Disney Everywhere I Go – Summer Vacation Style in Montreal

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Breaking news! I traveled somewhere other than the Walt Disney Resort. It’s true! And while it would’ve been awesome to take a week-long trip to Disney this past August, I expanded my horizons and made a trip up north – specifically to New Hampshire, Canada and Vermont. While it ended up being a welcome and refreshing change, I still was able to enjoy some Disney-like elements specifically while visiting Montreal.

On our second day exploring the city, we happened upon the Barbie Expo. It is the largest permanent display of Barbies in the world, and it did not disappoint. It is free and open to the public and so freakin’ cool! Even my husband enjoyed it – going into it he wasn’t exactly sure he would. It was like It’s a Small World, only with Barbies – lots and lots of Barbies, and you walk around at your own leisure rather than riding in a boat. So many of the outfits on the Barbies gave off the Disney Princess vibe as well.

 

That same day we visited La Ronde, which is a theme park located on a small island adjacent to the city. On this island, a World’s Fair-like event took place called Expo ’67 which ran for 6 months with 62 nations contributing. The whole history behind Expo ’67 has always been fascinating to us here at Second Star Sisters, simply because we love anything retro and theme park related. The cool thing about La Ronde is that many of the original attractions still exist and operate today. Unfortunately, the spiral was down that day and a many of the original attractions you have to have a child with you under 12 (everyone spoke French or we would have recruited someone so we could ride). BUT we vow to come back one day with a child so we can ride them, because they looked so cool and cute!

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Choo Choo Train

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Carousel Le Galopant

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Spiral

 

 

The good news is we were able to ride the one attraction that I REALLY wanted to go on – the “minirail“. It was originally 3 different tracks for the Expo and the one located at La Ronde is the only one that still exists today. Now it may seem really simple, but it was just so cool and relaxing! They also did not make you disembark (there were 2 different stations), so we stayed on and did 2 full loops. We could have seriously ridden the minirail all day and been content – we feel the same about the TTA/People Mover in Disney World.

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There was a section that gave tribute to Expo 67 as well. It had many historical pictures and information, not to mention it was beautifully situated on the water. It was a very peaceful area that we took time to really take a look around. The area pays tribute to La Pitoune (log flume) which was loved by many visitors for over 49 years. It was one of the original attractions at Expo 67 and it was cool to see part of it still set up.

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Right next door to La Ronde sits the Biosphere which is a museum that focuses on the environment. Unfortunately we were not able to fit it into our trip, but it’s definitely on the list for next time. It’s Montreal’s own Spaceship Earth which I absolutely loved seeing the outside of!

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The next day on our adventure we hit up Olympic Park – or shall I say Parc Olympique? It was the home of the 1976 Summer Olympic games and it still feels like 1976 when wandering around the property. There’s a whole futuristic-retro vibe which instantly transported me back to Epcot and gave me the Disney fix to keep me fully engaged (I kid, well only sort of). There’s so much to do at Parc Olympique. We decided to take an official tour of the premises as well as ride the cable car to the observatory up top. We had a great time and will definitely be returning here as well to do the Biodome (imagine the Living with the Land ride that you can actually walk through and MUCH bigger!).

 

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As you can see I most likely will be returning to Montreal to revisit some favorites and take on some things we didn’t get to do on this trip. At least I know once I do come back, they’ll just be enough “Disney Everywhere I Go” to psych me up!

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All Aboard! Taking the Magic Behind Our Steam Trains Tour at Magic Kingdom

There is nothing more iconic or reflective of Walt in the Disney Parks than the steam trains. Recently, we took the Magic Behind Our Steam Trains Tour at the Magic Kingdom. The tour starts before the park opens, so we woke up early and headed over to park at the Contemporary to be ready for our 7:30 tour. We got there early to enjoy the ambiance of a quiet park entry area.

 

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Sunrise over the Magic Kingdom

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We entered the park before anyone else was allowed in, so we snapped some pictures of an empty Main Street.

 

Our tour guide gave a brief introduction to the tour and then our group boarded the train at the Main Street Station.

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As we made our way around the park, our tour guide gave us lots of facts and information about the steam trains at the Magic Kingdom. We learned that the four steam trains that make up the Walt Disney World Railroad were built between 1916 and 1928 and were purchased from Mexico. We also learned that the train whistles you hear are actually ways for the trains to communicate. They blow in long/short patterns to indicate different messages, such as the train is approaching, going forward or in reverse, or if there is an emergency. As we passed through Adventureland, we learned that when you go down the hill in Pirates of the Caribbean, you are actually going under the train tracks to the show building on the other side of the tracks.

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Early morning in Frontierland

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After we pulled in to the Fantasyland Station, the train went in reverse as we headed backwards out of the Magic Kingdom and backstage to the monorail and train roundhouse, the spot where the trains and monorails are maintained and stored. The track actually goes over a public road at a train crossing. We pulled into the roundhouse and then disembarked the train, and were allowed to walk around and explore the area.

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We learned about the way the steam trains operate using fire and steam. The trains are operated by a fireman (or woman) and an engineer. They work on a rotating schedule and spend 40 minutes as a fireman, then 40 minutes as an engineer, and then spend 40 minutes in a really cold break room (it is really hot up in the cab of the engine). We learned that you must work for 6 months as a conductor before being able to apply to be an engineer/fireman. Despite how complicated everything seemed to us, the training consists of only 8 days! We got to hop up into engine cab to get a close up look at how everything works.

 

We got to see how the steam trains are prepared in the morning for their day in the park. An engineer showed us how they light up the firebox to start up the engine.

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We also got to see a process where they build up the pressure in the engine really high and it shoots a huge plume of water out of the engine.

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The shadow going across the street is the huge steam plume!

We boarded the train again and rode back into the Magic Kingdom. As we passed the Fantasyland Station (also named the Carrolwood Station after Walt’s home in California), we learned that part of the station is a replica of Walt’s barn in his childhood home of Marceline, MO. We also learned that there are tracks on the ground of Storybook Circus that lead you to different areas of that land. And if your stop at that station seems a little longer than the others, that’s because the water tower on the left is used to refill the steam engine as it makes its trip around the park.

When we arrived back at Main Street our final part of the tour was looking at all the details of the Main Street Station followed by a presentation about Walt’s love of trains with lots of wonderful pictures.

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As with all the tours we’ve taken, we were given a commemorative pin to add to our collections!

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This 3 hour tour was well worth the price, and as with any tour we’ve ever taken at Walt Disney World or Disneyland, it exceeded our expectations. It was the perfect mix of information about how the trains operate and history of Walt’s passion for trains. We highly recommend it!

Beyond Neverland 3.0 – Shopping at a Disney Outlet Store

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Something we have always been intrigued by are the Disney Outlet stores. Called Disney Character Warehouse, there are two of these stores in the Orlando area. The larger of the two is at the Orlando Premium Outlets and is only a few miles away from Walt Disney World property. These outlets are official Disney stores and carry discontinued park merchandise at deeply discounted prices. This is something we had always wanted to do, but we could never justify leaving WDW while we were visiting the resort. There is something about leaving Disney property and going back into the “real world” that can be a little jarring. Since we weren’t going to parks on this trip, we decided to give it a shot.

From our resort at Port Orleans Riverside, it was about 6 miles away and it took about 20 minutes to get there. Once we arrived at the outlets, we could tell it was really busy because we had to park near the top of the parking garage. The store map had tiny print, so it was hard to navigate, but we managed to stumble upon where we wanted to go.

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The store indeed was large, and had a wide selection of items. Molly saw the stack of parade cushions, normally 14.95 on sale for 1.99, and picked up a bunch for her classroom.

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Emily found a cute princess tree that she had been spying last year at Christmas for $7.95 (regular price $30), but upon further inspection she discovered it was really poor quality.

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There were lots of holiday merchandise, and items from old events such as the Flower and Garden festival that just ended. The majority of the items were priced to sell, such as a whole rack of $5 tee shirts. There was a wide variety of items, and there probably is something for everyone in this store.

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However, the store was EXTREMELY crowded. It was hard to move and negotiate our way around the store. We moved quickly through the store, looking for anything of interest, but this was not leisurely browsing. The line for the registers was very long, but we give the cast members credit, because the line did move quickly (the outlet is staffed by official Disney cast members)

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The line stretched towards the back of the store!

 

In the end, we scored some cool merchandise, including Disneyland 60th lanyards.

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All of these items totaled $24. We did ask one of the cast members if the crowds we experienced were normal, and she said this was more crowded than usual. It would probably be a much better experience if we went back on a less crowded day, but this is the kind of thing we did once and probably won’t do again. The best part about the Character Warehouse was its proximity to a Starbucks across the way, because we needed some nourishment after that adventure. As we drove “home” in a massive thunderstorm, we laughed and decided we weren’t leaving Disney property again on that trip!

Beyond Neverland 3.0 – Unwinding at Port Orleans Riverside

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When we plan our Beyond Neverland trips, which are trips in which we don’t go to the parks, we try to always stay at least at the moderate level. These resorts have more offerings and since we normally are spending more time there than a regular park trip visit, we don’t hesitate the splurge. We had ideas in mind such as the Ft. Wilderness Cabins and Animal Kingdom Lodge, but when we saw a summer rate for Riverside pop up in our search, we couldn’t pass it up.

We love the Port Orleans Resorts! They are so peaceful and laid back, and there’s something so calming about staying on the Sassagoula River.

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While French Quarter’s theme is New Orleans, Riverside is themed in the heart of rural Louisiana’s southern charm. Both resorts are very close to each other, so we were able to easily walk back and forth in between, as our section was the closest to French Quarter. Upon arrival, we noticed we were upgraded to a “Royal” room, which is one of Princess Tiana’s special rooms in the Mansions section. We particularly enjoyed the “fireworks” above our beds.

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Royal Room

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Our Mansion building

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View from our room

Emily especially enjoyed running around the property one morning, and happily saw there were plenty of other runners out there with the same idea in mind. Although Riverside has a bunch of nice pools, we never made it due to the weather, but it didn’t damper our time. The ease of getting to and from Disney Springs on the Sassagoula Steamboat was the icing on the cake. It’s a relaxing 15 minute ride from the resort to Disney Springs.

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When it comes to the moderate resorts, our favorites are by far Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter! The theming is impeccable, and you really feel like you are getting away from it all!

UnDISCOVERed Future World Tour at Epcot

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We recently took the UnDISCOVERed Future World Tour at Epcot. While we had taken a couple of tours at Disneyland (which we loved), this was our first tour at Walt Disney World. It was a fun and informative look at one of our favorite theme parks. We are huge fans of Epcot of the ’80s, so we were looking for any glimpses into the past that we could find.

Our tour guide, Julie, was wonderful, and shared lots of knowledge with us. She had worked at Epcot for 9 years and operated many of the attractions, so she had a lot of interesting stories to share. What’s nice about the tours at Disney is that you wear an earpiece and the tour guide has a microphone, so you can hear everything she is saying as you walk around. Our group had 14 people in it, and everyone was very friendly and fun. The tour started off in the former Innoventions West Building with a discussion about Disney history. We knew a majority of the information our tour guide was sharing, but it always is fun to hear the stories about Walt and the park’s creation. We got labeled the “Disnerds” by Julie, because most times when she asked a question we knew the answer.

We got to see many backstage areas, which we were not allowed to photograph. We went into a lounge at Mission Space where anyone who is an employee of the sponsor (HP) can go if they show their employee ID.  It’s this really nice lounge above the ride queue with comfy chairs and couches, free drinks and snacks etc. We also learned that every VIP lounge has its own VIP entrance to the rides. We rode Spaceship Earth using the VIP entrance, so we got to board the ride where people get off! We also had a chance to ride Test Track using the VIP entrance as well.

The windows here from the Spaceship Earth Lounge, which overlooks the fountain of nations plaza:

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We got to visit this AWESOME space at the Living Seas which was formerly a sponsor pavilion. Now that it’s not sponsored, it’s used for weddings and other events. It was huge and gorgeous, with a definite ’80s vibe and was next to the aquarium above the Coral Reef restaurant. We also got to see some of the retro Living Seas icons. Fun fact: the aquarium is large enough to fit Spaceship Earth inside.

 

 

We also got to walk backstage behind Soarin’ and Journey Into Imagination, and we saw the area where they clean ALL the 3D glasses for the whole resort! It was like a HUGE dishwasher type machine. There is a special place for the truck to park too that gets them from all the different parks and brings them there. We couldn’t take pictures, but it was funny to see. We had to wear safety glasses inside, even though we weren’t close to anything dangerous!

We went underneath the outside area where Test Track goes around and then we walked over behind where the old Odyssey restaurant is and there’s a huge building for cast members. This is the central location for cast members. The most impressive part we got to see was the costuming area. We walked through this massive space that had racks of the costumes that cast members wear at Epcot!!! It was so interesting. They were all lined up perfectly and they explained how you just go in, grab what you need, scan everything to check out, and you walk out. You bring everything back to be laundered, or you can check 5 costumes out at a time and launder them yourself. We saw a bunch of other cool things in this building like the cosmetology and wig area, random retro props, the employee cafe, and murals painted by each department at Epcot.

It’s also interesting to note that in this backstage area that there is a bus loop that goes around the whole perimeter. so if you park back by the costume place but work in Canada for example, you just board the bus and it brings you to that area. There truly is a whole other world going on backstage! 

Here are a few of our favorite “fun facts” that we learned on the tour:

There are 7 different song sequences for Fountain of Nations.

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This animatronic in Spaceship Earth was made from the same mold as the father in Carousel of Progress. Disney often reuses animatronic molds for other characters.

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The landscape design in Future World West is different from Future World East. When you walk into Epcot, you are heading south, so Future World West pavilions are to your right (Imagination, the Land, and the Seas) and represent the “soft sciences”. The walkways and planters are more flowy and curved to represent the more free flowing sciences.

 

Future World East, which is to your left upon entering (Energy, Test Track, Mission Space), is designed with more angular edges to represent the “hard sciences” which focus more on engineering and math.

 

 

We were shown where the “green tile” is on the mural of Living with the Land. We had known the story that the artist made the murals that decorate each side of the entrance to the Land pavilion almost exactly the same except for one tile that doesn’t match the other side, but never had found it. Here it is!

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We walked over 4 miles on our 4 hour tour, which ended up lasting 5 hours. We were tired at the end of it and ready for an iced coffee break. As with all tours you take at Disney Parks, we were presented with a special pin to commemorate our tour.

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We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and are looking forward to taking the World Showcase DestiNations Discovered tour next!

An Empty Epcot – for 15 Minutes

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Last Friday, as a belated Mother’s Day gift, we treated Mama Darling to a tour we had all been wanting to do for months now – The UnDISCOVERed Future World. We had an amazing time, and as with all tours we have taken with Disney, our guide was phenomenal. For anyone with a love of Epcot and the rich history behind it, we highly recommend this tour. It also ended up being 5 hours (instead of 4 that the site indicates) and we got to see a lot of cool backstage areas that we did not even know existed. Our fellow tour group mates were wonderful as well and our group of 3 was given the title “Disnerds” because we knew all the answers to the questions the tour guide would ask about the history of Epcot. What can we say – we know our stuff!

The main reason behind this post though is to showcase something we had never experienced before at Epcot. You see, when you are booked for an early morning tour or dining experience before the park opens, you get to enter before everyone else. This isn’t the same as Extra Magic Hours, because once you walk through the ticket kiosk – you literally are the only ones in the park. It was surreal and so much fun! We only wish it would have lasted longer than 15 minutes, but we will take what we can get. Check out our video and pictures below that show just how neat it was to be in an empty Epcot…for 15 minutes!

***Side note: Our tour began at 8:30 and when we arrived inside the park around 8:15 to check in our whole group was already there, so we think we could have gotten in even earlier for more photo opportunities and running around (literally). We will definitely keep this in mind for future tours we plan to take.

 

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Our Spoiler Free Review of Pandora: The World of Avatar

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We just got back from experiencing Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We tried really hard to avoid spoilers beforehand, pretty much avoiding Disney related social media once all the Passholder previews started, because we wanted to be surprised. So, this article won’t have many pictures in case you are just like us! Also, now having looked at pictures and videos of the land since having visited, nothing comes close to capturing what it’s really like to be in Pandora. We were a little worried that crowds might be an issue, as there were long waits even just to get into the land when it opened Memorial Day weekend, but walking around the land itself was easy and crowds were not an issue. The attractions did have 1-2 hour waits, but we used fast passes which made it easy to get on the attractions.

We were among the many who questioned this land when it was announced six years ago. Why would Disney be making a land out of a James Cameron film? It didn’t quite make sense. But after seeing some of the presentations at the recent D23 Event, we started understanding the reasoning and getting really excited for this land.

In short, this land is spectacular and fits perfectly within the overall theme of Animal Kingdom. The transition between the areas adjacent to Pandora is perfect. Walking along the pathways to Pandora, you can’t see into it. You are surrounded by greenery and start hearing animal sounds. When you are in Pandora, you feel like you are in another world, and cannot see out into any of the other areas of Animal Kingdom. This is an immersive environment to take in slowly; it is a feast for the senses. This land was described as having all the beauty of nature on Earth, but better. The integration of real flora and fauna along with the imaginative species of Pandora is seamless. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not real. No matter where you are and which direction you look, the views are layered with all sorts of beautiful and interesting scenery. Water features are everywhere you look: giant waterfalls cascading off the floating mountains, streams and smaller water features are found throughout the land. The sound of water is extremely relaxing. At times we would have never guessed we were at one of the largest theme parks in the world. The land isn’t massive, but you could spend hours just exploring and taking it all in. There are so many details we know that we missed, as this land is rich with story, but it just gets you excited to go back and explore.

Our first visit was during the daytime, and everywhere we looked we found ourselves saying, “this is going to be amazing at night.” As Pandora transitions to the bioluminescent forest at night, everything is aglow. The effects are amazing. Everything from the pathways up to the floating mountains is illuminated in various ways. Once we experienced Pandora at night, we went back the next day and felt a greater appreciation for the beauty of it during the day. It definitely must be experienced both in daylight and at night.

Another striking feature of the land is that all along the pathways there is no background music. You just hear the audio of the various creatures of Pandora. And it changes during storms and at night. The soothing background music can be heard in the restrooms (the restrooms are quite wonderful in this new land) and in the gift shop and restaurant. Walt Disney World can be quite a stressful park with all the hustle and bustle, but Pandora is a place where you can relax.

We dined twice at the new quick-service restaurant, Satu’li Canteen, for breakfast and dinner. Both meals were excellent and the Canteen has some really different dining options for the more adventurous palate.

Now, for the attractions. We rode both the Na’vi River Journey and Avatar: Flight of Passage twice with fast passes. We want to come back when there are shorter standby times to experience the regular queues, because they have a lot of interesting details that are missed when you use a fast pass. The views and scenery in the Flight of Passage queue are really neat because you ascend into the floating mountains. We had heard that the best way to describe Flight of Passage is it is like Soarin’ on steroids. How can that be? Well within seconds of the experience beginning, you realize it is just that! Sites, sounds, smells – it truly was a thrilling experience riding on the back of a banshee. The second time around we also were able to notice that the ride is actually just as high up off the ground as Soarin’ is. If you are up to it, feel free to look down and to the right and you’ll realize this. This is easily a new favorite attraction of ours and we can’t wait to ride again!

The Na’vi River Journey is a slow moving boat ride through the bioluminescent forest. One thing that was very important to Walt was that every inch of an attraction be themed, and this attraction lives up to that standard. It is more of a tour of the area rather than an attraction with a story, but that was just fine with us. It is relaxing and enjoyable.

There has always been a discussion within the Disney community as to whether or not Animal Kingdom is a full day or half day park. If you’re exclusively into thrill rides, this is probably still a half day park for you, but if you love exploring immersive environments this is now a multi-day park. On our trip, we spent three days at Animal Kingdom and still didn’t experience all the attractions. Because it had rained one of the evenings, the park at night was empty and we really enjoyed ourselves.

One last thing that we want to note is that you don’t have to have seen the movie Avatar to understand and/or appreciate the land. All in all we give Pandora: The World of Avatar an enthusiastic two thumbs up! Joe Rohde and his team of Imagineers really hit a home run with the design of this land, and we can’t wait to return!