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Spotlight: Soarin’

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Future World, Epcot, contains one of Disney’s most innovative and unique rides. Soarin’, the high-flying adventure over California, is one of my personal favorites, and gives riders a distinct feeling of weightlessness. The premise behind the ride is a simple one: you get to view iconic areas of the Sunshine State from a hang gliding-like perspective. The ride itself, if you want to get technical about it, is really just one giant projector screen. But as you’re lifted off the ground in your tiered elevated chairs, your feet dangle in front of you as the projected images surround your view. You soar over places like the Golden Gate Bridge, Napa Valley, Yosemite National Park, Los Angeles, and even the Disneyland California park itself. Several of the scenes infuse a distinct scent, such as the salty ocean as you fly over Malibu, or evergreens as you fly over the mountains. The ride really does feel all-encompassing, and when you “land” it seems as if you’ve actually been to the places on the screen. Soarin’s sense of realism is unparalleled, and its finale (Christmas fireworks over Disneyland) is truly breathtaking. Be sure to check this one out if you’re in The Land—it’s worth the wait.

 

Image courtesy of flickr.com.

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A Very Disney Christmas

Christmas carols, silver bells, reindeer… it’s that time of year again! Oh, wait, no it’s not. But as Disney’s summer deals come to a close and discounts are released for the fall and winter, it is time to start thinking about spending your holidays at the happiest place on Earth.

Disney is bursting with magic any day of the week, but around Christmastime, the park really shines. To start with, everything is completely decorated and decked out in holiday cheer. Buildings in the parks are strung with wreaths and lights, and hotels even offer unique yuletide displays.

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(Above: Main Street, USA; Below: Toy train set in the Yacht Club)

Several attractions throughout the park also take on a holiday theme during this time of year, including the very appropriate “Jingle Cruise,” where the skipper’s typical puns are adapted for the yuletide crowd. These holiday variations on classic attractions are definitely fun, but it’s the additional Christmas events that make visiting between late November and early January worthwhile.

One of the more little-known holiday events is the nightly lighting of Cinderella’s Castle. Around dusk, the voice of Cinderella’s godmother can be heard throughout Magic Kingdom as she transforms the castle into a vision of shimmering Christmas lights. It’s a fun little show to catch if you’re around, and you’ll get some really great pictures of one of Disney’s most famous landmarks.

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You’ll also want to check out some of Epcot’s special offerings, including the Candlelight Processional and Holidays Around the World. The former features a special celebrity guest each night, so that might be something to consider when booking. I just missed the time window for those two events, but I was able to see the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, and it’s without a doubt one of the coolest things that Disney has to offer.

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The Streets of America in Hollywood Studios are decorated with more lights than you can possibly imagine, and they all move and flash to popular Christmas songs. My family actually went one night when it was raining (pictured above) and so crowds were minimal and the puddles on the streets reflected all the lights. We almost skipped it because of the weather, but I’m so glad we didn’t—it was nothing short of magical, and I 100% recommend it.

 

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Spotlight: World Showcase

Walt’s original vision of Epcot was, literally, an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—a utopian society where cultures could co-exist peacefully. World Showcase is the embodiment of this idea, and brings together countries from around the world (Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the US, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK, and Canada) in one large loop around the back of Epcot. This pavilion is unlike anything else you’ll find at Disney, or in any theme park, for that matter.

First of all, no detail is too small for this pavilion. Each country is diligently themed and represented, from the availability of local foods to the architecture of the all the buildings. Cast members can also only work in the park if they’re originally from the country that they are representing. Each new pavilion really feels authentic, and you’ll leave Epcot feeling like a world traveler.

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Several of the pavilions have rides to accompany their country, such as Mexico’s boat ride led by Donald Duck. Norway also has a famous ride, Maelstrom, which was a journey through land conquered by the vikings. As of late 2014, this ride unfortunately closed to make way for a new Frozen-themed attraction to break ground soon. Other countries, like Italy and the UK, have performers and shows that take place at various times, such as concerts in the garden or jugglers in the town’s square.

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I would recommend dedicating a night or two to explore World Showcase and soak up the culture—and be sure to catch IllumiNations on your way out!

 

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Favorite Shows

One of the best things about Disney World is the wide array of spectacular shows, fireworks displays, and parades held held throughout the parks. Each of them is themed differently and offers a unique experience. Here are my top five favorites:

5. Fantasmic!

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This classic Hollywood Studios water show stars Sorcerer Mickey and takes audiences on a journey through iconic Disney animated films. Following the narrative of a dream sequence, characters like Simba, Pocahontas, Ursula, Jafar, and Maleficent all make appearances as Mickey tries break the nightmare. The show ultimately culminates with a fireworks celebration and a journey on the Steamboat Willie River Boat. It’s not the best that Disney has to offer, but everyone should see it at least once.

4. Main Street Electrical Parade

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I’m not the biggest fan of parades, but this one is worth it; held after dusk in Magic Kingdom, the Main Street Electrical Parade features enormous glow-in-the-dark floats that travel around the park. Some of the stories represented are Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Cinderella. The beauty of this parade is breathtaking, and it’s a great way to cap off your night in Magic Kingdom.

3. Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

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This holiday extravaganza can be found in Hollywood Studios during Christmas time. The Streets of America are draped in millions of sparkling lights that flash to various Christmas songs. The sheer magnitude of this show is unbelievable, and it’s really something that everyone should experience at least once. The details on each building are incredible, and each new song that plays features something different. You can catch the Dancing Lights show on select nights from November to January.

2. IllumiNations

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This Epcot must-see is completely different than any other show at Disney—it’s not based on anything mythology from the movies, but rather it features a premise designed by Walt himself. Epcot as a whole is meant to bring nations and cultures together to work towards a brighter future, and IllumiNations inspires just that. The show takes place in the center of World Showcase Lagoon when all the countries around it go dark. A metallic globe rotates on the water and captivating images are projected onto it as it turns. It eventually cracks open and makes way for a gorgeous and inspiring fireworks display. I revisit this show each time I come to Disney, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone for something a little different.

1. Wishes

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You probably saw this coming, right? Wishes is the ultimate Disney experience; there’s nothing quite like gathering on Main Street when the sun goes down to watch the Castle light up and hear your favorite characters come to life as fireworks adorn the sky. The movie scores and original songs that play during the show are a stirring encapsulation of what Disney is all about, and there’s nothing quite like seeing the Castle transform right before your eyes. In the end, it’s nothing short of magical.

 

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Spotlight: The Yacht Club

There are a lot of factors that go into deciding which on-site hotel to stay at during your vacation: price, location, atmosphere, amenities, etc. Some people feel a certain loyalty to their hotel of choice, and will stay there for every Disney trip—others like to explore the wide range of options available. Personally, I enjoy knowing exactly which hotel I’m going to book for all my vacations, and that’s the Yacht Club.

The Yacht Club is a deluxe hotel located in the Epcot resort area next to its sister hotel, the Beach Club, and across from the Boardwalk Inn. The resort is modeled after a New England seaside beach town and features a gorgeous landmark lighthouse, as well as Stormalong Bay, an outdoor pool complete with sand and a massive shipwreck-themed water slide. The rooms are boat-themed, and there is a special floor reserved for a “Concierge Level,” which contains a lounge that serves food and a private balcony. Here are some great reasons to stay the Yacht Club:

The View

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The back of the resort looks out over a scenic lagoon with sandy beaches and a boardwalk that leads to the lighthouse. It’s incredibly picturesque, and is especially pretty at dusk. The resort holds movie screenings and other events right on the beach, and you’re always free to walk along the sand and lounge in the beach chairs. You can see Epcot’s IllumiNations right from the beach, and many of the resort’s rooms give you a view of the lagoon from your balcony.

The Rooms

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The rooms at the Yacht Club are simple but elegant, and are slightly more refined than the ones found at the Beach Club because the Yacht Club typically caters to an older crowd. All rooms are furnished with a private balcony that provides great scenery. The lobby is also very elegant, and when you arrive you are greeted by The Captain, who hangs around the resort completely in character.

The Amenities

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Stormalong Bay is an outdoor pool that connects the Beach and Yacht Clubs. It’s an enormous facility with plenty of sun, sand, and beach chairs. It’s got a great water slide for the kids, a lazy river section, and has plenty of noodles and tubes to go around. The Yacht Club is also home to Yachtsman’s Steakhouse, an upper-scale restaurant with some really quality food options.

The Location

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Perhaps the best reason to stay at the Yacht Club is its position between the parks. A short walk from the hotel will take you directly to the back of Epcot (pictured above) and right to the France Pavilion. From the park, you have boat and monorail access. If you choose to walk down to the lighthouse, there is a boat service that will take you across the way to the Boardwalk, or over to Hollywood Studios. Buses also stop by the lot to bring you to Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom.

 

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Spotlight: Flower and Garden Festival

If you’re booking a last minute vacation this spring (and you love Epcot as much as I do), you’ll want to check out the Flower and Garden Festival, held every year from March to mid-May. The special attraction takes place in both World Showcase and Future World, and features gorgeous character topiary and flower arrangements throughout the parks. The festival hosts special events for Earth Day, as well as entertaining “Flower Power” concerts on select weekends. You can also visit “Outdoor Kitchens”  throughout the park, which are similar to the offerings of Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival. For an extra fee, you can also participate in a “Gardens of the World Tour,” in which you’re led around the park by a horticulturist for a 3-hour tour of the most impressive garden displays. Also feel free to stop by the United Kingdom Pavilion for a “tea garden” afternoon special tour.

Here are some displays you’ll see throughout the parks:

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It’s a great time to visit the parks, and for the avid Disney-goer, it’s something you’ll want to see at least once.

 

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Favorite Rides

The attractions at Walt Disney World are iconic, innovative, and immersive—but which one’s the best? It depends on your taste, but here’s my list of the park’s top five greatest rides. (Disclaimer: I’m no thrill-seeker! You can keep your Rock n’ Rollercoaster and your Tower of Terror.)

5. Pirates of the Caribbean

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This classic Magic Kingdom ride is such a must-see that it inspired an entire movie franchise. It takes you on a boat ride through deep, swash-buckling caverns as 18th century inhabitants pillage, plunder, and party all around you. There’s nothing really thrilling about this ride, save for a small drop at the end—the enjoyment comes from the atmosphere and attention to detail as you traverse the water-way. A fun legend surrounding the ride helps add to its captivating theatrics; many Disney visitors have long-since acknowledged that Pirates is haunted by a (mostly) friendly ghost named George, who will break down the ride if you denounce him in your boat.

4. Haunted Mansion

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Speaking of ghosts, another one of my favorites is the Haunted Mansion. Similar in style to Pirates, Haunted Mansion takes you via Doom-Buggy through the ghoulish residence of Madame Leota. The technology on this one is pretty impressive, and there are so many undead beings floating around that you’ll have to ride multiple times to catch all the details. But don’t worry—this ride never gets old.

3. The Great Movie Ride

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This Hollywood Studios landmark doesn’t have the universal appeal of some original Magic Kingdom favorites, but as a lover of all things movies, it’s a must-do for me. I’m hooked right from the queue, which features a clip-show of great films throughout the years. When you are seated in your vehicle, everything is flashing dazzling lights and you really feel like a part of Hollywood. The live-action part of the ride is always entertaining, and can change each time you return. This one truly lives up to the name.

2. Kilimanjaro Safaris

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Instead of taking you on a journey through the movies, Kilimanjaro Safaris brings you to the African savannas. This ride in particular has the most potential for a completely unique experience each go-around, and new animals are constantly arriving at the location. It’s an adventure unlike anything else at Disney, and has become a landmark attraction over the years. As an animal-lover, I really enjoy this up-close encounter with the parks’ residents.

1. Soarin’

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Fly over California in this amazing attraction located in Future World, Epcot. Your vehicles are only a few feet off the ground, but their swinging momentum coupled with the dazzling scenery in front of you really makes you feel weightless. Some of the scenes are even accompanied by scent to add to the immersion. This ride always has a really long wait, but it’s definitely worth it, and the journey’s ending is unforgettable.

 

Honorable Mentions: The Jungle Cruise, Test Track, & Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin

 

Images provided by buzzfeed.com, pinterest.com, grumpymickey.com, and thegreatmovieride.tripod.com.

 

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Trip Log: November 20th, 2013

My most recent trip to Disney World took place from November 20th to November 24th just last year. My family was hoping to see the Christmas decorations and events up and running before the large crowds descended, and indeed, when we arrived on Wednesday, 11/20, Disney’s holiday spirit was already in full swing.

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We were staying at the Yacht Club on the concierge level, and were checked in to room 5177 at around 12 PM. For those of you wondering, the concierge level is basically a special floor in on-site hotels that has its own check in/check out desk and its own “concierge lounge,” which concierge guests can visit and get complementary meals, snacks, and drinks throughout the day. It costs a little extra, but I would recommend trying it at least once! The accessible food is especially convenient, and if nothing else, it’s a really fun experience that helps you feel a little like Disney royalty!

Here is the view from our balcony:

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Pretty great! We were basically right across from the iconic lighthouse, which was unbelievably lucky. It was especially cool to sit on the balcony at night, when the entire boardwalk was lit up just across the way.

Once we were all ready to go, we headed over to one of my favorite places in Disney: Epcot’s World Showcase!

A great perk to staying at the Yacht Club is the ability to walk directly into the back of World Showcase. There is a path that will lead you right into France, and it was remarkably uncrowded this time around. We arrived the week before Thanksgiving hoping that crowds would be light, and we were in luck!

The weather was cloudy and a little rainy, but temperatures were steady in the high 70’s. We explored France for a bit, stopping in the well-known stores and taking pictures by the wonderfully decorated Christmas trees. We eventually made our way to Morocco, where we had a lunch reservation at Restaurant Marrakesh.

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I’m not the most adventurous eater, but my mom was dying to try Moroccan food and so we dove in to the authentic dishes. They were actually quite good, and my mom (who is a far better judge of good food than I am) was very impressed by the chicken bastilla.

We finished up at Epcot (enjoying our time in Italy, Germany, Norway, and Mexico) and then caught a Monorail to Magic Kingdom at around 4 PM. First stop, Main Street, USA!

The three of us shopped around on Main Street for a bit before exploring the other subsections and getting on some rides. We ventured off into Adventureland in pursuit of two of my favorites: Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise! Despite the little bit of rain that fell in the afternoon, the rides were so much fun. We took a quick detour through Liberty Square to ride another personal favorite, the Haunted Mansion, and then proceeded to new Fantasyland.

We didn’t have a whole lot of time to dedicate to new Fantasyland, as our dinner reservations were coming up, but we did take a peek at the new Be Our Guest restaurant, and I even got to hang out with Gaston! If you’re in the area, he’s definitely worth waiting for — he’s completely hilarious!

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At about 5:30, we went to the Plaza Restaurant for our dinner reservation. They had pretty basic dishes — meatloaf, chicken, sandwiches, burgers — but we were all relatively satisfied with both the meal and the service. Honestly, the best part of the dinner was the view of the castle; we were able to watch Magic Kingdom slowly light up as the sun set.

After dinner, we gathered around Main Street to watch what is now one of my favorite parts of Christmas at Disney World — the ceremony that lights up Cinderella Castle with thousands of sparkling holiday lights. It was perfect!

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While waiting for Wishes, we decided to spend our time in Tomorrowland. It was relatively uncrowded since the rest of the park-goers were likely staking out spots for parades and fireworks. We were able to use our FastPass+ for Space Mountain, which is always scary but in the end really fun. Then we stopped by Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, and eventually the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, which we had never been to previously but turned out to be hilarious, thanks to some funny interactive bits with the crowd.

Finally, we made our way over to the Rose Garden, and presented our FastPass+ to watch Wishes.  We arrived just a few minutes before showtime, and had a great view of the castle. (Be sure to head over to the Tips section of the blog to read about exactly how we did this!) The show, as always, was absolutely perfect, and is one of my favorite things to do in all of Disney World!  Check out some of my dad’s great pictures from the show:

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Thanks for reading! Next time I’ll be talking about our time at Hollywood Studios and the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights!

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Tip: Nighttime Show Viewing Areas

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Wishes

For the traditional and rightfully classic view of Magic Kingdom’s nighttime spectacular, Wishes, many vacationers will want to line up along the edges of Main Street, USA. While this will certainly provide you with a fantastic vantage point, you’ll need to arrive very far in advance (sometimes more than an hour) to reserve a good spot, and you’ll have to deal with very heavy crowds. If you’re eligible to use the FastPass+ system, therefore, I recommend picking up one for Wishes. This reservation guarantees you a “preferred viewing location,” and allows you to arrive to the site anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes before showtime. With this FastPass+, you’ll be surrounded by significantly thinner crowds, as only people with a valid FastPass+ will be allowed to enter the viewing area. You also won’t have to scout out your spot an hour ahead of time, so you’ll have a better opportunity to enjoy the park.

The FastPass+ for Wishes allows you entry to an area called the Rose Garden, which is located on the outskirts of Tomorrowland and is in very close proximity to Cinderella Castle. The Rose Garden is roped off by employees until the window of entry arrives, at which point cast members will welcome you into the viewing area. Because the Rose Garden is to the side of the castle, you won’t get the traditional vantage point pictured above. You will, however, get extremely close to the castle without having to deal with large crowds or wait an unnecessary amount of time, and in my opinion, this option is very well worth it. For a quick sneak peek at what Wishes looks like from the Rose Garden, check out my video.

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Though there is a similar FastPass+ option available for Epcot’s IllumiNations, I prefer an alternative viewing method. For any fans of the Great Britain pavilion, I suggest booking a reservation at the Rose & Crown pub. This dining option is delightfully themed and boasts some great authentic dishes. If you eat close to the showtime of IllumiNations (I would recommend around 7:00 or 7:30) and speak with the very accommodating wait staff, you will be allowed to enter a roped-off viewing area just around the back of the Rose & Crown. If you’re familiar with the pub, the area I’m talking about is just past the outdoor tables around the side of the restaurant. This area never has more than a dozen people in it, and does not require you to arrive much earlier than 20 or 15 minutes before showtime. You’ll have an up-close, unobstructed view, and I highly recommend trying this out. For a sneak peek of what your view of IllumiNations will look like from outside the Rose & Crown, check out my video.

Images courtesy of disneyworld.disney.go.com.

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Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

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Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

Consider yourself a cuisine connoisseur? Stop by World Showcase from mid-September to mid-November and dine your way across all eleven countries! This fun fall event boasts nearly 30 international marketplaces, culinary demonstrations and dining experiences with professional chefs, and even an “Eat to the Beat” concert series. The 2014 event is currently scheduled for September 19th to November 10th.

 

Image provided by disneyworld.disney.go.com.

 

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