Count characters in bloom at Epcot’s Flower & Garden Festival

I don’t garden or tend flowers, don’t cultivate a single square foot of my property, and certainly neither of my thumbs would be mistaken for green. Instead, I’d rather get that green fix at Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival. It’s all the beauty of gardening without the hours toiling away in the yard and the inevitable disappointment when the local rabbit population decimates my veggie plot.

A recent springtime trip to Epcot found our sunny days filled with lush gardens, explosions of color, favorite Disney characters in bloom and — very important here — the delicious outdoor kitchens that sustain us throughout our touring. We made our way from Future World to World Showcase checking off the character topiaries on our Garden Passports — which made for a fun activity for the kids and a cool souvenir as well. Here are some of our favorites (clockwise from top left: The Three Caballeros hot pepper garden in Mexico, Phineas and Ferb at Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure kiosk in Future World, the Seven Dwarfs in Germany and the new FIgment sculpture near Spaceship Earth.).

After the sun goes down, the topiaries and many gardens are lit so you can still seek them out as you nosh your way around the outdoor kitchens and take in some tunes from the Garden Rocks concert series. And, of course, Mickey and pals are there in full bloom to bid you good night as you head out after a full day in the park.

Location: The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival runs from early March through May each spring at Walt Disney World Resort. Admission to the festival is included in your theme park ticket.

Fill a passport with new flavors at Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

It’s a menu, super souvenir, and a kid’s geography lesson all rolled into one: the Epcot Food & Wine Festival Marketplace Discovery Passport! (That’s a mouthful, huh? And yes, pun intended.) These handy checklists detail the ethnic offerings – including food and complementing beverages – at more than 30 vendors arranged around World Showcase during the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. Our family goal is to fill one of these passports with as many unique stamps from the vendors as we have room for in our stomachs. Here’s where it will actually help that there are six mouths to feed – one bite each of these sample-sized portions will leave us plenty hungry for more. We likely won’t collect all the stamps, but we’ll have a delicious time trying.

Voted most delicious by our family for the 2016 International Food & Wine Festival:

  • Canada: Le Cellier’s wild mushroom beef filet mignon with truffle butter paired with their Canadian cheddar cheese soup and pretzel roll (Moosehead lager to wash it down)
  • Scotland: potato pancake with Scottish smoked salmon and herbed sour cream
  • France: boeuf bourguignon (cabernet-braised short ribs) with mashed potatoes paired with gruyère and cognac onion soup. Also couldn’t resist one of the premiums from Les Vines de France. Beautiful nighttime picnic on the fountain outside Les Chefs de France!
  • Belgium: Belgian waffle with berry compote and whipped cream (Obsessed. It was perfect.) Oh and a brew, of course.
  • Hops & Barley (American Adventure): New England lobster roll and the fresh-baked carrot cake with extra cream cheese icing because it was last call! Plus, Sam Adams for one of us and California pinot noir for the other. What made it even sweeter? Scarfing it down in the Chase Visa lounge, then catching a near-private showing of the American Adventure as the park closed.

If you manage to stomach your way around each and every one of these marketplaces, be sure to treat yourself to a passport completion stamp, located in the gold-domed Festival Welcome Center.

Location: The annual Festival runs August 31-November 13, 2016, at Epcot Theme Park, Walt Disney World Resort.

Star Wars™ Weekends return to Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Star Wars™ Weekends are back at Disney’s Hollywood Studios May 16 – June 15, 2014! The event, which takes place Friday – Sunday, is jam-packed full of special entertainment, characters and dining experiences celebrating the popular Star Wars films and the television series Star Wars™: The Clone Wars.

New Dining Experiences

Two brand-new character dining options are being added to the event this year. Fuel up for a day at Hollywood Studios with the Star Wars Dine-In Galactic Breakfast” at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theatre ($47.99 for adults and $29.99 for children). Mingle with Star Wars personalities while movie moments from the trilogy play out on the big screen. For dinner, join Mickey and Friends (dressed in their Star Wars best) for “Jedi Mickey’s Star Wars Dine at Hollywood & Vine” ($47.99 for adults and $29.99 for children). The interactive meal is sure to be out-of-this-world with music and a delicious dinner buffet. Included with both the breakfast and dinner is a digital photograph memento. These new limited-time dining experiences will be available daily May 4 – June 15, 2014.

New “Feel the Force Premium Package”

Take in the popular Legends of the Force: Star Wars™ Celebrity Motorcade and the Symphony in the Stars fireworks from an exclusive reserved viewing area. Light snacks and beverages will be served during the Motorcade (11am daily during the event). The fireworks will be accompanied by a special Star Wars-themed dessert party. Also included is a souvenir Disney PhotoPass® card with a series of complimentary Star Wars™ photos. This special-ticketed event occurs daily during the event May 16-June 15, 2014, and is priced at $54 for adults and $32 for children (tax and gratuity included).

Returning Star Wars Favorites

Special themed entertainment will be back for 2014 including:

  • Official opening of Disney’s Hollywood Studios with Stormtroopers at the Gate
  • Padawan Mind Challenge (interactive trivia game designed for ages 4 – 11)
  • Jedi Training Academy (ages 12 & under, also available year-round)
  • Meet-and-greet opportunities with Star Wars characters (and some Disney characters in their Star Wars finest)!
  • Autograph sessions and celebrity guests (Mark Hamill, June 6 – 8 only!)
  • Behind-the-scenes presentations at the Premiere Theater

Classic Upgrade: Star Tours – The Adventures Continue

MH star tours 2.0 disneylandAt the risk of being branded blasphemous, I’ll admit I was slow to notice all the differences between the original Star Tours attraction and its 2011 revamp. Yes, I get that the entire film itself is brand new. I’m fully aware that eleven randomized scenes have been installed. I applaud the addition of the randomized scenes because they amount to a possible 54 different journeys through classic Star Wars communities and interactions with beloved Star Wars characters.

My main excuse for such ignorance is that I hadn’t ridden the original attraction in nearly a decade before riding the upgrade. The traits I remembered from the original were still present in the new film: our Starspeeders lurching to and fro, explosions rattling us in our chairs and C-3PO hysterically bumbling about.

MH star tours 2.0Our daughter, Emily, just took her first Star Tours flight this past fall (at right).

Location: Find Star Tours – The Adventures Continue in the Echo Lake area of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World Resort, and in the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland Park, Disneyland Resort.

Touring Tip: For more Star Wars fun, check out Star Wars™ Weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios May 16 – June 15, 2014.

Celebrate Easter at the Walt Disney World Resort

magic kingdom easterGiven that our Mouse Holiday Family wilts at the thought of such crowds, we have never ventured even in the general direction of the Walt Disney World Resort too close to Easter. As we don’t have the luxury of visiting as often as we’d like (a major understatement), we tend to schedule our trips when attendance is low. This totally wouldn’t be the case if we were locals. We’d take the crowds in stride if we could experience these special Easter activities:

Magic Kingdom

  • Easter Bunny meet-and-greet near Town Square Theatre
  • Special Easter pre-parade featuring Fantasia characters, a few famous Disney hares, and the Azalea Trail Maids.


  • Egg-stravaganza: 10 days of hunting for special Disney character eggs hidden around World Showcase. Purchase a special map and stickers ($4.95) to mark your finds; collect a prize when the map’s complete.
  • Easter Sunday egg hunts and relay races for kids in the United Kingdom Pavilion, World Showcase.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Easter Bunny meet-and-greet at the UK Pavilion, Easter Sunday.

Animal Kingdom

  • Mr. and Mrs. Easter Bunny meet-and-greet on Discovery Island, Easter Sunday.

Resort Hotels

  • Many Disney resort hotels offer pre-made Easter baskets or supplies to stock your own.
  • Many resort restaurants will serve special Easter menus or brunches.
  • Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and Disney’s Contemporary Resort get decked out with incredible – and fully edible! – Easter eggs on display.
  • All resorts will have special Easter activities scheduled throughout the holiday. From character meet-and-greets and candy scrambles to crafts, games and egg hunts, there might be enough going on at the hotels to warrant a break from the theme park crowds!

TRYit! to find new favorite flavors at Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival

My mouth is watering as I read about all the new menu items at the 2014 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. It was only six months ago that our Mouse Holiday Family was pushing our way through the toasty World Showcase, sampling as much of the Food & Wine Festival as the kids would tolerate – but I am so ready for more delicacies! Noshing on small portions from the various ethnic Marketplaces was a wonderful way to encourage the kids to try new foods. The Flower and Garden Festival likewise features booths arranged around World Showcase – Outdoor Kitchens, in this festival’s parlance – offering fresh flavors themed to their corresponding countries. Special “TRYit!” dishes have been specially created to appeal to kids, combining both familiar and new flavors in an attempt to expand often picky palates.

Here are some of the new TRYit! edibles offered this year at the festival through May 18:

  • Florida kumquat pie
  • Hanami sushi with beef, scallops and salmon in a shiso violet sauce
  • orange blossom macarons with white chocolate ganache
  • sweet potato-cinnamon waffle with pineapple soft serve
  • eggplant “scallop” with spaghetti squash
  • smoked turkey “ribs”
  • Caprese push-up with tomato, mozarella and balsamic

And if the kids TRYit and don’t care for it? More for me!

Christmastime at the Walt Disney World Resort Theme Parks

Twice each night during the holiday season at the Magic Kingdom, Queen Elsa employs her powers to transform Cinderella Castle into her sparkling ice palace. A Frozen Holiday Wish was near the top of our own wishlist on a visit to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. We were down in Walt Disney World in early December thanks to the casual suggestion of my dad, who was planning to attend a convention in the area, that our family might meet him there. Of course, being the Disney nut that I am, I immediately took that to mean, “Buy your tickets and pack your bags”.

Other delights of this Magic Kingdom special ticketed evening event were Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade (minus the overtired 3-year-old’s meltdown), free cocoa and cookie stations throughout the park, a magical dusting of snow on Main Street, Holiday Wishes fireworks spectacle, character greetings and other Christmasy entertainment.

tm epcot christmasTo observe the season over at Epcot, we spied on the Candlelight Processional while traipsing around World Showcase. During this nightly holiday event, a celebrity narrator reads the Christmas story accompanied by a full choir and orchestra. Our kids also made merry with Santa and his missus in the American Adventure Pavilion and experienced other multicultural entertainment.

Moving on to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we were treated to the incredible Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

The holiday display includes millions of lights choreographed to “dance” to Christmas favorites piped into the Streets of America. What once began as a single family’s Christmas lights collection has swelled to the best lights show in the state (and certainly the most amazing I’ve ever seen!).

And finally, to round out the theme parks, we visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom to see what it offered for the holidays. The answer is actually “not much” (we did spy Goofy in a Santa hat), but of each of the parks’ themed Christmas trees, I think Animal Kingdom’s unique ornaments made that tree our favorite of the four.

tm animal kingdomLooking to experience Christmastime Disney-style? (Read: on a massive scale.) We toured the first week of December and found the crowds to be pretty tolerable. The parks weren’t as quiet as we’d hoped they would be, but they were nothing like the chaos that descends the period between Christmas and New Years. It’s not necessary to visit so close to the actual holiday to take advantage of the special events and decorations; they go up in November and are in place through early January.

Highlights of the Holiday Season at the Walt Disney World Resort

Could there be a more magical place to celebrate the holiday season than the Walt Disney World Resort? The theme parks and resort hotels are simply at their merriest! We’ve highlighted some of our favorite traditions throughout the parks and resorts that really speak the season to us:

Select evenings in November and December, the Magic Kingdom hosts Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, an enchanting after-hours event featuring exclusive holiday entertainment. Enjoy “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade” and a special Holiday Wishes version of the nightly fireworks show. Castle Dream Lights transform Cinderella Castle into a glittering ice palace. A magical snow fall even takes place on Main Street USA. Brand new for 2013, the classic Jungle Cruise attraction is now sailing as “Jingle Cruise” throughout December.

Seasonal traditions continue in Epcot, where the annual Candlelight Processional is performed in World Showcase’s America Gardens Theatre November 29 – December 30. This joyous celebrity narration of the Christmas Story is accompanied by a mass choir and a 50-piece live orchestra. Also in World Showcase, the pavilions are visited by very special guests: traditional storytellers happy to share tales of their holiday customs as a part of Epcot’s Holidays Around the World. Future World gets into the spirit with “Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season” performed four times daily on the Fountain of Nations Stage. And finally, the nightly IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth features a special holiday finale.

Throughout the holiday season at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, marvel at the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights – featuring millions of dancing lights, animated displays and 3D effects synchronized to holiday tunes.

And at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, “Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade” steps off with safari Mickey dressed in his holiday best. From November 7, 2013 – January 5, 2014 let festive whimsical floats, puppets and a joyful holiday chorus help you ring in the season!

Plus, Downtown Disney gets decked out with a giant Christmas tree, festive lights and other seasonal touches. In addition to holiday shopping, guests at Downtown Disney can also enjoy festive tunes performed by school choirs and bands and even meet Santa at Santa’s Chalet.

Finally, don’t miss the charming holiday displays found at many of the Walt Disney World Resort Hotels including elaborate gingerbread creations at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Disney’s BoardWalk Resort, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, and Disney’s Beach Club Resort. You can bet that all of the resorts are dressed in their yuletide best during this most magical season of the year!

Witness the Headless Horseman open Mickey’s Boo-to-You Halloween Parade!

MH headless horsemanI was unsuccessful at getting a still shot of the Headless Horseman opening Mickey’s Boo-to-You Halloween Parade, so my son helped me re-create the moment (at left). We also shot some video of Andy reenacting the Horseman’s dark jaunt through the Magic Kingdom, arguably one of the most memorable moments of our first Mickey’s Not-so-Scary Halloween Party.

It was when I first heard about the Horseman’s live performance that I set my heart on seeing him in person. We staked out a front-row seat for the parade in Liberty Square. My husband teased me for having the camera out and filming far in advance, fretting that I might somehow miss the HH. No reason to worry – he receives a chilling introduction before stepping off: “With a glowing pumpkin to light the way, he’s lurking to find his perfect prey…beware! The Headless Horseman is here!”

Location: Mickey’s Boo-to-You Halloween Parade steps off nightly during Mickey’s Not-so-Scary Halloween Party select nights at Magic Kingdom Park, Walt Disney World Resort.

4th of July at Walt Disney World (plus a week at the beach!)

4th of july walt disney worldThough I’ve long been a total Disney junkie, I always vowed I wouldn’t go near the place during the month of July. The combination of the heat and crowds I’d heard so much about just sounded too daunting. And after having taken numerous trips during the temperate, much less attended months, I had no interest in making sweaty, miserable memories while trying to convince the kids to wait in yet another everlasting line.

But when my in-laws decided to shift our annual summer lake cabin trip to Florida, I found myself doing the unthinkable: reconsidering my Disney-in-July ban. I blame TourDad. He egged me on, claiming I wouldn’t be able to resist while being so close to Disney property.

As the pictorial evidence suggests, we ended up spending the 4th of July at Walt Disney World. And we more than just survived — we had a terrific time. On the evening of July 3rd, we viewed the special Magic Kingdom fireworks (“Disney’s Celebrate America! A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky”) from an observation deck after dessert at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.

epcot illuminations The next day we were at the gate for the opening of Epcot and shut it down 14 hours later after the most incredible fireworks we’ve seen on property (the typical IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth topped off with the special patriotic finale The Heartbeat of Freedom). I owe our success to both planning and luck. A few light sprinklings of rain, some cloud cover, and plenty of indoor, air-conditioned attractions timed right made the weather quite bearable. As for the crowds, we never waited more than 10 minutes for a ride (unthinkable if you don’t have a plan and a few FastPass+ selections scheduled) and only felt shoulder-to-shoulder with mankind during the fireworks. (Excuse the poor photo; our toddler was utterly terrified of the fireworks and it was impossible to take good pics while tending to her.)

tm redington shores florida














The pressure off, we headed for a more low-key week in Redington Shores, Florida, with TourDad’s family. There was ample time for swimming in the Gulf, playing with cousins, and exploring in the greater Tampa area. Never thought I’d be saying this, but Florida in July? No sweat.