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

Boost your anticipation for Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

tempAre you excited yet about the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, which starts September 19 and runs through November 10? I most certainly am, as a foodie and someone who loves Walt Disney World. The festival melds those two loves together in a perfect marriage of visiting my favorite Disney park (with Soarin’, Spaceship Earth, Turtle Talk With Crush, World Showcase, and Illuminations, how can I go wrong?) with an amazing itinerary of food and libations. I’m lucky to be a local who can hit it up several times over the two month span, but many tourists plan their yearly trips around this event.

On Thursday, I had the great pleasure of sampling some of the new dishes and imbibing in some of the drinks that are featured at the festival this year. I also got to chat with Evan Rosenthal, Restaurant Guest Service Manager, about those drinks and to hear from Chef Jens Dahlmann about the amazing edibles on tap for 2014.

First, here’s Evan:

And now, here’s Jens:

Although I enjoyed everything at the preview, I fell in love with certain items. Here are my top three recommendations in no particular order:

Florida Grass Fed Beef Slider With Pimento Cheese

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I know sliders are overdone these days, but this one is a welcome departure from the typical bar food. Yes, it will satisfy the meat-and-potatoes fan, but I loved how the generous sprinkling of chopped onions gave it some zip and how the sauce had a pleasant little bite without being too overwhelming. Yes, it has some spice, but not enough to scare off the timid diner.

Baked Lobster Alfredo

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The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival team took another dish that tends to be overdone these days and made it into yet another item that I can’t wait to eat again when the festival starts. Lobster mac and cheese is everywhere, but this Baked Lobster Alfredo version is packed with sweet lobster meat that’s a perfect counterpoint to the cheese. Add in crunchy topping and you have a perfect comfort food that’s also upscale enough to fit in the festival context.

Roasted Verlasso Salmon With Quinoa Salad and Arugula Chimchurri

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I have to make a confession here. Yes, the salmon is sushi grade and seared to perfection, but that’s not what won me over about this dish. I absolutely loved the sauce, and the quinoa salad could easily stand on its own.

temp12And what about dessert? There are plenty of sweet treats to finish off your meal, but Barb’s personal recommendation is the Creme Brulee Caramel Fleur de Del. It’s a sea salt caramel crème brulee that’s substantial without being too rich or overwhelming. The flavor is to die for.

If you’re planning to visit the festival, get there early, and try to avoid the local crowd by visiting during the week. Even though the portions are taster-sized, they’re still large enough to fill you up after three or four kiosks. If you get there at lunch time, plan to stick around all day and do another round at dinner to maximize the number of dishes you try. You still won’t be able to make it all the way around the world, but you’ll get a great representative sampling.

If you really want to go whole hog, combine the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival with the Swan and Dolphin Food& Wine Classic, which runs on October 31 and November 1. You can read more about it in this post.

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.

When rain at the theme parks is a GOOD thing: How to take advantage

b5It’s most definitely summer in Florida, and the almost-daily rain storms prove it. Normally they start in the afternoon, but we’ve seen a few come in the late morning recently. Usually they let up, but sometimes they seem to hang on forever. If you’re in Orlando on vacation, that will no doubt make you impatient as you huddle under shelter in the theme park of your choice, wonder if you’ll pass out under the steamy humidity of your rain poncho, and wonder if the rain will ever stop so the fun can resume.

Believe it or not, you can use the pervasive Florida rain to your advantage. It’s something the locals all know, and tourists can use this trick too. Other people hate the rain just as much as you do, and that means many of them bail back to their hotels. If your family is prepared to tough it out, you’ll enjoy much shorter lines and a lesser crowd, even in the peak of the summer.

The first rule of preparation is to dress appropriately for the rain. Yes, those rain ponchos are uncomfortable, but they’re a necessity if you want to stay dry and don’t want to lug an umbrella around. I recommend wearing shorts with them; otherwise, long pants can still get uncomfortably soaked. Also, choose water-friendly shoes like Crocs or flip-flops (I personally opt for Crocs knock-offs on wet days). That way, you won’t be sloshing uncomfortably in soaked shoes and socks and developing a nasty case of blisters. Bring a waterproof bag to carry your belongings.

Once you’re properly suited up, get out there and enjoy the park! Just be sure to choose a park with lots of indoor attractions or rides that don’t shut down when it’s wet out. Virtually all outdoor rides are closed for safety when there’s lightning, but some can run in rainstorms as long as the lightning isn’t nearby. If you want to keep most of your fun indoors, places like Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Universal Studios Florida are ideal. Even SeaWorld, with all its outdoor shows, has more inside attractions than you might imagine, like Antarctica, Turtle Trek, the shark exhibit, the Manta aquarium, and Wild Arctic.

If you don’t want to get wet, you can still use the rain to your advantage. Choose a day with a long, vicious downpour, then wait until it stops and head immediately to your theme park of choice. It should be nearly deserted, since most of the attendees will have fled the inclement weather. You can get in some good ride time before they return. If it’s late enough in the day, the crowd might never build again and you can enjoy the solitude until closing time. This is especially helpful if you want to see one of the hot new Orlando attractions, like the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom or Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.

I use the rain to my advantage all the time, and I recommend that you do, too. You can’t stop the summer rain in Florida, but you can make it work to your benefit.

In the meantime, please enjoy one of my favorite old SNL bits. This is the kind of confidence I want to have in my weatherman:

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.

Dear past me: Guess what, you’re going to live next door to Disney someday

Tonight’s HypeOrlando Blogapalooza challenge is to write a note to my past self back when I was 18 years old. That’s a few decades back now, but in pondering the topic, I’m happy to say that I don’t think my younger self would think her future is too shabby. So here goes:

b34Dear 18-Year-Old Me:

Guess what? You’re going to live next door to Walt Disney World someday. I know how much you loved all those Disney movies and Disney Golden books and watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” on TV. Sadly, you’re not going to make it to Disney World until you’re in your 20s, but I promise you’ll make up for lost time. How would it sound to never have to dig your car out of the snow again? To never shiver in the 30 degrees below wind chill of a typical Chicago winter? And, best of all, to go to Disney any time you choose? Imagine getting a notion to pop over to the Magic Kingdom and hop on Space Mountain or catch the parade. Go ahead and do it. And you know how they just opened that brand new park called EPCOT Center? Well, by the time you turn into old and crotchety me, Walt Disney World will have four…count ‘em, four…theme parks, not to mention a couple of water parks as icing on the cake.

You know how you keep saying you’re going to be a writer and a psychologist, too? Well, I’m happy to tell you that you’re one of those rare people who really will become what you said you wanted to be when you grow up. Yes, you’re going to work your butt off in school for that doctorate, but don’t slack off. I promise that it will be worth all the effort. Counseling is one of those rare fields where you really can make a positive impact in someone’s life. Yes, I know it’s an awful lot of school, but someday you’ll be me and all that prep work will be in the past and you’ll be doing something you love.

And as for writing, you know how you’re currently doing it with that Smith Corona Selectric that you think is so cool and state of the art because it was a correction cartridge. Well, just wait until you catch up to me and see how I’m writing this letter to you. I’m typing on a handy dandy device perched on my lap. Not only can I write with it, but I can publish my thoughts instantly and have them accessible to literally almost everyone in the world (whether they actually want to read them is another question). Really, though, you’ll do well as a writer, even though you’ll shift from your magazine and newspaper work to something called the Internet. What is it? Well, imagine having a treasure trove of all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips and the ability to communicate with people around the globe just by tapping a few keys. Then imagine using that technology mainly for looking at funny pictures of cats and you pretty much have the right idea.

I know that you’re going to go through some hard times between then and now. I can’t say anything to save you from them because they’re all part of your development and what turns you into me someday. All I can say is, there’s going to be a happy ending. You’re going to get to do work that you love and visit not only Walt Disney World, but also other theme parks that don’t even exist yet in your 18-year-old world (hint: keep an eye out for something called Harry Potter).

I know that the year 2000 feels like it’s a million miles away, but believe me, it will come in the blink of an eye. Then, before you know it, the new millennium will be over a decade old.This Five for Fighting Song sums it up very nicely:

Technology is going to go into crazy fast-forward mode, so be prepared (psssst…Apple….it’s gonna be huge). And next time you’re scraping the ice off your car window with a credit card and praying that the engine turns over in the Arctic tundra temperatures, just remember…someday, single digit temperatures will be a foreign concept as you shiver any time the mercury dips below 70 degrees. I know you think I’m crazy now, but just you wait….

Love,

2014 Barb

b33As a quick addendum to today’s post, my regular readers know that I recently did a couple of posts on Gay Days, which just wrapped up last weekend. I got some colorful comments, including one from a reader named Joel who mentioned the t-shirt he wore to the Magic Kingdom. I invited him to send me a photo so I could post it. You can see it at the right. While I’m usually not offended by the shirts I see on Gay Days, I have to admit it’s an interesting twist on the usual sea of quips and double entendres. Thanks for sending it along, Joel!

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. Email comments and story ideas to hypeorlandoblogger@gmail.com.

Join me this week for a Seven Dwarfs Mine Train review from Walt Disney World

stickyWhen the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opens at the Magic Kingdom, it will mark the completion of the New Fantasyland expansion. The area already has attractions like a Little Mermaid ride in Eric’s castle, Enchanted Tales With Belle, and the impressive Beast’s castle, which houses the Be Our Guest Restaurant. While Snow White’s Scary Adventure is history, the new ride will bring part her story back to the Magic Kingdom.

Although it’s a family coaster, meaning the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will be suitable for everyone from Junior up to Grandma, it will still have a unique feature: trains that sway on the track. So what’s it like to ride this new attraction? I can’t tell you yet, but watch for my full report this weekend. I’m lucky enough to be attending a special media event that includes a preview of the brand-new coaster. I’ve got my “ticket to ride,” as you can see in the photo accompanying this article.

I’ll experience the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train for the first time ever on Thursday. I’ll have a video to share shortly thereafter, but in the meantime, enjoy these five videos that were recently posted in the Disney Parks Blog to whet everyone’s appetite for the new ride.

First, here’s one on the design:

Next, here’s a visit to the construction site. It sure looks a lot different now, with the ride just about ready to roll:

Here’s an early ride-through rendering:

Now take a peek inside at the dwarfs and mine:

Finally, here’s a CGI ride to get you excited for the real thing:

Watch for a full report on my Disney adventures, which start on Wednesday. In addition to riding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, I’ll also be trying out MyMagic+ and learning about all the good stuff coming up at the Disney parks.

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.

FastPass+ must dos at the four Disney parks: Grab these attractions

Now that FastPass+ is a thing, what rides should you grab when your booking window opens? As an annual pass holder, I’m at a disadvantage as I can only make ride and attraction reservations 30 days out. However, if you’re staying at a Disney resort, you can do it a full 60 days before you check in, as the Walt Disney World website explains. Either way, here are my suggestions for the FastPass+ ressies to grab at each of the four parks:

b7Magic Kingdom

Two words: Elsa and Anna. If you don’t want a multi-hour wait to meet everyone’s favorite princesses, this is the FastPass+ reservation to snap up as soon as it becomes available. Otherwise you’ll wait two hours, three hours, or possibly even more, depending on the crowd level. The second best option is a viewing spot for the Festival of Fantasy parade. Yes, you could go for a major ride like one of the mountains, but both Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain have interactive queue lines that give you something to do while you’re waiting, and most of the Space Mountain wait is indoors, in air conditioning. Waiting in those lines is preferable to standing out in the sun for an hour or more to stake out a good parade spot.

Epcot

Soarin’ is the main attraction here, although Test Track can get some pretty wicked wait times in the summer. Still, Test Track has a single riders line if your family is willing to be split up in separate cars. I’d rather get a Soarin’ FastPass and do Test Track as a single.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Toy Story Mania or Fantasmic. Toy Story Mania has obnoxious lines during the peak season, and Fantasmic attracts huge crowds that become something of a mob scene. Granted, the Tower of Terror and Rock n Roller Coaster are also popular, but their wait time rarely approaches Toy Story Mania. Better yet, Rock n Roller Coaster has a single riders line, so use the heck out of that if others in your party are amendable to the idea.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

b6Kilimanjaro Safaris or Kali River Rapids in the summer. The safari is the signature ride here; you can usually get on with little to no wait if you rush to it early in the morning. Otherwise, just grab a FastPass and rush over to Expedition Everest instead. Yes, Expedition Everest offers FastPasses, too, but it has a single riders line, so that’s a wiser option if you don’t want to waste your precious FastPass allotment. However, if you’re visiting in the dead of summer, opt for Kali River Rapids instead. The line gets very long as people seek a good soaking to cool down in the vicious Florida heat.

Those are my personal suggestions. Sure, there are many, many other options, so work your FastPass+ selections around your own family’s tastes. Yes, it might be hard to plan something as detailed as your ride and show preferences that far in advance, but there’s also a big plus side. Once you make your reservation, you know for sure that you’ll be able to do the things that matter the most to you, even if the park is packed to capacity.

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.

MyMagic+ gets better on April 28: Park hop and make more FastPass+ reservations

temp31FastPass+ is the next generation of Disney’s venerable FastPass system, which savvy mouse fans have used for years to slash their wait times. With MyMagic+ and Magic Bands, guests have been able to book their FastPasses for rides. shows, parades, and even character greetings before they even reach Walt Disney World. Why wait three hours to meet Anna and Elsa or waste an hour staking out a spot for the Festival of Fantasy parade (pictured at right) when you can make a handy dandy reservation?

Only problem is, in the old days of FastPass, you could keep getting more all day. Once you hit the time frame for one, you could get another as long as there were still times available. Not so with FastPass+, which capped you at three and forced you to get them all for a single park. That kept you from the freedom of park hopping if you preferred to split your day between multiple parks.

Today company chairman Tom Staggs announced on the Disney Parks Blog that, starting on April 28, the three FastPass limitation will disappear like the Cheshire cat. You have to start out with just three FastPasses, but once you use them, you’re free to get another…and another…and another…until you don’t want any more or until they’re all handed out for the day, whichever happens first.

As an annual pass holder, I love the fact that FastPass+ is now pretty much in line with the old system. In fact, it’s even better because you can grab three rides or attractions in advance without worrying that you’ll get to the parks, hoping for an early time on Soarin’ or Toy Story Mania, only to get caught behind a tour guide getting FastPasses for his group of 200 via one of the old machines.

Better yet, you can park hop under the new system. Let’s say I want to grab three rides at the Magic Kingdom, then pop over to one of the other parks. As long as there are still times left for Soarin’ or Kilimanjaro Safari or the Tower of Terror, I can head over to Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, or Disney’s Hollywood Studios and extend my fun.

The only potential downside to the new system is that if you get one of your first three FastPasses for a late attraction, you probably won’t have much of a selection when its time to get your fourth. For example, if you book reserved viewing for the Festival of Fantasy parade, you’re tied up until 3 p.m. If your kids (or you) really, really want to see Anna and Elsa and the only available time is 5 p.m., you’re in the same boat.

As a local, I’m not too worried about those limitations, since I don’t have to fit everything into a compressed time period. If you’re a tourist, it will take a little planning, but you’re much better off having access to the additional FastPasses. Grab the first ones for early times if you can so you have the most possible freedom for the rest of your day.

Staggs says more MyMagic+ enhancements are coming, so stay tuned for future ways in which that cute little MagicBand can give you a smoother Walt Disney World experience.

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.

Don’t torture your kids at Disney World: 3 ways parents ruin vacations

The other day I wrote about things tourists do to annoy the locals, as well as their fellow tourists who have better manners. Today, I thought I’d shift over to the things parents do to torture their kids at Walt Disney World and the other Orlando theme parks. A trip to Disney is supposed to be fun, right? It’s supposed to make the kind of happy memories that your whole family will cherish for years to come. Unfortunately, sometimes it becomes the stuff of nightmares as the kids remember how Mom or Dad forced them onto Mission Space and yelled at them for puking afterward or forced them to stay at Epcot Illuminations even though they slept most of the way through it, in between sobbing, “I’m sick of all this fun. I want to go to bed!”

tempssHere are three ways I’ve witnessed parents torturing their kids on what should be a fun, happy, and carefree trip. They paid their money and, by God, they’re going to force the whole family to enjoy every single minute. If you’re tempted to try these things yourself, remember: someday those kids are going to choose your nursing home.

1) Keeping the kids up too late and running them ragged. Little kids are bundles of energy, but it burns out fast. They can be running at full speed one minute, then drop like a box of rocks the next. Fortunately, they tend to recharge pretty fast. Still, I see plenty of parents at the Disney parks who aren’t willing to give them that recharge time. They paid for a park ticket, and their family is going to enjoy every stinking minute possible at that park, from rope drop right down to the moment they’re forced out at closing time, with no breaks in between. I cringe at the cranky and crying kids begging to go back to the hotel while their steely eyes parents tell them to shut up and enjoy themselves, dammit! A good parent recognizes when the kids have had enough and takes them back to the hotel for a nap or bed. Yes, you might want to see Illuminations, but as stunning as it is, it’s just a musical fireworks, laser, and water show. Is it really worth spoiling your poor, exhausted kid’s trip?

2) Forcing the kids onto rides they’re not ready for. This happens at Walt Disney World, but I see it more frequently at Universal and Busch Gardens, simply because they have more terrifying rides like my favorite coaster, SheiKra, that towers at 200 feet. All but the most timid youngsters and those with the queasiest stomachs can handle most of the Disney rides. Still, I see parents forcing crying kidlets onto the likes of Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Expedition Everest and the like. The child is begging, “No! I don’t want to ride it!” and the parents are fluffing it off with, “Shut up and get on. You’ll love it once you do it.” Yes, that might be true, but it also might be a terrifying experience that spoils the poor kid’s day.

temprr3) Forcing the kids to see the characters. This one isn’t relevant to a lot of families because their kids absolutely adore seeing Mickey Mouse. However, there are plenty of little ones who are terrified at the sight of Mickey and his friends towering over them in real life, even if they love ‘em on the TV or movie screen.

But do their parents respect that? Nope, they want a magical moment on the camera, so they force the crying child to confront what, to him or her, no doubt looks like a nightmare creature. If your kid’s not down with the whole character thing, don’t force the issue. There are plenty of other great photo ops that don’t require terrorizing a toddler. There are lots of “face characters,” too, like the princesses, and they’re usually a lot less scary to the younger set.

The character thing applies to older kids, too. I get it, you want your tweens and teens in the family photos, but some of them really don’t want to spend three hours waiting for Anna and Elsa when they could be doing something more exciting. Don’t force them to waste precious time for the sake of a photo in which they’ll be rolling their eyes and putting on their most cynical faces anyway. If you have younger kids who want to see the characters, let the older ones do something else in the meantime. If you’ve only got teens and tweens, give them a break. Get a photo or two with the characters, but don’t force them to pose with the entire Disney movie catalog if they’re really not down with it.

Family friction makes great movie fodder, as anyone who’s ever seen the classic “National Lampoon’s Vacation” can attest. But in real life, when you visit Walt Disney World you’re making memories that will last a lifetime. Before you force your kids into something that induces tears, ask yourself if you really want that to be their standout memory of the “dream vacation.”

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.

Peeps lovers rejoice: Disney World Swan and Dolphin celebrates famous Easter candies

east1Just about everyone knows about Peeps. They’re those colorful, tasty little marshmallow candies that come out at Easter time. Granted, they’re now available for other holidays, like Halloween and Christmas, and they come in other shapes like trees, ghosts, and snowmen, but little yellow birds are the classics.

If you love Peeps, you can celebrate their sugary goodness at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. from April 16 to 23. During that time, hotel guests can meet the Easter Bunny, and they’ll also enjoy Peeps-related fun like complimentary chicks when they check in and special Peeps-inspired menu items at the resort restaurants. The goodies include Smores made with the marshmallow candies, milkshakes, and even chocolate-dipper Peeps. Look for larger-than-life Peeps decor scattered around the property, too.

You don’t have to be a Peeps fan to enjoy Easter at the hotel. Other activities include a glow in the dark Easter Egg hunt, Easter Egg races, and a bunny hop relay. On the holiday, the resort’s Garden Grove restaurant will host a special Easter buffet, and the movie “Hop” will appropriately be shown poolside.

Easter is just around the corner, so visit the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin website for more details or call 1-800-227-1500 for reservations using the code word PEEPS.

Obviously Easter is a fun time for the kids, but what about the adults? This year the “big kids” can celebrate on Halloween at the annual Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic, which takes place on October 31 and November 1. It’s an extravaganza of food and drink, with dining and beverage booths, wine tastings, and entertainment. Celebrity chef Todd English will be on hand (his bluezoo restaurant is a popular dining spot at the resort).

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I can highly recommend it based on my 2013 experience. However, I have to qualify that with the fact that I attended a wine tasting before being turned loose at the general food and dining kiosks. “Tasting” really means “consuming extremely generous and never-ending pours,” so my opinion might be just slightly influenced by my very happy wine-induced mood. The video below documents the Italian wine tasting, which is just one of the many tasting experiences offered at the event:

Locals can buy daily admission, but I strongly recommend taking advantage of a food, wine and room package so you can drink to your heart’s content, then crash in comfort when you finally reach your limit. It’s also a great headquarters for a general Walt Disney World vacation, since the resort is convenient located between Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. You can take a boat to either park or hike if you’re at the Food and Wine Classic and need to burn off all those extra calories that I guarantee you’ll consume.

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.

Fastpass+ and MyMagic+ at Disney World: Great planning tool or spontaneity killer?

Once upon a time, everyone was equal when you visited Walt Disney World. You decided what ride you wanted to do, got in line, and waited. Maybe the wait was just a few minutes or maybe, if it was summer or a holiday, you cooled your heels for an hour or more.

Then, in 1999, Disney introduced a little game changer known as Fastpass. This little slip of paper acted as a magic ticket to get you to the front of the line…well, almost. You used your park ticket to get a free Fastpass for the major attraction of your choice. It gave you a one-hour window during which you returned to that ride. At that time, you entered a special line that was much shorter than the standby wait.

Fastpass had its limits. For example, you couldn’t get a another Fastpass until you used the first one, with exceptions on very crowded days with very long waits. Also, Fastpasses for the best rides ran out very quickly, so you were relegated to the standby line if you didn’t get to the park early and grab one as soon as you dashed into the park. Still, it was a good system if you knew how to work it. Heck, in the old days all the locals knew that you couldn’t use a Fastpass early, but you could use it any time you wanted after the start time, regardless of the end time printed on your return window.

tempAlas, those days are gone for good, as paper Fastpasses are a thing of the past. Now you’ve got Magic Bands that work via RFID, and you make MyMagic+ reservations instead of getting those old-school paper slips. This Disney Parks Blog just officially announced that MyMagic+ is available to day guests after an initial roll-out to onsite hotel guests, followed by annual passholders. That means that you make your ride reservations online in what some see as a great planning tool, while others are mourning the death of spontaneity in your Disney day.

So what do I, as an annual passholder, think about MyMagic+? Back when I was a tourist traveling from Chicago, I often booked all-inclusive package deals that came with a precursor to what’s now known as the Disney Dining Plan. My aim was always to maximize my value for the dollar, which meant eating at the priciest restaurants. The foodie in me loved it, but it was something of a pain to plan my trip around restaurant reservations. Sure, I could have moved things around during my trip, but that would have meant giving up wildly popular places like Cinderella’s Royal Table and the steakhouse in Canada. It was either be a compulsive planner and stay locked into those plans or give up some of the best places as the cost of spontaneity.

Now that’s true of rides, too. At the moment, you’re limited to choosing three per day, although that’s going to change. Also, they must all be in the same park on any given day, but that’s going to change, too. The addition of parking hopping will be a big improvement because on of the best parts about having four parks at Disney World is the ability to hop freely between them, provided you have a park hopper ticket. Is the Magic Kingdom getting too crowded? Pop over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Are you still full of energy when Animal Kingdom closes? Head over to Epcot and stick around for Illuminations. When I was a tourist, I doubt I ever spent a whole day in just one park.

Now, your Fastpass+ reservations will tie you down to an extent. For example, let’s say Magic Kingdom is getting packed like sardines, and you’d really like to hop the monorail to Epcot, but you’re holding a 3 p.m. Fastpass for reserved viewing of the Festival of Fantasy parade. You have to stick around or lose it. Sure, you can try to switch that ressie to one for Soarin’ or Test Track, but there probably won’t be anything left late in the day during the busy season. In the meantime, you get an extra stessor when your booking window opens, much as those who seek to have breakfast with Cinderella start dialing the moment the reservation line opens on the appointed day to share a coveted spot.

Fastpass+ also means a lot of last minute changing around if the weather doesn’t cooperate. For example, you can make your ride reservations months in advance for the Magic Kingdom, only to discover that it’s going to storm all day when you finally arrive in Florida. A park like Epcot or Disney’s Hollywood Studios has more to do indoors, but good look with last minute changes to your MyMagic+ plans.

Yes, those are all downsides. but MyMagic+ has some upsides, too. As long as you’re diligent with your planning, you can virtually guarantee that your family will get to experience the things that are most important to them, and you’ll slash some of the worst wait times. For example, Elsa and Anna regularly have multi-hour lines, so it’s a Godsend for parents with little kids to be able to book their greeting via Fastpass+. For me as a local, I can grab a Fastpass+ reservation for Kilimanjaro safari and enjoy a few single rider line rides on Expedition Everest, pop on the safari truck, then head home after a fun morning in the park with minimal waits, even in the peak season.

I’ll probably go to the parks more often in the peak season, since I’ll know ahead of time that I’ll get to ride my favorites, rather than hoping that I don’t get stuck at a Fastpass machine behind a Brazilian tour guide glomming a hundred Fastpasses. Instead, I’ll stroll into Epcot in the middle of July, knowing that I’ll get a ride on Soarin’, then grab a coffee and bail when the heat and crowd overwhelms me.

MyMagic+ is still a work in progress, so it remains to be seen how it will all work out. I have my brand-new Magic Band, but my dog, Bolt, turned it into a chew toy, so I’m going to need a replacement before I even get a chance to use it. There’s a long summer ahead, so I’ll be sure to report on what this opinionated local thinks about the new system and whether the shorter waits are worth the spontaneity cost.

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.

Relax with celebrities and experts at Epcot Flower and Garden Festival

bg6Winter might not want to let go of some parts of the country, but Florida is warming up nicely already. It’s already spring at Walt Disney World, in the form of the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, and sometimes it feels more like summer, with temperatures that are already popping up into the 80s.

Seeing the entire festival means a lot of walking to make sure you view every topiary and garden. If you need a spot to rest your feet and cool off, head over to the Wonders of Life pavil…oops, I mean Festival Center, and take in one of the informative talks. In case you’re not an old school Disney fan who remembers the center in its previous Met Life-sponsored incarnation, it’s located in Future World between Mission: Space and Ellen’s Energy Adventure.

The Festival Center features educational presentations every day. Some are done by local experts, but if you’re an HGTV or DIY fan, stop by on the weekends to see personalities from those networks’ shows. If you’d like to see what those talks are like, Vern Yip’s opening weekend presentation is below:

bg5The celebrities generally stick around to chat with the audience and sign autographs. I especially enjoyed Vern Yip’s presentation because he gave away gift bags and I actually managed to win one! The bag contained an issue of HGTV magazine and a Vern Yip vase, which I promptly asked him to sign. Based on his talk, I have some great ideas for what to put into it to perk up my home.

It’s always fun to see your favorite home improvement personalities, but the other speakers are a lot of fun, too. One of my favorites is Robert Bowden of Leu Gardens in Orlando. This is the third year I’ve seen him, and his talks are always packed with some great tips but punctuated with plenty of humor.

This year he talked about the hottest gardening trends, which you can see in the video below (sorry about the brief pause where the battery ran out). His presentations usually include a plant that you can pot and take home for your own garden. Just don’t plant it before he tells you to or you’ll be called out!

If you enjoy HGTV, I’ll toss in a couple of other videos. HGTV has been sponsoring the festival for several years now, and I had a chance to meet Genevieve Gorder back in 2011. Here’s a video from her media chat:

I also met Chris Lambton last year. Here’s his media talk:

And here’s my one-on-one interview:

If you plan to catch a talk, be sure to stake out a spot early. This is true for both the celebrities and local speakers. If you don’t get an actual seat for the HGTV and DIY personalities, you still might find a standing-room spot in close enough proximity to the stage to see and here what’s going on. For the other talks, you can also stand around to watch and listen, but you won’t get the take-home souvenir (if there’s one involved) unless you actually make it into the presentation seating area.

I’ll admit that listening to the talks makes me feel like a slug when I look at my own neglected garden at home. Still, I love getting new ideas and admiring the talent of the celebrity presenters and the local experts alike. The topiaries and gardens are fun, but the talks are another great way to enjoy the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival and to take home some practical knowledge.

Locals’ Secret

Although the Festival Center is a nice place to kick back and relax later in the day, it’s also a great spot to visit early on. It opens at 10 a.m., while World Showcase doesn’t open until 11 a.m. Get to the park when it opens at 9 (or at Extra Magic Hours opening, if applicable). Check out the butterfly house and Future World gardens and topiaries, then enjoy the Festival Center displays and browse among the souvenirs until it’s time to head out around the World.

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. Email comments and story ideas to hypeorlandoblogger@gmail.com.