At Magic Kingdom, Fantasyland expansion has its grand opening next week

If, like me, you don’t have children, you might not realize that for many younger kids, character meet-and-greets at Disney parks have become at least as important as the rides. A girlfriend has the meet-and-greet down to a science. “We can meet five princesses in 90 minutes,” she bragged, a scary side of her I hadn’t seen before. (The plan requires deployment of Dad to stand in various lines and the strategic sharing of intelligence with other Moms as a trade-off for joining Dad in line in front of them). I had no idea.

So while some people are excited that Fantasyland now has two Dumbo rides, one running clockwise, the other counter-clockwise, other people are more excited about the new opportunities to meet characters that are part of the expansion. By the end of next year, the park will have four new spots designed just to interact with characters. Three of them will officially open next week when the biggest phase of the expansion has its grand opening ceremony on Dec. 6.

Also of note: The new Be Our Guest restaurant in Beast Castle will serve beer and wine; the Little Mermaid ride opens; the Splitsville bowling alley and restaurant opens in what used to be Pleasure Island in Downtown Disney; and an upgraded Test Track opens at Epcot. Read my report here.

Mickey sets the stage for arrival of Disney Wonder in Miami

Mickey Mouse was in Miami Wednesday to promote the arrival of the Disney Wonder for a season of Bahamas and the western Caribbean cruises. The Wonder, which will be the first Disney ship to homeport in Miami, will arrive Dec. 23 from southern California, where it has been doing cruises to Mexico. It will spend next summer in Alaska. No word yet on whether the ship will return to Miami next winter.

Best airport wine bars

I like to think that I have a special talent for sniffing out wine, but today I learned to my dismay that I've been bypassing some great opportunities: airport wine bars. Fodor's has compiled a list of eight great airport wine bars (some are chains that are in more than one airport) and I haven't sipped a glass of wine at a single one of them -- even though I've been in most of the airports. Maybe I'll just blame it on too many morning flights. Here's the list.


People returning to road trips in RVs

I was on vacation the last two weeks, traveling through Los Angeles and Sedona, Ariz., about which I’ll write more later. But I returned to find a bit of good news for roadtrippers: Sales of RVs are up. People are buying the smaller, towable vehicles rather than the big Winnebagos, but they’re on the road again. Read the full story here.


'Beast' brings wine & beer to Magic Kingdom; best places for a drink at Disney World

BeastI've heard some suggestions that Hell is about to freeze over as Disney prepares to serve alcohol for the first time at Magic Kingdom. The new Be Our Guest restaurant in Beast Castle, part of the Fantasyland expansion, will serve wine and beer as part of its sit-down dinner service in the French-themed restaurant.

According to Disney's sample menus, wine (from France and California) will run $8-$17 per glass; beer (one French, three Belgian) will be $6.25-$10.50. The restaurant officially opens Dec. 6 with the rest of the expansion, but as with the rest of the attractions has been having "rehearsals" and will have a soft opening in the next few days.

Magic Kingdom is the only park in Disney World that doesn't already serve wine, beer or cocktails, and this seemed a good time to tell you about my favorite places to drink in the other parks.

With its World Showcase, Epcot has the most opportunities for an adult beverage -- a British pub, beer at the German pavilion, champagne and Grand Marnier slushies from France -- and especially for people who love their upscaled margaritas and tequila. La Cava del Tequila (pictured at right) serves some outrageous margaritas -- some with a cactus-lemongrass or Cavadeltequila hibiscus salt rim, or perhaps flavored with cucumber and basil or muddled jalapenos. La Hacienda de San Angel also offers a variety of margaritas plus tequila flights. At both places, most margaritas are in the $12-$14 range, plus La Hacienda de San Angel fruity frozen margaritas for $9.25.

But my favorite spot for a drink at Epcot is Tutto Gusto, a wine bar that opened this spring adjacent to the Tutto Italia restaurant. It has an extensive wine-by-the-glass list, with most wines in the $7-$11 Tuttogustorange, as well as by the quartino, a larger pour, most $11-$14. Tutto Gusto has a nice menu of small plates, cheese and cured meats ($6-$12, pictured at left) -- and its intimate atmosphere makes it perfect for lingering.

Disney's Hollywood Studios has the Tune In Lounge, the bar in the Prime Time Cafe, both with a '50s TV theme. The drinks menu features Dad's Classic Cocktails, including a classic martini, Cosmopolitan, margarita or Singapore Sling, and drinks from Dad's Liquor Cabinet, served with Dad's Experimental Electric Ice Cubes, all around $10.  Primetime

I found the cheapest margaritas at the Dawa bar next to the Tusker House Restaurant at Animal Kingdom. Dawa is a roofed but open-air bar. It serves an African Margarita made with tangerine liqueur (only $8.25) as well as African beers.

Photo credits: Walt Disney Resorts



SeaWorld's new Antarctica ride will mimic penguin's actions

The ride vehicle that will take visitors through the new attraction, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin when it opens at SeaWorld Orlando next spring will be a mobile simulator that mimics what is happening to the penguin whose adventures the ride follows. SeaWorld executives unveiled the 8-person car this week. The new ride will be part of what executives consider a whole new “realm” in the park, with the ride, restaurant, gift shop and a penguin colony with hundreds of kings, gentoos, Adelies and rockhoppers.

“When our little hero penguin learns to waddle and slide, we’ll feel what it’s like as the car moves and reacts to the story line,” said Brian Morrow, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment creative director. “When he takes his first swim or barely escapes danger, our guests will feel as if they’re right there with him.”

SeaWorld says the ride will be the coldest theme park attraction in the world.

Photo credit: SeaWorld


Road trip attraction: Space shuttle in Los Angeles

We stepped into the hangar-like building and there it was, the space shuttle Endeavor, right in front of us. It was bigger than we expected and looked battle-worn, its white tiles scorched by the heat of 25 re-entries. A spontaneous chorus of "wow!" erupted, then everyone raised cell phones and started snapping photos.

The scene was at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, wedged between the University of Southern California and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where my girlfriends and I had just attended a football game. On our way back to our cars, we decided to detour through the new shuttle exhibit.

The exhibit starts with a display of shuttle tires. "This is sick," an excited young boy behind me breathed. Then there was a display of a space shuttle toilet and a video explaining how to use it. The 6-and-under set was fascinated by the space potty. Around the next corner were a mock-up of a section of Mission Control and a simulator ride.

Endeavor flew to Los Angeles International Airport on the back of a modified 747. Then it essentially was trailered through the streets of Los Angeles to the museum, about 12 miles away.  Engineers plotted the route in advance, light poles were relocated, trees were cut down.  Crowds gathered all along the route for what amounted to a one-float parade. Sidewalks and parking lots were jammed for a trek that ended up taking 68 hours. An edited and speeded-up video of the trip was shown at the museum, and it was almost as good as seeing the shuttle itself. We sat through it twice. Here's a slightly different version of the video.

We were ushered out of the room, out of the building and into another building where we finally saw Endeavor. The orbiter is mounted on a metal frame that raises it so people can walk beneath it and study its underside, which is just out of reach of a hand stretched overhead. We lingered for at least a half hour, gaping at the wonder of the shuttle, its enormous engines, the printing on the side that told where to cut for an emergency rescue, and all those scorched tiles.

A separate shuttle engine was mounted in a display. A preteen girl asked her mom if she wanted to know where the fan blades were, then proceeded to explain how the fuel powered the internal combustion engine. And we thought generations too young to have seen the first moon walk were blasé about the space program!

Endeavor is on display in a temporary space while its new home is being built. For more information on the California Science Center and the Endeavor display, click here.

Meantime, at the Kennedy Space Center, the space shuttle Atlantis has been moved into a six-story building still under construction, where it will go on display next summer, surrounded by more than 60 interactive exhibits.



Road trip attraction: National WWII Museum in New Orleans

Happy Veterans Day! If you're going to New Orleans -- or even if you're not -- be sure to read this terrific piece on the National WWII Museum there. 

Road trip attraction: A train ride through Jimmy Carter's past

I was planning a road trip to the Carolinas, looking for interesting diversions along the way, when I came across an excursion train that runs out of Cordele in southwest Georgia. The train, which usually runs on weekends, is operated by the state Department of Natural Resources -- "a rolling state park," they call it. I bought a ticket. The day trip took us through rural farmland and pecan groves to Plains, where Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter live, and a tiny town called Archery, home of the family farm where the former president grew up. Read my story here.

Now at Legoland: Star Wars

Legoland Florida unveiled seven scenes from Star Wars in Miniland on Friday, completing an installation that took more than a year to design and build, and consists of more than 1.5 million Lego bricks. Miniland is a series of scenes built in miniature of Lego bricks and some parts that come to life with the push of a buttom. The Star Wars scenes join New York, Las Vegas, Florida and other miniature sets. The installation has scenes from each of the six Star Wars movies plus one from the animated series "The Clone Wars." It was introduced by a legion of Darth Vaders.

Keep reading for Legoland's description of the scenes.


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