Learning Meets Fun at the KidzVuz Back to School Bash

Photo Credit: Justin Lee, Josh Strauss Studios

Photo Credit: Justin Lee, Josh Strauss Studios

This a sponsored post brought to you by KidzVuz and Microsoft 

Last month, Jordan and I had the chance to attend the KidzVuz Back to School Bash.  The party was held as the closing event of the two-day Blogger Bash, and I am happy to say it brought the fun, for kids and adults.

In case you’re new to this world, KidzVuz is a video review sharing site for kids age 7-12.  It’s the only online destination exclusively dedicated to letting tweens have their say and share their views about the stuff they love.  It’s also totally safe for the kids – you don’t share any personal information, all videos are viewed by the KidzVuz team before they are posted, and there is no bullying of any kind permitted.  Because of all this, parents can feel good about having their kids participate on the site.  

KidzVuz is also known for having the best parties around, and there was no way my guy was going to miss that.  At first, I couldn’t figure out a way to get from Blogger Bash in the city all the way up to Westchester to pick him up, and then turn back around to get into the city.  “Schlep” was the word that came to mind.   I took a chance and asked his day camp if they could bring him on one of their buses into the city, as I knew there were kids on routes not far from the venue.  Of course they could and it worked out perfectly for both of us.  I had to only walk a few blocks to get him, and shortly thereafter, he was able to experience all the fun of the party.  And experience it he did!

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Jordan has a KidzVuz account but hasn’t made any videos yet.  He does however love watching videos from other kids, especially if they are talking about video games or technology.  It won’t surprise anyone to know that his first stop inside the party was the Microsoft booth.

Photo Credit: Justin Lee, Josh Strass Studios

Photo Credit: Justin Lee, Josh Strass Studios

Maybe it was the candy?  There was a huge display of beautiful, tasty sugar, and since it was gluten free, Jordan dug into it.  At least at first.  Then, he saw an XBox console, and all bets were off.  As you can see in this quick video, he was all ears for the demo.

While he was monopolizing the XBox, I was able to chat with some of the Microsoft folks in attendance.  They have a lot of fun stuff going on, and shared with me some of their tips to foster growth, learning, and, of course, fun with kids.

  1. Fuel creativity and create your own video game world with Project Spark. Take it from me – I used to work with game programmers and I know you can actually make a living playing video games! With Project Spark, we are opening the doors to the development process, encouraging parents and their children to build their own game worlds that let their imagination go wild while at the same time, learning the nuts and bolts that make up video game development. Play Project Spark for free on Xbox One and Xbox 360, and check in on your game worlds on your Surface tablet.
  2. If they love Project Spark, try out a new kind of free summer camp at Microsoft Retail Stores. Microsoft YouthSpark Summer Camps are the perfect solution, with free camps at Microsoft Retail Stores across the nation. The camps include programming designed to teach kids computer science skills in fun and engaging ways including learning how to build, publish and bring mobile games to life, as well as produce and design their own digital movies.
  3. If you’re looking for something a little more physical, get extreme with Kinect Sports Rivals. With the new Kinect Sports Rivals game for Xbox One, your kids can experience their favorite extreme sports challenges! Kinect 2.0 registers the slightest flick of a finger to grab the hold on a rock or pull the throttle on your jet ski, making for a rewarding and realistic sports experience that may even get them breaking a sweat.
  4. Make online searches safer and more rewarding with Bing in the Classroom. With a new school year comes a new, interactive way to search. Encourage your child’s school to sign up for Bing in the Classroom, a program that provides ad-free, safer, more private search in schools, daily lesson plans that ask questions that inspire critical thinking and a Rewards program that you can use to earn Surface tablets for their school! No matter what your child is searching, you can be sure that they are seeing appropriate content and learning along the way.
  5. Write, type and play with Surface Pro 3. Help your teen tackle their assignments and stay organized as they pursue part time jobs, college applications and of course extracurricular activities with the tablet that can replace a laptop: Surface Pro 3. Its sleek, lightweight and durable design brings together the best of a laptop and the best of a tablet in one gorgeous package, making it perfect to take anywhere from the classroom to a friend’s house. Attach one of the colorful Type Covers to turn out a term paper, or open an OneNote page with the click of the all-new Surface Pen for hand-written notes or doodles. And with up to nine hours of battery life, it will last all day at school and be ready to take on a Netflix session when it’s time to relax.
  6. Have fun while learning with educational Windows Apps. School is out for the summer, but that doesn’t mean your child needs to stop learning! Windows apps like Where’s My Mickey introduces a whole new world of physics-based gameplay from Disney. If you want to test math skills, Number Tap challenges the player against the rest of the world in a fast paced number tapping math frenzy. To disguise learning as a game even further, try out BrainPop, where your child can watch a different animated movie every day about current events, historical figures, holidays and more.
  7. Want to be more active? Get fit with Xbox Fitness. For Mom and Dad, try Xbox Fitness, which offers the same great tracking technology as Kinect Sports Rivals for a personalized training experience in the comfort of your living room. Choose from a library of training programs from favorite trainers like Jillian Michaels and Tracy Anderson.
  8. At the end of the day, stay entertained with Surface 2. With the 1080p widescreen display, Dolby® audio, and built-in multi-position kickstand, Surface 2 is perfect for those nights when watching Frozen with your child is at the top of the to-do list. Or, if your kid is musically inclined, they can stream free music and even import their iTunes playlist. Your child can get the most out of their time with Surface 2 by using apps side-by-side; keeping an eye on their music downloads while emailing friends and family in Outlook. Surface 2 also comes with Office built in, making the perfect family device for having fun and getting stuff done.

 

A glimpse of some of the party fun - Photo Credit Justin Lee, Josh Strauss Studios

A glimpse of some of the party fun – Photo Credit Justin Lee, Josh Strauss Studios

Without a doubt, I was the coolest mom in the world that night, at least in Jordan’s mind.  He left the party in happy tears, crying out “I wish I could live here!”  Oh my sweet boy, so do I.

Top 5 Reasons Why I runDisney

1958061_10152399341898054_1217425668_nI’ve always been someone who loves fitness and exercise…with the exception of running.  Give me a hardcore spin class, an elliptical machine, or a grueling cross training class any day.  Running is for OTHER people.  The non-top heavy who don’t run the risk of getting a black eye on the straightway (I’ll let you ponder that image for a moment…go ahead, I’ll wait).

But then one day, I saw the bait and bit.  I blame a lot of people, but mostly Amy.  Amy is the woman I walked 26.2 miles through the moonlight streets of Manhattan, dressed in a bra.  During our 10 hour walk of shame bonding session, we talked about a lot of things, including her runDisney experiences.  It was then that I decided if I could finish the crazy walk, I could do a runDisney race.  After all, there were shiny medals to be won!

Amy and I before the 10K

Amy and I before the 10K

Since this was my first race, well, ever, I wanted to take it slowly.  I signed up to do the Enchanted 10K that was being held during the Princess Half Marathon Weekend.  Amy was going to do the Glass Slipper Challenge, which involved running the Enchanted 10K on a Saturday, and a 1/2 marathon that very next day.  I knew I wasn’t up to that, but running essentially 6 miles was.

The trip was originally going to be just me, but somehow the kids and my mom got added into the trip.  Sarah didn’t want to run herself, but I signed Jordan up for one of the kids races.  We ended up having a weekend we would never forget, and vowed to sign up for this year’s weekend.  Why was it so amazing?  Without much effort, here are five reasons.

1. runDisney races are magical affairs with liberal pixie dust all around.  I will always remember when “Let It Go” came up on my iPod shuffle at the beginning of the race.  I ran with a little bit more spring in my step, until I thought I heard the same song at a different point somewhere else.  I pulled out my ear buds to find out, yes, it was playing off speakers.  Speakers that were attached to a gigantic truck on the overpass, where Elsa was waving to all the runners, and sprinkling snow all over the course.  I turned to a runner next to me and she looked as struck by it as I was.  That was but one of the amazing moments I experienced during the race.

I found my name on the 10K board at the Race Expo.  I was officially a runner!

I found my name on the 10K board at the Race Expo. I was officially a runner!

2. People dress in costumes – I decided to create a very simple tribute to my favorite rodent, Minnie Mouse.  But during a runDisney race, people come to play. There were heroes and villains.  Thousands of princesses.  A few Olafs.  And this costume, which I think was probably my favorite.

One little spark!

One little spark!

My friend Ashley has worn some amazing outfits.  While I loved what she’s done, I wasn’t sure about running in costume, much less running period, so I kept it simple.  For next time, I’m stepping it up and have a grand plan I can’t wait to share it with you!

3. runDisney is about inclusion – Jordan isn’t much of an athlete.  He has hypotonia, which means he can’t run for long periods of time.  So why did I sign him up for a race?  I had a lot of questions very similar to that as we waited at the finish line.

Boy is ready to run!

 

Parents are allowed to run with the kids, so I went out there with him.  When the starter pistol fired, he ran a little but very quickly announced he was tired.  I tried to encourage him to RUN RUN RUN, which he did.  And didn’t.  He was moving rapidly towards the back of the pack.  At the end when we could see the finish line, we saw Goofy waiting.  When Goofy spied Jordan as the last runner, he ran out and got him and cheered him (silently) across the finish line.  Jordan was disappointed that he finished last, but was thrilled that Goofy supported him.  Of course, when he got his medal, that was all he could talk about.

It seemed to take a really long time for Jordan’s race to start.  The time came and went, with no announcements other than “soon”.  I texted Sarah who was waiting at the finish line to see if she knew anything.  Then, coming from the finish line, I heard a huge cheer.  Sarah texted back right after to say the race was now over because the last competitor finished while pushing her wheelchair across the finish line.  Sarah said it was one of the most amazing things she had ever seen, and had mad respect for the girl who had pretty much won the hearts of everyone that day.  Mad props to Sarah Kate who rightly was the most amazing kid in the world that day.

4. runDisney is about supporting others – when I was done running the back loop of the 10K going around the lake at the back of Epcot, the final runner was coming out of Epcot to begin that same loop.  When I tell you that every single runner with me moved to the side to high five that runner and cheer her on, know that I am not exaggerating.

When I was finally done with the race, I could not walk.  No, really, I couldn’t walk.  My feet were killing me, and I was as sore as you can be.  I started shuffling off to the front of Epcot to meet my family.  I started to notice that someone was walking behind me and talking to me.  It was a woman named Trish, and she was telling me about all the races she’s run.  When I told her it was my first race EVAH, she insisted on buying me a latte to celebrate.  Just a wonderful act of kindness from a fellow runner.  Made me feel like I had entered some sort of special club.

5. THE SHINY MEDALS – when I tell you that I wore my medal around the whole day, I am not kidding.

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Minnie was most impressed by my outfit.

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So was the prince.  This year, I’m doing the Glass Slipper Challenge and when I finish, I will be wearing all three medals around my neck everywhere.  Let TSA try and pry them off me on the return trip home.  Ain’t gonna happen.

Have you run a runDisney race?  How was it?  And if you haven’t, tell me what race would you want to run?

The Cure for Soccer Fever is in New Jersey

WP_20140802_002Like many of my friends, I’m in a bit of a post World Cup hangover.  For a good month, we had access to the best soccer in the world, sometimes with more than one game a day.  While I am terribly nostalgic for those days of being spoiled soccer rotten, I know that there is a way to get my fix in.

In the NYC area, we have a top-flight MLS team of our very own.  Of course I am talking about the New York Red Bulls.  They have been members of the league since it’s inception, and play in an amazing, state of the art arena in Harrison, New Jersey.

We try to get to at least a game a year.  The Red Bulls are very involved in our soccer community and we usually find ourselves at events that they are participating in.  For instance, they were a part of the Verizon Wireless #vzwbuzz #soccerfever event that kicked off the world cup.

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Note, this post is NOT sponsored by Verizon or the Red Bulls.  Just sharing here people, just sharing.

Anyhow, we have several friends who are season ticket holders, and when one of them let us know he was not going to be able to use his tickets….well, I don’t think he got all the words out before we said YES PLEASE.  Sometimes opportunity has to knock before you take time out of your day to make something happen.

Our game was Saturday, August 2 and OF COURSE the opponent was a Boston team.  Yes, we were going to see the NY Red Bulls (who play in NJ) take on the New England Revolution.  Fine by me.  What’s another wrinkle in our family’s NY-Boston rivalry?

The seats our friend the season ticket holder has are considered club level.  I had never gone “club” before, so to speak, and I was curious to see what it was like.

On the day of the match, we ended up leaving A LOT of time to get to the arena.  How much time, you ask?  Well, the Bullevard opens 3 hours before the game, and they were just setting up when we got there.  In actuality, the drive from Westchester was 40 minutes.  I was prepared for traffic.  There was none.

Now, what’s the Bullevard, you ask?  Well, it’s a great assortment of family-friendly sponsor activities.  Jordan got to play a little FIFA ’14 thanks to AT&T and their truck o’video games.  WP_20140802_16_51_25_Pro

 

He also took a picture as a corporate shill.  As a loyal Verizon customer with a mother who loves her Nokia Lumia Icon Windows Phone (which, yes, was a prize won from Verizon), you know he was not happy.

WP_20140802_16_52_16_ProWe spend a little time playing games (there are Red Bulls trainers doing skills drills and hosting kick arounds on the Bullevard) until the club entrance opened.  How did we know where it was?  Oh, the Red Carpet told us…

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We went inside, and after the usual security check and ticket punching, we were off to the races.  Or, rather, the club lounge.  It was a good thing we were hungry.  You could definitely make a meal with everything they had inside.  Food ranged from simple kid-friendly offerings like hot dogs and house-made potato chips to more adult offerings like carved loin of pork and a RB clam bake.  I was thrilled to see a salad bar with roasted veggies and other toppings.  We had time to kill in here, and I can say we put that time to good use!

Carving station and home of the RB Clam bake

Carving station and home of the RB Clam bake

Hot Dogs and chips with Old Bay seasoning, anyone?

Hot Dogs and chips with Old Bay seasoning, anyone?

SALAD!  VEGGIES!  HAPPINESS!

SALAD! VEGGIES! HAPPINESS!

Husband and I were quite comfortable in the lounge, but Jordan was getting anxious.  He wanted to see some soccer, and he wasn’t going to wait!

"Me Want Soccer!"

“Me Want Soccer!”

We figured he’d get antsy in the seats, so we walked around the stadium.  It really is one of the finest in the land, and I do believe it would rival anything that the rest of the football world has to offer.  Even though we were stuffed to the gills, we were impressed with the offerings of food and beverage outside of the club.  I remember when the Red Bulls played at Giants Stadium and it was slim pickings for grub.  No more.  Fantastic beer selection too.

Finally, after we did a lap or two of the stadium, it was time to sit down.

Pre-game festivities

Pre-game festivities

I still resent Keith Olbermann’s comments about the Red Bulls.  He said something in one of his rants tirades Special Opinions that when you went to buy tickets to a Red Bulls match and asked what time it started, you were told, “What time can you get here?”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The Red Bulls have an amazing base of loyal and devoted fans who show up in force to support their team.  Attendance for this match was announced at 20,800 something, which is pretty impressive for any sport.

The match was a classic from the beginning.  The Revs scored first, but the Red Bulls came back with 2 unanswered goals and won 2-1.  Jordan just loved it.  Our seats had a great view of the action, but I think it’s hard to find a bad seat in that place.  The lounge was open throughout the game, so when the men looked a little tired, I was able to run up to grab them some more popcorn.  The Gersteins officially at our weight in popcorn that night.  If you were there and found no popcorn in the club lounge, all I can say is “Sorry.  Not sorry.”

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So, if you need that cure for Soccer Fever, you simply must head out to Red Bull Arena to check out a game.  We drove from Westchester, but there are many mass transit options available, as the Arena is easily accessible to fans via public transportation including the PATH Trains and NJ Transit to the Harrison Station.  It’s great for families or a bunch of friends who want a night out.  If you get a chance to go for club seats, do it!  In addition to the special entrance and access to the club lounge, you get practically on the pitch seating and VIP parking.  The next home game is August 23rd versus Montreal, but there are games in September and October as well.  Check the web site for information on special multi-game ticket packages.  Don’t wait, get your cure for soccer fever now!

Get Social with the Red Bulls!

Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/newyorkredbulls

Twitter – @NewYorkRedBulls

Website – www.newyorkredbulls.com

 

 

Great Times with the Staten Island Yankees

InstagramCapture_1de76183-f4ea-44fc-94d7-3494e7b90ac4_jpg_1Disclosure: I participated in an Influencer Activation on behalf of Mom Central Consulting for the Staten Island Yankees. I received tickets for the game as well as food vouchers to facilitate my review.

Living near New  York City, you find yourself positively spoiled by the array of sporting teams available to view.  We have not one but two major league baseball teams, 2 basketball teams, 3 hockey teams (if you count the Islanders, which I usually don’t) and 2 football teams (that have the name NY but play in NJ).  But here’s the thing – most of the time, it’s pretty expensive to go to these games, if you count admission prices, food, transportation, and parking.

I love a good baseball game as much as the next girl, so when I got the chance to attend a Staten Island Yankees game, I was all in.  The SI Yanks, nicknamed “the Baby Bombers” are a short-season A minor league team that’s part of the NY Penn League.  They were originally brought to NY in 1999 as part of a deal brokered by noted Yankees fan Mayor Rudy Giuliani.  They play their games at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark on the northern tip of the island.

A minor league game offers the same experience of attending a great sporting event, at a lower cost which makes it great to bring a crowd.  Like most minor league teams, the SI Yanks keep ticket and concession prices down to attract a family audience.  Last time we brought the kids to a game, we spent over $150 including tickets and food.  No souvenirs that trip – thankfully there was a giveaway so we didn’t have to pay out for that as well.

The SI Yankees ballpark is really easy to get to from lower Manhattan.  A quick, FREE Staten Island Ferry ride will get you to within a few feet of the ballpark.  Really!

There’s nothing like a Staten Island Ferry ride.  It’s one of my favorite tips for tourists, and frankly, us New Yorkers could benefit from a quick sea getaway too.   You board the Ferry at the terminal – during peak times it normally runs every 20 minutes, but check the schedule to be sure.

Waiting with the crowd for the Ferry

Waiting with the crowd for the Ferry

While the game is a great option for families, because we were going on a weekend, we decided to make it a date night.  My husband works in the city, so I met him in front of the Ferry after he took the subway downtown.  We had a quick 10 minute wait before we were able to board the boat.

Our vessel!

Our vessel!

We ran to the top of the boat so we could have some amazing views of the city as we pulled out on the 15-20 ride to Staten Island.

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Can you believe this was his first ferry ride?  The views were unreal, as lower Manhattan disappeared into the horizon and we headed out to sea.

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Once on the Island, we were pleased to see people were respectful.  They greeted my husband quite nicely.

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OK, so that’s really the Staten Island Railroad.  Who knew?  Plus, the terminal is one of the few places in the area with a DQ.  I miss DQ.

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The St George terminal had great signage that directed us to the ballpark.  It was a 5 minute walk, tops.  Once we arrived, we got our tickets and checked out the place.  Like most things, we arrived an hour before the game so we had some time to explore.  The park is right on the water, and there are some beautiful views and lovely breezes, perfect for a hot summer night.

Beautiful ballpark by the water

Beautiful ballpark by the water

The Baby Bombers even have their own mascot.  Heck, the Yankees don’t even have a mascot.   Meet Scooter, the Holy Cow (Yanks fans will get that one, instantly!)

HOLY Cow!

HOLY Cow!

We decided to get something to eat and head to our seats.  To our delight, food was quite reasonably priced.  We had heard they revamped their menu, and could definitely see some unique options at reasonable prices.

One of the many concessions stands

One of the many concessions stands

While I thought Mister would go for the Lobster Mac n’ Cheese, being a New England boy and all, he decided fried food was more his style.  I got a look at the pizza and thought it looked pretty good.  Still, I went with a classic.

Yum.  Nom.  And all that.

Yum. Nom. And all that.

Yes, it was great.  A Nathan’s hot dog and fries.  How can you beat that?

Now, after all that excitement, we were still there to see some baseball!  Our boys were playing the Lowell Spinners, a farm team of the Boston Red Sox.  Which, in actuality, made them Mister’s boys, as he is a Red Sox fan.  Sigh.  There is no escaping the NY-Bos rivalry in our world.

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The game was fun, but MY boys struggled, eventually pulling to a final score 4-11.  You can’t win them all.  But you can get ice cream!

InstagramCapture_dfce0dfb-49bb-4672-abff-9ec8d9884017_jpg We collect helmets from ballparks around the country, so this was a great addition to our stash.

After the game, we made our way back to the terminal for the quick ride back to the city.  From there, we could have taken trains home, but I had parked our car at a garage right next to the terminal, making it extra easy.  But if you are in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens, taking the subway to the ferry is just the ticket for a fun night out.

After attending a game, I can say for certain that a Staten Island Yankees game is a great choice for families, couples who want a different kind of date night in the city, or friends looking to get together after work.  They host giveaways and special events (where were we on Disney Pirates and Princess night?) so be sure to check out their web site – there’s something for everyone!

Use promo-code: mommy for $12 tickets to a Staten Island Yankees game! Visit: http://atmilb.com/1x4QL1c for game schedules and ticket information.

Get social with the Staten Island Yankees!

 

 

Gluten-Free Dining at Disney – New App Review

Last year, my younger child was diagnosed with Celiac Disease.  Despite it being hereditary, thus far he’s the only family member with it.  It’s very important for those with Celiac to eat a gluten-free diet.  Even though Jordan ate gluten (some days exclusively) for all of his 7 years, we learned his body was reacting negatively to it and causing him to not absorb nutrients from food.  So, his meals have to be free of all gluten products.

We have a trip to Disney coming up later this year.  It will be our second trip after learning of his diagnosis.  On our February trip, we had pretty good experiences at the full service restaurants we went to.  Most were able to cook special GF items (GF Mickey waffles FTW!) or tell us what items were already GF that we should try.

One night I was tired (Princess Marathon weekend, and I was running) and just wanted to eat a quick dinner at the pool.  I went to the counter service line and asked what they could do that was GF because nothing on the menu looked like it would work.  The chef rummaged around the freezer a little and came up with a frozen package of Udi’s hamburger buns and announced he could have a burger with fries, but the fries would take a little while because she had to heat up the separate fryer.  I told her burger = good, and skip the fries because he doesn’t like them.  I was able to substitute chips instead.

That worked out well, but I really don’t feel like taking that chance all the time.  I’d like a little more knowledge about what’s GF safe and what should be avoided.   I use a Disney dining app (not by Disney) extensively.  What if they had a GF version?  Well, that company didn’t make one, but a quick search of the app store brought up an app called Gluten Free Disney Dining by Calypso Kid.  I figured for $1.99 it was worth a try.

Net net, I was quite pleased with it and think it will be a great tool before and during my vacation.  I put together a little video to talk about my experience in more depth and why this app is so important.

Just LOVING that thumbnail shot.  Trust me, the rest of the video is better.

How have you managed your food allergies at Disney?

 

Showing Our Disney Side

Right now, Disney Parks is running a great campaign that is totally up the alley of the Pixie Dust Girls. It’s called “Show Your Disney Side” and it’s something that a lot of people are having a great deal of fun with.

Everyone has a Disney Side- that fun-loving adventurous spirit that comes out to play when you’re feeling the Disney magic! In our house, I’m not sure we have a side other than our Disney Side!

We were selected by Mom Select and Disney Parks to host our own Disney Side party. We received a lovely kit to help make our party even more special. We printed out invitations, did some crafts from Spoonful,  had a photo booth, and made lovely snacks.

Sully Cupcakes!

Sully Cupcakes!

We also watched FROZEN, newly out on DVD.  That was pretty much the highlight of the night for me.

frozenWell, except for one other thing.  We were able to do something at our Disney Side party that made it awesome.  You see, I’ve always been jealous of all the “You’re Going To Disney” videos out there.  In our house, it wouldn’t work to do it as a surprise.  I mean, we go at least once a year, and the kids love planning as much as I do.  But this time, we had the chance to do something that meant as much to me as it did to the recipient.  A friend of Sarah’s, can you believe it, has NEVER been to Disney.  She’s always wanted to go, but for whatever reason, her family hasn’t been able to work it.  This year, we planned to go for Thanksgiving, and thought the time was right to bring a friend for Sarah.  Of course, she wanted it to be this friend.  We got to give her the surprise of her life, and boy was it awesome.  It truly brought the spirit of Disney Side home to me.  I can’t wait to for her to explore her Disney Side and for us to see the parks through her eyes.

On behalf of everyone here, we CANNOT WAIT!

The “Special” Treatment on Disney Cruise Line

Earlier in the fall, my family was invited to be on the “Disney Magic Re-Imagined” media sailing. Since so many people asked me what’s it’s like to travel with a special needs child on Disney Cruise Line, I put together this post to give you an idea of what to expect and how to make your cruise as successful as possible for your whole family.

For the junior cruiser, the biggest draw of the ship is probably the kids clubs. These are the Oceaneer Club and the Oceaneer Lab, and they were among the newly “re-imagined” areas debuting on this cruise.  In the Oceaneer Club, kids aged 3-12 will find Andy’s Room from Toy Story (climbing, slide and trampoline), MARVEL’s Avengers Academy (video games and the chance to become Iron Man), a Mickey Mouse Club section (interactive play), and Pixie Hollow (drawing and princess/Captain Hook costumes).

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Hamm showing his #disneyside

Connected to the Club is Disney’s Oceaneer Lab, also geared to children 3 to 12 years, where kids can play games, perform educational experiments and enjoy a wide variety of supervised activities throughout the day. The Magic also has a nursery for younger guest, and older kid hang out/socialization areas, but based on the age of my son (7), our experiences were solely at the Club and the Lab.

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The big screen in the Oceaneer Club

One of the things I was most curious about was how these clubs accommodated children with special needs.  Since my son is on the spectrum, we don’t take a smooth-running vacation for granted.  We don’t know how he will react to new things and for the sake of those supervising him and the other kids, we want to do everything we can in advance to make sure that he can have as great a time as we do.  We also have an older child with food allergies, and while she’s old enough to fend for herself, a lot of the kids coming into the club aren’t, and that can be a source of concern for many parents.

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We all want to play in Andy’s Room!

I got to take a tour during the Open House, which is the only time parents are allowed in to see all the fun.  To answer some of my questions,  I had the chance to speak with Gabe, the Youth Activities Coordinator in the Oceaneer Club about how they work to make sure the ship is as accommodating as possible for all needs.

All aboard for Marvel's Avengers Academy

All aboard for Marvel’s Avengers Academy

I learned from Gabe that:

*Each kid in the club wears an RFID bracelet, much like the Magic Bands in the park.  Only people authorized to pick up your child can do so, which gave me extra piece of mind.

*All cast members who work in the kids clubs are required to take disability awareness training two times a year.

* The youth facilities are all wheelchair accessible, with the exception of the slide in the Andy’s bedroom section of the Oceaneer’s Club (just no way to do that as you can see in the picture below).  However, one of the pluses of the new layout of the clubs is it allows them to keep track of the kids in the spaces better than before with the old floor plan.  Kids are able to freely and safely move in between the two spaces which keeps everyone happy.

Where the slide exits

Where the slide exits

* Counselors are trained in use of EpiPens.  All of them.  Every kind.

* Kids can eat meals in the club but no outside food or drink is allowed.  Based on my experience in getting special meals for my nut allergic child, they have plenty of food on board to suit most any diet, and they are knowledgeable about ingredients and preparation methods.

I asked Gabe to tell me from his perspective what’s the most important thing a parent can do to ensure that a child has the best possible experience in the Club.  He said that when you are registering your child online for the clubs, make sure you provide as much detail as possible.  Not just a diagnosis or label, but truly tell them who your child is.  They read these forms, and take notes.  They want to maintain the environment you have at home, so if you have a way of redirecting your child or encouraging them to maintain a standard of behavior, let them know.  At the start of every cruise, there is an open house.  Go.  Talk to the cast members in the club.  Ask them questions.  Tell them about your child.  They want your child to love it as much as the next kid.

For us, we have a child who must be holding something – a stuffed toy, a book, whatever.  They don’t want outside toys in the clubs (believe me, there are plenty in there!) but for us, they just asked that we label the toy and be aware that it could be lost (we were ok with that!).

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So much stuff to do here!

If you can’t figure out how to give this information this online, call Disney Cruise Line and the cast members who man the lines will figure out how to convey that information.  Bottom line – they want to do whatever they can to make sure the Club experience is a great one for your child.

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Jordan can’t believe he’s playing right next to Chip!

For us, the Disney Oceaneer Club was a happy and safe place for my son.  During dinner our first night, all I heard was “IS IT OPEN YET?!?” He was quite happy to eat a quick meal, but he really wanted to get back and play.  Apparently, there were several visits from characters that had him in a tizzy.

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Old friends reconnecting in the nursery area

He gravitated more to the Club (more traditional character based programming) than the Lab (entertainment for older kids) and was quite happy to spend his time coloring or wandering around in a dress-up costume.  Whenever I would go to the Club to pick him up, the cast members around him always had a funny story about something he had done, and seemed to genuinely enjoy their time with him.  Jordan made some friends there, but had no problems being in the club alone.

Dressing up in Pixie Hollow

Dressing up in Pixie Hollow

One of the counselors said that some kids don’t even know that they are at sea, and I believe it.  The Club is a wonderland of fun for any kid, and can certainly be an amazing place for kids with special needs.  To book your stay or for more information on Disney Cruises visit www.disneycruiseline.com.

Disclosure: Your mileage as a parent may vary – these are my experiences only and you should work with Disney Cruise Line to make sure your child’s special needs are taken care of to your satisfaction. Disney provided travel for me and a guest to experience the Magic.  All other expenses were my own.  

SAVING MR BANKS – a review

Last night, I got to see a preview of the new Disney film SAVING MR. BANKS.

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Two-time Academy Award®–winner Emma Thompson and fellow double Oscar®-winner Tom Hanks topline Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks,” inspired by the extraordinary, untold backstory of how Disney’s classic “Mary Poppins” made it to the screen.

When Walt Disney’s daughters begged him to make a movie of their favorite book, P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins,” he made them a promise—one that he didn’t realize would take 20 years to keep. In his quest to obtain the rights, Walt comes up against a curmudgeonly, uncompromising writer who has absolutely no intention of letting her beloved magical nanny get mauled by the Hollywood machine. But, as the books stop selling and money grows short, Travers reluctantly agrees to go to Los Angeles to hear Disney’s plans for the adaptation.

For those two short weeks in 1961, Walt Disney pulls out all the stops. Armed with imaginative storyboards and chirpy songs from the talented Sherman brothers, Walt launches an all-out onslaught on P.L. Travers, but the prickly author doesn’t budge. He soon begins to watch helplessly as Travers becomes increasingly immovable and the rights begin to move further away from his grasp.

It is only when he reaches into his own childhood that Walt discovers the truth about the ghosts that haunt her, and together they set Mary Poppins free to ultimately make one of the most endearing films in cinematic history.

Inspired by true events, “Saving Mr. Banks” is the extraordinary, untold story of how Disney’s classic “Mary Poppins” made it to the screen—and the testy relationship that the legendary Walt Disney had with author P.L. Travers that almost derailed it.

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This is a movie that I have honestly been waiting to see since September of 2012 when I got an email from the Disney list that production had started.  So many great actors.  An inside look at the making of a film classic.  A really unique story that I can totally relate to…

I mean, what writer doesn’t feel like her words are her own, and no one else should be able to do what they want with them?  I totally understood why Mrs. Travers would feel nervous about assigning the rights to someone else and losing control of characters that she regarded as family.

So when these two creative forces get together, it’s quite the fight.  One that neither side is prepared to lose.  Walt has promised his daughters he would make this movie, and he never goes back on a promise to his girls.  Mrs. Travers will not budge when it comes to the beloved Mary Poppins.  Heads butt.  Compromises are made.  Eventually, a movie happens, and that’s where this story lives.

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There are also flashbacks to Mrs. Travers’ childhood as Helen Goff, the daughter of a well-meaning alcoholic father who can’t seem to do the right things for his family.  You see the hard life that she had and how it shaped both her and her writings.  Colin Farrell plays her father and he hits all the right notes, making you feel the pain that Helen did every moment he is on screen.  You can look into his eyes and see exactly what he is feeling.  His daughter deserves better than him, but he can’t help his addictions.

SAVING MR. BANKS

Emma Thompson is getting raves her role which are totally well deserved.  For me, the biggest thrill was Tom Hank’s performance as Walt Disney.  I legitimately forgot at times that he was an actor, and just soaked into his performance as the man behind the Mouse.  Paul Giamatti also has a wonderful turn as Mrs. Travers’ driver.  My favorite moment was when she showed him she was listening to him all the time she was complaining about her trip to LA.

My other favorite moment was when Mrs. Travers walked into her hotel room and found it filled with all the Disney swag you could ever dream of.  Needless to say her response was not the same that mine would have been.

I took Sarah to see it, and at 14 she’s probably just the right age.  Younger, sure, but it’s not a kids movie, and it carries a PG-13 rating.  Nothing bad in there, you know, but it’s definitely got some subjects that would bore younger kids.

For the rest of you, GO GO GO to see this film.  You won’t regret it, and if you’re like me, you will be fantasizing about walking through Disneyland with Walt himself long after the movie ends.

In the meantime, check out this making of featurette about the music used in the film.  If you’re seen MARY POPPINS, you will know it well and even may find yourself singing along.

 
SAVING MR. BANKS opens in limited theaters on December 13, 2013 and opens wide on December 20, 2013.

Pixie Dust Girls at Sea!

Earlier in the fall, I had the opportunity to travel with Disney Cruise Line on the reimagined Disney Magic.  This ship is truly amazing.  We had a great time and I can’t wait to share all our adventures with you.

All About for Disney Magic!

As you can see, all the Gersteins were able to attend, which made it even more special.  Even little Donald made it on board!

To get my trip recap started, here’s a short clip of me speaking with Lisa Migliorati from the Walt Disney Imagineering team.  Lisa has been involved with the Disney Magic reinvention from start to finish, supervising the refurbishment at the shipyard in Italy.  Here, I got the chance to ask her a few questions about what on the ship is most amazing to her and what it was like to take this beauty out of the water and make it even better.

Let me know what you’re most interested in learning about and I will make sure I cover it in a future post.

Disney Announces Changes to the Guest Assistance Card

It’s no secret that one of the things that keeps bringing my family to Disney World time after time is the thought and care that they give to how they treat their guests.  Since in my party we have two guests with special needs (food allergies and ASD), that care becomes even more important.  It means that I can go on a vacation and not have to worry about things that other guests might take for granted.  Will my daughter get sick from her meals?  Will my son have a complete meltdown because he is terrified of the “stretch room” on The Haunted Mansion?  With the assistance of the cast members at Disney Parks, I’ve been able to relax and enjoy myself and know that my family will be taken care of.

Jordan and his Grandmother taking on the monorail at WDW

Jordan and his Grandmother taking on the monorail at WDW

One of the things that has helped us in the past was Disney Parks’ Guest Assistance Card (GAC).  I found out about the card when I asked the cast member at Haunted Mansion about the availability of a baby swap on the ride.  She looked at me a little strangely and explained that everyone could ride the ride so no, they didn’t offer it.  I sighed, and explained that my son freaked out when we took him in the stretch room and I didn’t want to go through that again, even though he loved the ride in the end.  She told me that we could ask to skip the stretch room and get on through the handicapped entrance which was located next to the exit.  She then proceeded to politely ask me if we had any “issues” – I volunteered that my son had special needs and was quite sensory sensitive.  That was all she needed to take me through the ins and outs of the GAC.  I walked over to City Hall as she explained and obtained one.  We didn’t use it that much as the lines weren’t horrible, but we did find ourselves needing it on Peter Pan’s Flight, as for some reason I cannot explain, the Fast Pass line freaks him out, but he can get on through the exit.

Never did we use it as a “cut the line pass”.  In fact, we felt pretty darn guilty in some cases, like when we got on Dumbo after 5 minutes when other people were waiting for 30 minutes.  Believe me, I’d rather wait 30 hours for Dumbo and have a kid who wasn’t affected.  We were never happy about the reason we had the card, but we were always so very grateful.

Earlier this year, a story broke, a rumor really, of a disabled guide who hired him or herself out to “rich Manhattan moms” so they could take advantage of the GAC and cut the lines with their families on spring break.  No one ever identified the guide, nor did any “moms” step up.  But unfortunately the story was out there and people started saying that the GAC was the subject of a huge amount of abuse and Disney was going to evaluate the program in the long term.

This week, I started hearing from fellow special needs parents about the phasing out of the GAC program.  Some people were alarmed, and rightly so – the GAC allowed them to have the experience that they never thought possible with their special needs kids.  The thought of having to wait on long lines with kids who simply don’t have the tolerance or coping mechanisms to do so is pretty frightening.  I remember a trip where we waited on a line and found him kicking and biting other kids, which is not a usual behavior for him!  What do you do if that has to be your norm.

I received the following from one of my Disney contacts and wanted to share it here.  Until I get there and experience it for myself, I cannot say that this will or will not work for my family.  What I do know is that when I have reached out to Disney cast members for accommodations for my kids, I’ve always found them helpful and supportive of our needs.  I hope that the Disability Access Service Card continues to provide that experience to families. I’m certainly willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope they will continue to reach out to members of the special needs community to hear our feedback about how the new DASC works for us.

After careful consideration, we will be replacing the Guest Assistance Card with the new Disability Access Service Card on Oct. 9 to create a more consistent experience for all our Guests while providing accommodations for Guests with disabilities. Until Oct. 9, we will continue to use Guest Assistance Cards. We look forward to sharing more information about the Disability Access Service Card as we get closer to implementation.

Frequently Asked Questions:

How will the new program work?

The Disability Access Service Card will offer Guests a return time for an attraction based on the current wait time. Guest Assistance Cards will continue to be in effect until Oct. 9. We look forward to sharing more information as we get closer to implementation.

Did you ask for feedback in developing the Disability Access Service Card?

We are engaging disability groups, and Autism Speaks was instrumental in providing feedback as we developed this new process.

Why are you doing this?

Given the increasing volume of requests we receive for special access to our attractions, we are changing our process beginning Oct. 9 so that it creates a more consistent experience for all our Guests while providing accommodations for Guests with disabilities.

Who will be eligible for a Disability Access Service Card?

Our goal is to accommodate Guests who aren’t able to wait in a conventional queue environment due to a disability (including non-apparent disabilities).

Will Guests on wish trips also use Disability Access Service Cards?

No. Guests who are visiting through wish-granting organizations will have access through a separate program.

What should Guests do if they have concerns?

Guests should contact Guest Relations to discuss their assistance needs.