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Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival Archives

April 11, 2017

You can join Disney in supporting National Wildlife Federation's campaign to save monarch butterflies

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When I come across a reference to Ranger Rick, the National Wildlife Federation’s ambassador, fond memories of my tween years come rushing back when I had the plush version of the raccoon and a subscription to the magazine. Now, he is turning 50 and is appealing to a new generation with initiatives to save the monarch butterfly.

The Federation has a longstanding commitment to bringing back America's monarch butterfly population, which has declined by 90 percent in the past 20 years. It supports the nationwide Mayors' Monarch Pledge, which has so far recruited 300 cities, counties, and towns in the monarch flyway to create more habitat and educate their residents. It also supported the designation of Interstate 35 as a monarch highway.

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The Disney Conservation Fund is supporting the federation’s focus on protecting the monarch butterfly and pollinator populations with the 2017 Butterfly Heroes campaign. Now in its third year, Butterfly Heroes provides kids and families with the inspiration and tools to work together, to enjoy nature, and to make a difference starting in their own backyards. The campaign equips those who pledge to plant and maintain a regionally-specific garden that provides food sources and habitats for monarchs, other butterflies and pollinators.

Plus, those who pledge to be a Butterfly Hero can be entered in a sweepstakes to win a trip to Walt Disney World to see monarch butterflies in action at the 2018 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. All pledged participants who share photos of their Butterfly Heroes planting and outdoor activity by September 30, 2017, will be entered.

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Anyone who uploads a photo of himself or herself making the American Sign Language hand symbol of a butterfly by June 1, 2017, will be entered into a contest to receive a Ranger Rick Garden Habitat Fun Pack and $500.00 gift card. The fun pack includes the Ranger Rick Amazing Butterflies book (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and a new Ranger Rick CD featuring "The Monarch Song" from the award-winning children's band, The WhizPops.

"At our core, the National Wildlife Federation is dedicated to fostering a deep appreciation and passion for wildlife and our incredible outdoor world," said Collin O'Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, in a press release. "We believe that immersion leads to action - and that by introducing hundreds of thousands of American children to the monarch butterfly's mind-blowing metamorphosis we will inspire a generation of conservationists to act.”


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March 7, 2017

At Epcot, meet Captain Ron, a beagle who detects sea turtle nests

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Great news: Captain Ron is making his return to the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival! Captain Ron is a dog who is a member of Disney's sea turtle conservation team trained to sniff out sea turtle nests along the beach at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort so that scientists can mark the nests to protect them.

Guests can see a short presentation and then meet Captain Ron several times each day on March 31, April 1 and April 2 at the festival center. My now-12-year-old daughter met Captain Ron last year and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

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“The strip of coast is one of the largest sections on Earth for green sea turtles to lay their eggs,” said Kyle Huetter, education manager of Animals, Science and Environment at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

This special dog and his trainer, Pepe Peruvero, can be seen helping the sea turtle conservation team patrol the beach at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings from late June through the end of August. Captain Ron, a 3-year-old pocket beagle, joined the team in 2015.

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“Dogs have amazing noses, and Disney is the first organization to use them for sea turtle conservation. A good nose, like Captain Ron’s, can cut egg-finding times from 30 minutes to about 30 seconds,” said Dr. Anne Savage, conservation director of Animals, Science and Environment at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

“He is trained to locate a specific scent that is attributed to newly laid eggs, as eggs smell different throughout their time on the beach. Captain Ron is being trained to provide an alert when he sniffs sea turtle egg mucus. This will allow the team to better survey the beach for nests and protect them from common threats -- foot traffic, construction activity, and even predators.”

So how did Peruyero train a dog for such a unique task?

“I selected him out of a litter that I monitored for several weeks,” he said. “The name Captain Ron was actually selected before I even picked the dog – it’s a very funny movie that I have enjoyed in the past with a character that is very similar to my dog’s personality. In the movie, the character’s personality, and sort of offbeat exterior, is only a cover for a more sensitive, internal personality. The captain in the movie is also a problem solver. These are all characteristics that my Captain Ron has.

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“Captain Ron’s training is based on a toy-reward system. He has associated the odor of sea turtle egg mucus with the response of the toy. Most dogs take several weeks to learn and are older and take much longer to master the discipline. Captain Ron was a bit of an anomaly -- it took him less than 30 minutes to imprint on the odor and approximately 4 to 5 days to begin to respond in an acceptable fashion that we could transfer out into the field.

“During the off-season we have frozen samples that are collected by the research group that allow us to train and keep him on track,” Peruyero said. “We also have an artificial beach which we have created at our facility which is approximately 30 yards around and has beach sand mixed with salt water and it also has shells, seaweeds and other distractors. This is the area that we use to train since we are well over 100 miles from the nearest beach.”

“Captain Ron's job as a sea turtle and detection expert is seasonal, therefore there's a lot of off-season time that he is just my buddy and pet. Most days he just hangs out with me at work and helps me train some other dogs. He has a tremendous personality, very even-tempered. This is something Captain Ron has naturally.”

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Captain Ron and Peruyero will be in the Festival Center at the Fresh Epcot Stage at noon and 3 p.m. March 31 through April 2. The presentations will last about 20 minutes and then guests can meet Captain Ron for a photo and talk with Peruyero.

“Beyond Captain Ron’s abilities, if we can help make a connection to him because people love dogs, and they can see what he’s doing to help sea turtles, then we can inspire more people to care about the environment and how we can all help to make a difference,” Savage said.

To increase the public's awareness about the plight of sea turtles, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allow a few trained and approved groups to conduct nighttime turtle walks along certain beaches in Brevard County. The walks take place in June and July, and registration usually takes place in May. My family and I did one of the turtle walks several summers ago, and we were fortunate to see a sea turtle come ashore and nest. You can read about our experience here.


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February 23, 2017

Preview 2017 Outdoor Kitchens at Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival

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Now in their fifth year, the Outdoor Kitchens at Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival are as much a part of the festival experience as the beautiful blooms. With multiple dishes and drinks at 15 kitchens, there is a lot of sampling to be done!

I attended the Tables in Wonderland preview on Sunday, where I was invited to taste many of the new foods and beverages that will be available to the public, beginning March 1. Here are my thoughts about what you will find. Of course, different people have different palates, but perhaps my suggestions will give you a starting point in your culinary journey and help ensure you don’t miss the best of what the festival has to offer!

There are two new outdoor kitchens in 2017: The Berry Basket and Northern Bloom.

“The Berry Basket is really about everything berries,” said Chef Gregg Hannon, culinary director of Epcot. “We really thought that featuring one food group, especially during springtime, or Flower & Garden, would really resonate with our guests. Spring is all about the great produce that is being harvested.”

The Berry Basket will serve a Lamb Chop with Quinoa Salad and Blackberry Gastrique; Field Greens with Fresh Strawberries, Blue Cheese, Strawberry Vinaigrette and Spice Pecans; Warm Wild Berry Buckle with Pepperberry Sorbet/Ice Cream; Founders Raubeaus Pure Raspberry Ale; Island Grove Blueberry Moscato; and a Twinings Berry Cocktail.

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The only dish we were able to taste at the preview was the Warm Wild Berry Buckle with Pepperberry Sorbet/Ice Cream, and it seemed to be a hit at our table. I can imagine it will be popular with festival-goers, too, on warm Florida days.

Northern Bloom is located near the Canada pavilion, which makes sense because this new outdoor kitchen is inspired by the country of Canada and will serve French-Canadian dishes. Look for Seared Scallops with French Green Beans, Butter Potatoes, Brown Butter Vinaigrette and Applewood Smoked Bacon; Beef Tenderloin Tips, Mushroom Bordelaise Sauce, Whipped Potatoes with Garden Vegetables; Naomi Bar Trifle; a Maple Shake (non-alcoholic); a Maple Shake with Crown Royal; Unibroue Maudite; Unibroue a Tout Le Monde Saison; and Unibroue Ephermere.

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Guests at the Flower & Garden preview could sample the Seared Scallops with French Green Beans, Butter Potatoes, Brown Butter Vinaigrette and Applewood Smoked Bacon, which featured produce that was sourced from Canada, Hannon said. The new craft beer, Unibroue a Tout Le Monde Saison, also was available.

“What goes better with French-Canadian food than beer, right?” said Rick DeCicco, proprietor of festivals. “So, everybody loves craft beers and we’re very proud that we’ll be featuring Unibroue craft beers at Northern Bloom. For the first time at Epcot, we’re going to have a new Unibroue called Tout Le Monde. It will be part of a beer flight which features Unibroue Maudite and Unibroue Ephermere . They are always fan favorites.”

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The La Isla Fresca outdoor kitchen returns with three new dishes. At the preview, I sampled – and really enjoyed -- the Caribbean Conch Salad with Avocado, Mango and Onions and the Sugar Cane Shrimp Skewer with Steamed Rice and Coconut Lime Sauce. The tropical flavors in both dishes were light and refreshing.

Urban Farm Eats, perhaps best known for its extremely popular Watermelon Salad with Pickled Onions, B&W Gourmet Farms Baby Arugula, Feta and Balsamic Reduction – which you’ll be happy to know is returning – is offering one new dish this year. The Crabless Cake with Crispy Vegetable Slaw, Lemon Vinaigrette and Old Bay Remoulade is designed for vegans but is prepared to appeal to a wide range of eaters.

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“When I think about Urban Farm Eats or ‘urban,’ I think about a city or possibly alternative eating and bringing awareness to a plant-based diet,” said Hannon. “It’s very important and also making sure it has full flavor. So, we’re using a Gardein chickenless breast. We grind it up and flake it to have the texture of crabmeat. We mix in some peppers and onions and really traditional crab cake accompaniments. We bread it and we griddle it. On top, we make an Old Bay Remoulade, but we use Vegenaise and we make a slaw with it. Most people who are slightly afraid of a plant-based diet think it’s all vegetables, but there’s a lot of protein in there. Also when you think of soy-based protein, you also most of the time get no saturated fats, which can be great for you.”

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The Florida Fresh outdoor kitchen, which is located between Morocco and France – will serve up two new dishes, and we were able to sample both at the preview. The Carne Asada with Black Bean Cake and Cilantro Lime Sour Cream and the Key Lime Tart with Toasted Meringue represent Florida well. Hannon said the Carne Asada was inspired by South Florida dishes, and the Florida Keys’ influence can be seen in the Key Lime Tart. Both were delicious!

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At Bauernmarkt near the Germany pavilion, guests can try the new Warm Cheese Strudel with Mixed Berries. Expect a generous serving of the sweet treat. Both the Cheese Strudel and the Key Lime Tart are large enough portions to share.

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Finally, those who enjoy their tea will not want to miss the new Royal Garden Tea Tour. The $15-per-person cost includes a cup of tea and assorted scones. We were invited to sample a cheddar scone with Earl Grey butter and a sweet scone with raisins, clotted cream and jam. The tours take place at 9:30 a.m. daily at the UK pavilion during the festival, and reservations can be made by calling 407-939-8687.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at the Tables in Wonderland preview event for the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. This did not affect my story. My opinions are my own.


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February 21, 2017

Take a look behind the blooms at Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival and find out what's new for 2017

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The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival begins in just one week – March 1 – and runs through May 29. Each year, the festival has gotten bigger and better with more blooms, detailed character topiaries and edible gardens. The theme park just seems to be bursting with color each spring!

I recently spoke with Eric Darden, who is the horticulture manager for the Flower & Garden Festival, at the Tables in Wonderland preview event about all the exciting additions this year. Darden has been a Walt Disney World cast member for 30 years and served as the foreman of the topiary team at the first Flower & Garden Festival 24 years ago.

It was a happy surprise to see a Figment topiary appear at Epcot well before the Flower & Garden Festival started. How and why did this happen?

We were originally creating a Figment topiary for Flower & Garden, but during the planning for Festival of the Arts, it became apparent that Figment was going to play a big role in that festival so we were asked if we could finish him in time. The bed is going to get significantly cleaned out for Flower & Garden. We couldn’t give everything away! This [addition] is based significantly on guests. We kept hearing from the merchandise folks that our guests just love Figment, and we hadn’t had a Figment topiary probably since ’92.

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One of the stars of this year’s Flower & Garden Festival is the Princess Belle topiary, which has undergone a transformation to make her appear more lifelike. Tell us about the process.

When we first did this with Snow White three years ago, we truly did not know if it was going to work. Now we’re in the process of making all our face characters look like this. The body is actually a sculp by a sculptor, so when you look at Belle, you’re not looking at just a topiary, you’re looking at an individual piece of artwork. And then, of course, we have the sculpted artwork and we have to have a way to attach that to the growing artwork.

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If you were looking at her frame, her dress would be too small. But we knew that ahead of time we were using 3- to 4-inch plant material on her dress so we had to make it truncated. On her torso, that’s less than an inch of plant material, so you make that true to size. [Joseph’s Coat -- botanical name Alternanthera ‘True Yellow – is used for the skirt; Creeping Jenny -- botanical name Lysimachia ‘Goldilocks’ -- makes the ruffle and bodice; and Variegated ficus is used for her underskirt.]

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Finally, we’re one of the world’s largest users of French hairpins. There are hundreds and hundreds of plants on this topiary and this is what we use to hold them in. So, literally, I would guess there are probably 1,000 to 1,500 hairpins on Belle. They are just all over the place in there.

Watering all the delicate topiaries at the Flower & Garden Festival must be a challenge. How does that work?

As we started getting more and more topiaries in the festival, it became a challenge because it takes a long time to water a topiary. Watering an extremity, you just can’t hit it once and leave. You have to keep coming back again and again, so it takes a long time to water one. When we were going from 20 topiaries to 80, we knew we didn’t have the staff to do nothing but water so, the team back at the nursery found a way to do to a topiary what’s done in your yard. Basically, if you have a house with an irrigation system, you have different zones and each of the zones will have a different type of spray head with how much water that area needs. It’s the same with these topiaries. We have lots of different tubing going to different zones and areas like extremities that dry out will have a whole lot more water than, say, the thick area of the dress. We started doing that probably 15 years ago and have gotten better and better at it. It really is what has allowed us to have so many topiaries at the festival. Otherwise, we just wouldn’t be able to maintain them.

How did topiaries become popular in Disney Parks?

Walt was visiting Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen (Denmark). This is what gave Walt the inspiration to do character topiaries. He came back and told Bill Evans that he wanted to see his characters in topiary. Bill was an extremely interesting man. Walt had hired him and his brother to landscape his home in LA. You’ve probably seen the railroad he had in his backyard – Bill and his brother did that. So when it came time to build Disneyland, it was just natural that Walt called Bill and said, “I have this new project that I want you to work on.” … He pretty much became the father of theme-park horticulture.

I met Bill and got to interact with him quite a bit as did others in the horticulture department, so we feel fortunate we had that early tie-in to Disney. Until the day he passed, he was coming here all the time, walking your area and giving you hand-written notes of ideas that you might try, which were really fun.

So, Bill told Walt it would take four to five years to create a topiary, and Walt told him he had two. He figured out how to do it with frames. Back then – and for a long time – topiaries were just green representations of Disney’s characters. For a long time, topiaries were shrubs. Back in 1994, we had to put signs out to tell our guests which characters the topiaries represented. Well, we got a new vice president who said that was no longer acceptable and we were going to try to bring our characters more to life. So that’s when we started working more with our character artists.

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How have things changed over the years with the rest of the Flower & Garden Festival?

We noticed about 10 or 12 years ago that we if wanted to double or triple the attendance in a garden, all we had to do was change it from just an ornamental landscape to an edible landscape. The first one we did this in was the garden in Canada. [When we added] an edible landscape, we tripled – almost quadrupled – the attendance in the garden. So, we knew there was a lot of demand for edible landscape even before you started seeing actual food being served at Flower & Garden.

Now we’ve found that since we’ve added food, we’ve changed our demographic. Ten years ago I would very seldom have someone in their 20s [in the Festival Center] asking me how to grow plants. Now it’s very common to have someone in their teens, 20s and 30s wanting to know how they can grow plants. They are not asking about marigolds and petunias. They were at Urban Farm Eats and saw cabbage being grown in a container and they want to know if they can do that at their own house. Well, yes you can. So, we in horticulture think if there’s a way to get the young people gardening, and there is, it’s going to be through edible plants.

And this is not just Disney seeing this. This is a trend throughout the horticulture field. Now you have nurseries that are having cooks doing demonstrations while they have all their vegetables and herbs ready to sell. I say trend, but this is a really a change. I just can’t see people going, “You know, I’m tired of eating all this good, healthy food.” We see the change directly when we’re talking to our guests at Flower & Garden festival. For so long, I think people only thought of flowers when they thought of Flower & Garden Festival.

We’re starting to see the lines blur between an edible landscape and an ornamental landscape, and you actually see that in cities that allow you to grow edible gardens in your front yard as well as your back yard. More cities are actually allowing that, just like they are allowing chickens, too.

As we’ve added edible landscapes, there has been no reduction in our ornamental landscapes. They truly have been in addition to our content at the festival. So, as you walk around, especially if you’ve been coming for years, look at the little areas– some in Italy, several in Future World and a garden by Mexico – where 5, 6, 7 years ago we just had regular landscape. But we’re trying to identify every area where we can make the park even more decorated and tell a better story. I think we’re getting there.

Some of the most popular gardens for families visiting at the Flower & Garden Festival are the ones decked out with playground equipment. My own kids have loved these areas for years! What’s new for 2017?

The biggest difference this year is that we’re having a third playground. We’re adding a little playhouse for younger children back in between France and Morocco with the Florida Fresh garden. It’s kind of a farmhouse and barn-themed area for the kids ages 2 to 5. The Music Garden Melodies on the Rose Walk is going to be the same theme with all new equipment from Landscape Structures. The playground in the Cars garden will have a couple new pieces, but it also will be similar to past years. [There will be a new character topiary -- Cruz from the upcoming Cars 3 movie – and the garden has been renamed Road to Florida 500.] We think that by adding playgrounds during Flower & Garden, it makes the park even more family friendly. It really brings those gardens to life, and it allows the parents to have more time in the gardens.

Finally, the entrance garden is always a centerpiece piece for the Flower & Garden Festival with the iconic Spaceship Earth in the background. What can you tell us about this year’s tableau?

You’ve probably noticed that a lot of our entrance displays harken back to the early shorts that Walt drew. We have found that anytime we were inspired by or even directly lifted a short that Walt did, we’d get a good show, which shouldn’t be surprising. With Walt you’re getting quality, right?

This year, we’re inspired. Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Daisy are the topiary characters around the maypole. We’re calling the main entrance scene: “Welcome Spring Fun, Food and Flowers!”

Editor’s note: The festival, including all gardening programs, exhibits, concerts, complimentary English Tea Garden tours and special appearances, is included in regular Epcot admission.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at the Tables in Wonderland preview event for the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. This did not affect my story. My opinions are my own.


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March 29, 2016

Don't miss: Upcoming Outdoor Family Fun Weekend at Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival

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The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is in full bloom, with two more months left to enjoy festival favorites. And although there are plenty of activities every day of the festival to entertain children, a new upcoming Outdoor Family Fun Weekend offers families visiting Epcot free activities that also have an educational component. How could learning at Walt Disney World be anything but fun?

The Outdoor Family Fun Weekend takes place April 8 through 10, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom cast members will be in several of the gardens at Epcot interacting with guests in multiple activities, according to Kyle Huetter, education manager of Animals, Science and Environment at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

“In the Backyard Habitat garden, we’ll show guests how to find the appropriate plants to go with the region. Guests are asked to place the correct plants in the environment they live in. Multiple families can participate at once, and there can also be one-on-one interactions,” he said.

The sorting game is played on a 3-foot by 3-foot magnetic board that includes wetlands, deserts, grasslands and forests. The Backyard Habitats garden is located along Imagination Walkway near the new Backyard Garden Melodies.

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At the Pollinator Paradise near The Land pavilion, guests can take part in a Butterfly Citizen science project. They receive a handout showing photos of butterflies common in Florida, mark off the butterflies they saw at the garden, and hand it in to cast members collecting the data. “It’s very easy for guests to follow, and they will actually be participating in a project for horticulture and Disney science,” Huetter said.

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In the center of Future World, along the central walkway to World Showcase, guests will find the new Ranger Mickey Garden, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Parks Service. The topiaries make a beautiful photo backdrop, and each day, actual U.S. rangers will be on hand to answer guests' questions. During Outdoor Family Fun Weekend, guests can put together puzzle pieces as they discover, through park photos, how diverse the national parks are.

Future World is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. all three days of Outdoor Family Fun Weekend.

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Visitors who stop by Epcot’s Flower & Garden Festival Center during the weekend can get an up-close view of bugs, such as tarantulas, centipedes, Madagascar cockroaches, spiders and other arachnids. Animal Kingdom cast members who take care of the creatures will be on hand to interact with families. The Festival Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.

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Finally, at the African outpost in World Showcase – across from “The Jungle Book” sand sculpture -- there will be a matching game. Guests will try to guess which animal facts belong with each photo of an animal from “The Jungle Book.” The remake of the movie premieres April 15.

World Showcase is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day during Outdoor Family Fun Weekend.



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March 17, 2016

Florida artists help Walt Disney World showcase sustainable food at Epcot Flower & Garden Festival

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Which came first, the chickens or the eggs?

At this year’s Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, it was a tie. The gardens surrounding the Urban Farm Eats outdoor kitchen demonstrate methods for growing sustainable food in your own backyard, including raising different types of chickens and the eggs they produce. The display, which also explains the ecological benefits of chicken coops, was designed and built by two Florida artists who have been spreading pixie dust at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival for years.

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Sisters Vikki Yarborough and Ronda Maseman already are known for their dedication to using natural and recycled materials in their creations, so this assignment of building an Earth-friendly vignette was not a foreign concept. Still, they did research their subject by visiting a friend’s farm, where their desire for accuracy led them to measure the height of the chickens to be sure their own two-dimensional figures matched. The egg colors and size of the nesting boxes are spot on, too.

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Urban Farm Eats, which is located on Imagination Walkway just past the Music Garden Melodies, embraces the concept of fresh foods with dishes made from produce grown right at Epcot in The Land’s hydroponic gardens. The popular Watermelon Salad with Pickled Onions, B&W Gourmet Farms Baby Arugula, Feta and Balsamic Reduction can be found at this outdoor kitchen, as well as the new Avivé Natural Peach Sparkling Wine. (You can find the full menu on our AllEars.Net page.)

Yarborough and Maseman are better known as the “fairy house ladies,” having created miniature fairy houses for the festival that were displayed next to topiaries of the Disney Fairies. This is the first year since the houses debuted in 2008 that none are on display in the gardens at Epcot. But for one special weekend, Yarborough and Maseman will have a booth at the festival so you can meet them and purchase unique pieces – and fairy houses! -- from their company, the Prop Duster Dept. Their artist tent will be located on the World Showcase promenade during Art in the Garden weekend, April 1 to 3, and will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. all three days.

The pair work just like the Disney Fairies do -- by recycling objects that humans have discarded and by collecting things from nature for their creations. “We love looking all over for supplies,” Vikki said. “We always have a bag to gather stuff, plus friends are always on the look out for us. We have things from as far off as Europe and Hawaii. Thrift stores and flea markets are always fun.”

Vikki and Rhonda 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."

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The sisters also have styled props for other areas at Epcot’s Flower & Garden Festival: spice balls in Morocco; three pollinators - a bee, a snail and a butterfly - in a garden outside The Land; and small dinosaurs peeking through the foliage in the Prehistoric Garden near the Festival Center.

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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.

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Can't make it out to Epcot for Art in the Garden weekend? Yarborough and Maseman will be showcasing their fairy houses at Animal Kingdom during its Earth Day celebration April 21 to 24. You also can contact the The Prop Duster Dept. at Fairyhouseladies@gmail.com.

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 of whom works at Disney's Animal Kingdom. When she's not creating pixie dust, she enjoys working with stained glass and other home projects.



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March 1, 2016

Preview 2016 Outdoor Kitchens at Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival

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Now in their fourth year, the Outdoor Kitchens at Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival are as much a part of the festival experience as the beautiful blooms. With multiple dishes and drinks at 13 kitchens, there is a lot of sampling to be done!

I attended the Tables in Wonderland preview on Friday, where I was invited to taste many of the new foods and beverages that will be available to the public, beginning Wednesday. Here are my thoughts about what you will find. Of course, different people have different palates, but perhaps my suggestions will give you a starting point in your culinary journey and help ensure you don’t miss the best of what the festival has to offer!

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Jerk-spice Chicken

There are two new outdoor kitchens in 2016: La Isla Fresca and Cider House. La Isla Fresca is located on the World Showcase Promenade and will feature items inspired by Caribbean flavors. I tried the Jerk-spice Chicken with Mango Salsa Chayote and Green Papaya Slaw with Lime-Cilantro Vinaigrette and enjoyed it. Some guests at my table noted that the dish was a little spicy, but it did not seem overpowering to me. The booth also will have Jamaican-braised Beef with Pigeon Pea Rice and Micro Cilantro and, for dessert, Tres Leches with Guava Puree. Beverages will include Red Stripe Jamaican Style Lager and Frozen Simply Tropical Juice Drink (with and without Mango Rum).

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Cheddar Cheese Biscuit with Smoked Salmon Tartare


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Land-harvested Field Greens


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Cider House beverages

From Cider House, which is located in the United Kingdom, we could try the House-made Potato and Cheddar Cheese Biscuit with Smoked Salmon Tartare and the Land-harvested Field Greens with Apples, Dried Blueberries, Stilton Cheese and Apple Cider Vinaigrette. I’m not a big fan of fish so I skipped the salmon dish, but I really liked the salad and would purchase it at the festival. This kitchen also will feature Pear Cider-brined Shredded Corned Beef with Braised Cabbage and Pears and Branston Dressing and Freshly Baked Lemon Scone with Créme Fraiche and Mixed Berries. Cider House will, of course, have a selection of fruit-flavored hard ciders – pear, black cherry and blueberry – plus a sparkling cider. Guests also can try the Cigar City Brewing Tampa-style Lager by itself or mixed with McKenzie's Black Cherry Hard Cider to create a Snakebite. In addition, there is a beer and cider flight available.

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Currywurst with Paprika Chips


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Armer Ritter

Bauernmarkt: Farmer's Market is returning to Germany after a two-year absence from the festival. At the preview, we could sample two dishes: Currywurst with Paprika Chips and Armer Ritter (Egg-battered Toast with Cherry Compote and Powdered Sugar). I didn’t get a chance to try the currywurst, but I loved the Armer Ritter, which is like French Toast. The other new dish at Bauernmarkt is Chicken Fricassee with Green Asparagus and Peas served with Uncle Ben's Rice Pilaf. These items are paired with Hugo-Charles de Fere "Organic" Brut with Elderflower and Mint and a selection of lagers and beers and a beer flight.

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Florida Larder Board

The Florida Fresh kitchen has a new Florida Larder Board that contains all Orlando-sourced ingredients: Ricotta Cheese, Cahaba Farms Micro Onions, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic, Country Pate and House-Made Pickles. I was told by pate lovers that this combination was delicious. Florida Fresh also has a new Kale Salad with Dried Cherries, Almonds, Goat Cheese and White Balsamic Vinaigrette that will be available at the festival. New drinks include Watermelon Cucumber Slush with Hendrick's Gin (or without), Sea Dog Acai Berry Hefeweizen and non-alcoholic Fresh-squeezed Watermelon Juice.

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Mezze Lune Primavera


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Cremoso al Pistacchio

Primavera Kitchen in Italy will be serving up a new version of its perennial favorite, ravioli: Mezze Lune Primavera (Egg Pasta stuffed with Ricotta and Spinach in a Creamy Sauce with Spring Vegetables and Pecorino Cheese). I tasted this at the preview lunch and enjoyed the mild flavors, which are sure to appeal to even the pickiest of eaters. The new dessert, Cremoso al Pistacchio: Pistacchio Cream, Strawberries and Mascarpone Cream, also offered muted flavors, but in this case, I found them to be more bland than tasty. The other new Italian dish guests can try is Pollo alla Parmigiana: Breaded Breast of Chicken, Tomato, Parmesan and Mozzarella Cheese.

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The Great American Wine Company Red Blend

Located at The American Adventure, The Smokehouse: Barbecue and Brews kitchen is always popular with festival-goers. There is one new meat dish this year -- Smoked Pork Ribs with Roasted Corn Salad. Sadly, the Piggylicious Bacon Cupcake has been replaced with the Warm Chocolate Cake with Bourbon-Salted Caramel Sauce and Spiced Pecans. I’m sure I will try this new dessert at the festival, but the combination of flavors in the Piggylicious cupcake was something to look forward to all year. There also is a new beer, Orlando Brewing Company Uncle Matt's Organic Grapefruit Pale Ale, and a wine, The Great American Wine Company Red Blend.

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Beef Teriyaki Udon

At Japan’s Hanami kitchen, be sure to try the new Beef Teriyaki Udon, which is thin-sliced beef, onions and noodles, tossed on the grill with soy and ginger. This dish was available at the preview lunch, and it was really delicious. Japan also is introducing Chicken Edamame Bun: Steamed Bun filled with Chicken and Edamame and topped with Curry Sauce and Suigei Sake this year.

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Macaron Chocolat Framboise

Even when it’s not time for Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival, France is known for its mouth-watering desserts. But a new macaroon was so popular at the preview lunch that the station ran out before the end of the event! If you’re a fan of macaroons, you’ll want to make a beeline for the France kitchen to sample the Macaron Chocolat Framboise (Large Raspberry Macaron with Chocolate Fudge and Raspberry Jam). While you’re there, you also might want to check out the new Tarte a l'Onion Alsacienne: Alsatian Onion Tart with Sauteed Onions, Fresh Thyme and Rosemary on a Flaky Puff Pastry Crust.

At the Tables in Winderland event, we also were treated to returning menu items that have become guest favorites. Among them: Watermelon Salad with pickled Onions, B&W Gourmet Farms Baby Arugula, Feta and Balsamic Reduction (Urban Farm EATS); Shrimp and Stone-ground Grits with Andouille Sausage, Sweet Corn, Tomatoes and Cilantro (Florida Fresh); and Beef Brisket Burnt Ends Hash with White Cheddar Fondue and Pickled Jalapenos (the Smokehouse). My family and I also look forward to the return of Frushi - Fresh pineapple, strawberries and melon, rolled with coconut rice, topped with raspberry sauce, sprinkled with toasted coconut and served with whipped cream on the side (Hanami); Pulled Pig Slider with Crispy Onions and Coleslaw (The Smokehouse); Beijing Style Candied Strawberries (Lotus House); and Pineapple Soft-Serve (Pineapple Promenade).

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Frozen Desert Violet Lemonade


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Sparkling Pineapple Wine & Key Lime Sparkling Wine

I also tasted three returning beverages that I somehow missed last year, and I won’t make that mistake again when I’m strolling around World Showcase this year. Two of them are conveniently located at Pineapple Promenade at the front of the Showcase. Frozen Desert Violet Lemonade is a non-alcoholic drink that is presented with a real, edible flower garnish, and the Sparkling Pineapple Wine was appealing to someone who isn’t a regular wine drinker. From the same winery, Florida Orange Groves in St. Petersburg, Fla., comes the Key Lime Sparkling Wine at Florida Fresh. Both wines were refreshing and sweet without being cloying.

Epcot Executive Chef Gregg Hannon gives his recommendations for guests with different food preferences in the video below:

Find out how to pair beverages with the dishes at Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival, as well as what not to miss this year, in the video below:

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World for its Tables in Wonderland Epcot Flower and Garden preview event. My opinions are my own.



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February 25, 2016

What are you looking forward to at Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival?

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Spring is just around the corner – at least for those of us visiting Walt Disney World next week. Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival returns on Wednesday for its 23rd year, and we can’t wait! My family and I have some perennial favorites that only can be experienced during the 90-day festival, and I’m sure you do, too. Do we share some of the same must-dos? Here's our checklist:

** Playgrounds, playgrounds, playgrounds. During the festival, two character-themed playground-type areas are installed at Epcot. The largest is located along Imagination Walkway between Future World and World Showcase, and the other usually is situated on the walkway near Test Track. Landscape Structures has been providing -- and customizing -- the large play structures for the festival for years. This year, both playgrounds will be illuminated at night and have extended operating hours. Although my son now is too old and my daughter is aging out of these play areas, I will always fondly recall our visits to them and recommend them to families with young children. Yes, you really should take time out of a Disney day to let your kids play in these gardens.

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** Butterfly garden. Look for a tented structure near the center of Epcot and you’ll spot the butterfly garden, where you can step inside and see butterflies in the various stages of development and many flying freely in the tent. In addition, the plants and flowers are chosen to attract butterflies, so you can learn how to grow your backyard butterfly garden. Plus, sponsor GoGosqueeZ usually has a booth nearby where employees are handing out samples.

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** Tinker Bell’s house. For the last several years, the Tinker Bell topiary has been perched outside the butterfly garden and nearby is a replica of her home, which features an overturned teacup just like in the movies! The house was built by two Florida artists who have helped create several pieces in the festival each year. Years ago, the festival featured topiaries and miniature houses for all the Disney Fairies, and my young children would spend hours studying them. We wish every year they would be brought back!

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** Outdoor Kitchens. Who doesn’t like to eat?! Recognizing the popularity of its fall Food and Wine Festival, Walt Disney World introduced similar food booths at its spring festival. The booths are situated around the World Showcase promenade, allowing guests to walk and sample the appetizer-size portions and sip beverages. You can peruse the full menus for 2016 here. We were happy to see some of our favorites returning: Pulled Pig Sliders; Watermelon Salad with Pickled Onions, BW Farm Arugula, Feta Cheese and Balsamic Reduction; Frushi; Candied Strawberries; and Dole Whips.

What are you looking forward to at Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival? Tell us in the comments!



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March 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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March 10, 2015

Kids can have fun, too, at 2015 Epcot Flower and Garden Festival

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At first glance, you might think the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is something only for adult guests to experience. After all, how many children are really thrilled by the slow-paced joys of gardening? Yet children actually can enjoy plenty of activities at the festival, making it a great day for families to spend time together.

During the festival, two fun playground-type areas are installed at the theme park. This is the only time these play structures are available at Epcot. The largest is Mike & Sully's Monstrous Garden, which debuted last year and is virtually unchanged this year. It 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 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. In addition, groups of monsters formed from plants guard the entrance to the playground.

Mike & Sully's Monstrous Garden is one of the illuminated gardens, meaning it is lit up for nighttime playing.

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The "Cars 2" play area with Mater and Lightning McQueen topiaries has been re-imagined this year as the Cactus Road Rally. It is in the same location on the walkway near Test Track, and the play equipment from Landscape Structures also is the same. Cactus Road Rally is a smaller play area designed for kids ages 5 to 12, but there is a lot for visitors of all ages to enjoy visually.

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What's different about the "Cars" area this year is the array of plants. The gardens showcase cactus plants in various shapes and sizes as well as other succulents that live in the desert, which is the setting for the "Cars" movies. It's fun to spot the car parts and accessories that are interspersed in the playful flower beds.

Cactus Road Rally closes at dusk.

Although the play areas certainly are the highlight for elementary-school-age children, there are other experiences at Epcot's Flower and Garden festival designed with kids in mind. Guests who are young and young-at-heart will enjoy the Butterflies on the Go! Exhibit. Inside the enclosure, visitors can see 10 species of butterflies up close and might get the opportunity to see them emerge from their chrysalises.

In addition, scavenger hunts are always popular with families, as evidenced by the many different types of quests in each Disney park. For the festival, however, there is a game for young children to find where five character topiaries are located. Parents can see the hunt and print the instructions in Black and White HERE!

And although it is not a scavenger hunt per se, many kids (and adults) enjoy collecting stamps from the Outdoor Kitchens and other festival-specific locations for their Garden Passports. These booklets are available in the festival center, festival merchandise locations and the Outdoor Kitchens for free.

Epcot Executive Chef Gregg Hannon recommends that children try these dishes:

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** Cachapa con Queso Sweet Corn Pancake with Farmers Cheese (Botanas Botánico)

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** Veggie Quesadilla -- Flour tortilla filled with Monterrey Jack cheese and mixed vegetables (Jardin de Fiestas, Mexico)

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** Watermelon Salad with onions, B&W Gourmet Farms baby arugula, feta cheese and balsamic reduction (Florida Fresh, Germany)

** Pineapple Soft-Serve (Pineapple Promenade, World Showcase Plaza)

My 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son have enjoyed sampling foods and beverages at the Outdoor Kitchens the last two years. Here are their tried-and-true recommendations:

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** Beijing Style Candied Strawberries (Lotus House, China) The large strawberries are very ripe and juicy, and the crunchy, sweet coating makes them even more delicious.

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** Dessert Frushi -- Pineapple, Strawberries and Melon rolled with Coconut Rice, served with Raspberry Sauce, sprinkled with Toasted Coconut and Whipped Cream. (Hanami, Japan)

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** Harissa Chicken Kebab with Sweet Couscous Salad (Taste of Marrakesh, Morocco) They both enjoyed the spicy flavor of the chicken but weren't as adventurous with the cold couscous salad.

And The Smokehouse: Barbecue and Brews kitchen at the The American Adventure also is a good bet for children. My husband and I tasted the four menu items being served there during the 2015 opening weekend, and they are likely to appeal to kids.

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The Pulled Pig Slider with Cole Slaw and the Smoked Debreziner Sausage with house-made kraut and mustard weren't my favorites, but they certainly were plain enough to appeal to picky palates. The Beef Brisket Burnt Ends Hash with white cheddar fondue and pickled jalapenos was especially good. The beef, potatoes and cheese are flavorful and likely will give this dish wide appeal. Be warned, though, that some might want the jalapenos on the side. Finally, the "Piggylicious" Bacon Cupcake with Maple Frosting and Pretzel Crunch is just as good as it was last year. The combination of the three flavors is delicious.

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Do you have tips for enjoying the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival with children? Please share them in the comments.



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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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April 1, 2014

Families: Don't miss these foods at Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival

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Last year, after five years in the making, outdoor kitchens debuted at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. The kitchens are similar to the popular kiosks at Epcot's Food and Wine Festival, which serve up appetizer-size portions of dishes from around the world that normally are not available at Epcot.

For adults, the food and beverage set-up is a no-brainer. Who doesn't like to stroll, sip and sample? But for children, it can be more of a challenge to get them to give new foods a chance. In 2013, Flower and Garden Festival organizers offered younger guests a TRYit food or beverage at each outdoor kitchen, and Deb Wills and I took my kids, who were 8 and 10 years old at the time, on a food tour around World Showcase. You can see a video -- don't miss the bloopers at the end! -- and read about our experiences on last year's blog.

This year, we took a less formal approach and decided to just let the kids eat what appealed to them at each kitchen. As they have gotten older, my children look forward to the food component of the two Epcot festivals more and more. But I think even picky eaters can find foods that appeal to them in this setting, and it's fun to help decide what the family will try. In that spirit, here are some notes from what we enjoyed this past weekend:

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** My favorite, hands down: Sweet Potato Cinnamon Waffle with Pineapple Soft Serve (Dole Whip!) at the Pineapple Promenade kitchen. I love Mickey waffles and Dole Whips, so this was a perfect pairing for me. I suspect I'm not the only adult -- or child -- who will visit this kitchen for seconds.

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** At the Jardin de Fiestas outside the Mexico Pavilion, we tried the Taco al Pastor (Corn Tortilla filled with Achiote Marinated Pork garnished with Grilled Diced Pineapple, Onions and Cilantro) and the Quesadilla de Hongos con Queso (Flour Tortilla filled with Mushrooms and Cheese.) Although my son steered clear of the latter dish because of the mushrooms, which can be a common issue with kids, the rest of my family really liked it. The mild flavor and cheese appealed to my daughter. The first dish was a little spicier, but not so much as to deter her or my husband.

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** My daughter was already talking about the Candied Strawberries at the Lotus House when we entered the theme park, so I knew she would enjoy them again this year. The large strawberries are very ripe and juicy, and the crunchy, sweet coating makes them even more delicious. While we were at the outdoor kitchen in front of China, we also tried the Spring Pancake with Grilled Chicken and Green Apple again, and it was surprisingly flavorful. We definitely liked it better this year. I think this dish is something that would appeal to even the pickiest of kids, who are used to eating the protein and fruit separately.

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** Florida Fresh has brought back its much-talked-about Watermelon Salad with Pickled Onions, BW Farm Arugula, Feta Cheese and Balsamic Reduction. If you missed it last year, don't miss it this year! The combination of the feta cheese and the watermelon is amazing, and even my daughter enjoyed the salad (minus the onions). Both kids tried the Watermelon Passion Fruit Slush at this kitchen, but didn't care for the flavor.

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** At the Smokehouse: Barbecue and Brews, we all got our hands messy and enjoyed the Pulled Pig Sliders. (My husband and I kept the Cole Slaw on the sandwich, while our kids had theirs "naked.") My son and husband also enjoyed the Smoked Turkey Rib. Both meats have a tangier taste than, for example, the pulled pork sliders at the Hawaii kiosk of the Food and Wine Festival. Afterward, we all split the "Piggylicious" Bacon Cupcake with Maple Frosting and Pretzel Crunch. I didn't expect to like this dessert, but I really did. My children liked the cake, but their palates were not used to the unusual frosting.

** Next stop: Hanami in front of Japan. My son fondly recalled the Frushi (Pineapple, Strawberries and Melon rolled with Coconut Rice, served with Raspberry Sauce, sprinkled with Toasted Cocounut and Whipped Cream) from last year. He actually ate seconds when it was a TRYit food.

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** At Taste of Marrakesh near the Morocco pavilion, both kids sampled the Harissa Chicken Kebab with Couscous Salad. The chicken was similar to what was offered last year, and they both enjoyed the spicy flavor. They weren't as adventurous with the cold couscous salad.

By this point, we all were so full we couldn't eat another bite, and, unfortunately, there were several additional outdoor kitchens we had not visited. Still, we thought that starting around World Showcase in a counter-clockwise direction offered the most kid-friendly foods first.

We hope that some of our suggestions might help guide you and your family when you choose to sample what the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival has to offer. My children tended to gravitate toward many of the same foods they enjoyed last year, but, of course, every child has different food preferences. With the variety of choices, though, it shouldn't be difficult for everyone in the family to find something they like.

Kids TRYit! 2013 Style:



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March 7, 2014

Audubon presents new Hummingbirds at Home garden at Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival

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A new garden at this year's Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival invites guests not only to learn about a popular species of birds, but also to participate in a citizen science project sponsored by Audubon.

Hummingbirds at Home, which is located behind Mouse Gear in Future World, is a walk-though garden presented by Audubon that features Ruby-Red Penta, Coral Honeysuckle, Firebush, Cigar and Salvia plants.

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Naturalist Don Kendzior explained to participants on a recent media preview of the garden that there is a strong need for hummingbird conservation because of climate changes. "There is the mismatch between when the flowers are blooming and when the hummingbirds arrive in their breeding range," he said. "North America is the breeding range for hummingbirds, and Central Florida is [the area] for the Ruby-throated [hummingbirds]. They are arriving, but the plants that they need when they arrive are out of bloom."

Audubon scientists hope that with the help of residents throughout North America, they can collect data on how hummingbirds may be affected by changing flowering patterns. To this end, the Hummingbirds at Home garden at Epcot shows guests how they can create gardens -- container or traditional patches -- to attract the hummingbirds. Plus, guests can learn how to identify the most common hummingbirds in the United States and get migration updates.

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"What's really exciting is the festival correlates with the migration of the Ruby-throated hummingbird. They actually arrive this week [Feb. 28], and they will migrate north for the duration of the festival. When the festival concludes, they will have reached their northern points in Canada," Kendzior said. "We had the first sighting here just north of the Magic Kingdom on Tuesday [Feb. 25]. The males are coming right now. They usually are followed in two weeks by the females. And then they immediately start getting territory for their breed space."

These hummingbirds take a 20-hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan, so it could be a 2,000-mile migration, he said. Audubon officials are hoping for a breeding pair in the gardens.

Hummingbirds usually weigh between 2 and 5 grams -- about the weight of a couple of pennies, Kendzior said.

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Don't mistake the tall white birdhouses in the garden for hummingbird homes, though. They're actually the residences of purple marlins because hummingbirds build nests in trees.

It's's rare to see a hummingbird nest because their small size makes them difficult to spot in a tree. However, Kendzior has one to display at the festival. It was found on the ground in DeLand after a storm last year. "The female will usually raise two nestlings in there. The eggs are about the size of a pea. She makes this nest out of spider webs and lichens so it expands. This is what it looks like after it expands and the nestlings pushed it out. When she first made it, it was much smaller and tighter in."

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Guests are invited to participate in the Hummingbirds at Home citizen science project by visiting the garden at Epcot or Audubon.org/hummingbird for more details. Kendzior will be in the garden intermittently to talk with guests, and he also will give presentations at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. March 15 at the Greenhouse Stage in the Festival Center. In addition, Kendzior will talk about gardening with nature at noon and 3 p.m. March 17 and April 7 and 14 in the Festival Center.



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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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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 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.

February 23, 2013

Oz-themed play structures open early for Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

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One of my family's favorite parts of the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival has opened early this year. The main kids' playground -- which is themed to the upcoming movie, "Oz The Great and Powerful" -- and its carnival-style game tents are up almost three weeks before the festival begins on March 6.

Disney World decided to preview the area along Imagination Walkway in an effort to promote the movie, which hits theaters on March 8. Follow the yellow brick road and pass under the Oz arch near Showcase Plaza and you will spot the downed hot-air balloon on the left, indicating you are approaching the play area. (An area to the right of the walkway in past years has housed detailed sand sculptures related to a current Disney movie. This year, guests will find the Water Wise Garden presented by RainBird located there.)

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The Land of Oz Garden where the playground is located also features fantastical art-glass poppies "planted" among beds of real flowers, which will be updated through the festival's end date of May 19. Inside the "garden," families will find play equipment from Landscape Structures. This company has been providing the play structures for the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival for years.

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This year, the company chose the PlayBooster Vibe and Evos structures for kids ages 5 to 12 and the Cozy Domes with flower steps for ages 2 to 5. The Evos structure is one that veteran festival-goers will recognize: The arch has a series of suspended tire-like elements that kids must climb through. It's a challenging journey that often requires some parental assistance. The Playbooster Vibe is similar to the main structure showcased in 2012, but this version has been modified to include tall metal flowers to carry out the garden theme. In addition, one of the ramps to the structure has been adorned with a flower motif and an Oz logo.

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My children gravitate to the crowded play area each year, and my husband and I don't mind taking a break there either, because of the shade and plentiful seating. This year, one section of Adirondack chairs is designed to look as if guests are inside the hot air balloon from the movie.

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Outside The Land of Oz Garden and farther up Imagination Walkway are carnival games. Test your skill at throwing hoops around milk bottles and you'll receive an "Oz The Great and Powerful" button. Try your hand at the bean bag toss, too, and you can take home a packet of seeds to plant in your own backyard. Guests also can see silly images of themselves reflected back in fun-house mirrors or take photos with carnival backdrops.

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The Land of Oz Garden is not the only play area for kids at The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. This year, the Radiator Springs interactive play zone debuts on the walkway near Test Track. "Cars 2" stars Lightning McQueen and Mater will be represented as topiaries overlooking another play structure from Landscape Structures that includes a pair of climbing rocks. This section is geared toward ages 5 to 12.

In addition, the Backyard Play Garden between Morocco and France returns. 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. There you will find select items from the HealthBeat Outdoor Fitness System.

There are many other kid-friendly aspects to the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, and I'll be writing about more of those experiences as this special event starts.

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About Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Candlelight Processional is the previous category.

Epcot International Food & Wine Festival is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.