Monday, April 30, 2012

Quick Bites: Kakigori Shaved Ice

Rainbow flavored Kakigori
For months now, I've been hearing people rave about the Kakigori flavored shaved ice that you can get at the Kabuki Cafe while visiting the Japan pavilion inside Epcot. "Isn't it just a snow cone?" I'd ask people. "Oh, no, they assured me. This is so much better, you have to try it." When we mentioned it on the Mouse Chat podcast, listeners wrote in to say how good it was. It even made the list of "100 Disney Foods to Eat Before You Die" over at Chip and Company.

Thus, I thought after fourteen years of living in Florida, and hundreds of trips to Epcot, it was finally time to try this icy treat, and this weekend, I did. The verdict: It's a snow cone. Yes, the ice has a very nice consistency, and the flavored syrup (I chose cherry) was delicious, sweet, with just a hint of tartness at the end, and you certainly get a generous helping. But I can't really say I was wowed by it, and I still don't understand all the hype. Maybe I had the wrong flavor - looking at the people sitting around me enjoying their Kakigori, the favorite seems to be rainbow. Still, it did cool me off on what turned out to be a very warm day in the parks, and I'm glad to say that I've tried it.  I certainly don't hate it, and I would eat it again. But I'm not going to be making a mad dash to get it, either.

Available in strawberry, cherry, tangerine, melon or rainbow (a combination of all) flavors, this refreshing treat sells for $3.50, and you can add a topping of sweet milk, sweet strawberry or sweet cherry for just a dollar more.

What about you? Are there any Disney foods that you think are overrated? Share with us in the comments. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Predicting the Walt Disney World Fantasyland Expansion Opening Dates

Since Friday's announcement that most of the Fantasyland expansion would open during the "Holiday season," the conspiracy theorist in me has been trying to determine exactly what that means.  Sure, holiday season in Walt Disney World means the entire months of November and December, but when you've been analyzing every piece of information about the expansion since it was announced back in August 2009, how are you supposed to stop now?  Answer: You don't. 

Best Case Scenario:  The expansion opens in early November!  Behold, there is joy throughout the land.

Don't make me whip out these jazz hands!

Why this will happen:
  • It's the beginning of the holiday season.
  • It's one of the slowest times of the year, which gives Disney time to work out any issues that might crop up without millions of angry people wondering why Gaston's Tavern didn't use antlers in all of its decorating. 
  • You think Disney wants to disappoint the entire state of New Jersey during Jersey Week? Exactly.
Why this won't happen: 

You know what the problem with this scenario is? It's too perfect. It's not just that it makes both guests and Disney brass equally happy, which only happens once in a blue moon.  It's that life doesn't work out that way. It's a scenario that requires every carefully laid out plan to magically (pardon me, but I spend a lot of time in Disney World) come together.  And you know what happens to carefully laid out plans? Cue the hurricane.

Probability:   4 out of 5 Tom Staggs looking at you like he can see inside your soul.

Copyright Walt Disney Company.
What? You thought he let me into
his office to take this photo?

Next Best Scenario:  The expansion opens the week after Thanksgiving. 

Why this will happen:
  • Lowest crowd level of the holiday season.
  • Slightly later opening date gives them time to absorb unexpected delays.
  • Allows Disney to showcase new expansion as part of Disney Christmas parade filming which starts on November 30th this year (apologies to those who thought it was taped live on Christmas morning).
Why this won't happen:

  • Disney is going to want to open prior to Thanksgiving to please large crowds that will fill the parks that week. 
  • Opening the expansion and filming the parade all in the same week. Sheesh!
  • Disney loves to decorate for the holidays. Will they have the time to decorate? Will they want to? Has anyone read this much of the sentence or are you just skimming?
  • Remember how you got all excited about Dumbo opening on February 17th? It was awesome, wasn't it?  And do you remember how that opening date kept getting moved?  Yes.
Probability:  3 out of 5 nerds holding Citrus Swirls.

Disclaimer:  The person in the red shirt is not, reportedly, a nerd.

Worst Case Scenario:  The expansion opens right before Christmas.

Why this will happen:  Delays will make opening until this time impossible but Disney will want to open for large holiday crowds.

Why this won't happen: Come on!  Who would open an expansion this large during the busiest time of the year? Exactly. It won't happen.

Probability:  2 out of 5 sassy dolls resting on a boat in It's a Small World.

But wait, there's more.

The Absolute Worst Case Scenario: Holiday opening dates are a deliberate ruse designed to appease a small group of rabid fans who won't stop complaining on Disney message boards. The actual opening date will be in January.

Why this will happen:   Because of a little thing called Murphy's Law. If something can go wrong, it will.   Dumbo's opening date was delayed three times and even then, only one spinner opened.  When you consider that the entire expansion is several times larger than the small portion of Storybook Circus that's opened so far, you get an idea of the scope of this project. It's massive.  And because Disney probably wants to open all of it (excluding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train) at once due to crowd control concerns, it makes sense that any projected opening at this point is just a rough estimate.

Why this won't happen:  Because it's Disney. And a company that can make even grown men tear up a little bit the first time they see Cinderella Castle can do just about anything.

Probability:  1 out of 5 depressed Mickeys.

Now, here's the good news. If you've seen Storybook Circus, you know it's incredible. The thought and care that's gone into the expansion so far can only mean far greater things when the entire project is complete. So whatever happens, when you do see it, you're going to be overwhelmed--in a very good way. The wait is going to be worth it. But I know what you really want is an actual date, right? Well sadly, I don't think anyone knows.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that if it isn't open before Thanksgiving, it won't open until after the holidays. But, as you may recall, I've been wrong before.  All I really know is I can't wait.

Quick Bites: The Angus Burger from Rosie's All American Cafe.

A good burger seems pretty easy:  Freshly ground beef meets grill, right?  Throw it on a fresh bun and add some toppings and you're good to go. It's something that a lot of big chains get right for millions of people every day.  Unfortunately, the likelihood that you'll find a good burger on Disney property is low.  Save for a few gems here and there, most Disney burgers, while larger than your standard fast food burger, don't actually taste like much of anything at all and the texture, heavy and a little dried out, leaves a lot to be desired.  Toppings bars in quick-service locations like Pecos Bills and Cosmic Rays can make them a little less blah, but when the best thing you can say about a burger is that you liked the free cooked onions it had on it, you're not talking about a very satisfying hamburger.

Because of this, I rarely order hamburgers on Disney property, but when my good friends Bob and Donna suggested I try the burger at  Rosie's All American Cafe in Hollywood Studios, I decided to give it a try.  You might miss Rosie's if you're not looking for it: It's a small outdoor stand on the left, about halfway up Sunset Boulevard on your way to the Tower of Terror. I've actually walked past it many times thinking they only served drinks or pretzels, but was pleasantly surprised to see that they have a full menu.

The actual name of Rosie's burger is the 1/3 Lb Angus Onion Straw Cheddar Cheeseburger, but you'll know it as the only burger on the menu. Undoubtedly, this is the same 1/3 pound burger they serve all over property, but it tastes fresher here, possibly because they're serving a smaller crowd rather than the masses you see in Cosmic Ray's.  The bun was uninspiring and a little dry, but I've come to expect that from Disney hot dog and hamburger buns.  The crispy onion straws seem like a minor thing, but they gave the sandwich a nice texture and tasted delicious.  All of the toppings tasted fresh and I noticed that the pickles were not the same ones they have at the toppings bars elsewhere but a more higher-end pickle, like Vlasic. Again, it's a little thing, but it made the burger so much better.  The sharp bite of real cheddar rather than processed American cheese was also a nice change.

I've often lamented the lack of good quick-service items in Hollywood Studios and one burger won't change that, but I like knowing I have a go-to item for lunch from now on.  Seating at Rosie's is in a large outdoor area, so you won't get any relief from the heat, but most tables have umbrellas.  You can use the dining plan here and as usual, I recommend skipping the included dessert, none of which are very good, and asking for a bottle of water instead.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Opening Dates for Fantasyland Expansion Announced!

Finally, after nearly two years of speculation, Disney has formally announced the opening of the Fantasyland Expansion. Here's what we know so far:

  • The Casey Jr. area and the second Dumbo will open in July. This is a little later than projected but a nice surprise for summer guests.
  • The Little Mermaid, Gaston's Tavern, Beauty and the Beast Restaurant, and Ariel's Grotto will open sometime during the holiday season.
  • The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will open sometime in 2014.
So what does "holiday" mean?  Bet on early November or early December for the best chances of a "soft" opening. You won't see the expansion open Thanksgiving or Christmas week due to crowd levels. I also wonder how big of a deal it will be to decorate this area for the holidays since Disney goes over the top every year with decorations.  On the other hand, it's quite possible Disney will want to it open by the time the parade tapes, which is the first weekend of December. I still think this is a very "iffy" time of year to open such a huge attraction and that everything will have to go exactly right for it to open for the holidays.

Keep in mind the Dumbo opening was moved three times and that it only represents a small fraction of the entire expansion. If I liked to bet, I'd put my money on an early January opening despite this announcement. This is one time I'd like to be wrong, though.

So, are you planning a trip for the opening of the Fantasyland Expansion?

For more information, check out the official announcement on  the Disney Parks Blog.

Disney's Old Key West

Are you looking for a spacious, laid back and well-appointed resort for your next Walt Disney World vacation? Disney's Old Key West  is an older Disney Vacation Club Resort and is often overshadowed by Bay Lake Towers and Beach Club, which is a shame because it offers plenty of amenities. Especially for someone looking for a more relaxing Disney vacation
I'm Bringing Nerdy Back! 
Old Key West was the flagship Vacation Club Resort when it opened in December 1991. It was renamed Old Key West (OKW) in 1996 after the opening of the DVC properties at Vero Beach (Florida), Hilton Head Island (South Carolina) and the Boardwalk Villas (Walt Disney World). There are 760 rooms in various 1-3 room suites.

One of the first questions most people ask is whether they can stay at OKW since it is a Vacation Club Resort. Whenever there is leftover or unused inventory, anyone can book a room. Since it is the oldest DVC on property, it is often the easiest to book.

The resort is well known for three things:
  • the largest DVC rooms on property, 
  • a large and meandering property with absolutely gorgeous and stunning views of lakes and the Sassagoula, and 
  • the golf course.
The resort offers studios, one bedrooms, two bedrooms and three bedroom villas. The studios offer two queen-size beds with a small fridge, microwave and sink. The one bedrooms offer a king-size bed, full kitchen, large bath, shower, family room and a washer and dryer. The two- and three-bedroom villas add bedrooms (with queen-sized beds) and additional bathrooms.

The outside of the buildings are decorated in a classic Key West style with muted pastel colors and plenty of ornate trim. The doors to the individual units open directly outside, which could cause some consternation.

Old Key West is sprawling and all of the resort amenities are located near the community hall and check-in building. There is an internal bus shuttle if you do not have a car. You can walk, but it could be a 25 minute trek if you are located in the farthest reaches.

Olivia's is the only table service location at Old Key West and it can get busy for breakfast. They offer a varied menu with a few Key West flavored dishes thrown in throughout the day. For breakfast, try the Breakfast Cuban or the Conch Republic Omelet (if you like shrimp). Lunch/dinner offerings include some great Angus burgers and seafood choices. Kids can get pizza, burgers and a grilled fish-of-the-day.

Goods-to-Go offers a standard Disney quick service menu, but it can come in handy if you want a quick bite or dessert. If there is a long line, it can be a long wait for your food. If you purchased a refillable mug (or it came as part of your dining package), then you will get your free refills here.

One of the great things about Old Key West is the watercraft transportation to Downtown Disney. The watercraft leave about every 30 minutes for a languid trip past all of the OKW buildings and down the Sassagoula River.

Usually, when people rave about Old Key West they are talking about the size of the rooms, which extends to the balconies. There is enough room for a family of five to eat on the balconies of the one bedrooms (and larger) units. It is also a great place to spend some quality time while everyone else is getting ready in the morning!
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Thursday, April 26, 2012

When Disney Resort Bookings are Down, It's Good News for You.

If you read last week's post about free dining for Fall 2012, you know that we've had clues that resort bookings are slow. This, coupled with the addition of nearly 10,000 new beds and a sluggish economy leads me to continue to speculate that we can expect some nice room discounts for Fall and into Spring.  It also explains some of the perks that have been added to the resorts recently.  It's really a winning situation for Disney guests.

Disney's goal is to keep rooms at around 88% occupancy. Instead, in the last two years, room occupancy has averaged about 82% (Source: Orlando Sentinel).  Keeping "heads in the beds" is about more than just filling rooms. Guests who stay on property tend to spend their money there, not just on lodging but on food and on other items that they'll need during their stay.  Guest patronage keeps those shops and restaurants running.  Of course, it's not just Disney that's feeling the pinch during this time. Head down International Drive or Highway 192 and you'll see plenty shuttered hotels and restaurants that have fallen victim to the economy. But as the biggest, most reputable name in town, Disney isn't accustomed to having to fight for guests.

Disney offers a superior product, no question, and the lure of that quality and service will always bring guests on site, even during a difficult economy.  Nonetheless, Disney can't rest on their laurels and they know it.  To compete with off site resorts, Disney has added new amenities that meet guests' needs.  Some might say, a little late.  Remember when you couldn't get free internet access at a Disney resort but you could get it at the Super 8 right off property?  That didn't sit well with guests.  Well now you can finally get it at every resort in Walt Disney World. This is in response to guest surveys that indicated a high level of dissatisfaction over the this issue.  Room size has always been a thorny issue. Those with larger families have often had to stay off site.  The  addition of family suites at the Art of Animation will solve some of that problem.  And even something as simple as adding refrigerators to value rooms makes those rooms more attractive to guests who might otherwise balk at not having a fridge in their room and take their business elsewhere.

All of this is good news for you and me. I'll be honest:  It would take a lot for me to stay off site. I love the convenience and the quality that staying in a Disney resort offers me. But these new perks and the possibility of some great discounts in the fall just make it all the more appealing.

If you'd like to read more about room changes, please see this article in the Orlando Sentinel.

eWDW Guide to Muppet Vision 3D

Muppet Vision 3D


A 4D film presentation with the loveable Muppets as they introduce you to the latest technologies of Muppet Studios. Of course, what could go wrong? Quite a bit, apparently.

Technical Specifications

Theme Park: Disney's Hollywood Studios
Land: Streets of America
Opened: May 16, 1991
Capacity: 584
Type: 4D-film 
George's Rating: 5 Ears

Muppet Vision 3D can really be seen as three distinct attractions.
  • The exterior of the show building,
  • The pre-show, and
  • The theater presentation.
It feels like three separate areas to me, because each part could be enjoyed entirely by itself. The building has some amazing details on it, including larger-than-life Muppet paintings and details. A full walk around the building is necessary to appreciate all of the details. The pre-show is a 12-minute film that is every bit as good as the theater presentation. Make sure to walk around the pre-show room on your second viewing of the film. The 3D theater film is the main attraction and is 17-minutes long.
A Note from Imaginerding
Muppet Vision 3D was one of the last Muppet-related projects to be helmed by Jim Henson. He passed away in 1990, a year before the attraction opened. At the time, Michael Eisner was in negotiations with Jim Henson. When Henson passed away, the Henson Family withdrew from the negotiations. The Disney Company was finally able to acquire the Muppets in 2004. 

The Show Building

Situated in the Streets of New York area, this large, brick building was decorated as if the Muppets had been hired to paint and design the exterior. Garish paint colors, paint drippings and eyes cover the entire building

A Note from Imaginerding
The building's colorful and messy decorations were based on the redecoration of a storage closet at 30 Rockefeller in New York. In 1964, the Muppet creators were scheduled to be on the Jack Paar program and had to waste a lot of time. They opened the closet door in the dressing room and found pipes. They painted the pipes and it has become a point of interest for the NBC Studios. The pipes are still there and still have the original decorations by Henson, Oz, Sahlin and Juhl.

The show building for the Muppets is well worth the short walk. There are some amazing details that can only be seen up close and a few from far away.

The Pre-Show

After you enter the building through a hallway (you go past Muppet Security), you are funneled into the pre-show area. Grab your 3D glasses and stand in front of one of the banks of three monitors. The pre-show area is full of fantastic gags and details, but watch the pre-show video on your first time.

The video is supposed to introduce you to the 3D film you are about to see. Just like the Muppet television show, things go awry. There are some great gags in the video, including a dance with Gonzo and a special appearance by Mickey Mouse!

Get it?
The room is an attraction in itself for any Muppet fan. There are tributes to the television show and the series of theatrical releases. You definitely have to take some time to walk around the pre-show area.

Muppet Vision 3D

For years, this was the best 3D film on property (Mickey's Philharmagic has pushed the technology further) and it has held up incredibly well over the past 20-odd years. It is often referred to as Muppet Vision 4D because of the in-theater effects and addition of various Muppet animatronics.

There isn't much that I can tell you about the film that won't ruin some of the surprises; regardless it is a film that is fun for all ages.

Kermit the Frog welcomes us and takes us on a tour of the Muppet Studios. The regular cast of Muppet favorites are introduced and the expected mayhem ensues. Part of the tour takes us into Muppet Labs with Dr. Bunson Honneydew and Beaker. In order to capitalize on the 3D aspect of the show, they create Waldo C. Graphic, the first 3D Muppet.
A Note from Imaginerding
Waldo C. Graphic is the world's first computer-generated 3D Muppet character. Waldo was a real puppet that was connected to a computer that rendered the image in real time based on the actual puppeteer.
The film continues to spiral out of control with traditional Muppet madness that any Muppet fan is going to truly love. The ending is truly spectacular as the Muppet theater is destroyed because of a battle between the Swedish Chef and the penguin orchestra.

Make sure to spend some time in the Muppet Studios shop on your way out. There are some fantastic and amazing references to the Muppets television show.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Parking at Disney: Finding Your Car

This has happened to you, right? You are leaving a Disney theme park late at night. The fireworks were fantastic and you had a great time with your family and friends. Now, you just need to find your car.

As the friendly tram operator reminded you 12 hours earlier, you needed to write down the area and number of where you parked your car.

I have never done that, have you?

I have another solution that is a lot more fun and can help you taunt your friends. When you exit your row, take a photo with your phone and text (or message) the picture to a friend. Not only will you have a photo stored on your phone, but your friend will be able to help you find your car later, if needed. You can also remind your friend that you are having the time of your life at Walt Disney World while all they have is a photo of your parking lot row. I do this to my brother all of the time.

If you do get lost, do your best to signal a roving security truck or see if one of the Disney Security officers in the high-rise booths can help you.

These "Eyes in the Sky" rise about 30 feet in the air and can be helpful when you need to have your car spotted, so to speak. I think they look more like AT-STs from Star Wars.

Do you have any tips for locating your car in a Disney parking lot?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

10 Signs You May Have a Disney Addiction.

10.  During last Thanksgiving dinner with your extended family, you debated the merits of the X-Pass . . . with yourself.

9.  You were once banned for 30 days from the Dis for your participation in a heated debate. The subject: Pool hopping.

8.  You have been known to go to the local Disney store for a Disney fix.

7.  You know that a stroller swap has nothing to do with upgrading your beat-up Graco with that nice Bugaboo left parked and unattended outside of Mickey's Philharmagic.

6.  People don't ask where you're going on vacation; they just assume.

5.  You know what Mousefest was and you know the real story about behind why it's gone.

4.  You have rationalized buying a Disney timeshare to your spouse as "an investment in future vacations."

3. You have been known to wear Mickey Crocs. Without shame. And sometimes, with socks.

2.  You have annual passes even though you live in North Dakota.*

1.  You can translate the following sentence: Is it possible to park at the CR when you have an ADR at CG and then attend MVMCP at the MK or do I have to park at the TTC and take the RM?

Yes to three or less--Your addiction is under control. Though you know more about Disney than the average person, it's a good bet that breakfast at your house doesn't included Mickey Waffles. Yet.
Yes to four to seven--You are entering borderline fanatic territory. You go to Disney so often that Disney will never give you a pin code for a reduced room rate because they know you're coming anyway. You own the highly coveted Mickey Waffle iron which you use to recreate the Chef Mickey's experience back home by inviting in the unruly neighbor kids over for breakfast. Your children think it's possible to walk from Canada to Morocco in a matter of minutes, stopping along the way for a pretzel in Germany.
Yes to more than seven--If loving Disney World is wrong, you don't wanna be right--and you're not. You recently bought DVC by cashing in your retirement account. At least one of your children is named Ariel. You still miss Mr. Toad.
*If you live in ND, you probably deserve annual passes--it gets cold up there.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Starbucks to Open in Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

If you've ever lamented the lack of good coffee on Disney property, your prayers have been answered: Disney just announced that six Starbucks locations will open in  Disneyland and Walt Disney World starting in June with the opening of a store in Disney's California Adventure.  No word on when we can expect stores to open on the East coast side of things, but we do know that there are plans for one in each of the four Disney World parks. 

Park purists will be happy to hear that Starbucks locations in the parks will be themed to match their surroundings and that the Starbucks signage and brand will be kept to a glorious minimum. I generally don't welcome the addition of non-Disney owned businesses in the parks, but I think in this case, years of bad Disney coffee has shown us that they're right in turning it over to a company who--mostly--gets it right. 

Any guesses on where they'll open up in Disney World? I think the Writer's Stop in Hollywood Studios is a natural fit, but I guess we'll just have to wait a little bit longer to see.  Meanwhile, java junkies can rejoice in knowing that soon, they'll no longer have to satisfy their cravings with pallid cups of Cafe Valet.

Disney Fantasy: Animator's Palate - "Animation Magic"

When the Disney Dream set sail last year, guest marveled at the upgraded technology within "Animator's Palate", one of three main dining rooms on board all the Disney ships, that allowed guests to visit with some of their favorite characters from Finding Nemo, and even interact with Crush, the loveable turtle from Nemo. If you've sailed on either the Disney Magic or Disney Wonder, you know that there, still pictures of Disney characters slowly change over the course of dinner from black and white, to color. While impressive, the Dream took things to a whole new level.

Coolest butter knife ever.
With the Fantasy, Disney raises the bar once again. Because the Fantasy sails on 7 night cruises, as opposed to the 3-5 night cruises that its sister ship, the Dream, does, guests will dine at Animator's Palate twice while on board. Rather then present guests with the same experience both times, Disney decided to add a second show exclusive to Animator's Palate on the Disney Fantasy known simply as Animation Magic.

Mickey inspired chairs set the mood.
The first thing guests will notice about Animator's Palate when they step inside is that it immediately draws you into the story. Decorative touches that celebrate Disney's rich animation history are everywhere, from the chairs that remind you instantly of Mickey Mouse (I really wanted to take one of these home with me), to the table markers shaped like paint buckets. Even the butter knives are shaped like paint brushes. Those you can actually buy in the gift shop, for $10 each. Take a look at the walls, too, and you'll notice black and white sketches of Disney characters, and cute touches, like Buzz and Woody toys sitting on a bookshelf. 

Table marker.
Animation inspired decor is everywhere.
As you are seated, you'll see a paper placemat with a template in front of each seat, and markers on the table. Your servers will explain that you are to draw your character (really nothing more than a elaborate stick figure) within the template using the markers, and staying within the lines. As dinner gets under way, the screens around the room come alive as Mickey appears on screen in a black and white sketch. But, grabbing his Sorcerer's hat, he transforms into color -along with all the other black and white character sketches around the room. By the way, there's lots of these screens around the room, so no matter where you're sitting, you'll have a good view of the action. After this neat little introduction, a montage of Disney/Pixar clips featuring food scenes is shown. I never realized how many movies feature food in them - it's a lot - but it's also a good way to pass the time as you work on your drawing, review the menu and the servers bring your drinks and bread offerings to the table. As this concludes, you'll be reminded to finish up your drawing if you haven't already (signing your name at the bottom), which your server will then collect.

Your placemat/drawing template.

The food scenes actually continue during dinner service to keep you entertained until right around dessert time (you know, in case you don't like the people you're eating with), when Sorcerer Mickey once again appears on the screen for the finale, and this is where you see your hard work pay off. Guest drawings are brought to life and fully animated, travel around the room, going from screen to screen. If you weren't amazed by your drawing actually moving on screen, it gets better when through Disney magic, they are inserted into scenes from popular Disney movies and get to interact with characters like Baloo, Jiminy Cricket, Donald Duck and of course the main mouse himself, Mickey. I think we all sat at our table in stunned silence marveling at what we were seeing, only breaking it with an occasional "wow" or "that's amazing." The same could be said for the rest of the dining room, which had quieted to barely a whisper, all of the guests engrossed in the show.

Yes, those guest drawn characters are doing the hula with Donald.
As the show comes to a close and Mickey says his farewells, keep watching the screens and you'll see the name of each guest who submitted a drawing scroll across under the heading of "guest animators." Once again your servers will return to the table, this time to return your placemats from the beginning of the evening, except now they have a gold seal on them, and you are proclaimed an "Official Disney Animator." While I didn't submit a drawing of my own - I failed stick figure drawing in elementary school - Chris did. It was a drawing of her stick figure beating my stick figure up. It received a standing ovation.

Animator's Palate is a wonderful experience for kids and adults alike, and really does a great job of showcasing exactly what separates Disney from other cruise lines. I realize with every review I've written about something on the Fantasy, I've said "don't miss this", but that goes double for this show. If this doesn't impress you, nothing will. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Solo Parenting in Walt Disney World.


Whether it's for an entire trip or just a few hours, parenting solo in Walt Disney World can pose a few challenges.  I've travelled alone to Disney many times with my oldest son, who is 9-years old, but I haven't had to spend long hours alone in the parks with him and his younger siblings.  On our most recent family trip, I had to put all my solo parenting skills to the test when a crisis came up at my husband's job, requiring me to spend about four days out of eight alone with all three kids in the park! At first I was a little panicked, but I found that once I got into it, it was fine. Here's what I've learned:


The bathroom issue can be a thorny one. Do you let young opposite sex children use the bathroom without you?  I've found it depends on the kid and the situation:
  • If you feel uncomfortable, take your opposite sex child into the bathroom with you.  I probably wouldn't bring a 12-year old boy into the ladies room, but I will occasionally bring in my oldest in with me if I'm uncomfortable with the area. So yes, I brought him into the restroom with me and Universal Studios. Sorry Universal; sorry, there were a lot of drunk people around that day. On the other hand, I feel pretty comfortable letting him use the restroom alone in most of the Disney parks, provided that I'm right outside although it also depends on how crowded the parks are and what type of events are going on at the time.
  • Consider using companion bathrooms, but keep in mind that these are directed towards guests who need assistance.
  • Base your decision on your child's personality, not their age. If you feel uncomfortable allowing your child to use the bathroom alone, don't do it.
  • Don't forget the babycare centers in the parks for children who are not yet potty-trained.  Older siblings accompanying babies may also use the facilities; there are televisions for them to watch while you care for the younger child.


  • Try brightly colored glow in the dark necklaces for night.  Buy them before you leave--it's cheaper.
  • Bright colored and/or matching shirts will make them stand out in a crowd in case they wander away.
  • Kids should know your cell phone number. If they're too little to remember or if you think they'll forget, purchase temporary tattoos with your phone number on them before your travel.
  • Consider childproofing your room if you are traveling with children under four-years of age.  Be particularly mindful of doors that open to patios and.
  • Tell kids that if they get lost to ask a cast member or another mom with kids for help.
  • If your kids are on the border age-wise for the stroller and you're thinking of forgoing it on this trip,consider renting one just in case. I found that having a stroller for my four-year old twins, who haven't used a stroller since they were two, was a lifesaver. While they didn't stay in it that much, we had a rule that when we were moving for longer distances, two kids had to be in the stroller and one had to have his hand on the handle at all times. This made getting in and out of crowded parks a lot easier for me and gave me peace of mind that they weren't going to get distracted and wander off.

Rides are mainly an issue if you're traveling with several children under 10-years of age due to height requirements and the fear factor of some rides.
  • You have to be 7-years old to ride alone at Disney. 
  • You can fit three into a seat on certain rides, like Peter Pan, the Haunted Mansion, Finding Nemo, and even Dumbo.
  • If your older kids ride alone, make sure they ride in front of you so you can keep an eye on them..

Playgrounds and Pools.

  • The Honey I Shrunk the Kids Playground at Hollywood Studios is notorious for being the place on property to lose your kids.  There's only one exit, so if you're comfortable letting slightly older kids run around while you watch the exit to make sure they don't leave, you can give it a try. Otherwise, skip it.
  • Stormalong Bay, located at the Yacht and Beach Club, can be a difficult place to watch young children, as it's a large pool with many twists and turns.
  • Value resort pools are wide open and give you a unobstructed view.   While some guests may lament the lack of slides and vegetation around the pool, it's a plus when you're solo parenting.
  • Resort "quiet" pools, which are pools that are not themed, are easier to maneuver with small children because there are fewer obstructions (i.e., they're often just a big, simple pool, hence the term "quiet").

Calling for  Back-Up.

If possible, plan ahead for some grown-up time or breaks.
  • Consider inviting a trustworthy teen, friend or relative. You'll pay for their vacation in exchange for some help with the kids. 
  • Disney's childcare centers are reasonably priced, safe, and a lot of fun for kids ages 3 - 12. You'll find them at several deluxe resorts.  You don't need to be a guest of the resort (or even a guest staying on WDW property) to use the childcare centers.
  • Try a babysitting service like Kids Nite Out.  You can read about my experience with Kids Nite Out here.  I've used them several times and they are very reliable.
Finally, some trips just require you to lower your expectations.  Once you get your footing, you can try to ramp it up a bit but until then, don't try to go into "theme park commando" mode.  This is the time to slow down and follow your kid's pace.

Not every family has two parents, but that doesn't mean that you can't enjoy the parks with your kids. It just takes a little bit of planning.  Oh, and of course, some pixie dust.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Jungle Cruise Food and Dining Options

The Jungle Cruise has been a must-do attraction at the Magic Kingdom since October 1, 1971. Filled with mirth and merryment (in layman's terms: really bad puns) the Jungle Cruise takes you on a tour of the world's tropical rivers.

Since this could be a three-week cruise, are you wondering about the food options?

Besides sides-splitting and groan-inducing jokes, there are some delicacies to be had.

As you make your way through the queue, pay attention to the signs, reference and crates—they help tell the story of the Jungle Cruise. Right before the loading area, you will find a sign detailing the Lunch Menu for the crew of the Jungle Cruise.  

Monday-Fricasse of Giant Stag Beetle (tastes like chicken)
Tuesday-Barbecued Three-Toed Skink (has a chicken flavor)
Wednesday-Consomme of River Basin Slug (poultry like)
Thursday-Fillet of Rock Python (chicken-esque)

On second thought, maybe the Jungle Cruise is not the best place to grab a bite to eat during lunch.
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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Disney Cruise Lines Best Kept Secret: On Board Credits.

Disney Fantasy with the Aqua Duck and pools.

Experienced cruisers know this:  Many travel agencies and booking engines will offer substantial onboard credits to entice you to book with them.  These credits are based on the amount of your cruise and come out of the agency's commission, so they'll vary a great deal, but figure around $50 for an inside cabin on a short cruise to as high as $700 for transatlantic crossings.  You can use an on board credit in place of cash for almost anything on Disney Cruise Lines (DCL).  If it sounds like a winning situation for both you and the agency, it is, but you'll want to be aware of a few caveats before you book.

  • Make sure that you talk to an actual person when you book. Some of the biggest credits come from booking engines where you'll never actually speak to a live human being. This is part of the reason they can offer such large credits.  If being able to ask questions is important to you (and if you're a first-time cruiser, it will be), then make sure you avoid these types of situations.
  • Ask about cancellation policies. Some vendors offer great on board credits but they impose stiff penalties if you cancel your cruise, even before you enter the cancellation phase with DCL. 
  • On board credits truly are one of the biggest secrets of cruising.  I've found that some companies don't always advertise the availability of credits clearly on their sites, so if you already have a company you trust and enjoy working with, ask them if they offer credits; they may surprise you.
Disney Cruise Lines offers a very desirable product and because of this, they know they don't have to play the discount game the way some cruise lines do.  While it can be difficult to find discounts, if any, on DCL, getting an on board credit when you book is one way to cut costs.  Since finding a reputable company who will give you an on board credit is as easy as a quick Google search, it's well worth the time and a little bit of research to save a few hundred dollars once you're on board.

Thoughts on Free Dining for Fall 2012

Hot chocolate lava cake with peppermint
ice cream at the California Grill.
And I got it for free!!

The Disney online community loves talking about free dining: Is it any good, does it diminish the caliber of food, and most of all, is it going to continue to be offered?  Every year you'll hear rumors that free dining is coming to an end and yet every year, there is it. Yes, there have been some changes here and there, but for the most part, free dining exists in the same form year after year.

Lately, I've been hearing rumors from fairly credible sources (in other words, not Disney bus drivers or the occasional pot stirrer on Disboards) that free dining won't happen this fall. Balderdash.

Sorry, I've always wanted to use that word in a post.

Free dining will happen this fall just like it has for the last few years. In fact, you can make a stronger case for free dining this year than in previous years. Here's why:

1.  Free dining is being offered at Art of Animation for September.  When free dining came out for August 25 - September 29, we were told that Art of Animation was excluded from the offer. In fact, word was that Art of Animation would be excluded from all discounts for the first six months.  It made sense, of course: It's a new resort and the thinking was that it would be so popular, Disney wouldn't need to offer discounts. Well, that's not what happened. Several weeks into the promotion, free dining was added to Art of Animation.

Now, here's the thing. Discounts are offered based on the need to fill rooms, nothing more. The number of rooms allotted for a certain discount are based not just on actual bookings already in place, but on projected bookings. Projected bookings are based on a number of things, everything from how the economy is doing to patterns of guest behavior in the past. When bookings are expected to be down, discounts are released to fill those rooms.

2.  The Fantasyland expansion is lagging behind. Yes, we speculate constantly about when the FLE is going to open. Dates are all over the place, from early summer to early fall. While we would love the project to open sooner rather than later, our sources inside the expansion tell us that the expansion will open later than previously expected. 

I'll be honest. From what I've seen of the expansion so far, it's fantastic.  Please continue to take your time and show us the incredible work you can do.  But when you've been dangling a carrot out in front of guests for two years and it still hasn't happened, people are going to want you to give them some incentive to visit now rather than when the expansion opens.

3.  Disney has to fill nearly 10,000 beds at Art of Animation.  No one expects Art of Animation to completely booked, but even at just 70% capacity, Disney needs to put about 7,000 guests into Art of Animation every night by the time it's complete by mid-September.  That's a lot of guests. We know that there's only a certain number of guests who will be travelling to Walt Disney World each year. We also know that the goal isn't to lure guest from one resort to Art of Animation; that wouldn't make sense.  So how does Disney lure budget-conscious guests, their target audience, from cheaper off site hotels? By offering them incredible deals like free dining.

4. Free dining keeps restaurants running during slower times of the year.  This is something that a lot of people don't talk about, but it's a really important reason for offering free dining.  Disney prides itself on having well-trained professionals in their restaurants and it shows: Disney servers are some of the best you'll find.  But you can't keep a professional wait staff on hand throughout the year if your restaurants are sitting vacant.  You'd have to let them go or reduce their hours. Not exactly the way to keep your employees motivated. Free dining gets guests into restaurants that might otherwise have to reduce their hours or staff.  This is particularly true for less popular restaurants, like Kona Cafe, Chefs de France, or Sannaa, places that serve good food but are not always on guests' radar.

5. Gas prices and a shaky economy continue to erode the tourist dollar.  Vacations are still a luxury and while I generally believe that a Disney vacation is one of the best deals around, the fact is that without discounts, many guests will stay off site, particularly in this economy.

Expect free dining for fall to be announced in early August, possibly sooner.  Be flexible regarding your dates, because there will be a lot of black out periods. Don't buy airline tickets from a carrier that charges high change fees until you know what your travel dates will be. And as always, if you want a specific resort, make sure you book as soon as the discounts are available.

Disclaimer: The opinions contained in this article are my own and do not represent the Walt Disney Company nor should they be construed as fact.  For more information on free dining rumors and speculation for Fall 2012, please see this article.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Quick Tips: What To Do If You Get Sick At Disney World

No one sets out on vacation thinking they'll get sick or possibly injured; unfortunately, illnesses and injuries are a part of life, even at the place where dreams come true. Luckily, Disney is well prepared for any situation. Here's what to do if you, or someone in your family, gets sick while visiting Walt Disney World.

For minor ailments, such as headaches, blisters, upset stomach, heat exhaustion, etc., you'll find a first-aid station at each of the major parks and two water parks (there is no first-aid station at Downtown Disney).  Specifically, you can find them at:

  • Magic Kingdom, at the end of Main Street, between Casey’s Corner and Crystal Palace;
  • Epcot, at Odyssey Center, between Future World and World Showcase;
  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios, at Guest Relations building on Hollywood Boulevard;
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom, at Discovery Island, behind Creature Comforts (headed towards Africa);
  • Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park, behind Leaning Palms; and
  • Disney’s Blizzard Beach water park, between Lottawatta Lodge and Beach Haus.
The first-aid centers are staffed by licensed nurses who are extremely helpful, and their services are free. I've been in there many times for things like Motrin, or a band-aid, and have seen guests of all ages come in for help for everything from a skinned knee to bug bites. While there is no pharmacy inside and there are no doctors on duty, should you require prescription medications or further medical assistance, they can direct you to such services.
If your condition cannot be treated with over-the-counter medicine and you think you need to see a doctor, you can visit one of the local urgent care centers. Two of the most common are Buena Vista Urgent Care and Centra Care. 

Buena Vista Urgent Care is located near State Road 535  (the same road as the Crossroads Shopping Plaza) and offers walk-in treatment for everything from minor injuries to family medicine. There is even 24 hour emergency care available, though you do have to call ahead for that. Centra Care is located in the vicinity of Downtown Disney on South Apopka Vineland Road/State Road 535. They are open from 8 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends, and treat all sorts of non-life threatening conditions, from family medicine to pediatrics. The nice thing about both of these urgent care facilities is that they offer a free shuttle to guests staying at nearby hotels and resorts. I would encourage you to call the front desk at your resort if you need an urgent care center and they will be happy to help you.

If you are unable to leave your resort, or you want more personal attention, and are willing to pay extra for it, consider a service like Doctors on Call Service, or "Docs", who will send licensed physicians to your home, resort, hotel, or villa to treat you. You will need to call for pricing.
Should you need a hospital, the closest  is Florida Hospital Celebration Health, located  in nearby Celebration.  If it is a medical emergency, of course call 9-1-1. If the condition is not life threatening, again the front desk at your resort/hotel should be able to assist you in arranging transportation.

Hopefully you never need any of these services, but if you do, it's good to know that they are there and ready to assist you however they can, so that you can get back to feeling better and having a good time.