry and Dr. Doofenshmirtz at Agent P's World Showcase Adventure at Epcot, which opened this summer. (To read my review of the new Epcot attraction, please click here.)

Expect to see a lot more of Phineas, Ferb, Perry and others from the hit Disney Channel animated series in the days ahead. After all, they will appear in their first feature-length, 3-D movie next summer. Various web reports have stated that, though the characters will be animated, the film will be a live-action theatrical release and that it, like the TV series, will feature musical numbers.

August 23, 2012

What families need to know about free Wi-Fi at Disney World's Magic Kingdom

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Finally! Walt Disney World has responded to the requests of so many guests who, like me, are tethered to their electronic devices. Earlier this month, free Wi-Fi became available at the Magic Kingdom.

For those of us who rely on Internet service with our smart phones and tablets, this could mean a boost in the ability to upload photos, videos and other dense data. Who doesn't want to share their memories in the making while they're visiting the Mouse? It's hard to resist in this era of constant status updates and tweets.

Be aware, though, that the new Disney Wi-Fi is not a guarantee of better connectivity because the bandwidth that's available depends on the number of users in your corner of the theme park. It does seem to help, though. On a recent visit to Storybook Circus, my family found the upload speeds to be slow in the crowded Casey Jr. area. On past visits, though, we often couldn't connect at all with our cellular service until we walked away from the splash pad and closer to the Dumbo The Flying Elephant attraction.

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For my family, perhaps the best thing about the free Wi-Fi is that it allows my husband and I to better keep in touch with our kids by texting them on their iPods, which need Wi-Fi for texting. We don't think they need smart phones at their ages, but they are getting old enough to venture out from us in small ways, such as going to a nearby bathroom or kiosk, and it's comforting to have a way to contact them. (I realize many parents would not allow their children out of their sight at the busy Disney theme park, but my children have grown up there and know the lay of the land.)

Texting doesn't take a lot of bandwidth, of course, so its functionality is more reliable than than that of uploading photos or video chatting, for example. Being able to use the free Wi-Fi at the Magic Kingdom gives our family another communication tool and my husband and I some peace of mind.

Walt Disney World has said it expects to offer free Wi-Fi at Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and Downtown Disney by early 2013. All Disney World hotels have been upgraded to offer the complimentary Internet service.

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.

June 30, 2012

Phineas & Ferb attraction opens at Disney World

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Epcot's scavenger hunt through the global pavilions, Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure, reopened last week as Disney Phineas & Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure. Recently, my kids and I accepted two missions from Phineas & Ferb's pet platypus so we could check out the new version of this game.

I'm calling it a new version because Agent P is just about the same game as Kim Possible. Disney has not changed the basic clues, for the most part, within the countries. Instead, the update comes from the new characters, which certainly are more recognizable for today's young Disney Channel viewers.

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Guests begin playing by stopping by one of four recruitment centers -- near Showcase Plaza, Italy, United Kingdom and Norway -- and a cast member will swipe one ticket per group and issue a F.O.N.E. (Field Operative Notification Equipment) device. If the game is not crowded, guests initially will be given three countries from which they can select a mission. After some simple instructions, you're on your way.

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We noticed a welcome improvement with this version: Guests can start playing Agent P immediately, if space is available. With Kim Possible, guests received tickets indicating their start times later in the day. Agent P can accommodate about 30 guests per country at a time, a cast member told me. Guests have the option to continue playing with another mission, if slots are open.

Our roles as secret agents first took us to France, where we were charged with helping Agent P defeat his nemesis, Dr. Doofenschmirtz. Each mission has between five and ten assignments with code names. France has some cute clues, including one where the secret agents are instructed, "Say fromage!" when their pictures are taken. If you select this country, be sure to play until the end, because there is a clever surprise from Agent P on the last assignment.

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When choosing the country of your mission, you might want to consider whether you'd like to play indoors or outside. In France, the assignments are all outside in the blazing Florida sun or afternoon rains. But in Mexico, where we landed on our second mission, the game was played inside the cool pavilion.

My elementary-school-age children really enjoy these types of scavenger hunts at Walt Disney World and they're big fans of Phineas & Ferb, so this was a fun attraction for them.

I think, though, that the other game of clues at Walt Disney World -- Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom -- has a big advantage over Agent P. Each portal in the Magic Kingdom is a different experience for every guest because of the way he or she plays the cards. With Agent P, the clues are the same for everyone, so if a line forms during the assignments, you see the clues unlocked by the party ahead of you.

Still, Agent P is a great way to entice kids' into the World Showcase pavilions. Each mission only lasts about 30 minutes, so it's not a big time commitment, and kids of all ages can play this game, with a little help from their parents or older siblings.

June 26, 2012

Disney's 'Brave' storybook, comic apps loaded with cool features

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Two new apps from Disney Publishing have a lot of fun to offer kids who enjoyed seeing the new Disney-Pixar animated movie "Brave." They allow readers of all ages to relive the story and to become part of the experience with interactive features.

"Brave: Storybook Deluxe" stays true to the story of Merida, a Scottish lass who is determined to choose her life's journey, rather than accept her fate as a traditional princess. On this app, even the narrator has a Scottish accent, which was a great touch. And as a parent, I appreciated that each word is highlighted in red as he reads, mimicking the finger-tracking strategy taught to young readers. My almost-8-year-old daughter really liked the feature that allowed her to record her own voice reading the story and then play it back.

The story is chock-full of interactive icons, such as a bear claw that scratches the page with sound when it is clicked, a needle and thread that sew a tear on the page describing mending the tapestry, and even a Will-o'-the-Wisp floats at the bottom of one page.

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In addition, the story links to the six coloring pages and puzzles when they relate to particular scenes. These extra features allow users to tap colors and then apply them to outlines of characters, in the same way the coloring pages operate on the Tangled app with Rapunzel. Users also can break a page into a puzzle and put it back together again.

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Kids can choose from two games on this "Brave" app. In Merida's Challenge, they help the spirited princess shoot her bow and arrow while she is riding Angus, her horse. My daughter liked this game, which seemed easy enough for even the youngest reader. In Archer's Quest, readers go on a scavenger hunt through the story, searching for three separate bundles of arrows.

"Brave: Storybook Deluxe" is $6.99 and is available on iTunes for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.

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"Brave Interactive Comic" is a more advanced interactive graphic novel for kids ages 7 to 12. In the comic, each cell has some animation, plus music and sound. In addition, there are links to the concept art that inspired the movie. There is no narration option, however, which is a sure sign this is for older kids.

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Probably the coolest feature on this app is the How-to-draw feature. There is a step-by-step course for users to actually draw Merida, Elinor, the triplets and Mor'Du on the screen. A line or two will appear and then the user copies it. The original (in blue) disappears and another guide appears. Young artists can use the magnifying glass to focus in on details of the drawing, and at the end, they can take a photo and save it.

I was surprised that my almost-10-year-old son who loves the Walt Disney World learn-to-draw books was not as fond of the same activity on his iPod. He said he found it difficult to maneuver, and he was frustrated when it didn't cooperate. Perhaps, he just needs more practice.

"Brave Interactive Comic" is $1.99 and available on iTunes for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.

Can't get enough of "Brave"? I've written about the Merida play-and-greet at Magic Kingdom and Brave: The Highland Games Tournament at Epcot. Deb reviews the movie, too.

June 19, 2012

Epcot's VISION house: A Disney World attraction for adults, older kids

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The recent rain in Central Florida finally helped me persuade my kids and their friends to check out VISION house, a new attraction in Epcot's Innoventions that opened on Earth Day this year. Like many younger guests, they didn't want to take time away from rides and favorite activities for a tour, but the wet weather forced our group to slow down a bit and try something new.

VISION house replaces the House of the Innoventions, both showplaces for new and updated products for the home. The concept behind VISION house is sustainable living through environmentally friendly building choices.

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The experience begins outside the house, where there is a clubhouse for little kids to play while their parents are waiting for a tour. You also can walk around the side of the house and see different aspects, including the family's electric hybrid car parked outside.

The first thing we noticed when we entered the house was the openness and lack of barriers. Unlike with its predecessor, VISION house is set up so guests are welcome to touch the fixtures and finishes of the home. Our group of kids took that invitation seriously, trying out the beds while the hostess explained the rooms' features. Another difference is that the innovative home systems and products are available now; they're not concepts envisioned for the future.

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The five elementary school children in our group were most fascinated with the futuristic toilet in the master bathroom. They are of the age, of course, when bathroom humor runs rampant, especially among the boys. I have to agree with them, though, because the high-tech toilet from Kohler is pretty awesome. It has its own remote-control system, and users can warm their feet and seat, listen to music and raise the seat without touching it.

Overall, though, this attraction really is aimed at adults who, as homeowners, have a vested interest in the products or, perhaps, teens or college students studying home design or architecture. My kids didn't care that an electronic system can change the temperature of the house and its lights remotely, but my ears perked up at the possibility of saving on the electric bill.

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Still, even for those guests who would like to follow the practices of green building, the costs can be prohibitive. Both options -- starting from scratch or retrofitting a home with many of these products -- are expensive. I did take to heart the hostess's suggestion that recycling furniture by passing it down through the family "reduces strain on resources and is a great source of family memories." Like the Monteverdes, the fictional family who lives in the VISION house, the Fords eat at a kitchen table that came from my childhood home.

To read more about the opening of VISION house, see Deb's blog post.

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.

June 12, 2012

Disney brings Highland Games of 'Brave' to Epcot

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The much-anticipated opening of Disney-Pixar's new animated movie, "Brave," is still more than a week away, but Walt Disney World has added another experience to get kids interested. Brave - The Highland Games Tournament can be found at Epcot through July 8.

Guests who stroll down Future World West walkway toward World Showcase will see a banner announcing the games and then will notice the PlayBooster play equipment from the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival has not been taken down. Hooray! Each year I wonder why Disney doesn't keep the cool playground intact all year. In a park that has a lot of appeal for adults and older children, the play structures for ages 2 to 5 and 5 to 12 are a great place for younger kids to burn off some energy.

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As part of Brave - The Highland Games Tournament, the play area has been labeled the Training Ground for the games. Tents designated for each Scottish family participating in the tournament have been erected along the perimeter, adding much-needed shade and seating for the adults in the summer.

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Disney has given parents another bonus as well -- free enhanced wireless in the play area. Because it started raining when my children were testing their skills, I didn't get a chance to try the Wi-Fi. If you have, please tell us about it in the comments.

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Across the walkway, kids can try their hand at several traditional Scottish games. First, they spin wheel to find out which of the four families from the movie "Brave" they will represent: MacGuffin, Dingwall, Macintosh or DunBroch. Upon learning their identities, children receive clan "crests" (buttons) to wear and take home.

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Then, they head into a tent for a quick archery lesson. A cast member dressed in plaid helps kids aim a rubber-tipped arrow at the target. This event is set up just like the Merida play-and-greet at Magic Kingdom, and kids seem to love it. Each child gets one shot before moving onto the Haggis Flip, a game in which they pound mallets onto devices that launch beanbags. The goal when playing Haggis Flip is to get the beanbags into stationary baskets. After that, it's on to the Cake (a.k.a. beanbag) Toss. Images of Merida's mischievous triplet brothers decorate these targets. Finally, kids will attempt the Mini Caber Toss, in which they throw logs. Don't worry: The logs are awkward to hold but not heavy and not real, so no one gets hurt!

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After the games, kids can make rubbings of their clans' Rune stones, and they each receive a set of six "Brave" postcards.

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The giant sand sculpture in the area has been transformed from one advertising DisneyNature's "Chimpanzee" to one promoting "Brave." It's worth stopping for a look because the details are incredible. Another photo opportunity is available across from the sand sculpture, where several "Brave" posters are nestled in the flowers.

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Brave - The Highland Games Tournament is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Be aware that some parts of the attraction, such as the Training Ground, close during rain.

June 9, 2012

Disney helps protect ocean wildlife and you can, too

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Yesterday Walt Disney World celebrated World Oceans Day with various education stations and interactive activities for kids inside Epcot's The Seas with Nemo & Friends. Even if you missed the event, though, you still can learn about ways in which Disney is helping to protect and promote the world's oceans.

World Oceans Day was proposed in 1992 at the United Nations' Earth Summit and officially recognized by the world body in 2008. Since then, a couple of organizations charged with protecting the world's oceans, The Ocean Project and the World Ocean Network, have coordinated celebrations each year in an effort to promote a better understanding of the importance of the seas.

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A cast member explains why coral needs to be protected.

At one booth inside The Seas, a cast member explained how The Walt Disney Ço. is helping to protect coral reefs near Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line's private island in the Bahamas, by relocating sea urchins that help control the algae there. At another booth, guests could see the teeth of various sea animals and learn how they have helped the animals survive. At still another site, kids could play a game with cast members with the goal of teaching them about ocean conservation.

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A dolphin's teeth.
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A whale's vertabrae.

But my kids and I found the area dedicated to sea turtles the most interesting - and if you missed World Oceans Day, you still can get involved with these projects and make a difference.

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Cast member Leslie Wells explains Disney's role in sea turtle conservation.

At three Disney sites, you can contribute to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund's sea turtle conservation efforts through the Adopt-A-Nest Program. You can do so at the gift shop at Epcot's The Seas with Nemo & Friends; the Out of the Wild shop at Animal Kingdom; and at Disney's Vero Beach Resort.

The adoption program, which launched on July 5, 2007, offers guests adoption packages for $50 that include a Disney Worldwide Conservation Hero Button, a "Finding Nemo" themed keychain, and an adoption certificate that lists the species of turtle and the date the eggs were laid in the nest. Guests can use their certificate numbers to track online their nest's success and possible hatchings at http://www.nestingturtles.com/adoptanest/

Proceeds from the program benefit turtle and beach conservation efforts throughout the state of Florida.

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A model of a sea turtle's nest illustrates the process of the eggs hatching.

At Disney's Vero Beach Resort, guests also can take guided tours of the beach during turtle nesting season, which runs approximately May through October. Turtle Troop, the tour arranged by the resort, is a popular summertime activity. And because visitors and residents to the Treasure Coast are aware of the precarious nature of baby sea turtles - only about 10 of the dozens of eggs laid in each nest will survive to adulthood - they tend to be the ones adopting the nests, a cast member said. Disney's Vero Beach guests are invited to use the same beaches where the sea turtle nests are marked and located.

In addition, trained Disney cast members monitor a stretch of coastline at Disney's Vero Beach Resort, collecting important data on sea turtle nests in cooperation with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In August, The Walt Disney Co. will participate in the Tour de Turtles, which is a marathon of sorts for migrating sea turtles. Disney describes the event this way: "For at least three months, Tour de Turtles will follow multiple sea turtles, using satellite-tracking technology, as they travel from their respective nesting sites to unknown foraging grounds, with the goal of being the first to complete the 2,620 km marathon. By tracking sea turtle migrations, scientists can learn more about these mysterious mariners and the routes they take. Just as with human marathons, each turtle swims to raise awareness about a particular "cause" or threat to their survival."

You can follow the Tour de Turtles at http://www.tourdeturtles.org/

From "Finding Nemo" to "The Little Mermaid," many Disney films and theme-park attractions have offered entertainment based on ocean settings and the animals who live there. But through various ongoing conservation and awareness programs, Disney clearly is going a step farther and educating as well as entertaining its theme-park guests and fans.


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