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

Halloween comes early to Central Florida: Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens

temp3Forget about Christmas creep. If you’re in Central Florida, your Halloween season officially starts on September 15, the day that Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party kicks off for 2015. It’s a hard ticket event at the Magic Kingdom that runs on select nights through November 1.

Don’t be fooled by the name, as this event isn’t just for kids. Adults can don costumes, too, and are welcome to join in the trick or treating.If that’s not enough of a sugar rush for you, the eateries sell special Halloween themed treats that are only available during the party (candy corn flavored ice cream, anyone?).

The party also features a special parade, fireworks show, and brand-new villains show this year, as well as costumed characters for unique photo ops. Get your tickets early on the Mickey’s Very Merry Halloween Party website, as many dates sell out.

me3Just three days later, Universal Studios Florida gets in on the act with Halloween Horror Nights, which also runs on select nights through November 1. If Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party is suitable for all ages, Halloween Horror Nights is strictly for those old enough to be thoroughly terrorized.

Jack the Clown is back this year, along with a number of venerable icons celebrating the event’s 25th year. 2015 bring an unprecedented nine haunted houses, along with scare zones throughout the park and roving chainsaw maniacs who bring the terror right to you. Jack also has his own show, in addition to the usual romp with Bill and Ted.

Halloween Horror Nights is a hard ticketed event, with single night and multi-night options. The official website has full details of all the different ticket types, as well as Express Passes (highly recommended if you visit on a peak night).

The following week, Howl-O-Scream kicks off at Busch Gardens Tampa. It’s another event for the older, more scare-proof crowd, and this year the park brought in Blair Witch Project producer Robin Cowie to kick things up a notch. In addition to the usual seven haunted houses (with Unearthed: Scarlett’s Revenge as the new entry this year), Howl-O-Scream also has an interactive card game. You can buy your card packs in the park.

temp144Like Universal, Busch Gardens Tampa offers a skip-the-lines pass for purchase, and it’s a life-saver on the most crowded nights. Howl-O-Scream also offers the Fright Feast Buffet, where you can dine while you watch the Fiends show, then enjoy the haunted houses an hour before the general crowds. All the options are listed on the official website.

SeaWorld Orlando waits until October to celebrate the Halloween season. The park’s Halloween Spooktacular starts on October 3 and runs on weekends through the 31st.

In addition to trick or treating for goodies like Tootsie Rolls and Airheads, kids can party with Penelope the fish, make crafts, dance, and generally enjoy the day and evening (the event runs from noon to 7 p.m.). The Count even has his very own Halloween themed show for the little Sesame Street fans in your family (and for adults who remember Count Von Count fondly).

temp145Most of the Halloween Spooktacular activities are included with a regular admission ticket, but this year SeaWorld Orlando has added an extra cost option for those who love the park’s orcas. The Dine With Shamu Halloween Spooktacular Brunch gives you a ringside sea to see the orca pod while dining on a buffet featuring seasonal items. Prices start at $28 for adults and $16 for kids and include a family photo and cookie decorating kits. Event details are the SeaWorld Orlando website.

After all that Halloween fun, you’ll no doubt be ready for Christmas, and that kicks off plenty early in Central Florida too. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party kicks things off on November 8, just one week after the Halloween decorations go into storage, followed by festivities at all the other parks and the Gaylord Palms Resort…but that’s another story. Stay tuned!

Disney World has new tours, characters, shows and more this summer

Recently I attended a Coolest Summer Ever event at Walt Disney World where I got a whirlwind look at what’s in store this summer. It’s hard to believe that we’re moving quickly toward the busy tourist season, but the May off-season is almost over and the tourists will soon descend on the Orlando parks.

If you’re vacationing at Walt Disney World this summer, or if you’re a brave local who can’t go too long without your Disney fix, check out these videos for a peek at what you can do:

Tour the Downtown Disney waterways in an amphibicar (seriously, how cool is this? These are originals from the 1960s!):

See the American Music Machine at Epcot (talk about talent!):

New Tour at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (this is on my must-do list as I’d love to learn more about how they care for the animals):

Meet Doc McStuffins at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (your Disney Junior fans will be so excited):

Teen Beach Movie 2 Party (just one more reason to head over to Typhoon Lagoon this summer):

99That’s just a quick sampling of what’s ahead, and Frozen Summer Fun returns to Disney’s Hollywood Studios this year, too. Come on, admit it, you love Olaf!  I most certainly do, and I was thrilled to meet him during the Coolest Summer Ever kick-off.

The heat came early to Orlando, so I’m already feeling like its summertime. The Coolest Summer Ever event just made this official (although Frozen Summer Fun doesn’t start until June 17), so now it’s time to enjoy!

Videos show all the Frozen Summer fun at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Recently, I blogged about my day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios enjoying all the Frozen Summer activities. After all, who can resist playing in the snow in Florida, seeing Anna and Elsa, and singing “Let It Go” for the five hundred and thirty-fourth time?

If you haven’t made it over to the park to see it all for yourself, perhaps these videos will whet your appetite and inspire you to run over to the Studios. Just about everything, other than the ice skating, is included with your admission ticket, so it’s a nice little enhancement to a park that already has fun rides and shows like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Tours, Muppets 3-D, and the ever-popular Toy Story Mania.

Below, you’ll find a full overview of Frozen Summer, which runs through September 1:

This is an event that you’ll want to tough out until the end. As you saw in the video above, it’s capped with an impressive fireworks display. If you’re hearty enough to arrive at park opening and stay until close, you’ll begin your day with a cute welcome from Olaf, as seen in the video below:

The two big shows are the Frozen Sing-Along and Anna and Elsa’s royal welcome, which combines a mini parade with a cute little stage show. You can see it in the video below:

Frozen Summer is a great way for Disney to integrate one of its hottest (coldest?) properties into its parks. Anna and Elsa already to meet and greets at the Magic Kingdom, but that park is always the most popular, and it also has the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, so it doesn’t really need any other draws. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the perfect spot to act as the center of the Frozen action. In the video below, Creative Director Reed Jones talks about the event:

If you plan to make it out to Frozen Summer, you still have a while. Just hit the park by September 1 and you can witness snow in Florida, make your own snowman, and enjoy winter fun in the summer season.

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….


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

Quick Disney media event check-in: I rock my Disney side

I promised to issue full reports on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train event at Walt Disney World this week, so here’s  quick installment from the first night (if you missed my previous article, you can find it here). The festivities kicked off with a Rock Your Disney Side party at Epcot, followed by Illuminations viewing. The party was packed with delicious food, wine, margaritas, and other drinks, and some great entertainment. However, I have to admit that the Disney characters were a big highlight of the night.

There were many traditional favorites on hand, like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, who dressed up in their formal wear to celebration the 25th anniversary of Disney’s Hollywood Studios:


Goofy was there to promote Blizzard Beach:


There were lots of characters from the Festival of Fantasy parade on hand, but the “Sleeping Beauty” contingent is my favorite:


Several Cast Members from Festival of the Lion King also paid a visit:


There were even living statues in the entryway:


But perhaps the best surprise was having Anna and Elsa sneak up on me as I was grabbing a photo with Olaf. I didn’t even know they were coming, and suddenly there they were!


Disney definitely knows how to throw a party, and I consider myself very lucky to attend. Here’s one last photo to show how my night ended with a perfect view of Illuminations:


Stay turned to “In the Shadow of the Mouse” for continued coverage, and follow me via @themeparkwriter on Twitter for live updates as we progress toward the dedication ceremony for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train on Friday.

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.

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.


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.

Disney World trip springs man out of jail: Freed after 25 years

temp4We all have our own reasons for visiting Walt Disney World: to create family memories with the kids or grandkids, relive childhood experiences, escape reality, or just plain have fun. However, for a New York, his Disney trip turned out to be his “get out of jail free” card after an incorrect murder conviction that caused him to be wrongfully locked up for nearly 25 years.

Jonathan Fleming was accused of a shooting in Brooklyn, even though he insisted he was in Orlando at Walt Disney World with his family when the murder happened. An eyewitness gave testimony that he pulled the trigger, even though his family members insisted  he was in Orlando with them at the time of the 1990 crime. He was convicted and locked away in the slammer, where he stayed for almost quarter of a century. The supposedly eye witness later recanted, but Fleming was still stuck behind bars.

Now evidence in the form of a Disney hotel receipt proves he was telling the truth all along. He paid the hotel bill just four hours before the murder, proving there was no way he could have gotten back to Brooklyn in time to pull the trigger. Ironically, the receipt could have proved his point 25 years earlier, but it was never given to the defense.

Fleming reportedly plans to go back to school and earn a degree that will help him free other wrongly convicted prisoners like himself. It appears there might be a need for that sort of assistance, as two other wrongfully convicted prisoners were recently freed, and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office is looking into dozens of other cases via its Conviction Review Unit.

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.

Four reasons why locals hate tourists at Walt Disney World

I love tourists. Really, I do. They’re the reason I don’t pay any state income tax, and they keep our local economy afloat. If it weren’t for the millions of visitors who flock to Orlando every year, I wouldn’t get to enjoy so many theme parks and attractions all within mere miles of each other. I was once a tourist myself, and I wouldn’t have discovered the paradise that is Florida and made the leap to living here if I hadn’t been a vacationer first.

But I have to confess, I hate tourists, too, and so do my fellow locals, whether they admit it or not (locals’ secret: they’re calling you a “touron” behind your back). It’s not because moving to the Sunshine State immediately turns you into an old grouch. It happens when you face one too many of these four bad behaviors every time you visit Walt Disney World or one of the other theme parks. Here’s what tourists do that raises the locals’ ire:

1) Stop in the middle of a pathway (extra points if you do this with your entire ten-member family standing abreast of each other). I love it when tourists are traipsing along a primrose pathway in the Magic Kingdom or one of the other parks, and then they suddenly stop dead without warning. In a dense, wall-to-wall people filled park, that’s a great way to start a domino chain reaction of bodies bashing into each other. But the tourons are blissfully unaware that they’re created a hazard as they puzzle over their park map or get into a lengthy discussion about whether to do Space Mountain or the Country Bear Jamboree next. Talk as long as you want, but do it out of the way of those of us who actually use the walkways to walk.

east62) Wear giant hats in the shows. Yes, I get it. Mickey ears are lots of fun. Heck, I have more than a few pairs myself that I like to wear to the parks. But some of the hats and ears are quite large or tall, and they become a visual obstruction if you refuse to take them off from the moment you fork over your cash till you board the plane to fly home.

It’s hard to see a show or parade when the family in front of you is all decked out in Oswald ears, and too many of them act like you just asked them to shoot a kitten when you ask them to temporarily take them off. Yes, I really prefer to stare at your souvenir for the next 20 minutes rather than enjoying the performance.

Notice the nice, civil parade crowd in the photo. No one has a hat towering at the height of the Empire State Building, nor are they committing Tourist Sin #3…

3) Take photos and video with your iPad. This is fine for the occasional snapshot, but there’s always a few families who don’t seem to know about cell phone cameras or normal cameras that don’t block the view of the poor saps seated behind them. Or maybe they just really, really need some attention and figure the best way to get it is to hold their giant glowing screen over their head in the darkness for half an hour while they record the entire Hall of Presidents presentation, which they’ll never watch again once they get home.

4) Drive in the center lane at 20 miles an hour. When I was a tourist myself, I stayed on Disney property and used the internal transportation system. If I went to Universal, I took a shuttle. However, there are plenty of tourists who bring their own cars or get rentals, then create a hazard as they desperately navigate the unfamiliar terrain while wondering why their GPS just told them to turn left into a retention pond. They don’t know where or which way they’ll need to turn, so they get in the middle lane and limp along at the pace of a turtle with three broken legs. I always give them bonus points if they suddenly spot their turn-off and immediately cut off the driver in the left or right lane, despite there being no one else behind that car.

I could make this “five reasons” and go into obnoxious cell phone behavior here, but that one’s just too obvious. Instead I’ll share a video that shows how you can turn your annoyance into amusement. Have some fun with the idiots who think that everyone within a one mile radius needs to know about how their rampant toe nail fungus is affecting their trip around the world at Epcot. The video was shot at Disneyland, but it would work just as well in Florida:

Maybe I’ll give it a try someday.

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.