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March 16, 2017

Have you seen Magic Kingdom's 2 new must-have Disney souvenirs?

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If you’re going to be at the Magic Kingdom any time in the near future, you might want to check out two new unadvertised items that have visitors waiting in long lines. With a little planning, you may be able to winnow that wait time and still enjoy the experiences.

First, there is a new “Tangled” photo opportunity that takes place in front of the Rapunzel-themed bathrooms. Anyone who has seen the elaborately themed facilities surely has wondered, as I have, why so much care was spent on bathrooms -- even ones at Walt Disney World. The area certainly lends itself to a variety of photos with beautiful backdrops.

And … now we have an official Disney PhotoPass spot. About a month ago, Walt Disney World’s photographers began a test period of taking guests’ photos holding a lantern from the iconic boat scene in Disney’s “Tangled.” Visitors are positioned with the hanging lanterns behind them and then asked to pose in a few different ways with the lantern they are holding.

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This unpublicized photo op has been hugely popular, commanding hours-long lines each night. My family and I waited in the queue for an hour and 45 minutes on Saturday. The set originally was scheduled to end yesterday, but on Monday, Disney’s PhotoPass announced on Twitter that it “will be available on a nightly basis (weather permitting) until further notice!”

Things to know:

** PhotoPass photographers will bring out the lantern and begin taking photos once it is completely dark outside. They told me they need an “inky” sky for the photos to work. On Saturday, that meant they began taking pictures at about 7:15 p.m.

** On the day we were in the park, guests began lining up at about 5:30 p.m. So, our wait of an hour and 45 minutes seemed to be the average.

** I walked past the “Tangled” area in Fantasyland (between the Haunted Mansion and it’s a small world) several times throughout the night, and the only time the queue appeared shorter was in the last hour before the park closed at midnight.

** Many of us stayed in line during the Wishes fireworks, so that nighttime show was not a deterrent as it sometimes is for certain queues in the park.

The second unadvertised item is another kind of souvenir. In a promotion for the release of the live-action version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Disney Parks has created an Enchanted Rose tumbler. The clear plastic cup features the rose in the middle of the base, a lid with various light-up features, and a clear plastic straw.

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The cups originally were for sale at Disneyland in the Red Rose Taverne, which is a limited-time “Beauty and the Beast”-themed overlay at the Village Haus restaurant in Fantasyland. They were so popular that they sold out within a day of being placed on sale at the quick-service restaurant about three weeks ago. Almost immediately, the cups, which cost about $13 in the parks, showed up on eBay and have been selling for $50 to $75 apiece. No word about when the Disneyland location will restock.

In the meantime, last week they made an appearance in Orlando and are being sold for the same price at Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. So, far there are no reports of the cups being sold out, but some purchase limits have been put in place to prevent that:

** You must dine at Be Our Guest in order to purchase an Enchanted Rose cup. Each table or reservation can purchase up to five tumblers.

** The restaurant already is so popular that guests typically have to have reservations to eat there, and reservations are made months in advance. Those who are having breakfast or lunch at Be Our Guest, which are considered counter-service meals, can pre-order their food to speed up the process and the Enchanted Rose tumblers are listed on the forms.

** If you don’t have a reservation, continue checking My Disney Experience because guests’ plans do change. Reservations must be cancelled the day beforehand or no-show guests will pay a penalty of $10 per person. So, you may be able to score a last-minute reservation.

** Occasionally, Be Our Guest has room for walk-ups, and guests can be seated without a reservation, so it could be worth your while to stop by the outdoor podium to check. This most often happens for breakfast and lunch.

Are you excited about the new Princess souvenirs at the Magic Kingdom? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.


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November 12, 2015

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

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

Holiday entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

Complimentary professional photos

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

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

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

Jungle Cruise festivities

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

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

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

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



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June 13, 2015

Last days to enter Disney World's Coolest Sleepover Ever contest for chance to win night in Cinderella Castle

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Summer is all about lounging around – at the pool and in our pajamas. And Walt Disney World is giving four lucky Disney fans the “Coolest Sleepover Ever” -- inside the Cinderella Castle Suite at the Magic Kingdom. Interested? Make this your weekend project because you have until Sunday night to enter.

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Participants are asked to show their Disney Side by taking a photo of a summer outfit or treat inspired by Walt Disney World and posting it on Twitter or Instagram. Be sure to tag your photo with #DisneySummerContest. Entries will be judged on creativity, originality and relevance to the contest. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Outfits may be inspired by attractions or stories at the Orlando resort.

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You can check out the competition at http://coolestdisneysummer.com. Entries so far include handmade character costumes, visitors posing at Walt Disney World, delicious desserts and DisneyBounding.

Want to increase your chances at winning this rare prize? You can enter as many times as you like, as long as each entry is a new creation and a new photo on both platforms. Also, your entry must be a photo that has not been previously posted on Instagram and Twitter or entered in any other contest. In other words, you cannot go back and just add the hashtag to photos on your accounts. Videos posted to Instagram and Twitter are not eligible. Wording must be in English.

Contestants must be 18 years old and legal residents of the 50 United States, District of Columbia and Canada (excluding the Province of Quebec). Residents of Puerto Rico are not eligible to enter. For a complete list of official rules, click here.

In addition to the Coolest Prize Ever – the stay in Cinderella Castle – the top prizes include vacations at Walt Disney World. The Grand Prize winning entry for each social media platform (Twitter and Instagram) will win a five-day, four-night Walt Disney World vacation with flights, accommodations, five-day park hopper tickets, and a special Frozen Summer Fun VIP experience. The First Prize winning entry for each social media platform will win the same package without the Frozen experience. The Second Prize winning entry for each social media platform will win a Coolest Summer Ever gift basket.

The deadline to enter is by midnight ET Sunday.



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January 30, 2015

Where to watch the 2015 Super Bowl at Walt Disney World

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If your weekend involves the Super Bowl and Walt Disney World, that alone should make you feel like an MVP. To make sure you aren't left fumbling around for a place to watch Sunday's game or Monday's celebratory parade, we've got all the details and plenty of suggestions.

Those who don't care to watch Seattle battle New England -- or the commercial debuts or half-time show by Katy Perry -- can take advantage of the almost-deserted theme parks. Super Bowl Sunday is actually one of the least-crowded days at Walt Disney World, so make the most of it! The weather is expected to be nice, with only a small chance of rain.

Should you be in the other camp and among the millions of fans looking forward to the big game -- or just vacationing with someone who is a football fanatic -- there are plenty of places to catch the game on television screens at Walt Disney World. Probably the first one that comes to mind for many folks is the ESPN Club on the Boardwalk because of its sports theme, 100 television screens, and traditional "game day" food. Consequently, the ESPN Club fills up early -- folks have been known to arrive hours early to secure a spot. ESPN Club opens at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday. The restaurant does take reservations for its VIP packages, but those already are booked. However, you can call 407-WDW-DINE to check if there are any cancellations if you want a guaranteed table.

The ESPN Club is not the only place to watch the Super Bowl on Disney property, though. At Downtown Disney, Splitsville will have the game on its flat-panel screens, and the first floor will be open to walk-in visitors. Guests can order off the regular menu and bowl at normal prices. Planet Hollywood also will be showing the Super Bowl, while serving its usual menu.

In past years, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex has had two viewing locations open to the public -- ESPN Grill and the Jumbotron at the Welcome Center. The Grill is open again this year from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and will be showing the big game. The complex has not announced whether the Super Bowl will be shown on the Jumbotron because there are other sporting events scheduled in the complex.

And then there are plenty of viewing locations at the Walt Disney World hotels, starting with the comfort of your own room. NBC will be carrying the 49th Super Bowl in the Orlando market. Want to join your fellow fans? Most of the pool bars and hotel lounges also will have the game on, though they may not have multiple screens.

The Four Seasons Orlando is having a Super Bowl celebration this Sunday, February 1st at PB&G beginning at 4 p.m. PB&G is the southern-style lakeside casual restaurant. There will be a special game day menu, bar games, TVs for each pavilion, beers from each team's city and special cocktails to represent each team. No reservations needed. Valet parking will be validated ($5 per car)

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Finally, if you're going to be at the Magic Kingdom on Monday, be sure to check the Times Guide because you might be able to see your favorite player in person. The Super Bowl MVP traditionally comes to Disney World and will be feted in a celebratory parade down Main Street, U.S.A. Arrive early, though, because it gets crowded.

Some guests can continue their Super Bowl celebration all year with an offer from the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. Residents of both Washington and New England (valid New England states include Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) will receive a free night at the Walt Disney World hotel when booking two nights at the standard price before March 1 for stays through Feb. 3, 2016. Some restrictions apply. They also will receive a complimentary automatic room upgrade. To make reservations, they can call 1-800-227-1500 and mention their home state.



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December 23, 2014

Be Our Guest revisited: Fantastic dining experience at Walt Disney World

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Even two years after it opened, Be Our Guest still is the most difficult dining reservation to book at Walt Disney World. So, when I was able to secure a late-night table for a family celebration this past weekend, we all were counting the minutes until our dinner was served.

We first dined at Be Our Guest during passholder preview days two years ago, and my family and I hadn't been back since then. So, naturally, I was curious if it would live up to our expectations of our previous experience. The answer was a resounding "yes" from each of the four members of my family.

Our reservation was for 9:20 p.m., and I'm told the last parties are seated at 9:30 p.m. during normal operating hours. (Be Our Guest stays open later during busy periods, such as the holidays.) Because of the timing, we were able to watch Holiday Wishes from the bridge to the restaurant, which was a new experience. It's amazing to be so close to some of the fireworks that normally are seen from in front of Cinderella Castle.

When we entered Beast's castle, we were led to the ballroom, which is where most of the seating is located. And if it isn't spectacular enough on a regular day, imagine it decorated for Christmas. There was a beautiful Christmas tree in the center of the wall-to-ceiling windows that showcase the snowfall effect outside, just like in the story. Garlands also were draped along the walls, creating a festive atmosphere.

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The menu has undergone a few changes, as is to be expected, since we last visited. Popular dishes, such as the French Onion Soup and the Grilled Strip Steak, remain, however. We were happy to see the steak that is served with garlic-herb butter and pommes frites was still available because three of us had been dreaming of ordering just that! (It also is served with green beans.) It is a 10-ounce steak, which was large enough for my daughter and I to split one portion. My 12-year-old son ordered his own, though he did end up sharing with his dad. My husband again ordered the Pan-seared Salmon on Leek Fondue, which was served with served with creamy saffron-crushed potatoes. We all really enjoyed our meals.

Be Our Guest has an extensive wine list, and several imported beers are available, as well. My husband again enjoyed a dark belgian strong ale, Chimay Blue, and said it had a subtle hint of fruit that paired well with the salmon. Beast's castle also serves two signature non-alcoholic drinks: All-Natural Fruit Punch and All-Natural Lemonade. If you choose a light-up castle-themed souvenir goblet for the foamy drinks, the price quadruples. Almost $20 for a drink without alcohol!

Of course, we saved room for dessert. The Grey Stuff has been added to the menu since our last visit, and we were excited to taste the fabled dessert. Our server saw that we were wearing "I'm Celebrating" buttons and brought us a complimentary serving to sample. What a nice surprise! We also chose to share a Strawberry Cream Cheese Cupcake, a Triple Chocolate Cupcake, a Lemon Meringue Cupcake and a Chocolate Cream Puff. My children again loved the presentation of the desserts in a rolling trolley, which makes it difficult to turn down a sweet treat - not that I'm complaining!

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After dinner, we were invited to meet Beast in the library, which is the room that doubles as the checkout during lunch. This meet-and-greet was not available the last time we dined at Be Our Guest, and dinner at the restaurant is the only time and place for guests to meet Beast at Walt Disney World. We were the last family of the night to meet Beast and he patiently posed for a bunch of photos, including one the cast members suggested where the kids and Beast showed their "claws."

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My first impression of Be Our Guest was confirmed this past weekend: It is a delightful dining experience. We received outstanding service, and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal. Although the restaurant is expensive, the pricing is in line with other table-service restaurants at Walt Disney World. In fact, it costs less overall than dinner at Cinderella's Royal Table, which does not offer alcohol. Although securing a reservation can be a hassle, it is well worth the effort.

RELATED LINKS:
** Be Our Guest Menus: Lunch, Dinner, Kids

** Rate and Review Lunch

** Rate and Review Dinner




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October 13, 2014

Don't miss this treat: 1-day Memory Maker option at Disney World Halloween parties

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Trick or treat? Let me tell you, this is definitely a treat.

Walt Disney World has just announced a special offer for the remaining nights of Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party that I certainly wish I could have taken advantage of when I attended last month. Through Oct. 31, guests can purchase a one-day Memory Maker credit for just $39.

For those not familiar with the new terminology, Memory Maker is what used to be called Disney's PhotoPass CD. Basically, the service allows you to purchase all the professional photos taken of your family at Walt Disney World during your vacation. This new version delivers the photos as high-resolution downloads, rather than JPGs. Until now, there has only been one option: Purchase an unlimited number of photos for $199 after your vacation, or save $50 by buying the Memory Maker credit in advance.

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The new offer, which currently is being tested at Magic Kingdom, allows the guest to receive "all of your Disney PhotoPass photos taken on the day your event ticket is used, including character encounters and select dining and attraction photos are included - no matter how many you get or if they were taken earlier in the day before Mickey's Not-So-scary Halloween Party," according to Kelly Glassburn, manager of marketing & communications for Disney's PhotoPass Service.

That's one up-sell I would have happily bought!

For comparison, a download of an individual photo from Disney's PhotoPass costs $15 (unless there is a sale). I purchased four photos after my family's recent night at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, so this definitely would have been a savings for us. Considering the opportunities for family photos and shots with rarely seen characters at the party, I can easily see this being a good deal for guests. Plus, if you are relying on a smartphone or point-and-shoot camera, it can be difficult to get great shots in low lighting like what is the norm at the Halloween party. Using the professional Disney photographers will make your night so much more relaxing.

When my children were younger, there were a couple years they visited the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and A Pirate's League to be transformed into a princess and a pirate on the day of the Halloween party. We definitely would have gotten our money's worth with the new one-day Memory Maker product.

If this sounds like something you could use, stop by any ticket booth at the Transportation and Ticket Center to add the one day Memory Maker entitlement to your Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party ticket. It does have to be purchased before the party, but you can do so even on the day you are attending the event. This offer is good for the remaining party nights of Oct. 13, 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 24, 26, 28, 30 and 31. (Oct. 13, 16, 30 and 31 are sold out, but those ticket holders can add this option, as well.)

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Even if you are not going to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party this year, Disney's PhotoPass Service is offering you a treat. Log into your My Disney Experience account and claim PhotoPass ID COMEJOINTHEPARTY to receive a bonus shot of well-known ghosts from the Haunted Mansion.



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May 28, 2014

What families need to know about Disney World's Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

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Well, heigh ho! The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opens today, and it's definitely the hot new "ticket" at the Magic Kingdom. Before you rush to grab that FastPass reservation -- or decide if the new attraction is worth the standby wait -- here is what you need to know:

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** Perhaps the most important thing to understand about this attraction is that it was not designed to be a thrill ride, but rather an experience that would appeal to (almost) all ages. With that concept in mind, Disney Imagineers developed a gentle roller coaster that many who previewed it -- including our own Deb Wills -- rank in between Goofy's Barnstormer and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad on the nail-biter scale. Individual cars sway gently from side to side during the 2.5-minute ride, and still my husband said after riding it that the Mine Train is among the smoothest and tamest coasters at Walt Disney World.

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** The minimum-height requirement for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is 38 inches, compared with 35 inches for the Barnstormer and 40 inches for the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. This again points to the kid-friendly nature of the ride.

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** Unlike the now-defunct Snow White's Scary Adventures, the storytelling throughout this attraction based on Disney's animated version of "Snow White" is not at all frightening. Guests are queued through a landscaped outdoor setting before heading to the mine entrance, and even inside queues are lit up by dazzling "jewels." The ride itself focuses on the lovable Seven Dwarfs rather than the Evil Queen as Snow White's Scary Adventures did, and the theming throughout the coaster is amazing and what guests would expect from a dark ride.

** In its quest to create a new experience that would appeal to the widest audience, Disney seemingly took the gender of its guests into account. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was a late addition to the development of New Fantasyland. It's been said that Disney planners went back to the drawing board when they realized that a substantial amount of real estate in New Fantasyland was dedicated to the Disney Princesses (and, originally, Disney Fairies). They needed an attraction that would give boys and dads a reason to venture behind Cinderella Castle (aside from accompanying sisters and moms, of course). The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train certainly accomplished that with its adventuresome theming.

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** If the stand-by queue is not too long for your day's schedule, choose that option at least once. There are three interactive areas that are really cute, and the FastPass+ queue bypasses two of them.

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** In short, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is not a scary ride for most youngsters, and it's not boring for children and adults who seek bigger thrills. My 9-year-old daughter, who regularly rides Walt Disney World's "Mountain" coasters with my husband, thoroughly enjoyed the ride when she previewed it during a soft opening and can't wait to experience it again.

** So, where can you find your favorite characters from the ride? Snow White meets guests each day at the nearby Princess Fairytale Hall. The Seven Dwarfs come out of the mine for special appearances during Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, both of which require a separate ticket.

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** There are a couple of fun photo opportunities near the ride, as well. Guests exiting the ride will pass by the Dwarfs' cottage, and it makes a unique backdrop to remember the experience. (There are no professional photos taken on the attraction, as of this writing.) Or, have a friend or family member stand along the fence surrounding the ride, on the walkway to Storybook Circus. Have them snap the photo when your mine car crests the hill and Cinderella Castle is in the background. Really adventurous? Have your camera ready as you come out of the mountain on one of the highest drops of the ride. In front of you, you'll have a bird's eye view of the land enchanted by Belle and the Beast. To the right, Ariel's kingdom; to the left, Cinderella's Castle. Hope you have a fast shutter speed.

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** Although the stores near Cinderella Castle and on Main Street, U.S.A., carry a variety of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs merchandise, only one item so far is available that is attraction-specific. An open edition logo pin features Dopey and Grumpy and contains a swivel movement similar to the attraction vehicles created for the ride. It costs $9.95.



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March 29, 2014

A young model from Orlando helps Walt Disney World spread its magical message

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Recently, my family was excited to see that one of my daughter's friends was pictured in a full-page color ad for Walt Disney World in the Orlando Sentinel. And that piqued my curiosity about how child models are chosen for the company's advertising campaigns and what is involved with that experience.

In this case, Kayla Davis, who will turn 9 next month, is living out her own fairy tale. She began modeling at age 4, and her first photo shoot was for Disney, portraying a princess story time.

"It was truly a magical moment for Kayla," said her mother, Tammy Davis. "She was able to meet Jasmine and Snow White that day."

Tammy said that when Kayla expressed an interest in modeling at a young age, she decided to research what she and her husband could do to facilitate their daughter's dream. She cautions other parents who have children interested in modeling to take the time to find a reputable talent agency. One sign of trustworthy representation is that no fees are collected up front, she said.

The talent agency then handles the interaction between clients, such as Walt Disney World, and its talent, such as Kayla. So, for all the work Kayla has done for Disney World ads, she has not had to audition. Her agency forwards her information and photos when they see a job she might be qualified for, and then the client makes a request for certain models.

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For this most recent ad, Kayla had to be at the Magic Kingdom at 1 a.m. and work until 9 that morning. And although she was able to rest in between shoots, that's still a long night for a third-grader. To prepare, Tammy said she went to bed at 7 p.m.

Once she arrived on Disney property, her job began with having her hair styled and light makeup applied, plus a trip to the wardrobe department for the Belle shirt she is wearing in the ad. Kayla wore several different Disney Princess-themed outfits during the course of the shoot and thoroughly enjoyed that part of the experience, Tammy said.

During this particular shoot, Walt Disney World was showcasing its newest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, Be Our Guest, as the backdrop for a hiring campaign. The ad reads, "I made her feel like the Belle of the ball. #IamDisney"

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Kayla was required to pretend she was eating in the Fantasyland restaurant, which can be seen in the final full-page ad. She also had to pose for a slew of photos in front of the entrance to the castle. While she was on the job, Kayla got to see a big scene of Beauty and the Beast dancing. She said that interacting with the characters is one of her favorite parts about Disney modeling jobs. The Florida native also was infatuated with the windows in the ballroom of Beast's Castle that depict snow falling.

Kayla has done more shoots for Disney than any other company, her mother said. It certainly would seem that Disney has a way of making dreams come true for both theme-park guests and even others living out their own fairy tales.



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March 19, 2014

Seven Dwarfs Mine Coaster speeds to completion and opening

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Arguably the most anticipated attraction in the New Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom -- the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster -- is speeding to its completion and opening. We don't have much longer to wait for this ride, which was first announced more than three years ago.

The dedication for this attraction is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. May 2, according to the Hilton Hotel at Downtown Disney, and then presumably it would be open to the public afterward. Media have been invited to preview the roller coaster a few days beforehand, so it sounds like the finishing touches are on track.

The Disney Parks Blog just revealed the logo for the ride from Walt Disney Imagineering:

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The official Walt Disney World news outlet has been teasing us with images and details that have Disney fans counting the minutes until they can experience the attraction for themselves. Earlier this month, we were given a peek of what guests can see from the peak of the newest "mountain" ride at Walt Disney World.

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I was in the Magic Kingdom on Saturday and got a close-up look at some sections of the track where more of the construction walls had been removed. The photos below are looking at the attraction from the Castle Courtyard gates seen in the photos above. Looks like so much fun, right?

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With this project, Disney Imagineers tried something new and offered guests a glimpse at the progress through special windows built into the construction walls. This was done so guests could feel like they were part of the project from the beginning and have a sense of ownership in the attraction, I was told.

So, why all the hype for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train?

It's the first "mountain" attraction to be added to a Walt Disney World theme park since Expedition Everest made its debut at Animal Kingdom in 2006. "Mountain" attractions are typically the big coasters, but this one is being billed as family friendly. In fact, the height requirement is only 38 inches. Plus, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will feature the first-of-its-kind-ride-system with a train of vehicles that swing side to side, responding to every twist and turn of the track.

Finally, it adds an element to New Fantasyland that was created, at least in part, with boys in mind. If you remember, the original plans for New Fantasyland also included a Disney Fairies section. Developers decided to scrap that and scaled back the Disney Princess areas, which now are dedicated to Belle, Ariel, Rapunzel. Then, Snow White's Scary Adventures was closed and the location re-imagined to be Princess Fairytale Hall, a meet-and-greet set.

Take a look at the newest onboard ride video from Walt Disney Imagineering and tell us if you're excited about the upcoming opening.




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January 11, 2014

It's time to change locations of smoking areas at Walt Disney World

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It's the beginning of January, and for many of us, that means a renewed focus on our health. We vow to eat better and stick to exercise routines. Many of our Disney friends who did not veer off track are even running in the races today during Marathon Weekend at Walt Disney World.

But in addition to healthy eating and exercising, there is another factor affecting the health of Disney World guests who are forced to confront it every time they step into the parks -- secondhand smoke. Each park has designated smoking areas, which makes sense and which I appreciate. I just wish some of these designated areas were relocated to less-busy sections of the parks so kids (and adults!) are not forced to hold their breath as they walk through the clouds of smoke.

Of the four theme parks, the Magic Kingdom seems to have some of the worst-placed designated smoking areas, in my opinion. I cannot believe that guests are permitted to smoke on the walkways that run alongside Cinderella Castle. Sure, it's a central location, but it makes little sense to me that crowds of smokers should be allowed where visitors want to pause to admire the castle and even take photos in front of it. After all, Cinderella Castle is practically synonymous with Walt Disney World and attracts all guests in the parks, especially young children.

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Another smoking spot that I find almost as egregious is the Plaza Landing, which is surrounded by the Rose Garden, Tomorrowland Terrace and The Plaza restaurant. That location is prime real estate for fireworks viewing, but I certainly wouldn't choose to sit there, knowing my family and I would have to breathe the secondhand smoke. Unfortunately, the smoke also drifts to one side of Tomorrowland Terrace, where the nightly dessert party is held, and the iconic tables with the yellow umbrellas in front of The Plaza, so we generally bypass those, as well.

The fact is that smokers probably are no longer the majority of guests who visit the Magic Kingdom, so why are they being given the preferred locations to light up? It would make more sense to place the smoking sections in less-crowded areas.

There actually is one such designated smoking area that I think is located in an ideal spot. It's along the walkway between Tomorrowland and Storybook Circus. This area is not well-traveled, and there are alternative routes for guests who want to visit either land of the Magic Kingdom. Plus, it's an open-air section of the park, between the Walt Disney Railroad tracks and the Tomorrowland Speedway.

Smoking sections at Walt Disney World should be located in places where non-smokers are least affected by the health risks. It's time for a change at the Magic Kingdom. At Hollywood Studios, two of the designated smoking sections recently were closed. Perhaps that's in order at the Magic Kingdom, as well.



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January 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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October 21, 2013

Glow With The Show ear hats debut at Magic Kindom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 3, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 19, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

September 15, 2013

Tour Princess Fairytale Hall in Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland before it opens

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The newest addition to the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland, Princess Fairytale Hall, opens this week, and it truly is fit for royalty. I previewed the princess meet-and-greet with my family at a recent Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween event, and we were enchanted by the experience.

Princess Fairytale Hall, which has been built in the space previously occupied by Snow White's Scary Adventures, is located just behind Cinderella Castle in what is called the Castle Courtyard. As you would expect of Disney Imagineers, the transition appears seamless. Guests who are not aware of the park's history would be hard-pressed to know the new attraction hasn't always been there.

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As families approach Princess Fairytale Hall, they will be able to choose from two queues. One leads to Rapunzel and a "visiting princess" and the other takes guests to Cinderella and her royal friend. The queues begin outdoors in a shaded area that sets the scene with heavily bricked walls and crown-shaped light fixtures that cast a slightly purple glow. Of course, Cinderella Castle and Prince Charming Regal Carousel are visible to those waiting in line outside.

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Before entering the hall, guests glimpse the gallery through beautiful stained glass windows. Each has a centered image that depicts a character from the Disney film story of Cinderella. We heard other guests "oohing" and "aahing" over the whimsical designs, and with good reason, given the artistic detail and the historical significance to Disney's film past.

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Once inside, guests will wind through several turns of the line. These, too, are decorated in true royal fashion with ornate iron gates, fancy chandeliers, colorful banners and beautiful arches. Most importantly for the royal realm of Central Florida -- there is air conditioning! After the last turn, guests step onto a rich carpet and enter the hall, where they will see portraits of Princesses Aurora, Jasmine, Tiana, Mulan, Snow White and Rapunzel lining the walls.

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When you finally reach the front of the queue, be sure to step forward so you can take a look at Cinderella's famous glass slipper, which is illuminated in a special case. What a thrill for little girls and other princess fans!

(Last month, the Disney Parks Blog was giving away three similar Fairytale glass slippers. They are made of 100 percent lead-free crystal and enhanced with a sparkling rhinestone pavé heart. Plus, the 6-inch shoe lights up. Inside the gemstone heart on the shoe is a hidden button that you press to bathe the slipper in blue light. The slipper is available for purchase through Disney Floral and Gifts. It can be added to an arrangement for $127.95.)

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Finally, it is time to meet the Disney princesses! A cast member will direct your party into the receiving room associated with your queue. The rooms are organized as exact opposites, with guests standing in a short line before meeting the "visiting" princess and then the "featured" princess. Rapunzel's meet-and-greet (on the left) is decorated in warm tones, while Cinderella's (on the right) is decorated in traditional blues. Both showcase replicas of props from the movies -- from storybooks for each princess to the king's bookends in Cinderella's room.

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My daughter met Snow White with Rapunzel and Aurora with Cinderella, and her enthusiasm was not dimmed by the number of times she has already seen her royal friends. I think a large part of the thrill is the feeling that she actually has stepped into a place that the Disney Princesses frequent. We have dined at Cinderella Castle for special occasions over the years and her excitement at being in the very place where the princesses "live" was palpable. She admired everything, and even my son, when he was in preschool, wondered about the daily routines of the princesses.

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Speaking of Cinderella's Royal Table, Cinderella will continue to meet with guests at the restaurant between greeting her guests at Princess Fairytale Hall.

Here are a few final tips for visiting Princess Fairytale Hall:

** To find out who the "visiting princesses" are each day, check the sign at the entrance to Princess Fairytale Hall. You also can look at the "characters" section of the My Disney Experience app or the printed daily Times Guide for the Magic Kingdom.

** On the night we previewed Princess Fairytale Hall, the queue for Rapunzel was consistently longer than the one for Cinderella. I'm not sure if this will hold true once the attraction is open, but it just might, given that it will be the only place on Disney property to meet Rapunzel.

** FastPass will be available for Princess Storybook Hall. There will be two FastPass options -- one for Rapunzel and a her princess friend and one for Cinderella and her visiting princess -- available at the distribution area near Peter Pan's Flight.

You can see more photos of Princess Fairytale Hall, which opens Sept. 18, in our AllEars.Net photo gallery and take our exclusive video tour with the Imagineers who worked on Princess Fairytale Hall.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World at a media preview of Princess Fairytale Hall. This did not affect my story, and my opinions are my own.

August 15, 2013

2013 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party offers new treats

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Typically, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, the annual after-hours fall event at the Magic Kingdom, changes only slightly from year to year. This week, however, Walt Disney World officials announced some sure-to-thrill additions to the 2013 entertainment line-up.

Characters Jack Skellington and Sally (from Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas") will make their debut appearance at the party. Given the context of their story and the pair's widespread appeal, this meet-and-greet seems like a natural fit. Jack Skellington and Sally first appeared at Walt Disney World last September as part of Frankenweenie Weekend at Downtown Disney. Make no bones about it: Some guests waited three hours to meet these characters, which certainly is a testament to their popularity. At Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, you'll be able to find them in the Town Square area of Main Street, U.S.A.

Phineas and Ferb return for their second year at the holiday party. This time, however, they have been promoted from simply greeting guests to leading the Creepa Crew. The Disney Channel duo unofficially performed in this capacity last year, interacting with crowds waiting for the popular Mickey's Boo To You! Halloween Parade. Now, they will lead the Disney dancers and guests in a line dance -- the Not-So-Scary Street Jam -- performed to "Calling All the Monsters" by China Anne McClain.

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Speaking of dancing, another new event at the Halloween Party will be the Monstrous Scream-O-Ween Ball on the Rockettower Plaza Stage in Tomorrowland. The dance party will be hosted by "Monsters University" scarers Mike and Sulley. Dance parties have become a staple at after-hours events in the Magic Kingdom, and for good reason -- guests love to let loose and see their favorite characters doing the same thing. The Monstrous Scream-O-Ween Ball replaces Stitch's Club 626 in the same location.

Of course, two of the annual favorite entertainment experiences have been confirmed for the 2013 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Parties: Mickey's Boo-to-You Halloween parade, which begins with the Headless Horseman and features Disney characters in costume as well as the ghostly inhabitants of The Haunted Mansion; and Happy HalloWishes fireworks. Both of these events are only seen during the Halloween party. This is different from the Christmas parade and fireworks at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, which can be seen as part of regular admission to the Magic Kingdom during the weeks surrounding the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

The always-popular treat trails that offer concentrated trick-or-treating return, too. Guests can collect handfuls of candy at Alice and Mad Hatter's Treat Party, which begins in Storybook Circus in Fantasyland, and at Br'er Rabbit's Laughin' Place Candy Patch near Splash Mountain in Frontierland. We're told there may be a few new surprise candy stations, as well.

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Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party is a hard-ticket event, meaning guests must pay a separate admission price for the party, which lasts from 7 p.m. to midnight. (The Magic Kingdom usually allows party guests to enter as early as 4 p.m., but the Halloween events do not begin until 7 p.m.) Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party will be held on Sept. 10, 13, 17, 20, 24, 27, 29; Oct. 3, 4, 6, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18, 20, 22, 24, 25, 27, 29, 31; and Nov 1. Tickets are on sale now, and you can see the full breakdown on prices on the AllEars.Net resource page.


July 3, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 30, 2013

New at Magic Kingdom: A Pirate's Adventure treasure hunt

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Going on a pirate's adventure never gets old, does it, mateys?

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The creative forces at Disney World are banking on that with a new scavenger hunt at the Magic Kingdom called, not surprisingly, A Pirate's Adventure. Located in a small building on the outskirts of Adventureland, just past the arches connected to Pirates of the Caribbean and across from the Pecos Bill and Tortuga Tavern dining area, is the spot where would-be pirates plot their raids. After a series of simple steps on a touch-screen computer, players will head out on one of five possible quests to help Captain Jack Sparrow locate the Treasures of the Seven Seas. They are armed with a paper map and a "magic talisman" (otherwise known as a RFID-chipped card).

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My 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter recently tested A Pirate's Adventure and found it to be a swashbuckling experience of map-reading, hidden clues and entertaining special effects. Each quest is fairly short -- about 15 minutes, if there are no lines -- and easy to solve. Every clue triggers a physical action, from a firing cannon to a moving skeleton, which are fun surprises for all ages. Of course, the wow factor is diminished a bit if players are waiting behind others with the same map who reveal the clues first.

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Still, the game allows players to explore Adventureland, taking them to some corners of the land that they previously may not have noticed. And certainly, like other scavenger hunts at Walt Disney World, A Pirate's Adventure offers guests an experience that can be had at their leisure -- in between dining reservations or FastPasses, for example.

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That widespread appeal of an attraction for all ages that doesn't have to be scheduled has led to the recent additions of several scavenger hunts in the theme parks. Epcot's Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure was reworked last summer as Disney Phineas & Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure. Guests help Agent P defeat his nemesis, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, by receiving assignments via a mobile phone (instead of a talisman). They, too, are rewarded with physical surprises in the countries of World Showcase.

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom debuted a little over a year ago. It's a game of a different sort, though, in which guests use collectible cards to cast spells on Disney villains. The game portals are screens placed throughout the Magic Kingdom, and the game has various levels of difficulty. This game relies more on strategy than physical cues. As such, each guest's experience is different, so those waiting in line won't necessarily have the reveal spoiled for them.

Back at A Pirates Adventure, if guests help Captain Jack succeed in all five missions, they'll be welcomed as part of his new crew.

Here's a video of the game (with spoilers)

April 9, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 26, 2013

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

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It's no great surprise that boys of all ages seem to like trains. So I knew that when my husband and 10-year-old son enrolled in Disney's "The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains" tour, they'd have a good time. I just didn't realize how much they would enjoy it until afterward, when both shared details of the outing.

My husband was kind of a train nerd when I met him years ago and even played with electric trains as an adult -- though he was quick to explain it was called "model railroading" and not "toy trains."

Our son also follows in his dad's footsteps and always has enjoyed the steam locomotives at Magic Kingdom, as well as the train at Animal Kingdom, Epcot's garden railway display in Germany, and the holiday model-train exhibits at the Disney World resorts.

Clearly, I knew, the Magic Kingdom tour of its rail operations was the kind of educational program that would appeal to the both of them and others like them who appreciate the romance of the rails.

The three-hour tour gives guests 10 and older a chance learn all about the train operations at the Magic Kingdom and get an up-close, hands-on tour of the engine cabs and tenders, and a look inside the roundhouse where the trains are stored and maintained. Tour participants also get to ride some segments of track that are off-limits to regular guests, and they even get to see some spectacular mechanical feats performed as the engine boilers are set alight and steam pressure builds.

Recently, my husband and son parked at the Contemporary Resort visitor's lot (which is allowed for this tour) and walked over to the entrance of Magic Kingdom before the park opened. Once passing through the baggage-check site, they and others awaiting the tour gathered in the center of the plaza at the Kodak picture spot for the Main Street Station.

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Not only is this spot a centralized location for everyone on the tour to meet, but it proved to offer a unique vantage point from which to get a one-of-a-kind photo as the tour's private train did something it rarely does during the rest of the hours of the day. After the train pulled into the front of the Main Street station, the engine actually stopped in the middle of the track segment in front of the station, giving tour participants a privileged photo opportunity that most park guest will never have.

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After the train arrived for that photo op, it then advanced along the track as normal and awaited the tour group. At this point, the tour's leader guided the group toward the station. On the day my husband and son attended, it was only a group of 6, so everyone had plenty of room to gather around the conductor for the tour, Matt Simsburg of Connecticut, who led them to the station and into the last car of the train.

After a quick "all aboard," the tour then left for a nonstop ride to the Fantasyland station. There, a railroad worker threw the track switch behind the train, allowing the consist to back up and travel in reverse toward the roundhouse, where all of the Magic Kingdom's four trains - the No. 1 Walter E. Disney, the No. 2 Lilly Belle, the No. 3 Roger E. Broggie, and the No. 4 Roy E. Disney - are housed and maintained.

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It was there where my husband and son got to experience the engines and tenders up close and learn about the intricate mechanical workings of these iron horses. They both got to watch several of the trains as they prepared for their first official passenger runs of the morning, and they were allowed to climb into the cab of one engine and get a detailed rundown on all the various mechanical components used by the engineer and fireman.

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One visual highlight, they both said, was when flames were set to the engine's boilers; another came when the crew of the departing trains built up excess pressure in the boilers to trigger a steam "pop-off" valve test in which a plume of white steam is sent skyward above the monorails overhead and probably is heard over the entire backlot of the park and beyond.

After learning about these procedures and much more, my son and husband boarded another train and got to see how the engineers test track safety systems and perform other mechanical tests required before the trains are put into service at the park for the day.

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All along the way, conductor Matt was offering a wealth of insider information and answering the group's many questions. The participants learned plenty of historical facts about the rail line (Did you know that one of Henry Flagler's actual Florida East Coast bridges once had to be replaced after a hurricane in the Keys and now spans a waterway in Frontierland?). They heard interesting trivia about the route, too. (Just what is under the tunnel near the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction?) Plus, they learned details about the track's grade (its slope) at various parts of the route and how it can affect the trains' speed and braking ability.

They even got a short lesson on train-whistle communication and the importance of the engine's bell as the train pulls into the station. (It's not just a sound effect. Rather it is an actual signal to the workers at the station about a specific action about to take place.)

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Eventually, the group traveled back to the Main Street station. Arriving soon after the park had opened for the day, they disembarked for a short break. Afterward, the group then assembled inside one end of the station as their tour leader Matt gave them a historical account of Walt Disney's early love of railroading, a detailed look at how Disney designed and operated his own private and legendary "Carolwood Pacific Railroad" setup at his California home, and a telling of how the Magic Kingdom's four engines were re-created from the relics of actual, working engines in a time long past.

My husband said he had a lot of familiarity with most of the information presented in this part of the tour. As he told me, most rail fans probably already have a passing knowledge of Walt Disney's forays into railroading, both the actual trains of his youth and the smaller scales he created later for fun and for his themed attractions.

But he did say that one part of the discussion segment was new to him and, he said, surprisingly revelatory.

Tour leader Matt explained how Disney, in the 1940s, was much impressed with the Henry Ford Museum and its Greenfield Village, and how - on a train ride from the east coast back to California - Walt began sketching the first ideas for what later would become Disneyland. Disney's world-changing ideas about themed attractions, Matt pointed out, literally were born aboard a train, and those ideas have included some form of railroading at most of Disney's themed attractions ever since.

My son, at 10, might not have grasped the cultural or societal significance of what he was hearing, but he certainly did love the last thing he would take away from the tour that day. Matt presented him and everyone else in the tour group with a special-edition trading pin available only to tour participants.

If you take the tour, know that it leaves from the front of Magic Kingdom promptly at 7:30 a.m. You must be at least 10 years old to take part, and no camera or video photography is allowed along some backlot areas. (You are free to take pictures and video during the roundhouse tour, though.) The tour costs $49, plus tax, and also requires park admission. Annual passholders, Disney Vacation Club member and Disney Visa cardholders are eligible for discounts. Call 407-WDW-TOUR to book.

January 8, 2013

The many great reasons to visit Disney World in January

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In Orbitz's annual travel index, Orlando has been named as one of the "Sure Bets for Great Deals in 2013." This designation comes in large part due to the expansion of New Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom and great deals year-round at the Disney World hotels. So, in light of that news, let's take a look at why visiting Walt Disney World in January makes sense.

** As Orbitz mentioned and many theme-park fans know, some of the best deals can be found for Walt Disney Resort vacations because travel typically slows after the holidays. With the exception of New Year's, marathon and Martin Luther King Day weekends, the room rates are considered value prices. Pair that with an incentive deal, and a trip to Disney World may be within your budget. Disney recently announced an up to 30% resort discount for select dates, February - June.

** Because the kids have gone back to school, and it's not yet time for the staggered spring breaks, the crowds tend to be the lightest of the year in January. Sure, the parks may have shorter hours, but if your wait times are significantly reduced and you're able to experience all the attractions, that leaves you more time to explore the nightlife at Disney World outside the parks. Parents may want to book the kids club and have a night out to themselves.

** If your family believes there can never be too much Christmas magic, you may be in luck. Most holiday performances continue into the new year -- some for days and some for the week. And the Christmas decorations usually stay up through marathon weekend.

** Speaking of runners, the Walt Disney World Marathon -- a fun and prestigious race -- takes place in Orlando in January. But even if you are not a serious runner, that weekend can be a fun experience participating in shorter races, such as the family 5K, which can be walked. There are even races for kids, which means the whole family can start a new year of health and fitness together. With marathon weekend upon us (Jan. 12-14), the events are sold out for this year, but families still can have fun cheering on the runners.

** This week notwithstanding, Orlando's weather typically is cooler in January, lending itself to hot chocolate in the parks or beside a hotel's roaring fire while wearing those jeans and long sleeves. It's a nice change from the sweltering summer experience. Visitors also might find the campfires for roasting marshmallows at their deluxe hotels more palatable.

First-time visitors or guests who want to see specific attractions should be aware that because January is a slow period at Disney World, many refurbishments are scheduled then. Be sure to check the AllEars.Net list of closures if this is a concern for you. Ultimately, though, the tradeoff of missing a few attractions for better prices, fewer visitors and cooler weather may just be worth it.

January 1, 2013

Where to find healthy, tasty salads at Walt Disney World

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It's January 1 and time for all those New Year's resolutions to kick in. For many of us, among our annual promises is one to eat healthier and/or lose weight.

Admittedly, this can be tough when you're visiting Walt Disney World. And, if this is your once-in-a-lifetime vacation, it's understandable that the calorie content of your meals and snacks is not your top priority. For some, though, eating well continues on vacation. It's always a bonus to get home and find you haven't gained weight, right?

Because I live in Orlando and am fortunate to visit The Most Magical Place on Earth frequently, I want to find foods that fit my dietary needs without feeling like I am being deprived while visiting a theme park with my family. For me, this means mostly quick-service foods with protein and a lot of vegetables, limiting the carbs and sugar. More often than not, I end up eating salads.

To that end, here are some of my favorite salads in the Disney parks that are available at counter-service restaurants (for the most part), are comparatively inexpensive, and are more interesting than a basic garden salad.

Magic Kingdom

In the summer of 2011, Columbia Harbor House in Liberty Square at Magic Kingdom added several healthy dishes to a menu that was heavy on fried foods. That's when the Broccoli Peppercorn Salad was introduced to the menu, replacing the BLT salad.

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Broccoli Peppercorn Salad

It contains mixed greens, garden vegetables (including peas, corn and carrots), chicken, broccoli, bacon and Parmesian tossed with a creamy Peppercorn dressing." What the Disney description doesn't tell you is that the grilled chicken also is served warm on the salad, and there is a generous amount of protein for the $8.19 price. I really love this salad and usually have it when I'm at Magic Kingdom. A bonus: Columbia Harbour House is located close to New Fantasyland.

If I am looking for tasty salad at a sit-down restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, I choose the Chicken Strawberry Salad at The Plaza restaurant. It contains fresh garden greens, grilled chicken breast, fresh strawberries, Gorgonzola cheese and is tossed in a white Zinfandel vinaigrette dressing for $14.99. It's also filling, which is key when you're limiting what you eat.

Animal Kingdom

For many, a trip to Disney's Animal Kingdom is not complete without a meal at Flame Tree BBQ. The counter-service restaurant not only serves up delicious barbecue favorites, but it also has unique outdoor dining with terraces that overlook fountains, foliage and even Expedition Everest. (Many years ago, an open-air boat also shuttled Disney characters around the lake, and diners on the lowest terraces could exchange waves while dining. We miss that!)

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Barbecued Chicken Salad

My longtime favorite here is, you guessed it, the Barbecued Chicken Salad for $7.79. However, the ingredients were changed last summer, and it doesn't have quite the same appeal for my taste. The thin slices of chicken still are coated with the restaurant's signature spice rub, but garbanzo and pinto beans have been added, as well as tortilla strips, to the salad. I liked the previous version better, but this still is a good option for healthy dining, in my opinion, and others might find it more tasty than I do.

Epcot

Talk about making the tough choices! Forgoing all the great food at Epcot is not my favorite thing to do, but I have found a salad that makes healthy eating not quite as painful. Sunshine Seasons in Future World's The Land serves a Roasted Beets and Goat Cheese Salad with honey sherry dressing for $7.89. I don't care for beets, so I always ask if I may substitute grilled chicken, and my request has been honored. (Sometimes there is a charge for the additional protein, though some servers consider it an even trade.) This salad also contains a generous portion of nuts, which helps make it satisfying.

Hollywood Studios

The Brown Derby at Hollywood Studios is known for its famous Cobb Salad, but I found this Disney theme park to be the most difficult in which to find a good salad at a counter-service restaurant. After experimenting with several salads -- including the Asian Salad (which has since been replaced) at ABC Commissary and the Fairfax Salad at Fairfax Fare -- I finally hit the jackpot at Backlot Express.

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Cantaloupe and Cucumber Salad

This restaurant, located near the Jedi Training Academy and Star Tours, now offers two interesting salads, though only one has protein included. The Southwest Salad with Chicken includes mixed greens, crisp corn tortilla, black bean relish and cilantro vinaigrette with hefty chicken strips for $8.49. The Cantaloupe and Cucumber Salad offers chopped romaine, red onion, tomato, green peas and Zinfandel vinaigrette for $6.49. I prefer the Cantaloupe and Cucumber Salad, but it definitely is not as filling without some protein.

If you have a favorite salad, please tell us about it in the comments. We'd also love to hear your tips for eating healthy when you're visiting Walt Disney World.


November 14, 2012

Review: Dinner at Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland

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At a recent passholder preview of New Fantasyland, my family and I were thrilled to discover Be Our Guest was open for dinner that evening. Reservations were being accepted outside the restaurant for that night only.

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Cast members were accommodating when we asked to be seated in the West Wing. Because it's such a small dining room compared to the Ballroom, there are no promises made that guests will get a table there, but the hostess will take a request when you check in and are given a pager. The Ballroom and the West Wing are the only two dining rooms open for dinner.

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Entering Be Our Guest for dinner was an entirely different experience than when we queued up for lunch. Our host led us directly through the great hall, where cast members lined the entrance to the Ballroom and wished us "Bon Appetit!" As we entered the Ballroom, it was obvious the lights had been dimmed, and the atmosphere was a little more formal. Tables were set with electric candles and red cloth napkins folded into the shape of roses. As we were led to the West Wing, we noticed that the food trolleys now lined the walls and were filled with desserts.

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We chose the West Wing because we wanted to experience the thunderstorm and its effects on the Enchanted Rose and Beast portrait. (See my previous post for more details about the entertainment in the West Wing.) This, coupled with the fact that the doors to the kitchen exit into the West Wing, make this dining room louder than the Ballroom. That didn't bother us at all, but please be aware if you have young children or someone with hearing issues, this might not be the best spot for you to dine. (When my son was a toddler, the thunder at Rainforest Cafe really scared him.)

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Once we were seated and perusing the menu, my husband and I were having difficulty narrowing our selections because everything sounded so delicious. My eight-year-old daughter, however, was struggling because she didn't see any of the traditional kid favorites and she can, at times, be a picky eater. (See the kids' dinner menu here.)

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And there is the dilemma for some parents: Their little girls may be excited to step into Belle's world but disappointed when they can't fully enjoy the experience because the kids' menu is a little more grown-up than their palates. Our server handled the situation beautifully, though, when we explained the situation. She asked a chef to come to our table, and he was very helpful about finding a solution. In my daughter's case, he offered the baked au gratin macaroni that is usually served with the adult pork chop and paired it with French fries. My daughter was satisfied, and we were pleased about the restaurant's flexibility.

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My son chose the thyme-scented pork rack chop with au gratin macaroni and seasonal vegetables and raved about it. My husband and I found it to be quite tasty, too, when we sampled the portion he was unable to finish. One caution: The pork was heavily seasoned with pepper.

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My husband tried the pan-seared salmon on leek fondue, which was served with creamy saffron-crushed potatoes. The salmon was a moist and meaty serving of fish that flaked nicely on the fork. I had the grilled strip steak with garlic-herb butter, which was very flavorful and tender, and pommes frites. The portion was so large that I ended up sharing quite a bit with my husband, who certainly was not complaining. (See the full dinner menu here.)

Be Our Guest has an extensive wine list, which you can see here. Several imported beers are available as well. My husband tried a dark belgian strong ale, Chimay Blue, and said it had a subtle hint of fruit that paired well with the salmon. Beast's castle also serves two signature non-alcoholic drinks: All-Natural Fruit Punch and All-Natural Lemonade. If you choose a light-up castle-themed souvenir goblet for the foamy drinks, the price quadruples. Almost $20 for a drink without alcohol -- ouch!

Although Be Our Guest is expensive, the pricing is in line with other table-service restaurants at Walt Disney World. In fact, it costs less overall than dinner at Cinderella's Royal Table, which does not offer alcohol but does include a photo package. The only price that really stunned me was the non-alcoholic drink. We saw plenty of diners, including children, sipping away, though.

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Still, our dinner experience at Be Our Guest was outstanding. Our server was attentive to our needs, keeping our drinks and bread basket filled and plates cleared. She was knowledgeable about the menu, too. Of course, our favorite part of her service was when she rolled the dessert trolley to our table. Guests can choose a cupcake -- strawberry cream cheese, triple chocolate or lemon meringue (Belle's favorite) -- or a cream puff -- chocolate, passion fruit or lemon-raspberry. We all tried the triple chocolate cupcake, which was quite a sweet ending to an excellent dinner.

November 13, 2012

Review: Lunch at Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland

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Did someone say, put our service to the test?

During a recent passholder preview of New Fantasyland, I was excited to find Be Our Guest open for lunch AND dinner. With Be Our Guest dinner reservations booked into March, this was a rare opportunity to dine at Magic Kingdom's newest restaurant. Given that each meal has a separate menu and different service, my family and I decided to dine there twice in the same day -- and we were happy we did. Today, I'll tell you about our lunch experience and then I'll be back with a separate blog post about dinner.

First, lunch is a step up from other Disney World counter service restaurants in that guests order their food and then it is brought to their tables by the waitstaff. No juggling trays, bags and kids at the same time! As we entered Beast's castle, we were directed into the Armory Room for a short wait. We were entertained there by the Suits of Armor who talk to each other and to guests. Plus, the lunch menu is displayed on waist-high screens for guests to peruse.

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At the end of the hall, guests are greeted by a cast member at a podium who asks about the size of your party and hands your group a small red monitor with a rose motif on the top. It actually contains Disney's new RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology and allows cast members to identify you inside the castle, and most importantly, bring your lunch to the correct table. Rose in hand, you will be directed to a manned kiosk or unmanned touch screen to order, depending on your preferred method of payment.

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Although we were directed to a manned kiosk, which would seem to cut down on ordering mistakes, we still ended up with problems with our children's meals. First, the cast member did not explain that kids have an option to substitute side dishes, and we missed the fine print. My daughter ordered the Mickey Meatloaf, which is served with broccoli and zucchini, and my son chose the slow-cooked pork with sauteed green beans and mashed sweet potatoes. Both would have preferred French fries with their meals.

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Their meals also came with desserts, which the cast member did not enter into the system, and consequently, were never delivered. My son also never received his apple juice, and a server told him to pick something else from the beverage station, even though he wanted the juice. Clearly, there are some bugs that are being worked out by the staff as the restaurant prepares for its official opening.

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Once our order was placed, we were free to choose a table in the Ballroom, West Wing or Rose Gallery. It was a tough choice, but we opted for the far end of the Ballroom, where we could see the "snow" falling outside the windows. Beautiful! We were invited to collect our silverware, which is metal and not the plastic that is typical of counter-service restaurants, and drinks from a station that included Coca-Cola products, coffee, hot chocolate and iced tea. Then, while we waited for our food, we toured the other rooms.

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The centerpiece of the Rose Gallery is a large-scale replica of a music box made by Maurice and showing Belle and Beast dancing. The walls are decorated with portraits from the tale and other pieces of art. This is the only room with banquettes, if you prefer that type of seating. Also, the Rose Gallery only is open for lunch.

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The West Wing is Beast's hideaway before Belle's love tamed him. It's dark and foreboding, and the furnishings appear to have been ravaged by Beast's frequent fits of anger. Thunder can be heard in this room, making it louder than the others. When the last petal on an Enchanted Rose drops and the thunderstorm is upon the room, a portrait of Belle's handsome prince changes to an image of Beast. (Read more about the design of restaurant from Imagineers here.) Photos will be included on my dinner review because we were seated in the West Wing.

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Returning to the grand Ballroom, our food was being delivered via trolley after just a short time. My husband ordered the Quinoa, Shallot and Chive Salad, and I had the Vegetable Quiche, and we were pleased with the flavors of each meal. Both were served with baby lettuce coated with Champagne vinaigrette, which was fantastic. (This dressing is served on a side salad on the dinner menu, as well.) We found our lunch selections to be delicious.

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Even with the problems with the kids' meals, we'd certainly give Be Our Guest another try for lunch. (See the full lunch menu here and here.) After all, our lunch experience was during a "dress rehearsal." Plus, our children were so engrossed in their surroundings that they even forgot that cupcakes were included with their meals. Other parents, I'm sure, can agree that's quite a testament to how much fun they were having in the imaginative surroundings.


November 10, 2012

Clang, Clang, Clang Goes the Trolley ... with seasonal Magic Kingdom shows

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As my family and I made our way down Main Street, U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom a couple weeks ago, we saw the park's old-time trolley stopped and performers dancing on the pavement. There's nothing unusual about that, if you're in the Magic Kingdom before lunchtime.

What was different, though, was the music and the show itself. I expected to hear "The Trolley Song" ("Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley ""), but instead unfamiliar, less peppy music blared from the speakers. Apparently, with little fanfare, Walt Disney World introduced a fall trolley show -- and it may be one of several new seasonal trolley shows.

The new show featured two alternating songs: "Harvest Moon" at the first and third stops and "Autumn Leaves" at the second and fourth stops. (The trolley's current schedule has stops planned for 8:20, 9:15 and 10:10 a.m. and noon.)

The performances still featured the six couples, but in this Main Street Trolley Show, they were dedicated to the season with choreography that shows them mimicking falling leaves and kissing a scarecrow, while singing about the "magic of autumn." New costumes reflected the rich seasonal hues of orange, gold, brown, purple and green.

But with Main Street, U.S.A. now trimmed for the holidays, the Trolley Show changes again to its Christmas version. The performers don their green and red attire, the props are holiday-inspired and the trolley car is decorated with greenery, ornaments and bows.

This is one holiday performance that is included in regular admission to the park and cannot be found at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. In fact, those who enter Magic Kingdom in the afternoon will miss it.

Not so long ago, my husband and I -- both night owls -- would drag ourselves out of bed, pack up two small children and drive the 45 minutes from our home to Walt Disney World earlier than we are accustomed to because our son loved the Main Street Trolley Show. He won't admit it now, but he was fascinated by the performances and the unusual mode of transportation. (In between performances, the trolley ferries guests from one end of Main Street, U.S.A. to the other.)

My son's interest forced me to slow down and appreciate another layer of entertainment at Walt Disney World that I might otherwise have bypassed on my way to my favorite rides.

To read more about the Main Street Trolley Show and see a video that includes four camera angles of the traditional show, see Jack Spence's blog.

November 8, 2012

Taping of Orlando segments of Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade expected later this month

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It may just be the start of November, but the folks at Walt Disney World and Disneyland are busy planning and taping segments for this year's Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade, which airs -- you guessed it! -- on Dec. 25.

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Over the weekend, several musical acts performed at Disneyland for the ABC special. Lucky guests saw Ross Lynch from Disney Channel's "Austin & Ally" sing "Christmas Soul" on Main Street, U.S.A.; Backstreet Boys recorded "Christmas Time Again" in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle; and TobyMac took the castle stage to perform "Christmas This Year."

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Mario Lopez is the Disneyland host, and Maria Menounos and Nick Cannon are rumored to anchor the Walt Disney World segments. The trio shared hosting duties last year, as well. Neither resort announces its lineup of performers or the taping schedule ahead of time.

However, the Christmas special traditionally is taped in California in early November and in Orlando the first weekend in December. That looks like the case again this year. According to an organization representing hundreds of student musicians and dancers scheduled to perform in the parade, taping will take place Friday, Nov. 30 and Saturday, Dec. 1. Sunday, Dec. 2 is earmarked as the rain date.

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Typically the Friday date is dedicated to recording the featured musical acts performing in front of Cinderella Castle and on Main Street. Saturday focuses on the parade itself. Last year, though, Justin Bieber taped his song on the Castle stage early Saturday morning, likely to avoid crowds of park-goers.

For years, Walt Disney World invited various groups, such as passholders and sports volunteers -- and even the general public, to apply for free tickets to the tapings. In exchange, ticketholders agree to be in the audience for a block of time. Last year, only cast members were eligible for the tickets, and several Disney employees have indicated their registration already has begun this year.

But even if you don't have one of the complimentary production tickets, you still may be able to take part in the tapings -- or at least see some of the acts. The Magic Kingdom opens to the public at 8 a.m. on Nov. 30 and 9 a.m. on Dec. 1 and 2. Passholders and guests who pay admission may enter the park, and if there is room in the roped-off areas for the pre-selected audience -- which usually happens later in the afternoon -- they may be allowed to join cast members.

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A word of warning: This is an actual television production, which means that songs are sung multiple times and individual floats are sent down Main Street over and over again to get the correct camera angle. That means you most likely will spend more time waiting than viewing the events, and you shouldn't expect to see a seamless concert or parade.

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I speak from experience when I say this can be a tedious process when you have young children. If you're determined to take part, though, I'd suggest bringing plenty of snacks, drinks and electronics to occupy the kids during the wait. Still, it can be a unique opportunity. When else would my daughter stand feet away from Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers while they serenade the crowd with Christmas songs?

October 27, 2012

Save those Disney Dollars! New Fantasyland merchandise is in Magic Kingdom stores

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For many Walt Disney World visitors, shopping for souvenirs is an integral part of the vacation experience. Who doesn't like to have a reminder of a special trip, especially to the Most Magical Place on Earth?

The hunt for that perfect T-shirt, cap or photo frame can be as enjoyable as the product itself with all the beautiful and creative merchandise displays that engage shoppers. The window displays at The Emporium in the Magic Kingdom and at World of Disney at Downtown Disney are certainly worth a pause as you rush by to the main attractions.

Recently, new merchandise has arrived in the Magic Kingdom to coordinate with the "dress rehearsal" for New Fantasyland attractions and the opening of Storybook Circus. If you have Belle and Beast, Little Mermaid or Dumbo fans at your house, start saving your money!

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The new BonJour Village Gifts carries mostly Belle and Beast merchandise, which makes sense since it is located near Gaston's Tavern and Be Our Guest restaurant. There you'll find new Belle T-shirts for girls and women and Gaston's Tavern T-shirts for men, as you might expect.

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Some of the more unusual items for sale, though, are the light-up castle goblets; gargoyle frames and candle holders; a Jim Shore statue of Belle; and a collection of dishes and stemware and pillows inspired by the Be Our Guest restaurant.

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For younger guests, there are foam shields, swords and crowns -- in both girl and boy versions. So cute! Before the grand opening on Dec. 6, there is a limit of four per guest on some of the items, such as the dishes and frames. New merchandise continues to arrive in preparation for the big celebration.

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Need a dinglehopper? You can find one for sale -- seriously! -- at Sir Mickey's, which is located behind Cinderella Castle. That gift shop now carries Ariel merchandise themed to the New Fantasyland ride, Under the Sea -- Journey of The Little Mermaid. The Disney Parks Blog recently revealed the new line, which also includes T-shirts for kids and women, hoodies, cups, mugs, dolls and plush characters.

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Carla Lewandowski, senior franchise and brand manager with Disney Theme Park Merchandise, explained, "For this new assortment, we were inspired by the many colorful scenes found in the actual attraction. We really liked the scene with Sebastian and the undersea band, and you'll see many moments from that scene on the new items."

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Moving into Storybook Circus, guests will find colorful displays of Dumbo merchandise when they enter Big Top Souvenirs across from the namesake attraction. It's mostly T-shirts, mugs, plates and plush that are themed to the new area of the park, and they are located at the entrance.

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This store is huge and has a very wide assortment of merchandise. It even houses two embroidery stations for personalizing mouse ear hats and the center of the "tent" is a kitchen where delicious treats are made and sold.

Steven Miller, merchandise communications manager at Disney World, shared with me that some of the first items created for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which is set to open in 2014, will be pins in upcoming mystery pin sets.

October 15, 2012

Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and Ariel's Grotto soft open in Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland

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My family and I were excited to find out that New Fantasyland was open to guests this past weekend as part of a "dress rehearsal" for its soft opening next month. Having already experienced Enchanted Tales with Belle, our family headed farther into the Magic Kingdom's new section to ride Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and the meet the star, Ariel, in her new grotto.

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Those who have been to Disney California Adventure quickly will realize that the Florida version is almost identical to The Little Mermaid -- Ariel's Undersea Adventure on the inside. But the queue here has been greatly enhanced and is much more interactive. I have never ridden the California ride, so I'll be giving you a look at this attraction through a fresh perspective.

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First, for repeat riders and those who don't care to experience the new queue, FastPasses are available for Journey of the Little Mermaid at the machines near Mickey's PhilharMagic. Fans of The Little Mermaid, though, will not want to miss the queue, at least the first time. The theming outside really immerses guests into Ariel's world -- from Prince Eric's castle to waterfalls over craggy rocks with starfish and shells everywhere you look. Be sure to look for Prince Eric's boat and footprints in the sandy beach. It's beautiful, but be aware that it's hot in the Florida sun with little shade.

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When the queue leads guests inside the oceanfront caverns, they can look forward not only to cooler temperatures, but also a fun game for all ages. Crabs are trying to sort out Ariel's collection of human objects. On multiple screens throughout the queue, a digital crab will bring out thingamabobs and show them to the guest. The crab will attempt to add each item to his pile because he doesn't know what goes together. The guest is asked to point to objects that don't match to help the crab correctly sort the whozits and whatzits that are part of Ariel's treasure trove.

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My elementary-school-age children definitely wanted to try this game, but it was frustrating when they pointed at the crab and he didn't react about half the time. I wondered if perhaps their height influenced the location of where they pointed, but a cast member I spoke with said the sensor is located overhead so that shouldn't be an issue. We did go through the queue twice to see if there was a learning curve with the game, but my kids had similar results each time. Perhaps that is something that will be addressed when the attraction is tweaked before its grand opening on Dec. 6.

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Another highlight of the queue is an animatronic Scuttle, who talks to the crowd and engages in digital games of his own. Throughout the queue, various nautical set pieces help tell the story familiar to anyone who has seen "The Little Mermaid."

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Guests board the ride in clamshells that feel much like the Doom Buggies and their track at Haunted Mansion, with the ride vehicles traveling in half-circles to see various scenes from Ariel's life and even going backward down a ramp. When the vehicles perform this maneuver, digital bubbles are projected on the clamshell in front of the guest. Hold your breath! Combined with sounds of the sea, it's a clear indication you are traveling beneath the sea to experience Ariel's world.

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The Little Mermaid's landscape is full of color, movement and song, and guests will journey through favorite scenes with familiar friends from the classic story. There's no avoiding Ursula, but in the end, Ariel (of course) still lives happily ever after with Prince Eric. (Ursula's scene is a short part in the ride, so parents of young children probably won't need to be too worried about the fright factor.)

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Ariel fans will find beautiful photo opportunities in the outdoor queue and at the attraction's entrance, but they can meet the actual princess in her new grotto adjacent to the ride. That wait, though also themed, is not interactive, so it feels like an eternity with a daughter excited to see her favorite Disney Princess and a 10-year-old son who wants nothing to do with something so "girly."

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Still, the actual meet-and-greet was efficient, though we were not rushed once we were inside with the princess. Only two families are allowed in the room at a time -- one is with Ariel and the other is next in line, getting ready. The entrance door is closed, which allows for a more private and quieter experience. Ariel is wearing her mermaid outfit again, now that her grotto has returned to Magic Kingdom. (She had been greeting guests in her human form in Adventureland during the construction of New Fantasyland.) There is a Disney PhotoPass photographer to capture the character interaction, and, as always, guests are allowed to use their own cameras, too.

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Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and Ariel's Grotto are sure to be popular additions to Fantasyland. For fans of the classic Disney film, once they dive into this sea, they'll long to be, part of Ariel's world for many more visits.

Here's a peek inside the ride:


September 18, 2012

Tips for families attending Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party

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My family has attended Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party every year for almost a decade, and although we have tweaked our touring plan for the evening as changes to the party come and go, it essentially remains the same. Here, I offer our tried-and-true strategies for maximizing fun for young kids during this year's five-hour party.

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To begin, know that kids and adults alike will dress up in costumes for the party, so get planning! These can be as elaborate or simple as you like, but remember that because this is a family night, gory costumes and the like are not welcome. However, ingenuity is on display. We have seen so many clever Disney-themed costumes over the years -- from a Dole Whip to FASTPasses to entire families dressing as characters from a single movie. Our most attention-getting costume was one worn by our son who went as Ghost Mickey one year.

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For the last two years, my own children have enjoyed having an afternoon makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and The Pirate's League. That means we have had a couple of princess and pirate costumes, which never go out of style at Disney World! Both salons stay open later than usual on Halloween party days to accommodate extra guests. The BBB was running pretty close to on-time this year, but we waited more than 30 minutes past our appointment time at The Pirate's League. Because of this, I would recommend giving yourself plenty of time in between reservations for either place and/or restaurants. And be sure to make reservations early because they tend to fill up quickly on party days.

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That brings me to my next tip: Even though the party doesn't start until 7 p.m., the folks at the Magic Kingdom typically will allow you to enter before the actual party starts, usually between 4 and 4:30 p.m. You are not guaranteed early entry, but I have not heard of anyone being turned away during the last several years. If you already are in the park with a day pass, you can go to the front gate between 4 and 7 p.m. to show your tickets and get a wristband, which is required for the party. Cast members in party attire also will be stationed in several locations in the park, and you can visit them for wristbands as well.

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We always go early, which gives us time to take a family picture in the Halloween photo spot on Main Street, U.S.A. and have dinner so we don't waste precious party time. One thing to be aware of, though, is that some restaurants close early on party days. And by that, I mean they close even before the 7 p.m. witching hour rolls around. We were surprised to find Columbia Harbor House closed at 5:15 p.m. last Friday. Be sure to take a look at Jack's blog for a list of which restaurants will open during Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party.

This year, one of the new party offerings is a Halloween card for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card game that debuted earlier this year. Even if you don't plan to play the game during the party -- and we didn't -- it's worth getting the special card since that's the only time it is offered. We saw folks lining up outside the Main Street fire station as early as 6:30 p.m. We got in what appeared to be a rather long line about 6:45 p.m., but it moved quickly, and we had our cards within 15 minutes. Cast members designated a separate line for guests who just wanted to pick up the card and not start a new game and that certainly helped. Know that you will need to have your Halloween Party admission tickets, which will be punched, to claim SotMK Halloween cards.

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After that, the party was in full swing, and we headed off to visit the must-see characters and trick-or-treat. Many parents of little kids choose to see the first Mickey's Boo To You! Parade at 8:15 p.m., but it is jam-packed every year. Guests stake out their places more than an hour ahead of time. I certainly understand that little ones might not be awake for the 10:30 p.m. parade, and this is one that's not to be missed. For our family, however, it's more important to get out into the park.

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We hit the treat trails -- one between Storybook Circus and Tomorrowland and the other near Splash Mountain -- so the kids can gather a bunch of candy quickly. There also are individual treat stations throughout the park. Cast members are generous when they put handfuls of candy in each bag, and, for those who have asked, there is plenty of chocolate and other yummy treats in those barrels. The thrill of actually trick-or-treating in the Magic Kingdom is one that doesn't lose its appeal in our house.

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Once the candy stash has been established, we usually stop for any special character photos my children have requested. Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are wearing their Halloween costumes in the Town Square Theater. This year, Duffy the Disney Bear has moved from his photo spot adjacent to City Hall and can be found at the Liberty Belle boarding area in Frontierland. In his place, Phineas and Ferb are greeting guests at the prime location in Town Square. Captain Jack Sparrow is in Adventureland, and the Seven Dwarfs are near Splash Mountain. The Disney Villains will pose with guests after each Mix & Mingle dance show on the Castle Forecourt Stage.

We also usually take time to ride a few attractions because there is just about no wait. How can you resist a five-minute wait for Space Mountain and walking right on to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at night, even if you have been on both coasters more times than you can count? My daughter likes to visit the dance parties, as well, in Tomorrowland and Frontierland.

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Then, our goal is to be back on Main Street, U.S.A. by 9:30 p.m. for the special Happy HalloWishes fireworks, followed by the Villians Mix & Mingle and then the second parade. When all that wraps up, we usually join the crowds and head out about 11 p.m. This year, though, my 8-year-old and 10-year-old got a second wind so we stayed until the bitter end, hitting a few more rides and candy spots.

A little bit of planning and strategy before you attend the Halloween festivity will go a long way toward helping you and your family enjoy all the party offers. Now isn't that not so scary?

Please share your tips in the comments.

September 13, 2012

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

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It's beginning to look a lot like winter in one corner of the Magic Kingdom. Tinker Bell's Magical Nook in Adventureland, home to meet-and-greets with the Disney Fairies, has taken on a sprinkling of snow and ice, along with the usual pixie dust.

The new environment has been created especially for frost fairy Periwinkle, who joined the character lineup at Walt Disney World on Sunday. Periwinkle makes her first appearance in the newest Disney Fairies direct-to-DVD movie, "Secret of the Wings," which will be released on Oct. 23. In the meantime, Periwinkle and her long-lost sister, Tinker Bell, are signing autographs and posing for photos with guests daily.

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Much of the experience is unchanged from when it moved from the now-defunct Mickey's ToonTown Fair section of the theme park. The queue winds through the main room, where there is fairy art on display. It's interesting, but certainly not enough to capture little ones' attention for the duration. (Waits of 45 minutes are not unheard of at the Magical Nook.)

When guests reach the front of the queue, they are escorted around the corner to line up in front of the tall grass that frames the entrance-way. In the fairy room, the sets are designed on a large scale so that guests feel like they are the size of the fairies. It works, but I found the technique that was used in ToonTown more fun. There, guests walked down a long hallway where the scale changed from human-sized to pixie-sized before they entered the fairy room.

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Still, once inside, guests will now feel as though they stepped into Pixie Hollow and Winter Woods, where Tinker Bell meets Periwinkle. Tinker Bell is wearing her winter costume, complete with long sleeves, tights and boots. Her wings light up, which fascinated my daughter, and they had a talk about how that happens.

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Periwinkle's set looks more wintery, with blue and while elements, like her costume. There also are snow drifts and powder on the trees, and the lighting helps set the tone for a few shivers.

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Disney World officials plan to change the Magical Nook sets and fairies seasonally, a Disney spokeswoman told me. Periwinkle is expected to be available for the winter season, and no end date has been announced so far.

On a related note, I'm told that Disney World will not host complimentary screenings of "Secret of the Wings," as it had with other movies in the Tinker Bell series. For several years, passholders were invited to sign up to preview the movie on a large screen inside one of the theme parks.

September 10, 2012

Sneak peek: New Fantasyland's Enchanted Tales with Belle

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Guests who were disappointed when "Storytime With Belle" in the Fairytale Garden was discontinued have a lot to look forward to when its replacement officially debuts on Dec. 6 in the Magic Kingdom.

Enchanted Tales with Belle, part of New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World, was open to guests during select times this past week while cast members tested the new interactive experience. This marked the first time that guests were invited beyond the new castle walls, and we were fortunate to be offered the opportunity to take a first look at the new attraction.

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After passing under the archway, my children and I walked through winding paths, eventually lining up in front of the cottage of Maurice, Belle's father. The top of Beast's castle is visible high up the mountain in the background, giving guests the impression they have stepped right into the story, Beauty and the Beast. (The Beast's castle will house Be Our Guest restaurant, which opens Nov. 19.)

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While in line, guests will notice many clever details, including a well, lanterns, wooden buckets, a wheelbarrow, wagon wheels and even chairs built into the walls of the queue. Cast members dressed as townspeople greet visitors along the way. There is a FASTpass entrance, though cast members I spoke to weren't sure where the ticket distribution will be located.

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Guests enter Maurice's cottage in the main room where they will see a cozy fireplace, stacks of books everywhere -- Belle does live here, after all -- and even a portrait of Belle as a young girl with her mother. Belle's mother never is mentioned in the story, so it's wonderful to see what she looks like. (Guests using FASTpasses will skip this room, I'm told.)

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From the hearth, guests are admitted to Maurice's workshop in groups of about 45, according to a cast member. This area has even more detailed theming, giving guests plenty to study while they wait in front of the magic mirror. Maurice's drawing board and sketches are evident, his tools are scattered throughout the space, and his creations are perched on shelves and hanging from the ceiling.

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Then the cast member announces, "Take me back to the day Belle and Beast fell in love." The lights dim, and the mirror that Beast is said to have given Maurice undergoes an amazing transformation and becomes a magic portal into Beast's castle. What appears to be a solid wall is now an entranceway into a room where Wardrobe awaits the group. A cast member explains that children and adults alike are invited to play parts in the retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which will be a surprise for Belle.

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A talking Wardrobe interacts with the group as the cast member hands out props and selects participants for the reenactment. The great thing about this experience is that there appears to be enough parts for every child in the room, so no one who wants to participate will be left out. Encourage your child to volunteer because the payoff with Belle is worth it. (More on that to come.) There are certain character roles that are filled each time -- Beast, Suits of Armor, Mrs. Potts and Chip, Dungeon Bars, Footstool, Horse, Laughing Frames. We also saw Plate and Silverware used.

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Once the parts are assigned, the actors and the rest of the group are led into one of two identical libraries. (Of course, you're not supposed to know there are two libraries, but we went through Enchanted Tales with Belle twice and happened to get the different rooms. My children are old enough to notice everything was opposite what they had just seen. Not to worry, though, because we all know they need two rooms to get all the guests in place and then Belle can go back and forth between the libraries more quickly.)

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In the library, Lumiere directs the audience to sit on benches while the actors are moved to the front of the room. The lights are dimmed, so everyone can yell, "Surprise!" when Belle enters the room. Then, cast members help the guest actors deliver their simple lines to Belle. The experience is interactive for the audience, as well, when guests are invited to howl with the wind, shiver in the dungeon and gallop with a horse. Belle then leads the actors around the room to the peppy song, "Be Our Guest."

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The play concludes when Belle dances with the guest portraying Beast. The first boy we saw in this role was very young and sweet as Beast. The second was older and easily embarrassed, which gave the audience a chuckle. My 8-year-old daughter portrayed Footstool and Horse on different visits and enjoyed every minute. Being a little more reserved, my 10-year-old son chose to just watch. He was amazed by the magic portal, but not as interested in a Disney Princess experience.

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Afterward, cast members introduce each member of the "production," and Belle presents them with bookmarks. As Lumiere says, the token "is in appreciation to mark the occasion." A Disney PhotoPass photographer takes posed photos of Belle with each individual actor (and also captures action shots during the experience.) On the way out, guests are given special Enchanted Tales-themed PhotoPass cards so they can see all the images from their specific session.

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Our wait time for Enchanted Tales with Belle was about 25 minutes, but it's sure to be longer when the attraction officially opens and word spreads about how truly magical the experience is.

September 1, 2012

2012 Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party - What's new and different!

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Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party at Disney World's Magic Kingdom will have a few new treats for guests this year.

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Last year, Mickey's Toon Town Fair was closed during the September and October party dates, which cut down on the square footage of the party and forced the relocation of some treat stations. But what a difference a year makes. With the opening of Storybook Circus in the same location comes the return of Alice & Mad Hatter's Treat Party between Storybook Circus and Tomorrowland. The Alice in Wonderland-themed walkway contains cool, lighted decorations and enough candy to satisfy any sweet tooth.

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In addition, there will be a candy stop near the Fantasyland train station, and the Dumbo the Flying Elephant and The Barnstormer attractions in Storybook Circus will be open during the party, a Walt Disney World spokesperson told me. The twin Dumbo carousels are especially beautiful at night with their lights and water shows.

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Last year, Br'er Rabbit's Laughin' Place Candy Patch was added near Splash Mountain in Frontierland and it will remain again this year. This treat trail also is well-themed, as you would expect from Disney, with jack-o-lanterns featuring "Song of the South" characters. The queue did seem to back up more quickly here than the Alice & Mad Hatter's Treat Party.

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The balloons marking the candy stations will have a new look this year -- lighted Mickey pumpkins will take Goofy Candy Company's place.

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Disney planners hope to make the wait for Mickey's Boo to You! Halloween Parade more pleasant for guests by adding some pre-show entertainment on Main Street, USA, and in Town Square that will include music and "streetmosphere." Guests will be invited to join a line dance during the Not-So-Scary Street Jam! The featured song will be "Calling All the Monsters" by China Anne McClain.

Here's a look at the dance steps, if you want to practice so you're a pro on party night:

The Boo To You! parade, which is performed twice each night, is one of the highlights of the party and guests typically stake out their spots for the first time more than an hour before it starts. The parade features characters only seen during this event, such as ghosts and gravediggers from the Haunted Mansion, and it starts with a the Headless Horseman galloping by.

Other party favorites will return, including the Happy HalloWishes fireworks show, The Villains Mix & Mingle stage show, dance parties and meet--and-greets with rarely seen Disney characters. I'll be attending Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party the first week and bringing parents tips for making the most out of their haunted night with the kids.

Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party takes place from 7 p.m. to midnight September 11, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28, 30; October 4, 5, 8, 11, 12, 14, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25, 26, 28, 30, 31; and November 2. Prices vary depending on date, time of purchase and discounts. For complete ticket details, see the AllEars.Net information page.

July 17, 2012

Tips for helping your kids start pin trading at Disney World

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My son and daughter have been trading pins at Walt Disney World for almost four years now and the excitement of it hasn't dulled. As a parent, I think it's a fun hobby for them, and it adds a bit of excitement to our trips into the theme parks. I'd like to share a few tips we've learned along the way, in case pin-trading is something you're considering.

First, be aware that Disney does have some basic rules for pin trading:

** Teach your child to ask to view a cast member's pins. Do not grab at lanyards.
** Pins must be metal and represent a Disney event, character, location or icon, and be in good condition.
** There is a limit of two trades per guest with the same cast member.
** No money can be involved in the trade.
** Cast members with green lanyards can only trade with kids ages 3 to 12.

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Allowing your child to approach the cast member while you listen is a great way for them to learn and practice social interaction skills in a safe, controlled environment.

The start-up costs for pin-trading may seem expensive if you're buying for more than one child. This activity certainly can be pricey for the serious collectors. But if you're just trading for fun, there are some ways to lower expenses.

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First, you'll need something to display your pins. Many guests choose lanyards, which typically are the least-expensive option. You can purchase them in just about any Disney World gift ship, or perhaps you already received some as part of a Disney promotion. For example, Disney Cruise Line gives lanyards to returning cruisers and Disney World passholders received them one year as well. Another option is a soft album, and these come in various sizes and prices. The smaller ones actually have straps and can be worn as a bag or purse.

My children have multiple lanyards -- one for pins they want to save and one for pins they are willing to trade. After losing a few pins that were near-and-dear to their hearts, we invested in the locking backs -- about $10 for 10 backs. Now, though, I almost wish we had bought the more expensive album-type bags because I think they would allow easier access to the pins -- no locking backs needed -- and there would be less opportunity for loss because of the zippered closure.

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The other big expense is the pins themselves. Pins in the parks start at about $7 and increase in price. This can add up quickly if you want to give your child a handful to get started. You can purchase a starter set, which contains several pins and a lanyard. Those prices begin at about $30.

But, if you're not picky about the design, many guests recommend purchasing pins on eBay for the best deal. Typically those lots contain anywhere from 25 to 100 pins, making the average cost less than a dollar per pin. Don't need 100 pins? Perhaps you can split the lot with friends. Be aware, however, that some of these sellers are offering scrappers, which are pins not authorized by Disney and cannot be traded on property.

Guests who are really into pin trading look forward to an annual event at Epcot that is just for them. This year's "Disney Trade Celebration 2012 - Mickey's Circus" takes place from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on September 7 and 8. Event admission is $120 per person plus Epcot admission, and registration has opened. For all the details, check out here.

Also, Downtown Disney Marketplace's Disney's Pin Traders is continuing to host monthly events with Disney Design Group artists. Artist Adrianne Draude, who is behind the creation of a number of Walt Disney World pins, will be meeting with fans and signing pins from 5 to 7 p.m. on July 27, August 10, and September 28. (Be sure to subscribe to the AllEars.Net newsletter for all the latest news of special pin-trading events.)

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

July 10, 2012

Disney World's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique offers Merida makeover

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Through July 28, both Walt Disney World locations of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique are offering a special makeover -- The Merida Package -- in honor of the star of Disney-Pixar's "Brave." This magical makeover includes a fiery and curly Merida wig, shimmering makeup, face gems, princess sash and princess tote bag for $54.95.

Essentially, this is the Coach package with the wig substituted for an up-do. (The wig sells for about $18 in the Magic Kingdom's Emporium and the cart outside the Merida meet-and-greet if you want to purchase it separately.) One little girl we met had been to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and selected the Disney Diva hairstyle with a red hairpiece instead of the wig to pair with her Merida dress. This is a great option for when The Merida Package ends or for those who think a wig might be too hot in the Florida summer heat.

My daughter chose the Disney Diva hairstyle during her visit to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in the fall and loved it. I have been impressed with the durability of the hairpiece, which my daughter and even her American Girl doll have worn several times since then. (You can read more about our experiences at the Bibiddi Bobiddi Boutique in a previous blog post.)

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Girls who select The Merida Package can have their nails painted for an additional $5, and they keep the two bottles of royal nail polish afterward. Princesses-to-be also can opt to purchase the Merida dress and crown at the Bibiddi Bobiddi Boutique at an added cost. However, little girls also are welcome to wear or bring their own Merida gowns and accessories to the salon, which can save their Fairy Godmothers a bundle.

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The Disney Store, with locations in malls across the country and an online presence, sells the same green Merida gown you will find in the Disney Parks for about $15 less ($65 versus $50), though the wig is comparable in price. In addition, Disney Store sells Merida's blue formal games dress for the same price as the green version, her gladiator sandals for $16.50 and a light-up wand for $10.50; none of these are available in the theme parks. (One caveat is that the sandals only go up to size 2/3.)

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If you're looking for less expensive options, try Target or Toys R Us, which both sell complete Merida costumes. Toys R Us carries a blue dress and a green dress for $24.99 each; a set of glow Wisp earrings with a crown for $9.99; and an archery set for $24.99. The wig, which is priced at $14.99, is free with a $30 Brave purchase through July 21, 2012. At Target, the blue dress is $5 cheaper, and the store also sells the green version. The wig and jewelry-and-crown set are priced similarly, but there is no offer for the free wig with purchase.

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If you choose to surprise your child with a dress you already have purchased, she still will be given the royal treatment at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique inside Cinderella's Castle in the Magic Kingdom and inside World of Disney at Downtown Disney Marketplace. In fact, she'll be able to use the royal changing rooms at either salon, which is a fun way to start her transformation.

Reservations are recommended for the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and can be made by calling 407-WDW-STYLE.

July 3, 2012

Best places to see Disney World fireworks outside Magic Kingdom

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A view of Magic Kingdom's fireworks from the Polynesian beach.

Some of the best places to watch the Fourth of July fireworks at Walt Disney World, in my opinion, require planning ahead a bit -- or a touch of pixie dust. With America's birthday just around the corner, you may need to wish for that extra bit of magic to make this plan work this week -- or mark your calendars for next year.

For my family, watching "Disney's Celebrate America! A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky" presented in the Magic Kingdom is best done from outside the park. Because we're local residents, we don't mind skipping the crowds there, knowing we can go back at a later, less busy time. Our preference is a view from one of the Magic Kingdom resorts -- Polynesian, Grand Floridan, Wilderness Lodge, Fort Wilderness or Contemporary.

Over the years, we have made dinner reservations at various restaurants in these hotels and afterward walked out to the beach for a drink and the fireworks. This is where the pixie dust comes in: If you don't already have a dinner reservation for Independence Day, you'll need to check for a cancellation. Most Disney World hotel restaurants won't have room for walk-ins on July 4, and you absolutely need to have a reservation to be able to park at the hotels.

An opening actually may be easier to find this year than in the past because of the new dining policy that requires guests to cancel reservations they aren't using or pay a service charge. For most restaurants, the cancellation must be made 24 to 48 hours in advance. So, start checking online or call 407-WDW-DINE.

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Guests line the public balconies at the Contemporary to watch Fourth of July fireworks.

For us, another bonus of watching the Fourth of July fireworks from a Magic Kingdom hotel is being able to see the Electrical Water Pageant, which stops in front of each resort. I have happy childhood memories of watching the water pageant from our balcony at The Contemporary and enjoy the nostalgic experience with my kids.

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A view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks from in front of the Contemporary and Bay Lake Tower.

Last year, we met friends for dinner at Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary. Afterward, we stepped outside in front of the monorail tracks and Bay Lake Tower to watch the nighttime show. It was a fantastic spot for seeing all the fireworks, which are shot off around the perimeter of the Magic Kingdom and not just behind Cinderella Castle. The one downfall, though, is that the music that accompanies the patriotic fireworks was not piped into that location, as it is others. The observation deck of The Contemporary, for example, did have speakers with the music, and that location filled up with guests very quickly.

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Guests wait on the beach in front of the Polynesian for the patriotic fireworks.

Our favorite spot to watch fireworks on the Fourth, though, is the beach at the Polynesian, after having eaten a delicious dinner inside. We've definitely seen this location get more busy over time. Some years, there are even parties catered at Sunset Point, which has a direct view of Cinderella Castle. The beach has a few hammocks and a volleyball net, but most people bring chairs and blankets. It's a relaxed atmosphere with room to move around, which is great for the kids.

This year, "Disney's Celebrate America! A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky" will be shown at 9 p.m. July 3 and 4. Do you have a favorite spot to view the Magic Kingdom Fourth of July fireworks? Please tell us about it in the comments.

June 28, 2012

Dumbo interactive queue for kids soft-opens at Disney World

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As has been the recent trend at Walt Disney World, another attraction is set to reopen with an interactive queue. For parents like me, these are welcome additions to help break up the long waits for our impatient children. It's hard enough to wait in a long line when you're an adult, but when you're a child, it's just cruel and unusual punishment to see the magic and have to wait to experience it.

The newest interactive queue is for the relocated Dumbo The Flying Elephant attraction at Magic Kingdom, and it features many firsts. We all can appreciate that the standby line enters an air conditioned building that is themed as a tent. Ahhhh. If you choose to ride Dumbo with a FastPass -- unheard of before the ride moved to the Storybook Circus area -- you will bypass the interactive part of the queue. FastPass users still enter the front of the tent, though, and see the attraction and experience the air conditioning, if only briefly. (FastPasses currently are distributed near Mickey's PhilharMagic.)

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So, how does this queue entertain Disney's younger guests? It's essentially a cleverly-themed play area with seating for parents and a pager to alert each family when it's their turn return to the queue before boarding the ride. Guests are seemingly walking into the circus tent that Dumbo experienced in the classic movie.

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First, they will be met by a cast member and asked about how many members are in their party. Then they will be given a pager that looks like a circus ticket. Once entering, they will see a center ring with toys playground equipment appropriate for toddlers. Overhead, Dumbo flies in circles around the center ring.

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Outside that ring is a large, elevated play structure covered in nets. Kids can enter and perform as acrobats by climbing the ladder to a pretend high-dive, hopping up steps that look like trampolines or moving through the "burning" building, which is a replica of what Dumbo faced during his circus performances under the big top. Once inside the play structure, there are plenty of opportunities to run, jump and swivel. When kids are ready to come down, they can exit through two small slides that are fast enough to keep older children interested. Plus, they make various circus noises each time a guest slides. Parents will appreciate that the grandstand bleacher seating allows for clear sight lines of their busy children.

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One of the most interesting aspects of this interactive area is the use of light. Spotlights are used to highlight the kids' movements. For example, when a child pops out of the Human Cannonball slide, a light appears at the bottom. When another child climbs the trampoline-shaped steps or the ladder to the high-dive, each footfall is lighted. Children can even press a button to light up the pretend fire in the burning building. Be aware that ambient lighting is used overall, so it may be a little darker than you're used to -- especially coming inside from the glare of the Florida sun. The mood lighting, if you will, is continually changing during your brief respite in the tent.

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My husband really liked that the pagers are shaped like circus tickets. Timothy Q. Mouse, the rodent that befriended Dumbo, announces your time to leave the play area and get back in line and ready for your ride with Dumbo. The pager system works well and guests apparently are funneled to the least crowded of two Dumbo rides. (You don't pick which Dumbo to ride.) Then, take your seat and experience the dueling elephant carousels fly high over the Magic Kingdom.

Dumbo's interactive queue is in the soft-opening phase, being open to guests at various times as cast members test different aspects. It's expected to be be open full-time in July.

June 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 21, 2012

Finding art opportunities for kids at Disney World

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Do you have a budding young artist in your family? If so, you might be surprised to learn that there are many opportunities for your child to explore his or her creativity while you're on vacation at Walt Disney World.

In recent years, Disney World has built on the popularity of the Magic of Disney Animation at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Inside this attraction, guests come to understand the process of developing characters for films, including seeing an artist's studio and artwork from a current film. In the attraction's Animation Academy visitors learn to draw popular Disney characters from a qualified animator.

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Another location where guests can hone their drawing skills is at Animation Academy inside DisneyQuest at Downtown Disney. These 30-minute classes take guests through the process of drawing Mickey and his pals step-by-step. Be sure to check the posted schedule on the second floor when you arrive at the gaming attraction if there is a particular character you'd like to draw that day.

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Afterward, guests can purchase their drawings for $5 each or a package that includes the drawing and a pin for $12. There is no other charge for Animation Academy. One-day admission to DisneyQuest is $37 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9 and $43 for ages 10 and older. (For more details, be sure to check out the AllEars.net resource page)

Most recently, a similar activity has been built in the lobby of the new Art of Animation hotel. Tucked in a corner to the left of the registration desks, guests will find comfy benches and an animation station, where the instructor shows line by line on a projection screen how to bring a Disney character to life. Here, guests draw on paper, while at the Magic of Disney Animation and DisneyQuest Animation Academy, the characters are created on a screen.

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Art of Animation classes take place on the hour Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and are free to Art of Animation guests. (For more about the new Art of Animation hotel, be sure to read the AllEars.Net overview)

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If you missed the class for the character you really wanted to be able to draw on your own, the resort sells books that teach visitors how to create Mickey Mouse and his pals from scratch. New on Disney World shelves: A guide to drawing Merida and other "Brave" characters. My children have collected just about all of these books on various trips to Disney World and continue to use them at home.

In addition to taking animation classes, young artists might enjoy watching professionals at work. At Magic Kingdom, guests will find street artists waiting to draw their portraits. As with most activities at the theme park, guests are invited to watch and even ask questions. This is a good opportunity for those interested in sketching to learn what it takes to do work on the spot.

Some hotels also have "resident" artists, such as the one at Port Orleans Riverside. A painter in the lobby from 6 to 11 p.m. will create customized face and full-body images for guests. Pricing starts at $15 for a black-and-white face painting and increases to $28 for a full-color body painting.

Families who visit Disney World in the fall are in for a treat: the Festival of the Masters takes over Downtown Disney from November 9 to 11. This is open-air art show offers one-of-a-kind paintings, photographs, sculptures, jewelry and more. Animation Academy is moved outside DisneyQuest and the sidewalk art is amazing.

Plus, there are many art opportunities for kids. Last year, my son was most excited by the Epic Mickey gaming booth. Not only did he get to preview the much-anticipated game, but animators were drawing Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and giving them to guests in line. A Disney spokeswoman confirmed there will be a booth for Epic Mickey 2 at this year's Festival of the Master. Admission to the festival is free.

If you've found other art opportunities for kids at Disney World, please tell us about them in the comments.

June 16, 2012

Casey Jr. splash pad cool addition to Disney World's Fantasyland

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Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station in the Storybook Circus section of Fantasyland opened Friday (June 15) to little fanfare, but families have a lot to be excited about. This new water play area in the Magic Kingdom offers a great respite from the Florida heat, and its design is a welcome improvement on the old Donald's Boat.

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Casey Jr. is the steam engine that brings the circus to town in the movie "Dumbo," and that theming continues at Walt Disney World. The engine and tender appear to have pulled onto the turntable with four boxcars, each carrying a different animal -- giraffes, elephants (of course!), monkeys and camels. Guests will notice the subtle evidence of train tracks between the water play area and the nearby bathrooms, which are located in a building modeled after a roundhouse.

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The soaking station brings the circus to life with its many sounds and the bustling activity of the water jets coming from the moving animals (and other sources). My kids are certain that the elephants shoot more water than the other animals because their trunks have multiple streams -- or so they say. About every 10 minutes, Casey Jr. begins his stationary journey, and guests will notice the locomotive sounds and the misting from the engine increase as he reaches his destination.

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As we've come to expect with The Walt Disney Co., there is an incredible attention to detail in Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station. Casey Jr. opens and closes his eyes. One of the monkeys is wearing a hat that is actually a white Mickey Mouse glove. The elephant car has baskets of lettuce and bananas attaching for feedings. The detached boxcars even have aged chains trailing from the bottom, presumably where the cars would have been attached to one another. There is a lot to appreciate about this next step in the Fantasyland expansion project.

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The most important thing to know about this attraction: You WILL get wet. And I do not mean just the kids frolicking in the splash pad. Parents sitting around the perimeter might be surprised to find themselves doused by a stream of water or mist blowing in the wind. Certainly, parents who are chasing after toddlers can expect to be just as wet as the little ones are because of the water shooting from so many angles and locations.

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So, my best advice is to plan ahead and bring swimsuits and towels or an extra change of clothes for anyone who might be venturing near Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station. Also, be sure to pack sunscreen because there is not a lot of shade near the attraction. For those who find they don't have everything their little ones need, a nearby merchandise cart sells towels, water shoes, hats, sunscreen and more.

After spending more than an hour in the water, my almost-8-year-old daughter proclaimed that we have to visit Casey Jr. every time we go into the Magic Kingdom.

June 14, 2012

Ideas for celebrating Father's Day at Walt Disney World

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It's not too late to plan a fun-filled Father's Day weekend at Walt Disney World -- and there are even some last-minute bargains to be had. From traditional pastimes in the most magical of locations to experiences created only by Disney, dads are sure to appreciate their happy day at The Most Magical Place on Earth. Let's consider some of the things most dads enjoy - fast cars, sports, beer and spending time with their loved ones.

Cars

If your dad or husband is into fast cars, visit the Walt Disney World Speedway and let him get inside a NASCAR-style stock car for three laps with a professional driver. Ride-alongs through the Richard Petty Driving Experience start at $109 and do not require reservations. Looking for a splurge? Put him behind the wheel, starting at $449. (My husband, who is not a NASCAR fan, has experienced the ride-along and was surprised by how much he enjoyed it.) By booking ahead of time at 1-800-237-3889, you can get the ride-along for $59 for Father's Day. Also, any drive experience qualifies for a second one at half off, if booked in advance this week.

The Exotic Driving Experience -- allowing guests to drive supercars by Ferrari, Lamborghini, Audi and Porsche -- is new to Walt Disney World Speedway this year. It is not available on Father's Day, but you can purchase a ride for later in the month by calling 855-822-0149. Prices range from $169 to $419. (Read more about these thrilling experiences at http://allears.net/btp/petty.htm)

Is your man more comfortable in the stands? Make sure you visit Disney's Hollywood Studios and watch the "Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show" that is performed multiple times each day. This is a fun look at what it takes to film stunts, and there are plenty of surprises along the way. FastPasses are available for the 40-minute show.

Golf

Men who love to golf can choose from five courses on Walt Disney World property: Disney's Palm and Magnolia, Lake Buena Vista, Osprey Ridge and Oak Trail. Last year, Arnold Palmer Golf Management took over the operation and maintenance of the courses. (Greens fees for the 9-hole Oak Trail are included in Disney World premium annual passes.)

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If you want to spend time with the man of your family while he enjoys the game, why not try Disney World's family friendly miniature golf courses? Winter Summerland, located adjacent to Blizzard Beach water park, has 36 holes of wonderfully themed putting greens. Fantasia Gardens, located near the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin hotel, offers putting greens and a par-3 course. Cost is $12.52 per 18 holes for adults and $10.39 for ages 3 to 9. Passholders receive a 50 percent discount. Also, the second round on the same day is half off for all guests.(AllEars has more details about the courses here and here)

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Drinking around the World

Dads who want to sample alcohol of different origins might want to consider an adults-only afternoon or evening at Epcot. With eleven countries represented in the World Showcase, there are quite a few options. Among the perennial favorites: La Cava del Tequila inside the Mexico pavilion for unique margaritas; Sommerfest in Germany for an Oktoberfest beer; Les Vins des Chefs de France cart in France for the Grand Mariner Orange Slush and the Grey Goose Citron Lemonade Slush; and the Rose & Crown Pub in the United Kingdom for various ales and lagers that can be combined.

Not going into a theme park on Sunday? There are many Disney hotels and restaurants that house cool lounges and bars. The Disney Food Blog gives us a list of the Top 10 here.

Family time

Maybe Dad's biggest desire for his special day is to make some unique memories with his children at Walt Disney World. At the Magic Kingdom, fathers might enjoy watching their daughters be transformed into the princesses of their dreams at the Bibiddi Bobiddi Boutique. He also might like to see his sweet little girl change into a menacing pirate at the Magic Kingdom's Pirate League.

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Others might like to share their love of trains with their kids, learning more about them through Disney's "The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains" tour at Walt Disney World (ages 10 and older).

Perhaps dinner and a show about fatherhood would be just the ticket. If so, "Finding Nemo -- The Musical" is a Broadway-style performance daily at Disney's Animal Kingdom sure to entertain everyone in the family. Nearby, Flame Tree Barbecue offers the traditional favorite meals with outdoor terrace seating, and it gives Dad a break from manning the grill for a change. (See the menu here.)

These are just a few - and, granted, stereotypical - ideas, but there are so many more possibilities for celebrating Father's Day at Walt Disney World. With your imagination and all that Walt Disney World offers, you can create a very special day.

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