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!

Jan 272016
 

By Teresa Pittman

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I strolled through the airport, dragging my Minnie Mouse suitcase behind me. A young couple smiled at me, and the wife said “Are you just back from Disney World?”

“Actually,” I replied, “I’m just back from a Disney cruise.”

“Oh,” she said. “We love going to WDW, but we figured the cruises were just for families with kids. Is there anything to do for adults?”

She may have regretted asking me that question, as I spent the next 15 minutes or so listing all the activities the Disney Fantasy offered for adults, but they seemed both interested and surprised. I’ve heard similar comments from other people I’ve met, too. Disney’s TV commercials have tended to focus on families, so they may have perpetuated that myth. But I’m here to tell you: a Disney cruise is a whole lot of fun for adults traveling without kids, too.

Like me. I’m single and a grandmother. I’ve cruised with my family in the past, but my last two cruises – one on the Dream and one on the Fantasy – were “girlfriend getaways” with friends.

So what can adults do on a Disney cruise?

  • You can relax. Really relax. Are you worried that your attempts to sunbathe or read a novel will be ruined by hordes of screaming children running past? Stop worrying. Just head to the adults-only decks and stretch out on a handy deck-chair. Every now and then a smiling CM will show up to ask if you want a drink. No kids in sight.
  • You can relax even more. If your past few weeks of work have left you exceptionally stressed, or you just want some pampering, a visit to the ship’s spa may be in order. Watch the Navigator for special offers – I had a great “anti-sunburn” treatment the day after spending too much time on the beach at Castaway Cay. And be sure to check out the Rainforest Room.
  • You can be entertained. You’ve heard that Disney Cruises offer Broadway-quality shows, and that’s true. Trust me, adults enjoy these as much as the kids do. There are also family comedy and magic shows throughout the day. In the evenings, though, many of those entertainers return to the stage with adult-only versions of their shows. It’s Disney, so we’re not talking X-rated by any means, but the humour is a bit more geared to an adult audience.
  • You can exercise your competitive side. Think you know everything about Disney? Or do you shine at general trivia games? You’ll have your chance at fun trivia competitions held throughout the cruise – and you could even win a nice prize or two. Or challenge your friends and family to a mini-golf game up on the top deck.

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  • You can learn something new. Take a tour or try a class. I learned to draw some Disney characters while discovering a bit about the history of animation. I also tried my hand at folding towel animals – let’s just say that wasn’t my best work. The mixology class gave me and my friends a chance to make and taste five different drinks while being entertained by a very skilled bartender.
  • You can shop. Until you drop, if that’s what you like. The shops on board have a nice selection of items, including clothing and accessories, and every port will have some attractive shopping options.
  • You can explore new places. One of the reasons cruises are so popular is that you get a chance to check out several ports, without unpacking, going through airport security or any of the other hassle travelers can face. You can book excursions ahead of time – Disney lists some, or you can go online to find others – depending on your interests. Or you can just wander around the port, do a little shopping or have a meal or a drink.
  • You can eat without kids. Each of the Disney cruise ships offers at least one adults-only premium restaurant, where you pay a little extra for a fancier meal and a kids-free experience. Even if you don’t choose that option, though, taking the second seating for dinner will usually work. Most of the kids who are present will leave as soon as they finish eating – whisked away by the kid’s club staff – and you can linger over dessert and drinks.
  • You can party! The nightclub section of the ship is as lively and fun as you could want. Wander from one themed area to another, or find your favorite and hang out there. You’re sure to find a place that plays the music you like. And at the end of the night, no worries about finding a cab to get home. The Pirate Party that ends with fireworks will have plenty of kids joining you, but the adults seem pretty good at getting into the pirate spirit.
  • You can be alone. Not the partying type? Hang out on your balcony with a room-service snack and drink, watching the waves. Cuddle up with your partner and watch a movie on your cabin TV. Pick a secluded corner on the adults-only deck and dream for an hour or two.

I’ve really barely scratched the surface here. Disney cruises are naturally fun for families, but they have just as much to offer for adults traveling without little ones. Of course, there’s one more bonus about a Disney cruise – if you want to, you can become a kid again! Get your photo with Mickey, scream as you zoom along the Aquaduck, solve the clues in the moving pictures and dance with the pirates on the pool deck. And maybe that’s the best way of all to relax.

Oct 012014
 

By Teresa Pittman

Ft Wilderness Review

We’re having breakfast on the deck at the side of our cabin, enjoying a cool breeze on what’s promising to be another warm day. Five-year-old Callista notices a couple of bunnies hopping through the long grass and we remember how exciting it was last night when we saw a herd of deer on the edge of the woods. Sebastian and Xavier grab a soccer ball and start an impromptu game in the yard as we clear away the dishes. Tonight, perhaps, we’ll use the barbecue on the deck to cook dinner.

Yup, just another relaxing day at Walt Disney World.

Wait – Disney World? I know, it doesn’t sound much like the traditional morning routine at a Disney resort – but this is a real morning at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, the WDW campground that’s just a short boat ride away from Magic Kingdom. My family’s stayed there several times, and there’s lots to love about this unique place.

The Fort (as guests often refer to it) opened on November 19th, 1971, making it one of earliest resorts available for guests, and it covers some 750 acres. There are 788 campsites – some for tents, some for small RVs, and some for those extra-large RVs. All come with water, electricity and charcoal grills and some have hook-ups for sanitary waste disposal. The comfort stations (with toilets and showers) set up around the campgrounds have air conditioning and are well-maintained. You can have up to 10 people on a campsite.

For those of us who don’t have an RV but want more comfort than a tent, there are 409 cabins. Each sleeps six – the single bedroom has a double bed and a set of bunkbeds, plus a Murphy bed in the living room that pulls down from the wall. You get one bathroom, a full kitchen, a living/dining room and a deck with a charcoal grill and picnic table.

Here’s what we love about it:

  1. After the hustle and bustle of the parks, the Fort is remarkably peaceful. No bouncy music, just the sound of the wind in the trees and birds calling. Ah, relaxation. You can walk on the trails in the woods and keep an eye out for rabbits, armadillos and even deer. You can walk or play on the beach (although swimming is not recommended, it’s set up for tetherball, beach volleyball, etc.), or rent a boat or a bicycle and explore a bit further.
  2. There are unique activities at the Fort not offered anywhere else. You can visit the animals at the Tri-Circle D Ranch and give younger a children a pony ride, or sign up for a slow-moving trail ride on one of the larger horses (at the main entrance). Or you can do a Segway tour through the woods that takes you over towards Wilderness Lodge and back. Or you can take a wagon ride through the woods and down to the beach to watch the fireworks. Every evening, you can roast marshmallows over the bonfire while taking part in a sing-along and visiting with Chip and Dale; afterwards you can watch a Disney movie outdoors.disney trip December 2008 073disney trip December 2008 069
  3. The Fort guests are unique. You know how every resort has its own personality? So does Fort Wilderness, and it’s a relaxed, fun, sometimes a bit goofy personality! Come by during any major holiday and you’ll see sites that are elaborately decorated to fit the occasion – some truly over-the-top. Many guests come back every year and stay for weeks or months; they’re always happy to make new friends and introduce you to the fun parts of Fort Wilderness.
  4. The meals and entertainment. You probably know this is the home of the Hoop-de-Doo Review, but did you know about Mickey’s Backyard Barbecue? This is one of our favorites – it’s a casual buffet (beer and wine included!) in a covered outdoor setting with country music, cowboy rope tricks, and a chance to dance with Mickey and his friends. Seems to fit the Fort’s laid-back vibe perfectly. Trail’s End Buffet, the restaurant near the boat docks, is also one of the best deals on site for an all-you-can-eat buffet.disney trip December 2008 084 disney trip December 2008 052
  5. Golf carts! I don’t know why, but I love driving around in a golf cart. Renting one is not cheap (many RV owners bring their own) but it definitely makes it more fun to get to the pools, the stores, etc. If it’s not in your budget, don’t worry – the internal bus transportation system will get you everywhere you need to go.
  6. Boat ride to and from the Magic Kingdom. You have to admit, boats are just more fun than buses. (There are buses to the other parks, of course.)

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If you feel like your vacation needs a little nature to balance out the park activities, if you want a bit more space for your family to spread out or you’d like to cook more of your meals, or if you have an RV or tent you’re dying to use, Fort Wilderness might be a perfect choice for you.

Even if you’re staying elsewhere, the activities at the Fort are available to all. Come on by, we’ll throw another veggie burger on the grill for you.

Sep 172014
 

 

Eating Vegan at Epcot

 

 

By Teresa Pittman

“You do know this is a steakhouse, right?” The chef who had been brought to our table at Le Cellier was apparently not impressed to hear that we were vegan.

Yes, we knew. But we also knew we were in Walt Disney World, where vegans can usually count on finding food they can eat – even at Le Cellier. Sure enough, our teasing but good-natured chef prepared us seasoned tofu strips with perfectly-spiced vegetables and brought out a vegan “ice cream” for dessert.

I’ve been vegan for eight years now, and others in my family have been vegan for much longer. (Apparently, I’m a slow learner.) This change in eating has made me love WDW even more, because it’s one of the places where I know I’ll be able to find good food I can actually eat.

A few years ago, I interviewed the man who was at the time the restaurant manager of the Sci-Fi Drive-in. He described to me the extensive training the restaurant staff receive about different “special diets” (including vegan, gluten-free, etc.) as well as about food allergies. No Disney CM is going to suggest that since you are vegan, you might like the lamb dish or the cheese-covered pizza! And the chefs are usually happy to make some changes to give you the vegan meal of your dreams.

Of course, especially during busier times, it helps to know which locations have vegan items on the menu or ones that are easily adapted. Here are a few of my favorites to help you enjoy your Epcot dining experiences:

Snacks:

You may not know that many WDW snacks are vegan. Those lovely warm soft pretzels? Vegan. The somewhat-buttery-tasting popcorn? Vegan. The Kaki Gori ice treat with sweet fruity syrup (from the Japan pavilion)? Yes, vegan. And don’t forget that fruit and vegetables are also available in many counter-service restaurants and snack kiosks.

Craving more fruits and veggies? Since the kids’ meals have carrot sticks, grapes and applesauce as sides for counter-service orders, you can usually have those items added to your meal to replace French fries or another less-desirable accompaniment. They are pre-packaged, so it’s easy to take them along with you for a snack later.

Counter-service favorites:

Vegan at Sunshine Seasons

Sunshine Seasons. While the menu here changes frequently, there is usually a vegan entrée for your enjoyment. On my last trip (February 2014), we enjoyed a stir-fry made with vegetables and vegan “chicken” in a light gingery sauce. Very tasty. Also check the “special diets” snack/dessert section as you may find such treats as vegan caramel corn, vegan cookies or vegan brownies.

Tangierine Café. The vegetable platter here provides generous portions of falafel, couscous, hummus, tabouleh, lentil salad and marinated olives. It’s like a Moroccan feast on one plate for under $11! Be sure to ask about the ingredients, though, as some may contain non-vegan ingredients. Usually we have been able to substitute a larger portion of another item for the one we can’t have. Another good option here – the falafel wrap. Again, check to be sure the falafel are vegan, as this seems to change from time to time.

Table-service favorites:

Here’s the thing. The Epcot restaurants rarely have vegan options on their menus, and the vegetarian ones are often heavy with vegan no-nos like cheese and eggs. Don’t let this worry you! When you make your Advanced Dining Reservation, note that you are vegan. When you arrive at the restaurant, let your server know and ask to see the chef.

This all works better if you are eating at a less-busy time (either because the parks are not crowded anyway or because you have arrived for your meal either earlier or later than most guests), so the chefs have more time to get creative with your meal. I’ve had the best luck by asking the chef to surprise me – I let them know what I like (lots of veggies, lots of spice) and what I don’t really care for (rice and pasta). The results have almost always been amazing.

Rose and Crown: I’ve enjoyed vegan versions of the curry, the shepherd’s pie and the cottage pie as well as original dishes that the chef made up for us! The chefs here are excellent and seem to know their way around vegan cooking. The Apple and Frisee salad is also incredibly refreshing. A lovely way to end the day in Epcot is to enjoy dinner out on the Rose and Crown patio while watching Illuminations.

Tokyo Dining: I tend to avoid ordinary Japanese and Thai restaurants because not only am I vegan, I am severely allergic to shellfish. (I know, it’s a wonder anyone will even go to a restaurant with me.) At Disney, though, I know they will be careful to avoid cross-contamination, and I can enjoy the vegetable tempura and vegetable sushi offered here – a real treat for me!

Marrakesh: There are a couple of vegan salad options and vegetable couscous as an entrée here. In my experience, the food here tends to be only very lightly spiced, to the point of being bland – which is a shame because Moroccan food I’ve eaten at other places has been well-spiced with lots of complex flavor. It does help to tell your server that you’d like the spicier versions.

Via Napoli: Yay, pizza! Just ask for the toppings you want with no cheese. Simple and delicious.

While these are my top faves, don’t assume you won’t be able to get vegan options at other places. You can get a veggie burger at Electric Umbrella, for example, and a vegan “chicken breast” sandwich at Liberty Inn (at the American Adventure pavilion).

 

Vegan at Food and Wine

The Food and Wine Festival: has always been a bit frustrating for me, as few options are vegan. However, the past few years the Terra booth has offered a couple of vegan entrees and a dessert and they have been excellent. (They use the Gardein meat substitutes, if you are familiar with those.) So if you are there during Food and Wine, be sure to drop by the Terra booth and enjoy!

We’ve just scratched the surface! I’ll be back with future articles sharing details on where you can enjoy vegan dishes in the rest of the parks!

 

Jun 012011
 

By: Teresa Pittman

Did I mention that I’m afraid of heights?

The advice about not looking down isn’t working for me, either – I have to look down to see the next gap in the sparse planks of the rope bridge I’m traversing. Some thirty feet below, the crocodiles clustered on the rocks tilt their heads upwards and open their mouths wide, sharp teeth glistening in the bright sunlight.

The guide calmly explains that opening their mouths is how crocs cool themselves in hot weather. I’m not reassured.

Half an hour earlier, I was hanging by my harness over the edge of a river bank, just feet from the gaping mouth of a hippo as our guide tossed chunks of watermelon to him. The two male hippos in this pool, he explained, were a father and son; two unrelated males would probably fight. For the first time, I was close enough to these ungainly but gentle animals to see that they have whiskers on either side of their massive heads. According to our guide, hippos have poor eyesight and do most of their foraging on dry land at night, so the whiskers help them to avoid crashing into trees and rocks.

When I finally reach the other side of the swaying rope bridge, my hands are shaking so much I can’t unhook my harness. The guide does it for me, and helps me to the next section of our tour, where we hang over another cliff to see the crocs close up. Close up, I’m surprised to find that after a few minutes I’m able to recognize individual differences in the faces of each crocodile, and once again our guide explains what they are doing and why.

From here, we walk through the woods to a hilltop where we have a view across the savannah, and there are shrieks of delight from the members of our group as a trio of giraffes begins walking in our direction.

Just when we’ve almost forgotten where we are, a truck full of guests bounces along the roadway below us. Oh, yeah, we’re not in Africa at all. This is Walt Disney World, and we’re on the new Wild Africa Trek, a guided tour which gives participants a new view of the animals in Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park.

After meeting our group near the Tusker House restaurant, we were each weighed and fitted with harnesses before beginning our three-hour trek. The tour can take children as young as nine, and while there is a fair bit of walking it is at an easy pace so the children in my group had no trouble keeping up. We first head behind the gorilla section of the Pagani Forest attraction for a different view of the silverback male and his family; a new baby named Lilly was born to this gorilla family just last year.

Then we continue on into the Kilmanjaro Safaris territory, where we cross two rope bridges and use the harnesses to hang close to the hippos and crocs. There’s no real danger (our guide reassures us that crocs can only jump eight feet, and we’re nine feet up), but it’s considerably closer than most of us would otherwise get to these animals. After our walk through the woods we are picked up by a truck that, unlike the regular Kilmanjaro Safaris vehicles, can go off-road and can stop as often as we like to allow us to view the animals, take photos, use the binoculars provided, and ask questions of our guides.

When this new truck was introduced to the park, our guide tells us, the rhinos were quite perturbed. They are short-sighted but have a great sense of smell, so they noticed that new-vehicle scent and initially tried to attack the trucks by charging at them.  No significant damage was done, but we were relieved that the rhinos have become accustomed to the vehicles and paid little attention as we stopped to snap photos of two of them rolling in a mud hole.

My favourite animals are the elephants, and I was delighted to have a chance to see two of the babies in Disney’s herd playing by the watering hole while we watched from just feet away.  Our guide told us that before Disney developed this environment for their elephants, there had been no live births of baby elephants in North America for more than 20 years. Since the park opened over a decade ago, six baby elephants have been born here and the lessons Disney’s learned about how to keep elephants happy and healthy have been passed on to other zoos.

We finished our journey with lunch on a shaded platform built in the middle of the savannah. In one direction, we could see the elephants, and various antelopes, African cattle and giraffes grazed all around us. Our meals were served in tiffins or camp tins and featured three layers of African-spiced foods.

Relaxing on the platform, watched by a curious “Tommy” (Thomson’s gazelle) and munching on hummus and flatbread, I feel a million miles away from the bustle of the Disney parks. I’ve pushed myself past my fear of heights, and my reward has been a couple of hours of close observation of some fascinating animals. Well worth those shaky moments on the rope bridge, I’d say.

And since the tour price includes a Photopass CD with all the photos taken by our guides during the three hours, I have plenty of reminders of the fun and fear of that day. (You can also add other Photopass shots you have taken in the parks to the CD before finalizing your order, so that’s a nice bonus.)