Got kids? Get Glow Sticks!

A great money saving tip when you are headed off to Disney World is to stock up on glow sticks! 

Glow sticks are great for evenings in the parks.  I always tuck several into my park bag each day before we take off.  As we are waiting for the evening parade or fireworks shows I pull them out as a nice distraction.  I am not sure what it is about those little plastic tubes that enchants my children, but I am happy to take advantage of it! 

The glow sticks are super easy to use, just bend the plastic until you hear a snap and give it a shake.  The gel inside gives off a nice glow that lasts several hours. 

Besides being fun, the glow sticks provide many useful purposes!
  • Have your child sport a glow stick necklace or bracelet through the evening, which helps you keep an eye on them in the dark.
  • Attach one to your stroller to help in stand out in the herd.
  • Attach one to your spouse or their park bag.  It make it easy to follow the leader during the post fireworks / parade surge.
  • It may save you money.   A few glow items from home keep my kids occupied and less likely to beg for the light up toys all around.
  • Depending on how long your glow stick lasts, you may even have a nice little night light when you get back to your hotel.
There are several cool glow products out there, so check out your local dollar store or party store.  Unlike the old fashioned 4 inch tube glow stick that I used to BEG for at Halloween as a child, there are so many different items out there.  While of course you can find the old fashioned tube, there are now bracelets and  necklaces with connectors to help you make your own design.  There are also some cool masks and balls.  My little princesses are most excited by the glow stick fairy wands topped with stars and butterflies!

And while you are stocking up for your trip, buy a few extra if it is in the budget.  We like to share with whatever kids are sitting around us.  (We always ask Mom and Dad first!) It isgreat fun to watch a child's face light up when given an unexpected and inexpensive treat!


Food Allergies, Disney World, and You

It seems like more and more families I know are dealing with food allergies these days. I am not talking about the old fashion "belly aches" that my brother got if he ate something with oats in it, but serious, potentially fatal food allergies.  Families dealing with food allergies live in a constant state of high alert....every label must be read, every snack checked, and every meal carefully prepared to avoid cross contamination with a potential allergen.

If you are a family dealing with food allergies from mild to severe, I have GREAT news for you!  Disney cares!  A LOT!! 

As a travel agent, I have worked with many families dealing with food allergies, so I thought a first hand call was in order so I could let my clients know what to expect.  I am happy to report that I got some great information!

First Steps
First of all, if you are headed to Disney and have food allergies, your first call (after me of course! ;)) should be to the Disney dietary request hotline at 407.824.5967.  When I called I was instructed to leave a message and someone would contact me within 2-3 business days.  To my surprise, my call was returned within an hour or two.

I spoke with a fantastic and knowledgeable cast member who patiently answered every question I could think of.  She told me that she was giving me generalized information, as I was not calling with a specific allergy.  If you call with a specific allergy or allergies, you get specific information...go figure! 

There is no guarantee that your allergy can be accommodated, but you can be sure Disney is used to dealing with the major offenders (gluten or wheat, shellfish, soy, lactose or milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish or eggs).  Every effort will be made to make sure your visit is a safe one.  Disney also clearly points out (as families dealing with food allergies know) "it is ultimately always up the Guest to use his or her individual discretion to make an informed choice regarding whether to order any particular items, since the Walt Disney Company cannot guarantee that allergens may not have been introduced during another stage of the food chain process—or even inadvertently—by us."

It is all about the details!
After you make contact with the Special Dietary Requests office, they will complete a form detailing the type and severity of your allergies.  A copy will be send to your resort hotel, as well as all of the restaurants where you are planning to eat.  (This is where planning ahead with your ADR's really pays off!)  This form will be sent directly to the chef ahead of time to make sure that he is aware of your allergies and his kitchen is stocked appropriately.

At this time, the Special Dietary Request office will give you some great "need to know" information.  For example, if you have a serious shrimp allergy, dining at Columbia Harbor house would be a serious risk for you.  They can also make recommendations of various Counter Service locations through out the park that can most easily accommodate you.  For the record, every restaurant will try to accommodate you, but if you are "winging" things or just prefer the path of least resistance, knowing where you can be easily accommodated is certainly handy.

When you make your reservations, you should also note your allergies on the standard form provided.  This information goes to the hostesses and waitstaff to make sure they are properly alerted.  This does seem a bit redundant, but it is worth doing to make sure everything is a safe as it can be.

When you Arrive
Table Service Restaurants - When you give your name to the hostess, he or she will likely immediately acknowledge your allergies.  If not, be sure to mention it!  The hostess will alert your sever and the chef.  Expect the chef to come to your table to discuss your allergies and any accommodations that need to be made.  The chef will advise you as to what is safe to eat from the menu, or will offer to prepare you something to your liking. How cool is that?
Buffet Restaurants - Expect all of the same as you would from a menu service restaurant, but with a twist.  If you have a less severe allergy, the chef will walk down the buffet with you and let you know what is safe to eat.  If you have severe allergies, the risk of cross contamination is too high on a buffet, so the chef will as what you would like and he or she will specially prepare it for you.  Again, how cool is that?
Counter/Quick Service Restaurants - Alert the cashier of your allergies and a chef will be sent out to speak with you. The chef will let you know what is safe for you and will see that it is safely prepared.  Again, all locations will accommodate you, but you may find it easiest to stick to the restaurants that can accommodate most allergies.

It's my party!
Planning a celebration?  Need a cake?  Not a problem!  Call the cake hotline  at least a week in advance, preferably longer, and let them know your needs.  You will have a safe cake waiting to celebrate your special day!

Plan ahead
Please plan on contacting the Special Dietary Request a minimum of two weeks in advance.  Some meals (such as vegan meals, low protein meals, and kosher meals) are prepared at an off site location and shipped in.  Adequate notice is requires to make sure your meals are where they need to be.  Also, restaurants and resorts will actually stock their kitchens based on your needs.  Soy milk can be easily found around the property, but Disney will happily stock Lactaid for you if you need it.  All you have to do is let them know.  (I know!  How cool is that?!)

As I concluded my conversation with the great lady at Special Dietary Requests, I asked what else I needed to know.  She repeated that every guest is given specific information based on their specific I have the feeling that I only scratched the surface.  She also indicated that Disney regularly reviews and changes their policies to better serve their guests, so even if you are a Disney pro, you need to check in each visit to make sure your needs are considered.

She also referred me to the official Disney web page on the topic.  Click here for more information.

So...happy (safe!) eating!

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This post is part of the Disney Blog Carnival. Head over there to see more great Disney-related posts and articles.


RSS Feeds, The Orange Wave Icon, and You.

This is not so much a Disney post as it is a PSA.  If you spend any time on the web, you have probably noticed the ubiquitous orange wave icon on every website that you visit.  If you have paid any attention to it at all, you know that that little orange thingy stands for RSS Feed.  For most people, that is where their knowledge ends.  But it is only since I have started blogging that I have learned how cool the RSS Feed really is!

What exactly is an RSS Feed?
RSS stands for many versions of the same thing, but the easiest acronym is "Real Simple Syndication".  Which means it is really a very easy way for you to create a customized "news" site for what every you wish to be informed about!  If you are an information junkie, follow lots of blogs, or just like to keep things clean and organized then it is time for you to harness the power of an RSS feed.

So how does it work?
Basically myself and other bloggers submit our articles in a simple text file format to a special feed server, who in turn pushes it out to whoever subscribes to our site. The information is instantly available to you...whenever you want it. It is not going to clog up your email, or endlessly harass you. If you want to get your favorite newsy updates on what ever you enjoy, you simply go to your Feed Reader and ...Viola!

Why should I subscribe?
It is really cool.  Don't take my word for it...give it a go!  It takes only a few minutes to set up and saves a ton of time later on. 
  • Fast Info - Posts from you favorite bloggers and news sources update your feed automatically as soon as the post is made. 
  • Customizable - You choose exactly what you want to see.  As my husband would say "All killer, no filler!"
  • No Checking and Re-checking For Updates -If it is not in your feed, it is just not there.
  • No Oversights - I run down my favorite list of sites every morning, but occasionally I forget to hit a site.  Not with a Feed Reeder!
  • No Bookmarks - With the growing list of users on the family computer, our bookmarks are getting out of control.  My Feed Reader eliminates the need entirely.
  • No Buried or Lost Posts - My feed reader shows all unread posts for the blogs I follow.  So if I get a little slack, it will be waiting for me when I return.  
  • Easy to Prioritize and Organize - You can organize your feeds into nice little categories of your own choosing.  I have my "Must Reads", "Disney Favorites" (which is quite small because they are usually in my must reads!) "News", "Family Blogs", and "Other". 
How to I read a feed? 
The first step is to select a feed reader.  This is a webpage that you will go to to read your feed.  I already have a Google account, so I just decided to go with the Google Reader.  You can Google "Google Reader" for more information on getting it set up.  There are plenty of feed readers out there, so do some looking and find one that works for you. 

How do I subscribe?
If any blogs you follow have a Google Follow button or that Orange Wave icon, you simply click it. Follow the screen prompts to make sure you get subscribed properly.  When you open your Feed Reader you can categorize your feeds in any way you choose.

Anything else?
Yup!  If you have a smart phone, look for a feed reader so you can stay in touch on the go.  I love to check for overnight updates before I crawl out of bed in the morning.  One button on my phone launches my reader and I am plugged in to my favorite content.  Warning - Use of a feed reader in this manner may make you late for work, school, or what ever else you should be doing!


Sailing the WONDERful Seas with Disney! - Part II

I hope you enjoying reading about Lori Potter's cruise experience on the Disney Wonder as much as I am.  I think I must get a trip on the books for next year!  In case you need to catch up, you can read Part I of Lori's cruise experience here. 

Kids Clubs
One thing that we really loved about doing a Disney cruise was the option to have the kids go the kids only area. They have it broken down into 4 areas: Teens, Out & About (especially for 10 - 13 year olds), Oceaneer Club/Lab and the Flounders Reef Nursery. My girls were all eligible for the Oceaneer Club/Lab. I think at one time the club was for ages 3 - 7 and the Lab for 7 - 12 but now either area is for all ages, 3 & potty trained and up. The Club is full of toys, games, a giant pirate ship, Disney movies, places for art and some computers. The Lab has games, tons of computers, a "kitchen" for cooking school and places for art and crafts. They have around 50 cast members that work in the kids club. When you check your children in they are scanned in with the wristband, given a squirt of Mickey soap and directed to the bathroom to wash their hands. They have scheduled activities in the areas as well as free play and the scheduled activities cover a variety of themes. My 7 year old loved the lab. She wanted to spend a lot of time fact the last night we told her no, she had to come to dinner with the family! My younger girls liked it but they didn't beg to go there like the older one. The staff was very good about paging us if any of the kids wanted to leave. The staff was always extremely friendly and kind and the security system was great. Also, the last afternoon the kids put on a really cute show! My toddler was eligible for the Flounders Reef Nursery. It is for kids under 3 and is an additional charge of $6/hr, which, in my opinion, is a bargain! You can pre-book your time in the nursery (up to 10 hours on a 4 night) which I did. What I didn't count on was my toddler having extreme separation anxiety and hating the nursery! We usually don't have any issues with him but he was not at all happy about that nursery. The nursery seemed very nice, Disney shows playing and lots of Disney toys. They had an area in the back with cribs. It was sort of small but the cast members in there were extremely friendly and loving. And it always seemed to be the same people in there. They were very good about giving us updates on how my son was doing and when he clearly was too upset to stay in there they called us to get him which I really appreciated.

Our ports were Nassau and Disney's Castaway Cay. We didn't do much in Nassau - with our child to adult ratio and factoring in their ages we didn't think the money was worth it. We ended up walking around some but it got hot and the kids got whiney so we spent much of the day on the ship which was great. Castaway Cay is Disney's own island and we were completely blown away by it. We all loved, loved it and it topped everyone's list as one of our favorite things of the cruise. They have a separate beach areas for families, adults and teens. They also have lounge chairs for everyone as well as strollers and wagons available for use. There is a splash pad, a water playground and plenty of sports activities to keep everyone busy! There are two restaurants that bring a bbq to the beach for lunch! There also have a few bars and food is plentiful on the island. There are also a couple merchandise shops (it is Disney after all). They also bring the kids club to the beach, a separate area from the water, so the kids can play with their new friends while you lounge on the beach. The weather was beautiful the day we were there and again it was fabulous!

Time of Year to Sail
I can't say that I would necessarily recommend September, the peak of hurricane season as the best time to sail. The weather was great for us but, the seas were very, very rocky the first night due to a hurricane far off to the east. One of my children (along with many, many others) got seasick the first night. After that it was much better but in general, the ocean was rougher (or so we heard) then usual. The best thing about September is that the rates are low since it is hurricane season but if you get seasick you may consider another time of year!

I had read that dress for dinner is "cruise casual" and one night is an optional dress up evening. Cruise casual means no shorts or bathing suits. I packed pants for my husband and son and dresses/skirts. for the girls and I. What we found was a little bit of everything. There were certainly more people dressed up than others and plenty of people in shorts. I liked dressing up for dinner, my family..not so much but we did it anyway!

There are many, many opportunities to see Disney friends on the cruise! Each day in the Navigator they print the character appearances and there are many every day. We also happened upon a couple characters running through the lobby or hanging out on deck! Even if the appearance is supposed to be only 15 minutes they are very flexible about it and seem to do their best to give everyone waiting a photo opp! On the last night of the cruise the characters put on a very special program "Til We Meet Again" giving everyone one last opportunity to hug a character you may have missed. That was another highlight!

Debarkation Day
Sadly debarkation starts very, very early on the final morning. You set your luggage out the night before and you are given a time to go to breakfast based on your dining rotation (the late dinner seating gets a later breakfast time) Breakfast is with your servers so it's a nice chance to say goodbye to them and the other friends you made during dining. Did I mention it's early? Technically you are supposed to take all your things with your to breakfast but I hadn't planned that very well and had too much stuff so we left that in the room during breakfast and walked back down to get it before departing. Upon debarking you find your luggage (it's tagged with a color/character) and go through customs. We found the process to be very quick and easy. Sadly we were at our car by 8:30am. I just wished we could have stayed on board longer!

We definitely hope to another Disney cruise. They are unveiling a two new ships, the Dream and the Fantasy, in 2011. Both ships will be far bigger than the Wonder and Magic and with many new features - have you seen the pictures of the Aquaduck...the water coaster?? It looks amazing!! Can't wait to go fact, my husband and I want to take a Disney cruise without the kids next year...shhh...don't tell them!

Thanks again to my old long time friend Lori Potter for her insights on the cruise experience.  (We have been friends since middle school, which makes us long time friends - we are not, I repeat, NOT old!)


Sailing the WONDERful Seas with Disney! - Part I

For the first time on The Mouse Connection, we are welcoming a guest blogger, Lori Potter.  Lori and her family just went on their first Disney Cruise and she kindly agreed to share her thoughts on her trip with us.  She is a mom to four kids, so she got to experience the ship through many different eyes.  I hope this helps you get a feel for the cruise experience, but Lori did warn that she doesn't want you to know every single thing that will happen.  In her words, "Some of it needs to be magical!"

When my family bought into the DVC we were "given" a Disney cruise as an incentive, a 5 day/4 night on the Wonder. We were thrilled to say the least as we'd done a cruise for our honeymoon and always wanted to do another one, add a Disney twist and it seemed like a perfect combination. The list of available dates was somewhat limited but we settled on a week in September since my older two kids were due to be out of school. We have a large family, 2 adults, 4 kids (ages 7 - 2) so we had to book 2 rooms (one drawback, in my opinion, is that they literally don't have space for a family of 6). We used our DVC points to book our 2nd room - and we were set! The anticipation of the trip was exciting and I literally spent hours and hours reading forums and blogs to make the most of our trip. All in all we had a WONDERful time. Probably one of our best vacations ever. I can't say enough good things about Disney Cruise Lines. It's clear that service is the top priority. I also loved the family feel. There is no gambling on the Wonder (with the exception of Bingo) and though there were many adults traveling without children a majority had kids. I loved that you could have a nice dinner in the dining room and not feel bad if your kids got loud or got up from their seat. I loved that they had activities for every age group and how organized the entire staff was. And though the boat was full it only seemed really crowded at the Pirates In the Caribbean party. But of course every passenger wants to see fireworks! Here are a few tips/things we learned about sailing with Disney.

Embarkation Day
My advice is to get to the port early. They officially open at 10am and that's when we got there. You leave your luggage (they send you luggage tags preprinted with your room number) with a porter and get in line to go into the terminal. You will need to keep a day bag with you with things like sunscreen and bathing suits as your luggage may not arrive in your rooms until late afternoon. We walked right into the terminal and got immediately checked in. You are assigned a boarding number (we got group 2) and the lower your number the earlier you will get to board - of course Disney does it all very organized! You can then check the kids into the kids club - they get wristbands and parents get a pager. That just saves you time once you get on the ship. The wait time goes very quickly - some special friends come out to greet passengers and that certainly helped the time go by! Official boarding time is 1pm but as soon as they get the ship turned over they will begin boarding however, you don't have access to your room until 1:30. Once you get boarded you are directed to one of the restaurants for a fabulous buffet lunch! We were lucky enough to see some special friends at lunch too! The mandatory muster drill is at 4pm and the stateroom hosts do an awesome job of ensuring you have the right life jackets for the people in your room. The muster drill is painless and pretty quick and immediately after you should help up to Deck 9 for the Sail Away Party.

We opted for Deluxe Oceanview Staterooms on Deck 2. Deluxe means you have a split bath - meaning there is a tub and sink in one room and a toilet and sink in another. I thought the room was nice. I remembered from our previous cruise (not Disney) how tiny the rooms are but it was not bad at all. We had a queen size bed and the sofa turned into a single bed. We also had a bunk bed recessed into the ceiling which the stateroom host set up for us each evening at turndown. He even added a special touch putting princess sheets on the beds! My girls loved it! The closet was large enough to store our luggage and really space was not at all an issue. The stateroom service was fabulous and towel animals adorned our beds each night at turndown as did some yummy chocolate!

I thought the food was great. Always plenty of choices on the menu. And there was a special kids menu/activity sheet each evening. For breakfast and lunch there was always a couple buffets and an ala carte option. For dinner you are assigned an time (main or late) and you are on a dining rotation as there are 3 dining rooms. One night is Pirate Night and there is a special menu which is the same in all the restaurants, that evening. You are also assigned a table number which remains the same and servers who follow you to the different dining rooms. Our family being somewhat large had a table all to ourselves but we did dine around the same families each night so we did get to meet some great folks. They do have pizza open late and on Pirate Night there is a late buffet. Room service is available 24 hours a day and they do have a beverage station where you can get sodas, milk and water all the time. The Wonder has an adult only restaurant, Palo that is available for brunch and dinner for an additional charge. I hear it's fabulous but we did not do it this time. Maybe next time! One interesting note about dining is that there is a cast member stationed outside each and every restaurant handing out sanitizing wipes before you enter any dining room. They are all about the hand washing!

Activities & Entertainment
Each day the cruise staff prints a Navigator which is your guide to all that is going on for the day. The guide is full of great information - about shopping, the evening entertainment, dining options and a full schedule of the daily activities. The activities are broken down by theme - Special, Characters, Entertainment, Family, Adult, Kids. They have activities from 9am until 2am (or something like that!). There is literally something for everyone! The evening entertainment was great - we saw 3 Broadway style shows and Toy Store 3 in 3-D. Disney Cruise Line boasts they are the only cruise line that can show first run movies since they own them! There were several showing throughout our cruise. One highlight is Pirate Night. They have special character appearances with the characters in pirate attire and they encourage all the passengers to dress up too (we didn't but plenty of people did). There is a big party on the deck complete with fireworks and a special buffet.

I hope you enjoyed Part I of Lori's post.  Check back in a few days for Part II.  And on a personal note, thank you Lori for taking the time to share this with us!


Meeting the Big Cheese - Autographs

So, if you have read the basics about meeting the characters, you have probably already figured out that getting character autographs is a big deal!  And why not?  It is a (nearly) free souvenir! 

Autograph seeking also give younger children a purpose when meeting their favorite friend. For the little guys, approaching a character with armed with a pen, book, and the goal of an autograph is equal part distraction and duty. Somehow, if they have a job to do, it all seems a little less overwhelming! Hopefully, once the ice has been broken, your little guy or gal will really enjoy the face time.

The traditional tool for the autograph hound is an official Disney Autograph Book.  My family prefers the slightly less traditional unlined index card.  I buy a spiral bound pack of ruled index cards and flip them over.  (If anyone out there can find a 4x6 pack of spiral bout unruled cards... Let me know!)  I use one of the index cards to create a new "cover" on the back, to remind the kids to open the book with the unruled side facing up.  Be sure to buy a pack for each child and label them accordingly.  We don't need to discuss the forgery that occurred in the bathroom of our resort when I figured one autograph for the family would be good enough. 

I like having the characters sign on index cards because I always buy a mini 4x6 photo album for each child to commemorate our trip.  I put the index card on one side and a photo of them with the character on the other side.  Any extra space gets filled with some of our favorite photos.  This is especially nice if you child is not reading yet, they know exactly what the name says because the picture is right beside it.  I can hear the wheels turning already for you crafty scrapbookers out there...the possibilities are endless for you!  One day I may join your ranks if I ever get the creative juices flowing.

Any good autograph seeker worth their salt should also have a good pen.  I am a Sharpie girl myself.  I buy the biggest fattest one that I can find for our furry friends.  Mickey's big gloved hand and Goofy's paw have a hard time grasping smaller pens.  I always remove the cap and hand it to them carefully to avoid getting ink on them.  I also carry a nice retractable Sharpie pen as well.  It is not as fat, so it is nice for the princesses and anyone else with opposable thumbs.  It is also handy not having to keep up with the cap.  Now if Sharpie would get on the ball and make a big fat retractable pen, then things would be perfect!

I keep all of my autograph "supplies" (two books and two pens) in a zip top bag tucked safely in my park bag.  Not only does it keep everything together nice an neatly, but it insures things will stay nice and dry.  Nothing would be more disappointing to my girls to end up with soggy signatures after a surprise rain storm or extra soaking on Splash Mountain.

Finally, you don't need to limit yourself to autograph books or index cards.  Have the characters sign a hat, a pillowcase, a poster, a book, or a t-shirt.   What could be cooler than enjoying reading Cinderella before bed from a book signed by Cinderella herself!  The characters will be happy to sign anything you like (within reason!) as long as it is not an article of clothing that is actually being worn, or an object that contains another company's logo. 

I hope getting some autographs from your favorite characters ends up being time well spent.  And let's keep that whole forgery thing between us, 'kay?

This post is part of the Disney Blog Carnival. Head over there to see more great Disney-related posts and articles.