Sara’s Snippets – July 10, 2014 – Halloween Is Better on the High Seas

Greetings fellow Mouse Fans!

We've all heard of Christmas trees but what the heck is a Pumpkin Tree? Guests sailing on the Disney Cruise Line this Fall in September and October will have the chance to find out during "Halloween on the High Seas." These Halloween-themed cruises onboard the Disney Magic, Disney Wonder, Disney Dream, and Disney Fantasy will feature fun activites, costume parties, special entertainment, and the aforementioned Pumpkin Tree! 

Contact your Mouse Fan Travel Planner for more information on one of these Spook-tacular cruises!

Be well and make magic wherever you go!

Sara Varney
Travel Planner

HHS95835

Photo Courtesy of Disney®

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Sara’s Snippets – July 9, 2014 – Candlelight Processional Dinner Packages Now Available for Booking

Greetings fellow Mouse Fans!

In the heat of the July sun, it is pleasant to think of cooler days. Let us turn our thoughts to the holidays at Walt Disney World… 

The Candlelight Processional, a re-telling of the Christmas story by a celebrity narrator accompanied by a full choir and orchestra, is held nightly in the America Gardens Theater at Epcot. Showtimes are 5:00, 6:45, and 8:15 pm. (Except for December 7 when there are only two shows at 6:45 and 8:15 pm.) A partial list of celebrity narrators has been announced:

11/28-11/29: Jodi Benson

12/5-12/6: Whoopi Goldberg

12/15-12/17: Sharon Stone

12/18-12/20: Ana Gasteyer

12/21-12/23: Marlee Matlin

12/28-12/30: Steven Curtis Chapman

Candlelight Processional Dinner Packages include lunch or dinner at an Epcot restaurant (all table service restaurants in Epcot with the exception of Akershus, Le Cellier, and Monsieur Paul), and reserved seating for one performance of the Candlelight Processional. Lunch starts at $35 per person, Dinner starts at $50 per person. This package can be booked by calling 407-WDW-DINE, online at www.disneyworld.com/dining or by contacting your Mouse Fan Travel Planner!

Be well and make magic wherever you go!

Sara Varney
Travel Planner

CLP870631

Photo Courtesy of Disney®

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Sara’s Snippets – July 3, 2014 – Happy Independence Day!

Greetings fellow Mouse Fans!

While you will be able to find fireworks displays all over the USA this weekend, there are none quite like the fireworks displays at Walt Disney World. The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney's Hollywood Studios will all have special fireworks on the 4th of July. (The Magic Kingdom will actually hold their 4th of July fireworks on both July 3 & 4.) 

Have a safe, and wonderful 4th of July and, of course, be well and make magic wherever you go!

Sara Varney
Travel Planner

Photo Courtesy of Disney®

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Sara’s Snippets – July 2, 2014 – Cinderella’s Royal Table Refurbishment

Greetings fellow Mouse Fans!

We can now confirm the rumor – Cinderella's Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom will be closed for refurbishment January 5, 2015 – March 6, 2015. (Dates subject to change.) Guests wishing to dine with the Princesses should consider Akershus in Epcot for breakfast, lunch or dinner (multiple Princeses, subject to change) or 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian for dinner only (Cinderella is joined by Prince Charming, Lady Tremaine and her Step Sisters) . 

Be well and make magic wherever you go!

Sara Varney
Travel Planner

Two princesses share a hug during "Cinderella's Happily Ever After Dinner"<br /><br />
recently at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Photo Courtesy of Disney®

 

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Sara’s Snippets – June 26, 2014 – Keeping Attractions Running Smoothly

Greetings fellow Mouse Fans!

Walt Disney World is a magical place where guests can escape from their humdrum every day lives and indulge in fun and fantasy. So it can be a bit jarring when the real world intrudes in the form of a malfunctioning attraction or slightly-the-worse-for-wear appearance. To minimize these interruptions to the magic, Walt Disney World performs periodic refurbishments to all of its attractions, shows, restaurants, pools, etc. 

When planning your Walt Disney World vacation, it's helpful to know ahead of time what will be closed during your stay. This will help to prevent sad faces and disappointment when your family runs eagerly to your favorite ride, only to discover it is closed for refurbishment! 

Where can you find this information? AllEars.Net of course! We all know and love AllEars.Net for the tons of Disney information they provide to us, but the Rehabs and Closing Schedule is one of the most useful tools available. Be sure to check it out before your next trip!

Be well and make magic wherever you go, 

Sara Varney
Travel Planner

Cinderella's Royal Table -- Magic Kingdom

Cinderella's Royal Table is rumored to be closing for a rehab in January 2015. Keep any eye on the Rehab and Closing Schedule for confirmation! Photo Courtesy of Disney®

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Celebrate Universal Moments at the All New Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida

Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley

With such a strong community of Disney fans over at Mouse Fan Travel, it can sometimes be hard to convince or even interest us Mouse Fans to head down the road and check out Universal Orlando Resort. I know even personally, I did not experience Universal as a guest until a couple of years ago. Many of us have so much history with Disney Parks, it may feel as though we are "betraying the Mouse" by visiting another theme park. However, when I first visited Universal Orlando Resort, I was actually shocked at how much I loved it. The theming, the details, the fun, is all there. I realized that it is possible to love both resorts, for different reasons, just be being a fan of theme park design, story, and of course, attractions. {And being a huge Harry Potter nerd doesn't hurt either.} With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade section in Islands of Adventure, the park gained a whole new set of fans and visitors. The attention to detail and the dedication to the Harry Potter books and movies is quite simply, amazing. Add to the mix the beautiful hotels on property (we'll discuss those more later) and great packages with add-ons like the Universal Dining Plan, and Universal Orlando really IS a destination worth visiting. All of that is reason enough to visit these parks and hotels – but Universal just changed the game with their new Wizarding World of Harry Potter addition – Diagon Alley. We were recently treated to a preview of this new area and it's main attraction – Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and to sum it all up in a word, it's AMAZING.  Below, we'll share some details of this new area and why, if you are on the fence about adding a Universal visit to your Orlando vacation, now is the very best time to jump on over and visit these incredible parks and resorts. 

If you are a fan of the Harry Potter series of books or even just the movies, you will fall head over heels in love (as I did) with Diagon Alley. The area is set up with London's King's Cross Station and surrounding buildings setting the stage for the Muggle (or non-wizard) part of London, with only a few details like the Knight Bus and Kreecher the House Elf peeking out from a window giving away that something magical is going on around here. But around the corner lies a very special alley – Diagon Alley which makes you feel like you are a wizard yourself, stepping foot right into the books or movie set. You can dine in the Leaky Cauldron. You can have a cone at Florean Fourtiscue's Ice Cream Parlour. You can pick up some parchment or a quill at Scribbulus. I could go on and on. Oh, and by the way, there is a giant dragon perched on the top of Gringott's Bank, which breathes fire every 10 minutes. I was overwhelmed, in the very best way possible, and did not want to leave. 

Escape from Gringott's is a ride unlike any other, and had me grinning from ear to ear (and hanging on for dear life) the whole time. I don't want to give away too many spoilers, but I will say that while it's not quite as intense as Forbidden Journey, as far as scary parts go, but it is still packed full of thrills, surprises and fun. With a height requirement of 42", it will be more accessible to younger riders than Forbidden Journey – if your little ones like Big Thunder Mountain or Splash Mountain, or The Mummy at Universal, they will love this. 

We were only able to go in to Diagon Alley at night, so we only have nighttime photos to share, but we'll be back as soon as we can to share daytime photos too. However, I must say that photos really cannot do justice to the feelings you experience when you first step foot inside the alley and are transported to the world of Harry Potter, surrounded by the sights, sounds and scents of the books and movies.

Right now, to celebrate the opening of Diagon Alley Universal Orlando Resort is offering an all-new Harry Potter vacation package: 

This EXCLUSIVE vacation package includes:

  • 4-Night Hotel Accommodations
  • 3-Day Park-to-Park Ticket
  • Breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron™ in Universal Studios Florida® – one per person
  • Breakfast at the Three Broomsticks™ in Universal's Islands of Adventure® – one per person
  • Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ one hour before the theme parks open
  • Special themed Welcome Parcel (This works in both parks Wizarding World sections!)
    • Souvenir owl plush
    • Welcome letter

I know I want to book myself a package right now! Stay tuned to the Cafe, @meitravel on twitter, @mei_mousefantravel on instagram and the MEI-Travel Facebook Page for more updates!

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Sara’s Snippets – June 19, 2014 – My Favorite Table Service Restaurants

Greetings fellow Mouse Fans!

Moving on to Table Service locations… Since this is really about what restaurants give you the best experience (both taste and atmosphere) for your Disney Dining Plan credits, I'll restrict myself to locations that are only one Table Service Credit on the Disney Dining Plan! Signature Dining locations (those that are two Table Service Credits per person) are probably their own topic anyway. 

Magic Kingdom

Once upon a time there was a restaurant that had my favorite character meal of all time – Liberty Tree Tavern. Sadly, the characters have not appeared at this location in many years but the fond memories remain. Perhaps it is this, combined with my New England heritage and my love of comfort food, that puts Liberty Tree Tavern at the top of my list in the Magic Kingdom. The Dinner is served family style and is all you can eat! Salad, turkey, beef, pork, mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, stuffing and veggies – it is Thanksgiving every day here! Lunch is also a great option with an a la carte menu featuring a diverse menu of american classics. 

Epcot

Epcot is a much tougher place to narrow it down to one restaurant. This is where the good food lives!! So I'm going to go with my standout meal from last week – Via Napoli. This was my first visit to this restaurant and we were blown away. My guys started with the Prosciutto e Melone (prosciutto with canteloupe), I had the Mozzarella Caprese, and we split the Piccante Signature Pie (spicy sausage pizza). I am still dreaming of the fresh mozzarella and the perfect chewiness of the crust! But because there is so much great food at Epcot, I also have to give honorable mentions to the Garden Grill (an unsung gem of a character meal), and San Angel Inn. 

Animal Kingdom

This one is easy – Tusker House! Where did I choose to dine on my 40th birthday? Not Victoria & Albert's, not Artist Point – Tusker House! This buffet (with characters at breakfast and lunch) offers some of the best food around. Just try to keep me away from the Seafood Stew and Israeli Couscous… Oh and the plantains… and the Roast Beef with Horseradish Cream… and a saffron rice… did I mention the desserts? Ok so yeah, I like it. and you will too!

Hollywood Studios

I always leave this one for last. Actually, I usually just leave this park when it is time to eat! But if I do stay in the park, I am headed to the 50's Primetime Cafe. With a fun atmosphere, casual comfort food menu, and really interactive servers, this is my favorite place in Hollywood Studios. And the portions are BIG so you get a lot for your dining dollar! (But to be fair, chances are you will see me boarding a boat bound for the Epcot Resort area to grab dinner over there at Beaches & Cream or Captain's Grill!)

So that's it! My recommendations for snacks, counter service locations, and table service locations at each park. Bon appetit! 

Be well and make magic wherever you go!

Sara Varney
Travel Planner

Via Napoli

Via Napoli – My current favorite in Epcot. Photo Courtesy of Disney®

 

 

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Sara’s Snippets – June 18, 2014 – My Favorite Counter Service Locations

Greetings fellow Mouse Fans!

Returning to my series on making the most of your Disney Dining Plan, let's move on to Counter Service locations. There are so many great options for a quick meal at Walt Disney World and it is so much more than just burgers! Here are my favorites both for flavor and for value. 

Magic Kingdom

Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe – Located on the edge of Tomorrowland, this place has one of the best deals around in terms of getting the most bang for your Disney Dining buck. The Half Chicken and Half Rack of Ribs Combination Dinner with Mashed Potatoes and Green Beans is both an enormous portion AND delicious! There was more than enough food for my family of three last week in this one meal alone. (We were leaving room for dessert!) But even if you aren't trying to save space for more food later, this meal is plenty for two adults to split. Which frees up a counter service credit to use for another meal to split! Plus, this location offers a toppings bar featuring onions, mushrooms, cheese sauce and more, turning an ordinary burger and fries into a much more exciting meal. 

Epcot

Katsura Grill – This tucked away spot in the Japan pavilion is one of the best kept secrets in Epcot. With a large menu including everything from Sushi to Teriyaki Salmon, the portions are big and the food is really good. A friend swears by the Chicken Curry but my favorite is the Tempura Shrimp Udon. Take your meal outside and dine under the lanterns while listening to the nearby waterfall for a perfect evening meal. 

 Animal Kingdom

Yak & Yeti Local Foods Cafe - I hear a lot of talk about Flame Tree Barbecue at Animal Kingdom and while it is a good option if you like Barbecue, I prefer Yak & Yeti Local Foods Cafe. (Not to be confused with Yak & Yeti Restaurant, the table service option.) Seating can be a bit of an issue at this location but if you are willing to cross traffic, there is seating by the river just across the way, where peace and quiet can be found.  I am big fan of the Beef Lo Mein or the Honey Chicken. 

Hollywood Studios

Backlot Express – Ok, I'll admit that I struggled to pick a favorite location at this park. Its just not my favorite for food! But when I am in this park around lunch time, I always go to the same place – Backlot Express. With plenty of seating indoors and outdoors, as well as a decent menu, this is inevitably our choice. I like the Angus Onion Straw Cheeseburger with Horseradish Sauce but the Buffalo Chicken Nuggets are tasty too! 

Tomorrow we finish it out with Table Service locations. 

Be well and make magic wherever you go!

Sara Varney
Travel Planner

Katsura Grill is located right behind this building in the Japan Pavilion. Photo courtesy of Disney®

 

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How I celebrated Father’s Day at Disney World (aka…Three Dads, a Cast Member and a Grateful Daughter)

You can’t pick your family, but somehow you end up where you belong. I heard that tonight on a tv promo for a movie and it really struck me as truth, especially after the day I had in reflection of what Father’s Day means to me and the men who have had a hand in shaping my life.

Many of you know part of my story… I was adopted as an infant and several years ago I was able to communicate with my birthfather & say thanks for the opportunity to live this crazy life. I hope to meet him someday in person and I always think of him on Father’s Day.

The man who I call my father adopted me when I was a few months old. His name was Richard, but he will always be my Daddy. I am his only child and in his eyes I was his little princess. Well, let’s be honest here… more like a Merida type princess who would be more the type to be out skinning her knee instead of a Cinderella type roaming the castle sewing clothes. OR WAIT! I’ll even take it to the Princess Leia…being a little opinionated, preferred pants over a dress, and was adopted too… it is the end of Star Wars Weekend so why not!  (we will take on the Disney Princess or not debate on at another time)… but I digress.

My Daddy served in the Pacific theater in WWII as a Navy recon photographer, returned to take over his father’s insurance business until he retired.  I’m still amazed he worked just one business his entire post war life.  I think I am now on career number 4.. or so.

I learned many of life’s lessons from him and he is responsible for my entrepreneurial spirit as well as for my love of travel and all things Disney. It first started with frequent drive trips where we would pack into a car and drive around a state each year and explore the history, culture and fun the state had to offer. Take Oregon for example… anyone been to a  ghost town, a Shakespearean festival, a vortex with a house of mystery, a beach, a Crater Lake, an amusement park and a zoo all in one trip?  That was a typical summer for me.

Then one year I received a gift from him that had 3 record albums (kids – those are what cds/MP3s/.wav files were in the olden days…) that had songs and a picture book of three Disneyland attractions… Haunted Mansion, Country Bears and I think It’s a Small World.  I wore the Haunted Mansion one out playing it over and over.  A few months later he took me to Disneyland for my 7th birthday.  We stayed at one of the hotels across the street space themed I think and I remember the hotel shuttle was decorated with a face on the front of it…  I have pics somewhere in boxes & I may have to dig them out someday and detail that trip. (ok.. ok… its on the list for another time…)

Anyway …

I lost my Daddy to Acute Myeloid Leukemia in 1994… 20 years ago this August. He was 70 at the time but he was always an 8 year old in his heart and mind when it came to enjoying life.  If he was here today he’d be racing me to whatever attraction we had for the first fastpass of the day. I always want to remember that childlike wonder and spirit and do my best to remember age is in the mind… and yes sometimes in my knees, but we can work around that if needed. 

When my husband took me to Walt Disney World for the 1st time in 1996, we discovered they were selling paving bricks that you could commemorate people, special occasions, vacations, etc. in a few words and they would be included in pathways in various spots around the Seven Seas Lagoon. I fell in love with Walt Disney World and decided this would be a perfect way to always remember where it all started and would be reminded of my Daddy on each trip to follow. So I purchased a brick and it was placed on the path between the Polynesian and the Grand Floridian.

Fast forward to Father’s Day 2014…
I decided to go find the brick I purchased 18 years ago. I knew I could get a map of the locations, but when I archived the brick numbers, I did a great job cause I couldn’t find them. I tried looking online to see if there was a lookup of any kind and even went down to the club concierge who said she knew nothing about the bricks except they stopped selling them years ago. Next,  I called my husband in Seattle and he lovingly searched archives, old boxes, every place we could possibly think of to help us get the numbers so I could find the brick. Nothing.  So…I set off in the heat of the day to see if I could get lucky and find it on my own.

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I searched for almost 2 hours in the heat of June reading the stories brick by brick of the hundreds of family memories of weddings, anniversaries and family trips of people I didn’t know, yet felt the joy of each one representing a little piece of magic that makes up the big picture we enjoy today.  Anyone who knows me also knows I don’t last long in the heat. Apparently my body functions as a personal space heater at all times, so eventually I had to give up and just spent a few minutes thinking about my Daddy. The man he was, and thanking him for the gifts he gave me. Then I decided I would go to the Magic Kingdom and ride some of the rides we enjoyed together in Disneyland those many years ago.

On my walk to Grand Floridian to catch the monorail, I stopped to make a phone call to dad #3. My stepfather Rodger is my last remaining parent that had a positive influence in my life and makes me smile and laugh every time I get to talk with him. He is retired now but taught me the value of hard work and responsibility from a very early age. We share a love for football and wine and the simple pleasures of the company of great of friends. I treasure our relationship so much yet I don’t see him as much as I would like, so my Father’s day gift is a weekend in Seattle so we can catch up. I was hell on wheels for him thru my teenage years so the least I can do is buy him a beer now and then to try and make up for it all. THere is a story about the first time I took Rodger to Walt Disney World… Ill tell that one next year….

First stop upon arrival at the Magic Kingdom?  Haunted Mansion of course!  It was fun closing my eyes and catching memories of when my Daddy and I rode the attraction together and I couldn’t help wishing he was here to ask those burning questions… was I scared when I rode with him? If so what scared me most? What did I like about it? Did I fixate on the Ballroom scene then as much as I do now?.. etc.. etc.. etc..

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When I exited the ride I saw looming dark clouds starting to head my way, so thought maybe I’d head back to the hotel to get some work done. As I passed the firehouse I thought… maybe it’s worth a stop at City Hall just to see if they have a resource I could call this week for brick numbers.

I walked in and was greeted by Marie from France. I had already had my mind ready for the bad news that my quest was likely futile, so told her right up front it was quite possible was I was looking for likely wasn’t possible, but was worth a try.  When I asked about the bricks and the maps, I received the look of “Im sorry but…”  and when she finished her sentence, I was about to say thanks and walk away. She could have said… have a magical day, but instead she looked at me and said…” let me see something…” and she disappeared behind the backstage door.  A few minutes later she emerged and said…  if you can give me a little info I may be able to look them up…”.  I think my heart skipped a beat but I still wasn’t going to get excited as the info she needed like the address I lived when I purchased it, was so long ago I wasn’t sure if it was enough to do any good. Marie went to a terminal and went to work.  Several minutes later she returned and said “I didn’t find one…  I found FIVE”

My eyes welled up in tears. Just as they are again as I write this. Not only did she find the number of the brick for my daddy, but she also went to the additional effort and found the other four my husband and I purchased over the years to commemorate other important moments at Disney World. Our Anniversary, a special trip or two with friends, and another I purchased to always remember my mom when I lost her 5 years after my dad in 1999.

 

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I tried to say thank you… but my voice simply couldn’t make it thru the emotion. I was simply not expecting a miracle after a long day of searching and the additional effort Marie went to made true ‘Walt style Magic’ for a grateful daughter to celebrate Father’s Day in the best possible way given the circumstances. As she wrote down the brick numbers I made use of the tissues she handed me.

A few minutes later… the emotion turned to joy and I asked for a cast card to be sure she was recognized for her efforts.

Merci Beaucoup Marie.  
You are a shining example of what I have come to expect from Disney cast. You could have easily let me walk away and moved on with your day when you weren’t sure about the bricks, but you took the extra step and it meant the world to a daughter in search for a lost memory.

If a cast member ever goes the extra step for you that makes a difference in your visit… please stop by Guest Relations and ask for a cast recognition card. That extra effort should always be rewarded and maybe you will bring a tear to the eye of someone else.

And thank you Walt Disney – who I think of as a grandfather –  for creating a world where daddy’s and daughters from generations past and generations to come to create and share memories and remember beautiful memories as time passes.

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So where is the brick?
Of course as things sometimes go, a huge thunderstorm and downpour began just as I boarded the monorail and has continued until it got dark…. So guess what im doing after my meetings tomorrow…
 

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Sara’s Snippets – June 12, 2014 – Port Orleans French Quarter

Greetings fellow Mouse Fans!

I am just back from a birthday trip to Walt Disney World. We stayed at my favorite moderate resort – Port Orleans French Quarter! I love this resort for so many reasons. 

French Quarter is the smallest of the moderate resorts, meaning that even the furthest rooms from the main building are still only a 5 minute walk. (Compared to Riverside which is more than double the size!) The resort has a very peaceful feel to it and is beautifully themed with wrought iron, fountains, gorgeous landscaping, and clever street names. ("Rue D'Baga" anyone?) 

The dragon-themed pool is a hit with kids and grown ups alike. And tucked away from the activity at the pool is a hot tub! 

Another reason to love this resort are the activties on offer. Every evening features outdoor movies and a campfire complete with toasted marshmellows. The pool has games and contests in the afternoon. And romantic carriage rides are available! 

Last but not least is the food. While French Quarter is also the only moderate resort without its own table service restaurant, it more than makes up for the lack with a great food court. The Sassagould Float Works food court features many offerings for breakfast lunch and dinner including pasta dishes, cajun dishes such as jambalaya, burgers, fried chicken and more. But most importantly – they make fresh beignets throughout the day! These little pillows of fried dough dusted in powedered sugar are to die for. 

I left only 24 hours ago but I am already counting the days until I can return to Port Orleans French Quarter!

Be well and make magic wherever you go!

Sara Varney
Travel Planner

My son enjoying his toasted marshmellows at French Quarter (Copyright Sara Varney©)

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