Thursday, December 22, 2011

(Happy Holidays!)

Wishing a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of my favorite Disney fanatics out there! May you enjoy your families and get everything that you wished for this year...including a chance to see that gorgeous castle all lit up in lights! Here's hoping that we make it there soon!

Happy Holidays,

Sunday, December 18, 2011

(Extracurricular Activities: Water Park Fun & More)

B & MOM, May 2007.
When planning your Disney vacation, you have the glorious opportunity to add the Water Park Fun & More option to your base park ticket. I suggest you take that opportunity. For ages 10+, a 7-day Park Hopper ticket will run you $322 (current Dec 2011 prices). With the aforementioned option, the price increases to $377. That's merely a $55 difference that you have to pay to experience a whole other world of Disney. 

The Water Park Fun & More ticket option allows to to experience two water parks, DisneyQuest and admission to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. It also used to include admission to Pleasure Island (le sigh). That's a whole lot of extra for 55 bucks. If you're planning on staying 7 nights in Disney (or 8 or 10, which is always recommended), it's suitable to say that time will allow you to explore a bit outside of the 4 main theme parks. My suggestion, coming from someone who isn't super crazy about water parks, is to start with DisneyQuest.

With friends, March 2006.
DisneyQuest, billed as an indoor, interactive theme park, is fantastically fun for all ages. We have always enjoyed going at night to coincide with a trip to Pleasure Island, but DisneyQuest opens at 11:30am daily. The fun starts right when you enter - this is probably one of the coolest elevator rides I have ever taken (not counting the Tower of Terror, obviously). No spoilers here - I trust that you will take the opportunity to try it for yourself! 

DisneyQuest's Virtual Jungle Cruise
The most popular attractions here are without a doubt CyberSpace Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean - Battle for Buccaneer Gold. I will never try CyberSpace Mountain simply because my body just can't take an overload of motion simulators, but the line is always pretty long for this one. Guests get to build their own rollercoaster (make it as scary as you want - they insist!) and then proceed to "ride" their design. I have heard pretty good things about it, but like I way will I ever do this. Pirates of the Caribbean is a different story - this attraction is phenomenal! In a photo above, J and I are wearing some crazy looking goggles - be prepared to do the same when you participate in Pirates. Your team must decide who does what - someone steers the ship, another mans the cannon, and yet another must ward off evil pirates! What I love about DisneyQuest is that this really is a place for families to play together. Working as a team is a big theme here and I really appreciate the underlying values that DisneyQuest promotes (whether intentionally or not). 

Wonderland Cafe, 2007.

Be sure not to miss my two favorite DisneyQuest attractions; Virtual Jungle Cruise and Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters. Remember, if lines appear long, they move just as fast. I've never really had an issue with queue times. If you're looking for something a bit more low-key, DisneyQuest has an entire floor dedicated to some good old-fashioned Arcade Games, including my personal favorite, AIR HOCKEY! If you've played yourself silly until the point of starvation, fear not - Wonderland Cafe and Food Quest are two fantastic dining options that DisneyQuest has for you. OK, enough with the information overload. I could really go on about this place for a very long time. JUST GO! For more information on DisneyQuest and to add the option to your park ticket, visit here.

Blizzard Beach
The next stop on your glorious adventure beyond the Disney theme parks is a just-as-fabulous water park. You have two options: Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon - or both. When I was 7, on my very first trip to Disney World, I was bowled over by a giant wave at Typhoon Lagoon. I required a trip to the park's first aid center, and while I may have been a very dramatic seven-year-old, the park has since been ruined forever. So...that leaves Blizzard Beach for me! How could you not love this place - snow in Florida? In the summer?! Fantastic. The legend of Blizzard Beach is as follows:

      "It was a meteorological phenomenon of the strangest order. One balmy day, a freak winter storm developed 
       over the western end of Walt Disney World Resort and covered the area with a thick blanket of powdery 
       white snow. Before you could say "hot cocoa," plans were underway for Florida's first ski resort.

      Ski lifts were put up, toboggan runs were laid down and an entire resort area blossomed around the mountain 
      of snow. Yet before the first skier could strap on a pair of boots and stick his poles into the snow, the 
     temperatures returned to their normal Florida levels, and the powdery snow quickly turned into slippery 
     slush. The ski resort operators saw their dream melting down the hillside. Yet that's not all they saw.

     As the slush began cascading down and pools of water began to form, an echoing "yahoo" was heard from 
     the summit of the mountain. Everyone looked up to see a playful alligator careening down the melting hillside.
     He slid to the base of the mountain and landed in a pool of water with a thunderous splash. They knew at 
     once that they were back in business.

     Slalom courses, bobsled and toboggan runs became downhill waterslides. The creek of melted snow that 
     formed at the base of the mountain became a relaxing tube ride. The chairlift carried swimmers instead of 
     skiers. The ski jump became the tallest and fastest water slide in the world. The ski resort became known as 
     Disney's Blizzard Beach, the most slushy, slippery, exhilarating water park anywhere!" (All Ears)

And what a delight it is. As water parks go, Blizzard Beach is the cream of the crop. With attractions like Summit Plummet (a living nightmare of a waterslide), Downhill Double Dipper and my personal favorite, Teamboat Springs, you have a whole day's worth of fun. I mean, how many other water parks have chair lifts? There is also a good variety of food options here - nachos (what else?) at the Cooling Hut, a Blizzard Dog at Avalunch, a Grand Margarita from Polar Pub and some mini donuts from a place called..Mini Donuts, the possibilities are endless. All you need is your bathing suit, some sunblock and a waterproof camera for those memories, and you've got yourself a great family day and some fun in the sun.

J says" Spend a day at Blizzard Beach!"
Adult admission for a day at DisneyQuest is $43.67. A day at Blizzard Beach will cost you $52.19. So, you do the math...the solution is clear that it's worth your money to add the Water Park Fun & More option to your ticket. Even if you don't use all of the options, or you don't spend the entire day at one of the water parks, it just makes good sense. Some people don't realize that Disney has so much more to offer than just the four main theme parks. There are even some people who think that the Magic Kingdom IS Disney World. Yikes. We know better than that, don't we? :)

What is your favorite extracurricular activity at Walt Disney World? Your favorite DisneyQuest attraction? Send me your comments!

Happy Exploring!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

(Oh, Mexico)

I have an appreciation for all pavilions in Epcot's World Showcase, but perhaps my favorite among them is Mexico. It's your first stop as you enter the World Showcase from Future World (if you take a left). You can't miss the Aztec pyramid that towers over you, based on a real structure located in Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Upon entering, you are immediately greeted by "Animales Fantasticos," a tremendous display of Mexican artwork and wood-carved animals. Notice the cast members are painting the animals while you can watch, or choose to purchase one of the trinkets and bring it home for display.

Before heading down the steps to peruse the marketplace in La Plaza de los Amigos, be sure to stop and enjoy the view. It's my favorite element to this pavilion - the atmosphere is romantic as it was designed to resemble twilight, and I just adore the dimly lit lanterns hanging overhead.

The marketplace itself is really a treat. I have purchased a number of things here, including an awesome hand-knit blanket and a poncho for one of those chillier-than-expected nights in late February that I was not appropriately dressed for. You can also find everything from pottery, toys, handbags, jewelry and of course tequila! No visit to "Mexico" is complete without an oversized sombrero photo!

There are a few good options for dining in the Mexico pavilion. To your right, there is La Cava del Tequila. Here you can enjoy a various selection of tapas, as well as an unreal variety of tequila (over 70 different kinds!) We gave it a try last year and absolutely loved it. Winner of best restaurant atmosphere definitely goes to San Angel Inn, which seats diners along the River of Time (el Rio del Tiempo). The sister restaurant to the original in Mexico City, the San Angel Inn offers a variety of authentic Mexican dishes for both lunch and dinner. I have dined here on two occasions, but it has been years. I don't recall the food being anything particularly special, but in my opinion the atmosphere well outweighs the cuisine. The margaritas are tasty, and this a great place to go for a romantic meal - if you're lucky, you'll be treated to a fantastic performance by Mariachi Cobre. Recently opened in the fall of 2010 is La Hacienda de San Angel, an outdoor full-service restaurant along the water. This is definitely now on my to-do list.

Mexico is one of the few pavilions to have an actual ride; the Gran Fiesta Tour stars the Three Caballeros, and it's not to be missed. Will it win any awards, or knock your socks off? Probably not. But it's a cute journey with a fun premise. The Three Caballeros are expected to host a concert, only to find that Donald has run off exploring. The scenes are colorful and fun, and the best part is of course riding past the Mayan Pyramid where you can look to your right and witness diners at San Angel Inn.

When leaving the pavilion, refrain from going out the front door and instead, exit to the left. You will be treated to a gorgeous mural on the side of the pyramid - great photo opportunity!

If you're lucky, you may just run into a celebrity or two!

What is your favorite part of Mexico? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the restaurant options!

Feliz Explorar!

Monday, December 12, 2011

(My Best Shot: Wishes! & Cinderella Castle)

I love love travel. I would say that it's my favorite thing, but I can't travel anywhere without my camera. So maybe photography is my favorite thing. Either way, travel and photography go hand in hand for me, and one is not complete without the other. Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom is one of the most photographed structures in the world. I'm (clearly) no pro when it comes to photography, but I give it my best shot, and am always learning something new. It has long been a personal goal to get the perfect picture of Cinderella Castle, particularly during the fireworks show, Wishes! The problem is, I don't really have the patience to carry around the required equipment to actually do so. I always feel for those people in the Disney parks carrying around their giant backpacks and tripods, although I know they're getting amazing pictures so I sort of envy them, too. The thing is, it's easy to get really frustrated when snapping away during the fireworks show. On most occasions I spend more time fidgeting with my camera than I do enjoying the show. But every once in a while, I find a hidden gem among the hundreds of blurry shots. It's not perfect or professional by any means, but still, I find something special. Take a look at below at my attempts over the last few years.

2005. Pretty blurry, but look at the colors!

2006. I love the castle draped in shadows paired with the brightness of the fireworks. 

2007. Another where the castle is shrouded in darkness, but look at the sky! 

2009. A bit blurry, but  take a look at the couple bottom center. How sweet!

2010 from Narcoosee's. Blurry, and this is where a better zoom lens would come in handy. 

My 2010 photo isn't anything special, but I thought it was cool to have the show from a different location. This was the first year that I visited Disney World without a point and shoot (I had finally upgraded to a DSLR). For some reason we didn't make it to the park in time to see Wishes! up close, so next year I'll really test it out and hope for some good results.

During PM Extra Magic Hours, 2010.

So, personal goal still not attained, but I'll keep on trying (which means I'll just have to keep going back to Disney, bummer!) Perhaps someday I will acquire the appropriate equipment (and talent) to really get that perfect one. Until then, I'll just give it my best shot and hope for something special!

Send me your castle photos!

Happy Snapping!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

(Pit Stop: Mizner's Lounge)

MOM & Me at Mizner's, 2010.
While I often daydream about the day when I can afford a week-long stay at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort, for now I must settle for a pit-stop at one of their acclaimed restaurants. Mizner's Lounge is the perfect place to go and grab a drink, either before dinner at Narcoosee's (as we were in the photo above) or on your way to the Magic Kingdom for Wishes!

The view from a window at Mizner's.

Mizner's Lounge is located on the second floor of the Grand Floridian Resort with a fantastic view of the Polynesian Resort across the water. The decor is upscale, and I would feel uncomfortable having a drink here in standard park clothes (ie shorts and flip flops). I'm not sure that there is a dress code, but why not make it a grand night and dress up a bit?

My first experience with the establishment was when J and I made a pit-stop here on our way to the Magic Kingdom, after a memorable evening at T-Rex in Downtown Disney. I ordered a specialty martini made with blackberries, and boy was it strong. The benefit to this is that you can sip it slow and really savor it, as drinks here are not inexpensive (a martini will run you roughly $10+). Mizner's Lounge offers a full bar and does have a specialty drink menu, as well as light bar snacks on certain nights.

Mizner's Lounge is located behind the band stand.
The element that makes this bar a real gem for me is the band that plays right outside. If you time your visit just right, you can sip your Cosmo to the swingin' sounds of the Grand Floridian's Big Band. The Grand Floridian Society Orchestra specializes in Ragtime and Traditional Jazz, and occasionally will play selections from our favorite Disney films. This is a treat for the ears and I really recommend that you try to catch them during your visit to the resort.

So, gather your friends and family, dress up in your finest Walt Disney World attire, and stop in for a martini at Mizner's Lounge. The atmosphere is basic and without frill, but I think you'll really enjoy the quiet, relaxing atmosphere and break from the hectic crowds. Take in the soothing sounds of the amazing jazz band and share in a toast with the ones you love! A visit to Mizner's Lounge is really what you make of it - why not make it a memorable one?

Happy Relaxing!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

(Hidden Gem: Club Cool)

Club Cool, sponsored by Coca Cola, is one of those places in Epcot that most visitors to Walt Disney World miss on their rush to Test Track or Soarin'. It's easy to miss if you're in a hurry, located in Future World near Fountainview Cafe. Before it became a showcase for Coca Cola and its products, Club Cool was once Ice Station Cool. Guests would enter in through an Igloo, upon which the icy air would immediately hit you. Ice Station cool had a much more cave-like atmosphere, as opposed to the renovated Club Cool, which resembles more of a retail store. Still, the opportunity to try Coca Cola products from around the world is both interesting and fun.

My experience with Club Cool is that it's rarely crowded. If there happens to be a hefty amount of visitors inside, don't sweat it - there are a number of stations (all offering the same options), and you're bound to have your turn sampling the different types of soda. Offerings include Smart Watermelon from China, Kinley Lemon from Israel, Thailand's Lychee Mello, Vegitabeta from Japan, Fanta Kolita of Costa Rica, Germany's Mezzo Mix, Krest Ginger Ale from Mozambique, and the infamous Beverly from Italy. My favorites are the Smart Watermelon (very refreshing) and Lychee Mello (sweet). For those who enjoy a good old fashioned harmless prank, be sure to have your unsuspecting guests take a big gulp of Beverly. In Italy, Beverly is typically served as an appetite stimulant - the flavor is very bitter. One visit to Club Cool is worth your time for the photos alone - have your cameras ready!

Beverly, 2005 (as Ice Station Cool)

The wrath of Beverly, 2009.

MOM meets Beverly, 2010.

How fun does that look? Those faces are priceless. So, if you're looking to have a little fun with your guests and desperately need to get out of the Florida heat, pop in to Club Cool. This is also a great place to grab a frozen Coca Cola in a souvenir cup. The fun is free and rarely has a line. If anything, it's a nice little dose of culture. Enjoy!

Which flavor is your favorite? If you have any Beverly photos, I'd love to see them!

Happy Tasting!

Monday, December 5, 2011

(The Cover Girls Are Back)

The Disney princesses are at it again and this time they're covering a range of popular magazines, from Cosmo to Vogue. While I don't find the cover shots quite as creative as ones past, what I really like about these particular ones are the details on the cover. Check out the story titles on the cover as well as the lead stories (Rajah gave me rabies?!) One thing is for sure - I don't believe there's any way that a copy of Vogue costs only $3! I also love the fact that my girl Tiana was included :) Enjoy!

Happy Reading!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

(We Will No Longer Be Needing a Bigger Boat)

Friends, some very sad news today. As you know, I am just as much a fan of that other Orlando theme park as I am of Walt Disney World. And today, that park sent me some very unwelcome news. Take a look:

This saddens me deeply! My uncle had worked on this ride, and as a small kid I remember watching the demo tapes so many times, I had learned the whole script! I will miss the mechanical Great White (and the crispy version too), never knowing which seat gets the least wet, and the feeling of fire that seems so close it could singe your eyebrows! This is a classic that won't be forgotten - I wonder what is going to take its place? I can only hope it will live up to that trip through Amity.

Happy (sad!) Memories,

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

(Guess Who's Coming On Board?!)

wanted to share some amazing news with you today! As if we weren't excited enough for the new Disney Fantasy ship to make its debut, now we are doubly excited! It was announced on the Disney Parks Blog that the Muppets will be hosting an interactive adventure onboard the ship. Hosted by J's favorite prawn Pepe, guests are charged with finding the stolen props for the big show! The name of the game is "The Case of the Stolen Show," and makes use of the interactive art aboard the ship (that you may be familiar with from the Disney Dream). Muppet fever is in the air - sign me up!

Happy Cruising!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

(It's Time to Meet the Muppets)

I love Jason Segel. He's hilarious both in writing and acting, stars in my current favorite television show, and clearly knows a thing or two about puppets. But what is the funnyman, who doesn't shy away from full-frontal nudity, doing with the family-friendly muppets? The answer: giving our friends a glorious comeback that has been long overdue.

I had been silently counting down the days until the Muppet movie release ever since I heard that it was in the works. I wasn't sure what to expect but was willing to bet that Segel's love and respect for the gang would ensure plenty of laughter, great tunes (a la the Dracula musical), and of course plenty of guest stars. I was far from disappointed.

Early on we learn that brothers Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter have a close relationship despite their differences; Segel's Gary is an ever-growing human, while poor Walter (who looks suspiciously muppet-like) remains the same height throughout the opening montage. Walter soon discovers the Muppet Show and falls in love, longing to find his place among the gang. Fast forward to the grown-up years where Gary plans to take his girlfriend of ten years, Mary (played by the very-appropriately cast Amy Adams) to Hollywood for their anniversary. Gary invites Walter to tag along (much to Mary's chagrin), and the trip quickly becomes a quest to visit the old Muppet Studios. When Walter learns that evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to destroy the landmark to drill for oil, he sets out on a quest to stop him. In order to do that, he must get the whole Gang back together to raise $10 million to buy the studios. The problem is, the gang has been split up for years and scattered all over the world. The always-glamorous Miss Piggy is living her dream as the plus-size editor at Vogue Paris, Animal is in an anger management facility with Jack Black, Fozzy is in Reno performing his act with the Moopets, and Gonzo is running Gonzo's Royal Flush, a highly successful plumbing company. I won't give away any spoilers, but I will say that the plot unfolds beautifully and viewers will not be able to get enough of the Muppet antics right up until the end. 

The movie is filled with great music and hilarious moments - one song in particular, called Man or Muppet is the standout favorite for me. Featuring great lyrics and hilarious surprises (like a cameo from Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons), this is really the turning point when Gary and Walter must decide what is really important to them in life. I guarantee you'll laugh through this one. Another standout is a beautiful rendition of an old classic, The Rainbow Connection

It is my understanding that there was a bit of controversy surrounding the return of the Muppets. There were those who believed that their resurrection would prove fruitless - like original Muppet heavyweight Frank Oz who passed on the opportunity to be a part of the project, claiming that he didn't believe the characters would be respected. The resulting film couldn't be further from that description. If anything is evident from this movie, it's the blatant love and respect that Segel has for these characters. He handles them with charm and grace, and brings us a new story that I hope all generations can enjoy. If you love the Muppets, there is no doubt that you will love this. Do yourself a favor this holiday season and take your whole family to experience The Muppets!

Happy Viewing!