Jul 132016
 

By Teresa Pittman

 

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Years ago, when my oldest grandchildren were about five and two, we decided to surprise them with a trip to Disney World.

At the time, Disney was running a great series of TV commercials. In each scene, someone would notice a balloon with Mickey Mouse ears floating past. A little card was attached to the balloon’s string. When he or she caught the balloon, the card turned out to be an invitation to travel to WDW.

Was there a more perfect idea? I got in touch with some Disney friends, who provided us with some of the balloons and cards. The night before our trip, my son and his wife put the kids to bed and packed all the suitcases. Early in the morning, they inflated and released the balloons in their rooms.

When the kids woke up, it was just like in the commercial: balloons floating near their beds with cards attached. They were so excited! The family had a quick breakfast, picked me up, and we drove to the airport. Breakfast in Ontario, lunch in Florida.

At the end of the trip, the oldest grandchild said “ALWAYS surprise me. I love it.”

Well, we haven’t quite managed to always surprise them – sometimes the planning process means we need to let them know. But we do try.

Right now, we have a trip planned for mid-August for the families of two of my children, plus me. That’s a total of five adults and six children. Baby Isla will only be 10 months old, so she’ll be surprised no matter what we do, but the other kids are 14, 11, 9, 6 and 4, so we figured there was plenty of scope for making this a big surprise.

Here’s what we’re doing:

Starting nine weeks before our day of departure (we’re driving down), a mysterious package has been delivered to the home of the older five kids each week. Inside is a letter inviting them to join in the activity (signed by Aseret, which is simply my name backwards) and a set of envelopes with linked puzzles that they have to solve. I’ve had a lot of fun creating the puzzles and tried to have enough variety that even the youngest can take part (some are designated just for them).

The puzzles all have a running theme of creativity and imagination, and many refer to some of the creators mentioned or quoted in that circle on the ground in Epcot. For example, I did one puzzle where they had to work out a code to read a quote by educator John Dewey: “Education is not preparation for life, it is life itself.” (Especially fitting for these kids because they are homeschooled.) The next puzzle was about another Dewey who created something important – Melvil Dewey who invented the Dewey Decimal System. A jigsaw puzzle for the youngest two had to be put together to find the name of the System. And where might they see the Dewey Decimal System in action today? That’s right, the library – so they headed off to the branch near their home and found, on the “HOLD” shelf, two books (purchased for them) being held under the name Aseret, with an envelope with yet another clue tucked in between them.

Once they have all the puzzles worked out each week, they get a final envelope with a letter of the alphabet in it. On the back of each of those letters is another puzzle – the answer to each of those puzzles will be a number, and the numbers help the kids put the letters in order.

They’re not supposed to open the letters until the very last day, which will be our day of departure. The kids have been told that we are going to Great Wolf Lodge (giving mom and dad an excuse to pack!), but when they put the letters together, they will spell MARCELINE.

Okay, readers, do you know what that is?

Give up? The kids will get a chance to research this online, and what we hope they’ll quickly find is that Marceline, Missouri, is Walt Disney’s home town (and the basis for Magic Kingdom’s Main Street). Then the adults will say “let’s go visit the world he created!”

And off we’ll go.

Recently in one of the online Disney discussion groups I belong to, people were talking about whether or not it’s a good idea to surprise kids with Disney trips. Some said definitely not. It’s true, sometimes the surprises go wrong. We’ve all seen the videos where the child just dissolves in tears when the surprise is announced – and not happy tears either! And some parents said they didn’t want to lose the fun of planning with their children and everyone sharing in the anticipation.

We feel confident that the surprise will go over well because my grandchildren have been to WDW before and know that we will go again at some point. They just don’t know when. We’ve been able to plan in a sneaky way by asking things like “next time we go to WDW, where would you like to eat? What rides do you most want to go on?” Or we show them videos of other people’s trips and watch what seems to capture their interest.

But every family knows their own situations best, and these kind of surprises may not work for you.

You don’t need something as elaborate as my puzzle packages, of course, if you DO decide to surprise someone with a Disney vacation. A little online research will reveal hundreds of ways that people have made the announcement, and you can personalize them to fit your family. And for people who like the unexpected, any surprise adds to the fun!

Jun 292016
 

By Roye Ann Morris

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It was 1983. My college roommate, who had also been my best friend since first grade, and I were both Disney fans, and a trip there for spring break seemed like a grand idea. Somehow we convinced our moms that we could handle the trip alone. In the days before cell phones, GPS, and Google maps, a 13 hour car trip was a pretty big undertaking! We recruited my younger sister to go along, and set out for Florida, so giddy we could barely stop giggling for the whole trip.

We had road maps and hand-written directions for driving around the larger cities like Birmingham and Atlanta. I kept the map my mom drew for Birmingham; she drew the cloverleaf around the city and wrote “No!” beside the exits we were not supposed to take. Our first stop was Macon, Georgia, to spend the night with friends. The next morning we drove on to Orlando, where we checked into the Holiday Inn, Maingate East. I still have the hotel bill; the rooms were $81 a night! My friend and I could hardly wait to get to the parks, but my sister opted to stay at the hotel pool and get some sun. So we loaded back into the car without her, and off we went!

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Epcot and the World Showcase had made their debut by this trip, but we opted to start at the Magic Kingdom. We bought a 4-day ticket right outside the park; it was so much easier to have the one paper ticket that covered everything instead of the ticket books! According to the copy of the Walt Disney World News which I found in my scrapbook, the cost was $45! Our goal was to ride everything we could, then meet my sister later. She was more excited at that point to be sitting by the pool than to be at the parks, so she said she would ride whatever we had not had time for after she got to the park. I still remember meeting her at the front gate and watching the magic of Disney surround her. Standing in front of Cinderella’s castle, she took a deep breath and said, “You’ll have to start over; I need to ride them all!” So that’s what we did!

The next morning we headed for Epcot Center, as it was called on the park information. We weren’t really sure about what to expect; we had a vague idea of what the park was supposed to be like from reading about it, but were excited to see it in person. Our first stop was Earth Station, located under Spaceship Earth, where you could book dinner reservations at the World Showcase restaurants. The Walt Disney World News advised that you should make your reservations before 10AM, as most restaurants would be booked after that time. We talked to a live cast member on what looked like a TV screen; who knew that was even possible! It all seemed very much like the future, and we were so impressed and a little nervous. Not being very adventurous eaters at the time, we chose San Angel Inn for dinner and walked out laughing about how we must have looked so silly to the Cast Member since we had no idea what we were doing!

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My favorite memory of that day was Journey into Imagination with Dreamfinder and Figment. I’m sure we went through every attraction, but this one has stayed with me even today. Figment remains one of my favorite Disney characters, and I must say I miss the original ride with Dreamfinder and Image Works to play in after the ride. We were singing the song for the rest of the day. We spent time in Communicore East and West, and enjoyed a ride through the World of Motion. Horizons was still being built.

We headed to World Showcase in time for our dinner reservation, walking slowly through all the countries, admiring all the details of each one. Norway and Morocco were not part of the showcase yet. Our dinner at San Angel Inn was amazing; we were waited on by attentive (and attractive!) Cast Members and served wonderful food. Being small-town girls, we had never eaten at a restaurant where refills on your drinks were free. We had ordered iced tea, and weren’t drinking it so we could save it to go with our meal. Our server walked over to ask if anything was wrong with our tea, and we were so embarrassed when he had to explain to us that we could have as many refills as we wanted! Again, very small-town girls!

We spent two days in each of the parks, and every minute was like being in a dream; on our own, no parents, doing what we wanted when we wanted to, and feeling safe and taken care of the whole time. I’m sure there were moments on that trip that weren’t perfect, but I don’t remember them at all. Wouldn’t it be magical to go back to that time of relative innocence, feeling safe, and having few worries? Although that’s how I feel each time I visit Disney, bringing back the $45 tickets would be magical, too!

Jun 152016
 

By Tim Rogers

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Dining at Disney World is a lot of fun. With over 100 restaurants representing numerous styles and traditions, Disney offers guests a smorgasbord of possibilities when dining (including some literal smorgasbords).

 

But what about vegetarians? If you grew up not eating meat, like me, you might also have a ready made list of restaurants, trips, special occasions, family gatherings, and more where you found that there was nothing for you to eat, or that “vegetarian” option wasn’t actually vegetarian.

 

But at Disney World, you don’t have to worry, and with these tips, you can make the most of your trip to the World.

Tip 1: Do your homework

If you are reading this, I probably don’t have to tell you that trips to Disney World take some planning, from what tickets to buy, what resort to stay at, how to get there, and more. But especially if you are worried about or just thinking about food, part of your preparation should be to check out some Disney restaurant menus.

By perusing the options, you can get an idea of the places that might have more interesting options, what some of the options might be and more. Note that many of the menus are changed seasonally, so a specific menu item you see now might be changed in a year, but you will at least know the type of options available, and they might even make it for you anyway. That brings us to…

Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to ask

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As mentioned above, the first thing you can ask for is old menu items that might not still be listed. Depending on what it is, many restaurants are able to accommodate this request.

But Disney’s help to vegetarians does not end there. If nothing on the menu strikes your fancy, ask your server if there are any other options for vegetarians. Some restaurants have a separate vegetarian menu; others might ask the chef if he or she can use their creativity for you. It’s not guaranteed that this will happen, but if you don’t ask you won’t know.

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At many counter service locations, you can also get specific items a la carte or ask for meat to be left off, so as to not pay for non-vegetarian items you won’t eat or miss out on something that sounds great except for that one meat item.

But sometimes asking can just be a clarification. For example, every vegetarian is different and the standard what they will eat changes. Some eat fish, some won’t eat items with chicken stock or gelatin, but just by looking it can be hard to tell what is “safe.” So if you aren’t sure, just ask.

My favorite example of this is when my wife and I ate at the Biergarten, and through some miscommunication the kitchen got notified that we had a food allergy (special note, if you have a food allergy the Disney chef’s will take great care of you), so a chef came out to walk us through the buffet so we wouldn’t accidentally encounter an allergen. When he found out we were just vegetarians, he walked us through the buffet anyway, and that extra help let us know that one of the soups was made with chicken stock (which matters to me) and confirmed some items that did not have any meat. It was incredibly helpful and a great service from the Disney CMs.

 

Tip 3: Go to a buffet

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Speaking of buffets, go and eat at them. Besides often including characters or a show, buffets provide a ton of options for all palates. As an extra tip, look at the difference between lunch and dinner at buffets – many of them charge more at dinner and the only real difference is an additional meat option or two, which will do nothing for a vegetarian. You can get the same experience for less at lunch.

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While I have enjoyed several buffets at Disney World (including Biergarten, which is probably the biggest surprise), the one I would recommend to any vegetarian (or really anyone) is Tusker House. Located in the Africa section of the Animal Kingdom, Tusker House has safari themed versions of Mickey, Donald, Daisy and Goofy, but more importantly a wide selection of African and Indian themed foods. This theme provides a wide range of vegetarian options, all of which are great. If you are looking for one buffet to try as a vegetarian, this one should be near the top of your list.

 

Tip 4: Try a signature meal

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While Disney service is great on many different levels, the signature meals take it up a notch. Signature restaurants are more likely to be able to accommodate special requests, and the food is fantastic. I have personally experienced this at Jiko and California Grill, and in both cases was able to get interesting and delicious vegetarian options with impeccable service. Signature meals are pricey, but for a special moment they are definitely worth it.

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Tip 5: Try new things

As seen above, Disney really goes above and beyond in accommodating vegetarians who visit the parks. One of my concerns growing up, and after many of the “incidents” I mentioned in the introduction, is that I stayed very much in a narrow comfort zone of items involving combinations of bread and cheese (side note, who doesn’t love some bread and cheese though). For me, a cruise was actually the experience that broke me out of that and exposed me to a whole range of cuisines. What made the difference is I knew what I was eating would be “safe” because of the level of information, service and care given by the wait staff.

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Disney does that as well. If you, or someone you know, is a little bit of a skittish vegetarian, a trip to Disney World can really open you up to a new world of culinary options. Just get out there and give it a shot.

Jun 012016
 

By Ann Dunnington

 

School’s out for summer! For many families, this means it’s time to head down to the Walt Disney World resort. Before you pack your bags and head to Florida, here are some tips to make the most of your summer vacation!

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1- Utilize Fastpass+

It’s no secret that summer is a very busy time at the Walt Disney World Resort. But that doesn’t mean you’ll have to wait in long lines if you plan your FastPass + reservations wisely! You can reserve 3 FastPasses at a time 60 days in advance (if staying onsite, or 30 days in advance if staying off-site), and when those have been used each day, you can use your phone while in the park to reserve one additional FastPass at a time! Be sure to download the My Disney Experience app before you leave home!

 

2- Consider the Mid-Day Break

In the summer, we always like to head back to the hotel room around noon for lunch and a break to cool off. Whether it’s a swim, a trip to the laundry room, a nap, or a shower, it’s just nice to get out of the heat for a while. Then, after we have freshened up a bit, we head back out for a sit down dinner at the park of our choice and end the day riding our favorite rides when it’s a bit less humid and the crowds have thinned out a bit.

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3- Take Advantage of Extra Magic Hours

Extra Magic Hours (available to onsite guests) can be a real lifesaver in terms of touring the parks out of the heat of the day (and those pesky 4pm rain showers). If utilizing the Evening Extra Magic Hours, consider not even arriving to the park after your mid-day break until 30-60 minutes past the start time! As crazy as it may seem arriving at the Magic Kingdom at 10pm, you really can get a TON of park touring done in a short amount of time. And there’s really nothing like touring the parks at night. There’s something so magical about it!

 

4- Stay Cool

It probably goes without saying that water is the most important thing you can drink when touring the parks. But, did you know that you can get a FREE ice water from any of the counter service restaurants that offer fountain drinks? Take advantage of this! Also, be sure to bring along a wide brim hat, sunglasses, sunscreen (don’t forget to reapply), and moisture-wicking clothing. We have used cooling towels in the past, but found that they got a bit cumbersome. Now, we grab a washcloth for each person from the hotel room and put it in a zip top bag with some ice, and use that to cool down with! A swipe across the wrists, inside of the elbows, back of the neck, and back of the knees really feels amazing. We also like to bring along an umbrella- not only is it good to keep the rain off, but it’s a great tool to keep the sun off as well (especially when waiting for a parade to start, or if you’re grabbing a quick snack mid-day!)

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5- Air Conditioning

Did you know that the gift shops along Main Street in the Magic Kingdom and heading toward the Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios connect? Walk through them to stay out of the heat! Walking past a gift shop on the way to your next ride? They almost always have multiple exits, so walk through them to get a blast of cool air on the way to your next attraction! Also, attractions like The Hall of Presidents, Carousel of Progress, Spaceship Earth, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, Turtle Talk with Crush, Finding Nemo the Musical, and The Great Movie Ride are wonderful attractions to do mid-day, because they get you out of the sun for an extended period of time!

 

So what are your tips for surviving summer at Walt Disney World? Be sure to share them with us on our Facebook page! Happy travels!

May 182016
 

SafariPinnable

Kilimanjaro Safaris is one of the most popular rides at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but if you haven’t yet tried this attraction, here’s some information about why you shouldn’t miss it the next time you visit Walt Disney World.

Walt Disney was always interested in wildlife, and while he was still alive, wanted to create an attraction where guests could ride through the habitats of different animals. In fact, the original Jungle Cruise attraction was meant to be filled with real animals rather than the animatronics which eventually made their way into the scenes. However, at that time, there was no way the imagineers could find a way to safely create such a scenario.

Ultimately, the idea came to life when Kilimanjaro Safaris was built for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The ride takes guests on an eighteen to twenty minute jungle trek through a 110 acre wildlife preserve, which is filled with more than 30 species of African animals. In fact, the space consumed by Kilimanjaro Safaris is so large that the entire Magic Kingdom could fit within this one attraction. This space not only allows the animals to have a large habitat to roam within, it also creates a fully immersive experience for guests to feel as though they have been transported to Africa itself.

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Guests are loaded into a large open air safari truck with many rows of seats. Above each row of seating is a chart of animals that you may see along the way along with the name of each animal. Children may enjoy matching up the animals they see with their proper names. The driver of each vehicle provides guests with a running commentary as to what animals are visible throughout the attraction and where you can get the best view of them.

One of the best parts about Kilimanjaro Safaris is that you never have the same ride experience twice. Depending on the time of day, weather conditions and temperament of the animals, you may see different animals each time, or the same animals may be doing different activities or hanging out in different locations. I highly recommend riding this attraction in the beginning of the day, especially in the summer months, because some of the animals tend to get lazy once the Florida heat is in full force.

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There is no way I could mention all of the animals within this attraction, but some of the favorites include hippopotamus, rhinoceros, giraffe, okapi, alligators, lions, and ostrich. All of the animals are kept apart from potential predators/harm through invisible barriers, so the guests do not see things like gates or cages. It is an amazing feeling to seem so close to a lion, though in reality, the lion’s perch is surrounded by a large unseen mote.

Some animals, like the cheetahs, can be difficult to spot, but others are hard to miss. For instance, the flamingos roam in full visibility on their own island. They have their own surprise though- the flamingos island is shaped like a giant hidden mickey. Towards the end of the attraction, guests have the opportunity to see the elephant families, usually with a baby elephant or two in tow. This is always my favorite part to see. However, younger animals can be found in many areas of this attraction, and your driver/guide will usually point them out. Whether you want to spend the ride taking photos or just enjoying the scenery, you will not want to miss this unique ride experience.

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One of the nicest things about this attraction is that it’s safe for all ages to ride together. So it fits the quintessential Walt Disney principle that families should be able to enjoy things all together. The ride is wheelchair accessible as well. Kilimanjaro Safaris normally runs from park opening to sunset each day, though Disney World recently announced that evening safaris will begin soon. This new version of this attraction puts the savanna into an eternal sunset and Guests will be able to see animals unique to this safari. I look forward to the opportunity to see this attraction in a whole new light.

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What is your favorite part of Kilimanjaro Safaris?

May 042016
 

By: Jennifer Retzlaff

 

As school starts to wrap up and summer begins to approach, many of us are getting closer to our Walt Disney World Vacations.  It is an exciting time and there is so much to plan and look forward to, but sometimes we forget the different ways we can get our children (both old and young) ready for their Walt Disney Vacation.  It doesn’t matter if it is their first magical trip or 100th, there are different steps you can take to help them be more prepared when they arrive in Walt Disney World.

  1. Get ‘em walking

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My first and maybe most important step is to get them walking.  If you have kids that will not be riding in a stroller, it is important to get them out and walking.  Each park is huge you are guaranteed to walk more that than each day.  Start by taking small walks and then build their stamina.  This will help kids and adults of all ages get those legs ready and shoes ready for all the walking they will be doing.

  1.  Maps

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Another great way to get the kids ready for vacation is by studying the maps from the four Disney parks.  Our kids love to dive into these maps and find all the different rides, restaurants, and bathrooms.  You name it they like to find it on the maps.  We also use the maps to help them get familiar with where things are located at through not just Disney in general but within the parks themselves as well.  We like them to understand the different lands in Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, how Epcot is divided between Future World and World Showcase and how Hollywood Studios has specific streets.  This helps them start to understand the layout of the different parks before we are there, which we find extremely helpful once we are actually in the parks having fun.

  1. Crafts

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A fun way to get kids involved in by DIY crafts at home.  These can be creating things for the trip such as countdowns, mousekeeping envelopes, autographs books, and journals.  You can find so many creative and fun ideas that can keep your kids busy and engaged for hours.  Crafts can also be just easy Disney themed color pages, dot to dots or even word finds that bring in the Disney magic while keeping them busy at the same time.

  1.  Get Online

Preparing Kids online

The internet is a great source to help you get your kids ready for their Disney trip.  Our daughter discovered that google earth is a fun and interactive way to “travel” through Disney.  She likes walking through the streets and traveling between the parks like we were actually there.  We also use ride videos to help them better understand the rides and shows themselves.  Helping them know what to expect, in our opinion, helps them be less scared of rides such as Tower of Terror or Haunted Mansion.  Those rides that have a little more intense feel to them.  Although we don’t want to give away the magic of all the rides, we do spend some time looking at those specific rides to help prepare them.  There are also so many wonderful sites that have amazing information for adults and kids alike that we will get online and look at pictures of all things Disney to get in the mood.  From pictures of food at the restaurants we are eating at to the rides and resort, pictures are a fun way to start to imagine ourselves there.  We want to oversee what they are looking up so we always do this process together, but we have found it a fun experience.

  1.  Books

Although the internet is awesome and has an enormous amount of information, we also like to have good old books around for them to look through.  We like to give them time to flip through the pages, look at the pictures, read what other kids say and just take it all in.  We also pull down our scrapbooks of our previous trips to help bring back those memories.  Again this is a fun way to talk about the trip and start imagining ourselves there already.

  1.  Trivia

As I mentioned before, we like to go on walks with the kids to get those little legs ready for all the Disney miles they will be putting on.  To make this process more fun and interactive you could say we do Disney trivia.  Our game normally has someone thinking of a Disney character or ride and then giving the rest of us clues until we guess.  Somewhat like 20 questions in reverse.  We use it as a way to make the walk go faster, but also so the kids again start to process where different rides, shows, food and characters might be.  We are hoping knowing this information will help prevent meltdowns (well limit meltdowns) about wanting to do or see something that isn’t in the park we are currently in.  Trivia can be used in the car, waiting to check out at stores and really anywhere you want to add some Disney magic to their day.

  1.  Explain what to expect

The last thing we do is start to discuss what to expect while in Walt Disney World.  We start with the basics of how we are going to get there (airplane then a bus) and then start to get into more details about where we are going to be each day and which rides we know we are going to ride (FastPass+) and what restaurants we will be eating in that day if any.  Again slowly going over this information helps them start to understand what to expect each day.  The other important conversations we start to have are expectations around things like naps, bathroom breaks, souvenirs and snacks.  It seems so silly to talk about things like, “when we ask you to try to use the bathroom, you need to try no matter what”, but these conversations now will hopefully save us from some middle of the line meltdowns.  You know your kids; whatever topics you think might help them be less overwhelmed while at Disney I would suggest having those ahead of time.

From DIY projects and videos to trivia and bathroom talks, these are all ways that we start getting our kids ready for our Walt Disney Vacation ahead of time.  I hope that you can find some that will help you as you prepare for your magical adventure.  Happy planning!