Wednesday, January 30, 2013

True Love Week February 11-17, 2013 at Walt Disney World Resort

Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — Love is in the air at Walt Disney World Resort as fairytale princesses find true love with their princes, and “happily ever after” becomes reality. It all happens during True Love Week February 11-17, 2013 at Walt Disney World Resort.
The weeklong love fest is all part of Limited Time Magic at Disney Parks, where each week in 2013 guests will be treated to a sprinkling of Disney magic where unexpected surprises and delights enhance vacation memories.
During True Love Week, a tapestry of romance is woven throughout the resort — from limited- time Valentine’s merchandise and special entertainment, to romantic dinners for two and new themed photo locations offering greetings with beloved Disney sweethearts – all for a limited-time only.
The weeklong event celebrates the love of friends and family, and invites couples to rekindle the flame. Here is the lineup:

  • Romantic Setting: Guests will feel the romance at every turn, as banners proclaiming True Love, heart-shaped signage and sweetheart-themed décor adorn the Magic Kingdom.  
  • Blushing Castle: At dusk, hues of pink, red, lavender and blue bathe Cinderella Castle with themed lighting synced to a musical melodies adding to the ambiance.
    • Dinners for Two: Candlelit dinners for two with prix fixe menus at select restaurants  during the most romantic week of the year.  Specially-created menus at Artist Point (Disney’s Wilderness Lodge Resort);  The Wave…of American Flavors (Disney’s Contemporary Resort); Hollywood Brown Derby (Disney’s Hollywood Studios); Yachtsman Steakhouse (Disney’s Yacht Club Resort) make an ideal setting for a romantic evening. To book visit or call 407/WDW-DINE.
    • Valentine’s-themed Takeaways: Limited-edition pins, plushes, newly-designed apparel and Vinylmations available at select merchandise locations.
      • Royal Gathering:  The rare opportunity to get a photo with Disney Princes as they escort their Princesses to enchanting character greeting locations.
      In Town Square Theater you may find Mickey and Minnie, Aurora with Phillip or Rapunzel and Flynn. Mary Poppins joins Bert in Fantasyland, while Prince Naveen and Princess Tiana meet guests in the Enchanted Glade in Liberty Square.
      Romantic Photo Locations in Magic Kingdom with your Sweetie:
      • Carriage Awaits: New Fantasyland invites lovers to create memories alongside Cinderella’s Glass Coach situated by the new Castle wall for True Love Week.
      • Wishes Come True: Hearts and flowers enhance Cinderella’s Wishing Well creating the perfect backdrop for a cherished moment.
      • Rose Walk:  The Rose Garden in Central Plaza is all decked out with enchanting decor.
      And more…
      Romantic Touches: Long stem roses, chocolate covered strawberries, the finest champagne, or scattered rose petals create a romantic scene for lovebirds, all available through the Disney florist at
      Elegant Oasis for Relaxation:  An aromatherapy couples’ massage is just the escape after a day with the kids in the theme park. Couples’ massages are available at the newly opened, full-service Senses, A Disney Spa at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort.
      Perfectly Princess:Join your prince for the ultimate fairytale come true with a customized Disney wedding or honeymoon getaway. More than 1,000 couples get married, or renew their wedding vows in romantic settings in various locations throughout Walt Disney World Resort every year.
      Disneyland Park in California will celebrate True Love week with similar in-park offerings.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Harry Potter's Wizarding World at Universal

The Magical Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando


In June, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in Universal Orlando’s Island of Adventure theme park, and was a smashing success!  I was fortunate enough to see the land soon after it opened, although that also meant that I was also exposed to the massive lines that went along with the hottest opening in Orlando in years.  Even if you aren’t a Harry Potter fan, there is magic to be found in this amazing land, where attention to detail is so perfect that you will easily immerse yourself into a true world of mystery and fun.

The land itself is small, which is another reason why you will encounter lines even getting into the land for quite a while.  Since attention to detail was key, the shops and Hogsmeade village are the size they actually would be, meaning not conducive to massive crowds.  Still, the charm is well worth the wait.  If you plan on going soon, I highly recommend staying on property at Universal Orlando.  There are three Universal hotels, and being a guest at one not only means you use your room key to skip lines and most attractions, but it also means that during the Harry Potter boom you get early entry to the Wizarding World.  That early entry can be key to skipping hours in line! 

The shops themselves are as much of an attraction as the rides.  Honeydukes is the candy store, and where you would be able to find Pygmy Puffs if they had any left (they are out for the next several months).  I was able to find a cute “Peacefully Pet the Puffs” t-shirt there, and they have chocolate frogs! 


At the Owlery, you can post mail with special stamps.  Olivanders is where you’ll find the longest line…there you can experience the Wand selection ceremony, where a Wand “chooses” you.  If you want to skip that part, there is a cart outside Hogwart’s Castle selling Wands. Dervish & Banges will also have a line after the first 30 minutes of the day.  There you can find that weird chomping book (in a cage of course), and there is also a Wand selection, and a lot of other souvenirs, including robes. 
Don’t forget to check out the bathroom, where you just might hear Moaning Myrtle…assuming that the hand dryers aren’t going off constantly.  You can also have a bit to eat at The Three Broomsticks.  Whatever you do, don’t leave without trying a Butterbeer (the frozen was my favorite).  Butterbeer is sort of a mix between cream soda and butterscotch, and has a line that wraps around the land.  Usually, though, they also sell it by the cart by Forbidden Journey.  Another specialty is Pumpkin Juice, which sounds gross but is quite delicious!


Now, for the rides.  Two of them, Dragon Challenge (formerly Dueling Dragons) and Flight of the Hippogriff (formerly Lost Unicorn) were taken from the Lost Continent section of the park.  The brand new ride is Forbidden Journey, and it is housed in Hogwart’s castle.  The Castle is the ride, and the line itself is an experience, so even those stuck in line for a long time won’t quite be bored.  I won’t give too much away, but keep your eyes peeled for the Sorting Hat!  The ride itself is amazing…for those of you that have been on Spiderman, it is even BETTER.  Now, for those of you that are prone to motion sickness, be very afraid of this ride…dose up on Dramamine and ride it at least once though.  It is an amazing mixture of 3-D, roller coaster, and real life figures, and is truly worth the hurl factor.


There is also fun entertainment to be had around the land…you’ll see students from the Tri Wizard tournament performing, and you might even see the Frog Choir!  What you won’t see is Harry, Hermione or Ron…not allowed, per J.K. Rowlings!  She wants no fake Harries posing for photos.

My major tip…go early, or go late.  Do not think if you stroll in at 10 AM you are getting into the land anytime in the following couple of hours.  See this line?  It gets worse.

Here is a photo of the line waiting to get into the Land if you are an onsite guest:

Here is what Hogsmeade looks like after that onsite guest line:


Here is what it will look like later!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Travel Blog: Travel Safety

Safety & Common Sense Travel Tips & Tricks

When traveling Internationally, safety requires a bit of extra caution.  Many of my tips can be adapted to domestic travel as well, but when traveling to countries, whether on a cruise ship or directly, you should always be aware of possible pitfalls. 

1.      Don’t allow strangers to take your camera to take pictures of you.  Remember that scene in National Lampoon’s European vacation where the tourist helpfully suggests Clark and his family remove their shoes and get into the fountain, and then promptly runs away with their camera?  Although farfetched, camera theft from the sweet suggestion of a local “let me take a picture of your whole family” can lead to theft.  In addition, it can also lead to being forced to pay a “tip” for the service before they’ll give your camera back.  Keep your camera on a strap across your body; in fact, any purses/packs should be strapped on your body at all time, and many travel stores sell cut-proof straps.

2.     Another camera tip:  in some countries, if you pose for a picture with a local, they will demand a tip afterwards.  Also, in some countries, some natives (especially Muslim women) are incredibly uncomfortable with being in  pictures, so always ask permission first!

3.     Use local currency, not American dollars.  Even if the country you are visiting accepts American Dollars, try to use local currency, because too much American money dilutes the local currency which is bad for their economy.  Locals tend to want American Dollars more, but you don’t want to flash a wad of American money.  Use local currency and you’ll get more respect, and perhaps better prices while bargaining!

4.     Don’t make eye contact with locals unless you are with a guide and they introduce you.  Eye contact in some countries is considered an invitation.  This is especially true for women; some men in foreign cultures consider that flirting.

5.     Be aware of dress code.  While some countries only have rules for dressing for churches and mosques, you will also want to make note of their cultural dress.  For example, if a local people dress with barely any skin showing, bare knees and shoulders will offend them, and they’ll also think of you as ignorant and stupid, therefore ripe for the picking (whether it is crime or just charging you more).  Being respectful goes a long way.  They don’t expect you to adhere to their rigid standards, but courtesy for their culture is expected.

6.     In local markets, airports, and just walking around, be very aware that pick pockets are alive and well in many cities and delight in dumb tourists.  Don’t keep your wallets in your pockets; rather, invest in an inexpensive waist wallet, or one that goes around your ankle.  Keep money in a couple of places on your body and always carry small bills wrapped around larger, so if you do have to take out the whole wad, anyone looking only sees the lower currency.

7.     Don’t expect locals to speak English unless that is their native language.  You are in their country, they are not in yours.  Don’t think “I’m going to a touristy place, surely they’ll speak English!”  I made that mistake in Corsica…and didn’t understand one word (my high school French just didn’t cut it).

8.     Be aware of tipping traditions in the country.  In some places, such as Australia, tipping is not the norm.  In others, like Egypt, tipping for everything from toilet paper in public restrooms to a peak at a semi restricted hieroglyph is compulsory and required.  If you are offended, they’ll just try to get more out of you.

9.     Don’t walk around with your nose in a map or guide book.  It is like waiving a red flag with a “dumb tourist” lettering on it.  Know where you are going, and if you are going to look in a guide book, sit down in a busy area and do it discreetly.

10.  Always be aware of the water situation.  In many countries, even if their water is safe, it isn’t safe for you because you won’t be used to the fluoride content.  Always also be sure when buying bottled water that the seal is unbroken.  Water can also be a factor when eating local foods, since it is prepared with that same water.

11.  If you are carrying your passport, always put it in something strapped to your body.  Keep a photo copy of your passport in a separate and accessible place.

12.  Learn to bargain.  Many countries have a culture that is immersed in bargaining…it is a requirement, or you will get ripped off.  Personally I don’t enjoy bargaining, but when in a country that marks up items over 200% to start with, I learned to do it, and you should too.

13.  Get a guide book or a good travel agent and know these things before you go.  Do not perpetuate the view of Americans that we are spoiled and unconcerned…give a country respect and they should give it back.  Take France, for example.  Most Americans believe French people dislike us.  However, I found that in the French Riviera (Nice, Monaco/Monte Carlo, Eze, Saint Paul, Cannes) when given proper awe and respect for their culture and history, the French can be amazingly polite!

14.  When in local market places, walking along touristy areas (such as Nassau, Bahamas, for example) you may be overwhelmed with locals trying to sell you things.  They try to sell products, hair braiding, horse and buggy rides, taxi rides, personal guides, and more.  If you are not interested, just be polite and say “no thank you.”  It is especially effective when said in local language…like “La Shakran” in Arabic speaking countries.  Many locals feed their families from tourist business, so be kind.  It may be annoying at times, but again, you are in their country.

15.  Just be polite in general.  I have seen so many situations where tourists are offended, mad, demanding or rude to locals, and it really disappoints me.  They should not be expected to act like us just because we deign to visit their country.   Sugar goes a lot farther than lemon!
My number one tip:  ALWAYS BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS!  While visiting exotic places and ports, you may just be lost in the moment and in awe of the place…or you may be partaking in local alcoholic beverages.  Whatever the reason for distraction, that is an open invitation for the unscrupulous, so please, just know where you are and be aware.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Four Disney Parks in One Day…Crazy, but Doable!

Let me start by answering the question everyone reading this blog is asking:  Am I crazy?  The answer is a resounding yes!  But after badgering by my 15 year old daughter, I agreed to try to visit four Disney theme parks in one day.  And it was a success!  In fact, it was more of a success than I predicted it would be.  My legs are still sore from all the walking, but we did it!
If you want to try to tackle this, I have some recommendations:
  • The smaller your kids are, the less chance you have of succeeding…and by succeeding I don’t just mean make it to the four parks, but make it with sanity intact.  I highly recommend doing this only if you have tween/teens, or all adults.  This is a heavy pace and a lot of transportation, little ones will lose their stamina and most likely drive the adults crazy in the process.
  • Make a list of a few rides in each park that are “musts”.  I’m going to share my day with my “musts” and how I accomplished them, but everyone has different favorites!
  • This really only works well if you have been to Disney often.  If you are going on your first trip, this is NOT a good way to see all the parks.  You will miss so much, and really are cheating yourself out of a magical experience in each park. 
Now, onto the details.   First, you must plan the park order…then plan the rides in each park.  Don’t try to do this without planning; you will lose your mind.  LEARN AND USE FAST PASS!  It is free, and easy, and will help you ride the few rides you want to, especially if they are headliner rides.  The order of the parks should depend on Extra Magic Hours (assuming you are staying on Disney property).  I rarely use them, but on this day, a late extra magic hour will be helpful because it will extend your day.  Pick a day that has either a Magic Kingdom or an Epcot evening Extra Magic Hour.  Also, you’ll notice in my own day that we didn’t rush around or run from ride to ride…we didn’t do everything, but we did nearly everything we wanted to!
First, we went to Hollywood Studios.  If you want to ride Toy Story Mania, you must do Hollywood Studios first…lines are huge all day.  We were there by 8:45 for a 9 AM opening, and headed with the huge crowd straight to Toy Story Mania at Rope Drop.  The smart thing would have been to get fast passes, then ride it…we rode first.  Fun, fun fun…but it delayed our fast pass return time for a second ride until after noon.  We headed over to Tower of Terror.  After that, I was vetoed out of Great Movie Ride, and I was thoroughly disappointed that the Villains shop now holds Marvel souvenirs, although I consoled myself by buying a white chocolate marshmallow on a stick at 9:30 AM.  I also found fun Mickey Mouse sunglasses at the Tower of Terror gift shop.  We had a lunch reservation for 50’s Prime Time Café at 11 AM but decided we were done with Hollywood Studios already. Hollywood is not our favorite park, but Toy Story Mania is a truly awesome ride.  On our way out, we gifted a family of three with our Toy Story Mania fast passes and made their day!
Next up, Animal Kingdom!  We took a bus from Hollywood Studios to Animal Kingdom, and my daughter took our tickets and got fast passes for Dinosaur.  We then saw It’s Tough To Be A Bug, and spent almost as much time looking at screaming, terrified children than we did watching the show.  That show is my favorite 3D show at Disney (but not because of the screaming children).  Next, daughter got fast passes for Kilamanjaro Safari.  We had fun looking at some animals around the park; the gorilla gave us a show by walking around and picking up a large branch and carried it around like it was a bouquet of flowers. 
We had a nice, leisurely lunch at Rainforest Café, and then rode the Safari ride (tons of animals about, the baby elephant is completely adorable) and Dinosaur.
Next, we took a break, and went to our hotel.  We had actually changed hotels that day, and took this time to get situated in our new room (Caribbean Beach pirate room, we lucked out with a corner location overlooking the water).

It took a while for our luggage to arrive from our previous hotel, so we napped a bit.  Yes, we even took a break on this crazy day!
Around 5 PM, we departed Caribbean Beach, and headed to Epcot.  We planned to decide between Test Track and Soarin’ based on available fast passes, and both of them had availability, but we decided on Test Track.  We grabbed fast passes for it and then went to Journey into the Imagination with Figment, an oldie but goodie.  Much to my dismay, Honey I Shrunk the Audience is now replaced by Captain EO…less than thrilled but Honey wasn’t on the list for this day anyway.  Headed to the Seas pavilion, skipping the Land although I heard Soarin’ calling my name…rode the Finding Nemo clamshell ride in the Seas.  Time to ride Test Track!  It was pretty much a walk on with our fast passes.  There were some obnoxious boys that took a shine to my daughter; she was wearing a birthday button (almost 16) and they kept yelling “Happy Birthday” just to get her attention.  She was both flattered and annoyed.  Now for the best part…we arrived in the crash test room on Test Track, almost ready to zoom outside…and…oops.  Our car shut down.  Dead ride for over 20 minutes. 
Suddenly we started up again and zoomed out…we giggled hysterically, because it was such a shock to be thrown out at what felt like 50 miles per hour with no warning.  After the ride they asked us if we wanted to ride again…yes!  Although that ended up meaning we were skipping Spaceship Earth, Test Track is better.  We were still giggly from the previous ride and enjoyed the second quite a bit, thankful we didn’t get stuck in the hot, cold, or corrosive rooms during the breakdown.  On the way out, we browsed in Mouse Gears but there was construction and it was crowded so we departed that store quickly.
Three parks down, one to go!  We took the Monorail to Magic Kingdom (extra magic hours) after a debate on whether or not to ride Spaceship Earth.  It is a long ride, and we had dinner reservations at Magic Kingdom, so we left.  We arrived at Magic Kingdom just as the fireworks were starting so we were able to enjoy the last eight minutes or so of Wishes from the top of Main Street.  Love that finale…then we waded up the crowd through the street.  I wanted to do the smart thing and walk through the shops, but noooo….daughter just had to listen to the music outside, so we had to combat the gazillions of people trying to exit the park.  We needed to get to Liberty Square, so we cut through by Crystal Palace.  Bad, bad idea…major congestion on the bridge and it took about 15 minutes to get through.  There must have been 347 strollers trying to ram their way through both ways.  Finally into Liberty Square, we checked in for our dining reservation at Liberty Tree Tavern and had a good meal…their rolls and honey butter are Y-U-M-M-Y. 
After dinner, it was decision making time.  What to do?  Personally, I wanted to shop a bit and my legs were done for the day, so we split up.  I bought my son a giant Halloween Mickey Head rice krispy treat bigger than his head, and Disney Silly Bands for my other two girls.

I enjoyed the atmosphere on Main Street (especially the father and son playing checkers outside of The Chapeau and just having a great time) and spent some time gazing at my Castle (I mean, Cinderella’s Castle).  My friend and daughter rode Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain and Haunted Mansion, and then did some shopping on their own.  I arrived back in my room around 11:30 PM and they were back by 1 AM.

So, to summarize…four parks, thirteen rides, two sit down meals, shopping and a nap…all in one day!  Much to my chagrin, there is no medal or award…and my legs and feet are still sore.  But we did it!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Trials & Tribulations of Air Travel…Surviving with Your Sanity!

Flying can be a painful, joyless experience.  Although the safety measures put in place are for our safety, when you have to nearly strip and dismantle your person and your possessions, sometimes it is hard to find the positives in the experience.  Long lines, surly airline employees, flight delays and expensive food cut with plastic knives add to the fun. 

Here are some tips to fly with your sanity intact!

  1. Realize that sometimes the airline employees are cranky because their jobs are constantly in question.  Rudeness is not acceptable, but often there is a reason.  Be nice, smile, act like you sympathize with the plight of the employee, and you might get a nice response back.  Not only do they fear for their livelihoods, they also get yelled at a lot by cranky passengers.

  1. Don’t put yourself in a time crunch.  A good rule of thumb is to arrive at the airport 2 hours domestic, 3 hours International.  Being bored at the airport because you are early is better than being late and rushing to your gate which is probably number 228 out of 229 gates.

  1. When you arrive at the airport, if you are flying domestic, often you can check in and drop your bags off outside the terminal.  Be sure and tip the baggage handlers, and some airlines impose a fee per bag.  You may also check your luggage inside, and if you are flying International, you must.

  1. Be luggage smart.  Many airlines have imposed baggage fees, even for the first bag.  When you (or your travel agent) purchase flights, make sure you take into consideration those extra fees when choosing an airline.  Often your “good deal” becomes a “not so good deal” when you have to pay $25-$50 more per person for bags, each way!  Also, make sure you don’t go over the 50 pound limit on your bags, because that can be incredibly costly.

  1. Get ready mentally for the security line.  Prepare yourself for a very long wait, and if you don’t have one, it will be a pleasant surprise.  Make sure your liquids are not over 3.4 ounces and put them in a clear plastic bag, and have them out in a bin, not in a bag.  Also take out your laptops, video cameras, and anything else that looks weird and put them in bins, out of bags.  It will save the screeners time if they have to examine the item. 

  1. Do not bring water or soda with you!  You’ll just have to throw it away. 

  1. If you have medical equipment, such as a sleep apnea machine, take it apart and have it in a bin by itself.  Be prepared for questions and for the machinery to be run through the screening machines multiple times.

  1. Wear shoes that are quick to get on and off, since you’ll have to place them in bins.  If you are traveling with children, especially little ones, prepare them in advance for this.  My youngest loves shoes and was most disturbed when she had to surrender her favorite Crocs to a scary dark machine.  Take sweaters, coats and jackets off and place them in bins, and empty your pockets.  To be extra safe, take off jewelry (watches for sure) but don’t forget them in the bins!

  1. Make sure your boarding passes and IDs are out and ready.  It is very aggravating to be behind someone searching for their documents.

  1. Just be patient.  I know that being behind someone with 4 kids and ten bins can be annoying (oh, wait, that might be me!) but you will get through the line.  Just smile…you are either on vacation, or returning from a great one!

Okay, so you are finally through the security check point.  Now what?

  • Verify that your gate is correct, and find out when you will be boarding.  If you want to buy something to eat or drink, you may take whatever you purchase onto the plane at this point.  You will most likely not need your IDs anymore unless it is an International flight, so put them away, and have your boarding passes in an easy to reach pocket.  Then have a seat!

  • When boarding begins, look on your boarding pass.  Many will have your boarding section printed right on the pass.  If you are flying Southwest and you don’t have a seat assignment, you will line up by number and boarding group when it is time.

  • BEFORE you get on the plane, make sure you have what you need for onboard entertainment in the smaller carryons, so you don’t have to juggle once you get onboard.  Once you get on the plane, stash the heavier, larger carryons above in the bins, and the smaller ones in the seat in front of you. 

  • Then try to enjoy the atmosphere.  If a crying baby sits next to you, which will inevitably happen, put in the earplugs you had the foresight to bring and comment on what a cute baby it is.  If the woman behind you starts loudly discussing the coffin-like claustrophobic atmosphere of the plane, and menopause, and fighting with her daughter about events twelve years ago (just happened to me, and I am not making that up for your amusement) just smile and be glad that you had the foresight to bring earplugs/headphones.

  • Watch the flight attendant as they go through the safety features of the plane.  Yes, you might have heard it many times.  Yes, the attendant probably looks bored to death reciting that speech yet again.  But they appreciate the people that actually watch them, and it only takes a minute of your time.  You are a captive audience anyway, so just watch.

  • Remember, no electronics until you are 10,000 feet in the air, and no cell phones at all unless they are on airplane mode.  Tray tables and seats must be upright, but the airlines have abandoned the window shades being raised, so be a rebel and lower away.  Then get ready for your tiny cup of soda/water, and a teeny packet of yummy peanuts (might be chips or crackers, peanuts are no longer politically correct on some airlines).

If you are going on vacation, you will have to do this all over again on the return.  If you have completed a vacation, then you are an old pro at this. 

Finally, the one key thing I can’t stress enough…BE PATIENT!