In the Shadow of the Mouse

Secrets of a theme park obsessed local who lives next door to Mickey, with annual passes to every Central Florida park

D23 press conference videos highlight archives, future of D23

The D23 Destination D Attraction Rewind event kicked into high gear today, but Friday featured two fascinating press conferences for fans of all things Disney.

The first was a chat with Becky Cline, Director Director of the Walt Disney Archives. Several archived items are on display at the event, and she talked about those treasures, as well as some of the other pieces in the collection and what it’s like to have a hand in saving and preserving Disney history. See it for yourself in the video below:

The second was a presentation by Adam Sanderson and Kristin Rodack of D23. They talked about the future of the wildly popular Disney fan club, including some membership changes. While silver memberships are going away, gold members will be able to upgrade to family memberships that give them the freedom to bring more family members to events. The duo also unveiled the 2015 D23 Expo art. You can see it all in the video below:

The event continues throughout Saturday and Sunday at the Contemporary Resort, highlighting the World’s Fair and beloved Disney attractions of the past (and some that have survived through the present, like Carousel of Progress). It’s just one of the D23 events that you can sign up for if you’re a member. There’s even a free membership level; if you’re a consummate Disney fan, check it out on the official website.

D23 Attraction Rewind is here: Yes, I could easily overspend in this store!

The D23 Attraction Rewind is now in town. It gets into full swing tomorrow (November 22), but I got a peek at the pop-up store, Mickey’s of Glendale, today, and let’s just say that I’m lucky I couldn’t buy anything at the sneak peek or my credit card would be smoking right now. Attendees were lined up in quite an impressive queue, and I could easily see why. There was a variety of Imagineering merchandise:

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A great selection of Pleasure Island throwback goodies:

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Artwork:

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Small World goodies:

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And just generally a wonderful selection geared to the Disney enthusiast. One of my personal favorites was the Figment shirt:

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temp1Since there’s a “former attractions” theme, along with a World’s Fair focus, I thought it was especially appropriate to reflect back on my favorite Disney World ride of all time. Yes, I know Figment’s still there, but the original Journey Into Imagination was a work of dark ride perfection that will never be equaled. Yes, that’s my buddy Figment in the photo at right. He’s one of the pieces featured in the archive display that’s also part of the D23 Attraction Rewind event.

The D23 Attraction Rewind continues on Saturday and Sunday at the Contemporary Resort and Convention Center, so I’ll have more reports on the panels and presentations. It’s always such a pleasure to hear from Disney legends and those “in the know” about what’s ahead, as well as memories of what’s been left behind.

If you’re not a D23 member, you can sign up for free for some fun member exclusives. If you’re not lucky enough to live in Florida like I am, or near Disneyland, it’s a great way to stoke your Disney passion all year ’round and maintain that connection, no matter where you live.

Where to find real snow and ice in Florida: Christmas at the Gaylord Palms

l11Once upon a time, I lived in Chicago and braved the cold, snowy winters until I realized that I was born in the wrong state. Once I moved to Florida, my thick, hearty northern blood soon turned to cherry Kool-Aid. However, as much as I hate the cold, I still need an occasional dose of snow and cold to feel the latent Chicagoan inside of me.

Thankfully, I’ve always been able to fulfill that cold need at Ice! at the Gaylord Palms Resort. Since it’s just outside of Walt Disney World, that means it’s easy for me to get to, and I absolutely love the gorgeous ice sculptures they feature each year. I’ve already written about this year’s Nutcracker theme, which features scenes from the classic ballet carved in colored ice by talented artisans from Harbin, China. At the end you’ll find the traditional clear ice nativity, which has acted as the finale for as long as I can remember.
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This year, however, I can get my snow fix at the Gaylord Palms too. There’s a brand new Alpine Rush tubing experience for Christmas at the Gaylord Palms. You tube on snow…yes, real hard-packed snow that creates a perfect base to cause you to slip and slide at high speeds down one of the eight chutes. You can go forward or backward (I recommend backward for the most thrills). Kids between 36 and 42 inches can ride in a double tube with an adult, much as they would do at a water park. I guess it really is kind of a water park; the water is just in a different form.

Thanks to the Gaylord Palms Resort, I was able to try out a preview of the tubing, and I give it a big thumbs up. Unlike ice, where the temperature is a bone-numbing 9 degrees, the tubing area is actually quite warm. You still need to wear long pants and close-toed shoes, but your nose, ears, fingers, and toes won’t freeze. Of course, you can get a brain freeze by buying some of the tasty Mike’s Italian Ice which is sold on the premises. I had a nice mix of flavors to get a sugar buzz for energy to keep walking up those stairs.l21You can get a combination ticket for Ice! and the tubing, which is what I recommend.

Actually, there are so many fun activities for Christmas at the Gaylord Palms, not to mention the Luminescence show and the general fun of just walking around to admire the decorations, that you can easily make a day of it, even if you’re not staying at the resort. It’s a perfect place to feel the Christmas spirit as you listen to the music and admire the awe-inspiring atrium tree.

For the adults, there’s another fun option: the On the Blocks Ice Bar inside of the Ice! exhibit. You’ll need to buy an extra ticket, but it’s well worth the unique experience of getting your Johnny Appleseed hard cider poured literally through an ice sculpture. There are a variety of other drinks served in a light-up souvenir cup, and you can literally “freeze your blocks off” sitting directly on the ice while you savor the warming qualities of your adult beverage. After a busy evening of tubing, savoring a minty drink was the perfect way to relax and keep warm in the 9 degree chill.l20

Now is a perfect time to visit Ice!, since it typically doesn’t get wildly busy until after Thanksgiving. Even if you come later, you can buy an express pass that gets you into the exhibit much more quickly, Once inside, you definitely won’t want to rush, as there’s so much to see and ice slides to ride. In addition to the Nutcracker, the Frostbite Factory section features Chinese artisans showing you how they create the sculptures.

I love living in Florida, but I’d probably miss my old stomping grounds more if I couldn’t get my dose of winter cold each year. Thankfully, with Christmas the the Gaylord Palms, it means I can enjoy the snow and ice, then pop out and bask in the warmth and palm trees just outside the frigid air.

See festive Christmas trees Orlando Museum of Art thru November 23

tr1Back when I lived in Chicago, where I thought that 40 degrees in the winter was warm, not bitter cold, I loved going to the Museum of Science and Industry’s annual Christmas tree display. It was an annual holiday traditional to see their trees themed to various countries.

Now that I live in Orlando, I have a plethora of Christmas events at my fingertips, from Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party at the Magic Kingdom and Christmas Around the World at Epcot to SeaWorld’s Christmas celebration with O Wondrous Night, one of my all-time favorite Christmas shows, and Ice! at the Gaylord Palms Resort. But if I still want a reminder of my old home and Christmases past, I can head over to the Orlando Museum of Art, which has a lovely tree display event, the Festival of Trees, that runs now through November 23.

The Festival of Trees is an annual fundraiser for the museum, which brings art and culture to Orlando with exhibits and community events. Click the video below for a preview of the display:

tr2The video was taken before it was complete, but the event is now in full force, running from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. It’s only $10 for adults and $6 for children, and the Christmas trees and gingerbread houses are sure to put you in the spirit of the season. They’re all for sale, too, so if something really catches your eye, you can take it home with you. You might need a lot of space in your car, though, as some of the trees run up to nine feet tall.

Kids will enjoy the Toyland Town activity area where they can do crafts and meet Santa Claus himself. In the Deck the Halls area, you’ll find custom-designed wreaths, garlands, centerpieces and small trees for sale. There are also elegant table settings done by Entertaining by Design that will go to a lucky drawing winner at the Festival Finale. The finale drawing also offers prizes like jewelry, restaurant gift certificates, and other fun items.

You can grab a quick lunch at the Festival Café during the event, and browse the Festival Boutique, with one-of-a-kind items and furnishings from a variety of local merchants that are perfect for holiday gifts for friends, family, or even a treat for yourself.

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One thing I particularly like about the Festival of Trees is that it includes gingerbread houses, which were lacking at the Chicago museum. There’s nothing like the smell of gingerbread to put me into a Christmas mood. It’s my tradition to make a gingerbread house every year at the Gaylord Palms Resort, but they don’t come out anything like the amazing professional creations. Here are some of those:

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And here’s the house I made last year (I’ll be creating this year’s version later this week):

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If you’re like me and you like to kick off Christmas even though it’s not quite Thanksgiving yet, the Festival of Trees is a great way to do it and support a good cause at the same time.

IAAPA Expo is back in Orlando, features everything theme park-related

One of the reasons I love living in Orlando is that it’s home to some great expos at the Orange County Convention Center. The International Association and Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) brings it conference and expo to town every year, and theme park writers eagerly await this peek at all things theme park packed together under one giant roof (it spills out into the parking lot, too).

The IAAPA Expo features new trends that always crop up in amusement parks over the next year, and it also has plenty of classics on hand, as you’ll see in these photos that chronicle just a bit of my very busy day on the expo floor. I rode rides, tried tasty treats, met characters, played games, and just generally had a wonderful time, considering that I was working:

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Photos are always big at theme parks, and IAAPA features photo booths and standard pictures, including some blue screen fun. The bird I’m chumming it up with in the photo above is real, but I’m not really in that exotic locale, although it would have been preferable to the chilly, windy day that showed winter’s coming early to Florida.

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I consider IAAPA the unofficial marker between Halloween and Christmas (although I’ve already been to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and Ice! at the Gaylord Palms). Thus I thought it was fitting to pause for a photo with Old Saint Nick.

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I rode a very cool full-on simulator of a zombie shoot-out, which I loved, and I also did a smaller ride, pictured above, that actually packed a surprising punch. You select your experience (I chose a safari chasing poachers), and I can tell you from personal experience that your teeth will be rattling!

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There’s always time to stop for a photo with a character or two.

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Yum! These frozen bananas coated with good stuff like nuts, sprinkles, or coconut, are my favorite treat at Wet N Wild.

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Anyone up for a game of air hockey? It’s just one of the many games you can try out on the expo floor.

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I’m really good at claw games, but this new take on them was a real challenge. You have to line up the little magnet in the hand with one of the beer bottles and drop it just right.

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Pop A Shot is a classic that shows up every year.

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Bowling! It’s tricky with those little balls.

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This midway game had me boggled. I think I’ll stick with my old favorite (the goblet game).

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Actually, I didn’t do too badly at this monkey jump rope game. I had decent enough reflexes to win a little souvenir.

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I soared up to the rooftop (well, not quite) on this ride. I love the indoor rides at IAAPA, and there are some outside, too, including a crane for bungee jumping (no, I didn’t try it).

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This coaster looks tame, but that sucker can sure spin its cars when it’s out on the track!

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With all the walking around the expo hall, this would have come in very handy! Much easier to ride than a Segway.

Those photos cover only a small part of my day’s adventures. Stay tuned for more coverage of my favorite expo of the year!

Ice! at the Gaylord Palms features The Nutcracker: Check out these photos

Every year I’m excited to see the new theme for Ice! at the Gaylord Palms Resort, just outside of Walt Disney World. Each year the Harbin, China, artisans brings to life a new story, whether it’s a classic like “The Night Before Christmas” or a mainstream media property like “Shrek the Halls” or the Rankin-Bass version of “Frosty the Snowman.” This year’s theme is most definitely an ageless classic: The Nutcracker in full, vibrant color, complete with the Tchaikovsky score. Here are some scenes from the exhibit:

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Of course, the ice slides are back this year, too:

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And no year of Ice! would be complete without the classic nativity finale:

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If you’d like to see exactly how the ice sculptures are made, spend some time in the Frostbite Factory, where one of the Chinese artisans will be on hand each day creating one of several pieces to be added to the exhibit throughout the season:

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There’s something new in Ice! this year, too: the On the Blocks Ice Bar. It’s a place where adults can warm themselves with a holiday-themed libation, as well as a sample of Johnny Appleseed. There’s an extra cost for the bar, and you get a souvenir cup in addition to your drink:

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Christmas the at Gaylord Palms encompasses much more than Ice! alone. Starting on November 21, you’ll also be able to tube on real snow, create a gingerbread house, visit with Santa Claus, and more. For now, though, the crowds haven’t come out yet for Ice!, so it’s a perfect time to head over and enjoy the breathtaking sculptures. For full details on prices, activities, and dates, visit the official website here.

Night goes fast at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party: Videos of entertainment show why

When I attended Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party earlier this week (it runs on select nights at the Magic Kingdom through December 19), I couldn’t believe how quickly the time flew by. It starts at 7 p.m. and ends at midnight, and it’s the fastest five hours I’ve ever experienced.

Actually, I’m not all that surprised, since the same thing happened to me not so long ago at Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party (was Halloween really less than a month away?). Disney hard-ticket events are always chock full of special fun and entertainment, so it takes a bit of planning and juggling to fit in everything you want to see. I recommend getting there before the party starts (your ticket gets you into the Magic Kingdom as early as 4 p.m.), grabbing a show schedule, and plotting out the night ahead with your must-sees.

If you’re not sure what you want to see, these videos should help you. Hint: if you’ve got little girls, they’re going to clamor to see everything involving Frozen, starting with Queen Elsa transforming Cinderella Castle into a glowing array of ice lights as the culmination of a special show:

Don’t want to watch the full show? (You really show…it’s worth it to see Olaf walk and talk). Here’s the Cliff Notes version, with just the castle lighting:

Elsa, Anna, Olaf, and Kristoff also feature prominently in the Christmas parade:

There’s plenty of relatively Frozen-free entertainment, too. Yes, there’s a segment in the castle projection show, but it’s just one small piece of a huge mash-up of Disney favorites that has a holiday bit tacked on for good measure during the party:

And of course, it wouldn’t be Walt Disney World without fireworks. Watch them light up the sky in holiday splendor:

There are other shows, too, that aren’t nearly as crowded as the biggies. I always enjoy A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas because it features Santa Stitch:

Celebrate the Season is back on the castle stage, too:

As you can see, there’s a lot to experience, and this doesn’t even include shopping for special holiday merchandise, enjoying free cocoa and cookies (or apples and apple juice), getting photos with characters in their Christmas best, or just walking down Main Street to soak up the Christmas ambiance as you marvel at snow in Florida.

If you’re planning to attend the party this year and don’t have your tickets yet, get them as soon as you can! It’s already been selling out on many dates this year, so you don’t want to be disappointed.

Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic offers amazing cuisine this weekend

tempIf you’re a Disney fan, you’re probably already familiar with the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, which continues through November 10 at the theme park. However, you might not realize that this weekend brings the fifth incarnation of another popular Epcot-area food fest. On October 31 and November 1, the Swan and Dolphin resorts host the Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic, a two-day celebration of delicious food and drink.

If you’ve never visited the Food and Wine Classic before, check out the video below for highlights from the media preview. I was fortunate enough to attend this tasting of several of the featured items, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed everything I tried in both the food and beverage categories.

My special favorites were the pork dish, with sauce that made its flavors sing and the shrimp shooter, which makes shrimp cocktail as much fun as it is tasty. I was also hooked on the hot and cold bananas foster panini with vanilla ice cream:

Those items and many more will be available at the Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic on October 31 and November 1, with different items on each night just to keep things interesting. You can attend one or both nights and either buy tickets if you plan to eat and drink a limited amount or get an all-you-can-eat-and-drink band. I highly recommend the latter because it keeps you from having to make difficult choices. See two items that both sound good? Flash your band and try them both!

If this sounds like a perfect way to spend your weekend, you’ll find more information on the official website. I know it’s Halloween, so think of it as trick or treating for adults. Instead of collecting candy at doors, you sample adult treats like gourmet food, wine, and beer, and you don’t even have to dress up in a costume to do it.

The event itself is loads of fun, but if you want to round out your evening, sign up for one of the pre-event seminars. You’ll find them all listed here, but they cover topics like pairing cheese and port, creating sushi, making pasta, blending wine, and mixing your own drinks. Below is a video that covers the food-related sessions, which also involve alcoholic libations:

Want to go for pure drink? Here’s a description of the wine, beer, and spirits sessions:

Last year I had the pleasure of attending the Italian wine seminar. I thought it would be a tasting, with moderate samples of each of the wines described. “Taste” meant full portions and generous re-pours, so by the time I headed out to the causeway to attend the actual event, I was already in a great mood courtesy of the Italian vinos. Here’s a video of the session, which is also offered this year:

This year there’s also a beer garden which you can enjoy for an upgrade fee. Check out the video below to see why that’s a good idea if you’re a beer lover:

The Swan and Dolphin resorts are within walking distance of both Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot, so it’s easy to combine a day at the parks with a night of indulgence. You can also just head out for the evening to enjoy the food, drink, live entertainment, and a nice view of the Epcot fireworks. If you’d like to stay overnight so you don’t have to worry about over-indulging, the Swan and Dolphin have special Food and Wine Classic packages.

If you’re a food and wine fan, or if you’re just looking for a fun way to spend the weekend, the Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic beckons. Whether you sign up for a seminar before you hit the booths or just come out for a night of drinking and dining, you’re guaranteed to have a great time.

Make the Most of Halloween Horror Nights: A Local’s Hot Tips

It’s hard to believe it, but we’re running into the final weeks of the haunt season. As an Orlando local, I get to visit two of the nation’s premiere events, Halloween Horror Nights and HowlOScream, multiple times. I get a Frequent Fear Plus pass for Halloween Horror Nights that lets me in every night but Saturday, and it has express so I can go in all the houses once through the express line. However, I take it as a point of pride to see how many houses I can get through without using express.

Whether you have an express pass and want to save it to do some houses twice, or whether you don’t want to shell out the extra money and just want to see the houses as efficiently as possible through the regular lines, here’s how to do it (this is what I do every night, and I rarely use express until the last three or four houses):

1) Either visit Universal Studios Florida during the day and stay in the part after it closes or be one of the first in line outside. You can wait in a holding pen til Halloween Horror Nights open if you have a day ticket and stay until closing time. Otherwise, get to the front gates early and stake out a spot. All of the gates open, not just the center, so choose the one with the smallest crowd.

2) Wait in the kids zone holding area or head to the kids zone as soon as you get in. Most people go right to the sound stages, but the zone is home to two houses that you can knock off quickly (Roanoke and the creepy dolls). The exit of the first one leads right to the entrance of the other. The doll house lets out by the entrance to Halloween; if it’s already open, do it next. Otherwise, hurry over the Giggles and Gore by Disaster, do that one, then come back to Halloween. The Halloween line gets longer as the night goes on, especially when the Bill and Ted shows let out, so doing it early is wise.

3) Do the soundstage house with the shortest line. After you’ve knocked out the first four houses I mentioned, head to the soundstages. Out of those four, The Walking Dead always has the longest line, and Dracula has the shortest. If the Dead line isn’t bad yet, do it now. Otherwise, do Alien Vs. Predator, which also gets a pretty hefty line, or Dusk Til Dawn, which isn’t usually as crowded. Save Dracula for last if the other lines aren’t long yet, since Drac attracts a smaller crowd for most of the night.

That’s the pattern I use on every visit, and I rarely have to use my express pass on anything but the three most popular soundstage houses and sometimes Halloween. Then, when it gets more crowded, I can do a second round with express on the houses that I did via standby earlier.

Even though it’s past the event’s halfway point. there’s still plenty of time to see it. Here’s Mike Aiello talking about the latter half of the season:

I also chatted with Lora Wallace about how the scare zones are breaking in nicely:

Hopefully these tips will help you make the most of your night and the videos will get you bumped up for a late season video. I’ll also toss in a little plug, since I belong to Crowdtap, and one of my recent product samplings tied in perfectly with Halloween Horror Nights. I received samples of fast-acting Advil Film-Coated pain reliever, which really helped me get going after a long night of hustling to as many houses as possible. I always wake up with stiff muscles, and it gets me back to functionality fast. I like the coating because it’s easy to swallow, and apparently it lets the medication work faster, too.

And speaking of all that walking, I’ll leave you with one last tip: wear sturdy and comfortable shows! Sturdy because you never know when the person in front of you in the haunted houses might suddenly run backwards and trample you and comfortable or you’ll end up with blisters. If you’re like me, you can’t afford sore feet because you’ve still got many more nights of haunts to enjoy.

Kayak among glow in the dark algae at A Day Away Kayaking on the Space Coast

temp74Sure, you can see fireworks at Walt Disney World every night, but Florida is full of natural wonders, including some that put on their own light show. Imagine paddling in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge out on Florida’s Space Coast at dusk as manatees and dolphins linger near your kayak. As you dip your paddle in the water, you’re fascinated by a whitish-greenish glow. You’ve spotted the bioluminescent algae that thrives in the summer time and puts on an amazing show for the kayakers that gets more prominent as it gets darker.

These tours are provided by A Day Away Kayaking (website:http://www.adayawaykayaktours.com), which recently held a media tour to give local outlets a glimpse at this amazing activity option that’s only about 90 minutes from the Disney area. The tours use two person kayaks, and everyone hops in after a brief safety overview. Don’t worry, there aren’t any major dangers. The worst thing you might have to worry about is possibly getting tipped over if you wake a sleeping manatee as you pass over it. Just use the hula doll method of paddling (only move your body above the waist) and you’ll do fine.

You get some time to practice your paddling technique before heading out to see the wildlife and the star attraction: the bioluminescent algae. The media tour was fortunate enough to encounter both dolphins and manatees, as well as a variety of birds, in the water. Wildlife is abundant in the area (we passed a gator on the road to the launch point) so keep your eyes open both before and during your trip.

temp72The media trip set out right around sunset, and the first wildlife encounter happened almost immediately, with a majestic manatee surfacing to take a breath. Shortly thereafter, the dolphins were spotted feeding on fish in an alcove.

At first, the bioluminescence just showed up as a slight white glow around the paddles. As the darkness became more prominent, so did the eerie natural light. You could see it as you paddled, coming up in the little waves created by the motion. It was like a natural glowstick. You could increase the effect by splashing your hand around in the water, but sadly, it’s virtually impossible to capture on film. It’s something that truly must be seen in person.

It was also fascinating to see how the fish swam away from the kayaks, since they go in a zig zag rather than a straight line.

The trip typically lasts around 90 minutes, although the media tour ran close to two hours. In that time, you navigate waters than range from extremely shallow to a short stretch that’s 20 feet deep. Here;s a video overview:

The cost of this experience is very reasonable: $35 adult/$25 child most nights, or $39 adult/$29 child/$20 on Saturdays. Better hurry if you’d like to try it out this year, as the tours only run from June through early October. Otherwise, you can see the glowing jellyfish in the cooler months, from mid-October to May. Day kayaking trips are available, too, for optimal wildlife spotting.

What should you bring on the tour? Here’s the official list:

  • Clothes you don’t mind getting a little wet.
  • Swim suit/board shorts, shirt; In cool weather… cover-ups (avoid cotton)
  • Water Shoes or sandals that can be worn in the water
  • An extra change of clothes is recommended
  • Hat and sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Camera & dry bag (optional)
  • Bottled water and snacks
  • A towel to leave in your car

And, perhaps most important of all, bug repellent! This is a natural area, and, as such, it has a very high population of bloodthirsty mosquitoes so you need something strong to ward them off.

Also, be sure to use the restroom before you reach the launch site, as there are no facilities in the area.

If you’re intrigued, contact A Day Away Kayak Tours to book your very own adventure. It’s a far cry from the theme parks and an amazing way to experience part of the real Florida. You can hear from the company’s owner in the video below:

If you’re still not convinced, travel expert Jen Burg will change your mind:

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog In the Shadow of the Mouse.