Friday, December 31, 2010

More News on Children's Counter Service Meal Credits. UPDATED.

If you read here you know that the state of children's counter service meal credits is a confusing, and sometimes contentious, topic.  Just a few months ago I researched it thoroughly as possible and found that Disney does not differentiate from adult and child counter service meals, meaning you can technically purchase an adult meal with a child's credit.  This was confirmed up the chain of command by Disney on several occasions.

As of right now, you can still use a childs' credit for an adult meal.  We've gotten reports (Update: As recently as December 2011) that guests are still doing this, but we've also heard of of the rare instance of people being stopped at some locations. Bottom line:  Do what you feel works.  You're not cheating the system because Disney could easily differentiate between adult and kids credits.

As soon as I hear of any changes, I'll let you know.
I'll keep you posted.

Read more about the counter-service kids meal brouhaha here and hereUPDATEPlease see this post (March 11, 2012). 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage.

One of the best shows in Disney World is Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, a daily performance of the film, condensed but not missing any of the most pertinent parts and most importantly, losing none of its charm.  Most of the lead roles are sung live. It's probably easy to dismiss Disney performers as second-rate, but in truth, the audition process for these roles, particularly ones as highly coveted as this, is extensive, the performers are professionally trained, and some have worked on Broadway.  The costumes, lighting, sound and scenery all add to the professional feel of the show.  It's a real treat.

Through the clever use of smoke and a large ornate rug, the Prince is transformed into the Beast in front of the audience.  Next, the scene changes and you meet Belle as she walks through her village singing the title song "Belle," possibly one of the best songs in any Disney animated movie, and you learn that despite her good looks, she's considered a bit of an outsider, a dreamer and a bookworm.

The local girls all swoon for Gaston, excluding Belle.
She really IS a funny girl.

From there, a narrator explains how Belle ends up in the castle and you're treated to the famous dinner scene, with a good dozen or more performers, and then meet the Beast.   Despite a few initially awkward moments, Belle and the Beast get along.

Belle's happiness is short-lived however, when Gaston, jealous that Belle doesn't return his affection,  rallies some of the villagers in an effort to kill the Beast.

Ultimately, in a scene that's subtle and won't frighten small children, Gaston is defeated and the Beast, through Belle's love, is transformed back into a prince.

And, well, you know the rest:  They lived happily ever after.

It may have been the cold weather, but there was something extra special about the performance I saw in early December. The performers, while always good if not excellent, seemed perfectly suited for their roles, particularly Gaston, who had an incredible voice.  During the "Be Our Guest" segment, the dancers seemed to be adding their own little touches, fitting and not at all out of place, but different enough that if you've seen the show many times before, you'd notice. 

It really added something to the show. I'm not sure if they've changed the choreography or not, but I really liked it.

But what made this performance extra special is the thing that I always say about Disney:  That they just "get it," and in turn guests feel that difference, even if they don't expect it. Prior to the show I talked to the couple with twin daughters who were sitting in front of me.  Hailing from Seattle, it was their first trip and, it turns out, it was pretty obvious they'd done almost no planning (I bit my tongue).  As a result, they didn't realize what they were going to see and didn't even seem to care.  As soon as the show started however, I noticed they were all literally sitting on the edge of their seats.  At one point, the mom got a huge smile on her face and started spontaneously clapping right in the middle of a song. Seeing an adult who was previously not even interested in seeing the show start clapping like a small child out of excitement, well that just has a certain charm, doesn't it? 

Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage adds a lot to your visit to Hollywood Studios. Make sure you take an opportunity to see this wonderful performance. And as a mom of two boys, I say if yours won't go, make them. I promise they'll like it too.

The theater is wheelchair accessible and covered, so performances can continue even on rainy days.  For individuals with sensory issues, the music may be a bit loud, but there are no loud booms or flashes that might disturb some guests; sitting in the back should help somewhat.  During slower times of the year, show times begin at 11:30 and end around 5:30; during the busier season, expect shows to start at 10:30 and continue until around 7:00.  Plan on showing up about twenty minutes prior to showtime for the best seats.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Eating My Words.: A Trip to Babycakes NYC.

Image copyright Babycakes NYC.

If you listen to the Mouse Chat podcast, you know we like to get a little silly and snarky.  It's sort of our thing.  A few episodes ago, we discussed Babycakes NYC as a news item, and given our personalities, we had a good time talking about cupcakes made without butter, flour or . . . fun.  All joking aside, I knew it wasn't true and I felt a little guilty considering that I have good friends who are vegan and one of my favorite food blogs is about eating gluten-free. Still, I'd never really had a gluten-free dessert and my experience with vegan desserts, while good, was limited.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the delicious opportunity to find out just how good a vegan, gluten-free cupcake could be.  We weren't even planning on going to Downtown Disney on this trip, but ended up there by a happy accident and made our way over to Babycakes NYC. The store, which is on the site of the old McDonalds with two other eateries, also has branches in Los Angeles and New York City.  I'd heard that the manager of the Downtown Disney branch was a huge Disney fan who had relocated to Orlando from New York, so I was already slightly biased toward loving the place.  I mean, how great is the story of a big city girl moving nearly a thousand miles to bring vegan cupcakes to the bright sunny south?  I had to check it out. 

Babycakes has a cute, pink and white counter in one corner of the building.

You'll find two display cases full of adorable cupcakes, brownie bites, filled sandwich cookies, and other treats.

Treats come in paper boxes, not Styrofoam. 

 The packaging alone pleased me a great deal.

We ordered the red velvet cupcake and a chocolate donut.  Happily, both tasted exactly like they were supposed to taste, with a nice texture that belied the fact that they were made without butter or flour.  You will notice a slight difference in the texture of the frosting, which is not as creamy or airy as that made with butter, but this was minor.  The donut in particular was memorable.  It wasn't fried so it didn't have a crispy exterior, but the flavor was outstanding, right down to the slight citrus taste to the donut. The chocolate glaze was very chocolaty and not masked with a lot of sugar the way some cheaper chocolate desserts are. You can tell they're using good ingredients and making these desserts in small batches.  The human touch that is so important in baking is very present here.

Now, I love to bake. Besides Disney it's my absolute favorite hobby, so I know how difficult it can be to use exotic flours like teff or rice and make a dessert that resembles what we're used to seeing.  Add to that the fact that they use absolutely no animal products at all, and you have a baking challenge.  If you go to the back of the building you can see Babycakes' bakers through a window in their immaculate kitchen, which is separate from the other kitchens in the building so there's no cross-contamination, an important consideration for people who cannot consume gluten  or dairy due to health reasons.  Huge kudos to these bakers, who are skilled enough to take these slightly unusual ingredients and turn them into something that's delicious, even for those of us who do consume gluten or animal products.  This care and skill shows in their product and I hope more Disney guests find their way over there to give it a try.

If you'd like to read about my cupcake showdown between Babycakes and Starring Rolls, a Disney bakery located in Hollywood Studios, please go here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How the New Sign-Up Process at Jedi Training Academy Works.

Last week, I finally got a chance to see how the new sign-up process at Jedi Training Academy works.  In the past, kids were chosen randomly or simply waited in line for a chance to train as Padawans (Nerd alert:  Nevermind that they should be Younglings at this point). The problem was that some kids ended up waiting all day and didn't get picked, or they spent hours in a hot line waiting for their turn.  Many parents and children expressed frustration at this process and just last month, Disney changed how kids sign up.   It's a welcome change, one that allows children to tour the parks instead of waiting in line for hours for their chance.

When the park opens, head left and go past the American Idol Experience, stopping at Sounds Dangerous--you'll see the newish sign-up area--you'll go in and wait in line with the child who wants to take part. Kids are placed in groups of around 15, with shows starting about an hour after the park opens and going to around 5:30; groups may be larger during busier times of the year and shows may go later.  The cast member may ask your child a couple of questions, such as how old he is and if he can follow directions.  Then, they'll hand you a piece of paper with your child's name on it and a return time, which will be 30 minutes prior to the next show. 
Once you return, you'll wait in a large holding area meant to resemble the Forrest of Endor. You might even see Darth Vader with a couple of Storm Troopers while you wait.  A few minutes before your child is ready to train, they'll be given instructions by a Padawan and receive their robes. Then it's off to meet their Jedi Master and it's show time.

The show lasts around 25 minutes and is entertaining, even for non-Star Wars fans.  The kids are trained in how to use a light saber and then each kid gets a try at defeating Darth Vader. At the end, kids receive a certificate acknowledging their participation.

The new sign-up process works very well, but make sure you get there within the first hour or so of park opening (not an Extra Magic Hour opening, but the regular park opening) or you run the risk of that day's shows being filled.  The only dilemma you'll face is whether or not to go there first or rush over to Toy Story Midway Mania.  Since TSMM fastpasses tend to run out before noon, my advice would be to split up, with one adult running over and getting fastpasses for your group and the other taking the would-be Padawan over to JTA to sign-up.  If you get there right away, you should be in the first or second show and will also likely be in the TSMM fastpass time frame after the show. If you're not, you can still use your fastpass later in the day.

Since it was just me and my son, we rushed over to TSMM for fastpasses and then made it in time to sign up for the second show, which was set to begin at 10:50. Our fastpass return time was from 11:45 - 12:45, so it worked out perfectly.  The only time I can see running over to TSMM first this being an issue is during the very busiest times of the year, when you run the risk that all the available slots will be full before you make it over there.

Now in the immortal words of Master Yoda: Train you will, young Padawan.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Win a Free Epic Mickey for Wii!

Just head over to 2 Lonely Deeks and leave a comment, then friend then on Facebook. Really, lonely guys don't, as a rule, have a lot of friends so your odds of winning are humongous!

Link to Epic Mickey game you can win!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Trip Report: A Review of the Cold, Frozen Tundra that is Orlando.

Last week I took a quick trip to Disney World with my 8-year old son.  This was my first time traveling completely alone with him and it was easier than I thought it would be, so single moms or dads thinking about going it alone, I highly recommend giving it a try.  Here's a few highlights from the trip just to get me back into blogging again. I have so much to tell you in depth later.

Weather:  If you read here often, you probably know that I advise people to bring a heavy coat from November through early March.  When you read this, you may have thought to yourself "Is she crazy?"  Well, no.  The thing is, it can get really cold in Orlando during this time of year. It can even snow. But I have never needed more than a heavy coat and gloves. This trip was the exception.  Not only did I need a heavy coat, I actually had to go out and buy some thermal underwear, hats and scarves, things we might use once a year in North Carolina and that I never considered bringing to Orlando.  Given how many guests I saw walking around the parks wrapped up in blankets and Disney Snuggies (sigh), I'd say many people were caught off guard.  I felt terrible thinking that it might have been their only trip to Disney World and this was the weather they experienced.

Crowds:  Our first day in the parks was December 4th, which was also the last day of the Christmas parade taping in the Magic Kingdom. Crowds were very manageable with the exception of the Magic Kingdom on parade taping day. I know that crowd experts will tell you that the taping doesn't effect the attractions in the back of the park but I think it does, particularly in the afternoon when parade spectators start enjoying the parks themselves. Still, it was a relatively low crowd day, so it was manageable.

During our trip, there were the usual lines for the top five headliner attractions, but most everything else was a walk-on and fastpasses were readily available until late in the afternoon (with the exception of Toy Story Midway Mania and Soarin').   Posted wait times without a fastpass for Toy Story Midway Mania were around 60 - 85 minutes within an hour of the park opening, although our actual waits were about 25 minutes less.

I think it would be interesting to look at crowd levels based on cold weather days. It was so bitterly cold and windy at some points that walkways in the parks were virtually empty. It wasn't until you went into the shops and restaurants that you realized that the parks were actually full, but didn't appear to be since people were huddling wherever they could to get warm. Shops were just unbelievably crowded this week.

We attended Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party on December 7th and the park was almost empty that night, although the two previous parties were sold out.  I suspect that some people braved the first couple of hours, but by 9:00 p.m. the park was a ghost town.  If you could handle the cold and were dressed for it, it was a truly amazing time to be in the park.  I lost count how many times we rode Peter Pan; everything in the park was a walk-on or a five minute wait at the most.  Cast members were lively and especially cheerful due to the low crowds. We had some great character interactions with only a two or three minute wait.

Pop Warner:  I know a lot of people worry about the effect of Pop Warner on crowds, but it didn't seem to be an issue. I saw several small groups a day in the parks, all escorted by at least one adult. The kids were excited and giggly, as you would expect, but well-behaved. The exception would be the groups I saw at Downtown  Disney, who didn't appear to have escorts and were pretty loud. 
Decorations: The one thing you can usually count on is that Disney will pull out all the stops at Christmastime. The parks and resorts are gorgeous.  In the past few years, I've heard people say that they were putting up fewer decorations, but I didn't notice it myself. This year, I did, unfortunately.  I generally try not to be one of those gloom and doom Disney fans who are always looking for things the company does wrong, so I'm sad to say it was it was particularly obvious in the Magic Kingdom, which is usually spectacular.  Given the state of the economy and the fact that even Disney has suffered some real losses, I'm not surprised.  I do hope it's not a trend, however.

More later, including a surprising visit to Babycakes NYC in Downtown Disney.  Hint:  They're vegan and they're delicious.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I'm Going to Disney!!!

So, if you noticed a lack of posting around here, that's partly why.

I'm completely unprepared for this trip. I literally have done nothing other than to make one advanced dining reservation six months ago, so I'm breaking all the rules of Disney vacation planning.    

I'll be back next week with new pictures and stories, as well as my take on the much-lauded Le Cellier.  Until then, if you need some Disney, check out the Mouse Chat Podcast.  On our most recent one, we talk about everything you ever wanted to know about park tickets

Be safe, everyone!